Francis Ledwidge Dreams of Ireland; Hedd Wyn in the Salient

We take what may be a very welcome break from the travails of Siegfried Sassoon, today, for a letter from Francis Ledwidge to Katharine Tynan, the prolific and well-connected Irish writer. Tynan has just sent Ledwidge Lord Edward: a Study in Romance, her recent book on Edward Fitzgerald, the 18th century Irish nationalist. This book must have resonated strongly for Ledwidge, so soon after the Easter Rising, and in writing his thanks Ledwidge stints nothing of his talent for the lyrical evocation of Ireland:

20th July 1917

We have just returned from the line after an unusually long time. It was very exciting this time, as we had to contend with gas, lachrymatory shells, and other devices new and horrible. It will be worse soon. The camp we are in at present might be in Tir-na-n’Og,[1] it is pitched amid such splendours. There is barley and rye just entering harvest days of gold, and meadow-sweet rippling, and where a little inn named In Den Neerloop holds its gable up to the swallows, bluebells and goldilocks swing their splendid censers. There is a wood hard by where hips glisten like little sparks, and just at the edge of it mealey leaves sway like green fire. I will hunt for a secret place in that wood to read Lord Edward. I anticipate beautiful moments.

I daresay you have left Meath and are back again in the brown wilds of Connaught. I would give £100 for two days in Ireland with nothing to do but ramble on from one delight to another. I am entitled to a leave now, but I’m afraid there are many before my name in the list. Special leaves are granted, and I have to finish a book for the autumn. But, more particularly, I want to see again my wonderful mother, and to walk by the Boyne to Crewbawn and up through the brown and grey rocks of Crocknahama. You have no idea of how I suffer with this longing for the swish of the reeds at Slane and the voices I used to hear coming over the low hills of Currabwee. Say a prayer that I may get this leave, and give as a condition my punctual return and sojourn till the war is over. It is midnight now and the glow-worms are out. It is quiet in camp but the far night is loud with our guns bombarding the positions we must soon fight for.[2]

This is wishful thinking, alas–but I don’t think Ledwidge really has any hope that somehow he, an ordinary infantryman, will be given special leave when his book comes out. And even if his own turn for leave is not too far off, the wistfulness of this letter is sharpened by the sure knowledge that there will be battle before there is any leave. That is the preparatory bombardment for the Third Battle of Ypres that mutters through the night…

 

A bombardment which Hedd Wyn too will soon be hearing. He has now joined the 15th Royal Welsh–the very same battalion as David Jones.[3] The 15th had been in rest but have now finished their march to the front, reaching–naturally–“Dublin Camp” on the banks of the Yser Canal…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The legendary "Land of Youth."
  2. Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 185-6.
  3. I have only just, very belatedly, realized this fact--there are so many writers and so many battalion numbers that I had been ignoring the homunculus who had been repeatedly suggesting that "15th Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers" was awfully familiar. It seems to be an overlooked overlapping of two sympathetic writers, unbeknownst to each other... I will write more about it in a few days.

Robert Graves Attends a Board While Siegfried Sassoon Skips One; Edmund Blunden Passes the Chateau at Vlamertinghe; Francis Ledwidge Writes “Home”

Today, a century back, Robert Graves had a hastily-arranged medical board at Osborne House, on the Isle of Wight, and, despite his recent nervous exhaustion and his bad lung, he was approved to return to duty. Graves has already written to the C.O. of the Welsh Depot (technically, the 3rd Battalion), and he surely indicated to the board that he needed to be passed fit–and therefore granted leave–in order to help a comrade. He probably made it quite clear that he intended to go and help suppress Siegfried Sassoon‘s anti-war protest, and he left for London immediately after the board.

Meanwhile, Sassoon himself cut his own medical board–a shocking breach of good manners, as the depot commandment will explain to him. This is the first sign that the army is likely to simply ignore Sassoon’s direct challenge, treating the fiery and rebellious “Mad Jack” with bureaucratic circumspection. Sassoon has written a protest, but he has slapped no particular face with his duelist’s gauntlets, and the Army, in its lugubrious wisdom, seems likely to shrug aside so impersonal an attack. There will be another board soon…[1]

 

With all of these poets appearing before doctors, writing business letters, and dashing about Britain, we’ve had little time, lately, for poetry. So I will bend the rules a bit today and include two poems that I am almost certain were written this week, or about the events of this week, a century back.

First, Edmund Blunden. His battalion diary for today matches this passage of his memoir:

The battalion camped in readiness among the familiar woods west of Vlamertinghe, but the woods were changed, and the parting genius must have gone on a stretcher. No Belgian artisans were hammering strips of tarred canvas on the hut roofs now; there were holes of various sizes among the huts. Wooden tracks led this way and that in puzzling number through the crowded airless shadows, and new roads threw open to the public a district suited for the movements of a small and careful party. At the corner where one insolent new highway left the wood eastward, an enormous model of the German positions now considered due to Britain was open for inspection, whether from  the ground or from step-ladders raised beside, and this was popular, though whether from its charm as a model or  as a military aid is uncertain. Vidler and Tice inspected it, at least, as stern utilitarians…

Blunden recalls happier times in the Salient–what could be more natural for the pastoral soldier-poet-memoirist, and what could be stranger, really, to the non-soldier than war fondly recalled? Blunden’s memoir is uncanny, though, in its ability to stay within his sensibility–the sharp description, the mixture of foreboding and grudgingly admitted realism and delicate natural beauty (the wildflowers are coming!)–while also being of this moment in the war. It is, after all, the summer of the highly-detailed models, the siege-enthusiast’s historical fetish indulged before the deluge…

But let’s return to Blunden, and the road, and what the summer foliage conceals:

The road toward Vlamertinghe was newly constructed of planks and forced a publicity on farmlands to which I had only gone before on some pleasant trespass. It took one presently through a gorgeous and careless multitude of poppies and sorrels and bull daisies to the grounds of Vlamertinghe Chateau, many-windowed, not much hurt but looking very dismal in the pitiless perfect sun. Its orchards yet clung to some pale apples, but the gunners were aware of that; the twelve-inch gunners, whose business here seemed like a dizzy dream. Under several splendid untrimmed trees, among full-flooding grass, shone certain rails, and on these rails were some tremendous iron engines, with gaping mouths; standing behind, if you could keep your eye unblurred at the titanic second of their speaking, you could see their mortal monosyllables of inferno climbing dead straight into the sky…[2]

That is about as portentous and heavy-handed as Blunden can get. He will also write this day’s march in verse, beginning, again with uncharacteristic directness, by placing a famous line from Keats in this terrible new context:

 

Vlamertinghe: Passing the Chateau, July 1917

‘And all her silken flanks with garlands drest’—
But we are coming to the sacrifice.
Must those flowers who are not yet gone West?
May those flowers who live with death and lice?
This must be the floweriest place
That earth allows; the queenly face
Of the proud mansion borrows grace for grace
Spite of those brute guns lowing at the skies.
Bold great daisies’ golden lights,
Bubbling roses’ pinks and whites—
Such a gay carpet! poppies by the million;
Such damask! such vermilion!
But if you ask me, mate, the choice of colour
Is scarcely right; this red should have been duller.

There is nothing more ominous than beautiful Blunden beginning to sound like satiric Sassoon.

 

It’s not quite fair to Francis Ledwidge to place a somewhat vague poem of his right after this taut stroke of Blunden’s… and yet they fit. They are, certainly, very much poems of mid-July, 1917. Both men know, now, that battle in Flanders is fast approaching. Both think of home–Keats is home, for Blunden–and struggle to see what they can of the unspoilt world in the warscape they inhabit. If Ledwidge is more successful it may be because he is more determined to wish away reality–and it may be because he is writing in the moment, when such wishful thinking is a practical element of emotional health as well as a literary exercise. Some morning this week, when the guns fell silent for a few moments, Ledwidge wrote “Home.”

Home

A burst of sudden wings at dawn,
Faint voices in a dreamy noon,
Evenings of mist and murmurings,
And nights with rainbows of the moon.

And through these things a wood-way dim,
And waters dim, and slow sheep seen
On uphill paths that wind away
Through summer sounds and harvest green.

This is a song a robin sang
This morning on a broken tree,
It was about the little fields
That call across the world to me.

Belgium,
July, 1917.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 352. Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 383.
  2. Undertones of War, 166-7. 11th Battalion Royal Sussex War Diary, 88.

Hedd Wyn’s War Begins; Francis Ledwidge to Marsh and Ypres; Hardy at a Party; Sassoon and Read and Ford Gazetted

There are many limitations placed on this project–by prudence, by the persistent finitude of time, by the scope of my interests and inclinations–and so a great many worthy writers are completely absent from it. Among the many entire classes of writers whose Great War experience has been summarily excluded are all of those not writing in English. And although this exclusion, more than most of the others (I have not fought very stiffly against the class and gender biases inherent in the traditional core of “Great War Writers,” for instance) makes a good deal of sense–I expect, sadly, only the same monolingual fluency that I possess–it still seems regrettable.

Hedd Wyn (National Library of Wales)

But then again sticking to the English language does not really exclude many important British Great War poets. In fact, it may exclude nor more than one. And it’s that very one whom I wish most to write about–so I will.

This is not only because the story of Ellis Humphrey Evans, alias Hedd Wyn, alias ‘Fleur de Lis,’ is a very interesting one. No–I  also have more sheepishly personal reasons. Today, a century on, I have planned to be in Wales, seeing the sights, trying not to be seen seeing the sights in a shallowly touristic sort of way, and even trying perhaps, to pick up a little of the language. Which is beautiful and, had the “Jingos” have taken their anti-Germanism to a logical extreme, a much more proper language for use by British soldiers fighting Saxo-Prussian imperialism. So, fellow Anglophones, forgive (and enjoy) the coming “month poem,” yn y Gymraeg.

But first, a bit about its author. Evans–a harmless shepherd in the literal as well as the figurative sense–was not eager to go. He was a chapel man and a pacifist, but, after having been drafted in 1916, he entered the army rather than pursue an uncertain course as a conscientious objector. He did this at least in part because it would preserve a possible family exemption from the draft (for doing essential food-production work) for his younger brother.

In early 1917 Ellis Evans began his training at the Royal Welsh Fusilier depot at Litherland, arriving within a few days of when Siegfried Sassoon–who would not have noticed him, in any case–was posted abroad from the same camp.

A family story has it that he overstayed a recent leave and was taken away by military police to be sent to the War. That would have been last month; by today, a century back, the 15th Royal Welsh Fusiliers are in Fléchin, France, training for the coming offensive.

While working as a shepherd Evans had pursued a bardic career in the Welsh tradition–his chosen name Hedd Wyn means “blessed (literally ‘white’) peace”–winning prizes at several local eisteddfodau and writing pastoral (again!) and Romantic-inflected poems. For the past few months he has been working on a lengthy ode, suitable for submission to the National Eisteddfod, and he has–or will–mail it home within a few days of today, a century back. But Yr Arwr is lengthy and not, to my knowledge, satisfactorily translated, so our month poem will be another recent poem called, appropriately enough, “war.”

 

Rhyfel

Gwae fi fy myw mewn oes mor ddreng
A Duw ar drai ar orwel pell;
O’i ôl mae dyn, yn deyrn a gwreng,
Yn codi ei awdurdod hell.

Pan deimlodd fyned ymaith Dduw
Cyfododd gledd i ladd ei frawd;
Mae swn yr ymladd ar ein clyw,
A’i gysgod ar fythynnod tlawd.

Mae’r hen delynau genid gynt
Ynghrog ar gangau’r helyg draw,
A gwaedd y bechgyn lond y gwynt,
A’u gwaed yn gymysg efo’r glaw.

 

War

Woe that I live in bitter days,
As God is setting like a sun
And in his place, as lord and slave,
Man raises forth his heinous throne.

When he thought God was gone at last
He put his brother to the sword.
Now death is roaring in our ears,
Shadowing the shanties of the poor.

The old and silenced harps are hung
On yonder willow trees again.
The bawl of boys is on the wind.
Their blood is blended in the rain.[1]

 

It is appropriate in many ways that Hedd Wyn’s first adjacent fellow poet here would be Francis Ledwidge–himself a proud Gael, and a poet of the working class conflicted about serving the English colonial master.[2] But there the similarities begin to fade. Although Ledwidge began in humble circumstances as an English-language poet from the Irish peasant class, he has risen, these last few years, with the help of a lord.

Today, a century back, Ledwidge wrote to Eddie Marsh, discussing which poems of his might appear in the next Georgian Poetry–Ledwidge is already a veteran of the second anthology. And he is a veteran soldier abroad, well-versed in keeping home in his thoughts, even in the trenches:

Just now a big strafe is worrying our dug-outs and putting out our candles but my soul is by the Boyne cutting new meadows under a thousand wings and listening to the cuckoos at Crocknaharna. They say there will be peace soon.

So they have been saying. The next bit is probably not begun in jest–Marsh will indeed visit the front, when Churchill does, but perhaps he will not have the eyes to see the sights (or the lights, as it were) quite like Ledwidge:

If you visit the Front don’t forget to come up the line at night to watch the German rockets. They have white crests which throw a pale flame across no-man’s-land and white bursting into green and green changing into blue and blue bursting and dropping down in purple torrents. It is like the end of a beautiful world![3]

Ledwidge, with his Gamgee-esque enthusiasms intact, will soon be marching North, from a quiet French sector over clogged roads toward Ypres.

 

And now one further break with convention. I have come across (in a biography of Thomas Hardy) a literary party at the home of J.M. Barrie that will take place at some point this month. Arnold Bennett will describe it, and in doing so he puts Hardy in exactly the light I have always imagined him. The party begins with friendly conversation between the Hardys and Barrie and Bennett. Later,

When darkness had fallen, they stood outside one of the windows, watching the searchlights: then more famous authors arrived, not without arising some irony in Bennett: “The spectacle of Wells and G.B.S. talking firmly and strongly about the war, in their comparative youth, in front of this aged, fatigued and silent man–incomparably their superior as a creative artists–was very striking.”[4]

It is characteristic of mere sorcerers that they fail to recognize a true wizard brooding in their midst.

 

And what if the actual fighting writers had been there? Ah, well–we can assume that Wells and Shaw would assume more modesty before a quiet young beribbonned officer than before the quiet, old, invisibly laurelled poet. Speaking of soldier poets…

 

Herbert Read and Siegfried Sassoon–a farmer’s son from Yorkshire and a gentleman of private means from Kent–have never met. And neither one has met the great shambling broken-down smoldering runaway firework-seller’s handcart that is Ford Maddox Hueffer.[5] Nevertheless, in what surely must be my most pompous and tenuous “crossing of paths” yet, these two most successfully aggressive trench fighters in all of modern poetry’s pantheon and this shell-shocked soon-to-be-the-author-of-perhaps-the-greatest-Modern-English-Novel were published alongside each other today, a century back: although one is training for an assault in France, another is rebelling against England, and another has been quietly stashed in a training unit, all three appeared in the London Gazette, each officially promoted to full lieutenant.[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. I have copied a strong translation, by A.Z. Foreman, from here--the link has spoilers.
  2. An only slight less apt and perhaps more interesting point of comparison would be Isaac Rosenberg, whom I recently placed alongside Ledwidge...
  3. Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 184.
  4. Blunden, Thomas Hardy, 155-6.
  5. I have been several months behind in his biography--but I hope to being him back in shortly!
  6. I discovered these facts in three biographies: presumably the Gazette itself is somewhere to be circled in red and marked with triple exclamation marks, but I haven't checked!!!.

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.