Georgian Poetry the Third; Wilfred Owen’s Busy Month; Sassoon and Nichols Together in the Country; the Rout at Cambrai Continues, with Phillip Maddison; We Meet Lady Cynthia Asquith, as she Entertains a New Zealander, and Doubts

December! First of the last months! I wasn’t sure we would make it to December, 1917, but somehow we have. In celebration, there will be an entire volume of “month poems,” some excellent and topical, some indifferent and timeless, in rather a b ad way: December 1917 will see the release of Georgian Poetry III, a volume notable for bringing several of our poets together, at least between two covers. Later this month Isaac Rosenberg, finishing his own works in the alphabetical layout, will happen upon Siegfried Sassoon and read him for the first time.

 

Now Sassoon is, in one important way, a very generous soul: he is generous to his readers, especially those who came afterwards and interest themselves in his solipsism. There are the two piles of autobiography, the letters, the poems, and… ah, but he has been neglecting the diary. It was a place for notes on combat, cris de couer, and, once upon a time, his sporting doings.

So, now that he is a poet of protest no more but not yet a Mad Jack returned unto the bosom of the only men worth having as comrades and followers, what is the post-Rivers, pre-redemption Sassoon to do? Which of the various Siegfrieds will come to the fore?

So far, at least, he is having his cake and eating it too. Visiting his mother, he is at once George Sherston, fox-hunting man, and Siegfried Sassoon, habitué of London literary drawing rooms:

Went on leave November 29. Friday, Saturday and Sunday at Weirleigh. Bob Nichols came for Saturday and Sunday…

Which means Nichols will depart tomorrow, a century back, with their somewhat inevitable, somewhat unlikely friendship cemented; and then, on Monday, the diary will resume its oldest form: a hunting journal.[1]

 

The First World War Poetry Digital Archive, Oxford

Sassoon’s other recent friendship–a far more momentous one–has reached a period of enforced cooling, as Wilfred Owen has been exiled to Scarborough and all-day duties as a Camp Commandant (not that Owen wasn’t trying to keep things simmering). Owen is on his own again, but he has begun–he has been started, as it were, and he is refreshed, driven. For those who didn’t follow the link above and read all of Georgian Poetry, then, here is a shorter and more aspirational document, looking ahead to the month’s accomplishments:

 

And what of the ongoing war?

 

For The Master of Belhaven, today was a day of false alarms. Standing-to from 5 a.m. until 9, they expected news of the assault of the German Guards Divisions, but his batteries, on the far flank of the Cambrai action, eventually stood down.[2]

 

So our war story, for the day, is carried on best in fiction. Henry Williamson‘s Phillip Maddison had yet another climax–and anti-climax–to his manifold military experiences. His Machine Gun Company is called into the line to stem the German counter-attack: the British near-breakthrough of November 20th has become a German near-breakthrough, and Williamson seems to take a cruel pleasure in depicting the routed and panicked men who stream back past “286 M.”

Phillip himself, though “windy” and teary, is back in heroic mode, fighting in his pyjamas and helping to hold the line on what was, by all accounts, a desperate day. But in a bitter irony–Williamson perhaps intends this as a microcosm for the belated bureaucratic reckoning which will come for the commanders at Cambrai–Maddison’s commander, Teddy Pinnegar, is blamed for the Machine Gun Company being in the wrong place, even though this happens as a result of Phillip’s decisions during last night’s march… It’s all very confusing.

The day ends with Phillip guilty, feverish, diagnosed with trench fever by an American doctor, and sent to Blighty–not grateful, as he has been in earlier, more fearful times, but rueful that he has let his commander down and is going home sick rather than with a heroic wound. The climax of the book’s non-military action will come in England over the next few weeks, as the war and Phillip’s romantic escapades come together at last.[3]

 

Finally, with the new month, I’d like to introduce one more–just one more!–society diary.

Lady Cynthia Asquith has few connections to anyone we know. Except that she is a daughter of two “souls,” her mother a Wyndham (the grace on the right) and her father Hugo Charteris, the Earl of Wemyss; her brothers Yvo and Hugo (“Ego”) have both been killed in action; she is a confidante of D.H. Lawrence, secretary to J.M. Barrie, daughter-in-law of the ex-Prime Minister (her husband, Herbert Asquith, still serving in uniform and most evidently away from home was Raymond‘s younger brother), and, generally, friends with all of the smart set of society still left in England.

Which includes Bernard Freyberg, a New Zealandish interloper on the group who has earned his stripes (and stars) as a member of the Argonauts and, now, a hero of the Naval Division’s land battles. Lady Asquith will become a prolific author, but already, a century back, it’s clear that, surrounded by war and loss, she knows how to write warriors very well. Ardent lovers, however, are another thing altogether…

Saturday, 1st December

Went down to Brighton by 11.40 to spend the day with Freyberg. He met me at the station. He is staying at the Royal York, but we drove straight to the Metropole for luncheon. He was looking better and had a fine appetite. With his youthful face and the insignia of his anomalous rank (his medals and preposterous number of gold stripes), he is very conspicuous and much stared at—obsequious deference from the waiters. I insisted on taking him to Professor Severn, the phrenologist, but he was hopelessly out about him, marking him low for self-esteem and concentration…

We walked to dinner at the Metropole. He told me of his wonderful swimming exploit in Gallipoli, when he swam for four hours and landed naked and alone, and crawled quite close to the enemy’s trenches and lit torches. His eyes shine and he becomes poeticised talking of military adventures, and I was touched to see his eyes fill with tears once when he was talking about his men. I find him very, very attractive.

He drove me to the station to catch the 9.40. He made love to me all day with simplicity and sweetness, and I don’t know what to do. Several times he said he thought he had better not see me any more, and I suppose I ought to take him at his word: it is the candle that should withdraw, the moth cannot, but it would require considerable unselfishness on my part. I should hate to give him up altogether—conscience tells me I should. He kept asking me if I would have married him had I been free. I enjoyed the day very much—injudicious as it was.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 197.
  2. War Diary, 414-5.
  3. Love and the Loveless, 333-49.
  4. Diaries, 374-5.

November, and Gurney’s Acquiescence; Duff Cooper Makes the Grade

November will see the end of the battle of Passchendaele, still churning on but more or less invisible to us: none of our main sources remain in the thick of it, and the final, brutal push will be borne by Canadian troops. Then there will be another attack at Cambrai–a promising tank action–but it’s hard to avoid the sense that, for the group of writers assembled here, the war has moved into a phase that has more to do with acceptance than anticipation–or, perhaps, more to do with explicating past experience than experiencing new things.

There will be more cross-pollination this month, too. Isaac Rosenberg, behindhand, will read Mr. Britling, and–finally!–Sassoon. Despite his early acquaintance with Eddie Marsh–a generous patron but not one to ignore the huge social distinctions among his proteges–Rosenberg has never been brought together with his fellow “Georgians” (not that his loose, powerfully emotional verse fits any better among their restrained and traditional forms than he, a young Jew from what we might call the inner city, fits among the tweedy country-lane-strollers). Nevertheless, it is striking that it was not until this month that he will read Sassoon for the first time, while paging toward his own work in a reverse-alphabetical number of Georgian Poetry.

As for Sassoon, he will finally meet Robert Nichols, whom Graves has long been promoting as a possible third musketeer, while Graves will stake his claim to one of the many “adversarial” or antithetical ways of writing about the war with his pointedly-titled collection Fairies and Fusiliers.

And on another flank of the poetic front, Ivor Gurney–after Rosenberg perhaps the most important enlisted poet–will finally have a chance to join the conversation, as his first collection of verse, with its similarly double-weighted title–Severn and Somme–comes out. We will take our “month poem,” then–and our tone–from Gurney:

 

Acquiescence

Since I can neither alter my destiny
By one hair’s breadth from its appointed course;
Since bribes nor prayers nor any earthly force
May from its pathway move a life not free —
I must gather together the whole strength of me,
My senses make my willing servitors;
Cherish and feed the better, starve the worse;
Turn all my pride to proud humility.
Meeting the daily shocks and frozen, stony,
Cynical face of doubt with smiles and joy —
As a battle with autumn winds delights a boy,
Before the smut of the world and the lust of money,
Power, and fame, can yet his youth destroy;
Ere he has scorned his Father’s patrimony.

 

As for today itself, a century back, we have one thing only, and in a very different tone. It’s well worth the periodic reminder that the sort of “experiential” history to which this project is devoted is fatally flawed: to generalize from personal experiences is only to approximate, not to grasp or translate or identify or explain. We don’t actually have, that is, generalized experiences. Even if our interpretations of our experiences might be affected by our knowledge of what others around us are experiencing, it would take unusual empathy for this effect to be at all significant. We live only our own lives, and sometimes we are happy for petty reasons on calamitous days, or focused on the terrible blister we got on the victorious march. More to the point, anyone who fights in a war has (at least) two different age identities: the time he or she has lived on the earth, and the time he or she has spent in uniform. (Then, of course, and most significant, comes the time spent in danger, and in combat.)

In other words, November 1917 is, generally speaking, a month of misery and acquiescence, the 40th month of the war, the fourth month of Third Ypres, the fourth autumn of wretched mud. But for Duff Cooper, the war is four months old, and a matter of drills, barracks, and exams. A cadet since July, he has endured nothing worse yet (other than the loss of so many friends who went earlier) than the boredom, discomfort, and pettiness of old school officer training.

Two days ago, a century back, Cooper sat for the examination that would qualify him as an officer. Today he will learn how he did–but not before the army puts him through one more morning of casual emotional cruelty…

I got up early feeling nervous and depressed. It was a cold misty morning. After breakfast we were told to parade in the ante-room at 8. We were trembling, prepared to hear our fate. But it was only Clutterbuck who talked to us about the examination. He said we hadn’t done as well as he expected and warned us that a great many had failed. We were then dismissed til nine o’clock feeling far more depressed than before. At nine we assembled again and waited three sickening quarters of an hour before the Commandant arrived. At last he came and proceeded to read out very slowly and deliberately and in no order the names of those whom he would recommend for commissions. It was a slow and agonizing torture. Twenty-seven names were read out and then came mine. The relief and delight were unspeakable. There were fourteen failures–none of my friends amongst them. The rest of the day was spent in handing in our kit and equipment–a pleasant duty. Oh the relief that Bushey is over. If I wake up for a moment in the night I remember it and go to sleep smiling. I wonder I could ever have borne it.[1]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 60.

A Raid on Potatoes; A Pair of Tales, and a Book of Poems, In Memoriam

Still recovering from the fighting around the Menin Road, we will back into October with the Second Royal Welch, who lost around a third of their strength–including 60 dead–during their recent, nearly officer-less spell in the line. But a few days away from the front can make a huge difference, and if wartime traumas make lifelong memories, then there is another sense in which psychological recoveries, however shallow, must be very brief.

Dr. Dunn’s chronicle recounts the march into reserve, praises the dead, and moves on into the light humor of reserve-area hijinks. This bit sure sounds like it could feature Frank Richards, but if he is the signaller in question he forebears to confess in his own memoir:

October 1st.–Two signallers making a midnight-raid on sacks of newly-dug potatoes were thwarted by the watchful, voluble, and scarcely placable farmer.[1]

 

Otherwise, things are quiet, but we will observe the rite of the “Month Poem” in slightly heterodox fashion. In addition to a single poem, we have first a tale–The Tale–then a whole book of poems, and then one plucked from another sheaf.

I mention “The Tale” only because it is nominally a war story, and because it is by the notable friend-and-collaborator-of-Ford-Madox-Hueffer Joseph Conrad. Set at sea in the early months of the war and published this month, a century back, it’s a sea story, really, a spooky tale of uncertainty and human darkness that borrows the backdrop of 1914 and shares–more, perhaps, than Conrad’s tales usually caught the popular currents–the mood of the fall of 1917..

 

And we have a book of poems. It is always so very difficult to follow the experiences of the bereaved more than a few days or weeks past the telegram that tells of the death of their husband or son or lover. For a while there are dates to be had from letters of condolence and such, but then, usually, nothing. Long grieving, without much to shape it, and a slog through remaining responsibilities; too little distance and calm, yet, to reflect and write about who and what has been lost. So we have heard little of the afterlife of Edward Thomas, and it will be years before Helen–or Eleanor, or Myfanwy–writes of him. But his friends have not been idle, and this month, a century back, his Poems will be published, almost all of them for the first time.

But I couldn’t pick one of those–Adlestrop, the Great English Poem; or Lob, or As the Team’s Head Brass, or even the handful of frank war poems. Thomas can’t really be reduced to one poem, or a handful–and besides, the whole corpus only makes for a few hours’ ruminative reading. They’re all there, at the link above, and elsewhere on the web, and in Edna Longley’s excellent editions–all except, of course, for the poems sprung from the observations and jotted images in his “War Diary” between January and April, which are not, because he did not live to write them.

 

So for one poem for this month, we’ll go to one of several written in hospital by Ivor Gurney–and there’s an unusual Conrad-in-Scotland feel, here, from our gentle Severnside poet:

 

Hospital Pictures. No. (l) Ulysses

A soldier looked at me with blue hawk-eyes.
With kindly glances sorrow had made wise
And talked till all I’d ever read in books
Melted to ashes in his burning looks.
And poets I’d despise and craft of pen.
If, while he told his coloured wander-tales
Of Glasgow, Ypres, sea mist, spouting whales,
(Alive past words of power of writing men)
My heart had not exulted in his brave
Air of the wild woodland and sea-wave.
Or if, with each new sentence from his tongue
My high-triumphing spirit had not sung
As in some April when the world was young.

Bangour Hospital.Oct 1917.[2]

 

Well, no, not one poem, and not “I can’t pick just one Thomas poem”–I’ve changed my mind.

Since April and youth have been mentioned, and since it’s only a tough four lines, hovering between expansive eulogy and complete silence, and since the manuscript has so much blank space, we’ll close with this, the poem that will from now on, thanks to Thomas’s editors, be referred to as “In Memoriam (Easter, 1915).” Thomas’s working title, seen below, is much better–only the date:

The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood
This Eastertide call into mind the men,
Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts, should

Have gathered them and will do never again.

The First World War Poetry Digital Archive, Oxford.

References and Footnotes

  1. The War the Infantry Knew, 405.
  2. War Letters, 229.

Housman’s Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries; Robert Graves and the Lyric Appeal of Nancy Nicholson

The historian and biographer Peter Parker, whose The Old Lie was one of the most useful secondary sources for the early days of this project,[1] recently published a well-received book on A.E. Housman and his importance to the generation that is now earning its “lost” epithet. There were so many polite, literary, privileged, dreamy English boys who went to war with Housman’s A Shropshire Lad as their companion and poetic ideal, that it has become the type specimen of literary influence on the British experience of the war.

It’s a nice little collection of verses, but its enormous popularity within this demographic can only partially be explained by what’s actually there in the poems. More important is the ambiance: Housman represented a rural England (think The Shire) that was vanishing, the barely concealed homoeroticism of some of the lyrics held a particular appeal to many of his readers, and the frequent atmosphere of youthful tragedy was not only perfect for artistically-inclined adolescents but doubly powerful those who then found themselves asked to shoulder great responsibility amidst enormous loss.

A Shropshire Lad was published eighteen years before the war, and although Housman largely devoted his life to scholarship rather than poetry, he is till kicking around. This month, a century back, looking at the mounting carnage of Third Ypres, he found himself thinking of the heroic stand at First Ypres nearly three years before, made by a very different British archetype. This short poem, written over the coming weeks, is one of the war’s most memorable–Kipling, for one, thought it the very best.

 

Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries


These, in the days when heaven was falling,
The hour when earth’s foundations fled,
Followed their mercenary calling
And took their wages and are dead.
Their shoulders held the sky suspended;
They stood, and the earth’s foundations stay;
What God abandoned, these defended,
And saved the sum of things for pay.

 

A powerful poem, but a strange and estranging one, not least for those poetic schoolboys who have grown up to command platoons and companies of very different soldiers. Our elegies, here, tend to be for Kitchener’s Army–especially its poetic schoolboy officers–or for the men of the mixed and post-idealistic armies of 1917. It’s hard to even remember the professionals who went in 1914 and died in their thousands during the chaos of that autumn. The prewar Regular army really is gone–even if Frank Richards and a few others miraculously hold on–and it merits a memorial. Yet is it really satisfying to read a hard-bitten “epitaph”–both loudly disclaiming and tacitly accepting a sentimental position–written by an older, learned man who was a stranger to the grim old army of lower-class “mercenaries?”

 

From one of the Shropshire-readers who did survive–though absent, in this case, half a lung, healthy “nerves,” and peace of mind–we have a far happier note. Robert Graves‘s day both began and ended with Nancy Nicholson, in pursuit of whom he had crashed a fancy-dress party yesterday evening.

He escorted Nancy back from the dance at two in the morning; and then, not feeling like sleep, he persuaded Ben Nicholson to drive him all the way to Talsarnau, where they called on some other friends of theirs.

Later on Saturday, after snatching a few hours of sleep back at Erinfa, Robert paid another visit to Llys Bach. He was away for some time, and when he returned he said nothing to his family about Nancy, but told them that he had been playing with Nancy’s younger brother Kit, and then having supper with Ben. Whatever Robert’s feelings for Nancy, he kept them to himself at this stage: wisely, perhaps, in such a large and sharp-tongued family…[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. I've also profited from his book on Ackerley.
  2. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 182-3.

Vera Brittain’s Next Worst Day, or the Afterlife of Rupert Brooke, XVIII: Geoffrey Thurlow and Safety, Vera Brittain and The Dead, and the Maimed; Alfred Hale Appeals to the Recruiter; Isaac Rosenberg’s Dead Man’s Dump; Scott Moncrieff Adrift; Home Service for Tolkien

We’ll begin with a few May Day updates on our writers–none of them, today, in the bloom of health or fitness. Last will come Vera Brittain, who absorbs yet another blow. And with her writing we will move from the day to the month, and compare two very different poems about the new dead of this third wartime spring.

 

Alfred Hale has some tenuous connections to our regulars. He was an Oxford friend of Ralph Vaughan Williams (the idol of Ivor Gurney) and a very minor composer and arranger in the same style, and he attended Uppingham school, albeit years before Roland Leighton, Edward Brittain, and Victor Richardson. Now forty-one, his life of single, artistic, privileged pottering about is not unlike what some of our young men might have aged into, but for the war… and there’s the rub. Hale is most conspicuously different from our other informants in that he was immediately and completely horrified by the idea of going to war, and has done his best to avoid it. He was glad to have failed an early physical with the Navy, and he dodged the first draft by stalling and then ageing out–but the new rules are sweeping up even disinclined forty-something non-sporting country gentlemen. Today, a century back, he does his best not to impress.

‘As to my being over age, that had been settled against me by the recent Act… the rejection… was another matter. If I could bet a rejection certificate… from the Naval authorities, well and good…. But I was advised to act quickly.’ Thus the very courteous Recruiting Officer… A very nice old recruiting sergeant was also sympathetic. I was never likely to be much good as a soldier, that he saw with half his professional eye, and he hinted as much if he did not say so.

But Hale is caught in a predictable trap: the Navy has only to remark, with raised institutional eyebrow, that his failure to measure up to its high standards is no guarantee that the Army will likewise reject him. Hale leaves the matter in the hands of his solicitor, but little hope remains.[1]

 

Charles Scott Moncrieff, wounded at Arras, is still in hospital in France–and he is not well. His leg is mangled and, to judge from today’s letter, his spirit has been damaged as well.

No. 20 General Hospital, Camiers,
1st May, 1917.

In the evening I heard a great swell of hundreds of men’s voices singing some of the popular Catholic hymns—“Jesu my Lord, my God, my all”—and some others. Presently my priest came in, the one who wrote to you; he tells me they have Benediction every day of the week in one of the huts, but yesterday for a weekday must have been enormously attended. He agreed to bring me Holy Communion this morning, which I was very grateful for. At night I had not such a bad time, thinking rather than sleeping, but still feeling this awful inability to control or co-ordinate my thoughts, which is, I suppose, a result of the shell shock. I find it so hard to grasp that this great nocturnal space bounded by the four corners of my bed—and with so much always new and unknown in it—has just the one inhabitant. . . .[2]

 

Also today, a century back, John Ronald Tolkien went once more before a medical board. The verdict: “He is improving but requires hardening.” This will mean, in practice, an extended period of home service, in Yorkshire, with time to write and his wife nearby.[3]

 

Kate Luard‘s diary has shown hints of strain, of late–not surprising, given that she has helped to lead a hospital through several weeks of intense and emotionally draining work as the casualties of Arras passed through. But now that the most terribly wounded have died and most of the others have been moved to larger hospitals further in the rear, there is time for relaxation–and for psychological letdown.

May Day and a dazzling day and very little doing in this Hospital. G. and I celebrated the occasion by going to the woods in the morning, starry with anemones and never a leaf to be seen, but blue sky and fresh breezes and clear sunshine. It is all a tremendous help, physically and psychically…

Some of us and Capt. B. have been having a bad fit of pessimism over them all lately, wondering what is the good of operations, nursing, rescues, or anything, when so many have died in the end. But even a few miraculous recoveries buck one up to begin again.

A Suffolk farmer boy is dying to-night…

I had a letter from a brave Glasgow mother, full of gratitude and incoherence, ending up, ‘And don’t forget to let us know how you are keeping.”[4]

This string of ups and downs–one day’s record–is not very representative of her writing style (the daily diary entries are often composed as topical letters). But it is, I think, emotionally accurate. Sister Luard is–she must be–enormously mentally tough, but the enormous suffering and the constant loss takes its toll nonetheless. It’s striking that there is no answer suggested here–no invocation of religion or patriotism. Just the increasingly common question, but especially vivid coming from a nurse so close to the front lines: what is this all for? What is the good of continuing in a policy which reduces so many men to such a state?

A fair question. But there’s nothing for it but to go on–and take whatever solace one can from the lives that can be saved.

 

And so to Vera Brittain.

May 1st

Had two cables–one to say that Victor’s eyesight was hopelessly gone, the other–an hour later–that Geoffrey was killed in action on April 23rd…

Sat out on the rocks’ edge in front of Night Quarters & suddenly something seemed to tell me to go home. Nothing much doing in Malta–& chances of Salonika seemed further off than ever; decided to go home for Edward’s sake & Victor’s, & if he wishes it, to devote my life to the service of Victor, the only one (apart from Edward, who is different) left of the three men I loved. For I loved Geoffrey… I spent the rest of that day on the rocks, feeling all the time that I was not alone but that Geoffrey was there & if I looked up I should see him standing beside me. . . .

A letter from Geoffrey arrived the same day–“By one of those curious chances which occurred during the war with such poignant frequency,” as she will later write. Once could also see it as one more example of the war’s uncanny literariness–but perhaps we remember the cruelest ironies best.

His last letter to me–dated April 20th–arrived that evening. He told me they were going up “for a stunt” in two or three days, & said his only fear was that he should fail at the critical moment, & that he would like to do well for the School’s sake. Often, he said, he had watched the splendour of the sunset from the school-field. And then, perhaps seeing the end in sight, he turned as usual to his beloved Rupert Brooke for comfort & finished with

‘War knows no power safe shall be my going
Safe tho’ all safety’s lost, safe where men fall
And if these poor limbs die, safest of all’

My dear dear Geoffrey!

Vera is ready with an apt–and devastatingly sad–counter-quotation. Geoffrey, before battle, quoted “Safety;” she, drawing from the same sonnet sequence that has framed these middle years of the war, quotes “The Dead:”

He leaves a white
Unbroken glory, a gathered radiance,
A width, a shining peace, under the night.[5]

Looking back, Brittain will remember the hours of “suspended physical animation” on the rocks as a time of almost numinous intensity, but Geoffrey’s ghostly presence will prompt a memory that makes much more concrete how she now might “serve” her surviving friend:

And all at once, as I gazed out to sea the words of the “Agony Column” advertisement, that I had cut out and sent to Roland nearly two years before, struggled back into my mind.

“Lady, fiancé killed, will gladly marry officer totally blinded or otherwise incapacitated by the war.”

I even remembered vaguely the letter in which I had commented on this notice at the time.

Yes: a great deal has changed since she wrote that letter, to Roland, which scoffed at the quaintly Victorian self-sacrifice of certain old maids.

There is one small, terrible change in her quotation of her own letter in the later memoir.[6] In the letter, she writes of “a business arrangement, with an element of self-sacrifice which redeems it from utter sordidness. Quite an idea, isn’t it!”

In retrospect, the final exclamation point becomes a question mark.

“Quite an idea, isn’t it?” Was it, Geoffrey? wasn’t it? There was nothing left in life now but Edward and the wreckage of Victor–Victor who had stood by me so often in my blackest hours. If he wanted me, surely I could stand by him in his.

She decides to try to come home.

That night–quiet as all nights were now that so few sick and wounded were coming from Salonika–I tried to keep my mind from thoughts and my eyes from tears by assiduously pasting photographs of Malta into a cardboard album. The scent of a vase of sweet-peas on the ward table reminded me of Roland’s study on Speech Day, centuries ago.

And, a century on, I suppose we must be grateful, in some aesthetically presumptive and heartless way, for the terrible things that happened to good writers.

Surely, surely there must be somewhere in which the sweet intimacies begun here may be continued and the hearts broken by this War may be healed![7]

Vera Brittain will soon begin the poem that will serve us for a first “month poem” today:

 

In Memoriam G.R.Y.T.

(Killed in Action, April 23rd, 1917)

I spoke with you but seldom, yet there lay
Some nameless glamour in your written word,
And thoughts of you rose often—longings stirred
By dear remembrance of the sad blue-grey
That dwelt within your eyes, the even sway
Of your young god-like gait, the rarely heard
But frank bright laughter, hallowed by a Day
That made of Youth Right’s offering to the sword.
So now I ponder, since your day is done,
Ere dawn was past, on all you meant to me,
And all the more you might have come to be,
And wonder if some state, beyond the sun
And shadows here, may yet completion see
Of intimacy sweet though scarce begun.

Malta, May 1917.

 

This is a good poem; also, a traditional one. A poem about an individual, a dead man remembered not for his death or its horror or pain or futility but for his life. Which is right, and good, and we should all have friends like Vera Brittain to remember us, and to draw on hopeful traditions that see a possibility of love and friendship after death.

 

But there are other ways to see the dead, and to write them. Another poem written this month, a century back, is Isaac Rosenberg‘s Dead Man’s Dump. It’s neither a short poem nor a very long one, but it’s almost too harrowing to read in its entirety. It draws on Rosenberg’s experience working in a labor battalion in the aftermath of battle. A few stanzas, then:

The plunging limbers over the shattered track
Racketed with their rusty freight,
Stuck out like many crowns of thorns,
And the rusty stakes like sceptres old
To stay the flood of brutish men
Upon our brothers dear.
The wheels lurched over sprawled dead
But pained them not, though their bones crunched,
Their shut mouths made no moan.
They lie there huddled, friend and foeman,
Man born of man, and born of woman,
And shells go crying over them
From night till night and now.
The air is loud with death,
The dark air spurts with fire,
The explosions ceaseless are.
Timelessly now, some minutes past,
Those dead strode time with vigorous life,
Till the shrapnel called ‘An end!’
But not to all. In bleeding pangs
Some borne on stretchers dreamed of home,
Dear things, war-blotted from their hearts.
Maniac Earth! howling and flying, your bowel
Seared by the jagged fire, the iron love,
The impetuous storm of savage love.
Dark Earth! dark Heavens! swinging in chemic smoke,
What dead are born when you kiss each soundless soul
With lightning and thunder from your mined heart,
Which man’s self dug, and his blind fingers loosed?
A man’s brains splattered on
A stretcher-bearer’s face;
His shook shoulders slipped their load,
But when they bent to look again
The drowning soul was sunk too deep
For human tenderness.
They left this dead with the older dead,
Stretched at the cross roads.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Ordeal of Alfred M. Hale, 37.
  2. Diary, 128-9.
  3. Chronology, 100.
  4. Unknown Warriors, 120-1.
  5. Chronicle of Youth, 340.
  6. I am relying, of course, on two different transcriptions of a hand-written letter I haven't seen...
  7. Testament of Youth, 342-46.

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

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

I

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

O glad young April day!

II

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

O wild sad April rains!

Richard Aldington[1]

 

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

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

2 John Collins   1 Japanese ditto.   1 Oyster cocktail

1 Sherry and Bitters.   Pommard Eclatante, trois verres.

1 Benedictine.

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

 

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

1 April 1917

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Arras, 1 April 1917

Dearest,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A happy Easter! Goodbye

Edwy

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

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

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

Edwy[6]

 

References and Footnotes

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

Thomas Hardy’s Call to National Service; Edward Thomas Gives Two Views of Bombardments, and an Otherworldly Ruin; St. David’s Day Hallowed by the Royal Welch Fusiliers, but not Poor David Jones

Thomas Hardy is no jingoist. In fact, his refusal to be enthusiastic about the bloody business of the war and his loathing of the very idea that a political disaster should lead one group of people to hate another notably similar group of people set him apart from the majority of Britain’s older writers.

In his emotional or poetic stance he is something very close to a dissident, the honorary colonel of the swelling regiment of the poets of protest and disillusionment. And yet he is still a patriot, still willing to entertain the (reasonable!) expectation that a great effort must be made to finish the terrible task that England began. And that criticism of the government’s conduct, of the principles by which the war is being raised is loyal, right, patriotic, and proper.

This month, a century back, Hardy put out this call, notable as much for its grim tone as for its familiar sentiments.

A Call to National Service

Up and be doing, all who have a hand
To lift, a back to bend. It must not be
In times like these that vaguely linger we
To air our vaunts and hopes; and leave our land

Untended as a wild of weeds and sand.
–Say, then, “I come!” and go, O women and men
Of palace, ploughshare, easel, counter, pen;
That scareless, scathless, England still may stand.

Would years but let me stir as once I stirred
At many a dawn to take the forward track,
And with a stride plunged on to enterprize,

I now would speed like yester wind that whirred
Through yielding pines; and serve with never a slack,
So loud for promptness all around outcries!

 

In Arras, Edward Thomas sat down to another lengthy letter, today, a century back, to his wife Helen. This is one of those cases in which what will be a brief note in his diary is fleshed out in the letter into a vivid vignette, a picture that constitutes writerly exercise as much as relationship maintenance. Thomas is in no hurry, as the younger men tossed into the trenches so often are, to emphasize the depth and breadth of the experiential gulf–he writes to share, and, simply, to write–loved ones are easier to face across a sheet of paper than his exacting muse.

And I must wonder, looking ahead into the letter: is Thomas precise or indelicate in his aviation simile?

1 March 1917 Arras [Group H.Q.]

Dearest

This afternoon I had nothing in particular to do and Berringtond the Signals Officer of the Group, asked me to go along with him just to see how his telephone wires were being laid alongside the marsh at the edge of the city to our batteries (including 244). So I got the colonel to give me a little job to do on the way and we went out. It was sunny and warm with a fresh wind. I did what I had to do and while I was doing it Herrington sat down on the bank and smoked, which made him more or less forget what he had meant to do. Then we strolled on till a German plane came over and the alarm was blown and we sat down and smoked while the Anti-Aircraft sent scores of  shells singing past us and spotted the plane with white puffs. The German had been going quite low over the city, taking photographs no doubt, but he rose up till he was as small as a lark and wasn’t touched…

Thomas next describes desultory German shelling near their position and the first rounds fired in response by his own battery. But the more striking sight is across no man’s land:

…the day was very clear and we could see the German lines and the ghastly village of ruined houses and dead trees that was my first sight of the enemy country a fortnight ago. At first I couldn’t believe it, it looked so near. Yet the line of dead tall straight trees against the sky was quite unmistakeable…

Thomas describes the rest of the ramble that eventually took him back to Group HQ–but more on that below.

I have often made reference to the gaps and rough patches in Edward and Helen Thomas’s marriage. But under the strain–and separation–of war, the marriage seems to be, if we might take an unromantic and practical point of view, doing its job. He is lonely, and he reaches out to his wife, taking some comfort from the one-sided conversation…

Now it is 5.50 p.m. Everybody is out except the Colonel who has another Colonel with him in the office, so I am alone in the dusk, and now this moment they have closed the shutters so that it seems night. It seems I am not escaping at once as the Colonel is having some difficulty in getting hold of the man who was to succeed me.

I have had a lot of Mother’s cake and a lot of tea and my ears are burning. I should like to talk to someone as I can’t write.[1]

The letter continues tomorrow… and yet Thomas’s writing for the day isn’t done. He also wrote a very different sort of letter to Eleanor Farjeon. Thomas, proud of his Welsh descent, acknowledges the date, the festival of the patron saint of Wales.

March 1    St David’s Day

My dear Eleanor, The ginger came. All of 244 had a good dip into it and there was still some left in the tin. It was very good and it was still more good of you to send it. Thank you. Next day Helen wrote to say you really were coming to High Beech at last. I am expecting to hear now that you did.

Well, I expect to return to 244 in a day or two. They know I don’t want to stay here and a successor is being interviewed today, so that I shall soon cease to be a glorified lacky or humble adjutant to an old Indian colonel perplexed in the extreme. It has been a useful experience. I have got used to the telephone and I have seen how things are done and not done at Headquarters.

With Farjeon, Thomas takes another tack on the experience of being shelled. He has weathered it, yes–but his imagination is not insensitive to the appalling mystery of bombardment: with weapons so massive, even the smallest adjustment would spell destruction.

Incidentally too I have been in the midst of quite a noisy artillery give and take. You can’t imagine the noise this makes in a city. I don’t pretend I liked it. Sometimes I found myself fancying that if only the enemy pointed the gun like this ——– instead of like this ______ he would land a shell on the dinner table and send us to a quieter place. However he didn’t. 244 is just going into action with its own guns and I wish I were there. Soon I believe I shall be…

I cut down Thomas’s description of the sight across no man’s land in his letter to Helen because it is more vivid in this one–nor is it the last such description.

With Farjeon, Thomas is a little more willing to show himself horrified, to allude to the dark places in his imagination that cannot but be stimulated by the new sights of war. He has been here for several weeks, but the sight of empty towns and the ruins of recently thriving habitations still shock him. As they should… but he is not the sort of writer who uses the phrase “another world” lightly.

We are wondering now if the enemy is going to retire from this front. It will be strange walking about in the ghastly village which was the first I saw of the enemy’s ground, a silent still village of ruined houses and closegrown tall trees stark and dark lining a road above the trenches. It was worse than any deserted brickworks or mine. It looked in another world from ours, even from the scarred world in which I stood. In a curious way its very name now always calls up the thing I saw and the way I felt as I saw it.

The name resembles a name in Malory, especially in its English pronunciation and this also gives a certain tone to the effect it had. I see it lining the brow of a gradual hill halfway up which is the English line with the German above it. The houses and trees dense and then to right and left only trees growing thinner till at last the ridge sweeping away is bare for some miles. But this is E. T.’s vein. Goodbye. Keep well and write soon.

Yours ever
Edward Thomas[2]

This must be the village of Beaurains, just south and east of Arras on the German lines, and remembering Sir Gareth “Beaumains” form Malory.

Oh, that Edward Thomas would write a dark twisted fantasy of the middle ages behind the ruined Arras of the 20th century…

 

In honor of Dewi Sant, we close with our favorite Welsh unit and then our most determinedly Cymrophile London Welshman. First, the celebration of the Royal Welch Fusiliers–the third of the war (follow the links for 1915 and 1916).

March 1st, St. David’s Day. A genial, almost windless day ending in a crisp, starlit night. With times of rawness the weather was generally fine during this week. Fritz is said to have withdrawn from Gommecourt. When last we were in the line he blew a mine in the road that crossed No Man’s Land on our left front. As he is expected to withdraw on this front any day now, we, being on an hour’s notice, have had little to do since coming here.

It was nearing noon before there was any assurance that the officers St. David’s Day Dinner could be held. Provisional plans had been made, and leeks had been bought for the Battalion. Yates, Mann, Mess-servants, Pioneers and defaulters, all pulled together. A very scratch kitchen was fitted up in a broken and dismantled shrine, to the scandal of some French details; a hut built on to it, and used as a chapel during the French occupation, was repaired and enlarged. Timber had been got from the Engineers. Tables and benches were run up by the Pioneer Sergeant, “Daisy” Horton.

The merit of a plain menu was Parry’s excellent cooking: soup, lobster mayonnaise, stew, steam-pudding–the sauce was the thing, Scotch woodcock, dessert; whisky, port, champagne cup; coffee. Roger Poore, transferred from the Hants Yeomanry and recently posted as Second-in-Command, presided; the C.O. was on leave.

We had a jolly night. None of the traditional ritual was wanting, and there were many to eat the leek. A German howitzer shell-case, which had been used by the French as a gas-gong, served as loving-cup. It was to have been sent home after being inscribed and decorated by Sergeant-Shoemaker Johnson, a remarkably good artist in metal, but it was lost before Poore could make up his mind about the wording.[3]

 

And finally, an inauspicious St. David’s Day for his London Welsh namesake, Jones-the-Artist. David Jones had been sent to work with a unit of the engineers in the hopes that his draughtsmanship might be put to military use. Alas,

As a flash-spotter Jones was unsuccessful. Sometimes flash followed flash so quickly that he had to mark the second while reporting the first and he was unable to do two things at once. The mill swayed in the wind. In the dark he sometimes had difficulty finding the speaking end of the telephone. When reaching for the phone, he sometimes jogged the theodolite, moving its dial. Having lost the bearing, he made up the figures–not, he realised, a useful thing to do. By the end of February, he was discharged from the Survey Company on the trumped-up charge of not having had his hair cut. ‘My association with the Engineers’, he later remembered, ‘was shameful and brief.’’

On the morning of 1 March 1917 he trudged several miles under full pack to a railhead to catch a train back to his battalion north of Ypres. Despite his protests, a transport officer insisted on putting him on a train going south-west. That afternoon he arrived at a camp on a hill above Rouen, where he was detained for nearly a month, awaiting confirmation from his battalion…[4]

He could have run across Siegfried Sassoon there, and talked poetry! Or not, for Jones was a shy enlisted autodidact in a Kitchener battalion, and even if the rigidities of military hierarchy had not separated them, Jones’s diffidence and Sassoon’s snobbery would have done the job… Jones, alone, will head into the same sort of limbo that Sassoon has been enduring but in an even worse place: he will soon go to the “Bull Ring” at Étaples, to be shouted at by the very worst sort of over-enthusiastic drill sergeants…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Letters to Helen, 82-83.
  2. Farjeon, Edward Thomas..., 252-3.
  3. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 300-1.
  4. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 146-7.

May Cannan’s Lamplight; Max Plowman on an Unostentatious Hero and his Just Reward

For poem of the month, this month, we have a choice between one of the most powerful single poems of the war–Isaac Rosenberg‘s “Break of Day in the Trenches”–published this month but written this summer–or the elegiac and somewhat trite “Lamplight,” by May Wedderburn Cannan. Well, it’s December–I’ll include Cannan’s poem of regret. (But we looked at Rosenberg’s poem when it was written.)

 

Lamplight

We planned to shake the world together, you and I
Being young, and very wise;
Now in the light of the green shaded lamp
Almost I see your eyes
Light with the old gay laughter; you and I
Dreamed greatly of an Empire in those days,
Setting our feet upon laborious ways,
And all you asked of fame
Was crossed swords in the Army List,
My Dear, against your name.

We planned a great Empire together, you and I,
Bound only by the sea;
Now in the quiet of a chill Winter’s night
Your voice comes hushed to me
Full of forgotten memories: you and I
Dreamed great dreams of our future in those days,
Setting our feet on undiscovered ways,
And all I asked of fame
A scarlet cross on my breast, my Dear,
For the swords by your name.

We shall never shake the world together, you and I,
For you gave your life away;
And I think my heart was broken by the war,
Since on a summer day
You took the road we never spoke of: you and I
Dreamed greatly of an Empire in those days;
You set your feet upon the Western ways
And have no need of fame –
There’s a scarlet cross on my breast, my Dear,
And a torn cross with your name.

It will be the task of Max Plowman, then, to return us to prose. One of my biggest regrets about the way in which we read through the Somme battle, here, was how little of Plowman’s memoir I was able to include–Subaltern on the Somme is only dated by the month, and I was not able to obtain the battalion diary and link more incidents to dates.

But today’s letter, at least, allows us to drop anchor and consider one of the most considerable minor characters of the memoir.

On Active Service
Friday. 1st December. 1916.

My Dear Janet,

Forgive me–though it looks as if I were a ‘base’ hare I’m not really–I’m a ‘forward’ hare. And a very grateful one too–ever so glad to get your letters, quietly blessing you too for thinking of things like food for mind body & estate. I’m keeping the cocoa rations & mittens. Some day (when you feel a current of warm air) you’ll know it’s a prayer for his patron saint (St Jeanne) wafted over to you from some nose-biting trench. I always try & make a small collection before I go into trenches nowadays & though it usually means finding oneself an unholy beast of burden…

For instance, when we went up last, about a month ago, I took a packet of raisins D. had sent me, two tins of cigarettes, some oxo cubes & a sack full of Shell Dressings. Oh & 8 pairs of socks. As a result I’m still here. Whether that’s a blessing or not I’m not quite so sure, but since one didn’t enlist to go sick I suppose ‘the answer is in the affirmative’…

We were only “in the line” actually 8 days (two spells of 4 each) but about a dozen officers got “trench feet” & I don’t know how many men. I gave about half my socks away to men but the other half saved me…

The place was a nightmare of mud & deep shell-holes full of water…

We will go back a few days into the “November” section of Plowman’s memoir and read about this tour in just a moment. But first, Plowman has a curious writerly note to make.

If only I could get decently wounded now I should be most awfully glad I’d been out here. Sum it all up & I think nothing has surprised me except the way in which some of the men “stick it.” And that will always be a romance in my mind. I’ve a little corporal I’m thinking of at the moment. He’s a wisp of a man with a groggy knee which sent him home after Ypres last year & has never really got well, & a faint treble voice…

I’d willingly have given him a V.C. if it had been mine to give it, just for “carrying on” & helping & encouraging men to do likewise when he himself was dead-beat. It was a wonderful show. Unfortunately he’ll get nothing beyond an extra stripe just because our regiment’s not in good odour… But I never shall forget fellows like him & if I ever get the chance I’d sooner write about them than any other side of the war…[1]

“Romance?” There’s a hardy word, a concept that carries on doing what good it can do despite the obviously adverse circumstances. Well, reader, Plowman followed through:

Corporal Jackson… Odd the way that man always seems to be the first in the trenches and the last out. I noticed, too, that directly we get into the trenches his nonchalant air disappears and he becomes keen on whatever job falls to him. When I went to see him just now, he told me in his piping, far-away voice exactly how he was holding the post and what he should do if there was any trouble, showing clearly that he had worked the whole situation out for himself. He is my best N.C.O.

And his value only increases as Plowman’s men become more exhausted and demoralized.

It is early morning before we find the camp on the hill. As we enter wearily, ominous shoutings and groanings come from all directions. These sounds tell the tale. The men are crying out with the pain in their feet. But there is nothing to be done now and, dog-tired, I am on the point of dropping into a tarpaulin-covered hole, when I remember my platoon. What can I do for them? Well, at least I ought to see how they are. Wandering round alone I come on a coke-fire burning at the end of one of the shelters. A dark figure stands by tending it. It is Jackson.

“Hullo! What are you doing?”

“Only looking to this fire, sir. I thought if I kept it going on this side, the wind ‘d blow the heat through.”

“Where are they?”

“They’re all in there. There’s only Collins and Roberts bad. The sergeant’s pretty fair. He’s inside. Shall I fetch him?”

“No. That’s all right. How about yourself? Where are you going to sleep? Is there any room there?”

“No, sir, but I shall be all right. There’s several of them want looking to. I’d as soon be here. I’m getting dry.”

I bid him good night, and go back to the officers’ shelter, thinking of heroism and wherein it consists. This is the unostentatious kind. Here’s a wisp of a man with a permanently troublesome knee. He has just come from trenches, said to be worse than Ypres in 1914, where he has done two men’s work, besides helping crocks out of the mud, supporting them and carrying their rifles. Under the foulest conditions his spirits have never November flagged. I have heard him whistling when no other bird on earth would sing; and now, when by all the laws of Nature he ought to have dropped half-dead, he has appointed himself to the role of Florence Nightingale, and has not even left himself room to lie down. I cannot sleep for thinking of him. The Lady of the Lamp. The Gentleman of the Brazier.

An unostentatious hero, a corporal beyond price, a man to compare with Sidney Rogerson’s similarly fire-starting Corporal Robinson. But this is a war story–a Great War story–and as such it must be ironic.

Later, Max Plowman, our conscientious, left-leaning friend-of-the-working-man saunters up to tell Jackson that he has done him a good deed. Or tried to. Will Jackson get a medal? No, because the battalion is out of favor, regardless of the merits of its men. But still, it’s a nice gesture, right?

When I told Jackson this morning I had put his name up, but no recommendations were to be forwarded, he looked bored and unconcerned; rather as if I had betrayed his confidence to fools. I had.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Bridge Into the Future, 58-9.
  2. Subaltern on the Somme, 88, 140, 170-3, 186.

The Everlasting Terror Revisited; Robert Graves Fails to Smell a Rat, David Jones Draws a Brace of Them

Today we have a few notes for November, a revisited poem-of-the-month (with almost-apt month-dated illustrations), and then an amusing incident placed by its memoir-writer/protagonist back in the spring, but plausibly relocated by his nephew/biographer to today, a century back. Right, then.

First, Henry Williamson, who has done little this year but be ill and attend various training courses, was promoted to full lieutenant today, a century back. This was presumably on the basis of accumulating seniority or to balance out the ratio of ranks in a unit–a common practice–as he as not spent enoughactive time with the Machine Gun Corps to win himself a promotion on merit.[1] Williamson missed the Somme–although he will write Phillip Maddison into the thick of it–but for many, July 1st continues to overshadow November 1st.

Noel Hodgson‘s posthumous book Verse and Prose in Peace and War will be published this month and sell out almost immediately. Before Action, with its quiet, pious tone and dramatic biographical note–the poet asks God for courage just before the attack in which he and nearly twenty thousand others will be killed–will become one of the best-known poems of the war.

Also in the press this month, appearing in the Hueffer-founded English Review (alongside new work by Ford’s friend Joseph Conrad) is the first major poem by J.A. Ackerley. “The Everlasting Terror” was written literally on the eve of the Somme battle (follow the link for my earlier commentary) but it was then dedicated to Ackerley’s friend Bobby Soames, who died during the first minutes of the attack. Ackerley’s dramatic, iambic half-satire is worth reading again, now, long months into the battle it anticipated–once for the writing and again for the reading, as it were. But skipping it to get to the amusing Graves anecdote below is certainly permissible…

 

The Everlasting Terror

To Bobby

By J. R. Ackerley

For fourteen years since I began
I learnt to be a gentleman,
I learnt that two and two made four
And all the other college lore,
That all that’s good and right and fit
Was copied in the Holy Writ,
That rape was wrong and murder worse
Than stealing money from a purse,
That if your neighbour caused you pain
You turned the other cheek again,
And vaguely did I learn the rhyme
“Oh give us peace, Lord, in our time,
And grant us Peace in Heaven as well.
And save our souls from fire in Hell”;
So since the day that I began
I learnt to be a gentleman.

jones-11-16c

One of several sketches by David Jones dated November, 1916

But when I’d turned nineteen and more
I took my righteousness to War.
The one thing that I can’t recall
Is why I went to war at all;
I wasn’t brave, nor coward quite,
But still I went, and I was right.

But now I’m nearly twenty-two
And hale as any one of you;
I’ve killed more men than I can tell
And been through many forms of Hell,
And now I come to think of it
They tell you in the Holy Writ
That Hell’s a place of misery
Where Laughter stands in pillory
And Vice and Hunger walk abroad
And breed contagion ‘gainst the Lord.
Well, p’r’aps it is, but all the same,
It heals the halt, the blind, the lame,
It takes and tramples down your pride
And sin and vainness fall beside,
It turns you out a better fool
Than you were taught to be at school,
And, what the Bible does not tell.
It gives you gentleness as well.

Oh, God! I’ve heard the screams of men
In suffering beyond our ken.
And shuddered at the thought that I
Might scream as well if I should die.
I’ve seen them crushed or torn to bits, —
Oh, iron tears you where it hits!
And when the flag of Dawn unfurls
They cry — not God’s name, but their girls’.
Whose shades, perhaps, like Night’s cool breath,
Are present on that field of death.
And sit and weep and tend them there,
God’s halo blazing round their hair.
“Thou shalt not kill.” But in the grime
Of smoke and blood and smell of lime
Which creeping men have scattered round
A blood-disfigured piece of ground.
When Time weighs on you like a ton,
And Terror makes your water run,
And earth and sky are red with flame,
And Death is standing there to claim
His toll among you, when the hour
Arrives when you must show your power
And take your little fighting chance.
Get up and out and so advance,
When crimson swims before your eyes
And in your mouth strange oaths arise,
Then something in you seems to break
And thoughts you never dreamt of wake
Upon your brain and drive you on.
So that you stab till life is gone,
So that you throttle, shoot or stick,
A shrinking man and don’t feel sick
Nor feel one little jot of shame;
My God, but it’s a bloody game!

jones-11-16Oh yes, I’ve seen it all and more.
And felt the knocker on Death’s door;
I’ve been wherever Satan takes you,
And Hell is good, because it makes you.
As long as you’re a man, I say,
The “gentle” part will find its way
And catch you up like all the rest —
For love I give the Tommy best!
No need to learn of Christ’s Temptation
There’s gentleness in all creation.
It’s born in you like seeds in pears.
It ups and takes you unawares.
It’s Christ again, the real Lover
And not the corpse we languish over.
It makes us see, our vision clearer;
When Christ is in us He is dearer,
We love Him when we understand
That each of us may hold His hand.
May walk with Him by day or night
In meditation towards the light;
It’s better far than paying shillings
For paper books with rusty fillings
Which say eternal punishment
Is due to those poor men who’ve spent
Their lives in gambling, drinking, whoring,
As though there were some angel scoring
Black marks against you for your sins
And he who gets the least marks wins.
This was a word Christ never sent,
This talk of awful punishment;
You’re born into a world of sin
Which Jesus’ touch will guide you in,
And when you die your soul returns
To Christ again, with all its burns,
In all its little nakedness,
In tears, in sorrow, to confess
That it has failed as those before
To walk quite straight from door to door:
And Christ will sigh instead of kiss,
And Hell and punishment are this.

And so through all my life and days,
In all my walks, through all my ways.
The lasting terror of the war
Will live with me for evermore.
Of all the pals whom I have missed
There’s one, I know, whom Christ has kissed,
And in his memory I’ll find
The sweetness of the bitter rind —
Of lonely life in front of me
And terror’s sleepless memory.

 

Sweetness, terror, death, rats… perhaps it’s fortunate that R.P. Graves argues that one of the funnier set pieces in Good-Bye to All That actually took place today, a century back, and not at Eastertide. It may never have happened, of course–it’s a Graves anecdote–and it is probably exaggerated for effect. But this does seem to be a mostly-true story, supported as it is by a reference in the diary of A.P. Graves (Robert’s father, the biographer’s great-uncle).[2]

The tale takes place on Good Friday, when Graves was home on leave and suffering severely from toothache. Or so he remembers, but that pain may be the factor that encouraged the relocation of the story, since Graves is even now, in November, weakened by the chest wound he sustained in July. It might seem unlikely to move a memory by half a year–and to the other side of a very great trauma–just because one remembers that it involved church and some sort of physical pain, but then again I can’t see why Graves would have done so deliberately.

In any event, here is some good comedy, c. 1916: the generational conflict, the experiential gulf, the classics, and the sweating misery of the hapless youth.

So, whether it was Good Friday or All-Saints Day (on which A.P. Graves confessed to his diary that he was worried about his son’s exertions and his chest wound), young Captain Graves fell victim to a proper ambush, resulting in his last visit to church.[3] He was asked to come to an early church service but begged off, unaware that his parents were luring him forward into an untenable position. They then opened up a flanking fire of guilt on the distracted subaltern:

I smelt no rat, beyond a slight suspicion that they were anxious to show me off in church wearing my battle-stained officer’s uniform. But my toothache got the better of me and arguments arose at the breakfast-table, during which I said things that angered my father and grieved my mother.

As it so often happens, it’s the apparently-more-secure flank that suddenly gives in:

At last, on her account alone–because she took no active part in the argument, just looking sad and only officially siding with my father–I consented to come with them…

Then a ring came at the door. The proprietor of a neighboring bath-chair business was waiting with a bath-chair. He explained that, as he had previously told my mother, they could not spare a man to take it to church, being seriously under-staffed because of the War… For the moment I thought that it had been a very generous thought on my mother’s on my behalf but, ill as I felt, I could surely manage to reach the church, about half a mile away, without such a parade of infirmity.[4] I forgot my father’s gout and also forgot that passage in Herodotus about the two dutiful sons who yoked themselves to an ox-cart, pulled their mother, the priestess, to the Temple and were oddly used by Solon, in a conversation with King Croesus, as a symbol of ultimate human happiness.[5]

When I realized what I was in for, I could only laugh. Then down came my mother with her prayer-book, veil and deep religious look, and I could not spoil the day for her. I took hold of the beastly vehicle without a word; my father appeared in a top-hat and his better carpet-slippers and hoisted himself in; we set off. The bath-chair needed oiling badly; also, one tyre kept coming unstuck and winding itself around the axle…

Reader, they made it. It turned out to be a three-hour service led by an obnoxiously proud (to Graves, at least) priest. The grumpy captain beside his proud parents whiled away the long hours composing Latin epigrams in mockery of the prelate…[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 80.
  2. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 163.
  3. Other than weddings and military "church parades" he adds, perhaps to emphasize his veracity.
  4. This detail supports the chest-wound-not-toothache hypothesis.
  5. Would that we could delve into this myth, which Graves raises but does not seem to wield--these are proud and strong young men who are spared, in the logic of the gods, the pain that awaits them in life...
  6. Good-Bye to All That, 199-200.

E.A. Mackintosh Keens for the Highland Division; C.E. Montague’s Standards of Horribleness; Max Plowman is a Subaltern on the Somme, Where It’s Just Ordinary & Sickening

The Somme has now been grinding on for a month, with no end in sight–indeed, with many of the first day’s objectives still in sight, and still in German hands. Much of August will find our attentions still fixed on these few shattered and bloodied miles of Picardy, and so it seems fitting that, as we resume the custom of the “month poem,” today’s bears a subtitle that spans two months. It was written–it will be shortly written, a century back, that is–by E.A. Mackintosh of the 5th Seaforths, who has just been wounded and is even now headed back to Blighty, bloodied and traumatized. The 51st Division is also know as the “Highland Division,” and although Mackintosh is out of the line, his Scottish countryman are very much in it, and facing the still-unconquered High Wood.

To The 51st Division

High Wood: July-August 1916

Oh gay were we in spirit
In the hours of the night
When we lay in rest by Albert
And waited for the fight
Gay and gallant were we
On the day that we set forth,
But broken, broken, broken
Is the valour of the North.

The wild warpipes were calling,
Our hearts were blithe and free
When we went up the valley
To the death we could not see.
Clear lay the wood before us
In the clear summer weather,
But broken, broken, broken
Are the sons of the heather.

In the cold of the morning,
In the burning of the day,
The thin lines stumbled forward,
The dead and dying lay.
By the unseen death that caught us
By the bullets’ raging hail
Broken, broken, broken
Is the pride of the Gael.

Such a poem more or less violates our rule against foreshadowing, but it is the collective breaking of the pride of the Gael that the poem anticipates–I have not peered into Mackintosh’s personal future any further than the consequences of his wound–and it reading it now enables a comparison of this unflinching poem of noble disaster with the stiff-upper-lip-pride-of-the-regiment tone of “Into the Wood.

I am not well-versed in Scottish martial poetry, but it seems impossible that this poem could not be an echo of Scott’s Coronach. Which is to say, then, that we shouldn’t classify this as a step on the road from dull-witted pro-war bombast toward the poetry of protest, disillusionment, and anti-military despair. (I am exaggerating this axis, anyway–there is no worthwhile poetry so pure in its politics.) This poem is very much in and of the tradition (at least the Scots tradition), but it is still significant that the poet chooses to write a dirge–indeed, a “coronach” of sorts–rather than the now-very-common poems that place losses in the context of “sacrifice.” And sacrifices are made to achieve things: a sacrifice must imply either victory, or divine neglect. Since the latter is publicly unthinkable, this poem acknowledges, in its attention to the “breaking” of the Highland Division, the strategic failure of the Somme.

August will see a different cast of characters come to the fore, here. Both Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves are headed home, now, having had a near-crossing of paths in Rouen: Sassoon spent the night in one base hospital, last night, but could not know that his “dead” comrade was recovering in another. Graves awaits an operation before he can be sent home, but today, a century back, Sassoon, although already “feeling better,” was placed on a hospital ship bound for Southampton. Not only has he missed the worst of the fighting due to his CO’s decision to place him with the reserves, but he will now surely miss the next phase while convalescing from a less-than-dire illness. He is aware of his good fortune:

Get to London this evening? Think I deserve a holiday, but feel rotten at forsaking the Battalion, when I could have been fit for work in three or four weeks. But fate is kind-to-me as usual.[1]

 

And as our two most famous poetic comrades prepare to exit stage right–for the time being–another writer ambles down from the deepest upstage reaches. If I can match enough of his fictionalized book to dated records, Max Plowman may soon take and hold center-stage for quite some time. Today, a century back, he wrote to his brother from “a hill-side at Dernancourt, near Albert.”

“C” Company, 10th West Yorkshire Regt., B.E.F., France.
4 P.M. Tuesday 1 Aug. 1916.

Dear J.,

…Yes, we came “up” a week ago yesterday morning, but not nearer than 8 or 10 miles from the Front & here we’ve stayed though we are due to move nearer almost immediately–in fact I think we are going to-night. They usually put you in “Reserve” first (where you pay for your comparative safety by getting everybody else’s dirty work) then push you up into “Support” & finally into the Firing Line…

Plowman’s first long letter will not fail to include a description of his first bombardment.

I wish you’d been here the night we arrived. I fancy the Germans were counter-attacking, & from the top of the hill we are bivouacing on you could see & hear what was going on. If you imagine continuous thunder & the final act at Brock’s Benefit going on for about 5 hours you have a bit of an idea what it was like–great mouth-like flashes lighting up the whole sky, green, red, & white Roman candles going up & seeming to stay up, every now & then the earth heaving & a sinister-looking ring of smoke following & gradually forming itself into a cloud which remained in the sky for 20 minutes, showing that somebody had exploded a mine. The long red glows in the sky showing where they used liquid fire. I’ve never looked on such a hell in my life… I was prepared for an inferno but it beat my expectations.

Plowman is a good writer, but he has not hit his stride yet. (I can’t really object, although it is a brand new hobby-horse, to the predictable deployment of “hell” as a metaphor for bombardment.) We were expecting a description of his first bombardment, surely, but what about his “approaching the line” narrative? What about some lavish praise of the beauties of the countryside?

Alas, there is no proper “approach.” Plowman merely mentions a few bits of it, notably the “slow filthy trains.” But he does come around to a nice bit of landscape description.

It’s rather pretty undulating chalk country. We’re on one side of a chalk down looking across a wide river bed with a road railway & small river hidden by poplars in it.

This must be the Ancre. Now for the very best part of this first letter:

To our left blue murder–to our right ripe corn fields & bright blue cornflowers & poppies & peace ineffable. You takes your money & you pays for your choice.

Plowman was a pacifist, once, but decided that to serve in the Ambulance Corps was too much of a half-measure, so he transferred to the infantry. Now he is a cog in the machine, and ready to pay for his choice. He is eager to demonstrate, that is, that he has chosen, but not blindly, and not from some state of foolish innocence. This next declaration would read as an excellent rebuke of the innocent subaltern of yesterday–if Plowman knew him, and if he were not dead.

…Lord the whole thing’s a bloody fool’s travesty of life & excitement. Mechanism has knocked all the spice out of it, even for the blood-thirstiest adventurer. There’s just the same feeling about it as there would be about walking through London during a violent earthquake–practically no more. An individual infantryman has pretty much the same control over his fate…  Nowadays there’s not enough adventure in it to redeem the overwhelming mass of bloodiness & sickness & disappointment & sheer idiot luck. There’s really no sport about getting buried alive or blown to nothing by machinery 5 miles away, or for that matter, as our fellows were, mown down in long lines by machine guns. It’s just ordinary & sickening. No doubt it’s an interesting game for opposing artillery & airmen but for the rest of course it’s simply enduring comparative degrees of hell. It’s too stupid to be engaging for a sound mind.[2]

This would be a fairly comprehensive and immediate refusal of the Public Schools/Sporting/Romantic/1914 spirit. Where, then, will he go from here?

 

Finally, today, C.E. Montague, erstwhile elderly sergeant of infantry, has settled into his new gig: writing propaganda and escorting the high and mighty. His time in the line was short and not especially traumatic, but his frank testimony about his reversion to a sort of middle-distance attitude about the war–the quick revision of his “standard of horribleness”–is very interesting.

Aug. 1 1916

It is an odd, varied life to be doing this [writing for print] one day and on another visiting, perhaps, a wood where the dead are littering all the ground under the trees, or where, a few days later, only a few heads and feet and odd disjecta membra, too incomplete to call for prompt burial, are going bad in the sun. It’s curious how one’s standard of horribleness changes with circumstances. I have never seen anything out here, either in the trenches or on the great battlefield, that has seemed to me so distressing as the civilian that I saw some months ago in Fallowfield who had been run over by a a motor car and had his skill fractured. It seemed such an outrage that he should be all messed with blood and mud, whereas dead and mangled soldiers seem to have a kind of naturalness, like people in a hospital.[3]

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 100.
  2. Bridge into the Future, 43-4.
  3. Elton, C.E. Montague, 142.