We Discover Dorothie Feilding, as She Finds Perfect Peace and Happiness; Wilfred Owen is in Blighty, and Still Abed

Dorothie Feilding can be disarmingly frank, but she is also more than a bit elusive. There was little indication in her letters that her friendship with Charles O’Hara Moore was becoming something more. But during her leave in May things accelerated rather quickly. We’ll move back to the 7th of June, as her letters home pick up again:

Dearest Mr Da…

…it’s so wonderful to feel perfect peace & happiness again it seems almost another life since I have felt really happy. I was scared to death the 1st day wondering if everything would be all right but now I am quite quite sure of it. As for Charles he is sure enough for six!

And then on June 9th, we get a bit more context–or, at least, a context we can imagine applying to the sudden decision to marry: we see Dorothie getting in a last hurrah with her many friends (and brothers) still in Belgium, and then addressing herself to another stratum of needs, desires, and obligations.

Mother mine–

I’ve had the most lovely day. I had plotted with that long suffering man the Bloke, to go & hunt up Tubby & Peter today as they are quite close. It was all settled when at 5 am this morning they suddenly blew in here, bursting with excitement & awfully pleased with themselves. We had the greatest fun & in the afternoon begged an array of nags off the sailors & Mish & all went nagging down the beach & dunes. Then to tea with the sailors & then they went off about six. It was a joy having them & they are both looking frightfully well. Peter said he was due for a drop of leave about July & would try his best to be at Newnham to ‘see me pass away’ so if we can fix it up for 1st week in July that ought to suit everybody.

Mother dearest, I feel it’s almost wrong to be so happy these days. I wish I could bring some happiness into you too to make up for your dear Hughie

Will you be glad I’m not in Flanders getting potted at any more? Mairi Chisholm ran in this morning, looking worlds better, she was so touched at your having her at Newnham & I never thanked you half enough. It was because I know that awful desolation that sweeps over every corner of one’s soul & being that I wanted so to help her a little…

It was so awfully nice of you to have her, & thank you so much dearest.

But a letter of June 12th has an entirely different air. Is Dorothie giving her mother comfort, or is she finding another way to refuse a daughter’s obligation to care for her mother when the men have gone away?

We learn this, and more: lost love has long lain below the surface of her persistent courage and daffy nonchalance over several years of ambulance work in Belgium.

Mother my darling–

I got your sad letter last night, & I have been a selfish beast. It seemed so wonderful to feel at peace & a desire to live once more that I have left you thinking all the help I have been to you these years is at an end. Mother dearest, my being happy won’t come between us for ‘a daughter is your daughter all her life’ & our sympathy is too deep for
anything to change it.

At times I have wished I hadn’t the power to feel things deeply & that the superficial beings are the happiest. But it’s not so–God gives you a bigger soul in exchange for pain & the power to be capable things.

Some time before the war Charles & I were very near caring for each other. Then, for no particular reason, we drifted away imperceptibly back to just friendship. I think it was then I first began to think a great deal of Tom. Then Tom went to India & I never saw him again as I went straight to France. But we wrote to each other & in so doing had both felt a deeper & newer affection growing out of our old camaraderie.

We weren’t engaged but I know we should have been had we met again–we both always thought we would meet again quite soon. Then he died just as my love for him was beginning to waken & the bottom seemed to have fallen out of my life. I didn’t care whether I lived or not so you see it wasn’t very meritorious to be brave. I just threw myself heart & soul into the work out here & I got to love my soldiers like my children. It was a positive need to me, to share the life & dangers of this war with them. My whole soul cried out for it & no other kind of work would have helped me one fraction as much; out here right at the heart & pulse of things one finds realities & greatness. The best of everyone comes out…

This is so different from Lady Feilding’s usual style that it helps bring home the adjustment we must make in our understanding of her substance. Like so many of her male counterparts, a vague desire to “serve” and an interest in adventure were part of her initial motivation to endure hardship and danger; and like a very large subset of those officers, a mixture of personal unhappiness and frustrated love morphed into an abiding love for the men under her care.

And yet of course she is in a very different position, vis a vis the continuing possibilities of Romantic love. “The Front” was nearly an all-male world (and due to both standard social and legal prejudice and the additional problem of the effect of hidden love affairs on military discipline, gay men could seek love only at great risk) and she was a young, attractive heiress. There must have been a constant barrage of interest and pressure, much of it in a style that we would now consider harassment. Some of this she laughed off, much of it must have gone unmentioned. But she does have the option of marrying a soldier…

…the sadness of it all worked its way into my very soul. Of all these men who cared for me, it only made it harder & the last 6 months I had got into a sort of mental stupor. I can’t describe it. Just a great ache & loneliness. You see, God by teaching me suffering had given me a bigger soul capable of far deeper feeling, but had given me nothing else as yet to make up for the suffering.

Feilding’s Catholic faith–and her conviction that her suffering soul indicates a coming reward–set her apart from Vera Brittain, but this next paragraph shows how similar their situations might have been:

I used to try & force myself sometimes to care for people I saw who sincerely loved & needed me, so that I might make them happy. But then at the last minute there was never anything but bare friendship & it couldn’t suffice me & I was afraid to marry with only that.

And Vera Brittain would have, in the deeper subsuming to family loyalty and self-sacrifice, married her brother’s blinded friend. As it happens, the ghostly paths of these so-similar-yet-so-different women crossed, in a way, today, a century back. As Lady Feilding was planning her wedding, Victor Richardson was awarded a posthumous Military Cross for his leadership in the Battle of Arras.

So back, now, to the happier and happy Lady Dorothie Feilding, whom we now seem to know three times better than we did after her first eighty-seven appearances here:

Mon. Ritz Hotel London [18 June]

Mother darling–

We have decided Thursday 5th not the 3rd after all for the funeral if that suits you.

That, of course, would be the wedding.

Could you put up Binkie, Charles & best man? His regimental pals, one or two as really want to come, could come by Irish mail to Rugby. I’ve asked Mellins to let Billy & David be pages. I’m getting a little plain white frock & veil, no train or bridesmaids or fuss, but would love those stugs as minute guardsmen with their white clothes & guards belts.

Any immediate relations of Charles who insist on coming we intend billeting on Aunt A at Holthorpe but haven’t broken it to her yet…

I couldn’t bear the thought of being cremated in London for the amusement of Tit Bits, Mothers Home & Pigeon World

This is quite funny, and apt: Lady Feilding has already been a darling of the popular press–titled young ladies driving ambulances made great copy in 1914–and her wedding will prove irresistible to the nascent tabloids, if not perhaps to the pigeon-fancying community. So she is back to her happy-go-lucky early style as the wedding approaches…

And yet her style did change, there, for a moment, and we got a glimpse of her different feelings. She’s an indifferent speller and a casual aristocrat, and has shown no signs of well-read Edwardian Romanticism–nevertheless she feels things just as deeply as any fulsome, long-tressed provincial young lady.

Back, for a moment to the letter of the 12th:

When I met Charles the other day & he told me how he cared, I felt for the 1st time, that he could awaken my power to love (which I thought had died in me) if he loved me strongly & enough. At the very beginning I was afraid perhaps my loneliness was influencing me unduly & that I had not yet found the real thing. But so very soon I was quite, quite sure everything was right.

This, too, is a war romance:

The big things in Charles had not been stirred before the war. He was inclined to be idle & drift through life without being properly alive. The army & war generally has done to him what it has done to many people including myself. He loves me so much, Mother dearest, & so deeply that he has made me love him; it is not just a wild wave of sentimentality, it is [a] real thing which grows greater every day & is coupled with an infinite trust & confidence in him & in what the future will bring. Please God, he will be some months at home, before all the mental ‘angoisse’ [anguish] begins again. I am feeling so small & stormtossed…

I need just a little bit of peace & happiness so badly Mother dearest…

Yr loving
DoDo[1]

 

Wilfred Owen is also very happy and at peace… and also writing to his mother, and also in need of additional funds for new clothes… after that the similarities drop away precipitously.

Monday, Welsh Hospital, Netley

Dearest of Mothers,

I had your letter this morning—a great delight. This place is very boring, and I cannot believe myself in England in this unknown region… It is pleasant to be among the Welsh—doctors, sisters, orderlies.

And nurses.

They kept me in bed all yesterday, but I got up for an hour & went out today, only to be recaught and put back to bed for the inspection of a specialist…

There was no choice of Hospitals when we were detailed off from Southampton, tho’ I tried to get the Birmingham Train, which those officers who lived hereabouts had to take!

When I get away I shall try to journey through London. There are new clothes I want… Here also we fare much better than anywhere in France. I sleep well and show every sign of health, except in the manipulation of this pencil.

Your own W.E.O. x[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Lady Under Fire, 211-16.
  2. Collected Letters, 470.

Lady Feilding Consoles Mairi Chisholm; Rowland Feilding Prepares to Confer Blessings; Siegfried Sassoon in the Hindenburg Tunnel

Before we go down into the Hindenburg tunnel with Siegfried Sassoon, a brief update on our two far-flung Feilding cousins. Lady Dorothie Feilding remains on duty in Belgium (now a quiet sector of the line) and is a good object lesson, today, on how the expectations of even the most enterprising and fearless women remain very different than those of the men who go to war. She has been working as an ambulance driver since 1914, but–it’s true–she’s had many leaves. Some of these we can chalk up to privilege and her irregular situation. Others seem not so much given to her as taken in order to forestall any accusation of heartless abandonment: as an unmarried woman, her first duty is to console. So one long leave was spent at home after her brother was killed while another was spent accompanying her sister on a mission to retrieve her husband by means of a Swiss-facilitated prisoner exchange.

And now her friends need her support. We spent a little time with Elsie Knocker (now the Baroness T’Serclaes) and Mairi Chisholm in the early days of the war when they moved in precisely the same circles as Lady Feilding. They are still nearby, in the Cellar House which made their name (but the book doesn’t hold a candle to Lady Feilding’s letters):

April 15th

Mother dearest–

The world is a very sad place–I have just been spending today busy up at N which is active, but mostly on our part, & last night with Mairi Chisholm at P in the old cellar house where she is now. The Baroness was away & she was all alone poor kiddie & very unhappy as the boy she had just got engaged to, young Jack Petre,–our cousin in the RNAS [Royal Naval Air Service] was killed 2 days ago in his machine on the Somme. They were only engaged privately so don’t talk about it but I am so sorry for the poor little kid–she feels it dreadfully–all the more because she is a very quiet reserved little soul, & as charming as the Baroness is 3rd rate which is saying a lot.

I am dreadfully sorry about it, he was such a nice boy & had a brilliant career. His machine came down like a stone through engine trouble while flying over the aerodrome & he was killed at once…

Love from Diddles[1]

 

It was just yesterday that Kate Luard, on the Somme, noted how many airmen were coming down. And before we get to the Somme, I want to stop for one more paragraph in Flanders, where Rowland Feilding, like his cousin a Catholic, reports to his wife on a special gift to his battalion of the Connaught Rangers.

April 15, 1917 (Sunday).

Rossignol Estaminet (near Kemmel).

This morning (Sunday) the Chaplain has been going round the Companies, which are scattered, saying Mass, and speaking to the men about your miniature crucifixes. He explained all about these;—how you had arranged to have them blessed by the Pope, specially for this battalion; how Cardinal Bourne had brought them from Rome; and how, next Sunday, when we shall be back behind the trenches, we are to have a Parade Mass, when they will be distributed. And he said many nice things about you… We go back to the front line this afternoon.[2]

 

But our protagonist, for now, must be Sassoon. We left him, yesterday, exhausted but on the brink of action, as another battalion prepared to push the subterranean attack on the Hindenburg Line near Arras. So let’s take a step back and remind ourselves of the tactical situation. If the opening day of the battle of Arras was a great success, tactically, it has become a predictable and awful slog. Having penetrated the German lines, the British troops are now trying to hold their new gains, under-strength and able to resupply only over the devastated ground they’ve gained, while the Germans counter-attack with fresh troops from prepared defenses along direct lines. The Germans seem to be determined, however, not to leave their strongest new fortifications in British hands.

We have heard much of the Hindenburg line, but not yet seen much of this “truly wonderful piece of engineering.” Now we will see not only a portion of the line–two linked trench systems running on either side of a ridge near Arras–but of the tunnel underneath:

Beneath the support trench, at a depth of 40 feet, was a huge dug-out or tunnel some 6 feet 6 inches high, and said to be 2 miles long in this portion. It was fitted down the middle with tiers of bunks, and small living-rooms and store rooms opened off it…[3]

This is the only available field of valor for Siegfried Sassoon, second in command of B Company, 2nd Royal Welch, and temporary detached bombing officer. And the same goes, of course, for “George Sherston” of the Flintshire Fusiliers: let’s jog from diary and history into the vivid colors and tense emotions of fictionalized memoir. In doing so we will also step back a full day, picking up the narrative of last night, when the unit is first led into the tunnel system.

At a midnight halt the hill still loomed in front of us; the guides confessed that they had lost their way, and Leake decided to sit down and wait for day­light. (There were few things more uncomfortable in the life of an officer than to be walking in front of a party of men all of whom knew that he was leading them in the wrong direction.) With Leake’s permission I blundered experimen­tally into the gloom, fully expecting to lose both myself and the company. By a lucky accident, I soon fell headlong into a sunken road and found myself among a small party of sappers who could tell me where I was. It was a case of, “Please, can you tell me the way to the Hindenburg Trench?” Congratulating myself on my cleverness, I took one of the sappers back to poor benighted B Company, and we were led to our battalion rendezvous…

We were at the end of a journey which had begun twelve days before, when we started from Camp Thirteen. Stage by stage, we had marched to the life‑denying region which from far away had threatened us with the blink and growl of its bombardments.[4] Now we were groping and stumbling along a deep ditch to the place appointed for us in that zone of inhuman havoc. There must have been some hazy moonlight, for I remember the figures of men huddled against the sides of communication trenches; seeing them in some sort of ghastly glimmer—(was it, perhaps, the diffused whiteness of a sinking flare beyond the ridge?) I was doubtful whether they were asleep or dead, for the attitudes of many were like death, grotesque and distorted.

Here Sassoon–for it is the remembering mind that is front and center, not the lightly fictionalized character that is “seeing” these things by the uncertain light of the moon (or was it flares?)–breaks in to remind us what is at stake. Or, rather, what war literature of quality really is: something that can strive for truth but never reach it but still not betray it, while history (“it had been multiplied a millionfold,” below) tilts inevitably and asymptotically at impossible, revolving standards of certainty.[5]

But this is nothing new to write about, you will say; just a weary company, squeezing past dead or drowsing men while it sloshes and stumbles to a front line trench. Nevertheless, that night relief had its significance for me, though in human experience it had been multiplied a mil­lionfold. I, a single human being with my little stock of earthly experience in my head, was entering once again the veritable gloom and disaster of the thing called Armageddon. And I saw it then, as I see it now—a dreadful place, a place of hor­ror and desolation which no imagination could have invented. Also it was a place where a man of strong spirit might know himself utterly powerless against death and destruction, and yet stand up and defy gross darkness and stupefying shell fire, discovering in himself the invincible resistance of an animal or an insect, and an endurance which he might, in after days, forget or disbelieve.

Anyhow, there I was, leading that little procession of Flintshire Fusiliers, many of whom had never seen a front line trench before. At that juncture they asked no compensation for their efforts except a mug of hot tea. The tea would have been a miracle, and we didn’t get it till next morning, but there was some comfort in the fact that it wasn’t raining.

It was nearly four o’clock when we found ourselves in the Hindenburg Main Trench. After telling me to post the sentries, Leake disappeared down some stairs to the Tunnel. The company we were relieving had already departed, so there was no one to give me any infor­mation. At first I didn’t even know for certain that we were in the front line. The trench was a sort of gully: deep, wide, and unfinished looking. The sentries had to clamber up a bank of loose earth before they could see over the top. Our company was only about eighty strong and its sector was fully six hundred yards…

This would bring us up to the early morning of today, a century back.

Out in No Man’s Land there was no sign of any German activity. The only remarkable thing was the unbroken silence. I was in a sort of twilight, for there was a moony glimmer in the low‑clouded sky; but the unknown territory in front was dark, and I stared out at it like a man looking from the side of a ship. Returning to my own sector I met a runner with a verbal message from Battalion HQ. B Company’s front was to be thoroughly patrolled at once. Realizing the futility of sending any of my few spare men out on patrol (they’d been walking about for seven hours and were dead beat), I lost my temper, quietly and inward­ly. Shirley and Rees were nowhere to be seen, and it wouldn’t have been fair to send them out, inexperienced as they were. So I stumped along to our right‑flank post, told them to pass it along that a patrol was going out from right to left, and then started sulkily out for a solitary stroll in No Man’s Land. I felt more annoyed with Battalion Headquarters than with the enemy. There was no wire in front of the trench, which was, of course, constructed for people facing the other way. I counted my steps; two hundred steps straight ahead; then I began to walk the presumptive six hundred footsteps to the left. But it isn’t easy to count your steps in the dark among shell holes, and after a problematic four hundred I lost confidence in my automatic pistol, which I was grasping in my right‑hand breeches pocket. Here I am, I thought, alone out in this god forsaken bit of ground, with quite a good chance of bumping into a Boche strong‑post. Apparently there was only one reassuring action which I could perform; so I expressed my opinion of the war by relieving myself (for it must be remembered that there are other reliefs beside battalion reliefs). I insured my sense of direction by placing my pistol on the ground with its muzzle pointing the way I was going. Feeling less lonely and afraid, I finished my patrol without having met so much as a dead body, and regained the trench exactly opposite our left‑hand post after being huskily chal­lenged by an irresolute sentry, who, as I realized at the time, was the greatest danger I had encountered. It was now just beginning to be more daylight than darkness, and when I stumbled down a shaft to the underground trench, I left the sentries shivering under a red and rainy‑looking sky…

A laborious seven-hour trip to fetch ammunition eats up most of the day, which–together with the sleep deprivation he mentions–explains the tone of today’s diary entry:

Got back very wet and tired about 4.30…

Was immediately told I’d got to take command of a hundred bombers (the Battalion is only 270 strong!) to act as reserve for the First Cameronians in to-morrow’s attack. The Cameronians are to bomb down the two Hindenburg Lines, which they tried to do on Saturday and had rather a bad time. We may not be wanted. If we are it will be bloody work I know. I haven’t slept for more than an hour at a time since Tuesday night, but I am feeling pretty fit and cheery. I have seen the most ghastly sights since we came up here. The dead bodies lying about the trenches and in the open are beyond description—especially after the rain. (A lot of the Germans killed by our bombardment last week are awful.) Our shelling of the line—and subsequent bombing etc—has left a number of mangled Germans—they will haunt me till I die. And everywhere one sees the British Tommy in various states of dismemberment—most of them are shot through the head—so not so fearful as the shell-twisted Germans. Written at 9.30 sitting in the Hindenburg underground tunnel on Sunday night, fully expecting to get killed on Monday morning.[6]

This is a man torn between exhaustion and intense anxiety or anticipation. For once I think we can understand why the later account is more vivid and intense than the contemporary document. Elaborate memories will remain, “awful” images that will “haunt” him till he dies. Or, perhaps until these sense memories of revulsion too deep to be dealt with in a hurried diary entry–especially while all intellectual effort must be exerted to keep calm and perform in battle–can be written out, worked into literature.

So, although it is against the rules, I will concede my foreknowledge that Sassoon’s foreboding is incorrect: he will live to write tomorrow, and to re-write today.  The horrors had to be passed by, a century back; they had to be kept in the corner of the eye and stored in deep safe place in the mind. Afterwards, they force themselves back to the surface, and can be considered.

The unmitigated misery of that carrying party was a typical infantry experience of discomfort without actual danger. Even if the ground had been dry, the boxes would have been too heavy for most of the men; but we were lucky in one way: The wet weather was causing the artillery to spend an inactive Sunday. It was a yellow, corpselike day, more like November than April, and the landscape was desolate and treeless. What we were doing was quite unexceptional; millions of soldiers endured the same sort of thing and got badly shelled into the bargain. Nevertheless I can believe that my party, staggering and floundering under its loads, would have made an impressive pic­ture of “Despair.” The background, too, was appropriate. We were among the debris of the intense bombardment of ten days before, for we were passing along and across the Hindenburg Outpost Trench, with its belt of wire (fifty yards deep in places); here and there these rusty jungles had been flattened by tanks. The Outpost Trench was about two hundred yards from the Main Trench, which was now our front line. It had been solidly made, ten feet deep, with timbered firesteps, splayed sides, and timbered steps at intervals to front and rear and to machine‑gun emplacements. Now it was wrecked as though by earthquake and eruption. Concrete strong‑posts were smashed and tilted sideways; everywhere the chalky soil was pocked and pitted with huge shell holes; and wherever we looked the mangled effigies of the dead were our memento mori. Shell‑twisted and dismembered, the Germans maintained the violent attitudes in which they had died. The British had mostly been killed by bullets or bombs, so they looked more resigned. But I can remember a pair of hands (nationality unknown) which protruded from the soaked ashen soil like the roots of a tree turned upside down; one hand seemed to be pointing at the sky with an accus­ing gesture. Each time I passed that place, the protest of those fingers became more expressive of an appeal to God in defiance of those who made the war. Who made the war? I laughed hysterically as the thought passed through my mud‑stained mind. But I only laughed mentally, for my box of Stokes-gun ammunition left me no breath to spare for an angry guffaw. And the dead were the dead; this was no time to be pitying them or asking silly questions about their outraged lives. Such sights must be taken for granted, I thought, as I gasped and slithered and stumbled with my disconsolate crew. Floating on the surface of the flooded trench was the mask of a human face which had detached itself from the skull.[7]

 

And in verse:

The Rear-Guard

(Hindenburg Line, April 1917)

 

Groping along the tunnel, step by step,
He winked his prying torch with patching glare
From side to side, and sniffed the unwholesome air.

 

Tins, boxes, bottles, shapes and too vague to know;
A mirror smashed, the mattress from a bed;
And he, exploring fifty feet below
The rosy gloom of battle overhead.

 

Tripping, he grabbed the wall; saw someone lie
Humped at his feet, half-hidden by a rug.
And stooped to give the sleeper’s arm a tug.
“I’m looking for headquarters.” No reply.
“God blast your neck!” (For days he’d had no sleep.)
“Get up and guide me through this stinking place.”
Savage, he kicked a soft, unanswering heap,
And flashed his beam across the livid face
Terribly glaring up, whose eyes yet wore
Agony dying hard of ten days before;
And fists of fingers clutched a blackening wound.

 

Alone he staggered on until he found
Dawn’s ghost that filtered down a shafted stair
To the dazed, muttering creatures underground
Who hear the boom of shells in muffled sound.
At last, with sweat and horror in his hair,
He climbed through darkness to the twilight air,
Unloading hell behind him step by step.

 

Tomorrow, at last, Sassoon will go into action.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Lady Under Fire, 204-5.
  2. War Letters to a Wife, 167-8.
  3. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 328-9.
  4. The draft, of this section, which we read yesterday, is much more vivid!
  5. Established, by not-an-irony-but-rather-a-historical-coincidence-rooted-in-common-assumptions-rooted-in-social-and-intellectual-history, by German scholars coming out of exactly the same 19th century rationalist milieu that gave us the Prussian General Staff and the Schlieffen Plan.
  6. Diaries, 154-5.
  7. Complete Memoirs, 430-5.

Verey Lights on the Snow, Howitzers on the Ice, and Cold Snow Hours: Winter Wistfulness with Jack Martin, Dorothie Feilding, and Edward Thomas

I’ve dipped into Jack Martin‘s diary rather sparingly since introducing him early this month. It has largely been full of complaints that will be, by now, predictable: the cold, the discomfort, and the attentions of the German artillery. Although Martin does note that the latter has been lavished in “counter-battery” fire on the artillery behind rather than up near the line where his small unit of sappers is stationed–“For this we offer up thanks.”

Today, a century back, he gives us an update from the ranks on the conduct of the war:

31.1.17

Have had a little more snow. The ground is white everywhere and at night time it shows up a remarkable reflection from the Verey lights although they are four or five miles away in a straight line. The signs of the times seem to point towards increased activity on this front in the spring. A great deal of work is being done in this neighborhood in the way of dump-making and laying railway tracks… Of course, nobody knows what it all means–we can only guess.

Have had some lively arguments lately regarding the termination of the war. It is interesting to notice how desires form into opinions. Quite a number of the fellows reckon on March or April seeing the end. I laugh at them and say ‘1929’ but in serious argument I say that the war may last until 1920. So I am looked on as a miserable pessimist but despite all my hopes and desires I cannot imagine the war finishing this year. The people who are running the war are not doing any of the fighting![1]

 

This is both a prime mover of soldier’s gripes and an unavoidable truth. Next up is Dorothie Feilding, with another example of that mixed-message classic, the letter describing a bombardment. On the one hand, it emphasizes to the recipient that she, the writer, is near to deadly danger. On the other hand, this bombardment has, at least, passed by.

31st Jan 17

Well Ma–since you like ’em ‘often’ here’s another! Many thanks for your letters…

The most tremendous heavy firing last night & we were afraid it was the Boche making a stunt across the ice as the inundations are of course frozen. However they keep it broken every day with field guns enough to stop any serious advance over it. The noise turned out to be of the Belgians making however…

We had practically no casualties tho’ the noise was terrific, of course at night things always sound exaggerated & the flash of guns make everything light up. Hope Fritz was bored by the proceeding though I imagine he holds that part of the line as thinly as he possibly can, an old concierge every half mile or so & I bet they are wily old birds to get with an obus.

This, again, is not an original sort of joke, but it is uncommonly well done. One imagines that Lady Feilding would be charmingly condescending (in the Austenian sense) and a little flip upon discovering one of these shell-dodging, trench-holding concierges… but the humor distracts from the frightfulness.

I’ve just been talking to Mairi Chisholm whose farm is close by there & she says the old house was proper on the shake all night from the firing,so was no 14.

It’s awfully odd the way sound carries further inside a house… when there is heavy firing going on a long way away 30 miles or so you hear & feel it awfully plainly in the house. You then go outside to listen & you can hear nothing.

The vibration I suppose up the walls of the foundation in the ground.

Goodbye darling

Yr loving
Diddles[2]

 

Last and not least we have a letter from Edward Thomas to Eleanor Farjeon, his first to her from France. It elaborates on the most interesting aspect of his diary for today, a century back.

Wednesday 31. i. 17

Had to shift our lines in snow. 12 to a tent with 2 blankets each. Ankles bad. Nearly all water frozen in taps and basins. Mess crowded–some standing. Censoring letters about the crossing and the children and ailments etc. at home. Had to make a speech explaining that men need not be shy about writing familiar letters home…[3]

I’ve read a number of comments, from young officers, of the awkwardness of reading one’s men’s letters, but I can’t recall anyone else making a short speech about it in order to allay reservations. I know I make this point quite often, but it’s especially relevant here: Thomas can, perhaps, speak with some authority (or at least empathy) on the matter, since he too must write intimate letters to his family, while so many men in ordinary infantry units are having their letters home read by snobbish subalterns who may be teenagers and half their age.

Or is that worse? Thomas writes the same letters, but as an officer, he is not subject to regular censorship by someone he must see every day, and take orders from. He, who writes endearments to a wife and children, must promise that his reading of other men’s endearments will not be intrusive…

In any event, the letter to Farjeon:

My dear Eleanor I have time to write now, but if I had less time I should have more to write about. There is little to do and still less I can do, because of my ankles. Practically all I do is censoring letters. I try to rest my feet, but the place is extraordinarily uncomfortable and crowded. If I were able to get about I shouldn’t notice it, as there is a big town and harbour close by.

We await orders to go up country. The place is just a clearing house or junction, and all there is to do (besides completing our stores) is to go route marches. If we stay more than a day or 2 I am sure to run into somebody. Yesterday I met one old Artist I had known moderately well.

The worst of this hanging about is that everybody gets on ones nerves, or my nerves. They all worry me and I imagine I worry them, as they spend all the time possible out in the town and leave me to my own mercies.

So far all I have done when I have been alone in this little crowded room, is censoring letters and writing them, and sometimes looking at last month’s Sketch or so. I can’t read, I doubt even if I can write—I am practically certain I can’t, except a brief diary. I was interrupted by a boy going through a list of games and asking if I played any of them, which I didn’t.

I had better not go on with this negative news. Tea in —– cost me 2 frs; for I did take the train in yesterday and did my ankle no good by it.

The crossing was easy, and the departure and arrival beautiful and unforgettable. There were some cold slow hours to be passed and still are. I daresay what makes me not very cheerful is all the things to be seen and noticed and commented on and just undergone. I shall know more what I am seeing and feeling later on.

Confirmation of his hopes and intentions regarding his diary and letters… and a reminder that any really good poet is committed to honesty. Thomas strives, and doubts, and scours his own soul as often as possible.

We may move soon or late. We do not know. And I may not receive any letters till we have moved up into position. There is a notion that that position will be midway between the two I thought of. I can’t say more.

Tears doesn’t rhyme with care, does it? So I shan’t make it—but let me know when the verses begin to arrive.

This, cleverly enough, provides the answer key–by referencing his own verses, which Farjeon is now editing–to the above hinting about his location. It would be hard to miss the word-choice of “Harbour” as a reference to Le Havre–one of the only likely places of disembarkation, anyway. But the “Tears” bit tips off Farjeon that Thomas believes that his battery will be sent to Armentières. Sadly, even a much more obvious censor-evasion (obvious, and dubious, since he is spending hours of the same day censoring the men’s letters) in a letter to his wife Helen went unrecognized:

…he had written to Helen, ‘What do you think of “Armed Men in Tears” as the title of my next book?’ When we compared our letters Helen said, ‘I think it’s a very bad title, don’t you, Eleanor?’

A rare point scored from the ever-abnegating Eleanor on the ever-gentle Helen.

But back to the letter. Poor Eleanor: not only does she love him but come always second to his wife, but she also helps him incessantly and comes always second (of fifth, or tenth) to his greater poetic friend.

…I wonder would you make sure that the dedication

TO ROBERT FROST

doesn’t get left out.

I had your Goodbye just before I left. No more goodbyes now. I shall begin to look ahead perhaps, if I ever do look ahead again. Long it is since I did so. Yours ever

Edward Thomas[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Sapper Martin, 49-50.
  2. Lady Under Fire, 197-8.
  3. War Diary (Childhood), 158.
  4. Farjeon, Edward Thomas..., 246-7.

Happy Birthday to Edward Brittain; Lady Feilding’s Early Reviews Are In

First, today, a self-celebratory birthday note from Edward Brittain to his sister Vera.[1]

November 30th

Lawks! Fancy being 21. How ridiculously old![2]

 

And, well, that’s about the most exciting thing that’s going on today, a century back.

We haven’t heard from Alf Pollard, the blunt and blustering hero-memoirist of the HAC, for a very long time, as he has been both away from the front lines and disinclined to kit out his book with specific dates. But today, after many months in England and then at a base camp in France, he was ordered back to his battalion. We can, I believe, expect some action from him come Spring.[3]

 

And in Belgium, there is… not much more going on. Only Lady Feilding off to see a fellow glamorous hero of the 1914 ambulances about the shockingly shoddy book by Elsie Knocker–or the Baroness T’Serclaes, as she has become.

30th Nov 1916

Mother dear

Jelly is prancing round in circles in the kitchen, finding fault with the porridge, the bacon, me, Charles, Winkie, Helene, the war so I have come in to write to you — so it has done someone a good turn anyway!

How go things with you? I got your copy of the review of Mrs K’s book last night. Reviewers are odd people, it is impossible to know what they will praise or crab. Get the book yourself & read it & tell me how it strikes you as a casual reader? I of course may be prejudiced, but the whole tone of it disgusts me.

I am going up to see Mairi Chisholm today, so will see what she thinks of it…

Yr loving DoDo[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. This is a correction of the original post which, embarrassingly, mistook Edward's letter for Vera's.
  2. Letters From a Lost Generation, 295.
  3. Fire-Eater, 163.
  4. Lady Under Fire, 185.

Lady Dorothie Feilding, Baby-snatcher; The Loss of the Britannic

We will spend most of today catching up with the irrepressible Dorothie Feilding, but first, a quick note of a not-so-near miss that affected two of our writers.

Vera Brittain had sailed out, Malta-bound, aboard her enormous namesake, the HMHS Britannic, a sister ship of the famed Titanic since converted for use as a hospital ship. And after Vera left the Britannic at Mudros in Greece, Vivian de Sola Pinto, very ill after service in Egypt, was brought aboard and sailed home to England. The Britannic returned to the Mediterranean, and today, a century back, it hit a mine near the Greek island of Kea and sunk in a little less than an hour. All but thirty of the more than 1,000 aboard were saved.

When news of the sinking reached Vera Brittain on Malta, it “galvanised the island like an electric shock.” A week later, survivors will reach the island’s hospital complex, and Vera went to visit “a young, cheerful Sister who had made friends with Betty and myself on the voyage to Mudros… and found her completely changed–nervous, distressed and all the time on the verge of crying. From her they heard the tale of the sinking, including the exemplary stoicism of the head Matron and the sudden loss of two boats and several medical officers in the last moments of the evacuation, when the ship rolled and sank. For all that the Titanic had gone down in similar fashion, four years before, and in peacetime, the loss of such a huge ship–and a hospital ship, carrying sick and wounded (including, Vera tells us, both an officer ordered on “a sea voyage for the benefit of his health” and “a stewardess who had been on the Titanic”)–still stands out against the ordinary carnage of the war, a shockingly destructive disaster. (Wikipedia is of the opinion that the Britannic is “currently the largest passenger ship on the sea floor.”)[1]

 

Let’s jump back nine days, now, so that we can see the short arc of the Saga of Mr. Kemp play out in Lady Feilding’s letters home to her mother.

Mother dear–

…A new man for us arrived yesterday, one Kemp, to replace Newall who had to return. He seems nice, but we are sorry to lose Newall who was a very dependable chap & hard worker. He was to take his ambulance with him, but the other day presented it to me, for the corps, as a souvenir of the Mil medal which was nice of him as it saves us getting another car, & it is quite a new one…

Two days later, we have an update:

Mother dear–

…Taking Da round seems to have given him palpitations somewhat, but he must have been thrilled to the core at seeing a real live tank. It is more than I have, which is a pity as they would roll along beautifully in this country.

Jelly made me laugh this afternoon as he took the new member out for a run in the car & made him drive a sort of exam. The poor new man is not a very good motorist yet, very new to it all & easily put in a fuss. So Jelly not finding the high road interesting enough as a test, at once takes him up into N & up byroads where he got proper shelled & the fear of God put in him. All this as Jelly explained carefully was ‘just to give him confidence’.

Personally I think he will have many nightmares tonight instead & will probably die of fright or the palsy before
morning…

Again the chatty tone belies a shrewdness about how people work. Dr. Jellett’s subscription to one theory of courage/confidence seems to blind him to this particular man’s psychological state. Dorothie Feilding is not one for systematic applications, but she clearly sees that throwing this particular nervous man into the thick of it may not be the best idea…

The next two letters discuss other happenings–a sudden return of the German heavy artillery to their parts of Belgium; sanguine–in both senses–reports from “The Bloke”[2] on the last fighting on the Somme; and, of course, pet-related faits divers. But I will include this bit of aristocratic Christmas planning:

I have been spending all the morning making up parcels for soldiers of clothes. It’s too appallingly cold for words this week, so it has fallen just the right time. No time for a real letter.

Yes, I will come home about 10th or 12th of Dec & stay over Xmas. I would rather be at home & help all you people, so don’t change any plans on my account. The only orgy I ache for is an odd hunt or two. P’raps with suction & the grace of God I may be able to do so. I only had a half-day all last season.

A bit ’ard.

Goodbye dears all

Yr loving DoDo

No further news of Mr. Kemp. But yesterday, another bomb dropped–or, rather, a book–pushing all such quotidian thoughts aside. We haven’t heard from Elsie Knocker in quite a long time… in part because, though a century aloof from such rivalries and striving for the critical historian’s carefully balanced critical perspective, I agree with Lady Feilding on the merits of Mrs. Knocker’s production, however much I am unable to endorse the past subjunctive remedy she will now suggest…

20th Nov
Mother dear–

Mrs Knocker has published a damnable book called ‘The Cellar house of Pervyse’. Thank God she has left me out of it practically, but a lot of ‘Munco’ about it & people will undoubtedly associate one with that type of woman. Get it, read it, see if you don’t think it the worst taste you ever saw. It makes one sick of being a woman & I am so sorry she has made little Mairi Chisholm look a fool too.

She should have been held under water for 48hrs when young…

And so I suppose it is a bit of an anti-climax to reach today, a century back, and the denouement of their “new man”‘s brief stay with their ambulance unit. Taken all together, however, this run of letters can be read as an off-balance but telling stroke for women and feminism…

21st Nov 1916
Flanders

Col Da dear–

I have just received a most compromising wire, which will show the sort of reputation I now have.

‘Lady D F etc.–Beseech you return my son immediately – Kemp’

I think it is quite priceless & so does everyone else & I am being called a babysnatcher!! Must have caused quite a flutter in the telegraph offices en route. The reason of it all is a youth called Kemp who came to replace Newall & is somewhat a rabbit. He came in for a good few obus at once & Jelly took him up to teach him how to reverse a car under heavy fire at N as he explained ‘just to give the lad confidence’. This put the lid on it & the lad wrote home to Papa his nerves & health wouldn’t stand it hence frenzied wires from his parent birds — about 3 a day! We explained he was under a military contract for 6 months & must stick it. He is already improved & I think a little hard work & being shot at as often as possible will soon buck him up. Will report progress anyway! Of course, he may pass away under the experiment, but as in this case ‘it wouldn’t really matter’ that great Flanders maxim holds good…

Again, here we have silliness and a sense of madcap haphazard, but that’s her style–the substance is serious business. She thought that throwing Kemp into the deep end was a bad idea, but now, after a week under the steadying influence of less acute danger, he is improving. And behind the light humor and the sense of a (highly) irregular ambulance unit comes the bureaucratic reality of the war and the black humor: this is a letter to mother that makes it quite clear that telegrams from daddy won’t alter reality–there’s a war on, and a contract, and the inscrutable providence of the German obus

We’ll end the run of letters with the same note on which it began. Lady Feilding laughs it off as often as she can, but she’s a celebrity, the first woman to win the military medal:

Funny old bird with whiskers all over his face, even round his eyes, pranced in here today, & wanted to do a painting of me for the official trench ‘Album de Guerre’, as he is told off for the purpose, being a distinguished artist. In addition to being in the album I was to have the great privilege to be then sold for 1d on a coloured p[ost]card.

You will be surprised to hear I wasn’t taking any, only it took me from 9am to 10.30 to convince Whiskers that I really meant it. He thought it most odd & we eventually parted with many deep bows, & expressions of untold
mutual admiration! I quite expect him to be in again tomorrow & go thro’ it all over again…

…am coming home mid Dec for over Xmas. Will you please send this on to Mother as I haven’t time to write to both.

Ever so much love Da dear

Yr ever after if somewhat eccentric darter

Diddles[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Testament of Youth, 312-3.
  2. A character I have mostly clipped out of Dorothie's letters--we can't read everything!--with increasing regret.
  3. Lady Under Fire, 179-182.

Dorothie Feilding Returns, After a Loss, and Ready for Leave; Edward Thomas’s “How at Once”

Edward Thomas is sick again today, the after-effects of another inoculation. Which means, of course, a poem. But first, a long-overdue update. We haven’t seen Lady Dorothie Feilding for many months, and much has happened.

Her letters home from Belgium ceased suddenly in June, a bad sign that I ignored, busy with the Somme. But it was an earlier debacle that slashed into her family: her brother, Hugh R.C. Feilding, an officer aboard the HMS Defence, had died at the Battle of Jutland. His obsolete cruiser had been ripped to shreds by a German battleship on the evening of May 31st, and sunk within a few minutes of the beginning of the engagement.

Dorothie went home immediately, and stayed for almost a month. Then she was back in Belgium, then back to Britain on an errand (it seems she went to escort over a friend named “Winkie”) and once more back to her position as a driver and orderly with a volunteer ambulance unit. It’s a long pause, and it’s jarring to introduce her brother, and his death, into a void of many weeks, and then hop right back into the saddle, reading cheerful and silly letters home that seem hardly any different than those of the spring.

But life goes on, and many thousands more have died in the interim.

And now that I have skimmed through a number of them, I realize that I have missed Lady Dorothie’s daffy letters… if anyone ever takes up the project of rewriting Wodehouse for an all-female cast, I hope they borrow liberally from Diddles’ lingo.

Back on July 24th, she gives us an update on two other heroines of 1914.

Mairi came into brekker today–looking a great duck. She’s a dear child, took years off Jelly’s life by telling him that Baronne 3rd class or Mrs Knocker is coming to take a house in our town near no 14! Sensation–as I foresee her living on our doorstep with a train of lousy Belgians avec.

I can’t get enough of this stuff. She has been decorated for courage under fire and is one of the few British noblewomen who, a century back, can fix a broken ambulance and drive the wounded back under fire, in the dark, without lights. And she sounds like a demented version of Eloise, with all the Western Front for her Plaza. A few more excerpts:

30 July 1916
Mother dearest–

Jelly [the doctor and unit commander] has been in the sulks all day because Winkie hardboiled his egg for breakfast. He really is an awful fool & very unbearable to associate with when he has these ‘gorry’ fits…

The beloved old Admiral Ronarc’h came in to see me this morning, as nice as ever. He really is a dear old boy & Winkie has fallen in love withhim too! It is becoming quite a habit with her I am afraid. Today I took Winkie up to see the Belgian field hospital & we took all the blesses sweeties so they were delighted to see us, as we left them hiding half melted bullseyes under their pillows we are bound to be popular with the nurses….

1st Aug 1916
Mother dearest–

I have just eaten a vast egg & some chocolate creams for brekker & somehow the two don’t mix & I am feeling ghastly sick. I feel nothing but a bomb would bring me back to my normal state. My tummy feels under my armpits & I wouldn’t be surprised if Winkie had to operate – God help me!

I must go & do the cars’ guts now p’raps that will help me to forget my own so no time for a real letter…

2 August
Mother dearest–

Do you love me? Enough to give me anything I mean? Because while I was away the few remaining face towels fell to bits in my absence & were annexed by Jelly & Helene as dishcloths & motor rags…

So piping hot these last days that last night we couldn’t bear it any more & took our supper down to the beach for a picnic. The most lovely sunset & lights & hot sand & Winkie & I paddled & got just soaked up to our fat necks then coming home it was very funny for everyone except Winkie. She was sitting with Charles who seemed as good as gold & just before we got to 14 she diskivered he had been quietly but firmly chewing her tweed skirt to blazes.

“Charles,” alas, is not the aforementioned Belgian admiral, but the dog.

There was nodink from the hem of it to about a foot from her waist & he was just beginning on her jersey! Luckily dusk was falling & we got her out of the car & sideways into the house on all fours without outraging the decent feelings of the gendarme on sentry opposite.

We then went to bed & Winkie cut the remains of her skirt with nail scissors into 2 intensely dinky bath mats for her & me to stand on after our tubs. RIP skirt.

By the time we get to August 4th, Winkie, Dot and Charles are being inspected, and their friends decorated, by “George & P of Wales.”

It was a very fine affair & all the men mustered in a little review looked very well & were very pleased with themselves…  I was the only non-official onlooker. George came & spoke to me very nicely & said some kind things about my work & my being a good girl & about Da too…

Altogether a great show & Fritz never threw anything at anyone which was rather disappointing. It would have caused a great sensation to have had a proj in the middle of the tea party wouldn’t it?

And Lady Feilding can catch us up on one thing. None of the writers I skimmed through to write the post for August 4th mentioned the second anniversary of the declaration of war, and so I forgot to mention it myself. But thanks for reminding us, Lady D.

4 Aug

Da dear – just think – it’s the 3rd year of the war today & the end seems as far away as ever…

And by yesterday, a century back, the Feildings’ recent loss re-intrudes, quielty:

9th Aug 16

Mother dearest–

When you send me the [memorial] cards of Hughie’s would you please send me half a dozen, as I should like some to give to people like the Gen & those of the sailors here that knew him well.

Finally, we are up to date, today:

10 Aug
Mother darling–

Jelly is going on leave sometime between 23rd Aug & end of the month for 10 days so when he does I will come along too. I am afraid I don’t feel I can take longer than that as since the end of March I have been away far more than I have been here, & there are 2 members waiting to take leave until Jelly & I return but even that little bit will please you I hope & you can save up gadgets for me & make me work as hard as ever you like. Tell Peter to come down when I am there if he can. When I know the date for sure I will let you know. I feel rather guilty at going on leave so soon, but it’s better to go when Jelly does as regards the work.

Awful haste–dam it–God bless you.

Yr loving Diddles[1]

 

Lastly today, Edward Thomas has written another short poem. It’s a seasonal poem, a poem of parting, a natural poem for a naturalist, be his course ever so firmly plotted toward further training courses, and neither combat nor travel looming any time soon. But then again those swifts depart from England for many months; and next May is a long time to ponder. The arc of seasons, and campaigns, is long.

How at Once

How at once should I know,
When stretched in the harvest blue
I saw the swift’s black bow,
That I would not have that view
Another day
Until next May
Again it is due?

The same year after year–
But with the swift alone.
With other things I but fear
That they will be over and done
Suddenly
And I only see
Them to know them gone.

References and Footnotes

  1. Lady Under Fire, 142-57.

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.

A Near Miss and a Disappointing Explosion for Lady Feilding

All quiet (or unusually inconsequential) on the British Front, today, so we catch up with Lady Feilding in Belgium. It has been a calm transition back from her extended sick leave, with few acute casualties coming into the Monro Ambulance Corps’ aid post. This extreme northwest sector of the line is very quiet now. It’s too close to the sea to permit dreams of a strategic breakthrough, so attritional dueling is all that goes on–they will not see anything like the massive casualties of the bitter last spasms of the fall fighting a year ago. But today,a century back, Dorothie Feilding did revisit the friends (or friendly rivals, or, er, rivals who usually did a decent job of feigning friendship) of those days, calling on Mairi Chisholm and Elsie Knocker, who had been back since September in near by Pervyse, running an aid post. The two fast friends had had their differences with the flighty and socially high-flying Lady Feilding, but it seems that bygones–now that all three of them have received the Order of Leopold–have become bygones.

Nov 5th 15

Mother dear–

A quiet day today, went up to the hospital to see the blesses, lunched with Mairi & Mrs K up there too. It appears poor dears they nearly had a fit yesterday. The English girl was wounded & the Belgian lady killed & a Belge dashed up to Mrs K & Mairi to tell them I had been killed so they tore down in a car poor dears in an awful state.

I am glad to say the 2 English girls are going on well. They were only touched & escaped by a miracle.

There will be more on Mrs. Knocker and Miss Chisholm anon–there are reasons, it seems, for the renewal of friendly terms among the former comrades.

But Dorothie Feilding–as ever, and so hearteningly–is more interested in adventure than social reporting. For her mother she makes allowances, but it is clear she would rather be writing about blowing stuff up than misunderstandings at luncheon:

Yesterday a lot of shelling too… but quieter today. There were no blessés & we met Duforge… blowing up a mine–a German one come in on the coast by itself; it appears it is a new variety, they haven’t seen before so it was treated with great reverence.

Blown up with gun cotton but disappointing because tho’ half filled with about a barrel full of gun cotton squares… it had got overdamp from long exposure in the water. Result just the case blew up & scattered the gun cotton all over the shore but it didn’t go off with a magnificent burst as we expected but only a halfhearted affair.

…I have borrowed Gurney’s gramophone & Jelly has gone on the night round so it’s nice & quiet & I have been enjoying myself with a young concert of records that Gervase Elwes & Hubert Eisdell sent me of their songs such good ones too–it’s charming to hear something nice.

(There are no 1915-era recordings of these two–both prominent tenors–so the rules prevent me from guessing what exactly Lady Feilding has on her playlists… but youtube does kick in some stuff from the 20’s if you would like an audio supplement to this overwritten war…  And yes, absolutely: Gervase Elwes was the great-grandfather of the fourth [fifth?] Dread Pirate Roberts.)

I must go to bed now–goodnight–DoDo


 

Strangely–and slapdash dating rather than an (extremely) odd failure of memory is likely the culprit here, although the editors are silent–Dorothie now repeats some of the same stories in another letter dated the very same evening:

5th Nov 15 night
Mother dear–

Just got two very nice letters from you–very many thanks for your prayers from me on All Souls, darling…

Today & yesterday, tragedies at Fumes: yesterday they shelled the town & a soldier was killed not far from 14. Today a lot of aeroplane bombs in our district again & hit slightly two English ladies (Red X) newly  arrived who have been feeding the poor Belgian refugee kiddies at a ‘lean to’ school some 500 yds from here. They aren’t bad I believe… But a Belgian lady working with them at the same work was killed I am sorry to say.

One of the mysteries of the war–or perhaps one of the strange proofs of the common human stubbornness when it comes to “home”–is the fact that the civilian population continues to live within a few miles of the front. This was a near miss that even the lighthearted Lady Feidling can’t contemplate without blanching:

…It was very fortunate none of the bombs today fell on the children’s school. As It was, Helene tells me the poor mites were scared to death & screamed & thought the end of the world had come. It was terribly near to the school & would have been ghastly had it been hit.

I have been giving lots of the kiddies scarves & things… They are so bucked poor little souls. The next door to us is a family of Mama & her married daughter living together in a wee cottage; population is nine kids under 14!!  …The husband was killed at Fumes & they are terribly poor so I do what I can for them. Tell Bettie if there are any old children’s warm clothes at home, jerseys etc they would be so grateful for them…

Much love dears

Goodnight DoDo[1]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Lady Under Fire, 110-13.

A Gruesome Homecoming for Knocker and Chisholm; Hulse on Promotion and Canadian Informalities; Plowman on Life in the RAMC

Mairi Chisholm and Elsie Knocker returned to Pervyse yesterday, a century back, following home leave. It was the first leave they had had since they had been decorated by the King of the Belgians–an event covered in several English papers–so they returned to sacks full of fan mail.

And today, as they settled in, heavy artillery hit the Belgian lines just in front. Five soldiers were brought in, all badly wounded, two with shattered heads. These two died almost immediately, and Mairi, going through one of their overcoats for personal effects, discovered that its owner was nineteen–her own age–and only two days into his first tour in the trenches. She also discovered the congealing brain matter of his companion, driven into the wool of the coat by the force of the explosion that killed them both.[1]

 

Sir Edward Hulse has been promoted to captain, and he reflects here not only on red-tape and its constraining effect on the career of real fighting men but also on issues of broad contemporary concern: Canadian character and violent children’s games.

Billets, 4-3-15

My Dearest Mother,

Many thanks congrats. Am now covered with “stars,” and feel quite heavy about the shoulders from sheer weight of metal. I have been unable to write during last two days, as we have moved…

The temporary rank has to appear as such, but is as good as the full rank, and it is only a matter of red tape and two more notices in the Gazette to get the full promotion…  I have had the Coy. for three months now, and hope to be antedated some time, but one can never tell, as the way the Army List, Gazettes and promotions are being worked is beyond the ken of even the most astute and learned red-tapist that ever trod. Prisoners, interned officers, ensigns who have not been out, have done no duty at all at home, and every sort of person has been promoted; however, we do feel out here that we have deserved ours and worked a bit for it!

…Now for news, confidential; we have been relieved by the Canadians. We have moved to billets a bit further South and about ten miles behind the firing-line; great comfort, nice people, an excellent family in this farm who have eight kids, all of whom parade up and down, all day long, with pitch-forks, saws, hoes and axes, shouting “Allemands! Pooff!” and accompany the above remarks with a fierce lunge; how they have not had a sad accident with the improvised weapons, I do not know, as the two axes are considerably larger than the young French patriots who carry them!

We cannot say for certain what they are going to do with us, but I should think probably a few days’ rest, perhaps a long one, even, and keep us in readiness to move to any threatened point. On the other hand, we may be going to take over trenches again, further down, and at a more important point…

Hulse is one of the aristocratic regulars whose prejudices I enjoy exposing and fretting over–the snobbish bastards!–and here comes another round. This time, however–and although though I still find his politics to be more than a century backward–the perspective of the military professional lends interest to his apparent narrow-mindedness. It’s true that there are significant cultural differences even among the British dominions–will they be all be able to fight well together, and in the same fashion?

Hulse is amused by the informality of the Canadian troops, and impressed by their physical robustness,

But you cannot get away from the fact that discipline cannot be grafted on to men who have been brought up to regard no one but themselves as master, and that every man is as good as another. They will fight like demons, no doubt, hand to hand, and in the excitement of a charge; but given the filthy conditions without any of the glamour, or
excitement, it is very questionable whether the machine, without iron discipline, will not go to pieces. But they are keen, excellent at scouting, nothing they don’t know about taking care of themselves, and practical common sense, and have a large percentage, I believe, of country-bred men, which means a great deal out here. They can shoot, and one and all mean business.

These are all, it should be clear, preconceived notions–prejudices confirmed by an acquaintance of hours, rather than observations made over long mutual service. And they are mostly wrong. Iron discipline is useful for keeping men in miserable situations, but that sort of top-down harshness will degrade the morale of most units to the point where any active fighting will be performed very poorly. The stick might prevent a defense from collapsing, but there are no successful attacks without some sort of carrot.

The Regulars of the British Army may be a partial exception to this general rule–there were many bold assaults in its then-recent history led by officers by Hulse and followed up well by the men they had ordered whipped for petty crimes. But most of the regular battalions who were used to the lash and other harsh punishments have already been hollowed out by casualties, and the volunteer replacements were much less likely to treat “iron discipline” from a “master” as all in a day’s work. The egalitarian Canadians will do very well in miserable conditions…

To make matters worse, Hulse takes his conception of the Canadian as wild man of the woods in a grim direction:

May the Good Lord so order the councils of our higher commanders that the Canadians get on to German soil, well in the front line, and I think we shall be able to show the Huns what Louvain, Rheims and Malines really mean!

Yes, well–we’ll get to the revenge atrocities when we get to them.

Ironically, the most famous Canadian-related atrocity will be an apocryphal story of a Canadian soldier who is crucified by diabolical German troops–the mythical/religious flip side to the Angels of Mons… this too we will get to in good (bad) time.

Hulse tacks back from his hopes of vengeance to a report on how exactly his battalion is amusing itself when not in trenches.

We have had yet another draft… which means an addition during the last ten days of 4 officers, and 370 men…

We had a concert before we left the old place, and found some perfectly astounding talent in the new drafts… one Jamieson, a private, who has joined for the war… is the nearest thing to a gentleman possible, and has one of the best tenor voices I have ever heard, and plays the piano the very best!

The general tone and level of our concerts rises, as we get more fresh men, recruited from higher circles, and the mixture of the better class song, with a few efforts of the very small minority of old serving-soldiers and rough and tough nuts, whom we have left, is very curious…

Curious indeed. We’ll keep an eye on entertainment at the front, as the mixing of men from all over the social and geographic maps of Britain begins to prefigure the coming age of mass entertainment.

We’ll skip Hulse’s queries about the Dardanelles action and his fulminating against “dirty” trades unions–the man can cover a lot of ground in a single letter to mater, and we have one more letter to read today.

Ever your loving,

Ted[2]

 

From the militant and conservative aristocracy to a middle-class pacifist: Max Plowman wrote again today, a century back, to his friend Janet Upcott, this time with a light-hearted description of his life in training in the RAMC Ambulance Corps.

…You know I’m going to be a sort of First Maid to the Injured if the 4th F[ield]. A[mbluance]. ever see any? “Waggon Orderly” is the technical name.I washed out the Ambulance Motor this afternoon to be ready for a great inspection by the D.D.M.S. (Deputy Director of Medical Services) & a thorough-going Field Day tomorrow, & in the performance of my duties (as the Hairdressers’ Journal would say) I found that the particular car I have charge of was presented by John Galsworthy. Which is all very fitting, I think…

Plowman goes on to describe himself–and here the humor seems to mix with legitimate class discomfort–as a “resplendent combination of a Pickford’s-boy-railway-porter-barmaid + mother’s help.”

Heaven preserve the poor wounded!

…Blast the army & the war.–I wish I could come home at once & drag you all from your respective seats of duty & compel you to take me for a walking tour of the Lakes. When it’s all over, will you come? It would be something to look forward to. I cherish the though we might get it in this year… [3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Atkinson, Elsie and Mairi Go to War, 100-1.
  2. Hulse, Letters Written From the English Front in France, 88-92.
  3. Bridge into the Future, 34-5.

Lady Feilding Gets a Tin Cross from a Dear Old King; Robert Graves Turns the Other Cheek; The Nursing Sister Spots a Flower; Edward Thomas is Still Mulling the Next Step

Oh dear but we have an amusing comparison today: of the silly, well-staged candor of private letters with the “limpid, candid” insipid artificiality of [mild spoilers visible at this link!] middlebrow, mid-war semi-autohagiography, and also–avert the snobbery!–of the true aristocratic style with the breathlessness of the celebrity-spotting prole.

Elsie Knocker had not been best pleased when she learned that the news of their impending decoration had caused an immediate scramble to secure the same award for Dorothie Feilding. Lady Feilding seems to have kept demurely quiet, but Knocker was peeved that the “great yarn” that she her rival already been honored was being spread about. Well, sorry Elsie, but now it’s legit:

Furnes

Feb 3rd 1915

Mother dear

‘Old Albert’ gave me a tin cross today which I am putting up for auction – what offers? My tummy looks grand with a shiny thing plastered in the middle![1]

The dear man was very kind & said many nice things… & was much amused & said he would Ieave us as we were.

Bless you all–Fumes very quiet now…

All rot about our ladies being moved from Pervyse…

Yrs ever in the deuce of a hurry

Diddles[2]

Pretty funny stuff. And to give Lady Dorothie her due, there doesn’t seem to be a reciprocal ill-will against the slightly-more-dashing (and much more common) Knocker and Chisholm lined up in their knocked-together soldiers’ blouses. She seems to respect “our ladies” in Pervyse, and if she is either jealous of their more forward position or ashamed of her less dangerous post in Furnes she does not let on.

But is she blithe about a king pinning a medal on her–a major award for gallantry bestowed on very few women–because that’s the cool way to play it, or because she knows, having several brothers in the service and several months quite close to the trenches, that, unusual as her gallantry is, others earn their medals through greater danger and suffering?

Well, the former at least… but click back to see how Knocker and Chisholm chose to remember their investiture, and, well… we’ve got ourselves a pretty darn big difference in the matter of “how to describe getting decorated.”

 

Robert Graves wrote to Eddie Marsh today, a century back:

3rd February 1915

Dear Eddie,

No, I’m not annoyed, why should I be? I always try to look at myself objectively and dispassionately because this helps me to get the full flavour of romance out of life: so now I can see that it would be most extraordinary if my technique wasn’t obsolete. Influences at work–first, in my reading, the immense preponderance of the ‘classical’ over the modern; second, my old father, a dear old fellow who in young and vinous days used to write with some spirit and very pleasantly; but now his inspiration has entirely petered out. He was hand in glove with Tennyson and Ruskin and that lot and has been truing to mould me in the outworn tradition, and tho’ I have struggled hard against this as you must see, the old Adam is always cropping up unnoticed…

A boy like me who has–though George Mallory lectured me on the danger of this assumption–been so forlornly sui generis at home, school and now again in the regiment, would have to be a Hercules to struggle successfully against parents, uncles, schoolmasters, and the books he reads.

Ooh: self-knowledge, or a canny, bluffing simulacrum? Graves is an inveterate tale-teller and self-dramatizer, and of course he is writing here with the express purpose of showing himself able to accept and react to a potential patron’s potent criticism. (Graves, you may remember, had arranged to meet with Marsh just after New Year’s and left him some of his own verse. On January 22nd, he had nagged, and although Marsh’s reply is lost, it was plainly both friendly enough and highly critical of Graves’ 19th century style.)

But for all that, this is an honest letter, and it does help balance our sense of Graves. Although he is socially foolish enough to have spent months as the standout producer of faux pas at the Royal Welch depot, as a young writer he seems, at least, to have a pretty good handle on his position and his influences. And he is not shy about his ambitions and his desires:

However, I am still in my teens and when this ridiculous war is over, I will write Chapter II at the top of the new sheet and with the help of other young Georgians to whom I trust you will introduce me, will try to root out more effectively the obnoxious survivals of Victorianism.

No, I am not annoyed! The obsolete technique was responsible for the ‘bugaboo about’ which you dislike. It was a laboured effect after the pouting effect that suits the tone of the poem: I won’t try it again.

Well, au revoir, till after the War, if the Gods are kind: I know I am a prig but three years’ misery at Charterhouse drove me into it, and I am as keen as you for the regeneration of poetry.

Yours always

Robert[3]

 

A short entry from the Nursing Sister, today, but it’s got a gratuitous sock-mention, and, more importantly, perhaps, it begins what will become–this year and every year of this project–a several-months-long exercise in human hopefulness and literary traditionalism: the Search for Signs of Spring.

Wednesday, February 3rd.—Moved on last night, and woke up at Bailleul. Some badly wounded on the train, but not on my half.

On the other beat, beyond Rouen, the honeysuckle is in leaf, the catkins are out, and the woods are full of buds. What a difference it will make when spring comes. On this side it is all canals, bogs, and pollards, and the eternal mud.

We found pinned on a sock from a London school child, “Whosoever receives this, when you return conqueror, drop me a line,” and then her name and address![4]

 

And finally, Edward Thomas wrote to Eleanor Farjeon today. After a long paragraph discussing what should be included in the anthology he is working on–to be published later this year as This England–Thomas gets to the personal matters that are weighing upon him. Will the Frosts really take his son to America? And what should he do about the war?

I don’t know what the Frosts are doing. Since his telegram on Friday I have heard nothing, and he hasn’t appeared. Helen feels that perhaps they will disappoint Mervyn–and us. They are rather incalculable. I am impatient because my foot is really not well and I still can’t go up to my study and time hangs and dies slowly. I am thinking still about the cyclists corps, and get no less shy about the first steps, not to speak of expecting to dislike the life and wondering what would happen to my things and affairs. Well, you know about how serious this is.[5]

Farjeon gives us not clue of how to read that last statement. Knowing Thomas, though, it must be self-deprecation. Still hobbled by an ankle sprained a month ago, still unable to finish money-earning projects, not even sure if his plan to ship his eldest off to America will come off, it’s laughable, he suggests, to think that he will really do it–really enlist.

But it’s just possible that we should read this very differently: this is serious. Literary work is drying up, and once this anthology is finished, how will he feed his family? An officer’s salary is nothing to sneeze at, and dislike the military life though he may, his situation–both as a husband and father and as an Englishman aloof from a worsening war–will only grow more dire…

A poem begun today reflects this dark and uncertain mood. But as the draft was finished tomorrow, we will pick at it then…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The editor's gloss: [The Order of Leopold was awarded for extreme bravery in combat or for meritorious service of immense benefit to the Belgian nation.]
  2. Lady Under Fire, 50.
  3. In Broken Images, 30-1.
  4. Diary of a Nursing Sister, available here.
  5. Farjeon, Edward Thomas, 115.