Wilfred Owen Calls on Siegfried Sassoon; Edwin Vaughan in Charnel Hysterics; Ivor Gurney on Sassoonish Sonnets and the Fire and Fate of Francis Ledwidge

Life–and death–go on today, a century back, in the Salient. Kate Luard and her hospital survived another night of bombing, while for Edwin Vaughan “dullness and depression” beset his company on their third straight day of combat. But we must come as quickly as we can through his long day in the wasteland, and hasten back to Scotland where our main business lies.

I had had no sleep since the 15th but even now I dared not close my eyes… I was forced to divert my mind by climbing up again to look around…

Despite my searching, I could discover nothing of interest; the ridge, churned into a broad brown mudheap, showed no sign of life; there were no pillboxes on the slope and the horizon was so ragged that it was impossible to locate the various points. There only remained a few tree stumps and a few broken posts to show where gunpits had been. Then I lowered my glasses and fell to examining the foreground.

Vaughan’s diary today is a minor masterpiece of the eyewitness-to-horror genre, and to omit it entirely in favor of poetic friendship would be obscurely hypocritical. But a few short excerpts are, perhaps, enough:

The outstanding characteristic of this area was, of course, death. And this seemed to be brought home to me, not so much by the numerous corpses, as by the stranded and battered tanks. The nearest one was that which we had
visited when we arrived here, and I shuddered to see it standing gaunt and grim, its base distorted by a shell and a horrid black corpse half-turmbled out of the open door, whilst around it lay the black charred shapes that had been the crew.

…with gruesome fascination I concentrated on the bodies—tried to read the shoulder plates or recognize the battalion markings. The causes of death were mostly all too obvious, for death at Ypres is a fierce, distorting death—death from a direct hit or from a huge fragment. The mud which drags us down and breaks up our attacks has the one merciful effect of deadening the blasts of shells and localizing their death-dealing power.

Bodies there were in German uniform, mostly old and black, but many English killed in the last attacks with black, clotted blood still upon them. These are the most terrifying—if they can be terrifying now…

There was one which upset me. He was lying with the top of his head towards me; caught in the remnant of wire entanglement his two fists were raised clutching a strand. The backs of his hands looked white and slim, his hair fluffy and dusty like a miller’s. I don’t know why I didn’t like him, but he seemed somehow much more gruesome than the uglier bodies and I turned suddenly sick and was forced to sink down into my seat.

After a long day in the killing-slough, Vaughan’s relief arrives–and the company commander who is to take over the line is “windy”–trembling and unwilling to leave the meager shelter of a shell-hole. But Vaughan, now the sturdy veteran, forces him to do his duty in touring the line, with a subordinate in tow. A strange, demented sort of comedy ensues when shells begin falling in the mud around them:

…shell after shell hizzed through the darkness to burst with blinding flashes around us. I felt terrified but elated, and continued to sit on top making conversation while Hancocks leaned against me shaking. I was getting worried about him and kept giving him prods with my fist. Then suddenly there was an extra loud whizz and a smack as a dud slid into the mud almost under Hancocks. Spencer gave a hollow groan and Hancocks gave a loud shout of laughter, lying back with tears rolling down his face. I gave him a push, for I thought he had got shell shock, but when I realized that he was really tickled, I started to laugh too for the situation was really funny.

The sight of Spencer—bent almost double with his head pressed into the earth, looking at me and answering me upside down, his great bespectacled face white with fear and streaked with mud, his incoherent babblings, his starts and grunts at every shell burst—made us forget the danger. So Hancocks and I sat on the wet mud in the midst of the rain and shells and darkness of Ypres and laughed ourselves into hysterics.

After a while I realized that it was hysterics—that it was a temporary madness that had kept me dawdling in the shellfire, a disinclination to return to the reality of a new life out of the line. That my nerves had been giving way under the strain until I was reduced to the childishness of laughing at another man’s fear…[1]

This crazed stumbling from horror to hysteria provides an all-too-apt segue to “Dottyville,” as its inmates called the shell-shock-specializing hospital of Craiglockhart. There, today, a century back, a meeting took place which stands at the very center of this project.

 

It’s tempting to overwrite the first meeting of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, but, really, it’s an introduction that probably doesn’t need too much of an introduction. Their first encounter has been described by both men and by several noteworthy later writers, and it’s as if only Sassoon was surprised by what followed. This change meeting feels like one of the rare drops of sweetness distilled from war’s misery, a fortunate convergence of the twain that must be celebrated like a birth in a plague year, a new sort of orchid that blooming improbably in a new-mown field. See–overwritten.

In any event, the meeting was no surprise to Owen. He has known of Sassoon, he has read him, and he realized at some point recently that they were patients at the same hospital. They would have passed each other in the halls, but there would have been no way for Owen to discover what Sassoon looked like and come upon him “accidentally.” Today, a century back, Owen screwed up his courage and visited Sassoon in his room.

This small social step–dropping in on a fellow patient, a comrade of sorts–is hardly a heroic act. Yet it is a pretty good indicator of Owen’s returning calm and confidence. He may still be showing some of the outward signs of shell shock–the stammer, in particular–but he has otherwise been doing very well: he had “dumped bundles of his third Hydra outside the breakfast room that morning and was due to appear in the second part of Lucky Durham in the evening.” Which is all well and good, but it’s tempting to see Owen recognizing that the “the final stage of his cure” might involve both winning the respect of a hero (he admires his doctor, Brock, but not in the same worshipful way that Sassoon admires Rivers), and accomplishing something with regards to his own poetry, which matters much more to him than literary writing or the stage.[2]

But was it an auspicious meeting? All of the accounts focus to some degree or another on the distance between the two men: Sassoon is significantly older (six years, although Owen doesn’t realize this), significantly taller, and a full lieutenant. True enough, but the real differences are that he is a published and well-regarded poet and that he is from a much higher social class. Owen, the “station-master’s son,” is barely middle class and received a patchy education at non-prestigious local schools; Sassoon has a private income, rode to hounds, knows lords, ladies, and the London literary elite, and received a patchy education at Marlborough and Cambridge.

But what aspect of a first meeting of two friends can be more subject to revision in retrospect than the social angle from which they viewed each other as two strangers?

One morning at the beginning of August, when I had been at Craiglockhart War Hospital about a fortnight, there was a gentle knock on the door of my room and a young officer entered. Short, dark-haired, and shyly hesitant, he stood for a moment before coming across to the window, where I was sitting on my bed cleaning my golf clubs. A favourable first impression was made by the fact that he had under his arm several copies of The Old Huntsman. He had come, he said, hoping that I would be so gracious as to inscribe them for himself and some of his friends. He spoke with a slight stammer, which was no unusual thing in that neurosis-pervaded hospital. My leisurely, commentative method of inscribing the books enabled him to feel more at home with me. He had a charming honest smile, and his manners — he stood at my elbow rather as though conferring with a superior officer — were modest and ingratiating…

I had taken an instinctive liking to him, and felt that I could talk freely. During the next half-hour or more I must have spoken mainly about my book and its interpretations of the War. He listened eagerly, questioning me with reticent intelligence. It was only when he was departing that he confessed to being a writer of poetry himself, though none of it had yet appeared in print.

It amuses me to remember that, when I had resumed my ruminative club-polishing, I wondered whether his poems were any good! He had seemed an interesting little chap but had not struck me as remarkable. In fact my first view of him was as a rather ordinary young man, perceptibly provincial, though unobtrusively ardent in his responses to my lordly dictums about poetry. Owing to my habit of avoiding people’s faces while talking, I had not observed him closely. Anyhow, it was pleasant to have discovered that there was another poet in the hospital and that he happened to be an admirer of my work.[3]

Let not the calibrated self-mockery of “my lordly dictums” draw all the old sting from “perceptively provincial.” But what Sassoon acknowledges here is how Owen meets a need of his own, perhaps one that, in his instinctive diffidence about intellectual things, he had not yet recognized. Replete with mentors and advisors, goaded by his rivalry with the brash Graves, he has many co-conspirators, but never yet a follower. Sassoon may have failed to make a martyr of himself, but he will still welcome a disciple, a “faithful squire to [his] quixotic knight.”[4]

Which is exactly what Owen will sound like when he describes this meeting, in bantering faux-medieval style, to his cousin (and fellow poetic aspirant) Leslie Gunston.

22 August 1917 Craiglockhart

My dear Leslie,

At last I have an event worth a letter. I have beknown myself to Siegfried Sassoon… The sun blazed into his room making his purple dressing suit of a brilliance—almost matching my sonnet! He is very tall and stately, with a fine firm chisel’d (how’s that?) head, ordinary short brown hair. The general expression of his face is one of boredom…[5]

It’s customary, when quoting this letter, to omit the parenthetical “how’s that?” Which is a bit manipulative, since the winking parenthesis shows that Owen knows he is acting the part of the smitten fan. But the “boredom” does the trick too: Owen is aware of what he is up against, socially–and yet he is confident. He wouldn’t have dared to approach the Published Poet otherwise.

It’s a smoother story, perhaps, if Owen is all diffidence and unrecognized talent, and Sassoon all drawling confidence. Pat Barker’s version draws attention to Owen’s lingering stammer and emphasizes Sassoon’s bona fides as a poet of protest, although this is not what would have been most appealing to Owen.

A short, dark-haired man sidled round the door, blinking in the sudden blaze of sunlight. Sassoon, sitting on the bed, looked up from the golf club he’d been cleaning. ‘Yes?’

‘I’ve b-brought these.’

A few lines later, the meeting gets straight to the starting point of the poetic relationship:

‘Are you . . . quite sure your mother wants to be told that “Bert’s gone syphilitic?” I had trouble getting them to print that.’

‘It w-won’t c-come as a sh-shock… I t-tell her everything. In m-my l-letters.’

‘Good heavens,’ Sassoon said lightly, and turned back to the book.[6]

 

It’s a small world. In a letter to Marion Scott written today a century back, from the reserve areas in France, Ivor Gurney mentions Sassoon’s poetry by way of complimenting Scott’s.

My Dear Friend: Is “Field Daisy” yours? Then I may congratulate you very much…  I took it for Sassoon… The sonnet might have been Masefield’s, might have been Sassoon’s. Cheerio!

But Gurney is abreast of recent news, and the high spirits of the letter end in elegy. So we began today writing the mud of the ongoing offensive, then witnessed the beginning of a poetic friendship that will drive the development of war poetry–and now observe, with Gurney, a man still in the thick of it, the mysterious and terrible relationship between war and war poetry. We should all be irritated (or outraged) if a later commentator or critic were to make a remark along the lines of “violent death is terrible, of course, but at least it was good for his poetry”–this, surely, is a judgment that is meaningless, even offensive, without the “authority” that comes from considering such questions from within the soldier’s undetermined future. But Gurney has this authority.

…And so Ledwidge is dead. If the new book is not too.expensive you shall have it from me. He was a true poet, and the story of his life is (now) a sad but romantic tale, like that of so many others, so wastefully spent. Yet the fire may not have been struck in them save for the war; anyway it was to be, and is.[7]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Some Desperate Glory, 205-212.
  2. Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 267.
  3. Siegfried's Journey, 58.
  4. Ricketts, Strange Meetings, 104.
  5. Collected Letters, 485.
  6. Regeneration, 80-1.
  7. War Letters, 185-6.

Edwin Vaughan in Slaughter Wood; Jack Martin in the Noxious Saps; Lord Dunsany Remembers Francis Ledwidge

Edwin Vaughan is almost there:

August 12 Sunday. We had sudden orders in the forenoon to move up nearer the line, and after a hurried packing we marched off at 2.30 p.m. Straight up to Pop and out on the Ypres road with my nerves tingling, unable to talk for excitement and drinking in the real atmosphere of war. We were part of the never-ending stream now, welling up into the great reservoir behind Ypres which was swelling and deepening until the dam should be loosed and all the men and guns and shells should pour out on to the enemy lines…

But the eve of battle is not battle–and it is predictably shabby. Their home for the next few days will be

…a nondescript camp consisting of bivouacs, tents, huts and tarpaulin shelters into which we stowed the troops as best we could. For our combined mess and bedroom we had a small hut with a table and a couple of forms. It was a baleful place for the shell-holes and shattered trees bore testimony to the attentions of the German gunners. Amongst the trees was a great concentration of tanks—and the name of the camp was Slaughter Wood![1]

 

Jack Martin‘s experience has been somewhat difficult to integrate with the rest, here. But he is a rare voice from the ranks and our only engineer, and in this capacity his diary sometimes takes us to new depths, as it were. He and the rest of his company of sappers live, now, like moles in their tunnels, working by day and sleeping by night–or the other way around. This has always been unpleasant and dangerous, but the new German technique of firing different gas shells at all hours has made it even more dangerous–and unimaginably unpleasant.

The Huns have made some fierce counter-attacks on our left today… This evening we have heard that we are to be relieved tomorrow. Thank God. Although we have spent most of our time in the comparative security of the saps, this period in the line has been most trying and exhausting. By day and night the Hun has kept up a continual harassing fire, mainly of HEs and gas shells. The entrances to the saps are covered at night with double gas curtains which are daily saturated with some mixture intended to neutralise the poison…

Owing to the gas curtains being kept down at night and the ventilation shaft being shut, the air in the tunnels becomes most fetid. Seventy or eighty men crowd in one of these galleries, mainly with wet clothes, and all in a filthy dirty condition, breathing the same air over and over again, their bodies stewing in the close, damp atmosphere and exuding all manner of noxious odours–this alone is sufficient to make us ill. It is positively choking to enter the tunnel in the early morning… you choke and splutter and gasp for breath… But foul air is better than poison gas, and dugouts are to be preferred to shell holes.[2]

 

Lastly, today, a century back, was a Sunday. It seems to have been the Sunday on which Father Devas, chaplain of the First Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, kept his vow of saying a funeral mass for Francis Ledwidge–Frank, to his friends–thirteen days after he was killed by a shell while road-making on the first day of the battle.[3] It must have been around now, too, that Ledwidge’s patron, Lord Dunsany, an officer of the same regiment serving on garrison duty, learned of his protegé’s death. Dunsany will see Ledwidge’s second book through to publication, but he is also at work on a volume of his own, a collection of slight, lightly fantastic war-themed short stories. These generally feature lightly drawn every-soldier characters–the book is full of soft-focus celebrations of British steadfastness and gentle wish fulfillment. But one soldier, at least, is drawn from life.

 

The Road

The battery Sergeant-Major was practically asleep. He was all worn out by the continuous roar of bombardments that had been shaking the dugouts and dazing his brains for weeks. He was pretty well fed up.

The officer commanding the battery, a young man in a very neat uniform and of particularly high birth, came up and spat in his face. The Sergeant-Major sprang to attention, received an order, and took a stick at once and beat up the tired men. For a message had come to the battery that some English (God punish them!) were making a road at X.

The gun was fired. It was one of those unlucky shots that come on days when our luck is out. The shell, a 5.9, lit in the midst of the British working party. It did the Germans little good. It did not stop the deluge of shells that was breaking up their guns and was driving misery down like a wedge into their spirits. It did not improve the temper of the officer commanding the battery, so that the men suffered as acutely as ever under the Sergeant-Major. But it stopped the road for that day.

I seemed to see that road going on in a dream.

Another working party came along next day, with clay pipes and got to work; and next day and the day after. Shells came, but went short or over; the shell holes were neatly patched up; the road went on. Here and there a tree had to be cut, but not often, not many of them were left; it was mostly digging and grubbing up roots, and pushing wheelbarrows along planks and duck-boards, and filling up with stones. Sometimes the engineers would come: that was when streams were crossed. The engineers made their bridges, and the infantry working party went on with the digging and laying down stones. It was monotonous work. Contours altered, soil altered, even the rock beneath it, but the desolation never; they always worked in desolation and thunder. And so the road went on.

They came to a wide river. They went through a great forest. They passed the ruins of what must have been quite fine towns, big prosperous towns with universities in them. I saw the infantry working party with their stumpy clay pipes, in my dream, a long way on from where that shell had lit, which stopped the road for a day. And behind them curious changes came over the road at X. You saw the infantry going up to the trenches, and going back along it into reserve. They marched at first, but in a few days they were going up in motors, grey busses with shuttered windows. And then the guns came along it, miles and miles of guns, following after the thunder which was further off over the hills. And then one day the cavalry came by. Then stores in wagons, the thunder muttering further and further away. I saw farm-carts going down the road at X. And then one day all manner of horses and traps and laughing people, farmers and women and boys all going by to X. There was going to be a fair.

And far away the road was growing longer and longer amidst, as always, desolation and thunder. And one day far away from X the road grew very fine indeed. It was going proudly through a mighty city, sweeping in like a river; you would not think that it ever remembered duck-boards. There were great palaces there, with huge armorial eagles blazoned in stone, and all along each side of the road was a row of statues of kings. And going down the road towards the palace, past the statues of the kings, a tired procession was riding, full of the flags of the Allies. And I looked at the flags in my dream, out of national pride to see whether we led, or whether France or America. America went before us, but I could not see the Union Jack in the van nor the Tricolour either, nor the Stars and Stripes: Belgium led and then Serbia, they that had suffered most.

And before the flags, and before the generals, I saw marching along on foot the ghosts of the working party that were killed at X, gazing about them in admiration as they went, at the great city and at the palaces. And one man, wondering at the Sièges Allée, turned round to the Lance Corporal in charge of the party: “That is a fine road that we made, Frank,” he said.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Some Desperate Glory, 190.
  2. Sapper Martin, 93.
  3. Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 189.

The Death of a Slender Gallant; Edward Brittain Survives an Awful Time; Henry Williamson Breaks New Ground

We have seen Basil Blackwood–Lord Ian Basil Gawaine Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood–only once before… and I didn’t even mentioned his prewar work as an illustrator (for shame). It was near Messines, as it happens–but not recently. Way back in October of 1914, after being badly wounded during what was not yet known as “First Ypres,” we glimpsed Blackwood lying on the stretcher adjacent to Francis Grenfell, who had himself just been wounded.

If many of the “Kitchener” volunteers now see themselves as surrounded by the ghosts of 1915 and 1916, the few aristocrats of the 1914 army who have neither been killed nor promoted and transferred to safer jobs must have felt lonely indeed.

Blackwood needed years to recover from that wound, but he did, and recently transferred from the posh 9th Lancers to the posh Grenadier Guards, where he became a 46-year-old subaltern of infantry. Tonight, a century back, he was killed while leading a patrol near Boesinghe, a few miles across the salient from where he had been wounded.

Blackwood was a friend of John Buchan‘s, and from him he will receive a notable eulogy, an exemplar of fulsome Edwardian-style praise for the fallen “New Elizabethan.”

The phrase ‘Elizabethan…’ can be used with truth of Basil. He was of the same breed as the slender gallants who singed the beard of the King of Spain and, like Essex, tossed their plumed hats into the sea in joy of the enterprise, or who sold their swords to whatever cause had daylight and honour in it. His like had left their bones in farther spaces than any race on earth, and from their uncharted wanderings our empire was born. He did not seek to do things so much as to see them, to be among them and to live in the atmosphere of wonder and gay achievement…

If spirits return into human shape perhaps his once belonged to a young grandee of the Lisbon court who stormed with Albuquerque the citadels of the Indies and died in the quest for Prester John. He had the streak of Ariel in him, and his fancy had always wings… In a pedestrian world he held to the old cavalier grace, and wherever romance called he followed with careless gallantry.[1]

 

Happily, despite being thrown directly from England into the fighting line the night before a battle, Edward Brittain has escaped a similar fate. About the time that his sister Vera will be receiving his “last letter” proclaiming his love for her, he wrote this retraction:

Billets, France, 3 July 1917

It’s alright. I am so sorry to have worried you.

But this was no happy return.

All the same we have had an awful time. When I reported my arrival on Saturday night having only left Etaples in the morning, I was told that I was to go up with the company and that they were going to attack in the early morning.The whole thing was a complete fiasco; first of all the guide which was to lead us to our position went wrong and lost the way completely. I must tell you that the battalion had never been in the section before and nobody knew the way at all.

Then my company commander got lost and so there was only one other officer besides myself and he didn’t know the way. The organisation of the whole thing was shocking as of course the position ought to have been reconnoitred before and it is obviously impossible for anyone who has never even seen the ground before to attack in the dark. After wandering through interminable trenches I eventually found myself with only five men in an unknown place at the time when our barrage opened. It was clearly no use attempting to do anything and so I found a small bit of trench and waited there till it got light. Then I found one of our front posts (there was no proper front line) and there we had to stop till we were relieved last night. As you can imagine we had a pretty rotten time altogether. I don’t think that I and the other officer who reported with me ought to have been rushed into the show like that after a tiring 2 days travelling and not knowing the map etc etc. However we are likely to be out for a few days now and I may have an opportunity of getting to know the officers and men here.[2]

So “good staff work” has not, it would seem, become universal…

 

Henry Williamson is about as far from Ypres and Lens as a Briton can be. He is summering on the Cornish coast, recovering from exhaustion and illness–possibly exaggerated, unless he really has been close to a complete breakdown. In recovering, as if on a self-guided version of Wilfred Owen‘s ergotherapry, he will now be turning his hand to something new. Williamson’s many periods of leave, convalescence, and training have generally featured strenuous efforts to have fun–with motorcycles, with girls, even with his prewar pursuits of country walking. But today, a century back he wrote two words in his diary “began story.”

There were “no reasons given for this most dramatic step.” And yet wasn’t really all that dramatic: Williamson has been a fabulist and a story-teller for as long as we have known him. Now, it seems, he is thinking of his life in more conventional fictional terms. If this is indeed the day he began the novelization of his life–the day that Phillip Maddison was conceived–it would mark the biggest undertaking yet… undertaken… by any of our writers…[3]

 

And finally, today, a brief note. Let readers of Philip Ziegler’s biography of Osbert Sitwell beware: today, a century back, cannot have been the date of a certain letter from Sassoon to Sitwell…[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Pilgrim's Way, 103-4.
  2. War Letters from a Lost Generation, 363.
  3. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 165-7. Henry Williamson's A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight will eventually run to fifteen volumes.
  4. The letter from Sassoon is cited in Ziegler, Osbert Sitwell, 76. The date of July 3rd is impossible, given the acquaintance between the two men which it mentions. Nor does it seem to refer to "his new book--presumably The Old Huntsman," but rather to subsequent poetry. Presumably, rather, the letter was misdated (by Sassoon, perhaps, but more likely by Sitwell or later scholars) and belongs to the autumn...

Edmund Blunden and Edwin Vaughan Are Among Friends; Siegfried Sassoon is Blighty Bound; Richard Aldington Remembers Edward Thomas; Geoffrey Thurlow Bids Edward and Vera Brittain a Provisional Farewell

We haven’t been keeping up with Edwin Vaughan, and things have changed. First, his battalion has been withdrawn from the line and gone into billets in Péronne. Second, he has at long last found fellowship in his battalion–he dined yesterday in a “ripping” mess and discovered that his fellow D Company officers–including three new replacements–were in fact “excellent fellows.” So we’ll begin with him, as a bit of unexpected light comedy before the more dire notices to come.

Today, a century back, the new band of brothers of D Company “sallied forth in a body after breakfast” and went promenading. Exploring Péronne, they wended their way to the citadel–once again a fortress, its moat converted to a rifle range–and, in exploring one of its attics found, incredibly, “an ancient arquebus,” daring the eldest of their company to carry it out as his sidearm for the next parade…[1]

 

Edmund Blunden, in ominously peaceful Ypres, is on precisely the same wavelength as Vaughan. Today, a century back, an officer named Tice, a schoolfellow of his friend Vidler, joined the battalion, filling out a group of five fast friends:

Vidler now had a fresh audience for his school recollections and mimicry; he almost gave his orders in the nasal tones of our famous writing master, and filled the desert air with imitations which a starling would have been proud of Amon and Collyer, his old schoolfellows, bore the burden, Tice with his sweet mournfulness listened and gave suggestions and approval, while I made up the party of five and the colloquy of Sussex at peace with all my heart.[2]

 

Siegfried Sassoon, meanwhile, is about to be parted from his own new band of brothers. Today he was sent home from France, transferred to the Fourth London Hospital, a clear indication that his wound, while not dangerous, will take a considerable time to completely heal.

 

Arras has been quiet for some days now, but, further to the south and east, the main French thrust of the Nivelle Offensive has been launched. Olaf Stapledon‘s ambulance unit is there.

SSA 13
20 April 1917

Agnes,

We have had the first dose. Twenty-four hours at the front & 24 hrs. working behind. Most of us worked 36 hrs. on end, or more. We had very good luck–only two fellows wounded & neither bad, and one car reduced to scrap iron. I drove sometimes the Sunbeam, sometimes an ambulance, & sometimes I filled up shell holes in the road, & sometimes I helped to drag dead horses off the road, but mostly I just helped to load ambulances…[3]

 

But Arras is only temporarily quiet. The units slated to take place in the new assault that will open the second phase of the battle are now preparing to march for the front. Geoffrey Thurlow, concerned to get his letters posted before leaving billets, added a quick post-script to his recent letter to Edward Brittain, quoting Tennyson and otherwise expressing a very great wish very simply:

Later 20th

We moved [back] a bit last night & are now down in deep dugouts for a day & a bit & then we move again and in haste to get this posted…

‘Pray for my soul. More things are wrought by prayer than this world knows of’

Hoping to see you sometime in the future.

Thine.

Gryt

 

But even as he himself faced battle, Geoffrey Thurlow learned about Victor Richardson–a man he knows primarily as the other close friend of his close friends. But he took time to write to Vera Brittain, and to open his heart to her once again. As with so many of our young soldiers, he will need to write himself into intimacy over the course of the letter. Beginning with the horrible immediacy of another’s severe wound, he takes a winding tour through a numinous landscape before arriving at a place where he can speak to his own private feelings:

France, 20 April 1917

I have had a note from Edward today to say that Victor Richardson is at Rouen and badly wounded. Awfully sorry & I can only hope he will soon get over it and that by time you get this you will have had better news of him. It was a very brief note from Edward and yet terribly concise.

After tea tonight wanting to be alone–we came back last night for a day or two & then we go up for a stunt–I walked out along a high embankment and everything was fresh and cool quite in contrast to the heated atmosphere of our dugout. As I looked westward I saw just below me in front of the embankment the battered outline of Hun trenches with 2 long straggling communication trenches winding away into some shell torn trees: the setting sun reflected in the water at the bottom of many crump holes making them look masses of gold. Over this derelict plain a thin line of men going back to billets in a large town, which stood outlined against a pale yellow sky with dark purple clouds low down in the sky: over to the right tall trees astride a river also looking gold in the last rays of the sun and beyond the river more ruined houses from which occasionally flashed a large gun.

Well! It was all quite beautiful & I wish Edward could have been with me if it were any other place than this…

This is easier to say to Vera, I think, than Edward–not that she understands the full measure of Geoffrey’s longing for Edward. Thurlow will also need more up-to-date poetic armor than the gleaming hauberks of Tennyson–of the five now-canonical sonnets available to him, he will choose to quote from “Safety“:

Everything seems very vague but none the less certain here & I only hope I don’t fail at the critical moment as truly I am a horrible coward: wish I could do well especially for the School’s sake.

I think you would love Chigwell–everything is so peaceful there. Often have we watched the many splendours of the Sunset from the School field. But all this will be boring you.

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

Rupert Brooke is great and his faith also great. If Destiny is willing I will write later

In haste

G .R .Y .T .

And in Malta, where she can only learn more news of Victor by telegram, and where she cannot receive Geoffrey’s beautiful letter until weeks after the battle, Vera is feeling the twin frustrations of distance and ignorance. She writes to her mother:

Malta, 20 April 1917

There really does not seem much point in writing anything until I hear further news of Victor, for I cannot think of anything else . . . I knew he was destined for some great action, even as I knew beforehand about Edward, for only about a week ago I had a most pathetic letter from him–a virtual farewell. It is dreadful to be so far away & all among strangers…[4]

 

Finally today, it’s been some time since we’ve had a chatty letter from Richard Aldington to F.S. Flint, and it will be a while until the next one, as the correspondence will lag. I include this one not so much for Aldington’s experience (or his wit) but because it’s an early chance to see the ripples of Edward Thomas‘s death spreading far beyond the initial plunge into grief.

20/4/17

My brave [My dear fellow],

…You will be glad to know I’ve had several very close shaves in the past fortnight & missed one particularly dirty do by a fortunate accident.

I collected some souvenirs for you but chucked them away on account of the weight, but I have in my pocket a
button cut from a Boche uniform which I’ll present you with one day, d.v…

I hope you escape, in your capacity of an ailing functionary, from this new half million; I don’t think you’d find it very amusing here. It lacks repose and distinction…  But honestly I think that a week in the trenches teaches a man more than six months in England.

I see poor Edward Thomas is dead in the last shove–he must have caught a long-digger, as he was in the R.G.A.,
who, as a rule, are miles back of the line. I’m sorry for him, he was a pleasing and melancholy individual I remember to have seen at literary teas–odd to think of him out here…

Au revoir, dear boy; there’s a beastly battery firing right in my left ear!

Cheer-O.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Some Desperate Glory, 97-99.
  2. Undertones of War, 159-60. See the Battalion History for the date.
  3. Talking Across the World, 220.
  4. Letters From a Lost Generation, 336-8.
  5. Imagist Dialogues, 204-5.

Robert Graves, Meet Robert Nichols; Francis Ledwidge’s Rude Awakening; Wilfred Owen Within Sound of the Guns; Ford Madox Hueffer’s “One Day’s List”

The strange/glorious/dismal January efflorescence of war poetry continues, today, a century back: we have a long and soon-to-be-much-quoted war poem from Ford Madox Hueffer, another poem from Francis Ledwidge, and a letter recording Wilfred Owen‘s next step toward the line.

Today is also the day that two other war poets, having independently discovered each other, made contact. So I will put my faith in your patience (and your hunger for poetry) and first discuss the odd, chatty, many-connection-making letter in which Robert Graves replies to a letter of introduction from Robert Nichols.

Nichols, an early volunteer officer who was shell-shocked at Loos (also Graves’s first battle) has long been at home, and now discharged from the army–and he has attained a notable level of poetic success. His Invocation is, although both too early and too hopeful to fit with the verse now being written under the influence of Charles Sorley, far more widely read than the initial efforts of Sassoon or Graves. In fact, with Grenfell and Brooke dead, Nichols is, a century back, perhaps the most celebrated of the “soldier poets.” Yet Nichols has evidently read Graves’s Over the Brazier and found much there that is worthwhile: he wrote to Graves asking for permission to dedicate his next book of poems, in part, to him. Graves greets this rather grand gesture with both genuine enthusiasm and awkwardly emphatic reciprocal fealty.

S’addresser à
Captain Robert Graves
3rd R W Fus.
The Huts
Litherland
Liverpool

7 January 1917

Dear Robert Nichols,

…Of course you may: I’d simply love it. It’s hard to say how cheered I am: Orderly Room and battalion drill and company ledgers and the town of Liverpool and the enforced society of young gentlemen whose sole amusements are liqueur shifting and promiscuous fornication, had almost convinced me that there was no God in Heaven nor any bay trees on Parnassus. I feel tremendously honored.

Funny how things happen. As you may suspect, I’m a very very ardent Sorleian and when I saw your letter in the Westminster Gazette about him… I asked S. Sassoon (a poet of some note who funnily enough has strayed into this battalion and shares a hut with me) who you were because I felt sure you were a fellow of the right stuff. He reminded me of that Oxford Poetry book and I remembered that your things were far and away the best in the collection and that Eddie Marsh was very keen on them.

Eddie Marsh–of course. Despite his desirable status as a poet with a growing public (not to mention as a soldier whose “neurasthenia” has resulted in a not-dishonourable discharge from the army) Nichols has happened upon the Marsh zone rather late, but most profitably. After sending Invocation to Marsh, “almost instantly he had entered the small circle of Marsh’s closest friends.” With Brooke dead and Churchill out of power, this is not what it once was, perhaps–but Marsh is still very much the central node of the network of Georgian poets and their nascent band of assertive little brothers, the War Poets.

Somewhat awkwardly, of course, this younger generation is not looking up to Rupert Brooke at all–they have found another idol, the dead poet of 1915 whose legacy will be the poetry of 1917 and 1918, while 1914 (“and other poems”), while remaining broadly popular, will fall from poetic regard.

I’ve got a very bad memory, worse since I met an old shell last July, and I somehow didn’t connect the two. Did you know Sorley before his death? I met him at Oxford in 1913 when we were both up there for scholarships, but didn’t realize who he was–wasted opportunities, horrid to lack back on…

Graves has invented this memory of meeting Sorley–honestly, wishfully, invented, I believe, rather than duplicitously–and of course he forgets that “who he was” would have been a very clever, unusually mature and reserved potential scholar, not yet the author of Marlborough and Other Poems nor noticeably set in that direction. And now, with Sorley in mind, Graves presumes–these fits of grandiosity do not serve him well–to critique his older friend to his new one.

This fellow Sassoon, not exactly a prepossessing name for a poet, perhaps, was out in France with me in 1915 and is a most extraordinary good man… and says what he means very courageously. No Union Jack flapping or sword waving, but just a picture of France from the front trench, and our ‘brutal and licentious soldiery’. He’s not musical, always, but it’s good stuff; original too and not redolent of Masefield as is so common these days and contains no ode either to Kitchener or Rupert Brooke. Look out for his The Old Foxhunter and Other Poems[1] about February or March, with William Heinemann. I was to have brought out a second volume at the same time, but hitches occurred…

A bit of hemming and hawing follows, and then some preemptive self-criticism about his own published work–Graves evidently wants Nichols to approve of him as a fellow war poet.

Well, cheeroh, and best of luck and don’t recover from your shell-shock too soon. I’m rather stupidly going back to France this week with only one lung–having deceived the medical board. Chiefly because I want to hurry into hospital again and do a bit of writing for which soldiering provides no leisure.

Yours

Robert Graves

I hope to see you sometime when I come on leave, in London, say, or aprés-la-guerre[2] at any rate…[3]

Francis Ledwidge, is fired up, these days–and homesick and fairy-struck. He goes back to yesterday‘s theme–those fairies who lurk just at the edge of the fields we know, just at the edge of our dreams. But there is something of a shock at the end of this one.

 

The Dead Kings

All the dead kings came to me
At Rosnaree, where I was dreaming.
A few stars glimmered through the morn,
And down the thorn the dews were streaming.

And every dead king had a story
Of ancient glory, sweetly told.
It was too early for the lark,
But the starry dark had tints of gold.

I listened to the sorrows three
Of that Eire passed into song.
A cock crowed near a hazel croft,
And up aloft dim larks winged strong.

And I, too, told the kings a story
Of later glory, her fourth sorrow:
There was a sound like moving shields
In high green fields and the lowland furrow.

And one said: “We who yet are kings
Have heard these things lamenting inly.”
Sweet music flowed from many a bill
And on the hill the morn stood queenly.

And one said: “Over is the singing,
And bell bough ringing, whence we come;
With heavy hearts we’ll tread the shadows,
In honey meadows birds are dumb.”

And one said: “Since the poets perished
And all they cherished in the way.
Their thoughts unsung, like petal showers
Inflame the hours of blue and gray.”

And one said: “A loud tramp of men
We’ll hear again at Rosnaree.”
A bomb burst near me where I lay.
I woke, ’twas day in Picardy.

France,
January 7th, 1917

A deft reawakening to the reality of war.

 

Wilfred Owen, too will find his reality defined by the sound of explosions today, a century back. I promise to find time in the next few days to really dig into what Owen is experiencing, but suffice it to say that if his letters have suddenly sobered up, it’s because his initiation into combat has not been easy. The weather is terrible, and they are headed for a nasty section of the front.

Sunday, 7 January 1917

My dear dear Mother,

It is afternoon. We had an Inspection to make from 9 to 12 this morning. I have wandered into a village cafe where they gave me writing paper. We made a redoubtable March yesterday from the last Camp to this. The awful state of the roads and the enormous weight carried, was top much for scores of men. Officers also carried full packs, but I
had a horse part of the way.

It was beginning to freeze through the rain when we arrived at our tents. We were at the mercy of the cold, and, being in health, I never suffered so terribly as yesterday afternoon. I am really quite well, but have sensations kindred to being seriously ill.

As I was making my damp bed, I heard the Guns for the first time. It was a sound not without a certain sublimity. They woke me again at 4 o’clock…

But Owen withholds further comment there, which I am once again tempted to interpret as wisdom: there will be more of this, so let us wait until our experience is deeper…

The letter goes on in Owen’s new manner–one sentence paragraphs likes faits divers, which veer from matter-of-fact to comic to foreboding. He still wants to be deep, to write heavily… but now, at least, he doesn’t trust himself to. Owen is treading lightly into this new unknown, feinting toward serious statements and then pulling back…

I have had to censor letters by the hundred lately. They don’t make inspiring reading.

This morning I have been reading Trench Standing Orders to my Platoon. (Verb. Sap.)

Needless to say I show a cheerier face to them than I wear in writing this letter; but I must not disguise from you the fact that we are at one of the worst parts of the Line.

I have lost no possessions so far; but have acquired a pair of boots and a map case (presents). And of course my valise is heavier by much dirt…

I can’t tell you any more Facts. I have no Fancies and no Feelings.

Positively they went numb with my feet.

Love is not quenched, except the unenduring flickerings thereof. By your love, O Mother, O Home, I am protected from Fatigue of life and the keen spiritual Cold.

Your own W.E.O.[4]

 

And our last poem today is quite amazing. Just yesterday Ford Madox Hueffer, was writing a letter that was at once self-serving (the subtext being “I am a good writer, and would like a cushy job from you) and feeling towards both an honest appraisal of shell shock and a literary approach to writing seriously about fragmented experience. And he was complaining of his own stupidity, poor memory, and shaky sanity. Yet today he wrote a poem, fluidly an quickly, in a very different vein, which will not only turn up in many anthologies–which is to say that it is neither difficult nor offensive nor heavily “disillusioned” nor, as so many of Ford’s writings, unnecessarily provocative–but is also quite good. He has not made close friends in the 8th Welch, but he has made friends, and lost them.

I think it’s fair to say that “One Day’s List” is unique in his oeuvre; I’m certainly not sure how to comment on it. Modern? Yes. Traditional? In a way. A lament, a threnody, a war poem? Sure. Honest, true, and a new take on the ever-growing subject of loss, and coping with loss? I think so. Yesterday Sassoon imagined the German dead and the English dead in some underworld; today it’s the Germans and the Welsh in heaven…

 

One Day’s List

(Killed. — Second Lieutenants unless otherwise stated.
Arnott, E. E. — Welch Regt.
Jones, E. B. D. — Welch Regt.
Morris, J. H. — Welch Regt.[5]
And 270 other ranks, Welch Regt.

Died of Wounds.
Knapp, 0. R. — 2nd Lieut. Welch Regt.)

My dears . . .
The rain drips down on Rouen Town
The leaves drip down
And so the mud
Turns orange brown. . . .
A Zeppelin, we read, has been brought down.
And the obscure brown
Populace of London town
Make a shout of it,
Clamouring for blood
And reductions in the price of food . . .
But you — at least — are out of it. . . .

Poor little Arnott — poor little lad . . .
And poor old Knapp,
Of whom once I borrowed a map — and never returned it.
And Morris and Jones . . . and all the rest of  the Welch,
So many gone in the twenty-four hours of a day . . .
One wonders how one can stay . . .
One wonders. . . .
For the papers are full of Kelch,
Finding rubbishy news to make a shout of it,
But you at least are out of it.

One wonders how you died . . .
The mine thunders
Still where you stuck by Welch Alley and turned it. . . .
The mine thunders
Upwards — and branches of trees, mud, and stone,
Skulls, limbs, rats, thistles, the clips
Of cartridges, beef tins and wire
Belch
To the heavens in fire
From the lips
Of the craters where doubtless you died,
With the Cheshires and Wiltshires and Welch
Side by side.
One wonders why you died,
Why were we in it ? . . .
At home we were late on parades.
Seldom there to the minute,
When “B.” were out on Cathays
We didn’t get much of the lectures into the brain. . . .
We talked a good deal about girls.
We could all tell a story
At something past something, Ack Emma !

But why? why? Why were we there from the Aisne to Mametz,
Well — there’s a dilemma. . . .
For we never talked of glory,
We each thought a lot of one girl,
And waited most days for hours in the rain
Till she came:
But we never talked of Fame. . . .

It is very difficult to believe
You need never again
Put in for week-end leave,
Or get vouchers for the 1.10 train
From Cardiff to London. . . .
But so much has the Hun done
In the way of achievements.

And when I think of all the bereavements
Of your mothers and fathers and sweethearts and wives and homes in the West,
And the paths between the willows waiting for your tread,
And the white pillows
Waiting each for a head,
Well …. they may go to rest!

And, God help me, if you meet a Hun
In Heaven, I bet you will say, “Well done,
You fought like mad lions in nets
Down by Mametz.”

But we who remain shall grow old,
We shall know the cold
Of cheerless
Winter and the rain of Autumn and the sting
Of poverty, of love despised and of disgraces,
And mirrors showing stained and ageing faces,
And the long ranges of comfortless years
And the long gamut of human fears. . . .
But, for you, it shall be forever spring,
And only you shall be forever fearless,
And only you have white, straight, tireless limbs,
And only you, where the water-lily swims
Shall walk along the pathways, thro’ the willows
Of your west.
You who went West,
And only you on silvery twilight pillows
Shall take your rest
In the soft sweet glooms
Of twilight rooms. . . .

No. 2 Red Cross Hospital,
Rouen, 7/1/17

References and Footnotes

  1. Graves has got the title of the forthcoming The Old Huntsman wrong; the sort of hunting solecism which would drive Sassoon to distraction.
  2. Sic! There, I said it! Wrong accent...
  3. In Broken Images, 61-3. The end of the post-script mentions--disapprovingly, of course--Wheels, the modernist journal/anthology edited by Edith Sitwell. Its first issue, published in 1916 (and regrettably left all but unmentioned here) positioned it as an alternative to Marsh's anthologies and featured work by Edith's brother Osbert (and their younger brother Sacheverell) and his friend Bimbo Tennant. These, for now, are the rival cliques of poets...
  4. Collected Letters, 423-4.
  5. Morris and Arnott are listed in the C.W.G.C. records as being killed two days apart, on the 21st and 23rd September, 1916. Jones I have not found. Nevertheless, they may all well have appeared in the same newspaper casualty list.

Vera Brittain and the Two Musketeers: Stars for Roland Leighton; A Fable and an Argument from Olaf Stapledon

This is one of those days on which the literary coincidences are somewhat uncanny. Our most ardent lover, these days, is Olaf Stapledon, the dreamy pacifist ambulance driver whose pen can turn anything–even found fairy tales–into love letters, full of the promise that as soon as this little annoyance of the war is out of the way, he and Agnes will begin a long and wonderful life together. So first, today, Olaf’s letter to his love-across-the-world; then Vera’s anniversary of crushing loss.

SSA 13
23 December 1916

Agnes,

There is an old, old, very old woman who lives near us and goes out into the forest to gather sticks. Sometimes she goes by herself, sometimes a little girl goes with her. Many times a day the old woman passes the place where we keep our cars, and each time that she is coming back with her load she is bent so low that her face is on a level with her hips and it is only with difficulty that she can raise her eyes to see before her. Her steps are very slow and unsteady, and her burden is always so unwieldy that the mere swinging of it nearly upsets her. She carries it in a curious way over one hip, so that her whole body is twisted like the face of a flat-fish. As she is passing one sees her ancient face, withered and very placid. Because of her very great stoop no one ever sees her face full, but only in profile. She never looks at anyone, but goes plodding on with her eyes to the ground. When she has passed one looks after her and sees her as a great moving bush of twigs and branches, with one mighty gnarled hand spread queerly over the waist of her bundle, holding it to her back. The girl also carries a bundle, but her going is in swift staggering stages, each followed by a long rest while the old woman comes up and passes her with never a pause. The girl is fresh to look at–fair-haired, blue-eyed. The labour is irksome to her. She looks round for things of interest, jerks her bundle into a more comfortable position and at last drops it with a sigh, her whole body stretching with the relief of the sudden freedom. But the old woman creeps on as steadily as the hand of a clock, and almost as imperceptibly. She wears a funny old dirty white sunbonnet, and on her feet wooden shoes that look loose. One expects them to clatter on her bony ankles. There is something weird about her. She is like a witch, but too serene.  She is like some ancient woman in an ancient myth. There is something classic about her, something inevitable, and a divine calm. She has none of the childlike joy of the old woman in the picture “Words of Comfort.’’ She is too wise to accept comfort. She has found out the world and she has no more dreams about it, nor about any other world. Yet she is not sad, still less bitter. She has seen the vanity of life; but she seems strangely content, as if all the while she held some great and solemn secret that was deeper than the vain world of pain-dreaders and joy-desirers, of little self-seekers and inflated idealists. I thought at first that she was like old, bent France, carrying load after load of sticks to the fire of war. But now I think she is the Wise Woman who takes whatever she chooses from the forest that is mankind to keep alight her magic hearth fire. And what purpose she has, and what good or evil potions she brews in her cauldron, no man knows, but only she. . . .

Last night as I was going to bed (first time), there was a great discussion. Picture: a dark but starry night, a line of cars in a forest glade, one car a tourer with hood up, and in it arranging his rugs and strapping himself in by the light of a little petrol lamp, Olaf; outside, prowling round the car. Big Smell [Routh Smeal], sometimes poking his head in, the better to talk, sometimes listening and watching the stars. The discussion was the usual that takes place between us. The gist of it was, on Smeal’s part, “Nothing is any good really. There’s no point about living. What is the object of it all? Goodness? Beauty? What are they for? What are they?” And on my part, “Why, Good Heavens, man alive, you seem to forget that you can’t get right to the bottom by pure reason, simply because
reason is only a guide, and must begin on some initial feeling. You can’t explain the feeling. The world is very beautiful. Why? Good God, man, I don’t know why; but it just is. What more do you want? If you care for a person you don’t dissect the feeling & explain it all away and then say, ‘What’s the use of it?’ You just love, & act accordingly… after much talk and much fumbling with rugs on my part, and prowling about on his, he said slowly in his deep voice, “I think I see what you mean.” Then there was a long silence a stillness. Then he said, “Well, I’ll be going to bed.” Smeal is a seeker after reality. No fairy tales for him, no comfortable self deceptions. And what he thinks, he lives. He thinks cynically, so he talks & acts cynically. But he wants to grasp some more worthy truth…

Bed time now. Perhaps there will be a letter from you tomorrow. Christmas Eve, or on the day itself. It won’t be Christmas without a letter from you. One more Christmas with the globe between us, but this will be the last, I do hope.[1]

 

A year ago–and a century back–Roland Leighton, after being shot while leading a patrol, died.

December 23rd

The anniversary of Roland’s death—and for me farewell to the best thing in my life. I am glad I am far from Keymer–far from London; I could not have borne the associations of either. And now I am in Malta, working hard to try & make other people happy for their Christmas in exile, & in so doing, happier than I have been for months. Yes, even on this foreign service I dreaded so much, on which I told Him I would go if He died. I wonder where He is–and if He is at all; I wonder if He sees me writing this now. It is absurd to say time makes one forget; I miss Him
as much now as ever I did. One recovers from the shock, just as one gradually would get used to managing with one’s left hand if one has lost one’s right, but one never gets over the loss, for one is never the same after it. I have got used to facing the long empty years ahead of me if I survive the war, but I have always before me the realisation of how empty they are and will be, since He will never be there again. One can only live through them as fully and as nobly as one can, and pray from the depths of one’s lonely heart that

Hand in hand, just as we used to do,
We two shall live our passionate poem through
On God’s serene to-morrow.[2]

It is not surprising that Vera Brittain would solemnly mark this anniversary. Nor that she would open her diary for the first time in a month and once again confront unresolved religious questions–and reaffirm that certain questions of eternal love and devotion very much resolved, not least by quoting a fragment of verse by Roland that had served as a sort of shorthand representation of their love. But how–other than fulfilling her promise to see dangerous and difficult service of her own–she will fulfill the vow to live “as fully and as nobly as one can” is something of an open question.

And if anyone would question whether we can really take the measure of a man from his fiancée’s profession of loss, there are also resounding ratifications from his friends. Both of the surviving “Three Musketeers” of Uppingham, though weighted with their own cares as young infantry officers, remembered the date and wrote to Vera about it–and one even addressed the same question with the very same quotation.

Edward Brittain Vera’s brother, will write:

Dearest, I know it is just a year, and you are thinking of Him and His terrible death, and of what might have been, even as I am too. This year has, I think, made him seem very far off but yet all the more unforgettable. His life was like a guiding star which left this firmament when he died and went to some other one where it still shines as brightly, but so far away. I know you will in a way live through last year’s tragedy again but may it bring still greater
hopes for ‘the last and brightest Easter day’ which you and I can barely conceive let alone understand, when

‘We too shall live our passionate poem through
On God’s serene to-morrow’.

How happy I would be to see you meet again!

 

And Victor Richardson will write to Vera a few days hence. The capitalization of Roland’s pronoun is common to all of their letters.

We came out of trenches on the anniversary of the day on which He was mortally wounded. That afternoon was the most glorious sunset I have seen out here. Only a coincidence of course, but it appealed to me. I have felt His loss more in the last three months than ever before. I feel that He would have been able to banish all my doubts and fears for the future.[3]

I don’t have Vera’s reply to Victor, but although she sometimes condescends when writing about him, I would imagine that she would approve of these sentiments. Roland is an inspiration, still, and despite Victor’s formal profession of skepticism–i.e. the notable sunset as “coincidence”–he joins fully in the ratification of Roland’s special status as their dearly departed but eternal leader.

Vera will receive her brother’s letter next week, and in writing back to him she will tell him about tonight. From France to Malta the sky tonight is numinous and significant, and Vera’s adherence to reason and skepticism–again, “just coincidence of course”–feels more tenuous even than Victor’s.

It seems rather curious that on the night of Dec. 23rd I was kneeling by my bed in the dark thinking about Him & that night last year when suddenly just before 11.0 at the very hour of His death the whole sky was suddenly lighted up & everything outside became queerly & startlingly visible. At first I thought it was just lightning, which is very frequent at night here, but when the light remained & did not flash away again I felt quite uncanny & afraid & hid my face in my hands for two or three minutes. When I looked up again the light had gone; I went to the window but could see nothing at all to account for the sudden brilliant glow.

A day or two after I heard that there had been a most extraordinary shooting-star which had lit up the whole sky for two or three minutes before it had fallen to earth. Shooting stars also are common here, or rather, there is so much less atmosphere between us & the stars than there is in England that we can see them much more clearly; but this was quite an extraordinary star; of course they never light up the sky like that one did. (Someone suggested it was the Star of Bethlehem fallen to earth because it could no longer shine in the dark horror of War.) Just coincidence of course, but strange from my point of view that it should have happened at that hour. I remember one day last winter how Clare pointed out to me a star, which shone very brightly among the others & said ‘Wouldn’t it be strange if that star were Roland’…[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Talking Across the World, 193-6.
  2. Chronicle of Youth, 336.
  3. Letter From a Lost Generation, 307.
  4. Letters From a Lost Generation, 307-11.

Saki, a Sniper, and a Cigarette; The Long, Lonely Journeys of Sidney Rogerson and Edwin Dyett

Yesterday, a century back, saw the last major advance of the Somme battle. Today, therefore, was a day in which the exhausted troops fought to hold onto the ground they had gained, while reinforcements struggled up through the mud of the torn battlefield. One of those units was the 22nd Royal Fusiliers, Hector Munro‘s battalion. This is the account of one of his comrades, W.R. Spikesman.

…we left our front line to “flank out” on the left of our advanced line, the troops on the left, through the marsh-like conditions of the ground (men had sunk in mud to their stomachs), being unable to come up. It was a very dark winter morning, but after much excitement we were hailed by voices and a figure rose to the top of the trenches in front of us and shouting greetings to the Company Commander…

A number of the fellows sank down on the ground to rest, and Hector sought a shallow crater, with the lip as a back-rest. I heard him shout, “Put that bloody cigarette out,” and heard the snip of a rifle-shot. Then an immediate command to get into the trenches. It was some time later, about an hour, when a fellow came to me and said, “So
they got your friend…”[1]

Hector Munro–Saki–is dead, killed, apparently, by a sniper.

It’s a strange, sudden end to a life that was rich enough to produce a thick, reliably excellent Complete Works and dark enough to keep several biographies straining to come at their subject.

Munro is a tough man to sum up. He was a writer much more skilled–savagely skilled–and better-known than most of ours, but he hardly wrote of the war at all. I wish we could have seen more of him, read more of his letters, but with Saki we have run up against one of the historian’s most unforgiving category of walls, namely those erected by next-of-kin. Hector Munro will not be the the last closeted gay man whose life story will fall into the hands of a relative who so loves him so much that he or she insists on doing great violence to his memory in order to keep it “pure.” Munro’s sister Ethel “set out to destroy all traces of her brother’s life that did not accord with the view of him that she chose to present.”[2] Thus we are left with scraps, and the necessity of confronting the brief, sanitized, sentimentalized “biography” that she included in a posthumous edition of his work.

From this we can glean not only the above account of his last act and words, but the following assessment by one his officers. I can’t gainsay anything in them, although instant deaths by sniper are always suspect and officers do tend to praise elderly non-coms who refuse commissions…

I always quoted him as one of the heroes of the war. I saw daily the appalling discomforts he so cheerfully endured. He flatly refused to take a commission or in any way to allow me to try to make him more comfortable… He was absolutely splendid! What courage! The men simply loved him.

I hope this was true. It would be good to know that this sharp, sardonic, often-troubled man found himself–and found himself to be happy and appreciated–in some band of brothers.

As for Saki’s literary legacy, I can only put in a general plug and a link. He tends to be characterized, for ease of reference, as much like Wodehouse, just not quite as funny. This is true as far as it goes (who is funnier than Wodehouse?), but it’s not really accurate. There are society fops and dimwits to be sent up, yes, but Wodehouse was a pure comedian where Saki was a satirist. There are things that Saki is plainly angry about; therefore the world intrudes on his writing in ways that, with Wodehouse, it does not.

I’ll cheat, therefore, and go to a quick-and-dirty biographical comparison in order to illustrate what should be a purely literary point: they both made good fun of the English upper classes, but later in life Wodehouse blundered into Nazi apology while Munro insisted on serving in the ranks.

But don’t take my word for it. (I really don’t know his work well enough to temper this assessment–it seems to be right on, though.)

I’ll close the book on Saki with assessments from two biographers. They don’t disagree so much as land on different feet:

This self-effacing, secretive man of numerous acquaintances but few intimates, in some ways deeply unpleasant, in some ways admirable, achieved popularity and even love when he was endeavouring to be a killer. He was certainly capable of love, if for nothing else then for the place and ideal for which he fought and died.[3]

A.J. Langguth, however, reaches back to those odd last words–“Put that bloody cigarette out!”–to close his own book: “Particularly because he had been the victim, the irony to the story might have made Saki laugh.[4]

 

The sudden death of Saki s is not the worst thing that happened today, a century back. I’ve come across an odd… I suppose it should be an intertwining–rather than strictly a crossing–of paths, which we will approach by means of Sidney Rogerson’s memoir. For Rogerson and the 2nd West Yorkshires, today was a day of blessed, scheduled, relief–relief that arrived at about 11 last night in the form of a fresh battalion, set to take over their trenches.

In the wee hours of the morning, then, after a final tour of the positions they had so much improved (by hard and skillful digging), Rogerson made his way back with his company. But he had misread his orders, believing that he had to report “relief complete” at his battalion headquarters, several hundred yards back in the reserve trenches, and then rejoin his company.

So Rogerson set off, alone, to cross the debatable lands near Dewdrop Trench. And he swiftly got lost.

Throughout the war this was my worst nightmare–to be alone, and lost and in danger. Worse than all the anticipation of battle, all the fear of mine, raid, or capture, was this dread of being struck down somewhere were there was no one to find me, and where I should lie till I rotted back slowly into the mid. I had seen those to whom it had happened.

It’s a remarkable coincidence, I think, that A.P. Herbert’s tragic novel, The Secret Battle, also uses the occasion of the battle of Beaumont Hamel for a disquisition on what he calls “the theory of the favourite fear.” Herbert’s narrator lists several horrible ways to die and remembers the ways in which soldiers would talk of these fears, swapping them, vainly striving to master them. And his protagonist, Harry Penrose, shares a very similar terror with Rogerson:

That was how it was with Harry. The one thing he could not face at present was crawling lonely in the dark with the thought of that tornado of bullets in his head. Nothing else frightened him–now–more than it frightened the rest of us, though, God knows, that was enough.[5]

So Harry Penrose did quite well today, a century back, playing a fictional part in the very real fighting by the Royal Naval Division. The narrator has been worried about Harry–he had confessed his feeling of nervous terror, his sense that his reserves of courage were depleted, that he would fail. He didn’t.

But Edwin Dyett, the officer whose experiences most informed the creation of Penrose, did. Dyett was left out of the attack, yesterday, and consequently he did not have the reinforcing presence of a platoon to lead, a group of men that he could not let down, other officers who might keep him to the task, before whom simple shame might prop up his will. Instead, Dyett was sent later in the day, with one other unsympathetic officer, to bring reinforcements up over the shell-strewn ground. And then he disappeared.

All day, today, the R.N.D. was holding the line near Beaumont, under terrible pressure from German counter-attacks. Bernard Freyberg, one of the last of the Argonauts, was winning a Victoria Cross with his skillful and courageous leadership of the Hood Battalion. Freyberg also reorganized Herbert and Dyett’s Nelson Battalion, which had lost all of its senior officers and was under the temporary command of a sub-lieutenant.

Dyett, who was supposed to have turned up with those reinforcements late yesterday, was not seen by anyone all day long.[6]

It is strange and fortunate and bitter, then, that Sidney Rogerson made a foolish mistake today, a century back, and was unlucky, and stumbled into his greatest fear, the sort of mischance that can suddenly undo good men… and that it all came out alright. Close to panic, Rogerson eventually found the battalion headquarters, but by that time it had, naturally, been turned over to the relieving battalion. He is far away from the men he is supposed to be commanding, at night, under fire.

Stumbling back out into the shell-strewn darkness, Rogerson is saved by another swift spin of Fortune’s wheel: “this time, luck was with me.” He blunders into Hawley, a friend, along with a guide who knows the ground. Rogerson is a good officer, it would seem, promoted while young, probably never suspected of cowardice or malingering. But then again he has had three days of intense stress rather than Dyett’s all Gallipoli, plus many more months of war. In any event, Rogerson’s explanations of his mistake, his foolish absence, are believed. He was lost, but now he is found, before it is too late.

The danger remained the same, yet the presence of others banished at once the terror that had assailed me.

Rogerson, too, is lucky in his friends. And, simply, lucky. Instead of being lost in the night, and panicked, and away from his unit without any good excuse, he is soon back with the company, leading the exhausted men out through the barrage without a single casualty–a “miracle”–and, eventually, to their rest billets. As if to underscore the strange parallel between Rogerson and Dyett/”Penrose,” Rogerson is nearly accused of dereliction of duty even after he gets back to camp, since the colonel finds his company being issued rum while Rogerson is off in his tent, cleaning himself up. The colonel is satisfied once it becomes clear that a non-com had ordered the rum issue hoping to allow his officer some time to recover himself…

But again, what are the differences here? A brave man and good, and a coward and failure? No. If the remarkable conjunction of Rogerson’s memoir and Dyett’s tragedy should tell us anything, it’s that the length and intensity of a man’s service and the opinion of him formed by his fellows and immediate superiors is of much more importance to the “reception,” as we might say, of his actions than any inherent qualities of courage or cowardice. And then there is luck. Rogerson is certainly a good officer, and he has behaved bravely. But by his own account he panicked, and only the turn in his luck in the dark of the night saved him from, at the very least, an enormous loss of prestige and a probable spot on his colonel’s mental list of untrustworthy and possibly cowardly officers.

Who is to say that, if he had not blundered into his friend and the guide, he would not have done something foolish and been away too long and become–if not then, then later on–an officer whose confidence in himself and his “luck” is shattered. Without luck, does he become someone without the strength to go forward, and with no other other way out? Someone, that is, like Dyett?[7]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Biography," 102; Langguth, Saki, 276.
  2. Langguth, Saki, 316.
  3. Byrne, The Unbearable Saki, 277.
  4. Langguth, Saki, 277.
  5. Herbert, The Secret Battle, 132-4.
  6. Seelers, Death for Desertion, 43-44.
  7. Twelve Days on the Somme, 90-99.

Last Words for Leslie Coulson

A bad day today. The writers who keep our spirits up are more or less silent, and two young men of our slight acquaintance will die. They are peripheral figures, here–but they were no less living men, a century and a day ago.

One is Charles Carrington‘s older brother Christopher–all of twenty-two. Christr=opher Carrington was a captain with the New Zealand Field Artillery and a veteran of Gallipoli, and he died in action today, (presumably) as a result of german counter-battery fire.

The other is Leslie Coulson, an occasional poet, here, who was wounded in the chest yesterday, east of Lesboeufs. He died today, a century back, and was buried in Meaulte. Coulson, a journalist before the war, has become a writer of sturdy war verses–not revolutionary, but then again not entirely mired in the heroic banalities of the traditional kind–an achievement which will be commemorated in a small collection of his verses. I’ll quote a bit from the introduction, and then from a few of the most… a propros poems.

In September, 1914, he enlisted as a private in the 2/2nd London Regiment, Royal Fusiliers. He was counselled to enter an Officers’ Training Corps and obtain a commission. “No,” he said, “I will do the thing fairly. I will take my place in the ranks.” High-minded, conscientious, self-critical, it seemed to him that this was his plain path of duty — to serve as a simple private soldier. He left England with his Battalion in December, 1914. And none of those to whom he was dear ever saw him again.

After much service in the Mediterranean, Coulson was in France by April, 1916–all, apparently, without ever going home on leave.

There the old regiment was disbanded, and he with some of his comrades in arms who had sailed out together on Christmas Eve, 1914, was attached to the 12th London Regiment — the Rangers. He was now Sergeant, and was recommended for a commission. With his new Regiment, he took part in the Somme advance on July 1st. And from that time he was almost continuously in the trenches till October 7th, when, in the fore front of a charge against a German position near Lesboeufs, he was shot in the chest, and died a few hours later; as he would have wished to die — with his breast to the foe. His age was 27.

 

Two of Coulson’s late poems were “Premonition” and “When I Come Home,” and it is impossible not to see them, even amidst a very slight oeuvre, as two outposts of the possible: the poet considers the two most distant, most essential fates, one of which must await each combat soldier.

His editors close the little book, then, with this stanza:

When I come home, from dark to light,
And tread the roadways long and white.
And tramp the lanes I tramped of yore,
And see the village greens once more,
The tranquil farms, the meadows free,
The friendly trees that nod to me,
And hear the lark beneath the sun,
‘Twill be good pay for what I’ve done,
When I come home!

But his “Premonition,” a love song that anticipates a ghost story, was correct:

A shadow came between us–
The end of all.

 

Just one more, then, on the centennial of Coulson’s death. Two stanzas (the first and third) of “But a Short Time to Live.” It’s not a great poem, but it is a true one, finding as it does a sort of middle ground between the romantic extremes in the two I quoted above.

It is very much more representative, too, of the state of 1916 poetic feeling among English soldiers than much else that we have read. There are flowers here, and the traditional trappings of glory–and regret. These lilies and poppies are gilded with pretty poetry, but they are not counterfeited in the manner of the “joy of battle” or “glorious sacrifice” genres. I don’t think I need to point out that the phrase “armoured crime” would not have appeared in a poem of 1914 or 1915…

“–But a Short Time to Live”

Our little hour — how swift it flies
When poppies flare and lilies smile;
How soon the fleeting minute dies,
Leaving us but a little while
To dream our dream, to sing our song,
To pick the fruit, to pluck the flower;
The Gods — They do not give us long —
One little hour…

Our little hour—how short a time,
To wage our wars, to fan our hates,
To take our fill of armoured crime.
To troop our banners, storm the gates.
Blood on the sword, our eyes blood-red.
Blind in our puny reign of power.
Do we forget how soon is sped
Our little hour?

 

Bimbo Tennant’s Shoot-Out in Gas Alley

gas-alleycrop

The scrap of nowhere, northeast of Delville Wood, where Bim Tennant died. “Gas Alley” is the trench that runs across the center of the map, from southwest (where the transition from blue to red marks the ownership of the trench as of a few days ago) to the northeast.

The Somme battle was in a lull between major attacks today, a century back. The 4th Grenadiers had been sent up yesterday to help prepare the way for the next stab at the third German line. North of Ginchy, between Longueval toward Flers, there was a tangle of trenches where an earlier push had entered the German lines and then been halted.

The Grenadiers did not go “over the top” yesterday as Bimbo Tennant had expected, but found more painstaking work before them. They had to fight sideways through a trench system, up communications trenches that had been blocked by the German defenders, who then withdrew and lay in ambush.

This was work for Grenadiers indeed. But when Tennant’s friend and company commander Captain Spencer-Churchill[1] went over to try to connect “Gas Alley” with the next bit of trench, he was hit by snipers and wounded.

Tennant, cropped

Edward Wyndham Tennant, by John Singer Sargent, 1915

 

Bim Tennant was less fortunate. Left behind in Gas Alley, he took it upon himself to respond to the short-range Germans sniping, and “occupied his time in shooting at the enemy. Apparently, there was some movement by the Germans which led him to shoot with his revolver, and a moment later he fell dead, shot through the head by one of the enemy’s snipers.”[2]

 

Lady Glenconner (née Pamela Wyndham), was a much-beloved mother. We have so many of Bim’s letters to her, with her loving commentary, and the two seem to have been the best of friends. If there was ever a cross word, it was not preserved.

It seems cruel, in any case, to speculate: Lady Glenconner is a mother of dead children. In the spring she lost an infant far too young to speak, and in the beginning of Autumn, now, she has lost her eldest, all of nineteen years old, the boy who always wrote so sweetly of his love for her.

She will publish his poems and his letters, a continuation of their joint effort, in life. And more: the Sargent drawing Bim had wanted for the frontispiece of a little volume of poems will now be the frontispiece of his mother’s Memoir of his brief life. Productive in grief, Lady Glenconner will also publish many of Bim’s earliest poems and letters to her–overpoweringly sentimental and desperately sad proof of a little boy’s love for his beautiful, loving mother.

I have written before about the difficulty of integrating the writing of grief-stricken parents into this polyphonic project–grief-stricken mothers, for the most part. Lady Glenconner, however, writes sparingly in her own voice, and says much of what she would say in quotation–of young Bim above all. She means to show not only his love of her, but his love of life–both not to be doubted–and also, with some of the poems, his claim to poetic talent.

I’m not sure what to do but include some of what she preserved, here and over the coming days. It’s heartbreaking and, I hope, raw. I’ll close with something of hers, of his (if that makes sense).

But first, one mourner to begin the condoling: Osbert Sitwell, a friend and comrade who had made himself a family friend, is perhaps best positioned to call across the unfathomable gulf that now separates Bim and his mother,

I, though I only have known Bim for two years, feel a gap which can never be filled; I shall always feel the gratitude for his friendship. I am sure he faced death with the marvellous vitality, courage, and love of beautiful ideas and things that always actuated him. His only sorrow in death would be your sorrow, and that of those who loved him. You were always his one thought, and he would never even smoke, because he had promised you, once, not to. He was convinced of a future life. I am sure that a vitality such as his can never be wasted.

It was this same note–Christian, gentle, uplifting–that Lady Glenconner used when it came time for the abrupt transition from the letters of the living boy to the memorials of the dead officer.

The posthumous chapter begins with this epigraph:

“‘Out on thee, Death,’ Justice and Pity said,
‘Why take the young, and let the old go free?’
‘Religion is the worship of the dead,’
Death answered, ‘know ye not? more foolish ye.
How could Below look upward to Above
Did not these die, whom Gods and Mothers love?'”

F. W. Bain

Then there is a brief quotation from Tennyson–“That death whose truer nature is Onward. . . “–and Lady Glenconner’s brief confirmation of what every reader must already know:

On the 22nd September, 1916, Bim went on.[3]

But what could be as sad as this?bimbo-tennants-dedication-to-moth

References and Footnotes

  1. Edward George, I believe, a cousin at some distance to Winston.
  2. The Grenadier Guards in the Great War, II, 137.
  3. Memoir, 237-9.

Raymond Asquith Mourned and Remembered; Ford Madox Hueffer in the Light of the Moon

It has been two days since the assault of the 15th, which we can now describe as the opening of the Battle of Flers-Courcelette. C.E. Montague continues to roam the margins of the recent battlefield.

Sept. 17.–To outskirts of Martinpuich. Many of our dead on ridge. More Germans in sunken lane under trees. Millions of flies black on them. Blackened faces. Open eyes staring up at sky as if asking whether there is any god anywhere.[1]

Some, of course, asked this question from their living lips, or from their quick and nimble pens. But Raymond Asquith–or those who loved him, at least, were spared this after-fate. Asquith was buried in a British cemetery just behind the lines, the day he died, under a heavy German bombardment.

Rumor flew, once, to the wives and mothers of slain soldiers, but in modern war she makes her way slowly back through the ruinous aftermath of a battle, trudging down communications trenches into a day or two of bureaucratic limbo. Then after this first slow progress she bursts like a MIRV, speeding grief to all those who might feel it most.

I don’t know when, exactly, Katherine Asquith received the telegram, but today is likely. As for how she took this worst of news, we have the testimony of Diana Manners, her friend and her husband’s Coterie-mate. Asquith’s last letter, it seems, was to Diana rather than to Katherine. Written literally on the eve of battle, it did not overstate his chances in the coming attack. Perhaps Asquith needed to worry someone other than his wife, or perhaps a letter to Katherine is lost. Perhaps, too, he was just being realistic–seventeen officers in his battalion were killed or wounded on the 15th.[2]

But whatever his reasons, the dark tone of that last letter had left Diana Manners terrified.

She did not often pray, but she spent much of the next two days on her knees, once in church before a lighted candle. Her state was so desperate that it was almost a relief when the news arrived. The pain, she said, was physical: ‘a sensation never before felt… my brain is revolving so fast, screaming “Raymond killed, my divine Raymond killed” over and over again… I have lost with him my energy and hope and all that blinds one to life’s horror. I loved him a little better than any living soul and the near future seems unfaceable.’

But Raymond wasn’t her husband, and there were other bright and dashing men among her intimate friends. Manners immediately rushed to Mells, where she found her old friend Katherine Asquith “crouched in a dark room,” “too dead a thing to seek death, only craving to die from numbness.”[3]

There she cared for her friend as best she could, but with death as with life, rivalry. Soon the widow’s superior mourning rights would begin to chafe the never-exceeded Diana, and the two women separated. Manners had her work as a nurse and Katherine Asquith had her children, and despair had, eventually, to be turned aside.

A sampling, now, of the eulogies.

First, Maurice Baring, of the coterie and the Royal Flying Corps, who gives our grounding in today, a century back.

On the 17th, while I was showing a party of Russians round the Aerodrome, someone casually told me that Raymond Asquith had been killed.

εἶπέ τις, Ἡράκλειτε, τεὸν μόρον[4]

That is,

They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead,
They brought me bitter news to hear and bitter tears to shed.

Baring turns next to the implicit question that the death of a promising man raises:

What a waste people said, when they thought of his brilliant brain, his radiant wit, his mastery of language, his solid scholarship, and all his rare gifts. But it wasn’t a waste, and never for one moment did I think so.

Raymond’s service at the front was the crown and purpose of his life. A purpose fulfilled to a noble close. He loved being in the Army as much as he had hated being at the Bar. He went on with his life in the Army where he had left it off at Oxford, and he died in a second miraculous spring; and by being in the Army and being what he was, and doing what he did, in the way he did it, he made it a little easier for us to win the war.[5]

The epilogue to the Life and Letters volume includes passed-along praise from Asquith’s men. His batman, the unforenamed Needham,

added in a letter to Katharine that ‘such coolness under shell fire as Mr. Asquith displayed would be difficult to equal’. The tributes that were paid to his courage and sang-froid were by no means confined to the privileged circle in which so much of his life had been spent. Another private soldier in his platoon wrote home to an old schoolmaster at Walworth Vicarage in south London: ‘There is not one of us who would not have changed places with him if we had thought that he would have lived, for he was one of the finest men who ever wore the King’s uniform, and he did not know what fear was…’

 

One by one, their friends gathered themselves and wrote to Katherine:

Baring dared–I think that’s the right word–to argue at once for a meaningful death: “R. having gone will make it more difficult for everyone who knew him to bear the war—and yet, dearest Katharine, I feel his death to be the most triumphant of all his brilliant achievements . . . only there is no one who ever lived who will be so much missed.”

Winston Churchill took months to write–out of an excess of emotion, he claimed, rather than a refusal to face a difficult task. He walks the line between acknowledging loss and asserting consolation with a bit more grace:

I always had an intense admiration for Raymond, and also a warm affection for him; and both were old established ties… These gallant charming figures that flash and gleam amid the carnage–always so superior to it, masters of their souls, disdainful of death and suffering–are an inspiration and an example to all. And he was one of the very best.[6]

Aubrey Herbert managed a more human tone, and addressed not only the loss of Raymond–“A great bit of our life has gone with Raymond, the bit that was full of light”[7]–but also the coming and continuing suffering of his widow: “It is always best to be brave, and now there is nothing else, but who has had to give what you have given?”

Who else? Let’s see: John Buchan will break into his own memoir to write an extended eulogy for Asquith. It squeaks a bit on the highest notes–one imagines Asquith chortling in Elysion to hear himself compared to a Byzantine object stripped of ornament and revealed as a Phidias–but then comes back down to praise a man recognizable from his letters: “He disliked emotion, not because he felt lightly but because he felt deeply… War meant to him the shattering of every taste and interest, but he did not hesitate.”[8] Buchan goes on to praise his “perfect lucidity of mind and precision of phrase” and “pale grace.” “Our roll of honour is long, but it holds no nobler figure.[8]

But I think I will give the last word on Raymond Asquith to Diana Manners. In some ways, at least, each loved the other best. For her this was “…the worst of all our losses… By his death everything changed, except the war that ground its blind murderous treadmill round and round without retreat or advance, with no sign of the beginning of the end.”[10]

 

I have exhausted us with condolence, I think, and yet it feels, even a century on, like grim and unrewarding reading. In our pale, century-gone following-up, there is also nothing to do but be brave, in a small way, and keep reading. So it falls to Ford Madox Hueffer–a most unlikely candidate for the offering of oblique solace–to provide the “moving on” poem.

First, though, a quick note. There was too much, two days ago, to discuss the dated manuscript of an essay on war writing, which he called “A Day of Battle,” appropriately enough (although he was in the Salient, and knew nothing of the Guards at Flers-Courcelette). Which is a shame, because it is very much on point. Ford has been prolific of late, and in several genres, but I realized to my surprise that his essay’s opening claim is actually accurate: “I have asked myself continuously why I can write nothing… about the psychology of the Active Service of which I have seen my share. And why cannot I even evoke pictures of the Somme or the flat lands around Ploegsteert?…”

This is a problem for a novelist, naturally. Ford’s first attempt at a war novel, entitled “True Love & a GCM,” features a protagonist, Morton, who suffers from memory problems after being concussed by a shell and is stuck with the battalion transport when he would prefer either to be in the trenches or on the staff… a familiar-sounding chap. And today, a century back, in the novel’s chronology, Morton gets a whiff of gas from a German gas shell that lands nearby–I do not know if this is a “real” date or not.[11]

But if it was, it didn’t stop Ford from writing another strange and winsome poem which parlays the ironic contrast of trenches and conventional poetic effects into a wistful (but also somewhat ungainly–can poetry lumber and still be wistful?) love poem:

 

Clair de Lune

I

I should like to imagine
A moonlight in which there would be no machine-guns!
For, it is possible
To come out of a trench or a hut or a tent or a church all in ruins:
To see the black perspective of long avenues
All silent.
The white strips of sky
At the sides, cut by the poplar trunks:
The white strips of sky
Above, diminishing–
The silence and blackness of the avenue
Enclosed by immensities of space
Spreading away
Over No Man’s Land. . . .
For a minute . . .
For ten . . .
There will be no star shells
But the untroubled stars,
There will be no Very light
But the light of the quiet moon Like a swan. And silence. . . .

Then, far away to the right thro’ the moonbeams “Wukka Wukka” will go the machine-guns,
And, far away to the left
Wukka Wukka.
And sharply,
Wuk . . . Wuk. . . and then silence
For a space in the clear of the moon.

II

I should like to imagine
A moonlight in which the machine-guns of trouble
Will be silent. . . .

Do you remember, my dear,
Long ago, on the cliffs, in the moonlight,
Looking over to Flatholme
We sat. . . . Long ago! . . .
And the things that you told me . . . .
Little things in the clear of the moon,
The little, sad things of a life. . . .

We shall do it again
Full surely,
Sitting still, looking over at Flatholme.

Then, far away to the right
Shall sound the Machine Guns of trouble
Wukka-wukka!
And, far away to the left, under Flatholme,
Wukka-wuk! . . .

I wonder, my dear, can you stick it?
As we should say: “Stick it, the Welch!”
In the dark of the moon,
Going over. . . .

Nieppe, near Plugstreet, 17/9/16

References and Footnotes

  1. Elton, C.E. Montague, 143.
  2. I have depended for my Asquith narrative on the published Life and Letters, which mentions the last letter to Manners but does not include it. Which is very curious, but I do not know why.
  3. Ziegler, Diana Cooper, 78. This probably occurred a day or two hence, given that Ziegler allows two days after receiving Asquith's letter of the 14th before she heard the news. But surely Manners would have learned not long after the official telegram was sent to Mells--she was in London and knew many people with War Office or Grenadier Guards connections
  4. The epigram continues: ἐς δέ με δάκρυ ἤγαγεν, ἐμνήσθην δ᾽ ὁσσάκις ἀμφότεροι. Really, this is kind of an annoying move, because even in an ideal world of Asquiths and Shaw-Stewarts and shell-hole-Aeschylus-readers like Macmillan, pretty much everyone still had to look up Greek. Latin tags? Well, hey, maybe, because even the non-classicists had to absorb a few dozen in school. But not Greek. While this bit of Callimachus is very well known, it was surely very much better known to the vast majority of Baring and Asquith's contemporaries in its English translation. So I will break in with William Johnson Cory's chiming couplet.
  5. Baring, R.F.C.H.Q., 178-9.
  6. A Deep Cry, 151.
  7. Fitzherbert, The Man Who Was Greenmantle, 185.
  8. Pilgrim's Way, 58-60.
  9. Pilgrim's Way, 58-60.
  10. Autobiography, 149.
  11. War Prose, 36, 128.