The Master of Belhaven Masters the Mimeograph; A Regenerating Tale of Cowardice; Ford Madox Ford’s “Footsloggers;” Wilfred Owen, Fourth Musketeer?

The Master of Belhaven has never been the savviest of our writers. But he is a good officer–energetic and competent and cool under fire, be it literal artillery fire or the pressure of a Christmas Eve faux pas:

All the battalions and brigades have been sending us Christmas-cards. We had not thought of it, so feel rather left. So I spent the morning printing off a hundred little double sheets on the duplicator, with 106th Brigade Royal Field Artillery on one side and “With best wishes for Xmas and the New Year from Lt.-Col. The Master of Belhaven and Officers 106th Brigade, R.F.A.”[1]


It sounds like a merry Christmas Eve for Wilfred Owen. Not that he is home with his family or in the bosom of his friends (or vice versa). No: he is back in Scarborough after a brief leave in Edinburgh, but the post has been kind to him. He began a letter to his mother yesterday morning, a century back:

My own Mother,

Came back last night… A good journey, and as a show well worth the money in itself. The sun began to think of setting about two o’clock and so there was a three hours’ winter sunset over the Northumberland moors…

Having been interrupted, he continued the letter today.

Have now had your lovely parcel, & opened it but not broken into the scrumshies.

And what did he get from the schoolboys that he taught and mentored?

The Scotch boys gave me 100 Players Cigarettes. It was most touching…

Those were the days. But this is mere preamble:

I can think of nothing at the moment but Robert Graves’ letter, which came by the same post as the parcel.

He says ‘Don’t make any mistake, Owen, you are a —— fine poet already, & are going to be more so. I won’t have the impertinence to criticize . . .

Puff out your chest a little, and be big for you’ve more right than most of us . . .

You must help S.S. & R.N. & R.G. to revolutionize English Poetry. So outlive this war.

Yours ever, Robert Graves.’

I have never yet written to him![2]

So there it is: the implied offer, from Robert Graves–lo, even as he is about to threaten the group with a permanent female presence–that Owen, the young man from the provinces with the unfashionable accent, might become their D’Artagnan.


A major contemporary writer, half-realized master Modern novelist, and occasional poet, Ford Madox Hueffer is surely too old to be included on such a list of future revolutionaries, and still too young to mind all that much. Also, he probably wouldn’t care in the least, since his dance card of literary adversaries is already overfilled with those whose barbs have drawn blood, and I’ve seen nothing to indicate that he has any regard for Georgian War Poetry.[3] Ford will be after bigger fish as soon as he can sit down and really write. A novel, that is.

But, as it happens, he did sit down today and begin to write a long, elegiac, apparently fairly traditional poem… which gets ironic and weird before it even begins. It is titled after the nameless infantry, then dedicated to the British propaganda chief (and friend of Ford’s) C.F.G. Masterson.



To C. F. G. M.


What is love of one’s land?
. . . I don’t know very well.
It is something that sleeps
For a year — for a day —
For a month — something that keeps
Very hidden and quiet and still
And then takes
The quiet heart like a wave,
The quiet brain like a spell,
The quiet will
Like a tornado; and that shakes
The whole of the soul.


It is omnipotent like love;
It is deep and quiet as the grave
And it awakes Like a flame, like a madness,
Like the great passion of your life.
The cold keenness of a tempered knife,
The great gladness of a wedding day,
The austerity of monks who wake to pray
In the dim light,
Who pray
In the darkling grove,
All these and a great belief in what we deem the right
Creeping upon us like the overwhelming sand,
Driven by a December gale,
Make up the love of one’s land.


It goes on for several more stanzas, a poem that lulls–or deceives?–with its prettiness and music, even as it works around central issues of the conflict. Is Ford a very good poet tossing off something with deceptive lightness? Or is this another game, another none-too-serious expenditure of prodigious talent on a production which might acquiesce too easily to a narrowly patriotic reading, allowing the unwary reader to fall into a trap?

I’m honestly not sure what to make of it… Ford evidently worked on it over the next few days; the entire poem can be read here.


And finally, today, in Pat Barker’s novel The Eye in the Door (the second of the Regeneration trilogy), Charles Manning, an older, erudite officer and family man who has an affair with the protean Billy Prior (and has also been treated by W.H.R. Rivers), will recall staying with Robbie Ross this Christmas Eve, along with Siegfried Sassoon. (In reality, Sassoon is at Litherland.) Tonight was–in Manning’s telling, in the novel–the occasion of an air raid with a predictably ironic outcome. It was his first raid, and he “was a complete bloody wreck,” although Ross’s housekeeper was perfectly calm. Manning adds, in this perhaps doubly fictitious anecdote, that Sassoon was also windy, commenting “All that fuss about whether I should go back or not. I won’t be any bloody good when I do.”[4]


References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary, 422-7.
  2. Collected Letters, 518-19.
  3. He will shortly write, in fact, a letter hawking the poem below as a rare example of poetry written by a man who has actually been at the front.
  4. Barker, The Eye in the Door, 166-7.

Robert Graves in Love, D.H. Lawrence on the Run

Today we have only a few very scattered updates, and all but one of them are to some extent either dark or dismal.


In Cork, Frederic Manning was released from the hospital where he has been recovering from symptoms of a breakdown related to his alcoholism (as well as his experiences on the Somme, surely). A sympathetic Medical Board has allowed him to resume “light duty” and to keep his commission…


In a field hospital in Belgium, Henry Feilding, Lady Dorothie‘s elder brother, died of wounds sustained two days ago…


In Cornwall, the cottage of D.H. Lawrence was raided and searched by the police. As a military-age man not in uniform, (Lawrence had a medical exemption) who did not hide his contempt for the war, Lawrence was a target of scorn and suspicion. It did not help that they lived on the sea, near where U-boats had recently sunk several British ships–or that Frieda Lawrence had been born Frieda Freiin von Richthofen, a distant cousin of the Red Baron. The Lawrences and their friends behaved, on principle, like civilized, open-minded, free-spoken people, and thus fell quickly afoul of the locals. Continuing to correspond with German family and to speak against the war, despite “a mounting campaign of intimidation,” they seem to have hoped for better from an ostensibly liberal society, even in wartime.

The police will return, bearing with them “an order under the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA): they had three days to leave Cornwall and must not travel to coastal or other protected (‘Class 2’) areas; within twenty-four hours of finding a new
residence, they must report to a police station. No appeal was allowed.”

The couple were “virtually penniless” and returned to London in some despair of finding a refuge from a cruelly militarized and intolerant society. After some time adrift, however, they will be taken in by Hilda Doolittle, the poet H.D., Richard Aldington‘s wife.[1]


But life goes on, and there is also young love to be celebrated, today! Another poet whose has had trouble because of his German connections (but who silenced them with combat service and wound stripes), Robert Von Ranke Graves, is currently in London–or, to be precise, in Wimbledon–spending his latest “last” leave with his family. (Graves’s Sassoon-saving interlude at the depot near Liverpool is over, and, while his damaged lung should keep him from active duty in France, he expects to be sent abroad again soon.)

Except that Graves went into London proper, today, a century back, to visit Nancy Nicholson, and missed the last train back…[2]


References and Footnotes

  1. Whelpton, Poet, Soldier, Lover, 158.
  2. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 183.

David Jones on the Flank of Another Disaster; Kate Luard Goes There and Back Again; Ivor Gurney and the Afterlife of Rupert Brooke XX: He Was Lucky, He Died Early in the War; Edward Brittain Asks for Nichols

One of the fascinations of reading Kate Luard is the occasional glimpse of a daredevil lurking beneath the persona of a calm and omnicompetent senior nurse. While it is primarily her fierce devotion to duty that drives her to seek the most dangerous assignments–she can do the most good as a nurse and administrator closest to where the wounds are received–she also shows something like a childish enthusiasm for adventure and danger. She wants to be where the action is, and, with her new posting as the Senior Sister at what will now be a pioneering forward surgery center in the Salient, she will be.

Friday, July 27th.

…This venture so close to the Line is of the nature of an experiment in life-saving, to reduce the mortality rate from abdominal and chest wounds. Their chance of life depends… mainly on the length of time between the injury and the operation… Hence this Advanced Abdominal Centre, to which all abdominal and chest wounds are taken from a large attacking area, instead of going on with the rest to the C.C.S.’s six miles back…

But this is all, from Luard’s point of view, too good to be true.

And then the Blow fell–not the shell but the sentence: Army H.Q. couldn’t sleep in its bed for thinking of the 29 precious Sisters exposed to the enemy fire up at Brandhoek, and sent an order at 10 p.m. that all the Sisters were to go off to two Canadian C.C.S.’s about 6 miles back… The pretty Canadians were full of concern and hospitality for the poor refugees, but we felt most awful frauds.

It’s wonderful that the one time Sister Luard allows her letters home to slide into the old soldier’s bitter sarcasm it is because she is being forced to give up a difficult and dangerous job for a safer one. (She doesn’t mean any backhanded compliment to the Canadians, I’m sure, but it certainly reads that way: “pretty,” indeed–there’s a battle brewing!)

But even if the Staff wallahs are intent on mucking things up with their old-fashioned ideas about women and danger (are there not bombing raids on base camps, and on London?), the doctors who actually depend on these nurses understand the situation. By 9 this morning Luard had already been summoned back to resume work in preparing the hospital, and it seems clear that the senior medical officers are advocating for the nurses’ return…[1]


Further forward still, there were indications that a German withdrawal from their front lines was underway, so A Company of the 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers–only two days after D company lost sixteen men to what must have been a German ambush–mounted something between a patrol and a raid–a “reconnaissance”–to discover where they were.

[David] Jones was sent forward with his platoon to guard one of the flanks. The raiders advanced to find the front line empty and advanced further to the support trenches where two German battalions waited. As the night darkened, fighting was furious, and the outnumbered raiders were annihilated.

The German strategy makes sense: an attack is obviously coming, and they have confidence in their deep defenses–why leave men to be killed by the British bombardment? It is too late for the British to move up to the new positions, so they will just have a longer run to meet established German resistance… which can await them in concrete having ceded only a few hundred yards of Belgian mud.

But the British planners of the battle want, predictably, to know where they stand, hence the reconnaissance, and the German preparedness, and another local disaster for the Welsh, several times more costly than the day before yesterday’s debacle.

Nor is Dilworth’s “annihilated” much of an exaggeration. The battalion diary states, rather chillingly, that A Company “met with considerable opposition & for the most part were either killed or wounded. Weather fine.”

This is strangely sloppy record-keeping, and a high price to pay for a battalion that is expected to take part in the attack in the next few days. A quick search of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission database shows forty-six[2] members of the battalion who died either today or tomorrow, a century back. A high price to pay for confirmation of an intelligence officer’s surmise.

Whether Hedd Wyn was involved, we do not know–but it should have been about even odds that he either participated in one of these two raids or, like Jones, was part of their covering parties. One of Jones’s good friends, however, had gone out into the German lines, and came back. Which led to this strange little story about “Lazarus Black,” a one-time roommate of Jones’s:

After returning to the firing trench, he confided to Jones that he would ask for a decoration for saving an officer’s life by killing a German. Jones was astounded. The night had been pitch dark, the raid disastrous. He urged Black not to make the request since word was sure to leak out and he would be a laughing stock. The next day, Black nevertheless made his appeal to officers immediately above him, who scoffed at him but passed on his request. News of this quickly spread, and Black was ridiculed, though not as much as Jones had feared. Later, Black confided to him that he had wanted the decoration solely to make his wife and four children happy.”[3]


While battle approaches in the salient, life goes on elsewhere. Edward Brittain is in France, a month into his service with a new battalion. His correspondence with his sister Vera has largely involved requests for help tracing and replacing the valise that was lost when he came out. But today shows Brittain still striving after literature, despite the deaths of all three of his close friends and fellow aspirants. One of our amateurs is drawn, now, into the readership of one of our nascent professionals:

France, 27 July 1917

…In the Times Lit. Supplement of July 12th there is a long article about Robert Nichols who seems to be a poet of unusual merit; his works up to date complete are only 3/6 so you might like to get them; don’t send me the book but I should like some of the best of them in my own book; those quoted in the article are excellent.[4]


And lastly, today, Ivor Gurney, like Brittain a musician (though further advanced in that path) and about to join Nichols as a published “War Poet,” writes to Marion Scott, primarily about the business end of this first publishing contract. Often flighty, Gurney adopts a mode of sustained and balanced self-criticism, and he does an astute job of placing himself amongst–or rather off to the side of–the new pantheon:

27 July 1917

My Dear Friend: Your letter of terms etc has arrived. Thank you for it. It seems to me you have done very well, but still — that is no reason why you should not try to do better still, since publishers are our lawful prey and natural enemies. Personally (again) when the book was written there was no thought of making money behind it, but chiefly an occupation and mind exercise. For all that I really do not see why the book should not pay, though I do not expect any very laudatory reviews in the “Times” etc. You have won the preliminary skirmishes anyhow.

My own opinion of the book is, that it is very interesting, very true, very coloured; but its melody is not sustained enough, its workmanship rather slovenly, and its thought, though sincere, not very original and hardly ever striking. For all that, the root of the matter is there, and scraps of pure beauty often surprise one; there is also a strong dramatic sense. Where it will fail to attract is that there is none, or hardly any of the devotion of self sacrifice, the splendid readiness for death that one, finds in Grenfell, Brooke, Nichols, etc.

All this is fair, and accurate. And important: it is 1917, almost on the eve of Passchendaele, and poetic self-sacrifice does not hold the same sort of market share it once did (although, as we need frequently to be reminded, it will remain much more popular than the poetry of protest until years after the war).

Alas that Gurney, who, for all Scott’s support, is essentially alone in his craft (Will Harvey being otherwise engaged), has only summoned Sassoon, and not yet had the opportunity to read him at length. But he explains, now, why he writes about war the way he does–and it sounds very much like Sassoon’s recent writing. Only he is a private, with no possible chance of mounting a protest.

That is partly because I am still sick of mind and body; partly for physical, partly for mental reasons; also because, though I am ready if necessary to die for England, I do not see the necessity; it being only a hard and fast system which has sent so much of the flower of Englands artists to risk death, and a wrong materialistic system; rightly or wrongly I consider myself able to do work which will do honour to England. Such is my patriotism, and I believe it to be the right kind. But how to write such poems as “If I should die” in this mood? (Also, I am not convinced that poets believe what they write always. Brooke was a sincere exception, but then, he was lucky; he died early in the war. So often poets write of what they wish to believe, wish to become, as one prays for strength and virtue not yet obtained.) Golly, what a lecture! Serves you right…

I should like a talk with you, and yet would a talk be sufficient? For one forgets so easily things which one knows too well…

Be happy and get well. You are hereby appointed G.L.A. (Grand Literary Agent) with double salary:

With best wishes:

Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney…

P.S. How many complimentary copies?[5]


References and Footnotes

  1. Unknown Warriors, 130-1.
  2. I did not examine the results to see if there are any detached members, those who died of earlier wounds, outright errors in the database, etc.
  3. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 161.
  4. Letters From a Lost Generation, 367.
  5. Letters, 178-9.

Edward Hermon on Foolishness-Chucking; The End of Manning’s Middle Parts of Fortune

When I began this project I was tormented with the possibility of simple failure: what if, on one quiet day, all the sources fell silent? What if all down the many rows of The Big Spreadsheet there was not a letter, not a diary entry, not even a biographer’s note?  So I spread a wide net, and, especially in the first year, we followed several early warriors who were not really writers at all. And there’s no danger–save technological catastrophe–of failure now. There are battalion diaries to fall back on, and I have found (and left mercifully all but unopened) a few secondary history books which are designed much like tear-off daily calendars…

And yet, with the Somme, there was so much to cover in the lives of our current group of writers that I introduced few new voices. And this winter, with so many dead and so many others home in England, it might yet come to pass that an entire day slips through the cracks, as far as actual words from our writers goes. And it almost did, today.

In order to prevent this–and to fill in the gaps left by the Somme (though there is no replacing the voice of Noel Hodgson, and no one remotely like Saki or Raymond Asquith)–I will introduce a few new diarists during the winter. One, Stanley Spencer, was probably riding on a truck, just today, a century back, which would have been rather a weak post…

But, happily, we do have one letter today, which I had almost overlooked. It’s short, but meritorious. Afterwards, I will take the rest of today to close some unfinished business… at great length.


Edward “Robert” Hermon is an affectionate husband and a conscientious officer, but he’s neither a towering intellect nor a scintillating writer. Yet these four attributes taken together do constitute a certain amount of charm–it’s the sheer number of his letters that are the problem. Writing nearly every day to his wife Ethel, he gives us something more like one side of an ongoing, loosely-jointed conversation than a series of descriptive letters.

But today he does his duty: a sharp, declarative, state-of-the-war letter–and a reminder that the majority of British officers have yet to feel any sharp challenge from encroaching despair or disillusionment. Hermon is an Old Etonian of thirty-eight, but he sounds older–eminently Victorian. He hits the Vitai Lampada note here, and hard.

10th December 1916

Things certainly do look bad just at present but they will come right in the end… We are all right here & if the folk will really buck up at home & play the game & chuck all the damned foolishness till the war is over, it will be alright. We are bound to win in the end so long as the navy remains top dog…[1]

As this letter reads almost like a parody of the form (picture Graham Chapman in a Sam Browne belt dictating with curled underlip), it’s tempting to dismiss these sentiments as unreflective and dangerous–the war is not, after all, either a game or a process with a predetermined outcome. And yet these general sentiments were surely much prevalent than the selection of sources, here, would indicate. Hermon’s views were “majority” views, a century back, however much they will come to seem like a rear-guard action against the all-conquering spread of anti-militarist/disillusioned/at-the-very-least-humane war writing.


But onward disillusion, for if it was never in the historical majority, it will still have its day–in this case, literature is better-written by the minority party, snatching disenchantment from the jaws of victory… (let’s consider this mot not quite perfected).

I left us hanging, in November, about the outcome of Frederic Manning‘s The Middle Parts of Fortune. The climax of the action was the brutal attack at the very end of the Somme battle which left the protagonist, Bourne, bereft of his two mates–Shem, wounded and headed for Blighty, and young Martlow dead.

But Bourne lives on, and the end of the “battle” of the Somme does not mean the end of trench combat. Manning’s novel is one of the most effective war novels I know, and if we find ourselves today, a century back, between its events and its writing, we also have contemporary poetry by Manning that directly addresses the book’s major themes. It’s a good time, then, to read what happens to Manning’s fictional alter ego. And we will note out at the outset that one advantage of the novel with an author-like protagonist is that it may be brought to an end at a different time and in a different manner than, say, a memoir…

After the battle, Bourne enters a period of grim, lonely despondency. He is well-respected–“liked” might be going too far–by many men and noncoms, but the fact that he will soon be sent home to train for a commission keeps many of them at arm’s length. In a surprising (and really quite cunningly prepared) literary move, the task of watching Bourne’s back falls to the Thersites of the battalion, “Weeper” Smart, a whining, pessimistic, physically powerful, widely-disliked brute.

Bourne is a man apart–his education has always set him above his fellows, and now his pending elevation to officerhood does–but he has been a decent soldier. Weeper Smart, since he complains at everything and thinks the worst not only of his fate but of everyone who collaborates in confirming it, is the ultimate arbiter of this fundamental criterion of a man’s worth. Bourne may be a lance-jack now and an officer to be, but he is no traitor to his fellow infantrymen, those dispossessed of freedom and dignity, the despised of the earth.

Although it was possible to date the battle, the novel is then vague about the passage of time. Several tours in the front line and several rest periods go by, so at least a few weeks pass. I am comforted in my lack of definitive research by the knowledge that Manning’s biographers didn’t bother to work out what might have happened to him after the disastrous attack of November 13th… Since Manning’s own whereabouts are a question, and since the book is vague, I don’t think it can be said with meaningful certainty whether the end of the novel is set in late November or early December. Which is good, since we’re running out of time: the novel closely tracks Manning’s actual experience, and he will be back in England before Christmas–shell-shocked, gassed, and ready for officer training. Now or never, then.

In addition to excerpting from the last scenes of the novel, I want to apply what little we know of Manning’s contemporary, century-back intentions. In a letter from this period he makes strides toward defining a new sort of heroism, one that is poised between the outmoded idea of successful, aggressive heroism and the “disillusioned” or complete rejection of the traditional terms of heroism in favor of furious fixation on the miseries and mortality of the infantry (that growing genre, mentioned above, which will be identified, pejoratively, as the literature of “passive suffering,” yet eventually win the battle of the syllabus).

Manning still values discipline and uncomplaining submission to orders, no matter how ineffective or unjust–but he sets himself aside. This is his voice, but it is also the voice of Bourne, among and apart from the rural laborers who fill the ranks of his battalion, respecting and selectively idealizing them, yet condescending:

I think the heroism of these men is in proportion to their humiliations; the severest form of monastic discipline is a less surrender. For myself I can, with an effort, I admit, escape from my immediate surroundings into mine own mind; but they are almost entirely physical creatures, to whom actuality is everything; that they can suffer as they do and yet respond to every call made upon them is to me, in some measure, a vindication of humanity.

Hence the best in the worst, and the emergence of “Weeper” Smart.

Some weeks back–before the battle, but after many chapters establishing the routine of the war, and particularly Bourne’s close friendship with Shem and Martlow–Weeper establishes himself as a principled outsider. He is the proud malcontent of a certain sort of folktale, or perhaps a Cynic philosopher.

That infantrymen share absolutely–whatever they possess–with their buddies, their closest mates, is expected. But the circle may or may not extend further than this smallest group. Bourne, feeling the need for a spree (and a gesture against the entrenched class-segregation of the army) has splurged on champagne, and the three men bring it back to their billet, when Weeper, who shares the space, accidentally intrudes on the party.

“Give us your mess-tin, Smart, and have a drink with us,” said Bourne.

Up went Weeper’s flat hand.

“No, thank ‘ee,” he said abruptly. “Tha needst not think a come back ‘ere just to scrounge on thee. If a’d known a would ‘ave stayed out yon.”

“Give me your tin,” said Bourne. “You’re welcome. It’s share and share alike with us. Where’s the sense of sitting alone by yourself, as though you think you are better than the next man?”

“A’ve never claimed to be better nor the next man,” said Weeper; “an’ a’ve got nowt to share.”

Bourne, taking up his mess-tin without waiting for him to pass it, poured out a fair share of the wine: he felt ashamed, in some strange way, that it should be in his power to give this forlorn, ungainly creature anything. It was as though he were encroaching on the other man’s independence. “You don’t mind taking a share of my tea in the morning,” he said with a rather diffident attempt at humour.

“A’ve as much reet to that as tha ‘ast,” said Weeper sullenly.

And then he was ashamed immediately of his surliness. He took up the mess-tin and drank a good draught before putting it down again, and breathing deeply with satisfaction.

“That’s better nor any o’ the stuff us poor buggers can get,” he said with an attempt at gratitude, which could not quite extinguish his more natural envy; and he moved up closer to them, and to the warmth and light.[2]

This small gesture comes to mean a lot. When Martlow is killed, Smart is moved–very much against his nature–to speak words of consolation to Bourne. And then he begins to look after him.


Manning’s decision to write a novel set in the cold murderous mud of the fall of 1916 perhaps had much to do with a desire to humanize–or to refract through several characters–the sheer effort of will that it took to survive with spirit or psyche relatively intact. Were he only writing poetry–like these verses, composed during this very period–we would have a narrower sense of his experience:


These are the damned circles Dante trod.
Terrible in hopelessness.
But even skulls have their humour.
An eyeless and sardonic mockery:
And we.
Sitting with streaming eyes in the acrid smoke.
That murks our foul, damp billet.
Chant bitterly, with raucous voices
As a choir of frogs
In hideous irony, our patriotic songs.

But upon breaking that harsh poet’s “we” into several subjects, we get something different.

Some weeks after the failed assault that killed Martlow and wounded Shem–sometime around now, a century back–the battalion is back in trenches. Once again Bourne’s special destiny comes to the fore. He had refused to return to England before the attack–it would have felt like a betrayal–but now it seems that his deliverance from the ranks can come at any time.

Should a man in that position be spared, protected from disaster? One thinks of Roland Leighton, due for Christmas leave, but leading from the front.

Or should such a man take precisely the ordinary chances, so as not to bestir Nemesis? One things of the plot of any war story which hinges upon “one final mission.”

Or should a future officer get as much experience as possible, since Nemesis is a mental crutch and trench warfare practical reality?

There is a raid to be made by Bourne’s battalion. A raid–that strange deadly tactical fungus that grows from the humid soil of static trench warfare, to no one’s profit. There are no attacks in the offing, so the mere desire to “gain ascendancy in No Man’s Land” or to collect intelligence about the enemy opposite hardly seem like sufficient reasons…

Bourne, returning from a fatigue to company headquarters, meets with his company commander.

Captain Marsden looked up and saw him, muddy up to the thighs.

“Lance-Corporal, we’re to make a raid tonight. I believe you know something about the lie of the land up here. Do you wish to make one of the party? We’re asking for volunteers.”

“Lance-corporal Bourne is down for a commission, sir,” interposed Sergeant-Major Tozer, “and per’aps…”

“I know all that,” said Captain Marsden, shortly. “What do you say, lance-corporal?”

Bourne felt something in him dilate enormously, and then contract to nothing again.

“If you wish it, sir,” he said, indifferently.

“It’s not a question of my wishes,” said Captain Marsden, coldly. “We are asking for volunteers. I think the experience may be useful to you.”

“I am quite ready, sir,” said Bourne, with equal coldness.

There was silence for a couple of seconds; and suddenly Weeper stood up, the telephone receiver still on his head; and his eyes almost starting from their sockets.

“If tha go’st, a’m goin’,” he said, solemnly.

Captain Marsden looked at him with a supercilious amazement. “I don’t know whether your duties will allow of you going,” he said. “I shall put your name down provisionally…”

This is not subtle: the novelist’s limitless ability to inhabit the minds of his characters is contrasted with their hostile, fumbling interactions, while the prim speech of the officer comes to seem nastily schoolmarmish against the rough dialect and almost biblical directness of Weeper Smart’s declaration. Marsden makes some inscrutable–but nonetheless imperfect, compromised, and yet unchallengeable–judgment about Bourne and class and hierarchy and experience, but what is this to a man like Weeper Smart? It’s unworthy casuistry, the logic of oppression. Weeper speaks at once like an Anglo-Saxon out of the dark ages, for whom word becomes oath becomes spell, and with the tribal fealty of the Hebrew Bible–he is Ruth committing to Naomi, or God exhorting Joshua.

Then they went back to their several companies, with orders to assemble at nine o’clock by the junction of Delaunay and Monk trenches. Weeper and Bourne were alone together after a few paces.

“What ‘opes ‘ave us poor buggers got!” exclaimed Weeper.

“Why did you come, Smart? I thought it awfully decent of you,” said Bourne.

“When a seed that fuckin’ slave driver look at ‘ee, a said to mysen, Am comin’. A’ll always say this for thee, tha’lt share all th’ast got wi’ us’ns, and tha’ don’t call a man by any foolish nicknames. Am comin’. ‘T won’t be the first bloody raid a’ve been out on, lad. An’ ‘twon ‘a be t’ last. Th’ast no cause to worry. A can look after mysen, aye, an’ thee too, lad. You leave it to me.”

He was always the same; determination only made him more desperate. Bourne thought for a moment, and then, lifting his head, turned to his companion.

Weeper weeps no longer–but he’s smart. Clever, that is. And in his eyes Bourne is, however well-educated, merely a well-meaning innocent. Weeper feels duty bound to act as guardian angel to the man who shared his wine.

“I don’t suppose Captain Marsden meant to put things that way, you know, Smart. It’s just his manner. He would always do what he thought right.”

Weeper turned on him a fierce but pitying glance. “Th’ast a bloody fool,” was all he said.

It was enough. Bourne laughed softly to himself. He had always felt some instinctive antipathy against his company commander. “I’ll show the bastard,” he said to himself in his own mind; “if I get a chance.”

The question, then, is whether this is the sort of story in which men will have the upper hand, or the war?

Chance. They were all balanced, equally, on a dangerous chance. One was not free, and therefore there would be very little merit in anything they might do. He followed Weeper down into the dugout.

Yes, chance dominates, but how could that be otherwise? It’s the core experience of attritional war and the central theme of the book (note, again, the title, a sexual pun from Hamlet).

What is so striking about the last chapter of The Middle Parts of Fortune is the social redemption of Bourne. Not his reclamation by his proper class and education status–the coming officer’s commission that hangs over much of the novel–but the solidarity of his company. He has lost his two mates, and he waits to be elevated far beyond the rest of his comrades, but Weeper Smart cleaves to him, testifying, by deed–by his willingness to voluntarily share his peril–that Bourne’s efforts and intentions have been right. He may be an officer someday, but he is yet what he has been–a soldier of his company now.

The act–Weeper’s choice–is crucial, but more fundamentally it is the polyphony of the novel that permits this rounding of the perspective. It may well be fantasy–misfit educated rankers must have often dreamed of winning the respect of the roughest of their fellows–but in the novel it is a very effective device. In his own mind–and the novel delves often into his thoughts–Bourne can’t convince himself that he is not fundamentally alone. But Weeper Smart makes their fellowship true, for a moment, by an act even simpler than the words in which he commits to it. He will go out beside him, into No Man’s Land, on this night.

Before I include much of the last few pages of the novel, I want to bring in a few more bits of poetry that Manning wrote around now, a century back. The difference in emphasis–the difference in the potential for sympathy, empathy, and love–is very clear. On marching back from the line–a scene which also appears in the novel–he writes, in “Relieved:”

We are weary and silent.
There is only the rhythm of marching feet;
Tho’ we move tranced, we keep it
As clock-work toys.
But each man is alone in this multitude;
We know not the world in which we move.

Even more to the point is another contemporary poem entitled–in Greek–“Self-sufficiency,” which begins like this:

I am alone: even ranked with multitudes:
And they alone, each man.
So are we free.

And it closes:

I may possess myself, and spend me so
Mingling with earth, and dreams, and God; and being
In them the master of all these in me.
Perfected thus.
Fight for your own dreams, you.[3]


This is highfalutin’ stuff, but if there were a life-model for Weeper Smart he would not have bothered to look at whatever the educated lance-jack was scribbling, nor troubled himself, perhaps, over the Greek title. It wouldn’t have mattered. If we must convert the poem into a philosophical statement it would be, simply, “soldiers facing death are both completely dependent on their fellows and utterly alone.” Which Weeper has already demonstrated that he believes–and while he won’t write a poem about this belief, he will put his life on the line for it.

Back, then, to The Middle Parts of Fortune. A few paragraphs later, the two men are alone, together, in No Man’s Land.

Bourne found himself crawling over a mat of wire, rusty in the mud; loose strands of it tore his trousers to tatters, and it was slow work getting through; he was mortally afraid of setting some of the strands singing along the line. Every sound he made seemed extraordinarily magnified. Every sense seemed to be stretched to an exquisite apprehension. He was through. He saw Whitfield and the other man slip into the trench, and out the other side. Sergeant Morgan gave him the direction with his hand. Weeper passed him, and he followed, trying to memorise the direction, so that he would be able to find his way back to the gap in the wire. They crossed almost together, Weeper taking his hand and pulling him up the other side without apparent effort. The man was as strong as an ape. Then they wormed their way forward again, until they found their position, where the communication trench formed a rather sharp angle with the fire-trench. The fire-trench itself still showed the effects of their bombardment; after passing the communication trench it changed its direction in a rather pronounced way, running forward as though to converge more closely on the British line. They were now in a shellhole, or rather two shellholes, which had formed one: Weeper looking down the communication trench, and Bourne along the fire-trench.

But then the raid, inevitably, is detected.

Suddenly they heard a shout, a scream, faint sounds of struggle, and some muffled explosions from underground. Almost, immediately the machine-gun in front of them broke into stuttering barks; they could see the quick spurting flashes in front of it; and Bourne threw his bomb, which went straight for the crack in the curtain. Ducking, he had another ready and threw that, but Weeper had already thrown. The three explosions followed in rapid succession. They heard a whistle. The machine-gun was out of action, but Weeper, leaping towards its wreckage, gave them another, and rushed Bourne into the trench. They saw through the mist their own party already by the gap, and Weeper’s parting bomb exploded.

The officer, Mr. Cross, kills the first German they come upon, and then they secure a wounded prisoner. The raid, such as it is, has been successful. They just need to get back through their own wire barriers and into the safety of the trench.

Weeper was ahead when he and Bourne reached the gap in the wire. Star-shell after star-shell was going up now, and the whole line had woken up. Machine-guns were talking; but there was one that would not talk. The rattle of musketry continued, but the mist was kindly to them, and had thickened again. As they got beyond the trammelling, clutching wire, Bourne saw Weeper a couple of paces ahead of him, and what he thought was the last of their party disappearing into the mist about twenty yards away. He was glad to be clear of the wire. Another star-shell went up, and they both froze into stillness under its glare. Then they moved again, hurrying for all they were worth. Bourne felt a sense of triumph and escape thrill in him. Anyway the Hun couldn’t see them now. Something kicked him in the upper part of the chest, rending its way through him, and his agonised cry was scarcely audible in the rush of blood from his mouth, as he collapsed and fell.

Weeper turned his head over his shoulder, listened, stopped, and went back. He found Bourne trying to lift himself; and Bourne spoke, gasping, suffocating.

“Go on. I’m scuppered.”

“A’ll not leave thee,” said Weeper. He stooped and lifted the other in his huge, ungainly arms, carrying him as tenderly as though he were a child. Bourne struggled wearily to speak, and the blood, filling his mouth, prevented him. Sometimes his head fell on Weeper’s shoulder. At last, barely articulate, a few words came.

“I’m finished. Le’ me in peace, for God’s sake. You can’t…”

“A’ll not leave thee,” said Weeper in an infuriate rage.

He felt Bourne stretch himself in a convulsive shudder, and relax, becoming suddenly heavier in his arms. He struggled on, stumbling over the shell-ploughed ground through that fantastic mist, which moved like an army of wraiths, hurrying away from him. Then he stopped, and, taking the body by the waist with his left arm, flung it over his shoulder, steadying it with his right. He could see their wire now, and presently he was challenged, and replied. He found the way through the wire, and staggered into the trench with his burden. Then he turned down the short stretch of Delaunay to Monk Trench, and came on the rest of the party outside A Company’s dugout.

“A’ve brought ‘im back,” he cried desperately, and collapsed with the body on the duck-boards. Picking himself up again, he told his story incoherently, mixed with raving curses.

“What are you gibbering about?” said Sergeant Morgan. “Aven’t you ever seen a dead man before?”

Sergeant-Major Tozer, who was standing outside the dugout, looked at Morgan with a dangerous eye. Then he put a hand on Weeper’s shoulder. “Go down an’ get some ‘ot tea and rum, of man. That’ll do you good. I’d like to ‘ave a talk with you when you’re feelin’ better.”

“We had better move on, sergeant,” said Mr Cross, quietly.

“Very good, sir.”

The party moved off, and for a moment Sergeant-Major Tozer was alone in the trench with Sergeant Morgan.

“I saw him this side of their wire, sergeant-major, and thought everything would be all right. ‘Pon my word, I would ‘ave gone back for ‘im myself, if I’d known.”

“It was hard luck,” said Sergeant-Major Tozer with a quiet fatalism.

Sergeant Morgan left him; and the sergeant-major looked at the dead body propped against the side of the trench. He would have to have it moved; it wasn’t a pleasant sight, and he bared his teeth in the pitiful repulsion with which it filled him. Bourne was sitting: his head back, his face plastered with mud, and blood drying thickly about his mouth and chin, while the glazed eyes stared up at the moon. Tozer moved away, with a quiet acceptance of the fact. It was finished. He was sorry about Bourne, he thought, more sorry than he could say. He was a queer chap, he said to himself, as he felt for the dugout steps. There was a bit of a mystery about him; but then, when you come to think of it, there’s a bit of mystery about all of us. He pushed aside the blanket screening the entrance, and in the murky light he saw all the men lift their faces, and look at him with patient, almost animal eyes.

Then they all bowed over their own thoughts again, listening to the shells bumping heavily outside, as Fritz began to send a lot of stuff over in retaliation for the raid. They sat there silently: each man keeping his own secret.[4]


References and Footnotes

  1. For Love and Courage, 313.
  2. The Middle Parts of Fortune, 197.
  3. Marwil, Frederic Manning, 168-70.
  4. The Middle Parts of Fortune, 240-7.

Edmund Blunden’s Very Secret Envelope; C.E. Montague’s Rules for Tours; Dorothie Feilding Deflects Another; The Afterlife of Rupert Brooke XIII: ‘He Was a Rhetorician;’ David Jones is Pretty Sure It’s Worth It

The continued attrition of “our” writers by the violence of the Somme–some killed, others home on lengthy and poorly documented medical leaves–has meant fewer extraordinarily long posts of late. Or perhaps I have become weary… or, perhaps, sensitive to the preferences of the put-upon reader.

But not today… however many we have lost, we still get those days on which everybody seems to write something interesting…

First, and most important for the days that are to come, Edmund Blunden and his battalion have been having a pleasant time of it. No longer.

The next thing that befell us was sudden, and our smile would not obey orders. It came in an envelope, “Very Secret,” and stated that we should in two days capture and consolidate a place called Stuff Trench. The falling ancient sun shone on the wide and shallow Ancre by Aveluy, and the green fancy woodwork of the mill belonged to another century, as we crossed the long causeway leading from the pleasures of rest, and turned along the opposite hillside, with its chalky excavations, old trenches, and spaces of surviving meadow-like green. Then we found ourselves filing up a valley under the noses of howitzers standing black and burnished in the open, and loosing off with deadly clamour while the bare-chested gunners bawled and blasphemed — “Happy Valley” or “Blighty Valley,” which was it? Farther along stood Authuille Wood, and we went in along a tram line and a board walk whereon with sweating foreheads some Highland officers were numbering off some of the most exhausted men (just relieved) I had seen. Near here was the captured German work called Leipzig Redoubt, with its underworld comforts; the companies were accommodated there, while the battalion headquarters entered the greasy, damaged shanties of typical British sandbags and tinware in the Wood… and the night came on.


Next, an amusing juxtaposition tossed to us by the editor of the C.E. Montague memoir. First, an excerpt from a letter to his wife, explaining how he judges his job, which is to thrill but not terrify his V.I.P. guests:

Oct. 19, 1916

I always have several graduated degrees of exposure to which to treat guests according to what seem to be their desires or the needs of their souls for chastening, but of course I don’t let them show up in any place where they would individually be a mark for the enemy. I only let them see the conditions under which all the combatants are, the whole time, between the firing trench and the artillery lines.

Fair enough. The implication of giving the visitors only a quick view of what the actual soldiers endure “the whole time” is clear. Montague, with his experience–in the ranks, in the trenches, in journalism before the war–is surely an ideal guide; and yet it is interesting that with so many young lieutenants around, Intelligence chose a man pushing 60 for this tour guide job: most of his “guests” would be older than most soldiers, yet many must have been younger than him. He had been there, and they, with their fancy jobs, are quite safe…

And how close did today’s exalted guest get?

Oct. 19.—With Masefield to Longueval. Walk about Delville Wood. Most of the bodies cleared up, but the wood haggard and sinister.

Masefield, after all, is working on The Old Front Line, an authoritative poetic geography of the British position on July 1st.


Next, Dorothie Feilding must deal with yet another eruption of a chronic problem, a persistent irritation that is more or less unique here–although perhaps common among dashing, attractive, well-born women in nearly-all-male war zones.

19th Oct

Mother mine–I had rather an awful afternoon yesterday. Mr de Broqueville, the father, came up to see me at 14 & we had a long talk. It appears his son, Pierre, wants to marry me awfully, & spoke to his father about it many months ago, but was told to wait a little. I don’t think you ever met Pierre, he is the one in the 1st Guides Cavalire, the very tall, dark, good looking one, & was in the army before the war. He is an awfully nice boy but just a dear big baby. About 25 I think, but temperamentally a perfect child & I am afraid it could never be for that reason. I wouldn’t marry a foreigner unless I cared very very much. I think that is essential to the make up of the racial differences.

Pierre is a dear boy, but I really couldn’t ever marry him. There is not enough in him to satisfy me I’m afraid. But the Broquevilles have been such perfect dears to me, it is awful not being able to do it, as I am afraid the father was fearfully anxious for it to be & was thinking it would be ok. He wrote to his wife about it already in Brussels & got an answer saying if he was pleased she was too, & was apparently very nice about it, which makes it all worse. It was because he heard Father was coming out here that he came up to see me because he wanted to talk it over with him if I would. I told him that I was very fond of someone who had been killed…[1]

Ah, the old “implied killed fiancé” dodge…


This brings us to the “lengthy screed” portion of today’s program. For Edward Thomas, few things are more welcome than a letter from Robert Frost, his fast friend and the impetus behind his own turn to verse.

High Beech, nr Laughton, Essex.

My dear Robert,

This morning the postman brought your letter of September 28. I am at home helping to get things straight in our new cottage. It is right alone in the forest among beech trees & fern & deer, though it only costs 10d. to reach London. Luckily I had a week’s leave thrust on me just at the time when I could be of some use. We have had fine weather, too, luckily & have had some short walks, Helen, Bronwen & I—Mervyn being still in lodgings 6 miles off, & Baba with an aunt, waiting till the house is ready for them.

Since I wrote last I have been shifted to Trowbridge Artillery Barracks & have had 3 weeks hard work there. I am waiting for the result of my 2nd examination. If I pass, I shall be an officer in another month. My going out depends on whether they are in great need of men when I am ready, also on my passing the final medical test. If I go it seems likely it will be to a not very big gun, so that I shall be far enough up to see everything…

I have just written the 2nd thing since I left London a month ago.[2] If I can type the 2 you shall see them. I am wondering if any of these last few sets of verses have pleased you at all.—Haines liked some I showed him. I was there for 24 hours a fortnight ago & had a walk up Cooper’s Hill & picked blueberries. He was the same as ever, & relieved at his (apparently final) exemption. I think he was going to write to you then. He showed me ‘Hyla Brook’ & another piece of yours which I enjoyed very much. I like nearly everything of yours better at a 2nd reading & best after that. True.[3]

About my collection of verses, the publisher remains silent a month. I wrote off at once today to ask whether he could decide & if he will publish I will do my best to hunt up duplicates & send them out to you in good time for a possible American publisher. I shall be pleased if you succeed & not feel it a scrap if you don’t. As if I could refuse to give you a chance of doing me good!

We will hear more on this collection of verses anon. But before we look forward to a new poetic era, we should look back–fully a year and a half, now, to English poetry’s greatest Great War hour. Frost has asked, evidently, for Thomas’s appraisal of Rupert Brooke–a friend and associate before he was a celebrity and a martyr:

It would take me too long to be sure what I think of Rupert. I can tell you this—that I received £3 for his first ‘Poems’ the other day & £2 for ‘New Numbers’ (because of him). So I can’t think entirely ill of him. No, I don’t think ill of him. I think he succeeded in being youthful & yet intelligible & interesting (not only pathologically) more than most poets since Shelley. But thought gave him (and me) indigestion. He couldn’t mix his thought or the result of it with his feeling. He could only think about his feeling. Radically, I think he lacked power of expression. He was a rhetorician, dressing things up better than they needed.

This is right on the money, as an American reader might put it.

Thomas starts in with the slightly rude joke about Brooke’s fame benefiting those less fortunate writers he was connected with, but he backs off quickly. In fact, he pulls the nose of his mean-spirited assessment steadily up toward fairness: “succeeded in being youthful” is insulting, and apt. But soon we are back at Shelley–a reasonable point of comparison and, perhaps, a more-than-fair comparandum. We’re balanced, at least, or swinging up–so when he stoops once again upon his helpless target the killing stroke seems only fair: Brooke was a lightweight. He thought prettily and wrote well, but there wasn’t much there, there.

If this still seems unfair, well: I think Thomas is correct on this next point too:

And I suspect he knew too well both what he was after & what he achieves.

Yes–seduced as he was by the romance of war and the sudden spurt of fame that came upon him in his last weeks, Brooke knew, deep down, that his poetry was superficial. And his good-looking corpse lies a-moulderin’ in his grave.

Then Thomas turns a neat trick: in prose, in a letter, in which he has previously been generously modest, he pivots skillfully on a metaphor and lands in a rather poetic position.

I think perhaps a man ought to be capable of always being surprised on being confronted with what he really is—as I am nowadays when I confront a full size mirror in a good light instead of a cracked bit of one in a dark barrack room. Scores of men, by the way, shave outside the window, just looking at the glass with the dawn behind them. My disguises increase, what with spurs on my heels & hair on my upper lip.

Bronwen is at my elbow reading ‘A Girl of the Limberlost’. Garnett, whom I saw yesterday, for the first time since I enlisted, was praising ‘The Spoon River Anthology’. Can he be right? I only glanced at it once, & I concluded that it must be liked for the things written about in it, not for what it expressed. Isn’t it done too much on purpose?

…You would like one of our sergeant-major instructors who asked a man coiling a rope the wrong way—from right to left— ‘Were you a snake-charmer before you joined’. We have some ripe regular specimens at the barracks…

Now I will try to type those verses. Goodbye. Helen & Bronwen & I send you all our love…

Yours ever
Edward Thomas[4]


Finally, today, we have an awkward first writing from David Jones. Wounded in the cautery of Mametz Wood, he has recovered, recuperated, and had leave at home in London. Jones–so very young (twenty) and unevenly educated, was not much of a writer at this stage of his life–he did not really even aspire to be one. He was an artist. But he sat down nonetheless to write an essay on the war, suitable for publication in The Christian Herald (which passed). But Jones’s father–a proud and political London Welshman–typed it up, edited it (there were many minor errors) and sent it, today, a century back, to David Lloyd George, political pride of Wales and one of Brittain’s most powerful politicians. This is “his earliest surviving writing and the only contemporary written record of his thoughts and feelings about his early combat experience…” so it’s one of those things that is of unusual interest despite its fairly pedestrian appearance…


A French Vision

(By a one-time Art Student, now in the R.W.F.)


How often this question comes with ever-increasing persistency to the intelligent fighting-man in France.

The Battalion is new to the line–just come from England; it is the first night of going into the trenches. At last, after months of training, face to face with the actualities of war. In single file, one finds oneself trudging along a desolate road–broken ruins stand grim and piteous against the dim light of the evening. One had seen numerous pictures–photos–ever since one was a child of the desolation caused by war–here at last was the actual thing. These grim ruins–these smashed, wrecked homesteads–were once, only a few months back, comfortable ‘homes’–contented and happy peasants loving every corner of them.


At this moment the man in front–your chum with whom you have shared company since enlistment–drops without a sound. One had never seen a man die before, perhaps. There is a momentary halt, and the Sergeant mutters, ‘Only a stray’. Again there comes the voice: ‘Is it worth it?

This is a dangerous thought–it suggests ‘giving up’, it suggests something ‘un-British’. But the trench is knee-deep in mud and slush–the wind is biting cold–overcoat, tunic, shirt, are soaked through–very little to eat. The man carrying the rum was shot in the communication trench, and that warming spirit has helped to strengthen, and perhaps in some measure to disinfect, the water of the trench drain. Hands are frozen; eyes are craving for rest, and weary with watching. There is sandbagging to be done, parapets to be built; enemy artillery is active and accurate. ‘Is it worth it?’

A young lieutenant passes, new from Woolwich Royal Academy. He looks cold and ‘fed up’, probably thinking of that charming little enchantress safely ensconced in a warm drawing-room in the suburbs. As he passes he mutters half audibly, ‘Damn this war! Why the____did I join the Army?’ ‘Is it worth while?’ Then down the trench comes E___ , of L____, of______ ‘Varsity fame: ‘Hallo, old fellow! Awful bore, this war; what! I was in the middle of a volume entitled ‘War is the necessary Forerunner of Peace and Civilization in All Ages’ by Professor _____, that talked a lot of drivel about the ‘Purifying Fire’ of war etc. I’ll know what to do with that wretched collection of piffle when I get back, providing the ‘Purifying Fire’ lets me!’

Evidently, one thinks, both these chaps think it is NOT worth while! It is an awful business, this wretched devastation, this wholesale butchery. If one had lived in the old days, war was so different then! And one mentally pictures a sunlit valley, massed squadrons of emblazoned chivalry with lances couched; and behind, bowmen armed ‘cap-a-pie’ with short sword and buckler. Suddenly the bowmen, with a fierce and mighty cry, charge madly to the valley, and the arrows fly thick and fast! The imagination carries one away, it is so fine. How grand to have lived then, to have heard the stirring fanfare of the heralds’ trumpets, to have seen the pennons dancing in the sunlight!

So now we see where this is going. Jones’s burlesque of front-line states of mind lacks both the sharpness and the gentleness of his mature work, the densely allusive yet strangely immediate prose-poetry of In Parenthesis. And this essay approaches historical allusion from a very different angle–these illusions do not disillusion, but are meant to inspire.

And now the vision passes. Night falls, and another, and far different scene presents itself. The same valley lit by the pale moon; the groans of the wounded and dying break the silence.

‘Was it worth while for these men’,

five centuries, maybe, ago. By their fierce conflict, and their outpoured blood, they freed the land from the tyrant’s yoke!

Jones will never completely deny this connection–allusion, in his poetry, is not cleverness, but rather a search for roots and for common lifeblood. Here, Agincourt, the local battlefield of English national renown, is neither an inert ancient thing nor a soldier’s link to the continuous present of war, but more simply a point of patriotic appeal:

Worth while? Perchance Europe in thraldom still would be, but for that battle on that sunlit day. And but for the holding of that trench–but for the blood spilt–the ruined homes–the stricken hearts of thousands–but that one stood in that muddy trench in cold and misery–but that the young lieutenant, ‘so bored’, had left the vision in the drawing-room to cry her eyes out, perhaps–but that the ‘Varsity man had left his books–Europe to-day might lie prostrate ‘neath the iron heel of the Teuton terror. Yes, it was worth while, after all. One wakes from the dream with the sudden command of a cockney Sergeant: ‘Now then, you! relieve that man on sentry-go. Ye’re late orlready!’ And one goes to his post to watch for marauding Huns–goes with the smile of contentment. The trench is still cold and wet; eyes still ache, and hands freeze. But it’s worth it!’

I’ll let Jones’s biographer Thomas Dilworth get in the last comment:

Earnest, immature, lacking historical sophistication and political  perspective, he writes as though trying to convince himself… he was young for his age and… believed ‘the old lie.’ But Private Jones is doing what soldiers have always done in time of war, anesthetising himself through euphemism, limited vocabulary, and comforting cliche…[5]

Yes, but the young artist has decided to wield pen as well as pencil and brush, and that it itself will be a major step on the road to maturity. For now the prose is still heated and damp, and the eyes freeze in reading it… but for those enamored of history and the effort to write modern war, it’s worth it…


References and Footnotes

  1. Lady Under Fire, 173.
  2. Editor's note:" Probably “The Child in the Orchard.” The other poem, after leaving London, may have been “The Trumpet.”
  3. Selected Letters has "truce" rather than "true;" I assume the former to be a misprint.
  4. Elected Friends, 152-4.
  5. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 126-9.

Robert Graves to London; Raymond Asquith Makes Like a Military Textbook, and Marches South

Only a day behind Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves has been shipped from Rouen to London. He was able to get a wire sent to his parents with the time his train was due, and A.P. Graves, fresh from two weeks of rushing about trying to discover if his son was alive or dead, was not going to be denied this opportunity to see him in the flesh. Going to Waterloo Station this afternoon, a century back, he pushed through the crowds cheering the returned heroes. But A.P. Graves is rather more committed than the wobbling middle-aged bicyclist that Sassoon spied yesterday, and lays siege to the medical services, first demanding information and then sending packages of fruit into the train while the wounded await their ambulances. Then,

…by rushing out to look in each ambulance, I at last succeeded in seeing [Robert] and gaining his attention. He waved to me and I signalled with my brolly.

This, naturally, the resurrected recent teenager and newly minted war hero found to he mortifying. Really, there could hardly be a better example of a simple historical event confirmed by a second source that nevertheless sees it from a sharply different angle. Here is Graves the Younger’s version of this brolly-signalling:

As I looked idly at the crowd, one figure detached itself, to my embarrassment–I recognized my father, hopping about on one leg, waving an umbrella and cheering with the best of them.[1]

This is mostly fond, despite the “signalling” being rendered down into “hopping… waving.” But “cheering” is something different. It’s the cheering that lumps old dad in with the patriotic multitude, and the implication is that cheering is necessarily unthinking, and as such it is never entirely forgivable in a member of the non-combatant older generation… there are surely men much more mutilated than Graves on this train.

But this is a father-and-son vignette. When Robert’s ambulance pulled away from the station, Alfred followed, taking the tube and a tram and actually beating the ambulance to West Hill, whereupon the medical bureaucracy bowed to the persistence of the overjoyed father and stopped for him, carrying him with his son to Queen Alexandra’s Hospital, Highgate. There his father stayed for an hour and a half, heard the tale of Robert’s nearly fatal wound, and told him the story of his alleged death.[2]


With our wild young raconteur on the shelf for a while, it seems a good time to check in with the Wittiest Guardsman, Raymond Asquith. Despite his penchant for obnoxiousness and his sometimes loathsome opinions, I’ve grown very fond of Asquith. Is it in part because he can always be located in a digital search by typing three adjacent, left-handed letters? In part, yes.

But it’s mostly because his letters–most of them to his wife Katherine and to Diana Manners–are entertaining in a way that is both honest and, actually, serious. He hates being serious–it’s all wit, irony, sarcasm, etc. But he’s serious about not being serious, about being entertaining. Asquith will  complain about his lot–in the time-honored British way of complaining about what we might take to be smaller things (discomfort) far more often than he will complain about existential issues (e.g. the likelihood of death and dismemberment)–but he is only epistolarily depressed when he thinks that he is not writing well.

No doubt Asquith takes his duty as an officer of the Grenadier Guards seriously, but when he writes he understands that his task is to provide an assurance of some slight normalcy to those who worry both about his safety and about the baleful effects that war might have on his personality. The only thing he can do to help his friends and family at home is to demonstrate–through his characteristic snarky wit–that he is o.k.

We’ll jump back to July so he can tease his wife about not having forgotten their anniversary.

3rd Grenadier Guards, B.E.F.
30 July 1916

You wrote me a very sweet letter to celebrate our golden wedding or whatever it is, and as luck would have it I had already written to you in the desired sense without prompting. I think that I have changed in the last 9 years a good deal more than you have, but not as far as you are concerned except for the better.

As for you, you have preserved and even accentuated your original flavour and at the same time widened your scope, increased your range and amplified your field of fire. So you have no need to reproach yourself as you do with an excessive stability . . .

But never fear, there is more than marital endearment here! The Guards are on the move!

The war has become suddenly much more amusing since I last wrote–because for a day or two we have got away from the stereotyped and traditional stagnation and immobility of the Western front, and are really doing in a mild enough form the things one used to read about in military manuals.

Yesterday evening at 7.30 I marched off an advanced party to a station about 8 miles away where we loaded the battalion 1st line transport onto a train–a big business, as we have 70 horses and about 30 waggons and limbers, not to mention boxing rings, bicycles and all the apparatus of cricket and football.

About 1.30 a.m. the battalion entrained, the men frightfully crowded in cattle trucks, the officers fairly comfortable 4 to a 2nd class compartment. It didn’t look like getting any sleep, but somehow one did–that is the greatest change
the War has wrought in me. I can sleep in a luggage rack or on a bicycle pedal.

About 6.30 a.m. we detrained and marched for an hour and a half along a rather pretty road, halting in a field where we were soon overtaken by the cookers and had an excellent breakfast and a rest of an hour or so. Then we marched on for 3 hours under a scorching sun up and down the undulations of chalk downs covered with corn and poppies with lovely woods in the hollows, till we got to a village where we are to spend tonight and most of tomorrow before marching on.

What with steel helmets and gas helmets and all the other paraphernalia which the variety of modem warfare necessitates (to which I see Conan Doyle with characteristic sagacity proposes to add a steel shield weighing 30 lbs.) the men fell out like flies under the terrific weight of their equipment and the fearful glare of the sun. I was marching light myself and did not feel the least tired or even bored at the end of it. Strange considering that for months and months one has hardly had any exercise beyond lifting a glass of old brandy from the table to the lip.

Good lord. Would the men gasping at the side of the road appreciate this pleasant good humor? Can it be ironic self-mockery? I hope so–he knows he is “marching light..” but somehow I doubt it.

One was a little sustained I suppose by an illusion of the romance of war which any kind of movement is enough to create after all these sedentary months. We were doing the same sort of thing as Wellington and Napoleon did-only incomparably better–I mean we do it incomparably better… the sun shining, the air motionless, the drums playing and the guns booming at a safe distance–really the whole thing was most enjoyable. But weather is
the secret of everything…

Lest we think that he might mention flowers without birds, his letter of the same date to Diana Manners covers the field:

…I can’t tell you the joy of at last, after all these sedentary months, behaving as people do in military textbooks, or in the Illustrated London News of 40 years ago–and then at the end of it a clean billet in a farm, with liquor so good that it might be the best cider, and so ambiguous that it might be the worst champagne–stock, doves crooning far
more pleasantly than shells, white cats licking themselves silently on the summits of gables like fantails and the ecstacy of choosing your own poussin in the yard and knowing that it will appear perfectly roasted on the table at
8.15 . . .

The brutal irony here is that they are marching south in this lovely weather, from the relatively quiet Salient toward the smoldering Somme.

Asquith does try–but the ability to write a jaunty letter erodes, like so many other military skills, under exhaustion. Today, a century back, after several consecutive days of marching and then reinforcing their new positions near Hébuterne, he can manage only this:

3rd Grenadier Guards, B.E.F.
3 August 1916

Two lines just to tell you that I am well and undamaged, though terribly tired. We have been moving about a great deal lately and digging all night and doing things in the day also.

The heat has been terrific. In the day time one sleeps when one can and drinks what one can. But I have only managed to get 6 hours sleep in the last 3 days and today I degraded myself so far as to drink both lemonade and ginger beer.

It is now 6.30 a.m. and I have just got back from the trenches ready for nothing but sleep. The post goes at 7, so goodnight and good morning.[3]

Alas, the “cider… champagne” reference was in the letter to Diana Manners, and this lemonade and ginger beer bathos is in a letter to Katherine Asquith, whose last letter contained but a passing reference to brandy. A confusion? A coincidence? Is Asquith so tired that his attempt at a clever allusion to his own recent near-ecstatic letters goes awry?

He will pick himself up tomorrow, no doubt…


References and Footnotes

  1. Good-Bye to All That, 226.
  2. Quoted in R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 157.
  3. Life and Letters, 279-80.

Arthur Graeme West on the Futility of Training; Sherlock Holmes Gets a Tour; Olaf Stapledon Addresses a Heroine; Life and Death for Robert Nichols and Noel Hodgson

The 2/RWF are no ordinary battalion, but Dr. Dunn’s chronicle–nicely poised between a battalion history and a collective memoir–often provides excellent bits of day-to-day local color. (Appropriate, really, to get some pseudo-Celtic wit aboard on this 12th Bloomsday.)

In any event, it’s been a while since I’ve found a way to work in a reference to Arthur Conan Doyle:

A procession of “Cook’s tourists” are passing through the town these days: among others, Conan Doyle getting local colour for his new pot-boiler, and a Russian Prince, whose A.D.C., General Itchas, supplied the facetious with a topic…[1]


Yes, we seem to have hit an ominous mid-June lull–“these days” are filled with a tense false-calm, an expectancy. We have a few disparate updates.

First, George Coppard, after a pleasant interlude in Divisional training in the rear areas, marched up with his battalion to the rear areas of the Somme. From now on, Amiens is to be the most important railhead for the British army.

The company marched to Lillers and entrained for Amiens. It was strange passing through the city, with big solid buildings on either side of the streets. The shops were open and the market place was packed. One of the officers had returned from leave with four mouth organs, and ‘Tipperary’ was in full swing as we marched pas the great cathedral. Women and children waved flags and cheered as the column moved on….[2]


Robert Nichols is out of it, now. He is damaged, but physically intact. He has seen the war, and is setting himself now to write about it. His friends, of course, remain. But now they are one fewer: Harold Gough was killed today, a century back, in the Ypres Salient.[3]


Olaf Stapledon, meanwhile, continues his slow-developing intercontinental conversation with his intended, Agnes Miller. His tone, as it always is, is light, loving. Yet this is a question of the utmost seriousness to him: if she will remain conventionally patriotic and pro-war and he, though he is in the thick of it, will remain a committed pacifist, would society ever accept them? It’s a burning question… but, again, slow-burning. He is in Belgium, she is in Australia–duration first, then marriage.

Last night there was no end of a scrap. I was lying in bed in my car when it began. I was facing it and saw all the shrapnel flashes in the sky and the big shells far off landing with a dazzling blaze… All today there has been steady firing from the various batteries, shells going & coming, roaring and singing all over the place–crash–roarrrrrr-ban-bang-whewwww-crash, much tearing of calico & much humming-top song. Yet if one’s ears had been stopped up one would never have known there was war in this continent, save for a few puffs of smoke…

I have just been reading another dear letter that came from you today… Much of your letter was about patriotism and wanting to win. I don’t know, dear, but it all strikes me very differently. I won’t talk about it, for reasons censorial and others. You must judge for yourself, be loyal to your view of the truth; and I will be loyal to mine. Believe me, anyhow, England is no less to me than to you… I am not a crank nor an extremist, nor a little Englander even, but I fear you have gone and got engaged to a fellow whose views are not presentable in polite society, and I am deeply sorry for you… Can you really love with all your heart and soul one who does not even intend to live up to your ideal, but sticks to his own? If so you are a heroine, considering the relation of the two ideals.[4]


I introduced Arthur Graeme West two weeks ago as a noted cynic, a man angry at the army before he even got to France. Today he was exposed to one of the famous drill-lectures–not the famous bayonetin’ Scotsman, but a cavalry major–“a small man with an incredibly evil countenance… and… an inability to pronounce his R’s”–who lectures on physical drill more generally. West parodies his idiocy and–less unfairly–his failure to appreciate that discipline in the socially heterogeneous volunteer battalions of Kitchener’s army must be very different than in an old Regular battalion:

Story of officer whom nobody disobeyed twice. Someone disobeyed him once and he went to the hospital! Cheers!

This man babbled on about bayonet fighting and physical drill until 12.45, the C.O. simpering by, keeping a thousand men from their rest and their beer, and teaching them nothing.[5]


Grim. But I can close with good news, at least. Today, a century back, Noel Hodgson is an uncle. His sister gave birth, at their parents’ home in Ipswich, to a baby daughter. Mother and daughter are hale and healthy…[6]


References and Footnotes

  1. The War the Infantry Knew, 206.
  2. With a Machine Gun, 77.
  3. Charlton, Putting Poetry First, 55.
  4. Talking Across the World, 156-7.
  5. Diary, 79-80.
  6. Zeepvat, Before Action, 185.

Two Powerful Poems from Isaac Rosenberg, in France; Siegfried Sassoon on the Ghosts of a Century Hence; Edward Thomas and the Little Lines of Lust; Lord Crawford, Raymond Asquith, and Vera Brittain Learn of Jutland

Isaac Rosenberg arrived in Le Havre today, a century back, aboard the SS Clementine. During the crossing he wrote a poem and a fragment. If, dear reader, you have perused any of Rosenberg’s Moses (and perhaps been baffled), you might find that this little bit is already a fierce leap forward. The same gnomic, growling force is there, the same willingness to go to the old books and tug their thick fibers into some semblance of a modern poem. But it works better, I think, in one focused fragment: Rosenberg hasn’t seen the trenches yet, but he knows already to go to a blind, loathsome, earth-dweller to strike at the foul core of the current war.

A worm fed on the heart of Corinth,
Babylon and Rome.
Not Paris raped tall Helen,
But this incestuous worm,
Who lured her vivid beauty
To his amorphous sleep.
England! famous as Helen
Is thy bethothal sung.
To him the shadowless,
More amorous than Solomon.
And yet it is still opaque… and fragmentary.


Not so this one, which even the anti-biographical skeptic must concede has grown from the daily experience of the author:

The Troop Ship

Grotesque and queerly huddled
Contortionists to twist
The sleepy soul to a sleep,
We lie all sorts of ways
And cannot sleep.
The wet wind is so cold,
And the lurching men so careless,
That, should you drop to a doze,
Wind’s fumble or men’s feet
Is on your face.

It’s hard not to see Rosenberg–his background so different to that of most of our poets–as, in some sense, on a much more artistically promising trajectory. He has been kept down, by circumstance, and he has held himself back. He is small and weak, but wiry and coiled, and he is angry and raw and breaking new ground even as he first touches French soil…[1]


Usually, here, irony is thrust upon us, but we can also scratch up our own. Of all the poets it is Rosenberg, right now, who burns most intensely with a focused ambition, and who–a child of the slums, a bantam private–most naturally understands his poetry as a burgeoning force in danger of being smothered in its infancy by the overwhelming weight of the war. Edward Thomas has striven mightily–but, you know, in an understated, hesitating, Thomist sort of way–to keep the war and his poetry separate. But just last week he acknowledged the impossibility of keeping that up with a stately, long-lined masterpiece and began to reorient his military career toward France.

So, then, his next poem will be a big war poem, right?

After you speak
And what you meant
Is plain,
My eyes
Meet yours that mean,
With your cheeks and hair,
Something more wise,
More dark,
And far different.
Even so the lark
Loves dust
And nestles in it
The minute
Before he must
Soar in lone flight
So far,
Like a black star
He seems–
A mote
Of singing dust
The dreams
And sheds no light.
I know your lust
Is love.


Nope. Instead it’s Thomas’s most frankly sexual poem. A farewell to Edna? An erotic jeux d’esprit? Who knows, but it’s certainly a rare new shaft in our quiver of lark poems…


So, poetry. But in our daily march we must react along with our writers–generally two or three days afterwards–to the headline news. Today, then, the disaster–and qualified victory–of Jutland is on many minds.

Vera Brittain has been home recuperating from a fever. But today, a century back,[2] she prepared to take up her nursing work once again.

I returned to a London seething with bewildered excitement over the battle of Jutland. Were we celebrating a glorious naval victory or lamenting an ignominious defeat? We hardly knew; and each fresh edition of the newspapers obscured rather than illuminated this really quite important distinction. The one indisputable fact was that hundreds of young men, many of then midshipmen only just in their teens, had gone down without hope of rescue or understanding of the issue to a cold, anonymous grave.[3]


Private Lord Crawford‘s reaction is somewhat different:

Saturday, 3 June 1916

When hard at work clearing up in the theatre, a staff man came in telling us of the disastrous news from the fleet. I nearly fainted… In comes a subaltern called Hopcroft, was told the naval news, and the only comment he offered was, ‘oh, how very annoying’. I could have knocked the man down. At night, there are rumours that we did better than the official despatch indicates. But our actual losses are almost stupefying.[4]

The Navy has let down the side–or, rather, the shipbuilders and the naval decision-makers have, with their failure to anticipate German plunging fire.


I’m fairly sure that it is unwise to continue to introduce new writers, here. Too many subalterns! Arthur Graeme West is a tricky one, too–angry, bitter, and the keeper of a frank but irregular diary. He may end up being a significant contributor here, but perhaps not. Regardless, I can’t resist juxtaposing his diary entry of today with old Lord Crawford.

The serious defeat of the Fleet in the North Sea–as we believe it to be–has produced little effect in most men who talked loudly of national honour and prestige. They rushed to buy papers this morning in haste to find out what had happened, laughed scornfully at the Navy’s anti-climax, remarked that it was on the Army, and Kitchener’s Army at that, on which he had to depend: and then they seemed to forget all about it…

It is in face of such a calamity, so stunning in its sudden impact, and forming such an ironic background to the dance of mankind, that I am rejoiced at my sense of nothingness and utter lack of importance.[5]


So the news is all bad lately–but this does mean that  Raymond Asquith is in his element, writing today, a century back, to Sybil Hart-Davis

3rd Batt. Grenadier Guards

After 5 very enjoyable days in the salient (which smells strongly at this season of dead Scotchmen) I marched through the deep green com field of Belgium in the cool of the summer morning to a wayside camp, as one might walk home through Covent Garden from the din and clatter of a ball, and was much pleased to find your letter awaiting me.

Now that the Huns have conquered Italy and Greece and sunk all our ships and killed all our Canadians and all but taken Verdun I suppose it will be the turn of the British Army next. Well, well, there is much to be said for being quietly under the sod.

He is just so good at being… himself. Asquith, King of the Coterie, old-fashioned rapier wit driven home with the almost-up-to-date kick of a Vickers. So witty! And yet, in his own way, he is still writing–posing, performing–a serious subject. He stares his own death in the face, and, with a deft turn, he rejects his own de rigueur rejection of all seriousness:

And yet I feel that I have a kick or two–not more–in me yet…

We have been marching like hell for the last two days along hot and dusty roads and have now got so far away from the enemy that we are allowed not to wear gas helmets or shrapnel helmets or anti-lachrymatory goggles or revolvers or field glasses or periscopes or breastplates or field dressings or any of the other knickknacks that make us so terrible in battle.

But at any moment we may be whipped back into the soup. Still, it is so long now since I have been allowed to stay in bed after 5 a.m. that a battle would do me a fair treat.[6]


So, battle and possible death await. But are we downhearted? No!

Au contraire: we are ready for a long musing bit from Siegfried Sassoon, on our future–our very day, indeed. And ghosts, and literature:

June 3

Lorries a mile away, creeping along the green and yellow ridges of the June landscape like large insects. A partridge runs out of the rustling blades of corn, and hurries back again. The afternoon sky is full of large clouds, and broad beams of light lead the eyes up to a half-hidden sun. A fresh breeze comes from the north-west. Miles of green country as far as I can see, and trees dark green against the sky’s white edge. A lark goes up, and takes my heart with him. Several soldiers straggle across the view…

Ah, just in time–very well done. Sassoon has the poet’s vision which, in this benighted age, begs for cinematic (or video, I suppose) metaphor: he holds the frame full of this natural vision, and then, at the last moment the landscape is penetrated by these small, ominous, straggling, struggling human figures.

But Sassoon’s thoughts stray, now, from men who are barely there to those who aren’t there at all. Unless they are:

I was thinking this evening (as I sat out in the garden with the sun low behind the roofs and a chilly wind shaking the big aspens) that if there really are such things as ghosts, and I’m not prepared to gainsay the fact–or illusion–if there are ghosts, then they will be all over this battle-front forever. I think the ghosts at Troy are all too tired to show themselves–and Odysseus has sailed into the sunset never to return. The grim old campaigns of bowmen and knights and pikemen may have their spectral anniversaries–one never hears of them. But the old Flanders wars have been wiped out by these new slaughterings and the din of our big guns that shatter and obliterate towns and villages, and dig pits in every field, and lay waste pleasant green woods–scared the old phantoms far away. Or do they still watch the struggle?

Wait for it, wait for it…

I can imagine that, in a hundred or two hundred or two thousand years, when wars are waged in the air and under the ground, these French roads will be haunted by a silent traffic of sliding lorries and jolting waggons and tilting limbers, all going silently about their business. Some staring peasant or stranger will see them siIhouetted against the pale edge of a night sky… a battalion transport–with the sergeant riding in front, and brake-men hanging on behind the limbers, taking rations to .the trenches that were filled in hundreds of years ago. And there will be ghostly working-parties coming home to billets long after midnight, filing along deserted tracks among the cornlands, men with round basin-helmets, and rifles slung on their shoulders, puffing at ambrosial Woodbines—and sometimes the horizon will wink with the flash of a gun, and insubstantial shells will hurry across the upper air and melt innocuous in nothingness.

And the trenches—where the trenches used to be–there will be grim old bomb-fights in the craters and wounded men cursing; and patrols will catch their breath, and crawl out from tangles of wire, and sentries will peer over the parapets, fingering the trigger—doubtful whether to shoot or send for the sergeant. And I shall be there—looking for Germans with my revolver and my knobkerrie and two Mills-bombs in each pocket, having hair-breadth escapes–crawling in the long grass–wallowing in the mud–crouching in shell-holes–hearing the Hun sentries cough and shift their feet, and click their bolts; I shall be there–slipping back into our trench, and laughing with my men at the fun I’ve had out in no-man’s-land. And I’ll be watching a frosty dawn come up beyond the misty hills and naked trees–with never a touch of cold in my feet or fingers, and perhaps taking a nip of rum from a never-emptying flask. And all the horrors will be there and agonies be endured again; but over all will be the same peaceful starlight—the same eternal cloudlands—and in those dusty hearts an undying sense of valour and sacrifice. And though our ghosts be as dreams; those good things will be as they are now, a light in the thick darkness and a crown.[7]

As Asquith the society wit juxtaposes clever mockery with mortal fear and a quiet hope for some form of understated heroism, Sassoon the rural poet expands his vision into the undiscovered country and the unlived century–and finds peace and happiness. We will have miserable, terrifying ghosts; lachrymose ghosts and traumatizing ghosts; clutching ghosts and vengeful ghosts, before out poets’ words are spent (and we have already had mouthless ghosts). But for Sassoon, now, we have comradely ghosts, a vision that validates the present day, at least as it applies to the fighting units themselves.  These are army ghosts, apolitical and stoic ghosts, plying the hunting grounds–not happy, exactly, yet marked by laughter and friendly tippling instead of terror–terror of no man’s land.


References and Footnotes

  1. Moorcroft Wilson, Isaac Rosenberg, 308-10.
  2. Or possibly yesterday.
  3. Testament of Youth, 271.
  4. Private Lord Crawford, 176.
  5. West, Diary, 78.
  6. Life and Letters, 266.
  7. Diaries, 71-2.

Vera Brittain on the Need to Nurse; Rowland Feilding in Rouen; A Raid on the Devonshires; Matters of Praise and Preference for Edward Thomas and Raymond Asquith

Vera Brittain brings her brother up to date, today, on her recent, momentous decision. Things sound a little less mystical, here, as she presents her internal deliberations for outside approval.

1st London General Hospital, 19 April 1916

You may be surprised still to see the same old address after all–for in the end I have not left here, and am not leaving. Although everything was so nicely arranged for me to leave, I changed my mind and like the erratic weathercock I may seem but really am not, almost at the last moment agreed, as they wished, to stay. The reasons for so doing are rather hard to give–but you yourself well understand, I think, motives of sentiment and conscience, which are difficult to explain but impossible to disobey and keep one’s self-respect and peace of mind. Roland was partly the cause–for I still seem to belong to Him just as much as when He was living, and though He is dead He still has more power over me than anyone who is alive. No sooner had I decided to leave here than the strong conviction came over me, quite against my reason, that somewhere He was living still, & knew and disapproved. The conviction grew stronger & stronger until I could not read His letters or quote His poems or favourite quotations, especially that one on Patriotism, without inwardly reproaching myself for leaving what was hard…

The first two people on this Hospital’s foreign service list have just been ordered to France, so it looks as if they are beginning to draw from here at last. That makes me all the more content that I am not going away from here, as though I don’t in the least imagine I should enjoy foreign service or underestimate its hardships, monotony & loneliness, I should have felt ashamed to think I had given up the work just when the  chance it holds of going abroad was emphasized. Unless anything unforeseen occurs my opportunity probably won’t come for some months–but if the present rather cheery estimates of the length of the War that one hears on all sides are at all correct, it is bound to come in the end.

Of course, when I go abroad from here, I am just as likely–perhaps more so–to go to the East as to France. I only wish that, if I am fated to be sent to the other side of Europe. I could first make a pilgrimage to His grave, as you have done. I feel that if only I could see that

‘Corner of a foreign field
Which is for ever England’[1]

for me, I should not mind what happened, and should be strengthened & inspired to face a lonely life–without interest or hope in itself. Do you think the Germans will ever get through to Louvencourt & ravage it before we have a chance to see His grave?

Next Sunday is Easter-Day. I think perhaps one may celebrate even more than one could last year, the Resurrection of England–an England purged of much pettiness through the closeness of her acquaintance in these days with Life and Death.[2]

It’s hard, for once, for even the most convinced cynic to scoff at the aptness of Brooke‘s pretty poetry. If we come to bury smooth and sentimental phrases that ease the swift conversion of promising young men into “sacrifices” for the national war aims, well… don’t we also hope to praise any words that give consolation to their bereaved? As for the ready application, by a convinced agnostic, of the core of Christian theology to social and political criticism, well, that’s a different matter.


Ten days after landing at Le Havre, Rowland Feilding continues his slow return to the trenches with a visit to one of the great cathedral towns of the rear areas. Nôtre-dame d’Amiens was the 1914 and 1915 favorite (and will remain so), and Nôtre-dame de Rheims is the tragic front-line shrine. But Rouen, beloved of Monet, is no slouch either. And Rouen has other delights for medieval-minded tourists.

April 19, 1916. Bois des Tallies (near Bray-sur-Somme)


Monet, Rouen Cathedral at Sunset, 1893 (Wikipedia)

We left Rouen at half-past three yesterday afternoon with 1,400 troops on board. I was O.C. train, so had a reserved compartment, which I shared with one of my subalterns. I had never seen Rouen before and was greatly impressed by the Cathedral. I visited the “Place du vieux Marché,” where Joan of Arc was burned, the spot—a couple of yards or so from a butcher’s stall—being marked by a slab over which people walk;—no more.

I reached the Entrenching Battalion this afternoon, about forty-four hours after leaving Harfleur, after a wet and muddy march of 6 1/2 miles through comparatively treeless country of the dreariest variety. The day has
been horrible, and the cheerless aspect of the camp upon our arrival was most dispiriting. My servant describes it as a “wash-out,” and it is! Perhaps it will improve when the weather gets better. It is 3 1/2 to 4 miles behind the firing line, from the direction of which the rumble of the guns can be heard…

I hope my first jaundiced impression of the place will prove to have been influenced—more than I can bring myself to believe at present—by the disgusting weather and the long and tiring journey;—to say nothing of my disappointment at not having been sent straight back to the 1st Battalion, as I had hoped.[3]


Three brief literary notes to round us out.

First, today, a century back, was “an unnecessarily perfect day” for Noel Hodgson and the 9th Devons, now reunited and stationed behind the line in Bray–until a sudden German bombardment began tearing up the trenches around Mansel Copse, near dusk. Hodgson’s friend Harold Rayner was up in it, leading a working party which now had to defend itself against a German raid. The raiding party had crept into a hollow near the front line under cover of the barrage and then charged into the British trenches, killing or injuring sixty-five. Eight missing men were likely captured, a boon for German intelligence.

We’ll read the sketch describing the raid when Hodgson writes it, but the historical forerunner to the fiction will have real consequences. Between the physical damage to the trenches and the uproar caused by the German success, the Devonshires’ next turn in the trenches will be grueling… [4]


The last two short notes are each of little interest in and of themselves, but they nicely illustrate the web of recommendation and personal praise which connects so may of our writers. First we have Edward Thomas writing to Walter de la Mare with the first direct evidence of his, er, complicity in de la Mare’s belated attempts to win his friend some official patronage in the form of a government pension. And who would we guess that de la Mare hopes to enlist in this effort?

Hut 3
Hare Hall Camp

19 April 1916

I have asked Jones & Evans to send you copies of Jefferies, Swinburne, Rest & Unrest, The South Country…  I take it you will send them to Marsh or wherever they are to go. I have got leave from tomorrow till Saturday. Just time to see the children.


Eddie Marsh again–and that won’t be the only familiar name with whom de la Mare will correspond.


Finally, Raymond Asquith has been asked for his help. Bad enough–but the task might involve bad writing, and that cannot be tolerated. He confides in his wife, Katherine:


19 April 1916

Today I had a letter from Ettie [Desborough] asking me to contribute an appreciation of Billy and Julian [Grenfell] for a book she is making about them. It was a charming letter but it is a terrible request. I suppose I must try to put something together, but I have such a bad memory for the individual incidents or characteristic sayings which alone can make memorial prose tolerable.[6]

Reader, he will manage it nonetheless.

Is this good writing? Yes. Is it honest? Well, then.

But it’s a nice reminder of the distinction between public and private prose:

It was easy to idealize Julian, because superficially he seemed to be built on very simple lines.  One might have set him up in a public place as a heroic or symbolic figure of Youth and Force.  In reality he was far too intelligent and interesting to be a symbolic figure of anything.  His appetite for action was immense, but it was a craving of his whole nature, mind no less than body.  His sheer physical vigour, as everyone knows, was prodigious.  Perfectly made and perpetually fit he flung himself upon life in a surge of restless and unconquerable energy.  Riding, or rowing, or boxing, or running with his greyhounds, or hunting the Boches in Flanders, he ‘tired the sun with action’ as others have with talk.  His will was persistent and pugnacious and constantly in motion.  His mind, no less, was full of fire and fibre; lively, independent, never for a moment stagnating, nor ever mantled with the scum of second-hand ideas, violent in its movements but always moving, intemperate perhaps in its habit but with ‘the brisk intemperance of youth’.[7]


References and Footnotes

  1. This is Rupert Brooke--but, dear reader, you recognized the quotation, from the 1914 sonnets, and already one of the most popular bits of English poetry.
  2. Letters From a Lost Generation, 249-50.
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 71-2.
  4. Zeepvat, Before Action, 170-2.
  5. Poet to Poet, 220.
  6. Life and Letters, 259.
  7. This is from, I believe, the "Memoir" that Lady Desborough published; I found it here--spoiler alert.

Edward Thomas on Right and Wrong and Love and Hate; Siegfried Sassoon’s “Prince of Wounds;” Christmas Comes Late to Alan Seeger and Olaf Stapledon; Raymond Asquith’s Clever Pencil Sketches Trench Theatricals

Yesterday a little restraint seemed necessary, given what Vera Brittain learned. So today we will get to a few things that were written yesterday, a century back. One is Edward Thomas‘s first explicit war poem, a “polemical reprise” of his tortured decision-making process about his own role in the war. It seems to join in medias res one of those endless arguments about the ethics of patriotism:

Thomas 12-26-15

This is no case of petty right or wrong
That politicians or philosophers
Can judge. I hate not Germans, nor grow hot
With love of Englishmen, to please newspapers.
Beside my hate for one fat patriot
My hatred of the Kaiser is love true:—
A kind of god he is, banging a gong.
But I have not to choose between the two,
Or between justice and injustice. Dinned
With war and argument I read no more
Than in the storm smoking along the wind
Athwart the wood. Two witches’ cauldrons roar.
From one the weather shall rise clear and gay;
Out of the other an England beautiful
And like her mother that died yesterday.
Little I know or care if, being dull,
I shall miss something that historians
Can rake out of the ashes when perchance
The phoenix broods serene above their ken.
But with the best and meanest Englishmen
I am one in crying, God save England, lest
We lose what never slaves and cattle blessed.
The ages made her that made us from dust:
She is all we know and live by, and we trust
She is good and must endure, loving her so:
And as we love ourselves we hate our foe.


As far as the cauldrons in line twelve I think I have him pegged. Edward Thomas, god love him, is heartbroken by idiocy. As much he loves England–its countryside, its country people–he loathes those who would proclaim the same love to justify bloodthirsty nationalism. He hates cant, and the swaggering, know-nothing patriotism of the newspapers. Well enough.

The next step, though, seems like an even more radical denial. Thomas has been pained by the extent to which intelligent Englishmen have become raving jingoists–that his father expressed approval of the prosecution of men privately expressing insufficiently anti-German opinions will cause Thomas deep shame–but until now we could read the poem simply as a defense of well-reasoned pro-Allied argument and a rejection of sloppy fury. But no–it’s all noise. His anti-argument argument deepens (and hits home, here) when he includes future historians with the politicians and philosophers who would make sense of the war for their own purposes.

Instead, Thomas aligns himself with the “best and meanest” Englishmen. (Here it is hard not to be a little cynical, and read this as “simple, unhateful rural people, and the few really sensitive intellectuals.”) He has been working around to this idea for some time, especially in the early-war prose which I have made little use of: “my country right or wrong” is a foolish, wicked statement. But working outward from some homely loyalty–the dust that made you–to a larger identification is the best that one can do, in such times. And he identifies, we should note, not with the patria–Latinate, masculine–but with Her, the motherland, whom we love and trust.

Standing alone, the poem is an argument half-made that subsides into something like aphorism or koan. But it is compressed not only in terms of its poetic content but also its personal and intertextual affiliations. We must read into it associations that are not made explicit. That the speaker loves the English landscape and countryside–which Thomas has written about at length–is clear. Less so is the fact that he loves English poetry, which Thomas has recently anthologized, putting his own anonymous efforts directly opposite Coleridge’s “Fears in Solitude,” which he echoes here. And, finally, that although the speaker rejects a noisy, uncritical, loudly-proclaimed love of country in favor of a war-ethos rooted in self-love, the poet has struggled mightily against self-loathing and depression, and barely won through.[1]

This is–uniquely, I think, among Thomas’s poetry–a grudging lyric. He does not want to write explicitly about the war because he believes that poetry can say what needs to be said without shouting it. And although he does the job–rejecting foolish and violence sentiment and declaring, in the end, his own reason for committing to the fight–he is not happy to be here, and will not give in to the temptation to make a pretty, satisfying lyric about an ugly, unhappy reality.

This is Thomas-the-Poet explaining Thomas-the-Soldier, but at the same time as he declares himself an “English Poet” it is hard (and not just because of his affinity with Wales) not to hear a heavier accent on the second trochee: he will be a poet, speaking the felt truth as simply as possible, and damn the petty cases of politicians, philosophers, and historians! And he is an English poet because he is an Englishman, and can be from and of no other place.


Siegfried Sassoon wrote some verses today, a century back, and compared to the suppressed fury and compressed sorrow of Thomas’s war poem it’s like the flourishing of a pretty silken handkerchief. Which the next breeze will whisk away. And yet it’s a break from the rural reverie of his recent diary entries, and an attempt–an immature, halfhearted attempt, to be sure–to be Serious.

In terms of prosody there is nothing new here: the languorous rhythm and dusty diction (and the tragic poetic pose) are familiar, if heightened. But Christmas is still on his mind–or, at least, Christ–and Sassoon has had the idea of producing a lyric driven by an idea–this is a poem of Doubt. Not–yet–doubt in the honor of military service, but doubt–sorry, the grave, capitalized Doubt–in the meaning of the soldier’s current predicament.

sass 12-27-15 Prince of Wounds

Cambridge University Library

The Prince of wounds is with us here;
Wearing his crown he gazes down,
Sad and forgiving and austere.
We have renounced our lovely things,
Music and colour and delight:
The spirit of Destruction sings
And tramples on the flaring night.
But Christ is here upon the cross,
Bound to a road that’s dark with blood,
Guarding immitigable loss.
Have we the strength to strive alone
Who can no longer worship Christ?
Is He a God of wood and stone,
While those who served him writhe and moan,
On warfare’s altar sacrificed?[2]

So here we have some very explicit disbelief (one of Thomas’s “philosophers,” above?) and an opportunistic (and very characteristic) poetic move. Christ is reduced to an idol, while the present flesh and blood of the suffering soldiers is offered as a substitute. This is almost an irresistible juxtaposition, especially for any nominally Christian poet who feels strongly the physical fellowship of fighting men. Others, too, will be forcing their way more furiously away from (or toward) the church, and have all the more reason to confront the doctrine of sacrificial atonement.

But Sassoon is still flailing, as a perusal of the draft and corrections (above) will show. He has been moved to write a poem, but it still seems as if he is pleased to follow the whims of an image, rather than to seize control of his work. Where Thomas’s poem shows the frustrations of a year and a half of soul-searching, arguing, and writing, Sassoon’s is “my beautiful soul + the bodies of soldiers – (religion – Christ’s symbolic wounds) = poem.”


When we last left Olaf Stapledon, he was writing an uncharacteristically cloudy letter to Agnes. Christmas morning and no letters! But yesterday (when I could not bear to break in with happy news), he had added a post-script to his Christmas letter.

Boxing Day, tea time. We all sat down to our Christmas dinner last night round a table groaning under geese, trifle, fruit, crackers, etc. etc. Suddenly in came a belated fellow with a huge mail bag from HQ. Two fellows doled out letters and parcels… I watched every letter till almost the last, and then came a big one from you. My next door neighbour said, “There! Now you’ve got one from her you can be merry.” Think of your Christmas letter coming exactly on Christmas day & at the great feast!

And I like this bit too: she sent him a small volume of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poems, which he declares

the very finest expression of a woman’s feeling that is in the language. I shall read it all now with a new understanding, because of you. You could not have sent anything that would delight me more.[3]


While we’re opening belated Christmas parcels, here’s one for Alan Seeger to rub on his belly, today, a century back:

December 27, 1915.

I received the two boxes of guava jelly in perfect condition–as if they had come from Paris instead of Cuba…

We are here in reserve in case of a German offensive during the flood season, such as they made last year, where our positions north of the river are a little precarious. We face the enemy here at the point where they are nearest Paris. You can understand my satisfaction that our division is among those assigned to the most responsible posts now. Personally I don’t think that the Germans are going to attack and I don’t expect to see action again until next spring…

Seeger has played propagandist before now, but he has also been fairly consistent in his praise for war–the glory, the manliness, the truth, etc.–over and above the specific righteousness of the Allied cause. Which is why it is fairly significant that even as he takes continued pride in being part of a valued unit, he is willing to see (if not to personally cop to) the inexorable and yet ineffectual rise of war-weariness,

the immense secret longing for peace that is the universal undercurrent in Europe now. Only all the nations have waded so deep in blood now that they think it less costly to go right over than to return where they started from, to which a premature peace would be equivalent. So it must go on till it is decided by arms. . . .[4]


Finally, in sweeping up the rest of yesterday’s neglected letters, some choice bits from Raymond Asquith‘s missive to Diana Manners. First, he strives to find the beauty in bombardment:

26 December 1915

. . . I cannot help talking a little trench shop to you now and then, just as you could not help talking hospital shop to all of us. Every now and then the purely scenic effects are so good, not really good, but operatic and sentimental, that I feel sure you would enjoy them if you were here. Shelling and countershelling–especially in the dark–quite comes up to Christmas number standards. The odd thing is that as a method of killing people, it somehow just fails to come off–aims at a million and misses a unit almost every time, but misses it, as far as one can judge, by inches only. Red and yellow flame and tall columns of dirt and smoke and sand-bags fly into the air all round you; clods of earth fall upon your neck, the nose-cap of the shell whizzes over your head with a noise of a thousand bad harmoniums played at once by a maniac, and the most respectable soldiers look too idiotically serious for words, while the most disreputable ones shout with laughter and pour out a stream of obscene jokes. You think at first that everybody in the trench must be dead except yourself and after the thing is over you find that 2 men are slightly wounded. Every now and then you pop your head above the parapet to see whether your shells are doing any damage to the Boches, and you see a line of terrific volcanoes bursting out at intervals of 5 yards all along the German line, but if you keep your head up for 1/2 a minute a 100 bullets whistle past it at once, showing that the Germans are suffering even less than you are.

Next, a mighty contribution to Paul Fussell‘s notion of the “Theater of War” in the trenches (though, I believe, not one that Fussell himself included–I’m right here, OUP, when you’re ready for an annotated update!):

Then the normal scene at night, when one patrols the trenches and there is nothing much doing, would make up amazingly well on the stage–the breastwork of sand-bags, so excellent in their drabness of colour, the rain coming down in torrents, the sentries singing, the Officer splashing round through 3 feet of water, and the men off duty plastered so thick with mud that you can hardly see their equipment, sleeping in attitudes of collapse and fatigue, which would penetrate the hardest heart, and defeat the cleverest pencil…

Never! And finally, his third and feistiest backhand to the Royal Welch and the men of Kitchener’s Army:

We had a Welsh regiment attached to us last time for instruction, tiny little tots, utterly unfit for anything more strenuous than a children’s ball. They would pull a couple of sand-bags out of the parapet and nest in the crevice like swallows under the eaves. One asked oneself if Kitchener was serious.

Forgive me Dilly, for all this rigmarole, I have still big arrears of sleep to make up, and when one is tired the easiest thing seems to be to transfer vivid images from one’s retina to the paper . . .

The things I want fly before me for ever down the paths of sleep.[5]


References and Footnotes

  1. See Longley, The Annotated Collected Poems, 262-6.
  2. Diaries, 28.
  3. Talking Across the World, 118-9.
  4. Letters and Diary, 177-8.
  5. Life and Letters, 230-1.