Henry Williamson on the Shelf; Duff Cooper Closes the Office Door; Edmund Blunden of the Flashing Wit

Today a century back, two very different men have their recent hopes confirmed. Henry Williamson, ill once again–his condition perhaps aggravated by inhaling small amounts of phosgene gas–went before a Medical Board and was ruled “unfit for General Service for three months, unfit for Home Service for two months, and unfit for Light Duties for one month.” Long, long ago, he had joined the Territorials in order to escape some office drudgery and make friends, and this brought him into the bloody open warfare of the war’s early months. By now he has few consistent illusions or ambitions about the army, and he is surely overjoyed to have escaped the front for another summer.[1]

 

Duff Cooper–older and moving in much higher social circles–has stayed at his government job while so many of his friends volunteered, and fought, and were killed. Now, his way opened by the broadening pressure of conscription (and by his belated self-assertion as a volunteer), he has escaped the office at last, and may soon face the trenches for the first time.

June 22, 1917

Today I left the Foreign Office without a single regret…  I love to think of the dreary files of papers that I shall not see again. Even if I survive the war I doubt whether I shall go back to the Foreign Office. I should hate to face that monotonous routine again.[2]

 

But we’ll catch up today with Edmund Blunden. I may weary my readers with praise of his subtle, restrained, gorgeous prose… but that’s the memoir. It’s good to see him writing in a different vein to his younger school friend from Christ’s Hospital, Hector Buck–it’s a reminder that Blunden’s intelligence and coming excellence as a writer is not a guarantee of precocious wisdom.

A letter of June 9th begins in fine fettle, and in medias res (we’ll skip the Greek epithet at the beginning; but I will remind readers that Blunden was Senior Grecian before he was subaltern of infantry, and therefore it was hardly a stretch to come up with a sobriquet for a friend called “Hector”…)

Behold, yet a time again for my Indomitable Energy to foot the boards and imitate the well-rounded humours of those famous men Hy. Champion & Jas. Godden…

To my disgust and bile, it is nearly a fortnight since I had any news from anyone — for down at the Rest Camp I missed my mail, and after leaving there was sent on to this Rayless Void (Musketry School). So nothing has come from my probably exasperated Friends & Acquaintances. See to it my Son that this is altered at an Early Date…

I have been here since the evening of the 3rd; and I wrote to my battalion, with an exceeding bitter Cry, to be ransomed from this exile the day after; so I should be hearing very soon now what is happening to them and get back to them I hope.

This, in other words, will be something like a Music Hall turn. The high spirits may be due as much to the fact of having missed the danger of the Battle of Messines as to knowledge of the British success–but then again Blunden is always happier with his battalion than without.

Nevertheless, this is very much a school letter, and although Blunden jokes about how their old French master would approve of his scandalous new practical French, his questions about school and county cricket are in earnest. He betrays more anxiety about the pitch than the battlefield:

This capture of Messines is commonly called champion. I remember when I came out, there was a legend that the Guards had offered to take it if every man surviving could have a fortnight’s leave. But there was nothing doing. At that time too there was another fairy fable that any man capturing a German Very Light would in like manner receive a fortnight furlough. ‘O dream too Sweet, too Sweet, too Bitter’ (whose? why Christina Rossetti’s or some spinster). Walk march. Hop along Sister Mary, hop along.

Forbear, for I am more fool than knave, to be angry with my letter–is it not a little one? Mine’s a Malaga Mademoiselle. Alliteration alcoholic. No compris Zig-Zag. You plenty bon. How’s everyone?

Right. Since I’m not following that either, we’ll skip the part where Blunden stops doing imitation Carroll and just quotes the Jabberwock, and move on to today’s letter.

22nd June [1917]
Feast of Ancient Trulls
B.E.F.
Gaul Blimey

Sir Knight as it seems,

Gratitude be heaped on your head for your last letter to me, which came like Hy Champion on the vaudeville firmament, full of beans and grace. My feeble frame was strengthened as with Tono-Bungay. I was as
one that tasteth of the ripe October after marching from foreign parts through a Burning Heat & do not be dismayed if my answer is more like a glee party of wombats and armadillos in full cry than anything else yet devised by the wit of man…

But style is not substance. Although Blunden keeps up the jokey-referential schoolboy patter, he also goes to the heart of the matter. It sounds jolly, but this is still a letter confessing poisonous despair about the war, and suggesting the use of large doses of pastoral (or, rather, Georgic) recourses as an antidote:

I need not ‘stress’ (the Northcliffe influence) the depth of despondency to which I am permanently lowered. The ancient humour comforts me no more. I have lately taken all chances of studying Flanders farmers urging on their horses with cries reminiscent of sea-sickness perpetually threatening–I have stood for hours watching the Carnivora or whatever they are that live in farmyards, hoping to mimic the White Leghorns praising Jah [i.e. Jehovah], the Goat requesting food, the barn dog-proclaiming the moon, and the Oldest Inhabitant filling up the swine’s swill trough.

The clamour and tinsel heroics of Bayonet Fighting Instructors, the malapropisms and arm gestures of our R.S.M. [Regimental Sergeant-Major], the rages and quiffs of Generals and Staffs–I have noted them all and gone away in despair. The War is a sort of slow poison to me that keeps on drugging and deadening my mind. And I can tell you that the shelling just lately is far worse than anything we have been through before except for actual attacks. The Bosch is so windy that he puts on a barrage every few hours in case we are just assembling to attack him. But as far as the battalion is concerned, we are back now for a few days’ training.
Anyway I loathe the war & the army too. To hell with same.

Not only has Blunden rounded up the usual suspects–the bayonet instructor, the staff–but he has joined the ranks of the wrathful. Sensitive port-officers have been annoyed by the outcry against the loss of civilian life for more than two years now, but it has not been Blunden’s part yet to make the sharp angry complaint.

Nor does resentful ire bring out the best in him–there is another kind of puerility here too.

Why shouldn’t coves like Merk who go on in their petty self-inflations have some of the discomforts? There was more shriek in England over several hundred casualties in a bombing raid than there has been over several hundred thousand out here reported at a steady rate in Minion type on the back page among the advertisements of sheenies and toothwash wallahs. But forgive me…

I will consider it.

Why I am so cynical and tired of life lately I don’t know; but I expect Nature; is working normally and in due time I shall be removed to Bedlam.

The last few days have been stormy and I expect your hands are not being so buffeted by erratic fast bowling, but rather pushing awry the frequent wicket and startling the dozing Umpire into giving the incredulous Batsman Out…

So off the poise I am that I read the ‘Princess’ by Tennyson the Other day. Tennyson trying to be humorous, or realistic, is like a hippopotamus in violet tights attempting to cross Niagara Falls on a tightrope, so I laughed Long & Loud. But afterwards I read some of In Memoriam and repented myself.

But Literature languishes as a whole in the battalion except for two books ‘Flossie’ and ‘Aphrodite’ which the Archbishop of Canterbury has probably not read. I have got my ‘John Clare’s Poems’ and often tub thump over them, claiming him as one of the best. But no one wants to agree with me.

Please get the War stopped pretty soon. Some of us are as mummies, only we still carry on the motions of breathing, swathed round with red-tape and monotony. I wish you all jolly good luck…

My best wishes to you old son.

Keep on going.

Your friend,
E. Blunden[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 165.
  2. Diaries, 54.
  3. More Than a Brother, 4-9.

Siegfried Sassoon Takes the Measure of His Foe

The big guns of pacifism–or, at least, of resistance to this war in its current form–have been called in to help Siegfried Sassoon. And the statement has been written… but not yet released. Sassoon hesitates. And although he will portray himself as putty in the hands of forceful intellects like Middleton Murray and, especially, Russell, his diary entry of today, a century back, makes it clear that he is girding himself and taking the measure of the opposition before he commits to his assault.

June 21

A long statement of the war-aims etc by Belloc in Land and Water leaves me quite unconvinced. He argues from the point of view of British rectitude: and it is that which I am questioning. Worst of all he argues on the assumption that ‘the next few months’ will bring a military decision; he has done this since 1915, so one cannot put much faith in him.

I am revolting against the war being continued indefinitely; I believe that Carson, Milner, Lloyd George and Northcliffe intend the war to continue at least two more years. To carry out the scheme of ‘crushing Kaiserism and Prussianism’ by means of brute force, the war must go on two more years.

The swirling mess of historical ironies here is impossible to untangle: Sassoon may be heading into conspiracy-theory territory, but he’s not quite wrong about anything he claims, and in fact his assessments are eminently sensible, and would have been shared by many realistic strategists. No one can make a real claim to having predicted the see-sawing effects of Russian collapse, American participation, and the catastrophic “success” of the German Spring offensive–just as no one could have predicted what became of “Kaiserism” after armistice and abdication.

What follows seems to be on much less solid ground–but that may be in part because none of it “became” history.

If they stated our terms definitely, once and for all, and those terms were the ones we went into the war to enforce, the German people would realise that they had been enforced, and would insist on the war being stopped…

It is obvious that nothing could be worse than the present conditions under which humanity is suffering and dying. How will the wastage and misery of the next two years be repaired? Will Englishmen be any happier because they have added more colonies to their Empire? The agony of France! The agony of Austria-Hungary and Germany! Are not those equal before God?[1]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 176-7.

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

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

 

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

Dear Mother,

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

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

Love Willie.[1]

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

 

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

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

15.vi.17

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References and Footnotes

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

Ivor Gurney on Severn and Somme and Aircraft Above; Kate Luard’s Picnic Interrupted; The Master of Belhaven Bracketed; Sassoon is Free to Act… and Sit;

Ivor Gurney wrote to Marion Scott today, a century back, of dog-fights and poetry.

4 June 1917

My Dear Friend:

Fritzs aeroplanes are ever so high above us, and shrapnel is bursting round them; shrapnel which never seems to fall anywhere. This is an old and stale game to us, would there were here in our place men who would be interested in such things…

As it happens, Kate Luard is. Her unit is packing up and moving to the Ypres Salient, which affords her a day of country-walk leisure to take in just such sorts of sights which, while not completely unfamiliar, are far less frequent a few miles back then they will be in the closer confines of the Ypres Salient.

Like many veterans, Luard is assiduous about finding havens of peace whenever the war gives her respite. But this is getting harder and harder, and the relative novelty of fighter planes does not change the fact that they rather spoil the country-walk feel…

June 4, 1917

Today I took a book, a cigarette, the 4 last Birch bullseyes and a sun umbrella to a green valley with a running stream where I paddled and dried my feet in the sun while Bristol fighters and tri-planes came and took photographs of them to send to HQ with their photos of German positions. Whatever lovely Peace is about you there is always War in the sky.  Now it’s blue, with larks singing in it.[1]

And if Gurney’s letter fails to mention larks–for shame!–it does bring up the pastoral (or riparian?) title that will be affixed to his coming poetry collection. His comments on this title are amusing:

The title “Severn and Somme” might sell the book a little better. It sounds like a John Bull poster, but otherwise there is nothing objectionable about it. Severn people may buy if Somme people dont: my French not being equal to translation of works so delicate of language. At present my desire is to get the thing off my chest, and my chest out of Khaki. (Please excuse dirt.)[2]

 

The Master of Belhaven, also recently reassigned ahead of the coming “push” at Messines, is also mixing peacetime riverside joys with martial realities… but in memory, only. Today was all guns…

Zillebeke, 4th June, 1917

What a 4th of June! I wonder if they are having the procession of boats at Eton today; certainly we can compete with them for fireworks; there has been nothing like it before. Our guns and the Germans’ roar night and day and never stop for a moment…

After being shelled in a staff car on the way to a Divisional conference, Hamilton decided to ride back on horseback, avoiding the roads so well known to the German gunners.

I took the new sand track and was able to canter for the first two miles without drawing rein. I could have ridden farther, but when I got into the area that is shelled at night there were so many dead horses lying on the road that my mare began to object. I don’t blame her, as she could not hold a handkerchief to her nose like I did…

On arrival at my own brigade I found that A and D had been heavily shelled whilst I was away. D had bad luck, a 5.9 shell crashing into one of their gun-pits and killing two and wounding seven men. I do not think it was meant for them at all, but was a bad shot for A Battery. The Hun has “bracketed” them with a 25 yrd. bracket, so I have warned Dallas to look out for trouble…[3]

This increase in accurate counter-battery fire is not the best of signs for the coming offensive…

 

Finally, today, Siegfried Sassoon left Chapelwood Manor, his convalescence now entering what should be it’s final stage, namely a month’s leave. But his time amidst the luxury, quiet beauty, and atmosphere of haughty insensibility to the war’s costs has done more than any miserable battle to make a radical of him.

My discontent was now simmering rebellious and had acquired an added momentum. I went up to London resolved to write something more definitely antagonistic than the satiric epigrams in The Cambridge Magazine.

This would be, among others, Base Details. But back to Sassoon:

Four weeks of independence were ahead of me and I meant to make the most of them. I would go to Garsington and investigate the war situation by talking to the Morrells and Bertrand Russell… Meanwhile I was to be in London during the next two weeks. One reason for this was that Robbie [Ross] has arranged with Glyn Philpot that he should do a drawing of me, and more than a single sitting would be needed…[4]

Glyn Philpot’s portrait of Sassoon (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge)

So… not to hit the issues of privilege too hard, here, but: Sassoon is preparing his protest on behalf of the troops–voiceless, politically powerless men who might be killed any day–but, while he is doing so, he will spend the better part of a fortnight sitting for Philpot and sharing sumptuous teas after each session… It’s a bargain, though: due to some combination of Ross’s influence and Sassoon’s charm, Philpot has decided to paint a portrait of Sassoon while only charging him for the originally-planned drawing–50 guineas, rather than 500 pounds.

But despite Robbie Ross’s influence–not to mention the belief of Robert Graves and other friends that Sassoon is poised to accept a safe job, perhaps training cadets at Cambridge as Graves is doing at Oxford–Sassoon is making slow and (for him) steady plans for revolt. He will stay at his club, for instance, rather than with Ross, so as to have an independent base of operations. And in addition to Russell and the Morrells, he has already taken the initiative of writing to a foremost anti-war publisher…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Unknown Warriors, 204.
  2. War Letters, 165.
  3. War Diary, 299-301.
  4. Siegfried's Journey, 48-9. See also Moorcroft Wilson, I, 370.

J.R. Ackerley Bids His Brother Farewell; The Afterlife of Rupert Brooke XVI: Ivor Gurney and the Protest of the Physical Against the Exalted Spiritual; Charles Scott Moncrieff in Amiens; Edwin Vaughan in the Front Line

It’s another one of those unexpectedly bountiful days in which a central writer is busily writing important poems while other diarists insist upon having the sort of experiences we can’t leave unrecorded…

 

Briefly then, through our first two. We find Charles Scott Moncrieff ill and in Amiens… and distinctly unimpressed. Perhaps it is the mark of the true Francophile (or, at least, the self-consciously discerning tourist) to be breezy about attractions like the great cathedral:

No. 1 N.Z. Stationary Hospital,
B.E.F., Amiens,
14th February, 1917.

. . . I went out to-day and saw the Cathedral, which certainly is very perfect and harmonious, walked the streets for a couple of hours and bought some books…[1]

 

And my own desire to forgo lengthy typing and move on to two important sonnets and a stark first-hand tale of loss and death will contribute, now, to Edwin Vaughan‘s persistent experience of anti-climax. Tonight, a century, back, he will reach the front line trenches at last, and I’ll cut down his diary by more than half…

It as a long and winding trench, which rather bewildered me, for the scattered sentry posts seemed to face in all directions… We hit the front-line trench at right angles, and almost opposite was another cellar into which Hatwell had disappeared in a moment.

I hardly noticed the troops melting away into different directions, but suddenly found myself quite alone outside the cellar. For a quarter of an hour I sat up against the side of the trench, soaking in the atmosphere. It was quite dark and damp, around my feet the mud was six inches deep, and above me I could see only the faint outline of the parapet all jagged and broken with bricks and stumps and over it the dim silhouette of loose wire. Occasionally a huge rat would scamper past, or a couple of men would stagger by, swearing gently at their load of sandbags or stakes. All was deathly quiet except for the low voices in the dugout or the faint click of a bayonet against a steel hat.[2]

Vaughan later tours the positions on the line, finding a number of men quietly and efficiently doing their work, the sentries watching the Germans intently, all business. Returning to the dugout, Vaughan reconsiders his attitude:

 When we had been out of the line, I had despised these officers and NCOs and criticized the men, but now I realized that I was the most useless object in the Company… still confused, wondering and fearful.

I drank several whiskies and dozed for an hour or two…[3]

 

Now for poetry. Ivor Gurney wrote again to Marion Scott today, a century back, continuing his new project of a counter-Brookean sonnet sequence.

14 February 1917

My Dear Miss Scott:

…The fates have been kind to me, and still leave me as canteen attendant; which means that though freezing one has time to oneself, and are off those confounded cleaning parades, which so gnaw at my life.

How are you and your influenza now? There can be little gadding about for you anyway, yet who knows what February may bring — that sometimes is so kind and smiles like Spring. Well, good luck to both of us, as I fancy cold is little good to either. And your book, tient-il? If you can sit up and refound musical literature, things will not be so bad; it would be like a Nice Blighty, which I do most heartily desire the Lord to send myself. Anyway do not get too ill to write…

This, I’ll wager, is Gurney being charmingly/winkingly, rather than obnoxiously/obliviously, self-centered.

There is more literature in this letter, but not yet. The literal translation of the pretty name of this place is The Star, and there are Earthworks all round, remains of 1870. Soon we go up again to the trouble; soon Fritz will be hurling high explosive compliments at us with gusto, and we close to the parapets. Well, tres bien, if there is no soft job, the hard one must do, but the first is better.

The title of the book I would prefer to be “Songs from Exile, or Songs from the Second Fifth” as subtitle. That is the real title, and besides, the second needs writing up to which I am unwilling to do.

This would be the first book of poems, which Scott is preparing for him. Now, then, for nos. 2 and 3 of the counter-attack on Rupert Brooke:

Home-sickness

When we go wandering the wide air’s blue spaces,
Bare, unhappy, exiled souls of men;
How will our thoughts over and over again
Return to Earth’s familiar lovely places.
Where light with shadow ever interlaces
No blanks of blue, nor ways beyond man’s ken —
Where birds are, and flowers; as violet, and wren,
Blackbird, bluebell, hedgesparrow, tiny daisies,
O tiny things, but very stuff of soul
To us . . . so frail. . . Remember what we are;
Set us not on some strange outlandish star.
But one love-responsive. Give us a Home.
There we may wait while the long ages roll
Content, unfrightened by vast Time-to-come.

The direct appeal to the reader here is striking, but perhaps not to every taste. We might dismiss it as almost maudlin, and hardly much of an improvement upon Brooke–a romanticizing of soldierly estrangement and suffering in exchange for a romanticizing of soldierly sacrifice.

So leave aside the ending, if it doesn’t suit; it’s the stuff of the appeal that matters. Until recently, Gurney has been dreamily, gauzily idealizing the countryside of his native Gloucestershire whenever he picks up his poet’s pen. Which is all very nice, but far from the war, no? But now he is bringing that loyalty to bear, mobilizing the stored energy produced by all that beauty, those lightly lovely birds and flowers, to say something about the war. We might miss it, if we didn’t have the Brookean intertext (apologies!): this isn’t about death and the harm-obscuring vision of a foreign-field-that-might-be, neatly adorned with English birds and flowers. It’s about drawing connections from a trench-that-is–a real trench, in a real corner of an actual French field–a trench that shelters living, frightened Englishmen all the way back to the memories of Home that might sustain them… These are day-dreaming, homesick men, looking for solace. They are not ghosts, yet, and they don’t seem enamored of the idea of their death, beautiful and meaningful or otherwise. Gurney is sacrificing his present comfort, his strength, his health; he’s not willing to dwell prettily on the likelihood that he will be dead soon, and call that a sacrifice as well…

If this sonnet re-connects to England in a different way, the next one–taking the sharply divided Petrarchan form–works around that new connection until it’s an unyielding grapple that forces us to confront the dreary misery of real soldiering…  before releasing us, suddenly, to remind us what the homesick man relies upon most: not thoughts of England, but other Englishmen.

 

Servitude

It it were not for England, who would bear
This heavy servitude one moment more?
To keep a brothel, sweep and wash the floor
Of filthiest hovels were noble to compare
With this brass-cleaning life. Now here, now there
Harried in foolishness, scanned curiously o’er
By fools made brazen by conceit, and store
Of antique witticisms thin and bare.

Only the love of comrades sweetens all.
Whose laughing spirit will not be outdone.
As night-watching men wait for the sun
To hearten them, so wait I on such boys
As neither brass nor Bosches may appall.
Nor guns, nor sergeant-major’s bluster and noise.

 

This is something new indeed. The old sonnet (Gurney’s spelling is… unusual) refurbished rather than merely dusted off. Only the love of comrades–and the brutal opposition of all things red-tabbed and unfeeling, explosive and chickenshit–could breathe new life into the form. But I should hush and let the poet explain:

These Sonnetts. For England. Pain. Homesickness. Servitude, and one other; are intended to be a sort of counterblast against “Sonnetts 1914”, which were written before the grind of the war and by an officer (or one who would have been an officer).

Thus far, Gurney’s claims are both radical and traditional. Down with the officer class and the privileged poet? Perhaps, but, so far, only on the strength of a claim to an alternate source of authority: these are the poems of a veteran, and of a soldier–one who bears the grind, and grinds no one in return.

Better, even:

They are the protest of the physical against the exalted spiritual; of the cumulative weight of small facts against the one large. Of informed opinion against uninformed (to put it coarsely and unfairly) and fill a place. Old ladies wont like them, but soldiers may, and these things are written either for soldiers or civilians as well informed as the French what “a young fresh war” means. (Or was it “frische (joyful) Krieg”. I cant remember, but something like it was written by the tame Germans in 1914.) I know perfectly well how my attitude will appear, but — They will be called “Sonnetts 1917.”

A counter-blast indeed, although a fairly restrained one, given what poetry will come. The civilians themselves are not attacked, and the sensitive among them are invited to join the side of virtue, of solidarity.

Is this, then, a “political” gesture? Not really–certainly not primarily. I don’t think these sonnets would have arrived just because Brooke’s themes–the beauty of sacrifice, the moral cleanliness of heading off to war–now feel outdated. There’s a poetic axe to grind, too.

Gurney had initially admired Brooke’s sonnets, after crossing paths with them in Edward Thomas’s review, but he had later turned rather decisively against them, writing one of his own first sonnets in a mood of resistance that both presaged this “counter-blast” and invoked Hardy.[4] As Thomas realized, as Sorley damningly pointed out, Brooke was “far too obsessed with his own sacrifice.” Gurney has come to write not of the soldier’s (i.e. the officer’s) inner beliefs but of the men who are two and a half years into shouldering a painful, nasty burden–and of his love for them.

But that’s not all, folks. Unless he misdated one or another of his letters (not unthinkable at all), Gurney received a letter from Scott and then sat down to write her another:

14 February 1917

My Dear Friend:

Thank you so much for your letter of the 5th of Feb…

…Most of the spare time till now has been in cleaning, always cleaning equipment. For anyone with more sensibility than the yokel it is a life infinitely full of pain. Whether the wind blows gales of icy needles with the temperature below zero; always the same. And no fires now, in most billets: From this, you will gather that “Rest” is merely a technical term. If you will take the trouble to copy out all those things one by one, please do so, and thank you — but dont write shorter letters because of it.

I shall be content if you attend to all matters of punctuation and merely ask my opinion on doubtful points. The name, as I have said is

Songs in Exile

or Songs from the Second-Fifth

The first poem will be To Certain Comrades; the last poems, the five sonnetts. (Perhaps an Envoi also.) Any poem you think needs correction, send on, and fear nothing…

So the sonnets are to close his first volume.

Gurney seems to wander, now, in his thoughts, but he was also discussing books in the previous letter, and it would seem now as if Scott has inquired after his reading. And who am I to delete a reference that suits my notions of Honesty and Influence in Great War Literature? After that, Gurney trails off into his post-war hopes–he is a composer too, we must remember.

“Under the Greenwood Tree” is perfectly charming, and very Shakespearean in feeling I think. Hardy is a marvel…

With these beautiful days it becomes more of a loss to feel music and books so far away, and my county. And the days slipping past so quickly in which I ought to acquire technique and get rhythm into my mind. Once I get back, for a while I will simply reek songs; mere exudations; while I study hard Wagner and Rachmaninoff and the Russians; also the 3 B’s and Folk Song for pleasure; and Chopin for piano technique. But, Time, you are so slow, and hold the secrets of doubtful things not yet disclosed…

Your sincere friend

Ivor Gurney[5]

 

Last and certainly not least, it’s a terrible day in the life or a writer whose great reputation rests far from his war writing. When we last heard from J.R. Ackerley, he was recounting his wounding during the disaster of the First Day on the Somme (he also later wrote verse about that morning). There are few dates in his memoir, and little in his written record that can fix him here, a century back. But today, well, there is.

In the meantime, Ackerley has recovered from the Somme–in body, at least–and learned to live awkwardly as an undeserving hero. And he has been promoted.

Yet so strange are we in our inconsistencies that I was not happy in Blighty and, in a few months’ time, got myself sent back to France.

So he has been enduring this brutal winter, but not alone: nearly two months ago, his brother Peter–older, but behind in his military progress due to an injury–joined him in the 8th East Surreys. So elder saluted younger, “gladly and conscientiously.” As our J.R. Ackerley–younger brother Joe–notes with cold irony, the only reason that he has obtained the rank of captain and Company Commander is because everyone else was killed on July 1st.

And then we come to today, a century back, and a very local attack to be mounted on a German position near Miraumont.

In front of my trenches, some four or five hundred yards away and slightly to the left, there was a bulge or salient in the German lines known as Point 85. It was a tiresome object, for it commanded a dangerous enfilading position down the trenches of the battalion next door.

Just the sort of thing for a quick surprise rush attack, needing only a platoon, and a likely subaltern to lead it.

We know what will happen, and Ackerley’s tone and voice erase any doubt…

…my brother got the job. Did he actually volunteer for it? It is one of the many things I am not clear about, but I fancy that he did. At any rate it is the sort of thing he would have done–and the very thing he wanted… he must have been longing to prove himself, and here was a situation which would have appealed to the actor in him, drama indeed, the lime-lit moment, himself in the leading role, all eyes on him. At all events, the result was that I had to make arrangements for him and his platoon to take off from my front line…

The stage was therefore fatefully set, and my brother bungled his entrance.

The newcomer is unaware that the jumping-off point, his brother’s dugout in Boom Ravine, is–much like the deep dugout not far away which recently sheltered Wilfred Owen–under the thumb of the German artillery. It is a German dugout, and thus deep and safe, but with its location is precisely known. So the shells never miss by much. What’s worse,

Unknown to him, the poor boy’s watch had stopped… his troops could be heard chatting, coughing, grousing, and clattering their equipment in the ravine above, all the welcome he got was a rough ticking off from Major Wightman who sent him flying back upstairs to deploy and silence his men.

I remember my brother when he returned standing before me in the candlelight, bunched up in his Burberry and equipment, loaded with hand-grenades and stuck about with a revolver, wire-cutters and Very pistol, his cap set jauntily at an angle. His visit, now that he was late, was of the briefest…

I offered him a quick drink, I remember; he said, “No thanks, I’ll take my rum with the men,” Then, could we swap watches, his own being unreliable. He would return mine afterwards, he said.  A heroic remark, and as I helped him strap on my watch, probably we both saw it unbuckled from his dead wrist. But then it was impossible to speak the most commonplace word or makes the most ordinary gesture without its at once acquiring the heavy over-emphasis of melodrama…

Then my brother’s hand thrust out to shake my own, his twisty smile, my “Good luck,” his jocular salute. “Don’t worry, sir,” said he to the Major as he left. It was his only piece of self-indulgence. His thin putteed legs retreated up the dugout steps and the sack curtain swung to behind him. I never saw him again.[6]

Ackerley doesn’t so much mask his grief as shrug his shoulders at it. What can be done?[7]

Peter Ackerley was shot during an attempt to take point 85, a tiny preliminary to a larger assault a few days hence. The battalion war diary notes that the attack began at 5:45.

5 minutes later a counter barrage opened up… Phone lines were cut immediately and runners were sent to HQ. The situation was very obscure and 2/Lt Ackerley was wounded and about 6 of his men were seen to have reached point 85.

When exactly he died is not clear… but his brother, Joe, our observer in the trench, our writer, seems certain that his brother has been killed

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 124.
  2. This is one of the many details that I find strange... are these fixed bayonets? If so, why, in the middle of the night? Or are both worn loose on a man's webbing? This section of the diary reads like stage directions for an atmospheric trench play... but then again there is all that stuff about "The Theater of War..."
  3. Some Desperate Glory, 27-30.
  4. But Gurney's opinion of Hardy wavered over time as well. These dramatic shifts in critical allegiance could--but needn't--be connected to general mental instability. It's more just, I think, to represent Gurney as a man of passionate moods, broadly construed.
  5. War Letters, 128-2.
  6. My Father and Myself, 80-4.
  7. A spoiler, for those not familiar with Ackerley: the memoir, written long after, is regarded as a masterpiece, but the war figures only for its most horrible, salient days. Immediately after the story of Peter's raid Ackerley launches into a long disquisition on the nature of history and literature. He reads his 30-year old manuscript describing today and wonders what could have been "true" then, what is "true" now, and what remains in his memory... an excellent contribution to the discussion of "binary vision," not less valuable for being brief and agnostic. I'll have more on this tomorrow; I have also edited the original post so as to do less damage to... history while still following the effect of Ackerley's literary choices.