Edmund Blunden Cudgels His Brain; A Tart Thank You from Thomas Hardy; David Jones Under Fire; Edwin Vaughan in the Mire

And now for something completely different from Edmund Blunden:

Several poems of the usual quiet melancholy type have made their appearance, and two or three I have left broken off through lack of heart to go on. I had half a mind to turn Roman Catholic whilst walking round Omer Cathedral the other day, but I can’t convince myself. I don’t know what to do. Aunt Maude writes saying that I haven’t written lately–but I have. Still, tomorrow evening I will cudgel my brains for flippancies about this most damnable war ‘such as her soul loveth.’ For she seems to think that the war is merely an opportunity for us poor devils to show our courage and cheerfulness: I see in it an opportunity for battle-murder and sudden death, and ‘Good Lord, deliver us!’ But I think things have got beyond him

As with nearly all letters complaining about aunts, this one is to his mother, and even the whimsy seems a bit more wearisome–nice Anglican boys do not drop offhand hints about conversion…  but he shrugs it off, in the end:

Forgive this writing which is obviously that of a pale wretch gibbering through the iron bars of his cage at the bright unthinking people passing by…[1]

 

Thomas Hardy has a bit of a bone to pick with his old friend J.M. Barrie–but he does so delicately, once more cloaking his preferences and disinclinations with the fusty, fussy mantle of age. Although, to be fair, it is true that he is not young…

Max Gate, Dorchester
23 June 1917

My dear Barrie:

It was so kind of you to concoct the scheme for my accompanying you to the Front-or Back-in France. I thought it over carefully, as it was an attractive idea. But I have had to come to the conclusion that old men cannot be young men, & that I must content myself with the past battles of our country if I want to feel military. If I had been ten years younger I would have gone. . . .

I hope you will have a pleasant, or rather impressive, time, & the good company you will be in will be helpful all round…

Always sincerely yrs
Thomas Hardy.[2]

 

No–“pleasant” would not be the word, and the slight dig of changing “front” to “back” is a point well taken. David Jones, for instance, spent today, a century back “huddled in a dugout” throughout seven hours and fifteen minutes of continuous shelling.[3] Not pleasant at all.

 

As for Edwin Vaughan, his day was far less terrifying, beginning as it did with relief and a march to the rear. And yet it was notably unpleasant…

After a few hundred yards we turned off on to a slippery path through thick trees and after sliding and crashing down with clatter of rifles and tin hats and loud cursing, we at last spied the glow of cookers above us among the trees, and were met by Braham who was waiting to guide the troops to their bivvies. Thankfully we followed him inch by inch up a slippery bank to where the cookers stood promising hot pontoon.

I was the last to climb the greasy bank and had just reached the top when my feet slipped and down I went, rolling over and over until I was messed with sticky mud from head to foot. I cursed loudly and foully as I recovered my tin hat from a pool, and had another shot at the bank. I finished the last part on my knees, and by the time the cooks had directed me to the troops’ bivvies, they were already installed and the other officers had gone on with Braham to their quarters.

So savagely I decided to be a martyr, and I stopped to see the troops draw their pontoon. Standing by the cookers like a brown ghoul I watched the troops one after another file into the flickering light of the fire which played on their muddy clothes, the black faces and dirty ducks of the cooks and on the dripping tree trunks. Over all the rain fell with a steady swishing through the leaves.

I waited until all the Company were served, then had a mug of stew, after which I set off through the trees in the direction indicated by the cooks as the officers’ lines…

They started to jeer at me for my muddied appearance but I assumed a superior attitude as I told them that I was the only one who had remained to see the troops comfortable. Then I howled ‘Mess!’ and Martin appeared with a huge plate of stew. As I ate, Martin stood watching me and chaffing me about my ‘muddy look’. Being Martin he was allowed to do so, but when he commenced to pick bits of mud out of my hair I had to get cross and send him away…[4]

Muddy, but relieved–in both senses–Vaughan fell asleep as dawn broke.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Webb, Edmund Blunden, 74-5.
  2. The Letters of Thomas Hardy, V, 220-1.
  3. Dilworth, David Jones and the Great War, 157.
  4. Some Desperate Glory, 167-9.

Siegfried Sassoon’s Statement, “To Any Dead Officer;” Henry Williamson is Blighty Bound; Herbert Read’s Theories of Courage

Before we get to a statement–and a poem, and a memoir’s context for the two–we have two brief updates.

 

For the past week Henry Williamson has bounced about the hospitals of northern France. He believes that he has gotten a “whiff” of phosgene gas from German gas shells–but he may also just be sick, or run down. In any event, he finds it pleasant to be out of the line and hopes to be able to parlay the sick time into reassignment. In this he may well be lucky, as in the name of efficiency sick and wounded officers can no longer count on returning to their unit. Most fear and deplore this change, but Williamson (and probably his C.O. as well) would welcome it.

Dear Mother,

Please get those protectors for armpits in my new tunic at once–big ones under the lining–you probably know by this time that I am for England on the first boat which leaves any time… Mother, I thank God I am out of that inferno…

This hospital is a bon place–I live on champagne and fried plaice & chicken now!!

Love Willie.[1]

Williamson, whose intestinal health has long been an issue, can look forward to a lengthy recovery in Blighty…

 

Herbert Read is in rather a more bloody-minded state, and with sharper tales to tell. Or not: restraint in what he writes to Evelyn Roff is a point of pride–Read is a very purposeful sort, and he thinks twice about describing the war without a theoretical grasp of how such war tales might fit in with his theories of Modern literature. (He seems less concerned that a policy of mentioning, but not describing, certain experiences might not help their budding relationship flourish.)

Nevertheless, he has something to say, and it is the confirming converse of Williamson’s lonely experience: what makes it all worthwhile are the men. And what defines a man’s worth is the way in which he carries himself through danger.

15.vi.17

My present location is not too bad. We are now in the third week of our period in the line… and rather terrible days they were. But you can have no desire for me to ‘paint the horrors.’ I could do so but let the one word ‘fetid’ express the very essence of our experiences. It would be a nightmare to any individual, but we create among ourselves a wonderful comradeship which I think would overcome any horror or hardship. It is this comradeship which alone makes the Army tolerable to me. To create a bond between yourself and a body of men and a bond that will hold at the critical moment, that is work worthy of any man and when done an achievement to be proud of.

Incidentally my ‘world-view’ changes some of its horizons. I begin to appreciate, to an undreamt of extent, the ‘simple soul’. He is the only man you can put your money on in a tight corner. Bombast and swank carry a man nowhere our here. In England they are everything. Nor is the intellect not a few of us used to be so proud of of much avail. It’s a pallid thing in the presence of a stout heart. Which reminds me of one psychological ‘case’ which interests me out here: to what extent does a decent philosophy of life help you in facing death? In other words: Is fear a mental or a physical phenomenon? There are cases of physical fear–‘nerves,’ ‘shell-shock,’ etc. There are also certainly cases of physical courage… and there are, I think, men who funk because they haven’t the strength of will or decency of thought to do otherwise.

But I would like to think there was still another class (and I one of them) whose capacity for not caring a damn arose not merely from a physical incapacity for feeling fear, but rather from a mental outlook on life and death sanely balanced and fearlessly followed. But perhaps I idealize…[2]

Perhaps he does. Read has a good deal of trench experience by now, but he has not suffered the same sort of trench trauma–or string of losses of friends both fond and beloved–that has overburdened “Mad Jack” Sassoon. But it is an interesting break down of different types of courage–and an intelligent one. Cursed are dullards, blessed are the philosophers, strong of will–so it’s also a flattering one. But it asks no larger questions…

 

Today’s main event is Siegfried Sassoon‘s completion of a draft of his statement against the war.

It thus happened that, about midnight on the day my portrait was finished, I sat alone in the club library with a fair copy of the ‘statement’ before me on the writing-table. The words were now solidified and unalterable. My brain was unable to scrutinize their meaning any more. They had become merely a sequence of declamatory sentences designed to let me in for what appeared to be a moral equivalent of ‘going over the top’; and, at the moment, the Hindenburg Line seemed preferable in retrospect. For the first time, I allowed myself to reflect upon the consequences of my action and to question my strength to endure them. Possibly what I disliked most was the prospect of being misunderstood and disapproved of by my fellow officers. Some of them would regard my behaviour as a disgrace to the Regiment. Others would assume that I had gone a bit crazy. How many of them, I wondered, would give me credit for having done it for the sake of the troops who were at the Front? I had never heard any of them use the word pacifist except in a contemptuous and intolerant way, and in my dispirited mood I felt that my protest would have a pretty poor reception among them. Going to a window, I looked out at the searchlights probing the dark sky. Down below, the drone of London rumbled on. The streets were full of soldiers getting what enjoyment they could out of their leave. And there, on that sheet of paper under the green-shaded lamp, were the words I had just transcribed.

‘I believe that this war, upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest.’

This is the soon-to-be-famous opening of the published statement–I’ll include the rest when the newspapers get it. But Sassoon, using the privileges of the memoir writer, embeds the public breakthrough in a web of private doubt. Clean breaks and simple strong feelings are never to be his way…  Who is he doing this for, again?

To the soldiers it didn’t matter, one way or the other. They all wanted it to stop, but most of them would say that the Boches had got to be beaten somehow, and the best thing to hope for was ‘getting back to Blighty with a cushy wound’. Then I remembered that night, early in 1914, when I had been up in this room experiencing an emotional crisis in which I had felt that my life was being wasted on sport and minor poetry, and had imagined myself devoting my future to humanitarian services and nobly prophetic writings. On that occasion I had written some well-intentioned but too didactic lines, of which a fragment now recurred to me.

Destiny calls me home at last
To strive for pity’s sake;
To watch with the lonely and outcast,
And to endure their ache . . . .

Much had happened since then. Realities beyond my radius had been brought under my observation by a European War, which had led me to this point of time and that sheet of paper on the table. Was this the fulfilment of that feeble and unforeseeing stanza? . . . And somehow the workings of my mind brought me a comprehensive memory of war experience in its intense and essential humanity. It seemed that my companions of the Somme and Arras battles were around me; helmeted faces returned and receded in vision; joking voices were overheard in fragments of dug-out and billet talk. These were the dead, to whom life had been desirable, and whose sacrifice must be justified, unless the War were to go down in history as yet another Moloch of murdered youth…

I went back to the statement on the table with fortified conviction that I was doing right. Perhaps the dead were backing me up, I thought; for I was a believer in the power of spiritual presences. . . .

Well, how are things in Heaven? I wish you’d say,
Because I’d like to know that you’re all right.
Tell me, have you found everlasting day
Or been sucked in by everlasting night?

The words came into my head quite naturally. And by the time I went to bed I had written a slangy, telephonic poem of forty lines. I called it To Any Dead Officer, but it was addressed to one whom I had known during both my periods of service in France. Poignant though the subject was, I wrote it with a sense of mastery and detachment, and when it was finished I felt that it anyhow testified to the sincerity of my protest.

The dead officer is Orme/”Ormand” killed so recently in a pointless attack on the Hindenburg Line, his death described to Sassoon by Joe Cottrell. The poem, which Sassoon of the memoir would clearly prefer that we use to mark this day’s work, a century back, rather than the didactic “statement,” continues as follows:

For when I shut my eyes your face shows plain;
  I hear you make some cheery old remark—
I can rebuild you in my brain,
  Though you’ve gone out patrolling in the dark.
You hated tours of trenches; you were proud
  Of nothing more than having good years to spend;
Longed to get home and join the careless crowd
  Of chaps who work in peace with Time for friend.
That’s all washed out now. You’re beyond the wire:
  No earthly chance can send you crawling back;
You’ve finished with machine-gun fire—
  Knocked over in a hopeless dud-attack.
Somehow I always thought you’d get done in,
  Because you were so desperate keen to live:
You were all out to try and save your skin,
  Well knowing how much the world had got to give.
You joked at shells and talked the usual “shop,”
  Stuck to your dirty job and did it fine:
With “Jesus Christ! when will it stop?
  Three years … It’s hell unless we break their line.”
So when they told me you’d been left for dead
  I wouldn’t believe them, feeling it must be true.
Next week the bloody Roll of Honour said
   “Wounded and missing”—(That’s the thing to do
When lads are left in shell-holes dying slow,
  With nothing but blank sky and wounds that ache,
Moaning for water till they know
  It’s night, and then it’s not worth while to wake!)
Good-bye, old lad! Remember me to God,
  And tell Him that our politicians swear
They won’t give in till Prussian Rule’s been trod
  Under the Heel of England … Are you there? …
Yes … and the war won’t end for at least two years;
But we’ve got stacks of men … I’m blind with tears,
  Staring into the dark. Cheero!
I wish they’d killed you in a decent show.[3]

References and Footnotes

  1. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 163.
  2. The Contrary Experience, 97-8.
  3. Siegfried's Journey, 52-4; see also Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 373.

Edwin Vaughan Volunteers for Patrol; A Near-Run Thing for the Master of Belhaven; Kate Luard is Ypres-Bound; Henry Williamson is “No Bon”

Edwin Vaughan has lately been in reserve, serving as “escort” to an Australian artillery unit. In contrast to the usual stereotypes–and to the frequent British opinion that the Australians, while valuable soldiers, are too rough around the edges–he has found them to be well-mannered and considerate. This friendliness was thrown into relief when his own adjutant, a man with less front line experience than Vaughan, chewed him out for the minor (and probably common) lapse of asking for supplies over a telephone line without resorting to code. Vaughan, newly confident in his veteran-of-a-few-months status, gave the adjutant a piece of his mind–his trench experience meant more than the adjutant’s higher rank.

But in any event, as we learned yesterday, Vaughan’s battalion is returning to the front lines–and he is raring to go.

Everything was cleared up and I said goodbye to the Australians with real regret, thanking them from the bottom of my heart for their hospitality to me when I came, a stranger, amongst them. One of the most pathetic features of the war is this continual forming of real friendships which last a week or two, or even months, and are suddenly shattered for ever by death or division.

The remainder of the Company came up to us an hour before dusk, and we led them on, Ewing walking with me in front. He was in high humour and consequently quite communicative… As we marched Ewing told me that an order had been circulated emphasizing the need for offensive patrols, in accordance with which each of our platoons was to carry out an all-night patrol in turn. I had a sudden inspiration and asked if I and my platoon might monopolize the honour and do them all. He jumped at the idea…[1]

This sounds unhinged, but Vaughan’s men have enjoyed recent patrols–they would rather be out doing, apparently, than sitting tight–and a big part of the appeal is that men who are out at night are allowed to rest from fatigues during the day. But the last tour had little in the way of bombardment, and the German infantry opposite disinterested in midnight skirmishes–will this remain the case?

 

And well might the artillery might spare the poor infantryman, if it is too intent in its search for the British artillery. Up near Ypres, the Master of Belhaven, new battery firmly in hand, is facing more than his share.

We had a dreadful night, as we were heavily shelled, and we have no head cover beyond a tarpaulin. I got no sleep till dawn, and then only an hour…

All the afternoon they had been registering on Bedford House, a ruined château not far from me. I noticed that they were firing guns of all calibres, first one and then another. This made me suspicious, and I was not surprised when, at 9 o’clock, a perfect hurricane of shells arrived, large and small mixed. They kept it up for half an hour or more, but they were nearly all two or three hundred yards over me. Suddenly they stopped and began a creeping barrage right across the flank of my battery and on my mess. Franklyn, the doctor, Bath, and I rushed out and threw ourselves down flat in a little trench outside. It was only 18 in. deep and the same width.The hurricane of shells lasted about five minutes, mostly shrapnel bursting in air and 4.2’s bursting on impact. There must have been dozens bursting at the same moment, all round and over us. I have never seen anything like it before, except our own barrages on the Somme. We were covered with earth and sods that were being flung up, and the shrapnel bullets fell on the ground all round just like a hailstorm. Suddenly there was a tremendous roar and the whole country was lit up like day… one of my ammunition dumps had blown up. The concussion set off another dump near it, but, instead of blowing up, it started burning, the H.E. shells going over in dozens just like a Chinese cracker, only each crack was an 18 lb. shell…

We were 200 yards from the battery and it was absolutely necessary to get back to the men. Franlkyn and I agreed to risk it and ran as hard as we could past the burning ammunition to the battery. How we got across alive I don’t know; neither of us had the smallest hope of surviving…[2]

 

Kate Luard has always been eager to get as close as possible to the shells that keep her hospitals in business. Soon she will be stationed closer still.

Tuesday, May 29th

…The C.O. had another message to-day to ‘prepare to move to another Area…’ He has told me in a whisper where it probably is; of course it is just the exact part I’ve always longed (and intended!) to go to if anything was doing there…[3]

She is not a woman for quiet sectors, evidently. Ypres it will be, and soon…

 

Lastly, today, we have Henry Williamson. After telling a strange tall tale about his assignment to a signalling course, he now must tell his mother that he has been sent back. He seems to see, if he hadn’t before, that the writing is on the wall for him with the 208th Machine Gun Company. But his failure on the signalling course he will insist on viewing as a minor setback, and bluster off on another tack:

Dear mother,

Am quite well. I was sent back from the Signal School as no bon… I am transferring by the way, to another Coy–at least I have applied for it–I could never agree with my C.O. and now he’s back again…

But he knows he doesn’t have the power to transfer himself, bon or no bon. And, breezy though he may be, his thoughts alight on what he likely fears most: a return to the infantry.

…Occasionally one gets fed up–but on transport there is just enough danger (e.g. tonight–a few crumps over, & gas shells, & an unlucky hit will finish us, mules & all, but really the risk is not one millionth what the infantry, poor devils, run!) Well give my love to everyone…[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Some Desperate Glory, 136-7.
  2. War Diary, 293-4.
  3. Unknown Warriors, 127.
  4. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 156-7.

Siegfried Sassoon Decries Religion–and a Safe Job; The Master of Belhaven Digs In

Siegfried Sassoon is ill at ease in Sussex, despite the beautiful weather and the kind attentions of his hosts. Actually, those hosts have something to do with it. He had only pity for the age-wracked statesman Lord Brassey, but Lady Brassey has been more of a challenge. To her unquestioning acceptance of patriotism, piety, and propriety she has added an ignorance of Thomas Hardy, that surest guide to the heath-wandering God-accuser. Lady Brassey’s efforts to shape this young officer’s future course may, then, go somewhat off course.

May 21

Lady Brassey and I discuss religion. Agree that C. of E. ‘is a bit passé’. But some formula is necessary until ‘people have learned to do without a Church’. ‘Our Lord never told us to go to church.’

But I cannot believe that such faith is beyond question if it cannot join issue with wholesome disbelief. Grim, wise fatalism like Hardy’s has never touched her; she would not allow it to disturb her serene optimism. Hardy is merely ‘an unpleasant writer’, as my own mother would say. Lady B. dabbles in Christian Science. She is fond of the word mystical (so meaningless). ‘Mock-turtle Religions.’

She is very kind; and judicial about things. Apropos of the idea of my taking a job in England till ‘my nerves’ are all right, she doesn’t want me ‘dangling about and writing poetry’. She is undoubtedly right, but I still think I’d better go back to the First Battalion as soon as possible, unless I can make some protest against the War.[1]

So three very different course of action present themselves in no more than two sentences. Sassoon is temperamentally opposed to the idea of taking a “safe job–” and he might still be even if he were not both traumatized by his trench experiences and galled by the conflict between his military loyalties and his increasingly radical political views of the war.  But “Mad Jack,” our quondam “Happy Warrior,” does not seem to imagine any sort of satisfaction in any job that keeps him from what he sees as the one purely positive aspect of the war: the bond between fighting men.

So half-measures are to be scorned. It is back to the fray, or a public protest.

 

And Ralph Hamilton, the Master of Belhaven, reminds us today of some of the more prosaic aspects of discipline, leadership, and military morale. He had been assigned to a new battery, and now he needs to make it run to his own specifications. On the 17th, he wrote that

They all seem to be pretty good, but naturally there are many small things that I shall want to alter. Every battery commander has his own methods, and I shall have everything done precisely as in my old battery. The mess is quite bad… the cooking vile…

On the 19th, things seemed to be developing much as he had expected:

They are not bad at all, but nothing to boast about.. I had no idea the weather could be so nice in this beastly Flanders…

And then we must assume, really, that the men are alright, and not kicking against the newly-tightened traces. For, by today, a century back, other troubles (reminiscent of The Spanish Farm Trilogy) rear their intractable heads:

I am having great trouble with the farmer’s wife; she has put in a claim for fr. 3,000 damages to the grass of one field… These Flemish peasants are all the same…[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 171.
  2. War Diary, 286-9.

Siegfried Sassoon Converses on England, and Sacrifice, with a Proper English Lady; Edwin Vaughan’s Patrol; Henry Williamson on Magazines and Mule Races; Rowland Feilding’s Scruples

Edwin Vaughan and his company commander had a minor adventure in No Man’s Land in the wee hours of last night, a century back. It left him feeling confident and accomplished… and eager to contest the ground with the Germans opposite.

At about 12 noon I woke and, while Dunham still slept, I wormed my out under the oilsheet which screened the front of our hole, and standing erect in the trench I met a fresh sweet breeze and clear, warm sunlight that made me glowing and alert in a moment.  Raising my arms in a luxurious stretch I rose on tiptoe and looked round the stretch of ground behind me–a slight valley of long coarse grass thickly strewn with poppies and dog daisies…

The calm and silence seemed as fragile, and the sky as dainty, as the picture on a Dresden plate…

What could go wrong? Vaughan visits his men in their posts as they while away the day reading, day-dreaming, or cleaning their rifles…

Not a sound could be heard but the tinkle of a button stick in the next recess, until without warning there was a mighty crash and a spray of earth and stones fell over us as we flung ourselves against the trench side.

A high-velocity shell bursting 30 yards in front had effectively broken the spell and as Wood climbed back into his recess, I hurried back to mine–not that these holes afford the slightest protection, except against small splinters, but as a rabbit seeks its burrow, so we each dash to our own hole for safety. Dunham was standing in the trench with a tin of pork and beans in his hand and a look of mingled surprise and indignation on his face.

In January this would have occasioned a day of cowering terror–but Vaughan is a tyro no longer. Mere whizz-bangs! This threat they laugh off, or wish away… and the day passes. Later, Vaughan goes out to meet Radcliffe, the company commander. They are out in the open, along a segment of the line where a rise in the ground screens them from German observation.

We were still in the open near the right post when I grabbed his arm and we stood motionless. I had heard the faint crack of a ‘grenatenwerfer’–forgotten since Biaches–and after a faint short swish the bomb burst with a sharp shattering crash and a spurt of yellow sparks–overhead!

Immediately a cold fear gripped me, for I realized instantly that there was no cover from these. It was no use lying down, for their burst was downward and they were immediately overhead. We waited for several minutes, and as the fire was not repeated I cheered myself by saying that this was only an accidental premature, and that the ground busters were quite harmless.

But this hope was soon shattered, for suddenly there came a persistent stream of them all bursting at the same height over our lines. The fragments whizzed past us and struck the ground with horrid thuds, and our nerves were terribly racked. But reaching my post we found the troops taking not the slightest notice of them, so in feigned nonchalance we strolled along, chaffing the NCOs and questioning the sentries until the ‘pineapples’ ceased–15 minutes later.

Another false alarm. Or, not so much false as… merely alarming. But the night’s business is still ahead: will they be able to assert their dominance of the wide swath of No Man’s Land, or cede it to German patrols and working parties?

Radcliffe was taking his patrol out from my right post, so I waited there while he went back to fetch them, then one by one we passed through the gap in the wire and crouched in the wet grass until the formation was complete. We advanced in jumps, Raddy and I creeping forward with a runner, scenting the ground for 50 yards at a time, and then sending the runner back for the patrol. After a while we got tired of this, so we left the patrol where it was and we two crept on alone until we reached a junction of two roads that ran across No Man’s Land. The road was sunken and as we approached we heard faint voices and, looking over the bank, there, hard at work digging a hole, were eight or ten large Boche.

This odd locution–are these singular-plural Boche beasts to be hunted?–is yet another sign of Vaughan’s new veteran’s posture.

We were neither surprised nor alarmed. We just lay watching them amusedly for a couple of minutes, then crawled off back to the patrol. I was wondering what on earth induced them to dig holes in No Man’s Land, when a figure almost upright hurried past us and was lost in the darkness behind. So we stood up then and ran back to where our lads were lying chilled, wet and fed up. Quickly we told them what we had seen, and in a moment they were alert and we set off together–out for blood.

Alas! When we reached the crossroads nothing remained of the working party but a few chalky shovels. Se we had to be content with firing a few rounds down the road after them, and then we walked back, laughing and talking, whilst four of the silly asses marched the shovels between them with great ceremony and exaggerated caution as though they were enemy prisoners

This little jaunt has left us with our tails well up, and I, for one, am very keen on No Man’s Land. I fully appreciate the truth of the maxim that was dinned into us during training–‘Fighting patrols are the finest stiffeners of morale’..[1]

Vaughan, who has been so honest about his fears and insecurities, can thus perhaps be trusted on this matter a bit farther than we might ordinarily credit a diary drafted in post-patrol exhilaration. And–while not hoping (if that makes any sense, here, a century on) for more violence–it is interesting to note that this confidence-building patrol produces neither useful intelligence nor some “positive” attritional score. It’s a riskier version of “live and let live,” and it is certainly good for morale, and/but no harm was done. So–good!

But other units would have counted the escape of these Germans on consecutive nights as a failure to be sufficiently effectively bloodthirsty.

 

We have several more writers to get to, and today’s letter from Rowland Feilding contains no similarly dramatic descriptions of military escapades. But it’s worth our time as an excellent example of what makes his letters to his wife so valuable. Their promised commitment to honesty is neither fudged for the sake of their worries nor elided for matters of convenience. This couple monitors the gulf between them with the scrupulous intensity of responsible inspectors of public works, and so keep their connection as strong as possible and maintain the future historical value of their correspondence.

May 15, 1917 – Kemmel Shelters.

I feel disappointed when I get a letter from you telling me of troubles with servants, whom war and the high wages of the munition works seem to have so thoroughly unsettled. I hate picturing you in the midst of such annoyances, especially as there is nothing I can say or do can help you. Contrariwise, this remark no doubt applies equally to my stories to you of the goings on here, and I often wonder if I am right in keeping the promise I made you when I first came out to hide nothing from you.

The very fact of my being here must cause you intense anxiety, and, as I am helpless in the case of the servant problem, so it is equally true that there is nothing you can do to deter the enemy from any villainy he may contemplate.

And I continue writing to you of all the dangers of the war, remembering that you once said that if I hid anything you
would know it, and only imagine worse things than were really happening.[2]

 

Other correspondents are less reliable, not to mention less considerate about their addressee’s feelings. Henry Williamson is in rare form once again. Yesterday, he wrote to his mother a letter that–for all that I skip the most repetitive ones–you may feel as if you had read before:

Dear Mother,

Thank you for the little letter. Of course you always pile the agony on, dont you. Why am I a hero? I tell you frankly I would rather be here than at home–because out here I cant spend money, and also I have quite as good a time. I shant be going in any more attacks–as it is proved, thank God, that a T.O. is essential to send up supplies, etc during one… Of course one may die any second by hostile shelling, but even then, one has a sporting chance of seeing the war through…

Well mother, will you please give an order to a newsagent…

Now please dont forget… For heavens sake let this be the last request for these papers. Well I cant write any more now. Love to all. Harry.

His timing is as impeccable as his deportment. Today, a century back:

My dear Mother,

Thanks for the two bundles of papers etc arrived today. By the way, you never answered my query about how many boxes of souvenirs you got–I sent two tin boxes off, then a box of helmets, then a sandbag…  what about the first box?

We are having tomorrow some sports in the Transport Section…

I am willing to wager a good deal that–provided the box of almost definitely not live souvenir grenades made it past the censors and through the post–Mrs. Williamson did away with them rather swiftly.

In any case, there’s no sign that the grenades made it into Williamson’s archive… although a program for this Transport Section sport competition did. There are twelve events listed, most of them some variation on a mule race…

Did Henry participate? Perhaps not. But in the novel Philip Maddison got second place, riding a mule named Jimmy…[3]

 

Two days ago I posed the question of whether Siegfried Sassoon, recuperating in what sounds like an impossibly pleasant environment, redolent of his prewar country idylls, can possibly progress in his writing–the writing that was increasingly focused on protesting the horrors of war.

Well, yes and no…

May 15

Marvell’s poems are the best vintage for these days of tranquillity. In the morning I wake to hear a gardener whetting his scythe beyond the yew-hedges. And I know that a tree of silver blossom shakes in the morning sunshine above his head, and a blackbird sings to all the world, crying that, life is fresh and sweet and jolly.

Ye glow–worms, whose officious flame
To wandering mowers shows the way.
That in the night have lost their aim.
And after foolish fires do stray.[4]

And in the afternoon I breathe the country air blown up from weald and wood—the smell of earth after rain, the kindest smell that ever came to make me glad.

All the morning I sit under oaks and beeches in the glory of young leaves, a book on my knee—John Morley on some eighteenth-century Frenchman, the kind of book where one can read a page or two and then turn to the morning sky and the garden and the distant line of downs as infinitely preferable, like listening to a bird singing, outside the church during a dry sermon) as one watches, the shadows of leaves and wings against the coloured windows…

It would seem, then, that the only things Sassoon might be inclined to write are backsliding pastoral poems or, perhaps, a time-travel jeu d’esprit in which he falls into a fountain and emerges dripping to hold a conversation with a young Marie Antoinette.

Well, yes and no. Here’s what comes next in the notebook:

 

A Conversation

He told her how he’d been trying to make up his mind. It was all quite simple; a tale re-told in many hearts. Twice he had been to the war, and twice had come home wounded; and now his friends had half-persuaded him to take a ‘safe job’.

She listened to him, with her grey hair and tired white face, kind, aristocratic and emotionless, leaning a little forward over a piece of embroidery. She represented the patrician distinctions that he had fought for—the climbing woods and green fields that soldiers learn to love when death is over them. She was a Great Lady. And he was only a poet; but he knew that life was taking shape in his heart, and reputation a thing of small value compared with his hidden passion, for utterance and truth and beauty. For a while he thought that she understood.

He spoke without reserve of his longing for life and the task that lay before him, setting against it his mystical joy in the idea of sacrifice and the disregard of death. ‘But death is nothing’, she said, putting away her high-bred reserve like a rich cloak; ‘Life, after all, is only the beginning. And those who are killed in the war—they help us from “up there”, they are all helping us to win.’

For a moment he was struck dumb: he had forgotten that he spoke to an alien intelligence, that would not suffer the rebellious creed that was his. She was a good woman as well as a Great Lady. But her mind dwelt in another kingdom from his. He was the starry wind on the hills, arid the beast writhing in the mire, the strange traveller who had come to her gates and had been suffered to sit by the fire and rest his tired limbs. What was this ‘other world’ that she spoke of? It was a dream he had forgotten years ago–the simplicity of his childish prayers, the torment of his mocking youth that denied the God of priests, and triumphed in the God of skies and waters.

She spoke again, kind yet unrelenting, from the dais of her noble rank. ‘It isn’t as if you were an only child, with a big place to inherit. No; I can’t see any excuse for your keeping out of danger.’ And again, half-compassionate yet still tinged with the prejudice of caste, ‘But of course you can only decide a thing like that for yourself.’ And he knew she was right. He was heir to a dukedom that would never exist in the Peerage that moulded her judgements. Had he been the only son of an accredited Lord Parnassus, she would have said, in her clear firm voice: ‘The name must be preserved; it would never do for the place to go to that impossible creature in Canada.’

I suppose it would do, here, to break in and remark that, while Sassoon is no duke–and while his first actual trade publication (not that should measure Parnassian accomplishment, but still) is only days old–it is still the case that his mother owns a considerable property in Kent, that he has always been rich enough to keep horses and hunt (and never work a regular job) and that his only surviving brother is currently in Canada… A century on, with the Lords and Ladies very much faded and their estates eaten up, donated to the National Trust, or, if preserved, likely to be dwelt in by aging rock stars or financial necromancers, it’s hard to comprehend that Sassoon could have so easily assumed that the fundamental class divide is on the far side of his own status…

In any case, here in the century-back, Siegfried Sassoon, recuperating in a Stately Home in Sussex, is gently, ruminatively nibbling on the hand that has been feeding him. And nibbles have been known to turn to worries… So where are we, the readers, in the satirical reception of this piece?

But she would pray for him with all the strength of her generous perfect-mannered soul. And when he had died of his wounds she would say: ‘He was such a good boy, I am sure he is happier ‘‘up there’’. And he did so splendidly.’

And he would rot in his shallow grave, with all his plays and poems blown away on the smoke of some senseless battle—because his name was not worth preserving, and his ‘place’ was only a little book of the songs he had made, bidding farewell to earth as he stood on the verge of his promised kingdom. For he was not even the younger son of an obscure barony; he was only a poet who used to read the Bible for the glory of the language.
But death forgives many things; and he had died for England, after all.[5]

There’s the satiric manner that all of London’s reviewers are now grappling with, anyway.

It would seem that the Great Lady of this sketch is very closely based on his hostess, Lady Brassey, who was a baroness, the sister of an earl, and the daughter of a viscount. Her serene spiritual confidence in the propriety of his getting killed seems to have rubbed Sassoon the wrong way, for some reason…  let us hope that there is less journal-thievery here than in other great houses…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Some Desperate Glory, 117-21.
  2. War Letters to a Wife, 174-5.
  3. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 150-1; Love and the Loveless, 
  4. Andrew Marvell. ‘The Mower to the Glow-worms’, according to Sassoon's note--or not; Jean Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 567, notes that the reference is "almost certainly" to "Damon the Mower."
  5. Diaries, 164-7.

David Jones: The Fusilier Sentry and the Charming Prince; Edwin Vaughan in No Man’s Land; Kate Luard Among the Ruins; Charles Moncrieff’s Troublesome Leg; Wilfred Owen in Rare Form

We have several reports to get to, and we don’t even have a terribly good fix on the activities of David Jones precisely today, a century back. Nevertheless, I’d like to start with him. With the unhappy experiment of putting his artistic talents to dubious use as a military observer now ended, he is once more in the line with the battalion–an ordinary rifleman, subject to the ordinary chances of the line. His battalion has been spared major fighting, but neither is it on one of the increasingly mythical “quiet sectors.” The last eight days have been particularly bad.

On May 6th, an enemy raiding party entered the lines of the 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers, killing two men and taking three prisoners. Jones helped to repel the raid, but this would have been a significant “black eye” for the battalion. Then, later the same day, his particular friend Reggie Allen was killed by a trench mortar bomb. This was a blow that Jones took some time to get over–he will dedicate his war epic to many men, but ‘especially’ to ‘PTE. R. A. LEWIS-GUNNER FROM NEWPORT MONMOUTHSHIRE.’

But there was no rest for the weary, or the grieving. The battalion was “heavily shelled” almost daily. Then, today, a century back, the bombardment began again, but did not end as usual. When the artillery did cease, the “unmistakable crackle” of rifle fire meant that an attack was in progress. It was another large-scale raid, which Jones helped fight off, this time without prisoners, although eight men were killed. Our gentle Anglo-Welsh poet will remember the experience as “exhilarating.”

Into this grab-bag of a week must go one other incident. As Jones was shaving in a communication trench not far from the front line,

A pleasant voice from around a revetment said, ‘Good morning’. Turning his head, [Jones] was astonished to see the Prince of Wales, wearing a short ‘British Warm’ and light woollen scarf.

‘Do you happen to know’, Edward asked, ‘which of these trenches leads directly to… the forward trench?’

Embarrassed, with lather on his face and wearing a tattered waistcoat, Jones indicated the trench and advised the Prince to be careful by a certain trench-sign ‘as it’s exposed, sir’.

Edward said, ‘Thanks, can’t have a fag with you–an awful hurry’, and disappeared.

A few minutes later, a red-faced colonel, puffing to catch his breath, stuck his head round the revetment and asked, ‘Have you seen Wales?’ Jones said yes and that he had directed him to the forward trench. ‘Why didn’t you stop him?’ asked the colonel, and, as the colonel ran off, Jones said, ‘How could I, sir?’ (The Prince was not supposed to be alone in areas subject, as this was, to violent bursts of fire.)

Jones’s biographer goes on to remind us that–despite both men’s tenuous connections to the actual country of Wales–Jones was impressed with the young prince. He was very pleased to have seen him so close to the line, evidently giving his minders the slip. This was precisely the sort of informal and (mildly) dangerous royal behavior that gave heart to ordinary troops. (As the phrase goes; David Jones was an unremarkable soldier but surely a very remarkable man, more so than the polite, electively–and thus selectively–brave young aristocrat in a soldier’s coat.)

Edward’s courtesy and courage stirred in Jones the affection that most infantrymen felt for him. In some respects this was an encounter of the sort that might have occurred in one of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, of which Jones was sometimes reminded while on sentry duty, scanning the local wonderland through a periscope’s looking-glass.

Young Wales will even make it into In Parenthesis, in a isolated, humorous cameo:

‘A young man in a British warm… enquired if anyone had seen the Liaison Officer from Corps, as one who asks of the Tube-lift man at Westminster the whereabouts of the Third Sea Lord’.[1]

 

Last night, a century back, Edwin Vaughan‘s company relieved another unit in the front line. In the early morning hours, his platoon now in position, Vaughan and his company commander, Radcliffe, explored the wide expanse of No Man’s Land in front of their new position.

I felt awfully frightened and my heart beat very high as for the first time I passed through the wire into the silence and mystery of the unknown ground. The moon was giving a faint light through the clouds, which enabled us to see dimly for about 50 yards.

For about a hundred yards we walked slowly forward, seeing nothing but grass and occasionally a shell-hole. Then suddenly Radcliffe grasped my arm and pulled me quietly but quickly down into the long grass. Holding my breath I heard a faint but distinct rustle of knees ploughing through clover and then dimly in front I saw a small party of men approaching us. They halted 40 yards away and I lay frozen with fear and excitement. But Radcliffe was gurgling with laughter. I punched him in the ribs but he breathed gurglingly, ‘They didn’t reckon on my trench club!’ and he shoved forward the thin swishy cane he had brought with him.

What part of this is pure courage and what part nervous hilarity is difficult to say–but now, at least, we know the precise difference between a “fighting patrol” and an “officer’s patrol.”

The two officers crawl back and don’t fire–the German patrol is passing, and they are only two men. And yet it is interesting to note that they are perfectly happy to let the Australians on their left deal with the migrating German patrol, rather than send their own men after it. Whatever their sense of the need for supremacy in No Man’s Land, it does not include a doctrinaire insistence on all possible violence.

And this sort of exploit does settle the nerves wonderfully:

I was so pleased at having broken the ice that I felt quite anxious to get out again with a fighting patrol behind me.[2]

 

Kate Luard, meanwhile, used a lull in the carnage to make an informative visit to another hospital. It seems a safe guess that she is equally pleased to be gaining useful medical knowledge, to have a day out amongst the greenery (such as it is), and to manage to get herself even closer to the front lines.

…Sister G. and I set off in a Motor Ambulance to visit the Abdominal Centre higher up. The driver had not the dimmest notion of the name of the place or how to get there, but I headed him off from various attempts at all other points of the compass with the help of my map, and eventually we got there.

It was Gommécourt over again but in newly sprung green this time. I think it made the little hilly, curly orchards and wooded villages look sadder than ever to see the blossom among the ruins, and the mangled woods struggling to put their green clothes on to their distorted spikes. And in that country every tree along each side of every road was neatly cut through about three feet from the ground, and lying by its stump. It was a weird sight…[3]

 

And while Sister Luard handles the theme of Spring amidst the ruins, Charles Scott Moncrieff will speak for the wounded left behind. He is still recovering at a base hospital from the severe wound he suffered at Arras.

14th May.

Yesterday’s bulletin was that I may perhaps keep my leg, and shall be here a month longer. . . . There is a little crane at the foot with a sandbag hanging from it into which so many people bumped that I got into a state of chronic terror when anyone passed up or down the ward—which happens perhaps a thousand times a day. Finally, last night a fat old parson who crusades round these wards, ran full tilt into it. “Look out,” I said. He turned to see what he had done and said blandly, “Aha, you stick out too much.” After this I could stand no more, and got my bed shifted across the ward.[4]

 

And finally, today, a very long and very strange letter from Wilfred Owen to his younger brother Colin. Owen, though still in a forward hospital with “nerve” issues, is once more in a buoyant mood.

14 May 1917 [13th Casualty Clearing Station]
Dearest Colin,

Here is some Loot, from a Pocket-which I rifled on the Field. I was thinking of you when I was unbuckling the Bugle from the equipment, and being then in a particularly noble frame of mind, meant to present it to you some day. But now I have got too fond of the thing to part with it!

After this opening, the letter moves to Owen’s most elaborate description of his one “attack” so far. As he will explain, the attack (a local action) ended up being successful without being bloody–the Germans had withdrawn. So it is not necessary to wonder why his description of the exhilaration (our word of the day, evidently) doesn’t tip over into horror. Interestingly, however, Pat Barker will draw upon this letter for exactly that purpose, giving some of these words to Billy Prior, to describe an attack that did become intensely traumatic.

The sensations of going over the top are about as exhilarating as those dreams of falling over a precipice, when you see the rocks at the bottom surging up to you. I woke up without being squashed. Some didn’t. There was an extraordinary exultation in the act of slowly walking forward, showing ourselves openly.

There was no bugle and no drum for which I was very sorry. I kept up a kind of chanting sing-song:

Keep the Line straight!
Not so fast on the left!
Steady on the Left!
Not so fast!

Then we were caught in a Tornado of Shells. The various ‘waves’ were all broken up and we carried on like a crowd moving off a cricket-field. When I looked back and saw the ground all crawling and wormy with wounded bodies, I felt no horror at all but only an immense exultation at having got through the Barrage.[5] We were more than an hour moving over the open and by the time we came to the German Trench every Bosche had fled. But a party of them had remained lying low in a wood close behind us, and they gave us a very bad time for the next four hours.

More insight, too, into the tenuousness of any moral state among men in such a tense and unusual situation:

When we were marching along a sunken road, we got the wind up once. We knew we must have passed the German outposts somewhere on our left rear. All at once the cry rang down ‘Line the Bank’. There was a tremendous scurry of fixing bayonets, tugging off breach-covers & opening pouches, but when we peeped over, behold one solitary German, haring along towards us, with his head down and his arms stretched in front of him, as if he were going to take a high dive through the earth (which I have no doubt he would like to have done). Nobody
offered to shoot him, he looked too funny; that was our only prisoner that day!

The letter now turns to less intense experiences, and Wilfred begins to quiz Colin about his work on a farm. Once he is started on the idea of agriculture as a post war calling, the letter then turns into a sort of Georgic reverie and biblical pastiche:

…he departed unto Some Area, and seeing a tree, he also pruned it that it might bring forth more fruit.

After that the tree died also, and he lay down, and slept under the shadow thereof forty days and forty nights; and gathered in his ears in due season, the mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds, yet brought forth ten fold, fifty fold, and an hundred fold.

And with the price thereof he bought a field, which is called the Potter’s Field, because he pottered there day and night and wrought nothing.

But dined sumptuously every day of locusts and wild asses’ milk.

And it came to pass that a woman besought him saying ‘Give me, I pray thee, a little water to drink.’ Instead of water he gave her the milk. And the same woman was bent double for eighteen years. And went out sorrowful, and wept by the river of Babylon. And all fish that were in the river died…

It goes on like this for several pages. I’m not sure what to make of it, but presumably this is not an Important Milestone in his Poetic Development, but, rather, evidence that Owen is desperate to distract himself from daily life during a long stay at the 13th CCS.

…And he shook the dust off his feet, and they were all smitten with blindness, because of the things that fell upon the earth.

And he went on his way, rejoicing, and grinning like a dog that licketh the crumbs that the swine would fain have eaten.

And the ass leaped like the hills, even the hill of Basan, which is an high hill. Selah.

CUM PRIVILEGIO.

You can send this to Harold: to be returned to me! I have let my imagination run riot. You must not show these sheets at home. But I hope you will get an innocent laugh out of ’em. I have. It has passed an afternoon very well.

Best love, dear boy. W.E.O. x[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 155-6; In Parenthesis, 97.
  2. Some Desperate Glory, 115-7.
  3. Unknown Warriors, 124-5.
  4. Diaries, 129.
  5. This sight will be addressed in verse.
  6. Collected Letters, 457-60.

Alf Pollard’s Happy Day; Edward Brittain Learns of Geoffrey Thurlow’s Death

Yesterday, Alf Pollard led an improvised, four-man counter attack that defeated a German assault and saved an entire division’s position. He writes about the morning after in two different places in his memoir. One follows immediately upon descriptions of yesterday, but it begins a new section, entitled “Book Three: Afterwards.” The other is the very beginning of the entire memoir, which begins today and then flashes back to 1914. So it is not a stretch to say that the book is built around yesterday’s heroics and today’s reward.

The morning of the 30th April, 1917, was bright and sunny. I was awakened at ten o’clock from a deep refreshing sleep by “Bun” Morphy, at that time second in command of the battalion, who burst into my tent in a state of the deepest agitation.

“Get up at once, Pollard!” he called in his rich Irish brogue.” The Divisional General wants to have a word with you!”

I rolled over in my flea-bag and smiled up at him. Bun was a favourite with all of us.

“I’m afraid he’ll have to wait,” I rejoined. “I can’t possibly get up at present. I haven’t any pyjamas on.”

It was lamentable, but it was true. We were lying under canvas at St. Nicholas on the outskirts of Arras, having only arrived from the line at three o’clock that morning after sixteen days in action. We were all dead tired. Our spell “up the line” had been particularly strenuous. In addition, I had picked up a slight dose of gas on the way down. Fritz was shelling the Arras-Douai road and I was too overjoyed at our relief to bother to don my gas-mask. The camp was a welcome end to a long march; the Mess tent a pleasing centre. Several whiskies were needed before I fully realised I was back at rest. I was a bit tiddley-boo before I retired in search of my bed.

I found my tent all right. I found my flea-bag, properly laid out for me by my servant. The devil of it was I could not find my pyjamas. Perhaps I ought to confess that my search for them was rather perfunctory. I have often wondered why I bothered to undress. I had not had my clothes off for sixteen days; one more night would have made very little difference. As it was, I stripped naked and crept in between the blankets.

Pollard’s memoir begins as a light comedy, then–and it remains a comedy, in the old technical sense. It is a story in which, though the characters are challenged, all comes right in the end.

Bun was too excited to grasp the situation.

“Never mind your pyjamas,” he declared impatiently. “The General’s waiting for you, I tell you.”

The General would have continued to wait as far as I was concerned. Fortunately he eased the situation by coming to my tent in person accompanied by Colonel Aspinall, his G.S.O.1. How should one salute a general when in the nude? King’s Regulations makes no provision for such a contingency. I merely sat upright and hugged my blankets to my chin. Bun clicked his shining spurred riding boots to attention.

“This is Pollard, sor,” he boomed.

I realised the feelings of a rare specimen at the Zoo being shown off to two interested fellows. Colonel Aspinall fitted his eyeglass to his eye. The General held out his hand.

“I’m proud to meet you, Pollard. I’ve been hearing all about what you and Haine[1] did yesterday and I want to tell you I’m recommending both of you for the Victoria Cross.”

The Victoria Cross!—the highest honour that any citizen of the British Empire can achieve. For a moment the tent whirled round me, the pole and the seams of the canvas hopelessly intermingled with khaki and field boots. In a daze I accepted the General’s hand, forgetting all about my nakedness.

The full title of the book is, naturally, Fire-Eater: The Memoirs of a V.C. 

“I—I’m sure it’s most awfully good of you, sir,” I stammered. All my life I’ve always stammered in moments of great excitement. “It’s most awfully good of you. Er—” I was at a loss for words; then I remembered. “I’m frightfully sorry I can’t stand up, sir. As a matter of fact I couldn’t find my pyjamas last night and—er——”

Major-General Lawrie was a very tactful man. He appreciated my embarrassment.

“I quite understand,” he interposed. “You’ve not had time to dress. Have your bath and we’ll have a chat later.”

He turned to leave the tent. Colonel Aspinall’s eyeglass dropped with a faint click. I felt that he was smiling. A moment later I was alone with my thoughts. The V.C.!

Had anyone told me on August Bank Holiday 1914 that I should ever receive the V.C. or even the D.C.M., or even that I should ever be a soldier, I should have roared with laughter…

But laughter is where it ends up. His subsequent account of today, a century back, notes that there was much laughing among the officers and men of the H.A.C. And why not? They had saved the day, yesterday, and today they were out of the line and safe. And two of their officers had won the Victoria Cross. Why shouldn’t they laugh?

Here is the official citation:

On 29 April 1917 at Gavrelle, France, the troops of various units had become disorganized owing to the heavy casualties from shell fire and a subsequent determined attack with very strong forces caused further confusion and retirement. Second Lieutenant Pollard realized the seriousness of the situation and with only four men he started a counter-attack with bombs, pressing it home until he had broken the enemy attack and regained all that had been lost and much ground in addition. This officer’s splendid example inspired courage into every man who saw him.

Skeptics might point out that when an attack fails (in the neighboring division), awarding rare and famous awards to two men who helped to prevent a disaster (rather than achieve an intended victory) is a good way of deflecting criticism. That’s a likely story, but it is hardly on point–pretty much any decoration may arrive through some combination of ulterior motives, but that does not necessarily detract from the valor it rewards. My complaint is more simple: The H.A.C. is now at the “climax of our fame” and proud of having protected the position without taking heavy casualties…

But Pollard does not describe what casualties they did take. I’m not sure, actually, that he mentions any casualties in his Regiment that day at all (one of the three companions in heroism–each was awarded the DCM–a soldier from the neighboring division, is killed today). There were probably few–the CWGC notes only five men of the H.A.C. killed yesterday near Arras, and perhaps none of these were in his company. But I don’t know. Nor do we hear a thing of the Germans Pollard shot and bombed–did they die immediately? Did they suffer? Were they given aid? Taken prisoner? Deliberately killed as a potential threat to the rear? I don’t know.

My point is, again, that it’s a comedy: Alf Pollard is a callow boy at the start of the war, and a hero at the end. He’s done good, and everyone who matters has a happy war–bravery, success, recognition. The people who die to make this happen do not make an impact on the narrative. Pollard will even go on to marry the girl who has spurned his advances throughout–the V.C. helped with that as well. So not only a comedy, but more, er, “proof” that there is something to the evolutionary argument for reckless aggression.

But I get ahead of myself, and that is against the rules. We will hear from Captain A.O. Pollard, V.C. a few more times, and he will continue to represent a literary style more popular than that of the vast majority of the writers we read here. Pollard, just like Sassoon or Owen, deserves to be read in context, and examined alongside (rather than condemned for) his assumptions: a general will write a forward for his book, pitching it as a how-to guide for boys, all of whom “must long to receive the Victoria Cross.” And perhaps it is. But it’s worth asking how the author of a book so staunchly enthusiastic about war might fare when the chances for such happy heroism vanish and the memories fade. And it’s also fair to ask what the literary and historical qualities might be that recommend further reading of this book for those who aspire to recognition that can be earned in more humane and less dire circumstances than the Victoria Cross.[2]

 

And, of course, even being able to look to the future, as Pollard can, is a gift of Providence–or an omission of Fate. Or happenstance. Edward Brittain writes to his sister Vera today, a century back, with more bad news.

Brocton Camp, Stafford, 30 April 1917

Dearest Vera —

I only heard this morning from Miss Thurlow that Geoffrey was killed in action on April 23rd–a week ago to-day–and  I sent you a cable about noon. No details are known yet as his people only got the War office telegram on Saturday evening; I have been afraid for him for so long and yet now that he has gone it is so very hard—that prince among men with so fine an appreciation of all that was worth appreciating and so ideal a method of expression…

Always a splendid friend with a splendid heart and a man who won’t be forgotten by you or me however long or short a time we may live. Dear child, there is no more to say; we have lost almost all there was to lose and what have we gained? Truly as you say has patriotism worn very very threadbare.

Victor seems to be much better; Mother will be able to tell you more about him than I can as she sees him every day. She says his voice has come back just as it was before and that he speaks quite sensibly though his memory is not yet very good. He has asked for me to come and see him again and I hope to get up next Saturday.

He doesn’t seem to realise that he is blind yet but thinks he has a bandage over his eyes; I am rather afraid of what may happen when he finds out. I will write again in a day or two as soon as I hear any more about Geoffrey. This is an unlucky place–I was here when Roland died of wounds, when Tah was blinded, and when Geoffrey was killed.

Good-night, dear child.

Your affectionate

Edward[3]

The letter will take weeks; a telegram arrive in Malta tomorrow.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Haine's actions preceded Pollard's--he slept late, you may remember--and so we skipped the regiment's initial heroics.
  2. Fire-Eater: The Memoirs of a V.C., 12-21, 227.
  3. Letters From a Lost Generation, 346.

Alf Pollard’s Finest Hour; Max Plowman Meets an Interesting Man; Siegfried Sassoon Between Cussedness and Martyrdom; Beauty and Ugliness From Olaf Stapledon; Edwin Vaughan in Amiens

For two days, now, Alf Pollard and the Honourable Artillery Company have been back in the line near Gavrelle, on the Arras front.

I was in support to the First Battalion Royal Marines and did not anticipate that I should have anything to do at all. Consequently I disposed the whole of my Company in dug-outs and, retiring to my own, relaxed into much needed slumber.

I slept right through the barrage and the initial onslaught…

Of course he did, and with good classical precedent! Alexander the Great and many other heroes demonstrated their perfect confidence by sleeping late on the day of battle. But Pollard is awoken with a message ordering him to form a flank defense:

It was obvious that something had gone wrong. I must act at once.

Pollard emerges into a “curious hush,”  like the calm before the storm. But–he is a natural warrior, you see–his heart is pounding and his instincts tell him that he is in danger. The Marines have advanced up ahead, but Pollard’s is the last company on the Division’s left, and it would seem that the next Division over had failed in its attack and now a German counter-attack is threatening the unnamed unit directly to Pollard’s left.

I was at the limit of my own trench, which was the extreme left of the Divisional front, wondering what I should do next. Suddenly a bombing attack started from the direction of Oppy Wood. Bang! Bang! Zunk! Zunk! I could see the smoke from the explosions nearly a mile away. Fritz was attacking down the trench.

A few minutes later, Pollard sees the British troops resisting the counter-attack suddenly break and run.

Panic! Sheer unaccountable panic! …The sort of thing the greatest psychologist in the world could not explain; a sudden terror which affected the whole force simultaneously. It was a sight I hope I never see again. For a brief moment it had its effect on me.

For “what seemed like some minutes,” Pollard relates, he remained “shaking” and indecisive. But it was really only a few seconds: the Germans could now turn the flank of his own division, and something must be done.

Then the curious feeling came to me… that I was no longer acting under my own volition. Something outside myself, greater than I, seemed to take charge of me. Already under this mysterious influence I ran forward.

Pollard takes control of the strange troops and orders them to spread out and fire their rifles, more to regain their confidence than to hit anything. Then, leaving both these leaderless and recently panicked troops (he is confident that “The British Tommy does not do that sort of thing twice in a morning”) and his own company–his own command–behind, he explores down the trench the Germans had been attacking, followed by his runner and one more man, an ad hoc volunteer. They push up the trench away from his defensive line, and are joined by one more man. Pollard’s orders are simply to hurl their few bombs around the next traverse whenever he fires his pistol. For two hundred yards the trench is empty.

Then suddenly, as I entered one end of a stretch of trench between two traverses, a big Hun entered the other, rifle and bayonet in his hand. I fired; he dropped his rifle and clapped both hands to his stomach. Almost instantaneously with my shot I heard the whizz of Reggie’s bomb as it passed over my head. A second man appeared behind the first. I fired again and he dropped like a stone. Bang! Bang! The two other bombs thrown by my followers exploded one after the other.

The third man saw the fate of his predecessors and turned to go back. Those behind, not knowing what had happened tried to come forward. I fired again. Bang!  Zunk! went the remaining bombs of our small store. That was enough. The next instant the Hun attack was in full retreat.

This is an excellent example of several things. First, of the importance of on-the-spot tactical leadership–even irresponsible, desperately chancy leadership, so long as it seizes the initiative. Second, of the continued importance, albeit in a (literally) narrow category of actions (fighting along a trench, rather than “over the top”) of old-fashioned reckless aggression, a.k.a valor. (The charging maniac routing a timid multitude in a narrow space is a tired trope of action movies, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen.)

And if we examine those two points we realize that this action is important because it is exceptional–it’s a brave, reckless gamble, and very successful. But Pollard is not leading a storming party against a key gate or a forlorn hope against a breach; he is not inspiring the rest of the men who can see him as he charges across an open battlefield. He is winning a local action fought below ground level; at most he is stabilizing a front of a few hundred yards in a several-hundred-mile trench system. It’s a reminder that even exceptional valor can’t win wars anymore.

The valor is the same; it just doesn’t apply. Pollard isn’t just exceptionally good at fighting–he is also, necessarily, fortunate. In the good old days, half the potential Achilleses of the army weren’t killed by the artillery before they got into hand-weapon range. But Pollard has to first be lucky not to have been killed by weapons aimed in his general direction by calm men hundreds of yards or even a few miles away; only then can he begin being heroic in a convenient bit of trench.

Finally, this is an excellent example of what John Keegan will call “Zap-Blatt-BanzaiGott im Himmel-Bayonet in the Guts” history. Except Pollard’s Huns don’t even get to say that much.

In other words, this is an exciting tale, but I don’t think we can blithely accept its unspoken premise: that since the terms of the fight–kill or be killed, in essence–are set, we need give no further thought to the consequences of all this shooting and bomb-hurling. And what happens next–the four men press on without any bombs (grenades) but are able to collect enemy and grenades during a fortuitous lull in enemy action, then continue fighting by dodging around corners–is uncannily like a video game. Which is not to condemn video games for being violent: it’s to condemn true stories in which deadly violence goes completely unquestioned.

I’ll paraphrase the rest of the tale. Pollard and his three-man army press on into German territory though he proudly confesses that “discretion had gone to the winds”–a pointed word-choice given discretion’s proverbial counterpart. Why this recklessness?

…my blood was up. I felt a thrill only comparable to running through the opposition at Rugger to score a try.

He leaves one man with a collection of rifles by a barricade–this reminds him of Robinson Crusoe’s fantasy of solo defense–and, with the other two, makes ready to defend their gains with bombs. They do; soon “the air was thick with bombs” and though they throw nearly all they have, Pollard will not retreat. Then, providentially, the German attack breaks off, when one of Pollard’s friends–“Sammy,” a junior officer who seems to have figured out, without orders, that he should go up in support of his vanished company commander–arrives with the company and a large supply of bombs and ammunition. A more determined German attack is driven off, there are short digressions on different sorts of grenades and on Sammy’s coolness under fire (connected, surprisingly, to his descent from “the fighting tribes of Israel”), and then that’s that–Pollard has saved the day. He is eventually ordered to assume command of the position, then relieved after nightfall.

Pollard’s memoir is self-serving and self-aggrandizing–but that’s obvious, and so the notes of humility are, well, worth noting. They are either little nods to convention–“I should take the occasional breath while blowing my own horn,” “I wouldn’t want to court nemesis through hubris”–or, just possibly, symptoms of a much larger madness. We have seen Pollard note that “his blood was up,” admit that to press on was illogical, and mention in passing that he left his own command without clear orders in order to push on alone, to be followed by only three willing men.

That all seems plausible–but it read very differently when Siegfried Sassoon did a very similar thing. Why? Perhaps if Sassoon were to have been given a high military honor (he wasn’t, in part because the Royal Welch tried not to ask for honors for non-professional soldiers, in part because no high-level officers were near the spot, and in part because the position wasn’t held after he left it) he would have written a more heroic account. (Or perhaps not; Sassoon has been disillusioned for some time; Pollard, never.)

But that’s not the real difference. Pollard ends the chapter by noting that he has “often wondered what would have happened had Fritz come over the top instead of sticking to the trench.” It’s obvious: “Fritz” would have killed or captured him, and he would hen have been blamed for abandoning his men to go gallivanting into enemy territory. But though Pollard “wonders,” I don’t think he really believes it might have happened: just as he portrays his courage, modestly, as a force that overtakes him without his volition (after a humanizing, but brief, struggle with fear he becomes a “natural” or “inspired” warrior), he seems to trust completely in Providence. He can humbly acknowledge that he was fortunate to get the opportunity for heroism that he did–because he does not doubt that, on some level, he deserved it.[1]

 

And I too trust in provvy–that lesser Tyche that attends the scriveners of Clio. What I mean is: Pollard is a war hero, and I don’t mean to suggest that there is any point in denying or protesting that. But I don’t like the way he chose to write about the war, the way he elides death and suffering. So I would hope that reading and research would provide some apt rejoinders from today, a century back. And we are indeed fortunate–all two and a half of our regular pacifists have shown up for duty.

 

Max Plowman wrote to his friend Janet Upcott today, a century back, from the Bowhill Auxiliary Hospital for Officers. He is physically sound… but the after-effects of shell-shock may linger. At least, he feels healthy enough, yet he has been in one hospital or another for three months, now.

…Tell me Jane–honest, candid, sober, true… what your idea of this place is–or rather was before you got this? Did you think it was a sort of private lunatic asylum? My only reason for thinking it may be is that from asylums, I believe, the question that recurs to me is heard more often than from anywhere else. “Why do they still keep me?” –As a matter of fact I asked that so long ago that I’ve got tired of asking it, & now I’m beginning to get settled here for the duration I suppose I really shall soon be turfed out. I think the Doctor here has decided that normally I should have the hide of a rhinoceros & the nerves of a hauser, so if I’m really going to wait for that unhappy state to transpire, I’m sure the next time I leave here will be about 1947 in a long black box.

Still of course I don’t complain so far. The Ducal Mansion is perhaps preferable to snow on Vimy Ridge & I have no doubt that I have missed a good deal worth missing when I see that all my old company officers are now back or dead.

The letter continues, rambling and ruminating about the conduct of the war, the cynical way in which the vested interests seem disinterested in peace, and the foolish criticisms of military operations by those who have never fought in the trenches. Like other experienced officers with pacifist or anti-war opinions, Plowman is at once aghast at the waste of the war and the complacency of the high command and yet keenly interested in the new tactics that had showed promise at Arras. And like other experienced officers with pacifist or anti-war opinions, Plowman is working on his first collection of poetry–in that endeavor he’s a bit behind, but in another matter he takes precedence.

I met one rather interesting man up here. a Dr ______ who’s a professor of Psychology at Cambridge. He’s at Craiglockhart Edinburgh from which this place is an offshoot. I was talking to him about Freud’s book on dreams & he lent me Hart’s Psychology of Insanity as an introduction to it…

This would be Dr. W.H.R. Rivers, and thus our second prefiguring of Pat Barker’s Regeneration. Rivers is real, and he’s a remarkable man, combining in his modest person the Victorian adventurism of the heroic age of science, 20th century psychoanalytic healing, and timeless humanity and courage. Those who are interested in learning a bit more about this man–Cambridge professor, Freudian, South Pacific anthropologist, pioneering neurologist, and shell-shock-doctor-to-the-writers–can seek out more information easily enough, or read Barker’s historical fiction trilogy.

Amusingly, even though Plowman is our first writer to meet Rivers and be struck by his unique charisma (after all, he is the only person Plowman wants to discuss), and although he will be far from the best poet to do so, his initial reaction to the good doctor is to take offense at Rivers’s disinterest in poetry:

But I gave him up when he said he could no longer read poetry; not, really, because I wanted to inflict mine on him, but because now & from henceforth & for evermore I will not trust a mind which has become so divorced from nature it cannot appreciate poetry. The more you think either of words or the amoeba–either of material, mind, matter or Mumbo Jumbo the more amazing it becomes to here a confessedly learned man admit & say: “You know I can’t appreciate poetry now–my appreciation of the exact use of words is too great…” The sight of an exact word is the worst nightmare I can think of so far…

Yours ever

Max.[2]

 

Another officer with experience bombing more or less alone up an enemy trench, with pacifist or anti-war opinions (he would he the “half-pacifist,” in my dubious math, above), and with a future in medical care for a condition… let’s say “associated with” shell shock is, of course, Siegfried Sassoon, now recovering in London after being shot through the shoulder.

April 29

A lovely morning after a sleepless night. The trees outside have become misty with green since last night. I am just emerging from the usual beautiful dream about ‘not going back’–‘war over in the autumn’—‘getting a job in England’, etc. These ideas always emanate from one’s friends in:England, and one’s own feeble state of mind when ill, and fed up, arid amazed at being back in comfort and safety.

Things must take their course; and I know I shall be sent out again to go through it all over again with added refinements of torture. I am no good anywhere else: all I can do is to go there and set an example. Thank heaven I’ve got something to live up to. But surely they’ll manage to kill me next time! Something in me keeps driving me on: I must go on till I am killed. Is it cussedness (because so many people want me to survive the war)–or is it the old spirit of martyrdom—’ripe men of martyrdom’, as Crashaw says?[3]

This question–or this tangled skein of questions–will occupy us quite a bit over the coming months…

 

It’s been a long day, but I still feel that reading Olaf Stapledon is well worthwhile. This is a young man who rowed with Julian Grenfell, who could easily have spent much of the last few years enthusiastically killing Germans until they killed him–but he had chosen only to risk the latter, while trying instead to save the wounded victims of the war.

A few ago, a century back, he had appended to a previous letter a description of “a pretty dance with three cars that got stuck in a badly shelled spot.” This may be Olaf’s most explicit description of personal danger in his letters to Agnes, and it underscores how infrequently–though he agonizes about different types of pacifist commitment and often discusses the political and philosophical underpinnings of his actions–he mentions the mortal risks ambulance crews take.

One of them had to repairs done to it before it could be moved. We were four hours at it, alternately working & seeking cover as the bombardment varied in seriousness. All the cars were badly peppered by we got them all away without serious harm to them & no damage to ourselves, though we had some quite narrow escapes. The convoy has been “cited,” which means that we paint the croix de guerre on each car.

Then, today, there is the happier news that the ambulance unit is in rest–or, rather, “repos–” their first full-unit rest in eight months.

Our last day at the front was rather eventful because they bombarded our village with some success and the main street was literally strewn with dead and wounded… One shell accounted for about twenty men… It was an ugly business…

Next day we left with our division for repos, and just after we had cleared out a shell fell in the yard where we kept most of our cars. It would have done much damage had we been there, and probably would have killed a good number of us. So our departure was lucky…

Our present spot is very peaceful and the spring weather has come. Yesterday in memory of ancient days with you I wore a celandine in my buttonhole. That is a little spring rite with me…

There is no sound of war at all, but much singing of birds and bleating of sheep. And yesterday we heard the cuckoo and saw him lazily flap across a little glade. Oh  Agnes, there is such a lovely lovers’ walk down a little narrow valley…

There are cowslips and periwinkles, violets and wood anemones. We revel in all such things after months of winter, and after a surfeit of war…[4]

 

Finally, today, I would be courting Nemesis myself if I omitted a visit to the cathedral. With his battalion still in rest billets, Edwin Vaughan has been taking his ease in Amiens, still close to the front lines on the now quiescent Somme. Yesterday it was a bath at the Hôtel Belfort and lunch at the Hôtel du Rhin; today, breakfast in bed and late mass in the Cathedral… and nothing to say about it. Lunch at ‘L’Universe,’ ices, “luxurious haircuts and shampoos,” dinner at the Hôtel du France, and a late night–not a bad little war, altogether.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Fire-Eater, 217-24.
  2. Bridge into the Future, 63-5.
  3. Diaries, 162. Richard Crashaw is a metaphysical poet of the 17th century.
  4. Talking Across the World, 221-3.
  5. Some Desperate Glory, 105.

Edward Thomas: “The Artillery is Like a Stormy Tide;” Edward Hermon is Likely to be Pretty Busy; Siegfried Sassoon Feels Elation and Absolute Confidence; A.A. Milne Debuts a Comedy

Tomorrow will be Easter, and particularly well-suited to pondering life and death, pain and sacrifice. Today, a century back, our two Edwards at Arras–though Edward Hermon goes by “Robert”–both write pre-battle, pre-bedtime letters to their wives.

My darling,

I’ve had a rather strenuous time in the line these last three days & so beyond a postcard I haven’t been able to do much for you, old dear.

We have been in for three days during which time our guns have been most particularly active. The result being that one hasn’t known a moment’s peace. The bottom of the trenches has had water & mud over it to the depth of the top of my field boots. Last night I was relieved, thank goodness, & the adjutant, the Doctor and I walked back here together getting in at 6 a.m. (My town residence.)

Three more weary, mud-bespattered officers it would have been hard to find. I just flung myself down on the bed and slept as I never slept before with guns blotting off in all directions close to me without ever hearing a sound till Buckin woke me about noon. I hadn’t had six hours’ sleep in the three days, been damned nearly killed once & was what you call pleasantly weary, but it’s a wonder how very quickly a few hours’ sleep revives one…

The guns make life quite unbearable in the house & now I’m down in a cellar where I’ve got my orderly room & a nice brazier of coke & am really quite warm & comfortable tho’ it sounds hardly so…

I go in the line again tomorrow…

My own dear lass, I must go to bed now as I must store up what energy I can, as I shall probably need it these next few days as I’m likely to be pretty busy so far as I can see. Give the dear little Chugs my love & a kiss from Dad & with all my love to you old dear, & your dear old face to love.

Ever your Robert.[1]

 

Edward Thomas managed a few lines in his diary–including one striking line that places the poet of roads and trees and rainfall more firmly in the ruin-scape than he has ever been–and then wrote once more to Helen.

Up at 6 to O.P. A cold bright day of continuous shelling… Infantry all over the place preparing Prussian Way with boards for wounded. Hardly any shells into Beaurains. Larks, partridges, hedge-sparrows, magpies by O.P. A great burst in red brick building in N.-Vitasse stood up like a birch tree or a fountain. Back at 7.30 in peace. Then at 8.30 a continuous roar of artillery.[2]

Saturday
Beaurains
April 7 or 8 1917

Dearest,

Here I am in my valise on the floor of my dugout writing before sleeping. The artillery is like a stormy tide breaking on the shores of the full moon that rides high and clear among white cirrus clouds. It has been a day of cold feet in the O.P. I had to go unexpectedly. When I posted my letter and Civil Liabilities paper in the morning I thought it would be a bad day, but we did all the shelling. Hardly anything came near the O.P. or even the village.

So he was safe–but that is not news, for the letter is written. But what does he see?

I simply watched the shells changing the landscape. The pretty village among trees that I first saw two weeks ago is now just ruins among violated stark tree trunks. But the sun shone and larks and partridges and magpies and hedgesparrows made love and the trench was being made passable for the wounded that will be harvested in a day or two. Either the Bosh is beaten or he is going to surprise us. The air was full of aeroplane flights. I saw one enemy fall on fire and one of ours tumble into the enemy’s wire. I am tired but resting.

Yesterday afternoon was more exciting. Our billet was shelled. The shell fell all round and you should have seen Horton and me dodging them. It was quite fun for me, though he was genuinely alarmed, being more experienced. None of us was injured and our house escaped. Then we went off in the car in the rain to buy things.

The near misses are coming thick and fast–and see how both men, so different in temperament and literary refinement, laugh off the shell that almost got them, emphasize their great weariness, and tread lightly on the way in which hard work and danger will come hand in hand over the next few days. But not too lightly–he does mention the ways being made for the wounded. Does this terrify Helen with its reminder of possible mutilation, or is it a welcome suggestion that he may be honorably and not too dangerously wounded, and carried home?

We shall be enormously busy now. Rubin goes off tomorrow on a course of instruction and may be a captain before long, our sergeant major has left with a commission. One officer has to be at the O.P. every day and every other night. So it will be all work now till further notice—days of ten times the ordinary work too. So goodnight and I hope you sleep no worse than I do…[3]

 

The third of our officers in France today is Siegfried Sassoon–younger, unmarried and unattached, possessed of a very different psychological makeup. Hermon and Thomas are both brave: Hermon no doubt expected to be just as stolidly brave as he was bred to be, while Thomas was perhaps mildly surprised and relieved to find that he withstood shellfire better than most.

But Sassoon is… fickle. He is certainly brave, but in a curious way he has shown a lack of ability to be the sort of brave that this war demands: enduring, under constant pressure, despite the inability to reply to the danger or to funnel nervous tension into bursts of physical activity. In the Second War they might have made him a fighter pilot or a commando, but an infantry subaltern of the Great War is more akin to a bomber pilot, tasked to fly again and again, in tight formation, through the black flak and nightmare fighters.

Sassoon has forgotten this. He is ready for action, ready to leave behind the introvert poet, the budding anti-war activist, the romantic sulker, and become ‘Mad Jack’ once again. It’s a short few days of marching from bitter moods to combat euphoria.

And yet Sassoon, though on the way up (in two senses of the phrase), still has eyes for the birds: blackbirds confirmed! And could he bring a darkling thrush to Edward Thomas at Beuarains?

April 7 7 p.m.

We are now at Saulty, a village just off the Doullens-Arras road (about twelve miles from Arras)…

I am sitting on a tree-stump, in the peaceful park of a big white chateau which one sees among the trees. The sun is looking over the tree-tops now, and birds singing a way off, and a few little deer grazing; nothing to remind me of the battle, except the enormous thudding of guns from eastward. The brown of the trees and undergrowth grows purple, and the birds sing, thrushes and blackbirds, while a few rooks flap overhead. The bombardment must be terrific. Three Army Corps are reported to be attacking between Arras and Lens. We move to our final concentration area to-morrow (Easter Sunday!)—about four miles from here.

The next paragraph is as nice a blend of insight and bemused resignation as we are likely to find. And another good reminder for we-who-would-understand-the-war: if even a self-studying diarist can’t begin to comprehend his own emotions, how are we to make sense of it all?

I don’t suppose anyone would believe me if I said I was absolutely happy and contented. Of course this is written after a good meal of coffee and eggs. But the fact remains that if I had the choice between England to-morrow and the battle, I would choose the battle without hesitation. Why on earth is one such a fool as to be pleased at the prospect? I can’t understand it. Last year I thought it was because I had never been through it before. But my feeling of quiet elation and absolute confidence now is something even stronger than last summer’s passionate longing for death and glory.

I keep such music in my brain
No din this side of death can quell.[4]

(I never wrote truer words than those.)

This battle may be nothing at all, or it may give me a fine chance. I only hope we are in the forefront of it. Sitting in support and getting shelled is no fun at all. I may even be left out, awful anticlimax for the hero!

The men seem very cheery and have done the forty-odd miles well. These occasions when soldiers are on the verge of hell always seem to show them at their very best. Of course the officers are very prone to a sentimental ave atque vale frame of mind. For the men it is a chance of blighty, and anything for a change.

Aeroplanes are humming in the clear sky, and the sun is a glint of crimson beyond the strip of woodland. And still that infernal banging continues away on the horizon. Holmes, has applied for me to go to the First Battalion, but I
suppose I’ll stay here now.[5]

 

And here’s a quirky reminder that life goes on, even in wartime–never really an inappropriate reflection, from either angle, lately. London is still London, and even with the cost of the war, and conscription, and rationing, and shortages, life–and the show–must go on. For Alan Milne, like Tolkien a victim of “trench fever” in the last months of the Somme, a long convalescence has let him get on with his writing.

And his big break has come quickly: tonight, a century back, on forty-eight hours leave from his new job as a signals instructor, Milne saw the premier of his first play, a comic one-act called Wurzel-Flummery, at the New Theatre in London. The setting was ideal: his play appeared between two other short plays by J.M. Barrie, and the theater was filled with soldiers on leave, eager to be entertained. It was a signal success…[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. For Love and Courage, 350.
  2. War Diary (Childhood), 175.
  3. Selected Letters, 164-5.
  4. The first lines of his 'Secret Music,' written in December and shortly to be published.
  5. Diaries, 151-2.
  6. Thwaite, A.A. Milne, 181.

Ivor Gurney on the Wages of Suffering; Edward Thomas Hears the Shells; Henry Williamson Understands the Mud; Kate Luard is Topping!

4 March 1917

My Dear Friend: Here is an odd letter written with the filthiest of hands but the best of intentions. The mail has not arrived for two days, but tomorrow may bring something from you.

Indeed it will. So the letter that Ivor Gurney began yesterday, a century back, to Marion Scott was followed immediately by another, of today. These are mostly filled with one side of a conversation about book-editing, so I will be free with the ellipses–but Gurney is always good, at some point in the ramble, for an interesting observation on life in the line–or, in this case, in support.

Today I have been thinking of what might be instead of what is. The conditions for us in support are not so bad as in the front line, because one can move about, and we manage to get a fire going with damp wood. The thing is to suffer things without a sense of revolt; to accept as much as possible. And to forget the past — unless in the way I try to view it; as a means to write songs. And if I come out of this alright, there are two priceless lessons learnt — the first, that the price of almost anything that one desires worthily, is only Pain, (“only agony, and that has ending”) and the knack of getting on with people, which I have developed out here to a much greater extent than heretofore. So I fix my mind on these two possessions of mine and think what they will mean to me in the future.

This is a good bid for the Soldiers’ Page-a-Day Calendar of Inspiring Thoughts, but it is much less trite coming from Gurney, an awkwardly inward depressive whose struggle against psychological pain in the years just before the war was nearly a fatal one.

Long ago I decided that to accomplish what I wish was worth a great deal of pain and was ready to undergo it. Perhaps the last 6 years will be found sufficient by the Master of Beauty, and he may think fit to set free in me unknown forces of beauty to gladden men as some have gladdened myself. With my heart comforting itself with these things I try to accept mud and cold feet as prices, prices; and wait for my repayment. And if a soon end is meant for me, and my hopes are destined not to be fulfilled here, then though disappointment lies in that and very keenly. Yet who can say what lies beyond? Only — waiting for ever, and hardships, and doubt are heavy burdens — and may the time be not long.

Now I feel better, having “unpacked my heart with words” , though music would suit me better…

There are no more verses; the sonnet- “England” not having taken shape, and anyway that needs quiet and comfort—but chiefly quiet…

Yes, peace and quiet are necessary for serious writing. But several things are indeed taking shape for Gurney, and he will be musing on these themes of pain and beauty over the next few days. But his relationship with Marion Scott is, on the surface, one of friendship and painstakingly close collaboration:

5 March 1917

My Dear Friend: Thank you so much for all your kindness… here are an enormous number of points to answer, and I will try to get through them straight away as they come up in your letters…

Anyway, you have a perfect right to do what you like, except alter. You may cut out anything you think is not worthy if there are enough things to make up the number. At present it is too cold and muddy to write. Perhaps in a fortnight. . .

Punctuate as you please all the way through the book — but never too much. Curse the pronouns; my feet are too cold…

I want to write my last Sonnett, but that refuses to come, so much is there to say….

There is a lyric in my mind — just the beginning. “Starlight in Water” .

Starlight in water stirs the secret dreams;
Starlight in water;
Starlight in water troubles hidden deeps;
Starlight in water.

Goodbye and.good luck and thank you….

Your sincere Friend Ivor Gurney[1]

 

It’s a cold day on the Somme when Henry Williamson is our voice of strategic wisdom:

Dear Mother,

Just a line to let you know I am all right… The mud is awful: 2 feet deep: nothing can move, the guns never stop, day or night. & all the windows for miles back are shattered by concussion…

Don’t believe any rot about the Bosche crumbling: you have only to be out here a bit to realize it is one mighty army facing another mighty army, & to defeat him on land would take millions of guns and lives…

The Bosche is only going back because of the mud, nothing can move in it, an we have the disadvantage of fighting over the ground we have utterly ruined…[2]

 

Penultimately, a brief report from Edward Thomas:

Out early to see a raid by VI Corps, but snow hid most but singing of Field shells and snuffling of 6″.

Whatever his fears of shelling–confided, yesterday, to his diary in a spirit of apotropaic analysis–some of Thomas’s fellow officers seem to be worse:

They have the wind up because of the shells (which may have been meant for the road behind)…  A beautiful clear moonlit night after a beautiful high blue day with combed white clouds.[3]

What sort of a poem would this make? Could the singing shells and the fearful officers really co-exist with the moon and “combed white clouds?”

 

It’s good to have Kate Luard back, not least because she is much the most experienced of our regular writers. Her new assignment is as the head of nursing at CCS 32, near Gommecourt. Despite–and in some ways because of–her experience, she is in high spirits, very happy to be facing new challenges in a place where she is likely, soon, to be sorely needed. But there is much to do…

It is difficult to sleep at nights, the heavy guns are so close on the one side, and on the other we touch the main road to Arras…

We woke up this morning with 1/2 inch of snow on our beds inside our huts, and 6 inches outside. Melting now and a terrible mess.

We shan’t see what our weak points are till we begin, but if unity is strength it ought to pull well, as no one is clashing anywhere.

This is the tone we’ve grown familiar with–precise and economic in description, marked by an administrator’s consideration for what is to come. But she wrote another letter, today, a century back, not for general distribution to her large family, but to her sister Georgina. Initially left unpublished when Luard’s letters were gathered, this shows her in a less formal vein, and the omnicompetent forty-something senior sister suddenly sounds much more like Vera Brittain than she has hitherto.

Beloved Gkins

…This is a topping place–just what I’ve been out here for from the beginning of the War… On a big field on high open ground…

…I have a hut to myself with my own camp furniture kit. It is absolutely IT. The Colonel and I trot round the camp & plan things out & indent for equipment.

I have an awful lot to do, creating a new mess, finding laundry, arranging my new office, organising dressing equipment, stationing ordlerlies & Sisters, fitting out a huge theatre with equipment for 4 tables at once… The quagmire of melting snow & trodden field is beyond words; we have hobnail Army boots of Bantam size–topping. As usual when we move to a new place we get shells or bombs. This time it was shelling… they came screaming overhead…[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters, 139-41.
  2. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 91.
  3. War Diary (Childhood), 167-8.
  4. Unknown Warriors, 97, 203-4.