Edward Heron-Allen in the Home Guard; Edward Brittain Admits it is Very Strange; A Fortunate Headache for Edwin Vaughan

Sir Edward Heron-Allen has previously turned up here only as the target of return fire in a rather ridiculous dispute with not-actually-an-enemy-alien Ford Madox Hueffer. But he kept a wide-ranging diary which is often very interesting despite itself. It charts a course somewhere between Duff Cooper‘s blithe privilege and Alfred Hale‘s proto-elderly schlimazzeling–it is privileged, high-spirited, yet cranky–and otherwise reflects the huge range of interests and self-interests proper to a middle-aged Late Victorian eccentric polymath. Still, who needs to read what one old county gentleman thinks of politics, farming, and the follies of the young?

Ah, but Heron-Allen has–like those other two–belatedly found his way into uniform. He’s a soldier now, too, of a sort, yet seldom does the diary have anything to do with the war that everyone else is fighting. Today, a century back, his local Home Guard unit (formed in 1914 but not recognized by the War Office until this year) is at last preparing for duty, and his account of his uniform and accessories has a bizarre but irresistible charm:

The Selsey Platoon has now got its uniforms… some of them like nothing on God’s earth but a foreign caricature of the British Tommy. My tailor could not do much to my uniform… I do not think I shall wear it very long however for the Sergent-Major tells me that soon after I am made Platoon Sergeant I am sure to be made Lieutenant…  All this is very trivial and Pepys-like, but I confess to a childish pleasure on this being ‘dressed up’…

I dined on Tuesday with my dear old mother, who was much interested in my military career! My father was one of the first volunteers (of 1859)… The old lady proudly presented me with his sword, a really beautiful weapon, elaborately etched with designs of various kinds… I have always wanted to possess it for it was always the admiration of my childhood…

I made a note on the exhibition of intensive hen-keeping, at the Zoological Gardens…[1]

 

Edwin Vaughan‘s diary is a different animal altogether. Less well-kept-hen than tense–but carefully groomed–rabbit, he has spent two days in a crouch, ears flared, near Poperinghe. But this is the real war…

August 13 We heard this morning that we are moving up again tomorrow and that on the 16th we will be in support to a battalion of Irish Rifles at St Julien. The imminence of the attack made me very frightened and I trembled so much that I could not take part in the discussion at first. But after poring over the map for a bit and passing on all information to my platoon, I grew calmer. Before noon we had learnt every detail of the ground from the map and, incidentally, had been issued with private’s clothing.

So this should be another stage of that slow journey up the line, from safety to misery and danger. But, especially in the Salient, the war doesn’t always follow the script.

After lunch Radcliffe, Harding and I went down to Pop for a farewell dinner. We have heard so much now, that we know what we are in for. We found the trench model quite close to Slaughter Wood and we stopped to examine it. At La Poupée we had a most wonderful dinner with many drinks so that when we started back through the darkness, we were all a little unsteady. When we got back into camp, Radcliffe and Harding were asleep in no time, but the champagne and the excitement of the attack prevented me from lying down even. I felt that my head was bursting, so in pyjamas and slippers I went out again into the wood. A gentle rain was falling and the mud came up over my bare ankles. I had walked about 30 yards from the hut when without warning there was a blinding flash and a shell burst close beside me. Staggering back I hurried to the hut as three more crashed down among the trees. Kneeling on the steps I groped along the floor for my tin hat; at the same moment another salvo fell around us, chunks whizzed past my head and I heard the splintering of wood and a clatter as if the table had gone over.

Then I heard a voice screaming faintly from the bushes. Jamming on my tin hat I ran up the track and stumbled over a body. I stopped to raise the head, but my hand sank into the open skull and I recoiled in horror. The cries continued and I ran on up the track to find that the water cart had been blown over on to two men. One was crushed and dead, the other pinned by the waist and legs. Other men ran up and we heaved the water cart up and had the injured man carried to the aid post. I took the papers and effects from the dead men and had the bodies moved into the bushes until morning. Then soaked with rain and covered in mud I returned to the hut.[2]

 

And finally, today, Edward Brittain has heard from his sister Vera, now stationed at a hospital at the Étaples base camp. He writes back to her with a mixture of dogged persistence in former roles (why write to a working nurse in Étaples about your six-weeks-lost valise?!?) and bemusement at her new circumstances. But neither of these subjects hold his pen for long: an officer who knows that battle is looming generally cannot entirely lift his eyes from the narrow horizon of future cares, and the “absurd” becomes a plan of attack without even a full stop.

France, 13 August 1917

Many thanks for your letters of the 7th and 9th. I think I know whereabouts you are though I don’t really know the side towards the sea…  I don’t want anything now thanks except that accursed valise…

It is very strange that you should be nursing Hun prisoners and it does show how absurd the whole thing is; I am afraid leave is entirely out [of] the question for the present; I am going to be very busy as I shall almost certainly have to command the co[mpan]y. in the next show because, as you know, some people are always left behind and Harrison did the last show just before I came out. I shall probably not be able to write at all regularly after the next few days though I don’t know for certain. . . Things are much more difficult than they used to be because nowadays you never know where you are in the line and it is neither open warfare nor trench warfare.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Journal of the Great War, 111.
  2. Some Desperate Glory, 191-2.
  3. Letters From a Lost Generation, 371.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

Now the, er, bombshell drops:

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You only saw your future bigly planned,

And we, the tapering paths of our own mind,

And in each other’s dearest ways we stand,

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

 

References and Footnotes

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

Siegfried Sassoon Takes the Measure of His Foe

The big guns of pacifism–or, at least, of resistance to this war in its current form–have been called in to help Siegfried Sassoon. And the statement has been written… but not yet released. Sassoon hesitates. And although he will portray himself as putty in the hands of forceful intellects like Middleton Murray and, especially, Russell, his diary entry of today, a century back, makes it clear that he is girding himself and taking the measure of the opposition before he commits to his assault.

June 21

A long statement of the war-aims etc by Belloc in Land and Water leaves me quite unconvinced. He argues from the point of view of British rectitude: and it is that which I am questioning. Worst of all he argues on the assumption that ‘the next few months’ will bring a military decision; he has done this since 1915, so one cannot put much faith in him.

I am revolting against the war being continued indefinitely; I believe that Carson, Milner, Lloyd George and Northcliffe intend the war to continue at least two more years. To carry out the scheme of ‘crushing Kaiserism and Prussianism’ by means of brute force, the war must go on two more years.

The swirling mess of historical ironies here is impossible to untangle: Sassoon may be heading into conspiracy-theory territory, but he’s not quite wrong about anything he claims, and in fact his assessments are eminently sensible, and would have been shared by many realistic strategists. No one can make a real claim to having predicted the see-sawing effects of Russian collapse, American participation, and the catastrophic “success” of the German Spring offensive–just as no one could have predicted what became of “Kaiserism” after armistice and abdication.

What follows seems to be on much less solid ground–but that may be in part because none of it “became” history.

If they stated our terms definitely, once and for all, and those terms were the ones we went into the war to enforce, the German people would realise that they had been enforced, and would insist on the war being stopped…

It is obvious that nothing could be worse than the present conditions under which humanity is suffering and dying. How will the wastage and misery of the next two years be repaired? Will Englishmen be any happier because they have added more colonies to their Empire? The agony of France! The agony of Austria-Hungary and Germany! Are not those equal before God?[1]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 176-7.

Wilfred Owen’s Wound is Blighty-Worthy at Last; C.E. Montague Separates the War from the Militarists

Wilfred Owen‘s long, strange, slow journey back from the front recently took him as far as an American-run base hospital on the French coast. This seemed to him a very pleasant place to be… if he weren’t still suffering from the stress of his indefinite confinement and unclear diagnosis.

A recent letter to his mother was cautiously optimistic, and still very much aggravated:

I think it is very likely that the Americans will send me to England, but we must permit ourselves no jubilations yet. I shall believe it as soon as I find myself within swimming distance of the Suffolk Coast. The usual thing on arrival is a fortnight or more of genuine leave at home!

I am sorry! I can think of nothing else to write about, and if I went on about my expectations this letter would end in a scream. If I go bathing this afternoon it will be to practise swimming in Channel waters…[1]

Luckily there was no need for this extreme measure–today, a century back, in a private cabin on a converted luxury liner, Owen sailed for England. His first stop will be the enormous military hospital in Netley.

 

C.E Montague will eventually become a standard-bearer for the disenchanted. But it would be a gross oversimplification to portray him as someone who became broadly “anti-war” because of the failings of the British army. A letter to his wife of today, a century back–many months into his frustrations with the General Staff and his unhappy involvement in managing propaganda–thinks carefully through the ways in which a man can hate war and yet serve the British war effort. And yet the terms of his analogy are hardly pacific…

June 16, 1917

I look on the struggle as one between believers in the virtue of war and disbelievers in [it], and feel almost proud and glad that we are, in a way, amateurs at it compared with the Prussian professionals, just as I would rejoice to see a professional garotter choked by some inoffensive person who thought garotting beastly.

I do find it a little perplexing that one can’t cast out Satan except with his own instruments, and yet the result of our not casting him out would be so unspeakable that I can’t hesitate. But, all the more because of the moral puzzle, I feel very keen on our keeping to the cleanest methods we can and avoiding any of the special Prussian beastlinesses of bombing non-combatants, harsh treatment of prisoners, etc.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 469.
  2. C.E Montague, 166.

The Needs of the Bureaucracy Will Punish Rowland Feilding’s Compassion and Send Two Poets–Edmund Blunden and Edward Thomas–to Moulder in an Office

If one thread ties together these three reports of today, a century back, it is that the military bureaucracy is a friend to no man. We can circle around the basic question of motivation–this war being so awful, and so unnatural, why and how did all these soldiers stay the course?–throughout years of diligent reading without finding any satisfactory route to an answer. But most approaches will touch on the importance of leadership, of camaraderie, and of the hope that the war’s evident brutality is not the end of the story–that humanity and kindness remain, despite the bayonets, booby-traps, and clouds of poison gas.

It is difficult, then, to be transferred before friendships can take hold, to be separated from a unit and a trusted leader on the inscrutable whims of the bureaucracy, and to be told that accepting a gesture of mercy in order to save your subordinate friends is a punishable act.

First, Rowland Feilding, writing to his wife–and carefully including the relevant documentation.

February 26, 1917 Curragh Camp (Locre),

There is a sequel to the affair of the 19th. It has been suggested that the so-called “armistice” constituted a breach of the order which forbids fraternization. The incident unfortunately occurred right on the top of a memorandum dealing with the subject, and worded as follows:

1. A case has recently occurred in another part of the line in which the enemy are reported to have been allowed to approach our lines and remove the bodies of some of their dead.

Whilst doing this he was probably able to secure useful information as to the state of our wire and the ground in its vicinity, and in any case he was permitted to deprive us of what may have been a valuable identification.

2. The Divisional Commander wishes it to be dearly understood by all ranks that any understanding with the enemy of this or any other description is strictly forbidden.

We have to deal with a treacherous and unscrupulous foe, who, from the commencement of the present war, has repeatedly proved himself unworthy of the slightest confidence. No communication is to be held with him without definite instructions from Divisional Headquarters, and any attempts on his part to fraternize with our own troops is to be instantly repressed.

3. Commanding Officers are to take steps to ensure that all ranks under their command are acquainted with these instructions.

In the event of any infringement of them, disciplinary action is to be taken.

As a matter of fact I had not seen this memorandum, which arrived when I was away from the battalion. God knows whether I should have acted differently had I done so! Anyway, a Court of Enquiry is to be convened, to decide whether we did fraternize or not, and orders still more stringent than that which I have quoted have been issued.

In future, if fifty of our wounded are lying in Noman’s Land, they are (as before) to remain there till dark, when we may get them in if we can; but no assistance, tacit or otherwise, is to be accepted from the enemy. Ruthlessness is to be the order of the day. Frightfulness is to be our watchword. Sportsmanship, chivalry, pity—all the qualities which Englishmen used to pride themselves in possessing—are to be scrapped.

In short, our methods henceforth are to be strictly Prussian; those very methods to abolish which we claim to be fighting this war.

And all because the enemy took toll for his generosity the other day.

It is beautiful and sunny and warm to-day.[1]

It is common for men–even lieutenant-colonels–to rail against a bureaucracy that sends down haughty orders out of sympathy with the realities of the trenches. But it is quite another thing for a man like Feilding to suggest that the root motivations of officers like himself–the essential English honorable self-image, as invoked in calls to go to war in the first place–are being destroyed by its own leadership.

 

In a quieter way, the same senders-of-orders are separating Edmund Blunden from that which he most values. His battalion has just marched to new positions in the Ypres salient, which are bad enough.

A reconnaisance of the trenches which we were to hold came next. They were those on a rising ground in Sanctuary Wood, near Hill 60, and were indifferently known as Torr Tops, Mount Sorrel, and Observatory Ridge. On arriving in the wood, we found it an unprepossessing one — “What about Thiepval?” said Sergeant Ashford to me as we moved taciturnly up the duckboards, not the imagined communication trench. “Looks exactly the same.” The scene was deathly, and if we had known then the German points of vantage we should have disliked it still more.

But now their commander, Col. Harrison, who had stuck his neck out to prevent the implementation of destructive orders, is paying the price for his free-speaking.

Meeting me outside a high red house in Kruisstraat, Harrison walked along the road to tell me his news, and his face was overcast. He was ordered to return to England, and at once. I had no difficulty in connecting this disaster with the frequent contests of opinion between him and our old master at the brigade office.[2] But more followed. He had arranged that I was to go to Brigade as intelligence officer; the General had previously worried him to let me go, and now he thought it would do me good. These facts caused the Ypres-Comines Canal, over which our short walk led us, to look particularly desolate and gray. That night Harrison went his way, and I reported anxiously at the seat of terror in the Ramparts; the battalion relieved in wild blackness on Observatory Ridge. It had hardly taken over the trenches when a fierce brief bout of shelling fell upon Valley Cottages, the foolish wreckage used as battalion headquarters, and among the victims was our kind, witty, and fearless Sergeant Major Daniels. He was struck in the head, and being carried away to the casualty clearing station in Vlamertinghe white mill, lived a day or two and said good-bye to Harrison, who heard of the bad business in time to see him once more.[3]

This is an ominous coincidence–which is to say it is a sad coincidence which Blunden has given its full effect as an omen of his impending separation. One might point out that his parting from the battalion is both less sudden and less final than violent death, but even to allow events–the “disaster” and the “bad business”–to express the analogy is something of a strong statement from Blunden.

 

And now Blunden–despite and because of his many months of good service with his unit–will be in the same spot that Edward Thomas is: safer and spared the physical rigors of regular work, but cut off from friends and companions, alienated within the too-big-for-comfort world of higher-echelon office work. We will continue to read a lot of Thomas, so his long catching-us-up letter to his old friend Gordon Bottomley may function as a welcome review.

26 February 1917

My dear Gordon,

The gramophone here was playing ‘Anitra’s Dance’ & other things from Grieg yesterday—-& in the evening one Officer (named Berrington) was talking about Georgian Poets. So at last I will write a little. It isn’t all Grieg & Poetry here. The old city I am in was shelled today. The village I went to for some map work was under shell & machine gun fire, & returning I was within 3 yards of being shot by one of our own guns. Worst of all was the din between 8.15 & 9.00 this morning when our Artillery was covering a raid—the prisoners arrived by 10. I can’t pretend to enjoy it, but it does not interfere with the use of fieldglasses & compass though it stops conversation!

It was not our Corps that was doing it so we felt no special interest.

My address is 244 Siege Battery but for the present I am 3 miles away at the headquarters of a Heavy Artillery Group to which I have been lent. Before coming here I did a little firing & more observing & plenty of supervision of digging in & other preparations. Observing is what I like & I am very anxious to get back to a more physically active  life than I lead here as a sort of Adjutant.

We have been out a month but it took us over a week to crawl up to the front on snowy roads & sleeping in trains & tents & other cold places. But I enjoyed most of it. I like the country we are in. It is open hilly chalk country with great ploughed fields & a few copses on the hilltops. The ruined villages of brick & thatch & soft white stone have been beautiful. Of course one does not stroll about here, but the incidental walks to Observation Posts or up to see my battery are often very pleasant, both in the frost & in the sunny weather which has begun at last…

One gets—I mean I get—along moderately well, or even more, with all sorts of uncongenial people, & I have nothing to complain of except lack of letters & parcels. They take a week to come out, & we had none for 3 weeks. So far I have not met anyone I know among all the officers I say good morning to in these streets or out in the country. In a month or so we shall be too busy to think about anything else, but at present we are comparatively quiet just here.Give my love to Emily & to Lascelles when you see him

Yours ever Edward Thomas[4]

Thomas affects a moderated tone out of consideration for his friend. It would be awkward to bring Bottomley through all the ups and downs of his experience when he has heard little or nothing of his friend in weeks. No friend of Thomas, after all, is reading him as steadily as we are–the daily diary and the frequent letters. So Thomas features in this letter the incidents that have shocked him and that will play well at home–being three yards from the muzzle, for instance–but he passes lightly by the real threats to his well-being: no really congenial company, no walking and no exercise. And not to mention the muzzles facing the other way… what is looming depression on when a few weeks will bring battle? An open question…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 157.
  2. Blunden will remove this line.
  3. Undertones of War, 147.
  4. The Letters of Edward Thomas to Gordon Bottomley, 277-78.

Kate Luard Describes Heroism, Dismemberment, and Death; Gruff Joking from Thomas Hardy and a Training Camp Sketch from Wilfred Owen; Raymond Asquith Tempts Fate

Two days ago, one of Kate Luard‘s heroes was sent away. “The Flying Boy,” stable enough to move and due for his D.S.O., was seen off, cheerful as ever, his stretcher laid on the floor of an overloaded ambulance train. And today, William Cottar, a one-eyed corporal who had lost his leg during a bombing attack on the night of March 6-7th, was well enough to be able to talk to Luard about his exploits. Running into “thousands” of Germans near the Hohenzollern redoubt, he was badly wounded yet stayed in command, leading the withdrawal, bombing and directing the fire of his men as he did so. (Where, one wonders, were the officers?) It’s hard to improve upon this quote:

It was dark, and I didn’t know me leg was gone–so I kep’ on throwing the bombs and little Wood he kep’ by me and took out the pins for me.

For two hours of constant fighting, followed by another fourteen hours without medical treatment or anesthetic. Only then could he be evacuated.

And so this morning, a century back, the wounded corporal was visited by the Corps Commander with news that he would be recommended for the Victoria Cross. He would get it, too–posthumously. Hours later, after a hemorrhage and emergency surgery, he died.[1]

 

A gruff and sudden mortality never makes a good segue, but Thomas Hardy would understand better than most. He wrote to Edmund Gosse today, a century back, with creaking jocularities about the writer and critic’s charitable work on behalf of a Red Cross book sale committee. He inquires as well about Gosse’s son Phillip, a doctor serving on the Western Front.

Max Gate  | 15 March 1916

My dear Chairman:

I am glad to find that you are still actively engaged in your gratuitous work. It is rather barefaced of me, I confess, to be a Committee man, & never go near the scene of my supposed labours. However it is your fault, which is a comforting reflection, so that I picture the unpacking of those 2400 packages by other hands than my own with comparative calm.

I am much interested to hear about Philip. If poverty makes strange bedfellows, war makes strange yokefellows.—I mean, how it mixes us all up. We here get men in Khaki from the camp to tea, & discover under their uniform men of every profession: lawyers, artists, bankers, &c, &c. all painted one colour for the nonce.

I hope you are economizing? We put on our coals as it were with sugartongs, drink cider only, in wineglasses, & send our ancient shoes to be mended instead of buying new ones—So you see we are getting on.

What is going to happen to English literature I don’t know—if the war goes on long. I have many misgivings…

…Always sincerely

Thomas Hardy[2]

 

Misgivings, yes. Gosse will introduce Hardy to a young writer, soon enough, who may allay some of those. But it’s not Wilfred Owen (that will take one more slim degree of separation). And nor would today’s missive have soothed Hardy’s fears. A man has needs, after all, and these needs are the army’s fault since, convolutedly, it holds that officers should be gentlemen and gentlemen should be rather rich. Therefore, even the middle class training battalions which have been set up precisely to discover officers in previously untapped classes expect a significant outlay–above tuition, as it were–from would-be officers.

Monday Evening [14 March 1916] Y.M.C.A.

My own dear Mother,

I found your Letter on the Table where our Post is displayed this afternoon. I was twice blest to find the stray letter refound, as I was no less annoyed to think the 5s. was.lost, than I was needy of it. We have been obliged to buy all manner of Note-Books for our work, and shall soon have Maps and such materials to find. I shall consider my running clothes as my Birthday Present. There is no book that I hanker after, because I can borrow anything that there is time to read; but there are some half-dozen Military Books which I ought to get…

We now have started in earnest; we have a lecture at 6.30 a.m. drill and field operations all day… I have exactly 30 mins, of my own today, and 15 of those are being consecrated to these pages. How I wish I had more…  even on Sunday Mornings we do the same old, insupportable drill. This last week has been enough to send crazy any thinking being—eternal inspections, parades, inspections, punishment parades, & more inspections.

No, actually, English literature is not in dire straits yet. Wilfred-as-written-to-Mama is far from humorous, generally, and not always dependable as to observation. But this is good stuff:

Every morning we alternately (1) stand and freeze, and (2) hustle around till we are blown as race-horses. Meanwhile, the Colonel himself, cursing us from the top of a Golf Mound, drills us, foaming at the mouth. Sometimes he follows at our heels, barking like a collie after straggling sheep. After this, we are at the mercy of a Coldstream Guard Sergeant, who abuses us in bad English and worse Language…

Unbounded love. Your Wilfred xxx[3]

There are busy days coming in France, so I will look ahead to Wilfred’s next letter, of the 18th, which dilates on much the same theme:

We are not forced to get up till 6, for Physical Drill at 6.30, but we are punished so severely for impeachable dress that we rise in our sleep almost and begin to do our scraping, cleaning, washing, shaving, polishing, scrubbing, rubbing, brushing, oiling, sandpapering, folding, tying, tidying, cleaning-up & clearing down, cleansing, ablutions, bucklings, foldings, etc. &c. Etc, and caetera. So we toil and moil…

It’s a hard-knock life for Wilfred. But as the mood fades, the military characters become jokes worn thin:

The only nuisance is the Sergeant Major, Coldstream Guard, a consummate bully, amusing enough in Punch, but not viewed from the ranks.

The Army as a life is a curious anomaly; here we are prepared—or preparing—to lay down our lives–for another, the highest moral act possible, according to the Highest Judge, and nothing of this is apparent between the jostle of discipline and jest. Again, we turn from the meanest of jobs scrubbing floors, to do delicate mapping, and while staying in for being naughty, we study the abstractions of Military Law.

On the whole, l am fortunate to be where I am, and happy sometimes, as when I think it is a life pleasing to you & Father and the Fatherland.

All the love of the whole heart of your

Wilfred[4]

 

And lastly, today, Raymond Asquith reminds us that–while a nice double caricature of a blustering general and a blistering sergeant is all well and good–England depends upon the sweeping edge of the fashionable classes for its truly biting wit. Thus Asquith dares to tempt fate:

14 March 1916

. . .This weather makes one yearn a good deal for one thing and another; specially perhaps for pleasant lawns and shade and lovely women in muslin dresses. But it will be some time before I dip my oar in that stream I fear. . .

If I ever take part in another war, I hope that it will be in my own country instead of in someone else’s. In spite of what people say, I believe it would be much more agreeable than this–beastly as the East Coast undoubtedly is…[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Unknown Warriors, 46-7.
  2. The Letters of Thomas Hardy, V, 149.
  3. Collected Letters, 385.
  4. Collected Letters, 386-7.
  5. Life and Letters, 248.

Raymond Asquith from the Tropical Glare of Militarism to the Shadow World of Secret Service; Bimbo Tennant a Killer, or Not

Dr. Dunn today describes the exploits of two of the 2/Royal Welch’s more deadly officers. One C.R.J.R. Dolling led an impromptu raid on a German working party, supported not only by artillery and the battalion snipers but by the redoubtable W. H. Stanway. This Boer War veteran sergeant had been commissioned early in the war and was now a captain (acting major) and frighteningly competent soldier. During the raid he gave “occasional but deadly aid to the snipers.” His exploits seem best described in short, simple sentences:

Once he snapped an officer where the German parapet was low. Another day he got a pheasant for the pot. He had a disconcerting habit at one time of keeping his revolver on the table when playing cards, to shoot rats as they ran along the cornice beam of the dug-out.[1]

Well played: it would seem that Stanway has figured out how to combine an officer’s gravitas with an ex-ranker’s efficiency. And hunt each social echelon’s traditional quarry, as well.

 

Raymond Asquith wishes he could make his career transitions so smoothly. We track back a few days to see what he has been up to as he fights tooth and nail–or not at all, except for complaining in letters to his wife Katherine–against a proposed transfer to the headquarters staff.

3rd. Grenadier Guards, B.E.F.
23 January 1916

I’ve just got your letter written in the train. I’m sorry you had that horrible dream about the last supper. I’m afraid you must have got into the habit of regarding yourself as Cinderella. This must be discontinued, as the official orders always say in the Army.

I have just got back from a visit to G.H.Q. They sent a motor for me this morning, and I had quite a pretty drive in frosty sunlight over very skiddy cobbles, and was more frightened than I have been so far in France. I lunched with the head of the intelligence department. General Charteris, who was extremely civil and friendly about the whole thing. I suggested two months as a time limit, but he said it would take me a little time to get into it and he thought 3 months the shortest period that would be useful, so I eventually signed the contract on that basis, and they will take me back here when I have served my time. He called it “Secret Service” to make it sound attractive, but the work seems to consist mainly in collecting and editing the reports of our spies in various parts of France and Belgium. The most pleasing feature of the scheme is that the Department has an office at Folkestone and I shall be sent there for 2 or 3 weeks at the beginning to see how it works on that side. I am to go over again to G.H.Q. on Tuesday and I suppose soon after that to England. I will let you know when they tell me more definitely, and you might come down and live at Folkestone for a bit…

Disloyally, and as a matter of course, Asquith saves his best lines for Diana Manners:

Today, as a matter of fact, I motored over to G.H.Q. and interviewed the head of the Intelligence Department, a very civil Brigadier, who is going to employ me in what he alluringly calls the “Secret Service”. I’m afraid it doesn’t mean a sham beard and blue goggles as I hoped at first…

 

And today, a century back, to Katherine Asquith once again. Note the new heading:

Intelligence, General Headquarters, B.E.F.
25 January 1916

I motored over here this morning to take up my new duties, but no one seems to be very clear what they are. I sit in a large cold room with 3 or 4 other men smoking, gossiping and occasionally reading a book about the German army, or looking at a map of the Belgian railways. At irregular intervals I go out to meals with Lord Onslow,–a pleasant friendly fellow whom I remember dimly at Oxford just before my time.

I have got quite a comfortable looking billet where Needham has laid out my things. It seems very queer to be living in this twilight world, half soldier half civilian, after the tropical glare of militarism to which I have become inured in my own regiment. At present I feel very like a new, boy at school, unfamiliar with the etiquette, unwanted by either masters or pupils, and utterly supernumerary to the whole scheme of things. However, I daresay I shall get acclimatised by degrees. I have certainly learned during the last year or so to fit into queerer crannies than this.

My prospects of going to Folkestone are, I fear, less bright than they were and if I do go, it will probably be only for a short time . . . I have a terrible sinking feeling just at present, and don’t know how I shall ever get through my 3 months of office work. But, as you know, I should be grousing wherever I was…[2]

Truer words.

 

Good thing, then, that we’ve got the Cheeriest Grenadier today as well. What’s up with Bim Tennant?

25th January, 1916

Darling Moth’,

I got your letter to-day and was very “sodge” that you have not got any letters from me lately. I expect some have come by now, though, as I have sent you two recently. I sent you one when I remembered your birthday; I am glad to say the pistol came to-day, and has been a constant source of joy, as I am at present stationed in a fort about two miles behind the firing line, and life is none too thrilling. I came here the day before yesterday, and leave it to-morrow; it is considered a “rest billet” but is very uncomfortable…

Next some gossip about a comrade. Then, with no more warning–and no more commentary–than a new paragraph:

I think I shot a German the other day; if I did, God rest his soul.

Perhaps that could be used in post-war primers for German students as an example of (the very simple matter of) rendering conditional clauses in English.

I expect Osbert will come back to-morrow, and I shall probably get off then, D.V…

I wish I had more news, but I have none. Wilsford must be lovely now, I hope all the old friends there are well. It has been glorious here for three days, though it becomes frosty at night. German aeroplanes come over us every day. I can distinguish the Iron Cross on the wings very easily with my glasses…

Please thank Daddy very much for the pistol, as I wrote last night saying it hadn’t come yet. I am longing to see you, darling Moth’…

Ever your devoted Son,

Bimbo[3]

The things people tell their mothers… and don’t explain.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The War the Infantry Knew, 178.
  2. Life and Letters, 237-9.
  3. Letters, 112-14.

Tolkien Confronts a Bold Warrior, Resolute Beneath His Helm; Vera Brittain Fails to Find Convincing Words of Grief

At 9:30 this morning, a century back, young Ronald Tolkien sat for the first exam of his final term at Oxford. The paper? “Beowulf and Other Old English Texts.”

Meanwhile, his friend G.B. Smith was cramming a letter to Tolkien with all the inside information he would need for his next step in life. Smith was an old soldier of several months’ standing, and Tolkien hoped to be posted to his battalion, the 19th Lancashire Fusiliers.

Now you have one uniform, and the most you want is another tunic, a pair of slacks, perhaps a pair of breeches, and perhaps a British Warm. If you can get slacks under 35/ you will be a genius; and breeches are Allports’ extra special article. If you could manage to be in Birmingham during the next week we might visit that distinguished emporium together… It is most important to buy only the darkest stuffs for breeches and Warm, because the CO here hates anything light…  As to Camp Kit: You want a bed, bath & washstand… a sleeping-bag, a blanket or two and a kit-bag…[1]

These are middle class boys moving into the ranks of a New Army battalion of a not particularly fashionable regiment–but it seems like good advice. This battalion of the Lancashires, at least, hews to the old army style. You might remember the advice that Siegfried Sassoon/George Sherston received from his own highly-recommended and regimentally-approved tailor, provider of fashionable uniforms to one of the prouder old regiments:

But he only made one reference to the cataclysm of military training which was in progress, and that was when I was choosing my khaki shirts. “You can’t have them too dark,” when my eye wandered toward a paler pattern. “We have to keep those in stock–they’re for the East of course–but it’s quite unpermissable the way some of these New Army officers dress: really the Provost-Marshal ought to put a stop to all these straw-colored shirts and ties they’re coming out in.” He lifted his eyes in horror…[2]

 

Vera Brittain, her own final exams about to begin, continues to do a little light reading on the side–mainly casualty lists and short letters from her beloved Roland, who is once more in danger.

Thursday June 10th

I saw in The Times obituary notices this morning the death from wounds of Murray Drummond-Fraser. He was only 21, I always imagined him more. I have often played tennis or bridge with him, & always liked him very much. So they are all departing; fulfilling, like the Achaeans of Homer’s Iliad, a cruel fate—“the eloquent, the young, the beautiful & brave.” Words of grief become almost meaningless in these days, they have to be used so frequently…

I don’t think this is the first time that Vera Brittain has anticipated the major literary challenge of the war, i.e. adapting conventional modes of mourning and remembrance to an event out of all scale to any that had been previously handled by the English tradition. She, like several other of our writers, has run smack into an unexpected problem: someone dies, and the traditional words of mourning that come to mind… ring hollow. And these are old acquaintances who are dying, not close friends or comrades or brothers or lovers. Still, merely slapping a lyrically translated bit of ancient epic onto the memory of a dead young man just doesn’t seem to do it anymore…

I had another short letter from Roland this morning. They had been shelled a good deal & had sent the men into a hollow in the field but no damage was done. He had just been to mass in a very small chapel in the village…

There are rumours that they are going to a different line of trenches, though not out of their divisional area. “This,”
he says, “will not mean Ypres; only a little change of scene.” Still, I am anxious. They would hardly move into a less dangerous place.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Tolkien Companion and Guide, Chronology, 65-6.
  2. Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, 233.
  3. Chronicle of Youth, 206-7.

Edward Thomas: the Young Poet Must Be Vain; Alan Seeger Trumpets Martial Glory; Vera Brittain Pines for Romantic Bliss; Julian Grenfell Discovers Spring in Flanders

Alan Seeger, the elder and slightly more poetical of our two young American Legionnaires, wrote a letter today for publication in the New York Sun. He’s canny enough to throw a brief head-fake before getting down to the real business of the letter: an old fashioned appeal to military Romanticism. Much has endured into the war’s first Spring–and much will survive the war, until the “disenchanted” survivors wrest control of the national memory. This, though, is the sort of stuff that will be harder and harder to believe in as the war drags on.

On the Aisne, March 24, 1915.

Among so many hours in the soldier’s life that modern warfare makes monotonous and unromantic there come those too when the heart expands with accesses of enthusiasm that more than compensate for all his hardships and suffering. Such was the afternoon of the review we passed the other day before the General of our army corps.

All the morning in the hayloft of our cantonment we labored cleaning from rifle and equipment, clothes and person, their evidence of the week in the trenches from which we had just returned. At noon under the most beautiful of spring skies we marched out of the village two battalions strong.

In contrast with the sinister lifelessness and suspense that reigns along the front, here, as soon as one is out of the zone of artillery fire, all is bustle and busy operations. Along the roads were the camps of the engineers and depots filled with material for defence and military works piles of lumber, pontoon bridges in sections, infinite rolls of barbed wire, thousands of new picks and shovels neatly laid out, that raised groans from the men as they passed, for Caesar’s remark about the spade having won him more than the sword holds curiously true in the Gallic wars of today, at least so far as our experience has gone…

For fifteen kilometers or so we marched back over hill and vale, singing the chansons de route of the French soldier along poplar lined canals where the big péniches [a flat sort of river or canal boat] are stalled, through picturesque villages where the civilians, returned to their reconquered territory, came to their doors and greeted us as we passed…

On the sunny plateau we were joined by the two relief battalions of the regiment that holds the sector to our left, and all were drawn up on the plain in columns of sections by four, a fine spectacle. We had not waited long when the General appeared down the road. He was superbly mounted, was followed by a dragoon bearing the tricolor on his lance and an escort of about a dozen horsemen. Four thousand bayonets flashed in the air as he rode by. Then the band struck up the march of the Second Chasseurs and under the mounted figure, silhouetted on a little knoll, we paraded by to its stirring strains…

Come on boys, and join the Legion! If America is really going to sit out, then you’ll miss the grandest thing going…

This is unabashed propaganda. The next bit I’ll skip: Seeger relates a friend’s tales of the action on a more contested section of the front, adding a frisson of approaching bombs and pitter-pattering bullets to his tale before returning to the shining bayonets.

After noting that the French soldiers sing songs dating to 1792 (when Germans, among others, marched against revolutionary France, and the first real People’s army began winning its great victories), Seeger rises to a stirring conclusion:

May our hearts in the hour when the supreme demand is to be made on us be fired with the same enthusiasm that filled them as we stood there on the sunny plateau listening to the Battle Hymn of the Army of the Rhine!

All were in high spirits as we marched home that evening. We took a short cut, cross country, for it was already getting dark enough to traverse without danger the field where we passed a while exposed to the distant artillery. The last glow of sunset shone down the gray valley, illumining with a brazen lustre the windings of the river as we tramped back over the pontoon bridge and into cantonment again. Something breathed unmistakably of spring and the eve of great events.

And that night in our candle-lit loft we uncorked bottles of bubbling champagne. Again the strains of the noble hymn broke spontaneously from our lips. And clinking our tin army cups, with the spell of the afternoon still strong upon us, we raised them there together, and we too drank to “the day.”[1]

 

What would Vera Brittain say to all of that? She’s not, of course, completely opposed to the lure of honor and glory, but… it hardly matters. Roland wants it very much.

Wednesday March 24th

After tea a sort of restlessness came over me which urged me to go into Corbar Woods & stand by the tree beneath which Roland & I sat nearly a year ago, & where first we began to feel that interest in each other which has led to so much. As I stood there, the place was hallowed by the memory of his presence, so that even the bareness of the tree-trunks & the greyness of the distance which showed between them could not prevent my soul from making itself felt in a vague aspiring, and an intense spiritual consciousness of love & ital inner life striving for self-expression.

I felt again keenly the desire to be able to stand alone–the longing for a fuller realisation of my spiritual being & for the perfecting of the intellectual instrument through which it expresses and reveals itself. So strongly, as I gazed at the lonely hills behind me & the faint gleam of red sunset sky in the greyness above, did I feel the element of Unity in me & in that upon which I was looking that I knelt on the damp ground beneath the tree and prayed to that omnipotent Being that Roland might return. Then I walked slowly away, intending on April 20th to revisit the place.[2]

Good God! Is it youth? The cloying breath coughed out in the death rattle of the Long Nineteenth Century? Or is it just fear and death and joy and love and God and country?

It’s as if the blank-faced angels of European cultural history have assembled two-by-two, handing all the good little girls their pair of dolls, veiled bride and black-trousered groom, and all the good little boys their toy soldiers, bayonets a-twinkle. A few years more and the boys will be marching about self-seriously, deep in their war games, while the girls sigh and plot their way to the heights and depths of careening romance.

And then a few more years, and here they are, bright and expensively educated, in love or in the trenches, doin’ what comes naturally.

I know that many of you with an abiding interest in World War One know what will come, in the war and in its writing. But make like you don’t–isn’t there a desperate need for wisdom? For testament after testament, and a new poetry of terrible experience? Or should we sigh and acknowledge that we are a foolish species among many, driven to meaningless paroxysms of love and violence?

 

Julian Grenfell sent another gossip-and-parcel-receipts letter today, but he closed with news of Spring in Flanders:

We have had a wonderful boiling hot Spring week, with all the birds shouting. It makes me feel terribly restless! Goodbye Mummy darling. I wish I could see you. What urgent “business” reason can I give to get another week’s leave[?]

J.[3]

A rather abrupt ending for the restless Grenfell. But the cavalry are still being kept out of the trenches, and he has seen no action in many weeks…

 

And, finally, out and about in England, Edward Thomas was for the birds today as well, writing Two Pewits as well as another letter to Walter de la Mare. It would be no exaggeration to say that, for the last few weeks the poetry-writing has been going as well as the poetry-presenting is not. Not only are newspapers and magazines turning him down, but Thomas–long known as both a good friend and a just critic of poetry–is finding difficulty gaining sympathetic hearings in return.

Three days ago he had sent a sheaf of verses to de la Mare–an established poet–with the coy-but-obvious announcement that they were the work of a young poet (young in poetry, but not a young man) who wished to remain nameless. He is writing steadily and–he’s sure of it!–very well indeed. And he is not in the mood for polite deferrals.

Steep, 24 March 1915
My dear de la Mare,

The young poet must be much vainer or more tricky than you are used to. He can’t imagine how he will stand waiting a week or how then he could stand hearing he has gone wrong over metre sometimes & yet (apparently) not always. But he does think you may be right because he agrees with you in liking those 4.* He wishes you could prepare him for the horrible truth (it must be horrible) beforehand. Keep the verses till then by all means…

Are you free on Tuesday evening, or on Wednesday either for lunch or supper? Or tea on Tuesday? Send me a card soon to say which suits or what other time suits, for I might be still up on Thursday.

Thomas then thanks de la Mare for helping secure permissions for his forthcoming This England anthology, but makes it clear–an awkward matter, considering that de la Mare has just won both a prestigious appointment and a lifetime pension, and at 42 is under less patriotic pressure anyway–the his money situation is still so dire as to provide a strong motivation for immediate enlistment. The bitter humor does not soften the sense of desolation.

The Proverbs seem dead but still can’t find a publisher to pay funeral expenses, & I believe nearly all London publishers have been invited. They prefer Belgians as objects of charity, so that if I can get my ankle really mended I shall have to try to serve my country after all. The gardener next door has just been called up & when I heard him talking about it I felt worse than I have done yet.

Yours ever
E.T.

P.S. I expect I did ask you not to mention the verses to anyone & told you I was sending them about under another na[me]

Then there’s a post-script, connected to the asterisk, above: “*But then the poor fellow likes the others too.”[4]

There’s the rub: Thomas has girded his loins and started sending his poetry out into the cruel, distracted world. He began with those friends, like Eleanor Farjeon, that he hoped, perhaps, would be most sympathetic. But although he is a “young poet,” he is a wily and stubborn old critic, hard-headed about literature and sure of what he likes. So he’s not taking well to criticism, and has already refused the suggestions of several other friends.

Most awkwardly, he showed some of his poems to W.H. Davies, and Davies promptly announced that they were clearly the work of Robert Frost. And Frost, of course–the one poet who understands Thomas’s work, who shares his point of view, and who knows that, while some of Thomas’s poems bear the influence of Frost, so too does Frost bear the influence of Thomas–is now across an ocean. So Thomas seems increasingly to face the choice of changing his poems to suit his readers–smoothing out the rhythms, lightening the tone, sacrificing complexity–or of sacrificing recognition, and the reward of seeing them in print.

He knew, increasingly, that he was a poet of power and subtlety–greater than all the names here, save his friend Frost–and we know, or have learned to think so. But the others, you see, hadn’t figured this out yet. An apt poetic analogue, perhaps, for the backward-looking and unimaginative generals now confronting the tactical problems of modern trench warfare…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Letters and Diary of Alan Seeger, 75-82.
  2. Chronicle of Youth, 165.
  3. Julian Grenfell, Soldier and Poet, 274-5.
  4. Poet to Poet, 201-2.

A ‘Where Are Our Writers?’ Round-Up; The End of the Royal Irish; The Madness of Julian Grenfell; Lady Feilding Objects

I want to begin what will be a very long entry with a bit of a round-up.

In Northern France, the fighting which had been a southerly complement to the First Battle of Ypres–often described as the Battle of La Bassée–is about to die down. A brutally apt turn of phrase, actually, since many of the battalions of II Corps had suffered so many casualties that they were no longer considered effective. One of these is the 2/Royal Irish Rifles, in which John Lucy now leads a section of only two men–they had begun with eight, a rate of casualties which approximates that of the battalion as a whole. Not far away, and holding trenches that had yet to face a concerted German attack, were Frank Richards and the 2/Royal Welch Fusiliers. We will see a last flurry of activity on their part of the line before it, too, grows quiet. The Irish Guards, however, as well as the BEF’s cavalry reserve–including both of our surviving Grenfells–will shortly be thrown into the fight around Ypres.

To the north,  Lady Feilding and the other intrepid souls of Dr. Monro’s Ambulance Corps have withdrawn closer to the coast, the last little sliver of unoccupied Belgium. But they will soon be safe, the crisis survived, if at great cost. The Belgians today chose what would now surely be irritatingly termed the “nuclear option”–better, though, the “natural” option. Sluice gates were opened and the sea was allowed to flow back over many miles of low-lying land around Dixmude–the location of the newspaper-celebrated ambulance sortie of the 21st. As the waters spread over the next few days, the land around the inundated areas became too sodden to support artillery or permit entrenchment, and the German advance… well, it bogged down.

As for our not-yet-combatants, Alf Pollard and the Honourable Artillery Company will shortly appear in France, as will Henry Williamson’s London Rifles. The “Terriers” are badly needed, now, to bolster the shattered Regulars. Kitchener’s army is still in training, and notable among its subalterns is our Charles Sorley, training in Suffolk with its eponymous regiment. I will find a way to work in a few of his November letters, especially when he begins reading Thomas Hardy’s new book. Rupert Brooke, back in training with the semiprofessional naval infantry after the Antwerp debacle, has begun working on the sonnet sequence that will win him undue fame and inaccurate reputation.

I regret to report that we’ll be getting nothing anytime soon from the rest of the Most Famous Poets Brigade:[1] Edmund Blunden is still in school, Robert Graves is languishing at the Royal Welch Depot, Siegfried Sassoon is mending a broken arm, Edward Thomas is still walking and writing, and Wilfred Owen is still teaching and dreamily scribbling in the south of France. There will be occasional letters from these last two over the next few weeks.

Then there is Oxford, where Tolkien and Brittain are settling in for their penultimate and inaugural terms. We will look in on Ronald occasionally–information is scarce–and on Vera with more frequency.

Finally, though, another word about Williamson. He is a fascinating case, and the combination of surviving letters and his extensive (and distantly post-war) fictionalizing of his entire life make him an inescapably central subject for this project… As I have mentioned before, though, he made an unusual choice: instead of fictionalizing his actual military exploits, he placed his alter ego in a different (Territorial) unit, and then carefully followed its historical experiences. So Williamson is in France, but still far from battle, while Philip Maddison will shortly experience the very worst of First Ypres.

And now for today’s action, a century back.

 

Driven out of Neuve Chapelle yesterday afternoon, the Royal Irish Rifles were back in possession by the wee hours of this morning, a century back. This was fortunate for corporal John Lucy, since he had been ordered by a newly-arrived officer to guide him and a hundred skittish, completely inexperienced men into the town and, fearing disorganization in the dark, he had simply marched them in a column down the road, risking disaster if they met German fire. The didn’t, having missed the night battle. But there was still plenty left to see and do in the ruined town.

Lucy’s writing is, as always, straightforward–which is good, given the places we are going. He gives us relatively unvarnished personal history, which today will be a good reminder that the insanity and horror of war are often seen as the necessary precursors to the more extreme madness-loving corners of 20th century art. Then again, even such a relatively bare account will, when written later on, reflect not only the author’s pure, independent memories but also many intervening literary influences. Lucy is no modernist, and modernism had not come as far as Vietnam. And yet the night scene in Neuve Chapelle is reminiscent nonetheless of something out of Apocalypse Now.

I saw a group of soldiers keeping well in to the wall of a house, with one man wandering about in the middle of the street. Burning houses fell down from time to time, and sent up brighter flames and sparks as they crashed….

‘That’s Corporal Ternaghan… He’s off his bloody nut. He just shot a German prisoner, and he’s wearing his cap.’ Ternaghan was wearing a soft field-grey cap, and there were tears in his eyes and a happy smile on his lips.

He had no difficulty in recognizing me, and said: ‘Hello chum. Only four of us left now. You and me, and Biganne, and Winters.’ He was referring to the four surviving corporals of the thirty-two who sailed with the battalion for France just over two months ago.

The mad corporal breaks into sobs, then “developed another mood” and forced Lucy to share an impromptu meal.

Lucy eventually broke away to look for his own company, which he found in the same unfinished communications trench behind their front line. Untraversed, the trench is a “shell-trap” and so they spend the night being trodden on by every runner who passes to and from the front line and fearing a resumption of the German bombardment.

When day breaks, Lucy and his men move up into the trenches they had held yesterday.

Bodies of British and German dead lay everywhere, and shattered rifles, blood-stained equipment, and other debris were scattered about. The smell of the unburied filled our nostrils, and mangled and soiled corpses presented unspeakable sights.

The Germans soon attack, and there are no longer enough riflemen to stop them. The company to the left gives way, and Lucy and his men see Germans moving on behind them. They are nearly cut off. Worse, the British artillery, assuming that the entire line has again been lost, begins an accurate fire on their trenches. Corporal Biganne is killed by a British shell, and the terrifying Sergeant Kelly is badly wounded. As German troops work toward them from the collapsed left flank, Kelly is bayoneted to death where he lies in the trench, telling his rosary.

When his company finally gets the order to withdraw, they find that the unfinished end of the communications trench is now covered by a German machine gun on the collapsed flank. Their only way to safety is to try to outwit the machine gunner by running in short and unpredictable bursts.

Lucy admits to us here that he now lost track of the few men he still commanded. Military structure erodes under this sort of stress, and the machine gun across their route of escape is not a tactical problem anyway. It is individual, sub-tactical: there can be no plan, but only foot-speed, and luck, and a personal fate.

Just before his own turn to dash for the rear, Lucy sees the body of Sergeant Benson, killed two days ago, still lying next to the German he had sought to save. The German, with his two bullet wounds, is still alive.

Lucy escapes, sprinting through the machine gun fire in short bursts until he reaches Neuve Chapelle. There he finds Corporal Ternaghan, recovered from his madness. Lucy’s section is now reduced to a single man, and the battalion is soon withdrawn.

They kept us on the battlefield, and we fell out on the side of the road for a rest, while waiting further orders.

During this rest the roll of the battalion was called over, and we found that only forty-six of us survived to answer our names. We still had two officers.

This was the end of the Royal Irish Rifles. The end, at least, of its effectiveness as a fighting unit for the current campaign, and of its identity as a proud unit of the old regular army.

Resisting elegy, Lucy ends his closely-narrated tale of a battalion (but really a company, and a section) with a bitter reference to the greater war: “It was rumoured that our generals were not satisfied, but thought that we might have done better.”[2]

 

From his position near Zandvoorde, a few miles southeast of Ypres, Julian Grenfell took up the letter he had begun writing to his mother three days previously.

Oct 27–We’ve been in the trenches for 2 days and nights since I started this; but no excitements, except a good dose of shrapnel 3 times a day, which does one no harm , and rather relieves the monotony…

The men are splendid, and as happy as schoolboys. We’ve got plenty of straw at the bottom of the trench, which is better than any feather-bed…

Our first day’s real close-up fighting was Monday 19th… We got into a village… Firing came from a farm in front of us, & then a man came out of it and waved a white flag. I yelled “200–white flag–rapid fire”; but Hardwick stopped me shooting. Then the squadron advanced across root fields towards the farm (dismounted, in open order)–and they opened a sharp fire on us from the farm and the next fields. We took 3 prisoners in the roots, and retired to the horses again. That was our first experience of them–the white flag dodge. We lost 2, and 1 wounded. Then I got leave to make a dash across a field for another farm, where they were sniping at us. I could only get half way. My sergeant was killed, & my corporal hit.

Grenfell and his squadron are pinned down for a half an hour and then manage to retreat. The dead sergeant must be J.H. Measures[3]–dead as a result of Grenfell’s initiative. But then that is how battles are–or used to be–won.

Julian is sober about all this, at first:

I longed to be able to say that I liked it, after all one has heard of being under fire the first time. But it’s bloody. I pretended to myself for a bit that I liked it; but it was no good; it only made one careless and unwatchful and self-absorbed. But when one acknowledged to oneself that it was bloody, one became alright again, and cool.

A strong German advance then saw the Royal Dragoons pushed back once, and again. We hear again of the poor quality of German shooting, and no further casualties were taken–twenty horses were hit, however.

Since then we have been doing infantry work in the trenches… Someone described this war as “Months of boredom punctuated by moments of terror”. It is sad that it is such an impossible place for cavalry… It is horrible having to leave one’s horses; it feels like leaving half oneself behind, and one feels the dual responsibility all the time…

And a few lines later, another swerve in direction. Oh, but this is a famous bit:

I adore War. It is like a big picnic without the objectlessness of a picnic. I have never been so well or so happy. Nobody grumbles at one for being dirty. I have only had my boots off once in the last 10 days, and only washed twice. We are up and standing to our rifles by 5 a.m. when doing this infantry work, and saddled up by 4.30 a.m. when with our horses. Our poor horses do not get their saddles off when we are in the trenches.

The wretched inhabitants here have got practically no food left. It is miserable to see them leaving their houses, and tracking away, with great bundles and children in their hands. And the dogs and cats left in the deserted villages are piteous.[4]

First thing: it’s unlikely that he’s kidding. If it weren’t for the horses (horses are no laughing matter for an Englishman of this class), we might suspect that the juxtaposition of “war is fun because no one makes me wash behind my ears” and “the refugees are starving” is tongue in cheek. It’s not just that his other letters–not to mention the verses that are percolating–confirm his love for war, it’s that the whole of this letter is immediate and direct: he means what he says as he says it, and, only a moment/line later, his thoughts/pen are headed somewhere else.

Battle is bloody; war is boring and terrifying (the familiar phrase he quotes above was a new apercu in 1914); war is fun and purposeful, but also piteous. None of these things are false, in the moment of writing. It’s not paradox, then, but only agonized complexity artificially stratified by the fact that letter writing takes time.

Anyway. There it is: Julian Grenfell is not an idiot, but he thinks war is fun. Somehow he is able to forget the fear that he feels in battle and the pity that he feels for war’s victims (both bipedal and quadrupedal) and, taking stock of the rest, finds himself well pleased. “Objectlessness” is interesting: this is a man who disdained social life for its own sake and had long ago declared a precocious hatred for pretense. Too much of his privileged life has been objectless. Like many of his peers he enjoys outdoor sport–“picnic” is only a bit of a joke–and so he is happy (at least now, barely a few weeks into his war) to stay out, without having to wash up and dress for dinner.

We can, again, take his words at face value: he doesn’t adore war because it is a righteous cause that’s like a picnic outing; he adores it because it’s good fun, subsumed into some larger plan and therefore without that curdling threat of ennui.

 

And now to the very north of the battle, where French marines and the haggard remnants of the Belgian army are being pushed back toward the Belgian coast and on to Calais–and British ambulance drivers are hard pressed by eager journalists eager to turn them into eye-catching copy.

Tuesday, Oct 27 1914

Mother darling,

I am simply crying with rage — Beavis & Munro will take tame correspondents about with them — at present Ashmead Bartlett & Philip Gibbs are glued onto us & I have just been making the hell of a row as having got the old Chronicle with Gibbs’ account of Dixmude & dragging me into it all. I think Gibbs was more of a gentleman than to make a fool of me like that, & it makes the whole thing so sordid to look as if we had pet reporters to advertise us. Robert [de Broqueville] & I have been so mad. This morning we have just stuck our toes in & say we leave the damn show as soon as a reporter comes near us, & in fact have kicked up such a stink since this Chronicle slush this morning that I think that will now will be a thing of the past.

It is such a shame using me as a lever in this disgusting way…

Lady Feilding doth protest about the right amount, I suppose. Having said her piece, she then moves on to a discussion of new equipment and drivers that her mother might arrange to be sent over–a far cry, this, from the sock-and-cigarette mongering of the soldiers’ letters. But she returns to her betrayal at the end of the letter:

Oh Mother I am sick over this reporter business — I do hate it so — it’s so cheap & undoes all the nice feeling one has inside of being able to do something.[5]

One sympathizes with Feilding, of course: she is being head-patted by chauvinists who are selling papers with her exploits. It’s nice, too, that she is indifferent to the idea that her exploits can be… exploited… for the good of the cause. Won’t a dashing young Lady spur imitators, donations, even–acting as a tacit flourish of the white feather–further enlistment from young men who see an implicit challenge to their honor in all these danger-flaunting acts of sacrifice on the part of a (well-born) young woman? When she let a reporter ride shotgun couldn’t she imagine that “daughter of an earl” might end up above the fold?

And should we not suspect that Feilding doesn’t really merit the plaudits she is receiving? We’ll eventually get to Mairi Chisholm and Elsie Knocker–other young women of the corps, and rather more firmly committed to being dashing–who were not yet getting their due and were annoyed by Feilding’s celebrity. But even without the looks-askance of other notably heroic young women it is tempting to suspect that the young aristocrat’s courage and competence are being exaggerated.

Yet they weren’t. It’s a good thing we have Sarah Macnaughtan, who not only declared Lady Feilding the de facto leader of the ambulance corps (not the impression that one gets from reading Gibbs, and even Feilding gives a great deal of credit to de Broqueville) but admired the courage of all of the younger women. A few days ago she wrote:

Most of the women who go [on missions to rescue the wounded] are very good chauffeurs themselves, so they are chosen before a person who can’t drive. They are splendid creatures, and funk nothing, and they are there to do a little dressing if it is needed…

This, too:

I am rather surprised to find how little the quite young girls seem to mind the sight of wounds and suffering. They are bright and witty about amputations, and do not shudder at anything. I am feeling rather out-of-date amongst them.[6]

 

Finally, a check-in with one of the most important war writers, C.E. Montague. He, too, is feeling rather out of date. And yet, though not a young man any longer, writing today to his father he sounds like one. Tongue in cheek? Yes. But between gritted teeth, between which he has also taken the bit, just above his firm jaw and below his stiff upper lip. He’s going to go, you know:

At the office we begin to hear of colleagues who departed as second lieutenants in August now blossoming into captains and what not. One of our dramatic critics has got to the war as an interpreter, another man is driving a motor ambulance, several have enlisted, and all the rest want to be war correspondents. My own slender chance of ever seeing any of the fun depends on the remote possibility of Kitchener’s accepting a battalion of 1000 fit and hardy old cocks of 45 or more, of whom I am one, who have been picked, for their winds and limb, out of 3000 vessels of mature ardour, and are now awaiting his pleasure. Probably he will say he will be blowed if he spends time in drilling us old crocks as long as the striplings of 38 continue to come in.[7]

Oh but the war is young.

References and Footnotes

  1. This is not a real brigade... I thought I should clear that up, given that we will follow members of the Artists Rifles.
  2. There's a Devil in the Drum, 245-54.
  3. Judging from this site.
  4. Thompson, Julian Grenfell, Soldier and Poet, 228-30.
  5. Lady Under Fire, 18-19.
  6. Macnaughtan's account can be found here.
  7. Elton, C.E. Montague, A Memoir, 104.