Ford Madox Hueffer’s Last Prayer to Viola Hunt; Robert Graves and Nancy Nicholson Are Engaged; Edward Brittain Turns to The Loom; The Master of Belhaven Wines and Dines; Patrick Shaw Stewart Visits the New Brigadier

Ford Madox Hueffer‘s not-quite-marriage to Viola Hunt is on the rocks, but that does not preclude grand Late Romantic gestures. Today is his birthday–his forty-forth–and Hunt sent him “a box of preserved fruits & some vests & plants & tablecloths.” Her did her one better, sending a “lovely” poem… and then slashed a remainder mark across the romantic gesture by assuring her that the poem is not a heartfelt communication to her, but the result of a mere poetic game of bouts rimés, in which he tosses off poetry at short order to a given rhyme scheme. This, alas, is not only rather mean of Ford, but highly probable.

So, dear reader, try not to get too weepy–it’s just a game![1]


One Last Prayer

Let me wait, my dear,
One more day,
Let me linger near,
Let me stay.
Do not bar the gate or draw the blind
Or lock the door that yields,
Dear, be kind!

I have only you beneath the skies
To rest my eyes
From the cruel green of the fields
And the cold, white seas
And the weary hills
And the naked trees.
I have known the hundred ills
Of the hated wars.
Do not close the bars,
Or draw the blind.
I have only you beneath the stars:
Dear, be kind!



Robert Graves and Nancy Nicholson are at a much earlier stage of their romance–more first prayer than last–but today, a century back, they took a big step forward. They have been discussing their future at great length during their long weekend together, and now it is settled: they must marry. Robert’s biographer R.P. Graves explains:

…they ‘decided to get married at once’. Nancy evidently ‘attached no importance to the ceremony’, and Robert was bound to agree with her. Luckily for him, however, Nancy also said that ‘she did not want to disappoint her father’. At that stage in his life Robert very much desired the approval both of his family and his friends; and it is highly unlikely that the man who talked to Sassoon about ‘acting like a gentleman’ could have seriously contemplated ‘living in sin’ with this girl of eighteen…

But although Graves is due back in Wales to take up his military duties once again, they decided–either from some point of tactics or, perhaps, or simple pusillanimity– to wait to tell the family. Today the Graves family will celebrate… Robert’s brother Charles’s winning of a Classical Exhibition[2] to St John’s College, Oxford.[3]


Speaking of educated/aspirational youth, there’s a letter of today, a century back, from Edward Brittain to his sister Vera which touches on a topic that Graves has often discussed. Brittain is reading one of the big books of the year–and perhaps the most scandalous (if we are not inclined to find militarist–or pacifist–screeds scandalous on their political principles).

Italy, 17 December 1917

…We got out of the line alright and are in quite decent billets… I am trying to read The Loom of Youth which is excellent but I am only progressing slowly at present: it is a bit exaggerated but otherwise a very reasonable portrayal of the public school. Victor would have liked it immensely as it very largely expresses his opinions.[4]

What’s interesting about this is that Alec Waugh’s book is not just a critical-satirical book about Public Schools–it’s also a gay love story. But I haven’t actually read the book, and I have no idea how clear that might be to someone “progressing slowly” through it.

It’s tempting to think that Edward is trying to tell his sister something… but I doubt it. If he were, he might mention Geoffrey Thurlow, his intimate friend, rather than Victor Richardson, the school friend who later ardently courted Vera and whom she briefly planned to marry. And also, even if he were trying to hint at secret desires of his own, it would surely sail over her head. The former provincial young lady knows things now–many valuable things–that she hadn’t known before; she knows all about love and loss and what the war does to the minds and bodies of the boys who go to fight it… but she hasn’t learned much about the love that dare not speak its name.


All of this is very interesting, of course, but I am once again neglecting the war. Quickly, then, to the Master of Belhaven, upon whose semi-martial doings we must keep half an eye, and then on to the Naval Division.

Yesterday, a century back, Ralph Hamilton pulled off a difficult feat: giving decent entertainment to the officers of a nearby French battery. Luckily, his own officers had recently scored some new opera records in Amiens, so after a dinner for twelve, “which was rather a strain on our resources… we had a two hours’ Grand Opera concert, which was a great success.” After hypothesizing that war “must have been very dull before the days of gramophones,” Hamilton reports a return engagement for today.

Alas–the British are at a disadvantage in two crucial areas: cookery and artillery.

They did us very well… They took us to see their 75’s, and even took the whole thing to pieces to show us the mechanism… The gun is far in advance of ours, much lighter, far simpler and stronger. I have never been able to understand why we did not adopt it at the beginning of the war…

But Hamilton has talked shopped before telling us of the dinner.

…we sat down over twenty. It was a regular feast that lasted for two hours. Their cook was a chef in a French restaurant before the war…

Hamilton even managed the reciprocal speech-making, his French lubricated by “a little good red wine.” Returning home he discovered that he and five of his officers have been mentioned in dispatches– “so we have not done so badly after all.”[5]


This is the pleasant side of the war of attrition. But there is also discomfort.

Patrick Shaw Stewart has now found his battalion–and it is all “his,” on a temporary basis, once more–probably about as swiftly as his parting letter found Lady Desborough.[6] Today, a century back, she wrote back:

Patrick darlingest, How I loved your adorable letter from the train, and how above all I loved you. And blessed you for holding on in trust through all the frozen time–never, never fretting… How I shall miss you, how I love you.”

But Patrick was back to writing to Diana Manners, the woman he can’t give up and who is, now that all Englishwoman are equidistantly out of reach, just as reachable as any of the others. She won’t hear his proposals and protestations, but perhaps she will accept this sort of daily diary.

Today I rode again towards the front, a martyr to duty, having evolved a new system of leading my horse the first mile, thus becoming almost entirely thawed before making myself immobile… had an amusing first interview with Oc as Brigadier, in the course of which I took a very fair luncheon off him…

Alcohol and fur are the twin secrets of winter campaigning.[7]


References and Footnotes

  1. Saunders, Dual Life, II, 563 n31.
  2. A partial merit-based scholarship, in American parlance.
  3. R. P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 189.
  4. Letters From a Lost Generation, 385.
  5. War Diary, 423-4.
  6. Although I wrote about his departure and arrival yesterday, the journey must have taken about three days, so he would have left--and written from the train to the coast--on or about the 13th.
  7. Jebb, Patrick Shaw Stewart, An Edwardian Meteor, 237-8. I am not confident of the dates in Jebb, which are not supported by a critical apparatus. He lists today, a century back, as the day Asquith was wounded, but Sellers's The Hood Battalion, 282, has the 20th, and yet has his promotion to brigadier as tomorrow, when it does seem clear that he was already brigadier--or functioning as brigadier--today, a century back. My best guess is that Asquith is the brigadier now in effect, but will officially take the position tomorrow, and be wounded on the 20th, so I will mention it then.

Kate Luard is Open For Business Once Again; Edwin Vaughan Heads Back to the Front; Wilfred Owen Drops his Cheek and Dreams of Vengeance

Through Kate Luard we learn today, a century back, that the offensive is lurching forward once more. Five miserable days of rain, followed by three dry days (not nearly enough to dry the mud) and then another downpour on the 8th had entirely halted the offensive. But yesterday and today were fairly clear, and better weather was in the offing. The major effort on the Gheluvelt plateau was aimed at capturing remaining objectives from July 31st–essentially the “black line” of secondary objectives rather than the furthest “green line.”

The Attack began on the two corners of the Salient to-day… A lot of abdominals and some femurs are still coming in… Sir Anthony Bowlby came round to-day… A bashed-to-pieces Officer with both legs, both arms, face and back wounded, gassed, and nearly blind, saluted with one bandaged arm… (Died at 8 a.m.)[1]

In an increasingly familiar pattern, the initial gains under a well-planned barrage will be considerable, then largely lost to German counter-attacks later in the day…


Edwin Vaughan has missed the battle so far–his unit is in reserve and he has been on leave. But now he returns, in a cascade of inauspicious signs. There was the night at the “hateful, uncomfortable, ill-administered rest camp” near Southampton, then a crossing in “a filthy old tub,” and then this welcome to the old battalion:

When I reached Jans-ter-Biezen, I found the Battalion on the other side of the road, sharing a large field with the Brigade Trench Mortar Battery. I received a cheery welcome and we had a happy little dinner of celebration, to which we invited Sullivan who is now with the TMBs. Later a Boche plane came across and dropped a lot of bombs—fortunately into the other camps. We were untouched but the night was rent with crashes, by the screams of archies and the frantic spluttering of Lewis guns.[2]


Lastly today, we are once again back in Britain with a shell-shocked officer. Wilfred Owen has been flourishing at Craiglockhart, but regaining self-confidence and a sense of balance and self-mastery is not the same as forgetting or moving past the war.

Tonight’s letter to his mother is both unusual and significant. It begins ordinarily enough, however, with reports in the old intimate-conversational style on the doings of the Field Club and his upcoming appearance in a play being put on by a group of patients, some with previous professional theater experience.

Friday Night

My own dear Mother,

The Field Club went a long walk over the Pentland foot-hills this afternoon… between us we managed to observe and philosophize the country to about half the extent that say Belloc would have done, had he taken that walk.

I held my own in the matter of Water Plants, and my ancient chippings at Geology came in useful… it is very kind of the Army to provide this free-and-easy Oxford for me. It was a unique walk. We had lunch on the roadside, and tea in a cottage…

I read your letter by a waterfall. The Parcel has not yet come. Many thanks for the considerable trouble of packing it off. Where then is my green cap? So glad you thought of socks. The Expense will be refunded by the Club. I forgot to tell you this…

But it is through his mother’s report of her intended charitable work that Owen’s thoughts turn from his activities back to their looming, inescapable context. The next statement, unfortunately, also obliges us to overlook casual racism in order to see his point. It is a bad example, too–the “white man’s burden” is not the main thrust of the thought here. Instead, Owen’s rejection of Christianity as it is practiced by the belligerents moves from a diffident satiric pose toward purposeful, concerted, protest. The stock reference to the “heathen” other points us back to the culprit: Christianity, yes, but as it is embodied in what Owen sees as a deeply hypocritical “civilized” culture.

I’m overjoyed that you think of making bandages for the wounded. Leave Black Sambo ignorant of Heaven. White men are in Hell. Aye, leave him ignorant of the civilization that sends us there, and the religious men that say it is good to be in that Hell.

(Continued, because important) Send an English Testament to his Grace of Canterbury, and let it consist of that one sentence, at which he winks his eyes:

‘Ye have heard that it hath been said: An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:

But I say that ye resist not evil, but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.’

And if his reply be ‘Most unsuitable for the present distressing moment, my dear lady! But I trust that in God’s good time . . . etc.’—then there is only one possible conclusion, that there are no more Christians at the present moment than there were at the end of the first century.

Toward protest, I think–but he is not all the way there. To act out these intentions in a fantasy in a letter to his mother is a very different thing than taking on the church–or, more generally, patriotic militarist cant–in public writing. It’s hard to tell how much Owen means this mood (indeed, he will write tomorrow that he does not trust himself to re-read the letter) but this is still more than mere maudlin sentimentality.

While I wear my star and eat my rations, I continue to take care of my Other Cheek; and, thinking of the eyes I have seen made sightless, and the bleeding lad’s cheeks I have wiped, I say: Vengeance is mine, I, Owen, will repay…

The emotion is genuine, and even if the conviction is not fully empowered to production, he’s on the cusp. Dominic Hibberd, working from the physical remains of the archive rather than the printed text, notes that “[t]he handwriting of this letter, scribbled late at night on 10 August 1917, slants awkwardly across the page, and around the phrase ‘made sightless’ there are marks that could be blots or tears.[3]

Or perspiration, or archival water damage… or tears. The last few letters might have led us to believe that Owen’s course of ergotherapy and his intense-yet-superficial bond with his mother are healing his outer self without addressing the inward–yet intellectual–revulsion stemming from his war experience. Owen still doubts whether these grand phrases and feelings can quite be trusted:

I fear I’ve written like a converted Horatio Bottomley.

And to you who need no such words.

That is why I want you not to destroy them; for I write so because I see clear at this moment. In my eye there is no mote nor beam, when I look through you across the world…[4]

And that intensity of vision will, I think, now be essential to his growth as a poet. The rhetoric is not there, but the habit of unrestrained emotional outpouring–albeit in prose, and to a completely supportive audience–has readied him to write something that, unlike Sassoon‘s tortured attempt to wrestle a gift for satire into a posture of humane protest, can transmute the suffering of the soldiers into effective, moving poetry.

All that he needs is someone to reorient his gifts and his gaze, and give him a little push…


References and Footnotes

  1. Unknown Warriors, 142.
  2. Some Desperate Glory, 188-9.
  3. Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 262.
  4. Collected Letters, 482-4.

The Master of Belhaven Under Fire; Jack Martin Frolics Under the Red Baron’s Guns; Siegfried Sassoon is AWOL and Wilfred Owen is in Good Hands; Vera Brittain Revisits Oxford

The Master of Belhaven is a steady man. His diary is a daily record of the experiences of an artillery officer at the front, without literary pretensions. He’s observant and honest but not particularly demonstrative: as a professional soldier recording and assessing, he is not primarily concerned with the preservation of emotional impressions. And so his voluminous diary, which we have read only occasionally and at long intervals, has been informative without, I think I can safely say, sparking much passion in its readers. But that’s due in large part to the fact that the diary has been the work of a man in control. And as the strain begins to tell the diary becomes–vultures that we are–more gripping reading.

A damnable night, about the worst I have ever known. Not for a single moment has the shelling stopped and now, at 10 a.m., it is still going on worse than ever. My mess-cook has been hit and fell outside the door; everyone is badly shaken and every line down. We are completely isolated–I cannot get even the nearest battery on the ‘phone. I have twice had the wire to C Battery mended, but it is cut at once; and it is simply murder, sending men outside in this storm of steel… This is by far the worst strafe I have seen yet…[1]


With some contrasting irony, then, we can include this snippet from Jack Martin, who came to the front apprehensive, but now provides us with a propaganda-film-ready slice of life in the midst of a seemingly tolerable, even enjoyable war. Not only did a salvo’s direct hit on his bivouac prove scatheless–every shell was a dud–but he and his friends then had grandstand seats as the Red Baron himself attacked nearby. He was “very plucky,” and the fact that the onlookers were even briefly strafed only added to the excitement. No one was hurt–in their battalion, anyway. After these entertaining and not-personally-costly experiences, it was time for more fun:

We have played primitive cricket with a bat hacked out of piece of an ammunition case and a ball made up of pieces of rag tied round with string. It was a bit difficult to find a comparatively even piece of ground giving us the necessary twenty-two yards between wickets; the fielders had, perforce, to stand between shell holes and a step backwards generally resulted in a tumble into dirty water which was accounted a great joke by everybody except the unfortunate fieldsman.[2]


And back on the home island, other men are in motion–or are supposed to be. Today, a century back, was to be the day that Siegfried Sassoon reported to the Royal Welsh depot at Litherland–but he didn’t. He remains at home in Kent, his rebellion against the war advancing through inaction…

Hercules and Antaeus… surely something more or less like the statue in Brock’s office

And in Scotland, at Craiglockhart Hospital, the same morning saw the first meeting between Wilfred Owen and his new doctor, Arthur Brock. Owen is now riding a streak of great good fortune: the army has decided to consider his symptoms–concussion and possible neurological complications of “shell shock”–to be worthy of therapy, and now he has found his way to “precisely the right doctor.”

A Scottish farmer’s son, Brock was gruff and practical, but also highly learned and versed in a range of continental theories and practices. He took an unusually environmental approach to therapy, believing the key to good health to lie in the right relationship between organism and environment. And this, in turn, he defined in terms of the organism’s function, its work. Brock practiced what he called ergotherapy, a broad approach that encompassed not only working at one’s job or avocation but other activities such as walking, landscape-drawing, botany, etc. Literature, indeed, could be valued as therapeutic work…

And, though Brock was not inclined to appreciate art for art’s sake, he was fond of at least one artistic/mythological metaphor: his office featured a sculpture of Heracles wrestling with Antaeus, the message being that even the strongest hero was only victorious when his opponent became detached from mother earth, the environment that was the source of his power…  The goal then, is to get those toes back on the ground.[3]





We’ll finish today, as we should–stretched between Britain and France, and not feeling quite right in either place.  Edward Brittain has been sent back to the front–and promptly deprived of both battalion and valise. He will still try to effect a transfer to his former battalion, although Rowland Feilding’s recent testimony suggests that Brittain might find few familiar faces there…

France, 27 June 1917

I am now under orders and may go up to the 2nd Bn. at any time. If I don’t like it I shall write to Major Hudson who is at present in command of the 11th … and ask him to ask for me. That is the only way of effecting the change. I have been in Calais all morning . . . and got a shirt, 2 collars, a towel, and 2 prs. socks at the Ordnance Stores. I shall be able to carry these things in my pack and shall be able to subsist on them for some time! My only real difficulty is that I have no revolver and I am not going to buy another one.[4]


And on the same day when this unhappy letter was written to her, Vera Brittain was thinking of Oxford, and the world they had given up to go to war:


Oxford Revisited

There’s a gleam of sun on the grey old street
Where we used to walk in the Oxford days,
And dream that the world lay beneath our feet
In the dawn of a summer morning.

Now the years have passed, and it’s we who lie
Crushed under the burden of world-wide woe,
But the misty magic will never die
From the dawn of an Oxford morning.

And the end delays, and perhaps no more
I shall see the spires of my youth’s delight,
But they’ll gladden my eyes as in days of yore
At the dawn of Eternal Morning.


References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary, 327-8.
  2. Sapper Martin, 82-3.
  3. Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 253-5.
  4. Letters From a Lost Generation, 362.

Wilfred Owen’s Relief; Robert Graves Hymns the Joys of Oxford to Siegfried Sassoon; Letter Bombs from Henry Williamson

Robert Graves, with impeccable timing, sat down to write a long overdue letter his erstwhile comrade Siegfried Sassoon. Those who have attained an excellent posting at Oxford ought not forget their less fortunate comrades in the trenches…

‘D’ Company
No. 4 Officer Cadet Battn
Wadham College

21 April 1917

My dear Sassons

At last I am comfortably settled down here, and by Heaven, it’s a good game now that I’m cured of the desire to go back to France (I know I’m more use here and would only crock up if I tried a fourth time) and if it wasn’t for you being out there again I’d feel this was too good to be true. Get a cushy quick, old thing and I’ll work this sort of a job for you here. Anyhow, get sent to Somerville if you get over to Blighty at all: in time to read your reviews with me.

Events, of course, have out-paced Graves’s wishes. But Graves, who can often be rather unreasonable, has a very reasonable reason to be pleased with his new job–with bad lungs deriving in part from a serious battle wound, he has unquestionably earned the right to be safe at home. Sassoon, indeed on his way back with a blighty one, may yet heal completely–at least in body.

The letter continues with happy literary gossip–Sassoon’s book is delayed by the paper shortage, but Graves is busily setting up reviews and garnering introductions to various poets. Sassoon’s family friend Edmund Gosse has connected Graves to Masefield, and Graves’s friendship with Robert Nichols is blooming, while he continues to take advantage of Sassoon’s introduction to the pacifist hotbed of Garsington, where “Lady Utterly Immoral is such a ripper.” In his usual ingenuous/oblivious fashion Graves lists exactly what he was paid for a poem in the Nation as well as which poets (Gordon Bottomley among them) have praised his work. But he is not entirely given over to the social side of the literary world: he has also discovered the Tudor poet John Skelton and plans “a book of studies chiefly about Poetry and Children and France and things.”[1]

We’ll hear more from Graves tomorrow.


Is Henry Williamson doubting the wisdom of any of his recent postal actions? No!

Dear Mother,

Today, Saturday 21st, I sent off a parcel containing my boots and an orange in each–again the latter is quite empty.

Quite empty?

PS. If by any chance you find a greyish powder in any of those eggs, merely empty it in the garden NOT in the fire. There is always a millionth of a chance of a full one going in by mistake…

One hopes that no one is reading Williamson’s mail. Officers are generally immune from censorship, but then again Williamson may be under close watch as an inefficient and untrustworthy sort… this letter not only mentions sending probably non-explosive grenades but also reveals his position (Bullecourt) by means of a reference to a “Bully lad” who “courts.” Good lord…[2]


So much for the lighter portions of today’s work. There is one very important event I should mention that I don’t think can be fixed to one particular date. However, today, a century back, provides a terminus ante quem: Wilfred Owen‘s 2nd Manchesters had been in the line for twelve straight days, but they were relieved today. He will shortly write to his mother, describing this tour of duty:

For twelve days I did not wash my face, nor take off my boots, nor sleep a deep sleep. For twelve days we lay in holes, where at any moment a shell might put us out. I think the worst incident was one wet night when we lay up against a railway embankment. A big shell lit on the top of the bank, just 2 yards from my head. Before I awoke, I was blown in the air right away from the bank!

This concussion will have repercussions. As will the horrors that follow.

I passed most of the following days in a railway cutting, in a hole just big enough to lie in, and covered with corrugated iron. My brother officer of B Coy, 2/Lt Gaukroger lay opposite in a similar hole. But he was covered with earth, and no relief will ever relieve him, nor will his Rest will be a 9 days-Rest.

Lt. Gaukroger is listed as being killed on April 2nd, so Owen must have spent time near his temporary battlefield grave.

It can be difficult to isolate the neurological and psychological components of “shell shock,” but the experience of being blown through the air by a heavy shell and then living in close proximity to the body of a comrade can stand as a good example of the way the two come together. Owen’s “nerves” have been affected, as has his attitude toward the war: his first complaint after this experience is directed back across the gulf that separates the combat soldier from those at home:

I think that the terribly long time we stayed unrelieved was unavoidable; yet it makes us feel bitterly towards those in England who might relieve us, and will not.

We are now doing what is called a Rest, but we rise at 6.15 and work without break until about 10 p.m. for there is always a Pow-Wow for officers after dinner. And if I have not written yesterday, it is because I must have kept hundreds of Letters uncensored, and enquiries about Missing Men unanswered…[3]


References and Footnotes

  1. In Broken Images, 68-9.
  2. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the Great War, 129.
  3. Collected Letters, 452-3.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


References and Footnotes

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

Vera Brittain Muses on What Might Have Been; Jack Martin Off to the Horses; Edward Hermon is Headed Home

Jack Martin‘s story began (here) yesterday, with the sapper responding coldly and rudely to questioning by his officer, one Mr. Buchanan. It’s not quite clear why the matter–a misunderstanding about career qualifications that was not Buchanan’s fault–seemed to Martin to a merit baiting a man who could make his life unpleasant, but bait him he did. So Martin left off yesterday expecting to face the music. He had only been rude, not technically insubordinate, so he expected to receive not a punishment but rather some sort of new and onerous duty. And today he did.

Ha ha! Buchanan has done it. Just before 10 o/c last night when I was preparing to go off duty Sgt Twycross came into the office and told me that I am to go to the Transport for a week… for instruction in horse riding and transport duties. Ever since I have been in the army I have declared my absolute ignorance of horses–and Buchanan has remembered it.[1]

There are worse things than transport courses looming, but also worse things than lingering illness. Bob Hermon seems to be feeling worse than merely “seedy,” alas, but neither does he appear to be dangerously ill. And we learn that the privileges of a battalion commander do include some circumvention of the normal bureaucracy: Hermon wouldn’t take a home leave at Christmas when it wasn’t his turn–which was admirable–but after several weeks of weakness and exhaustion, he is amenable to going directly home for a convalescent leave, skipping the traditional slow trains and overcrowded hospitals of France.

3rd January 1917, 2.30 p.m.–trenches, Bois Grenier Sector

First & foremost I’m coming home in a day or two for three weeks. I’m rather knocked out just at present so I hope you will have plenty of beef tea etc. Just to put me on my legs once more. You needn’t worry old dear as I’m quite alright really & only want a bit of nursing.

My love to you old dear.[2]


And finally, Vera Brittain wrote to her brother Edward today, a century back. We’ve read the best of this letter before, on the anniversary of the death of Roland Leighton, but now we have the present-day context. Vera Brittain is a dependable writer, and here she embodies (and writes from) two very different points of view: she still performs the draped wistfulness of the bereaved of 1915, but from behind that persona she looks out, too, with the hard-edged stare of a 1917 veteran.

Malta, 5 January 1917

Do you remember how I always used to tell you that when He & I met, right up to the very last, we never could think of anything to say? Wouldn’t it be difficult to know what to say if one met again after being separated by the greatest gulf of all. And as you say. He’s so unforgettable, even though He belongs, as it were, to another life in which both you & I happened to live as well. I can see you now teasing Him about ‘The Quiet Voice’, and I remember very distinctly how I cried one day just after He had gone to the front when I was looking in one of your drawers for something or other & came across a letter from Him to you signed ‘Sometime An Ancient Majesty’, & another signed ‘Monseigneur’; I remember it made me think of the time we might have had all together at college.

Sometimes I feel very weary of this life — specially when I recall such small incidents — & wonder if this age-long War will leave anything worth having behind it at all. If not, may it not leave us either! . . .

It seems rather curious that on the night of Dec. 23rd I was kneeling by my bed in the dark thinking about Him…[3]


References and Footnotes

  1. Sapper Martin, 44.
  2. For Love and Courage, 320.
  3. Letters From a Lost Generation, 310-311.

A Parcel for Frank Richards; A Conversation and a Moonlit Crossing for Olaf Stapledon

Not far away from where Edmund Blunden and his battalion just marched out of the line, Frank Richards and the 2nd Royal Welch Fusiliers are marching back in.

On November 4th, 1916, we went back in the line, Paddy taking his turn with B Echelon, which consisted of the transport and a small number of officers and men who were left out of the line when the Battalion went in…  We were only going in for forty-eight hours, and it was decided not to send the mail up for that period. I instructed Paddy that if anything happened to me he was to do what he liked with a parcel I was expecting, and to give the tobacco away to a pipe smoker.

It is nice, sometimes, to have the foreboding anecdote in the first person.

About an hour before we moved off, one of our planes brought a German plane crashing to the ground about half a mile in front of us and on the edge of a sunken road which we knew we would have to pass. I had seen it happen once or twice that when a German plane had been shot down just behind our front line some time later the enemy would do their level best to blow it to pieces. This plane was about a mile behind our front. I had been posted to Battalion Headquarters and it was dark when we were passing the plane, which was now being shelled. We had a few casualties and one of the killed was the Regimental Sergeant-Major’s batman, who was carrying a lovely bag of rations. One of our old signallers picked it up. During the following day each one of us put on a little weight and the RSM lost a little. There were more rations in that bag than what the whole of the signallers had, put together.

Today, at least, Richards is not only safe but unusually well-fed–is this a new sort of near-miss, then?

We stayed in an old German dug-out. Two steps below us in another dug-out stayed the Colonel and Adjutant. All communication with our front line was by runners. We had lines running back to Brigade, which were very weak and we had difficulty in receiving Morse or speaking to them.[1]


Olaf Stapledon is headed back to Belgium after a stretch of leave, driving a new ambulance. But England–like all things–reminds him mostly of Agnes, his Australian cousin and fiancée, with whom he first fell in love when she visited England as a child.

…Just fancy being at Oxford! You once stayed at this hotel. Oh no, of course you were in rooms. Two dear little girls in fawn coloured silk frocks lying in a punt gliding up the Cherwell and one of them, all unconscious, was being piloted by her future “young man.” Do you remember running along the bank watching eights? A good number of all those eager oarsmen are dead by now…

Remarkably, in this crossing-of-paths-in-memory, one of those fellow-oarsmen was Julian Grenfell.

The whole place is military. Balliol is a headquarters for cadet corps, and so are many other colleges. The streets are crowded with soldiers of all sorts and the characteristic Oxford girls, who are enjoying themselves no end these days!

Then, yesterday, a century back, in a familiar journey of return, Olaf has reached the channel once more.

Royal Pavilion Hotel
3 November 1916

Agnes best beloved,

This is a huge and luxurious hotel full of officers and their women-folk. It is blowing great guns outside, and I am glad I am not crossing tonight. . . . Well, dear, here am I, your mere motor driver, on the brink of going back to that supreme boredom, the war. Fifteen months ago I stayed here with Father and Mother and wondered what it would
be like on the other side. Guess I’m sadder & wiser now, and rather horribly sober and dry and disillusioned both about patriotism, militarism, and about consciences. I believe there is much self-deception on each side, much pharisaism and also failure to realise the situation, but on the whole I am clearly on the side of the conscience people, because they alone are guardians of the future, and all the fighting and smashing and hating only proves again and again that they are right.

But there is one thing I am not sober & disillusioned about, and that is you. I have grown to know you so much better in these fifteen months. You were the most real thing during all that time, more real than all the daily realities. And now at the end of this chapter of history here am I without any honours or distinctions or merit even, yet loving and loved by Agnes. And again & again I must needs swear to myself that this great good fortune shall result not only in personal joy but in good work for the world and in—children. Truly I think often of that future tangible expression of our loving. Do you? . . .

Next Day. Saturday 4th Nov. 1916. l am crossing this afternoon on a chilly grey windy day, worse luck. They are going to rob me of all my petrol, so I shall be nicely stranded at Boulogne with perhaps no means of getting petrol without my documents, and my documents 40 miles off. What a muddle.

But cross he did, and his next letter is a wonderfully rounded vignette, almost a perfect short-story.

It’s the story of a voyage that is only a part of a greater voyage–it has neither a true beginning nor an end, for it’s the trenches that are the real frontier, not the mere seashore. This night’s voyage is just one stage of a long journey in the middle of a long war, and although the story is almost entirely lacking in action–certainly in conclusive action–it signifies a great deal.

I really didn’t that the Stapledon the effusive dreamer was capable of doing the quietly devastating miniature, but for some reason I find this letter more effective than many others that are so much more eventful or shocking. Here he unflinchingly lays bare the terrible sadness that undergirds and overwhelms all of the war’s other emotions.

Agnes, 4 November 1916

I am the other side now. I last wrote to you at three o’clock this afternoon. It is now half past ten, and I am staying here the night and driving to HQ tomorrow. I’ll tell you about the crossing. My clean grey car was slung aboard and I sat in her for the voyage. The boat was very crowded, as usual. I asked the nearest people to come & sit in the car, and the one who came and sat by me was an Australian. He and his mate had a swig from a flask of rum, I having nobly refused that hospitality. We then began yarning… He came from Sydney. Says I, “I hope to go there after the war to marry a girl.” Says he, “An Australian girl? I married an Australian girl. . . . It’s two years since I saw my wife.”
Pause, after which he wriggled himself into a comfortable position and said, “It’s heartbreaking, isn’t it! And there seems no end to it.” To which I grunted profound assent.

The moon showed dimly through light cloud. Our ship was without lights. The deck was crowded with all kinds of soldiers, lying, standing, sitting, all wearing life belts, all very quiet, many trying to sleep. Some kept talking about the late channel raid, but mostly what talk there was seemed to be about home. A fellow standing near me was talking in a matter of fact voice. I overheard bits, such as, “She was just on the point of bursting into tears all the time, but she kept it back; she had to keep tight hold of herself.” Meanwhile my companion, after discussing the war in terms that would be censurable and in a tone of voice still more censurable, settled down with his coat over his face and went to sleep. And now here am I in a hotel on my way to join the convoy. And all those men are likewise on their way to join their various units. I overheard one say, “Ay, before one went on leave one always had leave to look forward to, but now one has been, and there’s nothing to look forward to. I suppose one will settle down to the old routine.” When we were all pressing up to a door to go through formalities, the doorkeeper said, “Is there anyone here visiting wounded?” A grave voice said “Yes,” and three poorly dressed civilian men struggled through the crowd toward the door. Leave is only given to relations to cross when the wounded man is not going to live.[2]


References and Footnotes

  1. Old Soldiers Never Die, 210-11.
  2. Talking Across the World, 183-5.

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.


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!


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.

Arthur Graeme West on Oxford and Atheism; Ford Madox Hueffer on Paris in September

Arthur Graeme West and the 6th Ox and Bucks are on the extreme right of the British line, exchanging shifts in the trenches with the French. Two days ago they were in reserve, and West “read ‘Scholar Gipsy’ and ‘Thrysis’ and talked about Oxford” with two other officers, “the only valuable men” of his comrades. Since both of these poems, by Matthew Arnold, are set in the Oxford countryside, it seems that West and his friends were going in for hard-core pastoral/intellectual nostalgia, a common enough pastime among our set on the Western Front…

Yesterday, “rainy and depressing,” West was less inclined to moon over Oxford as his battalion took over trenches in Trones Wood, losing seven men when a shell dropped directly into a trench. Today, a century back, he managed to walk and think:

Saturday, Sept. 30th, 1916.

Walked through D[elville] Wood with B[ernafay?] Wood in an unspeakable mess…We moved back a few hundred yards to B… Wood and slept in a rough bivouac. I was very warm and comfortable. It is notable that to-night we discussed ever so slightly the problems of atheism. I had pronounced a few days ago that I was an atheist, and after a few of the usual jabs at Balliol the thing passed off. To-night I said something about my being a respectable
atheist, to which it was promptly answered that there could be no such thing: and people said “You aren’t really an
atheist, are you?” Thus we see how men cannot get out of their minds “the horrid atheist” idea—the idea that intellectual convictions of this sort must of necessity imply some fearful moral laxity.

The most religious men are really the extreme Christians or mystics, and the atheists—no body can understand this. These two classes have really occupied their minds with religion.[1]


This is a sentiment with which Ford Madox Hueffer would almost certainly disagree–but only, perhaps, to be disagreeable. But why be disagreeable? Hueffer has had some leave, of late, and he has visited Paris. (“Paris leave” was a new phenomenon, intended to ease the Somme-burdened westward lines of transportation.)

In this piece–published today, a century back, in the Nation, Ford plays up the Englishman Abroad, just as in England he makes himself suspiciously continental. Astute readers–which is to say very recent or prodigiously mnemonically gifted readers–of his fiction will recognize, too, the fictional use he will make of these experiences.


“Trois Jours de Permission”

“Une petite minute! . . . a little minute”; the words, uttered by a functionary in evening dress with the features, and far more than the gravity of, a British statesman, consecrate one to a long period of waiting in the reverential and silent atmosphere of a palace of high rooms and tapestried panels. A long period of waiting. . . . Well, the longest period of waiting that I have known in a life that nowadays is characterized by more waiting than I have ever known. Waiting for the transport; waiting for the bombs to come up; waiting for one’s unit to move; waiting for one’s orders; waiting for the shelling to stop; and, above all, waiting for the shell—the solitary whining shell, the last of three that is due from the methodical German battery miles away on the plain—waiting for that to manifest itself in a black cloud, up there; in an unechoing crash, and in a patter, as of raindrops. . . . Yes, one learns to wait. The most impatient temperament, somewhere in France, will be strait-waistcoated into inaction, into introspection.

Nevertheless, that quarter of an hour in the high ante-room, giving on to vistas of other ante-rooms, so that all the noise of the streets, of the city, of the world, and of the war!—no longer exist —that period seemed a lifetime. I don’t know why. In the great anteroom sat three officers in festive blue, a widow in a cloud of black; an attractive young woman of twenty-five or so, in a large hat decorated with cherries—all absolutely motionless, drooping, with eyes on the bright and priceless carpet. The walls showed, in panels, the terraces of Fontainebleau, in purples, in bright yellows, in scarlets. . . . But the atmosphere was that of the eighteenth, the seventeenth, the sixteenth century. One might have been waiting for a scarlet-robed figure to appear between the great folding doors. One might have been waiting for Richelieu or Mazarin. . . .

Yet: “trois jours de permission à Paris”—week-end leave in Paris should not be a matter of serenities or the seventeenth century. And indeed it wasn’t. One dined at Foyot’s, at Prunier’s, at the Café de la Paix: one went to hear Lakmé, and the melodies seemed to turn one’s heart round: one leaned over the balcony of the Opéra Comique looking at the dark streets which after nightfall always seem medieval. And one talked gravely and slowly to a French captain, who talked gravely and slowly—about “là bas,” about the different sectors of the Somme that one had seen—and the marmites and the rum jars and the statue shells. One went to mass at the Madeleine; one promenaded in the Avenue du Bois de Boulogne; one talked literature, philosophy, and the economics of after the war, in the Brasserie Universelle. One even found time to play hide-and-seek with the children in the hotel hall, making a prodigious noise on the marble tiles, and smiled at by adult guests who knew that one had “trois jours de permission”—the rather strained, precocious, bi-lingual children, with black bows and dead fathers. . . .

And Paris, you know, appeared to be exactly the same as Paris always was in September. Not the same as Paris in May, of course; but then it was September. The leaves were beginning to drift down in the Tuileries Gardens, one saw the Champs Elysées in torrents of rain; the Boulevard Saint-Germain was “up” in a complicated manner, of which only Paris has the secret. And, except that people who otherwise would not have hurried themselves for one, smiled and did hurry themselves when one said that one had only “trois jours de permission,” and so was a fit subject for a little spoiling one might very well have been in one’s mufti of three years ago. And indeed I saw fewer uniforms in Paris than I have seen anywhere else since August, 1914. London, when I last saw it, was all khaki; the shires all khaki; Wales all khaki; little Belgium all khaki, and the Somme and Rouen. And you cannot be in any country field of our “somewhere in France” without there being in one corner of it at least half-a-dozen battered men in khaki trousers, performing obscure tasks with shovels under the hedges. Between the immense avenues of poplars go the endless columns of transport wagons, along the uplands the moving notes of platoons, companies, battalions, all dust-colored. And all France of the line south of us is mist-blue.

But Paris seems more unconcerned than any city I have yet seen; engrossed in its daily work beneath the September sun or sitting at the little tables at night, under the plane trees on the boulevards, it goes on, quietly running things. And indeed it is the same everywhere. The French officers are serious, taciturn men, who seldom speak, and when they do speak, speak very slowly. And, “out here,” what there is of the French left is always quiet and solemn, the immense long avenues, the heavy trees, the plough moving slowly, the solitary women sitting in empty houses, the churches into which the shells fall. Except in the short space of no man’s land, and except for spaces on the Somme where there is no blade of grass, but only shell-holes for field on field, France continues engrossed in her daily tasks—right up to the trenches. And even beyond! For, a few yards—yes, a few yards!—behind the German trenches, here one can see men in blue blouses and women in black—getting in the harvest. They are forced to labor by their conquerors. . . .

And at the heart of it are those silent palaces with the seventeenth-century atmosphere, the functionaries looking like British statesmen in evening dress, who are nevertheless only door-openers, and the great functionaries who ask “in what they can be useful to you”—the time-honored formulary which is supposed to lead one to fortune. It did not lead me to fortune, since I only asked the Minister if he could procure us some ferrets—our regimental ferrets having all died. But there are no ferrets in France, not in the Ministries, not in the Jardins des Plantes et d’Acclimatation. That is perhaps a defect of France, but I have perceived no other.

It is, in short, we who play cricket with pick-handles under shell-fire, and with uproarious noises stand round rat holes waiting for the ferrets to drive out our prey. And France regards us with solemn eyes. No doubt comprehension will grow out of it.


References and Footnotes

  1. Diary, 133-4.

Siegfried Sassoon Arrives in Oxford, A Stretcher Case; Ford Madox Ford Makes a Fib, and We Spot a Shaky Case of Shell Shock

Siegfried Sassoon has returned once more to England’s shores. He has not been blessed, exactly, with a blighty one, but he is home nevertheless. And once the bureaucracy has borne one as far as Blighty, it will let him bide, even if he is swiftly cured from his illness.

August 2

Reached Southampton about noon. Got on train and came to Oxford about 4 p.m.—No 3. General Service Hospital at Somerville College. Paradise.

The identical paradise that Vera Brittain forsook last spring, to find her own way into the military hospital system. But Sassoon has lived a charmed life so far, as he admits: A riding accident spares him 1915’s battles, German companies flee from him while British batteries hold their fire, these heroics get him held back from the slaughter-scapes of High Wood, and now an infection whisks him more or less painlessly from the fringes of the Somme to the groves of Academe.

Strange thing getting landed at Cambridge in August 1915 and Oxford in August 1916.

Indeed. Lest we hypothesize that Sassoon was not yet contemplating a fictionalization/novelization of his war, his diary now slips easily into the 3rd person:

Lying in a hospital train on his way to London he looks out at the hot August landscape of Hampshire, the flat green and dun-coloured fields—the advertisements of Lung-Tonic and Liver Pills—the cows—neat villas, and sluggish waterways all these came on him in an irresistible delight, at the pale gold of the wheat-fields and the faded green of the hazy muffled woods on the low hills.

“He” will make use of these observations very shortly, in a poem entitled “Stretcher Case:”

He woke; the clank and racket of the train
Kept time with angry throbbings in his brain.
Then for a while he lapsed and drowsed again.

At last he lifted his bewildered eyes
And blinked, and rolled them sidelong; hills and skies,
Heavily wooded, hot with August haze,
And, slipping backward, golden for his gaze,
Acres of harvest.

Feebly now he drags
Exhausted ego back from glooms and quags
And blasting tumult, terror, hurtling glare,
To calm and brightness, havens of sweet air.
He sighed, confused; then drew a cautious breath;
This level journeying was no ride through death.
‘If I were dead,’ he mused, ‘there’d be no thinking—
Only some plunging underworld of sinking,
And hueless, shifting welter where I’d drown.’

Then he remembered that his name was Brown.

But was he back in Blighty? Slow he turned,
Till in his heart thanksgiving leapt and burned.
There shone the blue serene, the prosperous land,
Trees, cows and hedges; skipping these, he scanned
Large, friendly names, that change not with the year,
Lung Tonic, Mustard, Liver Pills and Beer

Hm. Are these humdrum advertising signs only welcome signals of normalcy? The English Countryside is still absolutely “good;” poetry has not undergone that much of a revolution (nor will it ever). But the human impositions on that world are no longer mere… impositions. Can we read these not just as soothing tonics to the soldier’s bilious psyche, but as signals of inattention, signposts of the experiential gulf?

Perhaps I am getting us ahead of ourselves, but I do think the ambiguity is there. There is license, and distance: the “Brown” of the poem shares Sassoon’s view, but not necessarily his views. If he–wounded, we would assume, not simply ill–rejoices in thanksgiving at seeing the green and well-advertised land, I think we might still exercise our reader’s distance, and wonder if he will find Blighty truly serene, and truly to his liking. He awakes from a bad dream and black thoughts, and seems to forget them. but do we? We certainly haven’t been brought up to ignore a nightmare of death as drowning…

To bolster my terribly bold reading, here is the rest of the diary entry:

People wave to the Red Cross train–grateful stay-at-homes–even a middle-aged man, cycling along a dusty road in straw hat and blue serge clothes; takes one hand off handlebars to wave feeble and jocular gratitude. And the soul of the officer glows with fiery passion as he thinks ‘All this I’ve been fighting for; and now I’m safe home again I begin to think it was worth while’. And he wondered how he could avoid being sent out again…

Well, that’s one type of ambiguity, for certain.

…No need to think of another winter in the trenches, doomed though I am to endure it. Good enough to enjoy the late summer and autumn. And then, who cares?[1]


Second-and-last, today, an interesting problem has arisen. In my grand old calendar for this project there is a note to discuss Ford Madox Hueffer‘s reading, since he gives today’s date as the day he was reading a particular book. But in comparing a few accounts of these days and weeks in a few different books, I’ve stumbled on several discrepancies. So today, instead of playing double-reader and literary enthusiast, there is some wearisome historical sleuthing to do.

It seems to be the case that Ford/Hueffer was tossed about by a shell, concussed, and suffered memory loss soon after his arrival on the Somme. Or so he said, repeatedly: there are a number of references in his writings, and some include reference to “July.” His most prominent biographer, Max Saunders, suggests the date of the 28th/29th, although if he has a specific rationale other than the terminus post quem of a July 28th letter that doesn’t mention the shelling, he is not explicit about it.[2]

But this doesn’t match with a different date mentioned by Ford in a (very interesting) piece which appears in another book edited by Saunders. Ford wrote about what he was reading while on the Somme, specifically The Red Badge of Courage, several of his friend Joseph Conrad’s books, and Henry James’s What Maisie Knew. The piece, “Literary Causeries: IV: Escape…,”[3] emphasizes how strong an effect literature can have over the mind: Ford finds when interrupted in the middle of reading Crane that he had expected the soldiers on the hillside to be wearing blue and grey, not khaki. And yet at the same time Ford asserts that he can tie these moments when the literary world and the real world were both so vivid to specific days, dates Ford claims that he remembers because of details like a battalion move. One of these is August 2nd, 1916, when he writes that his battalion was “in and around the town of Albert.”

There’s a problem with asserting the July 28th/29th date for the epoch-making, fiction-shaping memory loss, and then also including Ford’s claim that he has a very sharp memory of reading a particular book in a particular place four or five days later. Saunders, in the footnotes in the Dual Life, relies on an earlier biographer who viewed these records, and then hazards a guess based on fictional descriptions and other, later writings by Ford.[4] Not having all the books at my disposal, I went to the Battalion War Diary, which Saunders, writing before the internet had yielded up such bounty, did not consult. Alas, the 9th Welch (as they style themselves) did not keep elaborate records: most days are recorded in a line or two, and their diary does not record the names of officers wounded, as others do. Still it offers us essentially incontrovertible place-date connections.[5]

The War Diary does not disprove the idea of Ford being wounded on the 28th or 29th. In fact it gives it some circumstantial support: there was a small-scale attack planned for the 28th, then called off when “great artillery activity commenced.”[6] The diary is somewhat defensive, as it was not much to the credit of the battalion (although, from another point of view, much to the credit of its officers) that they did not leave their trenches to attempt a planned attack. The next day, the 29th, the Germans again shelled the Welch positions during the afternoon, when they were preparing to be relieved by the 10th Royal Warwickshires. It is perfectly possible that Hueffer/Ford, then assigned to the transport, could have been hit, especially on the 29th, when he would have been even more likely to be up close to the line, assisting in the relief. But there is no direct evidence–and, really, a local bombardment on the trenches need not have anything to do with a bombardment by heavier, longer-range guns on the support lines, where Hueffer/Ford was stationed.

So it’s possible. I don’t know if these records influenced the conclusions of Saunders and his predecessor biographers, or what pertinent information I may be missing. What is not possible is that Ford would find himself today, a century back, reading What Maisie Knew near Albert. His battalion had already marched through Albert and Amiens on the 31st, and were in rest billets at Béhencourt, several miles further back. So Ford claims to remember a date, in error, after what Saunders claims is the date that Ford claimed he lost his memory. Got it? Ford, of course, doesn’t ever write of losing his memory while specifying the precise date on which this occurred. Different moods…

On the balance, Saunders may be right and Ford–in his assertion that on August 2nd and 5th he was with his battalion, reading–is probably wrong. (I wonder if we shall find that Ford has mistaken a month, somehow, from his notes). One way to suss this out would be to try to find records of his medical travails. In a letter of September 7th, Ford will describe a bleak comedic interlude of being bounced around between various units which are not able to treat a man suffering from anterograde amnesia and dental pain, and the only hard information that he gives is not quite right.In the letter, he is shuttled between a Field Ambulance and CCS #36. Later, he will write this:

After I was blown up at Bécourt-Bécordel in ’16 and, having lost my memory, lay in the Casualty Clearing Station in Corbie, with the enemy planes dropping bombs all over it and the dead Red Cross nurses being carried past my bed, I used to worry agonisingly about what my name could be…[7]

But CCS #36 isn’t in Corbie–CCS 5 and 21 were; CCS 36 was in Heilly, a few miles to the north, and much closer to the position of his battalion. So perhaps he was indeed blown up on the 29th and then, two days later, when his battalion marched back into reserve, sent to various medical facilities, including CCS #36. Perhaps he was in both places, and confused. Yet it still seems fair to ask if there really dead Red Cross nurses carried past his bed… that detail, I believe, also appears in his fictional version of events. Will fiction-rooted-in-experience leak back into memory?[8]

It’s hard to tell, and not really a question for today (a century back), both because it is beyond our brief and because I have run out of time to research. But if anyone has a quick line to a source with Red Cross casualties–most medical records from the Great War are long gone, but the killing of female nurses by enemy bombs was not a common occurrence–I would appreciate knowing about it.

It seems pretty clear is that Ford’s recollection of reading James today, a century back, is incorrect, and thus this probably shouldn’t have been left un-footnoted in Saunders’ edition of War Prose. Ford is something of a knowing charlatan, but I haven’t read much that calls into question the “essential truth” (if we may) of his fictions about the Great War. Of course you can’t take your complaints about dating and CCS-numbering to the reading of a great Modernist novel starring a man named Tietjens, not Hueffer or Ford, but this does cast somewhat grave–and Graves-like–doubts on Ford’s veracity about his war experience, on which some of the positive reception of his novel rests.

And then there is Saunders. I was inclined to let him off easy on his assertion of July 28th-29th. I was pleased, after all, to find the date and to get a chance to write a little about Parade’s End, which is a fantastic book and–if I am to get it in here–needs dates to be connected to its scenes.

But I just ran down one more book, and now I fear that I have been had. The letter of July 28th which Saunders uses is to Lucy Masterman, but there are two more letters to her dated–by Richard Ludwig, editor of the published Letters–as “[August?]” and placed before another one dated the 23rd. One of these makes light of a near-miss, but neither make mention of being tossed about by a shell, or traumatized or concussed in any way. Time passes in these letters–they certainly do not read as if they were both written in close succession in the third week in August. By the 23rd Ford and his battalion have moved from France to Flanders and he is dating very cogent letters… so where is our “three weeks” of lying about in hospitals and struggling with memory problems?

Saunders makes no reference to these two letters, and then he dwells on the alleged “three weeks simply erased from his life” after July 29th, and suggests that this period was central to Ford’s identity and his development of new literary techniques.[9] I, too, want to verify (more or less) and date (I like dates!) this important Great War Literature Experience–and I appreciate the instinct to make literary hay with it–but there are a number of reasons, now, to doubt the specifics that Ford provided, after the fact, about these weeks on the Somme. Saunders is either sloppy or disingenuous, which is a little too much like Ford’s sloppy disingenuousness.

To be sure, it’s not that I think Ford is a despicable liar, nor that I’m sure that he is unduly dramatizing his war, as many of his detractors have been. He was over forty, and he went into the infantry, and to France. The trauma, I think, is real. Mostly real. Anyone with weeks near the lines might be shell-shocked. But it’s not, er, good to go about asserting dates and numbers that are in fact incorrect, and these alleged three weeks are going to be hard to find in the near future, I suspect…

So today, a century back, I’m not sure if Ford was lying abed with symptoms of psychological trauma. He may have been, but it seems very unlikely. And he certainly wasn’t reading Henry James on a hill near Albert…

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 100-101.
  2. See Saunders, ed., War Prose, 3-4, and Ford Madox Ford, A Dual Life, II, 2.
  3. Spoiler alert: Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine (Paris) (9 March 19--), pp 3, 11; collected in War Prose, 231-2.
  4. Some method! Since I don't have all the books before me either, I can't exactly cast stones, although I can certainly cast bloggy aspersions on authors of actual books, who should be held to higher standards. Having just discovered the discrepancy while preparing this post, I don't have the time to get all the books and figure it out, and time will move on. But all praise to the National Archives for peddling well-digitized war records at reasonably prices...
  5. Incontrovertible in that it is a contemporary record, and also "official" and in the keeping of several people who share responsibilities--it is counter-signed, etc. But I would trust most dated, contemporary records, even without the stamp of official stamps: Harold Macmillan, for instance, noted today, a century back, that he was reading A Winter's Tale today, a century back. (Webb, From Downing Street, 220.)
  6. Page 67 of the Battalion War Diary, as available on line from the National Archives.
  7. Saunders, A Dual Life, II, 2,3. See also War Prose, 4-5.
  8. There are other details of post shell-shock hospital trauma that appear in the novel and which Saunders would trace to Ford's "Corbie-phobia" and his late July/early August experiences, including another Helleresque raving patient-in-the-next bed (see Sassoon's experience). But these should probably be "rejected" as fictional, now. Rather, they should be recognized for what they always have been: not disguised autobiography but fiction that draws heavily on war experience...
  9. Dual Life, II, 2.