Siegfried Sassoon’s Dubious Cure is Complete; The Guards Prepare to Enter Bourlon Wood

Today, a century back, is another one of those dramatic days in the literary history of the war–meaning that, even if you haven’t seen the movie (Regeneration, a.k.a Behind the Lines), it’s hard not to imagine the scene dramatically staged, with sonorous speechifying punctuated by clipped phrases. Siegfried Sassoon–decorated infantry officer, poet of protests, and previous-medical-board-cutter–comes before a Medical Board to assure them that he has not changed his mind, refuses to acknowledge that he has been ill, and nevertheless insists not just on resuming military obedience but on actively fighting–he has Rivers’s word that he will be passed fit for general service abroad, and not shunted off to a depot or desk job.

It went fine, by most accounts, and the drama dissipated. Sassoon left Craiglockhart in what must have been a mood of anticlimax–Rivers had already left, Owen was gone, and he was off to a dismal depot in Wales to see if the War Office would keep the bargain and send him back into danger.

It’s possible that Sassoon was frustrated, that he was unsettled and unhappy to be going to a place with many acquaintances who would not understand his protest, and no real friends. But I don’t see any good reason to follow his biographer Jean Moorcroft Wilson in assuming that he was deeply depressed. He has sent some melodramatic letters in recent days, surely–and he is annoyed by Robert Graves‘s infatuation with Nancy Nicholson (although whether he viewed this primarily as a “defection” from a homosexual brotherhood–rather than just a male friend traducing an all-male society–is doubtful). But to assume that he “no longer cared whether he was alive or dead” (or, later on the same page, that he was “not caring much whether he lived or died”) seems unnecessary. Sassoon is prone to wallowing, but he never really manifested severe depression. His “almost complete despair” is an emotional position, rather than a psychological state. Either that or it’s a passing mood, and there are no German grenadiers near by to take him up on a temporary recklessness…[1]

In any event, his strange claims and steady demeanor got him past the board, despite his insistence that the war was still wrong and that he hasn’t changed his mind. This is true in one sense, but untrue in a more important one: he can do nothing right, or feel nothing to be right, until he is back with the troops.

And after the second board meets, naturally, the book ends. Regeneration, that is: the last scene in the novel sees Rivers completing the paperwork that sends Sassoon back to duty.

 

And none too soon–or, rather, far too late for him to see any of the worst of the 1917 fighting. The last of this will fall, as it often does, to the Guards division. We are back, now, with the American Carroll Carstairs, only just returned from leave. He found his battalion, the 3rd Grenadier Guards, a few days ago, hurrying up to the front to support the Cambrai attack.

The ’buses came at last and at 5.30 a.m. we arrived and went into huts. What was going to happen? All day we remained apprehensively at Boulencourt. I was one of so many that a sense of individual danger was lost. Death would be pure accident. No bullet be intended for me. One’s mind dodged the issue. You did not think of it. It thought of you. That was it. It considered you bodily; pinning you to earth; running you down. For we were certain—I was certain—to go into battle. What was that silly line in a story? It made me think of a battle as something so romantic as to be harmless…

It was here that British troops had so recently overrun the impregnable Hindenburg line. The tracks of the tanks that had flattened some six aprons of barbed wire could be seen. In their wake the infantry had followed. All very neatly done. No artillery preparation. Few shell holes. Little bloodshed. Many prisoners. Just a nice clean battle…

We were billeted in a deep dugout. Twenty-four steps. Very safe. In the trench a tank had been stuck, its nose
perpendicular in the air—looking a clumsy, helpless thing…

The Germans were shelling Anneux. The next day we were to take over the line in front of Anneux and facing Fontaine. Cambrai looked ridiculously within reach. Bourlon Wood, half British and half German, presented an inscrutable appearance. It was too late. We should not be used now. Again I was to miss a battle. On the way
back the moon was setting in a sky of violet…

Another day passes, and the romantic is disappointed. But he will get his battle, and he manages to describes his contradictory spirits with both jauntiness and sensitivity, seriousness and verve:

The next day was windy. The clouds had a smudged look as though a dirty finger had rubbed their edges. Towards evening the wind died out like the end of a long sigh and the day was still. Without moon and stars the night was black and threatened rain.

I had met the Battalion with the guides, but the Commanding Officer was nowhere to be seen. I found “Billy” though, who was much excited. He told me what was up, but I could not take it in. His announcement affected me physically before I had mentally grasped it. I felt it like a shock, like a blow, turning me sick. The Battalion was to
attack the following morning. Once the words had been formulated and the brain had recorded and repeated them there occurred an emotional ebb, leaving the system drained. Gradually I rallied to the fact itself, inevitable. All this within the space of a few seconds. I had morally run away, fallen, picked myself up, while remaining steadfastly on one spot.[2]

 

Carstairs is a surprisingly excellent chronicler of subjective experience. Rudyard Kipling, writing as official chronicler of the Irish Guards, is up to something different. And yet it can’t be so different: he can set the scene from behind, with the traditional “General’s Eye View” of the proceedings, but he knows the need, after tactical summary, for eyewitness testimony, however parenthetical and in dialect, to bring us into the experience of the day:

The official idea of the Brigade’s work was that, while the 3rd Grenadiers were attacking La Fontaine, the 2nd Irish Guards should sweep through Bourlon Wood and consolidate on its northern edge…

They would advance under a creeping barrage, that jumped back a hundred yards every five minutes, and they would be assisted by fourteen tanks. Above all, they were to be quick because the enemy seemed to be strong and growing stronger, both in and behind the Wood. The Battallion spent the night of the 26th working its way up to the front line, through Flesquières where bombs were issued, two per man; then to La Justice by Graincourt; and thence, cross-country, by Companies through the dark to the Bapaume—Cambrai road, where they found the guides for their relief of the Scots Guards. Just as they reached the south edge of Bourlon Wood, the enemy put down a barrage which cost forty casualties. Next it was necessary for the C.O. (Alexander) to explain the details of the coming attack to his Company Commanders, who re-explained it to their N.C.O.’s, while the Companies dressed in attack-order, bombs were detonated, and shovels issued. (‘There was not any need to tell us we were for it. We knew that, and we knew we was to be quick. But that was all we did know — except we was to go dancin’ into that great Wood in the wet, beyond the duck-boards. The ground, ye’ll understand, had been used by them that had gone before us— used and messed about; and at the back, outside Bourlon, all Jerry’s guns was rangin’ on it. A dirty an’ a noisy business was Bourlon.’[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Siegfried Sassoon, I, 424-428.
  2. Carstairs, A Generation Missing, 119-22.
  3. The Irish Guards in the Great War, II, 156.

Rowland Feilding’s Circuitous Identification; A Reprieve and a Safe Delivery for the Family Tolkien; Wilfred Owen Comes Out with a Key, and Sends “Asleep.”

Just three short notes today from (or about) three of our officers–but one gives a good excuse for us to read a poem.

The shortest comes from Rowland Feilding, who is impressively true to his commitment to tell his wife everything–horrors and fears included. But that doesn’t preclude a bit of light comedy, when such a thing presents itself.

November 16, 1917

One of my officers, in censoring his men’s letters a day or two ago, came upon the following:

“Dear Brother,–

I can’t tell you where I am, but I am at the place which I’ve left to go to the place where I’ve come from.”

I think that should baffle the censor, don’t you?[1]

 

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien had rather a heavier day, today, a century back, but with greater joys at the end of it.

The scheduled family medical event was another Board, which determined that his recovery from his latest bout with fever has been too slow. Tolkien was declared “20 per cent disabled,” a ruling which would have come to him as the lifting of a great weight: this classification made it very unlikely that he would ever face enemy fire again. Tolkien was sent back to the Lancashire Fusiliers depot at Thirtle Bridge, for at least two months more of “home service” before his next assessment.

And on returning to base he learned that his wife Edith had gone into labor in a Cheltenham nursing home. It will be a difficult delivery, and there are fears for her life, but Tolkien was unable to get leave to see her. It must have been a terrible day, for any husband and prospective father, but especially for one so fiercely committed to the romantic ideal of marriage.

And it ended happily: John Francis Reuel Tolkien will be born, healthy and strong, and his mother will make a relatively swift recovery.[2]

 

And finally, today, an unusually revealing–and predictably obscured–letter from Wilfred Owen. He has just spent several days visiting with his cousin Leslie Gunston, his closest friend and poetic fellow-dreamer in earlier years. But Owen had moved beyond his old friend and kinsman, and there was a new distance between the two. It’s not just that Gunston writes hackneyed verse while Owen has begun writing powerful poetry, and it’s not just his fancy new London friends. It also seems to have something to do with new honesty: emboldened by his friendship with Sassoon and Robbie Ross, Owen  seems to have made his sexual preferences clear to his cousin for the first time.

My dear Leslie,

I did not think to send back a driblet of your Ink so soon, but I have indeed carried off the key.

Had it been the key of my box I should surely have left it with you. As it was I left you the key to many of my poems, which you will guard from rust or soilure. . .

At this point the censorious editors of his letters cut in, omitting twenty-two words. It seems very likely that these announced Owen’s homosexuality as the “key” to his early poems, the love lyrics which he and Gunston would often write as parallel exercises. To “come out” even in so roundabout a fashion was courageous, and Owen must have trusted his friend and cousin, for the letter continues on as if their continued easy fellowship will not be affected by the news.

Good of you to send me the Lyric of Nov. 14th. I can only send my own of the same date, which came from Winchester Downs, as I crossed the long backs of the downs after leaving you. It is written as from the trenches. I could almost see the dead lying about in the hollows of the downs…

your W.E.O.[3]

Owen also gamely and loyally informs Gunston that he asked Harold Munro about Gunston’s rather awful The Nymph–although of course he could be fibbing. Even so, he does not mention doing anything specific to get The Nymph into the Poetry Bookshop, where after all it wouldn’t belong.

But if Gunston doesn’t realize how far Owen’s poetry has moved beyond their joint adolescent imitations, then perhaps he will be happy to receive drafts from his successful cousin, rather than chagrined that they are of such a different quality than his own productions…

In any event, the poem is called “Asleep,” and although it is nothing of Owen’s strongest and has quite a bit of the young man’s lyricism that drenched his pre-Sassoon work (although perhaps the erotic element will now be clear, for the first time, to the “key”-possessing Gunston), it is still the work of a veteran and a fast-developing poet:

 

Under his helmet, up against his pack,
After so many days of work and waking,
Sleep took him by the brow and laid him back.

There, in the happy no-time of his sleeping,
Death took him by the heart. There heaved a quaking
Of the aborted life within him leaping,
Then chest and sleepy arms once more fell slack.

And soon the slow, stray blood came creeping
From the intruding lead, like ants on track.

Whether his deeper sleep lie shaded by the shaking
Of great wings, and the thoughts that hung the stars,
High-pillowed on calm pillows of God’s making,
Above these clouds, these rains, these sleets of lead,
And these winds’ scimitars,
Or whether yet his thin and sodden head
Confuses more and more with the low mould,
His hair being one with the grey grass
Of finished fields, and wire-scrags rusty-old,
Who knows? Who hopes? Who troubles? Let it pass!
He sleeps. He sleeps less tremulous, less cold,
Than we who wake, and waking say Alas!

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 225.
  2. Chronology, 102; I'm not completely sure if young Tolkien was actually born today or tomorrow, a century back.
  3. Collected Letters, 507-8. The censor is Owen's brother Harold, who ruthlessly but incompetently suppressed information about his brother's sexuality

Rowland Feilding Pays High Compliments to the Enemy; Wilfred Owen’s Idyll Ends

In a recent letter to his wife, Rowland Feilding remarked on the valor of two Germans who had escaped from a French P.O.W. camp and tried to make their way home by infiltrating the British lines from the rear.

This, I may say, is an almost impossible thing to do… Therefore, I regard these men as sportsmen.

High praise. And today, a century back, Feilding fits actions to words, showing the Germans the courtesy due to valorous foes.

Acting upon orders, we fired over some leaflets, to-day, to our enemies across the way, telling them in the choicest German about the fate of their Zeppelins which attempted to raid London a few days ago. I rather fancy a note was added, in English, to the effect that Otto Weiss–a German N.C.O with an iron cross whom we got on our wire three nights ago–has received Christian burial. I am now wondering if this latter will be regarded as “Fraternizing” with the enemy.[1]

 

And in Edinburgh, a Medical Board met to consider not Siegfried Sassoon–who might have been skipped to the front of the line, one would think, after skipping out on his last board–but Wilfred Owen, who is at once a more simple and more complex case. More simple because there is no question of politics or publicity, but more complex because although Owen has had an excellent time recuperating under Brock’s “ergotherapy” program, it is difficult to know whether sending a man who has broken down (and still suffers from nightmares) back to the front is ever the right course of action.

In Owen’s case–and as he expected–the Board took a middle course, sending him back to a reserve unit for some months of home service (after the expected three weeks’ leave). What Owen probably didn’t know is that the doctors, rather surprisingly, placed a note in his file indicating their belief that he will not be fit for at least four months more, and that overseas service will never be advisable. But this was only an advisory note, leaving confirmation of the decision up to the next Board.

Afterwards, Owen immediately made his farewells, leaving Craiglockhart by the afternoon of today, a century back. He will remain, however, in Edinburgh for several more days, staying with the family of one of his new friends in order that she might finish painting his portrait. There are, of course, other reasons for remaining in the area: he will see Sassoon again before he departs…[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 220-1.
  2. Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 279.

Wilfred Owen is Almost Ready to Leave; Siegfried Sassoon Fights to the Finish; Frederic Manning is Simply Finished

Frederic Manning‘s battle against alcoholism–although perhaps his “fighting retreat in the face of overwhelming alcoholism” would be a better metaphor–ended in defeat today, a century back. Manning’s C.O., Major Milner, “obviously hoping to save his subordinate from further embarrassment while allowing the army its due,” let Manning attempt the fig-leaf gesture of quitting before being fired.

2nd Lieut. Manning has submitted his resignation and if this is to be accepted I cannot see that any useful purpose will be served by again trying this officer.

2nd Lieut. Manning is a gentleman but apparently has no strength of will and is quite unsuitable as an officer.

This was kind, considering the circumstances, but there was no way around the M.O.’s report: “This officer is in a stupor, quite unfit for any duty evidently the result of a drinking bout.” Even if some honor is salvaged, it’s clearly the end of Manning’s military career.[1]

The more relevant question, perhaps, for Manning, was “and what next?” He’s out of a commission, but not free from conscription. It seems likely that Milner’s sympathy might save Manning more than mere pride, namely by making it more likely that he will be swept aside as a broken man best left in a backwater rather than sent directly back into combat–a private soldier once more–by way of punishment for his failures as an officer.

 

In Edinburgh, Siegfried Sassoon is fighting his own losing campaign to avoid seeing Lady Ottoline Morrell face to face before he faces his next Medical Board, at which he plans to conditionally abandon his allegiance to her cause.

My dear Ottoline, It would be jolly to see you but it seems a terrible long way for you to come, especially If you are rather broke, as I gather you and Philip generally are! However, if you decide to come, let me know what time you arrive.

I can’t see any way out of it except in France. Nothing definite has been heard from the War Office. They are very fed up with me here, as I was supposed to attend a Board last Tuesday, and didn’t go.

At least, today, he’s faced up to this and told Lady Ottoline about his erratic behavior. At least this helps to demonstrate, in a way, that he has been not so much erratic as consistently bifurcated (in an earlier era we would have lightly said “schizophrenic”) about his feelings on the war. He has reacted to the news of the Étaples mutiny and the role of the First Royal Welch in quelling it by writing another of his lacerating pro-troop, anti-leader poems.

Rivers thinks my ‘Fight to a Finish’ poem in the Cambridge Magazine very dangerous…

 

Fight to a Finish

The boys came back. Bands played and flags were flying,
And Yellow-Pressmen thronged the sunlit street
To cheer the soldiers who’d refrained from dying.
And hear the music of returning feet.
‘Of all the thrills and ardours War has brought.
This moment is the finest.’ (So they thought.)

Snapping their bayonets on to charge the mob.
Grim Fusiliers broke ranks with glint of steel.
At last the boys had found a cushy job.

I heard the Yellow-Pressmen grunt and squeal;
And with my trusty bombers turned and went
To clear those Junkers out of Parliament.[2]

 

This really should almost be dangerous–in wartime, with no great freedom of speech permitted, he has once again written a fantasy in which the violence of the front lines is visited on the hypocrites at home. This time, however, it’s not a third-person wish, involving the impersonal violence of a newfangled tank. This time it’s Mad Jack himself who wants to lead his favored men, his crack bombing team, on a raid on his own national legislature.

I wonder how much confidence Rivers has that this make-up Medical Board next month will go well?

 

If Wilfred Owen knows anything of his friend’s state of mind, he still probably wouldn’t mention it in a letter home to his mother, to whom he famously tells most things… but not all. Naturally, his thoughts turn to his own Medical Board, and what it might mean for him.

Monday

It seems really likely that I shall be evacuated on Tuesday. Some time ago the Grays made me promise to stay 2 or 3 days with them before leaving Edinburgh. I am going there this afternoon, & if they ask me again, I may stay one day in order to get my picture done. Sassoon is anxious for me to spend a day or two of my 3 weeks with some people at a Manor near Oxford.

Ah, now there is another aspect of his new friendship that Owen is keeping from his mother. The manor in question is Garsington Manor, home of Phillip and Lady Ottoline Morrell.

I have not made up my mind. We went to the Astronomer’s yesterday, & saw the moon.

I wonder how I shall find you all. I shall be in a desperate excited state when I arrive…

But not so desperate as to make a beeline:

So, then, I may turn up on Tues. Night, or Wednesday Morning, or any day until Sat., for I want to stay on here a few days (if it won’t shorten the 3 weeks) to be able to return all my borrowed books, & make a graceful exit from  these scenes.

W.E.O. [3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Marwil, Frederic Manning, An Unfinished Life, 185.
  2. Diaries, 193-4.
  3. Collected Letters, 504.

Ivor Gurney Hears the Music of the Stars; Siegfried Sassoon Stands Up a Board and Still Fails to See the Moon

Another digressive letter from Ivor Gurney of today, a century back, contains one of the nicest expressions of his musicality. And by “nice” I mean something that I can more or less grasp–only actual musicians would be able to follow much of his discussions with Marion Scott, and these I generally puzzle over, than omit. But not only can we grasp this one, perhaps, but we might even connect it to his war–to something, at least, that he sees before him:

Last night — O lucky me! — a Scottish Rifle sat up besides the stove with me, which glowed and made believe it was a fire. And he had travelled and could talk, and we had the same politics and the same tastes. His eyes were steady, his laugh open and easily provoked, and a smile that could not be long checked being chiefly an affair of the eyes. O well, it must have been 12.30 when we illicitly walked under the stars, watching Orion and hearing his huge sustained chord…

Gurney then writes into the letter a bass and treble clef, fitting them out with the chord he heard: a grand D Major, with the F# only present in the bass.

From this heavenly synesthesia,[1] he segues directly into verse, quoting Hilaire Belloc, then Yeats, and then delivering himself of this programmatic declaration:

The great test of Art—the Arts of Music, Writing, Painting anyway is to be able to see the eyes kindly and full of calm wisdom that would say these things behind the page. I will not try to write verse in England. Once out there, it will leak from me in vulgar streams.

With best wishes,

Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney[2]

 

And there we must leave Gurney to traipse only a few miles away to another War Hospital on the outskirts of Edinburgh. The segue is not poetic, alas, but a question of “out there–” in two senses. We will learn that the path back to the trenches can take different turns for different men and, more curiously, that it must have been clear in Scotland last night, and cloudy tonight…

Today, a century back, is the big day for Siegfried Sassoon: he recently announced his readiness to return to active service, his protest notwithstanding, and Dr. Rivers agreeably arranged a Medical Board, which is intended to end the fiction of his having a (symptomatic) “war neurosis” and pronounce him fit for duty. So off to the board he goes… or off to the waiting room, at least.

Even if you don’t know the story, you can probably guess that Sassoon–Mad Jack, the quiet poet, the petulant schoolboy–is not going to proceed according to plan.

I regret not using more of Sherston’s Progress lately, because it’s really good stuff… my excuses are that Sassoon puts few dates into it, that these are often slightly off, that he writes this section in a much more openly “binary,” flash-forward-ridden way, and that it is still, technically, a fictionalized memoir rather than a “straight” personal history.[3]

But in volume three of Sherston’s memoirs the fiction is growing thin. Rivers is Rivers, too influential to be damned by faint pseudonym. And although poetry–and therefore Owen–doesn’t enter into Sassoon’s account of “Sherston’s” stay at “Slateford,” everything else is more or less exactly where it should be. He tells us of his intolerable roommate, the relief of getting a lonely garret to himself, the consolations of literature as the weather turns against golf, etc. And very nicely, too. But about today he has different feelings.

There are two ways of telling a good story well — the quick way and the slow way. Personally I prefer a good story to be told slowly. What I am about to tell is not a good story. It is merely an episode which cannot be left out. A certain abruptness is therefore appropriate.

Well, rats! But this is protesting too much, isn’t it still a good story?

On the appointed afternoon I smartened myself up and waited to be called before the medical board. I was also going to tea with the astronomer, who had promised to let me have a look at the moon through his telescope. But I was feeling moody and irritable…

Sassoon–or, rather, just barely, Sherston–wonders if he didn’t perhaps have a touch of a cold coming on, which might explain… no, no, it doesn’t. He doesn’t let himself off and, as promised, he skips the story.

The Board was running late, he didn’t like to be kept waiting, and so he walked out: Lt. Siegfried Sassoon, M.C., former prominent pacifist and alleged neurotic, “cut” the Medical Board that was to decide his fate, with the excuse that the army shouldn’t make him late for tea.

The story is missing its middle, but it has a lovely last word. Naturally, when “Sherston” arrived, the astronomer’s telescope was not working (though, in a wry detail, Sassoon got instead a glimpse at a mysterious instrument and a lecture on the precise measurement of “infinitesimal fractions of a second”). The conclusion?

So even the moon was a washout.

But one point we can certainly take away from Sassoon’s treatment of the episode: there’s no need to over-complicate the story. A cold? An adamantine sense of social propriety? Others suggest, plausibly, a “fit of pique.” But isn’t it plausible that Sassoon wasn’t quite sure about his decision, or that he wanted more time with Rivers, the father figure who had recently abandoned him for his own sick leave, and knew that Rivers would cover for him?

In any case, that is precisely what happened. Rivers was furious with Sassoon–the only time, “Sherston” tells us, that he was so–but before the interview is over he laughs, forgives, and agrees to schedule a new Board in a month’s time.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Which reminds me more than a bit of Tolkien, who will cast his cosmological creation in musical terms, with heavy emphasis on starlight--and who brings Orion recognizably into the stars of Middle Earth.
  2. War Letters, 225-6.
  3. Another reason, I think, is that I once read Sassoon's laying-open of his youthful follies as a commendable effort in biographical soul-shriving. I'm not so sure, now: he stays in control of the effort, and seems at times to be almost political in his careful revelations, as if he is revealing what he must in such a way that he will earn commendation, while keeping the most embarrassing stuff safely hidden...
  4. Complete Memoirs, 551-2. See also Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 418.

Rowland Feilding Belatedly Locates the Machine Guns of the Somme; John Ronald Tolkien Still Suffers from its Fevers; Ivor Gurney on the Courage of Women

Rowland Feilding has been mixing light letters about life in reserve with accounts of how he is spending his own free time (which, as a battalion commander, can be considerable), namely walking the old battlefield of the Somme and remembering what he and his men endured during the Battle of Ginchy last September 9th.

You will remember what a terrific fire we encountered when we attacked at this place. I have ever since been curious to know where that fire came from, and how so powerful a concentration of machine-guns could have complete escaped our artillery. Now I know. A well-concealed and winding trench, branching into two, and worked in conjunction with nests of shell-holes adapted as machine-gun positions! That is what we ran into, and it was a hopeless task we undertook that day…[1]

 

One of the casualties of the Somme–of its infectious diseases rather than its bullets, shrapnel, or gas–was John Ronald Tolkien. He has yet to return to full health, and, after a severe relapse which put him in the hospital for nine weeks, he went before a Medical Board today in Hull. The report was middling:

He has still not recovered his strength; he suffers from debility and pain in his arms and shins, and he looks delicate

Declared “30 per cent disabled,” Tolkien was sent back to the 3rd Lancashire Fusiliers at Thirtle Bridge, for light duty. The board’s decision may be changed later, but for now Tolkien has some reason to hope that he has seen the last of the trenches.[2]

 

Alas for Ivor Gurney that this is not true. He remains in hospital, but with a wink and a nod: his lungs are more or less fine–it is his talented fingers which keep him there, accompanying all the would-be singers in their own recoveries.

16 October 1917

My Dear Friend: This is a most lovely morning, and I ought to be out on the hills somewhere instead of writing letters, even to you. For letter writing is work of a sort, though I like it not badly here, and in France it is often a pleasure.

There is not much to tell you, there is no masterpiece of chiselled and exquisite verse…

Is it wise of me to play music? Well, I do, but know only too well that the effort to forget will be an extra difficulty against the little serenity I shall have in France. Unless I grow stronger of soul of course, and so much stronger is unlikely. The things I should most like to write are things of beauty with a vinegary ending, something after “The Fire Kindled”. Heine I believe is famous for that sort of thing. It is best to be Shakespeare but good to be Heine — though not Thersites.

Gurney is almost always etceterative–and occasionally tremendous. What an idea–to write beautiful, vinegary things, like Heine. And Thersites is a rare reference, but an excellent one: Gurney perhaps remembers him as the one common soldier who makes a role for himself in the Iliad, where Thersites is an ugly, misshapen grumbler amongst the gleaming heroes and handsome demigods who lead the Greek army, a would be mutineer who is scorned and battered into silence by his betters. But he is, nevertheless, a common man with a voice in the great poem.

Gurney is, as usual, writing to Marion Scott, and he segues now from his own classically-cast ambition (and muted grumbling) to a consideration of women at war. It is typical of his intelligence that he takes an observation (and one which runs against the grain of all-too-typical prejudices) and proceeds without much fanfare to a sensitive (and sensible) reconsideration of a Big Concept–courage, in this case  .

…Nurses are really wonderful people to do so many things distasteful and still to smile. There is a very nice set of nurses here (have I told you?) that could hardly be better. They call this the “Ragtime Ward”, a name of envy given by men oppressed in places of female dragons and discipline. The courage of women is certainly not less than that of men. To my mind, that is. The serene performance of hateful duties, and the refusal to be depressed by them is the finest form of courage. The more sensational are the wilder forms — no higher. There are a few soldiers who go on till they are knocked out, not heeding wounds, most of these comparative few have supported their nerves only too freely beforehand. The rest may be the flower of earth, but the man who can be brotherly and crack a joke on a winter night in a shell hole has undoubted undeniable unsupported courage, which is not always certain of the spectacular gentlemen, who may be Berserk or drunk. But there! It is only my preference perhaps for serene and quiet strength rather than for the violent kind. Violence is waste of energy.

Here endeth the umptieth lesson…

Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 215.
  2. Chronology, 102.
  3. War Letters, 222-4.

Wilfred Owen on the Next War; Ivor Gurney on Blighty Ones and Souvenirs

Not all that very long ago, Wilfred Owen was overjoyed to be part of something as polished and literary as The Hydra, Craiglockhart Hospital’s in-house literary magazine. But he has come far in recent weeks, not least in his own estimation. Two days ago, a century back, he wrote to his mother in long-suffering-editor mode.

Thursday, 10 p.m.
My own dear Mother,

Glad to have your reproach this morning & to think my letter could not arrive long after your posting. The Result of the Board has not been officially announced, but before it Dr. Brock said I should be kept on. In a few minutes I must go down to a special meeting about the Magazine. We have a new House President now, who is willing to lay out more money for it. At last, moreover, there seem to be people capable of helping to it. Sassoon is too much the great man to be bothered with it, and I wish I had back again the time I have wasted on it. I was cajoled into promising to act in the next big play, but had the fortitude to get out of it again.

I think one of the most humanly useful things I am doing now is the teaching at Tynecastle School…[1]

 

Owen will now do his utmost to get out of any further editing duties, but he was responsible for the issue of The Hydra which hit the breakfast room at Craiglockhart today, a century back. It included one of his latest poems, a naked homage to Sassoon, published anonymously:

 

The Next War

War’s a joke for me and you,
While we know such dreams are true.

 

Out there, we’ve walked quite friendly up to Death, —
Sat down and eaten with him, cool and bland, —
Pardoned his spilling mess-tins in our hand.
We’ve sniffed the green thick odour of his breath, —
Our eyes wept, but our courage didn’t writhe.
He’s spat at us with bullets and he’s coughed
Shrapnel. We chorussed when he sang aloft,
We whistled while he shaved us with his scythe.
Oh, Death was never enemy of ours!
We laughed at him, we leagued with him, old chum.
No soldier’s paid to kick against His powers.
We laughed, — knowing that better men would come,
And greater wars: when each proud fighter brags
He wars on Death, for lives; not men, for flags.

 

In another hospital only a few miles away, Ivor Gurney, is writing his own verse–but he is not pleased with it. Nevertheless, like Owen, he wishes that his cure might take just a little while longer…

29 September 1917
Hospital, Bangour.
Ward 24, Edinburgh Military

My Dear Friend: I have just turned over a page, just finished writing a most unsatisfactory piece of verse with which I shall not trouble you.

And would you really be polite enough to ask how I am getting on? Then you shall learn that the will of the doctor still keeps me in bed and on Light Diet; as that does not include bully-beef and biscuits I am not unsatisfied altogether, but it does mean Lightness, and that is not good. And the little baccy I have is of the most distressing; cigarettes are no companions like a pipe, and one tires of them. They do not care for classical music much here; my head is thick; my fingers stiff; the weather dull; there is nothing worth reading.

So there you are out of my grumbles. For to lie between clean linen in a light room is no small thing; nor to be able to buy todays papers a small blessing. It is good to wander surreptitiously from ones own room to another and listen to Scots tales of battle and winter hardship — if one does not look forward. Rest is good, and for the present that is all my business. Would to God I had a cough — a cough! What can a gassed man do without something hoarse or rattly? My chances are small, for my chest betrays me, of staying peacefully “in silk and scented down”.

Gurney then makes a black comedic allusion–he has no doubt that Marion Scott will catch it–to Alan Seeger:

I have a rendezvous with Fritz
By some disputed barricade”
and that before long.

Gurney, released from the strictures of censorship, then sketches all his movements–with the real place-names–and some of his actions. Frustratingly, when he now could tell us everything that has happened to him, he only distractedly sketches a few scenes and hints at a few notably horrible moments.

This next bit, however, is remarkable. Does he have any regrets about his time just behind the front lines?

O the souvenirs I might have had! But only officers have any real good chance of souvenirs, since only they can get them off. The men find things, and people who live in dugouts will hang them up and brag of great deeds in that old time. But the men, who could not carry very well, and had no place to store things and hardly a leave, will be empty-handed. You see, if one finds something interesting, it may be in a hot comer, and how is one to carry it, for the haversack is full… And if a wound comes all your stuff is lost. A man found a quartermasters stores at Omiecourt, near Chartres, with hundreds of brand new helmets, but all that could be done was a little traffic with officers. I had two books and some papers for you, all lost at Vermand. Men hang on to revolvers and badges, watches and compasses etc, all that can be easily carried. There is too much sniping for the fighters to get  souvenirs, the salvage and burial parties get them. (Will this letter interest you? And if so, why?)

Of course it will: from the far side of the experiential gulf it feels like a privilege to identify with the humble fighting soldiers–and against the knaves and R.E.M.F.’s who cheat them of their booty… and this is poetry:

People unfitted for the line, lunatics, funks, bosseyed idiots and such like, from whom an officer with 50 francs may make himself rich with booty — and reputation, the ASC do well, for they have room to store. R.T. officers, with Real Homes. Brass Hats can get what they would. Only the poor fool who goes over the top — and under the bottom — seems to be without anything at all. It is only fair to say that he is easily contented—with bare life, warmth, and food he must be counted rich; so by all means load weights of discipline on to him till he cares not whether he is in Rest or in the Line. And doesnt care a ha’peny obscenity about souvenirs save in his leg or arm; marketable, magic-carpet-like, transmuting talismans as they are. What an ode Bums would write to a Piece of Shrapnel! I hope for a letter from you very soon:

Your sincere friend – Ivor Gurney[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 496-7. Coincidentally, (Owen's soon-to-be intimate friend) Charles Scott Moncrieff published, on the same day as this letter, a review of Alec Waugh's novel of adolescent love, writing wryly that "If I had been given the alternatives--to lie about in Flanders and, in mid-August, occupy Langemarck, or to return to England, about the same time, criticise 'The Loom of Youth', I know not which of these adventures, alike so arduous and so gratifying, I should have chosen. But I had no choice..." See Chasing Lost Time, 137.
  2. War Letters, 208-210.

Edmund Blunden Behind the Heroics; Siegfried Sassoon’s Editorial Impression on Wilfred Owen’s Anthem

Edmund Blunden missed his battalion’s last tour in the front lines of the Salient, as he returned from a signalling course only to be kept with the reserve. But…

This time I was wanted; my horse was sent back, and the Adjutant, Lewis, told me to go up immediately to the new front with him. No one knew, except in the vaguest form, what the situation was, or where it was.

Suddenly, therefore, I was plucked forth from my comparative satisfaction into a wild adventure. Lewis, a reticent man, hurried along, for the afternoon sun already gave warning, and to attempt to find our position after nightfall would have been madness. First of all he led his little party to our old familiar place, Observatory Ridge, and Sanctuary Wood, where we expected those once solid trenches Hedge Street and Canada Street; never was a transformation more surprising. The shapeless Ridge had lost every tree; the brown hummock, burst and clawed
up, was traversed by no trenches. Only a shallow half-choked ditch stood for Hedge Street or Canada Street, with the entrance to the dugouts there in danger of being buried altogether…

The eye was hurt with this abrupt skeleton of isolation. But farther off against the sunset one saw the hills beyond Mount Kemmel, and the deep and simple vision of Nature’s health and human worthiness again beckoned in the windmills resting there.

But Blunden will not be in the very front: with his new signalling expertise, he will be behind the fighting companies, coordinating communications from the headquarters dugouts, which are

…a set of huge square pillboxes on a bluff, which the low-shot light caused to appear steep and big.

This would bring us up to today, a century back,[,ref]See the War Diary of the 11th Royal Sussex, page 101 of the available pdf.[/ref] and Blunden now cedes the stage to the man of the hour.

What the companies in the forward craters experienced I never heard in detail. Their narrative would make mine seem petty and ridiculous. The hero was Lindsay Clarke… He took charge of all fighting, apparently, and despite being blown off his feet by shells, and struck about the helmet with shrapnel, and otherwise physically harassed, he was ubiquitous and invincible. While Clarke was stalking round the line in his great boots, poor Burgess in a pillbox just behind was wringing his hands in excess of pity, and his headquarters was full of wounded men. With him sat one Andrews, a brilliant young officer, not of our battalion, carrying on some duty of liaison with brigade headquarters. But as even we hardly ever had certain contact with him, his lot was not a happy one.

With this ominous note we will leave Blunden and return to Blighty, but Blunden’s is praise of Clarke is emphatically ratified by the ordinarily staid Battalion War Diary:

Capt. Clark counterattacked on our own front & gave the enemy no chance, running out into No Man’s Land to meet him after which he safeguarded our left flank by clearing the Germans from a dugout on the road. Our front therefore remained intact. Enemy’s artillery was of unprecedented violence and our casualties were heavy.

 

At Craiglockhart, near Edinburgh, Wilfred Owen produced another chatty and upbeat letter to his mother today, a century back–but with one crucial difference. After the news of Edinburgh society dinners, boy scout meetings and guest lectures of various sorts (ergotherapy in action!) comes this:

I am to be boarded today, and am waiting to be called in at any moment. Dr. Brock says I shall be given an extension.

I had one horrid night since I last wrote.

I send you my two best war Poems.

Sassoon supplied the title ‘Anthem’: just what I meant it to be….

Will write soon again. Your very own Wilfred x[1]

Given both the battle in Flanders and our dependence on Owen’s letters for actual dates, we have heard little of what Owen and Sassoon are up to in their writing and editing sessions. But it is now clear that the student has hurtled past the master.

While Owen, waiting for that medical board, enclosed “Anthem for Doomed Youth” in a letter to his mother, Sassoon was writing to Robbie Ross, bitterly mocking his new roomate in what only pretends to pass itself off as humor:

I hear an RWF friend of mine has had one arm amputated and will probably lose the other. As he was very keen on playing the piano this seems a little hard on him, but no doubt he will be all the better in the end. At least the Theosophist thinks so.

Love from Siegfried

Did you see my poem in the Cambridge Magazine for September 22?[2]

Sassoon is alerting Ross to the fact that he has just published “Editorial Impressions:”

He seemed so certain “all was going well,”
As he discussed the glorious time he’d had
While visiting the trenches.
One can tell
You’ve gathered big impressions!” grinned the lad
Who’d been severely wounded in the back
In some wiped-out impossible Attack.
“Impressions? Yes, most vivid! I am writing
A little book called Europe on the Rack,
Based on notes made while witnessing the fighting.
I hope I’ve caught the feeling of ‘the Line,’
And the amazing spirit of the troops.
By Jove, those flying-chaps of ours are fine!
I watched one daring beggar looping loops,
Soaring and diving like some bird of prey.
And through it all I felt that splendour shine
Which makes us win.”
The soldier sipped his wine.
“Ah, yes, but it’s the Press that leads the way!”

 

An effective satire, perhaps, but very mid-1917. The future of war poetry is with Owen, not Sassoon. His “Anthem” was worked over by Sassoon, and profited from his suggestions–their joint session, by the way, makes for an unusually effective scene of “literature in action” in Pat Barker’s Regeneration. But the poem is Owen’s work, and it is powerful. When finished, it will read like this:

 

Anthem for Doomed Youth

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
      — Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
      Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
      Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
      And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
      Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
      The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

At the medical board, Owen, despite and because of his good health, is granted a reprieve–an extension of his time at Craiglockhart under Dr. Brock’s care. More time with Sassoon, and more time to write.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 495-6.
  2. Diary, 187.

The Immaculate Man of the Trenches Survives–in Silence

Our men in the salient are quiet today–too quiet. In fact, Edward Brittain has also been in the thick of it for ten full days. But he hasn’t told his sister Vera, who has been engaging in a sort of magical-thinking silent treatment.

Four days later, I learnt that his company had left the front line on September 24th, after being in the “show” without a break since the 14th. “We came out last night,” he told me, “though perhaps ‘came out’ scarcely expresses it; had about 50 casualties, including 1 officer in the company — the best officer of course. I ought to have been slain myself heaps of times but I seem to be here still.”

It was during this offensive that he came to be known as “the immaculate man of the trenches.” In addition to his
daily shave, he wrote most considerately whenever he could to let me know that he was still “quite alright.”

…This was war in real earnest, yet to my tense anxiety he did seem to bear the proverbial charmed life. So long as he remained, even though the others were dead, hope remained, and there was something to live for; without him — well, I didn’t know, and blankly refused to think… his activities so distressed me that I seldom wrote to him at all, superstitiously believing that if I did he would certainly be dead before the letter arrived. With his usual tolerance he only protested very mildly about this unexpected treatment.

“quite understand why you didn’t write during the interval but, if possible, please don’t do so again or else I shan’t tell you when I am about to face anything unpleasant, and then you will not be able to help me face it.”[1]

This is not the first time that Vera Brittain has had to contend with the emotional push and pull of communicating with front-line soldiers. It’s the fourth time, really: Roland, Victor, and Geoffrey all went into danger, and from each, eventually, there was a letter that became a last letter, and a telegram that brought the worst news. But Edward is safe, for now, and he has explained for us the soldier’s side of the story: I need your letters, too; and even if I can’t write often or in depth from the trenches, I still need to be able to signal across the gulf, and know that someone is there, reading and waiting…

 

Henry Williamson has been convalescing in Cornwall–after illness and a touch of gas–for several happy months. At a medical board, today, a century back, he learned that this pleasant interval will end–but gently. Wililamson was declared fit for “light duty,” and given leave…[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Testament of Youth, 387-8.
  2. Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 168.

Robert Graves De-Dedicates Siegfried Sassoon; Eddie Marsh Rededicates Himself to Winston Churchill, and Heads for Belgium

Robert Graves begins his letter to Siegfried Sassoon of today, a century back, with an apology: he has belatedly changed the dedication of Fairies and Fusiliers, his upcoming collection of poetry. Instead of being dedicated to Sassoon it will be the entire Royal Welch Fusiliers who share the honor.

Dearest Sassons,

If you’d been anyone else you’d have thought me a first-class four-letter man for changing the dedication like that, but you know it wasn’t meant for anything, except that I was afraid at the last moment of a dedication to an individual for fear of jealousy from Gosse, Ross, Marsh, Masefield or anyone like that of my ‘friends and lovers’ not to mention the family. Also, I thought that to point my devotion to the regiment would strengthen my expression of hatred for the war.

“I was afraid… fear… jealousy… hatred:” excuses, excuses. It also seems possible that this has something to do with the newest “lover,” Nancy Nicholson. She is, in most senses, Graves’s first lover, and not one that he would think Sassoon likely to approve of. But whatever his motivation, Graves is abjectly apologetic:

…I’m so sorry for my stupidity.

Well; but he must apologize: he is also asking Sassoon to read his proofs. This awkwardness taken care of, updates on mutual friends and comrades follow, including a mention of the luckless Julian Dadd:

Poor Julian was ill since he was discharged, brainfever due to worry about Ginchy where he somehow thinks he didn’t do well enough, but he’s in a good place I hear…

In other words, a mental breakdown of some sort. This sort of news can’t really be avoided–Sassoon is still in touch with other members of the regiment–yet it is still difficult to wade through. And any news of Graves’s current activities can only remind Sassoon not only that Graves is still “doing his duty” while he is playing golf, but also that Graves gave up a similarly cushy posting to a rest home on the Isle of Wight in order to come and deal with Sassoon’s protest. So Graves cutting to the chase is perhaps not, for once, unwelcome:

I do my best to cheer up the listless atmosphere of Litherland with wry jokes and my usual grotesques…

Sassons, I’d like you to tell me honestly are these shellshock fellow-patients of yours getting on our nerves? I’d be very unhappy if I thought they were: you talk of golf with lunatics, but I hope to God it’s not as bad as that. Damn Rivers, why should he go and get ill like that and leave you?

Yes, the inimitable Rivers, overworked and ill, has gone on a lengthy leave–an important interlude not only, perhaps, in his actual life, but in the fictional life he is given in Pat Barker’s Regeneration: he gets to reconnect with his mentor, check up on illustrative old patients, and observe the sickening methods used by less humane doctors to “cure” their patients’ neurological and psychological symptoms.

We can all, perhaps, agree, on the silver lining of Sassoon’s situation.

No, not all the golf:

…But one thing good is that you’re writing again… Stick to it and show me something good before New Year. Try… to cut down the slang as much as possible..

Another paragraph of advice ensues, but, since I imagine that, after rolling skyward, Sassoon’s eyes would not alight on the page again until the next paragraph, I will skip thence:

Some unknown friend has sent me the Loom of Youth: what an amazing book! I’m going to find out if Alec’s poetry is as good as his prose: he must be a wonder boy: he is I believe old Gosse’s nephew…

Sassoon has, presumably, heard about this book from Owen–although it is also possible that Owen would be unwilling, this early in their friendship, to emphasize the ground-breaking subject matter. But that would only be a sort of false irony: Graves, despite his own schoolboy crush (and later enthusiasm for the scandal-courting properties of writing about adolescent homosexuality), is about to embark on an exclusively heterosexual odyssey. If we were to assign labels–an unsatisfactory business at best–he is straight while Waugh, Sassoon, and Owen are, at least at this point in their lives, gay. In any event, Loom of Youth has clearly undercut Mr. Britling as the book of the moment…

Graves’s letter ends in bathos:

Robert Nichols will write to you for my proofs when you’re done. I have been all the week with a travelling medical board, as military representative, and have watched the fat old doctors passing the twisted weedy old syphilitics up from C3 into A: my only duty an occasional signature.

Tired. Goodbye.

Best love,

Robert[1]

 

By coincidence, we now begin a short period covered by a travel diary kept by Eddie Marsh, who has been Sassoon’s friend and advisor since before the war (he has also been of great help to Graves and to Isaac Rosenberg) as well as the essential organizer of both Georgian Poetry and semi-clandestine gay literary London society. He is also the private secretary to Winston Churchill–or had been, until Churchill’s ousting in late 1916. But Winston is back, baby, and so is Eddie:

‘…all my glory extinct,’ I served for the better part of a year in the West African Department (of the Colonial Office). But at last ‘came the dawn.’ My telephone rang, and it was Winston, announcing that Lloyd George had offered him the Ministry of Munitions, and would I come along? I went along.

It was delightful to be with him again…

The diary, which Marsh will later print “as a period piece,” shows an experienced public servant enjoying the ministerial life once more–and seeing the war with his own eyes for the first time in several years.

Sept. 13, 1917.

Crossed from Dover to Calais in the ‘P.11,’ starting soon after 9.30 and taking an hour. It was a perfect day and the
smoothest possible passage. We passed minesweepers, troopships, and several naval craft. The young Lt. whom I
talked to told me that the ship had lately got two ‘probables’ for destruction of submarines…

Later in the day, near Wytschaete Ridge, which had been reported “quiet,” Churchill, Marsh, and their escorts come come under fire–or a nearby battery does–from German shells.

Columns of smoke rose from the ground, 60-100 yards from us, and bits of shell fell quite close—5 or 6 yards off–while all the time our own shells were whistling and shrieking over our heads.

I was rather surprised at not feeling the least frightened—the only thing was that I was a tiny bit self-conscious, and perhaps a little unnecessarily anxious to keep up the conversation for fear the others should think I was rattled! The
landscape was extraordinary. There was a sudden line of demarcation between the fertile wooded country we had been driving through, and a tract of land where there was nothing but the black naked trunks of trees, with all their branches broken off short. The ground was practically all shell-holes, filled with water, and their edges all grown over already with vegetation, mostly a vigorous plant with flowers composed of masses of pink buds, which I happen to know is called persicaria…

Winston lent me his excellent field-glasses, through which I could see the emplacement of the Boche lines, about 3000 yards off in the plain—and several towns, including the utter ruin of Ypres, where I could make out no trace of the Cloth Hall or of the Cathedral.

Later, after a detour to see one of the Messines craters, they arrive at their first destination: Haig’s headquarters.

G.H.Q, is an ugly modern chateau, in nice green grounds with a pond and a little river. Sir Douglas doesn’t ‘do himself’ so well as Lord French did, when we stayed with him at St. Omer. There is no champagne here, the house is very cold, and the rear doesn’t lock![2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. In Broken Images, 83-4.
  2. A Number of People, 250-4.