Vera Brittain and Siegfried Sassoon Under Bombardment, in London; Olaf Stapledon on Mr. Britling; Rowland Feilding on the Things they Carry; The Master of Belhaven Has a Near Miss

Today, a century back, Siegfried Sassoon–keeping his options well open–went to Cambridge for the day to interview for a job in a cadet battalion.[1] He may have left without a degree, but Cambridge is different now, and he has come back with an MC. He seems a prime candidate for what would be a respectable and conventionally honorable “safe job”–but the trip from London to Cambridge, ironically, was less than safe. Sassoon describes the day in the wry retrospective voice of George Sherston. Or, rather, the wry retrospective way in which he puffs apart Sherston and his experience by blowing a thin layer of warm ironic air in between the first-person description of experience and the world around that half-oblivious subject:

Supervising a platoon of Cadet Officers at Cambridge would have been a snug alternative to ‘general service abroad’ (provided that I could have bluffed the cadets into believing that I knew something about soldiering). I was going there to be interviewed by the Colonel and clinch my illusory appointment; but I was only doing this because I considered it needful for what I called ‘strengthening my position’ I hadn’t looked ahead much, but when I did so it was with an eye to safeguarding myself against ‘what people would say’…

Anyhow, on a glaring hot morning I started to catch a train to Cambridge. I was intending to stay a night there, for it would be nice to have a quiet look round and perhaps go up to Grantchester in a canoe. Admittedly, next month was bound to be ghastly; but it was no good worrying about that. . . . Had I enough money on me! Probably not; so I decided to stop and change a cheque at my bank in Old Broad Street. Changing a cheque was always a comforting performance. ‘Queer thing, having private means,’ I thought. ‘They just hand you out the money as if it was a present from the Bank Manager.’ It was funny, too, to think that I was still drawing my Army pay.

But it was the wrong moment for such humdrum cogitations, for when my taxi stopped in that narrow thoroughfare, Old Broad Street, the people on the pavement were standing still, staring up at the hot white sky. Loud bangings had begun in the near neighbourhood, and it was obvious that an air-raid was in full swing. This event could not be ignored; but I needed money and wished to catch my train, so I decided to disregard it. The crashings continued, and while I was handing my cheque to the cashier a crowd of women clerks came wildly down a winding stairway with vociferations of not unnatural alarm. Despite this commotion the cashier handed me five one-pound notes with the stoical politeness of a man who had made up his mind to go down with the ship. Probably he felt as I did—more indignant than afraid; there seemed no sense in the idea of being blown to bits in one’s own bank. I emerged from the building with an air of soldierly unconcern; my taxi-driver, like the cashier, was commendably calm, although another stupendous crash sounded as though very near Old Broad street (as indeed it was). I suppose we may as well go on to the station/ I remarked, adding, ‘it seems a bit steep that one can’t even cash a cheque in comfort!’ The man grinned and drove on. It was impossible to deny that the War was being brought home to me.

But is it? No, I think it is, but with that special, rueful emphasis on the last two words–“to me.” The air raid here appears first in the context of absurdity and a classic evocation of British character: “Sherston” carefully contrasts it with his very English position as a man with “private means” who might ride to hounds or ride off to war but doesn’t expect to earn a living or face violence during the ordinary course of his privileged day. This is about, in our terms, an irruption across the experiential gulf. But it’s treated as a dastardly blow, some piece of bad form, a punch after the bell, and not as the beginning of the end of any notion of war as a reliably distant event, the early days of “total war.”

At Liverpool Street there had occurred what, under normal conditions, would be described as an appalling catastrophe. Bombs had been dropped on the station and one of them had hit the front carriage of the noon express to Cambridge. Horrified travellers were hurrying away. The hands of the clock indicated 11.50; but railway-time had been interrupted; for once in its career, the imperative clock was a passive spectator. While I stood wondering what to do, a luggage trolley was trundled past me; on it lay an elderly man, shabbily dressed, and apparently dead. The sight of blood caused me to feel quite queer. This sort of danger seemed to demand a quality of courage dissimilar to front line fortitude. In a trench one was acclimatized to the notion of being exterminated and there was a sense of organized retaliation. But here one was helpless; an invisible enemy sent destruction spinning down from a fine weather sky; poor old men bought a railway ticket and were trundled away again dead on a barrow; wounded women lay about in the station groaning. And one’s train didn’t start. . . . Nobody could say for certain when it would start, a phlegmatic porter informed me; so I migrated to St. Pancras and made the journey to Cambridge in a train which halted good-naturedly at every station. Gazing at sleepy green landscapes, I found difficulty in connecting them (by the railway line) with the air-raid…

 

Vera Brittain had less trouble finding emotional context for the same bombing raid, coming as it did in the desolation following Victor Richardson’s miserable and lonely death. But her experience–and her initial reaction, as an overseas veteran of sorts who would rather be heading toward the war than held helpless underneath it–is quite similar to Sassoon’s:

Although three out of the four persons were gone who had made all the world that I knew, the War seemed no nearer a conclusion than it had been in 1914. It was everywhere now; even before Victor was buried, the daylight air-raid of June 13th “brought it home,” as the newspapers remarked, with such force that I perceived danger to be infinitely preferable when I went after it, instead of waiting for it to come after me.

She hasn’t been in combat, but she has been to the wars; but then again she hasn’t been under fire… In any event, membership in the categories of alienated veteran or older civilian are not a sure guide to one’s reaction to a sudden irruption of violence into a London spring day.

I was just reaching home after a morning’s shopping in Kensington High Street when the uproar began, and, looking immediately at the sky, I saw the sinister group of giant mosquitoes sweeping in close formation over London. My mother, whose temperamental fatalism had always enabled her to sleep peacefully through the usual night-time raids, was anxious to watch the show from the roof of the flats, but when I reached the doorway my father had just succeeded in hurrying her down to the basement; he did not share her belief that destiny remained unaffected by caution, and himself derived moral support in air-raids from putting on his collar and patrolling the passages. The three of us listened glumly to the shrapnel raining down like a thunder-shower upon the trees in the park — those quiet trees which on the night of my return from Malta had made death and horror seem so unbelievably remote. As soon as the banging and crashing had given way to the breathless, apprehensive silence which always followed a big raid, I made a complicated journey to the City to see if my uncle had been added to the family’s growing collection of casualties.

In a grimly amusing coincidence, this uncle is a banker, and so Vera too finds herself making small talk in a bank in the aftermath of the raid.

The streets round the Bank were terrifyingly quiet, and in some places so thickly covered with broken glass that I seemed to be wading ankle-deep in huge unmelted hailstones. I saw no dead nor wounded, though numerous police-supervised barricades concealed a variety of gruesome probabilities. Others were only too clearly suggested by a crimson-splashed horse lying indifferently on its side, and by several derelict tradesman’s carts bloodily denuded of their drivers. These things, I concluded, seemed less inappropriate when they happened in France, though no doubt the French thought otherwise.[2]

And that gives us rather a strong clue as to where Vera Brittain will turn her thoughts, now that her sacrifice of her nursing career for the love of Victor Richardson has come to nothing. Somewhere where mangled bodies and enormous suffering might seem more… appropriate.

 

But to return to Sassoon is to escape the bombs and their bad memories and head for Cambridge, where George Sherston can think of “war” in 1914 terms, when it was healthy outdoor tin-soldiering for overgrown boy scouts, and before it came to connote the indiscriminate bombing of cities.

But here was Cambridge, looking contented enough in the afternoon sunshine, as though the Long Vacation were on. The Colleges appeared to have forgotten their copious contributions to the Roll of Honour. The streets were empty, for the Cadets were out on their afternoon parades — probably learning how to take compass-bearings, or pretending to shoot at an enemy who was supposedly advancing from a wood nine hundred yards away. I knew all about that type of training. ‘Half-right; haystack; three fingers left of haystack; copse; nine hundred; AT THE COPSE, ten rounds rapid, FIRE!’

There wasn’t going to be any musketry-exercise instructing for me, however. I was only ‘going through the motions’ of applying for a job with the Cadet Battalion. The orderly room was on the ground floor of a college. In happier times it had been a library (the books were still there) and the Colonel had been a History Don with a keen interest in the Territorials. Playing the part of respectful young applicant for instructorsliip in the Arts of War, I found myself doing it so convincingly that the existence of my ‘statement’ became, for the moment, an improbability…

Sherston, concealing his combustibly mixed feelings by dint of instinct or good breeding, gets the job: the colonel “shook my hand rather as if I’d won a History Scholarship” and sends him on his way. But Sherston lingers in the groves of Academe.

Sitting in King’s Chapel I tried to recover my conviction of the nobility of my enterprise and to believe that the pen which wrote my statement had ‘dropped from an angel’s wing’. I also reminded myself that Cambridge had dismissed Tyrrell from his lectureship because he disbelieved in the War. ‘Intolerant old blighters!’ I inwardly ex- claimed. ‘One can’t possibly side with people like that. All they care about is keeping up with the other colleges in the casualty lists.’ Thus refortified, I went down to the river and hired a canoe.

 

And after those two very closely aligned bits of memoir, we have three short but disparate chunks, interludes of labor, love, and near death from around the front.

 

Rowland Feilding will not shy from criticism of his superiors any more than he would speak out openly against their conduct. But like any perceptive correspondent from the front, he will mark out, from time to time, how the lot of the infantryman grows ever grimmer.

June 14, 1917  Oultersteene.

Yesterday, we marched back here—to safety—in grilling heat. What with their box respirators with extensions, steel helmets, P.H. gas helmets, rifles, ammunition, packs, etc., there is little doubt but that the infantry soldier is getting
over-loaded for marching. His equipment grows as the inventions for killing grow.

Already, he must carry between 70 lbs. and 80 lbs. And after a long bout of inactivity in the trenches (I refer only to the lack of exercise), you can well understand that he is not in condition for weight-carrying. Moreover, he does not improve matters by lapping water out of his water-bottle at every halt, as is his habit if not carefully watched. However, the authorities are beginning to appreciate these difficulties, and to provide motor-lorries for carrying the
packs, when such are available.[3]

Is this progress, or is this only maintaining misery by adjusting impossible burdens back down to the barely tolerable?

 

As for Olaf Stapledon, although treacherous mails have lately lengthened the lag between Agnes Miller and himself (some of their letters were lost at sea to German submarines), he is still faithfully following Agnes Miller’s suggestions. Which makes him rather late to the literary bandwagon of late 1916:

…I have begun to read “Mr. Britling,” on your recommendation. It promises well…

We are very indignant because the other two FAU convoys, which were in successful bits of offensive, have had croix-de-guerre rewards… [even though] under the circumstances our work was much more arduous than theirs. It’s bad luck…  However… we ought not to bother about such things. Moderate pacifists tend to bother about such things just as tokens that they are not mere shirkers.[4]

 

The Master of Belhaven has been hard at work behind Messines all week, and today, a century back, he attended a conference at which new forward firing positions were assigned. On the way back, he had a close call very similar to one experienced by Edward Thomas.

I… got back without incident, beyond being nearly killed by an 18-pounder that was firing across the road I was on. I did not see it till I was almost in front of the muzzle and about ten yards in front; at that moment it fired. I was knocked backwards by the blast of the gun and nearly had the drums of my ears broken. People ought to lookout before firing and see that the place is clear…[5]

We’ve seen friendly fire kill the infantry, but artillery officers who are not careful run the risk of a more shocking sort of accidental demise when passing by camouflaged batteries.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 377.
  2. Testament of Youth, 365-6.
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 195.
  4. Talking Across the World, 230-1.
  5. War Diary, 316.

Siegfried Sassoon Lonely and Impassioned; Robert Graves, Well-Attended and Smug, Writes to Siegfried Sassoon; Ivor Gurney Drops a Sonnet and Plucks a Snowdrop for Gloucestershire

Just three brief bits today, a century back. The crowded posts of late are to some degree accidental–the more prolific and regular writers are on duty, these days–but also have something to do with the coming offensive. Today things are relatively quiet, and poetic: three poets writing poetry or writing about poetry, and one to another.

First, Siegfried Sassoon, still unhappy, still with the Second Battalion, still in reserve, and still trying to muster the will to write again, to resume the pursuit of poetry.

March 26

Give me the passion to re-build
Bright peaks of vision stored in vain;
That, though in fight my flesh be killed,
The noise of ruin may be stilled,
And beauty shine beyond my pain.

Also today, a century back–but before or after writing these lines, I wonder?–Sassoon hitch-hiked his way to Amiens for another night away from the battalion, and made a desultory attempt at seeking out some other kind of solace.

After dinner (alone, thank heaven) walked round the cathedral for half-an-hour in the rain. The city is pitch dark by 9 o’clock.[1]

 

While Sassoon is alone, with a muddy camp and a still-unloved battalion to go back to, the friend who was to have been his comrade (Robert Graves had preceded Sassoon to the 2/RWF this winter, but then his weak lungs sent him to blighty before Sassoon arrived) seems to have everything he lacks: literary purpose, abundant friendship, and now rural serenity.

26 March 1917

Erinfa, Harlech, North Wales

Dear old Sassons

Please forgive my not writing: it has been one of the worst symptoms of my late collapse that I haven’t been able to make up my mind to start or finish the most pressing things, and the correspondence about Goliath and David has been most exacting. Thanks awfully for all you did to edit the book. It has been a great success all round. Especially old Gosse wrote a ripping letter, which is most important.

So, yes, Graves is writing to thank his friend for his help. But he is also bragging; bragging and reveling–there is no due diligence about missing the comradeship they might have been enjoying in the same battalion. But perhaps they are each too much the old soldier for the pretense that any trenches are better than blighty. But back to the reveling and bragging–and name-dropping:

While in Oxford I saw a lot of the Garsington people [i.e. Ottoline Morrell et. al.] who were charming to me, and of the young Oxford poets, Aldous Huxley… I arranged about a job… an instructorship in No. 4 Officer Cadet Battalion with its headquarters in my own college…

I have just come up to good old Cymraeg [Wales] after a very tiring week in town seeing people, especially the Half Moon Street set [i.e. Robbie Ross]: great fun.

I don’t dare tell you how jolly it is here for fear of making you envious…

These are all people that Sassoon knew first… but at least Graves can claim to be the first to have discovered their most important poetic peer/predecessor.

I sent a copy of Goliath and David to old Professor Sorley who retaliated, dear old man, by sending me the sixty-second copy (of a limited edition of sixty-six) of Letters from Germany and the Army: C. H. Sorley. They are the full context from which the ones you saw in Marlborough and Other Poems are taken…

I am most tremendously looking forward to The Old Huntsman: I don’t see why it shouldn’t be awfully successful, with all the reviewers and literary patrons squared…[2]

 

Finally, Ivor Gurney‘s letter to Marion Scott of today, a century back. This is one of a jumble of recent letters, sent haphazardly as the post and memory allowed, and mostly concerned with finalizing his poems. But it also answers a nagging question: if you, dear reader, were as concerned as I was by the loss of the thread of his counter-Brooke sonnet sequence, here, alas, is the belated tale of the fifth:

I am afraid the final sonnett does not stand a chance of getting written. The sooner the book is printed, the better I shall be pleased. In that case Sonnett 5 will stand thus

England The Mother
(then at the bottom of the page)
This sonnet will not shape itself, probably
because there is too much to say. I hope however
to say out my thoughts in music — someday.

This is to get 5 pieces corresponding to Rupert Brooke’s. It is simply not possible to screw anything out of myself at present.

I don’t think Gurney intends this, but that last sentence is a terrific rebuke to Brooke’s claim to authority as a war poet (a matter–the authority generally, not Brooke’s bona fides specifically–which is of increasing importance to Gurney). The famous young Royal Naval Division officer who has yet to leave on his Argosy can write five lovely sonnets in good time, but the fighting infantryman writes four–until a sudden strategic development means that he must march, dig, and fight, rather than write.

So there will be no fifth sonnet. But Gurney has something else to look forward to–spring. And flowers, and thoughts of home. Our second-snowdrop-plucking in as many days:

This is a barren land, of flowers, that is. Once it was rich cornland, and is not much scarred by shell holes; but O my county; what tokens of your most exquisite secretest thoughts are now appearing under the hedgerows. On the march not many days ago we passed a ruined garden, and there were snowdrops, snowdrops, the first flowers my eyes had seen for long. So I plucked one each for my friends that I so desire to see again, and one for Gloucestershire. . . .

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 145.
  2. O'Prey, ed. In Broken Images, 66-7.

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 Marshals His Verses; Vera Brittain and Her Soldiers Three: the Mails are Long in Reaching Malta

First, today, a letter from Edward Thomas to his wife Helen. He doesn’t often write to her,[1] so it is difficult to learn much about their often-fraught relationship from the few we have… here there are affectionate phrases in what is, essentially, a business letter, finishing up the work on his poetry that had been done during a short leave.

Dearest,

Here are the verses which should make up pretty well, with those I put in the oak chest, the set Ingpen has. If they don’t, put together, make up the same set…

Terse, explicit instructions follow, the idea being to make sure the right poems get into an anthology being corralled by Gordon Bottomley, while others are preserved for a more exciting possibility now grown probable. “Ingpen” is Roger Ingpen, the force behind the small publishing house of Selwyn and Blunt, who is now planning a small book of verses by “Edward Eastaway.” This would be a major breakthrough for Thomas, still so recently a poet. But, as the rest of the letter makes clear, however eager Thomas is for recognition (but pseudonymous recognition) and success (financially negligible success), there is only one Most Important Reader.

Whatever you do, Helen, dearest,

Don’t send to Frost before I tell you that the thing is settled...

Of course, this has as much to do with the hopes that Frost will get Thomas an American publisher as the fears that he should read other than the best version of the poems. But this is a letter from a soldier to his wife, so we cannot omit the more typical sorts of parcels:

I got a good haversack, so don’t you worry. If you get a pipe, get it at the Stores. One of the dark red French briars would be the best, and don’t think of paying more than 5 /- or 6/-…All is well—if only I have got through the exam.

Goodbye Edwy[2]

 

Vera Brittain is recovering from the infection which accompanied her to Malta, but she is as yet too sick to work. So she has had ample time to accustom herself to being abroad and away from her family. But the mere fact that she is the farthest from home–and that she has braved submarines and fevers–does not change the fundamental emotional calculus of the mail: she loves her brother Edward best, and she cares very much about his two best friends, and now they are suddenly very far away. All are likely to go from safety in England to peril in France more swiftly than their letters reporting the planned move will reach her. They might be killed before she has even learned that they are in danger.

In Malta the arrival of the mail… became the chief event of the week. We awaited the P. & O. liner that brought it with a perturbing mixture of pleasant anticipation and sick dread, for owing to casualties at the front, and air-raids and other troubles at home, neither life nor happiness nor peace of mind could be counted on for more than a few days at a time.

Victor Richardson was the third musketeer–along with Edward and Roland Leighton–at Uppingham School.And also, perhaps, the third wheel: he seems to have been well-loved, but his school nickname–Father Confessor–puts him rather behind his two more intellectually gifted friends. Victor’s military career has been dramatically slowed by a long, serious illness in 1914 and 1915, which put him further behind both Roland–dead, and revered by the Brittains as a fallen hero–and Edward, who won the Military Cross for his courage in the July 1st debacle.

But Victor–“Tah”–has now gone to France, and has every possibility of catching them up–a fact that Vera is only now about to learn. He spent a great deal of time with Vera in 1916 and 1916, and has become very fond of her, while she accepted his attentions in a spirit of intimate friendship and a somewhat mothering worry.

More important to Vera, now, however, is Geoffrey Thurlow. Thurlow was a survivor not of a threesome, but rather of a sundered partnership–he and Edward Brittain had met in training camp and become fast friends, but were then separated when they went to the front. And Thurlow’s service was in many ways the more difficult–wounded in the body, he is also suffering from post-traumatic stress. Vera certainly believed him to be “shell-shocked,” and the need to care for the nervous young man was one catalyst in their relationship. It is unusual, certainly, for a single young woman to have grown close to a young man who is neither a suitor nor a friend of the family. But times are changing…

My worst fears now were for Geoffrey in France; he had grown into a very dear friend whose intelligent understanding never failed the most exacting demands, and my admiration for his determined endurance of a life that he detested was only enhanced by his shy self-depreciation and his frequent asseveration of cowardice. In letters it was possible to get behind the defences of this abrupt young man to a sensitive mind as responsive to beauty as it was considerate towards human pain and fatigue.[3]

We will read one of those asseverations shortly, and it is a surprising thing. And as it happens, Geoffrey was also writing today, a century back–to Edward. He has been spared another battle, and Vera, perhaps, has been spared one of those terrible letters.

France, 20 October 1916

Just a note: we are now scuttling down South again; I say South meaning further south than we were!

Life here is an enigma and when all was ready we were suddenly transported as the stunt was off & here we are in an old town the belfry of which was built in 1150 odd and there is a, quaint old castle…

I had a letter from Univ. last night which simply exuded Oxford and recalled many a pleasant evening two years ago about this time. Do you remember the delightful days in O.T.C. when you fell in with New Coll. & I with Univ. each totally oblivious of the other’s existence what!

E

There is nothing particularly revealing in this letter–some Oxford O.T.C. reminiscence, and the amusement of discovering that future fast friends were once alongside each other and all-unbeknownst… but many small clues in the correspondence suggest that Vera might be drawn to Geoffrey in part by the intensity of his relationship with her beloved brother. They are, Vera and Edward, almost too close, we might think: she has already become engaged to his first best friend, after all.

But this relationship–between Edward and Geoffrey, that is–seems to be something different. It seems likely that the two were romantically, or even sexually involved–and, if so, almost completely certain that Vera had no idea…

These are the three people that Vera has decided truly matter to her. And as she tries to gather this little fellowship more tightly in about her, she realizes that, though the ocean voyage and war-time illness has perhaps shortened the gulf between them in experiential terms, in practical terms the time-lag of letters has grown, and she is feeling more cut-off than ever she was in London.

Malta, 20 October 1916

Just received my 1st mail since arriving here . . . Oh! the glory of the mail! You who have never been further than France have no idea of it. I have just got 9 letters in all — ranging in dates from Sept. 28th (from Geoffrey in France before he knew I was coming here) to Oct. 9th (also from Geoffrey in France) You & he, by the way, are the only people who tell me anything coherently, so do write often, & don’t imagine that other people have told me everything, because they never have… Only you give me any idea of how Victor went to France — which I am very astonished about; I had no idea his affairs were thus trembling on the brink…

Promise me faithfully this one thing. If anything important (not necessarily only the most important thing of all, but just anything important) happens to either you, Geoffrey or Victor, will you cable to me at once? . . . For you have no idea what one feels out here when one realises it is Oct. 20th & the last one heard of anyone was Oct. 9th. . .

It gives me a queer feeling to read Geoffrey’s letter of Oct. 9th, & remembering that (quoting him) ‘out here we are here to-day & gone to-morrow’, to think that he has had time to die a thousand deaths between then & to-day.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. At least not in his Selected Letters... my research lags, here.
  2. Selected Letters, 133-4.
  3. Testament of Youth, 305.
  4. Letters From a Lost Generation, 279-80.

Rudyard Kipling’s Advice to a Young Cadet; Crossing Paths on the Brittanic: Vivian de Sola Pinto is Blighty-Bound; Vera Brittain Sees Lemnos, and Thinks of Rupert, and Roland

Rudyard Kipling has a diverse correspondence. Today, a century back, he wrote to his nephew Oliver Baldwin, who joined the Cambridge Officer Training Corps in May. It seems that eager young Oliver sent his uncle a sort of crib sheet for platoon drill that he had devised…

Bateman’s / Burwash / Sussex/ Oct. 3.1916
Dear Sir

I am much indebted to you for your kind thought in sending me your latest work “Platoon drill” which I have read with great interest. The style strikes me as crisp and well-balanced though here and there a little staccato. The plot fascinates me immensely in spite of the absence of the feminine element. There is a vigor and movement about it which never flags and the interest continues to increase up to the end where No. paces the Interval. This scene is conceived with masterly grip and insight and the sudden disappearance of Interval after being paced held me breathless. I should be happier if you had not left your readers in doubt as to the fate of Remainder; or, may we, haply, look for a sequel in which he married Double March. But enough of Literature, however good.

I always try to primly remind readers that letters are terrible barometers of mood. One sets oneself to a task, and nearly anything can be concealed during those minutes of writing. Even if the writer strives for total honesty, he or she is writing and reflecting, disturbing the essence of experience with the act of observation… and even if these hurdles are overcome, the writing will in any case only encapsulate the mood of those few minutes. A rat, a nasty meal, a trench mud-slide, a sudden barrage–or a parcel, an unexpected leave or relief, a warm and dry dawn–and all will seem very different…

And then, lately, I have been harping upon the implied duty of so many of these letters–the pressure that shapes them into something other than a naked record of the writer’s feelings. Usually, that duty is to demonstrate to a wife or mother at home that things are cheerful, bearable, and not particularly perilous.

In this letter the duty is almost the opposite. Kipling recently wrote, in quiet, strongly-worded, irrational umbrage, an attempt to stave off the official death of his son, nearly a year after he was actually killed. Today he writes to a bright young relative who will be going out there, before too long… and when he his done with his joke, Kipling writes with very great affection.

Buttons, my dear.

We were rejoiced to get your letter on the typewriter that pretends to be a pen. We really are coming to see you if we can ever get away from our jobs here. And what tales of absurdity and complications we have to tell you! I am trying to imagine you as an Instructor. You probably do it very well since you have a false air of never being shocked or upset–which is the whole essence of wisdom and success in this world. Also, you ought to have filled
out a bit on the square…

I have understood from several quarters that Cambridge is a sink. The kind of animile now being recruited can’t hold his liquor as a rule. As to women, I imagine there is more and more variegated venereal now in England than at any time of her rough Island story. So for the love of Goodness look out! They ought to be inspected.

Do you ever get any leave? If so do you always spend it in town? If so why not let us know? And further if otherwise why not come down here for a week end. It’s long since we’ve had a rag together and the billiard table is simply mildewed from lack of use.

Dear love from us all. You’ll make a really a. 1. Officer in time and I daresay you feel it.

Ever your affectionate old
Uncle Rud.

Is there anything you want that there is at Bateman’s that we can send you?
Rough socks; mitts, etc. etc. are plentiful just now.[1]

It’s impossible not to read this letter with “My Boy Jack” in mind. But Kipling musters a jest–though this is a time when they are few–and puts on a brave face for a young soldier-to-be. It’s the postscript, I think, that can give us the confidence to say “yes, Kipling is playing up a part here, not writing from the heart.” A boy officer at Cambridge is not in great need of socks and mittens, no matter how strenuous the training. But soon he will be, and they will provide much needed comfort, and no protection at all against shot or shell…

 

When I began this project I envisioned reading so many memoirs and letters that every few weeks or so two writers would turn out to be–previously unbeknownst to history!–rubbing elbows in a communications trench, somewhere. A little silly–it’s a very big war–and beside the point, but still. We’ve had quite a few “paths crossing” nonetheless, but this one is far afield–or, rather, overseas.

Vera Brittain arrived today at Mudros, the major British port on the Greek island of Lemnos. There she will disembark from the great Britannic and board a smaller vessel for Malta.  Meanwhile, Vivian de Sola Pinto, an officer of the Royal Welch whose overseas service has been with the 6th battalion, at Gallipoli and then in Egypt–was carried aboard. De Sola Pinto had seen Lemnos before, during the pre-Gallipoli dithering of 1915, but he is in no condition to enjoy it now. In combat on the Suez Canal in early August he had fallen ill with sunstroke and dysentery, and–after evacuation by camel-litter and long weeks in an Alexandrian hospital–he is now being sent back to blighty.

…on 1st October I was carried on to the hospital ship Letitia, which took me to Mudros. The great harbour was now almost empty and most of the huts and tents on shore had disappeared. However, there was one enormous liner there. It was the Britannic, the sister ship of the Titanic. It had been completed in 1914 and had been taken over immediately and turned into a hospital ship. With a number of other sick and wounded men I was transferred to this monster…[2]

 

Vera Brittain, heading in the opposite direction, is bored of the great liner and charmed by the beauties of the Aegean–at least from a distance. Arriving in Greece, will she think of the ancients in their glory, or the miseries of nearby Gallipoli? Ah, well, she has a more recent hero still.

Tuesday October 3rd

Once again we got out of bed early, this time to see the Archipelago. We saw now that we were being closely escorted, by a British battle cruiser, a British torpedo-boat & a British destroyer. We stayed for some time watching the sun rise over the Greek Islands. In the afternoon after sailing safely through three rows of mines we reached, Lemnos & anchored in Mudros harbour. Seen from a distance the Aegean appeared to gleam with great jewels–golden islands with purple shadows, set in a deep blue sea. When we got nearer we saw that they were of a rocky, hilly, sandy nature, golden-brown rather than red, & in many cases covered with brown scrubby grass…

We were told that on the Island are the graves of three Canadian Sisters, who died nursing in the camp hospital  there. The place was grim & sinister looking yet there was a queer unaccountable fascination about it which would not allow me to take my eyes from it nearly all the afternoon. And I am very sure that the vision of that momentous curve of Lemnos in the rich desolation of the. Aegean will remain in my mind long after the more splendid visions of Naples have almost passed away from it. A mist came over my eyes as I looked over this lonely place where Rupert Brooke died, and I remembered so vividly the first time I heard his poems, when Miss Darbishire read them to me at Oxford one evening in May soon after Roland had gone to the front.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Letters of Rudyard Kipling, IV, 403-4.
  2. The City that Shone, 182.
  3. Chronicle of Youth, 330-1.

The Royal Welch Honor Lord Kitchener; Edward Thomas is Bound for the Artillery; Frederic Manning: “Drunk. Admonished.”

A lovely little bit of doggerel, today, courtesy of an anonymous poetaster of the 2/Royal Welch:

This “panegyric” was found written on the door of a billet:

Boney was a great man, a soldier good and true;

But Wellington he beat him at the Battle of Waterloo

But greater far and truer still, and tougher than shoe leather

Is Kitchener, the man who could have beaten them together.

[“Tommy”] Atkins does not appraise his leaders as tacticians or strategists. A General is “lucky” or “unlucky.” Roberts and Kitchener were lucky, and esteemed for it: the Gods smiled on them…[1]

 

And a brisk note from Edward Thomas to Eleanor Farjeon: we find, in quick succession, Thomas the poet, Thomas the friend, and Thomas the soon-to-be artillery officer.

Tuesday

My dear Eleanor, I suggest we should meet on Saturday outside Shearn’s at 1 and then walk into Regents Park and eat some lunch sitting down or walking about. There would be no time for me to get to Hampstead.

It is raining here now most of the time. We ‘carry on’ indoors somehow or other and get rather bored and sleepy and illtempered,but not very. We are restless again. Four or five of us may all take commissions. I have just had my name put down for one in the R[oyal].G[arrison].A[rtillery]. or Anti-Aircraft. If I am accepted I shall be at the
Artillery School at St. John’s Wood before very long. Then I could see something of you. But the influence is new and remote and may not take effect…

Did I send you the short lines on a pond? I am sending you a sober set of verses to the tune of Rio Grande, but I doubt if they can be sung. Are they worth copying? Also I am sending you Davies’ new book.

If it is wet on Saturday I shall not expect you. Goodbye.

Yours ever

Edward Thomas[2]

 

Finally, today, an update on Frederic Manning, an important writer-in-the-ranks who has not yet–here–begun to write. And why is that? Well, first he has to get himself into the ranks. He was an educated middle-class man, and so, after enlisting, he was sent off to an Officers Cadet Battalion, at Oxford.

A 3 in x 5 in card in Manning’s file explains why he will nevertheless go to war as a private:

13.6.1916 Bringing alcoholic liquor into college, contrary to Battn. Order 12. Drunk. Admonished. Returned to unit 14.6.16.

“Returned to unit’’ meant that he was sent back to Pembroke Dock without finishing the course. He had been found unfit.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 205.
  2. Farjeon, Edward Thomas..., 199.
  3. Marwill, Frederic Manning, 163.

Edmund Blunden’s First Morning in the Line: Young in War, and Ancient as Troy; We Meet E. A. Mackintosh, and Read “To My Sister”

Last night was Edmund Blunden‘s first night in trenches. Today, then, would be his first morning. Blunden awoke in an officer’s dugout in C trench, in the reserve line near Festubert: the “Old British Line” of the Loos battle.

I am ashamed to remember that I was accused of sleeping ten hours. When I emerged the morning was high and blue and inspiriting, but the landscape cramped, tattered, and dingy. I washed ungrudgingly in a biscuit tin, and Limbery-Buse took me for a walk along the reserve line, explaining as we went the system of sentries and trench duty. At some points in the trench bones pierced through their shallow burial and skulls appeared like mushrooms. The men with whom I was now consorted instantly appeared good men, shy, quiet, humorous, and neat. The sand-bag walls did not look so mighty as the night before, but still I thought that they must be able to withstand a great deal…

This is innocence, of course, despite his surroundings. The war is still young…

…even that first morning I might have known; for the howling and whooping of shells suddenly began, and a small brick outbuilding between our trench and Festubert village behind began to jump away in explosions of dusty yellow smoke. The sight was attractive, until Limbery-Buse mentioned that Fritz might drop a shell or two short of his ruin, and in that event we were standing in the probable place of impact.

Young, but also of indefinite age, and so, in a sense, ancient:

One of the first things that I was asked in C Company dugout was, “Got any peace talk?” It was a rhetorical question. One of the first ideas that established themselves in my inquiring mind was the prevailing sense of the endlessness of the war. No one appeared to conceive any end to it. I soon knew that

Day succeeded unto day,
Night to pensive night.

Such as it was, the Old British Line at Festubert had the appearance of great age and perpetuity; its weather-beaten sandbag wall was already venerable. It shared the past with the defences of Troy. The skulls which spades disturbed about it were in a manner coeval with those of the most distant wars; there is little but remoteness about a skull. And, as for the future, one of the first hints that came home to me was implied in a machine-gun emplacement stubbornly built in brick and cement, as one might build a house…[1]

 

 

Ewart_Alan_Mackintosh

E. Alan Mackintosh

I haven’t yet found a good opportunity to introduce another subaltern poet–or, rather, poetic subaltern. Ewart Alan Mackintosh of the 5th Seaforth Highlanders–and St. Pauls, then Christ Church–had started writing poetry as a schoolboy, won a classical scholarship but generally loafed at Oxford, debating, paddling in the Torpids (that would be “club” rowing, I think, in American terminology–Mackintosh was not an athlete) and signing up eventually with the Officer Training Corps. This may have been only after an initial August 1914 rejection for… any guesses? Yup: Mackintosh looks bravely out at us in the photo at right, but he appears to squint in several others, and he evidently wore a pince-nez much of the time.

Nevertheless, he found his way into a Territorial battalion of the Seaforth Highlanders (Mackintosh was English by birth, but of Scottish extraction), with a commission dated January 1st, 1915. On August 1st he joined the 5th Seaforths in France, near Albert, and throughout autumn, winter, and spring he was in and out of the line, and writing verse when time allowed. It’s only today, a century back, that an action of his battalion and a dated poem conjoin…

In March their division–the 51st (Highland) Division–had taken over a new set of trenches from the French which included the “Labyrinth.” Not far behind their positions, then, is the Casualty Clear Station where Kate Luard now works. The early weeks were concerned with improving the position–something the Germans opposite were doing as well. On April 28th a German mine exploded under another battalion of the Seaforths, killing more than thirty. Revenge–in the form of a raid–was planned, and scheduled for tomorrow. Mackintosh, as the bombing officer, would have an important part.

In July, before coming to France, he had written out a legal will, giving his sister nearly all of his possessions and the responsibility of seeing his poems into print. Today, a century back, he wrote to her in verse:

To My Sister

If I die to-morrow
I shall go happily.
With the flush of battle on my face
I shall walk with an eager pace
The road I cannot see.

My life burnt fiercely always,
And fiercely will go out
With glad wild fighting ringed around.
But you will be above the ground
And darkness all about.

You will not hear the shouting.
You will not see the pride,
Only with tortured memory
Remember what I used to be,
And dream of how I died.

You will see gloom and horror
But never the joy of fight.
You’ll dream of me in pain and fear,
And in your dreaming never hear
My voice across the night.

My voice that sounds so gaily
Will be too far away
For you to see across your dream
The charging and the bayonet’s gleam,
Or hear the words I say.

And parted by the warders
That hold the gates of sleep,
I shall be dead and happy
And you will live and weep.

The Labyrinth, May 15, 1916

 

Finally, today, a century back, and after a short but halcyon interval in the hills of Wales, Robert Graves returned to London. In a few days he will report for a medical check-up to assess whether he can be cleared for active duty.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Undertones of War, chapter two.

Ford Madox Hueffer is Under Attack; T. E. Hulme on an Army of Conscripts, and Incompetents; Wilfred Owen Volunteers an Unwillingness to Volunteer

Late last year the redoubtable Ford Madox Hueffer (morte Ford, but not just yet) and his partner Violet Hunt had released a book of stories. Today, a century back, he suffered “the most vicious personal attack ever made in print” against him. Which, given his outspokenness, pushy Modernism, and general delight in provocation, is saying something. So let’s quote from the review by one J.K. Prothero, writing in The New Witness:

Mr. Ford Madox Hueffer has written a series of stories under the title of Zeppelin Nights; and Miss Violet Hunt has collaborated with him. There are flashes of Miss Hunt’s genius dispersed throughout the volume, and one is sensible that she has made a heroic attempt to leaven the mass of Mr. Hueffer’s dull offensiveness. But the fugitive gleams of patriotism supplied by the lady are not sufficient to redeem the ponderous panic of the co-author. It is generally supposed that Mr. Hueffer is not exactly of pure European extraction, and this book certainly tends to confirm such impression. The following lines, descriptive of London cowering in the throes of Zeppelinitis, seem to indicate that the writer’s fear of bodily hurt is more acute than one associates with men of our blood…

Yes, the reviewer is insinuating that Ford Madox Hueffer is a poltroon and a coward, and that this fact is due to his Jewish blood. Even in 1916, as we will see, there was a general perplexity about whether to respond first to the errors of fact, extrapolation, or interpretation.

One could point out that Hueffer is not Jewish, but rather of Christian English and German “extraction.” Or one could ask why an English writer’s interest in Continental writing (Hueffer, unusually, read several languages, and had not only lived in Germany and France but collaborated with Conrad–a Pole, by Jove!) should lead, as it apparently does, to an attempt to slander him as “not exactly of pure European extraction.” Or one could query the leap from the action or atmosphere of a book to an attack on the personal courage of its author. But this would be the most hopeless course, surely–is this reviewer someone with whom we would want to take up the critical question of distinguishing an author and his work? No, and not least because he does a hilariously bad job of it.

After a long quotation and a lengthier disquisition on the shamefulness of Hueffer’s portrayal of Londoners–he shows them expressing a fear of death-by-Zeppelin rather than totally committed to demonstrating their sang froid–Prothero lets us in on the author’s secret: Hueffer’s familiarity with the “non-European” sections of London has taught him what true cravenness is, and thus enabled him to pull of the authorial feat of traducing honest (fictional) Englishmen… such committed bigotry needs more skillful expression if it’s not going to simply look silly.

But the next bit is sillier. Prothero turns to the identity of the character “Serapion Hunter…” and somehow digs himself into a deeper hole:

The end of the book, however, shows us Serapion Hunter, the teller of these tales–devised, according to Mr. Hueffer, to find ‘mental rest… just as the inhabitants of that old Italian city of Florence found refuge in the dreary institution of the Decameron,’ grown tired of living in a cellar garnis; and having decided that death is by no means the most terrible thing in life, shaking off his paralysis forthwith enlists–possibly under the influence of Miss Hunt. This is quite obviously the European view of things. The view, which is quite as clearly un-European, insists that the horror of the ‘Night Hag’ ‘slowly upspreads from its nodus on the panting human breast where she squats and crouches… until moon and stars and all clarity of thought and vision are blotted out under the loathsome burden. . . . We lay helpless and could only long in our bitter abjection, for the dispelling crow of the cock, for the gay noises of dawn.’

For this condition which Mr. Hueffer aptly describes as ‘abjection,’ there is only one cure.[1]

Right. Or, no–wrong, and idiotic, and disgusting. But still, right: “Serapion Hunter” is an obvious authorial stand-in. But not for Miss Hunt.

Ford shepherded the book press-ward but left Hunt to see it published. He, despite being unmilitary, overweight, and much older than most subalterns (he’s forty-two) has accepted a commission in an infantry line regiment.

Rarely has a hatchet job seemed so perfectly miscalculated. It’s a slip and a fall and a thunk and a quiver in a nearby door, et voila, the targeted adversary can lay his hand on a most convenient weapon, and return fire…

 

After all that, the pugnacious political philosophy of T.E. Hulme is almost weak tea. But he was at it again, today, in the New Age, writing both as “North Staffs” and under his own initials. In the former piece–both are available here–he rather acidly makes a united discussion of the incompetence of the British army (specifically in the Dardanelles campaign), the unwillingness of the political leadership to shake up the old institution for the sake of greater efficiency, and the recent decision to begin conscription. Hulme takes the peevish, principled, and practical point of view that it is unfair to both suddenly introduce conscription where it has never existed before and to expect these new soldiers-by-compulsion to serve in a hidebound 19th century army, swollen to monstrous size. Then, ten pages later, the insubordinate subaltern is more openly discussing G.E. Moore, Husserl, and the possibility of a “Neo-Realist” middle path in philosophy…

 

Finally, today, Wilfred Owen. Who, come to think of it, stands in somewhat amusing juxtaposition to the non-poltroon subaltern of the Welsh Regiment and the ex-grunt of the Royal Artillery Company–perhaps our two most heavy-hitting writers currently in uniform, and two who could very easily have escaped the combat they have endured and/or will endure.

Owen, whose relatively late decision to volunteer now must seem like a near-run thing (for all those who enlist now will be viewed as trying to escape the looming ignominy of the just-passed conscription law), is still not eager to go.  This is one of the first times we’ve heard of one of our young officers seeking a middle ground–not between Nominalism and Platonic Idealism but between their personal military analogues: an absolute avoidance of war or an earnest quest for the quickest route to the greatest danger. Owen, rather reasonably, objects that he would prefer to learn his trade before beginning it:

Thurs. [Postmark 6 January 1916] [Postmark Romford]

…You may be surprised to know that I had a Commission offered to me today. Are you yet more surprised to know that I refused it: Lancashire Fusiliers, just going into Fighting Line. And I haven’t fired my Musketry Course. I can tell you no more. A list of names was read out, and we said Yes or No according to our feelings!

…Your W.E.O[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. See Ford Madox Ford, The Critical Heritage, I 122-4.
  2. Collected Letters, 375.

Lord Crawford Meets a Young German Gentleman; Wilfred Owen Adapts to the Artists’; John Bernard Adams is in the Trenches at Last

Wilfred Owen has been keeping his mother informed of the tribulations of his first week in the army with frequent postcards. But tonight, a century back, he sat down to write a real letter:

Dearest Mother,

I am dog-tired: N.B. I don’t say exhausted—but stupidly, muscularly tired. I got my outfit some days ago. I have not the patience to give you a list of the contents of my Kit, but it contains numbers of footling things—tooth-brush & razor-brush for example, whereas I had to buy a belt (3/6) and shall have to buy a swagger-cane.

These are regulations special to our regiment, because the discipline is frightfully minute. I spent all last evening polishing my buttons. We are cautioned against appearing in the street with a single over-coat button undone: belt must be worn over the overcoat, collar never turned up (except in very inclement weather when permission is granted to do so) etc. etc. etc. There is no doubt we are as smart as anything except the Guards, whom we ape.

Interesting–and I believe it. Here we have the Artists’ Rifles–once an exclusively professional (i.e. upper middle class) volunteer unit, now a de facto OTC that–for the very reason that so many of its privates will become officers–maintains something of a class standard for its volunteers. Owen tells us that, in attempting to be as smart as the guards, the Artists are in effect asserting their status as the toniest of the non-Regulars, just as the Guards have, er, jealously guarded their special status within the Regular army. Edward Thomas, who, for all his genteel poverty, had been to Oxford and knew many of the country’s foremost writers, was disappointed with the men of the Artists’. Wilfred Owen, who never made it to Oxbridge and has not established himself in a profession, is, so far, quite pleased.

Onward:

Yesterday morning we went a Route March through Kentish Town to Highgate. I had just got my Brogues repaired in time, but those wretches who wore new service boots had to go home by tram!

It’s like being a year out of joint: this is a wonderful mash-up of Henry Williamson‘s travails of a year ago and his more recent attempts to pass as a member of a higher social stratum. But Owen–at least in writing to his mother, hides his insecurities better. If nothing else, this is the difference between a bullying father/timid mother (Williamson) and an overshadowed father/clinging English Mama Rose (though it was the priesthood, rather than the stage, to which young Wilfred was destined).

With officerhood on the horizon, our Wilfred is pleased to admire the sergeants:

This morning we had ‘Physical Drill’ under a special Gymnastic Instructor and it is that which had so bewearied my bones. We do all this in shirt sleeves in Cartwright Gardens, a ‘crescent-garden’ bounded by the usual boarding houses. I have scarcely seen an officer. All our instruction is done by sergeants, who are as chummy between times as they are smart on parade. Impossible to get them out of temper. One is a rare wag, and gives plenty of exercise to the Risible Muscles. I never felt devotion, and not much respect, for any authority or individual in this world since I left the 3rd form of the Institute; but I am beginning again under these fellows. Astonishing what a changed meaning has a Captain or a Colonel for me. If a Major-General approached me I think I should fall down dead. We had to practise Salutes (on Trees) this very morning. You would be surprised how long it takes to do the thing properly.

This aft. was pay-day. Now we waited drawn up in ranks from 3 this evening, till just on 6!! And those at the rear, as I was, never got it after all. Then was the moment when you had best wad up the ears if swearing upsets them.

Ah, so–poetry? Artists? Disappointment?

I spent the heavy time pleasantly enough in conversation with one who I believe will be one of my best friends. Everyone is willing to make friends, and everyone is eligible; so there is really no guide as to which one shall go for beyond the expression of his phiz. There are now five on special terms with me, one very young, another quite forty, but none artists in any sense, no enthusiasts in my line. So I am still on the lookout…

Yours with dearest love,

Wilfred[1]

 

And in France, an innocent of earlier vintage reached the front trenches today, a century back. John Bernard Adams‘s battalion left billets at 9 a.m. and began the march to the front lines. At either eleven or noon–his diary gives one time and a letter home of next week gives the other–they halted for lunch:

Luckily it was fine, and the piled arms, the steaming dixies,[2] and the groups of men sitting about eating and smoking formed a pleasant sight. Our grub was put by mistake on the mess-cart which went straight on to the trenches! Edwards, however, our Company mess-president, came up to the scratch with bread, butter, and eggs. Tea was easily procured from the cookers. Then off we went to our H.Q. There we got down into the communication trench, and in single file were taken by guides into our part of the trenches: these guides were sent by the battalion we were relieving. I told you that all the trenches have names (which are painted on boards hung up at the trench comers). The first thing done was to post sentries along our company front: until this was done the outgoing battalion could not ‘out-go. ‘ Each man has his firing position allotted to him, and he always occupies it at ‘stand to’ and ‘stand down.’ We were three days and three nights in the trenches. Each officer was on duty for eight hours, during which he was responsible for a sector of firing-line and must be actually in the front trench. My watch was 12 to 4 A.M. and P.M. Work that out with ‘stand to’ in the morning and also in the evening and you will see that consecutive sleep is not easy![3]

‘Stand-to,’ we may remember, is the essential communal observance of trench life. There is always the worry that the Germans will attack in low light–when either the British trenches will be silhouetted by the setting sun or the rising sun will be in their eyes (and vice versa, of course, but never mind). But this semi-practicality aside (for who attacks when they know the entire opposing army is alert?), stand-to is a way of counting the men, and of raising the army up together and reminding everyone of their corporate identity. Stand-to is thus both a bureaucratic and morale stand-in for roll-call and parades.

Adams continues with an evocation of trench routine: the sentries who must be told to stamp their feet in the cold; the long, quiet watches of the night where the war seems to recede until it is awoken again by sudden, mysterious shelling or speculative machine gun bursts…

 

Lastly, Lord Crawford. Yesterday his ambulance unit had an unexpected visitor, and he spent the day attempting to make his fellow medical personnel see the bigger picture. Humanity, what?

Today he needles Matron in a lighter vein than usual:

This evening I made her chuckle by saying, ‘Never mind, sister, this is some consolation for not having the King here—in fact I expect it will give you even more entertainment’–as a German prisoner was brought in suffering from a broken scalp. Lieutenant Buchholz fell with his Taube [light aircraft] into our lives. I don’t think he was wounded, but is badly contused and thoroughly shaken by the misadventure.

One heard mutterings of indignation at the care bestowed on him compared with the smaller formalities and precautions taken with our own officers. ‘Five men to get out a stretcher’–‘Dammed if I will cook for a German’, quoth the cook. I try to inculcate the other view. We can heap coals of fire on this man’s head by good treatment. Every prisoner who returns to Germany having suffered kindly and sympathetic incarceration here will contribute to the huge reaction which is to shake Germany later on.

Ah, right–humanity, or tactical pampering. Still, it’s better than cruelty.

To such men it will prove useless to say we are devilish and inhuman. Their treatment here will give the lie to such a charge and their own experiences will greatly modify the false opinions of their friends and relatives–alas that we have so few Germans to spread our own propaganda.

And today, the reality of keeping a German prionser sinks in:

Buchholz gives some trouble. His wound isn’t serious, but, being a prisoner, he has to be watched. We have formed relays of batmen to do sentry duty and a man with fixed bayonet is always by the bed–but behind the screen, so the sisters insist, although the bayonet gleams and towers over it. Where there is a guard, there also should be found a corporal and at three o’clock this morning I find myself sitting in the dispensary, cold and shivering, but ready to rouse the sleepers at my feet who have already done their turns. The fellows on the floor slumber peacefully…

I write my diary, with three or four hours of candlelight and silence before me. But it is very chilly. My memory goes back to a post house in Siberia somewhere by the Chinese frontier. I can’t remember its name but it meant watermelons or some such thing. Conditions are different but the temperature or the position of the candles as I write, or else some undefined trifle recalled the place to my memory–and fifteen years have passed. But I won’t moralise…

It is 7pm. Except for fifty minutes devoted to meals and their digestion, I have been incessantly on duty, now for sixteen hours and very tired. Buchholz was evacuated today, happily, for he gave us a lot of work. I practically had to carry him from the ambulance to the train. Poor beast–he could have walked alone with ease, but this semblance of weakness, with his head all bandaged up solaced our prisoner. The people on the railway platform behaved with great restraint–likewise our men, on and about the train. Buchholz too was quiet and dignified in a most distressing situation, behaving in a way which appealed to me. I could not help contrasting him with some of our own patients in hospital with their weak faces and vacillating manners. Though young Buchholz is only seventeen, he had a professional and business-like air, lacking in many of our officers of ten years’ service.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 362.
  2. Large covered pots of soup or tea.
  3. Nothing of Importance, 27-28,49.
  4. Private Lord Crawford, 74-5.

Noel Hodgson’s Elegy for a Friend; Osbert Sitwell on Irony, Romanticism, and Ruins; Isaac Rosenberg Has No More Free Will Than a Tree, and Will Enlist; Sweet Relief for Vera Brittain–and Worry Resumed

It’s October the First, and so a now-traditional opportunity to check in on those whose writings are not precisely dated. This will give us a brief respite, too, from the Battle of Loos, which resumes below.

Isaac Rosenberg is very important. Trust me. But right now he is both poor and poorly documented: neither the keeper of a diary nor a man whose mother–a hard-working, Yiddish-speaking woman with a feckless husband and a large family to keep together in difficult conditions–can be counted on to publish his letters. In fact, a large percentage of Rosenberg’s subsequently published letters are written to wealthy men: a penurious artist needs a patron.

But he also needs relief from worry, and a steady place and salary, however meager–he wouldn’t be writing letters to his mother anyway because he is living with her, and contributing nothing to the household. Several letters can be dated to this month, a century back, but no more precisely. These bracket Rosenberg’s decision to enlist. The earliest is to Stanley Schiff, who has recently replaced Eddie Marsh as Rosenberg’s primary patron.

Dear Mr. Schiff,

Thank you for the cheque which is as much to me now as all the money in America would be to the Allies. When I am settled I hope you will allow me to return it either in drawings or money. I expect to know enough for my purpose in 2 months, and I will let you know how I get on. As to what you say about my being luckier than other victims I can only say that one’s individual situation is more real and important to oneself than the devastation of fates [states] and empires especially when they do not vitally affect oneself. I can only give my personal and if you like selfish point of view that I[,] feeling myself in the prime and vigour of my powers (whatever they may be) have no more free will than a tree; seeing with helpless clear eyes the utter destruction of the railways and avenues of approaches to outer communication cut off. Being by the nature of my upbringing, all my energies having been directed to one channel of activity, crippled from other activities and made helpless even to live. It is true I have not been killed or crippled, been a loser in the stocks, or had to forswear my fatherland, but I have not quite gone free and have a right to say something.

Forgive all this bluster but–salts for constipation–moral of course.

Yours sincerely
Isaac Rosenberg

Rosenberg’s ferocity is on display here, as is his habitual discomfort. He will often find himself toggling between confidence and frustrated anger, pride and loathing, artistic assertion and victimhood. Which makes sense. He is a child of poverty, but he was no down-and-outer. His family was, within its sphere, respectable; he had “risen” from a neighborhood usually called a “slum,” he had attended art school, sold paintings to the likes of Eddie Marsh. He was prodigiously talented as a painter and, latterly, a writer. But he was scrabbling, and to depend entirely on the chance disbursements of a patron was not, at this stage, practical. He agonized over what to do–he could not continue to live on his mother, but she was horrified at the idea that he would choose to take up arms, to risk himself and to kill in such a war.

He agonized; but then he decided to enlist. As always, the decision seems abrupt and the change very stark: army bureaucracy now sweeps the hesitating artist along with its implacable momentum.

Still, enlisting was no simple matter for Rosenberg. At only five foot two–and frail, with a weak chest–he was too short for the army, and the Royal Army Medical Corps turned him down. A nasty irony among many, then: Rosenberg, who needed the food, shelter, and pay,  but would have preferred to serve without doing violence (he was an incompletely convinced pacifist) was turned down by the non-combatant service and directed to enlist in the infantry. This he could do because the official height minimum of 5′ 3″ had now been waived for two new divisions composed of “bantam battalions.” These had been created to allow the army to absorb smaller volunteers–and these were, of course, overwhelmingly from among the poor. The ‘bantam” fighter in the mind’s eye of the War Office was a Welsh or northern miner–stunted by childhood poverty and labor yet strong and hardy. Many fit that bill, but by now the bantams were admitting thousands of the urban poor, men whom the fastidious Rosenberg will find uncongenial–a parallel but much more troubling version of Edward Thomas‘s disappointment at the conversation of the “professional” men of the Artists’ Rifles.

Before the end of the month, Rosenberg will be able to head his letters as follows:

H.M. Forces on Active Service
Priv. I. Rosenberg
Bat. Bantam, Regt. 12th Suffolk,
New Depot, Bury St. Edmunds

Dear Mr Schiff,

I could not get the work I thought I might so I have joined this Bantam Battalion (as I was too short for any other) which seems to be the most rascally affair in the world. I have to eat out of a basin together with some horribly smelling scavenger who spits and sneezes into it etc. It is most revolting, at least up to now–I don’t mind the hard sleeping the stiff marches etc but this is unbearable. Besides my being a Jew makes it bad amongst these wretches. I am looking forward to having a bad time altogether…

If you write I will be glad to hear.

Yours sincerely

I. Rosenberg

It is hardly surprising that Rosenberg experiences anti-Semitism in the army. But it is always difficult to distinguish prejudice from acquired dislike. There were surely Jew-haters and Jew-baiters, but Rosenberg was also very reserved, “untidy” despite his fastidiousness, and quick to take offense, a touchy artist in a unit with a large percentage of uneducated men and down-and-outers. The situation recalls–again in a very different social register–Graves‘s experience with the Royal Welch. Did they dislike him because he was an intellectual rather than a sportsman, or because he was clumsy and insensitive? Both, alas.

But back to Rosenberg. He now has a job, of sorts, and a place to sleep that is not under his mother’s roof, and he will arrange (or tried to arrange; bureaucratic problems persisted) to have most of his pay sent to her. And he will be fed, too–but disgustingly and, even for his small frame, insufficiently. It’s not only the Fortnum and Mason’s class that begs for food parcels in their letters home.

So the leap was taken, and Rosenberg was, at least, no one’s dependent. But it did not hurt to keep up his correspondence with men who could help his artistic career. In addition to Schiff–who would send him art supplies in camp–Rosenberg renews this month his lapsed client-hood with Eddie Marsh:

12th Suffolks
Bantam Bat.
New Offices Recruiting Depot
Bury St Edmunds

Dear Marsh

I have just joined the Bantams and am down here amongst a horrible rabble–Falstaff’s scarecrows were nothing to these. Three out of every 4 have been scavengers, the fourth is a ticket of leave. But that is nothing–though while I’m waiting for my kit I’m roughing it a bit having come down without even a towel. I dry my self with my pocket handkerchief…

Another letter later this month to Schiff sounds similar notes. Rosenberg thanks him for a gift of money, but continues to lament his misfortunes: the news of his enlistment “nearly killed my mother,” while his failure to properly soften the leather of his boots has resulted in serious foot trouble. This is not an auspicious beginning to his army service. But some things will improve…[1].

 

This month will also see the enlistment of another powerful and unconventional (in the sense, especially, of our well-bred subaltern conventions) soldier-writer, the Australian Frederic Manning. But it will be some time before we come to the events of his mold-breaking novel.

 

Before we go to Loos itself, we’ll take as the poem for the month an elegy written by Noel Hodgson, a soon-to-be decorated veteran of Loos, for a friend killed far away, at Gallipoli.

In Memory of Nowell Oxland, Killed at Suvla Bay August 9th 1915

You were a lover of the hills, and had
From them some measure of their Roman strength;
You that are laid in hearing of the sad
Aegean waters, by a whole sea length
Severed from these: above your nameless bed
The pitiless forehead of an alien sky
For the cool peace and spaciousness that lie
Upon the slopes of your own valley-head.

So if in happier times I climb Black Sail
Over the Gable to Bowfell, and drop
By Sticks as evening comes, to Borrowdale
For tea at Rosthwaite, where the coaches stop
Often, my friend, shall I remember you
Taking your long rest on the distant shore.
And say I love my ancient hills the more
Because you wandered here & loved them too.

Written on the March in France, Oct 1915[2]

 

Sentimental and northern in equal degrees. But here Hodgson doesn’t seem to strain–I think it’s the best thing he’s written so far. If I plead with the poets to begin to break from the tradition in their descriptions of combat, I don’t think it’s time yet–or need be, ever, in quite the same way–to remember the dead differently. These are not lies about a beautiful death or dusty words placed in the mouths of the unresisting dead, alleging their approval of their own “sacrifice.” Hodgson remembers a friend, quietly–a vanished presence against a remembered landscape.

 

To Loos, and then to those at home. Osbert Sitwell has been unforthcoming about his role in the battle. His battalion of the Grenadier Guards was in it, and suffered casualties–in a few days he will be transferred and given command of a company, and became for a while the commanding officer of his good friend Bim Tennant. But he has very little to say of what he actually saw or did. In what, for a chatty, multi-volume memoir writer seems mere a lazy move, he uses the pointlessness of the battle as an explanation for his silence:

When the Battle of Loos eventually subsided, leaving the Germans in much the same position as when our attack had opened [true in the strategic sense], the weeks again began to assume the monochromatic tones of trench warfare, a life penned in, pinned down, created solely, it seemed, for the tribes of rats and generals, who alone could benefit by it. Accordingly, I have not much to say, even if I felt inclined to dwell on it.

Yet one image he places today–dubious, we should be about the exactitude, but never mind–and it is an unforgettable one. It’s a little like some of Graves‘s satirical juxtapositions, yet complete Sitwellian in its nihilistic irony and aggressively modernist contempt for artifice:

One scene I remember particularly well, because of its irony. I saw it a week after the battle. We were quartered in the grounds of an immense, rather ugly château, almost entirely destroyed. The large part, situated among the cinder heaps and primitive machinery of coal mines, was full of the remains of temples, summerhouses, bridges, caves and grottoes, everything, in fact, had been pulverized–except a sham ruin, plainly erected a few months before a war which was to bestow upon the neighborhood as many ruins as the most perfervid romantic could have craved.[3]

Can this be true? Has Sitwell, son of a spectacularly eccentric aristocratic garden enthusiast, taken it upon himself to deploy romantic garden artifice as a metaphor for the follies of European history? He may be referring to the chateau of Vermelles, which was dramatically ruined by this time and can be seen in numerous photographs. But no photographs of the garden structures are readily available, and it sounds as if Sitwell is describing the grounds of an English great house, not a provincial chateau in a coal-mining district. I shall try to find out more, but I would wager that the unruined faux ruin is an invention…

 

When last we heard from Vera Brittain she was trapped in a terrible rhythm, each delay in the post seeming to correspond with a renewal of battle news that suggested Roland’s imperilment.

Wednesday September 29th

Still no news–still waiting & weariness, & a heart growing almost numb with its pain…

This afternoon I sorted out & went through various old papers & bits of rubbish precious for what they recall, & put them tidy, in readiness for leaving them for some months. They took me away from the present & back to the days before the War… I was back again once more in the dreams of those days–ardent, impersonal dreams & ideals, in which no man ever had part. The average girl may think of little else but love & marriage & a home, but I never did.

Love came to me quite unbidden–unwanted almost, with all the grief & pain it has brought me. But if I could give all else up to keep him, I would give it gladly.

I found a lot of old dance-programmes which I tied up & put away with the sort of half-sorrowful, half-scornful indulgence a middle-aged woman might show when coming upon traces of her youthful folly…  Some of the men I once danced with are dead—almost all are out where Death & Danger surround them every hour, or soon will be there. I wonder if I shall ever go to another dance. Very unlikely.

Alright, well–an indulgence in self-pity. But then again we know that Roland was not in the Great Push. She does not. And so we must forgive Vera the rhythm of her guilty feet.

Thursday September 10th

I did expect I should at least hear something to-day but no news came…  The Times obituary list was long with the names of people who had fallen in France & Flanders, chiefly on the 25th & 26th. But in a war like this no news does not necessarily mean good news–quite the reverse…

I can hear nothing of my one dear soldier. It is impossible he can have come through unharmed; he may be flung unidentified on a pile of forgotten dead, or perhaps dying in some French hospital among strangers who know nothing about him beyond the information on his identity disc…

Well, I wonder if yet another day will pass & leave me still in suspense.

And today, a century back:

Friday October 1st

No, it hasn’t done. This evening I received, of all things in the world, a letter from him. I cannot describe quite what it made me feel–I who during these last few days had been trying to make up my mind that I might never see that handwriting any more. And after all he had not been in all the dreadful fighting of the week-end…

The worst of it is, when he says he hopes the next alarm may be real, I think he really means it. His is no bravado courage, proclaiming what it shrinks from performing. I believe he almost delights in danger–in the vigour & exuberance of it…

three musketeers

The Three Musketeers. From left, Edward Brittain, Roland Leighton, and Victor Richardson. (First World War Poetry Digital Archive, Oxford)

I found to-day the photograph of the 1st O.T.C. Camp; taken just a few days before war broke out. The Three Musketeers are all seated in a row, Edward as a lance-sergeant, Roland in the middle as a colour-sergeant-major, & Victor as a lance-corporal. It is excellent of all three. Edward looks immaculate & very cheerful, & Victor somewhat serious & meditative about nothing in particular. Roland is rather more dishabillé than the others; he has a somewhat unshaven appearance, his coat is thrown back & his shirt open at the neck. His eyes look at you out of the photograph with an almost challenging straightness; in them is that sad, intent look I have seen so often of late. Just so he might look if ordered to lead his men into battle against difficult & dangerous odds. So very like is this photograph that it makes my heart ache desperately with the longing to have him back with me again.[4]

 

She wrote, of course, to share her tempered joy:

Oh Roland!

At the present moment that exclamation comprises every comment I have to make on the situation. ‘Continuation of Allied Offensive’ — I keep on reading, so I suppose you are in it now. But I felt so sure you were in all that awful weekend fighting . . .

When you are out there and know what is going on, it must be quite impossible to put yourself in the place of people here, who don’t know & can’t get news.You have no idea what it is like…

For my part I have done nothing since Monday–when we first got the news of the great offensive & the victory–but watch the gate, or follow every telegraph boy that went in the direction of our house…

Don’t say you hope the next alarm will be real. I think the lives of some of those men who were in it will be spoilt for always by the memory of it, and many are deaf for life with the noise. Your short letter is very guarded. Let me know, as soon as you can get it past the Censor, all about it…[5]

Such a mixture of wisdom and ignorance–the victory that wasn’t, the non-issue of (non-metaphorical!) battlefield deafness–combined with such a fierce effort to leap the gulf, to press on into the teeth of the gale that sweeps their experiences apart…

Mooning like this isn’t going to improve on what she has written over the last few days, on how it represents the plight of those at home, the thing she cannot hope to explain to Roland. She was in desperate, despairing worry, but he was safe, and now she knows it. He is alive–was alive, when he wrote that letter. And he will be going into danger–has, perhaps, gone into danger.

The time gap, the letter-lag, means that no letter can bring relief–only a breath of joy, a lifting of the burden, which must then settle in, with all the nagging, illogical, unavoidable magical thinking: if I exerted all my heart to keep him safe in that battle, and he wasn’t in it, perhaps he has fallen in this new assignment already, this new terror I wasn’t properly worrying about…

Well, Roland will indeed be going into the trenches soon, and Vera will be going in among their victims, at Camberwell Hospital in London.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Selected Poems and Letters, 140-2
  2. Zeepvalt, Before Action, 137-8.
  3. Laughter in the Next Room, 106, 115.
  4. Chronicle of Youth, 282-4.
  5. Letters From a Lost Generation, 172-3.