Edmund Blunden: Two Direct Hits; The Master of Belhaven Laments a Good Man Wounded; Kate Luard and Grateful Men

Ralph Hamilton, the Master of Belhaven, predicted a bad day yesterday, and, indeed, one of his batteries was forced to move after being hit by German shells. But disaster did not strike–until today, when it struck right beside him, hitting his servant, Bath. This is at once an affecting interjection of emotion into Hamilton’s generally cool diary and a discomfiting reminder of the self-centeredness that was coddled and amplified by the privileges of the English class system.

Another black day… My faithful Bath has been hit at last, very badly… a fragment of a high-explosive pip-squeak… had gone in behind the right ear and at the top of his neck, cut his tongue badly and lodged in his left cheek… He was nearly choking with the blood running down his throat… They can’t tell how bad he is yet; it all depends on if the wound becomes septic or not. He has a good chance of living but I am afraid he is very bad. He is a dreadful loss to me, as he has looked after me since just after Loos, and he has been a devoted slave, anticipating everything I could possibly want. Now at 5.30 p.m. the shelling has become intense, and my office has just been hit. Several more men killed and wounded. I wonder how long we shall be able to stand this sort of thing.[1]

 

The 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers, after a grim two days hanging on to the ground gained with so much loss on the 31st, withdrew to trenches on the Steenbeck, now effectively a reserve line. David Jones was back among his mates, hearing their stories and sketching their trophies.[2] Many of the survivors, including some from Hedd Wyn‘s town near Trawsfynydd, Gwenydd, would have tried to send a quick card or letter home with news of the battle.

 

Edmund Blunden and the 11th Royal Sussex, too, were relieved after their two days’ infernal trial. But not before they experienced more death and agony at the hands of the German artillery, and not before Blunden was called to witness a signal horror in a neighboring dugout.

The night spent itself somehow. Already it seemed ages since I had last seen poor Tice, and looked at this very patch of ground with him, but the gulf between this and three days before was indeed a black and lethal abyss, which had swallowed up all the hopes of the Allies for this summer. I do not remember what was said. Day brought a little promise of better weather, and it was for a time quiet enough; I explored here and there, and my signallers got their wires to “all stations” into working order. A tank officer looked in, asking help to “salve” some equipment from his wrecked machine, lying just behind our pillbox. Presently the drizzle was thronging down mistily again, and shelling grew more regular and searching. There were a number of concrete shelters along the trench, and it was not hard to see that their dispossessed makers were determined to do them in.

Our doctor, an Irishman named Gatchell, who seemed utterly to scorn such annoyances as Krupp, went out to find a much-discussed bottle of whisky which he had left in his medical post. He returned, the bottle in his hand. “Now, you toping rascals” — a thump like a thunderbolt stopped him. He fell mute, white, face down, the bottle still in his hand; “Ginger Lewis,” the adjutant, whose face I chanced to see particularly, went as chalky-white, and collapsed;
the Colonel, shaking and staring, passed me as I stooped to pull the doctor out, and tottered, not knowing where he was going, along the trench. Over my seat, at the entrance, the direct hit had made a gash in the concrete, and the place was full of fragments and dust. It hit just over my head, and I suppose it was a 5.9. But we had escaped, and
outside, scared from some shattered nook, a number of field mice were peeping and turning as though as puzzled as ourselves. A German listening set with its delicate valves stood in the rain there, too, unfractured. But these details were perceived in a flash, and meanwhile shells were coming down remorselessly all along our alley.

In the memoir, Blunden’s prose mimics the blurred calm of a mind doing whatever it needs to survive a day like this, while quietly and gingerly examining these muted responses from a safe distance. In the poem “Third Ypres,” he tries–memorably if not quite successfully–to both enact the emotions and explain his psychological survival.

At the noon of the dreadful day
Our trench and death’s is on a sudden stormed
With huge and shattering salvoes, the clay dances
In founts of clods around the concrete sties,
Where still the brain devises some last armour
To live out the poor limbs.
This wrath’s oncoming
Found four of us together in a pillbox,
Skirting the abyss of madness with light phrases,
White and blinking, in false smiles grimacing.
The demon grins to see the game, a moment
Passes, and — still the drum-tap dongs my brain
To a whirring void — through the great breach above me
The light comes in with icy shock and the rain
Horridly drops. Doctor, talk, talk! if dead
Or stunned I know not; the stinking powdered concrete,
The lyddite turns me sick — my hair’s all full
Of this smashed concrete. O I’ll drag you, friends,
Out of the sepulchre into the light of day,
For this is day, the pure and sacred day.
And while I squeak and gibber over you,
Look, from the wreck a score of field-mice nimble,
And tame and curious look about them; (these
Calmed me, on these depended my salvation).

 

The memoir continues, remorseless as the battle:

Other direct hits occurred.

Men stood in the trench under their steel hats and capes, resigned to their fate. An ex-veterinary surgeon, Gatfield, with his droll, sleepy, profoundly kind manner, filled the doctor’s place, and attended as best he could to the doctor and the other wounded. The continuous and ponderous blasts of shells seemed to me to imply that an attack was to be made on us, and being now more or less the only headquarters officer operating, after an inconclusive conference with the Colonel, I sent the SOS to the artillery; the telephone wire went almost immediately afterward. The wonderful artillery answered, and at length the pulverization of our place slackened, to the relief of the starting nerves; whereon, Sergeant Ashford came to tell me that our linesmen had put us in touch with the 13th Royal Sussex on our right, and that the adjutant of that battalion wanted me at the phone. Bartlett, a genial and gallant man, bright-haired Bartlett called me by name — I hear his self-control still in those telephoned words — and told
me what made our own “direct hit” not worth mentioning.

In the poem, the horror stabs out through the text.

There comes my sergeant, and by all the powers
The wire is holding to the right battalion,
And I can speak — but I myself first spoken
Hear a known voice now measured even to madness
Call me by name.
“For God’s sake send and help us,
Here in a gunpit, all headquarters done for,
Forty or more, the nine-inch came right through,
All splashed with arms and legs, and I myself
The only one not killed, not even wounded.
You’ll send — God bless you!” The more monstrous fate
Shadows our own, the mind swoons doubly burdened,
Taught how for miles our anguish groans and bleeds,
A whole sweet countryside amuck with murder;
Each moment puffed into a year with death.
Still swept the rain, roared guns,
Still swooped into the swamps of flesh and blood,
All to the drabness of uncreation sunk,
And all thought dwindled to a moan, Relieve!
But who with what command can now relieve
The dead men from that chaos, or my soul?

In prose:

His headquarters had been pierced by a great shell, and over thirty killed or wounded. “A gunpit — Van Heule Farm”; I knew it by the map. What could we do to help? It was little enough; we called the R. A. M. C. to send rescuers to that gun-pit, and I heard later that a driver actually succeeded in getting an ambulance to it, up the gouged and eruptioned St. Julian Road.

The tragedy of the 13th came home to me more than all the rest, and from the moment of that telephone call my power of endurance lay gasping… One’s range of effect, and of conception, seemed to close in, and the hole overhead in the resumed vile pillbox was ever catching the eye…

That night about twelve o’clock we were relieved, and even those who like myself had been for the last twenty-four hours in a gully or pit were scarcely able to credit it. Hobbling down the muddy muletrack, one found that the soles of one’s feet had become corrugated, and the journey was desperately slow. No ordinary burst of shells could make us hurry now, but as we approached the dark earth wall of the Yser Canal the notion of having a chance of escape quickened our dragging steps; and my own little group, passing a familiar spot called Irish Farm, went still quicker because of the most appalling missile we had ever heard.

It was a high-velocity shell, and a big one; it came suddenly with a shriek beyond expression, entered the mud a few yards away, and rocked the earth and air. Perhaps the gunners were accustomed to this sort of nightmare, which in its solitary horror impressed me more even than the rolling storms of shell of the last few days.[3]

 

We’ll close with with Kate Luard, writing at 11:45 p.m. tonight, a century back, amidst the human wreckage only a few miles back from the worst of the battle.

It made one realise how far up we are to have streams of shells crossing over our heads. The rain continues–all night and all day since the Push began on Monday. Can God be on our side, everyone is asking–when his (alleged!) Department always intervenes in favour of the enemy at all our best moments.

The men are brought in with mud over their eyes and mouths, and 126 have died in 3 1/2 days…

An oldish man wanted to be lifted up in the bed: when we’d done it, he murmured, ‘what would we do without women in the world!’ And they don’t expect to find women up here.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary, 358-9.
  2. Which included a German 25 cm Minenwerfer, pictured in the post from that day, and incorrectly described by Jones's editors (and then by me as well--many thanks to Richard Hawkins for the correction) as a "howitzer." So I was wrong to suggest that that the R.W.F. had gotten as far as the German artillery--that would have been far indeed. As in the British Army, trench mortars--even enormous versions like this heavy minenwerfer--were fired from positions in among the infantry in the forward trench lines--their range was less than a half mile, and they were often fired from only a few hundred yards away. Its capture, therefore, was confirmation of a significant of advance but, again, nothing like that long-desired total breakthrough into the German rear. Given the fact that Great War armies still sometimes abided by the old standard of numbering captured "guns" as metric of success, this is a significant distinction--it was much more like capturing a heavy machine gun than capturing an actual piece of artillery.
  3. Undertones of War, 224-8.
  4. Unknown Warriors, 136.

The Battle of Pilckem Ridge: Hedd Wyn and Francis Ledwidge; David Jones, Edmund Blunden, Phillip Maddison, Ralph Hamilton, and Kate Luard

After a difficult spring, it’s been a relatively quiet summer so far. But that’s over, today.

Looking a century back, we know that today’s attack begins the last of the truly enormous offensive disasters of the British war. After Third Ypres, that is, there is only one more disaster, and then one last offensive. But in 1917, of course, today wasn’t the last of anything, only the latest in the long series of “big pushes,” each of which has been very costly, and none of which has achieved a breakthrough into the German rear.

The reason I’m dwelling on our inevitable position of historical irony (i.e. knowing more than the writers knew then, a condition which this project usually seeks to obscure, due to the governing conceit that we are there, a century back, and know no more of the future) is that this may be the last of those days, before the end of the war, that seemingly everyone who was there (and some who weren’t) wrote about. It will be one of the last days, at least, that I will insist on exploring from many vantage points, and perhaps no day in the next fifteen months will produce so long a post. Even if the coming weeks will find the British army as miserably mired as it has ever been, for readers it may well be all downhill from here…

Which is all to say, please bear with me, today: there are several poems and several long prose extracts. It’s a terrible day.

 

We’ll begin, not entirely inappropriately, with melodramatic fiction. Henry Williamson‘s alter ego Philip Maddison never misses a battle, and there is a strange, fruitful tension between Maddison’s use as a tightly-grasped mirror onto the life-history of his creator and the plot contortions which deliver him to every major action of the British war to witness the “show.” It seems fitting to let him talk us into the opening of yet another battle, before we try to understand the experiences of the poets who were there.

Dragging clouds broke into rain on the night of July 31.[1] Some said it was due to the gunfire… Everything he had experienced in war so far was diminished by the sinister feeling all around him as he rode through the Grand Place [in Ypres], despite the almost furtive activity among the ruins, where were hidden masked batteries of guns, including a 15-inch howitzer known as ‘Clockwork Charlie’ for its regular bombardment of Passchendaele station thirteen thousand yards away.

…A psychical vacuum of lost life, old terror, and chronic hopelessness lingered in the crepuscular ruins… ahead lay nihilism… One of many hundreds of thousands who had passed that way, Phillip proceeded, nervous animation of flesh and bone on innocent horseflesh because there was no alternative, while he remained unbroken.[2]

But it will go easily with Phillip: he commands a Machine Gun Company’s transport unit[3] and will have no duties until it is time to bring ammunition up later in the day. He sleeps through the opening barrage.

 

This rose to a climax at around a quarter to 4:00 a.m., as dawn was breaking–or would have, if it were not so heavily overcast. At 3:50 the 15th Royal Welsh Fusiliers moved up and out. At the same time, their own 14th Battalion attcked from assembly trenches directly in front. To their left were other battalions of the 38th Division, then the Guards Division, and eventually a strong French force. To their right were the 51st and 39th Divisions, then divisions belonging to four other corps–including Canadians and Anzacs–arrayed further to the south.

A map of the area showing the precise expectations of advance. At four hours and five minutes after “Z”–7:55 A.M.–the 38th Division’s second wave should have arrived at a slight ridge line east of “Iron Cross,” often referred to as the “Green Line.”

The 15th RWF had been given the task of moving over the muddy wreckage of No Man’s Land and the German front lines, then “through” the 14th Battalion and its captured objectives near the village of Pilckem. This was accomplished with relative ease and few casualties: the enormous barrage had obliterated the lightly-held forward German positions (remember all those patrols into empty space) and it was not until the 15th were almost a mile into what had been German territory that they started taking direct fire.

The geography of Flanders favored the assault more than the Somme: the “ridge” that was the objective in this battle was only twelve or fifteen meters higher than the Yser Canal which the Royal Welch (and, just to the south, Edmund Blunden) have so frequently been crossing, so there would be no uphill advance into the muzzles of the enemy’s guns, as it were. Yet the flat terrain also meant that there would be very little cover for advancing infantry. (Worse, on the operational level, the geography of Flanders made resupply and consolidation miserable and difficult: unless there had been many days without rain, much of the area was waterlogged, and all resupply had to be through the open mud.)

At some time around 8:00, after resting briefly, the battalion launched its attack from near Pilckem village toward its own objectives to the east. They were now in the sights of the slightly elevated German machine guns, encased in concrete pillboxes, many of which had survived the opening barrage. The next few minutes are the sort of experience that defy description, and the Battalion War Diary perhaps wisely opts for simple elision.

Considerable opposition was met with at BATTERY COPSE & by this time there were but few officers remaining.

In other words, the battalion, though continuing to move forward, was met with murderous fire from nearby strong points, fell behind the carefully timed “walking” support barrage, and was stopped by that mysterious combination of moral failure, confusion, exhaustion, and physical depletion that leads to historians of battles using metaphors of physical force. They had done well, penetrating much further into the German lines than most of the units on the southern part of the assault, but still not quite as well as the ever-optimistic planners had hoped. And that planning was everything: there was no possibility of getting messages back over a mile of broken ground to the the telephones that could contact the artillery. There was no possibility of bringing up heavy weapons to address the German pill boxes. The ridge was held, by the German Third Guards, and when the barrage lifted they came up and fought. There was nothing for the Royal Welch to do but rush whatever German positions could be rushed, until they were… halted, pushed back, forced to a halt, and dug in.

The Diary remained matter-of-fact:

… the smoke barrage… tended to confuse the men… Lt. Col. C.C. Norman[4]… was wounded and ordered the Bn. to consolidate on the IRON CROSS ridge. As no officer remained, the Bn. was handed over to the R.S.M. Jones who saw to the consolidation which was being carried out some way in rear of the GREEN LINE giving a greater task to the 115 bde who were passing through us.

It is striking, even on such a day, that the battalion’s ranking member, only a few hours into the battle is the Regimental Sergeant Major: there should have been between twelve and twenty officers at the start, but all of those who went forward have been wounded or killed.

And many of the men, including Ellis Humphrey Evans, the Welsh shepherd and bard better known as Hedd Wyn.

Not long after the 15th Welsh began to advance from Pilckem he was hit, probably by a large piece of shrapnel from a German shell. The shell struck him in the stomach, or the back–a great wound would have been visible, in any case, on both sides of his body. He fell, somewhere near a crossroads on the road to Langemarck, and lay there for around three hours. Perhaps he was in shock at first, probably in terrible agony thereafter. At some time around midday, stretcher bearers found him, and struggled back through the thickening mud to an advanced dressing station.

Hedd Wyn–Private Ellis Humphrey Evans–died on a stretcher not long after arriving at the dressing station. There is a mention of his receiving morphia before the end (which we might fervently hope, even a century on, to be true) and unreliable accounts of last words.[5]

Evans–Hedd Wyn–will be buried nearby, with a chaplain reading the burial service in Welsh. His last letters and his last great poem–an ode written for the upcoming National Eisteddfod–will find their way slowly back to Britain over the next days and weeks. For many officers the telegram is sent within a day or two, but not to the far-off farming family of an enlisted man, living their lives in a language other than English. Hedd Wyn’s parents and siblings will have to wait through weeks of dire rumor before the War Office confirms his death.

 

This is one stanza from the ode that Hedd Wyn sent, only a few weeks ago, for adjudication at the National Eisteddfod:

Y macwy heulog, paham y ciliodd?                       Why did he depart, this radiant youngster?

Ba ryw hud anwel o’m bro a’i denodd?                  What drew him from me, what unseen power?

Ei oed a’i eiriau dorrodd, – ac o’i drig                Breaking his word and pledge together–then he

Ddiofal unig efe ddiflannodd                            In his carefree home was seen no longer.[6]

 

 

Onward. It seems that David Jones never met Hedd Wyn. He surely laid eyes on him, over the past two weeks, but I can find no record of anyone making Jones aware that he had “fought alongside,” however briefly, a true Welsh bard.[7] But he did not fight alongside him on his last day.

Yesterday, a century back, David Jones learned that he would be kept back from the attack along with a small cadre of officers[8] and men.

Jones was assigned to ‘battalion nuclear reserve’ — a group from which the already depleted battalion could be reconstituted if it were wiped out during the assault. Upon receiving his assignment, he asked the adjutant to be removed from the list so he could take part in the attack. Although he wanted merely to remain with his friends, he argued that he ought to trade places with a married man. The adjutant furiously berated him for ‘pretending to wish to be a bloody hero’ while knowing full well that men detailed had no choice in the matter. Simmering down, he told Jones that there would be plenty of other opportunities, that the nucleus was likely to be called upon anyway, and that he only wished he had been assigned to it. Feeling foolish, Jones tried to explain that he had not meant it that way. He was forced to endure the ignominy of relative safety…

Thomas Dilworth’s account of the battalion’s advance emphasizes their success in meeting and defeating German opposition between Pilckem village and the not-quite-obtained “Green Line,” even after the loss of so many officers.

Keeping in formation, the remainder struggled in deep mud past Pilckem village and concrete machine-gun emplacements, which they outflanked, compelling their garrisons to surrender. In reserve, listening to the gunfire, Jones worried about his friends and bitterly regretted his separation from them.[9]

Jones will nevertheless write their advance, presumably drawing on his comrades’ memories, in the thick description and black comic mood of the “Balaam’s Ass” section of The Sleeping Lord. The section about the openness of the advance, as the men contemplate their coming exposure to German machine guns, is frightening. Jones draws thorny little historical-personal sketches of the men of the unit, alternating several of these with sardonic and tragic descriptions of the landscape, or lack thereof:

It’s as level as Barking and as bare as your palm…

All the fine fiery waters in Headquarter’s larder won’t raise a mole-hill for Lieutenant Fairy on that open plain…

not a bush, no brick-bat, not any accidental & advantageous fold, no lie of dead ground the length of a body…

Not a rock to cleft for, not a spare drift of soil for the living pounds of all their poor bodies drowned in the dun sea…

Nor yet was there aid or covering wing, or upright, or linden hedge or agger or paraduct or mothering skirt for a frightened last-born, or gunnal for the evil swell; or anything drawn to mask or shadow…

The list of men, and the lack of cover that will kill them, goes on for pages before Jones, in an echo of the medieval Welsh “Triads,” names “the three who escaped.” And then the poem ends:

But for all the rest there was no help on that open plain.[10]

 

There were more than three survivors, in prose, and Jones will join them later on, where they hold their muddy positions near what had been the German second line and their “Black Line–“the penultimate line of intended advance. But the tone of tomorrow may be different than the tone of today: the survivors of the battalion took pride in its success, and celebrated it.

And so it is a curious fact that the one image I have found which links the material facts of this day to the work of one of our writers is about as traditionally triumphal as 1917 art could get: it is Jones’s sketch of a German howitzer–proof that they fought through the infantry and reached the artillery–captiured today, a century back, and drawn soon after.

 

By now it should be clear–to us if not to all the contemporary generals–that, as a matter of strategy, the front line positions on a Great War “battlefield” matter very little. They will change hands as counter-attacks and second efforts are launched, and the place where a battered battalion went to ground may not turn out to be defensible. What matters, really, is whether the newly occupied territory can be connected to the arteries of warfare in the rear. If reinforcements can be brought up quickly, if the cavalry can follow the infantry and the guns can get to new positions with vantage points over the enemy rear, then the offensive can be sustained.

These are deep battles, therefore, and when attacking waves of infantry face little in the way of enemy shellfire it is both because they are being left for the machine guns to deal with and because the artillery may also have “lifted” in order to focus on the interdiction of reserves. The infantry in the immediate rear, whether working or moving up in support, are the most vulnerable targets of shrapnel, gas, and high explosive as the day wears on.

The 1st Royal Inniskillings, therefore, had drawn a less dangerous assignment than leading the attack, but it is now far from a safe job. A few miles south-east of the Royal Welch, they have detailed to build the forward-area infrastructure that the offensive would depend upon.

Francis Ledwidge‘s biographer puts us with the men of his battalion, in support, questioning the only British soldiers they see who are likely to have some sense of how the battle is progressing.

All during the morning… the tide of wounded flowed back from the front line. Once again the stretcher-bearers had to raise their burdens shoulder-high as they sloshed along. Questioned how the day went, there was not much they could tell… All they could say was that the German front line of shell-craters was quickly taken, as it was manned by only scattered outposts. But immediately they found themselves in an inferno of gunfire as wave after wave of Germans came out against them, fighting like tigers.

Francis Ledwidge

Ledwidge and his comrades in reserve had been toiling since early morning at road-making…

There was a violent rainstorm in the afternoon, shrouding the region in a grey monochrome… Road-work could not be suspended, however, as the tracks were in use as fast as they were laid down. Tea was issued to the men and, drenched to the skin, they stopped to swallow it. A shell exploded beside Ledwidge and he was instantly killed.

There is no doubt about Ledwidge’s fate; the shell killed six other men and wounded many more. The battalion chaplain, Father Devas, was nearby, but still far too far away for last rites. He performed the burial service soon afterwards, and will write in his diary, tonight:

Ledwidge killed, blown to bits; at Confession yesterday and Mass and Holy Communion this morning. R.I.P.[11]

 

It was a battlefield burial, and not much like the one Ledwidge had described in “A Soldier’s Grave.”

Then in the lull of midnight, gentle arms
Lifted him slowly down the slopes of death,
Lest he should hear again the mad alarms
Of battle, dying moans, and painful breath.

And where the earth was soft for flowers we made
A grave for him that he might better rest.
So, Spring shall come and leave it sweet arrayed,
And there the lark shall turn her dewy nest.

 

Within a few miles and a few hours, Wales and Ireland lost their foremost war poets. Hedd Wyn was 30; Ledwidge, born half a year later, would have turned 30 in August. Both came from Celtic “peasant stock” and humble circumstances: Evans was one of nine children who survived infancy and left school at around the age of fourteen; Ledwidge, too, was one of nine children and left school perhaps a year earlier. Hedd Wyn stayed at home until conscription, but Ledwidge traveled–and only he crossed over into the language of the conquerors and received a lord‘s patronage and wide publication while he lived.

Each worked with their hands while working on their verse, and each will receive a posthumous epithet which confines their work even as it helps hold their place in collective memory: they were the Shepherd Poet and the Poet of the Blackbirds.

Each was looking forward to the reception of his latest work–Ledwidge’s second book, Hedd Wyn’s awdl for the Eisteddfod. Ledwidge, who had lost Ellie, wrote a last letter to Lizzie; Hedd Wyn, who had lost Lizzie, wrote a last letter to Jini. Both are buried, now, in Artillery Wood Cemetery.

Francis Ledwidge, who did not turn his poet’s pen toward the worst of the war, wrote these verses in February:

The silence of maternal hills
Is round me in my evening dreams;
And round me music-making bills
And mingling waves of pastoral streams.

Whatever way I turn I find
The path is old unto me still.
The hills of home are in my mind.
And there I wander as I will.

 

And Hedd Wyn wrote these lines about one of his friends who had gone before him to the war. It could have been for Ledwidge, almost, or, now, for himself:

Ceraist ti grwydro gwlwdydd pellenig,—             You loved to roam the distant lands
Y gwlwdydd sy ‘mhell tros y don;                           The countries beyond the sea,
Weithiau dychwelit i’th gartre mynyddig              Sometimes you’d return to your highland home,
A’th galon yn ysgafn a llon.                                    And so light of heart you’d be.

Gwelsom di ennyd cyn dychwel ohonot              We saw you awhile before you returned
I’r rhyfel sy’n crynu y byd;                                       To the war that makes the world quake,
Nodau y gwlatgar a’r beiddgar oedd ynot,           Bearing the marks so dearly bought
Y nodau sy’n costio mor ddrud.                              For your country and bravery’s sake.

Fe chwyth y corwynt tros fryniau Trawsfynydd    The storm rages over Trawsfynydd’s hills
O’th ôl fel yn athrist ei gainc;                                   After you, as if it would weep;
Tithau yng nghymni’r fataliwn ddi-hysbydd          You, who with numberless battalions in France
Sy’n cysgu’n ddi‑freuddwyd yn Ffrainc                   Lie there in a dreamless sleep.[12]

 

 

Does this strange practice of following a number of lives faithfully through their day-to-day progress, even to their deaths, help us see a perhaps-too-familiar war in a new light? Sometimes it doesn’t quite seem worth the effort. But on other days, even on sad days like this one, it does seem to intensify historical experience. And, yes, often in that familiar, bitterly ironic way.

What is to be done? Why are thoughtful young men from the green and pleasant hills of England’s first colonies (to say nothing of the thousands who came from England’s more recent and farther-flung colonies, essentially invisible in this project, or the English boys themselves) dying in Flanders? What good is it doing?

In England, the same papers that carried the news of the opening of the offensive at Pilckem Ridge carried news of yesterday‘s parliamentary questions about a certain unruly officer. Sassoon’s protest has fallen entirely between two battles. Inspired by Arras, it has lapsed during a quiet summer, and only the wake’s last mild ripple laps up against Passchendaele.

Robert Graves, now back at the Royal Welsh depot at Litherland, seems somewhat jealous of his friend’s publicity, however negative it is. (Only two newspapers will come out in support of Sassoon; others will mock him, dismiss him, or publish would-be exposés of his family history.)

My dear Sassons

…Well you are notorious throughout England now you silly old thing! Everybody here who’s been to France agrees with your point of view, but those that don’t know you think it was not quite a gentlemanly course to take: the ‘quixotic-English-sportsman’ class especially.’ But you have accomplished something I suppose… What a ridiculous business! I hope it won’t injure your poetry: and that old Gosse won’t think better of celebrating his protégé in the Edinburgh Review. I’m longing to get my Sorley back. Hurry up with it…

Poor devils at Pilkem![13]

 

Yes, the poor devils. Hedd Wyn and Francis Ledwidge would perhaps have written verse about the battle, if they had lived. Hedd Wyn surely would have; his war verse was very strong even before he had seen the war. But what could they have written about the attack itself? This war is beginning to produce great literature–small recompense for the suffering, but there is no way out of that moral-aesthetic fact–but it has yet to produce many good accounts of a major offensive. This is not surprising: it has always been very difficult first to make any sense of a battle and then represent it in words, let alone in verse. And it’s not getting any easier.

But Edmund Blunden, who is here and who will survive the day, will try. He wrote a poem (“Third Ypres”), a story (“Over the Sacks”), and he addressed the ongoing battle in the most harrowing chapter of his memoirs.

The story we will pass over (a page of the manuscript is at right, and it can be read in full at the First World War Poetry Digital Archive). And the poem is none of his best, not least because Blunden tries to describe the progress of the war, blow by blow. This is no wartime lyric, but an attempt, as it were, at a fragment of descriptive epic, something to fall between Vergil and Lucan.

It begins with the realization among the men of the writer’s battalion that the early stages of the attack are going well.

Triumph! How strange, how strong had triumph come
On weary hate of foul and endless war
When from its grey gravecloths awoke anew
The summer day. Among the tumbled wreck
Of fascined lines and mounds the light was peering,
Half-smiling upon us, and our newfound pride;
The terror of the waiting night outlived,
The time too crowded for the heart to count
All the sharp cost in friends killed on the assault.
No hook of all the octopus had held us,[14]
Here stood we trampling down the ancient tyrant.
So shouting dug we among the monstrous pits.

Amazing quiet fell upon the waste,
Quiet intolerable to those who felt
The hurrying batteries beyond the masking hills…

The War would end, the Line was on the move,
And at a bound the impassable was passed.
We lay and waited with extravagant joy.

This is verse, but it’s also historical witness. This is how the day went, for many of the battalions involved. The first waves did well, but the effort was impossible to sustain.

Now dulls the day and chills; comes there no word
From those who swept through our new lines to flood
The lines beyond? but little comes, and so
Sure as a runner time himself’s accosted.
And the slow moments shake their heavy heads,
And croak, “They’re done, they’ll none of them get through,
They’re done, they’ve all died on the entanglements,
The wire stood up like an unplashed hedge and thorned
With giant spikes — and there they’ve paid the bill.”

Then comes the black assurance, then the sky’s
Mute misery lapses into trickling rain,
That wreathes and swims and soon shuts in our world.

The rain happened that way too. Although the attack had been held back in the hopes that August would be drier than July, it began raining this afternoon and rained almost steadily for most of the next week. This rain was more than symbolic, but less than strategically decisive: the attack had failed to break through, so no matter how many Germans were killed, no matter how many guns were captured, it was already doomed to failure on the strategic level. The only remaining question is not strategic or tactical but attritional: there will be no breakthrough, but will one army or the other break?

Neither will collapse, yet, but no one could have known that for certain. Nevertheless, they could have guessed with more intelligence, or good sense, or pity. Instead, Haig and his staff will long press the question, on into an autumn of mud and misery and death.

Blunden’s account of today in Undertones of War begins with the Staff–but those who command the battle have already become irrelevant to its progress by the time it begins; another familiar irony. He improves on the poem in many ways, not least in allowing the generalized vision of battle to focus briefly–if distantly–on actual people. The runner is joined by captains and churls; the Thersites of the Royal Sussex and some of the far-off Captains of Contingents.

The hour of attack had been fixed by the staff much earlier than the infantry wanted or thought suitable. The night had passed as such nights often do, shelling being less than was anticipated, silent altogether at times. I suppose it was about 3:00 when I shook hands with Colonel Millward, mounted the black-oozing steps of battle headquarters in the burrows below Bilge Street, and got into the assembly ditch (Hornby Trench) with my signallers. It was thick darkness and slippery going, but we used an old road part of the way. Where we lay, there were in the darkness several tall tree stumps above, and it felt like a friendly ghost that watched the proceedings.

At 3:50, if I am right, shortly after Vidler had passed me growling epigrams at some recent shellburst which had covered him with mud, the British guns began; a flooded Amazon of steel flowed roaring, immensely fast, over our heads, and the machine-gun bullets made a pattern of sharper sound and maniac language against that diluvian rush. Flaring lights, small ones, great ones, went spinning sideways in the cloud of night; one’s eyes seemed not quick enough; one heard nothing from one’s shouting neighbour, and only by the quality of the noise and flame did I know that the German shells crashing among the tree stumpswere big ones and practically on top of us. We moved ahead, found No Man’s Land a comparatively good  surface, were amazed at the puny tags and rags of once multiplicative German wire, and blundered over the once-feared trench behind them without seeing it. Good men as they were, my party were almost all half-stunned by the unearthliness of our own barrage, and when two were wounded it was left to me to bandage them in my ineffective way. The dark began to be diluted with day, and as we went on we saw concrete emplacements, apparently unattended to as yet, which had to be treated with care and suspicion; I was well satisfied to find them empty. And indeed the whole area seemed to be deserted. German dead, so obvious at every yard of a 1916 battlefield, were not to be seen. We still went ahead, and the mist whitened into dawn; through it came running a number of Germans — a momentary doubt; no — “Prisoners!” shouted my batman. A minute more, and my advanced guard of signallers had come into touch with the companies, digging in along their captured objective. Meanwhile, I went ahead to see all the mist allowed; there were troops of our brigade advancing through the lines of men consolidating shell holes, and with map before me I could recognize some of the places which we had certainly captured. It seemed marvellous, for the moment! All ours — all these German trenches. Caliban Support, Calf Avenue, Calf Reserve. But, stay — even now a pity looks one in the face, for these trenches are mostlymere hedges of brushwood, hurdles, work for a sheep-fold, with a shallow ditch behind; and they have been taking our weeks of gunfire in these!

The sympathy actually occurred to me, but was soon obliterated by the day’s work and an increase in the German gunfire upon us. The passage of the tanks through our position was thought to be the reason, for as these machines wheeled aside from the pits where our men were digging, heavy shells came down with formidable accuracy. Besides, the enemy must have captured our operation maps with all the stages of advance displayed. I remember that I was talking with somebody about one “Charlie” Aston, an officer’s servant, who had been running here and there to collect watches from German dead. He had just returned to his chosen shell hole, with several
fine specimens, when a huge shell burst in the very place. But not much notice was taken, or elegy uttered, for everywhere the same destruction threatened. And Tice and Collyer were already killed—news as yet failing to have its full painfulness in the thick of things.

The battalion headquarters soon advanced from the old British front line, still conspicuous with the tall tree stumps, and crushed itself into a little concrete dugout with a cupola over it, formerly used for a perfect survey of the British defences. Road-making parties had lost no time and, strung out among the shellbursts, were shovelling and pummelling tracks across old No Man’s Land.

These men might be Ledwidge and his companions–except that they are in a neighboring division. The road they’ve made allow the staff–not the Olympian General Staff but its least august and most local branch office–to see the battle.

And then the brigade headquarters came, beautiful to look upon, and their red tabs glowed out of several shell holes. This was more than the German observers could endure, and in a short time there was such a shower of high explosive on that small area that the brains of the brigade withdrew, a trifle disillusioned, to the old British trenches. Another shower, and a more serious and incontestable one, was now creeping on miserably over the whole field. It was one of the many which caused the legend, not altogether dismissed even by junior officers, that the Germans could make it rain when they wanted to. Now, too, we were half aware that the attack had failed farther on, and one more brilliant hope, expressed a few hours before in shouts of joy, sank into the mud.[15]

This is life-history, or personal prose–but it seems to fit the battle. Or, at least, what the battle will become.

 

But that too is taking liberties with historiography. It was not raining in the morning, and the Germans did not make it rain–nor were all the staff’s objectives impossible to obtain. Can one attempt more traditional battlefield historiography, on a day like today?

Just to the left of the Royal Welch Fusiliers’ 38th Division were the Guards, including the Second Irish Guards, whose official historian, already on the job a century back, was Rudyard Kipling.

July 31st opened, at 3.30 a. m., with a barrage of full diapason along the army front, followed on the Guards sector by three minutes of “a carefully prepared hate,” during which two special companies projected oil-drums throwing flame a hundred yards around, with thermit that burned everything it touched. The enemy had first shown us how to employ these scientific aids, and we had bettered the instruction.

His barrage in reply fell for nearly an hour on the east bank of the canal. Our creeping barrage was supposed to lift at 4 a. m. and let the two leading battalions (2nd Irish Guards and 1st Scots Guards) get away; but it was not till nearly a quarter of an hour later that the attack moved forward in waves behind it. Twelve minutes later, Nos. 1 and 2 Companies of the Battalion had reached the first objective (Cariboo and Cannon trenches) “with only one dead
German encountered”; for the enemy’s withdrawal to his selected line had been thorough. The remaining companies followed, and behind them came the 1st Coldstream, all according to schedule; till by 5.20 a. m. the whole of the first objective had been taken and was being consolidated, with very small loss…

About half-past five, Colonel Greer, while standing outside advanced Battalion Headquarters dug-out in the first objective line, was killed instantly by shrapnel or bullet. It was his devoted work, his arrangement and foresight that had brought every man to his proper place so far without waste of time or direction. He had literally made the Battalion for this battle as a steeple-chaser is made for a given line of country. Men and officers together adored him for his justice, which was exemplary and swift; for the human natural fun of the man; for his knowledge of war and the material under his hand, and for his gift of making hard life a thing delightful. He fell on the threshold of the
day ere he could see how amply his work had been rewarded…

No Greek heroes here, but a Moses out of the grimmer warfare of the Hebrew Bible–they did it first, and we will do it more ruthlessly and competently. And he falls within sight of the promised land.

And here’s a strange if superficial coincidence: on a day when the Sassoon family is being dragged through the tabloids (Siegfried, though he was baptized and raised as an Anglican and identified with his maternal family–the eminently English Thornycrofts–descended from a prominent Sephardic Jewish mercantile clan) in search of their scion’s wretched anti-militarism, a half second cousin, Reginald Ellice Sassoon, is credited with speeding an important advance.

Lieutenant Sassoon, commanding No. 3, got his Lewis-gun to cover a flank attack on the machine-gun that was doing the damage, took it with seven German dead and five wounded prisoners, and so freed the advance for the Scots Guards and his own company. As the latter moved forward they caught it in the rear from another machine-gun which had been overlooked, or hidden itself in the cleaning-up of Hey Wood.

Sassoon sent back a couple of sections to put this thing out of action (which they did) and pushed on No. 4 Company, which was getting much the same allowance from concrete emplacements covering machine-guns outside Artillery Wood…

All in all, the Irish Guards had been quite successful.

Indeed, they admitted among themselves — which is where criticism is fiercest — that they had pulled the scheme off rather neatly, in spite of their own barrages, and that the map and model study had done the trick. By ten o’clock of the morning their work was substantially complete. They had made and occupied the strong points linking up between their advanced companies and the final objectives, which it was the business of the other brigades to secure. As they put it, “everything had clicked…”

Successful, yet still costly:

…At three o’clock Father Knapp appeared at Battalion Headquarters — that most insanitary place — and proposed to stay there. It was pointed out to him that the shelling was heavy, accommodation, as he could see, limited, and he had better go to the safer advanced dressing-station outside Boesinghe and deal with the spiritual needs of his wounded as they were sent in. The request had to be changed to a reasonably direct order ere he managed to catch it; for, where his office was concerned, the good Father lacked something of that obedience he preached. And a few hours after he had gone down to what, with any other man, would have been reasonable security, news arrived that he had been mortally wounded while tending cases “as they came out” of the dressing-station. He must have noticed that the accommodation there was cramped, too, and have exposed himself to make shelter for others…

The toll is taken: three officers, including the C.O. (but not the chaplain) killed, and three wounded. More paths cross here: Lady Dorothie Feilding‘s brother “Peter” (Henry) was a captain in the Coldstream Guards, and she will spend much of the rest of her honeymoon seeking news of him before finally learning that he is safe, for the moment–his battalion was in reserve. But as they use “their contacts in Flanders” to try to get news by letter and telegraph, her new husband, late of the Irish Guards, will learn that “his 3 best friends” were all killed today, a century back–Sir John Dyer, Col. Greer, and “Father Knapps who was to have married us.”[16]

Casualties in other ranks came to 280, a large part due to machine-gun fire. It was a steadying balance-sheet and, after an undecided action, would have been fair excuse for a little pause and reconstruction. But a clean-cut all-
out affair, such as Boesinghe, was different, though it had been saddened by the loss of an unselfish priest who feared nothing created, and a commanding officer as unselfish and as fearless as he…

Greer’s insistence that the men should know the model of the ground, and their officers the aeroplane maps of it, and his arrangements whereby all units could report lucidly at any moment where they were, had brought them success. So, with 50 per cent, of their strength gone, and the dismal wet soaking the stiff survivors to the bone, they hobbled about, saying, “If he were only here now to see how he has pulled this off!”[17]

Pilckem ridge, a bloody, partial success–or at least a qualified failure–is over. But the larger monstrosity known as Third Ypres has only begun; Passchendaele is coming…

 

We’ll close today with two more participants–our two most assiduous diarists–both in the British rear. Kate Luard, ready and waiting for the first torn bodies, wrote in her diary at the beginning and the end of the day.

4.15 a.m. …We crept out on to the duckboards and saw. It was more wonderful and stupendous than horrible…

6.30 a.m. We have just begun taking in the first cases…

Same day, 11 p.m. We have been working in the roar of battle every minute since I last wrote… Soon after 10 o’clock this morning he began putting over high explosive. Everyone had to put on tin-hats and carry on… no direct hits but streams of shrapnel, which were quite hot when you picked them up… we were so frantically busy that it was easier to pay less attention to it.

It doesn’t look as if we should ever sleep again…[18]

Luard’s forward hospital dealt with hundreds of abdominal wounds, saving many, perhaps, who would have died on the way to the usual Casualty Clearing Stations. If Hedd Wyn’s wound had only been a little less severe, if it had only been possible for the overburdened stretcher bearers to go farther and faster…

 

But just as Luard worked all day to save the broken bodies, the Master of Belhaven worked all day to break more. That’s in the nature of artillery work.

We… have fired without stopping all day… we have not got as far as was intended just here, I have only seen about a couple of hundred German prisoners, but I believe a great many have been taken. They have no doubt gone back by a different route. On the other hand, I believe we have done very well up to the North…

This is true–both the French advance and the near-achievement of the “Green Line” goal by the Guards and the 38th Division were accounted successes. But ground gained still must be weighed against the flesh and blood it cost. Hamilton summarizes the reports filtering back from the wounded infantry: “I am afraid our casualties have been very heavy.” As for his own batteries, it will not be a one-sided battle for long.

Very few shells have come over us to-day as we expected. During the actual attack the hostile artillery devote themselves to the infantry. Our hard time will come to-morrow.[19]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. By which he means the night of July 30-31st; and he's jumping the gun just a bit on the rain...
  2. Love and the Loveless, 218-19.
  3. As Williamson did, until he went sick and was sent to Cornwall to recuperate.
  4. The cool old officer whom David Jones had so recently glimpsed striding the parapet.
  5. Llwyd, The Story of Hedd Wyn, 93-115. Alan Llwyd has weighed the various testimonies about Hedd Wyn's death, and I follow his reconstruction of the most probable sequence of events.
  6. Trans. Howard Huws.
  7. It's more than possible that I have just missed this. If not--if no one figured this out during Jones's long life and told him about it--then it's a striking and somewhat sad slipped stitch in the patchwork of Great War literature. Jones worked for years to learn enough Welsh to integrate its myths and history into his war epic, and even if he would not, perhaps, have been unduly impressed by the mere coincidence of proximity in space and time, he might, if he had known that a chaired bard had been killed in his own battalion, have thought more about contemporary Welsh poetry and its place in a British accounting of France and Flanders. Or not--there are many things I do not understand about Welsh-language culture a century back--and now--and about the political and cultural complexities of translation. Do Welsh poets claim David Jones--or, rather, do they honor his application for honorary membership in their ranks--for his ancestry, artistry, and benign intent? Does the resurgence of Welsh culture after devolution mean that Hedd Wyn has been annexed, to some degree, away from some more pure bardic/local identity and flattened into a "heritage" figure, half Welsh Rupert Brooke and half Welsh Wilfred Owen? I wish I had started on this particular thread a bit earlier...
  8. This also accounts for all officers becoming casualties--a disproportionate number would have been held back. but still...
  9. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 159-63.
  10. The Sleeping Lord, 100-111.
  11. Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 188.
  12. Trans. Howard Huws
  13. In Broken Images, 80.
  14. This line recalls--or rather foreshadows--the closing lines of Undertones of War.
  15. Undertones of War, chapter 21.
  16. Lady Under Fire, 219. The misspelling--"Knapps"--is presumably Lady Dorothie's.
  17. The Irish Guards in the Great War, II, 193-8.
  18. Unknown Warriors, 133-4.
  19. War Diary, 356-7.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

19.6.17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

June 19

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

References and Footnotes

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

Siegfried Sassoon Joins the Second Battalion, in Several Frames of Mind; Unquiet Death Stalks Edwin Vaughan

After a long, slow train journey, a nasty night at Corbie, and a sticky tramp up to “Camp 13” at Chipilly, Siegfried Sassoon joined the Second Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers today, a century back.

He is not best pleased: his previous service had been with the First Battalion, and even finding his way to the one other Regular battalion of his own Regiment is not good enough to lift his spirits. (Many, indeed, were not so fortunate, in these days of expanding bureaucracy–he might have been sent to a Kitchener mob or even to some foreign, declassé regiment.) The chief appeal of the 2/RWF was to have been Robert Graves, but he is headed Blightyward, sick once again.

Will the dour and acid Sassoon of the Rouen sojourn remain utterly friendless, or will his gentler instincts (or the inevitable cycles of his changeable mien) prevail?

So far, at least, the former:

I was wearing my best friends, a pair of greased marching boots whose supple strength had never failed to keep the water out; how much those boots meant to me can only be understood by persons who have never shared my type of experience; I can only say that they never gave me sore feet; and if this sounds irrelevant, I must remind the reader that a platoon commander’s feet were his fortune.

Yes: when at long last he returns to a fighting unit of his regiment, after more than half a year a way, he sings a paean to his boots, preferring them to his human traveling companions, the two cadet officers he had “nothing in common with.”[1]

But as he points out, an infantry officer’s feet are very important… also, generally, are his friends.

Also, I have erred: those were the words of “George Sherston,” not Siegfried Sassoon. But as it happens, today, a century back, is the day that the exceedingly flimsy veil is rent by a draft–namely the draft of the foregoing passage of Memoirs of an Infantry Officer which made its way into Dr. Dunn’s battalion chronicle. I will wrest a slightly different bit from Dunn, to show that Sassoono does indeed remark on the men of his battalion, and not just the unsuitable officers.

I found myself in command of No. 8 platoon, which contained 8 Private Joneses.[2] Its total strength numbered 34, including 2 sergeants, 2 corporal and 6 lance-corporals. Eight of the 34 were Lewis gunners. These being deducted my compact little unit… seldom mustered 20 strong… A recent draft had added a collection of under-sized half-wits to the depleted Battalion. Several men in my platoon seemed barely capable of carrying the weight of their equpiment…[3]

Shorn of its sheen of fictionalization, this is still pretty harsh. At the very least it’s a less-than-ringing endorsement of the most literary battalion on the occasion of the arrival of its most appreciated litterateur…

But wait, there’s more! Here’s Sassoon in propria voce, taking the story from yesterday afternoon:

Left Rouen about 4 o’clock in sunlight… Got to Corbie at midnight… slept in Field Ambulance and went out to.Rest Camp at Chipilly next day to join Second R.W.F.

…My two R.W.F. companions are… quite dull and suitably impressed by the occasion. Everything seems conspiring to lower my spirits (our kits were lost and plundered on the way up…)

The poem he wrote is of a piece:

Return

I have come home unnoticed; they are still;
No greetings pass between us; but they lie
Hearing the boom of guns along the hill
Watching the flashes lick the glowering sky.

A wind of whispers comes from sightless faces;
‘Have patience, and your bones shall share our bed.
Their voices haunt dark ways and ruined places,
Where once they spoke in deeds who now are dead.

They wondered why l went; at last returning,
They guide my labouring feet through desolate mud.
And, choked with death, yet in their eyes discerning
My living Strength; they are quickened in my blood.

 

It becomes impossible to track down the “real” Sassoon–to fix him for than a few moments, here or there in the years, pen or indelible pencil in hand. When he was writing “Return,” at least, it would seem that a Sorley-inflected (but not Sorley-quality; indeed, wholly traditional and showing not a trace of his sharp recent satiric wit) poem about death and loss was the only thing that could express his true feelings. (Better, at least, then simple whingeing about uncongenial companions or slow trains.) It would seem, too, that his requirements of the Second Battalion are extremely unrealistic: it will not do unless it is officered by men he already knows and loves, despite the fact that many of these are dead or disabled…

But poetry is truth, right?

Ah, but what if the author himself returns to the poem and adds a footnote excoriating his own verse for its “entirely artificial emotionalism?”[4]

Sassoon is impossible, which is also to say that he’s never dull, even when he’s down. Let’s just give the last word to Frank Richards, old soldier and signaler of the battalion, and leave Sassoon for a better day:

Two new officers that had just arrived seemed of a far better stamp than some that we had had during the last few months, and one named Mr Sassoon, who was wearing the ribbon of the Military Cross, was soon very popular with the men of the Company he was posted to. He had been with the First Battalion before he came to us. The Battalion was doing the ordinary training… I had some glorious days in the villages some miles from the huts. We at least were getting all the enjoyment we could before going back to the blood-tub where we never knew what might happen to us.[5]

 

That’s more like it. But speaking of returning to the blood-tub:

Edwin Vaughan was also on the way up to the line last night, scrambling overland to rejoin his platoon in its scattered front-line posts. After a harrowing approach through machine gun and trench mortar fire, Vaughan had circled the posts, crawling through the viscous mud to visit each one and check in with the non-com in command. At one such post he found a normally reliable man–Corporal Bennett–in near panic (does that etymology lurk in Ledwidge’s recent pastoral?), begging to be relieved. But Bennett calmed down once Vaughan denied his request and explained that exceptions couldn’t be made. He was left in the post, in command of six men and Vaughan finished his tour and snatched a few hours of sleep in a dugout.

Early in the morning, a century back, Vaughan awoke and found a fellow officer making out a casualty report for Corporal Bennett:

A few minutes after I had left them a bomb had fallen amongst them. I told Holmes about Bennett’s nervousness and sudden return to fatalism and we agreed that he must have had a premonition.

But Vaughan’s description of his interaction with Bennett doesn’t mention a premonition or “fatalism.”

I’ve doubted details of Vaughan’s diary before–it seems to me to have been inconsistently “worked up,” with a lack of clear explanation of when it is and is not the plain daily diary it purports to be… but today’s tale actually seems to bolster the case that Vaughan is not always embroidering his experience.

First, although he is indeed “emplotting” events–turning a small disaster into a retrospective story of fate (or nerves and nemesis–it seems as if he is doing it as he writes. The story-fying of experience, that is, is taking place this very morning, a century back, and not later on (when the diary was recopied).

Second, because the CWGC database confirms some details of today’s account. One obvious question is why a corporal would be in command of a post of six men, and a possible answer is that he would if he had been formally invested with a sergeant’s responsibility by means of the arcane rank of “lance sergeant,” a sort of honorary half-promotion for corporals. I can’t find a Corporal Bennett at a close enough date, but there is a Lance-Sergeant Alfred Bennett of the Royal Warwickshires who is listed as having been killed tomorrow, a century back. That is a very small discrepancy, and it is even bolstered by the fact that Bennett has no known resting place. Many bodies were lost even in less difficult circumstances… I can’t quite match Bennet’s report of three other men being killed–and a fourth later in the day but, again, the database brings us fairly close: a few corporals and privates of the Warwickshires are reported killed today and buried at nearby cemeteries.

And then another wrinkle: Vaughan claims to have buried all four of the men “in shell-holes behind the post where they were killed.” Were some of them reburied later, while Bennett, who appears on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing, was never found? Very possible; I haven’t read ahead in Vaughan’s book yet, but perhaps that will clear things up to some degree.

So let’s move on, then, for the moment, genre sensors at the ready, to discover the reason that Vaughan gives these details:

After coming off duty, I was lying alone in the straw, and just dozing off, when I heard someone stop outside the cellar.  Sitting up, I saw the blanket slowly lifted and a head appeared in the dim light of the candle. I hardly repressed a scream of horror, and an icy numbness gripped me as I scanned–a blackened face, thick lips and acquiline nose, big eyes that stared at me, and a cap comforter drawn down almost to the eyebrows.  It was the face of the dead man that I had buried.

For fully half a minute we looked in silence at each other, then he asked me if I could tell him what time the rations would be up.  I laughed hysterically and made him come in so that I could dispel by conversation the awful fright that this appearance had given me. It was Corporal Harrison, his face blackened with wood-smoke but his every feature identical with that of the corpse.[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Complete Memoirs, 407.
  2. The paucity of family names in Wales seems to have been a never-ending source of humor to English observers. But it does stimulate an irresistible creativity in the way of cognomina...
  3. The War the Infantry Knew, 306.
  4. Diaries, 143.
  5. Old Soldiers Never Die, 221.
  6. Some Desperate Glory, 36-43.

Francis Ledwidge Remembers Spring; F.S. Flint Dines With the Inimitable Ford, Who “Still Invents His Life, Rather;” Dirty Rhymes from Siegfried Sassoon; Good News Brings No Relief to Edward Thomas; Bob Hermon Arrives in Arras

We’ll open today with Francis Ledwidge, minding poetry’s seasonal business. Is it spring, yet, in France? No; but it is Spring at home, in a sense:

Spring

Sweet by the river’s noisy brink
The water-lily bursts her crown,
The kingfisher comes down to drink
Like rainbow jewels falling down.

And when the blue and grey entwine
The daisy shuts her golden eye,
And peace wraps all those hills of mine
Safe in my dearest memory.

France,
March 8th, 1917.

 

Next comes an amusing letter to Richard Aldington from his friend, fellow Imagist, and frequent correspondent F.S. Flint. Aldington, I often forget, was once private secretary to Ford Madox Hueffer:

…I had a telephone call yesterday, and a voice said. Is that you, Flint. I’m Ford Madox Hueffer! Good god, I cried. Yes, can you come and dine with me to-night? –Rather, where can I meet you? So I met him at 5.30 outside Shipwrights, the barber’s, in Coventry Street. We walked to his lodging in the Y.M.C.A. bungalow at Victoria, thence by way of the R.C. Cathedral to the Authors’ Club, where we had a sherry and bitters… we proceeded by way of the tube to the Rendezvous in Soho, where Ford spend [sic] 16/6 on a dinner consisting of Chambertin (I think), hors d’oeuvres varies, salmon and turkey, large helpings of each, to keep within the three course limit. Thence we returned in a taxi to the Authors’ Club, where I took down a list of the poems Ford wants collected in a volume which he wants me to look after.

He had already asked me from France to do this, but I like a churl refused in beautiful French and sent him Poverty. I repented in a few days… and sent him another letter begging his pardon, and accepting the job. He had had neither of these letters. Ford is very quiet, some great change has taken place in him. He says he is going to stay in the Army and not write another book. He laughed when I chaffed him and pointed out the inconsistency of this declaration with his wanting me to pilot a book of poems for him. But he is changed. He is no longer the fat man he was, and he is uglier, and there is another look in his eyes. He still invents his life rather, but I felt that he was rather down and out. Here is a poem I have written as a result of our meeting. It has not come off, but I feel that if I concentrate on it again, it will come out all right…[1]

No, the poem does not quite come off. But what a description of Ford! Changed, and yet unchanged in his total changeability–gorging himself, but on a budget; forswearing art but pushing his war poems. The down-and-outness seems just right, and the propensity for fabulation is something we have been tracing ever since Ford started writing of his experiences in France last summer. And yet can Flint, loyal modernist of the younger generation, have any idea that Ford’s tendency to mythologize his own life will lead to a great fat brilliant beast of a war novel?

 

Things with Edward Thomas could be better–he’s stuck doing office work away from his battery, where he might be doing something to alleviate the feelings of uselessness and loneliness that have been tugging him down toward depression. But things could also be much worse: he’s had a walk, and a good word from across the pond.

Snow blizzard—fine snow and fierce wind… but suddenly a blue sky and soft white cloud through the last of the snow… I liked the walk. Letters from Helen, Eleanor, Oscar and Frost (saying he had got an American publisher for my verses). [2]

Thomas wrote back to Eleanor Farjeon the same day–but there is little of the good cheer we might have hoped for:

March 8

My dear Eleanor, Another letter from you today. I think I already owed you one, but was waiting for the Fortnum and Mason to arrive. It hasn’t done so yet, so I won’t wait any longer, though I doubt if I can do much tonight. I have become rather fed up by this job. It has meant a lot of idle cold hours indoors, a lot of dissatisfaction with myself and some with other people. The Colonel here, though a charming and often entertaining man, is very tyrannical and I have done many trivial things that annoyed me to have to do. Also the nights have been disturbing. I must expect that, but of course artillery in a city is exceptionally noisy. As a matter of fact though I fall asleep very quickly both on putting out my candle and after being wakened up by the fear of God. You mustn’t joke about leave. There is no leave for anyone in this army, neither for men who have been out 9 months nor for men whose wives are dying. If I come back it will be wounded or at the end of the war, I don’t mind which…

This is a poor letter for you. I hope it will find you in fine weather in your cottage garden and able to imagine me much better off than in this belated frost.

Can this be a peevish sort of joke? (The “frost,” I mean, not this early-onset hope for a blighty one.)

…I have heard from Frost—or Helen did, saying he had found a pushbike, but too late, I suspect.[3]

 

The bad mood would seem to be general, though manifesting very differently in our different poets. Siegfried Sassoon wrote to Robbie Ross today, a century back, including in the letter satiric verse both unusual and unsettling. In “The Optimist,” Sassoon has a dull-witted officer spout clichés about soundly beating the Germans–the usual skewering of safe staff officers, at least until it is revealed that the speaker has suffered a head wound… The poem will be published soon, but Sassoon will regret this… it’s not a very satisfactory satire.

The second bit of verse he included was never intended for publication. We have seen the unfortunate conjoining of Sassoon’s snobbery and prudery descend upon the young Welsh officers out for the first time–really, the Sassoon who bemoans the murder of youth should be in sympathy with them. But not if they are speaking with uncouth accents and patronizing the local prostitutes. Hoping to entertain the “unshockable” Robbie Ross, Sassoon archly pities the “poor harlots… how tired they must be of the Welsh dialect and the Lloyd George embrace!”

But the verse is even worse:

She met me on the stairs in her chemise;
I grinned and offered her a five franc note;
Poor girl, no doubt she did her best to please;
But I’d have been far happier with a goat.

This is obnoxious, but one could choose to read it as merely a juvenile rhyme, a nasty private joke. The Royal Welch, after all, have a regimental goat, and such jokes… But that would be to deny that this, too, might be a window into Sassoon’s conflicted character, “a particularly virulent manifestation of Sassoon’s distaste for heterosexual activity.”[4] Perhaps–but Robert Graves, in principle and later practice an enthusiastic heterosexual–was just as snobbish/prudish and cutting about the sordid business of young soldiers and military brothels.

 

We’ll end with a sharp turn back toward traditional family values then, and check in with Bob Hermon:

My darling,

Your letter about the lovely weather is most encouraging but as I happen to be sitting in a house without any glass in the windows & as it is snowing hard, I fail to see it! I am in the big town close handy to were I was…

I rode down here yesterday in the most biting cold wind I ever remember…[5]

The big town is Arras–Hermon’s battalion, too, is being moved into position for the next big push…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Imagist Dialogues. 196-7.
  2. War Diary (Childhood), 168.
  3. Farjeon, Edward Thomas... 254-5.
  4. Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, 325-7.
  5. For Love and Courage, 334-5.

Edwin Vaughan Digs In, and Reverses Course; Charles Scott Moncrieff in Amiens; Siegfried Sassoon’s Lamentations; Alf Pollard and His Jolly Old Revolver

Last night, a century back, Edwin Vaughan gave up on trying to bury a number of British corpses lying out near their lines. Today he will deal with the after-effects of a more successful burying party.

This morning, carrying out a few improvements to our dugout, we started to level up the ground under our table which is very rickety. The earth was spongy, and we started digging with entrenching tools, but we struck an old blue tunic, and when we gave it a tug, the resistance–and an unpleasant smell–warned us that we had a guest, so we apologized and patted the earth back. As we replaced the table, a message was brought up by a signaller that I was to report to HQ at 6 p.m. to proceed on a course.[1]

And just like that, Vaughan, who only reached his battalion early in the new year and has had all of two days actually in front line trenches, is off on a “refresher course.” We’ll see him next month…

 

Charles Scott Moncrieff, mildly ill and recuperating in Amiens, took his turn as a tourist today. This is a young man at pains to show that he is no ordinary tourist… but he isn’t. Scott Moncrieff knows France and the French better than most Britishers…

16th February, 1917.

. . . With the aid of a very useful little ten sous handbook and map I made my way round le viel Amiens yesterday. It is rather dull. There is one church, St. Germain, faintly interesting, and the Belfry, and an old timbered house in the Passage Gossart—closed and tumbling down, of which I should like to get you the pattern of the corbel, rather worn, but seems to be clusters of fruit with animals between. There is a hedgehog—very distinct, at the end, also a monkey reaching for fruit. . . There is a rumour that the British line now extends to Soissons—I don’t suppose there’s anything in it—but I should like to see Soissons. I’m afraid it is one of the Villes Martyres. France is a very wonderful country: this tiny fraction that we are soldiering in, Normandy, Picardy, Artois and Flanders, is so full of interest, and then there are hundreds of other provinces, each with its own characteristics, and all sunny and pleasant. . . . [2]

 

And in another great cathedral town and British base, Siegfried Sassoon arrived and ran straight into the pain and despondency he has been anticipating. Rouen’s Infantry Base Depot (where he will await assignment to a particular battalion) is a great place to wallow in misery and bureaucratic limbo, but even if Sassoon had had some hopes of keeping his spirits up until he got his chance to go up the line and attempt some sort of reckless beau geste, the misery of the war came companionably to meet him on his first night in France.

Not long after arriving, Sassoon lost his way in the huge camp and stumbled into a Guard Room tent. There–and this “almost certainly did occur”[3]–he came upon this sight:

A man, naked to the waist, was kneeling in the middle of the floor, clutching at his chest and weeping uncontrollably. The Guard were standing around with embarrassed looks…

“Why, sir, the man’s been under detention for assaulting the military police, and now ‘e’s just ‘ad news of his brother being killed. Seems to take it to ‘eart more than most would. ‘Arf crazy, ‘e’s been, tearing ‘is clothes off and cursing the War and the Fritzes. Almost like a shell-shock case, ‘e seems.”[4]

Or so “George Sherston” is told in Sassoon’s memoir. This sort of suffering is what Sassoon has been expecting–but not so soon. Even as he begins to hate the war–as he prepares to hate the war–it sneaks up and catches him with a surprise barrage. There’s another, reason, too, for this scene to affect him: it is also almost an externalization of his own bottled-up spirit-in-turmoil. Sassoon lost his brother, after all, and yet he is an officer and a very well-mannered gentleman and would never cry out like this…

But he’ll write a poem, taking this misery and putting it to use–standoffishly, in terms of voice; ironically, in terms of mood… and politically.

 

Lamentations

I found him in the guard-room at the Base.
From the blind darkness I had heard his crying
And blundered in. With puzzled, patient face
A sergeant watched him; it was no good trying
To stop it; for he howled and beat his chest.
And, all because his brother had gone west,
Raved at the bleeding war; his rampant grief
Moaned, shouted, sobbed, and choked, while he was kneeling
Half-naked on the floor. In my belief
Such men have lost all patriotic feeling.

 

You know who hasn’t lost all patriotic feeling? Alf Pollard, that’s who.

If Sassoon is an on-again off-again fire-eater and deeply conflicted thinker-about-the-war, Pollard know what he wants out of the war–“fun” and medals–and, more to the point, how he wants to write it: as stuffed with cliché and cheerful violence as his pockets are stuffed with Mills bombs…

Dearest Mater,

I expect you have wondered why the devil I have got slack in writing again. As a matter of fact I have been unable to. The battalion have had about the hardest time they have ever had while I have been with them…

I had a difficult reconnaissance to do which was fortunately successful… The result of my report was that we went over the top the next night to capture the trench in front. There was practically no resistance on our right, but, on the left flank, where I happened to be in command, they tried to stop us. I was the first man over the Hun parapet and landed right on top of two Huns who tried to do me in, but fortunately I managed to finish them off with my jolly old revolver. Hand-to-hand fighting was rather fun but we soon cleared them out.

The only man senior to me got killed leaving me in command. I discovered a party of Huns behind me at one time but settled their hash after about two hours, and settled down.

We held the trench for several days… I got hit three times, but only slightly, so I stayed where I was. I had my steel helmet dented in at the front to a hole as big as a fair sized egg and then I had it smashed in at the back, and finally I got hit just below the shoulder blade in the back. The effect of all this only lasted about forty-eight hours and now I am quite fit again with the exception of recurrent headaches.

Now we are out again resting, covered in glory. The Brigadier very kindly informed me that he has recommended me for a medal, so you will probably see me down for an M.C. in the next list of honours..

I want some thick socks also a new torch…

Heaps of love.[5]

Pollard follows the quotation of his letter with the remark that “The M.C. materialized in due course,” and he quotes the citation, for good measure. For Pollard, the strategic reasoning behind the raid is neither here nor there–his is not to reason why–and the difficult winter conditions are mentioned only when it comes to the impossibility of improving trenches in frozen ground. He is a yarn-spinner and a glory-hound, not a complainer… but he does have some interesting comments about morale.

One of the problems with disillusionment and disenchantment is that it is bad for morale. In certain cases, low morale might save lives–there would be no unnecessary attacks, the men opposite might “live and let live.” But in others–and there are many voices which consider this the far more typical case–low morale leads to slack discipline, more casualties from frostbite and trench feet and carelessness around snipers and, if the Germans opposite are fire-eaters, a greater chance of damaging raids. Most of the writers who will become gravely disillusioned during this year will either bottle it up (like C.E. Montague), compensate with risk-taking and attempted heroism (like Sassoon) or suffer psychologically (like Wilfred Owen).

One wonders if Pollard’s men hated him for endangering their lives by choosing to lead such ventures. But if they didn’t, they surely respected his courage–and if they, too, preferred action to inaction, he would have been an easy man to follow… hatred is bad, but pride is not much less important than good trenches and regular nourishment…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Some Desperate Glory, 34; I'm getting paranoid, now, about Vaughan's truthfulness. This story is far from impossible, but it's still very unlikely. It would be hard for a man to be killed and entombed in a dugout or cellar without a heavy caliber shell being responsible, but then that would have collapsed the whole thing upon him. It could then have been rebuilt, with the body coincidentally just below the new floor level, I suppose... unlikely, again, but not impossible. If this were a trench and not a dugout, it would be more likely that this man was casually and quickly buried after being killed nearby. But, famous as the French were (among the British), for burying men near trenches or even in filled-in shelters in trench walls, digging beneath the floor of a dugout--but only a few inches--to bury a corpse seems... unlikely. But stranger things have happened.
  2. Diaries, 124.
  3. Moorcroft Wilson, 323.
  4. Complete Memoirs, 396-7. As Moorcroft Wilson notes, details of this section of the memoir are knowingly fudged; I'm not sure what her conviction that the incident is "almost certainly" true is based on, but I instinctively agree: Sassoon is much more prone to shifting details when he writes in prose about himself than when he writes verse inspired by external events... so I don't see why we would think that he didn't see such a scene upon his arrival in Rouen, given the poem, below. However, it's uncomfortably nestled among changes and shifting detail; I'm not sure if anyone has remarked on how close the next complaint  in the memoir follows Robert Graves's disgusted anecdote of his own recent return to France--both are horrified by new Welsh officers of a certain social background bragging about their exploits in brothels...
  5. Fire-Eater, 187-88.

J.R. Ackerley’s Brother Returns; Edwin Vaughan in the Front Lines, and Face to Face with a Spectre; Ivor Gurney Conjures Three, and Thanks Several Handfuls; Rowland Feilding is Witness to an Execution; Seventeen Letters for Edward Thomas; Siegfried Sassoon Curses Fate, and Departs

It’s another busy day, a century back, with one small sad action in the line and poetry behind it from Ivor Gurney and Siegfried Sassoon, who today leaves for the front once again.

But first, I did something odd in yesterday’s post. J.R. Ackerley writes the section of his memoir leading up to his brother’s role in the assault on Boom Ravine with heavy, ominous foreshadowing. The exchanged watches, the vision of unstrapping the watch from a dead wrist. Reading it, I was sure Pete Ackerley would die, so I wrote it up that way.

And for some hours, yesterday, a century back, Joe Ackerley seems to have believed that his brother was indeed dead. Then late reports came in that Pete was wounded, but Joe could do nothing. What was one wounded subaltern? The senior officers around him were busy attending to the tactical problems raised by the little raid,

And my brother was lying out wounded in no man’s land, and might have been the merest litter left about after a riotous party, for all the interest the Brigadier, the Colonel, or the Major evinced in his fate. And I did nothing either…

For several hours–and several pages–Ackerley wrestles with the question of what to do. His memory of this horrible time is so patchy that it is almost blank. Did he bravely go out into the open to look for his brother? Were the callous senior officers trying to allow him unofficially, heroically, to rescue his wounded brother? He’s not sure. Was he about to be a hero, or was he being a humbug?

Ackerley is not even sure if he was there, when his brother, finally, crawled back into the trench, wounded in the leg, not dangerously, hoping for another crack at the Huns. Pete Ackerley was sent back with a nice Blighty one, and spoke well of his brother at home. Joe Ackerley concludes the episode–written as the certain loss of a brother undone almost after the fact by a carelessly non-ruinous fate–by noting that “whatever happened I never recovered my watch.”

 

Hard on the heels of this strange account–but there’s a lot I want to cover, today–we have another trench baptism. Late last night, hours after coming up into the front line for the first time, Edwin Vaughan had toured the trenches with another officer, watching the men at work. There–and not for the first time–Vaughan’s anxiety washed over and eroded his heaped-up contempt, leaving him chastened. He may despise the officers and men when in billets, but he was impressed with their professionalism amidst the dangers of the fire trenches at night. Early this morning, after a fitful, drink-induced nap, he took his first turn on duty.

…as my sergeant did not arrive, I went out alone into the trench, where the eerie influences of the night descended up on me. It was deathly still, the mud, the smell of earth, the ragged sandbags, the gruesome litter numbed my brain; a cold fear chilled my spine and set my teeth chattering. I stood shaking and gazing horrified into the darkness, thinking: ‘this is war! and I am in the firing line!’ Then in a panic I set off down the trench. Reaching the first corner I drew back sharply and my heart stood still, for under the trenchboard bridge I saw a dark form pressed against the side of the trench.

In horror I glued my eyes upon it; the light was growing stronger, and it was quite distinct. And now I thought I saw a stealthy movement. Drawing my revolver and with just my head round the bend, I challenged it in a low voice. There was no reply… with my gun well forward I advanced and prodded–an old greatcoat hung on the trench side.

My relief at this anticlimax cheered me somewhat…

Anticlimax–as well as a suspiciously dense conglomeration of typical trench incidents–is Vaughan’s hallmark. But there is a different sort of anticlimax at 8 a.m., when his loathed Company Commander, Hatwell, wakes him under pretext of seeing the lovely morning but really “because he was jealous of my being asleep.”

And right after the beautiful morning? Hatwell gives Vaughan an ugly task: seeing to the burial of several nearby corpses.

Lying flat on their backs, with marble faces rigid and calm, their khaki lightly covered with frost, some with no wound visible, some with blood clotted on their clothes, one with a perfectly black face, they lay at attention staring up into the heavens. This was my first sight of dead men and I was surprised that it didn’t upset me. Only the one with the black face has stayed with me.[1] The thick, slightly curled lips, fleshy acquiline nose, cap-comforter pulled well down over his head and the big glassy eyes have become stamped on my brain.

In the afternoon, Vaughan experiences his first bombardment, rather confusingly described. Although he is in a deep dugout, he sees “the trench wall opposite” blow up and then a dud shell land “on the parados,” which would usually be directly over his head as he shelters in a dugout. These are trench mortars, as he explains:

…very destructive projectiles… their effect is so devastating and demoralizing that whenever they are used we inform our artillery who plaster the enemy lines heavily in retaliation. The idea is that their infantry will know that every time the mortars are used, they will catch out for it…

Vaughan’s first full day in the line is completed by a near miss from a German sniper–“my slip was an act of Providence–” and a failed attempt, after dark, to bury the nearby corpses. The ground is frozen, and they are left under a blanket…[2]

 

Rowland Feilding, commanding officer of the 6th Connaught Rangers, is an excellent correspondent both because he has pledged to tell his wife everything and because, despite his responsibilities, he is a sharp observer, and his anecdotes are pointed. Some small tragedies need little elaboration.

February 15, 1917. Facing Spanbroekmolen (Fort Victoria).

Here we are in the trenches again.

This morning, in daylight, a German came running across Noman’s Land with his hands up, and was shot by his own people just as he reached our wire. We shall get his body in to-night.

Ivan Garvey, who commands the Company holding the line at the point where it happened, says that three of his men immediately came rushing along the trench to tell him, and that when he went to the spot he found the platoon gazing over the parapet at the dead German. Some of them wanted to go and fetch him in then and there, but Garvey naturally did not allow that.[3]

 

Edward Thomas has been reading the letters written by his men, working to set up the battery, practicing. Today there was a training “shoot,” then more preparatory work in the afternoon. For several days his comrades have been grating on him, and he has seemed to take solace in his observations of the natural world:  “Black-headed buntings talk, rooks caw, lovely white puffs of shrapnel round planes high up…” Well, then: not so much nature reigning alone, but nature in her new context: “Dead campion umbels and grass rustling on my helmet through trenches.”

But this evening, a century back, brought relief and connection: the first post delivery since the battery embarked for France.

Letters arrived at 6. We sorted them and then spent an hour silently reading. 750 letters for me; 17 for me–from Helen, the children, father, mother, Eleanor, Freeman, Mrs. Freeman, Guthrie, Vernon and Haines.[4]

 

And Ivor Gurney wrote again to Marion Scott today, a century back. He lays the counter-Brookean sonnet sequence aside in order to address her requests for material for his first book of poetry, which she is preparing. The preface is rather fulsome, and shows one side of Gurney’s personality in full effect: he is effusive, generous, taking delight in being comically expansive.

15 February 1917 (P)

Preface

This book stands dedicated to one only of my friends, but there are many others to whom I would willingly dedicate singly and in state, if that did not mean the writing of 40 books of verse and dedications; a terrible thing for all concerned . . . So that under the single name and sign of homage and affection, I would desire such readers as come to me to add also—To my Father and Mother; F W Harvey, (also a Gloucestershire Lad;) Miss Marion Scott, whose criticism has been so useful, and she so kind; in spite of my continued refusal to alter a word of anything. The Vicar of Twigworth; H.N. Howells, (and this is not the last time you will hear of him;) Mr Hilaire Belloc, whose “Path to Rome” has been my trench companion, with the “Spirit of Man” ; Mr Wilfred Gibson, author of “Friends” , a great little book; many others also; including Shakespeare and Bach, both friends of mine; and last but not least — 5 Platoon, B Co, 2/5 Glosters; who so often have wondered whether I were crazy or not. Let them draw their own conclusions now, for the writing pf this book it was that so distracted me. . . . This is a long list, and even now does not include old Mrs Poyner that was so jolly and long-suffering; not my boat “Dorothy” now idle in the mud; though a poet sung of her full of glory at Framilode.

Even as I write the list becomes fuller, further extended, yet a soldier must face pain and so it remains shorter by far than might be. I fear that those who buy the book (or, even, borrow) to get information about the Second-Fifth will be disappointed. Most of the book is concerned with a person named Myself, and the rest with my county, Gloucester, that whether I die or live stays always with me; — being so beautiful in itself, so full of memories;  whose people are so good to be friends with, so easy-going and so frank.

Some of the aforementioned people I have never had good fortune enough to meet in the flesh, but that was not my fault. I hope they will forgive my using their names without permission. Ah, would they only retaliate in kind! That is however not likely, as I never was famous, and a Common Private makes but little show. All the verses were written in France, and in sound of the guns, save only two or three earlier pieces. May well be indulgent to one who thought of them so often, and whose images of beauty in the mind were always of Gloucester, county of Cotswold and Severn, and a plain rich blossomy and sweet of air — as the wise Romans knew, that made their homes in exile by the brown river, watching the further bank for signs of war.

And that’s not all, folks–Gurney has a ballad in him, today:

Compree. Ballad also
Ballad of the Three Spectres

As I went up by Ovillers
In mud and water cold to the knee.
There went three jeering, fleering spectres,
That walked abreast and talked of me.

The first said, “Heres a right brave soldier
That walks the darky unfearingly;
Soon he’ll come back on a fine stretcher.
And laughing at a Nice Blighty.

The second, “Read his face, old comrade.
No kind of lucky chance I see;
One day he’ll freeze in mud to the marrow.
Then look his last on Picardie.

Though bitter the word of these first twain
Curses the third spat venomously;
“He’ll stay untouched till the War’s last dawning.
Then live one hour of agony.

Liars the first two were. Behold me
At sloping arms by one — two — three;
Waiting the time I shall discover
Whether the third spake verity.

Not so bad eh?

By Gum, what will All the Good People of Gloster think of the Ugly Duckling they have hatched? There will be Some Surprise, what with one thing and another if the Tome appears. Roll on that time as soon as possible. Good luck with the Flu:

Your sincere Friend Ivor Gurney[5]

It’s difficult with Gurney, moody (i.e. mentally unstable) as he is–sometimes his letters seem to lay bare his suffering, to be uncertain records of his uncertain emotional terrain. But it’s reductive to insist that everything is about his mental state. He is a very good writer, and that requires–of course–embodying multiplicity, even contradiction. Or, simply, complexity–there’s nothing impossible or contradictory about what he has written. He is excited at the prospect of his first book, and he has, lately, found a new way to speak for the common soldiers… and yet he lives always under the grim little open end of his spectral “ballad:” for every death he dodges, many more possible deaths await, every day of the war, all the way until that last day’s dawning–and then a few hours more.

 

Finally, today, our foremost Fusilier is going back to the front. After an unhappy few months in camp near Liverpool and a whirlwind last few days of leave in London, Siegfried Sassoon began the freighted journey once more. Today, a century back, he left London for a base depot in France–and he described the experience, we will not be surprised to learn, more than once:

On February 15th I was at Waterloo for the noontide leave train (or, to be exact, the leave train the wrong way round). My mother was there to see the last of me, and Robbie had shepherded me to the station. My one desire was to have no feelings about anything. As we paced the platform I remarked to Robbie that the train was quite an old friend as this was the fourth time I had travelled by it. When it at length began to move, their faces kept up the usual forlorn pretence of looking bright. With the egotism of youth I couldn’t help wondering what they said to one another about me after they had turned away from the vanishing train…[6]

Ah but that is all retrospect. Here is the day’s diary, and a poem–with all thoughts forward and not a mention of mother or mentor bereft on the platform:

15 February

Left Waterloo 12 noon. Irish Hussar in carriage. Sunshine at Southampton…

Left London feeling nervous and rattled; but the worried feeling wears off once aboard the Archangel.

And as it does, Sassoon settles from the personal into the observational.

People seem to become happy in a bovine way as soon as they are relieved of all responsibility for the future. Soldiers going to the War are beasts of burden, probably condemned to death. They are not their own masters in any way except in their unconquerable souls.

Yet, when they have left their relatives and friends blinking and swallowing sobs on Waterloo platform, after a brief period of malaise (while watching the Blighty landscape flitting past) they recover. When the train has left Woking and the Necropolis in the rear ‘they begin to ‘buck’ themselves up’. After all, becoming a military serf or trench galley-slave is a very easy way out of the difficulties of life. No more perplexities there. A grateful Patria transports them inexpensively away from their troubles—nay, rewards them for their acquiescence with actual money and medals. But nevertheless they are like cabbages going to Covent Garden, or beasts driven to market.[7] Hence their happiness. They have no worries because they have no future; they are only alive through an oversight–of the enemy. They are not ‘going out’ to do things, but to have things done to them.

Not to make too much of one line, but this is the essence of Sassoon’s change of heart about the war, and it will be reflected in the change in the poetry as well. War, and poetry, once celebrated deeds. Now, in a latter-day phrase, men don’t do deeds, they are drafted into the galleys, shipped out like cabbages to become the subjects of passive suffering…

Finally, there is a poem of today’s journey which takes a step down the angry road that Sassoon has just sketched out:

Life-Belts (Southampton to Havre)

The Boat begins to throb; the Docks slide past;
And soldiers stop their chattering; mute and grave;
Doomed to the Push, they think ‘We’re off at last!’
Then, like the wash and welter of a wave,
Comfortless War breaks into each blind brain.
Swamping the hopes they’ve hugged to carry abroad;
And half-recovering, they must grope again
For some girl-face, or guess what pay they’ll hoard
To start a home with, while they’re out in France.
For, after all, each lad has got his chance
Of seeing the end. Like life-belts in a wreck,
They clutch at gentle plans—pathetic schemes
For peace next year. Meanwhile I pace the deck
And curse the Fate that lours above their dreams.[8]

Sassoon is speaking against “comfortless war,” now, and emphasizing the helplessness of these soldiers to influence the chances of their own survival.

A step toward protest, perhaps, but one expressed in a fairly traditional idiom. Any soldier–any human being–from any era may curse fate and still feel themselves to possess a fairly free hand for heroic self-fashioning. If this sort of poem is going to shock its readers out of the assumption that this war is, if not Great, at least generally noble and worthwhile, that hand of fate–in the person of British staff plans and German bombardments–will have to do more than merely lour

References and Footnotes

  1. Another indication that this "diary" is (re-)written after the fact.
  2. Some Desperate Glory, 30-34.
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 150.
  4. War Letters (Childhood), 162.
  5. War Letters, 133-5.
  6. Siegfried's Journey, 47.
  7. A phrase he took up in the memoir, moving it backwards a few days into a conversation with Lady Ottoline Morrell.
  8. Diaries, 131-2.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

10th December 1916

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Up went Weeper’s flat hand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Grotesque

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it closes:

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

 

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

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

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

But then the raid, inevitably, is detected.

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

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

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

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

“Go on. I’m scuppered.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Very good, sir.”

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

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

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

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

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

 

References and Footnotes

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

Siegfried Sassoon is a Man Ready for Arms Again; Sidney Rogerson in Amiens

For Sidney Rogerson today, a century back, the reward for his long trench labors is a lorry-ride to Amiens.

The lorry jerked protestingly in low gear along the crowded, pitted roads until Albert was reached. There we craned our necks from under the tarpaulin hood to catch a glimpse of the Virgin leaning at a perilous angle from the Cathedral tower. Few of us had seen this famous phenomenon, though all were familiar with it from illustrations in the papers from home.

It was the town’s one show-piece. All else was squalid and depressing…

Albert is neither a ruin–which an English mind can always manage to make picturesque even amidst squalor–nor free of war. It’s a dead town still inhabited, wasp-like. But then there is open, unspoilt country, and then the city.

…we ran into Amiens, coming to a halt in the square outside the station. We looked about us goggle-eyed. There was not one of us who did not feel a flutter of excitement…

But Amiens disappoints. The war is still dominant, and all the women seem to be wearing mourning. This is a tremendous let-down, somehow, for Rogerson and his fellow officers, who have come to think of feminine beauty as war’s opposite. So they content themselves with shopping for small luxury items, touring the cathedral (naturally), and eating an extravagant meal of lobsters and mayonnaise. And then it’s back to camp…

what with the cold, the jolting of the lorry, and the petrol fumes, we all felt numb and a little queasy when we were deposited on the road outside the Citadel about 6 p.m.[1]

 

Today, a century back,[2] Siegfried Sassoon attended his third medical board since his summer fever and lung infection. How did it go? Well… well enough. It’s not clear why Sassoon wasn’t sent back to duty in September or October, but by now he was clearly both fit and rested. His impressions of the board, then?

These he will give us, first in prose and then in verse:

Sport in Sussex was only a makeshift exhilaration, and early in November I went to London for a final Medical Board. At the Caxton Hall in Westminster I spent a few minutes gazing funereally round an empty waiting-room. Above the fireplace (there was no fire) hung a neatly-framed notice for the benefit of all of whom it might concern. It stated the scale of the prices for artificial limbs, with instructions as to how officers could obtain them free of cost. The room contained no other ornament. While I was adjusting my mind to what a journalist might have called “the grim humour” of this footnote to army life, a Girl Guide stepped in saying that Colonel Crossbones (or whatever his cognomen was) would see me now. A few formalities “put paid to” my period of freedom and I pretended to be feeling pleased as I walked away…[3]

So much for “George Sherston’s” experience–he, like his unfictionalized counterpart Sassoon, can now look forward to a period of “home service” at a base camp before another medical board clears him to return to France.

But there is always more than one Sassoon, even if the strands often run close together. The same waiting room notice also spawned this poem:

 

Arms and the Man

Young Croesus went to pay his call
On Colonel Sawbones, Caxton Hall:
And, though his wound was healed and mended,
He hoped he’d get his leave extended.

The waiting-room was dark and bare.
He eyed a neat-framed notice there
Above the fireplace hung to show
Disabled heroes where to go

For arms and legs; with scale of price,
And words of dignified advice
How officers could get them free.
Elbow or shoulder, hip or knee,

Two arms, two legs, though all were lost,
They’d be restored him free of cost.
Then a Girl Guide looked to say,
‘Will Captain Croesus come this way?’

 

The bitter jest at the top of this none-too-subtle poem is probably obvious: “Arms”–arma–is the first word of the Aeneid, still (if just barely) the one inescapable poetic text, and there it means “weapons” (or weapon-bearing-activities), not “limbs.” A sharp point–but it’s Sassoon in his more angry-young-mannish voice, and he doesn’t go in for rapier wit. No: this is a poem of irony that doesn’t pierce like cold iron but rather bludgeons–or, to take a middle voice of metaphoric brutality–that hacks and saws. Through shattered bones.

So, yes, it’s a nasty sort of irony, to pair this lilting light verse with the horror of a world which normalizes the crippling of so many young men. But is this notice over the cold hearth so cruel as to add measurably to the enormous cruelty of losing one’s limb–or limbs–in combat? If the answer is no, then the absent officers are patronized and pushed to the side by the military bureaucracy and the poet alike.

The harshness is perhaps mitigated by the way Sassoon makes some oblique fun of himself, giving the name of Croesus to the young officer through whose eyes we see this waiting room. He is paradigmatically rich–possessed, that is, of a wound that is “healed and mended.” Ah, but against this possibly, shall we say, disarming reference, there is the fact that Sassoon has avoided the most awkward fact of his situation–that he wasn’t wounded, but had simply gotten sick. Does that matter? It shouldn’t–he was serving bravely (too bravely) at the front when he got sick. But it must, for Sassoon didn’t change it merely for the rhyme…

And after the Medical Board had pronounced him fit to return to duty–with leave first, of course–Sassoon left London for a week in the country and a final farewell, for now, to fox hunting…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Twelve Days on the Somme, 142-54.
  2. Or possibly tomorrow. See Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 308-9.
  3. Complete Memoirs, 379-80.

Edmund Blunden’s “At Senlis Once;” Sing-Alongs, Ambulance Accounting, and Sitting on Eclairs with Dorothie Feilding

Before we get to Edmund Blunden’s relief–and a fairly secure dating for an occasional poem–let’s catch up with Dorothie Feilding. The visit of her father, Lord Denbigh, has finally come off. Four days ago she wrote to her mother of the good times they were having:

Mother dear–It’s so nice having Da here & we have had huge fun, but life is simply one damn thing after another & we tore round in circles looking at everything & everybody fi-om Huns to Albert!

earl_of_denbigh_vanity_fair_23_august_1894

The Earl of Denbigh–perfectly priceless at the old pianer–a century and twenty-two years back

Last night a great supper party at the Sailors & Da sang Alouette & Bug a boo. The latter was a huge success & they loved it. Everybody loves Da, he is perfectly priceless when he gets going with an old pianer!…

The next day, Dorothie’s letter to her mother was more business-like. It’s interesting to see the case being made here for this privately run ambulance and its contribution to the war effort. Dorothie’s mother is also running a hospital at home, hence the following class-drenched recommendation for a young V.A.D. of good family:

1st Nov

Mother dear–I got the enclosed for you today, but my car took 101 in the month. Last month our 6 cars took 334 people. We have just been adding up our cases taken the last 8 months. The total is 1,547. You see we don’t do nothing & I think our tiny unit pulls its weight & I am justified in keeping it on–our monthly running total expenses average £50 pounds only.

Da went off last night. It was sad seeing him go, we had had such fun together – he is such a lamb that man. Everybody loves him.

Yr loving DoDo

PS Mrs Ma–Do [you] want any more VAD for Newnham? Because there is a Miss Eileen Leader, Classas, Coachford, Co Cork, Ireland who is very anxious to come to Newnham…. She is 18, a younger sister of Jelly’s wife.
Winkie says a nice girl & should do. Pretty, rather shy but capable having done things for herself. She could come for a month at least & be prepared to stay longer if wanted. Is strong & since the war passed exam in driving & repair of cars… Less uncouth than the Jelletts & off the top shelf. So from that point of view she would do, I am writing as I gather you are short of VADs…

If I’m reading this correctly–and with Lady Dorothie’s loopy locutions and my less-than-firm grasp on her milieu, this is in some doubt–the recommendation is so strong precisely because the young woman’s social status may not be matched by her wealth: the perfect VAD comes off the top shelf, but will not be helpless, “having done things for herself.”

 

Today’s letter is back to the familiar tone of high jinks and family gossip… but once again the war breaks in to remind us of the familiarity of sudden irruptions of violence.

3rd Nov
Mother dear–

…The bit missing out of my letter wasn’t important only to say the Boche ammunition had been very bad one particular day when we watched about 18 eleven inch obus come into N & only 3 burst. I said those that did sat on some houses & gave them that same tired look an eclair has after Taffy has sat on it…

This image–the non-dud shells “sitting” on houses and squashing them like a pastry–is representative both of Lady Feilding’s sui generis descriptive talent and, rather slyly, of the general principle shared by so many writers of letters to mum, moth’, and mother dear: all terrifying and monstrous realities must be softened, declawed, reduced, or watered down before being committed to the page. They know we’re in danger, but we needn’t dwell on the nightmares… it’s a grown-up reversal of the parental duty to come and sit by the child’s bed and cheerily explain away imaginary fears–or gloss the real ones that rise up at bedtime.

The Broquevilles have a new chateau now nearer to me & Dunkerque. Awfully nice, larger & more private than the old one, with a moat round it. Really very snug. They were driven out of the last by the English making a huge depot of munitions & stuff outside their front door & flooding the place with tommies.

Much love dear

DoDo[1]

The obvious joke here would be something about the snug new chateau’s moat being neither wide nor deep enough to keep out the besiegers, should they arrive with their eleven-inch eclair-sitters…

 

And today, a century back, Edmund Blunden‘s 11th Royal Sussex were relieved and marched back to Senlis. Although Blunden has this event slightly out of order in his memoir, the battalion diary makes it clear that today is the day which is remembered in his poem “At Senlis Once.”

First, memoir, then poetry. And as so often with Blunden, I’m not sure any niggling commentary improves the effect–firm, sure, gentle, just short of devastating–of either the prose or the verse.

In spite of the sylvan intricacies (a trifle damaged) of Thiepval Wood, and a bedroom in the corridored chalk bank, and the tunes of the “Bing Boys” endlessly revolved, one was not yet quite clear of Stuff Trench; my own unwelcome but persistent retrospect was the shell hole there used by us as a latrine, with those two flattened German bodies in it, tallow-faced and dirty-stubbled, one spectacled, with fingers hooking the handle of a bomb; and others had much worse to remember.

We were merry when at length the relief was sent in and we went along the road in pale daylight to Senlis, a village six or seven miles behind the line. The road wound and twisted, but we liked it well, and as at one point the still lofty stump of Mesnil church tower showed above the dingy trampled fields it was hard not to shout aloud. “Not gone yet,” signalled the tower. We heard the church bell ring in Senlis, we bought beer and chocolate, and we admired with determination the girls who sold them; so great was the hour of relaxation, so kindly was the stone of the road and the straw of the barn.[2]

 

At Senlis Once

How comely it was and how reviving,
When with clay and with death no longer striving
Down firm roads we came to houses
With women chattering and green grass thriving.

Now though rains in a cataract descended,
We could glow, with our tribulation ended–
Count not days, the present only
Was thought of, how could it ever be expended?

Clad so cleanly, this remnant of poor wretches
Picked up life like the hens in orchard ditches,
Gazed on the mill-sails, heard the church-bell,
Found an honest glass all manner of riches.

How they crowded the barn with lusty laughter,
Hailed the pierrots and shook each shadowy rafter,
Even could ridicule their own sufferings,
Sang as though nothing but joy came after!

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Lady Under Fire, 176-7.
  2. Undertones of War, 112-3.