Vera Brittain and Roland Leighton: A Desperate Kiss as the Train Departs; Edward Thomas Updates Robert Frost: Lonely in the Ranks, but Content; Max Plowman Has Had Enough of Ambulances, and Argues for Muscular Pacifism

Updates today on Edward Thomas and Max Plowman, but first, the end of the (in-person) affair, as Vera and Roland spend their last day together. His leave will go on for two days, but hers–granted at the last minute from a sympathetic supervisor at the Devonshire Hospital–is up in the morning. They must part today–for months, at least.

After a farewell to Mr. Leighton and the younger siblings at the station–marked by the old man’s impulsive decision to kiss Vera goodbye–the two lovers took a train to London. Accompanying them was the redoubtable Mrs. Leighton–but she, at least, had some business of her own.

Mrs Leighton to interview her publishers & Roland & I to do some shopping. He & I went off both rather subdued. It was almost painful to be alone together when the knowledge of the impending parting lay like a cloud upon us. With the memory of the previous evening at Lowestoft in our minds, I think we both felt that the only satisfactory way to spend those few last hours would be in some quiet solitary place, where love could ease its desperate pain a little by expressing itself, and perhaps break through that foolish shyness of ours, which even these days had not been able to dispel, once and for all. The knowledge that we had only such a short time left, and even that had to be spent in the publicity of London shops and streets, had a tantalising effect that was irritating & jarring. I had that desperate feeling of wishing it were all over and done with that always enters the present for me when something I hate is going to happen in the near future. I find it hard enough to learn to live for the day, as one must in these times; I find it quite impossible to live for the hour.

Roland went to various shops making small purchases while I waited for him in the taxi. Then I had my V.A.D. coat measured at Hobson’s, where he bought a few more things. I let him choose a pipe for himself at Dunlop’s, so that he would be sure to get one he really liked, & then to his complete surprise insisted on giving it to him with a small brown suede case to keep it in. Next we wandered round looking for a periscope for Edward, and finally landed at a shop where we abandoned the search for periscopes and Roland bought a vicious-looking short steel dagger—in case of—accidents. He handled it with great deliberation, and professional interest, wondering whether it would do for getting between someone’s ribs or not. To see the thing in cold blood & think of its use made me shudder. I talked to him afterwards of the horrible wound it would make and the unpleasant sound of its being drawn out, and though he took an almost morbid delight in playing with it, he admitted that he thought he could not use it himself except under the fierce excitement & madness of hand-to-hand fighting. The sight of this dagger in the hand of one of the most civilized people of these ironically-named civilized times depressed me to morbidness also, and half for professional, half for purely morbid reasons, I made him promise if he got wounded to let me see the wound…

This is one of those areas in which the whole repressed Edwardian/Late Victorian childhood thing takes on an almost medieval cast. Better that, at least, than modern: we could focus on Roland’s civilized reserve and his contemplation of frenzied dagger penetration, or we could move on to Vera’s fixation with the wounds of her exalted beloved.

After a slight disagreement over a present or roses and a long digression about Vera’s principled objection to engagement rings–which she sees as symbolic of male possession of the female–they returned to their hotel.

A gloom seemed to have settled upon us more deadly than actual sharp pain. Finally Mrs Leighton came in, and we were soon joined by Mr Burgin, the author, with whom we had arranged to have tea…

Mrs Leighton, apparently, has a habit of meeting with her male admirers. But I don’t know enough, really, to cast any more certain aspersions.

Is Roland having a good time, I wonder?

Roland played absently with his dagger, but he spoke very little, and I still less. I had to catch the 6.30 from St. Pancras and at last got up to depart. Mrs Leighton came to the door with Roland & me. She told me in the passage she didn’t feel he would be killed, but perhaps would get wounded some little wound, she hoped, that would bring him back to England for a time. He got into the taxi while I said goodbye to his Mother on the steps of the hotel. She told me that if I had any stories or articles any time that I wanted to try & publish, I was to send them to her, and she would give me all the help she could. Then she kissed me goodbye &, holding my hand, told me again in her sweet impulsive way that she liked me very much–really.

I felt as if I wanted to cry. So much I had meant to say to him was unsaid, and yet it seemed, as he agreed, to be no good saying any more. He said very bitterly that he didn’t want to go back to the front, and this glimpse of England and real life had made him hate France more than ever. I couldn’t believe I was really going to part from him; it was so queer to look at him with an earnestness that tried to commit to vivid memory his features, and to think that in little more than a few minutes they would only be an image in my mind.

Finally, at the station, they are alone:

At St. Pancras he wanted to pay for my ticket, but I wouldn’t let him, saying I must assert my independence more than ever now. Again I wished desperately it was over, and yet felt at the same time that for him to go away from me was quite impossible. Conversation was difficult & in jerks. I said I wondered if I should ever overcome my dislike of railway stations & he said decidedly “I never shall.’’

It was difficult to realise that what I had thought about so much–the possibility of finding a man whom I could love, which seemed so impossible–had really happened. “Roland, am I really engaged to you?” I said.

He looked down at me, his face very pale and a kind of quiet blaze in his dark eyes. “Yes” he said, in the low and rather musical tone of his deepest emotion…

When the time for getting into the train came near, the crowd of people round my carriage was very depressing. He said angrily he wished there weren’t other people in the world. I reminded him sadly of a sentence in the first letter he wrote me after we parted before. “Someday we shall live our roseate poem through–as we have dreamt it.” A little wistfully I said that it seemed further away now than ever. He only said “We must–we shall.”

The crowds are pressing in on the two young lovers, the world is weighing heavily upon them. There will be a slightly different tinge to this, in the later version:

…we had perforce to walk up and down the noisy platform, saying nothing of importance, and ferociously detesting the cheerful, chattering group round my carriage door.

“I wish to God there weren’t other people in the world!” he exclaimed irritably.

“I agree,” I said, and remarked wearily that I should have to put up with their pleasant company in a lighted dining-car all the way to Buxton.

“Oh, damn!” he responded.[1]

Improper? Articulately inarticulate? But there are beautiful things, still:

A stir in the crowd indicated the train’s imminent departure. I had made up my mind before that I would not kiss him on a crowded station, but the misery of farewell put that all out of my head and he at any rate was in a sort of despair, quite oblivious of the crowd. He stooped & kissed me passionately almost before I realised he had done it. I got up on the step of the carriage & he stood as near me as he could. He looked away from me a moment & dragging out his handkerchief furtively drew across his eyes. I hadn’t realised until then that this quiet & self-contained person was suffering so much. It was a revelation I would have given a great deal to have had before of his real feeling, & my own value to him. And I felt very sorry for him too, for I had not the least inclination to cry myself. To me it seems that while women make a great fuss about little things, when something happens that really matters we have absolute control of our emotions, but with men it is the other way about.

The whistle sounded & the crowd moved a little away from the door, but he still stood close to me and as the train began to move he pressed my hand almost violently, and, drawing my face down to his, kissed me again, more passionately than ever. And I kissed him, which I had never done before, and just managed to make myself whisper “Goodbye.” He said nothing at all, but turned quickly from me and began to walk rapidly down the platform. Although I had said I would not, I stood by the door as the train moved out of the station and watched him walking away through the crowd. But he never turned again. What I could see of his face was set and pale. It was over. . .[2]


Over. But don’t worry, folks, they were both writing to each other again before the evening was out.

London, 23 August 1915
7.0 p.m.

I could not look back dear child–I should have cried if I had. I am writing this in a stationary taxi drawn up in a corner of Russell Square.The driver thinks I am a little mad, I think, to hire him and then only sit inside without wanting to go anywhere at all… I don’t know what I want to do and don’t care for anything, except to get you back again; and that I cannot do–yet. How far it seems, sweet heart, till we may have our roseate poem through, as we have dreamed it so long.

I cannot write for the pain of it.
[Goodnight, dear Child, good night.]
Buxton, 23 August 1915

When I arrived I found no one in the house but servants, one of whom informed me that Father had an overnight wire from Edward this morning to say he was going to France to-night. Father & Mother at once rushed off to Farnham on the chance of catching the regiment before it left, but even so they may have been too late. He has gone off even more suddenly than you did…

My thoughts keep racing feveredly from you to Edward & from Edward to you. So I must do something & writing to you is the only thing I am capable of doing at the moment. How it has all happened at once! . . .

I am trying to recall the warmth and strength of your hands as they held mine on the cliff at Lowestoft last night–so essentially You. It is all such a dream. Often as I have come home by the late train I have seen the moonlight shining over the mountains, but it has never looked quite the same as it did to-night. It is getting so

This is clearly a great moment–a great, potentially terrible moment–in their relationship. In the true story of their “relationship.” Vulgar contemporary word. Their love.

Vera will write a poem, soon, too:

St. Pancras Station, August 1915

One long, sweet kiss pressed close upon my lips,
One moment’s rest on your swift-beating heart,
And all was over, for the hour had come for us to part.

A sudden forward motion of the train,
The world grown dark although the sun still shone,
One last blurred look through aching tear-dimmed eyes—

And you were gone.



There are, alas, still, other people in the world. Some few.

Two days ago, Edward Thomas began a letter to Robert Frost:

My dear Robert,

…This is my 3rd full week of drill with my foot unhurt & nothing to complain of except 2 doses of anti-typhoid inoculation. I am still billeted with my father & mother, waiting for the announcement that we are going to camp…

I like the life; I don’t mind beginning my day with polishing buttons & badge & the brass of my belt. I quite like the physical drill which is very strenuous & includes running, jumping, leap-frog &c. But so far I can’t talk much to the men I am with. They don’t seek me more than I do them & I am a good deal alone in my minutes of ease. Close quarters in camp may help…

It’s a little too simplistic to treat Thomas’s letters to Frost as the naked truth, but Thomas at least makes a special effort to search deeply and speak plainly. But nothing in this letter really surprises, anyway: the agonizer and freelancer and frequent lapser-into-depressions has found a certain peace in the repetitive, simple, finite tasks of private soldiering, and a release from mental tension in physical exhaustion.

Next, his prospects:

…being over 33 I shall not go on to France at once but come back to London & take my commission there if one is offered… The tendency at present, I hear, is to keep older fresh officers at home. But one knows nothing & one ceases to be curious; I don’t really look forward more than a week, except for a moment perhaps now and then when I am doing extended order drill exactly as if under fire on the battlefield, & more briefly still when the eyes nearly water as we march with or without a band.

Today, a century back, he continued the letter. All this newfound peace and relaxation into a simpler state has affected his reading, too. But he would still read new verse! Or doth he protest too much?

When you write anything send it please, if you don’t feel I am unfit for reading; all I have read since I joined is “Cymbeline” again. I find I read it every year now & find it new & better. I look forward to reading it in peace…

Yours ever with my love to you all

Edward Thomas[4]


We have only scattered letters from Max Plowman–there will be a most useful book, so we follow him here in prologue mode–but from what we have seen so far he is committed both to the idea of serving his country and to the pacifism of his Quaker faith. An ambulance unit, therefore, because it combined service, danger, youthful adventure… and a refusal to kill.

But it’s been a long few months in England, and he writes to his brother today[5] to announce a change of heart:

B.W.T.A. Soldiers’ Recreation Rooms,

Friends’ Meeting House, Saffron Walden, Essex

Dear J.,

I told the C.O. this morning I had decided to transfer to a fighting regiment in the ordinary way or take a commission… I’ve taken the plunge… Layton said he’d be very glad to recommend me for a Com. but that he’d think twice or three times before giving me a transfer as a private to another regiment. I suppose simply because he thinks fellow merely transferring do not redound to his credit. I fancy that’s all swank & that he is practically obliged to let me go anywhere I please in a fighting regiment. My point is that I don’t mind a Commission so long as it’s in a decent regiment & I can afford it, but unless I can satisfy myself on those two points I’d rather go in the Coldstreams or any first class regiment as a private than continue to muck about in a second class show… or take a Com. in some filthy understrength rag-time lot–or go bankrupt with a Commission I couldn’t keep up.

Well these are good points all–and Plowman now displays other character traits both stereotypically Quaker and rather heterodox. First, he is very well aware not only of the class distinctions that have always existed between British regiments, but of the way in which these distinctions are shifting.

The Coldstreams–the Coldstream Guards–are an elite unit in every sense. The idea of “Guards” units–garrisoned in the capital, their ranks filled with men of especially good physique, many of their officers aristocrats–goes back to the middle ages. But the British Guards units had been organized along more or less sensible lines. Their officers were socially elite, but the various privileges extended to the units allowed them to claim a higher level of military efficiency as well. In peacetime, the Guards looked good and drilled exceptionally well, since their responsibilities for “guarding” the royal family involved much more ceremonial drill than actual bodyguard work.[6] In wartime, their advantage was probably mostly moral–parade ground drill had no direct application to modern war, but the sense of solidarity and unit prestige translated to enhanced esprit de corps. They have been allowed, as well, to stay small. The guards have only doubled in size, being choosy about their personnel all the way, while many county regiments have expanded five-fold.

Looking at this from a century on it seems odd to conclude that unscientific social selection will make a great difference in the quality of the troops: a new battalion of Guardsmen will have more regimental tradition to stiffen their corporate identity, and perhaps the marginal physical specimens will have been eliminated, leading to a stronger and healthier unit. But then again, taking the best connected and gently bred over the most eager might have a negative effect on the battalion’s efficiency…

What Plowman reminds us is that the “gentleman private” concept has been, this past year, more reality than romance. In peacetime the men of the Guards were probably not likely to be better educated than their peers in the county regiments. And despite the wartime expansion we are still seeing only members of the most rarefied “middle” classes–men from the best schools, with aristocratic and political connections, like Bim Tennant and Raymond Asquith–obtain commissions in the new Guards battalions. Plowman thus sees an unconventional middle way: he’s not such a gentleman that a commission in a good regiment is a sure thing, and he doesn’t want to claim class advantage just to sit around with a second-rate crowd.

Better to be officered by well-trained toffs, I suppose, than to be an officer of the 19th Blankshires–a “fighting regiment,” destined soon for France–and try to lead a bunch of coughing miners having second thoughts about their initial patriotic impulse. (By the way, I’m planning, at some point, to write a giant essay on the great fun everyone has in coming up with obviously fictional regimental names, the better to caricature with).

And then there’s the matter of money: officers earn a great deal more than privates. But then they must spend at their social level. This is changing, and changing fast, even in stodgy regiments, but before the war the daily expenses of an officer–fancy tailoring, keeping horses, huge mandatory contributions to the battalion mess–in a high-class regiment far exceeded his pay. This was one way, as the War Office began to work to change the old system of frank patronage and commission purchase, that the “better” units could stay “better–” their officers were necessarily men of means. I haven’t had the energy to really figure out the financial situation, although I hope to (there are probably some beautiful charts in one of the more recent social histories), but Plowman is probably correct: he would save a little money as a private, perhaps, and more as an officer in a low status New Army unit, but he might go into debt as an officer in a regiment that still sought to preserve pre-war traditions of riding and dining.

So, should the humble, practical member of the Society of Friends go for a solder? Why not stay an ambulance driver? Why not go for a commission, when lesser men are winning them left and right?

Writing soon afterwards to his friend the critic and novelist Hugh de Selincourt, Plowman, aware that this flank march had taken him quite a bit away from his original Quaker-warrior position, turned and charged:

And why shouldn’t I take a commission? You talk of punishment. As far as I can see we are miles & miles away from it. The Germans are in Belgium & France… We’ve Zeppelins overhead & submarines all around us but you write as though we were burning & ravaging Germany, Because a few mad fools talk as though they could exterminate all Germans am  personally to let force have its way & be contented with Belgium & France as they are? Someone has got to resist them. Why not I?

…As to killing I’d a minute’s regret for the other day when I wantonly killed an ant & the idea of killing any man is as repulsive to me as ever, but unspeakably loathly as the job might be I could kill Germans at need in France and Belgium… I do not yield my principles one iota because I live in a world that does not acknowledge them…

It simply comes to this. One either believe in active resistance or non resistance. If I lived in an ideal world…

You know I don’t believe in what are called lives of self-sacrifice but there are times when it is necessary that we should sacrifice our own personal ideals for the sake of our weaker fellows…

…here in one of the meantimes we come across a nation suffering from the gangrene of militarism & we must stop it–we must chop off their gangrenous limbs & however loathly it may be I cannot see how anyone can seriously question the necessity of the job. The real benefit of the War is that it is teaching the unimaginative conscience of Nations the awfulness & futility of arms…

I should go in for training to kill now as cheerfully as ever those Knights did who trained to kill the blatant beast. Not vengefully but of dire Necessity.[7]

Quite a transition. Any middling philosopher should be able to smoothly volley returns to several of those soft-toss claims, but the broader point goes unmentioned. It’s wartime, and Plowman has lost the taste for absolute pacifism. So he will go to a sort of practical pacifism: war is wrong, but “active resistance” against militarism is now necessary. But all this depends upon the quality of one’s information–on truth.

Plowman is not the first young man–and he surely will not be the last–to find his assumptions challenged once he recognizes the ubiquity of propaganda. Germany is militaristic, yes. It should bear most of the burden of responsibility for causing the war. But are Britain’s hands knightly-clean? Shouldn’t the surgeon satisfy himself personally that he is taking on–and taking off–only the truly gangrenous, lost limb?

Our boy Max will have himself a commission before too long…


References and Footnotes

  1. Testament of Youth, 189.
  2. Chronicle of Youth, 260-4.
  3. Letters From a Lost Generation, 143-4.
  4. Elected Friends, 90-2.
  5. Probably, but possibly a day or two earlier.
  6. Although I believe that it is still the case that elite British guardsmen--elite in a rational military sense rather than a primarily social sense--still do both practical and ceremonial work, guarding the Royals and entertaining the London tourists.
  7. Bridge Into the Future, 35-7.

Roland Leighton Bares All for the Government; The Afterlives of Julian Grenfell III: A Letter from Charles Lister; Edward Thomas Frets Over Zeppelins, Sieges, and American Libraries

Roland Leighton wrote to Vera Brittain today, a century back, with uncharacteristic wistfulness–and then a slightly comical tale. Believe it or not, this will certainly not be our last “young subaltern hobnobs with the elite in the bath” anecdote:

In the Trenches, Flanders, 3 June 1915

April, May, June–my third month out here. I wonder if I shall still be Somewhere in Flanders when July comes, and memories of Speech Day 1914, and all that I had hoped of Oxford. Do you remember the Sunday that we walked up and down Fairfield Garden together and wouldn’t come in out of the rain? …It all seems so very far away now. I sometimes think I must have exchanged my life for someone else’s…

Roland enclosed a second brief letter in the same envelope:

The Prime Minister, of all persons, was responsible for the abrupt ending of my last letter. He was brought along to have an informal look at us, and it was arranged that he should see the men while they were having a bath in the vats I told you of before. We only had about had an hour’s notice and had to rush off and make arrangements for the ‘accidental’ visit. I and two other subalterns being at the moment in a mischievous mood decided to have a bath at the same time, and successfully timed it so that we all three welcomed Asquith dressed only in an identity disc… He looked old and rather haggard, I thought…[1]


For Lady Desborough, her eldest son Julian now dead and buried, this was a period in which “she alternated between her resolute cheerfulness, and despair.” Many letters of condolence began to come in–conventional missives but also unusual ones from those who knew Ettie Desborough and her rigid posture of Panglossian positivity. You cannot condole or commiserate if you suspect that the bereaved mother will express her belief that her son’s death was a triumph.

It was a commonplace, apparently, that this mother of a Greek tragedy-quoting son reminded her friends of the heroines of those tragedies. And, as Raymond Asquith, eldest son of the “old and rather haggard” prime minister, put it, “one does not offer consolation to heroines of Greek Tragedy.”[2]


Charles Lister, a school friend of Julian’s and latterly a comrade of Rupert Brooke (therefore one of the handful of men now mourning both of the early war’s famous poets), is recuperating from wounds received at Gallipoli. Today he put his hand to just that task, writing to Lady Desborough with a mixture of condolence and wild praise.

Blue Sisters Convent, Malta, June 3, 1915

I can’t write what I feel about dear Julian. The void is so terrible for me and the thought of it quite unmans me. I’d so few ties with the life I left when I went abroad–so few, that is to say, that I wanted to keep, and I always felt as sure of Julian’s love as he did of mine, and so certain of seeing his dear old smile just the same. We did not often write of anything of that sort just for that reason, and now the whole thing has gone. How much worse it must be for you and yours. All of us loved him so, and I’m sure if I were back with father and Diana we should be in the depths and feel almost worse than I do now that one of our nearest and dearest has gone. I suppose that if death meant wholly loss, all recollections would be wholly bitter; but the consciousness that we are recalling memories of one who may still be near us makes recollection precious, an abiding realization of what is, and not a mere regret for what has ceased to be. I suppose everybody noticed dear Julian’s vitality, but I don’t think they were so conscious of that great tenderness of heart that underlay it. He always showed it most with you…

This, then, is a new window into the strange soul of Julian Grenfell. It’s a new perspective–a friend who long knew and loved him–and yet not as clear a view as we would like. Lister is writing, after all, both to the formidable heroine and to the mother of his friend. This is far from the unfiltered thought of an intimate.

In any case, the very personal tone changes now, and Lister begins to write a fervent paean to a more familiar Julian Grenfell. This is the Homeric hero as Englishman: brave, unswerving, living by a code of his own–and entirely disinterested in the rights and feelings of others, especially those he imagines to be beneath him.

I don’t suppose many people knew of the ardent love he had for honesty of purpose and intellectual honesty, and what sacrifices he made for them, and sacrifices of peace of mind abhorrent to most Englishmen. The Englishman is a base seeker after happiness, and he will make most sacrifices of principle and admit any number of lies into his soul to secure this dear object of his. It is want of courage on its negative side, this quality–and swinish greed on its positive side–the man in his search for truth and in his search for what he believed to be his true self caused himself no end of worry and unhappiness, and was a martyr who lit his own fires with unflinching nerve. Out stalking he always wanted to do his own work, and he was just the same in his inner life…

God, it is glorious to think of a soul so wholly devoid of the pettiness and humbug, the cynicism and dishonesty, of so much that we see…

Julian from the time I knew him had flung away his idols and had met God. His intense moral courage distinguished him even more than his physical bravery from the run of common men–and his physical bravery was remarkable enough, whether he was hunting, boxing, or whatever he was at.

I think he found his true self on what we all knew would be the scene of his glory, and it is some melancholy satisfaction that his services received recognition. What must make you still happier must be the glorious glowing tone of those letters of his, and the knowledge that his last few months were crowded hours of glorious life, stronger than death in that they abide…

This is the sunny side of violent heroism, with the social cost unconsidered. But this is also a condolence letter, a sort of private eulogoy. And speaking of letters, Lister–though perhaps not aware of the stir that Into Battle is generating–also considers Julian Grenfell the writer.

No one wrote of the war like that or talked of it that way, and so many went from leave or after healing wounds as a duty, but without joy. Julian, apart from the physical delight he had in combat, felt keenly, I am sure, that he was doing something worth while, the thing most worth while in the world, and looked on death and the passing beyond as a final burst into glory. He was rather Franciscan in his love of all things that are, and in his absence of fear of all God’s creatures–death included.

He stood for something very precious to me–for an England of my dreams made of honest, brave, and tender men, and his life and death have surely done something towards the realization of that England. Julian had so many friends who felt for him as they felt for no one else, and a fierce light still beats on the scene of his passing, and others are left to whom he may leave his sword and a portion of his skill. You must have known all this splendour of Julian’s life far better than I did, so I don’t know why I should write all this. But I am so sad myself that I must say something to you, and because you knew how very fond I was of Julian. One can seek comfort at this time in the consciousness of the greatness of our dead, and the work they have left behind them, and the love we have borne them: and such comfort is surely yours, apart from any larger hope.[3]


Finally, a brief check-in with Edward Thomas, who wrote today to Eleanor Farjeon, his friend and part-time amanuensis. I include the letter because it updates us on his writing and his agonizing, but also because it reminds us of a new fact of life in the age of total war–the first Zeppelin bombing raids on London have begun.

5 vi 15 Petersfield

My dear Eleanor,

Thank you for your letter. I could have wished it came a day later to let me know you have not been attacked by aircraft. We know nothing here. Perhaps you know no more. But you might send a line…

I am sending you some lines I contrived to write 10 days ago when I took a day’s liberty. Are they the worse for Marlborough?

…I do think Blackwood [i.e. the publisher] must be doting if he really thinks he sees Puckishness in me, but I hope he isn’t and takes you instead. You mustn’t lead these forlorn hopes any more…

A rather violent analogy for Farjeon’s efforts on behalf of the poetry of “Edward Eastaway:” the “forlorn hope” was the party of volunteers expected to be destroyed in the storming of a fortress, drawing down the fire of the defenders so that others behind could come up while they reloaded. Yikes! But then again Thomas is elbow deep in a biography of Marlborough, a general who conducted twenty-six sieges…  Thomas turns now to the subject of his next step in life, or what to do when his poetry fails (as it must) to earn him significant money. Robert Frost has taken Thomas’s son Mervyn to America…  will he follow?

We had a cheerful letter again from Mervyn and one from Frost saying he is on the edge of taking a farm he likes with a mountain view. He is very brief and evidently engrossed but cheerful. It will become necessary soon to decide whether I can really go out there—with the idea of getting literary work mainly. If I thought could try and might succeed probably I ought to go. And that is as near certainty as l can get.

Marlborough thickens, and I shall probably sit on here till it is done and then mount a bicycle if I still can. But should I come to town I will let you, know.

Yours ever

Edward Thomas[4]


References and Footnotes

  1. Letters from a Lost Generation, 117.
  2. Mosely, Julian Grenfell, 265.
  3. Letters and Recollections, 186-8.
  4. Farjeon, Edward Thomas, 143.

Robert Graves on Sausages, Lechery, and Bricks; Reactions to Julian Grenfell’s Death; Tolkien is Still a Scholar; Morgan Crofton Outs the Idiocy of Francis Grenfell’s Comrades

Robert Graves introduces us today to one of the landmarks of the British sector, and–drawing on his re-purposed novel of trench life–he provides us with a chatty-but-useful sketch of the ways, wherefores, and weapons of static trench warfare.


Not a Western Mesa, but the Cuinchy Brick-Stacks

May 28th.  In trenches among the Cuinchy brick-stacks. Not my idea of trenches. There has been a lot of fighting hereabouts. The trenches have made themselves rather than been made, and run inconsequently in and out of the big thirty-foot-high stacks of bricks; it is most confusing. The parapet of a trench which we don’t occupy is built up with ammunition-boxes and corpses. Everything here is wet and smelly. The Germans are very close: they have half the brick-stacks, we have the other half. Each side snipes down from the top of its brick-stacks into the other’s trenches. This is also a great place for German rifle-grenades and trench mortars. We can’t reply properly; we have only a meagre supply of rifle-grenades and nothing to equal the German sausage mortar-bomb.

Nothing to be suspicious of here–this is a modest general sketch of what the Cuinchy trenches were like at this time. Although one hopes that we hear so often of corpse-incorporated parapets because the few such instances were so memorably appalling rather than because the practice was so common. But now Graves gets specific about the whens and wheres, and he goes straight to that favorite trope of the new soldier–the near-miss.

This morning about breakfast time, just as I came out of my dug-out, a rifle-grenade landed within six feet of me. For some reason, instead of falling on its head and exploding, it landed with its stick in the wet clay and stood there looking at me… I can’t understand why this particular rifle-grenade fell as it did. the chances were impossibly against it.

‘Sausages’ are easy to see and dodge, but they make a terrible noise when they drop. We have had about ten casualties in our company today from them. I find that my reactions to danger are extraordinarily quick; but everyone gets like that. We can sort out all the different explosions and disregard whichever don’t concern us…

Last night a lot of German stuff was flying about, including shrapnel. I heard one shell whish-whishing toward me and dropped flat. It burst just over the trench where ‘Petticoat Lane’ runs into ‘Lowndes Square’. My ears sang as though there were gnats in them, and a bright scarlet light shone over everything . My shoulder got twisted in falling and I thought I had been hit, but I hadn’t been. The vibration made my chest sing, too,in a curious way, and I lost my sense of equilibrium. I was ashamed when the sergeant-major came along the trench and found me on all fours, still unable to stand up straight.

Graves next returns to the comic description of his platoon of Welsh miners which had occupied much of a previous chapter. After relating instances of their easy black humour around corpses–a useful carryover from their former jobs–he explains their moral code:

It’s moral, for instance, to rob anyone of anything, except a man in their own platoon. They treat every stranger as an enemy until he proves himself their friend, and the there’s nothing they won’t do for him. They are lecherous, the young ones at least, but without the false shame of the English lecher. I had a letter to censor the other day, written by a lance-corporal to his wife. He said that the French girls were nice to sleep with, so she mustn’t worry on his account, but that he far preferred sleeping with her and missed he a great deal.[1]


The reactions to the death of Julian Grenfell continue. Raymond Asquith learned the news a day after his father:

It is simply bloody about Julian. I quite thought that his strength and pugnacity would pull him through.[2]


And Ivo Grenfell, Julian and Billy’s younger brother, wrote to their sister Monica:

Darlingest Casie

Juju is in peace and happy for evermore, and no one could have died so bravely… The world will never be quite the same again, but God does everything for the best… Juju has so nobly done his duty, and has died as I am sure he wished to die, fighting for his country… we must all try and be like Juju. He has triumphed over all, and he would never wish us to feel sad but rather what a glorious thing death is…

Ivo is sixteen, so he will have to wait some time for his chance to be like his brothers.[3]


Morgan Crofton is nearing the end of his tether. And soon, too, he will be left once again holding the tethers of the tether-holders–detailed to stay in rest billets with the horses while his regiment takes its turn in the trenches. Crofton is a fighting soldier–at least in his own self-estimation–but it is a bit suspicious that he seems to draw this duty repeatedly. Perhaps he is not as keen as the other senior officers of the regiment: his reaction to the news of the upcoming spell of trench duty (he had not yet learned that he would be left behind) was to write “What a nuisance it all is. I had hoped that we should have had a quiet time in Racquinghem.”

Today the regiment moved up toward the reserve lines in preparation for the next move into the actual trenches. Crofton’s honesty–to his diary–is one of his most valuable features for us. Today, he turns his uncensored criticism–albeit indirectly–on Francis Grenfell, late of the 9th Lancers.,

Friday May 28

Cold, but fine day. Breakfast at 7.30…

Was not sorry on the whole to leave Wallon-Cappel. Although it was better latterly than it was when we first went there in April, it really is an unhealthy village, and we were not too comfortable in billets…

I believe that the 9th Lancers are to take our place at Wallon-Cappel. They suffered very heavily from the gas in the trenches last Wednesday, chiefly owing to laziness on the part of the officers and men in not taking the trouble to put on respirators.

Noel Edwards (the polo player who played in America, in the Polo Team taken over by Wimborne last year) never bothered to put either a respirator or mask on, with a result that he was badly gassed, and although he succeeded in walking back through Ypres, he died some hours afterwards.[4]

Can this debacle explain the apparently very gallant–and strangely aggressive, given that the British were on the defensive at Second Ypres–behavior of Francis Grenfell several days later? Francis was an international polo player as well, and the 9th Lancers were his regiment. Did he dash forward for reasons of revenge? Or, perhaps, because criticism of his regiment’s foolish laziness were widespread and needed to be expunged? It’s impossible to tell–but it’s a reminder that the panegyric letters written after an officer’s death may stray very far indeed from the truth.

Crofton is no bureaucrat of the New Armies, but his grumpiness about the inefficient use of the cavalry and the swaggering disregard of the old-school sportsmen for the realities of modern warfare is more confirmation that the war is changing. Another gently born cavalryman goes bravely–and in this case, unquestionably stupidly–down into the dark, and the rough-and-ready infantry of the New Armies must come up to fill the gaps.


And John Ronald Tolkien, in his last weeks at Oxford, gave a paper today to The Psittakoi, a student literary society, reviewing The Quest of Beauty and Other Poems by H.R. Freston, a recent graduate. Several letters of advice from his friends and former classmates–of practical advice about the inevitable next step–are already in the post.


References and Footnotes

  1. Good-Bye to All That, 111-113.
  2. Raymond Asquith, Life and Letters, 200.
  3. Thompson, Julian Grenfell, 314.
  4. Massacre of the Innocents, 254.

Into Battle Again: The Afterlife of Julian Grenfell; On the Uses of Homer in the Great War; Two Asquiths on Waiting, Loss, and Conscription

Today, by a somewhat ghoulish quirk of timing, Lady Desborough’s efforts to get her son’s recent poem published finally bore fruit–one day after his death. The Times had already decided to run Julian Grenfell‘s Into Battle, but now it ran along with his death notice.[1]

The scholar of classical receptions Elizabeth Vandiver begins her appraisal of Julian Grenfell’s “Into Battle” by establishing a useful opposition to another poem we’ve just had occasion to mention: Henry Newbolt’s arch-Victorian pseudo-elegy, Clifton Chapel. It was this same poem which, just a few days ago, Julian’s brother Billy had drawn upon in attempting to offer his father some consolation.

“Into Battle” begins with two stanzas of more-or-less natural imagery (more on that more-or-less in a moment) but in the third Grenfell pivots toward the spiritual, declaring of his happy warrior that

All the bright company of Heaven
Hold him in their bright comradeship,

Vandiver reads this as an echo of Clifton’s “Of the great fellowship you’re free,” a line Grenfell surely knew. The similarities are strong indeed. We have two brave young warriors–one ready to die, the other already dead–and both are joined after death in a heavenly fellowship. The spirit of heroic optimism, of grief diminished by pride in fighting, is common to both.

But then there is a radical departure. Christianity falls completely away, in favor of “an unapologetically Homeric viewpoint.” Absent is the Christian idea of a just war–or any mention of a particular enemy. Absent as well is Rupert Brooke‘s obsession with the notion of sacrifice.

Grenfell fights because “he is dead who will not fight” and because–this is that shocking note at the end of the first stanza– “who dies fighting has increase.” Battle is not only positive but productive: it alone can, by demonstrating the skill and courage of the warrior, make glory.

This is an ancient value. These days we tend to imagine that, while war may elicit heroic behavior–the soldier who discovers exceptional skill or the courage to sacrifice for his or her comrades–it is the stress of combat that reveals innate qualities. War is a test. But for the Greeks–and for Grenfell–war is a contest, without which the prize of glory would not exist.

Not to mention that the Christian warrior, however eager, however bloodthirsty in truth, should make some obeisance to the idea of a higher cause. Or some cause. Vengeance! Containing the German threat! Something. Grenfell seems indifferent to all of that. He is happy to be fighting because fighting, no matter the cause, enables him to realize his dearest ambition. He had won the DSO in the autumn–not quite a torque from one of Beowulf’s ring-giving lords or the gaudy armor of some fallen Trojan brave, but still pretty good. He had hoped to win more.

The cause of the war doesn’t matter, Germany doesn’t matter, and peace doesn’t matter. His performance, his chance at greatness and fame–the Greek kleos, the glorious reputation of the successful warrior–is what matters. And if that is gained, then death is no object. Or so says the poet.

He continues in this vein, and by the last two stanzas the poem is openly Homeric, imitating the vocabulary and diction of the 19th century translations, a sort of Tennyson’s Homer:

The fighting man shall from the sun
Take warmth, and life from glowing earth;
Speed with the light-foot winds to run

This is to the detriment, as Vandiver points out, of any realistic description of 20th century warfare. None of Robert Graves‘s onomatopoeia here. Instead “the brazen frenzy” and the “patient eyes, courageous hearts” of the horses. But bronze is no longer the paradigmatic stuff of weapons, and the horses these days are stabled far behind the lines.

Grenfell is writing the battle he dreams, not the reality unfolding before him. This is a poem of aspiration and passion and apotheosis, not experience.

Nor is it a great poem–but that’s hardly the point. It’s a stirring, unsettling one, and it soon became very popular. For many–for Julian, for his mother, who corrected the manuscript and saw it published–it represented the way they wanted to feel about how a young soldier should enter battle.

Which is why it is so strange that its amorality was hardly remarked upon at the time. Pay attention, folks! The words “God” and “England” do not appear in this poem! (The secret, I think, is in the diction: if it resounds like “Clifton Chapel,” you might not notice that its values are 2600 years different, suitable for an open air fane in ancient Greece, not a Public School chapel.)

It’s the penultimate stanza, though, that seals the argument that this is an intensely Homeric poem:

And when the burning moment breaks,
And all things else are out of mind,
And only joy of battle takes
Him by the throat and makes him blind,
Through joy and blindness he shall know,
Not caring much to know, that still
Nor lead nor steel shall reach him, so
That it be not the Destined Will.

This is what students of Homer might recognize as the mood which prompts an aristeia, the moment when a hero is seized by a spirit of divine frenzy and fights with virtuosic violence. “Joy of battle” is a hackneyed phrase and blindness a familiar poetic semi-metaphor–but Grenfell shows his strength with that throat-grabbing image.

One thinks of his greyhounds, of the many times he was in at the kill in the hunt. And one thinks of the Greek gods seizing their favorites and sweeping them over the battlefield, cutting down lesser men like a child swinging a great doll through entire formations of little toy soldiers.[2] As Vandiver points out, this is nothing like the emotional state he was in when he actually did kill three Germans in late 1914–then he was a stalker, a cold-blooded sniper. But this is beside the point. Julian Grenfell will take his shots, and pride himself on his kills. But he would rather be galloping, slashing, stabbing, fighting breathlessly for his life.

And that “Destined Will” is Homeric, not least in its weakness or, better, its fungibility. There may be an overarching “fate” but it is remote. Here we are fighting by our wits and on our own strength. Zeus, not even the master of fate, is, like his squabbling children, a fight fan. He is inclined to let the heroes and their divine patrons rely on their strength and wits.

I’m not sure I can ratify the final section of Vandiver’s argument, but it’s interesting. Critics have generally agreed that the poem’s closing stanza is its weakest element:

The thundering line of battle stands,
And in the air Death moans and sings;
But Day shall clasp him with strong hands,
And Night shall fold him in soft wings.

It certainly doesn’t feel much like the rest of the poem–as if the throat-grabbing hound has left off, suddenly, and headed back, tail-tucked, toward a semblance of propriety. Vandiver points out that this conclusion confirms Grenfel’s Homeric intentions:

‘The Destined Will’ of the ninth stanza recalls the Dios boule, the Will of Zeus, as it is cited in the opening lines of the Iliad (1.5), and in the last two lines the capitalized and personified Day and Night perform the same function as the similarly personified Sleep and Death of Iliad 16.666-83…

These are the figures that carry off Sarpedon, hero, son of Zeus, after he is slain. And in “INno Battle,”

Day and Night are not ‘portentously intruding’; [the judgment of Bernard Bergonzi] instead, they provide a consistent and satisfying culmination of the entire poem’s Homeric mise en scène. For Grenfell’s ‘fighting man’, as for Homer’s Sarpedon, benevolent personifications of natural forces will provide safety and protection after his death.[3]

The question, then, is whether understanding the Homeric “intertext” (as the kids likes to call it) should change one’s appreciation of the poem. It is violent, amoral, and, in its untroubled correlation of deadly violence and personal virtue, profoundly troubling. But the Iliad is a true poem, the foundation stone of the Western literary tradition, and it can inspire many things…

For Vandiver, the question, too, is to what extent Grenfell’s attitude to battle and killing taint the legacy of the classical education that he, like so many of our poets, received. Are the Classics merely outdated equipment, like the horses and the sabers? Or can we separate the tradition from what one bloodthirsty poet did with it?

We will, of course, return to these questions. (To which the answers are “not exactly” and “yes.”) But I think I’ll give the last word today to Grenfell’s biographer, Nicholas Mosley:

The last words that Julian spoke to Ettie–‘Phoebus Apollo’–were recorded by Ettie with delight. But Phoebus Apollo is the god, though of the sun, whose irradiating powers have not yet separated from destructiveness; whom mortals still use for justification.[4]


Julian Grenfell is not as central to the literary history of the war as Rupert Brooke was and will be–he’s a second symbol, the more accomplished soldier but the lesser poet. Still, we will continue to track not only the afterlife of his poetry, but the way in which the news of his death affected those who had known him.

There are dozens of reactions to his death by the writers, soldiers, and society figures whose wars I’ve been tracking. His fame as the author of the quintessential post-Brooke pro-war poem is yet to come, but he was still well known among the Eton and Oxford sets, and his mother, presiding spirit of the “Souls,” was known to pretty much everyone in the great governing/aristocratic/society clique. Representing this large acquaintance today will be a father and son, Prime Minister and New Army subaltern.

H.H. Asquith has just survived the collapse of both his government–although deftly enough to remain the Prime Minister in a new coalition government–and of his paramount obsession. For several years he had been desperately in love with Venetia Stanley, a young friend of his daughter, Violet. Incredibly, Asquith went so far as to write to her several times a day… from cabinet meetings… to ask her advice on the war… and enclosing state secrets.

Two weeks ago Venetia had informed him that their affair could not continue–she was marrying Lord Montagu (never mind poor old Mrs. Asquith). But H.H. Asquith was a survivor, with the short-term emotional memory of a great goal-keeper or closer. By today, a century back, he was deep into chummy and indiscreet letters to her sister, Sylvia Henley. Or, as is the case today, he wrote to her about the sadness and uncertainty that has reached the very top of the British wartime establishment:

27 May 1915

We are sad to hear the news of poor Francis Grenfell’s death… he was as fine an example of clean and unselfish manhood as was to be found in the country. We hear this morning that Julian–Ettie’s eldest son–has succumbed to his head wound. The world at present is full of horrors, and we are all walking in the valley of the shadow of death.

In an hour’s time we shall have our first meeting of the new Cabinet: it will be a strange experience, and I can only hope that it may better my expectations.[5]


Amusingly, Asquith’s son Raymond–the star wit and charismatic leader of the “Coterie,” the younger generation’s answer to the “Souls”–wrote today–to his wife–about one of the issues which the new cabinet would shortly be considering.

Today I had luncheon with Lady Sybil [Grant] at Primrose House. She was kind and friendly and rather unintelligently voluble. She seems to want conscription. It is very odd how many people do now-a-days. The idea they have at the back of their minds seems to be that if their lovers are being killed, it is only fair that their footmen should be killed too. I don’t feel that myself.

Amusing. And interesting. Asquith is thirty-six, with children, closer to Edward Thomas in that regard than most of our young officers. But not only does he have the better sort of ruling class prejudices–nothing for it but to go–he also demonstrates the fullness of commitment, the yearning toward the test of combat,shared by virtually all of our younger men in uniform.

Among the more dashing young officers in this regiment there is a growing spirit of disaffection. We are wasting time here on duties which make for weariness but not for efficiency. The Colonel is becoming conscious of this I think, and takes one or other of us aside from time to time to communicate mysterious hints that we may be wanted abroad at any moment. But we none of us believe him now. … Several of the subalterns are scheming to have themselves transferred to some more active unit… unless prospects improve in the near future, I think I shall do something of the kind myself… the Coldstream Guards… push one along very quickly I believe, and it is a fine regiment, I suppose about the best…[6]

Julian Grenfell is gone. But many hearts–even the older and calmer hearts–still yearn to go into battle.


References and Footnotes

  1. A number of sources put the death notice and the poem's date of publication on the 28th--and several letters we'll be quoting from soon seem to bear that out. But I'm following Vandiver--Stand in the Trench, 185--in giving it today's date, for consistency's sake (and I'm too proud or lazy to deal with the Times' paywall to make certain--especially when today is a convenient day to discuss the poem).
  2. This, by the way, I have just realized, is my exceedingly lame attempt to echo the great modern British interpreter of Homer, Christopher Logue. Logue's Athena grabs Achilles (by the hair, as in the text, not the throat) and treats him very much in this ecstatic, violent manner.
  3. Vandiver, Stand in the Trench Achilles, 184-96 (194-5).
  4. Mosley, Julian Grenfell, His Life and the Times of his Death, 1888-1915, 266-7.
  5. Webb, From Downing Street to the Trenches, 108.
  6. Raymond Asquith, Life and Letters, 200.

Francis and Julian Grenfell Move Up to the Front Lines at Ypres; Robert Graves Leaves for France; We Meet Private Lord Crawford; Vera Brittain Dreams of Roland Leighton and Rupert Brooke

It was a tense morning, a century back. The British First Army has temporarily suspended its assaults on Aubers Ridge as it recovers and reinforces. But in the support lines around Ypres, Julian Grenfell, more or less ignorant of the true state of affairs even a few thousand feet further east, wonders if he will soon get to fight again. The Germans have not broken through, but the signs are not good:

Wednesday 12th. Wandering infantry. Say that front trenches shelled v. badly. Hardly any of our guns fire up here.[1]

A letter was winging toward him today from his mother, however, with the news that, despite “unspeakable difficulty” she and Lord Desborough have gotten permission to visit their daughter Monica (Casie) in Wimereux (near Boulogne), where she is serving as a nurse. Lady Desborough also told Julian about her efforts to get “Into Battle” published and passed along news of several friends. Lord Desborough had just dined with Lord Kitchener and Lady Desborough with the Prime Minister, and with contacts like these one learns things ahead of the newspapers: Julian’s good friend Charles Lister, and the Prime Minister’s son, “Oc” Asquith, have both been wounded at Gallipoli. She hopes, of course, that Julian can manage a day’s leave while they are in France…


But things can change quickly. We have three forward (or war-ward) movements, today. Two of our more curious characters are finally leaving England, and we will get to them below. But Julian Grenfell, as a matter of fact, is also getting closer to the action. The orders must have come after he wrote today’s entry, but his Royal Dragoons, part of the 3rd Cavalry Division, were sent into the line today (or tonight–the move, below, is described as being completed only “late on the evening of the 12th”). Somewhere nearby was his cousin Francis, whose 9th Lancers were in the 1st Cavalry Division: 3rd May the British line had been shortened, and on the 12th it was possible to relieve the 28th Division, which had been fighting continuously for twenty days. Its place was taken by a cavalry detachment–the 1st and 3rd Cavalry Divisions under De Lisle. Their front ran from the Frezenberg ridge southward across the Roulers railway to the Bellewaarde Lake north of Hooge.

Francis, who had been uneasy waiting behind the line, welcomed the change. “Here we are,”
he had written,” sitting peacefully behind like
the next man to go in to a fast bowler. You don’t
want to go in, and yet you would like to be knocking about the bowling.” His brigade took up position in the front line late on the evening of the 12th. The trenches had been much damaged, and it was necessary to reconstruct the parapets and traverses.[2]

So the “iron ration,” the trusted reserves of pre-war professional cavalrymen, have been thrown into the line. If Ypres is to survive, they must hold it. And if Britain is to persevere, there must be a long chain of ready reserves stretching back from the support lines now vacated by the two cavalry divisions all the way to the depots of England.



Robert Graves in 1915; given that he is wearing a sword, this photo probably dates from before his first trip to the front…

And so the Telemachiad of Young Robert Graves is almost at an end. He had been able to enter the Royal Welch Fusiliers in August, obtaining a Regular commission through the “militia back door.” And then his progress stalled. He was an impossible young officer: gangly, uncouth, oblivious to the fact that conformity in dress and manners was an absolute requirement of the peacetime Regular army–and all of the officers running the show at the Fusilier depot in Wrexham, Wales, were old Regulars, including the all-important adjutant, “Tibs” Crawshay. Graves had a bad tailor, and he had volunteered to remain on duty so that other officers could attend the Grand National. Not a sportsman. They were snobs, of course, but in general they were acting with a reasonable amount of rationality: this officer didn’t fit in, and seemed to make no effort to do so. He was bright and unconventional, but subalterns were required to be brave, deferential, and obedient. He didn’t seem to be the latter two things, and it seemed a bad bet to assume that this overgrown Public School poet would turn out to be be courageous under fire.

Until Graves, who had boxed in school in order to assert himself and put an end to bullying, stepped into the ring in an exhibition with a Royal Welch sergeant who was also a professional welter-weight.

Pretending to know nothing of boxing, I led off with my right and moved clumsily. Basham saw a chance of getting another laugh; he dropped his guard and danced about with a you-can’t-hit-me-challenge. I caught him off his balance, and knocked him across the ring. He recovered and went for me, but I managed to keep on my feet. When I laughed at him, he laughed too. We had three very brisk rounds, and he very decently made me seem a much better boxer than I was, by accommodating his pace to mine. As soon as Crawshay heard the story, he rang me up at my billet and told me that he had learned with pleasure of my performance; that for an officer to box like that was a great encouragement for the men; that he was mistaken about my sportsmanship; and that, to show his appreciation, he would put me down for a draft to France in a week’s time.[3]

Boxing: for Julian Grenfell the next best thing to combat; for Robert Graves, his ticket to the combat zone. The boxing exhibition was a week ago, a century back, and Graves continued to spar with Basham, who last night went on to win a coveted belt. This morning a telegram arrived at the Graves residence in Wimbledon:

Starting France today Don’t worry Best love, Robbie[4]



Lord Crawford, Earl, former-MP, and RAMC private

And a new figure here; too odd to do much with yet, too wonderful to omit. Lord Crawford–David Alexander Edward Lindsay, 27th Earl of Crawford & Balcarres–was “the premier earl of Scotland,” a forty-three-year old businessman with eighteen years as a conservative MP (before his father’s death had inopportunely kicked him upstairs, in 1913, to the newly obsolescent House of Lords), seven children, and a pregnant wife. So he hadn’t thought, in the summer of 1914, that he was likely to get either a useful political job or a new army commission. (This may have been a miscalculation–plenty of overage eccentrics made it to France as officers, whether by playing dress-up like Aubrey Herbert, dying their hair like C.E. Montague, or begging, borrowing, string-pulling, and eye-exam fudging like hundreds of others.)

So Lord Crawford played the part of Lord Crawford–harrying the Lords, going to recruitment meetings (where his willingness to describe the horrors of war was not welcomed) all until the battle of Neuve Chapelle. Devastated by the British failure, he considered suicide and decided instead (in early April) to enlist as a private in the RAMC–the medical corps. He saw this as an unquestionably noble calling–he followed, in fact, four of his gardeners into the RAMC–and seems not to have been troubled by the general expectation that lords should be officers. Today, a century back, Private Lord Crawford

set sail for France with his unit, CCS number 12. He then resumed his life-long practice of keeping a diary which he had abandoned because of depression induced by the disastrous Battle of Neuve Chapelle in March.

Wednesday, 12 May 1915

Left Aldershot at 8am after two hours packing hospital stores. Noted as singular that our officers never visited or inspected us during this heavy work. Difficulty of combining military and medical duties exemplified in deplorable
waste of men’s time at Aldershot. After school of instruction is finished, men on draft attend incessant parades, at which they have stood at ease over two hours a day, for three days in succession–it should be practical continuation of stretcher drill and bandaging.[5]


And finally, today, Oxford and war gently blend together. Vera Brittain and her friend Marjorie have the “immense privilege” of being invited into their tutor Miss Darbishire’s rooms after dinner, to talk of Blake and Milton.

Then she read us, at my request, five sonnets by Rupert Brooke, the most promising poet of the younger generation, who enlisted in the Navy when the war broke out & died at Lemnos a week or two ago–to the great loss & mourning of all modern writers & literature. The sonnets are all sad & moving, in spite of their spirit of courage & hope, & through them all ran a strangely prophetic note, a premonition of early death.

I should not have asked her to read them if I had known, they were so sad that I could scarcely keep back tears from my eyes. I believe she noticed something was up, too. She gave me the impression all the time that she wanted to speak seriously & couldn’t come to the point. After the sonnets she showed us her facsimiles of Milton’s manuscripts. When we retired to bed–I sorrowful & heavy-laden with the thoughts of Roland & Rupert Brooke’s sonnets mingled in my mind.[6]


References and Footnotes

  1. Thompson, Julian Grenfell, Soldier and Poet, 296. 
  2. Buchan, Francis and Riversdale Grenfell, 229.
  3. Good-Bye to All That, 73-4.
  4. R. P. Graves, Robert Graves, 122.
  5. Private Lord Crawford's Great War Diaries, 1-3.
  6. Chronicle of Youth, 195.

Rupert Brooke Reads and Robert Graves Comes Down

And now, at long last, we meet Robert Graves, last (for us) of the canonical war poets, and the author of by far the most amusing Great War memoir.

More on that misleadingly faint-sounding praise in a moment. Today, July 28th, 1914, a century back, Graves put his tempestuous school days firmly behind him, striding down the hill from Charterhouse and heading for London.

Graves provides an unusually dissonant variation on the public schoolboy theme–a distinctive voice, to put it mildly, and we should hear it now, and leave the conventional introduction to a major new character until later. Here is Graves slaying, dishonoring, despoiling, defaming, and degrading the Public School dragon:

Let me begin my account of Charterhouse School by recalling the day that I left, a week before the outbreak of war. I discussed my feelings with Nevill Barbour, then Head of the School. First, we agreed that there were perhaps even more typical public schools than Charterhouse in existence, but that we preferred not to believe it. Next, that no possible remedy could be found, because tradition was so strong that, to break it, one would have to dismiss the whole school and staff, and start all over again. However, even this would not be enough, the school buildings being so impregnated with what passed as the public school spirit, but what we felt as fundamental evil, that they would have to be demolished and the school rebuilt elsewhere under a different name. Finally, that our only regret at leaving the place was that for the last year we had been in a position, as members of the sixth form, to do more or less what we pleased. Now we were both going on to St. John’s College, Oxford, which promised to be merely a more boisterous repetition of Charterhouse.

We should be freshmen there, but would naturally refuse to be hearty and public-schoolish, and therefore be faced with the stupidity of having our rooms raided, and being forced to lose our temper and hurt somebody and get hurt ourselves. There would be no peace probably until we reached our third year, when we should be back again in the same sort of position as now, and in the same sort of position as in our last year at our preparatory school.

‘In 1917,’ said Nevill, ‘the official seal will be put on all this dreariness, We’ll get our degrees, and then have to start as new boys again in some dreadful profession.’

‘Correct,’ I told him.

‘My god,’ he said, turning to me suddenly, ‘I can’t stand the prospect. Something has to be put in between me and Oxford…”

It’s hard to know which facts to toss into the beginning of a potted Graves bio, for the pot is always roiling, stirred from within. But here’s a good biographical non-fallacy: Young Robert was subjected to a great deal of bullying, even by Public School standards.

Graves was a natural target for bullies, who pounded him, stole his notebooks, trashed his study, etc.

He was big–eventually six foot two or three–but not the right kind of big. He was lanky, ungainly, and badly dressed.[1]He was unusual, smart, sharp-tongued, and not much good at games. He was too smart, but not in the stolid and lordly manner of Roland Leighton or with any of Charles Sorley’s light-hearted precocity. Most damning of all, Graves was enormously stubborn and self-righteous.

Things only got better when he learned how to box, and shortly earned a reputation as an eager, reckless, flailing fighter. He writes that way too, but with sneaky skill as well as manic aggression.

Graves is writing in retrospect, and confesses as much–but tread carefully, lest easy confessions screen the gravity of the crime. Yes, it’s a fairish-if-exagerrated takedown of the public school ethos, but…

This must not be construed as an attack on my old school; it is merely a record of my mood at the time. No doubt, I was unappreciative of the hard knocks and character-training that public schools are advertised as providing. And a typical Old Carthusian remarked to me recently: “The moral tone of the school has improved out of all recognition since those days.’ But so it always will have…

From my first moment at Charterhouse I suffered an oppression of spirit that I hesitate to recall in its full intensity… The school consisted of about six hundred boys, whose chief interests were games and romantic friendships. Everyone despised school-work… Unless good at games, and able to pretend that they hated work even more than the non-scholars, and ready whenever called on to help these with their work, they [the “scholars,” i.e. boys working toward a scholarship to an Oxford or Cambridge college–the rest of the school was exempt from pretending that they valued learning] always had a bad time.

In my second term the trouble began…[2]

It’s not a nice story, and there’s no reason to get into the details. You should read it yourself, since he does the mock-heroic (or mock-tragic?) tale of schoolboy woe very well. After all, I’m introducing Graves now because he left Charterhouse today…

But if the child is father to the man, then the schoolboy is cadet to the officer (apologies), and so we really must explain the boy a bit better. Family and class first; then the school daze.

Graves came from a distinguished middle class family that boasted doctors and writers and bishops, as well as Irish roots and a fondness for Wales. In a further challenge to his precarious Englishness, his mother was German, from a family of doctors and scholars, and many of Graves’s happy early memories are of holidays in Germany or Wales. Historiography fans everywhere will be pleased to know that Graves’s soon-to-be-awkward middle name–von Ranke–is indeed that von Ranke. With the First Real Modern Historian for a great (great) uncle and an inspector of schools for a father, much could perhaps have been expected of Graves in his own school career, and yet he changed schools six times before landing at Charterhouse, and seems never to have been happy. Perhaps, though, the seriousness and sincerity of his family should have led us to expect rebelliousness, contrary attitudes, and joy in fudging the truth of the past.

Writing ran in the family, too. Robert’s father, Albert Perceval Graves, wrote poetry and songs in his spare time, and their home in Wimbledon hosted a Shakespeare society and housed thousands of books. Graves makes a little fun of his family’s austere Protestantism and proper Upper Middle Class attitudes–his mother made him sign a temperance pledge at the age of seven, and the family was appalled when he came back from a youthful hospital stay (lung trouble will recur) speaking with the “vulgar” accent of the other boys on his ward–but on the whole it seems like a big (Robert had four full and five older half siblings) and happy family. Certainly there was an opportunity to take in literature and culture that would have thrilled most of our other young strivers.

Yes–Mr. and Mrs. Graves end up seeming like decent old sticks, hindrances rather than enemies. Although they are quickly dealt with in their son’s “autobiography,” they do make one more appearance as blissfully innocent abettors of his tormentors.[3] Early in Robert’s Charterhouse career, completely miserable, he had unburdened himself in a letter home, describing at least some of the bullying. He claims that it never even occurred to him that they would act on their son’s confidential tale of physical abuse,[4] but of course they came to the school and complained. When the school mounted a half-hearted crackdown on bullying right after an unscheduled parental visit, all the bullies could figure out exactly whom to bully more.

This sort of behavior–the righteous proclamations rather than the amorousness–Graves surely inherited from his parents, whether he realizes this fact or not. Thus he suffered even when his actions were in line with school norms: when the bullies among the house monitors and football “bloods” homed in on his intense-yet-chaste friendship (ah, but what cruel blows the future will deal) with a significantly younger boy (whom Graves calls “Dick”)[5] Graves stands up to them, even acknowledging, when cross-examined by a master, his authorship of poems to his young muse. There was nothing wrong with it! And yet Graves later gets another master fired after acting on an apparently false rumor that this master had been seen kissing Dick…

If Graves can be believed (he can’t, at least not fully, but more on his “autobiographical” tactics in subsequent posts), two expediencies enabled him to escape being beaten into a breakdown. The first was feigning insanity–which, he jokes, was best demonstrated not by the “formal straws in my hair” but by writing poetry–and the second was taking up boxing. Both of these new interests had much to do with his friendship with Raymond Rodakowski, another boy with a funny foreign name, an interest in poetry and ideas, and the willingness to hold his ground against the horrifying masses of brute boyish conformity. Graves throughout his life evinces a strong pattern of singular behavior that is not so much singular as abetted by one other person, and Raymond seems to have been one of the first to help him in this way.

There is self-dramatization here–the straws in the hair–as well as real suffering. Graves in later years was painfully half-aware that his manners and appearance put others off, and he was right of course, to protest that such superficiality in other boys and men was contemptible and wicked… but what does that avail?

In any event, both skills–the poetry and the boxing–would prove useful. More prosaically, in his later years at Charterhouse his unhappiness was slightly relieved by his academic promise and by the friendship of a young master, none other than George Mallory, then only twenty-six or so. Since the school taught little other than the Classics and since Graves’s home library derived from his extremely middle Victorian father, Mallory became a lifeline to modern literature. In what seems suspiciously like an anecdote stolen from Sassoon, Graves writes that he met Eddie Marsh in Mallory’s rooms, and that Marsh told him that his poetry, while promising, was written in an obsolete diction and would benefit from exposure to modern verse.

The friendship with Mallory was clearly crucial: any boy who goes on climbing and book-discussing trips with a young teacher over school holidays is not entirely miserable. Graves also founded a literary magazine (of course), made several friends more or less his own age (notably Nevill Barbour and Raymond Radakowski, although neither would prove as significant as either Mallory or “Dick”), and earned an exhibition to Oxford. It could have been worse.

In fact, given his habitual bitterness and dramatic flair, we might doubt if this proud scholar’s schooldays were really much worse than those of Leighton and Sorley. They sound worse because he was neither happy alone nor did he find a group of friends. Compare him to Leighton, for instance, or Tolkien: each was serious and thoughtful, and each found a group of friends (the Three Musketeers of Uppingham seem much like the TCBS of King Edward’s School) and was also able to treat the female object of his affections with rare seriousness and respect. Or to Sorley, who had friends and took school leadership positions, but, like Williamson, he was happiest alone in nature and his best sport was the solitary test of cross country running.

But Graves was by nature a fighter, never a joiner, and ill-suited at eighteen or nineteen to begin a serious romance. It is boxing, again–“the dual play, the reciprocity, the pain not felt as pain”–that best represents his personality: almost monomaniac, were it not for the serial monogamy. This began with the boy-crushes and intense one-on-one friendships which saved him from misery at school and continued into adulthood as a series of obsessive relationships with (female) lovers. The boxing, like the friendships, he pursued with doggedness, ferocity, and a lack of subtlety.[6]

If you’re throwing up your hands in despair at ever keeping all of these fierce young soldiers-to-be straight, here’s another tack: Graves is the anti-Brooke. Where Brooke can’t help charming people and is universally praised for his grace and physical beauty, Graves seems to instinctively put people off, even to repel them, and is always remembered as slovenly and awkward. Brooke moved seamlessly between groups of friends, from his Cambridge/Bloomsbury crowd to the Dymock poets and other Georgians and on to the best in titled London society. Graves seems rarely to have found a group at all, but fought for and with his friends. And as for love, Graves was a serial monogamist who moved from a non-sexual crush on a boy to intense affairs with women while Brooke carried on numerous overlapping affairs, some sexual, some chaste, some frustrated, some with men, and some with women.

But the most memorable way–considering how this post began–to position Brooke and Graves as antipodes would be to quote Brooke on his feelings about his public school days:

I had been happier at Rugby than I can find words to say. As I looked back at those five years I seemed to see almost every hour as golden and radiant and always increasing in beauty as I grew more conscious; and I could not and cannot hope for or even imagine such happiness elsewhere.[7]

And yet there are similarities, too: Brooke may have been an arrogant golden boy, but he half-realized this and made deft jokes to deflate the pressure of his own ego; Graves may have been a misanthrope and misfit punk, but he half-realized it as well, and fashioned from his failings a rollicking, flailing comedic voice. Brooke is good for a chuckle now and then; Graves has guffaws, at his own expense and others, and his autobiography not only displays a first-class (i.e. disreputable) raconteur’s wit but pioneers some of the black comedy that is usually more closely associated with the literature of the next war.
Oh, and: we’re overrating the “beauty” thing. Brooke was certainly pretty and Graves was not–nor was he soulful in his awkwardness like so many other poets–but he was physically striking and projected a rough sort of charm. Tolkien thought he looked like Siegfried (the Germanic hero, not the Sassoon), but I have always been struck by how much he eventually came to look like–apologies, but I’ve been waiting to use this description for months–a cross between Bob Dylan and Frank Lloyd Wright, with just about the amount of sly nastiness and visionary bomb-throwing in his gaze as that comparison would imply (and not all that much less talent). But now I have gotten us waaaay ahead of the century back, and made it almost impossible to resist googling for images. This was not my intent. Read words only.


And speaking of Rupert Brooke, while Graves was tramping down the hill Brooke was clearing his throat in the back of Harold Monro’s Poetry Bookshop, the epicenter of youthful, poetic London, reading some of his own work to sixty-five listeners–a big crowd in a small room. He was apparently very nervous, and very quiet. Despite reportedly looking angelic, the Young Apollo was also heckled by an old lady with an ear-trumpet and panned by the American critic Amy Lowell, who

in an atmosphere of overwhelming sentimentality, listened to Mr. Rupert Brooke whispering his poems. To himself, it seemed, as nobody else could hear him. It was all artificial and precious. One longed to shout, to chuck up one’s hat in the street when one got outside.[8]

This is not the first time–Rupert Brooke as shy and sad and angelic and misunderstood and ready to start shouting or do something rash–that I’ve suspected that Pete Townsend wrote “Behind Blue Eyes” about Brooke–but wikipedia tells me that the song was intended as the theme for a chap named Jumbo, so I may be barking up the wrong mulberry bush again, alas.


And as for the great men now holding the fate of Britain in their hands, we will soon make the acquaintance of Raymond Asquith, who occupied a position in the “Coterie”–the hyper-fashionable and cynically amused social circle of his generation–that was almost as dominating as Ettie Grenfell/Desborough’s leadership of the “Souls.” Raymond Asquith was friendly with both Grenfell brothers (Julian and Billy, not the twins Grenfell)…. anyway to Raymond in due time. But today, his father, H.H. Asquith, who, by the way, was the Prime Minister of Great Britain, wrote a chatty letter about national affairs to the 26-year-old woman with whom he was obsessively in love. Referring to the employer of Rupert Brooke’s patron and current First Lord of the Admiralty, Asquith noted that “at this moment things don’t look well, & Winston’s spirits are probably rising.”[9]


A special note here, for you most relentless of down-scrollers: not much happens tomorrow, that I know of, in the lives of our various writers–so it will be a rest day, blogless and desolate. But the end of July and the beginning of August have a flurry of activity, as England belatedly lurches toward war.

Tomorrow, then, if all goes as planned (and what doesn’t go as planned in multi-year military campaigns?) will be the last rest day. From then on, daily posts until victory…

References and Footnotes

  1. It's hard to tell to what extent he was simply sloppy and disinterested in bourgeois niceties of dress (his own view) or so slovenly and rude as to elicit a sort of social/instinctive revulsion in proper members of the upper middle classes (the picture painted by many contemporaries). Would we now diagnose some sort of mild autism spectrum disorder?
  2. Good-Bye to All That, 36-8.
  3. The feeling of non-innocence is very strong because Graves' great memoir--Good-Bye to All That--set out epater pretty much everyone. It's almost the opposite of Sassoon's stance, in which past events are massaged to emphasize the memoir-protagonist's innocence. With Graves, he is determined to intrude on the narrative to show just how cynical the world was, even if his then-self must have missed much of it...
  4. But not the sexual abuse also going on in the school--that Graves left out, of course, since they would certainly, in their innocence and righteousness, have acted then... young Robert needs plausible deniability.
  5. No, the name did not then have that connotation.
  6. This, actually, is not unlike Julian Grenfell, although Grenfell was otherwise a loner. I wonder if any busy bee has yet compared Grenell's letter about the boxing competition in South Africa with Graves's account of his epic stand at a Charterhouse tournament.
  7. Quoted in Parker, The Old Lie, 92-3.
  8. I've taken the quote from Hollis, Now All Roads, 144, who notes that Amy Lowell may herself have been the heckler.
  9. Quoted in Hastings, Catastrophe 1914, 72.