Isaac Rosenberg’s Daughters of War; Francis Ledwidge’s Gods of Greece; Siegfried Sassoon Declares the Death of Youth

Some days we make do with an update and a diary excerpt or two… other days three important poets are writing about their minds and their methods.

Isaac Rosenberg posted a letter to Eddie Marsh today, which probably included a draft of his difficult, sui generis, mythological poem “Daughters of War.” It also contained an attempt to allay the perplexity the poem would cause:

I am now fearfully rushed, but find energy enough to scribble this in the minute I plunder from my work. I believe I can see the obscurities in the ‘Daughters’, but hardly hope to clear them up in France… The first part, the picture of the Daughters dancing and calling to the spirits of the slain before their last ones have ceased among the boughs of the tree of life, I must still work on. In that part obscure the description of the voice of the Daughter I have not made clear, I see; I have tried to suggest the wonderful sound of her voice, spiritual and voluptuous at the same time. The end is an attempt to imagine the severance of all human relationship and the fading away of human love. Later on I will try and work on it, because I think it a pity if the ideas are to be lost for want of work. My ‘Unicorn’ play is stopped because of my increased toil… It is to be a play of terror—terror of hidden things and the fear of the supernatural. But I see no hope of doing the play while out here. I have a way, when I write, to try and put myself in the situation, and I make gestures and grimaces.[1]

Of the play, more anon, I hope. And this almost touching personal detail is a reminder of just how difficult it must be to write poetry in the trenches, especially as a private. Of course he gestures and grimaces–and many writers talk to themselves, at their leisure, in rooms of their own…

As for “Daughters of War,” the poem has been long in gestation–Rosenberg sent an early draft to Gordon Bottomley in December–and it has been growing in power. Like the ancient poets who dreamt Valkyries and Amazons–and like David Jones and his Sweet Sister Death–Rosenberg summons up female embodiments of war’s power.

Space beats the ruddy freedom of their limbs,
Their naked dances with man’s spirit naked
By the root side of the tree of life…

I saw in prophetic gleams
These mighty daughters in their dances
Beckon each soul aghast from its crimson corpse
To mix in their glittering dances :
I heard the mighty daughters’ giant sighs
In sleepless passion for the sons of valour
And envy of the days of flesh,
Barring their love with mortal boughs across–
The mortal boughs, the mortal tree of life.
The old bark burnt with iron wars
They blow to a live flame
To char the young green clays
And reach the occult soul; they have no softer lure,
No softer lure than the savage ways of death.

We were satisfied of our lords the moon and the sun
To take our wage of sleep and bread and warmth–
These maidens came–these strong everliving Amazons,
And in an easy might their wrists
Of night’s sway and noon’s sway the sceptres brake,
Clouding the wild, the soft lustres of our eyes…

 

Next to this wrenching vision, full of sex and death, the melodious prose and harmonious rhymes of Francis Ledwidge seem to come from an entirely different war, a different era. They don’t, of course–they come from the same day. These are very different sensibilities: our two poets in the ranks and out of the working classes share very little else than those three facts of their identity.

Ledwidge wrote another letter to the prominent writer Katherine Tynan today, a century back, and it begins with a strange confusion.

19.6.17

This is my birthday. I am spending it in a little red town in an orchard.

Actually, it is not his birthday. Which goes a longer way to show one of the larger cultural and social gaps among our writers than a ream of commentary about Ledwidge’s rural roots or Lord Dunsany‘s reflexive condescension towards his Irish “peasant” protégé. It seems that birthdays were little regarded in rural County Meath a century and another score of years back, and even when he enlisted Ledwidge did not know the date of his birth. His mother, flustered, confused his and his brother Joe’s, or so the story goes. Our Frank Ledwidge was born on the 19th, but of August–his twenties have two months left to run.

Again I think of how this sort of confusion might have arisen in Rosenberg’s family too, with an absent father and Yiddish-speaking mother, or how Ledwidge and his surviving siblings might have shared, like Rosenberg and his brother, the “family suit.” But for such similarities there are more striking differences. Rosenberg is a child of the London slums. And Ledwidge?[2]

There is a lovely valley just below me, and a river that goes gobbling down the fields, like turkeys coming home in Ireland… I was down here earlier in the spring, when all the valley wore its confirmation dress, and was glad to return again in the sober moments of June. Although I have a conventional residence I sleep out in the orchard, and every morning a cuckoo comes to a tree quite close, and calls out his name with a clear voice above the rest of the morning’s song, like a tender stop heard above the lower keys in a beautiful organ…

If you go to Tara, go to Rath-na-Ri and look all around you from the hills of Drumcondrath in the north to the plains of Enfield in the south, where Allan Bog begins, and remember me to every hill and wood and ruin, for my heart is there. If it is a clear day you will see Slane Hill blue and distant. Say I will come back again surely, and maybe you will hear pipes in the grass or a fairy horn and the hounds of Finn…

Ledwidge also enclosed three new poems, “The Find,” “Stanley Hill,” and “The Old Gods:”

I thought the old gods still in Greece
Making the little fates of man,
So in a secret place of Peace
I prayed as but a poet can:

And all my prayer went crying faint
Around Parnassus’ cloudy height,
And found no ear for my complaint,
And back unanswered came at night.

Ah, foolish that I was to heed
The voice of folly, or presume
To find the old gods in my need,
So far from A. E.’s little room.[3]

 

Siegfried Sassoon has not written in his diary since beginning to work on his “declaration.” Today, a century back, he is very much still in declaration mode, railing angrily at the waste of the war and the evil cynicism of those who prolong it.

June 19

I wish I could believe that Ancient War History justifies the indefinite prolongation of this war. The Jingos define it as ‘an enormous quarrel between incompatible spirits and destinies, in which one or the other must succumb’. But the men who write these manifestos do not truly know what useless suffering the war inflicts.

And the ancient wars on which they base their arguments did not involve such huge sacrifices as the next two or three years will demand of Europe, if this war is to be carried on to a knock-out result. Our peace-terms remain the same, ‘the destruction of Kaiserism and Prussianism’. I don’t know what aims this destruction represents.

I only know, and declare from the depths of my agony, that these empty words… mean the destruction of Youth. They mean the whole torment of waste and despair which people refuse to acknowledge or to face; from month to month they dupe themselves with hopes that ‘the war will end this year’.

And the Army is dumb. The Army goes on with its bitter tasks. The ruling classes do all the talking. And their words
convince no one but the crowds who are their dupes.

The soldiers who return home seem to be stunned by the things they have endured. They are willingly entrapped by the silent conspiracy against them. They have come back to life from the door of death, and the world is good to enjoy. They vaguely know that it is ‘bad form’ to hurt people’s feelings by telling the truth about the war…

The diary continues, wandering into violent territory as Sassoon decries the bloodthirstiness of women and imagines a mob awakening to “lynch” the “dictator” who has plunged it into war.

The soldiers are fooled by the popular assumption that they are all heroes. They have a part to play, a mask to wear. They are allowed to assume a pride of superiority to the mere civilian. Are there no heroes among the civilians, men and women alike?

Of the elderly male population I can hardly trust myself to speak. Their frame of mind is, in the majority of cases, intolerable. They glory in senseless invective against the enemy… They regard the progress of the war like a game of chess, cackling about ‘attrition,’ and ‘wastage of man-power’, and ‘civilisation at stake’. In every class of society there are old men like ghouls, insatiable in their desire for slaughter, impenetrable in their ignorance.

Soldiers conceal their hatred of the war.
Civilians conceal their liking for it…[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Works, 375; Moorcroft Wilson, Isaac Rosenberg, 359-61.
  2. See Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 183.
  3. The Years of the Shadow, 294-6.
  4. Diaries, 175-6.

Siegfried Sassoon a Country Wanderer Once More; Wilfred Owen’s Faith Shifts: Christ is Literally in No Man’s Land; John Buchan in the Halls of the Great; Ralph Hamilton is Reassigned

Is the once and future thriller-writer Lt. Col. John Buchan taking to his role as head of the Information Office? He is. In France in April to win the acquiescence of Haig in his propaganda efforts, he is now working hand in glove with even more august personages.

16 May 1917. I was working till all hours yesterday. I had to go to the Palace this morning, for I have a shocking amount to do with Royalties these days. Then I had the War Cabinet in the afternoon and a long time with the Prime Minister; and after that correspondents and secret-service agents till all hours.[1]

 

Siegfried Sassoon remains ensconced in the charming, subtly galling precincts of Chapelwood Manor, Sussex. It’s the precincts that charm, however, and the priestess who galls–so today’s entry, heavy on countryside and light on human interaction, is a happy one.

May 16

For a while I am shaking off the furies that pursued me. I am an Orestes freed from the tyranny of doom. The War is a vague trouble that one reads about in the morning paper. The communiqués are almost insignificant. I no longer visualise the torment and wretchedness there.

The world is just a leafy labyrinth with clouds floating above the silence of vivid green woods and clean meadows bright with cowslips and purple orchis. My thoughts have the voices of the tiny brook that runs along the woodland, slipping and twisting over mossy stones, and bubbling out into a rushy field to gurgle merrily in its narrow bubbling channel.

I am a country wanderer once more—climbing gates and staring through tangled hedges at the mossy boughs of apple-trees laden with blossom, while the sun comes out after a passing shower. I roam the narrow lanes, light-hearted as a lambkin, emotionless as a wise gander. I desire nothing more than to stop and discuss.the weather with an old gaffer mending the gaps in a hedgerow. I could almost praise the Apostles Creed to the village parson if I chanced to meet him in the road, or saw him leaning over his garden gate as I passed. And the Sunsets are
yellow and serene—never dyed with crimson or hung with banners of war.[2]

This is too much, and Sassoon realizes it, of course. Hence the tongue-in-cheek gamboling: it’s so overdone that it becomes unsettling, as if some sort of overdecorated 18th century French baroque painting is being foisted onto unassuming, blooming Sussex. The landscape might pass with unaffected appreciation, but all these sun-drenched rosy-cheeked swains on swings, paradoxically, seem to remind us of the absent war, and the invisible, mud-caked, sallow-cheeked subalterns.

And this encounter with a wise old gaffer during a ruminative walk in the English countryside… it’s exactly like something Edward Thomas would write about. And yet nothing about the way it is written is anything like Thomas… Sassoon laughs, but bitterly, and he writes his country walk at a sharp angle…

 

This undated letter of Wilfred Owen‘s was probably written today–and if he seems confused, it is the fault of the bureaucracy: the 13th Casualty Clearing Station seems to have been reorganized around him, and shortly he will be in the same bed, but in a new Stationary Hospital… And yet perhaps he would be grateful for the metaphor: as he will explain in the letter, he has not altered in his Christian faith, but he feels the bureaucracy of his belief system shifting around him…

My own dear Mother,

Just had yours of Sat. Evening and was astonished to apprehend that the Great Shadow is creeping on towards Colin. What will he be next birthday, seventeen?

I wrote him a wholesome bit of realism in that last letter, as well as a fantasy in the language of the Auth: Ver: of 1611. I have changed my mind and see no reason why you should not have that letter and that fantasia…

I did it without any reference to the Book, of course; and without any more detraction from reverence, than, say, is the case when a bishop uses modem slang to relate a biblical story. I simply employed seventeenth century English, and was carried away with it.

Incidentally, I think the big number of texts which jogged up in my mind in half-an-hour bears witness to a goodly store of them in my being. It is indeed so; and I am more and more Christian as I walk the unchristian ways of Christendom. Already I have comprehended a light which never will filter into the dogma of any national church: namely that one of Christ’s essential commands was: Passivity at any price! Suffer dishonour and disgrace; but never resort to arms. Be bullied, be outraged, be killed; but do not kill. It may be a chimerical and an ignominious principle, but there it is. It can only be ignored: and I think pulpit professionals are ignoring it very skilfully and successfully indeed.

The letter rambles on into some stern criticism of institutional religion, both high church and evangelical. At first this reads rather as if Wilfred is concerned mainly to allay an sense of gross impiety that the letter to Colin may have imparted. He is not messing around with the Bible, he implies, but, rather, thinking seriously about how its precepts might apply. He is working up to a religious argument that rests on his own authority, as well:

Christ is literally in no man’s land. There men often hear His voice: Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life—for a friend.

Is it spoken in English only and French?

I do not believe so.

Thus you see how pure Christianity will not fit in with pure patriotism. I am glad you sent that cutting from Wells’ Book.

This would be The Soul of a Bishop, just out.[3]

I hope you understood it. I did not. Not a word of it can I make sense of. I would rather we did not read this Book. Now The Passionate Friends I found astounding in its realism but like all the great terrible books it is impossible to take sides. It is not meant to be a comfortable book; it is discussional; it refuses to ignore the unpleasant.

(This practice of selective ignorance is, as I have pointed out, one cause of the War. Christians have deliberately cut some of the main teachings of their code.)

Just as I was going to speculate that Owen is trying to disguise the reasonably radical (if logically irrefutable) opinion that pure patriotism and pure Christianity are incompatible by moving on to discuss secular literature, Own returns to his criticism. He blithely tacks away again into a discussion of his other reading material, but the point is made, and I do not think that his mother would consider it a light one, especially because it rests on that new source of authority: clergymen fulminating at home against the Germans do not understand what Christ might be like in the trenches, but Owen does. The experiential gulf has theological implications, now…

At present I am deep in a marvellous work of Hugo’s The Laughing Man. By the same post as your letter came two books from Leslie by O. Henry.

So I am well set up.

I am marked for the next Evacuation!!

…Many thanks for Punch, Yes Colin has been very good in writing to me. Keep him up to it. It will do him good, don’t-you-know! And as for me: they bring me Shropshire, even as yours bring me Home.

Expect me—before Christmas.

Your—one and only—Wilfred x[4]

 

Finally, a brief update on Ralph Hamilton, the Master of Belhaven. Hamilton began work today, a century back, in command of a new battery, part of the 106th Brigade, near Cassel. The transfer, he believes, is because he will shortly be promoted to command a brigade. The journey over the last two days was quite arduous, owing both to confusion about the location of the units and sub-standard railway porting–“I have got a lot of stuff… Bath and I… had to carry it ourselves”–but Hamilton made use of the day to get to know his new subordinates. The next task, of course, will be to announce his presence with authority…[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Smith, John Buchan, 204.
  2. Diaries, 167.
  3. In two days' time, Patrick Shaw Stewart will mention to Ronald Knox, future clergyman and popular writer, that "[b]y the way, I have of course ordered [Wells's] new book about God, and we shall probably disagree violently about it.’ Knox, Patrick Shaw Stewart, 197.
  4. Collected Letters, 460-2.
  5. War Diary, 285-6.

Siegfried Sassoon Converses on England, and Sacrifice, with a Proper English Lady; Edwin Vaughan’s Patrol; Henry Williamson on Magazines and Mule Races; Rowland Feilding’s Scruples

Edwin Vaughan and his company commander had a minor adventure in No Man’s Land in the wee hours of last night, a century back. It left him feeling confident and accomplished… and eager to contest the ground with the Germans opposite.

At about 12 noon I woke and, while Dunham still slept, I wormed my out under the oilsheet which screened the front of our hole, and standing erect in the trench I met a fresh sweet breeze and clear, warm sunlight that made me glowing and alert in a moment.  Raising my arms in a luxurious stretch I rose on tiptoe and looked round the stretch of ground behind me–a slight valley of long coarse grass thickly strewn with poppies and dog daisies…

The calm and silence seemed as fragile, and the sky as dainty, as the picture on a Dresden plate…

What could go wrong? Vaughan visits his men in their posts as they while away the day reading, day-dreaming, or cleaning their rifles…

Not a sound could be heard but the tinkle of a button stick in the next recess, until without warning there was a mighty crash and a spray of earth and stones fell over us as we flung ourselves against the trench side.

A high-velocity shell bursting 30 yards in front had effectively broken the spell and as Wood climbed back into his recess, I hurried back to mine–not that these holes afford the slightest protection, except against small splinters, but as a rabbit seeks its burrow, so we each dash to our own hole for safety. Dunham was standing in the trench with a tin of pork and beans in his hand and a look of mingled surprise and indignation on his face.

In January this would have occasioned a day of cowering terror–but Vaughan is a tyro no longer. Mere whizz-bangs! This threat they laugh off, or wish away… and the day passes. Later, Vaughan goes out to meet Radcliffe, the company commander. They are out in the open, along a segment of the line where a rise in the ground screens them from German observation.

We were still in the open near the right post when I grabbed his arm and we stood motionless. I had heard the faint crack of a ‘grenatenwerfer’–forgotten since Biaches–and after a faint short swish the bomb burst with a sharp shattering crash and a spurt of yellow sparks–overhead!

Immediately a cold fear gripped me, for I realized instantly that there was no cover from these. It was no use lying down, for their burst was downward and they were immediately overhead. We waited for several minutes, and as the fire was not repeated I cheered myself by saying that this was only an accidental premature, and that the ground busters were quite harmless.

But this hope was soon shattered, for suddenly there came a persistent stream of them all bursting at the same height over our lines. The fragments whizzed past us and struck the ground with horrid thuds, and our nerves were terribly racked. But reaching my post we found the troops taking not the slightest notice of them, so in feigned nonchalance we strolled along, chaffing the NCOs and questioning the sentries until the ‘pineapples’ ceased–15 minutes later.

Another false alarm. Or, not so much false as… merely alarming. But the night’s business is still ahead: will they be able to assert their dominance of the wide swath of No Man’s Land, or cede it to German patrols and working parties?

Radcliffe was taking his patrol out from my right post, so I waited there while he went back to fetch them, then one by one we passed through the gap in the wire and crouched in the wet grass until the formation was complete. We advanced in jumps, Raddy and I creeping forward with a runner, scenting the ground for 50 yards at a time, and then sending the runner back for the patrol. After a while we got tired of this, so we left the patrol where it was and we two crept on alone until we reached a junction of two roads that ran across No Man’s Land. The road was sunken and as we approached we heard faint voices and, looking over the bank, there, hard at work digging a hole, were eight or ten large Boche.

This odd locution–are these singular-plural Boche beasts to be hunted?–is yet another sign of Vaughan’s new veteran’s posture.

We were neither surprised nor alarmed. We just lay watching them amusedly for a couple of minutes, then crawled off back to the patrol. I was wondering what on earth induced them to dig holes in No Man’s Land, when a figure almost upright hurried past us and was lost in the darkness behind. So we stood up then and ran back to where our lads were lying chilled, wet and fed up. Quickly we told them what we had seen, and in a moment they were alert and we set off together–out for blood.

Alas! When we reached the crossroads nothing remained of the working party but a few chalky shovels. Se we had to be content with firing a few rounds down the road after them, and then we walked back, laughing and talking, whilst four of the silly asses marched the shovels between them with great ceremony and exaggerated caution as though they were enemy prisoners

This little jaunt has left us with our tails well up, and I, for one, am very keen on No Man’s Land. I fully appreciate the truth of the maxim that was dinned into us during training–‘Fighting patrols are the finest stiffeners of morale’..[1]

Vaughan, who has been so honest about his fears and insecurities, can thus perhaps be trusted on this matter a bit farther than we might ordinarily credit a diary drafted in post-patrol exhilaration. And–while not hoping (if that makes any sense, here, a century on) for more violence–it is interesting to note that this confidence-building patrol produces neither useful intelligence nor some “positive” attritional score. It’s a riskier version of “live and let live,” and it is certainly good for morale, and/but no harm was done. So–good!

But other units would have counted the escape of these Germans on consecutive nights as a failure to be sufficiently effectively bloodthirsty.

 

We have several more writers to get to, and today’s letter from Rowland Feilding contains no similarly dramatic descriptions of military escapades. But it’s worth our time as an excellent example of what makes his letters to his wife so valuable. Their promised commitment to honesty is neither fudged for the sake of their worries nor elided for matters of convenience. This couple monitors the gulf between them with the scrupulous intensity of responsible inspectors of public works, and so keep their connection as strong as possible and maintain the future historical value of their correspondence.

May 15, 1917 – Kemmel Shelters.

I feel disappointed when I get a letter from you telling me of troubles with servants, whom war and the high wages of the munition works seem to have so thoroughly unsettled. I hate picturing you in the midst of such annoyances, especially as there is nothing I can say or do can help you. Contrariwise, this remark no doubt applies equally to my stories to you of the goings on here, and I often wonder if I am right in keeping the promise I made you when I first came out to hide nothing from you.

The very fact of my being here must cause you intense anxiety, and, as I am helpless in the case of the servant problem, so it is equally true that there is nothing you can do to deter the enemy from any villainy he may contemplate.

And I continue writing to you of all the dangers of the war, remembering that you once said that if I hid anything you
would know it, and only imagine worse things than were really happening.[2]

 

Other correspondents are less reliable, not to mention less considerate about their addressee’s feelings. Henry Williamson is in rare form once again. Yesterday, he wrote to his mother a letter that–for all that I skip the most repetitive ones–you may feel as if you had read before:

Dear Mother,

Thank you for the little letter. Of course you always pile the agony on, dont you. Why am I a hero? I tell you frankly I would rather be here than at home–because out here I cant spend money, and also I have quite as good a time. I shant be going in any more attacks–as it is proved, thank God, that a T.O. is essential to send up supplies, etc during one… Of course one may die any second by hostile shelling, but even then, one has a sporting chance of seeing the war through…

Well mother, will you please give an order to a newsagent…

Now please dont forget… For heavens sake let this be the last request for these papers. Well I cant write any more now. Love to all. Harry.

His timing is as impeccable as his deportment. Today, a century back:

My dear Mother,

Thanks for the two bundles of papers etc arrived today. By the way, you never answered my query about how many boxes of souvenirs you got–I sent two tin boxes off, then a box of helmets, then a sandbag…  what about the first box?

We are having tomorrow some sports in the Transport Section…

I am willing to wager a good deal that–provided the box of almost definitely not live souvenir grenades made it past the censors and through the post–Mrs. Williamson did away with them rather swiftly.

In any case, there’s no sign that the grenades made it into Williamson’s archive… although a program for this Transport Section sport competition did. There are twelve events listed, most of them some variation on a mule race…

Did Henry participate? Perhaps not. But in the novel Philip Maddison got second place, riding a mule named Jimmy…[3]

 

Two days ago I posed the question of whether Siegfried Sassoon, recuperating in what sounds like an impossibly pleasant environment, redolent of his prewar country idylls, can possibly progress in his writing–the writing that was increasingly focused on protesting the horrors of war.

Well, yes and no…

May 15

Marvell’s poems are the best vintage for these days of tranquillity. In the morning I wake to hear a gardener whetting his scythe beyond the yew-hedges. And I know that a tree of silver blossom shakes in the morning sunshine above his head, and a blackbird sings to all the world, crying that, life is fresh and sweet and jolly.

Ye glow–worms, whose officious flame
To wandering mowers shows the way.
That in the night have lost their aim.
And after foolish fires do stray.[4]

And in the afternoon I breathe the country air blown up from weald and wood—the smell of earth after rain, the kindest smell that ever came to make me glad.

All the morning I sit under oaks and beeches in the glory of young leaves, a book on my knee—John Morley on some eighteenth-century Frenchman, the kind of book where one can read a page or two and then turn to the morning sky and the garden and the distant line of downs as infinitely preferable, like listening to a bird singing, outside the church during a dry sermon) as one watches, the shadows of leaves and wings against the coloured windows…

It would seem, then, that the only things Sassoon might be inclined to write are backsliding pastoral poems or, perhaps, a time-travel jeu d’esprit in which he falls into a fountain and emerges dripping to hold a conversation with a young Marie Antoinette.

Well, yes and no. Here’s what comes next in the notebook:

 

A Conversation

He told her how he’d been trying to make up his mind. It was all quite simple; a tale re-told in many hearts. Twice he had been to the war, and twice had come home wounded; and now his friends had half-persuaded him to take a ‘safe job’.

She listened to him, with her grey hair and tired white face, kind, aristocratic and emotionless, leaning a little forward over a piece of embroidery. She represented the patrician distinctions that he had fought for—the climbing woods and green fields that soldiers learn to love when death is over them. She was a Great Lady. And he was only a poet; but he knew that life was taking shape in his heart, and reputation a thing of small value compared with his hidden passion, for utterance and truth and beauty. For a while he thought that she understood.

He spoke without reserve of his longing for life and the task that lay before him, setting against it his mystical joy in the idea of sacrifice and the disregard of death. ‘But death is nothing’, she said, putting away her high-bred reserve like a rich cloak; ‘Life, after all, is only the beginning. And those who are killed in the war—they help us from “up there”, they are all helping us to win.’

For a moment he was struck dumb: he had forgotten that he spoke to an alien intelligence, that would not suffer the rebellious creed that was his. She was a good woman as well as a Great Lady. But her mind dwelt in another kingdom from his. He was the starry wind on the hills, arid the beast writhing in the mire, the strange traveller who had come to her gates and had been suffered to sit by the fire and rest his tired limbs. What was this ‘other world’ that she spoke of? It was a dream he had forgotten years ago–the simplicity of his childish prayers, the torment of his mocking youth that denied the God of priests, and triumphed in the God of skies and waters.

She spoke again, kind yet unrelenting, from the dais of her noble rank. ‘It isn’t as if you were an only child, with a big place to inherit. No; I can’t see any excuse for your keeping out of danger.’ And again, half-compassionate yet still tinged with the prejudice of caste, ‘But of course you can only decide a thing like that for yourself.’ And he knew she was right. He was heir to a dukedom that would never exist in the Peerage that moulded her judgements. Had he been the only son of an accredited Lord Parnassus, she would have said, in her clear firm voice: ‘The name must be preserved; it would never do for the place to go to that impossible creature in Canada.’

I suppose it would do, here, to break in and remark that, while Sassoon is no duke–and while his first actual trade publication (not that should measure Parnassian accomplishment, but still) is only days old–it is still the case that his mother owns a considerable property in Kent, that he has always been rich enough to keep horses and hunt (and never work a regular job) and that his only surviving brother is currently in Canada… A century on, with the Lords and Ladies very much faded and their estates eaten up, donated to the National Trust, or, if preserved, likely to be dwelt in by aging rock stars or financial necromancers, it’s hard to comprehend that Sassoon could have so easily assumed that the fundamental class divide is on the far side of his own status…

In any case, here in the century-back, Siegfried Sassoon, recuperating in a Stately Home in Sussex, is gently, ruminatively nibbling on the hand that has been feeding him. And nibbles have been known to turn to worries… So where are we, the readers, in the satirical reception of this piece?

But she would pray for him with all the strength of her generous perfect-mannered soul. And when he had died of his wounds she would say: ‘He was such a good boy, I am sure he is happier ‘‘up there’’. And he did so splendidly.’

And he would rot in his shallow grave, with all his plays and poems blown away on the smoke of some senseless battle—because his name was not worth preserving, and his ‘place’ was only a little book of the songs he had made, bidding farewell to earth as he stood on the verge of his promised kingdom. For he was not even the younger son of an obscure barony; he was only a poet who used to read the Bible for the glory of the language.
But death forgives many things; and he had died for England, after all.[5]

There’s the satiric manner that all of London’s reviewers are now grappling with, anyway.

It would seem that the Great Lady of this sketch is very closely based on his hostess, Lady Brassey, who was a baroness, the sister of an earl, and the daughter of a viscount. Her serene spiritual confidence in the propriety of his getting killed seems to have rubbed Sassoon the wrong way, for some reason…  let us hope that there is less journal-thievery here than in other great houses…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Some Desperate Glory, 117-21.
  2. War Letters to a Wife, 174-5.
  3. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 150-1; Love and the Loveless, 
  4. Andrew Marvell. ‘The Mower to the Glow-worms’, according to Sassoon's note--or not; Jean Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 567, notes that the reference is "almost certainly" to "Damon the Mower."
  5. Diaries, 164-7.

A Sunrise, a Hospital Barge, and a Ban on Pineapple Chunks from Wilfred Owen

A quiet day, for our writers, a century back. One letter from Wilfred Owen to his mother Susan will have to suffice–along with its verse enclosure, that is.

10 May 1917
13th Casualty Clearing Station

Dearest Mother,

…I sailed in a steam-tug about 6 miles down the Canal with another ‘inmate’.

The heat of the afternoon was Augustan; and it has probably added another year to my old age to have been able to escape marching in equipment under such a sun.

The scenery was such as I never saw or dreamed of since I read the Fairie Queene. Just as in the Winter when I woke up lying on the burning cold snow I fancied I must have died & been pitch-forked into the Wrong Place, so, yesterday, it was not more difficult to imagine that my dusky barge was wending up to Avalon, and the peace of Arthur, and where Lancelot heals him of his grievous wound.

I’ve already wondered whether there is not a bit of a false front here–can Owen really be so blessedly happy with a diagnosis of “shell shock” hanging over his head? But perhaps he can, as the comment about the march indicates. He has not yet been in any way dishonored, and he is neither marching with a pack nor in trenches. So he makes hay while the sun shines–which would have been a better joke if I had already indicated that this letter includes a draft of the poem “A Sunrise.”

In any event, there’s another poem clearly linked to today’s letter:

 

Hospital Barge at Cérisy

Budging the sluggard ripples of the Somme,
A barge round old Cérisy slowly slewed.
Softly her engines down the current screwed,
And chuckled softly with contented hum,
Till fairy tinklings struck their croonings dumb.
The waters rumpling at the stern subdued;
The lock-gate took her bulging amplitude;
Gently from out the gurgling lock she swum.

One reading by that calm bank shaded eyes
To watch her lessening westward quietly.
Then, as she neared the bend, her funnel screamed.
And that long lamentation made him wise
How unto Avalon, in agony,
Kings passed in the dark barge, which Merlin dreamed.

So I suppose it bears reminding that there are no straight lines from trauma to poetic innovation. This is no matter for a Roman road, but rather a rambling Celtic drover’s track, veering into history and fairy land… and, indeed, there certainly seems to be progress of a sort, here. There is music in this, of a sort that is rare in his earlier work: pleasant, side-wise rhyme and alliteration that is almost onomatopoeic–lazy barge music for a lazy barge song.

Although this poem is still to come, the Arthurian mood is certainly proper to this letter, and not cleanly divisible from the military milieu, either.

But the Saxon is not broken, as we could very well hear last night. Later, a real thunderstorm did its best to seem terrible, and quite failed.

The.next book for you to read is A Knight on Wheels. It is great.

Eh, I’m not so sure of that, but with a guilty conscience I must mention that this is a book by Ian Hay (Beith), whose The First Hundred Thousand is one of the most important mid-war publications by and on the British Army, but has made almost no impact here.

But let’s follow Owen’s train of thought: he’s got time, he’s written a poem, he’s a wounded warrior of sorts… what of service? what of his “contribution?” what of fame?

I, with the inherited diffidence of my distinguished Grandma, must say I could never do anything like so great.
I suppose in the million eyes of the Empire I have already done a thing greater than this merry book; but, then, more fools the million eyes . . .

This, perhaps, would be a good spot to interpolate the properly enclosed poem, straight-jacketed by diction, and with none of the easy command of the “Hospital Barge:”

 

A Sunrise

Loomed a pale Pearl more marvellous than the Moon’s,
Who thereby waned yet wanner than she was.
Because of the pallor of the Pearl of dawn,—because
Her Pearl was whiter than the wan, worn Moon’s.

The Pearl cleared Opal; Emerald eftsoons.
And the Emerald trembled peerless for an hour.
Till shower’d with shimmering Sapphires. (Their blue shower
Burst keen and brilliant as the first birds’ tunes.)

Then slowly through the shaking jewels of dawn.
Moved the immutable Ruby of the Sun,
Hung the immortal Ruby, huge with morn.

And the Moon was finished like a reel unspun.
She vanished as a Pearl that falls in wine.
She died: like the white Maid that once was mine.

 

There is some deftness here, rhyme-wise… but this is not the sort of stuff that–even imagining that the traditional register holds the field entire–will win fame and honor.

The fundamental fact, here, I think, is that Owen is in something of a holding pattern–whether he is really loving this interlude (The Idylls of the Subaltern?) or whether he is putting on a brave face for home and for himself to cover his anxiety–he is still awaiting a double verdict: will it be blighty, or back to the trenches? And are his “nerves” an acceptable war wound or a sign of weakness?

The letter leaves literature for the milder balm of the gossip of daily life–not that talk of food shortages, however light-hearted, is a cheery subject.

How are you rationing? The French hereabouts subsist chiefly on Dandelion Salad. I am not joking. The young leaves with oil make an excellent supper. Tell me how you find it.

I live mainly on Pine Apple Chunks. There are going to be certain things Afterwards which will be held by all who love me in everlasting TABOO,

One of these is Pine Apple Chunks.
Another is a lead pencil on bad paper.
Another is the smoke of a damp wood fire…

All Love from your very own Wilfred x[1]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 456-7.

Siegfried Sassoon is Satisfied, for Now; Alfred Hale Receives the Dreaded Summons; John Ronald Tolkien to Humberside; Henry Williamson Sends Bombs to His Mother, Then Calls His Mother a Fool

Before we get to an inimitable letter from Henry Williamson, three brief updates on three very different characters.

Siegfried Sassoon, shot through the shoulder, manages to write a short reflection in his diary of this year and last.

April 19

Expecting to be ‘evacuated’ to England any time.

On 20 April 1916[1] I left the trenches in front of Mametz and went for those four divine, sunlit weeks at the Fourth Army School, half-way between Amiens and Abbeville. This year I am being set free from even more hellish places, and before me lies a vision of green fields sloping to a vale full of white orchards—mazes of cherry-blossom where tiny rills tell their little tales, while the ‘shy thrush at mid-May flutes from wet orchards flushed with the triumphing dawn’. And beyond it all a deep blue landscape chequered.[2]

I’m not sure about that last sentence… but the poem he quotes is by W.E. Henley, and the general idea I’m sure we grasp: Siegfried has won through once again, to peace and the pastoral.

 

Headed in the opposite direction is the unlikely Alfred Hale. A middle-aged (hardly) gentleman (thoroughly) of modest means and fastidious, artistic disposition (he lives alone, and is a composer in a small way), Hale has been very concerned about the extension of conscription to unmarried men over 40… but I have described him in precisely this way, I now see, in several of his scant appearances here so far. It will be a while, still, before his diary is a steady thing and his ordeal takes shape, but he did write about today, a century back: it was the day the post-box finally did its worst.

On Thursday, 19 April it was–I am almost sure of the date–that I came downstairs to ring for breakfast and found a letter on the hall table arrived by that morning’s post. I guessed at once what it contained before even opening it. Another Military Service Act had just been passed which roped in those who, while temporarily exempted, had got over the age limit of 41… the letter contained my ‘calling-up’ notice … [which] required my attendance at the Ealing recruiting office at 9 am sharp on the morning of 1 May.[3]

 

Another gentle and scholarly type–but a university man and an officer and a veteran of the Somme, withal–is headed back to the army today. After a long series of leaves as he struggled to overcome the after-effects of trench fever, John Ronald Tolkien joined the reserve battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers at Thirtle Bridge Camp on the Holderness peninsula, part of the Humber Garrison. This is light duty, training conscripts while providing a guard against possible German attacks from the sea, the likelihood of which has sharply decreased since Jutland. Tolkien’s wife Edith and her cousin Jennie Grove came to live nearby in Hornsea, some fifteen miles away, and so we have here the potential for a peaceful, happy, and productive idyll.

Alas, there are few dates to be shaken out of the months of this posting, despite some notable atmosphere. If the Somme influenced Tolkien’s work, perhaps Humberside influenced it more: there are forests nearby, fit for dancing in, and a harsh sea, in constant contention with a disappearing coastline. And, even though Tolkien is across the island from Wales, he has also begun a new project under the influence of the Welsh language. His first invented language–what would become Quenya–had taken Finnish as its phonological model. But any language-inventing linguist worth his salt would need to work out the effect of phonological changes on his language over centuries of exile.[4] Tolkien, struck by the beauty of Welsh, now began figuring out how Quenya might have shifted to sound more like Welsh. This version of Elvish became Sindarin, a language associated with the romantic and tragic adventures of those of the Eldar who returned from the undying lands to fallen, perilous, war-ravaged Middle Earth, and its invention now occupied much of his time.[5]

 

Henry Williamson‘s letters home have, of late, become increasingly obsessed with getting news from home–news of whether his shipment of several boxes of prime German souvenirs have safely arrived. They have, but perhaps without quite sufficient explanation… this letter shows Williamson at his most obnoxiously high-spirited.

My Dear Mother,

You silly ass, you twiddler and numbskull. Last night I got a parcel from you (undated–as usual) and a letter dated 11 April. You mention about the bomb, & crossed it out. We arnt living in the Dark Ages you know and even then, I have told you off and on for the last 3 years that your letters to the BEF are never looked at, never, never, never.

You can put just what you like–never forget that your son is a B.O.–that is a British Officer, and as such, he is a mighty power in the present time–and also is treated by all from FM Haig downwards with courtesy and consideration. Now do you get me?

I sent 2 tin boxes to you–a small one containing coats, buttons, shoulder straps etc. The second with the cap and bomb you got Now pull yourself together. Do you think for a second I should be such a fool as to send a live bomb? Or course not…

Williamson continues with an explanation of how fuse and explosive charge differ, and then makes some cruel jokes about how the headgear he is sending–German caps and, especially, “pickelhaube” helmets–might be mined. Remarkably, he then gives his mother a hard time for failing to promptly send him the motorcycling magazines he wants to read:

…if you really dont want to do it, just tell me & I will give an order to a bookseller–it is silly always waiting for things that never turn up. I should have thought it not a very hard thing to do–it gives me great pleasure to read them regularly and I may not have much chance to read many more, three of us are left at present–two of my pals are still lying in the wire of the —– line.

Good Lord. After a few more paragraphs of wandering into nostalgia, this British Officer seems to repent, for the moment, of his adolescent manipulation. That would be the only strictly ethical reading. But then again this is a young man so perpetually prone to such swift swings of foolish overconfidence and self-loathing semi-despair (I have seen no evidence of deep depression) that it’s hard not to imagine that a psychological imbalance of some sort is at work. He is not in great danger, and these alleged pals on the wire are not a fair depiction of the risks he is running… but he is still quite often within reach of the guns, and far from any certain friendship or love.

Gone are the wild birds, the dawn, and the dew–and away yonder the heavies pound away to cut the wire, the gunners clean up their Vickers guns, & examine field dressings, for soon–and a few more mothers will be broken-hearted. I don’t know whether I should send you this letter–if I thought it would put the wind up you, I wouldn’t–but I think you know that at times I despair at the greyness of everything, and then when I write in these moods you will understand me a bit more–by tomorrow I shall be glad to be alive again–by tomorrow who knows?

…Well goodbye dear mother, at least au revoir a bit longer, my only worry is the monotony…  only a fluke will kill your loving son, Harry. XXXXXXX[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. His memory is slightly off.
  2. Diaries, 157-8.
  3. The Ordeal of Alfred Hale, 36.
  4. Never mind that--I am always irritated that this objection does not seem to be made!--the immortal Eldar would hardly experience the same sort of linguistic change in a millennium as would take place over a few dozen mortal generations.
  5. Chronology, 100. See Garth, Tolkien and the Great War, 234-7; see also this interesting post with a number of photographs.
  6. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the Great War, 124-7.

Ivor Gurney in Perforated Good Spirits; Spring Offensive: Wilfred Owen Goes Over the Top; Siegfried Sassoon on the Effect of the Bombardment; Billy Prior’s Attack

Today is a day of blood and gore and foreboding. But we’ll start with the good news.

Pretty good news, at least: Ivor Gurney is wounded, and thus safe. There is pain, yes, but it hasn’t bought the best of news–early hopes of Blighty have faded. Gurney informs Marion Scott of his condition in a letter posted today, a century back:

My Dear Friend: Well, I am wounded: but not badly; perhaps not badly enough; as although kind people told me it meant Blighty for me, yet here I am at Rouen marked “Tents”. I do not yet give up hopes, but very few boats have been running lately; none at all for some days; and the serious cases go first of course. It was during an attack on Good Friday night that a bullet hit me and went clean through the right arm must underneath the shoulder—the muscles opposite the biceps, to describe them more or less accurately. It hurt badly for half an hour, but now hurts not at all…  there is no real damage done to my arm, not enough to please me.

Alas! Alas! There are hardly any books here! And the life is made up of hanging about waiting to be shifted again. Now if I could find some real hard reading to do–something to distract my mind–all might be well; or if I had some MS and a few books of verse, I would turn out something in spite of the flatness of my mind. O well, hopes
are not yet gone…

Though this Spring is cold and unclement, I cannot keep out of mind what April has meant for me in past years — Minsterworth, Framilode, and his companionship. And my sick mind holds desperately on to such memories for Beauty’s sake; and the hope of Joy…

So, if I can send you an address, please send me some small books of verse, and Tolstoi’s Cossacks (Worlds Classics – Pocket Ed.) I wonder whether at last I might try Housmans “Shropshire Lad”?

I will write again in half a shake:

Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney

(I write with my perforated arm, so you see not much is wrong.)[1]

 

It could be much worse. Which Kate Luard can make too painfully clear:

Saturday night April 14th. I’ve never in my life seen so many aeroplanes or so many dead men or so many German prisoners; they are marched in hundreds down our road…

One Cockney boy with both arms smashed said to the Padre, ‘Sy a prayer for me, will yer? That would be nahce. Can’t yer confirm me?’ It’s the only time I’ve seen the Padre laugh. Then the boy offered to sing ‘Tooleroolerity, I want to go to Blighty–Blighty is the plice for me.’ And then he died.[2]

 

 

So. Now another strange non-convergence. Two of our poets who have been creeping toward the line come even closer today–one attacks while the other is on the edge of the action–while a third man who will come to occupy the same space as both of them, but who did not exist, suffered some portion of both of their experiences.

 

During the morning, Wilfred Owen and the 2nd Manchesters moved forward to their attack positions… and found that the staff work had been very bad indeed. First, there was a simple problem of time and distance: “It was realised by the battalion at the outset that it was impossible to cover the distance in artillery formation with the loads and paraphanalia [sic] that the private soldier is called upon to carry in the attack in the time given.” To make matters worse, the last 1,000 yards of the approach involved moving across the enemy’s front, and when the Manchesters appeared in view the Germans immediately placed a hurricane barrage on the ground to be covered. Nor did they know what they were attacking, or where the other British units in the area were. The C.O., Lt. Col. Luxmore, rode off to consult with brigade and came back at 12:20, ten minutes before the scheduled attack time, saving his battalion by ordering a postponement and a flank march to a different position.

But they still had to attack, and they still had to cross a hillside in full view of German-held St. Quentin just to reach the jumping-off point.

Though this barrage was straight in the middle of the Battalion, they moved forward through it as steadily as going on parade, each wave keeping its dressing and distance and every carrier retaining his load. By the Grace of God alone only 30 men were lost in this barrage.

This took long enough that the newly-agreed-upon assault time of 1:00 was also missed. It seems as if there had been no allowance made for the fact that this is not an assault from long-held trenches with reasonably secure telephone connections to the rear but rather an exploratory attack by a unit feeling its way through new country. If the stakes weren’t so high the image of the colonel galloping about in Napoleonic fashion as if he were his own dispatch rider would be comical.

In any event, his arrival was doubly providential, since someone needed to take tactical command on the spot and ignore whatever brigade-level plans remained. Since staying out in accurate artillery fire meant certain destruction and the German wire barriers did not seem too imposing, the Manchesters mounted a quick frontal assault on a German-held trench near their objective, through the barrage and long-range machine-gun fire. Reaching the trench, they found it to be abandoned. This was victory, of a sort, and the day’s work done, so they turned the position over to their relief and went briefly into reserve.[3]

Wilfred Owen was physically unscathed, but this was his first real attack, his first day in the open, under fire. His letter to his mother will strike a tone somewhere between exhilaration and disbelief:

Twice in one day we went over the top, gaining both our objectives. Our A Company led the Attack, and of course lost a certain number of men. I had some extraordinary escapes from shells & bullets. Fortunately there was no bayonet work, since the Hun ran before we got up to his trench. You will find mention of our fight in the Communique; the place happens to be the very village which Father named in his last letter![4] Never before has the Battalion encountered such intense shelling as rained on us as we advanced in the open.[5]

But neither the battalion diary–which is in fact quite detailed and emotional for such a document–nor the letter do much to make us feel what it must have been like to have been there. Marching about, with no cover; uncertain of directions, of objections, of intentions–uncertain of anything except the fact that there would be no safety until some indeterminate length of shell-harrowed, bullet-swept ground was crossed.

But Owen will write it another way, in his poem “Spring Offensive,” which closes with these stanzas:

So, soon they topped the hill, and raced together
Over an open stretch of herb and heather
Exposed. And instantly the whole sky burned
With fury against them; and soft sudden cups
Opened in thousands for their blood; and the green slopes
Chasmed and steepened sheer to infinite space.
Of them who running on that last high place
Leapt to swift unseen bullets, or went up
On the hot blast and fury of hell’s upsurge,
Or plunged and fell away past this world’s verge,
Some say God caught them even before they fell.
But what say such as from existence’ brink
Ventured but drave too swift to sink.
The few who rushed in the body to enter hell,
And there out-fiending all its fiends and flames
With superhuman inhumanities,
Long-famous glories, immemorial shames—
And crawling slowly back, have by degrees
Regained cool peaceful air in wonder—
Why speak they not of comrades that went under?

 

There are many facile ways to make this next transition: “As Owen’s experience opens out, as his poetry rises, Sassoon descends…” Or, perhaps: “While Owen does not deny God and heaven, he writes with biblical force and yet pointedly fails to confirm any solace or meaning to the day’s ‘inhumanities;’ meanwhile, Sassoon is becoming confirmed in his beliefs about where fault for slaughter lies.” That sort of thing. But even if we eschew easy parallels, there is a striking juxtaposition here. Siegfried Sassoon–who has been hoping for open battle, in which he knows he will either excel or be killed–will get instead a new experienced of compressed horror, and one that will push his angry poetry toward something even deeper and darker. Not above ground and into the great wide shell-swept open, but down underground, in the subterranean fastnesses of the Hindenburg line, where, safe from the shells, it will be grenade- and knife-work, and hell will be no Miltonic abstraction of fiends and flames but mappable terrain, still contested by the damned…

Tonight, a century back, Sassoon is still on the verge of this. His diary picks up late last night:

April 14

At 9 p.m. we started off to relieve the 15th Northumberland Fusiliers in Hindenburg support (Second R.W.F. being in support to the First Cameronians). It was only an hour’s walk, but our Northumberland Fusilier guides lost themselves and we didn’t arrive and complete the relief until 4 a.m. Luckily it was fine. I went to bed at 5 a.m., after patrolling our 900-yard front alone!—in a corridor of the underground communication-trench of the Hindenburg Line—a wonderful place. Got up at 9.30 after a miserable hour’s sleep—cold as hell—and started off at 10.45 with a fatigue-party, to carry up trench-mortar bombs from dump between St Martin-Cojeul and Croisilles. Got back very
wet and tired about 4.30. Rained all day—trenches like glue.

But in beginning to transmute the experience to memoir, Sassoon will bring a sense of helpless victimization–of abject horror–to the fore:

Stage by stage we had marched to this monstrous region of death and disaster. From afar it had threatened us with the blink and din of its bombardments. Now we groped and stumbled along a deep ditch to the place appointed for us in that zone of human havoc. The World War had got our insignificant little unit in its mouth; we were there to be munched, maimed or liberated.[6]

So not Milton–Dante. The great devil mouth churning, while little dead men run up and down the twisting trenches in his hide, hurling bombs at each other…

We will see what the morrow will bring. But this stay amidst the wreckage of the attack will yield some of the most viscerally upsetting and vividly “anti-war” of Sassoon’s poems. One example will do, I think:

 

The Effect

‘The effect of our bombardment was terrific.
One man told me he had never seen so many dead before.’
War Correspondent.

‘He’d never seen so many dead before.’
They sprawled in yellow daylight while he swore
And gasped and lugged his everlasting load
Of bombs along what once had been a road.
‘How peaceful are the dead.’
Who put that silly gag in some one’s head?

‘He’d never seen so many dead before.’
The lilting words danced up and down his brain,
While corpses jumped and capered in the rain.
No, no; he wouldn’t count them any more…
The dead have done with pain:
They’ve choked; they can’t come back to life again.

When Dick was killed last week he looked like that,
Flapping along the fire-step like a fish,
After the blazing crump had knocked him flat…
‘How many dead? As many as ever you wish.
Don’t count ’em; they’re too many.
Who’ll buy my nice fresh corpses, two a penny?’

 

So a Dante, but a Dante who has lost sight of Purgatory, and knows that Paradise is impossible. This shocking turn in Sassoon’s poetry on the very day of Owen’s first attack makes an uncannily good introduction for our next subject.

Sassoon, as his diary shows, was sleepless and agitated and keyed-up, but he was not yet shocked into losing his mental equilibrium. Owen has survived his first attack and is uncertain yet what meaning he can wring out of it, or what it has wrung out of him.

Which brings us to Lt. Prior. Billy Prior is, in the literary sense, real–more real to me, having read his story several times, and seen it enacted–than many historical figures. But he’s also fictional. He began life, I think it’s fair to say, as a “composite character” in Pat Barker’s Regeneration, a sort of stock figure of well-researched historical fiction, well-equipped with a 20th century panoply of trauma, neurosis, and defiant energy. But then he took on a life of his own. Regeneration is the sort of book that with great modesty and intelligence–two essential characteristics, along with compassion, that it shares with its (non-fictional) hero, Dr. William Rivers–would wave off such superlatives as “the best of its kind.” But it is–the trilogy is an incomparable fictional exploration of the psychological damage wrought by the war, and Billy Prior is the most compelling fictional Great War officer I can think of.[7]

But it’s early days, and he has not yet opened out into that full fictional life. Prior will be “shell-shocked” into both amnesia and temporary mutism, and the account of the battle (read the book!) that he provides for his therapist is stubbornly matter-of-fact. In fact–and very interestingly–Prior’s memories of today, a century back, draw heavily both on Owen’s first sharp experience of walking under shell fire “as steadily as going on parade” as well as on the sort of edge-of-madness clarity that Sassoon’s poetic voice summons. This is good historical fictional practice, of course, but there are lots of good accounts of such attacks (I’ve heard there’s a blog…) and it’s interesting that Prior’s trauma borrows in such a way from two “real life” figures whose paths will cross his own, in fiction.

I’ll include now a short excerpt from Regeneration: as it fades out one might either take up the novel itself or read once more Owen’s letter and his battalion’s history.

Prior dragged on the cigarette and, momentarily, closed his eyes. He looked a bit like the boys you saw on street corners in the East End. That same air of knowing the price of everything. Rivers drew the file towards him. ‘We left you in billets at Beauvois.’

‘Yes. We were there, oh, I think about four days and then we were rushed back into the line. We attacked the morning of the night we moved up.’

‘Date?’

‘April the 14th.’

Rivers looked up. It was unusual for Prior to be so accurate.

‘St. George’s Day. The CO toasted him in the mess. I remember because it was so bloody stupid.'[8]

‘You were in the casualty clearing station on the …’ He glanced at the file. ’23rd. So that leaves us with nine days unaccounted for.’

‘Yes, and I’m afraid I can’t help you with any of them.

‘Do you remember the attack?’

‘Yes. It was exactly like any other attack.’

Rivers waited…[9]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters, 153-5.
  2. Unknown Warriors, 113.
  3. War Diary, WO/2392/2, page 160 (of pdf).
  4. Fayet.
  5. Collected Letters, 452.
  6. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 316.
  7. I'm not sure if Christopher Tietjens should count; George Sherston probably shouldn't...
  8. St. George's Day is usually April 23rd, not April 14th, and the calendrical complexities which move it later under certain conditions shouldn't have resulted in making it the 14th in 1917. I have a very limited understanding of the liturgical calendar, but this would seem to be a simple slip, occasioned perhaps by the fact that the next day Rivers mentions--the end of the total gap in Prior's life history--is the 23rd--unless I am simply misreading the fictional conversation? Is Prior playing some game with the dates, testing Rivers in some way? I don't think we are meant to subtly infer than his amnesia is feigned... In any event, it's fiction! And I'm very pleased to have an excuse to begin considering Regeneration, the most important (ah, superlatives) of the Great War novels written by later generations, before the time of its main action (all too infrequently dateable) this summer and autumn.
  9. Regeneration, 77.

Edward Thomas: “The Artillery is Like a Stormy Tide;” Edward Hermon is Likely to be Pretty Busy; Siegfried Sassoon Feels Elation and Absolute Confidence; A.A. Milne Debuts a Comedy

Tomorrow will be Easter, and particularly well-suited to pondering life and death, pain and sacrifice. Today, a century back, our two Edwards at Arras–though Edward Hermon goes by “Robert”–both write pre-battle, pre-bedtime letters to their wives.

My darling,

I’ve had a rather strenuous time in the line these last three days & so beyond a postcard I haven’t been able to do much for you, old dear.

We have been in for three days during which time our guns have been most particularly active. The result being that one hasn’t known a moment’s peace. The bottom of the trenches has had water & mud over it to the depth of the top of my field boots. Last night I was relieved, thank goodness, & the adjutant, the Doctor and I walked back here together getting in at 6 a.m. (My town residence.)

Three more weary, mud-bespattered officers it would have been hard to find. I just flung myself down on the bed and slept as I never slept before with guns blotting off in all directions close to me without ever hearing a sound till Buckin woke me about noon. I hadn’t had six hours’ sleep in the three days, been damned nearly killed once & was what you call pleasantly weary, but it’s a wonder how very quickly a few hours’ sleep revives one…

The guns make life quite unbearable in the house & now I’m down in a cellar where I’ve got my orderly room & a nice brazier of coke & am really quite warm & comfortable tho’ it sounds hardly so…

I go in the line again tomorrow…

My own dear lass, I must go to bed now as I must store up what energy I can, as I shall probably need it these next few days as I’m likely to be pretty busy so far as I can see. Give the dear little Chugs my love & a kiss from Dad & with all my love to you old dear, & your dear old face to love.

Ever your Robert.[1]

 

Edward Thomas managed a few lines in his diary–including one striking line that places the poet of roads and trees and rainfall more firmly in the ruin-scape than he has ever been–and then wrote once more to Helen.

Up at 6 to O.P. A cold bright day of continuous shelling… Infantry all over the place preparing Prussian Way with boards for wounded. Hardly any shells into Beaurains. Larks, partridges, hedge-sparrows, magpies by O.P. A great burst in red brick building in N.-Vitasse stood up like a birch tree or a fountain. Back at 7.30 in peace. Then at 8.30 a continuous roar of artillery.[2]

Saturday
Beaurains
April 7 or 8 1917

Dearest,

Here I am in my valise on the floor of my dugout writing before sleeping. The artillery is like a stormy tide breaking on the shores of the full moon that rides high and clear among white cirrus clouds. It has been a day of cold feet in the O.P. I had to go unexpectedly. When I posted my letter and Civil Liabilities paper in the morning I thought it would be a bad day, but we did all the shelling. Hardly anything came near the O.P. or even the village.

So he was safe–but that is not news, for the letter is written. But what does he see?

I simply watched the shells changing the landscape. The pretty village among trees that I first saw two weeks ago is now just ruins among violated stark tree trunks. But the sun shone and larks and partridges and magpies and hedgesparrows made love and the trench was being made passable for the wounded that will be harvested in a day or two. Either the Bosh is beaten or he is going to surprise us. The air was full of aeroplane flights. I saw one enemy fall on fire and one of ours tumble into the enemy’s wire. I am tired but resting.

Yesterday afternoon was more exciting. Our billet was shelled. The shell fell all round and you should have seen Horton and me dodging them. It was quite fun for me, though he was genuinely alarmed, being more experienced. None of us was injured and our house escaped. Then we went off in the car in the rain to buy things.

The near misses are coming thick and fast–and see how both men, so different in temperament and literary refinement, laugh off the shell that almost got them, emphasize their great weariness, and tread lightly on the way in which hard work and danger will come hand in hand over the next few days. But not too lightly–he does mention the ways being made for the wounded. Does this terrify Helen with its reminder of possible mutilation, or is it a welcome suggestion that he may be honorably and not too dangerously wounded, and carried home?

We shall be enormously busy now. Rubin goes off tomorrow on a course of instruction and may be a captain before long, our sergeant major has left with a commission. One officer has to be at the O.P. every day and every other night. So it will be all work now till further notice—days of ten times the ordinary work too. So goodnight and I hope you sleep no worse than I do…[3]

 

The third of our officers in France today is Siegfried Sassoon–younger, unmarried and unattached, possessed of a very different psychological makeup. Hermon and Thomas are both brave: Hermon no doubt expected to be just as stolidly brave as he was bred to be, while Thomas was perhaps mildly surprised and relieved to find that he withstood shellfire better than most.

But Sassoon is… fickle. He is certainly brave, but in a curious way he has shown a lack of ability to be the sort of brave that this war demands: enduring, under constant pressure, despite the inability to reply to the danger or to funnel nervous tension into bursts of physical activity. In the Second War they might have made him a fighter pilot or a commando, but an infantry subaltern of the Great War is more akin to a bomber pilot, tasked to fly again and again, in tight formation, through the black flak and nightmare fighters.

Sassoon has forgotten this. He is ready for action, ready to leave behind the introvert poet, the budding anti-war activist, the romantic sulker, and become ‘Mad Jack’ once again. It’s a short few days of marching from bitter moods to combat euphoria.

And yet Sassoon, though on the way up (in two senses of the phrase), still has eyes for the birds: blackbirds confirmed! And could he bring a darkling thrush to Edward Thomas at Beuarains?

April 7 7 p.m.

We are now at Saulty, a village just off the Doullens-Arras road (about twelve miles from Arras)…

I am sitting on a tree-stump, in the peaceful park of a big white chateau which one sees among the trees. The sun is looking over the tree-tops now, and birds singing a way off, and a few little deer grazing; nothing to remind me of the battle, except the enormous thudding of guns from eastward. The brown of the trees and undergrowth grows purple, and the birds sing, thrushes and blackbirds, while a few rooks flap overhead. The bombardment must be terrific. Three Army Corps are reported to be attacking between Arras and Lens. We move to our final concentration area to-morrow (Easter Sunday!)—about four miles from here.

The next paragraph is as nice a blend of insight and bemused resignation as we are likely to find. And another good reminder for we-who-would-understand-the-war: if even a self-studying diarist can’t begin to comprehend his own emotions, how are we to make sense of it all?

I don’t suppose anyone would believe me if I said I was absolutely happy and contented. Of course this is written after a good meal of coffee and eggs. But the fact remains that if I had the choice between England to-morrow and the battle, I would choose the battle without hesitation. Why on earth is one such a fool as to be pleased at the prospect? I can’t understand it. Last year I thought it was because I had never been through it before. But my feeling of quiet elation and absolute confidence now is something even stronger than last summer’s passionate longing for death and glory.

I keep such music in my brain
No din this side of death can quell.[4]

(I never wrote truer words than those.)

This battle may be nothing at all, or it may give me a fine chance. I only hope we are in the forefront of it. Sitting in support and getting shelled is no fun at all. I may even be left out, awful anticlimax for the hero!

The men seem very cheery and have done the forty-odd miles well. These occasions when soldiers are on the verge of hell always seem to show them at their very best. Of course the officers are very prone to a sentimental ave atque vale frame of mind. For the men it is a chance of blighty, and anything for a change.

Aeroplanes are humming in the clear sky, and the sun is a glint of crimson beyond the strip of woodland. And still that infernal banging continues away on the horizon. Holmes, has applied for me to go to the First Battalion, but I
suppose I’ll stay here now.[5]

 

And here’s a quirky reminder that life goes on, even in wartime–never really an inappropriate reflection, from either angle, lately. London is still London, and even with the cost of the war, and conscription, and rationing, and shortages, life–and the show–must go on. For Alan Milne, like Tolkien a victim of “trench fever” in the last months of the Somme, a long convalescence has let him get on with his writing.

And his big break has come quickly: tonight, a century back, on forty-eight hours leave from his new job as a signals instructor, Milne saw the premier of his first play, a comic one-act called Wurzel-Flummery, at the New Theatre in London. The setting was ideal: his play appeared between two other short plays by J.M. Barrie, and the theater was filled with soldiers on leave, eager to be entertained. It was a signal success…[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. For Love and Courage, 350.
  2. War Diary (Childhood), 175.
  3. Selected Letters, 164-5.
  4. The first lines of his 'Secret Music,' written in December and shortly to be published.
  5. Diaries, 151-2.
  6. Thwaite, A.A. Milne, 181.

Edward Hermon Has a Pow-Wow; Siegfried Sassoon Would Dose the Fighting Man With Dreams; Edward Thomas Reckons with War and Death; Edwin Vaughan’s Poor Jerry

A busy day, today, with thoughtful letters from Edward Thomas and poetry from Sassoon. But I do want to begin with Edward Hermon–Ethel’s Bob, and the C.O. of the 24th Northumberland Fusiliers–who describes a jolly little gathering with some of the brass.

…had quite a pleasant day. Saw Richardson & Temple & old Trevor lent me a horse. Met the Corps Commander and the Div. Commander. The former a most charming old gent. Perfect manners & most pleasant.

If this puts you in mind, as it does me, of Meriadoc Brandybuck meeting Theoden of Rohan, I’m afraid that the resonance is more apt than we might hope. This little get-together is not social–it is on the eve and the edge of a great tumult. The charming old gent is coming down to issue his detailed orders for the coming battle of Arras.

I wish we were together for just one night as I could tell you so much more than one could write & lots that would interest you, but if speech is silver, silence is golden.[1]

 

Siegfried Sassoon, away south on the quiescent Somme front and able to write unreservedly in his diary, is in a reflective mood. He will have a lot to say in the coming days, so let’s review, shall we?

March 30 (Hotel Belfort, Amiens)

Alone at last after a typical ‘war evening’. After yet another ‘lorry-journey’ in rain and westerly wind, I got to this town again for a ‘final jolly’. On 30 March 1914 I was looking forward with acute anxiety to the Atherstone point-to-point meeting (to be held next day). All my world was centred[2] in the desire to steer old Cockbird first past the post in some wily, jolly race over hedge and ditch.

And I did it. And the world went on just the same! On 30 March 1916 I was in the trenches at Fricourt-Mametz, hating the Germans for killing my friend, and wondering if they’d kill me.

But they didn’t! And tonight I’ve been guzzling at the Godbert restaurant with a captain of the Dublin Fusiliers, and a captain of the Cameronians, and three other Welsh Fusiliers; and the bill was 250 francs; and we drank Veuve Clicquot; and the others have gone into the dark city, to look for harlots; and I’m alone in my room; looking out of a balconied window at the town; with few lights, and the Moon and silver drifts of cloud going eastward; and the railway station looming romantic as old Baghdad. And next week we march away to ‘hazards whence no tears can win us’.

Sassoon next writes a short prose piece that amounts to a reverie proposing remedy by reverie. “Dream Pictures” imagines that he might console homesick soldiers, bored by the same old letters and the dull news, by giving them “a healthy dose of domestic sentimental recollection” which would “turn them loose in some dream-gallery of Royal Academy pictures of the late-nineteenth century.

I would show them bland summer landscapes, willow and meadowsweet reflected in calm waters, lifelike cows coming.home to the byre with a golden sunset behind them. I would take them to gateways in garden-walls that they might gaze along dewy lawns with lovers; murmuring by the moss-grown sundial; I would lead them twixt hawthorn hedgerows, and over field path stiles; to old-world orchards where the lush grass is strewn with red-cheeked apples, and even the wasps have lost their stings…[3]

That’s just in case you thought it was the latter-day English professors making too big a deal about the “consolations of the pastoral…”

 

Edward Thomas is dutiful both to his sense of others’ claim on his time–if he is free from work, he should write to those who love him–and to his own commitment not to write poetry at the front. His diary receives many of the observational fragments that might become poems. But some make it into his letters, try though he might to stick to the stuff of prose.

First, though, a letter to Eleanor Farjeon. He has acknowledged that she loves him; now he treats her as an intimate friend, striving to do her the honor of a frank, clear, straightforward letter. The poetry will sneak into the next letter, when he can still, almost paradoxically, write freely as he writes down.

March 30

My dear Eleanor,

Another penultimate letter before I shall be unable to write from press of work. And first I must thank you for sending the apples and also for the apples themselves, which arrove today.

It was a good post, a parcel also from Mother and letters from Helen and Mother…

Everything is useful, and will be especially in the time to come when I have to take up food for perhaps considerably over 24 hours and pig it in noise and darkness and worse. Subalterns are told nothing but I happen to know what is intended, only not what difference this rain may make. I say this rain, but a most lovely cold bright evening, clear and still, has just passed, with many blackbirds singing. I fancy though that the Easter weather is not really beginning yet. I wish it was. I should welcome a warm night…

You will hear soon enough about what is doing, before I can tell you…

The town is catching it badly now and we are well away—touch wood—though we aren’t in a paradise or the bagpipes wouldn’t have played what they did last night. The crossings and corners are dirty places. But the Hun must be confounded with our numbers, though you might think he couldn’t fire without hurting more than the open fields. Luckily he often does…

In a strange burst of high spirits, the letter ends with a different sort of verse: Thomas segues suddenly into a folk song–one evidently known to Farjeon (they are both connoisseurs).

It isn’t nice, though, going up in the cold dawn. If only one could keep warm without being burdened with clothes and all sorts of ornaments—glasses, maps, waterbottles, haversacks, gas-helmets, periscopes etc., so that a trenchcoat isn’t wide enough and if you have to throw yourself down you feel like an old woman
home from marketing and still more so when you get up—while you on shore and a great many more are sleeping warm and dry— oh. Don’t forget your old houseboat mate, Fol-de-rol-de-riddlefol-de-rol-de-ri-do. Who is ever yours

Edward Thomas[4]

And straight from that bit of whimsy to this letter, to both his mother and his younger brother Julian.

Beaurains, 30 March 1917

Dear Mother,

I will write you another letter to-night because I have nothing to do but be in the battery till the Major and Captain come back from dinner. One has always to be here and to-night is my turn…

Nothing much is happening yet, though the firing seldom ceases. However, to-day has been a better day, with plenty to do and after much cold rain plenty of sunshine to do it in as the evening came on. Which somehow reminds me I ought to be writing to Julian, which I should have done had I not your parcel and your letter today to thank you for. The parcel came safe and was welcome as ever. A plain cake would be very nice whenever you can send it. The chocolate etc. will be most useful on days when I am up at the O.P. and do not want to have to carry more food than is necessary. Your letter and Eleanor’s and Helen’s give me a very clear picture of their visit with Myfanwy…

In other words Thomas, though writing from a dugout near Arras and helping to bombard the Germans, is in receipt of three letters describing the same evidently uneventful family visit. Few men are as tethered to home.

And yet he snaps the band, in a way, without even turning the page. He writes to his brother, now, man to man. Instead of discussing daily life and parcels he takes on the simple subject of war. Nothing more than war and death and killing and suffering and happiness and misery, in a paragraph.

Now I will write to Julian.

My dear Julian I am sorry I have not written specially to you till I had one to answer and that I have had for a week now. There is not much really to tell you that I can tell you or that it would be permissible or profitable to tell you till it is all over. We are having a dirty long picnic, you know, with many surprising and uncomfortable things in it….

War, of course, is not altogther different from peace, except that one may be blown to bits and have to blow others to bits. Physical discomfort is sometimes so great that it seems a new thing, but of course it is not. You remember cycling in the rain towards Salisbury. It really is seldom quite a different thing than that. Of course, one seems very little one’s own master, but then one seldom does seem so. Death looms, but however “it comes it is unexpected, whether from appendicitis or bullet. An alternation of comfort and discomfort is always a man’s lot. So is an alternation of pleasure or happiness or intense interest with tedium or dissatisfaction or misery. I have suffered more from January to March in other years than in this. That is the plain fact. I will not go into it any more. I hope I do not seem to be boasting. I am too often idle and inefficient and afraid to want to boast.

I cannot talk about books…

Give my love to Maud and the baby and everyone.

P.S. I was just going to tell you not to take too seriously my request, for Epsom Salts when the order was given ‘Battery. Action.’ and now we are giving 167 rounds at a hostile battery over there in the dark.

Ever your loving son

Edwy[5]

 

One brief final note. Edwin Vaughan has had a few days in billets, but his battalion has just marched up to some of the new territory now being entrenched by the British. His task tonight, a century back, was to supervise the putting out of new barbed-wire emplacements.

It was a very quiet and lonely scene, the slope of snow down from behind us, nothing visible but the whiteness of the earth merging into the grey of the sky. The line of little men at their noiseless tasks and the cold moonlight over all. As I sat drinking in this scene, Breeze touched me on the arm, ‘There’s someone declared peace’, he said and pointed across past the last stake.

Covered with snow, as with a sheet, lay the body of a Boche, looking calm and, I somehow felt, happy. Yet the sight of him made me feel icily lonely. It seemed such a terrible thing to lie alone, covered with snow throughout the night, with never a sound until we came along, and tapped and clipped and never spoke, then went away forever. It seemed so unfriendly, and for a long time I sat wishing we could do something for him.

Later on, as his men line up to march back, he notices a man of his platoon carrying a pair of boots.

I asked him where he got them. He said brightly ‘Jerry up on the hill, Sir.’ My poor poor Jerry. We marched back and left him.[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. For Love and Courage, 346.
  2. I link to this not because the date is right but because it is, I think, my longest expostulation on the pre-war Sassoon.
  3. Diaries, 146-7.
  4. Farjeon, Edward Thomas..., 259-60.
  5. Selected Letters, 155-7.
  6. Some Desperate Glory, 73-4.

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

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

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

March 26

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

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

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

 

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

26 March 1917

Erinfa, Harlech, North Wales

Dear old Sassons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

References and Footnotes

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

Kate Luard’s Near Miss; Edwin Vaughan in a Lousy Boche Trap; Siegfried Sassoon Can Almost See England; God Amidst the Shellfire for Edward Hermon; Geoffrey Thurlow Asks Vera Brittain About the Afterlife

Kate Luard, her hospital warned that their first convoy of wounded is only days away, took what she expects to be a last day of leisure for quite some time. She wants to see the sights–and now that the German withdrawal has put the old front line well in the rear, she can tour the Somme battlefield for the first time. So she does, and runs smack into the apparent paradox that so many of our writers confront or avoid, but necessarily both confirm and deny:

…we have been over No-Man’s Land an down into the deep German dug-outs on the scene of the tragedy last July at Gommécourt. It is all indescribable. Bairnsfather has drawn it, but no one can ever, in words, make anyone realise what it is like.

As Rabbi Tarfon says, it is not incumbent upon you to finish the job; but neither are you at liberty to completely avoid it….

The wood and the orchards are blackened spikes sticking up out of what looks now like a mad confusion of deep trenches and deep dug-outs battered to bits. We went with an electric torch deep down two staircases of one and stepped into a pond at the bottom…

I cast Kate Luard, often enough, in the role of The Wise Woman, our Old Campaigner among the medics. Which, like any such shoehorning, is not terribly fair. She features here so often because she is a keen observer and a good writer, not because she is infallibly wise. In her own sphere, we’ve come to except extreme competence and compassion… but off for an exciting tour of the forbidden zone, she succumbs to a common and foolish enthusiasm–the search for souvenirs.

I picked up a nose-cap; and the sapper who was with us said hastily, ‘That’s no good,’ snatched it out of my hand and threw it out of sight; it still had the detonator in it. Then he picked one up without its detonator and gave it to me…

The village we and the Germans have been shelling for 2 years made you feel dazed. But the battlefield made you feel sick. We got some snowdrop roots with the flowers out, from under a boulder at Gommécourt.

Here you get to the culmination of destruction for which all civilised nations are still straining all their resources. Isn’t it hopelessly mad?[1]

More snowdrops! A paragraph of further description intervenes before Luard comes to tell of their long walk back to the hospital, so perhaps the uplifting irony I see in the last sentences of the day is not actually intended. But after being compelled to condemn the madness of civilization, Sister Luard and her companions, returning, are invited to tea three times on their walk back by three different groups of British N.C.O.s and officers, and then have coffee pressed upon them by a Frenchwoman.

 

Edwin Vaughan is headed in the opposite direction. He had a harrowing march up through the devastated town of Péronne and toward his battalion’s new billets in what had until recently been the German rear–harrowing, at least, for him. Other writers might have treated a near-miss and a blighty for a fellow officer with less candor: “He wasn’t a scrap disturbed by his wounds, but they made me feel faint and I had to go out for some air.”

But then several men are killed by shells accurately dropped on a well, and the survivors are grateful to take shelter in their new digs–three German dugouts.

I lay for a while on my upper berth, smoking and reading a book on trench warfare. then I began to feel itchy, and the itchiness grew, and spread so much that I was unable to concentrate on my book. So I lay on my back looking at the timber roof a foot above me, and I wondered whether the saw-marks across the beams were the work of the Boche to ensure the roof falling in when a time-mine exploded. I was distracted from this thought, with its potential horrors, by the sight of moving insects. Raising the candle I found that the place was crawling with lice. During the night I felt them dropping onto my face, and in the morning I was infested with them.[2]

 

Robert (Edward) Hermon’s letter home to his wife of tonight, a century back, is a bit of a surprise. Hermon is our conventional English family man, the non-intellectual squire and kindly C.O. He’s not a great writer, but this account of church amidst a bombardment is one of the more moving ones I’ve read. Of all things (all things!) it reminds me of a scene in Gravity’s Rainbow.

Tonight I went to church in one of the church Army Huts close here & we had such a nice little service, ending with a celebration[3] for which I stayed. All the time the service was going on the Hun was throwing some very heavy shells into the village about half a mile off & what with the church being lit up & it dark outside & the whistle & crash of the shells it made the whole thing very weird & also impressive & I’m afraid that my voice was not particularly strong as I sang the third verse of hymn 322…

Then the world re-intrudes, and we are back to clocks and bunks–and men of god in their human frailties.

Well dearie mine I’m busy these days and must to bed now especially as we started summer time last night & I lost an hour of sleep, not to mention the fact that the padre, who sleeps just under me, dreamt that he saw a man cutting the rope of one of the observation balloons & jumped up shouting at the top of his voice to stop him & nearly flung me out of bed in the process, & I felt rather as tho’ a mine had gone off underneath.[4]

 

Only a day after Victor Richardson wrote to Vera Brittain, Geoffrey Thurlow–her brother’s intimate friend from training camp, and now the third of the soldiers that she cares for and corresponds with–writes to her on the same subject. But then what are the chances that two nicely brought-up young men will write about certain things not to each other but to a young woman they admire?

France, 25 March 1917

Don’t you often speculate on what lies beyond the gate of Death? The after life must be particularly interesting. No chance of getting leave… Haven’t heard from Victor Richardson for a long long time–hope he is still going strong…

Tonight I walked home with Wilmot who is in a convalescent home near here. It has been a brilliant day with a fresh wind: we passed along between fields, some green and some with bright red earth recently plowed: and then came to a large forest. The wind made a delightful rustling in the trees & had it not have been for the distant continual bumping of guns War might not have existed…[5]

 

Lastly, today, Siegfried Sassoon evokes a mood of either wistful poetasting or listless carping, depending upon how you see it. But he is a dependable man for observing the landscape, after all.

After five weeks in France (and two with Second R.W.F.) I have not yet been within five miles of a German gun. Instead of getting nearer, the war has actually receded… Yesterday afternoon I got on to a lorry and went bumping
along the Corbie road for three or four miles…  Then I walked down the hill to Heilly on the Ancre, where we camped for four days early in July last year, and marched away to the line again on a hot dusty afternoon. The water still sings its deep tune by the bridge, and the narrow stream goes twinkling away past the bend, and past the garden where I used to walk when I came over from Morlancourt to the Field Cashier. About 5 o’clock I started off up the hill again with the sun setting low and red and the valley hazy and quiet, the wind blowing shrewd, and a plough-team working the ridge.

Another plow team on the ridge!  One begins to suspect a conspiracy between the English outdoor poets and the French peasantry… some sort of pay-to-plow scandal.

And is it a bit too hard on a poor diarist–who after all has a perfect right to record consecutive, incompatible moods–to take him to task for the reach toward a vision of peace, only to follow it with the bathos of one of modern life’s most hackneyed gripes?

I could imagine myself walking home to some friendly English village until the aerodromes loomed in the dusk, and I came to the main road with lines of lorries, and a brazier glowing red where the sentry stands at the cross-roads. And so down the hill to this abominable camp, and a foul dinner in the smoky hut and early to bed, too fed-up to read. And summer begins to-night—which means an hour less in bed, and absolutely nothing else.[6]

In defense of Hermon and Sassoon, the novelty of summer time (a.k.a. daylight savings time) was rather greater a century back…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Unknown Warriors, 104-5.
  2. Some Desperate Glory, 66-7.
  3. I.e. communion
  4. For Love and Courage, 344-5.
  5. Letters From a Lost Generation, 325-6.
  6. Diaries, 144-5.