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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

Now the, er, bombshell drops:

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You only saw your future bigly planned,

And we, the tapering paths of our own mind,

And in each other’s dearest ways we stand,

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

 

References and Footnotes

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

Vera Brittain and the Troop Train, then London and the War Unreal; A Disastrous Day for the Second Royal Welch

Vera Brittain‘s homeward journey has been, for the last few days, something like a maniacally condensed version of the Grand Tour. But she left Paris late last night; and today, a century back, she is back in the war.

May 27th

Woke up at 5.0 when train stopped at Amiens. Seething crowd of British and French officers and soldiers, most of them in a trench-state. Thought of Roland, Edward and Geoffrey as having been here; don’t think Victor ever was. Felt very near the war…

Brittain and the young nurses in the Red Cross train are cheered by young British troops, headed for the front–an experience which will shortly give rise to a poem:

The Troop Train

(France, 1917)

As we came down from Amiens,
And they went up the line,
They waved their careless hands to us,
And cheered the Red Cross sign.

And often I have wondered since,
Repicturing that train,
How many of those laughing souls
Came down the line again.

 

A predictable–which is to say irresistible–spark for the Romantic imagination. Or the realist, really–what else is there to think of, knowing what she knows and having seen what she has seen of soldiers’ bodies, as she passes so briefly through the central rail junction of the British Western Front?

A few hours later, after detraining and embarking in Boulogne, she is disorientingly far from the war once again:

…The white cliffs seemed to appear very quickly; it seemed like a dream to be seeing them again, or else a dream that I had ever left them…

One more quick train and she was in her parents’ new London flat by supper-time.

…pausing only to learn that Victor was still alive and still progressing, I threw off my dilapidated garments and jumped into a hot bath…

After supper I settled down luxuriously to smoke–a new habit originally acquired as a means of defence against the insect life in Malta–and to talk to my father about the hazards and adventures of my journey home. My parents took a gratifying pleasure in my assumption of worldly wisdom and the sophistication of the lighted cigarette…

Sitting before the open French windows of the big drawing-room, I looked out upon the peaceful, darkening square with a sense of unbelievable repose. Between the flats and the turmoil of London lay a long unspoilt area of wooded parkland; the great trees stretched eastward as far as I could see. Hidden by the cool green of their new spring foliage, innumerable birds twittered softly on the topmost branches. The War with its guns and submarines, its death and grief and cruel mutilations, might have been as innocuous and unreal as time and the smooth, patriotic selections of school history-books had made the Napoleonic campaigns of a century ago.[1]

A challenge to literature, then… and to the history-book-compilers of the future.

And naturally I can’t resist picking up on the “century ago.” So, a century from Waterloo to the Western Front–how much progress have we made? Since this whole project is, in a sense, an attempt to address the broader question of writing about war, it doesn’t make much sense to attempt an answer here. And on the narrower question of history textbooks I have little to add. The average American school child learns precious little about World War One, given the shorter participation of the United States and the war’s location in between the Civil War (about which the American schoolchild may still learn lies and obfuscations, especially about the racial terror of its aftermath) and the ever-fascinating and morally unambiguous Second World War.

Still, it is surely correct to say that the history books are aware that making war “innocuous” is a disservice to, among other capitalizable abstractions, History, Humanity, and Truth, and that, compared to the books of a century back, there is less knee-jerk glorification of all things warlike and far more attention to the human costs of war. And it is also correct to say that this has something to do with the efforts of Vera Brittain, Siegfried Sassoon and the rest…

But are we doing well enough? Will any aged eminences send satisfactory praise for our rendering of all that is cruel and despicable about what we have done in the past?

Well, well. But Vera Brittain didn’t come home to muse on the ironic dislocations of physical and temporal proximity–she came home to help her family, and to be with Victor. Visiting hours begin tomorrow.

 

That troop train was too far from the front–by a day’s military logistics or so–for the Tommies waving to the Red Cross nurses to be thrown into the meat grinder today. So it’s a poetic near-miss, as it were, for a crossing of the paths of Vera Brittain and the Second Royal Welch Fusiliers, who were already at the front and bound for the offensive, today, on a stubborn sector of the Hindenburg Line.

Siegfried Sassoon‘s day, though he can’t know it, is nevertheless wracked by a particularly vicious irony of proximity. He is in green and pleasant environs, not only unspoilt by the war but far from any direct reminders of it. And not so very far away, many of his comrades are being shot down in another futile attack.

It was on 1.55 on what was a beautiful, sunny Whitsun in Picardie, with “the fallow” of No Man’s Land “gay with yellow and gold,” that the barrage opened up. The assault was impossibly well-named for a descent from pastoral sweetness into military disaster: A and C companies of the 2nd Royal Welch Fusiliers attacked from “Plum Lane” toward a section of “Tunnel Trench.”

C Company’s commander, T.R. Conning, led the assault. He “chaffed the stiff-limbed and the laggards, and gave some of them a hand to climb out.” But the wire was thicker than expected and barrage lifted too quickly–and without doing significant damage to the Germans in Tunnel Trench or the machine guns supporting them. Within minutes, 165 men of the 2nd Royal Welch were hit. About half of these were killed, and ten of the 11 officers who had gone over the top were casualties. The dead included both Conning and E.L. Orme (“Dunning” and “Ormand” in the memoir), both particular friends of Siegfried Sassoon.[2]

Sassoon is in Sussex, lolling uneasily about Chapelwood Manor, and thus in ignorance of the planned attack.

There were times when I felt perversely indignant at the “cushiness” of my convalescent existence. These reactions were mostly caused by the few letters which came to me from the front. One of Joe Dottrell’s hastily pencilled notes could make me unreasonably hostile… and inarticulately unfriendly.

Dottrell/Cottrell, the quartermaster, had written to Sassoon recently about the death of “Young Brock,” i.e. Lt. Brocklebank, his hunting friend, and he will shortly write again about today’s slaughter, spurring a deeper bitterness with his details of this “hopeless failure” and its cost.[3]

For Frank Richards–who adds the detail, unreported in Dunn’s chronicle, that Dr. Dunn himself spent the afternoon “wandering about No Man’s Land” under fire,aiding the wounded–this “disastrous day for all concerned” provided a retrospective irony rather than a simultaneous one. Captain Radford, the only officer in the attack still alive and unwounded, saw Richards that evening and remarked “Well, Richards, only you, Sergeant Owens and I are left out of that tug-of-war team of the day before yesterday.”[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Testament of Youth, 353-4.
  2. Dunn, The War the infantry Knew, 349-54.
  3. Complete Memoirs of George Sherston, 468.
  4. It was actually three days earlier, an error of Richards' memory. Old Soldiers Never Die, 238.

Alfred Hale’s First Day on the Job; Ivor Gurney in Rouen; Vera Brittain on Love, Beauty, and Sacrifice, or the Afterlife of Rupert Brooke, XIX: Eminent Victorian

We left Alfred Hale forlorn and sleepless on his first night in barracks. But a man can adjust to most things–even the army.

…the last part of that night I must have slept a little, as I woke up about dawn… a sentry passed the window, returning off guard with his rifle and knapsack and other military equipment. Yesterday evening I had heard someone say that Sergeant so-and-so had said to him that he was making up a firing party, and I thought of the lot of the man led out to be shot on such a dawn as this…

But this cheerless brooding on my part was soon to be cut short with a corporal coming in and telling us to get up at once…

After a short march, breakfast–“fried eggs and bacon and tea out of an urn, both rather dirtily served”–and an eminently forgettable first full day in the army:

…that whole place seemed to be made up of huge depressing buildings overshadowing endless parade grounds, where much-drilled platoons of men daily and hourly trod the gravel. Just inside the entrance gates was a large recreation ground with tennis courts–for the officers, I suppose.

What was done with us recruits that morning I have completely forgotten…[1]

This is surely because the army is merely marking time while sorting its catvh. Tomorrow, a century back, Hale will be assigned to his first unit.

 

This snippet from Ivor Gurney would be out of place wherever we put it. But his surprising reaction to another of the great Gothic masterpieces makes a fine counterpoint to Hale’s initiation into the grim wonders of London military architecture.

Yesterday I managed to get to Rouen again, and was for a brief two hours and a half my own master. It really is a  fine town, and a great rock which stands smiling and huge just out of the town and on the river is very impressive. I did not go into the Cathedral, whose iron spire struck me with increased horror; a dreadful thing. St Ouen has a very much finer spire.[2]

 

Another letter from Vera Brittain–to her brother, Edward–confirms her growing belief that the Brotherhood (and Maiden) of the Survivors of Roland must serve one another most intensely now in their deepest need.

Malta, 6 May 1917

You say that you & I must make things worth while to Victor as his family is inadequate for dealing with the situation, & Mother says that in future days ‘he must be our especial care’. I have thought a great deal about both your letters. No one could realise better than I our responsibility towards him–not only because of our love for him, but because of his love for us, & the love felt for him by the One we loved & lost. I am not sure that this doesn’t apply more to me than to any of you. I at any rate know this, that I should be more glad than I can say to offer him a very close & life-long devotion if he would accept it, & I can’t imagine that Roland, if He had known what was to be–if He knows–would be anything but glad too. Those two are beyond any aid of ours–They who have died; and  the only way to repay even one little bit of the debt to Them is through the one who remains: ‘Happiness’ said Olive
Schreiner ‘is a great love and much serving.’ For his sake–for all your sakes — there is nothing I would not do for him…

I dare not think much about Geoffrey. As I work there is a shadow over everything; I know it is there but I try not to think why it is there or to analyse it too much.

This is a delicate matter–or, perhaps, it’s just the sort of thing that I hesitate to pronounce upon with certainty. Neo-Victorian prudery!

But what intense jumble of romantic, Romantic, and filial feelings produces this intense devotion, to others, in the name of Roland? Vera isn’t precisely proposing to become consort-nurse or wife to Victor, so she is certainly hinting at just the type of non-standard relationship that, unless it were formalized through marriage, would, indeed, seem very strange to her peers.

And Geoffrey–who did not attend Uppingham and was never a close friend of Roland’s–is now drawn more snugly into the little circle. His status derives from three things: his close friendship with Edward Brittain, the fact that he spent so much time with Vera just after Roland was killed, and the fact that he is dead now, and beyond the harm of confused emotions,

Do you think it strange, I wonder, that while I loved — & love — Roland so much, I loved Geoffrey a little too? To me there always seemed to be something very much in common between them — though I suppose there always is something in common between ‘whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report . . . . .’[3] This something, whatever it was, seemed to express itself in their mutual love of Rupert Brooke, their mutual sense of the glory of the earth, in Geoffrey’s love of Roland’s poems. . .

When I think of Roland & Geoffrey & Victor & you I am reminded of Carlyle’s mourning in the ‘French Revolution’ over the loss of ‘the eloquent, the young, the beautiful, the brave’. How better could you describe Them–Roland the eloquent, Geoffrey the beautiful, & all four of you so brave & so tragically young. (Victor’s conduct on the Day was glorious–worthy of Roland & of his best self. I almost wept in reading of it–dear old Tah.) . . .

There it is again–the nurse describing the maimed young man as “glorious.” But if I have repented of that critique, especially since Kate Luard soon afterwards gave voice, through her patients, to a more nuanced view of the war’s emotional toll.

Yet this usage remains problematic, here: Brittain is not, as Luard was, commenting on a patient. She is choosing to read third-hand military reports as mitigating factors in the “meaning” of the destruction of Victor’s health, youth, face, and eyesight.

And she brought “beauty” into the conversation, too. One can hardly expect (or even desire) clear critical thinking about such things so close to the event… and yet. Shouldn’t there be some resistance to this romantic resistance to the threat of meaninglessness?

Vera Brittain fancied herself something of a rebel, a feminist conscientious objector, at least, to unquestioning Victorian for religio-patriotic pablum. But as she absorbs these terrible blows she seems to be losing her tentative footing in any sort of “modern” or critical point of view. She writes of saintly fallen heroes, she borrows from the arch-Victorian historian, she proposes an almost monastic sort of self-sacrifice… and in all of this she is abetted by their joint reading of Rupert Brooke.

Which is a bit of a challenge to us, here. Isn’t the influence of beauty and poets–and beautiful poets–one that perhaps we should respect, especially when the sentimental appeal receives covering fire from our guiding muse, the inexorable angel of calendrical coincidence?

Strange that Geoffrey should die on exactly the same day as his beloved Rupert Brooke 2 years before. And the same day of the month as Roland.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Ordeal of Alfred Hale, 47.
  2. War Letters, 161-2.
  3. Philippians 4:8.
  4. Letters From a Lost Generation, 350-1.

Alf Pollard Summons the Band; Wilfred Owen is Possibly a Little Mad; Ivor Gurney Rates the War Poets; Vera Brittain Knows it is Very Difficult to Know What is the Right Thing to Do

The Honourable Artillery Company are back in rest, and resting on their considerable recent laurels. In Alf Pollard‘s memoirs, the mood of Boy’s Own boyishness persists. Today is his birthday and–on a dare–he requests that the Divisional Band be sent to serenade him. It is–and this being the Royal Naval Division, the Royal Marines Band arrives to play a long, formal concert. Pollard will have leave soon, so that he might disperse his high spirits elsewhere…

 

Wilfred Owen, meanwhile, remains near the line, but not in it, hospitalized due to the effects of shell shock. But it is hard to ascertain the state of his “nerves” in medical terms. His own bewilderment–manifesting in these letters as bemused confidence that everything will work out fine, soon–makes it difficult to tell whether he is under observation or suspicion. Is he still at the CCS because the doctors want to see whether he will improve away from the trenches or need further treatment Blighty, or because the fact of his being “shell-shocked” is in doubt?

4 May 1917
13th Casualty Clearing Station

My own dear Mother,

I have been expecting every day to be moved from here, but nothing happens; only a great calm happiness. We are a cheery crowd here this time, and I like everyone as a great & interesting fellow. Some of us have been sent down here as a little mad. Possibly I am among them. One man in particular is supposed to be a Brain Case. He is a Trinity College (Oxford) boy, and a nephew of Sir Frederick Treves;[1] and is going to get damages from his C.O. for libel or something of that sort; with Sir Frederick & F. E. Smith to back him up!! The chief arguments of his denouncers are (1) that he had an original Scheme for making a haul of German Prisoners, and (2) he happened to read the Bible. He is, of course, perfectly sane, but may be sent to England!

…I have no news, but that it has been splendidly hot lately, & we have been living the lounging, irresponsible life of a hydro. It will not last long for some of us…

Always your lovingest W.E.O. x[2]

 

Ivor Gurney wrote to Marion Scott today–a long, rambling, literary letter that seems intended to cheer her amidst a renewed bout of illness. And he must also thank her for a gift of books, including the most recent collection of Yeats’s poetry–a gift too precious for his state:

…this morning “Responsibilities” has turned up. It is too generous of you really, and of course far too good a book to keep out here; so that directly I think they have put me on a draft I will send it back to you. The glance at it seems to show it an immensely interesting book, obscure, and unaccountably failing and only just failing to be great poetry time after time. What will the next one be like? Is it Transition or the end of him? After the War I shall be only too pleased to resume possession, but as to taking it up the line that is not possible…

The Herrick poem is very beautiful, and makes me long for the time when after a long tramp out towards round and about Staunton and Corse — on the way to Jagged Malvern, I shall return tired and full of memories to set up singing in my mind — and then Mr Herrick, we shall collaborate to some purpose.

But there are more up-to-date things to read, too: our war poetry serpent now begins to nibble on its own tail. In fact, it’s a pretty big bite:

Also another kind friend has sent me “Soldier Poets”, in which there is precious little of value but much of interest. Julian Grenfell’s “Into Battle” is of course easily the best. Geoffrey Howard’s “Without Shedding of Blood,” E. MelboumesBefore Action”, “Back to Rest”. Victor Ratcliffe’s “Optimism”. Robertson’s “We shall drink”. Sorleys translation from “Faust”. The curiously alive and unequal “Charge at Neuve-Chapelle.” The last two verses of “To My People” of Wilkinson’s. (Have you seen any verse by a man named Sassoon? I remember having seen quite good stuff.)

This is a poet’s assessment, I think, not a soldier-poet’s, and still less a poet-historian’s. Gurney, humble private of the Gloucesters, is neither amazed nor offended by the war-worship of the aristocratic cavalryman, and he has kind words for other poems, both forgotten and remembered, here. Noel Hodgson–that would be “E. Melbourne”–writes a more self-consciously refined sort of verse than Gurney, but it’s not surprising his sure hand and quiet tone would appeal to him.

It’s the last name that comes as a surprising non-sequitur: Siegfried Sassoon is not in Soldier Poets, and The Old Huntsman is still days away from publication. So Gurney has seen one of the handful of recent poems that Sassoon has placed in magazines, and seen his promise immediately…

And as for his own?

You may send my things to Erskine Macdonald if you wish. The “Poetry Review” is a first rate pusher. Why cannot I write now? Dont know, but I believe after this long frowst and feed up, the line will give me beacoup ideas… In future however, I refuse absolutely to have any parcels sent. It is absurd and impossible to ask for them. And now the warm weather has come, we shall do very well.

We’ll see about that!

…O Robert Ross or whatever his name is—the Poetry Review man — is all bosh. Pope or Gray in the solidity of his good lines — ungoverned transcendability. A type of a different kind from Ella Wheeler Wilcox, but no better. Give me Walt Whitman…

It’s difficult to follow Gurney here, but one joke, at least, is on him. Robbie Ross is one of the main reasons he has had the chance to see “any verse by a man named Sassoon.” London literary connections are very important, and this Gloucestershire lad lacks them. He owes Marion Scott a very great deal indeed…

Tomorrow I start training, a good thing. You get frightfully slack doing nothing:

Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney[3]

 

Finally, today, in a letter to her mother, Vera Brittain reaffirms her new course.

Malta, 4 May 1917

When your letter Came saying how you wished I was in England to comfort Edward because of Victor, I felt rather mean in signing on again & being unable to be of use at home for 6 months at least, but when I got your cables saying that Geoffrey was killed, I knew that I must try to come home if possible, for I know that I can comfort him as no one else can. I am coming partly for your sake when he goes out again, partly because I may be of more help to Victor than any of you know, but chiefly for Edward, for I hope to get home before he goes out again . . .

Vera’s decision is complex. It’s not only a matter of what she wants to do, or even of the tug between ordinary selfish desires and what she wants to want to do–that noble, sacrificial self-image that is so important for her as for so many other Brooke-reading children of 1914. It’s also the fact that, although she may preside over the battered, shrinking cult of Roland, she is not, in her family’s eyes, a Romantic priestess… she is an unmarried young woman, with a duty to support her family. She has kicked against these restraints, but now she does not deny them:

Anyone–or no one–could take my place here, whereas nobody else could take my place with Edward or you or Victor, so after I had thought it out for a long time I felt you had the first claim. It is very difficult sometimes to know what is the right thing to do, but at least I know in this case that I am not making your need of me an excuse to go home, for since I intend to go on nursing till the War ends I would rather do it with this unit than anywhere; I love the system of this hospital, I have made many good friends… I don’t intend to leave the service for good, only for a little, time; after which I shall join up again all being well . . .

It seems terribly hard that Victor should be blinded & Geoffrey killed within a few weeks of each other; poor Edward must feel that there is no one left of his generation…

It is another case of ‘whom the Gods love’; I feel as though all the people I love are too splendid to last & that is why I lose them…

Goodbye–I hope I shall see you not long after you get this. I feel I must try to be of some use to the living since I can’t be of any use to the dead.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Sir Frederick Treves (1853-1923), Sergeant-Surgeon to King Edward VII.
  2. Collected Letters, 454-5.
  3. War Letters, 159-61.
  4. Letters From a Lost Generation, 349-50.

A Four-Word Telegram for Vera Brittain

After yesterday’s sprawling survey we focus today, a century back, on one group of friends, and the slow spread of bad news from the April 9th attack.

Yesterday, Vera Brittain had written to her brother Edward expressing her increasing worry about “the vague bits of news from France that filter through to us.” It’s clear that there is a battle going on, but she has no idea if Geoffrey Thurlow–Edward’s close friend from army training and now her friend too–or Victor Richardson–Edward and Roland‘s “third musketeer”–are in it.

Geoffrey has not been, but he is about to be. He began a letter to Edward Brittain today, a century back.

. . . by time you get this we shall have either won thro’ or failed. We have been bivouacing now for over a week & the cold & rain don’t tend to make the men fit so I hope they will be all right. It is rather depressing to watch the Huns levelling to the ground a pretty little village seen thro’ trees beyond the river. Such wanton destruction seems a sin but I suppose we do the same.

Well! If this be the final test goodbye. Wish I had more trust in myself. Please remember me to Mr & Mrs Brittain.

Thine.

Gryt

But as we have known for nine days, Victor Richardson was in the attack. One eye is gone and there is a bullet in his head–but he is still alive. It took some time for the notifications to find their way to Edward Brittain, still in England, but as soon as he learned something of Victor’s condition he dispatched his father to send a telegram to his sister:

Victor dangerously wounded serious

Brittain[1]

 

April 18th

I was just going round the wards to-night when a cable came from home to say “Victor dangerously wounded; serious.” About a week ago I had a letter from him virtually saying farewell. He was at Arras, & last week facts began to come through concerning a great battle in that region. Nothing could say more plainly “Don’t hope.” I could so ill do without Victor; he always seems like the survival of a part of Roland; or rather, in his accurate, clear, & reverent memory of Him, Roland seems to me to live still. I remember how Victor & I last June in St. James’ Park speculated about Edward’s fate in the coming battle on the Somme, & he said then that he thought he would never go to the front, & I that I was glad to know there would be someone left after the War & I should not be quite alone.

Waiting, watching, suspense, mourning–will there never be anything else in life? I am so weary of it all — but I bow my head before the storm now, I don’t try to fight it any more. I no longer expect things to go well for me; I don’t know that I even ask that they shall. All I ask is that I may fulfil my own small weary part in this War in such a way as to be worthy of Them, who die & suffer pain.[2]

There is such a terrible conjoining here of youthfulness and premature old age. First, the romantic but grossly solipsistic idea that Victor can ill be spared as one who carries “memory of Him,” as if even his maiming must be seen as a coda to Roland’s death. Then, almost immediately, she steels herself back to her duty in this miserable war. She could have run away from the destruction–she could still run, since V.A.D.’s were often permitted to break their contracts if family responsibilities impinged. But she won’t, unless she runs toward another worthy, weary part.

Looking back, though, Brittain remembers the horrible isolation of her position, and her lack of both secure knowledge and social standing with her wounded friend:

It didn’t say how. Now that I knew so much about wounds, that vagueness seemed the telegram’s worst infliction. After the Somme I had seen men without faces, without eyes, without limbs, men almost disembowelled, men with hideous truncated stumps of bodies, and few certainties could have been less endurable than my gruesome speculations… the cable had been sent by my father, who, with the kindest possible intentions, had believed that he was letting me down gently by suppressing the exact truth.

I could not, I knew, send off a demand for more precise information until the morning, and if I was to preserve sufficient sanity for the responsibilities of the night, I must somehow put a stop to this mental reconstruction of appalling mutilations. I didn’t feel inclined, just then, to talk about Victor to Betty or any of the other night V.A.D.s, who would not have understood why I should mind so much about someone who was not a fiancé or a brother or one of the other standard relationships…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Letters From a Lost Generation, 335-6.
  2. Chronicle of Youth, 339.
  3. Testament of Youth, 339-40.

Rowland Fielding Reports on a Raid: Murder–and Mercy; Vera Brittain Misreads Her Brother; Charles Moncrieff is Back from Amiens, and (Vyvyan) Holland

This will be one of those “three points of an obtuse triangle” sorts of days. There is a minor update, down at the end, on Charles Scott Moncrieff, and a heartfelt, revealing, but not very warlike letter from Vera Brittain to her brother Edward. And then there is the war, in the shape of Rowland Feilding‘s report to his wife on the fate of the raid conducted by his battalion (“his” in the double sense of affiliation and command) yesterday, a century back.

February 20, 1917. “Doctor’s House,” Kemmel.

I with my Headquarters officers reached Shamus Farm at about 4 o’clock yesterday morning, in a dense fog. The men of the raiding parties were already filing in and out of the ruins, loading up with Mills grenades and  smokebombs and all the other paraphernalia necessary for the undertaking. The green oval patches were being stripped from their sleeves, and everything by which the battalion might be identified, such as letters, regimental numerals, and cap badges, were being collected and put away in sandbags. Each man, as he completed these preliminaries, passed silently into the communication trench leading to the firing line, where all was absolutely still—uncannily so.

…At seven o’clock I passed along the fire-trench, where the raiders were now waiting for the moment of Zero. Most were cheerfully tucking green miniature Irish flags into their caps or buttonholes, and all seemed full of confidence.

What follows is both a quick tactical sketch and a litany. It’s not that it’s inaccurate, or unclear: Feilding was there, just behind the attack, in command, and he’s clear-headed and a good writer. We could hardly have a better vantage point on a raid. And yet the sequence–a position on the line, a rush, a report of wounds and deaths; repeat–is something between black comedy and threnody. Why are all these men going forward, one after another, to be torn by bullets and shrapnel? Because that was the plan, and they stick to it.

At 7.15 the three parties, comprising 9 officers and 190 other ranks, without any preparatory bombardment, scaled the parapet, and made a wild dash across Noman’s Land. At the same moment our artillery opened, according to
programme, and put a box barrage round the selected section of the enemy trench.

The centre party reached the German wire, but found it uncut, having—perhaps owing to the fog—missed the gap. 2nd Lieut. Williamson, second in command of the party, was killed as he neared the wire, and 2nd Lieut. Kent, commanding, was wounded in the arm but continued firing with his revolver at the enemy, holding up his wounded arm with his free hand. When he had fired off his six rounds he lay down and reloaded. J. White—a private—then stood up and bombed the enemy in the trench. This party found a covering group lying out in front of the German wire, which however fell back into the trench as our men approached.

The right party had no casualties till it reached the wire. Then 2nd, Lieut. Bradshaw, second in command, was wounded, and a minute or two later was hit again and killed. 2nd Lieut. Cardwell, commanding the party, was also wounded severely by a stick bomb, which blew away the calf of his leg. His men then threw all the bombs they were carrying across the wire into the German trench, after which, seeing that the party on their left was retiring, and having lost both their officers, they fell back.

The first wave of the left party started off well under 2nd Lieut. Cummins, a very gallant young officer whom I had put in command in place of the original commander, who was the officer I have mentioned as being absent on a course. The Sergeant, Hackett, was almost immediately killed. The party met with heavy opposition, and some of the men behind them faltering. Captain Garvey, who was in charge of the assaulting parties, ran out across Noman’s Land to rally them.

He fell wounded, and Lieut. T. Hughes, commanding the left support, ran forward to help rally the waverers. Private John Collins did the same. This man acted with great dash, rushing recklessly towards the German trench, shouting “Come on the Connaughts”—a cry which some of the enemy took up. Sergeant Purcell and Privates Twohig and Elwin also did their best to encourage the others, the latter standing up and firing with his rifle at the Germans, who now began freely to expose themselves, till he fell, shot through the neck.

At last, prudence–or is it free will, or some sort of permission to abandon foolish and painful hopes and refuse further profligacy?–reasserts itself.

Hughes showed great gallantry, again and again exposing himself; then, recognizing that the raid had failed, he fell back, and with the aid of Cummins and two privates—King and Healy—carried Garvey back to the shelter of our trench.

In the meantime the enemy had been retaliating violently upon our front line and communication trench with high explosive and shrapnel, as was to be expected.

Less expected is the sequel:

After some two hours the firing on both sides died away, and by 9.30 all was quiet. An incident then took place which I think was as remarkable as any that this most unchivalrous of wars can have yet produced.

Our dead and many of the wounded still lay out in Noman’s Land, when the fog lifted and the German trench became clearly visible. As I stood in the middle of the fire-trench a man came running to me and reported that the enemy had allowed what he called “an armistice,” for the purpose of collecting the wounded who were lying in front of the right extremity of the section.

I hurried along the trench and found that this was literally true. Already parties of men were out dressing the wounded and carrying them back to our line. One of my officers and a German were bending together over a wounded man alongside the enemy wire. The Germans, in considerable numbers, were lolling over and even sitting upon their parapet, watching the proceedings. My own men were doing the same. As the stretcher-bearers started to move the dead the enemy called out to “leave the dead alone,” but no notice was taken of this.

I asked how this extraordinary state of affairs had originated. I was told that the Germans had called out in English, “Send out your stretchermen,” and that a number of volunteers—stretcher-bearers, real and self-constituted (the latter of course stretcher-less)—had immediately climbed over the parapet.

I noticed Private Collins. He is one of the “wild men” of the battalion. He was sauntering about with a pipe in his mouth, wearing a bomber’s waistcoat, the pockets bulging with bombs. This was obviously out of order under
the circumstances, and was only asking for trouble;—in fact the Germans, I had been told, when they issued their invitation to the stretcher-bearers had stipulated (rather naturally) that the latter should come unarmed.

I told Collins to put down his bombs, which he did rather sheepishly, as though he had suddenly remembered for the first time that he had them on. Then, after a parting warning, I moved off towards the left section of the trench, to see how things were faring there.

The “armistice” had spread, and the scene, if possible, was more remarkable than that which I had left. The distance between the enemy’s trench and ours is considerably less here than on the right, being not more than 40
yards at the narrowest point.

I found numerous Germans—almost shoulder to shoulder—leaning over their parapet, exposed from the waist up:
on our side it was the same. All were interestedly watching the stretcher-bearers at work in Noman’s Land. A German officer was walking excitedly up and down along the top of his parapet, shouting in perfect English to my men to “get their heads” down or he would open fire, at the same time gesticulating vigorously with his arm.

The whole proceeding was of course highly irregular, and the last of our wounded and dead having by this time been recovered, I ordered, the men below the parapet, and a second or two later every head on both sides had disappeared: both the German trench and ours had become normal, and the war had re-started.

Thought I to myself, “These people cannot always be so bad as they are painted”: then I proceeded to take stock.
But the enemy had exacted payment for his generosity. The officer I had seen near the German wire was missing,
as were one or two others.

There may be something to be said in the case of the officer. He had foolishly neglected to remove his revolver (or rather revolvers, since he had two) before going out, and having looked into the enemy’s trench was perhaps fair game.

At the same time, by what subterfuge he and the others were inveigled into becoming prisoners, I do not know, and shall not know till the war is over; if then.

 

This letter has read largely like an official report–Feilding must describe the truce to someone, just not those in a position to disapprove of so unwarlike an action. The next letter reads very differently, and shows the strain that he has been under: he is, after all, both the commander of a battalion that he couldn’t protect and a subordinate to generals who will punish this breach of murderous decorum. And although he had no volition in the matter of the “raid,” he cannot feel that he doesn’t have responsibility for the losses.

February 20 (Night).

I fly to you when I am in trouble, and I am feeling very sick at heart, to-night. Ivan Garvey—the ideal Company
Commander—the bravest, the cheeriest, the most loyal and perfect of men, was reported a few hours ago to be dead of his wounds. How readily he undertook the work when I first proposed it to him!

As I passed the Aid Post yesterday, on my way back from the line, I went in, and found him asleep under morphia, so did not get a chance to speak to him. Nobody thought he would die then. Priestman, the Brigade Major, who had been by my side during the affair of the morning, had seen him earlier before I was able to get away from the fire-trench. He told me he was semi-conscious then, and that he had thought he (Priestman) was me. I like to think that he asked for me.

My God! if the people at home could actually see with their eyes this massacring of the cream of our race, what a terrible shock it would be to them! But we must see it through. All are agreed upon that.

Nine of my best officers went over yesterday. Three of these are left to-day. And, in addition, one more of my Company Commanders (Fitzgerald) is gone, as the result of this enterprise. He was wounded while cutting the gaps through our own wire, preparatory to the raid, so severely that he too may die.

But all this is not unusual. It is the toll to be expected from a raid when it is unsuccessful, and indeed often when it is successful; and the success or failure of a raid is largely a matter of chance.

I was present at the burial of some of the killed this afternoon, including that of two of my most promising young officers. That is the tragedy of the war. The best are taken. The second best are often left in the safe places.

General Pereira came and saw me this morning, and stayed some time. He was more kind and consoling than
I can say. Private Elwin, too, has died.[1]

I have been unable–in a cursory search–to find out anything more about the officer who strayed too close to the German wire. The story is so strange, and yet not unlikely. Was the German truce a ruse? Spontaneous mercy followed by spontaneous opportunism? Most likely, perhaps, is that the truce was a spontaneous act of mercy, and the later capture of the British officer was due to the action of German officers who, like Feilding, happened upon a truce in progress–and thought better of it.

Feilding tells the story of his small disaster as straight as it can be told, it would seem. And yet his dismay at the pointlessness of it, the bloodiness of the poor plan, poorly enacted, is so palpable that it feels worse than it was: I don’t know about the officer and the “one or two” other prisoners, nor do I know how many men were wounded. But, according to the CWGC, “only” ten men were killed: the three officers and the sergeant, Private Elwin, and five other men with one stripe between them.

Will there be any calling to account for the failure of the raid? Or, rather, for the “armistice” which followed? Or even for the failure of the armistice and the apparent capture of an officer wandering No Man’s Land in broad daylight? It will take a few days to find out.

 

From combat, then, to war as catalyst and background to young people’s self-discovery. Vera Brittain’s correspondence with her brother has been slowed by her posting to Malta, but the intensity of the exchange has only deepened. Today, a century back, Vera’s lofty mind dwells on the problem of sex…

Malta, 20 February 1917

You & I are not only aesthetic but ascetic — at any rate in regard to sex. Or perhaps, since ‘ascetic’ implies rather a lack of emotion, it would be more correct to say exclusive–Geoffrey is very much this, and Victor, & Roland was. What I mean by this is, that so many people are attracted by the opposite sex simply because it is the opposite sex–the average officer & the average ‘nice girl’ demand, I am sure, little else but this. But where you & I are concerned, sex by itself doesn’t interest us unless it is united with brains & personality; in fact we rather think of the latter first, & the person’s sex afterwards. This is quite enough to put you off the average ‘nice girl’, who would neither give you what you want nor make the effort herself to try & understand you when other men, who can give her what she wants, are so much easier to understand. . . .

That is Vera’s ellipsis[2] and it gives me a chance to cough meaningfully and swoop in before all this gets out of hand. She is both quite perceptive, here, and very, very dim. She would be a modern woman, engaging the boys on her own terms, and yet she is still very much a provincial young lady, blind to the complexities of real life.

Once again I preface this analysis with the warning that late 20th century categories (I don’t quite flatter myself that I am more up to date than that) can only clumsily be applied to the sexual identities of Edwardian and Georgian England. Pigeonholes are much nicer than closets, but still constraining.

Yet oversimplification is an expedient wickedness here–let sexual complexity suffer so that I am not guilty of leaving strategy to wither, unbefriended and oversimplified, all alone! It’s more or less accurate to say, simply, that the reason Edward Brittain is disinterested in nice girls is that he is gay. Or leave identity out of it, and stick to interest: he is probably far from being able or willing to acknowledge this even in a private way, but he is interested in… nice boys. Moreover, it seems very likely that Geoffrey is too–and quite possible that they have been interested in each other.

Asceticism? Perhaps, but that’s not really the question when it comes to Edward and the sexual appeal of young women. And as for Vera, there were many obstacles between Vera and Roland’s kiss or two and what should have followed–a formidable mother, all the ignorance and fear of their upbringing, a German machine gun. But Vera, although she subordinates the whole crew–herself and the three boys–to Roland, is still blinkered. She and he were “ascetic,” when it came to sex, but Edward is not necessarily the same way–he is necessarily secretive, and so we cannot know.

One might hope that she is wrong about his asceticism as well. There was certainly repression and dissimulation, but perhaps there was connection, too. Perhaps, in that brief, intense, training-camp friendship, there was pleasure given and taken between Edward and Geoffrey.

As for Victor, he fairly obviously has feelings for Vera, and I can’t recall him expressing much enthusiasm for intellectual rigor and sensual restraint. But he is bring roped in to the group–last, as usual, the dullest of the group. How, if it were the case that he felt physical passion for Vera, would he broach that subject? His please would fall on ascetic ears… But never mind; Victor is in France, and overlooked, and Vera is in Malta, disinterested in the possibly lustful glances of her fallen fiancé’s–and beloved brother’s–less brilliant friend.

I shouldn’t be too hard on Vera; it’s sad that the most important relationship she has in her life must have this silence near the center of it. I hope that Edward smiled tolerantly when he read her fond hopes for his future sexual happiness:

I think very probably that older women will appeal to you much more than younger ones, as they do to me. This means that you will probably have to wait a good many years before you find anyone you could wish to marry, but I don’t think this need worry you, for there is plenty of time, & very often people who wait get something well worth waiting for.

. . . I think the old saw about young women being so much older than young men for their age has always been very untrue & since the War is more so than ever… in the things that really count it is the boy who is grown-up; he has had responsibilities which under the present benighted system of educating women she has never had the fringe of — especially if he is at a Public School. The boy of eighteen or nineteen has probably — and since the War certainly, had to cope with questions of morality & immorality whose seriousness would astound her if she  understood it, and deal with subjects of whose very existence she is probably ignorant…

Exceptional as I was, I don’t think the I of the days before I had loved & lost Roland would satisfy the You of to-day.

Does she stray closer to the mark, at the end? Perhaps, but only to miss it and continue on…

I don’t think it’s a question of upbringing at all… of course it may be true that Father’s very Early Victorian attitude towards women may unconsciously have influenced & even reproduced itself in you a little–I have noticed occasionally a slight suspicion of patronage in your dealings with women; I don’t really think this is because you think their sex inferior so much as you realise their inferiority (as it probably is) to you in personality & brain. I, conversely, feel the same with many men! But it is necessary to be rather more careful in dealing with women, as if a man patronises a woman she always thinks it is because of her sex, whereas if a woman patronises a man, he (if he is acute enough to notice it, which he generally isn’t) never puts it down to his!

. . . It is such a wild stormy night & the sea is beating the rocks like anything. On this island, the land seems to shrink as one knows it better, & the miles & miles of sea between here & home to get longer & longer — though I can still write to you across them! But one begins to understand a little the significance of the Revelation — ‘And there was no more sea.’ For here sea is the very symbol of separation.[3]

 

Finally, today, Charles Scott Moncrieff‘s time as a sick man in Amiens is over–but it has proved to be personally fruitful. He will find a desk job with his unit and begin busily essay-ing and reviewing…

B.E.F., Shrove Tuesday, February, 1917.

I got back to the Regiment last night. I am Second in Command again for the present as the Colonel is taking the Brigade while the Brigadier is having measles…  I saw various friends at Amiens, including Vyvyan Holland, whom I had not seen for years, also the Sheepshanks who was in College with me, and Gibson of Lister House, who was 2nd in Command at Cimiez last year. I am living on the road that Herries and I galloped madly down on the morning of the Battle of Loos—on my 26th birthday. . . [4]

Vyvyan “Why? Why?” Holland is, since his brother Cyril was killed by a sniper in 1915, the sole surviving son of Oscar Wilde. Now an officer in the artillery, Holland is a committed Catholic and a writer and close with Robbie Ross, his father’s lover, friend and executor.

This puts Moncrieff in the outer orbit of another one of our central literary circles–and, with the friendship with Holland revived, he will come in closer. Given the discussion of Vera’s letter and our general level of prurience, it seems prudent to make the usually unremarkable remark that Holland, as it happens, was straight…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 151-7.
  2. Or the editor's?
  3. Letters From a Lost Generation, 320-2.
  4. Diaries, 125; Alas and apologies that I was not monitoring Moncrieff as early as 1915...

Vera Brittain on the Beauties and Defects of Naples, While Geoffrey Thurlow Faces a Bayonet Charge; Dorothie Feilding on Pigsties and Defensive Lines

We can pass over the fact that gentle souls like J.R.R. Tolkien and Edmund Blunden are enduring the nastiness of trench life around Thiepval today, a century back, and amble southwards in order to recapture a sense of romance and adventure. Our provincial young lady is enjoying an abbreviated grand tour: the Britannic, bringing her to Malta by a roundabout route, has put in at Naples. This is Vera Brittain‘s first taste of Italy.

The transhipping rumour was a false alarm, and at midday on Friday we were all allowed on shore in small parties. Stella & I & some others were taken around by a Sister who lived in Venice before the War & knew Italian. We spent a long & happy time wandering round the streets; everything was a blaze of colour. In every little piazza there seemed to be an enclosed green space where various kinds of palms & cactus grew. & every available bit of grass was covered with crimson and scarlet salvia. Even the beggars, who of course crowded round, were dressed in faded gay colours; nearly all seemed to be in some way halt, maimed, blind or diseased, & to exhibit their defects almost with pride. Italy is a corrupt country, no doubt.”[1]

No doubt, no doubt. Ah, well. Anyway: Malta is a small island that is becoming an enormous hospital base, and the work there will be hardly more beautiful than it was in Camberwell. But this is the journey, and it is new and exciting…

In France, it takes more mental effort to find excitement or beauty. Blunden is writing poetry and dreaming of libraries, Tolkien is working–when he has time–on another world.

Geoffrey Thurlow, the best training-camp-friend of Vera’s brother Edward, came out earlier than either. He has been wounded, and–in Vera’s estimation, for she befriended Thurlow and spent much time with him in London–is struggling with the psychological aftereffects of what he has seen and endured. He has found, in his friend’s sister–the intellectual, the nurse, the would-be perfect-care-giver–a friend to rely on. These boys have grown up with a code of stoicism and reserve, and to find a young woman who is sympathetic, and safe, and serious, and pretty much as close as a young woman can be to the edge of the experiential gulf that divides them… well, it seems invaluable. If they don’t talk about loneliness and terror then at least, perhaps, they can leave silences around these things that she might understand. There is Edward Brittain himself, so close to his big sister; there is clumsy and sweet Victor Richardson, the third musketeer of school days with the martyred Roland, and now the nervous Geoffrey… three young officers who depend upon her.

Is there romance in this? Well, not as such. Vera still carries the torch for Roland, and she seems to think of Victor as a little dull and Geoffrey as skittish and damaged. But in any case I meant to discuss ro-MANCE, the adventure of travel and discovery, not RO-mance. Geoffrey Thurlow has little of that as he waits his turn in the Somme’s last effort. But he will try to entertain, at least:

France, 29 September 1916

Edward’s letter yesterday told me that you were sailing on the 24th so I expect you will have been in Malta some time before this note reaches you…

Tho’ we are some way behind the line sounds of a great battle can be distinctly heard. We are doing very intensive training…  And then up into the breach again…

This afternoon we were suddenly attacked on bayonet parade (Officers & NCO’s only) by 4 valiant little Frenchman ages from 4-6 each carrying a long stick with an apple attached to its end. When within 20 yds they opened fire by dropping the sticks behind their heads & then swishing them forward quickly & enroute the apple shot off but didn’t hit its mark! They were jolly little men but one was a lunatic I think. However we laughed at them till we wept!

…Some of our officers have seen the new ‘tanks’ but I haven’t yet. I hope I do so before we leave this place.[2]

 

For Dorothie Feilding, the romance of the war is somewhat attenuated after more than two years–but she, too, does her best. She is not in grave, daily danger now that Belgium has become a “quiet” section of the front, and her mother has loved ones in greater danger–a brother with the Guards, another brother killed at Jutland–not to mention a husband “dug out” into active service. But it should be clear by now both that Lady Dorothie’s effervescence cannot possibly be entirely feigned and that, nevertheless, she makes an effort to infuse even more bubbles into her letters.

The family has all gone to war, and lightly amusing stories make the best letters home:

29th Sept 16
Mother dear

I had a fat head today & feeling a bit grubby so took a day off at no 14.I am being lazy & having brekker in bed…

No 14 is now very beautiful. The Canadians offered to build me a fireplace in the sitting room, as we haven’t one in the whole house, only a dirty little stove. The trouble was how to get a barrel of cement, half a ton of bricks & several immense Canadians into the house without the old patron next door, who owns 14, bulling in & raising hell, as he always does if he even hears you driving a nail in the wall.

Of course he came in like a Jack in a box the moment they arrived, but Hélène informed him gravely we were making a ‘trou-de-cochon’ or pigsty in the back garden. He quite believed it & asked what we were going to feed
them on?

Thus the fireplace was well under way & a nice large hole knocked in his ceiling before he could interfere & we are the proud possessors of a nice open fireplace. The only trouble is that there is now hardly any room left to sit in, but you can’t have everything can you?

That Lady Dorothie is, by this point, a true veteran shows not only in her eagerness to scrounge and win basic winter comforts in advance but also in her smooth pivot to a serious and well-balanced appreciation of the news from the Somme:

…I hear our losses this last 10 days good advance have been wonderfully few considering, & far less than in the earlier stages. The artillery preparation seems to have been stupendous. I have seen several people these last days who have just left there. The French have only a little over a quarter of our losses from last July. I have this from the old boy you & Squeaker stayed with out here, partly due to their more efficient artillery preparation & to a great deal because the Germans have massed many more troops in front of the English; they would rather go back 10 miles in front of the French than in front of us as everyone knows. But everything seems going really well now & generally optimistic about Fritz being made to draw back in the S to his 2nd line before the winter. I’m afraid no earthly chance of that here. The coast is too precious to them, & they will have to be very beat indeed before they will let go of it.

Goodbye Mother mine & much love
DoDo[3]

This is all correct: the progress on the Somme is indeed is due to the scale of the British effort, improved artillery tactics, and the German willingness–having resisted stubbornly throughout the summer–to effect an operational withdrawal on the eve of winter. And, not least, the final implication: that the British “victory” to which the Germans have acquiesced has little strategic significance–the line has bent and bulged a little, but not moved in any crucial way…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Chronicle of Youth, 329-330.
  2. Letters From a Lost Generation, 277.
  3. Lady Under Fire, 165-6.

Deadly Playthings from Kate Luard; More Renunciations from Vera Brittain

A sad story today from Kate Luard:

Friday, January 21st. Last night three small children were brought in wounded. They had found an unexploded bomb in a field and took it home to play with–one was killed in this game of play, one severely wounded and two more wounded. The two we have in the Surgical Division are Gustave, aged 1 3/4, hit in the leg and hand, and Robert, aged 3, hit in the tummy, thigh, and foot, very white and quiet, poor lamb. The baby is round and rosy and both are very good. Everybody adores them, of course…

I write a lot about “innocence,” here, yet I am usually describing callow youths with dreams of glory, not babies. This is different. Worse, of course. And yet why should we be surprised? It was more shocking in 1916 than 2016 to realize that people–especially poorer, more rural people–will often remain when war comes to their communities. There are fields still to be tilled, property to be guarded… and children who will remain imperfectly supervised. Nor should it be surprising that dud shells (the likely meaning of “bomb,” here, although a grenade or aerial bomb are possible) do not necessarily stay inert.

There is no further mention of the dead child. Luard is a nurse, and her brief is current suffering. Later, she will report that

The two babies are better. The three-year-old demands beer and refuses everything else, so he’s had some and has gone to sleep. The baby looks like a Raphael baby, and looks absolutely adorable asleep.

And yet, in between, Luard has time for a trip to Béthune, “where we heard the nightingales and the guns in May,” and a visit to No. 1 C.C.S. And, of course, to the church:

After seeing over No. 1, I dived into the big Church and was struck all of a fresh heap by its extraordinary beauty and atmosphere. In the Grand Place under the Belfry, the R.F.A. Band was playing ‘A Wandering Minstrel I’ to a vast khaki crowd…”[1]

This image–uniformed artillery bandsmen prattling through some Gilbert and Sullivan in the shadow of a Gothic belfry–may be the most concise and intense vision of Wartime-Britain-in-France we have yet seen. Surely there is a displaced accordion-and-mime duo muttering “zut alors” as they decamp down a side-street.

 

Vera Brittain, nearing the end of her first month as a mourner, is in low spirits today, a century back. She can’t make plans, yet she is making plans; she shows flashes of recognition that she is well-looked-after and loved, yet she doesn’t quite realize the gift of her privilege (or the privilege of gifts).

Friday January 21st Camberwell

Night-duty was as loathly as usual, though not quite as bad as some have been lately. I had a very nice letter from Daddy, applauding my decision to leave off nursing & take a rest to think things over. He promises to give me £50, nearly all of which I shall not want, & most of which I probably shall not spend, as I hope to save a little, but which I will not refuse this time as it will be a useful stand-by to have in the background & will save me from financial worry amid my other anxieties. One’s parents are queer people…

I went on the top of a ’bus to Regent St to look at mourning rings, but did not see anything that I liked. I hate Regent St now; it is full of young officers, who all make me think of that officer with whom I once walked in Regent St, and who will never walk there with me again.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Unknown Warriors, 37-8.
  2. Chronicle of Youth, 306.

Vera Brittain Plays Meet the Parents; The Coterie Rankles in Blighty; Edward Hermon Down in the Dumps

Vera Brittain has a day off today–or, rather, a night. And what better way to spend it than going to Brighton, whither her parents have removed, and thereby convening the first-ever Meeting of the Future In-Laws.

Sunday December 13th-Tuesday December 14th

Night-duty was much as usual, but long, because I was impatient for it to be over. Nothing occurred to prevent my going for the night off, and I had a letter from Mother in the morning to say they would be pleased to see me. So after supper I dashed off, got the 10.5 to Brighton & arrived I there in no time, as I was half-asleep all the way. It was a glorious I morning, and I saw again the sight I love so well–the sun shining on a wide expanse of sea… there seemed to be a good many soldiers & girls about, either engaged or newly married…

Mother had written the previous evening to Mrs Leighton asking her either to dinner or tea, & when we arrived we had found a wire from her saying she would come to tea. After 4.0 I waited about in the lounge & on the verandah. Mother waited too; she had put on a purple velvet dress in which she looked very sweet, but seemed a little nervous at the prospect of the momentous meeting… I suppose I ought to have been nervous too, but I was so pleased at the thought of seeing Mrs Leighton that I quite forgot to be. She arrived at 4.30–a little late as they had had to wait for the train on Hassocks Station–and brought Mr Leighton too. I introduced Mother & Daddy & we all settled down to tea in the lounge…

Momentous indeed. And it says something about Vera’s (restored) confidence in Roland that she “quite forgot” to be nervous about her parents–so provincial, so annoying!–meeting Mrs. Leighton, whom Vera continues to see as an accomplished literary woman and a near-confidante (even though we might see her rather as her boyfriend’s intrusive, too-close, self-dramatizing mother whose writing does not quite merit such pretensions). Vera had prepared her father for the unusual habits of this unusual woman, and to good effect:

as he had been well warned, Mrs Leighton’s eccentric garments appeared not to disturb him at all. I saw she had made up her mind to be especially charming to Daddy, who, as I expected, appeared to interest her more than Mother.

This is apparently typical of Mrs. Leighton, and once again Vera seems to be oddly innocent of the ways of the world. Or twice again: when her brother Edward–Roland’s best school friend–comes up,

[t]hey discussed Edward & she criticised him in her usual way without his minding in the least, & even asked him if Edward’s lack of comprehension of women was inherited from his father.

It’s fairly clear that Mrs. Leighton suspects that Edward Brittain is gay. But what an odd way to bring it up–how could any information be gleaned, with so many different innuendos that could be missed?

I did not talk much, but sat opposite her & watched Roland’s sweetest expression coming & going as she smiled. She told me I was looking ever so much better than when she last saw me, when she felt quite troubled about me & wrote & told Roland she was sure I was putting up with more than he was!

But she said to-day that she was going to write & tell him I looked charming! She spoke to Mother & Father of her certainty that Roland & I were bound exceptionally strongly to one another, by intellectual as well as emotional ties, and that his love for me was essentially of the nature of a romance, chivalrous & loyal. She said she would not be surprised at anything he wanted to do–she said this very meaningly & smiled at me. I knew what she meant of course, & when she left & said that she hoped I didn’t mean to go on nursing for the rest of the war if it were a long one, I said that only some very big thing would make me stop. When they had gone Daddy… confessed Mrs Leighton had charmed him absolutely, and said she was benevolence itself, while Mr Leighton was a very capable man behind all his quietness.[1]

If only all things could go as smoothly as this meeting of the parents. We will see much of this again tomorrow, as Vera reworks the diary entry into a letter for Roland. She seems cheerfully oblivious–of all but the broad hint at moving their open-ended engagement along. She knows better than to pass on that sort of maternal interference toward the boy himself, at least…

 

A grinding shift of gears, now, to work in a little crossing of paths between two of our supporting players. The perambulating Aubrey Herbert–the original interfering amateur and the alleged inspiration for the character of Sandy Arbuthnott–has made it back to England after his physical collapse in the Dardnalles and semi-escape into a life of intrigue in Alexandria (where he crossed contrails with his fictional alter ego). But, like many soldiers who have been somewhere very different and very dangerous for many months, he is struggling to adjust to life at home.

Dinner at “Coterie Headquarters” with the ever-mischievous Diana Manners might thus not have been a great idea. Cynthia Asquith described Herbert’s mien in no uncertain terms: “He was in a state of frenzied resentment and irritation against Diana who rasps his war nerves. He is badly physically haunted by his experience.”

And Herbert had reason to be especially on edge: earlier today he had heard that his offer to go back and join the small force covering the evacuation at Anzac cove might be accepted. Had he done so, he would likely have had plenty of time to perfect his knowledge of the Turkish language, since capture was likely. Happily, he will find out in a few days that the evacuation will proceed with out his aid.[2]

 

Finally, today, a melancholy note from Edward Hermon. After the Great Misunderstanding of his leave-end leave-taking, trust and loving happy communication between himself and his wife Ethel have been restored. It all may, in fact, be stronger–especially if one values, as he now proclaims, purer honesty.

In some ways I do feel that I have never been away, just as coming home again made one feel the same, but there are times when one misses something & things seem dull & blank & one gets sort of fed up & wonders how it will all end. I’m feeling a bit that way tonight…

It’s a great blessing being able to write like this as if it wasn’t for your letters dearie, I don’t know how much more poisonous it would be… I am very lonely now. The home influence & associations haven’t worn off yet & at times I want you very badly my dear,

My love to you my darling.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Chronicle of Youth, 293-4.
  2. Fitzherbert, The Man Who Was Greenmantle, 170-1.
  3. For Love and Courage, 143.

Vera Brittain and Roland Leighton, From Buxton to London To Lowestoft–and From Provincial Young-Ladyhood to the Enfolding Arms of the Great Mother

Harold Macmillan, a young officer of the new 4th Battalion of the Grenadier Guards now in reserve in France, wrote to his mother today, a century back. An erudite parcel request:

If you are writing again, will you please also send me my edition of the Iliad? Bks 1-12. It is one of the brown Oxford texts…[1]

Some light reading.

Well, that’s enough of France! Another of our young intellectual subalterns has, after all, just spent his first night in Buxton as the more-or-less-but-not-quite formally acknowledged suitor of Vera Brittain.

Saturday August 21st

Breakfast–for which I was careful to arrive in time & Roland came down late–was a somewhat embarrassing meal. Last night I had teased him about the letters I was keeping for him & said I would either not give them back or else ask something so impossible that he would have to let me keep them rather than give it. I had been thinking everything over the night before–I did not go to bed till about 1.0–and many of the objections to our engagement which I had first seen & tormented him over seemed to have faded away. I wanted to tell him this, and to give him back my letters, but felt shy, and didn’t quite know how to do it. I waited about & put it off till a few minutes before we had to go to the station. Then I called him into the drawing-room and we both stood by the window, I with the letters in my hands. At last I said abruptly “Here you are; take them. You can have them after all. I don’t want anything for them.” I knew what I did want, but all through me we weren’t engaged & I did not dare to ask for it.

Then I said vaguely “What we were talking about last night. . . I didn’t know what to do, but I do want to do the right thing, but if you still want me to. . .”

“Well?” he said.

“Alright,” I answered.

“Oh!” he said coldly & a little ironically. “Do you really think it necessary?”

I didn’t know how to take him nor he how to take me. We stood looking at each other for a minute or two. Mother began to call for us to get ready to go to the station. I wanted him so much to speak to them before he left, perhaps never to see them again, but I didn’t know how to ask him to. I put the letters into his hand and simply said abruptly “Take them.” So we went away without his having said a word to [Mother & Father] about me or the future, & I felt a very bitter regret, not alleviated by the fact that it was all my fault.

Once on the London train the same embarrassment & intermittent sparring as on the previous evening began again. I kept reading my own letters, chiefly to myself, but now & then out loud to him. I asked him if he was surprised that I had taken his “proposal” in the way I had. He said he was certainly a little astonished at first, though if he had thought about it beforehand he would probably have known that I should take it just exactly as I did. We were getting a little more in touch with one another & he was condescending to move a little from his distant seat by the other window when a somewhat inquisitive young officer came & shared our carriage, and by the time Leicester came & he got out, the freezing process had proceeded some way again. But this time we talked the subject of an engagement without much ado and he kept urging me to say something, whatever it was. “Say what you want, whether right or not,” he said.

And so this fierce courtship of intellectuals begins to fumble toward drawing-room comedy. Although it’s not quite clear, is it, that the writer-protagonist is fully in on the joke. Oh, drat those parents and wandering strangers on a train! But what, really, was she thinking?

If it had not been for shyness I should have capitulated quite. After some more vague discussion, I finally said “Very well, I will show what I should have said last night if I had said what I really wanted to say.”

“Well?” he said. “What is it?”

I took out of the packet one of the letters I had written him when he first went to the Front–the one I wrote to answer that in which he said he had been kissing my photograph. At the end of my own letter I had said “I envy the photograph. It is more fortunate than its original; she has never quite been able to break through your reserve. . .” I smiled half-cynically to myself as I read this. With him there beside me it was so difficult to believe that I could ever have brought myself to put it. He seized hold of the letter & tried to take it away, & after a little resistance I gave it up to him, pointing to the momentous words. He read it in silence, & then looked at me, & I back at him, still with the very cynical expression. Suddenly he came over from his window & kissed me–with such a boyish shyness & awkwardness that I could have laughed–only I shivered instead. He had so obviously never kissed any other girl before me. I wonder how many young men of his age could say the same. I drew away from him and said rather mockingly “Oh, you needn’t be in a hurry. You certainly haven’t had much practice at this!”

Ack! Way to make the competent young subaltern remember his days as a stumbling schoolboy. What’s to be gained, young lady? Is there time for all this!?!?!

Again there was silence & then I began to talk again, seriously this time & on a difficult subject–which however I had to touch upon in order to explain my somewhat strange-attitude. I spoke of the lack of faith I had in men & their love–& expressed my doubts whether the intellectual & spiritual in love could rise & live untarnished in spite of its constant association with the physical that is in us all. I told him how I had hated the idea of marriage & how I had determined before meeting him that I never would marry anyone. . . I told him all about B.S.[2] “He didn’t want a companion,” I said, rather fiercely. “He just wanted a wife.”

“I’m not like that,” said Roland in the gentle, considerate voice I have learnt to associate with the rousing of his emotion. “In fact, rather the opposite.”

“I know,” I said. “I wouldn’t stop in this carriage another minute if I thought you were.”

He laughed–a little bitterly, and his eyes looked rather distressed.

“Forgive me for seeming to doubt you like this,” I said. “I do trust you more than anyone in the world. But I have thought on this subject–& got so angry about it that all my views have grown a little distorted. The iron has entered into my soul & I can’t get it out. You do understand, don’t you?”

“Yes,” he said sadly, “ I do understand.”

“And are you angry with me,” I asked, “for talking like this?”

“No, dear–of course I’m not,’’ he said, still very gravely.

“I will try & trust in you,” I said. “And learn to believe in you these few days.”

So, without any actual question and answer, but more through a mutual arrangement founded on a mutual understanding, we agreed to consider ourselves engaged. We admitted too that, much as we would have liked to keep it to ourselves, the world for convenience’ sake would have to know. We decided with some amusement that we would tell Mrs Leighton we were engaged for three years or the duration of the war. The originality of the notion seemed to please Roland, even though the reservation had no foundation in fact. So the conversation lost its previous tone of seriousness & almost gloom, though Roland remained rather distant & grave all through the day.

So they are to consider themselves engaged–a big step, and a bit of a save considering how badly Vera mishandled Roland’s initial proposal. The “three years or the duration” is clever, playing on the terms of enlistment which soldiers would agree to, and it gives them what is, especially for this couple, a sense of pleasurable superiority and uniqueness.

Edward, & Victor were on St. Pancras Station waiting for us. Roland, not quite so tall & much broader, seeming much older, in the tunic he had slept in many times & a very worn & dirty-looking Sam Browne belt, presented a very marked contrast to the other two. (Really I think he was rather proud to emphasize his négligé & war-worn “Front” appearance.)

He was–in the memoir, written later, Vera Brittain explains that the style in 1915 was for officers with experience in the trenches to show it through what would have been, in pre-war terms, unconscionably sloppy dress. Thus they visually asserted their distinction from the New Army officers yet to hear the sound of the guns. Later, when everybody had “been out,” the real hard-bitten officer was likely to return to traditional military smartness, or even dandyism.[3]

Our eye has been fixed on this relationship for a very long time, peering, as it were, over Vera’s shoulder. Yet Roland’s story is only mostly–and only recently–all about Vera. Like most schoolboys-transmuted-into-officers (Tolkien and his TCBS comes to mind) Roland’s experience was also meant to be shared with his fast friends. But he had gotten out first, and this causes consternation.

So the Three Musketeers, as Mrs Leighton calls them, met together for the first time since the War began. From their calm greeting you would never have guessed that in the meantime Victor had almost passed through the gates of Death [an illness, not combat], that Roland had had five months of the possibility of coming to them, face to face, that Edward had overcome various difficulties placed in his way of being a soldier, or that Roland had fallen in love with me.

Last but not least!

I thought I might be in the way, & had made plans to leave the three alone but in the end none of them came off. However I managed to give them a short interval to themselves during the afternoon & otherwise played the part of a very interested spectator without seeming to be in the way at all.

During a long & somewhat elaborate lunch Roland did most of the talking, which to me who am used to his saying very little, appeared somewhat unusual. I can easily understand that at school he must have been the acknowledged leader of the three. The great idea of the two was to ask him questions about things at the Front–technical details &  problems of all kinds–& then let him expound them at length, which he did quite readily.

Vera has “managed” to give the boys a little liberty, but she has kept herself in the picture. It’s probably more or less true–as she assumes–that few young women heard the among-the-boys version of life in the trenches.

I listened with great interest, as I had never been given such a good idea of the Front before. It isn’t every man that has enough reverence for women to speak without reserve–as he does, the dear Feminist–of the business side of his life. But he knows that a woman–at any rate this particular woman–could understand very well indeed. He went into all sorts of technical details about trenches, barbed-wire entanglements, positions etc. He dealt too with many of the usually unmentioned & more unpleasant aspects of the war, such as the condition of the charnel-house trenches, or the shooting of sentries who go to sleep on duty & are described in the casualty list as “Died”. Military discipline I suppose–but all the same it makes me feel sick to hear about it; no man can quite understand what it means to a woman, who knows the trouble & pain the production of an individual costs, to hear of this light destruction of a human creature for what may be simply the result of physical overstrain. But I suppose it might have such serious consequences that this cruel stringency is imperative. Roland told us how he saved the life of one such man–a very decent person–by waking him up before the Corporal who was with him came on the scene…

Vera is right, and will eventually be recognized as right–but not before scores of exhausted or traumatized solders are shot by their own army. Is this a (twenty-year-old) woman’s sense of the value of life, or a nurse’s intuition that prolonged modern warfare is physically impossible to sustain? Or, rather, an intelligent person’s simple realization that old military codes are cruel and unjust…

But this is no way to spend their first full day together as an acknowledged couple.

Roland turned to me & asked me to excuse him for the technical details he was going into. I told him with some scorn that I was as much interested in them as anyone else. He smiled & continued & did not apologise again.

Soon it was time for the train again (Roland says he never sees me except either in the train or at meals!).

So. Then off to Lowestoft, where Vera now meets for the first time Roland’s younger brother and sister and his father. Mr Leighton is older, nearly deaf, and generally reminiscent of the king in Princess Bride–except, of course, for the fact that he is married to a combination of Mama Rose, Sarah Bernhardt, and a middle class Lady Desborough.

The dramatic, expansive Mrs. Leighton immediately steals the show, sweeping about the big house, swathed in lamp-light chiaroscuro under the blackout curtains…

She took me to see her temporary bedroom, where only a candle, which she only lit for a moment, was allowed, and which seemed to be almost entirely filled by a very huge bed. Roland followed us in, and in a very few minutes we had all established ourselves on the bed, where we stayed talking for at least an hour. Roland lolled on the pillow end of the bed, & Mrs Leighton on the other, while I sat on the edge of it with my feet dangling down a long way from the ground.

I really don’t think that Vera–who has no real knowledge of how this family (or any other, save her own) works–is as aware as he might be about the unusual intensity of Mrs. Leighton and Roland’s relationship, and of the challenges this will pose to the almost-engaged couple. But that, perhaps, his half-assed biographical criticism on my part.

Another problem is that we, still coasting down the long reverse slope of the Freudian era, might see too much. History, remember, is lost before it is found, then written, then–like any literature–created anew in the mind of each reader.

So that’s us–recreating the scene, and unable to read past that “very huge bed.” And yet, striving to read with as little of our baggage as possible, wouldn’t we say that the writer of that paragraph, who depicts herself/her protagonist dangling girl-like from a bed on which her lover and his mother “loll,” has some idea of what is going on? She might not have read Freud, but doesn’t, at least, the Vera of a few days hence–the writer rather than the in-the-moment mother-meeter–suspect something? Does she encode in the narrative, half-knowing, a strangeness she may not have realized in the cloying clammy heat of the moment?

Mrs Leighton talked a great deal about Roland, & told me all about his childhood, knowing I suppose how I should love to hear. Roland lay on the pillows without making any comment, listening quite contentedly & as if it were all as a matter of course (which I suppose it has become to him) her telling me how she had always worshipped & adored him from his very earliest years. From what I observed myself & from what Edward told me–how all the family look up to & adore him, how he has always had everything he wanted that it was possible to give him, and how all the little spare money there has been has always been his, I wonder he is not more autocratic & spoilt than he is. But she told me that never from his earliest childhood had he once attempted to take advantage of her worship of him. This is so completely the Roland that I know. He never would take advantage of anyone, strong or weak.

Mischief managed. Mother hath not wrought it, and–in any case–there is nothing to worry about its having-been-wrought. Nothing to see here! If you see what I mean.

Ah, but we have another witness installed on that bed. Mrs. Leighton–Marie Connor Leighton, author of several romance novels of little literary value–will write this scene herself, later on in the war.

So the girl with the amethyst eyes came down to our house by the eastern sea. There was only Sunday for her, since she came late on Saturday evening and we were all going up to London on Monday morning. But that Sunday was enjoyed to the uttermost. It was so strange to see Little Yeogh Wough with her!

Yes–that’s Roland. The tall, strong, prize-winning, ex-prefect, scholarship-winning, platoon-commanding “boy of her heart,” aged nineteen. Little Yeogh Wough.

No wonder his sister and his young brother looked on in frank bewilderment, remembering that he had been simply a masterful schoolboy until the time of his putting on together of khaki and a moustache! What a forcing power this war is! It changes people’s ages as it changes their addresses, and that is saying a great deal.

O.K. so, drama! Romance! Fine. Not so bad, right?

It’s actually pretty bad. I am grateful to have been recently pointed to a new blog–testamentofyouth–which has several thoughtful essays that dig far deeper into the history of Roland and Vera and their friends than I have been able to do. I am particularly glad that the author has saved me from a task I had been putting off, namely reading the whole of Mrs. Leighton’s memoir. (But remember–following the link will take you to a place where the century back future is known, where the rest of the war has happened.)

What are we to make of a writer-mother who pens a sentimental dual autobiography in the shape of a memoir of her life with her son? “As Boy of My Heart unfolds, Marie Leighton reveals herself as hyperbolically emotional, cloyingly sentimental, extravagant, anxious, superstitious, and preoccupied with appearances.”[4] Yup, that’s about the size of it.

Vera is going to have to be the small, sweet, fragile girl who can be swept under the great maternal cloak. The allotted role is as a sort of subordinate helpmeet in the triangle of son, mother, and lover. Well, perhaps that is a little too psychologically grim. What is certainly the case, a century back, is that Vera does not realize what she has gotten herself into. She’s miles smarter than Mrs. Leighton, but that doesn’t signify. She’s young and–despite her self-presentation–very proper and eager to please, and woefully ill-equipped to parse the deeds of an over-the-top emotionalist.

After telling me about his childhood Mrs Leighton got me to talk about myself and the great contrast between my life’s desires & the small opportunities in my previous life for their fulfilment. I said just a very little about the way every aspiration might, had it not been so strong, have been nipped in the bud by the frantic attempts to turn me into an uninteresting, conventional, ordinary person. Mrs Leighton needed no more than a little telling to make her understand. She was very interested in the incongruity between my parents & me, and wanted to meet them, especially Father…

Soon the three will have a late night snack and put on the gramophone. The war is here too, remember, since Lowestoft is one of the first places in England to endure the extension of “total war” to the home front.

The gramophone at last was stopped & we decided to go to bed (as Mrs Leighton said Zeppelin hours were over for that night at any rate). Roland had put the records away & disappeared without saying anything to me or attempting to say good-night. Mrs Leighton came with me into my room, talking again about Roland; how she was going soon to tuck him up in bed, which she had done ever since he was a baby. She told me that the first night of his leave, when he had come in so tired from his journeyings & an accumulated insufficiency of sleep that he could scarcely stand, he was just like a child, and nestled down into the bed saying how lovely it was to have sheets & pillows again. Something hurt at the back of my eyes like tears.

Would this be a completely different scene if we were a different sort of a third party? If we dwelt, for instance, as readers, in Roland’s reminiscences rather than Vera’s? (Yes, of course.) Is Vera wise, and treading carefully? Or has she slipped demurely into the subordinate position that Mrs. Leighton has prepared for her?

She then looked at the bed & asked me if I was sure I should be warm enough. I said I knew I should because I never wanted many bedclothes. “Why, you little thing!” she said in her impulsive way. “You never seem to want anything!” I fancy, I don’t know why, that the look she gave me was almost sad. I told her that I was nearly impervious to the influence of comforts & luxuries & that I was trying to break myself of those which still had a hold on me.

Which is good–because the family finances are a wreck, and they’ll have to live on whatever Roland can earn–a lieutenant’s pay? And after the war, at Oxford? Never mind that Vera is helplessly, eagerly playing the good, good girl, the worthy, uncomplaining, winsome-in-the-background bride to the favorite son.

She kept on looking at me meditatively as if she were studying me again. Then she kissed me again & left me–left me thinking as I have never thought of anyone before in my life, of how I worshipped Roland & adored his Mother. One can trace in his character those high influences of hers which have been his from his earliest years.[5]

Mischief most definitely managed.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Webb, ed., Downing Street, 125.
  2. Bertram Spofford, a former suitor of Vera's. And, yup, yes--I guess those are indeed his initials.
  3. Testament of Youth, 177-8.
  4. From the testamentofyouth blog, which has much good stuff--but warning: spoilers!
  5. Chronicle of Youth, 239-49.