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

Edwin Vaughan is almost there:

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

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

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


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

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

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


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


The Road

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


References and Footnotes

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

Alf Pollard’s Enthusiasm for the Game; Isaac Rosenberg’s Aching Feet; Patrick Shaw Stewart is Summoned; Wilfred Own Describes His Longest Tour

We have four letters today, in more or less a representative distribution: two to mother, one to a patron, and one to a comrade.

But the first letter-to-mum is an unusual one, from an unusual (here, at least) writer. Alf Pollard and the H.A.C. have a lull in the action today, and he is able to fill mater in on his latest doings.

Dearest Ladybird,

Here we are again, out once more. I have had some most interesting and exciting times since last writing, including going over the top again. I am once more in charge of the Company as the man senior to me got laid out with a bullet. I shall probably be a Captain again in a day or two but one never knows as somebody else senior may be sent along. You see, the present arrangement of the government is that all promotions are by seniority irrespective of fighting qualities. So really one has no chance of being more than a Second Lieutenant whatever one does. However I don’t care a bit what rank I am.

I had a most exciting adventure in a Hun trench the other day. I cut through their wire and got into their trench thinking it was unoccupied, but soon discovered it was full of Huns and consequently had to beat a hasty retreat. I got out all right fortunately. I heard a rumour that the Brigadier has recommended me for a bar to my M.C. in consequence of this little business so if you keep your eyes glued on the paper you may shortly see my name in it. Don’t think I have been taking any unnecessary risks because I have not. I have merely done what I have been asked to do.

Well, dear old lady…

Best of spirits and having a good time. By the way, I gave killed another Hun. Hurrah!

Well, cheerioh!

This letter is one of the few Pollard takes the trouble to preserve, and he does so with an explanatory comment, namely

…because it throws such a clear light on my attitude towards war… I thoroughly enjoyed going into action… People tell me I must have a kink in my nature; that my zest to be in the forefront of the battle was unnatural. I do not agree with them…[1]

No, he assures us, he is merely very highly motivated to win the war, and believes that the British Army can, and soon. If this is a gambit to convince those horrified by enthusiasm for killing into accepting what we might term the “realism” of his statements, it’s not a very good one.

Yes, it’s a war, and it is much more deeply illogical to believe that your side is in the right and yet still hope to bring about a satisfying conclusion without violence. But this is a pacifist’s dilemma, and it doesn’t explain the enthusiasm for personal violence. Invoking the common terminology of war and sport–“keen to win”–does nothing to show that there is some moral through-line from the young officer excited to get his name in the paper for killing people and the responsible adult who seeks to defeat German militarism and liberate France and Belgium, accepting that there will be a price to pay for this, in blood.

Then there is the question of the “kink.” I don’t think a discursus into human evolutionary biology and the sociology of violence is necessary here, but it’s tempting… Briefly (and sloppily), this is indeed a “kink…” and yet it is quite natural. Most of us are by nature (as well as nurture) horrified by direct physical violence unless driven to it by some extreme emotion–terror, jealousy, even rage have some clear evolutionary benefits. But we don’t generally kill without passion–we could hardly have evolved in small, cooperative groups otherwise. And yet, some people lack this inhibition… some of them may become violent sociopaths or psychopaths, others may lead normal lives unless they are at some point given a handful of weapons and asked to go and hunt down other people, for God and for Country. Presumably their sang froid during hunting for food over the thousands of generations of Prehistory preserved their genes despite their danger to the group–after all, they win decorations and bounties get their names preserved among the valorous…

Apologies for the fast-and-loose “science” without careful hypothesis or actual evidence, which is , of course, not science at all. But I do think a glance at the animal and the “early man” beneath the recently-civilized human being yields plausible explanations… What put me in mind of this, actually, was Pollard’s choice of the phrase “forefront of the battle.” This was probably borrowed, perhaps at some remove, from translations of ancient epic: nothing could be more Homeric than the idea that the best men–those who are the leaders of contingents, those who earn fame and glory and prizes–fight literally before (i.e. “in front of”) the rest of the men in the battle, those lesser men who prefer less direct, less deadly, missile-weapon-oriented conflict.

Pollard is not insane, nor is his happy warrior pose “unnatural,” but he is very unusual: he has the mentality of a Homeric hero, someone who values glory–“winning”–so highly that the taking of lives doesn’t really enter into the moral calculus, even though they recognize that in other contexts killing is wrong. Although Pollard is capable of recognizing the brutality and sadness of war, he is also more than capable of forgetting it. He does not see the unavailing suffering of other men as detracting from the meaningfulness of glory or the positive valence of skillful, violent action–and this, now, is beginning to put him at odds with several writers more prominent in this project.[2]

But we can continue to explore this attitude in subsequent posts. Pollard’s letter is also included in the memoir at this point because he wishes to connect his realistic “attitude towards war” with his exceptional talent for it. He can’t really claim to be modest, but he can argue that what he does next is all in the service of winning (which he could have phrased as “ending”) the war…


We followed several units-with-writers during the attack of the 23rd, and of course failed to discuss many others. One of these was the Hood Battalion of the Royal Naval Division, badly mauled during the advance. Two of the remaining “Argonauts” of the Gallipoli expedition are still with the Division–Bernard Freyberg now commands a brigade, while Arthur “Oc” Asquith, Raymond‘s younger brother, commanded the Hood battalion in the assault, leading it close behind the British barrage in the assault on Gavrelle. The attack was successful, but at the cost of nearly 200 casualties, including seven officers killed outright. Today, a century back, Asquith wrote to his old comrade Patrick Shaw Stewart. Shaw Stewart had schemed successfully to leave his cushy post in the East to return to the battalion, and danger. But there has been rather a long interlude, spent largely in futile pursuit of the divine Diana, followed by a stint on a refresher course at Le Touquet. Now he is summoned directly.

My dear Patsy,

Come as soon as you can. I lost 3 Company C.O.s the day before yesterday.

Love, yrs Oc.[3]


Also today, a century back, Wilfred Owen wrote to his mother. It was his first letter in a long while, and in it he describes the longest, hardest time of his service in France (we have drawn on this letter already). The 2nd Manchesters, down on the southern part of the British line, made an assault more than two weeks ago, before Owen had rejoined from hospital. Since then they have not been in an attack, but–no doubt due to the concentration of force for the Battle of Arras–they have remained an awfully long time in front-line trenches.

25 April 1917  A. Coy., My Cellar

My own dearest Mother,

Immediately after I sent my last letter, more than a fortnight ago, we were rushed up into the Line. Twice in one day we went over the top, gaining both our objectives. Our A Company led the Attack, and of course lost a certain number of men. I had some extraordinary escapes from shells & bullets. Fortunately there was no bayonet work, since the Hun ran before we got up to his trench…

The reward we got for all this was to remain in the Line 12 days. For twelve days I did not wash my face, nor take off my boots, nor sleep a deep sleep. For twelve days we lay in holes, where at any moment a shell might put us out. I think the worst incident was one wet night when we lay up against a railway embankment. A big shell lit on the top of the bank, just 2 yards from my head. Before I awoke, I was blown in the air right away from the bank! I passed most of the following days in a railway cutting, in a hole just big enough to lie in, and covered with corrugated iron. My brother officer of B Coy, 2/lt Gaukroger lay opposite in a similar hole…

This we have already read–but it is worth re-reading, as Owen will be dealing with the after-effects for a long time to come.[4]


And finally, today, and we get a rare update from Isaac Rosenberg, writing to Eddie Marsh:

My Dear Marsh,

My sister wrote me you have been getting more of my ‘Moses’. It is hardy of you, indeed, to spread it about; and I certainly would be distressed if I were the cause of a war in England; seeing what warfare means here. But it greatly pleases me, none the less, that this child of my brain, should be seen and perhaps his beauties be discovered. His creator is in sadder plight; the harsh and unlovely times have made his mistress, the flighty Muse, abscond and elope with luckier rivals, but surely I shall hunt her and chase her somewhere into the summer and sweeter times. Anyway this is a strong hope; Lately I have not been very happy, being in torture with my feet again. The coldness of the weather and the weight of my boots have put my feet in a rotten state. My address is different now

Pte I R 22311
7 Platoon
120th Brigade Works Coy

There is more excitement now, but though I enjoy this, my feet cause me great suffering and my strength is hardly equal to what is required.

I hear pretty often from G Bottomley and his letters are like a handshake: and passages are splendid pieces of  writing. Have you seen Trevellyans ‘Annual’ which G.B. writes me of.

Rosenberg is a strange bird, and this is a strange letter. He writes to thank Marsh for any efforts he might be making on behalf of his poetry–“Moses” is conceived of as a major work. But the affectation of ease and middle class bonhomie and faux-classicism sits oddly alongside of the infantryman’s complaints about his feet… although surely Rosenberg knows this. So what is he up to?

Perhaps not much, other than making clear a fairly obvious fact: privates in labor battalions can’t do much to improve their large-scale literary undertakings, but hope to keep up their tenuous connections to the world of literary patronage nonetheless. Alas, too, that his connection to Gordon Bottomley came so recently–the “Annual” which Rosenberg is rather obviously hoping to have sent to him is the same publication for which Eleanor Farjeon edited eighteen poems by “Edward Eastaway.”

Do write me when you can.

Yours sincerely

Isaac Rosenberg[5]


References and Footnotes

  1. Fire-Eater, 199-200.
  2. Which is not to say that Pollard wouldn't have held the more popular belief in 1917--he would have, by far. War heroes are popular; they always have been, and even if 1916 and 1917 and the Western Front were, to mangle some metaphors, the cradle of the grave of that illusion--even if skepticism about the virtues of violence will grow in the aftermath of this war, and remain higher than before it--the idea that talented warriors should be praised was many times more popular than the idea that they should protest the pointless murder they were involved in both perpetuating and risking. (And then, of course, there is Siegfried Sassoon, who wants to win a medal for just the sort of stunt Pollard describes, and also thinks that the war is pointless murder...
  3. Jebb, Edwardian Meteor, 226.
  4. Collected Letters, 452-3.
  5. Collected Works, 315-6.

Isaac Rosenberg, Strained and Weak; F.S. Flint is Read (by Richard Aldington) and Freely Given (by Ford Madox Hueffer)

Today is a day of literary letters, headed back across the channel in loose formation, nodding to each other in terse recognition, and speeding their pleas to the same few destinations. First, a wilting off-shoot of the Georgian/Dymock set–and after him the Modernists.

Isaac Rosenberg had written to Gordon Bottomley in early January about his plans–lousy and otherwise–and his reading.  He was fairly chipper, then, even about his miseries: “I fancy it was a touch of the flue… I wonder if Aeschylus as a private in the army was bothered as I am by lice.” Less so, in a letter postmarked today, a century back:

Dear Mr Bottomley

Your letters always give me a strange and large pleasure; and I shall never think I have written poetry in vain, since it has brought your friendliness in my way. Now, feeling as I am, castaway and used up, you don’t know what a letter like yours is to me. Ever since Nov, when we first started on our long marches, I have felt weak; but it seems to be some inscrutable mysterious quality of weakness that defies all doctors… I believe I have strained my abdomen in some way…[1]

Still, the letter included a “sketch” of “Louse Hunting,” and all was not as dark as Rosenberg’s mood. Not long ago Eddie Marsh had written–informally, of course–to Rosenberg’s adjutant, with the result that he will be transferred, probably at some point this month, from the “works” battalion to a less labor-intensive job in a trench mortar unit.[2]


It’s a small literary world: Bottomley is good friends with Edward Thomas and central to the now far-flung Dymock crew. Rupert Brooke was the strongest connection between Dymock and the Georgian Anthology, but Bottomley and de la Mare are others, and even if Thomas has avoided Marsh’s influence they are known to each other. And Marsh, of course, is not intervening lightly in Rosenberg’s military career–he was also a crucial early patron. Between Bottomley and Marsh there are few promising young writers of somewhat traditional verse more than one friendly letter away.

But oh yes–there are other literary microcosmoi, and with our advantage of historical vantage, we know that another small world considering au courant and modern will grab the stage and boot Georgian Poetry into the footlights. Or footnotes.

The Modernists, grouped around a few small journals,[3] see the Georgians more as almost indecently exposed targets of opportunity, prim ladies showing a touch of ankle while the Imagists are stripping to their all togethers to describe. Although Richard Aldington ceded his editorial post at The Egoist to his wife, H.D., when he went for a soldier, he still knows who and what to read.

Yesterday, a century back, Aldington wrote to F.S. Flint, his good friend and fellow subaltern in the Modernist enterprise; today, the august Ford Madox Hueffer, something of an elder statesman among the young ruffians (how’s that?) aimed a missive at the same target. We may set a record, today, for box-barrage-style name-dropping.

Although Aldington could hardly be more unlike his fellow poetical footslogger Ivor Gurney in either personality or poetic  predilection–Gurney has made a literal Dymock pilgrimage–the two rising poets and private soldiers offer the same criterion for poetic appreciation: is it pack-worthy?

My dear Franky,

I carried your poem and Manning’s poems in my pack for I know not how many kilometres–what more devotion to
literature can you ask? I am immensely pleased by your poem, & as I wrote to H.D., feel that it justifies amply your months of silence… Certainly, compel Monro to print the poem in a chap-book & add any “dug-outs” you have…

The horrid thought strikes me that, if U.S. goes to war, Amy will insist on writing and publishing patriotic verse. This must be barred strenuously–we have foreborn to intrude our nationalism, to “let wrath embitter the sweet mouth of song”; so must she. I have sent H.D. a few scraps of vers libre put down from time to time recently. They may not be much good, for I think they are lazy due to a state of intoxication derived from the happy discovery that one can boil Quaker Oats in one’s “billycan”…

This concern–that Amy Lowell will influence the decline of Modern poetry in America even as she has helped to elevate in England, fades into yet another reverie about war’s end. A popular topic, this winter:

I am back for “a rest”, having shed no blood of my own or anyone else’s, save when I gashed my thumb on a bullybeef tin. And poor May Sinclair will go on thinking I’m an ’eroe”! What women have to answer for! After the war–when everything will of course be ideal–we must rendez vous in your earthly paradise & idle long days in sun and long grass… I desire my Horatian otium cum dignitate [leisure with dignity] just as much as ever. If I get back you will not find me a rampagious & lustful legionary, but the same apostle of pastoral culture as of old. Old books, old wine, old pictures–young women & young songs…

Well, I will conclude this empty raving…

Au revoir, old lad, & a hundred congratulations on your fine piece of work.


“Empty raving,” quotha? Naturally, but this is something a man–a ponderous master like Ford Madox Hueffer–could do with a lighter sort of brio, especially if he is behind the likes of drunken junior Modernist officer cadets like Manning…

Attd. IX Welch, No. 6, 1.B.D.
B.E.F., France

I very ungraciously didn’t answer yr. letter–wh. reached me in the far South. However, I was lazy there–where the Mediterranean spurts up into the rosemary and lavender. But this is the bare, cold & trampled North, with nothing
but khaki for miles & miles…Bare downs… & tents… & wet valleys… & tents…& AAC guns… & mud… & bare
downs…& huts…& bare downs…& RFC…& mud…& motor lorries… & mud… & bare downs.

And I am promoted to Adj.–& run a Bn. much as I used to run the Eng[lish] Rev[iew]–It’s the same frame of mind, you know, & much, much easier–or more difficult, according to one’s mood…

Surely this great literary effort must in effect be some sort of preamble?

I want to ask you a favour: I somehow pine to publish a vol. of poems before the war ends or I am killed. Cd. you, do you think?, arrange for someone to publish:

The Old Houses
Two or three poems written in the trenches & other nasty places
& Heaven

in one volume? And could you collect and arrange them, somewhat in that order?

…I fancy it wd. make a pretty good volume. I have got rather a good one written to the dead of the Welch Regt & so on…. Let me know?

I do admire yr. work very much–you know. “Cadences” is an ever so beautiful volume.

And here’s the funny bit. “I admire your work very much.” Enough to schlepp it? Surely yes? You are, after all, an officer, with a servant, who hasn’t been in trenches in months, you must have trunks of books…

I gave it to some people in Mentone–not because I.did not value the gift, but because it wd. spread yr. fame a little–& because in my valise here it wd. only disintegrate amongst revolvers & straps & the mud in wh. one lives.

Goodbye, my dear.

I am personally very happy in this sort of life: in the end it suits me better to write:

“O.C. Canadaous will detail a fatigue party of 1 NCO & 10 men at 4:30 a.m…” than to watch the Mediterranean foam spattering over rosemary and lavender–for I don’t believe I am really, really Highbrow–as you truly are.

But God bless you, all the same…[4]


References and Footnotes

  1. Liddiard, ed., 89-90.
  2. See Moorcroft Wilson, Isaac Rosenberg, ch. 18.
  3. E.G. Blast, tied to various writers we read here, including Ford, below; and the newer Wheels, featuring the Sitwells and other Grenadier Guardsmen, several Imagist Anthologies... and yes, there are also people like Pound and Eliot being published, somewhere, presumably...
  4. Imagist Dialogues, 182-6.

Edward Thomas Writes to Robert Frost; Siegfried Sassoon in Literary London, and Under Lady Ottoline’s Influence, but Hardy Beneath; Rowland Feilding: No Place is Safe

Yesterday, a century back, was Edward Thomas’s first full day at the front. But his battery has not yet gone into action, and things are slow.

No letters yet. Censoring as usual. Gramophone playing… 9 p.m. Great cannonade thudding and flashing quite continuously away south in Ancre.[1]

Slow enough to finally write–despite the gramophone–to Robert Frost, the friend whose regard and sympathetic understanding (and poetic gift) prodded Thomas into writing poetry in the first place. But with Frost across the Atlantic, and increasingly out of touch with Thomas’s mental world, the friendship has been lagging. Thomas recently received a copy of Frost’s new book, Mountain Interval; he is still hoping for help from Frost in seeing his own first collection published. Nevertheless, it is the friendship that matters most to Thomas, and it is hard not to think, once again, that Eleanor Farjeon gets the drafts, while Frost gets the polished work. This letter–the second paragraph in particular–is like a refined version of what he wrote to her yesterday.

244 Siege Battery BEF France 111 February 1917 and a Sunday they tell me

My dear Robert,

I left England a fortnight ago and have now crawled with the battery up to our position. I can’t tell you where it is, but we are well up in high open country. We are on a great main road in a farmhouse facing the enemy who are about 2 miles away, so that their shells rattle our windows but so far only fall a little behind us or to one side. It is near the end of a 3 week’s frost. The country is covered with snow which silences everything but the guns. We have slept—chiefly in uncomfortable places till now. Here we lack nothing except letters from home. It takes some time before a new unit begins to receive its letters. I have enjoyed it very nearly all. Except shaving in a freezing tent. I don’t think I really knew what travel was like till we left England.

Yesterday, our 2nd day, I spent in the trenches examining some observation posts to see what could be seen of the enemy from them. It was really the best day I have had since I began. We had some shells very near us, but were not sniped at. I could see the German lines very clear but not a movement anywhere, nothing but posts sticking out of the snow with barbed wire, bare trees broken and dead and half ruined houses. The only living men we met at bends in trenches, eating or carrying food or smoking. One dead man lay under a railway arch so stiff and neat (with a covering of sacking) that I only slowly remembered he was dead. I got back, tired and warm and red. I hope I shall never enjoy anything less. But I shall. Times are comparatively quiet just here. We shall be busy soon and we shall not be alone. I am now just off with a working party to prepare our Gun positions which are at the edge of a cathedral town a mile or two along the road we look out on. We are to fight in an orchard there in sight of the cathedral.

It is night now and cold again. Machine guns rattle and guns go ‘crump’ in front of us. Inside a gramophone plays the rottenest songs imaginable, jaunty unreal dirty things. We get on well enough but we are a rum company. There is a Scotch philosopher, an impossible unmilitary creature who looks far more dismal than he really can be—I like him to talk to, but he is too glaringly timid and apologetic and helpless to live with. The others are all commonplace people under 26 years old who are never serious and could not bear anyone else to be serious. We just have to be dirty together. I also cannot be sincere with them. Two are boys of 19 and make me think of the boys I might have had for company. One of the two aged about 24 is rather a fine specimen of the old English soldiers, always bright and smart and capable, crude but goodhearted and frivolous and yet thorough at their work. He has been 10 years in the army. All his talk is in sort of proverbs or cant sayings and bits of comic songs, coarse metaphors—practically all quotations.

But I am seldom really tired of them. I suppose I am getting to like what they are, and their lack of seriousness is no deception and is just their method of expression.

I used to read some of the Sonnets while we were at Havre, but not on these last few days of travel. ‘Mountain Interval’ also is waiting.

My love to you all.

Yours ever

(s/Lt) Edward Thomas[2]

It’s very nice to put one’s friend in the company of Shakespeare–for it’s his Sonnets which Thomas has been reading, and Frost’s Mountain Interval surely might wait a bit, then, and still be highly valued… what’s odd, though, is that Thomas seems to have already read the book, or at least most of it. Why does he not want to discuss it with Frost? Fatigue, perhaps…


The second leg of Siegfried Sassoon‘s last leave involved little in the way of attentive dogs, Elizabethan airs, or uncomfortable family silences. After a few days with his mother in Kent, Sassoon went to stay in London with Robbie Ross and was soon immersed in literary London, and particularly in its semi-clandestine gay social circles.

Today, a century back, Sassoon managed to eat three square meals, one with each of the three friendly patrons who have done the most to advance his poetic career.

Breakfast with Eddie Marsh at Gray’s Inn. Lunch at the Reform with Meiklejohn and Robbie Ross. Tea at Gower Street with ‘Brett’ to inspect her vast portrait of Ottoline Morrell. Dinner at Gosse’s. At 1.45 a.m. bed.

With Marsh Sassoon was discussing the proofs of his next book; with Ross it was “gallant efforts to keep our spirits up” in the best Victorian style (Ross had been the staunch friend of Oscar Wilde), and we might assume that dinner with Edmund Gosse was a more staid affair. And then there is tea, too, and the mention of Lady Ottoline Morrell (the Dorothy Brett portrait I don’t have, alas).

Sassoon–far from famous but no longer unknown–is now at the confluence of several literary streams. Marsh, of course, remains secretary to Winston Churchill (who is in the political wilderness, now) and the force behind Georgian Poetry and all things Brooke and Brookeish. Ross, who was openly gay in a time when that meant facing constant prejudice and the threat of prosecution, provided entree into gay life in London, about which Sassoon does not write. Gosse was highly respected, and although he too repressed homosexual desires he was an older family man–and an old friend of Sassoon’s family–and he represented a Victorian literary mode that even non-revolutionary types like Sassoon must have found rather stuffy.

And the there is Ottoline Morrell. Lady Ottoline was an influential, off-beat society figure whose various interests tilted much younger and more Modern than any of Sassoon’s other friendly patrons–she will come to patronize several other notable artists and writers. But much more important, now, is the fact that she is an outspoken pacifist.

Sassoon had spent a good deal of time at her house during the difficult-to-date middle period of his convalescent leave in the early autumn, and there he learned… well… influence is always difficult to pin down. Sassoon is always the first to acknowledge his own impressionability, but is it really a matter of his getting anti-war ideas from her circle? Not exactly. Even if he was not quite as putty-like as he would have us believe, this is not really a matter of ideas but rather of emotion. No one at Garsington Manor could teach Sassoon to hate the war, but they could model attitudes of expressing this hatred… So: is the Bohemian glamor of openly criticizing the war pushing Sassoon further off-kilter, further away from any comfort with his Mad Jack/Happy Warrior persona? Surely. But Sassoon–in retrospect, again–is also able to recognize the self-centeredness of this anti-war turn.

Distraction of a different character was provided by Lady Ottoline, with whom I spent two whole afternoons which were by no means beneficial to my state of mind… Lady Ottoline insisted on being intensely earnest and discursive. She was obsessed by what she felt to be the brutal stupidity and imbecile wastefulness of the War, and my own return to it had involved her in a crisis of emotional depression.This caused me to talk recklessly, with a sort of victimized bitterness. I should probably get killed, I said; but the main trouble was that I no longer new what I was being killed for. ‘One gets sent out again like a cabbage going to Covent Garden Market,’ I exclaimed, adding that cabbages were better off, because they didn’t claim to have unconquerable souls, and weren’t told that they were making a supreme sacrifice for the sake of unborn vegetables. These discussion led neither of us anywhere…[3]

So the later memoir, well-polished in its sheepish sloughing off of youthful confusions…

As for today’s diary entry, there is nothing else in Sassoon’s own voice. But immediately after the entry he copies in three (of four) stanzas of a Thomas Hardy poem.

Let me enjoy the earth no less
Because the all-enacting Might
That fashioned forth its loveliness
Had other aims than my delight.

From manuscripts of moving song
Inspired by scenes and dreams unknown
I’ll pour out raptures that belong
To others, as they were my own.

And some day hence, towards Paradise
And all its blest — if such should be —
I will lift glad, afar-off eyes
Though it contain no place for me.

So, come what may, he will write, in the manner of his coming dedicatee. And after that, an anticipatory list:

Books taken to France

Shakespeare’s Tragedies
Hardy’s Dynasts
Hardy’s (Golden Treasury) Poems
Conrad, Nostromo and A Set of Six
Lamb’s Essays and Letters (selection)
Chaucer, Canterbury Tales[4]

This book list hardly seems to fit with the witty Georgian-Modern literary London scene in which Sassoon spent his leave. But it does show the poet on a more steady trajectory than he might want us to see. Is he really blown hither and yon by the brave ideas of all his witty and passionate friends? Or is he on course?

Sassoon will bring Hardy to France, he is dedicating his poems to Hardy, he is copying Hardy into his notebook, and instead of scoffing at patriotic effusion or objecting to it on humanist grounds, he is preparing an unflinchingly satiric attack that seems like a plausible imitation of what Hardy might have been as an angry young man. Before leaving Liverpool, Sassoon had attended a show at the Hippodrome–he had a good time, he thinks (this is the later, ironic voice, not the coiled satirist of early 1917)–but he fantasized about seeing a tank come charging down the stalls of the music hall, crushing the ignorant home-front jingoists…

So he’s working on a poem to that effect, and the full-protest Sassoon who will emerge this year is quite recognizable even now. He is inspired by Hardy, not by any Georgian poet, and he is unwilling to be modest (surely an all-but-essential precursor to poetic achievement). But he’s not being fair… he has never seen a tank and he has spent more time over the past six months fox hunting and golfing than in military tasks… but then again he is going back, now. I’ll let the voice of the memoir have the last word:

The situation was too complex for the shy and callow young man I was on that dreary February afternoon.[5]


So we’ve had a lot of writing, today, and some turmoil–but all with very little war in it. And we haven’t heard from Rowland Feilding in a while… so, let’s.

Colonel Feilding is not the sort of man to be easily led into off-balance opinions or to criticize without carefully considering his own position and responsibilities. But he has promised utter honesty in his letters to his wife, and he does not hide his feelings about the grim reach of the war. This short letter, though devoid of “victimized bitterness,” becomes an accidentally effective commentary on the “imbecile wastefulness” of the war.

February 11, 1917. Kemmel Shelters.

I returned to the battalion last evening, and found that the enemy had been shelling my battalion in Camp. It is in Divisional Reserve—training in a safe (!) place. Four have been killed and nine wounded, and the huts so badly
smashed that two Companies have had to be moved elsewhere.

The place was properly knocked about, and it was a surprising bit of shelling, too, seeing that the huts were unusually well hidden in a wooded depression, in the lee of Mount Kemmel, and screened by the protection which that steep hill affords. Personally, I could have sworn that these huts, at any rate, would have been safe from bombardment.

But no place is safe…[6]


References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary (Childhood), 161.
  2. Selected Letters, 135-6.
  3. Siegfried's Journey, 46. The "cabbage" line may have been uttered this week, a century back, but he will record it in a few days time in his diary as if it had come to him then...
  4. Diaries, 131.
  5. Siegfried's Journey, 47.
  6. War Letters to a Wife, 150.

Will Harvey’s Unreasonable Escapade; Rosenberg Among the Poets

Yesterday, the 2/5th Gloucestershires took over a new front-line sector. With a prominent hedge in no man’s land, it seemed like the sort of place that could possibly be reconnoitered by daylight more safely than at night. Today, a century back, Will Harvey–experienced in these matters as a soldier but perhaps over-eager to prove his bona fides as a new 2nd Lieutenant–decided that he would try his luck, all on his own initiative…

On August 17 it occurred to me during my ‘rest period’ that, as I know nothing of the ground we were to patrol that night, I might as well go out and have a look at it. Long unburned grass between the trenches afforded plenty of cover, and it is common knowledge that the hours between two and five were the quietest period of the day alike for German soldiers and English…  I decided to go alone. My company officer had gone off somewhere down the line, taking the other subaltern with him, so I woke up a corporal asleep in a dug-out, informed him of my intentions, and instructed him to warn the sentries, and to replace the wire after me in the sally-port. Then I started.

After leaving the trench, I went crawling along in shadow do the hedge… I carried an automatic pistol.

Harvey nears the German trench and satisfies himself that there are no troublesome listening posts nearby: this may be an outpost trench that is not ordinarily manned..

If I had had a man with me I should now have gone back, but I was beginning to be rather pleased with myself…

Shell-hole by shell-hole I worked my cautiously to a little ditch… edging my way, I came at last into the projected shadow of the parapet, where I lay… There was not a sound…

I wriggled up a little higher and looked quickly over the top of the trench. There was nobody there.

Reason told me at this point that I would be better to go back. What a little thing in human life is reason!

Harvey now hopes to obtain some souvenir as proof of his escapade. The idea is that this will prove to the men who will come out on patrol with him later that they have nothing to fear. So he drops down into the German trench.

It is easier to get into a German trench than to get out. I had barely reached the next bay, which was also empty, when I heard footsteps, and a good many of them, coming along behind me. If I turned back to find my hole in the wire I ran the risk of meeting those feet before I got to it. It seemed better to go on…

Nowhere in the parados was there any sign of an exit. The feet were getting nearer. I continued to walk down the trench before them, looking quickly to the right and left for cover. Then, at the end of the bay, I caught sight of a small iron shelter. It was the only place. I approached it swiftly, and was hurrying in when two hefty Germans met me in the doorway. I was seized. My pistol was wrenched away. There was no escape possible…

It is a strange thing, but to be made prisoner is undoubtedly the most surprising thing that can happen to a soldier. It is an event which one has never considered, never by any chance anticipated.

Yet prisoners are taken pretty frequently. I has myself collared a man the year before on patrol…

Yet now I was dumbfounded.

Dumbfounded, and bound and blindfolded as well, Harvey was taken several miles back behind the lines, where he was interrogated by a German military police officer. Although Harvey refused to give any information about British dispositions in the area, it soon became clear that this German officer knew a good deal more them than he did.

It will be rather a while before we hear from Harvey again.[1]


And Isaac Rosenberg got at letter into the mail today, a century back. Rosenberg may have begun as an outsider, but any connection to Eddie Marsh exerts a gravitational pull, and tightens one’s orbit down toward the still-holding center. Now Rosenberg is corresponding with Gordon Bottomley and Laurence Binyon, and soaking up their advice:

My Dear Marsh,

…G. Bottomley sent me ‘King Lears Wife’. I do think it magnificent as a play and some stunning poetry in it too. There are few men living who could whack that as a play. We are kept pretty busy now, and the climate here is really unhealthy; the doctors themselves cant stand it. We had an exciting time today, and though this is behind the firing line and right out of the trenches there were quite a good many sent to heaven and the hospital I carried one myself in a handcart to the hospital, (which often is the antichamber to heaven.)

Binyon wrote me a letter about Moses with the paternal rod half raised in one hand and some sweets and chocolates in the other. But it was a letter I feel grateful for and very good criticism. He says my poetry comes out in clotted gushes and spasms. He has been to France and is back in England now. Write me if you get time as you know a letter (especially Strakers Stationary) is a bit—a very tiny bit like London.


I Rosenberg[2]


References and Footnotes

  1. From Harvey's account in Comrades in Captivity, quoted at length in Boden, F.W. Harvey, 125-31.
  2. Letters, 311-12.

Frank Richards on a Glorious but Too-Quiet Night; Francis Ledwidge Meets an Afflicter of Poets; Alan Seeger Anticipates New Masterpieces of More Rare Romance; Is Noel Hodgson a Model Poet?

Today the 2nd Royal Welch–currently poetless, but with Frank Richards among the signallers–moved up to the line. Dr. Dunn’s collective chronicle is now turned over to a lengthy narrative from Captain Blair of B Company:

Late in the evening we moved off ti take over Givenchy Left… That march in the waning of the long twilight will linger in memory: we seemed to linger in step, so soothing was the beauty and tranquility of the midsummer night. The sky was flawless but for deep flounce of fleecy, dove-coloured cloud… The whole front was unwontedly restful, not even a distant gun broke the stillness.[1]

If that foreshadowing isn’t blinding enough, here’s Richards:

Late in June we relieved a battalion of the Hertfordshire Regiment in the Givenchy trenches. One of their signallers informed me that they had a very quiet time and that during the last four fays there hadn’t been a dozen casualties in the whole of their battalion. I thought it very strange…

About 11 p.m. I strolled along our front line and arrived at B Company trenches. All company signallers with the exception of B had dug-outs and I found the three signallers of B sitting on the fire-step with their D3 telephone, doing a good old soldiers’ grouse…  I made them grouse a bit more when I told them what a grand dug-out we had… It was a glorious summer’s night, but much too quiet for my liking.[2]

We’re only a few hours away from sudden violence, but we will wait until the calendar page turns…


Francis Ledwidge has long been a man in the middle–socially, psychologically, and politically. It is frustrating, to say the least, to be an Irish patriot in a British regiment during the rising, but his only gesture had been to bridle at an obnoxious English officer and overstay his leave. Since the leave had been delayed by travel restrictions in the aftermath of the rising, this was an an act of symbolic defiance. Or so he viewed it.

Ledwidge’s patron, the Anglo-Irish Lord Dunsany, remembered the incident differently, however:

Ledwidge was not in my Company, and I was glad of that, for his movements had a little of the unpredictable nature of will-o-the wisps roaming bogs of the land that he loved; as you might expect of a poet in a lance-corporal’s uniform. One day he had a bit of a night out, and I was too much annoyed to feel very sympathetic about the trouble in which it landed him, for it looked as if he was almost deliberately harming his own prospects. Being a lance-corporal, and not a private soldier, it landed him in a court-martial; and I said to Major Willock, who was president of the court-martial, “You will go down to posterity as an afflicter of poets.” Major Willock was quite distressed but found no way of avoiding sentencing Ledwidge to lose his lance-corporal’s stripe.[3]

Is Dunsany mildly embarrassed that he can’t help his protegé, or does he suppress the nationalist angle? “Afflicter of Poets” is a good line, anyway…

Here, in any event is a rather relevant poem by Ledwidge, describing the court martial:

After Court Martial

My mind is not my mind, therefore
I take no heed of what men say.
I lived ten thousand years before
God cursed the town of Nineveh.

The Present is a dream I see
Of horror and loud sufferings,
At dawn a bird will waken me
Unto my place among the kings.

Dramatic–but the loss of his rank was a relatively minor punishment. Given the circumstances, this relatively common indiscretion might have been punished more harshly.

In any event, Private Ledwidge does not seem terribly perturbed, writing today, a century back, to his friend Bob Christie.

21st June 1916

My dear Bob,

Very many thanks for your letter and copies of poems. The poem ‘Where be to be ups and downs, etc.’ is charming. I wish I could tell you how much it delights me…

…I am busy enough writing away, as ideas will keep coming on…[4]


Another poet who came to the war before most of his countrymen is Alan Seeger, our American in the Foreign Legion. Today, a century back, he is once more on the move.

June 21, 1916. Left our quiet sector in the centre this morning, relieved by a territorial regiment. Have marched here to a little village in the rear. Tomorrow take the train for an unknown destination. Fine hot summer weather. The big attacks will come soon now. Wish us good success. It is very exciting to be on the move at last, and I am happy and contented. I return you the Tennyson, to lighten my sack. … I am twenty-eight years old tomorrow.

Off to battle, Seeger encloses his most recent poem. The birthday boy and occasional hard-case seems as far from disillusionment as the most bloody-minded general could hope. Seeger doubles down on his youthful enthusiasm–his sack may be lighter, but Tennyson is still with him:

Clouds rosy-tinted in the setting sun,
Depths of the azure eastern sky between,
Plains where the poplar-bordered highways run.
Patched with a hundred tints of brown and green,
Beauty of Earth, when in thy harmonies
The cannon’s note has ceased to be a part,
I shall return once more and bring to these
The worship of an undivided heart.
Of those sweet potentialities that wait
For my heart’s deep desire to fecundate
I shall resume the search, if Fortune grants;
And the great cities of the world shall yet
Be golden frames for me in which to set
New masterpieces of more rare romance.[5]


Now here’s an interesting “what if:” Charlotte Zeepvat, biographer of Noel Hodgson, notes that Hodgson’s battalion crossed paths today, a century back, with a soon-to-be-famous footnote of the Somme battle.

Yesterday the 8th Devonshires had marched back from the line to billets in Meaulte, where their brigade had its headquarters. There Hodgson’s mail caught up with him and he learned that he had become an uncle. Today, a century back, he wrote happily home to the new mother, his sister Stella:

Dear Star,–

The great news has just arrived. Splendid, old lady, I am tremendously bucked; heartiest of all welcomes to the wee maid, and I hope I may not be long before I see her myself. Her beauty won‘t be apparent yet, but of course she will be beautiful, and she cannot help being good.

What is her ladyship to be called? I suggest Audrena, as one of her names, and Baldwin has its merits. Thomasina I cannot recommend honestly, nor Tookey, but you may be of a different opinion.

She isn’t as big as mother yet, I suppose, nor as intelligent of course. Dad asserts her to be dark haired but I accept it with reserve.

Anyway, best of luck to you and her from affect. brother and Uncle


The same day that Hodgson wrote this giddy note, he may have seen “a contoured model in plasticene…made by Captain Martin, 9th Devonshire Regt. showing the whole area to be attacked by the 20th Infantry Brigade.” Many of the brigade officers were shown the model, and the brigade major invited all companies to arrange tours beginning tomorrow. If not today, then, we can probably assume that Hodgson will view the model anon, although he does not mention it directly.

“Uncle” Hodgson–a new nickname to add to “Smiler”–shall have seen, then, an accurate representation of Fricourt Wood, Fricourt Farm, Railway Alley, Fritz Trench, Bright Alley. The model will become a “part of the folklore of the Somme.”

Martin, it is said, went home on leave worried about the danger his men would face. He studied the map, becoming convinced that a machine gun sited at a shrine in the village cemetery would cut down his battalion as they advanced through Mansel Copse.

So he made a relief model of the battlefield to demonstrate the danger, took it back to France and showed it to his fellow officers. But when he attempted to tell his superiors they dismissed the idea, secure in their belief that the British bombardment would obliterate everything in its path.[6]

Or so the story goes. As Zeepvat notes, there is an accretion of legend here, since the records show that the brigade, at least, saw the model as a useful tool. But we get ahead of ourselves–battle stories do not go back to before their beginnings until long after they have begun…


References and Footnotes

  1. The War the Infantry Knew, 209.
  2. Richards, Old Soldiers Never Die, 166-7.
  3. Patches of Sunlight, 195.
  4. Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 161-3.
  5. Letters and Diary, 208-9.
  6. Zeepvat, Before Action, 185-7.

Siegfried Sassoon Casts a Colorful Spell; Francis Ledwidge Puts his Trust in the Lord; John Ronald Tolkien’s Road Begins; Raymond Asquith on the Joys of Marching and the Charms of the French

Rather a potpourri today. We begin with Siegfried Sassoon making like Frederick the Mouse, and laying in a store of colors for the winter ahead.

June 2

Up on the redoubt last night, between 10 and 11, the whole horizon winked incessantly with gunfire and shells bursting. Guns banged and boomed, red lights went up; quite a cheery show: Marching up to Bécordel on a working party at 7.30 this evening there was a very red sunset: the light streamed across the quiet green land and my party of men were moving in a crimson glare and glow–the dust was crimson-gold, it was a light most beautiful and blood-red and we were all in it. Afterwards a purple flush lay on the green slopes westward, and the tall trees stood up against a flaming orange sunset. Purple dusk came on, while the men lay on a bank by the roadside. Two limbers with six horses in each rattled by and the spell was broken.[1]


My own rather predictable version of the sonneteer’s hammer blow is, of course, to juxtapose the prettiest of reveries with a grim report from a shattered trench. Or, in this case, from Kate Luard in her Casualty Clearing Station just behind those shattered trenches:

Friday, June 2nd. It has been a ghastly day. The train came in the afternoon and all who could possibly get to the Base alive, and all who had been waiting for the train were packed up and put on…

Jack died at half-past ten last night, and three abdominals: this time they have been the most appalling shell wounds I’ve ever seen–how they get here alive I don’t know.[2]


And between these extremes is the usual business of modern warfare: many men moving about. First, Raymond Asquith, recently returned to a line battalion after a detested stint in intelligence at G.H.Q.

3rd Grenadier Guards,
2 June 1916

. . . On Thursday I rose at 5 a.m. and the battalion marched off at 7.30. We went about 20 miles over hot hard dusty roads under a brilliant sun and one got nothing to eat or drink between 6 in the morning and 3 in the afternoon. Considering how little exercise I have had these last 3 months I was surprisingly little tired and hardly at all footsore. A long march is really more boring than tiring, provided one is going light. Our late C.O. used to make the officers carry packs but this one mercifully doesn’t. It makes a vast difference…

This just in on the British Class System: when the noblesse are not obliged to lug their own kit around it is considerably easier on their feet!

…this morning I again rose at 5 and the whole Brigade with John Ponsonby at its head marched off another 10 miles to a large Franco-Flemish village where we now are and where there is about 1000 yds of uncultivated ground on which we are to dig trenches and practise popping the parapet.

We know Asquith well enough to know that “popping the parapet” is tongue-in-cheek–but still, it’s pretty good cheek.

Again a hot lovely day but a terribly slow and tedious march. But there is something rather majestic about the movement of a Brigade with all its 4 battalions and their transport and the drums playing. My Company led the whole Brigade (which occupies about 1 1/2 miles of road) and we marched past the G.O.C. 2nd Army in the square of a small town en route with great distinction and éclat…

A rare note of sincere enthusiasm for things military. This is actually a pretty good testament to the positive effects of marching. Yes, it’s to harden the feet and build up stamina, and yes, it’s the only way, a century back, to move large bodies of men from one place to another. But it’s also been suggested–quite plausibly–that nothing builds a sense of corporate pride as much as joint rhythmic activity. The pseudo-dance of close-order drill (long obsolete as training for actual battlefield behavior) is best, but marching works too.[3]

So Asquith is in a good mood, then? Assuredly.

The French—what is left of them—are really too beastly. The population consists entirely of invalid old women who are incredibly timid, inhospitable, prejudiced, audacious and obstinate.

After marching for 2 days one gets rather irritable when the solitary inhabitants of large empty houses refuse to let one have a chair to sit down on or a bath to eat one’s caviare off. There are many of these rheumatic old bitches I would gladly throw to the Boches.

I believe we shall be here till the 18th, then back to our camp for a week or so and then the trenches again…[4]


We have a letter today as well from Francis Ledwidge, back–better late than never–at his regimental barracks in Derry.

5 Co., Ebrington Barracks,
Derry. 2nd June 1916

My dear Bob,

I have not much news for you yet awhile. I got back here all right, and hope to work the oracle. My back is still bad, but the doctor gave me light duty today and tomorrow. That means, as you know, an hour’s standing and a backsheesh drink. Some day you will be writing to Mollie that all is well.

Remember me many times to your dear mother and father, nor forget to mention to your sisters and brothers-in-law that I wish to be remembered to them. I shall never forget your mother’s kindness to me, while, a self-invited guest, I stopped at your house. I won’t promise her a Turkish carpet as I did Mrs Carter, but I promise her a warm corner in my memory always.

This is all very well, but Ledwidge is a private soldier who went absent without leave after telling off an officer. And this is Ireland after the fall of the rising. Any worries?

…I had several letters here already, but then I should be here fourteen days ago and yet expect to be called upon for an account of my absence. But my trust is in Dunsany when he comes on Monday. I will write to you often letting you know my progress…

Now dear Bob remember me all around my new friends and tell your mother I actually cried in the train.[5]

Ledwidge, it would seem, is putting a little too much faith in the good Lord Dunsany. Get his poems published? Sure. But making such a serious offense go away–especially since Dunsany, despite his noble rank, does not seem to be close to the social heart of his regiment–is another matter altogether.


Finally, today, a telegram for John Ronald Tolkien. He is instructed to join the British Expeditionary Force in France, reporting to the Embarkation Staff Officer at Folkestone in three days time. His 48-hour “last leave” will officially begin tomorrow.[6]


References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 70.
  2. Unknown Warriors, 65.
  3. There's an interesting little book by the great historian William McNeill about this--Keeping Together in Time--which originates in his own experience drilling with the U.S. Army in the second war.
  4. Life and Letters, 265-6.
  5. Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 160-1.
  6. Chronology, 80.

Two Artists’ Rifles Going Nowhere: Wilfred Owen and Edward Thomas Pine for Leave

We spend today in dreary Romford (or en route thither), where both of our poets in the Artists’ Rifles–unbeknownst to each other–catch up on their letter-writing. Wilfred Owen will be writing to his mother, of course, but Edward Thomas produced three variously chatty letters to his friends. Some highlights:

His letter to Gordon Bottomley mostly concerns the selection and publication of Thomas’s poems. But there is an amusing little bit in which the poets have a snicker at the society types who–at times, but indifferently–sponsor them.

Have you been wishing you were one of Elizabeth Asquith’s great bards who performed to a guinea audience? The Observer says nothing about them & a lot about Lady So & So,————& Mrs What d’jecall.

Serves them right…

Yours ever,

Edward Thomas[1]

So that would be Elizabeth, daughter of the P.M. and socially precocious teenage half-sister to Raymond Asquith. This feeble archness might seem to be an indication that Thomas is rushing through the letter. But there’s subtext, here: this awkward reference to the matter of singing for one’s supper–especially in the vicinity of the government–seems to draw attention to the semi-subtle efforts by Thomas’s friends to secure some government patronage for him. Thomas, as ever, is prickly and conflicted…

In his letter to Walter de la Mare, Thomas first touches on the same general themes I’ve omitted from the letter to Bottomley, above: leaves and visits and how they are unlikely to happen. Then spring:

…There is still no leave to be had except on special grounds, but I hope to see you before long & to find the children unable to whoop. They should have some fine days on the coast. Here we are finding nests & expecting the cuckoo.

Yours ever,

Edward Thomas[2]

Nothing too controversial there–but we wouldn’t go two letters without a mention of some bird or another.

And Thomas’s letter to Eleanor Farjeon is, as so often, both less guarded and less… respectful. With her, too, he broaches the subject that he is too genteel (or passive-aggressive) to discuss directly with de la Mare: the prospect of some sort of Civil List award or pension, in recognition of his writing.

16 iv 16

My dear Eleanor,

Thank you for the typed copies of Baba’s verses. I am on my way back to camp now after an unexpected week end. Unexpected but struggled for. There is still no regular leave, and I fear no hope of Easter leave. Still, it might come off…

There is no news. We have had a poor week, with only one day’s real work, which is quite another thing from having a holiday, though we did spend most of the time out of doors, doing no more work than we liked. It makes us feel unnecessary, and also helps the bad impression they have of us map-readers as truants, which we don’t want to maintain…

Things are moving in connection with the Civil List. But the opinion is that I am too young for a pension. A grant seems more possible. They are collecting letters from the great on my behalf.

How are you now?

Yours ever,

Edward Thomas[3]


Wilfred Owen is unaccountably much the busier (or more bustling) of the two would-be officers. Two days back, he reported on his progress:

Wed. [14 April 1916] Y.M.C.A. [Romford]

Dearest Mother,

I have a few minutes. They shall be Yours.

Yesterday we had an Oral Exam, in the form of an Interview with a no. of Officers. Apparently I made a satisfactory impression. I answered successfully the 3 Questions put to me. We also had another Written Exam, in which I have done pretty well, being above the average, and top of my Room. I can never beat a young blood of 17, but as he is going into the Scots Guards, and the Army is his family profession I am not annoyed…

Owen’s letters are, thus, usually limited to descriptions of his own activities and inquiries about his family. Today, however, he too admits to camaraderie. A nascent “characters of the company” piece, then:

I was suddenly struck the other day to realize that my Section, thrown together by pure chance, contains some desirable fellows. First Muff-Ford, Artist: then a Journalist & Reporter, then an Actor, now well established, tho’ quite young, and taking no end of money. He has promised me a job after the War…

Then Briggs, of the 5th Manchester, chemical student at Leeds. He is quite my closest chum: a boy of admirable industry, in work, inquiring mind, a hater of swank, malice, and all uncharitableness, and very Provincial.

This spark King, poetical aspirant. Public School Exhibitioner in Classics, sportsman, gamester, wag, has something of a ‘Set’ about him. I am partly of them, but my variable moods, and relapses into solemnity, won’t do for them.

There are rumours of Week-end Leave…

Today, a century back, Owen’s chatter is all of this potential leave…

Sunday, 16 April 1916 Romford

My Dearest Mother,

Very many thanks for the Letter received on Friday, which duly—or unduly—enclosed 10s. This I have not yet cashed but during next week hope to do away with it at one blow, and more than that, because there is a promise of 4 days Leave to 50% of the School. Preference is given to married men, and such as live at a distance. I am almost certain to get it… Shall I come home?

…There is no change in our position, and no foreknowledge of events when we ‘leave School’. Still there, is every reason to think that the Gazette will follow immediately after it.

“The Gazette” indicating, here, the award of a commission to officer cadet Owen. This is–and has been, since he volunteered–Owen’s immediate career goal: to be an officer, holding His Majesty’s commission. This would also represent–although these traditional terms are changing, under the enormous pressure to expand Britain’s historically small army, faster than society can quite acknowledge–a social achievement. Owen’s mother Susan has a firm and fixed idea of her family’s decayed gentility, and for her eldest to become an officer would be a significant reparation of family status.

Depend upon it I shall bestir myself to obtain this Leave, and heavily exaggerate the distance from here to Shrewsbury. Ah! The long time it seems since I saw you I cannot exaggerate. We said ‘Till Easter’ and till Easter it shall be; though I lie knavishly to the Orderly Room, and under the seat of a carriage all the way.[4]


References and Footnotes

  1. Letters of Edward Thomas to Gordon Bottomley, 265.
  2. Poet to Poet, 219.
  3. Farjeon, Edward Thomas..., 194.
  4. Collected Letters, 390-2.

Edward Thomas has a Bad Day in London; Ivor Gurney Defends Perfection; Vera Brittain Mourns as Guinevere

Edward Thomas has been fortunate in his leave-attainings, getting several days around Christmas and now New Year’s Day as well. Or less than fortunate, depending on how you look at it.

Christmas at home with his reunited family was nice, but he returned to a reorganized Hare Hall Camp, finding himself head of a new hut with responsibilities for training new recruits. He wrote to Robert Frost that “[w]e rather dread losing the freedom of the last 2 months.” As for his New Year’s Day leave in London, well, it went from bad to worse. Thomas spent the morning with several fellow poets, and ended up tangling with the influential Harold Monro, proprietor of the Poetry Bookshop and recent host to his fellow Artist Wilfred Owen:

It will be a good thing if I don’t see Monro again. He seems to delight in expressing opinions that he knows won’t please me, just for the sake of perhaps asserting himself…

Thomas has more poets’ gossip for Frost, but then he went from poetry to family, and from needling nastiness to outright anger. What follows sounds like a most unhappy version of the one-sided argument he recently turned into verse.

In turn I saw my father too,–he made me very sick. He treats me so that I have a feeling of shame that I am alive… Nothing much happened. We argued about the war & he showed that his real feeling when he is not trying to be nice & comfortable is one of contempt. I know what contempt is & partly what I suffered was from the reminder that I had probably made Helen feel exactly the same. I came more drearily back to camp than ever before. I shall recover, but it makes a difference & I am inclined not to see him again for a time.[1]

This unsparing realization about one troubled relationship and another is… terrible. In theory I am opposed to making hay with writers’ personal lives–with, that is, something as private and troubled as Helen and Edward Thomas’s marriage. The bad relationship with the father we can almost handle–this is a distant Victorian man with unsavory political opinions, a distant presence hardly mentioned in Thomas’s recent letters or the memoir of his boyhood, an ogre to be escaped. Conflict of the generations! But to see Thomas recognize the recapitulation of the cruelty in his own behavior to his loving wife is very sad.

Helen and Edward Thomas got married because they had to–she was pregnant. Many hard times followed, and I don’t think Edward is reproving himself for being distant, or for pursuing too much badly paid work, or for taking off on weeks-long writing jaunts with his friends, or for leaving her to cope with the three children, the keeping of several remote and primitive (and scenic!) houses, and work to make ends meet. He is reproving himself for being cruel and, it would seem, for thinking little of his wife’s intellect.

And yet I am inclined to forgive him, to praise the insight and sigh away the contempt. For one bad reason and one perhaps acceptable one: because Thomas has struggled with deep and debilitating depression, and if Helen was its collateral damage, he suffered the direct hit; and because she did, again and again.

But, you know, back to camp, and the agonies of deciding whether to be an officer, and where, and how…


Ivor Gurney is another one of our illustrious pre-Ghosts. As with Ralph Mottram, few but local enthusiasts or deep readers of the literature of the war will have any idea who he is. Yet he has turned up here from time to time–no doubt frustrating regular readers who are trying to keep the other twenty writers straight–in token of an important presence in future posts. Gurney is the gentle Gloucestershire lad from humble circumstances who had felt compelled to give up his scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music (he is already both a composer and a poet) and enlist.

Gurney’s fortunes will vary, but he has been very lucky in one friend, Marion Scott. Scott–to whom Gurney wrote many letters, including the one below–was a pioneering professional woman musician, a poet, and a prolific music critic and musicologist. She had studied at the Royal Academy and remained very active in aiding and abetting its members, and she had adopted Gurney–a young man who often seemed to others as if he could use aid and guidance–as a protegé soon after his arrival. Gurney is not as poor as Rosenberg, for instance, but he is worse off in other ways. It’s really only the unusual gender situation that seems to prevent the word “patron” being applied. But Scott has taken on that role, providing unwavering moral support, expert advice, and well-considered gifts–not least assuring that his scholarship is held for him. (Money is not the core of the issues, anyway, for men who have joined up–they are fed and housed, however poorly. And it’s not as if our other young poets are getting fist-fulls of cash from the Eddie Marshes of the world, anyway).

1 January 1916
Pte Gurney, 2/5 Glosters

Dear Miss Scott: Thank you very much for your presents–the first of which was perfect; the second I am only regretful to have because most of the extracts are taken from the “Path to Rome”, a book I have read. But very much “Thank you”!

…You shall have the songs right enough; but I hope to get leave in a little while, and to rummage them out, and perhaps retouch them. Would a fortnight be too long? If so, you shall have them before…

Please let me have the Poetry Book when you have done with it. The markings were, almost, random guesses, or things I knew to be good. I hope to know it better before opinionising. How good our younger writers are. It is arguable that we have no great writers, but how good a foundation for another Colossus is this fashion of writing in clear direct and coloured English verses containing, as a general thing, no moralising, no recommendations save to love life, and to seize on its sweet moments when possible, and to make as many as possible; and still more to make existence a many coloured thing of joy.

This must be the second volume of Georgian Poetry, which has fallen into so many of our hands over past month. Gurney–again, those keywords: gentle, rural–loves the Georgians, but he does not seem to recognize what they would like to draw attention to, namely that which is (somewhat) new in their work. He seems to see them as the heirs of the (gentle, rural) gauzily Romantic Victorian pseudo-medievalists. So Gurney’s Georgians are almost continuators of the pre-Raphaelite mood, belated 19th century men rather than the moderately progressive harbingers of the new. (As, again, they would see themselves, for the Georgians are generally unable to perceive David Jones quietly carving his way forward, let alone Pound and Eliot electing not to fight, in the captain’s tower or elsewhere.)

Still, for all that, this is a funny trio:

…And I really feel, begin to feel, competent at last to feel and express dissatisfaction with Shakespeare. A great step. W.S. is not perfect often, but how much of the greatest things is perfect. Let us leave perfection to Tennyson and William Morris—in lengthy things, I mean…

But here go I walking common ways;
Drab-souled things on every hand;
A sulky mist is all its haze . . . .
It’s very dead desert this land.

Although my expertise (googling the above, that is) does not permit certainty, these lines are Gurney’s own. They don’t seem to fit the rest of the letter, do they?

Here I will wish you a happy new Year, full of keen experiences, and quietly joyful times of fallowness.

May the War end soon, and let us dream again, but nobly and to active ends. May England grow dearer, sweeter in herself (for we deserve better weather and more amiable smiles) and in our memories. And may the President of the Women Musicians be preserved to sanity. With best wishes:

Yours very sincerely

Ivor Gurney[2]


Lastly, today, some brief extracts from a long, lost diary entry by Vera Brittain.

Saturday January 1st    Keymer

This day last year was the first New Year’s Day I had had with Him in my life. To-day is, the first New Year’s Day I have had with my life empty through he loss of Him. I am immeasurably richer than I was this day two years ago; I am incomparably poorer than I was this day last year. Clare and I went over to Brighton in the morning to see about her mourning [i.e. clothes] at a shop on the front. Brighton was terribly windy & garish & heartless & cold. The general air of indifference made me almost lose my temper, & I felt it would be impossible ever to go back there at all…

We went back by ’bus, which took quite an hour. We were glad of it, Clare & I, for we had the most intimate conversation we have ever had, and wept quite unashamedly at the beginning of it. I made her promise that if ever she wanted any help of any sort, or anything done for her, she would ask me–for I can gain nothing now in life except by giving, and, even as I would have given all to Him, would rather give to His nearest than to anyone else on earth.

It feels churlish to break in here, to condescendingly provide “context” to someone writing in fresh grief. But, like Robert Graves, I aim always to put my foot on the kitten–for the benefit of literary history, of course. Vera Brittain in grief sounds–at least today–younger and more reflexively Romantic than she did even in the happiest throes of young love. And I do mean the 19th century English sort of Romantic–in all its pre-Raphaelite perfection, as with Gurney, above. This sort of Capitalized Sentimentality may be jarring to our jaundiced eyes, yet it is natural, really, in this situation, to subside, overwhelmed, into childish comforts.

Which in this case involves seeing two other tragic mourners–the two bereft “musketeers” of Uppingham School–as knights in mourning:

Edward & Victor had already arrived when we reached the Crescent. They both looked tall and fine and knightly, with their handsome faces grave with sorrow–like courtiers without a king. Victor’s manner was still shy and abrupt, but his eyes were full of a sincerity and steadiness almost disconcerting; they seemed to arrest your very soul and make you wonder if you had committed any secret sins to render you unworthy of his scrutiny. I used to call Roland Sir Galahad, but the name suits Victor still better, for while both have the chevalier’s purity and uprightness of heart, Roland was too much of a leader for the rôle. Sir Galahad was like Victor–one who follows in simplicity and humility the ideal that is set before him.

Before they went we had the “Morning Hymn” on the gramophone. If anyone had told me that, I should ever cry openly before two lieutenants of the British Army I should not have believed it. But as it was, not only, I but they wept quite shamelessly as the music made more vivid our vision of how the world ended for what was–and still is–the most terribly dear of all things on earth. It calls up rather a different vision for me since I learnt the details of his death. I do not so much see him lying amid a heap of fallen soldiers with his white face upturned to the glory of the Eastern sky, and the Archangel in the Heavens with his wings spread protectingly over them. Now I see a small room in a Hospital, and a bed with all that remains of Him lying upon it; the few objects in the room are becoming faintly visible, and gradually filtering through the window with growing intensity the cold blue light of Dawn falls upon his dear dead face–upon the “queer bristly head” that rested against my shoulder–upon the closed beautiful eyes that I loved more than my soul–upon the firmly shut lips that I kissed in the first agonizing awakening of passion…[3]


References and Footnotes

  1. Elected Friends, 114-5.
  2. War Letters, 53-4.
  3. Chronicle of Youth, 301-2.

Alfred Hale Faces Conscription; Will Bim Tennant Help a Fellow Out?; Dorothie Feilding Has a Party; Greenmantle’s Hannay Makes Nice in Bavaria

Bim Tennant, the cheeriest cherub ever to serve as temporary Adjutant to a battalion of Foot Guards, writes breezily to his father today of mid-winter adjustments. There’s an interesting bit of business at the end, however:

29th December, 1915

Darling Daddy,

…Thank you very much for ordering the cigarettes, they will be greatly appreciated.

I am glad to hear you had good shooting with Sir Edward Grey and that David shot a woodcock. The weather here is not bad, fairly mild with no rain for two days, but I expect we shall get more soon. I spent a quiet Christmas day in the trenches…

The Adjutant went on leave last night, and so I again fill his post. Archie is on leave, and when he comes back Copper Seymour will go. I expect we shall be out of the trenches for some time now. Cavan has got the 14th Corps, and has taken the Division with him, to our joy ; and we shall go south to the 3rd Army. We shall be within week-end leave distance of Paris, which will be pleasant…

I am sitting in Battalion Headquarters writing this, the Commanding Officer is writing at the same table… Our Battalion Headquarters here is very comfortable being a red brick house hitherto (thank Heaven) untouched by shell, though it is within rifle range of the German line. It is in a slight dip, among trees.

Now I must stop. With best love to all at Glen.

Ever your loving Son,


Arthur Fawcett wrote asking me to get his brother Gerald a commission in the Army Service Corps, could you have a try?[1]

That last provides an interesting segue–the A.S.C. is, you know, honorable service. Except not really, or not in the eyes of proud or aggressive front line soldiers. It’s safer, less prestigious work. And those who seek it are often suspected of simple (or not so simple cowardice). They want to be in uniform, but they would, like, if possible, to avoid the misery and danger of the trenches…


Alfred Hale, a gentle, fastidious, musical, single, thirty-nine-year-old gentleman of means (and part-time special constable), has had only one thing on his mind at late: the possibility of conscription, much talked about since the failure at Loos. Yesterday, a century back, the British cabinet agreed that conscription would begin early in the coming year. Or, as Hale put it,

The government announced their intention of applying compulsion to all single men who had not attained the age of 41 years. I was staying at Bristol at the time with my father and mother, having spent Christmas with them, and I left for London, I rather think, the day this announcement was reported in the Press. I recollect I travelled up to Paddington with my nerves on edge at the prospect that was staring me in the face. A wounded officer and sergeant discussed the matter in the train going up. The sergeant was all for compulsion at once for everybody… The officer agreed, and said, ‘We must positively get those single men’. I felt inclined to ask what the married men had done that they should be let off, but I could not utter a word. I could only shrink into the corner of the compartment, a nervous wreck about it all…

I tossed about all that night and the next on my sleepless bed at the Arts Club. I saw in cruel waking visions the impossible camp life. There would be, I felt sure, should I not break down and die of it, my utter failure to bear the drill and to fall into the ways that are military, and it would all culminate in my being sentenced to be shot for neglect of a duty I could not possibly carry out, try as I would. This would happen when I got into the trenches. In many cases men of my temperament committed suicide rather than face the recruiting authorities…[2]

Surely some men did (And it is all too horribly true that men who broke down near the front lines were all too often executed). But they did not write memoirs–especially memoirs in which the nominative first person singular pronoun appears fourteen times in two short paragraphs…  It will be some time before we hear more regularly from Hale, but he does, as you see, lend a very different perspective to events.


Lady Feilding has been having quiet times, of late, at her ambulance post in Belgium. Today, a century back, having learned that her mother’s plan to visit her husband (Dorothie’s father) on active service in Egypt has fallen through, Lady Feilding has an invitation. And then she attends a party, of course.

At the Broquevilles’
Dec 29th
Mother deah–

I have a beautiful & lovely plot I have hatched, to make up for your not having gone to see Da. It is that you & Squeaker come & see me!! Pa Broqueville & I have arranged it all…

A decidedly un-flighty five point plan follows (it will not, alas, come to fruition).

Won’t that be nice now? So mind you do it. I should love to do you the honours of No 14 & so would Helene & I would love to give little Squeaks a little jaunt to make up for Egypt falling thro’…

Tomorrow’s letter gives us a taste of the high life–and a subsidiary royalty sighting.

dorothie and Dr. Jellet

Lady Feilding and Dr. Jellet

Had a great supper party here last night, Alexander of Teck, [Admiral] Hely d’Oissel, Halahan & Jelly [i.e. the doctor] & I & Charles [the dog].

Had a very fine supper as the Gen brought us asparagus & someone sent us foie gras for Xmas. Helena very ‘emue’ [emotional] at Teck coming & nearly chucked a fit whenever she met him, & was horrified because he insisted on doing butter & carrying out the dirty plates!

It was quite a joke & he enjoyed himself, he’s a dear old boy & not at all pompous…[3]


Meanwhile, in the fictional Bavaria of Romance, Richard Hannay has been feverish and incapacitated for four days, hiding out in a very cheery, very Grimm forest cottage with a peasant woman and her children. Story time!

…on the evening of the fifth day—it was Wednesday, the 29th of December—I was well enough to get up. When the dark had fallen and it was too late to fear a visitor, I came downstairs and, wrapped in my green cape, took a seat by the fire.

As we sat there in the firelight, with the three white-headed children staring at me with saucer eyes, and smiling when I looked their way, the woman talked. Her man had gone to the wars on the Eastern front, and the last she had heard from him he was in a Polish bog and longing for his dry native woodlands. The struggle meant little to her. It was an act of God, a thunderbolt out of the sky, which had taken a husband from her, and might soon make her a widow and her children fatherless. She knew nothing of its causes and purposes, and thought of the Russians as a gigantic nation of savages, heathens who had never been converted, and who would eat up German homes if the good Lord and the brave German soldiers did not stop them. I tried hard to find out if she had any notion of affairs in the West, but she hadn’t, beyond the fact that there was trouble with the French. I doubt if she knew of England’s share in it. She was a decent soul, with no bitterness against anybody, not even the Russians if they would spare her man.

That night I realized the crazy folly of war. When I saw the splintered shell of Ypres and heard hideous tales of German doings, I used to want to see the whole land of the Boche given up to fire and sword. I thought we could never end the war properly without giving the Huns some of their own medicine. But that woodcutter’s cottage cured me of such nightmares. I was for punishing the guilty but letting the innocent go free. It was our business to thank God and keep our hands clean from the ugly blunders to which Germany’s madness had driven her. What good would it do Christian folk to burn poor little huts like this and leave children’s bodies by the wayside? To be able to laugh and to be merciful are the only things that make man better than the beasts.

The place, as I have said, was desperately poor. The woman’s face had the skin stretched tight over the bones and that transparency which means under-feeding; I fancied she did not have the liberal allowance that soldiers’ wives get in England. The children looked better nourished, but it was by their mother’s sacrifice. I did my best to cheer them up. I told them long yarns about Africa and lions and tigers, and I got some pieces of wood and whittled them into toys. I am fairly good with a knife, and I carved very presentable likenesses of a monkey, a springbok, and a rhinoceros. The children went to bed hugging the first toys, I expect, they ever possessed.[4]


References and Footnotes

  1. Letters, 98-9.
  2. The Ordeal of Alfred Hale, 30-1.
  3. Lady Under Fire, 128-9.
  4. Buchan, Greenmantle, 141-2.