Robert Graves Reaches Out to Sassoon, but Sassoon is Intent on his Quarry; David Jones Disbands

Today, a century back, was another good day for Outdoor Siegfried Sassoon.

February 6 (Limerick. Ballingrane)

A wet day, south-west wind. Found in some gorse… ran nicely back a half-circle to Nantinan, where he tried the earths… and ran us out of scent. A nice twenty minutes…  A glorious ride—very sad that we did so little…[1]

 

But Outdoor Sassoon is neglecting his indoor friends–the poets, that is. Even the recently married poet-comrades…

Dear old Sassons

I have been intending to write for so long but find it difficult: don’t know why. Was the wedding a success? ask me! It would have been more so if you had been able to attend. I am for the moment confined to my couch with a cold but in the last three days have written 45 letters, 3 new poems, recast four old ones, two of which I sent to Colour and got £ 3.3.0 by return, read two books, pasted in my press cuttings, compiled an address book and played patience, and even washed my face–no, I haven’t, but shaved once.

Is Graves joking to lighten the mood of a soldier waiting to ship out? Perhaps, but the willingness to make fun of himself in this way has just a tinge of the abject about it. I don’t think Graves is quite sure what’s he done to lose Sassoon’s approval–or he doesn’t want to admit that Sassoon is simply in a snit about his “defection” into marriage.

The letter moves on now to news of their widening circle of acquaintance among the bright young literary things: the popular poet of 1917, the scandal/success debut novelist of 1917, and perhaps the most prolific and influential young reviewer-in-uniform:

Bob Nichols is back in London since February 1st; write to him. Did I tell you Alec Waugh is an enormous admirer of your poems? I have it on the authority of Scott-Moncrieff…  He [Waugh] is producing a book of poems in the spring, Moncrieff says. I wonder will it be good? I expect not.

I hear you’re under orders for Palestine from a subaltern called Roberts whose letter just arrived from Limerick.

And thus Graves circles back to the same subject that he opened with: not weddings or postings, but why Sassoon is so out of touch about such important things. But then Graves shows–or claims–that the real reason for their estrangement is his own good fortune and being just wounded enough to be safe:

I am getting a job in No. 17 Cadet Battalion here as soon as the details leave for Ireland, so that Nancy and I can make up our minds to settle down. The contrast between you and me makes me so ashamed: that’s why I find it difficult to write. But Sassons, though I know you wanted to return to a line battalion I know it’s much better as it is; the strain in Palestine isn’t nearly so great on you and you aren’t likely, or so likely, to get killed. I’m most awfully keen on you living on because as soon as the war stops I know your nerves will get absolutely rested again and you’ll be your old self (like when you saw me here the other day only more so) again and write miraculous poetry.

Best love always,

R.[2]

 

And while these two officers of the Royal Welch write about Ireland, Palestine, and Merry Olde England, a soldier of their regiment is reduced, abandoned, and reassigned. David Jones serves the melancholy purpose, today, of reminding us of the costs of this war of attrition: each infantry brigade throughout the B.E.F is being reduced from four battalions to three, a major structural change. This is supposed to be a mere reorganization, but it’s clearly not so simple. No new brigades are coming into the line, so this is at best a shuffling of forces and an admission that reinforcements for the existing four battalions are not to be had; at worst, it’s an acknowledgement that manpower limitations mean that three men will have to do the work of four. And this with a German offensive in the offing…

But that is war on the level of the bureaucrat: from the point of view of the infantryman themselves, the worst thing is that the unlucky fourth battalion of each brigade is not to be reassigned elsewhere, but simply dissolved in place, its men going as replacements to the other three. For an army that long prided itself on Regimental Tradition and esprit de corps to simply sacrifice battalions to bureaucratic convenience was shocking, and a sore blow to many of its soldiers. What were all those football matches and parades about, if the army is simply going to play Russian roulette with each foursome of its core units of identity? What can be trusted, now, when the army mouths slogans? And how can new, sustaining relationships be formed at this late date?

David Jones, though he is a gentle soul and an artist to the core, is nevertheless an old soldier, and proud of his unit. Even those little inclined to group-think or cliquishness are driven to collective identification during the stress of combat, and, after the Somme, Jones has good reason to be proud of what the London Welsh have endured. But today, a century back, it was announced that the 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers are shortly to be disbanded, and he took it hard:

As one of the few surviving members to arrive with the battalion in France, he, more than most, dreaded the end of ‘cap-badge loyalty’, an aspect of the fellowship that made military life endurable. On 6 February, the battalion was officially disbanded in a funerary ceremony for which Colonel Bell returned specially to deliver a eulogy.

After this collective death, Jones, disfellowshipped, will wait for reassignment for a week or more, and then be sent into the line near Armentieres with the 13th Battalion of the R.W.F.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 210.
  2. In Broken Images, 92.
  3. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 147.

Ralph Hamilton on a Flurry of Deadly Folly; Elizabeth Bishop In the Waiting Room

Just one brief note from the war, today, and then a very strange centennial… the most powerful straight-back-to-a-particular-moment-in-time poem I’ve ever read. It has nothing to do with this project except its date…  and also consciousness of the war and a deep binary (i.e. in the sense of an older writer looking back upon an incident as recorded by her younger mind) contemplation of the the mystery of the human condition. So, upon reflection, it has everything to do with this project, albeit in a distant sense. I’ve been really looking forward to this bit…

 

But first, Ralph Hamilton, the Master of Belhaven is here to steady us on an excitable morning. His diary reminds us of the confusion and deadly silliness of the war of attrition as he analyzes a sudden artillery duel on his sector of the line. He tosses off his conclusion, but one imagines that it probably took some extensive detective work to figure out what actually took place…

As far as I can make out this morning, nothing really happened, except that both sides lost their heads. The Germans started the excitement by seeing spooks. They bombed their own wire and put up their S.O.S., whereupon our people thought they were going to be attacked and sent up our S.O.S. Both artilleries promptly replied, and for the next half-hour there was hell in the front lines. I fancy it was fairly expensive for both sides, as I imagine there were a lot of casualties.[1]

“Expensive,” that is not just in the financial cost of huge amounts of ammunition fired to no strategic effect, but in terms of blood and suffering.

 

Humanity: confused, frightened, driven mad with fear and the strangeness of the other–yet beginning to see, perhaps, in glimpses of insight, that though we are all utterly alone, we are also all utterly alone together. We are human beings, clotted into tribes of strange and foolish other human beings, and we may (or may not) have long lives to live among them…

 

Now, I’ve read a lot of Great War literature and history and poetry and memoir over the past twenty years, especially during the last four. (I’m pounding through two mediocre novels set this March, as we speak!) But, happily, I do find some time to read some other things as well. One of this past year’s projects was Elizabeth Bishop (born 1911) who produced a smallish oeuvre of poetry in a variety of forms and moods. This smallish oeuvre is richly studded, however, with tremendous, unforgettable poems. I had read some of her brilliant descriptive poems of people and animals, I knew the perfect villanelle about losing things, but I had never read In the Waiting Room. There must be other brilliant poems of remembered childhood experience, but if I knew of any even approaching this one I have long forgotten them…

I don’t like to post entire long poems here, for several reasons, so please follow the link above and read the whole thing (it’s only a few pages). Or read below: I will excerpt a few large sections, perforating her meditative brilliance with my eager interjections.

 

In Worcester, Massachusetts,
I went with Aunt Consuelo
to keep her dentist’s appointment
and sat and waited for her
in the dentist’s waiting room.
It was winter. It got dark
early. The waiting room
was full of grown-up people,
arctics and overcoats,
lamps and magazines.

 

Young Elizabeth then picks up the February 1918 National Geographic and reads. Something about the dramatic presentation of human difference that the magazine offers–there are Brave White Explorers, there is man killed in tribal fighting, there are African women, with their breasts hanging low, horrifying the proper American girl–stirs her sense of self, and then, as overhead sound merges with the thoughts bred from words, an epiphany strikes.

 

Suddenly, from inside,
came an oh! of pain
–Aunt Consuelo’s voice–
not very loud or long.
I wasn’t at all surprised;
even then I knew she was
a foolish, timid woman.
I might have been embarrassed,
but wasn’t. What took me
completely by surprise
was that it was me:
my voice, in my mouth.
Without thinking at all
I was my foolish aunt,
I–we–were falling, falling,
our eyes glued to the cover
of the National Geographic,
February, 1918.

I said to myself: three days
and you’ll be seven years old.
I was saying it to stop
the sensation of falling off
the round, turning world.
into cold, blue-black space.
But I felt: you are an I,
you are an Elizabeth,
you are one of them.
Why should you be one, too?
I scarcely dared to look
to see what it was I was.
I gave a sidelong glance
–I couldn’t look any higher–
at shadowy gray knees,
trousers and skirts and boots
and different pairs of hands
lying under the lamps.
I knew that nothing stranger
had ever happened, that nothing
stranger could ever happen.

 

No, nothing could. To be at once aware of the full force of self-hood, of the boundaries that separate your own little body from the shuffling, yelping others around you, and of your full membership in a species so familiar and yet so terrible and strange…

And it’s three days before her seventh birthday. (The poem itself was written many decades later, when Bishop was belatedly being recognized as one of the century’s great poets.)

Worcester, MA, is far from Templeux, where those two panicky barrages are falling on two sets of trenches despite the fact that neither gallant infantry officers nor wicked staff brass hats actually harbored any murderous raid plans for this morning, a century back.

But I haven’t bent the rules of this project as far as it might seem. At the very end of this childish/timeless/rivetingly powerful poem, we will have the date as well as the reminder of the war. National Geographic may point to a different way of seeing the world (with all its own problems), but looming over this day, a century back–and over young Elizabeth’s new perception of her humanity and her Elizabeth-ness in all its strangeness–is the fact that humanity is conducting one of its most destructive experiments yet.

 

The waiting room was bright
and too hot. It was sliding
beneath a big black wave,
another, and another.

Then I was back in it.
The War was on. Outside,
in Worcester, Massachusetts,
were night and slush and cold,
and it was still the fifth
of February, 1918.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary, 451.

Siegfried Sassoon in Barracks and Jack Martin in the Alps: and Both on the Brotherhood of Soldiers

Siegfried Sassoon‘s brief but spirited war against the war–better described, perhaps, as his revolt against the army, or come to think of it, as his revolt against the war conceived as dependent on certain grand strategic principles and decisions–is now long over. He has been sent to Limerick, far from combat, and plunged back into the congenial all-male companionship and calmly structured life of the garrison officer.

He has not forgotten yet what men in barracks are for, in either the purposive or future sense of the phrase, and he will continue to think and write about the wrongness of men being sent to die in what seems to be an endless war, coolly prolonged by those who could end it through negotiation. But whether he is now simply recharging his poetic batteries (dreadful phrase) or working on the task of beautiful idealization that so often precedes literary martyrdom, it’s hard to tell. in any case, he has turned his eye and his pen toward the young soldiers once more under his care.

 

In Barracks

First World War Poetry Digital Archive, Oxford

The barrack-square, washed clean with rain,
Shines wet and wintry-grey and cold.
Young Fusiliers, strong-legged and bold,
March and wheel and march again.

The sun looks over the barrack gate,
Warm and white with glaring shine,
To watch the soldiers of the Line
That life has hired to fight with fate.

Fall out: the long parades are done.
Up comes the dark; down goes the sun.
The square is walled with windowed light.
Sleep well, you lusty Fusiliers;

Shut your brave eyes on sense and sight,
And banish from your dreamless ears
The bugle’s dying notes that say,
‘Another night; another day.’

 

 

From Limerick, then, to Italy. It would have been nice, for purposes of comparison, if I had touched us down today, ever so briefly, in the frozen muck of the Flanders plain. But we remember, do we not?

The war is very different in the Alps. But Jack Martin, too, is stretching his writing muscles as the sun goes down–rather earlier than it did for Sassoon’s grim-fated soldiers in Ireland.

We never tire of looking at the great mountains… They seem to look down on the plains and on the puny ways of men with a dignified superiority much as a philosopher might watch the sport of kittens…

Often I have seen photographs taken above the clouds but today I have seen the real thing. I place it as one of the most wonderful experiences of my life. The sun was getting low in the heavens and we were preparing our tea when I looked out of the door towards the plain and it was all covered with a great white cloud which reached up to within a hundred yards or so of us. The huge white mass was almost still…

Although the sun was sinking it was still just above the cloud and touched it here and there with wonderful tints of rose and rosy-gold…

They saw nothing of this at Brigade HQ, for being at a lower level they were enveloped in the mist. Soon after sundown the cloud disappeared as suddenly as it came. Nature is a quick-change artist in this country and no mistake.

So that was sunset–but Martin, too, turns his thoughts down from the sun and its beauties and mysteries to his comrades. He is compelled to, for the sun is down and he is still outside, on guard under the cruel stars.

I sometimes lose patience with Sassoon’s solipsism, but by the coincidence of their writing today–very different sorts of writing by very different men–Martin reminds me that Sassoon’s conflicted and conflicting impulses were honestly motivated: the sickness of war, its crime and its pity, are that it kills people–it comes first for the eager young men–and for no good reason. And one early and ironic lesson that war teaches these young men is that they need each other very badly if they are to endure it.

I am now on night duty. Sitting by the firelight has grown oppressive so I have lit a precious candle to enable me to pass the time in writing. I have been outside the billet and the silence is the sort that can be felt. People who live under modern conditions of civilisation can scarcely comprehend the meaning of absolute silence. And the silence of the trenches among the mountains is uncanny and almost palpable…

There is not the least sign of life or activity and the winking stars look down like cynical eyes of cruel gods ready to laugh at human suffering and misery. Yet you know well enough that away in front, men are ceaselessly watching, ready to give the alarm at the first sign of animation on the enemy’s lines; and there are rifles and machine guns and trench mortars and field guns and howitzers of all kinds and sizes ready to break forth into a clamorous roaring and screeching at any moment…

You know that all that noise is possible and the Silence makes you shudder. It feels uncanny. It oppresses you…. you creep back into your billet with cold shivering down your spine and a dull nervousness in your heart–And there you have a light and you see your comrades asleep, and hear their snorings and inarticulate grunting and you feel like being at home once more. Your spine becomes warm and erect–your heart steady and brave, and you say ‘Bah! I wasn’t afraid; I was only interested![1]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Sapper Martin, 165-7.

A Sunset for Sapper Martin; John Lucy Under a Bright Moon

Jack Martin and his comrades have been working to improve their new positions. So far he has noted that the rate of enemy fire on the Italian front compares very favorably to Flanders. So too does the view:

The sun was going down before our task was completed, and looking towards the mountains we saw their snow-covered sides glowing in a deep rose hue. It was wonderful and almost unbelievable. We ceased our work to look at it but it only lasted a few minutes. Gradually the depth of colour grew paler and finally faded away, leaving the mountains cold and grim.[1]

 

It’s been a long time since we’ve heard from John Lucy, one time Irish Regular. The bulk of his book tells of his time in the ranks before the war, during the chaos of 1914, and the long and bloody adjustment to life in the New Army that characterized the experience of 1915. 1916 saw Lucy shell-shocked and mourning his brother, and the book–in which he strove for honesty but struggled to find a way to tell his story as anything other than an action-packed tale–drew towards its end. But by the spring of this year Lucy was back on duty and, as an experienced and relatively well-educated ranker, he was offered a commission. So it was as a lieutenant that he came back to France, and into the line in the autumn, and out toward a well-deserved rest… until the German counter-attack at Cambrai.

We were disappointed and annoyed at having to remedy the defeat of other units. The immediate order was to hold the shattered front at all cost…

They arrived in the line in the wee hours of this morning, a century back.

…our Colonial guide passed left into a branching trench. ‘Is this a communication trench?’ I asked . ‘No,’ he answered, ‘front line.’ Even in darkness I could see it was a rotten, hastily dug trench with a poor parapet and no fire-bays. I took over from a sergeant, who gave me very little information beyond the general direction of the enemy. He was undisguisedly wind-up, and his men were shaken. He complained: ‘They attack us every night, and come in, and take prisoners…’

I did not want my men to hear him. ‘Out of the way,’ I said, ‘and let my platoon in.’

Lucy discovers that the position is actually a section of the Hindenburg Line, captured by the British and now half-recaptured by the Germans.

At the dawn ‘Stand-to’ I prowled round near the block. On our side of it the big trench was a shambles. Freshly killed, mutilated bodies of Irish of another regiment were laid along the fire-step, and a hand of one protruding into the trench had all the fingers neatly sheared off as if by a razor blade. Beyond our block the Germans had built their own block, and from behind it they began to fire pineapples at us. Then British shrapnel burst over us, and we found ourselves getting a dose of morning hate from our own guns. ‘Good heavens,’ I said weakly, and I sat down.

I had the most depressing feeling of coming calamity…

They day brought a number of casualties, but for Lucy himself nothing worse than a painfully torn knee. As dusk fell, a German patrol approached, silhouetted by a bright moon, and he and his men gunned them down. Reporting this to headquarters, Lucy was summoned, then

given a drink, and ordered to fetch in any dead Germans. I objected, and there was a shocked silence among the headquarters staff.

After the C.O. declares that identifying the German patrol is worth the loss of six men, give or take, Lucy compromises by agreeing to go out whenever a convenient cloud obscures the moon.

It was two hours before we got a chance. I lagged behind the patrol as I could only make poor headway crawling on my bandaged knee. This was coupled with an entire lack of enthusiasm. My spirit had gone out somehow…[2]

Lucy’s ill-starred, bright-mooned “epilogue” will continue tomorrow…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Sapper Martin, 150-1.
  2. There's a Devil in the Drum, 382-6.

Wilfred Owen: Oh! World You are Making for Me, Sassoon!; Kipling and Carstairs on the Chaos of Bourlon Wood

There is a long letter from Wilfred Owen to Siegfried Sassoon to get to, today, but comradeship rightly comes after battle.

First, then, two accounts of one of the most desperate days at Cambrai. We enter Bourlon Wood with Carroll Carstairs and the 3rd Grenadier Guards. I know almost nothing of Carstairs, but his writing is consistently interesting. He indulges a bit in the blasé roué routine, but only so far: when he comes to the worse of experience he slows down and concentrates, carefully reconstructing the sights and sounds of battle. But he doesn’t become merely a sort of responsible, roving eye or recording camera, either: Carstairs doesn’t spare himself, analyzing his own feelings even in the most trying circumstances.

It was about four in the morning when the Commanding Officer himself woke me. The candles, stuck in bottles on the table, burned as straight as on any altar. Each step up the twenty-two of the dugout was a conscious movement. Now we were at the entrance. The night was still, breathless. It had been raining. The air on our faces
left a moisture. The ground was soggy and the going difficult. The mud stuck to our boots until we were walking on huge pads.

We came upon No. 1 Company—mutes and shadows and something more than men. The Commanding Officer went down a dugout to have a last word with “Mary” Bowes-Lyon while I remained and joked with the two subalterns. How is it one can jest at such a time? It’s a question of tuning up. Laughter is the loophole through
which joy enters the soul. We were slipping along again. An interminable walk to go a few yards. But we had missed No. 2 Company and were out in No Man’s Land heading for the enemy. We made for the road which divided the Battalion. By the time we had reached Nos. 3 and 4 Companies they were forming up. Sinister shadows filling the gloom, as silent as the night itself, only the immense discipline of the Brigade of Guards kept one from remembering they were men cold and wet and dulled with fear…

At 6.20 our barrage came down and while I thought of the Battalion as a unit, five hundred men had begun their perilous progress towards the enemy trenches.

Carstairs is left in support: he sees other units attacking, a light barrage dropping, and then wounded men coming back. With the battle raging ahead, he moves up with the battalion HQ and reserves.

We had reached the foot of the village without a casualty. I was standing on ground newly won. To my left and right stretched deserted enemy entrenchments.

Near me lay two wounded Grenadiers. One was in a ditch full of water. They were remarkably quiet. I felt I should get them back somehow, but there were no stretcher bearers about.

Out of the house next to which I was standing appeared three Germans. They were holding up their hands. One had his foot in a bandage and was being helped along by the others. They looked frightened and miserable. While they are chattering in German, a wounded Grenadier turned up, quite off his head.

“That’s all right, sir,” he addressed me. “I’ll kill them.”

“I wouldn’t do that,” I remonstrated.

“Oh, that’s quite all right. You just leave them to me.” He threatened them with his rifle. The wounded German started to whimper and shuffled off.

The Grenadier followed, herding his little party together. He used his rifle like a shepherd’s staff. Could he have been a shepherd in civilian life? They disappeared in the direction of an out-house. Whatever happened to them? They were not heading strictly for the British lines.

And that’s all we learn.

At least this is a true war story: there may be honor and mercy, or, more likely it seems, madness and atrocity. But Carstairs has his own task and his own peril to worry about, and must move on… and so must we.

Another small party of prisoners appeared with a wounded Grenadier as escort. He was dazed and shaking with fright.

“Take a door off this house and have these prisoners carry back this wounded man.” But he did not understand.
The prisoners stood nervously about wishing to be gone. I showed them what I wanted done and they complied with alacrity.

Soon they were off, carrying the wounded Grenadier. It must have been a heavy load. I could not help fearing they would drop him half way in their eagerness to get out of danger. But if they had any thought of doing so it was intercepted by a German shell which burst in their midst after they had gone two hundred yards.

More prisoners turning up, removed another door from a house, on which they placed the man lying in the ditch of water.

Suddenly a large group of Germans approached. Their leader was a big man and the rest followed with a martial tread that contrasted oddly with their upraised hands and white handkerchiefs, energetically waved by some. One or two dodged into houses, but the rest marched on until they had reached us. The big man addressed me and I felt like a traffic policeman as I pointed to the British lines and watched them hurry off. Messages arrived from Nos. 3 and 4 Companies. They had captured their objectives, they were held up by heavy German machine-gun fire, they had suffered considerably and were in need of reinforcements. No word from either Nos. 1 or 2 Companies—a bad sign.

The Commanding Officer turned up. I saluted as though on parade.

He looked anxious. “We must go up and see what is happening.”

Together we proceeded up the main street of Fontaine-Notre-Dame, down which machine-gun bullets were pouring with the volume of water from a fire-hose. We hugged the houses to minimize the danger of being hit.

We reached the cross-roads and I marvelled that a man could get so far and remain alive. We were in the van of the battle. It seemed a miracle had happened to me.

Knollys greeted us. His Company Commander had been wounded. He was holding his position with about forty men and one machine-gun. It was almost all that was left of the Battalion. Nos. 1 and 2 Companies had  disappeared into the blue. They had been, as a matter of fact, wiped out. All officers (including both Company Commanders killed) both Sergeant-Majors, and all Sergeants casualties, and two-thirds of the men. Knollys was not certain but he thought No. 4 Company was somewhere up on the left.

Joining one of his friends in the aftermath of the fight, Carstairs continues to describe the intense strangeness of the persistence of human interactions in the midst of deadly battle.

Our consultation was interrupted by the appearance of a tank. It stopped, and out of it an officer descended.

“Do you want me any more?”

“No.” I felt as though I were dismissing a taxi.

He climbed back into the tank and down the street it waddled away.

We occupied a difficult position. The road to our rear joined with the left flank of No. 3 Company. We stood at the junction of the two other roads, one of which led to the station and the other in the direction of Bourlon Wood. The 1st Coldstream were somewhere on our left. A wide gap divided us, a gap impossible to bridge.

Suddenly to our right we saw the enemy attacking down the main road that led to the centre of No. 3 Company’s position. We were well placed to enfilade, which we did with a will. We watched the Germans being beaten back, holding up their arms before their faces as though warding off blows from sticks and stones.

With that attack driven back we thought of No. 3 Company as secure. The men were posted to overlook the roads. We had no thought of our rear. I sent a runner with a message giving our position…

But it soon becomes clear that they are, in fact, in touch with no other British unit–No 3. Company has been driven back by the same attack which his men have just fired on.

Our situation was awkward, to say the least. Sixty men with both flanks in the air cannot hold a village against a strong and inevitable counter-attack.

I caught sight of my face in a mirror. It was pink and normal. I had not taken in the seriousness of our position. I was still in a kind of a dream. A mental smokescreen obscured my vision.

Even the sergeant’s astonishing announcement reached me dimly, “Germans are coming up be’ind!” By no selective reasoning did I find myself, with revolver drawn, behind the wall, while the others stood in the entrance of the yard.

Carstairs’ memories move into the present tense, now:

And to be suddenly shooting at grey uniformed Germans was accompanied by no thrill. How big they were! Was it because he was aiming straight at my head that this German appeared so big? The motion of his rifle coming up to his shoulder increased his stature. My revolver lost power to hurt, for after I had fired the Germans remained in the same position. And yet they were so near it would have seemed impossible to have missed them. (A week before I had hit an envelope at twenty paces.) It did not seem as though I was missing but rather as though my bullets, turning into pellets, were bounding harmlessly off. Nor did the German’s rifle seem to function. There was no smoke, no flash, and I heard no bullet whistle uncomfortably close to my head. The whole thing took on the unreality of a “movie” until one of the Germans dropped. It seemed the signal for which his fellows had been waiting, for with one accord they spun round and ran away. I have never seen people run so fast. I can see
again that man as he turned the corner, the play of his big grey legs from hip to knee. He is gone.

I gazed at Carrington and he at me. It was from our rear that we had been attacked. Where is No. 3 Company?

It was the sergeant who showed presence of mind.

“We must follow.”

Someone shouted. “Collect the rest of the men.”

We broke into a run; following in the wake of the Germans. We passed the wounded German. He had raised himself on his elbow and, stretching out a hand, said something. A plea for mercy, for help? The bullet had hit the bone below the eye, leaving a bloody gash.

We reached the bend in the road. This had been the left of No. 3 Company’s position. Only a dead Grenadier remained. Did we expect to meet the enemy as we stopped stock-still at the corner? I expected nothing. I had ceased to think. It was as though our legs had outstripped thought. Time itself had stopped. The surprise attack, the brief duel, the pursuit, following in swift succession seemed all to belong to the same moment. Only now was time passing. An eternity, while one stood irresolute, wondering what to do.

“We must cut in be’ind these ’ouses, otherwise we’re lost.” It was the sergeant again who spoke.

The thirty survivors of the company escape by climbing through the back gardens of the village of Fontaine. But they do make it back to the rest of the battalion, and Carstairs once again takes time to reflect–once again we are in the past tense.

Experience, at first stimulating, ends by draining the system. Through the high storm of enemy shelling I passed, with any capacity for registering further emotion at last microscopically diminished. I felt no fear because I could feel nothing more. Slithering down the steep and muddy flight of stairs into the dim interior of Battalion  Headquarters’ dugout was a purely mechanical performance, and its shadowy occupants unreal. Its gloom and earthen smell reminded my subconscious self of former rest and security, which acted soporifically upon me and, at the end of my narrative, I fell forward on to the table into a sleep more profound and dreamless than any I had ever known.

I woke into a strange world. The events of the preceding hours rushed kaleidoscopically upon me, leaving me to fit myself, like a piece in a picture puzzle, into my immediate surroundings.

The Battalion was soon to move. Billy was sitting with his head in his hands saying, “Oh, my head! Oh, my head!”
In the midst of the most acute anxiety, disappointment and distress, the Commanding Officer had patience to repeat for the nth time, “Poor Billy!”

The Adjutant and the Padre returned from a final futile hunt for the bodies of “Nibs” and “Mary.” “Missing, believed killed” they will remain until the end of time, with the rest of a generation missing.

A miserable and stricken little family, the survivors of the 3rd Battalion left the “line.”[1]

 

Once again, for the sake of stylistic comparison, we can match the memoir (or personal history) of one Guards’ Regiment officer with the official historian of another.

They led off at 6.20 behind their own barrage, in two waves… Everything was ready for them, and machine-guns opened on well-chosen and converging ranges. Almost at the outset they met a line of enemy posts held in strength, where many of the occupants had chosen to shelter themselves at the bottom of the trenches under oil- sheets, a protection hampering them equally in their efforts to fight or to surrender. Here there was some quick killing and a despatch of prisoners to the rear; but the Wood offered many chances of escape, and as our guards were necessarily few, for every rifle was needed, a number broke away and returned…

[T]he Battalion took half-a-dozen machine-guns and lost more men at each blind step… A man once down in the coppice, or bogged in a wood-pool, was as good as lost, and the in-and-out work through the trees and stumpage broke up the formations…

Nevertheless, the 2nd Irish Guards carry the wood–for a little while. The entire Battalion’s experience sounds much like that of Carstairs:

Not long after this, they tried to dig in among the wet tree-roots, just beyond the Wood’s north edge. It seemed to them that the enemy had fallen back to the railway-line which skirted it, as well as to the north of La Fontaine village. Officially, the objective was reached, but our attacking strength had been used up, and there were no reserves. A barrage of big stuff, supplemented by field-guns, was steadily thrashing out the centre and north of the Wood, and, somewhere to the rear of the Battalion, a nest of machine-guns broke out viciously and unexpectedly. Then the whole fabric of the fight appeared to crumble, as, through one or other of the many gaps between the Battalions, the enemy thrust in, and the 2nd Irish Guards, hanging on to their thin front line, realised him suddenly at their backs. What remained of them split up into little fighting groups; sometimes taking prisoners, sometimes themselves being taken and again breaking away from their captors, dodging, turning, and ducking in dripping coppices and over the slippery soil, while the shells impartially smote both parties…

It looked like complete and unqualified disaster. But men say that the very blindness of the ground hid this fact to a certain extent both from us and the enemy, and the multiplied clamours in the Wood supplied an additional blindage. As one man said: ‘If Jerry had only shut off his dam’ guns and listened he’d ha’ heard we was knocked out; but he kept on hammer-hammering an’ rushin’ his parties back and forth the Wood, and so, ye see, them that could of us, slipped back quiet in the height of the noise.’ Another observer compared it to the chopping of many foxes in cover — not pleasant, but diversified by some hideously comic incidents. All agreed that it was defeat for the Guards — the first complete one they had sustained; but the admitted fact that they had been turned on at a few hours’ notice to achieve the impossible, did not spoil their tempers…

One of the handful of company officers not to become a casualty, today, in Bourlon Wood, was R.E. Sassoon, Siegfried‘s second cousin, who had been held back as a reserve with battalion headquarters.

Cambrai may have given hope and encouragement in England, but those who had been through it remained Sadducees. There were those who said that that hour was the psychological one to have gone on and taken advantage of the moral effect of breaking the Hindenburg Line, but this theory was put forward after the event; and a total of eleven thousand prisoners and a hundred and forty-five German guns for three weeks’ fighting seems small foundation for such large hopes. Every one on the field seems to have been agreed as to the futility of trying to work with, and making arrangements for the keep of, masses of cavalry on the chance that these might break through and overrun the enemy in the background.[2]

 

True enough… but we were going to use Captain Sassoon as a segue to a letter from his second cousin’s friend, admirer, and poetic master-surpassing-pupil. Wilfred Owen, has settled into life as a military hotel manager of sorts, but this is only tolerable because of his confidence that his intellectual life is not just elsewhere but flourishing… there.

27 November 1917 Scarborough

I sit alone at last, and therefore with you, my dear Siegfried. For which name, as much as for anything in any envelope of your sealing, I give thanks and rejoice.

The 5th have taken over a big Hotel, of which I am Major Domo…

I had a Third Heaven of a time in London, arid should have got into a Fourth or Fifth if I had not missed you on Wednesday. Were you there for a ‘Reading?’ I know nothing of it to this day.

He was. Should Sassoon have included Owen? No–it was Ross’s gig, not Sassoon’s, and he was none too pleased to be there himself. Besides, Owen is not as established as Nichols, and arranging such things by letter and telegraph takes a bit more forethought than would be required nowadays… but Owen might also have been wrong for such things because he was not socially correct. He was neither low enough in the social order to be a curiosity nor high enough to be acceptable: he had been to neither Public School nor University, and Sassoon is painfully (read that adverb however you will) aware of Owen’s declassé accent.

After London, I went to Winchester to see my Cousin, whose fine Book cover with its enclosed pages I dare to send you herewith…

In Town, then, R.R. gave me a glorified morning at The Reform, & evening at Half Moon St.—When he had steered me to a lunch-table I found beside me an upstart rodent of a man, who looked astonished to find himself there. But dear Ross sang out with blessed distinctness ‘Mister Amnoldd Bennnettt’. So I stood up and shook hands.  Presently I became aware of a pair of bayonet-coloured eyes, threatening at me from over, as it were, a brown sandbag. ‘H. G. Wells!’ So I stood up and shook hands. I think these men noticed me because I stood up to them in two senses. Anyhow I got A.B. into a comer about you, as I will tell you someday. And H.G. talked to me exclusively for an hour. I was only ill at ease with him once, and that was when he tried to make me laugh with him at Bennett’s gaudy handkerchief.

If you have read through this rehashing of the non-momentous meetings with a roll of the eyes–that Owen is a bit too star struck!–it’s interesting to see what comes next. Even in this somewhat fawning letter to Sassoon, he is willing to, well, fawn, and only just after frankly wondering about Sassoon’s taste in his new friends…

What sport for my imagination is the idea of your Meeting with R. Nichols.—He is so self-concerned & vaniteux in his verse that I thought he must efface himself in a room: even as you who write so acid are so—unsoured; and me, who write so big, am so minuscule…

Oh! world you are making for me, Sassoon!

The only question is, which is the real gift: the criticism and the confidence, the poetic push, or, rather, the exciting entree into literary life?

Owen is quite amusing, actually, in his reading of Sassoon’s and Graves‘s work. There is something very charming about his light-spiritedness, even if he leans on it rather heavily. He presumes a bit too much on his intimacy with the sometimes-frosty Sassoon… but then he laughs at his own excessive glorying:

I think I liked reading his Letter to you more than yours to him, but for no better reasons than that I like the future better than the past, and hope you will learn the piccolo…

If these tetrameters aren’t enough to bring you to your senses. Mad Jack, what can my drivel effect to keep you from France?

Have you been very sat upon by this Board? Do tell me quick what your movements are.

I have studied and expanded every sentencience of your sole letter to me; until I can make no more out of it, and want some more, please…

Owen then–to his credit–at least passes on some of his cousin’s work, with apologetic notes on how to get through them most painlessly. But he also includes his own work, both the unpublished “A Vision of Whitechapel” and another poem, as strange as his mood:

My ‘Vision’ is the result of two hours’ leisure yesterday,—and getting up early this morning! If you have objections to make, would you return it? If not, pass it on to R.R.

I trust you’ll like the ‘Soldier’s Dream’ well enough to pass it on to the Nation or Cambridge?

Um…

I dreamed kind Jesus fouled the big-gun gears;
And caused a permanent stoppage in all bolts;
And buckled with a smile Mausers and Colts;
And rusted every bayonet with His tears.

And there were no more bombs, of ours or Theirs,
Not even an old flint-lock, not even a pikel.
But God was vexed, and gave all power to Michael;
And when I woke he’d seen to our repairs.

Sassoon will blush here–if not for the effusiveness, the nick-naming, and tje suddenly unreasonable-seeming hopes of publication, than for the plainness of one fact: Owen does not make a very good Sassoon. The punchy satirical style doesn’t work as well without the anger behind it… also, those are some awful rhymes.

No; Owen will realize, soon, that Sassoon’s attention and example have made him–Owen–a much better poet, and no mere fanboy. But he is that, also.

…There is no one here whose mind is Truth, or whose body Keats’s synonym for Truth.

I’ll mind my business. I’m a good worm.

Could you get me another portrait for my room here? I framed the one, and could not pack it.

But don’t make it an excuse for delaying a letter.

I hope you will read through this, twice.

I hope you read Graves’s Letter to S.S. twice a day, till war ends.

We have had some strong sunshine; and when it strikes anything blue I see you sitting by the bedside as on That Morning in September

I am Owen; and I am dying.
I am Wilfred; and I follow the Gleam.[3]

Never fear: this is not some sort of crazed or suicidal swerve at the end of the letter, but a quotation (read “Merlin” for both “Owen” and “Wilfred) from Tennyson’s “Merlin and The Gleam.” What a letter!

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Carstairs, A Generation Missing, 121-139.
  2. The Irish Guards in the Great War, II, 157-62.
  3. Collected Letters, 510-12.

George Coppard’s Machine Guns to Cambrai; Rowland Feilding’s Rangers at Bullecourt; Robert Graves Sets the Record Straight; Agnes Miller as Lizzie Bennet, Olaf Stapledon as Mr. Darcy

Today, a century back, was the first day of the battle of Cambrai. There shouldn’t have been any real hope for a breakthrough, especially so near to the beginning of winter. But the ground in front of Cambrai–between the Arras battlefield and the Somme battlefield–was relatively unspoiled, and it was conceivable that the British could take the town and the Bourlon Ridge and thus threaten to cut off the Hindenberg Line. It is also conceivable that since the Third Army hadn’t suffered horribly, lately, its restive commanders simply wanted to experiment with massed tanks and new artillery tactics, and so an intelligent commitment to holding the line gave way to an experimental local attack that grew out of scale as the planning continued.

But I’m not capable of giving an intelligent precis of the strategy here, nor do we really need one. Six divisions of infantry and over 400 tanks were massed for the traditional dawn assault, and there was some hope that the Germans, expecting a long barrage, would be unprepared for the sudden attack after a short, furious bombardment by over a thousand guns, most of which had been “silently” registered on their targets. The new tactics worked well, but they will not be enough to sustain initial successes against the heavily built-up Hindenberg Line.

Among the thousands lying out between the British front lines in the early morning hours were George Coppard and his two machine gun teams, part of the 37th Brigade, 12th Division.

There we were, a brigade of men, shivering on a cold November night, without a smoke, and suffering like drug addicts… we were only allowed to communicate in whispers. It was the queerest sensation being packed with a vast crowd of warriors, within 400 yards of our front line, and out in the open, after living like rabbits in burrows for many months. It was a spooky business, and we kept as quiet as mice…

Like all the rest I was excited at the prospect of going into battle behind these new-fangled Wellsian monsters. I felt they were really going to exact retribution, on behalf of all of us, for the countless miseries and privations that we poor blighters had suffered at Jerry’s hands.This was to be the reckoning…

Zero was at 6.30 am on that memorable day, 20 November. We heard the sound of tank engines warming up. The first glimpse of dawn was beginning to show as we stood waiting for the big bang that would erupt behind us at the end of the countdown. Lieutenant Garbutt and Sergeant Critcher were standing near me. At last the officer began to count. He was bang on, and in a flash the black sky at our backs was ablaze with stabbing shafts of light. A vast drum of terrible thunder swept along the eight-mile front and a chorus of shells screamed over to the east. The need for silence was over, and we exploded in a babble of excitement. That concentration of artillery was surely one of the greatest ever known. The tanks, looking like giant toads, became visible against the skyline as they approached the top of the slope. Some of the leading tanks carried huge bundles of tightly-bound brushwood, which they dropped when a wide trench was encountered, thus providing a firm base to cross over. Suddenly, the bombardment ceased. By now the tanks were near the German lines and shooting it out where resistance was met…

We went forward into enemy country in a manner never possible without the aid of tanks. ‘A’ section fell in behind the Queen’s, my two guns being on the right flank. No enemy fire of any sort impeded us until we passed Gonnelieu on our left… It was broad daylight as we crossed No Man’s Land and the German front line. I saw very few wounded coming back, and only a handful of prisoners. The tanks appeared to have busted through any resistance. The enemy wire had been dragged about like old curtains, though it was not comparable in density to the terrible wire at the beginning of the Somme battle.

As we moved forward… I could see several tanks rolling forward steadily. There did not appear to be any organised defence against them. Some changed directions to meet isolated spots of resistance, mostly from machine guns. One or two had come to a stand-still, probably with engine trouble…

From the general situation it seemed to me that the German infantry had either fled at the apparition of the tanks or had pulled out deliberately, leaving their machine guns to do what they could…

Whatever the reason for the feeble resistance, it suited my gun team very nicely, and we moved forward steadily with guns and gear. Officialdom had designated tanks sex-wise, i.e. those with light cannon were males and those with machine guns were females. This caused the lads to think up some bright expressions when viewing the lumbering monsters, such as, “Here’s an old bitch,’ or, ‘There goes a bloody great bull.’

Advancing along captured communications trenches, Coppard and his men eventually discovered that not all German resistance had been overcome. His wide-ranging memories of the day[1] narrow, now, as he comes under direct fire.

We reached a point where it cut through the banks of a sunken road. We had to cross the road, but pulled up sharp at the sight of three dead Tommies lying on it. I dashed across the road to where the trench continued–a matter of about ten feet. From a concealed position on my right a Jerry machine guns opened fire. My hair stood on end as the bullets hissed past my back. The gunner was just a trifle late to get me.

There was a tank nearby beginning to move after a stop. I told one of the crew about the enemy machine gun, ‘We’ll fix the bastard,’ he replied, and slowly the tank shuffled round on its tracks and rolled off in the direction of the hostile gun. Then came a fiery burst as the hapless weapon tried to beat off the tank, the bullets clanging and ricocheting. The teams crossed the road safely, well-bucked at this practical demonstration of a tank in action.

Other than this adventure, Coppard saw little action–most of the German artillery seems to have withdrawn before the attack–evidence, perhaps, that they were not in fact strategically surprised. The 37th Brigade advances seven kilometres, just as planned, and without finding targets along the way. After his two teams dig in for the night–and for the expected counter-attack–Coppard explored their immediate area, finding a German command dugout with a body at the bottom. Nauseated–and fearing booby traps–he and his hungry men forgo taking any of the food in the dugout…[2]

 

Rowland Feilding‘s battalion was part of the 16th (Irish) Division, and attacked not as part of the main effort at Cambrai but with the subsidiary attack several miles to the west, at Bullecourt. They held the right flank of their brigade attack, which would prove to be a difficult situation.

Shortly before Zero I headed for the front to wish the assaulting Companies good luck before they went over, but I was delayed, and found myself still in the fire-trench when, bursting out of almost perfect silence, our barrage started…

As a precautionary measure I had had the direction of the objective marked out with tape the night before, having learned, from previous experience, the difficulty of keeping direction in the dark.

Absolutely to the tick I watched the men scaling the ladders… and scrambling over the parapet, the signallers under their sergeant struggling with the coils of telephone wire that was to keep me in touch with the assaulting troops once they had established themselves in the German trench. Those are sights that are very inspiring, and which engrave themselves upon the memory, but I prefer to turn away from them…

By this time the usual inferno… had worked up to its full fury.

It is very clear, at least, that British synchronization has reached a high level of efficiency. Feilding describes the barrage, and his attempt to control the attack from a forward position, but the small dugout soon becomes crammed with wounded men and German prisoners, so he headed back to his “proper Headquarters.”

At this moment poor Brett came stumbling back, crimson with blood, having been shot through the face, bringing further confirmation of the news which I already had from him by runner, that the enemy was furiously counter-attacking our exposed right flank.

The two bunkers are visible in the upper left of the map segment, below, just to the left of the hatched vertical line. Both are marked, appropriately enough, with a symbol much like the conventional “mars” symbol, but in this case indicating a “mebus” machine gun emplacement.

In his next letter, Feilding will explain the tactical situation. The primary objectives of his two companies were two huge reinforced concrete bunkers (“Mebus” was then the term) known as “Mars” and “Jove.” Both were swiftly outflanked under a precise barrage and smoke-screen–“the advance to the attack across Noman’s Land had been carried out precisely as rehearsed”–and surrendered after brief resistance. Eventually, 152 prisoners were collected, but the engineers accompanying the infantry, focused on clearing mines and booby-traps, were unable to block all of the tunnels connecting the German network of defensive positions.

When the counter-attack came, less than an hour after zero, it was both over the open ground to their right and through tunnels that led to the bunker.

You will appreciate its severity when I tell you that the Commander and twenty-six out of twenty-eight other ranks of the right flank platoon became casualties. The officers and men fought with the most heroic determination in spite of a failing and finally disappearing supply of bombs…

At a critical moment one of the men, Private K. White, rushed close up to a traverse from behind which the enemy was bombing, and actually catching some of their bombs in the air, threw them back before they had exploded.

But it was not enough–after an hour, Captain Brett, shot through the face, led a retreat onto the other pillbox. This held, and after another hour, Feilding himself crossed No Man’s land with his orderly in order to visit the position.

I talked to the men as I passed along the line, and found them in good spirits, and confident in the knowledge of the splendid part they had played that morning…

They have done well–and still suffered heavy casualties.

The familiar scene of desolation confronted me. Each time I see this kind of thing I think it is worse than the last time, and indeed, on this occasion, so churned up was the surface that, but for the line of tunnel entrances and the trodden ground between them, there was little left to indicate where the trench had been. It was just a sea of overlapping craters of huge dimensions–a dismal chaos of fresh-turned earth.

Feilding, with little to do now that the counter-attack has petered out, explores the new position, coming upon the dead, the dying, and the wounded. Even though he is so close to the action–he was in command of the men who stormed the two pillboxes and took the tunnels with hand-grenades, he writes almost as an observer. He sees the horrible aftermath, promises aid to the wounded, and collects souvenirs…[3]

 

Back down in the main battle, Edward Horner (one of the last of the Coterie, and a great friend of both Diana Manners and Duff Cooper) moved up with his 18th Hussars as the battle began. We have read Coppard’s and Feilding’s tales of heavy machine guns, precise artillery coordination, and tank exploits against pillboxes, and the battlefield was overflown by hundreds of aircraft–1917 as a foreshadowing of 1939. But there were only a few hundred tanks to be had and, as we shall see, they were mechanically unreliable, and so the plan for exploiting any breakthroughs was essentially the same as it had been in 1915 and 1916, and behind the attacking tanks and infantry trotted three entire divisions of cavalry–Hussars, Dragoons, and Lancers no longer dressed in their flashing Napoleonic finery, but still booted, spurred, helmeted, and mounted. Cambrai was, in the words of one of our writers who was not there but will study the subject, “a harum-scarum affair, ill-planned and feebly directed.” It was a raid that got out of hand, in terms of its scale, and could only do what raids do: snatch a bit of ground which cannot be held. The tactical coordination may yet be a model for future operations, but they have not solved the operational problem of continuing the advance.

So, as the German counter-attack gathers, Horner’s Hussars, part of the 1st Cavalry Division, passed through the infantry and attacked the village of Noyelles, south-east of Cambrai. But too slowly: although in some places all three major layers of the Hindenberg Line were pierced to a distance of nearly five miles (a fourth line was incomplete), by the time the heavily-laden horses had picked their way through, the German defense had had time to organize. The cavalry were in it, at last, but they were not cantering through the open fields toward Berlin. They were fighting a confused battle on a torn up field, against undisturbed reserves who had easier access to heavy weapons.

 

Back to the infantry, now. E. A. Mackintosh’s 4th Seaforth Highlanders were in reserve, although they probably assumed that they would be called in when the attack bogged down. But they were not–and if the cavalry were both elated and disappointed to be involved in heavy fighting, the infantry were very pleased to have a short march forward into the captured area. So, despite yesterday’s note, Mackintosh saw no fighting today. During the night they will take over for the first waves, victorious but exhausted.[4]

 

Also in the battle were both of Isaac Rosenberg‘s recent units–the company of Royal Engineers with whom he had served as a laborer and the 11th King’s Own Royal Regiment (Lancaster). As with Mackintosh’s Seaforths, their easy first day will turn out to be only be a brief reprieve: the German counter-attack will come soon, and it will be as devastating as the British assault was successful. And so Rosenberg will come to know that he has been very fortunate to be very ill, and in hospital, and not in Bourlon Wood.[5]

 

It might make sense to end here, or to spend more time fleshing out these scattered notices of a large battle–but that, of course, is not how today, a century back, was experienced. It was all in bits in pieces, and only later would it be the beginning of a strategic story of ambition, success, and cruel but predictable reversal. In England the evening papers will have some news of the attack, but for most people, most of the day, their thoughts were elsewhere.

Robert Graves, for instance, is writing from his garrison job in Wales to Robert Nichols. The letter happily discusses their recent literary successes–“My God, Robert, we have lit such a candle as by God’s grace will set the whole barn alight”–and proposes various projects, before it works around to Graves’s real business–clearing the air of any lingering questions about his sexuality.

It’s only fair to tell you that since the cataclysm of my friend Peter, my affections are running in the more normal channels and I correspond regularly and warmly with Nancy Nicholson, who is great fun. I only tell you this so that you should get out of your head any misconceptions about my temperament. I should hate you to think I was a confirmed homosexual even if it were only in my thought and went no further.

Fair enough, perhaps. It is testimony to both Graves’s enthusiasm and his obliviousness that it might only recently have occurred to him that his habit of being honest about his (chaste) passion for a younger schoolboy might lead some to think that he was “a confirmed homosexual.” The topic may be on his mind, too, because Nichols–his heterosexuality confirmed by syphilis apparently contracted from prostitutes–has recently spent time with Siegfried Sassoon and Robbie Ross. And then there is one more poet whose affections run in less “normal” channels… and whom Graves, after connecting Nichols and Sassoon (though Ross was there to do the real work) will try to take credit for discovering, even though, of course, it was Sassoon who introduced them.

I think I have found a few poet as yet unfledged. One Owen, subaltern in the 2nd Manchester Regiment.[6]

Owen, meanwhile, left home this morning, a century back, his leave up, for garrison duty in Scarborough.[7]

 

Finally today, we’ll take a perversely wide view of “war literature” and swing from the tanks at Cambrai to the nineteenth century novel inspiring in Australia.

Agnes Miller–together with a score of other wives and sweethearts–suffers the compounded insult, here, of once again waiting quietly in the background while men’s words take center stage. The excuse, of course, is that we are interested, a century on, in the experience of the war and the problems of writing about it, and therefore the letters of those at the front naturally take precedence over those written from home to the soldiers (and ambulance drivers). Which is fine, as far as it goes, but it’s still a shame that this echoes the general devaluing of women’s voices, a century back. Although sometimes any fault is mine–I choose to omit the letters, that is–another reasonable excuse is that there is often no possibility of including the other half of the conversation: letters from the front could be bundled and laid lovingly away in drawers and trunks, while letters to the front were very often lost or simply thrown away, since a bundle of letters would become a burden to a front-line soldier.

But some recipients were able to keep at least some of their letters, and, while I often skip Agnes Miller’s tales of daily life in wartime Australia, today’s letter, though ill-timed to coincide with a major tank battle and the climax of one machine-gunner’s memoir, is impossible to resist. In fact, it’s about as excellent a letter from a lover as one could hope to receive… which is also to say that I approve of its subject and position, a century on. Moreover, after he will have received her long-delayed doubts on the strength of their relationship to survive these years apart, this letter will surely overwhelm Olaf Stapledon with love for his beloved–and with gratitude for the timely wisdom of that “lady novelist” then dead a century and four months.

20 November 1917

I wonder if perhaps you are at home now on leave—perhaps at this very minute waking up one morning at Annery. I have a habit of always thinking of you eight weeks ago, sort of. I don’t realise that you are really there keeping pace with me at every fresh minute of the day. It is nice to think that. It makes you more real. I have read two books in the past three days. That is my record! I kept thinking how much you would have enjoyed them if we had been reading them aloud to each other. Of course you must have read them—“Pride & Prejudice” & “Northanger Abbey.” You do like Jane Austen, don’t you? I simply love her. Such really artistic delightful writing. Such books make me think of diamonds, small diamonds but perfect in workmanship. Absolutely genuine—clean cut, perfectly smooth & sparkling. Full of such delicious humour & such sound good sense, & although the ways & the language that day are so very different from ours yet the characters are just such as we meet everywhere. I should like to have been friends with Jane & Elizabeth Bennett. . . . I should so like to be as bright & intelligent & sprightly as Elizabeth! No wonder Mr. Darcy “got it badly” when he did get it! I like to picture you in the characters of all the nice lovers— my
Mr. Darcy!

. . . I can understand Elizabeth very well. I can understand her resentment at such a sudden & unexpected declaration. I can understand her disapproval amounting to positive dislike on that occasion. I think she would understand my despair & sorrow—almost shame at having won a love that I could never hope to return. If she had understood my feeling she would not have been surprised to find me weeping upstairs in the darkened drawing room. . . .

Then next I see the beginnings of changes in both of us—changes which make us feel how far away we both were before from the real thing & at last “my Mr. Darcy” comes to me—or rather I write to him from the other end of the world & say, “Dear Mr. Darcy—Once, a long time ago, you asked me to be your wife & I said no & I was very cross & horrible & now I am sorry. Everything is different now & I am different too & I understand & if you will only ask me once again I will not say no—indeed I will not.”

And she did not.

Mr. & Mrs. Darcy were very happy after their stormy courtship & Mr. & Mrs. Stapledon will surely be even more so to make up for all the long time they have had to wait. . . . Jane Austen really is a tonic as well as an artist.[8]

We are to be grateful, however, that Agnes didn’t happen upon Persuasion, first, which might have romantically inclined her toward a long sharp wartime separation and a preference, after all, for brave, dashing, and fortunate officers, rather than principled and dreamy pacifists…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Which read a little bit too much, in a few places, as if they had been influenced by the style of later popular summary.
  2. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 122-6.
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 228-34.
  4. Campbell and Green, Can't Shoot a Man With a Cold, 204-5.
  5. Moorcroft Wilson, Isaac Rosenberg, 375.
  6. In Broken Images, 88-89. There is no date on the letter, but it is dated to today, a century back, by Jean Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 425.
  7. Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 283.
  8. Talking Across the World, 257-8.

Rowland Feilding’s Rangers Move up to the Line; Sapper Martin on Hares and Rabblements

Rowland Feilding will be one of our guides to the coming Battle of Cambrai, into which battle he will shortly lead the 6th Connaught Rangers. His account is a valuable one so, even though this breaks with the strict letter of the law, we will draw from a letter written a few days in the future, when he has time to record his experiences for his wife.

I have known for ages of these impending operations, but I think you will agree that even you could not have guessed this from my letters. I have been obliged to keep my own councils, without confiding even in my Adjutant or the Company Commanders.

We came up to the front line on the 18th, having for a few days previously practised the attack over a prepared replica of the German trenches which were to be our objective. This naturally suggested to all ranks what was before them, and, devout though they always are, in the best of spirits, the whole battalion flocked to Confession the last evening—the 17th—in the patched-up barn at Ervillers…

The following morning (Sunday) all went to non-fasting Communion… this being allowed by the Church before going into action…

Feilding goes on to explain that it has taken the troops, nearly all devout Catholics, some time to accept that this dispensation is legitimate, and will not lead them into sin. They ate, they took communion, and then, body and soul prepared, they marched to the line.

In the evening, after dark, the battalion moved up to the trenches, coming in for a certain amount of shelling by the way… The German trench opposed to us was the famous Hindenburg Line. It is a very elaborate work…[1]

 

And Sapper Martin‘s Italian journey continued today, a century back–or, rather, as they rested before resuming their march, they saw other troops going the other way, making the reason for this sudden British anabasis painfully obvious:

Thousands of retreating Italians passed through here this morning. They looked a pretty rabble. Had thrown away all their equipment; the only things they retained other than what they stood up in were their overcoats and these were loaded in piles on little mule or donkey-carts…

In the afternoon Jessie S. held an inspection… He gave us a lecture on the arduous nature of the march in front of us and said that nothing was to be taken unless absolutely necessary; therefore he condemned the football to be dumped but I bet it turns up when we want it….

The culinary adventure continued as well, with “stewed hare and polenta” that was pronounced “quite harmless… and filling.” They have several days’ hard marching ahead of them, but we will in all probability not hear much from Martin for at least a few days–there is too much stewing near Cambrai.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 225-7.
  2. Sapper Martin, 135-6.

Rowland Feilding Pays High Compliments to the Enemy; Wilfred Owen’s Idyll Ends

In a recent letter to his wife, Rowland Feilding remarked on the valor of two Germans who had escaped from a French P.O.W. camp and tried to make their way home by infiltrating the British lines from the rear.

This, I may say, is an almost impossible thing to do… Therefore, I regard these men as sportsmen.

High praise. And today, a century back, Feilding fits actions to words, showing the Germans the courtesy due to valorous foes.

Acting upon orders, we fired over some leaflets, to-day, to our enemies across the way, telling them in the choicest German about the fate of their Zeppelins which attempted to raid London a few days ago. I rather fancy a note was added, in English, to the effect that Otto Weiss–a German N.C.O with an iron cross whom we got on our wire three nights ago–has received Christian burial. I am now wondering if this latter will be regarded as “Fraternizing” with the enemy.[1]

 

And in Edinburgh, a Medical Board met to consider not Siegfried Sassoon–who might have been skipped to the front of the line, one would think, after skipping out on his last board–but Wilfred Owen, who is at once a more simple and more complex case. More simple because there is no question of politics or publicity, but more complex because although Owen has had an excellent time recuperating under Brock’s “ergotherapy” program, it is difficult to know whether sending a man who has broken down (and still suffers from nightmares) back to the front is ever the right course of action.

In Owen’s case–and as he expected–the Board took a middle course, sending him back to a reserve unit for some months of home service (after the expected three weeks’ leave). What Owen probably didn’t know is that the doctors, rather surprisingly, placed a note in his file indicating their belief that he will not be fit for at least four months more, and that overseas service will never be advisable. But this was only an advisory note, leaving confirmation of the decision up to the next Board.

Afterwards, Owen immediately made his farewells, leaving Craiglockhart by the afternoon of today, a century back. He will remain, however, in Edinburgh for several more days, staying with the family of one of his new friends in order that she might finish painting his portrait. There are, of course, other reasons for remaining in the area: he will see Sassoon again before he departs…[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 220-1.
  2. Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 279.

Wilfred Owen is Almost Ready to Leave; Siegfried Sassoon Fights to the Finish; Frederic Manning is Simply Finished

Frederic Manning‘s battle against alcoholism–although perhaps his “fighting retreat in the face of overwhelming alcoholism” would be a better metaphor–ended in defeat today, a century back. Manning’s C.O., Major Milner, “obviously hoping to save his subordinate from further embarrassment while allowing the army its due,” let Manning attempt the fig-leaf gesture of quitting before being fired.

2nd Lieut. Manning has submitted his resignation and if this is to be accepted I cannot see that any useful purpose will be served by again trying this officer.

2nd Lieut. Manning is a gentleman but apparently has no strength of will and is quite unsuitable as an officer.

This was kind, considering the circumstances, but there was no way around the M.O.’s report: “This officer is in a stupor, quite unfit for any duty evidently the result of a drinking bout.” Even if some honor is salvaged, it’s clearly the end of Manning’s military career.[1]

The more relevant question, perhaps, for Manning, was “and what next?” He’s out of a commission, but not free from conscription. It seems likely that Milner’s sympathy might save Manning more than mere pride, namely by making it more likely that he will be swept aside as a broken man best left in a backwater rather than sent directly back into combat–a private soldier once more–by way of punishment for his failures as an officer.

 

In Edinburgh, Siegfried Sassoon is fighting his own losing campaign to avoid seeing Lady Ottoline Morrell face to face before he faces his next Medical Board, at which he plans to conditionally abandon his allegiance to her cause.

My dear Ottoline, It would be jolly to see you but it seems a terrible long way for you to come, especially If you are rather broke, as I gather you and Philip generally are! However, if you decide to come, let me know what time you arrive.

I can’t see any way out of it except in France. Nothing definite has been heard from the War Office. They are very fed up with me here, as I was supposed to attend a Board last Tuesday, and didn’t go.

At least, today, he’s faced up to this and told Lady Ottoline about his erratic behavior. At least this helps to demonstrate, in a way, that he has been not so much erratic as consistently bifurcated (in an earlier era we would have lightly said “schizophrenic”) about his feelings on the war. He has reacted to the news of the Étaples mutiny and the role of the First Royal Welch in quelling it by writing another of his lacerating pro-troop, anti-leader poems.

Rivers thinks my ‘Fight to a Finish’ poem in the Cambridge Magazine very dangerous…

 

Fight to a Finish

The boys came back. Bands played and flags were flying,
And Yellow-Pressmen thronged the sunlit street
To cheer the soldiers who’d refrained from dying.
And hear the music of returning feet.
‘Of all the thrills and ardours War has brought.
This moment is the finest.’ (So they thought.)

Snapping their bayonets on to charge the mob.
Grim Fusiliers broke ranks with glint of steel.
At last the boys had found a cushy job.

I heard the Yellow-Pressmen grunt and squeal;
And with my trusty bombers turned and went
To clear those Junkers out of Parliament.[2]

 

This really should almost be dangerous–in wartime, with no great freedom of speech permitted, he has once again written a fantasy in which the violence of the front lines is visited on the hypocrites at home. This time, however, it’s not a third-person wish, involving the impersonal violence of a newfangled tank. This time it’s Mad Jack himself who wants to lead his favored men, his crack bombing team, on a raid on his own national legislature.

I wonder how much confidence Rivers has that this make-up Medical Board next month will go well?

 

If Wilfred Owen knows anything of his friend’s state of mind, he still probably wouldn’t mention it in a letter home to his mother, to whom he famously tells most things… but not all. Naturally, his thoughts turn to his own Medical Board, and what it might mean for him.

Monday

It seems really likely that I shall be evacuated on Tuesday. Some time ago the Grays made me promise to stay 2 or 3 days with them before leaving Edinburgh. I am going there this afternoon, & if they ask me again, I may stay one day in order to get my picture done. Sassoon is anxious for me to spend a day or two of my 3 weeks with some people at a Manor near Oxford.

Ah, now there is another aspect of his new friendship that Owen is keeping from his mother. The manor in question is Garsington Manor, home of Phillip and Lady Ottoline Morrell.

I have not made up my mind. We went to the Astronomer’s yesterday, & saw the moon.

I wonder how I shall find you all. I shall be in a desperate excited state when I arrive…

But not so desperate as to make a beeline:

So, then, I may turn up on Tues. Night, or Wednesday Morning, or any day until Sat., for I want to stay on here a few days (if it won’t shorten the 3 weeks) to be able to return all my borrowed books, & make a graceful exit from  these scenes.

W.E.O. [3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Marwil, Frederic Manning, An Unfinished Life, 185.
  2. Diaries, 193-4.
  3. Collected Letters, 504.

Robert Graves Responds to Siegfried Sassoon’s Latest Provocation, and Writes of Courage, Mutiny, and Fairy Teas; Vivian de Sola Pinto Gets a Blighty After a Bangalore; Frederic Manning’s Last Bender Begins

Siegfried Sassoon is still, technically, supposed to be recuperating from… some sort of mental or neurological condition related to outspokenness. But as he awaits a second chance at pleading himself fit for duty and putting his protest behind him, he seems to spend a great deal of time managing his friendships. Which would be easier if he didn’t have a habit of turning about face and writing cutting letters.

Robert Graves, who can often seem grandiose, unreasonable, and unreliable when telling his own story, comes off as measured, rational, and steadying when he writes to Sassoon.

My dear Sassons,

I don’t remember if I told you that I’ve managed to get struck off the Gibraltar draft and am now waiting orders for Egypt which may come in any time, and then I’ll still be a fortnight in England before going out–then once in Egypt I get a medical board and so on to the land of Canaan. My book is due this week or next…

Graves next passes on an interesting bit of gossip: he has just heard, by word of mouth from an old comrade, about the mutiny at Étaples. So the censorship holds. Graves–here’s an interesting twist on Regimental esprit de corps–is both sympathetic to the mutiny–“(you know how badly they are treated at the Bull Ring)”–and proud that the Royal Welch Fusiliers were considered steady enough to be called in to quell it:

Rather a compliment for the First Battalion being chosen, but rather a rotten job. . . .

Don’t be silly about being dotty: of course you’re sane. The only trouble is you’re too sane which is a great crime as bring dotty and much more difficult to deal with. That’s the meaning of an anti-war complex. You see what other folk don’t see about the rights and wrongs of the show. Personally I think you see too much.

One imagines Graves taking a deep breath before continuing his response to Sassoon’s letter.

About ‘good form’ and ‘acting like a gentleman’. You are purposely perverse in attributing those things to my lips. What I said was ‘The Bobbies and Tommies and so on, who are the exact people whom you wish to influence and save by all your powers, are just the people whose feelings you are going to hurt most by turning round in the middle of the war, after having made a definite contract, and saying “I’ve changed my mind…”

You can only command their respect by sharing all their miseries as far as you possibly can, being ready for pride’s sake to finish your contract whatever it costs you, yet all the time denouncing the principles you are being compelled to further. God know you have ‘done your bit’ as they say, but I believe in giving everything…

‘If you had real courage you wouldn’t acquiesce as you do.’ Sorry you think that of me–I should hate to think I’m a coward. I believe though in keeping to agreements…

It’s quite a letter. Graves segues to more news–the casualties in the 2nd Battalion at Polygon Wood (which Sassoon has learned of from Cotterill)–and then draws a line across the letter.

Below the line comes literary gossip, an awkward “thanks awfully”–a twenty-pound loan seems to have come along with Sassoon’s insulting letter–and a final bit of news that is impossibly unwarlike:

This afternoon, after a busy morning with the Fusiliers, I am going down to Rhyl for the Fairies, not the fairies with rouged lips and peroxide hair but the real fairies: the colonel’s kids have invited me to a special nursery tea and tiddlywinks. It’s going to be great fun. They call me Georgy Giraffe and consider that I must be a damn sight finer fellow than their father who is only 5′ 6″ tall.

Goodbye

God bless you

Robert[1]

 

After such a letter between two of our central figures, updates on two peripheral ones will seem an anticlimax. But the war goes on, and any night in the war of attrition can be a turning point for those on the spot of a bombardment or a raid.

Vivian de Sola Pinto has been in the line near Gouzeaucourt for a month, now, with a Kitchener’s Army battalion of the R.W.F., and he has just been given a dicey task. A “Bangalore Torpedo”–a “new toy” of the “Brass Hats” (which gives us a fair idea of where this is heading!)–has been dropped in No Man’s Land, and Pinto is ordered to take a patrol out to retrieve it. The “torpedo” is a long explosive-filled pipe designed to blow a deep tunnel-like opening into the enemy’s wire obstacles. It is, like so many new toys, dangerous and unwieldy.

But Pinto, fortunately, will not even get as far as being blown up mid-salvage:

…shortly after 10 p.m. (in army language 2200) I crawled into no-man’s-land with a dozen men, including one of our sergeants and a corporal from the party which had dumped the torpedo It was a very dark mild night and a little soft rain was falling. Corporal Jenkins had just whispered to me, ‘I think it was somewhere about here,’ when a German flare went up and heavy machine-gun fire opened on us from several directions. We flung ourselves on our faces and I felt a sharp stab in my right forearm. It was clear that Jerry knew where we were and that the immediate task before me was to get my party out of the trap before they were all killed or captured…. three of our men were dead and most of the rest were wounded. Amid a hail of bullets we managed somehow to get the whole party back to our wire. This was a nightmare experience as we had to make several journeys to carry the dead men and help the wounded…

My right arm was now bleeding profusely, but I tied my handkerchief round it and did my best to help with my left. At last I found myself sitting exhausted on the fire-step in our front line and trying to tell Captain B—— what had happened. Then I lost consciousness and knew nothing till I was awakened by a severe jolting and realized that once more I was on a stretcher and being carried to an advanced dressing station. There they… extracted the bullet from my arm.

When I awoke I found my arm in a sling, was told that the bone was splintered and that I had a nice Blighty…[2]

Pinto will reach Camberwell General just in time for the next Zeppelin raid…

 

And, finally–though this occurred in the evening, well before Pinto’s bloody patrol–Frederic Manning was absent from his battalion’s mess tonight, a century back, in Cork. Given his recent drinking bouts and near-total collapse, this was rather worrisome to his commander, one Major E.F. Milner…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. In Broken Images, 85-6.
  2. The City That Shone, 208-9.
  3. Marwil, Frederic Manning, An Unfinished Life, 185.