The Many Threads of Wilfred Owen; Kate Luard Has Boys to Remember and Two Hundred Letters to Write

Wilfred Owen is a busy bee these days.

Tues. Night[1]

Dearest of Mothers,

So pleased to have Father’s letter & your note this morning… Last week passed unmercifully quickly. The only way to lengthen time is to add more miles to the roads of our journeys. And the only way to lengthen life is to live out several threads at a time and join them up in crucial moments.

At present I am a sick man in hospital, by night; a poet, for quarter of an hour after breakfast; I am whatever and whoever, I see while going down to Edinburgh on the tram: greengrocer, policeman, shopping lady, errand boy, paper-boy, blind man, crippled Tommy, bank clerk, carter, all of these in half an hour; next a German student in earnest; then I either peer over bookstalls in back-streets, or do a bit of a dash down Princes Street,—according as I have taken weak tea or strong coffee for breakfast…

The next paragraph makes Craiglockhart–especially for those undergoing Dr. Brock’s “ergotherapy”–sound much like a sort of summer camp for grown men. It’s not work therapy, really, but rather activity therapy. Golf and tennis and swimming and arts and crafts… and for Owen, who aspires so fervently to be a writer and has always had an interest in theater, magazine-making and the amateur stage:

This afternoon I spent with a Daily Mail sub-editor, Salmond… When we had discussed together many mighty things and men, and an Emersonian silence fell between us, we went upstairs to the Cinema, & so finished a very pleasant afternoon. Tonight Pockett enrolled me as Mr. Wallcomb, in Lucky Durham, a fashionable young fellow, whose chief business in the play is introducing people.

Thus I need at once:
1) 1 Green Suit,
2) 2 or 3 Green Shirts,

The list runs to seven items, mostly green, that might do for his costume, and then segues into a long and rambling discussion of poetry and other matters. Owen is having a very good time–but he has as yet no confidantes to describe it to, save his mother.

It’s too late o’night to talk like this. Time I snuggled myself away.

Goodnight, dear Mother.

X W.E.O.[2]

 

In painful contrast to this evidence of a young man on the mend is Kate Luard‘s letter from Ypres, today, a century back. We have seen this pattern before: during the excitement, trauma, and back-breaking work that fills the days after an attack, she writes to record events, to praise the heroically praiseworthy, and, perhaps, to help manage the stress of the situation, controlling things that are out of anyone’s control by putting them on paper. Then, when the pace of work slows, the diary shifts into an elegiac mode, and she writes to express something of the pathos, misery, and suffering she has witnessed. The pattern follows that of her work as the senior nurse, which shifts now from crisis management toward administrative tasks, and there is one terrible duty in particular that will now take up much of her time and emotional energy.

The very nice Australian Sister in charge of the Australian C.C.S., which is not yet working, is getting my 209 break-the-news addresses into order for me to begin upon some day, and that since yesterday week. Does that give you some idea of what is has been like?

Luard shakes off this mood, now, and discusses other goings-on in the hospital, including rivalries between the surgeons, experimental treatments, the various emotional and physical needs of the patients and her efforts to meet them, and even her campaign to establish something of a normal social life by leading the nurses in hosting an “At Home” gathering for the doctors and friendly area officers.

But Luard’s thoughts come back, before the end of today’s entry, to the pity of war.

A boy called Reggie in the moribund Ward was wailing, ‘I do feel bad and no one takes no notice of me.’ When I comforted him he said, ‘You’re the best Sister in the world–I know I’m a nuisance, but I can’t help it–I’ve been out there so long and I’m so young–Will you give me a sleeping draught and a drop o’ champagne to make me strong?’ He had both and slept like a lamb, but he died to-day. A dear old dying soldier always would shake hands and say, ‘How are you to-day?’ He died last night. One boy in the Prep. Hut implored me to stay by him until he had his operation…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Incorrectly dated by the editor of his letters--Tuesday was the 7th, not the 8th.
  2. Collected Letters, 480-2.
  3. Unknown Warriors, 139-40. I also want to take the opportunity here to thank Tim Luard for his invaluable work in adding some of Kate Luard's letters to individual siblings to the published text of her open letters, as well as for all of his work on his great aunt's writing. His recent article gives a great deal of more information about Luard's experience during Third Ypres than I have been able to include, including both illustrations, and descriptions of several memorable events of the battle's first week.

A Novel Premonition for Elinor Brooke; Edmund Blunden and Kate Luard Under German Bombs; Vera Brittain is at War at Last; Rudyard Kipling and the Efficacy of the Mob–and Charles Sorley Sees the Blindness

As the day dawns over Sussex today, a century back, Elinor Brooke reaches a crossroads in her war.

I was trudging uphill, feeling spikes of stubble jab my ankles, and then, just as I reached the top, the sun rose–huge, molten-red–and at that moment I knew–not thought, not feared, knew–that Toby wasn’t coming back.[1]

This is Elinor’s diary entry, in Pat Barker’s novel. Elinor is fictional, but her position–from the intuition, to the death of her brother, to the long struggle she will have to learn of its circumstances and make sense of it all–is very familiar.

 

And it still goes on. Edmund Blunden is fortunate to be in reserve today.

A fairly idle day… read Leigh Hunt… There was a big bombardment again this evening. Some of our party went over I suppose–God help them in the mud. Just as we were settling down for the night, Boche came over. Our knees knocked and teeth chattered, but nothing fell on us…[2]

 

Kate Luard, meanwhile, is closer to the action–and dodging bombs from the same German raiders. 1917, as Blunden recently observed, is not 1916. In some ways it feels as if in just two short years we have come from a 19th century world beginning to be troubled by machine guns to the cusp of mid-century schrecklichkeit. All we’ll need are stronger engines and bigger bombs.

We are so much in the thick of War up here that no one talks or thinks of anything else…shells screaming and bursting and bombs dropping. The last are much the worst. He dropped five at dinner-time about 70 yards away, and came over with some more about 10.30 to-night and some more later. There’s no sort of cover anywhere and it is purely beastly. Shelling is nothing to it. The Sisters are extraordinarily good in it.[3]

 

Nor is Vera Brittain far from the bombs–but then again she has felt the bombs land in London, too. She writes to her mother today, a century back, from her new assignment in the great British base complex in the Pas-de-Calais.

24th General Hospital, Étaples,
France, 5 August 1917

. . . I arrived here yesterday afternoon; the hospital is about a mile out of the town, on the side of a hill, in a large clearing surrounded on three sides by woods. It is all huts & tents; I am working in a hut & sleeping under canvas, only not in a tent but in a kind of canvas shanty, with boarded floor & corrugated iron roof.. .The hospital is frantically busy & we were very much welcomed. . .

Now the, er, bombshell drops:

You will be surprised to hear that at present I am nursing German prisoners. My ward is entirely reserved for the most acute German surgical cases… The majority are more or less dying; never, even at the 1st London during the Somme push, have I seen such dreadful wounds. Consequently they are all too ill to be aggressive, & one forgets that they are the enemy and can only remember that they are suffering human beings. My half-forgotten German comes in very useful, & the Sisters were so glad to know I understood it & could speak a little as half the time they don’t know what the poor things want. It gives one a chance to live up to our Motto Inter Arma Caritas, but anyhow one can hardly feel bitter towards dying men. It is incongruous, though, to think of Edward in one part of France trying to kill the same people whom in another part of France I am trying to save…

Well, Malta was an interesting experience of the world, but this is War.[4]

Rarely is the epistolary first draft–especially to Mother, rather than to one of her fellow members of the Lost Generation–better than the coming memoir, but I think that’s the case today. There is a swelling of strings as Vera finally reaches France–the place that killed Roland, Geoffrey, and Victor, and that still has Edward in its clutches–and there is an excellent evocation of the sounds of the bombardment, too, which works nicely amidst the others, here–but the effect of her description of France is less powerful than the simple antithesis she used in the letter:

The noise of the distant guns was a sense rather than a sound; sometimes a quiver shook the earth, a vibration trembled upon the wind, when I could actually hear nothing. But that sense made any feeling of complete peace impossible; in the atmosphere was always the tenseness, the restlessness, the slight rustling, that comes before an earthquake or with imminent thunder. The glamour of the place was even more compelling, though less delirious, than the enchantment of Malta’s beauty; it could not be banished though one feared and resisted it, knowing that it had to be bought at the cost of loss and frustration. France was the scene of titanic, illimitable death, and for this very reason it had become the heart of the fiercest living ever known to any generation. Nothing was permanent; everyone and everything was always on the move; friendships were temporary, appointments were temporary, life itself was the most temporary of all.[5]

 

Finally, there’s a remarkable letter of today, a century back, from one to another of two titans of the turn of the century: the bard of Imperialism, Rudyard Kipling, and one of its dashing New World practitioners, Theodore Roosevelt. If not for the fact that they are not 19th century men, and that they are discussing sons (the present Kermit Roosevelt and the ever-present-through-his-absence Jack Kipling) and geopolitics… and if I didn’t despise this newly ubiquitous (at least in American pop culture) term, then I would describe this letter as a founding document of “bro” culture. Kipling’s writing has rarely been so off-putting, so ingratiatingly chummy, so eager to be brutal.

I have come a long way–through reading the man’s fiction, history, and private letters–to understanding Kipling much better than as the facile, solemn Imperialist chest-thumper of the familiar caricature… but a few paragraphs of this letter bring that old idea back with a vengeance. Kipling is full of blustery, silly talk as he updates the former president on his son’s adventures in England (Kermit Roosevelt is about to go out to Mesopotamia attached to a British Machine Gun unit); then there is unsolicited “expert” military advice (Kipling worries that the new American generals are too eager, and will fruitlessly spend their first small forces instead of building up for a “big push”), and there are helpful suggestions such as these:

I fancy that before you’ve done, in the U.S.A., you will discover as we have that the really dangerous animal is the Hun in one’s own country no matter what he pretends to be. You hold a good many hostages for his good behaviour and I sometimes wonder whether, if the U.S.A. took toll from her own unnaturalized Germans for every Hun outrage committed on the U.S. and on France, it wouldn’t have a sedative effect…

Don’t worry: Kipling is not suggesting that German Americans be killed in retribution for U-boat sinkings, only that a few officially sponsored riots in German American neighborhoods (I believe one applicable analogy would be to the pogrom) might just do the trick.

…It’s what the Hun comprehends perfectly. We have bled him badly in men, and if we can use up a decent percentage of his 1919 class this winter by exposure in the trenches as well as direct killing, he will feel it more.

But of course I’m being squeamish: anti-German-American riots were quite within the realm of possibility. And I just passed Kipling’s casual assertion of the righteousness of retributive atrocity without comment. Why? Because that describes the activities of uniformed soldiers? Because that’s different than casually advocating violent demagoguery and mob violence as strategic tools to an ally which is, ostensibly, a multi-ethnic democracy? Because my century-late outrage would be better served by letting Kipling’s endorsement of such things stand on its own rather than surrounding it with fussy complaint? “Bettered the instruction” indeed.

Worst of all, Kipling’s strategic guesstimates are accurate:

What he seems to funk more than most things is the stringency of the new blockade now that the U.S.A. is imposing it and neutrals can’t feed him as much as they used to. We’ve got another twelvemonth of trouble ahead of us I expect but it won’t be all on one side.[6]

This is the sort of letter, from one figurehead of imperial warfare to another–and from one older man willing to sacrifice his son to another–that might have re-affirmed Siegfried Sassoon‘s faith in the righteousness of his protest…

 

But back to this treatment of “Huns:” not Germans who are armed and dangerous in the trenches opposite, but German emigrants, civilians living in America, posing no threat and powerless to defend themselves. The analogy to wounded prisoners is not precise, yet it seems a coincidence worth exploring that Vera Brittain’s first encounter with helpless Germans also began today, a century back.

…when I told the Matron of my work in Malta, she remarked with an amused, friendly smile that I was “quite an old
soldier…” but… I was hardly prepared for the shock of being posted… to the acute and alarming German
ward…

Although we still, I believe, congratulate ourselves on our impartial care of our prisoners, the marquees were often
damp, and the ward was under-staffed whenever there happened to be a push — which seemed to be always — and the number of badly wounded and captured Germans became in consequence excessive. One of the things I like best to remember about the War is the nonchalance with which the Sisters and V.A.D.s in the German ward took for granted that it was they who must be overworked, rather than the prisoners neglected. At the time that I went there the ward staff had passed a self-denying ordinance with regard to half days, and only took an hour or two off when the work temporarily slackened.

From the moral high ground Vera Brittain now wields a satirist’s sword with great skill:

Before the War I had never been in Germany and had hardly met any Germans apart from the succession of German mistresses at St. Monica’s, every one of whom I had hated with a provincial schoolgirl’s pitiless distaste for foreigners. So it was somewhat disconcerting to be pitch-forked, all alone — since V.A.D.S went on duty half an hour before Sisters — into the midst of thirty representatives of the nation which, as I had repeatedly been told, had crucified Canadians, cut off the hands of babies, and subjected pure and stainless females to unmentionable “atrocities.” I didn’t think I had really believed all those stories, but I wasn’t quite sure.[7] I half expected that one or two of the patients would get out of bed and try to rape me, but I soon discovered that none of them were in a position to rape anybody, or indeed to do anything but cling with stupendous exertion to a life in which the scales were already weighted heavily against them.

At least a third of the men were dying; their daily dressings were not a mere matter of changing huge wads of stained gauze and wool, but of stopping haemorrhages, replacing intestines and draining and re-inserting innumerable rubber tubes. Attached to the ward was a small theatre, in which acute operations were performed all day by a medical officer with a swarthy skin and a rolling brown eye; he could speak German, and before the War had been in charge, I was told, of a German hospital in some tropical region of South America. During the first two weeks, he and I and the easy-going Charge-Sister worked together pleasantly enough. I often wonder how we were able to drink tea and eat cake in the theatre — as we did all clay at frequent intervals — in that foetid stench, with the thermometer about 90 degrees in the shade, and the saturated dressings and yet more gruesome human remnants heaped on the floor. After the “light medicals” that I had nursed in Malta, the German ward might justly have been described as a regular baptism of blood and pus.

This is inhuman and horrible, but the point–Brittain’s point, and now mine–is that it is also deeply humane.

One tall, bearded captain would invariably stand to attention when I had re-bandaged his arm, click his spurred heels together, and bow with ceremonious gravity. Another badly wounded boy — a Prussian lieutenant who was being transferred to England — held out an emaciated hand to me as he lay on the stretcher waiting to go, and murmured: “I tank you, Sister.” After barely a second’s hesitation I took the pale fingers in mine, thinking how ridiculous it was that I should be holding this man’s hand in friendship when perhaps, only a week or two earlier, Edward up at Ypres had been doing his best to kill him. The world was mad and we were all victims — that was the only way to look at it. These shattered, dying boys and I were paying alike for a situation that none of us had desired or done anything to bring about.

And Kipling, to some degree, had. But we’ll leave today with another voice, one which has greater personal authority than anyone who has spoken yet. The wounded Germans may be dying in English hands, but Charles Sorley had studied in Germany, and fought Germans, and been killed by Germans. In the memoir, Vera Brittain enlists the young dead poet against the cruel masters of war:

Somewhere, I remembered, I had seen a poem called “To Germany,” which put into words this struggling new
idea; it was written, I discovered afterwards, by Charles Hamilton Sorley, who was killed in action in 1915 :

You only saw your future bigly planned,

And we, the tapering paths of our own mind,

And in each other’s dearest ways we stand,

And hiss and hate. And the blind fight the blind.[8]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Barker, Toby's Room, 85.
  2. Webb, Edmund Blunden, 78.
  3. Unknown Warriors, 137.
  4. Letters From a Lost Generation, 268-9.
  5. Testament of Youth, 372-3.
  6. The Letters of Rudyard Kipling, IV, 467-8.
  7. Which is about right. The British press ran with a great many entirely invented atrocity stories, and propaganda and myth made an ugly marriage of convenience with stories like the ones Brittain mentions. And yet there was a tendency after the war--an inevitable after-effect of government lies--to disbelieve all stories of German atrocity and assume a rough moral equivalence. There wasn't--which was at least in part due to the fact that Germany occupied enemy territory, and believed itself to be under existential threat; neither of these things were true in the same way of Britain. But German atrocities, especially during the invasion of Belgium, were very real. They should not bear on the claim to humane treatment of wounded soldiers, but even if pacifists between the wars emphasized the horror of war in general rather than of particular forms of armed aggression, it is bad history to discount the deliberate violence meted out by the German army to French and Belgian civilians.
  8. Testament of Youth, 372-77.

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

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

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

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

Sat, Aug 4, 1917

William Blake, “Christian in the Slough of Despond”

Dearest G,

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The gods are not angry for ever. . .

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

4th August 1917

Dear Mrs Ledwidge

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

 

References and Footnotes

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

David Jones on the Flank of Another Disaster; Kate Luard Goes There and Back Again; Ivor Gurney and the Afterlife of Rupert Brooke XX: He Was Lucky, He Died Early in the War; Edward Brittain Asks for Nichols

One of the fascinations of reading Kate Luard is the occasional glimpse of a daredevil lurking beneath the persona of a calm and omnicompetent senior nurse. While it is primarily her fierce devotion to duty that drives her to seek the most dangerous assignments–she can do the most good as a nurse and administrator closest to where the wounds are received–she also shows something like a childish enthusiasm for adventure and danger. She wants to be where the action is, and, with her new posting as the Senior Sister at what will now be a pioneering forward surgery center in the Salient, she will be.

Friday, July 27th.

…This venture so close to the Line is of the nature of an experiment in life-saving, to reduce the mortality rate from abdominal and chest wounds. Their chance of life depends… mainly on the length of time between the injury and the operation… Hence this Advanced Abdominal Centre, to which all abdominal and chest wounds are taken from a large attacking area, instead of going on with the rest to the C.C.S.’s six miles back…

But this is all, from Luard’s point of view, too good to be true.

And then the Blow fell–not the shell but the sentence: Army H.Q. couldn’t sleep in its bed for thinking of the 29 precious Sisters exposed to the enemy fire up at Brandhoek, and sent an order at 10 p.m. that all the Sisters were to go off to two Canadian C.C.S.’s about 6 miles back… The pretty Canadians were full of concern and hospitality for the poor refugees, but we felt most awful frauds.

It’s wonderful that the one time Sister Luard allows her letters home to slide into the old soldier’s bitter sarcasm it is because she is being forced to give up a difficult and dangerous job for a safer one. (She doesn’t mean any backhanded compliment to the Canadians, I’m sure, but it certainly reads that way: “pretty,” indeed–there’s a battle brewing!)

But even if the Staff wallahs are intent on mucking things up with their old-fashioned ideas about women and danger (are there not bombing raids on base camps, and on London?), the doctors who actually depend on these nurses understand the situation. By 9 this morning Luard had already been summoned back to resume work in preparing the hospital, and it seems clear that the senior medical officers are advocating for the nurses’ return…[1]

 

Further forward still, there were indications that a German withdrawal from their front lines was underway, so A Company of the 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers–only two days after D company lost sixteen men to what must have been a German ambush–mounted something between a patrol and a raid–a “reconnaissance”–to discover where they were.

[David] Jones was sent forward with his platoon to guard one of the flanks. The raiders advanced to find the front line empty and advanced further to the support trenches where two German battalions waited. As the night darkened, fighting was furious, and the outnumbered raiders were annihilated.

The German strategy makes sense: an attack is obviously coming, and they have confidence in their deep defenses–why leave men to be killed by the British bombardment? It is too late for the British to move up to the new positions, so they will just have a longer run to meet established German resistance… which can await them in concrete having ceded only a few hundred yards of Belgian mud.

But the British planners of the battle want, predictably, to know where they stand, hence the reconnaissance, and the German preparedness, and another local disaster for the Welsh, several times more costly than the day before yesterday’s debacle.

Nor is Dilworth’s “annihilated” much of an exaggeration. The battalion diary states, rather chillingly, that A Company “met with considerable opposition & for the most part were either killed or wounded. Weather fine.”

This is strangely sloppy record-keeping, and a high price to pay for a battalion that is expected to take part in the attack in the next few days. A quick search of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission database shows forty-six[2] members of the battalion who died either today or tomorrow, a century back. A high price to pay for confirmation of an intelligence officer’s surmise.

Whether Hedd Wyn was involved, we do not know–but it should have been about even odds that he either participated in one of these two raids or, like Jones, was part of their covering parties. One of Jones’s good friends, however, had gone out into the German lines, and came back. Which led to this strange little story about “Lazarus Black,” a one-time roommate of Jones’s:

After returning to the firing trench, he confided to Jones that he would ask for a decoration for saving an officer’s life by killing a German. Jones was astounded. The night had been pitch dark, the raid disastrous. He urged Black not to make the request since word was sure to leak out and he would be a laughing stock. The next day, Black nevertheless made his appeal to officers immediately above him, who scoffed at him but passed on his request. News of this quickly spread, and Black was ridiculed, though not as much as Jones had feared. Later, Black confided to him that he had wanted the decoration solely to make his wife and four children happy.”[3]

 

While battle approaches in the salient, life goes on elsewhere. Edward Brittain is in France, a month into his service with a new battalion. His correspondence with his sister Vera has largely involved requests for help tracing and replacing the valise that was lost when he came out. But today shows Brittain still striving after literature, despite the deaths of all three of his close friends and fellow aspirants. One of our amateurs is drawn, now, into the readership of one of our nascent professionals:

France, 27 July 1917

…In the Times Lit. Supplement of July 12th there is a long article about Robert Nichols who seems to be a poet of unusual merit; his works up to date complete are only 3/6 so you might like to get them; don’t send me the book but I should like some of the best of them in my own book; those quoted in the article are excellent.[4]

 

And lastly, today, Ivor Gurney, like Brittain a musician (though further advanced in that path) and about to join Nichols as a published “War Poet,” writes to Marion Scott, primarily about the business end of this first publishing contract. Often flighty, Gurney adopts a mode of sustained and balanced self-criticism, and he does an astute job of placing himself amongst–or rather off to the side of–the new pantheon:

27 July 1917

My Dear Friend: Your letter of terms etc has arrived. Thank you for it. It seems to me you have done very well, but still — that is no reason why you should not try to do better still, since publishers are our lawful prey and natural enemies. Personally (again) when the book was written there was no thought of making money behind it, but chiefly an occupation and mind exercise. For all that I really do not see why the book should not pay, though I do not expect any very laudatory reviews in the “Times” etc. You have won the preliminary skirmishes anyhow.

My own opinion of the book is, that it is very interesting, very true, very coloured; but its melody is not sustained enough, its workmanship rather slovenly, and its thought, though sincere, not very original and hardly ever striking. For all that, the root of the matter is there, and scraps of pure beauty often surprise one; there is also a strong dramatic sense. Where it will fail to attract is that there is none, or hardly any of the devotion of self sacrifice, the splendid readiness for death that one, finds in Grenfell, Brooke, Nichols, etc.

All this is fair, and accurate. And important: it is 1917, almost on the eve of Passchendaele, and poetic self-sacrifice does not hold the same sort of market share it once did (although, as we need frequently to be reminded, it will remain much more popular than the poetry of protest until years after the war).

Alas that Gurney, who, for all Scott’s support, is essentially alone in his craft (Will Harvey being otherwise engaged), has only summoned Sassoon, and not yet had the opportunity to read him at length. But he explains, now, why he writes about war the way he does–and it sounds very much like Sassoon’s recent writing. Only he is a private, with no possible chance of mounting a protest.

That is partly because I am still sick of mind and body; partly for physical, partly for mental reasons; also because, though I am ready if necessary to die for England, I do not see the necessity; it being only a hard and fast system which has sent so much of the flower of Englands artists to risk death, and a wrong materialistic system; rightly or wrongly I consider myself able to do work which will do honour to England. Such is my patriotism, and I believe it to be the right kind. But how to write such poems as “If I should die” in this mood? (Also, I am not convinced that poets believe what they write always. Brooke was a sincere exception, but then, he was lucky; he died early in the war. So often poets write of what they wish to believe, wish to become, as one prays for strength and virtue not yet obtained.) Golly, what a lecture! Serves you right…

I should like a talk with you, and yet would a talk be sufficient? For one forgets so easily things which one knows too well…

Be happy and get well. You are hereby appointed G.L.A. (Grand Literary Agent) with double salary:

With best wishes:

Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney…

P.S. How many complimentary copies?[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Unknown Warriors, 130-1.
  2. I did not examine the results to see if there are any detached members, those who died of earlier wounds, outright errors in the database, etc.
  3. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 161.
  4. Letters From a Lost Generation, 367.
  5. Letters, 178-9.

Kate Luard in the Salient; A Raid of the Royal Welch Comes to Grief; Gas for the Master of Belhaven

A major offensive is imminent. This we know from the sound of the guns that all of our writers in or near the Ypres Salient have been reporting for days now–but confirmation comes with the arrival of Kate Luard, who has always aspired to be as near as possible to the worst of the war.

July 25th. Brandhoek. We got to Railhead (Poperinghe) about 5 p.m. The station was busy being shelled. Everyone was turned out of the train about 1 1/2 miles before the station… The R.T.O.[1] had been shelled-out… He thought we wouldn’t be allowed up any farther, but here we are. We got a rousing welcome from the C.O… Ten other Sisters arrived to-day… I shall probably have 30… we are for Abdomens and Chests–8 Theatre teams.

…It is a brilliant starlight night and the battle line, four miles away, is blazing with every conceivable firework and the noise is terrific. Is anyone going to sleep?[2]

This is the closest she has been to the enemy guns–too close, as it will turn out.

 

And David Jones and Hedd Wyn are closer.

On the morning of 25 July, D Company, with Jones helping to guard the flanks, participated in a raid on Pilckem Ridge and was forced to retreat, suffering heavy casualties and 16 men taken prisoner.[3]

This is how Jones’s biographer summarizes the information-gathering raid made less than a week in advance of the battle. Dilworth borrows the matter-of-fact tone from the battalion diary of the 15th Royal Welsh Fusiliers, but that terse account obscures a big disaster on a small scale. Trench raids were supposed to take prisoners, not lose them, and even if planners expected that the raid might involve taking a few casualties, losing sixteen men–the 2nd lieutenant commanding and fifteen “other ranks,” perhaps the whole of the primary raiding party and possibly as much as a fifth or a sixth of the company’s fighting strength–meant complete failure. The Germans had evidently been prepared to entrap the hapless raiders–a level of mastery over the battlefield which did not bode well for the coming assault.

I do not know which company Hedd Wyn has been assigned to, so there is only roughly a 25% chance that he, too, was involved in this fight; but the news of the loss of men at night in No Man’s Land would have been a new element of his experience. To the worries about enemy shells and snipers and gas would now be added the nagging suspicion that even when the British artillery had the upper hand the Germans opposite were superior trench fighters. For Jones, despite his long experience of the front lines, this was another bad night in a very bad week.

 

The same could be said of Ralph Hamilton, Master of Belhaven, with his batteries near Blaupoort.

I woke up with a start at 5 o’clock this morning with a feeling that something was very wrong. There was a fearful pain in my throat as if I had swallowed a spoonful of mustard powder. I realized at once that the place was full of gas… This new mustard-oil gas is the very devil. It is not very poisonous itself, but it produces violent hay fever in a few seconds, and then they send phosgene, which is deadly. The real danger is that the mustard gas paralyses the nerves of the nose and one cannot detect the phosgene until it is too late.

But Hamilton’s worries are deeper and broader than possible death from a gas barrage. He must also prepare a firing plan for the coming assault.

It is the most complicated thing I have seen yet. I am very nervous that these young N.C.O.s won’t understand what to do…[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Railway Transport (or Traffic) Officer
  2. Unknown Warriors, 129-30.
  3. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 161.
  4. War Diary, 351.

Vera Brittain’s Sisters at Lemnos; Henry Williamson’s Sister Assigned to a Lonely Soldier

Vera Brittain‘s life and her private writing are a major focus of this project. But she also writes verse, with an eye to publication, and this we’ve seen very little of. “The Sisters Buried at Lemnos,” written last year while en route to Malta, was first published in a magazine at her former school, St. Monica’s. It has now moved up one significant wrung: today, a century back, it was published in The Oxford Magazine.

 

The Sisters Buried at Lemnos

O Golden Isle set in the deep blue Ocean,
With purple shadows flitting o’er thy crest,
I kneel to thee in reverent devotion
Of some who on thy bosom lie at rest!

Seldom they enter into song or story;
Poets praise the soldier’s might and deeds of War,
But few exalt the Sisters, and the glory
Of women dead beneath a distant star.

No armies threatened in that lonely station,
They fought not fire or steel or ruthless foe,
But heat and hunger, sickness and privation,
And Winter’s deathly chill and blinding snow.

Till mortal frailty could endure no longer
Disease’s ravages and climate’s power,
In body weak, but spirit ever stronger,
Courageously they stayed to meet their hour.

No blazing tribute through the wide world flying,
No rich reward of sacrifice they craved,
The only meed of their victorious dying
Lives in the heart of humble men they saved.

Who when in light the Final Dawn is breaking,
Still faithful, though the world’s regard may cease,
Will honour, splendid in triumphant waking,
The souls of women, lonely here at peace.

O golden Isle with purple shadows falling
Across thy rocky shore and sapphire sea,
I shall not picture these without recalling
The sisters sleeping on the heart of thee!

Vera Brittain

First, literature. This, needless to say, is an effort that reflects neither Brittain’s incisive prose style nor her mounting frustration and “threadbare” patriotism. But then again, for Vera Brittain, 1916 was a long time ago. Is a change in her style coming, or will she soldier on in the mold of a Minor Sister of St. Rupert, combining unreflective reflections on sacrifice with beautiful sentiments, and no thoughts particularly sharp or unyielding?

Second, politics. This is a traditionalist poem, but its argument is quite progressive. Given how thoroughly Vera’s emotional life–especially as reflected in her correspondence–revolves around four young male soldiers, it’s easy to forget that few women (especially women of her class, but that’s another matter) entered into active war service. There is still enough public discomfort with the idea of well-bred young “girls” handling the bodies of young men that she does not dwell, here, on just how difficult and intimate that service is. Instead, she uses her first acquaintance with women as actual casualties of the war to make an unassailable feminist argument: that, if they should die, think only this of them–they have as much claim to this rhetoric of beautiful sacrifice as any doomed officer…

 

Stranger by far is our other bit of writing for today, a century back. Henry Williamson has just finished haranguing his mother when a parcel arrives, necessitating a short thank you note.

Dear Mater,

Thanks for vests recd yesterday. We are very busy, as we have many new drafts, and shortly shall kill a few more Bosches I expect. There is no leave. Love to all. HWW.

But the letter has a striking and strange enclosure: a note to his sister Doris, asking her to take on the role of pen-pal and gift-giver to one of the men in his company.

Dear Biddy,

Just a hasty line to you. Will you send a small parcel including sweets etc and a pipe (about 1/6) and about 100 Woodbines etc to this man–68348 Driver G. Bevan, 208 MGCoy, BEF France–with a note stating you have heard he is a lonely soldier, & would he care to accept etc etc etc. Don’t mention your connection with me but sign your proper name and address. You might write him a letter, & mention that a parcel is coming. Make it a decent one up to 10/- or so & Father will give you the money from my a/c. No time now, love Harry.[1]

Is this simply a charitable impulse? It seems a bit unwise, as, though surely Williamson is a common-enough name, the driver might have cause to wonder whether this sudden London Williamson benefactress is any relation of his young lieutenant’s. Impulsive or inscrutable, Williamson always has some sort of surprise up his sleeve…

References and Footnotes

  1. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 148.

Alfred Hale’s First Day on the Job; Ivor Gurney in Rouen; Vera Brittain on Love, Beauty, and Sacrifice, or the Afterlife of Rupert Brooke, XIX: Eminent Victorian

We left Alfred Hale forlorn and sleepless on his first night in barracks. But a man can adjust to most things–even the army.

…the last part of that night I must have slept a little, as I woke up about dawn… a sentry passed the window, returning off guard with his rifle and knapsack and other military equipment. Yesterday evening I had heard someone say that Sergeant so-and-so had said to him that he was making up a firing party, and I thought of the lot of the man led out to be shot on such a dawn as this…

But this cheerless brooding on my part was soon to be cut short with a corporal coming in and telling us to get up at once…

After a short march, breakfast–“fried eggs and bacon and tea out of an urn, both rather dirtily served”–and an eminently forgettable first full day in the army:

…that whole place seemed to be made up of huge depressing buildings overshadowing endless parade grounds, where much-drilled platoons of men daily and hourly trod the gravel. Just inside the entrance gates was a large recreation ground with tennis courts–for the officers, I suppose.

What was done with us recruits that morning I have completely forgotten…[1]

This is surely because the army is merely marking time while sorting its catvh. Tomorrow, a century back, Hale will be assigned to his first unit.

 

This snippet from Ivor Gurney would be out of place wherever we put it. But his surprising reaction to another of the great Gothic masterpieces makes a fine counterpoint to Hale’s initiation into the grim wonders of London military architecture.

Yesterday I managed to get to Rouen again, and was for a brief two hours and a half my own master. It really is a  fine town, and a great rock which stands smiling and huge just out of the town and on the river is very impressive. I did not go into the Cathedral, whose iron spire struck me with increased horror; a dreadful thing. St Ouen has a very much finer spire.[2]

 

Another letter from Vera Brittain–to her brother, Edward–confirms her growing belief that the Brotherhood (and Maiden) of the Survivors of Roland must serve one another most intensely now in their deepest need.

Malta, 6 May 1917

You say that you & I must make things worth while to Victor as his family is inadequate for dealing with the situation, & Mother says that in future days ‘he must be our especial care’. I have thought a great deal about both your letters. No one could realise better than I our responsibility towards him–not only because of our love for him, but because of his love for us, & the love felt for him by the One we loved & lost. I am not sure that this doesn’t apply more to me than to any of you. I at any rate know this, that I should be more glad than I can say to offer him a very close & life-long devotion if he would accept it, & I can’t imagine that Roland, if He had known what was to be–if He knows–would be anything but glad too. Those two are beyond any aid of ours–They who have died; and  the only way to repay even one little bit of the debt to Them is through the one who remains: ‘Happiness’ said Olive
Schreiner ‘is a great love and much serving.’ For his sake–for all your sakes — there is nothing I would not do for him…

I dare not think much about Geoffrey. As I work there is a shadow over everything; I know it is there but I try not to think why it is there or to analyse it too much.

This is a delicate matter–or, perhaps, it’s just the sort of thing that I hesitate to pronounce upon with certainty. Neo-Victorian prudery!

But what intense jumble of romantic, Romantic, and filial feelings produces this intense devotion, to others, in the name of Roland? Vera isn’t precisely proposing to become consort-nurse or wife to Victor, so she is certainly hinting at just the type of non-standard relationship that, unless it were formalized through marriage, would, indeed, seem very strange to her peers.

And Geoffrey–who did not attend Uppingham and was never a close friend of Roland’s–is now drawn more snugly into the little circle. His status derives from three things: his close friendship with Edward Brittain, the fact that he spent so much time with Vera just after Roland was killed, and the fact that he is dead now, and beyond the harm of confused emotions,

Do you think it strange, I wonder, that while I loved — & love — Roland so much, I loved Geoffrey a little too? To me there always seemed to be something very much in common between them — though I suppose there always is something in common between ‘whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report . . . . .’[3] This something, whatever it was, seemed to express itself in their mutual love of Rupert Brooke, their mutual sense of the glory of the earth, in Geoffrey’s love of Roland’s poems. . .

When I think of Roland & Geoffrey & Victor & you I am reminded of Carlyle’s mourning in the ‘French Revolution’ over the loss of ‘the eloquent, the young, the beautiful, the brave’. How better could you describe Them–Roland the eloquent, Geoffrey the beautiful, & all four of you so brave & so tragically young. (Victor’s conduct on the Day was glorious–worthy of Roland & of his best self. I almost wept in reading of it–dear old Tah.) . . .

There it is again–the nurse describing the maimed young man as “glorious.” But if I have repented of that critique, especially since Kate Luard soon afterwards gave voice, through her patients, to a more nuanced view of the war’s emotional toll.

Yet this usage remains problematic, here: Brittain is not, as Luard was, commenting on a patient. She is choosing to read third-hand military reports as mitigating factors in the “meaning” of the destruction of Victor’s health, youth, face, and eyesight.

And she brought “beauty” into the conversation, too. One can hardly expect (or even desire) clear critical thinking about such things so close to the event… and yet. Shouldn’t there be some resistance to this romantic resistance to the threat of meaninglessness?

Vera Brittain fancied herself something of a rebel, a feminist conscientious objector, at least, to unquestioning Victorian for religio-patriotic pablum. But as she absorbs these terrible blows she seems to be losing her tentative footing in any sort of “modern” or critical point of view. She writes of saintly fallen heroes, she borrows from the arch-Victorian historian, she proposes an almost monastic sort of self-sacrifice… and in all of this she is abetted by their joint reading of Rupert Brooke.

Which is a bit of a challenge to us, here. Isn’t the influence of beauty and poets–and beautiful poets–one that perhaps we should respect, especially when the sentimental appeal receives covering fire from our guiding muse, the inexorable angel of calendrical coincidence?

Strange that Geoffrey should die on exactly the same day as his beloved Rupert Brooke 2 years before. And the same day of the month as Roland.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Ordeal of Alfred Hale, 47.
  2. War Letters, 161-2.
  3. Philippians 4:8.
  4. Letters From a Lost Generation, 350-1.

Vera Brittain’s Next Worst Day, or the Afterlife of Rupert Brooke, XVIII: Geoffrey Thurlow and Safety, Vera Brittain and The Dead, and the Maimed; Alfred Hale Appeals to the Recruiter; Isaac Rosenberg’s Dead Man’s Dump; Scott Moncrieff Adrift; Home Service for Tolkien

We’ll begin with a few May Day updates on our writers–none of them, today, in the bloom of health or fitness. Last will come Vera Brittain, who absorbs yet another blow. And with her writing we will move from the day to the month, and compare two very different poems about the new dead of this third wartime spring.

 

Alfred Hale has some tenuous connections to our regulars. He was an Oxford friend of Ralph Vaughan Williams (the idol of Ivor Gurney) and a very minor composer and arranger in the same style, and he attended Uppingham school, albeit years before Roland Leighton, Edward Brittain, and Victor Richardson. Now forty-one, his life of single, artistic, privileged pottering about is not unlike what some of our young men might have aged into, but for the war… and there’s the rub. Hale is most conspicuously different from our other informants in that he was immediately and completely horrified by the idea of going to war, and has done his best to avoid it. He was glad to have failed an early physical with the Navy, and he dodged the first draft by stalling and then ageing out–but the new rules are sweeping up even disinclined forty-something non-sporting country gentlemen. Today, a century back, he does his best not to impress.

‘As to my being over age, that had been settled against me by the recent Act… the rejection… was another matter. If I could bet a rejection certificate… from the Naval authorities, well and good…. But I was advised to act quickly.’ Thus the very courteous Recruiting Officer… A very nice old recruiting sergeant was also sympathetic. I was never likely to be much good as a soldier, that he saw with half his professional eye, and he hinted as much if he did not say so.

But Hale is caught in a predictable trap: the Navy has only to remark, with raised institutional eyebrow, that his failure to measure up to its high standards is no guarantee that the Army will likewise reject him. Hale leaves the matter in the hands of his solicitor, but little hope remains.[1]

 

Charles Scott Moncrieff, wounded at Arras, is still in hospital in France–and he is not well. His leg is mangled and, to judge from today’s letter, his spirit has been damaged as well.

No. 20 General Hospital, Camiers,
1st May, 1917.

In the evening I heard a great swell of hundreds of men’s voices singing some of the popular Catholic hymns—“Jesu my Lord, my God, my all”—and some others. Presently my priest came in, the one who wrote to you; he tells me they have Benediction every day of the week in one of the huts, but yesterday for a weekday must have been enormously attended. He agreed to bring me Holy Communion this morning, which I was very grateful for. At night I had not such a bad time, thinking rather than sleeping, but still feeling this awful inability to control or co-ordinate my thoughts, which is, I suppose, a result of the shell shock. I find it so hard to grasp that this great nocturnal space bounded by the four corners of my bed—and with so much always new and unknown in it—has just the one inhabitant. . . .[2]

 

Also today, a century back, John Ronald Tolkien went once more before a medical board. The verdict: “He is improving but requires hardening.” This will mean, in practice, an extended period of home service, in Yorkshire, with time to write and his wife nearby.[3]

 

Kate Luard‘s diary has shown hints of strain, of late–not surprising, given that she has helped to lead a hospital through several weeks of intense and emotionally draining work as the casualties of Arras passed through. But now that the most terribly wounded have died and most of the others have been moved to larger hospitals further in the rear, there is time for relaxation–and for psychological letdown.

May Day and a dazzling day and very little doing in this Hospital. G. and I celebrated the occasion by going to the woods in the morning, starry with anemones and never a leaf to be seen, but blue sky and fresh breezes and clear sunshine. It is all a tremendous help, physically and psychically…

Some of us and Capt. B. have been having a bad fit of pessimism over them all lately, wondering what is the good of operations, nursing, rescues, or anything, when so many have died in the end. But even a few miraculous recoveries buck one up to begin again.

A Suffolk farmer boy is dying to-night…

I had a letter from a brave Glasgow mother, full of gratitude and incoherence, ending up, ‘And don’t forget to let us know how you are keeping.”[4]

This string of ups and downs–one day’s record–is not very representative of her writing style (the daily diary entries are often composed as topical letters). But it is, I think, emotionally accurate. Sister Luard is–she must be–enormously mentally tough, but the enormous suffering and the constant loss takes its toll nonetheless. It’s striking that there is no answer suggested here–no invocation of religion or patriotism. Just the increasingly common question, but especially vivid coming from a nurse so close to the front lines: what is this all for? What is the good of continuing in a policy which reduces so many men to such a state?

A fair question. But there’s nothing for it but to go on–and take whatever solace one can from the lives that can be saved.

 

And so to Vera Brittain.

May 1st

Had two cables–one to say that Victor’s eyesight was hopelessly gone, the other–an hour later–that Geoffrey was killed in action on April 23rd…

Sat out on the rocks’ edge in front of Night Quarters & suddenly something seemed to tell me to go home. Nothing much doing in Malta–& chances of Salonika seemed further off than ever; decided to go home for Edward’s sake & Victor’s, & if he wishes it, to devote my life to the service of Victor, the only one (apart from Edward, who is different) left of the three men I loved. For I loved Geoffrey… I spent the rest of that day on the rocks, feeling all the time that I was not alone but that Geoffrey was there & if I looked up I should see him standing beside me. . . .

A letter from Geoffrey arrived the same day–“By one of those curious chances which occurred during the war with such poignant frequency,” as she will later write. Once could also see it as one more example of the war’s uncanny literariness–but perhaps we remember the cruelest ironies best.

His last letter to me–dated April 20th–arrived that evening. He told me they were going up “for a stunt” in two or three days, & said his only fear was that he should fail at the critical moment, & that he would like to do well for the School’s sake. Often, he said, he had watched the splendour of the sunset from the school-field. And then, perhaps seeing the end in sight, he turned as usual to his beloved Rupert Brooke for comfort & finished with

‘War knows no power safe shall be my going
Safe tho’ all safety’s lost, safe where men fall
And if these poor limbs die, safest of all’

My dear dear Geoffrey!

Vera is ready with an apt–and devastatingly sad–counter-quotation. Geoffrey, before battle, quoted “Safety;” she, drawing from the same sonnet sequence that has framed these middle years of the war, quotes “The Dead:”

He leaves a white
Unbroken glory, a gathered radiance,
A width, a shining peace, under the night.[5]

Looking back, Brittain will remember the hours of “suspended physical animation” on the rocks as a time of almost numinous intensity, but Geoffrey’s ghostly presence will prompt a memory that makes much more concrete how she now might “serve” her surviving friend:

And all at once, as I gazed out to sea the words of the “Agony Column” advertisement, that I had cut out and sent to Roland nearly two years before, struggled back into my mind.

“Lady, fiancé killed, will gladly marry officer totally blinded or otherwise incapacitated by the war.”

I even remembered vaguely the letter in which I had commented on this notice at the time.

Yes: a great deal has changed since she wrote that letter, to Roland, which scoffed at the quaintly Victorian self-sacrifice of certain old maids.

There is one small, terrible change in her quotation of her own letter in the later memoir.[6] In the letter, she writes of “a business arrangement, with an element of self-sacrifice which redeems it from utter sordidness. Quite an idea, isn’t it!”

In retrospect, the final exclamation point becomes a question mark.

“Quite an idea, isn’t it?” Was it, Geoffrey? wasn’t it? There was nothing left in life now but Edward and the wreckage of Victor–Victor who had stood by me so often in my blackest hours. If he wanted me, surely I could stand by him in his.

She decides to try to come home.

That night–quiet as all nights were now that so few sick and wounded were coming from Salonika–I tried to keep my mind from thoughts and my eyes from tears by assiduously pasting photographs of Malta into a cardboard album. The scent of a vase of sweet-peas on the ward table reminded me of Roland’s study on Speech Day, centuries ago.

And, a century on, I suppose we must be grateful, in some aesthetically presumptive and heartless way, for the terrible things that happened to good writers.

Surely, surely there must be somewhere in which the sweet intimacies begun here may be continued and the hearts broken by this War may be healed![7]

Vera Brittain will soon begin the poem that will serve us for a first “month poem” today:

 

In Memoriam G.R.Y.T.

(Killed in Action, April 23rd, 1917)

I spoke with you but seldom, yet there lay
Some nameless glamour in your written word,
And thoughts of you rose often—longings stirred
By dear remembrance of the sad blue-grey
That dwelt within your eyes, the even sway
Of your young god-like gait, the rarely heard
But frank bright laughter, hallowed by a Day
That made of Youth Right’s offering to the sword.
So now I ponder, since your day is done,
Ere dawn was past, on all you meant to me,
And all the more you might have come to be,
And wonder if some state, beyond the sun
And shadows here, may yet completion see
Of intimacy sweet though scarce begun.

Malta, May 1917.

 

This is a good poem; also, a traditional one. A poem about an individual, a dead man remembered not for his death or its horror or pain or futility but for his life. Which is right, and good, and we should all have friends like Vera Brittain to remember us, and to draw on hopeful traditions that see a possibility of love and friendship after death.

 

But there are other ways to see the dead, and to write them. Another poem written this month, a century back, is Isaac Rosenberg‘s Dead Man’s Dump. It’s neither a short poem nor a very long one, but it’s almost too harrowing to read in its entirety. It draws on Rosenberg’s experience working in a labor battalion in the aftermath of battle. A few stanzas, then:

The plunging limbers over the shattered track
Racketed with their rusty freight,
Stuck out like many crowns of thorns,
And the rusty stakes like sceptres old
To stay the flood of brutish men
Upon our brothers dear.
The wheels lurched over sprawled dead
But pained them not, though their bones crunched,
Their shut mouths made no moan.
They lie there huddled, friend and foeman,
Man born of man, and born of woman,
And shells go crying over them
From night till night and now.
The air is loud with death,
The dark air spurts with fire,
The explosions ceaseless are.
Timelessly now, some minutes past,
Those dead strode time with vigorous life,
Till the shrapnel called ‘An end!’
But not to all. In bleeding pangs
Some borne on stretchers dreamed of home,
Dear things, war-blotted from their hearts.
Maniac Earth! howling and flying, your bowel
Seared by the jagged fire, the iron love,
The impetuous storm of savage love.
Dark Earth! dark Heavens! swinging in chemic smoke,
What dead are born when you kiss each soundless soul
With lightning and thunder from your mined heart,
Which man’s self dug, and his blind fingers loosed?
A man’s brains splattered on
A stretcher-bearer’s face;
His shook shoulders slipped their load,
But when they bent to look again
The drowning soul was sunk too deep
For human tenderness.
They left this dead with the older dead,
Stretched at the cross roads.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Ordeal of Alfred M. Hale, 37.
  2. Diary, 128-9.
  3. Chronology, 100.
  4. Unknown Warriors, 120-1.
  5. Chronicle of Youth, 340.
  6. I am relying, of course, on two different transcriptions of a hand-written letter I haven't seen...
  7. Testament of Youth, 342-46.

Robert Frost on Edward Thomas: It Was Beautiful as He Did It; Vera Brittain Recommits; Kate Luard on Kindness and Courage

Vera Brittain‘s recent thoughts about her future–and about Victor Richardson–are not yet settled. It occurred to her almost immediately that she might come home in order to turn her service into a more personal form of sacrifice–but she is not yet ready to give up her service with the V.A.D. In a letter of today, a century back, to her brother Edward she reacts to new details of Victor’s wounding, but we also learn that she has recommitted to her nursing job.

Malta, 27 April 1917

…I am so longing to hear more details about Victor, whether he is soon likely to be out of danger & whether his eyesight can be saved. Some member of the family sent me a cable after yours to say ‘Head wound improving. Recommended Military Cross.’ It would be so splendid if he could get the latter — some small compensation for all that he has lost. He will indeed have bridged that gulf between you which made him so miserable; do you remember that evening when we all dined at the Coventry Restaurant & he would hardly speak because he felt the difference between you so acutely. I always thought he would rise to the occasion in the end; when nervous & sensitive people can once make up their minds to a thing they usually do it supremely well; the fear is only beforehand. I feel a little  sad, perhaps, to think that Roland, the bravest of the brave, alone of you three has no decoration, & lies beneath His Cross instead of wearing it. But He would have been the last to grudge them to you, & after all His courage
needed no guarantees.

… None of you have mentioned at all anything about [Victor’s] reason being affected, so I am hoping it is not, though unfortunately it is a characteristic of so many head wounds, though sometimes only temporally…

I do wish I could see & talk to him, but am afraid it is not likely yet (though in this world of vicissitudes anything may happen) as I have just signed on again to-day. Now that I have served so long I feel very unwilling to break my service even for a little time, as continuous service in these days, when so many people who started nursing got bored & left it off, is an honourable & in many ways an advantageous thing, & of course even the least little interval breaks it, spoiling one’s record & cancelling the past. This doesn’t necessarily mean that one can’t come to England for a little time without breaking it. There may be ways & means in the future of managing that…[1]

To these reasons–honor, service, and the possibility of losing her accumulated seniority–she will add that she suspects that exciting things will be happening in the Mediterranean…

 

I did promise that I would return to Kate Luard‘s diary in part to let her respond, as it were, to my complaints that unstinting praise of stoic suffering is in some way loosely aligned with the censorship of wartime dissent.

This is a little oblique, but more or less on point: suffering can also stimulate a humanity that ignores the very lines that define the war.

…In one ward there’s hardly a man with two legs; and when one Boche made a noise when he was being dressed, there was a chorus of encouragement from the British beds: ‘Hold on, Fritz, soon be done–be all right in a minute,’ regardless of any difficulty in language!

Or perhaps this scene is more fraught than it seems: would these men have no qualms about going out and doing to each other what they have already done, the same violence that landed them together in this hospital?

Next, Luard writes about the particularly “glorious boy” who is paralyzed. There seems to be some confusion or uncertainty about what X-rays might accomplish. It is painful to think that after being kept in the dark about his condition (as Victor Richardson has been), however briefly,  the paralyzed young officer is being offered false hope of recovery:

…The 6 ft. boy wounded in the spine with total paralysis below the chest was safely taken to the train this evening. When I told him he was going down to be X-rayed, he said, ‘That’ll be better than lying on my back all my life,’ and his eyes filled with tears. All these days he has never said one word of complaint or self-pity, though he knew his probable fate from the second day.

And finally, a pen portrait we might wish a little longer:

An Orderly who has been running the Marquee of 50 stretcher-cases without a Sister, has gone sick with trench fever. He leads one of the most Christlike lives I’ve ever seen; there is no other word for his selfless devotion, though he is comic beyond words in speech and appearance![2]

 

Finally, today, a few excerpts from Robert Frost’s letter to Helen Thomas.

Amherst Mass
April 27 1917

Dear Helen:

…People have been praised for self-possession in danger. I have heard Edward doubt if he was as brave as the bravest. But who was ever so completely himself right up to the verge of destruction, so sure of his thought, so sure of his word? He was the bravest and best and dearest man you and I have ever known…

I want to see him to tell him something. I want to tell him, what I think he liked to hear from me, that he was a poet…

It was beautiful as he did it, And I don’t suppose there is anything for us to do to show our admiration but to love him forever.

Robert[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Letters From a Lost Generation, 343-5.
  2. Unknown Warriors, 118-9.
  3. Elected Friends, 189-90.

Alf Pollard and Frank Richards Hold On at Arras; Patrick Shaw Stewart Idle in France; Kate Luard and the Glorious Maimed

After a day of stiffly resisted attacks along the Hindenburg Tunnel, the Royal Welch are left holding an improvised line, in the face of likely counter-attacks. Frank Richards reminds us of every soldier’s plight on the day after an advance, when lines of supply have been disrupted.

The following day we were without food and water and during the night some of us were out searching the dead to see if they had been carrying any with them. I was lucky enough to discover a half-loaf of bread, some biscuits and two bottles of water, which I would not have sold for a thousand pounds.[1]

But Richards also reports an incident confirmed by Dunn: while bringing in the wounded in the early morning, they are hailed by a wounded man of another regiment who had been lying close to the German line and had seen them pulling back during the night. This intelligence was quickly confirmed, and the 2nd Royal Welch moved up and dug in around the abandoned positions, which included concrete strong-points built for machine guns–early examples of a new era in tactical defense. These “pill-boxes” are immune to all but the heaviest caliber artillery, but vulnerable to being rushed by small numbers of men using careful “stalking” tactics.

The dead of five battalions… lay in front of the abandoned German machine-gun position… and exposed the tragic ineptitude of just going on throwing men against it after such a futile artillery bombardment… Ours was the third bull-at-a-gate attack… one of the occasions innumerable when a company or a battalion was squandered on an attack seemingly planned by someone who, lacking either first or second hand knowledge of the ground, just relied on our maps of moderate scale… we were relieved at the end of the day.[2]

It’s the “or second hand” which is really the most damning thing. It’s a huge war, and even the best-intentioned Corps Commander can hardly tour the front lines–it would be impossible, even, for a divisional general to acquire first-hand knowledge of all the ground on their front. By they have staffs, and they could summon the battalion C.O.s only two levels below them in the chain of command. They could find out… but instead they read their maps, and make their orders.

 

Alf Pollard and the H.A.C. faced a long day’s counter-attack between Oppy Wood and the Chemical Works at Monchy.

Time after time long lines of men in field grey appeared over the crest of the ridge only to be swept away before they had descended half way down the slope… Never once did they get within a hundred yards…

We went back to the Black line on the evening of the 24th. What was to happen next? That was the question that filled our minds. We were so near to breaking through that we were all keyed up for the next move. It was impossible that the authorities would let things rest where they were.[3]

They will spend a few days in reserve, in a part of the line that is in danger of becoming a salient. But after that rest, the H.A.C. will most emphatically return to the front lines…

 

Patrick Shaw Stewart has been able to shake free of further duty in the Eastern Mediterranean. He hopes to get back to his battalion in France–but that, of course, is not how things work. If he had had his way, perhaps, he would have already been in the battalion, and seen far too much of the Battle of Arras. But he has been fortunate in this frustration, and finds himself on the coast, some 60 miles due west of the fighting:

I’m well embarked on the Course at the Depot here. I can’t honestly say I think it’s teaching me very much I haven’t known by heart these three years back, except, perhaps, a little about gas and bomb-throwing: but there is a terrible lot of indifferent lecturing out of books and old-fashioned sloping of arms, which I really thought I had undergone once for all at the Crystal Palace. No doubt it is extremely good for the soul of a veteran like me to be marched about in fours and told to be in by 9 p.m., but occasionally one is tempted to forget how comic it all is, and also how tolerable. For it really is exceedingly tolerable, if measured by the discomforts that are always possible; I have my bed, I have a tent to myself, a very respectable mess, and a great stand-by in the shape of the Sutherland
Hospital, which is at a reasonable distance. I have dined there twice, and do it again to-night.

This would be the hospital founded by Millicent, Duchess of Sutherland, and desirable perhaps more for the society of its staff than its patients.

The only drawback is that after being marched about and bored to death from 8.20 to 4.15, one is rather
inclined to sink into a chair and drop into a hoggish sleep, more than to brush one’s hair nicely and walk another mile to a tram—or, indeed, to write letters or any other elegant occupation.

Le Touquet, April 24, 1917.[4]

 

In another hospital considerably closer to the front, Kate Luard, continues to praise the stoic and uncomplaining heroism of the maimed and dying.

Tuesday Morning.  …A Captain of the Yorks had his leg off yesterday and makes less of it than some people with a toe-nail off. The glorious boy with the broken back is lying on his back now; he doesn’t know about it and says he’s all right, only his back is a little stiff an aching.

In general I find Sister Luard’s emotional instincts to be eminently reasonable, and her writing precise. But that’s the problem: since she is precise and thoughtful, it’s fair to focus on that one word “glorious,” and to question what exactly it means. To be stoic is perhaps a virtue, and the remarkable lack of complaint from these terribly wounded men is… remarkable. It is testimony to almost unbearable reserves of human moral strength…

And yet it’s not that simple. It never is. Can we praise the sufferers without examining what their suffering is for, without asking why it has come about? This is similar, in a way, to praising the brilliant elan of a small-unit leader in an assault without noting that the skill he is exhibiting is, essentially, excellence in leadership in state-sanctioned killing. And in each case the men killing and being maimed are sent to do and to suffer by other men, men who aren’t dirtying their hands or risking life and limb. What these soldiers have suffered is something more, and more complex, than mere accident or disaster. They are volunteers, most of them, and yet they are also victims not of mischance or acts of God but of organized human activity.

And so then there is society. Luard is well aware that, since female nurses almost never serve any closer to the line than a Casualty Clearing Station, her presence is in itself remarkable. The glorious boys who come into her care haven’t seen a woman in days or weeks or months–and they haven’t seen a respectable Englishwoman, properly addressed with a title borrowed from religious and family life, in longer still.

Isn’t her presence a strong inducement to act the part, to play the game? Isn’t she–more, in some ways, than superior officers, backed by the threat of court-martial and punishment–an enforcer of the social order that has made it so difficult for so many increasingly skeptical men to question the conduct of the war? Would a bitter, angry man, convinced he has been victimized by an unfeeling state and a burgeoning military-industrial complex, spit in the face of a nurse whose approval of stoicism must be obvious? It would be a difficult thing… and so here, too, in the terrible pain and amazing kindness of a field hospital, there is a sort of censorship in place.

Courage when in great pain is an estimable thing–and an inestimable thing. So is consideration for those around you, even when selfishness and self pity–not to mention stark terror or an urge to self-destruction–would be more than understandable.

But… “glorious?” The young officer will never walk again, but they haven’t told him. He must die soon, and they haven’t told him. His strength is remarkable–wonderful, valuable. But a desire to bear pain and loss uncomplainingly, a living-up to the expectation of good manners even in the worst of situations, is not a thing that we should praise without any reference to the context.

If he wanted to scream, and make everyone around him know that he was terrified to be destroyed, to die–that he was sure, now, that all this isn’t worth it–would she hear him?

This is too much to lay at the feet of Sister Luard, of course, in the middle of the post-assault rush of horror. And she is the farthest thing from a prim manipulator. She will record her own struggles with disillusionment, soon, and even today, a century back, she obliquely addresses the meaning of the war through her praise of another praiseworthy human behavior.

Some of the men say they were picked up and looked after by Germans, so we are being extra kind to the Germans this time. There is in Hospitals an understood arrangement that all Germans (except when their lives depend on immediate attention) should wait till the last British has been attended to… It is only kept up in a very half-hearted way and is generally broken by the M.O.’s, who are most emphatic about it in theory!

And later?

Tuesday, 10.30 p.m. It has been a pretty sad day, 12 funerals… The spine boy has found out what is the matter with him and is quite cheery about it…[5]

There’s a lot going on, but it will be interesting to keep looking in on Sister Luard to see how her credo of infinite empathy and praise for the selflessness of the wounded holds up as the battle drags on.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Old Soldiers Never Die, 230.
  2. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 338-9.
  3. Fire-Eater, 214.
  4. Knox, Patrick Shaw Stewart, 194-5.
  5. Unknown Warriors, 116-7.