Today, a century back, brings a welter of writing–wry, wet, windy, and ominous.
Hugh Quigley knows that he about to march back into the thick of things, and so he writes, to someone he loves, with the cruel candor of the soldier before battle:
I expect this will be the last letter you will get from me for at least ten days. You know what that means. I can only only hope to get out safely, or, at worst, with a comfortable wound. If the same fate happens to me as to Peter, I have done my duty, according to conventional standards. By higher and more ideal standards, it is too perverted to be called duty at all, if it does not immediately help to stop war and avoid sacrifice.
Our men are growing more confident everyday; in fact, one could almost go into battle now with a bag of provisions and a walking-stick. The rifle plays only a small part, for the enemy invariably throw up their hands when the infantry approach…
Quigley’s confidence is more than a bit overstated, but then again this is a letter home, a last letter before combat, meant to reassure. Or something along those lines. While it is true that the rifle-toting infantryman is increasingly just a pawn in an artillery war, the idea that there will not be any fighting necessary in an advance against German pillboxes is ridiculous, as we have seen so often, recently.
Regardless, Quigley is soon back in a full-blown romantic mode: he even finds a “curiously apposite” French poem on a scrap of paper.
This paper was lying beside a tombstone under the shadow of a great church. I spent an afternoon wandering round that church, sentimentalizing to my heart’s content, with no one to disturb me and no one to utter bald consolations about the price of life. The slow passage of time came to a sweetness of thought, not melancholic, not poignant, just a lingering tenderness and a faint regret, tenuous as a web of sun in the tree-shadows. High chestnuts, browning through shimmering gold, dropped solitary leaves with a faint pat on the flat stones or rustled them through the wire-enclosed wreaths hanging from grey crosses, half-ruined, green with a decay of beauty, so that the harmony of life came very close to death, reality to dream…
You will see the old sentiments cannot die… They are worth something more than this, farther and higher… Not ephemeral, but progressive and continuous on a way of perfection…
Each man prepares for the ordeal of a tour in the trenches in a different way. Quigley, it’s safe to say, complicates the stereotype of the enlisted man’s “this leaves me in the pink” letter before battle…
And Vera Brittain, who has lost a fiancé and two close friends after letters more or less like that one, has decided that she can’t hang on every turn of the front line/reserve/rest rotation of her only brother. So Edward writes to her today, only when he is safely out of the latest mess. I include this letter mostly for how it begins: with a mark made by the war, not just on a day, a century back, but in a single moment:
France, 10 October 1917
— That curious dash because a shell made me jump. This is rather a filthy place… We haven’t had a mail for 3 days owing to our sudden move and so I expect there will be a letter from you when it does come. I am very glad you have written some more poems so as to make enough for a small volume; I will ask Mrs L[eighton] about it; I believe you were thinking of Erskine Macdonald before. By the way why haven’t you sent me any of your new poems as you know I should like to have them?
Isaac Rosenberg has just had leave–his first–and has been writing poems. But the heavy rain of the last few days has done no good for his always-problematic lungs. The weather will save him, perhaps, if it doesn’t kill him: today, a century back, he went sick with influenza, which for a man of his physique is certainly more dangerous than ordinary trench duty.
Comfort and the fortunes of leave are also on the mind of Herbert Read, guilt-stricken at having missed his battalion’s part in the Passchendaele battle. He can make amends by preparing decent beds for them all: having been held back in reserve and appointed billeting officer, he spent a long day’s negotiation with the inhabitants of a poor northern French village–“Mais c’est la guerre, as they all say.”
They came in shortly after midnight, very weary and ready to drop down and sleep anywhere. It isn’t three weeks since I left them, but it was like greeting long lost friends… It isn’t only fancy that makes them seem to have aged five years and more. They have gone through what as probably the most intense shell fire since the war began.
Finally, today, we have a date-in-a-novel, a time-stamped activity from our strangest and most carefully calendrical fictional war book. Henry Williamson himself missed the summer and Passchendaele because of a long stint recovering from symptoms that may have been simple illness or may have been worsened by gas or the psychological toll of his service in the winter and spring around Arras. But his enormous semi-autobiographical sequence on the life of Phillip Maddison elongates the author’s combat experiences, compresses his time at home, and puts the protagonist always where the action is. Phillip Maddison never misses a battle.
Today, a century back, his heroic mentor, “Westy,” has turned up again as well, and this time Phillip plunges in unlikely fashion into the German lines (as he has done several memorable times before, including during the Christmas Truce and at Loos) as a sidekick rather than as a lone ranger.
Before sending us over the top, as it were, Williamson dutifully gives us a potted military history of the “Fourth Step” of Third Ypres, a.k.a. the “Battle of Poelcappelle.” Which is all well and good, but sits rather jarringly with the most Gumpish of the many Gumpish moments in the series so far. I will quote and then summarize, as best as I can.
(The whole sequence of novels is a slog, but so very interesting: there is an unprecedented devotion to raking oneself over the coals of memory while raking out the embers of traditional military history at the same time–just not well-enough written to enchant other than a devoted reader over several thousand pages.)
The day after the fourth step had been launched, two men, each with a long stick in his hand, were walking on one of the many duck-board tracks lying parallel to the Wieltje-Frezenberg road, alongside which was an almost continuous row of 18-pounder field-guns…. The senior of the two, whose diminutive scarlet gorget patches on the collar of his ranker’s tunic were concealed under a woolen scarf, carried, in addition, a map-case.
“I don’t see how the infantry can possibly move in this weather, Westy. Must the attacks go on?”
“If only the Chief could have had his own way, and attacked up here last May, instead of down south, as demanded by Joffre… Third Ypres was put off in 1916, and again last spring. With the results that everyone can now see–only everyone, as usual, will draw the wrong conclusions.”
Well, Westy, you didn’t really answer the question.
Now commences the aforementioned Gumpish adventure, a sort of shark-jumping in the Passchendaele mud. It’s ridiculous to find this (over and over again) in a book that is generally concerned both to represent the progress of the war from a young soldier’s point of view and to dwell on the very real push-and-pull between rashness and cowardice, confidence and self-loathing that seems to have riven Williamson’s character, as well as that of his alter ego. Ridiculous, and suited more to a pot-boiler than an attempt at literature/transmuted memoir, but nonetheless fascinating. If Williamson had a slightly steadier hand, we could even begin to make the argument that his sprawling Bildungsroman is actually an argument that the realist novel is a poor sort of form for telling war stories…
The setting is this: “Westy,” the clear-eyed, far-seeing, casually imperturbable Cassandra of the Old Contemptibles, has become a sort of minister-without-portfolio for the staff, charged to roam wherever he will and report on the “real” situation without regard for the normal channels of command. He takes Maddison forward with him into the front lines, where another assault–the “Fifth Step” of the battle–is about to take place. Commandeering a platoon of Lancashire Territorials, the two adventurers cross into no man’s land near the town of Passchendaele itself, and find a crucial hole in the German defenses.
So far, only the freelancing of Westy and Maddison is ridiculously far-fetched. There does seem to have been a disconnect–mostly environmental and unavoidable (and to some extent a product of bureaucratic awkwardness and scale management and inefficient traditions)–between the enormous effort put into planning an attack in the weeks and months before it and the failure to process any knowledge of German plans and movements during the days when the pending attack must have been obvious to them. The strategic plan must be, to a large extent, inflexible, but there is a horrible sense that while the attack could be built to respond to reports from the front in the last days–to adjust to the adjustments made by the defense–the will just isn’t there. It’s such a big bureaucracy, and the top planners are so very far from the trenches… The British guns mass on known German positions, there are raids and counter-raids, withdrawals and new positions… and the machinery of the attack clicks slowly forward…
More or less alone in a gap in the vaunted German defenses, “Westy” writes out a dispatch, describing the tactical omission and opportunity. But while he is doing so the green subaltern of the platoon they have borrowed blows a whistle, as if he were on parade or mid-attack. Alerted, a German machine gun opens up, Westy us shot through the chest–his eighth wound–and it is left to Maddison to save the day.
And here’s where it gets interesting. Maddison–touched now by the hand of of the divine and possibly dying West–is suddenly, once again, brave and resolute, decisive and dashing. But he is also on a segment of the line where he is known to various officers, and not well liked. He has a significant reputation for both shirking and for wild immaturity, and so the perils which spring up to prevent him from getting Westy’s report to the men who must read them are not just physical obstacles like broken country and German bullets, but also the enemies of his past, among his own army.
Calm and collected, Maddison takes off, D’Artagnan-like, but find that he must explain himself to an officer who knows him from his days a misfit and lead-swinger.. He is disbelieved, disrespected, place under arrest, and then left alone with a horse and an easily-bluffed enlisted man. So Phillip Maddison, veteran of First and Third Ypres, Loos and the Somme, turns horse-thief, and gallops off to G.H.Q… and there, dropping dead with exhaustion and telling a strange tale, he is warmly listened to, fed and bedded, and made to tell his tale to the assembled mucky-mucks. There is good food and wine and cigars, but also the confident formality (of the very well-bred Englishmen). The unkempt messenger is heeded, and a better plan is put in motion… Phillip has saved day, and will have a pleasant rest at G.H.Q. before returning to his ordinary duty as a transport officer in a humble Machine Gun Company… And Henry Williamson leaves us wondering–is this a personal triumph in the face of the cold indifference of strategy? Is the implication that the Staff, with its cigars and clean clothes and expensive liquor, is nonetheless doing the best it can by men like Westy (not to mention all those thousands of platoons in the front lines? Or are the two worlds as incompatible as they feel, since the distance between the two seems to have grown greater after the unlikely gallop of our hero from one to another, rather than smaller?
I’m not sure. The simple answer, surely, is that when Williamson is writing of a time when he was abed in England, he works from a military history and indulges himself by writing a Boy’s Own Paper adventure. Whether this means that he was unable to consistently write a giant realist novel as a consistently realistic “War Book,” or simply unwilling to do so, is another matter.
References and Footnotes
- Passchendaele and the Somme, 144-7. ↩
- If there is an image of it available somewhere, I didn't find it with a desultory search, alas. ↩
- Letters From a Lost Generation, 377. ↩
- Cohen, Journey to the Trenches, 172. ↩
- The Contrary Experience, 111. ↩
- It seems a relatively clear and balanced history of the battle as seen from the decades afterwards, and didn't Tolstoy do much the same thing, after all? ↩