Siegfried Sassoon on Apulia, Camp Life, Conrad, and the Jews; Jack Martin on the Attractions of the Italian Front; Happy Birthday to the Master of Belhaven; Wilfred Owen on Flowers and Death; Edmund Blunden’s Long Reprieve: the Beginning of the End of Undertones

A flurry of short anecdotes and updates, today, and then a longer excerpt from the last pages of the Undertones.

 

Siegfried Sassoon has reached a rest camp in Taranto, an important way-station on his journey to Egypt. Plenty of time to write! First, he indulges in literary landscape painting:

Blue water, and rusty, parched hills away on the other side. Towns like heaps of white stones, ‘far away.’ One on a hill.

It hardly seems like only a few weeks since the lush hunt-scapes of the Emerald Isle–but variety is the spice of life.  Sassoon soon switches gears, taking on an unfamiliar voice, that of the old campaigner in the boomtown cantina:

The usual riff-raff, always playing poker in the Mess. Staff officers. Colonels, Majors, Australians, Flying-men—all sorts—their eyes meet one’s face and then slide down to one’s left breast to look for medal-ribbons. But it would need a Joseph Conrad to picture the scene in the Mess here.[1]

Hey, good idea! And, indeed, when Sassoon comes to adapt these diary entries as Sherston he will be more explicit: he is, in fact, reading Conrad, and seeing the personalities of the rest camp in these terms. He’ll even quote a bit from Chance, before moving on to his next Great White Explorer’s observation of strange tribes, namely the strange and exotic Jews of London.

Sassoon glances into a noisy tent where he finds that members of the Jewish Battalion are being entertained by professional comedians from among their ranks. He is, of course, a big, athletic, hunting-and-cricketing country fellow who has never thought of himself as Jewish (see footnote here), so perhaps the phrase “little Jew” is just an example of the typical, casually anti-semitic modes of thinking and writing, a century back. (But to be written and then reprinted as a diary-in-“novel”-which-is-basically-a-memoir it must be either very casual or quite deliberately “casual,” mustn’t it?) Yet, when he uses the phrase “curved Hebrew beak” to describe a nose, one wonders if Sassoon is even aware of the anti-semitism directed at him… I don’t think it is supposed to be “all in good fun.” Rather, it’s a good reminder that the relatively recent effort to purge hateful stereotyping from acceptable discourse is not mere tiresome political correctness but rather an attempt to improve the world by preventing the casual dehumanization of those deemed to be different…

 

Jack Martin‘s northern Italy is a far cry from Sassoon’s south, and not just in the generally clean-cut behavior of the men of his signal section: instead of pleasing landscapes, he finds teeming vermin.

Early in the morning I had occasion to go into the billet and at my approach hundreds of rats scampered away in all directions. I shone my torch round the billet and it is certainly the most rat-infested building I have ever seen. They are much smaller than the Belgian variety but they make up for it in quantity….

But at least it’s quiet:

The quietness of this front can be judged from the fact that our front-line troops wash and shave in the Piave which is as open to Fritz as it is to us. Also, Brigade Sports are being arranged… A boxing ring is already in course of construction. And this is being in the line!![2]

 

And let us share in the satisfaction of Ralph Hamilton, Master of Belhaven:

My birthday again. I believe I have now reached the age of thirty-five, which is quite respectable, though still quite young for a colonel.[3]

 

One more letter, now, before we get to the end of today’s writing. Wilfred Owen, is writing to his mother again, in another mood of florid late-night forth-holding. This reads almost as if Owen is doing a sort of wartime aesthete’s late night talk-show opening monologue… well, really, exactly like that, if there were such a thing. In any case, he does a particularly nice job of doing what these letters do: combining very unwarlike doings with the (inescapable) talk of the war and pointed recourse to whatever consolations are available. Generally, for him, this means beauty, whether in the form of attractive young men, poetry, antiques, old houses, or, as in this case, flowers.

Midnight, 22 February 1918

I got so thoughtful last night that I could not go on writing. I hope I did not Harrow[4] you too much.

That ‘Last Words’ seems to have rather a harrowing effect on you. I have shown it to no one else as it is not chastened yet. It baffles my critical spirit.

What can I talk about tonight?

Priestley bought some wonderful large Ranunculi this morning; and they are so fine that nothing would do but he must buy a fine bowl to set them in. So we are winning at least the ‘Warness’ of War. Things look stupefyingly catastrophic on the Eastern Front. Bainbrigge of Shrewsbury, (over some oysters we consumed in our little oyster-bar this afternoon) opined that the whole of civilization is extremely liable to collapse.

Let us therefore think of more enduring things, my lovely Mother.

Such as the February flowers. These are they whose whiteness I have not yet suffered enough to buy. They are what I prayed to when Colin had Scarlet Fever. I could not buy them then for poverty. Now I cannot buy them for shame: For to my extraordinary thinking, it is a wicked traffic, this of grabbing up the Mediterranean Narcissi, and vending them to the rich. Still they are to be seen in the shop-windows of Grange Road West; in Birkenhead; and in Scarborough, and I suppose in Bermondsey, Stockport, Dudley, and perhaps in the uttermost parts of Lybia about Berlin.

For that we must be thankful.

Their odour is disinfectant of souls, as Carbolic is of mortal breath. Narcissi and Carbolic: that is all Life. The Field Daffodils and the Field Dressing Station: these are the.best ideas of Heaven and Hell for the senses.

You will notice that Christ is never represented with the Syrian Lilies in His hand. That is to be expected: for as one says ‘There were many Christians before Christ; The astonishing thing is: there have been none since.’

One Spring, Carbolic may have saved you and me. Every Spring the Narcissus is enough to save a man’s soul, if it be worth saving…

He goes on for a bit more in this mode: floral, florid, and making half-intelligible references to family history as he advises his mother, in some obscure way, about his brothers.

I had meant this to be a consoling kind of letter, and if you read it rightly, it will prove so:—In spite of this Latest News: Leave only once in 3 months (8 days)!

Always your own loving Wilfred x[5]

 

Several of our writers–even Owen, in other moods–have the gift of writing with a deceptive simplicity. No, not “deceptive:” rather, with a fine-grained or exquisitely bespoke simplicity. But Edmund Blunden, although he is an excellent stylist, is never merely a stylist. He can do the same artful-simplicity trick with argument, with theme, and with meaning. To whit: what was the story of his time in France? It was the story of innocence and experience, love and endurance.

And luck. The last chapter of Undertones of War is called “My Luck,” and it closes with a very simple point: Timing is everything.

Today, a century back, the Battalion War Diary for the 11th Royal Sussex records that “LIEUT E.C. BLUNDEN M.C. proceeded to U.K. for sixth months rest.” Although the guilt and the relief hit him immediately, he couldn’t have known, today, with quite such finality how total a commutation this is. The long leave means that Blunden will survive: he will miss both the German Spring Offensive and the final advance of the allies, and he will live to write a book.

But the battalion will stay, and Blunden can’t bring himself to take his own story beyond theirs. So he will end the book with this departure, beginning today, ending tomorrow.

Everyone began to feel the strain of sleeplessness, and a relief was expected. One weary private, having to express himself, chose the Brigade Major on his morning round as the object of his satire: “Look at ‘im,” he cried to his embarrassed neighbours. “Military Cross an’ all — look, chum.” The Brigade Major was himself a humorist and saved the satirist from some grim expiation. While relief was still expected, I was shown a brigade message referring to me, and applying to me the same treatment as had already taken Vidler and others from us — namely, six months’ duty at a training centre in England. This order was, like all my recent movement orders, good and bad, too; but it seemed time I went. Not that my nerves were spent — I felt better than usual in that respect; but I was uneasy in my job, and could not bring myself into the proper relations with my seniors. Besides, the battalion altogether was now strange and disordered. Doctor Crassweller, whose wit and wisdom and Wilsonian aspect had been our delight since he came to the battalion, would hear no sentiment from me on this occasion. He gleamed satisfaction as if he and not I were going into peace; he passed on to me the kindest things he had ever heard said about me; and he warned me on no account to volunteer to return before my time, for by Nature’s ordinance such an action was equal to suicide. I hated to mention to my old friends, such as Sergeant Ashford, that I was departing. I scarcely dared to face my servant Shearing, now wearing his Military Medal for admirable courage in last September’s Menin Road massacre. Poor Ashford stood, delighted for my sake, but not glad that I should go; old hands were now very few; he looked between smiles and tears, tapped with his foot, took my hand, and I think he then divined that it must be his own fate to stay in Flanders. All congratulated me, but I felt I ought to have been in a position to congratulate them.

Some unanalyzed notion led me to go round the battalion trenches thoroughly, the last day I was there, and the walk was lively, for most of the crucial points were being “registered” by German guns; the railway valley was now in a poor state, and men did not loiter there. One or two nights had been particularly anxious and bombarded ones, and the future here would evidently be much the same as that of Ypres. It was some comfort to be told that the battalion would be relieved in a night or two; in that belief, which was a delusion, I said good-bye, and went away. The long duckboard track to Revelon Farm was for the moment quiet, and I was glad, for having made the severance I was unashamedly eager to reach England. Had a shell come, I thought I should have exemplified in action the mild joke then current:

A. “Did you hear that shell just now?”

B. “I did. Twice. Once when it passed me, and again when I passed it.”

I passed a night with Maycock, ruddy-faced and buoyant as ever, at the transport lines. Old Swain was actually adjutant now, gray-headed as he was, so I had already bidden him farewell…[6]

Tomorrow will bring us to the most beautiful (but hasn’t that been Blunden’s special adjective all along?) ending of all the trench memoirs.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 215-6.
  2. Sapper Martin, 175-6.
  3. War Diary, 459.
  4. This is a mild joke about a book that Owen has been reading, and telling his mother about.
  5. Collected Letters, 534-5.
  6. Undertones of War, 271-4.

Three Poems for February: Edmund Blunden’s Deceitful Calm, Vera Brittain’s Dream Grown Vain, and Siegfried Sassoon’s Upteenth Idyll; Thomas Hardy Looks to Past Collapse; Kipling and the War at Home; Happy Birthday Muriel Spark

And so we come to February, a strange month. It will be slow, here (though enlivened by two strange and awesome childhood visitations by later writers, on which see below). In fact, it’s really the last “slow” month of the war. Is the end in sight? Well, in hindsight, yes. But, then, of course, to see February in this light is a violation of the terms of our compact. Yes, a German offensive is expected, and yes, the strategists see this spring and summer as crucial, because Germany is under tremendous pressure to strike a winning blow after the collapse of Russia and before the weight of the United States can turn the tide on the Western Front. But “the strategists” have been promising breakthroughs for several years now, and we can hardly be look complacently forward and congratulate them for being right. And yet…

I have three poems, today–one dated to the day and the other two appearing as “month poems.” And the first one, at least, is a bit of a cheat. The argument I’m trotting out here is that this February occupies a doubly ironic position: there is no reason to expect–or so the poor bloody infantry would feel–any change, any way to remember another cold, muddy month in the fourth winter of a war of attrition. And yet there is no way to remember this month other than as the month before[1] the last German offensive, before everything changed.

On the other hand, many things stay the same, so we’ll hear from two great Victorian writers as well. And on the other, other hand, “everything changed;” so we’ll also hear from a Modern woman as yet unborn–this morning, that is–and yet at the top of her game.

 

Gouzeaucourt: The Deceitful Calm

How unpurposed, how inconsequential
Seemed those southern lines when in the pallor
Of the dying winter
First we went there!

Grass thin-waving in the wind approached them,
Red roofs in the near view feigned survival,
Lovely mockers, when we
There took over.

There war’s holiday seemed, nor though at known times
Gusts of flame and jingling steel descended
On the bare tracks, would you
Picture death there.

Snow or rime-frost made a solemn silence,
Bluish darkness wrapped in dangerous safety;
Old hands thought of tidy
Living-trenches!

There it was, my dears, that I departed,
Scarce a plainer traitor ever! There too
Many of you soon paid for
That false mildness.[2]

 

So Edmund Blunden, looking back only to look ahead, and writing yet another agonized version of the survivor’s poem, this time in retrospect and prospect at once.

 

Vera Brittain, barred by her gender from any sense of comradeship in the face of death–indeed, from any tighter embrace of danger (she’s done as much as she can, in that regard, to get to a hospital in France)–is already a three-fold survivor. Her poem–written this month, a century back, amidst the calm that Blunden would remind us is about to be disturbed–looks steadfastly back at the first love she lost. This is more than personal mourning or general disenchantment. Given the short lines and traditional rhymes this reads, at first, as a rather prim poem–which makes the sharpness of its despair surprising: a pretty thing with jagged edges.

 

Roundel

(“Died of Wounds”)

 

Because you died, I shall not rest again,
    But wander ever through the lone world wide,
Seeking the shadow of a dream grown vain
            Because you died.

 

I shall spend brief and idle hours beside
    The many lesser loves that still remain,
But find in none my triumph and my pride;

 

And Disillusion’s slow corroding stain
    Will creep upon each quest but newly tried,
For every striving now shall nothing gain
            Because you died.[3]

 

 

Siegfried Sassoon is also sad today–“very sad,” in fact.

February 1 (Limerick, Maine)

Went to the Meet… but weather very wet and stormy, and hounds went home from the meet… Twenty-three miles for nothing… Very sad.

Once again Outdoor Sassoon comes home from a hunt and writes a poem, its music sweet and its sentiment… sentimental.

 

Idyll

In the grey summer garden I shall find you
With day break and the morning hills behind you
There will be rain-wet roses; stirring wings;
And down the wood a thrush that wakes and sings.
Not from the past you’ll come, but from that deep
Where beauty murmurs to the soul asleep:
And I shall know the sense of life re-born.
From dreams into the mystery of morn
Where gloom and brightness meet. And standing there
‘Til that calm song is done, at last we’ll share
The league-spread quiring symphonies that are
Joy in the world, and peace, and dawn’s one star.

February 1[4]

 

And back in England, two great men of the older generation (two different older generations, really) cope with the war in very different ways. Sometimes it seems as if there are really only two modes of being an old (i.e. past military age) man in times like these: you either lament the war and all its foolish, backward, wickedness, or you fantasize about taking part.

Thomas Hardy, in this letter to Edward Clodd, takes the first course.

Max Gate, Dorchester, Feb 1. 1918.

My dear Clodd:

My best thanks for “The Question” which I shall read with interest, as I do everything of yours…

What a set-back this revival of superstition is! It makes one despair of the human mind. Where’s Willy  Shakespeare’s “So noble in reason” now! In another quarter of a century we shall be burying food & money with our deceased, as was done with the Romano-British skeletons I used to find in my garden.

Sincerely yours,

Th. Hardy.[5]

 

And then there’s Rudyard Kipling–a great writer in a different mode. In terms of sheer narrative energy and storytelling verve he is almost without peer–which says little enough about his life or his politics, which are both far less exemplary and entertaining. But I don’t comment, here, upon his imperialist writings, or his celebrations of the manly spirit of adventure. I just quote from this letter, about how, having sussed out the movements of the enemy by careful observance of the natives, he has to stay home this weekend to defend his castle against maliciously anti-Kipling rioters and other crypto-socialist/peacenik undesirables.

Bateman’s
Burwash
Sussex

Feb. 1.1918.

Dear Colonel–

I ought to go up to London tomorrow for the week end as I have a good deal of important business there. But I understand that some sort of “demonstration” with regard to the food question is being planned by some of the women in the village, for Saturday night, which is not the sort of thing to leave behind one as it might easily end in window-breakings and other things that would upset our maids…

There has been in our service a Mrs. Smith–sister of Fennels–who has been here as charwoman. She has suddenly given notice for no reason though she has no other work and has been carried by us through hard times; and I understand that she is among the women concerned.

This seems to point to Bateman’s as one of the objectives in the “demonstration.”

Very sincerely

Rudyard Kipling

The editor of Kipling’s letters notes that there are no records of disturbances in Sussex this weekend, a century back. There is general unhappiness about food shortages at home, and Kipling is far from the only person in Britain tempted to believe the rumors of nefarious doings afoot. But if any vengeful members of the working class laid siege to Kipling’s Keep, he seems to have annihilated them in complete secrecy… I imagine that his gardeners diligently kept the grass short, otherwise I would imagine the Great White Hunter stalking up and down in the long grass in pith helmet and tweeds, shouldering his elephant gun…[6]

 

Finally, to begin a week in which we observe (in a very clever and literary way!) the birthdays of two major women writers of the mid-20th century, I should mention that Muriel Spark was born today, a century back. This would be trivia rather than literature were it not for her brilliant, lacerating satirical story, “The First Year of My Life.” This makes Spark surely the youngest person to contribute a properly dated fictionalized memoir to A Century Back.

The story begins with these memorable sentences:

I was born on the first day of the second month of the last year of the First World War, a Friday. Testimony abounds that during the first year of my life I never smiled.

It’s viciously good–and, much like Blunden’s backward-looking song of February–it rather spoils the outcome of the war, noting her babyish progress at each of the major milestones to come. Reader, the war will end in November, and the unsmiling baby will grow up to write a great deal, and little enough of it smile-provoking…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Well, there were also three quiet weeks at the beginning of March...
  2. Later published in Undertones of War.
  3. Later published in Verses of a V.A.D.
  4. Diaries, 208-9.
  5. Collected Letters, V, 247.
  6. The Letters of Rudyard Kipling, IV, 482.

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.

Withdrawals and Approaches: Charles Carrington, Hugh Quigley, Edmund Blunden, and Guy Chapman near Passchendaele Ridge

Before we turn to the tribulations of Charles Carrington on the Steenbeek, we must look to our immediate rear, where we have such a build-up of memoir writers in the support lines of the Salient that poetry can pass from one to the next…

 

First is Hugh Quigley, soon headed back toward the front lines. A fell mood is upon him:

The Canal Bank, Ypres, 6 October, 1917

I am right in the thick of it again, in this historic place which I shall describe some time. When I think of the glorious weather, sunlight shimmering in the molten sky, slow winds just breathing over the wilderness of shell-holes, it seems so hard throwing it all aside for an uncertain end. Yet it must be done. Perhaps Fate may have some kindness in store for me. Last night I had a strangely poignant dream: I was lying in the hospital trying madly to move my legs, both tied down in splints, and biting my lips to overcome pain coming from the right groin. A comfortable wound might be the outcome of this premonition. Let us hope so: then I can see again the Old Country I had given up for lost, hear the old voices, look at the friendly glad faces.[1]

 

Edmund Blunden, too, is on the way back in. His last tour had been harrowing, although of course it could have been worse. All of his unsurpassed talent for knitting together Gothic horror and pastoral idyll in close company on the page is exerted here, as he describes the withdrawal and then the time in reserve:

After the most vigorous display by the Bosch artillery that I have yet had to cast my eye upon and a narrow escape from being pulled under in a swamp on the way out (I was in such a hurry to get out of the barrage that my foot missed the dead man I was going to use as a duckboard),  we came back to this Corydonian spot for a B.E.F. rest. We feed in a barn which smells most pleasantly of hops…

Or not–not yet: this is not the studied, sumptuous memoir bur rather a contemporary letter to his school friend Hector Buck, which soon more fully embraces the usual tone of frenetic gaiety:

A bevy of milkmaids flitters about and warbles dithyrambs in the sunny air; at times they cease to warble but make a noise exactly similar by working an obese and crotchety cream separator. Since I knew they were on the go I have broken my vow and shaved; but even then my Charms are not availing.[2]

The memoir also fills us is in on how Blunden and the 11th Royal Sussex were really spending their time out of the line: drilling, marching, shooing on rifle and pistol ranges, and practicing for some of the least Arcadian recourses of the war.

This next episode–gas training–makes it possible, using the Battalion War Diary, to date this description fairly securely to today, a century back:

It was even a pleasure here to see Williams, the divisional gas officer, and his same old sergeant, at their kindly, deadly work again. I forget what type of gas it was that Williams discharged upon us, leaving it to us to get our helmets on or pass out. However, I believe it was not at full strength, for some hens poking about in the stubble did not suffer. Perhaps God tempers the gas to the Ypres hen.

But here is a point of interest not only specifically to this project but to the entire genre of the war memoir. Several of our writers involved in Passchendaele have–even while describing its horrors at great length–begun to refuse to dwell firmly in their evolving historical moment. In 1917 the war has become too much to bear–or its young wager-victims have become too prematurely old to live without the melancholy shoring-up of reminiscence:

Our minds receded with actual joy to the 1916 war, and particularly that season when we were within the kindly influence of Bethune. When had we heard the word “a bon time” since? How few there were left even to understand what hopes had then borne the battalion on, singing, toward the Somme! When we left this camp of disastered 1917, to be merged again in the slow amputation of Passchendaele, there was no singing. I think there were tears on some cheeks.

More prosaically, Blunden reports that he was passed over for promotion at this time–“the General would not hear of it, claiming that I was too young. My offences against propriety of speech and demeanour were in any case sufficient to spoil my chances…”–but also that he will be given a company nonetheless (to command as First Lieutenant, rather than a Captain).

Before that I had had a special duty to do. It was to act as “Tunnel Major” in Hedge Street Tunnels — to regulate the very limited and fiercely coveted accommodation there, and the traffic in and out. This took me back to the accursed area again, and even while I made my way there the evil nature of the place displayed itself. Going up by way of Zillebeke, I was obliged to stop. An “area shoot” began, a solid German bombardment for an hour on a chosen space, enclosing several battery positions. This shelling was so concentrated and geometrical that, leaning against the side of our old trench just beyond its limit, one was in safety. But the area covered was treated as with a titanic roller and harrow. About half an hour after this shoot began, from the very middle of the furnace two artillerymen suddenly emerged, running like demons but unwounded.

Outside the large dugout which I was to supervise a quartermaster-sergeant’s body was lying. Men were afraid to pause even a few seconds at this point and bodies were not quickly buried…

I found the tunnels crammed with soldiers on business and otherwise. The Colonel and Adjutant of the R. F.’s, who had taken our place in the Tower Hamlets sector a fortnight or so before, were occupying a new and half-finished dugout; they used me very hospitably. The Colonel remarked, pouring me out a drink, “We no longer exist.” I asked how: he explained that their casualties had been over 400.

Our experience had been only the prelude to their full symphony…[3]

 

Guy Chapman‘s symphony, as it happens–it was his battalion of the Royal Fusiliers which greeted Blunden, though Blunden does not recall the young officer’s name.[4]

On our third evening in Hedge Street we welcomed a very young, very fair and very shy subaltern from the Royal Sussex, who were to relieve us the next day. His battalion had preceded us at Tower Hamlets and had suffered a like experience. Late that evening a 6-inch How-battery commander came in to ask for accommodation and stayed to dinner. He was a pale bald man with a near fair moustache. He thumped on the table and recited Kipling for our entertainment.

This next bit, then, would be proper to tomorrow, a century back:

On the next day I showed our incoming tenant from the Sussex over his noxious habitation. As we bade him good-bye, he shyly put a small paper-covered book into my hand. The Harbingers, ran the title, ‘Poems by E.C. Blunden.’ It went into my it along with the battered Shakespeare, the torn Evan Harrington, and Sir Thomas Browne.[5]

 

Finally, though, we must skip ahead, more in the geographical than the anticipatory sense. We left Charles Carrington (the “Edmonds” of A Subaltern’s War), yesterday, about to grab a few hours overnight in the A Company dugout. After two long sleepless days and nights, he was exhausted, jumpy, and not too proud to simply sleep in a place of greater safety, “a little bit of narrow trench partly covered with a sheet of iron.”

After dawn, Carrington/Edmonds continued to lay as low as he decently could.

I determined quite basely to take shelter for a few hours in C company’s pill-box, and presently plucked up courage and squattered across through the stream to it.

This pill-box was the only piece of good cover in the battalion area. Imagine a small room ten feet square and six feet high with walls of thick rough concrete. There is only one opening, the door, over which a waterproof sheet is draped. The furniture consists of four bunks made of wire stretched on wooden frames. Signallers and officers’ servants have made a little hutch under the lee of the outer wall. Inside, live Marriott and Flint, a serjeant, and as many other people as are thought to deserve refuge. During the day Newsom and Wolfe each pay a visit to get some rest. I come first and stay longest. After all, the headquarters of a front-line company make quite a good command-post for a support company commander, and Thorburn’s position is within shouting distance and full view by daylight. On such a little journey had we lost our way last night.

Flint is something in the same exhausted state as myself; Marriott, who came up from reserve with Thorburn and Wolfe after the attack, is very cheerful and doing most of the work…

Descriptions of pill-boxes will be a major feature of “Edmonds'” narrative from here on out, with loving attention both to their horribleness and their precise degree of protection against different armaments.

But war narratives can never be truly predictable: today passes pleasantly and amusingly, with a tone of light comedy, however much strained, by tension, toward hysteria:

Marriott welcomed me cordially enough, and found me the dry corner of a bed, where I tried to get an hour’s sleep, but with little success. After a time he came into the pill-box, grinning, to ask me to take away some men of mine who were creating a disturbance in his trench. I went out and found the ten ration-carriers of last night all roaring drunk. The poor devils had got lost, just like everyone else, had wandered all night, and finally decided that the company was annihilated. Not without good sense they decided not to starve. They did their best with a whole company’s rations, but a whole company’s rum defeated them. Hither they had wandered very happy and very sleepy, but rather inclined to sing themselves to sleep. We saved the rest of the food and rum, and sent over the
remains, plenty for my handful of men.

It was difficult to know what to do with these men. One or two were helpless and comatose, one or two were incurably cheerful, the others varied from one extreme to the other. To arrest them and send them down the line would bring shell-fire on them and their escort, besides weakening the outposts. I stormed at them in my severest manner, promising them all courts-martial and death sentences. Some understood me and sobered a little, but Bridgwater and two or three others only blinked and looked more amiable than ever. If I had had any laughter in me I should have burst out laughing, too. We brought most of them round to a condition soon where they could go back to the company. The hopeless cases we left to sleep it off. There were no shooting parties at dawn, after all, as a sequel to this episode.

During the rest of the day I remained almost entirely in the pill-box. The shell-fire gradually increased as it had done yesterday, but we had no direct hits, any one of which would have done for us. Marriott kept up a running fire of conversation all day, little jokes and reminiscences, sly hints about my company and the rum, comparisons of our men with the Colonials, anecdotes of the day and of old battles. He had a N.C.O. in the pill-box with him, as orderly serjeant, one of those professional humorists without whom no company could hang together. The queer turns of his dialect, and an attractive little stuttering in his speech, an acute street-arab sense of humour, combined with the
manners and deference of a gentleman, made him perhaps a perfect example of the urban soldier. The stories flowed out of him all day, his adventures with long-forgotten brigadiers, ‘madamaselles’ or serjeant-majors, his friends and their idiosyncrasies, love and war and the weather, the bitterness of things, red tape and bad language.
(I cannot refrain from quoting ‘that our armies swore terribly in Flanders.’) He could tell a tale against a staff officer always with tact enough not to scandalise the officers present. If I were Dickens and could write down what he said,
my fortune as a novelist would be made. But I’m afraid the jokes that made us reel with laughter would be flat to-day. One jumped at any excuse to be gay, and to laugh meant to forget that open door, facing the wrong way, through which a shell might come at any moment to burst in the midst of us…

But relief from anxiety through laughter is temporary–relief from the front line, by another battalion, is what they crave.

At dusk when we were all ready the orderly arrived again. Where were the Berks? we asked. Not yet come up. But he had brought instead a large rough mongrel sheep dog, trained to carry messages through fire. Marriott grew quite despondent. “I thought they were going to send up the Berkshires,” he said, “ but all we’re going to get now is barks”; at which we laughed uproariously. The Berks never did come, but before long a company of another regiment began to arrive. I collected my gear (we were in full marching order), and splashed through the stream to Thorburn, who had had another day’s shelling and felt a little neglected. We headed back a second time to the jumping-off line, where we were now to be reserve company. Marriott withdrew his men to our position in the shell-holes by the Stroombeek.

As Thorburn and I ploughed through the mud after our men, we passed one of the relieving platoons going forward. Their subaltern gripped me by the arm.

“Who are you? Where are you going? Where’s the front line? Have you seen A company?” he asked all in a rush.

“Keep straight on,” I answered jauntily, “follow the tape. Your captain’s up there. We’ve just been relieved.”

“Don’t go! ” he said. “Don’t leave us! For God’s sake, show us the way.” I had met someone more frightened than
myself. My confidence came back to me in a moment. This man was in a shivering funk.

“God damn it!” I said. “You’re all right. You’re much stronger than we were. There’s a good dugout up there—you can’t miss it.”

And I shook him off and walked on. I wonder what state that poor devil was in at the end of his tour. But I had only gained a momentary confidence, and before morning was sinking back into the same apathy of suppressed fear as before.

We took up our position on the right half of the jumping-off line, quite near headquarters. There were about twenty-seven men to organise in four sections, and place in the best shell-holes. For company headquarters Serjeant Walker, Thorburn and I found an old incomplete pill-box called on the map Cluster House. It was one of those early German efforts made of concrete on the western and of wood on the eastern side, so that in case of capture it would give no cover against German shell-fire. But it gave shelter from the rain, and here we settled. To make some amends to Thorburn for the twenty-four hours duty he had taken alone, I sent him to battalion headquarters to sleep, where they found him a corner of some kind. Walker took the top bunk in the little room, I took the lower one, but could only doze for an hour or two, in spite of the fact that I had not had eight hours’ sleep out of the last ninety. It was very cold and I was acutely aware of my wet knees.[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Passchendaele and the Somme, 133-4.
  2. More Than a Brother, 12.
  3. Undertones of War, 246-9.
  4. Blunden's poetry will soon be well known; Chapman published his memoir five years after Blunden's Undertones.
  5. A Passionate Prodigality, 207.
  6. A Subaltern's War, 170-77.

Rowland Feilding Pays His Respects on the Somme; Siegfried Sassoon Reads Its Subaltern; Charles Carrington’s Subaltern’s War in the Valley of the Shadow of Death

Today, a century back, is another one of those days when everyone is a-doing or a-writing, or both, and more than once. In order to keep things under 5,000 words, we will catch up with Edmund Blunden‘s battalion in rest in a few days’ time, and with Ivor Gurney too, hospitalized and hypergraphic.

Moving selectively, then, through a few updates and wandering letters too interesting to postpone, we will shortly arrive at Charles Carrington‘s intense and intensely written experience of the new phase of the Passchendaele battle.

But what better way (in a measure-the-real-reach-of-memory project), to approach a new apex of intense and traumatic combat than to visit last year’s crucible of suffering and destruction?

So, before we even approach today’s battle in the Salient, we will read just a few atmospheric bits of Rowland Feilding‘s remarkable letter to his wife. Feilding had been on leave and now, returned to his regiment, has transferred to the Somme, quiet now, where–very much like Ralph Hamilton only two weeks ago–he picks over the gruesome and unsettling remains of the battlefield.

…it has been a wonderfully interesting though a melancholy day.

The notorious villages–Guillemont and Ginchy–are conspicuous by their absence. I can truthfully say I have never seen a whole brick…

Miles of devastation and deserted ruined villages and shell-holes–all grown over with weed and grass. Not a living creature but the magpies…[1]

The ground is just as it was left, thickly littered with the debris of battle. Rifles with the bayonets fixed lie as they were dropped… perforated shrapnel helmets…

A land whose loneliness is so great that it is almost frightening. A land of wooden crosses, of which, wherever you stands, you can count numbers dotted about…

After miles of this I came upon the first living human beings–parties of the Salvage Corps, working forwards from the old battle line… These are mostly coloured men, who have come from all parts of the world. The first party I saw was composed of Burmans from Mandalay, and, dressed as they were, with woolen Balaclava helmets pulled down over their heads and shoulders, cringing from the wet and cold, they looked like the ghosts of the dead.

Further back, I came upon the work of the Graves Registration Unit… Its job is to “prospect” for the dead, and, so skillful have its members become at detecting the position of a buried soldier, that their “cuttings” seldom draw blank.

After visiting one of the minor miraculous Virgins of the battle–this statue is since toppled and beheaded–Feilding searches out his comrades:

I then wandered through one of our cemeteries at Guillemont, and saw Raymond Asquith‘s grave, and those of one or two Coldstreamers I knew.[2]

 

Siegfried Sassoon is also dwelling on the Somme–specifically, on a Subaltern on the Somme–in a letter, this time to Robert Graves, that covers  rather similar to yesterday’s (which was also to Robbie Ross).

4 October

My dear Robert,

Thanks for photograph. It is like you, except the forehead, which looks so flat and receding. I believe you
washed your face before being taken! Hope you didn’t catch cold. You might write to me when you aren’t too busy. I am reading Bill Adams’s book. If you and I had re-written and added.to it it would have been a classic; as it is it is just Bill Adams—and a very good book—expressing bis quiet kindliness to perfection. He saw a lot through those spectacles of his.

Note to self, and to writerly comrade: “Royal Welch War Memoir: promising project.” Or not–all Siegfried’s attention is to verse:

The Nation quoted my ‘syphilitic’ poem in an article on ‘Venus and Mars’ last Saturday.

I am on the way to doing a good, long poem in blank verse—sort of reminiscent of the wars, with stress on the heroism of Private Morgan-Hughes-Davies-Evans-Parry. But I can’t get a room alone, and 8-11 p.m. is my brainy time, so I am rather hung up at present. Rivers returns on Friday, I hope. He has been rather ill.

I have been playing golf every day with a chattering R.A.M.C. man who is a very fine, player—partly to try and become immensely healthy, but mainly to escape from the truly awful atmosphere of this place of wash-outs and shattered heroes. Result: go to bed every night tired and irritable, and write querulous peace-poems.

Love from S.S.[3]

There’s an answer here to a question we may not have asked yet. How does the suffering of war change the sufferer? Does he become more sympathetic to the sufferings of others?

Too broad a question, of course, and even a general affirmative answer must come with a large caveat: war traumatizes and brutalizes many of those it damages, turning them into abusers or themselves or others; in a small minority of men it seems to unleash psychopathologies that might have otherwise lain dormant. But a qualified affirmative also might be usefully clarified thus: it does make men more sympathetic to suffering, but other aspects of their personality determine how far–and to whom–they are willing to extend that sympathy. Left-leaning thinkers who pass through the war might become radiant pacifists; buttoned-up scholars might find themselves able to write movingly of love and loyalty among men from different stations; and a guarded, solipsistic man like Sassoon might find himself moved to write passionately on behalf of a class of men he would otherwise have more or less ignored–but not to extend that sympathy much further than comrades and the men under his own command.

 

And now to Ypres. C. E. Montague witnessed the battle, and wrote–desultorily, but not heartlessly–of a battle piece seen on a ridge. This can serve us as a very brief starter for today’s main course:

Oct. 4–Third Flanders push; battle of Broodseinde.

Up at five, drizzling rain. No breakfast. Out with Gibbs to near Wieltje to see battle. Fine battle-piece on S. part of Passchendaele Ridge. Our guns thick—needs care to thread way between them. Germans dropping fair number of H.E. shells our way, but no gas. Great trains of wounded and prisoners coming in, and a track of bloodstains all along the road. Some of wounded have evidently died on the way.[4]

 

This would be the “Battle of Broodseinde,” which plays a major part in Charles Carrington‘s memoirs, of which there are two. One describes his mental state as he began the battle thusly:

Always a little schizophrenic… I had now withdrawn myself altogether, leaving a Zombie in command of ‘B’ Company, the 1/5th Royal Warwickshire Regiment. I knew that my luck had turned. I felt sure that I should not survive the next battle… Meanwhile… the Zombie was a quite good company commander…[5]

But that is further retrospect. Nearer to the battle, “Charles Edmonds” described today’s action over many pages, and depicts himself as neither a zombie nor an entirely living man. The account begins, as all attacks now must, with the massing of troops and the approach to the line on the night before:

Towards dusk we marched out by platoons. Men going into action support themselves by a sort of enforced hysterical cheerfulness, but no one could be cheerful in the Third Battle of Ypres…

As always, when anticipation at last gave way to action, I found my mind clearing. The mental numbness of the last few days had given place to a numbness in the pit of the stomach. I was not now afraid, though I had a growing presentiment that I should be wounded.

The next bit of pilgrim’s progress is a review of the past two months: out through Ypres, over the canal, and toward the Steenbeck (Or Steenbeek):

As we approached St. Julien there was some confusion when platoons lost touch; mules and men and wagons crowded in the narrow way, until where the culvert passed over the Steenbeek the traffic jammed, shoulder to wheel. This was a windy moment, for on this line the Boche guns were laid and here from time to time they dropped hurricane barrages of shell-fire. Indeed, a few shells had already fallen to our right, and massacre might come at any minute; but we got through in safety. Beyond the Steenbeek there were no roads: guides led us by marked tracks among the shell-holes…

To find the way in the dark was a task worthy of Bunyan’s’ pilgrim: ‘ the pathway was here also exceeding narrow, and therefore good Christian was the more put to it; for when he sought in the dark, to shun the ditch on the one hand, he was ready to tip over into the mire on the other.’

The quotation continues for some time, as well it might. We are in the heart of what Paul Fussell called “the one book everybody knew:”

Front-line experience seemed to become available for interpretation when it was seen how closely parts of it resemble the action of Pilgrim’s Progress.

John Bunyan’s Protestant religious “Romance” had soaked into the British cultural atmosphere long before, and it has been used as a paradigm, a crutch, and a point of entry by many war writers since at least 1915. But now it is becoming inescapable, and I find, in going back to Fussell, that he featured the above quotation, letting it run on to give a sense of why this “Romance” is so applicable: its “scenes of hazardous journeying” go on and on with no decent respect for “plot” (i.e. strategy) or the limits of human endurance such as familiarity with the novel would lead us to expect.[6]

 

And for “Edmonds” and his company, the day’s journey hasn’t even begun. They wait nervously for Zero Hour, but the wait is made terrible by the fact that a German barrage opens up on their position. It’s unclear if this is coincidence or evidence that the Germans have precisely intuited the timing of the British attack. Soon the German barrage is answered, and Carrington launches into a present-tense battle piece that aims to catch something of the ferocity and insanity of close-combat.

It is no coincidence that describing not only death but morally questionable killing in the present tense allows it to seem to slide pace the cold judgment we might wish to pass on something stated in the perfect or simple past. This war was, but it wasn’t, exactly: it is, its violence happened in an ongoing, unstoppable present that nevertheless feels faster than ordinary experience::

Suddenly the sky behind us threw up a stab of flame! A roll of thunder like the last trump itself opened with some few single blows and steadied into a throbbing roar. The shells screamed overhead so thick and fast they seemed to eclipse the sky as with an invisible roof, rumbling like earthquakes behind, crashing like a thousand cymbals before us, a pillar of fire against, the dark sky, a pillar of cloud against the dawning east—leading us on!

It was zero hour and our barrage had fallen, blotting out the German bombardment with a drumfire forty times as great; there was no more thought or feeling, no more fear or doubt; only an endless blast of sound; a flicker of flame in the sky, a roaring and howling of shells over our heads, and a smoky pall of shrapnel.

My brain cleared though my ears were singing; the plan stood in my mind like a picture: I wondered how many men were left to carry it out. We must follow hard on the barrage and be on the enemy before they had recovered from
the first shock of it. I jumped out of the trench, shouting to my little group, and together we stumbled forward towards the enemy. Behind me came Serjeant Walker, my servant Stanley, three runners, Lewis, Campbell and Greenwood, and then the signallers struggling with their gear and quickly falling behind. Looking round I can see no one else, no sign of human life or activity; but who cares? Skirting round shell-holes, and straggling over rough ground in half darkness, our group loses all order and trails after me in single file. There looms up in front a bank undercut by a row of dug-outs, familiar enough by the map. I draw my revolver, but they are smashed and empty. Over and on behind the thunder and lightning of the barrage. (Like cannon balls rolled down sheets of iron over our heads.) One is thankful for a steel helmet.

Through the tumult I isolate a distinct noise, a spitting, a crackling, like children’s fireworks. Rifle bullets! Phut! Phut! Small arms indeed! We look about vaguely. It seems to have grown already a little lighter, so that lumps loom up irregularly in front thirty yards away—half left. Heads! Three or four heads of Boches in a shell-hole shooting at us! We see them together. Stanley shouts and brandishes his bayonet. Then I see Campbell lying curled up and grey-faced at my feet. Why, he’s dead!

And by God, they’ve hit ‘Tiny’ Greenwood. He is staggering about and bellowing, his hand on his chest. Stanley catches and lowers him to the ground behind the stunted ruins of a hedgerow which gives a little cover. Crack, crack, crack, come the bullets at thirty yards’ range, aimed more distinctly every moment as the light grows and the barrage lifts ahead. The enemy are even near enough to throw a bomb, Stanley and I fumble with field-dressings. There are now only three of us and three or four Boches shooting at us from cover. At least let’s quiet this poor lad’s confounded roaring and then make a plan. Poor ‘ Tiny ’ Greenwood, the smallest man in the company and the willingest. I remember my morphine tablets and give him one, two and three till he is silent. Stanley rises and shouts again, “Come on, sir, let’s go for the swine.”

“No,” I say, “get down in this shellhole,” and I am right. There is no chance for three men to charge three over the mud and pitfalls. Stanley plucks me by the sleeve and says plaintively. “Aw, come on, sir.” Walker and I get down in the hole and begin to shoot though Stanley stands and calls us once more. “Come down, you fool,” I order him. Then he comes down, slithering on the edge of the shell-hole, dropping his rifle with a clatter. A bullet has hit him in the eye, smashing his left brow and cheek-bone into a ghastly hole. I am dumbfounded with rage and horror. They have got Stanley, best of friends and loyallest of servants, and my last orderly. Walker and I are pent up in this hole and dare not move. Stanley is dead, who has always supported me, Stanley who gave me confidence in myself.

I sat stupidly in the half-light, not looking at my servant’s body, and then vaguely imitated Walker, who was firing on the Boches when they showed their heads. I must have emptied my revolver before this time, and now picked up
Stanley’s rifle, coated with mud from fixed bayonet to stock. With difficulty I fired a round or two, wrenching at the clogged mechanism after each shot. Walker gave a cry of joy as he got one Boche through the head, but one or two more ran up from neighbouring shell-holes and made the odds still heavier against us. Still our own guns thundered overhead, and now, the German guns began to reassert themselves, dropping a few shells experimentally in their own lines, which they guessed had fallen into our hands.

The stubborn group confronting us still held their place under fire of their own artillery. Ceasing to fire at us except when we showed our heads, they sent up signal rockets to give their position to their own observers. But for the roaring of our own shrapnel two hundred yards away, there was no sign of English activity. No other Englishman could be seen or heard, and, fatal event, we had ‘lost the barrage.’ In the midst of a great battle ours was an independent duel. Down in a shell-hole where the view was restricted by towering ridges and ramps of thrown-up earth, we had the limited vision of the mole. There must have been ten thousand men hidden in the landscape, though we had not seen ten.

I began to wonder whether our attack had been destroyed and was to be the tragedy of to-morrow’s communique in the German Press. “Yesterday after intense drumfire the English attacked east of Ypres and were driven back to their lines by our gallant ‘field greys’.” Perhaps, even, my own group was the only one which had advanced, in which case we might be able to hide here all day and creep back at dusk, to the remnants of the shattered battalion. How could the day be not lost now that the shrapnel banged so far ahead and no one seemed to be advancing? As we waited in the broadening light time passed—seconds or hours, we had no conception, till we heard voices behind us, a Lewis-gun rattling, and a reserve platoon at hand. I shouted to them to support us by outflanking this group of Germans, and as we opened fire again, invisible Lewis-gunners crept closer over the mountainous shell-holes. The Boches ceased fire.

At that moment Walker leaped up with a shout and began to shoot in a new direction. Following his aim I saw straight to the front and a hundred yards away a crowd of men running towards us in grey uniforms. Picking up another rifle I joined him in pouring rapid fire into this counterattack. We saw one at least drop, to Walker’s rifle I think, then noticed that they were running with their hands held up. Laughing, we emptied our magazines at them in spite of that, but at this point one of my favourite N.C.O.s, Corporal Fell, came tumbling into the shell-hole, hit through both thighs and bearing the pain with no more than a grunt or two. While I was trying to bandage his four wounds with one field dressing, and he to explain how his Lewis-gun had appeared to save us, I forgot the crowd of ‘ Kamerads.’ Just as I was telling him to crawl home as best he could, twenty or thirty Germans came running up with that shambling gait and bucolic manner I had always noticed in them, emphasised by the awkward gesture of their raised hands. The nearest had not seen me in the shell-hole, and as he approached, noticing a red cross on his arm I reached up and pulled him up short by the skirt of his greatcoat with a jerk that frightened him out of his wits.

“Ambulance,” I said, pointing to the wounded corporal. Then hardly stopping to see more. Walker and I rose, collected the Lewis-gun and its team and continued our advance. The surrendering Germans carried back our wounded men and we barely noticed in the excitement that the four snipers who had held us up so long slipped into the crowd of captives and went away with them. We should certainly not have given them quarter if we had thought of it in time…

Carrington’s honesty is not, I think, tinged with either shame or braggadocio. Shortly thereafter–this is the part of the battle-day, now, which involves memorable incidents rather than unforgettable, intensities crowded into swift, endless minutes after Z Hour–this curious reunion takes place:

I halted to write a report and mark up a situation map; then leaving my Lewis-gun with the serjeants I continued to advance with Serjeant Walker and two or three men. On our right were Colonial troops attacking in much greater strength than ours, so that my own front looked empty but theirs crowded with men, and before long one of their platoons came straying across my front. It suddenly struck me that the platoon commander was a friend whom I had not seen since I was a child; I seized him by the hand and introduced myself. As we exchanged civilities I became aware that we were under machine-gun fire. I was explaining that he had gone astray when this diversion occurred in his proper direction, and hastily clapping him on the back, I sent him off with his men to strafe the machine-gun, an order which he willingly obeyed. This odd incident, evidence of the unreal state of mind engendered by the excitement of battle, passed from my memory, to drift up again into my consciousness a few days later, blurred like the remembrance of a dream so that I have never been able to recall my old friend’s face and do not know who he was. At least the machine-gun shortly ceased to fire.

Carrington’s company now moves onto this section of the map, from the lower left toward the upper right, across the line of the Steenbeek. The most striking thing about Carrington’s tale of terror and death is, perhaps, that it is describing a tactical success:

Crossing the bridge we deployed half left and advanced up a slope towards some wreckage which we took to be Albatross or Wellington Farm. Under heavy shell-fire and some distant machine-gun fire we skirmished up the slope from hole to hole, till Flint reached the ruin and dugout that we thought was Wellington; but to our surprise it was already in English hands. It had been taken by a platoon of A.Co. who were delighted at having captured a German anti-tank gun. For the last few minutes the battle had really been proceeding according to plan. Still like a man in a dream I had been commanding and even manoeuvring considerable bodies of men, mostly, it must be admitted, of neighbouring companies. The advance was orderly and regular, and recorded in formal written messages which I sent back at intervals to headquarters; and we were near our objective…

We selected a large shell-hole under the lee of the broken pill-box of Winchester for my few men and those of the 16th, and settled down to resist the probable counter-attack. Soon Hesketh, an officer of the 16th, arrived with a Reserve platoon and my handful became an insignificant detail of the defence…

There was very little for me to do except to send even Serjeant Walker away to look for any more of my company. We were disappointed to find that a large party of men moving up in artillery formation was not our second wave but D company, all of whose officers were hit and who were now lost. Then a trench mortar battery came forward to take up a position near us; but no third wave passed through to follow the barrage which now fell three hundred yards ahead.

The morning wore on. Attackers and defenders at this point had spent their force. We had got our objective and were too ludicrously weak to move again. A few shells were coming over and a persistent sniper fired occasionally, his bullets crashing into the ruins of the pill-box beside us…

Towards midday, the enemy shelling really began. Black shrapnels crashed overhead and huge crumps burst round us among the ruins. We all crouched down in our one huge shellhole, which I began to regret, as a single shell in it would kill us all. One or two men were hit; especially, I remember, one who was standing up with his sleeves rolled up, when a shrapnel burst right above us. A sliver of steel came down and hit him lengthwise, on the bare forearm, making a clean cut three inches long between the two bones, as if his arm had been slit with a knife. To my horror the wound gaped open like a freshly cut shoulder of mutton. Though this was as ‘cushy’ a wound as man could desire, the sight of it cured me of hoping for a ‘blighty one.’ The victim agreed with me, for he danced and cried out with the pain.

My Lewis-gunners were now in position close by, and it seemed that the best way to reduce the crowd in the shell-hole was to go away myself. Hesketh didn’t want me and showed it; goodness knows, I didn’t want to stay there; so, by agreement with the major who passed that way again, I decided to leave my Lewis Gun section with Hesketh while Serjeant Walker and I withdrew to Stroppe Farm to pick up stragglers, and reorganise. So Walker, Bridgwater and I turned back down the hill through very heavy shell-fire, across the Stroombeek, and over the plain, now scattered with grey drifting clouds of smoke from high-explosive shells. Hardly out of the swamp we ran into Lance-Corporal Reese of No. 7 platoon with a few men and another gun. They were all that was left of the platoon, and had dug in, satisfied that they had reached their objective.

At last we got back to Stanley’s body, where I stopped not without a shudder to remove my glasses, all spattered with brains and blood, from his shoulder; I had to leave the strap, which was too gruesome to carry. Then we found our company stretcher-bearers performing prodigies of work, in spite, they were convinced, of being under deliberate German shell-fire, and using the little trench where I had visited one of my platoons last night as a rendezvous…

After taking stock of his company, Carrington decides to report in person to Battalion Headquarters.

Always very nervous when alone under shellfire, and badly shaken after the day’s experiences and the bombardment at Winchester, I found the walk of two or three hundred yards to Victoria Farm terrifying. Shells seemed to pursue me up the slope, and catch me when no deep shellhole was near. I floundered in oceans of kneedeep mud and flung myself flat, when one shell fell close, on what looked like fairly solid ground, but turned out to be as thin as half-cooked porridge. So the whole front of me from the chest down was soaked through and coated with slime. At last I struggled up to the little half-broken pill-box called Victoria and went in. The Colonel and Adjutant were plainly very pleased to see me. From their account I was able at last to get some sort of general picture of the battle. All our objectives had been reached and a hundred and fifty Germans taken prisoner, but at a cost in casualties which had shattered the battalion. All the severest fighting had been in the first few minutes, which had seen a score of petty duels like my own, group against group among the shell-holes. Most of our officers and N.C.O.s were hit, and until I came they had counted me too a casualty, all the messages which I had proudly composed in such careful military form having gone astray.

They gave me the good news that Thorburn, my reserve officer, had been sent for and would join me to-night, and the bad news, too, that, casualties or no casualties, we were not to be relieved for three days. The Colonel suggested that when Thorburn arrived I should come and join them in the dugout to get some sleep. Then he came out with me and we returned to the remnants of my company.

More tragedies! While I was away Whitworth had been sitting above the trench talking. In the dusk he was suddenly silent. No one had noticed a shell splinter from some far-away burst fly over and hit him in the head. He was breathing when we arrived, but, the stretcher-bearers said, as good as dead already. Nevertheless, they took him down to the dressing-station. The poor devils were beat after saving lives all day.

Then I settled down in the little trench, about twelve feet long and six feet deep and wonderfully dry, to wait for Thorburn who arrived with a runner about eight o’clock very cheery…  We agreed that our conversation a week before had proved prophetic: the battalion had taken a  nasty knock this time. Leaving him in charge I returned to Victoria, where the C.O. shared a tin of hot food with me, my first square meal that day.

The day ends with another tale of death. Carrington has lost friends, and he has seen scores of men killed, deliberately and by the great impersonal scythe of the artillery. But this strange and terrible story, hung all the way at the end, is deeply unsettling, like a reminder that even those who survive will have come too close to madness:

Armstrong, the intelligence officer, took me in hand with an endless story about himself, the C.O. and a wounded Boche.

“When I was going round with the C.O. this morning after you’d gone over we found a wounded Boche lying in the mud—down there by the Stroombeek where you couldn’t get him out. He was dying, I should think.”

“Yes,” said I sleepily, “there were hundreds.”

“Well, this one,” Armstrong continued, “he was done for, squirming, the poor devil was, and anyhow there was no chance of getting him down to a dressing-station from there. Best to put him out of his misery, you’d say, wouldn’t
you, Edmonds?”

“Yes, I suppose so; let’s get some sleep.”

“Oh, well,” said Armstrong, “just wait. Damn funny it was. We found this Boche; there was the C.O. and me and a runner; and the C.O. said to the runner, ‘You’d best shoot the poor fellow,’ and the Boche just lay there and groaned. He knew. But, you know, the runner couldn’t do it. He unslung his rifle and fingered the trigger and just couldn’t do it. So the C.O. turned to me and when it came to the point no more could I: so the C.O. drew his gun himself and went up to the Boche and looked fierce, and the Boche squirmed and I’m damned if the C.O. didn’t weaken too. Damn funny, wasn’t it? And we just left him there, so I suppose he’ll die in the mud to-night.”

But by this time I was asleep, having found a quiet corner. It was luxury for five of us to lie down on a concrete floor in a cellar only fifteen feet square and with no door, that chilly autumn evening.[7]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. So few are our references to birds, these days!
  2. War Letters to a Wife, 208-10.
  3. Diaries, 188-9.
  4. C.E. Montague, 191.
  5. Soldier From the Wars Returning, 191.
  6. The Great War and Modern Memory, 135-41.
  7. "Edmonds" (Carrington), A Subaltern's War, 132-55.

A Novel Premonition for Elinor Brooke; Edmund Blunden and Kate Luard Under German Bombs; Vera Brittain is at War at Last; Rudyard Kipling and the Efficacy of the Mob–and Charles Sorley Sees the Blindness

As the day dawns over Sussex today, a century back, Elinor Brooke reaches a crossroads in her war.

I was trudging uphill, feeling spikes of stubble jab my ankles, and then, just as I reached the top, the sun rose–huge, molten-red–and at that moment I knew–not thought, not feared, knew–that Toby wasn’t coming back.[1]

This is Elinor’s diary entry, in Pat Barker’s novel. Elinor is fictional, but her position–from the intuition, to the death of her brother, to the long struggle she will have to learn of its circumstances and make sense of it all–is very familiar.

 

And it still goes on. Edmund Blunden is fortunate to be in reserve today.

A fairly idle day… read Leigh Hunt… There was a big bombardment again this evening. Some of our party went over I suppose–God help them in the mud. Just as we were settling down for the night, Boche came over. Our knees knocked and teeth chattered, but nothing fell on us…[2]

 

Kate Luard, meanwhile, is closer to the action–and dodging bombs from the same German raiders. 1917, as Blunden recently observed, is not 1916. In some ways it feels as if in just two short years we have come from a 19th century world beginning to be troubled by machine guns to the cusp of mid-century schrecklichkeit. All we’ll need are stronger engines and bigger bombs.

We are so much in the thick of War up here that no one talks or thinks of anything else…shells screaming and bursting and bombs dropping. The last are much the worst. He dropped five at dinner-time about 70 yards away, and came over with some more about 10.30 to-night and some more later. There’s no sort of cover anywhere and it is purely beastly. Shelling is nothing to it. The Sisters are extraordinarily good in it.[3]

 

Nor is Vera Brittain far from the bombs–but then again she has felt the bombs land in London, too. She writes to her mother today, a century back, from her new assignment in the great British base complex in the Pas-de-Calais.

24th General Hospital, Étaples,
France, 5 August 1917

. . . I arrived here yesterday afternoon; the hospital is about a mile out of the town, on the side of a hill, in a large clearing surrounded on three sides by woods. It is all huts & tents; I am working in a hut & sleeping under canvas, only not in a tent but in a kind of canvas shanty, with boarded floor & corrugated iron roof.. .The hospital is frantically busy & we were very much welcomed. . .

Now the, er, bombshell drops:

You will be surprised to hear that at present I am nursing German prisoners. My ward is entirely reserved for the most acute German surgical cases… The majority are more or less dying; never, even at the 1st London during the Somme push, have I seen such dreadful wounds. Consequently they are all too ill to be aggressive, & one forgets that they are the enemy and can only remember that they are suffering human beings. My half-forgotten German comes in very useful, & the Sisters were so glad to know I understood it & could speak a little as half the time they don’t know what the poor things want. It gives one a chance to live up to our Motto Inter Arma Caritas, but anyhow one can hardly feel bitter towards dying men. It is incongruous, though, to think of Edward in one part of France trying to kill the same people whom in another part of France I am trying to save…

Well, Malta was an interesting experience of the world, but this is War.[4]

Rarely is the epistolary first draft–especially to Mother, rather than to one of her fellow members of the Lost Generation–better than the coming memoir, but I think that’s the case today. There is a swelling of strings as Vera finally reaches France–the place that killed Roland, Geoffrey, and Victor, and that still has Edward in its clutches–and there is an excellent evocation of the sounds of the bombardment, too, which works nicely amidst the others, here–but the effect of her description of France is less powerful than the simple antithesis she used in the letter:

The noise of the distant guns was a sense rather than a sound; sometimes a quiver shook the earth, a vibration trembled upon the wind, when I could actually hear nothing. But that sense made any feeling of complete peace impossible; in the atmosphere was always the tenseness, the restlessness, the slight rustling, that comes before an earthquake or with imminent thunder. The glamour of the place was even more compelling, though less delirious, than the enchantment of Malta’s beauty; it could not be banished though one feared and resisted it, knowing that it had to be bought at the cost of loss and frustration. France was the scene of titanic, illimitable death, and for this very reason it had become the heart of the fiercest living ever known to any generation. Nothing was permanent; everyone and everything was always on the move; friendships were temporary, appointments were temporary, life itself was the most temporary of all.[5]

 

Finally, there’s a remarkable letter of today, a century back, from one to another of two titans of the turn of the century: the bard of Imperialism, Rudyard Kipling, and one of its dashing New World practitioners, Theodore Roosevelt. If not for the fact that they are not 19th century men, and that they are discussing sons (the present Kermit Roosevelt and the ever-present-through-his-absence Jack Kipling) and geopolitics… and if I didn’t despise this newly ubiquitous (at least in American pop culture) term, then I would describe this letter as a founding document of “bro” culture. Kipling’s writing has rarely been so off-putting, so ingratiatingly chummy, so eager to be brutal.

I have come a long way–through reading the man’s fiction, history, and private letters–to understanding Kipling much better than as the facile, solemn Imperialist chest-thumper of the familiar caricature… but a few paragraphs of this letter bring that old idea back with a vengeance. Kipling is full of blustery, silly talk as he updates the former president on his son’s adventures in England (Kermit Roosevelt is about to go out to Mesopotamia attached to a British Machine Gun unit); then there is unsolicited “expert” military advice (Kipling worries that the new American generals are too eager, and will fruitlessly spend their first small forces instead of building up for a “big push”), and there are helpful suggestions such as these:

I fancy that before you’ve done, in the U.S.A., you will discover as we have that the really dangerous animal is the Hun in one’s own country no matter what he pretends to be. You hold a good many hostages for his good behaviour and I sometimes wonder whether, if the U.S.A. took toll from her own unnaturalized Germans for every Hun outrage committed on the U.S. and on France, it wouldn’t have a sedative effect…

Don’t worry: Kipling is not suggesting that German Americans be killed in retribution for U-boat sinkings, only that a few officially sponsored riots in German American neighborhoods (I believe one applicable analogy would be to the pogrom) might just do the trick.

…It’s what the Hun comprehends perfectly. We have bled him badly in men, and if we can use up a decent percentage of his 1919 class this winter by exposure in the trenches as well as direct killing, he will feel it more.

But of course I’m being squeamish: anti-German-American riots were quite within the realm of possibility. And I just passed Kipling’s casual assertion of the righteousness of retributive atrocity without comment. Why? Because that describes the activities of uniformed soldiers? Because that’s different than casually advocating violent demagoguery and mob violence as strategic tools to an ally which is, ostensibly, a multi-ethnic democracy? Because my century-late outrage would be better served by letting Kipling’s endorsement of such things stand on its own rather than surrounding it with fussy complaint? “Bettered the instruction” indeed.

Worst of all, Kipling’s strategic guesstimates are accurate:

What he seems to funk more than most things is the stringency of the new blockade now that the U.S.A. is imposing it and neutrals can’t feed him as much as they used to. We’ve got another twelvemonth of trouble ahead of us I expect but it won’t be all on one side.[6]

This is the sort of letter, from one figurehead of imperial warfare to another–and from one older man willing to sacrifice his son to another–that might have re-affirmed Siegfried Sassoon‘s faith in the righteousness of his protest…

 

But back to this treatment of “Huns:” not Germans who are armed and dangerous in the trenches opposite, but German emigrants, civilians living in America, posing no threat and powerless to defend themselves. The analogy to wounded prisoners is not precise, yet it seems a coincidence worth exploring that Vera Brittain’s first encounter with helpless Germans also began today, a century back.

…when I told the Matron of my work in Malta, she remarked with an amused, friendly smile that I was “quite an old
soldier…” but… I was hardly prepared for the shock of being posted… to the acute and alarming German
ward…

Although we still, I believe, congratulate ourselves on our impartial care of our prisoners, the marquees were often
damp, and the ward was under-staffed whenever there happened to be a push — which seemed to be always — and the number of badly wounded and captured Germans became in consequence excessive. One of the things I like best to remember about the War is the nonchalance with which the Sisters and V.A.D.s in the German ward took for granted that it was they who must be overworked, rather than the prisoners neglected. At the time that I went there the ward staff had passed a self-denying ordinance with regard to half days, and only took an hour or two off when the work temporarily slackened.

From the moral high ground Vera Brittain now wields a satirist’s sword with great skill:

Before the War I had never been in Germany and had hardly met any Germans apart from the succession of German mistresses at St. Monica’s, every one of whom I had hated with a provincial schoolgirl’s pitiless distaste for foreigners. So it was somewhat disconcerting to be pitch-forked, all alone — since V.A.D.S went on duty half an hour before Sisters — into the midst of thirty representatives of the nation which, as I had repeatedly been told, had crucified Canadians, cut off the hands of babies, and subjected pure and stainless females to unmentionable “atrocities.” I didn’t think I had really believed all those stories, but I wasn’t quite sure.[7] I half expected that one or two of the patients would get out of bed and try to rape me, but I soon discovered that none of them were in a position to rape anybody, or indeed to do anything but cling with stupendous exertion to a life in which the scales were already weighted heavily against them.

At least a third of the men were dying; their daily dressings were not a mere matter of changing huge wads of stained gauze and wool, but of stopping haemorrhages, replacing intestines and draining and re-inserting innumerable rubber tubes. Attached to the ward was a small theatre, in which acute operations were performed all day by a medical officer with a swarthy skin and a rolling brown eye; he could speak German, and before the War had been in charge, I was told, of a German hospital in some tropical region of South America. During the first two weeks, he and I and the easy-going Charge-Sister worked together pleasantly enough. I often wonder how we were able to drink tea and eat cake in the theatre — as we did all clay at frequent intervals — in that foetid stench, with the thermometer about 90 degrees in the shade, and the saturated dressings and yet more gruesome human remnants heaped on the floor. After the “light medicals” that I had nursed in Malta, the German ward might justly have been described as a regular baptism of blood and pus.

This is inhuman and horrible, but the point–Brittain’s point, and now mine–is that it is also deeply humane.

One tall, bearded captain would invariably stand to attention when I had re-bandaged his arm, click his spurred heels together, and bow with ceremonious gravity. Another badly wounded boy — a Prussian lieutenant who was being transferred to England — held out an emaciated hand to me as he lay on the stretcher waiting to go, and murmured: “I tank you, Sister.” After barely a second’s hesitation I took the pale fingers in mine, thinking how ridiculous it was that I should be holding this man’s hand in friendship when perhaps, only a week or two earlier, Edward up at Ypres had been doing his best to kill him. The world was mad and we were all victims — that was the only way to look at it. These shattered, dying boys and I were paying alike for a situation that none of us had desired or done anything to bring about.

And Kipling, to some degree, had. But we’ll leave today with another voice, one which has greater personal authority than anyone who has spoken yet. The wounded Germans may be dying in English hands, but Charles Sorley had studied in Germany, and fought Germans, and been killed by Germans. In the memoir, Vera Brittain enlists the young dead poet against the cruel masters of war:

Somewhere, I remembered, I had seen a poem called “To Germany,” which put into words this struggling new
idea; it was written, I discovered afterwards, by Charles Hamilton Sorley, who was killed in action in 1915 :

You only saw your future bigly planned,

And we, the tapering paths of our own mind,

And in each other’s dearest ways we stand,

And hiss and hate. And the blind fight the blind.[8]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Barker, Toby's Room, 85.
  2. Webb, Edmund Blunden, 78.
  3. Unknown Warriors, 137.
  4. Letters From a Lost Generation, 268-9.
  5. Testament of Youth, 372-3.
  6. The Letters of Rudyard Kipling, IV, 467-8.
  7. Which is about right. The British press ran with a great many entirely invented atrocity stories, and propaganda and myth made an ugly marriage of convenience with stories like the ones Brittain mentions. And yet there was a tendency after the war--an inevitable after-effect of government lies--to disbelieve all stories of German atrocity and assume a rough moral equivalence. There wasn't--which was at least in part due to the fact that Germany occupied enemy territory, and believed itself to be under existential threat; neither of these things were true in the same way of Britain. But German atrocities, especially during the invasion of Belgium, were very real. They should not bear on the claim to humane treatment of wounded soldiers, but even if pacifists between the wars emphasized the horror of war in general rather than of particular forms of armed aggression, it is bad history to discount the deliberate violence meted out by the German army to French and Belgian civilians.
  8. Testament of Youth, 372-77.

Edmund Blunden: Two Direct Hits; The Master of Belhaven Laments a Good Man Wounded; Kate Luard and Grateful Men

Ralph Hamilton, the Master of Belhaven, predicted a bad day yesterday, and, indeed, one of his batteries was forced to move after being hit by German shells. But disaster did not strike–until today, when it struck right beside him, hitting his servant, Bath. This is at once an affecting interjection of emotion into Hamilton’s generally cool diary and a discomfiting reminder of the self-centeredness that was coddled and amplified by the privileges of the English class system.

Another black day… My faithful Bath has been hit at last, very badly… a fragment of a high-explosive pip-squeak… had gone in behind the right ear and at the top of his neck, cut his tongue badly and lodged in his left cheek… He was nearly choking with the blood running down his throat… They can’t tell how bad he is yet; it all depends on if the wound becomes septic or not. He has a good chance of living but I am afraid he is very bad. He is a dreadful loss to me, as he has looked after me since just after Loos, and he has been a devoted slave, anticipating everything I could possibly want. Now at 5.30 p.m. the shelling has become intense, and my office has just been hit. Several more men killed and wounded. I wonder how long we shall be able to stand this sort of thing.[1]

 

The 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers, after a grim two days hanging on to the ground gained with so much loss on the 31st, withdrew to trenches on the Steenbeck, now effectively a reserve line. David Jones was back among his mates, hearing their stories and sketching their trophies.[2] Many of the survivors, including some from Hedd Wyn‘s town near Trawsfynydd, Gwenydd, would have tried to send a quick card or letter home with news of the battle.

 

Edmund Blunden and the 11th Royal Sussex, too, were relieved after their two days’ infernal trial. But not before they experienced more death and agony at the hands of the German artillery, and not before Blunden was called to witness a signal horror in a neighboring dugout.

The night spent itself somehow. Already it seemed ages since I had last seen poor Tice, and looked at this very patch of ground with him, but the gulf between this and three days before was indeed a black and lethal abyss, which had swallowed up all the hopes of the Allies for this summer. I do not remember what was said. Day brought a little promise of better weather, and it was for a time quiet enough; I explored here and there, and my signallers got their wires to “all stations” into working order. A tank officer looked in, asking help to “salve” some equipment from his wrecked machine, lying just behind our pillbox. Presently the drizzle was thronging down mistily again, and shelling grew more regular and searching. There were a number of concrete shelters along the trench, and it was not hard to see that their dispossessed makers were determined to do them in.

Our doctor, an Irishman named Gatchell, who seemed utterly to scorn such annoyances as Krupp, went out to find a much-discussed bottle of whisky which he had left in his medical post. He returned, the bottle in his hand. “Now, you toping rascals” — a thump like a thunderbolt stopped him. He fell mute, white, face down, the bottle still in his hand; “Ginger Lewis,” the adjutant, whose face I chanced to see particularly, went as chalky-white, and collapsed;
the Colonel, shaking and staring, passed me as I stooped to pull the doctor out, and tottered, not knowing where he was going, along the trench. Over my seat, at the entrance, the direct hit had made a gash in the concrete, and the place was full of fragments and dust. It hit just over my head, and I suppose it was a 5.9. But we had escaped, and
outside, scared from some shattered nook, a number of field mice were peeping and turning as though as puzzled as ourselves. A German listening set with its delicate valves stood in the rain there, too, unfractured. But these details were perceived in a flash, and meanwhile shells were coming down remorselessly all along our alley.

In the memoir, Blunden’s prose mimics the blurred calm of a mind doing whatever it needs to survive a day like this, while quietly and gingerly examining these muted responses from a safe distance. In the poem “Third Ypres,” he tries–memorably if not quite successfully–to both enact the emotions and explain his psychological survival.

At the noon of the dreadful day
Our trench and death’s is on a sudden stormed
With huge and shattering salvoes, the clay dances
In founts of clods around the concrete sties,
Where still the brain devises some last armour
To live out the poor limbs.
This wrath’s oncoming
Found four of us together in a pillbox,
Skirting the abyss of madness with light phrases,
White and blinking, in false smiles grimacing.
The demon grins to see the game, a moment
Passes, and — still the drum-tap dongs my brain
To a whirring void — through the great breach above me
The light comes in with icy shock and the rain
Horridly drops. Doctor, talk, talk! if dead
Or stunned I know not; the stinking powdered concrete,
The lyddite turns me sick — my hair’s all full
Of this smashed concrete. O I’ll drag you, friends,
Out of the sepulchre into the light of day,
For this is day, the pure and sacred day.
And while I squeak and gibber over you,
Look, from the wreck a score of field-mice nimble,
And tame and curious look about them; (these
Calmed me, on these depended my salvation).

 

The memoir continues, remorseless as the battle:

Other direct hits occurred.

Men stood in the trench under their steel hats and capes, resigned to their fate. An ex-veterinary surgeon, Gatfield, with his droll, sleepy, profoundly kind manner, filled the doctor’s place, and attended as best he could to the doctor and the other wounded. The continuous and ponderous blasts of shells seemed to me to imply that an attack was to be made on us, and being now more or less the only headquarters officer operating, after an inconclusive conference with the Colonel, I sent the SOS to the artillery; the telephone wire went almost immediately afterward. The wonderful artillery answered, and at length the pulverization of our place slackened, to the relief of the starting nerves; whereon, Sergeant Ashford came to tell me that our linesmen had put us in touch with the 13th Royal Sussex on our right, and that the adjutant of that battalion wanted me at the phone. Bartlett, a genial and gallant man, bright-haired Bartlett called me by name — I hear his self-control still in those telephoned words — and told
me what made our own “direct hit” not worth mentioning.

In the poem, the horror stabs out through the text.

There comes my sergeant, and by all the powers
The wire is holding to the right battalion,
And I can speak — but I myself first spoken
Hear a known voice now measured even to madness
Call me by name.
“For God’s sake send and help us,
Here in a gunpit, all headquarters done for,
Forty or more, the nine-inch came right through,
All splashed with arms and legs, and I myself
The only one not killed, not even wounded.
You’ll send — God bless you!” The more monstrous fate
Shadows our own, the mind swoons doubly burdened,
Taught how for miles our anguish groans and bleeds,
A whole sweet countryside amuck with murder;
Each moment puffed into a year with death.
Still swept the rain, roared guns,
Still swooped into the swamps of flesh and blood,
All to the drabness of uncreation sunk,
And all thought dwindled to a moan, Relieve!
But who with what command can now relieve
The dead men from that chaos, or my soul?

In prose:

His headquarters had been pierced by a great shell, and over thirty killed or wounded. “A gunpit — Van Heule Farm”; I knew it by the map. What could we do to help? It was little enough; we called the R. A. M. C. to send rescuers to that gun-pit, and I heard later that a driver actually succeeded in getting an ambulance to it, up the gouged and eruptioned St. Julian Road.

The tragedy of the 13th came home to me more than all the rest, and from the moment of that telephone call my power of endurance lay gasping… One’s range of effect, and of conception, seemed to close in, and the hole overhead in the resumed vile pillbox was ever catching the eye…

That night about twelve o’clock we were relieved, and even those who like myself had been for the last twenty-four hours in a gully or pit were scarcely able to credit it. Hobbling down the muddy muletrack, one found that the soles of one’s feet had become corrugated, and the journey was desperately slow. No ordinary burst of shells could make us hurry now, but as we approached the dark earth wall of the Yser Canal the notion of having a chance of escape quickened our dragging steps; and my own little group, passing a familiar spot called Irish Farm, went still quicker because of the most appalling missile we had ever heard.

It was a high-velocity shell, and a big one; it came suddenly with a shriek beyond expression, entered the mud a few yards away, and rocked the earth and air. Perhaps the gunners were accustomed to this sort of nightmare, which in its solitary horror impressed me more even than the rolling storms of shell of the last few days.[3]

 

We’ll close with with Kate Luard, writing at 11:45 p.m. tonight, a century back, amidst the human wreckage only a few miles back from the worst of the battle.

It made one realise how far up we are to have streams of shells crossing over our heads. The rain continues–all night and all day since the Push began on Monday. Can God be on our side, everyone is asking–when his (alleged!) Department always intervenes in favour of the enemy at all our best moments.

The men are brought in with mud over their eyes and mouths, and 126 have died in 3 1/2 days…

An oldish man wanted to be lifted up in the bed: when we’d done it, he murmured, ‘what would we do without women in the world!’ And they don’t expect to find women up here.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary, 358-9.
  2. Which included a German 25 cm Minenwerfer, pictured in the post from that day, and incorrectly described by Jones's editors (and then by me as well--many thanks to Richard Hawkins for the correction) as a "howitzer." So I was wrong to suggest that that the R.W.F. had gotten as far as the German artillery--that would have been far indeed. As in the British Army, trench mortars--even enormous versions like this heavy minenwerfer--were fired from positions in among the infantry in the forward trench lines--their range was less than a half mile, and they were often fired from only a few hundred yards away. Its capture, therefore, was confirmation of a significant of advance but, again, nothing like that long-desired total breakthrough into the German rear. Given the fact that Great War armies still sometimes abided by the old standard of numbering captured "guns" as metric of success, this is a significant distinction--it was much more like capturing a heavy machine gun than capturing an actual piece of artillery.
  3. Undertones of War, 224-8.
  4. Unknown Warriors, 136.

Edmund Blunden’s Runner in the Mud; Kate Luard Begins Taking the Toll

There is relatively little to read today, as the army hauls itself up over the wide, shallow morass it conquered yesterday. Or, rather, one writer is more than enough, for this day after. The story of the Battle of Third Ypres–which will soon be best known by the name of the next ridge, Passchendaele–is the weather. It started to rain yesterday afternoon, and it rained all day today, a century back.

The following “chilling description” is not from the diary of a miserable front-line soldier or a “disenchanted” memoir writer: it’s from a despatch issued by Haig himself–the man who will press on with the “battle” even as the rains continue.

The low-lying clayey soil, torn by shells and sodden with rain, turned to a succession of vast muddy pools. The valleys of the choked and overflowing streams were speedily transformed into long stretches of bog, impassable except by a few well-defined tracks…[1]

“Drowning in mud” has, until now, been almost exclusively a figurative or metaphorical expression.

 

We had three poets to read about yesterday; one survives today. At least Edmund Blunden writes in a sort of triplicate: diary, poem, and memoir.

Last night, crouching in the battalion’s new signalling post, he “was never so hideously apprehensive.” Today did not disappoint: it was “the most wicked twenty-four hours I have ever been through, Somme included… Another retreat from Moscow.”[2]

The position was no better during the night, and the succeeding day was dismal, noisy, and horrid with sudden death. Tempers were not good, and I found myself suddenly threatening a sergeant-major with arrest for some unfriendly view which he was urging to the headquarters in general. Then, there were such incidents as the death of a runner called Wrackley, a sensitive and willing youth, just as he set out for the companies; struck, he fell on one knee, and his stretched-out hand still clutched his message.

Such an incident can be true in different ways, retold in different genres:

Runner, stand by a second. Your message. — He’s gone,
Falls on a knee, and his right hand uplifted
Claws his last message from his ghostly enemy,
Turns stone-like. Well I liked him, that young runner,
But there’s no time for that. O now for the word
To order us flash from these drowning roaring traps
And even hurl upon that snarling wire?
Why are our guns so impotent?
The grey rain,
Steady as the sand in an hourglass on this day…

Returning to memoir, we learn that one of Blunden’s friends, believed lost, is alive:

Vidler, that invincible soldier, came in a little afterward, observing: “That was a quick one, ‘Erb. I was feeling round my backside for a few lumps of shrapnel — didn’t find any, though.”

And as for the rest of the day, it settles all too quickly into the muddy, godforsaken depletion that will come to characterize the entire battle. Blunden, fighting off the insensibility that comes with exhaustion and curdled fear, writes this mood by means of a wry surrender into reference to his literary forbears:

This second day was on the whole drab in the extreme, and at the end of it we were ordered to relieve the 14th Hampshires in their position ahead, along the Steenbeck. The order presented no great intellectual difficulty, for the reduced battalion merely had to rise from its water holes, plod through the mud of an already beaten track, and fill other holes. Darkness clammy and complete, save for the flames of shells, masked that movement, but one stunted willow tree at which the track changed direction must haunt the memories of some of us. Trees in this battlefield are already described by Dante.

Headquarters, officers, signallers, servants, runners, and specialists, arrived in the blind gloom at the trench occupied by the Hampshire headquarters, and it is sufficient to indicate the insensate manner of the relief when I say that we did not notice any unusually close explosion as we drew near to the trench, but as we entered it we found that there had just been one. It had blown in some concrete shelters, and killed and wounded several of our predecessors; I was aware of mummy-like half-bodies, and struggling figures, crying and cursing.[3]

 

Kate Luard wrote, at midnight, of those half-bodies that had made it as far as her hospital:

It has been a pretty frightful day–44 funerals yesterday and about as many to-day. After 24 hours of peace the battle seems to have broken out again; the din is so terrific I can hardly sit in this chair…[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Quoted in Holmes, Tommy, 57.
  2. Webb, Edmund Blunden, 77.
  3. Undertones of War, 223-4.
  4. Unknown Warriors, 135.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back, for a moment, to Blunden:

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

References and Footnotes

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

Three Views of Siegfried Sassoon and Doctor Rivers

A quiet day, today, a century back, even for Ralph Hamilton, who has been gassed the last few nights, as the German batteries in his area of the Salient opt to conserve their ammunition. This makes sense: even if there had not been numerous intelligence failures (several are related by Edmund Blunden in Undertones of War, which we will look at shortly) that revealed allied plans, the build-up to the battle would be obvious to casual observers for many miles around. Everywhere men are readying equipment, stockpiling ammunition, digging assembly trenches, or making last-minute exploratory patrols.

 

Siegfried Sassoon, however, is far away, safe in Scotland. He has been under the deferential yet magisterial care of Dr. Rivers for three days now, and we will take a first look at this fascinating therapist-patient relationship from three angles, today. First, Sassoon’s letter (we’ve already read a snippet) to Robbie Ross:

26 July
‘Dottyville’
Craiglockhart War Hospital
Slateford, Midlothian

My dear Robbie,

There are 160 Officers here, most of them half-dotty. No doubt I’ll be able to get some splendid details for
future use.

Rivers, the chap who looks after me, is very nice. I am very glad to have the chance of talking to such a fine man.
Do you know anyone amusing in Edinburgh who I can go and see?

It was very jolly seeing Robert Graves up here. We had great fun on his birthday, and ate enormously. R. has done some very good poems which he repeated to me. He was supposed to escort me up here, but missed the train and arrived four hours after I did!

Hope you aren’t worried about my social position.

Yours ever S.S.[1]

 

And then there is Sassoon’s retrospective, very-lightly-fictionalized account in Sherston’s Progress. The narratorial Sherston describes several early evening meetings with Rivers during which they conducted casual, friendly, wide-ranging conversations. Other than these nightly sessions of what we would recognize as talk therapy, Sassoon is free to roam the grounds of the hospital and even make day trips. There is evidently little concern that he is intending to run into Edinburgh and launch a new pseudo-Pacifist “war on the war.”

But what is Rivers doing with Sassoon? Is he ill? If so, in what way? And if not, what responsibilities does a doctor wearing an army uniform[2] bear toward an officer who is not ill but rather refusing to do his duty? Surely even Sassoon’s float-on-the-stream-of-events Sherston must eventually work around to this query?

One evening I asked whether he thought I was suffering from shell-shock.

“Certainly not,” he replied.

“What have I got, then?”

“Well, you appear to be suffering from an anti-war complex.” We both of us laughed at that.[3]

And so a friendship, surrogate father-son relationship, and literary trilogy was born. One imagines Pat Barker reading the Sherston memoirs to this point and murmuring “ah-ha.” And she improves upon the scene.[4] After discussing Sassoon’s courage in action (his reckless courage that more than once took him far ahead of his unit), his hatred of the staff and certain civilians, his lack of hatred of the Germans despite his ferocity when attacking them with hand grenades, some of the intensely traumatic sights he witnessed, and his written protest and symbolic ribbon-divesting, the conversation works its way around to his mental state:

Sassoon stood up. ‘You said a bit back you didn’t think I was mad.’

‘I’m quite sure you’re not. As a matter of fact I don’t even think you’ve got a war neurosis.’

Sassoon digested this. ‘What have I got then?’

‘You seem to have a very powerful anti-war neurosis.’

They looked at each other and laughed. Rivers said, ‘You realize, don’t you, that it’s my duty to… try to change that? I can’t pretend to be neutral.

Sassoon’s glance took in both their uniforms. ‘No, of course not.'[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 183.
  2. Sassoon seems to pointedly refuse to see Rivers as a "real" Army Officer, describing him as "dressed as an R.A.M.C. Captain" [my emphasis], which is fair enough given his long civilian career and brief army affiliation, although still rather convenient for Sassoon and his binary visions...
  3. Complete Memoirs, 518.
  4. Barker places this dialogue in the dramatic and memorable first meeting between Sassoon and Rivers, which would have occurred on the 23rd. The novel needs to hurry through Sassoon's initial opposition (and present the brave, persuadable, changeable, charming, principled, petulant Sassoon that we, here, already know) and address how the developing relationship affects Sassoon's course. Hence the compression of several meetings into one. But Sassoon's writing of this particular Rivers-Sherston meeting as a few evenings into his stay makes more sense, chronologically, even if he is looking back without dated notes.
  5. Regeneration, 15.