The Master of Belhaven’s Raid Comes Off; Wilfred Owen Puts in for Leave; Pretty Much All of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End

If there has been a big build up to the Master of Belhaven‘s raid, well, that’s only to be expected, since we were working from his diaries, a century back, and not from any forgone conclusions. It was a big project for him, and a source of much anxiety. (And I trod relatively lightly, in any case: I could have included several pages of detailed fire plans, as he did.)

But sometimes let-downs are reliefs…

Last night’s raid went off very successfully. We got one live Hun, who turns out to be a Bavarian, a Bavarian Ersatz Division having just arrived. I have not yet had details of his examination, but imagine they have lately arrived from Russia… he was in such a hurry to get safely over to our lines that he showed our man the easiest and quickest way to get through the German wire.

…they got back without any losses.

The raid was supposed to take forty minutes, but they were out an hour and forty minutes, so we began to wonder if they had all been captured… I “stood to” with all batteries till 6 o’clock, but nothing happened.[1]

In the end, for the artillery commander of a planned raid, no news is good news.


This letter from Wilfred Owen requires little in the way of glossing…

17 January 1918 IScarborough]

My own dear Mother,

Just had your lovely letter, together with an invitation to Robt. Graves’s Wedding at St. James’ Piccadilly, and afterwards at 11 Apple-Tree Yard, St. James’s Square, on Jan. 23rd.

Suppose I got leave for this, would you be very sad? Nichols will no doubt be there, and a host of others. Graves is marrying Miss Nicholson, daughter of the Painter.

I send you the Coal Poem—don’t want it back. Yes, I got the Georgian Anthology while in London.

I suppose you saw how Subalterns are now getting 10/6 a day. I should soon be getting 11/6.

Foot’s better.

Love to all.

Your W.E.O.[2]

I’ve tried to tiptoe around the well-worn theme of The Poet With the Close Relationship With His Mother, but this is a funny one, showing the rapidly maturing poet in a decidedly young-mannish light. What does he think will come of asking his mother if it’s o.k. with her that he plans to use a rare leave to visit his fancy new friends in London and not his old mum in Shrewsbury?


But let us not linger too long on these workaday letters and successful raids: we have a Modernist doorstop to do today as well. Ford Madox Hueffermort Ford Madox Ford (but not for a while)–comes up here often enough: he wrote a “patriotic poem” rather recently, and can be counted upon to pen strange and sometimes ridiculous letters at irregular intervals. But he is already, a century back, a major novelist, even if his 1915 novel The Good Soldier, in a flurry of little ironies, has yet to be recognized for the great, if essentially pre-war (despite its title), Modernist novel that it is.

Ford has still a greater novel in store, however: the greatest (but who needs superlatives?) baggy monster written that will ever be written about the war by one of its participants. The Tietjens tetralogy–four books about the shambling, distracted genius Christopher Tietjens, who shares too many characteristics with his creator for his other characteristics (e.g. heroism, ineffable moral courage, and extreme attractiveness to younger, attractive women) not to be worth a few winces–is one of the really Big Important Modern novels. Which is to say that it is fascinating, confusing, difficult to read, and probably rewarding–although there’s not much actual combat in the book, and a mere few hundred pages are set in France.

One lives in the mind of Tietjens for a very long time, which can be enthralling but also perplexing. The chief problem (for me, at least), is the character of his adversary and wife, who is modeled to some extent on Hueffer’s own wife but, I believe, even more closely resembling a paranoid view of his pseudo-second-wife Viola Hunt. She is such an outlandish monster that she introduces several new levels of complexity for readers: what of Tietjens’ impressions of her are mistaken? And if they aren’t, how much of this character’s portrayal is driven either by misogyny or excessive personal hatred on the part of Ford? And if this strange and powerful novel is driven to some extent by a monstrously one-sided settling of personal scores, to what extent does that hamstring its considerable contribution to literature’s advancing struggle to depict and explain the human condition?

So, anyway, if you like that sort of thing–go for it![3]

The tetralogy is, sadly, also a four-volume work set during the war that contains hardly any dates or precisely dateable events at all. I can’t even remember if I’ve been able to make a reference to it since August 1914. Alas! Virginia Woolf drops in a date or two, and Ulysses is very precisely dated (though a bit crowded, in that way), so you’d think Ford could have done better by me…

In any event, I find in my notes that on page 498 of my paperback omnibus edition (near the end of the second volume, No More Parades), there is a conversation between Tietjens and General Campion securely dated to today, a century back. It brings to a head the action of the novel, in which, over the past few days, Tietjens’ evil wife Sylvia appears (improbably) in France and (laboriously) entraps Tietjens between her lover, his enemies, his own contorted sense of honor, and the professional and personal concerns of several more powerful officers. The result is this dramatic “judgment” scene–very Joycean (or sub-Joycean–but very, very high on the potentially abyssal scale of the sub-Joycean scene)–in which the General offers Tietjens a choice between a court-martial which would clear him of military wrongdoing but expose his wife’s infidelities, or being sent back to the trenches. Reader, you too might divine his choice, and all in barely 500 pages of high literary footslogging…


References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary, 440-1.
  2. Collected Letters, 527.
  3. NB: I have steered clear of the recent miniseries, entitled, as the four books sometimes are, "Parade's End." On principle, and also on the "Ford/Tietjens looked nothing like Benedict Cumberbatch" corollary to the general principle of literary-adaptation avoidance.

Eddie Marsh in the Weeds of G.H.Q.; Vera Brittain Amidst the German Ward–and the Mutiny

We will spend the day, today, with two non-combatants in France. First, we rejoin the brief but lively diary of Eddie Marsh, patron of the poets and secretary to Winston Churchill.

Marsh, despite his Passchendaele-appropriate moniker, is rather unimpressed with the rear-area scenery–but happier with the company.

Friday Sept. 15th.

Another uneventful day. I had a good walk with Philip in the morning on Helfaut Ridge—and spent the afternoon,
after an unsuccessful attempt to see Millie Sutherland, hanging about till Winston was ready.

That would be Philip Sassoon, M.P., city cousin of Siegfried, and Millicent Leveson-Gower, Duchess of Sutherland. Philip is a member of the much more prominent branch of the Sassoons that had intermarried both with the Rothschilds and the old landed English nobility, and he has been a staff officer with Haig since the beginning of the war, putting his social skills and connections at the service of the notably taciturn Commander in Chief.


…It was a pity we were at G.H.Q. for quite such a quiet time (though we should have been more in the way if more had been going on). Even so I was much struck by the ease and serenity with which Haig carries his burden—I am sure he is quite imperturbable. He and W. seemed to warm to one another as the visit went on, and at our last luncheon Haig was quite genial and cracked several jokes. Philip says the passion of his life is for being talked to, but that he combines this with a fatal propensity to nip topics in the bud. The tone of G.H.Q. is tremendously optimistic—so much so that I found other people were quite irritated. Kiggell told me he thought the Boches were in the position of a man who is clinging with his fingers to the edge of a precipice—and they evidently all think that if only we can get a spell of good weather we can do wonders, even this year…[1]


Perhaps. But in Étaples, today, a century back, Vera Brittain is observing “The Boches” from a more intimidate and humane angle.

“Have just been writing a poem on the German ward,” I told my mother on September 15th; “was composing it this morning while watching a patient who was rather sick come round from an operation.”


The German Ward

When the years of strife are over and my recollection fades
Of the wards wherein I worked the weeks away,
I shall still see, as a visions rising ‘mid the War time shades,
The ward in France where German wounded lay.

I shall see the pallid faces and the half-suspicious eyes,
I shall hear the bitter groans and laboured breath,
And recall the loud complaining and the weary tedious cries,
And the sights and smells of blood and wounds and death.

I shall see the convoy cases, blanket-covered on the floor,
And watch the heavy stretcher-work begin,
And the gleam of knives and bottles through the open theatre door,
And the operation patients carried in.

I shall see the Sister standing, with her form of youthful grace,
And the humour and the wisdom of her smile,
And the tale of three years’ warfare on her thin expressive face,
The weariness of many a tire filled while.

I shall think of how I worked for her with nerve and heart and mind,
And marvelled at her courage and her skill,
And how the dying enemy her tenderness would find
Beneath her scornful energy of will.

And I learnt that human mercy turns alike to friend or foe
When the darkest hour of all is creeping nigh,
And those who slew our dearest, when their lamps were burning low,
Found help and pity ere they came to die.

So, though much will be forgotten when the sound of War’s alarms
And the days of death and strife have passed away,
I shall always see the vision of Love working amidst arms
In the ward wherein the wounded prisoners lay.

Not for the first time, here, I have revived a work that the author might wish forgotten:

…As anyone who can visualise the circumstances of its composition will imagine, it was not a good poem…

No, not particularly. But it will begin to earn Brittain some recognition for her writing. She, too–though far less devoted to the practice of poetry than most of our writers–will have a book of verse out before too long.

In the memoir, this place-holding mention of the poem is followed by a long story of going out to lunch with a friend, only to be embarrassed by finding a nurse and an officer on an obvious assignation. After this, she writes of being confined to quarters because of the unrest in the camp surrounding the hospitals:[2]

At the time, this somewhat disreputable interruption to a Holy War was wrapped in a fog which the years have deepened, for we were not allowed to mention it in our letters home, and it appears, not unnaturally, to have been omitted from standard histories by their patriotic authors.

I feel less guilt-ridden about this breaking of the rules against “flash forwards” given the extent of the censorship that surrounded the mutiny. In any event, it is an extremely sharp irony that just when we have this window thrown open onto the visit of modern Britain’s most famous politician–and, later, military historian–to its most ineffective (or controversially ineffective) military leader–champagne! optimism!–we have a former provincial young lady’s firsthand testimony on the secrecy surrounding the violence done to British soldiers by other British soldiers.

We were told that the disturbance began by a half-drunken “Jock ” shooting the military policeman who had tried to prevent him from taking his girl into a prohibited café. In some of the stories the girl was a young Frenchwoman from the village, in others she had turned into one of the newly arrived W.A.A.C.S ; no doubt in the W.A.A.C. camp she was said to be a V.A.D. Whatever the origin of the outbreak, by the end of September Étaples was in an uproar…

Quite who was against whom I never clearly gathered, but one party was said to be holding the bridge over the Canche and the others to be trying to take it from them. Obviously the village was no place for females, so for over a fortnight we were shut up within our hospitals, to meditate on the effect of three years of war upon the splendid morale of our noble troops. As though the ceaseless convoys did not provide us with sufficient occupation, numerous drunken and dilapidated warriors from the village battle were sent to such spare beds as we had for slight repairs. They were euphemistically known as “local sick.”[3]


References and Footnotes

  1. A Number of People, 255-6.
  2. This memory may be displaced by a few days, which makes sense given the lack of records she alludes to--few memoir writers can be specific about dates without (illegal) diaries, letters, or military records to make reference to, and the mutiny was suppressed in all such sources.
  3. Testament of Youth, 385-6.

Kate Luard on Models and Women; Edwin Vaughan Rests; Siegfried Sassoon Keeps in Touch with the Old Views

Today, a century back, in both Belgium and Scotland, is another “day after.” Two nights ago Kate Luard reported that three nurses at a nearby hospital had been wounded–a “dirty trick,” since the hospitals should be identifiable from the air–and that her “letters to relatives of died-of-wounds are just reaching 400 in less than three weeks.” Of these she tries to write “about a dozen every day or night.” But today is quiet–another lull just behind the glassy eye of the still-gathering storm.

I’ve noted before that Sister Luard enjoys exploring, no matter where she is, and will take country rambles or sight-seeing trips on any rare occasion when the hospital is calm enough to spare her for a few hours. In the midst of a battle she can’t go far but–gratifyingly–she is as efficient as ever in discovering and taking in the newest sight of the behind-the-lines tour:

I went with two Sisters to Evening Service at the Church Army Hut at the cross-roads, only standing room, all men soon going over the top. Very nice hymns. Then we went a bit up the road continuous with this, parallel to the line, all of it camps, Archies and all the various paraphernalia of War. There was an aeroplane caught in a tree and there was a model of the present offensive laid out in miniature in a field, with dolls’ rails, trenches, cemeteries, farms and dug-outs – a fascinating toy.

But after nightfall the war resumed, and Luard had to face it–as well as a sexist but complimentary colonel and the mute demand of her diary that she try to record her true feelings about the war. She answers both like the old campaigner she is:

The mosquitoes are appalling to-night, so are the Gothas… [one] dropped a bomb about 200 yards from our quarters – it made a red flare and heavy cloud of black smoke and knocked my photos off my shelf.

Colonel F. said to me just before they came, ‘We’re going to be bombed to-night.’ I said, ‘Yes, probably.’ Then he said, ‘I don’t know how you women stick it – it’s much worse here than in London, where you can go into your cellar.’ I said, ‘Well, we’ve got to stick it,’ and he said, ‘Well, I’m amazed at the level of calm of you Sisters.’ I am too sometimes. They’d rather die than show any windiness, though everyone hates it. And to-day there has been shelling too – one just now. Personally, I wouldn’t be anywhere else while the hospital is here, but it’ll be a relief when the War’s over![1]


Edwin Vaughan‘s last few days have been the most intense and miserable of his life. His diary maintains a steady, somewhat anesthetized calm throughout, but his eyes are always open. Relief has come at last–for his battalion and for his beleaguered psyche–and today he reaches his reserve billet, a muddy tent near the Yser canal.

Harding was asleep in his valise, and I sat down on the floor and cut my puttees off with a knife. I had shed my sodden clothes and rubbed down with a towel when Martin came in with my supper. He, like all the others, was rather uneasy and made no reference to the attack. I got into pyjamas and ate my stew lying in bed. It was wonderful to have a hot meal and I was grateful for it after my four days of nibbling at filth.

The tent flaps were laced over, the rain had ceased, the guns were silent and Jimmy Harding lay motionless. I ate
slowly and dully, staring at my candle. I took my Palgrave from the valise head; it opened at ‘Barbara’ and I read quite coldly and critically until I came to the lines

In vain, in vain, in vain.
You will never come again.
There droops upon the dreary hills a mournful fringe of rain

then with a great gulp I knocked my candle out and buried my face in my valise. Sleep mercifully claimed me before my thoughts could carry me further and after my four days of strain I slept for eight hours—and at noon I was awake and sitting up with Jimmy eating sausage and bacon with the sun streaming in through the wide opened tent flaps.

‘It’s all wrong,’ said Jimmy whimsically.

‘What is?’ said I, with a mouthful of toast.

‘That coughing Lizzie out there.’

I regarded him questioningly and he assumed his shocked expression. ‘Is it possible that you were so debased as to indulge in Aunty’s Ruin last night? For my part I didn’t sleep a wink all night,’ said he blandly. ‘Ugh! There she goes again, the spiteful cat!’ and I spilt my tea as a terrific roar shook the earth.

‘What on earth is it?’ I asked.

‘Oh, merely a 12-inch gun that has been firing all the morning.’ And walking to the tent door I saw the smoking barrel of a naval gun towering over the hedge 30 yards away. I could hardly imagine myself having slept through a number of explosions like that, but Jimmy assured me that I had. ‘Incidentally,’ he added, ‘it’s not going to be too healthy for us here when Jerry starts trying to find her.’ I agreed…[2]


Yesterday’s meeting between Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon was, to put it plainly, a bigger deal for one than the other. If Owen–or Sassoon, looking back–was aware of a touch of hauteur in Sassoon’s attitude, the same quality is visible from a different angle as he writes to Lady Ottoline Morrell. Despite Sassoon’s abandonment of the pacifist cause, they seem to be on relatively good terms still. And, not coincidentally, they even discuss an important work of war literature in its new role of anti-war literature, namely Henry Barbusse’s Le Feu, which will be the most important non-English influence on Sassoon’s writing… Sassoon seems to plead agnosticism, now, on all matters of war and politics…

19 August, Central Station Hotel, Glasgow

I am never sniffy or snubby with my friends–as you ought to know by now! I thought you understood that when I don’t feel like writing letters I don’t write them.

Barbusse’s French is beyond me, but the translation is good enough to show the truth and greatness of his book, so you needn’t be so superior about it!

I have been working at new poems lately, and a few of them are shaping themselves all right.

A man has motored me over to this large city and I have lunched ponderously.

Your delightful tiny Keats has been my companion lately, but most of my days have been spent in slogging golf-balls on the hills above Edinburgh. I admire the “views” prodigiously: they are bonny. A month ago seems like a bad dream. ‘And still the war goes on, he don’t know why’.



References and Footnotes

  1. Unknown Warriors, 147-8.
  2. Some Desperate Glory, 212-14.
  3. Diaries, 184.

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.


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.

Christmas Eve: Miraculous Assemblies for Edward Thomas and C. K. Scott Moncrieff; Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, the Profiteers and the Poet(s); Julian Barnes for Evermore; Edwin Dyett’s Self-Justification

This was a difficult post to write–and in the end it remains a hodge-podge. There’s incipient brutality, here, and kindness; lightly-penned nastiness and Dickens-worthy tear-jerking; the worst of bureaucratic logic distorted under the pressure of warfare, and much casual use of the M-word. It may be a difficult read, but it’s a fortuitous reminder of the great breadth and depth of Great War writing.


In this next year I’ll be taking up–whenever I can–Pat Barker’s Regeneration. This book (which became the first novel in the “Regeneration trilogy”) is the most germane–and the most moving–of all “historical” fiction about the war. There are other good novels set during the war but written long after–“good” in terms of both their literary merits and their close attention to the textures of this oh-so-well-written war. But there are none that address its poets’ experiences so directly, and then, as a “composite” (i.e. fictional) character comes to the fore, none that more powerfully evoke the psychological damage of service in the trenches…

But of the short stories of the Great War I can’t pretend to know much. I’ve only read a few, and the most affecting by far is Julian Barnes’s “Evermore.”[1] “Evermore” is a survivor’s story, set after the war amidst the familiar battlefields that will become familiar again to hundreds of thousands of Britons as places of pilgrimage. It’s a terribly sad story. And it begins with a triple talisman–three Field Postcards, those flimsy icons of the limitations of communication in wartime, of the bureaucratic impediments lining the edge of the Experiential Gulf–sent from a brother to a sister. She’s the protagonist of the story, and he is the absence at its center. Today, a century back, he sent the first of what will be his last three postcards.


Robert Graves can’t help but put Christmas Eve to use in one of the disillusioned infantryman’s favorite pastimes, namely pointing out the way in which knowledge of the trenches throws some of the ironies of private life into high relief. Food shortages have begun to hit Britain as many ships have been sunk by U-boats, and rationing is in effect. Several of our writers, eating lousy food at the front, have inquired if it is true that their loved ones are eating badly at home (I may have omitted all of these inquiries, but trust me!). And they probably are feeling the pinch–but, unless they were already poor or hard-pressed, then only to a very limited extent. This is the beginning of rationing, and Total War has yet to make a real dent in the Class System. Shortages have begun–at the bottom.

But the war had not reached the links. The leading Liverpool businessman were members of the club, [the Formby Golf Club] and did not mean to go short while there was any food at all coming in at the docks. Siegfried and I went to the club-house for lunch on the day before Christmas, and found a cold buffet in the club dining-room, offering hams, barons of beef, jellied tongues, cold roast turkey and chicken. A large, meaty-faced waiter presided. Siegfried asked him sarcastically: ‘Is this all? There doesn’t seem to be quite such a good spread as in previous years.’ The waiter blushed…[2]

Which is a great anecdote, but, as so often with Graves, more than a little off. As Siegfried Sassoon told us–and as Graves’s family records corroborate–Graves was already on leave, and will spend today and the next few days at home in Wimbledon. This anecdote, either moved intentionally for greater ironic effect (where’s the Liverpudlian Tiny Tim at the windows, Robbie?) or dragged Christmas-ward by the mnemonic centripetence of major fixed-date holidays, surely belongs a little earlier in the month, at one of Sassoon’s “several expensive gorges at the Adelphi.”

Sassoon, writing a contemporaneous diary rather than an aimed-for-controversy memoir, can be better trusted to reflect the actual feelings (and events) of these days–and when he writes up those “gorges” it is with little self-loathing and less concern for the potential suffering caused among British families by actual food shortages. For Sassoon the spread at the Adelphi–despite his ability, as a convalescent officer, on garrison duty, with a private income, to indulge in it–is a symbol of the affront that businessmen who are profiting from the war present to the pure brotherhood of combat soldiers.

And when Sassoon does write “his” memoirs, he will skip Christmas entirely–diary and memoir alike will be largely given over to the report from one of his wounded friends of the near-destruction of his old battalion in the September fighting. Which prompt these reflections.

Christmas Eve

I have been wondering whether I shall be any better off through going to the War again next year. Of course I’ve got to go—I never doubted that; but if I’m there another eight months, and come back safely wounded (!) shall I have anything more to say about it all, or shall I be more bitter, and unbalanced and callous? Not much use enquiring. It will be good fun in its way; and reading Sorley‘s letters has given me a cheer-up. He was so ready for all emergencies, so ready to accept the ‘damnable circumstance of death,’—or life. Out at Formby today[3] there was sunlight on the sandhills and low fir-trees, and the glory of clean air…

Things fall into place. A year and a day after the death of Roland Leighton, we have occasion to remember Charles Sorley, another of 1915’s most grievous literary losses. But Sorley was not one for bloody thoughts, or golf, and his remarkable calm in the face of foolishness and misplaced hatred–even when they demanded his likely death–is nothing like the “Mad Jack” mood that seems to be waxing in Sassoon again, but coldly, this winter. I’m not sure that Sassoon has yet got a good handle on Sorley’s influence, but it is there…

…and then the immediacy of the diary takes over once again. Here’s a strange encounter (to which we should attach no undue importance):

A sensible sort of man came into the huts after dinner, Owen of the one leg, a Ceylon planter who got hit before he’d seen the Dardanelles two days. He asked me why there are no women in my verse. I told him they are outside my philosophy…[4]


Yes, it’s Christmas Eve. Did that contribute to Edwin Dyett’s hopeful, “ill-judged belief” that he might be spared a court martial? He wrote to a friend today, a century back, with his own version of the events of November 13th and 14th:

I was surplus, and sent off at five minutes’ notice… after a lot of trouble… we proceeded toward Boche overland. There was considerable hostile artillery, gas shells and tear shells falling all round us, and snipers were all over the place; we had very narrow shaves more than once. We could not find our units and rambled about.

When it was dark… there was much confusion and disorder going on, and my nerves became strung up to the highest extreme. I found that my companion had gone off somewhere with some men. The officer who was leading the party we met was my ‘one and only enemy’, so were were not polite to each other… I got lost for the second time. I found an NCO of the old A Company–we rambled about until he fell down for want of sleep, but I managed to get him along. Later my voice was recognized by some more men of the A Company who were lost… My nerves were completely gone and my head was singing.

Dyett spends the night in a “funk hole” allegedly caring for the exhausted NCO–but his “enemy” sends a message reporting him as failing to report. Neither he nor these men of A Company turned up in the front line, and Dyett missed the battle entirely, with nearly two days unaccounted for. That he twice writes that he “rambled” while he was supposed to be carrying out an independent assignment, during a battle, is not precisely damning, but it’s not good, either. And his fellow officers were not inclined to see his “nerves” as an excuse. Dyett was arrested shortly after returning to his unit; his trial is scheduled for Boxing Day.[5]


In happier circumstances, Charles Scott Moncrieff, once again fit for service, had been assigned to a camp on the outskirts of Edinburgh, quite near his family. After meeting them “at his mother’s club” he decided to make provision for the Roman Catholics in the camp–there seems to have only been an Episcopal chaplain, and if Britain, at the beginning of the war was still a place of 19th-century prejudice, that would have included, especially in Scotland, an intolerance of Catholicism. So it was that at midnight, tonight, Scott Moncrieff found himself leading a procession of some 200 Catholic soldiers to midnight mass. He would write that “it was wonderful, so many turning up… it seemed almost a miracle.”[6]


Speaking of, er, Christmas miracles (an idea less hackneyed, perhaps, a century back, then today, and surely even more necessary) we have a fragment of memoir from Edward Thomas‘s wife, Helen. At last report, Edward definitely wasn’t coming home. And money is tight, and there are three kids to be satisfied, in a cold and inconvenient and inaccessible house.

‘Christmas must be prepared for, however,’ I thought, and I became busy with cakes and puddings and what I could afford of Christmas fare, which was little enough. The children with me planned the box I should pack for Edward, with something of everything, including crackers and sweets, and they began to make their presents for him. Into these preparations which before had always gone with such happy zest the same feeling of unreality entered and my eagerness was assumed for the sake of the children. But they too found it difficult to anticipate with joy a Christmas so strange, and the activities fell flat. Outside circumstances mattered as never before–our poverty, the severity of the weather, the dreariness of the house–and over us all an, indefinable shadow fell.

But a miracle happened. Suddenly this Christmas of all Christmasses became the most joyous; the snow-bound forest sparkled like Aladdin’s Cave; the house was transformed into a festive bower of holly and ivy and fir boughs, and our listlessness was changed into animated happiness and excitement. Edward after all was coming home for Christmas!

The letter telling me this arrived by the first post along with one in a strange hand which I opened first, little suspecting what news Edward’s’ contained. Inside this letter was a cheque for £20 made out to me and signed by the name of a writer of distinction whom I did not know.[7] I stared and stared, and fumbling in the envelope for some explanation found a note from Eleanor telling me that she had been asked to forward this to me as a gift from a private fund. What could I not do with £20! I had never had so much in my life. But oh, if only Edward had been coming home!

Seeing his letter, which in my bewilderment I had forgotten, I read only the first words: ‘My dearest, my draft leave will include Christmas after all!’ I raced upstairs to the sleeping children. ‘Wake up, wake up! Daddy is coming home for Christmas. He’s corning home. He’ll be here tomorrow, and I’ve got £20 to spend, and we’ll all have the most wonderful presents; and oh, he’s coming home.’ Half-crying and half-laughing I lifted the children out of bed, and we danced in a ring and sang ‘He’s coming home for Christmas’ to the tune of ‘For he’s a jolly good fellow’.

How we worked that day to get all ready! I snatched a couple of hours to go to London and do the shopping. I bought for Edward the best Jaeger sleeping-bag and thick gauntlet gloves and a volume of Shakespeare’s sonnets, and for the children a real magic lantern with moving slides, and a special present for each one. I brought fruit and sweets and luxuries we had never tasted before, and wine as well. A frock of Edward’s favourite red was my present to myself, and secretly for Myfanwy the children and I dug a little Christmas tree out of the garden and loaded it with toys and trinkets, and candles ready to light…

‘Hark, what’s that! Let’s go to the door and listen.’

But no sound came from the windless snow-laden forest. ‘I wonder if I ever shall see a real Christmas-tree like the
one Bronwen told me about that she had at school with toys and candles, ’ said Myfanwy with a sigh, reminded of the subject by rows of fir trees still growing in the nursery garden.

‘Oh my darling, you shall have everything you ever dreamt of this Christmas.’ And I catch her up in my arms, and she throws her arms round my neck. .While I stand thus the air is cut with Edward’s clear voice calling the old familiar coo-ee; then the sound of voices; then of heavy snow-clogged footsteps; then Edward at the door. He is here. He is home.[8]


References and Footnotes

  1. Available in the Penguin Book of First World War Stories.
  2. Good-Bye to All That, 234.
  3. Yes, but Graves has already gone on leave...
  4. Diaries, 104-5.
  5. Death for Desertion, 52-53.
  6. Findlay, Chasing Lost Time, 123-4.
  7. Eleanor Farjeon (Edward Thomas... 235) explains her good offices: "Then the small miracle happened...  Within a few days of the 25th I saw Viola Meynell, between whom and myself nothing remained unspoken. Before I left her Wilfrid Meynell came to me, and said in his kindest voice, ‘A friend who prefers to remain anonymous allows me at this time of year to administer a little fund for writers to whom it may be useful. I believe Mrs. Thomas has special expenses just now, and I would like you to undertake to send her this, if you think she will not mind.’ ‘This’ was a cheque for twenty pounds. I sent it joyfully, with Wilfrid’s message..."
  8. Under Storm's Wing, 164-66.

Eleanor Farjeon’s Near Miss, or the Weakness of Poor, Torn-Up Men

Today, a century back,[1] Eleanor Farjeon traveled from London to High Beech to spend part of Edward Thomas‘s leave with him and his family. It’s not officially a “last leave,” but it’s significant nonetheless: his commission has come through and assignment to an active battery will not be far behind.

But Farjeon’s day was marked less by her arrival at her beloved friend’s cottage in the woods than by an ogre she met on the journey. Farjeon is both a very good storyteller (this will shortly be obvious) and a woman of great self-possession. She tells the tale evenly enough, and would have us forgive the wounded their trespasses… but it’s hard not to read this with a shudder, for a horrible thing is narrowly averted. While this sort of trauma might suddenly befall anyone–and Farjeon argues that it is made all the more likely by the pain and disruption of the war–it is also undeniably a threat that only a woman, traveling alone, must face.

I spent the last week-end in November at High Beech. The journey from Liverpool Street was marked by a small adventure. I caught a non-corridor train which stopped once near London, and then ran without another stop to Loughton. There was the usual bustle of soldiers, but the station was not very crowded. I found an empty carriage, put my knapsack on the rack over the far comer seat away from the platform, and settled myself. A pretty young mother and her little girl got in; the child took a window-seat near the platform, and the mother sat beside her. At the last moment a small party of soldiers hustled by, glanced in, and hurried on; but just as the train began to move, one of them rushed back, flung open the door, and fell into the corner opposite the little girl. He grinned affably at his vis-à-vis, then at the pretty mother, and the train pulled out.

It was soon obvious that he wanted conversation. He was a big Australian, who should have been husky, but looked, in fact, gaunt and ill. The mother was pleasant but reserved, and changing his tactics, he began to talk to the child—or rather, through the child to the embarrassed mother. He was oncoming but not in the least offensive. The child answered him bashfully; the mother smiled but said as little as possible; and when the train made its single stop she said, ‘Good day—we get out here’. He helped her with her suitcase, lifted the child down, and the pair disappeared from sight; into, I felt sure, another compartment. The soldier blocked the window until the train drew out. As soon as it was well away, he walked over to my end of the carriage, and said, ‘Gurl! there’s sumpin’
I been wantin’ to do ever since I got in. D’you mind?’

I said I didn’t and hoped I wouldn’t. To my relief he tugged a flask out of his hip pocket and gulped down a big swig of whisky. Then he offered the flask to me. ‘Have one?’

‘No, thank you,’ I said amiably, ‘I don’t drink it.’

He put the flask back, sat down opposite me, leaned forward, and said very earnestly, ‘Gurl!’ (He slapped my knee with the back of his hand.) ‘Gurl—I don’t want you to think us Aussies is all larrikins. You won’t, now, will you, gurl?’

I promised him, as earnestly, that I would not, and asked him what part of Australia he came from. Sydney, he said. What had he done there before the war? He had worked in the sewers. I played my strong card with larrikins from Downunder, and told him that though I had never been to his country my father had emigrated there in the 1850s, following the gold-rush from camp to camp, and having adventures without number. I did not have to invent the adventures, either; my father’s stories were extremely exciting, and enlisted the soldier’s interest. By the time I’d exhausted them a third of the journey was done, and we were practically larrikins together. Every now and then he took another swig. I kept it all very pally. Where was he going? To the station beyond Loughton, to say goodbye to the nuns in a hospital there. He had been sent back to Blighty with his inside torn out. He described his dreadful wound fully, and spoke with tears in his eyes of his nurses. He was returning to Sydney next week, and he couldn’t go without saying goodbye to those good women. He was taking them presents.

His ghastly pallor was explained. I felt great sympathy for him, and rather liked him, but I wished he wouldn’t swig his flask quite so often.

So the man is good, she believes–it’s only the war wound and the whiskey…

I asked about his family—had he any? Yes, a wife and two or three kids. ‘I’ll show you, gurl.’ He pulled out a bursting pocket-book, and littered the seat beside him with snapshots and letters till he found what he wanted. I admired the children and asked their names. He had something else important I must see. He strewed the heterogeneous contents of his kitbag over the carriage: things he was taking home for trophies and souvenirs, loot, documents official and private, pitiful mementoes of an experience that would sear him when they were faded—ah! here at last was the bit of shell they’d dug out of his guts, other bits that he had picked up in the trenches, for his friends—‘would you like a bit, gurl?’ I spun out my questions. He wanted to shift the key, took another swig, was a little baffled, and began to fumble with his bag, looking morosely at his scattered junk. After one or two attempts to stow it back, he gave up.

‘Awl’ He flung the bag into my lap, waving a large hand over the muddle on the seats. ‘Purr ’em away, purr ’em away.’ He emptied his flask.

I made the job last as long as I could. He watched me. There was still one station to go. At last everything was somehow stowed back in the bag. I gave him the pocket-book filled with his poor home life, and knew that the final swig had effected the change, that my larrikin’s confused vision mistook me at last for a woman, no longer for the mate who had dug gold and ranged the Bush with him, and worked in the sewers of Sydney.

‘Gurl! I tell you what.’ He leaned forward from his comer and pinned my knees with his. ‘You goin’ to Loughton, I go
on to the next—tomorrow you walk halfway an’ I walk halfway, an’ we’ll meet.’

‘I’m sorry, I can’t. I ’m staying outside Loughton, with a friend who’s soon going to France. I’m sure you’ll see that I
can’t take time off on a short visit.’

He wanted to get angry, but didn’t know how to yet. ‘Well then, gurl, give me a kiss before we part.’

‘No,’ I smiled. ‘I’m sorry.’

‘What, not one kiss from them ruby lips?’

‘Not one.’

Now he did begin to get ugly. ‘GrrrI’ he growled, ‘I could get better kisses than yours from the gurls in France.’

‘I’m sure you could,’ I agreed. ‘Do you want to go back?’

He growled again. The time for words was over. He had my hands firmly, and the rest of me hemmed in the comer. I knew I mustn’t make any movement of escape, but I wasn’t frightened, and that baffled him too.

The train slowed up. Porters’ voices called Loughton.

‘My station!’ I glanced out of the window. ‘There’s my friend. Would you help me down with my knapsack?’ Drunk as he was, old custom was too strong for him. A train on the run was one thing, but no larrikin could keep a gurl pinned in her seat with the train at rest. He stood up and heaved down my knapsack sulkily. I shook his hand, and said ‘Good luck!’ Then I jumped down from the carriage and ran to meet Edward, who really was coming along the platform in his officer’s tunic. I suppose I was panting a little, for he glanced inquiringly as he took my knapsack from me.

Farjeon’s writing is frank and pleasant–always ready with a smile, whether it is children whose worried minds she is putting at ease, or otherwise.

But she’s always very canny, as good children’s authors must be. Is this just a story, an event of general interest? No such thing. So is it a frightening near-trauma which our heroine avoids through her steely resolve and clever handling of a drunk potential aggressor? Yes, but retrospective dwelling on her own skill and courage is only an entertainment–a side-note that Farjeon tosses off with careless brio.

Which is, I think, also a wink, a challenge to us to recognize that there is more than one way to lapse into wartime solipsism and utterly fail to respect the woman who is right in front of you–whether you have stopped mistaking her for a fellow-digging mate or not.

Edward Thomas is a poet–very nearly a great poet–and that means that he notices things on a level of intensity unavailable to most of us. Things in his own mind, the landscape, mostly–but even here, absorbed, he notices that something has happened to his friend. His glance poses a question, which Eleanor Farjeon answers:

‘Nothing much, it’s all right.’ My larrikin had disappeared from the window. Poor man with his guts torn out because of this war. Who could blame anyone for anything? I didn’t want to talk about him, and Edward asked no questions.

Friendship restrained by delicacy? Perhaps, but really I think this is the wry smile that comes with the wink. Of course she didn’t want to talk about having narrowly avoided sexual assault on a train, but a sensitive friend might push, might pry, might find out, might offer support… This is, I think, a parable on the limitations of friendship. Or the limitations of men, especially when their mind has been absorbed–or their guts torn up–by war.

We talked of other things on the long walk to the new home, a very dull walk through Loughton to begin with, but the last half was good, uphill through the spreading trees, now almost bare. Yes, the Forest was good, but the house itself was bad; it was dismal and poorly-planned…

Edward was restless, his centre had shifted, his military quarters had more meaning for him than this unfamiliar rather ramshackle dwelling. The move had left all sorts of jobs to be attended to; he was busy with them as he would have been at Steep, with his thoughts on the little study up the hill. But now, while he chopped a woodstack for his family against the winter, we all knew that he would not burn it with them, and while he busied himself his mind was on France.

Returning then, as we must, to the subject of Edward Thomas, I’m sure we’re not surprised by any of this. He has generally been the sort of man who is happier with friends–or alone–than with his family. And this is a troubled time. But his demons go deeper than mere war-tinged grumpiness.

His mood was a little perverse… Somehow or other Tristram Shandy came into it. Edward praised it as one of the greatest books in the language, but Helen was prejudiced against it, and exclaimed vehemently, ‘I can’t bear it!’

Edward said shortly, ‘No woman is able to understand Tristram Shandy.’

I protested, ‘But I read it again and again.’

‘No woman ought to be able to understand Tristram Shandy,’ he said, still more shortly.[2]

Where are we left with this anecdote, then? There’s another little grace note of triumph for Farjeon, of course. She loves Thomas–chastely, unrequitedly. But then again Helen Thomas loves him unrequitedly too. I hardly know Helen Thomas, but I could hazard a shaky guess as to why she would not like a manic, madcap novel that embraces both absurdity and self-obsession. And it’s clear why Eleanor Farjeon loves it–it’s fantastic, animated by a powerful sense of humor that is anarchic but not unkind. (That is, it’s a great book, and she has sure taste.) So Eleanor Farjeon, who Thomas values as a friend (that always-hurtful three-word phrase!) but not as a romantic alternative to Helen, rates at least this very grudging inverted compliment. She is not a woman to him, then, and still a “mate,” a fellow traveler, a fellow-miner in literature’s quarry. but at least she can read.

And Edward Thomas? Is he grumpy, beleaguered, and trapped in an ill-suiting house with two women desperate to do what can’t be done–namely, cheer him up–or is he admitting to a foolish and ill-founded sexism?

Well, yes.

But how different this project would be–how different war would be (here comes an original thought!)–if women were there in the trenches (or even there, in greater numbers, in the immediate war zone), writing male intransigence, stupidity, and nearsightedness. Writing war. Farjeon is writing retrospectively of this day, so her commentary is not really that of late 1916; nevertheless, she has arrived at a judgment that will serve for many of the more sensitive writers caught up in the monster-war, the ones who neither suffered overwhelming trauma nor looked away from the narrowness of their mistake: “Who could blame anyone for anything?”


References and Footnotes

  1. Judging from Farjeon's statement, below, and from the days mentioned in Thomas's letters.
  2. Farjeon, Edward Thomas..., 226-31.

Lady Dorothie Feilding, Baby-snatcher; The Loss of the Britannic

We will spend most of today catching up with the irrepressible Dorothie Feilding, but first, a quick note of a not-so-near miss that affected two of our writers.

Vera Brittain had sailed out, Malta-bound, aboard her enormous namesake, the HMHS Britannic, a sister ship of the famed Titanic since converted for use as a hospital ship. And after Vera left the Britannic at Mudros in Greece, Vivian de Sola Pinto, very ill after service in Egypt, was brought aboard and sailed home to England. The Britannic returned to the Mediterranean, and today, a century back, it hit a mine near the Greek island of Kea and sunk in a little less than an hour. All but thirty of the more than 1,000 aboard were saved.

When news of the sinking reached Vera Brittain on Malta, it “galvanised the island like an electric shock.” A week later, survivors will reach the island’s hospital complex, and Vera went to visit “a young, cheerful Sister who had made friends with Betty and myself on the voyage to Mudros… and found her completely changed–nervous, distressed and all the time on the verge of crying. From her they heard the tale of the sinking, including the exemplary stoicism of the head Matron and the sudden loss of two boats and several medical officers in the last moments of the evacuation, when the ship rolled and sank. For all that the Titanic had gone down in similar fashion, four years before, and in peacetime, the loss of such a huge ship–and a hospital ship, carrying sick and wounded (including, Vera tells us, both an officer ordered on “a sea voyage for the benefit of his health” and “a stewardess who had been on the Titanic”)–still stands out against the ordinary carnage of the war, a shockingly destructive disaster. (Wikipedia is of the opinion that the Britannic is “currently the largest passenger ship on the sea floor.”)[1]


Let’s jump back nine days, now, so that we can see the short arc of the Saga of Mr. Kemp play out in Lady Feilding’s letters home to her mother.

Mother dear–

…A new man for us arrived yesterday, one Kemp, to replace Newall who had to return. He seems nice, but we are sorry to lose Newall who was a very dependable chap & hard worker. He was to take his ambulance with him, but the other day presented it to me, for the corps, as a souvenir of the Mil medal which was nice of him as it saves us getting another car, & it is quite a new one…

Two days later, we have an update:

Mother dear–

…Taking Da round seems to have given him palpitations somewhat, but he must have been thrilled to the core at seeing a real live tank. It is more than I have, which is a pity as they would roll along beautifully in this country.

Jelly made me laugh this afternoon as he took the new member out for a run in the car & made him drive a sort of exam. The poor new man is not a very good motorist yet, very new to it all & easily put in a fuss. So Jelly not finding the high road interesting enough as a test, at once takes him up into N & up byroads where he got proper shelled & the fear of God put in him. All this as Jelly explained carefully was ‘just to give him confidence’.

Personally I think he will have many nightmares tonight instead & will probably die of fright or the palsy before

Again the chatty tone belies a shrewdness about how people work. Dr. Jellett’s subscription to one theory of courage/confidence seems to blind him to this particular man’s psychological state. Dorothie Feilding is not one for systematic applications, but she clearly sees that throwing this particular nervous man into the thick of it may not be the best idea…

The next two letters discuss other happenings–a sudden return of the German heavy artillery to their parts of Belgium; sanguine–in both senses–reports from “The Bloke”[2] on the last fighting on the Somme; and, of course, pet-related faits divers. But I will include this bit of aristocratic Christmas planning:

I have been spending all the morning making up parcels for soldiers of clothes. It’s too appallingly cold for words this week, so it has fallen just the right time. No time for a real letter.

Yes, I will come home about 10th or 12th of Dec & stay over Xmas. I would rather be at home & help all you people, so don’t change any plans on my account. The only orgy I ache for is an odd hunt or two. P’raps with suction & the grace of God I may be able to do so. I only had a half-day all last season.

A bit ’ard.

Goodbye dears all

Yr loving DoDo

No further news of Mr. Kemp. But yesterday, another bomb dropped–or, rather, a book–pushing all such quotidian thoughts aside. We haven’t heard from Elsie Knocker in quite a long time… in part because, though a century aloof from such rivalries and striving for the critical historian’s carefully balanced critical perspective, I agree with Lady Feilding on the merits of Mrs. Knocker’s production, however much I am unable to endorse the past subjunctive remedy she will now suggest…

20th Nov
Mother dear–

Mrs Knocker has published a damnable book called ‘The Cellar house of Pervyse’. Thank God she has left me out of it practically, but a lot of ‘Munco’ about it & people will undoubtedly associate one with that type of woman. Get it, read it, see if you don’t think it the worst taste you ever saw. It makes one sick of being a woman & I am so sorry she has made little Mairi Chisholm look a fool too.

She should have been held under water for 48hrs when young…

And so I suppose it is a bit of an anti-climax to reach today, a century back, and the denouement of their “new man”‘s brief stay with their ambulance unit. Taken all together, however, this run of letters can be read as an off-balance but telling stroke for women and feminism…

21st Nov 1916

Col Da dear–

I have just received a most compromising wire, which will show the sort of reputation I now have.

‘Lady D F etc.–Beseech you return my son immediately – Kemp’

I think it is quite priceless & so does everyone else & I am being called a babysnatcher!! Must have caused quite a flutter in the telegraph offices en route. The reason of it all is a youth called Kemp who came to replace Newall & is somewhat a rabbit. He came in for a good few obus at once & Jelly took him up to teach him how to reverse a car under heavy fire at N as he explained ‘just to give the lad confidence’. This put the lid on it & the lad wrote home to Papa his nerves & health wouldn’t stand it hence frenzied wires from his parent birds — about 3 a day! We explained he was under a military contract for 6 months & must stick it. He is already improved & I think a little hard work & being shot at as often as possible will soon buck him up. Will report progress anyway! Of course, he may pass away under the experiment, but as in this case ‘it wouldn’t really matter’ that great Flanders maxim holds good…

Again, here we have silliness and a sense of madcap haphazard, but that’s her style–the substance is serious business. She thought that throwing Kemp into the deep end was a bad idea, but now, after a week under the steadying influence of less acute danger, he is improving. And behind the light humor and the sense of a (highly) irregular ambulance unit comes the bureaucratic reality of the war and the black humor: this is a letter to mother that makes it quite clear that telegrams from daddy won’t alter reality–there’s a war on, and a contract, and the inscrutable providence of the German obus

We’ll end the run of letters with the same note on which it began. Lady Feilding laughs it off as often as she can, but she’s a celebrity, the first woman to win the military medal:

Funny old bird with whiskers all over his face, even round his eyes, pranced in here today, & wanted to do a painting of me for the official trench ‘Album de Guerre’, as he is told off for the purpose, being a distinguished artist. In addition to being in the album I was to have the great privilege to be then sold for 1d on a coloured p[ost]card.

You will be surprised to hear I wasn’t taking any, only it took me from 9am to 10.30 to convince Whiskers that I really meant it. He thought it most odd & we eventually parted with many deep bows, & expressions of untold
mutual admiration! I quite expect him to be in again tomorrow & go thro’ it all over again…

…am coming home mid Dec for over Xmas. Will you please send this on to Mother as I haven’t time to write to both.

Ever so much love Da dear

Yr ever after if somewhat eccentric darter



References and Footnotes

  1. Testament of Youth, 312-3.
  2. A character I have mostly clipped out of Dorothie's letters--we can't read everything!--with increasing regret.
  3. Lady Under Fire, 179-182.

Rudyard Kipling’s Advice to a Young Cadet; Crossing Paths on the Brittanic: Vivian de Sola Pinto is Blighty-Bound; Vera Brittain Sees Lemnos, and Thinks of Rupert, and Roland

Rudyard Kipling has a diverse correspondence. Today, a century back, he wrote to his nephew Oliver Baldwin, who joined the Cambridge Officer Training Corps in May. It seems that eager young Oliver sent his uncle a sort of crib sheet for platoon drill that he had devised…

Bateman’s / Burwash / Sussex/ Oct. 3.1916
Dear Sir

I am much indebted to you for your kind thought in sending me your latest work “Platoon drill” which I have read with great interest. The style strikes me as crisp and well-balanced though here and there a little staccato. The plot fascinates me immensely in spite of the absence of the feminine element. There is a vigor and movement about it which never flags and the interest continues to increase up to the end where No. paces the Interval. This scene is conceived with masterly grip and insight and the sudden disappearance of Interval after being paced held me breathless. I should be happier if you had not left your readers in doubt as to the fate of Remainder; or, may we, haply, look for a sequel in which he married Double March. But enough of Literature, however good.

I always try to primly remind readers that letters are terrible barometers of mood. One sets oneself to a task, and nearly anything can be concealed during those minutes of writing. Even if the writer strives for total honesty, he or she is writing and reflecting, disturbing the essence of experience with the act of observation… and even if these hurdles are overcome, the writing will in any case only encapsulate the mood of those few minutes. A rat, a nasty meal, a trench mud-slide, a sudden barrage–or a parcel, an unexpected leave or relief, a warm and dry dawn–and all will seem very different…

And then, lately, I have been harping upon the implied duty of so many of these letters–the pressure that shapes them into something other than a naked record of the writer’s feelings. Usually, that duty is to demonstrate to a wife or mother at home that things are cheerful, bearable, and not particularly perilous.

In this letter the duty is almost the opposite. Kipling recently wrote, in quiet, strongly-worded, irrational umbrage, an attempt to stave off the official death of his son, nearly a year after he was actually killed. Today he writes to a bright young relative who will be going out there, before too long… and when he his done with his joke, Kipling writes with very great affection.

Buttons, my dear.

We were rejoiced to get your letter on the typewriter that pretends to be a pen. We really are coming to see you if we can ever get away from our jobs here. And what tales of absurdity and complications we have to tell you! I am trying to imagine you as an Instructor. You probably do it very well since you have a false air of never being shocked or upset–which is the whole essence of wisdom and success in this world. Also, you ought to have filled
out a bit on the square…

I have understood from several quarters that Cambridge is a sink. The kind of animile now being recruited can’t hold his liquor as a rule. As to women, I imagine there is more and more variegated venereal now in England than at any time of her rough Island story. So for the love of Goodness look out! They ought to be inspected.

Do you ever get any leave? If so do you always spend it in town? If so why not let us know? And further if otherwise why not come down here for a week end. It’s long since we’ve had a rag together and the billiard table is simply mildewed from lack of use.

Dear love from us all. You’ll make a really a. 1. Officer in time and I daresay you feel it.

Ever your affectionate old
Uncle Rud.

Is there anything you want that there is at Bateman’s that we can send you?
Rough socks; mitts, etc. etc. are plentiful just now.[1]

It’s impossible not to read this letter with “My Boy Jack” in mind. But Kipling musters a jest–though this is a time when they are few–and puts on a brave face for a young soldier-to-be. It’s the postscript, I think, that can give us the confidence to say “yes, Kipling is playing up a part here, not writing from the heart.” A boy officer at Cambridge is not in great need of socks and mittens, no matter how strenuous the training. But soon he will be, and they will provide much needed comfort, and no protection at all against shot or shell…


When I began this project I envisioned reading so many memoirs and letters that every few weeks or so two writers would turn out to be–previously unbeknownst to history!–rubbing elbows in a communications trench, somewhere. A little silly–it’s a very big war–and beside the point, but still. We’ve had quite a few “paths crossing” nonetheless, but this one is far afield–or, rather, overseas.

Vera Brittain arrived today at Mudros, the major British port on the Greek island of Lemnos. There she will disembark from the great Britannic and board a smaller vessel for Malta.  Meanwhile, Vivian de Sola Pinto, an officer of the Royal Welch whose overseas service has been with the 6th battalion, at Gallipoli and then in Egypt–was carried aboard. De Sola Pinto had seen Lemnos before, during the pre-Gallipoli dithering of 1915, but he is in no condition to enjoy it now. In combat on the Suez Canal in early August he had fallen ill with sunstroke and dysentery, and–after evacuation by camel-litter and long weeks in an Alexandrian hospital–he is now being sent back to blighty.

…on 1st October I was carried on to the hospital ship Letitia, which took me to Mudros. The great harbour was now almost empty and most of the huts and tents on shore had disappeared. However, there was one enormous liner there. It was the Britannic, the sister ship of the Titanic. It had been completed in 1914 and had been taken over immediately and turned into a hospital ship. With a number of other sick and wounded men I was transferred to this monster…[2]


Vera Brittain, heading in the opposite direction, is bored of the great liner and charmed by the beauties of the Aegean–at least from a distance. Arriving in Greece, will she think of the ancients in their glory, or the miseries of nearby Gallipoli? Ah, well, she has a more recent hero still.

Tuesday October 3rd

Once again we got out of bed early, this time to see the Archipelago. We saw now that we were being closely escorted, by a British battle cruiser, a British torpedo-boat & a British destroyer. We stayed for some time watching the sun rise over the Greek Islands. In the afternoon after sailing safely through three rows of mines we reached, Lemnos & anchored in Mudros harbour. Seen from a distance the Aegean appeared to gleam with great jewels–golden islands with purple shadows, set in a deep blue sea. When we got nearer we saw that they were of a rocky, hilly, sandy nature, golden-brown rather than red, & in many cases covered with brown scrubby grass…

We were told that on the Island are the graves of three Canadian Sisters, who died nursing in the camp hospital  there. The place was grim & sinister looking yet there was a queer unaccountable fascination about it which would not allow me to take my eyes from it nearly all the afternoon. And I am very sure that the vision of that momentous curve of Lemnos in the rich desolation of the. Aegean will remain in my mind long after the more splendid visions of Naples have almost passed away from it. A mist came over my eyes as I looked over this lonely place where Rupert Brooke died, and I remembered so vividly the first time I heard his poems, when Miss Darbishire read them to me at Oxford one evening in May soon after Roland had gone to the front.[3]


References and Footnotes

  1. The Letters of Rudyard Kipling, IV, 403-4.
  2. The City that Shone, 182.
  3. Chronicle of Youth, 330-1.

Lady Feilding’s Papist Plot; Tolkien at Thiepval; Edmund Blunden on What He Would Read, and What He Will Not Write

Shaming famous women is easily done these days, but it was hardly much harder a century back–although calumny did spread only at the speed of print, which takes quite a few more clicks. So: a pamphlet in the post has assailed our most decorated ambulance volunteer and Catholic noblewoman. To some, apparently, her unusual combination of debutante/heroic voluntere celebrity and Catholicism is a sure-fire indication that she is some sort of secret-assistant-Whore of Babylon:

27th Sep
Mother dear–

I have received some priceless anti-popery pamphlets sent me for the good of my soul by the Protestant Tract Society of Ilford. One good one is headed ‘Rome – Rags & Rhum’.

Another is a very harmless plain press cutting about my old medal & pinned on to it a tract on which is written ‘shame’ very big in blue chalk & the following heavily underlined: ‘The Church of Rome always strives to remain in the public eye, regardless of the means employed.’

As far as I can gather my object in coming to Flanders was to be in the pay of the Pope to achieve his dastardly ends. You might mention to Snich the old boy hasn’t paid up for months & that my wages are long overdue so will he see about it. Unfortunately I don’t know who the devil is Pope just now or I’d write myself. I think it’s a Gregory V or Cascara XXXV but aren’t sure.

Do enlighten me.
Yr to a corpse & to ‘hell with the Pope’.
Yr ever Diddles


Another (generally more serious-minded) Catholic volunteer was making his way into harm’s way today, a century back. John Ronald Tolkien‘s 11th Lancashire Fusiliers are coming up into the battle for Thiepval Ridge, which had begun so well, yesterday. Relieving the 1/7th West Yorkshires, they made their way toward the village itself, and Tolkien spent the night in a dugout, recently German, and not far from the Schwaben Redoubt, the fortress still decidedly in German hands.[1]


Edmund Blunden is not far away, no more than a few miles to the north. But that can make all the difference–“on the edge” of an inferno is not anything like just behind it, and Blunden had time to write a letter home, todaym and mental space to muse about the psychological challenges of trench warfare.

I miss the companionship of books ever so and after the blessed war I shall be still more buried in the dust of old libraries and compassed about with leather quartos…

A lovely dream, but then there is the present:

Cold and wet and lack of sleep are enemies to the finest soldiers. There is also the added enemy of the presence of so many dead men. And after a while the dead become more than frightful to the mind. Some of the dugouts where some Germans were killed with bombs are indescribable–and, in any case, must not be described.[2]

Fortunately for us, Blunden will change his mind about this particular imperative.


References and Footnotes

  1. Chronology, 91.
  2. Webb, Edmund Blunden, 62-5.

Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves Come Down From Wales, and the Narrative Gets Dodgy; Bimbo Tennant in the Front Lines

Today, a century back, marked the end of the Welsh idyll of Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves. They have been writing and reading each other’s work and rewriting (but not, alas, dating their manuscripts) and walking the hills, and Sassoon has played more than a few rounds of golf. But their joint holiday is not quite over–it merely pivoted, today. The two went to London together to see the same lung specialist–Sassoon’s lungs had been damaged by a fever, Graves’s by a German shell–and will then continue into Kent, to Weirleigh, Sassoon’s home.

This, in any event, is the dating provided by Graves’s nepotic biographer R.P. Graves, and although he is not inerrant, he seems correct on this, despite his uncle’s assertions in Good-Bye to All That, which include dating his first meeting-up with Sassoon to September 6th rather than late August.[1] In any event, today’s doctor’s appointment marked the transition from Wales to Kent, and since it is also a calm between two storms on the Somme, it’s a good point to work in, here, some of their interesting but factually unreliable stories of this month.[2]

The reason the 6th stuck in Graves’s memory is probably because it was a horrible day for the two young men, each of whom had each served with the First Battalion of the Royal Welch (Graves was with the Second when he was wounded). This memory may be misplaced or combined, but it seems unlikely to be fabricated:

Siegfried bought a copy of The Times at the book-stall. As usual, we turned to the casualty list first; and found there the names of practically every officer in the First Battalion, listed as either killed or wounded. Edmund Dadd, killed; his brother Julian, in Siegfried’s Company, wounded–shot through the throat, as we learned later, only able to talk in a whisper, and for months utterly prostrated. It had happened at Ale Alley near Ginchy, on September 3rd. A dud show, with the battalion out-flanked by a counter-attack. News like this in England was far more upsetting than in France. Still feeling  very weak, I could not help crying all the way up to Wales. Siegfried complained bitterly: ‘Well, old Stockpot got his C.B. at any rate!’ 

So far so awful. Survivors’ guilt is not a new phenomenon, but it is growing more common. Both Graves and Sassoon are at pains to explain how ill at ease they were as officers honorably at leisure in wartime England, and although Graves partially backdates his disillusionment to 1915 and Sassoon was shaken by the deaths of his brother in late 1915 and, especially, of David Thomas, in March, they both write this long period of leave as a key passage in their emotional and political progress.

Characteristically, Sassoon is gentle, and Graves knocks over all the tea trays he can get his hands on.

Also characteristically, Graves is direct and offensive, while Sassoon would prefer to wound with erasure styled as gentle reticence–but we’ll get to that in a moment.

Sassoon’s fictionalized memoir’s task is made easier by the fact that “George Sherston” is not visiting his bereaved mother but his “Aunt Evelyn.” There is an aside to the reader about “the difficulty of recapturing war-time atmosphere” and wanting to write something more personal and specific than any historian’s generalization–ironic from a man who has chosen the stylish veneer of fiction, but piles that veneer on awfully thick at times like this. So “Sherston” wanders about deserted stables–his beloved groom “Dixon” and his hunting friend “Stephen Colwood” have both been killed–and broods upon empty cricket pitches, finding everywhere time-capsule mementos of the Last Summer.

This is literarily appropriate, since we are closing the book on the “Fox-Hunting Man” before he begins to face the destructiveness of war and contemplate protest. But it also omits Graves entirely.

Sherston’s wilful idyll, undisturbed by “David Cromlech”– who is not mentioned at all during the account of these weeks in Sherston’s Memoirsis eventually interrupted by letters from his friend Joe “Dottrell”/Cottrell, the quartermaster of the First Royal Welch:

The old Batt. is having a rough time. We… lost 200 men in three days… The Batt. is attacking to-day… All the boys send their love and best wishes…

This is bad enough, but then come details of the news he would have already learned from the casualty lists:

Dear Kangaroo… Just a line to let you know what rotten bad luck we had yesterday. We attacked Ginchy with a very weak Batt. (about 300) and captured the place but were forced out of half of it… Poor Edmonds was killed… Also Perrin. Durley was badly wounded, in neck and chest… Asbestos Bill died of wounds. Fernby… not expected to live… Only two officers got back without being killed.

These are pseudonyms, but the September 1st attack on Ginchy–and its cost–was real. “George Sherston,” spared all this by an illness, can’t quite handle the news–but what choice has he?

I walked around the room, whistling and putting the pictures straight. Then the gong rang for luncheon. Aunt Evelyn drew my attention to the figs, which were the best we’d had off the old tree that autumn.[3]


Graves also discusses the unpleasant strangeness of being celebrated by fatuous civilians, but instead of containing himself he launches an attack on “The Little Mother,” an anonymous letter-writer who gained fame around this time. She seems to have been a creation of the propagandists, and she is pretty awful, objecting to peace-talking soldiers by whipping up a sort of sacrificial-holy-mother version of 1914’s pretty-girls-waving-white-feathers phenomenon. The claim–made to silence any protest against the war–was that British mothers were very proud to “fill the gaps” by shooing in their sons–and any shirkers alongside–forward. Graves includes numerous blurbs of fulsome praise for this letter–perfect and complete evidence, in his eyes, of the wicked immensity of the experiential gulf, where the older generation are lemmings who push younger beasts off the cliff while keeping their own gazes piously elevated–and moves on…

Which brings us to a bit of a bump in the road. Graves cites the praise for “The Little Mother” as an example of what he was “up against” a century back, but he follows with another rather more personal illustration of the impossibility of soldiers’ mothers…  Let’s just say that his handling of his visit to Kent is difficult to discuss without spoilers. But I will do my best to write clearly without violating the letter of the law.

Even if “Sherston” is alone with “Aunt Evelyn,” Graves and Sassoon did journey to Kent together, this week, a century back. And Graves writes about the behavior not of the fictional Aunt Evelyn but the real mistress of the house, Sassoon’s mother. Which will not make Sassoon happy–never mind that a man who entirely eliminates his mother from his lightly-fictionalized “Memoirs” doesn’t have a perfect claim to the moral high ground.

Graves’s posture of reticence about embarrassing a good friend is tissue-thin. He talks about early September with Sassoon, and directly after this next quotation he is again talking about what he and Sassoon did together. Gosh! Who could this Kentish friend be I wonder?

Towards the end of September, I stayed in Kent with a recently wounded First Battalion friend. An elder brother had been killed in the Dardanelles, and their mother kept the bedroom exactly as he had left it, with the sheets aired, the linen always freshly laundered, flowers and cigarettes by the bedside. She went around  with a vague, bright religious look on her face. The first night I spent there, my friend and I sat up talking about the war until past twelve o’clock. His mother had gone to bed early, after urging us not to get too tired. The talk had excited me, and though I managed to fall asleep an hour later, I was continually awakened by sudden rapping noises, which I tried to disregard but which grew louder and louder. They seemed to come from everywhere. Soon sleep left me and I lay in a cold sweat. At nearly three o’clock, I heard a diabolic yell and a succession of laughing, sobbing shrieks that sent me flying to the door. In the passage I collided with the  mother who, to my surprise, was fully dressed. ‘It’s nothing,’ she said. ‘One of the maids had hysterics. I’m so sorry you have been disturbed.’ So I went back to bed, but could not sleep again, though the noises had stopped. In the morning I told my friend: ‘I’m leaving this place. It’s worse than France.’ There were thousands of  mothers like her, getting in touch with their dead sons by various spiritualistic means. 

This is cruel, and neither is it fair or entirely truthful–Graves will also write a letter praising the peacefulness of Weirleigh several days after arriving. Otherwise, sadly, it falls into the category of probably-essentially-true tales altered by Graves for dramatic effect. Theresa Sassoon is one of many bereaved parents who have begun to indulge in spiritualism.

Sassoon will write about his mother during this period, eventually, in his own autobiographical voice:

I could get no relief by discussing the war with my mother, whose way of looking at it differed from mine. For her, the British were St. George and the Germans were the Dragon; beyond that she had no more to say about it. The war had caused her so much suffering that she was incapable of thinking flexibly on the subject.

Sassoon–who defies me by using the “barrier” metaphor rather than the “gulf,” will note that their mutual understanding is also thwarted by the fact that he doesn’t know “what it feels like to be an elderly civilian in a great war.”[4] But this is wisdom yet to be realized, a century back.


Bimbo Tennant moved up past Rowland Feilding yesterday, taking the place of his exhausted Connaught Rangers. Tennant survived the trip and seems, naturally, to be enjoying himself so far. Not every man of the 4th Grenadier Guards was as lucky:

Sept. 11th, 1916.

“… Up to now I am safe and well; but we have had a fairly uncomfortable time, though we have been lucky on the whole. Poor Thompson (in my Company) was killed yesterday. I shall miss him so, he was such a charming fellow. We have been heavily shelled everywhere of the line.

We had very good luck getting up here, having hardly any casualties in the whole Battalion. I was flying up and down the batt. with messages to different people from the Commanding Officer all the time, it was quite a busy time for me; but since then, apart from helping to write messages, and being generally useful and cheerful, it’s been less strenuous. I keep my ‘Oxford Book of English Verse‘ with me.[5]

This is no passing reference, really: the Oxford Book of English Verse is, among our poetically-inclined subalterns, second-best to a bible–or even quietly preferred to it.


References and Footnotes

  1. And despite Jean Moorcroft Wilson's rather sensible abdication--"the dates simply do not tally" (Siegfried Sassoon, 294). They don't, but I'm not sure why anything more nefarious is going on with Graves than either a confusion of dates or a conflation of the memory of crying on a train with another day on which Sassoon read the casualty list. Today is a plausible day for reading of the Royal Welch at Ginchy (see below), but otherwise Moorcroft's complaint stands: "Sassoon's autobiography is clearly not factually reliable," and neither is Graves's. Worse, from my shallowly date-obsessed point of view, Sassoon is not writing many letters or keeping up his diary, so there is no way to securely date several important things. Alas: in late August I had no place to discuss he and Graves planning to co-publish like Coleridge and Wordsworth, and none of the biographers can quite find a date for Sassoon's September introduction to life at Lady Ottoline Morrell's Garsington Manor...
  2. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves: The Assault Heroic, 162.
  3. Complete Memoirs, 376-7.
  4. Siegfried's Journey, 27.
  5. Memoir, 229.