A Shell Inscribes a Line in Edward Brittain’s Hand; Hugh Quigley Girds for Battle; Herbert Read Welcomes the Conquering Heroes; Isaac Rosenberg Goes Under the Weather; Phillip Maddison Goes from Safety to the German Lines, and from the German Lines to G.H.Q.

Today, a century back, brings a welter of writing–wry, wet, windy, and ominous.

 

Hugh Quigley knows that he about to march back into the thick of things, and so he writes, to someone he loves, with the cruel candor of the soldier before battle:

I expect this will be the last letter you will get from me for at least ten days. You know what that means. I can only only hope to get out safely, or, at worst, with a comfortable wound. If the same fate happens to me as to Peter, I have done my duty, according to conventional standards. By higher and more ideal standards, it is too perverted to be called duty at all, if it does not immediately help to stop war and avoid sacrifice.

Our men are growing more confident everyday; in fact, one could almost go into battle now with a bag of provisions and a walking-stick. The rifle plays only a small part, for the enemy invariably throw up their hands when the infantry approach…

Quigley’s confidence is more than a bit overstated, but then again this is a letter home, a last letter before combat, meant to reassure. Or something along those lines. While it is true that the rifle-toting infantryman is increasingly just a pawn in an artillery war, the idea that there will not be any fighting necessary in an advance against German pillboxes is ridiculous, as we have seen so often, recently.

Regardless, Quigley is soon back in a full-blown romantic mode: he even finds a “curiously apposite” French poem on a scrap of paper.

This paper was lying beside a tombstone under the shadow of a great church. I spent an afternoon wandering round that church, sentimentalizing to my heart’s content, with no one to disturb me and no one to utter bald consolations about the price of life. The slow passage of time came to a sweetness of thought, not melancholic, not poignant, just a lingering tenderness and a faint regret, tenuous as a web of sun in the tree-shadows. High chestnuts, browning through shimmering gold, dropped solitary leaves with a faint pat on the flat stones or rustled them through the wire-enclosed wreaths hanging from grey crosses, half-ruined, green with a decay of beauty, so that the harmony of life came very close to death, reality to dream…

You will see the old sentiments cannot die… They are worth something more than this, farther and higher… Not ephemeral, but progressive and continuous on a way of perfection…

Each man prepares for the ordeal of a tour in the trenches in a different way. Quigley, it’s safe to say, complicates the stereotype of the enlisted man’s “this leaves me in the pink” letter before battle…[1]

 

And Vera Brittain, who has lost a fiancé and two close friends after letters more or less like that one, has decided that she can’t hang on every turn of the front line/reserve/rest rotation of her only brother. So Edward writes to her today, only when he is safely out of the latest mess. I include this letter mostly for how it begins:[2] with a mark made by the war, not just on a day, a century back, but in a single moment:

France, 10 October 1917

— That curious dash because a shell made me jump. This is rather a filthy place… We haven’t had a mail for 3 days owing to our sudden move and so I expect there will be a letter from you when it does come. I am very glad you have written some more poems so as to make enough for a small volume; I will ask Mrs L[eighton] about it; I believe you were thinking of Erskine Macdonald before. By the way why haven’t you sent me any of your new poems as you know I should like to have them?[3]

 

Isaac Rosenberg has just had leave–his first–and has been writing poems. But the heavy rain of the last few days has done no good for his always-problematic lungs. The weather will save him, perhaps, if it doesn’t kill him: today, a century back, he went sick with influenza, which for a man of his physique is certainly more dangerous than ordinary trench duty.[4]

 

Comfort and the fortunes of leave are also on the mind of Herbert Read, guilt-stricken at having missed his battalion’s part in the Passchendaele battle. He can make amends by preparing decent beds for them all: having been held back in reserve and appointed billeting officer, he spent a long day’s negotiation with the inhabitants of a poor northern French village–“Mais c’est la guerre, as they all say.”

10.x.17

They came in shortly after midnight, very weary and ready to drop down and sleep anywhere. It isn’t three weeks since I left them, but it was like greeting long lost friends… It isn’t only fancy that makes them seem to have aged five years and more. They have gone through what as probably the most intense shell fire since the war began.[5]

 

Finally, today, we have a date-in-a-novel, a time-stamped activity from our strangest and most carefully calendrical fictional war book. Henry Williamson himself missed the summer and Passchendaele because of a long stint recovering from symptoms that may have been simple illness or may have been worsened by gas or the psychological toll of his service in the winter and spring around Arras. But his enormous semi-autobiographical sequence on the life of Phillip Maddison elongates the author’s combat experiences, compresses his time at home, and puts the protagonist always where the action is. Phillip Maddison never misses a battle.

Today, a century back, his heroic mentor, “Westy,” has turned up again as well, and this time Phillip plunges in unlikely fashion into the German lines (as he has done several memorable times before, including during the Christmas Truce and at Loos) as a sidekick rather than as a lone ranger.

Before sending us over the top, as it were, Williamson dutifully gives us a potted military history of the “Fourth Step” of Third Ypres, a.k.a. the “Battle of Poelcappelle.” Which is all well and good,[6] but sits rather jarringly with the most Gumpish of the many Gumpish moments in the series so far. I will quote and then summarize, as best as I can.

(The whole sequence of novels is a slog, but so very interesting: there is an unprecedented devotion to raking oneself over the coals of memory while raking out the embers of traditional military history at the same time–just not well-enough written to enchant other than a devoted reader over several thousand pages.)

The day after the fourth step had been launched, two men, each with a long stick in his hand, were walking on one of the many duck-board tracks lying parallel to the Wieltje-Frezenberg road, alongside which was an almost continuous row of 18-pounder field-guns….  The senior of the two, whose diminutive scarlet gorget patches on the collar of his ranker’s tunic were concealed under a woolen scarf, carried, in addition, a map-case.

“I don’t see how the infantry can possibly move in this weather, Westy. Must the attacks go on?”

“If only the Chief could have had his own way, and attacked up here last May, instead of down south, as demanded by Joffre… Third Ypres was put off in 1916, and again last spring. With the results that everyone can now see–only everyone, as usual, will draw the wrong conclusions.”

Well, Westy, you didn’t really answer the question.

Now commences the aforementioned Gumpish adventure, a sort of shark-jumping in the Passchendaele mud. It’s ridiculous to find this (over and over again) in a book that is generally concerned both to represent the progress of the war from a young soldier’s point of view and to dwell on the very real push-and-pull between rashness and cowardice, confidence and self-loathing that seems to have riven Williamson’s character, as well as that of his alter ego. Ridiculous, and suited more to a pot-boiler than an attempt at literature/transmuted memoir, but nonetheless fascinating. If Williamson had a slightly steadier hand, we could even begin to make the argument that his sprawling Bildungsroman is actually an argument that the realist novel is a poor sort of form for telling war stories…

The setting is this: “Westy,” the clear-eyed, far-seeing, casually imperturbable Cassandra of the Old Contemptibles, has become a sort of minister-without-portfolio for the staff, charged to roam wherever he will and report on the “real” situation without regard for the normal channels of command. He takes Maddison forward with him into the front lines, where another assault–the “Fifth Step” of the battle–is about to take place. Commandeering a platoon of Lancashire Territorials, the two adventurers cross into no man’s land near the town of Passchendaele itself, and find a crucial hole in the German defenses.

So far, only the freelancing of Westy and Maddison is ridiculously far-fetched. There does seem to have been a disconnect–mostly environmental and unavoidable (and to some extent a product of bureaucratic awkwardness and scale management and inefficient traditions)–between the enormous effort put into planning an attack in the weeks and months before it and the failure to process any knowledge of German plans and movements during the days when the pending attack must have been obvious to them. The strategic plan must be, to a large extent, inflexible, but there is a horrible sense that while the attack could be built to respond to reports from the front in the last days–to adjust to the adjustments made by the defense–the will just isn’t there. It’s such a big bureaucracy, and the top planners are so very far from the trenches…  The British guns mass on known German positions, there are raids and counter-raids, withdrawals and new positions… and the machinery of the attack clicks slowly forward…

More or less alone in a gap in the vaunted German defenses, “Westy” writes out a dispatch, describing the tactical omission and opportunity. But while he is doing so the green subaltern of the platoon they have borrowed blows a whistle, as if he were on parade or mid-attack. Alerted, a German machine gun opens up, Westy us shot through the chest–his eighth wound–and it is left to Maddison to save the day.

And here’s where it gets interesting. Maddison–touched now by the hand of of the divine and possibly dying West–is suddenly, once again, brave and resolute, decisive and dashing. But he is also on a segment of the line where he is known to various officers, and not well liked. He has a significant reputation for both shirking and for wild immaturity, and so the perils which spring up to prevent him from getting Westy’s report to the men who must read them are not just physical obstacles like broken country and German bullets, but also the enemies of his past, among his own army.

Calm and collected, Maddison takes off, D’Artagnan-like, but find that he must explain himself to an officer who knows him from his days a misfit and lead-swinger.. He is disbelieved, disrespected, place under arrest, and then left alone with a horse and an easily-bluffed enlisted man. So Phillip Maddison, veteran of First and Third Ypres, Loos and the Somme, turns horse-thief, and gallops off to G.H.Q… and there, dropping dead with exhaustion and telling a strange tale, he is warmly listened to, fed and bedded, and made to tell his tale to the assembled mucky-mucks. There is good food and wine and cigars, but also the confident formality (of the very well-bred Englishmen). The unkempt messenger is heeded, and a better plan is put in motion… Phillip has saved day, and will have a pleasant rest at G.H.Q. before returning to his ordinary duty as a transport officer in a humble Machine Gun Company… And Henry Williamson leaves us wondering–is this a personal triumph in the face of the cold indifference of strategy? Is the implication that the Staff, with its cigars and clean clothes and expensive liquor, is nonetheless doing the best it can by men like Westy (not to mention all those thousands of platoons in the front lines? Or are the two worlds as incompatible as they feel, since the distance between the two seems to have grown greater after the unlikely gallop of our hero from one to another, rather than smaller?

I’m not sure. The simple answer, surely, is that when Williamson is writing of a time when he was abed in England, he works from a military history and indulges himself by writing a Boy’s Own Paper adventure. Whether this means that he was unable to consistently write a giant realist novel as a consistently realistic “War Book,” or simply unwilling to do so, is another matter.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Passchendaele and the Somme, 144-7.
  2. If there is an image of it available somewhere, I didn't find it with a desultory search, alas.
  3. Letters From a Lost Generation, 377.
  4. Cohen, Journey to the Trenches, 172.
  5. The Contrary Experience, 111.
  6. It seems a relatively clear and balanced history of the battle as seen from the decades afterwards, and didn't Tolstoy do much the same thing, after all?

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

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

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

April 15th

Mother dearest–

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

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

Love from Diddles[1]

 

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

April 15, 1917 (Sunday).

Rossignol Estaminet (near Kemmel).

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Got back very wet and tired about 4.30…

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

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

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

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

 

And in verse:

The Rear-Guard

(Hindenburg Line, April 1917)

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Tomorrow, at last, Sassoon will go into action.

 

References and Footnotes

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

Ethel Hermon Writes to Her Laddie; The Afterlife of Rupert Brooke, XVII: Re-Read by Read; Duff Cooper and Patrick Shaw Stewart and the Huntress Hunted; Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and Alf Pollard All Draw Near to Battle

We have a full complement of disparate subjects today: grief on the home front, idle high society, and a new wave of soldier-writers going forward in France.

 

We’ll begin in England, where the toll of April 9th is still being felt–except where it has yet to become known.

In 2008, Anne Nason published a book of letters written by her Grandather, Edward “Robert” Hermon, to her grandmother Ethel. Nearly 600 letters tucked away in a desk drawer had remained there for almost a century, until after the death of her mother, the Hermons’ second daughter, Mairy. For Love and Courage contains most of those letters, but the even greater number of letters that Ethel sent to Robert did not survive–letters to serving soldiers are hard to store away in desk drawers, and few made it out of the war even when their recipients survived. All of Ethel Hermon’s letters to Robert were lost except for one, written today, a century back, in ignorance of the fact that the man to whom she writes has been dead for three days.

Laddie my own,

I got a lovely letter this morning, 52, written on the 7th & doubly appreciated as you must have been feeling far more like going to bed that writing to me. You must be having a desperate, strenuous time, so laddie, do spend your spare minutes in a bit of rest & not in writing.

I know, of course, now that you must have been in the front line when the show started on Monday… All surmise is quite useless, I know, & yet one simply can’t help thinking & picturing things…

I could read so easily between the lines that you knew big & strenuous things were in front of you & I do so hope & pray you’ll come thro’ them safely laddie my own…

My best of everything to you dear, dear laddie.

Yours ever,

Ethel[1]

This letter will be returned to Ethel Hermon in the coming days, the envelope marked “Killed in Action.” When his effects reach her, they will include a card she wrote for her “laddie” this summer, enclosing a lucky clover. The double hole made by the bullet passing through is visible on either side of the center fold.

 

In London, Eleanor Farjeon waits to find out where Helen Thomas has gone, so that they can mourn together the man they both loved.

I went back home, to wait for the next news. It came in the morning, in Helen’s letter forwarded from the
Billingshurst post-office. She did not say much, only that she had had the telegram, was coming to her sister Mary’s in Chiswick, and would be returning almost at once to High Beech, and wanted me to go with her. I got in touch with Mary and was told the train Helen would take to Loughton next day.[2]

One thing her sister Mary seems to have helped Helen with is mailing some of the letters she had composed a few days earlier, informing their friends of Edward‘s death:

Post Mark: Battersea S.W. 11.15p.m. 12 April 1917

High Beech, nr. Loughton, Essex

My dear Emily & Gordon,

I wanted to be the one to tell you that Edward was killed on Easter Monday.

You will know how desolate I feel, in spite of the perfect union of our souls which death only completes. He lives on.

Helen[3]

 

 

Herbert Read is a fascinating case–a fierce intellect and by now an experienced infantry officer, but he is a young northerner in a northern regiment, and seems far from the turmoil stirring among London-based artists. But it’s hard to tell just where he is: he has been difficult to include here, too hard to pin down to particular dates. A slew of recent letters have been, essentially, philosophy-addled love letters, and I am to be praised for omitting them despite my eagerness to discuss him…

But today’s letter–also to the young woman he admires–goes a long way toward demonstrating both that he will eventually be very interesting to compare with Siegfried Sassoon and that he is not “there,” yet. It’s 1917, and Read has served in the trenches before (his first tour came to a premature end after he was injured by barbed wire, and it’s been a slow path back), and he’s a fiercely independent skeptic and cutting edge modernist… in theory. But look whom he’s quoting…

12.iv.17

Three weary days have passed, waiting rather impatiently for orders to proceed up the line. I was inoculated this morning–and now umteen million germs are disporting themselves in my blood, making me somewhat stiff–and cross.

But I really feel extraordinarily calm and happy–very different sensations from those that accompanied my former ‘coming out’. Then I felt reckless with the rest–and rather bacchanalian. Didn’t care a hang what happened. And, in a way, I don’t care a hang this time, but it’s a different way, a glad way. And it rather troubles my soul to know why? Because, as you may know, I’m not exactly a warrior by instinct–I don’t glory in fighting for fighting’s sake. Nor can I say that I’m wildly enthusiastic for ‘the Cause’. Its ideals are a bit too commercial and imperialistic for my liking. And I don’t really hate the Hun–the commonest inspiration among my comrades. I know there are a lot of nasty Huns–but what a lot of nasty Englishmen there are too. But I think my gladness may be akin to that Rupert Brooke expressed in one of his sonnets:

Now, God be thanked who has matched us with his hour,
      And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping!
With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power,
      To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping,
Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary;
      Leave the sick hearts that honor could not move,
And half-men, and their dirty songs and dreary,
      And all the little emptiness of love.

But the real surprise is still to come: Read sees himself as less disillusioned than Brooke. And it’s a fair reading–at least of the last four lines. But, in the context of the last two years’ celebration of Brooke, an odd one. Which Read may belatedly realizes, as he glosses the verses:

Though I must say I’m not yet so ‘fed up’ with the world as the sonnet implies. I haven’t yet proved ‘the little emptiness of love.’

A good point to make, since he’s writing to a girl.

The half-men I still have with me in goodly numbers. And I’ve still faith that there are hearts that can be moved by honour and ideals. But England of these last few years has been rather cold and weary, and one finds little left standing amid the wreckage of one’s hopes. So one is glad to leap into the clean sea of danger and self sacrifice.

So, then, he’s half-rejecting the fastidious and hypocritically extroverted self-loathing that informs Brooke’s casting of the 1914 world as “dirty?” And despite the fact that he can substitute two more brutal years of war for Brooke’s hatred of peacetime England, he is still eager to die for his king and country?

But don’t think that I am laying claim to a halo. I don’t want to die for king and country, If I do die, it’s for the salvation of my own soul, cleansing it of all its little egotisms by one last supreme egotistic act.

All this is rather melodramatic; and forgive me if it is morbid. It is only a mood and has more to do with inoculation than anything else…[4]

Well that’s a nice way to wiggle out at the end. He quotes Brooke, but he doesn’t want to die; he isn’t fed up with love and doesn’t hate the small men of little England enough to seek sacrifice… but nor does he like England, either, though he might die for it, except not for it but for himself in some neo-Romantic sacrificial mode. Except it’s just the germs talking.

 

Will not any member of the old Coterie stand up for the glamorous, cynical, privileged, pre-war social-aesthetic staus quo?

Well, as it happens, I have been waiting for a good opportunity to introduce here a new acquisition, namely the diaries of Duff Cooper, who is essentially the last of the men of the “Coterie” not in his grave or in uniform. I didn’t get the book initially because, well, he’s not in uniform. (Cooper has a job at the Foreign Office.) He’s not a bad writer, but he comes off, in his diary, as a bit of a rake (pretty accurate) and a bit of a dope (not entirely accurate). In retrospect, I should have consulted him on the loss of so many of his friends, especially in the Royal Naval Division and the Grenadier Guards. But today, in the midst of tracking the grief caused by the attack at Arras, he is here for painful counterpoint only. Society–like strategy–being drawn into our trench narrative largely for the purpose of dark ironic comparison.

Diana Manners is the muse of the wits of the Coterie, the Queen of the clique, the shining light, just as Raymond Asquith, probably her only equal in social skill, had been (despite his marriage to Katherine Horner) the “king” of their circle. But Asquith is dead, along with many of their friends. Katherine’s brother Edward is with the cavalry in France, and only Duff Cooper and Patrick Shaw-Stewart, back in England after his long sojourn in the East, remain as intra-Coterie suitors for the elusive Diana.

This weekend–life goes on–they are all at a house party in Scotland. Don’t worry–in a few days I will attempt an even more gruesome juxtaposition of the romantic high jinks of the idle rich and what is going on in the trenches.

April 12, 1917

We spent the morning in Diana’s room reading The Egoist.[5] It was delightful–while Patrick and I enjoyed the contemplation of Diana–but he watched both our faces all the time. He had a cryptic telegram this morning to say his orders had arrived and he will probably have to go back to London tomorrow and to France on Monday. I am so sorry. I am very fond of him. I do hope that his luck will not desert him. His death now would matter to me more than anyone’s and would be a terrible blow to our small diminishing society.

Which is to say that the leading contender can afford to be magnanimous to the man on the outside looking in… but the campaign is not won yet.[6]

 

It is once again Siegfried Sassoon‘s turn to look for a solution to his confusion in the direct and deadly challenge of battle. Well, almost his turn. Today, a century back, the 2nd Royal Welch Fusiliers draw within sight of the battle front.

April 12 10 p.m.

Moved to St Martin-Cojeul, a demolished village about four kilometres north-west of Croisilles, three kilometres south-east of Wancourt where the Germans counter-attacked to-day. We take over an old German third-line trench from the 17th Manchesters. Arrived about 3 o’clock in wet weather after a fine morning. The snow has gone and left bad mud. The British line is about a mile in front of us. A dead English soldier lying by the road as we came to the village, his head hideously battered. I visited the underground Dressing Station this evening, and got my hands seen to.[7] Several wounded in there—one groaning with broken leg. A few five-nines dropped in the village, which is the usual heap of bricks. Absolute desolation—and the very strong line of German wire which they left. They have cut down even the pollard willows by the river.

Writing this in a tiny dug-out, but luckily it has a stove. Just room for Kirkby and self to sit. He is asleep. Rations getting very short. Only one meal to-day, and that scrappy to a degree. Casson and I finished our last orange to-night but feeling fairly fresh (just the usual trench-mouth). A fair amount of grumbling going on all round… Quite impossible to sleep as it is bitter-cold, and nowhere to lie down.[8]

 

Lastly, today, as Sassoon leads an inexperienced platoon toward the Hundenburg line, two other officers–one battle tested, one tried only in the ordinary cauteries of trench-holding–are rejoining their old units, each of which has lately seen action.

 

Wilfred Owen missed his battalion’s last action in hospital with a concussion, but he will not miss its next. With the recovered Owen marching at the head of his platoon, the 2nd Manchesters moved back up to the line today, a century back, in support of recent gains before the Hindenburg Line on the southern end of the British sector.[9]

 

And, near Arras, Alf Pollard hopped from one train to another, rushing to bring his draft of replacements back to the Honourable Artillery Company before the rumored supporting attack could begin without him. However, he hopped too quickly, and the men he was supposed to be leading missed the train.

This is only a comic mishap: the important thing is that he is there, and cannot be accused of missing an attack, as he once missed an assault in order to visit his mother. The draft? No big deal…

“Where are they?”

“I’ve lost them,” I said innocently.

The Adjutant was horrified… I laughed. What did I care about the draft now that I was back with my beloved battalion.”

There’s no question mark in the text. The H.A.C. will go up to the line tomorrow–not for an attack, but to hold trenches, for a few days, at least…[10]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. For Love and Courage, 351.
  2. Farjeon, Edward Thomas, The Last Four Years, 261.
  3. Letters of Edward Thomas to Gordon Bottomley, 283.
  4. The Contrary Experience, 89-90.
  5. Meredith's novel, not the modernist periodical!
  6. Duff Cooper Diaries, 50.
  7. Sassoon has some infected scratches; he has not been wounded.
  8. Diaries, 153.
  9. Collected Letters, 452.
  10. Fire-Eater, 202-3.

Will Harvey’s Great Escape Postponed; Henry Williamson Moves on Up; Edwin Vaughan’s Witness to Vandalism… and Gothic Imagination; C.E. Montague Reflects Before a Fire

Back on August 17th, Will Harvey decided it would be a good idea to go out and patrol no man’s land alone. He stumbled into a German post, was captured and eventually taken to Gütersloh Camp, in Westphalia. By the time he got there the tunneling had already begun, and his first book of poems–A Gloucestershire Lad–had been published. (His best friend, Ivor Gurney, mourned him, then rejoiced to hear that he was alive, and in any case continued to write about Harvey often.)

For months now, Harvey has been taking his turns in the tunnel and on lookout duty above, using coded whistles or songs to warn when German guards are about. The months dragged by… until yesterday, a century back, when the British contingent in the multi-national P.O.W. camp learned that they were about to be transferred. A night and day of feverish digging brought the tunnel out under the wire–and right beneath the beat of the German sentry. In a hurried meeting it was decided that, rather than making a dash out of the still-too-short tunnel and hoping for the best, it should be left concealed in place, in the hopes that the barracks’ next inmates–Russian P.O.W.s, in all probability–could continue the work. Today, a century back, Will Harvey, his captivity stretching into a ninth month and his book into its 4th printing, was transferred to Crefeld Camp.[1]

 

Meanwhile, Henry Williamson continues to advance into what was recently the German rear–and to keep his mother well informed of his whereabouts.

Dear mother Cherie,

This awkward phrasing is actually one of his more graceful turns of code-phrase. The letters “ACHIET” are marked out, four of them occurring in sequence in “cherie.”

We have not heard from anyone for about a week–heavens knows where the post goes to nowadays. I have had only about 5 letters from you to date–I wish you would date your letters.

Well I suppose all you in England at the time are rejoicing over the ‘fall’ of Bapaume–but it’s rather a funny business after all. I believe personally that the Bosche has done a very clever and good thing for himself–he is falling back…

So Williamson is back to considering the withdrawal a strategic benefit for Germany rather than a boon to the British, but only a few lines after pointing out that the news of cavalry in action is nothing but the false dawn of open warfare, merely a temporary screen as the British reestablish contact with their foe, he switches course again, implying that it may be a breakthrough after all: “only WAIT a bit and see.”

On the matter of parcels Williamson is more steadfast:

What I should like would be toffee, nice chocolates… a pair of pyjamas, and a cake or so…[2]

 

Edwin Vaughan has what we might call an active imagination, a knack both for finding terror in the quiet corners of trench life and for telling a tale the brings across the shivering horror he experienced. His account of yesterday, a century back–when his battalion advanced into the vacated German rear and took up residence among the booby-trapped dugouts near Péronne–is many pages long, and well worth dipping into.

It was a bright clear morning, and the country looked beautiful as I set off across the open fields…

The gently undulating fields were very little shelled, and the fresh grass was only spoiled here and there by a circular mud-rimmed hole. But each field was liberally besprinkled with graves, in which we took morbid interest. Not one of them had been dug to any depth, and in each case some portion of the corpse protruded–from one a bleached and polished skull, from another a rotted puttee and boot, from another the ammunition pouches. In several cases they had only been covered with a few inches of wet earth which now was caked and hard, giving the appearance of mummies, except where the burrowing rats had broken away the mud and displayed a patch of blue tunic.

There were a few unburied bodies about and I had much difficulty in getting Sissman past them–he wanted to stop and examine each for wounds and souvenirs… I’m afraid we progressed very slowly…

The afternoon becomes a different sort of macabre when Vaughan and a small party, now led by his company commander, Billy Kentish, stumbled up along a muddy canal road looking for their new billets. When Kentish, who foolishly brought his horse (a famous perquisite of company commanders, even in the infantry) on the journey, disappears after repeatedly foundering in difficult places. When he reappears without the muddy, stumbling beast, Vaughan suspects the worst. Eventually they arrive in Halle, where another company of their battalion is now in residence. On the walls of the house taken as HQ,

the playful Hun had left many sketches and ironic messages. Two that we saw were ‘Great British Advance. Many villages taken’ and ‘Haig takes Halle, 4,000 Germans captured–official.’

But their march continues until they reach Péronne, in which a major fire is burning–this was a day after Charles Carrington had entered the town–much of the historical center, including the old library and church, have been consumed.

During all this march I was very nervous. I had heard so many stories of booby-traps and delayed mines that I was terrified by the sight of any old oil drum or coil of wire, and at every cross-roads expected to find myself sailing up into the black sky. Nothing of the sort happened, however…

Instead, Vaughan and his fellow company officers take up residence in a partitioned cellar, and one by one fell asleep, while he listens to the drip of rain and smelled “a filthy smell of decaying vegetable matter.” Before long, Vaughan begins to hear “the tick-tock of a fuse.”

Here–although I suspect that this part of the diary was extensively rewritten after the fact–Vaughan is charmingly open about his failures of courage:

This grew louder and louder until I could stand it no longer, and by coughing loudly and banging the bed, I woke Kentish.

He sat up grumpily, rubbing his eyes. ‘What was that blasted row?’

‘Which one?’ I said guiltily. ‘There’s lots going on.’

He listened for a moment and then lay down again growling. But I didn’t intend to let him sleep. ‘Did you hear about the booby-traps in the Boche lines?’

‘Um!’

‘You know Sullivan found several in Halle?’–no answer.

‘How long do they usually delay before exploding?’–silence. I paused a bit and then asked timorously, ‘I say, Billy, can you hear a curious ticking?’

He pulled the coat from off his head and said ‘You bloody fool,’ and snuggled down again.

I was hurt by that, for I felt that nobody cared if I was blown up, so I resolved myself to die like a martyr and then when we met in the afterworld I could say to Kentish ‘I told you so!’ The consideration of this possibility rather cheered me, and casting aside my fears I fell asleep.

This brings us, more or less, into today, a century back.

I do not know how long I slept, but it must have been a couple of hours. I dreamt that I was lying there asleep, all being horribly quiet except for the drop of water and the wind. Suddenly through the rain and darkness appeared a huge figure stealing across the courtyard to the grating above me. he was muffled up in a great grey coat and spiked helmet. I struggled to wake Kentish and to shout, but I was powerless. I saw him take a bomb from under his coat, a smoking bomb, and slip it into the chimney. With a frantic struggle I overcame my paralysis and sat up shouting as a metallic sliding sound came from the chimney. Waiting for the explosion, I sat staring into the darkness with that apathy that comes when fear has passed its bounds.

But nothing more happened. Kentish slumbered on…

The night continues in a proto-Lovecraftian vein, and, appropriately enough, perhaps, in the morning we get our second sight of one of the weird masterpieces of nihilistic German humor:

Near the centre of the square, an iron paling surrounded a stone pedestal, from which the statue had been removed. I walked over to it, wondering what statue had been there, then I stopped–sickened by the sight of a body impaled on the iron spike. In a Frenchman’s blue uniform, gaily bedecked with ribbons, he hung with arms extended along the railing, his head hanging down on to his bright-buttoned chest, and his legs dangling.

Sick with horror but impelled by curiosity I went nearer, and saw some straw sticking out at the knee. Then I peered into the face–a black grinning mask–and saw that it was a realistic dummy. Nevertheless, in the eerie half-light, with the flicker of flames on that scene of devastation, it was a gruesome spectacle…

The German notice board on the ruins of the Peronne town hall

There is, as a matter of fact, direct photographic evidence of this particular act of desecration, available here.

And the next bit–already familiar to us from Carrington’s account, can be seen at the right:

Reapproaching the town hall I saw, fastened to its side wall, an enormous blue notice board–‘Nicht ärgern nur wundern!’–‘Do not be angry, only be surprised’. This in letters a foot deep.

 

Is it surprising, then, to find that Vaughan will not be sleeping well tonight, either? They are bedding down, now, in a quarry in what, for the moment, is the British reserve line.

…I was keen to know what cover we should take in case of shelling. He [Billy Kentish] answered abruptly, ‘There isn’t any cover,’ and blew his candle out…

‘Was that ours or theirs?’ I asked.

‘Ours now!’ And there was an impatient turn and snuggle.

Another thud! ‘How far away was that?’ No answer. It made me worse to think that he was going to sleep to leave me to face the danger alone. So I asked him: ‘I say, if a shell got us, would it hit the top of the quarry first, or drop straight in?’

At that he sat up in bed. ‘You are a windy young b—– Vaughan! You’ve got to chance it wherever you are, so for God’s sake shut up and go to sleep.’

I did shut up, but though thoroughly ashamed, I was still windy… At last, however, the lack of sleep on the previous night did its work and I slept peacefully…[3]

 

C.E. Montague may be the temperamental opposite of Edwin Vaughan: Montague is a fearless, practical, politic, hard-driving, modest rationalist… which does not mean he is not subject to melancholy. He had wanted–despite his age, his obvious fitness for an officer’s job, and his journalistic skills–to be an ordinary soldier in the trenches. But his age and his health–he turned 50 on New Year’s Day, and had proved too susceptible to infection–led to his being kicked upstairs to the dubious duty of greasing the wheels of the propaganda machine from a chateau well behind the lines.

That he’s an officer now, and can, at least, scare the daylights our of his touring V.I.P.s by bringing them too close to the line, sometimes seems like small consolation. A rare excerpt from his diary of today gives us some insight into how a reflective soul and a sharp mind near both the sinews of the army’s power and the engine of its self-misrepresentation feels about the German withdrawal:

Chateau de Rollencourt, 10.15 p .m., March 19, 1917

A year ago to-day I marched away from the front with my battalion, soon to leave it.

To-night I sit in an oil-lamp-lit room in a chateau, of 1770 perhaps. A log fire burns brightly in a big open, fenderless hearth, with little noises of hissing and crackling in the damp wood and the dry.

Outside an equinoctial gale is pressing on the house and whining and sniffing.

From the line E. of Arras-Nesle comes news at short intervals of further German retirements, of villages blazing in the Eastern sky at night, of cavalry entering empty villages, of aeroplanes bringing back word of the cavalry’s progress.

The big room is dark outside the zones of fire-light and lamp-light.

Five minutes ago the motor-cyclist despatch-rider came from G.H.Q. with our letters and to-day’s London papers. In a few minutes he will go into the night silence again, with my letter to M. and the other letters. Now and then a train can be heard on the railway to Arras, 300 yards off, doubled this winter for our advance, which the German retreat must be intended to baffle.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Boden, F.W. Harvey, Soldier, Poet, 125-59.
  2. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 99-100.
  3. Some Desperate Glory, 53-62.
  4. Elton, C.E. Montague, 156-7.

Robert Graves is at Home in the Hills; The Afterlife of Rupert Brooke X: Roland Leighton Lays it Down; Bimbo Tennant on Trenches and Tennis; Billy Congreve on Rats, Cats, Catapults, and Ghosts

Robert Graves was born and raised in Wimbledon, but he has discovered that he is most at home in Wales, indulging his interests in Celtic culture, walking, and climbing. Today, a century back, on leave and on holiday with the family, he takes a long walk on the beach with his father, Alfred Percival Graves. Robert will often pretend to exasperation with his fuddy-duddy father, but it seems that, at least in the older Graves’s eyes, the lad  was shaping well, and father and son had drawn close under the shadow of war. His requests for reading–A Shropshire Lad, what else?–were very promising, as was his increased interest in religion. Today, father and son went to visit an Oxford don vacationing locally, and talked of family, poetry, and the future…[1]

 

Meanwhile, in France, Roland Leighton, and a few hundred thousand others, prepare.

France, 11 September 1915

I have been rushing around since 4 a.m. this morning superintending the building of dug-outs, drawing up plans for the draining of trenches, doing a little digging myself as a relaxation, and accidentally coming upon dead Germans while looting timber from what was once a German fire trench. This latter was captured by the French not so long ago and is pitted with shell holes each big enough to bury a horse or two in. The dug-outs have been nearly all blown in, the wire entanglements are a wreck, and in among this chaos of twisted iron and splintered timber and shapeless earth are the fleshless, blackened bones of simple men who poured out their red, sweet wine of youth unknowing, for nothing more tangible than Honour or their Country’s Glory or another’s Lust [for] Power.

Well now. I ask a great deal of readers–a great deal of reading, and never mind all that remembering. And then I preach at great length about the literary nature of all this… so I am glad that the day-to-day conceit of A Century Back is doing one of the things it is supposed to do. Nip out the century, and, while you and I were still abed, Roland Leighton was putting a shovel through the rotting corpses of conscripts, and thinking of how poetry was not quite doing its job.

Not so long ago, there was a girl who frequently praised Rupert Brooke, and sent his poems to her boyfriend–and there was jealousy. But if Roland had tried before to break it gently to Vera Brittain that Brooke was no favorite of the cynical subaltern, he now pulls no punches.

Sometimes, you see, I must play the referee: Nor should he! It is absolutely true that “disenchantment” is not now–and may never be–the majority mood of the serving soldiers. It is also true that many will continue to see patriotic self-sacrifice as a worthy endeavor, whatever the situation of the actual war (support the troops!), and that many of these will prefer old-fashioned, stately poetic diction.

And sometimes I nod to “balance” and then call them as I see them, playing critic rather than arbiter: these famous lines of Brooke’s are irresponsible, destructive, and untrue. Poetry permits metaphor, yes. But blood is not wine, and it is not sweet, and calling it so because it sounds familiarly poetic and pretty is not just prettily unoriginal poetry but bad poetry. And no one should get to tell the actual youths how they feel about spilling it, at least not in such sweeping, subtlety-obliterating ways.

But I’m only getting in the way. Preach, Roland:

Let him who thinks that War is a glorious thing, who loves to roll forth stirring words of exhortation, invoking Honour and Praise and Valour and Love of Country with as thoughtless and fervid a faith as inspired the priests of Baal to call on their own slumbering deity, let him but look at a little pile of sodden grey rags that cover half a skull and a shin bone and what might have been Its ribs, or at this skeleton lying on its side, resting half crouching as it fell, supported by one arm, perfect but that it is headless and with the tattered clothing still draped round it; and let him realise how grand & glorious a thing it is to have distilled all Youth and Joy and Life into a foetid heap of hideous putrescence. Who is there who has known & seen who can say that Victory is worth the death of even one of these?

Excuse this morbid letter, but it is my mood of the present.

And now I really must go to sleep–even although it is four in the afternoon![2]

It’s awful, but it’s worth noting, too, that this is another characteristic Great War irony: digging to prepare for a new “push” to win the war requires this foul re-acquaintance with the previous attempts to do so.

 

Bim Tennant is digging as well–but further behind the lines. And he is new to this and not yet in the thick of it. And he is writing home to the enveloping Lady Glenconner. To what degree do each of these facts explain the vastly-different-from-Roland “lovely little war” tone of his letter?

Saturday,
11th (or is it 10th) [it’s the 11th] September

My Darling Moth’,

I’m so sorry I haven’t written to you very lately but I wrote to Daddy when we were away digging trenches, and I expect he showed it to you. We had two days’ digging and worked 8 hours per day. We marched home (back here) after work on the second day. It was a nine mile walk so it wasn’t a bad day’s work. Of course I myself didn’t work eight hours a day as I had to walk round and see that nobody dawdled (Nannie’s word), but I managed to have a go myself every now and then with the result that I developed several blisters. These, however, didn’t worry me nearly so much as the fleas…

Could you send me three or four pairs of fairly thick socks, and a couple of khaki silk shirts (light) with collar attached, and a couple of pairs of long drawers reaching to the socks, and, if possible, of silk? The steel cap arrived the other day and is a great success…

Yesterday was Flick’s birthday (Fletcher) and we had a small dinner party… It was quite fun. This afternoon I am going to play tennis with Mademoiselle Bellanger in a few minutes…

Please write soon (I’ve had no letter from any one for two days).

Ever your devoted Son,

BIMBO[3]

Tennis! Two days! Disregarded shoveling blisters seem like the best physical representation of high-spirited, combat-innocent leadership that we could ask for. Roland, then, is beginning to be callous(ed).

 

Billy Congreve has been out longer than almost any of our writers, and as deep into the horror of the trenches as a staff officer is likely to get. For several nights he had been assiduously roaming the awful trenches around Hooge–a warren of positions bombed, shelled, mined, taken and retaken, and now flooded. He is very concerned–more than most staff officers, it would seem–that any new brigadiers and battalion commanders in the division familiarize themselves with the muddled terrain (or, rather, sub-terrain).

On the night of the 7th-8th Congreve led two other officers out to the front lines by Hooge.

We were likely to meet a Boche patrol, so went pretty slowly. I knew the ground best and went first. We found the trenches in an awful state, all blown to bits and a great many dead in the ruins of them. These poor fellows were in a bad way and the rats made me feel horrid, like wanting to be sick. However, they reduce the bodies to skeletons fairly quickly–such rats they are, big as rabbits, and so bloated that they hardly take the trouble to run–beasts. It was rather jumpy work. We stalked a tree stump for several minutes at one time…

This horror flick version of a Boy’s Own Adventure continued the next night, Congreve bringing along a different companion.

I found some fine cellars in the one but last ruin of the north line of houses. One has to drop in through a hole, but once inside it is fine: two rooms, tables, chairs, and a full-length looking-glass, a truly astonishing thing to find in Hooge. There was a Daily Mirror of May 30th which had not been read, so the cellar was, I think, last used by the cavalry before we relieved them.

Cameron saw a black cat ( I saw it too), and he said that we were going to have bad luck… It must live in some hole in the ruins and I suppose gets plenty of victuals by eating rats…

It was very quiet up there; the Boche was working hard at repairing and strengthening his works and our people were not doing enough to hinder him. I got them going with rifle grenades and catapults, but unless one forces them to do things they are quite content to sit down and do nothing. They are like children, the modern officer and NCO. One had to start them on a game and then they love it and go on playing it till they get bored, when one has to invent something else to amuse them!

Today’s entry reports on the goings-on of last night. Time for some sketchy ethnic profiling:

An Irish regiment last night was working on the old… line and, after working a short time, the whole 400 bolted! The whole affair, I think, started due to the Irishman’s fear of ghosts. The line, as I have said, is very full of dead in all sorts of conditions. That and the rats were too much for their nerves. Whatever it was, they came back and had to be driven out again by their enraged officers. Of course it’s very bad, but almost laughable…[4]

And on that rather odd note, we bid farewell to Billy Congreve for more than two months, as he closes one volume of his diary.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 132-3.
  2. Letters From a Lost Generation, 165.
  3. Letters, 14-17
  4. Armageddon Road, 170-2.
  5. The next volume--slight spoiler here--apparently described the northern actions accompanying the battle of Loos, but it was destroyed in an accidental fire in the headquarters office in November.