Patrick Shaw Stewart Forgoes the S.O.S.

The Christmas quiet of the Western Front was broken, today, a century back, at dawn, by a minor German offensive near Cambrai–but no offensive is minor to the men under the barrage.

Patrick Shaw Stewart, commanding the Hood Battalion, had a decision to make: was this just a covering barrage for a raid, or was there an actual attack underway which might threaten the integrity of his position? He’s a new commander–a relatively inexperienced temporary commander–and to nervously call for support when it was not needed would not look well… so Shaw Stewart refused to send up the S.O.S. signal, even though he was urged to do so by the artillery liaison officer who was with him. This decision was “exceptionally gallant” as well as both correct and mistaken: the barrage was not, in fact, the immediate harbinger of a surprise attack–but the attack did come an hour later, and was beaten back.

But Shaw Stewart did not live to see it. The following account, given at one remove by an officer who interviewed the liaison officer who was with Shaw Stewart when he died, is more graphic than most. Perhaps because it passed between an officer and a male friend–Ronald Knox, who will compile the memorial volume of Shaw Stewart’s letters–rather than a wife or mother who would have been presumed to need gentle solace more than truth. And yet it ends with the familiar mercy of an “instantaneous” death.

He was hit by shrapnel, the lobe of his ear was cut off and his face spattered so that the blood ran down from his forehead and blinded him for a bit. The gunner tried to make him go back to Battalion H.Q. to be dressed, but he refused, and insisted on completing his round. Very soon afterwards, a shell burst on the parapet, and a fragment hit him upwards through the mouth and killed him instantaneously. This gunner, who was in the ranks of the R.F.A. before the war, and as liaison officer with the infantry can speak with sure experience, says that he has never seen a battalion better organised. He was intensely struck with Patrick’s capacity; there was no detail to do with the men’s comfort to which he did not give the closest personal attention. And he spoke with the greatest admiration of his fearless personal courage. He mentioned all this in the course of ordinary conversation, without being aware that I knew him at all well.

His battalion fought well; they seem to have been a fine lot, with a splendid fighting spirit. I thought this might interest you. It was very pleasant to hear, for, whatever the grief may be at home, a death like this is so undoubtedly worth while.[1]

Knox does not comment on this assumption. Shaw Stewart, the brilliant, unhappy “Edwardian meteor” (who will eventually receive a biography by that title) dies too late to be in tune with the tragic march of 1915 and 1916. His parents are dead and there are no writers or famous socialite-diarists in the family–he had won his position and his friends at Eton and Balliol largely through effort and academic brilliance. And he has no wife or great love all his own to mourn him. He loved Diana Manners, but in vain; and although he had the love of Lady Desborough, he was neither lover nor son to her but something (uncomfortably, at times) in-between.

Patrick Shaw Stewart in his Student Days

I can’t do justice to Shaw Stewart, here, but it’s certainly not justice to have him end up a brainy also-ran, his death stuck in at the end of the year, months away from any notable battle. He didn’t get the girl, he didn’t rise to military eminence like his friend Freyberg or live to see a brilliant career like Knox (who took up the job of memorializing Shaw Stewart and publishing his letters, but did not write much of him in his own voice); nor did he die a timely and “meaningful” (in the sense of “handily contextualizable”) death or leave pretty poems (and photos to match) like Brooke.

He was a brilliant classicist, “perhaps the finest Homerist to fight at Gallipoli,” and an extremely clever writer (his list of one hundred and one erotic suggestions for Diana Manners, which lapses quickly into trilingual-quotation-from-memory is one of history’s most profligate expenditures of learning on unsuccessful wooing). But he wasn’t really a poet.

Shaw Stewart did, however, write poetry–or, at least, one notable poem. It is most worthy of sustained attention as an exercise in classical reception and application–which it gets from Elizabeth Vandiver, who borrows a line of his for the title of her excellent book[2]–but his major contribution to the common anthology of the war is, like that of several other poets dying young, a poem in which a the poet faces his death and asks for divine–or, in this case, heroic–aid.

Shaw Stewart, only twenty-nine, is, nevertheless, belated. And so too is his inescapable poem. He probably wrote it in 1915, in Gallipoli–certainly it refers to the strange experience of being a Homer-steeped classicist fighting so near to Troy. But no one read it then. In the end, Shaw Stewart’s formidable substance is overshadowed once more by context: like Charles Sorley’s masterpiece, this poem was found with its author’s possessions after his death. And either paper was scarce when inspiration struck or, more likely, Shaw Stewart had a strong feeling about where his poem might belong: “I Saw a Man This Morning” was written on the flyleaf of his copy of that most essential non-classical element of any poetical young officer’s literary kit–his copy of Housman’s A Shropshire Lad.

I saw a man this morning
     Who did not wish to die
I ask, and cannot answer,
     If otherwise wish I.


Fair broke the day this morning
     Against the Dardanelles;
The breeze blew soft, the morn’s cheeks
     Were cold as cold sea-shells.


But other shells are waiting
     Across the Aegean sea,
Shrapnel and high explosive,
     Shells and hells for me.


O hell of ships and cities,
     Hell of men like me,
Fatal second Helen,
     Why must I follow thee?


Achilles came to Troyland
     And I to Chersonese:
He turned from wrath to battle,
     And I from three days’ peace.


Was it so hard, Achilles,
     So very hard to die?
Thou knewest and I know not—
     So much the happier I.


I will go back this morning
     From Imbros over the sea;
Stand in the trench, Achilles,
     Flame-capped, and shout for me.


References and Footnotes

  1. Knox, Patrick Shaw Stewart, 204-5.
  2. See Stand in the Trench, Achilles, esp. pp. 263-77.

Patrick Shaw Stewart Toddles After a Blanket

The lull in the action–for our writers, at least–in the Ypres Salient leaves us with only one notable piece of writing for today, a century back. Happily, it is a witty letter from Patrick Shaw Stewart (to his school friend, the newly Catholic Ronnie Knox) about the circumstances and characters of his new surroundings, in which he splits the difference between Wooster and Jeeves.

Three days ago, I was sent here to the Army School to do the Company Commanders’ course: rather suddenly, because my second in command was to have gone, and at the last moment they said they must have a real Company Commander, and I was the only one sufficiently badly educated to send. So I was packed off, and after a more than usually uncomfortable journey, fetched up here last night. No harm, I imagine, in saying that the School is in the famous Chateau d’Hardelot. The two remarkable points about it are (1) that it’s a lovely place (though restored from top to bottom), and in a lovely half-wooded valley with the sea the other side of the ridge; (2) that this is the place where the Duchess of Rutland tried to have a hospital—I never realised till I got here how complete the preparations were. I toiled up last night to try and draw a blanket and sheet. No, I am not billeted inside the chateau, but in a neat hut behind it; and the unfeeling lance-corporal in charge of the blankets said, “No, sir: these blankets are the private property of the Duchess of Rutland, and can only be issued to officers in the chateau.” The
temptation was almost irresistible to explain that I knew she would be delighted to let me have one, but I kind of felt that the lance-corporal had been told that too often; so I meekly toddled off to draw an Army blanket off the Quartermaster several miles away. To-day has not been strenuous, consisting mostly of roll-calls: to-morrow the course begins. What exactly they propose to teach me, I scarcely know, but apparently forming fours is an important part of it. Anyhow, it lasts five weeks, so you have no excuse for thinking of me as fighting battles during that period; and by that time I should be over-ripe for leave. The officers (innumerable) on this course are very like most modern representatives of their class: the nicest are the Canadians and Americans (we have a batch of them), which two nations have, in their wisdom, seen fit to amalgamate the upper and middle classes in one,
an arrangement by which, if you miss the former, you also (which is more important in the Army) miss the other.[1]

The blasé tone aside, this random assignment to an apparently useless “course” is actually “an amazing piece of good fortune.” Shaw Stewart is no shirker–in fact he worked hard to leave a safe liaison job in order to rejoin the battalion in France–but he has been strangely, consistently fortunate. His presence on this course means that he will miss a major attack by the Hood Battalion–for the fifth time.[2]


References and Footnotes

  1. Knox, Patrick Shaw Stewart, 202-3.
  2. Jebb, Edwardian Meteor, 233.

Frank Richards and Doctor Dunn on a Day of Battle for the Royal Welch: Desperate Measures under the Rockets’ Glare; Phillip Maddison Finds Balance; Ivor Gurney Overjoyed, Isaac Rosenberg to Return

The Second Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers is currently bereft of famous poet officers–Siegfried Sassoon is in Scotland while Robert Graves is with the depot in Wales–but two of their acquaintances are very much with the Regiment today, a century back, in one of its worst days in the Salient. It is a day of combat, and crisis, and an unusual confusion of roles. Dr. Dunn, we must remember, is both currently the battalion medical officer and subsequently the chief chronicler–but he has not been a fighting soldier for many years.

At the risk of aggravating Dunn, we’ll let Graves introduce the day’s story, even though it is not quite standard historical procedure to begin with hearsay before examining the eyewitness account. Ironically, however, Graves’s more dramatic rendering–based on reports he will get later from other members of the battalion–is probably more plainly true than the doctor’s account. Graves might self-aggrandize and take liberties with local truths, but he seems intent on giving the characters of the Regiment their due–especially when they themselves fail in to sing their own deeds quite loudly enough.

Doctor Dunn was what they call a hard-bitten man; he had served as a trooper in the South African War and won the D.C.M. He was far more than a doctor; living at battalion headquarters he became the right-hand man of three or four colonels in succession. When his advice was not taken this was usually afterwards regretted. On one occasion, in the autumn fighting of 1917, a shell burst among the headquarters staff, knocking out adjutant, colonel, and signals officer. Dunn had no hesitation in pulling off the red-cross armlets that he wore in a battle and becoming a temporary combatant officer of the Royal Welch, resigning his duties to the stretcher-bearer sergeant. He took command and kept things going. The men were rather afraid of him, but had more respect for him than for anyone else in the battalion.[1]

Today, a century back, would be that occasion. The 2/R.W.F. were in support of the second day’s push (of this new phase of Third Ypres, that is), and spent the early morning waiting as the battle raged to their east. It is only after they receive their orders, around 8.15, to attack at noon that we learn just how things are with the battalion. This is the collective account narrated by Dunn, now:

Poore called a conference of Company Commanders; the C.O. had gone on leave when we came out of rest. C and D companies were under their own commanders, Radford and Coster; but owing to leave, Battle Surplus, and the inexperience of subalterns, Moldy Williams had been transferred from C to B, and Hywel Evans from B to A., both only the previous day.[2] A shortage of maps caused some confusion to begin with…

A simplified battle plan is hammered out, and the battalion was soon marching over the Menin Road. Dunn, at this point following the battalion and tending to the wounded, saw a man desert for the rear, and noted that he was later arrested (whether he was shot for desertion is not made clear). This lone incident does more than a lengthy situation report to remind us just how hopeless and terrifying it would have felt to march over the shattered German defenses.. and toward the deep lines of still-intact German defenses…

Nevertheless, the battalion eventually reached its starting point “without serious loss.” But as they were forming up–without artillery support or a sure sense of where the enemy was–they came under machine gun fire. To some degree, their progress to this point is evidence of the success of the “Bite and Hold” tactics: it is the second or third day of an offensive, reinforcements are getting nearly intact nearly to their starting points, and the counter-attacks are not in the ascendancy.

But this is still the salient, with German artillery on three sides and German machine guns in hardened pillboxes nearly everywhere. Two officers, including Coster, were soon killed. Their maps proved to be incomplete. With McMaster University‘s archive available online, we can find their position on a map that is probably quite similar to the ones they were using. Dunn’s sketch of the tactical situation is actually a minor masterpiece of tactical clarity, and the Welch can be precisely placed, arrayed roughly north-south along the left middle of the excerpt above, in the mess of old trenches and pillboxes near Carlisle Farm (square 15) and under fire from the Polderhoek Château (bottom of 16) on their right. Pinned down and cut off from their own H.Q., the companies falling out of touch with each other and no clear objectives in sight, they continue to take casualties. The irony of Dunn’s precise record of their whereabouts is that it bears no tactical fruit. He knows–and he tells us–where he was, but confusion about the whereabouts of everyone else–including the Germans–will continue throughout the day.

Meanwhile, accurate enemy fire is constant, and no advance is possible.

When the Companies lay low the Germans held their fire, but any movement, even by one man, drew a very accurate fire. In these circumstances A and B ceased to shoot at their unseen enemy.

Several more company and platoon officers were wounded, and the Welsh lost touch with the Scottish and Australian troops around them.

At about 1.30, the doctor’s narrative returns to the first person, and the battalion’s leadership takes a direct hit.

…I, finding nothing more to do for the time being, and having had no food since last night’s dinner, was sent in the same direction to seek my servant. He and another man, with the heedless coolness which was so common, had lighted a fire on the enemy side of a pill-box, and made tea. They were about to give some to a young Australian with a bad belly wound. After stopping them I was trying to placate him when Signaller Barrett came and told me that while Colquhoun was talking to Poore and Casson, the Assistant Adjutant, a 5.9 burst along them, killing all three. That happened about 2 o’clock.

Dunn is not in command of the battalion, per se–he is permanently outside the chain of command, and quite unusual in being a doctor with combat service in a previous war. But someone needs to go forward from HQ and find the company commander who now must take over. Dunn will not explicitly acknowledge his heroism, here, but he seems to allude to the strangeness of the moment–as well as the general surrealism of prolonged battle–with this memory of the mind’s habit of recalling harmless happy moments to compare with some horrifying present vision.

Thereupon, I went to look for Radford about the Reutel road where I had seen him an hour before. On the way, two men suddenly rose into the air vertically, 15 feet perhaps, amid a spout of soil about 150 yards ahead. They rose and fell with the easy, graceful poise of acrobats. A rifle, revolving slowly, rose high above them before, still revolving, it fell. The sight recalled, even in these surroundings, a memory of boyhood: a turn that thrilled me in a travelling circus at St. Andrews…

He did not, perhaps, take time for the theatrical gesture of removing his red cross armbands. Or perhaps he did, to give the Germans a sporting chance of killing him while he considered himself a combatant, and modestly omits to tell us?

In any event, according to Dunn’s account he almost immediately found Radford, a company commander at the beginning of the day but now the senior combat officer, and stayed with him while he wrote out a report to be sent back to Brigade. Dunn does not mention Radford being in command, but he implies it… and then Radford vanishes from the narrative for some time, and the narrative slips into the passive voice.

The worst of the day is over, but there is still much consolidation to be done:

When the light failed A and B Companies were reorganized… After dark a sudden commotion was caused by D Company falling back on the Reutel road. They reported that the enemy was massing in Polygon Wood, and that they had very little ammunition left. The decision to fall back was made in consultation with the O.C. their Australian comrades…

But who made this decision with the Australian commander? It sounds like it was Dunn, as Graves suggests.


Let’s work back a bit, and see how Frank Richards saw this afternoon. Richards is the consummate old soldier, and not above tarting up a yarn for the benefit of his readers,[3] but he was indisputably an eyewitness to these events, serving as he did with the signallers of the battalion, and thus often alongside the headquarters contingent, or bearing messages to and fro.

Richards’s account of the terrible hour around noon is more direct and more, dare we say, cinematic:

A few minutes later Dr. Dunn temporarily resigned from the Royal Army Medical Corps. He told me to get him a rifle and bayonet and a bandolier of ammunition. I told him that he had better have a revolver, but he insisted on having what he had asked me to get. I found them for him, and slinging the rifle over his shoulder, he commenced to make his way over to the troops behind the bank. I accompanied him. Just before we reached there our chaps who were hanging on to the position in front of it started to retire back. The doctor barked at them to line up with the others. Only Captain Radford and four platoon officers were left in the Battalion and the doctor unofficially took command.

Radford’s presence is something of an embarrassment, then–why is this company commander not in active command of the battalion? And hence, perhaps, Dunn’s professional modesty is a cloak for the honor of a brother officer? But neither is there any suggestion that Radford failed to do his duty or did not fight well. It’s tempting to assume that he was momentarily overcome (as so many people would be in such a situation), but it is also possible that, given the force of Dunn’s character and his long service as a sort of consigliere to the colonel, it just seemed natural to Radford to continue commanding a consolidated line company and leave the direction of the battalion to the doctor.

In any case, no one hints that Dunn so any moral quandary in ceasing to be a healer–technically sacrosanct, even if those badges that he may or may not have removed were not often respected–and picking up a rifle and directly ordering men to wound and destroy those opposite. War is madness.

Back to Richards:

We and the Australians were all mixed up in extended order. Behind everyone had now left the standpoint and we all lined up behind the bank, which was about three feet high. We had lent a Lewis gun team to the 5th Scottish Rifles on our right, and when it began to get dark the doctor sent me with a verbal message to bring them back with me if they were still in the land of the living. When I arrived at the extreme right of our line, I asked the right hand man if he was in touch with the 5th Scottish. He replied that he had no more idea than a crow where they were, but guessed that they were somewhere in the front to the right of him. I now made my way very carefully over the ground. After I had walked some way I began to crawl. I was liable any moment to come into contact with a German post or trench. I saw someone moving in front of me, so I slid into a shell hole…

I waited in that shell hole for a while, trying to pierce the darkness in front. I resumed my journey, and, skirting one shell hole, a wounded German was shrieking aloud in agony… he must have been hit low down, but I could stop for no wounded man. But I saw two men in a shallow trench but did not know if they were the 5th Scottish or the Germans until I heard some good Glasgow English. When I got in their trench they told me that they had only just spotted me when they challenged. The Lewis-gun team were still kicking and my journey back with them was a lot easier than the outgoing one.

I reported to the Doctor that there was a gap of about 100 yards between the 5th Scottish Rifles and we; and he went himself to remedy it. The whole of the British front that night seemed to be in a semi-circle. We had sent some S O S rockets up in the air… they were only used when a situation was deemed critical, and everybody seemed to be in the same plight as ourselves…[4]

Dunn remembers these rockets as well:

Twice between dark and midnight the S O S went up in the Reutel direction, and was repeated by other units. It was a red-over-green-over-yellow parachute grenade at the time, a pleasing combination of colours hanging about the fretted outline of pines that stood in dark relief against a clear night sky. Each time the gunners on both sides opened promptly…[5]


These are two true stories of one battalion’s role in a major attack. We can also read, for a strange sort of leavening, Henry Williamson‘s fictional account of the attack. Williamson is still convalescing in England, but Phillip Maddison, for all that his (fictional) presence at nearly every major offensive is beginning to wear thin, witnessed the battle from his position with the supply train of a Machine Gun Company and described it in his patented “History Painting” style. Williamson is working from published histories, of course, so it is not surprising that he echoes the accounts we have just read. In fact, it’s quite useful, since Maddison consciously takes up a middle position between an army that is–in some quarters at least–beginning to despair and a propaganda machine that churns on without acknowledging the ratcheting tension of 1917.

Maddison writes in his pocket diary that “there ‘were persistent rumours of hundreds of thousands killed,'” yet he spent many evenings of the battle regularly hearing optimistic reports–internal army propaganda, essentially–read out to the troops by the rear-area ammunition dumps. So the army is preaching success to its own rear elements (who may or may not know about the disturbances at Étaples) even though they can look to the East and see precisely what Dunn and Richards have been describing: the colored SOS signals going up “again and again.”

For Phillip, at least, weariness is leading toward maturity: he begins to see a balance between the alarmist rumors of total collapse and tens of thousands of men killed and the sanguine army announcements. Under the tutelage of “Westy,”–the old heroic officer whose ex post facto facts about the Passchendaele campaign are clunkingly parachuted into the narrative at this point–Maddison is starting to see the war for what it is: a grim attritional battle that, at this moment, is narrowly tilted in the allies’ favor by Plumer’s operational initiatives.[6]


Finally, today, three short notes. In contradistinction to the misery of the Salient, let’s spend just a moment with Ivor Gurney, who is safely out of it all, for a few weeks at least, with a blighty touch of gas.

26 September 1917

My Dear Friend: To write to you on common notepaper, white and smooth, to be in between sheets white as snow—yesterday, but I smoke in bed! — and to hear noises domestic and well known flurries and scurries about one — how sweet are all these!

And to be within 17 miles of Enbro, that old city of Scott and R.L.S.; such is my nature that this last idea in fact is sweetest of all.

Ward 24, Edinburgh War Hospital, Bangour, Scotland is my present address. Only slowly and uncertainly is the conviction leaking in through the strong covering of frost and use that I am really in Blighty…

With time on his hands, Gurney’s letters ramble even more than usual, but he returns in the end to the simple theme of a soldier’s thankfulness at being somewhere safe and quiet–and clean:

Clean sheets, clean clothes and skin; no lice; today’s papers; ordinary notepaper. . . What next?

Good bye, and all good wishes for all good things:

Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney[7]


Many others will be coming to Blighty too. When Ronnie Knox converted to Catholicism last week, his father, an Anglican bishop, determined to cut off all contact with him for at least a year. But Bishop Knox will shortly be abrogating this policy in order to pass along a telegram. Ronnie’s older brother Eddie, an officer with the 2/4th Lincolns, was shot in the back today, a century back, by a German sniper somewhere east of the Menin Road, under those same SOS flares.[8]


And, of course, for every man that comes home, another most go back to take his place. In London, today, Isaac Rosenberg bid farewell to his family and belatedly caught a train back to the coast, his leave over. When he returns, he will be transferred from his assignment as a laborer attached to the engineers and sent back into the line.[9]


References and Footnotes

  1. Good-Bye to All That, 260-1.
  2. What would Siegfried Sassoon have thought, in his room at Craiglockhart or out on the links, or wherever he is right this moment, were he able to listen in to this conference in real time?
  3. He will have the assistance in this of the very best, namely his one time battalion superior Robert Graves.
  4. Old Soldiers Never Die, 246-251.
  5. The War the Infantry Knew, 392-400.
  6. Love and the Loveless, 286-7.
  7. War Letters, 205-6.
  8. Fitzgerald, The Knox Brothers, 139-40. Eddie Knox was a talented satirist and frequent contributor to Punch. But he had not felt able to write amusing poems from the trenches and thus sidesteps the label of "war poet." He will survive the war, and his daughter Penelope will write the biography of him and his brothers from which this information derives--as well as several of the best 20th century British novels.
  9. Cohen, Journey to the Trenches, 171. His actual departure may have come two days later, after missing or being unable to take several trains. See Moorcroft Wilson, Isaac Rosenberg, 373.

Carroll Carstairs and Harry Patch Brave the Shells on the Way Out; Jack Martin Overhears a Grim Bargaining; R.A. Knox Finds Authority

Lately it seems that it is always night in the Salient, and that to survive a tour of a few days in its miserable morass is only to invite the special attentions of Nemesis on the march into reserve. Nevertheless, Carroll Carstairs’s memorable few days in the line came to a safe conclusion tonight, a century back:

That night I changed places with Knollys and the next night the Battalion was relieved by the 1st Essex (29th Division). These reliefs were devilish. The combination of black night, “uncertain” shelling, guides missing the way, duckboards along the routes shelled to bits in places making the going difficult, and feeling the responsibility of getting the men out without casualties—and something of the nightmare it was may be imagined. Those were days of open warfare as regards getting up to and back from the front line.

Slowly the men were assembled near Cannes Farm. A “whizz-bang” chipping its corner covered me with dust and plaster and my orderly thought I was a casualty.

With our backs to the enemy we moved in single file down the slippery duckboards. We reached White Hope Corner, where tea was served to the men. At Luneville Farm we entrained, and on the hard wood floor of my truck I slept the sleep of complete exhaustion. One hour in twenty-four had been my average in the line. At 5.40 a.m. we arrived at Proven. Dazed with insufficient rest I entered a world of endless slumber as I crawled into my sleeping bag.[1]


If Harry Patch’s memory served,[2] then he, too, was coming back out of the line tonight, a century back, marching along with the rest of his Lewis gun team. It would not end as well.

We were returning from the line, going back into reserve. It was a quiet night… It was always important to stick to communication trenches where you could, but, if there weren’t any, then you just went over the top in the open and took a chance. We’d stopped briefly as Bob was attending to the call of nature in a slight traverse, causing us to bunch up a little as we waited.

…I guess it was a whizz-bang that got us. The only thing I saw was a flash; I can’t recall any noise at all, but I certainly felt the concussion of that shell bursting, because I was taken off my feet and thrown to the ground. For a couple of minutes I couldn’t move…

I didn’t even know I was hit at first, but a growing pain told me otherwise…

Patch did his best to stop the bleeding from his stomach, but passed out. He was found by stretcher bearers and taken to a casualty clearing station, “where a doctor cleaned the wound of congealed blood and lice and put a clean white bandage on.” After that triage, Patch was no longer critical, and had to wait while doctors worked elsewhere, the shell splinter cooling inside his abdomen.[3]


Two more brief notices, today. First, Jack Martin once again makes us privy to the sort of negotiations that only take place at a certain level. We often see platoon and company commanders carrying out orders and, from time time time, we might see tight-lipped battalion commanders issuing the orders they know will get scores of their men killed. But as these units come in and out, mercilessly thrown back into the fray or spared for a slight respite, there is a constant negotiation going on at higher levels. The generals demand service, but no battalion can fight forever, and therefore a good commanding officer must be an advocate…

There is no doubting the seriousness of the situation for on the phone I overheard a most amazing conversation between our Brigadier and the Divisional Commander. The Brigadier was very firm in his insistence that our Infantry is thoroughly exhausted and totally unable to make any resistance if the Huns attacked. They would break right through our line if once they got beyond our artillery barrage, The Div. Commander tried his hardest to get the Brigadier to say that we can hold on for another twenty-four hours but General Towsey wouldn’t take the responsibility of making any such statement… When Gen. Towsey told him that the men could get neither rations nor water he merely replied, ‘Let them take the iron rations from the killed and wounded.’ This conversation lasted about half an hour and I expect it will result in a speedy relief…[4]

This conversation will be closely echoed half a world away and one world war on in James Jones’s The Thin Red Line.


Finally, today was a memorable day in the life of Ronnie Knox. The son of an Anglican bishop, a brilliant scholar in a brilliant family, precociously ascetic, Knox has been drawing closer and closer to Catholicism for years now. Helped along by the urgings his friend Charles Scott Moncrieff (but not, perhaps, by his former protege Harold Macmillan, who did not convert, and certainly not by his close friend Patrick Shaw Stewart, who did not manifest similar interests) Knox made the decision to formally convert, to the “lifelong disappointment and regret” of his family.

Yesterday, a century back, he thanked Moncrieff, sending him a card that read “Thank you awfully, yours affect. Ronnie.” Today, he took the plunge. Although he was not one of the bright young men who went to war (he considered himself barred from service by the nature of his vocation to the clergy), this friend-of-our-writers several times over was changed by it nevertheless, and it seems safe to assume that his search for what he considered the true faith was intensified by it.

He did not feel an special illumination, but he was so happy that he wanted to laugh out loud all through dinner in the refectory. He had found authority.[5]


References and Footnotes

  1. Generation Missing, 110-11.
  2. And it would have had to serve some seventy years longer than most; but "it is quite possible," in the judgment of Richard Van Emden, that his battalion's few casualties for today included Patch's friends.
  3. The Last Fighting Tommy, 108-110.
  4. Sapper Martin, 108.
  5. Chasing Lost Time, 101-2; Fitzgerald, The Knox Brothers, 131-2.

Scott Moncrieff Returns to London; Alfred Hale Endures Parental Bluster; Wyn Griffith in Red Tabs with Royalty; Vera Brittain on “The Profound Freemasonry” of Those Dead Beyond the Gulf

Today, a century back, we have rather a potpourri of four updates–and none are from the trenches.

First, we witness Charles Scott Moncrieff, now back in London, returning to a familiar literary orbit.

14th June

. . . Broadway (a brother officer here) is very good and faithful to me. He comes down after breakfast in a dressing gown and again (for messages) before he goes out. He has got me this writing pad. Colin came this afternoon and brought a great armful of roses. . . . My friend Robert Ross was in before Colin—fresh from a week-end with the Asquiths—and gave me a novel and a promise of all the latest poetry and other books. I was glad to see him as I wanted an expert’s eye cast on the portraits in this room. . . . I expect a good many brother officers this week. Broadway finds them. He is more obliging than words can say. This place is doing me a lot of good and I feel better already. Our surgeon is like the young villain in Hardy’s Laodicean—he looks about 14 but is very able…[1]

Reading Hardy, depending on Ross’s taste, Asquiths at arm’s reach… and, though he doesn’t mention it in this letter, he is also being regularly visited by Ronald Knox. It’s a small world… which I believe I’ve noted before.


While Moncrieff is returning from the war seriously wounded, Alfred Hale is slowly headed toward France. So slowly that he is still in the adjusting-to-training-camp stage. And it turns out that even our Old Man of the Air Force has parents. Hale may live a solitary life of privilege–before conscription that is–and see camp as an ordeal rather than an adventure, but he’s only 41… and he still has parents who write him their worries, reminding us that the generational gulf is, in terms of years on this earth, relative, and not absolute…

14 June: A letter from my father. A cousin had come to see him on Draft leave. He seemed to be bored with the War, especially with the prospect of death before his time from bullets or exposure… all of which surprised and shocked my father. ‘It didn’t matter how long the War lasted, but we must have a military victory at all costs’. (This last the burden of all letters from home)…

Hale senior also tells his son that at least his work as a batman is “setting free an abler man.” But Hale isn’t so sure. “Was I really doing that? Unfortunately, I much doubted it…” Nor is Hale accepting the idea that his music “must gain” from experience. He is fairly certain, in fact, that innocence of certain things is highly preferable…[2]


Llewelyn Wyn Griffith has recovered, to some extent, from the overwhelming disillusionment and horror at the murderousness of war that he felt after the death of his brother. Or perhaps he has just become more practical… and honest in his balance of emotional reaction and natural self-interest. In any event, he was very happy to be reassigned to the divisional staff a few days ago, replacing a wounded officer in an intelligence job running “an advanced information centre.” Griffith puts on his red tabs “with delight… I felt proud and important in red. Besides, I would be drawing pay at the rate of £400 a year, a tremendous jump for me.” And today, a century back, his elevated status put him in the way of royalty:

… the King and the Prince of Wales visited the headquarters on 14 June. The King shook hands with all the senior members of the corps and divisional staffs…[3]


A wounded young man of letters returning to the literary world, a middle-aged musician learning further humiliations, and a one-time trench fighter content to be on the staff. The war brings many changes–until the changes stop.

Vera Brittain comes to the end of the road, today, with Victor Richardson.

Five days after [his death] Victor was buried at Hove. No place on earth could have been more ironically inappropriate for a military funeral than that secure, residential town, I reflected, as I listened with rebellious anger to the calm voice of the local clergyman intoning the prayers: “Grant, we beseech Thee, O Lord, Thine Eternal Rest to all those who have died for their country…”

Eternal Rest, I reflected, had been the last thing that Victor wanted; he had told me so himself. But if, thus prematurely, he had to take it, how much I wished that fate had allowed him to lie, with other winners of the Military Cross, in one of the simple graveyards of France. I felt relieved, as I listened to the plaintive sobbing of the “Last Post” rising incongruously from amid the conventional civilian tombstones, that Edward had not been able to come to the funeral. The uncomprehending remoteness of England from the tragic, profound freemasonry of those who accepted death together overseas would have intensified beyond endurance the incommunicable grief which had thrust us apart.

But when, back in Kensington, I re-read the letter that he had written in reply to mine telling him of Victor’s death, I knew that he had never really changed towards me, and that each of us represented to the other such consolation as the future still held.

Vera then gives her brother the final words of the present chapter of her memoir, ending Edward’s fervent assurance of true brotherly love

I suppose it is better to have had such splendid friends as those three were rather than not to have had any particular friends at all, but yet, now that all are gone, it seems that whatever was of value in life has all tumbled down like a house of cards. Yet in Tah’s case I will not, I cannot say that I wished from the bottom of my heart that he should live…

Yes, I do say ‘Thank God he didn’t have to live it.’ We started alone, dear child, and here we are alone again… But we share a memory which is worth all the rest of the world, and the sun of that memory never sets. And you know that I love you, that I would do anything in the world in my power if you should ask it, and that I am your servant as well as your brother.



References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 135-6.
  2. The Ordeal of Alfred Hale, 95.
  3. Up to Mametz and Beyond, 153.
  4. Testament of Youth, 359-61.

Aubrey Herbert Lands a Telling Blow; Bimbo Tennant Suffers a Loss; Patrick Shaw-Stewart Rides Hard After Alexander

Bimbo Tennant has come to represent, here, the unfailing good cheer of those blessed by birth, wealth, and… well, unfailing good cheer. But even if the long arm of the war has trouble reaching the generals most safely ensconced in chateaux, it can still pull the rug from under their feet and thn tumble them down almost as quickly as any lesser mortal.

9th May.

… The General came back last night, and General Heyworth who had taken his place, went back to his brigade in the trenches yesterday, only to be shot through the head and killed early this morning. He was so popular, such a tradition, in addition to being the finest looking soldier in the Division. I spent the whole morning with him the day before yesterday, and that always brings Death closer to one, don’t you think so? We made a big wreath for him; I am very sorry about his death.[1]


Creatively describing one’s location–so as to abide by the requirements of censorship while keeping one’s correspondents informed–is one of the minor sports of wartime letter writing. Patrick Shaw-Stewart, writing to Ronald Knox, goes broad and classical today, a century back.

Xerxes’ Country

I am very grateful for the map of Macedonia: it has added several facts to those which I had been trying to piece together, notably the site of Olynthus, and the identification of the Galliko, which had greatly exercised me, and is, of course, the Echedorus (I confess I had not heard of it.) I tried to go to Pella one day, but was frustrated by punctures. This country (I am in the country at present) is a jolly one in spring, and not too hot yet. I am riding an inordinate amount, and (as my saddle is an army one) acquiring formidable callosities; I should do well in a togger. My modern Greek is beginning to lift its head: I can almost tell a shopman that he is over-charging me by a skilful use of the word περισσóς.[2] Don’t overdo your Macedonian researches on my account: the periods I want are those prior to Philip and posterior to Alexander; perhaps you could find me a book.[3]

Let’s not worry about these details, but merely recognize that this is diligent work: every Edwardian schoolboy worth his salt picked up some Victorian-filtered classical Greece. But Shaw-Stewart, since the fortunes of war have put him in the Macedonian outback, is bushwhacking his way into the lesser-known (and still both fascinating and unfashionable) periods of Greek history: Macedon before its flowering under Phillip II (Alexander’s father) or in its long decline after the breakup of Alexander’s hastily assembled empire. One might as well learn something…


Finally, today, an odd farewell to arms, for the nonce. Aubrey Herbert, still not technically either a soldier or a diplomat, and still the only Turkish-speaking British officer among the multitude that has surrendered to the Turkish army outside of Kut, picked a fight with the bullying and paranoid General Gorringe (there were several such British generals in this theater, it would seem). Herbert preferred to follow the orders of the admiral he had come with, but the general insisted… so Herbert, acting as a bizarre sort of free agent in the midst of a faltering military command, told off the general in no uncertain terms. They had a shouting match in a tent, overheard by all and sundry, and Herbert sent a telegram explaining that he couldn’t follow one commander’s orders because another refused to release him, then stormed out announcing that he “had been accustomed to deal with gentlemen.” This was apparently a popular move: Herbert’s semi-insubordination had been overheard and he will find himself “implored to stay and insult him once again.” He did not, but instead began to make his way south to Basra, and then home.[4]


References and Footnotes

  1. Memoir, 192.
  2. This is pretty funny, I gather: it's a classical Greek word, going back to the earliest writing in the language and meaning, according to the most venerable of English Ancient Greek Dictionaries, "beyond the regular number or size, prodigious."
  3. Knox, Patrick Shaw-Stewart, 167.
  4. The Man Who Was Greenmantle, 182-3.

Raymond Asquith Reviews for the Midterm: Comrades and Crocuses, Boredom and Bombs; Siegfried Sassoon on the Glories of Spring; Noel Hodgson on the Same–Until Another Bomb Goes Off; Patrick Shaw-Stewart is Off Once Again

Sometimes it’s almost as if these fellows were in similar places, undergoing very similar experiences, and moved to write about them in similar–yet individually distinct–ways. It’s a day of spring views and lark-song and faulty grenades today.

Raymond Asquith may grumble under his burdens, but when he’s on he’s on. Let’s see how many of our favorite themes he can hit in just one of his near-daily letters home to his wife.

13 March 1916

Our old friend Spring at last: really balmy weather here the last 2 days. I got letters from my daughters the other day about birds and flowers–very sweet both of them–also one from you saying that some of “them” were coming to Mells for Sat.-Mon. Tell me how it all went off and how Dilly and Patsy comported themselves among the crocuses . . .

So far, then: spring weather, birds, and flowers. And path-crossing, at one remove. “Dilly” is, of course, the redoubtable Diana Manners, but “Patsy?” Why, it’s Patrick Shaw-Stewart, of course, the closest thing to a Raymond Asquith among the younger officers. Shaw-Stewart is another caustically-inclined wit, super-sharp scholar, and friend to the bold and the beautiful (not just Dilly of the Coterie, but even Lady Desborough of the Souls) who had struggled somewhat to find the perfect military identity.

Shaw-Stewart had more early success in military matters. He began, of course, side by side with the now-winnowed Argonauts (Rupert Brooke et. al.)–but was then cast up upon the beach, first literally, now figuratively. Home for many weeks since the final failure of the Gallipoli campaign, Shaw-Stewart had proved himself an able liaison officer–he had the croix de guerre to show for it, but he also had no clear professional or regimental path forward. He had learned to expect an indefinite stay in England, escorting Dilly to house parties at Mells and the like… until just about today, a century back. With no warning, the powers that be ordered Shaw-Stewart back to the Eastern Mediterranean (this time to Salonika), once again to work with the French. Two days from now he will be already aboard ship, writing about his new status: army, not navy, and very much of the staff:

I told you, didn’t I, that they’ve made me a soldier, a Captain, with an option of returning to the R[oyal] .N[aval].D[ivision]. if I want to later? I am entirely covered with red tabs, and am looked on with holy awe by all the junior subs on board.

Not that this status will blunt his scholarly inclinations. To Ronald Knox, apparently ailing, also two days hence, Shaw-Stewart will write:

the moment you’re well, I shall want an ancient map of Southern Macedonia and the Chalcidice and a work on Mount Athos and a brochure of Macedonian history from the earliest times! Not really all that, but, anyhow, get well quickly…[1]

But back, now, to Asquith and his unwitting (or perhaps that is a leap to conclusions) litany of all of our favorite themes:

There was another bombing accident last week at Calais–in my battalion this time: an officer slightly wounded, 3 or 4 men killed, and 20 others injured according to the vague accounts which have reached me. It is very puzzling: I suppose they must be trying a new kind of bomb: otherwise I can’t understand

Well, I am a bit less puzzled. First, due to the shocking frequency of these accidents–surely more British soldiers have been killed and wounded by British grenades over the last few months than Germans. Second, due to the following explanation in the battalion war diary. It’s worse than Asquith has heard:

On the 11th a most regrettable bomb accident occurred amidst No. 4 Company…

At this point damage to the manuscript partially obliterated a line, which included the names of at least two officers.

…5 men were killed or died of wounds and 16 men were wounded. The court of enquiry found that no one was to blame, but that the bomb exploded prematurely immediately it left the hand of the thrower. All the men were behind a thick sandbag wall at the time but the moment of explosion caused the effect to be very wide.[2]

And one last familiar note from Asquith:

Apart from this I have no news either of business or pleasure. My life goes drivelling on in the same dreary round, with even less prospect than usual of variety or relief since all leave has been stopped indefinitely–some say till the end of the war, others the end of the summer, which is little better . . .[3]


It’s the weather which is moving the most pens of late. I have even–in deference to the hesitantly-submitted plaints of several readers–taken the desperate step of omitting decent springtime bits from fully qualified writers, in the hopes of keeping this post to a manageable length. Just two more, I beg!

First, it’s Siegfried Sassoon who will carry off the prize for springtime lyricism.

March 13

Back from leave a week now. Weather last week very wintry; but yesterday was the first of spring, and again to-day the sun and the earth are lovers. All the farm-hens feel like laying eggs and make all their best noises outside our door. In bed in my canvas hut, after listening to the long roar of guns four miles away, and falling asleep to their cradle-song, I wake up to see bird-shadows against my roof, and to hear the busy clack and whistle of starlings on the fruit-trees and the red roofs of the farm where the transport is. And after breakfast I sit half-way between the fire and the sunshine to read the Laureate’s anthology…

This is Robert Bridges’s The Spirit of Man, which Charles Scott Moncrieff has also been perusing.

sipping small doses of Shelley who always makes such an effect when one reads him in small extracts. ‘And the gloom divine is all round,’ as he says in Prometheus. The ‘gloom divine’—something like Vaughan’s ‘deep, but dazzling darkness’. And then the soldier-Cook begins singing ‘I want to go to Michigan’ at the top of his voice about three yards away.[4]


And, finally, it is Noel Hodgson who does the best job of fitting the real weather into a lightly-fictionalized story setting. Hodgson has been in the hospital, felled by fever, but upon recovery he took the first opportunity to climb a hill and see what he could see. This is from a sketch entitled “There and Back:”

It was one of those incomparable mornings after rain, when every line is clear and every colour vivid almost beyond belief…

No sign or sound of conflict broke the spell of that healing quiet; not the echo of a gun, not the distant vision of a hovering ’plane. But all the sounds of the living country mingled: the rippling song of the larks, the chirping grasshoppers, the rumble of a farm cart on the valley-road, and, as it were the motive and spirit of it all, the delicate melancholy of a far-off church bell.

Incredibly, this scene–fictionalized, again, but lightly, again–ends with news of a grenade accident. The protagonist, even while walking back to the hospital, learns that one of his fellow officers has been wounded. He would love to stay safe amidst the beauty of Spring, but he realizes now that duty calls…

Charlotte Zeepvalt comments on this piece:

It would be impossible now to say how much imagination is woven into this. But it is certainly true that two days before Hodgson returned to the battalion, on the afternoon of 13 March, an officer and a sergeant were wounded by a rifle grenade; it was an accident…

In ‘There and Back’ the second-in-command’s name is Holland; the real-life equivalent was Second Lieutenant Butland, and he was actually standing in as bombing officer while Hodgson was in hospital… the essential truth of the piece holds. The main character, who climbs to the highest point he can find to drink in the landscape and make his own peace with the future is Noel Hodgson to the life….  he explains why going back is a matter of choice, not compulsion. He decides to return because he belongs to the battalion and the battalion needs him.[5]


References and Footnotes

  1. Knox, Patrick Shaw-Stewart, 163.
  2. See here.
  3. Life and Letters, 247-8.
  4. Diaries, 40-1.
  5. Zeepvalt, Before Action, 160-1.

Three Grenadier Lieutenants and Two Sargents: Osbert Sitwell, Bim Tennant, Harold MacMillan, Mother’s Sons All; Vera Brittain and Roland Leighton: The Written Word Never Quite Hits the Mark

Some days it’s hard to swing a cat around your head in the Pas-de-Calais without hitting a subaltern’s whose mother’s limpid, long-limbed luminously aristocratic beauty was captured by John Singer Sargent. In fact, I realize that my earlier efforts to explain exactly in what sense the Guards were an “elite” unit were rather inefficiently wordy. Please find two thousand words-worth of explanatory pictures below.

Yesterday, the ever-affectionate Bim Tennant wrote another letter to “Darling Moth’,” known to others as Lady Glenconner, one of the leading lights of the Souls.[1]


The Wyndham Sisters (Pamela, the future Lady Glenconner and beloved mother of Bim Tennant, is in the middle; Mary, the future Lady Wemyss, mother of Hugo and Ivo Charteris, is on the right). John Singer Sargent, 1899

6th September, 1915

Darling Moth’

Your precious letter made me very happy indeed. I have been thinking of old jokes also…

Yesterday, being Sunday, I played tennis with three “little thrends in pink,”—the brewer’s daughter Thérése Bellanger, Nellie and yet another Germaine, whose name I know not. We had great fun, and four very good sets. The father watched from near by, like a comatose Boer general, in a panama and a huge black beard. We then went back to a terrific tea at which we all drank toasts in champagne provided by the Brewer, of which I drank a very little so as not to appear stand-offish and to drink toasts in.

After that all the officers in the battalion played rounders, which was great fun. The Prince of Wales also came and watched for a few minutes…

Note please the casual reference to royalty. Not anything to get excited about, really, when many of one’s friends come from either considerably older branches of the English nobility or from the families that actually govern, rather than rule, Brittania. The reference to rounders does surprise, though–not cricket?

I am very sorry to see that Charles Lister is dead. I liked him very much…


Lord Ribblesdale, Charles Lister’s Father. John Singer Sargent, 1890

Bimbo is several years younger than the “Argonauts,” but his family moved in the same very tight circles–Lister’s father, Lord Ribblesdale–pictured at right (bonus Sargent!)–had married an aunt of Bimbo’s, while another aunt was Margot Tennant Asquith, the (scorned) wife of the Prime Minister and mother of Argonaut Oc, recently converted Guardsman Raymond, and Brookean pseudo-inamorata Violet.

It seems almost as if every young man of both a certain class–Bim’s father, a second-generation Scotch baronet, was a politician lately elevated to a title of his own–and a certain age–from Bim’s eighteen to Raymond Asquith’s twice that–was either already in the cavalry or the Guards or was faced with a particularly narrow version of the 1914 enlistment choice: should one go for one of the interesting, newfangled, likely-to-see-immediate-combat units, or to the Guards?

Perhaps if Bim were a year or two older he would have rushed off with Lister and Oc to join so many talented men of lesser birth–this is, actually, an excellent illustration of Raymond’s crack about his “middle class” identity–in the hip, musical, poetic, Churchillian Hood Battalion of the Royal Naval Division. As it was, he got a commission in the Guards and thus was “properly trained and decently treated.” And there, of course, he will find many friends and social acquaintances from Eton.

But society, for young gentlemen of Bim’s kidney, began at home, at their mothers’ knee. Julian Grenfell‘s mother, Lady Desborough, was the dominant personality in the “Souls,” and thus a sort of Regimental Sergeant Major to Bim’s mother. He would have looked up to Julian and Billy, and Julian and cousin Charles (Lister) were close friends through childhood and at Eton. There R.A. Knox and Patrick Shaw-Stewart–young men of socially decent but not exalted birth–joined their set. (And then they all trooped off to Balliol together.) Bimbo would have been an honorary little brother of the Argonauts, but he is even better-founded in the Grenadiers.

Bless you, darling Moth’, with love to Daddy from your devoted


The Sitwell Family (Osbert is in the Sailor Suit), by John Singer Sargent, 1900

The Sitwell Family, before eccentricity and scandal took their toll. Osbert, the future Grenadier, is the young fellow unprovidentially arrayed in a Sailor Suit.  John Singer Sargent, 1900

Speaking of society and friends and fellow Grenadiers, let’s get some perspective on Bimbo from a garrulous, black-sheepish member of the bunch.

I wish we could hear more from Osbert Sitwell–he rarely fails to entertain, after all. He just fails to date his reminiscences, even for long stretches at the front. The son of very strange and troubled parents–his father was a crazed baronet, his mother a victim/perpetrator of fraud who was jailed this year, to the prurient fascination of society–Sitwell moved in much the same circles. He and Bim Tennant were already friendly, but it seems as if their time together this month was the foundation for a more intense friendship. Sitwell had been in the trenches over the winter, then had a long spell in London, which, after all, served as garrison town for the Guards. Now he has returned to France, where the Grenadier Guards have been concentrated together in their own Division. In a few short weeks Sitwell will be transferred from the second battalion to Tennant’s, the fourth–and into his very company. Sitwell, a prickly and rebellious sort, nevertheless loved the mother-pleasing, poetically flirtatious Tennant:

Bimbo was a compact of energy as a firecracker. To be in his company was like having an electric battery in the room, invigorating without being in the least tiring. Literary expression was as easy to him as talk to other people…

This is a young man seen from the same level, by an admiring peer. Sitwell, of course, is very much aware that a child writing to a parent is a different being than a friend remembered:

His conduct always delighted–though it may have dismayed–his friends; for we belonged to the same epoch, that strongest of all links: whereas the members of the circle–rather precious, it may be, though many of them were truly distinguished in mind–which surrounded his mother, Lady Glenconner, belonged to an earlier age, were dyed in the wool with pale pre-Raphaelite colors.

Although he himself will come to frequent Lady Glenconner’s house, Sitwell can’t resist taking another shot at the aesthetic old guard–we first met Osbert at the Ballets Russesremember, and he will not stand for what, from a Modernist point of view, is not only old-fashioned by a lamentable divagation of English artistic energies. Lady Glenconner’s salon often contained, Sitwell cracks, amongst “various relics of pre-Raphaelitism,” the not-quite-elderly son of Edward Burne-Jones, most prominent of the Pre-Raphaelite painters.

All of this is a comment on personality and memory, but it’s also a reminder of Sitwell’s artistic commitments. Being painted by Sargent is, perhaps, acceptable, but even though the pre-Raphaelites remain for so many of our writers an ideal of English craftsmanship and aesthetic achievement, Sitwell is keen to cast them as old-fashioned, prettily irrelevant, and, essentially, foolish. The beautiful Sargent mothers he will still compliment, but not the artists who would have immortalized their mothers. (Although, come to think of it, the pre-Raphaelite beauties are not long and languid society women but fleshier, earthier types from other social realms–the lovers of the painters, not their patrons. Perhaps there is a social foundation to Sitwell’s aesthetic snobbery…)

More to the point of our commentary on Tennant’s remarkably effusive letters is another telling aside of Sitwell’s–this one on what we might term Lady Glenconner’s “parenting style:”

(She loved them, it seemed to me, in a French and not an English way: she wished to be with her children throughout the day–the last thing, as a rule, that an English parent of her kind would desire–and to regulate absolutely their lives.)

There’s a brief comment to conjure with.


And it brings us at last to today, a century back, when Bim Tennant wrote to his “exquisitely pretty sister, Clare.”[2] And look who turns up:

Tuesday, 7th September, 1915

My Darling Clare,

Thank you so much for your delightful letter which I loved getting…

Last night I rode over and had dinner with George Villiers at Wizernes, where the 1st Battalion are. Harold Macmillan came with me, he rides much better than I do.

Which, of course, is unusual, because Tennant is to the manor born and Macmillan is nouveau riche–the great-grandson of a Scottish crofter, the grandson of the founder of the eponymous publishing house. Macmillan’s mother was–would you believe it?–born in Indiana. Still, they had overlapped at Eton (before Macmillan left due to ill health, to be tutored by R.A. Knox) and now renewed their friendship.

It is about three miles away and it was in the dark both ways, we couldn’t get horses at first, so were rather late, as we had to get transport horses. We expected to find snorting Generals and Majors cursing us for being late and were consequently delighted to find only George Villiers, all the rest of his Company being on leave in England! We had a delightful evening a trois and had one good laugh after another, being all blessed with the same sense of humour, and unhampered by any shadow of militarism. I suppose we shall start fighting soon. I’m very contented to stay here, but I want to get the first hooroosh over, as I expect I shall be very frightened…

So, yes, fear and bon-bons. In a letter to his father Tennant reported “rumours of an Allied attack involving over a million men at the beginning of next week,” but when writing to his mother he does tend to make France with the Grenadiers sound like a combination of scouting and a weekend in the country.

With Macmillan it could hardly be more different. His mother, too, was an artist and a socialite, with enough wealth and influence to have maneuvered her son out of the Royal Rifles and into the Grenadier Guards. (But, still–not a Soul, not a Sargent.) But her son’s epistolary endearments are restrained, and his subject matter as down to earth as possible.

macmillan trench map

Macmillan’s map from a practice attack, sent home with today’s letter (From Downing Street to the Trenches)

I spent the morning with No. 3 Coy. in a practice attack. My duty was to organise (or devise rather) a system for bringing up parties of bomb-throwers in a frontal attack.

They are to come (I think) in the second line. In the fourth or fifth line (after the trench is taken come men with sand-bags (empty) and shovels.

The attack will then be something like in the diagram [at right]. We did it today with one platoon at a time (The bombers going with the second platoon. Only the frontage of one platoon is attacked…)

When the bombers get in to the trench, they must immediately begin to work, each party separately. One party goes along the main fire trench to the right, one to the left. Others go down the communication trenches leading to the enemy second line…

The idea is that the main body of the infantry will thus be able unmolested to consolidate the line which has been won. When night comes, a communication trench (or several trenches) would be dug back to the line A-B, so that we can next safely bring up reinforcements of men and ammunition.

Macmillan continues on for several more paragraphs before checking himself slightly. As the editor of this correspondence, Mike Webb, points out, these are less private letters to mum than letters for the family, intended to be passed on to his brother, who might be presumed (presumptuously, but with reasonable confidence) to have a greater interest in bombing tactics. Still, it seems safe to conclude that Nellie Belles Macmillan is rather different from Lady Glenconner.[3]


So that’s the Guards. Briefly, then, today, the sensitive middle classes:

France, 7 September 1915

I hope it is not a sign of too volatile a temperament to be much affected by one’s immediate surroundings. I am very much so. The places I happen to be in, the clothes I am wearing, whether the day is wet or fine; these are the things that regulate my moods.

There are some people who would say that, not being a woman, I have no business to have moods: but let that pass.

That, I believe, was a feminist statement? This is Roland Leighton, of course, struggling against himself. Let it go! Reach for the pastoral!

This afternoon is glowing with the languorous warmth of the dying Summer; the sun is a shield of burnished gold in a sea of turquoise; the bees are in the clover that overhangs the trench–and my superficial, beauty-loving self is condescending to be very conscious of the joy of living. It is a pity to kill people on a day like this. In a way,
I suppose, it is a pity to kill people on any kind of day, but opinions–even my own–differ on this subject.

Oh, very good! Cleverly cynical–but his heart is not in it. Inevitably, Roland begins quoting from The Story of An African Farm.

Like Waldo I love to sit in the sun, and like him I have no Lyndall to sit with. But it was the last verse of his poem: it is only the first of mine.

For, hand in hand just as we used to do,
We two shall live our passionate poem through
On some serene tomorrow

I wonder sometimes which I am born to be, a man of action with lapses into the artistic, or an artist with military sympathies. Mother has asked me once or twice lately whether I should like to go into the Regular Army as a profession. I say no because I foresee the atrophy of my artistic side. On the other hand a literary life would give no scope for the adventurous & administrative facet of my temperament. What am I to do? …

Roland has been in this sort of mood for a few days–which means that Vera Brittain‘s letter to him, today, reads like part of the same conversation. Just think if these two could have stayed up late chatting on the phone, from billets to home…

Buxton, 7 September 1915

I remember well enough the letter you complain of as ‘icy & cynical’. I was feeling very bitter that afternoon, but why you
should get the benefit of it I don’t know. I am sorry; I always feel very repentant after sending anything like that. You are right that in such a case conversation is better than correspondence. Some things can be said quite easily which are better not written. The written word never quite hits the mark; it always implies so much more or so much less than you really mean. And there is of course a certain amount of what I might almost call ‘anachronism’ in a close correspondence in which each letter takes 2 or 3 days to come. I may come across something in a letter you have written in a ‘perverse’ mood which rouses me into icy & cynical remarks, and you may happen (as in this case) to get this outburst of frigidity just after you have sent me the most delightful letter in the world. The only remedy, I suppose,
would be to write nothing either cynical or perverse. But all the same… We can’t help being ourselves–at any rate in

Do these letters really mean so much? . . . For me too it means so much to hear at least something every day…

Yes, we are more like our real selves in letters. I at any rate am so foolishly reserved & ‘difficile’ when I meet you, that it is a physical, let alone mental, impossibility to say & do the things I want to say & do. And afterwards, when You have gone away, and I think to myself that I may never get the chance to say & do those things again, I feel so angry with myself, and so impatient. . .

Mother says our entire intimacy is one of correspondence. I don’t quite think that; there must have been something to start the correspondence and to inspire the keeping of it! But whenever we do meet it is never long enough to give us time to get used to each other properly . . . it is all so tantalising.[4]


References and Footnotes

  1. Although not the leading light, which would be Julian Grenfell's mother, Lady Desborough, who, despite her steely grip on high society, did not, perhaps, at least at the turn of the century, have Sargent-level money.
  2. Laughter in the Next Room, 108-10.
  3. Webb, From Downing Street to the Trenches, 23-24, 133-4.
  4. Letters From a Lost Generation, 161-3.

Loos Approaches; Hardy Mourns; Shaw-Stewart Hopes for a Winter Respite; Roland Leighton Is Gradually Getting Back His Old Interest in What Happens Out Here

September 1915 is one of the months that is remembered for its battle–for, that is, being the month proper to one of the five or six major, strategically fruitless British offensives of the war’s first four years.[1] The Battle of Loos will be the first major assault since Neuve Chapelle, the first attack that depended on elements of Kitchener’s Army, and the largest battle of the war so far, for Brittain.[2] It will also embroil Frank Richards, Robert Graves, Bim Tennant, Osbert Sitwell, Edward Hermon, Jack Kipling, Harold MacMillan, Noel Hodgson, Robert Nichols, Roland Leighton, Rowland Feilding and others (including the fictional Phillip Maddison and Richard Hannay)–so gird up your loins, readers!

But it does not begin for more than three weeks. Accordingly, we now enter a period of building-up-while-trying-not-to-look-ahead. I will withhold any “monthly” poetry today because the good ones deal with the fighting at the end of the month, and fit better there.

That being said, today’s entries have little to do with France and the build-up. Instead we find several of our writers limping toward the end of a weary and unprofitable wartime summer–doomed, of course, to be remembered as an idyll, once memory must reach back through the summers to come.


From the grim stalemate of Gallipolli, Patrick Shaw-Stewart wrote to his friend the writer and theologian R. A. Knox. This doggedly humorous assessment of the campaign’s future–it’s dated “1st September, 1915—Partridge Shooting begins”–has a certain verve. It’s almost as if Shaw writes to contend against the implicit challenge of maintaining conspicuously high spirits even among misery and terrible loss. And he’s keeping his scholarly hand in: the letter begins by thanking Knox for his help in Shaw-Stewart’s plan to read up on the ancient history of his present location.

Thank you for three masterly instalments of the history of the Dardanelles, accompanied by two illuminating maps. Thus equipped, and fortified by Walter Leaf’s Troy, which I have amassed, I can answer almost any questions, and am constantly astonishing the natives by little voluntary excursus on the deeper significance of the site of their dugout. Several captains of antiquity seem to have grasped the idea of the combined operations, but few can have taken so long over it as us.

I am now fully prepared for a (fairly) peaceful old age on the Peninsula, which I would contemplate cheerfully were there greater facilities for leaving it now and then. As it is, the farthest move that can be anticipated is an occasional night on Imbros, which eventually tends to lose its freshness. All that might not be so bad, but when you carefully note the date on this letter, the month cannot fail to strike your eye and to induce reflections on Equinoctial Gales and (in general) the Winter Campaign. I wish Sir Ian Julius Caesar Hamilton would lead back his legions into winter quarters (say) in Alexandria, but I don’t suppose he will, and we shall eventually settle by grim experience the question that to-day is anxiously debated in 1,000 Chersonesiote messes: What is the climate of Gallipoli in winter? My own theory is that it doesn’t get really bad till December, and that something will turn up towards the end of November, but I admit that that view expects at least its full share from Heaven.[3]


And back in England, one of Gallipoli’s thousands of British dead is mourned by an elder cousin. Thomas Hardy‘s letters–at least those that have been collected and published–are usually brisk and focused on the business at hand. But now the death of his cousin is always on his mind, and becomes the common thread of his correspondence. Today he wrote both to Sidney Cockerell at Cambridge–the same Cockerell who has been entertaining Siegfried Sassoon–and to his sister-in-law Constance Dugdale.

Max Gate | Sept 1 1915

My dear Cockerell:

I have been going to write to you for weeks, to ask how you and yours are getting on in this trying time, but events distract me from all my plans…

We were much distressed two days ago by a telegram which had come through from the War Office, telling us that the most promising young relative I had in the world had been killed in action on Aug 22, in Gallipoli. His mother is a widow, & how she is going to bear it I don’t know. She has two other sons, but they are both in the trenches in France, & may, of course, not get through safely. However, it is not such absolute massacre there, so far as I can judge, as it is in the Dardanelles. He was 2d Lieut. F.W. George, Dorset Regt & you may see perhaps a biographical note about him in the Times. Heaven only knows where & how his body lies, & the particulars of his death.

It is indeed time that we should hear of something better than we have heard lately. I am not at all sure that we are not going to be beaten (though one dares not say so). I try to take an unbiassed view, & that seems to show that now that the Germans have crippled Russia for a time, they are going to come westward & cripple us. Absit omen! however, & certainly Napoleon, who carried all before him at first, was not the ultimate Conqueror.

Ever sincerely yours
Thomas Hardy


My dear Connie:

It is so kind of you to write me a line about my cousin Frank George. It was a very great pity that he was doomed to mere brutal fighting, when he was, as you know, capable of so much better things. We have heard from his sister this morning, who says that her mother is bearing up as well as she can, but as she has two more sons, now in the ranks in Flanders, where soon there is to be very hot work we are told, we dread lest anything should happen to them too, or either of them; I fear such an event would kill her…

Affectly yours
T. Hardy[4]

This may be an unkind comment, but, especially given that he will write several more letters of this sort, it seems almost as if Hardy’s distant bereavement has brought out a faintly maudlin, old-gossip element of his personality. He mourns–yet he passes on the particulars; he bemoans the infinitely more dire bereavement of the young officer’s mother as if somehow the pathos of that thought will channel a reader’s sympathy through himself; and he makes knowing references to Napoleon, as if to remind his readers who wrote the great verse drama of the last century-back European conflagration (he did–The Dynasts.) Hardy is a tough old bird, vigilant about both his emotions and his public persona, but here we suddenly have a window into his humanity.

No, that’s not it. His humanity is apparent in all his work–he’s more human than most of the other great poets–but it is a towering humanity. It’s a wind whipping across the heath, fate and history churning remorselessly, nothing to do now but shout ironies into the gale sort of humanity.

Here he is staggered by a loss, knocked down to a human-sized humanity. Like Vera Brittain even at the war’s outset, he forgets for a moment the scale of brutality, the way war chews up the lucky and the damned, the brilliant and the dull, the good and the wicked, and can think only of one talented young man, of what a special loss he would be.

So, yes, I have been unkind. Reduced to the ordinary size of a mourning man, he reaches out, telling all his friends of his sorrow.

So. Sad times. But we’re not here for poor Frank George. We’re here for the Great Writer. Now that he owns a piece of the tragedy, will his war writing change? Will there be less of the muffled sonority of a hesitant Great Man of Letters and some sort of a return to his own distinctly fierce, bitterly tragic voice? (Yes. Soon).


Lastly, today, we will find at least one literary subaltern in France, practicing for future assaults. The letter begins with Roland Leighton worrying gallantly about Vera Brittain staying up late after an exhausting day at the hospital just to write to him. But needs must, and he quickly begins reneging on his promises to spare her the misery of the trenches and to avoid implicit requests for daily letters. (And a good thing, too–for us.)

France, 1 September 1915

I too will try to write to you every day if I can. If I can’t you will know that I have been too busy, and forgive me. This afternoon we are going to practise-attack–possibly but not at all probably in preparation for a real one. I am gradually getting back my old interest in what happens out here. I will not say ‘Out of sight, out of mind’; though you may think so. But it is perhaps easier to forget out here–to forget not what one has known & has felt, but the pain that accompanies the memory…[5]


References and Footnotes

  1. I'm thinking of Neuve Chapelle, Loos, The Somme, Arras and Cambrai, and Third Ypres (through Passchendaele). The final, victorious offensive is hardly remembered except by war buffs and military historians. This is late proof of the way in which the entire war's history is, for the British, encoded in a sacrificial mode, and recorded as elegy or threnody, rather than epic.
  2. Typically, the British press described Loos as the greatest battle in history, blithely ignoring not only much inconveniently archaic history but also the much larger engagements of the past year fought by Germany, Austro-Hungary, Russia, and France...
  3. Patrick Shaw-Stewart, 146-7.
  4. Letters, V, 120-1.
  5. Letters from a Lost Generation, 155.

Charles Lister is Hit Again; Edward Thomas and Ford Madox Ford Seek Society Among the Other Ranks; Alan Seeger Describes a Circle; Roland Hefts a Happy Axe While Vera Wishes for a Blighty One

More bad news from Gallipoli. Once there were five Argonauts:[1] Patrick Shaw-Stewart is safe, for the moment, on the staff; Arthur “Oc” Asquith has recovered from his wounds and returned to the Hood Battalion. Rupert Brooke, of course, succumbed to blood poisoning in April, while Denis Browne was killed in June. That leaves Charles Lister, who has already been wounded twice during the campaign. Two days ago he wrote to his father.

Hospital Ship, August 26, 1915

Just think, I have been wounded once more, the third time. We were in a trench, observing the Turkish trenches, when suddenly they fired some shells into our trenches. I went along to see what had happened, got my people back into a bit of a trench they had had to leave, then went down the trench, thinking the show was over, and then got it, being struck in the pelvis and my bladder being deranged, and slight injuries in the legs and calves.

I have been operated on, but am sketchy as to what has been done. I am on a hospital ship, comfy enough, but feeling the motion of it a good deal, and I have to be in bed and cannot change my position. The hours go slowly, as one does not feel very much up to reading. However, I got to sleep all right. I feel this will be a longish job, and I don’t know where I shall do my cure–perhaps Alexandria. My doctor is quite happy at the way things are going. The shell that hit me killed one man and wounded the others. Forgive this scrawl, but it’s not easy to write.

There will be no cure. Lister died today, a century back.

So much writing here has been about expectation, about arrival–the poems of anticipation, the agonies of eagerness, the careful recording of each step on the journey to the line. Now, increasingly, there is a burden of survivor’s writing to take up. The diarists and the avid epistolary life-writers must become eulogists, or forget their friends.

In a few weeks time, Shaw-Stewart will write home to their mutual friend R. A. Knox:

I love always to hear from you about people I don’t get news of, but I am almost incapable of writing about Billy, Douglas, Charles. I have had to do so much of it. Balliol of our time has had, I do think, a high proportion of killed; my best friends never seem to get comfortably wounded…  I think you and I are the only ones who thoroughly realise the length and breadth of what we lose in Charles. I think from different points of view we have perhaps understood him as well as any one else, and certainly prized him as highly, and we alone have all College and all Balliol in retrospect of him. He was quite extraordinarily good out here, and supplied an example of how not to grouse, and not to appear unduly to mind being killed, not unneeded by some of the newer drafts of officers. The men, both stokers and recruits, adored him—they always called him “Lord Lister,” which conjured up delicious visions of the aged man of science as a company officer. He had really what the despatches call devotion to duty; he was all the time resisting an intrigue by the Intelligence people (fomented by me) to get him moved there, which was on the point of coming off. He was constantly doing the most reckless things, walking between the lines with his arms waving under a hot fire from both sides; but his last wound, like his others, was from a shell in a trench, and no blame could attach. I think nothing worse can happen. God and the King have both lost a protagonist, and people like you and me the most divine of men.[2]

We tend to see Shaw-Stewart in a humorous vein–he’s one of our best writers of the light-verse letter–or grandstanding a bit about his experiences. But here he is heartbroken, mourning his friend from within their circle, not praising him to those without.

The recipient of the letter is worth at least a brief mention here as well. Another brilliant Oxford classicist, Ronald Arbuthnott Knox had followed the same course as Shaw-Stewart and so many others–Eton, then Balliol. But then Knox, the son of an Anglican bishop, had chosen not business or the arts but the church. Ordained now, he was both a fellow of Trinity College, Oxford, and its chaplain, and swiftly establishing himself as a popular theological writer. As a man of the cloth he will not feel the same impulsion to volunteer for France, but the war will change him as well–Knox will soon convert to Catholicism, which will necessitate leaving his Oxford post. But writerly fame awaits: in addition to his religious writing we will become a genre-defining writer of crime fiction.

But back to the now. Knox was a mighty Latinist (among his first Oxford students was Harold MacMillan) and he will soon sit down to work on a contribution to the memorial book that Charles Lister’s father will assemble. Knox’s contribution will be a formal elegy–it’s available here, if your Latin is up to the task. Sic transit gloria, etc.


Edward Thomas added to his ongoing letter to Robert Frost today, a century back. It’s quite striking how much the army has changed him–for now, at least. He seems to ease off on the self-excoriating honesty, here, and to indulge in a wistful tone so unlike the hard, alert intelligence of his poetry. He complains, yes, and questions himself. But without the rough edge. It’s almost as if he’s abandoned figure studies in slanting light and given himself to the pleasant hurly-burly of genre-painting… such is the calming effect on struggling, lonely man of a sudden immersion in the necessary camaraderie of army training.

I have some time on my hands at Headquarters today & have a pile of 1000 blankets in an empty drill hall to recline in. So far it is very dull defending ones wives & mothers & sisters & daughters from the Germans…

So far I am an indigested lump in this battalion. The men I am up against are mostly clerks of some sort with intelligent newspaper opinions and an interest in their clothes & in keeping up the social standing of the corps… They don’t quite understand what I say except when I say Yes or No. The great majority are under 25.–It is a question now whether I should have been worse off say in the Welch Fusiliers with a mixture of clerks & shopmen & manual workers. Perhaps I allowed myself too easily to be persuaded I could not have stood their ways.  For though I am admittedly a superior person I am not as particular as some people. Well, I dare say any one 100 men are about he same as any other 100…

Nobody persuaded me into this. Not even myself.

Yours ever

Edward Thomas[3]

Well, never mind, I suppose. Thomas is soon once again questioning his decision. And, like virtually every other Englishman socially south of a lordship, he is perpetually worried about fitting in with those “below” him. Which continues to seem an unattractive trait and an intellectual dead-end, no matter how accustomed I become to the England of a century back…


And so of course a we find similar concerns in a letter today from our other elderly-man-of-letters-newly-in-uniform, Ford Madox Hueffer of the Welsh Regiment:

To C. F. G. Masterman

3rd Bn. Welch Regt.
28 Aug. 1915

My dear C. F. G.

Here I am and hard at it—6 a.m. to 7 p.m. everyday, like any V form boy & at about the same sort of stuff. Literature seems to have died out of a world that is mostly interesting from its contours. (A contour is an imaginary line etc.) But I am really quite happy except for an absolute lack of social life. I suppose you or Lucy don’t know anyone hereabouts to whom you cd. give me an introduction?[4]

Similar, and yet different. From Thomas, the long discursive letter (I excerpted only a small portion) to his best friend across the sea. From Ford, a bon viveur and a man who is practical about his impracticalities, a short letter requesting social aid and abettance.


And let’s check in briefly with Alan Seeger.  When last we heard from him he was hopeful that recent troop movements presaged a glorious attack.

Plancher-Bas, August 28, 1915.

Back in Plancher-Bas again! Our march into Alsace, round which I wove so much romance, was only for the prosaic purpose of working on second line defences… We worked five days and then marched back by the same route.

Putting one and two together, it seems to me that the General Staff are at present bringing behind the lines as far as possible, as in our case, the best troops and manning the trenches with second-line formations and territorials. They are recreating a whole armée active, who are not to be put into the trenches, but will be thrown immediately into the next great offensive…[5]


Finally, today, Roland Leighton and Vera Brittain. It’s good to report that she is still always in his thoughts.

Bois de Warnimont, France, 28 August 1915

I have brought the Company out woodcutting for the R.E. [Royal Engineers] this morning, and am writing this sitting on a tree trunk in a clearing. It is a glorious morning–very hot outside; but in this world of green and brown it is a sheer delight. The wood is about 3 miles long and covers two little hills and a valley between. Someone has just begun to whistle part of the Overture to ‘William Tell’, and it sounds so appropriate here among the aisles of trees with the ring of axes as a background. And this is war!

I ought not to be sitting down writing this now really. I am supposed to be walking round seeing that the men do their work properly. Before I began this I did a little wood chopping myself, just because I felt a childish desire to & greatly to the amusement of the men, I expect.[6]

Where is the gloomy Roland of yesterday? Well, high spirits and pitching in make for good leadership.

Across the channel in Buxton, alas, we find that the soul mates are out of sync.

Saturday August 28th

To-day has been much the same as all the days–and all will be like one another, I suppose, until he is either killed or comes home again. Oh! if he could only be wounded just a little![7]


References and Footnotes

  1. Or six, if you count Bernard Freyberg, the natural soldier of the bunch. Or seven if you count Frederick Kelly, the rower and composer. And while they may have called themselves "The Argonauts," in faux-ironic-heroic style, their fellow officers in the Hood Battalion called them "The Latin Club." Nicknames, nicknames--so different when bestowed from within than without. But anyway--Freyberg and Kelly yet live.
  2. Patrick Shaw-Stewart, 147-8.
  3. Elected Friends, 92-3.
  4. Letters of Ford Madox Ford, 61.
  5. Letters and Diary of Alan Seeger, 151-2.
  6. Letters of a Lost Generation, 151.
  7. Chronicle of Youth, 265.