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

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

 

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

Dear Mother,

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

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

Love Willie.[1]

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

 

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

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

15.vi.17

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References and Footnotes

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

Max Plowman’s Men Want to Go Home; Rowland Feilding’s Endure Heroically

Sometimes these writers really do cooperate. What better time for a two-pronged assault on the question of morale–of psychological endurance–than at the beginning of a long, cold winter?

First, today, a letter from Max Plowman to Janet Upcott addresses the Christmas season–and war’s constraints thereupon–as well as a grimmer seasonal matter: in early winter death feels final and the war’s grip eternal. When and how will it end?

 

10th Bn West Yorkshire Regt., B.E.F.
14th December, 1916

My Dear Janet,

This is to bring you seasonable wishes… alas! we’re short of officers & the overdue “leave” will have to wait. I hope you’ll have a very merry time wherever you are–meet the right people upon whose chests the war does not sit too heavily & have enough nice food & good presents to feel it was worth while hanging up your stocking. –I don’t know a bit where I shall be. Very likely in the trenches where if I hang mine up it will be to dry!

Yesterday I heard a rather interesting lecture… he went on to tell us how we had to keep the pot boiling all through the winter substituting “minor offensives” for the major ones so that we might still find ourselves “top-dog” when the spring comes. And then he expressed the old view I heard when I first took to a “Sam Browne.” That our main object in life was to kill as many “pure-blooded Huns” as possible & that was the only way to win the war. Somehow that seems to me a most childish idea, characteristically English. Personally I feel if that is our only hope–well we haven’t one at all because the ruling German has so much business sense that whatever happens he will always see–his instinct for autocratic government will enure that–that the governing military class is the best protected.

This musing on Grand Strategy circles back from the official enemy–those German militarists–to the adversary closer to the English infantryman’s heart–the staff.

I wonder whether “the Red Hats” really believe all they appear to. For instance, that it’s certain that the ultimate decision of the wear will come in the west… More & more I feel the war will end as I hoped–in the sort of stale mate which leaves both nations so disgusted with the whole business they’ll recognize its supreme futility…

This is orthodox pacifism and historical wisdom–and something awfully close to treason in a serving officer.

Meantime I feel consistently like the man our soldiers constantly sing about whose view of the whole business was:–

“Oh my! I don’t want to die
I want to go home.”

I always feel it infinitely pathetic that they should sing that.

I’ve really no news Janet so you must forgive a dull Xmas letter…

Shall I ever see the end of this “innings” Janet? Do say “yes.” I seem to have been out here a whole lifetime & though I’ve done nothing yet it gets monotonous. The feeling of never being free of the army day nor night is tireing & did you know I had the reputation of being a “hardworking subaltern”!! I begin to feel it an unenviable one…

Yours ever

Max[1]

 

We have one more letter today, a century back, from Rowland Feilding to his wife. It begins with a tragedy in miniature, but not one that leads toward disillusionment. Feilding has been in a mood of high regard for his men, lately, but he is also simply a responsible officer determined not to miss the larger picture, however terrible individual fates can be.

This is not quite the same as the reflexively loyal positive thinking of Edward Hermon: this is an observation of the importance–and the great strength–of morale, in winter, in the trenches. Call it esprit de corps, call it unit cohesion, but the importance of psychological maintenance work–draining the sumps, shoring up the crumbling walls–is enormous.

The old-fashioned tendency to attribute perceived differences in group temperament to “national characteristics” has not worn well, and for good reason. But then again even slightly different cultures can manifest differently, creating sharply different in moods in different groups undergoing similar experiences. Perhaps the Irish are wonderfully tough and uncomplaining, and perhaps this is a good battalion formed from a Regiment (and a local area) with a strong sense of the value of stoic endurance and mutual aid.

And then we have the position and disposition of our observers: from a subaltern in a Yorkshire company (Plowman) to the English commander of an Irish battalion, we see a very different appreciation of morale. But whether they are smiling cheerfully at a passing Lt. Col. or singing songs of frank war weariness in the hearing of their company officers, they all endure.

December 14, 1916. Curragh Camp

I have for many weeks past been working to get some good company sergeant-majors out from home. One in particular I have been trying for—a Sergeant-major McGrath, reputed to have been the best at Kinsale. His Commanding Officer very kindly agreed to send him to me, although he wrote that he regretted parting with him. McGrath arrived the day after I returned from leave, and within half an hour of his reaching the fire-trench was lying dead, a heavy trench-mortar bomb having fallen upon him, killing him and two others, and wounding two more. Now, is not that a case of hard luck “chasing” a man, when you consider how long others of us last? I never
even saw him alive.

I visited the fire-trench just after the bomb had fallen. It had dropped into the trench, and the sight was not a pleasant one. It was moreover aggravated by the figure of one of the dead, who had been blown out of the trench on to the parapet, and was silhouetted grotesquely against the then darkening sky.

But what I saw was inspiring, nevertheless. The sentries stood like statues. At the spot where the bomb had burst—within 40 yards of the Germans—officers and men were already hard at work in the rain, quietly repairing
the damage done to our trench, and clearing away the remains of the dead; all—to outward appearance—oblivious
to the possibility—indeed the probability—of further trouble from the trench-mortar, trained upon this special bit of trench, that had fired the fatal round.

What wonderful people are our infantry! And what a joy it is to be with them! When I am here I feel—well,
I can hardly describe it. I feel, if it were possible, that one should never go away from them: and I contrast that scene which I have described (at 1s. 1d. a day) with what I see and hear in England when I go on leave. My God! I can only say: “May the others be forgiven!” How it can be possible that these magnificent fellows, going home for a few days after ten months of this (and practically none get home in less), should be waylaid at Victoria Station, as they are, and exploited, and done out of the hard-earned money they have saved through being in the trenches, and with which they are so lavish, baffles my comprehension…

I can never express in writing what I feel about the men in the trenches; and nobody who has not seen them can ever understand.[2] According to the present routine, we stay in the front line eight days and nights; then go out for the same period. Each Company spends four days and four nights in the fire-trench before being relieved. The men are practically without rest. They are wet through much of the time. They are shelled and trench-mortared. They may not be hit, but they are kept in a perpetual state of unrest and strain. They work all night and every night, and a good part of each day, digging and filling sandbags, and repairing the breaches in the breastworks;—that is when they are not on sentry. The temperature is icy. They have not even a blanket. The last two days it has been snowing. They cannot move more than a few feet from their posts: therefore, except when they are actually digging, they cannot keep themselves warm by exercise; and, when they try to sleep, they freeze. At present, they are getting a tablespoon of rum to console them, once in three days.

So far morale. But, as so often, the very strong feeling of corporate identity–“us”–finds its opposition–“them”–not across No Man’s Land but rather far behind the lines. Farther, even, then Montreuil, where the Staff is ensconced. Feilding, with his Guards association and past service as a regular, is less likely than most to rail at bad planning (though he is honest and critical when he encounters it). But his time with the infantry seems to be changing–or at least amplifying–his political commitments.

Think of these things, and compare them with what are considered serious hardships in normal life! Yet these men
play their part uncomplainingly. That is to say, they never complain seriously. Freezing, or snowing, or drenching rain; always smothered with mud; you may ask any one of them, any moment of the day or night, “Are you cold?” or “Are you wet?”—and you will get but one answer. The Irishman will reply—always with a smile—“Not too cold, sir,” or “Not too wet, sir.” It makes me feel sick. It makes me think I never want to see the British Isles again so long as the war lasts. It makes one feel ashamed for those Irishmen; and also of those fellow countrymen of our own, earning huge wages, yet for ever clamouring for more; striking, or threatening to strike; while the country is engaged upon this murderous struggle.

Why, we ask here, has not the whole nation, civil as well as military, been conscripted?

The curious thing is that all seem so much more contented here than the people at home. The poor Tommy,
shivering in the trenches, is happier than the beast who makes capital out of the war. Everybody laughs at everything, here. It is the only way.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Bridge Into the Future, 60-1.
  2. A fairly common sentiment. But if it is strictly interpreted then we are engaged in an exercise either essentially futile or, I would hope, valuable but asymptotically impossible to complete. Since Feilding took the trouble to write hundreds of pages of careful reporting on his experiences to his wife, we might hope that he believes some measure of understanding is possible...
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 133-6.

J.B. Priestley Enlists; Peter Jackson Takes Offense

Sir John French has acquiesced to Joffre’s plan/prophecy of yesterday afternoon. The strategy was clearly correct, and although Sir John was timid, incompetent, and none too devoted to the cause of France, he realized that Britain needed, at least, to stand beside the French at the crucial turning point of the campaign. And then he exerted himself, and his armies, very little. The BEF was exhausted (hardly more so than the French, but no matter) and so it rested today, with only a few units moving slightly to the north in support of the French advance. “The Miracle on the Marne” was a French achievement.

To England!

 

Nineteen-year-old J.B. Priestley, a Yorkshire clerk and freelance journalist, enlisted today, his motivations obscure–at least to his later self.http://images.esellerpro.com/2486/I/300/4/lrgscalebritons-want-you-coaster.jpg

The usual explanations were no good. I was not hot with patriotic feeling; I did not believe that Britain was in any real danger. I was sorry for ‘gallant little Belgium’ but did not feel she was waiting for me to rescue her.

So nuts to you, Kipling.

The legend of Kitchener, who pointed at us from every hoarding, [see right] had never captured me. I was not under any pressure from public opinion, which had not got to work on young men as early as that; the white feathers came later.

These would be the white feathers handed by young women to fit-looking men of military age in civilian clothes, in order to shame them out of their cowardice. Works like a charm. This being an ironic war, the feather-girls seem to always have picked officers on leave, in mufti. Although perhaps the feathered officers are just more likely to pass on the anecdote.

I was not carried to the recruiting office in a rush of chums, nobody thinking, everybody half-plastered. I went alone… I was not simply swapping jobs…this was no escape to freedom… I was not so green. And I certainly did not see myself as a hero, whose true stature would be revealed by war… What is left then to supply a motive?

Nothing, I believe now, that was rational and conscious…. I went at a signal from the unknown… There came, out of the unclouded blue of that summer, a challenge that was almost like a conscription of the spirit, little to do really with King and Country and flag-waving and hip-hip-hurrah, a challenge to what we felt was our untested manhood.[1]

Well, fair enough. Priestley knew what he was about, and re recognized the spiritual/big time old fashioned gender constructed call as driving force behind his enlistment. A retrospective judgment, but not therefore necessarily untrue or renovated with unseemly thoroughness. And yet Priestly doesn’t earn the Brittain/Williamson/Sassoon Order of Merit For Definitely Not Whitewashing Youthful Pigheadedness and Folly, does he?

 

It’s been a while since we checked in on Peter Jackson, non-Hobbit-directing fictional alter-ego of Gilbert Frankau. This is heavy-handed stuff, with some good class-sneering from an author (yes, yes, it’s the character who will speak, not the author, but they are very close) who was often subjected to class snobbery and anti-Semitism in his own life. It’s also a rare look into the British business community at this time of the war. Later the question of profiteering will come at least a bit further to the fore, but it’s interesting to imagine how cynical businessmen might have dealt with September’s combination of panic, patriotic enthusiasm, and unleashed government spending.

It was a month and three days since the outbreak of war. Paris–thought Peter, as he sat alone in the back office at Lime Street–was practically safe. Still, it might easily be six months before the Cossacks got to Berlin. Meanwhile…

Meanwhile the business–Nirvana Cigarettes–is in trouble. In comes the detestable Hubert Rawlings, whom we know to be detestable because he is Jackson’s brother-in-law, because he is manifestly very detestable, and because he replaced a mobilized officer during the Bank Holiday Tennis Party.

Hubert Rawlings, publicity agent, had not been worried with any whispers of the ‘British spirit.’ The contemptible cry of ‘business as usual’ found in him an able propagandist. Government officials, eager to do anything except fight, had decided on a campaign of advertising, as wasteful to the country’s purse as it was degrading to its patriotism; for this campaign, Hubert Rawlings proved himself an invaluable henchman. Posters, leaflets…  one more revolting to decent folk than the other–spawned themselves in his lower-middle-class mind, spewed themselves over London and the provinces.

And to think, Peter Jackson had never even seen this: http://img3.wikia.nocookie.net/__cb20070108204019/uncyclopedia/images/c/ce/Kitchener.PNG

But anyway. Peter Jackson takes the meeting, and Hubert tries to cut him in on a deal, with four other men, to sneak in as middlemen and make a killing selling overcoats to the government.

“Overcoats?”

“Yes. For Kitchener’s Army… the coats work out, for cash, at fifteen shillings…. The War Office is paying twenty-five. That”–the voice became unctuous–“means a profit of….”

“Five thousand pounds,” snapped Peter. for a moment, old habits asserted themselves ; he was tempted. A thousand more for Nirvana ! Then all the emotions of four weeks blazed into cold flame. He got up from his chair, eyes black with rage ; controlled himself in time ; and said slowly:

“don’t slam the door as you go out, Rawlings.”

“But surely….” began the other,

“did you hear what I said?”

“Yes, but…”

“Damn your eyes! Will you get out of this office before I throw you out….”

Rawlings went.[2]

Well then. Peter Jackson may now view his business responsibilities in a new light. Kitchener aside, can he put a finger on the whole manhood/spirit/country/sacrifice thing? We shall shortly see.

References and Footnotes

  1. Priestley, Margin Released, 81-2.
  2. Frankau, Peter Jackson, Cigar Merchant, 60-61.