Wilfred Owen Calls on Siegfried Sassoon; Edwin Vaughan in Charnel Hysterics; Ivor Gurney on Sassoonish Sonnets and the Fire and Fate of Francis Ledwidge

Life–and death–go on today, a century back, in the Salient. Kate Luard and her hospital survived another night of bombing, while for Edwin Vaughan “dullness and depression” beset his company on their third straight day of combat. But we must come as quickly as we can through his long day in the wasteland, and hasten back to Scotland where our main business lies.

I had had no sleep since the 15th but even now I dared not close my eyes… I was forced to divert my mind by climbing up again to look around…

Despite my searching, I could discover nothing of interest; the ridge, churned into a broad brown mudheap, showed no sign of life; there were no pillboxes on the slope and the horizon was so ragged that it was impossible to locate the various points. There only remained a few tree stumps and a few broken posts to show where gunpits had been. Then I lowered my glasses and fell to examining the foreground.

Vaughan’s diary today is a minor masterpiece of the eyewitness-to-horror genre, and to omit it entirely in favor of poetic friendship would be obscurely hypocritical. But a few short excerpts are, perhaps, enough:

The outstanding characteristic of this area was, of course, death. And this seemed to be brought home to me, not so much by the numerous corpses, as by the stranded and battered tanks. The nearest one was that which we had
visited when we arrived here, and I shuddered to see it standing gaunt and grim, its base distorted by a shell and a horrid black corpse half-turmbled out of the open door, whilst around it lay the black charred shapes that had been the crew.

…with gruesome fascination I concentrated on the bodies—tried to read the shoulder plates or recognize the battalion markings. The causes of death were mostly all too obvious, for death at Ypres is a fierce, distorting death—death from a direct hit or from a huge fragment. The mud which drags us down and breaks up our attacks has the one merciful effect of deadening the blasts of shells and localizing their death-dealing power.

Bodies there were in German uniform, mostly old and black, but many English killed in the last attacks with black, clotted blood still upon them. These are the most terrifying—if they can be terrifying now…

There was one which upset me. He was lying with the top of his head towards me; caught in the remnant of wire entanglement his two fists were raised clutching a strand. The backs of his hands looked white and slim, his hair fluffy and dusty like a miller’s. I don’t know why I didn’t like him, but he seemed somehow much more gruesome than the uglier bodies and I turned suddenly sick and was forced to sink down into my seat.

After a long day in the killing-slough, Vaughan’s relief arrives–and the company commander who is to take over the line is “windy”–trembling and unwilling to leave the meager shelter of a shell-hole. But Vaughan, now the sturdy veteran, forces him to do his duty in touring the line, with a subordinate in tow. A strange, demented sort of comedy ensues when shells begin falling in the mud around them:

…shell after shell hizzed through the darkness to burst with blinding flashes around us. I felt terrified but elated, and continued to sit on top making conversation while Hancocks leaned against me shaking. I was getting worried about him and kept giving him prods with my fist. Then suddenly there was an extra loud whizz and a smack as a dud slid into the mud almost under Hancocks. Spencer gave a hollow groan and Hancocks gave a loud shout of laughter, lying back with tears rolling down his face. I gave him a push, for I thought he had got shell shock, but when I realized that he was really tickled, I started to laugh too for the situation was really funny.

The sight of Spencer—bent almost double with his head pressed into the earth, looking at me and answering me upside down, his great bespectacled face white with fear and streaked with mud, his incoherent babblings, his starts and grunts at every shell burst—made us forget the danger. So Hancocks and I sat on the wet mud in the midst of the rain and shells and darkness of Ypres and laughed ourselves into hysterics.

After a while I realized that it was hysterics—that it was a temporary madness that had kept me dawdling in the shellfire, a disinclination to return to the reality of a new life out of the line. That my nerves had been giving way under the strain until I was reduced to the childishness of laughing at another man’s fear…[1]

This crazed stumbling from horror to hysteria provides an all-too-apt segue to “Dottyville,” as its inmates called the shell-shock-specializing hospital of Craiglockhart. There, today, a century back, a meeting took place which stands at the very center of this project.

 

It’s tempting to overwrite the first meeting of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, but, really, it’s an introduction that probably doesn’t need too much of an introduction. Their first encounter has been described by both men and by several noteworthy later writers, and it’s as if only Sassoon was surprised by what followed. This change meeting feels like one of the rare drops of sweetness distilled from war’s misery, a fortunate convergence of the twain that must be celebrated like a birth in a plague year, a new sort of orchid that blooming improbably in a new-mown field. See–overwritten.

In any event, the meeting was no surprise to Owen. He has known of Sassoon, he has read him, and he realized at some point recently that they were patients at the same hospital. They would have passed each other in the halls, but there would have been no way for Owen to discover what Sassoon looked like and come upon him “accidentally.” Today, a century back, Owen screwed up his courage and visited Sassoon in his room.

This small social step–dropping in on a fellow patient, a comrade of sorts–is hardly a heroic act. Yet it is a pretty good indicator of Owen’s returning calm and confidence. He may still be showing some of the outward signs of shell shock–the stammer, in particular–but he has otherwise been doing very well: he had “dumped bundles of his third Hydra outside the breakfast room that morning and was due to appear in the second part of Lucky Durham in the evening.” Which is all well and good, but it’s tempting to see Owen recognizing that the “the final stage of his cure” might involve both winning the respect of a hero (he admires his doctor, Brock, but not in the same worshipful way that Sassoon admires Rivers), and accomplishing something with regards to his own poetry, which matters much more to him than literary writing or the stage.[2]

But was it an auspicious meeting? All of the accounts focus to some degree or another on the distance between the two men: Sassoon is significantly older (six years, although Owen doesn’t realize this), significantly taller, and a full lieutenant. True enough, but the real differences are that he is a published and well-regarded poet and that he is from a much higher social class. Owen, the “station-master’s son,” is barely middle class and received a patchy education at non-prestigious local schools; Sassoon has a private income, rode to hounds, knows lords, ladies, and the London literary elite, and received a patchy education at Marlborough and Cambridge.

But what aspect of a first meeting of two friends can be more subject to revision in retrospect than the social angle from which they viewed each other as two strangers?

One morning at the beginning of August, when I had been at Craiglockhart War Hospital about a fortnight, there was a gentle knock on the door of my room and a young officer entered. Short, dark-haired, and shyly hesitant, he stood for a moment before coming across to the window, where I was sitting on my bed cleaning my golf clubs. A favourable first impression was made by the fact that he had under his arm several copies of The Old Huntsman. He had come, he said, hoping that I would be so gracious as to inscribe them for himself and some of his friends. He spoke with a slight stammer, which was no unusual thing in that neurosis-pervaded hospital. My leisurely, commentative method of inscribing the books enabled him to feel more at home with me. He had a charming honest smile, and his manners — he stood at my elbow rather as though conferring with a superior officer — were modest and ingratiating…

I had taken an instinctive liking to him, and felt that I could talk freely. During the next half-hour or more I must have spoken mainly about my book and its interpretations of the War. He listened eagerly, questioning me with reticent intelligence. It was only when he was departing that he confessed to being a writer of poetry himself, though none of it had yet appeared in print.

It amuses me to remember that, when I had resumed my ruminative club-polishing, I wondered whether his poems were any good! He had seemed an interesting little chap but had not struck me as remarkable. In fact my first view of him was as a rather ordinary young man, perceptibly provincial, though unobtrusively ardent in his responses to my lordly dictums about poetry. Owing to my habit of avoiding people’s faces while talking, I had not observed him closely. Anyhow, it was pleasant to have discovered that there was another poet in the hospital and that he happened to be an admirer of my work.[3]

Let not the calibrated self-mockery of “my lordly dictums” draw all the old sting from “perceptively provincial.” But what Sassoon acknowledges here is how Owen meets a need of his own, perhaps one that, in his instinctive diffidence about intellectual things, he had not yet recognized. Replete with mentors and advisors, goaded by his rivalry with the brash Graves, he has many co-conspirators, but never yet a follower. Sassoon may have failed to make a martyr of himself, but he will still welcome a disciple, a “faithful squire to [his] quixotic knight.”[4]

Which is exactly what Owen will sound like when he describes this meeting, in bantering faux-medieval style, to his cousin (and fellow poetic aspirant) Leslie Gunston.

22 August 1917 Craiglockhart

My dear Leslie,

At last I have an event worth a letter. I have beknown myself to Siegfried Sassoon… The sun blazed into his room making his purple dressing suit of a brilliance—almost matching my sonnet! He is very tall and stately, with a fine firm chisel’d (how’s that?) head, ordinary short brown hair. The general expression of his face is one of boredom…[5]

It’s customary, when quoting this letter, to omit the parenthetical “how’s that?” Which is a bit manipulative, since the winking parenthesis shows that Owen knows he is acting the part of the smitten fan. But the “boredom” does the trick too: Owen is aware of what he is up against, socially–and yet he is confident. He wouldn’t have dared to approach the Published Poet otherwise.

It’s a smoother story, perhaps, if Owen is all diffidence and unrecognized talent, and Sassoon all drawling confidence. Pat Barker’s version draws attention to Owen’s lingering stammer and emphasizes Sassoon’s bona fides as a poet of protest, although this is not what would have been most appealing to Owen.

A short, dark-haired man sidled round the door, blinking in the sudden blaze of sunlight. Sassoon, sitting on the bed, looked up from the golf club he’d been cleaning. ‘Yes?’

‘I’ve b-brought these.’

A few lines later, the meeting gets straight to the starting point of the poetic relationship:

‘Are you . . . quite sure your mother wants to be told that “Bert’s gone syphilitic?” I had trouble getting them to print that.’

‘It w-won’t c-come as a sh-shock… I t-tell her everything. In m-my l-letters.’

‘Good heavens,’ Sassoon said lightly, and turned back to the book.[6]

 

It’s a small world. In a letter to Marion Scott written today a century back, from the reserve areas in France, Ivor Gurney mentions Sassoon’s poetry by way of complimenting Scott’s.

My Dear Friend: Is “Field Daisy” yours? Then I may congratulate you very much…  I took it for Sassoon… The sonnet might have been Masefield’s, might have been Sassoon’s. Cheerio!

But Gurney is abreast of recent news, and the high spirits of the letter end in elegy. So we began today writing the mud of the ongoing offensive, then witnessed the beginning of a poetic friendship that will drive the development of war poetry–and now observe, with Gurney, a man still in the thick of it, the mysterious and terrible relationship between war and war poetry. We should all be irritated (or outraged) if a later commentator or critic were to make a remark along the lines of “violent death is terrible, of course, but at least it was good for his poetry”–this, surely, is a judgment that is meaningless, even offensive, without the “authority” that comes from considering such questions from within the soldier’s undetermined future. But Gurney has this authority.

…And so Ledwidge is dead. If the new book is not too.expensive you shall have it from me. He was a true poet, and the story of his life is (now) a sad but romantic tale, like that of so many others, so wastefully spent. Yet the fire may not have been struck in them save for the war; anyway it was to be, and is.[7]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Some Desperate Glory, 205-212.
  2. Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 267.
  3. Siegfried's Journey, 58.
  4. Ricketts, Strange Meetings, 104.
  5. Collected Letters, 485.
  6. Regeneration, 80-1.
  7. War Letters, 185-6.

Patrick Shaw Stewart on Command, Ivor Gurney on Mental Health and Martial Surroundings; Kate Luard on Satanic Powers and Grimmest Tales

After being very much present on the first day of Third Ypres–and reading both of its tactical success and the eventual failure, amidst the driving rain, to achieve a break through–the battle has slipped into the background here as the survivors of those first assaults are rotated into reserve and rest assignments or sent home on leave. And although scores of fresh battalions are being thrown into various efforts to force the line forward (or will be when there is a let up in the constant rain) of our writers are quite there yet. It’s a strange lull of happenstance… but others are coming, and the worst of the battle is still weeks away.

 

As for today, a century back, only Kate Luard writes from the Salient Which, in terms of providing readers with short-form descriptions of the unique horror of Passchendaele, is enough. Once more the supernatural direction of the weather is queried–and, at least for now–it forces the postponement of another viscous push:

The D.M.S. came to-day and told us to expect work to-morrow but the Satanic Power that presides over the weather in the war has decreed otherwise. Floods of rain dissolving the ground and a violent thunderstorm this evening must have put the lid on any sort of Attack for us.

Three men in the Dressing Hut were struck by lightning to-night…

Officers from the line tell the grimmest tales. The conditions are appalling: the men are drowning in shell-holes and the enemy artillery are so ‘active’ that the dead are heaping up. It’s no good worrying, nothing can he helped, and perhaps some day there will be Peace. And at least we don’t only look on, but are privileged to do something to help–however little.[1]

It’s an accident of language, of course, rather than a subtle authorial message, but nothing expresses the morass of 1917 netter than the proximity of “nothing can be helped” and “privileged to do something to help–however little.” It would have been good to contrast those excerpts with some sort of vapid patriotic writing from those still at leisure in England… but all I have today are two letters from soldiers as yet in quiet parts of the line.

 

Patrick Shaw Stewart wrote to his sister, reflecting on his short temporary command of the Hood Battalion.

It was a strange sensation to find myself commanding the old battalion—it just shows what we are all reduced to nowadays…[2]

It must have been, yes–but Shaw Stewart knows that when all the more experienced officers return from leave and other assignments, the battalion will be much more likely to move from its quiescent sector of the line in France to somewhere far nastier and more demanding.

 

And we have another long and fairly breezy letter from Ivor Gurney to Marion Scott, discussing her work editing his upcoming collection of verse. As so often, it is difficult to follow the many-headed conversation as Gurney replies to her letter (which, like almost every letter sent to a soldier in the trenches, was discarded rather than preserved), but one comment, meant to reassure, is disconcerting at the same time.

My Dear Friend:

…You are right about the state of my mind. So am I. It is a sickness caused by real surroundings now, not by imaginary. A great step as you say.[3]

So Gurney’s mental health is improving, perhaps, except for the fact that the war is–persistently, inevitably–eroding it…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Unknown Warriors, 140.
  2. Knox, Patrick Shaw Stewart, 200.
  3. War Letters, 183-4.

A Court Martial for Frederic Manning; A Quick Trial by his Peers for Siegfried Sassoon; Mud and Horror Before the Master Of Belhaven

We have only three short updates today, a century back.

First, Frederic Manning is up to his old tricks–but, perhaps, he is also under the influence of more recent experiences. By the time of his Court Martial today, a century back–the result of drunken conduct unbecoming the officer’s mess–Manning had been hospitalized for several days because “a sympathetic doctor diagnosed him as shell-shocked.” He was let off with nothing more than a reprimand–the Court Martial will shortly become a Medical Board.

Manning has had problems with drinking before–and with indulging in what might be either a personal or an Australian lack of due respect for the formal dignities of the British Officer Class. But he had a hard time on the Somme, and he has been having balance problems on the parade ground, so perhaps the doctor is as insightful as he is sympathetic–or perhaps Manning has luckily, narrowly escaped losing his second chance at becoming an officer.[1]

 

Yesterday was a day off from Ralph Hamilton‘s diary, here, but it was still a notable day–his first in the already-famous mud. He visited his Observation Post, the artilleryman’s foothold in the infantry line, which meant moving up through the battlefield–and getting stuck in mud “the consistency of porridge.”

It is really very dangerous, as the middle of the craters is so soft that one might easily sink over the head. As it was I got stuck to-day and it was all the combined effort of my party could do to pull me out. I was quite alarmed as I felt myself sinking deeper and deeper and could not move either foot…

Today, though perhaps less frightening, was more horrible.

We had just finished dinner and were having out cigars and coffee in our mud-holes when the S.O.S. broke out all along the front.

The German counter-attack–if that’s what it was–was stopped. But not without cost, of course.

…I saw a horrid sight. A gunner of some other battery ran right through the intervals of my guns. How he managed to avoid my shells I don’t know. I could hear him making queer noises as he passed, and by the light of the gun-flash I saw that he was holding one wrist from which the hand was missing…[2]

 

And last but not least, an interesting reaction, in today’s entry of Dr. Dunn’s chronicle of the 2nd Battalion, Royal Welsh Fusiliers, to the recent news from England.

Sassoon’s quixotic outburst has been quenched in a “shell-shock” retreat. He will be among degenerates, drinkers, malingerers, and common mental cases, as well as the overstrained.

It’s very easy to see where Sassoon got his snarky attitude towards his fellow patients at Craiglockhart–he, too, foregrounded the various “degenerate” types before admitting that there may in fact be some men there suffering from war-induced mental illness. But this is perhaps only the most obvious reminder–and Sassoon would have shared such prejudices before becoming an officer, anyway. In seeing how the battalion–or Dunn–view his fiery protest and its quick quenching, we’re reminded that part of the reason Sassoon might be dwelling on the poor lot among whom it is his lot to dwell is that he has belatedly realized just how completely the targets of his protest outmaneuvered him.

It is an astute means of denying our cold-blooded, cold-footed, superior persons the martyr they are too precious to find from their own unruly ranks. Sassoon gave a moral flavour to a gibe everywhere current at the front for a couple of years, that a lot of individuals in cushy jobs don’t care how long the War lasts. It used to be said laughingly, now it is said bitterly.[3]

No surprise, in other words, that the higher-ups who can’t sustain an offensive nevertheless know how to handle a political/publicity case. And–strikingly–no disagreement from the Voice of the Battalion about the grounds for protest, and no stronger condemnation than “quixotic”–and Quixote was an old campaigner of sorts, too, and a would-be martyr denied real martyrdom.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Coleman, The Last Exquisite, 132; Marwill, Frederic Manning, 183-4.
  2. War Diary, 360.
  3. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 372.

Kate Luard in the Slough of Despond; Rest for David Jones and Waxing Madness for the Master of Belhaven; Vera Brittain is Back on the Job; Wilfred Owen is Self-Published; Francis Ledwidge Remembered

We are all over the place once again, today: living well in Scotland, miserable in the mud of the salient, and coming to war-torn France for the first time. But we’ll begin near Ypres, where the battle is now in its fifth day.

Kate Luard keeps a “diary” in the form of letters written to be circulated amongst her many family members in England, so there is a compromise in her writing between an unvarnished honesty of expression and the recognition that what she writes will leave her hands and be read by many people, perhaps with varying opinions on the conduct of the war. She tells the truth–but she seems to think carefully of how she is presenting the suffering in her hospital.

The editors of her letters, however, have also included some private letters to individual siblings, and one of these shows that even the masterfully composed Senior Sister is struggling to keep her composure amidst the horror of Third Ypres–and willing to write more frankly of it. Or perhaps it’s the other way round: the act of writing about pain and suffering and death, every day, helps Luard keep a lid on her emotions, but writing to her sister Georgina nearly punctures the seal, letting out a torrent of grief. Nearly… but she saves it, in part, with the tried-and-true Fussell maneuver of adapting the literary heritage to new circumstances as a way of staving off the overwhelming. She’s the first of our writers to use a now-indispensable literary reference–Bunyan’s “slough of despond”–to describe the mud of the current campaign.

Sat, Aug 4, 1917

William Blake, “Christian in the Slough of Despond”

Dearest G,

Yours of Tue 31st arrived today with incredible speed. Yes, it is now chiefly ubc (utter bloody chaos) of the ghastliest and in the most midwinter conditions of night and day pouring rain and sloughs of despond underfoot–inside the wards as well as out. And all the Push a washout, literally. I think I’m getting rather tired and have got to the stage of not knowing when to stop. When I do I immediately begin to cry of all the tomfool things to do! But outside my Armstrong hut one can keep smiling. It is the dirtiness & wasted effort of War that clouds one’s vision…[1]

 

Not far away, the Master of Belhaven‘s battery enters its fifth day of continuous firing. The costs mount.

We were shelled again last night… A third man in my battery had gone off his head. I have been feeling horribly ill myself all day… It is all owing to the beastly gas… I wish I could get news of Bath. I am very worried about him.[2]

Hamilton’s concern is genuine, even to his unrealistic expectations: the hospitals are overwhelmed, and when they can send information about badly wounded or dying men, they send it homewards, rather than back to the front. But I think it is a strange sort of lifeline: with his lungs attacked by gas and his duty–as he sees it–compelling him to force broken men (those overwhelmed by “shell shock” to the point of nervous breakdown) to remain under fire, he needs to feel compassion about someone, somewhere…

 

There was relief for others, however. Today also marked the turn of David Jones and the rest of the 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers to slog back from the lines to reserve billets along the crowded Yser Canal. There,

they were given chocolate and cigarettes, hot food, clean clothes, and a fresh colonel, R. H. Montgomery. Here Jones heard from the survivors of the assault…what they had endured and learned who among his acquaintances had fallen. Their experience scoured his imagination differently than if he had fully shared it… He may have experienced survivor’s guilt…[3]

He surely did–I don’t think that sensitive men who survived major assaults just because they were on the right list and their friends on the wrong one ever escaped a sense of guilt. The “bureaucratic near miss” can occasion as sense of pious exaltation when the savaged unit that one was not with is a strange one–but when it is your friends and comrades that the paper-pushers have separated you from…

At some point in the next few days Jones will sketch one of his surviving comrades (at right) “writing something” in an apparent moment of repose.

 

Speaking of writing things, the section of Pat Barker’s Toby’s Room in which we are privy to Elinor Brooke’s diary continues today. Elinor is in the English countryside near Lewes, when she hears what she first believes to be the sound of thunder. But it is the roll of the guns in Flanders, where her brother Toby is serving with the infantry.[4]

 

There is something of Vera Brittain in the fictional Elinor Brooke, and–coincidentally–today, a century back saw Brittain in Boulogne, en route from London to her first posting at a hospital in France. She had abruptly left the V.A.D. in May, coming home from Malta intending to marry and care for Victor Richardson, but Victor had died soon after and her brother Edward has been sent back to France, leaving her isolated from the suffering members of her own generation. She soon decided to try to return to nursing, but, having broken her contract, had to apply for reinstatement.

Testament of Youth shares with so many young soldier’s memoirs the general expectation that all older administrative and staff types are either cold fish bureaucrats or self-righteous hypocrites–surely her misery will not be understood by officialdom.

I was interviewed by a middle-aged woman with a grave face and an “official” manner, who sat before a desk  frowning over a folder containing my record. She motioned  me to sit down, and I told her that I wanted to join up
again.

“And why,” she asked peremptorily, “did you leave Malta?”

I trembled a little at the sharp inquiry. Breaches of contract were not, I knew, regarded with favour at Red Cross Headquarters, and were pardoned only on condition of a really good excuse. My own reason, which could not help sounding sentimental, was not, I felt certain, a “good excuse” at all. But I could think of no plausible alternative
to the simple truth, so I told it.

“I came home meaning to marry a man who was blinded at Arras,” I said, “but he died just after I got back.”

To my surprise, for I had long given up expecting humanity in officials, a mask seemed to drop from the tired face before me. I was suddenly looking into benevolent eyes dim with comprehension, and the voice that had addressed me so abruptly was very gentle when it spoke again.

“I’m so sorry. … You’ve had a sad time. Is there anywhere special you want to go?”

I hated England, I confessed, and did so want to serve abroad again, where there was heaps to do and no time to think. I had an only brother on the Western Front; was it possible to go to France?

It was, and she arrived yesterday. Today, typically, she is alone in observing the notable anniversary:

Our train next day did not leave until the afternoon, so I spent the morning in the English Church at Boulogne commemorating the Third Anniversary of the War. The Chaplain-General to the Forces, once Bishop of Pretoria,
preached to the packed congregation of officers and nurses a sermon to which I only half listened, but I paid more
attention to the prayers and the collects:

“Remember not, Lord, our offences, nor the offences of our forefathers; neither take Thou vengeance of our sins;
spare us, good Lord, spare Thy people, whom Thou hast redeemed with Thy most precious blood, and be not angry with us for ever.”

A phrase from my Pass Mods, days at Oxford slipped into my mind; I had quoted it not long ago to Edward in a
letter from Malta:

“The gods are not angry for ever. . .

It came, I thought, from the Iliad and those quiet evenings spent with my Classical tutor in reading of the battles for sorrowful Troy. How like we were to the fighters of those old wars, trusting to the irresponsible caprices of an importuned God to deliver us from blunders and barbarisms for which we only were responsible, and from which we alone could deliver ourselves and our rocking civilisation!

But I did not, at the moment, allow my thoughts to pursue the subject thus far. Dreaming in the soft light that filtered through the high, stained-glass windows, I saw the congregation as a sombre rainbow, navy-blue and khaki, scarlet and grey, and by the time that the “Last Post ” — with its final questioning note which now always seemed to me to express the soul’s ceaseless inquiry of the Unseen regarding its ultimate destiny — had sounded over us as we stood in honour of the dead who could neither protest nor complain, I was as ready for sacrifices and hardships as I had ever been in the early idealistic days. This sense of renewed resolution went with me as I stepped from the shadowed quiet of the church into the wet, noisy streets of Boulogne. The dead might lie beneath their crosses on a hundred wind-swept hillsides, but for us the difficult business of continuing the War must go on in spite of their departure; the sirens would still sound as the ships brought their drafts to the harbour, and the wind would flap the pennons on the tall mast-heads.[5]

 

Two disparate notes to close a troubling day. There was triumph, of a sort, for Wilfred Owen. He “plunked” a pile of freshly-printed copies of The Hydra “outside the Breakfast Room Door” at Craiglockhart Hospital. It’s his first gig as an editor, and he has written several short pieces for the magazine as well. He’s proud–his “ergotherapy” is going well. But this isn’t just about literary success or professional rehabilitation–it’s about class, too (it usually is). Owen is not yet aware of his famous new fellow-patient, but as this anecdote suggests, he is already excited about the magazine’s providing new social opportunities.

I have had so far one poetical contribution—from a Guards Officer—which he timidly brought up to my room with his own towering person. I was trotting around the room talking to the furniture in German at the moment; but I affected what dignity I could, and tried to look as if I had 10/6 in my pocket, and fifty more contributions on my desk…[6]

 

Lastly, today, a very different sort of note to a mother. This is from Father Devas, chaplain of the First Royal Inniskillings, to the mother of Francis Ledwidge:

4th August 1917

Dear Mrs Ledwidge

I do not know how to write to you about the death of your dear son Francis. Quite apart from his wonderful gifts, he was such a lovable boy and I was so fond of him. We had many talks together and he used to read me his poems… The evening before he died he had been to Confession. On the morning of the 31st he was present at Mass and received Holy Communion. That evening while out with a working party a shell exploded quite near to them killing seven and wounding twelve. Francis was killed at once so that he suffered no pain. I like to think that God took him before the world had been able to spoil him with its praise and he has found far greater joy and beauty than ever he would have found on earth. May God comfort you and may his Holy Mother pray for you. I shall say a Mass for Francis as soon as I can.[7]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Many thanks, as ever, to Caroline Stevens, for the text of this letter and for all her work in preserving and publishing her great aunt's legacy. See Unknown Warriors, 204-5.
  2. War Diary, 360.
  3. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 164.
  4. Toby's Room, 83.
  5. Testament of Youth, 366-9.
  6. Collected Letters, 480.
  7. Curtyane, Francis Ledwidge, 189.

Edmund Blunden’s Runner in the Mud; Kate Luard Begins Taking the Toll

There is relatively little to read today, as the army hauls itself up over the wide, shallow morass it conquered yesterday. Or, rather, one writer is more than enough, for this day after. The story of the Battle of Third Ypres–which will soon be best known by the name of the next ridge, Passchendaele–is the weather. It started to rain yesterday afternoon, and it rained all day today, a century back.

The following “chilling description” is not from the diary of a miserable front-line soldier or a “disenchanted” memoir writer: it’s from a despatch issued by Haig himself–the man who will press on with the “battle” even as the rains continue.

The low-lying clayey soil, torn by shells and sodden with rain, turned to a succession of vast muddy pools. The valleys of the choked and overflowing streams were speedily transformed into long stretches of bog, impassable except by a few well-defined tracks…[1]

“Drowning in mud” has, until now, been almost exclusively a figurative or metaphorical expression.

 

We had three poets to read about yesterday; one survives today. At least Edmund Blunden writes in a sort of triplicate: diary, poem, and memoir.

Last night, crouching in the battalion’s new signalling post, he “was never so hideously apprehensive.” Today did not disappoint: it was “the most wicked twenty-four hours I have ever been through, Somme included… Another retreat from Moscow.”[2]

The position was no better during the night, and the succeeding day was dismal, noisy, and horrid with sudden death. Tempers were not good, and I found myself suddenly threatening a sergeant-major with arrest for some unfriendly view which he was urging to the headquarters in general. Then, there were such incidents as the death of a runner called Wrackley, a sensitive and willing youth, just as he set out for the companies; struck, he fell on one knee, and his stretched-out hand still clutched his message.

Such an incident can be true in different ways, retold in different genres:

Runner, stand by a second. Your message. — He’s gone,
Falls on a knee, and his right hand uplifted
Claws his last message from his ghostly enemy,
Turns stone-like. Well I liked him, that young runner,
But there’s no time for that. O now for the word
To order us flash from these drowning roaring traps
And even hurl upon that snarling wire?
Why are our guns so impotent?
The grey rain,
Steady as the sand in an hourglass on this day…

Returning to memoir, we learn that one of Blunden’s friends, believed lost, is alive:

Vidler, that invincible soldier, came in a little afterward, observing: “That was a quick one, ‘Erb. I was feeling round my backside for a few lumps of shrapnel — didn’t find any, though.”

And as for the rest of the day, it settles all too quickly into the muddy, godforsaken depletion that will come to characterize the entire battle. Blunden, fighting off the insensibility that comes with exhaustion and curdled fear, writes this mood by means of a wry surrender into reference to his literary forbears:

This second day was on the whole drab in the extreme, and at the end of it we were ordered to relieve the 14th Hampshires in their position ahead, along the Steenbeck. The order presented no great intellectual difficulty, for the reduced battalion merely had to rise from its water holes, plod through the mud of an already beaten track, and fill other holes. Darkness clammy and complete, save for the flames of shells, masked that movement, but one stunted willow tree at which the track changed direction must haunt the memories of some of us. Trees in this battlefield are already described by Dante.

Headquarters, officers, signallers, servants, runners, and specialists, arrived in the blind gloom at the trench occupied by the Hampshire headquarters, and it is sufficient to indicate the insensate manner of the relief when I say that we did not notice any unusually close explosion as we drew near to the trench, but as we entered it we found that there had just been one. It had blown in some concrete shelters, and killed and wounded several of our predecessors; I was aware of mummy-like half-bodies, and struggling figures, crying and cursing.[3]

 

Kate Luard wrote, at midnight, of those half-bodies that had made it as far as her hospital:

It has been a pretty frightful day–44 funerals yesterday and about as many to-day. After 24 hours of peace the battle seems to have broken out again; the din is so terrific I can hardly sit in this chair…[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Quoted in Holmes, Tommy, 57.
  2. Webb, Edmund Blunden, 77.
  3. Undertones of War, 223-4.
  4. Unknown Warriors, 135.

The World Begins to Crumble Around the Master of Belhaven; Henry Williamson Heads South

The Master of Belhaven‘s bad week continues–and as the world constricts into a tight horizon of constant bombardment and inescapable mud, his writing expands to fill it.

Another horrible night. Intermittent 5.9 fire all the time after midnight. It is all very well when one has properly constructed gun pits and dug-outs for the officers and men but here we have nothing but wire netting over the guns, and no cover for the men beyond a sheet of corrugated iron… I… gave the order for the men to withdraw under their Nos. 1 to the flank place. I also went myself, and had not left the mess two minutes when a shell pitched clean through the roof and burst inside. If there had been anyone there they must have been killed on the spot… our mess was completely wrecked and everything inside blown into small atoms… Now we are homeless.

I boarded my subalterns on C Battery and went over to Headquarters for lunch. It was a great relief to spend an hour in complete safety, and be able to take off one’s steel hat… I have reached a stage of exhaustion that is not far removed from collapse. I have been exactly a month now living under incessant shell-fire, without any protection whatever. It is the entire absence of sleep more than the shelling, or rather a combination of the two. It is quite impossible to sleep if one is lying under a tarpaulin with 5.9’s and 8-ins. falling within a hundred yards. To begin with, there is the suspense of waiting between shells, which may vary from five seconds to ten minutes. Then there is the four or five seconds beginning with the first faint whine of the shell in the far distance, which rapidly rises to the well-known rushing scream; then there is the crash as it lands, which make the whole place shake for a couple of hundred yards, and finally the angry “zip” of the flying splinters, which may be any size from a match to the size of a large meat-chopper…

This gripping experience of a bombardment he describes with professional precision and an admixture of residual terror. If his diary to date has generally been a professional rather than an intimate production–an after-action report, that is–he is now beginning to write from within the lingering experience. Can a bombardment ever be clinically described by someone who sat through it? Probably not; and Hamilton can no longer even try: he’s been through too much war, now, for what he saw and what he experienced to ever be prised apart.

This may be a description of a post-traumatic disorder, but it is also a description of gripping life writing. And he’s still in it: if not a storm of steel, than a morass of mud:

Last night’s heavy rain has fairly put the lid on everything; the country has suddenly returned to its normal condition of thick yellow pea-soup. The trenches and shell-holes are full of water, and, as what small part of Flanders is not shell-holes is trench, the state of affairs can be left to the imagination. Even that is, I fear, hopeless; no one who has not had the misfortune to experience the mud of this vile country can hope ever to realise what it means. In the good old days of trench warfare at least we had duckboarded trenches; now there is nothing but millions of shell-holes, or rather ponds… I am wet to the waist, and slimy from head to foot–and still the rain comes steadily down.[1]

 

And one more brief note: Henry Williamson traveled to Cornwall today, a century back, to begin a long stint in a convalescent home at Falmouth. He spent the first day messing about in a boat and wandering the coast. Presumably he is very pleased with himself. And the environment may prove quite conducive to writing…[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary, 328-31.
  2. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 165.

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.

Henry Williamson Approves German Strategy; Wilfred Owen Imagines a Retreat; Edward Thomas Writes, but Not Through His Hat; Edwin Vaughan Clowns Through His

A day of family letters once again. Henry Williamson seems to have dodged immediate trouble due to his either his drinking or his incompetence (actual and perceived) in managing men, maps, and mules; he hasn’t lost his job, and his Machine Gun Company is now following the German withdrawal. A letter of yesterday, a century back, used his dotted-letters code to indicate that they were in Bapaume. He also reported himself in good spirits, in receipt of no parcels from home, and determined to show that the fighting men knew the German withdrawal for what is was:

The newspapers amuse us here immensely–we read of the Ger being driven back by our chaos–in reality he is walking away of his own free will, as slowly and as fast as he likes to… this burning and ruining & poisoning is not for spite–that’s all rot–its only to hinder us (e.g. no water, therefore greatly increased transport difficulties) as much as possible.

This is true as far as it goes. But it is also a case of young Williamson preferring the contrarian point of view. It is hardly the worst excess of British propaganda to cry up the purposeful devastation of the abandoned areas as cruel. It is cruel. But war is cruel, and this is this war’s first organized retreat, and thus a reintroduction to a particular catalogue of cruelties as old as the Thirty Years War or the Chevauchées which were once a popular English pastime in the region.

But Williamson omits one detail which, although it fits the older models of long-term devastation, can’t be reduced to his argument of purely strategic concerns–i.e. slowing down the British advance in the present days and weeks. As several of our writers have remarked, the Germans have, in at least one area, deliberately destroyed the apple trees, not in order to deny their pursuers firewood or the sight of apple-blossoms, but so as to wreck the cider crop for years to come.

All this is forgotten, in any event, as Williamson’s letter of today, a century back, cheerfully focuses on two positives of the strange new situation. First, the post has at last caught up. Second, it must now fall behind again: the German withdrawal has been so well-managed that they must now be several days on the road in catching up and establishing new positions.

Dear Mother,

I think I received all your letters to date. Last night I received a parcel with some sox, match box, and butter scotch, for which many many thanks.

I have practically nothing to tell you except that I am not in the danger zone–the reason being that the old fellow has hooked it too quickly…

At times I get awfully fed up with this game, when I’m cold & wet, and moving to unknown billets with no accommodation, owing to our friend having struck a few matches to paraffin blocks & hey presto, no village: then its absolutely awful… the rain comes on about 3 times a week & puts everything in about 15 inches of mud.

Well cheero, don’t forget to write a bit, & don’t always write the same letter, your letters are always the same!!! Love to all, Harry.[1]

 

At the opposite end of the scale of subaltern maturity is Edward Thomas, also writing to his middle aged, middle class London/suburban parents.

244 Siege Battery
22 March 1917

Dear Father and Mother,

As things have been happening here lately I had better let you know all is well. I have been out for 24 hours in our new front line trenches—an Artillery officer always has to be there now—observing the ground and reporting flashes of hostile guns at night. It was a very interesting and very tiring experience as I had no shelter and had not been prepared for a night at all. It taught me a good deal about cold and dirt and mud and how the infantry live and also how to tell the sound of shells that are not going to harm you, which saves you from much useless anxiety. To be relieved at breakfast time was a pleasure that overcame everything and to see the town in the sun as I came down into it was most beautiful. I slept 16 hours after a wash and a meal and now I am on duty again. The one thing I could have had and did not was my map case to protect my map from rain and mud . . .

We do not know enough yet about the recent movements to be elated… I am sure you are Hopeful, Father, and I can only say I am willing to believe the best when I hear it.

Interestingly, the ever-open question of what, exactly, one can believe of what one reads in wartime newspapers now takes a personal turn as Edward Thomas picks up on what must have been a mention in a letter to him of the war correspondent William Beach Thomas. Beach Thomas, arrested in 1914 by the British Army for reporting from the war zone without permission, was briefly something of a hero of the free press. But lately he is a writer–with official access, controlled by the Army–popular on the home front but much mocked among the troops for his purple prose and lack of real knowledge of front line conditions.

Our Thomas comments:

I have been reading Beach Thomas on the ruins of Peronne, etc. I am very glad it is not my job and at the same time sure I could do it infinitely better. Julian is probably right in saying that he gets his stuff supplied to him and writes through his hat. It is a pleasure not to have to write through one’s hat.

This is a dry remark, yes, but it is also a quiet reaffirmation–just after his first real day under fire in trenches, no less–of the decisions that have brought Thomas to where he is. He could easily have been a war journalist, but then he would not have really experienced the war. More precisely, he would not have shared its experience–the danger not least but then again not all. But his refusal to ever consider looking for work in that line is also motivated from the opposite direction in terms of his personal history (the past rather than the future): he has written hack work, thousands of words, hundreds of times, and quickly, to the specifications of others. He sought to leave that behind when he began to write poetry, and the resulting need for cash was not least in his motivations for joining the army. He might have wanted the mud and rain and danger anyway, the feeling of fellowship on behalf of English earth, in French earth–but at the very least being a fighting soldier saved him from the irony of returning to paying writing work on such terms.

Instead, he can see for himself, and write of it as he chooses. So this phrase is worth more than a thick binder of Beach Thomas-style paeans to Tommy:

The infantry in the trenches were very amusing company and the way they settle down and make the best of an impossible situation is just as wonderful as I have always heard…

Good bye and my love to all.

Ever your loving son

Edwy[2]

 

Thomas also wrote to Eleanor Farjeon, today, a century back. The letter covers much of the same ground, as it were, but then again the differences in emphasis are telling:

March 22

My dear Eleanor,

…It was most interesting and amusing as well as infinitely tiring—I had to stand up in mud, wet and cold all night watching hostile flashes and listening to shells which I have learnt not to worry about when they are going over and not coming to me or near. The time hasn’t come for field postcards yet. We are still at the edge of the town and have no definite news when or where we move. So I am still in the orchard. The old Frenchwoman probably left it to live in a safe cellar at the edge of the town. This place hasn’t a safe cellar. Also I suppose a battery coming here made it unfit for her to stay. You have heard now that I collared that F and M parcel. I did not get any stomach-ache from it. The muscatels and almonds are just the things for my 24 hours in an observation post…

You know that village I told you about, the ghastly place, well it is just near there that I observe. I shall be sleeping in it soon, I expect. The Hun fires into it all night. When I was in the front trench, all night long his shell came whistling over to roost in — like flights of birds.

You have often heard of the mud out here, haven’t you? Well, I have been in it. It is what you have heard. You nearly pull your leg off, and often your boot off, at each step in the worst places—the stiff soft clay sucks round the boot at each step. The telephone wires are deep in this and have to be repaired in the dark. Imagine it. Now I have to go. Goodbye.

Yours ever,
Edward Thomas[3]

 

Wilfred Owen, still recovering from a fall and subsequent concussion, has rather more time on his hands. Writing to his sister Mary, he is in a pleasantly discursive mood–and he admits to an interestingly fanciful hobby.

Wednesday Mng. 22 March
13th Casualty Clearing Station

Dearest Mary,

I am now really quite well, but am not getting up yet, as it is snowing and I couldn’t go out if I did dress. But we sit round the stove in Kimonos, padded with cotton, very pleasant wear. We are now about ten in the ward. One is an old Artist Rifle, but I never knew him, nor ever want to. They are none of them interesting, from any point of view
whatever.

I amuse myself with drawing plans for Country Houses and Bungalows, especially Bungalows. I worked my wits all day on one, and, within the prescribed limits, it is about perfect, for the intended occupant—solitary me.

Yesterday we saw that Owen was concerned to go back to his own battalion and not face the social dislocation of consignment to a replacement depot. Which is all very practical–yet he is still a loner at heart, at least in poetic fantasy.

You see I am thinking of sitting down under my own vine and living for use, some day, and a concrete presentment of the Vine should be incentive.

This passage rather winded me, yea wounded me. Mistress Browning:

Many fervent souls
Strike rhyme on rhyme, who would strike steel on steel.
If steel had offered, in a restless heat
Of doing something. Many tender hearts
Have strung their losses on a rhyming thread.
As children, cowslips. The more pains they take.
The work more withers. Young men, ay and maids.
Too often sow their wild oats in tame verse.
Before they sit down under their own vine.
And live for use.

Alas, near all the birds.
Will sing at dawn, and yet we do not take
The chaffering swallow for the holy lark.

Or words to that effect.
Adieu, sweet sister.

Your ever loving W.E.O.[4]

Even when these guys quote bits of poetry–this is from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh–they find their way to a lark. But it’s fascinating to see Wilfred Owen, as yet a lonely soul, planning a poetic retreat for àpres-la-guerre–even if he can’t exactly afford it, and must occupy it alone. Hardship and deprivation have a way of focusing the future-fantastic urge…

 

We’ll close today with two unaccustomed things, at least as far as Edwin Vaughan‘s diary goes: camaraderie and frivolity.

We were all sent along to QM stores to draw a new kind of gas helmet. A rubber face piece with a tube leading to a canister of chemicals; the whole installed in a square satchel to be carried on the chest. The troops are quite annoyed at having ‘another bleedin’ present for the Christmas tree’. We of HQ have also been dished out with new tin hats fitted with a rail and hanging chain mesh to protect the eyes. We spent the afternoon putting on the gas-masks to make animal noises at each other, and saluting to make the helmets clank.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 101-3.
  2. Selected Letters, 150-1.
  3. Farjeon, Edward Thomas, 256-7.
  4. Collected Letters, 445.
  5. Some Desperate Glory, 63.

Charles Carrington on Patrol; Edward Hermon’s Mud Piece

Charles Carrington ended his description of yesterday, a century back, with the wry observation that the only way to test the true extent of the German withdrawal was “to send an officer to look. If they shot him dead we should know they were still there.”

Early in the morning of 15th March I crept in from my patrol at Biaches with the information that I had not heard a sound; I thought they had gone. Not I, but the next subaltern for duty, took a fighting patrol and entered the German trench. He could find no one, but as he withdrew to report he was fired upon and lost a man. Evidently there were some scattered rearguards left behind and who could say in what strength…

It would be suicide for us to advance without preparation, if even a few machine-guns had been left to hold us off.[1]

They had been, and the Warwickshires–along with the 2/Irish Guards and a number of other units on the southern Somme frontage–will creep forward over the next few days, forced to choose between speed and safety as the main German force completed its withdrawal to the Siegfried Stellung, a.k.a. the Hindenburg Line. The rearguards–snipers and machine-gunners, supported by artillery which could fire very accurately on what had been their own trenches–were able to exact a higher toll than they suffered. Unless a very high value is put on the slice of territory regained, this is necessarily a losing proposition for the allies, in the terms of a war of attrition. Not only will they suffer as they chase the German withdrawal, but their new lines must be built under German observation from their own completed and carefully sited positions.

 

Edward Hermon–Bob to all and sundry–is sill holding the line in Arras, which is at the northern end of the withdrawal, where the new lines are not very far back from the current positions. He takes it in turn, today, to weigh in on the environmental matter of the moment. After a frigid February, a decisive thaw has created some of the war’s worst mud, which will make pursuing the Germans even more challenging.

If Hermon can be a somewhat too earnest writer–plodding, one might say, and literal–when it comes to describing emotional extremes, he is in his element today:[2]

Out again once more after a very bad tour so far as weather conditions were concerned. We went in, in a hard frost & the trenches were like a pavement. Then we had snow & rain with the result that the last four days of our tour were really terrible. The mud was in evidence to a degree that I have never seen before, men literally up to their knees in it. One morning I got absolutely stuck going round the line & looked round to see my runner stuck too about 10 yards behind, There we were, quite immovable. After a most frantic struggle I managed to get on the parapet & get to my runner & took his rifle, then got him out.

This will give you some idea of what one means by mud in the trenches. However, we got out alright & I was well cheered up on getting in by finding three lovely letters from you…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Soldier From the Wars Returning, 138.
  2. I apologize; that is too many bad puns at once. It's muddy!
  3. For Love and Courage, 336-7.

Edwin Vaughan Completes a Horrible Task; Probing the German Withdrawal with Henry Williamson, Charles Carrington, and Kipling’s Irish; Kate Luard’s Combat Boots

As last night turned to today, a century back, Edwin Vaughan and his men worked to exhume the bodies of the four men entombed in their dugout, including Sergeant Bennett, brother of the Corporal Bennett who had been killed the day before. It was a gruesome task, and slow, and under intermittent German trench mortar fire.

…it was early morning when we got them all out… we buried them in shell-holes and walled in the dugouts with earth and sandbags,…

As we left the cellar and climbed out on to the top I was forced to pause and moralize, gazing over the vaguely visible line of trench: to think of the mad fate which dragged simple, kind-hearted men into these nights of terror and destruction. Mostly my mind was occupied with the third Bennett who was by now waiting at our transport lines. I pictured him returning with messages from home fro his two brothers… From where I stood I could faintly see the roughness of the ground which marked where they were lying a hundred yards apart.

But life goes on. The battalion is relieved today–in both the military and the psychological senses–and by the time dawn broke, they “were safe.”

We were out of the mud and muck, away from the bombs and shells, the rain and darkness, the blood and smells. Out in the free air where we could walk erect and talk aloud. The wonderful freedom drove away our weariness and our hunger; with our heavy packs we ran and jumped over shell-holes, laughed and sang and drawing our revolvers potted at birds which shrugged their shoulders and flew off. When a GS waggon met us and the driver said that he had been sent to carry us back, we laughed merrily, telling him to go on and pick up our troops and we would be at Eclusier two hours before him.[1]

 

Charles Carrington‘s memoirs are excellent–a prominent member of the second team of Great War all-stars–but very short on dates. This winter his 1/5th Warwickshires have been holding trenches near the southern end of the British line, on the River Somme itself, and Carrington provides undated descriptions of cold in the trenches and tense patrols over the ice of No Man’s Land. His battalion has lately been in reserve, but today, a century back, they are going up to attend to a new task: probing the recent German withdrawal. Carrington is notably level-headed, which makes him a good source to prove a point that comes up several times this week, namely the relative importance, to our writers, of grand strategic/political events on the one hand and local affairs on the other:

On 14th March, when we paraded to move up from Eclusier to the front line of Biaches, a communiqué from G.H.Q. was read out on parade. There had been a Revolution in Russia and the Liberals had seized power. The news was applauded, since we supposed that Russia would now have a constitution like our own with the consequence that their war effort would be better managed. World politics faded out of our consciousness as we applied ourselves to the questions whether, and how the Boches would retire. The only way to find out was to send an officer to look. If they shot him dead we should know they were still there.[2]

We’ll pick that up tomorrow–the method of probing forward, that is, rather than the political news–but the signs are good: just a few miles to the north, the Guards Division had sent out just such an officer’s patrol, and it was reported that the German front line was abandoned. At dusk the 2nd Irish Guards were taking over the German trenches they had lately been facing…[3]

 

Henry Williamson is a few miles to the north, working to supply his Machine Gun Company as they push forward in support of infantry units like Carrington’s.

Dear Mother

I am pipped a bit in left arm otherwise OK, am not going to hospital, all right in a week. Sures we’ve had an awful time. We have pushed the Ger back some…

What happened to the wise boy of a few weeks ago, who warned his mother against believing that the withdrawal constituted a victory? For that matter, why is there no mention of this tiny wound in his diary?

Williamson’s only constant is a nervous toggling between various incompatible states of mind. This letter, for instance, goes on to exaggerate the German bombardment and then to chide his mother for her epistolary shortcomings: “All your letters are the same try & vary them old thing.”

But I will give young Henry credit for a positive change: his last letter featured some really terrible pseudo-Romantic verse. This one included a sheet of pleasantly peppy doggerel:

Mid the thunder of the cannon, as the dusk of evening falls,
And the star shells hang and glitter thro’ the broken shell-scarred walls.
In the corner by the brazier, on an empty biscuit case
Sits a lonely English soldier with the firelight on his face…

There are eight more verses describing the beloved face that the soldier imagines in the fire… which are made awkward by the romantic style of address and the fact that an accompanying sketch seems to indicate that they are directed at his mother…[4]

 

It’s a little prim, I suppose, to follow Williamson with a more trustworthy local source… I didn’t really intend it that way! Luck of the daily draw, etc.. Nevertheless, Kate Luard–who would be tenderly amused by a vulnerable young officer like Williamson, but not so far as to stand for his self-serving disingenuousness–can at least confirm the mud:

Wednesday, March 14th. Pouring cats and dogs all night and most of the day; quagmires everywhere. I have got officer’s gumboots now from Ordnance, big enough for me to wear two pairs of men’s socks over my stockings, and therefore possible to wear all day without getting trench feet…

The other five sisters arrived to-day… They are good children and are only amused at the mud, and the ration butter, and lamps instead of fires, and no baths…[5]

 

And finally, today, a meta-war note: we’re not quite at the thousandth day of the war, but, due to the handful of run-up posts in the spring and early summer of 2014 this is, according to the little tally on my “dashboard” screen, the 1,000th post on A Century Back… and I am free to imagine that somewhere some brave soul is up on a ladder putting the cross-stroke into their two-hundredth cluster of tally marks…

I really should have provided, at the very least, some sort of merit badge template to be downloaded, printed, and colored in by any readers who have read all thousand… apologies. But then again not preparing for what lurks in the future is an important principle, here. Nevertheless, whenever you began reading, thank you for doing so, and I do hope you’ll stay on for the duration…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Some Desperate Glory, 48-50.
  2. Soldier From the Wars Returning, 137-8.
  3. The Irish Guards in the Great War, II, 119.
  4. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 95-6.
  5. Unknown Warriors, 100-1.