Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, and Wilfred Owen Link Up–A New Spat and a New Friendship; Owen’s “Disabled,” and Isaac Rosenberg’s Simultaneous Prequel, “Girl to a Soldier”

Robert Graves spent the night on the train from London to Edinburgh. Arriving at Craiglockhart, today, a century back, he found Siegfried Sassoon in a bad mood, fed up with his intolerable Theosophist roommate (although it is unclear whether the man’s relentless Panglossianism, the actual tenets of his pseudo-faith, or merely his baroque shenanigans with English diction are the real cause of Sassoon’s ire). But Sassoon’s troubles are deeper, probably: after long weeks working with Rivers, and then a long break while Rivers himself was on sick leave, Sassoon is beginning to be convinced that regardless of the rightness of his cause–his protest, that is–there is no ethically acceptable course for himself but to rejoin the men he protested for, and put himself once more in harm’s way.

After all, for how long can one write and golf and complain when one’s friends (not to mention the soldiers who, by all accounts, respected Sassoon and would not fare as well under most other subalterns) are going back to war?

For a little while longer, evidently. Sassoon is most stubborn when others might want to give him a nudge. Even though Graves took the night train to see him, Sassoon couldn’t be bothered to wait, and called in a subordinate (of sorts) to entertain his guest.

 

Biography can be a sweeping, powerful genre, filled with insights into life and history and the human condition. But it’s also, fundamentally, an assemblage of interesting tit-bits. And here’s a good one: Wilfred Owen only became friendly with Robert Graves because this very morning, a century back, Sassoon would not, by Jove, be stayed from a round of golf, no matter how many friends-and-poets want to spend the morning with him. Owen appreciates the strange gesture of selfish generosity:

On Sat, I met Robert Graves (see last poem of O.H.) for Sassoon, whom nothing could keep from his morning’s golf; & took Graves over to the Course when he arrived. He is a big, rather plain fellow, the last man on earth apparently capable of the extraordinary, delicate fancies in his books.

No doubt he thought me a slacker sort of sub. S.S. when they were together showed him my longish war-piece ‘Disabled’ (you haven’t seen it) & it seems Graves was mightily impressed, and considers me a kind of Find!

No thanks. Captain Graves! I’ll find myself in due time.

So, yes, although he has just met another impressive published poet, not to mention a man, however gawky, from a literary family, with a Public School behind him and Oxford ahead (should he survive)–a man so esteemed of Sassoon that he is the addressee of several poems–Owen is able to puff out his chest and hold his head high. He might accept more friendship, but he doesn’t seem to be in need of any more mentors or patrons (though, of course, in the professional sense he very much is). Nor does he: “Disabled” is not one of Owen’s more subtle pieces, nor does it have that compression and swift, quiet musicality of some of his best poems. But it is direct, and very, very sad:

He sat in a wheeled chair, waiting for dark,
And shivered in his ghastly suit of grey,
Legless, sewn short at elbow. Through the park
Voices of boys rang saddening like a hymn,
Voices of play and pleasure after day,
Till gathering sleep had mothered them from him.
                            *        *        *        *        *
About this time Town used to swing so gay
When glow-lamps budded in the light-blue trees,
And girls glanced lovelier as the air grew dim,—
In the old times, before he threw away his knees.
Now he will never feel again how slim
Girls’ waists are, or how warm their subtle hands,
All of them touch him like some queer disease.
                            *        *        *        *        *
There was an artist silly for his face,
For it was younger than his youth, last year.
Now, he is old; his back will never brace;
He’s lost his colour very far from here,
Poured it down shell-holes till the veins ran dry,
And half his lifetime lapsed in the hot race
And leap of purple spurted from his thigh.
                            *        *        *        *        *
One time he liked a blood-smear down his leg,
After the matches carried shoulder-high.
It was after football, when he’d drunk a peg,
He thought he’d better join. He wonders why.
Someone had said he’d look a god in kilts.
That’s why; and maybe, too, to please his Meg,
Aye, that was it, to please the giddy jilts,
He asked to join. He didn’t have to beg;
Smiling they wrote his lie: aged nineteen years.
Germans he scarcely thought of, all their guilt,
And Austria’s, did not move him. And no fears
Of Fear came yet. He thought of jewelled hilts
For daggers in plaid socks; of smart salutes;
And care of arms; and leave; and pay arrears;
Esprit de corps; and hints for young recruits.
And soon, he was drafted out with drums and cheers.
                            *        *        *        *        *
Some cheered him home, but not as crowds cheer Goal.
Only a solemn man who brought him fruits
Thanked him; and then inquired about his soul.
                            *        *        *        *        *
Now, he will spend a few sick years in institutes,
And do what things the rules consider wise,
And take whatever pity they may dole.
Tonight he noticed how the women’s eyes
Passed from him to the strong men that were whole.
How cold and late it is! Why don’t they come
And put him into bed? Why don’t they come?

 

A good poem, terrible in its lingering agony.

But we were in the middle of a letter marked by Owen’s high spirits and new confidence. So: Owen is flattered by Graves’s compliments, and he values Sassoon very highly–esteems him, even loves him in some sense(s)–but he is his own poet now, and not so smitten that he doesn’t see the condescension and inequality of their relationship:

I think it a rather precious exhibition of esteem that S.S. lends me the MSS. of his next book. On the other hand, when I pointed out a quotation from Shakespere that I intended for my Frontispiece, he collared it by main force, & copied it out for himself![1]

 

Let’s return to Sassoon, and to what he is avoiding. And let’s give him his due as a thinker: he is slow to decide and easily influenced on the way to decision, but he is bullish and not easily swayed once underway, less brilliant than several of our young poets, but not nearly as plodding as he portrays himself in the proper-person autobiographies.

The problem is not what to do–he can hardly wait out an indefinite war as an asymptomatic victim of its neuroses, and he will not accept a sham permanent disability–but how to explain his about-face, how to justify it to himself as well as to others.

Graves, for instance, hates the war and fights on, but his explanations are not satisfactory to Sassoon:

It doesn’t matter what’s the cause.
What wrong they say we’re righting,
A curse for treaties, bonds and laws.
When we’re to do the fighting!
And since we lads are proud and true,
What else remains to do?

 

Graves generally styles himself as a bit of a rebel, but he is conventional, at least, in the fact that his pride in serving well–and in serving with well-respected units of a proud old Regiment–is a central facet of his war experience. Sassoon can’t object to this, exactly, but he also can’t express his loyalty this simplistically.

His irritation with Graves, however, may have relatively little to do with poetic expressions of dissent. He may be annoyed at another aspect of what could be seen as either immaturity or commendably heedless devotion. Not only is Graves fighting on with only the most conventional not-reasoning-why as his excuse, but he is (conventionally) besotted with a young woman, one whose outspokenness and enthusiasms (feminism, the literature of childhood) are hardly to Sassoon’s taste.[2]

There are worse things in the world than differences of opinions, friendly spats, and petulant devotion to previously planned rounds of golf, especially when they conspire to spark new friendships. Whatever the initial impressions that Owen and Graves garnered of each other, they will be friends, now, to the benefit of both. If Graves seems an unsuitable mentor he will still a very useful reader. And Owen, like most poets in the course of making leaps and bounds, makes good use of the criticism his work-in-progress receives.

 

But there are other poets not in Scotland. Isaac Rosenberg, for instance, is in France, where he recently returned from leave and promptly fell ill with influenza. One slim benefit of this dangerous illness is the ability to catch up on his correspondence…

Dear Mr. Bottomley

When I returned from my holiday I as taken sick and sent down the line. So I can write to you more leisurely than before. When I was in England I felt too restless to write or read…

Rosenberg then confides that he purchased a book of Bottomley’s, and proceeds to be assiduously complimentary of the work, as well as concerned about his mentor’s health–this from a sick, weak man who, if he survives the ‘flu, will be sent back into the line. But Rosenberg’s deferential attitude never falls all the way into obsequiousness. His leave was emotionally confusing (as of course it must be, after a first long experience of the trenches), but despite the feelings of dislocation his confidence is high:

I don’t knew whether you sent that photo you promised… but I am looking forward to seeing it very much. If ever I get the chance I will remind you of your promise to sit for me–if I still have the skill and power to draw. I wrote a small poem I’ll enclose, I may now be able to think about my unicorn although so many things happening puts all ideas our of ones head.

Yours sincerely,

I Rosenberg

The poem he included was this early draft of “Girl To A Soldier On Leave,” which makes, I now realize, a rather haunting companion–too late, or too early–to “Disabled.” Sex and death and fear ans suffering are all hand-in-hand, today…

 

Girl To A Soldier

I love you – Titan lover,
My own storm days Titan.
Greater than the sons of Zeus,
I know whom I should choose.

Pallid days, arid & wan
Tied your soul fast.
Babel cities smoky tops
Bore down on your growth
Vulturelike… What were you?
But a word in the brain’s ways
Or the sleep of Circe’s swine.
One gyve holds you yet.

Love! You love me, your eyes
Have looked through death at mine.
You have tempted a grave too much.
I let you – I repine.[3]

 

And, finally,–and just so we can get all five of the most famous surviving war poets into one post–let’s have a quote from the War Diary of the 11th Royal Sussex, for today, a century back:

Orders to move on 14th received. Party with Lieutenant Blunden reconnoitres camp near Vierstraat.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 499.
  2. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 185-6.
  3. Liddiard, Poetry Out of My Head, 110-12.

Robert Graves De-Dedicates Siegfried Sassoon; Eddie Marsh Rededicates Himself to Winston Churchill, and Heads for Belgium

Robert Graves begins his letter to Siegfried Sassoon of today, a century back, with an apology: he has belatedly changed the dedication of Fairies and Fusiliers, his upcoming collection of poetry. Instead of being dedicated to Sassoon it will be the entire Royal Welch Fusiliers who share the honor.

Dearest Sassons,

If you’d been anyone else you’d have thought me a first-class four-letter man for changing the dedication like that, but you know it wasn’t meant for anything, except that I was afraid at the last moment of a dedication to an individual for fear of jealousy from Gosse, Ross, Marsh, Masefield or anyone like that of my ‘friends and lovers’ not to mention the family. Also, I thought that to point my devotion to the regiment would strengthen my expression of hatred for the war.

“I was afraid… fear… jealousy… hatred:” excuses, excuses. It also seems possible that this has something to do with the newest “lover,” Nancy Nicholson. She is, in most senses, Graves’s first lover, and not one that he would think Sassoon likely to approve of. But whatever his motivation, Graves is abjectly apologetic:

…I’m so sorry for my stupidity.

Well; but he must apologize: he is also asking Sassoon to read his proofs. This awkwardness taken care of, updates on mutual friends and comrades follow, including a mention of the luckless Julian Dadd:

Poor Julian was ill since he was discharged, brainfever due to worry about Ginchy where he somehow thinks he didn’t do well enough, but he’s in a good place I hear…

In other words, a mental breakdown of some sort. This sort of news can’t really be avoided–Sassoon is still in touch with other members of the regiment–yet it is still difficult to wade through. And any news of Graves’s current activities can only remind Sassoon not only that Graves is still “doing his duty” while he is playing golf, but also that Graves gave up a similarly cushy posting to a rest home on the Isle of Wight in order to come and deal with Sassoon’s protest. So Graves cutting to the chase is perhaps not, for once, unwelcome:

I do my best to cheer up the listless atmosphere of Litherland with wry jokes and my usual grotesques…

Sassons, I’d like you to tell me honestly are these shellshock fellow-patients of yours getting on our nerves? I’d be very unhappy if I thought they were: you talk of golf with lunatics, but I hope to God it’s not as bad as that. Damn Rivers, why should he go and get ill like that and leave you?

Yes, the inimitable Rivers, overworked and ill, has gone on a lengthy leave–an important interlude not only, perhaps, in his actual life, but in the fictional life he is given in Pat Barker’s Regeneration: he gets to reconnect with his mentor, check up on illustrative old patients, and observe the sickening methods used by less humane doctors to “cure” their patients’ neurological and psychological symptoms.

We can all, perhaps, agree, on the silver lining of Sassoon’s situation.

No, not all the golf:

…But one thing good is that you’re writing again… Stick to it and show me something good before New Year. Try… to cut down the slang as much as possible..

Another paragraph of advice ensues, but, since I imagine that, after rolling skyward, Sassoon’s eyes would not alight on the page again until the next paragraph, I will skip thence:

Some unknown friend has sent me the Loom of Youth: what an amazing book! I’m going to find out if Alec’s poetry is as good as his prose: he must be a wonder boy: he is I believe old Gosse’s nephew…

Sassoon has, presumably, heard about this book from Owen–although it is also possible that Owen would be unwilling, this early in their friendship, to emphasize the ground-breaking subject matter. But that would only be a sort of false irony: Graves, despite his own schoolboy crush (and later enthusiasm for the scandal-courting properties of writing about adolescent homosexuality), is about to embark on an exclusively heterosexual odyssey. If we were to assign labels–an unsatisfactory business at best–he is straight while Waugh, Sassoon, and Owen are, at least at this point in their lives, gay. In any event, Loom of Youth has clearly undercut Mr. Britling as the book of the moment…

Graves’s letter ends in bathos:

Robert Nichols will write to you for my proofs when you’re done. I have been all the week with a travelling medical board, as military representative, and have watched the fat old doctors passing the twisted weedy old syphilitics up from C3 into A: my only duty an occasional signature.

Tired. Goodbye.

Best love,

Robert[1]

 

By coincidence, we now begin a short period covered by a travel diary kept by Eddie Marsh, who has been Sassoon’s friend and advisor since before the war (he has also been of great help to Graves and to Isaac Rosenberg) as well as the essential organizer of both Georgian Poetry and semi-clandestine gay literary London society. He is also the private secretary to Winston Churchill–or had been, until Churchill’s ousting in late 1916. But Winston is back, baby, and so is Eddie:

‘…all my glory extinct,’ I served for the better part of a year in the West African Department (of the Colonial Office). But at last ‘came the dawn.’ My telephone rang, and it was Winston, announcing that Lloyd George had offered him the Ministry of Munitions, and would I come along? I went along.

It was delightful to be with him again…

The diary, which Marsh will later print “as a period piece,” shows an experienced public servant enjoying the ministerial life once more–and seeing the war with his own eyes for the first time in several years.

Sept. 13, 1917.

Crossed from Dover to Calais in the ‘P.11,’ starting soon after 9.30 and taking an hour. It was a perfect day and the
smoothest possible passage. We passed minesweepers, troopships, and several naval craft. The young Lt. whom I
talked to told me that the ship had lately got two ‘probables’ for destruction of submarines…

Later in the day, near Wytschaete Ridge, which had been reported “quiet,” Churchill, Marsh, and their escorts come come under fire–or a nearby battery does–from German shells.

Columns of smoke rose from the ground, 60-100 yards from us, and bits of shell fell quite close—5 or 6 yards off–while all the time our own shells were whistling and shrieking over our heads.

I was rather surprised at not feeling the least frightened—the only thing was that I was a tiny bit self-conscious, and perhaps a little unnecessarily anxious to keep up the conversation for fear the others should think I was rattled! The
landscape was extraordinary. There was a sudden line of demarcation between the fertile wooded country we had been driving through, and a tract of land where there was nothing but the black naked trunks of trees, with all their branches broken off short. The ground was practically all shell-holes, filled with water, and their edges all grown over already with vegetation, mostly a vigorous plant with flowers composed of masses of pink buds, which I happen to know is called persicaria…

Winston lent me his excellent field-glasses, through which I could see the emplacement of the Boche lines, about 3000 yards off in the plain—and several towns, including the utter ruin of Ypres, where I could make out no trace of the Cloth Hall or of the Cathedral.

Later, after a detour to see one of the Messines craters, they arrive at their first destination: Haig’s headquarters.

G.H.Q, is an ugly modern chateau, in nice green grounds with a pond and a little river. Sir Douglas doesn’t ‘do himself’ so well as Lord French did, when we stayed with him at St. Omer. There is no champagne here, the house is very cold, and the rear doesn’t lock![2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. In Broken Images, 83-4.
  2. A Number of People, 250-4.

Either Siegfried Sassoon’s MC Goes, or Robert Graves Arrives: A Showdown for Sassoon’s Protest; the Royal Welch at the Horse Show; Olaf Stapledon on Blood and Ribbons

Siegfried Sassoon‘s lightly fictionalized (or not-really-novelized) memoirs are smoothly written. The narrative performs what the author seeks to present as his somewhat changeable and peripatetic youthful self: reading along, we seem to float through days and weeks without accumulating any detail on the sort of specific events that shape a life. But that, of course, is how memory sometimes works–until the remembering writer comes to a series of tense and unusual days.

Sassoon’s account of this week anticipates The Very Hungry Caterpillar in both its structure and its ironic narrative omnipotence: this is a silly young thing on an inevitable journey toward a resolution that he does not appear to expect, however obvious it appears to others.

Yesterday he described being summoned to a Medical Board, the first indication that the Army will use the excuse of shell shock–more irony, this–as a way to avoid confrontation.

On Tuesday my one-legged friend… handed me an official document which instructed me to proceed to Crewe next day for a Special Medical Board…

He tore it up–and he was still hungry! But today?

On Wednesday I tried to feel glad that I was cutting the Medical Board, and applied my mind to Palgrave’s Golden
Treasury of Songs and Lyrics. I was learning by heart as many poems as possible, my idea being that they would be a help to me in prison, where, I imagined, no books would be allowed…[1]

The problem with this little journey is that it would seem that Sassoon is off on his dates. In this account of Sherston’s progress all the factual details are correct but the dates–to go by the days of the week which he presents to us–are four days off. Today was a Wednesday, a century back, but it was also July 18th, the day Robert Graves arrived in Liverpool to more or less take charge of his friend. [2]

Graves’s account is, as usual, breezy and self-serving, but for once it seems to hew more closely to both the facts and the feeling of the matter than Sassoon’s–not least because the wording relies heavily on the letter Sassoon sent to him.

The general consulted not God but the War Office… and the War Office was persuaded not to press the matter as a disciplinary case…

This may have been due to the influence of Robbie Ross, or, as Graves claims, to his own appeal to Evan Morgan, a ministerial secretary he had recently met.

I next set myself somehow to get Siegfried in front of the medical board. I rejoined the battalion and met him at Liverpool. He looked very ill; he told me that he had just been down to the Formby links and thrown his Military Cross into the sea.

Not the cross itself, likely in a box in a drawer somewhere, but the ribbon worn on the uniform tunic. Sassoon’s account of this in the fictionalized memoir is excellent, although in his chronology it will not take place until Saturday the 21st:

[As he waited for news] my mind groped and worried around the same purgatorial limbo so incessantly that the whole business began to seem unreal and distorted…

So on Saturday afternoon I decided that I really must go and get some fresh air, and I took the electric train to Formby. How much longer would this ghastly show go on, I wondered, as the train pulled up at Clitherland Station. All I wanted now was that the thing should be taken out of my own control, as well as the Colonel’s. I didn’t care how they treated me as long as I wasn’t forced to argue about it any more…

I wanted something to smash and trample on, and in a paroxysm of exasperation I performed the time-honoured gesture of shaking my clenched fists at the sky. Feeling no better for that, I ripped the M.C. ribbon off my tunic and threw it into the mouth of the Mersey. Weighted with significance though this action was, it would have felt more conclusive had the ribbon been heavier. As it was, the poor little thing fell weakly onto the water and floated away as though aware of its own futility. One of my point-to-point cups would have served my purpose more satisfyingly, and they’d meant much the same to me as my Military Cross.

Surely not–or perhaps we must take the pluperfect carefully here. Once, George Sherston–who, we must remember, is essentially Sassoon shorn of his writing life–cared very much about sports, and a few of his victories in country horse races are loving described in Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man. That young rider became the soldier Sherston… but surely by now the pre-war memento has nothing of the same symbolism as the coveted Military Cross?

Watching a big boat which was steaming along the horizon, I realized that protesting against the prolongation of the War was about as much use as shouting at the people on board that ship.[3]

True, but slightly disingenuous. When Sassoon allows himself to be persuaded to give up his protest (we will read this, falling between two chronological stools, tomorrow) the emphasis is not on the effectiveness of the protest but rather on the level of personal drama it will entail. There was never much hope of effective protest, but there had been a lingering hope for symbolic martyrdom and great publicity. But if there will be no dramatic trial, no harsh punishment for dereliction of duty…

Graves describes their meeting:

We discussed the political situation; I took the line that everyone was mad except ourselves and one or two others, and that no good could come of offering common sense to the insane. Our only possible course would be to keep on going out until we got killed. I expected myself to go back soon, for the fourth time. Besides, what would the First and Second Battalions think of him?[4]

Well, Graves is pretty much safe, given the severity of his lung wound. But the rest of the appeal is spot on: this action will cut Sassoon off from the officers and men of the actual fighting battalions. He will make a gesture to men he once led by example–not gesture–and remain physically safe. And he will violate the code of gentlemanly “good form,” thus letting the side down.

Should these arguments be persuasive?

Eh, who are we to say?

 

Instead of tail-chasing analysis–never a strength, here–we’ll go for ironic juxtaposition. Yes… what would the Second Battalion, huddled in its trenches–and missing one of the few officers who could be counted upon to be a popular comrade, a considerate platoon leader, and a brave fighter–think of all this?

Well, they were distracted today–there were the horses to saddle, the goat to groom, the fifes to polish…

A Divisional Horse Show was the G.O.C.’s own stunt. He meant it to be the success that forethought and two weeks of painstaking preparation could make it, and he had his reward…

Imperial War Museum

 

This is one of those situations–rare, in my humble, carpal tunnel vision of internet sharing–where a picture is worth a battalion of words.

It wasn’t merely a horse show, for the Royal Welch… it was a fife and drum and goat show.

This was good for morale, perhaps, even though the 2nd RWF did not cover itself in glory in the officers-on-horses section of the competition…[5]

 

And to circle back, we’ll close today with Olaf Stapledon, a pacifist in harm’s way, but eligible for little honor.

We hear a lot about the grim reality of war. That’s all true enough as far as it goes, but if you go deeper it’s all intricate pretence and lies. The other day a very big person who happened to be visiting our village came in specially to see us privately and congratulated our decorated fellows and said (of course) we all deserved the croix, but he had only got a certain number to dispense; and he hoped to have another opportunity of giving us more later on. It was nice, because it was informal & he need not have come, so obviously he meant it all. But—ugh, what is a bit of red and green ribbon! Blood on French clothes is red on blue not red on green. The other night one of our fellows, lucky devil, got a bit of high explosive in his hand, such a tiny business, but by Jove he has got sick leave in England for it!! Now we are all praying for bits like that, but also the same bit in the eye would be less satisfactory! And poor old Harry Locke who got a bit through him in April is still languishing in French hospital. And a ridiculous little doll of a man who always dragged a toy dog about with him even in hot places (an officer in the army) got his leg blown off it seems just after I saw him last and behaved like a brick. Human nature is odd! Eh bien, nous verrons, mais je suis ennuyé. [Well, we’ll see, but I’m annoyed.][6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Complete Memoirs, 505.
  2. Then again, I'm not completely sure who to trust here, the citations go in circles, and seem to depend on a letter that Graves will write tomorrow. If that is misdated, and no one is citing Army records, I'm not sure it's clear that Sassoon is wrong about the dates. In any case, amidst the confusion, they seem to have omitted to observe the centennial of Jane Austen's death...
  3. Complete Memoirs, 508-9.
  4. Good-Bye to All That, 198.
  5. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 367.
  6. Talking Across the World, 237.

Siegfried Sassoon’s Statement, “To Any Dead Officer;” Henry Williamson is Blighty Bound; Herbert Read’s Theories of Courage

Before we get to a statement–and a poem, and a memoir’s context for the two–we have two brief updates.

 

For the past week Henry Williamson has bounced about the hospitals of northern France. He believes that he has gotten a “whiff” of phosgene gas from German gas shells–but he may also just be sick, or run down. In any event, he finds it pleasant to be out of the line and hopes to be able to parlay the sick time into reassignment. In this he may well be lucky, as in the name of efficiency sick and wounded officers can no longer count on returning to their unit. Most fear and deplore this change, but Williamson (and probably his C.O. as well) would welcome it.

Dear Mother,

Please get those protectors for armpits in my new tunic at once–big ones under the lining–you probably know by this time that I am for England on the first boat which leaves any time… Mother, I thank God I am out of that inferno…

This hospital is a bon place–I live on champagne and fried plaice & chicken now!!

Love Willie.[1]

Williamson, whose intestinal health has long been an issue, can look forward to a lengthy recovery in Blighty…

 

Herbert Read is in rather a more bloody-minded state, and with sharper tales to tell. Or not: restraint in what he writes to Evelyn Roff is a point of pride–Read is a very purposeful sort, and he thinks twice about describing the war without a theoretical grasp of how such war tales might fit in with his theories of Modern literature. (He seems less concerned that a policy of mentioning, but not describing, certain experiences might not help their budding relationship flourish.)

Nevertheless, he has something to say, and it is the confirming converse of Williamson’s lonely experience: what makes it all worthwhile are the men. And what defines a man’s worth is the way in which he carries himself through danger.

15.vi.17

My present location is not too bad. We are now in the third week of our period in the line… and rather terrible days they were. But you can have no desire for me to ‘paint the horrors.’ I could do so but let the one word ‘fetid’ express the very essence of our experiences. It would be a nightmare to any individual, but we create among ourselves a wonderful comradeship which I think would overcome any horror or hardship. It is this comradeship which alone makes the Army tolerable to me. To create a bond between yourself and a body of men and a bond that will hold at the critical moment, that is work worthy of any man and when done an achievement to be proud of.

Incidentally my ‘world-view’ changes some of its horizons. I begin to appreciate, to an undreamt of extent, the ‘simple soul’. He is the only man you can put your money on in a tight corner. Bombast and swank carry a man nowhere our here. In England they are everything. Nor is the intellect not a few of us used to be so proud of of much avail. It’s a pallid thing in the presence of a stout heart. Which reminds me of one psychological ‘case’ which interests me out here: to what extent does a decent philosophy of life help you in facing death? In other words: Is fear a mental or a physical phenomenon? There are cases of physical fear–‘nerves,’ ‘shell-shock,’ etc. There are also certainly cases of physical courage… and there are, I think, men who funk because they haven’t the strength of will or decency of thought to do otherwise.

But I would like to think there was still another class (and I one of them) whose capacity for not caring a damn arose not merely from a physical incapacity for feeling fear, but rather from a mental outlook on life and death sanely balanced and fearlessly followed. But perhaps I idealize…[2]

Perhaps he does. Read has a good deal of trench experience by now, but he has not suffered the same sort of trench trauma–or string of losses of friends both fond and beloved–that has overburdened “Mad Jack” Sassoon. But it is an interesting break down of different types of courage–and an intelligent one. Cursed are dullards, blessed are the philosophers, strong of will–so it’s also a flattering one. But it asks no larger questions…

 

Today’s main event is Siegfried Sassoon‘s completion of a draft of his statement against the war.

It thus happened that, about midnight on the day my portrait was finished, I sat alone in the club library with a fair copy of the ‘statement’ before me on the writing-table. The words were now solidified and unalterable. My brain was unable to scrutinize their meaning any more. They had become merely a sequence of declamatory sentences designed to let me in for what appeared to be a moral equivalent of ‘going over the top’; and, at the moment, the Hindenburg Line seemed preferable in retrospect. For the first time, I allowed myself to reflect upon the consequences of my action and to question my strength to endure them. Possibly what I disliked most was the prospect of being misunderstood and disapproved of by my fellow officers. Some of them would regard my behaviour as a disgrace to the Regiment. Others would assume that I had gone a bit crazy. How many of them, I wondered, would give me credit for having done it for the sake of the troops who were at the Front? I had never heard any of them use the word pacifist except in a contemptuous and intolerant way, and in my dispirited mood I felt that my protest would have a pretty poor reception among them. Going to a window, I looked out at the searchlights probing the dark sky. Down below, the drone of London rumbled on. The streets were full of soldiers getting what enjoyment they could out of their leave. And there, on that sheet of paper under the green-shaded lamp, were the words I had just transcribed.

‘I believe that this war, upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest.’

This is the soon-to-be-famous opening of the published statement–I’ll include the rest when the newspapers get it. But Sassoon, using the privileges of the memoir writer, embeds the public breakthrough in a web of private doubt. Clean breaks and simple strong feelings are never to be his way…  Who is he doing this for, again?

To the soldiers it didn’t matter, one way or the other. They all wanted it to stop, but most of them would say that the Boches had got to be beaten somehow, and the best thing to hope for was ‘getting back to Blighty with a cushy wound’. Then I remembered that night, early in 1914, when I had been up in this room experiencing an emotional crisis in which I had felt that my life was being wasted on sport and minor poetry, and had imagined myself devoting my future to humanitarian services and nobly prophetic writings. On that occasion I had written some well-intentioned but too didactic lines, of which a fragment now recurred to me.

Destiny calls me home at last
To strive for pity’s sake;
To watch with the lonely and outcast,
And to endure their ache . . . .

Much had happened since then. Realities beyond my radius had been brought under my observation by a European War, which had led me to this point of time and that sheet of paper on the table. Was this the fulfilment of that feeble and unforeseeing stanza? . . . And somehow the workings of my mind brought me a comprehensive memory of war experience in its intense and essential humanity. It seemed that my companions of the Somme and Arras battles were around me; helmeted faces returned and receded in vision; joking voices were overheard in fragments of dug-out and billet talk. These were the dead, to whom life had been desirable, and whose sacrifice must be justified, unless the War were to go down in history as yet another Moloch of murdered youth…

I went back to the statement on the table with fortified conviction that I was doing right. Perhaps the dead were backing me up, I thought; for I was a believer in the power of spiritual presences. . . .

Well, how are things in Heaven? I wish you’d say,
Because I’d like to know that you’re all right.
Tell me, have you found everlasting day
Or been sucked in by everlasting night?

The words came into my head quite naturally. And by the time I went to bed I had written a slangy, telephonic poem of forty lines. I called it To Any Dead Officer, but it was addressed to one whom I had known during both my periods of service in France. Poignant though the subject was, I wrote it with a sense of mastery and detachment, and when it was finished I felt that it anyhow testified to the sincerity of my protest.

The dead officer is Orme/”Ormand” killed so recently in a pointless attack on the Hindenburg Line, his death described to Sassoon by Joe Cottrell. The poem, which Sassoon of the memoir would clearly prefer that we use to mark this day’s work, a century back, rather than the didactic “statement,” continues as follows:

For when I shut my eyes your face shows plain;
  I hear you make some cheery old remark—
I can rebuild you in my brain,
  Though you’ve gone out patrolling in the dark.
You hated tours of trenches; you were proud
  Of nothing more than having good years to spend;
Longed to get home and join the careless crowd
  Of chaps who work in peace with Time for friend.
That’s all washed out now. You’re beyond the wire:
  No earthly chance can send you crawling back;
You’ve finished with machine-gun fire—
  Knocked over in a hopeless dud-attack.
Somehow I always thought you’d get done in,
  Because you were so desperate keen to live:
You were all out to try and save your skin,
  Well knowing how much the world had got to give.
You joked at shells and talked the usual “shop,”
  Stuck to your dirty job and did it fine:
With “Jesus Christ! when will it stop?
  Three years … It’s hell unless we break their line.”
So when they told me you’d been left for dead
  I wouldn’t believe them, feeling it must be true.
Next week the bloody Roll of Honour said
   “Wounded and missing”—(That’s the thing to do
When lads are left in shell-holes dying slow,
  With nothing but blank sky and wounds that ache,
Moaning for water till they know
  It’s night, and then it’s not worth while to wake!)
Good-bye, old lad! Remember me to God,
  And tell Him that our politicians swear
They won’t give in till Prussian Rule’s been trod
  Under the Heel of England … Are you there? …
Yes … and the war won’t end for at least two years;
But we’ve got stacks of men … I’m blind with tears,
  Staring into the dark. Cheero!
I wish they’d killed you in a decent show.[3]

References and Footnotes

  1. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 163.
  2. The Contrary Experience, 97-8.
  3. Siegfried's Journey, 52-4; see also Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 373.

Frank Richards is an Officer for a Day; Wilfred Owen is Healed in Body

The Royal Welch Fusiliers pride themselves on being a fine old regiment, full of their full two centuries of service. And the two Regular battalions–the 1st and 2nd–insist not only on maintaining a tradition of trench-fighting aggression, but on keeping up at least some of the old formalities and disciplines of the prewar army. But time waits for no battalion–or, perhaps, intramural rivalries are just the sort of happy old traditions too crucial to stand on old ceremony.

In any event, the two Regular Battalions, though in different divisions, found themselves close by in reserve today, a century back. It was a rare opportunity for fraternizing, and, as Doctor Dunn’s chronicle attests, all’s fair in war and tugs of war:

The 1st Battalion… invited us to their sports. Every Regular Soldier, and all officers who could be spared, went over. With “Ginger” Owens, our Mess Sergeant, and “Big Dick,” Richards–a signaller, two sterling fellows–as makeweight, we won an inter-Battalion tug-of-war for officers…[1]

That would be our own Frank Richards. His matter-of-fact description of the day is interesting in its understatement and framing:

a tug-of-war was arranged… twelve aside. Only ten of our officers were present, so Owens and I made up the number. After a long pull we were the victors. We spent a very pleasant evening, the First Battalion having a wet canteen…

Is the tug-of-war not such a big deal to him, or is this pride? He may be a humble signaller, averse to rising in the ranks despite many opportunities to do so, but he’s a strong and trusty man, and the officers chose him… Or is it ironic understatement, along the lines of “in the war I’m just a humble soldier, but for the tug of war I’m apparently a temporary gentleman?”

Some clue is offered by Richards’s tale of the aftermath of the field day. After that “wet” evening at the canteen, he, Owens, and another old soldier pal called Lane attempted the long walk back from the 1st Battalion’s camp to their own. They departed already “three sheets to the wind” and with a bottle of whiskey yet in hand. After drinking the bottle, they decided that a short nap would be in order, and passed out some miles short of their own battalion’s billets.

I was woke up some time during the night by what I thought was heavy rain falling. I was still half drunk and muddled and for a moment did not know where I was… Lane in his half-drunken condition had got up and had been mistaking the both of us for a shell hole. But Lane had unwittingly done us a good turn, saving us from a court-martial for desertion. We arrived back just in time to move off with the Battalion who were marching towards the line to make an attack the following morning…[2]

Colorful and amusing. But, as the last line makes so clear, there is another sort of pressure on this memory: retrospection forcing foreshadowing. Richards’s memory is off, but only by a day–the 2nd Royal Welch are slated to attack on the 27th.

Our only other piece of business, today, is a brief note from Wilfred Owen.

24 May 1917

41st Stationary Hospital

My own dearest Mother,

I feel normal today. Am sitting on the bed in the one Kimono left in this Rag Time Hospital. Have just had your Sat. evening (May 19) Letter, full of gracious truths: the most pleasing being the tales of your gardening. I am sure it will do you good, and I may indeed get Leave before the Summer falls, now that it is likely I am out of the ‘Area’ of the 2nd Battalion…

I am astonished at my Balance at Cox’s, but not so astonished as you.knowing it is deceptive. There have been, a number of Mess Bills, & other cheques drawn lately which are not yet entered at the Bank Moreover my Military Wardrobe will want renewing if there is another winter campaign.

On the other hand I confess—I mean I profess with pride—that I have not run into any kind of danger of losing moneys. My first Mess Bill for Jan. was £6: which I consider disgraceful for the kind of stuff we got…

It is evidently Trench fever I had, but I feel fine today…

Your own W.E.O.[3]

So Owen is cured of his fever; but this does not change the awkward fact that he is now in a Stationary Hospital which has been established to specialize in treating cases of “shell shock…” His frustrations mount, but there is no clear indication yet how the Army intends to recognize or treat his “neurasthenia…”

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Dunn, The War the infantry Knew, 347.
  2. Old Soldiers Never Die, 235.
  3. Collected Letters, 463-4.

Thomas Hardy’s Call to National Service; Edward Thomas Gives Two Views of Bombardments, and an Otherworldly Ruin; St. David’s Day Hallowed by the Royal Welch Fusiliers, but not Poor David Jones

Thomas Hardy is no jingoist. In fact, his refusal to be enthusiastic about the bloody business of the war and his loathing of the very idea that a political disaster should lead one group of people to hate another notably similar group of people set him apart from the majority of Britain’s older writers.

In his emotional or poetic stance he is something very close to a dissident, the honorary colonel of the swelling regiment of the poets of protest and disillusionment. And yet he is still a patriot, still willing to entertain the (reasonable!) expectation that a great effort must be made to finish the terrible task that England began. And that criticism of the government’s conduct, of the principles by which the war is being raised is loyal, right, patriotic, and proper.

This month, a century back, Hardy put out this call, notable as much for its grim tone as for its familiar sentiments.

A Call to National Service

Up and be doing, all who have a hand
To lift, a back to bend. It must not be
In times like these that vaguely linger we
To air our vaunts and hopes; and leave our land

Untended as a wild of weeds and sand.
–Say, then, “I come!” and go, O women and men
Of palace, ploughshare, easel, counter, pen;
That scareless, scathless, England still may stand.

Would years but let me stir as once I stirred
At many a dawn to take the forward track,
And with a stride plunged on to enterprize,

I now would speed like yester wind that whirred
Through yielding pines; and serve with never a slack,
So loud for promptness all around outcries!

 

In Arras, Edward Thomas sat down to another lengthy letter, today, a century back, to his wife Helen. This is one of those cases in which what will be a brief note in his diary is fleshed out in the letter into a vivid vignette, a picture that constitutes writerly exercise as much as relationship maintenance. Thomas is in no hurry, as the younger men tossed into the trenches so often are, to emphasize the depth and breadth of the experiential gulf–he writes to share, and, simply, to write–loved ones are easier to face across a sheet of paper than his exacting muse.

And I must wonder, looking ahead into the letter: is Thomas precise or indelicate in his aviation simile?

1 March 1917 Arras [Group H.Q.]

Dearest

This afternoon I had nothing in particular to do and Berringtond the Signals Officer of the Group, asked me to go along with him just to see how his telephone wires were being laid alongside the marsh at the edge of the city to our batteries (including 244). So I got the colonel to give me a little job to do on the way and we went out. It was sunny and warm with a fresh wind. I did what I had to do and while I was doing it Herrington sat down on the bank and smoked, which made him more or less forget what he had meant to do. Then we strolled on till a German plane came over and the alarm was blown and we sat down and smoked while the Anti-Aircraft sent scores of  shells singing past us and spotted the plane with white puffs. The German had been going quite low over the city, taking photographs no doubt, but he rose up till he was as small as a lark and wasn’t touched…

Thomas next describes desultory German shelling near their position and the first rounds fired in response by his own battery. But the more striking sight is across no man’s land:

…the day was very clear and we could see the German lines and the ghastly village of ruined houses and dead trees that was my first sight of the enemy country a fortnight ago. At first I couldn’t believe it, it looked so near. Yet the line of dead tall straight trees against the sky was quite unmistakeable…

Thomas describes the rest of the ramble that eventually took him back to Group HQ–but more on that below.

I have often made reference to the gaps and rough patches in Edward and Helen Thomas’s marriage. But under the strain–and separation–of war, the marriage seems to be, if we might take an unromantic and practical point of view, doing its job. He is lonely, and he reaches out to his wife, taking some comfort from the one-sided conversation…

Now it is 5.50 p.m. Everybody is out except the Colonel who has another Colonel with him in the office, so I am alone in the dusk, and now this moment they have closed the shutters so that it seems night. It seems I am not escaping at once as the Colonel is having some difficulty in getting hold of the man who was to succeed me.

I have had a lot of Mother’s cake and a lot of tea and my ears are burning. I should like to talk to someone as I can’t write.[1]

The letter continues tomorrow… and yet Thomas’s writing for the day isn’t done. He also wrote a very different sort of letter to Eleanor Farjeon. Thomas, proud of his Welsh descent, acknowledges the date, the festival of the patron saint of Wales.

March 1    St David’s Day

My dear Eleanor, The ginger came. All of 244 had a good dip into it and there was still some left in the tin. It was very good and it was still more good of you to send it. Thank you. Next day Helen wrote to say you really were coming to High Beech at last. I am expecting to hear now that you did.

Well, I expect to return to 244 in a day or two. They know I don’t want to stay here and a successor is being interviewed today, so that I shall soon cease to be a glorified lacky or humble adjutant to an old Indian colonel perplexed in the extreme. It has been a useful experience. I have got used to the telephone and I have seen how things are done and not done at Headquarters.

With Farjeon, Thomas takes another tack on the experience of being shelled. He has weathered it, yes–but his imagination is not insensitive to the appalling mystery of bombardment: with weapons so massive, even the smallest adjustment would spell destruction.

Incidentally too I have been in the midst of quite a noisy artillery give and take. You can’t imagine the noise this makes in a city. I don’t pretend I liked it. Sometimes I found myself fancying that if only the enemy pointed the gun like this ——– instead of like this ______ he would land a shell on the dinner table and send us to a quieter place. However he didn’t. 244 is just going into action with its own guns and I wish I were there. Soon I believe I shall be…

I cut down Thomas’s description of the sight across no man’s land in his letter to Helen because it is more vivid in this one–nor is it the last such description.

With Farjeon, Thomas is a little more willing to show himself horrified, to allude to the dark places in his imagination that cannot but be stimulated by the new sights of war. He has been here for several weeks, but the sight of empty towns and the ruins of recently thriving habitations still shock him. As they should… but he is not the sort of writer who uses the phrase “another world” lightly.

We are wondering now if the enemy is going to retire from this front. It will be strange walking about in the ghastly village which was the first I saw of the enemy’s ground, a silent still village of ruined houses and closegrown tall trees stark and dark lining a road above the trenches. It was worse than any deserted brickworks or mine. It looked in another world from ours, even from the scarred world in which I stood. In a curious way its very name now always calls up the thing I saw and the way I felt as I saw it.

The name resembles a name in Malory, especially in its English pronunciation and this also gives a certain tone to the effect it had. I see it lining the brow of a gradual hill halfway up which is the English line with the German above it. The houses and trees dense and then to right and left only trees growing thinner till at last the ridge sweeping away is bare for some miles. But this is E. T.’s vein. Goodbye. Keep well and write soon.

Yours ever
Edward Thomas[2]

This must be the village of Beaurains, just south and east of Arras on the German lines, and remembering Sir Gareth “Beaumains” form Malory.

Oh, that Edward Thomas would write a dark twisted fantasy of the middle ages behind the ruined Arras of the 20th century…

 

In honor of Dewi Sant, we close with our favorite Welsh unit and then our most determinedly Cymrophile London Welshman. First, the celebration of the Royal Welch Fusiliers–the third of the war (follow the links for 1915 and 1916).

March 1st, St. David’s Day. A genial, almost windless day ending in a crisp, starlit night. With times of rawness the weather was generally fine during this week. Fritz is said to have withdrawn from Gommecourt. When last we were in the line he blew a mine in the road that crossed No Man’s Land on our left front. As he is expected to withdraw on this front any day now, we, being on an hour’s notice, have had little to do since coming here.

It was nearing noon before there was any assurance that the officers St. David’s Day Dinner could be held. Provisional plans had been made, and leeks had been bought for the Battalion. Yates, Mann, Mess-servants, Pioneers and defaulters, all pulled together. A very scratch kitchen was fitted up in a broken and dismantled shrine, to the scandal of some French details; a hut built on to it, and used as a chapel during the French occupation, was repaired and enlarged. Timber had been got from the Engineers. Tables and benches were run up by the Pioneer Sergeant, “Daisy” Horton.

The merit of a plain menu was Parry’s excellent cooking: soup, lobster mayonnaise, stew, steam-pudding–the sauce was the thing, Scotch woodcock, dessert; whisky, port, champagne cup; coffee. Roger Poore, transferred from the Hants Yeomanry and recently posted as Second-in-Command, presided; the C.O. was on leave.

We had a jolly night. None of the traditional ritual was wanting, and there were many to eat the leek. A German howitzer shell-case, which had been used by the French as a gas-gong, served as loving-cup. It was to have been sent home after being inscribed and decorated by Sergeant-Shoemaker Johnson, a remarkably good artist in metal, but it was lost before Poore could make up his mind about the wording.[3]

 

And finally, an inauspicious St. David’s Day for his London Welsh namesake, Jones-the-Artist. David Jones had been sent to work with a unit of the engineers in the hopes that his draughtsmanship might be put to military use. Alas,

As a flash-spotter Jones was unsuccessful. Sometimes flash followed flash so quickly that he had to mark the second while reporting the first and he was unable to do two things at once. The mill swayed in the wind. In the dark he sometimes had difficulty finding the speaking end of the telephone. When reaching for the phone, he sometimes jogged the theodolite, moving its dial. Having lost the bearing, he made up the figures–not, he realised, a useful thing to do. By the end of February, he was discharged from the Survey Company on the trumped-up charge of not having had his hair cut. ‘My association with the Engineers’, he later remembered, ‘was shameful and brief.’’

On the morning of 1 March 1917 he trudged several miles under full pack to a railhead to catch a train back to his battalion north of Ypres. Despite his protests, a transport officer insisted on putting him on a train going south-west. That afternoon he arrived at a camp on a hill above Rouen, where he was detained for nearly a month, awaiting confirmation from his battalion…[4]

He could have run across Siegfried Sassoon there, and talked poetry! Or not, for Jones was a shy enlisted autodidact in a Kitchener battalion, and even if the rigidities of military hierarchy had not separated them, Jones’s diffidence and Sassoon’s snobbery would have done the job… Jones, alone, will head into the same sort of limbo that Sassoon has been enduring but in an even worse place: he will soon go to the “Bull Ring” at Étaples, to be shouted at by the very worst sort of over-enthusiastic drill sergeants…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Letters to Helen, 82-83.
  2. Farjeon, Edward Thomas..., 252-3.
  3. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 300-1.
  4. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 146-7.

Robert Graves Saves the Day… or the Day, at Least, Has Been Saved; Edward Thomas and Siegfried Sassoon Are for the Birds; Richard Aldington Reads Frederic Manning; Edmund Blunden Blushes to His Boots; a Strange New Job for Charles Moncrieff

A six-writer-day today, but never fear: they’re mostly writing pithily.

First, it would seem that today, a century back, was the day that the raid of the 2/RWF was officially postponed. Dr. Dunn’s battalion chronicle confirms that the battalion has long resisted the bad plan, the likely waste of men, and the impossibility of digging in in ground that is awash in mud on the surface yet still frozen beneath. What the chronicle neglects to mention is that Robert Graves was the temporary CO during the last conference on the raid–in fact, Captain Graves is not mentioned at all, and, therefore, does not feature as the hero of the hour.

Instead, we get circumstantial confirmation today of the next milestone in Graves’s career. In Good-Bye to All That Graves notes a long night’s work, soon after his appearance at the raid conference, which ended in exhaustion and a diagnosis–from the very same writing Dr. Dunn who did not dwell upon his temporary command–of bronchitis. On the way out to the hospital, Graves sees a dead man–a suicide: “the miserable weather and fear of the impending attack were responsible for his death.”[1] Dunn confirms that on the 22nd the 2/RWF came out of the line and “one man had committed suicide” while over 130 had to be hospitalized for illnesses related to the weather.

So, while he doesn’t have the date to give in his memoir, it was therefore today, a century back, when Graves, relieved of his very temporary command, was one of the men sent down the line sick. It will be a long journey away for Graves, heading first for No. 8 hospital, Rouen, but not ending there…

And there is one more brutal note: one of the battalions of the relieving brigade inherited the poorly planned, postponed raid. When they launched it, “all went well until the raiders rose to their feet to make the assault, then they were raked by machine-guns and got no further.”[2]

No, no, one more note, before we leave the Royal Welch: today, a century back, the 2/RWF welcomed–perhaps not officially in exchange for Captain Graves, “a fine white goat from the Wynnstay Hills,” a gift from the reserve battalion back in Britain… Battalion parades have been sadly lacking in ceremony for quite some time, and will now be better fitted to honor Regimental Tradition…

 

I’ve been missing bashful Edmund Blunden, and there’s an anecdote that can be matched with today (via the Battalion Diary) which shows him at his bashfullest…

A thaw came on, and dirty rainstorms swept the bleak village ends. I felt how lucky I was to have received almost at that moment a pair of new and ponderous Wellingtons, though my size in boots was different; and in these I worked with Worley on a new plan for putting up barbed wire in a hurry, which we had ourselves pencilled out. The Divisional General rode by one morning as we were beginning, with our squad of learners, and when he returned we had put up quite a maze of rusty inconvenience. The good old Duke — no, the General — called me all trepidant to him, smiled, asked my age and service, liked the wire, and passed into the village. At lunch Harrison also smiled upon me. “Rabbit, I hear you were wiring this morning. . . . The General said you surprised him. He asked me, ‘Who was that subaltern in the extraordinary boots, Harrison? Well, he got up that wire very quick. We went down the street, and there wasn’t a yard of it: we came back and there was a real belt.’ — You’ve found another friend.” He began to laugh very heartily as he added: “Those boots, Rabbit!” This painful memory must be exorcised by being noted here. I presented my batman shortly afterward with a pair of new jack-boots.[3]

 

Edward Thomas and Siegfried Sassoon are separated by eight years of age that, due to their different family circumstances, seem like twenty-five; one is–or could be, were it not for the war–a carefree youth, while the other is a long-burdened family man. They are very different in outlook, temperament, and artistic commitment… despite a few friends and acquaintances in common it’s hard to imagine them getting along very well at all.

But they are both poets of a traditional bent, both have always spent a great deal of time outdoors, and both are in France and yet away from their units and stuck in big impersonal situations (Thomas on temporary assignment as an orderly officer with a larger unit, Sassoon quarantined in Rouen’s huge base camp with measles). Both are pining for home–or action–and spring. And so their diaries, today, make for an uncomfortably close antiphony.

Sassoon: “My fifth night in this squalid little ‘compound’… Four of my fellow patients play cards all day; their talk is all the dullest obscenity.”

Thomas: “Cold and wet… Office work and maps. Court of Inquiry on gassing of 4 men. Am I to stay on here and do nothing but have cold feet…?”

So far, so similar. Sassoon is more histrionic, more misanthropic (for Thomas, despair is too serious a thing to leave at the mercy merely of uncongenial company) and keyed up to protest, while Thomas has yet to experience combat or intense danger, and does not associate his unit with an ideal of world-defying fellowship.

So Sassoon complains a bit more–and has more time on his hands to complain–and the rest of his diary entry for today rails against the stupidity (now a favorite word of Sassoon’s) of the war, the reduction of the soldier from “a noble figure” to “a writhing insect,” and the pointlessness of religion. Which eventually becomes a bit much even for Sassoon, and so he acknowledges that he is frustrated and angry, and writes that “such things come from a distempered brain: an infantry officer only sees the stupidest side of the War:”

Distempered indeed:

Yet I should loathe the very idea of returning to England without having been scarred and tortured once more. I suppose all this ‘emotional experierice’ (futile phrase) is of value. But it leads nowhere now (but to madness).

It’s very bad: Sassoon also quotes Conrad twice. And ironic, of course, that the 2/RWF, the unit to which he will be assigned once his measles are gone, was almost in action today–an action in which they would have been more like insects than heroes.

Thomas, in Arras, is pithier: “What is to be done?”

The complaints are only roughly parallel, but the two poets’ searchings for solace in today’s diary entries are very similar–they look to the birds. Thomas:

No thrushes, yet, but a chaffinch says “Chink” in the chestnut in our garden…[4]

And Sassoon:

There are miles of pine-woods on one side of the camp; I went a walk among the quiet sterns yesterday… The silence, and the clean air did me good… I can see God among the pine trees where birds are flitting and chirping.[5]

But for Sassoon–an infantry officer, as he reminds us–the straight line from birds to spring does not describe an uplifting course: spring means the Spring Offensive. Nevertheless, these poets are for the birds, and tomorrow they will remain closely attuned.

 

Richard Aldington wrote again to F.S. Flint today, and once again we find that while infantrymen suffer the casual cruelty of shelling, they are better positioned than most to administer the casual critical cruelty of criticism: a man who carries all his belongings makes serious choices when he chooses to read, or to withhold the space for reading. Aldington is yet to see the front line, and so he presumably has at least some time to read, and though he must carry his pack, he isn’t stripping it down to the barest trench-essentials…

The good news is that he has read a fellow Imagist, and a fellow Writer That We Read… the bad news for this letter’s recipient is that it’s not his best pal Franky Flint.

My dear Franky,

If I wished to torment you I could invent all sorts of terrifying yarns about the fate of your m.s. You are too sensitive about it. And in any case, know that I respect always poems & H.D.’s letters. Your manuscript is in my pack & will remain there until it is crushed by many route marches, when I will solemnly devote it to Vulcan…

Ah but Aldington is only twitting Flint, here. He has just written that he read and liked the poems; this letter, evidently, is gentle mockery for Flint’s having inquired too soon, showing anxiety before the appreciative return-letter could possibly reach him.

You fill me with nostalgia when you speak of your evenings with Yeats, discussing Claudel & Peguy & Gide. Why man alive, I could talk with battalions & battalions of men & not find one who had ever heard of Claudel or even of Yeats…

Have you seen Manning’s poems? You don’t mention them, so I imagine you haven’t. Some of them are really fine, some quite good, & a residue rotten; but there is enough good stuff in the book to make it quite worth while. You must get a copy when it comes out…[6]

Yes; Frederic Manning’s biography (in both senses) is such that I have more or less missed the writing and publication of his poems. Aldington mentioned the book in that recent letter (and he surely does rate the poetry above Flint’s) but it is striking that Manning, who moved in the literary world before the war but has had a checkered career in the army, somehow managed to get Eidola (1917) published early this year, when he spent most of the autumn on the Somme. But then again Ivor Gurney is attempting the same feat…

 

Finally, today, a brief update from Charles Scott Moncrieff:

22nd February, 1917

. . . A new and strange job. I relieved Campbell Johnson last night in the Command of a Prisoners of War Company and am in a very comfortable little hut with tables and chairs, china plates, a lamp, etc. Near my hut is a large cage containing 500 Germans—who do the most amazing amount of work in various ways, and seem clean and good and docile.[7]

A strange job indeed, but the comfort will matter: whether commanding the prisoners or returning to hospital[8] when his illness flares up, Moncrieff will have a great deal of time to himself. While our poets in the trenches struggle to commit anything to writing, he will be able to further the work he did during his leave in establishing himself as a critic and essayist.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Good-Bye to All That, 242-3.
  2. The War the Infantry Knew, 299-300.
  3. Undertones of War, 146.
  4. War Diaries, (Childhood), 163.
  5. Diaries, 133-4.
  6. Imagist Dialogues, 190-1.
  7. Diaries, 125.
  8. Scott Moncrieff's poor health, although he bears it stoically in his letters, might be looked upon as essential preparation for the major work he will one day take up...

The Prime Minister Grieves; Isaac Rosenberg and Edward Thomas Get On With Their Writing; Richard Aldington Goes for a Noncom; Bimbo Tennant’s Heart of Triple Bronze

A brief flurry of four letters, today, and several impending movements–some routine, others ominous.

First, the poets.

Isaac Rosenberg has been on the Somme front for much of the year. His battalion has not been in any of the attacks, but has seen a good deal of the war of attrition. In and out of trenches, working in salvage, Rosenberg has, by now, as great a claim to be a “poet of the trenches” as anyone. He has written much, but he has written well. And the tenuous connection to mainstream (i.e. Anglican, and wealthy or well-connected) poetry that Eddie Marsh has provided him is beginning to take hold. Gordon Bottomley has written to Rosenberg several times, now, with praise and advice, and reciprocal gifts are promised. In a letter postmarked today, a century back, Rosenberg thanks Bottomley and allows himself the luxury of dreaming for the future.

22311 A Coy 3 Platoon
11th KORL BEF

Dear Mr Bottomley

I have not had the chance till now of thanking you for your beautiful thought of me in your letter & book. It has been wet and mucky in the trenches for some time & the cold weather helping, we are teased by the elements as well as by the German fireworks, I don’t think Ive been dry yet these last few days… It gave me fine pleasure that you liked my drawing. I have not yet written home about that Adam & Eve drawing as I don’t remember where it is but I want you to have it when I get back if I am lucky…

I am most eager to read your early book but it would be far from safe to send it here, beside the little time there is for reading.

Yours Sincerely,

Isaac Rosenberg[1]

 

Back in London, Gordon Bottomley’s old friend Edward Thomas wrote once again to Eleanor Farjeon.[2] As artillery training and a commission approach, his poetic pen is once more drying up. But he did write several poems recently which we, dragged once more into death on the Somme, did not read here. Today he sends them–possibly “That Girl’s Clear Eyes” and “What Will They Do” (a poem we will return to)–to Farjeon, whom he recognizes as his best first reader. She’s the person he would prefer to send his draft verses to–rather, that is, than the powerful and distant Frost. It doesn’t hurt that she types them for him…

Wednesday

My dear Eleanor, I don’t know yet whether I am going. The exam was easy but I expect others found it so too. Of course if I don’t go to Trowbridge I shall see you before long. In case I don’t could you send me a copy of those last verses—the Blenheim Oranges—of mine? I can’t find one or the original. You will see I have written some more too—if you can see the faint type. Perhaps one of them is better than the others…

Yours ever
Edward Thomas[3]

 

And one more fairly dull London literary note: Richard Aldington, high-minded modernist and alternately strutting soldier and lamenting conscript, has been selected for training as a non-commissioned officer. This meant six days’ leave, and he and his wife, the poet H.D.–who had moved away to be near him in camp and was miserable there–“went straight to London to resume something resembling their former literary life.”

Aldington, H.D., F.S. Flint and several friends “dined together in Soho. Flint wrote to [Amy] Lowell that it was a ‘comprehensive gathering of the clan . . . the absent ones being yourself on the bay where the tea was spoiled and Lawrence on some little bay in Cornwall.’”[4] It’s worth noting that Aldington had not wanted to fight, waited nearly two years to be drafted, and then turned proud army man, writing sneeringly of people like Flint who were too physically infirm to be desirable to the draft boards. Meanwhile Flint seems to be casting aspersions on D.H. Lawrence, who has chosen a sort of internal exile on his “little bay,” in the hopes of weathering the storms of social backlash meted out to confirmed pacifists. Which is a difficult and uncompromised position…

 

Others, of course, who had no desire to go to war had promptly gone nonetheless. It seemed to many men to be, even in August 1914, an inevitable duty–which is to say that serving in the armed forces was both necessary and socially unavoidable, and therefore there was nothing to do but make the best of it.

Which is what Raymond Asquith did, preserving himself as a loving husband and father and a sharp-penned society wit, while also becoming a capable and widely-admired Guards officer. And he survived more than two years of war…

Today, a century back, a first letter from his father, the beleaguered prime minister, H.H. Asquith, reacting to his son’s death.

I can honestly say that in my own life he was the thing of which I was truly proud, and in him and his future I had invested all my stock of hope. That is all gone, and for the moment I feel bankrupt…

I drove from here yesterday to Mells, nearly 80 miles, to see Katherine who wanted me… I have never seen anyone so stunned and shattered: all she wants is to die. Only yesterday morning she had received a letter from him, written last Thursday:[5] she showed it to me–a delightful little love letter.[6]

Two things, at least, are needless to say: that a letter from beyond the grave, as it were, seems like a most sharp and perfect manifestation of the grim ironies of proximity; and that such a letter could hardly increase the real suffering of a bereaved wife. There’s little to be felt from a knife twisted in a such a gaping wound–but it hurts.

 

Asquith’s younger friend and fellow guardsman Bim Tennant (his polite acquaintance, really–the two were related by marriage and moved in the same circles, but they were not close, separated as they were by more than eighteen years and almost diametrically opposite temperaments) has avoided grieving for the many losses of September fifteenth. He has other matters to attend to: it will be his turn to go forward on the attack, soon.

20th September, 1916

“… To-night we go up to the last trenches we were in, and to-morrow we go over the top. Our Brigade has suffered less than either of the other two Brigades in Friday’s biff, so we shall be in the forefront of the battle. I am full of hope and trust, and pray that I may be worthy of my fighting ancestors. The one I know best is Sir Henry Wyndham, whose bust is in the hall at 44 Belgrave Square, and there is a picture of him on the stairs at 34 Queen Anne’s Gate. We shall probably attack over about 1200 yards, but we shall have such artillery support as will properly smash the Boche line we are going for. And even (which is unlikely) if the artillery doesn’t come up to our hopes the spirit of the Brigade of Guards will carry all resistance before it. The pride of being in such a great regiment! The thought that all the old men, ‘late Grenadier Guards,’who sit in the London Clubs, are thinking and hoping about what we are doing here! I have never been prouder of anything, except your love for me, than I am of being a Grenadier. To-day is a great day for me. That line of Harry’s rings through my mind, ‘High heart, high speech, high deeds, ‘mid honouring eyes[7] I went to a service on the side of a hill this morning, and took the Holy Communion afterwards, which always seems to help one along, doesn’t it? I slept like a top last night, and dreamed that someone I know very well (but I can’t remember who it was) came to me and told me how much I had grown. Three or four of my brother officers read my poems yesterday, and they all liked them very much which pleased me enormously. I feel rather like saying ‘If it be possible let this cup pass from me,’ but the triumphant finish ‘nevertheless not what I will but what Thou wiliest,’ steels my heart and sends me into this battle with a heart of triple bronze.[8]

I always carry four photies of you when we go into action, one is in my pocket-book, two in that little leather book, and one round my neck, and I have kept my little medal of the Blessed Virgin. Your love for me and my love for you, have made my whole life one of the happiest there has ever been; Brutus’ farewell to Cassius sounds in my heart: ‘If not farewell; and if we meet again, we shall smile.’ Now all my blessings go with you, and with all we love. God bless you, and give you Peace.

Eternal Love,

from BIM.”[9]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Liddiard, e.d, Poetry Out of My Head, 83-4.
  2. The letter is postmarked "21 September 1916," a Thursday.
  3. Farjeon, Edward Thomas..., 213.
  4. Whelpton, Richard Aldington, 137.
  5. This is either a truly "last" letter written on the 14th along with the last letter to Diana Manning that wasn't printed in the Life and Letters, or this one, written last Tuesday, the 12th.
  6. Webb, From Downing Street to the Trenches, 230.
  7. "Harry" Cust's Non Nobis.
  8. Congratulate me for recognizing this as Homeric--but Bimbo is probably taking it via Horace.
  9. Memoir, 234-5.

Siegfried Sassoon Casts a Colorful Spell; Francis Ledwidge Puts his Trust in the Lord; John Ronald Tolkien’s Road Begins; Raymond Asquith on the Joys of Marching and the Charms of the French

Rather a potpourri today. We begin with Siegfried Sassoon making like Frederick the Mouse, and laying in a store of colors for the winter ahead.

June 2

Up on the redoubt last night, between 10 and 11, the whole horizon winked incessantly with gunfire and shells bursting. Guns banged and boomed, red lights went up; quite a cheery show: Marching up to Bécordel on a working party at 7.30 this evening there was a very red sunset: the light streamed across the quiet green land and my party of men were moving in a crimson glare and glow–the dust was crimson-gold, it was a light most beautiful and blood-red and we were all in it. Afterwards a purple flush lay on the green slopes westward, and the tall trees stood up against a flaming orange sunset. Purple dusk came on, while the men lay on a bank by the roadside. Two limbers with six horses in each rattled by and the spell was broken.[1]

 

My own rather predictable version of the sonneteer’s hammer blow is, of course, to juxtapose the prettiest of reveries with a grim report from a shattered trench. Or, in this case, from Kate Luard in her Casualty Clearing Station just behind those shattered trenches:

Friday, June 2nd. It has been a ghastly day. The train came in the afternoon and all who could possibly get to the Base alive, and all who had been waiting for the train were packed up and put on…

Jack died at half-past ten last night, and three abdominals: this time they have been the most appalling shell wounds I’ve ever seen–how they get here alive I don’t know.[2]

 

And between these extremes is the usual business of modern warfare: many men moving about. First, Raymond Asquith, recently returned to a line battalion after a detested stint in intelligence at G.H.Q.

3rd Grenadier Guards,
B.E.F.
2 June 1916

. . . On Thursday I rose at 5 a.m. and the battalion marched off at 7.30. We went about 20 miles over hot hard dusty roads under a brilliant sun and one got nothing to eat or drink between 6 in the morning and 3 in the afternoon. Considering how little exercise I have had these last 3 months I was surprisingly little tired and hardly at all footsore. A long march is really more boring than tiring, provided one is going light. Our late C.O. used to make the officers carry packs but this one mercifully doesn’t. It makes a vast difference…

This just in on the British Class System: when the noblesse are not obliged to lug their own kit around it is considerably easier on their feet!

…this morning I again rose at 5 and the whole Brigade with John Ponsonby at its head marched off another 10 miles to a large Franco-Flemish village where we now are and where there is about 1000 yds of uncultivated ground on which we are to dig trenches and practise popping the parapet.

We know Asquith well enough to know that “popping the parapet” is tongue-in-cheek–but still, it’s pretty good cheek.

Again a hot lovely day but a terribly slow and tedious march. But there is something rather majestic about the movement of a Brigade with all its 4 battalions and their transport and the drums playing. My Company led the whole Brigade (which occupies about 1 1/2 miles of road) and we marched past the G.O.C. 2nd Army in the square of a small town en route with great distinction and éclat…

A rare note of sincere enthusiasm for things military. This is actually a pretty good testament to the positive effects of marching. Yes, it’s to harden the feet and build up stamina, and yes, it’s the only way, a century back, to move large bodies of men from one place to another. But it’s also been suggested–quite plausibly–that nothing builds a sense of corporate pride as much as joint rhythmic activity. The pseudo-dance of close-order drill (long obsolete as training for actual battlefield behavior) is best, but marching works too.[3]

So Asquith is in a good mood, then? Assuredly.

The French—what is left of them—are really too beastly. The population consists entirely of invalid old women who are incredibly timid, inhospitable, prejudiced, audacious and obstinate.

After marching for 2 days one gets rather irritable when the solitary inhabitants of large empty houses refuse to let one have a chair to sit down on or a bath to eat one’s caviare off. There are many of these rheumatic old bitches I would gladly throw to the Boches.

I believe we shall be here till the 18th, then back to our camp for a week or so and then the trenches again…[4]

 

We have a letter today as well from Francis Ledwidge, back–better late than never–at his regimental barracks in Derry.

5 Co., Ebrington Barracks,
Derry. 2nd June 1916

My dear Bob,

I have not much news for you yet awhile. I got back here all right, and hope to work the oracle. My back is still bad, but the doctor gave me light duty today and tomorrow. That means, as you know, an hour’s standing and a backsheesh drink. Some day you will be writing to Mollie that all is well.

Remember me many times to your dear mother and father, nor forget to mention to your sisters and brothers-in-law that I wish to be remembered to them. I shall never forget your mother’s kindness to me, while, a self-invited guest, I stopped at your house. I won’t promise her a Turkish carpet as I did Mrs Carter, but I promise her a warm corner in my memory always.

This is all very well, but Ledwidge is a private soldier who went absent without leave after telling off an officer. And this is Ireland after the fall of the rising. Any worries?

…I had several letters here already, but then I should be here fourteen days ago and yet expect to be called upon for an account of my absence. But my trust is in Dunsany when he comes on Monday. I will write to you often letting you know my progress…

Now dear Bob remember me all around my new friends and tell your mother I actually cried in the train.[5]

Ledwidge, it would seem, is putting a little too much faith in the good Lord Dunsany. Get his poems published? Sure. But making such a serious offense go away–especially since Dunsany, despite his noble rank, does not seem to be close to the social heart of his regiment–is another matter altogether.

 

Finally, today, a telegram for John Ronald Tolkien. He is instructed to join the British Expeditionary Force in France, reporting to the Embarkation Staff Officer at Folkestone in three days time. His 48-hour “last leave” will officially begin tomorrow.[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 70.
  2. Unknown Warriors, 65.
  3. There's an interesting little book by the great historian William McNeill about this--Keeping Together in Time--which originates in his own experience drilling with the U.S. Army in the second war.
  4. Life and Letters, 265-6.
  5. Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 160-1.
  6. Chronology, 80.

Raid: E.A. Mackintosh in the Labyrinth; then Welsh Larks, Feilding’s Plovers, Sister Luard’s Observations, and Edward Hermon on the Mental War

For a starter, today, Rowland Feilding and his breakfast. It’s been ages since we’ve had a guardsman dining in France on imported plovers’ eggs.

May 16, 1916. Bois des Tallies

The parcel of ham, two dozen plovers’ eggs, and the children’s sweets arrived to-day. Thank you all.

To-day the weather has completely changed, and has been superb. I have been at my usual occupation, digging trenches in the Suzanne Valley. I had also to go to a new place to start some work, and took with me one of the sergeants—Deakin, by name. He was working for a fruit-grower and seedsman before he enlisted, and being intelligent besides an excellent N.C.O. I found his conversation very entertaining. The ground is becoming strewn with a great profusion and variety of wild flowers. Few and far between are wild lilies of the. valley in bloom, which are much sought after by officers and men, and are therefore difficult to find. Another very common flower is a white one to which I cannot give a name. It grows from a bulb and has leaves like a daffodil, but much narrower and with a white stripe. The flower itself is like a star. Sergeant Deakin says he has not seen it before, but thinks it may be what is called “Star of Bethlehem.” If only you were in the country I would send you some bulbs.[1]

 

Souchez-Neuville_St._Vaast

An area map showing the context north toward Givenchy, where several of our writers have already served

Now that we have been lulled into a floral trench pastoral, today’s main course. Yesterday, E.A. Mackintosh wrote to his sister, a poem that also qualifies as a “last letter.” He was an experienced bombing officer, and there was a raid in the offing–it was prudent to be minded of farewells.

The raid took place today, a century back, and it has been extravagantly well recorded. Let’s begin with the official history of the 51st (Highland) Division, moving back some weeks:

When the weather cleared, it was found that the Division had taken over from the French an unintelligible tangle of trenches dug in what can only be described as a vast cemetery, in which the earth in many places barely covered the dead. The sector was also honeycombed with mines from end to end, the enemy apparently being complete masters of the mining situation…

The new sector extended roughly from the ruined village of Roclincourt on the right to the ruined village of Neuville St Vaast (exclusive) on the left…

The fighting had been of so desperate and stubborn a nature that French and Germans had repeatedly dug themselves in in close proximity to each other. As a result, the whole sector consisted of an unintelligible maze of trenches, aptly called by the French the Labyrinth.

 

This is not the last we’ll hear of the Labyrinth. It’s a nasty piece of territory:

gt-war-forum-jack-sheldon-post-6447-1178696464

This more personalized map shows the exact area at about this time–I found it at the istworldwarhibbettletters.com blog, which credits “Jack Sheldon. Old Sweats. Great War Forum. The Long Long Trail.”

In this sector the whole countryside was overlooked by the enemy in an astonishing degree. He occupied the famous feature known as the Vimy Ridge, of which the highest point just north of Thelus reached the height of 135 metres. His foremost trenches were on the outlying spurs of the Ridge, while the trenches taken over from the French were in the low-lying ground at the foot of these spurs. The enemy thus possessed all the advantages of close observation over our lines… Moreover, south of the Scarpe, Observatory Ridge stared down at Roclincourt and Écurie. The French, to neutralise his facilities for observation, had constructed communication trenches of what seemed interminable length…  The labour of walking along these trenches, all cut on a very winding pattern, was severe.[2]

 

But the slog up to the line was not worrying Mackintosh–or should I say MacTaggart, the “Senior Subaltern” bombing-officer hero of Mackintosh’s sketch, which is entitled, succinctly enough, “A Raid.” Rather, it was the wire. The wire, we must remember is not a fence, or a tripwire, or any sort of neatly-strung, vaguely linear impediment. It is a thicket of metal barbs, often deeply entangled and many feet thick, intended to catch and tear at the skin and clothes of any men who sought to approach the opposing front line trenches.

Given the close connection of fiction and historical event–or, looking at it from the other side of no man’s land, the thinness of truth’s fictional garb–it’s hard to know what level of subtlety we should read into our hero’s speech. Little, one would think, since he is so closely supervised by the narrator’s voice. “Top-hole” seems affected–it’s the sort of thing that Edward “Robert” Hermon says, that Edward Thomas will shortly observe a pleasantly dense old regular saying, and generally the kind of thing that fictional toffs trot out. A tough call. We will join the sketch, which begins around lunch time on the day of the raid, already in progress, as a final preparatory exercise to the long-drilled raid has just concluded.

“My God, Charles,” said the Senior Subaltern, “aren’t they great? God help any Bosche that meets those lads. They’re just as fit and happy as they can be. I feel top-hole, too, don’t you ? I don’t see that there’s anything can spoil it.”

The other spoke slowly, looking in front of him. “Oh, I’m not in the least afraid of anything, if we can only get into the trench,” he said. “If the wire’s cut . . .”

ger-barbed-wire

A German barbed wire obstacle, probably in a rear area but representative enough

“Oh, damn the wire,” said the Senior Subaltern hotly, “it can’t help being cut. Anyhow, there’s very little there to start with, and if there’s any bombardment at all, it’ll go west; and there’s going to be a hell of a bombardment. Anyhow, we can’t do any more. Come on in and feed…”

They were both experienced soldiers and knew what it meant and now, as they went into luncheon, each saw a vision of his splendid men struggling in the meshes, and heard the rattle of a ghostly machine-gun. At luncheon they managed to forget their fear for a little, and the Senior Subaltern, a light-hearted person, entertained the Quartermaster, Transport Officer, and Padre, with whom they messed, by a vivid and heartrending description of the painful scene which would take place as his mangled corpse was borne down the line, and their unavailing regrets that they had not been kinder to him when he was a bright, happy boy. Charles MacRae, his junior, was more serious, but both of them felt curiously as if the whole raid was just a game of unreality, and at the last moment they would hear that it was “let us pretend.”

Bonhomie and fearful prospection continue to alternate as the two officers and their men move forward. They pass formidable wire obstacles in the British rear… they reach battalion H.Q. and learn that the raid will begin at 8:00… and then there is the matter of the watch.

“Oh, get along,” said the C.O. “Have you got a watch yet?”

“No, sir, I’m borrowing David Sutherland’s.” And the raiding party dispersed each to a dug-out to feed at other people’s expense.

During tea the fear which had possessed the two officers left them, and a pleasant tranquillity based on the reflexion that it couldn’t be helped took its place; but the sensation of unreality was very strong as they sat in the dug-out with their friends just as they had done a hundred times; only now they were going over the top in two hours’ time. At last at seven they girded on their weapons, and stumbled up the dug-out steps…

The raiders receive a brief exhortation from the brigadier, in which the pride of Scotland and the honor of the regiment each receives due emphasis.

“Good luck, boys!”

N.C.O.’s and men of their battalion stood at attention as they passed up, and a lump came into the Senior Subaltern’s throat. Suppose he had lost his nerve. Suppose that when the time came he should not have the courage to give the signal to advance. Savagely he fought his doubts, reminding himself of past risks lightly taken, heartening himself with a phrase he had heard the men use, “they cannae kill our officer,” and partially succeeded. But the abysmal doubt persisted somewhere in his brain, as it had done always before action, and probably always would.

At the support trench he parted from Charles MacRae, who was to advance from another crater. “See you in half an hour, Charlie,” he said, and went on to the front line with his half of the party…

To break in once more and discourse on morale would be intrusive, but, happily, Mackintosh/MacTaggart will do it for us. To speak of “fear” at times like this isn’t so much inopportune as imprecise. Not “fear:” fears.

Three fears began to obsess him. Perhaps the Germans would retaliate and drop one on to his close-packed party; perhaps the bloody fools had showed themselves already and given the raid away, “Oh, God,” he whispered, “don’t let us get casualties before we start the show.” The other fear was caught from the men. All along the line the whisper was running, “Short, they’re droppin’ short an’ missin’ the trench.” “You fools,” he whispered back, “that’s going for the wire, not the trench,” and reassured them; but all the same, he felt it himself…

And, once the men are in position in saps just forward of their own trenches, one more:

A new fear took possession of the Senior Subaltern. He looked at his watch. There would be a hitch in the timing; the barrage would be late, and they would have to go over without it. He watched the seconds go by. Only one minute, only half a minute, to the start of the barrage.

It begins on time. As MacTaggart is about to give the order to advance, he thinks suddenly of (of course!) Oxford:

…into his mind came a picture of his boat on the Isis on a sunny day, and the coach on the bank counting the seconds to the starting gun. He laughed at the queer similarity.

“Half a minute more,” he passed along, and watched the seconds ticking past. Then all at once he climbed up, and, for a second or two, stood alone on the crater lip. “Come along, boys,” he said quietly, and the raiding party poured after him out across the open.

As he ran across the shell-torn No Man’s Land a strange exultation came over him. It was the same ground that he had crawled through painfully night after night, but seen in the daylight it was different and very thrilling. But what a devil of a long way it was much farther than he had thought. Where was the damned trench? Surely it wasn’t so far as all that.

Soon the raiding party reach the trench and, finding it deserted (a result of the well-timed barrage) climb down into it. But only the trench itself is deserted. Four German soldiers, who had been sheltering in a dug-out, now emerge, firing.

All at once his brain began to act rapidly. He yelled inarticulate curses, and pulled out a bomb from his haversack. The pin came out easily, but the Germans were too close. He dropped the lever and held the thing for a second or two; then flung it at the climbing men and leapt side-ways. There was a sharp crash as the bomb burst, and he sprang back again with his revolver ready. Writhing on the dug-out steps lay three of the Germans. The fourth leaned against the side with his hands over his face. A savage joy possessed the Senior Subaltern, and he shoved his revolver close to the man’s face and fired. Those clutching hands dropped, and the German crashed to the steps with the back of his head blown away.

Did it happen like this? I have no idea. It sounds so much like an adventure story, a war movie–the hero killing four men in the blink of an eye–but perhaps it did happen something like this. Or perhaps not: Mackintosh is writing a fictional sketch, remember.

The fighting continues, but Mackintosh soon returns to his earlier preoccupation: fear.

As he stood watching them bombing he suddenly became aware of one of his own men from the right coming towards him at a sort of staggering run. Blood was streaming down the man’s face and neck, and then MacTaggart saw one of the most terrible sights in the world, fear in the eyes of a brave man.

“I’m wounded, sir,” the man gasped as he ran.

The words steadied MacTaggart.

“All right,” he said clearly. “That’s the way home.”

More wounded men come down the trench, and report that British shells are falling short–they have been wounded by their own guns. After seeing to the demolition of part of the German trench and sending his men–those unharmed along with the walking wounded–back toward their own trenches, MacTaggart is about to follow.

“Sir! Sir!”

MacTaggart turned. It was his English Sergeant, Godstone, no longer immaculate, but dishevelled and wild-eyed. The Sergeant saluted. “I’ve three men along here with their legs off,” he said.

In a flash MacTaggart saw the two possibilities before him. The men were certain to die, and it was pretty certain death for himself and the other two to go back. “Just chucking away extra lives,” he thought, and suddenly found life very desirable. For a second he hesitated. Then he remembered a score of things–his promise that he wouldn’t go back and leave one of them alive in the German trench, his pride that the men had always trusted him and followed him, his affection for the men, and, above all, the eternal principle, as old as war, “An officer can’t desert his men.” He turned to Charlie MacRae, suddenly calm, “Will you watch the left,” he said; “Sergeant Godstone and I will bring these fellows along.”

The impassive MacRae climbed on to the parapet, and sat there with his revolver in his right hand and a bomb in his left. He, too, like MacTaggart, knew that the odds were a thousand to one against them, but he made no remark. As MacTaggart turned back at the corner of the traverse he felt strangely comforted by the sight of MacRae sitting solidly there with his eyes fixed on the trench.

Along the trench the two ran past dug-outs from which came sounds of moanings, and suddenly came on the three men lying in a blood-stained bay with their rifles and bombs littering the ground. The first looked up at them as they bent over him. It was the boy who had wrestled with his chum in the morning. His legs were off below the thigh, and he looked strangely shrunken. “I’m done for, Sergeant,” he said steadily, ” you take the others.”

They bring one man down the trench and over the top. MacTaggart then goes back for the others.

He was alone now, and the queer comfort which the Sergeant’s presence had given him was withdrawn. He looked fearfully at each dug-out door, expecting to see a German bayonet emerging. By the time he had got to the men again he felt weak and hopeless. He fingered his pistol, thinking, “One shot for me and one for each of the men. They won’t get any prisoners.”

At his feet a wounded man looked up piteously.

“Ma airm an’ ma leg’s off,” he cried, full of his own pain, ” Ma airm an’ ma leg’s off.” MacTaggart felt that the chap would have appealed just the same to a Prussian for sympathy. A great pity flooded his mind, mixed again with wild anger at the man for giving him all this trouble.

“Oh, you silly devil,” he shouted in a high unnatural voice, “can’t you crawl on your other leg and arm?”

The man groaned. “Turn me over, sir, and I’ll try.”

There was a noise of feet and guttural voices along the trench beyond. MacTaggart tore a bomb from his bag and threw it over the traverse. Screams followed the burst and feet running rapidly away.

A man slipped down from the parapet above him. “I heard ye were left behind, sir,” he said, conversationally, and MacTaggart turned to see his own bombing Sergeant, come back for him through the No Man’s Land again. Suddenly he felt “This is all right. I’m going to get through. We’re all going to get through. And isn’t wee Macdonald a damned fine chap to come back for me like that?”

“Come on, Macdonald” he cried, and together they dragged the man to the point, and rolled him up on to the parapet.

Once again they went back for the boy. His brown eyes were dull now, but he whispered, “You clear out, sir, I’m done.”

“Rot,” said his officer, and up to the point they dragged him and tried to lift the dead weight to the top.

All at once MacTaggart’s strength seemed to leave him, and his arms were powerless to move the heavy body. “Oh, God! I can’t shift him,” he gasped.

“Charlie, come and help.” Charlie MacRae set his arms to the work, and his senior staggered into the open to drag MacNeil, the man with the pulped leg and arm, into an old trench, which ran down to their own line. The German guns were bursting shrapnel all along their parapet now, but he did not notice except in a curious, unthinking way, as if his mind was dulled to danger.

Once again the piece has drifted toward a relatively simplistic heroes-and-horrors sort of military history, only to correct course sharply.

He was filled with a hysterical rage against the Germans for hurting his men, and, as he lugged the groaning MacNeil into the slight cover of the old trench, with an artistic delight in the thing he was doing, he seemed to be regarding himself from the front stalls of a gigantic theatre and applauding a fine piece of acting. He wouldn’t get through it, and nobody would know, but he was doing the right thing, and painting a good picture. The aesthetic joy of it buoyed him up as he helped Sergeant Godstone along with the other man; then went back to the parapet where Charles and Sergeant Macdonald were still struggling with the boy. He looked down at the shrunken face.

“I believe we’ll have to leave him, Charles,” he said, “he’s a dying man.”

Charlie MacRae looked up with his hand on the boy’s heart. “No, he isn’t,” he said; “he’s dead.”

The journey back through no man’s land with the two men remaining “seemed to MacTaggart interminable hours filled with the bursting of shells and the shrieks of the wounded men, as he pulled them along.”

In another page and a half, however, it is over.

Then, all at once, the tumult stopped dead, and in the stillness there came from the German salient a single flare. The raid was over.

With the end of danger MacTaggart broke down and sobbed, crying for “My men, my beautiful men,” and then turning to the German line with a scream, “You swine. I’ll give you hell for this.” A hand fell on his arm. It was his dear Major, “Father” to the whole brigade.

“What’s up, Tagg? ” said the Major.

“I’m going back to give those swine hell, Major,” he yelled, and was knocked sideways by a vigorous clout on the head.

“You young fool,” said the Major, ” what you want is a drink,” and led him down to H.Q., where his men were already assembled. First of all, he went to the dressing station, and found there men lying and sitting, to hear from one that he had bayoneted two Germans, from another that he had bombed such dug-outs, and to realize that the raid had really succeeded, although it was a while before they found how well.[3]

Strangely, Mackintosh unwinds the piece instead of leaving it there. There is a quick reunion with the others, a telling of tales, a silencing of an irritatingly celebratory piper, and the slow journey back to billets. The last words are MacTaggart telling his hostess, in French, that he is very tired.

So how do we parse history and literature, “truth” and fiction?

We shouldn’t, really, but we can’t resist. A letter to his sister–yesterday’s poem was not a “last letter” after all–relates several details that made it into the finished piece, so we can conclude that it is “closely based” on reality. Except of course for conventions of language:

I didn’t stop swearing the whole time, except when I was praying–but I promised the men I wouldn’t leave the Bosche trench while there was a man alive in it and I kept my word.

And then there is this:

All the men I have brought back have died.

The two wounded men brought back under fire, Private A. Thompson and Lance Corporal A. MacDonald, died the next day.

And then there is what might seem like a touch of eerie melodrama: we learn that the “boy” who died in the trench–David Sutherland–is the same one from whom Mackintosh borrowed the wrist-watch.

 

There are two ways to end today’s story, and, as usual, I will hesitate on the path, and then try them both. Here’s how Mackintosh will end the letter to his sister:

I believe I’ve been recommended for the Military Cross, but I’d rather have the boys’ lives. If I get one, I’ll get home on special leave soon. I’ve had my taste of a show. It’s not romantic. It’s hell.

He will get it, the citation reading as follows:

For conspicuous gallantry. He organised and led a successful raid on the enemy’s trenches with great skill and courage. Several of the enemy were disposed of and a strong point destroyed. He also brought back two wounded men under heavy fire.[4]

No mention, then of the boy left on the parapet, or the precise number of “Bosches” killed in the trench (in addition to his four, MacTaggart claims “more than forty,” or the fate of Thompson and MacDonald. Or that another man, McDowell, was killed when a bomb burst in his pack as he returned to the trench. Nor will these details turn up, I would guess, when the raid is feature in the Times, two days hence. The battalion history, on the other hand, is both sanguine about the raid’s success and frank (if inelaborate) about its costs: “Lieut. Mackay wounded, 4 men killed, and 12 wounded, while the enemy casualties were estimated at 60 at least”[5]

This, then, was something of a victory. More Germans killed than Scotsmen. A decoration: Mackintosh not only led a successful raid, but he went above and beyond what was required of him, seeing first to the mission and then to the wounded men.

And with the victory, valuable intelligence:

These raids in particular brought to light certain facts concerning German trench construction. The German trenches did not resemble the small ditch-like trenches commonly seen at schools of instruction and training grounds. They can better be compared to the marker’s gallery in a rifle range. They were ten to eleven feet deep, with the sides for the most part revetted with planks. To get into them was not easy; to get out of them still less easy; while evacuating the wounded from them was a matter of very considerable difficulty. In fact, in the case of Mackintosh’s raid, it is doubtful if his wounded could have been brought back to our lines at all had not a sally-port through which the more severely wounded were carried been discovered.[6]

This lets me end my commentary–the first ending, naturally–on that familiar, irritating, ironic note: this is valuable information, and the surprising strength of the German lines will no doubt be communicated to the highest levels and taken account of as the planning for the “Big Push” continues…

 

A second ending, for us, is a possible crossing of paths. I’m pretty sure this doesn’t work, but I’ll throw it in here anyway:

There is a letter from Kate Luard, possibly of today, a century back, that describes an evening walk. She is very close to Mackintosh, just below the northern edge of Vimy ridge, and the time she mentions is barely an hour off from Mackintosh’s account (7.15 rather than 8.20).[7]

…Sister S. and I took sandwiches in our haversacks and set out to explore the Ridge. We had a great day. The Ridge is a long high plateau which runs at right angles to the trenches (i.e. East and West) and eventually meets them, so the farther along you get on its top level the better view you get of the positions on your left…  You could see the communication trenches and the whole front line of trenches with the historic battered village and mines, and shells bursting on them. It was a great sight…

…we fetched up at Observation Point at 7.15 and a lively Evening Hate was going on. What looks like summer lightning at night is by daylight or twilight a dazzling flash of flames and in the miles of map [see above] spread our before you from this place to beyond the German lines, we could see these points of flame every time our guns loosed off, and far ahead we could see the Boche guns also, and burst of shell all along the lines of trenches. Poor lambs.[8]

 

Which brings me to the third ending of Mackintosh’s raid.

In Memoriam

Private D. Sutherland, Killed in Action in the German Trench, May 16th 1916, and the Others who Died

So you were David’s father,
And he was your only son,
And the new-cut peats are rotting
And the work is left undone,
Because of an old man weeping,
Just an old man in pain,
For David, his son David,
That will not come again.

Oh, the letters he wrote you,
And I can see them still,
Not a word of the fighting,
But just the sheep on the hill
And how you should get the crops in
Ere the year get stormier,
And the Bosches have got his body,
And I was his officer.

You were only David’s father,
But I had fifty sons
When we went up in the evening
Under the arch of the guns,
And we came back at twilight –
O God! I heard them call
To me for help and pity
That could not help at all.

Oh, never will I forget you,
My men that trusted me,
More my sons than your fathers’,
For they could only see
The little helpless babies
And the young men in their pride.
They could not see you dying,
And hold you while you died.

Happy and young and gallant,
They saw their first-born go,
But not the strong limbs broken
And the beautiful men brought low,
The piteous writhing bodies,
They screamed “Don’t leave me, sir”,
For they were only your fathers
But I was your officer.

 

This is a rare thing–a memorial poem to a dead man written by the man who led him to his death, risked his own life to save him, and failed. As an authoritative act of military literature it can have few parallels.

As a poem it is, once again, fairly traditional, but it tacks safely between the rocks of military aggrandizement and the shoal waters of anodyne sentiment. If the goal of memorial is to fix in memory–the memory of others, unknown to the dead–something of the life and the loss, then this succeeds.

And, since I have chosen to be conflicted and numerous in my endings today (there’s more!), why not one more niggling query: did Mackintosh know his man so well? That would be admirable, although it would be hard–indeed, problematic–for an officer to be good friends with a private. But perhaps this sense is only a side-effect of the strong (which is to say “rather odd”) poetic choice to assert the officer’s priority over a father… it’s not a move we’ll see too often, as the younger officers tend more to identify with their men against the generation of their fathers, rather than claiming to supplant them.

But there’s another explanation: Mackintosh knows these details–the sheep, the father–from the fact that he reads his mail. And even then, did he know the dead man so well? It would seem that David Sutherland was not, in fact, an only son.

So Mackintosh is the hero of the day–Senior Subaltern, raider, prose-writer, fictionalized protagonist, and poet. But he assumes a great deal when he decides to take up the task of memorializing David Sutherland…

 

Despite the exhaustion no doubt occasioned by “The Raid,” I want to include a brief bit from Edward Hermon today as well. His role here seems to be that of the honorable, perhaps slightly awkward, exceptionally earnest, slightly hapless family man. He has been working away at not very glamorous jobs with his unit of the yeomanry for quite some time, and sending endless loving letters to his wife. Their youngest is only months old, now, but it is time for the eldest to go to Eton. Hermon can be slightly obtuse, but he is also one of our few writers who is actually corresponding with a woman on the home front on an almost daily basis.

In a brief, half-articulated flash, he understands how war comes and goes for the warriors as they change positions relative to the front. But an efficient postal system is not enough to bring their loved ones at home into the same rhythm. For them, danger is ever-present.

Tonight I have been wandering about in the garden with the river running so silently by & a lovely full moon & the gramophone going; miles away from war & not a sound to be heard–it makes it all very hard to realize. Whereas you seem to have the whole ‘mental’ part of the show, like the poor, always with you & the very great family gap too & I know it must be a gap…[9]

 

And, finally, hark, exhausted, to a Royal Welch lark. Dr. Dunn’s chronicle describes a bombardment, but takes a moment to acknowledge important local poetry-generating activity.

Throughout the turmoil a pair of swallows tried persistently to build under an overhead traverse in the strafed front line, and a lark nested among the wire.[10]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 75-6.
  2. Brewsher, The History of the 51st (Highland) Division, 1914-1918, 55-7.
  3. "The Raid" is available here in full, and with spoilers.
  4. War the Liberator, 117-141. See also Campbell and Green, Can't Shoot a Man with a Cold, 111-133.
  5. Nevertheless the diary claims only seven Germans killed in hand-to-hand combat; the rest are assumed to have been killed by the bombardment or the explosives carried in to the trench by the engineers accompanying the Seaforths.
  6. Brewsher, 51st (Highland) Division, 1914-1918, 64.
  7. It seems likely, however, in reading Luard's published letters (Unknown Warriors, increasingly an indispensable source), that there may be a missing page (or a missing date caption), in which case this quotation would describe tomorrow, a century back...
  8. Unknown Warriors, 56.
  9. For Love and Courage, 214.
  10. The War the Infantry Knew, 201.