Yesterday the Master of Belhaven, commander of an artillery battery, chose to sow the wind. Today, a century back,
…the 15th November… is a date I shall not forget. For the second time in two months my poor battery has been put out of action! We had just finished breakfast and I had gone down to the guns when the first shell arrived. With a terrific howl through the air, it burst like a clap of thunder on the canal bank a hundred yards on our left and a hundred yards in the rear. We waited anxiously to see whether it was Bedford House or us that they were after. The next shell would decide the matter. In two or three minutes it came, still a hundred yards behind, but in direct line with us and not fifty yards from the farm.
I waited for no more, but at once ordered all the men out of the gun-pits…
We had hardly got clear of the battery when a third shell burst just behind A gun and hurried us up a bit…
We were bombarded for days at Le Rutoire with 6-in. shells, but these were much bigger, and I put then down as being 8-in.
Huge columns of black earth were sent up higher than the tops of the tall poplars. There were also volumes of black smoke, and a terrific report.
They quickly got the exact range, and then shell after shell fell just among the guns.. The men were wonderfully cheerful, and had bets as to which gun was hit. This went on for an hour…
After waiting a quarter of an hour to see if it was all over, I cautiously went back to the guns.
I was relieved to find that, although there were huge craters all round, and in between the guns, A, B, and C were not touched. When I got to D., however, I gasped. The first thing I saw was half a wheel sticking out through the doorway. At the same time I had a presentiment that there was more to come. I turned and started to go back. when I suddenly heard the ominous little bang, so faint that it is very hard to hear at all. Three seconds later I heard the shell coming–just a low murmur at first, gradually rising to a loud scream, just like an express train passing through a station without stopping. I flung myself down at the foot of the A sub-section’s pit and at the back of it. With a roar, it passed a few feet above my head and burst thirty yards away. The noise was horrible, and the ground shook like a person kicking a table. Huge pieces of turf fell in showers all round. As soon as the bits of the shell and turf had stopped falling, I got up and ran for my life back to the stream where the others were.
After a half hour of silence, Hamilton (i.e. Belhaven) goes to look for the missing support personnel–servants and cooks–from the battery. Reaching the gates of the farm where they are stationed, the Master has his closest brush yet:
I shouted to them to come out with me, when at that moment I heard the first note of a shell that was coming. I gave myself up for lost, as I was at the exact spot where the last half-dozen shells had fallen. I was certain that it was coming straight for us. I shouted to Carter, who was alongside of me, to lie down, and flattened myself against the ground. There was no cover of any sort near–right out in the open. I suppose that the shell took four or five second to arrive, but it seemed hours. At the end, I realised distinctly that it was nearer than any shell I had ever heard before.
It is at this sort of point that we might remember the rules of the game: Hamilton is describing this experience himself. The next day. First-person history, remember, lacks the suspense of true in-the-moment narration. Back to the end of those four or five seconds:
The end of the world seemed to come. A roar–or, rather, crash–such as no words can describe, and to which nothing can be likened that in any way compares with the noise. The air seemed to hit me on the head like blow with a sandbag, and there was immediately after the sound of a thousand lashes being swished through the air… Then a pause, and the deluge of débris began–bricks, tiles, stones, bits of trees and large clods of earth and turf. These continued to fall for a long time, some having been blown into the air higher than others. Over all, an inky darkness that stank horribly of some bitter fumes.
When I got up I found I was standing on the brink of a crater, 10 feet deep and 20 feet wide. Had it struck 5 yards farther, there would have been nothing left of us all. Probably not even a boot or a bit the size of a cricket-ball.
Well, reader, he survives to write this account. But the German counter-battery fire has left 120 craters, most of them 20 feet across, and two of his guns are smashed. Casualties? Miraculously few, it would seem.
Cadets of the Artists’ Rifles, Hare Hall Camp, November 1915. Wilfred Owen is in the back row, left, in the doorway.
And today, a century back, two poets crossed paths… or, rather, briefly took precisely parallel tracks… Yes, Edward Thomas and Wilfred Owen–members of the Artists Rifles’ of a few months’ and a few days’ standing, respectively–took the train together. It was from Liverpool Station toward training camp at Hare Hall, near Romford–essentially a converted mansion grounds in a new London suburb.
Alas, Owen does not seem to have been aware of Thomas–his reading has not been much in contemporary criticism, where Thomas dominates–and Thomas makes no mention of a young poetry enthusiast among the crowd of less-than-artistic fellow cadets who have so far disappointed him. It is likely, however, that Thomas will soon be instructing Owen in map-reading…
A busy, peripatetic day for us nonetheless. Back to France, now, where a Lance-Corporal Lord Crawford holds forth on the humble louse.
Monday, 15 November 1915
All our blankets went to No. 1 to be disinfected; high time too, for we were getting over verminous. The louse is a curious animal which deserves study. It is believed that he can burrow through a serge jacket, otherwise it is difficult to explain how a chance louse, picked up while carrying a patient or in an ambulance car, can get around–of necessity via neck or wrist, without being detected en route. Anyhow he gets in and propagates his species with enthusiasm. Perhaps the best way to slay the pest is to expose the infected article of clothing to frost–in this cold weather such a course is easy–a night out of doors will free any shirt of the infliction.
Confident in that, are you, milord? There is so much misery and disaster in this war that Crawford’s bizarre combination of hauteur and niggling, his willingness to put his mind and pen (and, indeed, his time, his energy, his body) to any tiny, unrewarding tasks, is somehow charming and life-affirming. This is a man who would publish a three volume report on the methods of arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, and then attempt to use ten of them to build a raft, and decline a seat in the life-boat.
Where the louse thrives the flea is absent, and vice versa. The louse has no guile, no power of evasion, deception or initiative like the bug, and so far as I can see he has no natural enemy. Mankind persecutes him, but only in self-defence and his power of resistance, owing to the fertility of the tribe, is great. Moreover, no ordinary squeeze of the fingers will slay him—he requires a serious pressure and then explodes with a little pop. He is sluggish in movement, immobile when detecting danger. He looks like an aeroplane resting on the ground and also bears a curious resemblance to the thresh engine where the high pressure temperature works such havoc among his race…
Will Raymond Asquith‘s approach to the trenches ever bridge the final increment, and rush the final communications trench of Zeno’s paradox? Yes–yes it will. Two days ago he was once more writing to his wife to Katherine announcing the imminence of his first tour in the trenches. But, anticlimax: they will only be in the support line.
. . . We march off tomorrow afternoon at 4. I don’t suppose we shall be in much danger from bullets but my Captain who went to see our trenches today reports them disgustingly wet and muddy and rather ruinous, so I look forward to being extremely uncomfortable and also having a lot of digging to do and very little sleep…
And today, a century back, he can head his letter as follows:
(In the Trenches)
Just a line to tell you that I am up to the neck in a rich glutinous blue clay, otherwise well and happy; Every kind of gun shoots in a pointless sort of way from every quarter of the compass all day and all night but so far without causing either pain or panic.
It is pretty cold at night (and also by day) but very fine and though one gets literally no sleep for some strange reason one does not get very tired. No time for more now, but I will write again tomorrow night or the day after when we go 2 miles back for 48 hours rest.
So Asquith has arrived, and at a time that is as unpropitious–for comfort–as it could possibly be. The dashing wit has taken many worries with him to the trenches–his fussing over the physical misery he must endure must in some sense be a substitution for a deeper fear of proving a coward.
But another fear is somewhat more to the heart of our matter: he has been worried that he will fail the test of cleverness, that the war will make him just one more writer of myopic, pedantic, solipsistic, lugubrious, adjectivally agglutinated letters from the front.
Never fear. That first short note–written, surely, to catch the quickest post and reassure Katherine–fends off the challenge, but as soon as he decently can Asquith bravely takes it head on. The letter, completed tomorrow, that describes this day in the trenches is a minor masterpiece of a new sub-genre which we might as well call the “mud piece.” Because “piece of (on) mud” is too cute, and because I can’t find a shorthand way of titling after what I take to be its poetic derivation (namely as the inverse of “trench pastoral,” an ironic-in-place-of-despairing paean to the worst of the man-marred natural world).
I’ve been stubborn, I must confess, about the “tags” on this blog, figuring that if something pops up too often there’s no point in giving it a tag, since keyword searches are always possible… and then refusing to revisit such decisions. “Fate” would come up too much, and “fear.” And “mud.”
Lately I’ve regretted not being able to mark the best bits of mud, but this seems like a sensible compromise: if mud is mentioned in passing, well, that will happen most days, for the duration; but if the writer really addresses the challenge of describing spectacular mud, well, then we have a “mud piece.”
And so back to Asquith. Who also has writing on his mind, as it happens. For some time now he has been elaborately concerned that the boredom of war–or the as-yet-unexperienced stress of the trenches–will soften his writing mind and blunt the edge of his pen.
There is nothing much doing this morning except what they call an artillery duel, so I don’t see why I shouldn’t write to you, though I am too sleepy to be very fluent or amusing.
Which is, by the way, darkly amusing. There is almost no talk of how military efficiency is affected by the constant sleeplessness and terror-tinged boredom, and if one is not at one’s best as a writer, perhaps other careful, selective activities are suffering as well? Indeed. But then again the staff is rotating them every 48 hours; what else can be done? The troops will lose their edge. But Asquith–for the time being at least–is careful to take strop to blade, and write good descriptive prose, at least.
And, by the way, he’s about seventeen miles south of the Master of Belhaven, and writing tomorrow, so it’s not precisely the same artillery duel…
We marched into the trenches on Sunday evening by a rather circuitous route–about 7 miles I should think, and it took us over 4 hours as the last part was very slow going. About 6 p.m. we reached a ruined village on the road where we halted and put on our trench boots–long rubber things which go almost up to one’s waist, but none too long. It was a fine frosty night with a moon and stars. There we picked up our guides and made our way by platoons across open country to our various positions. The point where we left the road was about 1 1/2 miles from the trenches and the communication trenches by which we were supposed to go up were so full of water and mud that we had to go across the top of the open country instead–a wide flat expanse of dead grass elaborately intersected by the flooded communication trenches.
It was very slow work getting the men across these obstacles in their full kit and there were constant checks. Fortunately we were not shelled at all, but there was a certain amount of harmless and unskilful sniping. The Boches kept sending up rockets which seemed to illuminate the whole country and towards the end of our journey where we were only a few hundred yards from their lines it seemed impossible that they should not see us, but whether they did or not they never hit any of us.
The sniping is very puzzling at first because it seems to come from every direction at once and you hear the crack of rifles which seem to be no further off than the next gun is to one in a partridge drive. Yet nothing happens. There was only one place where the bullets seemed to be coming rather too near and I had to make the men lie down for 5 minutes. I had the rear platoon of the whole Brigade, but my guide was a skilful one, and we got into our trench before any of the others. It was a support trench about 200 yards behind our firing line, and as filthy and dilapidated as it could be—a very poor parapet, flooded dug-outs and a quagmire of mud and water at the bottom in many places 3 ft. deep. But for my long boots I should certainly have died of cold and dirt.
I got in about 8 p.m., but it was nearly 10 before the whole company was in. We set to work digging and draining at once and worked all night. I constantly got lost in the labyrinth both below ground and above. I had a tot of hot rum about 3 a.m. which made the whole difference. We worked away all yesterday and are at it again; tonight the trench will be a very tolerable one. I have a small but dry dug-out in which I got 3 hours sleep last night. It freezes hard in the night and early morning but luckily we have had no rain, and every now and then at irregular intervals Needham brings me a bowl of turtle soup which he seems to think a diet appropriate to the situation in which we find ourselves.
The support trenches are usually more shelled than the fire trenches because there is less risk of the gunners hitting their own men, but we have fared very well in this respect, as the Boches are directing most of their fire at roads in our rear. One shell lighted a short way behind us and spattered me with mud but as I was already thickly coated with it I bore no malice. Shelling, rifle and machine gun fire go on spasmodically all day and all night, but we have had only 2 men killed and about a dozen wounded in the whole battalion: these were shot by snipers while digging in front of the line at night.
This morning I had a man down with frost bite in my platoon and I am surprised there are not more, as there were not enough boots to go all round.
Tonight at 6.30 we are relieved by the Scots Guards and go back a mile or two to get clean and dry for 48 hours–back into the trenches again–the front line this time–on Thursday for another 2 days, then 2 days in the rest billets, and after that I think we get 4 days real rest in the comfortable quarters from which we came on Sunday. I am looking forward to scraping some of the mud and hair off my face and getting some continuous sleep; washing and shaving being out of the question here and sleep almost so.
I’m afraid this is a regular “letter from the front” saying all the boring things you have read 100 times in the Daily Anything but the truth is I am too sleepy to be ingenious or inventive . . .
Well, actually, yes–I was hoping for something better after the “rich, glutinous” mud. Let us hope that the aim of being ingenious and inventive shall not die, trodden into the hymned-to-death Flanders mud.
Finally, Lady Feilding has news–and news–today:
15 Nov 15
In bed/Gott strafe Tonks.
“Tonks” is, would you believe it, the family nickname for pain. Something is wrong with Lady Dorothie, something perhaps a little more specific than the “exhaustion” that sent her home for several months. And she doesn’t seem to be eating.
By the way please pay no attention to Jelly & my old appetite, he has it on the brain! I never do eat much out here… Out here I need half the food & sleep I do at home always.
Then, in a second letter today–again, there is probably a dating mistake which explains the duplication–more details and more news.
I am in bed with a stomach ache, Charles [her terrier], a Jim [hot water bottle] & lots of books, not bad on the whole as it means an idle & a peaceful day. I was to do my usual Mon supper at chez the Gen but have had him come here…
Grand événement [great event], Mrs Knocker & Mairi came in & sat on my bed bursting with excitement & Mrs K proceeded to apologise for all the diverse unpleasant remarks she ever made to me & to swear she never meant them, wouldn’t do so again. Much surprised I marvelled exceedingly & then the reason: she is engaged to a Belgian ‘Lieut Baron Harold de T’Serclaes de Rattendael’ & it is now announced & she is in devil of a flutter. It appears he is young & an Apollo & of a most noble family & quite ready to become a Protestant to please me my dear–isn’t it sweet of him? But I think it might make unpleasantness out here if he did–so I shall become a Catholic instead & I want you to tell me howto do it etc etc!!!!
Can’t you see me, missionising Mrs K!
I at once assured her she had far better leave everybody’s concerned religion as it was for the moment & think it over a little more! Anyhow she intends to get married some time before the spring & will probably live at La Panne & Mairi & Helen Gleason (who will return from America shortly) run the Poste at Pervyse together…
so much love dear
So Mrs. Knocker–the dashing motorcycling widow, boon companion of Mair Chisholm, and occasional rival of Lady Feilding–is about to get married. The reported monologue leading to the religion bit is quite well done–I’m amused, that is, along with Lady Dorothie, who tends to show basic good sense under her flighty exterior. Making up in order to gain help for a conversion of convenience, indeed! It’s like a neat little bridge from Austen to Waugh.
In any event, although Chisholm and Knocker are not good writers (and were subsequently “written up” in a breathless and silly book) and will not feature much here, I thought it would be a good idea to include this change-of-status notification: all those who seek for more on Elsie Knocker are hereby advised to search for “the Baroness T’Serclaes.”