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.

Scott Moncrieff Returns to London; Alfred Hale Endures Parental Bluster; Wyn Griffith in Red Tabs with Royalty; Vera Brittain on “The Profound Freemasonry” of Those Dead Beyond the Gulf

Today, a century back, we have rather a potpourri of four updates–and none are from the trenches.

First, we witness Charles Scott Moncrieff, now back in London, returning to a familiar literary orbit.

14th June

. . . Broadway (a brother officer here) is very good and faithful to me. He comes down after breakfast in a dressing gown and again (for messages) before he goes out. He has got me this writing pad. Colin came this afternoon and brought a great armful of roses. . . . My friend Robert Ross was in before Colin—fresh from a week-end with the Asquiths—and gave me a novel and a promise of all the latest poetry and other books. I was glad to see him as I wanted an expert’s eye cast on the portraits in this room. . . . I expect a good many brother officers this week. Broadway finds them. He is more obliging than words can say. This place is doing me a lot of good and I feel better already. Our surgeon is like the young villain in Hardy’s Laodicean—he looks about 14 but is very able…[1]

Reading Hardy, depending on Ross’s taste, Asquiths at arm’s reach… and, though he doesn’t mention it in this letter, he is also being regularly visited by Ronald Knox. It’s a small world… which I believe I’ve noted before.

 

While Moncrieff is returning from the war seriously wounded, Alfred Hale is slowly headed toward France. So slowly that he is still in the adjusting-to-training-camp stage. And it turns out that even our Old Man of the Air Force has parents. Hale may live a solitary life of privilege–before conscription that is–and see camp as an ordeal rather than an adventure, but he’s only 41… and he still has parents who write him their worries, reminding us that the generational gulf is, in terms of years on this earth, relative, and not absolute…

14 June: A letter from my father. A cousin had come to see him on Draft leave. He seemed to be bored with the War, especially with the prospect of death before his time from bullets or exposure… all of which surprised and shocked my father. ‘It didn’t matter how long the War lasted, but we must have a military victory at all costs’. (This last the burden of all letters from home)…

Hale senior also tells his son that at least his work as a batman is “setting free an abler man.” But Hale isn’t so sure. “Was I really doing that? Unfortunately, I much doubted it…” Nor is Hale accepting the idea that his music “must gain” from experience. He is fairly certain, in fact, that innocence of certain things is highly preferable…[2]

 

Llewelyn Wyn Griffith has recovered, to some extent, from the overwhelming disillusionment and horror at the murderousness of war that he felt after the death of his brother. Or perhaps he has just become more practical… and honest in his balance of emotional reaction and natural self-interest. In any event, he was very happy to be reassigned to the divisional staff a few days ago, replacing a wounded officer in an intelligence job running “an advanced information centre.” Griffith puts on his red tabs “with delight… I felt proud and important in red. Besides, I would be drawing pay at the rate of £400 a year, a tremendous jump for me.” And today, a century back, his elevated status put him in the way of royalty:

… the King and the Prince of Wales visited the headquarters on 14 June. The King shook hands with all the senior members of the corps and divisional staffs…[3]

 

A wounded young man of letters returning to the literary world, a middle-aged musician learning further humiliations, and a one-time trench fighter content to be on the staff. The war brings many changes–until the changes stop.

Vera Brittain comes to the end of the road, today, with Victor Richardson.

Five days after [his death] Victor was buried at Hove. No place on earth could have been more ironically inappropriate for a military funeral than that secure, residential town, I reflected, as I listened with rebellious anger to the calm voice of the local clergyman intoning the prayers: “Grant, we beseech Thee, O Lord, Thine Eternal Rest to all those who have died for their country…”

Eternal Rest, I reflected, had been the last thing that Victor wanted; he had told me so himself. But if, thus prematurely, he had to take it, how much I wished that fate had allowed him to lie, with other winners of the Military Cross, in one of the simple graveyards of France. I felt relieved, as I listened to the plaintive sobbing of the “Last Post” rising incongruously from amid the conventional civilian tombstones, that Edward had not been able to come to the funeral. The uncomprehending remoteness of England from the tragic, profound freemasonry of those who accepted death together overseas would have intensified beyond endurance the incommunicable grief which had thrust us apart.

But when, back in Kensington, I re-read the letter that he had written in reply to mine telling him of Victor’s death, I knew that he had never really changed towards me, and that each of us represented to the other such consolation as the future still held.

Vera then gives her brother the final words of the present chapter of her memoir, ending Edward’s fervent assurance of true brotherly love

I suppose it is better to have had such splendid friends as those three were rather than not to have had any particular friends at all, but yet, now that all are gone, it seems that whatever was of value in life has all tumbled down like a house of cards. Yet in Tah’s case I will not, I cannot say that I wished from the bottom of my heart that he should live…

Yes, I do say ‘Thank God he didn’t have to live it.’ We started alone, dear child, and here we are alone again… But we share a memory which is worth all the rest of the world, and the sun of that memory never sets. And you know that I love you, that I would do anything in the world in my power if you should ask it, and that I am your servant as well as your brother.

Edward[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 135-6.
  2. The Ordeal of Alfred Hale, 95.
  3. Up to Mametz and Beyond, 153.
  4. Testament of Youth, 359-61.

Edward Brittain on Victor Richardson, and What Remains; Ivor Gurney on Food and Fatalism; Patrick Shaw Stewart Lolls and Reads

First, today, a letter from Edward Brittain to his sister Vera, his first to her since the death of Victor Richardson. There is something still clinging to this letter of the Romantic idealism that has always marked this group of friends–but not much. Edward is not in a mood to be sentimental about cruel wounds, or to fool himself about pain.

Roker, Sunderland, 11 June 1917

Dearest Vera —

I suppose it is better to have had such splendid friends as those three were rather than not to have had any particular friends at all, but yet, now that all are gone it seems that whatever was of value in life has all tumbled down like a house of cards. Yet in Tah’s case I will not, I cannot say that I wished from the bottom of my heart that he should live; I have a horror of blindness, and if I were blinded myself I think I should wish to die. The idea of long years without the light of the sun and the glory of its setting and without the immortal lamp of life is so abhorrent to me — and the thought of that has been hanging over me these 2 months — that I cannot altogether deplore the opening of the gates of eternal rest to that Unconquerable Soul, although I loved him in a way that few men can love one another. I am so very glad that you were near and saw him so nearly at the end; in a way too I am glad not to have been there; it is good to remember the cheerfulness with which he faced the living of a new life fettered by the greatest misfortune known to men.

Yes, I do say Thank God he didn’t have to live it. We started alone, dear child, and here we are alone again: you find me changed, I expect, more than I find you; that is perhaps the way of Life. But we share a memory which is worth all the rest of the world, and the sun of that memory never sets. And you know that I love you, that I would do anything in the world in my power if you should ask it, and that I am your servant as well as your brother

Edward[1]

 

So life goes on, even if there is nothing but love to get down behind in the mud and push.

Ivor Gurney, today, is thinking of life–and food… and poetry… and food again… and ends.

11 June 1917

My Dear Friend: Out of the line once more, but for once, not hungry, for the Lord and the ASC have been kind to us, and liberal gentlemen have bestowed cake upon me…

Yes, the College Mag. and the TLS have arrived. I am sorry I forgot to thank you. If there are any complementary copies please send them to Mrs Chapman and Mrs Hunt…

Today there are orgies of cleaning, and men brush and polish frantically at brass and leather. The weather is beautiful, and there is plenty of water to wash with, so we are not unhappy. Also there is plenty to eat…

Gurney is writing to Marion Scott, of course, and he includes several rondels in a similarly light-hearted vein. But see the last lines–light-heartedness is a passing mood, in the trenches, and never the note of resolution.

Rondels

1. Letters

“Mail’s up”! the vast of night is over
And love of friends fills all one’s mind
(His wife, his sister, or his lover.)
Mail’s up, the vast of night is over.
The grey-faced heaven Joy does cover
With love, and God once more seems kind.
“Mail’s up”! The vast of night is over
And love of friends fills all one’s mind.

2. Shortage

God God! No Jam! No Bread!!
No Butter!!!
Whatever are we coming to?
O desolation, anguish utter —
Good God! No jam, no bread, no butter.
I hear the brutal soldiers mutter.
And strong men weep as children do.
Good God! No jam, no bread,
No butter!
Whatever are we coming to?

3. Paean

There’s half a loaf per man today?
O Sergeant, is it really true?
Now biscuits can be given away.
There’s half a loaf per man today;
And Peace is ever so near they say.
With tons of grub and nothing to do.
There’s Half a Loaf Per Man today!
O Sergeant is it Really True?

4. Strafe (1)

I strafe my shirt most regularly.
And frighten all the population.
Wonderful is my strategy!
I strafe my shirt most regularly;
(It sounds like distant musketry.)
And still I itch like red damnation!
I strafe my shirt most regularly
And — frighten all the population………….

5. Strafe (2)

The “crumps” are falling twenty to the minute.
We crouch and wait the end of it, — or us
Just behind the trench, before, and in it.
The “crumps” are falling twenty to the minute;
(O Framilode! O Maisemore’s laughing linnet!)
Here comes a monster like a motor bus.
The “crumps” are falling twenty to the minute;
We crouch and wait the end of it — or us

I wonder if the proofs are with Sidgwick and Jackson yet. That will interest me, and also (when the time comes) to know what Gloucester people think. Last night I read some to a friend of mine, and was surprised to find how little I cared for them, and how remote they seemed. As for Spring 1917, it is as I thought long dull, and unvaried…

With best wishes; Yours sincerely Ivor Gurney[2]

 

Finally, today, an update from Patrick Shaw Stewart, now with the Royal Naval Division in France. It’s a discursive letter, and I’ll make some cuts to get us to the good parts… who could he be reading, now that he’s reached the Western Front at last?

…The battery commander is out, so I am lying flat on my tummy in the grass outside his habitat in the amiable sun, waiting till he comes in; one of the pleasanter phases of war. When I have written to you, and X, and Y, and Z, I will
go on with Tom Jones, which I am in the middle of and which is far and away the best book I ever read. Messrs Meredith and James are simply silly beside it, and as for the Victorians ——–. I got through Sense and Sensibility the other day, by the way, not bad, but not half as good as Pride and Prejudice, or Emma.

I did tell you about our time up the line? It was quite agreeable, good weather (though a lot of mud), and a quiet time, very few casualties. I had rather luck having a chain of posts very much advanced in a rather well-known place, so far advanced as to be clear of mud and also clear of shelling. The only trial was that I hardly got a wink of sleep—one has to re-acquire the habit of sleeping in a sitting-position on a petrol tin in the later half of the morning…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Letters From a Lost Generation, 355.
  2. War Letters, 168-70.
  3. Knox, Patrick Shaw-Stewart, 198-99.

Kate Luard on Flowers and Horrors; Vera Brittain Misses Rome; Two Verses from Siegfried Sassoon on Quiet Gardens and the Far-Off Dead

I hope that there are still occasional surprises, here, even with our old familiar regulars–after all, if “real-time military history” doesn’t demonstrate how often expectation and routine are upended by events, then surely there is a double failure to represent the contingency of real life in subsequent life-writing. And yet I have felt myself falling into certain patterns, allotting certain roles to certain writers… which is all well and good as long as it does not unduly influence the choice of excerpts from their writings.

In any case, it has become Kate Luard‘s duty to juxtapose a quintessentially English interest in country walks and wildflowers with compassionate description of the war’s human wreckage.

Friday, May 25th

Dazzling weather and very little doing. The woods are full of bluebells and bugloss and stitchwort, and the fields of buttercups and sorrel. Our wards and own huts and tents are a mass of spring.

There is a boy in with his spinal cord exposed, lying on his face, who was wounded on Sunday and not picked up till Thursday morning. He was in a shell-hole crying to four other wounded in it the first night. They took no notice and in the morning he saw they had all died.[1]

 

Yesterday, a century back, Vera Brittain went through Rome on her way from Malta back to England. And what did the young Englishwoman do with a few hours to spare in the eternal city? “Had tea in an English restaurant; after tea drove to English quarter and wandered around curio shops.”

Ah, well. Today, the journey continued.

Friday, May 25th

Woke to find we were all among mountains, just going into Pisa. Saw Leaning Tower of Pisa from train. Glorious mountain scenery; mountain-sides covered with thick trees, cypresses and pines standing out among them…

At Modane Vera and her companions changed to the Paris express, which she described as the “most splendid train I have ever been in; seats very large and comfortable; got a corner. Had a most excellent dinner…”[2]

 

And Siegfried Sassoon has been writing verse again–two poems can be dated to today, a century back. The first is an uncharacteristically restrained sort of war poem, something that might remind us of Edward Thomas‘s work, except with still that hint of reflexively “poetic” diction or prettiness of sound, and less of Thomas’s unflinching gaze. Nevertheless, this is skilled work, and it makes sense to assume that Sassoon can hardly resist juxtaposing the loveliness of Chapelwood Manor (well provided with hawthorns) with his feelings of deep connection with the men who remain in France.

 

The Hawthorn Tree

Not much to me is yonder lane
Where I go every day;
But when there’s been a shower of rain
And hedge-birds whistle gay,
I know my lad that’s out in France,
With fearsome things to see,
Would give his eyes for just one glance
At our white hawthorn-tree.

Not much to me is yonder lane
Where he so longs to tread:
But when there’s been a shower of rain
I think I’ll never weep again
Until I’ve heard he’s dead.

 

This might be a slight poem, or then again it might make a “deep impression through its very restraint and understatement.” Still, if it is “reminiscent of Hardy,” it is Hardy’s earlier, generally more gentle Wessex work.

Not so the next, a similar juxtaposition but much more forceful, charging in like a veritable Satire of Circumstance. Once more we find ourselves in peace in an English pastoral setting, and thinking of Zero Hour.

 

Death in the Garden

I never thought to see him; but he came
When the first strangeness of the dawn was grey.
He stood before me, a remembered name,
A twilight face, poor lonely ghost astray.
Flowers glimmered in the garden where I stood
And yet no more than darkness was the green.
Then the wind stirred; and dawn came up the wood;
Add he was gone away: or had I seen
That figure in my brain? for he was dead;
I knew that he was killed when I awoke.
At zero-hour they shot him through the head
Far off in France, before the morning broke.[3]

 

This poem may memorialize a particular man, Ralph Brocklebank–“Brock” in the Memoirs–whom Sassoon had befriended at Litherland. Brocklebank, like Sassoon an enthusiastic hunter, had been killed in France on the 15th, news which Sassoon had just learned in a letter from Joe Cottrell. Brocklebank was nineteen. But the details are not quite right, and it makes more sense to say that the poem is about loss and a feeling of double exile: just as it may be about the gardens of Chapelwood and the death of Brocklebank, it may also touch on the death of Sassoon’s brother Hamo, and the garden at home in Kent in which the brothers once played and that Sassoon has since been avoiding. In either case, there is much still to be written, even with old unfussy rhymed pentameters, even with simple end-rhymes, like “dead.”[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Unknown Warriors, 126.
  2. Testament of Youth, 350-1.
  3. Diaries, 172.
  4. Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 365-7.

Siegfried Sassoon is Blighty Bound… and Eighteen Other Updates

Although I am almost as tired of writing extremely long posts as you are of reading them, so very many of our writers committed some sort of date-fixable act today, a century back, that I thought I should nod to the fates and survey everyone who showed up.[1]

After we wrap up with Siegfried Sassoon, withdrawn from the Hindenburg trench to the Hindenburg tunnel with a new “patriotic perforation” in his shoulder, and after we read the progress of Edward Hermon‘s widow, I will try to be judiciously brief with the others. Somehow, yesterday, Sassoon was not only seen and treated by the battalion Medical Officer, but was swiftly evacuated to a Casualty Clearing Station. Within hours of being held back from an attempted one-man bombing war, he is tucked in and headed for Blighty.

April 17

After a blessed eight hours’ sleep (more than I’d had since last Wednesday) I waited till 5 o’clock reading Far from the Madding Crowd, when we got on board a Red Cross train of serpentine length. Five hundred men and thirty-two officers on board. Warlencourt is eighteen kilometres from Arras—quite near Saulty, where we stayed on April 7. We passed through Doullens about 6 p.m. and Abbeville at 8.30 and reached Camiferes at midnight.

An officer called Kerr is with me—one of the First Cameronians. He was hit in the bombing show about an hour before I got up there on Monday morning, so I’ve got some sidelights on what really happened.

At present I am still feeling warlike, and quite prepared to go back to the line in a few weeks. My wound is fairly comfortable, and will be healed in a fortnight, they say. I know it would be best for me not to go back to England, where I should probably be landed for at least three months, and return to the line in July or August, with all the hell and wrench of coming back and settling down to be gone through again. I think I’ve established a very strong position in the Second Battalion in the five weeks I was with them. My luck never deserts me; it seems inevitable
for me to be cast for the part of ‘leading hero!’

Things to remember

The dull red rainy dawn on Sunday April 15, when we had relieved the 15th Northumberland Fusiliers—our Company of eighty men taking over a frontage of nine hundred yards.

During the relief—stumbling along the trench in the dusk, dead men and living lying against the sides of the trench one never knew which were dead and which living. Dead and living were very nearly one, for death was in all our hearts. Kirkby shaking dead German[2] by the shoulder to ask him the way.

On April 14 the 19th Brigade attacked at 5.30 a.m. I looked across at the hill where a round red sun was coming up. The hill was deeply shadowed and grey-blue, and all the Country was full of shell-flashes and drifting smoke. A battle picture.

Scene in the Hénin Dressing Station. The two bad cases—abdomen (hopeless) and ankle. The pitiful parson. My walk with Mansfield.

Sergeant Baldwin (A. Company) his impassive demeanour—like a well-trained footman. ‘My officer’s been hit.’ He bound up my wound.[3]

As these notes suggest, there will be a good deal more to write about all this.

 

A few days after learning of her husband’s death, Ethel Hermon received the heartfelt letter from his long-time manservant Gordon Buxton.

Dear Buxton,

Your letter came this morning & I can never thank you enough for your loving care of him & your sympathy & prayers. I knew you would be heartbroken & that I should have all your sympathy as you probably knew as well as anyone could know how much we were to each other.

You will by now have had my other letter telling you that I have asked Gen. Trevor… to let you come home if it is possible as I simply long to talk to you… I seem to know all that pen & paper can tell, one just longs to talk to someone who was there…

I should leave it there, as we press on into this massively choral day. To summarize, Ethel also charges Buckin with seeing that her husband’s valuable and useful possessions are distributed to his friends, and that the items that had been personal, close to his body–“the old basin & cover & its contents”–be returned to her. She hopes, too, that he can care for her husband’s grave. Which he will do–and he will come home.

A British tank ditched in the German lines at Arras, IWM

Dear Mrs. Hermon,

I’m sending this note by Buxton who goes on leave today to report to you. He will bring the papers etc. found on your husband…

…a tank was caught up on the German front line… & the Boches were firing at it… there seems little doubt that one these rifle bullets hit your husband just below the heart… The medical officer tells me he thinks a big blood vessel below the heart was severed & that death was almost instantaneous.

Your husband’s horses are being sent to Div. Hd. Qrs with the groom…

I can only repeat how much I feel for you in your irreparable loss.

Yours very sincerely,

H.E. Trevor[4]

 

Kate Luard‘s parade of horrors (we’ve read but a little, lately) has abated, as the Arras push lags. So time for a stroll–and paperwork.

We have had a lull the last two days, and everybody has been off duty long enough to go for a walk in relays and pick Lent lilies, cowslips, and anemones…  I believe another stunt is expected tomorrow…

I got about 60 behind in Break-the-News letters the first few days of last week…[5]

 

Ivor Gurney, realizing perhaps that he is even more lucky to be wounded and out of it than he had thought, managed a post card today to Marion Scott:

Dear Friend: Still at the Base. No certain address. No certain tomorrow. No luck. No money. No damage to my arm, save a hole. Yet, had the boats been running, I might have got to Blighty…[6]

 

Let’s see: what else is happening with the Great War writers?

 

Christopher Wiseman arrived in Harrogate to visit John Ronald Tolkien, and to help him in compiling a memorial volume of their friend G.B. Smith’s work.[7]

 

In fiction, today is the key date in “The Colonel’s Shoes,” a curious supernatural shaggy-dog short story by Ford Madox Hueffer. It’s a tale told in retrospect that hinges on bitter, childish infighting among a few officers and plays out in the orderly room of their overworked battalion. Today, a century back, a vindictive captain writes up a Company-Sergeant-Major for perceived insubordination, and it will take a very, very minor miracle to set things right…[8]

 

And after the excitement of last night’s chaotic patrol, tonight’s action provided tension in a lower key for Alf Pollard and the H.A.C. Ordered to move forward under cover of darkness and entrench within 200 yards of the Germans, Pollard accidentally led his men all the way up to the German wire obstacles. But once again “Fritz was keeping a very bad watch” and Pollard and his men are able to withdraw to the proper distance and begin entrenching before they are discovered. Pollard being Pollard, he ascertains that the battalion on his left is in the wrong position and blusters back under fire to explain his prowess and sure grasp of the situation to the Brigadier, as well as the embarrassed colonel of that neighboring battalion…[9]

 

Rowland Feilding missed the first week of the battle, but it is now the lot of his battalion to hold trenches in the worst possible weather, and fight the same war of patrol and counter-patrol.

April 17, 1917. “‘Turnerstown Left” (Fierstraat Sector).

I think this year must be accursed. Never was a fouler day than to-day. After a wet night it is still raining this morning, and the wind is howling dismally, but overhead. There are points, after all, in being in a trench. The French seem to have made a spectacular re-entry into the arena yesterday, but they must have been greatly handicapped by the weather, like our men at Vimy.

Last night we captured two big Prussian Grenadiers (unwounded) on our wire. They were brought to my dugout at 2 a.m., looking frightened—with their hands still outstretched in the orthodox manner of the surrendered prisoner who desires to show that he is not armed; coated with mud; one bleeding from a tear from the wire; but neither seeming too unhappy. If one only knew German this would be the proper time to extract information. They are too scared to lie much. Later, when they find out how kindly is the British soldier, they become sly and independent.[10]

 

Llewelyn Wyn Griffith, whose harrowing summer was followed by a long spell of peaceful staff work, was sent back to his battalion today, a century back, taking over C Company of the 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers. We hear time and again how officers pine for their comrades and their men when they are sent off to safe billets and cushy staff positions–not so Griffith, who “set off despondently” to return to the hardships of the line.[11]

 

And with another Kitchener battalion of the Royal Welch, David Jones is also heading back toward the front.

On the 17th, in wind and sleet, they left for divisional reserve at Roussel Farm–the cold mud so deep that it took hours to pass through 400 yards of communication trench. They arrived at 3.30 a.m.[12]

 

Henry Williamson “wrote a lot of letters” today, including one to his mother enclosing a piece of army propaganda about German demoralization and one to his father describing the roar of the big naval guns, the sight of a British tanker driven mad by the gunfire concentrated on his tank, and the recent transaction of parcels: cake and bullseyes to Henry in France, and souvenirs–including “2 tin boxes of bombs, etc., and 3 lovely helmets… & a saw bayonet”–sent home.[13]

 

Vera Brittain remains too far from the front, and full of worry. To her brother Edward, today, a century back:

I have to keep on writing letters, because the vague bits of news from France that filter through to us make me so anxious to receive them. From the long list of names that appear in the telegrams there seems to be a vast battle going on along the whole of our front & the French one too, but it is very difficult to make out at all what is happening. Is Geoffrey anywhere in the Bapaume direction? The longer the War goes on, the more one’s concern in the whole immense business seems to centre itself upon the few beings still left that one cares about, & the less upon the general issue of the struggle. One’s personal interest wears one’s patriotism rather threadbare by this time. After all, it is a garment one has had to wear for a very long time, so there’s not much wonder if it is beginning to get a little shabby![14]

Looking back on this night, she will add these thoughts:

Yet another night’s red moon, I thought, looking up after finishing Edward’s letter at the ominous glow in the unquiet sky. Another night, and still no news. Is Victor still alive? Is Geoffrey? Oh, God–it’s intolerable to be out here, knowing nothing till ages afterwards, but just wondering and wondering what has happened![15]

 

Jack Martin, in billets at Dickebusch, took today to write out fairly lengthy pen-portraits of some of his comrades… but I’m only human…[16]

 

Vivian de Sola Pinto, working for weeks now at the Bull Ring near Rouen, records today’s date–I would guess a scrap of his orders was preserved, for there are few dates and few such specifics in his book–as the occasion of a “huge fatigue party” that spent the entire day loading lorries. But it was also a memorable occasion because the station from which he was to supervise the loading contained a sergeant and two classes of furniture: a comfy chair and a biscuit tin.

With wry approval de Sola Pinto notes the sergeant’s insistence–“a fine example of what I would call a manly spirit of volunteer subordination”–that the officer take the better chair, despite the fact that both of them “knew he was an infinitely better soldier than I should ever be.” de Sola Pinto insists on taking turns, but recognizes that the Sergeant’s principled, if nominal, subordination “actually enhanced” his dignity.[17]

 

George Coppard, recovered from the accidental shooting in the foot, arrived today at “Camiers, a reception base for drafts.”[18]

 

C.E. Montague wrote both a letter and a diary entry recording his view of the battle from close behind. Wise though he is, he still feels bereft that his old companions are in battle and he is not. And he shows what a man with the time for literary composition on his hands can do. This is a good mix of eyewitness reportage and refined “battle-piece” history.

April 17, 1917

…Behold me again in the midst of our long-drawn battles—-meet incidents of our long-drawn war.

I saw the beginning of this one, before daylight on the morning of the 9th, from a little height above our front, from which I could see all our guns flash off together at the second of starting, like a beaded line of electric lights all turned on from one switch, and then each of them turned on and off and on again as fast as possible by a switch of its own. At intervals beyond this line of flashes there were the big geysers of flame, and dark objects visible in the middle of it, spouting up from our mines under the German front trench; and then at every two or three hundred yards there went up signal rockets from the German trenches, that seemed like visible shrieks to their artillery and supports to protect them from our infantry, who, they knew, were then on their way across from our trenches. I could see all this going on along several miles of front, and it was strangely dramatic, though all expressed through lights in the darkness alone, until the day broke and we could see our infantry already beyond the second line of enemy trenches and sauntering across quietly to the third, with our barrage of smoke walking steadily in front of them like the pillar of smoke in the desert—only of course it cannot give complete safety; and now and then the line would have a gap made in it by a shell and would join up again across the gap, and go strolling, with the strange look of leisureliness that an infantry charge of the scientific kind has now, until the time comes to rush the last few yards and jump down into the enemy’s trench.

It is grievous to to think that my battalion has twice had this great moment since I left it last midsummer, and that I may never know any more thrilling contact with the enemy than mutual sniping and a little reconnoitring of ground between his trenches and ours. The only compensation, so far as it goes, is that I see much more of the war and of the front as a whole, and the battlefield of the moment in particular, than one sees when engaged in honest regimental labour.

And in his diary:

Miles and miles of our front begin to dance in the dark, with twinkling and shimmering flashes. Suggests a long keyboard on which notes of light are being swiftly played. Then, from points all along German front, signal red and white and green rockets go up. Also ‘golden rains’ of our liquid fire, and one or two mine volcanoes. Dawn breaks on this firework show. Then on to a huge earthwork, an outwork of Arras citadel and lie on safe side and look over with fieldglass. Our infantry visible advancing in successive waves to take the second German trench-line N.E. of
Arras. Disquieted flocks of rooks. Then to Divl. H.Q., to find good news.

 

Charles Carrington‘s writing is honest, balanced, and well-informed. But he generally takes pains to, as they say, accentuate the positive. His morale and that of his unit’s was generally good–they have not despaired, they are more grim and more devoted to each other when they have started, but they would not acknowledge any sea change in their motivations, etc. But some days–and some nights, like last night, a century back, as they pressed up through the wreckage of this second push at Arras–were enough to drive a man to madness, despair, and self-slaughter. Last night he huddled under trench mortars; today was worse.

…In the morning, when we advanced unopposed, I passed the corpse of a British sergeant, not of my regiment. He lay on his back holding a revolver in his hand, shot through the throat at such an angle that I wondered if it had been suicide. If I had been suicidally inclined that night would have driven me to it.[19]

 

Edwin Vaughan and his battalion have been following the attack as well, and he writes voluminously of these days. But given his sensitive nature and penchant for drama, I don’t think he would mind my making this the representative incident:

At the Epéhy crossroads, we found a huge cat squatting on the chest of a dead German, eating his face. It made us sick to see it, and I sent two men to chase it away. As they approached it sprang snarling at them, but they beat it down with their rifles and drove it into the ruined houses. Then we covered the body with a sack, and went on.[20]

 

But we’ll end in Britain, in safety, and in the boudoir, where Duff Cooper has also been engaged in dire combat. Patrick Shaw-Stewart has been called back to war, but Cooper’s worries about other adversaries have pushed him closer to total war. Or, at least, to warfare unbefitting a gentleman. During Diana Manners‘ temporary absence from their long house party in Scotland he had been “obliged”–this is four days ago, a century back–to take a bath in her room. Where he opened and read her locked diary.[21]

It was rather vile of me…

It was, and we’ll skip the justifications. Amazingly, Cooper is both moved by learning “how much she loved Raymond” and urged to take action against his living rivals for her affection, including one Wimborne and a Lt-Col. Wilson who, of course, is known as “Scatters.”

There is no reference to me in the diary that I could quarrel with but I do not think she loves me… I rose from the perusal of this intimate diary which I had no right to read, loving, liking, and admiring her more than before.

And somehow this added up to progress. Cooper confessed his deed and was not banished. In fact, by last night he was reading her pages of his diary, then listening in agony outside her door while she (scandalously) entertained “Scatters” in the wee hours of today, a century back, and then returning in before dawn to wake her up with recrimination.

She cried and reproached me bitterly with not trusting and spying on her. I felt in the wrong and implored forgiveness which only after long pleading she granted. Then we had a night of the most wild and perfect joy. The best perhaps we ever had.[22]

And somewhere, every dawn, some men attack, and many sighs are drained.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. This may be--I joke here, almost completely, and with full apology for trespassing on the sanctity of life-or-death experience "from my armchair" (three words which I omitted from the Memoirs yesterday; but the armchair was only one possible destiny, for Sassoon)--the centennial blogger equivalent of Sassoon's mood at the very end of his escapade, yesterday, a century back...
  2. See Sassoon's "The Rear Guard," at the bottom of that post.
  3. Diaries, 156-7.
  4. For Love and Courage, 355, 358.
  5. Unknown Warriors, 114.
  6. War Letters, 155.
  7. Chronicle, 100.
  8. War Prose, 159-69.
  9. Fire-Eater, 209-11.
  10. War Letters to a Wife, 168.
  11. Griffith, Up to Mametz and Beyond, 138.
  12. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 153.
  13. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 119-20.
  14. Letters from a Lost Generation, 334-5.
  15. Testament of Youth, 339.
  16. Sapper Martin, 60-4.
  17. The City that Shone, 190.
  18. With a Machine Gun, 106.
  19. Soldier From the Wars Returning, 145.
  20. Some Desperate Glory, 95-6.
  21. What, I ask you, is the point of all of that fancy classical education if Cooper can pull up and manage some allusion to Actaeon, transformed into a deer and torn apart by his own hounds after seeing Artemis in the bath. Perhaps, as he considers leaving the Foreign Office for the Army, the vengeful hounds of his old hunting partners, become ravening ghosts, perhaps, are a bit too frightening to contemplate.
  22. Duff Cooper Diaries, 50-1.

Ivor Gurney in Perforated Good Spirits; Spring Offensive: Wilfred Owen Goes Over the Top; Siegfried Sassoon on the Effect of the Bombardment; Billy Prior’s Attack

Today is a day of blood and gore and foreboding. But we’ll start with the good news.

Pretty good news, at least: Ivor Gurney is wounded, and thus safe. There is pain, yes, but it hasn’t bought the best of news–early hopes of Blighty have faded. Gurney informs Marion Scott of his condition in a letter posted today, a century back:

My Dear Friend: Well, I am wounded: but not badly; perhaps not badly enough; as although kind people told me it meant Blighty for me, yet here I am at Rouen marked “Tents”. I do not yet give up hopes, but very few boats have been running lately; none at all for some days; and the serious cases go first of course. It was during an attack on Good Friday night that a bullet hit me and went clean through the right arm must underneath the shoulder—the muscles opposite the biceps, to describe them more or less accurately. It hurt badly for half an hour, but now hurts not at all…  there is no real damage done to my arm, not enough to please me.

Alas! Alas! There are hardly any books here! And the life is made up of hanging about waiting to be shifted again. Now if I could find some real hard reading to do–something to distract my mind–all might be well; or if I had some MS and a few books of verse, I would turn out something in spite of the flatness of my mind. O well, hopes
are not yet gone…

Though this Spring is cold and unclement, I cannot keep out of mind what April has meant for me in past years — Minsterworth, Framilode, and his companionship. And my sick mind holds desperately on to such memories for Beauty’s sake; and the hope of Joy…

So, if I can send you an address, please send me some small books of verse, and Tolstoi’s Cossacks (Worlds Classics – Pocket Ed.) I wonder whether at last I might try Housmans “Shropshire Lad”?

I will write again in half a shake:

Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney

(I write with my perforated arm, so you see not much is wrong.)[1]

 

It could be much worse. Which Kate Luard can make too painfully clear:

Saturday night April 14th. I’ve never in my life seen so many aeroplanes or so many dead men or so many German prisoners; they are marched in hundreds down our road…

One Cockney boy with both arms smashed said to the Padre, ‘Sy a prayer for me, will yer? That would be nahce. Can’t yer confirm me?’ It’s the only time I’ve seen the Padre laugh. Then the boy offered to sing ‘Tooleroolerity, I want to go to Blighty–Blighty is the plice for me.’ And then he died.[2]

 

 

So. Now another strange non-convergence. Two of our poets who have been creeping toward the line come even closer today–one attacks while the other is on the edge of the action–while a third man who will come to occupy the same space as both of them, but who did not exist, suffered some portion of both of their experiences.

 

During the morning, Wilfred Owen and the 2nd Manchesters moved forward to their attack positions… and found that the staff work had been very bad indeed. First, there was a simple problem of time and distance: “It was realised by the battalion at the outset that it was impossible to cover the distance in artillery formation with the loads and paraphanalia [sic] that the private soldier is called upon to carry in the attack in the time given.” To make matters worse, the last 1,000 yards of the approach involved moving across the enemy’s front, and when the Manchesters appeared in view the Germans immediately placed a hurricane barrage on the ground to be covered. Nor did they know what they were attacking, or where the other British units in the area were. The C.O., Lt. Col. Luxmore, rode off to consult with brigade and came back at 12:20, ten minutes before the scheduled attack time, saving his battalion by ordering a postponement and a flank march to a different position.

But they still had to attack, and they still had to cross a hillside in full view of German-held St. Quentin just to reach the jumping-off point.

Though this barrage was straight in the middle of the Battalion, they moved forward through it as steadily as going on parade, each wave keeping its dressing and distance and every carrier retaining his load. By the Grace of God alone only 30 men were lost in this barrage.

This took long enough that the newly-agreed-upon assault time of 1:00 was also missed. It seems as if there had been no allowance made for the fact that this is not an assault from long-held trenches with reasonably secure telephone connections to the rear but rather an exploratory attack by a unit feeling its way through new country. If the stakes weren’t so high the image of the colonel galloping about in Napoleonic fashion as if he were his own dispatch rider would be comical.

In any event, his arrival was doubly providential, since someone needed to take tactical command on the spot and ignore whatever brigade-level plans remained. Since staying out in accurate artillery fire meant certain destruction and the German wire barriers did not seem too imposing, the Manchesters mounted a quick frontal assault on a German-held trench near their objective, through the barrage and long-range machine-gun fire. Reaching the trench, they found it to be abandoned. This was victory, of a sort, and the day’s work done, so they turned the position over to their relief and went briefly into reserve.[3]

Wilfred Owen was physically unscathed, but this was his first real attack, his first day in the open, under fire. His letter to his mother will strike a tone somewhere between exhilaration and disbelief:

Twice in one day we went over the top, gaining both our objectives. Our A Company led the Attack, and of course lost a certain number of men. I had some extraordinary escapes from shells & bullets. Fortunately there was no bayonet work, since the Hun ran before we got up to his trench. You will find mention of our fight in the Communique; the place happens to be the very village which Father named in his last letter![4] Never before has the Battalion encountered such intense shelling as rained on us as we advanced in the open.[5]

But neither the battalion diary–which is in fact quite detailed and emotional for such a document–nor the letter do much to make us feel what it must have been like to have been there. Marching about, with no cover; uncertain of directions, of objections, of intentions–uncertain of anything except the fact that there would be no safety until some indeterminate length of shell-harrowed, bullet-swept ground was crossed.

But Owen will write it another way, in his poem “Spring Offensive,” which closes with these stanzas:

So, soon they topped the hill, and raced together
Over an open stretch of herb and heather
Exposed. And instantly the whole sky burned
With fury against them; and soft sudden cups
Opened in thousands for their blood; and the green slopes
Chasmed and steepened sheer to infinite space.
Of them who running on that last high place
Leapt to swift unseen bullets, or went up
On the hot blast and fury of hell’s upsurge,
Or plunged and fell away past this world’s verge,
Some say God caught them even before they fell.
But what say such as from existence’ brink
Ventured but drave too swift to sink.
The few who rushed in the body to enter hell,
And there out-fiending all its fiends and flames
With superhuman inhumanities,
Long-famous glories, immemorial shames—
And crawling slowly back, have by degrees
Regained cool peaceful air in wonder—
Why speak they not of comrades that went under?

 

There are many facile ways to make this next transition: “As Owen’s experience opens out, as his poetry rises, Sassoon descends…” Or, perhaps: “While Owen does not deny God and heaven, he writes with biblical force and yet pointedly fails to confirm any solace or meaning to the day’s ‘inhumanities;’ meanwhile, Sassoon is becoming confirmed in his beliefs about where fault for slaughter lies.” That sort of thing. But even if we eschew easy parallels, there is a striking juxtaposition here. Siegfried Sassoon–who has been hoping for open battle, in which he knows he will either excel or be killed–will get instead a new experienced of compressed horror, and one that will push his angry poetry toward something even deeper and darker. Not above ground and into the great wide shell-swept open, but down underground, in the subterranean fastnesses of the Hindenburg line, where, safe from the shells, it will be grenade- and knife-work, and hell will be no Miltonic abstraction of fiends and flames but mappable terrain, still contested by the damned…

Tonight, a century back, Sassoon is still on the verge of this. His diary picks up late last night:

April 14

At 9 p.m. we started off to relieve the 15th Northumberland Fusiliers in Hindenburg support (Second R.W.F. being in support to the First Cameronians). It was only an hour’s walk, but our Northumberland Fusilier guides lost themselves and we didn’t arrive and complete the relief until 4 a.m. Luckily it was fine. I went to bed at 5 a.m., after patrolling our 900-yard front alone!—in a corridor of the underground communication-trench of the Hindenburg Line—a wonderful place. Got up at 9.30 after a miserable hour’s sleep—cold as hell—and started off at 10.45 with a fatigue-party, to carry up trench-mortar bombs from dump between St Martin-Cojeul and Croisilles. Got back very
wet and tired about 4.30. Rained all day—trenches like glue.

But in beginning to transmute the experience to memoir, Sassoon will bring a sense of helpless victimization–of abject horror–to the fore:

Stage by stage we had marched to this monstrous region of death and disaster. From afar it had threatened us with the blink and din of its bombardments. Now we groped and stumbled along a deep ditch to the place appointed for us in that zone of human havoc. The World War had got our insignificant little unit in its mouth; we were there to be munched, maimed or liberated.[6]

So not Milton–Dante. The great devil mouth churning, while little dead men run up and down the twisting trenches in his hide, hurling bombs at each other…

We will see what the morrow will bring. But this stay amidst the wreckage of the attack will yield some of the most viscerally upsetting and vividly “anti-war” of Sassoon’s poems. One example will do, I think:

 

The Effect

‘The effect of our bombardment was terrific.
One man told me he had never seen so many dead before.’
War Correspondent.

‘He’d never seen so many dead before.’
They sprawled in yellow daylight while he swore
And gasped and lugged his everlasting load
Of bombs along what once had been a road.
‘How peaceful are the dead.’
Who put that silly gag in some one’s head?

‘He’d never seen so many dead before.’
The lilting words danced up and down his brain,
While corpses jumped and capered in the rain.
No, no; he wouldn’t count them any more…
The dead have done with pain:
They’ve choked; they can’t come back to life again.

When Dick was killed last week he looked like that,
Flapping along the fire-step like a fish,
After the blazing crump had knocked him flat…
‘How many dead? As many as ever you wish.
Don’t count ’em; they’re too many.
Who’ll buy my nice fresh corpses, two a penny?’

 

So a Dante, but a Dante who has lost sight of Purgatory, and knows that Paradise is impossible. This shocking turn in Sassoon’s poetry on the very day of Owen’s first attack makes an uncannily good introduction for our next subject.

Sassoon, as his diary shows, was sleepless and agitated and keyed-up, but he was not yet shocked into losing his mental equilibrium. Owen has survived his first attack and is uncertain yet what meaning he can wring out of it, or what it has wrung out of him.

Which brings us to Lt. Prior. Billy Prior is, in the literary sense, real–more real to me, having read his story several times, and seen it enacted–than many historical figures. But he’s also fictional. He began life, I think it’s fair to say, as a “composite character” in Pat Barker’s Regeneration, a sort of stock figure of well-researched historical fiction, well-equipped with a 20th century panoply of trauma, neurosis, and defiant energy. But then he took on a life of his own. Regeneration is the sort of book that with great modesty and intelligence–two essential characteristics, along with compassion, that it shares with its (non-fictional) hero, Dr. William Rivers–would wave off such superlatives as “the best of its kind.” But it is–the trilogy is an incomparable fictional exploration of the psychological damage wrought by the war, and Billy Prior is the most compelling fictional Great War officer I can think of.[7]

But it’s early days, and he has not yet opened out into that full fictional life. Prior will be “shell-shocked” into both amnesia and temporary mutism, and the account of the battle (read the book!) that he provides for his therapist is stubbornly matter-of-fact. In fact–and very interestingly–Prior’s memories of today, a century back, draw heavily both on Owen’s first sharp experience of walking under shell fire “as steadily as going on parade” as well as on the sort of edge-of-madness clarity that Sassoon’s poetic voice summons. This is good historical fictional practice, of course, but there are lots of good accounts of such attacks (I’ve heard there’s a blog…) and it’s interesting that Prior’s trauma borrows in such a way from two “real life” figures whose paths will cross his own, in fiction.

I’ll include now a short excerpt from Regeneration: as it fades out one might either take up the novel itself or read once more Owen’s letter and his battalion’s history.

Prior dragged on the cigarette and, momentarily, closed his eyes. He looked a bit like the boys you saw on street corners in the East End. That same air of knowing the price of everything. Rivers drew the file towards him. ‘We left you in billets at Beauvois.’

‘Yes. We were there, oh, I think about four days and then we were rushed back into the line. We attacked the morning of the night we moved up.’

‘Date?’

‘April the 14th.’

Rivers looked up. It was unusual for Prior to be so accurate.

‘St. George’s Day. The CO toasted him in the mess. I remember because it was so bloody stupid.'[8]

‘You were in the casualty clearing station on the …’ He glanced at the file. ’23rd. So that leaves us with nine days unaccounted for.’

‘Yes, and I’m afraid I can’t help you with any of them.

‘Do you remember the attack?’

‘Yes. It was exactly like any other attack.’

Rivers waited…[9]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters, 153-5.
  2. Unknown Warriors, 113.
  3. War Diary, WO/2392/2, page 160 (of pdf).
  4. Fayet.
  5. Collected Letters, 452.
  6. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 316.
  7. I'm not sure if Christopher Tietjens should count; George Sherston probably shouldn't...
  8. St. George's Day is usually April 23rd, not April 14th, and the calendrical complexities which move it later under certain conditions shouldn't have resulted in making it the 14th in 1917. I have a very limited understanding of the liturgical calendar, but this would seem to be a simple slip, occasioned perhaps by the fact that the next day Rivers mentions--the end of the total gap in Prior's life history--is the 23rd--unless I am simply misreading the fictional conversation? Is Prior playing some game with the dates, testing Rivers in some way? I don't think we are meant to subtly infer than his amnesia is feigned... In any event, it's fiction! And I'm very pleased to have an excuse to begin considering Regeneration, the most important (ah, superlatives) of the Great War novels written by later generations, before the time of its main action (all too infrequently dateable) this summer and autumn.
  9. Regeneration, 77.

Ethel Hermon Gets the Telegram; The Best of Servants Writes in Sorrow; Eleanor Farjeon and Helen Thomas Come Together in Grief; Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon on the Eve of the Attack

Today is a pause in the fighting–for us, anyway–as the push at Arras resumes, but without any of our writers on the front lines.

But it’s a bad day at home in England, another day of shock and grief.

Edward “Robert” Hermon

Today, a century back, it was Ethel Hermon’s turn to see the post boy’s bicycle. The War Office telegram, at right, begins “Deeply regret to inform you…”

Her husband’s commanding officer’s letter will reach her soon, providing context and detail, if little consolation. Eventually there will be relics,  a posthumous decoration (the DSO), and other letters of praise that may for a brief moment lighten the load of grief.

From what little we know of Ethel Hermon–there is only that one letter, which she wrote, in ignorance of his death, yesterday, to show her reciprocal affection, and to stand ironically for all the time she spent praying for his safety–I can’t imagine much solace coming from any source, except perhaps one.

Gordon Buxton had worked for the family for several years before the war, as Robert Hermon’s manservant. Buxton–known as “Buckin”–had volunteered when his “master’s” Yeomanry unit was called up at the beginning of the war. Buckin stayed with Hermon when he transferred to the infantry, serving all the while as his soldier-servant, or “batman.” Buckin’s family live on the Hermon’s estate, and he has been the only man close to Robert that Ethel herself knows well.

Yesterday, Buckin wrote to his former mistress. It’s a very long letter, as Bucking struggles to express how he feels and repeatedly hopes that he can come and condole with Mrs. Hermon in person:

My dear Madam, it is impossible for me to express in my letter my deepest and heartfelt sympathy for you in your terrible loss. I have prayed to God to comfort you. I have thought of you night & day since I found the poor dear Colonel, oh dear it is too awful. I feel broken-hearted and I don’t know how to write this letter…

Gordon Buxton–“Buckin”

We buried the dear Colonel in the military cemetery in the village close to the trenches yesterday afternoon at 3 o’clock… We had a nice little service & after everybody had gone I lingered by the grave of my dear master & friend…

I never thought I should lose him but it is you & the dear children that I am thinking of all day & night. He died a brave soldier’s death. I have got the gold disc & chain which the Colonel wore round his neck. I hope I didn’t do wrong in taking it off but I thought you would like it…

Well dear Madam I am afraid I haven’t explained things very well but I feel lost, I shall never be happy until I have been home to see you…

I will now await your orders.

Please accept my very deepest sympathy in your great sorrow. I do hope they will grant me leave.

I am your obedient servant,

Buxton

Parsing the British class system is always difficult, especially for a yank a century on, and while I want to say that this is not a good time to point to the stresses in the system that sort of evasion seems akin to the cant of politicians who refuse to talk about their awful policies in the days of grief that follow the events that show how destructive those policies are.

An awkward analogy: this is not a question of destruction or of outright awfulness. Gordon Buxton, by all accounts, seems to be a man who has found a satisfactory place in an unjust system, and it would be odd, just now, to mount a protest against the class system and the privileges of officers.[1] Which in this case extends to him, and which is why I interrupted to point out the language of his letter: he will get leave, not on his own schedule but as a sort of compassionate leave for his “master”‘s wife’s benefit. It’s not striking that a man who was in service in the Hermon household would appeal for orders to his dead master’s wife–what’s striking is that the officers of the brigade who are charged with seeing to Hermon’s burial and effects also take it as a matter of a course. Private Buxton may be a soldier in the B.E.F., but he is being seconded for special duty to a widow in Sussex.

Today, a century back, in any event, Buxton wrote a letter to his own wife. It may be that she took it to Mrs. Hermon, for it ended up in the same archive. It is long and heartfelt and not only gives Buckin more voice but provides perhaps the most affecting description of the moments after Hermon’s death.

My darling sweet Marie

You have heard the sad news by now, poor Mrs Hermon whatever will she do… I wanted to go ‘over the top’ with him but he wouldn’t let me…

But he hadn’t gone long before I was over the top myself & I hadn’t gone far before I met one of our men who told me the Colonel had been killed. I looked around for a long time before I found him, he was then quite dead, oh my darling I did not know what to do, it upset me so. I feel I have lost a good Master & Friend…

I am all right but very sick at heart. Goodbye my sweetheart.

With my fondest love & kisses to everybody,

Ever your loving Freddie.[2]

 

And that’s as close as we can come to the people who loved Edward Hermon, and their loss. With Edward Thomas, we are more fortunate–a strange way of putting that we have more terribly painful things to read. The most moving part of Helen Thomas’s own writing about Edward came in the section of her book that described his parting(s) in December and January, and the miraculous Christmas in between. I chopped those sections up, trying to leave a sense of how they read while obscuring what pervades the chapter–the retrospective knowledge that he will not come back. If they didn’t read well then, perhaps another try now…

But today Helen Thomas is still awash in almost mute grief, and it is up to Eleanor Farjeon–who so strangely and fairly and beautifully loved Edward Thomas with a hopeless passion, but loved his wife and children too, and was loved by them in return–to write of their pain. Helen had come to London to spend a night with her sister, and was going back now to the family’s home in High Beech. By telegram, Eleanor arranged to meet her at the Liverpool Street Station ticket barrier.

I was waiting for her there when she arrived, not with the laughing face and hurrying steps with which she always ran a little to a meeting. She was very pale, said ‘Eleanor’ in a faint voice as we passed through, and found a corner seat in a carriage. She sat in it, and I by her, between her pale face and the incoming travellers. We held each other’s hands. Suddenly in a great burst came her sobs and tears. ‘Don’t let me cry, don’t let me cry,’ she sobbed. I put my arms round her and held her while she wept, and nobody looked. Presently she whispered, ‘I asked you to come because I thought I could comfort you—oh Eleanor, you’ll have to comfort me.’

I stayed in High Beech, for the next two weeks. I slept with her. Grief like hers was shattering thousands of homes all over the world, but I had never before been identified with such grief. My own seemed to be obliterated in it. I took responsibility, as best I could, for the house and children; the meals and shopping, and whatever has to be thought of in a home. After a fortnight Irene, Helen’s elder sister came, and I went back to Fellows Road.[3]

 

And tomorrow the war will continue. Two of our poets are still pushing forward today, a century back, some 40 miles or so apart as the storm crow flies.

 

Siegfried Sassoon and the 2nd Royal Welch came up behind a brigade attack in the battle of Arras, and saw British corpses–and a tank carcass–strewn around the first defenses of the Hindenburg line. Tomorrow’s attack will find the battalion still in reserve, but ever closer to the fight.[4]

 

And Wilfred Owen, part of a brigade that is feeling forward in confused conditions near St. Quentin, is warned, together with the rest of the 2nd Manchesters, that they will attack at 4 A.M. tomorrow.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Buxton will get a second chance to use his own voice, just below, in a private letter to his own wife which contradicts nothing of the sincerity of his grief and the bonds of love that held these people together despite their rigidly unequal status. But then again that letter too ended up in the Hermon archive, and would have passed out of the battalion only after being read by another officer.
  2. For Love and Courage, 352-5.
  3. Farjeon, Edward Thomas, The Last Four Years, 261.
  4. Diaries, 154.
  5. Collected Letters, 452.

Arras and After: Horrors All Day and All Night, and the Ripples of the Death of Edward Thomas

Easter Tuesday, April 10th. The 3rd Army went over the top yesterday and a wire came through by mid-day that we’d taken Vimy and 4,000 prisoners… The Cavalry are after them, and the Tanks leading the Infantry, and all is splendid, but here are horrors all day and all night.[1]

I didn’t have the heart to write about the actual battle of Arras, yesterday, but Kate Luard‘s assessment will do very well.

In tactical terms the battle was much more successful than previous efforts: the Canadians surged forward at Vimy Ridge, and massive concentrated artillery fire, carefully coordinated with the infantry, did a better job not just of killing the German defenders but of destroying barbed-wire obstacles ahead of the attacking infantry. So miles have been gained. But it will all amount to relatively little, once the dust settles: an advance, but, with the deep German defensive lines so well organized, nothing close to a breakthrough. Tens of thousands of Germans will die over the next few weeks, but so will a roughly equal number of British troops, and beyond the wasted battlefield there are still more trenches, studded with concrete pillboxes. Nor have the Germans been effectively “distracted” from defending against the next, horribly costly French offensive on the Aisne, soon to begin.

But here are horrors enough, anyway.

First, there is more death. Arthur James “Hamish” Mann turned twenty-one on the 5th; on the 6th he wrote The Great Dead; yesterday, leading his platoon, he was wounded in the assault; and today, a century back, he died as a result of his wounds.[2]

Victor Richardson lives. His left eye is gone and the bullet is still lodged in the right side of his skull. But he is alive, and slowly making his way–unconscious, one hopes–through the maze of Advanced Dressing Stations and Field Ambulances and Casualty Clearing Stations and Base Hospitals. It will be some days before word of his wound spreads as far as his school friend, Edward Brittain.

Bob Hermon is dead and buried, but the telegram will take two days more to arrive home, a cruel coda to his hundreds of steady, loving letters.

 

Which means we focus, today, on Edward Thomas. I’m not sure what day the telegram reached the house at High Beech–each of the sources I’ve consulted avoids the question, which suggests that it is not easily solved. It may have been tomorrow.

But it may have been today, a century back, that Helen Thomas learned her husband was dead.[3]

I wrote yesterday that Edward Thomas was killed instantly and with an eerie lack of visible violence: the sudden vacuum caused by the shell passing so close to his body stopped his heart, killing him without leaving a mark, without even breaking his pipe. We have learned to distrust stories of painless death–especially of a painless death as described by surviving comrades writing to the dead man’s loved ones. We can never approach the truth too closely, and certainly when the writing mind we know is gone and we must rely on new witnesses.

But in Thomas’s case there is a relic–his diary.

The National Library of Wales

Before they buried Edward Thomas, they removed his effects, notably the “war diary” he carried in his tunic pocket, and the papers tucked into it. These came home to Helen, and it was discovered that the pages had been creased by the pressure wave of the shell that killed him, leaving ridges like “ripples in standing water.”[4] These are just visible in the photograph at right. So the violent disturbance in the air that killed Edward Thomas left no mark on his body, but it did leave a mark on his words.

I am uncomfortable with this–not the object as historical point of reference, as a physical fact that can confirm a subjective account–but with the object as relic. It’s misleading. It’s a sentimental smoke screen, an irresistible metaphor, to see the blast wave over his handwriting and imagine it affecting its meaning.

But the blast wave couldn’t touch his words. I don’t mean that his words are immortal (they are, as far as that goes) but something like the opposite: they are fixed, because he is dead. This is or will be true of any writer, of any words, but if we allow ourselves special pleading for Edward Thomas it only makes the reality more painful: much of what we see on the rippled surface is not testimony or evidence or finished work or communications which served their purpose during his life–they are notes for future poems which, now that that blast has passed through them, will not be written.

The last pages of the diary include a few stray, undated lines:

The light of the new moon and every star

And no more singing for the bird…

I never understood quite what was meant by God…

Neuville in early morning … the beauty of this silent empty scene of no inhabitants and hid troops, but don’t know why I could have cried and didn’t.

Tucked into the diary was a photograph of Helen, an army pass, and a scrap of paper with a few addresses on one side and three lines of verse on the other:

Where any turn may lead to Heaven

Or any corner may hide Hell

Roads shining like river up hill after rain.[5]

 

So those are the last words: now comes intense grief, futile condolence, and memorial.

Myfanwy Thomas–Baba, the youngest of the three Thomas children–was six years old in 1917.

…on that bright April day after Easter, when mother was sewing and I was awkwardly filling in the pricked dots on a postcard with coloured wool, embroidering a wild duck to send to France, I saw the telegraph boy lean his red bicycle against the fence. Mother stood reading the message with a face of stone. ‘No answer’ came like a croak, and the boy rode away. Mother fetched our coats and we went shivering out into the sunny April afternoon. I clutched her hand, half-running to keep up with her quick firm step, glancing continually up at the graven face that did not turn to meet my look.

There were no children in the playground as we hurried to the post office, no calls which I could not have borne–for
although I knew the shouts of ‘Four Eyes’ were aimed at me, Mother also wore spectacles. I waited, with dry mouth and chilled heart, outside the post office, while wires were sent off to Mother’s sisters, to Granny and to Eleanor.[6]

 

Eleanor Farjeon is away from home, and will not receive that telegram until tomorrow. But she preserved not only the letter that was being written today, a century back, by Edward’s C.O.,–to Helen, of course–but also her own inaccurate memory of a tale (or accurate memory of an inaccurate tale) told to her soon after in a chance meeting.

Here, first, is the letter which Captain Lushington wrote to Helen today, a century back.

April 10th, 1917.

Dear Mrs. Thomas,

You will have heard by now from Mr. Thorburn of the death in action of your husband. I asked him to write immediately we knew about it yesterday, but delayed writing myself until the funeral, from which I have just returned.

I cannot express to you adequately in words how deep our sympathy is for you and your children in your great loss. These things go too deep for mere words. We, officers and men, all mourn our own loss. Your husband was very greatly loved in this battery, and his going has been a personal loss to each of us. He was rather older than most of the officers and we all looked up to him as the kind of father of our happy family.

He was always the same, quietly cheerful, and ready to do any job that was going with the same steadfast unassuming spirit. The day before his death we were rather heavily shelled and he had a very narrow shave. But he went about his work quite quietly and ordinarily as if nothing was happening. I wish I could convey to you the picture of him, a picture we had all learnt to love, of the old clay pipe, gum boots, oilskin coat, and steel helmet.

With regard to his actual death you have probably heard the details. It should be of some comfort to you to know that he died at a moment of victory from a direct hit by a shell, which must have killed him outright without giving him a chance to realise anything,—a gallant death for a very true and gallant gentleman.

We buried him in a little military cemetery a few hundred yards from the battery: the exact spot will be notified to you by the parson.

As we stood by his grave the sun came and the guns round seemed to stop firing for a short time. This typified to me what stood out most in your husband’s character—the spirit of quiet, sunny, unassuming cheerfulness…

Yours very sincerely,
Franklin Lushington
(Major Comdg. 244 Siege Battery, R.G.A.)

There is no reason to distrust this account–though it is almost painful to read how little the outward Edward Thomas, as eulogized by his commander, accords with the painfully introspective writer, determined not to succumb once again to depression, that we read. It’s a letter of condolence and praise–but at least it hints that Thomas was successful in keeping his demons under control, in being a good officer, in presenting a usefully cheerful disposition to the men with whom he shared his last months.

But if we were to mistrust it, then the existence of this alternate version, told to Farjeon in the coming weeks by a sergeant on leave whom she chanced to meet, raises familiar questions:

‘At the end of the day when the battle was over we had the Huns on the run, and the plain was full of our men shouting and singing and dancing. We thought we had won the war! Mr. Thomas came up from the dug-out behind his gun and leaned in the opening filling his clay pipe. One of the Huns turned as he was running and shot a stray shot, and Mr. Thomas fell. It was all over in an instant. I went out to the men and called, “Men, we’ve lost out best officer.” The cry went up—“Not Mr. Thomas?” and there was no more shouting that day…’

This was the story as nearly as I remember it in the Sergeant’s own words. But my memory had misled me about the stray shot, it was a stray shell. When Helen came to know Edward’s Captain, Franklin Lushington, he told her that as Edward stood by his dugout lighting his pipe all the Germans had retreated, but a last shell they sent over passed so close to him that the blast of air stopped his heart. ‘He told me,’ Helen writes, ‘there was no wound and his beloved body was not injured.

This was borne out by the fact that when the contents of his pockets were returned to me—a bundle of letters, a note-book and the Shakespeare Sonnets I had given him, they were all strangely creased as though subject to some terrible pressure, most strange to see. There was no wound or disfigurement at all. He just died standing there in the early morning after the battle.’ Captain Lushington told Helen that Edward could have had a job ‘back and safe, but he chose the dangerous front observation post.’

Farjeon, struggling to end her book about her friend, harks back to a letter Thomas wrote in December, just after he volunteered for immediate service in France:

We have beautiful clear weather and for a few days (at any rate) I can enjoy this flat shingle and the long rows of low huts &c enormously. Lydd itself a few 100 yds away is beautiful—an old group round a very tall church tower and a line of elm trees, the only tall things in all the marsh at all near to us. I find though that nobody else likes it as much.

Farjeon continued:

The news of his going went round among our friends. ‘He won’t come back you know,’ said Arnold Bax. It was what many of us felt.

Those who never knew him, in whose thoughts Edward may live as a man who died, unfulfilled, too soon, I would ask to read again attentively the last paragraph of the letter which came to us as the forerunner of his death. It is not a startling paragraph, and has none of the special beauties which he turned into poems when he stopped writing prose; but it expresses the daily bread of his life while he lived…

Edward lived thirty-nine years. In all of them he kept his senses fresh, and liked what he saw. He saw more than  anybody I ever knew, and he saw it day and night. The seasons and the weather never failed him. It made him wonderful to I walk with, and to talk with, and not to talk with. And when he was alone—as I think he loved best to be, except when Robert Frost increased what he saw and smelt and heard and felt and tasted—he walked with himself, with his eyes and his ears and his nostrils, and his long legs, and his big hands, in shape so strong, in touch so sensitive… he liked what he saw. And knew that nobody else liked it as much as he did.

 

It’s been almost three years since I began this odd project, and more than two since I began to read Edward Thomas seriously. All this time one of the strange regular disciplines of the project–never “revealing” anything that took place in the century after the “current” century-back date–helped to emotionally enmesh me in the lives of the writers. But none more than Thomas, and lately there has been a steadily increasing dread as, in footnote after footnote, I elided the full title of Eleanor Farjeon’s loving collection of letters and recollections, compiled and commented on long after the war.[7] Who was I fooling? What was I hoping to avoid? Now the ellipses only seem to have indicated the path of the shell, an inch away from the man…

Anyway. The footnote for the above paragraphs should read: “Eleanor Farjeon. Edward Thomas: The Last Four Years, 231-2.”

 

 

Now two last words on Edward Thomas–first, a contemporary writer, then back to Eleanor, even though she has yet to learn of her beloved friend’s death.

Thomas features in Robert Macfarlane’s strange and often fascinating The Old Ways, a mix of travel book, essay collection, and memoir, with a chapter given over to a… creative… imagining of his last days. It closes thus:

What was Thomas seeing as he wrote those last verses in his Arras notebook? The old ways of the South Country, or the shell-swept support roads that wound to the front? Both, perhaps, folded together, the one kind of path having led its way to the other.[8]

 

Easter Monday

(In Memoriam E .T.)

In the last letter that I had from France
You thanked me for the silver Easter egg
Which I had hidden in the box of apples
You liked to munch beyond all other fruit.
You found the egg the Monday before Easter,
And said, ‘I will praise Easter Monday now–
It was such a lovely morning.’ Then you spoke
Of the coming battle and said, ‘This is the eve.
Good-bye. And may I have a letter soon.’

That Easter Monday was a day for praise.
It was such a lovely morning. In our garden
We sowed our earliest seeds, and in the orchard
The apple-bud was ripe. It was the eve.
There are three letters that you will not get.

Eleanor Farjeon[9]

No, now I’ve changed my mind–the last words today should be from Thomas himself, the last stanzas of Roads, to which the lines found on his body seem to allude:

Now all roads lead to France
And heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead
Returning lightly dance:
Whatever the road bring
To me or take from me,
They keep me company
With their pattering,
Crowding the solitude
Of the loops over the downs,
Hushing the roar of towns
and their brief multitude.[10]

References and Footnotes

  1. Unknown Warriors, 110.
  2. Powell, A Deep Cry, 230.
  3. The artillery stayed in position as the infantry advanced, and with intact communications it's not impossible that a war office telegram could have been dispatched within thirty hours or so after an officer's death. Finding this death to be particularly upsetting--and well documented, and such a terrible loss to the many people who loved him and, yes, to English literature--I want to begin handling it today, anyway, and press on.
  4. Macfarlane, The Old Ways, 354.
  5. War Diary (Childhood), 175.
  6. Under Storm's Wing, 300-1.
  7. It was mostly a question of the finality of the title, of course, but it was also, I realize, a matter of identifying with Farjeon. She knew him (and she was a very good writer), and she loved him, but he couldn't love her back.
  8. Macfarlane, The Old Ways, 355.
  9. Harvey, ed., Elected Friends, 20.
  10. Returning to these verses reminds me that I should thank Matthew Hollis, whose Now All Roads Lead to France has been invaluable--less a resource, for Thomas is so well documented, than a first primer on how to read his life and his writing.

Edward Thomas Wanders Off and Reads Eastaway; Siegfried Sassoon Inspects the Feet; Vera Brittain is Bitter and Rebellious; The Death of Arthur West

Edward Thomas is still confused about the liturgical calendar. He began a letter to Eleanor Farjeon today, a century back, under the impression that Easter had occurred a week earlier than it will have:

April 3

My dear Eleanor I didn’t discover the Egg till Easter Monday, because I was taking apples out one by one from a corner I had nibbled out. So now I must write again to thank you for an Easter Egg. It was such a lovely morning Easter Monday, though I can’t praise it so well today when the ground is snow slush and the wind very cold though not colder than my feet…[1]

And there the letter trails off… has he been called to the guns? To some reminder that Easter is still nearly a week off?

Thomas also wrote to Gordon Bottomley, but the date of Easter does not arise. It’s clear that Thomas’s rush has everything to do with expectation: he knows that the battle will begin soon.

My dear Gordon,

Your letter of the 28th of March has just come…  think I had better write back now as this is the eve, & I can’t help realizing that I may not have another opportunity. It is the end of a beautiful sunny day that began cold with snow. The air has been full of aeroplanes & shells & yet there have been clothes hanging up to dry in the sun outside my window which has glass in it, though whether it will tomorrow not even the Hun knows. The servants are chatting outside in their shirtsleeves & war is not for the moment dirty or ugly—as it was this morning, when I was well in front & the shining sun made ruins & rusty barbed wire & dead horses & deep filthy mud uglier than they are in the stormy weather or in the pale cold dawn…

Between beauty and ugliness, violence and idleness, time to talk poetry. Eight poems by “Edward Eastaway” have just been published.

I have not seen the Annual yet but by the same post as your letter came The Times review which I was quite pleased with. I don’t mind now being called inhuman & being told by a reviewer now that April’s here—in England now—that I am blind to the ‘tremendous life of these 3 years’. It would be the one consolation in finishing up out here to provide such reviewers with a conundrum, except that I know they would invent an answer if they saw that it was a conundrum.

This is a cold, wry assessment. Thomas was a powerful and precise poetry critic long before he was a poet, and these skills have not deserted him just because he is the poet in question. He knows that his poetry is too assured to fit neatly into any prefabricated category, and that, just as new poems by a pseudonymous author are criticized for not being overtly about the war, they would, if he were to be killed, inevitably come to be considered the work of a war poet. And both of these certainties are amusingly short-sighted. Being a powerful poet who chose not to address what he hadn’t yet experienced, he both is and isn’t a “war poet.” He’s a poet, and there’s a war on, and the weight of it sinks into any good poetry the way the stench of decay unavoidably permeates the cloth of uniforms worn in trenches.

And, since few critics are capable of knowing competent poetry from great poetry without external hints (the praise of others; a famous name) few suspect who this new, strangely assured poet “Edward Eastaway” might be. Should they be sniffing harder, to smell the war? Should they slow down and read the poetry and understand what it is, and why it might be published without a recognizable name?

Why do the idiots accuse me of using my eyes? Must I only use them with field-glasses & must I see only Huns in these beautiful hills eastwards & only hostile flashes in the night skies when I am at the Observation Post?

…No don’t tell anybody about Eastaway tho naturally I want people to want to know who he is…

Goodbye. Yours ever & Emily’s

Edward Thomas[2]

 

Siegfried Sassoon, meanwhile, is marching toward the coming battle. But slowly enough for his diary to run the gamut–and include a poem too.

April 3

Left Corbie 9 a.m… Woman in our billet says that troops have been coming through (going toward Doullens and Arras) for fifteen days, never staying more than one night. The movements of our (33rd) Division are nebulous… Our billet is adorned with mouldy stuffed birds, with spread wings; a jay, a small hawk over the fireplace, and a seagull slowly revolving in draughts, hung from a string in the ceiling. Also two squirrels and a stork.

Feeling much better since we started moving, except for usual cold in head and throat. Same old ‘point-to-point’ feeling about going into the show—the ‘happy warrior’ stunt cropping up as usual. Letters from Robert Graves and Julian Dadd yesterday which cheered me no end. R.G. at Harlech—lucky devil…

The Second R.W.F. are gradually taking me to their bosom. It will be best for me to stay here now and try to become a hero…

No sign of my book yet. I do want to see it before I get killed (if death is the dose which April means me to swallow).
First Battalion are up at Croisilles; having a rough passage, I am afraid.

FOOT INSPECTION

The twilight barn was chinked with gleams; I saw
Soldiers with naked feet stretched on the straw.
Stiff-limbed from the long muddy, march we’d done.
And ruddy-faced with April wind and sun.
With pity and stabbing tenderness I see
Those stupid, trustful eyes stare up at me.
Yet, while I stoop to Morgan’s blistered toes
And ask about his boots, he never knows
How glad I’d be to die, if dying could set him free
From battles. Shyly grinning at my joke.
He pulls his grimy socks on; lights a smoke.
And thinks ‘Our officer’s a decent bloke’.

April 3[3]

The diary is the old familiar Siegfried–moody, self-involved and preoccupied with his demise (and, on the way thither, his heroism) in the Brookean fashion, yet also punctuated by striking observations. The squirrel!

But the poetry is another major step in his recent new direction. It’s not so much the “realism”–it’s still too prettily written to succeed in being gritty, too didactic to feel natural–as it is simply the subject matter. The soldiers are being condescended to, it’s true, but at least they (and not “glory” or “England” or “the fray”) are front and center, and they speak, and they begin to be fleshed out. It’s an observational poem: they are marching, after a few easy weeks, and their feet must be attended to. This is practical, but it’s a pointed observation: these are not hearty soldier lads ready for sacrifice, but rather tired men, with sore feet. And if the officer/poet is still operating in a register of theoretical sacrifice, well… perhaps that will be the next change.

 

Briefly, before a difficult last entry, we will hear from Vera Brittain, writing to her brother Edward. This letter reminds us that one of the goals of this project is to measure the passage of “real” time by maintaining the precise historical distance of one hundred years. Vera is reacting today to mail that we read weeks ago, but is just now reaching her.

April 3rd

My mail was depressing to-day; as well as your news about being passed fit there was a letter from Father in the usual strain — German retirement at the wrong time for us and therefore anything but an advantage (of course you say this too & I always suspected it) — Russia internally rotten & likely to sue for a separate peace — conditions dreadful at home — end no nearer in sight etc etc. This sort of letter is so much more depressing out here than at home; for it is long before you get another to remove the impression. Victor too sends me a letter half cynical, half hopelessly resigned; apparently he was on the verge of an attack, for he spoke of perhaps never writing to me again, & says — as you said to him before July 1st — that it is time to say a long long adieu. This too leaves me anxiously & very sadly wondering how long it will be before I hear any more of him & what it will be when I do. I think I would rather have had an attitude of open resentment & rebellion in the face of death than this sort of stifled
bitterness…

Had a delightfully vigorous & colourful letter from Geoffrey–though he longs for leave.[4]

A strange course, that letter takes, to append the news of Geoffrey Thurlow’s letter after she has taken her deepest swing toward disenchantment in some time. But letters to intimates are like that, unloading the mind’s concerns without too much concern for order or priority. I think it’s fair to note that while Vera Brittain takes delight in letters, the central fact of her non-working life is, now, anxiety for the soldiers she loves and cares for. Edward Brittain has been passed fit, at last recovered from his wounds; Geoffrey Thurlow and Victor Richardson are both in France, and liable to join in the coming battle. And she will only learn of whatever happens weeks afterwards–unless the news is so bad that someone takes the time and expense to try and get a telegram through. She is far closer to the war than most provincial young ladies will ever get, and further away from the worst of France.

And what could she mean by “open resentment & rebellion?”

 

Finally, today, a century back, Arthur Graeme West was killed by a German sniper. He was twenty-five. To write about him now, today, is disheartening, for a number of tangled reasons.

First, of course, because another bright young man and talented writer has been killed, pointlessly. But I’m also feeling an obscure sort of guilt because it proved to be impossible to properly include West in this project. On the most superficial level, it was hard to draw on a book entitled Diary of a Dead Officer without infringing upon the rules of being strictly a-century-back from the current date. For another thing, West’s writing–some decent poetry, a diary that veers between confessional and angry, initial enthusiasm curdled by the army’s stupidity and the war’s brutality–compares in many ways to Siegfried Sassoon‘s… but it’s not as good. To quote him often would have been duplication, in a sense, and since the thread of West’s story is much more difficult to follow, it might have confused more than enlightened us.

And that tangled thread is the biggest reason that I ended up hardly using his work: it was heavily edited, after his death, to shape it into a particular form. West was certainly disillusioned, even “disenchanted:” he was angry at the war and the army, he was afraid, and he regretted joining. In 1916 he had considered objecting to the war on pacifist principles and even wrote a letter of resignation. But he didn’t send it. Instead he returned to France. In his last few months, back in the line, West wrote very little.

But none of that is disqualifying: the problem is that these aspects of West’s character, his beliefs, are heavily emphasized in the posthumous publication while much else–how much else, and what it was, I don’t know–was cut out. The published Diary is, essentially, a work of anti-war propaganda, carefully constructed by West’s school friend Cyril Joad, who was a committed pacifist. West doesn’t seem to have had the same beliefs, and so he has suffered a particularly ironic sort of violence: his feelings were, after the fact, suppressed and misrepresented, a sort of negative echo of the way in which his decision to join the army (he was no pacifist then; instead he was very typical of our Public School and Oxford boys) controlled his body. There is a lot of interesting material in the Diary, which is why I read it and made some use of it here. But while we can track someone like Sassoon in his changeable moods, our access to West’s mind is not only partially blocked but carefully channeled, and his words stripped of their original context… and that didn’t feel right.

So Arthur Graeme West is dead, and he will have some posthumous recognition as a sort of pacifist martyr–but he wasn’t. He was a young man who came to hate the war and wanted out, but went back anyway, out of duty and out of fear and into fear and terrible danger, and to his death.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Farjeon, Edward Thomas..., 264.
  2. Letters to Edward Thomas From Gordon Bottommley, 281-3.
  3. Diaries, 148-9.
  4. Letters From A Lost Generation, 331-2.

Rowland Feilding Faces the Brass; Richard Aldington’s Odd Worms and Epitaphs; Edward Thomas Has a Birthday; Kate Luard is Back in Action

Those Great War generals are all bastards, right? They are donkeys sending lions over the top in pointless, badly-planned, unsupported raids, then spinning the results into victories in the press and lying to the staff so the same murderous tactics are inflicted on the poor bloody infantry again and again. Right? Well, no. Not all of them.

March 3, 1917. Derry Huts {near Dranoutre)

The Battalion Commanders were sent for this morning, to meet General Plumer, the Second (i.e. my) Army Commander, at Brigade Headquarters. We went in one by one, and had a tête-à-tête conversation with him.

When my turn came I found only Colonel Monck-Mason (temporarily commanding the Brigade during the Brigadier’s absence) and the Army Commander in the room.

The latter was very friendly, and very human. That is one of his many admirable qualities. He takes the trouble to know even his Battalion Commanders, and for this and other reasons has earned great confidence among the  troops of his army.

After shaking hands, he referred to the raid of February 19.

Rowland Feilding, competent and painstaking battalion commander, is about to get raked over the coals, it would seem.

He expressed the opinion that there should have been a preliminary bombardment by artillery, and asked me why this had not been done. Obviously, I could not enter into explanations, but he quickly turned to Colonel Monck-Mason, who replied that the trenches were too close together for that.

“Then,” said the General, “you should have had a trench-mortar bombardment.” Then he turned to me and said: “ I know all about your having asked for a Stokes mortar bombardment: General Pereira has told me.”

I felt I could see General Pereira telling him this, and explaining that it was he who had refused it; blaming himself, in fact, for the failure of the raid. Now, that is just Pereira all over, and I repeat it that you may know the man, and understand why every officer and soldier of his Brigade swears by him.

As one of my brother C.O.’s once said to me: “You know, if he trusts you, that he will defend you, and that no one will be allowed to belittle you except across his mangled corpse.” And the feeling in regard to Plumer among the fighting troops—I do not speak for his Staff who no doubt feel this also—is much the same.

We came here yesterday, into Brigade Reserve, to find that the enemy had been shelling the place with high explosive and gas, which latter still hangs heavily on the ground. One shell hit the house where my headquarters are, but the family (mother, baby and all) still cling on.

General Sir Herbert Plumer

(Midnight) I have just got my leave.[1]

Some small wartime tragedies, then, are not compounded by their sequels.

But Feilding is unusually fortunate in his generals, and not only the honorable and loyal Pereira: General Sir Herbert Plumer is one of the more unprepossessing generals the British have, but he is also the most innovative–a term which, though a shibboleth of our current culture, feels strange in its application to a Great War general. As it should, for it was an unusual trait among the many well-bred cavalry generals still struggling to cope with the reality of deep defense systems and the deeper realities of attrition. But Plumer has been thinking differently and, as we can see today, he is listening to the officers in the front lines. And even as they spoke, in fact, he is planning a major operation unlike any yet attempted on the Western Front…

 

To sing us back into the daily routine we have the matter-of-fact choral/chronicle voice of Dr. Dunn’s history of the 2/RWF. But today the chronicle is nearly as poetical as our poets. The battalion, long in the line and proud of its practical mien, does not neglect to notice the birds and the ruins:

March 3rd.–There is a coating of ice on still water. Today’s is the second great flight of starlings and of crows since we came here. Do French crows, like Scotch crows, start housekeeping on the first Sunday in March? We have scraped together a trench strength of 450 by taking in the Drums and other details usually left out. We marched by Eclusier. Near Feuillères a whizz-bang had stuck in the stem of a tree, projecting fore and aft. Enough of Clery is standing to make it ghostly. A village razed is not so sad to see as roofless, windowless, sagging walls; they give one creeps at night. On the wreck of one house a cat sat and blinked listlessly as we marched through…[2]

 

I know I shouldn’t pile relatively uneventful writings atop each other–especially when we still have “welcome back” and “happy birthday” entries to get to–but I can’t resist this letter of Richard Aldington‘s to F.S. Flint. Aldington is eager to be a good modernist: sentimental, but not. And in expressing his general indifference to the killing of older men (Aldington is twenty-four), he surprises with a more-than-modern bit of slang:

3/3/17
My dear Franky,

I emerged from several yards of mud to find among others your excellent & heartening letter. After a night in a somewhat lousy dug-out your poems were like sprays of fresh lilac & your unpublished letter a healthy dung-hill…

I got your parcel several days ago–of course just before we moved, so I had to eat the cake wolfishly in a single evening, instead of making it last it [sic] week. All the same I enjoyed it. Please thank your wife for her trouble…

During a recent thaw in a certain trench there was discovered a rough wooden cross. I scraped the mud off it & on it was written in indelible pencil the following–“here lies [sic] the remains of two unknown British soldiers. Heroes both!”

The next day about a mile from the same point I examined (as I always do if possible) another grave. On it was a little metal plate: “Ein unbekannte Deutsche soldat” [An unknown German soldier]. I thought of my friend Jacques Viguelle lying far away & of another friend Sergeant Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. I wonder if I shall ever see his grave…

I hope this talk of “worms & epitaphs” doesn’t depress you, but you know my mania for necrology. All wasted youth, broken hope, lost effort touches me deeply–and–you will think me very inhuman–I don’t mind when I see older men “clipped” & hear them moaning–it’s the boys, the dear heart of youth stabbed–that’s what hurts.

Cheer-o, old boy.

Keep the home fires burning – with your m.s.s.

Richard[3]

 

And, as promised, two brief observances. One, ironically, jollier than the other:

Edward Thomas is thirty-nine today, but the vagaries of the post have brought him nothing, and he perhaps feels justified, then, in omitting to mention the occasion or to write more than the minimum:

No post. Morning dull spent in office. But afternoon with Colonel to Achicourt to see O.P.s and then to new battery positions… saw my new quarters to be. Wrote to Mother and Helen…[4]

Finally, today, Kate Luard, the Nursing Sister, is back at the front. She arrived yesterday in a new camp at Warlencourt, behind the Arras front after a rough ride over terrible roads. The situation was primitive, and dangerous, and her great pleasure at the prospect of confronting these difficulties comes through in her writing:

This area hums with work… The Colonel has made a little compound for us, walled in with canvas all round… the kitchen is not finished yet and the Nissen hut not up, so we slept on stretchers in the Mess Hut of another C.C.S. just over the road…

Sister R. and I are going to search the country round for a cottage to take our laundry, and to look for possibilities of milk, eggs, and butter, as we are ten miles from shops.

A place a mile away is shelled every day, and they once had to evacuate the patients in the C.C.S. across the road for shelling. The guns sound very close, and last night one heard again the big shells reverberating through the air as they travelled. The German retirement will make a difference here. There was a very sharp frost again last night and it was hard, or rather impossible, to get warm.

If her further descriptions of the dumps and the road work were not enough, the fact that there is another several-hundred-bed Casualty Clearing Station just across the road clearly indicates that action is expected nearby. But there are also the guns: tomorrow’s diary describes tonight, a century back

We were cosily tucked up in bed with dozens of blankets, and our oil stoves burning in our canvas huts and I’d just put my lamp out, when big enemy shells came whizzing overhead from two directions. They burst a long way past us, but made a tremendous noise being fired (from a big naval gun they run up close to their line), and loud screams overhead. Our 9.2’s and 12-inch in the wood here kept it up all night with lions’ roars.[5]

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 163-4.
  2. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 301-2.
  3. Imagist Dialogues, 193-4.
  4. War Diary (Childhood), 167.
  5. Unknown Warriors, 96.