Edward Brittain on Victor Richardson, and What Remains; Ivor Gurney on Food and Fatalism; Patrick Shaw Stewart Lolls and Reads

First, today, a letter from Edward Brittain to his sister Vera, his first to her since the death of Victor Richardson. There is something still clinging to this letter of the Romantic idealism that has always marked this group of friends–but not much. Edward is not in a mood to be sentimental about cruel wounds, or to fool himself about pain.

Roker, Sunderland, 11 June 1917

Dearest Vera —

I suppose it is better to have had such splendid friends as those three were rather than not to have had any particular friends at all, but yet, now that all are gone it seems that whatever was of value in life has all tumbled down like a house of cards. Yet in Tah’s case I will not, I cannot say that I wished from the bottom of my heart that he should live; I have a horror of blindness, and if I were blinded myself I think I should wish to die. The idea of long years without the light of the sun and the glory of its setting and without the immortal lamp of life is so abhorrent to me — and the thought of that has been hanging over me these 2 months — that I cannot altogether deplore the opening of the gates of eternal rest to that Unconquerable Soul, although I loved him in a way that few men can love one another. I am so very glad that you were near and saw him so nearly at the end; in a way too I am glad not to have been there; it is good to remember the cheerfulness with which he faced the living of a new life fettered by the greatest misfortune known to men.

Yes, I do say Thank God he didn’t have to live it. We started alone, dear child, and here we are alone again: you find me changed, I expect, more than I find you; that is perhaps the way of Life. But we share a memory which is worth all the rest of the world, and the sun of that memory never sets. And you know that I love you, that I would do anything in the world in my power if you should ask it, and that I am your servant as well as your brother

Edward[1]

 

So life goes on, even if there is nothing but love to get down behind in the mud and push.

Ivor Gurney, today, is thinking of life–and food… and poetry… and food again… and ends.

11 June 1917

My Dear Friend: Out of the line once more, but for once, not hungry, for the Lord and the ASC have been kind to us, and liberal gentlemen have bestowed cake upon me…

Yes, the College Mag. and the TLS have arrived. I am sorry I forgot to thank you. If there are any complementary copies please send them to Mrs Chapman and Mrs Hunt…

Today there are orgies of cleaning, and men brush and polish frantically at brass and leather. The weather is beautiful, and there is plenty of water to wash with, so we are not unhappy. Also there is plenty to eat…

Gurney is writing to Marion Scott, of course, and he includes several rondels in a similarly light-hearted vein. But see the last lines–light-heartedness is a passing mood, in the trenches, and never the note of resolution.

Rondels

1. Letters

“Mail’s up”! the vast of night is over
And love of friends fills all one’s mind
(His wife, his sister, or his lover.)
Mail’s up, the vast of night is over.
The grey-faced heaven Joy does cover
With love, and God once more seems kind.
“Mail’s up”! The vast of night is over
And love of friends fills all one’s mind.

2. Shortage

God God! No Jam! No Bread!!
No Butter!!!
Whatever are we coming to?
O desolation, anguish utter —
Good God! No jam, no bread, no butter.
I hear the brutal soldiers mutter.
And strong men weep as children do.
Good God! No jam, no bread,
No butter!
Whatever are we coming to?

3. Paean

There’s half a loaf per man today?
O Sergeant, is it really true?
Now biscuits can be given away.
There’s half a loaf per man today;
And Peace is ever so near they say.
With tons of grub and nothing to do.
There’s Half a Loaf Per Man today!
O Sergeant is it Really True?

4. Strafe (1)

I strafe my shirt most regularly.
And frighten all the population.
Wonderful is my strategy!
I strafe my shirt most regularly;
(It sounds like distant musketry.)
And still I itch like red damnation!
I strafe my shirt most regularly
And — frighten all the population………….

5. Strafe (2)

The “crumps” are falling twenty to the minute.
We crouch and wait the end of it, — or us
Just behind the trench, before, and in it.
The “crumps” are falling twenty to the minute;
(O Framilode! O Maisemore’s laughing linnet!)
Here comes a monster like a motor bus.
The “crumps” are falling twenty to the minute;
We crouch and wait the end of it — or us

I wonder if the proofs are with Sidgwick and Jackson yet. That will interest me, and also (when the time comes) to know what Gloucester people think. Last night I read some to a friend of mine, and was surprised to find how little I cared for them, and how remote they seemed. As for Spring 1917, it is as I thought long dull, and unvaried…

With best wishes; Yours sincerely Ivor Gurney[2]

 

Finally, today, an update from Patrick Shaw Stewart, now with the Royal Naval Division in France. It’s a discursive letter, and I’ll make some cuts to get us to the good parts… who could he be reading, now that he’s reached the Western Front at last?

…The battery commander is out, so I am lying flat on my tummy in the grass outside his habitat in the amiable sun, waiting till he comes in; one of the pleasanter phases of war. When I have written to you, and X, and Y, and Z, I will
go on with Tom Jones, which I am in the middle of and which is far and away the best book I ever read. Messrs Meredith and James are simply silly beside it, and as for the Victorians ——–. I got through Sense and Sensibility the other day, by the way, not bad, but not half as good as Pride and Prejudice, or Emma.

I did tell you about our time up the line? It was quite agreeable, good weather (though a lot of mud), and a quiet time, very few casualties. I had rather luck having a chain of posts very much advanced in a rather well-known place, so far advanced as to be clear of mud and also clear of shelling. The only trial was that I hardly got a wink of sleep—one has to re-acquire the habit of sleeping in a sitting-position on a petrol tin in the later half of the morning…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Letters From a Lost Generation, 355.
  2. War Letters, 168-70.
  3. Knox, Patrick Shaw-Stewart, 198-99.

Kate Luard’s Near Miss; Edwin Vaughan in a Lousy Boche Trap; Siegfried Sassoon Can Almost See England; God Amidst the Shellfire for Edward Hermon; Geoffrey Thurlow Asks Vera Brittain About the Afterlife

Kate Luard, her hospital warned that their first convoy of wounded is only days away, took what she expects to be a last day of leisure for quite some time. She wants to see the sights–and now that the German withdrawal has put the old front line well in the rear, she can tour the Somme battlefield for the first time. So she does, and runs smack into the apparent paradox that so many of our writers confront or avoid, but necessarily both confirm and deny:

…we have been over No-Man’s Land an down into the deep German dug-outs on the scene of the tragedy last July at Gommécourt. It is all indescribable. Bairnsfather has drawn it, but no one can ever, in words, make anyone realise what it is like.

As Rabbi Tarfon says, it is not incumbent upon you to finish the job; but neither are you at liberty to completely avoid it….

The wood and the orchards are blackened spikes sticking up out of what looks now like a mad confusion of deep trenches and deep dug-outs battered to bits. We went with an electric torch deep down two staircases of one and stepped into a pond at the bottom…

I cast Kate Luard, often enough, in the role of The Wise Woman, our Old Campaigner among the medics. Which, like any such shoehorning, is not terribly fair. She features here so often because she is a keen observer and a good writer, not because she is infallibly wise. In her own sphere, we’ve come to except extreme competence and compassion… but off for an exciting tour of the forbidden zone, she succumbs to a common and foolish enthusiasm–the search for souvenirs.

I picked up a nose-cap; and the sapper who was with us said hastily, ‘That’s no good,’ snatched it out of my hand and threw it out of sight; it still had the detonator in it. Then he picked one up without its detonator and gave it to me…

The village we and the Germans have been shelling for 2 years made you feel dazed. But the battlefield made you feel sick. We got some snowdrop roots with the flowers out, from under a boulder at Gommécourt.

Here you get to the culmination of destruction for which all civilised nations are still straining all their resources. Isn’t it hopelessly mad?[1]

More snowdrops! A paragraph of further description intervenes before Luard comes to tell of their long walk back to the hospital, so perhaps the uplifting irony I see in the last sentences of the day is not actually intended. But after being compelled to condemn the madness of civilization, Sister Luard and her companions, returning, are invited to tea three times on their walk back by three different groups of British N.C.O.s and officers, and then have coffee pressed upon them by a Frenchwoman.

 

Edwin Vaughan is headed in the opposite direction. He had a harrowing march up through the devastated town of Péronne and toward his battalion’s new billets in what had until recently been the German rear–harrowing, at least, for him. Other writers might have treated a near-miss and a blighty for a fellow officer with less candor: “He wasn’t a scrap disturbed by his wounds, but they made me feel faint and I had to go out for some air.”

But then several men are killed by shells accurately dropped on a well, and the survivors are grateful to take shelter in their new digs–three German dugouts.

I lay for a while on my upper berth, smoking and reading a book on trench warfare. then I began to feel itchy, and the itchiness grew, and spread so much that I was unable to concentrate on my book. So I lay on my back looking at the timber roof a foot above me, and I wondered whether the saw-marks across the beams were the work of the Boche to ensure the roof falling in when a time-mine exploded. I was distracted from this thought, with its potential horrors, by the sight of moving insects. Raising the candle I found that the place was crawling with lice. During the night I felt them dropping onto my face, and in the morning I was infested with them.[2]

 

Robert (Edward) Hermon’s letter home to his wife of tonight, a century back, is a bit of a surprise. Hermon is our conventional English family man, the non-intellectual squire and kindly C.O. He’s not a great writer, but this account of church amidst a bombardment is one of the more moving ones I’ve read. Of all things (all things!) it reminds me of a scene in Gravity’s Rainbow.

Tonight I went to church in one of the church Army Huts close here & we had such a nice little service, ending with a celebration[3] for which I stayed. All the time the service was going on the Hun was throwing some very heavy shells into the village about half a mile off & what with the church being lit up & it dark outside & the whistle & crash of the shells it made the whole thing very weird & also impressive & I’m afraid that my voice was not particularly strong as I sang the third verse of hymn 322…

Then the world re-intrudes, and we are back to clocks and bunks–and men of god in their human frailties.

Well dearie mine I’m busy these days and must to bed now especially as we started summer time last night & I lost an hour of sleep, not to mention the fact that the padre, who sleeps just under me, dreamt that he saw a man cutting the rope of one of the observation balloons & jumped up shouting at the top of his voice to stop him & nearly flung me out of bed in the process, & I felt rather as tho’ a mine had gone off underneath.[4]

 

Only a day after Victor Richardson wrote to Vera Brittain, Geoffrey Thurlow–her brother’s intimate friend from training camp, and now the third of the soldiers that she cares for and corresponds with–writes to her on the same subject. But then what are the chances that two nicely brought-up young men will write about certain things not to each other but to a young woman they admire?

France, 25 March 1917

Don’t you often speculate on what lies beyond the gate of Death? The after life must be particularly interesting. No chance of getting leave… Haven’t heard from Victor Richardson for a long long time–hope he is still going strong…

Tonight I walked home with Wilmot who is in a convalescent home near here. It has been a brilliant day with a fresh wind: we passed along between fields, some green and some with bright red earth recently plowed: and then came to a large forest. The wind made a delightful rustling in the trees & had it not have been for the distant continual bumping of guns War might not have existed…[5]

 

Lastly, today, Siegfried Sassoon evokes a mood of either wistful poetasting or listless carping, depending upon how you see it. But he is a dependable man for observing the landscape, after all.

After five weeks in France (and two with Second R.W.F.) I have not yet been within five miles of a German gun. Instead of getting nearer, the war has actually receded… Yesterday afternoon I got on to a lorry and went bumping
along the Corbie road for three or four miles…  Then I walked down the hill to Heilly on the Ancre, where we camped for four days early in July last year, and marched away to the line again on a hot dusty afternoon. The water still sings its deep tune by the bridge, and the narrow stream goes twinkling away past the bend, and past the garden where I used to walk when I came over from Morlancourt to the Field Cashier. About 5 o’clock I started off up the hill again with the sun setting low and red and the valley hazy and quiet, the wind blowing shrewd, and a plough-team working the ridge.

Another plow team on the ridge!  One begins to suspect a conspiracy between the English outdoor poets and the French peasantry… some sort of pay-to-plow scandal.

And is it a bit too hard on a poor diarist–who after all has a perfect right to record consecutive, incompatible moods–to take him to task for the reach toward a vision of peace, only to follow it with the bathos of one of modern life’s most hackneyed gripes?

I could imagine myself walking home to some friendly English village until the aerodromes loomed in the dusk, and I came to the main road with lines of lorries, and a brazier glowing red where the sentry stands at the cross-roads. And so down the hill to this abominable camp, and a foul dinner in the smoky hut and early to bed, too fed-up to read. And summer begins to-night—which means an hour less in bed, and absolutely nothing else.[6]

In defense of Hermon and Sassoon, the novelty of summer time (a.k.a. daylight savings time) was rather greater a century back…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Unknown Warriors, 104-5.
  2. Some Desperate Glory, 66-7.
  3. I.e. communion
  4. For Love and Courage, 344-5.
  5. Letters From a Lost Generation, 325-6.
  6. Diaries, 144-5.

Isaac Rosenberg, Strained and Weak; F.S. Flint is Read (by Richard Aldington) and Freely Given (by Ford Madox Hueffer)

Today is a day of literary letters, headed back across the channel in loose formation, nodding to each other in terse recognition, and speeding their pleas to the same few destinations. First, a wilting off-shoot of the Georgian/Dymock set–and after him the Modernists.

Isaac Rosenberg had written to Gordon Bottomley in early January about his plans–lousy and otherwise–and his reading.  He was fairly chipper, then, even about his miseries: “I fancy it was a touch of the flue… I wonder if Aeschylus as a private in the army was bothered as I am by lice.” Less so, in a letter postmarked today, a century back:

Dear Mr Bottomley

Your letters always give me a strange and large pleasure; and I shall never think I have written poetry in vain, since it has brought your friendliness in my way. Now, feeling as I am, castaway and used up, you don’t know what a letter like yours is to me. Ever since Nov, when we first started on our long marches, I have felt weak; but it seems to be some inscrutable mysterious quality of weakness that defies all doctors… I believe I have strained my abdomen in some way…[1]

Still, the letter included a “sketch” of “Louse Hunting,” and all was not as dark as Rosenberg’s mood. Not long ago Eddie Marsh had written–informally, of course–to Rosenberg’s adjutant, with the result that he will be transferred, probably at some point this month, from the “works” battalion to a less labor-intensive job in a trench mortar unit.[2]

 

It’s a small literary world: Bottomley is good friends with Edward Thomas and central to the now far-flung Dymock crew. Rupert Brooke was the strongest connection between Dymock and the Georgian Anthology, but Bottomley and de la Mare are others, and even if Thomas has avoided Marsh’s influence they are known to each other. And Marsh, of course, is not intervening lightly in Rosenberg’s military career–he was also a crucial early patron. Between Bottomley and Marsh there are few promising young writers of somewhat traditional verse more than one friendly letter away.

But oh yes–there are other literary microcosmoi, and with our advantage of historical vantage, we know that another small world considering au courant and modern will grab the stage and boot Georgian Poetry into the footlights. Or footnotes.

The Modernists, grouped around a few small journals,[3] see the Georgians more as almost indecently exposed targets of opportunity, prim ladies showing a touch of ankle while the Imagists are stripping to their all togethers to describe. Although Richard Aldington ceded his editorial post at The Egoist to his wife, H.D., when he went for a soldier, he still knows who and what to read.

Yesterday, a century back, Aldington wrote to F.S. Flint, his good friend and fellow subaltern in the Modernist enterprise; today, the august Ford Madox Hueffer, something of an elder statesman among the young ruffians (how’s that?) aimed a missive at the same target. We may set a record, today, for box-barrage-style name-dropping.

Although Aldington could hardly be more unlike his fellow poetical footslogger Ivor Gurney in either personality or poetic  predilection–Gurney has made a literal Dymock pilgrimage–the two rising poets and private soldiers offer the same criterion for poetic appreciation: is it pack-worthy?

My dear Franky,

I carried your poem and Manning’s poems in my pack for I know not how many kilometres–what more devotion to
literature can you ask? I am immensely pleased by your poem, & as I wrote to H.D., feel that it justifies amply your months of silence… Certainly, compel Monro to print the poem in a chap-book & add any “dug-outs” you have…

The horrid thought strikes me that, if U.S. goes to war, Amy will insist on writing and publishing patriotic verse. This must be barred strenuously–we have foreborn to intrude our nationalism, to “let wrath embitter the sweet mouth of song”; so must she. I have sent H.D. a few scraps of vers libre put down from time to time recently. They may not be much good, for I think they are lazy due to a state of intoxication derived from the happy discovery that one can boil Quaker Oats in one’s “billycan”…

This concern–that Amy Lowell will influence the decline of Modern poetry in America even as she has helped to elevate in England, fades into yet another reverie about war’s end. A popular topic, this winter:

I am back for “a rest”, having shed no blood of my own or anyone else’s, save when I gashed my thumb on a bullybeef tin. And poor May Sinclair will go on thinking I’m an ’eroe”! What women have to answer for! After the war–when everything will of course be ideal–we must rendez vous in your earthly paradise & idle long days in sun and long grass… I desire my Horatian otium cum dignitate [leisure with dignity] just as much as ever. If I get back you will not find me a rampagious & lustful legionary, but the same apostle of pastoral culture as of old. Old books, old wine, old pictures–young women & young songs…

Well, I will conclude this empty raving…

Au revoir, old lad, & a hundred congratulations on your fine piece of work.

R.

“Empty raving,” quotha? Naturally, but this is something a man–a ponderous master like Ford Madox Hueffer–could do with a lighter sort of brio, especially if he is behind the likes of drunken junior Modernist officer cadets like Manning…

Attd. IX Welch, No. 6, 1.B.D.
B.E.F., France
19.2.17

I very ungraciously didn’t answer yr. letter–wh. reached me in the far South. However, I was lazy there–where the Mediterranean spurts up into the rosemary and lavender. But this is the bare, cold & trampled North, with nothing
but khaki for miles & miles…Bare downs… & tents… & wet valleys… & tents…& AAC guns… & mud… & bare
downs…& huts…& bare downs…& RFC…& mud…& motor lorries… & mud… & bare downs.

And I am promoted to Adj.–& run a Bn. much as I used to run the Eng[lish] Rev[iew]–It’s the same frame of mind, you know, & much, much easier–or more difficult, according to one’s mood…

Surely this great literary effort must in effect be some sort of preamble?

I want to ask you a favour: I somehow pine to publish a vol. of poems before the war ends or I am killed. Cd. you, do you think?, arrange for someone to publish:

Antwerp
The Old Houses
Two or three poems written in the trenches & other nasty places
& Heaven

in one volume? And could you collect and arrange them, somewhat in that order?

…I fancy it wd. make a pretty good volume. I have got rather a good one written to the dead of the Welch Regt & so on…. Let me know?

I do admire yr. work very much–you know. “Cadences” is an ever so beautiful volume.

And here’s the funny bit. “I admire your work very much.” Enough to schlepp it? Surely yes? You are, after all, an officer, with a servant, who hasn’t been in trenches in months, you must have trunks of books…

I gave it to some people in Mentone–not because I.did not value the gift, but because it wd. spread yr. fame a little–& because in my valise here it wd. only disintegrate amongst revolvers & straps & the mud in wh. one lives.

Goodbye, my dear.

I am personally very happy in this sort of life: in the end it suits me better to write:

“O.C. Canadaous will detail a fatigue party of 1 NCO & 10 men at 4:30 a.m…” than to watch the Mediterranean foam spattering over rosemary and lavender–for I don’t believe I am really, really Highbrow–as you truly are.

But God bless you, all the same…[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Liddiard, ed., 89-90.
  2. See Moorcroft Wilson, Isaac Rosenberg, ch. 18.
  3. E.G. Blast, tied to various writers we read here, including Ford, below; and the newer Wheels, featuring the Sitwells and other Grenadier Guardsmen, several Imagist Anthologies... and yes, there are also people like Pound and Eliot being published, somewhere, presumably...
  4. Imagist Dialogues, 182-6.

Isaac Rosenberg Goes Louse Hunting; Thomas Hardy Blows Off Junker and Jingo Alike

Today, a century back, Thomas Hardy asserted his internationalist-humanist bona fides, issuing a stiff rebuke to Percy Ames of the Royal Society for Literature. Ames had had the temerity to invite Hardy to throw his literary weight behind what seems to have been an effort to identify ethical virtues exclusively with the entente nations.

Max Gate, Dorchester. February 8th, 1917.

Dear Sir:

I regret that as I live in a remote part of the country I cannot attend the meeting of the Entente Committee.

In respect of the Memorandum proposing certain basic principles of International education for promoting ethical ideals that shall conduce to a League of Peace, I am in hearty agreement with the proposition. I would say in considering a modus operandi:

That nothing effectual will be done in the cause of peace till the sentiment of Patriotism be freed from the narrow meaning attaching to it in the past (and still upheld by Junkers and Jingoists)—and be extended to the whole globe.

On the other hand, that the sentiment of Foreignness—if the sense of contrast be necessary—attach only to other planets and their inhabitants if any.

I may add that I have written in advocacy of these views for the last twenty years.

Yours truly,
Thomas Hardy.[1]

As Hardy stiffly points out, he may be a pessimist but he has also long been, if not quite a universalist, at least an internationalist. And after his tentatively rousing–and yet not embarrassingly violent or narrowly nationalist–early war poems, he has since put his poetry to work in this same vein of heart-broken but firm humanism. The Pity of It expresses precisely the sentiments of this letter, and with considerably more power: if Junkers are unforgivable Prussians, then Jingoists are unforgivable Britons.

Hardy, once again, shows that it is not just the magnitude and power of his poetry that has won him the admiration of young war poets like Siegfried Sassoon. He is rare among old men in recognizing that, if the war-mongers on each side are much the same, then their victims among the young men of their own nation are more alike to each other than to their Jingoist or Junker leaders… We can only complain that he is not three generations ahead of his time in science fictional commitments: in this day and age his casual assumption that the inhabitants of other planets must be inescapably foreign would be considered sadly conservative and blinkered…

 

But life on the line goes on. Isaac Rosenberg reports from near the front lines on his latest physical–and he is chagrined to note that he has passed. But he has a sketch for Eddie Marsh (which I can’t find) and some accompanying verses. Alas for the sketch!

My Dear Marsh,

I was told the other day by the Captain that he had heard from you about me. He had me examined, but it appears I’m quite fit. What I feel like just now—I wish I were Tristram Shandy for a few minutes so as to describe this ‘cadaverous bale of goods consigned to Pluto’. This winter is a teaser for me; and being so long without a proper rest I feel as if I need one to recuperate and be put to rights again. However I suppose we’ll stick it, if we don’t, there are still some good poets left who might write me a decent epitaph.

The stiff upper lip/gallows humor pose is unusual for Rosenberg. I think he may be in good spirits: how terrible is misery of the body, anyway, if it stimulates art?

I’ve sketched an amusing little thing called ‘the louse hunt,’ and am trying to write one as well. I get very little chance to do anything of this sort, but what I have done I’ll try and send you. Daumier or Goya are far in perspective. How do find the Colonial Office after the Treasury?

Yours sincerely

Isaac Rosenberg

Pte I. R. 223117 Platoon F. Coy 40th Division
Works Batt. B.E.F.[2]

The poem is “Louse Hunting,” another of Rosenberg’s ironic mini-masterpieces. Sterne might lurk in Rosenberg’s thoughts, but the mention of Goya seems much more apt. This poem has the grim humor–or the queasy marriage of revelry and nastiness–of some of Goya’s The Disasters of War, albeit in a minor key.

Louse Hunting

Nudes—stark and glistening,
Yelling in lurid glee. Grinning faces
And raging limbs
Whirl over the floor one fire.
For a shirt verminously busy
Yon soldier tore from his throat, with oaths
Godhead might shrink at, but not the lice.
And soon the shirt was aflare
Over the candle he’d lit while we lay.
Then we all sprang up and stript
To hunt the verminous brood.
Soon like a demons’ pantomime
The place was raging.
See the silhouettes agape,
See the gibbering shadows
Mixed with the battled arms on the wall.
See gargantuan hooked fingers
Pluck in supreme flesh
To smutch supreme littleness.
See the merry limbs in hot Highland fling
Because some wizard vermin
Charmed from the quiet this revel
When our ears were half lulled
By the dark music
Blown from Sleep’s trumpet.

 

Goya, perhaps, but it also may be that these leaping, firelit figures in their battle against “wizard vermin” are a travesty of Brooke, with his beautiful, well-born swimmers into cleanness leaping… it’s a horrible scene, but humorous. And–wonderfully–the curtain drops at the end as if some Shakespearean imp had presented the scene all along…

What could follow this vaunting, brilliant, lousy Walpurgisnacht? Not much–so two little reminders will close out the day:

 

In the early morning hours today, a century back, Alf Pollard earned his MC, beating back German counter-attacks on the scratch position taken by assault late last night. There is a lengthy narrative of the episode in his memoir, Fire-Eater.[3]

 

Finally, Edward Thomas is working up to the line–and to some considerable letters, in the next few days–so we can skip today’s diary, which covers a nervously busy but indecisive day for both Thomas himself and his battery. But I do like this jotting, Ariel to Rosenberg’s Caliban: “Enemy plane like pale moth beautiful among shrapnel bursts.”[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Letters of Thomas Hardy, V, 202.
  2. Collected Works, 313-5.
  3. Fire-Eater, 168-86.
  4. War Diary (Childhood), 160.

Sidney Rogerson Has a Bath; Vera Brittain Far From Her Lost Boys

Sidney Rogerson and his faithful sidekick Mac were spared the worst of what today–their first in “rest”–had to offer, namely the large working party that was sent back up to do construction work in the freezing mud behind the lines. Instead, a march to the baths:

It was a joy to get outside the camp boundary and to be moving somewhere with a set purpose, and Mac and I felt our spirits rise with the temperature of our bodies as we set out at the head of a column with our towels and clean underclothes in the pockets of our British warms. Behind us the men sang, a good sign, though the vulgarity of the songs they chose was an even better indication that they were feeling cheerful.

But the baths, alas, do not bring quite the fullness of pleasure that they might once have. Again the men suffer lousy indignities–their clothes are put in a giant fumigating machine while they bathe–while the officers, with cleaner kit, have time for a soak:

We filed in, officers to the right, men to the left… As soon as we could see clearly enough to distinguish the particular iron bath or wooden tub in which we were to bathe, we started to undress… grumbling and swearing as we balanced, first on one leg and then on the other, in an attempt to unroll puttees or pull off sodden boots and socks, and at the same time prevent them falling on to the wet floor. Then we grumbled and swore because we could find insufficient places on which to hang our clothes, and again because we could not see where we had put them. Altogether, an observer would not have carried away the impression that we were overjoyed at the prospect of a real wash after long abstinence. I doubt if we were…

The soak is enjoyable enough, but any momentary pleasure in cleanliness is replaced by frustration when they don old clothes and march several sweaty miles back to camp. Before we close, though, one more observation of Rogerson’s which speaks to a question that has probably occurred to many readers: with all this lice and fever and
“trench feet,” what about ordinary minor illness?

Cleanliness, I then realized, could be as strange a sensation as dirtiness. Anyway, a three-mile trudge along wet roads on a winter evening directly after a hot bath might be expected speedily to dissipate any pleasurable glow that it had aroused. It is worthy of record that no one caught the chill that might be expected to ensue… but [it] affords no occasion for surprise, for one of the minor wonders of the war was the astonishing rarity of the common cold in all its objectionable forms…[1]

I’m guessing that there is a better medical explanation for this than Rogerson’s hypothesis: that bathing might make the body susceptible to colds…

 

One more brief note today. As the fighting on the Somme winds down, one of our writers can’t even know, yet, of its last bloody spasm. Tracking the letters to and from Vera Brittain over the next few days and weeks will give a good “real time” sense of just how far away Malta is, by wartime mail, and how this simple fact changes the four-way friendship that now exists between Vera, her brother Edward, and his two best remaining friends, Geoffrey Thurlow and Victor (“Tah”) Richardson.

London, 16 November 1916

You may already know that there has been another big show against the German original front line N. of Thiepval against which all of our attempts on July 1st were unsuccessful. We have now taken St. Pierre Divion and the famous impregnable Beaumont Hamel, but I am afraid casualties must have been heavy. I am also much afraid that Geoffrey may have been in it and possibly Tah too if he was moved down but we don’t know anything yet.[2]

She will get this letter, then, which only really lets her know that she must wait in considerable anxiety for other letters. Unless, of course, something terrible has happened and someone has been able to send a cable

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Twelve Days on the Somme, 121-29.
  2. Letters From a Lost Generation, 291.

John Ronald Tolkien is Told Off; Rowland Feilding Watches a Battle, and Reports Two Victories; Donald Hankey on Discipline, Comradeship, and a Need for Balls

It seems sometimes as if the truly well-bred officer must consider himself an Epicurean. It is de rigueur to comment, for the benefit of the folks at home, on how delicious it is to watch a bombardment from a distance. But Rowland Feilding begs to differ with this Lucretian view of battlefield spectatorship. This may be compassion, and it may also have something to do with the fact that Feilding has been out of action himself for quite some time. In any event, he describes today, for his wife, the continuation of the battle that killed Ben Keeling yesterday.

August 18, 1916. Near Fricourt

This afternoon I watched a huge battle between Martinpuich and Guillemont. I watched from the high ground just south-east of Fricourt, which commands a wonderful view of the country for a long distance in front—from a spot which was visited by the King when he was here, and is now known as King George’s Hill.

The preliminary bombardment, which had continued all through last night and this morning, was greatly intensified, and smoke clouds were turned loose shortly before 2.45 p.m., which was the time appointed for the infantry assault. The latter took place punctually, as was very evident from the simultaneous and sudden crowding of the sky with the bursting shrapnel of the German barrage. Then Hell prevailed till the horizon became blotted out by smoke and dust. It was a terrible sight. To the onlooker on these occasions, as I have said before, it seems almost impossible that any living creature can be in it and survive. But that is not so.

After half an hour the shelling subsided to some extent, though it was renewed about five o’clock on another section of the front.

It was a big show—far bigger, I daresay, than anyone might suppose from reading the newspaper reports of it which will no doubt appear to-morrow.

Feilding, unusually, actually follows up on his supposition. He includes these two communiqués in a subsequent letter:

August 19, 1916. Saturday.
British Official

Our success reported last night has been maintained and extended.

During the night the enemy delivered several very determined counter-attacks against the positions which we had captured. Except on our extreme right, where the enemy regained a little ground, these counter-attacks were everywhere repulsed.

From High Wood to the point where we join up with the trench we have advanced our line over a frontage of more than 2 miles for a distance varying between 200 yards and 600 yards.

We now hold the western outskirts of Guillemont, and a line thence northwards to midway between Delville Wood and Ginchy; also the Orchards north of Longueval Between High Wood and the Albert-Bapaume Road we have captured some hundreds of yards of enemy trench…

As a result of these operations several hundred prisoners have been taken by us.

So much for the British version of events. Next, the Germans.

August 19, 1916. Berlin Saturday Afternoon.
German Official

Our brave troops yesterday victoriously resisted with self-sacrificing tenacity a stupendous effort on the part of our
combined enemy.

At about the same time in the afternoon, after artillery preparation, which increased to the utmost violence, Anglo-French masses advanced to the assault to the north of the Somme on the Ovillers-Fleury front over a section of about 20 kilometres…

At several points the enemy penetrated into our first line of trenches and was driven out again.

Trench sections captured on both sides of Guillemont—which remains firmly in our hands—were occupied. Between Guillemont and Maurepas we have somewhat shortened during the night our salient line in accordance with our plans.

The enemy has paid with tremendous sanguinary losses for his efforts, which, on the whole, have failed…

In the eastern sector of Chapitre Wood over 100 prisoners were taken during a counter-attack…[1]

This is propaganda, of course, and if you read a map very carefully you could confirm that standard measure of military accomplishment: the British have inched forward, and the Germans have “shortened” their lines… but, really, who won? It does rather shake one’s faith–if any remains–in the relationship between military event and narrative description, at least as far as the conventional tendency of each toward some sort of “decision.”

 

A few days ago, John Ronald Tolkien wrote a long letter to his friend G.B. Smith. It was an elegy of sorts, but a philosophically severe one. In it, Tolkien set out his view of how, exactly, the nature of their schoolboy creative fellowship, the T.C.B.S., has been altered by the death of Rob Gilson, one of its four core members. In short, Tolkien accepted Gilson’s death as the definitive breaking of that fellowship–Rob cannot have been a great writer, now. This opinion was given not so much out of fatalism as from within a consistent worldview: the world is as the world is, and while romantic inventions may still point to the future, there is no sense in allowing them to contradict the past. The others must carry on with their hopes to write, to create beautiful things–but Rob is dead, and the T.C.B.S. has ceased to exist.

Geoffrey Bache Smith begs to differ. Their battalions are both in reserve in the neighborhood of Hédauville, and Smith hoped that they could meet today, but Tolkien proved to be away on a short training course. So Smith sent this howler his way instead:

The idea that the T.C.B.S. has stopped is for me entirely impossible…

The T.C.B.S. is not so much a society as an influence on the state of being. I never for two consecutive seconds believed in the four-ideal-friends theory except in its very widest sense as a highly important and very worthy communion of living souls. That such an influence on the state of being could come to an end with Rob’s loss is to me a preposterous idea… The T.C.B.S. is not finished and never will be.

I am not quite sure whether I shall shake you by the hand or take you by the throat, so enormously do I disagree with your letter and agree with myself![2]

This uncompromising letter written, Tolkien returned to camp the same afternoon, and the two friends were able to meet after all. There is no record of any throat-taking, and one presumes that they agreed to mourn their friend and to redouble their creative efforts.

 

Finally, today, Donald Hankey, wrote to Will Clift, a friend from his days working among the poor in Bermondsey. If this sounds a little preachy, well, it comes from an officer who was once a missionary of sorts among Will and his friends, and who intends to become a preacher after the war. But it is interesting to see the requests that Hankey is making. He’s a sensitive officer in a New Army battalion, with his men in mind. Perhaps there are other letters to family begging sweets and succulents for himself, but this one shows him preoccupied with the health and morale of his men even out of the line. It’s also, surely, an intentional bridging of his old mission and his new commission, a chance for good deeds to be done all around.

…could you get me some balls for my boys to play with in billets. Any sort of fairly serviceable rubber balls, such as last year’s tennis balls, would come in very handy. It is no good having the sort that split easily, or anything smaller than a tennis ball, or anything very hard. Could you also send me four stout footballs? I understand they cost about 15s. each; and so I enclose a cheque for £3. I am tremendously convinced that the only way to keep fellows straight out here is to give them a chance to amuse themselves in billets, and at present they do nothing but sleep, grumble, and talk smut, I’m afraid. Will, Bermondsey has taught me absolutely the love of the boy. The boys here are topping fellows. You should see the way they smile even when they are fagged out and soaked through and lousy and quaking. Every one–nearly–quakes. But the boys try to hide it with a smile.

Discipline is a wonderful thing teaching men continually to do what they do not want to do for the sake of a great cause, teaching them that as individual units they matter very little, but that as members of an army every trivial detail of their lives is significant. It teaches at once humility and pride, self-control and self-subordination, thoroughness, comradeship. Love to Alice and Ed and the rest of my friends. Yours ever…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 101-3.
  2. Chronology, 88.
  3. Letters of Donald Hankey, 347-8.

Vera Brittain Struggles to a Quarter-Year’s Prayer; Raymond Asquith is Bemused, Bothered, and Besieged; Noel Hodgson on a Superior Soldier-Servant

Vera Brittain is in bad shape, tonight, a century back. It’s been a long century–and a long three months.

Thursday March 23rd Camberwell

…Just three months ago to-day, & a Thursday too… I had bitterness enough in my nature before. I didn’t need suffering to soften me. I needed joy. I never loved my fellow-men–or fellow-women, rather, for I like most men–in large quantities. And now I like them even less, & let them see it, which is injudicious, but I have somehow ceased to care. Nothing matters–I can’t make it matter.

…Inside I know I am not a horrid person. But I wonder if that is any good when one seems horrid on the outside. I wonder what He would have thought of me. At any rate He would have understood. Perhaps He does see the metamorphosis by His death of the sweet self developed by contact with His life–and, seeing, understand.

I was off this afternoon, & came up here & wrote, & cried bitterly because I reread all of His letters that I have here. So characteristic with their beautiful handwriting of all He was–so pitiful in their joyful & tender anticipations of a week’s leave.

Then I went back to the Hospital–back to one or two dressings that make even me almost sick–that of the man with the hand blown off & the stump untrimmed up, & the other man with the arm off, & a great hole in his back one could get one’s hand into, & other wounds on his leg & sides & head. Poor, poor souls!

Vera’s thoughts move from the physical devastation the war has wrought on these men to her own spiritual desolation. She is far from over “Him,” yet–Roland has become, it seems, a sort of tutelary deity:

I leaned out of the window to-night & prayed to Him–at 11.o o’clock. I always believe that there is something beforehand about the hour at which one is going to die which marks it out from all the rest…

…perhaps He heard–even though I am a sceptic still. I looked out at the dark trees & houses & the distant lights & the black cypress tree in the garden & felt perhaps he was there in the midst of them all. And I asked Him to look after me–for I don’t seem able to look after myself after all.[1]

Vera is neither the first nor the last of the war’s bereaved to throw off reason and religion alike and embrace an ad hoc spiritualism. It suits her romantic, somewhat impulsive nature… and little of the rest of her personality. He did not really go in for this sort of thing, and neither did she, when they were together…

 

Raymond Asquith‘s letter to his wife Katherine could be skipped, today, were it not for the news of his young daughter’s literary production:

What a strange child Helen must be to versify the siege of Londonderry. I don’t think I had ever heard of it till the last Home Rule Bill came along, though I knew all about the siege of Troy at her age.

Nifty. While we’re here, however, I’ll keep on going for the less outstanding–but still interesting–bit that comes next. Parcels, of course–but also Asquith’s undisguised worries at losing his glamorous friend to the younger model of his own mold:

…you might send me 2 more tins of honey and 2 blue silk vests which you will find among my things at Berkeley St… The two which I have carried so far through the campaign are beginning to look like the flags of the Peninsular War which you see hung up in Cathedrals: If you see Dottie, beg her to write to me, I have not had a letter from her for a month and fear that she must be engrossed in Patsy to the exclusion of all else. This will never do.

Then, without so much as a line-break, back to their progeny:

You tell me not to take my leave until the baby is born. But when will that be? …I thought of making an application towards the middle of April and trying to put it in between my departure from here and my reunion with Napoleon. Is that too early?

Let me know when you go to Newmarket. I’m glad your poor papa is better. Mine seems to be still laid aside.[2]

So his little daughter is siege-smitten, his wife won’t tell him exactly when she plans to produce a possible son and heir, his underclothes are a mess, “Intelligence” is stupid, his dad is about to lose his job, the weather is terrible, he’s out of honey, and Patrick Shaw-Stewart has stolen the attentions of his most glamorous coterie-mate.

Things could be worse. As it happens, we’ll be hearing from “Patsy” tomorrow…

 

Noel Hodgson has another sketch from the trenches for us today, and once again it seems cast as a gently “realistic” primer on one of the basic common experiences of the war–the forerunner, really, of the short instructional video. Today the subject is the officer’s servant, or “batman.” I must say that Pearson anticipates both Wodehouse (who seems to keep coming up these days) and Monty Python. Although, fair warning, this is a sketch of the polite-smile sort, not the guffaw or uncontrollable giggle…

 

“Pearson”

He is my servant, and if he were Commander-in-Chief the war would be over in a week. But I should get no
baths, so I’m glad he isn’t. And I doubt whether he would care to be, himself; at present he is supreme in his own sphere, and knows it and knows that the other servants know it. The only thing he does not know is his own limitations—nobody else does either—they have never been reached.

For example. We had taken over some new trenches, which were in a very filthy condition, and one day I discovered, to my dismay, that I was becoming as Samson—a host in myself.

Pearson was summoned. “Pearson,” said I, “I’m lousy.”

Pearson looked serious, but not at all surprised. “You must have a bath, sir, and a change of clothes.” I smiled gently, and said that if he called a taxi I could go to the Jermyn Street Baths and call at my tailors on
the way.

Pearson gave an accommodating laugh, and promised to see to it; and I returned to my work, trying to forget.

To my amazement, when I again entered my dug-out there was a little pile of underclothing on my table.

“Where did those come from?” I inquired.

“Medical officer, sir. I knew as he always carried a lot of stuff on his cart, so I seen his servant about it. But you mustn’t put it on yet”; and with that the clean change was swept away from my ken. I acquiesced, as I have learnt always to acquiesce in all that Pearson does: and during the night I thought of Job and envied him his potsherd. Next morning while doing my irritable duties about the trench, enter Pearson, who remarks without a blush: “Your bath is ready in your dug-out, sir.” Speechless with amaze, I hurried away to verify, and found an iron boiler half-full of boiling water, reposing on a bed of bricks. On the table were my clean clothes—or rather the Doctor’s—a towel, soap, sponge, etc.

As I wallowed, Pearson told me all about it. It appeared that by bribery or force one of the cooks had been persuaded to throw in his lot with Pearson. Together, under cover.of darkness, they had quitted the trenches and gone to an old factory behind our line. No trenches ran near the factory and no one habited there, for the sufficient reason that by day the Boche placed fat shells there, and by night he larded it with machine-gun fire. There the two knaves found the boiler, and haled it back in safety to the company cook-house, where it was filled with water—and I suspect the water came from the next door company’s supply store—I was careful not to ask. The theft of firewood is child’s play to Pearson, but the compulsion of the cooks to boil the huge tub must have needed his supremest skill. Anyway, the whole great epic was accomplished and I had my bath.

Pearson subsequently hid the tub in an old cemetery, where he could find it again in case of need. He is of a
thrifty temperament.

A good soldier servant is one of the greatest marvels of our modern civilisation. To possess one is better and cheaper than living next door to Harrods. Do you want a chair for the Mess? You have only to mention it to Pearson. Are you starving in a deserted village ? Pearson will find you wine, bread and eggs. Are you sick of a fever ? Pearson will heal you. From saving your life to sewing on your buttons he is infallible.

Perhaps Pearson was at his best in the Affair of the Mess Carpet. It came about in this way. When the regiment was in a village, not-to-be-named, behind the line. Headquarter Mess was in an empty house, the main room of which made a very creditable Mess Room, except for the extreme coldness of the stone floor, which was in no way counteracted by the warmth of the pictures left on the walls by the outgoing Mess. The Doctor, who does Mess President, was commenting on this to me one evening as we sat making toast over a brazier. “Look here, Adjer,” said he, “if we want to be comfortable in here we must have a carpet.”

“Well, tell Pearson to get one,” was my off-handed reply.

“Rot, the boy isn’t a conjurer.”

“Bet you five francs he gets one.”

“Done—by when?”

“This time to-morrow.”

“Right—done with you—and if I win it’ll be a bargain at five francs.”

Thus the Doctor secure in the anticipation of five francs or a carpet for his Mess ; for me I was not so content. Great as was my belief in Pearson’s genius, I hardly saw how he was to obtain a carpet at twenty-four hours’ notice. However, I called him; “Pearson,” I said, “we want a carpet for the Mess by tea-time tomorrow.”

“Very good, sir.”

“There’s a bet on it, Pearson.”

“I’ll see to it, sir,” and off he went.

Next morning, as I was returning from the Orderly Room, Pearson met me.

“Please, sir, will you give me a pass to EXYZED?”

Now EXYZED is the remains of a town that became uninhabited very suddenly, and is still attended to daily by the German gunners. It is out of bounds for troops.

“Sorry, Pearson, I can’t.”

Pearson looked disappointed. “The carpet, sir——” he ventured.

“Have to give it a miss,” said I.

Pearson shook his head and moved sorrowfully away.

Shortly before tea, the door of the Mess Room was violently agitated, and Pearson entered in a stream of
perspiration, bearing on his shoulders a carpet and two rolls of linoleum.

“Good Lord,” said the Doctor, “where did those come from?”

“EXYZED, sir;”” then, turning to me, “you didn’t tell me not to go, sir.”

“Pearson,” I said, “you’re a bally marvel.”

He gave an apologetic smile. “I could not let you lose a bet, sir, for the sake of a little trouble.”

There are many like him, I am sure, though I prefer to think of him as supreme. But when next a soldier friend boasts of his servant—as they always do—sooner or later, remember that he, is not always such a liar as he
appears.

March 23rd, 1916.[3]

 

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Chronicle of Youth, 324-5.
  2. Life and Letters, 250-1.
  3. Verse and Prose in Peace and War, 60-64.

Edward Thomas Writes A Poem of Love Summoned and Dismissed; Vera Brittain Visits a Wounded Warrior, and Has an Enchanted Evening at Oxford; Bimbo Tennant Bombs His Way Merrily Along

Edward Thomas wrote another love poem today, a century back. For the biographically enthusiastic reader, however, it brings no joy: it seems to close a chapter of love-contemplation with both a refusal of the new romantic mood and a careful retreat from any explicit acknowledgment of new love. He has, as he has assured his wife, no current passions. So today’s poem could just plausibly (but not very probably) be merely another “notebook” poem: not something he is feeling today, a century back, but rather the product of today’s intellect feeding on memories of and notes of earlier experience. In any event,

Celandine

Thinking of her had saddened me at first,
Until I saw the sun on the celandines lie
Redoubled, and she stood up like a flame,
A living thing, not what before I nursed,
The shadow I was growing to love almost,
The phantom, not the creature with bright eye
That I had thought never to see, once lost.

She found the celandines of February
Always before us all. Her nature and name
Were like those flowers, and now immediately
For a short swift eternity back she came,
Beautiful, happy, simply as when she wore
Her brightest bloom among the winter hues
Of all the world; and I was happy too,
Seeing the blossoms and the maiden who
Had seen them with me Februarys before,
Bending to them as in and out she trod
And laughed, with locks sweeping the mossy sod.

But this was a dream; the flowers were not true,
Until I stooped to pluck from the grass there
One of five petals and I smelt the juice
Which made me sigh, remembering she was no more,
Gone like a never perfectly recalled air.

As Edna Longley points out, this first stanza especially sounds a lot like Hardy‘s recent love poetry–which is written, unlike Thomas’s, to a woman who has died (Hardy’s first wife). But Hardy’s poems, as Thomas-the-gifted-critic-nevertheless-unable-to-see-what’s-under-his-own-particular-nose will belatedly realize, are not polite solipsisms but grim, brave little battles with the cruelties of life and fate. Thomas is writing about a girl he once knew–she is not a ghost, other than in the Nabokovian sense. She’s gone for him. The subject, if we must, must be the impossibly well named Hope, the schoolgirl of many years before who sparked an infatuation. But it would be strange to acknowledge the old memory of the “maiden” without noting that the poem has come along when another romance-that-wasn’t has blossomed again into his life, namely the far more plausible relationship with Edna Clarke Hall.

 

So this is a poem in which the poet is thrilled by memory, by the sudden resurrection of the memory of a girl from long ago. And that girl may be a real girl, in this real poet’s memory. And the memory may be occurring to him now because he is drawn powerfully to another woman, whom he knew long ago (although not when she was quite a girl), and who has recently re-entered his life.

But if we take these personal readings (and why not?) then we need to take the final stanza to heart. And that, at least, is very clear. Ghost, memory, real live girl all grown up, or poetic figment–she’s gone. And the experiment is over, for now. This will conclude the little spate of winter love poems. Next week, Thomas will write one on the war.[1]

 

Perhaps Vera Brittain‘s moral luck is turning. She has become convinced that her recent antipathy to nursing does not reflect her true feelings, that Roland’s sacrifice should make it impossible to quit and return to the more selfish pursuits of home life or academia, and that she must strive not only to be a good and selfless nurse but also to get closer to where the action really is. Well: opportunity knocks. Three days ago, things began to move at Camberwell General.

Wednesday March 1st

A few of the older V.A.D.s were told to-day that they might have to go abroad ere long. “Ere long” of course more likely means months than weeks… I have quite decided to stay on here, & go on foreign service when it is offered to me–especially as Miss Burdett & I were on alone to-night & she was quite encouraging. She asked me if I should like to go abroad one day, nursing. Of course I said “Yes.” She let me do every single dressing & went round with me, showing me how, and also offered to lend me books on the subject of surgical nursing. Of course as soon as I get on to the theory of anything, I am interested at once…

Thursday March 2nd

I met Mother this afternoon; she seemed to be astonished at my decision to stay on here when I hate.it so much, but seemed vaguely to understand what I meant when I said that I couldn’t leave because to leave would mean defeat.

Still, there are other things in the world than mere devotion to duty.

Geoffrey Thurlow

We went to Fishmonger’s Hall Hospital to see Geoffrey Thurlow. He was sitting up in a large easy-chair, wrapped in a green dressing-gown, with a brown rug on his knees. He seemed to feel cold–still, of course, from the effects of shock–and kept close to a small gas stove that was lighted beside him. Somehow he looked very attractive; in his strongfeatured face his blue eyes with their long brown lashed looked beautiful. His hair was quite thick & soft–not close-cropped, like Roland’s. He talked much more to-day, & more intimately–all about Edward & the Front, & his own fear of being afraid. He was wounded in the front-line trench during the bombardment. He talks so quietly that it is a little difficult to understand all he says when he is telling a story, but as far as I could make out he stayed in the front-line trench after being wounded, rallying his men & ordering them to “rapid fire” to try & keep the Germans off, until they were nearly surrounded & only one or two besides himself were left, and then he ordered them to get away. Even then he wondered if he ought to have gone or stayed for certain death. He perfectly realised all the time what was happening…

I could only think of the courage which even after he was wounded & shaken made him stay & rally his men till staying was useless any more. It is all the more remarkable when one remembers that he is a non-militarist at heart but put aside his personal objections to War for Patriotism s sake His manner was very serious, & he worked his fingers nervously & looked terribly sad when talking about the front. He showed us gas and steel helmets that he had, & said he was quite certain a steel waistcoat could not have saved Roland…

Thurlow, evidently, has made an impression. But Vera’s round of visits has not concluded. Today, a century back, she visited the old, brief stomping grounds of 1914-15.

Saturday March 4th

Went to Oxford by the 1.45, after being allowed off early. Marjorie Barber met me at the station & took me to her room looking out over the High. I sat for quite a long time looking at the High and feeling that I never appreciated it properly in the days when I could walk in if often. “Nessun maggior dolore . . .”

Dante–and apt: “There is no greater sorrow,” the conclusion of the thought being “Than to be mindful of the happy time.”

In a few minutes Schen came in, & they made tea. Then came a knock at the door and Miss Lorimer walked in. She seemed very delighted to see me, and strangely moved by the sight of me in mourning; the reason of which of course knew, even if my ring hadn’t told her. She was wearing the usual brown jersey and skirt, and so far as appearance went it might have been only yesterday that I said goodbye to her on Oriel staircase and she quite unexpectedly told me to take care of myself. After tea we began to talk about my hospital, and I told her lots of my experiences, including the arrival of the convoy at night. She spoke of others who were nursing and she said that she hoped they would come back, and hoped very much that I should.

Then we began to talk about the war, and about those who went out–and those who died. The Lorie put her arms over her head, let herself go and talked her own philosophy. Marjorie & Schen were quite amazed; I daresay I should have been in the old Oxford days, but now even for the one to break through her time-honoured reserve & cast away her reputation before three people did not amaze me so very much And vaguely I knew it was through my personality & for my sake–and the other two were just an incidental audience.

Now, what were those thoughts about slipping back into the too-selfish contemplative pose of the Groves of Academe?

Finally the Lorie & I were left talking alone; Marjorie & Schen became quite silent sitting one on each side of the glowing fire, with the Lorie and I together on the sofa in front of it, there in that Oriel room, whose owner had given his life for his country, perhaps, and where generations of men had discussed the problems of the world. Perhaps it was the wandering ghosts of their bygone conversations which made us so very intimate.

It doesn’t take much Oxford, evidently, for romance to pervade conversation. Next, however, comes something more like mysticism:

We talked of the way in which our dearest & best went out, bravely, gaily, and how we let them go with a smile; she mentioned her brother in Mesopotamia, and I told her how my people had been opposed to Edward, who had always been delicate & sheltered from every breath of wind, joining the Army, and how quietly and uncomplainingly they had let him go when the actual moment came. And she said one realised in these days how much more than mere physical life a man’s life meant, and how much life was gained by laying down the physical side of it–how nothing thus given up was ever lost, and those who died were not really gone, but were with us always, and could never be spoilt for us, but would remain canonised for us–“I know we felt that very much when my brother died,” she said, in quite a broken voice, and put her arms across her face–this Miss Lorimer, who was said by Miss Davies to have crushed all feeling out of herself and to be quite hard–but I think I always knew. . . . I very quietly said how true was what someone had said when my fiancé died, that it was not Death, but Disillusionment, that conquered, and one never got that with these, our dead. . . . Then we were all silent for a long time; Marjorie and Schen were hiding their faces, and the atmosphere was tense with emotion…[2]

 

Today might almost be representative of the entire project: a poem written; an update on the comings and goings and state of mind of a major “character,” still struggling with the sudden violent death of a beloved; and now one of those myriad chipper, informative letters home.

It’s from Bimbo Tennant, enjoying himself in reserve (and in combat training), and telling Daddy all about it. This is worth reading for the very clear explanation of bombing tactics as they are now being taught.

4th March, 1916.
Darling Daddy,

Thank you so much for your letter. I expect you are back on the Spey by now. I often think of you In the room with the woollen portrait of Mary Queen of Scots. We are still at this same place—with billets widely scattered between smelly farm buildings: but we go to-morrow, as far as we know, to Poperinghe (or, as it is usually called, “Popinjay”). We expect to live in huts or tents there: my feelings about tents are not to be described—so I pray it may be huts. After ten days we shall probably go into trenches at Ypres. At present we hear all day long about the horrors of Ypres, and it really does seem a very nasty place. If one sandbag is put on the parapet without previously being covered with mud, you are at once shelled. The line is broken up, and there are several gaps of 50, 100, or 200 yards in our front line. We are all gripping our gas-helmets, as the last occupants were just getting used to being gassed twice a week, though the gas was never followed by an attack. On the whole it seems advisable to mind one’s p’s and q’s…

This afternoon we are going to practise a bombing attack in some fortifications we have been making of turf and sandbags during the past 5 days. Directly a party storms a piece of trench, bombing-parties go out on either side at once, and bomb down the trench, first throwing bombs, and then sending bayonet-men forward who report “all’s clear” before they close up and throw more bombs over the next traverse. If they come to a communication-trench, they shout out, “Close up the second party,” and start bombing both trenches: when the second party, which has been following 20 yards behind, is close up, the first party bombs down the communication-trench, and the second party along the fire-trench. Each party consists of 11 men and one N.C.O.

When each party has got out of bombing distance (60 yards for safety) of the flank of the party which stormed the trench, they make a block in the trench by pulling down sandbags off the sides: then they leave 4 men at this block bombing hard, and they work back, knocking in the earth and sandbags and spreading French wire along the top. (French wire pulls out in coils, and is very rapidly put in position.)

When they have wired and blocked for as far as they can back towards their original starting point, they make another block, put a machine-gun, if possible, on to it, and then the bombers at the advanced block make their way back as best they can…

I fear this will not make it very clear to you but it is the best I can do. Each bombing party consists of 2 Bayonet-men (who shout “all’s clear” ), 1 Bomb-thrower, 2 Bombcarriers, 1 N.C.O., . . . . gap of 10 yds., . . . 3 Wire-carriers, 5 Spade (or hook) carriers, 1 Explosive-carrier or reserve bomber.

So you see it is all carefully thought out and arranged, but I should not much care to be the bombers who are left to get back through their own wire as best they can.

As I write this an orderly brings news that it is “off” for this afternoon owing to rain. Thank Heaven, for it would have
been filthily wet.

Good news. And what are we doing for amusement?

I have killed two sparrows with the pistol since we came here, and they are getting a lot sharper! I hope you will have better sport at your fishing than you have been having of late. I am just starting to get over a bad cold which followed hard on the heels of some fleabites received at Calais. The men are all very lousy, their expression being that they “have plenty of company at night,” or, among the coarser ones, that “they are all Hitchy-Koo.” This arises from an American song of that name.

Now I must stop. Osbert sends his love. I hope you have good news of darling Kit and darling Dave.

Ever your devoted son,
Bimbo[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. See Longley, The Annotated Collected Poems, 281.
  2. Chronicle of Youth, 317-19.
  3. Letters, 118-122.

Belhaven’s Battery Destroyed; Wilfred Owen and Edward Thomas Ride the Rails Together; Lord Crawford on Lice; Raymond Asquith in the Trenches at Last; Lady Feilding’s Matrimonial News

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.[1]

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.

 

owen november 1915--cropped

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…[2]

 

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 . . .[3]

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

from DoDo[4]

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.”

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary, 107-113.
  2. Private Lord Crawford, 79-80.
  3. Life and Letters, 213-5.
  4. Lady Under Fire, 114-16.

Rudyard Kipling Begins to Come to Terms; Robert Graves a Killer of Small Beasts?; Raymond Asquith Stares Discomfort Blinkingly Down; Another Grenade Accident; Edward Thomas Hesitates Stymied by Two Roads Once Again

First today, sick humor from an act apparently perpetrated–but not reported–by a master of black comedy. Remember Robert Graves not fitting in, and being awkward? This anecdote appears today in Dr. Dunn’s chronicle of the Second Royal Welsh:

A. Company H.Q. was the cellar of a house near Braddel Point. Among the occupants were two much-made-of kittens, and Graves. Graves had reputedly the largest feet in the army, and a genius for putting both of them in everything. He put one on a kitten: it was enough.[1]

Can this episode of kitten-slaughter be true? It must, at least in its coy/horrifying conclusion, be too good (i.e. horrible!) to be true. Graves says nothing about it–but he wouldn’t, then. If any biographies have been written that turn on his accidental, pre-internet crime against cuteness I do not know of them… so we must conclude, with some relief, that this is a clever little counter-jab from the battalion that didn’t always appreciate Graves’s departures from the truth when describing his experiences therein…

 

But this is a time when jests are few. Rudyard Kipling politely, quietly perseveres in hope–or professes to, on behalf of his wife, perhaps in part so that he can pretend–on a level deeper than the public pretense that real hope of Jack’s being a German prisoner may remain–that he has utterly given up hope. Today, in a letter to a military friend stationed in Peshawar, he begins to write his son’s eulogy:

Our boy was reported “wounded and missing” since Sep. 27–the battle of Loos and we’ve heard nothing official since that date. But all we can pick up from the men points to the fact that he is dead and probably wiped out by shell fire.

This is indeed what happened–as far as we know. Not surprisingly, there is heroic embellishment of uncertain provenance:

However, he had his heart’s desire and he didn’t have a long time in trenches. The Guards advanced on a front of two platoons for each battalion. He led the right platoon over a mile of open ground in face of shell and machine gun fire and was dropped at the further limit of the advance after having emptied his pistol into a house full of German m[achine]. g[un].’s. His C.O. and his company commander told me how he led ’em: and the wounded have confirmed it. He was senior ensign tho’ only 18 years and 6 weeks, had worked like the devil for a year at Warley and knew his Irish to the ground. He was reported on as one of the best of the subalterns and was gym instructor and signaller. It was a short life.

I’m sorry that all the years work ended in that one afternoon but–lots of people are in our position and it’s something to have bred a man. The wife is standing it wonderfully tho’ she of course clings to the bare hope of his being a prisoner. I’ve seen what shells can do and I don’t.

We’re pounding on in our perfectly insane English fashion. The boys at the front are cheery enough, (we’ve got rather a lot of artillery) and the Hun is being killed daily. It’s the old story. All the victories were on Napoleon’s side all through and yet he didn’t somehow get further than St. Helena…

Stories are stories, and it would be hard to expect Kipling to be a rigorous skeptic in this manner. But this is–and I damn myself to some unsympathetic hell for writing it–the rude revenge of Kipling’s occasional excesses of the heroic manner. The thin red line of heroes get torn apart, now, at distance. They do not very often die in any attitude but stooping, the instinctive posture of walking into a strong wind assumed by men advancing unprotected into shellfire. Rare to vanishing is the pistol-emptying demise of heroic defiance, except to men nurtured on stories of tough-minded (there’s this word again) heroism, and at a loss to describe the constant reduction of their fellows by unseen assailants…

 

But, as Kipling concludes, the life of the battalion–and the nation–goes on. Let’s see: Kathleen Luard today, with a least-surprising-incident:

Friday, November 12th. Another bomb accident here today–a Highlander officer was brought in at tea-time with a lung wound bleeding badly; if he lives, we shall have him in a long time…[2]

 

Don’t you get the sense that Raymond Asquith hates all this asking-for-comforts? Oh, but he does–and, as we see in the second paragraph, Katherine Asquith has a life to lead as well:

…lots of parcels–2 excellent tins of honey and the Old Gold tobacco. You have been very clever about getting what I want. I said in my last letter that I should never want anything else but as I may have to sleep on the floor from time to time I think it would be a comfort to have one of those circular pink rubber air cushions with a hole in the middle–you know the sort I mean–like a coral necklace, about a foot across or a little more. One’s hip bone fits into the hole and doesn’t get bruised by the floor. There is no hurry about it, but someday when you are passing a shop…

. . . How are you getting on for money? Let me know when you run short and I will try to provide some more. I think that I have still a few pounds in the bank as I have drawn no cheques since I came out here (except for the rates of Bed. Sq. and manage to live pretty well on my bridge winnings and the parcels from home.

Amusing, not least because there is no assumption–not even a hope–that a man could go to war without spending money. Well, not merely a man–an officer of the Grenadier Guards. The officers of the Guards are well provided for, privately…

But the great wit, still innocent of the trenches, is most worried about his comfort. Can such a fussy man be really brave? Probably–or, that is, there’s probably no secure connection between the two traits…

I took the men to bathe in a factory yesterday near here where they have great vats of hot water. It was very well arranged and they all got clean clothes afterwards. There were also real baths for the officers and I thoroughly enjoyed myself in one of them. Today I had my hair cropped by a bar-tender in the neighbouring town in the hope that I might fight on more equal terms against the vermin, the dangers of which are I believe very much exaggerated.

I still have one more day of comfort before facing the mud and water. But I believe we get back every 48 hours to a place where we can change our clothes and sleep under cover of a sort. If so it won’t be so bad . . .[3]

 

In London, Edward Thomas is contemplating a more fundamental distinction of military status:

My dear Robert

I am on my way home again for a day before going into camp on Monday. No one much wants to go into camp in low country in Essex only 12 miles from London, & in the winter, but they say it is a particularly good camp. The huts &c were prepared for the Sportsman’s Battalion & filled up at unusual expense by some of the rich members of the Battalion.

Thomas then returns to the subject of much of his last letter: whether, when, and why he will take a commission. And, when he is not doing his best English Tevye (“On the other hand…”) he is passive, naturally:

The question is whether I ought to stick to the soft job luck has put in my way. I shall let it decide itself, or rather it will decide itself…

He has also been discussing their plan–or Frost’s plan, really–to open a school in New Hampshire…

…Ever since I have been in London with a comfortable room of an evening I haven’t been able to read at all, except technical things. I am sure it is a very great relief. I never was so well or in so balanced a mood. I am quite vain with satisfaction at doing what I did 4 months ago: it is just 4 months. I don’t look ahead with any anxiety. I just look forward without a thought to something, I don’t know what, I don’t speculate what. But I can tell you that the only element I am conscious of when I look forward is New Hampshire. I realize–I think no more about it–that England will be no place for me when all is over though of course things may happen….

Goodbye now. Perhaps I will write some more when I get to Steep. It is a slow & shaky train…[4]

Yes! It has been four months. Well, goodnight then, friends–we’ll write anon after the slow and shaky train home…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The War the Infantry Knew, 166.
  2. Unknown Warriors, 31.
  3. Life and Letters, 212-3.
  4. Elected Friends, 105-6.