The Master of Belhaven Readies a Raid; Ivor Gurney in Love

Ralph Hamilton, Master of Belhaven, makes his final preparations for the artillery support for a local raid on the German lines. He has himself had quite an adventure as a forward observer not that long ago, but it is his duty, now, to restrain his subordinates from similar acts of derring-do.

The thaw has come with a vengeance now, and the country is in an awful state. The roads are three inches thick with mud… After lunch I went to B Battery and met the special liaison officer for the raid–Walsh–from C Battery. I gave him his final orders in writing and forbade him to go over the top with the raiders. I can’t afford to have good officers killed in joy riding. The raid is tonight…[1]

 

Meanwhile, there is an affair of a different sort brewing in Scotland. Ivor Gurney‘s role here has been that of the neurasthenic poet or the febrile, forgetful composer–an attenuated artist, living for his art, in any case. And that picture is incomplete, of course. He has also been a soldier and, in a salvage company, a sort of professional scavenger, writing intermittently of some of the war’s most dispiriting scenes. And since most of the letters we read are to Marion Scott, there are still layers of reserve that we might forget to notice amidst the impassioned poetic utterances. She is a friend as well as a patron, but there is still propriety, and the fear of provoking new and unpleasant emotional responses… so we have heard nothing, yet, of Annie Drummond.

Annie Nelson Drummond was a twenty-nine-year-old Scottish V.A.D. nurse at the Edinburgh War Hospital where Gurney spent much of October and November. Of all the people he met in his time there, she “made the most dramatic and lasting impression on him. She touched his heart and captured his imagination in a way that no other woman had been able to do.” She also, clearly, captured his esteem as well as his imagination, his bodily love as well as his metaphorical heart. Gurney has been reticent about the relationship not only because it was improper–nurses were not supposed to enter into relationships with patients–but also because, to be frank and/or craven, he had every reason to suspect that news of the affair might cause Scott to break with him, and both her friendship and her aid to his career (she singlehandedly produced his book, Severn and Somme, and saw several of his compositions to performance) were too valuable to risk.[2]

But Gurney has been away from Edinburgh for nearly two months now, and he misses Drummond badly. It seems that a letter or two reached him, and that they were able to plan to spend a weekend together. It is this combination of longing and expectation that seems to have prompted Gurney to write of Drummond to his friend Herbert Howells.

Fittingly, the first clear reference to Drummond (she has appeared–I did not notice–in previous letters under code-names of one sort or another) is in a letter from some time over the last few weeks, the date of which is lost.[3]

My Dear Howells…

…[ ] Nelson Drummond is older than I thought — born sooner I mean. She is 30 years old and most perfectly enchanting. She has a pretty figure, pretty hair, fine eyes, pretty hands and arms and walk. A charming voice, pretty ears, a resolute little mouth. With a great love in her she is glad to give when the time comes. In Hospital, the first thing that would strike you is “her guarded flame”. There was a mask on her face more impenetrable than on any other woman I have ever seen. (But that has gone for me.) In fact (at a guess) I think it will disappear now she has found someone whom she thinks worthy.

A not unimportant fact was revealed by one of the patients at hospital — a fine chap — I believe she has money. Just think of it!

Pure good luck, if it is true (as I believe it is). But she is more charming and tender and deep than you will believe till you see her….

I forgot my body walking with her; a thing that has not happened since……………when? I really dont know.

Drummond would probably not be offended by this reference to her money. (Although, of course, if they are intimate and she would not be offended, then why would he not have asked?) A sensible Scotswoman (although not so sensible as not to become involved with a patient under her care, and one with an “artist’s temperament,” not to say mental health issues past and present, and a penchant for parentheticals), Drummond hailed from the upper reaches of the working class, a descendant of several female businesswomen. But she can’t have much money–she does not seemed to have worked (outside the home: she ran much of the household and raised her younger siblings while her parents worked) until she began nursing after the outbreak of war.

Two more letters to Howells, the latest dated today, a century back, follow in turn:

Going North to Edinburgh

My Dear Howells: I have just written you a letter telling you of my coming up here. Please dont say anything about it to anyone but the Taylors. It will need explanation I am not ready to give yet, and of course my people will want to know why I did not go home — but a week-end leave is so short…

It is amusing to see Gurney walking the same balance as Wilfred Owen: leaves are few (far fewer for a soldier like Gurney than an officer like Owen), and the demands of family and friends must both be weifhed–or, rather, the demands of family must be set against a personal preference for seeing particular friends…

16 January 1918, Wednesday

My Dear Howells: Enclosed with this you will find a letter enclosed written just before I was hastening North to Edinburgh.

…Your criticisms are true. As to similarity — well, perhaps I wont admit anything but similarity in method. As to linking them up more tightly, that may come; but as to setting the things I do in an orthodox fashion — well it could be done; but I live attempting difficult things, and this is my way.

Wait till I am out of this though.

But enough about the criticism of his book:

Well I have just been up to Edinburgh, about that magnificent place, and in and out to Bangour.

Herbert Howells, it is just perfectly and radiantly All Right. I have reach Port, and am safe. I only wish and wish you could see her and know her at once. You and Harvey.

My Goodness, but it was a hot pain leaving her. We had a glorious Saturday afternoon and evening together. A glorious but bitterly cold Sunday evening. A snowy but intimate Monday evening. For the first time for ages I felt Joy in me; a clear fountain of music and light. By God, I forgot I had a body — and you know what height of living that meant to me. Well I’ll say no more.

Being in the Army is worse and better for me filled with memories and anticipations and being where I am — in surroundings that mock all beautiful dreams.

But to get her and settle down would make a solid rock foundation for me to build on — a home and tower of light.

Like you I see in her first of all a beautiful simplicity — her very first characteristic, — As you see in Dorothy. The kind of fundamental sweet first-thing one gets in Bach; not to be described, only treasured.

Well, well; why bore you? You know what I think and how it is with me.

May good luck be with you in this thing and all things:

Yours ever

I.B.G.[4]

Gurney is far from the most precise of poets, but it is nevertheless amusing to read that in the throes of this new love he both “forgot my body” and “forgot I had a body.” Many-splendoured thing indeed.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary, 440.
  2. See Blevins, Song of Pain and Beauty, 137.
  3. The printed text is marked--delightfully or creepily, take your pick--"[Mouse-eaten and incomplete]."
  4. War Letters, 240-2.

Ralph Hamilton Worries the Finer Points; Cynthia Asquith on Lady Desborough and Charles Dickens

Ralph Hamilton stayed up until two in the morning last night, a century back, first slaving over the duplicating machine and then touching up his colored maps by hand, with a paintbrush. A raid has been ordered on his sector and he has been charged with devising and executing the artillery plan. He is “very anxious the thing should go off well for everyone’s sake, and particularly as it is the first little battle that I have entirely arranged by myself.” Then, with all the planning done but for the smaller details, he went to a Casualty Clearing Session to have a rotten tooth pulled.[1]

 

While we await developments, then, let’s to London and, beginning with yesterday’s entry, reacquaint ourselves with Cynthia Asquith’s diary. Her husband’s surprise leave from his own artillery command lends a festive atmosphere to… scenes that may have had a different festive atmosphere had “Beb” not been there.

The list of friends to be mourned has grown longer, but her life is still filled with visitors, amusements, and sharp commentary on familiar figures–Lady Desborough, for one, whom we most recently saw mourning the death of Patrick Shaw Stewart.

Monday, 14th January

Lady Desborough, long before the war, with her two eldest sons, Julian and Billy Grenfell

Ettie and I were deep in conversation about Gosta Berling, and for what sum we would ‘give ourselves’, when Michael rushed up with a small silver egg-cup and peremptorily shouted, ‘Take that, and be sick in it!’ His power of suggestion was so great that Ettie began to feel sick and even she lay down before dinner.

Professor Walter Raleigh (University of Glasgow)

The beloved Professor arrived before dinner, looking more like a Blake drawing than ever. I love the way his eyes signal the thought which his tongue is shortly going to voice ‘coming over’, and he has such a delicious giggle in his eye.

This would be the formidably named Professor Walter Raleigh, one of the first and most influential professors of (contemporary) English Literature. But it is not to be a night, merely, of learned discussion.

After dinner really brilliantly amusing games were played. First Ettie unveiled me as a Renaissance statue; her float voice in pointing out the ‘lascivious contours of my cheek’ was admirable. Then Beb unveiled Evan as a ceramic of Helen of Troy—far the best thing of the kind I have ever seen. He really was brilliant, reaching his climax when he bared Evan’s shirt-front as Helen’s famous breast, delicately pointing out the curious and uncommon formation grotesquely represented by Evan’s two studs ( : instead of . .  )!

Cynthia Asquith (Bassano, whole-plate glass negative, 1912)

Just in case no one else is as pleased with the timelessness of Asquith’s writing as I am, I will note for the record that the above typographical representation–of what I take to be vertically-arrayed (rather than traditional horizontally-arrayed) nipples–is a pioneering use of whatever those ASCII smiley faces we used to use in emails are called…

We rocked with laughter. The Professor and Letty then did an excellent Hamlet and Ophelia to Beb’s judge.

 

That was yesterday, a century back. To today, then:

Tuesday, 15th January

Ettie had to go up by early train and so Evan was carried off bound to her chariot wheels—I wonder if he wouldn’t have loved to stay and talk to the Professor. Pages and pages of Barriesque sentiment from John’s governess, comparing John to Peter Pan and me to Wendy.

Which is a bit odd. But then again Asquith is a close friend of Barrie’s, and has worked as his assistant.

I got up late and took the Professor for a short walk before lunch. He wore a rug instead of a coat, and it looked just like a Sir Walter Raleigh cloak. I told him about Sylvia Strayte and he promised to write a scenario with the right part for her. After luncheon… my question, ‘Do you miss Ettie?’ led to the most interesting discussion on her.

‘Miss her? No,’ he replied, ‘I never miss her—I’m glad to see her, but I never miss her—because you see she’s never a rest.’ I said I thought she was just one of the people one might miss in absence more than one enjoyed in presence; Ettie being such a tuning-fork, one might feel in the dark—as if the electric light had been turned out—and when it was turned on it might make one blink. He said he didn’t need a ‘tonic’, and that his quarrel with her was her constant ‘battling’ against life, her swimming against the current—precisely the ‘steel’ qualities in her which Letty and I had been admiring and enjoying. I had even thought I must make an effort to emulate her and I must say it was honey to hear the Professor’s disapproving dissection of her. How she would have minded what he said!

I said that I thought, before the war and its weight of personal suffering had fallen on her, One might have been irritated by her stubborn gospel of joy and attributed it largely to health and personal immunity. But that, now she had earned the right to preach and practise, her determination to go on fighting with broken tools and to save what was still worth keeping was wholly admirable and most valuable. This he admitted, but when I said I envied her capacity for intimacy, he strenuously denied it and said that her deliberate activity made her mechanical, and prohibited any real friendship or the finest companionship—his great point being that she never ‘blossomed’, and that that was what he valued. When, in his comparison of us, I denied the dewdrop that I was natural he said, ‘No, you’re not natural—you’re Nature.’

A compliment produced with the skill of an Elizabethan courtier. But Asquith–high-born and well-married though she is–would rather Raleigh pass another test. She is a serious reader, unashamed of having popular taste (of the best sort), and requires some of this taste to be shared by her intimates:

The Professor has just re-discovered Dickens—having not touched him for years and approached him critically, he has now found himself caught up in a flame of love and admiration. At dinner he said no one should read him between childhood and thirty or forty—certainly not in college days. The discussion led to his reading us heavenly bits out of Our Mutual Friend, chiefly those-relating to those masterpieces the ‘Wilfers’. Beb’s sick, dainty face led to a fierce discussion between me and him, which inducted the Professor into some very good talk about beloved Dickens. I said he was my principal touchstone about people, and that I should never have married Beb had I fully realised this dreadful lacuna. Beb said, with a sort of pride, that at Oxford they had considered Dickens something scarcely to be mentioned, and he accused us of being on the wave of the counter reaction. This annoyed me—as at every age I have read and revelled in him from pure hedonism—I maintained that no one would feel obliged to admire him from literary snobbishness, as they would Keats. He gaped at me when I said that, whatever his faults of style, I ranked him with the real giants—with Shakespeare, in fact, because he had above all the quality of wealth, and love, and sympathy—and I also claimed the Homeric quality for him.

Shakespeare and Dickens again!

To my joy, the Professor was an eloquent ally and said Dickens was a ‘howling swell’: that he had suffered from mispraise—which had produced the reaction against him—that by his contemporaries he had been liked for the comic and the sentimental, and that now the tide of true appreciation had thrown him right up amongst the giants. He spoke of his ‘heavenly homeliness’, his exuberance and amazing richness, and proved how false and superficial the charge of ‘unreality’ was. To Beb’s inquiry he maintained that Sterne was ‘thin’ beside him, Meredith nowhere, and Thackeray pour rire. In fact he said he had ‘eternity’. He considers Great Expectations the masterpiece and that, even from the point of view of ‘style’, the description of the marshes was as good as anything.

It was interesting talk and I wish I could record it. I enjoyed getting heated, and Mamma told me to ‘put two bits of Beb on the fire’—meaning coal. I made the Professor promise to ‘testify’ his conversion to Dickens. I think he might write something delicious about him.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary, 436-7.
  2. Diaries, 395-7.

Rowland Feilding and the Admonitory Death of Private Mayne; A Mining Disaster in Staffordshire; Siegfried Sassoon Suspicious in Peace of Mind, C.E. Montague Melancholy at Football; Rudyard Kipling Hatches an Ode-iferous Plot

This is one of those days of discombobulated experience–but it’s hard not to feel that there is some link between all these different disasters, impression, and feelings. The war is everywhere…

Rowland Feilding‘s thoughts are dwelling on the repulse of a German raid by one of his Lewis gunners, a swift and savage burst of violence on a generally quiet front. When the action occurred, two days ago, Feilding was bracketed, here, by protesting young officers. He would never himself step away from the narrow passage of duty and make a public protest… and yet, in his letter to his wife of today, a century back, he makes it clear how much he–a middle-aged battalion commander with Regular army experience–loathes the way the higher-ups (be they no higher than Division, a mere two steps up the ladder, since he commands his own battalion) are disconnected from the experience of the soldiers. Once more the scarlet tabs of the staff officer begin to seem like a bright badge of moral cowardice…

January 12, 1918. Fillers Faucon

The incident of the morning before last had so filled me with pride of the battalion that I confess I have been aghast at receiving—instead of any acknowledgment of the successful and heroic repulse of the German raiders by Private Mayne and his companion—the following memorandum, which has been circulated in the Division.

I quote from memory:

“Another instance has occurred of an enemy patrol reaching within bombing distance of our line. This must not occur again. Our patrols must meet the enemy patrols boldly in Noman’s Land,” etc., etc., etc.

How simple and how grand it sounds! I think I can see the writer, with his scarlet tabs, seated in his nice office 7 or 8 miles behind the line, penning this pompous admonition.

So Private Mayne, it seems, will go unrecognized and unrewarded–In the meantime he has died, and I can only
say, “God rest his soul”![1]

There is a note that Private Mayne–Private Joseph Mayne, of Ardcumber, Cookstown, Co. Tyrone, son of James and Mary–was mentioned posthumously in despatches. This, short of the V.C., was the most recognition a dead soldier could hope for (strange phrase, that). And a private–an Irish private–killed in a small action, on the defensive was never going to receive any major reward, even though his heroic gallantry in manning his gun after his body had been mutilated by German grenades surely saved the lives of several of his comrades.

 

And at the Podmore Hill Colliery, in Staffordshire, today, a century back, an accumulation of coal dust and “firedamp”–methane–exploded, ripping through coal seams worked by several hundred men. Rescue efforts were unavailing and the final toll will prove to be 156 miners–men and boys. This was the third deadly explosion in the mine, and the second in three years. Wilfred Owen will read of the disaster, naturally, and he will choose to write about it as well, unable not to conflate the sudden death of so many by fire and gas (and some of them very young) with the horrors of the war itself. And, by the time Miners is complete, it will be one of his most wide-open poems, in terms of historical experience and deliberate reaching toward the universal… the miners are seen not only as soldiers, but as in some sense linked even with the ancient life whose remains they are harvesting at such peril so far below the ground, and with the years to come, which they will not see.

 

News of this disaster–but what are 156 poor men against the daily toll of the war?–will spread slowly, and so we see several of our writers merely going about their business.

For Siegfried Sassoon, this business now is a numb and pleasant–suspiciously numb and pleasant–idyll. It is almost as if he is being visited by a premonition of the mining disaster, in all its frank horror and heavy symbolic weight.

January 12

Peace of mind; freedom from all care; the jollity of health and good companions. What more can one ask for? But it is a drugged peace, that will not think, dares not think. I am home again in the ranks of youth–the company of death. The barrack clock strikes eleven on a frosty night. ‘Another night; another day’.[2]

 

C.E. Montague–a man of something near to an opposite temperament from Sassoon’s–is feeling much the same way:

On January 12, Montague was back at Rollencourt. There was a pause in operations, and he played ‘a good game of football’; but was ‘intensely melancholy, these days’, over the public situation. ‘Now’, he says, ‘is the time to learn and practise fortitude, but it is hard.’[3]

 

But life persists, and pastimes persist. Montague plays football, Sassoon will go hunting when he can, and Rudyard Kipling–who, whenever he makes a brief appearance in a Great War history, is generally depicted as utterly destroyed by the death of his son–continues to bear up as best he can. He is at work–naturally–on a collaborative project involving Horace. Not to translate him, study him, or make the great Roman poet somehow applicable to Britain’s war effort, but rather to concoct a spurious, tongue-in-cheek Fifth Book of Odes. (Horace wrote four.) In Latin. Is there satirical intent? Sure. Is it, or was it ever, broadly accessible? Perhaps a bit more back then, but, really… not so much.

Bateman’s
Burwash
Sussex
Jan 12.1918

Dear Fletcher:

I am, as you know, no scholar when it comes to the Latin but I think it’s lovely… I think this is going to be glorious larks!

…I’ve got a new Fifth Booker whereof Hankinson Ma. is preparing the translation. It came out in the Times ever so long ago under the title The Pro-Consuls but I perceive now that Horace wrote it. Rather a big effort for him
and on a higher plane than usual – unless he’d been deliberately flattering some friend in the Government. I’ll send it along.

Ever yours

Rudyard Kipling[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 246-8.
  2. Diaries, 203.
  3. Elton, C.E. Montague, 200.
  4. Letters, IV, 479-80.

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

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

 

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

January 10, 1918. Front Line, Lempire.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Could the war have gone otherwise?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

References and Footnotes

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

A Raid on Potatoes; A Pair of Tales, and a Book of Poems, In Memoriam

Still recovering from the fighting around the Menin Road, we will back into October with the Second Royal Welch, who lost around a third of their strength–including 60 dead–during their recent, nearly officer-less spell in the line. But a few days away from the front can make a huge difference, and if wartime traumas make lifelong memories, then there is another sense in which psychological recoveries, however shallow, must be very brief.

Dr. Dunn’s chronicle recounts the march into reserve, praises the dead, and moves on into the light humor of reserve-area hijinks. This bit sure sounds like it could feature Frank Richards, but if he is the signaller in question he forebears to confess in his own memoir:

October 1st.–Two signallers making a midnight-raid on sacks of newly-dug potatoes were thwarted by the watchful, voluble, and scarcely placable farmer.[1]

 

Otherwise, things are quiet, but we will observe the rite of the “Month Poem” in slightly heterodox fashion. In addition to a single poem, we have first a tale–The Tale–then a whole book of poems, and then one plucked from another sheaf.

I mention “The Tale” only because it is nominally a war story, and because it is by the notable friend-and-collaborator-of-Ford-Madox-Hueffer Joseph Conrad. Set at sea in the early months of the war and published this month, a century back, it’s a sea story, really, a spooky tale of uncertainty and human darkness that borrows the backdrop of 1914 and shares–more, perhaps, than Conrad’s tales usually caught the popular currents–the mood of the fall of 1917..

 

And we have a book of poems. It is always so very difficult to follow the experiences of the bereaved more than a few days or weeks past the telegram that tells of the death of their husband or son or lover. For a while there are dates to be had from letters of condolence and such, but then, usually, nothing. Long grieving, without much to shape it, and a slog through remaining responsibilities; too little distance and calm, yet, to reflect and write about who and what has been lost. So we have heard little of the afterlife of Edward Thomas, and it will be years before Helen–or Eleanor, or Myfanwy–writes of him. But his friends have not been idle, and this month, a century back, his Poems will be published, almost all of them for the first time.

But I couldn’t pick one of those–Adlestrop, the Great English Poem; or Lob, or As the Team’s Head Brass, or even the handful of frank war poems. Thomas can’t really be reduced to one poem, or a handful–and besides, the whole corpus only makes for a few hours’ ruminative reading. They’re all there, at the link above, and elsewhere on the web, and in Edna Longley’s excellent editions–all except, of course, for the poems sprung from the observations and jotted images in his “War Diary” between January and April, which are not, because he did not live to write them.

 

So for one poem for this month, we’ll go to one of several written in hospital by Ivor Gurney–and there’s an unusual Conrad-in-Scotland feel, here, from our gentle Severnside poet:

 

Hospital Pictures. No. (l) Ulysses

A soldier looked at me with blue hawk-eyes.
With kindly glances sorrow had made wise
And talked till all I’d ever read in books
Melted to ashes in his burning looks.
And poets I’d despise and craft of pen.
If, while he told his coloured wander-tales
Of Glasgow, Ypres, sea mist, spouting whales,
(Alive past words of power of writing men)
My heart had not exulted in his brave
Air of the wild woodland and sea-wave.
Or if, with each new sentence from his tongue
My high-triumphing spirit had not sung
As in some April when the world was young.

Bangour Hospital.Oct 1917.[2]

 

Well, no, not one poem, and not “I can’t pick just one Thomas poem”–I’ve changed my mind.

Since April and youth have been mentioned, and since it’s only a tough four lines, hovering between expansive eulogy and complete silence, and since the manuscript has so much blank space, we’ll close with this, the poem that will from now on, thanks to Thomas’s editors, be referred to as “In Memoriam (Easter, 1915).” Thomas’s working title, seen below, is much better–only the date:

The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood
This Eastertide call into mind the men,
Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts, should

Have gathered them and will do never again.

The First World War Poetry Digital Archive, Oxford.

References and Footnotes

  1. The War the Infantry Knew, 405.
  2. War Letters, 229.

Robert Graves Lectures Robert Nichols on His Filthy Habits; Rudyard Kipling’s Tale of the Prayerful Pole; Edward Thomas Cuts Church and Parades the Countryside; Siegfried Sassoon on Vague Immolations and Carrying On

Today, a century back, Robert Graves went to meet Robert Nichols for the first time.[1] Although it has been only two weeks since Nichols introduced himself to Graves, they both seemed prepared to become fast friends. This despite the sharp difference in their temperaments and trajectories: Nichols, shell-shocked and psychologically unsuited to his job in the artillery, was invalided home after only a few weeks of active service and then discharged, while Graves is about to go to France for the fourth time, having pushed a medical board to send him despite his bad lungs. And Graves remains a bit of a scold and a prude, while Nichols–in an amusing contrast to his high-toned poetry, has become dissolute. As Graves will report to Sassoon, he met Nichols in a hospital where he was being treated for syphilis, and treated him to “a hell of a lecture on his ways… it was the usual story–shellshock, friends all killed, too much champagne, sex, desperate fornication, syphilis.”[2]

 

Syphilis? Poetry? We need a dose of Rudyard Kipling to straighten us out. Another tale of the Irish Guards, this one not rousing but rather quietly affecting. This project dwells on the suffering of a few score Englishmen, with a smattering of Englishwomen, Welshmen, Irishmen, Scots, and Americans–only a handful of them poor, and all of them white and born in Britain, its colonies, dominions, or former colonies… and once in a while, at least, we should be reminded how much more widely the misery of this World War extends…

The heavies behind them used the morning of the 21st to register on their left and away to the north. By some accident (the Battalion did not conceive their sector involved) a big shell landed in the German trench opposite one of their posts, and some thirty Huns broke cover and fled back over the rise. One of them, lagging behind the covey, deliberately turned and trudged across the snow to give himself up to us. Outside one of our posts he as deliberately knelt down, covered his face with his hands and prayed for several minutes. Whereupon our men instead of shooting shouted that he should come in. He was a Pole from Posen and the East front; very, very sick of warfare. This gave one Russian, one Englishman and a Pole as salvage for six weeks. An attempt at a night-raid on our part over the crackling snow was spoiled because the Divisional Stores did not run to the necessary “six white night-shirts ” indented for, but only long canvas coats of a whity-brown which in the glare of Very lights showed up hideously.[3]

 

I wish that I had a firmer grasp on Edward Thomas and the many friendships that shaped his life. In that case, I might be able to do something clever (in the Fussellian mode, naturally) about his friendship with Henry Newbolt, author of “Vitai Lampada,” and thus a convenient distillation of everything that is silly, boyish, and–once we have got as far as machine guns and poison gas–accidentally murderous about Victorian England. Presumably, the man was more complicated–but geez, even polite internet capsule biographies describe him as “eminently respectable,” and there is no denying his prominent place in the long and wicked history of Celebrating Military Achievement Through Sporting Metaphor.

Edward Thomas’s nature is so completely at odds with the “breathless hush in the close” aesthetic–and his own poetry so estranged from brassy patriotism and exhortation–that it seems hard to imagine the two men seeing eye-to-eye. Yet Thomas is such a prolific maker of friends that perhaps he effortlessly overlooks such differences and sees some common English ground… I just don’t know.

But today’s diary is very pretty, and as usual it is England–the countryside–that matters more than the mere men and women scattered upon its face:

No church parade for me. 9.30-1.20 walked over Stockton Down, the Bake, and under Grovely Wood to Barford St Martin, Burcombe, and to lunch at Netherhampton House with Newbolts… Beautiful Downs, with one or two isolated thatched barns, ivied ash trees, and derelict threshing machine. Old milestones lichened as with battered gold and silver nails. Back by train at 5. Tea alone. guns in line out on parade square…[4]

 

Siegfried Sassoon, interestingly enough, is also musing about sacrifice. With Robert Graves heading back to France, he is left with his thoughts, his books, and the attractive but otherwise unstimulating Bobbie Hanmer. Sassoon would understand the breathless hush–he is a skilled and enthusiastic cricketer. But he is after bigger game, tonight.

January 21

A funny mixture—reading The Brook Kerith and talking to simple, white-souled Bobbie about ‘religion and the war’ in a rambling sort of monologue. (I don’t remember B. saying anything at all!) But it all came back to me—the anxious unsettled ideas of last spring and summer—desire of death—emotion at facing danger unafraid—repugnance at the commonplace grossness of the majority and their incessant chatter about ‘Blighty’ and ‘cushy wounds’—their little souls wanting nothing nobler than to creep safely home to—what? But Bobbie at least understands the feeling of self-sacrifice—immolation to some vague (aspiration—whether our cause be a just one or not. Yet I never could find anyone who really got any value out of the Christian theology—out there. It was all ‘Carry on’ and ‘Get there somehow…[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. See yesterday's post about relying upon R.P. Graves's chronology.
  2. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, the Assault Heroic, 167-8.
  3. The Irish Guards in the Great War, II, 114. Incidentally, Edmund Blunden tells exactly the same story of a raid that was probably this same week, a century back, failing for lack of white camouflage.
  4. War Diary (Childhood), 155.
  5. Diaries, 122.

Song Time is Over for Francis Ledwidge; Thomas Hardy on Low Spirits, and Spiritualism; A Punch-Up for Milne; Max Plowman on the War of Attrition, the Morale of Aggression, and the Atrophy of Humanity

We have several literary cameos today, a century back, but let’s begin with a double stroke of Max Plowman-related good fortune. First, it seems that we can date a section of his memoir, A Subaltern on the Somme, to precisely today, a century back.[1] Second, he is addressing a subject that was of sharp relevance only a few days ago–the idea of maintaining the “moral” ascendancy in No Man’s Land even when no offensive was in the works, generally by means of raids on the opposing trenches.

The Staff-Captain’s lecture

At the Town-hall we attend a lecture by a divisional staff-captain in a room which is used in the daytime as a school. The staff-captain is a tall fair man of aristocratic bearing, keen eyes and a genial manner. He is talking about the necessity for keeping the initiative, and pointing out the many ways in which troops holding the line may show themselves masters of the situation, even though the time for an advance over the German lines be delayed till the Spring. Our one object should be to prevent the enemy from ever feeling comfortable, and to this end we should keep patrols going and raid the enemy trenches whenever there is a chance. Morale is the great factor, and by keeping the initiative we shall help to destroy the German morale and so make the work of advance ten times easier than it would be if, through slackness, we allowed the other side to feel themselves “top-dog.”

He is tremendously keen, not in the least ominiscient, and adding to his keenness humour, and being himself obviously fearless, his words catch on. One sees the force of his argument, and the incitement to hold the advantage only seems like the encouragement of a good trainer who wants rugger forwards to use all their weight in the scrum and is able to show them how to do it.

It is not until the lecture is over that one reflects on his advice in terms of actuality. Then one sees a raid as a foul, mean, bloody, murderous orgy which no human being who retains a grain of moral sense can take part in without the atrophy of every human instinct.

I’ve a desire to go back and tell this gallant gentleman that unless he can infuse into my blood hatred such as I seem psychologically incapable of feeling towards an unknown enemy, much as I should like to be able to help keep the initiative, and quite ready as I am to sacrifice my life for this end, I honestly don’t see how it’s to be done.[2]

Thus Plowman–or rather the anonymous subaltern, who does not share his past as a pacifist who first chose the ambulances before opting for the infantry–mounts an effective challenge to militarism, and the moral degradation caused both by war in general and by the static grind of trench warfare in particular. The rugby analogy is apt–especially when discarded, since sporting metaphors inevitably palliate the nastiness of war.

This lecturer is not without his attractions–he is even admirable, in his proper place. Nor is he necessarily wrong to suggest that bloody-mindedness–and, more to the point, a red hand in the foray–is an important piece of any holistic (that is to say, not only strategic but moral, in the restricted sense of “pertaining to military psychology”) approach to winning the war. (I think he is wrong, but there is certainly a great deal of evidence that can lead one to conclude that the awful cost of constantly raiding, of prodding the sleeping dogs opposite into shooting or blowing up a portion of your own men, can be justified if it demoralizes the enemy and staves off the demoralization of your own infantry.)

But Plowman makes two good points, here.

First, even if raiding, with all its grim attritional “sacrifice,” is necessary to stave off defeat, how in God’s name will it bring about victory? He’s justified in asking this, and there is a harsh irony in the fact that readers of the main post-1930 line of Great War Literature will “know” that he is correct, while military historians–especially those of the post-war years and the revisionist schools of recent decades but, really, any historian who pays attention to the actual course of the war–will point out that it did work, more or less. There was little in the way of mutiny on the British side, and spectacular failures on the defensive were limited to the period of the one great German offensive–which so exhausted Germany that it lost the war.

That’s how it will “play” out, but none of the staff officers have foreseen this, and our subaltern is not wrong to wonder.

His second point, even if it is perhaps overstated, holds: how do you go out at night, every once in a while, looking for sleeping men to kill, just to demonstrate to yourself–and to them–that you are a killer to be feared, “without the atrophy of every human instinct?”

 

 

Francis Ledwidge, injured, ill and exhausted after the deprivations of the “Macedonian” campaign, has been recuperating, writing, and otherwise cooling his heels in barracks in County Derry. His latest poem will not make his second collection–already headed for the press, with an introduction written by Lord Dunsany–but it is timely nonetheless:

 

Song-Time is Over

I will come no more awhile,
Song-time is over.
A fire is burning in my heart,
I was ever a rover.
You will hear me no more awhile,
The birds are dumb,
And a voice in the distance calls
“Come,” and “Come.”

December 13th, 1916.

At the risk of reductive reading, “Song-Time is Over” was written right around the time that Ledwidge learned that several months of convalescence and training-camp duties were about to end. At some point in the next few days Ledwidge will be granted leave, pending embarkation. He will come home, and get to see his family in Slane for a few days, but by Christmastime he will bound for England, en route to France or Belgium, the origins of all foreboding distant voices, these days.

 

So we have a silence of the birds and an ominous summons for our Irish nature poet, and we have the opinion of Max Plowman, subaltern in France, on how the war might–or won’t–end.

What about an éminence grise, at home and plied for charitable contributions? Thomas Hardy wrote today, a century back, to Edmund Gosse (eminent man of letters and one of several points of contact between Hardy and Siegfried Sassoon), with his feelings on such matters.[3]

Max Gate, Dorchester. Dec 13, 1916

My dear Gosse:

Of course, if the slightest good is likely to be done by putting down my name as before, please do so, though my working powers will be nil. You will quite understand why it is that I shall be such a dead-head, for I am getting on in years, & far away. I have not been in London this year an unprecedented thing for one who was once half a Londoner.

However, if people should grumble at my figuring in your excellent work without working at it, I may be excused saying that I have been doing things down here for the same Cause. You may have seen in the papers about our dramatic efforts…  So I feel in the Red Cross business as it were, like the rest of you.

…Barrie, by the way, came to our performance, & Granville Barker was coming, but prevented by his military duties. Barrie has I think mellowed into a very nice fellow…

I am not in the best of spirits about the issue of the war; & a book my wife has been reading to me does not help me—Sir Oliver Lodge’s Raymond. Poor dear amiable man.

And thus Hardy corners me into discussing a book I had hoped to omit. No–that would be silly, and unfair. Rather, a book that I have no idea how to properly use, and so chose, in the earliest days of the project, to avoid.

Oliver Lodge’s son, Raymond, was killed early in the war, and the book–published in November and already heading toward its fifth printing–has a familiar opening section: there is a memoir of Raymond’s life, and extracts from his letters. And then–with perfect confidence that many or most among his readers, especially “other bereaved persons,” will not question this transition–Sir Oliver continues to pass along Raymond’s communications, detailing and explaining the messages from his spirit, after his death. The third section of the book mounts a defense of spiritualism against its skeptics. Poor man indeed, and poor millions of other bereaved parents. There are deep, forbidden pools of grief pocketed throughout Europe, now, and a tidal movement of spiritualism will link many of them into a wide, shallow, and dismal fen.

 I suppose you are never coming into Dorset any more, but if you do “after the war” you will know where to find us. I hope Mrs Gosse is well, & we send her best Christmas wishes—if it is not too dangerously near satire to send such messages in these ferocious times.

Always yrs sincerely
Thomas HardyThe Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy, V, 190-1." id="return-note-12729-4" href="#note-12729-4">[4]

 

Is there no cheering news, no reason to laugh? Always–it’s not all dark yet, even if it’s getting there. A.A. Milne, invalided home a month ago with “trench fever,” is not only out of the hospital but also “well enough… to attend the Punch Table dinnertonight, a century back.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. A letter written tomorrow mentions a lecture "yesterday" which would seem to be the one related below. There are some differences in the accounts, but these can probably be chalked up to the vagaries of memory rather than either intentional fictionalization or a major confusion of events.
  2. A Subaltern on the Somme, 204-5.
  3. Which is good, because it would be hard to pass up on the chance to record a mental crossing of paths with the creator of Peter Pan, and get J.M. Barrie cross-referenced with Milne, Sassoon, and Plowman...
  4. The Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy, V, 190-1.
  5. Thwaite, A. A. Milne, 180.