Edward Heron-Allen Analyzes a Word of Command; Wilfred Owen Has Made an Influential Friend; Vera Brittain’s Poetic Ambitions, and What Comes Out in the Wash

We can sketch Siegfried Sassoon‘s leave in London only in appointment-book fashion. Yesterday it was friends and music; today, family. Sassoon spent the day at an aunt’s house, his mother having come up from Kent for the day.[1]

 

Meanwhile, back in Kent, Edward Heron-Allen, still learning the ropes of infantry drill, has a quite surprisingly funny rendition of the strange contortions of drill-ground commands. These are choreographic orders that began as simple English words but have been altered by years of shouting at men who already know the stereotyped commands into what seems like a foreign language. Heron-Allen is, after all, a splendid linguist…

…The colonel appeared and marched us off. His word of command is astonishing when you don’t know it. First an extraordinary gurgle, which I afterwards learned to mean ‘4th Queen’s Own’, and then, with great lucidity ‘mootwryicolleroo’ which the intelligent military interpreted as ‘move to the right in a column of route’, and so we marched off…[2]

 

And Wilfred Owen, back in Scarborough, is belatedly realizing the social heights to which his friendship with Sassoon has delivered him, as he will describe in tomorrow’s letter to his mother.

Yesterday, I had tea in the Club in Scarborough, and taking up Who’s Who was amazed to find that Roderick Meiklejohn who invited me to dinner at the Reform was Mr. Asquith’s private secretary while Mr. Asquith was in office…

Meiklejohn, as it happens, will spend tomorrow morning with Sassoon…[3]

 

We also learn, today, that Vera Brittain has been rather busier than she has led us to believe. Not only has she written enough poetry for a small book, but she has sent them off–bereft of influential literary friends though she is–to a publisher, received a favorable reply, and already written to her brother about it. Verses of a V.A.D. is on it’s way, and Lieutenant Brittain sounds just a bit jealous…

Italy, 10 February 1918

Very glad to hear that Erskine Macdonald was so favourable in his criticism; it is certainly rather unusual–I should think–for him to half-finance a first volume of any sort…

I am extremely busy again with all sorts of work–chiefly range practices and difficulties connected with washing men and clothes. The most excellent system of giving a man clean underclothes every time he went to the baths which we had in France cannot apparently be done here. The present system is to have a Corps laundry; all kinds of units send clothing when asked to do so: the result is that the company has to have (say) 50 shirts, 45 pants, 55 socks, and 30 undervests collected. This of course leaves a lot of men without a change of certain garments; then at some time or other they will carefully return to you washed 35 shirts, 50 pants, 40 socks, and 20 undervests. At present we are doing some of the washing ourselves. A few people come over and drop bombs when the moon is favourable — otherwise there is not much war going on.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 211; Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 441.
  2. Journal, 153.
  3. Collected Letters, 530.
  4. Letters from a Lost Generation, 389.

Siegfried Sassoon in London; Edward Heron-Allen Takes Tea in Tunbridge Wells

Siegfried Sassoon arrived in London at 7 this morning, a century back, to begin the traditional “last leave” before posting abroad. Having only two days and a few hours to spend in London, he set immediately to work having fun, never mind any fatigue from a day of hunting yesterday, followed by an overnight trip from Ireland.

He lunched with his two most important advisors/advocates, Robbie Ross and Eddie Marsh, and went from there to what sounds like a rather long and heavy-hitting sort of concert (anti-German feeling still not running high enough to keep Beethoven’s 5th off the bill), and then back to Ross for dinner. After dinner, Sassoon met with Dr. W.H.R. Rivers, his Craiglockhart savior. But, alas, he wrote nothing of this meeting beyond the bare record–“Sherston” skips the London trip before picking up the diary when he goes abroad, and, wearying, perhaps of the second big biographical push, Siegfried’s Journey doesn’t fill in the blank but merely sends us back to Sherston (who, as we have just learned, is cribbing from Sassoon’s diary) for the coming months… So, because there is little to go on and, also, perhaps, in tacit agreement with Sassoon’s own evident judgment that this brief stay in London interrupts the narrative of his adventures to little effect, even so stalwart a fictionalizing soul as Pat Barker omits this bit of Sasson’s journey as well…[1]

 

Edward Heron-Allen is almost a comically apposite opposite to the younger-than-he-seems, sensitive, amiable, fond-of-presenting-himself-as-ignorant Sassoon: a fussy, elderly/middle-aged, effusive polymath, Heron-Allen has a mind of great discernment, a talent for making adversaries, and not much poetry about him… And, amazingly, today, as Sassoon complicates his present life with his multiple-looking-backs, Heron-Allen looks forward to his own biography–still not yet written, alas.

How is life as an infantry subaltern in a pretty country town? Believe it or not, it is making this eminent Victorian more content with his Englishness…

…This morning I had to get up at 6.15 am, in the darkness of a grey wet morning (the weather is really ‘chronic’) and had breakfast at 7am, though it was too early for coffee or toast. Still–I am acquiring a belated taste for tea! My future biographer will say ‘He took to drinking tea, which he had hitherto detested, at the age of 56’…

…they have route marches on Saturday and glad I was that I was Orderly Officer for they march about 12 miles before 12 noon (parade at 9 am) and the officers have to wear full packs and service equipment. I must get out of that, or reserve my rights to turn back when I give out.[2]

Although I have an innate distrust for anyone who publishes books on palmistry or tries to persecute blustering writers on personal grounds, I also have an instinctive affection for anyone who dotes on the work of their future biographers… so it all evens out…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 211.
  2. Journal, 150-1.

Wilfred Owen, Shunted to Shrewsbury; John Ronald Tolkien at Twenty Per Cent; Siegfried Sassoon has a Dream

Wilfred Owen, “Major Domo” though he is, has been called on the carpet regarding his rather self-indulgent request concerning leave… and not by a military superior, mind you, nor about whether he will take leave, but rather whither.

19 January 1918, Scarborough

My dear darling Mother,

That was a naughty tentative letter of mine. I meant to call at Home on the way. If I can get away on Tuesday Morning, I shall arrive Shrewsbury a few minutes to 5 p.m. There surely will be an early morning train to London, arriving noon or one p.m.

The wedding is at 2.30.

So that’s going to be kind of a hectic morning…

But Owen has cause to be in a very good mood, despite his mishandling of maternal preferences. He not only began a poem shortly after hearing the news of the Podmore Hill disaster but finished shortly after that, set it directly to The Nation, and had it accepted, all in a week. Never has Owen had such swift success.

With your beautiful letter came a proof from the Nation of my ‘Miners’. This is the first poem I have sent to the Nation myself, and it has evidently been accepted. It was scrawled out on the back of a note to the Editor; and no penny stamp or addressed envelope was enclosed for return! That’s the way to do it.

‘Miners’ will probably appear next Saturday, but don’t order a copy…

Of course the Leave is not absolutely certain. It is a kind of duty both to myself and Graves to go to the Wedding. You know how hard it will be to start away on Wednesday Morning.

Always your W.E.O.[1]

 

Also today, a century back, John Ronald Tolkien went before yet another Medical Board. He has still been running a temperature and having regular relapses of other symptoms, but things are tightening up as a manpower shortage is looming: he is ruled only 20% disabled and given another month’s home service, with the possibility of more active duty afterwards.[2]

 

And finally, Siegfried Sassoon. He has been happy, and busy, and, therefore, not writing a whole lot. Until today, a century back:

January 19

And another week has fled. Frost and snow till Wednesday. Now it’s warm and rainy. I walked out to Adare this afternoon. At the end of the journey I suddenly came upon the wide, shallow, washing, hastening, grey river; the ivy-clad stones of a castle-ruin planted on the banks, amid trees. Very romantic scene, on a grey evening… Strange peace of mind now. The last two weeks have been a complete rest for mind, while body stood about for hours on parade, watching the boys drill and do P.T. or lecturing lance-corporals in barrack-room…

Robert Graves is married on Tuesday. Sent me his new poem “The God Poetry” yesterday. Very fine. Hunt Monday, and go to Cork for Anti-Gas Instruction till the end of the week. Hunt Saturday with Jerry Rohan’s hounds.

The quick proceeding from poetry to hunting–the indoor Sassoon overwritten by the outdoor Sassoon–is more dismissive of Graves, I think, than a harsh comment on the poem (which he evidently did send) would have been.

Reading Colvin’s Keats, Hardy’s new poems, and dipping into Barbusse now and then (all this apart from my military text-books which I study again!!)

This is quite a literary diet, and indoor Sassoon is more energetic than the peaceful/mindless tone of the diary entry would suggest. Keats for the lyric soul, Hardy for the hard-nosed satirist, and Barbusse (in French) for the new possibilities of war-writing.

Which he duly produces, writing a poem into the journal directly after closing today’s entry with  this two-sentence, half-cryptic, half-revealing cri de coeur. Outdoor Sassoon is happy huntin’ and drillin’ far from mental strife; indoor Sassoon is reading and writing and doing reasonably well–but he is homesick for the place of his mental and emotional rebirth…

How many miles to Craiglockhart? Hell seems nearer.[3]

 

The Dream

I

Moonlight and dew-drenched blossom, and the scent
Of summer gardens; these can bring you all
Those dreams that in the starlit silence fall:
Sweet songs are full of odours.
While I went
Last night in drizzling dusk along a lane,
I passed a squalid farm; from byre and midden
Came the rank smell that brought me once again
A dream of war that in the past was hidden.

II

Up a disconsolate straggling village street
I saw the tired troops trudge: I heard their feet.
The cheery Q.M.S. was there to meet
And guide our Company in…
I watched them stumble
Into some crazy hovel, too beat to grumble;
Saw them file inward, slipping from their backs
Rifles, equipment, packs.
On filthy straw they sit in the gloom, each face
Bowed to patched, sodden boots they must unlace,
While the wind chills their sweat through chinks and cracks.

III

I’m looking at their blistered feet; young Jones
Stares up at me, mud-splashed and white and jaded;
Out of his eyes the morning light has faded.
Old soldiers with three winters in their bones
Puff their damp Woodbines, whistle, stretch their toes:
They can still grin at me, for each of ’em knows
That I’m as tired as they are…
Can they guess
The secret burden that is always mine?—
Pride in their courage; pity for their distress;
And burning bitterness
That I must take them to the accursèd Line.

IV

I cannot hear their voices, but I see
Dim candles in the barn: they gulp their tea,
And soon they’ll sleep like logs. Ten miles away
The battle winks and thuds in blundering strife.
And I must lead them nearer, day by day,
To the foul beast of war that bludgeons life.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 527-8.
  2. Chronology, 104.
  3. Diaries, 203-4; poem version from Counter-Attack and Other Poems.

Max Plowman and the Inspirational Power of Collective Action; Edward Brittain Grumbling in Italy

Here’s a surprising and pleasing juxtaposition. After the haze of misogyny (or, at least, contemptuous anti-feminism) which hung over yesterday‘s meeting between Graves and Sassoon, we have our other prominent pacifist infantry officer, Max Plowman, taking rather a different approach to questions of courage. Plowman has long been active in liberal causes, and, it would seem, he has learned something from them.

Plowman’s protest against the war–after his honorable service as a “Subaltern on the Somme” (which followed his original intention to serve with the ambulances)–will never draw the attention that Sassoon’s abortive protest did. But it seems to have earned him a letter from a hero of the drive for Women’s Suffrage, Emmeline Pethick Lawrence (the future Baroness Pethick-Lawrence). If one of the reasons we suspect that Graves’s friends don’t like Nancy Nicholson is that she is a young feminist and a “Land Girl” prone to wearing trousers and insisting on carrying her fiancé’s baggage, one wonders how they would cope with a middle-aged peace activist, suffragist, and former prisoner of conscience who took her husband’s name on marriage–as he took hers.

But I am digressing, now, and Plowman will return to our original subject–the war, that is:

Dear Mrs. Pethick Lawrence

…I was thinking, as I wondered what I should say in answer to your letter, of the things that give one courage. I remember quite well the day before I first went into trenches. It was early in August last year & we were bivouacing in dry shell-holes on the high ground near Mametz… we were going to ground alongside Delville Wood on the following day. And… I remember very clearly how, & with what satisfaction, I recalled the only march I had ever done before I joined the army–from the Embankment to the Albert Hall as the tail end of that huge midsummer demonstration in favour of Votes for Women. I remember hearing you speak, & though I had surely been the most inconspicuous person in the whole show, it glowed in my memory then as one of my few actions that had been mightily well worth while. It gave me that assurance of personal identity which is, I suppose, the foundation of courage.

Now your letter comes with the same gift. So I thank you enormously…

…your kindness adds a cubit to my stature.

…Yours very sincerely,

Max Plowman

P.S. Can you answer this conundrum? Having proved to my own satisfaction that every man has a God-given right to his own life, how am I to remain a member of an organisation which has the destruction of men’s lives for its chief object?

M.P.[1]

Yes, that’s a good question, isn’t it…

 

Our other bit, today, a century back, is another letter of thanks from a young subaltern to a sustaining female presence… in this case Edward Brittain to his sister Vera.

Italy, 22 December 1917

I am so thankful for your letters–they are now as before the greatest help in the whole world . . . I don’t know whether I am glad to be here or not–it sounds strange but it’s quite true; I was glad to leave the unpleasant region we were in not far from you and the novelty was good for a time but yet in a way it is all the same because there is no known future and the end is not yet, though, on the face of things at present, there is perhaps more chance of return…

We will have another look at this letter when Vera receives it, but I should include just a little more, as insight into Edward’s mood, now that he has adjusted to life on a quiet front:

…this sort of routine is so deadening; it is a life of thinking about little details the whole time and especially thinking about the right one at the right time; the brain must be essentially a machine of memory and after that the rule of life is expediency.

It is very tiring and uninteresting. I can’t get on with this because of a number of messages, orders, etc which are continually arriving…  I am rather a grumbler.

…Goodnight, dear dear child

Ever your

Edward[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Bridge into the Future, 86-7.
  2. Letters From a Lost Generation, 385-7.

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.