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

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

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

 

In Barracks

First World War Poetry Digital Archive, Oxford

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Sapper Martin, 165-7.

Carroll Carstairs and Jack Martin are Witness to A Ghastly and Murderous Failure; Llewelyn Wyn Griffith Remembers a Very Successful Day

Carroll Carstairs has been moving up over the last few days–back “up” that perilous, horizontal ladder of railways and shelled roads, “corduroy” paths and communications trenches that leads from “rest” to battle.

There was no sleep for anyone. Through the long hours the nightmare persisted until at 5.40 a.m. the division on our right went over the top to the tune of the most mighty cannonade conceivable, and my life reached a peak of auricular experience. It was at last the whole world crashing about our ears. Gunfire had, at a moment, leaped into an intensity no human being could have realised without hearing. A veritable crescendo of sounds, so continuous as to merge and blend into a single annihilating roar, the roar of a train in a tunnel magnified a millionfold; only the rattle of the machine gun barrage, like clocks gone mad, ticking out the end of time in a final breathless reckoning, rose above it, while the accelerating blasts of enemy shells added weight to the crowning catastrophe. One imagined the very air ripped and torn by the flight of numberless shells, the very sky to have become a tattered blue garment.

I went to the entrance of our pill-box to see what I could of the battle and never was spectator so thrilled, so awed. Beyond the enemy lines, behind the high dust of battle, colour stole shamefacedly into the sky; the rising sun appeared, a blurred and murky mass. The light of another day crept chill and faint over a scene too desolate for further destruction. Great clouds of smoke and dirt spouted into the air and drifted like a dirty morning mist along the horizon line. Showers of sparks, made by incendiary shells, burst like monster fire crackers, while enemy rockets, signalling that the attack had begun, shot into the sky, breaking from red into green lights, like dragons’ eyes changing colour. Of troops I could see little. Specks too much the tone of the earth over which they were moving. For me the battle continued, a hurling and crashing of huge projectiles . . .

After a little, orderlies appeared coming back at the double, while soon after zero the sky was dotted with our contact aeroplanes. One came down in our lines.

The very day, made restless by its predecessors, gave us no peace, and shelling kept up, heavy as ever, while a tour of the Company’s front revealed the fact that it had escaped the terrible bombardment of the night with one man killed and a man “buried.”

All day the firing went on, until 6 p.m., when it turned again from scattered knocks into the prolonged, concerted bang of gun fire—attack or counter-attack? But one heard nothing and knew nothing except what was happening to one’s own Company—and not always much of that.

So Carstairs is unaware that another major phase of “Third Ypres” has opened up, known as “the Battle of the Menin Road Ridge.”

In the evening I was on trench duty. I sat with my back up against the end of the platoon slit, gazing at the blurred figure of the sentry or into a sky set with stats, hard and brilliant as precious stones. Fleecy clouds, like gauze, rubbed them to a brighter lustre. I spoke in an undertone to the sentry. I felt friendliness for him. I did not know his name—one of a hundred and fifty men—how long would he last? For the matter of that how long would I? But we were one now. Reacting identically. One through a common danger. Victims of the same caprice of fate. He watched out for me and if he gave the alarm, would I not act at once for him?

I smoked a cigarette. How life balanced! Here was a hundred per cent danger and discomfort, but here too was a hundred per cent pleasure out of a cigarette. Each puff was a brief, sweet intoxicant. A suggestion of past joys, drawn deep and fragrantly into the lungs and blown out into the crystal air.

Falling into a slight doze, I woke, feeling chilled. The darkness, like any night into the middle of which one woke, seemed everlasting.[1]

 

Sapper Jack Martin was only a few hundred yards behind this attack. He spent the day in the Brigade Signal Office, assembling “little bits of information.”

Putting them all together, the situation seems like this. Fritz had occupied some of the derelict tanks lying in no-man’s-land and had made strongpoints of them. He fought desperately and disputed every inch of ground and his snipers remained at their posts hidden in tree trunks etc, even after our troops had passed them, and continued to shoot our men from behind…

Martin reported that one battalion of the Hampshires lost every officer “and a great many men.” Strangely–or not, considering his position among a brigade staff–Martin’s heroes of the day are two Colonels, commanding battalions in the brigade. One of these captured–and chose not to kill–one of those German rearguard snipers, and another led the stout defense of a forward post even after being wounded..

A later entry on the same day confirms, however, that the attack has not gone as planned.

I expect that tomorrow the English papers will be shouting the news of a great victory, but it has been a ghastly and murderous failure.

…I was surprise to see some Military Police in these tunnels… Their business up here is to prowl round the tunnels looking for men who have taken shelter when they ought to be outside. A miserably ignoble trade![2]

 

So–was this was another miserable “balls up” which the staff will conceal and the papers lie about? It might seem that few fighting soldiers would disagree, but theirs are not the only opinions, the only memories–and it was a big attack, more bloody on some sectors than others. Three divisions formed the spearhead and many others were involved in supporting roles, and they were, from a strategic point of view, successful.

A new tactic–an innovation, once again of General Plumer, known as “bite and hold”–meant that after a relatively short advance the attacking troops dug in and prepared to meet counter-attacks. Instead of wrecking themselves against the deeper layers of the German trench system and being swept away when the counter-attack came, they could hold their new positions with prearranged artillery support. (This of course also meant that there would be no breakthrough–the dream of the queen breaking out into the enemy rear has been abandoned, but at least the pawn is being pushed forward without being annihilated).

And just as Carroll Carstairs can’t see much beyond his company, the staff can’t see the individuals who suffer and die to achieve a favorable overall result. Llewelyn Wyn Griffith, now a young officer on a divisional staff–no matter that he was a traumatized infantry officer as recently as last summer–will remember the day as a triumph:

I remember a very successful day on 20 September, when we captured all our objectives. Our casualties were slight and our men took 400 prisoners: I recall seeing a lot of them in cages. We were kept pretty busy, even though there were minimal counter-attacks and those there were, were smashed by our guns.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Generation Missing, 103-6.
  2. Sapper Martin, 104-6.
  3. Up to Mametz and Beyond, 156.

The Battle of Langemarck: Four Seconds in the Life of Harry Patch; Edwin Vaughan in Command

Today, a century back, is another day of battle, as the British (and French) forces in the Ypres Salient surge forward once again. The Master of Belhaven is firing in support and Kate Luard will be picking up the pieces, but we will focus on two infantrymen as they attack today in the segment of Third Ypres known as the Battle of Langemarck. Neither is in the first attacking wave, but there is more than enough horror for the supporting troops and each will experience one of the most terrible days of their war.

 

At 4:45 the bombardment began, and two battalions of the 61st Brigade attacked toward Langemarck. Harry Patch, with C Company of the 7th Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, was in the second wave.

I remember the names–Pilckem Ridge was one and the other was Langemarck… How were we to know that a pile of rubble was this village or that, or that a gentle slope was a particular ridge…? You only knew what was right next to you…

I have a memory of crossing a flooded stream…

This was the Steenbeck, the second waterway (after the Yser canal) that now marks the pilgrims’ progress out of Ypres and into the Slough of Despond.

Our guns’ opening bombardment had begun with an almighty clap of thunder. You can’t describe the noise, you can’t… There was an officer going down the line… He had drawn his revolver, and I got the distinct impression by the set look on his face that anybody that didn’t ‘go over’ would be shot for cowardice where they stood…

For once the British operational luck was good: the weather held (though the ground was still terribly muddy) and the German defense was disorganized due to a half-completed relief. Langemarck was swiftly taken, and by 5.45 the second wave was moving through to its attack positions.

It was absolutely sickening to see your own dead and wounded, some calling for stretcher-bearers, others semi-conscious and beyond all help… I saw one German… all his side and his back were ripped up, and his stomach was out on the floor, a horrible sight. Others were just blown to pieces; it wasn’t a case of seeing them with a nice bullet hole in their tunic, far from it, and there I was, only nineteen years old. I felt sick.

It got worse.

We came across a lad from A Company. He was ripped open from his shoulder to his waist by shrapnel, and lying in a pool of blood. When we got to him, he looked at us and said, ‘Shoot me.’ He was beyond all human help, and before we could draw a revolver he was dead. And the final word he uttered was ‘Mother!’ I was with him in the last seconds of his life. It wasn’t a cry of despair, it was a cry of surprise and joy… I’m positive that when he left this world, wherever he went, his mother was there, and from that day I’ve always remember that cry and that death is not the end.

I remember that lad in particular. It is an image that has haunted me all my life…

Patch and his team soon reached the German second (support) line, where they set up their gun to fire in support of the men of their battalion just ahead, who were pushing into the German third (reserve) line.

I’d just changed a magazine… and Bob was looking elsewhere in the support line when two or three Germans came out of a trench and one of them spotted the machine gun and came straight for us with rifle and bayonet…

My right hand was free… I drew my revolver and I shot him in the right shoulder. He dropped his rifle but he came stumbling on, no doubt to kick the gun in the mud and us to pieces if he could…

I had four seconds to make my mind up. I had three rounds in that revolver. I could have killed him with my first; I was a crack shot. What should I do? Four seconds to make my mind up. That Cornishman’s ‘Mother’ was ringing in my ears and I thought, ‘No I can’t kill him’, and I gave him his life. I shot him above the ankle, and above the knee. I brought him down… for him the war was over… at the end of the war he would rejoin his family. Perhaps he was married; perhaps he had children.[1]

 

No more than two or three miles to the south, Edwin Vaughan‘s day developed more slowly, as his 8th Royal Warwickshires moved up behind several attacking waves.

August 16

At 2 a.m. a guide led us out of the camp in an easterly direction. We moved in column of route, in silence and with no smoking. I was leading with Ewing, but it was pitch dark and as our guide led us, sometimes on a hard road then on to mud then again on a sleeper track, I could not follow our direction. At last we arrived at a canal, with a steep
bank on either side and a towing path. We crossed a rough bridge and Ewing gave the order to fall out.

We were at Bridge 2A of the Yser canal, a few hundred yards north of Ypres. The air was poisoned by a terrible
stench that turned me sick. In the dim light the water appeared to be a dark-green swamp wherein lay corpses of men and bodies of horses; shafts of waggons and gun wheels protruded from the putrefying mass and after a shuddering glance I hurried along the towing path to clearer air. The bank was honeycombed with dugouts, chiefly occupied by REs. At one point I saw a fingerboard ‘To the RC Chaplain’.

Our cookers now rolled up and the cooks carried a hot meal over to our men. For my part I had lost my fear now, and in spite of the imminent attack and the fearful mass below me, I ate a hearty breakfast of sausages and bacon…

Vaughan is a commanding writer, and one who is keen both to describe the remembered scene with all the tools of the language and to record the raw emotions of the moment:[2]

…I walked along the path to where Sergeant Major Chalk was standing on the bank, silhouetted against the sky. I climbed up beside him and stood gazing across the darkness of the earth into the dawn. After a few minutes of silence he said ‘what is the time. Sir?’

‘Four forty-five’ I said, and with my words the whole earth burst into flame with one tremendous roar as hundreds of guns hurled the first round of the barrage…

Spellbound I saw a line of coloured lights shoot up from the Boche and then Chalk tugged my sleeve to indicate that our Company was lining up on the towing path…

My nervousness was gone now; trembling with excitement, but outwardly perfectly reasonable, I drank in every detail of the scene almost with eagerness. To the east we moved along the winding track between batteries of heavies that belched smoke and fire as we passed. The light grew rapidly, and the line of fire changed to a line of smoke. Around us and ahead of us was earth, nothing but earth—no houses or trees or even grass just faint shapeless humps from which the great guns hurled their iron death…

The men sing as they march up to take their positions in support.

The road had now almost disappeared and we were marching over shell-holes around which was scattered debris and wreckage at which I now dared not look. I kept my eyes fixed on the distance until we came to some low buildings—Van Heule Farm.

These were some of the concrete pillboxes of which we had heard. In front of them were six dead Germans and a disembowelled mule…

I led my platoon off to the right and we continued to move steadily across that muddy waste until I realized that we were walking into a curtain of fire. We were right on top of the German barrage when glancing round I saw Ewing give the signal to halt.

I repeated the signal to my men, and we all dived into shell-holes right on the fringe of the shell-torn zone. With my head just over the edge of my shell-hole I lay blinking into the shrieking, crashing hail of death 30 yards in front. We were too close to fear anything except a direct hit and fascinated I stared at that terrible curtain through which we soon must pass. One gun was firing regularly onto a spot only a few yards in front of me and as I watched the bursts I became aware of Private Bishop in the shell-hole in front with a thick red stream running down his back. I shouted to him ‘Are you hurt, Bishop?’ Turning round he said, ‘No Sir’ in surprise. So I leaped across the edge of the hole and found that the stream proceeded from a shrapnel wound in a carton of jam in his haversack…

Soon the order comes to occupy a more forward position. Since they are some distance to the south, the line of the Steenbeck (which runs from south east to northwest across the west-to-east oriented battlefield) is further to the east than where Patch and his battalion crossed it.

Dully I hoisted myself out of the mud and gave the signal to advance, which was answered by every man rising and stepping unhesitatingly into the barrage… we were surrounded by bursting shells and singing fragments, while above us a stream of bullets added their whining to the general pandemonium. The men were wonderful! And it was astounding that although no one ran or ducked, whilst many were blown over by shells bursting at our very feet no one was touched until we were through the thickest part of the barrage and making for the little ridge in front.

Then I saw fellows drop lifeless while others began to stagger and limp; the fragments were getting us and in front was a belt of wire. At this moment I felt my feet sink and though I struggled to get on, I was dragged down to the waist in sticky clay. The others passed on, not noticing my plight until by yelling and firing my revolver into the air I attracted the attention of Sergeant Gunn, who returned and dragged me out. I caught up the troops who were passing through a gap in the wire, and I was following Corporal Breeze when a shell burst at his feet. As I was blown backwards I saw him thrown into the air to land at my feet, a crumpled heap of torn flesh.

Sick with horror I scrambled over him and stumbled down into the cutting, which was the Steenbeck Stream. Crouched in here we found the Irish Rifles, and we lined up with them. There was a padre who gave me a cheery grin and further along was a major smoking a pipe as he sat on the bank with his back to the enemy. I climbed out of the stream and saluted him, noticing out of the corner of my eye that a tank was ditched in the cutting. I sat down beside him and told him who we were, and then from the heap of flesh that had been Breeze, I saw the stump of an arm raised an inch or two. Others saw it too and before I needed to tell them, the stretcher-bearers were on their way to him. Very gently they brought him in to where I was sitting. He was terribly mutilated, both his feet had gone and one arm, his legs and trunk were torn to ribbons and his face was dreadful. But he was conscious and as I bent over him I saw in his remaining eye a gleam of mingled recognition and terror. His feeble hand clutched my equipment, and then the light faded from his eye. The shells continued to pour but we gave poor Breezy a burial in a shell-hole and the padre read a hurried prayer.

…The ground sloped up so sharply in front that I could only see for about 30 yards. Behind us was nothing but the shell-swept waste of mud and filth. So I called to Corporal Benjamin to come and talk to me. He had just made some reference to poor Breeze, when there was a clang and he staggered back, his helmet flying off into the stream. A bullet had gone through it without touching him and his comical look of amazement and indignation as he retrieved it made me shriek with laughter…

We are now at the stage of every battle where things slow down: whatever was planned so minutely has run its course, and the various units who have come “through” the attacking waves must now assess the situation, discovering just where the enemy has been destroyed or retreated, and where he is hanging on. And with every hour on the battlefield the danger increases, as the German artillery, too, discovers what territory has been held and what can now be fired upon.

At about 3 p.m. we saw two figures walking back behind us, and recognizing Radcliffe we hailed him and ran across. His right wrist had been shattered by a sniper’s bullet and he was very upset for it was a rotten sort of blighty for a Doctor of Music to get. With him was Sergeant Bell who had got a bullet in the arm from the same sniper. It was with real regret that we gripped their left hands and said goodbye—we knew for ever. We felt that this was the beginning of the break-up and we rejoined our troops in deep dejection.

Half an hour later Ewing arrived, breathless from dodging the energetic snipers, and told me that I was to take command of the Company as he was going to HQ as adjutant in place of Hoskins, who had been hit… My instructions were to move the Company at dusk straight over to the left, form up behind the Gloucesters and after dark to push forward and deal with any machine guns in front.

Vaughan has not always had the confidence of the higher-ups in his battalion, but needs must. Despite being issued vague orders to make a lateral movement across a battlefield and then attempt the sort of small-unit tactical feat that will be the stuff of hundreds of war movies to come, he seems to acquit himself well–at least at first.

Owing to the murk of battle and the misty rain, we were able to move at 6 o’clock, so stumbling and dodging round the shell-holes we followed our guide over half a mile of mud and water in front of what had been St Julien. The  snipers were very busy as we crossed, but the light was so bad that the shots sang over our heads and no one was hit.

By the time we had formed up behind the Gloucesters, it was quite dark, so I immediately sent out four small patrols to locate the enemy line. In a very few minutes machine guns opened out and sprayed bullets over our line. The patrols all returned and reported that the ground in front was a morass of mud and water, and before they had gone a hundred yards the Boche had heard them floundering about, and had opened fire. I believed them but to satisfy myself I took a couple of men and went out towards a spot where I had judged a gun to be. In five minutes we were stumbling into deep holes full of water, and the noise we made dragging our bodies through the mud caused flares to shoot up all along his line and the ground was swept by traversing guns. By the light of one flare I thought I saw a low pillbox with figures standing before it, but I was not sure. In any case it was obvious that to attempt a night attack would be madness, so I took my patrol back. On the way we stumbled into a large swamp and waded about in water for some time before striking our positions.

Vaughan’s habit of honesty about his own shortcomings as an officer is one of the most valuable aspects of his diary. He hasn’t quite refused to perform a direct order, but he has asserted his own judgment–as a second lieutenant of very limited combat experience–that the suggested attack is “madness,” and demurred. This could be interpreted–unfairly, but still–as a failure of nerve, an unwillingness to get some of his men killed in capturing an important local objective. As a company commander, Vaughan now has only the battalion’s commanding officer to answer to:

I found the CO waiting for me and I sat down in the mud beside him feeling dead beat and horribly ill. What he was saying I had no idea, for I must have fainted or gone to sleep. After what seemed a long time I heard a voice saying
unintelligible things, and I was just able to mutter, ‘I’m awfully sorry. Sir, but I haven’t the least idea what you’re saying.’ He shook me violently and said ‘Now, Vaughan, pull yourself together.’ Whereupon I was alert in a moment and he repeated his instructions. I was to form up my platoons in depth to the right of where we were then sitting. The Gloucesters were going out before dawn and the following night I was to spread out to the left and form a line joining the Ox and Bucks. Then he left me and I sat for a while staring into the darkness, realizing that we were in a hell of a place.

It was a very different attack from what I had imagined we would experience: terror and death coming from far away seemed much more ghastly than a hail of fire from people whom we could see and with whom we could come to grips. And now we were in an unknown district and must await through the long night the uncertainties of the dawn…

But they still must go forward–the uncertainties of dawn are likely to include a counter-attack, and they must prepare for this as best they can.

Chalk and I went in front… in a few moments a salvo of high-velocity shells kept us flattened out in the mud as they crashed amongst us.

Coincidentally, David Jones sketched a different British tank elsewhere in the Salient today, a century back

As we pushed on again we discerned dimly, through the rain and darkness, a derelict tank. ‘What about that for an HQ, Sir?’ said Chalk. I assented and when I had positioned the troops in front with Jimmy Harding among them, I led my staff of runners, signallers and pigeon carriers back to that spot. As we approached it, however, we were met by a filthy, overpowering stench and found that a shell had burst underneath it and it had burnt out. The charred bodies of the crew were inside or half out of the open door. So I sought the healthier atmosphere of a large crater 30 yards away and gathered my staff in neighbouring shell-holes.

I was very tired but had to stagger out at once to see that the line was unbroken and I had a rotten time dodging shells. Feeling half dead I was on my way back when I heard a voice yelling ‘Stretcher-bearers’. It was Sergeant Swingler with a chunk of shrapnel in his shoulder…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Last Fighting Tommy, 90-101. The name Harry Patch will be familiar to Great War cognoscenti and even perhaps to those with little reading in the subject, and/or an interest in alternative rock. He was not really a writer, but his story is terribly moving, and even almost hopeful: at his funeral, in 2009, soldiers from Belgium, France, and Germany accompanied his coffin--and, in strict accordance with his wishes, there were no weapons present, not even ceremonial swords. So that was Harry Patch, and it seemed a shame, in the strange logic of military history, not to include his terrible day, here, in some way. At the very least this trauma of a century back gave a renewed push to the effort to remember the Great War properly--in its full awfulness--in hte two decades leading up to the centenary. But there is a good methodological reason, too, for including him: his story, "as told to" interviewers (and, for the book, to the military historian Richard Van Emden) is the most extreme sort of counterpoint to what I generally value the most, here. Instead of a near-immediate record in a dated diary entry or letter, we have the memories of a day only after these memories have weathered eighty or nineties years in the mind of a survivor--Patch didn't start talking about the war until he was over a century old. It's a reminder of what, from another point of view, really matters, and a rebuke from a very gentle old man: the section I quote from, above, begins "I'm told we attacked on 16 August, but the date doesn't mean much to me..." and then he, in Hemingway/Fussell fashion still remembers the names, but, as the first ellipsis, above, continues "it is such a long time ago that I can't quite connect them up in my head."
  2. His diary will be extensively worked over after the fact, at least in part to achieve this effect.
  3. Some Desperate Glory, 193-200.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

References and Footnotes

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

Robert Graves Attends a Board While Siegfried Sassoon Skips One; Edmund Blunden Passes the Chateau at Vlamertinghe; Francis Ledwidge Writes “Home”

Today, a century back, Robert Graves had a hastily-arranged medical board at Osborne House, on the Isle of Wight, and, despite his recent nervous exhaustion and his bad lung, he was approved to return to duty. Graves has already written to the C.O. of the Welsh Depot (technically, the 3rd Battalion), and he surely indicated to the board that he needed to be passed fit–and therefore granted leave–in order to help a comrade. He probably made it quite clear that he intended to go and help suppress Siegfried Sassoon‘s anti-war protest, and he left for London immediately after the board.

Meanwhile, Sassoon himself cut his own medical board–a shocking breach of good manners, as the depot commandment will explain to him. This is the first sign that the army is likely to simply ignore Sassoon’s direct challenge, treating the fiery and rebellious “Mad Jack” with bureaucratic circumspection. Sassoon has written a protest, but he has slapped no particular face with his duelist’s gauntlets, and the Army, in its lugubrious wisdom, seems likely to shrug aside so impersonal an attack. There will be another board soon…[1]

 

With all of these poets appearing before doctors, writing business letters, and dashing about Britain, we’ve had little time, lately, for poetry. So I will bend the rules a bit today and include two poems that I am almost certain were written this week, or about the events of this week, a century back.

First, Edmund Blunden. His battalion diary for today matches this passage of his memoir:

The battalion camped in readiness among the familiar woods west of Vlamertinghe, but the woods were changed, and the parting genius must have gone on a stretcher. No Belgian artisans were hammering strips of tarred canvas on the hut roofs now; there were holes of various sizes among the huts. Wooden tracks led this way and that in puzzling number through the crowded airless shadows, and new roads threw open to the public a district suited for the movements of a small and careful party. At the corner where one insolent new highway left the wood eastward, an enormous model of the German positions now considered due to Britain was open for inspection, whether from  the ground or from step-ladders raised beside, and this was popular, though whether from its charm as a model or  as a military aid is uncertain. Vidler and Tice inspected it, at least, as stern utilitarians…

Blunden recalls happier times in the Salient–what could be more natural for the pastoral soldier-poet-memoirist, and what could be stranger, really, to the non-soldier than war fondly recalled? Blunden’s memoir is uncanny, though, in its ability to stay within his sensibility–the sharp description, the mixture of foreboding and grudgingly admitted realism and delicate natural beauty (the wildflowers are coming!)–while also being of this moment in the war. It is, after all, the summer of the highly-detailed models, the siege-enthusiast’s historical fetish indulged before the deluge…

But let’s return to Blunden, and the road, and what the summer foliage conceals:

The road toward Vlamertinghe was newly constructed of planks and forced a publicity on farmlands to which I had only gone before on some pleasant trespass. It took one presently through a gorgeous and careless multitude of poppies and sorrels and bull daisies to the grounds of Vlamertinghe Chateau, many-windowed, not much hurt but looking very dismal in the pitiless perfect sun. Its orchards yet clung to some pale apples, but the gunners were aware of that; the twelve-inch gunners, whose business here seemed like a dizzy dream. Under several splendid untrimmed trees, among full-flooding grass, shone certain rails, and on these rails were some tremendous iron engines, with gaping mouths; standing behind, if you could keep your eye unblurred at the titanic second of their speaking, you could see their mortal monosyllables of inferno climbing dead straight into the sky…[2]

That is about as portentous and heavy-handed as Blunden can get. He will also write this day’s march in verse, beginning, again with uncharacteristic directness, by placing a famous line from Keats in this terrible new context:

 

Vlamertinghe: Passing the Chateau, July 1917

‘And all her silken flanks with garlands drest’—
But we are coming to the sacrifice.
Must those flowers who are not yet gone West?
May those flowers who live with death and lice?
This must be the floweriest place
That earth allows; the queenly face
Of the proud mansion borrows grace for grace
Spite of those brute guns lowing at the skies.
Bold great daisies’ golden lights,
Bubbling roses’ pinks and whites—
Such a gay carpet! poppies by the million;
Such damask! such vermilion!
But if you ask me, mate, the choice of colour
Is scarcely right; this red should have been duller.

There is nothing more ominous than beautiful Blunden beginning to sound like satiric Sassoon.

 

It’s not quite fair to Francis Ledwidge to place a somewhat vague poem of his right after this taut stroke of Blunden’s… and yet they fit. They are, certainly, very much poems of mid-July, 1917. Both men know, now, that battle in Flanders is fast approaching. Both think of home–Keats is home, for Blunden–and struggle to see what they can of the unspoilt world in the warscape they inhabit. If Ledwidge is more successful it may be because he is more determined to wish away reality–and it may be because he is writing in the moment, when such wishful thinking is a practical element of emotional health as well as a literary exercise. Some morning this week, when the guns fell silent for a few moments, Ledwidge wrote “Home.”

Home

A burst of sudden wings at dawn,
Faint voices in a dreamy noon,
Evenings of mist and murmurings,
And nights with rainbows of the moon.

And through these things a wood-way dim,
And waters dim, and slow sheep seen
On uphill paths that wind away
Through summer sounds and harvest green.

This is a song a robin sang
This morning on a broken tree,
It was about the little fields
That call across the world to me.

Belgium,
July, 1917.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 352. Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 383.
  2. Undertones of War, 166-7. 11th Battalion Royal Sussex War Diary, 88.

Messines: The Master of Belhaven, C.E. Montague, Phillip Maddison, and Rowland Feilding are Eyewitnesses to Armageddon; Jack Martin Goes Forward; Robert Graves is Laid Low and Siegfried Sassoon Takes a Pacific Step; Paul Fussell Looks to the Future

The Ypres Salient is a crowded place, and the assault on Messines Ridge of early this morning, a century back, was one of the great spectacles of the war. We have quite a few men on the scene who witnessed what was at once an unprecedented stroke of operational surprise (preceded as it was by all of the bloody, unimaginative attacks that we have read about), a significant immediate victory for the British Army (but not enough to “break through” the German lines), and a staggering calamity in human terms. For over a year British miners have been working in terribly dangerous and difficult conditions. Many died, but they have won the day, today. The fruits of their labor involved the entombing of some 10,000 Germans–but this was not foremost on the mind of the British observers. Each is overwhelmed by the enormity of the explosions, and struggles to describe them.

First, the Master of Belhaven:

At exactly 3.10 a.m. Armageddon began. The timing of all batteries in the area was wonderful, and to a second every gun roared in one awful salvo. At the same moment the two greatest mines in history were blown up — Hill 60 and one immediately to the south of it. I cleared everyone out of the dug-outs and was watching for it. Never could I have imagined such a sight. First, there was a double shock that shook the earth here 15,000 yards away like a gigantic earthquake. I was nearly flung off my feet. Then an immense wall of fire that seemed to go half-way up to heaven. The whole country was lit with a red light like in a photographic dark-room. At the same moment all the guns spoke and the battle began on this part of the line. The noise surpasses even the Somme; it is terrific, magnificent, overwhelming. It makes one almost drunk with exhilaration, and one simply does not care about the fact that we are under the concentrated fire of all the Hun batteries. Their shells are bursting round now as I write, at 6.10 a.m., but it makes one laugh to think of their feeble little efforts compared to the “ausgezeichnete Ausstellung” that we are providing. We are getting our revenge for 1914 with a vengeance. It is now beginning to get light, but the whole world is wrapped in a grey haze of acrid fumes and dust.

 

Jack Martin, signaler with the 122nd brigade, had been sent to lie out in No Man’s Land just before 3:00.

It was an impressive time–the gunfire ceased altogether with the exception of an occasional shell here and there–a thick mist was over the land and we had to lie full length…  There was a strange groaning and rumbling from behind us and presently, looming out of the mist, came a tank, moving straight towards us…

Out of the silence came the sound of blackbirds from a clump of battered trees a little way back only to be rudely silenced at 3.10 a.m…

For several minutes the earth rocked to and fro oscillating quite twelve inches. It was an experience which I shall remember vividly for the rest of my life–all the phases of the preliminary bombardment, the calm silence that succeeded them suddenly broken by a most terrific uproar, the weird sights of moving men and things in the semi-darkness, the rolling clouds of smoke picked out every now and then with shooting tongues of flame, all formed a tremendously wonderful sight. It was stupendous beyond the imagination.

 

Henry Williamson‘s Phillip Maddison has, of course, gone strolling off to see the battle, as he does for every major assault that he is not himself participating in. The fictional alter-ego walks through a landscape that both he and his creator had fought over in 1914, and he struggles with his fear. But soon it is 3:00, and, as the preliminary bombardment tails off, time for the birds–but nothing so unresonant as blackbirds.

It was so quiet that he could hear nightingales singing far away. They were surely very late in singing, the eggs must have hatched by now, and normally the cockbird ceased to sing when the hen began to sit. Perhaps the unnatural noise of the guns had strained their nervous systems. Some birds, notably wrens, uttered nervous little trilling bursts of song when alarmed at night. Perhaps all beauty, whether or sound or colour or shape, came out of pain, or suppression of life, as poetry came from suffering…

He felt the being-drawn feeling between his legs and his mouth was dry–he looked at his watch–nine minutes past three.

Before he was ready for it a great tongue of deep yellow flame arose slowly into the moonlight. It went up silently and was followed by another and another…

 

Rowland Feilding was there as well, almost entirely free of responsibility for his scattered battalion.

I got up and went out at three o’clock. The exact moment of the assault… had been disclosed to us as 3.10 a.m. I climbed on to the bank of the communication trench, known as Rossignol Avenue, and waited. Dawn had not yet broken. The night was very still. Our artillery was lobbing over an occasional shell; the enemy—oblivious of the doom descending upon him—was leisurely putting back gas shells, which burst in and around my wood with little dull pops, adding to the smell but doing no injury.

The minute hand of my watch crept on to the fatal moment. Then followed a “tableau” so sudden and dramatic that I cannot hope to describe it. Out of the silence and the darkness, along the front, twenty mines—some of them having waited two years and more for this occasion—containing hundreds of tons of high explosive, almost simultaneously, and with a roar to wake the dead, burst into the sky in great sheets of flame, developing into mountainous clouds of dust and earth and stones and trees.

For some seconds the earth trembled and swayed. Then the guns and howitzers in their thousands spoke: the
machine-gun barrage opened; and the infantry on a 10-mile front left the trenches and advanced behind the barrage against the enemy.

 

And C.E. Montague, with new freedom (and responsibility) to conduct war correspondents near the front, came up late last night with his charges, promptly fell into a deep sleep–and nearly missed it. His diary recorded the view from the Scherpenberg.

Next thing I am aware of, through a film of sleep, is a light whimper of shrapnel bursting somewhere near. Just after, I am fully awakened by the rocking of the hill under me. I jump up, sagely thinking it must be an earthquake, and then see seven huge mines still exploding — geysers of flame with black objects in it, leaving huge palm-trees of smoke drifting away in file. Bombardment begins at same time (3.10 A.M.). Rather far off—more than three miles—it sounds like an extremely long, various piece played on a piano full of rather far-off thunder. Many great fires caused in woods, etc., by our drums of oil and phosphorus (I believe). The bombardment more, intense than that of April 9 at Arras. As the light comes we see a great number of our aeroplanes everywhere, very little shelled. No infantry fighting visible.[1]

 

At 5:00 Jack Martin moves forward. His brigade is initially in support but soon enters what is now the British front line in the Damstrasse, more than a half-mile from the jumping-off point. There, Martin’s signalling party took casualties from both German fire and British “shorts.” Tanks move through, and the infantry follows, settling eventually into the German rserve positions.

The Signal Office was small, and with two wounded men in it and one end under water, there was only room for one operator at a time, yet at certain periods it was necessary to have two instruments working, so I took a buzzer outside and rigged it up on a mound where the trench had been blown in. The dirt gradually wore away and disclosed the bare buttocks of a dead man so I moved into the Damstrasse where the only comparatively dry spot was alongside a dead German but he was not badly mutilated. An infantryman close by me was hit in the face by a quantity of shrapnel dust and his tears trickled down his cheeks. He cried out, ‘Oh my eyes, my eyes! My God, I am blind!’ The sudden realisation of his blindness seemed a greater agony than the pain of his wounds. I shall never forge that terrible cry of anguish…[2]

 

Meanwhile, the Master of Belhaven, with little to do as his batteries fire by plan, tries to assess the progress of the battle:

(6 a.m.) It is as noisy as ever. The wounded have been streaming past for the last two hours… [they] say that the wire on my zone is thoroughly well cut, both on the front and support German lines–that is a relief to know. We have been firing something like 4,000 shells a day into it for the last week…

 

Rowland Feilding, too, is eager for news.

The battle once launched, all was oblivion. No news came through for several hours: there was just the roar of the artillery; such a roar and such a barrage has never been before. Our men advanced almost without a check. The enemy–such of them as were not killed—were paralysed, and surrendered. In Wytschaete Village they rushed forward with their hands up, waving handkerchiefs and things. And no one can blame them. The ordeal through which they have been passing the last fortnight must have surpassed the torments of hell itself…

Writing tomorrow, Feilding’s enthusiasm for this unprecedented-in-the-present-war success carries him as far as some preliminary conclusions on the preparations. He seems very much in accord with the ex post facto and fictionalized account of Henry Williamson.

… the South Irish Division and the Ulster Division went forward side by side… I have been thinking to-day of the saying—that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton. That remark wants revision now. You must for the “playing fields of Eton” substitute the “offices of the Empire.” From the offices have been introduced business methods which are essential to the complicated operations of nowadays. The Staff work yesterday was perfect. What a contrast to the time of Loos!

We were inundated with paper beforehand on this win this war we certainly shall win it” ; but no contingency, so far as I know, was unforeseen, and within six hours of the first assault parties were already at work, making roads across the mutilated zone and even laying water-pipes…

There will soon be checks to the more sanguine British hopes, but so far the preparation has been very good indeed. Instead of the usual failure to supply the attacking troops in their new positions, by 10 a.m. the war machine is dragging itself efficiently forward.

Already our Field Artillery was on the move forward—a stirring sight which always fascinates me. As I watch them, though I have nothing to do with them, I feel a kind of pride in them. I, as everybody else was doing, walked freely over the surface; past and over the old front line, where we have spent so many bitter months. How miserable and frail our wretched breastworks looked! When viewed—as for the first time I now saw them—from the parapet instead of from inside—the parapet only a sandbag thick in many places—what death-traps they seemed!

Then over Noman’s Land. As we stepped out there, my orderly, O’Rourke, remarked: “This is the first time for two years that anyone has had the privilege of walking over this ground in daylight, sir.” We visited some of the mine craters made at the Zero hour, and huge indeed they are. Then we explored Petit Bois and Wytschaete Wood—blown into space by our fire and non-existent—the, scene of our raid of the night of June 4. We found the bodies of an officer and a man of ours, missing since that night, which I have since had fetched out and buried among many of their comrades.

Our Tanks were now advancing—a dozen or more of them—going forward to take part in the capture of the fifth and sixth objectives. Their duty is to reduce local opposition, when it is encountered, and there they were, lumbering along, picking their way through the honeycomb of shellholes and craters, getting into difficulties, getting out again, sometimes defeated, but generally in the end winning their way through this area of devastation, where nothing has been left alive, not even a blade of grass.

I cannot hope to describe to you all the details of a battle on this scale. The outstanding feature, I think, was the
astounding smallness of our casualties. The contrast in this respect with Loos and the Somme was most  remarkable…

But, as is always the way, we lost some of our best. A single shell and a small one at that—knocked out twelve, killing three outright and wounding nine—two of the latter mortally…

But as Feilding concludes his account of the day with attentions to the dead, it is Ireland and Germany which come to the fore. The ground is Belgian, and a ridge and some village have been taken swiftly. But the war will still only be won through attrition, and it is the state of the will to fight on of the two rival empires which matters most.

Willie Redmond also is dead. Aged fifty-four, he asked to be allowed to go over with his regiment. He should not have been there at all. His duties latterly were far from the fighting line. But, as I say, he asked and was allowed to go—on the condition that he came back directly the first objective was reached; and Fate has decreed that he should come back on a stretcher.

How one’s ideas change! And how war makes one loathe the party politics that condone and even approve when his opponents revile such a man as this! I classify him with Stephen Gwynn and Harrison—all three, men—Irish Nationalists, too, whom you and I, in our Tory schooling, have been brought up to regard as anathema! What effect will his death have in Ireland? I wonder. Will he be a saint or a traitor? I hope and pray it may teach all—North as well as South—something of the larger side of their duty to the Empire.

P.S. My men found a dead German machine-gunner chained to his gun. This is authentic. We have the gun, and the fact is vouched for by my men who took the gun, and is confirmed by their officer, who saw it. I do not understand the meaning of this:—whether it was done under orders, or was a voluntary act on the part of the gunner to insure his sticking to his gun. If the latter, it is a thing to be admired greatly…[3]

“Authentic” in Feilding’s trust in his men, but then again he does not claim eyewitness, or give precise details…

 

The master of Belhaven ends his account on a note of triumph similar to Feilding’s assessment:

(9 p.m.) The battle is over, and the victory is with us. We have gained the whole of our objective…[4]

 

But Phillip Maddison, a mercurial sort (not to mention a fictional product of retrospection and history-reading) already has an eye to the inevitable return of the pendulum. After several trips leading mule trains of ammunition he goes on another of his “Cook’s Tours” to see the ridge that the British have now taken. He is impressed with the panorama, but, walking among the infantry as the long day draws to a close, he hears rumors of German counter-attacks retaking ground…[5]

 

And where are our old stand-byes on this day of days, the petulantly yoked terrible twins at the heart of the war poetry revolt, who fought at Loos and on the Somme? Will they praise the sudden victory?

 

Robert Graves, home for months and putatively recovered, was nevertheless in need of a rest, and has just been detailed to head to a convalescent home on the Isle of Wight. The precipitating cause was a head wound sustained when he fell down a staircase in the dark. But this was not an isolated incident so much as a symptom of a fundamental exhaustion. Not only will his lungs never be right, but his nerves are from from settled–it seems likely that “some kind of nervous collapse” led to the reassignment… and no, he will not have much to say about Messines.[6]

 

Siegfried Sassoon, however, was in London, taking a break from portrait-sitting by lunching with H.W. Massingham, the editor of the influential radical weekly The Nation. As George Sherston, Sassoon looks back on the irony that the full picture affords:

At daybreak on June 7th the British began the Battle of Messines by exploding nineteen full-sized mines. For me the day was made made memorable by the fact that I lunched with the editor of the Unconservative Weekly at his club. By the time I entered that imposing edifice our troops had advanced more than two miles on a ten-mile front and a great many Germans had been blown sky-high. To-morrow this news would pervade clubland on a wave of optimism and elderly men would glow with satisfaction.

Sherston has written to “Markington” to offer to write something, as “a mouthpiece for the troops in the trenches.” He is nervous of the great man at first, but he warms to Markington when he finds him even more pessimistic about the war and eager to hear uncensored humorous anecdotes from the front. The diffident Sherston stretches his legs, ever so slightly:

He listened with gloomy satisfaction to my rather vague remarks about incompetent Staff work. I told him that our Second Battalion had been almost wiped out ten days ago because the Divisional General had ordered an impossible attack on a local objective. The phrase ‘local objective’ sounded good, and made me feel that I knew a hell of a lot about it. . . .

But this leads, with more twisting irony, to the detailing of his own deeply conflicted behavior, and to a confession which might not be as welcome to this leading critic of the war:

‘As a matter of fact I’m almost sure that the War doesn’t seem nearly such a bloody rotten show when one’s out there as it does when one’s back in England. You see as soon as one gets across the Channel one sort of feels as if it’s no good worrying any more — you know what I mean — like being part of the Machine again, with nothing to be done except take one’s chance. After that one can’t bother about anything except the Battalion one’s with…

I must say I’ve often felt extraordinarily happy even in the trenches. Out there it’s just one thing after another…

It’s only when one gets away from it that one begins to realize how stupid and wasteful it all is. What I feel now is that if it’s got to go on there ought to be a jolly sound reason for it, and I can’t help thinking that the troops are being done in the eye by the people in control.’ I qualified these temperate remarks by explaining that I was only telling him how it had affected me personally; I had been comparatively lucky, and could now see the War as it affected infantry soldiers who were having an infinitely worse time than I’d ever had — particularly the privates.

The account continues, and it’s rich with interest: Massingham suggests reading Tolstoy, and then he awakens the privileged “Sherston” to the political realities of the budding military-industrial complex, censorship, and the fact that Great Brittain has added “acquisitive” war aims to the professed cause of liberating France and Belgium… there is some matter of Mesopotamian oil wells, apparently, if one takes that point of view...[7]

 

Lest one object that giving the last word on a day of successful battle to a pair of half-pacifists lunching in comfort, I will give it instead to an academic yet unborn, a century back, and more than a quarter-century short of his own bitter disillusionment with war.

Very early in his cranky masterpiece, Paul Fussell makes one concession to the otherwise unalleviated chronicle of murderous failure.

The attack at Messines… had been brilliantly planned by General Sir Herbert Plumer, who emerges as a sort of intellectual’s hero of the British Great War… he had imagination. His mines totally surprised the Germans, ten thousand of whom were permanently entombed immediately.

This, it is worth mentioning, is half the British toll from the first day of the Somme. I want to write at greater length about what it means to celebrate a battle in which local victory kills so many and yet doesn’t really budge the war… but since none of the men on the spot do, it would be an imposition. So, instead, just this next bit, as a way of working in the subject of modern war’s resilience.

The most memorable detail in Fussell’s account of the battle, however, is one that none of our writers can know, since it reaches more than a generation into the future, and then a century again, and more:

…British miners had been tunneling for a year under the German front lines, and by early June they had dug twenty-one horizontal mineshafts stuffed with a million pounds of high explosive… Nineteen of them went up, and the shock wave jolted Lloyd George in Downing Street 130 miles away. Two failed to explode. One of these went off in July, 1955… The other, somewhere deep underground near Ploegsteert Wood, has not gone off yet.[8]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. C.E. Montague, 189.
  2. Sapper Martin, 71-4.
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 188-92.
  4. War Diary, 302-6.
  5. Love and the Loveless, 153-160.
  6. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, the Assault Heroic,173.
  7. Complete Memoirs, 471-5.
  8. Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory, 14-15.

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

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

I

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

O glad young April day!

II

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

O wild sad April rains!

Richard Aldington[1]

 

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

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

2 John Collins   1 Japanese ditto.   1 Oyster cocktail

1 Sherry and Bitters.   Pommard Eclatante, trois verres.

1 Benedictine.

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

 

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

1 April 1917

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Arras, 1 April 1917

Dearest,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A happy Easter! Goodbye

Edwy

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

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

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

Edwy[6]

 

References and Footnotes

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

Ivor Gurney Absolves Himself of Half the Blame; Edward Thomas Discourses to His Son, and Friend; Edward Hermon on War’s Delightful Uncertainties; A Saucy Note for Jack Martin; Alphabet Soup with Kate Luard

None of our writers yet know the exact date of the coming offensive–and they can assume that the terrible weather and the operational wrench tossed in the works by the German withdrawal will delay it at least a bit more–but there is a growing sense that they may be only days away from the end of a winter which, for all its miseries, has seen men killed only by the handfuls and dozens, for the most part, and not by the thousands.

Girding for battle, then, we have five writers to read today–two provide lengthy and rather weighty letters, but we also have some lighter fare along the way…

 

Ivor Gurney, wrote to Marion Scott today, a century back. Scott is at once his friend and benefactress; she has put his songs before an audience, published his music, lectured on his poetry, helped him at every stage, and now is in the last stages of preparing his first book of poems for the press. As the editor of those poems, she has become less and less like a patron or facilitator and more and more like a partner: Gurney’s moods are changeable, his spelling and punctuation are shaky, and his ability to focus on revising his poems while serving as an infantryman is, rather understandably, limited. He is fortunate that his friend is both skilled and willing to edit with sensitivity, cleaning up his verse without heavy-handedly blotting out his oddities–and he is wise enough (or, again, fortunate) to recognize this.

23 March 1917

My Dear Friend: Things are beginning to move, and no one knows when may come the next opportunity for writing. I have just received your letter of March 11th… Do not consult me about these things, but do as your far more experienced judgement may lead you…

A frequent topic in these letters is Scott’s ill-health. She has a number of ongoing medical problems and has been very sick two different times in recent months, and Gurney, though sympathetic, often struggles to find a way to express his sympathy. Today an obvious path is open: he can share her joy at resuming music:

And it is good news that you are able to play sonatas again, and with a sympathetic pianist. It gives me a feeling of sharing your good-fortune to read of it; may your strength increase and give you hours a day of it…

One parcel of yours I have received — not yet the other. All the letters have arrived and all given pleasure. O to return to England and my friends! Such joys are there as are dangerous to imagine at present; not all at once will my mind and body become sound, but it cannot be so very very long before Joy becomes “used to me”…

The new state of things entered upon by the German retreat may mean little letter writing. This is the reason why I hasten to reply, though never have I felt more acutely the inadequacy of words. Last night and this afternoon have been so beautiful that my mind has been filled with Blighty thoughts. But consider what a queer past I have to look back on! Either I am a great musician or a chronic neurastheniac!

That’s a line worth remarking on. Many of our writers are in a similar position in that they sense the war will be the making or breaking of their literary ambitions, and yet few have struggled mentally and emotionally as much as Gurney has. The war is an intensifier–double or nothing, death or great beauty.

There is nothing outside it, for the visible world is hardly to be seen by me unless music hallows my spirit with  beauty and toughens it by the necessary work.

And yet Gurney is consistently grateful about another thing the war has done for him: throwing him among all sorts of men has cured him of much of his social awkwardness, at least among men. Suffering together has made a feeling of brotherhood possible.

You will be glad to hear however that as a personality I am rather popular in my company. It pleases me this, as so I know myself nearer Walt Whitmans perfect man; equal to shepherd and President; equal and familiar. O the joy to be able to go into a little Cotswold inn and drop into conversation with the nearest man! And that, compared with my tongue-tied shyness of 3 years ago. And if not here, then in the Shades I will be friends with men contemptuous of the fate to which some Power has doomed them, jovially drinking in some phantom pub over doubtful takes[1] and unprintable denunciation of the Infernal NCOs.

We’ve seen something like this before (not that I can currently place it, mind)–a soldier so pleased to belong that he humorously, but with real feeling, extends the dream of post-war camaraderie even to otherworldly environs. Gurney is then once again reminded that he is neglecting a different category of friend:

You patient correspondent, though you make no complaint, how should you not be tired of the continual self-analysis which makes up the bulk of my letters! And yet those letters are the safety-valves of my discomfort. It is a cheap amusement—grumbling—pleasing the writer and leaving the reader to read or not as she pleases. I
absolve myself therefore from half the blame, take the other half if you please.

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

…Goodbye and many sonatas. Unless I write very soon, more verse-books off:

Your sincere friend

Ivor Gurney[2]

 

Robert (Edward) Hermon’s latest letter to his wife Ethel picks up in the middle of a joint reminiscence about old holidays, but it is nevertheless overshadowed by the coming offensive.

…I fear those old days are gone for ever now… Let’s hope our next trip will be one here to see the result of the war with the Chugs.

Of course, by now you know more about the German retirement than I do, really, as you have had one more Times than I have…

According to the papers he is retiring there so that, if any preparations have been made by us for the much-talked-about spring offensive, we may have to start again… & in the meantime his submarines will sink all our ships. However the best-laid plans often go wrong…

War is one of those delightful uncertainties that a very small thing may completely upset. It is all most awfully interesting & I hope I shall see the end. I often long for the time when one will be able to read the history of the early phases & know why he didn’t do some of the many things that he ought to have done.

I got three delightful letters from the Chugs too, today. I wish I had time to answer them. Thank dear little Mary for her nice message & her letter too. I am so pleased to hear she sat on her pony so well when it fell down!

Goodnight my darling.[3]

 

Before we get to two letters from Edward Thomas–I know I have been including a great deal of his writing, but these show a different aspect of his personality–let’s do two brief bits of comic relief, one intentional and one rather by-the-way.

We haven’t heard from Jack Martin much–his diary has been sparse, as he seems to be in low spirits. I don’t know him well enough to suspect any particular mood (or mood disorder), but he seems to be suffering from the general malaise common to men who are excited to reach the front and then find not the thrill and terror of battle but the long slog of living and working in miserable winter conditions. His diary only springs to life when he can report letters from home or another test of wills with his commanding officer and sparring partner Lieutenant Buchanan. But today a bit of light comedy flutters out from an unsolicited parcel, in a moment much more redolent of 1915 and the heyday of Kitchener’s army than this tense muddy month, a century back:

23.3.17

Arrived at Dickebusch safely. Had a parcel from Lil containing a body belt folded up just as she had bought it. When I unfolded it a piece of paper dropped out–I picked it up and read this:

Miss Dulcie Bennett

111 Mansfield Road

Nottingham

Wishes the boy who receives this belt the best of luck and a safe return to Blighty. XXXX for luck

Oh, Dulcinea, I am no Don Quixote so I vulgarly displayed your missive to other eyes and there was quite a competition between several fellows as to who should have it and write to you…[4]

 

And I can’t resist the beginning of Kate Luard‘s diary for today, a century back. If we often look for “found poetry” hidden in the prose of our writers, today this old campaigner provides us a found nonsense-alphabet-jingle:

The three C.O.’s of the three C.C.S’s here were summoned to 3rd Army H.Q. to-day to a Conference with the D.M.S…[5]

 

Lastly, Edward Thomas, thrice. I absolve all readers not lavishly endowed with free time or particularly interested in a writer’s fine-grained choices from reading any further. It’s too much!

Or not… Well, we’ll begin with an excerpt from his diary, and then proceed to excerpts from two different letters.

Frosty clear. Ploughs going up over crest towards Beaurains. Rubin back from F. O. P. believes in God and tackles me about atheism–thinks marvellous escapes are ordained. But I say so are the marvellous escapes of certain telegraph posts, houses, etc.[6]

Next, a letter to his old friend Gordon Bottomley which does something rather odd: Thomas reviews the salient experiences and most striking sights of recent days (many of which we’ve read about) but he does so in a hurried, unliterary fashion. Usually the letters are more considered, more elaborate than the diary, but not here.

23 March
My dear Gordon,

I will write again while I can a little. Things are moving now & we move too. I have not long come back from 24 hours in our new front line. It was dirty wet & cold & I could only stand & mark the flashes of enemy guns at night, which was my business. Afterwards I slept 16 hours for the first time in my life. It taught me several things that others knew before. It made me cease to be alarmed by shells that could not harm me, for example, though they came over 20 or 30 a minute all night. They were flying home to a village that we used to fire at till this last move, a fascinating ghostly village of stark trees & ruins which I shall probably soon be sleeping in. It was beautiful coming down to the city in sunshine & seeing the old ruined Town Hall like a thick white smoke just beginning to curl. Crossing the old No Man’s Land crowded like a race course after a race, I couldn’t take seriously the few small shells thrown at the working parties. Oh, I did eat & rest & sleep…

Yesterday it was sunny & mild. Today it is cold & snows at times…

Is this sort of rote reporting motivated only by a sense of duty to an old friend? But Thomas does work around to some more intimate issues of the sort that once sustained his letters to Bottomley.

…Fear too, I have discovered—to that point where the worst moment is when you find you have survived & that all your fear was useless. You screw yourself up for a second to bear anything & nothing comes—except a curious disappointment which I suppose is also relief. Sometimes at night I have been in this state a hundred times, but partly through inexperience, not knowing what might mean harm. Still, I shall never like the shell that flaps as it falls, or the one that suddenly bounces into hearing & in a second is bursting far off—no sooner does it open the gate than it is right in the door, or even the small one that complains & whimpers & is called a ‘pipsqueak’ or a ‘whizzbang’, & flies into that ghastly village all night long like flights of humming birds.

Ah–and he is working on refining his descriptions of the shells. Through music, next, and friendship, the letter finally turns to his poetry–only to dodge, at the end, from success back toward despair.

…I conclude I don’t quite want friends here. I should be too introspective or too happy to meet the circumstance. And yet all sorts of things do make me happy—villages, the city in ruins, the larks in the bloody dirty dawn, the partridges, the magpies floating about among shellfire & once a bat, & a hundred different houses, in city, suburb, & village.

I hear now that America wants my verses & Poetry has taken some. Frost wants me to surrender my pseudonymity but I am not doing so. Of course I can’t think of writing here & only keep the briefest of diaries…

I haven’t met anybody out here yet who connected me with home. I don’t think of home. I never did have pictures on the wall since I was 1.

Goodbye. My love to Emily. Yours ever

Edward Thomas[7]

 

Last, today, Thomas’s letter to his son, Merfyn, now a teenager but working full time as an apprentice at a bus works. Is it his age that accounts for the formality of the letter, or the gaps in his relationship with his father, so often depressed or working away. And yes, he misspells his son’s name, sort of–the name is Welsh, so the “f” sounds as a “v,” anyway:

244 Siege Battery, 23 March 1917

My dear Mervyn,

I brought back a letter from you in the mail bags today and also a new battery for my torch. Thank you very much… It is most useful in crossing this dark street when crowded with lorries or columns of horses and limbers and on all sorts of occasions.

I was so glad to hear from you and how much you were earning for Mother as well as yourself. At the same time I am more anxious for you to learn than to earn at present and I hope you will soon be moved to a new shop.

But Merfyn will soon be eighteen, and in England, a century back, work is no longer the thing that most defines a man’s estate.

You haven’t found an O.T.C. yet, have you? I wish you could, though I hope you will not have to go further than that for a long time. I don’t think war would trouble you. I see lots of infantrymen no bigger or older than you. There was one machine gunner doing duty over the parapet the other night when I was in the very very front trench. He had to stand up there behind his gun watching for an hour. Then he was relieved and made some tea for me and himself and turned into his comic little shanty and slept till the next relief. He looked ever so much older as well as dirtier when morning came. He was a very nice bright Scotch boy. Well, I expect you could do just the same. His officer was the same age and very much like him so that I think he had to look unduly severe to show the distinction…

These, of course, are new thoughts, different thoughts, experiences filtered–and this is very rare, in what we read of Thomas–through the lens of fatherhood. But very strangely, Thomas segues from this paternal mode into a comparison of himself and his son. He had recently faced the task of climbing an enormous chimney for observation purposes, and backed down. Now he wonders if his boy could have done better.

I wonder could you climb that chimney? There were iron rings all the way up and I knew one was loose, but I didn’t know which. One bad feature was that you were always hanging out a bit, because the chimney tapered. It has been hit three times but only with small stuff. Now I suppose it is likely to survive as the enemy is farther off.

Even more strangely, he takes what might seem an offhand (to anyone not risking shellfire on a daily basis) approach to a completely fundamental question:

The crossroads round it became known as Windy Comer because everybody ‘got the wind up’ as he came near it. Thousands had to go that way and yet very few were injured and only about two killed. Isn’t it wonderful how some men get hit and some don’t. But it is the same with trees and houses, so that I don’t see why it makes some people ‘believe in God’. It is a good thing to believe. I think brave people all believe something and I daresay they are not so likely to be killed as those who don’t believe and are not so brave…

But then the formality–a certain awkwardness, at least–creeps back in, and Thomas begins to deluge his son with questions:

…It is going to be Spring soon. Are you glad? Are you often happy and usually contented, and if not contented, not often in despair? Try never to let despair at any rate make you idle or careless; But be as idle and careless as you can when you are happy and the chance comes. If you are troubled, remember that you can do what perhaps nobody else will be able to do for Mother and Bronwen and Baba: only don’t let that make you anxious either. All will come well if you keep honest and kind.Upon my word, this sounds like a sermon and I do hate sermons, of which it is not true to say that it is more blessed to give than to receive, but it is more easy to give a sermon than to receive.

Which is why, perhaps, he decides to close by giving something not every father can give–this sort of evocative, quietly emotional writing:

Do you have time to read now? I only read for ten minutes in bed, Shakespeare’s sonnets, with a pipe which I smoke about a quarter through and then put out the light and forget the flash of guns across the street and the rattle of the windows, everything except the thud of a shell in the marsh behind, but that seems to have stopped now. Goodnight.

Ever your loving

Daddy[8]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. As printed, but surely "tales" is intended?
  2. War Letters, 144-5.
  3. For Love and Courage, 342-3.
  4. Sapper Martin, 53-4.
  5. Unknown Warriors, 103.
  6. War Diary (Childhood), 172.
  7. Letters of Edward Thomas to Gordon Bottomley, 278-280.
  8. Selected Letters, 151-3.

Edward Thomas in the Forward Trenches; Robert Graves in the Groves of Academe; Kate Luard Prepares for the Battle

Edward Thomas began his day at 4 AM–a day to be spent as a forward observer during the dangerous business of reestablishing a British line during the German withdrawal. It is his most difficult day of combat so far, by a long shot:

Stiff deep mud all the way up and shelled as we started. Telegraph Hill as quiet as if only rabbits lived there. I took revolver and left this diary behind in case. For it is very exposed and only a few Cornwalls and M.G.C. about. But Hun shelled chiefly over our heads into Beaurains all night–like starlings returning 20 or 30 a minute. Horrible flap of 5.9 a little along the trench. Rain and mud… Had not brought warm clothes or enough food and no shelter, nor had telephonists. Shelled all night But the M.G.C. boy gave me tea. I’ve no bed. I leant against the wall of trench. I got up and looked over. I stamped up and down. I tried to see patrol out. Very light–the only sign of Hun on Telegraph Hill, though 2 appeared and were sniped at. A terribly long night and cold…[1]

Henry Williamson is quite a few miles to the south, otherwise it would be pleasant to imagine that the Machine Gun Company officer who gave Thomas tea was the very same callow–but bird-watching–youth… More important is what Thomas reports and does not report in his diary. He has observed, to his quiet satisfaction, that he is brave under fire, and this significant fact no longer merits mentioning. Still, the German 5.9 makes a “horrible” noise, and the description of a bombardment as “like starlings” means much coming from someone so precise in his descriptions of nature.

But in terms of Thomas’s experience the thing that stands out is his unfamiliarity with the sheer unpleasantness of front-line life. Cold in a house is one thing, but cold in a trench is another entirely, and he will not be the first brave man to discover that he hates the miserable discomfort more than the constant possibility of being killed or wounded. And what good his observation might have been without a telephone–he doesn’t mention any other form of communication with the battery–is hard to tell; but there is no complaint about the pointlessness of his task, either…

 

Robert Graves had only been back out on the front lines a few weeks when he once again went sick. He had the good fortune to be shipped directly from the front line to Oxford, where he recovered from bronchitis in Somerville College–once Vera Brittain‘s promised land, now a hospital. There he, too, spent time with Siegfried Sassoon‘s pacifist pal Lady Ottoline Morrell, and was encouraged by the reception of his recent poems, Goliath and David. There were lots of literary folk, and he fit in rather better than he ever will in the army; Oxford, was nicer than war.

Mood swings have always been a part of Graves’s makeup, but after the various traumas of last summer they will now be a much more pronounced part–he seems to have given his family a hard time during this short sojourn near London. But today, a century back, he was “rather low in spirits,” and for good reason: he is cured of his bronchitis but, with his perforated lungs, unlikely to be sent back to the trenches. Instead, Graves was ordered to proceed to Liverpool and Litherland Camp, headquarters of the 3rd Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers. He took the train, arriving this afternoon to discover that the C.O. of the depot had planned for him to stay there and edit the battalion newspaper. Graves, despite his nearly unblemished record of driving his superiors to distraction was, somehow, able to convince the C.O. to reassign him to cadet training at Oxford. He hopped right back on the train, already planning his convalescent leave in Wales.[2]

 

So Graves will miss the spring offensive, but tens of thousands of others are for it. Kate Luard is an old hand, and worried about what the preparations portend…

Tuesday, March 20th. Orders came this morning to be ready to take in large numbers of wounded at short notice, and guns are busy again… 1000’s of lbs. of dressings are stocked, but they soon run out…

Our official strength is 7 Sisters–far too few for any battle, but that will become obvious.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary (Childhood), 170.
  2. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, the Assault Heroic, 171.
  3. Unknown Warriors, 102-3.

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

4 March 1917

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 March 1917

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goodbye and.good luck and thank you….

Your sincere Friend Ivor Gurney[1]

 

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

Dear Mother,

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

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

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

 

Penultimately, a brief report from Edward Thomas:

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Beloved Gkins

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

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

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

 

References and Footnotes

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