Robert Graves in Love, D.H. Lawrence on the Run

Today we have only a few very scattered updates, and all but one of them are to some extent either dark or dismal.


In Cork, Frederic Manning was released from the hospital where he has been recovering from symptoms of a breakdown related to his alcoholism (as well as his experiences on the Somme, surely). A sympathetic Medical Board has allowed him to resume “light duty” and to keep his commission…


In a field hospital in Belgium, Henry Feilding, Lady Dorothie‘s elder brother, died of wounds sustained two days ago…


In Cornwall, the cottage of D.H. Lawrence was raided and searched by the police. As a military-age man not in uniform, (Lawrence had a medical exemption) who did not hide his contempt for the war, Lawrence was a target of scorn and suspicion. It did not help that they lived on the sea, near where U-boats had recently sunk several British ships–or that Frieda Lawrence had been born Frieda Freiin von Richthofen, a distant cousin of the Red Baron. The Lawrences and their friends behaved, on principle, like civilized, open-minded, free-spoken people, and thus fell quickly afoul of the locals. Continuing to correspond with German family and to speak against the war, despite “a mounting campaign of intimidation,” they seem to have hoped for better from an ostensibly liberal society, even in wartime.

The police will return, bearing with them “an order under the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA): they had three days to leave Cornwall and must not travel to coastal or other protected (‘Class 2’) areas; within twenty-four hours of finding a new
residence, they must report to a police station. No appeal was allowed.”

The couple were “virtually penniless” and returned to London in some despair of finding a refuge from a cruelly militarized and intolerant society. After some time adrift, however, they will be taken in by Hilda Doolittle, the poet H.D., Richard Aldington‘s wife.[1]


But life goes on, and there is also young love to be celebrated, today! Another poet whose has had trouble because of his German connections (but who silenced them with combat service and wound stripes), Robert Von Ranke Graves, is currently in London–or, to be precise, in Wimbledon–spending his latest “last” leave with his family. (Graves’s Sassoon-saving interlude at the depot near Liverpool is over, and, while his damaged lung should keep him from active duty in France, he expects to be sent abroad again soon.)

Except that Graves went into London proper, today, a century back, to visit Nancy Nicholson, and missed the last train back…[2]


References and Footnotes

  1. Whelpton, Poet, Soldier, Lover, 158.
  2. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 183.

Edward Heron-Allen Summons Samuel Pepys; Max Plowman Has Faith: After Horror, There Will Be Progress

Edward Heron-Allen turned to his diary, today, a century back, to write a giddy piece of (self)-parody “in the manner of Mr. Pepys.” It describes his fascination with his first real military uniform:

14 September 1917:

…I, straightaway, with assistance from the artificer of the house to put it on and sally forth… should have been vastly put to it had the knowledgeable fellow not been there, such a wilderness of straps and buckles as never did I see in my life… Once trussed I did display myself to my house woman, and she, fond thing, vastly pleased with me and declared that so fine a soldier never she saw…

The new-clothed soldier now visits his elderly mother, one of the few true Victorian Ladies to see a son into His Majesty’s Army, for the very first time, in 1917:

…and she mighty proud over her baby-boy, who is nearer 60 than 50 years of age. My mother in a great tosse for that I carried no sword, but did appease her, telling her that swords are not worn now by officers, though the rascally clothiers would fain lead young officers to buy them and so swell their accompts. But I wiser, and having already my father’s sword which cost me nothing…[1]


But the middle-aged Heron-Allen is going nowhere soon. Max Plowman, however–for all that he is a post-ambulance corps, post-infantry, post-concussive trauma, post-Rivers pacifist–may be going back into the thick of it sooner than he would like. His letter of today to Hugh de Selincourt covers a good deal of theoretical ground, but ends by corralling belief into the service of circumstance:

…Don’t let the thought of my going to France distress you for a moment. I may not go at all. And if I do, what is it really? A broil of circumstance I could not honestly hold aloof from but which I didn’t make & is therefore not more to be worried about than any other external misfortune. –Do you know I find consolation in the very thing that makes you sorest. If this war only proves the futility of war then the world’s solid gain is too enormous to assess, & what can prove that better than the afterthought (which you’ve already seen) that every fair & foul thing we know here has its counterpart there? Who can tell with what pain self-consciousness first came to man–we can only guess by what we know of our own puberty. This is the puberty of nations & we cannot tell the amount of pain necessary to produce thought. But I’m certain thought will come as a result. I’ve that faith in life that I am sure it will never lose direction. The world’s self-consciousness has already begun. Bless you. Love is enough.

Be happy.[2]

Here the historical irony is very painful, and clever remarks about the torturous logic required to turn endless war into the hope of peace–or ways in which the “puberty of nations” can call to mind a pimply horror wreaking havoc rather than sudden leaps in reason and maturity–seem unnecessarily cruel…


And then there is Edward Brittain. Healed of his wound (in body, at least), he has been back at the front already for more than two months. But today, a century back, his battalion went for the first time into the rolling battle around Ypres, near Passchendaele Ridge…[3]


References and Footnotes

  1. Journal of the Great War, 118-9.
  2. Bridge into the Future, 81.
  3. Testament of Youth, 387.

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

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



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,


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.