Siegfried Sassoon Takes the Measure of His Foe

The big guns of pacifism–or, at least, of resistance to this war in its current form–have been called in to help Siegfried Sassoon. And the statement has been written… but not yet released. Sassoon hesitates. And although he will portray himself as putty in the hands of forceful intellects like Middleton Murray and, especially, Russell, his diary entry of today, a century back, makes it clear that he is girding himself and taking the measure of the opposition before he commits to his assault.

June 21

A long statement of the war-aims etc by Belloc in Land and Water leaves me quite unconvinced. He argues from the point of view of British rectitude: and it is that which I am questioning. Worst of all he argues on the assumption that ‘the next few months’ will bring a military decision; he has done this since 1915, so one cannot put much faith in him.

I am revolting against the war being continued indefinitely; I believe that Carson, Milner, Lloyd George and Northcliffe intend the war to continue at least two more years. To carry out the scheme of ‘crushing Kaiserism and Prussianism’ by means of brute force, the war must go on two more years.

The swirling mess of historical ironies here is impossible to untangle: Sassoon may be heading into conspiracy-theory territory, but he’s not quite wrong about anything he claims, and in fact his assessments are eminently sensible, and would have been shared by many realistic strategists. No one can make a real claim to having predicted the see-sawing effects of Russian collapse, American participation, and the catastrophic “success” of the German Spring offensive–just as no one could have predicted what became of “Kaiserism” after armistice and abdication.

What follows seems to be on much less solid ground–but that may be in part because none of it “became” history.

If they stated our terms definitely, once and for all, and those terms were the ones we went into the war to enforce, the German people would realise that they had been enforced, and would insist on the war being stopped…

It is obvious that nothing could be worse than the present conditions under which humanity is suffering and dying. How will the wastage and misery of the next two years be repaired? Will Englishmen be any happier because they have added more colonies to their Empire? The agony of France! The agony of Austria-Hungary and Germany! Are not those equal before God?[1]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 176-7.

Siegfried Sassoon’s Statement, “To Any Dead Officer;” Henry Williamson is Blighty Bound; Herbert Read’s Theories of Courage

Before we get to a statement–and a poem, and a memoir’s context for the two–we have two brief updates.

 

For the past week Henry Williamson has bounced about the hospitals of northern France. He believes that he has gotten a “whiff” of phosgene gas from German gas shells–but he may also just be sick, or run down. In any event, he finds it pleasant to be out of the line and hopes to be able to parlay the sick time into reassignment. In this he may well be lucky, as in the name of efficiency sick and wounded officers can no longer count on returning to their unit. Most fear and deplore this change, but Williamson (and probably his C.O. as well) would welcome it.

Dear Mother,

Please get those protectors for armpits in my new tunic at once–big ones under the lining–you probably know by this time that I am for England on the first boat which leaves any time… Mother, I thank God I am out of that inferno…

This hospital is a bon place–I live on champagne and fried plaice & chicken now!!

Love Willie.[1]

Williamson, whose intestinal health has long been an issue, can look forward to a lengthy recovery in Blighty…

 

Herbert Read is in rather a more bloody-minded state, and with sharper tales to tell. Or not: restraint in what he writes to Evelyn Roff is a point of pride–Read is a very purposeful sort, and he thinks twice about describing the war without a theoretical grasp of how such war tales might fit in with his theories of Modern literature. (He seems less concerned that a policy of mentioning, but not describing, certain experiences might not help their budding relationship flourish.)

Nevertheless, he has something to say, and it is the confirming converse of Williamson’s lonely experience: what makes it all worthwhile are the men. And what defines a man’s worth is the way in which he carries himself through danger.

15.vi.17

My present location is not too bad. We are now in the third week of our period in the line… and rather terrible days they were. But you can have no desire for me to ‘paint the horrors.’ I could do so but let the one word ‘fetid’ express the very essence of our experiences. It would be a nightmare to any individual, but we create among ourselves a wonderful comradeship which I think would overcome any horror or hardship. It is this comradeship which alone makes the Army tolerable to me. To create a bond between yourself and a body of men and a bond that will hold at the critical moment, that is work worthy of any man and when done an achievement to be proud of.

Incidentally my ‘world-view’ changes some of its horizons. I begin to appreciate, to an undreamt of extent, the ‘simple soul’. He is the only man you can put your money on in a tight corner. Bombast and swank carry a man nowhere our here. In England they are everything. Nor is the intellect not a few of us used to be so proud of of much avail. It’s a pallid thing in the presence of a stout heart. Which reminds me of one psychological ‘case’ which interests me out here: to what extent does a decent philosophy of life help you in facing death? In other words: Is fear a mental or a physical phenomenon? There are cases of physical fear–‘nerves,’ ‘shell-shock,’ etc. There are also certainly cases of physical courage… and there are, I think, men who funk because they haven’t the strength of will or decency of thought to do otherwise.

But I would like to think there was still another class (and I one of them) whose capacity for not caring a damn arose not merely from a physical incapacity for feeling fear, but rather from a mental outlook on life and death sanely balanced and fearlessly followed. But perhaps I idealize…[2]

Perhaps he does. Read has a good deal of trench experience by now, but he has not suffered the same sort of trench trauma–or string of losses of friends both fond and beloved–that has overburdened “Mad Jack” Sassoon. But it is an interesting break down of different types of courage–and an intelligent one. Cursed are dullards, blessed are the philosophers, strong of will–so it’s also a flattering one. But it asks no larger questions…

 

Today’s main event is Siegfried Sassoon‘s completion of a draft of his statement against the war.

It thus happened that, about midnight on the day my portrait was finished, I sat alone in the club library with a fair copy of the ‘statement’ before me on the writing-table. The words were now solidified and unalterable. My brain was unable to scrutinize their meaning any more. They had become merely a sequence of declamatory sentences designed to let me in for what appeared to be a moral equivalent of ‘going over the top’; and, at the moment, the Hindenburg Line seemed preferable in retrospect. For the first time, I allowed myself to reflect upon the consequences of my action and to question my strength to endure them. Possibly what I disliked most was the prospect of being misunderstood and disapproved of by my fellow officers. Some of them would regard my behaviour as a disgrace to the Regiment. Others would assume that I had gone a bit crazy. How many of them, I wondered, would give me credit for having done it for the sake of the troops who were at the Front? I had never heard any of them use the word pacifist except in a contemptuous and intolerant way, and in my dispirited mood I felt that my protest would have a pretty poor reception among them. Going to a window, I looked out at the searchlights probing the dark sky. Down below, the drone of London rumbled on. The streets were full of soldiers getting what enjoyment they could out of their leave. And there, on that sheet of paper under the green-shaded lamp, were the words I had just transcribed.

‘I believe that this war, upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest.’

This is the soon-to-be-famous opening of the published statement–I’ll include the rest when the newspapers get it. But Sassoon, using the privileges of the memoir writer, embeds the public breakthrough in a web of private doubt. Clean breaks and simple strong feelings are never to be his way…  Who is he doing this for, again?

To the soldiers it didn’t matter, one way or the other. They all wanted it to stop, but most of them would say that the Boches had got to be beaten somehow, and the best thing to hope for was ‘getting back to Blighty with a cushy wound’. Then I remembered that night, early in 1914, when I had been up in this room experiencing an emotional crisis in which I had felt that my life was being wasted on sport and minor poetry, and had imagined myself devoting my future to humanitarian services and nobly prophetic writings. On that occasion I had written some well-intentioned but too didactic lines, of which a fragment now recurred to me.

Destiny calls me home at last
To strive for pity’s sake;
To watch with the lonely and outcast,
And to endure their ache . . . .

Much had happened since then. Realities beyond my radius had been brought under my observation by a European War, which had led me to this point of time and that sheet of paper on the table. Was this the fulfilment of that feeble and unforeseeing stanza? . . . And somehow the workings of my mind brought me a comprehensive memory of war experience in its intense and essential humanity. It seemed that my companions of the Somme and Arras battles were around me; helmeted faces returned and receded in vision; joking voices were overheard in fragments of dug-out and billet talk. These were the dead, to whom life had been desirable, and whose sacrifice must be justified, unless the War were to go down in history as yet another Moloch of murdered youth…

I went back to the statement on the table with fortified conviction that I was doing right. Perhaps the dead were backing me up, I thought; for I was a believer in the power of spiritual presences. . . .

Well, how are things in Heaven? I wish you’d say,
Because I’d like to know that you’re all right.
Tell me, have you found everlasting day
Or been sucked in by everlasting night?

The words came into my head quite naturally. And by the time I went to bed I had written a slangy, telephonic poem of forty lines. I called it To Any Dead Officer, but it was addressed to one whom I had known during both my periods of service in France. Poignant though the subject was, I wrote it with a sense of mastery and detachment, and when it was finished I felt that it anyhow testified to the sincerity of my protest.

The dead officer is Orme/”Ormand” killed so recently in a pointless attack on the Hindenburg Line, his death described to Sassoon by Joe Cottrell. The poem, which Sassoon of the memoir would clearly prefer that we use to mark this day’s work, a century back, rather than the didactic “statement,” continues as follows:

For when I shut my eyes your face shows plain;
  I hear you make some cheery old remark—
I can rebuild you in my brain,
  Though you’ve gone out patrolling in the dark.
You hated tours of trenches; you were proud
  Of nothing more than having good years to spend;
Longed to get home and join the careless crowd
  Of chaps who work in peace with Time for friend.
That’s all washed out now. You’re beyond the wire:
  No earthly chance can send you crawling back;
You’ve finished with machine-gun fire—
  Knocked over in a hopeless dud-attack.
Somehow I always thought you’d get done in,
  Because you were so desperate keen to live:
You were all out to try and save your skin,
  Well knowing how much the world had got to give.
You joked at shells and talked the usual “shop,”
  Stuck to your dirty job and did it fine:
With “Jesus Christ! when will it stop?
  Three years … It’s hell unless we break their line.”
So when they told me you’d been left for dead
  I wouldn’t believe them, feeling it must be true.
Next week the bloody Roll of Honour said
   “Wounded and missing”—(That’s the thing to do
When lads are left in shell-holes dying slow,
  With nothing but blank sky and wounds that ache,
Moaning for water till they know
  It’s night, and then it’s not worth while to wake!)
Good-bye, old lad! Remember me to God,
  And tell Him that our politicians swear
They won’t give in till Prussian Rule’s been trod
  Under the Heel of England … Are you there? …
Yes … and the war won’t end for at least two years;
But we’ve got stacks of men … I’m blind with tears,
  Staring into the dark. Cheero!
I wish they’d killed you in a decent show.[3]

References and Footnotes

  1. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 163.
  2. The Contrary Experience, 97-8.
  3. Siegfried's Journey, 52-4; see also Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 373.

Ivor Gurney Declares for a New War Poet; Siegfried Sassoon Declares for an End to the War

Ivor Gurney wrote to Marion Scott once again today, a century back, with thanks for all her help in preparing his poems for publication. But it’s his reading that he really wants, once again, to discuss–and today he is reading a contemporary writer of note:

12 June 1917 (P)

My Dear Friend

You, of all my friends, write the most interesting letters…

I see Siegfried Sassoon has published now. Do try to see it, and if you can do so, spot a poem on the subject of a man unconscious from the time of his being wounded till he was in train in Blighty: then recognizing what part of the scheme of things he saw by the advertisements. It is very good…

Will people continue to write letters when Peace comes…?

Peace

I’ll write no letters in that happy season
When Peace illumes the world like the Sun’s Lamp.
Laziness will be in part the reason.
But — shall I pay a penny for a stamp?

No, no, it cannot be! And if some female
Is soft enough of head to lose her heart
To Me, she’ll have to settle as to the Mail
And pay for both. I’m damned if I shall start!

Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney[1]

 

So here’s an unusual irony. As Gurney writes light-heartedly of peace and praises a fellow soldier’s poems, that soldier is planning his counter-attack on the war. Siegfried Sassoon spent the weekend at Garsington, the home of Lady Ottoline Morrell, the most persistent anti-war voice among his friendly advisors. Today, back in London, she organized a lunch which included several of the most prominent dissenting voices in British politics: Morrell, H.W. Massingham, John Middleton Murry, and Bertrand Russell all lunched at the Eiffel Tower in Percy Street, an irresistible phalanx of advisors for the diffident poet and quondam hero of the trenches.

In the Memoir, which plays down Lady Ottoline’s influence (Sassoon is willing to portray himself as easily influenced, but he seems to prefer that Great Men do the influencing, and not eccentric noblewomen), it is Massingham/Markington who puts Sassoon/Sherston in the way of “Thornton Tyrrell,” i.e. Bertrand Russell.

‘You know him by name, I suppose?’

I was compelled to admit that I didn’t. Markington handed me Who’s Who and began to write a letter while I made myself acquainted with the details of Tyrrell’s biographical abridgment, which indicated that he was a pretty tough proposition. To put it plainly he was an eminent mathematician, philosopher, and physicist…

Most eminent. And now, too, the “great brain” of the anti-war movement.

In the Memoir, Sherston is soon taking tea with Tyrell, and angling for a place at his feet.

He asked for details of my career in the Army, and soon I was rambling on in my naturally inconsequent style. Tyrrell said very little, his object being to size me up. Having got my mind warmed up, I began to give him a few of my notions about the larger aspects of the War. But he interrupted my ‘and after what Markington told me the other day, I must say’, with ‘Never mind about what Markington told you. It amounts to this, doesn’t it — that you have ceased to believe what you are told about the objects for which you supposed yourself to be fighting?’ I replied that it did boil down to something like that, and it seemed to me a bloody shame, the troops getting killed all the time while people at home humbugged themselves into believing that everyone in the trenches enjoyed it.

Tyrrell poured me out a second cup of tea and suggested that I should write out a short personal statement based on my conviction that the War was being unnecessarily prolonged by the refusal of the Allies to publish their War Aims. When I had done this we could discuss the next step to be taken. ‘Naturally I should help you in every way possible,’ he said. ‘I have always regarded all wars as acts of criminal folly, and my hatred of this one has often made life seem almost unendurable. But hatred makes one vital, and without it one loses energy. ‘Keep vital’ is a more important axiom than ‘love your neighbour.’ This act of yours, if you stick to it, will probably land you in prison. Don’t let that discourage you.  You will be more alive in prison than you would be in the trenches.’

Mistaking this last remark for a joke, I laughed, rather half-heartedly. ‘No; I mean that seriously.’ he said. ‘By thinking independently and acting fearlessly on your moral convictions you are serving the world better than you would do by matching with the unthinking majority who are suffering and dying at the front because they believe what they have been told to believe…'[2]

So it goes for the angry, gentle, biddable George Sherston. In reality, a team of influential friends–we might call them co-conspirators–is nudging the diffident young officer and promising new pawn/defector toward his epistolary semi-martyrdom. Siegfried Sassoon may not have been an assertive man in such contexts, but neither was he a passive dupe. The rage is his, and the urge to make some sort of protest.

But his friends–or his friends and their friends, who flock, now, to this decorated, presentable, and writerly young officer because he represents an irresistible opportunity–give him the hard shove he needs. After all, his feelings toward the war began to turn more than a year ago when David Thomas was killed, and, without assiduous “help” he might drift from portrait-sitting into privately disillusioned cadet-training…

There is no time to waste, and Sassoon got to work. It was probably tonight, a century back, that another strange crossing of paths took place:

With [Middleton Murray] and Katherine Mansfield (of whose great talent as a story-writer I was still unaware) I spent a self-conscious sultry evening in a candle-lighted room in South Kensington. He was sympathetic and helpful in clarifying my statement and reducing it to a more condensed form. Katherine Mansfield was almost silent. The only thing I can remember her saying was ‘Do you ever think about anything except the war?” Nothing now remained but to make a fair copy and take it to Bertrand Russell, who had undertaken to act as my impresario…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters, 166-8.
  2. Complete Memoirs, 476-9.
  3. Siegfried's Journey, 52; see also Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 373.

Messines: The Master of Belhaven, C.E. Montague, Phillip Maddison, and Rowland Feilding are Eyewitnesses to Armageddon; Jack Martin Goes Forward; Robert Graves is Laid Low and Siegfried Sassoon Takes a Pacific Step; Paul Fussell Looks to the Future

The Ypres Salient is a crowded place, and the assault on Messines Ridge of early this morning, a century back, was one of the great spectacles of the war. We have quite a few men on the scene who witnessed what was at once an unprecedented stroke of operational surprise (preceded as it was by all of the bloody, unimaginative attacks that we have read about), a significant immediate victory for the British Army (but not enough to “break through” the German lines), and a staggering calamity in human terms. For over a year British miners have been working in terribly dangerous and difficult conditions. Many died, but they have won the day, today. The fruits of their labor involved the entombing of some 10,000 Germans–but this was not foremost on the mind of the British observers. Each is overwhelmed by the enormity of the explosions, and struggles to describe them.

First, the Master of Belhaven:

At exactly 3.10 a.m. Armageddon began. The timing of all batteries in the area was wonderful, and to a second every gun roared in one awful salvo. At the same moment the two greatest mines in history were blown up — Hill 60 and one immediately to the south of it. I cleared everyone out of the dug-outs and was watching for it. Never could I have imagined such a sight. First, there was a double shock that shook the earth here 15,000 yards away like a gigantic earthquake. I was nearly flung off my feet. Then an immense wall of fire that seemed to go half-way up to heaven. The whole country was lit with a red light like in a photographic dark-room. At the same moment all the guns spoke and the battle began on this part of the line. The noise surpasses even the Somme; it is terrific, magnificent, overwhelming. It makes one almost drunk with exhilaration, and one simply does not care about the fact that we are under the concentrated fire of all the Hun batteries. Their shells are bursting round now as I write, at 6.10 a.m., but it makes one laugh to think of their feeble little efforts compared to the “ausgezeichnete Ausstellung” that we are providing. We are getting our revenge for 1914 with a vengeance. It is now beginning to get light, but the whole world is wrapped in a grey haze of acrid fumes and dust.

 

Jack Martin, signaler with the 122nd brigade, had been sent to lie out in No Man’s Land just before 3:00.

It was an impressive time–the gunfire ceased altogether with the exception of an occasional shell here and there–a thick mist was over the land and we had to lie full length…  There was a strange groaning and rumbling from behind us and presently, looming out of the mist, came a tank, moving straight towards us…

Out of the silence came the sound of blackbirds from a clump of battered trees a little way back only to be rudely silenced at 3.10 a.m…

For several minutes the earth rocked to and fro oscillating quite twelve inches. It was an experience which I shall remember vividly for the rest of my life–all the phases of the preliminary bombardment, the calm silence that succeeded them suddenly broken by a most terrific uproar, the weird sights of moving men and things in the semi-darkness, the rolling clouds of smoke picked out every now and then with shooting tongues of flame, all formed a tremendously wonderful sight. It was stupendous beyond the imagination.

 

Henry Williamson‘s Phillip Maddison has, of course, gone strolling off to see the battle, as he does for every major assault that he is not himself participating in. The fictional alter-ego walks through a landscape that both he and his creator had fought over in 1914, and he struggles with his fear. But soon it is 3:00, and, as the preliminary bombardment tails off, time for the birds–but nothing so unresonant as blackbirds.

It was so quiet that he could hear nightingales singing far away. They were surely very late in singing, the eggs must have hatched by now, and normally the cockbird ceased to sing when the hen began to sit. Perhaps the unnatural noise of the guns had strained their nervous systems. Some birds, notably wrens, uttered nervous little trilling bursts of song when alarmed at night. Perhaps all beauty, whether or sound or colour or shape, came out of pain, or suppression of life, as poetry came from suffering…

He felt the being-drawn feeling between his legs and his mouth was dry–he looked at his watch–nine minutes past three.

Before he was ready for it a great tongue of deep yellow flame arose slowly into the moonlight. It went up silently and was followed by another and another…

 

Rowland Feilding was there as well, almost entirely free of responsibility for his scattered battalion.

I got up and went out at three o’clock. The exact moment of the assault… had been disclosed to us as 3.10 a.m. I climbed on to the bank of the communication trench, known as Rossignol Avenue, and waited. Dawn had not yet broken. The night was very still. Our artillery was lobbing over an occasional shell; the enemy—oblivious of the doom descending upon him—was leisurely putting back gas shells, which burst in and around my wood with little dull pops, adding to the smell but doing no injury.

The minute hand of my watch crept on to the fatal moment. Then followed a “tableau” so sudden and dramatic that I cannot hope to describe it. Out of the silence and the darkness, along the front, twenty mines—some of them having waited two years and more for this occasion—containing hundreds of tons of high explosive, almost simultaneously, and with a roar to wake the dead, burst into the sky in great sheets of flame, developing into mountainous clouds of dust and earth and stones and trees.

For some seconds the earth trembled and swayed. Then the guns and howitzers in their thousands spoke: the
machine-gun barrage opened; and the infantry on a 10-mile front left the trenches and advanced behind the barrage against the enemy.

 

And C.E. Montague, with new freedom (and responsibility) to conduct war correspondents near the front, came up late last night with his charges, promptly fell into a deep sleep–and nearly missed it. His diary recorded the view from the Scherpenberg.

Next thing I am aware of, through a film of sleep, is a light whimper of shrapnel bursting somewhere near. Just after, I am fully awakened by the rocking of the hill under me. I jump up, sagely thinking it must be an earthquake, and then see seven huge mines still exploding — geysers of flame with black objects in it, leaving huge palm-trees of smoke drifting away in file. Bombardment begins at same time (3.10 A.M.). Rather far off—more than three miles—it sounds like an extremely long, various piece played on a piano full of rather far-off thunder. Many great fires caused in woods, etc., by our drums of oil and phosphorus (I believe). The bombardment more, intense than that of April 9 at Arras. As the light comes we see a great number of our aeroplanes everywhere, very little shelled. No infantry fighting visible.[1]

 

At 5:00 Jack Martin moves forward. His brigade is initially in support but soon enters what is now the British front line in the Damstrasse, more than a half-mile from the jumping-off point. There, Martin’s signalling party took casualties from both German fire and British “shorts.” Tanks move through, and the infantry follows, settling eventually into the German rserve positions.

The Signal Office was small, and with two wounded men in it and one end under water, there was only room for one operator at a time, yet at certain periods it was necessary to have two instruments working, so I took a buzzer outside and rigged it up on a mound where the trench had been blown in. The dirt gradually wore away and disclosed the bare buttocks of a dead man so I moved into the Damstrasse where the only comparatively dry spot was alongside a dead German but he was not badly mutilated. An infantryman close by me was hit in the face by a quantity of shrapnel dust and his tears trickled down his cheeks. He cried out, ‘Oh my eyes, my eyes! My God, I am blind!’ The sudden realisation of his blindness seemed a greater agony than the pain of his wounds. I shall never forge that terrible cry of anguish…[2]

 

Meanwhile, the Master of Belhaven, with little to do as his batteries fire by plan, tries to assess the progress of the battle:

(6 a.m.) It is as noisy as ever. The wounded have been streaming past for the last two hours… [they] say that the wire on my zone is thoroughly well cut, both on the front and support German lines–that is a relief to know. We have been firing something like 4,000 shells a day into it for the last week…

 

Rowland Feilding, too, is eager for news.

The battle once launched, all was oblivion. No news came through for several hours: there was just the roar of the artillery; such a roar and such a barrage has never been before. Our men advanced almost without a check. The enemy–such of them as were not killed—were paralysed, and surrendered. In Wytschaete Village they rushed forward with their hands up, waving handkerchiefs and things. And no one can blame them. The ordeal through which they have been passing the last fortnight must have surpassed the torments of hell itself…

Writing tomorrow, Feilding’s enthusiasm for this unprecedented-in-the-present-war success carries him as far as some preliminary conclusions on the preparations. He seems very much in accord with the ex post facto and fictionalized account of Henry Williamson.

… the South Irish Division and the Ulster Division went forward side by side… I have been thinking to-day of the saying—that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton. That remark wants revision now. You must for the “playing fields of Eton” substitute the “offices of the Empire.” From the offices have been introduced business methods which are essential to the complicated operations of nowadays. The Staff work yesterday was perfect. What a contrast to the time of Loos!

We were inundated with paper beforehand on this win this war we certainly shall win it” ; but no contingency, so far as I know, was unforeseen, and within six hours of the first assault parties were already at work, making roads across the mutilated zone and even laying water-pipes…

There will soon be checks to the more sanguine British hopes, but so far the preparation has been very good indeed. Instead of the usual failure to supply the attacking troops in their new positions, by 10 a.m. the war machine is dragging itself efficiently forward.

Already our Field Artillery was on the move forward—a stirring sight which always fascinates me. As I watch them, though I have nothing to do with them, I feel a kind of pride in them. I, as everybody else was doing, walked freely over the surface; past and over the old front line, where we have spent so many bitter months. How miserable and frail our wretched breastworks looked! When viewed—as for the first time I now saw them—from the parapet instead of from inside—the parapet only a sandbag thick in many places—what death-traps they seemed!

Then over Noman’s Land. As we stepped out there, my orderly, O’Rourke, remarked: “This is the first time for two years that anyone has had the privilege of walking over this ground in daylight, sir.” We visited some of the mine craters made at the Zero hour, and huge indeed they are. Then we explored Petit Bois and Wytschaete Wood—blown into space by our fire and non-existent—the, scene of our raid of the night of June 4. We found the bodies of an officer and a man of ours, missing since that night, which I have since had fetched out and buried among many of their comrades.

Our Tanks were now advancing—a dozen or more of them—going forward to take part in the capture of the fifth and sixth objectives. Their duty is to reduce local opposition, when it is encountered, and there they were, lumbering along, picking their way through the honeycomb of shellholes and craters, getting into difficulties, getting out again, sometimes defeated, but generally in the end winning their way through this area of devastation, where nothing has been left alive, not even a blade of grass.

I cannot hope to describe to you all the details of a battle on this scale. The outstanding feature, I think, was the
astounding smallness of our casualties. The contrast in this respect with Loos and the Somme was most  remarkable…

But, as is always the way, we lost some of our best. A single shell and a small one at that—knocked out twelve, killing three outright and wounding nine—two of the latter mortally…

But as Feilding concludes his account of the day with attentions to the dead, it is Ireland and Germany which come to the fore. The ground is Belgian, and a ridge and some village have been taken swiftly. But the war will still only be won through attrition, and it is the state of the will to fight on of the two rival empires which matters most.

Willie Redmond also is dead. Aged fifty-four, he asked to be allowed to go over with his regiment. He should not have been there at all. His duties latterly were far from the fighting line. But, as I say, he asked and was allowed to go—on the condition that he came back directly the first objective was reached; and Fate has decreed that he should come back on a stretcher.

How one’s ideas change! And how war makes one loathe the party politics that condone and even approve when his opponents revile such a man as this! I classify him with Stephen Gwynn and Harrison—all three, men—Irish Nationalists, too, whom you and I, in our Tory schooling, have been brought up to regard as anathema! What effect will his death have in Ireland? I wonder. Will he be a saint or a traitor? I hope and pray it may teach all—North as well as South—something of the larger side of their duty to the Empire.

P.S. My men found a dead German machine-gunner chained to his gun. This is authentic. We have the gun, and the fact is vouched for by my men who took the gun, and is confirmed by their officer, who saw it. I do not understand the meaning of this:—whether it was done under orders, or was a voluntary act on the part of the gunner to insure his sticking to his gun. If the latter, it is a thing to be admired greatly…[3]

“Authentic” in Feilding’s trust in his men, but then again he does not claim eyewitness, or give precise details…

 

The master of Belhaven ends his account on a note of triumph similar to Feilding’s assessment:

(9 p.m.) The battle is over, and the victory is with us. We have gained the whole of our objective…[4]

 

But Phillip Maddison, a mercurial sort (not to mention a fictional product of retrospection and history-reading) already has an eye to the inevitable return of the pendulum. After several trips leading mule trains of ammunition he goes on another of his “Cook’s Tours” to see the ridge that the British have now taken. He is impressed with the panorama, but, walking among the infantry as the long day draws to a close, he hears rumors of German counter-attacks retaking ground…[5]

 

And where are our old stand-byes on this day of days, the petulantly yoked terrible twins at the heart of the war poetry revolt, who fought at Loos and on the Somme? Will they praise the sudden victory?

 

Robert Graves, home for months and putatively recovered, was nevertheless in need of a rest, and has just been detailed to head to a convalescent home on the Isle of Wight. The precipitating cause was a head wound sustained when he fell down a staircase in the dark. But this was not an isolated incident so much as a symptom of a fundamental exhaustion. Not only will his lungs never be right, but his nerves are from from settled–it seems likely that “some kind of nervous collapse” led to the reassignment… and no, he will not have much to say about Messines.[6]

 

Siegfried Sassoon, however, was in London, taking a break from portrait-sitting by lunching with H.W. Massingham, the editor of the influential radical weekly The Nation. As George Sherston, Sassoon looks back on the irony that the full picture affords:

At daybreak on June 7th the British began the Battle of Messines by exploding nineteen full-sized mines. For me the day was made made memorable by the fact that I lunched with the editor of the Unconservative Weekly at his club. By the time I entered that imposing edifice our troops had advanced more than two miles on a ten-mile front and a great many Germans had been blown sky-high. To-morrow this news would pervade clubland on a wave of optimism and elderly men would glow with satisfaction.

Sherston has written to “Markington” to offer to write something, as “a mouthpiece for the troops in the trenches.” He is nervous of the great man at first, but he warms to Markington when he finds him even more pessimistic about the war and eager to hear uncensored humorous anecdotes from the front. The diffident Sherston stretches his legs, ever so slightly:

He listened with gloomy satisfaction to my rather vague remarks about incompetent Staff work. I told him that our Second Battalion had been almost wiped out ten days ago because the Divisional General had ordered an impossible attack on a local objective. The phrase ‘local objective’ sounded good, and made me feel that I knew a hell of a lot about it. . . .

But this leads, with more twisting irony, to the detailing of his own deeply conflicted behavior, and to a confession which might not be as welcome to this leading critic of the war:

‘As a matter of fact I’m almost sure that the War doesn’t seem nearly such a bloody rotten show when one’s out there as it does when one’s back in England. You see as soon as one gets across the Channel one sort of feels as if it’s no good worrying any more — you know what I mean — like being part of the Machine again, with nothing to be done except take one’s chance. After that one can’t bother about anything except the Battalion one’s with…

I must say I’ve often felt extraordinarily happy even in the trenches. Out there it’s just one thing after another…

It’s only when one gets away from it that one begins to realize how stupid and wasteful it all is. What I feel now is that if it’s got to go on there ought to be a jolly sound reason for it, and I can’t help thinking that the troops are being done in the eye by the people in control.’ I qualified these temperate remarks by explaining that I was only telling him how it had affected me personally; I had been comparatively lucky, and could now see the War as it affected infantry soldiers who were having an infinitely worse time than I’d ever had — particularly the privates.

The account continues, and it’s rich with interest: Massingham suggests reading Tolstoy, and then he awakens the privileged “Sherston” to the political realities of the budding military-industrial complex, censorship, and the fact that Great Brittain has added “acquisitive” war aims to the professed cause of liberating France and Belgium… there is some matter of Mesopotamian oil wells, apparently, if one takes that point of view...[7]

 

Lest one object that giving the last word on a day of successful battle to a pair of half-pacifists lunching in comfort, I will give it instead to an academic yet unborn, a century back, and more than a quarter-century short of his own bitter disillusionment with war.

Very early in his cranky masterpiece, Paul Fussell makes one concession to the otherwise unalleviated chronicle of murderous failure.

The attack at Messines… had been brilliantly planned by General Sir Herbert Plumer, who emerges as a sort of intellectual’s hero of the British Great War… he had imagination. His mines totally surprised the Germans, ten thousand of whom were permanently entombed immediately.

This, it is worth mentioning, is half the British toll from the first day of the Somme. I want to write at greater length about what it means to celebrate a battle in which local victory kills so many and yet doesn’t really budge the war… but since none of the men on the spot do, it would be an imposition. So, instead, just this next bit, as a way of working in the subject of modern war’s resilience.

The most memorable detail in Fussell’s account of the battle, however, is one that none of our writers can know, since it reaches more than a generation into the future, and then a century again, and more:

…British miners had been tunneling for a year under the German front lines, and by early June they had dug twenty-one horizontal mineshafts stuffed with a million pounds of high explosive… Nineteen of them went up, and the shock wave jolted Lloyd George in Downing Street 130 miles away. Two failed to explode. One of these went off in July, 1955… The other, somewhere deep underground near Ploegsteert Wood, has not gone off yet.[8]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. C.E. Montague, 189.
  2. Sapper Martin, 71-4.
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 188-92.
  4. War Diary, 302-6.
  5. Love and the Loveless, 153-160.
  6. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, the Assault Heroic,173.
  7. Complete Memoirs, 471-5.
  8. Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory, 14-15.

Ivor Gurney on Severn and Somme and Aircraft Above; Kate Luard’s Picnic Interrupted; The Master of Belhaven Bracketed; Sassoon is Free to Act… and Sit;

Ivor Gurney wrote to Marion Scott today, a century back, of dog-fights and poetry.

4 June 1917

My Dear Friend:

Fritzs aeroplanes are ever so high above us, and shrapnel is bursting round them; shrapnel which never seems to fall anywhere. This is an old and stale game to us, would there were here in our place men who would be interested in such things…

As it happens, Kate Luard is. Her unit is packing up and moving to the Ypres Salient, which affords her a day of country-walk leisure to take in just such sorts of sights which, while not completely unfamiliar, are far less frequent a few miles back then they will be in the closer confines of the Ypres Salient.

Like many veterans, Luard is assiduous about finding havens of peace whenever the war gives her respite. But this is getting harder and harder, and the relative novelty of fighter planes does not change the fact that they rather spoil the country-walk feel…

June 4, 1917

Today I took a book, a cigarette, the 4 last Birch bullseyes and a sun umbrella to a green valley with a running stream where I paddled and dried my feet in the sun while Bristol fighters and tri-planes came and took photographs of them to send to HQ with their photos of German positions. Whatever lovely Peace is about you there is always War in the sky.  Now it’s blue, with larks singing in it.[1]

And if Gurney’s letter fails to mention larks–for shame!–it does bring up the pastoral (or riparian?) title that will be affixed to his coming poetry collection. His comments on this title are amusing:

The title “Severn and Somme” might sell the book a little better. It sounds like a John Bull poster, but otherwise there is nothing objectionable about it. Severn people may buy if Somme people dont: my French not being equal to translation of works so delicate of language. At present my desire is to get the thing off my chest, and my chest out of Khaki. (Please excuse dirt.)[2]

 

The Master of Belhaven, also recently reassigned ahead of the coming “push” at Messines, is also mixing peacetime riverside joys with martial realities… but in memory, only. Today was all guns…

Zillebeke, 4th June, 1917

What a 4th of June! I wonder if they are having the procession of boats at Eton today; certainly we can compete with them for fireworks; there has been nothing like it before. Our guns and the Germans’ roar night and day and never stop for a moment…

After being shelled in a staff car on the way to a Divisional conference, Hamilton decided to ride back on horseback, avoiding the roads so well known to the German gunners.

I took the new sand track and was able to canter for the first two miles without drawing rein. I could have ridden farther, but when I got into the area that is shelled at night there were so many dead horses lying on the road that my mare began to object. I don’t blame her, as she could not hold a handkerchief to her nose like I did…

On arrival at my own brigade I found that A and D had been heavily shelled whilst I was away. D had bad luck, a 5.9 shell crashing into one of their gun-pits and killing two and wounding seven men. I do not think it was meant for them at all, but was a bad shot for A Battery. The Hun has “bracketed” them with a 25 yrd. bracket, so I have warned Dallas to look out for trouble…[3]

This increase in accurate counter-battery fire is not the best of signs for the coming offensive…

 

Finally, today, Siegfried Sassoon left Chapelwood Manor, his convalescence now entering what should be it’s final stage, namely a month’s leave. But his time amidst the luxury, quiet beauty, and atmosphere of haughty insensibility to the war’s costs has done more than any miserable battle to make a radical of him.

My discontent was now simmering rebellious and had acquired an added momentum. I went up to London resolved to write something more definitely antagonistic than the satiric epigrams in The Cambridge Magazine.

This would be, among others, Base Details. But back to Sassoon:

Four weeks of independence were ahead of me and I meant to make the most of them. I would go to Garsington and investigate the war situation by talking to the Morrells and Bertrand Russell… Meanwhile I was to be in London during the next two weeks. One reason for this was that Robbie [Ross] has arranged with Glyn Philpot that he should do a drawing of me, and more than a single sitting would be needed…[4]

Glyn Philpot’s portrait of Sassoon (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge)

So… not to hit the issues of privilege too hard, here, but: Sassoon is preparing his protest on behalf of the troops–voiceless, politically powerless men who might be killed any day–but, while he is doing so, he will spend the better part of a fortnight sitting for Philpot and sharing sumptuous teas after each session… It’s a bargain, though: due to some combination of Ross’s influence and Sassoon’s charm, Philpot has decided to paint a portrait of Sassoon while only charging him for the originally-planned drawing–50 guineas, rather than 500 pounds.

But despite Robbie Ross’s influence–not to mention the belief of Robert Graves and other friends that Sassoon is poised to accept a safe job, perhaps training cadets at Cambridge as Graves is doing at Oxford–Sassoon is making slow and (for him) steady plans for revolt. He will stay at his club, for instance, rather than with Ross, so as to have an independent base of operations. And in addition to Russell and the Morrells, he has already taken the initiative of writing to a foremost anti-war publisher…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Unknown Warriors, 204.
  2. War Letters, 165.
  3. War Diary, 299-301.
  4. Siegfried's Journey, 48-9. See also Moorcroft Wilson, I, 370.

Charles Scott Moncrief is Decorated; Henry Williamson is Sacked; Vera Brittain Sees the Sights; Olaf Stapledon is Fed Up

We have three brief updates today–one good, one bad, and one in transit–before a very unusual letter from Olaf Stapledon.

First, Charles Scott Moncrieff, still abed with a badly mangled leg, has good news, which he receives with proper, and perhaps even unfeigned, modesty.

I have been given one of the fourteen Military Crosses allotted to the 29th Division. No one else in the Regiment, I’m sorry to say, for most of them deserve it more than I do…

Perhaps, but Moncrieff is a brave officer, with a record of consistent leadership and courage–if he hadn’t been so often ill, he would surely be dead by now. Nevertheless, he scorned the decoration, and will try to refuse it–his wound, he will point out, was caused by his own barrage, which is not a terribly heroic fact. But his commander will object to this objection, effectively forcing Moncrieff to accept the MC:

Captain C. K. Scott Moncrieff is an officer with a distinct temperament, and of an intelligence far above the average… whatever he says to the contrary, I shall remained convinced that, not only on the date in question, but on one or two previous occasions also, he thoroughly earned the award which His Majesty has been pleased to bestow.[1]

 

Henry Williamson is doing less well. He has been “strafed” several times recently about timeliness and the proper care of his mules, and although he tried to present his assignment to a signals course as some sort of inside-track “staff” appointment wangled on a super-secret journey, it seems likely that he was selected for the course in the hopes that his unit could thus be rid of him. It didn’t take.

Sent back from the Signalling Course. Good. Very rotten report however. Strafed by G.O.C.[2]

 

And Vera Brittain, on her way home from Malta, will visit her second great capital in three days:

May 26th–Were approaching Paris when we woke up; typical French scenery so often described by Roland–thin sentinel trees and straight white roads. Thought very much about Roland and Geoffrey, for this was their country, now…

It is. British cemeteries are already, and will ever after be a major part of the landscape along the Somme and around Ypres. But Paris is still Paris, and many visitors can claim it. Vera, something of a minor sophisticate in this particular context, guided two of her companions for the afternoon.

After lunch … I took them round to look at some of the sights. Took them to Notre-Dame, the Madeleine and along the most important streets… Afterwards did a little shopping…[3]

 

Last night, a century back, Olaf Stapledon began a letter to his beloved, Agnes Miller, on the occasion of her birthday. But he is home on leave and “bed is a luxury not to be missed,” so the letter trailed off. Today he picked it up, and “with uncharacteristic sarcasm” (as the editor of his letters puts it), gave Agnes an account of his doings in the disastrous recent Nivelle Offensive.

It’s fine to see a six horse limber going down a road at breakneck speed with the driver urging and lashing and the other men hanging on by the skin of their teeth, and shells crashing all round, nearer & nearer it seems, till at last one makes a direct hit, kills five horses and two men on the spot, while the other horse goes a bit down the road till it drops and the third man crawls out of the wreckage into the ditch. It’s fine to see four or five cars all charging down the same bit of road until one of them has to jam on all brakes to avoid crashing into the limber the second after it is hit, and then has to creep gingerly round between the dead horses and ditch while a shell bursts alongside it, breaks in its windows and pierces its body work with steel splinters. Once free, and away dashes the old Vulcan like a mad thing down the road with the poor devils inside crying out at the jolts, swinging, bumping, crashing across the railway line, past the sentry box where someone has propped the dead sentry up against his box for some reason unknown. Meanwhile the next car spots the wounded man in the ditch, draws up to take him on board, but the egregious idiot of a lieutenant who happens to be on board forbids the driver to stop under shellfire, so that (think of it!) the car goes on, leaving the man wriggling…

Oh it’s all very fine & we deserve far more of it. But, ye gods what a damned silly thing is war! Fed up, FED UP!

This from a young man who has spent several years at the front with the Friends’ Ambulance Unit and hitherto been unfailing and unflinching in both his disapproval of the war and his dreamy insistence on seeing better things, in the stars, to come.

But whether back in England or among Germans, Stapledon is far from alone in feeling fed up.

…A meeting of British soldiers, being asked to give a message to people at home, cried “We’re fed up with the war,” and again & again they persistently cried it. As for the bosches… we had some Germans helping to load the carts, & they did it well; especially one smiling, kindly chap with whom the French stretcher bearers soon became very friendly. Of course there is really a lot of blind hatred & hostility, but less than of old. It’s the miserable diplomatists that have not the courage to talk about peace…[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 131; Chasing Lost Time, 131.
  2. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 155.
  3. Testament of Youth, 351-2.
  4. Talking Across the World, 225-6.

Edmund Blunden and Edwin Vaughan Are Among Friends; Siegfried Sassoon is Blighty Bound; Richard Aldington Remembers Edward Thomas; Geoffrey Thurlow Bids Edward and Vera Brittain a Provisional Farewell

We haven’t been keeping up with Edwin Vaughan, and things have changed. First, his battalion has been withdrawn from the line and gone into billets in Péronne. Second, he has at long last found fellowship in his battalion–he dined yesterday in a “ripping” mess and discovered that his fellow D Company officers–including three new replacements–were in fact “excellent fellows.” So we’ll begin with him, as a bit of unexpected light comedy before the more dire notices to come.

Today, a century back, the new band of brothers of D Company “sallied forth in a body after breakfast” and went promenading. Exploring Péronne, they wended their way to the citadel–once again a fortress, its moat converted to a rifle range–and, in exploring one of its attics found, incredibly, “an ancient arquebus,” daring the eldest of their company to carry it out as his sidearm for the next parade…[1]

 

Edmund Blunden, in ominously peaceful Ypres, is on precisely the same wavelength as Vaughan. Today, a century back, an officer named Tice, a schoolfellow of his friend Vidler, joined the battalion, filling out a group of five fast friends:

Vidler now had a fresh audience for his school recollections and mimicry; he almost gave his orders in the nasal tones of our famous writing master, and filled the desert air with imitations which a starling would have been proud of Amon and Collyer, his old schoolfellows, bore the burden, Tice with his sweet mournfulness listened and gave suggestions and approval, while I made up the party of five and the colloquy of Sussex at peace with all my heart.[2]

 

Siegfried Sassoon, meanwhile, is about to be parted from his own new band of brothers. Today he was sent home from France, transferred to the Fourth London Hospital, a clear indication that his wound, while not dangerous, will take a considerable time to completely heal.

 

Arras has been quiet for some days now, but, further to the south and east, the main French thrust of the Nivelle Offensive has been launched. Olaf Stapledon‘s ambulance unit is there.

SSA 13
20 April 1917

Agnes,

We have had the first dose. Twenty-four hours at the front & 24 hrs. working behind. Most of us worked 36 hrs. on end, or more. We had very good luck–only two fellows wounded & neither bad, and one car reduced to scrap iron. I drove sometimes the Sunbeam, sometimes an ambulance, & sometimes I filled up shell holes in the road, & sometimes I helped to drag dead horses off the road, but mostly I just helped to load ambulances…[3]

 

But Arras is only temporarily quiet. The units slated to take place in the new assault that will open the second phase of the battle are now preparing to march for the front. Geoffrey Thurlow, concerned to get his letters posted before leaving billets, added a quick post-script to his recent letter to Edward Brittain, quoting Tennyson and otherwise expressing a very great wish very simply:

Later 20th

We moved [back] a bit last night & are now down in deep dugouts for a day & a bit & then we move again and in haste to get this posted…

‘Pray for my soul. More things are wrought by prayer than this world knows of’

Hoping to see you sometime in the future.

Thine.

Gryt

 

But even as he himself faced battle, Geoffrey Thurlow learned about Victor Richardson–a man he knows primarily as the other close friend of his close friends. But he took time to write to Vera Brittain, and to open his heart to her once again. As with so many of our young soldiers, he will need to write himself into intimacy over the course of the letter. Beginning with the horrible immediacy of another’s severe wound, he takes a winding tour through a numinous landscape before arriving at a place where he can speak to his own private feelings:

France, 20 April 1917

I have had a note from Edward today to say that Victor Richardson is at Rouen and badly wounded. Awfully sorry & I can only hope he will soon get over it and that by time you get this you will have had better news of him. It was a very brief note from Edward and yet terribly concise.

After tea tonight wanting to be alone–we came back last night for a day or two & then we go up for a stunt–I walked out along a high embankment and everything was fresh and cool quite in contrast to the heated atmosphere of our dugout. As I looked westward I saw just below me in front of the embankment the battered outline of Hun trenches with 2 long straggling communication trenches winding away into some shell torn trees: the setting sun reflected in the water at the bottom of many crump holes making them look masses of gold. Over this derelict plain a thin line of men going back to billets in a large town, which stood outlined against a pale yellow sky with dark purple clouds low down in the sky: over to the right tall trees astride a river also looking gold in the last rays of the sun and beyond the river more ruined houses from which occasionally flashed a large gun.

Well! It was all quite beautiful & I wish Edward could have been with me if it were any other place than this…

This is easier to say to Vera, I think, than Edward–not that she understands the full measure of Geoffrey’s longing for Edward. Thurlow will also need more up-to-date poetic armor than the gleaming hauberks of Tennyson–of the five now-canonical sonnets available to him, he will choose to quote from “Safety“:

Everything seems very vague but none the less certain here & I only hope I don’t fail at the critical moment as truly I am a horrible coward: wish I could do well especially for the School’s sake.

I think you would love Chigwell–everything is so peaceful there. Often have we watched the many splendours of the Sunset from the School field. But all this will be boring you.

‘War knows no power safe shall be my going
Safe tho’ all safety’s lost, safe where men fall
And if these poor limbs die, safest of all’

Rupert Brooke is great and his faith also great. If Destiny is willing I will write later

In haste

G .R .Y .T .

And in Malta, where she can only learn more news of Victor by telegram, and where she cannot receive Geoffrey’s beautiful letter until weeks after the battle, Vera is feeling the twin frustrations of distance and ignorance. She writes to her mother:

Malta, 20 April 1917

There really does not seem much point in writing anything until I hear further news of Victor, for I cannot think of anything else . . . I knew he was destined for some great action, even as I knew beforehand about Edward, for only about a week ago I had a most pathetic letter from him–a virtual farewell. It is dreadful to be so far away & all among strangers…[4]

 

Finally today, it’s been some time since we’ve had a chatty letter from Richard Aldington to F.S. Flint, and it will be a while until the next one, as the correspondence will lag. I include this one not so much for Aldington’s experience (or his wit) but because it’s an early chance to see the ripples of Edward Thomas‘s death spreading far beyond the initial plunge into grief.

20/4/17

My brave [My dear fellow],

…You will be glad to know I’ve had several very close shaves in the past fortnight & missed one particularly dirty do by a fortunate accident.

I collected some souvenirs for you but chucked them away on account of the weight, but I have in my pocket a
button cut from a Boche uniform which I’ll present you with one day, d.v…

I hope you escape, in your capacity of an ailing functionary, from this new half million; I don’t think you’d find it very amusing here. It lacks repose and distinction…  But honestly I think that a week in the trenches teaches a man more than six months in England.

I see poor Edward Thomas is dead in the last shove–he must have caught a long-digger, as he was in the R.G.A.,
who, as a rule, are miles back of the line. I’m sorry for him, he was a pleasing and melancholy individual I remember to have seen at literary teas–odd to think of him out here…

Au revoir, dear boy; there’s a beastly battery firing right in my left ear!

Cheer-O.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Some Desperate Glory, 97-99.
  2. Undertones of War, 159-60. See the Battalion History for the date.
  3. Talking Across the World, 220.
  4. Letters From a Lost Generation, 336-8.
  5. Imagist Dialogues, 204-5.

Edwin Dyett’s Last Letter; Siegfried Sassoon Poses a New Question; Wilfred Owen on French Mud; We Meet Edwin Vaughan

Edwin Dyett, though nominally under arrest, was playing cards with two fellow officers today, a century back, when a letter arrived from the provost marshal’s office. It was read out: the recommendations for mercy have been ignored. He will be shot in the morning.

Dyett then spent an hour with a chaplain, who took charge of his mortal soul as he will later take charge of Dyett’s burial, and his last letter.

France January 4, 1917

Dearest Mother Mine,

I hope by now you will have had the news. Dearest, I am leaving you now because He has willed it. My sorrow tonight is for the trouble I have caused you and dad.

Please excuse any mistakes, but if it were not for the kind support of the Rev W.C. —– who is with me tonight, I should not be able to write myself…

Give dear Dad my love and wish him luck. I feel for you so much and I am sorry for bringing dishonour upon you all. Give —– my love. She will, I expect, understand–and give her back the presents, photos, cards, etc., she has sent me, poor girl.

So now dearest Mother, I must close. May God bless and protect you all now and for evermore. Amen.[1]

 

There were many soldiers executed in the First World War, but because of Dyett’s literary connection (on which more tomorrow) his story is the only one that I’m writing about here. And I find it hard to do. Of course; but why trouble over transitions from this particular act of brutality to another piece of writing when so many such acts (and thus so many such transitions) are required? And yet, being in an uncertain and apologetic mood, I want to make excuses for an uncanny coincidence that I have only just realized: as Edwin Dyett’s life is about to end–as he composed his last letter to his mother–another young man with the same Christian name was composing the first entry in a new diary. One man’s last full day on earth is the other’s first full day on his way to the war.

I have never read Edwin Vaughan’s war diary–published in 1981 as Some Desperate Glory, a title borrowed from a poem that will soon be written by an adjacent officer–but it is highly praised for its literary qualities, and I hope that as I make good this glaring omission in my own reading of Great War memoirs it will add significantly to our experience, here, of grim 1917. Since the usual chatty style feels inappropriate with this century-back execution hanging unresolved until the morning–and since I know so little of Vaughan–I will just borrow a bit from the editorial introduction (by Robert Cowley) and then briefly excerpt his first entry.

Edwin Campion Vaughan, a middle-class Catholic boy from the midlands, had joined the army in late 1915 or early 1916 after finishing school. He was a cadet of the Artists’ Rifles at Hare Hall Camp at the same time as Edward Thomas and Wilfred Owen, and then sent on to the infantry. Today, a century back, just nineteen, he is a subaltern in the Royal Warwickshire Regiment, on his way to war at last. Although this diary reads like a memoir–like, that is, a novelistic, retrospect-enriched “binary” reflection on his experience–it was, apparently, composed on or near the dates indicated and remained in manuscript form for many years. If it was heavily edited or even drafted and rewritten on the day in question I know nothing of it–but in any case the fluid and thoughtful quality of the writing, although composed so very close to the day’s immediate experience, is remarkable.

January 4

I had expected that on leaving for France I would be overcome by grief, for I knew that I would not see my home again for many, many months–and possibly not again. But when the moment came the excitement of the venture into the dreamed of but unrealized land of war, eclipsed the sorrow of parting, and I know now how much harder it is for those who lose us, than for us who go.

It was an incredible moment–long dreamed of–when the train steamed slowly out of Waterloo, a long triple row of happy, excited faces protruding from carriage windows, passing those which bravely tried to smile back at us–we were wrapped in the sense of adventure to come, they could look forward only to loneliness…

…as we raced through bushy parks and razing fields my mind was filled with a confusion of Boer War and other martial pictures, behind which loomed vaguely the strained brave faces I had last seen, so that with all the excitement of my brain, I felt a horrible aching at my heart, and I was forced to bury myself in my magazines to avoid being foolish.

At Southampton… We embarked at 4 p.m. and having with great skill evaded the lynx-eyed red-hat who was allotting duties, I managed to snuggle down in the hold, with no weight on my mind but the fear of sickness–and a much less formidable fear of submarines.

The crossing was very rough indeed…

Vaughan, however, does not get sick, and instead spends an exhilarating night on deck, until dawn revealed the escort flotilla around his transport.

They lent a wonderful sense of power and security, and I stood watching them until we were close on to the French coast, when I went down to breakfast, soaked to the skin with spray and feeling very fit.[2]

This much we know:  Vaughan is a talented writer; he is willing to be candid–to his diary, at least–about his fears; and he is not entirely strict about dating his diary: is this the dawn and breakfast of tomorrow, January 5th, or did his journey begin on the 3rd, and the entry is dated by when he wrote rather than when (most of) it occurred? I imagine that this will become clear in time…

 

Vaughan’s erstwhile camp-mate Wilfred Owen (there is no indication that they knew one another) is only a few days further into in his own first journey up the line. I have carped quite a bit throughout his long year-plus of training about the blithe self-regard and faked worldliness that can make Owen’s letters to his mother tiresome reading, but… well, we have no such letters from Vaughan that might leave us pleasantly surprised by the maturity of his writing once he is really headed for war, and, by the same token, here is Owen, in France, suddenly making good on some of that ginned-up brio, with a letter that succeeds and sharp description and seems more witty than simply effortful. Perhaps having new experiences to record has done his pen some good. At last: expectation, comparison, and inevitable shortfall… so, therefore, irony. Humorous, harmless irony, as of yet…

 

4 January 1917                          Address. 2nd Manchester Regt B.E.F.

My own dear Mother,

I have joined the Regiment; who are just at the end of six weeks’ rest.

I will not describe the awful vicissitudes of the journey here. I arrived at Folkestone, and put up at the best hotel. It was a place of luxury—inconceivable now—carpets as deep as the mud here—golden flunkeys; pages who must have been melted into their clothes and expanded since; even the porters had clean hands. Even the dogs that licked up the crumbs had clean teeth.

Since I set foot on Calais quays I have not had dry feet.

No one knew anything about us on this side, and we might have taken weeks to get here, and must have, but for fighting our way here.

I spent something like a pound in getting my Baggage carried from trains to trains.

At the Base, as I said, it was not so bad…

After those two days, we were let down, gently, into the real thing. Mud.

It has penetrated now into that Sanctuary my sleeping bag, and that holy of holies my pyjamas. For I sleep on a stone floor and the servant squashed mud on all my belongings; I suppose by way of baptism. We are 3 officers in this ‘Room’, the rest of the house is occupied by servants and the band; the roughest set of knaves I have ever been herded with. Even now their vile language is shaking the flimsy door between the rooms.

I chose a servant for myself yesterday, not for his profile, nor yet his clean hands, but.for his excellence in bayonet work. For the servant is always at the side of his officer in the charge and is therefore worth a dozen nurses. Alas, he of the Bayonet is in the Bombing Section, and it is against Regulations to employ such as a servant. I makeshift with another.

Everything is makeshift. The English seem to have fallen into the French unhappy-go-lucky non-system. There are  scarcely any houses here… We are never dry, and never ‘off duty’.

On all the officers’ faces there is a harassed look that I have never seen before, and which in England, never will be seen—out of jails. The men are just as Bairnsfather has them—expressionless lumps.

We feel the weight of them hanging on us. I have found not a few of the old Fleetwood Musketry party here. They seemed glad to see me, as far as the set doggedness of their features would admit.

I censored hundreds of letters yesterday, and the hope of peace was in every one…

I am perfectly well and strong, but unthinkably dirty and squalid.

I scarcely dare to wash.

Pass on as much of this happy news as may interest people.

The favourite song of the men is

‘The Roses round the door
Makes me love Mother more.’

They sing this everlastingly.

I don’t disagree. Your very own W.E.O.  x[3]

 

And Siegfried Sassoon, long recovered from the illness that sent him home from France, is still cooling his heels at Litherland Camp, near Liverpool. But he is beginning to see the war in a different light:

January 4

Coming out of the dreary hour-and-a-half of Mess and utter boredom, there was a cold north wind blowing, and a bright, high moon, and enormous clouds moving toward Liverpool, dark clouds with broad white-shining edges and crowns, piled halfway up the sky—one making a huge canopy for the lights and shuttered smoky glare and muffled din of the munition-works Out at Knowsley all day, in the wind and scudding showers and cold hastening sunshine, we did a silly attack on a brown ferny hill with a statue on the top.

A Copenhagen paper (December 2) says, ‘The sons of Europe are being crucified in the barbed wire enclosures because the misguided masses are shouting for it. They do not know what they do, and the statesmen wash their hands. They dare not deliver them from their martyr’s death.’ Is this true?[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Death for Desertion, 77; the text of the letter comes from the 1918 coverage of Dyett's case in Horatio Bottomley's John Bull, whence (I'm assuming) the decision to remove the names.
  2. Some Desperate Glory, 2-3.
  3. Collected Letters, 421-3.
  4. Diaries, 115.

George Coppard Wounded and Under Suspicion; Max Plowman, Bayonet Instructor: Pacifist Principles, Grand Intentions, and an Unfinished Sonnet

The morning after being accidentally shot in the foot, George Coppard awoke in a casualty clearing station:

…I discovered that there was something queer about the place, which filled me with misgivings. None of the nursing staff appeared friendly, and the matron looked, and was, a positive battle-axe. I made anxious enquiries, and quickly learned that I was classed as a suspected self-inflicted-wound case. Unknown to me, the letters SIW with a query mark added had been written on the label attached to my chest. Here was a fine kettle of fish, and I was in a state of near-panic. The place was full of SIW cases, or suspected cases, and normal standards of kindness were not allowed to nurture there. Many cases of wounding, even blindness, had been caused by foolish curiosity of needless tampering with detonators, fuses, rusted-up bombs and other weapons away from the trenches. That alone cast dark suspicion on the unlucky victim, who, by carelessness, as opposed to a genuine accident, fell into the fearful SIW category. Whenever it was possible for a patient to do any kind of chore, he was set to work. If he had lost a foot, he could brood over his misfortune while peeling spuds, or any other task that he was able to do without the aid of two feet.

This is harsh–unless it is lenient. It’s what the British army, like many large and hidebound institutions, does: split the difference in suspicious cases and do not worry unduly about individual justice.

But Coppard’s tale of today, a century back, shows that I was off-base yesterday with my attempt to make a neat division between accidental bullet and grenade wounds.

One man told me that he had been tampering with what he thought was a dud bomb, and had lost his right hand. Of course, there were patients who had deliberately injured themselves in order to avoid further fighting. They were the blackest among those black sheep. The poor devils must have been in a dreadful state of mind to savage themselves, but I doubt whether severe mental stress was taken into account when pleading for mercy at the court martial which awaited them all.

In every unit there were always one or two men who were below standard, unable to control or hide their fears in times of danger. To be blunt, they ought not to have been soldiers at all, yet they volunteered for service. Events, however, proved too much for them, and they were to be pitied.

Three most anxious days passed…[1]

Coppard’s compassion is retrospective, but it also seems typical of the “Tommy” view at the time. Men who shirked were unacceptable; bounders and the sorts of cowards who sneakily cut corners to save themselves and endanger or burden their comrades were detested. But men who struggled every day to shore up the slipping, sliding, pounded walls of their will to resist generally had sympathy with the men who simply couldn’t do it. To condemn a man whose only fault was–as they recognized, and as their officers generally recognized, but couldn’t condone–to have a smaller stock of courage than his comrades was cruel and unfair.

So there is decency here, and empathy, but also a less exalted psycho-social phenomenon: the sight of men failing to master themselves probably gave heart to many others who felt themselves slipping but were not yet in circumstances so dire. Esprit de Corps improves when there is a demonstration of what disqualifies from membership in the group and, therefore, of what ensures it. So this is but “there but for the grace of God go I” and “I may be slipping, but thank God I haven’t slipped like that, yet.”

 

George Coppard is in hot water, but he intends to soldier on, and the fact that several men witnessed the accidental shooting–it was not his own gun–should save him from permanent ostracism and court martial. His sympathies have been roused, but he was young, and not a political man.

Max Plowman, by contrast, was a committed prewar pacifist who had joined the ambulance corps and then carefully and deliberately changed his mind: there were no half-measures in great wars of nations, and to take part in war without taking a hand in its violence began to seem an unacceptable half-measure. But Plowman, now a Subaltern on the Somme, will explain it better himself, in a letter of today, a century back, to the journalist and budding novelist Hugh de Selincourt:

…If I live Calidore[2] I mean to write my apologianot to contend with yours, not even to justify myself, but to see whether it will really hold water, to discover completely whether my evolution was a real one–to put on record, for my own satisfaction, the reason why I took courses that may otherwise seem–looking back casually—inexplicable. Perhaps it will all seem unimportant then–(it isn’t now),–perhaps I shall find much better things to do…

I want to exploit the fear of War. Do you think that degenerate or a sign if how far from grace I have already fallen? …After the war millions of men in every country will have one dominant conviction–that was is a loathsome inanity to be avoided at any cost. But they’ll be inarticulate in their knowledge. I want to start an International League of individuals sworn never to take up arms. It seems to me that only by such means can pressure be brought to bear on Governments who will then never know their armed strength. The working man never wants to fight. Can’t someone start an International League to give that one & only negative tenet a voice? I know it’s a million of miles from the Kingdom of God, but I feel like Shaw, that we’ve got to start right at the bottom…

Plowman has seen much of the trenches, but nothing of the very worst, yet, and his unit has long been at rest. So why this renewed commitment to pacifism now? What only-in-the-Great-War irony might enliven this Pacifist’s Letter of Intention?

A pretty theory coming from an Instructor in Bayonet Fighting, isn’t it? That’s what I am now, Calidore. The cheese rind of the logical conclusion isn’t it? Not by choice I add in mitigation. I was just “detailed.” They didn’t ask my preferences. And you know another gruesome irony is that “Physical Training & Bayonet Fighting” are one course. An epitome of War.

An epitome of war, and an excellent writer of letter and memoir. But the poetry isn’t quite there…

I never told you about the sonnet I wrote in the trenches did I? It’s very bad and not even finished. It’s over a month ago since I tried it so I can tell you just where I wrote it. In a “dug-out” after spending the morning in the front line at Hébuterne, about 10 miles north of Thiepval. It’s another one to that old Goddess of War. Here it is:

So thou art proven at last, thou Queen of Whores!
The last shred of seduction torn away,
As naked to the piercing eye of day
Thou standest, wholly garmented with sores.
O fruit of loveless passion, mindless deed,
What shall avail thee now, when thy fierce lust
Makes of the brave and skilled a nameless dust
And gives to the coward devilry the meed?

For flashing sword, the creep of poisoned air;
Instead of drums, the earthquake of crash and shell;
While men, like vermin, thread the bowels of earth
And crave the certainty of ancient Hell…

perhaps I shall finish it some day.

Perhaps I was unkind–the last four lines are pretty good. This one goes into our burgeoning basket of uncertain new work–hesitant starts to a new vocabulary of thoroughly-felt combat poetry. Such a poem must acknowledge the tradition it is rejecting, but if we are to feel the plight of the soldiers as we feel the singers of traditional lyric, we can’t just replace the heroic tone with caustic wit or bitter despair…

Plowman soon returns to his discussion of the proper course for pacifism. As fed up as he is, as devoted to the idea of a “League” against war, he recognizes both that the present German occupation of France and Belgium makes it too late to be a complete pacifist in this war (“I do not believe that when an armed man enters your neighbour’s house he will be moved to tears by your assurance that nothing would induce you to interfere”) and that he bears a duty to stand with his nation.

That’s blind idealism. And so I’m here in mud & blood & all the damned insanity of war & I wouldn’t be out of it, things being as they are, for I can see no alternative things being as they were. –I know that gradually the individual ideal must permeate the nation, but till then how can I, after benefiting by all the nation’s virtues, disclaim all personal responsibility for its sins?

…I’ve never really doubted that the war would only end with general exhaustion. But we shalln’t be as we were. Fools can only learn through suffering… and that suffering, by the way, includes, I believe, the misery of murder.

Wouldn’t I love to believe that the war was just a huge beast let loose upon us by a few crafty self-seeking devils of hell! …Wouldn’t I like to be able to say sincerely–To Hell with Belgium… I don’t know, Cally…. What would Doistoievsky… what would Meredith have done?–Yet I’ve only to imagine what would have happened if England hadn’t joined the Devils Dance to know I’m glad I’m here…

My love always…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 103.
  2. The nickname is an allusion, I think, to Keats, one of Plowman's best-loved poets.
  3. Bridge Into the Future, 55-8.

Phillip Maddison Follows a Coffin; Vera Brittain’s Adventure Abroad Begins; Bimbo Tennant’s Grave; Arthur Graeme West Against the War

London was waking up this morning to the aftermath one of the worst zeppelin raids of the war. Henry Williamson, omnivorous novelist of the war’s notable actions, made use of this event to secure an awkward rapprochement between Phillip Maddison and his father–and to kill off Lily Cornford, the girl who was not good enough for him (socially) and too good for him (morally).

This morning, a century back, Phillip saw the twenty-two coffins of the German air crew, accompanied by an RFC honor guard, and fell in behind, reflecting on what has become a touchstone text of the novel.

Last of all walked Phillip, feeling lost, wondering if the spirits of the dead men were lingering in the autumn air, looking down, faintly curious, at the poor little bodies below. Was Lily there, too? He felt that the dead would not be angry, nor would they know any more fear. If only he could write poetry in which his feelings, and the scenes he had known, would live forever, like Julian Grenfell’s poem.[1]

But he can’t, and, inasmuch as Williamson’s hard-driven and haphazardly-elaborated themes can be summarized, the death of Lily and Phillip’s segue away from a period of Grenfell-idealizing (in which, not coincidentally, he performs bravely under fire on the Somme after several early instances of experiencing panic under fire) into a more introspective mode. We’ll pick up Phillip’s story in the next volume, when he is in France once more.

 

In a truer but somewhat attenuated incidence of historical irony, the raid qualified as something like a near miss for Vera Brittain. Yesterday she had bid farewell to her mother and brother in Camberwell before setting off for her eponymous liner. As her brother Edward will write, bombs fell on the site of their goodbyes not twenty-four hours after she had left to brave the threat of German submarines for hazardous service abroad: “The windows of the White Horse were smashed–just where Mother and I passed that morning after saying good-bye to you.”

We have come as far as air raids and U-boats: Julian Grenfell and the heroic tradition be damned, there is no need to go “Into Battle–” modern war will come to you.

And yet, if War brings movement and new opportunity–combined with manageable levels of danger and deprivation–it is not going to shake entirely free of its long conceptual partnership with Romance. Today is also the beginning of an adventure for a young woman who, for all the misery of hospital service and the death of her beloved, has been sheltered from both the terrors and the freedoms that 20th century war can bring… Malta is very far from Buxton.

Sunday September 24th Britannic

First thing in the morning Gower & I wandered over the ship, exploring the lower wards. A hospital ship is a very wonderful thing, but when I saw the swinging iron cots & realised the stuffiness of the lower decks even when empty, I was thankful that fate had not ordered me to serve on a hospital ship. We heard during the morning that our voyage was going to be much longer than we had hitherto supposed, for the Britannic, being too large to put in at Malta, would go straight to Mudros…

I felt no especial pang when I saw England disappear; it was all part of the hard path which I have assigned to myself to tread. So that my chief sentiments were much those of Roland’s verse written from my point of view (how truly prophetic He did not know) & which came into my mind as I stood on the boat deck–

I walk alone, although the way is long,
And with gaunt briars & nettles overgrown;
Though little feet are frail, in purpose strong
I walk alone.

And again I had that very strong feeling that in spite of the long distance that there was to be between me & all the people I loved, I was not really going very far away, and that no separation, so long as those who were separated were still on earth, could be so very great.[2]

Ah, but she is being brave. Looking back, Brittain will admit to terror.

Now that the perils of the sea were really at hand, the terror that had hung over me since I volunteered for foreign service and for one grim second had gripped me by the throat when Betty told me that we were going to Malta, somehow seemed less imminent. The expensive equipment of our cabins was illogically reassuring; those polished tables and bevelled mirrors looked so inappropriate for the bottom of the sea… it was difficult on so warm and calm an evening to convince one’s self that at any moment might come a loud explosion, followed by a cold, choky death in the smooth black water…[3]

 

This is a young imagination, only–although the threat of submarines is all too real. But young Bim Tennant, as polished and bevelled a young man as any mother could wish for, is really dead.

Today, a century back, his hasty grave was consolidated by the survivors of his battalion. His commanding officer’s letter to the family is the first of many letters of condolence which Lady Glenconner will receive and later excerpt in her memoir:

… We all loved him, and his loss is terrible. Please accept my deepest sympathy. His Company was holding a sap occupied by Germans and ourselves, a block separated the two. Bim was sniping when he was killed absolutely instantaneously by a German sniper. His body is buried in a cemetery near Guillemont. The grave is close to that of Raymond Asquith, and we are placing a Cross upon it and railing it round to-day. Forgive this scribble, we are still in action, and attack again to-morrow morning. Bim was such a gallant boy.

Yours very sincerely,

Henry Seymour,

Lt.-Col., 4th Batt. Grenadier Guards.[4]

 

Perhaps, with Bimbo Tennant dead and buried and the Somme not yet behind us, this is a good time to turn to an officer-writer I’ve been neglecting. Arthur Graeme West is as near to the temperamental opposite of Bim as we are likely to find. A gentle, quiet, middle-class Public Schoolboy, West had gone to Balliol and taken an interest in modern philosophy and radical politics. After some soul-searching he had tried for a commission in 1914, but was turned down, like so many others, due to poor eyesight. But the Public Schools Battalion accepted him, and he saw the trenches in 1915, including hard fighting over the winter of 1915-16. Not much of his writing from this period, however, is available, and so we met him only briefly in the spring.

It was then that West was commissioned and trained as an officer, despite his increasingly strong feeling that the war was inexcusable murder. And so, ironically, he missed the slaughter of his old unit on the Somme. He arrived in France earlier this month, an unwilling subaltern of the 6th Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, and we will now begin to have somewhat regular reports on his feelings and doings.

West is hard to get a handle on–in part because of the vexed nature of the publication of his writing–but by now he is certainly firm in his central conviction: that war is wrong, its evils mitigated neither by heroism nor by the stoic virtues of sacrifice and endurance.

How can a man with such views lead other men? It’s hard to tell; for the time being he works through his problem as if it were his problem alone.

Sunday, Sept. 24th 1916. A Tent.

I am very unhappy. I wish to make clear to myself why, and to thrash out what my desires really tend to.

I am unhappier than I ever was last year, and this not only because I have been separated from my friends or because I am simply more tired of the war.

It is because my whole outlook towards the thing has altered. I endured what I did endure last year patiently, believing I was doing a right and reasonable thing. I had not thought out the position of the pacifist and the conscientious objector, I was always sympathetic to these people, but never considered whether my place ought not been rather among them than where I actually was. Then I came back to England feeling rather like the noble crusader or explorer who has given up much for his friend but who is not going to be sentimental or overbearing about it, though he regards himself as somehow different from and above those who have not endured as he has done…

“This war is trivial, for all its vastness,” says B. Russell, and so I feel. I am being pained, bored, and maddened—and to what end? It is the uselessness of it that annoys me. I had once regarded it as inevitable; now I don’t believe it was, and had I been in full possession of my reasoning powers when the war began, I would never have joined the Army. To have taken a stand against the whole thing, against the very conception of force, even when employed against force, would have really been my happier and truer course.

The war so filled up my perspective at first that I could not see anything close because of it: most people are still like that…

Most men fight, if not happily, at any rate patiently, sure of the necessity and usefulness of their work. So did I
once! Now it all looks to me so absurd and brutal that I can only force myself to continue in a kind of dream-state;
I hypnotise myself to undergo it…

Even granting it was necessary to resist Germany by arms at the beginning—and this I have yet most carefully to examine—why go on?

Can no peace be concluded?

Is it not known to both armies that each is utterly weary and heartsick?

Of course it is. Then why, in God’s name, go on?

…The argument drawn from the sufferings of the men in the trenches, from the almost universal sacrifices to duty, are not valid against this. Endurance is hard, but not meritorious simply because it is endurance. We are confronted with two sets of martyrs here–those of the trenches, and those of the tribunal and the civil prison, and not by any means are the former necessarily in the right.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Golden Virgin, 446.
  2. Chronicle of Youth, 328-9.
  3. Testament of Youth, 295-6.
  4. Memoir, 238.
  5. Diary..., 109-11.