Siegfried Sassoon Wends His Way East; Rowland Feilding has a Rare Accident

Siegfried Sassoon is on a solitary and abbreviated Grand Tour, crossing France and Italy en route to Palestine, with nothing but a few new acquaintances, a head cold, and his bag full of books to help him pass the time. Yesterday he indulged in a book that was not on his carefully curated list–to his chagrin.

February 18

Through Novi and Vochera, where we halt for lunch 12-1. Glaring sunlight and cold wind—dried-up land. All afternoon we crawl through vinelands, with the low, blue, delicate-edged hills on the right—a few miles away, till the sun goes down and leaves an amethyst glow on that horizon, and at 7.30 we reach Bologna.

Reading Lewis Seymour and Some Women all day—an easy-flowing, unpleasant-flavoured book—great relief to turn to Pater’s Botticelli essay, and then to Hardy’s Woodlanders. Nasty old man, George Moore.

Jolly companionship of the journey, in spite of the animal squalor and so on. Harper rather hipped and fussy—bad campaigner, I fear. Howell-Jones sensible and philosophical. M. Robinson has my heart with his dear impetuous ways, kind and willing and cheery.

So not rally all that solitary, in fact. Today, with all quiet in London and France, we’ll continue to trundle along with Sassoon.

I do want to say one thing about his diary, which is now being regularly updated for the first time in months: it’s a travelogue, yes, but he’s not just marking time or recording the stages of his journey. He’s also making notes again, in the sense that he is once again thinking about writing about what he sees. This is important, I think: never mind “indoor” and “outdoor” Sassoon–that is an imperfect binary distinction imposed retrospectively. But whether or not he is experiencing the war as something he might write about is an important indicator of his mood. When he is despairing, he writes angrily, unproductively, for the moment at hand; when frustrated or indulging in “mindless” activities he only writes to record them.

So he is once again content, it would seem–and yet not mindlessly content, as he portrayed himself during the period of huntin’ and drillin’ in Ireland.

February 19

After a night-journey of freezing gloom, the train stopping occasionally in cavernous stations, we reached Faenza about 2.30 a.m. and slept in the train. Turned out at 8 to a sunlit morning and soon found ourselves washing and drinking coffee in a hotel, moderately comfortable. Clean, narrow tall streets, a market-place full of gossip and babble of cloaked, unshaven, middle-aged men, with a sprinkling of soldiers in grey with yellow collars. We stay here twelve hours. The fountain in the place was festooned with ice, like melted lead.[1]

 

And Rowland Feilding is traveling in an entirely different direction. We have seen the Master of Belhaven use the perquisites of a commander–free time and the influence to obtain leisure facilities–to persecute peripatetic partridges, but Feilding satisfies a desire not for bygone pastimes but novelty:

February 20, 1918. Vadenay.

Yesterday afternoon I at last satisfied my ambition, and flew in an aeroplane. It was a glorious day, and, piloted by a little French corporal, we mounted to something over 5,000 feet and cruised for three-quarters of an hour at that altitude. It is a wonderful feeling. We were so high above the captive balloons that they looked like peas, or
rather beans (which is their shape).

All was going well when, suddenly, a crack and a whizz: something was wrong in front. Bits of metal came flying back, missing the pilot, but making a hole in each of the wings. A piece 2 1/2 feet long caught up in the stays and fluttered there. The propeller made a hesitating turn or two, then stopped, and I—who was as ignorant as a babe of what was the matter, and knew only that we were 5,000 feet above the ground—began to wonder what would happen next.

I think I should have expected under the circumstances to feel frightened, but my pilot remained so self-possessed, and the aeroplane began to descend so steadily, that a feeling of almost complete confidence came over me, and I do not think my heart beat one pat the faster.

I repeat this as a study in sensations, and because I think the experience (having regard to the fact that it was my first time up) was interesting and peculiar.

The pilot steered the machine round and round in little spiral curves towards the earth, while I sat and watched the landscape getting closer and more defined, and as a precaution fixed the strap which is provided for the purpose around my waist. As we neared the tree-tops we got rather wobbly (my pilot was manouevring for position and was
keeping the aeroplane level), but finally we landed smoothly on the very aerodrome we had started from;—when I felt much relieved.

They tell me it was a rare accident. It was caused by a valve of the engine, which was of the rotary type, blowing loose, and cutting the steel housing of the motor, round the complete circle. It was some pieces of the housing that had come flying back, and the force required for the operation illustrates the immense power of these engines (250 horse-power).

The engine was of course wrecked; but I have had my fly, though I daresay I am not so keen to repeat it just at present, even if I get the opportunity.

It is wretched thinking of you all in London while these beastly raids are going on.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 214
  2. War Letters to a Wife, 252-3.

Siegfried Sassoon Paints the Emerald Isle; Rowland Feilding Admires the French

A quiet day today, with only two writers to hear from. First, Rowland Feilding describes life “on a course.” He is an experienced senior officer, so he is sent now to learn not from elderly “dug-outs” or fulminating drill sergeants, but from the French, who are still the senior ally when it comes to land warfare. Feilding is no fool, and instead of rivalry or mild prejudice we get frank admiration for the seriousness and professionalism of the French. They are war-weary too, but with the Germans occupying French territory, there is no lack of clarity about war aims.

February 8, 1918.

Cours Supérieure d’Infanterie, Secteur 220, Vadenay.

It is like being at school again. We go to the lecture room at 8.30, or earlier, each morning, and are lectured to—in French, of course—for 3 1/2 hours, or more! Will you believe me when I tell you that I have sat through 4 1/2 hours of it to-day? In the afternoons we are motored to see different Army Schools, etc.

I am much struck with the thoroughness and efficiency of these Frenchmen, and the serious way—in contrast to ours—that they go about the war. I wonder if they overdo it. And the voluminous literature that is handed to us here to digest almost throws our army (which I have always thought held the record in this particular) into the shade. But it is an interesting and valuable experience, and I am being most hospitably treated, and am already getting into the French ways of eating and living.

The Commandant—Major Lemaire—is a very animated Frenchman of great personality, though small in stature;—a devotee to his profession and to France! He is so full of energy that he seems to be on springs…

Though between his lectures and sometimes during them he laughs and jokes almost incessantly, he has his troubles, and these are serious. For all his property and that of his wife is in the northern part of France, which has been devastated by the enemy so that he has only his pay–600 francs a month, out of which he supports himself and his wife, and her parents, and, I believe his own as well! He was in the trenches till a month ago and was severely wounded in the chest at Douaumont (Verdun). Hence his presence here. As he said to me when I first came, “I am no embusqué,”[1] and threw open his chest to show me the wound as he said it.

The one discomfort is the cold, since this is a woodless and coalless country, and one cannot get a fire very often. The French do not seem to mind, or else have got “habitué” (as they say) to this kind of hardship. Gardner and I have not, and we slink back from our evening walks with any old end of timber we can find, discarded from the Back Area defences, to warm our frigid billet. Saturday afternoons and Sundays are kept for “repos” and all are heartily glad of it…[2]

 

And Siegfried Sassoon, his bags packed (or, at least, his book list assembled), had the last hunt of his Irish idyll. It was a good enough hunt, it seems, but the main literary opportunity was to wax rhapsodic (to his diary) about the glories of the scenery. Sassoon really does landscape well…

…we scrambled about over walls and rough places… The country all round looked beautiful–shining with water and grey villages, and white cottages, and the green fields, and soft, hazy, transparent hills on the horizon–sometimes deep blue, sometimes silver-grey.

And that was that: luncheon with friends, a farewell to Limerick, an afternoon train to Dublin, then an overnight ship to London.

There is a long chapter in the Memoirs detailing the characters and scenery of this fox hunting interlude from the point of view of “George Sherston,” and it borrows from the diary (not least the above passage) but not for the purposes of expanding on “Sherston’s” inner life. It’s a chapter more in the manner of Surtees than Barbusse, to use two of yesterday’s touchstones. At the end of the chapter, we learn that Sherston/Sassoon made the Dublin train with “30 seconds to spare…” and then the book hops over his leave to begin again at the end of the next journey…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. I.e., malingering, or serving as a R.E.M.F.; he wouldn't be in such a safe job if weren't recovering from a wound.
  2. War Letters to a Wife, 250-1.
  3. Diaries, 210-11; Complete Memoirs, 584.

Rowland Feilding at Notre Dame D’Amiens; Cynthia Asquith Sits to Tonks; Osbert Sitwell’s Modern Abraham

Yesterday we looked ahead, toward the German offensive and the beginning of the end. But who could know such things? It’s February 2nd, and the war goes on as it has for years now. There is time, yet, to see all the old sights, as Rowland Feilding did today, a century back.

February 2, 1918. Continental Hotel, Paris.

I got up at 4.15 this morning and caught a train at Roisel, reaching Amiens about ten o’clock. There I had
lunch, bought a few things, and of course visited the Cathedral.

The contrast between the destruction I have left behind and this wonderfully majestic work of man was quite bewildering. High Mass was being sung as I went in, and as the great organ thundered out again and again, it made the air and even the ground throb.

I reached Paris at 4.30, and leave again to-morrow at noon. I have just been to Gaby Deslys’ “Revue” at the Casino, and as it is past midnight I will go to bed.

Yes, nothing says “war of attrition in very-late-nineteenth-century Europe” than the irony of proximity being applied to Gothic arches and Picard trenches.[1]

 

That’s all I have as far as the war narrowly construed–but there also a pastel and a poem, both involving a crossing of paths. The pastel is by Henry Tonks, the great artist-teacher of the Slade School, where he has taught artists among our writers as well as fictional artists and created by our writers. His war work is unique, powerful, and unsettling (and, unlike today’s production, available online): he has been aiding pioneering plastic surgeons in their work, drawing the stages of facial reconstruction of some of the war’s most grievously wounded.

Tonks took a break from this work today, a century back, to paint Cynthia Asquith, and talk of friendship.

Saturday, 2nd February

Bicycle through the rain to sit to Tonks. I was feeling dyspeptic and cross. Talked of the difficulty of preventing one’s life from being overrun by friends to the complete destruction of leisure. He said he was quite deliberately complet, like a hotel. He didn’t want to make any new friends, any more than he wanted more furniture in his room. He was pleased with his work on me, but I hope he will subdue the roses in my cheeks. He commented on the funny way I suddenly brought my mouth, as it were, to ‘attention’, and I promised to let it ‘stand at ease’…[2]

 

And the Nation, today, published another anti-war poem, inadvertently upping the ante of competition among two pairs of new 1917 friendships. Osbert Sitwell is not a great poet, but he’s not one to shy from the big idea or let the main chance slip. (He, too, likes clichés.) Today’s poem takes on a trope that what will come to seem, with hindsight, a bit obvious: the biblical drama of divinity, obedience, and perhaps even–depending on how you look at these things–the madness of blind faith.

Sitwell–who, together with his brother and sister, made a splash of sorts at the Great Colefax Gathering in December–is eager to strengthen a new friendship. To read the poem one might guess–and correctly–that Sitwell is not only an Angry Young Man but one with a particularly vexed relationship with his father. But the theme, I think–and I think he thinks–is indebted to Sassoon’s example. Hence the horrid caricature of the old profiteer… not to mention the fealty indicated by the dedication.

 

The Modern Abraham

To Siegfried Sassoon

His purple fingers clutch a large cigar—
Plump, mottled fingers, with a ring or two.
He rests back in his fat armchair. The war
Has made this change in him. As he looks through
His cheque-book with a tragic look he sighs:
“Disabled Soldiers’ Fund” he reads afresh,
And through his meat-red face peer angry eyes-
The spirit piercing through its mound of flesh.

They should not ask me to subscribe again!
Consider me and all that I have done—
I’ve fought for Britain with my might and main;
I make explosives—and I gave a son.
My factory, converted for the fight
(I do not like to boast of what I’ve spent),
Now manufactures gas and dynamite,
Which only pays me seventy per cent.
And if I had ten other sons to send
I’d make them serve my country to the end,
So all the neighbours should flock round and say:
“Oh! look what Mr. Abraham has done.
He loves his country in the elder way;
Poor gentleman, he’s lost another son!”

 

As he was published in the same paper so recently, it would be likely that Wilfred Owen saw this poem, or will very shortly. He wouldn’t overlook a new poem by a young name he had surely heard of, especially one dedicated to Sassoon. So this was likely something like a reminder, or challenge, or spur, or goad… in any event Owen, too, will soon tackle the same subject, and with considerably more subtlety…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 250.
  2. Diaries, 407.

A View, a Poem, a Hunt, a Truce of Sorts, and a Poet’s Death

A quick tour today, a century back, of the literary war: from poetry to killing and from a cathedral-crowned vista to a quagmire.

The poetry we have read before: Wilfred Owen wrote to his mother, enclosing a copy of his recent success.

28 January 1918

Here then is the Nation.

I hope you’ll not hawk it about or make much of it to anybody whoever. I’m proud of one thing and that’s the decent amount of room they give under the impressive tide POETRY !

…There is nothing to tell you…

Always your W.E.O.[1]

 

Siegfried Sassoon, too, has a success to report:

January 28

Limerick Hounds at Fedamore

…A good hunt of an hour and fifteen minutes… Found two at Rockbarton and dug one out (both bad
foxes). Rode Sheeby’s bay mare—a lovely ride. Strong southwest wind, and rain later in day. Home 5.30. Best hunt I’ve had Since the war. Took one fall—my own fault.[2]

 

And Rowland Feilding isn’t quite sure whether the status quo on his front indicates success or failure, wisdom or defeatism–or some sensible middle course.

January 28, 1918.

Left Sub-Section (Right Brigade)
(Tombois Farm to Island Traverse), Lempire.

We came up into the Front line this evening, relieving the 1st Royal Munster Fusiliers, and this morning, in anticipation, I went round the trenches—the same that I left to go home on leave on the 23rd December.

The change is remarkable. I left the trenches frozen like rock. I find them, to-day, half full of sticky mud; twice as wide and half as deep owing to the caving of the sides; two layers of trench-boards buried 2 feet deep in glutinous mud. It is a labour to walk in them, and to-day being a clear, sunny day it was not an occasion for easy cuts across the open.

Even so, for long stretches of these trenches you are under full view of the enemy—about 500 yards away; But he does not shoot, which suggests that his trenches are no better than ours (which, no doubt, is the case), and that he does not want us to shoot at him.

Indeed, for a few days past I find that the officers on duty on both sides have been making it a practice to walk along the parapet, so as to avoid the quagmire of the trenches. This morning, however, when an officer on our side tried it, the enemy opened with machine-gun fire: so this highly irregular practice is now at an end, which is perhaps as well…[3]

 

Meanwhile, in the semi-peacefulness of reserve, Dr. Dunn of the Royal Welch–or one of his contributors–waxes rhapsodic today about the scenery around St. Omer.

January 28th–On rising I looked down on a lawn of vivid green sparkling with dew, which continues into a glade in the trees that surround the house; closing the glade, framed in black stems and branches, was the weathered grey Cathedral, aloft on its hill, standing in relief in liquid winter sunlight against a clear blue sky. It was an enchanting scene, awakening visions of faerie…[4]

 

And it was today, a century back, that the Canadian Medical Officer and poet John McCrae died, at Boulogne, of pneumonia. He was the author of “In Flanders Fields,” perhaps the most popular poem of the war.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 529-30.
  2. Diaries, 207.
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 248-9.
  4. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 439.

Olaf Stapledon on Elizabethan and Future Man; Rowland Feilding on the Offensive Spirit

The linking theme for today would seem to be high and mighty personages and their curious effects on the war at ground level. For Olaf Stapledon of the Friends Ambulance Unit, a mere general is the cause of a stir, as protocol and sartorial disreputability create embarrassment. But then–just after we had to throw up our hands in dismay over his foolish approval of (very early) Bolshevik policy–he spins a much more accurate and interesting query at the future.

On our run yesterday, in the midst of our breathless career, we met a real live general walking with a friend. His gorgeous hat flashed in the sun, and he was all splendid in blue & red & gold… The meeting of a general, all ornate with his golden oak leaves, is quite an event in this our reposeful life, & to be caught with no hats, bare legs and very ragged shirts, is as if you were to be caught in the city with your hair down, though alas in your case the vision would be charming & in ours it was merely disreputable. There is absolutely no other news at all to tell you except that they read “Henry V” aloud while I was lying on the bed of sickness [from dysentery]. I listened in great comfort and seclusion while Renard as Henry stirred all our hearts with mighty speeches. It was very interesting to compare it all with things of today. One dare almost prophesy that there is less difference between men’s minds in Elizabeth’s reign & men’s minds today than there will be between men’s minds today & men’s minds a hundred years hence. . .[1]

A hundred years hence, quotha? A good question! But I’m not so sure. Ready Henry V, well, good God, I hope so. But Stapledon the dreamer should think more of the Tempest, perhaps, and there I think we–and the Elizabethans–might have him…

 

And in France, it is Rowland Feilding and the perennial question–well, it’s the Fourth Annual Question, at least–of how exactly the Kaiser’s birthday will be observed. A pleasant disappointment leads Feilding into a more interesting discussion of a question that is well worth revisiting. It’s 1918, and the last year was a bad one for the allies (see the Bolsheviks, above). It is expected that Germany will try to win the war with a Spring Offensive. So what of the war of attrition, and the old arguments for the positive moral effects of constant, low-level murderousness instead of a more careful husbanding of lives?

January 27, 1918 (Sunday). Ronssoy.

To-day is the Kaiser’s birthday, and we half expected that things might happen, but there has been a thick fog, and all has been as silent as can be. I am afraid the troops are not so sorry as they ought to be.

“Am I offensive enough?” is one of the questions laid down in a pamphlet that reaches us from an Army School some 30 miles behind the line. It is for the subaltern to ask himself each morning as he rises from his bed.

Most laudable I But, as the Lewis Gun Officer remarked to-day, it is one of the paradoxes of war that the further you get from the battle line the more “offensive” are the people you meet!

The Brigadier called to-day just as I was finishing lunch, and I had a walk with him. He said he had sent in my name for three weeks’ attachment to the French Battalion Commanders’ School at Vadenay, near Châlons-sur-Marne,
which will be an interesting change—if it comes off.

The battalion is getting very weak, and something will have to be done before long.[2]

Feilding, again, is one of our most balanced voices–regular and reservist, field officer and now battalion commander, from an old army family but a sympathetic commander of volunteers and conscripts. And when with nothing more than a sigh he signs on to the idea that the exhortations coming up from the staff is ridiculously out of touch, we should conclude that the gap between the fighting units and the generals commanding them is growing ever wider… and that something will have to be done before long.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Talking Across the World, 275.
  2. War Letters to a Wife, 248-9.

Vera and Edward Brittain Share a Melancholy Leave; Rowland Feilding Spots a Pansy in Bloom

Vera Brittain has had a rough couple of weeks. Or, really, a rough week followed by a week of that bewildering mixture of joy and prospective fear, love and looming loss, that characterizes a leave shared with loved ones. Better, really, that she tell the tale:

On January 12th, a hard, bitter morning, a telegram suddenly arrived from Edward: “Just got leave. Can you get it too?” I went at once to the humane Scottish “Red-cape” who had succeeded the Matron of the autumn; I had been in France for nearly six months, and she told me that she would put in for my leave immediately. In a day or two my orders came through, and I packed up and started for England.

As I was too late for that afternoon’s boat I had to spend the night in Boulogne, where I scarcely slept for a burning head and a dull ache all over my body. Next morning a very rough and prolonged crossing made me feel so ill that I hardly knew how to bear it, and as the freezing train from Folkestone did nothing to aid my recovery, I reached Kensington in a state of collapse very different from the triumphant return from Malta. Edward, who had arrived from Italy four days earlier, had gone to Victoria to meet me, but in the crowd and the dark confusion we had some- how missed each other.

Fortified by a large dose of aspirin from Edward’s medical case, I went to bed at once, but woke next morning with a temperature of 103 degrees, and for several days had such high fever that the London doctor thought I should be obliged to overstay my leave. The particular “bug” that had assailed me was difficult to locate, but was obviously a form of “P.U.O.” or trench fever not dissimilar from the Malta disease in 1916. Perhaps, indeed, that old enemy was reasserting itself, stimulated by overwork or by my fatigued failure to dry my bedclothes sufficiently one recent morning when I had come off duty to find them saturated by a snowstorm which had blown open my hut window during the night.

After a week of feverish misery I was thankful to find myself beginning to feel better. The aches and pains had been bad enough, but worst of all was the conscience-stricken sense that I had spoiled Edward’s leave and overburdened my mother. Her health was certainly none too good; with one indifferent maid she had felt her powers taxed to their limit by the care of the flat, and must have been driven neatly frantic by the simultaneous appearance of a sick daughter who needed quite careful nursing, and a vigorous son who continually demanded her society at concerts or urged her to accompany him in a newly acquired selection of violin sonatas.

As soon as my temperature went down it seemed like a pleasant dream to have Edward once more beside me, telling me stories of the journey to Italy, and describing the grey rocks and dark pine forests of the Asiago Plateau. But by the time that I was able to go out, rather shakily holding his arm, only three days of his leave were left, and all that we could manage to achieve alone were two theatres and a few hours of Bach and Beethoven.

Our short time together, so long anticipated and so much discussed in letters, had been completely upset by my absurd illness, and on January 25th, almost before we had talked of anything, he was obliged to go back. I had missed so much of his society that I broke my resolution to avoid stations and saw him into the return leave-train for Italy at Waterloo; I compromised with superstition by leaving the platform before the train went out. At the flower-stall on the station he bought me a large bunch of the year’s first Parma violets, and though we did not mention it, we both thought of a verse in the song “Sweet Early Violets,” which he had bought for his gramophone in Italy and played over to me at home:

Farewell! Farewell!
Tho’ I may never see your face again.
Since now we say “good-bye!”
Love still will live, altho ’ it live in vain,
Tho’ these, tho’ these, my gift, will die!

How handsome he is now, I thought, but so grave and mature; it’s obviously an ageing business to become a company commander at twenty-one. Dear Edward, shall we ever be young again, you and I? It doesn’t seem much like it; the best years are gone already, and we’ve lost too much to stop being old, automatically, when the War stops — if it ever does.

If it ever does! The journey back from Waterloo, in a chilly Tube train, had a quality of wretchedness that no words can convey, though I had now said good-bye at stations so often that I had long outgrown the disintegrating paralysis which followed the first farewell to Roland in March 1915. I couldn’t help asking myself for the hundredth time if I should ever see Edward again, but the sorrow of parting had become almost a mechanical sorrow; like the superhuman achievements of ward rushes after convoys, it was an abnormality which had been woven into the fabric of daily life. I no longer even wondered when the War would end, for I had grown incapable of visualising the world or my own existence without it.

At home a flat dejection pervaded everything now that Edward was gone, and I firmly resisted the suggestion that I should use my semi-invalid weakness as an excuse to apply for extension of leave. The universal topics of maids and ration-cards now so completely dominated the conversation in every household that I felt quite glad when my own fortnight was up four days later, and I could return from food-obsessed England to France.[1]

 

And as for that war in France, Rowland Feilding reports on a mucky but quiet period, striving, as ever to bridge the gulf between home front and war that Vera Brittain feels so intensely, if only to stay connected with his wife.

January 25, 1918. Ronssoy

Things here are very tranquil. Indeed, the whole front seems quieter than it has been for years. Perhaps the weather accounts for it—and the mud of the trenches—which has to be seen to be believed. To-day has been sunny and warm, and I have seen a pansy in blossom in one of the devastated gardens among the ruins. This must have been a village of gardens once upon a time before the war.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Testament of Youth, 402-4.
  2. War Letters to a Wife, 248.

Rowland Feilding and the Admonitory Death of Private Mayne; A Mining Disaster in Staffordshire; Siegfried Sassoon Suspicious in Peace of Mind, C.E. Montague Melancholy at Football; Rudyard Kipling Hatches an Ode-iferous Plot

This is one of those days of discombobulated experience–but it’s hard not to feel that there is some link between all these different disasters, impression, and feelings. The war is everywhere…

Rowland Feilding‘s thoughts are dwelling on the repulse of a German raid by one of his Lewis gunners, a swift and savage burst of violence on a generally quiet front. When the action occurred, two days ago, Feilding was bracketed, here, by protesting young officers. He would never himself step away from the narrow passage of duty and make a public protest… and yet, in his letter to his wife of today, a century back, he makes it clear how much he–a middle-aged battalion commander with Regular army experience–loathes the way the higher-ups (be they no higher than Division, a mere two steps up the ladder, since he commands his own battalion) are disconnected from the experience of the soldiers. Once more the scarlet tabs of the staff officer begin to seem like a bright badge of moral cowardice…

January 12, 1918. Fillers Faucon

The incident of the morning before last had so filled me with pride of the battalion that I confess I have been aghast at receiving—instead of any acknowledgment of the successful and heroic repulse of the German raiders by Private Mayne and his companion—the following memorandum, which has been circulated in the Division.

I quote from memory:

“Another instance has occurred of an enemy patrol reaching within bombing distance of our line. This must not occur again. Our patrols must meet the enemy patrols boldly in Noman’s Land,” etc., etc., etc.

How simple and how grand it sounds! I think I can see the writer, with his scarlet tabs, seated in his nice office 7 or 8 miles behind the line, penning this pompous admonition.

So Private Mayne, it seems, will go unrecognized and unrewarded–In the meantime he has died, and I can only
say, “God rest his soul”![1]

There is a note that Private Mayne–Private Joseph Mayne, of Ardcumber, Cookstown, Co. Tyrone, son of James and Mary–was mentioned posthumously in despatches. This, short of the V.C., was the most recognition a dead soldier could hope for (strange phrase, that). And a private–an Irish private–killed in a small action, on the defensive was never going to receive any major reward, even though his heroic gallantry in manning his gun after his body had been mutilated by German grenades surely saved the lives of several of his comrades.

 

And at the Podmore Hill Colliery, in Staffordshire, today, a century back, an accumulation of coal dust and “firedamp”–methane–exploded, ripping through coal seams worked by several hundred men. Rescue efforts were unavailing and the final toll will prove to be 156 miners–men and boys. This was the third deadly explosion in the mine, and the second in three years. Wilfred Owen will read of the disaster, naturally, and he will choose to write about it as well, unable not to conflate the sudden death of so many by fire and gas (and some of them very young) with the horrors of the war itself. And, by the time Miners is complete, it will be one of his most wide-open poems, in terms of historical experience and deliberate reaching toward the universal… the miners are seen not only as soldiers, but as in some sense linked even with the ancient life whose remains they are harvesting at such peril so far below the ground, and with the years to come, which they will not see.

 

News of this disaster–but what are 156 poor men against the daily toll of the war?–will spread slowly, and so we see several of our writers merely going about their business.

For Siegfried Sassoon, this business now is a numb and pleasant–suspiciously numb and pleasant–idyll. It is almost as if he is being visited by a premonition of the mining disaster, in all its frank horror and heavy symbolic weight.

January 12

Peace of mind; freedom from all care; the jollity of health and good companions. What more can one ask for? But it is a drugged peace, that will not think, dares not think. I am home again in the ranks of youth–the company of death. The barrack clock strikes eleven on a frosty night. ‘Another night; another day’.[2]

 

C.E. Montague–a man of something near to an opposite temperament from Sassoon’s–is feeling much the same way:

On January 12, Montague was back at Rollencourt. There was a pause in operations, and he played ‘a good game of football’; but was ‘intensely melancholy, these days’, over the public situation. ‘Now’, he says, ‘is the time to learn and practise fortitude, but it is hard.’[3]

 

But life persists, and pastimes persist. Montague plays football, Sassoon will go hunting when he can, and Rudyard Kipling–who, whenever he makes a brief appearance in a Great War history, is generally depicted as utterly destroyed by the death of his son–continues to bear up as best he can. He is at work–naturally–on a collaborative project involving Horace. Not to translate him, study him, or make the great Roman poet somehow applicable to Britain’s war effort, but rather to concoct a spurious, tongue-in-cheek Fifth Book of Odes. (Horace wrote four.) In Latin. Is there satirical intent? Sure. Is it, or was it ever, broadly accessible? Perhaps a bit more back then, but, really… not so much.

Bateman’s
Burwash
Sussex
Jan 12.1918

Dear Fletcher:

I am, as you know, no scholar when it comes to the Latin but I think it’s lovely… I think this is going to be glorious larks!

…I’ve got a new Fifth Booker whereof Hankinson Ma. is preparing the translation. It came out in the Times ever so long ago under the title The Pro-Consuls but I perceive now that Horace wrote it. Rather a big effort for him
and on a higher plane than usual – unless he’d been deliberately flattering some friend in the Government. I’ll send it along.

Ever yours

Rudyard Kipling[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 246-8.
  2. Diaries, 203.
  3. Elton, C.E. Montague, 200.
  4. Letters, IV, 479-80.

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.

Rowland Feilding Braves the Train; Siegfried Sassoon’s Moment of Waking; Thomas Hardy’s Fond Display; The Nerves and Lungs of Robert Graves

The holidays are over, now, and the war must resume. Rowland Feilding, who secured a Christmas leave at the last moment, is headed back to the front–and not best pleased.

January, 1918.

Front Line, Lempire.

Once more I have vowed that never again if I can help it will I travel by the “leave” train. I had forgotten to bring a candle, so, the cold being bitter and the windows broken, I shivered in the darkness.

It is beyond my powers adequately to describe the horrors of the “leave” train, the scandal of which still continues after 3 1/2 years of war. Though timed to arrive at Divisional Railhead in the early morning we did not do so till the afternoon, and, after fifteen hours on the train, I reached my transport lines near Villers Fauçon at 2 p.m. in a blizzard, having had nothing to eat, since last evening.

At the transport lines I found officers and men still under canvas and as the ground was deep in snow the appearance of everything was very uninviting and conducive to nostalgia:—I believe that is the word…

The line is very quiet.[1]

 

Siegfried Sassoon arrived in Limerick yesterday, a century back. It will be a “fresh start,” away from England and the dismal Litherland Camp and the memories of his strange and conflicted months of protest. Now, on garrison duty and with nothing in particular hanging over him, he will begin writing verse again. Immediately:

 

A Moment of Waking

 

I awoke; evilly tired, and startled from sleep;
Came home to seeing and thinking; shuddered; and shook
An ugly dream from my shoulders: death, with a look
Of malice, retreated and vanished. I cowered, a horrible heap.
And knew that my body must die; that my spirit must wait
The utmost blinding of pain, and doom’s perilous drop,
To learn at last the procedure and ruling of fate.
… I awoke; clutching at life; afraid lest my heart should stop.

January 8

 

Journey’s End

 

Saved by unnumbered miracles of chance.
You’ll stand, with war’s unholiness behind.
Its years, like gutted villages in France,
Done with; its shell-bursts drifting out of mind.
Then will you look upon your time to be.
Like a man staring over a foreign town.
Who hears strange bells and knows himself set free;
And quietly to the twinkling lights goes gladly down.
To find new faces in the streets, and win
Companionship from life’s warm firelit inn.

January 8[2]

 

While Sassoon is busily writing away, another writer is writing to him, with the sort of emphatically enthusiastic courtesy that suggests real esteem. And the esteem of Thomas Hardy is not so easily won.

Max Gate, Dorchester

Jan 8, 1918

Dear Siegfried Sassoon:

We have read out loud the poems you mention,[3] & liked them. Perhaps R. Nichols brings off his intention best in “To —”, & “Fulfilment.” But it is impossible to select, after all.

Strangely–but the past is a strange country–Sassoon had sent Hardy not only Georgian Poetry (and possibly Nichols’s volume) but also, apparently, a photograph of his recent portrait, without covering letter.

Yes, it’s a striking portrait of a handsome young man–but how, exactly does this is advance his poetry or their friendship?

That photograph!—We divined it to be you, but I was not certain, till a friend told us positively only a day before your letter came. It has been standing in my writing room calmly overlooking a hopeless chaos of scribbler’s litter. I shall be so glad to see you walk in some day.

Always sincerely,

Thomas Hardy[4]

That, one imagines, is an invitation that Sassoon will have to nerve himself to accept–but how could he resist?

 

Meanwhile, Robert Graves, to be married now in only a fortnight, is under pressure from his future in-laws to make more certain of his future. He traveled today to London to see Dr. James Fowler,

who told him, to his great relief, that his lungs were ‘soundish’, despite the fact that he had bronchial adhesions, and that his wounded lung had only a third of its proper expansion. This was good enough to satisfy Nancy’s mother; though Sir James had also noted that Robert’s nerves were still in a very poor state… active service in any theatre of war would lead to another breakdown.[5]

This accords with the decisions of Graves’s recent Medical Boards, and would have been good news for Graves as well as for his family-to-be: he is not likely to ever share Rowland Feilding’s experience of returning once again, and miserably, to the front line in France.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 246.
  2. Diaries, 201-2. See also Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 432.
  3. In the volume of Georgian Poetry that Sassoon had sent to Hardy.
  4. The Letters of Thomas Hardy, V, 242.
  5. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 190.

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.