Wilfred Owen: Oh! World You are Making for Me, Sassoon!; Kipling and Carstairs on the Chaos of Bourlon Wood

There is a long letter from Wilfred Owen to Siegfried Sassoon to get to, today, but comradeship rightly comes after battle.

First, then, two accounts of one of the most desperate days at Cambrai. We enter Bourlon Wood with Carroll Carstairs and the 3rd Grenadier Guards. I know almost nothing of Carstairs, but his writing is consistently interesting. He indulges a bit in the blasé roué routine, but only so far: when he comes to the worse of experience he slows down and concentrates, carefully reconstructing the sights and sounds of battle. But he doesn’t become merely a sort of responsible, roving eye or recording camera, either: Carstairs doesn’t spare himself, analyzing his own feelings even in the most trying circumstances.

It was about four in the morning when the Commanding Officer himself woke me. The candles, stuck in bottles on the table, burned as straight as on any altar. Each step up the twenty-two of the dugout was a conscious movement. Now we were at the entrance. The night was still, breathless. It had been raining. The air on our faces
left a moisture. The ground was soggy and the going difficult. The mud stuck to our boots until we were walking on huge pads.

We came upon No. 1 Company—mutes and shadows and something more than men. The Commanding Officer went down a dugout to have a last word with “Mary” Bowes-Lyon while I remained and joked with the two subalterns. How is it one can jest at such a time? It’s a question of tuning up. Laughter is the loophole through
which joy enters the soul. We were slipping along again. An interminable walk to go a few yards. But we had missed No. 2 Company and were out in No Man’s Land heading for the enemy. We made for the road which divided the Battalion. By the time we had reached Nos. 3 and 4 Companies they were forming up. Sinister shadows filling the gloom, as silent as the night itself, only the immense discipline of the Brigade of Guards kept one from remembering they were men cold and wet and dulled with fear…

At 6.20 our barrage came down and while I thought of the Battalion as a unit, five hundred men had begun their perilous progress towards the enemy trenches.

Carstairs is left in support: he sees other units attacking, a light barrage dropping, and then wounded men coming back. With the battle raging ahead, he moves up with the battalion HQ and reserves.

We had reached the foot of the village without a casualty. I was standing on ground newly won. To my left and right stretched deserted enemy entrenchments.

Near me lay two wounded Grenadiers. One was in a ditch full of water. They were remarkably quiet. I felt I should get them back somehow, but there were no stretcher bearers about.

Out of the house next to which I was standing appeared three Germans. They were holding up their hands. One had his foot in a bandage and was being helped along by the others. They looked frightened and miserable. While they are chattering in German, a wounded Grenadier turned up, quite off his head.

“That’s all right, sir,” he addressed me. “I’ll kill them.”

“I wouldn’t do that,” I remonstrated.

“Oh, that’s quite all right. You just leave them to me.” He threatened them with his rifle. The wounded German started to whimper and shuffled off.

The Grenadier followed, herding his little party together. He used his rifle like a shepherd’s staff. Could he have been a shepherd in civilian life? They disappeared in the direction of an out-house. Whatever happened to them? They were not heading strictly for the British lines.

And that’s all we learn.

At least this is a true war story: there may be honor and mercy, or, more likely it seems, madness and atrocity. But Carstairs has his own task and his own peril to worry about, and must move on… and so must we.

Another small party of prisoners appeared with a wounded Grenadier as escort. He was dazed and shaking with fright.

“Take a door off this house and have these prisoners carry back this wounded man.” But he did not understand.
The prisoners stood nervously about wishing to be gone. I showed them what I wanted done and they complied with alacrity.

Soon they were off, carrying the wounded Grenadier. It must have been a heavy load. I could not help fearing they would drop him half way in their eagerness to get out of danger. But if they had any thought of doing so it was intercepted by a German shell which burst in their midst after they had gone two hundred yards.

More prisoners turning up, removed another door from a house, on which they placed the man lying in the ditch of water.

Suddenly a large group of Germans approached. Their leader was a big man and the rest followed with a martial tread that contrasted oddly with their upraised hands and white handkerchiefs, energetically waved by some. One or two dodged into houses, but the rest marched on until they had reached us. The big man addressed me and I felt like a traffic policeman as I pointed to the British lines and watched them hurry off. Messages arrived from Nos. 3 and 4 Companies. They had captured their objectives, they were held up by heavy German machine-gun fire, they had suffered considerably and were in need of reinforcements. No word from either Nos. 1 or 2 Companies—a bad sign.

The Commanding Officer turned up. I saluted as though on parade.

He looked anxious. “We must go up and see what is happening.”

Together we proceeded up the main street of Fontaine-Notre-Dame, down which machine-gun bullets were pouring with the volume of water from a fire-hose. We hugged the houses to minimize the danger of being hit.

We reached the cross-roads and I marvelled that a man could get so far and remain alive. We were in the van of the battle. It seemed a miracle had happened to me.

Knollys greeted us. His Company Commander had been wounded. He was holding his position with about forty men and one machine-gun. It was almost all that was left of the Battalion. Nos. 1 and 2 Companies had  disappeared into the blue. They had been, as a matter of fact, wiped out. All officers (including both Company Commanders killed) both Sergeant-Majors, and all Sergeants casualties, and two-thirds of the men. Knollys was not certain but he thought No. 4 Company was somewhere up on the left.

Joining one of his friends in the aftermath of the fight, Carstairs continues to describe the intense strangeness of the persistence of human interactions in the midst of deadly battle.

Our consultation was interrupted by the appearance of a tank. It stopped, and out of it an officer descended.

“Do you want me any more?”

“No.” I felt as though I were dismissing a taxi.

He climbed back into the tank and down the street it waddled away.

We occupied a difficult position. The road to our rear joined with the left flank of No. 3 Company. We stood at the junction of the two other roads, one of which led to the station and the other in the direction of Bourlon Wood. The 1st Coldstream were somewhere on our left. A wide gap divided us, a gap impossible to bridge.

Suddenly to our right we saw the enemy attacking down the main road that led to the centre of No. 3 Company’s position. We were well placed to enfilade, which we did with a will. We watched the Germans being beaten back, holding up their arms before their faces as though warding off blows from sticks and stones.

With that attack driven back we thought of No. 3 Company as secure. The men were posted to overlook the roads. We had no thought of our rear. I sent a runner with a message giving our position…

But it soon becomes clear that they are, in fact, in touch with no other British unit–No 3. Company has been driven back by the same attack which his men have just fired on.

Our situation was awkward, to say the least. Sixty men with both flanks in the air cannot hold a village against a strong and inevitable counter-attack.

I caught sight of my face in a mirror. It was pink and normal. I had not taken in the seriousness of our position. I was still in a kind of a dream. A mental smokescreen obscured my vision.

Even the sergeant’s astonishing announcement reached me dimly, “Germans are coming up be’ind!” By no selective reasoning did I find myself, with revolver drawn, behind the wall, while the others stood in the entrance of the yard.

Carstairs’ memories move into the present tense, now:

And to be suddenly shooting at grey uniformed Germans was accompanied by no thrill. How big they were! Was it because he was aiming straight at my head that this German appeared so big? The motion of his rifle coming up to his shoulder increased his stature. My revolver lost power to hurt, for after I had fired the Germans remained in the same position. And yet they were so near it would have seemed impossible to have missed them. (A week before I had hit an envelope at twenty paces.) It did not seem as though I was missing but rather as though my bullets, turning into pellets, were bounding harmlessly off. Nor did the German’s rifle seem to function. There was no smoke, no flash, and I heard no bullet whistle uncomfortably close to my head. The whole thing took on the unreality of a “movie” until one of the Germans dropped. It seemed the signal for which his fellows had been waiting, for with one accord they spun round and ran away. I have never seen people run so fast. I can see
again that man as he turned the corner, the play of his big grey legs from hip to knee. He is gone.

I gazed at Carrington and he at me. It was from our rear that we had been attacked. Where is No. 3 Company?

It was the sergeant who showed presence of mind.

“We must follow.”

Someone shouted. “Collect the rest of the men.”

We broke into a run; following in the wake of the Germans. We passed the wounded German. He had raised himself on his elbow and, stretching out a hand, said something. A plea for mercy, for help? The bullet had hit the bone below the eye, leaving a bloody gash.

We reached the bend in the road. This had been the left of No. 3 Company’s position. Only a dead Grenadier remained. Did we expect to meet the enemy as we stopped stock-still at the corner? I expected nothing. I had ceased to think. It was as though our legs had outstripped thought. Time itself had stopped. The surprise attack, the brief duel, the pursuit, following in swift succession seemed all to belong to the same moment. Only now was time passing. An eternity, while one stood irresolute, wondering what to do.

“We must cut in be’ind these ’ouses, otherwise we’re lost.” It was the sergeant again who spoke.

The thirty survivors of the company escape by climbing through the back gardens of the village of Fontaine. But they do make it back to the rest of the battalion, and Carstairs once again takes time to reflect–once again we are in the past tense.

Experience, at first stimulating, ends by draining the system. Through the high storm of enemy shelling I passed, with any capacity for registering further emotion at last microscopically diminished. I felt no fear because I could feel nothing more. Slithering down the steep and muddy flight of stairs into the dim interior of Battalion  Headquarters’ dugout was a purely mechanical performance, and its shadowy occupants unreal. Its gloom and earthen smell reminded my subconscious self of former rest and security, which acted soporifically upon me and, at the end of my narrative, I fell forward on to the table into a sleep more profound and dreamless than any I had ever known.

I woke into a strange world. The events of the preceding hours rushed kaleidoscopically upon me, leaving me to fit myself, like a piece in a picture puzzle, into my immediate surroundings.

The Battalion was soon to move. Billy was sitting with his head in his hands saying, “Oh, my head! Oh, my head!”
In the midst of the most acute anxiety, disappointment and distress, the Commanding Officer had patience to repeat for the nth time, “Poor Billy!”

The Adjutant and the Padre returned from a final futile hunt for the bodies of “Nibs” and “Mary.” “Missing, believed killed” they will remain until the end of time, with the rest of a generation missing.

A miserable and stricken little family, the survivors of the 3rd Battalion left the “line.”[1]

 

Once again, for the sake of stylistic comparison, we can match the memoir (or personal history) of one Guards’ Regiment officer with the official historian of another.

They led off at 6.20 behind their own barrage, in two waves… Everything was ready for them, and machine-guns opened on well-chosen and converging ranges. Almost at the outset they met a line of enemy posts held in strength, where many of the occupants had chosen to shelter themselves at the bottom of the trenches under oil- sheets, a protection hampering them equally in their efforts to fight or to surrender. Here there was some quick killing and a despatch of prisoners to the rear; but the Wood offered many chances of escape, and as our guards were necessarily few, for every rifle was needed, a number broke away and returned…

[T]he Battalion took half-a-dozen machine-guns and lost more men at each blind step… A man once down in the coppice, or bogged in a wood-pool, was as good as lost, and the in-and-out work through the trees and stumpage broke up the formations…

Nevertheless, the 2nd Irish Guards carry the wood–for a little while. The entire Battalion’s experience sounds much like that of Carstairs:

Not long after this, they tried to dig in among the wet tree-roots, just beyond the Wood’s north edge. It seemed to them that the enemy had fallen back to the railway-line which skirted it, as well as to the north of La Fontaine village. Officially, the objective was reached, but our attacking strength had been used up, and there were no reserves. A barrage of big stuff, supplemented by field-guns, was steadily thrashing out the centre and north of the Wood, and, somewhere to the rear of the Battalion, a nest of machine-guns broke out viciously and unexpectedly. Then the whole fabric of the fight appeared to crumble, as, through one or other of the many gaps between the Battalions, the enemy thrust in, and the 2nd Irish Guards, hanging on to their thin front line, realised him suddenly at their backs. What remained of them split up into little fighting groups; sometimes taking prisoners, sometimes themselves being taken and again breaking away from their captors, dodging, turning, and ducking in dripping coppices and over the slippery soil, while the shells impartially smote both parties…

It looked like complete and unqualified disaster. But men say that the very blindness of the ground hid this fact to a certain extent both from us and the enemy, and the multiplied clamours in the Wood supplied an additional blindage. As one man said: ‘If Jerry had only shut off his dam’ guns and listened he’d ha’ heard we was knocked out; but he kept on hammer-hammering an’ rushin’ his parties back and forth the Wood, and so, ye see, them that could of us, slipped back quiet in the height of the noise.’ Another observer compared it to the chopping of many foxes in cover — not pleasant, but diversified by some hideously comic incidents. All agreed that it was defeat for the Guards — the first complete one they had sustained; but the admitted fact that they had been turned on at a few hours’ notice to achieve the impossible, did not spoil their tempers…

One of the handful of company officers not to become a casualty, today, in Bourlon Wood, was R.E. Sassoon, Siegfried‘s second cousin, who had been held back as a reserve with battalion headquarters.

Cambrai may have given hope and encouragement in England, but those who had been through it remained Sadducees. There were those who said that that hour was the psychological one to have gone on and taken advantage of the moral effect of breaking the Hindenburg Line, but this theory was put forward after the event; and a total of eleven thousand prisoners and a hundred and forty-five German guns for three weeks’ fighting seems small foundation for such large hopes. Every one on the field seems to have been agreed as to the futility of trying to work with, and making arrangements for the keep of, masses of cavalry on the chance that these might break through and overrun the enemy in the background.[2]

 

True enough… but we were going to use Captain Sassoon as a segue to a letter from his second cousin’s friend, admirer, and poetic master-surpassing-pupil. Wilfred Owen, has settled into life as a military hotel manager of sorts, but this is only tolerable because of his confidence that his intellectual life is not just elsewhere but flourishing… there.

27 November 1917 Scarborough

I sit alone at last, and therefore with you, my dear Siegfried. For which name, as much as for anything in any envelope of your sealing, I give thanks and rejoice.

The 5th have taken over a big Hotel, of which I am Major Domo…

I had a Third Heaven of a time in London, arid should have got into a Fourth or Fifth if I had not missed you on Wednesday. Were you there for a ‘Reading?’ I know nothing of it to this day.

He was. Should Sassoon have included Owen? No–it was Ross’s gig, not Sassoon’s, and he was none too pleased to be there himself. Besides, Owen is not as established as Nichols, and arranging such things by letter and telegraph takes a bit more forethought than would be required nowadays… but Owen might also have been wrong for such things because he was not socially correct. He was neither low enough in the social order to be a curiosity nor high enough to be acceptable: he had been to neither Public School nor University, and Sassoon is painfully (read that adverb however you will) aware of Owen’s declassé accent.

After London, I went to Winchester to see my Cousin, whose fine Book cover with its enclosed pages I dare to send you herewith…

In Town, then, R.R. gave me a glorified morning at The Reform, & evening at Half Moon St.—When he had steered me to a lunch-table I found beside me an upstart rodent of a man, who looked astonished to find himself there. But dear Ross sang out with blessed distinctness ‘Mister Amnoldd Bennnettt’. So I stood up and shook hands.  Presently I became aware of a pair of bayonet-coloured eyes, threatening at me from over, as it were, a brown sandbag. ‘H. G. Wells!’ So I stood up and shook hands. I think these men noticed me because I stood up to them in two senses. Anyhow I got A.B. into a comer about you, as I will tell you someday. And H.G. talked to me exclusively for an hour. I was only ill at ease with him once, and that was when he tried to make me laugh with him at Bennett’s gaudy handkerchief.

If you have read through this rehashing of the non-momentous meetings with a roll of the eyes–that Owen is a bit too star struck!–it’s interesting to see what comes next. Even in this somewhat fawning letter to Sassoon, he is willing to, well, fawn, and only just after frankly wondering about Sassoon’s taste in his new friends…

What sport for my imagination is the idea of your Meeting with R. Nichols.—He is so self-concerned & vaniteux in his verse that I thought he must efface himself in a room: even as you who write so acid are so—unsoured; and me, who write so big, am so minuscule…

Oh! world you are making for me, Sassoon!

The only question is, which is the real gift: the criticism and the confidence, the poetic push, or, rather, the exciting entree into literary life?

Owen is quite amusing, actually, in his reading of Sassoon’s and Graves‘s work. There is something very charming about his light-spiritedness, even if he leans on it rather heavily. He presumes a bit too much on his intimacy with the sometimes-frosty Sassoon… but then he laughs at his own excessive glorying:

I think I liked reading his Letter to you more than yours to him, but for no better reasons than that I like the future better than the past, and hope you will learn the piccolo…

If these tetrameters aren’t enough to bring you to your senses. Mad Jack, what can my drivel effect to keep you from France?

Have you been very sat upon by this Board? Do tell me quick what your movements are.

I have studied and expanded every sentencience of your sole letter to me; until I can make no more out of it, and want some more, please…

Owen then–to his credit–at least passes on some of his cousin’s work, with apologetic notes on how to get through them most painlessly. But he also includes his own work, both the unpublished “A Vision of Whitechapel” and another poem, as strange as his mood:

My ‘Vision’ is the result of two hours’ leisure yesterday,—and getting up early this morning! If you have objections to make, would you return it? If not, pass it on to R.R.

I trust you’ll like the ‘Soldier’s Dream’ well enough to pass it on to the Nation or Cambridge?

Um…

I dreamed kind Jesus fouled the big-gun gears;
And caused a permanent stoppage in all bolts;
And buckled with a smile Mausers and Colts;
And rusted every bayonet with His tears.

And there were no more bombs, of ours or Theirs,
Not even an old flint-lock, not even a pikel.
But God was vexed, and gave all power to Michael;
And when I woke he’d seen to our repairs.

Sassoon will blush here–if not for the effusiveness, the nick-naming, and tje suddenly unreasonable-seeming hopes of publication, than for the plainness of one fact: Owen does not make a very good Sassoon. The punchy satirical style doesn’t work as well without the anger behind it… also, those are some awful rhymes.

No; Owen will realize, soon, that Sassoon’s attention and example have made him–Owen–a much better poet, and no mere fanboy. But he is that, also.

…There is no one here whose mind is Truth, or whose body Keats’s synonym for Truth.

I’ll mind my business. I’m a good worm.

Could you get me another portrait for my room here? I framed the one, and could not pack it.

But don’t make it an excuse for delaying a letter.

I hope you will read through this, twice.

I hope you read Graves’s Letter to S.S. twice a day, till war ends.

We have had some strong sunshine; and when it strikes anything blue I see you sitting by the bedside as on That Morning in September

I am Owen; and I am dying.
I am Wilfred; and I follow the Gleam.[3]

Never fear: this is not some sort of crazed or suicidal swerve at the end of the letter, but a quotation (read “Merlin” for both “Owen” and “Wilfred) from Tennyson’s “Merlin and The Gleam.” What a letter!

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Carstairs, A Generation Missing, 121-139.
  2. The Irish Guards in the Great War, II, 157-62.
  3. Collected Letters, 510-12.

Ivor Gurney is Back in Harness; Rowland Feilding’s Connaught Rangers Confess; Sapper Martin in Lombardy

We have another day of minor movements, today, as three of our writers look ahead to coming things.

Ivor Gurney, writing to Herbert Howells today, a century back, is making ready to leave the hospital. His touch of gas–and touch on the keyboard–have kept him out of the fray long enough to miss the rest of the year’s fighting. And to see his book in print…

17 November 1917

My Dear Howells…

Well; here am I, back in harness, and hot to be sent to Command Depot. (Dear old Army!) The notices of my book were out yesterday, and you will probably receive one soon. Could you collar the Morning Post reviews anywhere? The New Statesman? New Age? Nation? Possibly you might see one lying about and collar the bit. It is a crime, but here excusable, I think…

Pte Gurney I.B. 24I28I
B Co
4th Reserve Battallion T.F.
Gloucester Regiment
Seaton Delaval
Northumberland

(Hear, hear!)
So write sometime.

A horrid rumour has reached me that we shall get our embarkation leave next Thursday and be off on the next draft. If so, I shall apply for a commission, just after the 6 days. (Shudders of surprise after) Farwell. Au Revoir. Auf Wiedesehn. Goodbye:

Yours ever I.B.G.[1]

So Gurney is in high spirits–and contemplating a commission. Most of the reviews are not yet out, but they will be generally favorable. As for that commission, well, we shall see…

 

Sapper Jack Martin‘s diary has, over the last few days, begun the most interesting account I’ve read of a new and sideways movement: a body of British troops moves neither up the line nor west toward rest or blighty, but south and east,  to Italy. His long train had whisked the battalion from the mud and misery of Northern France to the pleasant autumn of the Riviera over several days, and then, two evenings ago, a century back, they had crossed into Italy.

Yesterday was a day of food-related misunderstandings, with gifts of jam and nuts and fruit going back and forth and a search for familiar sorts of bread. There is a swift resorting to stiff English stereotypes, as Martin decides that the soil is “too fertile,” which leads the men to be deplorably lazy. He is impressed, however, with the industry of the women-folk and the cleanliness of the houses, and there is an interesting comment tacked on to the end of a predictable description of the English soldiers clowning around by adding vowels to the end of all of their words in order to “speak Italian:”

They couldn’t understand any hilarity amongst men going to war. This particular type of wonderment we found all the way along the march. It has been said that an Englishman takes his pleasures sadly, but it should also be remarked that he can take the serious business of life jocularly.[2]

Today, a century back, they left the rails at Asola, in Lombardy, and began a long march which Martin will describe as “in the nature of an Elizabethan progress.” Marching through a marketplace of enthusiastic Italians, past their Brigadier, who took their salute from his hotel balcony, they marched 17 1/2 miles, the first few accompanied by “crowds of children.” They will have sore feet, after their long train journey–but they also have white Italian bread, and “sausages and potatoes in a Trattoria outside the billet.” Which sounds a great deal better than bully beef or a wan omelet in an Estaminet–but perhaps that is my own prejudice, or the stale palate or long (literary) familiarity with the British soldier’s French diet.[3]

 

And then there’s France, where the Somme region will not be quiet for much longer. Rowland Feilding will write of tonight, a century back, that “the whole battalion flocked to confession” in a converted barn in Ervillers. They did so because the orders had been given to pack up and prepare for a march to the front, first thing tomorrow morning.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters, 230-1.
  2. This observation seems to have been added at a later date.
  3. Sapper Martin, 129-35.
  4. War Letters to a Wife, 226.

Olaf Stapledon Goes to Mass; Rowland Feilding Praises Courage Under Fire

There is a special pathos in following the conversation of Olaf Stapeldon and Agnes Miller, separated as it is by half the world, the long weeks it takes letters to traverse the distance, and the vagaries of wartime mail. Agnes has been having her doubts, recently, that their love can survive the long loneliness, but Olaf hasn’t learned of them yet. And before he does, her doubts have turned back to questions, which he will then have to answer.

It’s been hard (of course!) being separated for long years, with only letters to sustain them. And when Agnes sees young men going off to fight–or bright, brave young men like Olaf taking high-status roles as officers–her faith in his faith that a pacifist’s place is in the hard, humble duty of the Ambulance Corps wavers.

You see, conscription did not come here, so there was no need for him to go to prison. But just put yourself in his place in a free country like Australia. You need not go to war & you need not go to prison, but I don’t think you would be content if you lived here to go on with your daily work just as usual. I think you would have been drawn away to do Red Cross or relief work just as you have been doing. Would you not? If so I think you must be right in being there now. If you would not have gone, do you think it would have been more worthwhile to stick to your own work or to have joined the English C.O.s in their protest? Which?

This is a difficult hypothetical, and we must point out on Olaf’s behalf that he never had to make such a choice because he committed to the Friends’ Ambulance Unit long before conscription came to England, when his old classmates were joining the army in droves. And he has thought all this through, carefully, too…

But the conversation is months in arrears, and Olaf’s letter of the same day, a century back, is a colorful slice-of-life letter. And yet, like any wartime letter, it can hardly fail to address these questions of duty, suffering, principle, and motivation.

6 November 1917

It is a foggy, muddy November Sunday, and in our great rugger match this afternoon we shall get well plastered. These matches are a great institution; they give us something to talk about for a fortnight before the event and a fortnight afterwards. We discuss rugger as seriously as if it was the war. We estimate people’s respective merits. We tragically whisper that so and so is no use, you know.” We exclaim, with eyes round with adoration, that so and so is glorious. We rearrange the whole program of our work so as to enable The Team to be all off duty on the Day. In fact it is just like school…

Stapledon then tells us about a recent service at the local church. There is some condescension, here, from the well-bred English Quaker, about the ceremonies of rural French Catholicism… but as always with Stapledon, sympathy trumps whatever stiffness holds him back, and he is drawn in:

The other day was the French “Jour des Morts.” Some of us dressed up and went to church to represent the convoy. It was a little old church… packed with pale blue soldiers, and in the background were about four women in deep black. The service began in the ordinary way, and seemed lamentably unreal, insincere. The priest muttered and rang bells and waved his hands & did genuflexions, the intoning was very bad. Then came a solemn solo on some sort of hautbois, rather an improvement. Then, after more scampered chants, the band in the gallery began playing some fine stately piece or other. We all sat and listened and were rather strung up by it. Then came the sermon, a rather oratorical affair, and yet somehow sincere. He spoke very clearly, slowly, and with much gesture. He pictured the supreme sacrifice of Christ, the similar sacrifice of any man who dies avec les armes a la main, en se battant pour la France [in arms, fighting for France], or words to that effect. He described sympathetically the mud & misery of the trenches; and then urged men, if they ever felt inclined to give up the struggle, to remember devastated France who needed their help. He pictured the souls of the glorious dead enjoying heaven. And his last words were a moving summary of all the sufferings of France since the war began…

One felt as if the little church were some ship in a great storm, sweeping toward a fierce coast. One felt that the blue mariners, instead of pulling at ropes and sailing the ship, were praying to imaginary gods of the tempest. I don’t know. It was somehow terrible. One felt the awful fatal power of the world, and the littleness of men. Finally the band played Chopin’s dead march as people slowly moved out with wreaths for their friends’ graves. That nearly reduced some of us to tears, very much against our will. I can’t explain. There was something more than the obvious tragedy of human death about it, though indeed that is more than enough in itself, our blue soldiers, with their short-cropped black hair, and their matter-of-fact French faces. They had such a strange shamefaced way of crossing themselves, rather as if they suspected it was a foolish superstition but were determined to be on the safe side. They had seen hell all right but they did not know at all what heaven is…[1]

 

The only other piece today is almost a flash-forward. Rowland Feilding is neither a dreamer nor a pacifist, but he is, in another sense, what Olaf Stapledon hopes to be, namely an older married man, doing his duty, and keeping his beloved wife Edith as close as he can. Feilding has done more than any of our writers to hold to the plan of writing scrupulously honest and open letters to his wife, sparing her nothing.

But today there is a painful reversal, a vertigo at the edge of the experiential gulf: Feilding is safe in reserve, and his wife and children are in danger, in London. It’s a short letter, but it packs in love, a sort of befuddled proto-feminism, and the awkward tone of a husband/commander exhorting and commending his wife/subordinate from far away, in relative safety.[2]

I got your letter to-day, describing the air-raid, which interested me enormously and filled me with pride to think of you all joking at the bottom of the kitchen stairs.

I cannot tell you how much I admire the way in which you have handled this problem, forcing the children to look upon the air-raids as a game. It is splendid. The others will inevitably take their cue from you. Had you been a man you would have made an ideal soldier. Above all, I admire the way in which you have never woken the children till, in your opinion, the danger has become imminent. You are becoming a veteran now, and I have every faith in your leadership, and that it will carry you and the household through…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Talking Across the World, 254-6. Of all things--and allowing for the ten thousand miles separating the lovers--this scene recalls (or anticipates, rather) the Advent Evensong scene in Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow.
  2. He is probably not in "relative" safety; London was a big place and the raids did not kill very many compared to the constant bombardment even on quiet sectors of the rear areas in France and Belgium. Nevertheless, the thought that on some nights, at least, his family is in danger and he is not is strange and destabilizing...
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 223-4.

A Shell Inscribes a Line in Edward Brittain’s Hand; Hugh Quigley Girds for Battle; Herbert Read Welcomes the Conquering Heroes; Isaac Rosenberg Goes Under the Weather; Phillip Maddison Goes from Safety to the German Lines, and from the German Lines to G.H.Q.

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…[1]

 

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:[2] 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?[3]

 

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.[4]

 

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.”

10.x.17

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.[5]

 

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,[6] 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

  1. Passchendaele and the Somme, 144-7.
  2. If there is an image of it available somewhere, I didn't find it with a desultory search, alas.
  3. Letters From a Lost Generation, 377.
  4. Cohen, Journey to the Trenches, 172.
  5. The Contrary Experience, 111.
  6. 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?

Isaac Rosenberg in London; Eddie Marsh Sees the Sights; Agnes Miller Cries in the Dark

After two days in transit, Isaac Rosenberg reached London today, a century back, on his first leave since his service in the B.E.F. began. Before he even reached home he was among friends, and in high spirits: on the bus from Victoria Station he saw Joseph Leftwich and jumped off to greet him looking “well and fit… more boisterously happy than I had ever seen him.”

Isaac Rosenberg (seated) with his younger brother Elkon

Over the next ten days Rosenberg will spend much time with his family, but he will also go in search of art and literature, revisiting old haunts such as the Slade and heading to the Café Royal, his poems in his pockets. but he will miss his two most important patrons–Sidney Schiff and Eddie Marsh (on whom see below)–but he probably saw both Anetta Raphael and Sonia Cohen, whom he had painted most memorably (and probably loved, unrequitedly, before losing her to a doomed relationship with John Rodker).

In any case Rosenberg’s poetry will reflect both a surge in personal confidence and a reconsideration of past loves. Strikingly, for a sickly and fragile man who had gone for a soldier more out of poverty than out of any Romantic belief in war’s exalting or transformative powers, he has been, if not exalted, than at least positively transformed by some aspects of his experience. He might hate the war, but being in London he feels empowered in some way: the war may be awful, but it is still intense, and returning to the scene of his prior life probably made that life seem “‘pallid’… and unexciting” by contrast.

It is difficult to track Rosenberg’s next few days, but at some point he and his brother Elkon went to sit for a photograph. Elkon is nine years younger and a newly minted soldier rather than a veteran of the trenches, but here he looks the hale and protective elder brother.[1]

 

It seems typical of Rosenberg’s luck that the one patron best positioned to help him in matters literary, artistic, and military had been in London for years–and now is touring Belgium and France. Eddie Marsh’s diary for today, a century back, begins with a clever allusion suitable for dutiful tourism.

These V.I.P.s can really get their sight-seeing done quickly, especially when they begin their tour from the right spot, namely Amiens, the capital of behind-the-lines-of-the-British-Sector-of-the-Somme:

Saturday Sept. 16th

Like Mrs. Micawber, I felt that ‘having come so far, it would be rash not to see the Cathedral’—so I rushed round before breakfast. I had only 5 minutes there, but in a sense it was enough. I hadn’t for a long time seen anything of that kind—of that majestic and overwhelming beauty—and it was ‘a bit much.’

We started at 10.15 for Arras. There was nothing much to notice (except German prisoners working by the roadside—and farther on some native labour contingents) till we got to Albert—but from the moment I caught sight of the Virgin in her arrested fall, the day was a succession of thrills. The Virgin is curiously moving. She’s nothing in herself, the battered church is a hideous and vulgar building, and she gives the tower the shape of a fool’s cockscomb. Yet her position is so evidently a miracle—the edge of her pedestal has somehow just caught in the parapet, and there she stays month in and month out in the very act of her headlong dive—one feels it must be an omen.

Here is an experienced and not-easily-impressed man greatly impressed by ominous coincidence–by strange chance amidst the drama of war.

Next, with Marsh’s fresh eyes we see once again the road to the front.

For a few minutes beyond Albert the country is still country—I saw an untouched bend of the Ancre, flowing through grass meadows among poplars and willows. Then comes a sudden change—the land becomes featureless and unmeaning, like the face of a leper—(a leper with smallpox as well, for it’s all pitted with shell-holes). Coarse grass and weeds have sprung up everywhere, so the unimaginable desolation one used to read about has passed off—but there are still the fines of bare tree trunks with their stumps of boughs—and everywhere the tiny nameless white crosses, single or in clusters, ‘like snowdrops’ as Winston said—and here and there a regular cemetery with larger named crosses. Of the smaller villages, such as Pozières, not a trace remains (just a fragment of wall, 4 feet high, which was once the Chateau de Pozieres). We passed the crater of La Boisselle, where the German fines began—and the white mound of the Butte de Warlencourt—and then came to Bapaume, which looks as if some one had crumpled it up and torn it into little bits, meaning to throw it into the waste-paper-basket…

Then, near Lens, Marsh comes upon the truly empty battlefield:

The whole countryside is covered with red towns, Liévin, Salournies, etc.—as thickly almost as the parts round Manchester (Loos was just hidden by Hill 70). Nowhere a trace of humanity, except one or two Tommies walking
about in the Bois des Hirondelles round a battery which the Boches were trying to shell…

After about half an hour Neville and I went back to H.Q., where we found Winston lunching with the Generals, in a tunnel-shaped tin hut. W. then started on foot to visit his old Regiment, the R.S.F., who were close by, and Neville and I motored into Arras. The Cathedral there makes a fine ruin no doubt it’s better now than before, as it was an uninteresting classical building, but the broken masses are fine…

The sightseeing will exceed its allotted time–or, rather, time will tarry long enough for Churchill’s party to try and get themselves into a bombardment.

We went back to H.Q., where Winston joined us at 4.15, so we were already about two hours late in starting. And
we hadn’t gone far before he was attracted by the sight of shells bursting in the distance. This, we were told, was a
daylight raid on Chérizy—irresistible!—out we got, put on our steel helmets, hung our gas-masks round our necks, and walked for half an hour towards the firing—there was a great noise, shells whistling over our heads, and some fine bursts in the distance—but we seemed to get no nearer, and the firing died down, so we went back after another hour’s delay. W.’s disregard of time, when there is anything he wants to do, is sublime—he firmly believes that it waits for him.

We drove back on the same road as far as Bapaume, and then straight on through Le Transloy, Sailly-Saillisel (of
which not a trace remains)—to Péronne, which must have been a lovely little place. The sunset light, when we got there soon after six, was the loveliest I’ve ever seen and the ruins, softened and glowing in its warmth and sweetness, were unutterably pathetic…[2]

 

Finally, today, as a counterpoint to the military gourmandise of Churchill-amidst-the-ruins, we have a faint sigh escaping from halfway across the world. Agnes Miller pines–nobly, and demurely–for Olaf Stapledon. What good would it do to complain about her fate, as she waits for him, in Australia, to complete a service that is arduous and dangerous, but not, in the eyes of her friends and family, glorious? No good at all… their marriage will have to wait for duration.

But sometimes it’s hard–especially when a friend and her beau plan to tie the knot. In a letter of today, a century back, Agnes allows herself a confession of low spirits, a brief reversal of the frequent soldier’s decision to put the principle of honesty-across-the-gulf before that of adding nothing unnecessary to the loved one’s worries:

Do you know their engagement was just about as different from ours as it could possibly have been. We discussed ours for about 2 1/2 years & then became engaged. They discussed theirs for about 2 1/2 hours & became engaged there & then…

They told me about it that Sunday night [9 September] when I first began this letter. I was dead tired, & it was after 10. They were boiling eggs hard for a picnic breakfast for the morrow. I sat on one table swinging my legs & they sat together opposite me on the other table swinging their long legs. They told me in answer to my question that until that famous night, a week ago, they had never said anything to each other which the world might not have heard! So evidently they had been going along their ways & had drawn nearer & nearer together without saying a word until suddenly they found they were both on the same path. How lovely that must have been, must it not? No wonder the dear kids are happy with their so newly found treasure. I disgraced myself that evening. I was so tired. We stopped talking & mused. Lionel took Rosie’s hand & they looked so comfy & happy. I thought of you away there & me here on the kitchen table & the tears would not be kept back & I had to make a dive for my bedroom & have a good old cry in the dark.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. See Cohen, Journey to the Trenches, 169-71; Moorcroft Wilson, Isaac Rosenberg, 371.
  2. A Number of People, 257-9.
  3. Talking Across the World, 249.

Hugh Quigley Expects Exaltation; Wilfred Owen on Siegfried Sassoon: The Man, The Friend, The Poet

Hugh Quigley has only recently arrived in the Salient, and he has not yet experienced battle. This will change, shortly–and sharply.

Courcelles-le-Comte, 12 September, 1917

This morning the Colonel summoned the whole battalion to the concert-hall, a ruined house with a roof of yellow tarpaulin. We knew perfectly well what was coming. A fortnight’s training in bombing, firing or rifle grenades, shooting at disappearing targets, and practise of assault-formations going in waves over a hill, gave us an inkling of hot work in front of us. He told us of the traditions the division stood for, the high position it held in the regard of the Army Commander, appealed to the courage of an army which had triumphed at Messines, Vimy, Arras, and Ypres; recalled us to the German treatment of our prisoners, and of harmless Belgian and French civilians, violation, seduction, murder, until it appeared a sacred duty to die fighting in such a cause. At the last he warned us solemnly of the penalties attached to cowardice in the field. “If the Hun shells too heavily, side-step, but for God’s sake don’t go back…”

So: the motivations are to include avenging murder and rape, and yet the green men of the next division in are also reminded of the penalty–death–that their own army metes out to men who flee. I’m not sure about the carrot, but the stick is quite clear.

And yet Quigley is drawn to the idea of battle. This next bit provides a stiff reminder that not every soldier–not even in late 1917–is disillusioned or disenchanted. One may, in fact, be fully aware of two long years of failed attacks and enormous casualty tolls yet still able to conceive of battle in Romantic/Religious terms: Passchendaele may be a bloody disaster, but then again in might be a “quest,” not to be missed.

When he had finished and we went out into the clear air, into the quietly smiling sunlight, a feeling not exactly of pain or even fear overtook me: a dim sense of exaltation, as if a definite vocation in life had been assured, a definite reward, a final gathering of all forces of soul and will to answer a great call, an obliteration of every quavering and hesitation, as if the new quest was nobler than that legendary one of Parzival. This was the real thing at last, not a mere toying with life and fate. The balance would be decided between life and death–death with no lingering and in a full glory of achievement, life after a stern battling with danger and crowned with joy in the thought of courage proved. I think the real religion must be a development of that uncertain exaltation, a strange concurrence in the unseen and perhaps inevitable, a definite view of soul across a broad world of shadow, a surrender to the great power we call God…

In such a time we are all believers, cannot help it. There is a need of sympathy and sustenance, of belief in a certain mission and of reward for play with death, and that is the spirit’s will and way.[1]

 

Needless to say, it will be interesting to check in with Quigley after the battle–provided that he finds himself on the right side of the balance of life and death–or after even a spell of muddy-miserable trench warfare, bombardment, and the inevitable failure of mere “exaltation” to carry a human spirit through the shapeless, miserable, un-quest-like gantlet of attritional warfare.

Which brings us, more or less, to Wilfred Owen, who has not been the same since he was shelled for days in the deep, freezing dugouts of last winter’s front line.

But that is a long time ago, now, in one man’s experience, and he is riding hard on a much sweeter quest–life after danger, and poetry proved:

Tuesday [22] September 1917

My own dear Mother,

Many true thanks for your long letter. I have read it many times. You also find letter writing a fitter mode of intimate communication than speaking.

The enclosed came out of my Parcel of Portfolios rec’vd this evening…

Ah! The Mysterious Portfolios! Did they contain evidence of forbidden love? Hidden prodigal poetry?

We’ll never know… but probably not:

The MSS. arrived in perfect order. Did I classify them as Angels & Devils ? I meant simply; Live Ones and Duds. I have written no Barrack Room Ballads!

Alas. It was probably only bad poetry, and thus a more or less empty vault for the biographically-minded critic. The letter returns now to the most important topic of Owen’s recent letters: the mentor, Siegfried Sassoon.

You may be a little shocked by Sassoon’s language. He is of course, with W.E.O. practically the only one in the place who doesn’t swear conversationally. He is simply honest about the war.

Your questions concerning him are searching. You will do well to put them on all similar occasions.

For it is very true there are not a few whom I like, say, as a poet only, as an actor only, as a table-companion only, as a trench-mate only, as a servant only, as a statue only, as a marble idol only.

Sassoon I like equally in all the ways you mention, as a man, as a friend, as a poet.

The man is tall and noble-looking. Before I knew him I was told this and by this much only I spotted him! I quote from a publication: ‘very slim and shy, with eyes which may be blue or brown when you come to examine them closely.'[2]

He is thirty-one. Let it be thoroughly understood that I nourish no admiration for his nose or any other feature whatever.

The Friend is intensely sympathetic, with me about every vital question on the planet or off it. He keeps all effusiveness strictly within his pages. In this he is eminently English. It is so restful after the French absurdities, and after Mrs. Gray who gushes all over me. But there is no denying to myself that he is already a closer friend than, say, Leslie. Just as this assertion is not the result of having been with him so much lately, neither is it derogated by the shortness of our acquaintance-time. We have followed parallel trenches all our lives, and have more friends in common, authors I mean, than most people can boast of in a lifetime.

As for the Poet you know my judgement…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Passchendaele and the Somme, 117-119.
  2. A quote from a preface to Sassoon's parody The Daffodil Murderer.
  3. Collected Letters, 493-4.

A Mole Hill for Bed and Cake for Dinner in Jack Martin’s Trench; Kate Luard is Nearly Halfway Through Her Letters

Two nights ago, a century back, Jack Martin

felt a small strange upheaval underneath me. My first thought was of rats, but I soon discovered that it was a mole working away under the canvas on which we lie. A molehill in the middle of your spine is not conducive to comfort so I had to move myself one pace to the right…

Martin is an engineer, and so happy, apparently, to practice “live and let live” with rival tunnelers. Or perhaps he was simply biding his time, unwilling to risk conflict before the next mail call. Yesterday was Martin’s 33rd birthday, which netted him a tidy total of four parcels, leaving his tent looking “like a canteen.”

4.9.17

At 10 p.m. last night Glasspoole and I proceeded on night duty with my parcels. There was too large an assortment for us to sample everything but we started on a chocolate cake… then we tackled a bottle of preserved mixed fruits with grape nuts and condensed milk…[1]

The feast will continue…

 

But the interlude of comparative peace will not. Yesterday was a quiet day for Kate Luard, too, although her time was occupied with less agreeable correspondence.

Crowds of letters from mothers and wives who’ve only just heard from the W.O. and had no letter from me, are pouring in, and have to be answered, from my book of addresses and notes of cases; it takes up hours. I’ve managed to write 200 so far, but there are 466.

Then yesterday’s quietly devastating task led into a long and far less quiet night.

1 a.m. Another spell of hell let loose, and now brilliant moonlight, desultory banging of our heavies and occasional squeakers whining over from him. Peace for the minute overhead. Nearly all the patients are sleeping.

Later. Shells getting nearer had me back in the hospital. The last shell looked to be on the edge of 44; it was a big crash and spattered me with spent splinters. His damnable engines are now approaching in the sky – must be off.

2.30. I just got to a ward where the Sister is alone with one patient when the bomb fell and blew one of our Night Orderlies’ sleeping tents out of existence: it is one of a group of Orderlies’ and M.O.’s tents and one of the only empty ones at night. Wasn’t it wonderful? They’d all have been wiped out if they’d been in bed, but they were all on Night Duty. No other tent was touched. Just left an excited group of M.O.’s in pyjamas, and men round the hole…

Today has reminded me, strangely, of the last days of Edward Thomas. He had a birthday not long before the end, though the parcels were delayed; he also spent a morning pondering a mole, his habitat disturbed by guns and engineers; and Thomas had one long argument about the theology of ignoring artillery shells that found their mark while praising a matrix of near misses as a pattern of miraculous escapes… all of this is echoed, today, both by skeptical engineers and world-weary but conventionally religious nurses.

Conventional–but not unreflectively pious.

Tuesday morning, September 4th. Got to bed in my clothes, at 4 a.m., up at 7.30. Slept well. Brilliant morning; Archie racket in full blast. This acre of front so far bears a charmed life, but how long can it last? Shells and bombs shave us on all four sides. Mad, isn’t it? Capt. B. and Capt. P. (the all-night-duty men) are topping people. We have huge jokes in the middle of it all – no one could stick it if everybody behaved with fitting solemnity and sang hymns. There is a bit of Thank God sometimes, but praying doesn’t somehow come in, which seems funny! You can be
doing that!

Later. Orders have come for the final evacuation of the Hospital – site considered too ‘unhealthy.’ We close down to-day, evacuate the patients still here, and disperse the personnel. I stay till the last patient is fit to be moved, probably to-morrow, or next day – then probably Leave for 14 days! But don’t count on it, as you never know.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Sapper Martin, 99-100.
  2. Unknown Warriors, 155-7.

Ivor Gurney Would Test God’s Purposes

Today we’ll continue to read Ivor Gurney’s latest letter to Marion Scott. It was posted today, a century back, with another addition, including an unusually direct poem–about himself, this time, and his chances in this war. This is not a soldier dreaming of his native hills; this is a soldier openly questioning what his future in France will hold:

 

I would test God’s purposes;
I will go up and see
What fate is mine, what destiny
God holds for me.

For He is very secret.
He smiles, but does not say
A word that will foreshadow
Shape of the coming day.

Curious am I, curious . . . .
And since he will not tell
I’ll prove him, go up against
The flary mouth of Hell.

And what hereafter — Heaven?
Or Blighty? O if it were . . . .
Mere agony, mere pain the price
Of the returning there.

Or — nothing! Days in mud
And slush, then other days . . . .
Aie me ! “Are they not all
The seas of God?” God’s Ways?

That’s not so bad, I think. Are colours turning yet in Kent? Perhaps…

Not so bad–and very, very clear: God knows, and Ivor doesn’t. Heaven? Blighty, to be bought with mere agony? Or… nothing? Interestingly, this is not the atheist’s “nothing” but rather the strategist’s: the poem is not a theological lament but a military one in which the muddy war of attrition that goes ever on between “shows” seems to take on a theological status… the Slough of Limbo, perhaps.

But for all that “flary mouth of Hell,” Gurney seems to have–or to be taking, in this letter–a relatively sunny view of the war’s recent developments.

Things look pretty hopeful now, dont they? The Italians seem to have remembered Caesar and his far wars and glory. What the Austrians remember I cannot say (Austerlitz?) And the French dont seem exhausted, and as for the English . . . . Our guns would frighten imps in the lowest concrete dugout of Hell, so they shake me up pretty considerably.

Now write to me, prattle sweetly in your accustomed fashion, for how long we shall be in we do not know save from that fickle jade Rumour, whose information is rarely much good. And by all means send the proofs if you can get a double set. Goodbye With best wishes:

Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney[1]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters, 192-3.

Siegfried Sassoon Takes the Measure of His Foe

The big guns of pacifism–or, at least, of resistance to this war in its current form–have been called in to help Siegfried Sassoon. And the statement has been written… but not yet released. Sassoon hesitates. And although he will portray himself as putty in the hands of forceful intellects like Middleton Murray and, especially, Russell, his diary entry of today, a century back, makes it clear that he is girding himself and taking the measure of the opposition before he commits to his assault.

June 21

A long statement of the war-aims etc by Belloc in Land and Water leaves me quite unconvinced. He argues from the point of view of British rectitude: and it is that which I am questioning. Worst of all he argues on the assumption that ‘the next few months’ will bring a military decision; he has done this since 1915, so one cannot put much faith in him.

I am revolting against the war being continued indefinitely; I believe that Carson, Milner, Lloyd George and Northcliffe intend the war to continue at least two more years. To carry out the scheme of ‘crushing Kaiserism and Prussianism’ by means of brute force, the war must go on two more years.

The swirling mess of historical ironies here is impossible to untangle: Sassoon may be heading into conspiracy-theory territory, but he’s not quite wrong about anything he claims, and in fact his assessments are eminently sensible, and would have been shared by many realistic strategists. No one can make a real claim to having predicted the see-sawing effects of Russian collapse, American participation, and the catastrophic “success” of the German Spring offensive–just as no one could have predicted what became of “Kaiserism” after armistice and abdication.

What follows seems to be on much less solid ground–but that may be in part because none of it “became” history.

If they stated our terms definitely, once and for all, and those terms were the ones we went into the war to enforce, the German people would realise that they had been enforced, and would insist on the war being stopped…

It is obvious that nothing could be worse than the present conditions under which humanity is suffering and dying. How will the wastage and misery of the next two years be repaired? Will Englishmen be any happier because they have added more colonies to their Empire? The agony of France! The agony of Austria-Hungary and Germany! Are not those equal before God?[1]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 176-7.

Scott Moncrieff Returns to London; Alfred Hale Endures Parental Bluster; Wyn Griffith in Red Tabs with Royalty; Vera Brittain on “The Profound Freemasonry” of Those Dead Beyond the Gulf

Today, a century back, we have rather a potpourri of four updates–and none are from the trenches.

First, we witness Charles Scott Moncrieff, now back in London, returning to a familiar literary orbit.

14th June

. . . Broadway (a brother officer here) is very good and faithful to me. He comes down after breakfast in a dressing gown and again (for messages) before he goes out. He has got me this writing pad. Colin came this afternoon and brought a great armful of roses. . . . My friend Robert Ross was in before Colin—fresh from a week-end with the Asquiths—and gave me a novel and a promise of all the latest poetry and other books. I was glad to see him as I wanted an expert’s eye cast on the portraits in this room. . . . I expect a good many brother officers this week. Broadway finds them. He is more obliging than words can say. This place is doing me a lot of good and I feel better already. Our surgeon is like the young villain in Hardy’s Laodicean—he looks about 14 but is very able…[1]

Reading Hardy, depending on Ross’s taste, Asquiths at arm’s reach… and, though he doesn’t mention it in this letter, he is also being regularly visited by Ronald Knox. It’s a small world… which I believe I’ve noted before.

 

While Moncrieff is returning from the war seriously wounded, Alfred Hale is slowly headed toward France. So slowly that he is still in the adjusting-to-training-camp stage. And it turns out that even our Old Man of the Air Force has parents. Hale may live a solitary life of privilege–before conscription that is–and see camp as an ordeal rather than an adventure, but he’s only 41… and he still has parents who write him their worries, reminding us that the generational gulf is, in terms of years on this earth, relative, and not absolute…

14 June: A letter from my father. A cousin had come to see him on Draft leave. He seemed to be bored with the War, especially with the prospect of death before his time from bullets or exposure… all of which surprised and shocked my father. ‘It didn’t matter how long the War lasted, but we must have a military victory at all costs’. (This last the burden of all letters from home)…

Hale senior also tells his son that at least his work as a batman is “setting free an abler man.” But Hale isn’t so sure. “Was I really doing that? Unfortunately, I much doubted it…” Nor is Hale accepting the idea that his music “must gain” from experience. He is fairly certain, in fact, that innocence of certain things is highly preferable…[2]

 

Llewelyn Wyn Griffith has recovered, to some extent, from the overwhelming disillusionment and horror at the murderousness of war that he felt after the death of his brother. Or perhaps he has just become more practical… and honest in his balance of emotional reaction and natural self-interest. In any event, he was very happy to be reassigned to the divisional staff a few days ago, replacing a wounded officer in an intelligence job running “an advanced information centre.” Griffith puts on his red tabs “with delight… I felt proud and important in red. Besides, I would be drawing pay at the rate of £400 a year, a tremendous jump for me.” And today, a century back, his elevated status put him in the way of royalty:

… the King and the Prince of Wales visited the headquarters on 14 June. The King shook hands with all the senior members of the corps and divisional staffs…[3]

 

A wounded young man of letters returning to the literary world, a middle-aged musician learning further humiliations, and a one-time trench fighter content to be on the staff. The war brings many changes–until the changes stop.

Vera Brittain comes to the end of the road, today, with Victor Richardson.

Five days after [his death] Victor was buried at Hove. No place on earth could have been more ironically inappropriate for a military funeral than that secure, residential town, I reflected, as I listened with rebellious anger to the calm voice of the local clergyman intoning the prayers: “Grant, we beseech Thee, O Lord, Thine Eternal Rest to all those who have died for their country…”

Eternal Rest, I reflected, had been the last thing that Victor wanted; he had told me so himself. But if, thus prematurely, he had to take it, how much I wished that fate had allowed him to lie, with other winners of the Military Cross, in one of the simple graveyards of France. I felt relieved, as I listened to the plaintive sobbing of the “Last Post” rising incongruously from amid the conventional civilian tombstones, that Edward had not been able to come to the funeral. The uncomprehending remoteness of England from the tragic, profound freemasonry of those who accepted death together overseas would have intensified beyond endurance the incommunicable grief which had thrust us apart.

But when, back in Kensington, I re-read the letter that he had written in reply to mine telling him of Victor’s death, I knew that he had never really changed towards me, and that each of us represented to the other such consolation as the future still held.

Vera then gives her brother the final words of the present chapter of her memoir, ending Edward’s fervent assurance of true brotherly love

I suppose it is better to have had such splendid friends as those three were rather than not to have had any particular friends at all, but yet, now that all are gone, it seems that whatever was of value in life has all tumbled down like a house of cards. Yet in Tah’s case I will not, I cannot say that I wished from the bottom of my heart that he should live…

Yes, I do say ‘Thank God he didn’t have to live it.’ We started alone, dear child, and here we are alone again… But we share a memory which is worth all the rest of the world, and the sun of that memory never sets. And you know that I love you, that I would do anything in the world in my power if you should ask it, and that I am your servant as well as your brother.

Edward[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 135-6.
  2. The Ordeal of Alfred Hale, 95.
  3. Up to Mametz and Beyond, 153.
  4. Testament of Youth, 359-61.