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.

Edwin Vaughan in Fine Fettle; Wilfred Owen a Nervous Wreck, or Possibly Almost Ready for Action; Vera Brittain Sees Victor Richardson

Two brief updates, today, before we face the meeting that has driven Vera Brittain‘s homecoming.

Wilfred Owen has been ill with a fever, and this minor illness has prevented, it seems, his being evacuated to England for treatment for a “nerve” disorder, namely (for the time being, at least) “shell shock.”

Monday, 28 May 1917

Dearest Mother,

Just a note. I was down on the list for evacuation all last week & up to last night. This morning the evacuation takes place—I and another, a Major, are crossed off the list at the last moment. It is sickening, more especially as this place becomes less and less pleasant. I suppose I shall wait for the next batch, but before that I may be turned out elsewhere—to some Line Battalion.

His frustration is understandable, but it is also remarkable: Owen seems honestly not to know whether his “nerves” have been so badly affected by his experiences that he will shortly be sent to Blighty for a long and honorable recuperation (and thus a long–and, to men more concerned with escaping mutilation and death than with being sure of their psychological condition, an intensely desirable–reprieve from the dangers of the front) or whether he is under suspicion of psychological weakness or malingering and likely to be sent straight back to the trenches as an unreliable officer needing no “cure” other than a chance to prove himself brave once again.

These are the days when last year the army was good to me. The same dreadful uncertainty overhangs me here as on that ‘Leave pending Gazette.’ Would I had to report at Witley Camp on June…

I am feeling quite well now, but I keep a sub-normal temp! Useful enough in this weather…

Your lovingest W.E.O. x[1]

 

Edwin Vaughan, now a swaggering veteran instead of a timorous new subaltern, has had a long rest. But today, a century back, his battalion is making ready to go once more up the line.

The usual ‘day-before’–inspections, returns of working strength, carting working materials back to HQ, etc. There was no excitement as we are familiar with the sector, but I believe my lads are quite pleased to be going back to the wild poppy-covered land of night patrols and daydreams. I know that there is that feeling somewhere in my mind.[2]

 

Which brings us to Vera Brittain. Last night, a century back, she “slept without thinking or dreaming.” But today, however, “the glamour of scarlet kimonos and idle cigarettes had firmly to be put aside. I had come home for a purpose and must now face up to it.”

She went, therefore, to 2nd London General Hospital.

I found Victor in bed in the garden, his pale fingers lethargically exploring a big book of braille. His head was still copiously bandaged, and one brown eye, impotently open, stared glassily into fathomless blackness. If I had not been looking for him I should not have known him; his face seemed to have emptied and diminished until what was visible of it was almost devoid of expression. ‘Hallo, Tah!’ I said, as casually as I could, self-consciously anxious to keep the shock of his appearance out of my voice.

He did not answer, but stiffened all over like a dog suddenly hearing its master’s call in the distance; the drooping lethargy disappeared, and his mouth curved into the old listening look of half-cynical intelligence. ‘Do you know who it is, Tah?’ I asked him, putting my hand on his.

‘Tah!’ he repeated, hesitating, expectant– and then all at once, with a ring of unmistakable joy in his voice, ‘Why–it’s Vera!’

All that afternoon we sat and talked. The world had closed in around him; he definitely discouraged the description of loveliness that he could no longer see, of activities that he could never again share, and at first seemed interested only in discussing the visits of his friends and the hospital detail of every day. But of his complete rationality there could be no question, and with time and the miraculous adaptability of the blind, the wider outlook would certainly return.

I saw no trace on that day, nor any of the successive afternoons on which I visited him, of the bitterness that Edward had mentioned; he seemed to have accepted his fate, to have embarked upon the conquest of braille, and to have compared, with a slight bias in favour of the former, the merits of an East End curacy with schoolmastering as a career for a blinded man…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 466.
  2. Some Desperate Glory, 136.
  3. Testament of Youth, 354-6.

Max Plowman on Death and Memory; John Masefield on the Ruins of Martinpuich; Duff Cooper’s Bearings Shift

Max Plowman appears here infrequently, now that his memoir’s span is done, and generally as a letter-writer–and it’s his complex relationship with pacifism that holds our attention, rather than his modest skill as a poet. But today’s letter includes a threnody he wrote for the son of a family friend, recently killed in action, and I think it is worth our time. Plowman didn’t know this “boy” well, but he responds to his death as a challenge–as an example of the challenge that the immensity of the war’s carnage presents to the frailty of human emotional intention:

Amid so many dead
Why should I sing of you?
Or seek to crown your head
With wreath of rue
Who wear the immortal crown ordained for you?

Myriads are dead–are slain
And many thousands more
As votaries to Pain
Will touch the shore
Where Memory wanders, and is seen no more

But your name lives in me.
Your life for earth I keep.
You died for Liberty.
‘Tis she doth weep
And in her heart your dear remembrance keep.[1]

There is something to the rhythm of this, as Plowman remarks in his own self-deprecating comment on the verses. The middle stanza, I think, rises above the more familiar sentiments of the other two: he is not just pledging to remember a dead soldier, but doing so while noting that both the scale of the slaughter and the ways in which pain blanches memory will make such vows more difficult to keep than they might at first seem.

 

Most of Duff Cooper‘s school friends long ago joined the armed forces. Many of them have been killed. But this option was not open to him as a matter of course, because he held a post in the Foreign Office (although I have not read that he vigorously pursued an exception in order to go fight; others did). He has brooded on this fact intermittently, but his diary, as we have it, reads most of the time like the narrative of the thoughts of a feckless young man and eager wooer. The war is serious business, yes, but not nearly as all-consuming as the pursuit of Diana

And yet, now, opportunity knocks.

The government want more men for the army and we in the Foreign Office are all to be medically examined and I think they will have to let some of us go. If anyone is allowed to go I shall be as I am the youngest of the permanent staff, unmarried and I should think perfectly fit…

He has waited for events to approach him, and, suddenly, they have. Will he back away? Rush toward them? Or wait some more–wait, that is, to be asked to become a sort of conscript?

The thought fills we with exhilaration. I don’t own to it as people would believe it was bluff and I dare say too that I shall very soon wish myself back.

This is wisdom, surely: caution, as well as a highly-developed sense of social propriety. One might not have gone to war in the first rush (or second, or third), but to bluster about a safe job would be unforgivable.

What follows next is impressive: Cooper may seem callow and love-smitten, pursuing the beautiful and monumentally coy Diana to the exclusion of all war aims and most thoughts about the suffering troops… but he is honest. Or he is honest enough to be persuasive: if what follows is bluster, than I am taken in. Even the afterthought, suddenly, seems true. And cruel.

But I am eager for change. I always wished to go to the war though less now than I did at first. I envy the experience and adventure that everyone else has had. I am not afraid of death though I love life and should hate to lose it. I don’t think I should make a good officer. The only drawback is the terrible blow it would be to Mother. I don’t know how I should dare to tell her. I think Diana too would mind.[2]

Yes, I think she might.

 

Finally, today, a brief bit from the letters of John Masefield. Preparing a book on the Somme battle, he has been touring the devastated areas, and writing regularly to his wife. Masefield is not a combatant, but he is a war writer in his own way, and a very good one, as we will see. In addition, he is one of the most important contemporary references for several of our poets, and thus a useful point of comparison to their more intense and immediate forms of witness. He is good–necessarily–on ruins; and he too chooses the writer’s paradox of sharp description tempered by self-doubting agnosticism:

I was out yesterday at Morval, on the east of the battlefield, & today at Martinpuich; both busy places when I was here first & noisy with cannon & none too safe, but now as quiet as tombs, utterly deserted wrecks & ruins of pleasant little towns, Morval on a hill top, like a little Troy, & M’puich along a ravine, like (I suppose) Nineveh. It is not possible to describe either place. They are both collections of big holes, with shattered wood in them, & a sort of mound in each, where the church was. In M’puich there were a lot of the cure’s sermons, in script, lying in the mud, all about Jesus & the holy Marie, & a lot of rather blasted gardens, with currant bushes & May flowering tulips. But no man can describe them. They have to be seen. Once they must each have had 3 or 400 souls in them, with homes & smoke & fires & dinner times & beasts in the stable, & now, my God, they lie out in the blasted field, unvisited by man, & they look like the cities of the plain, & the corpses’ knees & hands & boots stick up out of the mud at one as one goes by, & the rats come out sick over one’s feet. No more news.

Bless you all & my dear love to all.

Your old lover
Jan.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Bridge Into the Future, 68.
  2. The Duff Cooper Diaries, 53.
  3. Letters From France, 1917, 285.

Lady Feilding and the Gas Attack; Hope for Kate Luard’s Glorious Boy; Visitors for Siegfried Sassoon; Henry Williamson: Wasting Mules, Skyhigh Verbiage, and Safe Souvenirs

As we catch up with several writers who have not been on the front lines at Arras, we have a few shorter updates, today, as well as an overdue missive from Lady Feilding.

In something like a literary crossing of paths, Thomas Hardy wrote to Edmund Gosse, today, praising his new book. Gosse, meanwhile, was visiting with a young family connection also known to Hardy through the younger man’s uncle, Hamo Thornycroft. Siegfried Sassoon is evidently pleased to be so distracted:

April 26

My sixth day in this hospital. Roderick came this afternoon. And afterwards Robbie and Edmund Gosse, who was in delightful good humour.[1]

 

Sassoon’s battalion, meanwhile, is out of the line, though far smaller than it was when he left it. In reserve, but knowing that they will soon march again, the 2nd/Royal Welch engage in one of the milder ironies of industrial warfare’s waste.

…moved to Blairville. Socks, dozens of pairs, are being thrown out all over the camp, the result of a consignment from the Welfare Association having been delivered. Those in the packs of the dead were just thrown out, and shirts too, all good, to rot or be burned.

Our casualties for the tour are 13 officers, 4 of them killed, and about 120 other ranks out of a trench strength of 350.[2]

 

Two days ago, a century back, Henry Williamson was once again in trouble. After a visit from a military vet, who found some of the mules under his care “apparently neglected, and wasting away,” he was “straffed like hell” by his superiors.

There is no mention of this latest bump in the road in a letter he then wrote to his mother. Instead he produced a long, strenuously literary, sentimental letter, full of swooping birds (at least six different species are mentioned) and melodramatic and ominous sights. A brief sampling:

In the vast blue above the newly arrived swallows wheel and call and from yonder grim and black wood the cuckoo sings. Spring is here with its promise of life and hope–and Death.

…I ‘spose the blue-tits will soon vibrate with the thunder of the guns–tons of earth will be blown skyhigh in huge black fountains–the shrapnel will burst in white soft clouds above the wire–Hell itself will be let loose, and soon the beauty of the spring will disappear, and shattered trees and torn earth alone be left–and among it, pathetic little bundles of wasting flesh will strew the ground… and the sky will still be blue, and at night the stars will shine out…

All that, perhaps, in lieu of “I got yelled at at work again today, mum.”

But by today, a century back, the elevated mood has come back toward earth, while a more familiar epistolary persona is in evidence:

The souvenirs Williamson sent home… but where are the German hand grenades?

Dearest,

Just got your letter saying you got helmets–good…Thanks for toffee & Cycling. Aren’t those helmets good souvenirs? the spikes screw on top. The flat fellow is Bavarian. Write soon send Kentish Mercury.

Love Harry. PS Guns going like hell.[3]

What became of the pickelhaubes, I do not know…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And Dorothie Feilding is in Flanders, as ever, and not on the Arras front, where things are most active. But just as “minor surgery” is surgery on someone else, there is no point objecting that someone under attack is not actually part of the day’s major offensive.

Perhaps as a response to the allied push, the Germans in Belgium launched a gas attack, not, apparently, to screen or support any major operations, but simply to damage and disconcert their enemy and perhaps take any trenches that might be abandoned or lightly held. It began three days ago, with clouds of gas–probably primarily phosgene–rolling over the lines and into the rear areas where the Munro Ambulance Corps was stationed. The scale of the attack prompted a brief telegram to her mother at home on the 24th, stating, concisely, “All well Dorothie.” Today, a century back, she elaborated in a letter to her father.

Lady Feilding generally shrugs off being almost killed by shellfire, preferring a blithe and rather daffily dismissive style. But either because of that frighteningly brief telegram or because this new experience was far more frightful than the familiar ambulance-driving under shrapnel fire, she narrates the hours after the attack in detail.

My dear Colonel

Things have been moving here just lately but I haven’t had time to write you much about them, also I was waiting till the events had been duly recited in the communique before writing about them, as it is always wisest.

This having been done I will now tell you more about it, also the rubber bath has come before I forget to thank you for it. It is a dashed fine one & I am very grateful to Mr Da.

On the 23rd about four am, Fritz suddenly started launching gas at us from the local metropolis up at N. The wind wasn’t very good for him, too much to the N with the result the gas came diagonally back from the lines & we here at no 14 got a very bad go of it. Jelly smelt it & woke up which was most intelligent of him; we all got up & threw on a few garments & of course hadn’t a gas mask in the house as ours were in the car, which that night happened to be in the other garage down in the town. There was the limousine here however & Jelly started that & then he went off with the ambulance up to the lines & the gas being very bad by then here I evacuated Winkie & Helene & the girl next door up to a hospital a few miles up the road. There I borrowed some gas masks & a spare driver as I was feeling rather faint & thought it best to have two drivers in the car. I left Winks & CO there & tore back to no 14 to find the gas had cleared away very quickly from there, as a matter of fact it had been following the road we took to the left & we were in it for 3 or 4 miles & so by bad luck got much more than the people who stayed here. By this time I was quite sure the Boche had overrun the sector as I couldn’t imagine our having it so bad & the lines being still tenable. As a matter of fact, the waves were very local & came in gusts. For instance, the main part of the town here got none. It just travelled down in long columns. I rushed up to our barracks & was awfully relieved to find them all ok. They had had very good masks & the main gas column had passed to the right of them & on our way.

Then we just worked like navvies all day till dark. Simply never an engine stopped all day & we were all pretty beat at the end of it. At the beginning, Boche had rushed our lines but we drove them out again as the commimique said & things are exactly as they were before now which is very satisfactory. The sector was very lucky to get off with the line in the old place.

It’s a dirty business gas & rather frightening; comes in great foggy waves & makes you cough your head off. Those poor, poor devils of men. I can’t tell you what it’s like to see them all lying about unconscious & in the most awful states. Much worse than blesses in a way because there is so desperately little you can do for them. In many cases they are alright for 12 to 24 hrs & then go down like logs. The Boche had a lot of casualties from our fire & we got some prisoners too.

I felt quite (fairly) alright the day itself after the 1st hour. Just rather cut. It didn’t work on me till 24hrs after when, at about 5am, I couldn’t breathe except like a scared rabbit & went down to get a drink & then felt awfully faint. This kept coming on at intervals all that day, so I went to bed in the afternoon & have been there ever since. I am quite all right again now & am getting up again now as I haven’t had a proper go of it since yesterday. It’s a beastly feeling–you can’t get a proper deep breath…

This is a long scrawl isn’t it?[4]

 

Finally, today, from behind the lines at Arras, Kate Luard reports on the status of a particularly affecting patient.

Thursday, April 26th, 10.30 p.m.

…The officer boy with the fractured spine isn’t going to die yet… I got the colonel to put him on the Evacuation list tonight to give him a chance to get X-rayed at the Base and perhaps recover…[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 162.
  2. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 340.
  3. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 131-4.
  4. Lady Under Fire, 205-7.
  5. Unknown Warriors, 115.

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.

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.

Henry Williamson Unwrites His Lone Patrol; Edward Thomas Opens Himself Up to Frost; Charles Scott Moncrieff Amidst the Peasantry; Ivor Gurney’s Gloucesters Come Upon an Old Friend; Siegfried Sassoon Swears a New Fealty

Today is thick with poets; but today’s post is also a reminder of the entanglement of different forms and genres. Before the three poets, two litterateurs of different accomplishments–and, along the way, two comminglings of history and fiction…

Charles Scott Moncrieff is back in Doullens, a century back, and delights in describing the local grotesques:

2nd April, 1917

I write this by the stove in the bedroom of an aged woman. We have just arrived in the village where I was in hospital a twelvemonth ago. We halted yesterday near the main town of these parts, into which I walked in the afternoon. . . .

We dined at the Hotel des Quatre Fils Aymon, where the host—a very large man like Bigoudin in Locke’s book—stands by the sideboard and ladles out soup to a frantic waiter who resembles Professor Harvey Littlejohn…

My hostess is very old and sunken and is crouching over the other side of the stove telling her beads and looking up dully over my shoulder at the snow. She is a pleasant spectacle after a terrible old woman with a mad daughter, on whom one of my platoons was billeted last night. She refused to sign the statutory declaration to claim no damages on the grounds that she had not had time to see whether there had been any. I stood there while she peeled potatoes angrily over a pail of water, slicing them again and again to get to the  end of black eyes and worm holes—the daughter sat with twitching hands and feet on the stove, interjecting very savage observations—at last the old one said, “I never do sign and I never will.”[1]

 

Henry Williamson, meanwhile, reports to his mother on his position–the dotted letter code indicates Croiselles–and on his observation of a local attack.

Dear Mother,

Just a short epistle to let you know I received your letter dated 28 March. Yes you are quite right about my destination but you may get a letter with this one that will show you the change.

I watched an attack at 5 oclock this morning. The warfare has changed a lot–of course we are only scrapping their rearguards & their artillery is only a few guns here & there. Well we got past all the defensive ridges, like the downs, now, & on this hill I stood on I could see for scores of miles: it was like standing on the Salt Box Hill & seeing the green country for miles away–it is quite possible to side right up to the Bosche outposts here without knowing where they are.

Well I watched our men going forward at dawn–I was only an interested spectator you see, as I had news of an attack & went up to watch it. The guns gave the village below us hell for a time & then the men went forward, & there was little fire & an hour afterwards I saw two prisoners wounded & looking very white coming in, & then ten others. So I tied my horse up & stealthily crept up to the village & couldn’t see a dam thing. So I went on for a mile or so and to my great surprise & fear I saw a lot of Bosche with machine guns about 150 yds away!!!

And I gave myself up for lost but went on a bit further and found myself in a big trench system with noone about–suddenly it struck me I was in the ‘Hindenburg Line‘![2] And I was!!! I can tell you I felt rather windy & started to go back–on the way back I got two Bosche bombs ready to throw as I was unarmed but I didn’t see a dam thing. I got back to the village after 8 hours away and found my horse frantic with hunger.

I reported my observations to the [——-] and one might hear further you never know. And the best part is that if I had known that the Bosche was there I wouldn’t have gone for £10000 but I believed all the time that he was miles away!!![3]

Only with Henry Williamson would we look to an absence in fiction to query a presence in a “historical document” such as this letter, and yet even though his long novel features a number of escapades which he didn’t make–indeed, several solo rambles into danger just like the one he describes here–there is nothing in the early April scenes of Love and the Loveless that fits the bill. Otherwise, we find what we might expect in a more sober romancer: the booby-trapped piano appears, for instance, but as a “story” that was then current not something the author vouches for. (And it’s better told: of course it must be a specific note that is wired… although a specific chord would be better–perhaps the 7th chord towards the end of “victor-i-ous” in “God Save the King?”)

It seems safe to conclude that, while Williamson may well have witnessed an advance in these confused post-withdrawal pre-Arras weeks, he didn’t really stumble into the German lines and make a narrow escape, borrowed bombs clutched in sweating palms… German grenades appear in the novel, too, but only as potential souvenirs that Phillip Maddison discovers and covets. It is good to be remembered that when a young soldier brags, truth can be less truthy than fiction.

 

Another writer who will straddle the divide between memoir and fiction (or, rather, who putters happily down both carriageways) is Siegfried Sassoon. Today, at least, his various accounts of himself march neatly in step: the “good old 2nd Battalion” reached Corbie, today, on their march to the front, and everything is looking up…

After they had arrived and settled their men–it was an easy march–Ralph Greaves (“Wilmot” in “Sherston’s” memoirs) played a piano he found in their billets while the others drank bad champagne. But this “convivial evening” was over all too quickly–in the morning they will march on north.[4] Nevertheless, tonight, a century back becomes the scene of a set-piece in Sassoon/Sherston’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, as Sassoon introduces the major “characters” of the 2nd Battalion. These include not only “Munro”–the very Dr. Dunn who will compile The War the Infantry Knew–but also “Leake,” the company commander who is no sooner introduced as a hostile Regular Army snob than he and “Sherston” stumble away from the sing-along “sholemnly” swearing eternal friendship. So Siegfried Sassoon is among friends once more…[5]

 

And now to the pure poets. First, Ivor Gurney, who writes (to Marion Scott, as always) of beauty and music and, for once, of a decent burial.

My Dear Friend:

Tin whistles and mouth organs still going hard, and we waiting for dinner and moving afterwards, for a company of ours took two more villages last night, and we shift also of course. We have been hard worked, but still and all the same, this open country work is far preferable to trench life. This place is quite pretty, very pretty; and this morning I saw, at first dawn, one mystical star hanging over a line of black wood on the sky-line; surely one of the most beautiful things on earth.

I hope by the time this letter gets to you you will be trotting about in real Spring sunlight; it is cold here as yet, but no man may foretell of April’s whims.

I told you of the death, a little time back of one of our most looked to corporals. Well, that was before the advance. About a fortnight after the movement started, we heard his grave had been discovered; and after tea one evening the whole company (that was fit) went down for a service there. Quite a fine little wooden cross had been erected there: the Germans had done well: it was better than we ourselves would have given him; and on the cross was
“Hier ruht ein tapferer Englander, Richard Rhodes”, and the date.

Strange to find chivalry in sight of the destruction we had left behind us; but so it was. They must have loved his beauty, or he must have lived a little for such a tribute. But he was brave, and his air always gallant and gay for all his few inches. Always I admired him and his indestructibility of energy and wonderful eyes.[6]

 

Finally, another beautiful, introspective letter from Edward Thomas. Still possessed of both some free time and the near-certain knowledge that things will shortly be much busier, he writes to Robert Frost–and he strives to make the most of it. This is an “update” letter, yes, but it is also what all good personal writing should be–rigorously true to the present moment. And it is fascinating–to me, at least!–to re-read events–or, rather, to read re-written events–from Thomas’s life. Some of these things he has described to his diary, his mother, his wife, Eleanor Farjeon, and his son Merfyn. Will they look different with a few more days’ hindsight, and written as they are to his poetic heart’s companion, his bluff, keeper-challenging American friend?

Beaurains

2 April 1917

My dear Robert,

I heard that the mails have been lost several times lately at sea. I thought I had better make another shot at you. This is another penultimate letter. Things are closely impending now and will have happened before you get this and you will know all about it then, so I will not try to tell you what they are, especially as I could not get them past the censor.

I have seen some new things since I wrote last and had much and worse things to endure which do not become less terrible in anticipation but are less terrible once I am in the midst of them. Jagged gables at dawn when you are cold and tired out look a thousand times worse from their connection with a certain kind of enemy shell that has made them look like that, so that every time I see them I half think I hear the moan of the approaching and hovering shell and the black grisly flap that it seems to make as it bursts. I see and hear more than I did because changed conditions compel us to go up to the very front among the infantry to do our observation and we spend nights without shelter in the mud chiefly in waiting for morning and the arrival of the relief. It is a 24 hours job and takes more to recover from. But it is far as yet from being unendurable. The unendurable thing was having to climb up the inside of a chimney that was being shelled. I gave up. It was impossible and I knew it. Yet I went up to the beastly place and had 4 shell bursts very close. I decided that I would go back. As a matter of fact I had no light and no information about the method of getting up so that all the screwing up I had given myself would in any case have been futile. It was just another experience like the gamekeeper,—but it was far less on my mind, because the practical result of my failure was nil and I now see far more from the ground level than I could have seen then from 200 feet up the factory chimney.

Well, that answers the questions. Although he is less schooled in latter-day Thomas-lore than I am, Edward Thomas is still Edward Thomas, and remembers his own memories well–including the stand-off with the keeper. The time he, Thomas, shrank from conflict despite being in the right, when the belligerent Frost stood firm and was ready to risk violence in a quiet English wood…

Otherwise I have done all the things so far asked of me without making any mess and I have mingled satisfaction with dissatisfaction in about the usual proportion, comfort and discomfort. There are so many things to enjoy and if I remember rightly not more to regret than say a year or ten years ago. I think I get surer of some primitive things that one has got to get sure of, about oneself and other people, and I think this is not due simply to being older. In short, I am glad I came out and I think less about return than I thought I should—partly no doubt I inhibit the idea of return. I only think by flashes of the things at home that I used to enjoy and should again. I enjoy many of them out here when the sun shines and at early morning and late afternoon. I doubt if anybody here thinks less of home than I do and yet I doubt if anybody loves it more.

But why should I be explaining myself at such length and not leave you to do the explaining?

We have shifted lately from the edge of a small city out to a still more ruinous village. The planks and beams of the ruins keep us warm in a house that has not had an actual hit except by fragments. We live in comparative comfort, eat luxuriously from parcels sent from London or brought up from places well behind the lines, and sleep dry and warm as a rule. We expect soon to have to live in damp clay pits for safety. There are some random shots but as a rule you know when to expect trouble, and you can feel quite safe close to a place that is clearly dangerous. We work or make others work practically all day with no rests or holidays, but often we have a quiet evening and can talk or write letters or listen to the gramophone playing ‘John Peel’ and worse things far. People are mostly friendly and warm, however uncongenial. I am more than .ten years older than 4 of the other 5 officers. They are 19, 20, 25, 26 and 33 years old. Those of 25 and up regard me as very old. I don’t know if the two boys do—I get on better with them: in a sort of way we are fond of one another—I like to see them come in of a night back from some job and I believe they like to see me. What more should anyone want?

I revert for 10 minutes every night by reading Shakespeare’s Tragedies in bed with a pipe before I blow the candle out. Otherwise I do nothing that I used to do except eat and sleep: I mean when I am not alone. Funny world. What a thing it is. And I hear nothing of you. Yet you are no more like an American in a book than you were 25 years ago. You are doing the unchanged things that I cannot or dare not think of except in flashes. I don’t have memories except such as are involved in the impressions as I see or hear things about me. But if I went on writing like this I should make you think I was as damnably introspective as ever and practised the art too. Goodnight to you and Elinor and all.

Remember I am in 244 Siege Battery, B.E.F., France and am and shall remain 2nd Lieut. Edward Thomas

Yours ever[7]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 126.
  2. This is the extent of Williamson's belated self-censorship, which surely wouldn't fly if his letters were being read by other censors.
  3. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 107-9.
  4. The War the Infantry Knew, 308.
  5. Diaries, 148; Complete Memoirs, 412-17.
  6. War Letters, 152. I was not able to trace this corporal, although I gave the effort only a few moments, alas...
  7. Selected Letters, 160-2.

Richard Aldington’s Glad Young April Day; Siegfried Sassoon, Three Fellows, and a Four-Footed Friend, the Morning After; Ivor Gurney on Morale; Edward Thomas’s Calendrical Heresy

This is going to be a cruel month. We’ll begin with a “month poem” from one of our writers who will be on the outskirts of the worst fighting. Others will be in it: the Battle of Arras, the first intense fighting since the Somme petered out in November, is due in only a week.

I

When I rose up in the morning
In a ruined town in France,
I heard the sparrows twitter
In gardens bare and grey
And watched the sunbeams dance.

O glad young April day!

II

When I lie down this evening
In a damp cellar of France
I’ll hear the big guns booming
By bare and blasted lanes,
And watch the shrapnel dance.

O wild sad April rains!

Richard Aldington[1]

 

For Siegfried Sassoon, the month began with nothing more cruel than a hangover and a goat. Today is the last day in rest billets at the unlovely Camp 13 for the 2nd Royal Welsh, and their unwilling replacement officer is beginning to warm to his fellows.

Last night Sassoon and three comrades had gone to Amiens for a bath and a good dinner at the Godbert—-“a cheerful experience, anyhow.” This morning they[2] posed with the regimental mascot (at right). Sassoon, at right seems to have maintained his good cheer, despite having consumed

2 John Collins   1 Japanese ditto.   1 Oyster cocktail

1 Sherry and Bitters.   Pommard Eclatante, trois verres.

1 Benedictine.

In spite of hankerings for “the good old 1st Battalion…” I was now beginning to identify myself with the equally “good old 2nd Battalion.”[3]

 

Ivor Gurney, still writing regularly to Marion Scott to discuss the editing of his poetry, is also maintaining relatively good spirits.

1 April 1917

My Dear Friend: This is the right day for such a business, if it were not so bitter, and surely a fest-day should not be so dull? Well, here it is, and fatigues are over, and this queer billet echoes and reechoes with the sound of tin whistles and mouth organs, just issued; and the lilt of some Scottish tunes our crack players are rollicking through make life a little alive and worth living…

But it is not an easy life, nor is the task of maintaining morale several years into a frustrated and stagnated war a light one. Exhaustion weighs on the mind as well as the body.

We have not had so bad a time lately, nothing like trench conditions, at any rate, though hard work and not enough food (or at any rate, food not seeming enough) have made us all weak, and upset our insides. I should put this down to the peculiarities of my own stupid constitution, did not men of farming and similar trades also complain. I believe a great deal is due to the dulness of the life, which makes every one look to meals more than ordinary; but anyway they are bound to work us; it being as certain as anything that only going keeps us going. We should all relapse into neurasthenia were we not driven. Considering everything, especially the callousness to certain things such a life must develop, the men are marvellously good to one another, and surely much finer than ever they were, bless em…

The baccy parcel arived last night, and we were all most grateful; everybody was short or bankrupt; and the cigar things were most grateful to us stranded wretches. (They are singing “Annie Laurie”. O the joy of it!)

I fear I can send you no money yet, but if you would send the paper covered National Song Book, and the small, selected Browning in Walter Scotts edition they would be most useful. The latter is 1/6 I believe. I believe “The Spirit of Man” is sucked dry for me, and my thirst for good verse, and short, is very strong.

Marion Scott had also reported to Gurney on a recent performance of his songs. Without access to a piano in the trenches (pace Henry Williamson and his two pianos–but those were booby trapped anyway) he has turned from musical composition to verse. But now, amidst the ruins of the German retreat, Gurney consoles himself with his own songs.

The day has been springlike on the whole, and last nights sky was gloriously tragic; I sang “In Flanders” to myself, facing the West, alone in a lately ruined house, spoiled by that unutterable thoroughness of the German destruction; and was somewhat comforted thereby. That has all been said for me in “In Flanders”…

But for Gurney, mad north by the west country, “In Flanders” can always mean “In Gloucestershire.”

The scene of “In Flanders” is obviously Coopers Hill. O times! O saisons, O chateaux!

Goodbye for now: Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney[4]

 

Edward Thomas, too, begins the month in relative ease, quiet, and lengthy letter-writing.

…a beautiful serene clear morning with larks at 5.15 and blackbirds at 6… All day sat writing letters to Helen, Father and Mother by the fire and censoring men’s letters etc…[5]

To Helen, first, with a plain but absorbing tale of his night’s doings:

Arras, 1 April 1917

Dearest,

Now the night is over I will tell you all about it before I go to bed, if I do go! I feel so cheerful for several reasons of which I will give you two. Firstly, I found a letter from you waiting for me when I returned at 7 a.m. Secondly, I found the car waiting for me as soon as I was clear of B., which was most cheering to a tired and overladen officer and four telephonists still more overladen.

Well, I didn’t have much of the fire. I just waited to hear that the working party was only going to carry up the stuff, which they did, and to do the work today or some other time soon. I had to decide to let them carry the heavy stuff (too heavy for them to carry through a sticky trench) along the crest which was being swept by machine guns from time to time. Which they did and luckily came to no harm. I went off to the cellar, leaving two telephonists to take their instrument off the wire and see that the wire on to the cellar was all right. The cellar was full of smoke, except the lowest twofeet of it, so that we (the two other telephonists and I) had to crouch or lie. Then shells began to fall in the direction of the O.P. In two hours the other telephonists had not arrived. I thought they had lost their way in the moonlight among the wire and ruins andtrenches of B. or had been wounded—or perhaps the working party had had a casualty. So I sent back the other two telephonists to see if they had left the O.P. I had thought myself rather clever—or rather I was very much relieved—to find my way in the moonlight.

Then, later, after learning that the lines are cut,

…I dozed for one hour or two, dreaming of being court-martialled, till up I got and had a quiet journey. The moon had gone and left all the stars and not a cloud. I was sure of my way by the Plough. But it was dirty and tiring, for I had on vest | shirt | two waistcoats | tunic | one Tommy’s leather waistcoat | British warm | and waterproof.

Only two or three shells came over and I found the telephonists dozing and there in a clay corner we dozed and smoked till daybreak. More heavy shells arrived well away from us. They moan and then savagely stop moaning as they strike the ground with a flap. They are 5.9s or Five Nines as we call them.—I had not been wanted on the telephone so all is well. Day broke clear and white and a lark rose at 5.15. Blackbirds began to sing at 6 and a yellowhammer. I got up and slopped through the trench and looked at the view over to the Hun, a perfect simple view of three ridges, with a village and line of trees on the first, a clump on the second and clumps and lines on the furthest, all looking almost purple and brown like heather in the dawn. Easter Sunday—a lovely clear
high dawn.

Strangely, it is not Easter at all. Thomas is, somehow, off by a week in terms of the liturgical calendar. He is not a religious man–in fact he is more or less and atheist, or rather a quiet but firm non-believer–but it’s still rather odd that he’s made this mistake. Wouldn’t the battery have special arrangements for church parade? Perhaps not.

He’s a quite fellow, but surely not so insular that he won’t notice the mistake or be put right by one of his fellow officers.

After more description of the end of his all-night duty, Thomas brings the letter slowly to a close.

Now everybody has breakfasted. There has been a shower and the sun has returned but among the clouds. I am not very sleepy yet, but just enjoying having nothing to do which is supposed to be the privilege of the day after the O.P.—that is in these peaceful days. You are having a fine Easter, I hope, as we are, though not a warm one yet. I like hearing of your days with Baba and Bronwen and Joy, and of Mervyn’s ride with Ernest, and intended ride to
Jesse’s…

Rubin has set the gramophone to ‘In Cellar Cool’. But everything, gramophone or not, out here forbids memories such as you have been writing. Memories I have but they are mixed up with my thoughts and feelings in B. or when I hear the blackbirds or when the old dog bangs the table leg with his tail or lies with his brains wasting in his skull. You must not therefore expect me to say anything outright. It is not my way, is it?

No, I’m sure she doesn’t. But surely she might wish it…

Now I must write and remind Mother she has sent only the inessential part of my mapcase, the waterproof cover for it.

A happy Easter! Goodbye

Edwy

The letter to his mother is less fulsome–perhaps it is more dutiful, perhaps he wrote to Helen in the jittering excitement of having survived his long night’s journey and is now “crashing”–but it does go beyond the merely parcel-related to gently take up two opposed themes: the destruction of war, and the coming of spring flowers.

The day has kept fine on the whole and if it were a little warmer it would be good Easter weather, fresh, and bright. Only I feel cold after sitting out all night as stout as a market woman with so many clothes on. My servant is washing for me out in the yard and the clothes are blowing on the line just beside the motor car which shines in the sun. The aeroplanes are buzzing overhead and as I sit by an open wood fire it is more like a scene in a small country inn at home than anything else except that one of our guns rattles all the windows.every now and then. We get good fires here with the boards and beams of ruined houses all round us. The servants will bum anything if you let them and I have just been lecturing mine on the evil of burning things that still serve the purpose for which they were made. The waste is indescribable. It would be interesting to compare the way the Germans spend their substance. The deep dug-outs they make are far beyond ours in strength and workmanship. We make them just as much as they do but we make wretched things skimped in work and materials so far as I have seen. The thing that is to shelter us in the battle is being made now in a hurry anyhow without any expert advice except that of a thatcher from Norfolk.

I am glad you had some violets. I have not seen any, nor primroses, nor celandines, not even a dandelion . . . It will be nice to have the kind of Easter weather it is good to sow seeds in. Nice for us, too. Goodbye.Ever your loving son

Edwy[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. I am pretty sure--but by no means entirely certain--that the inspirational April is this year, a century back.
  2. Sassoon writes that "Binge Owen" accompanied him, Greaves, and Conning; but the officer in the center of the picture is Coster, not Owen.
  3. Diaries, 146-7. The War the Infantry Knew, 307-8.
  4. War Letters, 150-1.
  5. War Diary (Childhood), 174.
  6. Selected Letters, 157-60.

Edward Hermon Has a Pow-Wow; Siegfried Sassoon Would Dose the Fighting Man With Dreams; Edward Thomas Reckons with War and Death; Edwin Vaughan’s Poor Jerry

A busy day, today, with thoughtful letters from Edward Thomas and poetry from Sassoon. But I do want to begin with Edward Hermon–Ethel’s Bob, and the C.O. of the 24th Northumberland Fusiliers–who describes a jolly little gathering with some of the brass.

…had quite a pleasant day. Saw Richardson & Temple & old Trevor lent me a horse. Met the Corps Commander and the Div. Commander. The former a most charming old gent. Perfect manners & most pleasant.

If this puts you in mind, as it does me, of Meriadoc Brandybuck meeting Theoden of Rohan, I’m afraid that the resonance is more apt than we might hope. This little get-together is not social–it is on the eve and the edge of a great tumult. The charming old gent is coming down to issue his detailed orders for the coming battle of Arras.

I wish we were together for just one night as I could tell you so much more than one could write & lots that would interest you, but if speech is silver, silence is golden.[1]

 

Siegfried Sassoon, away south on the quiescent Somme front and able to write unreservedly in his diary, is in a reflective mood. He will have a lot to say in the coming days, so let’s review, shall we?

March 30 (Hotel Belfort, Amiens)

Alone at last after a typical ‘war evening’. After yet another ‘lorry-journey’ in rain and westerly wind, I got to this town again for a ‘final jolly’. On 30 March 1914 I was looking forward with acute anxiety to the Atherstone point-to-point meeting (to be held next day). All my world was centred[2] in the desire to steer old Cockbird first past the post in some wily, jolly race over hedge and ditch.

And I did it. And the world went on just the same! On 30 March 1916 I was in the trenches at Fricourt-Mametz, hating the Germans for killing my friend, and wondering if they’d kill me.

But they didn’t! And tonight I’ve been guzzling at the Godbert restaurant with a captain of the Dublin Fusiliers, and a captain of the Cameronians, and three other Welsh Fusiliers; and the bill was 250 francs; and we drank Veuve Clicquot; and the others have gone into the dark city, to look for harlots; and I’m alone in my room; looking out of a balconied window at the town; with few lights, and the Moon and silver drifts of cloud going eastward; and the railway station looming romantic as old Baghdad. And next week we march away to ‘hazards whence no tears can win us’.

Sassoon next writes a short prose piece that amounts to a reverie proposing remedy by reverie. “Dream Pictures” imagines that he might console homesick soldiers, bored by the same old letters and the dull news, by giving them “a healthy dose of domestic sentimental recollection” which would “turn them loose in some dream-gallery of Royal Academy pictures of the late-nineteenth century.

I would show them bland summer landscapes, willow and meadowsweet reflected in calm waters, lifelike cows coming.home to the byre with a golden sunset behind them. I would take them to gateways in garden-walls that they might gaze along dewy lawns with lovers; murmuring by the moss-grown sundial; I would lead them twixt hawthorn hedgerows, and over field path stiles; to old-world orchards where the lush grass is strewn with red-cheeked apples, and even the wasps have lost their stings…[3]

That’s just in case you thought it was the latter-day English professors making too big a deal about the “consolations of the pastoral…”

 

Edward Thomas is dutiful both to his sense of others’ claim on his time–if he is free from work, he should write to those who love him–and to his own commitment not to write poetry at the front. His diary receives many of the observational fragments that might become poems. But some make it into his letters, try though he might to stick to the stuff of prose.

First, though, a letter to Eleanor Farjeon. He has acknowledged that she loves him; now he treats her as an intimate friend, striving to do her the honor of a frank, clear, straightforward letter. The poetry will sneak into the next letter, when he can still, almost paradoxically, write freely as he writes down.

March 30

My dear Eleanor,

Another penultimate letter before I shall be unable to write from press of work. And first I must thank you for sending the apples and also for the apples themselves, which arrove today.

It was a good post, a parcel also from Mother and letters from Helen and Mother…

Everything is useful, and will be especially in the time to come when I have to take up food for perhaps considerably over 24 hours and pig it in noise and darkness and worse. Subalterns are told nothing but I happen to know what is intended, only not what difference this rain may make. I say this rain, but a most lovely cold bright evening, clear and still, has just passed, with many blackbirds singing. I fancy though that the Easter weather is not really beginning yet. I wish it was. I should welcome a warm night…

You will hear soon enough about what is doing, before I can tell you…

The town is catching it badly now and we are well away—touch wood—though we aren’t in a paradise or the bagpipes wouldn’t have played what they did last night. The crossings and corners are dirty places. But the Hun must be confounded with our numbers, though you might think he couldn’t fire without hurting more than the open fields. Luckily he often does…

In a strange burst of high spirits, the letter ends with a different sort of verse: Thomas segues suddenly into a folk song–one evidently known to Farjeon (they are both connoisseurs).

It isn’t nice, though, going up in the cold dawn. If only one could keep warm without being burdened with clothes and all sorts of ornaments—glasses, maps, waterbottles, haversacks, gas-helmets, periscopes etc., so that a trenchcoat isn’t wide enough and if you have to throw yourself down you feel like an old woman
home from marketing and still more so when you get up—while you on shore and a great many more are sleeping warm and dry— oh. Don’t forget your old houseboat mate, Fol-de-rol-de-riddlefol-de-rol-de-ri-do. Who is ever yours

Edward Thomas[4]

And straight from that bit of whimsy to this letter, to both his mother and his younger brother Julian.

Beaurains, 30 March 1917

Dear Mother,

I will write you another letter to-night because I have nothing to do but be in the battery till the Major and Captain come back from dinner. One has always to be here and to-night is my turn…

Nothing much is happening yet, though the firing seldom ceases. However, to-day has been a better day, with plenty to do and after much cold rain plenty of sunshine to do it in as the evening came on. Which somehow reminds me I ought to be writing to Julian, which I should have done had I not your parcel and your letter today to thank you for. The parcel came safe and was welcome as ever. A plain cake would be very nice whenever you can send it. The chocolate etc. will be most useful on days when I am up at the O.P. and do not want to have to carry more food than is necessary. Your letter and Eleanor’s and Helen’s give me a very clear picture of their visit with Myfanwy…

In other words Thomas, though writing from a dugout near Arras and helping to bombard the Germans, is in receipt of three letters describing the same evidently uneventful family visit. Few men are as tethered to home.

And yet he snaps the band, in a way, without even turning the page. He writes to his brother, now, man to man. Instead of discussing daily life and parcels he takes on the simple subject of war. Nothing more than war and death and killing and suffering and happiness and misery, in a paragraph.

Now I will write to Julian.

My dear Julian I am sorry I have not written specially to you till I had one to answer and that I have had for a week now. There is not much really to tell you that I can tell you or that it would be permissible or profitable to tell you till it is all over. We are having a dirty long picnic, you know, with many surprising and uncomfortable things in it….

War, of course, is not altogther different from peace, except that one may be blown to bits and have to blow others to bits. Physical discomfort is sometimes so great that it seems a new thing, but of course it is not. You remember cycling in the rain towards Salisbury. It really is seldom quite a different thing than that. Of course, one seems very little one’s own master, but then one seldom does seem so. Death looms, but however “it comes it is unexpected, whether from appendicitis or bullet. An alternation of comfort and discomfort is always a man’s lot. So is an alternation of pleasure or happiness or intense interest with tedium or dissatisfaction or misery. I have suffered more from January to March in other years than in this. That is the plain fact. I will not go into it any more. I hope I do not seem to be boasting. I am too often idle and inefficient and afraid to want to boast.

I cannot talk about books…

Give my love to Maud and the baby and everyone.

P.S. I was just going to tell you not to take too seriously my request, for Epsom Salts when the order was given ‘Battery. Action.’ and now we are giving 167 rounds at a hostile battery over there in the dark.

Ever your loving son

Edwy[5]

 

One brief final note. Edwin Vaughan has had a few days in billets, but his battalion has just marched up to some of the new territory now being entrenched by the British. His task tonight, a century back, was to supervise the putting out of new barbed-wire emplacements.

It was a very quiet and lonely scene, the slope of snow down from behind us, nothing visible but the whiteness of the earth merging into the grey of the sky. The line of little men at their noiseless tasks and the cold moonlight over all. As I sat drinking in this scene, Breeze touched me on the arm, ‘There’s someone declared peace’, he said and pointed across past the last stake.

Covered with snow, as with a sheet, lay the body of a Boche, looking calm and, I somehow felt, happy. Yet the sight of him made me feel icily lonely. It seemed such a terrible thing to lie alone, covered with snow throughout the night, with never a sound until we came along, and tapped and clipped and never spoke, then went away forever. It seemed so unfriendly, and for a long time I sat wishing we could do something for him.

Later on, as his men line up to march back, he notices a man of his platoon carrying a pair of boots.

I asked him where he got them. He said brightly ‘Jerry up on the hill, Sir.’ My poor poor Jerry. We marched back and left him.[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. For Love and Courage, 346.
  2. I link to this not because the date is right but because it is, I think, my longest expostulation on the pre-war Sassoon.
  3. Diaries, 146-7.
  4. Farjeon, Edward Thomas..., 259-60.
  5. Selected Letters, 155-7.
  6. Some Desperate Glory, 73-4.

Kate Luard’s Near Miss; Edwin Vaughan in a Lousy Boche Trap; Siegfried Sassoon Can Almost See England; God Amidst the Shellfire for Edward Hermon; Geoffrey Thurlow Asks Vera Brittain About the Afterlife

Kate Luard, her hospital warned that their first convoy of wounded is only days away, took what she expects to be a last day of leisure for quite some time. She wants to see the sights–and now that the German withdrawal has put the old front line well in the rear, she can tour the Somme battlefield for the first time. So she does, and runs smack into the apparent paradox that so many of our writers confront or avoid, but necessarily both confirm and deny:

…we have been over No-Man’s Land an down into the deep German dug-outs on the scene of the tragedy last July at Gommécourt. It is all indescribable. Bairnsfather has drawn it, but no one can ever, in words, make anyone realise what it is like.

As Rabbi Tarfon says, it is not incumbent upon you to finish the job; but neither are you at liberty to completely avoid it….

The wood and the orchards are blackened spikes sticking up out of what looks now like a mad confusion of deep trenches and deep dug-outs battered to bits. We went with an electric torch deep down two staircases of one and stepped into a pond at the bottom…

I cast Kate Luard, often enough, in the role of The Wise Woman, our Old Campaigner among the medics. Which, like any such shoehorning, is not terribly fair. She features here so often because she is a keen observer and a good writer, not because she is infallibly wise. In her own sphere, we’ve come to except extreme competence and compassion… but off for an exciting tour of the forbidden zone, she succumbs to a common and foolish enthusiasm–the search for souvenirs.

I picked up a nose-cap; and the sapper who was with us said hastily, ‘That’s no good,’ snatched it out of my hand and threw it out of sight; it still had the detonator in it. Then he picked one up without its detonator and gave it to me…

The village we and the Germans have been shelling for 2 years made you feel dazed. But the battlefield made you feel sick. We got some snowdrop roots with the flowers out, from under a boulder at Gommécourt.

Here you get to the culmination of destruction for which all civilised nations are still straining all their resources. Isn’t it hopelessly mad?[1]

More snowdrops! A paragraph of further description intervenes before Luard comes to tell of their long walk back to the hospital, so perhaps the uplifting irony I see in the last sentences of the day is not actually intended. But after being compelled to condemn the madness of civilization, Sister Luard and her companions, returning, are invited to tea three times on their walk back by three different groups of British N.C.O.s and officers, and then have coffee pressed upon them by a Frenchwoman.

 

Edwin Vaughan is headed in the opposite direction. He had a harrowing march up through the devastated town of Péronne and toward his battalion’s new billets in what had until recently been the German rear–harrowing, at least, for him. Other writers might have treated a near-miss and a blighty for a fellow officer with less candor: “He wasn’t a scrap disturbed by his wounds, but they made me feel faint and I had to go out for some air.”

But then several men are killed by shells accurately dropped on a well, and the survivors are grateful to take shelter in their new digs–three German dugouts.

I lay for a while on my upper berth, smoking and reading a book on trench warfare. then I began to feel itchy, and the itchiness grew, and spread so much that I was unable to concentrate on my book. So I lay on my back looking at the timber roof a foot above me, and I wondered whether the saw-marks across the beams were the work of the Boche to ensure the roof falling in when a time-mine exploded. I was distracted from this thought, with its potential horrors, by the sight of moving insects. Raising the candle I found that the place was crawling with lice. During the night I felt them dropping onto my face, and in the morning I was infested with them.[2]

 

Robert (Edward) Hermon’s letter home to his wife of tonight, a century back, is a bit of a surprise. Hermon is our conventional English family man, the non-intellectual squire and kindly C.O. He’s not a great writer, but this account of church amidst a bombardment is one of the more moving ones I’ve read. Of all things (all things!) it reminds me of a scene in Gravity’s Rainbow.

Tonight I went to church in one of the church Army Huts close here & we had such a nice little service, ending with a celebration[3] for which I stayed. All the time the service was going on the Hun was throwing some very heavy shells into the village about half a mile off & what with the church being lit up & it dark outside & the whistle & crash of the shells it made the whole thing very weird & also impressive & I’m afraid that my voice was not particularly strong as I sang the third verse of hymn 322…

Then the world re-intrudes, and we are back to clocks and bunks–and men of god in their human frailties.

Well dearie mine I’m busy these days and must to bed now especially as we started summer time last night & I lost an hour of sleep, not to mention the fact that the padre, who sleeps just under me, dreamt that he saw a man cutting the rope of one of the observation balloons & jumped up shouting at the top of his voice to stop him & nearly flung me out of bed in the process, & I felt rather as tho’ a mine had gone off underneath.[4]

 

Only a day after Victor Richardson wrote to Vera Brittain, Geoffrey Thurlow–her brother’s intimate friend from training camp, and now the third of the soldiers that she cares for and corresponds with–writes to her on the same subject. But then what are the chances that two nicely brought-up young men will write about certain things not to each other but to a young woman they admire?

France, 25 March 1917

Don’t you often speculate on what lies beyond the gate of Death? The after life must be particularly interesting. No chance of getting leave… Haven’t heard from Victor Richardson for a long long time–hope he is still going strong…

Tonight I walked home with Wilmot who is in a convalescent home near here. It has been a brilliant day with a fresh wind: we passed along between fields, some green and some with bright red earth recently plowed: and then came to a large forest. The wind made a delightful rustling in the trees & had it not have been for the distant continual bumping of guns War might not have existed…[5]

 

Lastly, today, Siegfried Sassoon evokes a mood of either wistful poetasting or listless carping, depending upon how you see it. But he is a dependable man for observing the landscape, after all.

After five weeks in France (and two with Second R.W.F.) I have not yet been within five miles of a German gun. Instead of getting nearer, the war has actually receded… Yesterday afternoon I got on to a lorry and went bumping
along the Corbie road for three or four miles…  Then I walked down the hill to Heilly on the Ancre, where we camped for four days early in July last year, and marched away to the line again on a hot dusty afternoon. The water still sings its deep tune by the bridge, and the narrow stream goes twinkling away past the bend, and past the garden where I used to walk when I came over from Morlancourt to the Field Cashier. About 5 o’clock I started off up the hill again with the sun setting low and red and the valley hazy and quiet, the wind blowing shrewd, and a plough-team working the ridge.

Another plow team on the ridge!  One begins to suspect a conspiracy between the English outdoor poets and the French peasantry… some sort of pay-to-plow scandal.

And is it a bit too hard on a poor diarist–who after all has a perfect right to record consecutive, incompatible moods–to take him to task for the reach toward a vision of peace, only to follow it with the bathos of one of modern life’s most hackneyed gripes?

I could imagine myself walking home to some friendly English village until the aerodromes loomed in the dusk, and I came to the main road with lines of lorries, and a brazier glowing red where the sentry stands at the cross-roads. And so down the hill to this abominable camp, and a foul dinner in the smoky hut and early to bed, too fed-up to read. And summer begins to-night—which means an hour less in bed, and absolutely nothing else.[6]

In defense of Hermon and Sassoon, the novelty of summer time (a.k.a. daylight savings time) was rather greater a century back…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Unknown Warriors, 104-5.
  2. Some Desperate Glory, 66-7.
  3. I.e. communion
  4. For Love and Courage, 344-5.
  5. Letters From a Lost Generation, 325-6.
  6. Diaries, 144-5.