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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

Now the, er, bombshell drops:

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You only saw your future bigly planned,

And we, the tapering paths of our own mind,

And in each other’s dearest ways we stand,

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

 

References and Footnotes

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

Julian Grenfell Writes About Missing out on War, while Francis Ledwidge Worries about War Messing Up Writing; Vera Brittain Looks to Actually Help

6 Aug 1914

Potchefstroom

Darling Mother

Things have gone pretty quickly this last week, haven’t they? There was hardly a breath of war here when I wrote last week. Then the next day (Thursday) we were called back in the middle of a big manoeuvre battle post-haste, and told that we must be ready to start at any minute. It is horrible being tucked away here at a time like this. We only get the merest driblets of news, and can only wait, knowing that the biggest battles of the world are going on at every and any moment; and without any word of what they are going to do with us—Europe, Egypt, India, or just stopping here!

It must be wonderful in England now! I suppose the excitement is beyond all words? Didn’t you think that it was a wonderful speech of Grey’s? Of course when this letter gets to you, (if it ever does, which seems doubtful), all these things will be swallowed up in bigger things, and forgotten. And don’t you think it has been a wonderful, and almost incredible, rally to the Empire; with Redmond and the Hindus and Will Crooks and the Boers and the South Fiji Islanders all aching to come and throw stones at the Germans. It reinforces one’s failing belief in the Old Flag and the Mother Country and the Heavy Brigade and the Thin Red Line and all the Imperial Idea, which gets rather shadowy in peace time, don’t you think? But this has proved it to be a real enough thing.

Today came the news that the Turks have joined the Germans. Philip Hardwick said “I wonder if my servant has packed my tin-lined drawers. You know what the Turks do if they capture anyone—especially a good-looking chap like me”.

I break in here to remind new readers that, by clicking on the Julian Grenfell “category” link, they can read back to where I have struggled to explain the disturbing relationship between Grenfell and his remarkable and very strange mother, Ettie Grenfell/Lady Desborough. Suffice it to say here that this segue, from a paean to empire and patriotic desire into a delightfully clever little anal rape joke, is not particularly surprising (if not particularly illuminating). I doubt he’s attempting to be crass or disturbing–or, at least, that he would have admitted to such an attempt. No: he’s affecting a light-hearted naughtiness, although perhaps he does so in a manner designed both to ape his mother’s style and jar with crudity. Or perhaps he thinks the dumb joke is funny, and passes it along to fill the letter… which we should get back to…

I wonder how long it will last? Isn’t it bad luck, that it should come when we are at Potchefstroom? Or do you think that they will fetch us over in time? One thing is, that there is absolutely nothing for us to do here…

…Your Lords week must have been great fun, and very strenuous. I am glad that you are so welly, eyes and all… It was awful about poor Denny Anson; and it read so terribly the “Idle Rich” in the papers, didn’t it? It’s such a waste: a man like that, who was just the man for doing a big dash, or leading a forlorn hope, chucked away because he could find nothing exciting enough to do in the ordinary things. Those fellows ought all to be sent out into the wilds, and not allowed near London.

I wonder if they have mobilised the army yet in England; and where they are going to send it? You must be living a stirring life now, Mummy! I wonder where we shall meet next!

Goodbye, & bless you. I do want to see you again soon.

All love from

Julian

Yes, it’s high time we discussed Denis Anson. I neglected to observe the centenary of his death on July 3rd, in part because I had yet to introduce the witnesses–Diana Manning (Cooper) and Raymond Asquith–and in part because it is exactly the sort of event that only received its “historical” meaning in retrospect.

Remember the “Coterie?” Well, they were a brilliant (socially–and occasionally in other ways) bunch, mostly in their 20s but led by a fewer slightly older lights: clever, socially prominent, wild, fond of the sort of rebellious gestures that moneyed young people make, before settling down, accepting their wealth, and finding that sweet spot of being just shocking enough for all the magazines but not shocking enough for social banishment or self-destruction. They were the next generation of the “Souls”–quite literally, in a few cases.

Well, on the night of July 2nd, young Diana Manning, Sir Denis Anson, Raymond Asquith (the Prime Minister’s son), Constantine Benckendorff (the son of the Russian of Ambassador), and a few others rented a boat for a cruise on the Thames. It was what we would now call a booze cruise, if a rather exclusive one (there was a string quartet; no DJ is mentioned in the sources). There was drinking, and high-volume revelry–just the sort of thing for the tabloid journalists to whip up into allegations orgiastic (how times change!).

Someone suggested a swim.

Who, Lady Cooper?

“I cannot tell. It may, it may have been me.”

Never one to refuse even an implied feminine dare, Denis Anson dove into the river. He seems to have been immediate difficulty, but it took too many moments to notify the captain, stop the boat, and return to where he had disappeared. In the meantime, a member of the quartet jumped into the swirling, dark waters of the Thames, swiftly eddying near the ebb tide, hoping to rescue the young gentleman. Both drowned.

(If you google around the reports of the accident and the inquest, you can get a pretty good sense of the social politics of the writer/publication by checking whether or not they list the name of the drowned musician–William Mitchell–and, if they do, how many lines after that of Sir Denis Orme Anson.)[1]

A disaster, a moment of dire foolishness, a “tragedy” in the loose sense. Senseless. For, at least, a few weeks or months. Now it will begin becoming something else–and what can we see in it?

Well, what can’t we see in it?

We can absolve ourselves in a number of odd ways. Here’s a disgusting one: “The young musician was consumptive, and due to die.” Really, Diana, really? (I wonder if anyone offered him cash to save the drowning young gentleman, a corona civica for the lower classes here on the eve of the war.)

Whatever the motivations of this more or less unknown man–pure humanity, a desire for glory, a similar misjudgment of his strength as a swimmer–money came into it eventually. He had a wife and child, and it was reported that Sir Denis’s parents undertook to support them. So that’s o.k. then.

Elitism!

And what do we make of the far more richly symbolic death of young Sir Denis? Why, he was an impossibly brave young man–“Denis the Intrepid”–remembered less as an irresponsible socialite than as a Man of Action, so ill-fitted to Edwardian decadence that he turned a midnight cruise into a Feat of Strength… and perished. (One thinks of Lord Desborough, Victorian superman who, although he certainly drank and partied, saved his foolhardy swimming feats for the Broad Day of Athletic Endeavor. This is proper Victorian manliness vs. Edwardian/Georgian misfittery: Desborough swam the pool of Niagara, the second time on an explicit challenge to his honor, while Denis Anson drowned in the muddy moonlit Thames, possibly because the girls wanted to see him show off.)

Diana Manning (Cooper) goes on: while the young musician was due to cough away his last miserable days, “the Great War was upon us and Denis would surely have been the first to be killed.”[2] This is lovely counterfactual history: he surely would have been the first to be killed. Not at all improbable, as the fate of his friends will attest, and yet, and yet, and yet: are a drunken lark and a battle the same thing? And if the young man only dove into an overpowering tidal current (of history!) because a pretty young woman may have flourished a white feather in his general direction? Does death weigh the same in each case?

Julian Grenfell certainly agrees:”Just the man for doing a big dash, or leading a forlorn hope,” remember. Now, a forlorn hope is not precisely what it sounds like. It’s misheard Dutch for “lost troop,” and therefore a remarkable double Signficant-Sounding-But-False etymology: there’s no “hope,” no “forlorn” emotion in the strict sense of the term (which was well known to Grenfell, as to anyone versed in the literature or history of 18th century and Napoleonic warfare), only an ad hoc unit of volunteers who will lead an assault on a fortified position. They are “lost” because, since they will attract the first volley from the well-ensconced defenders, they are not expected to survive. It is the second wave which hopes to actually capture the place.

While we’re on the subject of Julian Grenfell’s ability to write off-hand letters to society women of near relation which seem to contain very precisely chosen military nouns (oh the vagaries of close-red reception!), he also wrote to his sister, today, and mentioned Anson:

Thank you awfully for your letter. It was terrible about poor Denny Anson, wasn’t it. I liked him awfully; what a real Berserk wasted!

A “berserk:” a warrior so recklessly aggressive that he seems to be a ravening “bear-shirted” beast.

Well now: a berserk is no use in modern warfare, where calm musketry or traversing machine guns will finish him hundreds of yards from his foe. So, merely a term of evocative convenience? Or is it the same prophetic vision as the Forlorn Hope? Sure, some assaults in this war will be led by units somewhat like a forlorn hope (although rarely were they volunteers), in that it was the following waves that were expected to actually consolidate the captured ground. And no one is ever ordered to go berserk. But still: Is Grenfell telling us that it’s a pity that Anson died uselessly in the Thames when he might have died (not “served,” not “helped us to victory”) in a reckless and doomed assault? And therefore that the only difference is that one act accrues glory and, one might hope, poets to sing of it, while the other gets an opprobrious inquest and tabloid naughtiness?

Probably not. He probably just means that he liked Anson, and that he values physical courage and athletic adventurism in young men. (Didn’t they all? Don’t we, almost as much?) Had he lived, he might have taken (better) opportunities to shine. Julian, remember, wrote today, a century back, having recently learned the month-old news.

But Diana Manners (Cooper), looking back from after the war, would have us see instead an only-slightly-misplaced casualty: his death isn’t a coda to Belle Epoque idiocy, no–it’s that snare shot on the fourth beat of the silent count-in measure, the little crack that hints at all the energy about to be released, the single beat before the crash of ruin and the steady drumbeat of loss.

Denny Anson’s wasn’t a pointlessly wasted young life, it was just a life (pointlessly) wasted a bit too early. He’s the first of the Well-Bred and Destructively Reckless Subalterns–he almost deserves an MC, in retrospect. Pity about the batman![3]

 

Meanwhile, in Ireland, Francis Ledwidge wrote another oddly whingeing letter to his patron, Lord Dunsany:

I sprained my ankle on last Sunday jumping at a sports here, and have been very bad all the week. Your lordship knows the sickening sensation of a sprained ankle.

I was in bad humour for poetry. There will be nobody to read us now at all on account of the war; but it will be easy for posterity to remember the dates of our writings, if we live.

P.S. I will probably be called to defend the coasts of Ireland from our common enemy. God send!

Dunsany would have rolled his eyes about the sprained ankle, but he agreed with Ledwidge (as Ledwidge surely knew) on the two salient points: they must defend (England and) Ireland (i.e. in France and Belgium), and “the world was no longer a place for the spilling of ink.” Dunsany’s career as a dramatist and fantasist did indeed stall, but after the initial stages of simple military service were over, the war’s two great literary growth industries–propaganda and poetry–would come calling for the Lord and his protégé. Dunsany, already a uniformed captain and drill-master of volunteers, was generous to Ledwidge: he told him to keep writing even without much hope of readers (the publication of his first book, with Dunsany’s introduction, was now held up) and gave him a regular allowance.[4]

 

And, finally, Vera Brittain:

To-day I started the only work it seems possible as yet for women to do — the making of garments for the soldiers. I started knitting sleeping helmets, and as I have forgotten how to knit, & was never very brilliant
when I knew, I seemed to be an object of some amusement. But even when one is not skilful it is better to proceed slowly than to do nothing to help.[5]

References and Footnotes

  1. Would that Jane Austen were telling this story, and not Lady Cooper, so we might get a quick report from the humble folk assembling on the strand, eager to view the result of the report--was it one drowned gentleman or two?
  2. Cooper, Autobiography, 109-112. (These events can be found in the first volume of autobiography, The Rainbow Comes and Goes; I cite pages from the three-volumes-in-one edition.)
  3. Julian Grenfell: Soldier and Poet, 212ff. A letter of the same date, to his father, mentions rowing and crew, but not Denny Anson.
  4. Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 74.
  5. Chronicle of Youth, 89.