Two Pacifists in Contemplation: Max Plowman on Bloody Murder, as Seen from England; Olaf Stapledon Organizes the Library

Max Plowman‘s letter to the pacifist leader Mrs. Pethick Lawrence began yesterday, a century back, as a thank-you note–she has evidently been providing moral support and advice– which also enclosed some news and also some (unidentified) verses of his own. But today he added a thoughtful few paragraphs on his thoughtlessness, namely his inability–and the  inability of soldiers generally–to consider the war as an ethical problem while actively engaged in fighting it. It’s only when returning that the soldier is ready to analyze–and protest.

Looking back I see this. When the average soldier says, as he almost invariably does, after his first “bad time” at the front “This isn’t war, it’s bloody murder”, he does so because he realises for the first time that he is not fighting man but that he is pitting his flesh & blood against killing-machinery. When a 9″ shell arrives from perhaps 2 miles away his most elementary sense of fairness is at once outraged…[1]

This seems right, of course, and it’s hard not to feel that it’s strange that it has taken Plowman so long to see it this way. And yet his conclusion is at once too materialist and too hopeful: he argues that since all men will come to hate war as an “outrage on humanity” then there is hope in the brutal industrialization of war. War is killing itself, and soon humanity will have done with it. But the irony will not break that way, will it…

 

Olaf Stapledon has never wavered in his pacifism, and–though manning an ambulance behind the lines (never mind in reserve) is not the same thing, when it comes to facing up to war’s industrial slaughter, as fighting in the trenches–he has remained steadfast in his belief that something of what he experiences can not only be understood, but also communicated, across a world-wide gulf.

SSA 13

3 February 1918

We have been on the move again, and are now settled down to the old old work. There is very little doing, but the moving is quite an affair, & I am on duty for two or three days also. This good old billet is a palace compared with our others, as it is a deserted farmhouse. But beds are scarce, and I have none, sleeping on the floor with a few rugs folded up to form a mattress, but I have got a good spot that is practically open air.

The last convoy to be here left the place in utter filth, but they left behind some excellent board-shelves which I have commandeered for the public library; and so I have been busy reorganising all the books and cataloguing, seizing the opportunity just now when all the books are in. Quite an undertaking, especially scolding people who have lost or ill-treated books. Tomorrow I shall not be here, so it had to be done today. Tomorrow I wear my good old tin hat again for the first time for two months. . . .[2]

Olaf Stapledon was not an unlikely pick to end up as what we might call a non-combatant combat librarian…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Bridge into the Future, 96.
  2. Talking Across the World, 279.

Miners and a Black Book; Max Plowman Hears from Rivers; Siegfried Sassoon Rides the Emerald Isle; Isaac Rosenberg is Not Strong

Two very different publications of today, a century back, are worth noting. The Nation, one of the few periodicals willing to publish “anti-war” poetry, ran Wilfred Owen‘s poem Miners. The poem was written, despite its unusual pararhyme, in a matter of hours, promptly submitted, and is published now only two weeks after the event–a topical and quietly political work, and as such a confirmation of Owen’s complete and Sassoon-influenced departure from his youthful aestheticism.

And The Imperialist, Noel Pemberton-Billing’s histrionic nativist scandal sheet, ran an article claimingthat German intelligence held a “black book” which contained the names of 47,000 British gay men and lesbians who had been blackmailed and compromised. This might be insanity (quite literally, in the case of Pemberton-Billing’s assistant Harold Spencer), but Pemberton-Billing’s ridiculous lies played ably enough on existing hatreds for the political effects to be distressingly real. The Imperialist specialized in anti-German polemic (with virulent anti-Semitism lumped in for good measure) and was prepared to exploit not just homophobia but class resentment, using salacious allegations to get traditional folks all worked up against fancy London types and their immoral goings on, which must of course conceal deep disloyalty to a vague and negatively-defined ideal of British greatness…

So Wilfred Owen has gotten a poem in the paper–and earned two guineas for it–and on the very same day that the gay literary community he has just had the privilege of joining comes under siege.

 

Elsewhere, today, Max Plowman wrote to his close friend Hugh de Selincourt. The letter opens with an apology for not having written sooner–it runs along the lines of the “I wrote the simple letters first” excuse.

…My dear, I feel rather like a snake that has forgotten to shed its skins for the past few years & now begins the healthy business. I didn’t expect my self-assertion to have that effect particularly but it seems to be happening… I see now that preface & my Right to Live (in large measure), & those little topical verses, very much as signs of irritation the snake has with skins which did not fit it. Bitterness comes through low living & I see now that mine was all the more acute because I thought the low living inevitable…

Plowman eventually moves past this high-minded metaphorical mode and writes of reading about bellicose speeches given by leading politicians in both Germany and Britain.

And then it slowly dawned on me that it wasn’t my duty to stand between men with consciences of tanned hide & try & filter the stream of lies & hypocrisy they poured at one another…

In any actual fighting for peace I feel I should now be useless… I’ve got to start more or less where I left off 3 years & more ago & work like a galley slave to catch up.

He has come to see his service as an infantry officer–as A Subaltern on the Somme, in fact–as an unbecoming interlude in the life of a politically aware pacifist. But, of course, he is still an army officer, under arrest and awaiting trial–at least in the loose and philosophical sense of the word, if not necessarily the juridical.

…What shall I tell you about my affairs? …I live in a top room of a large house… & there I have my meals brought me as I don’t want to inflict my necessarily chilling company on the “Mess”, & all day long (subject to conditions) I do just what I damned well please. And this will last I think until next Friday when I go for my ordinary Board. I expect to be put under arrest any day after that… the charge will be “Refusing to obey an order.”

What is to be done? And who might be able to help?

Oh you know I wrote to X——-? He did not reply but evidently sent my letter on to Dr ________, F.R.S. (The Camb. psychological Professor) we were both under at Edinburgh.

We know who this is. I can’t be certain, actually, that X is Sassoon, but it certainly sounds like him. In any case, Sassoon and Plowman shared a doctor who was a Cambridge professor and an FRS–W.H.R. Rivers. Thus it must be Rivers who, as we will read below, is willing to help with Plowman’s “case.” But in what way, exactly? Is this another offer to “cure” a patient by thinking him through the ramifications of his pacifism?

Plowman and Sassoon are both writers, both young officers troubled by all that they have seen. And Plowman was even quite literally shell shocked before being sent to Rivers to be treated. But as that distinction suggests, the differences in the manner and motivation of their pacifist protests are considerable.

______wrote the day I came here saying he was at Hampstead & would like to know if he could be of any use… which is extraordinarily decent of him, don’t you think? If I were to have any trouble with the Medical people he might be an excellent Court of Appeal. He says X—–has returned to duty & is quite happy in it, & of course as X——-merely acted on the question of British war aims he was to be satisfied. A queer half-way house, but I daresay it was useful…[1]

This logic is a bit hard to follow. What is “useful,” to Plowman? Does he want Rivers to help shunt his protest aside, and have it be deemed an after-effect of shell shock? I don’t think so. I think he may want the opposite–but does he imagine, then, that Rivers offers to help him to pacifist martyrdom by asserting his sanity and full recovery from shell shock?

Well, at the very least it’s clear that Plowman is not at the stage where he desires any sort of half-measure. He won’t fight any more, and his objection is not on the score of war aims, a minor detail in the monstrosity of war without end…

 

Speaking of Siegfried Sassoon, as I think we probably have been, it’s quite true that he is back on duty and “quite happy:”

January 26

Motored with two Irishmen to a place eighteen miles from Cork—Roore’s Bridge—to meet of the Muskerry Hounds. A grey, windy day, southwest wind. Rode a chestnut of J. Rohan’s—good performer. A poor day’s hunting, but very enjoyable. Fine country—along the River Lee–a wide, rain-swollen stream, flowing down long glens and reaches. The whole landscape grey-green and sad and lonely. Ireland is indeed a haunted, ancient sort of land. It goes deep into one’s heart.[2]

 

Finally, today, another writer both slightly connected to all of the turmoil of literary London–he has long been in touch with, and occasionally helped by, Eddie Marsh–and very far away from it. Isaac Rosenberg writes to remind his old patron that he still lives, however miserably, and that he still reads, and writes. After a long bout of illness, Rosenberg is back in the trenches, and it is not going well.

My dear Marsh,

I have been in topsy turveydom since I last saw you and have not been able to write. Even now it is in the extremest difficulties that Im writing this. I wanted to talk about the Georgian Book which I had sent over to me but have not had time to more than glance through. I liked J. C. Squire poem about the ‘House’ enormously and all his other poems. Turners are very beautiful and Sassoon has power. Masefield seemed rather commonplace, but please don’t take my judgment at anything because I have hardly looked at them. I am back in the trenches which are terrible now. We spend most of our time pulling each other out of the mud. I am not fit at all now and am more in the way than any use. You see I appear in excellent health and a doctor will make no distinction between health and strength. I am not strong…

Yours sincerely

I Rosenberg[3]

Rosenberg does not ask, but it is unlikely that there are any strings near enough to Marsh’s hand (through Winston Churchill’s) to pull him all the way out of the trenches…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Bridge into the Future, 93-4.
  2. Diaries, 206.
  3. Collected Works, 320-1.

Max Plowman Supported; Olaf Stapledon Stays the Course; the Master of Belhaven Mastered by Paperwork

Max Plowman, embarked, now, on his own odyssey of protest, is mustering support. Or, rather, he is thanking some of those who have already offered their support–in this case, Janet Upcott.

It was dear of you to write Janet & very kind of you to copy out Sassoon‘s letter for me. I’m very glad to have it… as Dorothy will tell you things have begun just as you prophesied….

Can it really be that Plowman has not read the famous letter of protest? I don’t know–it’s possible, but it seems likely that Upcott copied it out for him to refer to, and that his lack of reference to reading it for the first time indicates that he has in fact done so. Does he know, then, the manner of Sassoon’s subsequent apostasy?

The letter goes on to show how different Plowman’s situation is from Sassoon, and how different his motivations:

You & Mary are like Fairy Godmothers straight out of a Fairy Tale to us… And then you heap coals of fire on my head by saying that we lift you out of the world of material considerations & policies of caution. Dear Jane! You make me laugh!  …Passion & love, you can’t ultimately divide them I think. Is anybody’s consciousness utterly destroyed? That’s what it comes to. I don’t think so. I don’t think I believe in total damnation, though it may be so.

My love to you dear Janet.[1]

 

Ralph Hamilton, Master of Belhaven, has had his raid. And when it was his show he didn’t mind cranking the mimeograph–or even doing his own colored-ink touch-ups. But when it’s a matter of bumff come down from up the chain of command…

I have turned into a Babu–I spend my whole time writing reports and organising things. It seems to get worse and worse. I have increased my office staff, and still we hardly get through the paper that comes by one despatch rider before another arrives…[2]

 

Finally, today, another charming letter from Olaf Stapledon to Agnes Miller. It shows many sides to Stapledon’s personality, not least a strong-to-the-point-of-foolishness liberal idealism, or the inability of a gentle soul to imagine the depravity of others. But who rates a perfect score in predicting political futures?

20 January 1918

. . . The most thrilling subject now is the slow but steady evolution of the various nations & parties toward peace. One feels that there is now quite a new air about it all. Personally I greatly admire the Bolsheviks in spite of their oppression of their enemies. The hope of the future is with them. It is they that seem to have the courage and the faith. . . Peace is really coming at last. Then comes the beginning of real work at last. It will perhaps be an age of starvation and disorder and terror and misunderstanding and revolution, but it will be the age of the beginning of the new alignment of life, at least if we all try hard enough. . . .

Alas.

Would that he, too, had protested a bit more? But Stapledon now turns to the subject of his own writing, and what he hopes will be his first major work:

Lately I have been thinking with little content about “In a Glass Darkly” and planning out considerable additions to it, & alterations If I can get the additions adequately written the whole will be a far bigger thing than before, & actually a book. Was there ever a book that took so much re-writing? Indeed it has not been written, it has grown of its own accord & very spasmodically. I don’t know if I am doing right or wrong in giving so much time & thought to this one effort. I don’t know that I even care whether it is right or wrong. All I care is that the book when it is completed shall be sound. If in years to come the world (!) asks me “What did you do in the great war?” and I have to say, “I wrote a book” I don’t care for the world’s condemnation, nor for anybody’s…

But hope remains…

…the Idea is all that matters. And faith, I did not try to avoid the war so as to write a book. I did my best to get into the war while not betraying the Idea; and since the war would not have me on those terms more than as an ambulance driver— tant pis, and all the more obligation to serve directly the Idea by laborious thought & writing. . . .

The other evening we read “Twelfth Night” and I took Sir Toby Belch with much relish. We have some rather good readers amongst us, especially one [Frederick] Jeffrey who is called Amelia because (oh horrid pun!) when he first came to us he was sent as an orderly to an outstation where the drivers reported that he greatly “ameliorated” their lot! Amelia took Portia in “The Merchant of Venice,” and did it with much spirit and delicacy. He is a nice lad, but generally asleep. At present we are having an epidemic of slight illness, due probably to some bad food or other, or possibly to the rather foul atmosphere of the stable over which we live. In the evenings, what with the stable, tobacco, acetylene lamps, the stove, and forty or more men, and the necessity for keeping the two wee windows shut because of the light, we get up a fearsome fug.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Bridge into the Future, 92-3.
  2. War Diary, 442.
  3. Talking Across the World, 273-4.

Max Plowman’s Letter of Resignation

Max Plowman cast the die today, a century back, sending this letter to his battalion adjutant.

Sir,

I have the honour to request that you will lay before the Commanding Officer the following grave & personal matter.

For some time past it has been becoming increasingly apparent to me that for reasons of conscientious objection I was unfitted to hold my commission in His Majesty’s army & I am now absolutely convinced that I have no alternative but to proffer my resignation.

I have always held that (in the Prime Minister’s words) war is “a relic of barbarism”, but my opinion has gradually deepened into the fixed conviction that organised warfare of any kind is always organised murder. So wholly do I believe in the doctrine of Incarnation (that God indeed lives in every human body) that I believe that killing men is always killing God.

As I hold this belief with conviction, you will, I think, see that it is impossible for me to continue to be a member of any organisation that has the killing of men for any part of its end, & I therefore beg that you will ask the Commanding Officer to forward this my resignation for acceptance with the least possible delay.

I have the honour to be, Sir,

Your obedient Servant,

Mark Plowman[1]

The original draft contained an additional line at the end of the last paragraph that aimed to soften the stiff formality by expressing “deep regret” for the “inconvenience.” But Plowman crossed this out and sent the above letter with nothing to give context to its simple but bold claim: “I am once more a pacifist, and claim religious scruple against killing–you must release me from service.” He offers no explanation for the serial evolution and devolution (or vice versa, depending on your point of view) of his religious views, and he knows full well that that this resignation will not be as simple as the brief note pretends that it might be…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Bridge into the Future, 92.

Carroll Carstairs Decorated in Retreat; Herbert Read: the Game is not Worth the Candle; Rowland Feilding: Another Life Well Snuffed Out

Not long ago we saw Carroll Carstairs to the Casualty Clearing Station with a raging fever that will carry him all the way to Blighty. As he lay there, thinking “[h]ow cool these sheets and how warm these blankets” he also fantasized about pinning on the “pretty ribbon” of the Military Cross he had earned during a desperate withdrawal near Cambrai. Today, a century back–in his absence–the award was paraded, along with four other officers of the 3rd Grenadier Guards, before their reserve billets in Arras.[1]

 

Rowland Feilding‘s letter of today, a century back, is the purest war story we’ve had in quite some time–and it, too, is a story of determined and courageous defense rather than aggressive valor.

January 10, 1918. Front Line, Lempire.

A few minutes before four o’clock this morning the enemy tried to raid one of my Lewis gun posts which is placed, necessarily in an isolated position, well out in Noman’s Land, about 150 yards in front of the fire-trench, in a sunken road which crosses both lines of trenches. The raiders came across the snow in the dark, camouflaged in white overalls.

In parenthesis, I may explain that while I have been away there have been two unfortunate cases of sentries mistaking wiring parties of the Divisional pioneer battalion for the enemy;—whether owing to the failure of the wiring parties to report properly before going out, or to overeagerness on the part of the sentries, I do not profess to know. No one was hurt on either occasion, but a good deal of fuss was made about it, our new Brigadier blaming the men who did the shooting—his own men—and saying so pretty forcibly.

When I first heard of this I thought that a mistake had been made—if for no other reason than that there would for a time at any rate be a disinclination on the part of sentries to shoot promptly, which might prove dangerous;—and that is what happened this morning.

The double sentries on duty in the sunken road heard, but in the darkness did not see, a movement in front of them. Hesitating to shoot, they challenged. The immediate reply was a volley of hand-grenades. Private Mayne, who had charge of the Lewis gun, was hit “all over,” in many parts, including the stomach. His left arm was reduced to pulp. Nevertheless, he struggled up, and leaning against the parapet, with his uninjured hand discharged a full magazine (forty-seven rounds) into the enemy, who broke, not a man reaching our trench. Then he collapsed and fell insensible across his gun. The second sentry’s foot was so badly shattered that it had to be amputated in the trench. The doctor has just told me that he performed this operation without chloroform, which was unnecessary owing to the man’s numbed condition, and that while he did it the man himself looked on, smoking a cigarette, and with true Irish courtesy thanked him for his kindness when it was over.

Words cannot express my feelings of admiration for Private Mayne’s magnificent act of gallantry, which I consider
well worthy of the V.C. It is, however, improbable that he will live to enjoy any decoration that may be conferred upon him.[2]

 

So one Irish soldier lies dying, and another has lost his foot–and who knows how many Germans were killed or wounded in the pointless raid, in January, months away from any possibility of “strategic” effect.

Could the war have gone otherwise?

Of course–and of course not. But it really does seem that this is the season of discontent among the more philosophically-minded officers of the B.E.F.–and not just Plowman, with his liberal political ties and pacifist past, or Sassoon, with his impulsiveness and sensitivity. Although career officers like Feilding may still generally confine their criticisms to aspects of the conduct of the war with which they themselves are familiar–the slack pioneers, the short-sighted brigadier–more and more “fighting officers” are turning against the entire war of attrition, now in its fourth bitter winter.

Herbert Read is a happier warrior than many, equipped as he is with a fondness for Nietzsche, an aptitude for small-unit warfare, and unusually deep reserves of mental fortitude. But though the tone is different and the protest oblique rather than direct, he is in more or less the same place, in terms of ethical calculation, as Sassoon and Plowman: the war of attrition is a foolish waste, and cannot be won by indefinite persistence. Courage notwithstanding and courtesy aside, Feilding’s two Irish sentries might agree.

Read’s letter to Evelyn Roff begins ordinarily enough, but soon works toward the somewhat surprising admission of his own public statement against the war.

We are midway through a long weary tour of trench duty. We do four days in the line and then four in support and four in reserve–and this sometimes for more than a month…

As a Company commander I get a much easier time in the line–no long dreadful night-watches. I manage to get a little reading done. I’ve just finished one of Conrad’s novels–Under Western Eyes. Like all Conrad’s it is extraordinarily vivid and a fine appreciation of life. You must read Conrad… Get hold of Lord Jim if you haven’t already read it. There’s a human hero for you…

I also managed to write a short article and send it on to the New Age…  I called it ‘Our Point of View and my chief points were:

a) That the means of war had become more portentous than the aim–i.e. that the game is not worth the candle.

b) That this had been realized by the fighting soldier and on that account has been, out here, an immense growth of pacifist opinion.

Of course, it might offend the Censor. But it is the truth. I know my men and the sincerity of their opinions. They know the impossibility of a knock-out blow and don’t quite see the use of another long year of agony. We could make terms now that would clear the way for the future. If, after all that Europe has endured, her people can’t realize their most intense ideal (Good-will)–then Humanity should be despaired of–should regard self-extinction as their only salvation. But I for one have faith, and faith born in the experience of war.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Generation Missing, 150.
  2. War Letters to a Wife, 246-7.
  3. The Contrary Experience, 116-7.

Diana Manners’ Unwanted Caresses; Siegfried Sassoon Goes West; Max Plowman Exposes a Propagandist

It’s probably time to move on from the solipsistic diaries of Duff Cooper–at least as far as his mourning for Patrick Shaw Stewart is concerned. But… just one more! I find Cooper’s mix of self-pity, self-criticism, and wildly inconstant levels of self-awareness to be strangely fascinating. Cooper is back to London, again, today, and restored to the full glow of Diana Manners‘s attention. But is all well with them?

I met Diana at King’s Cross in the evening and we dined together at the Rendezvous. She doesn’t feel Patrick’s death as I do. We had a passionate drive after dinner. She gives me her caresses as a nurse gives sweets to a child–most when I am most unhappy which is not really when I want them most.[1]

 

Meanwhile, Siegfried Sassoon has finally gotten an assignment. He had endured a medical board only after winning from Dr. Rivers the assurance that he will be sent overseas–back to France, to endure the worst alongside the men for whom he had protested. Well… and perhaps he will, one day. But the War Office answers to no man, and there were no truly binding “promises” exchanged. Sassoon is heading west, not east, to garrison the nearest restive part of the Empire.

January 7 (New Barracks, Limerick)

Left Liverpool 10.30 Sunday night and arrived Limerick this morning. Weather cold and snow on ground. Came across with Attwater and Hickman (the Quartermaster).

About 120 officers here. Four who were in France with First R.W.F. in 1915-16, C. D. Morgan, Freeman (both wounded for second time up at Ypres in October), Dobell and Garnons-Williams. Also J. V. Higginson who went out with me in November 1915. Very glad to get away from Litherland. Had been there since December 11 and done nothing but play golf and eat expensive dinners at the Adelphi.

Bells tolling from Limerick Cathedral; much nicer than sirens from Bryant & May’s factory.[2]

Well, so far so good: but of course a sleepy garrison, in good hunting country and equipped with numerous friendly acquaintances, will be preferable to the all-too-familiar Litherland. His spirits are rising… but will he write?

 

Finally, today, a century back, we check in with Sassoon’s opposite number, Max Plowman. Plowman’s medical board is behind him, and his course of protest has been chosen, but not yet embarked upon, at least as far as the army is concerned. He writes again to Mrs. Pethick Lawrence of the Women’s International, to report on the doings of a political enemy. (Who this redacted enemy is, I’m not sure.) Although I don’t really understand what’s going on here, it’s very interesting to see the same sort of scene playing out once again: a fire-breather, a propagandist, a cynical double-standard, and the war’s indifferent and insidious assault on truth…

I have just seen your enemy–the blatant beast… the occasion was a lecture… which about 1000 newly-conscripted boys are compelled to attend. His object is to explain to them with the aid of maps what would happen to them if peace were made now. I thought of the Women’s International when after carefully describing German atrocities in Belgium & picturing how much worse they would be in England, he appealed to them to tell their women folk what they had heard & added that if the women knew what had happened in Belgium they would see to it that no conscientious objector dared to show his contemptible face in the street–an odd comment on the fellows in gaol which nevertheless received the loudest applause…  He has already been lecturing for the past 6 weeks. I am glad to think that my letter of resignation may be interpreted as a direct response to his mendacity.

Yours ever sincerely

Max Plowman[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 64.
  2. Diaries, 201.
  3. Bridge into the Future, 91.

The Master of Belhaven Toasts Qualified Success; Alf Pollard Dumps the Americans; Duff Cooper Rededicated; The Winter Scene by Carroll Carstairs; Max Plowman’s Protest Begins with Home Service

We’ll begin the year with a cold-eyed appraisal from the Master of Belhaven:

To-day we start the fifth year of war, and I am convinced it will still be going on next New Year. The question is how many of us will be alive to see it? Some, at any rate, will survive. We saw the New Year in properly and at exactly midnight by the signal officer’s watch I gave the toast: “Success to ourselves and damnation to the  ——— Hun.”[1]

 

A New Year’s Card for 1918, designed by David Jones

And this we’ll follow with a hopeful (or bizarrely oblivious, or refreshingly oblivious, or weirdly-non-despairing, or eternally young and silly–it’s up to you, as the reception theorists say) bit of horseplay, interrupted by the stroke of midnight, last night, a century back. Alf Pollard and other English machine-gun instructors have planned a treacherous assault on their allies.

Close on one o’clock in the morning, I and three other fellows entered quietly by one door. Working in pairs we rapidly turned over all the beds with their occupants enveloped in their blankets and flea-bags. The pandemonium was terrific. Irate sons of the United States were hitting out at one another in their desire for retaliation. By the time the first light went on we were clear at the opposite end of the hut.[2]

 

Elsewhere, we have what amounts to a New Year’s resolution from Duff Cooper. He has dallied–or considered dalliance–lately, but no more: he will be true to the woman he loves best.

I get a letter from Diana every day and write to her. It is my chief occupation.[3]

 

But it’s not all hijinks and resolutions: we do have one piece of actual business. The Chelmsford Medical Board observes no holiday, today, and it is hearing the case of Max Plowman, among others. Plowman has had a long, slow recovery from shell shock–there seem to have been temporary cognitive effects as well as basic neurological (and,  of course, psychological) damage. But he is physically whole, now, and psychologically stable–and unwilling to fight any more. Plowman, who wrote poetry, memoir, and essays on the subject of war and its horrors, will explain how his return to his pacifist principles came about:

I was sitting in an Army tent at Chelmsford, reading Tagore on Nationalism, considering the argument quite objectively, when suddenly I knew that I had no right to be in the Army. The conviction was immediate, and seemingly spontaneous. But it was ludicrous, absurd, impossible, beyond entertainment: there I was, very definitely in the British Army. It was futile to think I had no right to be. Then it was as if a voice added “And now you have to come out of it.” The decree was flat and so peremptory I could have laughed. But it was true, and I knew it. So there was simply nothing for It but to assent. A confounded nuisance, but there wasn’t any option about it.

“Right,” I said to myself, “and that’s that”. Whereupon I had a sense of extraordinary elation, and with it an immense feeling of good-will. This was hardly due to a sense of release from personal danger, for I thought at the time I might be asking to be shot, but at that moment I knew what the sailor feels when he comes to port, what Bunyan’s pilgrim felt when the burden rolled off his back, what we all feel when we cease to live from our wills I felt as if I had received a free pardon from spiritual death.

If this experience provided a sense of philosophical relief, Plowman still needed to register his political change of direction–and then deal with the personal consequences. His essay “the right to live” stated the case (or asked the obvious and unanswerable questions) rather firmly. Of the men of the infantry–neither heroes nor stoic Tommies, here, but, as in Sassoon’s writing, helpless and abject victims, he wrote:

And for liberty they have suffered the torments of the damned. They have been shot and stabbed to death. They have been blown to pieces. They have been driven mad. They have been burned with liquid fire. They have been poisoned with phosgene. They have been mutilated beyond description. They have slowly drowned in mud. They have endured modern war. To what end?[4]

Plowman, however, cannot undo his own decision, long ago, to leave the ambulances and join the infantry. His own right to live is very much a vexed question. But, unlike Sassoon, his medical care and his public position against the war have not compromised each other: he went before the board today and took his chances.

Well, I went through the inquisition this morning. “one month’s Home Service” with an intimation that they were quite sure it would be the last–advice to take no notice of a dilated heart–& a hint that it was simply ‘up to me’ to be well by the next board. –So that’s that. Had they known they might have spared themselves the pains. As it is I think it is all to the good…[5]

In other words, the result is convenient, as regards his protest: Plowman can attempt to resign his commission in protest of the war’s prolongation while he himself is marked “Home Service.” Even though he decided upon this course weeks ago, and even though he believes that he will shortly be sent back to “the torments of the damned,” his opponents will not be able to accuse him of returning to pacifism at the very moment that the war will begin to directly threaten his own safety once again. And then, should he in fact be sent back to the front, the Army’s motivations might well seem suspect. (Though Plowman is happy to admit that their callousness in sending him back is not personal, but rather part of the general acceleration of the meat grinder, at least as far as it concerns those already fed into its maw.) It’s 1918, and idealism and cynicism are shadowboxing…

 

And finally, today–New Year’s Day itself has occasioned far less forward-looking meditation than the eve stimulated retrospect (which is natural enough, at this point in the war)–we have Carroll Carstairs, doing the foreboding winter scene in proper painterly fashion:

The first day of the new year came pale as death. The trees looked very black against the snow. The ruts in the roads were frozen hard. In the process of shaving, one’s fingers became so cold that one had to dip them in the hot water to be able to go on. We bought a tree from a farmer to use as kindling wood. The men tore off every loose plank in their huts for the same purpose. Very much against regulations, but who could have stopped them?[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary, 431.
  2. Fire-Eater, 241-2.
  3. Diaries, 63.
  4. The Right to Live, 33, 75-6; see Pittock, "Max Plowman and the Literature of the First World War.
  5. Bridge into the Future, 89.
  6. Carstairs, A Generation Missing, 147.

Horseplay with Alf Pollard; Reading and Reflection with Vera Brittain, Olaf Stapledon, Cynthia Asquith, and Edmund Blunden; Wilfred Owen Goes Out a Poet; Thomas Hardy in the Moon’s Bright Disbelief

The last day of the year, with its predictable subjects of reflection and memorable rituals, is often described even in otherwise sparsely dated accounts. So we’ve got a lot of material, and will check in today with not only most of our remaining regulars but also a half-forgotten figure or two.

One of the latter is Alf Pollard, V.C., now spared further death-defying heroics in the front line. His tale of the year’s end foreshadows important developments on the Western Front. He has been assigned to teach at a Lewis Gun school, and without the Lewis gun, a mobile light machine gun, it is extremely difficult for infantry to sustain their own advance. Moreover, many of his students are particularly innocent, fresh, and eager for the fray:

There were nineteen Americans altogether in the school. They were all picked officers who had been sent on ahead of their army to learn as much as possible about British methods. They were a quiet, studious crowd, more like a party of bank inspectors than soldiers…

Of course they had their legs pulled unmercifully…

I was guilty of organising a rag against them on New Year’s Eve… According to custom we British had a merry party to see the old year out. The Americans on the other hand carried on with their studies all the evening and retired to bed as usual at ten o’clock.. It seemed to me that they might at least have thrown aside the dignity of being the advanced guard of the American Army for one night…

Close on one o’clock in the morning, I and three other fellows entered quietly by one door.[1]

Ah, but that’s next year, already. And that’s the sort of tale told by a man who was never deeply troubled by the violence of the war. Pollard is both psychologically suited to fighting, and more or less immune to doubt. Which does not make him less honest than more sensitive writers: many men–especially men who are not at the front and not likely to see it anytime soon–spent New Year’s Eve in a spirit of holiday horseplay, deliberately forgetful of other things. Others, no less honest, will nevertheless feel constrained to write something in a mood of solemn reckoning.

 

Edmund Blunden has been sustained through his long and relatively scatheless service by his feelings of fellowship with his battalion. But he is away from the old battalion as much as he is with it now, and this signaling course seems both endless and pointless… but it does allow Blunden, even without being on an active front, to close the year with one of its characteristic sights: the mute messages of signal flares, playing over a background noise of ordnance.

I began to be careless whether I was in the line or out of it; nothing seemed to signify except the day’s meals, and those were still substantial, despite the lean supplies of the people at home. The price of all luxuries in the shops was rising fast, but still one could manage it; why trouble about getting back to the battalion? This was the general spirit, and we did not lament when the course was lengthened and the year ended with us waving flags in unison in the snow, or rapping out ludicrous messages to the instructors’ satisfaction, or listening to muddled addresses on alternating current.

At the moment of midnight, December 31, 1917, I stood with some acquaintances in a camp finely overlooking the whole Ypres battlefield. It was bitterly cold, and the deep snow all round lay frozen. We drank healths, and stared out across the snowy miles to the line of casual flares, still rising and floating and dropping. Their writing on the night was as the earliest scribbling of children, meaningless; they answered none of the questions with which a watcher’s eyes were painfully wide. Midnight; successions of coloured lights from one point, of white ones from another, bullying salutes of guns in brief bombardment, crackling of machine guns small on the tingling air; but all round the sole answer to unspoken but importunate questions was the line of lights in much the same relation to Flanders as at midnight a year before. The year 1918 did not look promising at its birth.[2]

 

For the Asquiths, the old year ended with a pleasant surprise–an unexpected leave for Herbert Asquith (“Beb,” to his wife). Whether for convenience or out of courtesy–or a certain delicacy–Herbert had telegraphed ahead on the 27th to let her know that he was on his way. Not coincidentally, perhaps, Bernard Freyberg, a constant presence in Cynthia’s diary for weeks now, disappears.

Today, a century back, Cynthia and Herbert had a walk and a talk, in which she discovers how happy she is that her husband is not inclined toward the family business. Even the son of the former prime minister is aggrieved at what appears to be a callous prolongation of the war…

Beb and I walked up to the top of the New Hill and back via Coscombe. It was one of the most lovely-looking days I have ever seen. Beb is in very good form—in good, lean looks and very keen and eager—seething with indignation against the Government and the ‘hate campaign’ of the civilians. He is ashamed of the way England brutally snubs every peace feeler, and reiterates that, either we should negotiate or else fight with all our might, which he says would mean doubling our army in the field. He speaks with rage of the way we are not nearly up to strength at the Front and says it is to a large extent merely a paper army. In existing circumstances a military victory is quite out of the question until America can really take the field, which will not be for years—and he thinks all the lives now being sacrificed are being wasted, it’s like going about with a huge bleeding wound and doing nothing to bind it up. Thank God Beb isn’t in the House of Commons! I should never have the moral courage to face the reception given to the kind of speech he would make.[3]

Siegfried Sassoon may have had more allies than he knew.

 

Olaf Stapledon would disagree with little of what Asquith is saying. But he is neither politician nor officer, and he is possessed of a much sunnier spirit. Sunny enough, anyway, to relate this pleasantly furry little portent of the coming year:

The other day someone in clearing out some straw came on a queer little beast hibernating. He was rather smaller than a rat and far more elegant, having a delicate brown back, a white underneath, with a black line dividing the two shades. He had a long and furry tail; in fact he was rather like a dormouse, only bigger and fatter & greyer. I saw him lying on his back in someone’s hand with his four dainty feet in the air and his tummy rising & falling ever so gently with his slumberous breath. After a while he opened his mouth and yawned but did not wake up. Some sympathetic fellow put him by the fire, the warmth of which naturally came to him as a hint of spring, so that he finally woke up and ran away. The frost must soon have induced him to find another corner in the straw and turn in again for the rest of the winter. It was very strange to see the little beast in his winter trance, so peaceful he was, almost as still as death, but without death’s stiffness. He let people wind his tail round their fingers and move his legs about and he went on heavily sleeping all the while. One kept thinking of Bergson’s elan vital, the great universal Life, that lay in him patiently awaiting the spring & the opportunity of further creativeness.

It is the last day of the year. Best wishes for the New Year to my Agnes. May there be peace. May the world begin its new and happier age. May you & I meet and marry and begin our new & happier age also. With all my love

Your own Olaf Stapledon[4]

Stapledon is a good writer, isn’t he? With ingenuous brio and a near-total absence of cynicism he takes the microcosmic beast and the whole universe, the world war and the love that carries his hope through all the horror.

And even with all the power of the internet at my disposal (for a good four minutes or so) I can’t do better on beast-identification than Stapledon. This is perhaps not surprising… Anyway… probably a dormouse!

 

But some of those who are away from the front prefer not to think of the war at all, as its fourth year draws to a close. Wilfred Owen, writing to his mother, is not so much solemn as pompously/mock-pompously portentous. And why not? It has been a momentous year for him: action and injury, shell shock and recovery, promotion from poetic striver to protegé-of-the-young-poets. The full effect of their help–and, more importantly, of his new confidence in his poetry–will be felt this year. He is melodramatic and self-aggrandizing, here… and correct:

31 December 1917, Scarborough

My own dear Mother,

…I am not dissatisfied with my years. Everything has been done in bouts: Bouts of awful labour at Shrewsbury & Bordeaux; bouts of amazing pleasure in the Pyrenees, and play at Craiglockhart; bouts of religion at Dunsden; bouts of horrible danger on the Somme; bouts of poetry always; of your affection always; of sympathy for the oppressed always.

I go out of this year a Poet, my dear Mother, as which I did not enter it. I am held peer by the Georgians; I am a poet’s poet.

I am started. The tugs have left me; I feel the great swelling of the open sea taking my galleon.

Buoyant, and beautiful. But then the galleon bobs on the tide, and the lookout looks back.

I take Owen to task, in these boyish letters to his mother, for being a self-centered young man. And he is–but he is also possessed of enormous powers of sympathy.

Last year, at this time, (it is just midnight, and now is the intolerable instant of the Change) last year I lay awake in a windy tent in the middle of a vast, dreadful encampment. It seemed neither France nor England, but a kind of paddock where the beasts are kept a few days before the shambles. I heard the revelling of the Scotch troops, who are now dead, and who knew they would be dead. I thought of this present night, and whether I should indeed—whether we should indeed—whether you would indeed—but I thought neither long nor deeply, for I am a master
of elision.

But chiefly I thought of the very strange look on all faces in that camp; an incomprehensible look, which a man will never see in England, though wars should be in England ; nor can it be seen in any battle. But only in Étaples. It was not despair, or terror, it was more terrible than terror, for it was a blindfold look, and without expression, like a dead rabbit’s.

It will never be painted, and no actor will ever seize it. And to describe it, I think I must go back and be with them.

We are sending seven officers straight out tomorrow.

I have not said what I am thinking this night, but next December I will surely do so.[5]

 

I wondered, on Christmas, whether Vera Brittain‘s description of that night might have run into New Year’e eve. If not, her Christmas gifts may well have: she has begun reading poetry again, including two writers who have featured slightly here. She mentions not only “an impressive poem called ‘The City of Fear’ by a certain Captain Gilbert Frankau, who had not then begun to dissipate his rather exciting talents upon the romances of cigar merchants” but also reading

some lines from E. A. Mackintosh’s “Cha Till Maccruimein,” in his volume of poems A Highland Regiment, which Roland’s mother and sister had sent me for Christmas:

And there in front of the men were marching.
With feet that made no mark.
The grey old ghosts of the ancient fighters
Come back again from the dark. . . .

Her brother Edward, the one of her ancient fighters who has not yet failed to come back, is thinking along much the same lines as he wrote to her today, a century back:

Italy, 31 December 1917

It has been a rotten year in many ways — Geoffrey and Tah dead and we’ve seen each other about a week all told: so there’s a sob on the sea to-night. I don’t seem to be able to write decently; so often I feel tired and fed up when I’ve done my ordinary work and so waste what little spare time I have; I wish I could manage to write to you more…[6]

 

Often at the beginning of the month I discuss a poem that was written or published during the month (but can’t be fixed to a particular day). But this month-inaugurating habit has such a hopeful, generous cast to it, doesn’t it? Why not mention poems at the end of the month as well?

Well, in December 1917 Thomas Hardy published Moments of Vision, a tremendous collection by a great poet–an old, cranky, great poet still either disesteemed by many as a novelist of less than impeccable writerly morals or ignored as an eminent Victorian who could surely have little to say to the current moment. Well, the more fool them. But as Hardy himself predicted, the book attracted little notice, since it offered little solace and tended to make people face an uncomfortable truth and “mortify the human sense of self-importance by showing, or suggesting, that human beings are of no matter or appreciable value in this nonchalant universe.”

I don’t need the poem to bring Hardy into the end of 1917 as the voice of doom…  there are, too, several end-of-year letters that will also serve…

To James Barrie:

We wish you as good a new year as can be hoped for, & a better one than the old…

To Edmund Gosse, and picking up Owen’s nautical theme:

Just a word of Salutation to you & your house on this eve of the New Year, for which you have our best wishes as fellow passengers in this precious war-galley…

And to Henry Newbolt:

…I don’t know that I have ever parted from an old year with less reluctance than from this.

…Always sincerely

Thomas Hardy.[7]

Yes, always sincere. And what of the old man himself, tonight, a century back?

Went to bed at eleven. East wind. No bells hear. Slept in the New Year, as did also those “out there.”[8]

This, I think, is why Hardy, more than any other eminent older man of letters, will be pardoned, by the young solider poets, of all offenses related to the Experiential Gulf or the Conflict of the Generations. He thinks, in his private thoughts, of what it must be to be a soldier, cold, at the front. And when he gestures to the troubled times, he does not do so without noticing the discomforting dramatizing of just such a gesture, from an old man snug abed…

In this spirit, then, and to see out the year, one of my favorite (write it!) of Hardy’s poems from the recent book. Happy New Year!

I looked up from my writing,
And gave a start to see,
As if rapt in my inditing,
The moon’s full gaze on me.

Her meditative misty head
Was spectral in its air,
And I involuntarily said,
“What are you doing there?”

“Oh, I’ve been scanning pond and hole
And waterway hereabout
For the body of one with a sunken soul
Who has put his life-light out.

“Did you hear his frenzied tattle?
It was sorrow for his son
Who is slain in brutish battle,
Though he has injured none.

“And now I am curious to look
Into the blinkered mind
Of one who wants to write a book
In a world of such a kind.”

Her temper overwrought me,
And I edged to shun her view,
For I felt assured she thought me
One who should drown him too.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Fire-Eater, 241.
  2. Undertones of War, 202-3.
  3. Diaries, 385-6.
  4. Talking Across the World, 266.
  5. Collected Letters, 520-1.
  6. Letters From a Lost Generation, 387-8.
  7. The Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy, V, 236-9.
  8. The Life of Thomas Hardy, 378-9.

Max Plowman Prepares for Action; Thomas Hardy’s Best Wishes for Siegfried Sassoon

Max Plowman is coming to a decision. Nearly a year after being blown up on the Somme, he has progressed enough to go back to the beginning. Which, for him, was principled pacifism. Plowman began the war as a pacifist and trained for the ambulances, but then confronted the same dilemma of half-measures that bedeviled Olaf Stapledon–helping the allied wounded, I am still contributing to a military cause… so is it right that I run fewer risks, and that I do not take on the moral weight of doing violence directly? Plowman soon quit the ambulances for the infantry, and was sent out in time for the end of the Somme battle. He served well, was shell shocked (in the physical as well as the psychological sense), and was treated by Rivers, then wrote a lightly-fictionalized memoir, and then a pacifist “pamphlet.”[1] Now he is facing an un-rigged and problematic Medical Board–he’s Siegfried Sassoon in reverse!

Today, a century back, Plowman wrote to his friend Hugh de Selincourt about his situation: he has decided that he will refuse to continue to fight, instead making a formal protest and resigning his commission. But should he do this before or after the Medical Board? When will it have the most effect? When will it look best? And should that matter?

…Time is all that bothers me… I am due for a Medical Board on Jany. 1st It is quite possible that I shall be labelled “General Service”. You know what is happening–they are simply bunging everybody out they can lay hands on…

Well it seems to me that the worst possible time for making a move would be after receiving overseas orders, & if that could be avoided almost any policy is preferable. It would be simply asking for a false & the worse possible interpretation.

On the other hand what I had in mind was to take the direct line immediately the pamphlet was either accepted or refused… it seems simply silly to let them have the first move once my mind is made up. However I suppose there’s nothing for it now & for the sake of appearances I shall be glad if the Board happens to give me Home Service again…

It’s tangled, but logical: Plowman, who has proved his courage and been seriously injured, wants to be spared orders for another tour in France so that the course of protest on which he has already decided to embark might not seem like cowardice, or even a convenient alliance of self-interest and principle. Once again he seems to be traveling in the opposite direction to Sassoon, to whom he may well be referring in this next section.

I don’t overestimate my own little public importance, but the fact remains that I openly advertised the fact that I was in favour of fighting in 1915 & now I have written directly about the War more than once & incidentally been received into the elect circle of “our soldier” poodles. Not from any false desire for martyrdom but simply out of comparative fairness to those whom I advised to do as I did, I am strongly inclined to feel that I should come out at least a publicly as I went in…

Soberly & literally, prison has no terrors for me after my three years of army regime, & would in many respects be a relief & on sympathetic grounds a pleasure now…

I feel sometimes like a person who has found a clean hard road under his feet after miles & miles of mud & water…[2]

 

We will hear more from Plowman soon. But, coincidentally, Sassoon himself comes up today, if not in his own voice. We have seen Robert Graves and Isaac Rosenberg, among others, enthusing over the latest Georgian Poetry anthology. Sassoon, quietly, has used it as an opportunity to reopen his correspondence with a family friend and major literary idol. Today, a century back, Thomas Hardy responded, doing Sassoon the strange compliment of writing in honesty and, in the old-fashioned sense, with condescension: he writes as to a sort of equal, a fellow writer. And, of course, with a quibble…

Max Gate, Dorchester. 28 Dec: 1917.

Dear Siegfried Sassoon:

I write a line to wish you as good a New Year as is possible in our day, & to thank you for the volume of Georgian poetry containing some of your work. I see one or two of yours that I like, though I have hardly looked at it yet, & my mind has strayed to a point on which I have before wondered—one that has nothing to do with your verses, as you did not invent it—I mean the title of the collection. What are we to call the original Georgians, now that the post-Victorians have adopted their name. Still, I don’t suppose the shades of Shelley, Byron, Wordsworth, &c will mind much.

With renewed thanks I am

Sincerely yours

Thomas Hardy.

P.S. I hope you are quite recovered: I don’t know where you are!

Th. H.[3]

Hardy is either too delicate to mention Sassoon’s brief fame as a protester and disingenuous hospitalization or, just possibly, has no idea that he wasn’t, in fact, simply suffering from a war-related breakdown.

I wonder when Sassoon sent the volume–and I wonder, too, if Hardy was thinking of Henry Hoare when he decided to write back, in friendly fashion, to a luckier young officer.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Right to Live," published later in this collection.
  2. Bridge into the Future, 88-9.
  3. TheCollected Letters of Thomas Hardy, V, 236.

A Red-Letter Day for the Graveses; An Even Better Day Ahead for the Feildings; Siegfried Sassoon Makes a Clever Plan: Light-Hearted Stupidity

The engagement of Robert Graves and Nancy Nicholson is running roughshod over all potential opposition:

Wednesday, when the Graveses were attending Kit Nicholson’s birthday party at Apple Tree Yard, Alfred was taken aside by William to discuss the proposed marriage. Since Nancy, at eighteen, was three years under age, her father’s consent was vital. He was in a highly emotional state, and told Alfred that ‘he had been in love with N[ancy] for 18 years and not slept a wink’ the night before, when he heard of the engagement, but felt they were intended for each other and both he and his wife were greatly pleased as both had high ideals which he believed they would realise together’. Nicholson also promised to consider illustrating a novel which Clarissa [Graves] had just finished writing; and A[lfred] P[ercival] G[raves, Robert’s Father] commented happily in his diary that it had been ‘Altogether a red-letter day in the Family annals’.[1]

 

And there is good news for the (Rowland) Feildings: there has been a minor bureaucratic Christmas miracle, reversing a recent decision. It will probably not seem all that minor to his young daughters.

The Brigadier has just rung up and said they have granted my leave for the 23rd; so I shall sail on the 24th and should be with you that evening.[2]

 

Siegfried Sassoon returned to his diary, today, a century back, for the first proper entry since the summer. After a sketch of his recent whereabouts, he addresses the future, and how he plans to live now that he is an ordinary officer once more.

Came to Litherland on December 11. Since then have eaten, slept, played a few rounds of golf at Formby, walked on the shore by the Mersey mouth, and am feeling healthy beyond measure. I intend to lead a life of light-hearted stupidity. I have done all I can to protest against the war and the way it is prolonged. At least I will try and be peaceful-minded for a few months–after the strain and unhappiness of the last seven months. It is the only way by which I can hope to face horrors of the front without breaking down completely. I must try to think as little as possible. And write happy poems. (Can I?)[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 189.
  2. War Letters to a Wife, 245.
  3. Diaries, 197-8.