Jack Martin on a Just Punishment; Wilfred Owen Among the Literary Lights; Siegfried Sassoon Disabuses Lady Ottoline Morrell

Jack Martin, now waiting for reassignment to Italy, has an amusing story today, a century back, of generalship-as-moral instruction:

Had a practice stunt on the dunes repelling imaginary Austrians. I was running a Visual Station and of course we had divested ourselves of our equipment but the runners had to keep theirs on. Presently the Brigadier came along and after a few enquiries said ‘A shell has now dropped here and killed those men who are wearing their equipment. So they can get back to their billets at once…’ We leave here on Monday but I haven’t heard any details yet.[1]

Primary school teachers would greet this particular adverse stroke of artillery-fortune with approval, I think.

 

But the main action is not behind the lines in France today, but rather at home, in London and Edinburgh. Wilfred Owen’s letter, written tomorrow (a century back) to his mother, tells the tale best.[2] It’s a bit like one of those irritating “which living writers would you most like to eat dinner with?” questions. Except that he actually is:

Had a memorable dinner at the Reform last night, & stayed talking with Ross till one A.M. I and my work are a success. I had already sent something to the Nation which hasn’t appeared yet, but it seems the Editor[3] has started talking of me, and Wells told me he had heard of me through that Editor! H.G.W. said some rare things for my edification, & told me a lot of secrets. I only felt ill at ease with him once, and that was when he tried to make me laugh at Arnold Bennett. Wells is easily top dog when it comes to jests, and I’m afraid I took his side, and told Bennett I disapproved of his gaudy silk handkerchief!

…I got Bennett into a corner about Sassoon. I think they ‘noticed’ me because I stood up to them both politely when they shook hands to go, and argumentatively….[4]

 

Yesterday I quoted Siegfried Sassoon‘s biographer, Jean Moorcroft Wilson, on how Sassoon treated the visit of Lady Ottoline Morrell much as he had Robert Graves’s: by going about his business–namely playing golf–and only afterwards paying her some attention. But there was another sense in which LadyOttoline’s visit was similar to Graves’s: there were hard feelings deriving from an explicit clarification of sexual orientation.

While sexual attraction does not seem to have ever been an important element in the Graves-Sassoon relationship[5]–Graves had a crush of some sort but was not interested in sex, while Sassoon was not physically attracted to Graves–Graves opened a rift in the relationship when he announced his love for Nancy Nicholson. In this case, Lady Ottoline had evidently cherished certain hopes, but Sassoon will now definitively disabuse her. Today, a century back, they had a long walk and a short answer, in which “he told her quite specifically that he could ‘only like men, that women were antipathetic to him.'”

This wasn’t any lighthearted clearing of the air–“but, darling, I’m gay!”–but rather a fairly nasty encounter. Sexual preference aside, Sassoon has frequently shown a contempt for women bordering on (or making lengthy inroads into) misogyny, and he also apparently told Lady Ottoline, who was even more eccentrically dressed today than usual, that she was too “artificial” to take seriously. Sassoon, as self-absorbed as most poets and also as self-absorbed as most thoughtlessly immature young men, seems to be exhibiting merely a doubled cruelty, rather than any subtle binary vision. Lost in all this, too, is the context: he may have mocked Lady Ottoline behind her back the whole time he accepted her hospitality and made use of her connections, but adding this belittling sting to his rejection of her may not just be callousness or callowness–he is also clearing his flank as he retreats, leaving no question that he no longer wants anything to do with the pacifist/protest movement…[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Sapper Martin, 123.
  2. Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 280-1.
  3. H.W. Massingham; the poem in question is "Miners," to be published in January.
  4. Collected Letters, 507.
  5. This with all this with the usual caveats about reading between the lines in situations where openness about homosexuality was not possible, plus the usual complexity of parsing lines of love in tumultuous relationships.
  6. Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 418-9.

Diana Manners is a Catalog of Calm Amongst the Bombs; Nothing of Importance for Siegfried Sassoon, and the Embarrassment of His Glory of Women

Today, a century back, the survivors of the 2nd Royal Welch had the pleasure of being inspected by–and inspecting in turn–the Commander-in-Chief of the B.E.F.

The C.-in-C. rode on to the ground at 12.30, twenty minutes late. After pinning ribbons on a few he remounted and passed along the lines of Infantry. Then we marched past, uninspired, on our way back to billets. We were told that “these inspections are his only recreation.” He looked as if he took it sadly to-day…[1]

 

Meanwhile, one of their more illustrious recent subalterns, Siegfried Sassoon, was in Scotland, writing to Robbie Ross.

3 October, 1917 Craiglockhart

My dear Robbie, I hope the air raids haven’t annoyed you? I am sending you some Cambridge Magazine cameos…

I have great difficulty in doing any work as I am constantly disturbed by nurses etc and the man who sleeps in my room—an awful bore. It is pretty sickening when I feel like writing something and have to dry up and try to be polite (you can imagine with how much success!) However, Rivers returns on Friday and may be able to get me a room to myself (or get me away from these imbeciles).

Oh, for a room of one’s own in which to write… And it’s pretty amusing that Sassoon describes his roommate in a two-person hospital room as “the man who sleeps in my room!”

But if he hasn’t been writing much, he has been reading: the war has gone on long enough to see another little loop of ours close: Sassoon is reading what we have recently been reading, as its events were taking place:

…Get Nothing of Importance by Bernard Adams (Methuen) He was in the First R.W.F. with me for eight months (and mentions me once under the name of Scott). The book is by no means bad and he was a nice creature.

“Was:” Adams died of wounds on February 27th.

 

Sassoon shows little to no indication of being interested in writing such a record himself–prose is only prose (“by no means bad” rather than “good”) and memoirs are for the dead. Poetry is still the truth and the way…

In between the two above sections of the letter, Sassoon had mentioned a new potential friend/patron:

Lady Margaret Sackville has sent me her war poems and asked me to lunch! A rival to Lady Ottoline; and
quite ten years younger!

But of course he has already passed Lady Margaret–in a gesture that can be read as both an act of literary/social generosity and a snub–on to his new sidekick, Wilfred Owen, who will invite her to contribute to The Hydra.

Then, in a postscript, Sassoon gets back to his own poetry, in particular to a poem that directly addresses some examples of what he generally considers to be the fouler sex:

I sent Massingham a very good sonnet, but be hasn’t replied! It is called ‘Glory of Women’—and gives them beans.[2]

Beans! Ha! Well. This is certainly a slashing indictment of unfeeling “home front” types, so flaying the unfeeling idiots who wax complacent on the far side of the experiential gulf that this satire almost wins a conviction of their conspiracy to commit further war crimes.

 

You love us when we’re heroes, home on leave,
Or wounded in a mentionable place.
You worship decorations; you believe
That chivalry redeems the war’s disgrace.
You make us shells. You listen with delight,
By tales of dirt and danger fondly thrilled.
You crown our distant ardours while we fight,
And mourn our laurelled memories when we’re killed.
You can’t believe that British troops “retire”
When hell’s last horror breaks them, and they run,
Trampling the terrible corpses—blind with blood.
    O German mother dreaming by the fire,
    While you are knitting socks to send your son
    His face is trodden deeper in the mud

 

Devastating… but wait–why “women?” There is nothing here that explains why it is, exactly, that the sins of women are particularly grave. Or that their political disempowerment and the social strictures that keep them from full participation in war (however much these strictures are evolving or temporarily loosened) might explain their apparently hypocritical position as actually far less hypocritical than the similar statements by the post-conscription aged male property-owners who run the country…

It’s a solid satirical sonnet–a great, sweeping, but errant blow. Like the rest of the letter, it offers proof that nasty myopia and broad-brush stereotyping can coexist with skillful prosody.

 

Not the least ironic bit of Sassoon’s letter is that it begins with that polite question about air raids. This might remind Sassoon that, yes, although no women in England have seen soldiers dying in actual trenches and that many no doubt mouth patriotic pieties instead of listening or seeking out the worst truths of war, thousands upon thousands are now being bombed on a regular basis, while he is safe in Scotland playing golf, writing poetry, and complaining about his roommate.

The air raids are troubling Diana Manning, for instance–or are they?

London, 3 October 1917

Thank God to be back even in these discordant nights. I dined with Ivor last night in the cellar of Wimborne House, after an hour in the Arlington Street basement, with some of the wounded, and screaming kitchenmaids — most trying. Later at Wimborne House arrived Jenny [Lady Randolph] Churchill and Maud Cunard, both a little tipsy, dancing and talking wildly. They had been walking and had got scared and had stopped for a drink. Maud had a set purpose to get to the opera, because it being raid-night the public required example…

I’ve ordered myself chemises embroidered in hand-grenades and a nightgown with fauns…[3]

It’s not Lady Manning’s job to refute Sassoon’s misogyny–it’s just the luck of my date-obsessed bibliographic trawl. But it works out well, I think: she can be both a flighty and insensitive aristocrat and a victim of the war. She is enormously privileged, yet she has also sought out the war’s its suffering–more, really, than most people in her precise social position. She has lost friend after friend (including one whose grave we will visit tomorrow) and has worked long hours as a hospital volunteer, though she writes little about this aspect of her life. And her tendency to continue to live the high life and scoff at kitchenmaids and joke about bombs is neither heroic nor contemptible nor very different from Sassoon’s comportment. A wealthy woman in London rather than a soldier in the trenches watching faces get trodden deeper into the mud, she has not been as directly traumatized by the war as Sassoon. Which is perhaps why she is more consistent, and rather less hysterical…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The War the Infantry Knew, 406.
  2. Diaries, 187-8.
  3. Autobiography, 155-6.

Francis Ledwidge Remembers Spring; F.S. Flint Dines With the Inimitable Ford, Who “Still Invents His Life, Rather;” Dirty Rhymes from Siegfried Sassoon; Good News Brings No Relief to Edward Thomas; Bob Hermon Arrives in Arras

We’ll open today with Francis Ledwidge, minding poetry’s seasonal business. Is it spring, yet, in France? No; but it is Spring at home, in a sense:

Spring

Sweet by the river’s noisy brink
The water-lily bursts her crown,
The kingfisher comes down to drink
Like rainbow jewels falling down.

And when the blue and grey entwine
The daisy shuts her golden eye,
And peace wraps all those hills of mine
Safe in my dearest memory.

France,
March 8th, 1917.

 

Next comes an amusing letter to Richard Aldington from his friend, fellow Imagist, and frequent correspondent F.S. Flint. Aldington, I often forget, was once private secretary to Ford Madox Hueffer:

…I had a telephone call yesterday, and a voice said. Is that you, Flint. I’m Ford Madox Hueffer! Good god, I cried. Yes, can you come and dine with me to-night? –Rather, where can I meet you? So I met him at 5.30 outside Shipwrights, the barber’s, in Coventry Street. We walked to his lodging in the Y.M.C.A. bungalow at Victoria, thence by way of the R.C. Cathedral to the Authors’ Club, where we had a sherry and bitters… we proceeded by way of the tube to the Rendezvous in Soho, where Ford spend [sic] 16/6 on a dinner consisting of Chambertin (I think), hors d’oeuvres varies, salmon and turkey, large helpings of each, to keep within the three course limit. Thence we returned in a taxi to the Authors’ Club, where I took down a list of the poems Ford wants collected in a volume which he wants me to look after.

He had already asked me from France to do this, but I like a churl refused in beautiful French and sent him Poverty. I repented in a few days… and sent him another letter begging his pardon, and accepting the job. He had had neither of these letters. Ford is very quiet, some great change has taken place in him. He says he is going to stay in the Army and not write another book. He laughed when I chaffed him and pointed out the inconsistency of this declaration with his wanting me to pilot a book of poems for him. But he is changed. He is no longer the fat man he was, and he is uglier, and there is another look in his eyes. He still invents his life rather, but I felt that he was rather down and out. Here is a poem I have written as a result of our meeting. It has not come off, but I feel that if I concentrate on it again, it will come out all right…[1]

No, the poem does not quite come off. But what a description of Ford! Changed, and yet unchanged in his total changeability–gorging himself, but on a budget; forswearing art but pushing his war poems. The down-and-outness seems just right, and the propensity for fabulation is something we have been tracing ever since Ford started writing of his experiences in France last summer. And yet can Flint, loyal modernist of the younger generation, have any idea that Ford’s tendency to mythologize his own life will lead to a great fat brilliant beast of a war novel?

 

Things with Edward Thomas could be better–he’s stuck doing office work away from his battery, where he might be doing something to alleviate the feelings of uselessness and loneliness that have been tugging him down toward depression. But things could also be much worse: he’s had a walk, and a good word from across the pond.

Snow blizzard—fine snow and fierce wind… but suddenly a blue sky and soft white cloud through the last of the snow… I liked the walk. Letters from Helen, Eleanor, Oscar and Frost (saying he had got an American publisher for my verses). [2]

Thomas wrote back to Eleanor Farjeon the same day–but there is little of the good cheer we might have hoped for:

March 8

My dear Eleanor, Another letter from you today. I think I already owed you one, but was waiting for the Fortnum and Mason to arrive. It hasn’t done so yet, so I won’t wait any longer, though I doubt if I can do much tonight. I have become rather fed up by this job. It has meant a lot of idle cold hours indoors, a lot of dissatisfaction with myself and some with other people. The Colonel here, though a charming and often entertaining man, is very tyrannical and I have done many trivial things that annoyed me to have to do. Also the nights have been disturbing. I must expect that, but of course artillery in a city is exceptionally noisy. As a matter of fact though I fall asleep very quickly both on putting out my candle and after being wakened up by the fear of God. You mustn’t joke about leave. There is no leave for anyone in this army, neither for men who have been out 9 months nor for men whose wives are dying. If I come back it will be wounded or at the end of the war, I don’t mind which…

This is a poor letter for you. I hope it will find you in fine weather in your cottage garden and able to imagine me much better off than in this belated frost.

Can this be a peevish sort of joke? (The “frost,” I mean, not this early-onset hope for a blighty one.)

…I have heard from Frost—or Helen did, saying he had found a pushbike, but too late, I suspect.[3]

 

The bad mood would seem to be general, though manifesting very differently in our different poets. Siegfried Sassoon wrote to Robbie Ross today, a century back, including in the letter satiric verse both unusual and unsettling. In “The Optimist,” Sassoon has a dull-witted officer spout clichés about soundly beating the Germans–the usual skewering of safe staff officers, at least until it is revealed that the speaker has suffered a head wound… The poem will be published soon, but Sassoon will regret this… it’s not a very satisfactory satire.

The second bit of verse he included was never intended for publication. We have seen the unfortunate conjoining of Sassoon’s snobbery and prudery descend upon the young Welsh officers out for the first time–really, the Sassoon who bemoans the murder of youth should be in sympathy with them. But not if they are speaking with uncouth accents and patronizing the local prostitutes. Hoping to entertain the “unshockable” Robbie Ross, Sassoon archly pities the “poor harlots… how tired they must be of the Welsh dialect and the Lloyd George embrace!”

But the verse is even worse:

She met me on the stairs in her chemise;
I grinned and offered her a five franc note;
Poor girl, no doubt she did her best to please;
But I’d have been far happier with a goat.

This is obnoxious, but one could choose to read it as merely a juvenile rhyme, a nasty private joke. The Royal Welch, after all, have a regimental goat, and such jokes… But that would be to deny that this, too, might be a window into Sassoon’s conflicted character, “a particularly virulent manifestation of Sassoon’s distaste for heterosexual activity.”[4] Perhaps–but Robert Graves, in principle and later practice an enthusiastic heterosexual–was just as snobbish/prudish and cutting about the sordid business of young soldiers and military brothels.

 

We’ll end with a sharp turn back toward traditional family values then, and check in with Bob Hermon:

My darling,

Your letter about the lovely weather is most encouraging but as I happen to be sitting in a house without any glass in the windows & as it is snowing hard, I fail to see it! I am in the big town close handy to were I was…

I rode down here yesterday in the most biting cold wind I ever remember…[5]

The big town is Arras–Hermon’s battalion, too, is being moved into position for the next big push…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Imagist Dialogues. 196-7.
  2. War Diary (Childhood), 168.
  3. Farjeon, Edward Thomas... 254-5.
  4. Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, 325-7.
  5. For Love and Courage, 334-5.

The Legend of C.E. Montague; Siegfried Sassoon on Elgar, Poetry, Spiritualism, Loss, and the Turning of the Plow; Edward Thomas Reads Frost; Tolkien is Boarded

Is the little anti-Semitic outburst of yesterday still hanging on the mind of Siegfried Sassoon? Probably not. It’s probably a coincidence, probably just the music, and not any lingering need to assert his English identity by addressing the Christian story…

Elgar’s Violin Concerto… made me glorious with dreams to-night. Elgar always moves me deeply, because his is the melody of an average Englishman (and I suppose I am more or less the same)…

 

The Elgar Violin Concerto

I have seen Christ, when music wove
Exulting vision; storms of prayer
Deep-voiced within me marched and strove.
The sorrows of the world were there.
A God for beauty shamed and wronged?
A sign where faith and ruin meet.
In glooms of vanquished glory thronged
By spirits blinded with defeat?
His head forever bowed with pain.
In all my dreams he looms above
The violin that speaks in vain—
The crowned humility of love.
O music undeterred by death.
And darkness closing on your flame,
Christ whispers in your dying breath,
And haunts you with his tragic name.

This poem of religious intensity is awkwardly followed, in the diary, by a note on a recent and unusually divisive publication.

A bitter attack on Oliver Lodge’s spook book in the Daily Mail. Stuff like Raymond repels me utterly. Having discovered the fatuity of it in my own case, and watched that pathetic, foolish clinging to the dead which goes on among so many women who (like my own mother) have nothing else to distract their minds from war and wretchedness. It is the worst confession of weakness—a ridiculous hiding of one’s head in a stuffy cupboard, when there is the whole visible earth outside the windows.

If I am killed, no doubt my [Page torn out].

Well that tears it–these must be surgical strikes. Let it not be said that Sassoon was either a negligent or a subtle self-editor. The most offensive pages have gone…

When the diary resumes, Sassoon is more angered by spiritualism than he is inspired by music. So he then tries to walk it off.

Shrivelled by icy blasts, I went an hour’s footpath-walk among starved, colourless fields and cowering, straggly thorn-hedges; skirting chimney-pots and the factories whose thin smokestreamers flew with the sunless, bitter north wind. Once I watched a scattering of gulls that followed the newly-turned furrows; their harsh wrangle mingling with the faint creak and rattle of the plough, as they swung and settled like enormous grey snow-flakes. While the team halted at the hedge, and the man was turning, with a grumble at the wretchedness of the afternoon, they all sat still like some cloaked, attentive congregation, yet their bills were busy at the soil: then the big steady horses moved forward again, with a confusion of dull-silvery wings flickering in the wake of the toilers, as the queer procession
began another journey across the stubble…

There is a striking similarity, here, to one of Edward Thomas’s most important poems. It’s an accident, I suppose: it’s still an old agricultural world, for the most part, and the plowing is there to be observed by any poetical passer-by. And who could fail to be moved by the sight of the team turning at the end of the furrow… there is labor, cyclic imagery, ancient line and habits, and raucous nature attendant on man. Good stuff!

The rain has ceased. Broken clouds drift slowly from the west, glorious with fringes of evening colour. On a hillside I am alone with my happiness, hearing everywhere the faint drip and rustle of summer green: there is a stirring in the grass; each flower has a message to give me. All sounds are small and distinct, as though they expressed the liquid clarity of the air. The country is now properly arrayed in a sort of rich calm, shining and yet subdued and gracious.

I was about to impose an ellipsis… but no. Pure observation yields, now, to introspection. Sassoon has walked out his anger and into his memory. The subject of his brother Hamo does not often come up in his writing:

The roofs and stacks of the farm among its trees below the hill, the farm-house chimney with its wisp of smoke, a bird winging out across the valley-orchards, and the sound of a train going steadily on, miles away—all are as I would have them, as I would keep them remembered. I am back in childhood; home with my kind dreams; soon I shall hear my brother’s voice along the garden, where moths will be fluttering like flowers that are free from their hot parades in sunshine, free to go where they will among the dimness of quiet alleys. O brother, tell me what you have seen to-day, what have you done?

He will not answer, for he is dead. And I am far from the garden, far from the summer that is past. I am alone in this bitter winter of unending war.

It is curious, always, to watch the mind zig and zag, dart and dive–can we, like Holmes watching Watson’s eyes, anticipate the next direction his thoughts will take? No? Poetry.

I don’t think purely descriptive verse should be rhymed, but should sometimes give a feeling of rhyme-endings (a sort of ‘singing-touch’ effect).

But that’s it for technical discussion–and it will be some time before he realizes this idea, and passes it on to another poet who will do even greater things with it. The rest of the diary entry grumpily complains of how difficult it is to write poetry when one is constantly interrupted by friendly fellow-officer roommates…[1]

 

The legend of C.E. Montague is a legend forestalled. He dyed his hair, he joined the ranks, and he did the trenches as a sergeant… and then he fell ill, and fell from the grace of dangerous service–and the rarefied sense of companionship that brings–into a commission and an Intelligence job. Now he spends his days touring dignitaries behind the lines and his evenings sitting among staff officers and journalists and other anteroom-of-hell-as-far-as-the-infantry-are-concerned types in the Château de Rollencourt.

But friends of his among the writers who assembled there to be led on safe tours of the rear and spoon-fed optimistic reports remembered what Montague was like at this time. Despite the bitter cold and the bitterer knowledge that “mediocrities promoted to importance by the war” could order him about–a fifty-year-old writer of wide sympathies and great skill–he did his duty with brisk, reserved professionalism. H.M. Tomlinson, a prominent journalist, understood this reserve to be an expression of his continuing solidarity with those he had briefly been among: “If he could not have the trenches, then at least he would sit in an uncomfortable chair.” Montague made certain to be a good officer, a loyal cog in the claptrap propaganda machine, yet he was becoming thoroughly disenchanted, and one evening he unbent so far as to admit that “he wanted to do one good book before he died.”

He will. But despite being sent down from the trenches (the irony that men who had served longer than he could only long for such a reprieve would not have escaped him) Montague is no idle writer yet. Today, a century back, he was sent with a dispatch to General Haig himself:

I find the C.-in-C. knows about my various conducting expeditions, and is very friendly. Says, ‘I hear you’re a terrible fellow at going along the trenches’.

So Montague is not immune to a well-placed compliment (and highly-placed complimentor). But around this time he also showed a less sanguine mood:

If we were a band of brothers for one month, I believe we should have won the war. If we could all forget decorations and promotions for six months, it would be over too. If we, outside the trenches, bore what men in the trenches do, it would be over too. If all these miracles happened together, it would be over at once.

Ferreting about for themselves in this soft cheeselike world of fecklessness and self-seeking and public spiritlessness are the sturdy maggots like ————, intimidating all the little timid professional soldiers and corrupting the discipline of the army. Can we win still, in spite of it all, or is it to be the end of freedom and joy
for us all?

But back to that “terrible fellow” business. One of the luminaries he shepherded about within the sound of the guns was George Bernard Shaw:

At the chateau where the Army entertained the rather mixed lot who, being nondescript, were classified as Distinguished Visitors, I met Montague. Finding him just the sort of man I like and get on with, I was glad to learn that he was to be my bear-leader on my excursions…

The standing joke about Montague was his craze for being under fire, and his tendency to lead the distinguished
visitors, who did not necessarily share this taste (rare at the front), into warm corners. Like most standing jokes it was inaccurate, but had something in it. War is fascinating even to those who, like Montague, have no illusions about it, and are not imposed on by its boasting, its bugaboo, its desperate attempts to make up for the shortage of capable officers by sticking tabs and brass hats on duffers, its holocausts of common men for nothing, its pretences of strategy and tactics where there is only bewilderment and blundering, its vermin and dirt and butchery and terror and foul-mouthed boredom. None of these things were lost on a man so critical as Montague any more than they were lost on me. But neither of us ever asked the other ‘And what the devil are you doing in this galley?’ Both of
us felt that, being there, we were wasting our time when we were not within range of the guns. We had come to the theatre to see the play, not to enjoy the intervals between the acts like fashionable people at the opera.

We had, nevertheless, no great excitements…

Shaw can write. But Montague’s book will be a slim milestone, a durable landmark in the interpretation and expression of the war.

Montague was a typical daredevil; that is, a quiet, modest-looking, rather shy elderly man with nothing of the soldier about him except his uniform. He would have been a hopeless failure on the stage as Captain Matamore. He had something of the Tolstoyan bitterness and disillusion that war produces at close quarters, less by its horrors, perhaps, than by its wastes and futilities. But to this he gave no intentional expression: his conversation and manner were entirely kindly. He said nothing of the exploits for which he was mentioned in despatches. . .[2]

 

And two brief notes to close. Yesterday, a century back, Edward Thomas went to “Gloster” (i.e. Gloucester, I assume) to see his friend Jack Haines, and sat up past midnight “gossiping about Frost, de la Mare, and the army, marching songs etc.” Haines had a present for him: Frost’s new book, Mountain Interval.

Today Thomas spent the morning with the Haines family, then read most of Mountain Interval on the train back to camp. There is less than a week to go, now, before embarkation, but the strange mix of business and idleness, of focused expectation and open-ended waiting, seems not to trouble Thomas unduly. Not so all of his comrades: one of the officers Thomas shared quarters with had “a screaming nightmare” last night.[3]

 

Finally, today, John Ronald Tolkien went before a medical board at 1st Southern General Hospital in Birmingham. As we have seen in the past, although the army is loath to send soldiers home from France unless they are really quite ill, it also seems to be generous with convalescent leave, allowing officers to recuperate their strength before returning to duty. Tolkien is no longer ill, but he is “still pale and weak” and liable to recurrences of fever and other symptoms. Accordingly, the medical board granted him a further month of leave, with at least one more month of home service after that.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 124-6.
  2. Elton, C.E. Montague, 152-64.
  3. War Diary (Childhood), 156.
  4. Chronology, 99.

Wilfred Owen and Charles Scott Moncrieff Return; Lord Dunsany’s “Songs of an Evil Wood,” Siegfried Sassoon Breaks Through, and Finds Something to Live For: “Love and Beauty and Death and Bitterness and Anger.”

Today we have two brief updates, a rant and a poem from our fox hunting man, and then, naturally, a poem from a foremost fantasist set in an all-too-real wood.

 

First, tonight, a century back, the relief arrived, and Wilfred Owen led his platoon–intact except for the blinded sentry–back through the miles of cloying mud toward safety in the reserve line. Tomorrow he will take up his pen in an initial attempt to describe his first days in the line.[1]

 

Charles Scott Moncrieff, meanwhile, is returning to the front for the first time in many long months. He had expected a training assignment in France, as his health is generally none too good. But he seems pleasantly surprised–or is he just putting a brave face on?–to return to active duty in winter.

15th Jan.

We reached part of the Battalion last night, after a circuitous journey, by various funny trains. We were sent on Saturday to the wrong place, a village which our men had left that morning. It was very sad and sorry and beginning to snow, however we found some hospitable Irishmen who took us in, and next morning we found our way to the 1st Bn. of our own regiment. It is a great triumph being here. My friend Major Campbell Johnson is commanding at present, the Colonel being on a month’s leave and I shall probably be Second in Command till he returns. . . . Do not worry. I am very happy with the Regiment, particularly as I didn’t expect to rejoin it. I am looking forward to occupying a responsible and important position, and the risks are at present negligible.[2]

 

Two days ago, and a century back, Siegfried Sassoon went a-hunting–we may recall the disappointing end of the hunt, with the fox’s unsporting resort to a “wet drain.” Afterwards, Sassoon “stayed the night at Wistason Hall and danced at Alvaston. Came home yesterday afternoon.”

Which all sounds pleasant enough. But apparently that dance wasn’t quite the thing. Today Sassoon caught up with his diary, first recording the events of the hunt in the usual sporting shorthand. But his mood changes rather suddenly as he reflects on the indoor pursuits that followed:

A few hours in the pre-war surroundings… Pleasant enough; but what a decayed society, hanging blindly onto the shreds of its traditions. The wet, watery-green meadows and straggling bare hedges and grey winding lanes; the cry of hounds, and thud of hoofs and people galloping bravely along all around me; and the ride home with hounds in the chilly dusk—those are real things. But comfort and respectable squiredom and the futile chatter of women, and their man-hunting glances, and the pomposity of port-wine-drinking buffers—what’s all that but emptiness? These people don’t reason. They echo one another and their dead relations, and what they read in papers and dull books. And they only see what they want to see—which is very little beyond the tips of their red noses. Debrett is
on every table; and heaven a sexless peerage, with a suitable array of dependents and equipages where God is [page torn out].

Page torn out, eh? Deliberately? Tough to tell. The editor is unwilling to risk an explanation, and no paleographer could do much with the stub and scattered characters that remain.

Sassoon’s rant, however, has not yet run its course. He describes an officer who has been at the depot for eighteen months and takes sick leave because of an “injury caused by riding” which (in a precise foreshadowing of a Seinfeld joke) is actually gonorrhea.

What earthly use are all these people? They don’t instruct anyone; they simply eat and drink. I think nearly half the officers in our Army are conscripted humbugs who are paid to propagate inefficiency. They aren’t even willing to be killed; I can at least say that for myself, for I’ve tried often.

There’s the rub–the gulf that separates one kind of soldier from a very different kind, the absolute difference between the combat tribe and all those who are safe. And Sassoon’s thoughts race from death to fame and poetry, even while staying on the ostensible subject of military efficiency:

Twelve months ago today my poem appeared in The Times. “To Victory”–and it’s not arrived yet–not the sort of Victory I meant. And since then I’ve been lucky. Things might have gone just a little differently, and all those decent poem’s I’ve done since then might never have been written. Now I’ve got my book fixed up, and there’s nothing to do but wait for something else to happen to set my emotions going in a blue-and-crimson flare-up–mostly blue—with a touch of yellow (for liver). Now I’ve really got a grip of the idea of life and describing it, I hope I shan’t get myself killed in 1917. There’s still a lot to say. Love and beauty and death and bitterness and anger.

Now that’s a soldier-poet’s ars poetica. The next page in the journal holds this poem:

England has many heroes; they are known
To all who read of German armies beat.
One chap got drunk and took a trench alone,
And grinned to cheering mobs in every street.
Though England’s proud of him—her stuffed V.C.—
No medal was attached to his D.T.
Think of the D.C.M’s and D.S.O’s
And breasts that swell with Military Crosses;
They are the pomps of War; and no one knows
Nor cares to count the bungling and the losses.
But I would rather shoot one General Dolt
Than fifty harmless Germans; and I’ve seen
Ten thousand soldiers, tabbed with blue and green,
Who, if they heard one shell, would crouch and bolt.
But when the War is done they’ll shout and sing.
And fetch bright medals from their German King.[3]

This is a private journal, of course. But Sassoon is waxing powerful here, and trying out a new power, a new rage, that cannot be unleashed on the world. Yet.

Only one year after “To Victory” and we have suddenly a near-repletion of the tropes of disillusionment, rage, and protest: the cost of war, the hypocrisy of rewarding valor without reckoning those costs, the bungling of generals, the emptiness of military pomp (but also the cynical injustice of its distribution), the fantasy violence against his own superiors, the preference for hating the Englishmen-of-the-rear who get killed without risking themselves rather than hating the “harmless” Germans, his fellow front-fighters; and, last, the sharp-elbowed play with the military acronyms and the nasty last couplet which, if not exactly coherent in its critiques, shows how well verse can serve these sorts of emotions…

To become a great war poet one needs, at a minimum, intense combat experiences and a fallow period that focuses emotional turbulence into some sort of breakthrough in the craft. Owen has just had the first and now Sassoon has moved on to the second.

 

According to a dated letter of his wife’s, Lord Dunsany left England today, a century back, for France. Due to some combination of age (though he is only thirty-eight), infirmity (he has been wounded and ill), possible unreliability (although there is no evidence of this) or general unpopularity (being an Anglo-Irish lord, a litterateur, and a former-ex-officer all may have made life in the mess difficult), Dunsany has been kept at home for rather a long time. His movements over the next months are difficult to trace, but it may be that he is intended now for a depot/training officer and is merely being sent out for a bit of first-hand trench experience. He will not be out long (and if there is an explanation for his recall other than his next bout of illness–tonsilitis–I don’t know it) and I have no dates for quite some time, yet in the next week or two he wrote his most significant real “war poem.” So I’ll give it here–it’s usually entitled either “Songs of an Evil Wood” or “Plug Street [i.e. Ploegsteert] Wood.”

.
There is no wrath in the stars,
They do not rage in the sky;
I look from the evil wood
And find myself wondering why.

Why do they not scream out
And grapple star against star,
Seeking for blood in the wood,
As all things round me are?

They do not glare like the sky
Or flash like the deeps of the wood;
But they shine softly on
In their sacred solitude.

To their happy haunts
Silence from us has flown,
She whom we loved of old
And know it now she is gone.

When will she come again
Though for one second only?
She whom we loved is gone
And the whole world is lonely.

And the elder giants come
Sometimes, tramping from far,
Through the weird and flickering light
Made by an earthly star.

And the giant with his club,
And the dwarf with rage in his breath,
And the elder giants from far,
They are the children of Death.

They are all abroad to-night
And are breaking the hills with their brood,
And the birds are all asleep,
Even in Plugstreet Wood.

II.

Somewhere lost in the haze
The sun goes down in the cold,
And birds in this evil wood
Chirrup home as of old;

Chirrup, stir and are still,
On the high twigs frozen and thin.
There is no more noise of them now,
And the long night sets in.

Of all the wonderful things
That I have seen in the wood,
I marvel most at the birds,
At their chirp and their quietude.

For a giant smites with his club
All day the tops of the hill,
Sometimes he rests at night,
Oftener he beats them still.

And a dwarf with a grim black mane
Raps with repeated rage
All night in the valley below
On the wooden walls of his cage.

III.

I met with Death in his country,
With his scythe and his hollow eye
Walking the roads of Belgium.
I looked and he passed me by.

Since he passed me by in Plug Street,
In the wood of the evil name,
I shall not now lie with the heroes,
I shall not share their fame;

I shall never be as they are,
A name in the land of the Free,
Since I looked on Death in Flanders
And he did not look at me.[4]

References and Footnotes

  1. Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 209-215.
  2. Diaries, 121-2.
  3. Diaries, 118-20.
  4. Amory, Lord Dunsany, 133. Patches of Sunlight, 293-5.

The Fall of Asquith; Isaac Rosenberg’s “Daughters Of War;” Edmund Blunden’s Battalion Refits Under the Shadow of Discipline

The big news in Britain today, a century back, was political–or it will be, when it becomes public. H.H. Asquith’s polite and unwieldy liberal/coalition government has been hanging by a thread for months, and today that thread, with a final tug from David Lloyd George and his supporters, snapped. The policy of including a great number of middling ministers in the war council had led to a general sense of sluggish mediocrity in government, but the fact that two years of war had produced shortages and stress and hundreds of thousands of combat deaths, but no real victories meant that the desire for political change now outweighed the preference for unity in wartime.

Britain has a king, a prime minister, and a near-generalissimo in General Haig–but only one of these three could really be sacked. Since the death of Lord Kitchener (and the fall of that rapscallion Churchill) there has been no truly charismatic figure in government–except for David Lloyd George, the prime mover behind the ministerial revolt. Lloyd George was a Welsh Liberal MP who had moved from the Exchequer to become Minister of Munitions and then, in July, Secretary of State for War (replacing Kitchener), gathering steam as he went. His forceful personality was in contrast to Asquith’s, as was his reputation for energy and efficiency, particularly in helping to meet the enormous challenge of organizing a war economy–this was enough.

And what to say about Asquith? Here he has been a background figure, less a politician than the bereaved father of the far more dashing Raymond.

He must have had considerable political talents to survive so long, but H.H, Asquith is remembered now more for his bizarre and egregious behavior toward women. He was a “predatory correspondent” who wrote obsessive letters divulging national secrets to two sisters in turn–both friends of his daughter, and upon whom he lavished endearments and possible physical attentions–and he groped at least several women, not always with any kind of consent, in the back seats of chauffeured cars. Would that this creepy aggression were strange and unfamiliar behavior in political figures.

Asquith was also a conciliator, an organizer, and a ball-roller. But these talents brought him only so far, and this evening, a century back, he tendered his resignation to the king.

 

But enough politics–politics will pass away, eventually, and we have poetry to get to.

Isaac Rosenberg, toiling still in a salvage battalion working on the Somme battlefield, has finished a poem. Today, a century back, he wrote to two of his contacts in the world of contemporary poetry (the third, whom he mentions, being Eddie Marsh), enclosing a version of “Daughters of War” in each letter.

It’s a small world, English poetry, and the first of Rosenberg’s letters is to Gordon Bottomley, Edward Thomas‘s friend and lay-analyst/confessor. Bottomley’s ill-health, which keeps him from the usual doubts directed at men not yet in uniform, is mentioned by all his correspondents; Binyon, in his late 40’s, has served two stints in France as a hospital volunteer.

Dear Mr. Bottomley

I know what it costs you to write a letter especially now this cruel weather has set in. Mr Trevelyan gave me good & cheering news of you, and also all the literary adventures at The Sheiling. Since I last wrote to you I have been feeling pretty crotchety–& my memory has become weak and confused. I fancy the winter has bowled me over but I suppose we must go lingering on. What you say of my poem might lend colour to Marsh’s belief that you are too indulgent to me, but give me half a chance and you will see it’ll be the other way about. I am enclosing the poem I spoke about. I think it has nine parts of my old fault to one of my new merit; but I fancy you will like the idea.

I am grieved at the misunderstanding about Wells. I forgot quite what I said but I know it was one of the rarest pieces of pleasure I have had out here, when you sent me his book.

Of this book–which may well have been Mr. Britling Sees it Through, more anon.

Since neither of the slightly different manuscripts Rosenberg sent to Bottomley and Binyon was in the final form, I’ll half-compromise and include the published text of “Daughters of War” below.

But first, the letter to Laurence Binyon, a very prominent poet whose “For the Fallen” is already perhaps the most-popular-save-Brooke English poem of the war.

Dear Mr Binyon,

I have thought about the poem & your suggestions but it is impossible for me to work on it here…

We are in a rougher shop than before & the weather is about as bad as it can be but my Pegasus though it may kick at times will not stampede or lose or leave me. I felt your letter very much but we are young & its [sic] excitement for us…

This–having a spirited winged horse for a metaphorical muse–is no small thing at all.

I wonder if you like this new poem. It has my usual fault of intricacy I know but I think the idea is clear…[1]

 

Daughters Of War

Space beats the ruddy freedom of their limbs,
Their naked dances with man’s spirit naked
By the root side of the tree of life
(The under side of things
And shut from earth’s profoundest eyes).

I saw in prophetic gleams
These mighty daughters in their dances
Beckon each soul aghast from its crimson corpse
To mix in their glittering dances:
I heard the mighty daughters’ giant sighs
In sleepless passion for the sons of valour
And envy of the days of flesh,
Barring their love with mortal boughs across–
The mortal boughs, the mortal tree of life.
The old bark burnt with iron wars
They blow to a live flame
To char the young green clays
And reach the occult soul; they have no softer lure,
No softer lure than the savage ways of death.

We were satisfied of our lords the moon and the sun
To take our wage of sleep and bread and warmth–
These maidens came–these strong everliving Amazons,
And in an easy might their wrists
Of night’s sway and noon’s sway the sceptres brake,
Clouding the wild, the soft lustres of our eyes.

Clouding the wild lustres, the clinging tender lights;
Driving the darkness into the flame of clay
With the Amazonian wind of them
Over our corroding faces
That must be broken-broken for evermore,
So the soul can leap out
Into their huge embraces,
Though there are human faces
Best sculptures of Deity,
And sinews lusted after
By the Archangels tall,
Even these must leap to the love-heat of these maidens
From the flame of terrene days,
Leaving grey ashes to the wind-to the wind.

One (whose great lifted face,
Where wisdom’s strength and beauty’s strength
And the thewed strength of large beasts
Moved and merged, gloomed and lit)
Was speaking, surely, as the earth-men’s earth fell away;
Whose new hearing drank the sound
Where pictures, lutes, and mountains mixed
With the loosed spirit of a thought, Essenced to language thus

‘My sisters force their males
From the doomed earth, from the doomed glee
And hankering of hearts.
Frail hands gleam up through the human quagmire, and lips of ash
Seem to wail, as in sad faded paintings
Far-sunken and strange.
My sisters have their males
Clean of the dust of old days
That clings about those white hands
And yearns in those voices sad:
But these shall not see them,
Or think of them in any days or years ;
They are my sisters’ lovers in other days and years.’

 

If the fault of such a poem is “intricacy”–some difficulties of rhythm, an opacity of surface meaning–then, yes, the strengths are clear, and clearly Rosenberg’s. There is a pictorial vividness here and a power that blasts out of the squalor of the trenches like an enormous mine… a powerful blast, that would be (kick, feeble pegasus!) but not one that hurtles some beautiful missile free and clear: one, rather, that is a contiguous upheaval of the human quagmire in which it grew…

 

Finally, today, Edmund Blunden‘s battalion has begun a period of rest and refitting in deep reserve. After the nastiness and bewilderment of the last days of the Somme, Blunden’s prose now recovers some of its peaceable pastoralism.

In M Camp I acquired an extraordinary facility in issuing the nightly rum ration. There were so many (I forget the exact tally) to be served from each jar; each man brought his own favourite vessel at the welcome call “Roll up for your rum,” and confronted you with the need for all sorts of mental mensurations. The indefatigable dear Worley held up his candle, or put on his pocket torch, as I stood at the door of each billet, and it was rare that anyone went short. The precious drops were fairly distributed, and when all was done Worley would prolong my visitation, in defiance of military principles, by luring me into his tent to join a party of old stagers whose bread and cheese were the emblem of an unforgettable kindness. And there was an occasion or two in which Cassells and myself were the guests of those good souls at a veritable banquet. An estaminet by St. Jans ter Biezen was then the scene of much music, much champagne, and a dinner of the best…

There began naturally some mention of Ypres, and I was intending a flying visit (much to the cynical amusement of Lintott, who knew the place), when, instead of going forward, we went still farther away. This excess of good fortune was less real than it ought to have been, for we could not place it at all — it was out of our line. We went back to a nook of quietude and antiquity discoverable on the map some few miles behind St. Omer…

But Northern France in December is not Eden, and there’s a new sort of snake in the garden. Blunden has shown respect and admiration for Colonel Harrison, his commanding officer–but old Regulars tend to have certain prejudices, which can be taken advantage of…

At the station, as we entrained, we saw two officers standing beside the line, evidently pleased to see us; and one was waving his hand and singing out messages to the old hands. This was Vidler, who had been one of the battalion’s first casualties, and with him was his old schoolfellow Amon, a survivor from old grim combat in the Loos district. These joined us, and the life of the battalion was enriched beyond words. Not so can I mention the advent of another officer who had turned up at M Camp with a sinister, dry, and staffy accent, recommending himself to Harrison as a “special reserve” officer and being accepted by that good old soldier, whose sole weakness was a prejudice for the professional. The intruder was immediately given the duties of second in command, and, strutting with redoubled vanity and heel clicking, on Harrison’s going on leave, actually reigned over the battalion for a short time. In vain did we mutter and hint that this man was a liar, for Harrison was glad to receive someone with what he thought “discipline” in him, and easily allowed his wish to deceive him.[2]

Ah, but he had us at “staffy accent,” didn’t he? It seems like we have only begun to know Blunden and his battalion, and yet now they have entered into their “Silver Age.” And winter, as well… but our Rabbit will shortly follow his CO on leave, visiting home for about a week before making it back to the front in time for an “Ypres Christmas.”

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Liddiard, ed., Poetry Out of My Head and Heart, 66-7, 86.
  2. Undertones of War, 128-9.

Siegfried Sassoon on Nature, from Larks to Slugs; Contemplated Bravado and a Pair of Sonnets from Alan Seeger; Raymond Asquith is Back with the Battalion, and Finds Nothing Whatever to Complain About; Private Lord Crawford on the Entente Between the Sexes

Siegfried Sassoon, back in the support lines, measures quiet and contentment. Will the larks never cease? It seems sometimes as if the sounds of the Western Front are 80% ordinance, 6% overhead Cockney cheerfulness, 3% shouted German taunts, and 11% lark song. But this is a quiet sector:

May 23 6.15 p.m.

On Crawley Ridge. A very still evening. Sun rather hazy but sky mostly clear. Looking across to Fricourt: trench-mortars bursting in the cemetery: clouds of dull white vapour slowly float away over grey-green grass with yellow buttercup-smears, and saffron of weeds. Fricourt, a huddle of reddish roofs, skeleton village—church-tower white—almost demolished, a patch of white against the sombre green of the Fricourt wood (full of German batteries). Away up the hill the white seams and heapings of trenches dug in the chalk. The sky full of lark-songs. Sometimes you can count thirty slowly and hear no sound of a shot: then the muffled pop of a rifle-shot a long way off, or a banging 5.9, or our eighteen-pounder—then a burst of machinegun westward, the yellow sky with a web of whitish filmy cloud half across the sun; and the ridges rather blurred with outlines of trees; an airplane droning overhead. A thistle sprouting through the chalk on the parapet; a cockchafer sailing through the air a little way in front.

Down the hill, and on to the old Bray-Fricourt road, along by the railway; the road white and hard; a partridge flies away calling; lush grass everywhere, and crops of nettles; a large black slug out for his evening walk (doing nearly a mile a month, I should think)…[1]

An interesting interloper, that slug: is our poet merely noting his observations, or is there a special providence in this slow and steady–and notably loathsome–earth-dweller?

 

Alan Seeger is writing steadily and readily again. First, today, to his mother, reflecting on the pleasure and vicissitudes of service in a rather more active sector. Well, actually a fairly quiet one as well–but not if Seeger can help it.

May 23, 1916

We are just back after six days in first line. We are lodged in a big quarry in the woods. It is rather cold and damp inside, but extremely picturesque immense subterranean galleries, foursquare, cut in the solid rock, pitch black inside with here and there little points of light where the men stick their candles.

The week in first line was very pleasant. The weather was superb and I was never bored an instant, neither in the beautiful days when the unclouded sunlight came filtering through the branches of the forest, nor in the starry nights that at this time of year fade even before two o’clock into the wonder of the spring dawn. Nothing more adorable in Nature than this daybreak in the northeast in May and June. One hears the cockcrows in the villages of that mysterious land behind the German lines. Then the cuckoos begin to call in the green valleys and all at once, almost simultaneously, all the birds of the forest begin to sing. The cannon may roar, and the rifles crackle, but Nature’s program goes on just the same.

Remarkably like Sassoon, so far, today. Spring! Poets! Soldiers in the line!

There’s one major difference, though, which is that the French army, in which Seeger serves, has been desperately engaged at Verdun for many weeks, and is beginning to be exhausted (although that, of course, will get much worse). The English have yet to make a major attack, and anticipate doing so soon, not least to support their exhausted allies.

The likelihood of a big action in the near future is vanishing more and more. The general opinion is that Verdun has not only mangé beaucoup de monde [eaten up everyone] but what is more important, beaucoup de munitions. As the French seem in counterattacks to be making serious efforts and even on a large scale to regain some of the lost ground, I do not expect anything on other parts of the front for some time to come, unless it be the English. If it turn out that we have actually retaken Douaumont, it will be a magnificent achievement. I shall ask permission to go out and leave the newspapers on the German barbed wire. I have already made several patrols here and know the ground.

Goodbye; bon courage.

There’s a nice short paragraph to stand for the Poetic Attitude and how, even in 1916, it can somehow still contain the bare facts of 20th century attrition–Verdun is indeed consuming the materiel and men of France at an unprecedented rate–and a resolve toward foolish heroics that seems to belong to a 19th century boy’s tale (or, it must be said, some truthy tale of pre-rifle heroics).

Remarkably, a second letter of today, to his godmother (!) is much more frank about his derring-will-do. Seeger out-Sassoons Sassoon today:

May 23, 1916

Exasperated by the inactivity of the sector here and tempted by danger, I stole off twice after guard and made a patrol all by myself through the wood paths and trails between the lines. In the first of these, at a crossing of paths not far from one of our posts, I found a burnt rocket-stick planted in the ground and a scrap of paper stuck in the top, placed there by the Boches to guide their little mischief-making parties when they come to visit us in the night. The scrap of paper was nothing else than a bit of the Berliner Tageblatt. This seemed so interesting to me that I reported it to the captain, though my going out alone this way is a thing strictly forbidden. He was very decent about it though, and seemed really interested in the information. Yesterday afternoon I repeated this exploit, following another trail, and I went so far that I came clear up to the German barbed wire, where I left a card with my name. It was very thrilling work, “courting destruction with taunts, with invitations,” as Whitman would say. I have never been in a sector like this, where patrols could be made in daylight. Here the deep forest permits it. It also greatly facilitates ambushes, for one must keep to the paths, owing to the underbrush. I and a few others are going to try to get permission to go out on patrouilles d’embuscade and bring in some live prisoners. It would be quite an extraordinary feat if we could pull it off. In our present existence it is the only way I can think of to get the Croix de Guerre. And to be worthy of my marraine [godmother, to whom he is writing] I think that I ought to have the Croix de Guerre.

Here are two sonnets I composed to while away the long hours of guard. . . .

The sonnets are below. This is quite something, really, in terms of “real time” history. It’s spring, and the poetic heroes are getting frisky: Julian Grenfell may be decorated and dead, but E. A. Mackintosh, recently, and now Seeger, and soon enough Sassoon himself all setting out to win fame and capture prisoners. May 1916 is the month of the raid…

Now for the poetry!

I will send you back again the Tennyson after having refreshed myself with it, for one must lighten the sack as much as possible. Found all the old beauties and discovered new ones. Read the last paragraphs of Maud and see if you do not think they have a striking bearing on the present situation.

BELLINGLISE
I
Deep in the sloping forest that surrounds
The head of a green valley that I know,
Spread the fair gardens and ancestral grounds
Of Bellinglise, the beautiful château.
Through shady groves and fields of unmown grass,
It was my joy to come at dusk and see,
Filling a little pond’s untroubled glass,
Its antique towers and mouldering masonry.
Oh, should I fall to-morrow, lay me here,
That o’er my tomb, with each reviving year,
Wood-flowers may blossom and the wood-doves croon;
And lovers by that unrecorded place,
Passing, may pause, and cling a little space,
Close-bosomed, at the rising of the moon.
II
Here, where in happier times the huntsman’s horn
Echoing from far made sweet midsummer eves,
Now serried cannon thunder night and morn,
Tearing with iron the greenwood’s tender leaves.
Yet has sweet Spring no particle withdrawn
Of her old bounty; still the song-birds hail,
Even through our fusillade, delightful Dawn;
Even in our wire bloom lilies of the vale.
You who love flowers, take these; their fragile bells
Have trembled with the shock of volleyed shells,
And in black nights when stealthy foes advance
They have been lit by the pale rockets’ glow
That o’er scarred fields and ancient towns laid low
Trace in white fire the brave frontiers of France.[2]

 

What could be more appropriate to the American Europhile than this combination of the hunter’s horn and a near-citation of the Star-Spangled Banner? So yes, this is more Sassoon than Sassoon, but it’s also something Sassoon rarely is, in his poetry: both traditional and ungentle. Seeger goes for effect here, and forces his words into a halthing rhythm. These sonnets start from firm footing amidst the poetic tradition and launch with a clear purpose–but they stumble a bit before they arrive at their triumphantly hammering conclusions, listing oddly rather than soaring.

And these stumbles mean something, personally, militarily, and poetically: are we really getting there? Are the old habits and convictions enough to carry the day, or is the wire before the objective festooned with old paper, and as yet uncut?

 

Finally today–it’s been such an unexpectedly active few weeks!–we must catch up with Raymond Asquith. After an agonizing shift in the stultifying boredom, semi-honorable idiocy, and complete physical safety of General Headquarters, he is at last back with his battalion. Hurrah! He’s going to love it there, right?

Let’s go back a few days and see:

3rd Grenadier Guards,
B.E.F.
20 May 1916

… In this part of the line we are surrounded and overlooked by the Germans on almost every side and they have a great number of guns in good positions which they loose off pretty continuously. We were fairly heavily shelled on Thursday and had some casualties, but nothing really to matter. The weather being so fine puts a picnic complexion on the whole affair and obscures the less agreeable aspects.

All officers have to be up all night but the nights are so short that this is not a very severe tax and at 3.30 a.m. we have a cup of coffee and turn in, if there is anywhere to turn in; if not, sleep in the open, as I did last night with great comfort and enjoyment. One advantage of the weakness of our position is that it is impossible to work or even move during the day, so one simply lies about dozing in the sun till about 8.30 p.m. We have given up luncheon and have bacon and eggs at 11 a.m., tea at 4 and dinner–a substantial meal-at 7. We are in for 5 days on end this time–the longest I have ever done at a stretch but the conditions are so favourable that I don’t think it takes it out of one so much as 2 days in the winter trenches . . .

 

3rd Grenadier Guards,
B.E.F.
22 May 1916

. . . After 10 days here we are going 10 miles or so further back to live in billets for 3 weeks. I am rather depressed at the prospect. The perfect way to do this war would be G.H.Q. for these waste spaces and regimental life for the spells of trench work…

 

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

. . . As for me I am already more bored with this tiresome camp than ever I was with G.H.Q. We were allowed an easy time today but for the next week wd live a terribly strenuous and wearisome life–a certain amount of drill and a great many “fatigues”–i.e . digging trenches, laying cables, fetching and carrying, hewing wood and drawing water for other people. Personally I prefer anything to drill…

I knew I should begin grousing as soon as I got away from G.H.Q. but I suppose I should have groused more if I had stayed there.

One’s heart goes out to Katherine Asquith, home with a newborn, knowing now that each letter confirms that her husband is alive, or was, a few days past, and opening it to read such reassurances and tender thoughts…

There is no avoiding the boredom of this War, turn which way you may. There is more novelty and excitement about the trenches themselves than any other part of the show, but I should still be discontented if I were made to stay in them for a month on end instead of coming out and doing these bloody fatigues and things… One fearful addition to the honours of War since I have been away is the steel helmet which we all have to wear now, when in the shell area. They are monstrously tiresome and heavy and I suppose if idiots like Pemberton Rifling had not asked questions in Parliament about them we should have been allowed to go on with our comfortable caps. We make the bloody things better than anyone else does of course by sewing the blue and red brigade ribbon with a gold grenade on it, on to the khaki cover, but even so they are insufferable. . .[3]

 

Insufferable!

Finally, I simply must cram this in: an update on Lord Crawford’s battle of the sexes–unreliably reported, as always.

Monday, 22 May 1916

The last three or four weeks have marked a great reaction in the attitude of the nurses towards us. After months of scolding and vituperation they have become amiable and at times friendly. The transformation has been caused by the matron MacCrae who has bullied and harassed the wretched women to such an extent that they feel the need of support, and have entered into a tacit alliance with us! The burden and weariness of our lives is greatly reduced. Let us hope there will be no counter reaction–anyhow, for a fortnight we have lived in peace. The matron is, of course, more insistent than ever finding the hands of all turned against her, especially since this unholy entente between the sexes! Today she gave orders that in future, when going up and down stairs, orderlies are not to put their hands on the banisters–which strikes me as really droll. Had she not treated us with contumely and the nurses with brutality, one would be charitable enough to assume the woman was going potty.[4]

Matron MacCrae will be officially commended for her services…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 64.
  2. Letters and Diary, 198-202. The poem is dated yesterday a century back, but goes nicely with these letters...
  3. Life and Letters, 262-3.
  4. Private Lord Crawford, 170.

Bimbo Tennant Misses a Birthday, but Enshrines a Goddess; Farewell to Billy Congreve; Richard Hannay Faces the Temptations of the Flesh and the Delights of Reunion

Billy Congreve has been a bit of an odd duck here–he’s a cheerful professional soldier, a promising son rising in the family trade, and very happy to be swiftly promoted to staff work. And now he will be the odd man out. His career is flourishing, but his diary-keeping is not. The diary will trail off after today’s entry, at least in part because the duties of a conscientious brigade-major involved constant travel through the entrenched areas and left little time for reflection. We will continue to check in on Congreve, but we leave his regular diary appearances on something of a high note. Although he doesn’t mention it himself, he was “mentioned in dispatches” on New Year’s Day, the third time he had been so honored. This is the very bauble which had eluded Edward Hermon, and Congreve’s award may illuminate why: Hermon has been tidying up after battles and non-combat battalions; Congreve has been driving on a brigade, organizing raids, and pushing himself into the danger zone as often as possible–use those “category” links on the two names and compare!

Nor is that all: a century and two days back, Congreve was awarded the Military Cross for his actions at Hooge. He has now been recognized both for efficiency and for gallantry–and he leaves us in the chipper, unreconstructed Victorian vernacular he has maintained throughout more than a year of combat:

17th January

Some of the Belgian batteries are now being withdrawn. This is very sad, for we all love them. They are such sportsmen and shoot like blazes whenever one wants them to. Our grenadiers gave the Boche 150 rifle grenades, and the Belgians let go their salvoes in fine style.[1]

 

Congreve is the high-achieving son of a military father, but Bimbo Tennant has been a thoughtless boy:

17th January, 1916.
Most Darling Moth’,

I have just this moment remembered that your birthday was 14th, and I have not written to say how much I love you. It is impossible to state this amount in writing, but please forgive me for having remembered as late as this. I pray that we may both live many many more years as happily as we have lived together for 18, for there is no one who loves his mother more (or with better reason) than I do.

What do we have, then, for a belated present?

This afternoon we go back to trenches, and out again (D.V.) in 48 hours. Now that I come to think of it it was on your birthday that the Boche shelled my lines, and I am sure that you were there looking after me, as Nanny saw you once beside my bed when I was ill, do you remember?

…It is now lunch time and I must stop. Please don’t think I don’t always think of you, darling Moth’. This is just a short note to let you know how much I love you and how happy I am that you’re my mother, and not some one else’s. I am longing to see you, darling Moth’…

And now “ God bless us–every one” (as Tiny Tim said), and may we soon all be together after this wretched war is over.

Ever your devoted Son,
Bimbo[2]

Never in the field of human conflict has an officer directly responsible for the lives of dozens of grown men sounded so much like an eight-year-old boy. A sweet eight-year-old boy–but, still.

And there’s another perfect little incident here. He had forgotten her birthday when it was occurring, but afterwards, in reporting to her on shelling that caused several casualties but might have caused more, he suddenly realized something…

This is an excellent example of what letters bring to the ample, slovenly table of this project. Bimbo has not outlined or researched, you see, and so we see get to witness a thought emerge in the precise historical moment (just before lunch, European time, a century back.) He is indulging–apology dispensed with–in the pleasures of chronicle, telling mother just what happened. But now, pen poised in mid-air, he emplots events into a certain sort of story: what had been experienced as good fortune without evident cause is now refigured, a few days later, as the protective magic of a semi-divine maternal guardian… he may only be half serious (or then again he may be a good deal more than half serious) but it’s interesting to see that sort of thinking so near the surface. Is there magic there? Can mother protect him? The recitation of past events has become a story, now–it means something.

But it is lunch time now, and I must stop.[3]

 

And what of Richard Hannay? Today, a century back, is the designated day of rendezvous in Constantinople. But where are his two co-conspirators? The quest stands on the edge of a knife–or, in this eminently proto-Bondian solution, it must be felt for in the murk of exotic night life. There’s nothing for it but to head to a smoky cantina and trust to luck–and, of course, to the British colonialist’s instinctive confidence, sense of entitlement, and casual racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism:

We walked straight through the cafe, which was empty, and down the dark passage, till we were stopped by the garden door. I knocked and it swung open. There was the bleak yard, now puddled with snow, and a blaze of light from the pavilion at the other end. There was a scraping of fiddles, too, and the sound of human talk. We paid the negro at the door, and passed from the bitter afternoon into a garish saloon.

There were forty or fifty people there, drinking coffee and sirops and filling the air with the fumes of latakia. Most of them were Turks in European clothes and the fez, but there were some German officers and what looked like German civilians—Army Service Corps clerks, probably, and mechanics from the Arsenal. A woman in cheap finery was tinkling at the piano, and there were several shrill females with the officers. Peter and I sat down modestly in the nearest corner, where old Kuprasso saw us and sent us coffee. A girl who looked like a Jewess came over to us and talked French, but I shook my head and she went off again.

Presently a girl came on the stage and danced, a silly affair, all a clashing of tambourines and wriggling. I have seen native women do the same thing better in a Mozambique kraal…

Next, more drugs and a huge huff of rabid orientalism:

In a twinkling the pavilion changed from a common saloon, which might have been in Chicago or Paris, to a place of mystery—yes, and of beauty. It became the Garden-House of Suliman the Red, whoever that sportsman may have been. Sandy had said that the ends of the earth converged there, and he had been right. I lost all consciousness of my neighbours—stout German, frock-coated Turk, frowsy Jewess—and saw only strange figures leaping in a circle of light, figures that came out of the deepest darkness to make a big magic.

The leader flung some stuff into the brazier, and a great fan of blue light flared up. He was weaving circles, and he was singing something shrill and high, whilst his companions made a chorus with their deep monotone. I can’t tell you what the dance was. I had seen the Russian ballet just before the war, and one of the men in it reminded me of this man. But the dancing was the least part of it. It was neither sound nor movement nor scent that wrought the spell, but something far more potent. In an instant I found myself reft away from the present with its dull dangers, and looking at a world all young and fresh and beautiful. The gaudy drop-scene had vanished. It was a window I was looking from, and I was gazing at the finest landscape on earth, lit by the pure clean light of morning.

It seemed to be part of the veld, but like no veld I had ever seen. It was wider and wilder and more gracious. Indeed, I was looking at my first youth. I was feeling the kind of immortal light-heartedness which only a boy knows in the dawning of his days. I had no longer any fear of these magic-makers. They were kindly wizards, who had brought me into fairyland…

We get a whirling tumble into drugged-out terror–by way of the 19th century tradition of hash-infused adventure Romances–and then, well, here goes the cold water:

Then suddenly the spell was broken. The door was flung open and a great gust of icy wind swirled through the hall, driving clouds of ashes from the braziers. I heard loud voices without, and a hubbub began inside. For a moment it was quite dark, and then someone lit one of the flare lamps by the stage. It revealed nothing but the common squalor of a low saloon—white faces, sleepy eyes, and frowsy heads. The drop-piece was there in all its tawdriness.

The Companions of the Rosy Hours had gone. But at the door stood men in uniform, I heard a German a long way off murmur, ‘Enver’s bodyguards,’ and I heard him distinctly; for, though I could not see clearly, my hearing was desperately acute. That is often the way when you suddenly come out of a swoon.

The place emptied like magic…

We were done, and there was an end of it. It was Kismet, the act of God, and there was nothing for it but to submit. I hadn’t a flicker of a thought of escape or resistance. The game was utterly and absolutely over.

Hannay and Peter are marched to a waiting carriage and brought to a large building, evidently a prison

I guessed that this was the governor’s room, and we should be put through our first examination. My head was too stupid to think, and I made up my mind to keep perfectly mum. Yes, even if they tried thumbscrews. I had no kind of story, but I resolved not to give anything away. As I turned the handle I wondered idly what kind of sallow Turk or bulging-necked German we should find inside.

It was a pleasant room, with a polished wood floor and a big fire burning on the hearth. Beside the fire a man lay on a couch, with a little table drawn up beside him. On that table was a small glass of milk and a number of Patience cards spread in rows.

I stared blankly at the spectacle, till I saw a second figure. It was the man in the skin-cap, the leader of the dancing maniacs. Both Peter and I backed sharply at the sight and then stood stock still.

For the dancer crossed the room in two strides and gripped both of my hands.

‘Dick, old man,’ he cried, ‘I’m most awfully glad to see you again!'[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Armageddon Road, 181-2.
  2. Letters, 105-8.
  3. Letters, 108-9.
  4. Buchan, Greenmantle.

Raymond Asquith on the Quaintness of Arms and the Men; Wilfred Owen Would Impress; Scones Fit For a King; A Fine Black Splotch Against the Rainbow

Three days ago, he landed in France to join the much-battered Grenadier Guards. Yesterday, a century back, Raymond Asquith met his new battalion. Today, the approach narrative takes a languid detour: to billets! From a letter to his wife Katherine:

27 October 1915

. . . We live an easy life in billets–a little drill in the morning, a walk with Oliver or someone in the afternoon, a bottle of wine at dinner, and a feather bed to sleep on. The most laborious thing one does is reading through and censoring the soldier’s letters. They are usually very long and very dull and full of formulae which hardly amount to idiom. The only things I ever scratch out are the expressions “hoping this finds you as it leaves me” and “now I must draw to a close”. But God knows my own letters are very little better . . .

Obnoxious, again–but witty. I hate to flatter the self-regarding, but yes–he’s a head of his time. This is a keen anticipation of Yossarian’s antics while censoring letters from a hospital bed in the next war.

I constantly think of you my angel…

Keep well and lovely

And to Diana Manners, also today:

. . . This war is a pure convention, like debates in the House of Commons, the birthday honours, and all other public (and most private) events. Usually there is a hell of a din here of big guns, today absolute calm. Why? because the King is at the front and they don’t want a damned noise when he is there. Why have a damned noise at all, whether he is here or not? Pure convention. In the old days when we had no shells everyone wanted a noise, but now we all know there are masses of shells, so why let them off? . . .

Ah, convention. Again–this is repartée, not deliberate analysis. And, yet again, the lightly-and-sprightly presentation undercuts the fact that this is a telling observation. Asquith tosses it off–ah, war is convention, the silliness of distracted generals–but he’s right. War, like anything else–no, more than most things–is not so much driven by well-reasoned decisions as shaped by habits both sensible and strange, well-reasoned and unexamined.

Men stumble forward to get killed, pointlessly, because, well, other men are doing it and they don’t want to be the ones to let the side down. Generals shell the enemy because, well, there is always some strategic principle to invoke, if hardly ever one that is demonstrably necessary–but primarily because the enemy is there, and the guns are here. Unless there is a good reason not to…

This, of course, is only one way of looking at things. Wouldn’t more of France be conquered, and more British soldiers killed, if the allies didn’t keep up their end of the war of attrition?

Perhaps. And–wait, what was that about the King?

First, however, Asquith defies his own predictions about the dullness of his war letters with the following vignette. If he were all cutting wit he would be intolerable–but the Coterie permits some appreciations of loveliness, too. There is convention, but there is unconvention, too:

I think you would love being in billets here; there is a sort of strangeness about it that would appeal to you. Two or three rather muddy officers in the parlour of a French cottage and a few faithful servants, very like soldier servants in books, playing with the women in broken French in the kitchen next door, being sweet to children and making terrible smells with onions; outside big guns booming at a safe distance, dispatch riders, ambulances, etc., rattling over the pavé, in fact all the minor nonsense of war; if only a female spy of consummate beauty with wild hair and pinioned arms could be suddenly brought in by a sergeant major, you would have at once the 3rd act of any moderately bad play not by Galsworthy . . .[1]

I refuse to come gallumphing after the cleverest writers with a highlighters, but please do note that this little bucolic fantasy bases itself on literary expectation. This is a well-read man, not a professional soldier, and he is new to the war: he sees in it the things he has read in books…

 

While Asquith writes to keep up the most important social connection of his old life, Wilfred Owen has thrown himself into the possibilities of being a bookish young gentleman in uniform–and in London! There are new idols–a sergeant!–and old. Poetry!

Tuesday [Postmark 27 October 1915]

I fear I should have written my last card sooner than I did: but you can’t expect to hear every day! I did a full day’s parade today, the arm being only ticklish now. The drill is a curious compound of monotony and qui vive. Fortunately our Sergeant is a gentleman, and, what is more, considers us as such. As a Sergeant I admire & respect him devotedly. Harold Monro himself read at the P. Bookshop this evening, and I had a talk with him afterwards. Dorothy was impressed by his Poems which I left at Alpenrose. Please send me Tailhade: Poèmes Aristophanesques, which is on the top shelf of the Book Case. Don’t send the Pyjamas till I say if we are given any…

Thus Owen writes to his mother for a very special sort of parcel–the inscribed copy of the French Decadent’s poems given to him by the poet himself. This will impress the London literati!

And, finally–innocence! He will not be issued khaki pyjamas.

The enlisting was a plunge, and it has put my wits a little out of breath.

Your own W.E.O.[2]

 

Back to France, now. There are others expecting the King, who has begun an inspection-and-morale-boosting tour of facilities just behind the lines. No doubt Asquith is right to suggest that the British guns have fallen silent–they would have feared inciting retaliatory long-range guns or air raids. But this is a king of England–he should look to the horse!

But I get ahead of myself. Suspense! We’ll catch no more than a glimpse of the king, before his horse, today. Instead, we go to Private Lord Crawford, a very different sort of fellow with a very different sort of monarch-impinged domestic scene.

Wednesday, 27 October 1915

Since the early hours of this morning, we have been scrubbing, washing, decorating, titivating the Maison Warein in expectation of a visit of an august personage. We were told that General Plumer was to come, but we know and see so much of generals that we were left unmoved. In the afternoon, however when we were told the King was to come, interest was shown and also some energy among our tired men. He was due at 4.15pm; tea was prepared by the nurses, ring led by the new matron, who busied themselves with erecting palm trees in new green flower pots. Bouquets galore, ugly linoleum and table cloths, bustle, rehearsals of curtseying in the hall, etc. All I saw of King George was a motor car of superb design, flying past our front door at forty miles an hour. Some say they saw General Joffre, others that the Prince of Wales was with the King and that French too was an occupant. There must have been three cars with cyclists as escort. ‘Well I am disappointed,’ said Bully Beef to Major Kay who had been putting her through a course of curtseying—showing her how to draw back her stout and somewhat rheumatic right leg–‘… to think of the lovely home-made scones we had got ready for him.’[3]

 

And finally, today, after a long convalescence, Lady Dorothie is back! Double rainbows!

Fumes 27th [October]

Mother darling–

Such mud! & such rain! as have taken trouble to greet me here.

I looked out of my bedroom window fatheadedly this morning to a vista of fields & mud: gendarmes & mud, rain & mud, lorries splashing mud, pot holes on the road full of mud, & ‘Daniel’ a mass of mud.

Most exhilarating when one remembers it is now a daily affair for 4 or 5 months. I had got so accustomed to nice dry roads, I had omitted the fact that mud is a Flanders speciality…

Went to N Bains again… Two gorgeous rainbows in the dunes, & it was rather a fine H Majesty’s theatre scenery effect: the dunes with the sun shining on them, the mist lifting, a huge double rainbow in the middle &, at just the right moment, a nice shell burst, a fine black splotch just against the rainbow –most futuristic!

…The work seems [to be] going very well & old Jelly is certainly running it far more thoroughly & competently than Bevan did, of course now it’s easier there are less people, but things badly wanted sorting out & as long as Bevan was boss we couldn’t interfere. I am going to see the hospital today…

So long darling,

See the hospital she did, and she continues to describe today’s reunion with the rest of the Munro Ambulance Corps in a letter of tomorrow. But, although it is (surely) Lady Feilding’s desire to humbly serve the allied wounded that has brought her back to the front after her long illness, she is already right back to where she had been, as a writer: more interested in describing the dangers of the war zone than the labors of the ambulances, and rather good at it, for all her erratic syntax and unlettered affect.

Things are being done on more businesslike & economical lines & I think the result will be a vast improvement. At least I hope so…

Yesterday they shelled Furnes again but no damage. In the afternoon elsewhere an obus [howitzer, i.e. medium or long range German gun] burst 4 to 5 yds behind the car on the road as I pulled up. But beyond making a few holes in the back of Daniel did nothing–rather luck as it was on the pave, the bits often travel–such is life–who cares.

Yr loving Diddles[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Life and Letters, 204-7.
  2. Collected Letters, 361-2.
  3. Private Lord Crawford, 73-4.
  4. Lady Under Fire, 106-7.

Richard Aldington and Raymond Asquith on the Zeppelin Raid; Robert Graves Disarmingly on Leave; Wilfred Owen Joins Up; Vera Brittain Once More Against the War

9-8-15, Edwin Bale

Edwin Bale’s painting of the September 8th Zeppelin raid on London

On the night of September 8th-9th, 1915, London had experienced its first Zeppelin raid since June, and the worst of the war so far. German bombs destroyed several buildings and killed 26 people.

Several of our writers mention these raids, and struggle to balance their reaction to something that was at once an act or war, an atrocity, and an exciting spectacle.

Richard Aldington is still very much a civilian:

Oakley House,
Bloomsbury St.
14 September 1915

…Do I know anything of the raid? My God, we had shrapnel bursting over head for 15 minutes, & saw the Zeppelin wondering where it would plant its next bomb! The Post Office was just missed; Wood St., Cheapside is burnt to the ground; an immense warehouse in Farringdon Road is smashed & every window for a hundred yards around broken; Queen’s Square has a bomb in the middle of it, every window in the Square smashed, frames & doors broken–one window of the Poetry Bookshop smashed!

Well, there’s the war brought home for us. Harold Monro’s Poetry Bookshop has seen readings by Brooke, visits by Graves and Sassoon, Thomas and Owen–and now the Zeppelins.

 

Yesterday, Raymond Asquith–restrained from similar avid exclamations by both breeding and the wit-demands of the high society note–wrote of the same raid to Diana Cooper (the future Lady Diana Manners). Some dangers, you see, are worse than others.

. . . You much misunderstood me, Dilly, if you thought (as indeed you didn’t) I meant that the desultory chatter of half-witted women was less likely to debauch your mind, than the wild cataract of praise which leaps in glory at you from the mouths of men. Far from it. Nothing is so deteriorating as that ceaseless trickle of discoloured drivel which distils itself from the miasma of idle women’s minds, dribbles down their dank and wispy beards, and collects in stinking pools about the floor of places where they knit. So wouldn’t it perhaps be less dangerous for you in any view of the matter to come back to London?. . .

How I wish you had been at Downing on the Zepp night; we saw it all so well and so comfortably. The F.O. gun banging away from the actual window out of which Duff looks down for custom in his bonnet, the P.M. going on stolidly making absurd declarations at bridge, the Zepp itself at the far end of the search-light looking like a radiograph of your broken ankle. I took K. [his wife] and Moira Osborne down to the city to see the fire. They were very sweet but just a touch indignant with me for not with my own hands waking up the Dean of St Paul’s and making him unlock his bulbous Church and show us all the Kingdoms of the earth from the top of it . . .[1]

 

Two of our poets are moving war-ward, today, but first we should catch up with Vera Brittain and Roland Leighton. First, there is Vera’s reaction to what amounted to a despairing, idle threat, a petulant shrug at the long odds of surviving the war unscathed: perhaps, Roland had suggested, he is ruined as an artist, and might as well make his career in the army…

Buxton, 11-12 September 1915

You aren’t seriously thinking that the Army is to be your permanent career, are you? I am sure I need not ask that, for I know that seriously you would never consider it. Why, the first part of that very same letter proves that you never could. A true soldier has no business to be affected by beauty or weather or sun or rain. Do you suppose a Napoleon or—Lord Kitchener would care whether the countries he ravaged were beautiful, or what sort of day he ravaged them on? You say that the choice is between the atrophy of your artistic side or the confinement of the adventurous & practical. I don’t believe the alternative is as clearly defined as that…

The men of thought are few & far between but without them the men of action might as well not exist. You are one of the world’s exceptions, & what is more you delight in that–in being different from other people. I can’t really think you can deliberately contemplate sacrificing what makes you an exception for the sake of what would make you merely ordinary…

Of course, much as I always detested the Army before the War, I would rather have you as a soldier than not at all. At least, I think so. . . My own ideals are so entirely one with Unity, Non-Militarism, Internationalism that I should hate to think of someone I loved—perhaps too much, ranged on the opposite side to these. Although actually engaged in War you are not opposing but rather upholding them now, for as someone said ‘This is a War against War.’

Yes–that formulation will be refined, ever so slightly, and aggrandized. There is more pleading–this is too direct a challenge for Vera not to respond with overwhelming rhetorical force–but then a somewhat unexpected turn:

You know in one way I do sympathise extremely with your desire for military glory. For I do feel very much that I should love to be a successful nurse, & win the Military Cross (which is the only thing a nurse can get in the way of military decorations) myself, not so much for the honour’s own sake as simply because it is not my own vocation, & makes a sort of Something Extra…

But Roland would hardly remember this gauntlet. One letter responds to her earlier, happier fantasy of him appearing unannounced, direct from the trenches. The next, written yesterday, is very different. His battalion has been hard at work, and they still believe the attack to be opening tomorrow (it will be, or has already been, postponed for over a week).

In the Trenches, France, 13 September 1915

…Terribly busy at present and a letter is impossible yet. This letter cannot reach you till after Wednesday 15th, when it will possibly be a case of Hinc illae lacrimae (let him that readeth understand).

A damning double usage of the same Latin tag! But this must be an agreed-upon code signifying what is in any case completely clear from the rest of the letter: he may be going into action, so that fact alone will account for a delay in letters. No need to assume the worst. Is he brief because of the pressure on his time, or is the pressure on his mind as well?

Expected but cannot tell for certain.

I will write & reassure you as soon as I can.

Meanwhile, all the love in the world.[2]

But that letter, of course, will be a few days in reaching Vera. She dwells still on the threat of Roland as a career officer, a thought made all the more unsupportable by the receipt of one his darkest letters.

Buxton, 14 September 1915

I could have wept this morning to think of you, my poor darling, in that charnel house of a trench . . . ‘Of such is the glorious panoply of War.’ And this is what you propose to make your trade? Never. It seems to me now that this War is scarcely for victory at all, for even if victory comes it will be at the cost of so much else, so many greater things, that it will be scarcely worth having. No, this War will only justify itself if it puts an end to all the horror & barbarism & retrogression of War for ever.

So this fancy of Roland’s, this grim jab to rouse his fiancée against his own hopelessness, has prompted Vera not merely to protest but to think things through. Where are we going, with this war? And where were we once? Thus a small step toward a much more seriously considered pacifism…

It has always been to me a thing to shudder at that the human body when it is done with is so difficult to get rid of—even by fire, which I suppose is the best way—in [an] unrepulsive fashion. It is not death itself which is the cause of dread; it is dissolution. I felt like that very much when I was nursing the man at the Hospital who died. His actual departing did not afflict me very much, but what did was the sight of his fading body before it happened…

Sometimes in nightmare dreams I imagine what might happen to the physical being of someone I know & love—think perhaps of Edward’s attractive face & tall form & dear long hands, & how they might lie unhonoured & untended in some No Man’s Land in the Dardanelles—at the mercy of sun & rain & flies & birds of prey. I don’t think you can really mean it when you say that your opinions differ as to whether it is really a pity to kill men on any sort of day. Were men brought into the world with toil & pain just for this?[3]

 

And Robert Graves entrained today–but only for London, his family’s holiday ending shortly before his leave ended. v1cirpb6wibxvffhnnnaIt’s nice to have perspective on tall-telling writers like Graves–even fond, very close, side-on perspective. It was an uneventful day’s journey, but his father recorded this image in his diary: “Robby’s dozing in the Railway carriage from Wales with his dear head on my shoulder.”[4]

 

The recruiting calls, as evidenced by the poster at right, are getting even more shrill. So finally, today, his mind surely made up before Zeppelin-themed exhortations had sunk too deeply into his consciousness, Wilfred Owen saw his two French charges to their connecting train. And then, just like that, he found his way to the headquarters of the Artists’ Rifles in Bloomsbury, “attested his willingness to serve and was examined by the kindly regimental doctor, who passed him fit.”[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Life and Letters, 203.
  2. Letters From a Lost Generation, 167.
  3. Letters From a Lost Generation, 165-8.
  4. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 133.
  5. Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 163.