Herbert Read on the Pleasures of Rest; George Coppard, E. A. Mackintosh, and Rowland Feilding on the Eve of Battle

Herbert Read has seen a good deal of the nasty late stages of Passchendaele–although, to our loss, he has written little about the experience. Now, however, his battalion is marching south, and he is very well pleased. We, reading over the shoulder of his intended, Evelyn Roff, get another walking-tour-of-rural-Europe sort of letter:

19 XI 17

We are on the trek: for three days we have marched away from the northern horrors and still we march… so contented are we that we don’t mind much the fact that our promised rest has been postponed a while–but only a short while.

This is where we touch the romantic fringe of war–for it is only a fringe, the romance. Now we have all the thrills of a sentimental journey–all the excitement of changing environment and of strange meetings…

The first billet involves a dour Frenchwoman out of central casting, who refuses all amenities, sends them hungry to cold rooms, and overcharges them to cook the food they brought. But the next day’s march ends with Read being directed to mess in “an innocent enough looking house.” What will the tired warriors discover?

I entered boldly enough, only to gasp and fall back on to the toes of whoever was behind me. Seated round a table, enjoying a meal of some sort, were at least six beaming maidens..

The mess, alas, proves to be in the next room, but it doesn’t entirely disappoint:

Again we were tired and hungry, so again we asked (this time more humbly) for café and omelettes. Nothing could have pleased the old lady better (there was one old lady) and we had a delightful meal on the table in no time. That finished, and our morale recovered, we ventured back into the kitchen, where a gramophone was playing selections of English music, and, perhaps more inviting still, a French stove was roaring away and dispelling the chill of the November twilight. Chairs were pushed forward and we had to accept…

After this impromptu country dance, Read and his friend Col go into town and get another dinner and take in a concert, which included

…a violin soloist who seemed perfection. (Fancy, one week in the horrors I can’t describe and the next listening to Chopin perfectly rendered).[1]

 

And, while one decorated and experienced officer marches away from the worst of the fighting, thousands of other men–just fancy this irony!–are preparing for the next ordeal.

Alan Mackintosh of the Seaforth Highlanders, who chose to give up a safe billet training cadets in order to rejoin his friends in the Seaforth Highlanders, had time to scribble only one hasty note–he addressed it both to Sylvia, the woman he had recently met and fallen in love with, and to his sister Muriel.

My darling girl,

We’re going over tomorrow so I’m leaving this in case I don’t come back. Goodbye. No time for more,

Your loving

Alan[2]

 

Rowland Feilding, whose love for–and formidable epistolary commitment to–his wife Edith has been tested by several major battles, no doubt did the same. But then again he, as a battalion commander, had known about the attack for some time, and spent the eve of the assault in calm contemplation of his men.

My orders were to assault with two Companies, which were to advance on the extreme right… it meant that I was to attack with my right flank “in the air.”

It was very edifying to watch the officers and men preparing for the attack–all optimistic, full of confidence, and cheery:–a little more silent than usual, perhaps, during dinner the night before…[3]

 

And at midnight, tonight, a century back, George Coppard and his men–he is now a corporal commanding two heavy machine-gun teams–left their billets to begin a march up to their assembly positions, 400 yards from the front. Dawn, tomorrow, will bring the war’s next major effort, the far-famed and long-rumored tank battle of Cambrai.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Contrary Experience, 114-16.
  2. Campbell and Green, Can't Shoot a Man With a Cold, 204-5.
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 227-8.
  4. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 122.

Rowland Feilding’s Rangers Move up to the Line; Sapper Martin on Hares and Rabblements

Rowland Feilding will be one of our guides to the coming Battle of Cambrai, into which battle he will shortly lead the 6th Connaught Rangers. His account is a valuable one so, even though this breaks with the strict letter of the law, we will draw from a letter written a few days in the future, when he has time to record his experiences for his wife.

I have known for ages of these impending operations, but I think you will agree that even you could not have guessed this from my letters. I have been obliged to keep my own councils, without confiding even in my Adjutant or the Company Commanders.

We came up to the front line on the 18th, having for a few days previously practised the attack over a prepared replica of the German trenches which were to be our objective. This naturally suggested to all ranks what was before them, and, devout though they always are, in the best of spirits, the whole battalion flocked to Confession the last evening—the 17th—in the patched-up barn at Ervillers…

The following morning (Sunday) all went to non-fasting Communion… this being allowed by the Church before going into action…

Feilding goes on to explain that it has taken the troops, nearly all devout Catholics, some time to accept that this dispensation is legitimate, and will not lead them into sin. They ate, they took communion, and then, body and soul prepared, they marched to the line.

In the evening, after dark, the battalion moved up to the trenches, coming in for a certain amount of shelling by the way… The German trench opposed to us was the famous Hindenburg Line. It is a very elaborate work…[1]

 

And Sapper Martin‘s Italian journey continued today, a century back–or, rather, as they rested before resuming their march, they saw other troops going the other way, making the reason for this sudden British anabasis painfully obvious:

Thousands of retreating Italians passed through here this morning. They looked a pretty rabble. Had thrown away all their equipment; the only things they retained other than what they stood up in were their overcoats and these were loaded in piles on little mule or donkey-carts…

In the afternoon Jessie S. held an inspection… He gave us a lecture on the arduous nature of the march in front of us and said that nothing was to be taken unless absolutely necessary; therefore he condemned the football to be dumped but I bet it turns up when we want it….

The culinary adventure continued as well, with “stewed hare and polenta” that was pronounced “quite harmless… and filling.” They have several days’ hard marching ahead of them, but we will in all probability not hear much from Martin for at least a few days–there is too much stewing near Cambrai.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 225-7.
  2. Sapper Martin, 135-6.

Ivor Gurney is Back in Harness; Rowland Feilding’s Connaught Rangers Confess; Sapper Martin in Lombardy

We have another day of minor movements, today, as three of our writers look ahead to coming things.

Ivor Gurney, writing to Herbert Howells today, a century back, is making ready to leave the hospital. His touch of gas–and touch on the keyboard–have kept him out of the fray long enough to miss the rest of the year’s fighting. And to see his book in print…

17 November 1917

My Dear Howells…

Well; here am I, back in harness, and hot to be sent to Command Depot. (Dear old Army!) The notices of my book were out yesterday, and you will probably receive one soon. Could you collar the Morning Post reviews anywhere? The New Statesman? New Age? Nation? Possibly you might see one lying about and collar the bit. It is a crime, but here excusable, I think…

Pte Gurney I.B. 24I28I
B Co
4th Reserve Battallion T.F.
Gloucester Regiment
Seaton Delaval
Northumberland

(Hear, hear!)
So write sometime.

A horrid rumour has reached me that we shall get our embarkation leave next Thursday and be off on the next draft. If so, I shall apply for a commission, just after the 6 days. (Shudders of surprise after) Farwell. Au Revoir. Auf Wiedesehn. Goodbye:

Yours ever I.B.G.[1]

So Gurney is in high spirits–and contemplating a commission. Most of the reviews are not yet out, but they will be generally favorable. As for that commission, well, we shall see…

 

Sapper Jack Martin‘s diary has, over the last few days, begun the most interesting account I’ve read of a new and sideways movement: a body of British troops moves neither up the line nor west toward rest or blighty, but south and east,  to Italy. His long train had whisked the battalion from the mud and misery of Northern France to the pleasant autumn of the Riviera over several days, and then, two evenings ago, a century back, they had crossed into Italy.

Yesterday was a day of food-related misunderstandings, with gifts of jam and nuts and fruit going back and forth and a search for familiar sorts of bread. There is a swift resorting to stiff English stereotypes, as Martin decides that the soil is “too fertile,” which leads the men to be deplorably lazy. He is impressed, however, with the industry of the women-folk and the cleanliness of the houses, and there is an interesting comment tacked on to the end of a predictable description of the English soldiers clowning around by adding vowels to the end of all of their words in order to “speak Italian:”

They couldn’t understand any hilarity amongst men going to war. This particular type of wonderment we found all the way along the march. It has been said that an Englishman takes his pleasures sadly, but it should also be remarked that he can take the serious business of life jocularly.[2]

Today, a century back, they left the rails at Asola, in Lombardy, and began a long march which Martin will describe as “in the nature of an Elizabethan progress.” Marching through a marketplace of enthusiastic Italians, past their Brigadier, who took their salute from his hotel balcony, they marched 17 1/2 miles, the first few accompanied by “crowds of children.” They will have sore feet, after their long train journey–but they also have white Italian bread, and “sausages and potatoes in a Trattoria outside the billet.” Which sounds a great deal better than bully beef or a wan omelet in an Estaminet–but perhaps that is my own prejudice, or the stale palate or long (literary) familiarity with the British soldier’s French diet.[3]

 

And then there’s France, where the Somme region will not be quiet for much longer. Rowland Feilding will write of tonight, a century back, that “the whole battalion flocked to confession” in a converted barn in Ervillers. They did so because the orders had been given to pack up and prepare for a march to the front, first thing tomorrow morning.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters, 230-1.
  2. This observation seems to have been added at a later date.
  3. Sapper Martin, 129-35.
  4. War Letters to a Wife, 226.

Vera Brittain on Night Duty and Edward in Italy; Back to the Front for Carroll Carstairs; Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Nichols Sing for their Society Supper, but Wilfred Owen Misses the Party

It’s an unsettled sort of day, today, a century back, with new experiences that are none too welcome. We have, first off, a letter from Edward Brittain to his sister Vera, his first from Italy.

I am rather disappointed with this part of the country — we are close to where Vergil was supposed to be born and the city forms the adjective so often applied to him (even in Tennyson’s ode to Vergil) – it is flat and not specially interesting apart from its novelty.

Mantua, that is: and a much more mainstream deployment of a decent classical education than some of the heroically obscure place-references of Patrick Shaw Stewart and the other argonauts. But what clever chap can resist such a minor violation of the rules about revealing military locations?

We marched through the city yesterday — it is old, picturesque and rather sleepy with narrow streets and pungent smells; we have been accorded a most hearty reception all the way and have been presented with anything
from bottles of so-called phiz, to manifestos issued by mayors of towns; flowers and postcards were the most frequent tributes. Some of the country we passed through was very fine; apres la guerre finie there are several places where you and I might like to stay a while…

But Vera has other things to worry about, today–or rather tonight.

That same evening I was sent on night-duty to an acute medical ward. Since each of my previous night-duties had become a sharp, painful memory of telegrams and death and brooding grief, I did not welcome the change, and wrote to my mother in a sudden fit of despondency, deepened by the renewed recollection that Edward, my fellow-survivor, was far away and depressed:

“I feel very old and sad these days, though Sister ‘Milroy’ . . . tells me she feels like my mother when she goes out with me, though she’s only eight years older. I wonder if I shall ever be eight years older, and if the next eight could possibly be as long as the last three. I suppose I am saturated with War, and getting thoroughly war-weary, like everyone else.”[1]

 

Carroll Carstairs, our American officer of the Grenadiers, was in the area as well, returning to the line after leave.

Trains! French trains… I watched the smoke from the engine drift into separate wisps that looked like shrapnel bursts. Leaning back in my seat, I felt myself being carried along by destiny itself.

The drums reminded me that I was back again, feeling, in the process of a slight readjustment, unreality in the midst of the greatest reality. While I was away the Battalion had moved by route march from Ypres to the Somme.[2]

Which is but a way of indicating that we will, shortly, as well.

 

But first, once again, to London. Today’s most interesting event, from a war literature point of view, was a crossing-of-paths between the two most significant soldier-poets of 1917, Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Nichols. Robert Graves is the key node between the two of them, having been enthusiastically talking them up to each other for months and very hopeful that the three shall form a musketeerish bond, but he is on duty in Wales, and actually in command of the garrison of the Royal Welch at Rhyl. Which was perhaps a good thing, as the three together might have made for an explosive stew of intense eagerness and disparate social anxieties.

Instead, the two poets met with the capable Robbie Ross to smooth the way. Tonight, then, was yet another soldier-poet dinner at the Reform Club, and it might very well have gone badly. Nichols’s Ardours and Endurances has been “the hit of the season,” but Sassoon’s assessment was not favorable. He is surely correct that Nichols was “not as good as Sorley,” and posterity has certainly agreed–but that would be getting ahead of ourselves. But it should be fairly obvious that the poems will not wear that well: they are pretty, but they ring hollow in too many places. Nichols was (too) confident in his talent, but then again he knew himself to be a lightweight in terms of military service compared to Sassoon, that well-known fire-eater and wearer of the MC, and that easily could have been a point of unpleasantness.

Had Nichols suspected that Sassoon knew himself to be the better poet–or if he knew how much Sassoon shared Graves’s scorn for his personal failings (i.e. Nichols’s adventures with shell shock and venereal disease)–it might have degenerated into a butting of heads or a competition in offense-taking. And Nichols had either missed–or chosen to overlook–the rather pointed use of the word  “ardours” in “Fight to the Finish,” which suggests that Sassoon recognized him for a bit of a phony and was willing to take a shot at him in print.

So, again, it was lucky that they had Robbie Ross, “expert conversational masseur.” The dinner went well and the friendship began, but the three did not retire thereafter to Ross’s flat in Half Moon Street, the decadent chambers to which Wilfred Owen had recently been initiated. No: they had been set up! Ross, after dining with them, duly delivered the two poets to a literary gathering at the home of Sibyl Colefax, “a rising society hostess, a ‘duchess-snob’, who liked to collected literary lions.”

Once they arrived, the poets, bait for the real prey–society eminences–learned that they were expected to perform. Nichols had done such a public reading before, and was a happy ham. He went first, melodramatically declaimed his verses, and then, even worse, was followed by a piano interlude of ragtime tunes played by Ivor Novello. Sassoon was thus perfectly primed to displease, and he certainly tried to, reading “The Hero, “The Rear-Guard,” and the famously controversial “They,” with its soldier “gone syphilitic” and blunt mockery of conventional religion.

It’s hard to tell if this was Sassoon just being “tough,” or, rather, whether he was trying to needle Nichols (who had seen nothing as horrible as the Hindenburg Tunnel, but did indeed know the horrors of syphilis). If Sassoon was “genuinely impressed” by Nichols, as one biographer has it, he was also irritated by his performance, which caused Sassoon “acute discomfort.”

But in any case Sassoon was a poor reader and he was out of every one of his various elements–this was not the sort of crowd that would either be impressed by a minor gentleman-sportsman from Kent with an MC, charmed by the handsome young jock-aesthete, or approving of quiet aloofness as a substitute for active wit.

Was he trying to shock the bourgeois? Perhaps, but one should credit him with a more nuanced appreciation of class: this wasn’t that crowd either. These were experienced high society women, flying far above the mere bourgeois, and three and a half years into the war. Lady Cynthia Asquith only recorded Sassoon’s shyness and prominent ears, while Vita Sackville-West, not surprisingly, saw through the ambitious Nichols, calling him “a horrid little bounder.”[3]

But what does that signify? At least the poets performed, and the ladies had something to say. Sassoon still had some dwindling notoriety as a protest poet, and some might notice that his poems “shocked” to good effect. Nichols was popular, and he delivered the goods, no matter that they are second-rate. The two will soon be invited back again, to enliven our last blogging December with their tales of the war’s largest literary waymeet…

 

Unfortunately for Wilfred Owen, however, his luck has run out–or it hasn’t yet run away enough for such things. He was in London too, today, a century back, on the way back home after visiting his cousin Leslie Gunston, and went to the Poetry Bookshop, where he was pleased to exchange winks with Harold Monro when a customer spoke of Sassoon. But then he was off to Shrewsbury, unaware that Sassoon and Nichols were with Ross…[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Testament of Youth, 392; Letters From a Lost Generation, 382.
  2. Generation Missing, 118.
  3. Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 423; Ricketts, Strange Meetings, 128-131.
  4. Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 283.

Edmund Blunden Marches Back to the Line–Through Gas and Failed Patrols–and Has a Tooth Out; The Master of Belhaven Walks Back from the Firing Line, Through Searching Gas Shells, and Has a Tooth Out

We seem to be converging upon the coming battle in space, time, and experiential theme. Edmund Blunden, too, will go forward on the first day of Third Ypres, and several of the tales he tells about the days before chime closely with others we’ve heard. These are among the more powerful sections of his memoir, as his steady, dreamy, innocent style must put its head down and trudge forward into a muddy, deathly tide, a literary enactment of the effect of attrition on young minds.

It’s difficult to match his vague chronology, here, with the bare details of his Battalion Diary, but I believe that either the patrol described below or the march to the front line that follows took place today, a century back.

He begins on the foul Yser Canal, a notable landmark–and logistical obstacle–between Ypres itself and the front lines.

The Yser Canal had been drastically rearranged. New bridges crossed it, powerful works, carrying real roadways. On the far side, the old bank which alone afforded cover from view and splinters had been hewn through for the roadways and other tracks. Great heaps of warlike material stood up naked and unashamed; batteries glinted and bellowed in transparent air. These gay grimaces had not failed to upset the enemy, who was tearing up the old ground and venerable shelters with long-range guns. The best bridge, No. 4, was a ferocious target, but at the Ypres end the new solid crossing was swollen with dead mules tipped on the wayside. The water below, foul yellow and brown, was strewn with full-sized eels, bream, and jack, seething and bulged in death. Gases of several kinds oozed from the crumbled banks and shapeless ditches, souring the air. One needed no occult gift to notice the shadow of death on the bread and cheese in one’s hand, on the discoloured tepid water in one’s bottle.

Ypres in the late summer of 1917 will in many ways be the most horrible place yet: there is more gas, more water and mud, and still that terrible crowding that comes from the holding of a small “salient” and taking fire from three sides.

And the German troops are alert and efficient. This next episode sounds almost exactly like what has just happened to the 15th Royal Welch, although Blunden’s 11th Royal Sussex are further to the south:

On one of the preliminary evenings our new colonel, with his usual bad luck, sent forward from C Camp an officer fresh from England, and one or two men with him, to patrol the land over which our assault was intended, giving a special eye to the enemy’s concern with some ancient gunpits there. This officer took with him his set of the maps, panoramas, photographs, and instructions which had been served round with such generosity for this battle.[1] He never returned. The next night a seasoned officer from another battalion, patrolling the same ground, disappeared.

It was believed that these had been taken prisoner, but I was not much inclined to that view when, the third night, I was sent up with one or two old hands to see what I could see. We reached the very sketchy front line before it was quite dark, soon afterward crawled over the top, and were carefully making our way through our own wire — not that its puny tendrils needed much care! — when with a crash and flame on all sides at once a barrage began. Shells struck so fast that we seemed to be one shell hole away, and no more, from the latest, and as we dodged and measured our length in wild disorder, we drifted a long way into No Man’s Land. The barrage followed our direction and when it stopped, as we lay panting and muttering in the smell of explosive mixed with that of the dewy weeds and broken clods, I saw that we were a few yards from a sap, and I heard stealthy movement in that sap. This might have been the secret of my predecessors’ misfortune. After the shelling we were not much good for observation or offence, and found out no more…

Blunden was lucky to escape, as it seems that the lightly-held German front line has become an entrapment ground for British patrols–either this was a terrible coincidence or the German positions are held in such a way that they can spot enemy patrols, call in effective barrages, and possibly sally forth to kill or capture the survivors.

And Blunden’s long night wasn’t over yet.

I determined that we must rest the few hours till day in the Canal Bank. In order to save us a weary search among blown-in dugouts, and others specially allotted already, I called upon the Canal Bank Major, who was supposed to be in control of the accommodations. No sooner was I inside the sandbag porch than a shell knocked the porch in and some more of my nerve system with it…  There is a hypocritical tunelessness about a gas shell in flight and in explosion. With that, there was the thought of being pitched bleeding into the gummy filths and mortifications below. At last we were in a “small elephant” dugout, and I stretched myself on the dusty boards. I woke with a stiff neck in slightly gasiferous sunlight, mechanically receiving a mug of lurid tea with a dash of petrol from one of my invincibles.

Blunden escapes to return to his unit, but almost as soon as he is back they are marching up toward the front-line positions from which they will attack. First, though, a more quotidian experience of courage for pain:

I could dilate upon other drama that occurred toward July 31, 1917; there was, for instance, that tooth of mine, which our Irish doctor painfully extracted for me by muscular Christianity in the wood, surely the last afternoon there; all my signallers off duty stood round with a hideous pleasure, and one or two begged to offer their compliments on so great a fortitude! But the battle cannot be postponed longer. I had to thrust aside my Cambridge Magazine with Siegfried Sassoon‘s splendid war on the war in it; sent my valise along to the dump; and fell in, wondering how Sassoon could pass one or two technical imperfections (as I thought them) in his fine verse.

This, I think, is something other than irony. But it is very striking indeed: while Sassoon is beginning his long sojourn of self-discovery in the safety of Scotland, a young poet about to be ordered forward into the glutinous mud of Flanders is reading “To Any Dead Officer” and “The Redeemer.”

In the latter–written after nightmarish night work in the autumn of 1915–a Christ-like soldier is weighed down by his load, under fire, as he trudges through the mud. The poem ends with this couplet:

And someone flung his burden in the muck,
Mumbling: ‘O Christ Almighty, now I’m stuck!’

“To Any Dead Officer,” which connects the death of his friend Orme this May with the poet’s decision to protest the war, ends with the line.

I wish they’d killed you in a decent show.

It’s striking, and awful: the endings of the two poems perfectly foreshadow Passchendaele, which will include both the war’s worst mud and an increasing awareness of the miseries of death in failed attritional “pushes” are beginning to overwhelm traditional means of glorifying military sacrifice…

Back, for a moment, to Blunden:

The spirit of battle was not rampant among us that turgid, thirsty night; our route was complicated by design and accident, and the companionship of numbers of tanks and other troops confused us. The unfamiliar way was now narrow as a lane, now broad and undefined as a football ground, sometimes dark, then lit whitely to a distance. At last we occupied trenches on the scene of our proposed business.[2]

He’s ready, then, not for the “show,” but for the next bad deal.

 

Ralph Hamilton, Master of Belhaven has been serving his guns steadily not far behind our Salient infantry, preparing to aid them in the great assault. In another strange coincidence, he too is suffering dental agonies today, a century back, and he too must risk the German gas shells–but then again the Salient is a very small place.

…It is always the same thing–one works out everything in good time, and then at the last moment the programme is altered. I am suffering excruciating agony with my tooth. I could not even lie down last night, and have had absolutely no sleep whatsoever. We commenced the barrage at 5.15 this morning, and have been making a dreadful noise. It was really just like the Somme…

On the way to meet his colonel for a ride to the dentist, Hamilton, walking alone in the rear, is twice knocked down by near misses from a German 5.9. Picking himself up, he runs into the colonel, who is himself trying to nonchalantly dodge the shells.

It was really extremely funny; as we walked (very fast) down the road, a gas-shell fell 50 yards behind us, and this happened four times in about two hundred yards. These gas-shells make very little noise arriving, and burst on the ground with a little “pop” like pulling the cork out of a bottle… There was no smoke, either black or white; just the dust thrown up by the shell striking the dry ground, and a small cloud of yellow green vapour–much the colour of jade…

The comedy ends with the artillery, however, as Hamilton will now meet up with a ‘very rough-handed’ and incompetent dentist…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. This is a serious breach of protocol, naturally.
  2. Undertones of War, 214-9.
  3. War Diary, 352-3.

Robert Graves Attends a Board While Siegfried Sassoon Skips One; Edmund Blunden Passes the Chateau at Vlamertinghe; Francis Ledwidge Writes “Home”

Today, a century back, Robert Graves had a hastily-arranged medical board at Osborne House, on the Isle of Wight, and, despite his recent nervous exhaustion and his bad lung, he was approved to return to duty. Graves has already written to the C.O. of the Welsh Depot (technically, the 3rd Battalion), and he surely indicated to the board that he needed to be passed fit–and therefore granted leave–in order to help a comrade. He probably made it quite clear that he intended to go and help suppress Siegfried Sassoon‘s anti-war protest, and he left for London immediately after the board.

Meanwhile, Sassoon himself cut his own medical board–a shocking breach of good manners, as the depot commandment will explain to him. This is the first sign that the army is likely to simply ignore Sassoon’s direct challenge, treating the fiery and rebellious “Mad Jack” with bureaucratic circumspection. Sassoon has written a protest, but he has slapped no particular face with his duelist’s gauntlets, and the Army, in its lugubrious wisdom, seems likely to shrug aside so impersonal an attack. There will be another board soon…[1]

 

With all of these poets appearing before doctors, writing business letters, and dashing about Britain, we’ve had little time, lately, for poetry. So I will bend the rules a bit today and include two poems that I am almost certain were written this week, or about the events of this week, a century back.

First, Edmund Blunden. His battalion diary for today matches this passage of his memoir:

The battalion camped in readiness among the familiar woods west of Vlamertinghe, but the woods were changed, and the parting genius must have gone on a stretcher. No Belgian artisans were hammering strips of tarred canvas on the hut roofs now; there were holes of various sizes among the huts. Wooden tracks led this way and that in puzzling number through the crowded airless shadows, and new roads threw open to the public a district suited for the movements of a small and careful party. At the corner where one insolent new highway left the wood eastward, an enormous model of the German positions now considered due to Britain was open for inspection, whether from  the ground or from step-ladders raised beside, and this was popular, though whether from its charm as a model or  as a military aid is uncertain. Vidler and Tice inspected it, at least, as stern utilitarians…

Blunden recalls happier times in the Salient–what could be more natural for the pastoral soldier-poet-memoirist, and what could be stranger, really, to the non-soldier than war fondly recalled? Blunden’s memoir is uncanny, though, in its ability to stay within his sensibility–the sharp description, the mixture of foreboding and grudgingly admitted realism and delicate natural beauty (the wildflowers are coming!)–while also being of this moment in the war. It is, after all, the summer of the highly-detailed models, the siege-enthusiast’s historical fetish indulged before the deluge…

But let’s return to Blunden, and the road, and what the summer foliage conceals:

The road toward Vlamertinghe was newly constructed of planks and forced a publicity on farmlands to which I had only gone before on some pleasant trespass. It took one presently through a gorgeous and careless multitude of poppies and sorrels and bull daisies to the grounds of Vlamertinghe Chateau, many-windowed, not much hurt but looking very dismal in the pitiless perfect sun. Its orchards yet clung to some pale apples, but the gunners were aware of that; the twelve-inch gunners, whose business here seemed like a dizzy dream. Under several splendid untrimmed trees, among full-flooding grass, shone certain rails, and on these rails were some tremendous iron engines, with gaping mouths; standing behind, if you could keep your eye unblurred at the titanic second of their speaking, you could see their mortal monosyllables of inferno climbing dead straight into the sky…[2]

That is about as portentous and heavy-handed as Blunden can get. He will also write this day’s march in verse, beginning, again with uncharacteristic directness, by placing a famous line from Keats in this terrible new context:

 

Vlamertinghe: Passing the Chateau, July 1917

‘And all her silken flanks with garlands drest’—
But we are coming to the sacrifice.
Must those flowers who are not yet gone West?
May those flowers who live with death and lice?
This must be the floweriest place
That earth allows; the queenly face
Of the proud mansion borrows grace for grace
Spite of those brute guns lowing at the skies.
Bold great daisies’ golden lights,
Bubbling roses’ pinks and whites—
Such a gay carpet! poppies by the million;
Such damask! such vermilion!
But if you ask me, mate, the choice of colour
Is scarcely right; this red should have been duller.

There is nothing more ominous than beautiful Blunden beginning to sound like satiric Sassoon.

 

It’s not quite fair to Francis Ledwidge to place a somewhat vague poem of his right after this taut stroke of Blunden’s… and yet they fit. They are, certainly, very much poems of mid-July, 1917. Both men know, now, that battle in Flanders is fast approaching. Both think of home–Keats is home, for Blunden–and struggle to see what they can of the unspoilt world in the warscape they inhabit. If Ledwidge is more successful it may be because he is more determined to wish away reality–and it may be because he is writing in the moment, when such wishful thinking is a practical element of emotional health as well as a literary exercise. Some morning this week, when the guns fell silent for a few moments, Ledwidge wrote “Home.”

Home

A burst of sudden wings at dawn,
Faint voices in a dreamy noon,
Evenings of mist and murmurings,
And nights with rainbows of the moon.

And through these things a wood-way dim,
And waters dim, and slow sheep seen
On uphill paths that wind away
Through summer sounds and harvest green.

This is a song a robin sang
This morning on a broken tree,
It was about the little fields
That call across the world to me.

Belgium,
July, 1917.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 352. Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 383.
  2. Undertones of War, 166-7. 11th Battalion Royal Sussex War Diary, 88.

Alfred Hale Cuts His Teeth on Army Toffee; Jack Martin Admires a Model; Edwin Vaughan on a Long Day’s Journey; Eddie, Bobbie and Ottoline Advise Siegfried Sassoon

I’m going to wager that readers are willing to go through three of our peripheral writers before finding out what Siegfried Sassoon has been up to.

 

Jack Martin‘s diary has been intermittent of late, and, to be frank, a bit boring. But kudos to the young signalman today, a century back, for catching on to a new theme of ours:

Received a parcel of books from Elsie and resumed my office of distributing librarian. The field in which we lives slopes downwards  towards Flêtre and at the bottom of the dip a Hants Corporal is making a model of the ground over which the next advance is to be made by our Brigade. It is really a work of art consisting of only earth, bits of stick and pieces of stone and wire. All the trenches, both ours and the enemy’s, are shown, the whole model being constructed from a large-scale map.[1]

 

And how is the emphatically middle-aged Alfred Hale doing in camp?

10 July: chocolate and other things of a kind fit to make a supper off had run out at the canteen. My weekly parcel of food had not arrived. So while the officers sat down to a good late dinner, I had nothing to eat of an evening but penny bars of toffee. Began to break my false teeth in consequence, as the said bars were very hard to bite.[2]

 

And, from Edwin Vaughan we have a model “battalion on the march” piece. I’ve cut the “diary” down a bit, but I’ve had to keep most of it so that we can trudge a long through the uphills and downs of this brutal but typical day afoot.

July 10

Marched out in high spirits at 10 a.m., the only drawback being the fact that we were carrying a blanket each and the sun was very hot. The troops sang heartily and unceasingly during the first hour as we swung down sunken country lanes and through deserted, battered hamlets. Song after song was started and taken up by the whole Company, Cole and Taylor being the leading choristers.

Towards the end of the second hour the sweat began to pour and the spirits to flag. A few of the old crocks like Bishop and Dredge were limping markedly and rifles began to shift restlessly from shoulder to shoulder. The singing died away completely and at once we began to get busy. Up and down the ranks we went, joking, encouraging and cursing. I could hear Radcliffe’s voice singing a forlorn solo in front and Harding was already carrying two rifles. Ewing had sent his horse to the rear of the Company and was trying to pull the leading platoon together. We managed to keep every man in his place until the next halt when we flopped out by the roadside.

We had to enforce rigid discipline to keep the waterbottles corked and several names had been taken before we fell in. We moved off with the crocks weeded out and placed in rear of the Company, and a song was started in the leading platoons. This soon died away, however, and the step broke. Soon we came upon a man from ‘B’ Company sitting by the roadside, then some of ‘A’ and more ‘B’, and then there was a sudden rush from our platoons as men fell out to join them. We pounced at once upon them and cursed them back into the ranks, but the effect was heartbreaking and our work was doubled. I finished that hour carrying an additional pack and two rifles while the other officers were doing more or less the same. Three packs were slung from Porky’s saddle and a limping soldier grasped each stirrup.

When we dropped exhausted into the edge of a cornfield, Ewing came down the column telling the troops that we were almost at our destination. This cheered them somewhat, and when we got on to the road again all eyes were fixed on the horizon where our village was due to appear. Cresting the hill ten minutes later we saw a small village a mile ahead, and a quiver of relief ran down the column; on reaching it, however, we found that it was in ruins and a notice board proclaimed it to be Monchy-au-Bois.

A cyclist met us here and reported to each company commander that the Brigadier was waiting just ahead to see us march past. So we bucked up the troops a bit and swung past him in great style, only to fall to pieces again on
emerging from the village on to the open plains. The whole Battalion was now silent, and everywhere could be seen the strained looks, bent shoulders and straggling sections that denote whacked troops. And thus we crawled across the plain for another 20 minutes, when suddenly from No 13 platoon the voice of Private Cole arose in a lovely and very vulgar song: after a few lines. Corporal McKay joined in, then Taylor and Kent and a few more until the whole Company was roaring out the song with their last breaths.

The effect was magical for the whole Battalion pricked up its ears and after a few shudders and syncopations, shook down to a good stride and curled steadily along the winding roads until we reached a charming cluster of trees, through which shone the red roofs of Berles-au-Bois.

A burst of cheering rose from the troops at the sight of the quartermaster sergeants who were waiting for us on the road…[3]

 

I’m very glad for this next letter. Eddie Marsh has been with us since the beginning, but always in the wings, as it were. He is the center of several networks of great importance to this project–of the young painters and poets, of gay literary London, of a social network that connects many promising young men with the center (or the periphery, this last year) of great power. But we don’t get to see much direct evidence of why he has so many friends and why he seems to play a consistently positive role in their lives and literary developments. But this letter to Siegfried Sassoon: shows all of that, and through it, I think, we may get a clearer concise view of what Siegfried Sassoon was in 1917 than we can even through the stereoscopy of his own writings. He is good and honorable, and foolish and headstrong and self-centered, yet easy to influence if only gently.

10 July 1917
5 Raymond Buildings, Gray’s Inn

My dear Siegfried,

Thank you very much for telling me what you’ve done. Of course I’m sorry about it, as you expect. As a non-combatant, I should have no sort of right to blame you, even if I wanted to. But I do think you’re intellectually wrong—on the facts. We agree that our motives for going to war were not aggressive or acquisitive to start with, and I cannot myself see that they have changed. And it does seem strange to me that you should come to the conclusion that they have, at the very moment when the detached Americans have at last decided that they must
come in to safeguard the future of liberty and democracy—and when the demoralised Russian Army seem—after having been bitten with your view—to have seen that they must go on fighting for the sake of their freedom.

I cannot myself see any future for decent civilisation if the end of the war is to leave the Prussian autocracy in any position of credit arid trust.

But now dear boy you have thrown your die, and it’s too late to argue these points. One thing I do beg of you. Don’t be more of a martyr than you can help! You have made your protest, and everyone who knows that you aren’t the sort of fellow to do it for a stunt must profoundly admire your courage in doing it. But for God’s sake stop there. I don’t in the least know what ‘They’ are likely to say or do—but if you find you have a choice between acceptance and further revolt, accept. And don’t proselytise. Nothing that you can do will really affect the situation; we have to win the war (you must see that) and it’s best that we should do it without more waste and friction than are necessary.

Yours

Eddie

Marsh is writing, in other words–and it must be in other words, for a clear statement of the obstacles he faces would cause Sassoon to put his head down and butt–to make sure that Sassoon’s protest remains nothing more than a misguided romantic gesture. In which, ironically, it has a great deal in common with other actions by brave and idealistic young men over the last few years. Sassoon has written that he knows what he is letting himself in for–prison and blustering threats of a firing squad. But if he could clearly imagine that happening–just as he can’t imagine his own martyrdom in barbed wire and shrapnel very clearly, no matter how beautifully he rages and mourns–then he would write about it differently. He is young and foolish, still.

But the most important unspoken element in Marsh’s letter comes from his deep experience of military bureaucracy (he is, after all, Churchill’s secretary). It is, again, as foolish to imagine a young knight waving a sword and successfully defying the entire German war machine as it is to imagine on infantry lieutenant forcing the War Office into a position it does not want to take. Sassoon might be gambling on the machine’s slow stupidity making a martyr out of them, but if he was, he shouldn’t have told his friends. Marsh, Robert Graves, and others are acting now–betraying their friend and protecting him–to shunt the would-be confrontation into an empty corner of the military mind.

And Graves, though impetuous, can also be a ruthless tactician. He quickly notified Bobbie Hanmer, a handsome, non-intellectual fellow officer of whom Sassoon was fond, surely so that Sassoon would be reminded what the loss of his friends’ respect might entail. Hanmer’s letter to Sassoon was likely also sent today, a century back:

Tuesday

1 War Hospital, Block C 11, Reading

My dear old Sassons, What is this damned nonsense I hear from Robert Graves that you have refused to do any more soldiering? For Heaven’s sake man don’t be such a fool. Don’t disgrace yourself and think of us before you do anything so mad. How do you propose to get out of the Army for the first thing? You are under age and will only have to join the ranks unless you become a Conscientious Objector, which pray Heaven you never will.

Let me have a line soon, Yours ever Robert H. Hanmer.

Will Sassoon’s morale be able to weather such bombardment? Perhaps, but the supporting fire he is receiving seems as if it would be far less effective, and he may find himself advancing almost alone… which is, of course, how he likes to do things, although others do tend to follow. Anyway, here is some of that supporting barrage, in the form of a recent letter from Lady Ottoline Morrell:

Garsington

I saw Bertie [Russell] in London yesterday and he showed me your statement which I thought extraordinarily good. It really couldn’t have beep better, I thought. Very condensed and said all that’s necessary. It is tremendously fine of you doing it. You will have a hard time of it, and people are sure to say all sorts of foolish things. They always do—but nothing of that sort can really tarnish or dim the value and splendour of such a True Act…

It is beastly being a woman and sitting still, irritating. Sometimes I feel I must go but and do something outrageous.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Sapper Martin, 85.
  2. The Ordeal of Alfred Hale, 96.
  3. Some Desperate Glory, 175-6.
  4. Diaries, 178-9.

Vera Brittain and Siegfried Sassoon Under Bombardment, in London; Olaf Stapledon on Mr. Britling; Rowland Feilding on the Things they Carry; The Master of Belhaven Has a Near Miss

Today, a century back, Siegfried Sassoon–keeping his options well open–went to Cambridge for the day to interview for a job in a cadet battalion.[1] He may have left without a degree, but Cambridge is different now, and he has come back with an MC. He seems a prime candidate for what would be a respectable and conventionally honorable “safe job”–but the trip from London to Cambridge, ironically, was less than safe. Sassoon describes the day in the wry retrospective voice of George Sherston. Or, rather, the wry retrospective way in which he puffs apart Sherston and his experience by blowing a thin layer of warm ironic air in between the first-person description of experience and the world around that half-oblivious subject:

Supervising a platoon of Cadet Officers at Cambridge would have been a snug alternative to ‘general service abroad’ (provided that I could have bluffed the cadets into believing that I knew something about soldiering). I was going there to be interviewed by the Colonel and clinch my illusory appointment; but I was only doing this because I considered it needful for what I called ‘strengthening my position’ I hadn’t looked ahead much, but when I did so it was with an eye to safeguarding myself against ‘what people would say’…

Anyhow, on a glaring hot morning I started to catch a train to Cambridge. I was intending to stay a night there, for it would be nice to have a quiet look round and perhaps go up to Grantchester in a canoe. Admittedly, next month was bound to be ghastly; but it was no good worrying about that. . . . Had I enough money on me! Probably not; so I decided to stop and change a cheque at my bank in Old Broad Street. Changing a cheque was always a comforting performance. ‘Queer thing, having private means,’ I thought. ‘They just hand you out the money as if it was a present from the Bank Manager.’ It was funny, too, to think that I was still drawing my Army pay.

But it was the wrong moment for such humdrum cogitations, for when my taxi stopped in that narrow thoroughfare, Old Broad Street, the people on the pavement were standing still, staring up at the hot white sky. Loud bangings had begun in the near neighbourhood, and it was obvious that an air-raid was in full swing. This event could not be ignored; but I needed money and wished to catch my train, so I decided to disregard it. The crashings continued, and while I was handing my cheque to the cashier a crowd of women clerks came wildly down a winding stairway with vociferations of not unnatural alarm. Despite this commotion the cashier handed me five one-pound notes with the stoical politeness of a man who had made up his mind to go down with the ship. Probably he felt as I did—more indignant than afraid; there seemed no sense in the idea of being blown to bits in one’s own bank. I emerged from the building with an air of soldierly unconcern; my taxi-driver, like the cashier, was commendably calm, although another stupendous crash sounded as though very near Old Broad street (as indeed it was). I suppose we may as well go on to the station/ I remarked, adding, ‘it seems a bit steep that one can’t even cash a cheque in comfort!’ The man grinned and drove on. It was impossible to deny that the War was being brought home to me.

But is it? No, I think it is, but with that special, rueful emphasis on the last two words–“to me.” The air raid here appears first in the context of absurdity and a classic evocation of British character: “Sherston” carefully contrasts it with his very English position as a man with “private means” who might ride to hounds or ride off to war but doesn’t expect to earn a living or face violence during the ordinary course of his privileged day. This is about, in our terms, an irruption across the experiential gulf. But it’s treated as a dastardly blow, some piece of bad form, a punch after the bell, and not as the beginning of the end of any notion of war as a reliably distant event, the early days of “total war.”

At Liverpool Street there had occurred what, under normal conditions, would be described as an appalling catastrophe. Bombs had been dropped on the station and one of them had hit the front carriage of the noon express to Cambridge. Horrified travellers were hurrying away. The hands of the clock indicated 11.50; but railway-time had been interrupted; for once in its career, the imperative clock was a passive spectator. While I stood wondering what to do, a luggage trolley was trundled past me; on it lay an elderly man, shabbily dressed, and apparently dead. The sight of blood caused me to feel quite queer. This sort of danger seemed to demand a quality of courage dissimilar to front line fortitude. In a trench one was acclimatized to the notion of being exterminated and there was a sense of organized retaliation. But here one was helpless; an invisible enemy sent destruction spinning down from a fine weather sky; poor old men bought a railway ticket and were trundled away again dead on a barrow; wounded women lay about in the station groaning. And one’s train didn’t start. . . . Nobody could say for certain when it would start, a phlegmatic porter informed me; so I migrated to St. Pancras and made the journey to Cambridge in a train which halted good-naturedly at every station. Gazing at sleepy green landscapes, I found difficulty in connecting them (by the railway line) with the air-raid…

 

Vera Brittain had less trouble finding emotional context for the same bombing raid, coming as it did in the desolation following Victor Richardson’s miserable and lonely death. But her experience–and her initial reaction, as an overseas veteran of sorts who would rather be heading toward the war than held helpless underneath it–is quite similar to Sassoon’s:

Although three out of the four persons were gone who had made all the world that I knew, the War seemed no nearer a conclusion than it had been in 1914. It was everywhere now; even before Victor was buried, the daylight air-raid of June 13th “brought it home,” as the newspapers remarked, with such force that I perceived danger to be infinitely preferable when I went after it, instead of waiting for it to come after me.

She hasn’t been in combat, but she has been to the wars; but then again she hasn’t been under fire… In any event, membership in the categories of alienated veteran or older civilian are not a sure guide to one’s reaction to a sudden irruption of violence into a London spring day.

I was just reaching home after a morning’s shopping in Kensington High Street when the uproar began, and, looking immediately at the sky, I saw the sinister group of giant mosquitoes sweeping in close formation over London. My mother, whose temperamental fatalism had always enabled her to sleep peacefully through the usual night-time raids, was anxious to watch the show from the roof of the flats, but when I reached the doorway my father had just succeeded in hurrying her down to the basement; he did not share her belief that destiny remained unaffected by caution, and himself derived moral support in air-raids from putting on his collar and patrolling the passages. The three of us listened glumly to the shrapnel raining down like a thunder-shower upon the trees in the park — those quiet trees which on the night of my return from Malta had made death and horror seem so unbelievably remote. As soon as the banging and crashing had given way to the breathless, apprehensive silence which always followed a big raid, I made a complicated journey to the City to see if my uncle had been added to the family’s growing collection of casualties.

In a grimly amusing coincidence, this uncle is a banker, and so Vera too finds herself making small talk in a bank in the aftermath of the raid.

The streets round the Bank were terrifyingly quiet, and in some places so thickly covered with broken glass that I seemed to be wading ankle-deep in huge unmelted hailstones. I saw no dead nor wounded, though numerous police-supervised barricades concealed a variety of gruesome probabilities. Others were only too clearly suggested by a crimson-splashed horse lying indifferently on its side, and by several derelict tradesman’s carts bloodily denuded of their drivers. These things, I concluded, seemed less inappropriate when they happened in France, though no doubt the French thought otherwise.[2]

And that gives us rather a strong clue as to where Vera Brittain will turn her thoughts, now that her sacrifice of her nursing career for the love of Victor Richardson has come to nothing. Somewhere where mangled bodies and enormous suffering might seem more… appropriate.

 

But to return to Sassoon is to escape the bombs and their bad memories and head for Cambridge, where George Sherston can think of “war” in 1914 terms, when it was healthy outdoor tin-soldiering for overgrown boy scouts, and before it came to connote the indiscriminate bombing of cities.

But here was Cambridge, looking contented enough in the afternoon sunshine, as though the Long Vacation were on. The Colleges appeared to have forgotten their copious contributions to the Roll of Honour. The streets were empty, for the Cadets were out on their afternoon parades — probably learning how to take compass-bearings, or pretending to shoot at an enemy who was supposedly advancing from a wood nine hundred yards away. I knew all about that type of training. ‘Half-right; haystack; three fingers left of haystack; copse; nine hundred; AT THE COPSE, ten rounds rapid, FIRE!’

There wasn’t going to be any musketry-exercise instructing for me, however. I was only ‘going through the motions’ of applying for a job with the Cadet Battalion. The orderly room was on the ground floor of a college. In happier times it had been a library (the books were still there) and the Colonel had been a History Don with a keen interest in the Territorials. Playing the part of respectful young applicant for instructorsliip in the Arts of War, I found myself doing it so convincingly that the existence of my ‘statement’ became, for the moment, an improbability…

Sherston, concealing his combustibly mixed feelings by dint of instinct or good breeding, gets the job: the colonel “shook my hand rather as if I’d won a History Scholarship” and sends him on his way. But Sherston lingers in the groves of Academe.

Sitting in King’s Chapel I tried to recover my conviction of the nobility of my enterprise and to believe that the pen which wrote my statement had ‘dropped from an angel’s wing’. I also reminded myself that Cambridge had dismissed Tyrrell from his lectureship because he disbelieved in the War. ‘Intolerant old blighters!’ I inwardly ex- claimed. ‘One can’t possibly side with people like that. All they care about is keeping up with the other colleges in the casualty lists.’ Thus refortified, I went down to the river and hired a canoe.

 

And after those two very closely aligned bits of memoir, we have three short but disparate chunks, interludes of labor, love, and near death from around the front.

 

Rowland Feilding will not shy from criticism of his superiors any more than he would speak out openly against their conduct. But like any perceptive correspondent from the front, he will mark out, from time to time, how the lot of the infantryman grows ever grimmer.

June 14, 1917  Oultersteene.

Yesterday, we marched back here—to safety—in grilling heat. What with their box respirators with extensions, steel helmets, P.H. gas helmets, rifles, ammunition, packs, etc., there is little doubt but that the infantry soldier is getting
over-loaded for marching. His equipment grows as the inventions for killing grow.

Already, he must carry between 70 lbs. and 80 lbs. And after a long bout of inactivity in the trenches (I refer only to the lack of exercise), you can well understand that he is not in condition for weight-carrying. Moreover, he does not improve matters by lapping water out of his water-bottle at every halt, as is his habit if not carefully watched. However, the authorities are beginning to appreciate these difficulties, and to provide motor-lorries for carrying the
packs, when such are available.[3]

Is this progress, or is this only maintaining misery by adjusting impossible burdens back down to the barely tolerable?

 

As for Olaf Stapledon, although treacherous mails have lately lengthened the lag between Agnes Miller and himself (some of their letters were lost at sea to German submarines), he is still faithfully following Agnes Miller’s suggestions. Which makes him rather late to the literary bandwagon of late 1916:

…I have begun to read “Mr. Britling,” on your recommendation. It promises well…

We are very indignant because the other two FAU convoys, which were in successful bits of offensive, have had croix-de-guerre rewards… [even though] under the circumstances our work was much more arduous than theirs. It’s bad luck…  However… we ought not to bother about such things. Moderate pacifists tend to bother about such things just as tokens that they are not mere shirkers.[4]

 

The Master of Belhaven has been hard at work behind Messines all week, and today, a century back, he attended a conference at which new forward firing positions were assigned. On the way back, he had a close call very similar to one experienced by Edward Thomas.

I… got back without incident, beyond being nearly killed by an 18-pounder that was firing across the road I was on. I did not see it till I was almost in front of the muzzle and about ten yards in front; at that moment it fired. I was knocked backwards by the blast of the gun and nearly had the drums of my ears broken. People ought to lookout before firing and see that the place is clear…[5]

We’ve seen friendly fire kill the infantry, but artillery officers who are not careful run the risk of a more shocking sort of accidental demise when passing by camouflaged batteries.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 377.
  2. Testament of Youth, 365-6.
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 195.
  4. Talking Across the World, 230-1.
  5. War Diary, 316.

Alfred Hale is Sold into Servitude; Rowland Feilding Marches Well; Siegfried Sassoon Observes the Tragedy of Time, and Wins Timely Praise from the Author of Time’s Laughingstocks

Before we get to a poetically significant convergence of the twain, let us first commiserate with our newest conscript and congratulate one of our survivors.

Alfred Hale has spent the last ten days being of very little use to anyone. Assigned to his camp’s “Cripples Brigade,” his duties have included drill (stripped down to the command “right turn”), route marches (of several hundred yards, broken up by an elderly sergeant’s reminiscences) and picking up litter. The most signal events of his sojourn have included failing to haul beef carcases to the kitchen (too heavy) and being addressed as “sir” by a sergeant. Hale’s theories of why this last embarrassment occurred did not run toward accusations of sarcasm or cynical wit–he believes either that sergeant was polite in the mistaken belief that the “elderly” gentleman-private would end up an officer or that some reflexive, pre-military response to the obvious signs of his civilian class (he speaks like a “blooming toff” in private’s togs), triggered the polite form of address.

But today, a century back, Hale learned his fate: he was paraded in the morning and informed that he would become “an officer’s batman in the RFC.” Opinion in his tent was divided on the merits of this assignment: Hale, at least, would know how to talk to gentlemen; but then again an officer’s batman must be handy, and always on hand…[1]

 

Rowland Feilding would be most bemused by this sort of incompetence. He prides himself, rather, on the turnout of his battalion even as it moves away from the front lines, riding the rails and then marching into rest.

May 18 1917 Coulomby.

Yesterday… it took us 7 1/4 hours to do 25 miles; and we travelled—both officers and men—in goods trucks.

This morning (my birthday) we moved on again by foot, doing 15 miles—a trying march, since the day was hot and
the men were heavily loaded up, besides being too fresh from the trenches to be in a fit condition for marching. They came along splendidly, nevertheless, with the drums leading, and finished in the evening with plenty of swing at Coulomby, where many officers and men of other battalions of the Brigade stood by the road, watching them pass.

All along the route numerous inhabitants (who are not so blasé about British soldiers hereabouts as they are nearer the line) turned out to have a look at the battalion. Bevies of children ran alongside, and an old Frenchman–evidently a veteran of the Franco-Prussian War–had all his medals ready, and held them up behind his cottage window, at the same time drawing his hand across his throat in signification of his sentiments towards his quondam—and now once more his country’s enemies…[2]

 

And thence to Sussex, where Siegfried Sassoon continues his restive recuperation. His diaries make it clear that he is avoiding the war as much as he can–but he has made no mention of the fact that his book has just come out (although at some point soon he will copy snippets of the reviews into the diary).

This despite the fact that his friends are all pulling for him, working hard to get the book received positively. Robert Graves has been hassling booksellers and lining up literary uncles, and he will shortly write to Sassoon to proclaim that The Old Huntsman will “out-Rupert Rupert.” A much more important ally is Robbie Ross, who also wrote, today, to say that “[t]he tide has obviously turned.” Even though the reviews are still forthcoming it seems that the literary lights are now ready to approve angry and critical verses from a young officer.[3] There will be more literary lunches when he returns to London, but in the meantime, well, there is Chapelwood Manor, and aristocracy, and age.

May 18, 1917

Lord Brassey returned from town to-day. He discoursed during coffee and port-time about the War, while we four young soldiers sat round the table putting in a respectful word now and again.

I was next to him and had plentiful opportunities of noting the wreckage of his fine face—the head and brow are still there, and the firm nose, but the mouth is loosened and the lower lip pendulous and unhealthy-looking, like his hands. I think he is always on the verge of a ‘stroke’. He talks in carefully pompous phrases as though he were Chairman of a Meeting…

He ended by saying ‘I’m only an old dotard,’ and we tried to laugh naturally, as if it were a good joke, instead of a tragedy, to see a fine man the victim of Time, his body worn-out, his spirit undaunted.

But I won his heart with my piano-playing afterwards—and probably made him sad as well as happy (possibly sleepy!). He seems unable to lift his chin from his chest. We young men are strangers in the land of his mind. He will go out into the night, and the world will be ours.

‘I declare to you, my dear fellow, that it is my profound conviction that the present ecclesiastical administrative functions are entirely, yes, entirely and undisputably inefficacious. O what worlds of dreary self-sustainment are hidden by the gaiters of our episcopal dignitaries!’

…He is a very old man: his sententious periods quavering between the querulous and the urbane. But his face is often lit up by the human tenderness that the wise years have taught him. He is a good man.

And he has never heard of Rupert Brooke! How refreshing. And Lady Brassey has never heard of Hardy’s Dynasts[4]

 

Speak of the devil! Or, rather, of the wizard, the poetic doktorvater in absentia. The parallelism here between Sassoon and the old lord and Sassoon and the old writer (Hardy is only four years younger than Lord Brassey) is too nice to disrupt with fussy commentary…

Max Gate, Dorchester, May 18, 1917

My dear Thornycroft;

I am sending this letter to young Sassoon through you, if you will be so kind as to forward it. I thought it a safer route than through a publishers office, & I don’t know where he is. As it is about his poems, I have left it open for you to read. Please fasten it up…

Always yrs
T.H.

Yes; Siegfried Sassoon lacks a Great House to inherit, his father abandoned the family, and his mother is such an embarrassment that he wrote her out of his memoirs. Ah but he does have friends–and uncles. Hamo Thornycroft, the sculptor, is his mother’s brother, and a friend of Hardy’s, who sat for a bust. He first made the connection between his young nephew and the giant of English literature. There have already been signs of approval, and so it is only bold, perhaps, rather than foolhardy to have proposed dedicating The Old Huntsman to the old master.

But will cautious optimism and frosty, family-friend permission lead to real poetic respect?

Max Gate, Dorchester, May 18, 1917

Dear Mr Sassoon:

I write to thank you much for the gift of “The Old Huntsman” which came to me duly from the publishers. Also for the honour of the dedication. I was going to wait till I could send an elaborate letter of commentary, after a thorough reading of the poems, but I then felt that you would prefer, as I do myself, just this simple line to tell you how much I like to have them. I should say that I am not reading them rapidly. I never do read rapidly anything I care about, so I have not as yet got further than about the middle.

I would not, even if I could, enter into a cold-blooded criticism. It occurs to me to tell you however that I appreciate thoroughly, “When I’m among a blaze of lights”, & “Blighters”, & much like the grim humour of “The Tombstone Maker”, & “They”, the pathos of “The Hero”, & the reticent poignancy of “The Working Party”. How we realize that young man!

I wonder how you are getting on in Hospital. Improving surely, I hope, even if slowly. I don’t know how I should stand the suspense of this evil time if it were not for the sustaining power of poetry. May the war be over soon.

Believe me, with renewed thanks, & best wishes for your good luck,

Sincerely yours

Thomas Hardy.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Ordeal of Alfred Hale, 63-4.
  2. War Letters to a Wife, 176.
  3. Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I 363.
  4. Diaries, 169-70.
  5. The Letters of Thomas Hardy, V, 213-4.

Edwin Vaughan is Back in the Trenches; Siegfried Sassoon is Back in the English Countryside

Edwin Vaughan‘s spring has been a quiet one so far. But tonight, a century back, he writes a tidy little “back to the front” piece which gives us a good, detailed reminder of what ordinary trench-holding–specifically the “relief” of one unit by another–involved.

Yesterday, there had been a cricket match and tea shared with rear-echelon troops. Today, packing and the issue of new maps. The approach march halted until dusk fell, waiting beyond the limit of German observation. Then, in the dark, they began their march toward Cambrai.

For an hour we marched in perfect quiet and then far ahead was a flash followed by the boom of one of our guns. Almost at the same moment we had to spread out to avoid a shell-hole. From there on the shell-holes became more frequent and the road was littered with large, loose cobbles…

The rain–of course–had started, and things seemed pretty miserable to me as I lay in the wet grass in full pack with the front line half a mile off. Pushing on we moved across a faint track and had just climbed on to an open plain when the order ‘Gas Alert’ was passed back. We got our gas-masks ready but save for a slight smell of pineapple there was no development.

Presently guides arrived and we were led away to the right whilst the rest of the Battalion carried on…

At the trench wherein we learnt was the Company HQ dugout, we picked up one guide per platoon, and took our separate paths to the front line…

A gradual downward slope of 200 yards brought us to a trench barely 20 yards long. Here an officer greeted me and climbed up on top. I dropped Dunham, Sergeant Jowett and the reserve section and the remainder of us went forward to the line of posts in front…

Having posted these sections we returned to the trench behind and climbed down the slippery earth steps. A small cubby-hole had been scooped into the front of the trench, and into this we crawled. There was just room for us to lie full length on the straw, with a candle stuck between us on a piece of stick jabbed into the side. Here I signed for the stores of bombs, Very lights, ammunition and petrol tins which I had checked, and I asked the officer if he had any tips to give me about the trench. He told me that everything was very quiet but that no one could move by day. At night Jerry had strong patrols out in No Man’s Land, but his line was a thousand yards away.[1]

So they have arrived, and mastered the trench. But now there is No Man’s Land to be dealt with.

 

Siegfried Sassoon, meanwhile, has been enjoying the social aspects of a London recovery from a less than dangerous wound. But, in another highly suggestive quirk of medical bureaucracy, he is sent out of London just as his book (its merits trumpeted by his many well-connected friends) is starting to make an impact. Sassoon has arrived for a stay at Chapelwood Manor, in Sussex, the seat of Lord and Lady Brassey, who have graciously made it into a convalescent home for officers. Although Sassoon is not thinking much about his book–so far as we can see from his diary, at least–he is writing again. It would seem that London is always an interlude, while the more perfect contrast of country-house recovery with the misery of the trenches stimulates reflection.

May 13 3.30 a.m. (in a white bedroom at Chapelwood Manor)

This notebook began not many miles from Arras in the bloody month of April, when guns began to bellow. And now my disciplined wanderings have sent me to a very pleasant country house, where perfect good taste prevails, and nobody sleeps in the clothes he wore last week and this.

It is a grey-timbered and many-gabled house, built twelve years ago. Dark yew-hedges and formal gardens are round it. And its windows look across Sussex toward Lewes and Beachy Head—all woods and sloping meadows and hedges in their young green, and growing wheat, with clumps of daffodils in the field beyond the gardens.

Sleepless, I am waiting for the dawn and the first English birds I have heard sing out their maytime madrigals since 1915. The gables of the house begin to show distinct against a clear, starry sky, Cocks are crowing; an owl hooting away in the woods; and the busy clock ticks on the mantelpiece. I feel as if I were soon to get up and dress for a cub-hunt—swallow my cocoa and boiled eggs, and then hear the horses’ feet trampling the gravel outside.

All this is a long way from Arras and the battles. I am back in the years before battles were invented or Rolls of Honour thought about at all. As I lie on my bed with a yellow-shaded electric lamp shining (on my pink pyjamas) I can see the sky through the open, uncurtained window. The sky is a wonderful deep-blue colour, as I see it. When I turn out the light the window is a patch of greyish white on the darkness, with treetops standing up, very shadowy and still. It is the quietest of mornings; not a breath of wind.

I hear a cuckoo a long way off. Then a blackbird goes scolding along the garden trees. Soon the chorus will begin. Put out the light.[2]

Lovely stuff. But time travel is only a mood, and even Sassoon can only bear so much of this intense Brit-Lit atmosphere. And what comes next? Once the birdsong fades out and the Sussex sun climbs high, will the poet-half-reborn really take up his pen and head grimly back down the Hindenburg Tunnel, to finish what he started?

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Some Desperate Glory, 114-15.
  2. Diaries, 163-4.