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.
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. . .
Over. But don’t worry, folks, they were both writing to each other again before the evening was out.
London, 23 August 1915
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
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 to announce a change of heart:
B.W.T.A. Soldiers’ Recreation Rooms,
Friends’ Meeting House, Saffron Walden, Essex
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. 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.
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
- Testament of Youth, 189. ↩
- Chronicle of Youth, 260-4. ↩
- Letters From a Lost Generation, 143-4. ↩
- Elected Friends, 90-2. ↩
- Probably, but possibly a day or two earlier. ↩
- 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. ↩
- Bridge Into the Future, 35-7. ↩