A Brother and a Friend Lost at Ypres; Lord Dunsany Pleads for the Poets; Frederic Manning Dodges Delusion

After a long week of Ypres memoirs, all of our recent mainstays are in reserve. But the battle goes on, and if our writers aren’t in it, they can still suffer its losses. Today we have a memorial and then two new losses; this attempt to chronicle the most attritional of the war’s battles is beginning to take on the form of its object.

Lord Dunsany is back in France, on the Hindenberg Line–we know this because this is where he writes the latest and last in a series of prefaces and introductions for his protege Francis Ledwidge, whose new, posthumous collection, is entitled, inevitably, “Last Songs.” Dunsany had seen the volume into the press before he left for France only a few days ago, perhaps feeling that the preface should be written closer to the line, where Ledwidge had spent his last days. Or, perhaps, he wrote it now in order that such a very martial dateline might give his work the authority to suggests what he now does:

Writing amidst rather too much noise and squalor to do justice at all to the delicate rustic muse of Francis Ledwidge, I do not like to delay his book any longer, nor to fail in a promise long ago made to him to write this introduction. He has gone down in that vast maelstrom into which poets do well to adventure and from which their country might perhaps be wise to withhold them, but that is our Country’s affair.

This is an argument that should rile a democracy (Dunsany, of course, is a Peer of the aristocracy in this democracy). It would overturn, too, the strange situation that underlies our fascination with the war–that so many talented, privileged young men went to miserable deaths. The ironies ripple out in different directions–Ledwidge was talented, but not privileged; democracies will indeed come to find many ways, both open and underhanded, to shield the best and the brightest (and the richest and the most privileged) from the worst of future wars; and it won’t be the poets who are carefully preserved for the good of the nation, or even of poetry.

He has left behind him verses of great beauty, simple rural lyrics that may be something of an anodyne for this stricken age. If ever an age needed beautiful little songs our age needs them; and I know few songs more peaceful and happy, or better suited to soothe the scars on the mind of those who have looked on certain places, of which the prophecy in the gospels seems no more than an ominous hint when it speaks of the abomination of desolation.

He told me once that it was on one particular occasion, when walking at evening through the village of Slane in summer, that he heard a blackbird sing. The notes, he said, were very beautiful, and it is this blackbird that he tells of in three wonderful lines in his early poem called “Behind the Closed Eye,” and it is this song perhaps more than anything else that has been the inspiration of his brief life. Dynasties shook and the earth shook; and the war,
not yet described by any man, revelled and and wallowed in destruction around him; and Francis Ledwidge stayed true to his inspiration, as his homeward songs will show.

I had hoped he would have seen the fame he has well deserved; but it is hard for a poet to live to see fame even in
times of peace. In these days it is harder than ever.

Dunsany.

October 9th, 1917.

 

Lady Dorothie Feilding is still in Ireland with her new husband, so this coming news will take some time to reach her.

Her younger brother Henry, a subaltern in the Coldstream Guards, led his company today, a century back, on the northern flank of the renewed attack. This extension of Passchendaele/Third Ypres is dignified with the title of the Battle of Poelcappelle, and it went much as most of the fighting recently had gone.

First, the torrential rain stopped just in time to allow the attack to proceed, albeit over a horrible morass that made progress very difficult. Nevertheless, under a heavy barrage, the Guards, on the left of the British push, generally carried their objectives. But, of course, at great cost. This is Ypres–still a salient, still easily reached by a huge concentration of German guns–and if mud and barrage made the defender’s trenches uninhabitable, many hardened pillboxes survived long enough to pour devastating fire onto the advancing troops.

The historians of the Guards (we will read the account of a different battalion, below) give the general impression that their success turned to disaster due to the failure of a Newfoundland battalion of the 29th Division on their right. Held up by rain and mud, they were late in starting and driven back by the occupants of several pillboxes, whose machine guns were now able to take the Guards in flank.

Henry Feilding’s 2nd Coldstreams had led the assault at 5.20. His commanding officer will write, in the unmistakable, stilted prose of a letter of condolence, that

He was commanding the company on the right of the assault and got into a heavy German barrage. I cannot tell you what a loss he is both as a friend and a soldier. It was the first time that he commanded a company in action, and he was doing so well. He was full of enthusiasm for this first attack and I only wish he could have seen the successful ending of such a great day for the regiment, but all the officers of his company fell wounded before reaching the final objective.[1]

Once again, “all the officers” were hit. Henry Feilding was carried from the field and will die in a field hospital in two days, aged twenty-three. Dorothie’s elder brother Hugh died last year at Jutland, while the eldest of her siblings and the last of her brothers (there were seven sisters, Dorothie is fourth of ten), Rudolph, Viscount Feilding, remains with the Coldstreams.

 

An hour behind the 2nd Coldstreams were the 1st Irish Guards. Captain Raymond Rodakowski, mentioned several times in Kipling’s chronicle of the battalion, was the second-in-command of No. 1 Company, which waded through the muddy, waist-high Broembeek and spent two hours in drawing even with the first wave ahead of them.

Rodakowski had been Robert Graves‘s first school friend, the “first Carthusian to whom I had been able to talk humanly.” Humanly, and supportively: Rodakowski also told him that he was “a good poet, and a good person”–(“I loved him for that”)–and encouraged Graves to take up boxing. This put an end, eventually, to the worst bullying and helped Graves find his own idiosyncratic path through Charterhouse.[2]

After the long slog through the exhausted Grenadiers ahead of them, the Irish Guards now prepared to carry on the assault, attacking Houthulst Forest:

The companies deployed for attack on the new lines necessitated by the altered German system of defense — mopping-up sections in rear of the leading companies, with Lewis-gun sections, and a mopping-up platoon busy behind all.

Meantime, the troops on the Battalion’s right had been delayed in coming up, and their delay was more marked from the second objective onward. This did not check the Guards’ advance, but it exposed the Battalion’s right to a cruel flanking fire from snipers among the shell-holes on the uncleared ground by the Ypres-Staden line. There were pill-boxes of concrete in front; there was a fortified farm buried in sandbags, Egypt House, to be reduced; there were nests of machine-guns on the right which the troops on the right had not yet overrun, and there was an almost separate and independent fight in and round some brick-fields, which, in turn, were covered by the fire of snipers from the fringes of the forest. Enemy aircraft skimming low gave the German artillery every help in their power, and the enemy’s shelling was accurate accordingly. The only thing that lacked in the fight was the bayonet.

The affair resolved itself into a series of splashing rushes, from one shell-hole to the next, terrier-work round the pill-boxes, incessant demands for the Lewis-guns (rifle-grenades, but no bombs, were employed except by the regular bombing sections and moppers-up who cleared the underground shelters), and the hardest sort of personal attention from the officers and N.C.O.’s. All four companies reached the final objective mixed up together and since their right was well in the air, by the reason of the delay of the flanking troops, they had to make a defensive flank to connect with a battalion of the next division that came up later. It was then that they were worst sniped from the shell-holes, and the casualties among the officers, who had to superintend the forming of the flank, were heaviest. There was not much shelling through the day. They waited, were sniped, and expected a counter-attack which did not come off, though in the evening the enemy was seen to be advancing and the troops on the Battalion’s right fell back for a while,  leaving their flank once more exposed. Their position at the time was in a somewhat awkward salient, and they readjusted themselves — always under sniping-fire — dug in again as much as wet ground allowed, and managed in the dark to establish connection with a battalion of Hampshires that had come up on their right.[3]

Kipling, with admirable economy, explains why it is that these battles continue to take such a high toll of the officers: unlike the waves-and-trenches battles of 1915 and 1916 (where officers were killed in high numbers because they were in front, and dressed distinctively) these “affairs” are tactically complex. And difficult to write about, given that few diary-keepers survive unscathed…

More than most, the advance on Houthulst Forest had been an officer’s battle; for their work had been broken up, by the nature of the ground and the position of the German pill-boxes, into detached parties dealing with separate strong points, who had to be collected and formed again after each bout had ended. But this work, conceived and carried out on the spur of the moment, under the wings of death, leaves few historians.

So, once again, the now-familiar toll:

Every Company Commander had been killed or wounded during the day… The battle, which counted as “a successful minor operation” in the great schemes of the Third Battle of Ypres, had cost them four officers killed in action on the 9th, one died of wounds on the 11th, seven officers and their doctor wounded in the two days forty-seven other ranks killed; one hundred and fifty-eight wounded, and ten missing among the horrors of the swampy pitted ground.

Raymond Rodakowski was one of the four officers killed outright.

 

The tenuous Irish theme continues, today, as it was in Cork that Frederic Manning‘s career as an officer received yet another check: once again his alcoholism had led to serious problems, in this case some sort of breakdown and hospitalization. At today’s “’confidential”Medical Board, however, he seems to have escaped a more serious embroilment, perhaps in both the medical and bureaucratic senses: the doctors ruled that Manning was almost fit to resume light duty; moreover

Crossed out in their report was another diagnosis, “delusional insanity”… Manning, probably with some
official encouragement, decided to salvage what honour he could.[4]

 

Another coincidence can serve as the segue to a last brief note. Manning was Australian, although serving with an English unit in Ireland. And it was not the Irish Guards or the Inniskillings that mounted a raid on “Celtic Wood” this morning, a century back, but an Australian battalion. This distinct set-piece of today’s bloodletting a few miles away on the southern flank of the battle has a whole short book of its own, Tony Spagnoly and Ted Smith’s The Anatomy of a Raid. The raid-in-force was a bloody disaster: 85 Australians, leaving trenches near Polygon Wood, attacked the Germans in Celtic Wood at dawn. 14 returned, and the rest were never heard from again. The “Anatomy” is a careful inquiry into what happened–and to why no inquiry into this one-disaster-among-many had taken place before.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Lady Under Fire, 220.
  2. Good-Bye to All That, 43.
  3. The Irish Guards in the Great War, I, 211-13.
  4. Marwil, Frederic Manning, an Unfinished Life, 184-5.

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

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

 

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

June 22, 1917

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sir Knight as it seems,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I will consider it.

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

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

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

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

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

My best wishes to you old son.

Keep on going.

Your friend,
E. Blunden[3]

 

References and Footnotes

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

Bimbo Tennant Throws a Hilarious Bomb; The Master of Belhaven Has the Time of His Life

Bimbo Tennant wrote a lively letter home today, a century back, to his younger brother David.[1] Alas that I don’t have the accompanying diagram (extra credit for reconstructing it from the text), but it shows a fine grasp of how to entertain a thirteen-year-old.

First, however, my friends–brace yourselves. Bimbo is about to acquaint us with the single greatest nickname I’ve ever heard.

15th September, 1915.

Darling David,

…To-day we did trench-digging, and practised making barbed wire entanglements, on the top of a hill near here. We also practised throwing bombs up trenches, and our bombing officer, who is called Cocky Hoare, gave a lecture on the different sorts of bombs.

Their bomb instructor is, again, Lieutenant “Cocky” Hoare.

This one has streamers to make it pitch nose foremost, and this one goes into the muzzle of a rifle and is shot out with a blank cartridge. It is great fun practising throwing bombs with stones, because it is hard to throw it across the traverses into the next bit of trench.

First you throw a bomb from where you are (at A) just over the traverse (shaded) into the next trench B, and then another over the next traverse (shaded) into the far trench C, and then two men with rifles and bayonets fixed go ahead to see that all the Germans are dead up to a certain point (where your second bomb pitched) and they cry ” all clear,” and you run up and do the same again, and so on all up the trench.

The wire is made like an expanding cylinder that you pull out from a coil and nail down; then you put an ordinary fence of stakes and barbed wire just in front, and have long bits nailed across in front to catch in peoples’ legs in the dark. It is rather fun making these entanglements and imagining the Germans coming along in the dark and falling over these things and starting to shout; whereupon you immediately send up a flare (which lasts ten seconds) and turn a machine gun on to them as they struggle in the wire. It sounds cruel, but it is War. Now I must stop, darling ” Mit the Mit the Morn,” and go to sleep as tomorrow is Thursday and we have a Battalion Field Day.

God bless you, darling Dave, I am longing to see you when I come back (D.V.) soon.

Your ever loving brother,

BIMBO[2]

 

This project exhibits a number of biases–even I didn’t think there would be quite so many lordlings, when I began–and has never pretended to present a balanced picture of the war: nearly all men, nearly all officers, and most of those from the best schools, the most privileged families. A few of these families produced writing cavalrymen, the dino-centaurs of this war, but for the most part we are concerned with the men in the trenches, the infantry. Who most fear, and are most often killed and wounded by, the artillery.

So it does broaden our picture, somewhat, when one of our writers can describe the war from the vantage point of a gunner. Ralph Hamilton, Master of Belhaven, had been out from October to March and seen all sorts of action as an interpreter and gunner before being sent home to train one of the many new batteries attached to New Army divisions. On September first they had landed in Le Havre, one of the last elements of the 24th division. “I have complete confidence in my battery,” he had written in his steadily informative diary. Which is good, because today, a century back, they are in action.

Neuve Chapelle, 15th September, 1915

…I went down there in the morning and shelled the German lines all day. I cannot see the left of my zone from the house, so went on into the firing trench of the Manchesters. From there, with a periscope, I could see the German trenches very plainly some 20 yards in front. I had great fun dropping shell after shell into their communicating trenches, It annoyed them so much that they turned on a battery of 6-in. howitzers to stop me. They evidently had not located my battery, but mistook it for another battery about 300 yards to my right. They suddenly bombarded this unfortunate battery with about a dozen high explosives, and made an awful mess of it. Two wagons of ammunition were set on fire. They had the range to a yard, and dropped all their shells right into the middle of the guns. Later on they tried to get me with “pip-squeaks” (field guns), but got nothing nearer than 200 yards in front. In the evening I shelled a large barn behind their lines that may have been used as an Observation Station. After putting a lot of percussion shells into it, it caught fire and burnt merrily. After dark it made a fine glare.

Visited by the local general, who seemed very pleased with everything. Sat up till midnight working out angles and ranges on the large-scale map 1/10,000. This is indeed a scientific war. To think that the guns are in holes in the ground two miles away and yet that I can hit anything I like, getting within 25 yards every time. I must say I am having the time of my life–this is quite the most interesting experience I have ever had.[3]

Scientific indeed. And a strange lack of even rote worry, even head-shaking “had to be done” compassion for the many victims of his choices, tactically correct though they may be–and not only the Germans opposite but the infantry and artillery on the British side who suffer from retaliatory strikes.

 

Robert Graves, now back from Wales, visited his old stomping grounds at Charterhouse. He spent the day and the night (with George Mallory, his favorite master) and generally impressed the teachers he had once vexed with his uniformed solemnity and apparent maturity.[4]

 

It is also my duty to note that Claude Templer, enthusiastic writer of bad verse and current inmate of a prisoner of war camp, suffered the discovery, today, a century back, of the unfinished escape tunnel he was digging. He will try again.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Unrelated namesake of the 10th doctor.
  2. Letters, 19-20.
  3. War Diary, 62-3.
  4. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 133.

Henry Williamson Speeds Phillip Maddison to an Embarrassment of Rich Folk; A Mammoth and a Bath for Rowland Feilding; Donald Hankey on Morale; Charles Sorley is Changed; Roland Leighton is Back in France, Believing and Unbelieving

Soon, Roland Leighton‘s first post-engagement letter from France. But first, updates on four others I have been neglecting.

It’s been quite a while since we’ve checked in with Henry Williamson. It’s a pity, too, since his trajectory is nearly unique here, both as a Territorial amateur who saw action in the Fall and as a young man of middling class status who has now won a commission (without demonstrating anything in the way of officerly self-possession). A great pity, really, since no one wrote their war quite like he did: first a long series of letters home, many of them quite unreliable, then an exhausting series of novels that both closely follow the events of his life and make significant changes to his war experiences–the combined effect is like a memoir fused with historical fiction.

But even overstuffed novels like his rarely dilate on actual dates, and there has been a long stretch now in which both his own activities and those of his altered fictional self have been frustratingly adrift in spring and summer, never alighting on a single day. So we’ll take any excuse that we can get.

Williamson, stationed at Newmarket for several months now as a subaltern attached to the Cambridgeshire Regiment, has responded to social discomfort by doubling down on his ill-chosen identity as a hail-fellow and carouser. So too his fictional self: there are several long chapters of A Fox Under My Cloak set in the spring and summer of 1915, and Williamson makes a bitter comedy of the string of would-be friends and mechanics who lure “Phillip Maddison” into overpaying for one questionable motorcycle after another. These Maddison then rides around producing as much noise as possible. A teenager.

Today, a century back, Williamson was stopped by a constable for speeding–“quite 25 miles an hour”–and issued a summons. Typically, he avoided facing the music, sending a letter pleading illness when his court date came up. He will be fined £1 as “a warning to some of the other young ‘bloods’ in the army who are rushing about on motor bicycles.”[1]

So that dates us, today, but I want to work back a bit into Williamson’s exposition of these first few months as a new officer, a “temporary gentleman” in the scathing contemporary phrase. The novel at this stage is slow, intermittently funny, and squirmingly painful. We watch as one innocent, idiotic young officer constantly stumbles and then seems to will himself into greater and greater pratfalls. The effect is a little like Blackadder played by Ricky Gervais, except with an even higher ratio of squirm to chuckle.

But David Brent, at least, ran the office. Phillip Maddison is not only the youngest and most foolish subaltern in his new unit, but he becomes the almost perfect foil for a nasty group of quicker, cleverer, socially assured officers. He had, like Williamson himself, wangled a commission in an unfashionable regiment, but one in which, presumably, a young ex-clerk without a Public School background would not be entirely out of place. Unfortunately, he is loaned out, for training purposes, to the Cambridgeshire Regiment, which seems to have so far remained an unreconstructed bastion of the squirearchy. Phillip says all the wrong things and, as always, responds to ever belated perception of a yawning gulf in his understanding by taking a blind leap.

Fox hunting comes up, and Phillip implies that he too has hunted. He is immediately and remorselessly cross-examined by one of his tormentors, and has to admit that he has lied. He fails to pick up on the Public School-like rules of the mess, and then mistakes “Trout Mayonnaise” (good god) for the main course and takes half of it before the other officers have been served. He overhears himself being called a “blasted little cockney” and disastrously escalates the not-so-micro-aggressions of the cool clique into a fraternity-like hazing battle, which he must wage alone. He persistently ignores the sage of advice of a calm older officer who tries to save him from persecution, and is subjected to a kangaroo court “court martial” after which his tormentors serve him with a letter demanding that he leave the battalion or resign his commission.

This nasty assortment of Crabbe and Goyles is led by the perfect villain, Maddison’s company commander, an

eighteen-year-old captain, known to everyone, except Phillip, as “the infant Hercules.” He had left school at Christmas, and seemed to be a favourite of the colonel, because he wrote sonnets and read Greek poets in the original, as well as having been the captain of his school, the rugger fifteen and the cricket eleven. He was fair, blue-eyed, with a pink and white complexion…

It’s Draco Malfoy meets Rupert Brooke. As a matter of fact, being in Cambridgeshire, Brooke makes an appearance of sorts: the colonel–an, old horsey, donnish sort who is infatuated with the Infant Hercules–knew the great fallen poet himself, and is still wearing a black crepe band in mourning.

All this is laying on the trout mayonnaise a little thick. As Williamson generally does. His time with the real life Cambridgeshires can’t have been quite as awful as Phillip Maddison’s time with the “Gaultshires,” but it might have been close. Interestingly, Williamson mixes chapters in which he is at pains to show Phillip’s humiliations with others in which the emphasis falls on his native innocent enthusiasm, which–when coupled with his poor social instincts and broad spectrum anxieties–leads to joy as well as disaster. “Life is a spree,” Phillip thinks, as he tears about town on his motorcycle, making (socially inappropriate) friends and courting the local girls.

If Williamson were a more subtle novelist, it would be hard to relate his character to his historical self. As it is, we can use today’s motorcycle incident to posit a rough correlation. The bike was real, as was the speeding (the statutory limit, in the horsey town of Newmarket, was ten miles an hour!), but in the novel there is an added bit of business about his machine’s lack of a silencer, which earns him a second citation.

This, surely, is a roaring, clanking great metaphor for Williamson/Maddison’s inability to keep quiet. And how does Maddison solve the problem? He thinks it will be amusing if he welds a coffee percolator over the exhaust of his bike, to serve as a sort of attention-grabbing silencer…

So, Henry Williamson was cited for speeding. And he tacked on the silencer in the fictional retelling–life, and art!

But he is also keeping up with a much more significant change to his life-as-novel: in the fall of 1914 he had put Phillip Maddison with a different Territorial battalion (i.e. one with a different war record than a fictionalized version of his real-life battalion would have had) in order to bring him to the first battle of Ypres, when in reality Williamson only arrived in time for the last few skirmishes of the campaign’s close. Now, although (in historical reality) his period as an officer in training will continue into the fall, he is preparing to send Phillip Maddison out in time for Loos, the fall offensive.

Today’s motorcycle incident, therefore, is moved up to May, leaving plenty of time for Phillip to continue to antagonize his persecutors. After the “court martial,” in fact, the fictional bildungsbumbler will draft a letter of resignation and leave it under his blotter, intending to throw it away later. But this, of course, is a novel, and even declassé subalterns have busybody servants…  We’ll see Phillip in France next month.[2]

 

There is too much to get to today to dwell on a mere “life in billets” letter from Rowland Feilding to his wife, but it would be bad form to skip it just because it is so pleasant. Life in billets can be both pleasant and interesting, at least for an optimistic officer of the Guards:

August 26, 1915. Lumbres

I write from by far the most luxurious billet I have slept in since I came to France; where my hosts, M. and Mme. Avot Pierret, to say nothing of their small son and daughter, are so kind and hospitable that they make me feel like an invited guest…

You should see our comfortable bedrooms and the fine linen, and the bathroom, electric-lighted, with the mat and the clean white towels carefully laid out by the neat little French maids each time we have a bath. It is the first time I have washed in a bathroom since I came to the war, and you can imagine the joy of it!

The Company mess is nearly opposite, in the house of a doctor, M. Pontiet, a palaeontologist, who has what must be one of the best private Collections in France of relics of the earliest human period. These include numerous implements of the Stone Age and the bones and teeth, etc., of the contemporary animals, principally mammoths, a set-up skeleton of a specimen of which towers above us as we sit and eat…

What is going to happen next none of us know. There are bound to be lots of changes due to the organization of the new Guards Division. If it is my lot to go elsewhere, I shall be sorry but not surprised. I have already overstayed the average. Before I came. No. 4 Company ran through, I believe, six Captains in six months.

Anyhow, whatever happens, it will be nice to remember that I have commanded a company of Coldstreamers for over three months of the war. And they have been very happy months indeed.

At times I have felt some feeling of despondency and isolation, since I am an old man compared to the boys with whom I associate. But I have, I think, got on well with them, and I have had unswerving support from one and all, and there is much satisfaction in that.[3]

There must be. At 34, Feilding is on the old side for a battalion officer, and the hackneyed witticism will be only too true: he will only get older, and they will only get younger.

 

Speaking of old folks, it turns out that Donald Hankey has an elder (by seven years) brother who serves in the highest ranks of the civil service, currently as secretary to the War Council. Therefore we may believe it when an editor assures us that Donald’s report from the New Armies, below, made it to the desk of Lord Kitchener himself. This is no mediation on heroism or the spiritual challenges of warfare, but a frank and informative report on the morale of the men in the ranks.

Dear Maurice,

I was talking to a reservist the other day who came over from Australia with the first Contingent, and came on to rejoin his old unit. From his description it is evident that the Australians were, judged by an English standpoint, undisciplined. Given their character I say it is a good thing that their indiscipline was put up with. I don’t say the same method would have worked with the New Army, for the English character is less aggressive; but I do say that in the New Army discipline has destroyed individuality.

The men will do anything–if they are told to. But they do it passively, wishing they hadn’t got to. There is no funking; but there is very little individual enthusiasm. Most men are glad if they get a wound which will render them unfit for future service, even if it involves the loss of a limb…

In the English army if one uses one’s common sense one is usually checked–though if one doesn’t use it one may be checked too! But on the whole individuality is discouraged. Moreover, the officers do not take the men into their confidence sufficiently to enable them to understand what they are doing. One is generally acting blindly. The principle seems to be–keep your men’s attention fixed on trifles, and they won’t worry about matters too high for them. However–this is enough…

Your aff. brother,

Donald[4]

 

Charles Sorley is next, straining his strained mental faculties to return a letter to his friend Arthur Watts:

26 August 1915

Your letter arrived and awoke the now drifting ME to consciousness…

Were it not for the dangers dancing attendance on the adjourning type of mind–which a year’s military training has not been able to efface from me–I should not be writing to you now. For it is just after breakfast–and you know what breakfast is: putter to sleep of all mental energy and discontent: charmer, sedative, leveller: maker of Britons. I should wait till after tea when the undiscriminating sun has shown his back–a fine back–on the world, and one’s self by the aid of tea has thrown off the mental sleep of heat. But after tea I am on duty. So with bacon in my throat and my brain like a poached egg I will try to do you justice.

On the whole–except for the subtle distinction that I am at the front, you not (merely a nominal distinction for the present)–I am disposed to envy you. I am moving smally to and fro over an unblessed stretch of plain–a fly on a bald man’s head. You are at least among rich surroundings…

Note–and I think I read this right–that amidst the gentle humor Sorley acknowledges unironically that the good part of his status relative to his friend is that he–Sorley–is at least at the front. He means, perhaps, not so much that he finds trench duty to be perfectly amiable and excellent (although that would be the simplest reading) but that it is, ipso facto, enviable–after all, most of the young subalterns still in England are capable of feeling “heartbroken” at being left behind. He’s acknowledging the envy of the innocent, not expressing an opinion of an experienced officer…

No evident disenchantment. Good thing. But Sorley will do his best to brush the heroic scales from our eyes:

I wonder how long it takes the King’s Pawn, who so proudly initiates the game of chess, to realize that he is a pawn. Same with us. We are finding out that we play the unimportant if necessary part. At present a dam, untested, whose presence not whose action stops the stream from approaching: and then a mere handle to steel: dealers of death which we are not allowed to plan…. It is something to have no responsibility–an inglorious ease of mind.

So half-lit nights with the foam and flotsam of the world–here we have only the little ordered breakers that lap pleasantly merry on the English shores–has its charm to the imagination. Possibly its romance fades by experience and leaves a taste of damp blotting-paper in the mouth as of one who has slept with his mouth–open.

Sorley, in a more ornate style now, turns next to the question of wartime friendship–“comradeship,” perhaps. He could almost be a perfect counterpart to the elder Feilding’s comments, above.

But yet these men–and women–whom you meet must by their very needs and isolations be more distinct and living than the very pleasant officers with whom I live. Very pleasant they are: humorous, vivacious and good comrades: but some have never entered, most perhaps have entered and now keep locked and barred,

The heart’s heart whose immurèd plot
Hath keys yourself keep not.[5]

They have stifled their loneliness of spirit till they scarcely know it, seeking new easy unexacting companionships. They are surface wells. Not two hundred feet deep, so that you can see the stars at the bottom…

Yet here there is enough to stay the bubbling surface stream. Looking into the future one sees a holocaust somewhere: and at present there is–thank God–enough of “experience” to keep the wits edged (a callous way of putting it, perhaps).

Well there we have it–experience is to be valued. Even if it is a terrifying, death-defying experience. Sorley now more or less ratifies the “blithe warrior” image shared by one who had seen him after a bloody patrol. Was I hoping for something else?

But out in front at night in that no-man’s land and long graveyard there is a freedom and a spur. Rustling of the grasses and grave tap-tapping of distant workers: the tension and silence of encounter, when one struggles in the dark for moral victory over the enemy patrol: the wail of the exploded bomb and the animal cries of wounded men. Then death and the horrible thankfulness when one sees that the next man is dead: “We won’t have to carry him in under fire, thank God; dragging will do”: hauling in of the great resistless body in the dark, the smashed head rattling: the relief, the relief that the thing has ceased to groan: that the bullet or bomb that made the man an animal has now made the animal a corpse.

O.K. Freedom in danger–o.k. Even a “spur.” This makes psychological sense, even if it is terrible, a shame. And we might say, at least, that he is remembering and recording the horrors of war. He does not let himself off easily with the sweet relief of learning a man is dead, and not wounded, a burden. Instead he forces himself (and us) to face what this means. So he is preserving his sensitivity–right?

One is hardened by now: purged of all false pity: perhaps more selfish than before. The spiritual and the animal get so much more sharply divided in hours of encounter, taking possession of the body by swift turns.

And now I have 200 letters to censor before the post goes…. You’ll write again, won’t you, as soon as the mood comes after tea? And good health to you.[6]

Nothing, I suppose, could be more obvious than this–war does terrible things even to those who survive.

 

So. It is something, after all, that Roland–socially awkward, with no personal experience of sane adult women, challenged by the apparent flightiness of this young woman he loves, in the very presence of the school friends and inexperienced officers who look up to him–was able to accept Vera‘s demand that he discuss even his horrifying experiences with her.

Vera and Roland are young intellectuals–this fact is essential to each one’s self-image, and to their joint project. Their principled doubt, their resistance to cant and propriety (slight though it may be), their struggle to apply reason to unreasonable circumstances. All that. But, of course, acknowledge or deny it, it’s true that they are romantics both. How could you not be, a century back, if you are reader, but not a cynic; an adult (however young) but innocent of the realities of adult relationships? And after the little romantic whirlwind of Roland’s leave, even this most earnest of prefect/scholar/subalterns finds his grip on reality loosened. All that in less than a week? And now the trenches again?[7] Rationality is going to be a tough sell.

In Billets, France, 26 August 19132.10 p.m.

I got back here at about 11.30 a.m. this morning after a rather tiring journey by train and motor. I found your long letter waiting for me. It was so strange in a way to read something that you had written before you saw me and when my coming back at all was only problematical. And now it seems to count for so little that I did come back after all, so little that I saw and talked with what was no longer a dream but a reality and found in My Lady of the Letters a flesh and blood Princess.

Did we dream it after all, dearest? No; for if we had it would not have hurt so much. I am feeling very weary and very very triste–rather like (as is said of Lyndall)[8] ‘a child whom a long day’s play has saddened’. And it is all so unreal–even the moon and the sea last night. All is unreal but the memory and the pain and the insatiable longing for Something which one has loved.

There is sunshine on the trees in the garden and a bird is singing behind the hedge. I feel as if someone had uprooted my heart to see how it was growing.[9]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. A. Williamson, Henry Williamson, 67-8.
  2. A Fox Under My Cloak, 168-177.
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 33-4.
  4. The Letters of Donald Hankey, 307-8.
  5. From F. Thompson's "A Fallen Yew."
  6. The Letters of Charles Sorley, 303-6.
  7. So this, I would say, has been one of the first real tests of what I once blusteringly suggested might be a novel contribution of this project to capital-H History: we get a chance to absorb a historical experience as it unrolls, imperfectly (in the grammatical sense). In real time. It was a few memorable days for Roland, and, then, for us. How different is the reading/learning experience (i.e. the "[re]constructing history, from facts, in our heads" experience) than the usual weeks-in-minutes experience of reading condensed history?
  8. A character in their touchstone book, The Story of an African Farm.
  9. Letters of a Lost Generation, 145.

Vera Brittain: Boys About in Various Stages of Untidiness

Having arrived with her mother at Uppingham, where her brother Edward and is about to finish school, Vera Brittain addresses her diary

Friday July 10th

Waterworks Cottage, Uppingham

The journey was terribly hot & the day gorgeous. Edward arrived in the midst of our unpacking muddle in the tiny bedroom, looking very tall & well. He had supper with us, & then went off to a choir & orchestra practice, while we wandered about the town buying sundry provisions. Then we went to the Lodge, Mother hoping to see the Puckles, and I to get a glimpse of the person on whose account, even more than Edward’s, I must confess I have come – Roland Leighton. We became friends in the brief four or five days I was present when he stayed with us; & for my part my interest in him seems to have increased without my seeing him — & there is nothing strange in my being attracted by so marvellous an intellect & a not-easily-understandable personality.

Edward said he could not take us indoors as there were boys about in various stages of untidiness, but perhaps we could speak to him through the window. Before we went he gave us a programme of tomorrow’s proceedings, on which Roland is put down to receive, not only seven prizes, but the seven chief prizes in the school. Edward is quite depressed because he seems to be second & third in everything & will not receive a prize to-morrow. It does seem rather hard when he really is quite clever & works so thoroughly & keenly, but I suppose playing a solo on Speech Day makes up for it a little. I should feel very angry if anyone but Roland were taking off all the prizes, but as it is he I cannot be other than glad.

We went along the dark quad., past the lighted windows, until Edward tapped at Roland’s & said a visitor wanted to see him. The window was opened & I leaned in. As soon as I saw his plain intelligent face & dark expressive eyes again, I knew I had not overrated their attraction for me — the call of mind to mind & sympathy to sympathy made itself felt immediately. I stood teasing & mocking him, & telling him I would look out for every atom of conceit on the morrow and squash it immediately. He said he would think of me when he went to receive his prizes & knew he would fall over the steps & make a fool of himself in some way. We only had a few moments’ conversation & then Mother wanted to go. So we returned to our cottage, without having seen the Puckles, which was Mother’s object, but I at least having achieved mine.[1]

Until tomorrow, then, when Vera will watch as Roland collects his prizes and he and her brother Edward take their leave of the beloved old school, and look to the sunny future…

References and Footnotes

  1. Chronicle of Youth, 77-8.