Edwin Vaughan in Slaughter Wood; Jack Martin in the Noxious Saps; Lord Dunsany Remembers Francis Ledwidge

Edwin Vaughan is almost there:

August 12 Sunday. We had sudden orders in the forenoon to move up nearer the line, and after a hurried packing we marched off at 2.30 p.m. Straight up to Pop and out on the Ypres road with my nerves tingling, unable to talk for excitement and drinking in the real atmosphere of war. We were part of the never-ending stream now, welling up into the great reservoir behind Ypres which was swelling and deepening until the dam should be loosed and all the men and guns and shells should pour out on to the enemy lines…

But the eve of battle is not battle–and it is predictably shabby. Their home for the next few days will be

…a nondescript camp consisting of bivouacs, tents, huts and tarpaulin shelters into which we stowed the troops as best we could. For our combined mess and bedroom we had a small hut with a table and a couple of forms. It was a baleful place for the shell-holes and shattered trees bore testimony to the attentions of the German gunners. Amongst the trees was a great concentration of tanks—and the name of the camp was Slaughter Wood![1]

 

Jack Martin‘s experience has been somewhat difficult to integrate with the rest, here. But he is a rare voice from the ranks and our only engineer, and in this capacity his diary sometimes takes us to new depths, as it were. He and the rest of his company of sappers live, now, like moles in their tunnels, working by day and sleeping by night–or the other way around. This has always been unpleasant and dangerous, but the new German technique of firing different gas shells at all hours has made it even more dangerous–and unimaginably unpleasant.

The Huns have made some fierce counter-attacks on our left today… This evening we have heard that we are to be relieved tomorrow. Thank God. Although we have spent most of our time in the comparative security of the saps, this period in the line has been most trying and exhausting. By day and night the Hun has kept up a continual harassing fire, mainly of HEs and gas shells. The entrances to the saps are covered at night with double gas curtains which are daily saturated with some mixture intended to neutralise the poison…

Owing to the gas curtains being kept down at night and the ventilation shaft being shut, the air in the tunnels becomes most fetid. Seventy or eighty men crowd in one of these galleries, mainly with wet clothes, and all in a filthy dirty condition, breathing the same air over and over again, their bodies stewing in the close, damp atmosphere and exuding all manner of noxious odours–this alone is sufficient to make us ill. It is positively choking to enter the tunnel in the early morning… you choke and splutter and gasp for breath… But foul air is better than poison gas, and dugouts are to be preferred to shell holes.[2]

 

Lastly, today, a century back, was a Sunday. It seems to have been the Sunday on which Father Devas, chaplain of the First Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, kept his vow of saying a funeral mass for Francis Ledwidge–Frank, to his friends–thirteen days after he was killed by a shell while road-making on the first day of the battle.[3] It must have been around now, too, that Ledwidge’s patron, Lord Dunsany, an officer of the same regiment serving on garrison duty, learned of his protegé’s death. Dunsany will see Ledwidge’s second book through to publication, but he is also at work on a volume of his own, a collection of slight, lightly fantastic war-themed short stories. These generally feature lightly drawn every-soldier characters–the book is full of soft-focus celebrations of British steadfastness and gentle wish fulfillment. But one soldier, at least, is drawn from life.

 

The Road

The battery Sergeant-Major was practically asleep. He was all worn out by the continuous roar of bombardments that had been shaking the dugouts and dazing his brains for weeks. He was pretty well fed up.

The officer commanding the battery, a young man in a very neat uniform and of particularly high birth, came up and spat in his face. The Sergeant-Major sprang to attention, received an order, and took a stick at once and beat up the tired men. For a message had come to the battery that some English (God punish them!) were making a road at X.

The gun was fired. It was one of those unlucky shots that come on days when our luck is out. The shell, a 5.9, lit in the midst of the British working party. It did the Germans little good. It did not stop the deluge of shells that was breaking up their guns and was driving misery down like a wedge into their spirits. It did not improve the temper of the officer commanding the battery, so that the men suffered as acutely as ever under the Sergeant-Major. But it stopped the road for that day.

I seemed to see that road going on in a dream.

Another working party came along next day, with clay pipes and got to work; and next day and the day after. Shells came, but went short or over; the shell holes were neatly patched up; the road went on. Here and there a tree had to be cut, but not often, not many of them were left; it was mostly digging and grubbing up roots, and pushing wheelbarrows along planks and duck-boards, and filling up with stones. Sometimes the engineers would come: that was when streams were crossed. The engineers made their bridges, and the infantry working party went on with the digging and laying down stones. It was monotonous work. Contours altered, soil altered, even the rock beneath it, but the desolation never; they always worked in desolation and thunder. And so the road went on.

They came to a wide river. They went through a great forest. They passed the ruins of what must have been quite fine towns, big prosperous towns with universities in them. I saw the infantry working party with their stumpy clay pipes, in my dream, a long way on from where that shell had lit, which stopped the road for a day. And behind them curious changes came over the road at X. You saw the infantry going up to the trenches, and going back along it into reserve. They marched at first, but in a few days they were going up in motors, grey busses with shuttered windows. And then the guns came along it, miles and miles of guns, following after the thunder which was further off over the hills. And then one day the cavalry came by. Then stores in wagons, the thunder muttering further and further away. I saw farm-carts going down the road at X. And then one day all manner of horses and traps and laughing people, farmers and women and boys all going by to X. There was going to be a fair.

And far away the road was growing longer and longer amidst, as always, desolation and thunder. And one day far away from X the road grew very fine indeed. It was going proudly through a mighty city, sweeping in like a river; you would not think that it ever remembered duck-boards. There were great palaces there, with huge armorial eagles blazoned in stone, and all along each side of the road was a row of statues of kings. And going down the road towards the palace, past the statues of the kings, a tired procession was riding, full of the flags of the Allies. And I looked at the flags in my dream, out of national pride to see whether we led, or whether France or America. America went before us, but I could not see the Union Jack in the van nor the Tricolour either, nor the Stars and Stripes: Belgium led and then Serbia, they that had suffered most.

And before the flags, and before the generals, I saw marching along on foot the ghosts of the working party that were killed at X, gazing about them in admiration as they went, at the great city and at the palaces. And one man, wondering at the Sièges Allée, turned round to the Lance Corporal in charge of the party: “That is a fine road that we made, Frank,” he said.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Some Desperate Glory, 190.
  2. Sapper Martin, 93.
  3. Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 189.

Messines: The Master of Belhaven, C.E. Montague, Phillip Maddison, and Rowland Feilding are Eyewitnesses to Armageddon; Jack Martin Goes Forward; Robert Graves is Laid Low and Siegfried Sassoon Takes a Pacific Step; Paul Fussell Looks to the Future

The Ypres Salient is a crowded place, and the assault on Messines Ridge of early this morning, a century back, was one of the great spectacles of the war. We have quite a few men on the scene who witnessed what was at once an unprecedented stroke of operational surprise (preceded as it was by all of the bloody, unimaginative attacks that we have read about), a significant immediate victory for the British Army (but not enough to “break through” the German lines), and a staggering calamity in human terms. For over a year British miners have been working in terribly dangerous and difficult conditions. Many died, but they have won the day, today. The fruits of their labor involved the entombing of some 10,000 Germans–but this was not foremost on the mind of the British observers. Each is overwhelmed by the enormity of the explosions, and struggles to describe them.

First, the Master of Belhaven:

At exactly 3.10 a.m. Armageddon began. The timing of all batteries in the area was wonderful, and to a second every gun roared in one awful salvo. At the same moment the two greatest mines in history were blown up — Hill 60 and one immediately to the south of it. I cleared everyone out of the dug-outs and was watching for it. Never could I have imagined such a sight. First, there was a double shock that shook the earth here 15,000 yards away like a gigantic earthquake. I was nearly flung off my feet. Then an immense wall of fire that seemed to go half-way up to heaven. The whole country was lit with a red light like in a photographic dark-room. At the same moment all the guns spoke and the battle began on this part of the line. The noise surpasses even the Somme; it is terrific, magnificent, overwhelming. It makes one almost drunk with exhilaration, and one simply does not care about the fact that we are under the concentrated fire of all the Hun batteries. Their shells are bursting round now as I write, at 6.10 a.m., but it makes one laugh to think of their feeble little efforts compared to the “ausgezeichnete Ausstellung” that we are providing. We are getting our revenge for 1914 with a vengeance. It is now beginning to get light, but the whole world is wrapped in a grey haze of acrid fumes and dust.

 

Jack Martin, signaler with the 122nd brigade, had been sent to lie out in No Man’s Land just before 3:00.

It was an impressive time–the gunfire ceased altogether with the exception of an occasional shell here and there–a thick mist was over the land and we had to lie full length…  There was a strange groaning and rumbling from behind us and presently, looming out of the mist, came a tank, moving straight towards us…

Out of the silence came the sound of blackbirds from a clump of battered trees a little way back only to be rudely silenced at 3.10 a.m…

For several minutes the earth rocked to and fro oscillating quite twelve inches. It was an experience which I shall remember vividly for the rest of my life–all the phases of the preliminary bombardment, the calm silence that succeeded them suddenly broken by a most terrific uproar, the weird sights of moving men and things in the semi-darkness, the rolling clouds of smoke picked out every now and then with shooting tongues of flame, all formed a tremendously wonderful sight. It was stupendous beyond the imagination.

 

Henry Williamson‘s Phillip Maddison has, of course, gone strolling off to see the battle, as he does for every major assault that he is not himself participating in. The fictional alter-ego walks through a landscape that both he and his creator had fought over in 1914, and he struggles with his fear. But soon it is 3:00, and, as the preliminary bombardment tails off, time for the birds–but nothing so unresonant as blackbirds.

It was so quiet that he could hear nightingales singing far away. They were surely very late in singing, the eggs must have hatched by now, and normally the cockbird ceased to sing when the hen began to sit. Perhaps the unnatural noise of the guns had strained their nervous systems. Some birds, notably wrens, uttered nervous little trilling bursts of song when alarmed at night. Perhaps all beauty, whether or sound or colour or shape, came out of pain, or suppression of life, as poetry came from suffering…

He felt the being-drawn feeling between his legs and his mouth was dry–he looked at his watch–nine minutes past three.

Before he was ready for it a great tongue of deep yellow flame arose slowly into the moonlight. It went up silently and was followed by another and another…

 

Rowland Feilding was there as well, almost entirely free of responsibility for his scattered battalion.

I got up and went out at three o’clock. The exact moment of the assault… had been disclosed to us as 3.10 a.m. I climbed on to the bank of the communication trench, known as Rossignol Avenue, and waited. Dawn had not yet broken. The night was very still. Our artillery was lobbing over an occasional shell; the enemy—oblivious of the doom descending upon him—was leisurely putting back gas shells, which burst in and around my wood with little dull pops, adding to the smell but doing no injury.

The minute hand of my watch crept on to the fatal moment. Then followed a “tableau” so sudden and dramatic that I cannot hope to describe it. Out of the silence and the darkness, along the front, twenty mines—some of them having waited two years and more for this occasion—containing hundreds of tons of high explosive, almost simultaneously, and with a roar to wake the dead, burst into the sky in great sheets of flame, developing into mountainous clouds of dust and earth and stones and trees.

For some seconds the earth trembled and swayed. Then the guns and howitzers in their thousands spoke: the
machine-gun barrage opened; and the infantry on a 10-mile front left the trenches and advanced behind the barrage against the enemy.

 

And C.E. Montague, with new freedom (and responsibility) to conduct war correspondents near the front, came up late last night with his charges, promptly fell into a deep sleep–and nearly missed it. His diary recorded the view from the Scherpenberg.

Next thing I am aware of, through a film of sleep, is a light whimper of shrapnel bursting somewhere near. Just after, I am fully awakened by the rocking of the hill under me. I jump up, sagely thinking it must be an earthquake, and then see seven huge mines still exploding — geysers of flame with black objects in it, leaving huge palm-trees of smoke drifting away in file. Bombardment begins at same time (3.10 A.M.). Rather far off—more than three miles—it sounds like an extremely long, various piece played on a piano full of rather far-off thunder. Many great fires caused in woods, etc., by our drums of oil and phosphorus (I believe). The bombardment more, intense than that of April 9 at Arras. As the light comes we see a great number of our aeroplanes everywhere, very little shelled. No infantry fighting visible.[1]

 

At 5:00 Jack Martin moves forward. His brigade is initially in support but soon enters what is now the British front line in the Damstrasse, more than a half-mile from the jumping-off point. There, Martin’s signalling party took casualties from both German fire and British “shorts.” Tanks move through, and the infantry follows, settling eventually into the German rserve positions.

The Signal Office was small, and with two wounded men in it and one end under water, there was only room for one operator at a time, yet at certain periods it was necessary to have two instruments working, so I took a buzzer outside and rigged it up on a mound where the trench had been blown in. The dirt gradually wore away and disclosed the bare buttocks of a dead man so I moved into the Damstrasse where the only comparatively dry spot was alongside a dead German but he was not badly mutilated. An infantryman close by me was hit in the face by a quantity of shrapnel dust and his tears trickled down his cheeks. He cried out, ‘Oh my eyes, my eyes! My God, I am blind!’ The sudden realisation of his blindness seemed a greater agony than the pain of his wounds. I shall never forge that terrible cry of anguish…[2]

 

Meanwhile, the Master of Belhaven, with little to do as his batteries fire by plan, tries to assess the progress of the battle:

(6 a.m.) It is as noisy as ever. The wounded have been streaming past for the last two hours… [they] say that the wire on my zone is thoroughly well cut, both on the front and support German lines–that is a relief to know. We have been firing something like 4,000 shells a day into it for the last week…

 

Rowland Feilding, too, is eager for news.

The battle once launched, all was oblivion. No news came through for several hours: there was just the roar of the artillery; such a roar and such a barrage has never been before. Our men advanced almost without a check. The enemy–such of them as were not killed—were paralysed, and surrendered. In Wytschaete Village they rushed forward with their hands up, waving handkerchiefs and things. And no one can blame them. The ordeal through which they have been passing the last fortnight must have surpassed the torments of hell itself…

Writing tomorrow, Feilding’s enthusiasm for this unprecedented-in-the-present-war success carries him as far as some preliminary conclusions on the preparations. He seems very much in accord with the ex post facto and fictionalized account of Henry Williamson.

… the South Irish Division and the Ulster Division went forward side by side… I have been thinking to-day of the saying—that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton. That remark wants revision now. You must for the “playing fields of Eton” substitute the “offices of the Empire.” From the offices have been introduced business methods which are essential to the complicated operations of nowadays. The Staff work yesterday was perfect. What a contrast to the time of Loos!

We were inundated with paper beforehand on this win this war we certainly shall win it” ; but no contingency, so far as I know, was unforeseen, and within six hours of the first assault parties were already at work, making roads across the mutilated zone and even laying water-pipes…

There will soon be checks to the more sanguine British hopes, but so far the preparation has been very good indeed. Instead of the usual failure to supply the attacking troops in their new positions, by 10 a.m. the war machine is dragging itself efficiently forward.

Already our Field Artillery was on the move forward—a stirring sight which always fascinates me. As I watch them, though I have nothing to do with them, I feel a kind of pride in them. I, as everybody else was doing, walked freely over the surface; past and over the old front line, where we have spent so many bitter months. How miserable and frail our wretched breastworks looked! When viewed—as for the first time I now saw them—from the parapet instead of from inside—the parapet only a sandbag thick in many places—what death-traps they seemed!

Then over Noman’s Land. As we stepped out there, my orderly, O’Rourke, remarked: “This is the first time for two years that anyone has had the privilege of walking over this ground in daylight, sir.” We visited some of the mine craters made at the Zero hour, and huge indeed they are. Then we explored Petit Bois and Wytschaete Wood—blown into space by our fire and non-existent—the, scene of our raid of the night of June 4. We found the bodies of an officer and a man of ours, missing since that night, which I have since had fetched out and buried among many of their comrades.

Our Tanks were now advancing—a dozen or more of them—going forward to take part in the capture of the fifth and sixth objectives. Their duty is to reduce local opposition, when it is encountered, and there they were, lumbering along, picking their way through the honeycomb of shellholes and craters, getting into difficulties, getting out again, sometimes defeated, but generally in the end winning their way through this area of devastation, where nothing has been left alive, not even a blade of grass.

I cannot hope to describe to you all the details of a battle on this scale. The outstanding feature, I think, was the
astounding smallness of our casualties. The contrast in this respect with Loos and the Somme was most  remarkable…

But, as is always the way, we lost some of our best. A single shell and a small one at that—knocked out twelve, killing three outright and wounding nine—two of the latter mortally…

But as Feilding concludes his account of the day with attentions to the dead, it is Ireland and Germany which come to the fore. The ground is Belgian, and a ridge and some village have been taken swiftly. But the war will still only be won through attrition, and it is the state of the will to fight on of the two rival empires which matters most.

Willie Redmond also is dead. Aged fifty-four, he asked to be allowed to go over with his regiment. He should not have been there at all. His duties latterly were far from the fighting line. But, as I say, he asked and was allowed to go—on the condition that he came back directly the first objective was reached; and Fate has decreed that he should come back on a stretcher.

How one’s ideas change! And how war makes one loathe the party politics that condone and even approve when his opponents revile such a man as this! I classify him with Stephen Gwynn and Harrison—all three, men—Irish Nationalists, too, whom you and I, in our Tory schooling, have been brought up to regard as anathema! What effect will his death have in Ireland? I wonder. Will he be a saint or a traitor? I hope and pray it may teach all—North as well as South—something of the larger side of their duty to the Empire.

P.S. My men found a dead German machine-gunner chained to his gun. This is authentic. We have the gun, and the fact is vouched for by my men who took the gun, and is confirmed by their officer, who saw it. I do not understand the meaning of this:—whether it was done under orders, or was a voluntary act on the part of the gunner to insure his sticking to his gun. If the latter, it is a thing to be admired greatly…[3]

“Authentic” in Feilding’s trust in his men, but then again he does not claim eyewitness, or give precise details…

 

The master of Belhaven ends his account on a note of triumph similar to Feilding’s assessment:

(9 p.m.) The battle is over, and the victory is with us. We have gained the whole of our objective…[4]

 

But Phillip Maddison, a mercurial sort (not to mention a fictional product of retrospection and history-reading) already has an eye to the inevitable return of the pendulum. After several trips leading mule trains of ammunition he goes on another of his “Cook’s Tours” to see the ridge that the British have now taken. He is impressed with the panorama, but, walking among the infantry as the long day draws to a close, he hears rumors of German counter-attacks retaking ground…[5]

 

And where are our old stand-byes on this day of days, the petulantly yoked terrible twins at the heart of the war poetry revolt, who fought at Loos and on the Somme? Will they praise the sudden victory?

 

Robert Graves, home for months and putatively recovered, was nevertheless in need of a rest, and has just been detailed to head to a convalescent home on the Isle of Wight. The precipitating cause was a head wound sustained when he fell down a staircase in the dark. But this was not an isolated incident so much as a symptom of a fundamental exhaustion. Not only will his lungs never be right, but his nerves are from from settled–it seems likely that “some kind of nervous collapse” led to the reassignment… and no, he will not have much to say about Messines.[6]

 

Siegfried Sassoon, however, was in London, taking a break from portrait-sitting by lunching with H.W. Massingham, the editor of the influential radical weekly The Nation. As George Sherston, Sassoon looks back on the irony that the full picture affords:

At daybreak on June 7th the British began the Battle of Messines by exploding nineteen full-sized mines. For me the day was made made memorable by the fact that I lunched with the editor of the Unconservative Weekly at his club. By the time I entered that imposing edifice our troops had advanced more than two miles on a ten-mile front and a great many Germans had been blown sky-high. To-morrow this news would pervade clubland on a wave of optimism and elderly men would glow with satisfaction.

Sherston has written to “Markington” to offer to write something, as “a mouthpiece for the troops in the trenches.” He is nervous of the great man at first, but he warms to Markington when he finds him even more pessimistic about the war and eager to hear uncensored humorous anecdotes from the front. The diffident Sherston stretches his legs, ever so slightly:

He listened with gloomy satisfaction to my rather vague remarks about incompetent Staff work. I told him that our Second Battalion had been almost wiped out ten days ago because the Divisional General had ordered an impossible attack on a local objective. The phrase ‘local objective’ sounded good, and made me feel that I knew a hell of a lot about it. . . .

But this leads, with more twisting irony, to the detailing of his own deeply conflicted behavior, and to a confession which might not be as welcome to this leading critic of the war:

‘As a matter of fact I’m almost sure that the War doesn’t seem nearly such a bloody rotten show when one’s out there as it does when one’s back in England. You see as soon as one gets across the Channel one sort of feels as if it’s no good worrying any more — you know what I mean — like being part of the Machine again, with nothing to be done except take one’s chance. After that one can’t bother about anything except the Battalion one’s with…

I must say I’ve often felt extraordinarily happy even in the trenches. Out there it’s just one thing after another…

It’s only when one gets away from it that one begins to realize how stupid and wasteful it all is. What I feel now is that if it’s got to go on there ought to be a jolly sound reason for it, and I can’t help thinking that the troops are being done in the eye by the people in control.’ I qualified these temperate remarks by explaining that I was only telling him how it had affected me personally; I had been comparatively lucky, and could now see the War as it affected infantry soldiers who were having an infinitely worse time than I’d ever had — particularly the privates.

The account continues, and it’s rich with interest: Massingham suggests reading Tolstoy, and then he awakens the privileged “Sherston” to the political realities of the budding military-industrial complex, censorship, and the fact that Great Brittain has added “acquisitive” war aims to the professed cause of liberating France and Belgium… there is some matter of Mesopotamian oil wells, apparently, if one takes that point of view...[7]

 

Lest one object that giving the last word on a day of successful battle to a pair of half-pacifists lunching in comfort, I will give it instead to an academic yet unborn, a century back, and more than a quarter-century short of his own bitter disillusionment with war.

Very early in his cranky masterpiece, Paul Fussell makes one concession to the otherwise unalleviated chronicle of murderous failure.

The attack at Messines… had been brilliantly planned by General Sir Herbert Plumer, who emerges as a sort of intellectual’s hero of the British Great War… he had imagination. His mines totally surprised the Germans, ten thousand of whom were permanently entombed immediately.

This, it is worth mentioning, is half the British toll from the first day of the Somme. I want to write at greater length about what it means to celebrate a battle in which local victory kills so many and yet doesn’t really budge the war… but since none of the men on the spot do, it would be an imposition. So, instead, just this next bit, as a way of working in the subject of modern war’s resilience.

The most memorable detail in Fussell’s account of the battle, however, is one that none of our writers can know, since it reaches more than a generation into the future, and then a century again, and more:

…British miners had been tunneling for a year under the German front lines, and by early June they had dug twenty-one horizontal mineshafts stuffed with a million pounds of high explosive… Nineteen of them went up, and the shock wave jolted Lloyd George in Downing Street 130 miles away. Two failed to explode. One of these went off in July, 1955… The other, somewhere deep underground near Ploegsteert Wood, has not gone off yet.[8]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. C.E. Montague, 189.
  2. Sapper Martin, 71-4.
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 188-92.
  4. War Diary, 302-6.
  5. Love and the Loveless, 153-160.
  6. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, the Assault Heroic,173.
  7. Complete Memoirs, 471-5.
  8. Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory, 14-15.

The Earth Opens Under the Royal Welch; Noel Hodgson Rides Toward the Hidden Places; We Get to Know Ivor Gurney–Under Fire, Fed Up, and Exalted

We begin in the early morning hours on the Givenchy front, with Captain Blair of the Royal Welch.

…it was about twenty minutes to two… There was stillness everywhere. I had just stepped off the fire-step into the sap–Pattison was about 5 yards from me–when I felt my feet lifted up beneath me and the trench walls seemed to move upwards. There was a terrific blast of air which blew my steel helmet Heaven knows where. I think that something must have struck me then on the head… I remember nothing more until I woke to find myself buried up to the neck and quite unable to move hand or foot…

I awoke to an appalling shindy going on, and gradually realized that heavy rifle and machine-gun fire was taking place and that bullets were whistling all round. Several men passed within a few feet of me… I remember hoping they would not trip over my head. The men were shouting to each other, but I was too dazed to appreciate that the language was German. When I heard a hunting-horn I was certain I was having the nightmare of my life–pegged down and unable to move, with a hailstorm of bullets all round, and men rushing about perilously near kicking my head. The firing died down, and I realized it was no nightmare but that I was very much awake.

By dawn C Company of the Welch and the Cameronians on their right had driven out the Germans who had occupied the huge crater–30 feet deep, and approximately the size of a football field (or pitch!)–in the minutes after the explosion. “Red Dragon Crater” will be a famous feature of the Givenchy front from now on.[1]

Frank Richards, fortunately, was a bit further from the blast:

I arrived back in my dug-out and about 1.30 a.m. was woken up by a terrific explosion on our right front. The ground shook and rocked as if an earthquake had taken place… the enemy had exploded a mine on our extreme right… all communication with the exception of D on our right had broken down. A little later the enemy shells began falling all along the Battalion’s front and the lines went between us and D and also we lost touch with Battalion Headquarters in the rear…

…with the exception of eight men the whole of B had been blown up by the mine and… the enemy had made a rush to occupy the crater, but had been repulsed by C Company and the eight survivors of B.

Dawn was now breaking and I made my way to C. Passing along the trench I came across the headless body of Sergeant Bale[2]… a piece of shell had took his head clean off and deposited it on the back parapet in such a way that it now seemed to be looking down at the body.

Richards goes on to praise Captain Stanway, who led the counter-attack and won a DSO, and Captain Blair himself, “a man with many lives.” He also wryly notes that another officer, who panicked and had his orders countermanded by an NCO, was given a minor decoration. For Richards, this horror is a personal story–the tale of a major near miss:

If the signallers of B had had a dug-out I might have stayed with them a couple of hours swopping yarns and brewing tea and would have gone West with them…[3]

Meanwhile, Captain Blair and the more severely wounded Sergeant Morris soon free their arms and begin to dig, throwing up a tiny parapet between themselves and the Germans. They spend all the long June day there, wedged against the body of one of their men, shelled and shot at whenever rescuers try to reach them.

After several hours I freed my right leg, but my left leg was fixed down firmly under me and felt quite dead. The sun was very hot… my eyes were very much worse, they were full of grit and dirt; they were running in streams and were excessively painful. Morris was in great pain and becoming light-headed.

When Morris becomes delirious and suicidal, and Blair punches him to quiet him. Morris recovers, but begs for water. It was not completely dark until 10:30, and then an agonizing hour of quiet waiting began.

We were parched with thirst and had visions of lying out another twenty-four hours without water. We were getting depressed and loosing hope when–it must have been nearly 11.30–I heard footsteps and a muttered whisper: English, thank Heaven.

Among the rescuers was Dr. Dunn himself:

To get to Morris, Blair, who was nearer the surface, had to be got away. With him joining in the work like a terrier, it took the better part of an hour to free his imprisoned leg from the grip of the damp, compressed earth and trench debris. The freeing of Morris from that tangle of barbed wire, torn sand-bags, pickets, angle irons, and one of Bayliss’s legs… was a long and difficult business…[4]

 

Today, a century back, Noel Hodgson was looking both forward and back as he completed the short prose sketch titled–and set on–Ascension Morning. We took a look at this piece back on June 1st: in it a young subaltern dwells on his memories of good times past and meditates on how such memories sustain the soul twice–in the moment, and in recollection. He recalls an earlier Ascension Morning, when he and a friend snuck out of school early to go bird-nesting spree… and then he talks with an Irish officer who is brooding on the friends he has lost:

“One died at Suvla Bay—they never found his body; and now the other is ‘ Dead,’ not even ‘killed in action,’
but dead in a hospital among strangers like any pauper in a workhouse ward. And this is Ascension Day.”

And I, knowing that it is given to man to be full of sorrows and that no sorrow is so heavy as to lose one’s
friend, could say nothing to him; and he walked on, fighting his battle.

Now we had come in our march to the crest of a hill, and before us lay a wide valley full of the morning sun,
where men were ploughing and women in blue hoods went up and down the fields. A rumble of carts and
the noise of horses was in the air, and the blue woodsmoke rose steeply from cottage chimneys.

And as I looked upon this ordered beauty and sufficiency, which seemed so right and of a part with Nature, and saw Irishman gazing at it with puzzled eyes, another recollection came to me–of a morning when I smoked my pipe under the hedge of a French farm-garden and watched the folk going about the day’s work, while inside the house they tried a man for his life. The Irishman looked up at me expectantly as if I should make it clear to him. But certain as I was of the truth of those things which I had thought earlier in the day, no words came to me; and, setting spur to Majoribanks, I rode forward down the white road which crossed the valley and ran over the further ridge into the hidden places of the downs.

June 22nd, 1916.[5]

Hodgson is too wise, here, to even hint at knowledge, at mastery. And the consoling voice of religion is quiet.

One wonders–did he view the model of the beckoning battlefield before or after he wrote this musing on cross-country vision and dawning uncertainty?[6]

 

Ivor Gurney, who has just completed a final course of training “embedded,” as we would say, with a more experienced (and blissfully Welsh) group of signallers, has nonetheless had time to write several looooong letters to Herbert Howells. These were posted together (envelopes being scarce) today, a century back. Some excerpts:

My Dear Howells:

How are you all this long time? Be good, and write me a long letter full of meaty things about College; a real gossipy letter full of all the little things I want to know…

Well, here we are in France, and almost at once shoved up into 1st line trenches, but where I write is reserve, in billetts, and surrounded by some of the attributes of civilisation, but not many…

The Chinese knew a little of torture, and had an inspiration named “Death by the thousand Cuts,” but amateurs they were besides the Grand High Inquisitors who run the British Army; which, while “resting” , has the natural aversion to wounds and death to a fear lest it should, by the anger of God, be left alive and physically fit to endure more of the same kind of “rest” — how it hurts a man with a sense of word-values so to misuse words! It is almost as bad as 3rd grade neurasthenia.

This is not an idle comment. Gurney’s mental health has been problematic, and if honesty about his worries about the war’s effect on his sanity is unusual, it is in part because he has more reason than most to fear mental breakdown.

But supposing I come at last through all this complete in mind and body, there will be some memories will remain. Our first night in trenches was one of the most surprising things that can ever happen to me. We set out I suppose about the beginning of the afterglow, and went eastward with the usual thoughts in our mind—at least I suppose so. In the communication trenches, which were very long, we had lots of opportunity to look at the West, and remember what lay under Venus; as Wordsworth did in a Sonnet written on Calais sands, beginning “Fair Star of evening” ; up we went, with now and again a bullet whizzing above us or a startling clatter of machineguns in the distance; and then at last the trenches — 2nd and then 1st. We made enquiries, and then C and I crawled into a signallers dugout, and so made the acquaintance of 4 of the nicest people that ever you could meet — and educated. They were absolutely first rate chaps. Unlike some men out here, they didn’t try to frighten us with horrible details, but gave us as much help as possible in getting hold of ordinary routine, and in making us feel as much at home as possible. I had no sleep for 36 hours. We talked of books and music. And they sang — Glory be — “David of the White Rock” and the Slumber Song that Somervell has arranged. What an experience! I have also got hold of an address of a man who is rather noted for his knowledge of these things. If there is anything left of either of us after the war I shall attend to it myself— if not, you will write to him and find out…

This, needless to say, is both an unexpected and an unusually beautiful culmination to the “approaching the trenches” narrative. Gurney, the sensitive soul, poet and composer, goes to receive his initiation into fear and horror, and finds music instead. “Experience” will come in many forms…

After much talk of music, Gurney’s mind returns to the war.

Ah, Howler, there will not be much the matter with me a year after the Army sees my back. —-

‘And joy shall overtake us like a flood
When everything that is sincerely good
And perfectly divine
with truth and PEACE and Love” shall shine once more on this poor distracted Europe of ours. And the swiftness of the Russian victories have given me much hope. In this connection, please O please try and get last Sundays Observer (June 12th or thereabouts). The leading article is a perfect exhibition of pusillanimous twaddling and a kind of sneaking shamefaced hope that the war will not last 4 years after all, as it might be — worked out on the blackboard by fainthearted blitherers. I believe it will be all over by September — even if I am over too. And that will annoy me; partly because I feel that when I have renewed and trained my spirit there is work for me to do, and partly…

If you would hear anything of life at the front, I am afraid that at present I have seen too little to qualify my description of it as a damn dull life. It is for me — “an expense of spirit in a waste of shame” save only for the glorifying touch of danger. One marches heavily burdened, cursing ones Fate, from the rear circuitously to the front, reaches ones post, and hopes for fine weather. I am a signaller, holding on to that name by my eyelids and teeth, and that is an infinitely softer job than the ranks, which nearly drive me mad for its monotony, lack of elementary commonsense living, and for what men like you and I must feel as insults repeated continually. But it is much better out here than in England — save only for the “Rests”…

The trenches are better than camp life in England–danger is not yet terrifying, and the discomfort and onerousness, well–they, too, will only grow more wearisome. But Gurney seems to have hated above all what American soldiers of the next war will call “chickenshit,” the petty indignities and willful inefficiencies of garrison and training-camp life.

So the front is a nice change, and–so far, so far–it has him positively reoriented toward the future:

It is sweet to think what a revenge of Joy I will have on Life for all this. For all this grey petty monotony, I will gather all the overstrength of spirit, so hardly earned and force it, coax it, lead it to the service of Joy for ever. And as Masefield points out in his wonderful little book on Shakespeare, no mind but a supremely happy is able adequately to brood with Pity and Anger on Tragedy…

Less an ars poetica than an ars vivendi, Gurney’s mood of near-elation is… both a very good sign and a very worrisome one. His moods have been uneven before–is he holding up well as he first experiences life in the line, or is he dangerously sanguine? His letter of today, a century back, to Marion Scott seems, however, to argue for good health, and a reasonable balance of exaltation and griping–he describes as well his first bombardment, which seems to have taken place overnight, a century back.

Dear Miss Scott: Still another interesting letter! Please dont expect such a one from me as the weather is very dull and sultry, and this is a small room with 8 signallers lying low from fatigue. However, interesting things have happened. We have come into reserve now, having gone through a strafe which a machine-gunner who had been through Loos said was worse than Loos while it lasted — which was for 1 1/4 hours. And it left me exalted and exulting only longing for a nice blighty that would have taken me away from all this and left me free to play the G minor Prelude from the Second Book of Bach. O for a good piano! I am tired of this war, it bores me; but I would not willingly give up such a memory of such a time. Everything went wrong, and there was a tiny panic at first — but everybody, save the officers, were doing what they ought to do, and settled down later to the proper job, but if Fritz expected us as much as we expected them, he must have been in a funk. But they behaved very well our men, and one bay filled with signallers and stretcher bearers sang lustily awhile a song called “I want to go home” very popular out here, but not at all military in feeling. The machine guns are the most terrifying of sound, like an awful pack of hell hounds at ones back. I was out mending wires part of the time, but they were not so bad then…Their explosives are not nearly so terrible as ours. You can see dugouts and duck boards sailing in the air during even in a trench mortar strafe (Toc Emma Esses — signallers talk). Theirs of course do damage enough, but nothing comparable. They began it, and were reduced to showing white lights, which we shot away, and sending up a white rocket. Floreat Gloucestriensis! It was a great time; full of fear of course, but not so bad as neurasthenia. I could have written letters through the whole of it. But O to be back out of it all!

The account of this bombardment is gripping, but not terribly clear. But now the reason (if reason it be) for Gurney’s exaltation becomes more clear: by staying out and mending the wires, he has proven himself brave. If Gurney hasn’t written much about this, never mind–it is as close as we can get to a truism of this project that all soldiers worry about whether, once under fire, they will not prove to be cowards. Gurney has passed this stiff first test:

My dear lady, I am pleased with myself. They tell me I was nearly recommended for a DCM or something or other that was done chiefly by other men. But all through I had time to wish I had chocolate, and wonder whether so much baccy was good for me. I may be chronically introspective (and this is a shocking life for that) but as little fearful as a stolid cow. It has given me still further confidence that once I get back to work my mind will take proper paths and let me be happy. You see I dont expect to get knocked about much, and dont intend to go on bombing stunts if I can help. I have forgotten what my other letters contained…

Lastly, a distracted hint of grandiosity:

…I tell you what, mamselle; when I return to England I am going to lie in wait for all men who have been officers, and very craftily question them on several subjects, and if the answers to my questions do not satisfy me, they may look out for squalls. This is deadly serious. Talk of the need of “dithipline” wont suit me.

Yours very sincerely

Ivor Gurney[7]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The War the Infantry Knew, 209-10.
  2. Presumably no relation to Gareth Bale, current standout for the Welsh internationals...
  3. Richards, Old Soldiers Never Die, 167-9.
  4. The War the Infantry Knew, 210-17.
  5. Verse and Prose in Peace and War, 84-5.
  6. See also Zeepvat, Before Action, 185-7.
  7. War Letters, 70-6.

Easter in the Trenches, and Elsewhere: A Poem from Will Streets, Tea with Bimbo Tennant, Siegfried Sassoon in Paradise, Raymond Asquith Head Over Heels, George Coppard in a Mined Redoubt; New Correspondents from Aberdeen to Alexandria

Will Streets did not lead a well-documented life. This is a shame, and one which I have not done much here to rectify. It’s  hard to follow a story if the dated fragments are spread too far apart. But I do want include a poem he wrote today, a century back, and so I should remind us a little of just who he is. John William Streets was an eldest son, and bright, and, as he wrote in a letter earlier this year, he had both drive and promise:

I had dreams, I had ambitions, because I strove even in boyhood after learning, after expression. But because I had love (I am proud to say this) I drowned all my ambitions of a brilliant career.

The love he writes of is love for his family. Streets was not the son of a school master, a professor, a writer and school administrator, a landed scion of a wealthy mercantile family, or a peer.[1] He was the son of a coal miner, and the eldest of twelve children. So in his mid-teens he went to work down the Derbyshire coal mines: twelve hour shifts in the pits, six days a week, for fourteen years, until the war came. The wonder, then, is not that his verse is less polished than most of what we read, but rather that he wrote so well despite his truncated formal education. Streets read whenever he could–and sketched, and painted–and, a committed Methodist, he dreamed at one time of becoming a clergyman. Instead he became instead a private of the Sheffield City Battalion of the York and Lancaster Regiment, one of the early “pals” battalions of Kitchener’s army. In 1915 they were briefly in Egypt; in March of this year they arrived on the Somme.

Many of our British writers, raised in a culture long steeped in Christianity yet–for most–without either much emotional intensity or the direct sensual appeal of Catholicism, were struck by the ubiquity of Christian imagery in rural France. The most irresistibly symbolic sight was the crossroads shrine with a crucifix, damaged by shellfire, looming over the men marching toward fear, pain, and death. Streets, the North Country Methodist, deserves to get a word in today, Easter Sunday:

Small chance of a service. How the mind flies back to past times when we used to sing ‘Christ is risen!’ Out here it is hard to believe that. We pass wayside crosses on which hangs an effigy of Christ, and we feel that Christ is crucified. We feel that the keynote of this world is sacrifice, that men are marching to Calvary.[2]

Sensible prose. And here’s the poetry:

O sweet blue eve that seems so loath to die,
Trailing the sunset glory into night,
Within the soft, cool strangeness of thy light,
My heart doth seem to find its sanctuary.

The day doth verge with all its secret care,
The thrush is lilting vespers on the thorn;
In Nature’s inner heart seems to be born
A sweet serenity; and over there

Within the shadows of the stealing Night,
Beneath the benison of all her stars
Men, stirr’d to passion by relentless Mars,
Laughing at Death, wage an unceasing fight.

The thunder of the guns, the scream of shells
Now seem to rend the placid evening air:
Yet as the night is lit by many a flare
The thrush his love in one wild lyric tells.

O sweet blue eve! Lingering awhile with thee,
Before the earth with thy sweet dews are wet,
My heart all but thy beauty shall forget
And find itself in thy serenity.

 

And how was Easter at the other end of the social scale, in the rear, among the staff? The Honorable Bimbo Tennant confides:

This is only just a love-line to tell you how I loved getting the little Andalusian charm, and what a happy Easter I spent. It was a beautiful day, and I went to the Holy Communion in the morning. Then I went to enquire after General Ponsonby who has not been well the last day or two. After tea I rode leisurely about 2 1/2 miles to the 55th Co. R.E., with whom I spent a most delightful evening. They had a good pianist so we had ‘moosit’ and great fun.[3]

 

Siegfried Sassoon is rather less social in his habits, less convivial in his moods. He continues to write in a mode of alternating melodramatic passivity: a hunched and forward rush toward action (and fierce writing) when in trenches, then a subsidence into a sort of lazy, aesthetic, pastoral back-float when in reserve. Today, sent away from his battalion for a month of “school,” (one wonders: is this due to long-gestating bureaucratic processes, or have his recent escapades been worrying his superiors?) the country boy took in the landscape once more–even the cityscape.

April 23 (Easter Sunday)

Out of trenches yesterday; the last two days have been wet and horrid…

Easter and church. Started 8.45. Amiens 11.15—miller’s waggon and four horses—Corbie church with two towers, and the chimney-stacks.

After this last period—since Tommy got shot—though spring was on the way, and trees putting on a vesture of faint green, though the sun shone on many days—yet most seem to have been dark and unhappy—since March 26 I have done eighteen days in the trenches, and those days and nights are a mechanical and strained effort.

Coming away from it all—to find the world outside really acknowledging the arrival of spring—oh it was a blessed thing—the journey on a sunny morning, pleasantly blown by a north-west wind, about twenty-five miles in a sort of motor-bus—the landscape looking its best—all the clean colour of late April—the renewal of green grass and young leaves—and fruit-trees in blossom—and to see a civilian population well away from the danger-zone going to church on Easter morning—soldiers contented and at rest—it was like coming back to life, warm and secure—it was to feel how much there is to regain. Children in the streets of towns and villages—I saw a tiny one fall, to be gathered up and dusted, soothed, comforted—one forgets ‘little things’ like those up in the places where men are killing one another with the best weapons that skill can handle.

And water—rivers flowing, taking the sky with them—and lakes coloured like bright steel blades, their smooth surfaces ruffled by ripples of wind—and a small round pool in a garden, quite still and glassy, with vivid green blades of iris growing along the edge. The great city of Amiens, Sunday-quiet, with the cathedral lording it beyond the gleaming roofs, sombre and unshining-grey, ancient, like a huge fretted rock or cliff, a train moving out of a station when we halted at the crossing-gates with rumble and clank of wheels on the rails. I had not thought of a train or seen one since I came from England seven weeks ago (it was at this very moment, on a Sunday, that I left Waterloo, and saw the faces of my people left behind as the carriage slid along the platform, all the world before me once more, and the unfinished adventure waiting to be resumed).

I may often write as if Sassoon is unaware of the extent to which his moods and writing change as his military position changes, but he is clearly conscious of some of the oscillation. And yet he gets carried away: he mentions men dying, and weapons–but are they really here today? Are these things palpable, horrible? Not when he refers to the “adventure.” Or fortune:

And now fortune has given me another space to take breath and look back on the grim days. Four blessed weeks in a clean town with fresh companions and healthy routine of discipline and instruction, and all this in the good time when spring’s at the full. At the end of May I shall return to the Battalion, eager and refreshed, and glad to be with my fellow-officers again (but one wants a rest from their constant presence to really appreciate them). O yes, I am a lucky dog.

And at 7 o’clock I climbed the hill and gazed across the town—the red wrinkled roofs of the great jute-factory below and the huddle of grey roofs with their peaceful smoke going up in the quiet air. I turned along a grassy, tree-guarded track that led to where a half-finished house stood, red and white, overlooking the town, with a lovely wood behind it. Sunset was fading, with a long purple-grey cloud above the west: and oh the wood was still, with slender stems of trees, all in their vesture of young green—and bluebells were on the ground, and young fresh grass, and blackbirds and thrushes scolding and singing in the quiet, and the smell of wet mould, wet earth, wet leaves, and voices of children coming up from a cottage below the hill. It was a virgin sanctuary of trees, and blessed peace for my soul and heaven for my eyes and music for my ears; it was Paradise, and God, and the promise of life.[4]

 

This is not Sassoon meant by “the promise of life,” but it will do: yesterday, a century back, Katherine Asquith was safely delivered of a boy. A telegram, it would seem, reached the happy father today:

Intelligence,
G.H.Q.
B.E.F.

23 April 1916

My Angel

You really, are a wonder. It seemed hardly possible that you would get the sex right as well as the date. The whole thing is a triumph of organisation which the Government would do well to imitate. What with the Resurrection, Shakespeare’s death and now Trimalchio’s birth, I hardy know whether I am standing on my head or my heels today. Shall we send him into the Cabinet or into the Grenadiers? Have you arranged a marriage for him yet? or will he have to attest? If so I shall raise the cry of “weaned men first”. Above all, does he give away any of your guilty secrets or might he so far be mistaken for my own?

High spirits well-earned. Even Raymond Asquith can’t be a cynic on the day he learns of the birth of his son and and heir–but he can manage conscription/breast-feeding jokes and note the religious and literary observances of the day… They will name the lad not Trimalchio (the reference is to Petronius, and it’s a pretty funny in-utero nickname) but Julian.

My sweet, I do hope it was less long and tiresome for you than the other two and that you are already beginning to feel well again. But the last I suppose is too much to hope. Still a boy must be much less of a shock than a girl and will beckon you on up the hill of convalescence . . . Darling angel, I adore you.[5]

 

An Eastertide birth, and a happy cynic–but there was killing too, and there were more lucky escapes.

George Coppard, one of our few other voices from the ranks, spent Easter in the line. And, no, this holiday merited no truce:

On the morning of Easter Sunday the Germans blew up two mines in the redoubt. The blast from one of them knocked Mr Wilkie off his feet. We saw the bulging piecrust slowly rise before the centre burst, hurling the vast mass upwards. In a few moments the descent began and the ground shook with the buffeting. We squirmed to the side of the trench like frightened rabbits. One piece of earth, no more than two ounces in weight, struck the nape of my neck. I had a black-out for a short while, but apart from a stiff neck for a week, I was none the worse for the tap. The Queen’s lost men that Easter morning from the two explosions, which destroyed the front line where they were standing. Jerry made no attempt to capture the craters.[6]

No attempt: this was punishment only, then, the ordinary violence of attrition: what the soldiers liked to refer to as a “hate.”

 

I want to close today’s overstuffed holiday dinner with that most unpalatable of addenda: seed corn. Easter is a memorable day, plus there the date’s significance for English letters, and so two writers who will arrive on the scene here rather late (once the Somme has opened up gaps for filling, as it were) are worth visiting with today, if only to provide some linkages later, when they become prominent contributors here and diligent readers wonder about their origins.

Vivian de Sola Pinto wore glasses, and so he went up to Oxford in 1914. By 1915, however, he was in, commissioned from the OTC into a Territorial battalion–of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, naturally. By late 1915, Gallipoli; then illness and exhaustion, and Alexandria. After shuttling around several Egyptian hospitals, de Sola Pinto was back in Alexandria and on the mend. Nothing like a day out, sacred and profane, Western and Eastern, ancient and modern…

On Easter Sunday, 1916, Anson and I had tea at the fine Greek patisserie of Athenaios, one of our favourite resorts, and then went to hear a service at a Greek Orthodox church with its gaudy silver lamps and ikons and congregation squatting on the floor. From there we went on to a Roman Catholic church w(h)ere we heard a powerful sermon preached by a French monk. We ended the day with dinner at Bonnard’s excellent French restaurant and a visit to an open-air cinema where we saw a Charlie Chaplin film with dubbings in French, Greek, and Arabic…[7]

 

Eric Linklater is a schoolboy still, reading Classics and English in Aberdeen. But not for want of trying. Linklater had enlisted in a Territorial battalion in August of 1914, until the two most common–and generally, if not universally, disqualifying–handicaps for a boy of his station were discovered: he too was very short-sighted, and he was also fifteen. So back to school it was. Linklater will not find a way into the army until next year.

Today, a century back, he was celebrating an auspicious day, (and enlarging, for us, upon Asquith’s reference to this anniversary, above):

I remember too–but now with shame–another occasion that provoked laughter almost as boisterous, and with far less cause. Its date is firmly fixed in history–it was 23 April 1916–and the newly appointed Professor to the Chair of English Literature and Language at the University had been persuaded to deliver, to the boys of the Grammar School, an address in celebration of the tercentenary of Shakespeare’s death… Professor Jack–Alfred Adolphus Jack… was still a stranger in Aberdeen, and both his appearance and his voice emphasised a strangeness that I and my rascally companions found risible beyond restraint. He was a highly coloured man with a thick growth of hair, the hue of oranges, a bright pink face, and brilliantly protruding blue eyes. He had, moreover, been trained to outmoded rhetorical style–reminiscent of Victorian drama–and he was in love with his subject.

To express that love he advanced slowly to the rostrum that had been set up for him–he leaned forward across the lectern–and in a voice whose high-pitched peculiarity was aggravated by his inability to pronounce the letter r, he slowly declaimed, with a measured pause between his words, ‘Fwee — hundwed — years — ago today — Shakespeare died!'[8]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. That would be Brooke, Sorley, Graves, Sassoon, and Grenfell, all but Graves born within a year or two of Streets.
  2. Piuk, A Dream Within the Dark, 60-1.
  3. Memoir, 190. This letter is dated "20th" in the Memoir, but this must, due to the Easter reference be a mistake.
  4. Diaries, 57-59.
  5. Life and Letters, 259-60.
  6. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 73.
  7. The City that Shone, 175.
  8. Fanfare for a Tin Hat, 49.

John Bernard Adams on David Pritchard’s Last Bombardment; Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon Together at a Burial

Yesterday‘s calamity in the First Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers continues to play out in three officers’ writings. Reading Robert Graves, we might have thought that David Pritchard had “gone West” yesterday with his comrades Mervyn Richardson and David Thomas. But no–he lives yet, and he went to whatever meager rest a front-line officer can claim exulting in the vengeance he had taken with his trench mortars. Vengeance–and then some. He fired six final shots even after he had been advised to cease fire.

John Bernard Adams–“Bill,” commander of C company–was the one who gave that advice. He is also, of our three informants, perhaps the closest to Pritchard. (Pritchard was also a friend of Graves and Siegfried Sassoon, but he is overshadowed in their books by David Thomas.)

Adams takes up the tale where he left it yesterday. In his memoir–in which Pritchard is called “Davidson”–a new chapter now begins.

As I write I feel inclined to throw the whole book in the fire. It seems a desecration to tell of these things. Do I not seem to be exulting in the tragedy? Should not he who feels deeply keep silent? Sometimes I think so. And yet it is the truth, word for word the truth; so I must write it…

This compelled writing is painstaking and punishingly thorough. Adams describes every aspect of his morning–the work, the casual chat with “Davidson” and the other trench mortar (a.k.a. “Stokes Gun”) officer; their sadness at the news of the death of Captain Richardson, from last night’s wounds. And, most of all, his pervasive uneasiness.

All that day I felt that there was in me something which by all rights should have ”given”: these two deaths should have made me feel different: and yet I was just the same. As I went round the trench, with Davies at my heels, talking to platoon-sergeants, examining wire through my periscope, all in the ordinary way exactly as before, I forgot all about Tommy and Robertson. Even when I came to the place where Robertson had been hit, and saw the blood on the fire-step, and some scraps of cotton wool lying about, I looked at it as you might look at a smashed egg on the pavement, curiously, and then passed on. “Am I indifferent to these things, then?” I asked myself. I had not realized yet that violent emotion very rarely comes close upon the heels of death, that there is a numbness, a blunting of the spirit, that is an anodyne to pain. I was ashamed of my indifference; yet I soon saw that it was no uncommon thing. Besides, one had to “carry on” just the same. There was always a silence among the men, when a pal “goes west”; so now Edwards and I did not talk much, except to discuss the ordinary routine.

I did not get much rest that day. In the afternoon came up a message from the adjutant that we were exploding a mine opposite the Matterhorn at 6.30…

As I came back along 78 Street, I met Davidson again. He was looking for a new site for his gun, so as to be able to get a good fire to bear on the German lines opposite the Matterhom. I went with him, and together we found a place behind the big mine-dump to the left of 78 Street, and close to one of our rifle-grenade batteries. As he went off to get his corporal and team to bring the gun over and fix it in position, he said something in a rather low voice.

“What?” I shouted. “Couldn’t hear.”

He came back and repeated it.

“Oh,” I said. “Sorry. Yes, all right I expect I’ll hear from the Adjutant. Thanks.”

What he said was that there would be a funeral that night at nine o’clock. Thompson and Robertson[1] were being buried together. He thought I would like to know.

It was close on half-past six, and getting dark. The trenches were cleared, and I was waiting at the head of two platoons that strung out along 78 Street and behind the Loop. Rifles had been inspected; the men had the S.A.A. (small arms ammunition) and the bomb boxes with them, ready to take back into the trench as soon as the mine had gone up. I looked at my watch.

“Another minute,” I said.

Then, as I spoke, the earth shook; there was a pause, and a great black cloud burst into the air, followed by a roar of flames. I got up on the fire-step to see it better. It is a good show, a mine. There was the sound of falling earth, and then silence.

“Come on,” I said, and we hurried back into the trench. Weird and eerie it looked in the half-light; its emptiness might have been years old. It was undamaged, as we had expected; only there was loose earth scattered all over the parapet and fire-step.

Then hell broke loose, a crashing banging, flashing hell that concentrated on the German front line directly opposite. It seemed like stir- ring up an ant’s nest, and then spraying them with boiling water as they ran about in confusion!

“Bang — bang — bang — bang — bang,” barked Davidson’s gun.

“Thud,” muttered the football-thrower…

The bombardment continues, and Adams is busy arraying his company until about 7:30, when he returns to the command post at Trafalgar Square.

Davidson looked in on his way down to Maple Redoubt.

“I say, your Stokes were busting top-hole. We had a splendid view.”

“They weren’t going short, were they?” he asked.

“No. Just right. The fellows were awfully bucked with it.”

“Oh, good…”

Then I saw that he was tired out.

“Rather a hot shop?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said in his casual way. “They were all round us. Well, cheero! I shan’t be up till about ten, I expect, unless there’s anything wanted.”

“Cheero!”

“It’s no joke firing that gun with the Boche potting at you hard with canisters,” I said to Edwards, as Davidson’s footsteps died away.

“He’s the bravest fellow in the regiment,” said Edwards, and we talked of the time when the gun burst in his face as he was firing it, and he told his men that it had been hit by a canister, to prevent their losing confidence in it. I saw him just afterwards: his face was bleeding. It was no joke being Stokes’ officer; the Germans hated those vicious snapping bolts that spat upon them “One, two, three, four, five” and always concentrated their fire against his gun. But they had not got him.

“No, he’s inside,” I heard Edwards saying.

“Bill. Telephone message.”

The telephone orderly handed me a pink form. Edwards was outside, just about to go on trench duty. It was eight. I went outside. It was bright moonlight again. Grimly, I thought of last night.

“Look here,” I said. “There’s this funeral at nine o’clock. I’ve just got this message. One officer from each company may go. Will you go? I can’t very well go as O[fficer].C[ommanding]. Company.” And I handed him the pink form to see.

So we rearranged the night duties, and Edwards went off till half-past eight, while I finished my dinner. Lewis was hovering about with toasted cheese and café au lait. As I swallowed these glutinous concoctions, the candle flickered and went out. I pushed open the door: the moonlight flooded in, and I did not trouble to call for another candle. Then I heard the sergeant-major’s voice, and went out. We stood talking at Trafalgar Square.

“Shan’t be sorry to get relieved tomorrow,” I said. I was tired, and I wondered how long the night would take to pass.

Suddenly, up the Old Kent Road I heard a man running. My heart stopped. I hate the sound of running in a trench, and last night they had run for stretcher-bearers when Robertson was hit. I looked at the sergeant-major, who was biting his lip, his ears cocked. Round the comer a man bolted, out of breath, excited. I stopped him; he nearly knocked into us.

“Hang you,” said I. “Stop! Where the devil . . .?”

“Mr. Davidson, sir. . . Mr. Davidson is killed.”

“Rot!” I said, impatiently. “Pull yourself together, man. He’s all right. I saw him only half an hour ago.”

But as I spoke, something broke inside me. It was as if I were straining, beating against something relentless. As though by words, by the cry “impossible” I could beat back the flood of conviction that the man’s words brought over me. Dead! I knew he was dead.

“Impossible, corporal,” I said. “What do you mean?” For I saw now that it was Davidson’s corporal who stood gazing at me with fright in his eyes.

He pulled himself together at last.

“Killed, sir. It came between us as we were talking. A whizz-bang, sir.”

“My God!” I cried. “Where?”

“Just at the bottom, sir”—the man jerked his hand back down Old Kent Road. “We were just talking, sir. My leave has come through, and he was joking, and saying his would be through soon, when . . . oh, Jesus . . . I was half blinded . . . I’ve not got over it yet, sir.” And the man was all trembling as he spoke.

“He was killed instantly?”

“Ach!” said the man. He made a gesture with his hands. “It burst right on him.”

“Poor fellow,” I said. God knows what I meant.

“Send a man with him, sergeant-major,” I added, and plunged up 76 Street. “Davidson,” I cried. “Davidson dead!”

It was close on midnight, as I stood outside the Straw Palace. Lewis brought me a cup of cocoa. I drank it in silence, and ate a piece of cake. I told the man to go to bed. Then, when he had disappeared, I climbed up out of the trench, and sat, my legs dangling down into it. Down in the trench the moon cast deep black shadows. I looked around. All was bathed in pale, shimmery moonlight There was a great silence, save for distant machine-guns popping down in the Fricourt valley, and the very distant sound of guns, guns, guns—the sound that never stops day and night. I pressed on my right hand and with a quick turn was up on my feet out of the trench, on the hill-side; for I was just over the brow on the reverse slope; and out of sight of the enemy lines. I took off my steel helmet and put it on the ground, while I stretched out my arms and clenched my hands.

“So this is War,” I thought. I realised that my teeth were set, and my mouth hard, and my eyes, though full of sleep, wide open: silently I took in the great experience, the death of those well-loved. For of all men in the battalion I loved Davidson best. Not that I knew him so wonderfully well—but . . . well, one always had to smile when he came in; he was so good-natured, so young, so delightfully imperturbable. He used to come in and stroke your hair if you were bad-tempered. Somehow he reminded me of a cat purring; and perhaps his hair and his smile had something to do with it? Oh, who can define what they love in those they love?

And then my mind went back over all the incidents of the last few hours. Together we had been through it all: together we had discussed death: and last of all I thought how he had told me of the funeral that was to be at 9 o’clock. And now he lay beside them. All three had been buried at nine o’clock.

“Dead. Dead,” said a voice within me. And still I did not move. Still that numbness, that dulness, that tightening across the brain and senses…

“War,” I cried. “How can my will batter against war?” I thought of Davidson’s smiling face; and then I thought of the blind clumsy canister. And I felt unutterably weak and powerless. What did it matter what I thought or did, whether I was weak or strong? What power had I against this irresistible impersonal machine, this war? And I remembered how an hour or so ago the trench-mortar officer had asked me whether I wanted him to fire or not, and I had answered, “Good God! Do as you d–d well like.” What did it matter what he did? Yet, last night it had seemed to matter everything.

Adams now resorts to a concept–and a biblical quote (1 Kings 22:34; 2 Chronicles 18:33)–that gets to the heart of the matter. The helplessness of will; the blindness and dumbness and bluntness of the fatal shells: whether it is invoked as chance, fate, or the cruelty of war there is an impersonal and overwhelming power here. And Adams does not shy from the implication: they had “avenged” their comrades with mortar fire last night–and six extra for good measure. And now, nemesis. Or fate, or war’s implacable maliciousness: whatever you call it, it not only kills and destroys but it also killing rage and destructiveness from once-ordinary men.

Slowly there came into my mind that picture that later has come to mean to me the true expression of war. Only slowly it came now, a half-formed image of what my spirit alone understood.

“A certain man drew a bow at a venture,”I thought. What of those shells that I had called down, last night, at my bidding, standing like a god, intoxicated with power, and crying “Retaliate. More retaliation.” Where did they fall? Were other men lying as Davidson lay to-night? Had I called down death? Had I stricken families? Probably. Nay, more than probably. Certainly. Death. Blind death. That was it. Blind death.

And all the time above me was the white moon. I looked at the shadows of my arms as I held them out. Such shadows belonged to summer nights in England . . in Kent . . . Oh why was everything so silent? Could nothing stop this utter folly, this cruel madness, this clumsy death?

And then, at last, the strain gave a little, and my muscles relaxed. I went back and took up my helmet “Dead,” the voice repeated within me. And this time my spirit found utterance:

“Damn!” I said. “Oh damn! damn! Damn!”[2]

 

Back a few hours now, to the triple burial of Richardson, Thomas, and, now, Pritchard. For Siegfried Sassoon, David Thomas was the best beloved. He too must write (twice) this crushing blow–and he must react. First, the polished, fictionalized memoir.

This is how gentle “George Sherston,” friend and lover, horse-fancier and transport officer, came up for the funeral of the Patroklos that would make of him a temporary, belated Achilles.

The sky was angry with a red smoky sunset when we rode up with the rations. Later on, when it was dark, we stood on the bare slope just above the ration dump while the Brigade chaplain went through his words; a flag covered all that we were there for; only the white stripes on the flag made any impression on the dimness of the night. Once the chaplain’s words were obliterated by a prolonged burst of machine-gun fire; when he had finished a trench-mortar ‘cannister’ fell a few hundred yards away, spouting the earth up with a crash. . .  A sack was lowered into a hole in the ground. The sack was Dick. I knew Death then.

A few days later, when the battalion was back at Morlancourt, and Kinjack[3] was having a look round the Transport lines, he remarked that he wasn’t sure that I wasn’t rather wasted as Transport Officer. “I’d much rather be with ‘C’ Company, sir.” Some sort of anger surged up inside me as I said it… He agreed. No doubt he had intended me to return to my platoon.[4]

“Some sort of anger” is, some would say, an opportunity missed. Here’s how Graves put it:

I felt David’s death worse than any other since I had been in France, but it did not anger me as it did Siegfried. He was Acting Transport Officer and every evening now, when he came up with the rations, went out on patrol looking for Germans to kill.[5]

Exaggeration? Yes–and another compression of historical time. The transformation of gentle “George Sherston” into “Mad Jack” will have to wait a few days, at least.

So much for after-the-fact retrospection. Here is most of Sassoon’s diary for today, a century back (the earlier section he drew directly upon when composing the “memoir,” as excerpted above):

This morning came the evil news from the trenches–first that ‘Tracker’ Richardson, had died of wounds after being knocked over by a shell last night in front of the trenches; this was bad. But they came afterwards and told that my little Tommy had been hit by a stray bullet and died last night. When last I saw him, two nights ago,[6] he had his notebook in his hand, reading my last poem. And I said good night to him in the moonlit trenches.Had I known! The old, human weak cry. Now he comes back to me in memories, like an angel, with the light in his yellow hair, and I think of him at Cambridge last August when we lived together four weeks in Pembroke College in rooms where the previous occupant’s name, Paradise, was written above the door.

So, after lunch, I escaped to the woods above Sailly-Laurette, and grief had, its way with me in the sultry thicket while the mare champed her bit and stamped her feet, tethered to a tree: and the little shrill notes of birds came piping down the hazels, and magpies flew overhead, and all was peace, except for the distant mutter and boom of guns. And I lay there under the smooth bole of a beech-tree, wondering, and longing for the bodily presence that was so fair.

Grief can be beautiful, when we find something worthy to be mourned. To-day I knew what it means to find the soul washed pure with tears, and the load of death was lifted from my heart. So I wrote his name in chalk, on the beech-tree stem, and left a rough garland of ivy there, and a yellow primrose for his yellow hair and kind grey eyes, my dear, my dear.

As striking as this devastating romantic tirade of grief is, it pivots, without a line or paragraph break, into this spare and powerful description of the funeral.

And to-night I saw his shrouded form laid in the earth with his two companions (young Pritchard was killed this evening, also). In the half-clouded moonlight the parson stood above the graves, and everything was dim but the striped flag laid across them. Robert Graves, beside me, with his white whimsical face twisted and grieving. Once we could not hear the solemn words for the noise of a machine-gun along the line; and when all was finished a canister fell a few hundred yards away to burst with a crash. So Tommy left us, a gentle soldier, perfect and without stain. And so he will always remain in my heart, fresh and happy and brave.[7]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. David Thomas and Mervyn Richardson
  2. Nothing of Importance, 181-194/194-206.
  3. Stockwell, the tough new colonel of the 1/Royal Welch.
  4. Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, 273-4.
  5. Good-Bye to All That, 197-198.
  6. This, by the by, answers a question from yesterday about Sassoon's compression of time: rather than show the poetry reading--"George Sherston," after all, differs from Siegfried Sassoon primarily in that he is not a writer--he moves up the date of his return from leave and replaces the poem with a package of smoked salmon, of all things...
  7. Diaries, 44-45.

Vera Brittain: I Feel Almost Angry; John Adams’s Baptism of Mud; Trench-ward Steps for Saki and Doctor Dunn; Olaf Stapledon on Censorship

First today, the deepening epistolary quarrel between Vera Brittain and Roland Leighton. After that, three short bits, as two of our writers take steps toward the front. Finally, a long letter on life in the trenches from John Bernard Adams.

We know that Roland–perhaps depressed, seemingly roiled by half-articulated jealousies–has just written to Vera after a long, er, fallow period. But that letter has not yet arrived. Vera, today, is at the end of her patience. She has tried, recently, direct appeals, coy pouting, and devotional enthusiasm–all to no avail.

So, today, a loud combination: arm-waving petulance-as-flirtation, self-pity, and role-playing with the literary touch-stone of their relationship, her assumption of thecharacter of Lyndall from Olive Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm.

Of course you don’t really deserve a letter. Sometimes, when after a particularly grey and monotonous day, I wish for a letter from you to cheer me up, and don’t get it, I feel almost angry–though more with life in general than with you. With you I never can be quite angry. For the more chill and depressed I feel myself in these dreary November days, the more sorry I feel for you beginning to face the acute misery of the winter after the already long strain of these many months. When at 6.0 in the morning the rain is beating pitilessly against the windows and I have to go out into it to begin a day which promises nothing pleasant, I feel that after all I should not mind very much if only the thought of you right in it out there didn’t haunt me all day. Rain always depresses me; still more rain where there are dead. And I am always thinking of Lyndall’s words ‘How terrible it must be when the rain falls down on you.’

I don’t think she can go on much longer in that vein–but at least she levels out. She is surely very worried about his silence, and about what it could mean, so she has been casting about in trying to attract a response (not knowing yet that she already has). Now, calmed, she writes as she has usually written–thoughtfully, to a correspondent she trusts. But she does not neglect another plank of her platform–she may not be in the trenches, but she is part of the war now too:

I have only one wish in life now and that is for the ending of the War. I wonder how much really all you have seen and done has changed you. Personally, after seeing some of the dreadful things I have to see here, I feel I shall never be the same person again, and wonder if, when the War does end, I shall have forgotten how to laugh. The other day I did involuntarily laugh at something & it felt quite strange. Some of the things in our ward are so horrible that it seems as if no merciful dispensation of the Universe could allow them and one’s consciousness to exist at the same time. One day last week I came away from a really terrible amputation dressing I had been assisting at—it was the first after the operation—with my hands covered with blood and my mind full of a passionate fury at the wickedness of war, and I wished I had never been born…

I am just going back to duty. To-day is visiting day, and the parents, of a boy of 20 who looks and behaves like 16 are coming all the way from South Wales to see him. He has lost one eye, had his head trepanned and has fourteen other wounds, and they haven’t seen him since he went to the front. He is the most battered little object you ever saw. I dread watching them see him for the first time.[1]

Which is to say both “please let this not happen to you” and “this has not happened to you, so do not despair, and do not grow distant.”

 

Two change of address notifications today as well. First, Doctor Dunn has arrived with the second battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. From now on, his “Chronicle”–the right word, really–will combine contemporary records, ex post facto reminiscences, and his own memories.

November 7th–Harley Street. Harbison, who had been Medical Officer for over a year, returned to the Ambulance… The assembler of this Chronicle succeeded him.[2]

And Hector Munro, the finest short-form humorist in all the cavalry, is ready to depart. I’m not sure we can trust the sentiment in his letters to his sister, but then again perhaps there is wry humor behind “too good to be true:”

Tidworth, Nov. 7th, 15.

After the long months of preparation and waiting we are at last on the eve of departure and there is a good prospect of our getting away this week. It seems almost too good to be true that I am going to take an active part in a big European war. I fear it will be France, not the Balkans, but there is no knowing where one may find oneself before the war is over; anyhow, I shall keep up my study of the Servian language. I expect at first we shall be billeted in some French town.[3]

 

One more brief bit: I love to keep track on the various responses to the awkward fact of having one’s letters–especially one’s love letters–read by strangers. Olaf Stapledon, our dreamy and philosophically sturdy Quaker, takes it lightly, and yet does not deny censorship its due weight:

Friends’ Ambulance Unit

7 November 1915

…Don’t let the censoring grieve you; one gets quite hardened after a bit. Yours to me are never censored, not any letters to me. It grieved me once that everything I write to you must be read by someone else, but I have long since got used to it, and spend my pity no longer on us but upon the unfortunate who has to do the censoring. Of all thankless tasks there is none more trying surely! When we are done with wars we will be done with censoring.[4]

 

Finally today, a very long selection from one of John Bernard Adams‘ letters home. He is in the trenches near Givenchy, and adapts the letter into a “trench routine” piece, striving, with that characteristic blend of military detail and enthusiastic lyricism, to give us a sense of the strangeness of a life of comradeship and loneliness, eagerness and passive suffering, boredom and sudden thrilling danger.

7th November

[Beginning on October 29th,] We were three days and three nights in the trenches. Each officer was on duty for eight hours, during which he was responsible for a sector of firing-line and must be actually in the front trench. My watch was 12 to 4 A.M. and P.M. Work that out with ‘stand to’ in the morning and also in the evening and you will see that consecutive sleep is not easy…

Imagine a cold November night—with a ground fog. What bliss to be roused from a snug dug-out at midnight, and patrol the Company’s line for four interminable hours. It is deathly quiet. Has the war stopped? I stand up on the fire-step beside the sentry and try to see through the fog. ‘Pip-pip-pip-pip-pip’ goes a machine-gun. So the war’s still on…

I gaze across into No Man’s Land. I can just see our wire, and in front a collection of old tins—bully tins, jam tins, butter tins—paper, old bits of equipment. Other regiments always leave places so untidy. You clean up, but when you come into trenches you find the other fellows have left things about. You work hard repairing the trenches: the relieving regiment, you find on your return, has done ‘damn all,’ which is military slang for ‘nothing.’ And all other regiments, it seems, have the same complaint.

‘Swish.’ A German flare rocket lights up everything. You can see our trenches all along. Everything is as clear as day. You feel as conspicuous as a cromlech on a hill. But the enemy can’t see you, fog or no fog, if you only keep still. The light has fallen on the parapet this time, and lies sizzling on the sand-bags. A flicker, and it is gone; and in the fog you see black blobs, the size and shape of the dazzling light you’ve just been staring at.

‘Crack—plop.’     ‘Crack—plop.’ A couple of bullets bury themselves in the sand-bags, or else with a long-drawn ‘ping’ go singing over the top. Why the sentries never get hit seems extraordinary. I suppose a mathematician would by combination and permutation tell you the chances against bullets aimed ‘at a venture’ hitting sentries exposing one-fourth of their persons at a given elevation at so many paces interval. Personally I won’t try, as my whole object is to keep awake till four o’clock. And then I shall be too sleepy. Only remember, it is night and the sentries are invisible.

‘Tap—tap—tap.’    ‘There ‘s a wiring party out, sir. I’ve heard ’em these last five minutes.’ Undoubtedly there are a few men out in No Man’s Land, repairing their wire. I tell the sentries near to look out and be ready to fire, and then I sent off a ‘Very’ flare, fired by a thick cartridge from a thick-barrelled brass pistol. It makes a good row, and has a fair kick, so it is best to rest the butt on the parapet and hold it at arm’s length. Even so it leaves your ears singing for hours. The first shot was a failure—only a miserable rocket tail which failed to burst. The second was a magnificent shot. It burst beautifully, and fell right behind the party, two Germans, and silhouetted them, falling and burning still incandescent on the ground behind. A volley of fire followed from our awaiting sentries. I could not see if the party were hit; most of the shots were fired after the light had died out. Anyhow, the working party stopped. The two figures stood quite motionless while the flare burned.

The Germans opposite us were very lively. One could often hear them whistling, and one night they were shouting to one another like anything. They were Saxons, who are always at that game. No one knows exactly what it means. It was quite cold, almost frosty, and the sound came across the 100 yards or so of No Man’s Land with a strange clearness in the night air. The voices seemed unnaturally near, like voices on the water heard from a cliff. ‘Tommee—Tommee. Allemands bon—Engleesh bon.’ ‘We hate ze Kronprinz.’ (I can hear now the nasal twang with which the ‘Kron’ was emphasized.)  ‘D—— the Kaiser.’ ‘Deutschland unter Alles.’ I could hear these shouts most distinctly: the same sentences were repeated again and again. They shouted to one another from one part of the line to another, generally preceding each sentence by ‘Kamerad.’ Often you heard loud hearty laughter. As ‘Comic Cuts’ (the name given to the daily Intelligence Reports) sagely remarked, ‘Either this means that there is a spirit of dissatisfaction among the Saxons, or it is a ruse to try and catch us unawares, or it is mere foolery.’ Wisdom in high places.

Really it was intensely interesting. ‘Come over,’ shouted Tommy. ‘We — are — not — coming — over,’ came back. Loud clapping and laughter followed remarks like ‘We hate ze Kronprinz. ‘ Then they would yodel and sing like anything. Tommy replied with ‘Tipperary…’

I have had my baptism of mud now. It tires me to think of it, and I have not the spirit to write fully about it! The second time we were in these trenches the mud was two feet deep. Even our Company Headquarters, a cellar, was covered with mud and slime. Paradoses and communication trenches had fallen in, and the going was terrible. The sticky mud yoicked one’s boots off nearly, and it felt as if one’s foot would be broken in extricating it. We all wore gum-boots, of blue-black rubber, that come right up to the waist like fishermen’s waders. But the mud is everywhere, and we get our arms all plastered with it as we literally “reel to and fro” along the trench, every now and again steadying ourselves against slimy sand-bags. One or two men actually got stock, and had to to be helped out with spades; one fellow lost heart and left one of his gum-boots stock in the mud, and turned up in my platoon in a stockinged foot, of course plastered thick with clay…

There is more, but the long letter–rewritten, perhaps, but I know not how much–is followed in the text not only by a bone-weary repetition of its themes, but also by the memoir writer’s restoration of the one experience he has omitted from the letter.

Weariness. Mud. The next experience (not mentioned in my letter) was Death. On our immediate right was “C” Company… a great place for “mining activity.” One evening we put up a mine; the next afternoon the Germans put up a counter-mine, and accompanied it with a hail of trench-mortars. I was on trench duty at the time, and had ample opportunity of observing the genus trench-mortar and its habits. One can see them approaching some time before they actually fall, as they come from a great height (in military terms “with a steep trajectory”), and one can see them revolving as they topple down. Then they fall with a thud, and black smoke comes up and mud spatters all about. Most of them were falling in our second line and support trenches. I was patrolling up and down our front trench. We were “standing to” after the mine, and for half an hour it was rather a “hot shop.” I was delighted to find that I rather enjoyed it: seeing one or two of the new draft with the “wind up” a bit steadied me at once. I have hardly ever since felt the slightest nervousness under fire. It is mainly temperament. Our company had four casualties: one in the front trench, the three others in the platoon in support. “C” Company suffered more heavily.

At 6.0 Edwards came on duty, and I was able to go in quest of two bombers who were said to be wounded. Getting near the place I came on a man standing half-dazed in the trench. ”Oh, sirrh,” he cried, in the burring speech of a true Welshman. ”A terench-mohrterh hass fall-en ericht in-ter me duck-out.” For the moment I felt like laughing at the man’s curious speech and look, but I saw that he was greatly scared: and no wonder. A trench mortar had dropped right into the mouth of his dug-out, and had half buried two of his comrades. We were soon engaged in extricating them. Both had bad head wounds, and how he escaped is a miracle. I helped carry the two men out and over the debris of flattened trenches to Company Headquarters.

So, for the first time I looked upon two dying men, and some of their blood was on my clothes. One died in half an hour—the other early next morning. It was really not my job to assist: the stretcher-bearers were better at it than I, yet in this first little bit of ”strafe” I was carried away by my instinct, whereas later I would have been attending to the living members of my platoon, and the defence of my sector. I left the company sergeant-major in difficulties as to whether Randall, the man who had so miraculously escaped, and who was temporarily dazed, should be returned as “sick” or “wounded.”

Another death that came into my close experience was that of a lance-corporal in my platoon. I had only spoken to him a quarter of an hour before, and on returning found him lying dead on the fire-platform. He had been killed instantaneously by a rifle grenade. I lifted the waterproof sheet and looked at him. I remember that I was moved, but there was nothing repulsive about his recumbent figure. I think the novelty and interest of these first casualties made them quite easy to bear. I was so busy noticing details: the silence that reigned for a few hours in my platoon; the details of removing the bodies, the collecting of kit, etc. These things at first blunted my perception of the vileness of the tragedy; nor did I feel the cruelty of war as I did later.

Weariness. Mud. Death. So it was with great joy that we would return to billets, to get dry and clean, to eat, sleep, and write letters…[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Letters From a Lost Generation, 183-4.
  2. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 165.
  3. The Square Egg, 89.
  4. Talking Across the World, 109.
  5. Nothing of Importance, 27-36.

A Near Miss and a Disappointing Explosion for Lady Feilding

All quiet (or unusually inconsequential) on the British Front, today, so we catch up with Lady Feilding in Belgium. It has been a calm transition back from her extended sick leave, with few acute casualties coming into the Monro Ambulance Corps’ aid post. This extreme northwest sector of the line is very quiet now. It’s too close to the sea to permit dreams of a strategic breakthrough, so attritional dueling is all that goes on–they will not see anything like the massive casualties of the bitter last spasms of the fall fighting a year ago. But today,a century back, Dorothie Feilding did revisit the friends (or friendly rivals, or, er, rivals who usually did a decent job of feigning friendship) of those days, calling on Mairi Chisholm and Elsie Knocker, who had been back since September in near by Pervyse, running an aid post. The two fast friends had had their differences with the flighty and socially high-flying Lady Feilding, but it seems that bygones–now that all three of them have received the Order of Leopold–have become bygones.

Nov 5th 15

Mother dear–

A quiet day today, went up to the hospital to see the blesses, lunched with Mairi & Mrs K up there too. It appears poor dears they nearly had a fit yesterday. The English girl was wounded & the Belgian lady killed & a Belge dashed up to Mrs K & Mairi to tell them I had been killed so they tore down in a car poor dears in an awful state.

I am glad to say the 2 English girls are going on well. They were only touched & escaped by a miracle.

There will be more on Mrs. Knocker and Miss Chisholm anon–there are reasons, it seems, for the renewal of friendly terms among the former comrades.

But Dorothie Feilding–as ever, and so hearteningly–is more interested in adventure than social reporting. For her mother she makes allowances, but it is clear she would rather be writing about blowing stuff up than misunderstandings at luncheon:

Yesterday a lot of shelling too… but quieter today. There were no blessés & we met Duforge… blowing up a mine–a German one come in on the coast by itself; it appears it is a new variety, they haven’t seen before so it was treated with great reverence.

Blown up with gun cotton but disappointing because tho’ half filled with about a barrel full of gun cotton squares… it had got overdamp from long exposure in the water. Result just the case blew up & scattered the gun cotton all over the shore but it didn’t go off with a magnificent burst as we expected but only a halfhearted affair.

…I have borrowed Gurney’s gramophone & Jelly has gone on the night round so it’s nice & quiet & I have been enjoying myself with a young concert of records that Gervase Elwes & Hubert Eisdell sent me of their songs such good ones too–it’s charming to hear something nice.

(There are no 1915-era recordings of these two–both prominent tenors–so the rules prevent me from guessing what exactly Lady Feilding has on her playlists… but youtube does kick in some stuff from the 20’s if you would like an audio supplement to this overwritten war…  And yes, absolutely: Gervase Elwes was the great-grandfather of the fourth [fifth?] Dread Pirate Roberts.)

I must go to bed now–goodnight–DoDo


 

Strangely–and slapdash dating rather than an (extremely) odd failure of memory is likely the culprit here, although the editors are silent–Dorothie now repeats some of the same stories in another letter dated the very same evening:

5th Nov 15 night
Mother dear–

Just got two very nice letters from you–very many thanks for your prayers from me on All Souls, darling…

Today & yesterday, tragedies at Fumes: yesterday they shelled the town & a soldier was killed not far from 14. Today a lot of aeroplane bombs in our district again & hit slightly two English ladies (Red X) newly  arrived who have been feeding the poor Belgian refugee kiddies at a ‘lean to’ school some 500 yds from here. They aren’t bad I believe… But a Belgian lady working with them at the same work was killed I am sorry to say.

One of the mysteries of the war–or perhaps one of the strange proofs of the common human stubbornness when it comes to “home”–is the fact that the civilian population continues to live within a few miles of the front. This was a near miss that even the lighthearted Lady Feidling can’t contemplate without blanching:

…It was very fortunate none of the bombs today fell on the children’s school. As It was, Helene tells me the poor mites were scared to death & screamed & thought the end of the world had come. It was terribly near to the school & would have been ghastly had it been hit.

I have been giving lots of the kiddies scarves & things… They are so bucked poor little souls. The next door to us is a family of Mama & her married daughter living together in a wee cottage; population is nine kids under 14!!  …The husband was killed at Fumes & they are terribly poor so I do what I can for them. Tell Bettie if there are any old children’s warm clothes at home, jerseys etc they would be so grateful for them…

Much love dears

Goodnight DoDo[1]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Lady Under Fire, 110-13.

Alf Pollard Leads an Assault, and Wins a Medal; George Coppard Arrives at Loos, While Noel Hodgson is Relieved, and Composes a Poem

Yesterday, a century back, Alf Pollard received a letter from his always-capitalized Beloved rejecting his proposal of marriage. He went on a champagne bender that, he claims, left him only slightly tipsy. Returning to his tent in the wee hours, he discovered that his new dignity–sergeant of the specialist bombing platoon–was about to be put to the test.

Pollard and the Honourable Artillery Company are holding the line in the Ypres Salient, far to the north of the recent Battle of Loos. But that doesn’t mean that the Germans have been idle. Sometime during that overnight binge the Germans had exploded a large mine under the position held by the Fourth Middlesex, then rushed the crater and dug in on its lip.

We were to counter-attack and turn them out. Only the bombing platoon would be employed. The rest of the battalion would be in reserve.

I mentally rubbed my hands. These were great tidings. It was the biggest opportunity I had had…

And I am mentally licking my chops. Pollard hits all the old-school notes, using the phrases “cover… in glory,” “the whole affair was a game,” and “fighting was in my blood.”

At 3:00, under cover of a short, weak barrage, Pollard’s platoon advanced up a communications trench and toward what had been the British front line, in Sanctuary Wood, hard by (even by the standards of the crowded Salient) the site of the brutal fighting around Hooge in June. Reaching a barricade, they begin throwing their grenades.

The fray had commenced… Bang! Bang! Bang! Zunk! Zunk! Zunk!

For three minutes or so we had it all our own way. Then a shout from one of the men warned me that retaliation had commenced. A thing like a jam tin on the end of a stick came hurtling through the air…

This was all very well, but as long as we were confronted by that barricade progress was impossible. The affair was degenerating into a sort of snowball match except that the snowballs were deadly missiles…

Bad prose and intense action, so let’s follow the action. The first thing Pollard does is to jettison half their grenades. He seems to have been supplied with both Mills bombs (familiar from war movies–a pin, a lever, a short timed fuse) and stick bombs outfitted with percussion triggers and streamers designed to make them fall trigger-side-down. Unless, of course, the bomber whacks them against the side of the trenchduring his wind-up… so Pollard decides that they will only use the grenades that pose less threat to themselves. Given how many grenade accidents we’ve seen, this certainly seems like wisdom.

sanctuary woodInstead of holding his position in the middle of his platoon, Pollard goes over the top, to get around the trench barricade. Thus he leads from the front–which is for the moment a position of safety. Germans in the trenches ahead immediately begin firing, but miss the first target, hitting four of the six men with him.

Pollard soon gets down into the German-held part of the trench and  begins bombing up the traverses with the two survivors. The map at right is not quite right–it shows this position a few months hence, when the front lines have surely been rearranged. But it shows the right area and reminds us of why grenade attacks are necessary, and how they work: each “traverse,” each kink in the trench system, prevents attackers from commanding more than a few yards with their rifles. But they can toss grenades up and over and “around” the corners.

Unless German snipers have been stationed in nearby trees.

There was one curious incident which I shall never forget. I was giving orders to… a little man of not more than five feet four inches. He was standing in front of me listening to what I had to say, when–whist!–a bullet took him through the throat and he fell dead at my feet. Now, I am a six feet two…

Pollard can draw only one possible conclusion from this:

The knowledge that some fate had spared me on that occasion helped me considerably… I used to think, if not once, why not twice?

But this sense of invulnerability does not preclude the near-miss–in fact it seems to invite it. Pollard leads his platoon through the new German positions, and reaches another barricade, when the man next to him suddenly falls.

At the same time my right arm fell to my side… That’s damned funny, I thought. What’s wrong with it? I had felt absolutely nothing. I was still wondering why I could not move it when my knees suddenly gave way beneath me…

Someone held a water-bottle to my lips and I sipped gratefully. It was rum and water, the nectar of the gods. I looked down at my silly useless arm. The shoulder of my tunic was stained crimson…  This was too annoying just as we had got them on the run.

I sank slowly to the ground… the vicious cracking of bombs faded from my consciousness. The fight in Sanctuary Wood was over as far as I was concerned. For the first time in my life I discovered that fainting is not confined solely to the gentler sex.

Pollard is writing mostly in the “modest confessions of a hero” genre, but there is also a hint of the Bildungsroman as tactical instruction manual: we have learned, now, that percussion grenades are a disaster, that leading from the front is worth the danger, and that boys faint too, when sufficiently wounded. His main points, therefore, are that he has finally had the opportunity to show his mettle–not just the static courage demanded of the trench-fighter, but old-fashioned aggressive virtù–and that he, representing all that is best in the volunteer army,[1] is swiftly learning how to conduct proper trench warfare.

We learn in the next chapter of his memoir that Pollard’s colonel recommended him for the Victoria Cross. He professes astonishmen,t but the recommendation is not surprising. Aggressive actions leading to local successes (even if they only offset recent German gains), have been few, and stories of valor–especially by a sergeant shortly to be commissioned–are badly needed to offset the gradual public realization about the “bloody balls up” at Loos.

Pollard won instead the second most prestigious decoration then available to him, the Distinguished Conduct Medal. It was awarded for

conspicuous gallantry on September 30 at Sanctuary Wood… Although severely wounded Sergeant Pollard continued to throw bombs, at the time issuing orders to and encouraging his men. By his example and gallant conduct he renewed confidence among the bombers at a time when they were shaken… He did not give up until he fell, severely wounded for the second time.[2]

Pollard is no shrinking violet, but it is interesting, in weighing the respective pull on his prose of his Victorian romanticism and his instinct for self-promotion, to see how his own account differs from that of the citation. He reminds us that his first wound was not at all “severe,” but merely a spray of shrapnel. (The sniper’s bullet, however, was a serious wound–it was fired at close range, and tore through his shoulder, apparently “tumbling” and thus leaving a larger hole. Recuperation will take some time.) But he doesn’t comment on the fact that his own account has him doing little after being shot but struggle to his feet and then pass out, while the citation focuses on his staying at his post after being wounded.

I don’t want to make a lot out of a little here, pushing dubious close-reading too far. Except, of course,that that’s what I always do, here. Decorations are a notoriously difficult thing to justify. There are no hard-and-fast criteria, and it always seems to be more about the observer and the political context (in terms both of internal army politics and the propaganda job of producing the proper sort of heroes) than about the act itself–Robert Graves recently reminded us of this, and will have more to say on the subject.

But from (or, rather “from,” since there is no real historical continuity, only a re-imagining of the past) the time of the first standardized military decorations (under the Roman Republic) there had always been an emphasis on aggressive valor, the sort of voluntary actions taken by young leaders that are likely to win battles–killing an enemy leader, storming a fortification, climbing a wall etc. Pollard did this, and thus by most lights should deserve his award. His platoon could have been tentative, or turned back; they didn’t, and they took another trench.

Yet the citation emphasizes courage and control after being bloodied–also, of course, a very laudable and important ability, but not what led to success that day.[3] Could there be the beginning of a shift here toward an emphasis on courageous and unflinching sacrifice as the highest military virtue? Perhaps the powers that be are beginning to realize that the war on the largest level will not be a courageous gallop toward Germany but rather a grim struggle to remain in control despite torrential bloodshed? And then perhaps they have begun to reward the microcosm accordingly? Medals will continue to be given for old-fashioned bravura displays of excellence–killing enemy snipers, storming machine guns, taking prisoners, etc. But a shift will come, and eventually most of the highest decorations[4] will be awarded for acts of terribly brave self-sacrifice. The archetypal ancient or early modern hero stands on a heap of enemy dead; the archetypal late 20th century hero throws himself on a grenade and saves his buddies. Is this year–stretching from Rupert Brooke‘s gilding of the idea of sacrifice to awards like this one being steered more toward heroic endurance than heroic initiative–the beginning of the sea change?

 

And then of course I need to note that Noel Hodgson has already earned a decoration, a Military Cross, for leading a successful bombing assault during the main attack at Loos on the 25th. He was not wounded, and he showed both courage and initiative in seeking out a German strong point and helping to eliminate it. So an aggressively heroic young officer…

His Devonshires took heavy casualties, however, and were one of the units that, due to the inefficient movement of the reserves, was left in the line. A man in his battalion described the days between the attack and early this morning, a century back, when they were finally relieved and marched back toward Vermelles:

We had stuck… till Thursday in misery… being wettish, and the chalk mud awful. The men never complained and were splendid. We got no rations, and despite all, stuck it. The officers who came through were very popular with the men. I was plastered with mud. My tunic badly torn with wire, my fingers very tender from crawling on the ground, and my beard terrific.

Charlotte Zeepvalt picks up the story of this relief:

Noel Hodgson found a poem forming in his mind–as he often did on the march. What he took from that first experience of battle, apart from the sheer joy of living, was a deepened appreciation of the men around him; a new understanding of the very best that humanity could be, born in the very worst of circumstances.

Back To Rest

(Composed while marching to Rest Camp after severe fighting at Loos)

A leaping wind from England,
The skies without a stain.
Clean cut against the morning
Slim poplars after rain.
The foolish noise of sparrows
And starlings in a wood–
After the grime of battle
We know that these are good.

Death whining down from Heaven,
Death roaring from the ground.
Death stinking in the nostril.
Death shrill in every sound.
Doubting we charged and conquered —
Hopeless we struck and stood.
Now when the fight is ended
We know that it was good.

We that have seen the strongest
Cry like a beaten child.
The sanest eyes unholy.
The cleanest hands defiled,
We that have known the heart blood
Less than the lees of wine.
We that have seen men broken.
We know man is divine.[5]

 

George Coppard, private of the Royal West Surries, reached the front lines today, a century back. He had been in the trenches before–he notes that his battalion had already taken seventy casualties in day-to-day trench warfare–but knew immediately that this experience would be different.

The battalion proceeded up the communication trench at a snail’s pace, suffering casualties from shrapnel fire. As many troops were coming away from the front line as were going up. Stretcher-bearers with the wounded, fatigue parties, telephone linesmen, runners and parties of relieved troops wended their way to the rear, jamming the narrow trench. The trench was parallel to the Vermelles-Hulluch road, and was only a few yards from it… Wrecked war gear lay about on both sides as we edged forward, including field guns, limbers, and dead horses by the score. Blown up by internal gases, their carcases were enormous, and when punctured by shrapnel or bullets the foulest stench poisoned the air.

At last we reached the top of a slope where the German front line had been before the attack. And there, stretching for several hundred yards on the right of the road, lay masses of British dead… Shells from enemy field batteries had been pitching into the bodies, flinging them into dreadful postures. As they mostly belonged to Highland regiments there was a fantastic display of colour from their kilts, glengarries and bonnets, and also from the bloody wounds on their bare limbs.

Color, it’s true, is usually drained from our imaginative reconstructions of these memories of others. We stain to see the war, yet we forget that it wasn’t fought in black and white. Coppard’s emphasis on color seems pointed. It was colorful, but it wasn’t pretty. And the other senses? As usual, it gets worse.

tower bridge

‘Tower Bridge,’ obscured by smoke

The warm weather had darkened their faces and, shrouded as they were with the sickly odour of death, it was repulsive to be near them. Hundreds of rifles lay about, some stuck in the ground on the bayonet, as though impaled at the very moment of the soldier’s death as he fell forward.[6] In the distance, three kilometres south, and in the midst of concentrated shell bursts, I could discern the huge twin-tower steel structure known to the troops as ‘Tower Bridge…’ It received a steady battering for a few days and its end was only a matter of time. One morning, when looking towards Loos, where a fierce rumpus was going on, I noticed that the tower had gone.

By the end of the morning, today, a century back, Coppard was helping to set up his heavy machine gun in a captured trench of the Hohenzollern Redoubt.[7]

 

I haven’t written much of Gallipoli of late–this project was supposed to focus on the Western Front, after all. But it has been a dismal failure, a fact that is at last being acknowledged by the first withdrawals of the pinned-down infantry. The final evacuation will take months, but the British presence–and the presence of our writers–dwindles. Aubrey Herbert is gone, and, after tonight, a century back, only Patrick Shaw-Stewart will remain.

As night descended on 30 September, the soldiers assembled at Lala Baba, a little height standing between the Salt Lake and the sea.

While darkness shielded their movements, they were transferred with the utmost speed into the beetles [makeshift landing craft] that carried them out across the bay to where the S.S. Sarnia was anchored in readiness. Ledwidge had looked his last on the peninsula…[8]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Although Pollard joined so swiftly last August that he is with the Honourable Artillery Company, an unusual Regular unit, rather than the New Army.
  2. Fire-Eater, 113-124.
  3. Also very British military trait; Admiral Nelson is the greatest exemplar of the standing-around-and-getting-shot school of leadership.
  4. I only know the stats off-hand for the American Medal of Honor, but these show a marked trend toward self-sacrificial--rather than "war-winning"--acts of heroism.
  5. Zeepvalt, Before Action, 129-30.
  6. Surely some of these could have been so placed after the fighting, to mark the spot?
  7. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 30-1.
  8. Curtayne, Ledwidge, 131. Curtayne's sentence ends with the words "where 19,000 of his comrades in the now shattered Tenth Division had met their death." These numbers are wildly off, however--19,000 is close to the total number of British deaths for the entire campaign, and far more men than the tenth division contained. But it was... no picnic.

Billy Congreve and One Hooge Crater; A Card for Mr. Brittain; John Ronald Tolkien and Edward Thomas Report For Duty

congreve july 19 1915Billy Congreve describes today one of the more successful local actions of the summer. After the terrible semi-success of the Battle of Bellewaarde, efforts to improve the British tactical position in the southern Ypres Salient have gone underground.

The mine went off most successfully and the Middlesex took the crater without much trouble, also the piece of trench in front of Island Posts. The Middlesex worked down the trench to about Point ‘X’ shown on my second sketch, but were unable to stay there as they ran out of bombs. It was a real bombing battle. The crater is huge, and the explosion greater than we thought possible…

The explosion involved 3,500 pounds of ammonal, entombing scores of German soldiers and leaving the surviving defenders so stunned that, for once, the initial advance was consolidated and reinforced. Congreve’s sketches, at left, show the change in the British line.

Two days from now, a century back, Congreve will visit the spot in person:

At the end of the trench nearest to the crater, I had a most wonderful view of Bellewaarde Farm and Y Wood. No wonder the Germans wanted the place–it’s a strong little position. To get into the crater from here was not easy, as no trench had been completed into it….

hooge_dugouts

A photo often described as showing dugouts in the side of the Hooge crater, Summer 1915

It was a sight I shall never forget. The hole was huge, at least forty yards in diameter and thirty feet deep, but these figures give no idea of what the place looked like. The earth had been thrown up into a high ‘lip’ all round. On the north and east side of this lip, our men had made a good sandbag parapet and parados. They sat on the great lumps of earth inside the hole, smoking and laughing, while others keep a look-put over the parapet…[1]

 

It seems as if every day on which we read of deadly combat we also see one or more of our writers–those as yet far behind the lines–taking some significant step forward. As the war chews up the army at the front, infusions of new manpower press forward into the recruiting offices, the training camps, and the ever-larger base camps in France.

So–today, a century back, Edward Thomas reported to the depot of the Artists’ Rifles in London, and Ronald Tolkien joined the 13th Lancashire Fusiliers in Bedford. Each will at once encounter disappointment: Thomas will strain the ankle he injured in January and will go on sick call, while Tolkien learns that he will not be able to quickly transfer to his friend G.B. Smith’s battalion of the regiment.[2]

 

Vera Brittain has had some news of Roland at last. But when one has begun to despair of a loved one’s safety, what good is an update that falls so short of the present? It’s a nasty little emotional cul de sac: the more one worries about the present safety of a loved one in combat, the less reassurance a card or letter brings. To receive no news is terrible, but then again no news one receives is new enough. She hasn’t heard from him in many days, so she comes to believe that he is probably dead–it has been so many days.

So the card that should, rationally, bring some relief–I had not heard for him for x days, now I know that he was safe only x-5 days ago–brings only intensified anguish. Fine–he was safe recently. But where does all of that worry, that faltering faith in fate, go? It cannot evaporate, since his present situation is still unknown. So it is redeployed in close order, covering only those five most recent days…

Monday July 19th

There was at last some slight news of Roland–though nothing more than information of his existence on July 14th. He just sent a picture postcard of Lillers to Daddy. “I will write as soon as I have time. I am very hurried at present.” But that at all events was better than nothing.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Armageddon Road, 156-9.
  2. Garth, Tolkien and the Great War, 89; Hollis, Now All Roads, 239-40.
  3. Chronicle of Youth, 222.

Edward Thomas and Eleanor Farjeon Share a Moment of Tempered Joy; Charles Sorley’s Brilliant Circus-Scape of War; Vera Brittain Grows Anxious; Donald Hankey Steels Himself for Change

Eleanor Farjeon received this letter in the morning post today, a century back:

My dear Eleanor

The mystery was this. I have just seen the doctor and been passed by him and am coming up to town again on Monday to join the Artists Rifles. I have lunch time free tomorrow. Will you meet me at Shearn’s at 1?

Yours ever
Edward Thomas

Could you wire here early if you can’t come?

Farjeon for once refused a request of Thomas. Did she know, I wonder, that he had wired his wife–the other woman who loved him in vain–with the news, and not even seen her yet? Thomas came, at least.

Farjeon later described their meeting:

I felt that I could not meet him at Shearn’s, and wired to him to see me, after his lunch, in Fellows Road. I rose as he came into the room. He bent his head, and for the only time in our four years of friendship we kissed spontaneously.

He sat down saying, ‘Well, I’ve joined up.’

‘I don’t know why, but I am glad,’ I said.

‘I am too,’ he said, ‘and I don’t know why either.’

Before very long I did know why. Self-torment had gone out of him, and I was glad because of that.[1]

 

Thomas wrote to Frost today as well.[2]

My dear Robert,

It is done. The doctor passed me yesterday & I am going up again on Monday to be attested & get my uniform…

Thomas then describes the exam, during which the doctor seems to have suspected a lung ailment–but noticed neither Thomas’s incipient diabetes nor his damaged ankle. Having finally chosen his path, Thomas is not about to take the easy first turning-off.

Now I am on my way home to clear things up a little & get a walk with Helen on the downs.–I hope this is not making you think I don’t want to come out. When I do come I shall be readier to do other new things, such as lecturing, that is if I do not crock up…

I wish I had time to tell you about these last few days. If there is anything to forgive you would forgive me, I believe. But I don’t feel inclined yet for explaining myself, though if you were here I should…

Goodbye. Yours ever

Edward Thomas[3]

An ominous ending, that. And telling, too. Thomas has been withholding explanation from all and sundry, but to Frost he would unburden himself.

Is this little counterfactual conditional an easy way out? I would tell you, but… Or is it the stark truth: that Thomas has never had a friend like Frost, and so, deprived of his company, he keeps his own counsel and feels very much alone. Will the memories of England’s birds and natural beauty that he summoned for yesterday’s prayer-poem be enough to see him through?

 

It’s appropriate, then, to read now two other writers, already in France, as they draw upon their Arcadian resources to soothe and to reassure–themselves and others. First, Donald Hankey, writing another chipper letter of thanks to his cousin:

July 15, 1915

Dear Dorothy,

Thanks awfully for your letter and parcel containing my commissions. Everything was absolutely right except the pipe! I asked for a 1s. briar, and you sent me one which must have cost at least 4s. 6d.!

I am at present sitting in a field far from the trenches with a jolly view of hops and wheat and oats and farms and villages and windmills, and I wonder why it is that I am not severely content instead of utterly fed up! I suppose the fact of expecting a move any time is disturbing.

And it would be a disturbing move to Donald Hankey: he was an officer once, Sandhurst-trained, and hated it. Then he had settled on a career in the church, working among the poor. Then came the war, and he enlisted in the ranks. There were more ups and downs: a quick promotion of the ex-officer to sergeant, happy training under the original “beloved captain,” the replacement of that officer by a petty tyrant, and Hankey’s choice of a transfer and reduction to private in order to escape serving under such a man.

But if most healthy Public School boys just coming out now are more or less automatically commissioned, a former officer with actual training and, now, some slight combat experience will hardly escape:

Maurice tells me that I shall probably have to go for a month to a sort of school for aspirants to commissions, and that if I pass out all right I shall probably get five days’ leave before actually being gazetted.[4]

 

A minor bit of light trench pastoral from Donald Hankey, then, if overshadowed by what is to come. But Charles Sorley is, despite his youth, an altogether more formidable writer, and today, a century back, he sat down to write a major letter–the sort that others would send off to the paper, but Sorley sent to his father alone. To entertain and–gently but firmly–to illuminate.

This is no mere clear-eyed explication of the realities of warfare. It illuminates, but it is very dark–a sort of German Romantic rendering of the trenches as an uncanny dreamscape.

It might be the highlight of the project so far: a letter written precisely a century ago that testifies to the sights and sounds of the very moment, yet becomes, by the firm intention of a talented writer, a preserved moment, a literary sense-capture for the benefit of those far away.

This is good military history and near-Lewis Carroll all at once–the off-kilter reality of life down in the new rabbit holes.

15 July 1915

Your letter, dated 13th, has just arrived. We are now at the end of a few days’ rest, a kilometre behind the lines. Except for the farmyard noises (new style) it might almost be the little village that first took us to its arms six weeks ago. It has been a fine day, following on a day’s rain, so that the earth smells like spring…

Close by, a quickfirer is pounding away its allowance of a dozen shells a day. It is like a cow coughing. Eastward there begins a sound (all sounds begin at sundown and continue intermittently till midnight, reaching their zenith at about 9 p.m. and then dying away as sleepiness claims their makers)–a sound like a motor-cycle race–thousands of motor-cycles tearing round and round a track, with cut-outs out: it is really a pair of machine guns firing.

And now one sound awakens another. The old cow coughing has started the motor-bikes: and now at intervals of a few minutes come express trains in our direction: you can hear them rushing toward us; they pass going straight for the town behind us: and you hear them begin to slow down as they reach the town: they will soon stop: but no, every time, just before they reach it, is a tremendous railway accident. At least, it must be a railway accident, there is so much noise, and you can see the dust that the wreckage scatters. Sometimes the train behind comes very close, but it too smashes on the wreckage of its forerunners. A tremendous cloud of dust, and then the groans. So many trains and accidents start the cow coughing again: only another cow this time, somewhere behind us, a tremendous-sized cow, thaumasion hoson, [a phrase from Plato, meaning “amazingly great”] with awful whooping-cough.

It must be a buffalo: this cough must burst its sides. And now someone starts sliding down the stairs on a tin tray, to soften the heart of the cow, make it laugh and cure its cough. The din he makes is appalling. He is beating the tray with a broom now, every two minutes a stroke: he has certainly stopped the cow by this time, probably killed it. He will leave off soon (thanks to the “shell tragedy”): we know he can’t last.

It is now almost dark: come out and see the fire-works. While waiting for them to begin you can notice how pale and white the corn is in the summer twilight: no wonder with all this whooping-cough about. And the motor-cycles: notice how all these races have at least a hundred entries: there is never a single cycle going.

And why are there no birds coming back to roost? Where is the lark  I haven’t heard him all to-day. He must have got whooping-cough as well, or be staying at home through fear of the cow. I think it will rain to-morrow, but there have been no swallows circling low, stroking their breasts on the full ears of corn. Anyhow, it is night now, but the circus does not close till twelve.

Look! there is the first of them! The fireworks are beginning. Red flares shooting up high into the night, or skimming low over the ground, like the swallows that are not: and rockets bursting into stars. See how they illumine that patch of ground a mile in front. See it, it is deadly pale in their searching light: ghastly, I think, and featureless except for two big lines of eyebrows ashy white, parallel along it, raised a little from its surface. Eyebrows. Where are the eyes? Hush, there are no eyes. What those shooting flares illumine is a mole. A long thin mole. Burrowing by day, and shoving a timorous enquiring snout above the ground by night. Look, did you see it?

No, you cannot see it from here. But were you a good deal nearer, you would see behind that snout a long and endless row of sharp shining teeth. The rockets catch the light from these teeth and the teeth glitter: they are silently removed from the poison-spitting gums of the mole. For the mole’s gums spit fire and, they say, send something more concrete than fire darting into the night. Even when its teeth are off. But you cannot see all this from here: you can only see the rockets and then for a moment the pale ground beneath. But it is quite dark now.

And now for the fun of the fair! You will hear soon the riding-master crack his whip–why, there it is. Listen, a thousand whips are cracking, whipping the horses round the ring. At last! The fun of the circus is begun. For the motor-cycle team race has started off again: and the whips are cracking all: and the wares-man starts again, beating his loud tin tray to attract the customers: and the cows in the cattle-show start coughing, coughing: and the firework display is at its best: and the circus specials come one after another bearing the merry-makers back to town, all to the inevitable crash, the inevitable accident. It can’t last long: these accidents are so frequent, they’ll all get soon killed off, I hope. Yes, it is diminishing. The train service is cancelled (and time too): the cows have stopped coughing: and the cycle race is done. Only the kids who have bought new whips at the fair continue to crack them: and unused rockets that lie about the ground are still sent up occasionally. But now the children are being driven off to bed: only an occasional whip-crack now (perhaps the child is now the sufferer): and the tired showmen going over the ground pick up the rocket-sticks and dead flares. At least I suppose this is what must be happening: for occasionally they still find one that has not yet gone off and send it up out of mere perversity. Else what silence!

It must be midnight now. Yes, it is midnight. But before you go to bed, bend down, put your ear against the ground. What do you hear?

I hear an endless tapping and a tramping to and fro: both are muffled: but they come from everywhere. Tap, tap, tap: pick, pick, pick : tra-mp, tra-mp, tra-mp.

So you see the circus-goers are not all gone to sleep. There is noise coming from the womb of earth, noise of men who tap and mine and dig and pass to and fro on their watch. What you have seen is the foam and froth of war: but underground is labour and throbbing and long watch. Which will one day bear their fruit. They will set the circus on fire. Then what pandemonium! Let us hope it will not be to-morrow![5]

All I can do is hope you’ve read this. And I’ll reinforce my own “tagging:” there are larks here, of course; and the mole, no longer a comforting metaphor. There are fireworks and a terrible light show halfway between Dodgson and Jefferson Airplane. And they are digging, digging underground, to snuggle enormous bombs beneath your pillow…

 

Finally, today, Vera Brittain. As the long days draw out with no news from Roland, her diary begins to take on the form of a vigil:

Thursday July 15th

I came home to-night more weary & footsore than I have been since I started nursing. This is all the fault of one charming Sister who this morning had me on the run & besides my ordinary work made me follow her round cutting people’s toe-nails & washing their hands & feet. This afternoon besides my ordinary work she gave me a whole stack of flowers to do for the day-room, so I did not get away till past nine.

Still I have heard nothing from Roland. There has never been so long an interval as this—it will be a fortnight on Sunday since I heard anything about him. To-day I watched every post with great eagerness, only to be disappointed. Oh Roland, Roland! Where are you now?[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Farjeon, Edward Thomas, 151-2.
  2. The letter is dated the 14th, but is clearly written the day after.
  3. Elected Friends, 81.
  4. Letters of Donald Hankey, 298-9.
  5. The Letters of Charles Sorley, 286-90.
  6. Chronicle of Youth, 220.