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.

Alf Pollard’s Happy Day; Edward Brittain Learns of Geoffrey Thurlow’s Death

Yesterday, Alf Pollard led an improvised, four-man counter attack that defeated a German assault and saved an entire division’s position. He writes about the morning after in two different places in his memoir. One follows immediately upon descriptions of yesterday, but it begins a new section, entitled “Book Three: Afterwards.” The other is the very beginning of the entire memoir, which begins today and then flashes back to 1914. So it is not a stretch to say that the book is built around yesterday’s heroics and today’s reward.

The morning of the 30th April, 1917, was bright and sunny. I was awakened at ten o’clock from a deep refreshing sleep by “Bun” Morphy, at that time second in command of the battalion, who burst into my tent in a state of the deepest agitation.

“Get up at once, Pollard!” he called in his rich Irish brogue.” The Divisional General wants to have a word with you!”

I rolled over in my flea-bag and smiled up at him. Bun was a favourite with all of us.

“I’m afraid he’ll have to wait,” I rejoined. “I can’t possibly get up at present. I haven’t any pyjamas on.”

It was lamentable, but it was true. We were lying under canvas at St. Nicholas on the outskirts of Arras, having only arrived from the line at three o’clock that morning after sixteen days in action. We were all dead tired. Our spell “up the line” had been particularly strenuous. In addition, I had picked up a slight dose of gas on the way down. Fritz was shelling the Arras-Douai road and I was too overjoyed at our relief to bother to don my gas-mask. The camp was a welcome end to a long march; the Mess tent a pleasing centre. Several whiskies were needed before I fully realised I was back at rest. I was a bit tiddley-boo before I retired in search of my bed.

I found my tent all right. I found my flea-bag, properly laid out for me by my servant. The devil of it was I could not find my pyjamas. Perhaps I ought to confess that my search for them was rather perfunctory. I have often wondered why I bothered to undress. I had not had my clothes off for sixteen days; one more night would have made very little difference. As it was, I stripped naked and crept in between the blankets.

Pollard’s memoir begins as a light comedy, then–and it remains a comedy, in the old technical sense. It is a story in which, though the characters are challenged, all comes right in the end.

Bun was too excited to grasp the situation.

“Never mind your pyjamas,” he declared impatiently. “The General’s waiting for you, I tell you.”

The General would have continued to wait as far as I was concerned. Fortunately he eased the situation by coming to my tent in person accompanied by Colonel Aspinall, his G.S.O.1. How should one salute a general when in the nude? King’s Regulations makes no provision for such a contingency. I merely sat upright and hugged my blankets to my chin. Bun clicked his shining spurred riding boots to attention.

“This is Pollard, sor,” he boomed.

I realised the feelings of a rare specimen at the Zoo being shown off to two interested fellows. Colonel Aspinall fitted his eyeglass to his eye. The General held out his hand.

“I’m proud to meet you, Pollard. I’ve been hearing all about what you and Haine[1] did yesterday and I want to tell you I’m recommending both of you for the Victoria Cross.”

The Victoria Cross!—the highest honour that any citizen of the British Empire can achieve. For a moment the tent whirled round me, the pole and the seams of the canvas hopelessly intermingled with khaki and field boots. In a daze I accepted the General’s hand, forgetting all about my nakedness.

The full title of the book is, naturally, Fire-Eater: The Memoirs of a V.C. 

“I—I’m sure it’s most awfully good of you, sir,” I stammered. All my life I’ve always stammered in moments of great excitement. “It’s most awfully good of you. Er—” I was at a loss for words; then I remembered. “I’m frightfully sorry I can’t stand up, sir. As a matter of fact I couldn’t find my pyjamas last night and—er——”

Major-General Lawrie was a very tactful man. He appreciated my embarrassment.

“I quite understand,” he interposed. “You’ve not had time to dress. Have your bath and we’ll have a chat later.”

He turned to leave the tent. Colonel Aspinall’s eyeglass dropped with a faint click. I felt that he was smiling. A moment later I was alone with my thoughts. The V.C.!

Had anyone told me on August Bank Holiday 1914 that I should ever receive the V.C. or even the D.C.M., or even that I should ever be a soldier, I should have roared with laughter…

But laughter is where it ends up. His subsequent account of today, a century back, notes that there was much laughing among the officers and men of the H.A.C. And why not? They had saved the day, yesterday, and today they were out of the line and safe. And two of their officers had won the Victoria Cross. Why shouldn’t they laugh?

Here is the official citation:

On 29 April 1917 at Gavrelle, France, the troops of various units had become disorganized owing to the heavy casualties from shell fire and a subsequent determined attack with very strong forces caused further confusion and retirement. Second Lieutenant Pollard realized the seriousness of the situation and with only four men he started a counter-attack with bombs, pressing it home until he had broken the enemy attack and regained all that had been lost and much ground in addition. This officer’s splendid example inspired courage into every man who saw him.

Skeptics might point out that when an attack fails (in the neighboring division), awarding rare and famous awards to two men who helped to prevent a disaster (rather than achieve an intended victory) is a good way of deflecting criticism. That’s a likely story, but it is hardly on point–pretty much any decoration may arrive through some combination of ulterior motives, but that does not necessarily detract from the valor it rewards. My complaint is more simple: The H.A.C. is now at the “climax of our fame” and proud of having protected the position without taking heavy casualties…

But Pollard does not describe what casualties they did take. I’m not sure, actually, that he mentions any casualties in his Regiment that day at all (one of the three companions in heroism–each was awarded the DCM–a soldier from the neighboring division, is killed today). There were probably few–the CWGC notes only five men of the H.A.C. killed yesterday near Arras, and perhaps none of these were in his company. But I don’t know. Nor do we hear a thing of the Germans Pollard shot and bombed–did they die immediately? Did they suffer? Were they given aid? Taken prisoner? Deliberately killed as a potential threat to the rear? I don’t know.

My point is, again, that it’s a comedy: Alf Pollard is a callow boy at the start of the war, and a hero at the end. He’s done good, and everyone who matters has a happy war–bravery, success, recognition. The people who die to make this happen do not make an impact on the narrative. Pollard will even go on to marry the girl who has spurned his advances throughout–the V.C. helped with that as well. So not only a comedy, but more, er, “proof” that there is something to the evolutionary argument for reckless aggression.

But I get ahead of myself, and that is against the rules. We will hear from Captain A.O. Pollard, V.C. a few more times, and he will continue to represent a literary style more popular than that of the vast majority of the writers we read here. Pollard, just like Sassoon or Owen, deserves to be read in context, and examined alongside (rather than condemned for) his assumptions: a general will write a forward for his book, pitching it as a how-to guide for boys, all of whom “must long to receive the Victoria Cross.” And perhaps it is. But it’s worth asking how the author of a book so staunchly enthusiastic about war might fare when the chances for such happy heroism vanish and the memories fade. And it’s also fair to ask what the literary and historical qualities might be that recommend further reading of this book for those who aspire to recognition that can be earned in more humane and less dire circumstances than the Victoria Cross.[2]

 

And, of course, even being able to look to the future, as Pollard can, is a gift of Providence–or an omission of Fate. Or happenstance. Edward Brittain writes to his sister Vera today, a century back, with more bad news.

Brocton Camp, Stafford, 30 April 1917

Dearest Vera —

I only heard this morning from Miss Thurlow that Geoffrey was killed in action on April 23rd–a week ago to-day–and  I sent you a cable about noon. No details are known yet as his people only got the War office telegram on Saturday evening; I have been afraid for him for so long and yet now that he has gone it is so very hard—that prince among men with so fine an appreciation of all that was worth appreciating and so ideal a method of expression…

Always a splendid friend with a splendid heart and a man who won’t be forgotten by you or me however long or short a time we may live. Dear child, there is no more to say; we have lost almost all there was to lose and what have we gained? Truly as you say has patriotism worn very very threadbare.

Victor seems to be much better; Mother will be able to tell you more about him than I can as she sees him every day. She says his voice has come back just as it was before and that he speaks quite sensibly though his memory is not yet very good. He has asked for me to come and see him again and I hope to get up next Saturday.

He doesn’t seem to realise that he is blind yet but thinks he has a bandage over his eyes; I am rather afraid of what may happen when he finds out. I will write again in a day or two as soon as I hear any more about Geoffrey. This is an unlucky place–I was here when Roland died of wounds, when Tah was blinded, and when Geoffrey was killed.

Good-night, dear child.

Your affectionate

Edward[3]

The letter will take weeks; a telegram arrive in Malta tomorrow.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Haine's actions preceded Pollard's--he slept late, you may remember--and so we skipped the regiment's initial heroics.
  2. Fire-Eater: The Memoirs of a V.C., 12-21, 227.
  3. Letters From a Lost Generation, 346.

Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves Reunited (Again): The Poet as Hero, Literary Critic, and Golfer; Another Trial For Tolkien’s Tea Club

By today, a century back, Siegfried Sassoon‘s long convalescent leave was over–he rejoined Robert Graves (as well as several other friends and acquaintances from the regiment) at the Royal Welch depot at Litherland, near Liverpool.[1] Coincidentally, his poem “The Poet as Hero” appeared today in the Cambridge Magazine:

You’ve heard me, scornful, harsh, and discontented,
   Mocking and loathing War: you’ve asked me why
Of my old, silly sweetness I’ve repented—
   My ecstasies changed to an ugly cry.

 

You are aware that once I sought the Grail,
   Riding in armour bright, serene and strong;
And it was told that through my infant wail
   There rose immortal semblances of song.

 

But now I’ve said good-bye to Galahad,
   And am no more the knight of dreams and show:
For lust and senseless hatred make me glad,
   And my killed friends are with me where I go.
Wound for red wound I burn to smite their wrongs;
And there is absolution in my songs.

 

Now, where does that leave us? For one thing, it leaves us with an “indoor” Sassoon very much in transition. The old diction is rejected, but then wielded ironically: he has exchanged the happy warrior for the scarred and melodramatically vengeful “Mad Jack” character that he seemed to create for himself last summer half out of idle curiosity and half out of a military transmogrification of his hunting persona. So it would seem that the “outdoor” Sassoon, driven to show dash and aggression before his comrades until he finds himself alone in a German trench, has infiltrated his poetry… But this poem is a raid, a testing assault on the morale of the foe rather than a proper attack that might hold new ground. I think we can count on Mad Jack tossing a few such grenades and falling back.

So who is Sassoon, these days? Still, I think, a soul in very polite, presentable turmoil. A person in-between.

As Graves remembers this period–they shared a hut at Litherland, and went about much together–Sassoon was still voicing a certain sort of aggression, but his motivations seem to have changed…

Siegfried said that we must ‘keep up the good reputation of the poets’–as men of courage. Our proper place would be back in France, away from the more shameless madness of home-service. There, our function would not be to kill Germans, though that might happen, but to make things easier for the men under our command.

So, in other words, Sassoon believes that the poet should indeed be a hero, just a hero of a new sort: an unostentatiously heroic officer, a servant to his men. Surprisingly, perhaps, since he is notably self-absorbed in several different ways, it would seem that Sassoon was exactly this–a good, valued small-unit leader, respected by his men as well as his fellow officers. So says, at least, the often jealous and intermittently unreliable Graves, who writes as if he is well aware that he looked up to Sassoon, just now, for just these qualities.

These are beliefs that will be put to the test next yer. But for the time being the seriousness of the war is somewhat masked by the triviality of their surroundings. This is the depot, and while officers must be tremendously brave under fire, they are not expected to be other than tremendously idle when at home.

Officers of the Royal Welch were honorary members of the Formby golf club. Siegfried and I went there often. He played golf seriously, while I hit a ball alongside him. I had once played at Harlech as a junior member of the Royal St. David’s, but resigned when I found it bad for my temper. Afraid of taking the game up again seriously, I now limited myself to a single iron. My mis-hits did not matter. I played the fool and purposely put Siegfried off his game…[2]

This anecdote we may, perhaps, trust without either verification of qualm.

Still, things do look a little bit different when they are fictionalized for the memoirs of “George Sherston.” “Cromlech” is Graves–and see if you can spot Litherland’s clever disguise…

Clitherland camp had acquired a look of coercive stability; but this was only natural, since for more than eighteen months it had been manufacturing Flintshire Fusiliers…

The third winter of the War had settled down on the lines of huts with calamitous drabness; fog-bleared sunsets were succeeded by cavernous and dispiriting nights when there was nothing to do and nowhere to do it…

But I shared my hut with David Cromlech, who was well enough to be able to play an energetic game of football, in spite of having had a bit of shell through his right lung…

Sherston’s memories now drift toward the old rituals of the regimental mess, with the sharp divide between the young men who will go out to France and grave danger as soon as they are needed and the collection of “good-natured easy-going” old majors who fill various jobs on the base, pottering about in pre-war routines.

These convivial characters were ostensibly directing the interior economy of the Camp… the training of recruits was left to sergeant-instructors… hard-worked men who were on their legs from morning to night, and strict because they had to be strict. The raw material to be trained was growing steadily worse. Most of those came in now had joined the Army unwillingly, and there was no reason why they should find military service tolerable. The War had become undisguisedly mechanical and inhuman. What in earlier days had been drafts of volunteers were now droves of victims. I was just beginning to be aware of this.

There will be few memorable high jinks from these two, this month, in an atmosphere like this. But of course the growing grasp of a new historical reality is no guide to daily events. No, it was camp routine, hunting, and golf, with less-than-yawning gaps between the recollections of the two friends.

Sassoon remembers playing golf largely alone–evidence that he had a talented for blocking out Graves’s more annoying habits–and hunting most Saturdays. Which, of course, enhances his status with the old Regular officers of the battalion… but what of Graves/Cromlech, who cares about regimental tradition more than Sassoon does but seems perversely bent on remaining socially difficult? We hit a spot, now, where the differences between the two memoirs seem less a matter of contention, failures of memory, or deliberate falsification of the past and more complementary. Here are two young men who admire each other, for different reasons, and that which they admire comes to loom larger in their memories of the friendship. From Graves we see Sassoon’s social ease, his athletic skill, and the status his Military Cross gives him. From Sassoon, the indolent country gentleman who never took a degree, we see Graves’s intellectual firepower and wide reading.

Although he was nine years younger than I was, I often found myself reversing our ages, since he know so much more than I did about almost everything except fox-hunting… he once fairly took my breath away by pooh-poohing Paradise Lost as “that moribund academic concoction.” I hadn’t realized that it was possible to speak disrespectfully about Milton…[3]

Come what may, this is a wry acknowledgment that this was a most useful friendship.

 

And yet, context: all this is a disguise of the continued grinding of the mechanical and inhuman machine.

Today, a century back, in Birmingham, John Ronald Tolkien was examined by a Medical Board at the 1st Southern General Hospital. His fever is gone, but he is still symptomatic, weak and wracked with pains. Accordingly, he is granted six weeks convalescent leave.

And in France, his dear friend G.B. Smith’s shrapnel wounds–which appeared at first to be good blighty ones–have turned gangrenous.[4]

 

Finally, today, a correction of a recent and eminently silly mistake. (My thanks to reader Tracy Kellock who pointed this out.) I garbled my notes for November 30th and included an “it’s my twenty-first birthday!” note written by Edward Brittain as if it had been written by his sister Vera, who in fact turns 23 next month. So a belated happy birthday to Edward, with apologies for the total lack of fact-checking…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, 310-11, sleuthing from various evidence. In his diary Sassoon will note later in the month that he returned on the 4th, but it would not be surprising if he were indeed mistaken.
  2. Good-Bye to All That, 233-4.
  3. Complete Memoirs, 381-4.
  4. Chronology, 96.

Siegfried Sassoon is a Man Ready for Arms Again; Sidney Rogerson in Amiens

For Sidney Rogerson today, a century back, the reward for his long trench labors is a lorry-ride to Amiens.

The lorry jerked protestingly in low gear along the crowded, pitted roads until Albert was reached. There we craned our necks from under the tarpaulin hood to catch a glimpse of the Virgin leaning at a perilous angle from the Cathedral tower. Few of us had seen this famous phenomenon, though all were familiar with it from illustrations in the papers from home.

It was the town’s one show-piece. All else was squalid and depressing…

Albert is neither a ruin–which an English mind can always manage to make picturesque even amidst squalor–nor free of war. It’s a dead town still inhabited, wasp-like. But then there is open, unspoilt country, and then the city.

…we ran into Amiens, coming to a halt in the square outside the station. We looked about us goggle-eyed. There was not one of us who did not feel a flutter of excitement…

But Amiens disappoints. The war is still dominant, and all the women seem to be wearing mourning. This is a tremendous let-down, somehow, for Rogerson and his fellow officers, who have come to think of feminine beauty as war’s opposite. So they content themselves with shopping for small luxury items, touring the cathedral (naturally), and eating an extravagant meal of lobsters and mayonnaise. And then it’s back to camp…

what with the cold, the jolting of the lorry, and the petrol fumes, we all felt numb and a little queasy when we were deposited on the road outside the Citadel about 6 p.m.[1]

 

Today, a century back,[2] Siegfried Sassoon attended his third medical board since his summer fever and lung infection. How did it go? Well… well enough. It’s not clear why Sassoon wasn’t sent back to duty in September or October, but by now he was clearly both fit and rested. His impressions of the board, then?

These he will give us, first in prose and then in verse:

Sport in Sussex was only a makeshift exhilaration, and early in November I went to London for a final Medical Board. At the Caxton Hall in Westminster I spent a few minutes gazing funereally round an empty waiting-room. Above the fireplace (there was no fire) hung a neatly-framed notice for the benefit of all of whom it might concern. It stated the scale of the prices for artificial limbs, with instructions as to how officers could obtain them free of cost. The room contained no other ornament. While I was adjusting my mind to what a journalist might have called “the grim humour” of this footnote to army life, a Girl Guide stepped in saying that Colonel Crossbones (or whatever his cognomen was) would see me now. A few formalities “put paid to” my period of freedom and I pretended to be feeling pleased as I walked away…[3]

So much for “George Sherston’s” experience–he, like his unfictionalized counterpart Sassoon, can now look forward to a period of “home service” at a base camp before another medical board clears him to return to France.

But there is always more than one Sassoon, even if the strands often run close together. The same waiting room notice also spawned this poem:

 

Arms and the Man

Young Croesus went to pay his call
On Colonel Sawbones, Caxton Hall:
And, though his wound was healed and mended,
He hoped he’d get his leave extended.

The waiting-room was dark and bare.
He eyed a neat-framed notice there
Above the fireplace hung to show
Disabled heroes where to go

For arms and legs; with scale of price,
And words of dignified advice
How officers could get them free.
Elbow or shoulder, hip or knee,

Two arms, two legs, though all were lost,
They’d be restored him free of cost.
Then a Girl Guide looked to say,
‘Will Captain Croesus come this way?’

 

The bitter jest at the top of this none-too-subtle poem is probably obvious: “Arms”–arma–is the first word of the Aeneid, still (if just barely) the one inescapable poetic text, and there it means “weapons” (or weapon-bearing-activities), not “limbs.” A sharp point–but it’s Sassoon in his more angry-young-mannish voice, and he doesn’t go in for rapier wit. No: this is a poem of irony that doesn’t pierce like cold iron but rather bludgeons–or, to take a middle voice of metaphoric brutality–that hacks and saws. Through shattered bones.

So, yes, it’s a nasty sort of irony, to pair this lilting light verse with the horror of a world which normalizes the crippling of so many young men. But is this notice over the cold hearth so cruel as to add measurably to the enormous cruelty of losing one’s limb–or limbs–in combat? If the answer is no, then the absent officers are patronized and pushed to the side by the military bureaucracy and the poet alike.

The harshness is perhaps mitigated by the way Sassoon makes some oblique fun of himself, giving the name of Croesus to the young officer through whose eyes we see this waiting room. He is paradigmatically rich–possessed, that is, of a wound that is “healed and mended.” Ah, but against this possibly, shall we say, disarming reference, there is the fact that Sassoon has avoided the most awkward fact of his situation–that he wasn’t wounded, but had simply gotten sick. Does that matter? It shouldn’t–he was serving bravely (too bravely) at the front when he got sick. But it must, for Sassoon didn’t change it merely for the rhyme…

And after the Medical Board had pronounced him fit to return to duty–with leave first, of course–Sassoon left London for a week in the country and a final farewell, for now, to fox hunting…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Twelve Days on the Somme, 142-54.
  2. Or possibly tomorrow. See Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 308-9.
  3. Complete Memoirs, 379-80.

Rowland Feilding is All in For Ireland; Sidney Rogerson’s Twelve Days Begin; Catching Up With Vera, Victor, Geoffrey and Edward; The Afterlife of Rupert Brooke XIV: Mud and Cake

We have another book beginning today–a tightly-drawn arc across the twilight sky of the Late Somme. Sidney Rogerson, the officer who will write Twelve Days on the Somme, fits our usual profile: bright, young, middle-class, talented with pen and pencil. At Cambridge at the outbreak of the war he volunteered early but did not reach the front for almost two years. In July he was posted to the 2nd West Yorkshires, a Regular battalion which had been shredded on July 1st, attacking toward Ovillers. He is now a twenty-two-year-old company commander with several months’ experience holding a grim but quiet sector near Vermelles, where his battalion was brought back up to strength. It was a section of the old Loos battlefield, and there they had to dig new trenches, periodically unearthing the horrors of the war’s first two years. Rogerson has seen a lot, but he has, as of yet, a century back, no experience of battle.

It was a cold night… the three of us, with soot-blackened faces and aching lungs, lay in our flea-bags and smoked, and sipped whiskey and water out of tin cups, and cursed and discussed the latest rumours–wonderful rumours that we were to entrain for Italy, for Salonika, for any other front but the Somme.

rogerson-1

A sketch made by Rogerson today, a century back, included with a reissue of his memoir.

It was the evening of November 7, 1916, when the Somme offensive was spluttering out in a sea of mud. The place was Citadel Camp… near the one-time village of Fricourt…

A rap on the tent canvas and the announcement of “Battalion Orders, sir,” brought us back to reality with a bump…

The sector we were to take over from the Devon Regiment was at the very apex of the salient formed by the offensive, a little to the left of Lesboeufs Wood, and almost exactly opposite what was left of the village of Le Transloy. As the crow flies, Citadel Camp was little more than six miles behind this line, yet such were the conditions that this comparatively short distance had to be accomplished in two stages… Having passed the gist of these instructions on to Company Sergeant-Major Scott, I turned in to get as much sleep as possible.[1]

A short, sharp campaign-length memoir will continue tomorrow…

 

Let’s use the rest of today, then, to catch up with two of our old-established correspondents.

When we last heard from Rowland Feilding, he was expressing some reservations about commanding an Irish nationalist politician. Let’s jump back a bit, and see how it goes. Feilding, though an Englishman, is a Catholic (like all the Feildings, apparently), which helps explain his sudden posting to command an Irish battalion. Still, this is the British army, run by Englishmen (with a strong helping of Scots), and the Easter Rising is hardly a half-year ago.

October 26, 1916. Butterfly Farm (in Brigade Reserve).

Stephen Gwynn arrived to-day. He has just been in to lunch. He is the very antithesis of the Irish politician as popularly represented by the Tory School. He is old for a Company Commander—fifty-two. All the more sporting therefore to have come out in that capacity, especially since he seems to have had a hard tussle with the War Office Authorities before they would consent to send him.

 

October 29, 1916 (Sunday). Butterfly Farm.

We have our tails up to-day because we have just heard that Private Hughes, of this battalion, has been awarded the V.C. for his behaviour at Guillemont. It is something to have a V.C. belonging to your battalion!

 

October 31, 1916. In Front of Wytschaete.

… How war alters one’s preconceived ideas! You know the sort of impression one is apt to get in England of the Irish Nationalist M.P.  Well, ours here!–you should see him–a refined, polished, brave gentleman; adored by his Company, which he commanded before, earlier in the war. Knee-deep in mud and slush; enthusiastically doing the duty of a boy of twenty. I have seldom met a man, who, on first acquaintance, took my fancy more…

 

By today, a century back, Feilding is branching out into Gwynn’s small fellowship of nationalists-in-imperial-service.

November 7, 1916.

I enclose two newspaper cuttings. They quote what were probably the last writings of Kettle, a talented Nationalist
member of Parliament, who belonged to this Brigade… I think his ode to his child is very fine.[2]

Feilding includes an excerpt from Kettle’s “political testament,” and then his “To My Daughter Betty.

 

And finally, today, Vera Brittain. Although she is far away in Malta–a matter of a few weeks rather than a few days, mail-wise–she continues to be the central node in a four-way, high-intensity epistolary friendship. One letter now on its way to her was from Victor Richardson, in the trenches after years of delays, and brimming with enthusiasm–at last the ability to write a proper trench letter! He then fills her in on the nature of his battalion and of all the familiar German presences–whizz-bangs, 5.9s, machine guns, trench mortars, etc.–before modestly concluding that “the above notes on trench life might possibly interest you. I have so far come across nothing more gruesome than a few very dead Frenchmen in No Man’s Land, so cannot give you very thrilling descriptions.”

This sort of sweet, derivative stuff was expected from Victor, who than guilelessly goes on to write about how Roland must have had similar experiences… But Geoffrey. a more intimate friend, whom Vera sees as deserving more intellectual respect, has done her a dirty deed, writing two similar–and yet different–letters. In his letter to Edward Brittain he manfully pulls no punches. Or, rather, he does–but he makes clear what exactly he is leaving out. A night-time relief over muddy open ground quickly turns nasty:

We got into a bit of a mess… we slipped & fell over a waste of mud & it was almost the last straw when I fell over on top of a mule long dead & got covered with–well you know what… The trenches were frightfully muddy so much so that men got stuck for hours on end before they could be dug out — unlike the liquid mud at Ypres.

Vera, to what would be her considerable indignation, gets what we must call a sanitized version of this adventure. With a properly poetic overture, of course. There are worse symbols of Rupert Brooke‘s current status, a century back, than his being adored but bedraggled with both foul mud and sweet cake…

France, 3 November 1916

I quite agree about one’s friends: abroad they mean far more to one than at peace in England & after the War people will be more sincere I think than before.. . . I should love to see Malta and all its reminiscences of the Past and glorious colourings tho’ the heat must be appalling.

Yes! I love Rupert Brooke & took him up with some of the other verses which Edward gave me, to the trenches the last time but owing to wet, mud and squashed cake in my pack, which, the cake, seemed to permeate everything my edition is somewhat dilapidated now tho’ the dearer for that. We had a fairly bad time of it & when relieved at 8 one night we didn’t get back here until 9 the next morning so you can understand how far we came.. .

To start with the entire Coy got out to go back over the top at the same time instead of by platoons at intervals & the Huns started shelling so I got on & took all the available men & went on which was the only thing to be done, feeling very ‘windy’. Well! I had been over the land by day & as there were no landmarks, by night it was difficult to find the way so we plunged on splashing thro mud & crump hole. I halted & heard Wilmot’s voice behind & found almost the entire Coy. following: later we came across Daniel & we all egged on. The trenches were full of sticky mud & some men got in for 16 hrs without being able to get out. We got up the hill & finally got on duckboards & by this time we were rolling along asleep for the most part — however with much effort we struggled into camp — 10 miles is a long way to come after a tour in trenches don’t you think?

I snipped and cut at the letter to Edward, above, and then realized that for several stretches it was word for word the same as the foregoing paragraph. Except for one thing: Vera is spared the dead mule.

Well! This morning I spent in spring cleaning & as I had fallen flat twice I was literally covered with mud from head to foot! Also my servant got hit so have been showing my new laddie how to carry on–but these domestic details must be horribly boring.

 

Then–only three days back, now!–Vera, writing in response to her brother’s letter about Victor at last going to France, anticipates Victor’s letter to her rather nicely.

St George’s Hospital, Malta, 4 November 1916

It seems queer still to think of Victor at the front. I don’t wonder he thinks his regiment a marvel after what he has been used to; any form of active service must be quite a godsend after the P.B.s [Provisional Battalions] & the old women there that he has been used to…

She too, meanwhile, has moved from the probationary frustrations of England to the real responsibility of overseas:

I like this hospital immensely & cannot say anything good enough about the Matron & Assistant M. There are the fewest possible conventions & the greatest possible freedom; all the rules are so Sensible that no one dreams of breaking them. As for the nonsense about V.A.Ds being unable to be left on duty without a Sister no one thinks anything of it here; if they did the Sisters couldn’t get off duty as often there is only one to each block. It is
a frequent occurrence to have charge of anything between 50 & 100 patients for a whole afternoon or evening & sometimes for a whole day when the Sister has a day off… It makes me laugh to think how in some wards at the 1st London I wasn’t allowed to give a single medicine…

But by the time this gets to Edward, his time for musing on the new responsibilities of others will be long past. Two days ago Edward began a response to an older letter of Vera’s; and as we reach today, a century back, he has news to give–he has recovered enough from his July 1st wounding to expect immediate reassignment.

I will most certainly send you a cable if anything of the least importance happens to Tah or Geoffrey… I don’t know if Father has forgiven you for going to Malta but he never says anything about it now if he hasn’t because he knows my opinion on the subject…

Nov: 7th

Such a lot of things seem to have occupied me that this had been a bit out of it for 2 days. Had a letter from W.O. [War Office] this morning telling me to report my address to Hqrs. London District, Home Guards, Whitehall and that I should have medical board ‘shortly’, after which I must proceed at once (in italics) to the 3rd Battalion at Sunderland, so I expect I shall go about the end of this week or beginning of next…

This post has been rather a melange–or a run-on–but even though I have largely avoided discussing Marie Leighton and her book about her son Roland, this bemused paragraph about the book’s reception is pretty interesting…

…Various people are writing to Mrs L. via Hodder and Stoughton with ref. to Boy of my Heart. One was a girl whose fiance was killed after being in France a week and who thought he was just like Roland. Another was an officer of the delightful name of Gerald Wynne Rushton who first wrote some weeks ago, saying that he was badly wounded and was going to have a serious operation and if it turned out badly and he was dying she must come and see him (in Dublin if you please) before he died. He has however got over the operation and now wants to meet Mrs Leighton, but his glamour has rather disappeared since he enclosed a very rotten poem of his in his last letter. Another is a Flying Officer who writes in the handwriting and style of a man of 50 but is really 19. His name is Reginald Lowndes but he always signs himself Reg. . . . In his letters he explains what an awful sinner he is which he says is due to being badly brought up and having a very worldly mother; he is pleased to think that he and Roland would have been great friends and he seems to admire him very much and Mrs Leighton…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Twelve Days on the Somme, 3-9.
  2. War Letters to a Wife, 129-31.
  3. Letters From a Lost Generation, 283-8.

Edmund Blunden Takes on a Tour of Thiepval; Donald Hankey on the Fear of Death; Birthday Wishes for Lady Feilding; Vera Brittain Takes to Her Bunk

Edmund Blunden and the 11th Royal Sussex have been lucky, lately. In reserve for much of bloody September, they held a quiet sector just north of Thiepval during that battle, and then promptly rotated into rest. But now, they fear, they are for it. Having marched into the reserve area, they now reconnoiter a nasty section of the line, and Blunden, remembering, brings us along.

Some, unluckier, were detailed to join some unlucky officers in a reconnaissance party to Thiepval Wood.[1]

Thiepval, key of that region where the Ancre curves southward, had at length fallen; and yet the Germans might recapture it if they could make its north flank, Thiepval Wood, still more of an inferno than ever. This they were efficiently doing.

Blunden is a man after my own heart–or vice-versa, rather. He interrupts himself, here, for a reminder of a writer’s duties. He is a quiet observer, thorough, perceptive–and courteous. We could not have a better guide…

But I anticipate — I would have you see that little reconnaissance in its natural or unnatural evolution. Come; the day is moody, the ground churned and greasy; leave Martinsart Wood, and the poor dear platoon cleaning equipment, coaxing stray dogs, and scrawling letters. We cross the Nab, that sandy sunk road, and, if we are not mad, the ancient sequestered beauty of an autumn forest haunts there, just over the far ridge. Aveluy Wood, in thy orisons be all our sins remembered. Within, it is strangely uninhabited; the moss is rimy, its red leaves make a carpet not a thread less fine than those in kings’ houses. But here the poetic path comes out on a lonely and solemn highway. There are signposts pointing between the trees beyond — “Ride to Black Horse Bridge,” and others; but we turn along the road, unmolested, unimagining. It leads to a chasm of light between the trees, and then we have on our left hand a downland cliff or quarry, on our right hand a valley with many trees. One tall red house stands up among them. Why? Why not? There is no roaring in the air. But here we leave the road, and walk along the railway track, which, despite all the incurable entanglements of its telegraph wires, might yet be doing its duty: surely the 2.30 for Albert will come round the bend puffing and clanking in a moment?

Below, among mighty trees of golden leaf, and some that lie prone in black channels as primeval saurians, there is a track across the lagooned Ancre. A trolley line crosses, too, but disjointedly; disjointedness now dominates the picture. When we have passed the last muddy pool and derailed truck we come into a maze of trenches, disjointed indeed; once, plainly, of nice architecture and decoration, now a muddle of torn wire netting and twisted rails, of useless signboards, of foul soaked holes and huge humps — the old British system looking up toward lofty Thiepval. And Thiepval Wood is two hundred yards on, scowling, but at the moment dumb; disjointed, burned, unchartable. Let us find, for we must, Gordon House, a company headquarters; and we scuttle in the poisoned presence of what was once fresh and green around unknown windings of trenches. “Over the top” would be simpler and less exhausting; it is the far edge of the wood now; we must have come too far forward. Gordon House, someone finds out from his map, is behind us. We crawl or scamper along the wood edge as the plainest route, and are at once made the target for a devil’s present of shells; they must get us; they do not. Shell after shell hisses into the inundations of the Ancre below this shoulder of brown earth, lifting high as the hill wild sputtering founts of foam and mud. God! Golly! the next salvo — and here’s that dugout. A stained face stares but. “I shouldn’t stand there, if I were you: come in.” “No, I’m all right; don’t want to be in the way.” “Come in, blast you; just had two killed where you are.”

Time values have changed for a moment from dreadful haste to geological calm when one enters that earthy cave with its bunk beds, its squatting figures under their round helmets, its candles crudely stuck on the woodwork, and its officers at their table shared by the black-boxed field telephone, soda bottles and mugs, revolvers and strewn papers. One of these officers, addressed as “Cupid,” is provoked by our naive surprise at the highly dangerous condition of Thiepval Wood Left. “Barrage? We relieved through a barrage.” (How mildly sweet might it now have appeared to be able to take over trenches at Cuinchy!) “You can rely on a barrage here pretty well the whole time.” At last we have learned something of the defence scheme of this sector, and, by way of friendly general information, the present inmates of Gordon House admit that its roof, though in appearance quite generously thick, is not thick enough: not nearly!

Escaping as hastily and inconspicuously as our slight local knowledge allows, we pass through the wood again and over the causeway through the morass, while the scattered roaring lessens in our ears, and the voices of waterfowl just reach our more numb attention. Harrison, whom we have met at an appointed corner, bustling along on the tramline sleepers, full of combat with the immediate future, speaks with brisker humour than even his usual style: “That spot will suit you, Rabbit. Colonel Rayley tells me that the Germans send up bombing parties of fifty every day about noon, along the C.T. from St. Pierre Divion.” The daylight is fading now, and the red of autumn is dusky all about us; mist, thick in the throat, comes out of the wild valley. A “hate” begins. Flames and flashes kindle the vague wood. What a night we leave behind us!

It turned out that we were after all to be spared the threatened ordeal in Thiepval Wood. New orders had come, and we were to go in again at Hamel. Immediately Harrison rode off to consult authorities (the Black Watch headquarters) about that place, of which he had already had a life’s experience in one inexpressible day. Gratefully now we took over the Hamel positions, the stairs in the hillside so sublimely exposed, the maze of disprivileged trenches principally useless. All eyes were drawn to the storm centre, the savage scenery south of the river, whence our comings and goings were so unpleasantly watched and intimidated.[2]

And Blunden, when he is not interrupting himself, deserves as little interruption as possible. It’s a wonderful bit of writerly magic to take us to the trenches in this sort of safe and savoring mood–no one welcomes us as warmly and effectively into his own recollections as Blunden does. It’s a beautiful book–read it, before all other memoirs–but it can be a troubling thing, too, to the cold-eyed historian: is it well to feel so safe with our guide? After the wood and into the Inferno, didn’t Vergil–safe though he was beyond the reciprocity of tears–tremble?

 

In addition to this strangely lyrical tour we have an essay to read. But first, let’s check in on two of our medical personnel. Vera Brittain is on her way from Lemnos to Malta on an overcrowded ship that recently unloaded hundreds of sick and wounded men…

Friday October 6th

After lunch I began to feel stiff & very queer & suddenly got a shivering fit on deck. Stella fetched my coat for me but that was no use at all. Finally to her astonishment & perturbation I announced my intention of going to lie down in D Ward–& did so. I did not go to tea & spent all afternoon & evening in a semi-somnolent & very feverish condition, indifferent to everything, even the flies.

But not to the necessity of keeping up her diary, for which we are thankful.

Just before dinner Stella felt me, said I was burning hot & made me report to Sister Chapman. I did so, was received quite pleasantly & with the remark “What, another” & ordered to bed at once… anywhere less suitable for being ill in than D deck of the Galeka is unimaginable, but I felt much too ill to care. Down there I saw two or three other recumbent figures, one or two groaning miserably…[3]

 

Its Lady Feilding‘s birthday! She is twenty-seven, now, and this is her third birthday as an ambulance volunteer…

6th Oct
Mother dear–

Went to bed at 3am today as we had a little hurrush [sic] last night; our side had a bally gas attack & the devil of a lot of firing all last night. But Fritz was far too wide awake & evidently knew all about it from some of our men he had made prisoners a few days ago, so it all fizzled out & things are ‘as you were’ which is disappointing very. Very few casualties on our side, I only hope we did some damage but I doubt much beyond teasing them a bit…

The 1st birthday at the war, the Boche nearly got me at Ghent. They are determined to keep my birthday on the move.

Many thanks for you people’s wire, I call it rather wonderful of you to remember.
Goo’night–off to make up back numbers of sleep.

Yr loving DoDo

This chipper little missive about a birthday bombardment is followed by a post-script. Something important has changed since Lady Dorothie’s last birthday, namely the death of her brother Hugh, at Jutland. She remembers this, and her effervescent personality suddenly plunges to a dark new depth.

Birthdays are hateful things now so full of memories of Hughie, Mother dear. I hate mine.[4]

 

Donald Hankey has not been himself lately, either. This is largely because he knows that his unit will shortly be sent into battle, and–just in case–he must put his personal and professional affairs in order. Such thoughts can lead an organized mind into a slough of despond: he has work to do, still, as an officer and as a writer, and it is painful to confront his achievements and shortcomings when mortal danger lurks in the near future. He has had his doubts about his work as a leader of men, lately–but he was never eager to be an officer. In today’s letter to his sister, Hilda, it’s the writing that is on his mind. At first, at least.

Oct. 6, 1916.

Dear Hilda,

I have got two articles which may appear fairly soon. One is on “Not Worrying”  and the other (written at Strachey’s request) on “The Fear of Death in War.” The second he has not passed yet. Perhaps he won’t like it!

We shall probably be fighting before you get this, but one has a far better chance of getting through now than in July. I shall be very glad if we do have a scrap, as we have been resting quite long enough. Of course one always has to face possibilities on such occasions; but we have faced them in advance, haven’t we? I believe with all my soul that whatever will be will be the best. As I said before, I should hate to slide meanly into winter without a scrap…

I have lots of baccy thanks–1 1/2 lb. to be accurate.

I have had a jolly afternoon–went over to a jolly little town, and had a hot bath, tea with John Campbell (the son of my god-father) and did some useful shopping.

I have a top-hole platoon–nearly all young, and nearly all have been out here 18 months–thoroughly good sporting fellows.

I have also some of the best N. C. O.’s in the battalion, so if I don’t do well it will be my own fault.

Yours ever frat.,

Donald W. A. Hankey[5]

Even Hankey–thirty-one, a student of theology who has worked in a mission among the poor and intends to be a minister, a mature man who is patriotic and loyal but without illusions about the murderous mismanagement of many of the attacks on the Somme–even he is restless in the trenches, and claims to prefer the test of sharp violence to the long slog of winter attrition. And Hankey is not immune from mortal weakness. He cares passionately, bitterly, about his own performance. He wants to do well. And he has been dwelling on courage, and fear, and death–I will close with the entirety of the essay that he mentioned above:

 

The Fear of Death in War

I am not a psychologist, and I have not seen many people die in their beds; but I think it is established that very few people are afraid of a natural death when it comes to the test. Often they are so weak that they are incapable of emotion. Sometimes they are in such physical pain that death seems a welcome deliverer.

But a violent death such as death in battle is obviously a different matter. It comes to a man when he is in the full possession of his health and vigour, and when every physical instinct is urging him to self-preservation. If a man feared death in such circumstances one could not be surprised, and yet in the present war hundreds of thousands of men have gone to meet practically certain destruction without giving a sign of terror.

The fact is that at the moment of a charge men are in an absolutely abnormal condition.

I do not know how to describe their condition in scientific terms; but there is a sensation of tense excitement combined with a sort of uncanny calm. Their emotions seem to be numbed. Noises, sights, and sensations which would ordinarily produce intense pity, horror, or dread, have no effect on them at all, and yet never was their mind clearer, their sight, hearing, etc., more acute. They notice all sorts of little details which would ordinarily pass them by, but which now thrust themselves on their attention with absurd definiteness absurd because so utterly incongruous and meaningless. Or they suddenly remember with extraordinary clearness some trivial incident of their past life, hitherto unremembered, and not a bit worth remembering! But with the issue before them, with victory or death or the prospect of eternity, their minds blankly refuse to come to grips.

No; it is not at the moment of a charge that men fear death. As in the case of those who die in bed, Nature has an anesthetic ready for the emergency. It is before an attack that a man is more liable to fear before his blood is hot, and while he still has leisure to think. The trouble may begin a day or two in advance, when he is first told of the attack which is likely to mean death to himself and so many of his chums. This part is comparatively easy. It is fairly easy to be philosophic if one has plenty of time. One indulges in regrets about the home one may never see again. One is rather sorry for oneself; but such self-pity is not wholly unpleasant. One feels mildly heroic, which is not wholly disagreeable either. Very few men are afraid of death in the abstract. Very few men believe in hell, or are tortured by their consciences. They are doubtful about after-death, hesitating between a belief in eternal oblivion and a belief in a new life under the same management as the present; and neither prospect fills them with terror. If only one’s “people” would be sensible, one would not mind.

But as the hour approaches when the attack is due to be launched the strain becomes more tense. The men are probably cooped up in a very small space. Movement is very restricted. Matches must not be struck. Voices must be hushed to a whisper. Shells bursting and machine guns rattling bring home the grim reality of the affair. It is then more than at any other time in an attack that a man has to “face the spectres of the mind,” and lay them if he can. Few men care for those hours of waiting.

Of all the hours of dismay that come to a soldier there are really few more trying to the nerves than when he is sitting in a trench under heavy fire from high-explosive shells or bombs from trench mortars. You can watch these bombs lobbed up into the air. You see them slowly wobble down to earth, there to explode with a terrific detonation that sets every nerve in your body a-jangling. You can do nothing. You cannot retaliate in any way. You simply have to sit tight and hope for the best. Some men joke and smile; but their mirth is forced. Some feign stoical indifference, and sit with a paper and a pipe; but as a rule their pipes are out and their reading a pretence. There are few men, indeed, whose hearts are not beating faster, and whose nerves are not on edge.

But you can’t call this “the fear of death”; it is a purely physical reaction of danger and detonation. It is not fear of death as death. It is not fear of hurt as hurt. It is an infinitely intensified dislike of suspense and uncertainty, sudden noise and shock. It belongs wholly to the physical organism, and the only cure that I know is to make an act of personal dissociation from the behaviour of one’s flesh. Your teeth may chatter and your knees quake, but as long as the real you disapproves and derides this absurdity of the flesh, the composite you can carry on. Closely allied to the sensation of nameless dread caused by high explosives is that caused by gas. No one can carry out a relief in the trenches without a certain anxiety and dread if he knows that the enemy has gas cylinders in position and that the wind is in the east. But this, again, is not exactly the fear of death; but much more a physical reaction to uncertainty and suspense combined with the threat of physical suffering.

Personally, I believe that very few men indeed fear death. The vast majority experience a more or less violent physical shrinking from the pain of death and wounds, especially when they are obliged to be physically inactive, and when they have nothing else to think about. This kind of dread is, in the case of a good many men, intensified by darkness and suspense, and by the deafening noise and shock that accompany the detonation of high explosives. But it cannot properly be called the fear of death, and it is a purely physical reaction which can be, and nearly always is, controlled by the mind.

Last of all there is the repulsion and loathing for the whole business of war, with its bloody ruthlessness, its fiendish ingenuity, and its insensate cruelty, that comes to a man after a battle, when the tortured and dismembered dead lie strewn about the trench, and the wounded groan from No-Man’s-Land. But neither is that the fear of death. It is a repulsion which breeds hot anger more often than cold fear, reckless hatred of life more often than abject clinging to it.

The cases where any sort of fear, even for a moment, obtains the mastery of a man are very rare. Sometimes in the case of a boy, whose nerves are more sensitive than a man’s, and whose habit of self-control is less formed, a sudden shock will upset his mental balance. Sometimes a very egotistical man will succumb to danger long drawn out. The same applies to men who are very introspective. I have seen a man of obviously low intelligence break down on the eve of an attack. The anticipation of danger makes many men “windy,” especially officers who are responsible for other lives than their own. But even where men are afraid it is generally not death that they fear. Their fear is a physical and instinctive shrinking from hurt, shock, and the unknown, which instinct obtains the mastery only through surprise, or through the exhaustion of the mind and will, or through a man being excessively self-centred. It is not the fear of death rationally considered; but an irrational physical instinct which all men possess, but which almost all can control.

References and Footnotes

  1. I'm picking up Undertones of War with the sentence immediately following the bit I used yesterday: the Battalion diary puts the move to Martinsart Wood the day before officers reconnoitered Thiepval, while Blunden seems to combine the two in his memory/memoir...
  2. Undertones of War, 100-2. The Battalion War diary confirms that on the 6th the battalion's orders were changed, and that while the men rested and bathed, a party of officers toured the line in Thiepval Wood, even as the C.O. was already riding to their new assignment at Hamel.
  3. Chronicle of Youth, 331.
  4. Lady Under Fire, 167-8.
  5. Letters, 355-6.

Two Fusiliers in the English Country Clover: A Final Chapter From John Bernard Adams, Siegfried Sassoon on the Hunt

We return with two Royal Welch Fusiliers to their home hunting grounds, today: one at ease thinking diligently of war and the other riding hard and strenuously avoiding all thought. But first, our second mention of the American Guardsman Carroll Carstairs, whose movement toward the front lines is simple physics: he goes to fill the vacuum left by the lacerations of September 15th.

We left Waterloo Station on the 21st of September, eight of us, embarked at Southampton and reaching Le Havre the next morning proceeded to the Guards Divisional Base Depot at Harfleur. Harfleur! Five hundred years ago Henry V had taken it from the French. We still seemed to have it! Here we were billeted in huts, two officers per hut. Paths with trim herbaceous borders gave to the camp, for its transient inhabitants, a final touch of home before the train that took one up to the front had jerked slowly out of the station at Le Havre.

Around the table in the officers’ mess one pondered over the lists of casualties that, occurring on the 15th, had begun to appear in the “Roll of Honour.” But not for long. We were needed to fill the gaps and remained at Harfleur scarcely more than a day or two before we received orders to join the Division…[1]

 

Has Siegfried Sassoon been beating a path toward protest, toward poetic efflorescence, toward an outing of the indoor man? Is the sensitive poet ready to fling barely metaphorical bombs at the profiteers and jingoists on his own side? Perhaps. He has, after all, just spent time in Wales with Robert Graves and at Garsington Manor with the “sophisticated hospitalities” of Lady Ottoline Morell.

But he has also, during this strange prolongation of sick leave (he is healthy, and the army is shorter and shorter on officers, yet several medical boards will renew his leave), beaten a certain path of retreat into “that pre-war personality.” Today, a century back, was his first day in quite some time as a fox hunting man. Cub-hunting, rather–five times in the coming week. Cub hunting, it seems, is a way of training dogs and horses for the proper hunting season while killing off young foxes who are full-grown but not yet sexually mature. If Sassoon sees the irony in training the young to cull the weaker young this fall, he doesn’t mention it.

September 21st. Met at Orton Waterville, 6.30. Fine morning after slight frost. Found in the Long Covert and hunted one over the road and railway, through the osiers and along by the railway bridge; then back by the river and lost him beyond the ferry… they afterwards killed a brace. Scent fair. Home 11.30. Rode Westmorland.[2]

 

Not every officer on medical leave was using the fine Summer weather to escape the war, however.

 

Chapter XVII
Conclusion

It was a slumbrous afternoon in September. My wound had healed up a month ago, and I was lazily convalescent at my aunt’s house in one of the most beautiful parts of Kent. The six soldiers who were also convalescent there were down in the hop-garden. For hop-picking was in full swing. I was sitting in a deck-chair with Don Quixote on my knees; but I was not reading…

I was listening to the incessant murmur that came from far away across the Medway, across the garden of England, and across the Channel and the flats of Flanders. That sound came from Picardy. All day the insistent throb had been in the air; sometimes faint bimips were clearly distinguishable, at other times it was nothing but one steady vibration. But always it was there, that distant growl, that insistent mutter. Even in this perfect peace, I could not escape the War.

So begins the end of John Bernard Adams‘ memoir, Nothing of Importance. Wounded in June, Adams has missed the Somme battle which claimed the lives of so many of his Regiment, the Royal Welch Fusiliers. But he came back to this moment to put a coda to his book–I am fudging here, for he does not give a precise date for his “slumbrous afternoon” when news of a bloody attack is in the papers, but this one fits the bill fairly well–and I wanted to observe it with him.

Like his comrade Siegfried Sassoon–another Kentish officer of the Welch–Adams finds the contrast of perfect English peace with the chaotic hell of trenches almost too much to bear. But unlike Sassoon, Adams finds himself–or writes himself–sure of his subsequent direction. Out of dissonance and irony, conviction. I will excerpt at length:

To-day I felt completely well; the lassitude and inertness of convalescence were gone — at any rate, for the moment. My mind was very clear, and I could think surely and rapidly…

I tried to imagine trenches running across the lawn, with communication trenches running back to a support line through the meadow; a few feet of brick wall would be all that would be left of the house, and this would conceal my snipers; the mulberry tree would long ago have been razed to the ground, and every scrap of it used as firewood in our dug-outs; this desk chair of mine might possibly be in use in Company Headquarters in one of the cellars. No, it was not easy to imagine war without seeing it.

I picked up the paper that had fallen at my side. There had been more terrible fighting on the Somme, and it had seemed very marvellous to a journalist as he lay on a hill some two miles back, and watched through his field-glasses: it was wonderful that the men advancing (if indeed he could really see them at all in the smoke of a heavy artillery barrage) still went on, although their comrades dropped all round them. Yet I wondered what else anyone could do but go on? Run back, with just as much likelihood of being shot in doing so? Or, even if he did get back, to certain death as a deserter? Everyone knows the safest place is in a trench; and it is a trench you are making for. Lower down on the page came a description of the wounded; he had talked to so many of them, and they were all smiling, all so cheerful; smoking cigarettes and laughing. They shook their fists, and shouted that the only thing they wanted to do was to get back into it! Pah! I threw the paper down in disgust. Surely no one wants to read such stuff, I thought. Of course the men who were not silent, in a dull stupefied agony, were smiling: what need to say that a man with a slight wound was laughing at his luck, just as I had smiled that early morning when the trolley took me down from Maple Redoubt? And who does not volunteer for an unpleasant task, when he knows he cannot possibly get it? Want to get back into it, indeed! Ask Tommy ten years hence whether he wants to be back in the middle of it again!

I wondered why people endured such cheap journalism…Are not our people able to bear the truth, that war is utterly hellish, that we do not enjoy it, that we hate it, hate it, hate it all? And then it struck me how ignorant people still were; how uncertainly they spoke, these people at home: it was as though they dared not think things out, lest what they held most dear should be an image shattered by another point of view…

Well then, let’s get shatterin’. But he has been, carefully and methodically, for a few hundred pages now. He thinks of horrible wounds on one side of the experiential gulf, of smug pro-war convictions on the other.

Oh! you men and women who did not know before the capabilities of human nature, I thought, please take note of it now; and after the war do not underestimate the quality of mankind. Did it need a war to tell you that a man can be heroic, resolute, courageous, cheerful, and capable of sacrifice?

There were those who could have told you that before this war. There was a lull in the vibration. I turned in my chair, and listened. Then it began again.

“People are afraid to think it out,” I said. “I have not seen the Somme fighting, but I know what war is. Its quality is not altered by multiplication or intensity. The colour of life-blood is a constant red. Let us look into this business; let us face all the facts. Let us not flinch from any aspect of the truth.” And my thoughts ran somewhat as follows:

First of all, War is evil—utterly evil. Let us be sure of that first. It is an evil instrument, even if it be used for motives that are good. I, who have been through war and know it, say that it is evil. I knew it before the war; instinct, reason, religion told me that war was evil; now experience has told me also.

I break in now really only for the rhythm of the thing. It should be clear by now that Adams is closing his book with what we might call a programmatic statement. And that he has our interests at heart: the knowledge that experience confers, and the ethical, historical, and literary challenges that it poses.

He is angry, but he pauses and, Hankey-like (yet pushed to a more radical position) forces himself to weigh things carefully.

It is a strange synthesis, this war: it is a synthesis of adventure, dullness, good spirits, and tragedy; but none of these things are new to human experience… I have seen and felt the adventure of war, its deadly fascination and excitement: it is the greatest game on earth: that is its terrible power : there is such a wild temptation to paint np its interest and glamour : it gives such scope to daring, to physical courage, to high spirits: it makes so many prove themselves heroic, that were it not for the fall of the arrow, men would call the drawing of the bow good. I have seen the dullness, the endless monotony, the dogged labour, the sheer power of will conquering the body and “carrying on”: there is good in that, too. In the jollity, the humour, the good-fellowship is nothing but good also. There is good in all these things; for these are qualities of human nature triumphing in spite of war. These things are not war; they are the good in man prostituted to a vile thing.

For I have seen the real face of war: I have seen men killed, mutilated, blown to little pieces; I have seen men crippled for life; I have looked in the face of madness, and I know that many have gone mad under its grip. I have seen fine natures break and crumble under the strain. I have seen men grow brutalized, and coarsened in this war. (God will judge justly in the end ; meanwhile, there are thousands among us—yes, and among our enemy too—brutalized through no fault of theirs). I have lost friends killed (and shall lose more yet), friends with whom I have lived and suffered so long.

Who is for war now! Its adventure, its heroism! Bah!

Adams goes on–at some length–about the horrors of war. But he soon arrives at his second point: the duties of a Christian in this time of murder are not the same as those of a writer from the trenches–they are, in fact, in no way predicated on experience:

I knew that war was vile, before I went into if. I have seen it: I do not alter my opinion. I went into this war prepared to sacrifice my life to prove that right is stronger than wrong; I have stood again and again with a traverse between me and death; I have faced the possibility of madness. I foresaw all this before I went into this war. What difference does it make that I have experienced it? It makes no difference. Let no one fear that our sacrifice has been in vain. We have already won what we are fighting for. The will for war, that aggressive power, with all the cards on its side prepared, striking at its own moment, has already failed against a spirit, weaker, unprepared, taken unawares. And so I am clear on my second point. We are fighting from just motives, and we have already baulked injustice. Aggressive force, the power that took up the cruel weapon of war, has failed. No one can ever say that his countrymen have laid down their lives in vain.

And yet experience has played an important role. It hasn’t changed reality, but it has catalyzed perception:

I got up from the chair, and started walking about the garden. Everything was so clear. Before going out to the war I had thought these things; but the thoughts were fluid, they ran about in mazy patterns, they were elusive, and always I was frightened of meeting unanswerable contradictions to my theorising from men who had actually seen war. Now my conclusions seemed crystallised by irrefutable experience into solid truth.

After a while I sat down again and resumed my train of thought:

War is evil. Justice is stronger than Force. Yet, was there need of all this bloodshed to prove this? For this war is not as past wars; this is every man’s war, a war of civilians, a war of men who hate war, of men who fight for a cause, who are compelled to kill and hate it. That is another thing that people will not face. Men whisper that Tommy does not hate Fritz. Again I say, away with this whispering. Let us speak it out plain and bold. Private Davies, my orderly, formerly a shepherd of Blaenau Festiniog, has no quarrel with one Fritz Schneider of Hamburg who is sitting in the trench opposite the Matterhorn sap; yet he will bayonet him certainly if he comes over the top, or if we go over into the German trenches; ay, he will perform this action with a certain amount of brutality too, for I have watched him jabbing at rats with a bayonet through the wires of a rat trap, and I know that he has in him a savage vein of cruelty. But when peace is declared, he and Fritz will light a bonfire of trench stores in No Man’s Land, and there will be the end of their quarrel…

It is hard to trace ultimate causes. It is hard to fix absolute responsibility. There were many seeds sown, scattered, and secretly fostered before they produced this harvest of blood. The seeds of cruelty, selfishness, ambition, avarice, and indifference, are always liable to swell, grow, and bud, and blossom suddenly into the red flower of war…

And it is because they know that we, too, are not free from them, that certain men have stood out from the arena as a protest against war. These men are real heroes, who for their conscience’s sake are enduring taunts, ignominy, misunderstanding, and worse. Most men and women in the arena are cursing them, and, as they struggle in agony and anguish they beat their hands at them and cry ”You do not care.” I, too, have cursed them, when I was mad with pain. But I know them, and I know that they are true men. I would not have one less. They are witnesses against war. And I, too, am fighting war. Men do not understand them now, but one day they will.

I know that there are among us, too, the seeds of war: no cause has yet been perfect. But I look at the facts. We did not start, we did not want this war… It was the seeds of war in Germany that were responsible. And so history will judge.

But what of the future?

Adams ends his book on this September afternoon, a century back (give or take a few days), with a return to fundamentals. There is no way out of modern war, he argues, except for a way that was there from the beginning. Experience has sent him back to the central Christian story. John Bernard Adams will be neither the first nor the last to see the sufferings of the infantry prefigured in the Passion:

…I walked up and down the lawn, my eyes glowing, my brain working hard. Here around me was all the beauty of an old garden, its long borders full of phloxes, delphiniums, stocks, and all the old familiar flowers; the apples glowed red in the trees; the swallows were skimming across the lawn. In the distance I could hear the rumble of the wagon bringing up the afternoon load of hop-pokes to the oasthouse. Yet what I had seen of war was as true, had as really happened, as all this. It would be so easy to forget, after the war. And yet to forget might mean a seed of war. I must never forget Lance-Corporal Allan.

There is only one sure way, I said at last. And again a clear conviction filled me… There is only one Man whose eyes have never glittered. Look at the palms of your hands, you, who have had a bullet through the middle of it! Did they not give you morphia to ease the pain? And did you not often cry out alone in the darkness in the terrible agony, that you did not care who won the war if only the pain would cease? Yet one Man there was who held out His hand upon the wood, while they knocked, knocked, knocked in the nail, every knock bringing a jarring, excruciating pain, every bit as bad as yours…

Do you want to put an end to the arena? Here is a Man to follow. In hoc signo vinces.

Now as I stood on the lawn, I heard the long continuous vibration of the guns upon the Somme.

“You are War,” I said aloud. “This is your hour, the power of darkness. But the time will come when we shall follow the Man who has conquered your last weapon, death: and then your walls of steel will waver, cringe, and fall, melted away before the fire of LOVE.”[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Generation Missing, 61-2.
  2. Siegfried's Journey, 24-5.
  3. Nothing of Importance, 313-29.

Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves Come Down From Wales, and the Narrative Gets Dodgy; Bimbo Tennant in the Front Lines

Today, a century back, marked the end of the Welsh idyll of Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves. They have been writing and reading each other’s work and rewriting (but not, alas, dating their manuscripts) and walking the hills, and Sassoon has played more than a few rounds of golf. But their joint holiday is not quite over–it merely pivoted, today. The two went to London together to see the same lung specialist–Sassoon’s lungs had been damaged by a fever, Graves’s by a German shell–and will then continue into Kent, to Weirleigh, Sassoon’s home.

This, in any event, is the dating provided by Graves’s nepotic biographer R.P. Graves, and although he is not inerrant, he seems correct on this, despite his uncle’s assertions in Good-Bye to All That, which include dating his first meeting-up with Sassoon to September 6th rather than late August.[1] In any event, today’s doctor’s appointment marked the transition from Wales to Kent, and since it is also a calm between two storms on the Somme, it’s a good point to work in, here, some of their interesting but factually unreliable stories of this month.[2]

The reason the 6th stuck in Graves’s memory is probably because it was a horrible day for the two young men, each of whom had each served with the First Battalion of the Royal Welch (Graves was with the Second when he was wounded). This memory may be misplaced or combined, but it seems unlikely to be fabricated:

Siegfried bought a copy of The Times at the book-stall. As usual, we turned to the casualty list first; and found there the names of practically every officer in the First Battalion, listed as either killed or wounded. Edmund Dadd, killed; his brother Julian, in Siegfried’s Company, wounded–shot through the throat, as we learned later, only able to talk in a whisper, and for months utterly prostrated. It had happened at Ale Alley near Ginchy, on September 3rd. A dud show, with the battalion out-flanked by a counter-attack. News like this in England was far more upsetting than in France. Still feeling  very weak, I could not help crying all the way up to Wales. Siegfried complained bitterly: ‘Well, old Stockpot got his C.B. at any rate!’ 

So far so awful. Survivors’ guilt is not a new phenomenon, but it is growing more common. Both Graves and Sassoon are at pains to explain how ill at ease they were as officers honorably at leisure in wartime England, and although Graves partially backdates his disillusionment to 1915 and Sassoon was shaken by the deaths of his brother in late 1915 and, especially, of David Thomas, in March, they both write this long period of leave as a key passage in their emotional and political progress.

Characteristically, Sassoon is gentle, and Graves knocks over all the tea trays he can get his hands on.

Also characteristically, Graves is direct and offensive, while Sassoon would prefer to wound with erasure styled as gentle reticence–but we’ll get to that in a moment.

Sassoon’s fictionalized memoir’s task is made easier by the fact that “George Sherston” is not visiting his bereaved mother but his “Aunt Evelyn.” There is an aside to the reader about “the difficulty of recapturing war-time atmosphere” and wanting to write something more personal and specific than any historian’s generalization–ironic from a man who has chosen the stylish veneer of fiction, but piles that veneer on awfully thick at times like this. So “Sherston” wanders about deserted stables–his beloved groom “Dixon” and his hunting friend “Stephen Colwood” have both been killed–and broods upon empty cricket pitches, finding everywhere time-capsule mementos of the Last Summer.

This is literarily appropriate, since we are closing the book on the “Fox-Hunting Man” before he begins to face the destructiveness of war and contemplate protest. But it also omits Graves entirely.

Sherston’s wilful idyll, undisturbed by “David Cromlech”– who is not mentioned at all during the account of these weeks in Sherston’s Memoirsis eventually interrupted by letters from his friend Joe “Dottrell”/Cottrell, the quartermaster of the First Royal Welch:

The old Batt. is having a rough time. We… lost 200 men in three days… The Batt. is attacking to-day… All the boys send their love and best wishes…

This is bad enough, but then come details of the news he would have already learned from the casualty lists:

Dear Kangaroo… Just a line to let you know what rotten bad luck we had yesterday. We attacked Ginchy with a very weak Batt. (about 300) and captured the place but were forced out of half of it… Poor Edmonds was killed… Also Perrin. Durley was badly wounded, in neck and chest… Asbestos Bill died of wounds. Fernby… not expected to live… Only two officers got back without being killed.

These are pseudonyms, but the September 1st attack on Ginchy–and its cost–was real. “George Sherston,” spared all this by an illness, can’t quite handle the news–but what choice has he?

I walked around the room, whistling and putting the pictures straight. Then the gong rang for luncheon. Aunt Evelyn drew my attention to the figs, which were the best we’d had off the old tree that autumn.[3]

 

Graves also discusses the unpleasant strangeness of being celebrated by fatuous civilians, but instead of containing himself he launches an attack on “The Little Mother,” an anonymous letter-writer who gained fame around this time. She seems to have been a creation of the propagandists, and she is pretty awful, objecting to peace-talking soldiers by whipping up a sort of sacrificial-holy-mother version of 1914’s pretty-girls-waving-white-feathers phenomenon. The claim–made to silence any protest against the war–was that British mothers were very proud to “fill the gaps” by shooing in their sons–and any shirkers alongside–forward. Graves includes numerous blurbs of fulsome praise for this letter–perfect and complete evidence, in his eyes, of the wicked immensity of the experiential gulf, where the older generation are lemmings who push younger beasts off the cliff while keeping their own gazes piously elevated–and moves on…

Which brings us to a bit of a bump in the road. Graves cites the praise for “The Little Mother” as an example of what he was “up against” a century back, but he follows with another rather more personal illustration of the impossibility of soldiers’ mothers…  Let’s just say that his handling of his visit to Kent is difficult to discuss without spoilers. But I will do my best to write clearly without violating the letter of the law.

Even if “Sherston” is alone with “Aunt Evelyn,” Graves and Sassoon did journey to Kent together, this week, a century back. And Graves writes about the behavior not of the fictional Aunt Evelyn but the real mistress of the house, Sassoon’s mother. Which will not make Sassoon happy–never mind that a man who entirely eliminates his mother from his lightly-fictionalized “Memoirs” doesn’t have a perfect claim to the moral high ground.

Graves’s posture of reticence about embarrassing a good friend is tissue-thin. He talks about early September with Sassoon, and directly after this next quotation he is again talking about what he and Sassoon did together. Gosh! Who could this Kentish friend be I wonder?

Towards the end of September, I stayed in Kent with a recently wounded First Battalion friend. An elder brother had been killed in the Dardanelles, and their mother kept the bedroom exactly as he had left it, with the sheets aired, the linen always freshly laundered, flowers and cigarettes by the bedside. She went around  with a vague, bright religious look on her face. The first night I spent there, my friend and I sat up talking about the war until past twelve o’clock. His mother had gone to bed early, after urging us not to get too tired. The talk had excited me, and though I managed to fall asleep an hour later, I was continually awakened by sudden rapping noises, which I tried to disregard but which grew louder and louder. They seemed to come from everywhere. Soon sleep left me and I lay in a cold sweat. At nearly three o’clock, I heard a diabolic yell and a succession of laughing, sobbing shrieks that sent me flying to the door. In the passage I collided with the  mother who, to my surprise, was fully dressed. ‘It’s nothing,’ she said. ‘One of the maids had hysterics. I’m so sorry you have been disturbed.’ So I went back to bed, but could not sleep again, though the noises had stopped. In the morning I told my friend: ‘I’m leaving this place. It’s worse than France.’ There were thousands of  mothers like her, getting in touch with their dead sons by various spiritualistic means. 

This is cruel, and neither is it fair or entirely truthful–Graves will also write a letter praising the peacefulness of Weirleigh several days after arriving. Otherwise, sadly, it falls into the category of probably-essentially-true tales altered by Graves for dramatic effect. Theresa Sassoon is one of many bereaved parents who have begun to indulge in spiritualism.

Sassoon will write about his mother during this period, eventually, in his own autobiographical voice:

I could get no relief by discussing the war with my mother, whose way of looking at it differed from mine. For her, the British were St. George and the Germans were the Dragon; beyond that she had no more to say about it. The war had caused her so much suffering that she was incapable of thinking flexibly on the subject.

Sassoon–who defies me by using the “barrier” metaphor rather than the “gulf,” will note that their mutual understanding is also thwarted by the fact that he doesn’t know “what it feels like to be an elderly civilian in a great war.”[4] But this is wisdom yet to be realized, a century back.

 

Bimbo Tennant moved up past Rowland Feilding yesterday, taking the place of his exhausted Connaught Rangers. Tennant survived the trip and seems, naturally, to be enjoying himself so far. Not every man of the 4th Grenadier Guards was as lucky:

Sept. 11th, 1916.

“… Up to now I am safe and well; but we have had a fairly uncomfortable time, though we have been lucky on the whole. Poor Thompson (in my Company) was killed yesterday. I shall miss him so, he was such a charming fellow. We have been heavily shelled everywhere of the line.

We had very good luck getting up here, having hardly any casualties in the whole Battalion. I was flying up and down the batt. with messages to different people from the Commanding Officer all the time, it was quite a busy time for me; but since then, apart from helping to write messages, and being generally useful and cheerful, it’s been less strenuous. I keep my ‘Oxford Book of English Verse‘ with me.[5]

This is no passing reference, really: the Oxford Book of English Verse is, among our poetically-inclined subalterns, second-best to a bible–or even quietly preferred to it.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. And despite Jean Moorcroft Wilson's rather sensible abdication--"the dates simply do not tally" (Siegfried Sassoon, 294). They don't, but I'm not sure why anything more nefarious is going on with Graves than either a confusion of dates or a conflation of the memory of crying on a train with another day on which Sassoon read the casualty list. Today is a plausible day for reading of the Royal Welch at Ginchy (see below), but otherwise Moorcroft's complaint stands: "Sassoon's autobiography is clearly not factually reliable," and neither is Graves's. Worse, from my shallowly date-obsessed point of view, Sassoon is not writing many letters or keeping up his diary, so there is no way to securely date several important things. Alas: in late August I had no place to discuss he and Graves planning to co-publish like Coleridge and Wordsworth, and none of the biographers can quite find a date for Sassoon's September introduction to life at Lady Ottoline Morrell's Garsington Manor...
  2. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves: The Assault Heroic, 162.
  3. Complete Memoirs, 376-7.
  4. Siegfried's Journey, 27.
  5. Memoir, 229.

Rowland Feilding on a Great and Gruesome Sacrifice; Edward Thomas is Gone, Gone Again; Edmund Blunden’s Preparations for Victory

I should apologize for the length of the coming post; but there is battle, today, and other mayhem–and two very good poems.

First, Rowland Feilding‘s narrative of his hunt for a new job is interrupted by a terrible mishap.

September 3, 1916 (Sunday). Morlancourt.

Still no orders…

This morning (Sunday), at ten o’clock, I went to Mass. As I was leaving the Church I met Cecil Trafford, who asked me to his mess (Headquarters—1st Scots Guards). The latter is a house with a sort of garden or small yard in front of it. As. we were crossing this there was a sudden loud explosion, and bits flew through the air about us. We looked round and saw Leach, the bombing officer of the battalion (who had just come from visiting my own mess), on the ground, 4 or 5 yards away. He lay on his back, in a pool of blood, his arms outstretched and both his hands blown off. His brother officers soon began to collect around him, so I left, but I do not think he then had more than a short time to live.

Later. I have since learned some particulars about poor Leach’s accident. He was detonating a bomb in the orderly
room, which is a shed opening on to the yard, when the safety-pin slipped. Seeing that it was going to explode, and some of his men being in the shed, after ordering them to lie down, he picked up the bomb and dashed outside to get rid of it. He then had less than four seconds in which to decide what to do. I can only suppose that seeing Cecil and myself in the middle of the yard he came to the conclusion that his one chance of throwing it safely away was gone.

So he turned his back on us, facing the wall, and hugging the bomb in his hands, allowed it to explode between his body and the wall.

It is impossible to speak much of such courage and self-sacrifice. He is since dead. He was only twenty-two.[1]

 

It is, and yet such an event goads the historian (or the antiquarian, perhaps) to find out something more. At first, it seemed as if Second-Lieutenant Grey de Leche Leach received no recognition for the heroic manner of his death. I was surprised–thus demonstrating both my sloppy research skills and my poor memory. I’ve written on this before, (twice, apparently!) but one way in which the Great War particularly fascinates is with its position both at the end of a seemingly unbroken tradition of heroic warfare (and war-writing) and at the beginning of the 20th century experience of war as brutal and morally degrading misery. (Both are overstatements, of course.)

And one way in which this liminal position is starkly illustrated is by the beginning of the movement of the goalposts of heroism. For the ancient, “Classical” cultures theoretically revered by the British officer class, there was no glory in defeat. Medals were won for winning (gloriously), or for dying (gloriously) in an action–preferably an aggressive action–that led to victory. But in our own times the most valued medals tend to be won for self-sacrificing valor.

Nothing in civilian life is so celebrated as the firefighter who rushes headlong into peril to save others, even if all is disaster and none are saved. This is courage–and always was, any way you define it. But it wasn’t always heroism. And in recent warfare the quintessential heroic act–drained, even, of some of its horror by becoming a cliche (but we are a culture that likes to “throw people under the bus,” so what do you expect?)–is “falling on a grenade.”

But it wasn’t always thus, and the British army, a century back, was focused on maintaining morale and pushing forward. There were no medals for dying out of range of the enemy, and no point in advertising an act–however terrifyingly brave and moving–that also testified to poor manufacturing and hasty training. It was only after the war that Leach was recognized–with the award of the “Albert Medal, in Gold.”

Tellingly–here is dry-as-dust-and-shiny-as-fool’s-gold-military-history put to prompt thematic use!–the Albert Medal was conceived as a civilian medal for life-saving at sea and, later, on land. It was not until 1940–when the occasional Zeppelin terror had progressed as far as the Blitz, and civilians were rushing into burning buildings on a regular basis–that the George Cross was created as an award for valor “not in the face of the enemy.”

And in 1971–by which time the long slog of Vietnam and other postcolonial wars had worked the major change in our conception of the both valor and the value of military aggression, and dying to save one’s buddies or one’s men was recognized as the epitome of courage–the Albert Medal was discontinued, and its holders were invited to exchange it for a George Cross, now available to civilians and military personnel alike. We were still fighting wars, then–and still are, of course, although we try to do so without endangering soldiers (an idea taken for granted now that would have seemed perfect madness in 1914)–yet we recognize that gathering the very worst effects of war in to our own body, and sparing others, is the best thing a human being can do. Fearsome and awful–but history.

 

While this debatable drama played out in an unexpected flash, far from the face of the enemy, Edmund Blunden‘s 11th Royal Sussex at last launched their attack near the Ancre river. This is such a minor attack that it barely features in the histories–an attack on Guillemont, today, was more significant, and even that is essentially a prequel to another phase of the battle–and yet for Blunden it is the biggest thing he has yet seen.

Seen, rather than experienced: Blunden, assigned to work with the carrying parties in support, was not in the attacking waves. Listening to one’s first assault barrage from a dugout, it would seem, brings little of the peace of mountaintop battle-viewing.

The British barrage opened. The air gushed in hot surges along that river valley, and uproar never imagined by me swung from ridge to ridge. The east was scarlet with dawn and with flickering gunflashes; I thanked God I was not one of the attackers, and joined the subdued carriers nervously lighting cigarettes in one of the cellars, sitting there on the steps, studying my watch. The ruins of Hamel were crashing chaotically with German shells, and jags of iron whizzed past the cellar mouth. When I gave the word to move it was obeyed with no pretence of enthusiasm. I was forced to shout in anger and the carrying party, some with shoulders hunched, as if in a snowstorm, dully picked up their bomb buckets and went ahead. The wreckage around seemed leaping with flame. Never had we smelled high explosive so thick and foul, and there was no distinguishing one shell burst from another save by the black or tawny smoke that suddenly appeared in the general miasma. We walked along the river road, passed the sandbag dressing station that had been built only a night or two earlier where the front line crossed, and had already been battered in; and we could make very little sense of ourselves or the battle. There were wounded Highlanders trailing down the road; they had been in the marshes of the Ancre, trying to take a machine-gun post called Summer House. Ahead, the German front line could not be clearly seen, the water mist and the smoke veiling it; and this was lucky for the carrying party. Halfway between the trenches I bade them good luck, and pointing out the place where they should hand over the bombs, I left them in charge of their own officer, returning myself, as my orders directed, to Harrison. I passed good men of ours, in our front line, staring like men in a trance across No Man’s Land, their powers of action apparently suspended.

Hamel, September 1916

Hamel and Thiepval. The “Kentish Caves” were just left of center and slightly above; the barred line running from top center to bottom left, just west of the marsh, is the railroad; the first and second lines of German trenches across the marshes of No Man’s Land are marked in red–their severe oblique angle to the “British Front Line” complicated the tactics or this attack.

“What’s happening over there?” asked Harrison, with a face all doubt and stress, when I crawled into the candled, overcrowded frowsiness of Kentish Caves. I could not say. There was ominous discommunication. A runner called Gosden presently came in, with bleeding breast, bearing a message written an hour and more earlier. It did not promise well, and, as the hours passed, all that could be made out was that our attacking companies were hanging on, some of them in the German third trench, where they could not at all be reached by the others, dug in between the first and the second. Lintott wrote message after message, trying to share information north, east, and west; Harrison, the sweat standing on his forehead, thought out what to do in this deadlock, and repeatedly telephoned to the guns and the General. Wounded men and messengers began to crowd the scanty passages of the Caves, and curt roars of explosion just outside announced that these dugouts, shared by ourselves and the Black Watch, were now to be dealt with. Death soon arrived there, at the clumsy entrance. Harrison meanwhile called for his runner, and pushed his way into the top trenches to see what he could; returned presently with that kind of severe laugh which tells the tale of a man who has incredibly escaped from the barrage. The day was hot outside, glaring mercilessly upon the burned, choked chalk trenches. Presently Harrison said: “Rabbit, they’re short of ammunition. Get around and collect all the fellows you can and take them over–and stay over there and do what you can.” I felt my heart thud at this; went out, naming my men among headquarters “odds and ends” wherever I could find them, and noting with pleasure that my nearest dump had not been blown up and would answer our requirements; then I thrust my head in again to report that I was starting, when he delayed, and presently cancelled, the enterprise. The shells on our neighbourhood seemed to fall more thickly, and the dreadful spirit of waste and impotence sank into us, when a sudden report from an artillery observer warned us that there were Germans in our front trench. In that case Kentish Caves was a death-trap, a hole in which bombs would be bursting within a moment; yet here was something definite, and we all seemed to come to life, and prepared with our revolvers to try our luck.

Blunden is no swaggering ironist. He is concerned here to give a careful account of what being on the margin of an attack felt like. His position, evidently alongside the signal officer, gives him a vantage point very much like that of A. A. Milne not long ago. Milne could have written of “ominous discommunication,” and the dawning preference for action–despite fear–rather than frustrating passivity. And yet Milne wrote as one who expected disaster; Blunden is hopeful, yet, and it is a quiet irony of disappointment that pervades the rest of the account. He is an extra in this show–but if the Germans are coming, as the artillery observer claimed, he will be able to try his luck.

The artillery observer must have made some mistake. Time passed without bombs among us or other surprise, and the collapse of the attack was wearily obvious. The bronze noon was more quiet but not less deadly than the morning. I climbed round the hillside trenches, but they were amazingly lonely; suddenly a sergeant major and a half-dozen men came superhumanly, gasping and excited, over the parapets. They had been lying in No Man’s Land, and at last had decided to “chance their arm” and dodge the machine guns which had been perseveringly trying to get them. They drank pints of water, of which I had luckily a little store in a dugout there. I left them sitting wordless in that hole.

Blunden has been only an attendant at his own baptism of fire, bearing up bombs, first, and then water. He is an innocent, and what strikes him now is less the failure of the attack than its resistance to explanation. Without narrative or clear causation, what was the history of this day? There are only surmises.

The singular part of the battle was that no one could say what had happened, or what was happening. One vaguely understood that the waves had found their manoeuvre in No Man’s Land too complicated; that the supposed derelict forward trench near the railway was joined by tunnels to the enemy’s main defence, and enabled him to come up behind our men’s backs; that he had used the bayonet where challenged, with the boldest readiness; that machine guns from the Thiepval ridge south of the river were wickedly accurate on all the crossings of No Man’s Land.[2] But the general effect was the disappearance of the attack into mystery.

Orders for withdrawal were sent out to our little groups in the German lines during the afternoon. The remaining few of the battalion in our own positions were collected in the trench in Hamel village, and a sad gathering it was…[3]

So, Blunden the observer. But he also responded to the day’s work in his other writerly guise, as a lyric poet.

 

Preparations For Victory

My soul, dread not the pestilence that hags
The valley; flinch not you, my body young.
At these great shouting smokes and snarling jags
Of fiery iron; as yet may not be flung
The dice that claims you. Manly move among
These ruins, and what you must do, do well;
Look, here are gardens, there mossed boughs are hung
With apples who bright cheeks none might excel,
And there’s a house as yet unshattered by a shell.

“I’ll do my best,” the soul makes sad reply,
“And I will mark the yet unmurdered tree,
The tokens of dear homes that court the eye,
And yet I see them not as I would see.
Hovering between, a ghostly enemy.
Sickens the light, and poisoned, withered, wan,
The least defiled turns desperate to me.”
The body, poor unpitied Caliban,
Parches and sweats and grunts to win the name of Man.

Days or eternities like swelling waves
Surge on, and still we drudge in this dark maze;
The bombs and coils and cans by strings of slaves
Are borne to serve the coming day of days;
Pale sleep in slimy cellars scarce allays
With its brief blank the burden. Look, we lose;
The sky is gone, the lightless, drenching haze
Of rainstorms chills the bone; earth, air are foes,
The black fiend leaps brick-red as life’s last picture goes.

There is an ease here, a music, that few–if any–of the young poets we have read possess. And although this poem shares in Blunden’s abiding modesty, it is not afraid to handle the events of the day in complexity, in ambiguity. Blunden’s poem wishes for victory, and, even more, for the young poet and his men to pass the test of battle, to become men. Yet he is already aligned with the sufferings of the troops, rather than their heroic potential–they are Caliban, they are slaves. He notices the drain on their bodies, and their minds–the blank of what will be called the “thousand yard stare” is noted here, as in the memoir. He takes the scenery–unshattered, unmurdered, apple-bright–and brings it (before the rather overcooked final couplet) down to slimy cellars and lightless haze. For what little Blunden has seen, for how young he is, in life and in war and in poetry, it’s a very good poem indeed.

 

I’m piling on, now, but I plead (as I suppose I often do) that facing the greatest contrasts–between, here, a climactic attack and another quiet writing day of the long war–is the best way to contain the war’s multitudinous history and variegated writing. And yet despite the fact that Edward Thomas is safe in London, today, he and Blunden might almost be sharing the same sympathetic poetic vibrations. And why not? Barring the sharp difference in their age and circumstances (Blunden the quintessential schoolboy officer, Thomas a worn-out elderly family man of almost forty who enlisted and still awaits his commission) the two are very similar in how they see, and value, the world.

While the younger man has now arrived on battle’s margins, Thomas is still steeling himself to the coming losses:

 

Gone, Gone Again

Gone, gone again,
May, June, July,
And August gone,
Again gone by,
Not memorable
Save that I saw them go,
As past the empty quays
The rivers flow.
And now again,
In the harvest rain,
The Blenheim oranges
Fall grubby from the trees,
As when I was young—
And when the lost one was here—
And when the war began
To turn young men to dung.
Look at the old house,
Outmoded, dignified,
Dark and untenanted,
With grass growing instead
Of the footsteps of life,
The friendliness, the strife;
In its beds have lain
Youth, love, age, and pain:
I am something like that;
Only I am not dead,
Still breathing and interested
In the house that is not dark:—
I am something like that:
Not one pane to reflect the sun,
For the schoolboys to throw at—
They have broken every one.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 107-8.
  2. In revising, Blunden will interject both more quotation (presumably intended to be read as generalized) of the soldiers' response (e.g. the Germans using "'the whole damn lot'" in their arsenal), and more pointedly metaphorical language. These machine guns will become rather less wicked and more theologically scourging, "flaying all the crossings of No Man's Land."
  3. Undertones of War, 98-103, or 97-101.