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.

David Jones and Hedd Wyn Together on the Worst Night of All; Siegfried Sassoon and the Healing Rivers; Kate Luard Returns to No. 32; Llewelyn Wyn Griffith Wins his Way to Rhiw, on Llyn; Max Plowman on the Coming Generation; Will Harvey’s Comrades Tunnel Out; Isaac Rosenberg’s Immense Trust

This is one of those rewarding but vexing days of overabundance. A very big day for one of our central writers and what may be an unrecognized conjunction of two others are both busily trespassed upon by the smaller doings of several others. The three principals are all men of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, too: David Jones and Hedd Wyn can be found, tonight, a century back, in the same section of trench, only hours after Siegfried Sassoon arrived[1] at Craiglockhart War Hospital. Sassoon is, technically, a prisoner remanded to medical treatment, but since both Robert Graves and a second officer detailed to accompany him missed the train, he came to Edinburgh himself.

And thus, for his lightly fictionalized alter-ego George Sherston, ended the second volume of his autobiography. With his arrival at “Slateford War Hospital,” near Edinburgh, the third volume, Sherston’s Progress, begins.

But first, for us, that crowd of less momentous military-literary events…

 

Max Plowman, another shell-shocked infantry officer, another anti-war writer and poet and, by this evening, a century back, a man with whom Sassoon will have an important mutual connection–is in a slightly different place, vis a vis pacifism, than our Siegfried. And might we suggest that it is a more advanced stage?

…My view is that the war is a national calamity for which we are all responsible–either actively or passively or hereditarily–& that everyone really suffers it most where he is most alive. Clods almost purely in their skins & so upwards. And if anybody enjoys it he is to be pitied most of all…

But the damned nuisance about it is that after a certain age you can’t change your skin with the ease & frequency of a jolly young snake.–It’s useless to revile circumstances (unless they’re the direct result of one’s own behaviour). Even if we of this generation have to suffer life, I don’t doubt but that Life knows her way, & that the coming  generation will reap what we’ve sown…[2]

This is high-flown stuff, and beside it Sassoon’s quick capitulation from his campaign of attempted martyrdom, and of course it is disastrously prescient. But it doesn’t quite address the question that Sassoon tried–and failed–to address: yes, but what is one mere lieutenant to do about it?

 

Nor is this a question that Isaac Rosenberg–a mere private–can even dream of entertaining. There is no time or energy–no standing, really–to engage with questions more than a step or two from those of personal survival. But one of these, for a poet and artist like Rosenberg, is the question of artistic progress. He wrote, or perhaps posted, another letter to Gordon Bottomley today, a century back:

…I know my letters are not what they should be; but I must take any chance I get of writing for fear another chance does not come, so I write hastily and leave out most I should write about. I wished to say last time a lot about your poem, but I could think of nothing that would properly express my great pleasure in it; and I can think of nothing now… I wish I could get back and read your plays; and if my luck still continues, I shall. Leaves have commenced with us, but it may be a good while before I get mine. We are more busy now than when I last wrote, but I generally manage to knock something up if my brain means to, and I am sketching out a little play. My great fear is that I may lose what I’ve written, which can happen here so easily. I send home any bit I write, for safety, but that can easily get lost in transmission. However, I live in an immense trust that things will turn out well…

Do not write because you think you ought to answer, but write when you have nothing else to do & you wish to kill time, it is no trouble to me to write these empty letters, when I have a minute to spare, just to let you know that life & poetry are as fresh as ever in me…[3]

 

Meanwhile, yet another literary Royal Welch Fusilier–and a Welsh one, at that–headed home today, at least for a little while. Llewelyn Wyn Griffith, enjoying the perquisites of a staff officer, went on leave, and will shortly be in Rhiw, on the Llyn peninsula in North Wales. “In lovely summer weather… I linked up into the clan and enjoyed myself. Rhiw worked its magic on us both.[4]

 

Then there is Kate Luard, who has completed two short postings at two different hospitals–her unit’s departure from the Arras area after the battle did not mean leave for her. Today, a century back, she rejoined Casualty Clearing Station No. 32. Which is itself on the move: a hospital specializing in abdominal wounds needs to be near where men will be climbing out of trenches and exposing their abdomens… Within two days Sister Luard will be writing about taking the train to Poperinghe, already familiar to us as the last stop before Ypres.[5]

 

And in Holzminden, Lower Saxony, Will Harvey and his comrades are taking a great deal of satisfaction in their recent work. It hasn’t all been sing-songs and poetry–they were digging in shifts the whole time. During the night, a century back, twenty-nine officers escaped the prisoner of war camp through a long tunnel dug from under a cellar floor all the way outside the camp walls. Ten will evade capture and make it all the way back to England. Harvey was not among the escapees, but shared in the general delight at their bullying Commandant’s discomfiture.[6]

 

Penultimately–though this is the most exciting bit, from my point of view–we come to the 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers. Strangely–and I do not know whether this means that I have missed blatant references to this fact or have in fact only been mildly obtuse about a conjunction which none of my sources have noticed either–I have only now realized that David Jones and Hedd Wyn are now marching into battle as part of the same battalion.[7] The 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers are the very same “1st London Welch,” which, as Jones will remind us, may have once been a Kitchener’s battalion with many Welsh-affiliated Londoners but is now a heterogeneous unit being replenished by conscripts from the hills of the old country.

Surely some scholars somewhere have noticed this proximity, but I had missed it entirely until a few days ago, and it is curious that in the recent biographies of Hedd Wyn and Jones (by Alan Llwyd and Thomas Dilworth, respectively) there is no mention of the fact that a chaired bard of Wales and the man who would one day work so hard to put the Welsh language and Welsh myth into the great British epic of the war went into battle side by side.

Or are about to go into battle, a century back. Tonight it is hard work and danger, merely. In any event, neither Jones nor Evans (the given name of the bard) were aware of the other. Had they been, Jones would have nothing to share of his own nascent writing, and he would not have been able to read Hedd Wyn’s. The true shepherd-poet Hedd Wyn, for his part, would not have known what to make of the little London artist with no Welsh and only a vague passion for the land of his fathers stimulated by brief childhood holidays…

And, of course, these were not the foremost elements of their identities tonight, a century back. It was a very bad night, and about the only thing that mattered, then, was that Jones, though a “parade’s despair,” was an experienced infantryman who had been through a terrible battle and many bombardments. Hedd Wyn has never yet been under fire. And it was no pro forma interdiction “hate” that fell on the laboring men of the 15/RWF: Jones will remember the night of the 23rd of July as ‘the worst of all.’

Sent up from reserve into trenches less than 200 yards from the Germans, the Welch were hard at work after dark digging new “assembly trenches” to hold the swell of troops before the coming assault. But gas shells were falling amongst the shrapnel and high explosive, so they had to work in suffocating gas masks. Nor were the masks enough, for some of the shells contained the new German blistering agent known as mustard gas…

Hedd Wyn would have seen a strange new sight, described by David Jones:

Colonel C. C. Norman… walked up and down in the open wearing no gas mask but ‘threatening blue murder on any man taking off his mask’, which they desperately wanted to do. Gas masks were ‘ghastly to wear for very long’, Jones recalled, ‘especially if one was exerting oneself–they became a filthy mess of condensation inside & you couldn’t see out of the misted-over talc of the eye-vents’. It was typical of Colonel Norman, who had already won the D.S.O., to stroll in the open amid falling shells. Like his predecessor, he was a man of‘outward calmness & immaculate attire as though he was paying an afternoon call in Belgravia’ –an attitude that was, for Jones, at once amusing, morale boosting, and ‘aesthetically right’. Among those digging

(And here we switch from quotation of Thomas Dilworth, Jones’s indispensable biographer, to his quotation of Jones himself.)

were new recruits who had come straight from Wales. One of them was a farmer’s boy; he couldn’t speak a word of English–when he’d dug his little hole he just got into it and snuggled up. You simply couldn’t budge him. The NCOs kicked his backside and so on but he just wouldn’t move. And it made it jolly difficult to dig the trench. The Germans. . . . must have known about the digging and got the range, but the shells were falling a few yards further on, on a hedge. But this chap was absolutely petrified. Then a nice chap. Sergeant Morgan, said ‘Lift him out and I’ll finish the trench and then you can put him back in.’ All this was in gasmasks. We dug all night. I thought this is the end…

This passage makes the new proximity of the two greatest Wales-minded poets of the war more striking. This, surely, was not Hedd Wyn himself–though why could it not have been? In any case it was one of his comrades, a boy he probably knew, a boy he had shared training with, and the long march to the front, and the shock and terror of this first miserable night under fire. Hedd Wyn has imagined much of what the war will be like, and written of it. But not this. What must he have imagined that night?

As for Jones, he may be mild-mannered, but in his heart he is a wild, thorough poet, able to admire the aesthetics of the old English tradition of exemplary leadership under fire (for which see, most of all, Horatio Nelson). It’s not surprising, perhaps that he was reminded, come morning, “as they covered the new trench with branches cut from the hedge behind it,” of Macbeth:

…The wood of Birnam

Let every soldier hew him down a bough.[8]

Side-by-side or separated by no more than a few hundred yards, Jones and Hedd Wyn both survived the night, and returned to the reserve line to labor and fight another day.

 

And so we come at last to “Slateford.”

In the train from Liverpool to Edinburgh I speculated continuously. The self-dramatizing element in my mind anticipated something sensational. After all, a mad-house would be only a few degrees less grim than a prison, and I was still inclined to regard myself in the role of a “ripe man of martyrdom.” But the unhistrionic part of my mind remembered that the neurologist member of my medical board had mentioned someone called Rivers… evidently some sort of a great man; anyhow his name had obvious free associations with pleasant landscapes and unruffled estuaries.

And we do not need to pull up short and wonder what the real name of “Sherston’s” doctor actually was: W. H. R. Rivers–uniquely in Sassoon’s memoirs–remains Rivers, whether he is treating Sassoon or Sherston.

Before I had been inside [Slateford] five minutes I was actually talking to Rivers, who was dressed as an R.A.M.C. captain. There was never any doubt about my liking him. He made me feel safe at one, and seemed to know all about me. What he didn’t know he soon found out.[9]

So begins the third book of “Sherston’s” Memoirs–the first in which the title contains not “Memoirs” but “Sherston.” Sherston’s Progress is a fairly predictable allusion to Bunyan, but it’s also a simply descriptive title. Today is the day that the muddled young man who has been a fox hunter and an infantry officer begins to grow up.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Unless he arrived several days ago, but I am fairly certain that this must have been the day, despite the oddity of allowing such a lull to an allegedly mentally compromised prisoner. Many thanks to Anne Pedley for confirming that this date is recorded in Sassoon's personal military record.
  2. Bridge Into the Future, 71-2.
  3. Collected Works, 376. Liddiard, Poetry Out of My Head and Heart, 96.
  4. Beyond Mametz, 154.
  5. Unknown Warriors, 129--with thanks to Caroline Stevens for more details on Luard's timeline.
  6. Boden, F.W. Harvey, 205.
  7. Many writers omit military details when they are uncertain (I am many times guilty of this myself), and I have written lately under the vague impression that Hedd Wyn was coming out as part of a new battalion of the Royal Welch, but that was a silly assumption--it is too late in the day for that. And, of course, once the battalion number is known it is very easy to note that that battalion has long been in France. But there are careless errors: on page 17 of the attractive new "Compact Cymru" edition of The Shepherd War Poet, we read that "Hedd Wyn's battalion, the 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers sailed to France on June 9th, 1917." No; he came out from Litherland in a group of replacements--the very same North Welsh farmers whose meaningless deaths Sassoon has just failed to bring to the notice of the man responsible for training them. They may have all gone to the 15th, or they may have been distributed among several different battalions of the regiment now serving in France.
  8. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 159-61.
  9. Complete Memoirs, 517.

Either Siegfried Sassoon’s MC Goes, or Robert Graves Arrives: A Showdown for Sassoon’s Protest; the Royal Welch at the Horse Show; Olaf Stapledon on Blood and Ribbons

Siegfried Sassoon‘s lightly fictionalized (or not-really-novelized) memoirs are smoothly written. The narrative performs what the author seeks to present as his somewhat changeable and peripatetic youthful self: reading along, we seem to float through days and weeks without accumulating any detail on the sort of specific events that shape a life. But that, of course, is how memory sometimes works–until the remembering writer comes to a series of tense and unusual days.

Sassoon’s account of this week anticipates The Very Hungry Caterpillar in both its structure and its ironic narrative omnipotence: this is a silly young thing on an inevitable journey toward a resolution that he does not appear to expect, however obvious it appears to others.

Yesterday he described being summoned to a Medical Board, the first indication that the Army will use the excuse of shell shock–more irony, this–as a way to avoid confrontation.

On Tuesday my one-legged friend… handed me an official document which instructed me to proceed to Crewe next day for a Special Medical Board…

He tore it up–and he was still hungry! But today?

On Wednesday I tried to feel glad that I was cutting the Medical Board, and applied my mind to Palgrave’s Golden
Treasury of Songs and Lyrics. I was learning by heart as many poems as possible, my idea being that they would be a help to me in prison, where, I imagined, no books would be allowed…[1]

The problem with this little journey is that it would seem that Sassoon is off on his dates. In this account of Sherston’s progress all the factual details are correct but the dates–to go by the days of the week which he presents to us–are four days off. Today was a Wednesday, a century back, but it was also July 18th, the day Robert Graves arrived in Liverpool to more or less take charge of his friend. [2]

Graves’s account is, as usual, breezy and self-serving, but for once it seems to hew more closely to both the facts and the feeling of the matter than Sassoon’s–not least because the wording relies heavily on the letter Sassoon sent to him.

The general consulted not God but the War Office… and the War Office was persuaded not to press the matter as a disciplinary case…

This may have been due to the influence of Robbie Ross, or, as Graves claims, to his own appeal to Evan Morgan, a ministerial secretary he had recently met.

I next set myself somehow to get Siegfried in front of the medical board. I rejoined the battalion and met him at Liverpool. He looked very ill; he told me that he had just been down to the Formby links and thrown his Military Cross into the sea.

Not the cross itself, likely in a box in a drawer somewhere, but the ribbon worn on the uniform tunic. Sassoon’s account of this in the fictionalized memoir is excellent, although in his chronology it will not take place until Saturday the 21st:

[As he waited for news] my mind groped and worried around the same purgatorial limbo so incessantly that the whole business began to seem unreal and distorted…

So on Saturday afternoon I decided that I really must go and get some fresh air, and I took the electric train to Formby. How much longer would this ghastly show go on, I wondered, as the train pulled up at Clitherland Station. All I wanted now was that the thing should be taken out of my own control, as well as the Colonel’s. I didn’t care how they treated me as long as I wasn’t forced to argue about it any more…

I wanted something to smash and trample on, and in a paroxysm of exasperation I performed the time-honoured gesture of shaking my clenched fists at the sky. Feeling no better for that, I ripped the M.C. ribbon off my tunic and threw it into the mouth of the Mersey. Weighted with significance though this action was, it would have felt more conclusive had the ribbon been heavier. As it was, the poor little thing fell weakly onto the water and floated away as though aware of its own futility. One of my point-to-point cups would have served my purpose more satisfyingly, and they’d meant much the same to me as my Military Cross.

Surely not–or perhaps we must take the pluperfect carefully here. Once, George Sherston–who, we must remember, is essentially Sassoon shorn of his writing life–cared very much about sports, and a few of his victories in country horse races are loving described in Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man. That young rider became the soldier Sherston… but surely by now the pre-war memento has nothing of the same symbolism as the coveted Military Cross?

Watching a big boat which was steaming along the horizon, I realized that protesting against the prolongation of the War was about as much use as shouting at the people on board that ship.[3]

True, but slightly disingenuous. When Sassoon allows himself to be persuaded to give up his protest (we will read this, falling between two chronological stools, tomorrow) the emphasis is not on the effectiveness of the protest but rather on the level of personal drama it will entail. There was never much hope of effective protest, but there had been a lingering hope for symbolic martyrdom and great publicity. But if there will be no dramatic trial, no harsh punishment for dereliction of duty…

Graves describes their meeting:

We discussed the political situation; I took the line that everyone was mad except ourselves and one or two others, and that no good could come of offering common sense to the insane. Our only possible course would be to keep on going out until we got killed. I expected myself to go back soon, for the fourth time. Besides, what would the First and Second Battalions think of him?[4]

Well, Graves is pretty much safe, given the severity of his lung wound. But the rest of the appeal is spot on: this action will cut Sassoon off from the officers and men of the actual fighting battalions. He will make a gesture to men he once led by example–not gesture–and remain physically safe. And he will violate the code of gentlemanly “good form,” thus letting the side down.

Should these arguments be persuasive?

Eh, who are we to say?

 

Instead of tail-chasing analysis–never a strength, here–we’ll go for ironic juxtaposition. Yes… what would the Second Battalion, huddled in its trenches–and missing one of the few officers who could be counted upon to be a popular comrade, a considerate platoon leader, and a brave fighter–think of all this?

Well, they were distracted today–there were the horses to saddle, the goat to groom, the fifes to polish…

A Divisional Horse Show was the G.O.C.’s own stunt. He meant it to be the success that forethought and two weeks of painstaking preparation could make it, and he had his reward…

Imperial War Museum

 

This is one of those situations–rare, in my humble, carpal tunnel vision of internet sharing–where a picture is worth a battalion of words.

It wasn’t merely a horse show, for the Royal Welch… it was a fife and drum and goat show.

This was good for morale, perhaps, even though the 2nd RWF did not cover itself in glory in the officers-on-horses section of the competition…[5]

 

And to circle back, we’ll close today with Olaf Stapledon, a pacifist in harm’s way, but eligible for little honor.

We hear a lot about the grim reality of war. That’s all true enough as far as it goes, but if you go deeper it’s all intricate pretence and lies. The other day a very big person who happened to be visiting our village came in specially to see us privately and congratulated our decorated fellows and said (of course) we all deserved the croix, but he had only got a certain number to dispense; and he hoped to have another opportunity of giving us more later on. It was nice, because it was informal & he need not have come, so obviously he meant it all. But—ugh, what is a bit of red and green ribbon! Blood on French clothes is red on blue not red on green. The other night one of our fellows, lucky devil, got a bit of high explosive in his hand, such a tiny business, but by Jove he has got sick leave in England for it!! Now we are all praying for bits like that, but also the same bit in the eye would be less satisfactory! And poor old Harry Locke who got a bit through him in April is still languishing in French hospital. And a ridiculous little doll of a man who always dragged a toy dog about with him even in hot places (an officer in the army) got his leg blown off it seems just after I saw him last and behaved like a brick. Human nature is odd! Eh bien, nous verrons, mais je suis ennuyé. [Well, we’ll see, but I’m annoyed.][6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Complete Memoirs, 505.
  2. Then again, I'm not completely sure who to trust here, the citations go in circles, and seem to depend on a letter that Graves will write tomorrow. If that is misdated, and no one is citing Army records, I'm not sure it's clear that Sassoon is wrong about the dates. In any case, amidst the confusion, they seem to have omitted to observe the centennial of Jane Austen's death...
  3. Complete Memoirs, 508-9.
  4. Good-Bye to All That, 198.
  5. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 367.
  6. Talking Across the World, 237.

Edward Brittain Faces Another July First; Rowland Feilding and La Belle France; Robert Graves on the Isle of Wight–and What is Siegfried Sassoon Up To?

Now that Edward Hermon is dead, Rowland Feilding is probably our most consistently uxorious writer. He writes faithfully and fully, concealing nothing of his feelings or–once the demands of military secrecy are met–of the danger that he is (or has recently been) in. But today, a century back, he is safely in the rear… and he has something else to confess, namely a raging crush on a local girl.

June 30, 1917. Bollezeele (near Zeggers Cappel).

I am getting rather bitten with agriculture. No wonder these peasants get rich;—or, if they do not (and I really do
not know), I should say there must be something radically wrong with the whole system of land tenure in this country. They are the most industrious and the thriftiest people I have ever seen…

I am sure it must be impossille for those who have not seen it to realize what cultivation means in France and Belgium, or to picture the seas of corn and potatoes and roots, extending as far as the eye can reach and further; the forests of hops, weedless; without a barren patch or a neglected spot anywhere. In the farm where I am billeted there is a farm-hand—a girl of about eighteen. She sleeps on the straw, on the floor of a stable. She is up, bursting with life and spirits, each morning at five o’clock; and she works, at top pressure, without ceasing, till dark. Then she returns to her straw. She is slim, but has the strength of an average man. She handles the farm horses with a single rein (attached to one ring of the bit only), and by word of mouth. Apparently, she neither eats nor drinks.

It is the “manure” season. That is to say, it is the time of year when they carry out the loathsome liquid accumulation of the past twelve months and spread it over the fields, and so wrapt up is this girl in the work, that you would think she revelled in it.

She moves always at the double—whether through the chicken run, whence every bird flies scared and panic-stricken at her wild approach, or through the manure heap (for she never goes round it). Each time I pass her she
looks up with full face and a cheery grin. I don’t suppose she ever washes, and she must reek of manure, but she fascinates me because of her extraordinary vitality. It is quite exciting to watch her at her work.

But, as I look upon her, I despair of the English as an agricultural nation.[1]

 

Before returning to France we need to visit the Isle of Wight, where Robert Graves has recently been ensconced in a Victorian palace (it was one of Queen Victoria’s retreats) to convalesce at his leisure. His ailments are quite real–exhaustion, damaged lungs, and semi-undiagnosed shell shock–but, as he tells the story, he is still eager to enjoy himself.

Along with several new compatriots, Graves founded “The Albert Edward Society,” a college-style faux secret society in “mock honour” of the prince consort. They ate strawberries and drank wine, “sang bawdy songs” and otherwise celebrated their being alive to celebrate bygone days–Graves, after all, is impetuous, irrepressible, creative, and twenty-one years old.

In Good-Bye to All That he calls the society the “Royal Albert Society” and gives several more examples of concurrent high jinks and clevernesses, including changing the labels on the paintings in the gallery, dressing up a piece of driftwood as a drowned sailor, and defending the society from boorish intrusion by outdoing all the efforts of the intruders at telling filthy stories. Which makes a lousy anecdote, since Graves is not at liberty to repeat the story he told to win the day… his point, however, is that he is no longer quite the prude he once was.

In keeping with the guiding principle of his memoir, Graves also throws in entertaining stories that chime with perceived reading-public interests and drops whatever names he can. Therefore he mentions A.A. Milne (slightingly) and he tells of his interactions with a curious colony of French Benedictines in exile on the island who strike him as urbane and humane, despite not keeping poetry in their library. Graves has the sad task of describing to one of these monks what his native Béthune looks like now. And, as if in an echo of the several young Anglican officers who have become Catholics or are moving in that direction, Graves claims that these interactions–and his general esteem, pace the skill with filthy stories, for the monastic life–brought him some way in a similar direction: “Catholicism ceased to repel me.” Which is vintage Graves, whether or not the self-centeredness and backhanded snark are intended…[2]

Graves’s letters from this period, however, mostly concern his efforts to advance his poetry and that of his friends.

30 June 1917
Osborne, Isle of Wight

Dear old Sassons,

Without doubt a great poem: poor little Orme, he’d have been awfully pleased with it. The simple effect would be strengthened by a more regular sweep in the first half of each verse: as it stands it would worry people who didn’t know much about poetry: it breaks the flow of sense.

Trusting to your good nature I’ve pencilled in some tentative suggestions…

Mindful of my constant impositions on the patience of others, I will not excerpt from the individual word-queries and quibbles of scansion that Graves then lists…

…I know you’ll forgive these remarks, because you’ve patched up poems for me before now. And without my corrections it is a great poem, so you needn’t notice them…

Robbie has my Fairies and Fusiliers manuscript if you happen to be in town and want to see what I’ve been at.

Best love

Robert

And then–this very same day, a century back–Graves received a letter from Sassoon which seems to have given a general sketch of his intention to protest against the war. Graves will spend a good deal of time in his memoir emphasizing Sassoon’s poor health–exhaustion, shell shock, general malaise. But this sounds like how he has been feeling at this time. Sassoon himself has hardly made any physical complaints, and sees himself as aggravated and motivated rather than ill. The two men may, of course, have reasons to differ about the etiology of Sassoon’s intent to protest…. but I would not be surprised if the (lost) letter to Graves read something like Sassoon’s fictionalized account of this period:

Back at Butley, I had fully a fortnight in which to take life easily before tackling ‘wilful defiance of military authority’. I was, of course, compelled to lead a double life, and the longer it lasted the less I liked it… it wasn’t easy to sustain the evangelistic individuality which I’d worked myself up to in London. Outwardly those last days of June progressed with nostalgic serenity. I say nostalgic, because in my weaker moods I longed for the peace of mind which could have allowed me to enjoy having tea out in the garden on fine afternoons. But it was no use trying to dope my disquiet with Trollope’s novels or any of my favourite books. The purgatory I’d let myself in for always came between me and the pages; there was no escape for me now…[3]

No, no escape. But he was only passive north-by-northwest, as the warning-shot letter to Graves demonstrates.

Graves wrote back, clearly alarmed, but neither aware that Sassoon has actually written his protest and set the wheels in motion to have it read out in the House of Commons, nor that he had not yet actually published it.

It is only too much like Sassoon to do what he has in fact done: taken several steps toward dramatic action, then wandered off with the act uncompleted, the rebellion hanging fire but liable to set itself off at any time. Graves seems to suspect something like this:

I have just posted a letter I wrote this morning but your new one has come. Look here, why don’t you come and see me down here…

I want to know what characteristic devilment this is. Are you standing as a pacifist MP? That’s the most characteristic thing I can think of next to your bombing Lloyd George.

Yours,

R

But the alarm has only begun to ring, as Graves’s post-script–as usual, critical of a mutual friend–shows:

I’ve also written on Sorley. Bob Nichols of course is not Sorley but he’s next best, a devout admirer.

I’ve a copy of my new poems here.[4]

So Graves is alerted… but has not not yet leapt into action. He will act, and soon–as a loyal friend, if not always a true one.

 

The idea of the protest, remember, is to stop the madness. Edward Brittain has just returned to it. And he too writes two letters, today, both to his sister Vera.

France, 30 June 1917

I have arrived at the transport lines and shall be starting for the trenches in half an hour or so. The battalion is apparently just at the place where one would wish it wasn’t, as the papers have not failed to mention the place every day for the last week or so…

Opposite Lens, in other words, where the British staff is convinced that a hasty offensive might unseat “demoralised” the German defenders.

And not only is Brittain’s new battalion in the area of contemplated operations–it is slated to attack. An entire year–less about ten hours–after his wounding, after months and months of rehabilitation, and waiting, and training, he is suddenly thrust back into the very forefront of the war.

France, 30 June 1917
A dug-out

8.45 p.m.

The unexpected has happened again and I am in for another July 1st. If it should be that ‘Ere the sun swings his noonday sword’ I must say goodbye to all of this — then good-bye. You know that, as I promised, I will try to come back if I am killed.

It is all very sudden and it is bad luck that I am here in time, but still it must be. All the love there is in life or death to you, dear child.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 197-8. This, too, must put one in mind of The Spanish Farm Trilogy--but there, it being a (good) novel, the "girl" is a woman with a spirit to match her physical energy, and a full life half-hidden from (and imagined by) the decorous English officer...
  2. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 175; Good-Bye to All That, 250-4.
  3. Complete Memoirs, 488-9.
  4. In Broken Images, 71-2.
  5. War Letters from a Lost Generation, 362-3.

Siegfried Sassoon’s Statement, “To Any Dead Officer;” Henry Williamson is Blighty Bound; Herbert Read’s Theories of Courage

Before we get to a statement–and a poem, and a memoir’s context for the two–we have two brief updates.

 

For the past week Henry Williamson has bounced about the hospitals of northern France. He believes that he has gotten a “whiff” of phosgene gas from German gas shells–but he may also just be sick, or run down. In any event, he finds it pleasant to be out of the line and hopes to be able to parlay the sick time into reassignment. In this he may well be lucky, as in the name of efficiency sick and wounded officers can no longer count on returning to their unit. Most fear and deplore this change, but Williamson (and probably his C.O. as well) would welcome it.

Dear Mother,

Please get those protectors for armpits in my new tunic at once–big ones under the lining–you probably know by this time that I am for England on the first boat which leaves any time… Mother, I thank God I am out of that inferno…

This hospital is a bon place–I live on champagne and fried plaice & chicken now!!

Love Willie.[1]

Williamson, whose intestinal health has long been an issue, can look forward to a lengthy recovery in Blighty…

 

Herbert Read is in rather a more bloody-minded state, and with sharper tales to tell. Or not: restraint in what he writes to Evelyn Roff is a point of pride–Read is a very purposeful sort, and he thinks twice about describing the war without a theoretical grasp of how such war tales might fit in with his theories of Modern literature. (He seems less concerned that a policy of mentioning, but not describing, certain experiences might not help their budding relationship flourish.)

Nevertheless, he has something to say, and it is the confirming converse of Williamson’s lonely experience: what makes it all worthwhile are the men. And what defines a man’s worth is the way in which he carries himself through danger.

15.vi.17

My present location is not too bad. We are now in the third week of our period in the line… and rather terrible days they were. But you can have no desire for me to ‘paint the horrors.’ I could do so but let the one word ‘fetid’ express the very essence of our experiences. It would be a nightmare to any individual, but we create among ourselves a wonderful comradeship which I think would overcome any horror or hardship. It is this comradeship which alone makes the Army tolerable to me. To create a bond between yourself and a body of men and a bond that will hold at the critical moment, that is work worthy of any man and when done an achievement to be proud of.

Incidentally my ‘world-view’ changes some of its horizons. I begin to appreciate, to an undreamt of extent, the ‘simple soul’. He is the only man you can put your money on in a tight corner. Bombast and swank carry a man nowhere our here. In England they are everything. Nor is the intellect not a few of us used to be so proud of of much avail. It’s a pallid thing in the presence of a stout heart. Which reminds me of one psychological ‘case’ which interests me out here: to what extent does a decent philosophy of life help you in facing death? In other words: Is fear a mental or a physical phenomenon? There are cases of physical fear–‘nerves,’ ‘shell-shock,’ etc. There are also certainly cases of physical courage… and there are, I think, men who funk because they haven’t the strength of will or decency of thought to do otherwise.

But I would like to think there was still another class (and I one of them) whose capacity for not caring a damn arose not merely from a physical incapacity for feeling fear, but rather from a mental outlook on life and death sanely balanced and fearlessly followed. But perhaps I idealize…[2]

Perhaps he does. Read has a good deal of trench experience by now, but he has not suffered the same sort of trench trauma–or string of losses of friends both fond and beloved–that has overburdened “Mad Jack” Sassoon. But it is an interesting break down of different types of courage–and an intelligent one. Cursed are dullards, blessed are the philosophers, strong of will–so it’s also a flattering one. But it asks no larger questions…

 

Today’s main event is Siegfried Sassoon‘s completion of a draft of his statement against the war.

It thus happened that, about midnight on the day my portrait was finished, I sat alone in the club library with a fair copy of the ‘statement’ before me on the writing-table. The words were now solidified and unalterable. My brain was unable to scrutinize their meaning any more. They had become merely a sequence of declamatory sentences designed to let me in for what appeared to be a moral equivalent of ‘going over the top’; and, at the moment, the Hindenburg Line seemed preferable in retrospect. For the first time, I allowed myself to reflect upon the consequences of my action and to question my strength to endure them. Possibly what I disliked most was the prospect of being misunderstood and disapproved of by my fellow officers. Some of them would regard my behaviour as a disgrace to the Regiment. Others would assume that I had gone a bit crazy. How many of them, I wondered, would give me credit for having done it for the sake of the troops who were at the Front? I had never heard any of them use the word pacifist except in a contemptuous and intolerant way, and in my dispirited mood I felt that my protest would have a pretty poor reception among them. Going to a window, I looked out at the searchlights probing the dark sky. Down below, the drone of London rumbled on. The streets were full of soldiers getting what enjoyment they could out of their leave. And there, on that sheet of paper under the green-shaded lamp, were the words I had just transcribed.

‘I believe that this war, upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest.’

This is the soon-to-be-famous opening of the published statement–I’ll include the rest when the newspapers get it. But Sassoon, using the privileges of the memoir writer, embeds the public breakthrough in a web of private doubt. Clean breaks and simple strong feelings are never to be his way…  Who is he doing this for, again?

To the soldiers it didn’t matter, one way or the other. They all wanted it to stop, but most of them would say that the Boches had got to be beaten somehow, and the best thing to hope for was ‘getting back to Blighty with a cushy wound’. Then I remembered that night, early in 1914, when I had been up in this room experiencing an emotional crisis in which I had felt that my life was being wasted on sport and minor poetry, and had imagined myself devoting my future to humanitarian services and nobly prophetic writings. On that occasion I had written some well-intentioned but too didactic lines, of which a fragment now recurred to me.

Destiny calls me home at last
To strive for pity’s sake;
To watch with the lonely and outcast,
And to endure their ache . . . .

Much had happened since then. Realities beyond my radius had been brought under my observation by a European War, which had led me to this point of time and that sheet of paper on the table. Was this the fulfilment of that feeble and unforeseeing stanza? . . . And somehow the workings of my mind brought me a comprehensive memory of war experience in its intense and essential humanity. It seemed that my companions of the Somme and Arras battles were around me; helmeted faces returned and receded in vision; joking voices were overheard in fragments of dug-out and billet talk. These were the dead, to whom life had been desirable, and whose sacrifice must be justified, unless the War were to go down in history as yet another Moloch of murdered youth…

I went back to the statement on the table with fortified conviction that I was doing right. Perhaps the dead were backing me up, I thought; for I was a believer in the power of spiritual presences. . . .

Well, how are things in Heaven? I wish you’d say,
Because I’d like to know that you’re all right.
Tell me, have you found everlasting day
Or been sucked in by everlasting night?

The words came into my head quite naturally. And by the time I went to bed I had written a slangy, telephonic poem of forty lines. I called it To Any Dead Officer, but it was addressed to one whom I had known during both my periods of service in France. Poignant though the subject was, I wrote it with a sense of mastery and detachment, and when it was finished I felt that it anyhow testified to the sincerity of my protest.

The dead officer is Orme/”Ormand” killed so recently in a pointless attack on the Hindenburg Line, his death described to Sassoon by Joe Cottrell. The poem, which Sassoon of the memoir would clearly prefer that we use to mark this day’s work, a century back, rather than the didactic “statement,” continues as follows:

For when I shut my eyes your face shows plain;
  I hear you make some cheery old remark—
I can rebuild you in my brain,
  Though you’ve gone out patrolling in the dark.
You hated tours of trenches; you were proud
  Of nothing more than having good years to spend;
Longed to get home and join the careless crowd
  Of chaps who work in peace with Time for friend.
That’s all washed out now. You’re beyond the wire:
  No earthly chance can send you crawling back;
You’ve finished with machine-gun fire—
  Knocked over in a hopeless dud-attack.
Somehow I always thought you’d get done in,
  Because you were so desperate keen to live:
You were all out to try and save your skin,
  Well knowing how much the world had got to give.
You joked at shells and talked the usual “shop,”
  Stuck to your dirty job and did it fine:
With “Jesus Christ! when will it stop?
  Three years … It’s hell unless we break their line.”
So when they told me you’d been left for dead
  I wouldn’t believe them, feeling it must be true.
Next week the bloody Roll of Honour said
   “Wounded and missing”—(That’s the thing to do
When lads are left in shell-holes dying slow,
  With nothing but blank sky and wounds that ache,
Moaning for water till they know
  It’s night, and then it’s not worth while to wake!)
Good-bye, old lad! Remember me to God,
  And tell Him that our politicians swear
They won’t give in till Prussian Rule’s been trod
  Under the Heel of England … Are you there? …
Yes … and the war won’t end for at least two years;
But we’ve got stacks of men … I’m blind with tears,
  Staring into the dark. Cheero!
I wish they’d killed you in a decent show.[3]

References and Footnotes

  1. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 163.
  2. The Contrary Experience, 97-8.
  3. Siegfried's Journey, 52-4; see also Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 373.

Edmund Blunden: Joy and the Shadow; Siegfried Sassoon’s Quiet Walk Disturbed; Of J.R.R. Tolkien and Luthien; Vera and Edward Brittain Are Reunited; Henry Williamson’s Mule Driving Plans Fall Through

June will be another month in which the British experience centers on one enormous offensive effort, this time at Messines, in the Ypres salient. Edmund Blunden, describing the period of rest and training his battalion is now undergoing, sets the tone by looking back–and thence, forward.

Yet more training, more countryside soldiering was allotted to the battalion when I had rejoined it; there was a merry round of work and pleasure at Houlle in the marsh by St. Omer, one of the battalion’s best times… we now had a week or two of camp life, some in tents, some in brewery warehouses, some in fine bedrooms, all in high summer. The great ponds and canals were a delight after the day’s strenuous business, which began often before dawn. Having attacked and trenched and reinforced and counter-attacked through the yellowing corn, and discussed this manoeuvre, that quarry, that cross-road until the afternoon, we came into the splendid silences of evening with intense joy.

“The picture taken that day” in May or June, 1917, of five Royal Sussex Officers and Old Blues of Christ’s Hospital: standing are W. J. Collyer, H. Amon, and E.W. Tice; Sitting are A.G. Vidler and Blunden.

It was during this rest that Vidler, Amon, Collyer, Tice, and myself, all of Christ’s Hospital, went together into St. Omer, and roamed the streets, the cathedral, and the shops with such exhilarations of wit and irony that we felt no other feast like this could ever come again; nor was the feeling wrong.

The picture taken that day is by me now; the vine winds over the white wall, a happy emblem of our occasion; and the five of us, all young and with an expression of subdued resoluteness and direct action, are looking on the world together. What do we care for your Three Musketeers? And after all, we know their very roads better than they did.

I recollect the battalion on the march through gray and pink boulevards and faubourgs, in misty morning dripping dew; and there was a night when we slept on doorsteps by the road; I recollect the enormous sidings at Hazebrouck station, and one more languid, unconversational, clumsy journey in the open trucks to Poperinghe, with ominous new shell holes in the fields alongside; but most of all, out of a deranged chronology and dimmed picture, I recollect the strange sight of red-rose-like fires on the eastward horizon at dusk, the conflagrations of incendiary shells tumbling into that ghat called Ypres with which we must now renew acquaintance.

 

 

Siegfried Sassoon–who will necessarily avoid the ugliness of Messines due to his wound (even if he were not building toward a disqualifying counter-attack of his own)–wrote today in strikingly similar terms of pastoral beauty and looming misery, but with very different style and effect. Blunden is all fiercely quiet foreboding for the coming sorrow, while Sassoon spends six lines stalking beauty only to will the rest of his non-sonnet into confrontation with ugliness and fear.

 

A Quiet Walk

He’d walked three miles along the sunken lane,
A warm breeze blowing through hawthorn-drifts
Of silver in the hedgerows, sunlit clouds
Moving aloft in level, slow processions.

And he’d seen nobody for over an hour,
But grazing sheep and birds among the gorse.

He all-but passed the thing; half-checked his stride,
And looked–old, ugly horrors crowding back.

A man was humped face downward in the grass,
With clutching hands, full-skirted grey-green, coat,
And something stiff and wrong about the legs.
He gripped his loathing quick . . . some hideous wound . . .
And then the stench. . . A stubbly-bearded tramp
Coughed, and rolled over and asked him for the time.

 

This is not prospective misery or even a leaping of contemporary distance to the deaths and wounds that are being meted out in France and Belgium–or perhaps it is that as well. But it should probably be read as, primarily, a visitation from the recent dead. The “tramp” seems to stand in for “Brock”/Brocklebank, the young officer whose death was described in Joe Cottrell’s recent letter to Sassoon.

But this is poetry, of course, and needn’t be simple or unambiguous… so we might treat it as pure poetry and remark only that Sassoon has skill, but lacks both the willing vision or the sure touch of Edward Thomas. He can write a reverent country-ramble poem with a subtext of unease, but instead of a tense, complex calm the horror comes crashing through to the surface…

But no; biographical fallacy aside, this is surely a poem about Sassoon’s current experience. He is even now wandering the sunken, hawthorn-strewn lanes of Sussex, and finding himself unable to think of anything but the war, and its horrors, and the mute question these dead men might pose to comfortable lane-strollers…

 

Not everyone dwells on the war, however, and some men have their hearts in England, and not with the old battalion, and their minds as much as possible on the literary hopes of après la guerre… So from beauty to horror we return to beauty, with a very rare excuse to see biography in the writing of John Ronald Tolkien.

Tolkien was “boarded” again today, a century back, near his current garrison post in Yorkshire. For the first time since falling ill with trench fever on the Somme he was declared “fit for general service,” but he was ordered to remain with his current unit at Thirtle Bridge for the time being. This was especially welcome news since Edith, his wife, had come to live at Roos to be near him, and they were able to spend a good deal of time together.

Some day soon–this spring or early summer–they will walk together “in a small woodland glade filled with hemlocks,” and Edith, “her hair… raven, her skin clear, her eyes brighter than you have seen them,” will sing and dance for her young husband. Later, John Ronald will transpose this scene to Middle Earth, writing of a careworn human warrior fleeing from trauma and coming upon an immortal elf-maiden, the most beautiful being who ever lived, singing and dancing in a forest glade. These are Beren and Luthien, central figures in the mythos that he is only now beginning to flesh out–and the only two whose names he will assign to people of this world.

When Beren first saw Luthien,

Blue was her raiment as the unclouded heaven, but her eyes were grey as the starlit evening; her mantle was sewn with golden flowers, but her hair was dark as the shadows of twilight.

Appropriately enough for the feminine ideal vision of a poetic young man of Tolkien’s generation, Luthien will be likened to a nightingale, and her singing to lark song…[1]

 

Another central tale of Tolkien’s Silmarillion will draw not on his own experience but on Finnish ballad traditions for the tragic story of a fate-tormented brother and sister… but this is to contrive a segue to our last two updates of today, which each involve a brother and a sister and pseudo-romantic entanglements…

 

Vera Brittain has been home from Malta for only a few days, and today, a century back, her brother Edward took a weekend leave from his work as a training camp officer and came to London. The two siblings, very close, haven’t seen each other for the better part of a year. But it was not a good visit.

When he did come he was an unfamiliar, frightening Edward, who never smiled nor spoke except about trivial things, who seemed to have nothing to say to me and indeed hardly appeared to notice my return. More than his first weeks in the trenches, more even than the Battle of the Somme, the death of Geoffrey and the blinding of Victor had chanced him. Silent, uncommunicative, thrust in upon himself, he sat all day at the piano, improvising plaintive melodies, and playing Elgar’s ‘Lament for the Fallen.’[2]

 

Henry Williamson provides bathos, then, in the conclusion to an odd scheme of his own as well as to this wandering first post of June. Last month he had hatched a plan to involve his sister in correspondence with a lonely soldier of his transport section. Why? It’s not clear, but it’s not working out…

Dear Biddy,

Thanks for your note. No, dont send any more parcels to Bevan. He didn’t write the letter–I was away when the letter was written but I should imagine the Sergt composed the answer in order to impress one I suppose what a genteel fellow he was… Bevan wont write or read or do anything–he is quite a mule.[3]

(I refer the careful reader to my recent speculations about the literal or figurative status of the “mule” who kicked Williamson in the head.)

But Williamson has recently parted ways with his alter ego Phillip Maddison. Behind the lines of what will shortly be the Battle of Messines, Phillip has conceived the idea of delivering a lecture on the coming attack. This is highly improbable, but it provides the reader of the novel with useful tactical and operational plot exposition for the coming battle. The lecture, however, is not a success–despite Phillip providing the men with a snack by way of buying their good will. It’s described in the novel in a fictional diary entry of tomorrow, a century back, but seems to have taken place “today.”

Gave a lecture, felt feeble. Contrast today with old days, Loos, etc. Nothing left to chance this time… Everything is foreseen… the bones of Loos have become chalk, the Somme dead are soil again: their sacrifices were not all in vain. Almost the fear of death is overcome, certainly depression… Even so, I am still a stranger in this land of 1914, which haunts me.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. See Chronology, 101.
  2. Testament of Youth, 357.
  3. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 158-9.
  4. Love and the Loveless, 146.