Siegfried Sassoon Will Return to France, But Not Acquiesce; Edmund Blunden Bestrides the Becrumped Duckwalks of Ypres

Siegfried Sassoon was not in the best of moods when Robert Graves recently came to visit. He was reminded, surely, of Graves’s role in sending him to Craiglockhart, and irritated by how easy Graves has found it to make his peace with the war, as it were. But the friendship endures, and is sustained by another, now:

19 October, Craiglockhart

Dearest Robert, I am so glad you like Owen’s poem. I will tell him to send you on any decent stuff he does. His work is very unequal, and you can help him a great deal.

Seeing you again has made me more restless than ever. My position here is nearly unbearable, and the feeling of isolation makes me feel rotten. I had a long letter from Cotterill to-day. They had just got back to rest from Polygon Wood and he says the conditions and general situation are more bloody than anything he has yet seen. Three miles of morasses, shell-holes and dead men and horses through which to get the rations up. I should like the people who write leading articles for the Morning Post (about victory) to read his letter.

This letter from Cotterill may have undercut the last of Sassoon’s resistance to returning to active service, but Sassoon has clearly been nearly ready to find a way to come in from the cold. In any case, even old Joe Cotterill, the quartermaster of the 1st Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers, has scant influence on Sassoon compared to the man he sees daily, respects most of anyone, and can only not disappoint by giving up his protest:

I have told Rivers that I will go back to France, if they will send me (making it quite clear that my views are exactly the same as in July—only more so).

This is at once wishful thinking and specious logic. Sassoon–a man hopelessly unable to either outwit or out-muscle the ponderous bureaucracy of the war–is writing to the very friend most instrumental in having helped that bureaucracy shuffle him neatly aside, and yet he is imagining that he can both keep his opinions and negotiate the terms of his return. It takes a strange form of bullheadedness to refuse to understand the official illogic of a system whose callous officiousness one had previously protested:

They will have to give me a written guarantee that I shall be sent back at once. I don’t quite understand how it is that Rivers can do nothing but pass me for General Service as he says, because I am in the same condition as I was three months ago, and if I am fit for General Service now, I was fit then.

This is, again, strangely obtuse coming from a man with such a gift for viciously exposing official hypocrisy. Sassoon loves Rivers and hates the War Office, but he doesn’t imagine that just because the War Office cynically sent a more-or-less healthy protester to a hospital, a doctor in its employ won’t sacrifice his own integrity… but I took him to task over this only two days ago.

This next line should be taken, I think, as a joke, on Rivers’s part. (That, in any event, is how Pat Barker plays it.)

He says I’ve got a very strong ‘anti-war’ complex, whatever that means. I should like the opinion of a first-class ‘alienist’ or whatever they call the blokes who decide if people are dotty. However we shall see what they say. Personally I would rather be anywhere than here.

Sassoon realizes–at least on a slightly subconscious level–that he has lost the fight over making his own mental state relevant to his opinions. And so his mind returns to the trenches.

It’s too b….y to think of poor old Joe lying out all night in shell-holes and being shelled (several of the ration-party
were killed) but, as he says, ‘the Battalion got their rations’. What a man he is.

And as for Graves? Is Graves a real man? Sassoon pulls no punches, here:

O Robert, what ever will happen to end the war? It’s all very well for you to talk about ‘good form; and acting like a  ‘gentleman’. To me that’s a very estimable form of suicidal stupidity and credulity. You admit that the people who sacrifice the troops are callous b….rs, and the same thing is happening in all countries (except some of Russia). If you had real courage you wouldn’t acquiesce as you do.

Yours ever Sassons[1]

Is it sadness and confusion or sheer effrontery to end a letter that contained the news of his decision to abandon his protest with an attack on his friend for his own acquiescence?

 

And speaking of the trenches, Edmund Blunden and his 11th Royal Sussex left them tonight, a century back. It’s been a (short) while since we’ve had a harrowing, flare-smeared Ypres night relief:

But as yet we are not relieved. The most dangerous moment of the tour is to come. Upon the arrival of the “guides,” there was the usual process of sorting one another out by company headquarters, and some mistake led to a certain amount of noise. The moment was when my company was halting in the open, near Hunwater Dugout. At once the Germans fired so many illuminants that the ground with its pools was like a jeweller’s shop; I shouted to my anxious men to stand fast, but one or two were new or nervous, and ducked or moved on; then the enemy’s machine guns played, the informing white lights multiplied, were repeated farther off; red lights, bursting into two like cherries on a stalk, went up by the dozen. There seemed now no doubt that a box barrage of the highest quality would come down on us, and my skin felt in the act of shrivelling. To our amazement, the German guns held their peace; the streaming bullets raced over a little longer, then slackened, and we went with sober minds on our way. It seemed a long way, as all night journeys in the Salient did, but we knew we had been lucky this time, and as we picked our way between the roaring batteries and the greasy roadside wreckage, we rejoiced. Finally a number of short leafy trees in the mist showed that we were on the borders of life again; it was Voormezeele, and our camp was at hand — Boys Camp. A hot meal awaited all, and I suppose the surviving officers still reckon that night’s roast pork in the flapping, icy marquee as particularly notable among Quartermaster Swain’s many capital performances…[2]

A few days hence, Blunden will craft a comic version of the horrors of this tour in one of his schoolboy-baroque letters to Hector Buck. If we skip some of the more toweringly referential sentences (not to mention the cricket bits), there is a nice bit of purple-prosey description of night work with the battalion:

…The tents flap wildly in the teeth of the nor’easter, the mud stretches unimaginably that way and this, stolchy and skin-deep; the too thoughtful foeman tries to vary our dull existence with bombing beanos when the raspberry-coloured moon ariseth…

we string along the becrumped duckwalks in a darkness that may be felt, a remnant manages to find its way up to the foremost shellholes and lies down in them. The previous tenants quit as fast as the sludge will allow… meantime the scorbutic Blunden is crawling around trying to find the ruins of Potiphar Farm or Usedtobe Castle in order to get his correct dispositions back to a Fuming and nail-nibbling C.O. Ruins are not, so he falls back on lesser symptoms of bygone villages; such as a contortion of metal which proves a Brewery lost…

At last he sees that there is nothing for it except compass bearings so he drops his compass into one or two pools of water and goes back to Company HQ. This place is usually an old Bosch pillbox with the typical Bosch smell and a large doorway facing right towards the Bosch gunners, machine-gunners, minnymen, snipers, and whatso else there be that crump, zonk, bump, plonk, or in any other way soever worry, annoy, or badger the nonchalant Englishmen. But mark you, there is no means of getting into the dugout except this doorway, screened though it be with two or three ground sheets and some German equipment: and once inside, the unguarded foot suddenly falls lovingly into about 18 inches of Hunwater, with noisome bubbles winking at the brim…

And with the shells comes an amusingly over-the-top parody of bureaucratic “Bumf.”

The arrival of a muster of 5.9’s just outside the door causes the last drain of whisky to jolt off the pro-table and vanish for ever in the seething depths. And then up comes some paper warfare – ‘You will submit a Raid Scheme’ or ‘s e c r e t. The Battalion will not be relieved for 25 years’ or ‘The 333rd course for intending Landscape Painters will assemble at Medicine Hat on the 1st April 1918. Coys, will detail 50 young & intelligent men each, with if possible some knowledge of wombat culture, gingernut-fancying and love cages, to report at Bn. HQ at 2 a.m. today. Rations for 1920 will be carried and the men will have a bath before they leave the front line.

(Sd) Napoleon Buonaparte
Lt, & A/Adjt 6 p.m.’[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 191-2.
  2. Undertones of War, 253-4.
  3. More Than a Brother, 13-14.

Rowland Feilding on Cleanliness and a Brilliant Corporal; David Jones (Re-)Draws Leave

Just two days ago, a century back, Rowland Feilding wrote to his wife about the new procedures for enlisted men going on leave. There is more attention now to cleanliness–which could be seen both as a sensible public health measure and a sort of propaganda of the body, a way to censor the physical condition of the men at the front as well as their words:

They are cleaned up and fitted with good clothes before they leave, so that they do not arrive at Victoria covered with the mud of the trenches. Each man, too, has to have a certificate that he is free from vermin; so I hope they arrive sufficiently pure and spick and span, though I am sure they cannot give half so much satisfaction in the streets of London as they would if they arrived muddy.

Today’s letter is what we might call a “reserve piece,” a pleasant discourse on the pleasures of life in the rear. And yet it’s of a piece with several of our recent posts from the Passchendaele trenches that emphasized the sanity-saving effects of humor. Feilding has discovered that a bombing corporal–“and a good one too”–is  also “a buffoon of a high order.” Lance-Corporal Pierpont is a clown and a contortionist, and, on this day of battalion sports, a goalkeeper of great repute (though notable more for his incessant working of the referee than for any particular skill on the goal line) but these skills seem to shade into something of a sorcerer’s powers:

Amongst other facilities which he possesses, or is believed to possess… is that of being able to judge exactly where a trench-mortar bomb is going to fall. His friends in his platoon collect around him when the German “rum-jars” are flying about, and he advises them what to do to dodge each one as he sees it coming through the air–signalling with his arms whether to move right or left along the trench, or to stand still.[1]

There is something remarkable about this combination of abilities: the magical corporal is a prodigy of body, wit, and will, and his influence over the minds of men–the referee, the laughing comrades–may extend even to missiles. But then again interpreting the sights and sounds of those terribly slow incoming mortar bombs can in fact be an art and a science rather than a more purely mystical art–it’s a very different claim than that of the charmed man who may be immune to bullets or whizz-bangs.

 

But back, now, to the lice…

Today, a century back, saw another of our enlisted poets go on leave. David Jones had actually been granted leave ten days ago, but he had refused it, knowing that his parents were just then moving house and not wanting “to spend his leave helping with unpacking and advising on the placement of furniture and the hanging the family pictures.” An “incredulous adjutant” and a helpful orderly-room sergeant arranged for Jones to swap places with one of the men in the next leave rotation, remarking that begging to have leave moved back was rather rare–and bad luck, in a superstitious world. But Jones survived his ten days of supererogatory duty and is now on his way to London. And, despite the precautions taken in Feilding’s battalion (not that the Royal Welch don’t also make efforts to fumigate their men) he is teeming with lice…[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 213-4.
  2. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 167.

C.E. Montague’s Tirade for Truth; Edmund Blunden Borrows an Ypres-in-Autumn Scene from a Certain Poet-Historian

C. E. Montague is in a ticklish position. A journalist strenuously devoted to the truth, he has been detailed to act as a censor and passive propagandist. But he will keep his integrity intact, not to mention his ire at those who choose, for reasons other than military necessity, to circumscribe their experiences in their personal writing. Our writers-of-letters tend to divide pretty squarely between those who will not write the worst home (often to mothers or sweethearts) and those who unburden themselves completely (often to wives), in the fervent hope that an experiential gulf will not make it impossible to go home again, as it were. Montague is emphatically of the latter camp:

Sept. 5, 1917

I’ve noticed… a sort of assumption, as a matter of course, that everybody writing out here keeps back all sorts of untold horrors of physical suffering from people at home. I can’t understand this a bit. Of course, just as in ordinary life one does not go out of the way to describe details of a friend’s death by cancer or locomotor ataxy, so one does not keep harping on details of incised, contused, and lacerated wounds and of the special agonies one has seen in some few cases But why should one? One assumes that every adult knows for himself that death by bayonet or shell wounds cannot be a pleasant experience or sight, any more than the horrible deaths at home in bed are, or the deaths by mountain or river accidents. I can’t help feeling that at the back of the minds of people like ———- there is an unconscious craving that we should go out of our way to make the incurring of probable death, in a good cause, a more terrifying and repulsive thing than it is for a natural-minded person. Forgive this tirade.[1]

 

And by a strange coincidence–unless it isn’t–Edmund Blunden crosses paths in memory with Montague on a day that might be today, a century back. Which is to say that, attempting to coordinate Blunden’s memoir with his battalion’s Diary, this may have been the day he was sent from his battalion to a signalling school in the rear. When he came to thinking back upon that day and write about it, Blunden thought of Montague’s writing. Got it? Perhaps we should go to the texts…[2]

…I was ordered to be ready for attending a signalling school in the real “back area.” This development, promising in itself a period of rest and safety, was bad news; for experience was that to be with one’s battalion, or part of it, alone nourished the infantryman’s spirit. Now amid a thousand tables I should pine and want food.

Next morning, therefore, while the young sunlight freshened the darkened greenery of the year, I was sitting among a load of equipment, officers, N. C. O’s, and men in a lorry, hurtling along the causeway toward Cassel, through villages where one imagined one would like to come from a normal trench tour, past cottages at whose doors women sat on chairs to pick the hop vines heaped about them…

The signalling school was a large camp in a meadow, with an ugly, depressing red house at the far end. Here days went by without incident; above, the sky was usually clear and calm; around, the spirit of apathy and unconcern with the war was languidly puffing at its cigarette or warbling revue melody. Yet only a few miles off was that commanding hill Cassel, whence radiated constantly the dynasty of the Ypres battle. The road thither secluded, ran between the amazing fruitage of blackberries in the low hedges; one climbed until presently at a bold curve the track joined the stone road, with its rattling railway. At the top, the cool streets of Cassel led between ancient shop fronts and archways, maintaining in their dignity that war had nothing to do with Cassel. There was one memorable inn in whose shadowy dining room almost all officers congregated. Far below its balcony the plain stretched in all the
semblance of untroubled harvest, golden, tranquil, and lucent as ever painter’s eye rested upon. Some confused noise of guns contested one’s happy acquiescence. But what one saw and what one felt at Cassel’s watchtower that September are taken from time by the poet-historian C. E. Montague.[3]

A claim for ex post facto memory influence–for the interposition of powerful writing between a man’s experience and his writing of it… a mickle blow is struck against simplistic views of historiographic fidelity and the continuity of life-writing!

Let us follow (or, rather, belatedly precede) Blunden by reading Montague: here we find, at the proper time and place, the War in Autumn, and as good a proof of the ability of war’s ugliness to provoke beautiful writing as we are likely to find:

In the autumn of 1917 the war entered into an autumn, or late middle-age, of its own. “Your young men,” we are told, “shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.” The same with whole armies. But middle-aged armies or men may not have the mists of either morning or evening to charm them. So they may feel like Corot, when he had painted away, in a trance of delight, till the last vapour of dawn was dried up by the sun; then he said, “You can see everything now. Nothing is left,” and knocked off work for the day. There was no knocking off for the army.

But that feeling had come. A high time was over, a great light was out; our eyes had lost the use of something, either an odd penetration that they had had for a while, or else an odd web that had been woven across them, shutting only ugliness out.

The feeling was apt to come on pretty strong if you lived at the time on the top of the little hill of Cassel, west of Ypres. The Second Army’s Headquarters were there. You might, as some Staff duty blew you about the war zone, be watching at daybreak one of that autumn’s many dour bouts of attrition under the Passchendale Ridge, In the mud, and come back, the same afternoon, to sit in an ancient garden hung on the slope of the hill, where a great many pears were yellowing on the wall and sunflowers gazing fixedly into the sun that was now failing them. All the corn of French Flanders lay cut on the brown plain under your eyes, from Dunkirk, with its shimmering dunes and the glare on the sea, to the forested hills north of Arras. Everywhere lustre, reverie, stillness; the sinking hum of old bees, successful in life and now rather tired; the many windmills fallen motionless, the aureate light musing over the aureate harvest; out in the east the broken white stalks of Poperinghe’s towers pensive in haze; and, behind and about you, the tiny hill city, itself in its distant youth the name-giver and prize of three mighty battles that do not matter much now. All these images or seats of outlived ardour, mellowed now with the acquiescence of time in the slowing down of some passionate stir in the sap of a plant or the spirit of insects or men, joined to work on you quietly. There, where the earth and the year were taking so calmly the end of all the grand racket that they had made in their prime, why not come off the high horse that we, too, in that ingenuous season, had ridden so hard?

It was not now as it had been of yore. And why pretend that it was?[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Elton, C.E. Montague, 193-4.
  2. This hinges on the timing of Blunden's leave, which is not, unfortunately, recorded in the Battalion Diary--there is a letter in which he mentions returning on August 26th.
  3. Undertones of War, 231-2.
  4. Disenchantment, 156-8.

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.

Thomas Hardy Will Not Go For a War Writer; Olaf Stapledon Will Not Judge

First, today, a quick note to readers: for much of the next three weeks I will be on vacation–on holiday, that is–with my family (in England and Wales!) I’ve worked ahead and set the posts to be published each day, but I may not be able to check in regularly. Everything should be fine, but if there is any website snafu, please send me an email and I will try to fix it as soon as possible. There may be some problems with links to recently-published posts.

And if there are any big revelations in the next few weeks about the events of June/July 1917, they will not, alas, be discussed in a timely fashion here…  Thanks for reading!

 

Just two letters today: an inevitable crossing of paths and then some maintenance work on one of the longest and strongest bridges ever built over the “experiential gulf” from France to peaceful places.

For the last few months, John Buchan has been working like a Trojan as the first Director of the Department of Information. Way back in 1914, efforts were made to enlist the grand old men of English literature in a more amateurish sort of propaganda effort, and the greatest of them gently but firmly resisted, producing “war writing,” but only in his own voice and after his own fashion.

But now Thomas Hardy has been approached once again, and perhaps more cleverly–he has been asked to make an official visit to France (which would have put him in the way of C.E. Montague) alongside his friend James Barrie and Sir Owen Seaman of Punch.

I don’t think he wants to go, or see the war, or be seen trotting along in harness, implying support for the General Staff and all the unfatalistic vagaries of patriotism–but he need not say so outright.

Max Gate, Dorchester.
1 June 20; 1917

Dear Colonel Buchan:

I appreciate your thought of me: & there are many things that would have led me to embrace eagerly the opportunity of visiting the fighting lines in France in such attractive company. But I remember that I am not so young as I was, & am compelled to give up almost all enterprises nowadays that comprise travelling more than a few miles, though I am as well as anybody of my age.

I am endeavouring to console myself by thinking that in the past I have studied a good many battlefields and battles of the flint-lock & touch-hole period & that it is really not worth while for me to open up an investigation of modern scientific warfare, but to leave it for those who are young in these days, or unborn.

I must thank you for your consideration in sending the passport form, which shall be returned if required: otherwise I will keep it to show what I was on the brink of doing at 77. . .

Most sincerely yours

Thomas Hardy[1]

Hardy is yet only 76, but, war-wise, he’s a century-back sort of man. The Napoleonic Wars are worth writing about… these present calamities seem only lamentable evidence of human folly and cruelty…

 

And who better to balance Hardy than one of the young and most forward-looking. Actually, Olaf Stapledon is not so terribly young, but he seems young in his sweetness and ardor, and he is certainly the most forward-looking of our crew. But today’s missive to Agnes is not an idyll or a love-letter or a runnel of purest science fiction–it’s about regular everyday horror and suffering, and it’s the second recent letter in which a note of despairing sarcasm has inflected his usually sunny prose.

SSA 13
20 June 1917

…We are now further from the front than the convoy has ever been before… It is lovely peaceful hilly country with rivers for bathing and woods and “hanging” gardens…

Yesterday Sparrow went off on a call and got a man who had just had his legs cut off at the thigh by a train, cut off almost at the hip. Seems unnecessary for that sort of thing to happen now, doesn’t it…

Today, let’s be frank, we have startled this peaceful place by a display of a very bloodstained car. (Bloodstained! the little word one uses for a hanky that has a spot on it!)

Olaf than receives letters from Agnes–the mail between Australia and France, never swift, has been irregular of late–but even when being flattered he is careful to keep to his principles…

Cheers! Two long letters from you… you must not say I am a soldier when I am not, but only a rather militarised civilian engaged in clearing up the mess. You say a lot again about war & me in one of those letters. I don’t know whether the thing I am doing is right or wrong, but it seemed right when I began… Don’t be too hard on the fellows that don’t do anything. They may be right in their own cases…[2]

The wise know that it is not always best or easiest to do what is asked, or to do what everyone else is doing… and the good fight hard against the instinct to think less of those who do otherwise, and less…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Letters of Thomas Hardy, V, 220.
  2. Talking Across the World, 231-2.

Rowland Feilding on the Success of Messines; Jack Martin Does Not Rest Assured

Over the past three days–since the great Messines assault–Jack Martin has grabbed a few minutes’ sleep with his hat for a pillow, eaten moldy bread while literally on the run, sent numerous telegraph messages while surrounded by German corpses, and flinched at thousands of shells. Yesterday, out of the line at last, he slept most of the day; but his nerves will not recover that quickly.

My hand still shakes too much to permit of letter writing without causing people to wonder what is the matter with me. This afternoon Davidson and I went up as far as the old no-man’s-land and had a look at two of the new mine craters. One solid concrete dugout had been blown up and rolled over bodily. The dead body of a German was still inside…

The official reports issued to the English press state that all the objectives were captured early in the morning of the 7th, but we know that the 47th Div. is still held up some distance from its final objective and it is quite likely that some of the Divisions on our right have failed to get as far as they were supposed to.[1]

 

However Rowland Feilding, who observed the attack with something approaching glee, remains sanguine. Or at least he is not yet willing to contradict official new in a letter to his wife. The letter does little to confirm or question the strategic benefit of the attack, but it does continue to confirm the high quality of the planning for the attack, which will in due time become a major emphasis of subsequent historiography and thus influence Henry Williamson‘s account of the days before

June 10, 1917 (Sunday). Kemmel Shelters.

I see from the papers that the battle of the 7th is considered to have been the most successful of the war to date. Of course, I could not even hint this to you, but, while we were behind “resting”—so-called, we were in reality practising the attack over fascinating “dummy” representations of the Petit Bois, etc., and the German trenches beyond
the Wytschaete-Messines Ridge. Nothing was left to chance. We even had a large-scale model, covering about an acre, which represented, to scale, Wytschaete, the woods, and the villages beyond. This latter—which I believe was
made by the engineers—was a triumph of skill. It looked like a huge toy village, and would have delighted the children.

We came out yesterday…

Willie Redmond is buried in the nuns’ garden, on almost the very spot I had chosen for myself.

A large number of the men of the battalion are now the proud possessors of wrist watches—trophies of war. We are refitting.[2]

It’s interesting that Feilding makes a relatively rare reference to his children during a discussion of a “breakthrough” military success. Except it wasn’t a breakthrough: Martin and Feilding, the private and the colonel, make a good pair of bookends around the newspapers of the day. Feilding is no fool, yet he is inclined to accept their interpretation–he saw the success with his own eyes, after all. Martin, however, disbelieves the complete success on the basis of hearsay.

And neither is wrong: it was a successful attack, but not as successful as the papers made it seem. “Most successful of the war to date?” Yes, but it was only a breakthrough in operational terms–on the strategic level, little has changed but the ownership of a few ruined miles of Belgium…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Sapper Martin, 78.
  2. War Letters to a Wife, 192-3.

Rowland Feilding Before Messines; Jack Martin Goes up the Line; Phillip Maddison to Test his Courage; A New Brief and a Fine Old Book for C.E. Montague; A Short Life of Francis Ledwidge

Early tomorrow morning will see one of the most dramatic “shows” of the war, and the most successful British opening to date. Rowland Feilding, has been heavily involved in the preparations for the battle, organizing a last-minute raid–a “success” despite the losses involved, as a number of Germans were captured–and nearly being blinded himself when a heavy-caliber German shell fell nearby during the retaliatory bombardment. Last night, a century back, Feilding’s battalion was relieved, and will spend the battle in a supporting role, giving him time to describe much of the action in a long letter to his wife. He sets the scene for her, and for us:

The village [Wytschaete] tops the crest of the Messines Ridge, and the breastworks, which we have occupied since we came from the Somme, last September, run across the swampy fields to the west of and below it, with the hospice (or convent)—represented by a heap of bricks—standing out prominently against the skyline, beyond the Petit Bois…

That evening (June 6) we tea’d in the open, about half a mile behind the fire-trench, our artillery shooting hard over our heads all the time, but eliciting no reply from the enemy. The Brigadier called and congratulated us on the success of the raid. He was in the best of form, and indeed everybody was very cheerful and full of confidence. It was very edifying to see the almost exhilarated state every one was in, both officers and men, seeing what a colossal business lay immediately before them. Later, we had dinner in the open… The 6th Connaught Rangers were to be broken up for the battle in order to provide “mopping up” and carrying parties for the attacking battalions, thus leaving me personally with very little to do, and after dinner I moved to my Battle Headquarters—a deep mined dug-out in Rossignol Wood, above which I am now writing this letter. The wood reeked of gas shells, to which the enemy further contributed during the night.[1]

 

Jack Martin, a signaler with the 122nd brigade, will be going forward soon after midnight.

This afternoon we were all ordered to pack everything in our valises, except fighting kit, and hand them to the care of the QM… I joined the Forward Party and moved up the line.

…It was a wretched night–the strain of waiting was great–our guns were going continually–Fritz was ‘nervy’…

Crowded into a forward trench, the men now have to endure bombardment from the German artillery which, although the extent of the underground preparations seem not to have been guessed, must realize that some sort of attack is in the offing.

I was crouched down in the trench with my back to Jerry when a small shell landed almost on the parapet a matter of only inches from my head. The trench came in on top of me, and, but for the fact that it was strongly revetted, I should have been completely buried. When the smoke and dirt had cleared away, the other fellows were surprised to see me pick myself up unhurt. Aitken said, ‘That one had got your name on it, Joe,’ ‘Yes,’ I replied,’ but it was the wrong number.’ It gave me a terrible shaking but it might have been worse.[2]

 

Henry Williamson is safe behind the lines on the now-quiet Somme front, but he has sent his alter ego north, and placed him behind the lines at Messines. The talk in the transport section of Phillip Maddison’s turned somewhat morbid. Never mind that thousands of Germans were about to die and thousands of British infantry go over the top–the transport men, though currently fairly safe, have to bring up ammunition through an interdiction barrage. They too are frightened, and they begin to talk of their mothers. Phillip, even though he is so close to the place his courage failed in 1914, decides that he feels confident–because “he himself had broken away” from his mother and because he has the love of the faithful Lily: “if he hadn’t the thought of Lily to keep him going, he would be windy himself.”

With nothing to do as midnight passes and with his confidence buoyed both by the love of Lily and by his assessment–rather perceptive, this–that the German counter-barrage will be enfeebled and directed elsewhere, Phillip begins to contemplate a walk toward the front…[3]

 

One of the wonders of this project, in a small way, is the realization that even when great and terrible events are in the offing, “ordinary” life goes on for the soldiers even as it does across the experiential gulf. C.E. Montague has just received a welcome reassignment: instead of being a glorified assistant propagandist and minder of journalists (many of whom were far less skilled than he, not to mention his unusual moral and physical courage), he “was now to hold a position of some authority… better than showman-work however variegated.” He is now an ‘assistant press officer,’ and will have more freedom to choose his own course and no direct involvement in the dissemination of propaganda.

So late tonight, Montague will pack several well-known journalists into cars and head for Messines. But first he sits down to write a letter to his wife. To whom, of course, he cannot mention the coming battle, even at this late hour. Instead, he discusses what any good literary soldier does in his spare time–in this case his reading of the master of malign fate (and of brave human resistance against it) is at once exasperated and grateful:

June 6, 1917

I have gone on with The Return of the Native, admiring it more than ever. . . . I had forgotten how directly Hardy’s pessimism is declared in the description of Clym Yeobright, where he says that mankind’s enjoyment of life must decline, and the view of life as ‘a thing to be put up with’ prevail, and that we shall all cease to admire beauty of face as distinct from full expression of experiences mainly painful and disillusioning. What perversity it is. Life only seems to me to be more of a wonder and glory and ecstasy, the more I see of it, and I feel it specially when reading Hardy’s own descriptions of beautiful-natured people like his faithful lovers, and of lovely places.[4]

 

Finally, today, Francis Ledwidge is in France, far enough from Messines and surely in ignorance of tomorrow’s huge attack. But even if he knew he would still use an infantryman’s rare hours of leisure to attend to his growing poetic reputation. He wrote today an extremely long letter to Professor Lewis Chase, from which I will excerpt a few choice rambles:

B.E.F
France, 6th June 1917

Dear Sir,

Your letter of May 15th reached me this afternoon. I have to thank you for introducing my books into your University library and for the interest which you take in my poems and will endeavour to supply you with what details you require of myself and my work for the composition of your proposed lecture. You will, of course, understand that I am writing this under the most inept circumstances between my watches, for I am in the firing line and may be busy at any moment in the horrible work of war.

I am on active service since the spring of 1915, having served in the Dardanelles and the First British Expeditionary Force to Serbia… Some of the people who know me least imagine that I joined the Army because I knew men were struggling for higher ideals and great empires, and I could not sit idle to watch them make for me a more beautiful world. They are mistaken. I joined the British Army because she stood between Ireland and an enemy common to our civilization, and I would not have her say that she defended us while we did nothing at home but pass resolutions…

I am of a family who were ever soldiers and poets… I have heard my mother say many times that the Ledwidges were once a great people in the land, and she has shown me with a sweep of her hand green hills and wide valleys where sheep are folded which still bear the marks of dead industry and, once, this was all ours.

These stories, told at my mother’s doorstep in the owl’s light, are the first things I remember except, perhaps, the old songs which she sang to me, so full of romance, love and sacrifice. She taught me to listen and appreciate the blackbird’s song, and when I grew to love it beyond all others she said it was because I was born in a blackbird’s nest and had its blood in my veins. My father died when I was two…

The “Poet of the Blackbirds” goes on to describe his family and his early life.

There were four brothers of us and three sisters. I am the second youngest. For these my mother laboured night and day, as none of us were strong enough to provide for our own wants…

I was seven years of age when my eldest brother died, and though I had only been to school on occasional days I was able to read the tomb-stones in a neighbouring grave-yard and had written in secret several verses which still survive. About this time I was one day punished in school for crying and that punishment ever afterwards haunted the master like an evil dream, for I was only crying over Goldsmith’s “Deserted Village,” which an advanced class had been reading aloud.

It was in this same class that I wrote my first poem, in order to win for the school a half holiday…

Much as I would like to use the sheer bulk of the letter to enhance the slight irony of writing one’s life story on the brink of a major attack, patience dictates that we must skip the tale of Ledwidge’s early literary development. After a short and unhappy apprenticeship to a Dublin grocer, Ledwidge returns home.

I took up any old job at all with the local farmers and was happy. I set myself certain studies and these I pursued at night when I should be resting from a laborious day. I took a certificate of one hundred and twenty words a minute at Pitman’s shorthand, and soon knew Euclid as well as a man of Trinity College…  I read and studied the poets of England from the age of Chaucer to Swinburne, turning especially to the Elizabethans and the ballads that came before the great Renaissance. I thirsted for travel and adventure, and longed to see the Italy of Shelley and the Greece of Byron. But the poems of Keats and his sad life appealed to me most.

The young poet, in his own estimation at least, begins to mature:

I began to pick faults with Longfellow and Tennyson…

I burned many copybooks which contained fugitive pieces of my own because I thought it were better for them to die young and be happy than live to be reviled.

Georgian Poetry” (with my three excluded) contains, I think, the best poems of the century…

The letter continues in high good spirits, but it’s an open question whether the late switch to a torrent of unrelated anecdotes and quirks is produced because the poet is flattered to be the subject of academic interest, or because he knows that a fighting soldier who might wish to be remembered should give potential biographers as much, and as quickly, as he can.

I get more pleasure from a good line than from a big cheque. Though I love music I cannot write within earshot of any instrument. I cannot carry a watch on account of the tick, real or imaginary, and might as well try to sleep under the Bell of Bruges as in a room where a clock stands… I have written many short stories and one play which is declared a success by eminent playwrights who have read it…

The letter closes with several poems, including “Rainy Day in April,” “The Wife of Llew,” and Pan. Ledwidge assures the professor that the best is yet to come…

 

Tomorrow, the mines go up.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 183-88.
  2. Sapper Martin, 70-1.
  3. Love and the Loveless, 153.
  4. C.E. Montague, 161-2, 172-3

Ivor Gurney in Perforated Good Spirits; Spring Offensive: Wilfred Owen Goes Over the Top; Siegfried Sassoon on the Effect of the Bombardment; Billy Prior’s Attack

Today is a day of blood and gore and foreboding. But we’ll start with the good news.

Pretty good news, at least: Ivor Gurney is wounded, and thus safe. There is pain, yes, but it hasn’t bought the best of news–early hopes of Blighty have faded. Gurney informs Marion Scott of his condition in a letter posted today, a century back:

My Dear Friend: Well, I am wounded: but not badly; perhaps not badly enough; as although kind people told me it meant Blighty for me, yet here I am at Rouen marked “Tents”. I do not yet give up hopes, but very few boats have been running lately; none at all for some days; and the serious cases go first of course. It was during an attack on Good Friday night that a bullet hit me and went clean through the right arm must underneath the shoulder—the muscles opposite the biceps, to describe them more or less accurately. It hurt badly for half an hour, but now hurts not at all…  there is no real damage done to my arm, not enough to please me.

Alas! Alas! There are hardly any books here! And the life is made up of hanging about waiting to be shifted again. Now if I could find some real hard reading to do–something to distract my mind–all might be well; or if I had some MS and a few books of verse, I would turn out something in spite of the flatness of my mind. O well, hopes
are not yet gone…

Though this Spring is cold and unclement, I cannot keep out of mind what April has meant for me in past years — Minsterworth, Framilode, and his companionship. And my sick mind holds desperately on to such memories for Beauty’s sake; and the hope of Joy…

So, if I can send you an address, please send me some small books of verse, and Tolstoi’s Cossacks (Worlds Classics – Pocket Ed.) I wonder whether at last I might try Housmans “Shropshire Lad”?

I will write again in half a shake:

Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney

(I write with my perforated arm, so you see not much is wrong.)[1]

 

It could be much worse. Which Kate Luard can make too painfully clear:

Saturday night April 14th. I’ve never in my life seen so many aeroplanes or so many dead men or so many German prisoners; they are marched in hundreds down our road…

One Cockney boy with both arms smashed said to the Padre, ‘Sy a prayer for me, will yer? That would be nahce. Can’t yer confirm me?’ It’s the only time I’ve seen the Padre laugh. Then the boy offered to sing ‘Tooleroolerity, I want to go to Blighty–Blighty is the plice for me.’ And then he died.[2]

 

 

So. Now another strange non-convergence. Two of our poets who have been creeping toward the line come even closer today–one attacks while the other is on the edge of the action–while a third man who will come to occupy the same space as both of them, but who did not exist, suffered some portion of both of their experiences.

 

During the morning, Wilfred Owen and the 2nd Manchesters moved forward to their attack positions… and found that the staff work had been very bad indeed. First, there was a simple problem of time and distance: “It was realised by the battalion at the outset that it was impossible to cover the distance in artillery formation with the loads and paraphanalia [sic] that the private soldier is called upon to carry in the attack in the time given.” To make matters worse, the last 1,000 yards of the approach involved moving across the enemy’s front, and when the Manchesters appeared in view the Germans immediately placed a hurricane barrage on the ground to be covered. Nor did they know what they were attacking, or where the other British units in the area were. The C.O., Lt. Col. Luxmore, rode off to consult with brigade and came back at 12:20, ten minutes before the scheduled attack time, saving his battalion by ordering a postponement and a flank march to a different position.

But they still had to attack, and they still had to cross a hillside in full view of German-held St. Quentin just to reach the jumping-off point.

Though this barrage was straight in the middle of the Battalion, they moved forward through it as steadily as going on parade, each wave keeping its dressing and distance and every carrier retaining his load. By the Grace of God alone only 30 men were lost in this barrage.

This took long enough that the newly-agreed-upon assault time of 1:00 was also missed. It seems as if there had been no allowance made for the fact that this is not an assault from long-held trenches with reasonably secure telephone connections to the rear but rather an exploratory attack by a unit feeling its way through new country. If the stakes weren’t so high the image of the colonel galloping about in Napoleonic fashion as if he were his own dispatch rider would be comical.

In any event, his arrival was doubly providential, since someone needed to take tactical command on the spot and ignore whatever brigade-level plans remained. Since staying out in accurate artillery fire meant certain destruction and the German wire barriers did not seem too imposing, the Manchesters mounted a quick frontal assault on a German-held trench near their objective, through the barrage and long-range machine-gun fire. Reaching the trench, they found it to be abandoned. This was victory, of a sort, and the day’s work done, so they turned the position over to their relief and went briefly into reserve.[3]

Wilfred Owen was physically unscathed, but this was his first real attack, his first day in the open, under fire. His letter to his mother will strike a tone somewhere between exhilaration and disbelief:

Twice in one day we went over the top, gaining both our objectives. Our A Company led the Attack, and of course lost a certain number of men. I had some extraordinary escapes from shells & bullets. Fortunately there was no bayonet work, since the Hun ran before we got up to his trench. You will find mention of our fight in the Communique; the place happens to be the very village which Father named in his last letter![4] Never before has the Battalion encountered such intense shelling as rained on us as we advanced in the open.[5]

But neither the battalion diary–which is in fact quite detailed and emotional for such a document–nor the letter do much to make us feel what it must have been like to have been there. Marching about, with no cover; uncertain of directions, of objections, of intentions–uncertain of anything except the fact that there would be no safety until some indeterminate length of shell-harrowed, bullet-swept ground was crossed.

But Owen will write it another way, in his poem “Spring Offensive,” which closes with these stanzas:

So, soon they topped the hill, and raced together
Over an open stretch of herb and heather
Exposed. And instantly the whole sky burned
With fury against them; and soft sudden cups
Opened in thousands for their blood; and the green slopes
Chasmed and steepened sheer to infinite space.
Of them who running on that last high place
Leapt to swift unseen bullets, or went up
On the hot blast and fury of hell’s upsurge,
Or plunged and fell away past this world’s verge,
Some say God caught them even before they fell.
But what say such as from existence’ brink
Ventured but drave too swift to sink.
The few who rushed in the body to enter hell,
And there out-fiending all its fiends and flames
With superhuman inhumanities,
Long-famous glories, immemorial shames—
And crawling slowly back, have by degrees
Regained cool peaceful air in wonder—
Why speak they not of comrades that went under?

 

There are many facile ways to make this next transition: “As Owen’s experience opens out, as his poetry rises, Sassoon descends…” Or, perhaps: “While Owen does not deny God and heaven, he writes with biblical force and yet pointedly fails to confirm any solace or meaning to the day’s ‘inhumanities;’ meanwhile, Sassoon is becoming confirmed in his beliefs about where fault for slaughter lies.” That sort of thing. But even if we eschew easy parallels, there is a striking juxtaposition here. Siegfried Sassoon–who has been hoping for open battle, in which he knows he will either excel or be killed–will get instead a new experienced of compressed horror, and one that will push his angry poetry toward something even deeper and darker. Not above ground and into the great wide shell-swept open, but down underground, in the subterranean fastnesses of the Hindenburg line, where, safe from the shells, it will be grenade- and knife-work, and hell will be no Miltonic abstraction of fiends and flames but mappable terrain, still contested by the damned…

Tonight, a century back, Sassoon is still on the verge of this. His diary picks up late last night:

April 14

At 9 p.m. we started off to relieve the 15th Northumberland Fusiliers in Hindenburg support (Second R.W.F. being in support to the First Cameronians). It was only an hour’s walk, but our Northumberland Fusilier guides lost themselves and we didn’t arrive and complete the relief until 4 a.m. Luckily it was fine. I went to bed at 5 a.m., after patrolling our 900-yard front alone!—in a corridor of the underground communication-trench of the Hindenburg Line—a wonderful place. Got up at 9.30 after a miserable hour’s sleep—cold as hell—and started off at 10.45 with a fatigue-party, to carry up trench-mortar bombs from dump between St Martin-Cojeul and Croisilles. Got back very
wet and tired about 4.30. Rained all day—trenches like glue.

But in beginning to transmute the experience to memoir, Sassoon will bring a sense of helpless victimization–of abject horror–to the fore:

Stage by stage we had marched to this monstrous region of death and disaster. From afar it had threatened us with the blink and din of its bombardments. Now we groped and stumbled along a deep ditch to the place appointed for us in that zone of human havoc. The World War had got our insignificant little unit in its mouth; we were there to be munched, maimed or liberated.[6]

So not Milton–Dante. The great devil mouth churning, while little dead men run up and down the twisting trenches in his hide, hurling bombs at each other…

We will see what the morrow will bring. But this stay amidst the wreckage of the attack will yield some of the most viscerally upsetting and vividly “anti-war” of Sassoon’s poems. One example will do, I think:

 

The Effect

‘The effect of our bombardment was terrific.
One man told me he had never seen so many dead before.’
War Correspondent.

‘He’d never seen so many dead before.’
They sprawled in yellow daylight while he swore
And gasped and lugged his everlasting load
Of bombs along what once had been a road.
‘How peaceful are the dead.’
Who put that silly gag in some one’s head?

‘He’d never seen so many dead before.’
The lilting words danced up and down his brain,
While corpses jumped and capered in the rain.
No, no; he wouldn’t count them any more…
The dead have done with pain:
They’ve choked; they can’t come back to life again.

When Dick was killed last week he looked like that,
Flapping along the fire-step like a fish,
After the blazing crump had knocked him flat…
‘How many dead? As many as ever you wish.
Don’t count ’em; they’re too many.
Who’ll buy my nice fresh corpses, two a penny?’

 

So a Dante, but a Dante who has lost sight of Purgatory, and knows that Paradise is impossible. This shocking turn in Sassoon’s poetry on the very day of Owen’s first attack makes an uncannily good introduction for our next subject.

Sassoon, as his diary shows, was sleepless and agitated and keyed-up, but he was not yet shocked into losing his mental equilibrium. Owen has survived his first attack and is uncertain yet what meaning he can wring out of it, or what it has wrung out of him.

Which brings us to Lt. Prior. Billy Prior is, in the literary sense, real–more real to me, having read his story several times, and seen it enacted–than many historical figures. But he’s also fictional. He began life, I think it’s fair to say, as a “composite character” in Pat Barker’s Regeneration, a sort of stock figure of well-researched historical fiction, well-equipped with a 20th century panoply of trauma, neurosis, and defiant energy. But then he took on a life of his own. Regeneration is the sort of book that with great modesty and intelligence–two essential characteristics, along with compassion, that it shares with its (non-fictional) hero, Dr. William Rivers–would wave off such superlatives as “the best of its kind.” But it is–the trilogy is an incomparable fictional exploration of the psychological damage wrought by the war, and Billy Prior is the most compelling fictional Great War officer I can think of.[7]

But it’s early days, and he has not yet opened out into that full fictional life. Prior will be “shell-shocked” into both amnesia and temporary mutism, and the account of the battle (read the book!) that he provides for his therapist is stubbornly matter-of-fact. In fact–and very interestingly–Prior’s memories of today, a century back, draw heavily both on Owen’s first sharp experience of walking under shell fire “as steadily as going on parade” as well as on the sort of edge-of-madness clarity that Sassoon’s poetic voice summons. This is good historical fictional practice, of course, but there are lots of good accounts of such attacks (I’ve heard there’s a blog…) and it’s interesting that Prior’s trauma borrows in such a way from two “real life” figures whose paths will cross his own, in fiction.

I’ll include now a short excerpt from Regeneration: as it fades out one might either take up the novel itself or read once more Owen’s letter and his battalion’s history.

Prior dragged on the cigarette and, momentarily, closed his eyes. He looked a bit like the boys you saw on street corners in the East End. That same air of knowing the price of everything. Rivers drew the file towards him. ‘We left you in billets at Beauvois.’

‘Yes. We were there, oh, I think about four days and then we were rushed back into the line. We attacked the morning of the night we moved up.’

‘Date?’

‘April the 14th.’

Rivers looked up. It was unusual for Prior to be so accurate.

‘St. George’s Day. The CO toasted him in the mess. I remember because it was so bloody stupid.'[8]

‘You were in the casualty clearing station on the …’ He glanced at the file. ’23rd. So that leaves us with nine days unaccounted for.’

‘Yes, and I’m afraid I can’t help you with any of them.

‘Do you remember the attack?’

‘Yes. It was exactly like any other attack.’

Rivers waited…[9]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters, 153-5.
  2. Unknown Warriors, 113.
  3. War Diary, WO/2392/2, page 160 (of pdf).
  4. Fayet.
  5. Collected Letters, 452.
  6. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 316.
  7. I'm not sure if Christopher Tietjens should count; George Sherston probably shouldn't...
  8. St. George's Day is usually April 23rd, not April 14th, and the calendrical complexities which move it later under certain conditions shouldn't have resulted in making it the 14th in 1917. I have a very limited understanding of the liturgical calendar, but this would seem to be a simple slip, occasioned perhaps by the fact that the next day Rivers mentions--the end of the total gap in Prior's life history--is the 23rd--unless I am simply misreading the fictional conversation? Is Prior playing some game with the dates, testing Rivers in some way? I don't think we are meant to subtly infer than his amnesia is feigned... In any event, it's fiction! And I'm very pleased to have an excuse to begin considering Regeneration, the most important (ah, superlatives) of the Great War novels written by later generations, before the time of its main action (all too infrequently dateable) this summer and autumn.
  9. Regeneration, 77.

Edward Thomas Wanders Off and Reads Eastaway; Siegfried Sassoon Inspects the Feet; Vera Brittain is Bitter and Rebellious; The Death of Arthur West

Edward Thomas is still confused about the liturgical calendar. He began a letter to Eleanor Farjeon today, a century back, under the impression that Easter had occurred a week earlier than it will have:

April 3

My dear Eleanor I didn’t discover the Egg till Easter Monday, because I was taking apples out one by one from a corner I had nibbled out. So now I must write again to thank you for an Easter Egg. It was such a lovely morning Easter Monday, though I can’t praise it so well today when the ground is snow slush and the wind very cold though not colder than my feet…[1]

And there the letter trails off… has he been called to the guns? To some reminder that Easter is still nearly a week off?

Thomas also wrote to Gordon Bottomley, but the date of Easter does not arise. It’s clear that Thomas’s rush has everything to do with expectation: he knows that the battle will begin soon.

My dear Gordon,

Your letter of the 28th of March has just come…  think I had better write back now as this is the eve, & I can’t help realizing that I may not have another opportunity. It is the end of a beautiful sunny day that began cold with snow. The air has been full of aeroplanes & shells & yet there have been clothes hanging up to dry in the sun outside my window which has glass in it, though whether it will tomorrow not even the Hun knows. The servants are chatting outside in their shirtsleeves & war is not for the moment dirty or ugly—as it was this morning, when I was well in front & the shining sun made ruins & rusty barbed wire & dead horses & deep filthy mud uglier than they are in the stormy weather or in the pale cold dawn…

Between beauty and ugliness, violence and idleness, time to talk poetry. Eight poems by “Edward Eastaway” have just been published.

I have not seen the Annual yet but by the same post as your letter came The Times review which I was quite pleased with. I don’t mind now being called inhuman & being told by a reviewer now that April’s here—in England now—that I am blind to the ‘tremendous life of these 3 years’. It would be the one consolation in finishing up out here to provide such reviewers with a conundrum, except that I know they would invent an answer if they saw that it was a conundrum.

This is a cold, wry assessment. Thomas was a powerful and precise poetry critic long before he was a poet, and these skills have not deserted him just because he is the poet in question. He knows that his poetry is too assured to fit neatly into any prefabricated category, and that, just as new poems by a pseudonymous author are criticized for not being overtly about the war, they would, if he were to be killed, inevitably come to be considered the work of a war poet. And both of these certainties are amusingly short-sighted. Being a powerful poet who chose not to address what he hadn’t yet experienced, he both is and isn’t a “war poet.” He’s a poet, and there’s a war on, and the weight of it sinks into any good poetry the way the stench of decay unavoidably permeates the cloth of uniforms worn in trenches.

And, since few critics are capable of knowing competent poetry from great poetry without external hints (the praise of others; a famous name) few suspect who this new, strangely assured poet “Edward Eastaway” might be. Should they be sniffing harder, to smell the war? Should they slow down and read the poetry and understand what it is, and why it might be published without a recognizable name?

Why do the idiots accuse me of using my eyes? Must I only use them with field-glasses & must I see only Huns in these beautiful hills eastwards & only hostile flashes in the night skies when I am at the Observation Post?

…No don’t tell anybody about Eastaway tho naturally I want people to want to know who he is…

Goodbye. Yours ever & Emily’s

Edward Thomas[2]

 

Siegfried Sassoon, meanwhile, is marching toward the coming battle. But slowly enough for his diary to run the gamut–and include a poem too.

April 3

Left Corbie 9 a.m… Woman in our billet says that troops have been coming through (going toward Doullens and Arras) for fifteen days, never staying more than one night. The movements of our (33rd) Division are nebulous… Our billet is adorned with mouldy stuffed birds, with spread wings; a jay, a small hawk over the fireplace, and a seagull slowly revolving in draughts, hung from a string in the ceiling. Also two squirrels and a stork.

Feeling much better since we started moving, except for usual cold in head and throat. Same old ‘point-to-point’ feeling about going into the show—the ‘happy warrior’ stunt cropping up as usual. Letters from Robert Graves and Julian Dadd yesterday which cheered me no end. R.G. at Harlech—lucky devil…

The Second R.W.F. are gradually taking me to their bosom. It will be best for me to stay here now and try to become a hero…

No sign of my book yet. I do want to see it before I get killed (if death is the dose which April means me to swallow).
First Battalion are up at Croisilles; having a rough passage, I am afraid.

FOOT INSPECTION

The twilight barn was chinked with gleams; I saw
Soldiers with naked feet stretched on the straw.
Stiff-limbed from the long muddy, march we’d done.
And ruddy-faced with April wind and sun.
With pity and stabbing tenderness I see
Those stupid, trustful eyes stare up at me.
Yet, while I stoop to Morgan’s blistered toes
And ask about his boots, he never knows
How glad I’d be to die, if dying could set him free
From battles. Shyly grinning at my joke.
He pulls his grimy socks on; lights a smoke.
And thinks ‘Our officer’s a decent bloke’.

April 3[3]

The diary is the old familiar Siegfried–moody, self-involved and preoccupied with his demise (and, on the way thither, his heroism) in the Brookean fashion, yet also punctuated by striking observations. The squirrel!

But the poetry is another major step in his recent new direction. It’s not so much the “realism”–it’s still too prettily written to succeed in being gritty, too didactic to feel natural–as it is simply the subject matter. The soldiers are being condescended to, it’s true, but at least they (and not “glory” or “England” or “the fray”) are front and center, and they speak, and they begin to be fleshed out. It’s an observational poem: they are marching, after a few easy weeks, and their feet must be attended to. This is practical, but it’s a pointed observation: these are not hearty soldier lads ready for sacrifice, but rather tired men, with sore feet. And if the officer/poet is still operating in a register of theoretical sacrifice, well… perhaps that will be the next change.

 

Briefly, before a difficult last entry, we will hear from Vera Brittain, writing to her brother Edward. This letter reminds us that one of the goals of this project is to measure the passage of “real” time by maintaining the precise historical distance of one hundred years. Vera is reacting today to mail that we read weeks ago, but is just now reaching her.

April 3rd

My mail was depressing to-day; as well as your news about being passed fit there was a letter from Father in the usual strain — German retirement at the wrong time for us and therefore anything but an advantage (of course you say this too & I always suspected it) — Russia internally rotten & likely to sue for a separate peace — conditions dreadful at home — end no nearer in sight etc etc. This sort of letter is so much more depressing out here than at home; for it is long before you get another to remove the impression. Victor too sends me a letter half cynical, half hopelessly resigned; apparently he was on the verge of an attack, for he spoke of perhaps never writing to me again, & says — as you said to him before July 1st — that it is time to say a long long adieu. This too leaves me anxiously & very sadly wondering how long it will be before I hear any more of him & what it will be when I do. I think I would rather have had an attitude of open resentment & rebellion in the face of death than this sort of stifled
bitterness…

Had a delightfully vigorous & colourful letter from Geoffrey–though he longs for leave.[4]

A strange course, that letter takes, to append the news of Geoffrey Thurlow’s letter after she has taken her deepest swing toward disenchantment in some time. But letters to intimates are like that, unloading the mind’s concerns without too much concern for order or priority. I think it’s fair to note that while Vera Brittain takes delight in letters, the central fact of her non-working life is, now, anxiety for the soldiers she loves and cares for. Edward Brittain has been passed fit, at last recovered from his wounds; Geoffrey Thurlow and Victor Richardson are both in France, and liable to join in the coming battle. And she will only learn of whatever happens weeks afterwards–unless the news is so bad that someone takes the time and expense to try and get a telegram through. She is far closer to the war than most provincial young ladies will ever get, and further away from the worst of France.

And what could she mean by “open resentment & rebellion?”

 

Finally, today, a century back, Arthur Graeme West was killed by a German sniper. He was twenty-five. To write about him now, today, is disheartening, for a number of tangled reasons.

First, of course, because another bright young man and talented writer has been killed, pointlessly. But I’m also feeling an obscure sort of guilt because it proved to be impossible to properly include West in this project. On the most superficial level, it was hard to draw on a book entitled Diary of a Dead Officer without infringing upon the rules of being strictly a-century-back from the current date. For another thing, West’s writing–some decent poetry, a diary that veers between confessional and angry, initial enthusiasm curdled by the army’s stupidity and the war’s brutality–compares in many ways to Siegfried Sassoon‘s… but it’s not as good. To quote him often would have been duplication, in a sense, and since the thread of West’s story is much more difficult to follow, it might have confused more than enlightened us.

And that tangled thread is the biggest reason that I ended up hardly using his work: it was heavily edited, after his death, to shape it into a particular form. West was certainly disillusioned, even “disenchanted:” he was angry at the war and the army, he was afraid, and he regretted joining. In 1916 he had considered objecting to the war on pacifist principles and even wrote a letter of resignation. But he didn’t send it. Instead he returned to France. In his last few months, back in the line, West wrote very little.

But none of that is disqualifying: the problem is that these aspects of West’s character, his beliefs, are heavily emphasized in the posthumous publication while much else–how much else, and what it was, I don’t know–was cut out. The published Diary is, essentially, a work of anti-war propaganda, carefully constructed by West’s school friend Cyril Joad, who was a committed pacifist. West doesn’t seem to have had the same beliefs, and so he has suffered a particularly ironic sort of violence: his feelings were, after the fact, suppressed and misrepresented, a sort of negative echo of the way in which his decision to join the army (he was no pacifist then; instead he was very typical of our Public School and Oxford boys) controlled his body. There is a lot of interesting material in the Diary, which is why I read it and made some use of it here. But while we can track someone like Sassoon in his changeable moods, our access to West’s mind is not only partially blocked but carefully channeled, and his words stripped of their original context… and that didn’t feel right.

So Arthur Graeme West is dead, and he will have some posthumous recognition as a sort of pacifist martyr–but he wasn’t. He was a young man who came to hate the war and wanted out, but went back anyway, out of duty and out of fear and into fear and terrible danger, and to his death.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Farjeon, Edward Thomas..., 264.
  2. Letters to Edward Thomas From Gordon Bottommley, 281-3.
  3. Diaries, 148-9.
  4. Letters From A Lost Generation, 331-2.

Henry Williamson Approves German Strategy; Wilfred Owen Imagines a Retreat; Edward Thomas Writes, but Not Through His Hat; Edwin Vaughan Clowns Through His

A day of family letters once again. Henry Williamson seems to have dodged immediate trouble due to his either his drinking or his incompetence (actual and perceived) in managing men, maps, and mules; he hasn’t lost his job, and his Machine Gun Company is now following the German withdrawal. A letter of yesterday, a century back, used his dotted-letters code to indicate that they were in Bapaume. He also reported himself in good spirits, in receipt of no parcels from home, and determined to show that the fighting men knew the German withdrawal for what is was:

The newspapers amuse us here immensely–we read of the Ger being driven back by our chaos–in reality he is walking away of his own free will, as slowly and as fast as he likes to… this burning and ruining & poisoning is not for spite–that’s all rot–its only to hinder us (e.g. no water, therefore greatly increased transport difficulties) as much as possible.

This is true as far as it goes. But it is also a case of young Williamson preferring the contrarian point of view. It is hardly the worst excess of British propaganda to cry up the purposeful devastation of the abandoned areas as cruel. It is cruel. But war is cruel, and this is this war’s first organized retreat, and thus a reintroduction to a particular catalogue of cruelties as old as the Thirty Years War or the Chevauchées which were once a popular English pastime in the region.

But Williamson omits one detail which, although it fits the older models of long-term devastation, can’t be reduced to his argument of purely strategic concerns–i.e. slowing down the British advance in the present days and weeks. As several of our writers have remarked, the Germans have, in at least one area, deliberately destroyed the apple trees, not in order to deny their pursuers firewood or the sight of apple-blossoms, but so as to wreck the cider crop for years to come.

All this is forgotten, in any event, as Williamson’s letter of today, a century back, cheerfully focuses on two positives of the strange new situation. First, the post has at last caught up. Second, it must now fall behind again: the German withdrawal has been so well-managed that they must now be several days on the road in catching up and establishing new positions.

Dear Mother,

I think I received all your letters to date. Last night I received a parcel with some sox, match box, and butter scotch, for which many many thanks.

I have practically nothing to tell you except that I am not in the danger zone–the reason being that the old fellow has hooked it too quickly…

At times I get awfully fed up with this game, when I’m cold & wet, and moving to unknown billets with no accommodation, owing to our friend having struck a few matches to paraffin blocks & hey presto, no village: then its absolutely awful… the rain comes on about 3 times a week & puts everything in about 15 inches of mud.

Well cheero, don’t forget to write a bit, & don’t always write the same letter, your letters are always the same!!! Love to all, Harry.[1]

 

At the opposite end of the scale of subaltern maturity is Edward Thomas, also writing to his middle aged, middle class London/suburban parents.

244 Siege Battery
22 March 1917

Dear Father and Mother,

As things have been happening here lately I had better let you know all is well. I have been out for 24 hours in our new front line trenches—an Artillery officer always has to be there now—observing the ground and reporting flashes of hostile guns at night. It was a very interesting and very tiring experience as I had no shelter and had not been prepared for a night at all. It taught me a good deal about cold and dirt and mud and how the infantry live and also how to tell the sound of shells that are not going to harm you, which saves you from much useless anxiety. To be relieved at breakfast time was a pleasure that overcame everything and to see the town in the sun as I came down into it was most beautiful. I slept 16 hours after a wash and a meal and now I am on duty again. The one thing I could have had and did not was my map case to protect my map from rain and mud . . .

We do not know enough yet about the recent movements to be elated… I am sure you are Hopeful, Father, and I can only say I am willing to believe the best when I hear it.

Interestingly, the ever-open question of what, exactly, one can believe of what one reads in wartime newspapers now takes a personal turn as Edward Thomas picks up on what must have been a mention in a letter to him of the war correspondent William Beach Thomas. Beach Thomas, arrested in 1914 by the British Army for reporting from the war zone without permission, was briefly something of a hero of the free press. But lately he is a writer–with official access, controlled by the Army–popular on the home front but much mocked among the troops for his purple prose and lack of real knowledge of front line conditions.

Our Thomas comments:

I have been reading Beach Thomas on the ruins of Peronne, etc. I am very glad it is not my job and at the same time sure I could do it infinitely better. Julian is probably right in saying that he gets his stuff supplied to him and writes through his hat. It is a pleasure not to have to write through one’s hat.

This is a dry remark, yes, but it is also a quiet reaffirmation–just after his first real day under fire in trenches, no less–of the decisions that have brought Thomas to where he is. He could easily have been a war journalist, but then he would not have really experienced the war. More precisely, he would not have shared its experience–the danger not least but then again not all. But his refusal to ever consider looking for work in that line is also motivated from the opposite direction in terms of his personal history (the past rather than the future): he has written hack work, thousands of words, hundreds of times, and quickly, to the specifications of others. He sought to leave that behind when he began to write poetry, and the resulting need for cash was not least in his motivations for joining the army. He might have wanted the mud and rain and danger anyway, the feeling of fellowship on behalf of English earth, in French earth–but at the very least being a fighting soldier saved him from the irony of returning to paying writing work on such terms.

Instead, he can see for himself, and write of it as he chooses. So this phrase is worth more than a thick binder of Beach Thomas-style paeans to Tommy:

The infantry in the trenches were very amusing company and the way they settle down and make the best of an impossible situation is just as wonderful as I have always heard…

Good bye and my love to all.

Ever your loving son

Edwy[2]

 

Thomas also wrote to Eleanor Farjeon, today, a century back. The letter covers much of the same ground, as it were, but then again the differences in emphasis are telling:

March 22

My dear Eleanor,

…It was most interesting and amusing as well as infinitely tiring—I had to stand up in mud, wet and cold all night watching hostile flashes and listening to shells which I have learnt not to worry about when they are going over and not coming to me or near. The time hasn’t come for field postcards yet. We are still at the edge of the town and have no definite news when or where we move. So I am still in the orchard. The old Frenchwoman probably left it to live in a safe cellar at the edge of the town. This place hasn’t a safe cellar. Also I suppose a battery coming here made it unfit for her to stay. You have heard now that I collared that F and M parcel. I did not get any stomach-ache from it. The muscatels and almonds are just the things for my 24 hours in an observation post…

You know that village I told you about, the ghastly place, well it is just near there that I observe. I shall be sleeping in it soon, I expect. The Hun fires into it all night. When I was in the front trench, all night long his shell came whistling over to roost in — like flights of birds.

You have often heard of the mud out here, haven’t you? Well, I have been in it. It is what you have heard. You nearly pull your leg off, and often your boot off, at each step in the worst places—the stiff soft clay sucks round the boot at each step. The telephone wires are deep in this and have to be repaired in the dark. Imagine it. Now I have to go. Goodbye.

Yours ever,
Edward Thomas[3]

 

Wilfred Owen, still recovering from a fall and subsequent concussion, has rather more time on his hands. Writing to his sister Mary, he is in a pleasantly discursive mood–and he admits to an interestingly fanciful hobby.

Wednesday Mng. 22 March
13th Casualty Clearing Station

Dearest Mary,

I am now really quite well, but am not getting up yet, as it is snowing and I couldn’t go out if I did dress. But we sit round the stove in Kimonos, padded with cotton, very pleasant wear. We are now about ten in the ward. One is an old Artist Rifle, but I never knew him, nor ever want to. They are none of them interesting, from any point of view
whatever.

I amuse myself with drawing plans for Country Houses and Bungalows, especially Bungalows. I worked my wits all day on one, and, within the prescribed limits, it is about perfect, for the intended occupant—solitary me.

Yesterday we saw that Owen was concerned to go back to his own battalion and not face the social dislocation of consignment to a replacement depot. Which is all very practical–yet he is still a loner at heart, at least in poetic fantasy.

You see I am thinking of sitting down under my own vine and living for use, some day, and a concrete presentment of the Vine should be incentive.

This passage rather winded me, yea wounded me. Mistress Browning:

Many fervent souls
Strike rhyme on rhyme, who would strike steel on steel.
If steel had offered, in a restless heat
Of doing something. Many tender hearts
Have strung their losses on a rhyming thread.
As children, cowslips. The more pains they take.
The work more withers. Young men, ay and maids.
Too often sow their wild oats in tame verse.
Before they sit down under their own vine.
And live for use.

Alas, near all the birds.
Will sing at dawn, and yet we do not take
The chaffering swallow for the holy lark.

Or words to that effect.
Adieu, sweet sister.

Your ever loving W.E.O.[4]

Even when these guys quote bits of poetry–this is from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh–they find their way to a lark. But it’s fascinating to see Wilfred Owen, as yet a lonely soul, planning a poetic retreat for àpres-la-guerre–even if he can’t exactly afford it, and must occupy it alone. Hardship and deprivation have a way of focusing the future-fantastic urge…

 

We’ll close today with two unaccustomed things, at least as far as Edwin Vaughan‘s diary goes: camaraderie and frivolity.

We were all sent along to QM stores to draw a new kind of gas helmet. A rubber face piece with a tube leading to a canister of chemicals; the whole installed in a square satchel to be carried on the chest. The troops are quite annoyed at having ‘another bleedin’ present for the Christmas tree’. We of HQ have also been dished out with new tin hats fitted with a rail and hanging chain mesh to protect the eyes. We spent the afternoon putting on the gas-masks to make animal noises at each other, and saluting to make the helmets clank.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 101-3.
  2. Selected Letters, 150-1.
  3. Farjeon, Edward Thomas, 256-7.
  4. Collected Letters, 445.
  5. Some Desperate Glory, 63.