Francis Ledwidge Dreams of Ireland; Hedd Wyn in the Salient

We take what may be a very welcome break from the travails of Siegfried Sassoon, today, for a letter from Francis Ledwidge to Katharine Tynan, the prolific and well-connected Irish writer. Tynan has just sent Ledwidge Lord Edward: a Study in Romance, her recent book on Edward Fitzgerald, the 18th century Irish nationalist. This book must have resonated strongly for Ledwidge, so soon after the Easter Rising, and in writing his thanks Ledwidge stints nothing of his talent for the lyrical evocation of Ireland:

20th July 1917

We have just returned from the line after an unusually long time. It was very exciting this time, as we had to contend with gas, lachrymatory shells, and other devices new and horrible. It will be worse soon. The camp we are in at present might be in Tir-na-n’Og,[1] it is pitched amid such splendours. There is barley and rye just entering harvest days of gold, and meadow-sweet rippling, and where a little inn named In Den Neerloop holds its gable up to the swallows, bluebells and goldilocks swing their splendid censers. There is a wood hard by where hips glisten like little sparks, and just at the edge of it mealey leaves sway like green fire. I will hunt for a secret place in that wood to read Lord Edward. I anticipate beautiful moments.

I daresay you have left Meath and are back again in the brown wilds of Connaught. I would give £100 for two days in Ireland with nothing to do but ramble on from one delight to another. I am entitled to a leave now, but I’m afraid there are many before my name in the list. Special leaves are granted, and I have to finish a book for the autumn. But, more particularly, I want to see again my wonderful mother, and to walk by the Boyne to Crewbawn and up through the brown and grey rocks of Crocknahama. You have no idea of how I suffer with this longing for the swish of the reeds at Slane and the voices I used to hear coming over the low hills of Currabwee. Say a prayer that I may get this leave, and give as a condition my punctual return and sojourn till the war is over. It is midnight now and the glow-worms are out. It is quiet in camp but the far night is loud with our guns bombarding the positions we must soon fight for.[2]

This is wishful thinking, alas–but I don’t think Ledwidge really has any hope that somehow he, an ordinary infantryman, will be given special leave when his book comes out. And even if his own turn for leave is not too far off, the wistfulness of this letter is sharpened by the sure knowledge that there will be battle before there is any leave. That is the preparatory bombardment for the Third Battle of Ypres that mutters through the night…

 

A bombardment which Hedd Wyn too will soon be hearing. He has now joined the 15th Royal Welsh–the very same battalion as David Jones.[3] The 15th had been in rest but have now finished their march to the front, reaching–naturally–“Dublin Camp” on the banks of the Yser Canal…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The legendary "Land of Youth."
  2. Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 185-6.
  3. I have only just, very belatedly, realized this fact--there are so many writers and so many battalion numbers that I had been ignoring the homunculus who had been repeatedly suggesting that "15th Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers" was awfully familiar. It seems to be an overlooked overlapping of two sympathetic writers, unbeknownst to each other... I will write more about it in a few days.

The Committee to Save Sassoon Assembles; Wilfred Owen is in Contact with Mother, and Mother Earth

Today, a century back, Robert Graves, having escaped from the Isle of Wight and made good time to London, lunched with Eddie Marsh and then met Robbie Ross.[1] He hasn’t yet received the letter Siegfried Sassoon wrote to him two days ago, but he has precisely divined his friend’s state of mind and decided to mobilize all possible resources to knock Sassoon off course. Their influential mutual friends–from the patient and concerned Marsh to the alarmed and avuncular Ross–will now help him to allow his best intentions to be defeated… or, at least, replaced by a different conception of his duty regarding the war.[2]

 

And Sassoon, or, rather, George Sherston?

On Tuesday my one-legged friend, the Deputy-Assistant-Adjutant, came to see me. We managed to avoid mentioning everything connected with my ‘present situation’, and he regaled me with the gossip of the Camp as though nothing were wrong. But when he was departing he handed me an official document which instructed me to proceed to Crewe next day for a Special Medical Board. A railway warrant was enclosed with it.

Here was a chance of turning aside from the road to Court-Martialdom, and it would be inaccurate were I to say that I never gave the question two thoughts. Roughly speaking, two thoughts were exactly what I did give to it. One thought urged that I might just as well chuck the whole business and admit that my gesture had been futile. The other one reminded me that this was an inevitable conjuncture in my progress, and that such temptations must be resisted inflexibly… I called in pride and obstinacy to aid me, throttled my warm feelings toward my well-wishers at
Clitherland Camp, and burnt my boats by tearing up both railway warrant and Medical Board instructions.[3]

 

While Sassoon awaits his fate amidst the ashes of his metaphorical transports, Wilfred Owen is settling nicely into Craiglockhart War Hospital, near Edinburgh. There have been several letters, now, discussing various possibilities for a parental visit.

Tues. [17 July 1917] Craiglockhart

Dearest Mother,

Yes: if you came on Friday Morning we would lunch, & have an hour on the Tower: given a fine afternoon.

I have found myself obliged to order a new tunic, to have this old one cleaned, and the other one enlarged by Pope & B. and the longer I leave it, the more extortionate the cost. Already this will be £5:10! I am to be fitted on Thursday aft. But no reason you sh’d not come on Thurs. if more convenient…

After a bit of family gossip, Owen turns to his late literary efforts, both influenced by his doctor, Arthur Brock.

My tiny Notice of the first meeting of our Field Club has gone to press. Old Brock is supposed to have written it. It was better paid than by a pukka Editor’s best guineas. He will probably pay me in terms of Months, which is more than Money.

The Field Club is part of Brock’s program of ergotherapy, which works by keeping traumatized officers busy at peaceful tasks… and also, as Owen notes, by keeping them away from the war. This is not an idle joke: if Owen’s therapy goes well, it may keep him away from the war until next year. What could be more precious “payment” for a bit of writing than that?

But Owen is also working on his poetry, and the piece he now shares with his mother has been inspired by Brock’s favorite metaphor for holistic healing:

Here is the opening of Antaeas:

‘So neck to stubborn neck, and obstinate knee to knee.
Wrestled those two; and peerless Heracles
Could not prevail, nor get at any vantage . . .
So those huge hands that, small, had snapped great snakes.
Let slip the writhing of Antaeas’ wrists;
Those hero’s hands that wrenched the necks of bulls,
Now fumbled round the slim Antaeas’ limbs.
Baffled. Then anger swelled in Heracles,
And terribly he grappled broader arms.
And yet more firmly fixed his graspèd feet.
And up his back the muscles bulged and shone
Like climbing banks and domes of towering cloud.
And they who watched that wrestling say he laughed,
But not so loud as on Eurystheus of old.’

Wilpher d’Oen (!!)[4]

This is odd stuff–buoyant, but still somewhat obtuse. It’s not what we’d call ‘war poetry,’ yet it’s a firm step in that direction. It might be a classical pastiche suggested by his treatment, but Owen is nevertheless writing of conflict and from within the history of his own war…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 180.
  2. Marsh is still fairly-well-connected, since he is Churchill's secretary and Churchill has just re-entered the government as Minister of Munitions. But it seems that Marsh's friendly/patronly persuasion is required here, not a dramatic action by a minister still half out of favor; Jean Moorcroft Wilson (Siegfried Sassoon, I, 384) suggests that Ross--whose letter to Sassoon betrayed significant alarm--may have influenced, through the War Office, the army's decision to treat the protest as a symptom of "shell shock" rather than a criminal refusal to obey orders. The process by which this decision was arrived it is unknown to history--or unknown to me, at least--and seen primarily through the never-quite-unwarped glass of Graves's account... so I'm not sure whether Ross or Marsh acted other than by advising Graves and writing to Sassoon...
  3. Complete Memoirs, 506.
  4. Collected Letters, 477.

Isaac Rosenberg’s Daughters of War; Francis Ledwidge’s Gods of Greece; Siegfried Sassoon Declares the Death of Youth

Some days we make do with an update and a diary excerpt or two… other days three important poets are writing about their minds and their methods.

Isaac Rosenberg posted a letter to Eddie Marsh today, which probably included a draft of his difficult, sui generis, mythological poem “Daughters of War.” It also contained an attempt to allay the perplexity the poem would cause:

I am now fearfully rushed, but find energy enough to scribble this in the minute I plunder from my work. I believe I can see the obscurities in the ‘Daughters’, but hardly hope to clear them up in France… The first part, the picture of the Daughters dancing and calling to the spirits of the slain before their last ones have ceased among the boughs of the tree of life, I must still work on. In that part obscure the description of the voice of the Daughter I have not made clear, I see; I have tried to suggest the wonderful sound of her voice, spiritual and voluptuous at the same time. The end is an attempt to imagine the severance of all human relationship and the fading away of human love. Later on I will try and work on it, because I think it a pity if the ideas are to be lost for want of work. My ‘Unicorn’ play is stopped because of my increased toil… It is to be a play of terror—terror of hidden things and the fear of the supernatural. But I see no hope of doing the play while out here. I have a way, when I write, to try and put myself in the situation, and I make gestures and grimaces.[1]

Of the play, more anon, I hope. And this almost touching personal detail is a reminder of just how difficult it must be to write poetry in the trenches, especially as a private. Of course he gestures and grimaces–and many writers talk to themselves, at their leisure, in rooms of their own…

As for “Daughters of War,” the poem has been long in gestation–Rosenberg sent an early draft to Gordon Bottomley in December–and it has been growing in power. Like the ancient poets who dreamt Valkyries and Amazons–and like David Jones and his Sweet Sister Death–Rosenberg summons up female embodiments of war’s power.

Space beats the ruddy freedom of their limbs,
Their naked dances with man’s spirit naked
By the root side of the tree of life…

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

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

 

Next to this wrenching vision, full of sex and death, the melodious prose and harmonious rhymes of Francis Ledwidge seem to come from an entirely different war, a different era. They don’t, of course–they come from the same day. These are very different sensibilities: our two poets in the ranks and out of the working classes share very little else than those three facts of their identity.

Ledwidge wrote another letter to the prominent writer Katherine Tynan today, a century back, and it begins with a strange confusion.

19.6.17

This is my birthday. I am spending it in a little red town in an orchard.

Actually, it is not his birthday. Which goes a longer way to show one of the larger cultural and social gaps among our writers than a ream of commentary about Ledwidge’s rural roots or Lord Dunsany‘s reflexive condescension towards his Irish “peasant” protégé. It seems that birthdays were little regarded in rural County Meath a century and another score of years back, and even when he enlisted Ledwidge did not know the date of his birth. His mother, flustered, confused his and his brother Joe’s, or so the story goes. Our Frank Ledwidge was born on the 19th, but of August–his twenties have two months left to run.

Again I think of how this sort of confusion might have arisen in Rosenberg’s family too, with an absent father and Yiddish-speaking mother, or how Ledwidge and his surviving siblings might have shared, like Rosenberg and his brother, the “family suit.” But for such similarities there are more striking differences. Rosenberg is a child of the London slums. And Ledwidge?[2]

There is a lovely valley just below me, and a river that goes gobbling down the fields, like turkeys coming home in Ireland… I was down here earlier in the spring, when all the valley wore its confirmation dress, and was glad to return again in the sober moments of June. Although I have a conventional residence I sleep out in the orchard, and every morning a cuckoo comes to a tree quite close, and calls out his name with a clear voice above the rest of the morning’s song, like a tender stop heard above the lower keys in a beautiful organ…

If you go to Tara, go to Rath-na-Ri and look all around you from the hills of Drumcondrath in the north to the plains of Enfield in the south, where Allan Bog begins, and remember me to every hill and wood and ruin, for my heart is there. If it is a clear day you will see Slane Hill blue and distant. Say I will come back again surely, and maybe you will hear pipes in the grass or a fairy horn and the hounds of Finn…

Ledwidge also enclosed three new poems, “The Find,” “Stanley Hill,” and “The Old Gods:”

I thought the old gods still in Greece
Making the little fates of man,
So in a secret place of Peace
I prayed as but a poet can:

And all my prayer went crying faint
Around Parnassus’ cloudy height,
And found no ear for my complaint,
And back unanswered came at night.

Ah, foolish that I was to heed
The voice of folly, or presume
To find the old gods in my need,
So far from A. E.’s little room.[3]

 

Siegfried Sassoon has not written in his diary since beginning to work on his “declaration.” Today, a century back, he is very much still in declaration mode, railing angrily at the waste of the war and the evil cynicism of those who prolong it.

June 19

I wish I could believe that Ancient War History justifies the indefinite prolongation of this war. The Jingos define it as ‘an enormous quarrel between incompatible spirits and destinies, in which one or the other must succumb’. But the men who write these manifestos do not truly know what useless suffering the war inflicts.

And the ancient wars on which they base their arguments did not involve such huge sacrifices as the next two or three years will demand of Europe, if this war is to be carried on to a knock-out result. Our peace-terms remain the same, ‘the destruction of Kaiserism and Prussianism’. I don’t know what aims this destruction represents.

I only know, and declare from the depths of my agony, that these empty words… mean the destruction of Youth. They mean the whole torment of waste and despair which people refuse to acknowledge or to face; from month to month they dupe themselves with hopes that ‘the war will end this year’.

And the Army is dumb. The Army goes on with its bitter tasks. The ruling classes do all the talking. And their words
convince no one but the crowds who are their dupes.

The soldiers who return home seem to be stunned by the things they have endured. They are willingly entrapped by the silent conspiracy against them. They have come back to life from the door of death, and the world is good to enjoy. They vaguely know that it is ‘bad form’ to hurt people’s feelings by telling the truth about the war…

The diary continues, wandering into violent territory as Sassoon decries the bloodthirstiness of women and imagines a mob awakening to “lynch” the “dictator” who has plunged it into war.

The soldiers are fooled by the popular assumption that they are all heroes. They have a part to play, a mask to wear. They are allowed to assume a pride of superiority to the mere civilian. Are there no heroes among the civilians, men and women alike?

Of the elderly male population I can hardly trust myself to speak. Their frame of mind is, in the majority of cases, intolerable. They glory in senseless invective against the enemy… They regard the progress of the war like a game of chess, cackling about ‘attrition,’ and ‘wastage of man-power’, and ‘civilisation at stake’. In every class of society there are old men like ghouls, insatiable in their desire for slaughter, impenetrable in their ignorance.

Soldiers conceal their hatred of the war.
Civilians conceal their liking for it…[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Works, 375; Moorcroft Wilson, Isaac Rosenberg, 359-61.
  2. See Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 183.
  3. The Years of the Shadow, 294-6.
  4. Diaries, 175-6.

A Sunrise, a Hospital Barge, and a Ban on Pineapple Chunks from Wilfred Owen

A quiet day, for our writers, a century back. One letter from Wilfred Owen to his mother Susan will have to suffice–along with its verse enclosure, that is.

10 May 1917
13th Casualty Clearing Station

Dearest Mother,

…I sailed in a steam-tug about 6 miles down the Canal with another ‘inmate’.

The heat of the afternoon was Augustan; and it has probably added another year to my old age to have been able to escape marching in equipment under such a sun.

The scenery was such as I never saw or dreamed of since I read the Fairie Queene. Just as in the Winter when I woke up lying on the burning cold snow I fancied I must have died & been pitch-forked into the Wrong Place, so, yesterday, it was not more difficult to imagine that my dusky barge was wending up to Avalon, and the peace of Arthur, and where Lancelot heals him of his grievous wound.

I’ve already wondered whether there is not a bit of a false front here–can Owen really be so blessedly happy with a diagnosis of “shell shock” hanging over his head? But perhaps he can, as the comment about the march indicates. He has not yet been in any way dishonored, and he is neither marching with a pack nor in trenches. So he makes hay while the sun shines–which would have been a better joke if I had already indicated that this letter includes a draft of the poem “A Sunrise.”

In any event, there’s another poem clearly linked to today’s letter:

 

Hospital Barge at Cérisy

Budging the sluggard ripples of the Somme,
A barge round old Cérisy slowly slewed.
Softly her engines down the current screwed,
And chuckled softly with contented hum,
Till fairy tinklings struck their croonings dumb.
The waters rumpling at the stern subdued;
The lock-gate took her bulging amplitude;
Gently from out the gurgling lock she swum.

One reading by that calm bank shaded eyes
To watch her lessening westward quietly.
Then, as she neared the bend, her funnel screamed.
And that long lamentation made him wise
How unto Avalon, in agony,
Kings passed in the dark barge, which Merlin dreamed.

So I suppose it bears reminding that there are no straight lines from trauma to poetic innovation. This is no matter for a Roman road, but rather a rambling Celtic drover’s track, veering into history and fairy land… and, indeed, there certainly seems to be progress of a sort, here. There is music in this, of a sort that is rare in his earlier work: pleasant, side-wise rhyme and alliteration that is almost onomatopoeic–lazy barge music for a lazy barge song.

Although this poem is still to come, the Arthurian mood is certainly proper to this letter, and not cleanly divisible from the military milieu, either.

But the Saxon is not broken, as we could very well hear last night. Later, a real thunderstorm did its best to seem terrible, and quite failed.

The.next book for you to read is A Knight on Wheels. It is great.

Eh, I’m not so sure of that, but with a guilty conscience I must mention that this is a book by Ian Hay (Beith), whose The First Hundred Thousand is one of the most important mid-war publications by and on the British Army, but has made almost no impact here.

But let’s follow Owen’s train of thought: he’s got time, he’s written a poem, he’s a wounded warrior of sorts… what of service? what of his “contribution?” what of fame?

I, with the inherited diffidence of my distinguished Grandma, must say I could never do anything like so great.
I suppose in the million eyes of the Empire I have already done a thing greater than this merry book; but, then, more fools the million eyes . . .

This, perhaps, would be a good spot to interpolate the properly enclosed poem, straight-jacketed by diction, and with none of the easy command of the “Hospital Barge:”

 

A Sunrise

Loomed a pale Pearl more marvellous than the Moon’s,
Who thereby waned yet wanner than she was.
Because of the pallor of the Pearl of dawn,—because
Her Pearl was whiter than the wan, worn Moon’s.

The Pearl cleared Opal; Emerald eftsoons.
And the Emerald trembled peerless for an hour.
Till shower’d with shimmering Sapphires. (Their blue shower
Burst keen and brilliant as the first birds’ tunes.)

Then slowly through the shaking jewels of dawn.
Moved the immutable Ruby of the Sun,
Hung the immortal Ruby, huge with morn.

And the Moon was finished like a reel unspun.
She vanished as a Pearl that falls in wine.
She died: like the white Maid that once was mine.

 

There is some deftness here, rhyme-wise… but this is not the sort of stuff that–even imagining that the traditional register holds the field entire–will win fame and honor.

The fundamental fact, here, I think, is that Owen is in something of a holding pattern–whether he is really loving this interlude (The Idylls of the Subaltern?) or whether he is putting on a brave face for home and for himself to cover his anxiety–he is still awaiting a double verdict: will it be blighty, or back to the trenches? And are his “nerves” an acceptable war wound or a sign of weakness?

The letter leaves literature for the milder balm of the gossip of daily life–not that talk of food shortages, however light-hearted, is a cheery subject.

How are you rationing? The French hereabouts subsist chiefly on Dandelion Salad. I am not joking. The young leaves with oil make an excellent supper. Tell me how you find it.

I live mainly on Pine Apple Chunks. There are going to be certain things Afterwards which will be held by all who love me in everlasting TABOO,

One of these is Pine Apple Chunks.
Another is a lead pencil on bad paper.
Another is the smoke of a damp wood fire…

All Love from your very own Wilfred x[1]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 456-7.

Siegfried Sassoon is Blighty Bound… and Eighteen Other Updates

Although I am almost as tired of writing extremely long posts as you are of reading them, so very many of our writers committed some sort of date-fixable act today, a century back, that I thought I should nod to the fates and survey everyone who showed up.[1]

After we wrap up with Siegfried Sassoon, withdrawn from the Hindenburg trench to the Hindenburg tunnel with a new “patriotic perforation” in his shoulder, and after we read the progress of Edward Hermon‘s widow, I will try to be judiciously brief with the others. Somehow, yesterday, Sassoon was not only seen and treated by the battalion Medical Officer, but was swiftly evacuated to a Casualty Clearing Station. Within hours of being held back from an attempted one-man bombing war, he is tucked in and headed for Blighty.

April 17

After a blessed eight hours’ sleep (more than I’d had since last Wednesday) I waited till 5 o’clock reading Far from the Madding Crowd, when we got on board a Red Cross train of serpentine length. Five hundred men and thirty-two officers on board. Warlencourt is eighteen kilometres from Arras—quite near Saulty, where we stayed on April 7. We passed through Doullens about 6 p.m. and Abbeville at 8.30 and reached Camiferes at midnight.

An officer called Kerr is with me—one of the First Cameronians. He was hit in the bombing show about an hour before I got up there on Monday morning, so I’ve got some sidelights on what really happened.

At present I am still feeling warlike, and quite prepared to go back to the line in a few weeks. My wound is fairly comfortable, and will be healed in a fortnight, they say. I know it would be best for me not to go back to England, where I should probably be landed for at least three months, and return to the line in July or August, with all the hell and wrench of coming back and settling down to be gone through again. I think I’ve established a very strong position in the Second Battalion in the five weeks I was with them. My luck never deserts me; it seems inevitable
for me to be cast for the part of ‘leading hero!’

Things to remember

The dull red rainy dawn on Sunday April 15, when we had relieved the 15th Northumberland Fusiliers—our Company of eighty men taking over a frontage of nine hundred yards.

During the relief—stumbling along the trench in the dusk, dead men and living lying against the sides of the trench one never knew which were dead and which living. Dead and living were very nearly one, for death was in all our hearts. Kirkby shaking dead German[2] by the shoulder to ask him the way.

On April 14 the 19th Brigade attacked at 5.30 a.m. I looked across at the hill where a round red sun was coming up. The hill was deeply shadowed and grey-blue, and all the Country was full of shell-flashes and drifting smoke. A battle picture.

Scene in the Hénin Dressing Station. The two bad cases—abdomen (hopeless) and ankle. The pitiful parson. My walk with Mansfield.

Sergeant Baldwin (A. Company) his impassive demeanour—like a well-trained footman. ‘My officer’s been hit.’ He bound up my wound.[3]

As these notes suggest, there will be a good deal more to write about all this.

 

A few days after learning of her husband’s death, Ethel Hermon received the heartfelt letter from his long-time manservant Gordon Buxton.

Dear Buxton,

Your letter came this morning & I can never thank you enough for your loving care of him & your sympathy & prayers. I knew you would be heartbroken & that I should have all your sympathy as you probably knew as well as anyone could know how much we were to each other.

You will by now have had my other letter telling you that I have asked Gen. Trevor… to let you come home if it is possible as I simply long to talk to you… I seem to know all that pen & paper can tell, one just longs to talk to someone who was there…

I should leave it there, as we press on into this massively choral day. To summarize, Ethel also charges Buckin with seeing that her husband’s valuable and useful possessions are distributed to his friends, and that the items that had been personal, close to his body–“the old basin & cover & its contents”–be returned to her. She hopes, too, that he can care for her husband’s grave. Which he will do–and he will come home.

A British tank ditched in the German lines at Arras, IWM

Dear Mrs. Hermon,

I’m sending this note by Buxton who goes on leave today to report to you. He will bring the papers etc. found on your husband…

…a tank was caught up on the German front line… & the Boches were firing at it… there seems little doubt that one these rifle bullets hit your husband just below the heart… The medical officer tells me he thinks a big blood vessel below the heart was severed & that death was almost instantaneous.

Your husband’s horses are being sent to Div. Hd. Qrs with the groom…

I can only repeat how much I feel for you in your irreparable loss.

Yours very sincerely,

H.E. Trevor[4]

 

Kate Luard‘s parade of horrors (we’ve read but a little, lately) has abated, as the Arras push lags. So time for a stroll–and paperwork.

We have had a lull the last two days, and everybody has been off duty long enough to go for a walk in relays and pick Lent lilies, cowslips, and anemones…  I believe another stunt is expected tomorrow…

I got about 60 behind in Break-the-News letters the first few days of last week…[5]

 

Ivor Gurney, realizing perhaps that he is even more lucky to be wounded and out of it than he had thought, managed a post card today to Marion Scott:

Dear Friend: Still at the Base. No certain address. No certain tomorrow. No luck. No money. No damage to my arm, save a hole. Yet, had the boats been running, I might have got to Blighty…[6]

 

Let’s see: what else is happening with the Great War writers?

 

Christopher Wiseman arrived in Harrogate to visit John Ronald Tolkien, and to help him in compiling a memorial volume of their friend G.B. Smith’s work.[7]

 

In fiction, today is the key date in “The Colonel’s Shoes,” a curious supernatural shaggy-dog short story by Ford Madox Hueffer. It’s a tale told in retrospect that hinges on bitter, childish infighting among a few officers and plays out in the orderly room of their overworked battalion. Today, a century back, a vindictive captain writes up a Company-Sergeant-Major for perceived insubordination, and it will take a very, very minor miracle to set things right…[8]

 

And after the excitement of last night’s chaotic patrol, tonight’s action provided tension in a lower key for Alf Pollard and the H.A.C. Ordered to move forward under cover of darkness and entrench within 200 yards of the Germans, Pollard accidentally led his men all the way up to the German wire obstacles. But once again “Fritz was keeping a very bad watch” and Pollard and his men are able to withdraw to the proper distance and begin entrenching before they are discovered. Pollard being Pollard, he ascertains that the battalion on his left is in the wrong position and blusters back under fire to explain his prowess and sure grasp of the situation to the Brigadier, as well as the embarrassed colonel of that neighboring battalion…[9]

 

Rowland Feilding missed the first week of the battle, but it is now the lot of his battalion to hold trenches in the worst possible weather, and fight the same war of patrol and counter-patrol.

April 17, 1917. “‘Turnerstown Left” (Fierstraat Sector).

I think this year must be accursed. Never was a fouler day than to-day. After a wet night it is still raining this morning, and the wind is howling dismally, but overhead. There are points, after all, in being in a trench. The French seem to have made a spectacular re-entry into the arena yesterday, but they must have been greatly handicapped by the weather, like our men at Vimy.

Last night we captured two big Prussian Grenadiers (unwounded) on our wire. They were brought to my dugout at 2 a.m., looking frightened—with their hands still outstretched in the orthodox manner of the surrendered prisoner who desires to show that he is not armed; coated with mud; one bleeding from a tear from the wire; but neither seeming too unhappy. If one only knew German this would be the proper time to extract information. They are too scared to lie much. Later, when they find out how kindly is the British soldier, they become sly and independent.[10]

 

Llewelyn Wyn Griffith, whose harrowing summer was followed by a long spell of peaceful staff work, was sent back to his battalion today, a century back, taking over C Company of the 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers. We hear time and again how officers pine for their comrades and their men when they are sent off to safe billets and cushy staff positions–not so Griffith, who “set off despondently” to return to the hardships of the line.[11]

 

And with another Kitchener battalion of the Royal Welch, David Jones is also heading back toward the front.

On the 17th, in wind and sleet, they left for divisional reserve at Roussel Farm–the cold mud so deep that it took hours to pass through 400 yards of communication trench. They arrived at 3.30 a.m.[12]

 

Henry Williamson “wrote a lot of letters” today, including one to his mother enclosing a piece of army propaganda about German demoralization and one to his father describing the roar of the big naval guns, the sight of a British tanker driven mad by the gunfire concentrated on his tank, and the recent transaction of parcels: cake and bullseyes to Henry in France, and souvenirs–including “2 tin boxes of bombs, etc., and 3 lovely helmets… & a saw bayonet”–sent home.[13]

 

Vera Brittain remains too far from the front, and full of worry. To her brother Edward, today, a century back:

I have to keep on writing letters, because the vague bits of news from France that filter through to us make me so anxious to receive them. From the long list of names that appear in the telegrams there seems to be a vast battle going on along the whole of our front & the French one too, but it is very difficult to make out at all what is happening. Is Geoffrey anywhere in the Bapaume direction? The longer the War goes on, the more one’s concern in the whole immense business seems to centre itself upon the few beings still left that one cares about, & the less upon the general issue of the struggle. One’s personal interest wears one’s patriotism rather threadbare by this time. After all, it is a garment one has had to wear for a very long time, so there’s not much wonder if it is beginning to get a little shabby![14]

Looking back on this night, she will add these thoughts:

Yet another night’s red moon, I thought, looking up after finishing Edward’s letter at the ominous glow in the unquiet sky. Another night, and still no news. Is Victor still alive? Is Geoffrey? Oh, God–it’s intolerable to be out here, knowing nothing till ages afterwards, but just wondering and wondering what has happened![15]

 

Jack Martin, in billets at Dickebusch, took today to write out fairly lengthy pen-portraits of some of his comrades… but I’m only human…[16]

 

Vivian de Sola Pinto, working for weeks now at the Bull Ring near Rouen, records today’s date–I would guess a scrap of his orders was preserved, for there are few dates and few such specifics in his book–as the occasion of a “huge fatigue party” that spent the entire day loading lorries. But it was also a memorable occasion because the station from which he was to supervise the loading contained a sergeant and two classes of furniture: a comfy chair and a biscuit tin.

With wry approval de Sola Pinto notes the sergeant’s insistence–“a fine example of what I would call a manly spirit of volunteer subordination”–that the officer take the better chair, despite the fact that both of them “knew he was an infinitely better soldier than I should ever be.” de Sola Pinto insists on taking turns, but recognizes that the Sergeant’s principled, if nominal, subordination “actually enhanced” his dignity.[17]

 

George Coppard, recovered from the accidental shooting in the foot, arrived today at “Camiers, a reception base for drafts.”[18]

 

C.E. Montague wrote both a letter and a diary entry recording his view of the battle from close behind. Wise though he is, he still feels bereft that his old companions are in battle and he is not. And he shows what a man with the time for literary composition on his hands can do. This is a good mix of eyewitness reportage and refined “battle-piece” history.

April 17, 1917

…Behold me again in the midst of our long-drawn battles—-meet incidents of our long-drawn war.

I saw the beginning of this one, before daylight on the morning of the 9th, from a little height above our front, from which I could see all our guns flash off together at the second of starting, like a beaded line of electric lights all turned on from one switch, and then each of them turned on and off and on again as fast as possible by a switch of its own. At intervals beyond this line of flashes there were the big geysers of flame, and dark objects visible in the middle of it, spouting up from our mines under the German front trench; and then at every two or three hundred yards there went up signal rockets from the German trenches, that seemed like visible shrieks to their artillery and supports to protect them from our infantry, who, they knew, were then on their way across from our trenches. I could see all this going on along several miles of front, and it was strangely dramatic, though all expressed through lights in the darkness alone, until the day broke and we could see our infantry already beyond the second line of enemy trenches and sauntering across quietly to the third, with our barrage of smoke walking steadily in front of them like the pillar of smoke in the desert—only of course it cannot give complete safety; and now and then the line would have a gap made in it by a shell and would join up again across the gap, and go strolling, with the strange look of leisureliness that an infantry charge of the scientific kind has now, until the time comes to rush the last few yards and jump down into the enemy’s trench.

It is grievous to to think that my battalion has twice had this great moment since I left it last midsummer, and that I may never know any more thrilling contact with the enemy than mutual sniping and a little reconnoitring of ground between his trenches and ours. The only compensation, so far as it goes, is that I see much more of the war and of the front as a whole, and the battlefield of the moment in particular, than one sees when engaged in honest regimental labour.

And in his diary:

Miles and miles of our front begin to dance in the dark, with twinkling and shimmering flashes. Suggests a long keyboard on which notes of light are being swiftly played. Then, from points all along German front, signal red and white and green rockets go up. Also ‘golden rains’ of our liquid fire, and one or two mine volcanoes. Dawn breaks on this firework show. Then on to a huge earthwork, an outwork of Arras citadel and lie on safe side and look over with fieldglass. Our infantry visible advancing in successive waves to take the second German trench-line N.E. of
Arras. Disquieted flocks of rooks. Then to Divl. H.Q., to find good news.

 

Charles Carrington‘s writing is honest, balanced, and well-informed. But he generally takes pains to, as they say, accentuate the positive. His morale and that of his unit’s was generally good–they have not despaired, they are more grim and more devoted to each other when they have started, but they would not acknowledge any sea change in their motivations, etc. But some days–and some nights, like last night, a century back, as they pressed up through the wreckage of this second push at Arras–were enough to drive a man to madness, despair, and self-slaughter. Last night he huddled under trench mortars; today was worse.

…In the morning, when we advanced unopposed, I passed the corpse of a British sergeant, not of my regiment. He lay on his back holding a revolver in his hand, shot through the throat at such an angle that I wondered if it had been suicide. If I had been suicidally inclined that night would have driven me to it.[19]

 

Edwin Vaughan and his battalion have been following the attack as well, and he writes voluminously of these days. But given his sensitive nature and penchant for drama, I don’t think he would mind my making this the representative incident:

At the Epéhy crossroads, we found a huge cat squatting on the chest of a dead German, eating his face. It made us sick to see it, and I sent two men to chase it away. As they approached it sprang snarling at them, but they beat it down with their rifles and drove it into the ruined houses. Then we covered the body with a sack, and went on.[20]

 

But we’ll end in Britain, in safety, and in the boudoir, where Duff Cooper has also been engaged in dire combat. Patrick Shaw-Stewart has been called back to war, but Cooper’s worries about other adversaries have pushed him closer to total war. Or, at least, to warfare unbefitting a gentleman. During Diana Manners‘ temporary absence from their long house party in Scotland he had been “obliged”–this is four days ago, a century back–to take a bath in her room. Where he opened and read her locked diary.[21]

It was rather vile of me…

It was, and we’ll skip the justifications. Amazingly, Cooper is both moved by learning “how much she loved Raymond” and urged to take action against his living rivals for her affection, including one Wimborne and a Lt-Col. Wilson who, of course, is known as “Scatters.”

There is no reference to me in the diary that I could quarrel with but I do not think she loves me… I rose from the perusal of this intimate diary which I had no right to read, loving, liking, and admiring her more than before.

And somehow this added up to progress. Cooper confessed his deed and was not banished. In fact, by last night he was reading her pages of his diary, then listening in agony outside her door while she (scandalously) entertained “Scatters” in the wee hours of today, a century back, and then returning in before dawn to wake her up with recrimination.

She cried and reproached me bitterly with not trusting and spying on her. I felt in the wrong and implored forgiveness which only after long pleading she granted. Then we had a night of the most wild and perfect joy. The best perhaps we ever had.[22]

And somewhere, every dawn, some men attack, and many sighs are drained.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. This may be--I joke here, almost completely, and with full apology for trespassing on the sanctity of life-or-death experience "from my armchair" (three words which I omitted from the Memoirs yesterday; but the armchair was only one possible destiny, for Sassoon)--the centennial blogger equivalent of Sassoon's mood at the very end of his escapade, yesterday, a century back...
  2. See Sassoon's "The Rear Guard," at the bottom of that post.
  3. Diaries, 156-7.
  4. For Love and Courage, 355, 358.
  5. Unknown Warriors, 114.
  6. War Letters, 155.
  7. Chronicle, 100.
  8. War Prose, 159-69.
  9. Fire-Eater, 209-11.
  10. War Letters to a Wife, 168.
  11. Griffith, Up to Mametz and Beyond, 138.
  12. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 153.
  13. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 119-20.
  14. Letters from a Lost Generation, 334-5.
  15. Testament of Youth, 339.
  16. Sapper Martin, 60-4.
  17. The City that Shone, 190.
  18. With a Machine Gun, 106.
  19. Soldier From the Wars Returning, 145.
  20. Some Desperate Glory, 95-6.
  21. What, I ask you, is the point of all of that fancy classical education if Cooper can pull up and manage some allusion to Actaeon, transformed into a deer and torn apart by his own hounds after seeing Artemis in the bath. Perhaps, as he considers leaving the Foreign Office for the Army, the vengeful hounds of his old hunting partners, become ravening ghosts, perhaps, are a bit too frightening to contemplate.
  22. Duff Cooper Diaries, 50-1.

Good Friday in Missouri; Ivor Gurney is Wounded; Edward Thomas Tunnels Onward; Siegfried Sassoon Marches Toward Spring–and the Guns

It is Good Friday, today, a century back, and a signal day in the war’s history: the United States has declared war. This fact seems to overshadow the coming assault at Arras. It’s hard, that is, with our short-sighted hindsight, not to begin treating the war as essentially all but over. After all, the Central Powers are nearly exhausted, they are blockaded, and now fresh armies will be on their way to bolster the Allies. But the German strategists are not fools, and they will gamble on ending the war before the United States’ contribution can be decisive–a gamble they will nearly win, especially after Russia’s collapse. From the cold and murderous point of view of Grand Strategy, another costly British effort to smash through their lines is surely welcome… a fact which will not help the men under the bombardment, or the men due to follow behind the curtain of shells on Monday morning.

But what, as the troublesome youngster asks, does this mean to me? To us, that is, steeped in the books and letters and diaries and poetry of British volunteers of 1914 and 1915. Well, I don’t know. There may well be more American voices here next year, although I’m not certain how much of a national shift will take place–perhaps very little.

In fact, I will begin with a curveball (or a changeup, perhaps–but I don’t expect too much criticism of my baseball metaphors, even today). In order to remind us that the U.S. will now be going through a sort of condensed-but-less-intense version of Britain’s 1914-15, with a long delay before the volunteers appear in large numbers in France–and also in order to sneak in a recommendation for one of the most perfect novels I’ve ever read–I’ll take as our first text today John Williams’s Stoner, a novel about the quiet life of a southern American academic. Many Americans will volunteer (and fight, and die) in the war, but many others will choose not to–this will never be an American war in the same way it was a British war (not to mention French or German, and not to speak of the East). About all we need to know is that the titular William Stoner is a doctoral student and instructor in the English department at the University of Missouri.

War was declared on a Friday, and although classes remained scheduled the following week, few students or professors made a pretense of meeting them. They milled about in the halls and gathered in small groups, murmuring in hushed voices… Once there was a brief-lived demonstration against one of the professors, an old and bearded teacher of Germanic languages, who had been born in Munich and who as a youth had attended the University of Berlin. But when the professor met the angry and flushed little group of students, blinked in bewilderment, and held out his thin, shaking hands to them, they disbanded in sullen confusion.

During those first days after the declaration of war Stoner also suffered a confusion, but it was profoundly different from that which gripped most of the others on the campus. Though he had talked about the war in Europe with the older students and instructors, he had never quite believed in it; and now that it was upon him, upon them all, he discovered within himself a vast reserve of indifference. He resented the disruption which the war forced upon the University; but he could find in himself no very strong feelings of patriotism, and he could not bring himself to hate the Germans.

But the Germans were there to be hated. Once Stoner came upon Gordon Finch talking to a group of older faculty members; Finch’s face was twisted, and he was speaking of the “Huns” as if he were spitting on the floor. Later, when he approached Stoner in the large office which half a dozen of the younger instructors shared, Finch’s mood had shifted; feverishly jovial, he clapped Stoner on the shoulder.

“Can’t let them get away with it, Bill,” he said rapidly. A film of sweat like oil glistened on his round face, and his thin blond hair lay in lank strands over his skull. “No, sir. I’m going to join up. I’ve already talked to old Sloane about it, and he said to go ahead. I’m going down to St. Louis tomorrow and sign up.” For an instant he managed to compose his features into a semblance of gravity. “We’ve all got to do our part.” Then he grinned and clapped Stoner’s shoulder again. “You better come along with me.”

“Me?” Stoner said, and said again, incredulously, “Me?”

Finch laughed. “Sure. Everybody’s signing up. I just talked to Dave–he’s coming with me.”

Stoner shook his head as if dazed. “Dave Masters?”

“Sure. Old Dave talks kind of funny sometimes, but when the chips are down he’s no different from anybody else; hell do his part. Just like you’ll do yours, Bill.” Finch punched him on the arm. “Just like you’ll do yours.”

Stoner was silent for a moment. “I hadn’t thought about it,” he said. ‘It all seems to have happened so quickly. I’ll have to talk to Sloane. I’ll let you know.”

“Sure,” Finch said. “You’ll do your part.” His voice thickened with feeling. “We’re all in this together now, Bill; we’re all in it together.”[1]

Stoner doesn’t go; he gets a post at the University instead, since jobs open up as other men volunteer. The smarmy Gordon Finch becomes an officer but remains in the United States, safe in training camps and still able to advance his own academic career. Stoner’s easygoing friend Dave Masters will be killed at Château-Thierry.

 

With the literary aspects of the U.S.’s contribution to the war effort thus entirely taken care of, we can turn our attention back to France.

Before we go to Arras, a sharp reminder that everyday attacks are still being carried out along other sections of the line. During one of these attacks, this evening, a century back, Ivor Gurney was shot in the arm. Despite being a few inches away from death, this wound was a good one–“clean through the right arm just underneath the shoulder.”

In fact, it may be too good a wound. Gurney was evacuated, but the wound was slight (and only briefly painful) and his first reaction after the immediate shock had worn off was fear that he might not make it all the way to Blighty. Soon afterwards, he remembered to be worried that he would be cut off from his lifeline to Blighty–it will take some time for the post to find a wounded soldier.[2]

 

Just outside of Arras, Edward Thomas, three days into the bombardment of the German positions that will be assaulted on Easter Monday, writes once again to reassure Helen. He would prefer to be calm and reassuring, describing what beauty he sees and maintaining the old connections between them by means of safe home-like gossip and natural description–to potter about the bridge over the experiential gulf without looking down.

But Helen’s most recent letter evidently pressed him to write more about his state of mind, and so Edward reluctantly ventures to explain how he intends to safeguard his inner self during the coming ordeal.

Beaurains
6 April
1917

There wasn’t a letter . . . but I will add a little more.—the pace is slackening today.

Still not a thrush—but many blackbirds.

My dear, you must not ask me to say much more. I know that you must say much more because you feel much. But I, you see, must not feel anything. I am just as it were tunnelling underground and something sensible in my subconsciousness directs me not to think of the sun. At the end of the tunnel there is the sun. Honestly this is not the result of thinking; it is just an explanation of my state of mind which is really so entirely preoccupied with getting on through the tunnel that you might say I had forgotten there was a sun at either end, before or after this business. This will perhaps induce you to call me inhuman like the newspapers, just because for a time I have had my ears stopped—mind you I have not done it myself—to all but distant echoes of home and friends and England. If I could respond as you would like me to to your feelings I should be unable to go on with this job in ignorance whether it is to last weeks or months or years…

We have such fine moonlight nights now, pale hazy moonlight. Yesterday too we had a coloured sunset lingering in the sky and after that at intervals a bright brassy glare where they were burning waste cartridges. The sky of course winks with broad flashes almost all round at night and the air sags and flaps all night.

I expect there will be a letter today. Never think I can do without one any more than you can dearest. Kiss the children for me.

All and always yours

Edwy[3]

 

As Siegfried Sassoon marches toward the sound of the guns–four of them directed, at times, by Edward Thomas–he seems to be in a solid and stable mood… but he is by no means able to resist the lure of bundling together the dawning spring, the coming battle, and some of the religious overtones of Eastertide.

April 6 (Good Friday)

Woke with sunshine streaming through the door, and broad Scots being shouted in the next huts by some Scottish Rifles. We remain here to-day…

I don’t think battle-nightmares haunt many of us. There isn’t time for thinking. We are ‘for it’—that’s enough for most of us. The wind is gone round to the east and we can hear the huge firing up at Arras.

I saw a signpost last evening with Arras 32 kilometres. I suppose that’s about the nearest point where hell begins… And I was walking, with nice old Major Poore, and talking about cricket and hunting.

And everywhere spring is not quite ready to break out in a sudden glory of flowers and leaves. The big woods round here are brown and sombre; in a fortnight they’ll be flashing and quivering, bowers of beech-trees, cages full of sunbeams, swaying alleys of Paradise.

Last night I went and stood in the moonlight, watching the stems and leafless branches, against the sky, and dreaming of summer dawns, till the startled birds rustled overhead, and something went plunging blindly through the undergrowth—it might have been Pan, or a roebuck, or a mule escaped from the Transport lines.[4] This morning romance had fled. Soldiers were practising on bugles and bagpipes at the wood’s edge.[5]

 

Finally, a poem–but not the sort of poem we might expect, after Sassoon’s pleasant pastoral fantasy. Sassoon is a country-loving English poetaster, sure, but he is a bit of an outlier–most men do not feel cheerful on the edge of battle, and praise the spring in the same voice that must shout over the guns.

Hamish Mann is a poet we read only very infrequently. But he, too, is waiting to see what the coming battle will bring. He writes, however, not of its present incongruous spring atmosphere, but of what battle has done in the past.

 

The Great Dead

Some lie in graves beside the crowded dead
In village churchyards; others shell holes keep,
Their bodies gaping, all their splendour sped.
Peace, O my soul… A Mother’s part to weep.

Say: do they watch with keen all-seeing eyes
My own endeavours in the whirling hell?
Ah, God! how great, how grand the sacrifice.
Ah, God! the manhood of you men who fell!

And this is War… Blood and a woman’s tears,
Brave memories adown the quaking years.[6]

References and Footnotes

  1. Williams, Stoner, New York Review Books, 33-4.
  2. War Letters, 153-4.
  3. Selected Letters, 163-4.
  4. I will lay even money that, with all of France to lose a mule in, Henry Williamson is somehow responsible for this.
  5. Diaries, 150.
  6. Powell, A Deep Cry, 240.

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Everlasting Terror

To Bobby

By J. R. Ackerley

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

jones-11-16c

One of several sketches by David Jones dated November, 1916

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

References and Footnotes

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

Vera Brittain Laid Low, Dorothie Feilding Disappoints a Wonderfully Brave Man; Isaac Rosenberg Strives to Stay in with Marsh; Ivor Gurney on Everything and Cake Too

A number of writers are busy today, a century back. There is going, coming, preening, editing, boasting, chatting, wagering, wondering…

 

In the “record time of five days” aboard the speedy Britannic, Vivian de Sola Pinto, drained and ill after months of fever, has reached England:

On 10th October 1916 we were steaming into Southampton Water on a chilly, wet, misty English autumn afternoon. It was thirteen months since I left England, but mentally I seemed at least half a century older than the callow youth who stood on the top deck of the Northdown on that fine September evening in 1915 and dreamed of a triumphal entry into Constantinople.[1]

 

Vera Brittain, who had been outward bound on the very same ship, perseveres in finding a note of romance and adventure in her first overseas service–despite being very ill, she seems rather pleased with the hubbub in this letter to her brother Edward. Solar topees! Empire and travel!

Imtarfa Hospital, Malta, 10 October 1916

The day before we landed at Malta, 16 of us, self included, were quite suddenly seized with some variety or other of fever, but whether dysentery, malaria, enteritis or some other species no one seems to know . . . I am very much better now and my temperature is down to normal again . . . Everyone here is very busy trying to trace the origin of our disease so as to find out exactly what is the matter with us . . . We have had quite 12 doctors in here, sometimes, five at once. Three of them are lady doctors, all very charming too, in khaki tussore coats & skirts, dark blue ties & solar topees. I am quite tired of giving my name (& wish it was Jones so that I didn’t have to spell it every time), my age, my detachment number, particulars of what I had to eat lately, etc etc. They have taken blood tests of various kinds . . .[2]

 

Nor can I pass up this episode in the strange life of Lady Dorothie Feilding. Romance! Adventure!

10th Oct

Mother mine–

Life is really very odd isn’t it? I told you Hughie’s friend of the Cornwall, Mr Vaughan RN,[3] you saw in London, turned up here! He got permission through D.I.D. who knows him, to spend 3 days leave out here as he wanted to see me again. He turned up here with the mail on the lorry one day & we put him up at our barracks & Jelly & I took him about in the car with us to show him things & fed him at no 14. He is a very nice soul, I like him very much, but was so sorry because before he left he asked if there would be any chance for me to marry him & I had to say I couldn’t. Poor soul, he’s always had a very lonely time of it through life & was very devoted to his gunner brother who was killed not long ago at Ypres. You remember his writing to me about it when I was home don’t you?

I think men are wonderfully brave sometimes at making up their minds don’t you? Everything really is very odd these days. The days when things weren’t odd seem so far away, almost like a dream.

This sudden proposal of marriage–from a friend of her dead brother who has lost his own brother–puts Lady Dorothie into a reflective mood. Even more unusually, it seems to plunge her into a mode of plainspoken self-expression.

A lot of blessés [wounded] the other night. Poor poor devils. But the more one can help them right out here at the pulse of things the more this actual work means to one. I can’t describe it, but it’s very real, & it means more to me everyday some how.

God bless you dear & goodnightD[4]

 

Isaac Rosenberg writes from the other end of the social scale. Laboring with a salvage unit on the Somme, he does his best to keep up the tenuous but crucial connections he has to London’s literary world. In this letter to Marsh he is careful–I think that’s the word–to praise the divine Rupert as well as their mutual friend Lascelles Abercrombie (whose interest in Rosenberg is due to Marsh’s recommendation). Does Rosenberg lay it on a bit thick?

[Postmarked October 10, 1916]
22311 A Coy 3 platoon
11th K.O.R.L. B.E.F

My Dear Marsh,

You complain in your letter that there is little to write about; my complaint is rather the other way, I have too much to write about, but for obvious reasons my much must be reduced to less than your little. My exaggerated way of feeling things when I begin to write about them might not have quite healthy consequences…

My Lilith has eloped with that devil procrastination, or rather, labours of a most colosal and uncongenial shape have
usurped her place and driven her blonde and growing beauty away. I have written something that still wants knocking into shape I feel too tired to copy it out, but later on I will, if you care to see it I came across that poem on clouds by poor Rupert Brooke. It is magnificent indeed, and as near to sublimity as any modem poem.

The poem I like best of modem times in Abercrombies Hymn to Love, It is more weighty in thought, alive in passion and of a more intense imagination than any I know….

Do write when you can.

Yours sincerely

Isaac Rosenberg[5]

 

A more comfortable poet-patron relationship is that between Ivor Gurney and Marion Scott. Miss Scott has helped Gurney immensely, and it is due to her that his poems are beginning to be read and his compositions have been several times performed. But she is a local sort of patroness, content to hover in that gray area between benefactress and amanuensis. Gurney seems eager to please, but he does not fawn–and the very prolixity and disorganization of his letters may be a sign of trust…

He has recently received both a number of parcels and a set of comments and corrections of his work–body and soul together. Two days ago he wrote in thanks:

8 October 1916

My Dear Miss Scott: We are in rest, and at present I myself am in quiet, with a sore foot that has compelled a little respect, so here’s a letter. I do not know whether the packet sunk the other day had any of my letters on board, but hope not. There will be bloody fighting if the Germans sink our parcels; if you have sent one I have not received it yet, let us hope frightfulness has not been carried to so extreme a limit. All the things you send arrive in good condition…

A long ramble about her corrections to his work, his hope for poems and music to come, and somewhat sanguine celebration of recent victories…

The Verdun victory is a very great one, do you not think? The Marne; the Thiepval — Contalmaison — La Boisselle… Verdun. Belles victoires!

…The truth is, as Hardy says, that the English fall back on stoical fatalism; and whatever it is they believe, it is not Christianity. They go to Church, and desire something spiritual, but it is nothing the Churches give them. They are fine, but self-reliant not relying on God…

Sore foot indeed. The chatty letter goes on at some length, and includes a rough poem draft (“Robecq”). Only two days later–today, a century back, Gurney is writing to Scott once again, full of literary exuberance.

He segues from praise of otheres’ books and their praiser’s–“Did you read G K Cs[6] review of Masefields “Gallipoli” in the Observer? O, it is a noble piece of praise”–to gentle mockery of his own work. He quotes his own recent “Serenity,” then mocks its incompleteness, as if to say “this is poetry, fine, but poetry is lacking…”

Nor steel nor flame has any power on me.
Save that its malice work the Almighty Will;
Nor steel nor flame has any power on me;
Through tempests of hell fire I must go free.
And unafraid; so I remember still
Nor steel nor flame has any power on me
Save that its malice work the Almighty Will.

Which is all very well; but what about Mud and Monotony? And Minnies and Majors?

A just question! Gurney sounds more like St. Francis than a poet of modern war. But he is all over the place, of late–this is another letter that shows either the effects of a tired and harassed infantry private writing fluidly about whatever is on his mind at the moment or evidence of a manic phase of mental illness–or both.

Gurney has high hopes for victory:

If I had £20 — a large supposition — I would bet the end comes . . .  by the end of November 5£. By Christmas £10. By End of Feb £15 and by August £20. You will not convince me that such already panicky losers will hold out long…

And then, weirdly, the supposed retreat of the German defenders turns from a note of triumph to a strangely pathetic scene, before veering into black comedy: “Stand-to” is the dawn ceremony at which the front line infantry all come on duty (during the night they work, or rest while taking turns as sentries) together to repel any possible dawn attack. As a display of readiness (and also as a way of enforcing that readiness among themselves) they all fire a few rounds.

No Man’s Land is in the last degree desolate, and nothing could seem sadder than the old willow tree I shoot at during Stand to. There are no Germans and one must shoot at something at Stand to. It was partridges that a
corporal discovered two days ago. He shot 3, but as he had to wait till evening again, the rats got one more than he did. No bon.

Without segue, Gurney now produces a “trench dialogue.” It seems that I have worked too hard today to present a bouquet of different century-back words and experiences… Gurney himself provides multitudes…

Trench dialogue

Cook drops bacon in the mud.
(Cook). — !———–!!! — !
(Passer by, sympathetically) No bon, eh?
(Cook). Compree me explique no bon?
(Passer by.) Na pooh fini, eh?
Cook Wee, no — bon at all.

Such accomplished linguists our gallant soldiers have already become.

Or. Trench Dialogue no 2

Entitled Rations

Prometheus Unbound (off duty.) General expletives.
Chorus (Sympathetic silence)
Prometheus No Bon! No Bon!!
Chorus Dont compree.
Prometheus Compree no grub?
Chorus Whatt!!
Prometheus. Compree no——– grub?
Chorus (dejectedly) Me compree. Wee, Wee. (Goes off to spread the news.)
Prometheus HE comprees! And me.

These are the real Trench dialogues. The Spurious may be told by their unlikeness to these models, so Greek in their perfection of form…

What is going on on with Gurney and these strange almost proto-Beckett playlets? An excess of good humor? Simple capering for Miss. Scott’s benefit?

In the end, Gurney returns to the private soldier’s postal necessity–the chance of caloric subsidy via parcel:

May I request that your next parcel be more substantial with a cake and some sort of paste. Anchovy lasts a deuce of a time…

Will you send me, sometime, the 6d Edition (Nelsons) of Wild Wales? Or that which once was 6d? It is a wonderfully companionable book, and long, beautifully trench-fittingly long; although one skips so much in Borrow.

Body and soul together…

Best wishes to you, and for the quick return to health of all the invalids:

Your sincere friend

Ivor Gurney[7]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The City That Shone, 182.
  2. Letters From a Lost Generation, 278-9.
  3. Royal Navy, rather than registered nurse...
  4. Lady Under Fire, 168-9.
  5. Collected Works, 312-3.
  6. Gilbert Keith Chesterton.
  7. War Letters, 105-9.

Bim Tennant’s Perpetual Smile Falters; Kate Luard Among the Mad and the Mangled; Rudyard Kipling Will not Yield; Francis Ledwidge Hymns a Patron’s Pen

Today, a century back, we have a strange and terrible quartet. We will end with the gentlest sort of prospective-farewell poem, and preface that with a survivor’s half-suppressed outburst of grief and relief. But first, the obscenity of war’s damage to young bodies, and then a clenched, wretched testament to the ongoing agonies of a bereaved parent.

Kate Luard‘s hospital was, once, a fairly orderly place where minor wounds were dealt with quickly so the staff could focus on abdominal wounds. It is now, like any medical facility on the Somme, a shambles and a madhouse. (And I’m letting loose with the rhetoric only as suppressing fire, really: because today’s second entry is, in its quiet, specific way, worse.)

Monday, September 18th. We are all grappling with work all day now, some of it is wonderful, but much of it is nothing but black. There is a boy dying who has his Will in his Pay-book made out ‘to my beloved mother.’ He looks about 17…There is a mad boy who is very funny: when you feed him he says, ‘1,2,3 a cup of tea, bread and butter 4,5,6, it’s 238 now…’ All his thoughts are in numbers… The blind boy with both legs off is dying; he doesn’t know his legs are off, and is cheerfully delirious most of the time. He calls us ‘Teacher…’ He was murmuring ‘Such is life’ just now.[1]

 

Even the greatest writer with swiftest, strongest imagination can be brought to his knees by a form letter. Rudyard Kipling has carried on; it’s been nearly a year since his son John’s death, and he has continued to live, and to write. And he spared no effort in finding those of his son’s men and comrades who might shed light on his disappearance on the battlefield of Loos. And they, trying to be kind, may have been cruel–Kipling came away with hope, despite the fact that these witnesses saw his son shot down, fatally, in a failed attack. But maybe there was nothing else they could say.

Four days ago, a century back, the War Office generated a form letter stating that the younger Kipling must be officially considered dead “unless further information about his fate has been received.”

Bateman’s / Burwash / Sussex
18th September 1916.

The Secretary
War Office, Alexandra House

Sir,

In reply to your letter. No. 125146 /1 (C. 2 Casualties) of the 14th September, I should be glad if you would postpone taking the course you suggest in regard to my son Lieutenant John Kipling. All the information I have gathered is to the effect that he was wounded and left behind near Puits 14 at the Battle of Loos on September 27th 1915. I have interviewed a great many people and heard from many others, and can find no one who saw him killed, and his wound being a leg wound would be more disabling than fatal.

May I draw your attention to the fact that in your letter you state my son’s rank as 2nd Lieutenant, whereas he was Lieutenant. Also in the published casualty list, he was incorrectly report as “Missing” instead of “Wounded and
missing.”

Yours truly,
Rudyard Kipling.

But there isn’t any hope–his comrades know he was fatally shot, and other than desperate and melodramatic hopes about amnesiac survivals, there is no chance that a captured officer would not have been identified through neutral parties many months before. Even that second paragraph is desperately sad, a proud man cloaking desperation in simple fussy umbrage: John Kipling’s promotion was not formalized until after his death, so, in the present view of the bureaucracy, it cannot have taken place. He is missing, and he is dead, and forever a 2nd Lieutenant.[2]

 

The advance at Loos that killed Kipling was the last great action by the Guards in 1915. Three days ago, they suffered through their worst disaster of 1916. And Bimbo Tennant survived.

18th September

. . . Thank Heaven I have come safely out of this battle after two days and two nights of it. It started properly at 5 a.m. 15th, and the artillery fire was terrific. We were in support and went up about 7.45 and sat down again further up just the right side of the German barrage. Then I was sent across to the ——– Guards to go with them, find out where they proposed going, and lead the Battalion up beside it. Off I went, and joined the ——— Guards, and went forward with them. When we had skirted G, the further of the two G’s [Ginchy, not Guillemont?] and were going through a little dip in the ground, we were shot at by Boches on the high ground with rifles, there must have been about twenty shooting at us. I was walking in front with their C.O. and Adjutant, and felt sufficiently uncomfortable, but didn’t show it. Bullets scuffed up dust all around with a wicked little ‘zump,’ but they were nearly all short and none of us, at least who were in front, were hit. Thus we went on, and they took up their position between two of these huge steel tanks on the near side of the ridge. Then they lent me an orderly, and I started back to bring the Battalion along; it was an unpleasant journey of about half a mile over nothing but shell-holes full of dead and dying, with any amount of shells flying about: Several whizz-bangs landed very close to me, but I got back to the Battalion and explained the position to them and then we all went down there…

The C.O., the Adjutant, the Doctor, and I spent that afternoon, evening, and night in a large rocky shell-hole. We were severely shelled on and off the whole time, and about four men were done in in the very next shell-hole a couple of yards away. That night was one of the coldest and most uncomfortable it has ever been my fortune to spend–‘with the stars to see.’ Meanwhile most of the Battalion had gone up to support the ——– and ——– Brigade, who had done the attack at five that morning, and had lost heavily. At seven or eight next morning we moved our Batt. head-quarters to the line of trenches in front which had been dug the night before. This was safer than our shell-hole, and as we had the worst shelling I have ever experienced during that afternoon and evening, it was probably a very wise move.

An attack took place at 1.15 p.m. that day, and I will tell you more about it when I see you, D.V. My worst job was that of taking messages down the line of trenches to different captains. The trenches were full of men, so I had to go over the open. Several people who were in the trench say they expected every shell to blow me to bits. That night we were again shelled till about 8 p.m. and were relieved about midnight. We got in about 2.30. I was dog-tired, and Churchill,[3] who now commands No. 4 Company, was even more tired. Soup, meat, champagne, and cake, and I went to bed till about 2 p.m. That is the time one really does want champagne, when one comes in at 3 a.m. after no sleep for fifty hours. It gives one the strength to undress.

So far, so good–in the effort to write, as well as in the effort to survive the 15th. But young Bim makes an error here–he opens himself out to a somewhat irrational (if modest enough) hope, and this quickly brings down his facade of stoic endurance.

Now the great question is will leave start soon? They say it will. I wish my poems could come out soon. The lighter blue cover is sure to be charming. If there is any question of a photy in the papers please try and get my Sargent drawing in and not my other photographs, as most of them are bad…

Darling Moth’, I am so thankful to be alive; I suppose you have heard who are dead? Guy Baring, Raymond Asquith, Sloper Mackenzie, and many others. It is a terrible list. . . Poor Olive will be heart-broken–and so will Katherine. Death and decomposition strew the ground. . . . [4] I must tell you of other things.

I made a very pleasant discovery the other day. I had occasion to walk a few hundred yards with Corporal Jukes, one day, and he told me that his father was keeper at Clouds, and he remembers your wedding, and has a photy of it at home. He knows Willson as ‘Ernie,’ and remembers when Icke was footman! He is such a charming man. What is more, he has a sister, Polly Jukes (such a nice name), who was housemaid to Glen–Grandpapa at Glen, so he is altogether a great family friend. I was so glad he introduced himself. We had a very good talk about people like Mr. Mallet, Mrs. Vine, and suchlike hench-folk. Do write and tell me if you remember him? He was butler to some general in Cairo before the War, and is forty-one years old, very young-looking, and a perfect man. . . .[5]

I wouldn’t trade those last two paragraphs for a fat volume of careful trench-life description. Why does Bimbo write to his mother? Or rather, why–for his part–does he write to her? (Of course he writes to her to comfort her, to allay her worry for him, to interrupt the misery of a mother’s fear with his high-spirited hijinks… but this is, so far, selfless.) He writes, of course, to build the bridge from his end.

If goofy endearments wear on the reader, a century on, their purpose is revealed when he breaks here, and writes himself turning squarely from grief and loss and fear toward the sunlit uplands of the past. Was the past great and glorious because we have drunk deeply of the Soul-powdered kool-aid of aristocratic Panglossian self-celebration? Yes. Is this a voice of enormous privilege? Yes. But like many young men, he had a happy past, and now is heading into battle and sees… unhappy things ahead…

 

Finally–disparately, incongruously–today, Francis Ledwidge has written a poem, and dedicated it to his fellow-Irish-writer-and-Royal Inniskilling and patron Lord Dunsany. Or, rather, to one of his instruments. Ledwidge has been home from Gallipoli for months, but he will be going out again… eventually. There is some drama (and winking self-dramatizing) in this very poetic pose. The poet is not exactly on the brink of going forward with a forlorn hope, contemplating an object of significance before setting out for peril. But he has cause more than good enough to brood upon an awaiting Rubicon…

You have to like old-fashioned poetry to feel this sort of thing, I think. But if you do, then, crack a smile, please. Let the last of the singers lift your spirits.

 

To an Old Quill of Lord Dunsany’s

Before you leave my hands’ abuses
To lie where many odd things meet you,
Neglected darkling of the Muses,
I, the last of singers, greet you.

Snug in some white wing they found you,
On the Common bleak and muddy,
Noisy goslings gobbling round you
In the pools of sunset, ruddy.

Have you sighed in wings untravelled
For the heights where others view the
Bluer widths of heaven, and marvelled
At the utmost top of Beauty?

No! it cannot be; the soul you
Sigh with craves nor begs of us.
From such heights a poet stole you
From a wing of Pegasus.

You have been where gods were sleeping
In the dawn of new creations,
Ere they woke to woman’s weeping
At the broken thrones of nations.

You have seen this old world shattered
By old gods it disappointed,
Lying up in darkness, battered
By wild comets, unanointed.

But for Beauty unmolested
Have you still the sighing olden?
I know mountains healther-crested,
Waters white, and waters golden.

There I’d keep you, in the lowly
Beauty-haunts of bird and poet,
Sailing in a wing, the holy
Silences of lakes below it.

But I leave you by where no man
Finds you, when I too be gone
From the puddles on this common
Over the dark Rubicon.

Londonderry, September 18th, 1916.[6]

References and Footnotes

  1. Unknown Warriors, 88-9.
  2. Collected Letters, IV, 402-3.
  3. No, not he--this is a Captain Spencer-Churchill.
  4. I'm not certain, but I do think this is Bim's ellipsis, a dip of his own mask at the thought of Asquith...
  5. Memoir, 231-4.
  6. Complete Poems, 231-3.

Tom Kettle, Rowland Feilding, and the Irish Division Move Up for the Attack; Raymond Asquith, Bimbo Tennant, and the Guards are Not Far Behind

The assault on Ginchy has hitherto failed. But it will continue. The Guards Division have been warned to move, and they have practiced attacking their objectives under cover of a rolling barrage. Other units, however, will be in for it first.

Today it was the Irish Division–already badly bloodied in the taking of Guillemont a few days before, that moved once more into the front lines. A New Army Division largely made up of Irishmen, the 16th Division had formed in 1915, and this late phase of the Somme was the first great test both of their fighting ability and their loyalty, in troubled times, to Britain.

With the division were Tom Kettle, lieutenant in the 9th Royal Dublin Fusiliers, and Rowland Feilding, the new commanding officer of the 6th Connaught Rangers. We’ll begin with Feilding’s account of today’s action, but I want to leave room now for a large image of a map. This one is up-to-date, with the German trenches corrected up to the observations of September 3rd. It not only gives us a view of the places to be assaulted but also a clear representation of the progress of the battle: Mametz Wood, the paramount hell of mid-July, falls on the western border of this map; Ginchy, today’s target, is near the center right of the excerpt.

ginchy, 9-3-16

 

 

 

 

But it’s easy, these days, to zoom in and snap just the right area (thanks to McMaster University).

Picking the map excerpt is the strategic equivalent of “emplotting” a narrative by choosing particular aspects on which to focus. But time is really subjective; distance, less so, and the map scales do not lie. Each of those larger numbered boxes is one thousand yards across–Ginchy is two months of fighting away from Mametz Wood, but less than four miles. In between are the little forests of the Bazentin ridge and its southern slopes–Trones Wood and Delville Wood, each called “hell” in their turn–and, just left of the upper edge of the excerpt, a red ribbon shows a German trench still running through High Wood. The British are within sight of the fabled German Third Line, but the approaches are still not clear. Some of these places were objectives for the first day of the battle, July 1st. Even if they are taken now, the Germans have had more than two months to strengthen that third line and build newer defenses further back. It’s not a good situation.

 

Now to Feilding’s letter to his wife. It begins with a grim tour of the battlefields show on the map above.

September 8, 1916. In Trenches, facing Ginchy.

At 5.50 last evening I paraded my 250 Irishmen, who, before moving off, were addressed by the Senior Chaplain of the Division. Then, kneeling down in the ranks, all received General Absolution:—after which we started to move forward, timing our arrival at Bernafay Wood for 8.20, when it would be dark.

At Bernafay Wood we were met by a guide, who led us through Trones Wood—that evil place of which doubtless you have formed your own conception from the newspaper descriptions of the past two months. Thence, to what once was Guillemont.

All former bombardments are eclipsed by the scene here. Last year, in the villages that had been most heavily bombarded, a few shattered houses still stood, as a rule: last month, occasionally, a wall survived. But to-day, at Guillemont, it is almost literally true to say that not a brick or stone remains intact. Indeed, not a brick or stone is to
be seen, except it has been churned up by a bursting shell. Not a tree stands. Not a square foot of surface has escaped mutilation. There is nothing but the mud and the gaping shell-holes;—a chaotic wilderness of shell-holes, rim  overlapping rim; and, in the bottom of many, the bodies of the dead. Having reached this melancholy spot, we left the cover of a battered trench which we had followed since leaving Trones Wood, and took to the open.

The guide was leading. I came next, and was followed by the rest of the party in single file. The moon shone brightly, and, as the enemy kept sending up flares from his trenches at intervals of a minute or less, our surroundings were constantly illuminated, and the meandering line of steel helmets flickered, rather too conspicuously, as it bobbed up and down in crossing the shell-holes.

I do not know if the Germans saw it or not. They soon started shelling, but as the ground we were passing over is commonly being shelled, there was nothing peculiar in that. We plodded on.

The guide soon began to show signs of uncertainty. I asked him if he had lost his bearings—a not uncommon thing on these occasions. He admitted that he had. I crawled past the body of a dead German soldier into the doorway of a shattered dug-out, and with an electric torch studied the map.

As we started off again the shelling increased, and once I was hit by a small splinter on the chest, which stung. The men began to bunch in the shell-holes. They are brave enough, but they are untrained; and 91 of my 200 fighting men were from a new draft, which had only just joined the battalion.

I shall not forget the hours which followed. Remember, I had only the slightest acquaintance with the officers, and as for the rank and file I did not know them at all;—nor they me.

The shells were now dropping very close. One fell into a group of my men, killing seven and wounding about the same number. My guide was hit and dropped a yard or two in front of me. I told him to lie there, and I would have a stretcher sent for him: but he pulled himself together, saying, “ It’s all right, sir,” and struggled on.

About 10.30 p.m. we reached our destination—only to find the rear Company detached and missing, as well as the medical officer and my servant. However, they turned up just before daybreak, having spent the night wandering
among the shell-holes.

At the position of assembly, which was at the junction between the Guillemont-Combles road (known officially as Mount Street) and the sunken road leading to Ginchy, we found things in a state, of considerable confusion. The battalion we had come to relieve had apparently thought it unnecessary to await our arrival, and as, consequently, there was no one to allot the few shallow trenches that were available, a sort of general scramble was going on, each officer being naturally anxious to get his own men under cover, before the daylight of the morning should reveal them to the enemy.

Luckily, the enemy was now quiet, and before it was light enough to see, the troops were disposed more or less in their “jumping off” positions, where they were to wait some forty hours or more for “Zero”—the moment of attack.

During the night a wounded Saxon crept into the trench close by me and I sent him to the rear.[1]

Feilding’s main concern here is to record, as simply as possible, what has happened to him–for his wife’s benefit and for his own. But he can’t avoid some commentary, and more-than-faint damning by implication. He has come from an elite, intact Division to one that is being thrown back in for its second action in days. Things, again, are not good.

Or is it the entire army that is breaking down? These small scale forward assaults against extremely predictable targets are murderous. Where is the tactical innovation? (Well, there is the creeping barrage, and something new is this way clanking.)

Worse, what has happened to command and control? What sort of brigade sends up a half-reconstituted battalion with a new O.C., a single guide, and no assurance that the battalion they are relieving will stay put? Feilding could note, too (but he wouldn’t–he is both reasonably trusting in the good offices of his fellow men and averse to complaining) that he–a temporary officer and a Catholic–has been ejected from the Guards to take command of an Irish battalion that is being used as cannon fodder. He might be right, too–being the odd Catholic officer on hand when an Irish battalion commander is killed surely has more to do with his promotion than any connections or merit. But we would be at least mostly wrong to suggest a nefarious use of the Irish Division. It seems awful that battered battalions are thrown back into an attack with so little respite, but many are, this late summer. And the Guards are only being held back, now, in order to be thrown in at what the generals hope will be a more decisive moment.

This is the Somme from bad to worse, declining from tragedy toward the sickening farce of a slasher film.

 

Tom Kettle’s 9th Royal Dublin Fusiliers were moving across the same map tonight, a century back. Before leaving the reserve lines Kettle wrote home. Kettle aspires to write–among many things–the history of his regiment. But now there is no time for anything other than provisional farewells. The first of these potential “last letters” was to his wife:

The long-expected is now close to hand. I was at Mass and Communion this morning at 6 o.c., the camp is broken up, and the column is about to move. It is no longer indiscreet to say that we are to take part in one of the biggest attacks of the war. Many will not come back.

Should that be God’s design for me you will not receive this letter until afterwards. I want to thank you for the love and kindness you spent and all but wasted on me. There was never in all the world a dearer woman or a more perfect wife and adorable mother. My heart cries for you and Betty whom I may never see again…

God bless and keep you! If the last sacrifice is ordained think that in the end I wiped out all the old stains. Tell Betty her daddy was a soldier and died as one.

Kettle struck a different note in letters to a friend and to his brother. There are few better descriptions of a soldier’s mind on the eve of battle–the dread and the keen anticipation, the beatific calm and the desperate anxiety, the sense of a barrier falling behind that these last letters must just slip beneath, and a swelling of fellow-feeling for the men who will share the coming cautery. And affirmation of faith and a wry uncanny reach for pagan mysticism…

I passed through, as everybody of sense does, a sharp agony of separation… Now it is almost over and I feel calm. I hope to come back.. If I live I mean to spend the rest of my life working for perpetual peace. I have seen war and faced modern artillery, and know what an outrage it is against simple men…

We are moving up to-night into the battle of the Somme… I have had two chances of leaving [his battalion]–one on sick leave and one to take a staff job. I have chosen to stay with my comrades… I am calm and happy, but desperately anxious to live…

The big guns are coughing and smacking their shells, which sound for all the world like over-head express trains, at anything from 10 to 100 per minute on this sector; the men are grubbing and an odd one is writing home. Somewhere the Choosers of the Slain are touching, as in our Norse story they used to touch, with invisible wands those who are to die. . . .[2]

 

Under orders, but not yet ducking under the wands of the Valkyries, is the Guards Division. With any luck they will be the ones to punch through the German third line and open up a gap…

3rd Grenadier Guards
B.E.F.
8 September 1916

. . . We move either tomorrow or the day after. Probably tomorrow. We are only allowed 50 lbs. of kit, which is a bore. It would be awful to arrive in Berlin looking a perfect scarecrow. The noise of the bombardment makes me feel quite sick. I am so sorry for the wretched Hun .,. .[3]

That, of course, was Raymond Asquith to his wife Katherine. Bimbo Tennant, ironically, is still reassuring his mother that a recent illness was not serious. And then–this is unwisdom rather than irony–he gives her an epistolary tour of the ruins of the battle he is about to enter.

8th September, 1916.

. . . I received your wire last night, but as I have been feeling perfectly well for several days, I took no action about it. You must not be anxious like this… It is unfortunately impossible to be given sick leave out here; I promise you that, now, I am absolutely all right…

I rose at 5.40 and went up to last night’s place with [his battalion C.O.], only we went much further. It was awfully interesting, and I would not have missed it, though it is horribly grisly in places. The wastage of material all the way is something terrific. I saw a lot of machine-gun magazines lying about, still wrapped up in brown paper, as they came from the makers. We got back to breakfast, and I have seized about four hours’ sleep through the day since.

There are big guns all round us as I write, but none near enough to be unpleasant, as they were at Vermelles last year. We have nothing to do here, and it is quite fine, though wind-swept. I now hear that we shall probably take over the most newly won line to-morrow night, which will probably not be a very quiet locality. However, I trust implicitly in God, and am in very high spirits…

Now I must stop. My eternal love to you; I think of you every moment, and love you more than I can say. I hope there may be leave when we go into a quieter part of the line. . . .[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 112-14.
  2. A Deep Cry, 136-7; Housman, War Letters, 168.
  3. Life and Letters, 294.
  4. Memoir, 226-8.