Kipling’s Tales of the Rout at Cambrai; The Master of Belhaven Learns of the Debacle; The Darkness of Toby’s Room; Jack Martin and Edward Brittain in Italy

Ralph Hamilton, the Master of Belhaven, is back in the swing of things, with his battery to the south and east of the Cambrai conflagration.

All day the heavy battery cannonade was kept up, and rumours were received of trenches lost and even batteries captured. Late this morning I got a situation report, and found things were worse than we had realized. The Hun had penetrated our line to a depth of 8,000 yards in places, and some batteries were lost, including A/107, which is sad, as it belongs to our division… it is the first time we have lost any of our divisional artillery.[1]

 

This is the fight that the Guards are still fighting. They have been defeated–driven back, at least, in the impossible task of holding a salient improvidently grabbed, while massively outgunned. Kipling sings the Second Irish:

The dawn of the 30th November was ushered in by single shells from a long-range gun which found them during the night. Half an hour after they had the order to move to Heudicourt and had digested a persistent rumour that the enemy were through at Gonnelieu, telegrams and orders began to pour in. The gist of them was that the line had undoubtedly cracked, and that the Brigade would move to Gouzeaucourt at once. But what the Brigade was to do, and under whose command it was to operate, were matters on which telegrams and orders most livelily conflicted…

And so it is the part of the Imperial Bard to describe a… well, an inglorious retrograde movement, perhaps, if not a rout. But then that is the benefit of choosing the size of your story: this is a British embarrassment, but still a proud day, of sorts, for the Second Irish Guards:[2]

Over the ridge between Gouzeaucourt and Metz poured gunners, carrying their sights with them, engineers, horses and infantry, all apparently bent on getting into the village where they would be a better target for artillery. The village choked; the Battalion fell in, clear of the confusion, where it best could, and set off at once in artillery formation, regardless of the stragglers, into the high and bare lands round Gouzeaucourt. There were no guns to back them, for their own were at Flesquières. As was pointed out by an observer of that curious day — “‘Tis little ye can do with gun-sights, an’ them in the arrums av men in a great haste. There was men with blankets round ’em, an’ men with loose putties wavin’ in the wind, and they told us ’twas a general retirement. We could see that. We wanted to know for why they was returnin’. We went through ’em all, fairly breastin’ our way and — we found Jerry on the next slope makin’ prisoners of a Labour Corps with picks an’ shovels. But some of that same Labour Corps they took their picks an ‘shovels and came on with us.”

They halted and fixed bayonets just outside Gouzeaucourt Wood, the Irish on the left of the line, their right on the Metz-Gouzeaucourt road, the 3rd Coldstream in the centre, the 2nd Coldstream on the right, the 2nd Grenadiers in reserve in Gouzeaucourt Wood itself. What seems to have impressed men most was the extreme nakedness of the landscape, and, at first, the absence of casualties. They were shelled as they marched to the Wood but not heavily; but when they had passed beyond it they came under machine-gun fire from the village. They topped the rise beyond the Wood near Queen’s Cross and were shelled from St. Quentin Ridge to the east. They overran the remnant of one of our trenches in which some sappers and infantry were still holding on. Dismounted cavalry appeared out of nowhere in particular, as troops will in a mixed fray, and attached themselves to the right of the thin line. As they swept down the last slope to Gouzeaucourt the machine-gun fire from the village grew hotter on their right, and the leading company, characteristically enough, made in towards it. This pulled the Battalion a little to the right, and off the road which was supposed to be their left boundary, but it indubitably helped to clear the place.

The enemy were seen to be leaving in some haste, and only a few of them were shot or bayoneted in and out among the houses. The Battalion pushed in through the village to the slope east of it under Quentin Mill, where they dug in for the night. Their left flank was all in the air for a while…

Tanks were used on the right during the action, but they do not seem to have played any material part in the Battalion’s area, and, as the light of the short and freezing November day closed, a cavalry regiment, or “some cavalry,” came up on the left flank. The actual stroke that recovered Gouzeaucourt had not taken more than an hour, but the day had cost them a hundred and thirty men killed, wounded and missing…

This is a tale that will need salting–or sweetening–with rough and ready humor, if it is not to leave a terrible taste in the mouth of any believer in the B.E.F.

A profane legend sprang up almost at once that the zeal shown by the Guards in the attack was because they knew Gouzeaucourt held the supplies of the Division which had evacuated it. The enemy had been turned out before he could take advantage of his occupation. Indeed, a couple of our supply-trains were found untouched on rail at the station, and a number of our guns were recaptured in and around the place. Also, the Divisional rum-supply was largely intact. When this fact came to light, as it did — so to say — rum-jar by rum-jar, borne joyously through the dark streets that bitter night, the Brigade was refreshed and warmed, and, men assert, felt almost grateful to the Division which had laid this extra “fatigue” on them.

But no–I’ve sold Kipling short. Or underestimated his loyalty to the twists and turns of the tale. He is a very great historian, in the old-fashioned sense,[3] and when a bitter day slews toward maniac joy and then back again, he leans into the curves…

One grim incident stays in the minds of those who survived — the sight of an enormous Irishman urging two captives, whom he had himself unearthed from a cellar, to dance before him. He demanded the jigs of his native land, and seemed to think that by giving them drink his pupils would become proficient. Men stood about and laughed till they could hardly stand; and when the fun was at its height a chance shell out of the darkness to the eastward wiped out all that tango-class before their eyes. (‘”Twas like a dhream, ye’ll understand. One minute both Jerries was dancin’ hard to oblige him, an’ then — nothin’, nothin’ — nothin’ — of the three of them! “)[4]

 

Some time ago we opened another entire European front–but then things became busy. Remember Italy? I had intended to give some of Sapper Martin‘s itinerary, as a sort of modern take on the ancient form, because nothing says “timeless military misery” better than a long, long march. But, as the narrative has been without excessively necessary details, I have been passing him over–I merely want to note, then, that his march reached 148 miles, today, a century back, at the end of its second week.[5]

 

But Martin is not our only man headed to the front lines in northern Italy. Edward Brittain was able to give his sister Vera an update today as well, on the occasion of his birthday. And, as you know, an army marches on its stomach, even in Italy…

Italy, 30 November 1917

We are fairly close to the line though not within artillery range; we expect to be closer very soon; at present it does not seem that we shall suffer from artillery anything like as much as we did in the salient… We have had some very hard marching lately but the men have stuck it wonderfully well. . . We have managed to buy a turkey for my birthday dinner to-night for the absurdly small sum of 7 liras…

In time there will be E.F. Canteens as in France, I expect, but at present we suffer from our dissimilarity in taste from the Italians. 22 seems rather old in some ways but young in others, e.g. I have only 1 subaltern younger than me.[6]

Happy Birthday, then, to twenty-two-year-old Edward Brittain.

 

And then there is fiction, which can choose many forms of escapism–or brutal realism. I mentioned Pat Barker’s Toby’s Room two days ago, and Elinor Brooke’s conviction that Sassoon’s decision to go back to the horrors of war was the only possible one. Today, her [fictional] diary describes what she herself is doing for the war effort: an art student before the war, she now assists Henry Tonks, the artist and toweringly influential teacher at the Slade, in his work. Working as artists and recorders of the war’s damage, they draw the faces of mutilated soldiers, in order to aid in pioneering attempts at reconstructive plastic surgery.[7]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary, 414-5.
  2. I have taken the liberty of changing the great man's paragraphing.
  3. I.e. with the emphasis on story, on narrative, and not on any 19th century balance of facts or, still less, with any 21st century expectation of striving for unbiased perception.
  4. The Irish Guards in the Great War, I, 218-220.
  5. Sapper Martin, 149.
  6. Letters From a Lost Generation, 383.
  7. Toby's Room, 233-6.

Wilfred Owen Visits Westminster Abbey; Alan Seeger on the Battle of Champagne, and the Glory of War

Two odds and ends and then a long overdue update:

Steel helmets reached the 2/Royal Welch’s section of the front today, a century back. But the Welch remained merely capped for the time being:

The first wearers we saw were Argylls. To the Adjutant a kilt was the limit of the ludicrous. The sight of one always excited his mirth, which he expressed in Army slang implying that these Jocks wear no under-garment. When he espied one of the objects of his derision in a tin-hat his thoughts found vent in terms of Rabelaisaian ribaldry that made new-comers gasp.[1]

 

Helmets for the jocks, but Wilfred Owen of the Artist’s Rifles doesn’t even have a uniform yet. His arm, though–man is it sore. 

Monday [Postmark 25 October 1915]

Post Office [Postmark London]

I had the first drill this mng: but got off this aft. because my arm is not really well. I went to Watson’s, & shall have my specs by tomorrow. I got full marks for Eyesight test at exam. On Sunday afternoon I went to Westminster Abbey: scholarly sermon on sociology and a dazzling fine Anthem. I am not yet in Khaki. The boarding house still pleases me, but I don’t know if I shall like the servitude of conforming to its menu and hours of meals! The conversation at my table was all against England. I made no objections. Tomorrow I shall surprise them. Many thanks for all the kind letters received. I am quite all right again, now you know. Another injection in ten days.

Yours ever W.E.O.[2]

 

Alan Seeger, whose diary for this period has gone missing, reminds us that he has survived the French component of September’s great battle. He wrote to his mother today, a century back:

October 25, 1915

The regiment is back in repos [rest, reserve] after the battle in Champagne, in which we took part from the beginning, the morning of the memorable 25th September. We are billeted in a pleasant little village not far from Compiegne, quite out of hearing of the cannon. It seems that absurd rumors were current about the fate of Americans in the Legion, so I hasten to let you know that I am all right. Quite a few Americans were wounded, but none killed, to my knowledge.

His knowledge, then, does not extend as far the fate of his erstwhile dinner companion Henry Farnsworth.

The part we played in the battle is briefly as follows. We broke camp about 11 o clock the night of the 24th, and marched up…

The cannonade was pretty violent all that night, as it had been for several days previous, but toward dawn it reached an intensity unimaginable to anyone who has not seen a modern battle. A little before 9.15 the fire lessened suddenly and the crackle of the fusillade between the reports of the cannon told us that the first wave of assault had left and the attack begun. At the same time we received the order to advance. The German artillery had now begun to open upon us in earnest. Amid the most infernal roar of every kind of fire-arms and through an atmosphere heavy with dust and smoke, we marched up through the boyaux [communications trenches]… At shallow places and over breaches that shells had made in the bank we caught momentary glimpses of the blue lines sweeping up the hill side or silhouetted on the crest where they poured into the German trenches…

We crossed the open space between the lines, over the barbed wire, where not so many of our men were lying as I had feared (thanks to the efficacy of the bombardment) and over the German trench, knocked to pieces and filled with their dead. In some places they still resisted in isolated groups. Opposite us, all was over, and the herds of prisoners were being already led down as we went up. We cheered, more in triumph than in hate, but the poor devils, terror-stricken, held up their hands, begged for their lives, cried “Kamerad,” “Bon Français,” even “Vive la France.”

We advanced and lay down in columns by two behind the second crest. Mean while, bridges had been thrown across trenches and boyaux, and the artillery, leaving the emplacements where they had been anchored a whole year, came across and took position in the open, a magnificent spectacle. Squadrons of cavalry came up. Suddenly the long, unpicturesque guerre de tranchees was at an end and the field really presented the aspect of the familiar battle pictures the battalions in manoeuvre, the officers, superbly indifferent to danger, galloping about on their chargers.

It seems as if the desire of the strategists to break out of the stalemate and return to some version of the grand war of movement that they grew up idealizing has been matched by Seeger’s desire to write traditional, sweeping, poetical descriptions of battle.

It won’t work, of course.

But now the German guns, moved back, began to get our range and the shells to burst over and around batteries and troops, many with admirable precision. Here my best comrade was struck down by shrapnel at my side painfully but not mortally wounded. I often envied him after that.

For now our advanced troops were in contact with the German second-line defenses, and these proved to be of a character so formidable that all further advance without a preliminary artillery preparation was out of the question. And our role, that of troops in reserve, was to lie passive in an open field under a shell fire that every hour became more terrific, while aeroplanes and captive balloons, to which we were entirely exposed, regulated the fire. That night we spent in the rain. With port able picks and shovels each man dug himself in as well as possible.

The next day our concentrated artillery again began the bombardment, and again the fusillade announced the entrance of the infantry into action. But this time only the wounded appeared coming back, no prisoners. I went out and gave water to one of these, eager to get news. It was a young soldier, wounded in the hand. His face and voice bespoke the emotion of the experience he had been through in a way that I will never forget.

Ah, les salauds!” [the bastards] he cried, “They let us come right up to  the barbed wire without firing. Then a hail of grenades and balls. My comrade fell, shot through the leg, got up, and the next moment had his head taken off by a grenade before my eyes.”

“And the barbed wire, wasn’t it cut down by the bombardment?”

“Not at all in front of us.”

I congratulated him on having a blessure heureuse [a blighty one, a fortunate wound] and being well out of the affair. But he thought only of his comrade and went on down the road toward Souain, nursing his mangled hand, with the stream of wounded…

The afternoon of the 28th should have been our turn. We had spent four days under an almost continual bombardment. The regiment had been decimated, though many of us had not fired a shot. After four such days as I hope never to repeat, under the strain of sitting inactive, listening to the slow whistle of 210-millimetre shells as they arrived and burst more or less in one’s proximity, it was a real relief to put sac au dos [backpack] and go forward.

We marched along in columns by two, behind a crest, then over and across an exposed space under the fire of their 77s, that cost us some men, and took formation to attack on the border of a wood, some where behind which they were entrenched. And here we had a piece of luck. For our colonel, a soldier of the old school, stronger for honor than expediency, had been wounded in the first days of the action. Had he been in command, we all think that we should have been sent into the wood (and we would have gone with élan)…

The newer commander, however–like the adjutant left in command of the 2/Royal Welch late on the first morning of Loos–calls off the pointless attack into unbroken wire.

So you have him to thank…

We spent two weeks on the front this time. But as luck would have it, the bombardment that thundered continually during this period did not fall very heavily on the wood where we were sheltered and we did not suffer seriously in comparison with the first days…

We can sum up the results of the big offensive in which we took part. No one denies that they are disappointing. For we know, who heard and cheered the order of Joffre to the army be fore the battle, that it was not merely a fight for a position, but a supreme effort to pierce the German line and liberate the invaded country; we know the immense preparation for the attack, what confidence our officers had in its success, and what enthusiasm ourselves. True, we broke their first line along a wide front, advanced on an average of three or four kilometers, took numerous prisoners and cannon. It was a satisfaction at last to get out of the trenches, to meet the enemy face to face, and to see German arrogance turned into suppliance. We knew many splendid moments, worth having endured many trials for.

But in our larger aim, of piercing their line, of breaking the long deadlock, of entering Vouziers in triumph, of course we failed…

This affair only deepened my admiration for, my loyalty to, the French. If we did not entirely succeed, it was not the fault of the French soldier. He is a better man, man for man, than the German…

What is the stimulus in their slogans of “Gott mit uns” [God is on our side] and “für Konig und Vaterland” [for king and country] beside that of men really fighting in defense of their country? Whatever be the force in international conflicts of having justice and all the principles of personal morality on one’s side, it at least gives the French soldier a strength that’s like the strength of ten against an adversary whose weapon is only brute violence. It is inconceivable that a Frenchman, forced to yield, could behave as I saw German prisoners behave, trembling, on their knees, for all the world like criminals at length overpowered and brought to justice. Such men have to be driven to the assault, or intoxicated. But the French man who goes up is possessed with a passion be side which any of the other forms of experience that are reckoned to make life worth while seem pale in comparison…

The authority vested by Seeger’s combat experience aside (as well as the real question of German war guilt, and how it–or, at least, how the question of being invaders or defenders–might affect morale) this is Romantic clap-trap.

It’s self-justifying, given his decision, as a neutral national, to fight with France. Which is fine by me. But it’s also something a little more sinister–as in the “battle piece” above, Seeger is willfully distorting reality to fit his literary and philosophical preconceptions. Even if everything transpired more or less as he describes, he assumes too much in his editorializing. The German troops were not driven like slaves; French morale will crack first, and worst, etc.

But it’s not the off-kilter moralizing (all but our very best, most sane writers are doing that), it’s the way the righteousness of fighting to defend the more free, more victimized nation slides into a defense of pseudo-Nietzschean praise for war itself.

On the news of a Harvard acquaintance who has decided to join the English, he remarks:

 He refused to be content, no doubt, with lesser emotions while there are hours to be lived such as are being lived now by young men in Flanders and Champagne. It is all to his credit.[3]

Seeger recovers his political equilibrium swiftly, discussing the question of neutrality against an aggressive, Lusitania-sinking Germany. But for a brief moment there he was proclaiming that these are great times to be alive, for war brings glory… righteousness, too. But glory. This is a man who chose war, and then chose France, not vice versa.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The War the Infantry Knew, 164-5.
  2. Collected Letters, 361.
  3. Letters and Diary, 164-72.

Battle: John Lucy is in the Thick of It, the Grenfell Twins are Confused, and Conan Doyle Overdoes It; The Duchess of Sutherland Endures a Heavier Bombardment

Today, a century back, being the British Army’s first day of real combat,[1] we should have a brief word about military history, specifically that breed of military history known as the “Battle Piece.”

Actually, a very brief word: I am not going to try to write the battles from a strategic or grand tactical perspective, or to give the generals’ point of view and assess their actions in detail. There is plenty of that, by good writers and careful writers and traditionalists and revisionists… and in such a big battle nothing on that scale is terribly relevant to the experience of the men on the ground.

The Battle of Mons was not atypical, either, in that the British, French, and German commanders were all gravely mistaken about the numbers and intent of their enemy, that each was pursuing strategies ranging from poor to suicidally disastrous, and that the side that made the worst decisions (the Allies) probably came out of it best. So please do read up elsewhere on the Schlieffen Plan and Von Kluck’s mistake and Lanrezac’s run for the rear and the impeccable incompetence of Sir John French (commander, confusingly, of the British Expeditionary Force–but don’t worry, the Germans also had a General von François).

Here we need only the broadest picture: some twenty miles of East-West frontage for the BEF, along the Mons-Condé canal, with an unlovely view into the industrial towns and mining district away north, where German armies were massing, their spotter planes droning overhead.[2]

Now, how to describe an aircraft overhead, in the first fledgling weeks of motorized military air-power? J.F. Lucy, in yesterday’s post, was matter-of-fact–a tiny bit poetical, but, really, a plane was little more than a novelty. Aircraft, in this war, rarely posed a significant threat to men on the ground. Primitive bombers and effective strafing lay in the future.

A lone Taube was a scout, a spotter, a lone horseman who might summon the enemy hosts or, worse, call down the long-range guns–or trundle slowly on, its purposes inscrutable. So, hey–a plane!

Here’s another way to do it:

High in the van a Taube aeroplane, like an embodiment of that black eagle which is the fitting emblem of a warlike and rapacious race, pointed the path for the German hordes.

Or:

But now an ill-omened bird flew over the British lines. Far aloft across the deep blue sky skimmed the dark Taube, curved, turned, and sail northwards again. It had marked the shells bursting beyond the trenches. In an instant, by some devilish cantrip of signal or wireless, it had set the range right. A rain of shells roared and crashed along the lines of the shallow trenches. The injuries were not yet numerous, but they were inexpressibly ghastly…[3]

These small purple apocalypses have spilled from the pen of Arthur Conan Doyle, once a writer of admirable precision. He spent much of the war working on installments of an easy-bake history, based on many conversations with participants and wide reading of the utterly unreliable newspaper reports and produced rather too quickly. Ah, there’s was a writer’s market in those days, there was!

I thought I would drop Conan Doyle in here not just to give a vivid example of the “older guy who hasn’t seen battle renders it more dramatically than no-nonsense serving soldier” truism but also to sound an early warning on the genesis of the most dramatic/least accurate of “battle pieces.” They come from this sort of writing, where stray facts–especially highly visible ones–take on massive payloads of strategic and symbolic meaning before they are located in any tactical matrix or pinpointed in any chain of causation.

And also because I can’t help but have some sympathy with the quick-response popular writer willing to triple-load his metaphorical riffs. Is the plane a bird of ill-omened Prussian expansionism, or a reminder of the evil magic (“devilish cantrip”) that seems, to soldiers, to work the Death Unseen that so often strikes them down. Or is it a spotter plane that makes effective use of nascent technology to direct artillery fire supporting the German advance? Sure!

 

But back to business. J.F. Lucy was in one of those shallow trenches. He had had a long night, awakened at midnight to escort an ammunition resupply. He and his men remained on their feet through the morning, when they moved forward into a village that had just been raided by German cavalry. By the early afternoon they had moved forward another mile and dug a shallow “kneeling trench” as a temporary firing position, the idea being to attack once the enemy was located. Now they awaited contact.

Lucy was unaware that his battalion was now holding part of a suspected “weak point,” just behind where the canal’s course changed as it reached Mons. Tacticians always like to go after angles. He and the rest of the 2/Royal Irish realized that they were involved in a real battle only when the German shells began to fall.

Lucy’s account, written years later by a man who experienced much of the worst of trench warfare, notices several age-old elements of the experience of battle that will soon become obsolete and strange. They realize that the German infantry are attacking when they hear the “conch-like sounds” of their bugles, and they meet the densely-packed advancing troops with rifle volleys directed by officers’ whistles. Massed advances met by drill-quickened rifle fire resulted in terrible casualties.

Our rapid fire was appalling even to us, and the worst marksman could not miss, as he had only to fire into the ‘brown’ of the masses of the unfortunate enemy, who on the fronts of two of our companies were continually and uselessly reinforced at the short range of three hundred yards. Such tactics amazed us…[4]

 

Francis and Riversdale Grenfell, were, with the rest of the 9th Lancers, behind the center of the British line, near the village of Thulin. Alas, the prospect of battle in one of Northern Europe’s most industrial districts was a bit of a disappointment:

Francis and Rivy were much perplexed by this strange kind of battlefield. As cavalrymen they had hoped for the wide rolling downs which had been predicted as the terrain of any continental war. Instead they found themselves in a land full of little smoky villages, coal mines, railway embankments, endless wire, and a population that seemed as dense as that of a London suburb. They were puzzled to know how cavalry could operate, and they were still more puzzled to understand what was the plan of campaign an uncertainty they shared with a million or so other soldiers. On that hot Sunday morning firing began early to the north-east and grew heavier as the day advanced. In the afternoon the Colonel sent for the squadron leaders and told them that six German cavalry and three infantry divisions were advancing, and that their business was to retire slowly, fighting a rearguard action. The rest of the day was spent in deep mystification, with no knowledge of the fall of Namur, or of Lanrezac’s defeat at Charleroi, or the other calamities which were to compel Sir John French to retreat. But at 11.30 came definite orders. They were instructed to entrench at the railway station south of Thulin for an attack at dawn. Spades were procured with difficulty, and they were about to begin when another order came not to entrench but to barricade, and to hold Thulin station and the road to the south of it. This was done, and the position was occupied during the darkness, while the wretched inhabitants straggled down the south road, and the guns in the north grew steadily nearer.[5]

So no death or glory charges today, although, with more than a few rolling downs and wide-open fields behind them, there would be a chance, upon retirement. John Buchan, author of the above paragraph, is surely trying to give us a strong sense of just how confusing it is to be behind a battle which even its participants and presiding officers have failed to understand.

And yet: there are more than a few ways, amidst all of the very bright young things and precocious writers we will be studying, to indicate that these particular brave boys are dim bulbs. “Perplexed… puzzled… still more puzzled… deep mystification:” all fair in war, but there does seem to be a literary running of the colors here, between the fog of war and the unrealistic expectations and stolidity of two young officers.

In any event, confusion. And withdrawal. This was a good-sized battle, and although the excellent musketry of the British regulars (and their excellent rifles) caused thousands of German casualties, several British battalions were hard hit as well. It is notoriously difficult to withdraw in the face of an undefeated enemy, and, as this is is next on the menu for the BEF, the Grenfells will soon see more action.

 

The Duchess of Sutherland, however, was fifty miles further east in besieged and overrun Namur:

Sunday 23 August.

There is a dreadful bombardment going on. Some of our wounded who can walk wrap themselves in blankets and go to the cellars. Luckily we are in a new fire-proof building, and I must stay with my sick men who cannot move.The shells sing over the convent from the deep booming German guns–a long singing scream and then an explosion which seems only a stone’s throw away. The man who received extreme unction the night before is mad with terror. I do not believe that he is after all so badly wounded. He has a bullet in his shoulder, and it is not serious. He has lost all power of speech, but I believe that he is an example of what I have read of and what I had never seen–a man dying of sheer fright.

Two things, here. Yes, this sounds like our first case of shell-shock, brutal neanderthal ancestor of modern PTSD. It would be recognized later in the war and, famously, treated with widely varying understanding, and with methods both brutal and humane.

Second, there is another looming rabbit hole for any comparative study of war prose, namely the danger of trying to re-translate language into some sort of objective measure of suffering (or other emotional response).

Descriptions of enduring bombardment are a primary example of this. Many soldiers (and nurses) will write of how terrible a first bombardment seemed, and how laughable that terror seemed in retrospect, once they had acclimated to the constant presence of artillery and learned what the big guns did.

The big point here is that we have to read each experience for what it tells us of the author’s state of mind, not to ascertain the “actual” (i.e. historical) weight and effectiveness of that bombardment. That said, the guns at the Battle of Mons were probably all field guns or medium howitzers; Namur was being shelled by some of the largest guns ever built, crane-loaded monstrosities whose thousand-pound shells brought down entire buildings at a time, and pounded the new forts into rubble. The cellar would not have been much safer, if these guns reached their part of the town.

The nurses and one or two of the nuns are most courageous and refuse to take shelter in the cellars, which are full of novices and schoolchildren. The electric and gas supplies have been cut off. The only lights we have to use are a few hand lanterns and night-lights…

There is some rapid fusilading through the streets and two frightened old Belgian officers ran into the Convent to ask for Red Cross bands, throwing down their arms and maps. In a few minutes, however, they regained self control and went out in the streets without the Red Cross bands.

Now the German troops are fairly marching in. I hear them singing as they march. It seems almost cowardly to write this, but for a few minutes there was relief to see them coming and to feel that this awful firing would soon cease. On they march! Fine well-set-up men with grey uniforms.They have stopped shooting now… I see them streaming into the market-place. A lot of stampeding artillery horses gallop by with Belgian guns. On one of the limbers still lay all that was left of a man. It is too terrible.

What can these brave little people do against this mighty force? Some of the Germans have fallen out and are talking to the people in the streets. These are so utterly relieved at the cessation of the bombardment that in their fear they are actually welcoming the Germans. I saw some women press forward and wave their handkerchiefs.

Suddenly upon this scene the most fearful shelling begins again…We rush back into the convent, and there are fifteen minutes of intense and fearful excitement while the shells are crashing into the market-place. We see German soldiers running for dear life … Women half fainting, and wounded, old men and boys are struggling in.Their screams are dreadful. They had all gone into the Grande Place to watch the German soldiers marching, and were caught in this sudden firing. A civilian wounded by a shell in the stomach was brought into the Ambulance. He died in 20 minutes. We can only gather incoherent accounts from these people as to what had happened.The Germans sounded the retreat and the shelling seemed to stop. At last it leaks out that the German troops on the other side of the town did not know that their own troops had crossed the Meuse on the opposite side…  It seems a horrible story, but absolutely true.

Now it is quiet again, save for the sighs of the suffering. All night long we hear the tramp, cramp, tramp of German infantry in the streets, their words of command, their perpetual deep-throated songs.They are full of swagger, and they are very anxious to make an impression upon the Belgians…

Where are the English and the big French troops? That is what I am wondering.[6]

 

This has been a long post, and so I will postpone an uncertainty: One Sunday in late August–either today, a century back, or a week hence, The Dymock poets, and Edward Thomas and Eleanor Farjeon, dined together in the farmhouse of a rustic, nineteenth century couple. It was a merry, literary occasion, with little or no mention of the war–could it possibly have been the same day as Mons? I don’t know, and two letters that might mention it and fix it on the 23rd I can’t get my hands on just now–so let’s say it was on the 30th, and wait a week for the end of August 1914, and a final bit of Last Summer literary pastoralism…

References and Footnotes

  1. There were two skirmishes between cavalry patrols the day before, and scout aircraft had been in action.
  2. Douglas Haig, then commanding I Corps, was on the right, in and beyond Mons, and thus more aware of the crucial strategic problem: that the French armies on the British right, east of Mons, were withdrawing, so that further heroic holding actions would only result in the British being cut off and destroyed,
  3. Conan Doyle, A History of the Great War, Vol. I, 65-66.
  4. Lucy, There's a Devil in the Drum, 103-115.
  5. Buchan, Francis and Riversdale Grenfell, 191-2.
  6. From Women in the War Zone, 38-39.