Siegfried Sassoon in Barracks and Jack Martin in the Alps: and Both on the Brotherhood of Soldiers

Siegfried Sassoon‘s brief but spirited war against the war–better described, perhaps, as his revolt against the army, or come to think of it, as his revolt against the war conceived as dependent on certain grand strategic principles and decisions–is now long over. He has been sent to Limerick, far from combat, and plunged back into the congenial all-male companionship and calmly structured life of the garrison officer.

He has not forgotten yet what men in barracks are for, in either the purposive or future sense of the phrase, and he will continue to think and write about the wrongness of men being sent to die in what seems to be an endless war, coolly prolonged by those who could end it through negotiation. But whether he is now simply recharging his poetic batteries (dreadful phrase) or working on the task of beautiful idealization that so often precedes literary martyrdom, it’s hard to tell. in any case, he has turned his eye and his pen toward the young soldiers once more under his care.

 

In Barracks

First World War Poetry Digital Archive, Oxford

The barrack-square, washed clean with rain,
Shines wet and wintry-grey and cold.
Young Fusiliers, strong-legged and bold,
March and wheel and march again.

The sun looks over the barrack gate,
Warm and white with glaring shine,
To watch the soldiers of the Line
That life has hired to fight with fate.

Fall out: the long parades are done.
Up comes the dark; down goes the sun.
The square is walled with windowed light.
Sleep well, you lusty Fusiliers;

Shut your brave eyes on sense and sight,
And banish from your dreamless ears
The bugle’s dying notes that say,
‘Another night; another day.’

 

 

From Limerick, then, to Italy. It would have been nice, for purposes of comparison, if I had touched us down today, ever so briefly, in the frozen muck of the Flanders plain. But we remember, do we not?

The war is very different in the Alps. But Jack Martin, too, is stretching his writing muscles as the sun goes down–rather earlier than it did for Sassoon’s grim-fated soldiers in Ireland.

We never tire of looking at the great mountains… They seem to look down on the plains and on the puny ways of men with a dignified superiority much as a philosopher might watch the sport of kittens…

Often I have seen photographs taken above the clouds but today I have seen the real thing. I place it as one of the most wonderful experiences of my life. The sun was getting low in the heavens and we were preparing our tea when I looked out of the door towards the plain and it was all covered with a great white cloud which reached up to within a hundred yards or so of us. The huge white mass was almost still…

Although the sun was sinking it was still just above the cloud and touched it here and there with wonderful tints of rose and rosy-gold…

They saw nothing of this at Brigade HQ, for being at a lower level they were enveloped in the mist. Soon after sundown the cloud disappeared as suddenly as it came. Nature is a quick-change artist in this country and no mistake.

So that was sunset–but Martin, too, turns his thoughts down from the sun and its beauties and mysteries to his comrades. He is compelled to, for the sun is down and he is still outside, on guard under the cruel stars.

I sometimes lose patience with Sassoon’s solipsism, but by the coincidence of their writing today–very different sorts of writing by very different men–Martin reminds me that Sassoon’s conflicted and conflicting impulses were honestly motivated: the sickness of war, its crime and its pity, are that it kills people–it comes first for the eager young men–and for no good reason. And one early and ironic lesson that war teaches these young men is that they need each other very badly if they are to endure it.

I am now on night duty. Sitting by the firelight has grown oppressive so I have lit a precious candle to enable me to pass the time in writing. I have been outside the billet and the silence is the sort that can be felt. People who live under modern conditions of civilisation can scarcely comprehend the meaning of absolute silence. And the silence of the trenches among the mountains is uncanny and almost palpable…

There is not the least sign of life or activity and the winking stars look down like cynical eyes of cruel gods ready to laugh at human suffering and misery. Yet you know well enough that away in front, men are ceaselessly watching, ready to give the alarm at the first sign of animation on the enemy’s lines; and there are rifles and machine guns and trench mortars and field guns and howitzers of all kinds and sizes ready to break forth into a clamorous roaring and screeching at any moment…

You know that all that noise is possible and the Silence makes you shudder. It feels uncanny. It oppresses you…. you creep back into your billet with cold shivering down your spine and a dull nervousness in your heart–And there you have a light and you see your comrades asleep, and hear their snorings and inarticulate grunting and you feel like being at home once more. Your spine becomes warm and erect–your heart steady and brave, and you say ‘Bah! I wasn’t afraid; I was only interested![1]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Sapper Martin, 165-7.

Olaf Stapledon Need Not Worry About Parting; Robert Graves Has a More Pleasant Walk in the Snow; Cynthia Asquith and Bernard Freyberg Clash… Over Siegfried Sassoon’s Hero; The Loves and Letters of Patrick Shaw Stewart

In a few moments it will be back to the Souls/Coterie and their tangle of letters and affairs, but we’ll begin today, a century back with a lonelier–and purer–soul. Olaf Stapledon, still home, still on leave, writes again to Agnes Miller, in Australia, and he takes yet another small step toward an uncharacteristic despair.

Sunday night, the last night of leave. I go early tomorrow. This evening Mother played some Rubinstein on the piano and part of it was a “melody” that you used to play. It brought back ancient days. Father and I had such a wet walk this morning. Thurstastone was all one driving blizzard.— But what’s the use of writing you a sort of schoolboy diary? The last night of leave is a poor night. It’s bad enough for oneself but it’s worse for one’s people; and their sorrow makes one grieve far more. It’s good to talk to you tonight, for I am not on the point of leaving you—alas, partings need not worry us, for we have not yet our meeting. You are always as near as ever, and as far.[1]

That rather sets the tone, doesn’t it? Despair and sorrow and high romance–and, that, of course is the use of writing such a diary.

 

Robert Graves, however, is more fortunate: his beloved is near at hand. His biographer notes yet another visit to Nancy Nicholson–and confirms that the Merseyside weather had reached London by evening.

On Sunday, after an early lunch, he went into town again, and did not arrive back in Wimbledon until three in the morning, after walking the last last of the journey, all the way from Putney, in a driving blizzard.[2]

 

Actually, it seems that it was snowing in London throughout the day. Last night, a century back, Cynthia Asquith locked her bedroom door after (somehow!) using “purple passages” of Shakespeare to hold off the advances of Bernard Freyberg. Today the two resumed their contest of wills in a proxy battle over–wait for it!–the poetry of a certain young writer absent from–though present in verse at–a recent soirée.

Sunday, 16th December

Slept badly after agitating evening and woke to swirling snowstorm. Mary resurrected and joined us after breakfast. Freyberg inveighed against the Georgian Poets and reproached me for holding a brief for Siegfried Sassoon. I maintained that, having fully demonstrated his personal physical courage, he had earned the right to exhibit moral courage as a pacifist without laying himself open to the charge of cloaking physical cowardice under the claim of moral courage. Freyberg is very uncompromising in his condemnation and, with some justice, says it is offensive to come back and say, ‘I can’t lead men to their death any more’—it implies a monopoly of virtue, as if other officers liked doing it because they acquiesced in their duty.

Yes, “some justice”–which is what Rivers led Sassoon to see, although–and this is an important distinction–with an emphasis more on the position of the men-to-be-led-to-their-deaths than on the unfairly maligned virtue of the other officers…

But Freyberg, an Argonaut, a 1914 volunteer, a V.C., and a young brigadier, is too canny, at least, to bring only a medal to a poetry fight. He has read some of Sassoon, and he has a practical objection:

He thought the poem called ‘The Hero’ caddish, as it might destroy every mother’s faith in the report of her son’s death. Certainly Siegfried Sassoon breaks the conspiracy of silence, but sometimes I strongly feel that those at home should be made to realise the full horror, even to the incidental ugliness, as much as possible.[3]

A strange “but” in that last sentence–but it is fascinating, of course, to find a woman at home taking the side of the poets’ realism/horror while the eminent fighting soldier stands up for the non-caddishness of comforting lies. Asquith’s declaration here is very much like the intense enthusiasm of later readers of Great War Poetry: not only does she hold a brief for Sassoon, but it’s essentially the same brief that has become canonical. She would deny the experiential gulf–or, rather, she would recognize it and esteem those poets who try to write across it, and read eagerly in order to be one of the better sort of home-front people, who read in order to understand the true war…

There are several ironies here, including Sassoon’s habit (which should be apparent to Asquith if she has read his books) of expressing a casual nastiness towards both aristocratic patronesses and older women and Asquith’s scoring such high marks in our implied hierarchy of worthy readers/home front loved ones while her husband, unmentioned in these sections of her diary, is overseas, and she is embroiled in a pseudo-affair with a brother officer…

But back to the practical point: there’s a war on, and someone must write something to a million grieving mothers. Freyberg has probably written dozens–he has been both a company commander and a battalion commander. And is absolute truth always a virtue? Was he definitively wrong to strive to find some balance between truth and mercy?

Here is ‘The Hero,’ then, Sassoon’s no-holds-barred assault on the convention of the C.O.’s condolence letter. It is also, incidentally, one of the few poems to feature a female character and yet not treat her scorn–condescension, perhaps, but not contempt.

‘Jack fell as he’d have wished,’ the mother said,
And folded up the letter that she’d read.
‘The Colonel writes so nicely.’ Something broke
In the tired voice that quavered to a choke.
She half looked up. ‘We mothers are so proud
Of our dead soldiers.’ Then her face was bowed.

Quietly the Brother Officer went out.
He’d told the poor old dear some gallant lies
That she would nourish all her days, no doubt
For while he coughed and mumbled, her weak eyes
Had shone with gentle triumph, brimmed with joy,
Because he’d been so brave, her glorious boy.

He thought how ‘Jack’, cold-footed, useless swine,
Had panicked down the trench that night the mine
Went up at Wicked Corner; how he’d tried
To get sent home, and how, at last, he died,
Blown to small bits. And no one seemed to care
Except that lonely woman with white hair.

 

There are other Argonauts abroad in London, and they have crossed paths all too quietly.

Missing, alas, from Diana Manners and Duff Cooper‘s diaries are accounts of Patrick Shaw Stewart‘s recent leave. The most probable explanation is simple awkwardness: Shaw Stewart has seen a great deal of the war, and Cooper is only recently commissioned, so there is a great gap of experience there, and experience is an incontestable, unexchangeable currency of honor… and yet it is the new subaltern Cooper who is on the verge of–to fall into the old sexist language, here–winning the prize they both coveted, and not the brigadier with the V.C.

Diana Manners avoided Shaw Stewart, seeing him only for a few meals, even when the two were thrown together (with Duff and a number of others) last weekend at a house party in Somerset. Shaw Stewart still enjoyed the party, describing a bag of fifty pheasants as “not a bad change from the winter campaign,” but, ignored by the woman he loved (and was still doggedly pursuing, by letter when not in person), he spent much of his time and energy on his more unconventional but equally intense relationship with “Ettie,” Lady Desborough, the light of the Souls, now fifty and the mother of Shaw Stewart’s dead friends Julian and Billy Grenfell.

Strange and intertwined as all these relationships are, it’s still remarkable to note that today, a century back[4] Shaw Stewart returned from leave to take over command of his battalion from Oc Asquith (the youngest of the three brothers, now promoted brigadier) after having left Manners (the intimate friend and best epistolary sparring partner of Raymond Asquith, the eldest of the three brothers) and Cooper behind, and then been seen to the train, a few days ago, by his friend and Naval Division colleague Bernard Freyberg. That’s right: Freyberg, who has been laying siege to the matrimonial loyalty of Cynthia Asquith, wife of the middle brother, Herbert, and who has let off all his guns to deter a nuisance foray in the form of a Siegfried Sassoon poem.

Shaw Stewart used that train journey to write to Lady Desborough, playfully refuting her suggestion that he had bought notepaper in order to write to “his girl friends–“even though he does fact continue to write to Diana Manners “almost daily.”

I did buy the notepaper, but it was to write to you to tell you how infinitely I adore you and how perfect and essential you have been to me this leave. What should I do without you? You are Julian and Billy, Edward and Charles to me, and then you are yourself.

Strange and effusive, but fitting, perhaps, for a letter between one of the great melodramatic late Victorians and an “Edwardian meteor.” And however overcooked we might find their social self-celebrations, however overheated their prose, there is no denying the fact that Lady Desborough, who has lost two of her three sons, and Shaw Stewart, who has lost the four friends he names (and many others), are united by harrowing and tremendous loss.

But, once more at the front, his letters–and loves–seem to have fallen into a more predictable course. Perhaps Diana was frustratingly cold when he was in England, but now, in the trenches, where it is bitterly cold in all too unmetaphorical sense, the old habit of reaching out to her, of telling his days to her, is still of great comfort: she is completely unobtainable, but the thoughts still warm him, perhaps. Shaw Stewart, ever the classicist, makes a nice tale of an ordinary, if severe, unpleasantness of winter duty:

Church Parade at 11 am… I thoughtfully issued an order that great-coats might be worn; then, proceeding through the icy blast to put on my own–the one you know too well–I found it caked with mud and the blood of my faithful uncomplaining horse. So, mindful of Hector’s rule that “it is impossible to make prayer to Zeus, lord of the clouds, all bespattered with mud and filth,”[5] I attended without, and nearly died of cold, besides having to sing to hymns without the band…

I inherited Oc’s half-shed and succeeded in putting on first, silk pyjamas, then flannel pyjamas, and then a fur lining, and then everything else on top, and in not waking more than twice in the night feeling cold…[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Talking Across the World, 261.
  2. R. P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 188-9.
  3. Diaries, 380-1.
  4. I think; the dating is not terribly clear. Oh for uniformly prim footnoting!
  5. Iliad VI, c. 263.
  6. Jebb, Patrick Shaw Stewart, An Edwardian Meteor, 236-8.

Diana Manners is a Catalog of Calm Amongst the Bombs; Nothing of Importance for Siegfried Sassoon, and the Embarrassment of His Glory of Women

Today, a century back, the survivors of the 2nd Royal Welch had the pleasure of being inspected by–and inspecting in turn–the Commander-in-Chief of the B.E.F.

The C.-in-C. rode on to the ground at 12.30, twenty minutes late. After pinning ribbons on a few he remounted and passed along the lines of Infantry. Then we marched past, uninspired, on our way back to billets. We were told that “these inspections are his only recreation.” He looked as if he took it sadly to-day…[1]

 

Meanwhile, one of their more illustrious recent subalterns, Siegfried Sassoon, was in Scotland, writing to Robbie Ross.

3 October, 1917 Craiglockhart

My dear Robbie, I hope the air raids haven’t annoyed you? I am sending you some Cambridge Magazine cameos…

I have great difficulty in doing any work as I am constantly disturbed by nurses etc and the man who sleeps in my room—an awful bore. It is pretty sickening when I feel like writing something and have to dry up and try to be polite (you can imagine with how much success!) However, Rivers returns on Friday and may be able to get me a room to myself (or get me away from these imbeciles).

Oh, for a room of one’s own in which to write… And it’s pretty amusing that Sassoon describes his roommate in a two-person hospital room as “the man who sleeps in my room!”

But if he hasn’t been writing much, he has been reading: the war has gone on long enough to see another little loop of ours close: Sassoon is reading what we have recently been reading, as its events were taking place:

…Get Nothing of Importance by Bernard Adams (Methuen) He was in the First R.W.F. with me for eight months (and mentions me once under the name of Scott). The book is by no means bad and he was a nice creature.

“Was:” Adams died of wounds on February 27th.

 

Sassoon shows little to no indication of being interested in writing such a record himself–prose is only prose (“by no means bad” rather than “good”) and memoirs are for the dead. Poetry is still the truth and the way…

In between the two above sections of the letter, Sassoon had mentioned a new potential friend/patron:

Lady Margaret Sackville has sent me her war poems and asked me to lunch! A rival to Lady Ottoline; and
quite ten years younger!

But of course he has already passed Lady Margaret–in a gesture that can be read as both an act of literary/social generosity and a snub–on to his new sidekick, Wilfred Owen, who will invite her to contribute to The Hydra.

Then, in a postscript, Sassoon gets back to his own poetry, in particular to a poem that directly addresses some examples of what he generally considers to be the fouler sex:

I sent Massingham a very good sonnet, but be hasn’t replied! It is called ‘Glory of Women’—and gives them beans.[2]

Beans! Ha! Well. This is certainly a slashing indictment of unfeeling “home front” types, so flaying the unfeeling idiots who wax complacent on the far side of the experiential gulf that this satire almost wins a conviction of their conspiracy to commit further war crimes.

 

You love us when we’re heroes, home on leave,
Or wounded in a mentionable place.
You worship decorations; you believe
That chivalry redeems the war’s disgrace.
You make us shells. You listen with delight,
By tales of dirt and danger fondly thrilled.
You crown our distant ardours while we fight,
And mourn our laurelled memories when we’re killed.
You can’t believe that British troops “retire”
When hell’s last horror breaks them, and they run,
Trampling the terrible corpses—blind with blood.
    O German mother dreaming by the fire,
    While you are knitting socks to send your son
    His face is trodden deeper in the mud

 

Devastating… but wait–why “women?” There is nothing here that explains why it is, exactly, that the sins of women are particularly grave. Or that their political disempowerment and the social strictures that keep them from full participation in war (however much these strictures are evolving or temporarily loosened) might explain their apparently hypocritical position as actually far less hypocritical than the similar statements by the post-conscription aged male property-owners who run the country…

It’s a solid satirical sonnet–a great, sweeping, but errant blow. Like the rest of the letter, it offers proof that nasty myopia and broad-brush stereotyping can coexist with skillful prosody.

 

Not the least ironic bit of Sassoon’s letter is that it begins with that polite question about air raids. This might remind Sassoon that, yes, although no women in England have seen soldiers dying in actual trenches and that many no doubt mouth patriotic pieties instead of listening or seeking out the worst truths of war, thousands upon thousands are now being bombed on a regular basis, while he is safe in Scotland playing golf, writing poetry, and complaining about his roommate.

The air raids are troubling Diana Manning, for instance–or are they?

London, 3 October 1917

Thank God to be back even in these discordant nights. I dined with Ivor last night in the cellar of Wimborne House, after an hour in the Arlington Street basement, with some of the wounded, and screaming kitchenmaids — most trying. Later at Wimborne House arrived Jenny [Lady Randolph] Churchill and Maud Cunard, both a little tipsy, dancing and talking wildly. They had been walking and had got scared and had stopped for a drink. Maud had a set purpose to get to the opera, because it being raid-night the public required example…

I’ve ordered myself chemises embroidered in hand-grenades and a nightgown with fauns…[3]

It’s not Lady Manning’s job to refute Sassoon’s misogyny–it’s just the luck of my date-obsessed bibliographic trawl. But it works out well, I think: she can be both a flighty and insensitive aristocrat and a victim of the war. She is enormously privileged, yet she has also sought out the war’s its suffering–more, really, than most people in her precise social position. She has lost friend after friend (including one whose grave we will visit tomorrow) and has worked long hours as a hospital volunteer, though she writes little about this aspect of her life. And her tendency to continue to live the high life and scoff at kitchenmaids and joke about bombs is neither heroic nor contemptible nor very different from Sassoon’s comportment. A wealthy woman in London rather than a soldier in the trenches watching faces get trodden deeper into the mud, she has not been as directly traumatized by the war as Sassoon. Which is perhaps why she is more consistent, and rather less hysterical…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The War the Infantry Knew, 406.
  2. Diaries, 187-8.
  3. Autobiography, 155-6.

Thomas Hardy’s Call to National Service; Edward Thomas Gives Two Views of Bombardments, and an Otherworldly Ruin; St. David’s Day Hallowed by the Royal Welch Fusiliers, but not Poor David Jones

Thomas Hardy is no jingoist. In fact, his refusal to be enthusiastic about the bloody business of the war and his loathing of the very idea that a political disaster should lead one group of people to hate another notably similar group of people set him apart from the majority of Britain’s older writers.

In his emotional or poetic stance he is something very close to a dissident, the honorary colonel of the swelling regiment of the poets of protest and disillusionment. And yet he is still a patriot, still willing to entertain the (reasonable!) expectation that a great effort must be made to finish the terrible task that England began. And that criticism of the government’s conduct, of the principles by which the war is being raised is loyal, right, patriotic, and proper.

This month, a century back, Hardy put out this call, notable as much for its grim tone as for its familiar sentiments.

A Call to National Service

Up and be doing, all who have a hand
To lift, a back to bend. It must not be
In times like these that vaguely linger we
To air our vaunts and hopes; and leave our land

Untended as a wild of weeds and sand.
–Say, then, “I come!” and go, O women and men
Of palace, ploughshare, easel, counter, pen;
That scareless, scathless, England still may stand.

Would years but let me stir as once I stirred
At many a dawn to take the forward track,
And with a stride plunged on to enterprize,

I now would speed like yester wind that whirred
Through yielding pines; and serve with never a slack,
So loud for promptness all around outcries!

 

In Arras, Edward Thomas sat down to another lengthy letter, today, a century back, to his wife Helen. This is one of those cases in which what will be a brief note in his diary is fleshed out in the letter into a vivid vignette, a picture that constitutes writerly exercise as much as relationship maintenance. Thomas is in no hurry, as the younger men tossed into the trenches so often are, to emphasize the depth and breadth of the experiential gulf–he writes to share, and, simply, to write–loved ones are easier to face across a sheet of paper than his exacting muse.

And I must wonder, looking ahead into the letter: is Thomas precise or indelicate in his aviation simile?

1 March 1917 Arras [Group H.Q.]

Dearest

This afternoon I had nothing in particular to do and Berringtond the Signals Officer of the Group, asked me to go along with him just to see how his telephone wires were being laid alongside the marsh at the edge of the city to our batteries (including 244). So I got the colonel to give me a little job to do on the way and we went out. It was sunny and warm with a fresh wind. I did what I had to do and while I was doing it Herrington sat down on the bank and smoked, which made him more or less forget what he had meant to do. Then we strolled on till a German plane came over and the alarm was blown and we sat down and smoked while the Anti-Aircraft sent scores of  shells singing past us and spotted the plane with white puffs. The German had been going quite low over the city, taking photographs no doubt, but he rose up till he was as small as a lark and wasn’t touched…

Thomas next describes desultory German shelling near their position and the first rounds fired in response by his own battery. But the more striking sight is across no man’s land:

…the day was very clear and we could see the German lines and the ghastly village of ruined houses and dead trees that was my first sight of the enemy country a fortnight ago. At first I couldn’t believe it, it looked so near. Yet the line of dead tall straight trees against the sky was quite unmistakeable…

Thomas describes the rest of the ramble that eventually took him back to Group HQ–but more on that below.

I have often made reference to the gaps and rough patches in Edward and Helen Thomas’s marriage. But under the strain–and separation–of war, the marriage seems to be, if we might take an unromantic and practical point of view, doing its job. He is lonely, and he reaches out to his wife, taking some comfort from the one-sided conversation…

Now it is 5.50 p.m. Everybody is out except the Colonel who has another Colonel with him in the office, so I am alone in the dusk, and now this moment they have closed the shutters so that it seems night. It seems I am not escaping at once as the Colonel is having some difficulty in getting hold of the man who was to succeed me.

I have had a lot of Mother’s cake and a lot of tea and my ears are burning. I should like to talk to someone as I can’t write.[1]

The letter continues tomorrow… and yet Thomas’s writing for the day isn’t done. He also wrote a very different sort of letter to Eleanor Farjeon. Thomas, proud of his Welsh descent, acknowledges the date, the festival of the patron saint of Wales.

March 1    St David’s Day

My dear Eleanor, The ginger came. All of 244 had a good dip into it and there was still some left in the tin. It was very good and it was still more good of you to send it. Thank you. Next day Helen wrote to say you really were coming to High Beech at last. I am expecting to hear now that you did.

Well, I expect to return to 244 in a day or two. They know I don’t want to stay here and a successor is being interviewed today, so that I shall soon cease to be a glorified lacky or humble adjutant to an old Indian colonel perplexed in the extreme. It has been a useful experience. I have got used to the telephone and I have seen how things are done and not done at Headquarters.

With Farjeon, Thomas takes another tack on the experience of being shelled. He has weathered it, yes–but his imagination is not insensitive to the appalling mystery of bombardment: with weapons so massive, even the smallest adjustment would spell destruction.

Incidentally too I have been in the midst of quite a noisy artillery give and take. You can’t imagine the noise this makes in a city. I don’t pretend I liked it. Sometimes I found myself fancying that if only the enemy pointed the gun like this ——– instead of like this ______ he would land a shell on the dinner table and send us to a quieter place. However he didn’t. 244 is just going into action with its own guns and I wish I were there. Soon I believe I shall be…

I cut down Thomas’s description of the sight across no man’s land in his letter to Helen because it is more vivid in this one–nor is it the last such description.

With Farjeon, Thomas is a little more willing to show himself horrified, to allude to the dark places in his imagination that cannot but be stimulated by the new sights of war. He has been here for several weeks, but the sight of empty towns and the ruins of recently thriving habitations still shock him. As they should… but he is not the sort of writer who uses the phrase “another world” lightly.

We are wondering now if the enemy is going to retire from this front. It will be strange walking about in the ghastly village which was the first I saw of the enemy’s ground, a silent still village of ruined houses and closegrown tall trees stark and dark lining a road above the trenches. It was worse than any deserted brickworks or mine. It looked in another world from ours, even from the scarred world in which I stood. In a curious way its very name now always calls up the thing I saw and the way I felt as I saw it.

The name resembles a name in Malory, especially in its English pronunciation and this also gives a certain tone to the effect it had. I see it lining the brow of a gradual hill halfway up which is the English line with the German above it. The houses and trees dense and then to right and left only trees growing thinner till at last the ridge sweeping away is bare for some miles. But this is E. T.’s vein. Goodbye. Keep well and write soon.

Yours ever
Edward Thomas[2]

This must be the village of Beaurains, just south and east of Arras on the German lines, and remembering Sir Gareth “Beaumains” form Malory.

Oh, that Edward Thomas would write a dark twisted fantasy of the middle ages behind the ruined Arras of the 20th century…

 

In honor of Dewi Sant, we close with our favorite Welsh unit and then our most determinedly Cymrophile London Welshman. First, the celebration of the Royal Welch Fusiliers–the third of the war (follow the links for 1915 and 1916).

March 1st, St. David’s Day. A genial, almost windless day ending in a crisp, starlit night. With times of rawness the weather was generally fine during this week. Fritz is said to have withdrawn from Gommecourt. When last we were in the line he blew a mine in the road that crossed No Man’s Land on our left front. As he is expected to withdraw on this front any day now, we, being on an hour’s notice, have had little to do since coming here.

It was nearing noon before there was any assurance that the officers St. David’s Day Dinner could be held. Provisional plans had been made, and leeks had been bought for the Battalion. Yates, Mann, Mess-servants, Pioneers and defaulters, all pulled together. A very scratch kitchen was fitted up in a broken and dismantled shrine, to the scandal of some French details; a hut built on to it, and used as a chapel during the French occupation, was repaired and enlarged. Timber had been got from the Engineers. Tables and benches were run up by the Pioneer Sergeant, “Daisy” Horton.

The merit of a plain menu was Parry’s excellent cooking: soup, lobster mayonnaise, stew, steam-pudding–the sauce was the thing, Scotch woodcock, dessert; whisky, port, champagne cup; coffee. Roger Poore, transferred from the Hants Yeomanry and recently posted as Second-in-Command, presided; the C.O. was on leave.

We had a jolly night. None of the traditional ritual was wanting, and there were many to eat the leek. A German howitzer shell-case, which had been used by the French as a gas-gong, served as loving-cup. It was to have been sent home after being inscribed and decorated by Sergeant-Shoemaker Johnson, a remarkably good artist in metal, but it was lost before Poore could make up his mind about the wording.[3]

 

And finally, an inauspicious St. David’s Day for his London Welsh namesake, Jones-the-Artist. David Jones had been sent to work with a unit of the engineers in the hopes that his draughtsmanship might be put to military use. Alas,

As a flash-spotter Jones was unsuccessful. Sometimes flash followed flash so quickly that he had to mark the second while reporting the first and he was unable to do two things at once. The mill swayed in the wind. In the dark he sometimes had difficulty finding the speaking end of the telephone. When reaching for the phone, he sometimes jogged the theodolite, moving its dial. Having lost the bearing, he made up the figures–not, he realised, a useful thing to do. By the end of February, he was discharged from the Survey Company on the trumped-up charge of not having had his hair cut. ‘My association with the Engineers’, he later remembered, ‘was shameful and brief.’’

On the morning of 1 March 1917 he trudged several miles under full pack to a railhead to catch a train back to his battalion north of Ypres. Despite his protests, a transport officer insisted on putting him on a train going south-west. That afternoon he arrived at a camp on a hill above Rouen, where he was detained for nearly a month, awaiting confirmation from his battalion…[4]

He could have run across Siegfried Sassoon there, and talked poetry! Or not, for Jones was a shy enlisted autodidact in a Kitchener battalion, and even if the rigidities of military hierarchy had not separated them, Jones’s diffidence and Sassoon’s snobbery would have done the job… Jones, alone, will head into the same sort of limbo that Sassoon has been enduring but in an even worse place: he will soon go to the “Bull Ring” at Étaples, to be shouted at by the very worst sort of over-enthusiastic drill sergeants…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Letters to Helen, 82-83.
  2. Farjeon, Edward Thomas..., 252-3.
  3. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 300-1.
  4. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 146-7.

Siegfried Sassoon and a Year Dying of Atrophy; Hermon’s Chugs and the Prayer for the Sentry; Tolkien Makes a Commitment; Edward Thomas Can’t Get Home for Christmas

We have four writers writing today, a century back. First–and at long last–Siegfried Sassoon has picked up his pen once more. His diary, dormant since August, now abruptly resumes:

December 22

Been at Litherland since December 4. Robert Graves went on leave to-day, and will be going to France quite soon. Haven’t been able to get a hunt with the Cheshire since December 9 owing to hard weather. An occasional round by myself at Formby and several expensive gorges at the Adelphi have been my only pleasures…

The only merit of this hut-life is that there are no women about. Plenty of fifth-rate officers—’Capel Sion Light Infantry’.

This is less a nasty complaint than a slur–Sassoon is referring to a couple of “savage” novels about Welsh peasants which had recently caused an outcry in Wales. Apparently the newer officers of the Royal Welch are not much to our Siegfried’s taste–but he has always been a snob. Also curious is the fact that Robert Graves does not appear on the links or at the Adelphi, but only on his way out once more…

I shall not go out till February unless I can’t help it. The long nights and cold weather are more than I can tackle. Last Christmas was at Montagne. Richardson, Edmund Dadd, Davies, Jackson, Pritchard, Thomas, Baynes, have been killed since then… I am more than twelve month’s older since then. 1916 has been a lucky year for me. This is a dreary drab flat place–smog and bleary sunsets and smoky munition-works at night with dotted lights and flares, and bugles blowing in the camp, and sirens hooting out on the Mersey mouth, and the intolerable boredom of Mess and not enough work to do, and people waiting their turn to go out again. No one is at his best here.

Did Siegfried sense a reader, just then, and muster a gesture at apology for his nastiness? Perhaps not, but he does now move toward a broader explanation of his mood:

And the men are mostly a poor lot—ill-trained truss-wearers, and wounded ones. The year is dying of atrophy as far as I am concerned, bed-fast in its December fogs. And the War is settling down on everyone—a hopeless, never-shifting burden. While newspapers and politicians yell and Brandish their arms, and the dead rot in their French graves, and the maimed hobble about the streets. And the Kaiser talks about Peace because he thinks he’s won.

I seem to be acquiring the reputation of a bon viveur—the result of melting fivers at the Adelphi. Some man said in Mess to-night: ‘These new regulations for food will tax your ingenuity in ordering a dinner!’ And the result is a disordered liver, and cynical poetry. I wrote a beastly thing about a butcher’s shop to-day. I don’t suppose it’s any good either. I wonder whether my boat will ever touch the shores of beauty again. Those garden-dawns seem a very long way off now. And nothing before me but red dawns flaring over Ypres and Bapaume. And people still say the War is splendid, damn their eyes. And the Army in France can contemplate a patched-up peace because it is so weary of the Ways of death.[1]

 

The December doldrums spread from the outskirts of Liverpool to Sassoon’s home territory of Kent. At “Tintown,” in Lydd, a new camp order of today, a century back, confirmed what Edward Thomas had feared–or, at least, expected. There would be no Christmas leave. In his letter informing his wife Helen he included a depressingly practical list of possible Christmas presents: an overcoat, “arctic socks,” a periscope, and a pocket sextant… At home in High Beech, Helen Thomas had been preparing for a Christmas without her husband for some weeks. At a party with her daughter, she only heard the words of his letter:

The sentence ‘And Helen, I can’t get home for Christmas’ thumped out a sort of tune in my head, and though with my ears I heard ‘How lovely Myfanwy looks,’ ‘How cleverly you have made the frock,’ I listened with all my being to ‘And Helen, I can’t get home for Christmas’.

Today’s news seemed to remove all hope that she would see her husband before he was sent to France.[2]

 

Edward “Robert” Hermon, more than two years into his war, also wrote to his wife today, a century back.

22nd December 1916–No 48 answering 55–Rue Marle

I went to bed last night feeling an awful worm & not at all pleased with the idea of having to take my Battalion some miles today to be reviewed by my late brother officer, in the most beastly cold wind. I liked it even less when the day was simply pouring with rain & I got all my knees wet en route.

However, the rain stopped soon after we got to the place of parade & it cheered up & the sun shone & was quite nice. D.H. recognized me alright and I rode along with him while he passed my Battalion & he was most complimentary & very pleased with their turnout.

So the former brother officer is none other than Haig himself, the commander of the B.E.F. But this positive review is the good news. Our bluff former regular and confident Battalion Commanding Officer is a far cry from Edward Thomas–but he too will be away from home for Christmas.

Dearie mine I very much doubt if I get home for some time now. Today they have put all C.O.s & staff officers on the ordinary leave roster, & not supernumerary to it as they used to be. The consequence is that I come a long way down the list now…

This bureaucratic change is actually quite significant. Either the army can no longer tolerate so many leaves for its staff officers and battalion commanders, or there is a growing awareness that when enlisted men get only a few days of leave in a year and subalterns perhaps two or three slightly longer leaves, the higher-ups can’t be jaunting home whenever convenient. It’s almost as if the army is adjusting to the realities of a long war of attrition in which maintaining the goodwill of a conscript army will be as much of a challenge as driving the Germans from France and Belgium…

Darling mine there’s a prayer in the little book I should like you to teach the kids. It’s one that starts about ‘the sentry on watch this night, those who command that they etc. There are a couple of lines in the middle that you might eliminate.

This would be the prayer in question:

O GOD, who never sleepest, and art never weary, have mercy upon those who watch to-night: on the sentry, that he may be alert; on those who command, that they may be strengthened with counsel; on the sick, that they may obtain sleep; on the wounded, that they may find ease; on the faint-hearted, that they may hope again; on the light-hearted, lest they forget Thee; on the dying, that they may find peace; on the sinful, that they may turn again. And save us, good Lord. Amen.

It would be the part about death, then, that Hermon would eliminate. I leave it to the reader, I suppose, to guess to what extent this request is a gesture of connection–a wishful thought from a father who is prevented by circumstance from, among many other things, seeing to his children’s religious education–and to what extent it is a hope for intercessory prayer.

I would love to think that the kids were saying it, or had said it when I go round the front lines at midnight & it appeals to me awfully as I see so much of the sentry & know what he has to go through… He wants all the help one can give him. Well my love, good night.[3]

But why parse such a letter? It is, even for the skeptical reader a century hence, a war-of-attrition-style Blitzkrieg on Grinchitude.

 

And yet all is fair in love and loss in war–especially in strictly calendrical projects arising therefrom. I would prefer to end on that sweet and uplifting note, but there’s one more letter to cover today, and not a hopeful one. Geoffrey Bache Smith‘s mother wrote to his close friend John Ronald Tolkien today, in response to his letter and “with details of her son’s last days.” And yet, if it ended there, we’d have less to read. Mrs. Smith also asked Tolkien for his help in seeing her son’s verses published, and “upon receipt of her letter, Tolkien replies at once.” And he will see the project through.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 104-5. I have not been able to figure out the "beastly thing about a butcher's shop--" perhaps he abandoned it.
  2. Hollis, Now All Roads, 307, which seems to place Helen's letter today; but the context of World Without End, 163 (whence the quote) puts it a few weeks ago, when Thomas was first at Lydd.
  3. For Love and Courage, 316-8.
  4. Chronology, 97.

Mawiage. Mawiage is What Separates Ford Madox Ford’s Liabilities from Olaf Stapledon’s Prospects; John Ronald Tolkien Falls Ill

Two days and a century back, John Ronald Tolkien began feeling ill. But there was a battalion inspection by the commander of 5th Army, General Sir Hubert Gough, so he stuck it out. The next day, another inspection, by General Haig himself. By today, Tolkien was too ill to ignore his condition, and he “went sick,” logging a temperature of 103 degrees. Perhaps hoping to recover quickly–or perhaps because his battalion medical officer does not want to send a debatably disabled officer down the line–Tolkien returns to his billet for the night, remaining with the battalion.[1]

 

Ford Madox Hueffer is many things. He is a very good writer who has begun to work on what will become the most monumental English novel of the war, and the only real claimant, here, to the title of “Modernist Masterpiece.” He is a prodigiously talented journalist, critic, and polemicist; he is a probable victim of shell-shock and a probable perpetrator of exaggerations and obfuscations about his shell-shocking; he is prone to spectacularly imploding romantic relationships and the persistent accumulation of debts; and he’s an older, fatter sort of chap who could have well and honorably avoided actual trench service but chose, instead, to go.

But it didn’t go very well. And now Ford is back at the depot, having lost–at the very least–the confidence of his battalion C.O. in his ability to succeed as a company officer.

So Ford/Hueffer went to war when he could have avoided it–in the realm of volunteering/generational conflict/the experiential gulf, then, he is firmly on one side and not the other. Nothing can take that away. But when we move from kind to degree it’s a little amusing to be reminded that one thing Ford definitely is not is stoic–or patient, or easily satisfied. He’s gone to France, he’s seen the trenches, he’s endured bombardments and worked for a while as a transport officer–but now he would like, well, a real job.

In letters of two days ago and today, a century back, Hueffer works first his friend C. F. G. Masterman–the director of the British propaganda effort and a man of many connections–and then Masterman’s wife, Lucy.

3rd Batt, The Welch Rcgt.
Denbighshire, N. Wales
25.10.16

Dear C. F. G.

No: I have not heard anything at this end &, knowing the W. O. as I do, I don’t suppose I shall. I wish you cd. have done something—but never really expectcd that you cd. My luck is too much out.

As things are I see nothing for it but to relinquish my comm[ission]—wh. I shall do on 1.11.16—& to disappear into a decent obscurity.

I am doing no good here, either to myself or to anyone else—& the training we give the men here seems ridiculously ineffective—so I can’t even console myself with the idea that I am doing useful work.

No: I am not doing any writing; to write one must have some purpose in life—& I simply haven’t any. You see one has phases of misfortune that get too heavy for one as one gradually loses resiliency & I am too bored now to keep [illegible]…

Yes, fitting that–I, too, sometimes feel too bored to put up with such scrawls!

But on to today’s letter:

27.10.16

Dear Lucy,

All right, my dear, call it a wash out…

As for my position here—it is very simple. I can’t meet my liabilities any more–& it is better to apply to relinquish ones comm. than to be forced to for that sort of reason, even if one sets aside the question of honesty. One can’t, with my age & disposition, run up bills at shops without any possibility of meeting them & so on. I cd. get along personally on my pay—but I have outside liabilities too, you see.

These would include his responsibilities to his wife, his daughters, and his not-quite-second-wife of long standing, Violet Hunt, with whom he is now falling out, viz:

And V’s campaign of vilification makes people very shy of publishing my work, even if I cd. write, so I shd. really be much better off if I relinquished my comm & enlisted. It isn’t depression, or pique, but just common sense.

Yrs. always.[2]

It doesn’t seem to be any of those things, actually.

 

Finally, today, Olaf Stapledon is in a serious mood. It would be hard to find two writers of more different personalities and literary predilections than he and Ford–and, wouldn’t you know it, they seem to approach the question of marital finances from a somewhat different point of view as well. But then of course they are on different sides of the issue–one before the glorious summit and the other over the hill, as it were.

But let’s focus on Olaf. If you’re going to woo a girl on the other side of the world for many years, you might as well pay some attention to the practical side of the proposition. There is rueful good humor here, and an unusually frank and self-aware acknowledgment of what was then taken for granted and we are now being slowly schooled to recognize and acknowledge as enormous privilege. Still, Stapledon proposes (again) to both draw upon the largesse of his father’s success in business and to put that cash cushion to a good use–not only by marrying Agnes but to continue to work in a low-paying but socially valuable job. After the ambulances, with luck, it will be back to his old gig teaching the under-served members of Britain’s working classes.

…Financial statement concerning Olaf Stapledon M.A. Not a very cheerful one:—Cash in the bank £ 235.16.0. Present income from interest on shares etc. about £ 80 per annum (not less). Face value of shares etc. £ 2673. About £ 280 of this is safe in Bank deposits and Savings Bank. The rest is in such things as garden cities & suburbs and reformed public houses! Father gave me all this at odd times, all thoroughly good things to support, especially the new pubs. Personally I am surprised they all pay up so well. . . . Present expenditure just under £ 30 per annum, probably considerably less in future. Prospects after the war a practically certain, regular salary of £ 240 per annum from W[orkers’]E[ducational]A[ssociation]. No prospects of advancing beyond £400 in that line, and even that advance problematical. Possibility of considerably higher salary later on from an inspectorship, but this is just an idea of mine, not very far-fetched however. Vague possibility of additions from literary work, e.g. Text Book of Literary History, for which there is I believe a real market, also possible journalism. Well, if you can disentangle this rigmarole you will see that the situation is not very encouraging. . . .[3]

No, but nor is it hopeless. And perhaps Agnes believes that there is more than Quaker modesty, here, more than a good boy’s practical disclaimers. Might not some of that literary work, someday, pay?

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Chronology, 94.
  2. Letters, 77.-8.
  3. Talking Across the World, 181.

Will Streets Saves his Undying Splendour; A Less-Than-Splendid Parade for Vivian de Sola Pinto

Will Streets wrote home today, a century back, with the coming battle much on his mind.

I am just forwarding the sonnet sequence that I have been working at lately. It is not quite as I would have liked it, but it will have to do now. The next month or two will see me in a position to endeavour to have a book printed or see me beneath the sweet soil of France. I cannot tell you why. Only accept the statement and keep it to yourself.[1]

Thus Streets complies with the letter of the law about not discussing military operations in a letter home. Would that such coyness about the coming attack were necessary…

As for the sonnets, well. Streets, a largely self-educated miner, is producing rather stilted and extremely traditional verse–the cycle, in praise of Britain’s war effort, is to be called “The Undying Splendour.” Is there no hint of realism because his outlook on the war is so thoroughly positive, or rather because he wants to write poetry that “elevates” instead of describing or questioning?

Here, then, are two short samples from the sequence, which is less an exercise in pro-war poeticizing than it is an attempt to write a sort of history of the war in the High Formal Manner. Streets works through pre-war England before getting down to the details–the sixth sonnet is entitled “Belgium.” Next comes the inevitable response, a declaration of purpose from a man of the New (or Kitchener’s) Army.

VIII. THE CALL

Like solo flute above an orchestra
Freedom was heard calling her brave sons
To save a nation ravish’d by the Huns…

IX. YOUTH’S CONSECRATION

Lovers of Life! Dreamers with lifted eyes!
O Liberty, at thy command we challenge Death!
The monuments that show our fathers’ faith
Shall be the altars of our sacrifice.
Dauntless, we fling our lives into the van,
Laughing at Death because within Youth’s breast
Flame lambent fires of Freedom. Man for man
We yield to thee our heritage, our best.
Life’s highest product, Youth, exults in life;
We are Olympian Gods in consciousness;
Mortality to us is sweet; yet less
We value Ease when Honour sounds the strife.
Lovers of Life, we pledge thee Liberty
And go to death, calmly, triumphantly.

The tenth sonnet, actually entitled “Sacrifice,” is less Brookean than it is intensely Christian. Streets was a devout Methodist, and sacrifice means more to him than patriotic platitude–though, as we see, it includes that as well. In general, the sequence tries to cover everything and so muddles through a number of themes without really coming into its own.

But, as Streets writes, it is unfinished: he hasn’t yet had the luxury of advanced schooling or, it would seem, of sharp-eyed mentors and friends who can read his work and help him improve it. For now, he is sending his poetry to safety…

 

And here’s a nice contrast. From a serious and decorous laborer-turned-soldier to a highly-educated and skeptical subaltern. Vivian de Sola Pinto is still in Egypt with a Kitchener’s Army battalion of the Royal Welch, where last week’s news is still to be acknowledged.

Ceremonial parades were now the order of the day and the old spit-and-polish tradition of the Army was revived…

Another terribly long and exhausting ceremonial was a memorial service held on 14th June for the death of Lord Kitchener, the news of which had reached us about a week before when we heard the newspaper boys shouting one morning: ‘Velly good news today, Lord Kitchener dead.’ The first part of this announcement was, of course, merely a salesman’s slogan. On this occasion I wrote: ‘We were all half-dead when we got back to barracks as we had been on parade for 7 1/2 hours in blinding hear without food or drink of any kind.’ These elaborate military shows were doubtless intended to impress the Egyptian population. Perhaps they did.. Their only effect on our troops, however, was to make them regard the whole business of soldiering, and especially the High Command, with a bitter cynicism, summed up in the refrain of a song which was now often heard on the march:

‘Bullshit, bullshit: it all sounds like bullshit to me.'[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Piuk, A Dream Within the Dark, 70.
  2. The City that Shone, 178-9.

Kate Luard Tends to Horrors, and Sees a Fine Sight; A Minnie for George Coppard; Siegfried Sassoon Sees Death and Anger in a Pall of Smoke

Kate Luard is a woman of good sense, and a nurse of long experience. Yet she has lately been tempted toward some dramatic statements–grenades are diabolical, the war is a horror. And one can see why. Yesterday, there was this:

Monday, March 27th. We had a very young boy in the Medical the other day, cowering and shivering and collapsed from shell-shock. ‘Where’s my brother?’ was the first thing he said, when he could speak. The shell that had knocked him out had blown his brother to bits.

And then this, a confirmation of her special condemnation of grenades:

I’ve got an officer badly wounded by a rifle grenade; the poor child might have sat down in the fire by mistake, by the state his back is in…

But here’s the thing. Luard’s level-headedness and wisdom, her sympathy for all victims of the war–Brit, Hun, and child–and her intimate experience with the worst wounds do not exempt her from what pretty much every writer also feels–at least so far, at least occasionally. But if war consists of these poor boys tossing diabolical machines at each other until they are burnt, maimed, and quivering, what could possibly be attractive about it?

Ah, but she is an Englishwoman still. And today, a century back, Luard shows a soft spot for the pageantry of war.

Tuesday, March 28th: To-day in the Grand Place… we saw a fine sight…

What she saw was an entire brigade drawn up for the presentation of a medal to a gallant officer. There is not a hint of cynicism–which is in itself bewildering considering her lamentations over the broken minds and bodies of the wounded:

…the bands blared and the whole mass became statues… [an elderly general] bellowed out a very fine and stirring sermon about being a brave man and a Scotsman… how they would never fail, and… were all going to be as gallant, self-sacrificing and devoted as the men just decorated.

A soft spot, then, for the stirring nonsense of hortatory speeches–she is but anti-war north by northwest. And, to be fair, this is less a matter of carefully considered political opinion than of the serial reactions, day by day, of a deeply empathetic person. At the same time as she takes in the sight of the four battalions, all scrubbed and statuesque and gleaming, without complaining of the wages of these words of “self-sacrifice,” her sympathy extends even to the utterer of these pretty, violent words. Some of our poets will wish comeuppance, even violence, on the safe old general who urges others on to pointless destruction, but Luard notes that he “looked old, and walked lame” and tired himself with his little speech…[1]

 

Irony is not our nurse’s style. But how about Dr. Dunn, of the 2/Royal Welch?

March 28th.–Officers attended a demonstration of a captured flame-thrower. Its premature operation scorched some of the Staff, to the unconcealed delight of the infantry. After that the demonstration was a dull affair…[2]

 

And what about the 1/Royal Welch? Siegfried Sassoon was writing once again today–about almost ordinary things. Or, rather, about the usual subjects, in an almost ordinary way: he observes, as a poet should, from just behind the lines.

March 28

Wet and windy up in the line last night. This morning an R.E. officer called Sisson came in and talked about Hamo whom he knew so well up at Clare, and spoke so nicely of H’s intensely humorous way of looking at things.

The sky was pitch-black with pale blots: he could not see the man in front of him: when the flares went up beyond the hill the sky was inky at the edge and the dark line of the ground showed clear-edged and gloomy and forbidding.

On the bags above the deep trench a white sheen would settle and diminish upwards, a silver glimpse of mounded sandbags bleached and weather-worn.

In the morning of sun and cloudlands he would get glimpses of charming delicate landscapes, village, wood and hill, and trees along the crest; in no-man’s-land nothing moves.

Prospects and aspects: A shell, whizzing over to the enemy lines, bursts with a hollow crash. Against  the clear evening sky a cloudy column of dark smoke rises to drift away, driven by the faint breeze. Slowly it takes shape, curling in wisps, it is a gigantic form, hooded, with clumsy, expostulating arms, a figure draped in dingy whirling smoke. Then with a gradual gesture of acquiescence, it lolls sideways, falling over to the attitude of a swimmer on his side, and so dissolves into nothingness. Perhaps the shell had killed a soldier, for this was like the phantom of his departing and reluctant life; he was dead but he went in defeated anger, brandishing his ineffectual arms as he passed away to the inaccessible caverns of death.[3]

The quiet mood of the pastoral poet seems to return here for a near-normal notebook session, unfolding, by means of that beautiful and terrible simile of the column of smoke like a fading swimmer, from peace into war. And yet it’s safe to say, isn’t it, that Sassoon is not really a fresh-eyed observer here, but a mourner still overwhelmed by the swift death of David Thomas.

 

I have been neglecting George Coppard, whose memoir gives us the neglected view of the war from the ranks of a New Army battalion. But Coppard has rather cleverly fit himself to a recent subject, here, but taking on the job of batman, or officer’s servant. We’ve heard from probably twenty officers about their servants, so now, you know, the score is 20-1.

Today, a century back, Coppard describes a close call and with typical frankness relates one of the most common prescriptions for temporary relief of the early symptoms of shell-shock.

Came 28 March, we were back in that hell hole, the Hohenzollern redoubt. Mr. Wilkie found another German dugout in a support trench called ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’. We made little progress I’m afraid, although it was mighty lucky for us that the dugout had two entrances. Within half an hour of our taking over, a minnie smacked down, destroying one of the entrances and nearly wrecking the twenty-foot chamber. Mr Wilkie was wounded in the mouth, though not seriously enough to cause him to leave the trenches. Both of us were badly shaken, and it was some while before we got over the dread feeling of what might have happened. The officer produced some rum, and a hefty swig each worked wonders. In fact I think we were just a little bit tight after it.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Unknown Warriors, 48-9.
  2. The War the Infantry Knew, 187.
  3. Diaries, 46-7.
  4. Coppard, With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 71.

Wilfred Owen Returns to England; Alan Seeger is Fed Up With the Inglorious Dregs; Bim Tennant Dines in Style

Wilfred Owen arrived in London today, a century back, after leaving Bordeaux for good. He was escorting, as the last of a series of tutoring and au pair jobs, two french boys who had to come England to further their education. The three went sightseeing, hoping, in the manner of boys, to see Zeppelins–but there were no Zeppelins tonight.[1]

(There had, in fact, been a Zeppelin raid a few nights ago, which I will discuss tomorrow, on the occasion of a letter describing it.)

 

Two weeks ago, and a century back, Alan Seeger had, at last, some definite news about the reorganization of the Foreign Legion, and about his own Fate–which is, more or less, his way of referring to the future. He takes it with far less good grace than Henry Farnsworth seemed to show yesterday.

September 1

Great and unexpected news this morning at report. All American volunteers in the Legion are to be given the privilege of entering a French regiment. I have always been loyal to the Legion, notwithstanding the many obvious drawbacks, feeling that the origin of most of the friction within the regiment was in the fact that we had never been in action, and had consequently never established the bond of common dangers shared, common sufferings borne, common glories achieved, which knits men together in real comradeship.

So far I can follow Seeger’s logic. But now he reveals a strange and unsightly part of his personality. This is frustration speaking, but it is also prejudice. And if we follow our rule that diaries tend to show the unvarnished self–the varnish goes onto the letters–then we may be discovering that Alan Seeger has been, all along, both a snob and a Grenfellite glory-hound. Neither of these things should surprise us too deeply, and neither, if we take a breath and put ourselves a century back, is as damning as it would be now. Still. There are some phrases here that go down hard, and Henry Farnsworth‘s rather fickle romantic adventurism seems positively benign next to this frank declaration of allegiance to an ideal of personal military achievement.

It was a great mistake, it seems to me, not to have put the regiment into action immediately when we came on the front last year, when the regiment was strong and the morale good, instead of keeping us in the trenches in comparatively quiet sectors and in a state of inactivity, which was just the condition for all kinds of discontent to fester in. Of course discontent is the natural state of mind of the soldier, and I, who am accustomed to look beneath the surface, always have realized this, but it must be admitted that here discontent has more than the usual to feed upon, where a majority of men who engaged voluntarily were thrown in a regiment made up almost entirely of the dregs of society, refugees from justice and roughs, commanded by sous-officiers who treated us all without distinction in the same manner that they were habituated to treat their unruly brood in Africa. I put up with this for a year without complaint, swallowing my pride many a time and thinking only of the day of trial, shutting my eyes to the disadvantages I was under because I thought that on that day the regiment, which I have always believed to be of good fighting stock, would do well and cover us all with glory.

You are, you know, a volunteer from a non-combatant nation. You could not have expected an easy time, pride upon your lips and all unswallowed, as an enlisted man in the Foreign Legion. Where was the social pressure that you might blame for your predicament? Ah well.

Our chance, now that we are in with the Moroccan division, of seeing great things is better than ever. This has almost induced me, in fact, to turn down the offer and stay where I am, since perhaps the greatest glory will be here, and it is for glory alone that I engaged. But, on the other hand, after a year of what I have been through, I feel more and more the need of being among Frenchmen, where the patriotic and military tradition is strong, where my good will may have some recognition, and where the demands of a sentimental and romantic nature like my own may be gratified. I think there is no doubt that I will be happier and find an experience more remunerative in a French regiment, without necessarily forfeiting the chance for great action which is so good here now. Among the regiments of the 7th Army, from which we were allowed to choose, are three of the active, who it seems are in the Meuse in exciting sectors. I have chosen the 133e de ligne, whose dépôt is at Belley, and will leave the rest to Fate.

For once the plans seemed to conform to the rumor, and today, a century back, the two regiments of the Legion actually marched themselves out of their division, with great ceremony, as a prelude to their disassembly. This is the same parade, of course, to which Henry Farnsworth was so looking forward:

September 13

Another splendid review this morning at La Chapelle-sous-Chaux, before the Président de la République and Millerand and several generals. Perfect weather. Thrilled to the magnificent spectacle of the défilade, the “Marseillaise,” the disturbing music of the Tirailleurs. The whole division was there. Flags were given to the 1er and 2me Etranger. And now on returning comes the news of our definite departure tomorrow. I have reasons to be sorry to leave Plancher-Bas. Have had happy moments here.[2]

 

And finally, today, a report from Bim Tennant:

September 13th, 1915,
Blendecques, near St. Omer.

Darling Daddy,

The cigarettes arrived the day before yesterday, and as the small regimental issue was made yesterday every man is having a packet of ten served out to him to-day. Thank you so much for them…

Yes, I was at the “First Guards” dinner the other day. It was rather fun, and I saw lots of old Chelsea Barracks friends of
last year, who have been out here some time. I was quite ready to sing, but it didn’t come off…

One of these friends, of course, is Osbert Sitwell. Is the friendship more one-sided than we might have thought? Perhaps. But Sitwell may go unmentioned either because of his distinctly odd path–spectacular failures at school, odd transfers within the army–or his current family scandal. Or both. But back to the letter:

This morning we were instructed by a Royal Engineer captain how to make wire entanglements. They have coils of smooth wire which expand into sort of cylinders of wire about a yard in diameter. These are fastened in two lines with stobs and staples and a yard between the two rows, and then barbed wire is draped on them and more entanglements
are put in front. It was very interesting.

A healthy mix, then, of aristocratic living and practical trench training. And that parcel request–cigarettes for the men–was quite noble. There won’t be anything at the end of the letter that tips the balance, will there?

Please keep me supplied with a brace of grouse every day or two: they travel very well…

Ever your loving Son,

BIMBO[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 163.
  2. The Letters and Diary of Alan Seeger, 152-55.
  3. Letters, 17-18.

Will Harvey Kills His Man; Donald Hankey in Hospital; Henry Farnsworth on Parade; Vera Brittain’s Brother Prepares to Embark: “All I Care For Will Be At The Front”

Will Harvey went out on patrol tonight near Hebuterne, armed with a revolver and a “heavy bludgeon.” It was unusual for patrols to seek combat–especially when no officer was present–but the “Glosters” were apparently out for blood. The patrol went out 350 yards from their trenches toward a suspected enemy listening post and came upon several Germans, probably the covering force for a working party.

Will HarveyFiring broke out and Will Harvey, together with the corporal commanding the patrol, rushed the listening post. Our Gloucestershire poet shot two Germans with his revolver, killing them, and felled a third with his bludgeon. The potential prisoner apparently escaped when German reinforcements arrived but the patrol retreated without loss, bearing with them three German rifles and a Mauser pistol as trophies.

This exploit by a patrol of a New Army unit was deemed worthy of celebration (see the illustration at right, from Boden’s biography of Harvey). It even earned Lance-Corporal Harvey the Distinguished Conduct Medal,”for conspicuous gallantry on the night of Aug. 3-4, 1915, near Hebuterne.”[1]

It’s hard to know what to make of this. Harvey was a poet, a friend of the gentle Gurney, and a scholarly-looking fellow (for what little that’s worth). Perhaps it was simply his section’s turn for a patrol, but the nature of the action and the resulting decoration strongly imply that the violence involved voluntary valor. This is one of those writers, then, who is not out merely to experience the war, but to fight. And this is one of those units, apparently, that would rather kill the men opposite–thus preventing their working parties from strengthening their position–and suffer retaliation than to follow the path of “live and let live.”

 

When we last left Donald Hankey, he was–in semi-fictionalized form–crawling off with a wounded leg after a bitter, terrible day in trenches on the flank of the lost trenches of Hooge. Today, after an ordeal about which he will keep a stoic silence, he wrote a short letter home from hospital:

I suppose you will be expecting a bulletin! There is either a bullet or a shrapnel ball in my right thigh, but otherwise I am perfectly fit. I haven’t the foggiest idea how long my job is likely to take. At present they are only dressing it, and haven’t started to try and locate the ball, which seems to have lost its way inside somewhere. But I don’t suppose I shall be lucky enough to get a trip home anyway I think it is best not to let myself hope for it in case I am disappointed![2]

Hankey is playing down the wound: this, especially after the long day’s blood loss, was certainly a blighty one.

 

And Henry Farnsworth wrote home today, describing the same divisional parade that his new comrade-in-arms Alan Seeger has already written about. Farnsworth has seen no combat to speak of, and the spell of military spectacle lies heavily upon him:

Postmarked August 3, 1915

Dear Mamma:

I have received at least five letters from you and two from the Da. They are the greatest of blessings and come into my weary world most welcome. The two regiments being cast into one and the whole division being brought up to strength, etc., goes wearily on…

The other day we were waked at 2 a.m., and at 3 sent off in a pouring rain for some indefinite place across the mountains for a divisional review. We went off slowly through the wet darkness, but about dawn the sun came out and as is usual with the Legion, everybody cheered up, and at 7 a.m. we arrived at the parade ground after fifteen kilometers in very good spirits. The two regiments of Zouaves from Africa were already drawn up. We formed up beside them… Suddenly the Zouave bugles crashed out sounding the “Garde à vous” and in two minutes the division was lined up, every man stiff as a board—and all the time the bugles ringing angrily from up the line, and the short staccato trumpets of the Chasseurs answering from the other extremity. The ringing stopped suddenly, and the voices of the colonels crying ”Bayonnettes aux Canons”’ sounded thin and long drawn out and were drowned by the flashing rattle of the bayonets going on—a moment of perfect silence, and then the slow, courtly-sounding of the “General! General! qui passe!” broken by the occasional crash as regiment after regiment presented arms. Slowly the General rode down the lines, with the two Brigadiers and a Division General in his suite… The Zouaves led off, their bugles playing… Then the Tirailleurs playing some march of their own, slow and fine, the bugles answering the scream of the Arab reed flutes…

On and on went the bugles playing that light, slangy tune, some of the verses of which would make Rabelais shudder, and the minor variations of which bring up pictures of the Legion marching with thin ranks in foreign, blazing lands, and the drums of which, tapping slowly, sound like the feet of the regiment scrunching through desert sand. It was all very glorious to see and hear…

As for news, that’s all I have, but do continue to write me frequently, even if there is nothing to say. Here in this division I feel incredibly far from home. Love to Ellen and the boys and the Da. There is a rumor that we may go to Morocco, as things are going badly there, but I don’t believe it; we cannot be replaced here.[3]

 

Lastly, Vera Brittain reacts to the unwelcome news that Roland Leighton has returned to the front line.

Tuesday August 3rd

Roland is–alas for me!–back in the trenches…

They went back into the trenches 3 days from when the letter was written–to-day. [4]

Thus Roland’s letter provides a rare moment of real-time information: a letter written from the trenches doesn’t even guarantee that the writer was still alive on the date of the post-mark. But this slight respite from worry is little compared to the loss of the promise of relative safety in staff work:

Buxton, 3 August 1915

I am sorry you have left the Corps Headquarters. It was such a relief—even if only for a short time—to feel that you were safe. But I hope very much that the General will form his permanent Headquarters Company very soon and that you will go back. It would be a fine appointment…

Edward came here on Saturday & goes again on Thursday. He keeps telling the family most cheerfully that the 9th Sherwood Foresters had three last leaves, and the same thing may happen to him, but he told me privately that it is his opinion that they really are going in about a fortnight…

He talks mostly about music & books, with an interest that is quite unimpaired & not the least assumed. In town the day he came here he bought several new books to read & quite a lot of music to learn & try over while he was at home. And yet he isn’t the least in the dark about what the Front means—or the least afraid of facing the reality.

He had a long talk with one of my patients at the Hospital and the man—an absolutely straightforward & candid person–said to me afterwards that he thought he would be some good at the front and at any rate seemed to know well enough what he was in for. But he is very cheerful and unapprehensive, and the Future–near or far–doesn’t appear to trouble him very much. Although on Sunday night when we went for a walk together he became suddenly very serious as he told me a few things he wanted done if he should die…

I only know I don’t understand him at all. Perhaps I never shall now. He is about the last of all my friends & acquaintances to go.

When he is gone all I care for will be at the front—except your Mother. War or the Country or whatever name you like to call it will have taken almost all that makes my existence worth while–my work, my future and the people I love best.

Isn’t it queer that to-morrow is War’s first birthday! I wonder how many people there were who on last August 4th thought the War would not be over by that time next year.

And here we are after a year’s fighting further from the end than we were at the beginning! (That sounds like a paradox, but indeed when we began there seemed to be many more reasons for hoping for a speedy conclusion than there are now.)[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Boden, F.W. Harvey, 89-90.
  2. The Letters of Donald Hankey, 301-2. The apparently-loosely-fictionalized story of the charge was told in "The Honour of the Brigade," available here.
  3. Letters of Henry Farnsworth, 180-3.
  4. Chronicle of Youth, 226.
  5. Letters From a Lost Generation, 137-8.