A Century Back

Writing the Great War, Day by Day

A Novel Premonition for Elinor Brooke; Edmund Blunden and Kate Luard Under German Bombs; Vera Brittain is at War at Last; Rudyard Kipling and the Efficacy of the Mob–and Charles Sorley Sees the Blindness

As the day dawns over Sussex today, a century back, Elinor Brooke reaches a crossroads in her war.

I was trudging uphill, feeling spikes of stubble jab my ankles, and then, just as I reached the top, the sun rose–huge, molten-red–and at that moment I knew–not thought, not feared, knew–that Toby wasn’t coming back.[1]

This is Elinor’s diary entry, in Pat Barker’s novel. Elinor is fictional, but her position–from the intuition, to the death of her brother, to the long struggle she will have to learn of its circumstances and make sense of it all–is very familiar.

 

And it still goes on. Edmund Blunden is fortunate to be in reserve today.

A fairly idle day… read Leigh Hunt… There was a big bombardment again this evening. Some of our party went over I suppose–God help them in the mud. Just as we were settling down for the night, Boche came over. Our knees knocked and teeth chattered, but nothing fell on us…[2]

 

Kate Luard, meanwhile, is closer to the action–and dodging bombs from the same German raiders. 1917, as Blunden recently observed, is not 1916. In some ways it feels as if in just two short years we have come from a 19th century world beginning to be troubled by machine guns to the cusp of mid-century schrecklichkeit. All we’ll need are stronger engines and bigger bombs.

We are so much in the thick of War up here that no one talks or thinks of anything else…shells screaming and bursting and bombs dropping. The last are much the worst. He dropped five at dinner-time about 70 yards away, and came over with some more about 10.30 to-night and some more later. There’s no sort of cover anywhere and it is purely beastly. Shelling is nothing to it. The Sisters are extraordinarily good in it.[3]

 

Nor is Vera Brittain far from the bombs–but then again she has felt the bombs land in London, too. She writes to her mother today, a century back, from her new assignment in the great British base complex in the Pas-de-Calais.

24th General Hospital, Étaples,
France, 5 August 1917

. . . I arrived here yesterday afternoon; the hospital is about a mile out of the town, on the side of a hill, in a large clearing surrounded on three sides by woods. It is all huts & tents; I am working in a hut & sleeping under canvas, only not in a tent but in a kind of canvas shanty, with boarded floor & corrugated iron roof.. .The hospital is frantically busy & we were very much welcomed. . .

Now the, er, bombshell drops:

You will be surprised to hear that at present I am nursing German prisoners. My ward is entirely reserved for the most acute German surgical cases… The majority are more or less dying; never, even at the 1st London during the Somme push, have I seen such dreadful wounds. Consequently they are all too ill to be aggressive, & one forgets that they are the enemy and can only remember that they are suffering human beings. My half-forgotten German comes in very useful, & the Sisters were so glad to know I understood it & could speak a little as half the time they don’t know what the poor things want. It gives one a chance to live up to our Motto Inter Arma Caritas, but anyhow one can hardly feel bitter towards dying men. It is incongruous, though, to think of Edward in one part of France trying to kill the same people whom in another part of France I am trying to save…

Well, Malta was an interesting experience of the world, but this is War.[4]

Rarely is the epistolary first draft–especially to Mother, rather than to one of her fellow members of the Lost Generation–better than the coming memoir, but I think that’s the case today. There is a swelling of strings as Vera finally reaches France–the place that killed Roland, Geoffrey, and Victor, and that still has Edward in its clutches–and there is an excellent evocation of the sounds of the bombardment, too, which works nicely amidst the others, here–but the effect of her description of France is less powerful than the simple antithesis she used in the letter:

The noise of the distant guns was a sense rather than a sound; sometimes a quiver shook the earth, a vibration trembled upon the wind, when I could actually hear nothing. But that sense made any feeling of complete peace impossible; in the atmosphere was always the tenseness, the restlessness, the slight rustling, that comes before an earthquake or with imminent thunder. The glamour of the place was even more compelling, though less delirious, than the enchantment of Malta’s beauty; it could not be banished though one feared and resisted it, knowing that it had to be bought at the cost of loss and frustration. France was the scene of titanic, illimitable death, and for this very reason it had become the heart of the fiercest living ever known to any generation. Nothing was permanent; everyone and everything was always on the move; friendships were temporary, appointments were temporary, life itself was the most temporary of all.[5]

 

Finally, there’s a remarkable letter of today, a century back, from one to another of two titans of the turn of the century: the bard of Imperialism, Rudyard Kipling, and one of its dashing New World practitioners, Theodore Roosevelt. If not for the fact that they are not 19th century men, and that they are discussing sons (the present Kermit Roosevelt and the ever-present-through-his-absence Jack Kipling) and geopolitics… and if I didn’t despise this newly ubiquitous (at least in American pop culture) term, then I would describe this letter as a founding document of “bro” culture. Kipling’s writing has rarely been so off-putting, so ingratiatingly chummy, so eager to be brutal.

I have come a long way–through reading the man’s fiction, history, and private letters–to understanding Kipling much better than as the facile, solemn Imperialist chest-thumper of the familiar caricature… but a few paragraphs of this letter bring that old idea back with a vengeance. Kipling is full of blustery, silly talk as he updates the former president on his son’s adventures in England (Kermit Roosevelt is about to go out to Mesopotamia attached to a British Machine Gun unit); then there is unsolicited “expert” military advice (Kipling worries that the new American generals are too eager, and will fruitlessly spend their first small forces instead of building up for a “big push”), and there are helpful suggestions such as these:

I fancy that before you’ve done, in the U.S.A., you will discover as we have that the really dangerous animal is the Hun in one’s own country no matter what he pretends to be. You hold a good many hostages for his good behaviour and I sometimes wonder whether, if the U.S.A. took toll from her own unnaturalized Germans for every Hun outrage committed on the U.S. and on France, it wouldn’t have a sedative effect…

Don’t worry: Kipling is not suggesting that German Americans be killed in retribution for U-boat sinkings, only that a few officially sponsored riots in German American neighborhoods (I believe one applicable analogy would be to the pogrom) might just do the trick.

…It’s what the Hun comprehends perfectly. We have bled him badly in men, and if we can use up a decent percentage of his 1919 class this winter by exposure in the trenches as well as direct killing, he will feel it more.

But of course I’m being squeamish: anti-German-American riots were quite within the realm of possibility. And I just passed Kipling’s casual assertion of the righteousness of retributive atrocity without comment. Why? Because that describes the activities of uniformed soldiers? Because that’s different than casually advocating violent demagoguery and mob violence as strategic tools to an ally which is, ostensibly, a multi-ethnic democracy? Because my century-late outrage would be better served by letting Kipling’s endorsement of such things stand on its own rather than surrounding it with fussy complaint? “Bettered the instruction” indeed.

Worst of all, Kipling’s strategic guesstimates are accurate:

What he seems to funk more than most things is the stringency of the new blockade now that the U.S.A. is imposing it and neutrals can’t feed him as much as they used to. We’ve got another twelvemonth of trouble ahead of us I expect but it won’t be all on one side.[6]

This is the sort of letter, from one figurehead of imperial warfare to another–and from one older man willing to sacrifice his son to another–that might have re-affirmed Siegfried Sassoon‘s faith in the righteousness of his protest…

 

But back to this treatment of “Huns:” not Germans who are armed and dangerous in the trenches opposite, but German emigrants, civilians living in America, posing no threat and powerless to defend themselves. The analogy to wounded prisoners is not precise, yet it seems a coincidence worth exploring that Vera Brittain’s first encounter with helpless Germans also began today, a century back.

…when I told the Matron of my work in Malta, she remarked with an amused, friendly smile that I was “quite an old
soldier…” but… I was hardly prepared for the shock of being posted… to the acute and alarming German
ward…

Although we still, I believe, congratulate ourselves on our impartial care of our prisoners, the marquees were often
damp, and the ward was under-staffed whenever there happened to be a push — which seemed to be always — and the number of badly wounded and captured Germans became in consequence excessive. One of the things I like best to remember about the War is the nonchalance with which the Sisters and V.A.D.s in the German ward took for granted that it was they who must be overworked, rather than the prisoners neglected. At the time that I went there the ward staff had passed a self-denying ordinance with regard to half days, and only took an hour or two off when the work temporarily slackened.

From the moral high ground Vera Brittain now wields a satirist’s sword with great skill:

Before the War I had never been in Germany and had hardly met any Germans apart from the succession of German mistresses at St. Monica’s, every one of whom I had hated with a provincial schoolgirl’s pitiless distaste for foreigners. So it was somewhat disconcerting to be pitch-forked, all alone — since V.A.D.S went on duty half an hour before Sisters — into the midst of thirty representatives of the nation which, as I had repeatedly been told, had crucified Canadians, cut off the hands of babies, and subjected pure and stainless females to unmentionable “atrocities.” I didn’t think I had really believed all those stories, but I wasn’t quite sure.[7] I half expected that one or two of the patients would get out of bed and try to rape me, but I soon discovered that none of them were in a position to rape anybody, or indeed to do anything but cling with stupendous exertion to a life in which the scales were already weighted heavily against them.

At least a third of the men were dying; their daily dressings were not a mere matter of changing huge wads of stained gauze and wool, but of stopping haemorrhages, replacing intestines and draining and re-inserting innumerable rubber tubes. Attached to the ward was a small theatre, in which acute operations were performed all day by a medical officer with a swarthy skin and a rolling brown eye; he could speak German, and before the War had been in charge, I was told, of a German hospital in some tropical region of South America. During the first two weeks, he and I and the easy-going Charge-Sister worked together pleasantly enough. I often wonder how we were able to drink tea and eat cake in the theatre — as we did all clay at frequent intervals — in that foetid stench, with the thermometer about 90 degrees in the shade, and the saturated dressings and yet more gruesome human remnants heaped on the floor. After the “light medicals” that I had nursed in Malta, the German ward might justly have been described as a regular baptism of blood and pus.

This is inhuman and horrible, but the point–Brittain’s point, and now mine–is that it is also deeply humane.

One tall, bearded captain would invariably stand to attention when I had re-bandaged his arm, click his spurred heels together, and bow with ceremonious gravity. Another badly wounded boy — a Prussian lieutenant who was being transferred to England — held out an emaciated hand to me as he lay on the stretcher waiting to go, and murmured: “I tank you, Sister.” After barely a second’s hesitation I took the pale fingers in mine, thinking how ridiculous it was that I should be holding this man’s hand in friendship when perhaps, only a week or two earlier, Edward up at Ypres had been doing his best to kill him. The world was mad and we were all victims — that was the only way to look at it. These shattered, dying boys and I were paying alike for a situation that none of us had desired or done anything to bring about.

And Kipling, to some degree, had. But we’ll leave today with another voice, one which has greater personal authority than anyone who has spoken yet. The wounded Germans may be dying in English hands, but Charles Sorley had studied in Germany, and fought Germans, and been killed by Germans. In the memoir, Vera Brittain enlists the young dead poet against the cruel masters of war:

Somewhere, I remembered, I had seen a poem called “To Germany,” which put into words this struggling new
idea; it was written, I discovered afterwards, by Charles Hamilton Sorley, who was killed in action in 1915 :

You only saw your future bigly planned,

And we, the tapering paths of our own mind,

And in each other’s dearest ways we stand,

And hiss and hate. And the blind fight the blind.[8]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Barker, Toby's Room, 85.
  2. Webb, Edmund Blunden, 78.
  3. Unknown Warriors, 137.
  4. Letters From a Lost Generation, 268-9.
  5. Testament of Youth, 372-3.
  6. The Letters of Rudyard Kipling, IV, 467-8.
  7. Which is about right. The British press ran with a great many entirely invented atrocity stories, and propaganda and myth made an ugly marriage of convenience with stories like the ones Brittain mentions. And yet there was a tendency after the war--an inevitable after-effect of government lies--to disbelieve all stories of German atrocity and assume a rough moral equivalence. There wasn't--which was at least in part due to the fact that Germany occupied enemy territory, and believed itself to be under existential threat; neither of these things were true in the same way of Britain. But German atrocities, especially during the invasion of Belgium, were very real. They should not bear on the claim to humane treatment of wounded soldiers, but even if pacifists between the wars emphasized the horror of war in general rather than of particular forms of armed aggression, it is bad history to discount the deliberate violence meted out by the German army to French and Belgian civilians.
  8. Testament of Youth, 372-77.

Siegfried Sassoon is Blighty Bound… and Eighteen Other Updates

Although I am almost as tired of writing extremely long posts as you are of reading them, so very many of our writers committed some sort of date-fixable act today, a century back, that I thought I should nod to the fates and survey everyone who showed up.[1]

After we wrap up with Siegfried Sassoon, withdrawn from the Hindenburg trench to the Hindenburg tunnel with a new “patriotic perforation” in his shoulder, and after we read the progress of Edward Hermon‘s widow, I will try to be judiciously brief with the others. Somehow, yesterday, Sassoon was not only seen and treated by the battalion Medical Officer, but was swiftly evacuated to a Casualty Clearing Station. Within hours of being held back from an attempted one-man bombing war, he is tucked in and headed for Blighty.

April 17

After a blessed eight hours’ sleep (more than I’d had since last Wednesday) I waited till 5 o’clock reading Far from the Madding Crowd, when we got on board a Red Cross train of serpentine length. Five hundred men and thirty-two officers on board. Warlencourt is eighteen kilometres from Arras—quite near Saulty, where we stayed on April 7. We passed through Doullens about 6 p.m. and Abbeville at 8.30 and reached Camiferes at midnight.

An officer called Kerr is with me—one of the First Cameronians. He was hit in the bombing show about an hour before I got up there on Monday morning, so I’ve got some sidelights on what really happened.

At present I am still feeling warlike, and quite prepared to go back to the line in a few weeks. My wound is fairly comfortable, and will be healed in a fortnight, they say. I know it would be best for me not to go back to England, where I should probably be landed for at least three months, and return to the line in July or August, with all the hell and wrench of coming back and settling down to be gone through again. I think I’ve established a very strong position in the Second Battalion in the five weeks I was with them. My luck never deserts me; it seems inevitable
for me to be cast for the part of ‘leading hero!’

Things to remember

The dull red rainy dawn on Sunday April 15, when we had relieved the 15th Northumberland Fusiliers—our Company of eighty men taking over a frontage of nine hundred yards.

During the relief—stumbling along the trench in the dusk, dead men and living lying against the sides of the trench one never knew which were dead and which living. Dead and living were very nearly one, for death was in all our hearts. Kirkby shaking dead German[2] by the shoulder to ask him the way.

On April 14 the 19th Brigade attacked at 5.30 a.m. I looked across at the hill where a round red sun was coming up. The hill was deeply shadowed and grey-blue, and all the Country was full of shell-flashes and drifting smoke. A battle picture.

Scene in the Hénin Dressing Station. The two bad cases—abdomen (hopeless) and ankle. The pitiful parson. My walk with Mansfield.

Sergeant Baldwin (A. Company) his impassive demeanour—like a well-trained footman. ‘My officer’s been hit.’ He bound up my wound.[3]

As these notes suggest, there will be a good deal more to write about all this.

 

A few days after learning of her husband’s death, Ethel Hermon received the heartfelt letter from his long-time manservant Gordon Buxton.

Dear Buxton,

Your letter came this morning & I can never thank you enough for your loving care of him & your sympathy & prayers. I knew you would be heartbroken & that I should have all your sympathy as you probably knew as well as anyone could know how much we were to each other.

You will by now have had my other letter telling you that I have asked Gen. Trevor… to let you come home if it is possible as I simply long to talk to you… I seem to know all that pen & paper can tell, one just longs to talk to someone who was there…

I should leave it there, as we press on into this massively choral day. To summarize, Ethel also charges Buckin with seeing that her husband’s valuable and useful possessions are distributed to his friends, and that the items that had been personal, close to his body–“the old basin & cover & its contents”–be returned to her. She hopes, too, that he can care for her husband’s grave. Which he will do–and he will come home.

A British tank ditched in the German lines at Arras, IWM

Dear Mrs. Hermon,

I’m sending this note by Buxton who goes on leave today to report to you. He will bring the papers etc. found on your husband…

…a tank was caught up on the German front line… & the Boches were firing at it… there seems little doubt that one these rifle bullets hit your husband just below the heart… The medical officer tells me he thinks a big blood vessel below the heart was severed & that death was almost instantaneous.

Your husband’s horses are being sent to Div. Hd. Qrs with the groom…

I can only repeat how much I feel for you in your irreparable loss.

Yours very sincerely,

H.E. Trevor[4]

 

Kate Luard‘s parade of horrors (we’ve read but a little, lately) has abated, as the Arras push lags. So time for a stroll–and paperwork.

We have had a lull the last two days, and everybody has been off duty long enough to go for a walk in relays and pick Lent lilies, cowslips, and anemones…  I believe another stunt is expected tomorrow…

I got about 60 behind in Break-the-News letters the first few days of last week…[5]

 

Ivor Gurney, realizing perhaps that he is even more lucky to be wounded and out of it than he had thought, managed a post card today to Marion Scott:

Dear Friend: Still at the Base. No certain address. No certain tomorrow. No luck. No money. No damage to my arm, save a hole. Yet, had the boats been running, I might have got to Blighty…[6]

 

Let’s see: what else is happening with the Great War writers?

 

Christopher Wiseman arrived in Harrogate to visit John Ronald Tolkien, and to help him in compiling a memorial volume of their friend G.B. Smith’s work.[7]

 

In fiction, today is the key date in “The Colonel’s Shoes,” a curious supernatural shaggy-dog short story by Ford Madox Hueffer. It’s a tale told in retrospect that hinges on bitter, childish infighting among a few officers and plays out in the orderly room of their overworked battalion. Today, a century back, a vindictive captain writes up a Company-Sergeant-Major for perceived insubordination, and it will take a very, very minor miracle to set things right…[8]

 

And after the excitement of last night’s chaotic patrol, tonight’s action provided tension in a lower key for Alf Pollard and the H.A.C. Ordered to move forward under cover of darkness and entrench within 200 yards of the Germans, Pollard accidentally led his men all the way up to the German wire obstacles. But once again “Fritz was keeping a very bad watch” and Pollard and his men are able to withdraw to the proper distance and begin entrenching before they are discovered. Pollard being Pollard, he ascertains that the battalion on his left is in the wrong position and blusters back under fire to explain his prowess and sure grasp of the situation to the Brigadier, as well as the embarrassed colonel of that neighboring battalion…[9]

 

Rowland Feilding missed the first week of the battle, but it is now the lot of his battalion to hold trenches in the worst possible weather, and fight the same war of patrol and counter-patrol.

April 17, 1917. “‘Turnerstown Left” (Fierstraat Sector).

I think this year must be accursed. Never was a fouler day than to-day. After a wet night it is still raining this morning, and the wind is howling dismally, but overhead. There are points, after all, in being in a trench. The French seem to have made a spectacular re-entry into the arena yesterday, but they must have been greatly handicapped by the weather, like our men at Vimy.

Last night we captured two big Prussian Grenadiers (unwounded) on our wire. They were brought to my dugout at 2 a.m., looking frightened—with their hands still outstretched in the orthodox manner of the surrendered prisoner who desires to show that he is not armed; coated with mud; one bleeding from a tear from the wire; but neither seeming too unhappy. If one only knew German this would be the proper time to extract information. They are too scared to lie much. Later, when they find out how kindly is the British soldier, they become sly and independent.[10]

 

Llewelyn Wyn Griffith, whose harrowing summer was followed by a long spell of peaceful staff work, was sent back to his battalion today, a century back, taking over C Company of the 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers. We hear time and again how officers pine for their comrades and their men when they are sent off to safe billets and cushy staff positions–not so Griffith, who “set off despondently” to return to the hardships of the line.[11]

 

And with another Kitchener battalion of the Royal Welch, David Jones is also heading back toward the front.

On the 17th, in wind and sleet, they left for divisional reserve at Roussel Farm–the cold mud so deep that it took hours to pass through 400 yards of communication trench. They arrived at 3.30 a.m.[12]

 

Henry Williamson “wrote a lot of letters” today, including one to his mother enclosing a piece of army propaganda about German demoralization and one to his father describing the roar of the big naval guns, the sight of a British tanker driven mad by the gunfire concentrated on his tank, and the recent transaction of parcels: cake and bullseyes to Henry in France, and souvenirs–including “2 tin boxes of bombs, etc., and 3 lovely helmets… & a saw bayonet”–sent home.[13]

 

Vera Brittain remains too far from the front, and full of worry. To her brother Edward, today, a century back:

I have to keep on writing letters, because the vague bits of news from France that filter through to us make me so anxious to receive them. From the long list of names that appear in the telegrams there seems to be a vast battle going on along the whole of our front & the French one too, but it is very difficult to make out at all what is happening. Is Geoffrey anywhere in the Bapaume direction? The longer the War goes on, the more one’s concern in the whole immense business seems to centre itself upon the few beings still left that one cares about, & the less upon the general issue of the struggle. One’s personal interest wears one’s patriotism rather threadbare by this time. After all, it is a garment one has had to wear for a very long time, so there’s not much wonder if it is beginning to get a little shabby![14]

Looking back on this night, she will add these thoughts:

Yet another night’s red moon, I thought, looking up after finishing Edward’s letter at the ominous glow in the unquiet sky. Another night, and still no news. Is Victor still alive? Is Geoffrey? Oh, God–it’s intolerable to be out here, knowing nothing till ages afterwards, but just wondering and wondering what has happened![15]

 

Jack Martin, in billets at Dickebusch, took today to write out fairly lengthy pen-portraits of some of his comrades… but I’m only human…[16]

 

Vivian de Sola Pinto, working for weeks now at the Bull Ring near Rouen, records today’s date–I would guess a scrap of his orders was preserved, for there are few dates and few such specifics in his book–as the occasion of a “huge fatigue party” that spent the entire day loading lorries. But it was also a memorable occasion because the station from which he was to supervise the loading contained a sergeant and two classes of furniture: a comfy chair and a biscuit tin.

With wry approval de Sola Pinto notes the sergeant’s insistence–“a fine example of what I would call a manly spirit of volunteer subordination”–that the officer take the better chair, despite the fact that both of them “knew he was an infinitely better soldier than I should ever be.” de Sola Pinto insists on taking turns, but recognizes that the Sergeant’s principled, if nominal, subordination “actually enhanced” his dignity.[17]

 

George Coppard, recovered from the accidental shooting in the foot, arrived today at “Camiers, a reception base for drafts.”[18]

 

C.E. Montague wrote both a letter and a diary entry recording his view of the battle from close behind. Wise though he is, he still feels bereft that his old companions are in battle and he is not. And he shows what a man with the time for literary composition on his hands can do. This is a good mix of eyewitness reportage and refined “battle-piece” history.

April 17, 1917

…Behold me again in the midst of our long-drawn battles—-meet incidents of our long-drawn war.

I saw the beginning of this one, before daylight on the morning of the 9th, from a little height above our front, from which I could see all our guns flash off together at the second of starting, like a beaded line of electric lights all turned on from one switch, and then each of them turned on and off and on again as fast as possible by a switch of its own. At intervals beyond this line of flashes there were the big geysers of flame, and dark objects visible in the middle of it, spouting up from our mines under the German front trench; and then at every two or three hundred yards there went up signal rockets from the German trenches, that seemed like visible shrieks to their artillery and supports to protect them from our infantry, who, they knew, were then on their way across from our trenches. I could see all this going on along several miles of front, and it was strangely dramatic, though all expressed through lights in the darkness alone, until the day broke and we could see our infantry already beyond the second line of enemy trenches and sauntering across quietly to the third, with our barrage of smoke walking steadily in front of them like the pillar of smoke in the desert—only of course it cannot give complete safety; and now and then the line would have a gap made in it by a shell and would join up again across the gap, and go strolling, with the strange look of leisureliness that an infantry charge of the scientific kind has now, until the time comes to rush the last few yards and jump down into the enemy’s trench.

It is grievous to to think that my battalion has twice had this great moment since I left it last midsummer, and that I may never know any more thrilling contact with the enemy than mutual sniping and a little reconnoitring of ground between his trenches and ours. The only compensation, so far as it goes, is that I see much more of the war and of the front as a whole, and the battlefield of the moment in particular, than one sees when engaged in honest regimental labour.

And in his diary:

Miles and miles of our front begin to dance in the dark, with twinkling and shimmering flashes. Suggests a long keyboard on which notes of light are being swiftly played. Then, from points all along German front, signal red and white and green rockets go up. Also ‘golden rains’ of our liquid fire, and one or two mine volcanoes. Dawn breaks on this firework show. Then on to a huge earthwork, an outwork of Arras citadel and lie on safe side and look over with fieldglass. Our infantry visible advancing in successive waves to take the second German trench-line N.E. of
Arras. Disquieted flocks of rooks. Then to Divl. H.Q., to find good news.

 

Charles Carrington‘s writing is honest, balanced, and well-informed. But he generally takes pains to, as they say, accentuate the positive. His morale and that of his unit’s was generally good–they have not despaired, they are more grim and more devoted to each other when they have started, but they would not acknowledge any sea change in their motivations, etc. But some days–and some nights, like last night, a century back, as they pressed up through the wreckage of this second push at Arras–were enough to drive a man to madness, despair, and self-slaughter. Last night he huddled under trench mortars; today was worse.

…In the morning, when we advanced unopposed, I passed the corpse of a British sergeant, not of my regiment. He lay on his back holding a revolver in his hand, shot through the throat at such an angle that I wondered if it had been suicide. If I had been suicidally inclined that night would have driven me to it.[19]

 

Edwin Vaughan and his battalion have been following the attack as well, and he writes voluminously of these days. But given his sensitive nature and penchant for drama, I don’t think he would mind my making this the representative incident:

At the Epéhy crossroads, we found a huge cat squatting on the chest of a dead German, eating his face. It made us sick to see it, and I sent two men to chase it away. As they approached it sprang snarling at them, but they beat it down with their rifles and drove it into the ruined houses. Then we covered the body with a sack, and went on.[20]

 

But we’ll end in Britain, in safety, and in the boudoir, where Duff Cooper has also been engaged in dire combat. Patrick Shaw-Stewart has been called back to war, but Cooper’s worries about other adversaries have pushed him closer to total war. Or, at least, to warfare unbefitting a gentleman. During Diana Manners‘ temporary absence from their long house party in Scotland he had been “obliged”–this is four days ago, a century back–to take a bath in her room. Where he opened and read her locked diary.[21]

It was rather vile of me…

It was, and we’ll skip the justifications. Amazingly, Cooper is both moved by learning “how much she loved Raymond” and urged to take action against his living rivals for her affection, including one Wimborne and a Lt-Col. Wilson who, of course, is known as “Scatters.”

There is no reference to me in the diary that I could quarrel with but I do not think she loves me… I rose from the perusal of this intimate diary which I had no right to read, loving, liking, and admiring her more than before.

And somehow this added up to progress. Cooper confessed his deed and was not banished. In fact, by last night he was reading her pages of his diary, then listening in agony outside her door while she (scandalously) entertained “Scatters” in the wee hours of today, a century back, and then returning in before dawn to wake her up with recrimination.

She cried and reproached me bitterly with not trusting and spying on her. I felt in the wrong and implored forgiveness which only after long pleading she granted. Then we had a night of the most wild and perfect joy. The best perhaps we ever had.[22]

And somewhere, every dawn, some men attack, and many sighs are drained.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. This may be--I joke here, almost completely, and with full apology for trespassing on the sanctity of life-or-death experience "from my armchair" (three words which I omitted from the Memoirs yesterday; but the armchair was only one possible destiny, for Sassoon)--the centennial blogger equivalent of Sassoon's mood at the very end of his escapade, yesterday, a century back...
  2. See Sassoon's "The Rear Guard," at the bottom of that post.
  3. Diaries, 156-7.
  4. For Love and Courage, 355, 358.
  5. Unknown Warriors, 114.
  6. War Letters, 155.
  7. Chronicle, 100.
  8. War Prose, 159-69.
  9. Fire-Eater, 209-11.
  10. War Letters to a Wife, 168.
  11. Griffith, Up to Mametz and Beyond, 138.
  12. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 153.
  13. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 119-20.
  14. Letters from a Lost Generation, 334-5.
  15. Testament of Youth, 339.
  16. Sapper Martin, 60-4.
  17. The City that Shone, 190.
  18. With a Machine Gun, 106.
  19. Soldier From the Wars Returning, 145.
  20. Some Desperate Glory, 95-6.
  21. What, I ask you, is the point of all of that fancy classical education if Cooper can pull up and manage some allusion to Actaeon, transformed into a deer and torn apart by his own hounds after seeing Artemis in the bath. Perhaps, as he considers leaving the Foreign Office for the Army, the vengeful hounds of his old hunting partners, become ravening ghosts, perhaps, are a bit too frightening to contemplate.
  22. Duff Cooper Diaries, 50-1.

Siegfried Sassoon Bombs Busily Along; Charles Carrington’s Half-Conscious Nightmare; Alf Pollard Finds the Germans, and Loses Some Men; Vera Brittain’s Immense Fact and General Malaise

We are surrounded by the Battle of Arras. We’ll finish in Malta, where Vera Brittain waits for news, and most of the post will follow Siegfried Sassoon‘s latest turn as “Mad Jack” in the developing battle. But we’ll begin with two other members of the supporting cast, each within a few miles of Sassoon, and each sharing important aspects of his experience.

The Battle of Arras, now in its second week, is neither trench-warfare-as-usual nor a matter of major “over the top” assaults, those strange aberrations in military history in which lines of troops abandon their subterranean life in order to move over open country, their shoulders hunched against the shell fire. Instead we have something rather like the tough, ceaseless, street-by-street urban warfare of later wars, with the trenches and strongpoints standing in for ruined cities. The weather, a cruel abridgement of the recent turn toward spring, only increases the misery.

 

Charles Carrington has been in the battle since near the beginning, but he remembered tonight, a century back, as one of the worst:

After many exacting days and freezing nights we finished with a night attack against two German outposts on 16th April, the date of Nivelle’s offensive that was to have finished the war. Our petty skirmish was for us as deadly as the greatest battle was for him. Again it was dark and wet, with a drizzle that turned to snow until before dawn a blizzard was blowing. Two of our companies blundered into one another and opened fire. The assaulting party ran into uncut wire which they could not see. They dug themselves in and waited for dawn when the Germans cleverly slipped away. That night my horse, impressed for duty as a pack pony to carry ammunition to the front line, died of exposure and so, very nearly, did its master, to whom the whole episode was a half-conscious nightmare of fluttering trench-mortar bombs, the kind we called ‘grey pigeons’, coming down through driving snow…[1]

 

And Alf Pollard, back in the nick of time, is out in front of the battle, and looking for more of a fight. The Honourable Artillery Company are north and east of Arras, where the advance has already taken several lines of German trenches–but not yet the local section of the Hindenburg Line.

On the afternoon of the 16th, a Brigade Major carefully examined this trench system through his binoculars, and, failing to observe any signs of life, came to the conclusion that Fritz must have fallen back even further. He at once issued orders that patrols were to be sent out.

Pollard volunteers, and asks to take only four men, since he has more experience with small patrols and, like Sassoon, likes to gallivant more or less on his own. But he is required to take an unwieldy twelve, as per staff orders. The thirteen men set out after nightfall, in moonless, rainy darkness. Feeling their way slowly between Gavrelle and Oppy Wood, they eventually reached the German line without encountering any signs of life, noisily cut their way through the wire, and reached the parapet of the trench. Almost by chance Pollard discovers that they are at the entrance to an occupied German dugout–the trench system is strongly held, but the sentries are either incompetent or derelict in their duties, sheltering from the cold rain.

The patrol has achieved its object, so Pollard withdraws–only to discover, back in No Man’s Land, that one of his men is missing. Two others have been left holding a hole in another portion of No Man’s Land while the remaining eight are now told to wait for him on a small ridge between the lines. Pollard takes a runner and goes back to the edge of the German trenches to look for the missing man–and this time they are discovered.

Someone challenged me sharply from the trench. I spun round in time to see the flash of his rifle. I fired two shots and heard him yell as I hit him.

The firing gave the alarm. Men were appearing in the trench like magic. Reggie and I were caught like rats in a trap. It would have been impossible to have broken our way out through the wire without offering a sitting target to the enemy.

There was only one thing to do. I seized Reggie by the arm and ran. Down the parapet we fled was fast as our legs would take us. Star-shells were going up in all directions. By their light I could see that the trench was of a pattern known as island traversed. That meant that here were two trenches parallel with one another joined at short intervals by cross-cuts. At intervals along the parapet were squares of concrete which I knew to be machine-gun emplacements. I realised it was a position that would take a lot of capturing.

We must have covered well over a hundred yards before I spotted it. It was a miracle that I saw it at all–just a narrow gap in the wire entanglement left so that the holders of the trench could get out easily if they wished to. I darted into it with Reggie close on my heels. It zig-zagged through both lines of wire. In a moment we were free of our cage…

Pollard and Reggie crawl back toward their lines, now sheltered by the thick belts of wire. But when the firing drops, they know a German patrol is coming after them. Pollard outfoxes the patrol by sheltering under the wire–so close to the German lines that the Germans overlook them. This is one of the places where Pollard’s memoir feels indistinguishable from a boy’s story of play-war–he is thrilled at the success of this simple stratagem, hiding by the seeker’s home base.

Once the patrol returns to its trenches, Pollard and Reggie meet up with the main group of their own patrol on the little ridge. They return to their own lines and all is well–the German line has been located and confirmed as being in an active state of defense, and Pollard, his eyes on bigger prizes, casually notes that they “gave me a bar to my Military Cross for that show.”

But this is sketchy sort of decoration, despite Pollard’s relish in describing his exploit. “He carried out a dangerous reconnaissance of the enemy’s front line,” as the citation will read–apparently all the other patrols sent out failed to find the Germans. But there is no mention in Pollard’s account of the missing man. Worse, he does mention that he simply forgot to pick up the two others who had been left on their own, and these are later learned to have been found by the German patrol that Pollard and the runner eluded. One was killed, another was taken prisoner, and the original man seems to have remained missing–not the most successful of all patrols.[2]

 

The action of today, a century back–a “bombing stunt” along the tunnels and trenches of the Hindenburg Line, fills an entire chapter of Siegfried Sassoon‘s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer. So we’ll read it instead in its entirety in its first written form, his diary of tonight, a century back:

April 16

At 3 a.m. the attack began on Fontaine-les-Croisilles. I sat in the First Cameronians H.Q. down in the tunnel until nearly 6, when I was told to despatch twenty-five bombers to help their B. Company in the Hindenburg front line. I took them up myself and got there just as they had been badly driven back after taking several hundred yards of the trench. They seemed to have run out of bombs, failing to block the trench etc, and were in a state of wind-up. However the sun was shining, and the trench was not so difficult to deal with as I had expected.

My party (from A. Company) were in a very jaded condition owing to the perfectly bloody time they’ve been having lately, but they pulled themselves together fine and we soon had the Bosches checked and pushed them back nearly four hundred yards. When we’d been there about twenty-five minutes I got a sniper’s bullet through the shoulder and was no good for about a quarter of an hour. Luckily it didn’t bleed much. Afterwards the rest of our men came up and the Cameronians were recalled, leaving me to deal with the show with about seventy men and a
fair amount of bombs, but no Lewis-guns.

I was just preparing to start bombing up the trench again when a message camp from Colonel Chaplin [of the Cameronians] saying we must not advance any more owing to the people on each side having failed to advance, and ordering me to come away, as he was sending someone up to take over. I left the trench about 9.45. Got wound seen to at our Aid Post in the tunnel, walked to Hénin—and was told to walk on to Boyelles. Got there very beat, having foot-slogged about four kilometres through mud. Was put on a motor-bus and jolted for an hour and a half to Warlencourt (20th Casualty Clearing Station) and told to expect to go to England. Written about 7.30 p.m. with rain pelting on the roof and wind very cold. I hate to think of the poor old Battalion being relieved on such a night after the ghastly discomforts of the last six days. The only blessing is that our losses have been very slight. Only about a dozen of my party to-day—most of them slight. No one killed. My wound is hurting like hell, the tetanus injection has made me very chilly and queer, and I am half-dead for lack of sleep, sitting in a chair in my same old clothes—puttees and all—and not having been offered even a wash. Never mind—‘For I’ve sped through O Life! O Sun!'[3]

And so the diary ends, for today. Sassoon is once again a hero, and he is wounded, and, managing to ride the falling edge of adrenaline and the rising tide of pain and exhaustion, he is writer enough to smoothly end the diary with an appropriate quotation, from Robert Graves‘s “Escape.” But what has this action-packed account omitted, and what has it emphasized?

The main points are confirmed by another writer in Dr. Dunn’s chronicle–as are the two necessary interpretive conclusions:

April 16th–At 3.A.M. the attack of two days ago was repeated… This was another dud show… Sassoon, a very stout man, was wounded in Tunnel Trench: his craving to renew the attack was not allowed.[4]

Sassoon was very brave, once again, and once again unnecessarily aggressive. We’ve seen enough of his moody self-doubt and in the diary to recognize that he is not playing a role, here–or not playing it in any dishonesty to himself, if that makes any sense. If it’s a performance, as all social endeavors to some degree are, then it’s all method…

Whatever Sassoon’s thoughts about the war, whatever his feelings about the wrecked bodies he has passed to get to this point, the battalion commands his loyalty, and his responsibility is to lead. He doesn’t talk about his men often–it seems like a dubious cliché, but I do think this burden of leadership was assumed, in both senses, by men of his social position, right along with the code of behavior that forbade complaining about it–but whenever he does it is clear that he is highly motivated by his determination to do right by them. If physically leading the way and taking the greatest risks is not always quite a satisfactory answer to the entire question, well, neither was it a bad start. Tonight, a century back, Frank Richards spoke to

an old soldier and one of the few survivors of old B Company who had taken part in the bombing raid. He said, ‘God strike me pink, Dick, it would have done your eyes good to have seen young Sassoon in that bombing stunt… It was a bloody treat to see the way he took the lead. He was the best officer I have seen in the line or out since Mr. Fletcher… If he don’t get the Victoria Cross for this stunt I’m a bloody Dutchman…”[5]

A good officer–and a fox hunting man with a Dutchman’s name.

Siegfried has been absurdly fortunate: not only is he safely wounded, but none of his men are killed or badly hurt. And the chance he wanted so badly fell into his lap, and he took it… it almost seems as if the half-committed pacifist, half-despairing lost boy of the last few months stamped his foot in willful insistence until the war begrudgingly gave him exactly what he wanted…  But the rough narrative of a successful fight won’t remain the full story–it’s only the brassy initial theme, and the undertones and variations won’t stay silent for very long. The war has given him horror, too, and no sure solace: if death-defying aggression can salve his conscience now, the memory of it will not last forever. Does Sassoon recognize this as clearly as he recognizes his good luck in merely not being killed?

I could go on and on, but I shouldn’t. Given the constraints of this project and the length of his memoir, there’s no real way to take it on here, except to point out to readers this excellent opportunity to see what “voice” can do–or, rather, how much an author’s control of irony and tone from his secure position of future knowledge can influence our sense of the meaning of events, even if they are, in terms of factual detail, recounted fairly faithfully. Sassoon will not pretend to understand the mood that produced this bombing stunt, nor will he condemn it. But he does deflate his own heroics with more jabs than are strictly necessary.

Some very brief excerpts, then, beginning when Sassoon goes ahead of his own men and meets up with a corporal of the Cameronians, the unit which he is meant to support:

(Looking back on that emergency… I find some difficulty in believing that I was there at all.) For about ten minutes we dodged and stumbled up a narrow winding trench…

…we went round the next bay. There my adventurous ardour experienced a sobering shock. A fair-haired Scotch private was lying at the side of the trench in a pool of his own blood… I slung a couple of combat at our invisible enemies, receiving in replay an egg-bomb, which exploded harmlessly behind me. After that I went bombing busily along, while the corporal (more artful and efficient than I was) dodged in and out of the saps–a precaution which I should have forgotten… in this manner [we] arrived at our objective without getting more than a few glimpses of retreating field-grey figures. I had no idea where our objective was, but the corporal informed me that we had reached it, and he seemed to know his business. This, curiously enough, was the first time either of us had spoken since we met.

Does the skill of the self-satire make us forget the blood? Is it lurid, absurd? Is it remarkable that the clueless toff is good at bombing Germans out of their trenches, or only that he is such a clueless toff in the first place, and can’t provide a more conventionally meaningful narrative? (Or is that the point, that this sense of boyish silliness can’t coexist in the same rational narrative as the suffering and death from which it is inextricable? Where are the bodies? Who are the men killed or wounded by Sassoon’s bombs? Can they really exist in a story that plays alliteration for laughs and turns men hunting other men into figures of drawing room comedy?)

Ignoring Jeeves, Bertie trips blithely on:

The whole affair had been so easy that I felt like pushing on… I thought what a queer state of things it all was, and then decided to take a peep at the surrounding country. This was a mistake which ought to have put an end to my terrestrial adventures, for no sooner had I popped my silly head out of the sap than I felt a stupendous blow in the back between my shoulders…

Sassoon comes to, and finds his own sergeant binding a neat bullet wound. (And I am reminded that Sassoon himself will note that he felt as if he were being ministered to by a well-trained servant, a characterization which no doubt prompted my Wodehouse reference, above.)

After a short spell of being deflated and sorry for myself, I began to feel rabidly heroical again, but in a slightly different style, since I was now a wounded hero, with my arm in a superfluous sling…

So, overly enthusiastic heroism? Proper, “very stout” aggression?

But what if it tips over into something else? The Sassoon of the diary doesn’t seem to realize that charging on, shot through the shoulder, beyond his objective–the very act that got him in hot water over the summer–is close to crazy. He will, though…

It did not occur to me that anything else was happening on Allenby’s Army Front except my own little show…[6]

 

Far away from all this, Vera Brittain is busy with her duties as a nurse in Malta, but she has also been pining, restive. Malta was a charming and wonderful novelty, her first experience of foreign living. But it’s also a base hospital on a safe island–demanding work, but far from the center of the action. The mails are slow, and her conversations with Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow lag weeks behind their actions. She cannot know whether they have been involved in the spring offensive. She is neither near the front nor near the young men she feels most close to.

When she picked up her diary today, a century back, for the first time in many weeks, it was to report her reawakening wanderlust:

April 16th Malta

Had a short letter from Miss Lorimer to say she is going out as an orderly to one of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals at Salonika. I want to go there more than ever.[7]

And then she wrote to Geoffrey Thurlow, who–though she cannot know this–has missed the initial Arras attack, but is about to be thrown in to the next desperate effort to shove the Germans back just a little bit more.

Malta, 16 April 1917

You are really a good correspondent; Mother says you are ‘most faithful’ to her too. Not like Victor, whose letters are few & far between, & very short when they do come. To me, at any rate, he conveys most by what he leaves unsaid. I have been rather anxious about him this last week, for last time I heard of his whereabouts he was at Arras, & I feel sure he must have been in the great battle–which at present we here only know of as an immense Fact, shorn of all its details. I hope you didn’t get into, even the fringe of it.

That is well put. For us the immense fact remains, outlined or obscured by clouds of innumerable details… but we still have to make a story.

I have been off-duty for a day or two with a bad throat & general malaise, but am back again to-night. I am beginning to be glad that I came out when I did, and not straight into the kind of weather that is just beginning. The nights are still quite cool but the days are getting very hot . . . The sirocco is blowing to-night in a hateful way, rushing down the stone verandah, & making the doors & shutters creak & groan. To me this particular wind always seems fraught with sinister things; it hides the stars, so that the night is as black as ink, & makes the men peevish & sends their temperatures up.[8]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Soldier From the Wars Returning, 144-5.
  2. Fire-Eater, 203-9.
  3. Diaries, 155-6.
  4. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 329.
  5. Old Soldiers Never Die, 227.
  6. Complete Memoirs, 440-5.
  7. Chronicle of Youth, 339.
  8. Letters From a Lost Generation, 334-5.

C.E. Montague Behind the Old Lines; Siegfried Sassoon Drugs Himself With Dreams; Edward Thomas Knows Love

C.E. Montague‘s diary has only been published in widely-spaced fragments, so it is difficult to get a sense of his day-to-day life as a professional optimist concealing a private fury. But he, too, takes joy in the German retreat–the relative uncertainty of semi-open warfare is good news for a man who likes to “accidentally” roam too close to the line when he is supposed to be keeping his V.I.P. guests safe. Today, a century back, he finds there a sight that emphasizes the essential commonality of experience of all fighting soldiers:

March 27

By car, with Lance-Corporal Bonafoux, to . . . Boiry Becquerelle, our last village eastwards here. No trench, soldier, or line visible from here, but Hénin-sur-Cojeul, in German hands, visible a mile away to the N.E. One of our snipers busy a few hundred yards to the N. We walk E.S.E. through a washed garden of yews, box-edging, and fruit-trees, and beyond, in a corner of an orchard behind a hedge, I am challenged by a corporal in command of a sentry group of two men. I ask him where is our front line.

He says, ‘Well, Sir, I’m our most advanced post here. We had one up the road on the right, but it was scuppered the other night.’ I see the ‘road on the right’, a sunk road, sloping obliquely up a little rise towards Croisilles, an enemy strong point less than two miles away.

It looks sunny and peaceful and tempts me to reconnoitre it and see the lost post, if empty of Germans. Bonafoux and I go up the road, and in 300 yards come to two little shelters under the east bank of the sunken road. The captured men’s messing tins and waterproof sheets are lying about and the hay in the shelters is still moulded like a bird’s nest with the pressure of their bodies where those off duty rested. Fifty yards beyond the derelict post the explanation of its capture is made clear. A German communication trench, coming from the direction of Croisilles, debouches on the road, out of its north-eastern rising bank. Clearly the enemy, at night, streamed down this trench overpowered the little post and carried them off prisoners.

On right of road, near Boisieux-au-Mont, a German military cemetery, an extension of a French village cemetery. Near the entrance-gate a well-kept grave, with ivy and some sort of primulous flowers planted on it, and inscribed

Hier ruht in Gott
der englische Soldat
C. M. Cross
9 King’s L—pool Regt
gef. an 7.4.16.

Other well-kept and planted graves of English and French soldiers beside the road further on.[1]

 

Edward Thomas has also moved forward, into new positions from which they will now fire the big guns. Being closer to the German guns, however, will take some getting used to.

Rain and sleet and sun, getting guns camouflaged… Sat till 11 writing letters. As I was falling asleep great blasts shook the house and windows, whether from our own firing or enemy bursts near, I could not tell in my drowse, but I did not doubt my heart thumped so that if they had come closer together it might have stopped… Letters to Helen and Eleanor.[2]

Let’s read the one to Eleanor Farjeon, which confirms an unsurprising illogic: Thomas writes better, more thoughtful, more feeling letters when he is exhausted and close to the guns than when he is in reserve or doing office work behind the lines.

Rather than breaking in to comment, I’m just going to insert paragraph breaks into the flow of the letter. This, I think, will more gently underline the way Thomas links so many apparently disparate thoughts–thanks and ginger, friendship and death, expectation and anxiety–in one snaking but unbroken chain.

March 27
My dear Eleanor

As everybody is sleepier than I and I am alone I am going to drink hot brandy and water with you for a quarter of an hour. The gramophone (and Raymond Jeremy) is silent, and the guns are mostly half a mile off or more, and nothing is coming over. But these are busy times. Again the battle is promised us and we long to be into it, I suppose because then it will be nearer over.

We are up late and down early. We do all kinds of things. Today I solemnly took 10 men and an N.C.O. and a trench cart to steal a small truck for carrying shells on rails. I had to guide them and stand by officially as if it were an official act while they loaded the cart and marched off. The other things I did were more technical, and in doing them I dashed about over copse and made extra paths that the Hun will photograph. Just for 5 minutes Thorburn and I looked for primroses—in vain among the moss and ashtrees. We have to cut off 10 feet from the tops of the prettiest birchtrees, because they are dangerously in our way. Not one shell—touch wood—has fallen into the copse yet, though a quarter of a mile off they crack every day.

Yet we have pleasant and even merry hours and moments. We are kind to one another often. And we do eat well, in spite of the loss of that parcel, for the one that came from F. & M. was certainly not the one you spoke of. It contained sweets and muscatels and almonds and tinned paste and soup tablets. It contained also the wrapper of the originally misdirected parcel to explain the delay. You send what you like. Muscatels and almonds are what I like best, and fruit fresh or dried of any kind. Best of all is to have my pockets fat with your letters as they are now.

I was nearly forgetting to thank you for more ginger and several kinds of sweets. They were very good. I ate some of them in the sun at lunch in the O.P. the other day, sitting on some wooden steps till I suppose the Hun got envious and shelled me away. It is walking up to or among ruined houses—gable ends all big holes and piles of masonry round and splintered walnut—that I dislike most, with a lowering sky like this evening’s.

I keep feeling that I should enjoy it more if I knew I would survive it. I can’t help allowing it to trouble me, but it doesn’t prey on me and I have no real foreboding, only occasional trepidation and anxiety. The men are better but then they are comrades and I am usually alone or with them. I wish that what is coming would be more than an incident—the battle of——. Still I can’t wait a great while, though of course what is coming is to be worse than anything I know so far. It is worse for you and for Helen and Mother, I know. I wish I could keep back more of what I feel, but you mustn’t think it is often fear or ever dread for more than a moment.

You will be in your cottage by the time this arrives with all your pretty things. I wish I could like more pretty things—the only one I like is that gavotte from Ambrose Thomas’s ‘Mignon’. I shall get it played now and go to bed. Good night. Yours ever

Edward Thomas[3]

Thomas is in most ways a good man–as good as he can be–and he has a talent for friendship, even if he finds it frustrated among the men of an artillery battery. But love is another matter, and kindness, for him, can be an effort. This is especially true for those who intrude upon his solitude and misery by loving him. He has always been… inconsistent in mustering the strength to be generous and compassionate with those who love him most.

But now, writing to a dear and loyal friend on something almost like the eve of battle, he does her a quiet sort of honor and a very great kindness: by counting Eleanor with his mother and his wife among those always always for word of him–those whose lives are to a great degree suspended while he remains in danger–he recognizes in a formal, almost courtly way, a fact that is plain to them both–she loves him, and he knows it.

 

It is a burden to be loved, and a great thing to be free–but lovers are not supposed to feel burdened and free men are free to feel burdened. Siegfried Sassoon doesn’t think enough of his mother–the embarrassing, slightly batty figure who has already lost a son and has yet to endure the indignity of being translated into “George Sherston”‘s “Aunt Evelyn.” And not thinking of her there is no one else, really–there are many friends, but no one so firmly committed to him that he or she waits only for a line about Siegfried.

Instead, the prospect of his death remains, primarily, an item of philosophical contention between himself and… well, whoever. The establishment, the generals, the Germans, the phonies, the tension of an uncertain life, his inchoate opinions, his transubstantiating muse. Where shall (personal) peace be found? How about that rainy cathedral walk last night? What is there to live for?

We expect to be at Camp 13 until the end of this week; then probably go to St Pol, before proceeding to the battle—whatever that may mean. I felt last night (after a bottle of decent wine) that I would gladly die to guard Amiens Cathedral from destruction, but one can’t feel like that in the light of day.

Anyhow, I would rather be in a battle than at Camp 13. It would be interesting, though uncomfortable; and there would always be the possibility of release, to Blighty, or Elysian-fields.

In these days I drug myself with dreams. I have seen the Spectator for March 17, in which Heinemann advertises my book as ‘ready shortly’: Being about ten days behind the civilised world of London, I suppose I’m published by now![4]

He is not–these things go slowly! Battle will come in April, The Old Huntsman in May.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Elton, C. E. Montague, 157-8.
  2. War Diary (Childhood), 172.
  3. Farjeon, Edward Thomas, 257-9.
  4. Diaries, 145-6.

Blackbirds for Edward Thomas; A Bad Report and a Chiff-Chaffing for Henry Williamson; A Gruesome Shortfall for Edwin Vaughan’s Warwickshires

Before we continue with Edwin Vaughan’s harrowing tour in the line we will catch up with Henry Williamson’s latest effort at self-sabotage… but before that, we should begin with Edward Thomas‘s early spring bird count. Yesterday, a century back, Thomas saw rooks nesting and heard partridges and “pipsqueaks.” Today, it was a

Blackbird trying to sing early in dull marsh. A dull cold day… I was in position all day.[1]

It seems an ominous addition after the uplifting larks, but then again, I suppose, nature is indifferent to its poetic resonances…

 

When we last saw Henry Williamson, on the night of the 10th, he was dining with Canadian officers–and overindulging. Whether by coincidence or unusually swift action, he was in hot water by the next afternoon.

His diary entry for the 11th:

Note from G.O.C. Brigade to attend at 4 oclock. Saw damning report from Capt. King ‘incompetent, useless etc’ Road shelled a bit.

The next day–we’re up to yesterday, a century back, now–he pleaded his case before a more sympathetic tribunal:

Dear Mother,

Am quite well and fit, but a rather unhappy as I fear I will lose my job—there has been trouble, but anyhow I don’t think I shall lose much, it is all work and no pay. So don’t be astonished if I go to the artillery or the A[rmy]S[ervice]C[orps]—I have had more during the last week than I got in 4 months in the Flemish sector. By God, it’s awful—we are shelled day & night—the roads are barraged and 12 inch How[itzer]s knock hell into us all day & night, but our guns knock the Bosche to hell & back…

Well I am just going along a  —– awful road with a little river along it (the only one here) & expect to get a blighty one… Well Cheero dear old thing…

This is a strange, almost recklessly cruel letter. He makes it clear that he has blundered and may lose his job; then he emphasizes (and probably exaggerates) his nightly danger, and then he shares a presentiment that he will be… safely wounded?

So is he dramatizing in order to give his mother relief in his next letter–a sort of manipulation that both the real Henry and the fictional Phillip are very prone to–or is he glossing over something like a suicidal mood?

His diary seems to demonstrate the latter:

Artillery ominously quiet early morning… Am taking Ammunition through Miraumont tonight. Have a presentiment…

But nothing happened, last night, except for (once more?) bungling his job:

Took 16 mules thro Miraumont. Got lost. Lost 2 mules. Arrived back at 3 o’clock dead beat…

So what will he tell his mother, today, hard on the heels of a letter that hinted at dejection and a shell with his name on it?

Dear mother,

Please send me April magazines. Have seen the March ones. The mud is awful—3 mules drowned in shell craters last night, it is terrible. Men lie down in the mud & ask to be allowed to die they are so exhausted & beat, it takes one 7 hours to go 4000 yards cross country. The Ger has an 8.2 armour piercing shell here… & has already killed ½ my drivers & mules & destroyed nearly all my waggons damn him. Love William. Don’t forget 1. Sweets (caramels etc) 2. Magazines (including Motor Cycle & Motorcycling) 3. 1 pair pyjamas. 4. Sox.

It’s a day-to-day life on the line, and in Williamson’s mind.

On the back of this letter is a (terrible) poem, containing–as a representative example–the line “are you weaving dreams of glory tinged with fames effulgent glow?”[2]

Evidently, he has entirely forgotten his baleful presentiment of a day before…

His diary for today adds little—another resupply trip, tonight—but it provides one important contextual fact: the Germans are now withdrawing in this sector, too, and this event allows us to find our place in Williamson’s enormous novel. In Love and the Loveless Phillip Maddison goes forward past happy British soldiers, and is given a copy of the Corps Summary of Intelligence—“Comic Cuts” to the sardonic troops—which is quoted at length. So instead of a letter to mother, his fiction reproduces an official document… strange.

But I’m more interested, naturally speaking, in two observations which surround the quotation:

Before going to sleep, he wrote in his Charles Lett’ Self-Opening Pocket Diary and Note Book for 1917 by candle-light, Heard a chiff-chaff in Miraumont, among some willows.

He didn’t–or, that is, this is fiction, an addition to the novel that is not based on the contemporary diary or his letters home. Williamson is a strange bird, but he always was a birder and a rambler and an amateur naturalist (one thing he very much shares with Edward Thomas, so different though they otherwise are). And after he quoted intelligence report, more birds–and no more writerly subtlety:

Then through the moonless dark came the cries of flighting mallard, flying west to the peaceful marshes of the Ancre. They would be nesting soon, he thought. For birds, the spring meant love–for men, the spring offensive, and the kiss of bullets.[3]

 

Between the contortions of Williamson and the horror that is to come, let’s have a bit of nearly-fatal slapstick. In the middle of the night, a century back, Wilfred Owen “was going round through pitch darkness to see a man in a dangerous state of exhaustion.” He then “fell into a kind of well, only about 15 ft.” but hit his head “on the way down.”

I am formally obligated to leave us in some suspense as to the outcome of his tumble, but even my cleverness in omitting the first person pronoun will probably not conceal the fact that he will live to tell the tale.

 

Now to darker doings. Edwin Vaughan has been back from a course for only a few days, but already he has been nearly killed, hastily buried four men, and almost cracked up when he mistakes another man for the risen dead. Today, at least, is the last day of their tour in the front line, and it passes pleasantly enough. Almost.

…we were to be relieved at 7 p.m., a thought which made us very bright and cheerful throughout the day.

At 5 p.m., as we sat in our dugout, a message in Playfair code was handed up by a signaller. It took some time to decipher and it was 5.15 p.m. when Holmes read out the following message: ‘Our heavy artillery will bombard enemy front lines, commencing 5.20 p.m. Withdraw advanced posts.’

Of course it was impossible to withdraw our posts, which were half an hour’s crawl away…

A few minutes later, Vaughan’s section of the line is bracketed by their own guns, firing short.

…Now they rained upon us; all along the trench we could hear them falling, as we sat with fixed grins upon our faces, trembling in every limb… a louder, fierce screech swooped upon us and a terrific crash flung us in all directions and into darkness.

It felt quite pleasant to be dead…

Reader, he has not died. Coughing out a mouthful of dust, Vaughan and his comrades in the company command dugout learn that they have

had a miraculous escape, for the shell had hit the corner of the cellar and blown it in… no one had been touched except Browne–Holmes’ servant–who had been hit in the back by a flying brick.

Our guns had now ceased fire, but we could hear them receiving a few shells from the Germans. I now found that during the few seconds when I had believed myself dead, I had closed my note book, snapped round the elastic and returned the pencil to its socket.

The command dugout now prepares for their relief, and while Browne is sent to alert the NCOs nearby, Vaughan begins piling sandbags over the hole in their roof.

After a few minutes Browne returned, rather white in the face, saying that he could not find the NCO’s dugout. This was only ten yards away… Holmes guessed that Brown was shaken up by the shelling, so he laughed and said, ‘Come on then, I’ll help you to search for it, perhaps someone’s pinched it.’ And they set off together down the muddy trench.

I was just finishing off the roof, when Browne came tumbling in moaning and laughing hysterically. He stared at me screaming ‘Oh God! It is. It is.’ Then we slung him in a chair, gave him a tot of rum, and ran off down the trench to the mine shaft which had been occupied by Sergeant Phillips, Sergeant Bennett, Corporal Everett and Corporal Hollins.

They are all dead, killed by their own artillery. And my guesswork work yesterday turns out not to have been very accurate: I erred in assuming that the Corporal Bennett who was killed yesterday is the Lance-Sergeant Bennett listed in the CWGC database as being killed today. He’s not: he’s his brother.

The last task before withdrawing to reserve then, will be the exhuming and reburial of the four men.

We started at once to pull away the wreckage of the entrance, and had just come to Sergeant Phillips, when Jerry started his “blue pigeon” strafe…

As we worked down the sides, we realized (in the darkness) that the beams and sides were splashed with blood and flesh. The stench of lyddite and fresh blood was ghastly, and the foulness of our groping in the dark cannot be described. At last we could stand it no longer, and regardless of consequences, we lit a candle and commenced working by its shaded light. This evoked a showed of ‘pineapples’ and bullets which continued to fall until we had cleared the shaft.

Of Corporal Everett we found no trace; he must have been struck by the shell and blown to atoms. Bennett was badly shattered and most of his head was gone, whilst Hollins, who had been sitting with his rifle between his knees, was unrecognizable and the twisted rifle was buried in front of his body.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary (Childhood), 168.
  2. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 93-5.
  3. Love and the Loveless, 117-8.
  4. Some Desperate Glory, 42-8. The only discrepancy between this account and the records is that it is Bennett who is missing while Everett was buried. Perhaps Vaughan and his men mistook one mangled body for another, or perhaps one identity disc was lost while another was found. I'm not sure why Corporal Bennett, who was killed yesterday, is not mentioned. I suppose there is the barest possibility that Vaughan, working back over his diary notes of a traumatic few days, made some sort of mistake and assigned the same surname to two memories, thus creating a story of two brothers killed within a day of each other. But, although I do suspect Vaughan of heavily editing his story after the fact to achieve various effects without indicating where and why he is doing so (of making a "diary" into a "memoir," that is), it seems extremely far-fetched to imagine that he would run so far away with a confusion--the story continues, tomorrow--and even more improbable that he would consciously invent something like this. It is much more sensible to assume that he is correct, and that there has been a record-keeping error at some point after Corporal Bennett's death and up through my desultory searches of the CWGC database...

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.

Two Battalions on the Assault Near Courcelette: Edmund Blunden’s Sussex and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lancashires Attack Together

Today, a century back, two of our writers were in the same attack. Or, rather, their battalions–the 11th Royal Sussex and the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers–were.[1] Both Edmund Blunden and John Ronald Tolkien have been given headquarters jobs (Tolkien was Battalion Signals Officer, Blunden an odd-job man and assistant to the battalion C.O.) and were thus a few hundred yards behind the actual assault. So it is not a complete coincidence that both survived unscathed.

Today’s attack is of a piece with the September attacks, of which it is also a direct tactical continuation: British advance, measured success, and great casualties–especially among platoon officers.

Below is a heavily marked-up map of the Thiepval sector of the Somme front. Running down just left of the center is the British Front Line–the Old Front Line of July 1st. The thick red lines opposite are the German positions which were to have been taken that morning. Each numbered square is only a thousand yards to a side–a little over half a mile. Thiepval, in square 26, was a first day objective and was taken at the beginning of October.authille-ovillers-pozieres-courcelette

We will now zoom in to the upper-center-right portion of this map, on the reverse slope of little Thiepval Ridge–a crucial position because it overlooks the German lines further east and south. The amoeboid shape in the lower right quadrant of 19 and lower left of 20 is the notorious Schwaben Redoubt, the capture of which at the beginning of October marked the end of the battle of Thiepval–or would have, if it had not been repeatedly subjected to German counter-attacks. It was finally secured only a week ago, a century back.authille-ovillers-pozieres-courcelette-det

On this map the Old Front Line can just be seen at left, while newer German positions (or positions that were not fully known when this map was prepared in August) have been inked in blue. “Stuff Trench”–not marked–is officially located in square 20, leading away from the Schwaben Redoubt. But the “Stuff Trench” that was assaulted today is clearly a continuation somewhere near Stuff Redoubt in square 21, or even further to the east. Before reading on, it might be helpful, too, to find Zollern Trench, in 27, and note several further objectives of these assaults, including Regina Trench in 22-33, and Hessian Trench just to the south of it in 22.

So much for geography. Now for experience, beginning during the night, with Blunden’s memoir:

That night our attacking companies lay in a ditch with a few “baby-elephant” shelters in it, and much water, a little way behind their assembly positions. There was a white frost. Behind them a few field guns covered only with netting dressed up as withered foliage were waiting, too. I went to see them on the morning of the attack, and I remember chiefly the voice of F. Salter, stretching his stiff arms and trying to move his eyebrows like a man awake, cursing the frost; I remember the familiar song of my old companion Doogan, now for the last time, “Everybody’s doing the Charlie Chaplin walk.” He broke off, and without self-pity and almost casually he said: “It’s the third time. They’ve sent me over, this is the third time. They’ll get me this time.” Nor would it have availed to use in reply one’s familiar trench tags, nor to speak out the admiring friendship which never fully found words; Doogan seemed to know; and he was tired.

The clear autumn day was a mixed blessing for Harrison, who, in his determination to send over the companies to take Stuff Trench after as much “rest” as could be found in that Golgotha, had arranged that they should advance from the reserve trench direct to the assault. And by way of novelty the assault was to be made soon after noon; the men would therefore have to move forward in broad day and over a sufficiently long approach—liable to the air’s jealous eyes. Watches were synchronized and reconsigned to the officers, the watch hands slipped round as they do at a dance or a prize distribution; then all the anxiety came to a height and piercing extreme, and the companies moving in “artillery formation”—groups presenting a kind of diamond diagram—passed by Harrison’s headquarters in foul Zollern Trench. He stood on the mound roof of his dugout, a sturdy, simple, and martial figure, calling out to those as they went in terms of faith and love. Lapworth, who had just joined us, went by at the rear of his company, a youth with curling golden hair and drawing-room manners, sweetly swinging his most subalternish cane from its leather thong; and he was the last to go by.

Orders had been admirably obeyed; the waves extended, the artillery gave tongue at the exact moment. The barrage was heavy, but its uproar was diffused in this open region. Harrison had nothing to do but wait, and I with him, for I was acting as his right-hand man in this operation. News of the attack always seems to take years in reaching headquarters, and it almost always gets worse as it is supplemented. At last some messages, wildly scribbled, as may be imagined, but with a clearness of expression that may not be so readily imagined, came to Zollern Trench. One was from Doogan; Stuff Trench was taken, there were few men left, and he had “established bombing blocks.” G. Salter had sent back some forty prisoners. A message was brought with some profanity by my old friend C. S. M. Lee, whose ripped shirt was bloody, and who could not frankly recommend Stuff Trench. The concrete emplacement halfway thither, looking so dangerous on the maps, had not been found dangerous, and the gunner’s preparation there had been adequate; but, he said, we were being blown out of Stuff Trench. Should we be able to hold it? We—ll, we was ‘olding it when I got THIS; and so departed Lee, tall, blasphemous, and brave.

Looking about in the now hazier October light, I saw some German prisoners drifting along, and I stopped them. One elderly gentleman had a jaw which seemed insecurely suspended; which I bound up with more will than skill, and obtained the deep reward of a look so fatherly and hopeful as seldom comes again; others, not wounded, sourly and hesitatingly observed my directions down the communication trench. As they went, heavy German shells were searching thoroughly there, and I do not think they ever got through. Their countrymen lay thick in these parts. Even the great shell hole which we hazardously used as a latrine was overlooked by the sprawling corpses of two of them, and others lay about it.

Our regimental sergeant major was by this time in disgrace. This man, so swift in spirit and intelligence, had lifted his water bottle too often in the business of getting the battalion into action; and he had not unreasonably filled the bottle with rum. In the horrid candlelight of the deep dugout he had endeavoured to keep going and with piteous resolution answered what he thought the substance of his colonel’s questions; but it would not do, and Sergeant Ashford, the bright and clever signaller, took his place. Again the night came on; and in the captured trench the remnant who had primed themselves with the spirituous hope of being relieved had to hear that no relief was yet forthcoming. Their experience was to be gauged from the fact that even the company held in support in our original front line, employed on incidental tasks, was reported to be exhausted, and its commander appealed to Harrison for relief in ultimatory terms.[2]

Blunden writes vividly from the rear of the battle, and with the calm care that retrospection affords. It may be that he holds himself back from delivering painful news, or it may be that no one at headquarters yet knew the true cost of the attack and that the battalion diary was fixed up afterwards when there was more time for clerical work. (The diary is neatly typed, and even its draft form was probably not kept up day-by-day when the battalion was attacking.)

But the cost was heavy, and the official record comes down like an axe on the short-arced tragedy that Blunden has prepared. Doogan, of course, was right, and F. H. Salter was no luckier.

This is the entirety of the battalion diary for today, a century back:

The Battn. capture German First line (STUFF TRENCH) “B” & “C” Coys assaulted “A” & “D” Coys reinforced them in the new line. Heavy casualties were inflicted on the Enemy & many Prisoners taken. 2nd Lieuts. Ivens Salter & Doogan Killed, 2nd LIEUTE. V.H.B. D’Ivernoie & 2nd Lt. P.J. Hayes wounded–11 O.Rs killed 185 O.Rs wounded and 77 O.R missing.

Did Geoffrey Salter, sent back with the prisoners, know yet that his brother was dead?

To be clear, the 77 “missing” other ranks are surely almost all dead. Some may have fled or been wounded and misplaced–or even, conceivably, gone too far ahead and been captured. But most of the “missing,” in this war, are dead men whose bodies could not be carried back… it seems as if roughly a third of the battalion have become casualties.

It’s surprising, then, to realize that the beautiful young Lapworth has survived the battle…

 

While the Royal Sussex battled for the rest of Stuff Trench, Tolkien’s Lancashires were operating only a few hundred yards further east.[3] Marching up yesterday from Ovillers Post, their attacking companies were provided with weapons and other equipment and then assembled at Hessian Trench. Tolkien spent the night at Battalion headquarters, near ‘Lancs Trench’ (south of the detail above), trying to maintain communications between his battalion and the brigade.

Today, a century back, then, Tolkien was “in action” with his battalion, although like Blunden he would have been in the rear of the attacking companies. The 11th Lancashire Fusiliers attacked under the same just-after-noon barrage as the Royal Sussex, and had been “set the task of taking a five hundred-yard section of Regina Trench where it is at its closest to Hessian Trench.”

They seem to have had an easier time of it, coordinating well with the “walking” barrage and finding little resistance. The Lancashires took their objectives in a half hour and suffered “15 killed, 26 missing, and 117 wounded.” In these days this is a light toll.

Their signals officer–a 20th century man charged with maintaining electronic battlefield communications (if we may so dignify primitive telephone and telegraph lines)–also reported the success to Division by means of carrier pigeon…[4]

Tolkien noted the battle in his diary, but he will not choose to write much–if anything at all–about it.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Despite the similar names, the two battalions were in different divisions, the 25th and the 39th. It is an organizational quirk that the two writers came into action so close to each other--if the proximity is noted elsewhere I don't know of it... but it's a pretty general coincidence.
  2. Undertones of War, 107-9.
  3. As far as I can tell--I should have consulted the relevant divisional histories for operational details of this closely-confined battle, which is too small and too undramatic to get much attention in full scale histories of the Somme, but I haven't had a chance to do so.
  4. Chronology, 93-4.

Edward Thomas Marshals His Verses; Vera Brittain and Her Soldiers Three: the Mails are Long in Reaching Malta

First, today, a letter from Edward Thomas to his wife Helen. He doesn’t often write to her,[1] so it is difficult to learn much about their often-fraught relationship from the few we have… here there are affectionate phrases in what is, essentially, a business letter, finishing up the work on his poetry that had been done during a short leave.

Dearest,

Here are the verses which should make up pretty well, with those I put in the oak chest, the set Ingpen has. If they don’t, put together, make up the same set…

Terse, explicit instructions follow, the idea being to make sure the right poems get into an anthology being corralled by Gordon Bottomley, while others are preserved for a more exciting possibility now grown probable. “Ingpen” is Roger Ingpen, the force behind the small publishing house of Selwyn and Blunt, who is now planning a small book of verses by “Edward Eastaway.” This would be a major breakthrough for Thomas, still so recently a poet. But, as the rest of the letter makes clear, however eager Thomas is for recognition (but pseudonymous recognition) and success (financially negligible success), there is only one Most Important Reader.

Whatever you do, Helen, dearest,

Don’t send to Frost before I tell you that the thing is settled...

Of course, this has as much to do with the hopes that Frost will get Thomas an American publisher as the fears that he should read other than the best version of the poems. But this is a letter from a soldier to his wife, so we cannot omit the more typical sorts of parcels:

I got a good haversack, so don’t you worry. If you get a pipe, get it at the Stores. One of the dark red French briars would be the best, and don’t think of paying more than 5 /- or 6/-…All is well—if only I have got through the exam.

Goodbye Edwy[2]

 

Vera Brittain is recovering from the infection which accompanied her to Malta, but she is as yet too sick to work. So she has had ample time to accustom herself to being abroad and away from her family. But the mere fact that she is the farthest from home–and that she has braved submarines and fevers–does not change the fundamental emotional calculus of the mail: she loves her brother Edward best, and she cares very much about his two best friends, and now they are suddenly very far away. All are likely to go from safety in England to peril in France more swiftly than their letters reporting the planned move will reach her. They might be killed before she has even learned that they are in danger.

In Malta the arrival of the mail… became the chief event of the week. We awaited the P. & O. liner that brought it with a perturbing mixture of pleasant anticipation and sick dread, for owing to casualties at the front, and air-raids and other troubles at home, neither life nor happiness nor peace of mind could be counted on for more than a few days at a time.

Victor Richardson was the third musketeer–along with Edward and Roland Leighton–at Uppingham School.And also, perhaps, the third wheel: he seems to have been well-loved, but his school nickname–Father Confessor–puts him rather behind his two more intellectually gifted friends. Victor’s military career has been dramatically slowed by a long, serious illness in 1914 and 1915, which put him further behind both Roland–dead, and revered by the Brittains as a fallen hero–and Edward, who won the Military Cross for his courage in the July 1st debacle.

But Victor–“Tah”–has now gone to France, and has every possibility of catching them up–a fact that Vera is only now about to learn. He spent a great deal of time with Vera in 1916 and 1916, and has become very fond of her, while she accepted his attentions in a spirit of intimate friendship and a somewhat mothering worry.

More important to Vera, now, however, is Geoffrey Thurlow. Thurlow was a survivor not of a threesome, but rather of a sundered partnership–he and Edward Brittain had met in training camp and become fast friends, but were then separated when they went to the front. And Thurlow’s service was in many ways the more difficult–wounded in the body, he is also suffering from post-traumatic stress. Vera certainly believed him to be “shell-shocked,” and the need to care for the nervous young man was one catalyst in their relationship. It is unusual, certainly, for a single young woman to have grown close to a young man who is neither a suitor nor a friend of the family. But times are changing…

My worst fears now were for Geoffrey in France; he had grown into a very dear friend whose intelligent understanding never failed the most exacting demands, and my admiration for his determined endurance of a life that he detested was only enhanced by his shy self-depreciation and his frequent asseveration of cowardice. In letters it was possible to get behind the defences of this abrupt young man to a sensitive mind as responsive to beauty as it was considerate towards human pain and fatigue.[3]

We will read one of those asseverations shortly, and it is a surprising thing. And as it happens, Geoffrey was also writing today, a century back–to Edward. He has been spared another battle, and Vera, perhaps, has been spared one of those terrible letters.

France, 20 October 1916

Just a note: we are now scuttling down South again; I say South meaning further south than we were!

Life here is an enigma and when all was ready we were suddenly transported as the stunt was off & here we are in an old town the belfry of which was built in 1150 odd and there is a, quaint old castle…

I had a letter from Univ. last night which simply exuded Oxford and recalled many a pleasant evening two years ago about this time. Do you remember the delightful days in O.T.C. when you fell in with New Coll. & I with Univ. each totally oblivious of the other’s existence what!

E

There is nothing particularly revealing in this letter–some Oxford O.T.C. reminiscence, and the amusement of discovering that future fast friends were once alongside each other and all-unbeknownst… but many small clues in the correspondence suggest that Vera might be drawn to Geoffrey in part by the intensity of his relationship with her beloved brother. They are, Vera and Edward, almost too close, we might think: she has already become engaged to his first best friend, after all.

But this relationship–between Edward and Geoffrey, that is–seems to be something different. It seems likely that the two were romantically, or even sexually involved–and, if so, almost completely certain that Vera had no idea…

These are the three people that Vera has decided truly matter to her. And as she tries to gather this little fellowship more tightly in about her, she realizes that, though the ocean voyage and war-time illness has perhaps shortened the gulf between them in experiential terms, in practical terms the time-lag of letters has grown, and she is feeling more cut-off than ever she was in London.

Malta, 20 October 1916

Just received my 1st mail since arriving here . . . Oh! the glory of the mail! You who have never been further than France have no idea of it. I have just got 9 letters in all — ranging in dates from Sept. 28th (from Geoffrey in France before he knew I was coming here) to Oct. 9th (also from Geoffrey in France) You & he, by the way, are the only people who tell me anything coherently, so do write often, & don’t imagine that other people have told me everything, because they never have… Only you give me any idea of how Victor went to France — which I am very astonished about; I had no idea his affairs were thus trembling on the brink…

Promise me faithfully this one thing. If anything important (not necessarily only the most important thing of all, but just anything important) happens to either you, Geoffrey or Victor, will you cable to me at once? . . . For you have no idea what one feels out here when one realises it is Oct. 20th & the last one heard of anyone was Oct. 9th. . .

It gives me a queer feeling to read Geoffrey’s letter of Oct. 9th, & remembering that (quoting him) ‘out here we are here to-day & gone to-morrow’, to think that he has had time to die a thousand deaths between then & to-day.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. At least not in his Selected Letters... my research lags, here.
  2. Selected Letters, 133-4.
  3. Testament of Youth, 305.
  4. Letters From a Lost Generation, 279-80.

The Master’s Guns in Action; Ben Keeling in a German Trench; Patrick Shaw-Stewart Wearily Under Canvas; Near Miss and Ham from Raymond Asquith

Ralph Hamilton, the Master of Belhaven, has been neglected of late. In all honesty, I brought him on board, as it were, not for his literary merits but for his strenuous regularity–he’s always near the front, and he writes almost every day. This is useful for filling in the corners of a daily project but it makes it difficult–without much forethought and planning, that is–to transform such an assiduous diary into a shapely narrative. With the Somme raging and Belhaven off in Ypres, I had not had much need of his generally short and businesslike reports on the artillery war. But his battery has recently moved south, and today Hamilton describes a bombardment which covered an attack by Ben Keeling’s Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, among other battalions.[1]

This is a good time to note not merely the futility of this sort of slow, attritional advance–however much ground the Allies take, the Germans have ample time to reinforce their deeper defenses–but also recent British tactical adaptations. One of the worst problems on July 1st was the time gap between the end of the supporting barrage and the arrival of the infantry. It only took a minute–even less, really, for the German machine gunners came out of their deep shelters and mount their weapons. This was disastrous to attacking infantry. So now the artillery is trying to increase its precision, keeping the Germans defenders under fire until the first wave is almost literally at their parapets. With Belhaven, we have an insider’s account of the new tactics.

The programme of our bombardment is very complicated; there are at least twenty phases in it. We are doing what is known as a “creeping barrage”–that is to say, we “lift as the infantry advance. First there is a period of intense bombardment… During this time out infantry leave their trenches and charge across “No Man’s Land” right up close to our barrage. They know they will lose some men from our fire but they are prepared for that in order that we may keep down the German machine-guns till the last moment; after that we lift our shells 50 yards every minute till we reach the next barrage…

This is good, cold-hearted tactics. Artillery is an exact science, but manufacturing tolerances and the vagaries of wind prevent perfect accuracy. To be completely safe from friendly fire is to risk facing returning defenders. It should work–if all goes according to plan. But if something slows up the infantry there is no way to get word to the guns, across no man’s land, through the inevitable counter-barrage, and thousands of yards behind. (Remember Milne and his shock that his telephone actually worked–and that was only in the original front lines, and hours after the attack had begun.)

The ball opened at about a quarter to five this afternoon… Exactly to the second hell broke loose and thousands of guns went off at the same moment. Never have I heard anything like it, or could have imagined such noises possible. It is quite impossible to describe to people who have not experienced it.

Ah, but it is never incumbent upon a diarist to entirely bridge the gulf, to master the representation of any aspect of war. It is only necessary to begin the work. And Hamilton realizes this, and gives us a good slice of the gunner’s experience:

It actually hurt, and for a time I felt as if my head would burst… After a time I retired to my telephone-pit… There matters were almost worse, the noises were not so violent, but the vibration was so great that at first I thought my heart was going to stop, from being so jolted. If one could imagine the vibration of the screw of a ship intensified a thousand-fold, it might give some idea of my sensations. Hour after hour it went on without a second’s pause… My guns have already fired nearly a thousand rounds each and are red-hot. We have to keep swilling them out with our precious little stock of water.[2]

 

I came to Ben Keeling’s letters late, and now it is entirely too late. The thirty-year-old Keeling was an Oxford man who had chosen an unusual path. A socialist and writer on social matters, he had been prominent in the labor movement before the war. His political beliefs surely had something to do with his decision to enlist as a private and, having risen to the rank of Company Sergeant Major, to refuse a commission. In a display of politically-tinged idiosyncrasy, he also insisted on keeping a full beard. Without any transfer or officer training or much in the way of leave he has seen a great deal of the war. He went forward today, a century back, as the leader of the Bombing Company of the 6th D.C.L.I.

He has known of the attack, and of his likely assignment–bombing up German trenches in the teeth of a counter-attack even as British shells fall around him–for at least a few days. Sometimes presentiment is nothing more than foreknowledge and a likely guess.

In a few days’ time, his colonel will write to the friend who compiled Keeling’s letters:

Dear Madam,

Lieutenant Barrington-Ward has handed to me your letter and cuttings of the local papers’ reference to Sergeant- Major Keeling. Seeing that you were one of his oldest friends, I should like to tell you how every officer and man in the battalion felt his loss. Perhaps his two years in the Army were the happiest and most useful that he spent. From the moment he joined with two thousand or more other men, his influence and brilliance were felt throughout the battalion. He was an immense factor for good among the non-commissioned ranks, and a link between officers and them. I three times asked him to take a commission, but he always replied he thought he was doing more useful work where he was. I have no hesitation in saying he was one of the bravest men I have ever seen, and he died leading a desperate bombing attack at a most critical moment.[3]

And the same Lieutenant Robert Barrington-Ward, Keeling’s friend and fellow-editor of a battalion paper:

You will, I expect, have learnt by this time that Keeling has been killed in action. All of us in the regiment are most awfully distressed about it. Though many good fellows went on the day of the battle (18 August), none left behind him more widespread regrets. He was killed out along a German trench up which our bombers were working. I understand that there was a risk of our bombers bombing our own men in this trench. Keeling jumped up on the parapet to make sure that the Germans were ahead, and he was caught by a bullet and died at once. The officer with the party took his papers off him. It is a very sad business. He did magnificently in the fight, and the party he was leading did particularly valiant work, protecting at a ticklish moment our own flank and the flank of the battalion on our right. We were unable to hold, at the time, the position we had taken, and the vigorous bombing offensive which Keeling’s party undertook saved us and ensured the success of the battalion on our right. I need not expound Keeling’s merits to you. I think, however, you may be interested to know how he was appreciated as a soldier by the rest of us.

“Died at once” is always to be hoped for–and thus it arouses suspicion. But I have no other information to offer, only arguments from silence, and absence: there is no mention of victory in either letter, and therefore Keeling was surely wounded or killed in a German trench that was relinquished, and his body left behind. Barrington-Ward will go on to edit the Times; Keeling’s friend H.G. Wells will help see his letters into print. Keeling has no known grave, and is therefore commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, with 72,000 others.

 

From this grim silence now to two other Oxford Scholars: our scintillating classicists, our men of the upper crust.

Patrick Shaw-Stewart wrote to his sister, today, a century back. He is far from the action, and quite safe, as a liaison officer in the Balkan campaign. He does manage a clever biblical reference, but he can’t quite hide the wistful tone.

Here, as you will have seen from the papers, we have started a certain liveliness. What the idea is, what we think we are doing, or what the enemy and Rumania intend to do about it, is all Greek to me: my own part in the matter consists of getting up horribly early in the morning, being at the end of a telephone which works exceedingly badly, and is very trying to the nerves, doing a vast deal of office work without the most primitive office appliances such as ink, a table, or a clerk, driving about very dusty roads in a Ford car (distances are generally too great at present for my trusty steeds), and watching picturesque artillery actions from a safe and elegant mountain.

This, once again, I will persist in seeing as a learned reference to Lucretius’s view that a battle viewed from a safe distance is an excellent example of happiness. Shaw-Stewart does not disagree–he’s a carefree and debonair pawn:

In fact, quite a reasonable way of carrying on war compared with many others. Very interesting of course from the tactical and what you may call the minor diplomatic (intermilitary) point of view, but so confusing and incomprehensible from the strategic and political as to be sometimes rather irritating. However, I dare say I shall understand when the History of the War comes out. The temperature is very decent now, and we are “under canvas” (I in a tent made by a Spanish Jew of Salonica, named Calderon, a trade-successor of St Paul, which cost me 200 good drachmas, but is really quite fair) in a little wood on the edge of some hills, much frequented by hoopoes and (I believe they are) pied shrikes. I am now resigned to my third grouseless Autumn (I have already dreed my third English-strawberryless Summer), and can’t help thinking the war is getting rather long.[4]

 

Shaw-Stewart’s friend and exemplar Raymond Asquith has never had a grouseless autumn or a unploverovum’d spring, and I’m sure Fortnum and Mason manage something, strawberry-wise. But he is in France, and his meals are regularly enlivened by iron supplements, courtesy of the German Imperial Army. Ha!

We’ve had a number of tales of the near-miss, but they are usually told as a fait accompli–as they must be, really. There are no first-person tales of the ones that didn’t miss.

Asquith, however, is a master raconteur, and he manages to put us–or rather his wife, Katherine–amidst the unfolding experience:

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

. . . We had just settled the men in and sat down to luncheon in a very nice green mess tent when the damnable sound of an approaching howitzer shell smote our ears. We looked at one another with sickly smiles each holding an oily sardine suspended half way between the cup and the lip while the thing came slowly through the air. One’s ear gets very delicate in these matters after a certain amount of practice and it was obvious to all that as far as direction was concerned the shell was coming straight for our tent; the only question was whether it would be short or over or just right. There were 4 tables in the tent; one for each company. Sloper and I were at the one nearest the enemy and at first I thought we were going to have the worst of it and then it became clear that there was just enough kick in the shell that would take it at least as far as the other side of the tent say 30 feet away, and then came the bang. The tent swayed about and rattled with mud and stones and the 4 officers at the far table threw themselves flat on the floor. There was no harm done. It had gone another 30 feet or so beyond the tent.

Then other shells began bursting…  It was 4 o’clock as a matter of fact before we were again sitting down to our sardines.

At 6.30 I was ordered to take out a dozen N.C.O.s to reconnoitre various ways out of the village up to the trenches. Just as we had finished our job and begun getting back the shelling began again with greater vigour than before. It
was rather disagreeable having to march back in the sunset into the middle of the cannonade. The shells were falling all about the camp and the houses and the hollow in which the village lay was full of dust and fumes and rolling clouds of smoke. When we got to the camp we found that everyone had left it for shelter in the fields…

We had just time for a hasty dinner off an excellent ham which Frances had sent and which arrived most felicitously…

I have made rather a story out of all this as I always do. There was nothing much in it really, except the damnable inconvenience of the noise beginning twice exactly at meal times, and as usually happens when there is shelling we were all more frightened than hurt…[5]

 

And just one more officer of the Guards. Or, rather, two: Bimbo Tennant seems to do little, these days, but prepare his poems. But not all of them, perhaps, should be destined for the volume his mother is editing. A family-produced book is all right, really… but perhaps the future lies with one’s friends?

I shall like to have some of my ‘pomes’ in the Anthology Osbert and his sister are bringing out, is it all right to send some of those that are to appear in my little book? About the dedication, I want to dedicate it to you and Uncle George and will send it as soon as I have framed it in suitable words…[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Battle of the Somme is grinding on, and to ease the task of military historians (or to help them impute good sense to bygone operational decisions) it was later subdivided, and certain periods of particular intensity were assigned dates and the name of a wood or town. We are moving, now, from the segment subsequently declared to be the Battle of Delville Wood toward the segment known as the Battle of Guillemont.
  2. War Diary, 232-3.
  3. Keeling Letters, 312-13.
  4. Knox, Patrick Shaw-Stewart, 173-4.
  5. Life and Letters, 285-6.
  6. Memoir, 217.

The Afterlife of Rupert Brooke XI: America Praises the Great Gift of War to English Literature; Tolkien Journeys to Aryador; Thomas Hardy Still Mourns; Henry Farnsworth Hopes for Better Things; Donald Hankey Regrets His Commission

We have a poem from Tolkien to get to today, as well as a trio of letters from Hardy and two letters from soldiers at the front. But first, an oblique crossing of paths, as Rupert Brooke is reviewed in the New York Times by none other than Joyce Kilmer, the Catholic public intellectual, critic, and recent author of “Trees.” This poem holds–or once held–a position relative to general perceptions of poetic taste much like the one Brooke’s “1914” sequence will hold in terms of war poetry: love it or despise it, but it does force one to pick a side. But the comparison is inexact. Kilmer’s ditty is the original “widely-beloved but critically-derided.” (Perhaps the politic thing is to declare it intentionally simple–it’s a sweet religious sentiment, pleasantly rhymed, suitable for Sunday school. Another way to put it would be “this is a cloying, awful poem.”) But Brooke’s sonnets are now nearly universally beloved (although we have heard some dissenting voices[1]) and will only later become the target of a major critical counter-attack.

Kilmer’s review, available here, is part of the first wave of high praise. He makes a booming–and very flawed–case not only for Brooke’s poetry but for the effect of war on soldier-writers. It kicks off with a rather definitive judgment:

Critics tell us, until they and we are tired, just what will be the war’s effect on literature. War stops literature, says one. War purifies and strengthens literature, says another. Rupert Brooke has proved them both right.

Kilmer goes on to declare Brooke, following his most fervent English admirers, to be a “genius” who, due to the war, is “certain of literary immortality.” But this is not, Kilmer argues, just because of his “romantic and noble death.” (Again, it feels churlish to point this out, but Brooke “sleeps under a little wooden cross on an island of olive trees” not because he fell in battle with the enemy but because of a mosquito bite, and subsequent questionable doctoring. Kilmer elides this fact, and lets the incautious reader assume that Brooke died gloriously.)

No–Kilmer’s claim is that Brooke was elevated by the war, from “a clever and whimsical rhymester” to a “great poet.” Brooke was older than Keats was when he died, and Kilmer quotes the entirety of “The Dead” as representative of Brooke’s Keatsian transformation. Alas, the sonnet he quotes is the fourth in the “1914” sequence, not the third (they have the same title), which Roland Leighton has just railed against–that would be too perfect a juxtaposition.

Still on the fence? Kilmer may be voicing a popular opinion, he may doing it on his own, and he may have some short-range critical justificaiton for praising portions of the “1914” poems. But now he really puts his foot in the bucket. Before Brooke “became a soldier… he had been writing cynical little songs, like those of Thomas Hardy.”

Whoa there, little fellah! The battle lines are now drawn. It’s possible that we’re seeing the effect of a religious/cultural divide, as opposition to Hardy often coalesced around the idea that his brutal tragedies of fate (not to mention his “Satires of Circumstance“) are essentially atheist.

Perhaps. But the “Satires” are ironic, not cynical. And such a judgment would require Kilmer to be unaware of Brooke’s own flirtations with atheism (not to mention bohemianism, bisexuality, and general petulant raunchiness). Which is possible–he seems to have fallen for the anodyne biographical note included in the forthcoming edition of his poems, which goes as far as mentioning Brooke’s socialism and vegetarianism but omits the more shocking alliegiances.

So let’s keep it critical… except we can’t. The rest of Kilmer’s review is just as circumstantial, and not so much ad hominem as pro homine ad homines: Brooke is held up as the great cleanser of English poetry, the man who beheld “Signor Marinetti and his Futurists, Ezra Pound and his Imagistes, Wyndham Lewis and his Vorticists” and rebelled–because “he was too much of a man and too much of a poet.”

I do miss Rupert Brooke, and it would have been painful fun to read this review over his shoulder: this is precisely the fame and glory he was aiming for with the 1914 sonnets, precisely the facile immortality he desperately desired. And, of course, in the eternal internal strife between his self-love and self-loathing, this is also a perfect proof of his own half-conscious betrayal of his significant poetic gifts.

He could have been a contender, a good, solid poet–but he made himself a hollow bronze god, suitable for mounting in a public square. And thereafter collecting pigeon shit.

And therefore this is precisely the critical misreading, the false career trajectory that he knew he was setting up as he sailed into the Aegean dawn, writing prettily accessible sentimental verses at last.

The war didn’t elevate Brooke by enabling his escape from “shoddy Bohemianism” and naughtily direct poetry. As we know, it enabled his escape from neurosis, self-doubt and intractable personal problems. It is sad that Brooke embraced war–and the hope of his own extinction–as something of an escape from his own mind, his own personality. Very sad.

But that he chose–once buoyed not by the spirit of the war per se (as Kilmer assumes) but rather by the sense of escape that the uniform allowed him–that he chose to write very different poetry is not a tragedy or a beautiful sad story. It was, in the classic American phrase of the last half-century, a sell-out.

Kilmer’s conclusion is that, while the loss is great, “English literature has gained by the thing that caused his death”–note the refusal there, as in later American executive actions, to avoid naming “war.” In fact, sins of omission for constitutional convenience are rather like critical smoke screens–dodging the word does no good, and can do evil. Silence can be cant, too.

But back to Kilmer’s argument: Brooke’s good death elevates his questionable life, and the poetry conveniently followed the same trajectory. Rupert Brooke is, apparently, to be seen as Sydney Carton, redeemed of a wasted life/talent in doing one great thing as history carted him off to slaughter.

This is a disgusting sentiment, really, a sort of Providentialist nihilism. Unforgivable and, given the events of the past century, lamentable.

But, first of all, Brooke was asking for it. And, second, my objection to Kilmer’s review is a gauntlet in my own face. If we don’t believe that the war–despite its horrors and destruction–elevated the writing of its participants, then what exactly are we doing here? Am I protesting too much, because Brooke is a secretly (even to himself) cynical patriot, and because I prefer the verses that will be written by other tortured souls, young men who didn’t really get a chance to “sell out” and pour the mold for their own fame?

 

Awkwardly–for Mr. Kilmer, for at least–Thomas Hardy‘s writing is about to take its own war-driven turn. It won’t be much less “cynical,” perhaps, and nothing like Brooke’s pleasant appreciation of his own demise, but it will be poetry touched by war nonetheless–and an improvement upon his dutifully pro-war 1914 work. But not yet. Over the last two weeks Hardy has been writing and writing again of the death of his young cousin at Gallipoli. Shouldn’t that death  be preceded by an adjective? “Senseless death?” “Tragic death?” “Useless death?” These short letters are something like drafts of the poetry to come.

Max Gate, Sept 4, 1915

Dear Mr Phillpotts:

My best thanks for your note… He was so much more to us than a cousin, & the most promising member of my family. I  wish he were not lying mangled in that shambles of the Gallipoli Peninsula, where we ought never to have gone. However, nothing can touch him further.

 

Max Gate 7 Sept, 1915

Dear Shorter:

Just a line to thank you for your letter. Please do not trouble about putting in that portrait till quite convenient. It is really for the sake of his poor mother. When he told us he was going to that shambles Gallipoli we thought he was doomed.

But Hardy is not immune to recognizing another sort of merit, distinct from the canceled “promise” of his future life:

Max Gate, Dorchester,  Sept 12, 1915

Dear Sir Evelyn Wood,

You may be interested in hearing of the end of my cousin young Frank George, whom you so kindly recommended for a commission in the 5th Dorsets. He was in that frightful night attack in Suvla Bay Aug 21-22, & was killed just as his company was leaving the trenches.

His colonel—(now Brig. General Hannay) tells me that he had done splendidly since they started fighting out there on the 7th August. On the 17th he distinguished himself particularly, & brought great credit to the 5th by rushing a Turkish trench with his platoon, for which his name was sent forward for reward. He bayonetted some 8 or 10 Turks & brought
back 14 prisoners.[2]

I called on his mother last week. Poor woman; she is a widow, but bears up as well as she can…

Sincerely yours
Thomas Hardy[3]

 

Reaching back to Kilmer-on-Brooke, here’s another sort of juxtaposition: a young writer as yet far from fame, who will one day achieve enormous popularity amidst vociferously mixed critical reviews. But his poetry…

Anyway, young lieutenant Tolkien is finding time while training at Whittington Heath camp to work on his evolving mythos. After again revising The Happy Mariners a few days ago–a work that lies near the heart of his imaginative leap from an English past to an Elven sub-creation–today he wrote ‘A Song of Aryador.'[4]

This poem envisions human beings dwelling in a green and pleasant land, knowing somehow that “Shadow Folk” are passing through. On the face of it, a typical example of 19th century fairy poetry, and nothing to get excited about. And yet the scene depicted in this poem will, with many changes in the conception and the context, take up a very minor but very firm place within the History of Middle Earth. Aryador is–or is in–Hisilómë, one of the regions of Beleriand. And the Shadow Folk are not 19th century fairies tripping mischievously or numinously along–they will become the High Elves, people of the Noldor or Teleri taking the long journey at last into the West–the slow movement of loss which runs through Tolkien’s work from beginning to end.

A Song of Aryador

In the vales of Aryador
By the wooded inland shore
Green the lakeward bents and meads
Sloping down to murmorous reeds
That whisper in the dusk o’er Aryador;

Do you hear the many bells
Of goats upon the fells
Where the valley tumbles downward from the pines?
Do you hear the blue woods moan
When the Sun has gone alone
To hunt the mountain-shadows in the pines?

She is lost among the hills
And the upland slowly fills
With the shadow-folk that murmur in the fern;
And still there are bells
And the voices on the fells
While Eastward a few stars begin to burn.

Men are kindling tiny gleams
Far below by mountain-streams
Where they dwell among the beechwoods near the shore,
But the great woods on the height
Watch the waning western light
And whisper to the wind of things of yore,

When valley was unknown,
And the waters roared alone,
And the shadow-folk danced downward all the night,
When the Sun had fared abroad
Through great forests unexplored
And the woods were full of wandering beams of light.

Then were voices on the fells
And a sound of ghostly bells
And a march of shadow-people o’er the height.
In the mountains by the shore
In forgotten Aryador
There was dancing and was ringing;
There were shadow-people singing
Ancient songs of olden gods in Aryador.

 

Donald Hankey has the most unusual, most conflicted relationship to military authority of any of our writers. An ex-cadet and ex-officer, he insisted on serving in the ranks, among the sort of men he intended to minister to after the war. He accepted promotion to sergeant, returned to the rank of private to avoid serving under an officer who didn’t measure up to his “beloved captain,” and then–as the army has been scouring its rolls for suitable officer material amidst all the enthusiastic enlistees of 1914–accepted persistent suggestions that he needed, for the nation’s state, to take a commission. And now he regrets it.

Sept. 12, 1915

Dear Grandmamma,

Thanks awfully for your encouraging letter. I still think that it was a mistake for me to apply for a commission, and that if I had waited another ten days I shouldn’t have done it. But it is no good crying over spilt milk, and I must try and make the best of existing circumstances…

I am going up to town to-morrow for the day, to see my dentist, banker, brother, tailor, boot-maker, publisher, etc.! It is promotion. I am getting very bored here, and I am afraid my sister finds me very grumpy! It is very interesting to be a rolling stone while one is rolling; but there is an indefiniteness of aim which is rather disquieting when one is made to stop and think. I don’t quite know what I want, and I don’t feel as if my personality was knit together sufficiently to find out. I suppose it is the old war of the spirit and the flesh!

Aha–one more of our not-quite-lost, not-quite-found souls who took some peace of mind from the lack of initiative and responsibility that military discipline imposed. But Hankey will not let himself off that easy. He segues quickly from his military career to his writing:

Sometimes I can write things which I don’t really feel at all, though I would like to be able to, and then other people take it for granted that I do feel like it, and I feel rather a humbug, and understand why it is that so many people write under noms de plume. However, I hope soon to be busy, and then I shall no longer be introspective, and anyhow it is a shame to worry you with my imaginations.

An excellent line. And yet, for Hankey–a serious Christian thinker–there is more to peace of mind than the avoidance of personal choice.

I agree with you that presentiments are a great argument for God’s fatherly government of life. My favorite cousin, D. G., has the most extraordinarily accurate ones quite often. Some of them, of course, are sheer telepathy, but others relate quite definitely to events in the immediate future. I am very sceptical on such subjects; but I admit that in her case I find it very hard not to believe some of the instances she has told me…

Your affec.,

Grandson[5]

 

Finally, today, Henry Farnsworth writes home to update his family on the confusing evolution of the Foreign Legion.

September 12,1915

Dear Mamma:

Your letters, two of which arrived this morning, are a great blessing. A little sympathy is a very grateful thing when one is bored to death and exasperated by every one else in the world.

I always try to write of the most interesting events in these surroundings, and the fact that you seem to look at them in something the same way makes it all seem a little less futile.

As for your glorious French Army—I beg to differ… Our old 3 de marche was never considered as a very remarkable outfit, but it is significant that all of the three secteurs we occupied, strengthened, fortified, and turned over to French regiments are now in the hands of the Germans—the last one, Tilloloy, what with the barbed-wire, sixty feet thereof, in front of the trenches, and heavily embanked loopholes, was untakable as long as the defenders stuck to their guns. That the thing was done by surprise makes it all the more inexcusable.

To-morrow, so they say, we leave at 3 a.m. for Division Headquarters and Poincaré presents the regiment with a flag. I suppose the ceremony will be impressive, but do not look forward to it very much. Marching orders are all I ask of Heaven, and there seems no sign of them.

Why we were rushed back from the trench-digging in Alsace and all our hopes raised is a question I suppose only the Chiefs can answer. The thought that they had their reasons gives one no comfort.

I wish you could or would read “War and Peace” again. Tolstoi, even more than Stendahl, arrives at complete expression of military life. Incidentally, his conception of family life is no less utterly true to nature, at least as I see and experience it…

Henry[6]

Tolstoy! Well, yes indeed. It’s interesting that War and Peace doesn’t come up all that much–the English are more likely to go to The Dynasts when looking for epic treatment of the great war of a century (further) back, so perhaps that explains it. There can be no complaining about the judgment for Tolstoy as the great military writer (although the “Sevastopol Sketches” come much closer to the atmosphere of the trenches), especially over Stendahl. But, really, the only thing these young Francophiles should be reading is Zola’s La Débâcle.

But, here at the end of a mammoth post, I digress. Tomorrow we will hear from Alan Seeger, who is now in the same unit as Farnsworth, and similarly doomed to reorganization, similarly hoping for a more violent future. But there the similarities end: Farnsworth, though the callower of the callow, remains proud of his unit–like the Guards or the Royal Welch, they pride themselves on having improved their section of the line and see evidence of their own elite status when another regiment loses the position. And with a sigh and some heavy reading he hopes for greater things–not that he is looking forward to the intervening parade.

Seeger, as we will see, has more or less given up on the Legion (he enlisted several months earlier, however, and in an older regiment, one with a unique set of pre-war problems) and yet is pleased by the prospect of military ceremonial. They both want action, but only one is consistent in identifying “glory,” rather than pride, experience, or service, as the foremost motivation.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. In the numerous previous "Afterlife" posts, especially from Edward Thomas and Charles Sorley.
  2. This is possible, but unlikely--I do not believe there was a posthumous decoration. Then again, Gallipoli was a lost cause at this point. but exaggeration, at least, is likely in this letter to the bereaved (and famous) relative.
  3. Letters, V, 122-3.
  4. Chronology 73.
  5. Letters of Donald Hankey, 312-13.
  6. Letters of Henry Farnsworth, 200-1.