Rowland Feilding Belatedly Locates the Machine Guns of the Somme; John Ronald Tolkien Still Suffers from its Fevers; Ivor Gurney on the Courage of Women

Rowland Feilding has been mixing light letters about life in reserve with accounts of how he is spending his own free time (which, as a battalion commander, can be considerable), namely walking the old battlefield of the Somme and remembering what he and his men endured during the Battle of Ginchy last September 9th.

You will remember what a terrific fire we encountered when we attacked at this place. I have ever since been curious to know where that fire came from, and how so powerful a concentration of machine-guns could have complete escaped our artillery. Now I know. A well-concealed and winding trench, branching into two, and worked in conjunction with nests of shell-holes adapted as machine-gun positions! That is what we ran into, and it was a hopeless task we undertook that day…[1]

 

One of the casualties of the Somme–of its infectious diseases rather than its bullets, shrapnel, or gas–was John Ronald Tolkien. He has yet to return to full health, and, after a severe relapse which put him in the hospital for nine weeks, he went before a Medical Board today in Hull. The report was middling:

He has still not recovered his strength; he suffers from debility and pain in his arms and shins, and he looks delicate

Declared “30 per cent disabled,” Tolkien was sent back to the 3rd Lancashire Fusiliers at Thirtle Bridge, for light duty. The board’s decision may be changed later, but for now Tolkien has some reason to hope that he has seen the last of the trenches.[2]

 

Alas for Ivor Gurney that this is not true. He remains in hospital, but with a wink and a nod: his lungs are more or less fine–it is his talented fingers which keep him there, accompanying all the would-be singers in their own recoveries.

16 October 1917

My Dear Friend: This is a most lovely morning, and I ought to be out on the hills somewhere instead of writing letters, even to you. For letter writing is work of a sort, though I like it not badly here, and in France it is often a pleasure.

There is not much to tell you, there is no masterpiece of chiselled and exquisite verse…

Is it wise of me to play music? Well, I do, but know only too well that the effort to forget will be an extra difficulty against the little serenity I shall have in France. Unless I grow stronger of soul of course, and so much stronger is unlikely. The things I should most like to write are things of beauty with a vinegary ending, something after “The Fire Kindled”. Heine I believe is famous for that sort of thing. It is best to be Shakespeare but good to be Heine — though not Thersites.

Gurney is almost always etceterative–and occasionally tremendous. What an idea–to write beautiful, vinegary things, like Heine. And Thersites is a rare reference, but an excellent one: Gurney perhaps remembers him as the one common soldier who makes a role for himself in the Iliad, where Thersites is an ugly, misshapen grumbler amongst the gleaming heroes and handsome demigods who lead the Greek army, a would be mutineer who is scorned and battered into silence by his betters. But he is, nevertheless, a common man with a voice in the great poem.

Gurney is, as usual, writing to Marion Scott, and he segues now from his own classically-cast ambition (and muted grumbling) to a consideration of women at war. It is typical of his intelligence that he takes an observation (and one which runs against the grain of all-too-typical prejudices) and proceeds without much fanfare to a sensitive (and sensible) reconsideration of a Big Concept–courage, in this case  .

…Nurses are really wonderful people to do so many things distasteful and still to smile. There is a very nice set of nurses here (have I told you?) that could hardly be better. They call this the “Ragtime Ward”, a name of envy given by men oppressed in places of female dragons and discipline. The courage of women is certainly not less than that of men. To my mind, that is. The serene performance of hateful duties, and the refusal to be depressed by them is the finest form of courage. The more sensational are the wilder forms — no higher. There are a few soldiers who go on till they are knocked out, not heeding wounds, most of these comparative few have supported their nerves only too freely beforehand. The rest may be the flower of earth, but the man who can be brotherly and crack a joke on a winter night in a shell hole has undoubted undeniable unsupported courage, which is not always certain of the spectacular gentlemen, who may be Berserk or drunk. But there! It is only my preference perhaps for serene and quiet strength rather than for the violent kind. Violence is waste of energy.

Here endeth the umptieth lesson…

Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 215.
  2. Chronology, 102.
  3. War Letters, 222-4.

Withdrawals and Approaches: Charles Carrington, Hugh Quigley, Edmund Blunden, and Guy Chapman near Passchendaele Ridge

Before we turn to the tribulations of Charles Carrington on the Steenbeek, we must look to our immediate rear, where we have such a build-up of memoir writers in the support lines of the Salient that poetry can pass from one to the next…

 

First is Hugh Quigley, soon headed back toward the front lines. A fell mood is upon him:

The Canal Bank, Ypres, 6 October, 1917

I am right in the thick of it again, in this historic place which I shall describe some time. When I think of the glorious weather, sunlight shimmering in the molten sky, slow winds just breathing over the wilderness of shell-holes, it seems so hard throwing it all aside for an uncertain end. Yet it must be done. Perhaps Fate may have some kindness in store for me. Last night I had a strangely poignant dream: I was lying in the hospital trying madly to move my legs, both tied down in splints, and biting my lips to overcome pain coming from the right groin. A comfortable wound might be the outcome of this premonition. Let us hope so: then I can see again the Old Country I had given up for lost, hear the old voices, look at the friendly glad faces.[1]

 

Edmund Blunden, too, is on the way back in. His last tour had been harrowing, although of course it could have been worse. All of his unsurpassed talent for knitting together Gothic horror and pastoral idyll in close company on the page is exerted here, as he describes the withdrawal and then the time in reserve:

After the most vigorous display by the Bosch artillery that I have yet had to cast my eye upon and a narrow escape from being pulled under in a swamp on the way out (I was in such a hurry to get out of the barrage that my foot missed the dead man I was going to use as a duckboard),  we came back to this Corydonian spot for a B.E.F. rest. We feed in a barn which smells most pleasantly of hops…

Or not–not yet: this is not the studied, sumptuous memoir bur rather a contemporary letter to his school friend Hector Buck, which soon more fully embraces the usual tone of frenetic gaiety:

A bevy of milkmaids flitters about and warbles dithyrambs in the sunny air; at times they cease to warble but make a noise exactly similar by working an obese and crotchety cream separator. Since I knew they were on the go I have broken my vow and shaved; but even then my Charms are not availing.[2]

The memoir also fills us is in on how Blunden and the 11th Royal Sussex were really spending their time out of the line: drilling, marching, shooing on rifle and pistol ranges, and practicing for some of the least Arcadian recourses of the war.

This next episode–gas training–makes it possible, using the Battalion War Diary, to date this description fairly securely to today, a century back:

It was even a pleasure here to see Williams, the divisional gas officer, and his same old sergeant, at their kindly, deadly work again. I forget what type of gas it was that Williams discharged upon us, leaving it to us to get our helmets on or pass out. However, I believe it was not at full strength, for some hens poking about in the stubble did not suffer. Perhaps God tempers the gas to the Ypres hen.

But here is a point of interest not only specifically to this project but to the entire genre of the war memoir. Several of our writers involved in Passchendaele have–even while describing its horrors at great length–begun to refuse to dwell firmly in their evolving historical moment. In 1917 the war has become too much to bear–or its young wager-victims have become too prematurely old to live without the melancholy shoring-up of reminiscence:

Our minds receded with actual joy to the 1916 war, and particularly that season when we were within the kindly influence of Bethune. When had we heard the word “a bon time” since? How few there were left even to understand what hopes had then borne the battalion on, singing, toward the Somme! When we left this camp of disastered 1917, to be merged again in the slow amputation of Passchendaele, there was no singing. I think there were tears on some cheeks.

More prosaically, Blunden reports that he was passed over for promotion at this time–“the General would not hear of it, claiming that I was too young. My offences against propriety of speech and demeanour were in any case sufficient to spoil my chances…”–but also that he will be given a company nonetheless (to command as First Lieutenant, rather than a Captain).

Before that I had had a special duty to do. It was to act as “Tunnel Major” in Hedge Street Tunnels — to regulate the very limited and fiercely coveted accommodation there, and the traffic in and out. This took me back to the accursed area again, and even while I made my way there the evil nature of the place displayed itself. Going up by way of Zillebeke, I was obliged to stop. An “area shoot” began, a solid German bombardment for an hour on a chosen space, enclosing several battery positions. This shelling was so concentrated and geometrical that, leaning against the side of our old trench just beyond its limit, one was in safety. But the area covered was treated as with a titanic roller and harrow. About half an hour after this shoot began, from the very middle of the furnace two artillerymen suddenly emerged, running like demons but unwounded.

Outside the large dugout which I was to supervise a quartermaster-sergeant’s body was lying. Men were afraid to pause even a few seconds at this point and bodies were not quickly buried…

I found the tunnels crammed with soldiers on business and otherwise. The Colonel and Adjutant of the R. F.’s, who had taken our place in the Tower Hamlets sector a fortnight or so before, were occupying a new and half-finished dugout; they used me very hospitably. The Colonel remarked, pouring me out a drink, “We no longer exist.” I asked how: he explained that their casualties had been over 400.

Our experience had been only the prelude to their full symphony…[3]

 

Guy Chapman‘s symphony, as it happens–it was his battalion of the Royal Fusiliers which greeted Blunden, though Blunden does not recall the young officer’s name.[4]

On our third evening in Hedge Street we welcomed a very young, very fair and very shy subaltern from the Royal Sussex, who were to relieve us the next day. His battalion had preceded us at Tower Hamlets and had suffered a like experience. Late that evening a 6-inch How-battery commander came in to ask for accommodation and stayed to dinner. He was a pale bald man with a near fair moustache. He thumped on the table and recited Kipling for our entertainment.

This next bit, then, would be proper to tomorrow, a century back:

On the next day I showed our incoming tenant from the Sussex over his noxious habitation. As we bade him good-bye, he shyly put a small paper-covered book into my hand. The Harbingers, ran the title, ‘Poems by E.C. Blunden.’ It went into my it along with the battered Shakespeare, the torn Evan Harrington, and Sir Thomas Browne.[5]

 

Finally, though, we must skip ahead, more in the geographical than the anticipatory sense. We left Charles Carrington (the “Edmonds” of A Subaltern’s War), yesterday, about to grab a few hours overnight in the A Company dugout. After two long sleepless days and nights, he was exhausted, jumpy, and not too proud to simply sleep in a place of greater safety, “a little bit of narrow trench partly covered with a sheet of iron.”

After dawn, Carrington/Edmonds continued to lay as low as he decently could.

I determined quite basely to take shelter for a few hours in C company’s pill-box, and presently plucked up courage and squattered across through the stream to it.

This pill-box was the only piece of good cover in the battalion area. Imagine a small room ten feet square and six feet high with walls of thick rough concrete. There is only one opening, the door, over which a waterproof sheet is draped. The furniture consists of four bunks made of wire stretched on wooden frames. Signallers and officers’ servants have made a little hutch under the lee of the outer wall. Inside, live Marriott and Flint, a serjeant, and as many other people as are thought to deserve refuge. During the day Newsom and Wolfe each pay a visit to get some rest. I come first and stay longest. After all, the headquarters of a front-line company make quite a good command-post for a support company commander, and Thorburn’s position is within shouting distance and full view by daylight. On such a little journey had we lost our way last night.

Flint is something in the same exhausted state as myself; Marriott, who came up from reserve with Thorburn and Wolfe after the attack, is very cheerful and doing most of the work…

Descriptions of pill-boxes will be a major feature of “Edmonds'” narrative from here on out, with loving attention both to their horribleness and their precise degree of protection against different armaments.

But war narratives can never be truly predictable: today passes pleasantly and amusingly, with a tone of light comedy, however much strained, by tension, toward hysteria:

Marriott welcomed me cordially enough, and found me the dry corner of a bed, where I tried to get an hour’s sleep, but with little success. After a time he came into the pill-box, grinning, to ask me to take away some men of mine who were creating a disturbance in his trench. I went out and found the ten ration-carriers of last night all roaring drunk. The poor devils had got lost, just like everyone else, had wandered all night, and finally decided that the company was annihilated. Not without good sense they decided not to starve. They did their best with a whole company’s rations, but a whole company’s rum defeated them. Hither they had wandered very happy and very sleepy, but rather inclined to sing themselves to sleep. We saved the rest of the food and rum, and sent over the
remains, plenty for my handful of men.

It was difficult to know what to do with these men. One or two were helpless and comatose, one or two were incurably cheerful, the others varied from one extreme to the other. To arrest them and send them down the line would bring shell-fire on them and their escort, besides weakening the outposts. I stormed at them in my severest manner, promising them all courts-martial and death sentences. Some understood me and sobered a little, but Bridgwater and two or three others only blinked and looked more amiable than ever. If I had had any laughter in me I should have burst out laughing, too. We brought most of them round to a condition soon where they could go back to the company. The hopeless cases we left to sleep it off. There were no shooting parties at dawn, after all, as a sequel to this episode.

During the rest of the day I remained almost entirely in the pill-box. The shell-fire gradually increased as it had done yesterday, but we had no direct hits, any one of which would have done for us. Marriott kept up a running fire of conversation all day, little jokes and reminiscences, sly hints about my company and the rum, comparisons of our men with the Colonials, anecdotes of the day and of old battles. He had a N.C.O. in the pill-box with him, as orderly serjeant, one of those professional humorists without whom no company could hang together. The queer turns of his dialect, and an attractive little stuttering in his speech, an acute street-arab sense of humour, combined with the
manners and deference of a gentleman, made him perhaps a perfect example of the urban soldier. The stories flowed out of him all day, his adventures with long-forgotten brigadiers, ‘madamaselles’ or serjeant-majors, his friends and their idiosyncrasies, love and war and the weather, the bitterness of things, red tape and bad language.
(I cannot refrain from quoting ‘that our armies swore terribly in Flanders.’) He could tell a tale against a staff officer always with tact enough not to scandalise the officers present. If I were Dickens and could write down what he said,
my fortune as a novelist would be made. But I’m afraid the jokes that made us reel with laughter would be flat to-day. One jumped at any excuse to be gay, and to laugh meant to forget that open door, facing the wrong way, through which a shell might come at any moment to burst in the midst of us…

But relief from anxiety through laughter is temporary–relief from the front line, by another battalion, is what they crave.

At dusk when we were all ready the orderly arrived again. Where were the Berks? we asked. Not yet come up. But he had brought instead a large rough mongrel sheep dog, trained to carry messages through fire. Marriott grew quite despondent. “I thought they were going to send up the Berkshires,” he said, “ but all we’re going to get now is barks”; at which we laughed uproariously. The Berks never did come, but before long a company of another regiment began to arrive. I collected my gear (we were in full marching order), and splashed through the stream to Thorburn, who had had another day’s shelling and felt a little neglected. We headed back a second time to the jumping-off line, where we were now to be reserve company. Marriott withdrew his men to our position in the shell-holes by the Stroombeek.

As Thorburn and I ploughed through the mud after our men, we passed one of the relieving platoons going forward. Their subaltern gripped me by the arm.

“Who are you? Where are you going? Where’s the front line? Have you seen A company?” he asked all in a rush.

“Keep straight on,” I answered jauntily, “follow the tape. Your captain’s up there. We’ve just been relieved.”

“Don’t go! ” he said. “Don’t leave us! For God’s sake, show us the way.” I had met someone more frightened than
myself. My confidence came back to me in a moment. This man was in a shivering funk.

“God damn it!” I said. “You’re all right. You’re much stronger than we were. There’s a good dugout up there—you can’t miss it.”

And I shook him off and walked on. I wonder what state that poor devil was in at the end of his tour. But I had only gained a momentary confidence, and before morning was sinking back into the same apathy of suppressed fear as before.

We took up our position on the right half of the jumping-off line, quite near headquarters. There were about twenty-seven men to organise in four sections, and place in the best shell-holes. For company headquarters Serjeant Walker, Thorburn and I found an old incomplete pill-box called on the map Cluster House. It was one of those early German efforts made of concrete on the western and of wood on the eastern side, so that in case of capture it would give no cover against German shell-fire. But it gave shelter from the rain, and here we settled. To make some amends to Thorburn for the twenty-four hours duty he had taken alone, I sent him to battalion headquarters to sleep, where they found him a corner of some kind. Walker took the top bunk in the little room, I took the lower one, but could only doze for an hour or two, in spite of the fact that I had not had eight hours’ sleep out of the last ninety. It was very cold and I was acutely aware of my wet knees.[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Passchendaele and the Somme, 133-4.
  2. More Than a Brother, 12.
  3. Undertones of War, 246-9.
  4. Blunden's poetry will soon be well known; Chapman published his memoir five years after Blunden's Undertones.
  5. A Passionate Prodigality, 207.
  6. A Subaltern's War, 170-77.

Edwin Vaughan is Back in the Trenches; Siegfried Sassoon is Back in the English Countryside

Edwin Vaughan‘s spring has been a quiet one so far. But tonight, a century back, he writes a tidy little “back to the front” piece which gives us a good, detailed reminder of what ordinary trench-holding–specifically the “relief” of one unit by another–involved.

Yesterday, there had been a cricket match and tea shared with rear-echelon troops. Today, packing and the issue of new maps. The approach march halted until dusk fell, waiting beyond the limit of German observation. Then, in the dark, they began their march toward Cambrai.

For an hour we marched in perfect quiet and then far ahead was a flash followed by the boom of one of our guns. Almost at the same moment we had to spread out to avoid a shell-hole. From there on the shell-holes became more frequent and the road was littered with large, loose cobbles…

The rain–of course–had started, and things seemed pretty miserable to me as I lay in the wet grass in full pack with the front line half a mile off. Pushing on we moved across a faint track and had just climbed on to an open plain when the order ‘Gas Alert’ was passed back. We got our gas-masks ready but save for a slight smell of pineapple there was no development.

Presently guides arrived and we were led away to the right whilst the rest of the Battalion carried on…

At the trench wherein we learnt was the Company HQ dugout, we picked up one guide per platoon, and took our separate paths to the front line…

A gradual downward slope of 200 yards brought us to a trench barely 20 yards long. Here an officer greeted me and climbed up on top. I dropped Dunham, Sergeant Jowett and the reserve section and the remainder of us went forward to the line of posts in front…

Having posted these sections we returned to the trench behind and climbed down the slippery earth steps. A small cubby-hole had been scooped into the front of the trench, and into this we crawled. There was just room for us to lie full length on the straw, with a candle stuck between us on a piece of stick jabbed into the side. Here I signed for the stores of bombs, Very lights, ammunition and petrol tins which I had checked, and I asked the officer if he had any tips to give me about the trench. He told me that everything was very quiet but that no one could move by day. At night Jerry had strong patrols out in No Man’s Land, but his line was a thousand yards away.[1]

So they have arrived, and mastered the trench. But now there is No Man’s Land to be dealt with.

 

Siegfried Sassoon, meanwhile, has been enjoying the social aspects of a London recovery from a less than dangerous wound. But, in another highly suggestive quirk of medical bureaucracy, he is sent out of London just as his book (its merits trumpeted by his many well-connected friends) is starting to make an impact. Sassoon has arrived for a stay at Chapelwood Manor, in Sussex, the seat of Lord and Lady Brassey, who have graciously made it into a convalescent home for officers. Although Sassoon is not thinking much about his book–so far as we can see from his diary, at least–he is writing again. It would seem that London is always an interlude, while the more perfect contrast of country-house recovery with the misery of the trenches stimulates reflection.

May 13 3.30 a.m. (in a white bedroom at Chapelwood Manor)

This notebook began not many miles from Arras in the bloody month of April, when guns began to bellow. And now my disciplined wanderings have sent me to a very pleasant country house, where perfect good taste prevails, and nobody sleeps in the clothes he wore last week and this.

It is a grey-timbered and many-gabled house, built twelve years ago. Dark yew-hedges and formal gardens are round it. And its windows look across Sussex toward Lewes and Beachy Head—all woods and sloping meadows and hedges in their young green, and growing wheat, with clumps of daffodils in the field beyond the gardens.

Sleepless, I am waiting for the dawn and the first English birds I have heard sing out their maytime madrigals since 1915. The gables of the house begin to show distinct against a clear, starry sky, Cocks are crowing; an owl hooting away in the woods; and the busy clock ticks on the mantelpiece. I feel as if I were soon to get up and dress for a cub-hunt—swallow my cocoa and boiled eggs, and then hear the horses’ feet trampling the gravel outside.

All this is a long way from Arras and the battles. I am back in the years before battles were invented or Rolls of Honour thought about at all. As I lie on my bed with a yellow-shaded electric lamp shining (on my pink pyjamas) I can see the sky through the open, uncurtained window. The sky is a wonderful deep-blue colour, as I see it. When I turn out the light the window is a patch of greyish white on the darkness, with treetops standing up, very shadowy and still. It is the quietest of mornings; not a breath of wind.

I hear a cuckoo a long way off. Then a blackbird goes scolding along the garden trees. Soon the chorus will begin. Put out the light.[2]

Lovely stuff. But time travel is only a mood, and even Sassoon can only bear so much of this intense Brit-Lit atmosphere. And what comes next? Once the birdsong fades out and the Sussex sun climbs high, will the poet-half-reborn really take up his pen and head grimly back down the Hindenburg Tunnel, to finish what he started?

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Some Desperate Glory, 114-15.
  2. Diaries, 163-4.

Rowland Fielding on the Guns of Rest; Ivor Gurney on Chance and Chess; Kate Luard’s Mindful Picnic; George Coppard and Patrick Shaw Stewart are Back

We have another pause in the action, today: five writers writing, and all are resting, refitting, or recuperating. Which isn’t to say they aren’t in danger, as Rowland Feilding makes clear:

May 9, 1917. Butterfly Farm (near Locre).

The Germans persist in aggravating mood, and we have just passed through a third night in succession of disturbed slumber.

At six o’clock this morning I was woken up by some “crumps” falling rather close, and, as I lay ruminating whether it was worth while getting out of bed, the question was decided for me by a covey of splinters crashing against the wooden wall of my hut.

Then the five-point-nines began to come thick and fast, obviously aimed at two 12-inch howitzers which periodically heckle the enemy from a hollow, less than a hundred yards from this camp.

Why they will persist in placing heavy guns so near infantry rest camps, or vice versa, it is difficult to understand, but the infantry have come to accept these things as they do the other vicissitudes of the war. Anyhow, the situation was so unhealthy this morning that I decided to move the battalion.

It is interesting to watch the self-possessed and almost leisurely fashion in which such a movement is conducted
nowadays. This comes from the familiarity of the troops with shell-fire. The sections were scattered in the fields around, and by this means we escaped without casualties, though two or more shells fell actually into the camp. The bombardment went on for over an hour, some three hundred shells falling. Then the battalion returned to its tents and huts, and shaved, and had breakfast…[1]

 

Even further back is Ivor Gurney, recently wounded. But his time without the reach of the guns will shortly come to an end.

9 May 1917

My Dear Friend…

All this week I have been down for training at the Bull-ring, as they call it — Napoleons parade ground, a bare white sand and shingle space set among hills and surrounded by pines. It is a fine place, but a nasty job. Perhaps I may be here for another week yet, and then up to the chance of Glory and another Blighty, a real one this time. My arm is quite well now, curse it…

…I have been reading Conrad’s “Chance”, only to get tired of all that analysis, and not being able to get to the end. “The Mirror of the Seas” is Conrad’s best, as far as I know. Otherwise Kipling infinitely surpasses him. Conrad is a good artist, but to me seems not to have much original genius. (But our acquaintance is not extensive.)

Now I am about to steer off for my chess-pupil, who has beaten me in one game — the first! On Saturday I satisfied my vanity by flummoxing him completely, may it be so again…

Your sincere friendIvor Gurney

Please keep on writing[2]

So Gurney’s mood is very good, despite the not-quite-blighty blighty. This is not an original observation, but it would seem that these sorts of high spirits are evidence of one of the most merciful limitations of the human emotional imagination: we know on an intellectual level that more pain is coming, but the absence of recent pain is nevertheless experienced as an almost unreserved joy.

 

It’s much the same with the succorers as the sufferers. Remembering Aubers Ridge, and the labors of two years past, Kate Luard wrote today, a century back, as a study in contrast over two years of the the war’s lengthening life. But it is the last month of hard work amidst the wreckage of Arras that forms the immediate backdrop for this scene.

Wednesday, May 9th (of 1915 brave and black memory). And what do you think we’ve been busy doing this morning, 9th of  May, 1917? A large and festive Picnic in the woods, far removed from gas gangrene and amputations. We bought some chocolate biscuits and some sawdusty cakes and some potted meat in the Canteen, and asked the C.O. and six M.M.’s and seven of us; we had an Ambulance and two batmen to bring the tea in urns to my chosen spot–on a slope in the wood, above the babbling brook, literally carpeted with periwinkles, oxlips and anemones. It was a great success…

When we got back at 5.30 we found the Divisional Band about to play outside the Y.M.C.A. hut… My dear man was dying. At the exact moment that he took his first breath in Heaven at 7.30, the Band was playing ‘There will be such wonderful things to do’ to that particularly plaintive little tune.[3]

 

Further back still is Siegfried Sassoon, lunching once again with the literary lights.

May 9

Lunched with Bennett and J. C. Squirt… Bennett’s mannerisms very marked. A trick of pausing in the middle of a remark and finishing it quickly.[4]

 

And then there are those whose long loop away from danger has closed once again. Two very different writers are back with their pals, today, just behind the front lines near Arras.

After two years spent mostly in the East, Patrick Shaw Stewart rejoined the Hood Battalion, so badly cut up during Arras. He is reunited with a very thin remnant of his original band of socially and intellectually elevated officer-comrades, Argonauts now long ashore, more Nestors, now, than starry-eyed adventurers. These include his Brigadier, Bernard Freyberg, and his battalion C.O., “Oc” Asquith–despite promotion and a staff appointment, Shaw Stewart has fallen behind in military accomplishment by being so far away from attrition’s vacuum. These are, moreover, new surroundings for him. Shaw Stewart has known Gallipoli and Salonika and long weekends in great houses, but tonight he will sleep in a former German dugout in what is now the British reserve line, deep beneath the soil of Northern France.[5]

And finally, George Coppard, teenage machine gunner, was shot in the foot in October–accidentally–by his best mate. Yesterday, a century back, he rejoined his company. Two “old pals” had been killed since he left, but “Snowy” was still there: “he never mentioned the accident in which we had both been so closely involved. I gathered he was a bit touchy about the subject, and I was glad enough to let sleeping dogs lie.” Coppard was promptly sent up to reinforce another gun team holding a position on the Scarpe, site of the recent, costly advance near Arras. He has begun keeping a diary, but it is very brief: “very fine day and plenty of air fights.”[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 173-4.
  2. War Letters, 161-2.
  3. Unknown Warriors, 122-3.
  4. Diaries, 163.
  5. Edwardian Meteor, 226.
  6. With a Machine Gun, 106.

Siegfried Sassoon is Satisfied, for Now; Alfred Hale Receives the Dreaded Summons; John Ronald Tolkien to Humberside; Henry Williamson Sends Bombs to His Mother, Then Calls His Mother a Fool

Before we get to an inimitable letter from Henry Williamson, three brief updates on three very different characters.

Siegfried Sassoon, shot through the shoulder, manages to write a short reflection in his diary of this year and last.

April 19

Expecting to be ‘evacuated’ to England any time.

On 20 April 1916[1] I left the trenches in front of Mametz and went for those four divine, sunlit weeks at the Fourth Army School, half-way between Amiens and Abbeville. This year I am being set free from even more hellish places, and before me lies a vision of green fields sloping to a vale full of white orchards—mazes of cherry-blossom where tiny rills tell their little tales, while the ‘shy thrush at mid-May flutes from wet orchards flushed with the triumphing dawn’. And beyond it all a deep blue landscape chequered.[2]

I’m not sure about that last sentence… but the poem he quotes is by W.E. Henley, and the general idea I’m sure we grasp: Siegfried has won through once again, to peace and the pastoral.

 

Headed in the opposite direction is the unlikely Alfred Hale. A middle-aged (hardly) gentleman (thoroughly) of modest means and fastidious, artistic disposition (he lives alone, and is a composer in a small way), Hale has been very concerned about the extension of conscription to unmarried men over 40… but I have described him in precisely this way, I now see, in several of his scant appearances here so far. It will be a while, still, before his diary is a steady thing and his ordeal takes shape, but he did write about today, a century back: it was the day the post-box finally did its worst.

On Thursday, 19 April it was–I am almost sure of the date–that I came downstairs to ring for breakfast and found a letter on the hall table arrived by that morning’s post. I guessed at once what it contained before even opening it. Another Military Service Act had just been passed which roped in those who, while temporarily exempted, had got over the age limit of 41… the letter contained my ‘calling-up’ notice … [which] required my attendance at the Ealing recruiting office at 9 am sharp on the morning of 1 May.[3]

 

Another gentle and scholarly type–but a university man and an officer and a veteran of the Somme, withal–is headed back to the army today. After a long series of leaves as he struggled to overcome the after-effects of trench fever, John Ronald Tolkien joined the reserve battalion of the Lancashire Fusiliers at Thirtle Bridge Camp on the Holderness peninsula, part of the Humber Garrison. This is light duty, training conscripts while providing a guard against possible German attacks from the sea, the likelihood of which has sharply decreased since Jutland. Tolkien’s wife Edith and her cousin Jennie Grove came to live nearby in Hornsea, some fifteen miles away, and so we have here the potential for a peaceful, happy, and productive idyll.

Alas, there are few dates to be shaken out of the months of this posting, despite some notable atmosphere. If the Somme influenced Tolkien’s work, perhaps Humberside influenced it more: there are forests nearby, fit for dancing in, and a harsh sea, in constant contention with a disappearing coastline. And, even though Tolkien is across the island from Wales, he has also begun a new project under the influence of the Welsh language. His first invented language–what would become Quenya–had taken Finnish as its phonological model. But any language-inventing linguist worth his salt would need to work out the effect of phonological changes on his language over centuries of exile.[4] Tolkien, struck by the beauty of Welsh, now began figuring out how Quenya might have shifted to sound more like Welsh. This version of Elvish became Sindarin, a language associated with the romantic and tragic adventures of those of the Eldar who returned from the undying lands to fallen, perilous, war-ravaged Middle Earth, and its invention now occupied much of his time.[5]

 

Henry Williamson‘s letters home have, of late, become increasingly obsessed with getting news from home–news of whether his shipment of several boxes of prime German souvenirs have safely arrived. They have, but perhaps without quite sufficient explanation… this letter shows Williamson at his most obnoxiously high-spirited.

My Dear Mother,

You silly ass, you twiddler and numbskull. Last night I got a parcel from you (undated–as usual) and a letter dated 11 April. You mention about the bomb, & crossed it out. We arnt living in the Dark Ages you know and even then, I have told you off and on for the last 3 years that your letters to the BEF are never looked at, never, never, never.

You can put just what you like–never forget that your son is a B.O.–that is a British Officer, and as such, he is a mighty power in the present time–and also is treated by all from FM Haig downwards with courtesy and consideration. Now do you get me?

I sent 2 tin boxes to you–a small one containing coats, buttons, shoulder straps etc. The second with the cap and bomb you got Now pull yourself together. Do you think for a second I should be such a fool as to send a live bomb? Or course not…

Williamson continues with an explanation of how fuse and explosive charge differ, and then makes some cruel jokes about how the headgear he is sending–German caps and, especially, “pickelhaube” helmets–might be mined. Remarkably, he then gives his mother a hard time for failing to promptly send him the motorcycling magazines he wants to read:

…if you really dont want to do it, just tell me & I will give an order to a bookseller–it is silly always waiting for things that never turn up. I should have thought it not a very hard thing to do–it gives me great pleasure to read them regularly and I may not have much chance to read many more, three of us are left at present–two of my pals are still lying in the wire of the —– line.

Good Lord. After a few more paragraphs of wandering into nostalgia, this British Officer seems to repent, for the moment, of his adolescent manipulation. That would be the only strictly ethical reading. But then again this is a young man so perpetually prone to such swift swings of foolish overconfidence and self-loathing semi-despair (I have seen no evidence of deep depression) that it’s hard not to imagine that a psychological imbalance of some sort is at work. He is not in great danger, and these alleged pals on the wire are not a fair depiction of the risks he is running… but he is still quite often within reach of the guns, and far from any certain friendship or love.

Gone are the wild birds, the dawn, and the dew–and away yonder the heavies pound away to cut the wire, the gunners clean up their Vickers guns, & examine field dressings, for soon–and a few more mothers will be broken-hearted. I don’t know whether I should send you this letter–if I thought it would put the wind up you, I wouldn’t–but I think you know that at times I despair at the greyness of everything, and then when I write in these moods you will understand me a bit more–by tomorrow I shall be glad to be alive again–by tomorrow who knows?

…Well goodbye dear mother, at least au revoir a bit longer, my only worry is the monotony…  only a fluke will kill your loving son, Harry. XXXXXXX[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. His memory is slightly off.
  2. Diaries, 157-8.
  3. The Ordeal of Alfred Hale, 36.
  4. Never mind that--I am always irritated that this objection does not seem to be made!--the immortal Eldar would hardly experience the same sort of linguistic change in a millennium as would take place over a few dozen mortal generations.
  5. Chronology, 100. See Garth, Tolkien and the Great War, 234-7; see also this interesting post with a number of photographs.
  6. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the Great War, 124-7.

J.R. Ackerley Bids His Brother Farewell; The Afterlife of Rupert Brooke XVI: Ivor Gurney and the Protest of the Physical Against the Exalted Spiritual; Charles Scott Moncrieff in Amiens; Edwin Vaughan in the Front Line

It’s another one of those unexpectedly bountiful days in which a central writer is busily writing important poems while other diarists insist upon having the sort of experiences we can’t leave unrecorded…

 

Briefly then, through our first two. We find Charles Scott Moncrieff ill and in Amiens… and distinctly unimpressed. Perhaps it is the mark of the true Francophile (or, at least, the self-consciously discerning tourist) to be breezy about attractions like the great cathedral:

No. 1 N.Z. Stationary Hospital,
B.E.F., Amiens,
14th February, 1917.

. . . I went out to-day and saw the Cathedral, which certainly is very perfect and harmonious, walked the streets for a couple of hours and bought some books…[1]

 

And my own desire to forgo lengthy typing and move on to two important sonnets and a stark first-hand tale of loss and death will contribute, now, to Edwin Vaughan‘s persistent experience of anti-climax. Tonight, a century, back, he will reach the front line trenches at last, and I’ll cut down his diary by more than half…

It as a long and winding trench, which rather bewildered me, for the scattered sentry posts seemed to face in all directions… We hit the front-line trench at right angles, and almost opposite was another cellar into which Hatwell had disappeared in a moment.

I hardly noticed the troops melting away into different directions, but suddenly found myself quite alone outside the cellar. For a quarter of an hour I sat up against the side of the trench, soaking in the atmosphere. It was quite dark and damp, around my feet the mud was six inches deep, and above me I could see only the faint outline of the parapet all jagged and broken with bricks and stumps and over it the dim silhouette of loose wire. Occasionally a huge rat would scamper past, or a couple of men would stagger by, swearing gently at their load of sandbags or stakes. All was deathly quiet except for the low voices in the dugout or the faint click of a bayonet against a steel hat.[2]

Vaughan later tours the positions on the line, finding a number of men quietly and efficiently doing their work, the sentries watching the Germans intently, all business. Returning to the dugout, Vaughan reconsiders his attitude:

 When we had been out of the line, I had despised these officers and NCOs and criticized the men, but now I realized that I was the most useless object in the Company… still confused, wondering and fearful.

I drank several whiskies and dozed for an hour or two…[3]

 

Now for poetry. Ivor Gurney wrote again to Marion Scott today, a century back, continuing his new project of a counter-Brookean sonnet sequence.

14 February 1917

My Dear Miss Scott:

…The fates have been kind to me, and still leave me as canteen attendant; which means that though freezing one has time to oneself, and are off those confounded cleaning parades, which so gnaw at my life.

How are you and your influenza now? There can be little gadding about for you anyway, yet who knows what February may bring — that sometimes is so kind and smiles like Spring. Well, good luck to both of us, as I fancy cold is little good to either. And your book, tient-il? If you can sit up and refound musical literature, things will not be so bad; it would be like a Nice Blighty, which I do most heartily desire the Lord to send myself. Anyway do not get too ill to write…

This, I’ll wager, is Gurney being charmingly/winkingly, rather than obnoxiously/obliviously, self-centered.

There is more literature in this letter, but not yet. The literal translation of the pretty name of this place is The Star, and there are Earthworks all round, remains of 1870. Soon we go up again to the trouble; soon Fritz will be hurling high explosive compliments at us with gusto, and we close to the parapets. Well, tres bien, if there is no soft job, the hard one must do, but the first is better.

The title of the book I would prefer to be “Songs from Exile, or Songs from the Second Fifth” as subtitle. That is the real title, and besides, the second needs writing up to which I am unwilling to do.

This would be the first book of poems, which Scott is preparing for him. Now, then, for nos. 2 and 3 of the counter-attack on Rupert Brooke:

Home-sickness

When we go wandering the wide air’s blue spaces,
Bare, unhappy, exiled souls of men;
How will our thoughts over and over again
Return to Earth’s familiar lovely places.
Where light with shadow ever interlaces
No blanks of blue, nor ways beyond man’s ken —
Where birds are, and flowers; as violet, and wren,
Blackbird, bluebell, hedgesparrow, tiny daisies,
O tiny things, but very stuff of soul
To us . . . so frail. . . Remember what we are;
Set us not on some strange outlandish star.
But one love-responsive. Give us a Home.
There we may wait while the long ages roll
Content, unfrightened by vast Time-to-come.

The direct appeal to the reader here is striking, but perhaps not to every taste. We might dismiss it as almost maudlin, and hardly much of an improvement upon Brooke–a romanticizing of soldierly estrangement and suffering in exchange for a romanticizing of soldierly sacrifice.

So leave aside the ending, if it doesn’t suit; it’s the stuff of the appeal that matters. Until recently, Gurney has been dreamily, gauzily idealizing the countryside of his native Gloucestershire whenever he picks up his poet’s pen. Which is all very nice, but far from the war, no? But now he is bringing that loyalty to bear, mobilizing the stored energy produced by all that beauty, those lightly lovely birds and flowers, to say something about the war. We might miss it, if we didn’t have the Brookean intertext (apologies!): this isn’t about death and the harm-obscuring vision of a foreign-field-that-might-be, neatly adorned with English birds and flowers. It’s about drawing connections from a trench-that-is–a real trench, in a real corner of an actual French field–a trench that shelters living, frightened Englishmen all the way back to the memories of Home that might sustain them… These are day-dreaming, homesick men, looking for solace. They are not ghosts, yet, and they don’t seem enamored of the idea of their death, beautiful and meaningful or otherwise. Gurney is sacrificing his present comfort, his strength, his health; he’s not willing to dwell prettily on the likelihood that he will be dead soon, and call that a sacrifice as well…

If this sonnet re-connects to England in a different way, the next one–taking the sharply divided Petrarchan form–works around that new connection until it’s an unyielding grapple that forces us to confront the dreary misery of real soldiering…  before releasing us, suddenly, to remind us what the homesick man relies upon most: not thoughts of England, but other Englishmen.

 

Servitude

It it were not for England, who would bear
This heavy servitude one moment more?
To keep a brothel, sweep and wash the floor
Of filthiest hovels were noble to compare
With this brass-cleaning life. Now here, now there
Harried in foolishness, scanned curiously o’er
By fools made brazen by conceit, and store
Of antique witticisms thin and bare.

Only the love of comrades sweetens all.
Whose laughing spirit will not be outdone.
As night-watching men wait for the sun
To hearten them, so wait I on such boys
As neither brass nor Bosches may appall.
Nor guns, nor sergeant-major’s bluster and noise.

 

This is something new indeed. The old sonnet (Gurney’s spelling is… unusual) refurbished rather than merely dusted off. Only the love of comrades–and the brutal opposition of all things red-tabbed and unfeeling, explosive and chickenshit–could breathe new life into the form. But I should hush and let the poet explain:

These Sonnetts. For England. Pain. Homesickness. Servitude, and one other; are intended to be a sort of counterblast against “Sonnetts 1914”, which were written before the grind of the war and by an officer (or one who would have been an officer).

Thus far, Gurney’s claims are both radical and traditional. Down with the officer class and the privileged poet? Perhaps, but, so far, only on the strength of a claim to an alternate source of authority: these are the poems of a veteran, and of a soldier–one who bears the grind, and grinds no one in return.

Better, even:

They are the protest of the physical against the exalted spiritual; of the cumulative weight of small facts against the one large. Of informed opinion against uninformed (to put it coarsely and unfairly) and fill a place. Old ladies wont like them, but soldiers may, and these things are written either for soldiers or civilians as well informed as the French what “a young fresh war” means. (Or was it “frische (joyful) Krieg”. I cant remember, but something like it was written by the tame Germans in 1914.) I know perfectly well how my attitude will appear, but — They will be called “Sonnetts 1917.”

A counter-blast indeed, although a fairly restrained one, given what poetry will come. The civilians themselves are not attacked, and the sensitive among them are invited to join the side of virtue, of solidarity.

Is this, then, a “political” gesture? Not really–certainly not primarily. I don’t think these sonnets would have arrived just because Brooke’s themes–the beauty of sacrifice, the moral cleanliness of heading off to war–now feel outdated. There’s a poetic axe to grind, too.

Gurney had initially admired Brooke’s sonnets, after crossing paths with them in Edward Thomas’s review, but he had later turned rather decisively against them, writing one of his own first sonnets in a mood of resistance that both presaged this “counter-blast” and invoked Hardy.[4] As Thomas realized, as Sorley damningly pointed out, Brooke was “far too obsessed with his own sacrifice.” Gurney has come to write not of the soldier’s (i.e. the officer’s) inner beliefs but of the men who are two and a half years into shouldering a painful, nasty burden–and of his love for them.

But that’s not all, folks. Unless he misdated one or another of his letters (not unthinkable at all), Gurney received a letter from Scott and then sat down to write her another:

14 February 1917

My Dear Friend:

Thank you so much for your letter of the 5th of Feb…

…Most of the spare time till now has been in cleaning, always cleaning equipment. For anyone with more sensibility than the yokel it is a life infinitely full of pain. Whether the wind blows gales of icy needles with the temperature below zero; always the same. And no fires now, in most billets: From this, you will gather that “Rest” is merely a technical term. If you will take the trouble to copy out all those things one by one, please do so, and thank you — but dont write shorter letters because of it.

I shall be content if you attend to all matters of punctuation and merely ask my opinion on doubtful points. The name, as I have said is

Songs in Exile

or Songs from the Second-Fifth

The first poem will be To Certain Comrades; the last poems, the five sonnetts. (Perhaps an Envoi also.) Any poem you think needs correction, send on, and fear nothing…

So the sonnets are to close his first volume.

Gurney seems to wander, now, in his thoughts, but he was also discussing books in the previous letter, and it would seem now as if Scott has inquired after his reading. And who am I to delete a reference that suits my notions of Honesty and Influence in Great War Literature? After that, Gurney trails off into his post-war hopes–he is a composer too, we must remember.

“Under the Greenwood Tree” is perfectly charming, and very Shakespearean in feeling I think. Hardy is a marvel…

With these beautiful days it becomes more of a loss to feel music and books so far away, and my county. And the days slipping past so quickly in which I ought to acquire technique and get rhythm into my mind. Once I get back, for a while I will simply reek songs; mere exudations; while I study hard Wagner and Rachmaninoff and the Russians; also the 3 B’s and Folk Song for pleasure; and Chopin for piano technique. But, Time, you are so slow, and hold the secrets of doubtful things not yet disclosed…

Your sincere friend

Ivor Gurney[5]

 

Last and certainly not least, it’s a terrible day in the life or a writer whose great reputation rests far from his war writing. When we last heard from J.R. Ackerley, he was recounting his wounding during the disaster of the First Day on the Somme (he also later wrote verse about that morning). There are few dates in his memoir, and little in his written record that can fix him here, a century back. But today, well, there is.

In the meantime, Ackerley has recovered from the Somme–in body, at least–and learned to live awkwardly as an undeserving hero. And he has been promoted.

Yet so strange are we in our inconsistencies that I was not happy in Blighty and, in a few months’ time, got myself sent back to France.

So he has been enduring this brutal winter, but not alone: nearly two months ago, his brother Peter–older, but behind in his military progress due to an injury–joined him in the 8th East Surreys. So elder saluted younger, “gladly and conscientiously.” As our J.R. Ackerley–younger brother Joe–notes with cold irony, the only reason that he has obtained the rank of captain and Company Commander is because everyone else was killed on July 1st.

And then we come to today, a century back, and a very local attack to be mounted on a German position near Miraumont.

In front of my trenches, some four or five hundred yards away and slightly to the left, there was a bulge or salient in the German lines known as Point 85. It was a tiresome object, for it commanded a dangerous enfilading position down the trenches of the battalion next door.

Just the sort of thing for a quick surprise rush attack, needing only a platoon, and a likely subaltern to lead it.

We know what will happen, and Ackerley’s tone and voice erase any doubt…

…my brother got the job. Did he actually volunteer for it? It is one of the many things I am not clear about, but I fancy that he did. At any rate it is the sort of thing he would have done–and the very thing he wanted… he must have been longing to prove himself, and here was a situation which would have appealed to the actor in him, drama indeed, the lime-lit moment, himself in the leading role, all eyes on him. At all events, the result was that I had to make arrangements for him and his platoon to take off from my front line…

The stage was therefore fatefully set, and my brother bungled his entrance.

The newcomer is unaware that the jumping-off point, his brother’s dugout in Boom Ravine, is–much like the deep dugout not far away which recently sheltered Wilfred Owen–under the thumb of the German artillery. It is a German dugout, and thus deep and safe, but with its location is precisely known. So the shells never miss by much. What’s worse,

Unknown to him, the poor boy’s watch had stopped… his troops could be heard chatting, coughing, grousing, and clattering their equipment in the ravine above, all the welcome he got was a rough ticking off from Major Wightman who sent him flying back upstairs to deploy and silence his men.

I remember my brother when he returned standing before me in the candlelight, bunched up in his Burberry and equipment, loaded with hand-grenades and stuck about with a revolver, wire-cutters and Very pistol, his cap set jauntily at an angle. His visit, now that he was late, was of the briefest…

I offered him a quick drink, I remember; he said, “No thanks, I’ll take my rum with the men,” Then, could we swap watches, his own being unreliable. He would return mine afterwards, he said.  A heroic remark, and as I helped him strap on my watch, probably we both saw it unbuckled from his dead wrist. But then it was impossible to speak the most commonplace word or makes the most ordinary gesture without its at once acquiring the heavy over-emphasis of melodrama…

Then my brother’s hand thrust out to shake my own, his twisty smile, my “Good luck,” his jocular salute. “Don’t worry, sir,” said he to the Major as he left. It was his only piece of self-indulgence. His thin putteed legs retreated up the dugout steps and the sack curtain swung to behind him. I never saw him again.[6]

Ackerley doesn’t so much mask his grief as shrug his shoulders at it. What can be done?[7]

Peter Ackerley was shot during an attempt to take point 85, a tiny preliminary to a larger assault a few days hence. The battalion war diary notes that the attack began at 5:45.

5 minutes later a counter barrage opened up… Phone lines were cut immediately and runners were sent to HQ. The situation was very obscure and 2/Lt Ackerley was wounded and about 6 of his men were seen to have reached point 85.

When exactly he died is not clear… but his brother, Joe, our observer in the trench, our writer, seems certain that his brother has been killed

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 124.
  2. This is one of the many details that I find strange... are these fixed bayonets? If so, why, in the middle of the night? Or are both worn loose on a man's webbing? This section of the diary reads like stage directions for an atmospheric trench play... but then again there is all that stuff about "The Theater of War..."
  3. Some Desperate Glory, 27-30.
  4. But Gurney's opinion of Hardy wavered over time as well. These dramatic shifts in critical allegiance could--but needn't--be connected to general mental instability. It's more just, I think, to represent Gurney as a man of passionate moods, broadly construed.
  5. War Letters, 128-2.
  6. My Father and Myself, 80-4.
  7. A spoiler, for those not familiar with Ackerley: the memoir, written long after, is regarded as a masterpiece, but the war figures only for its most horrible, salient days. Immediately after the story of Peter's raid Ackerley launches into a long disquisition on the nature of history and literature. He reads his 30-year old manuscript describing today and wonders what could have been "true" then, what is "true" now, and what remains in his memory... an excellent contribution to the discussion of "binary vision," not less valuable for being brief and agnostic. I'll have more on this tomorrow; I have also edited the original post so as to do less damage to... history while still following the effect of Ackerley's literary choices.

Edward Thomas Writes to Robert Frost; Siegfried Sassoon in Literary London, and Under Lady Ottoline’s Influence, but Hardy Beneath; Rowland Feilding: No Place is Safe

Yesterday, a century back, was Edward Thomas’s first full day at the front. But his battery has not yet gone into action, and things are slow.

No letters yet. Censoring as usual. Gramophone playing… 9 p.m. Great cannonade thudding and flashing quite continuously away south in Ancre.[1]

Slow enough to finally write–despite the gramophone–to Robert Frost, the friend whose regard and sympathetic understanding (and poetic gift) prodded Thomas into writing poetry in the first place. But with Frost across the Atlantic, and increasingly out of touch with Thomas’s mental world, the friendship has been lagging. Thomas recently received a copy of Frost’s new book, Mountain Interval; he is still hoping for help from Frost in seeing his own first collection published. Nevertheless, it is the friendship that matters most to Thomas, and it is hard not to think, once again, that Eleanor Farjeon gets the drafts, while Frost gets the polished work. This letter–the second paragraph in particular–is like a refined version of what he wrote to her yesterday.

244 Siege Battery BEF France 111 February 1917 and a Sunday they tell me

My dear Robert,

I left England a fortnight ago and have now crawled with the battery up to our position. I can’t tell you where it is, but we are well up in high open country. We are on a great main road in a farmhouse facing the enemy who are about 2 miles away, so that their shells rattle our windows but so far only fall a little behind us or to one side. It is near the end of a 3 week’s frost. The country is covered with snow which silences everything but the guns. We have slept—chiefly in uncomfortable places till now. Here we lack nothing except letters from home. It takes some time before a new unit begins to receive its letters. I have enjoyed it very nearly all. Except shaving in a freezing tent. I don’t think I really knew what travel was like till we left England.

Yesterday, our 2nd day, I spent in the trenches examining some observation posts to see what could be seen of the enemy from them. It was really the best day I have had since I began. We had some shells very near us, but were not sniped at. I could see the German lines very clear but not a movement anywhere, nothing but posts sticking out of the snow with barbed wire, bare trees broken and dead and half ruined houses. The only living men we met at bends in trenches, eating or carrying food or smoking. One dead man lay under a railway arch so stiff and neat (with a covering of sacking) that I only slowly remembered he was dead. I got back, tired and warm and red. I hope I shall never enjoy anything less. But I shall. Times are comparatively quiet just here. We shall be busy soon and we shall not be alone. I am now just off with a working party to prepare our Gun positions which are at the edge of a cathedral town a mile or two along the road we look out on. We are to fight in an orchard there in sight of the cathedral.

It is night now and cold again. Machine guns rattle and guns go ‘crump’ in front of us. Inside a gramophone plays the rottenest songs imaginable, jaunty unreal dirty things. We get on well enough but we are a rum company. There is a Scotch philosopher, an impossible unmilitary creature who looks far more dismal than he really can be—I like him to talk to, but he is too glaringly timid and apologetic and helpless to live with. The others are all commonplace people under 26 years old who are never serious and could not bear anyone else to be serious. We just have to be dirty together. I also cannot be sincere with them. Two are boys of 19 and make me think of the boys I might have had for company. One of the two aged about 24 is rather a fine specimen of the old English soldiers, always bright and smart and capable, crude but goodhearted and frivolous and yet thorough at their work. He has been 10 years in the army. All his talk is in sort of proverbs or cant sayings and bits of comic songs, coarse metaphors—practically all quotations.

But I am seldom really tired of them. I suppose I am getting to like what they are, and their lack of seriousness is no deception and is just their method of expression.

I used to read some of the Sonnets while we were at Havre, but not on these last few days of travel. ‘Mountain Interval’ also is waiting.

My love to you all.

Yours ever

(s/Lt) Edward Thomas[2]

It’s very nice to put one’s friend in the company of Shakespeare–for it’s his Sonnets which Thomas has been reading, and Frost’s Mountain Interval surely might wait a bit, then, and still be highly valued… what’s odd, though, is that Thomas seems to have already read the book, or at least most of it. Why does he not want to discuss it with Frost? Fatigue, perhaps…

 

The second leg of Siegfried Sassoon‘s last leave involved little in the way of attentive dogs, Elizabethan airs, or uncomfortable family silences. After a few days with his mother in Kent, Sassoon went to stay in London with Robbie Ross and was soon immersed in literary London, and particularly in its semi-clandestine gay social circles.

Today, a century back, Sassoon managed to eat three square meals, one with each of the three friendly patrons who have done the most to advance his poetic career.

Breakfast with Eddie Marsh at Gray’s Inn. Lunch at the Reform with Meiklejohn and Robbie Ross. Tea at Gower Street with ‘Brett’ to inspect her vast portrait of Ottoline Morrell. Dinner at Gosse’s. At 1.45 a.m. bed.

With Marsh Sassoon was discussing the proofs of his next book; with Ross it was “gallant efforts to keep our spirits up” in the best Victorian style (Ross had been the staunch friend of Oscar Wilde), and we might assume that dinner with Edmund Gosse was a more staid affair. And then there is tea, too, and the mention of Lady Ottoline Morrell (the Dorothy Brett portrait I don’t have, alas).

Sassoon–far from famous but no longer unknown–is now at the confluence of several literary streams. Marsh, of course, remains secretary to Winston Churchill (who is in the political wilderness, now) and the force behind Georgian Poetry and all things Brooke and Brookeish. Ross, who was openly gay in a time when that meant facing constant prejudice and the threat of prosecution, provided entree into gay life in London, about which Sassoon does not write. Gosse was highly respected, and although he too repressed homosexual desires he was an older family man–and an old friend of Sassoon’s family–and he represented a Victorian literary mode that even non-revolutionary types like Sassoon must have found rather stuffy.

And the there is Ottoline Morrell. Lady Ottoline was an influential, off-beat society figure whose various interests tilted much younger and more Modern than any of Sassoon’s other friendly patrons–she will come to patronize several other notable artists and writers. But much more important, now, is the fact that she is an outspoken pacifist.

Sassoon had spent a good deal of time at her house during the difficult-to-date middle period of his convalescent leave in the early autumn, and there he learned… well… influence is always difficult to pin down. Sassoon is always the first to acknowledge his own impressionability, but is it really a matter of his getting anti-war ideas from her circle? Not exactly. Even if he was not quite as putty-like as he would have us believe, this is not really a matter of ideas but rather of emotion. No one at Garsington Manor could teach Sassoon to hate the war, but they could model attitudes of expressing this hatred… So: is the Bohemian glamor of openly criticizing the war pushing Sassoon further off-kilter, further away from any comfort with his Mad Jack/Happy Warrior persona? Surely. But Sassoon–in retrospect, again–is also able to recognize the self-centeredness of this anti-war turn.

Distraction of a different character was provided by Lady Ottoline, with whom I spent two whole afternoons which were by no means beneficial to my state of mind… Lady Ottoline insisted on being intensely earnest and discursive. She was obsessed by what she felt to be the brutal stupidity and imbecile wastefulness of the War, and my own return to it had involved her in a crisis of emotional depression.This caused me to talk recklessly, with a sort of victimized bitterness. I should probably get killed, I said; but the main trouble was that I no longer new what I was being killed for. ‘One gets sent out again like a cabbage going to Covent Garden Market,’ I exclaimed, adding that cabbages were better off, because they didn’t claim to have unconquerable souls, and weren’t told that they were making a supreme sacrifice for the sake of unborn vegetables. These discussion led neither of us anywhere…[3]

So the later memoir, well-polished in its sheepish sloughing off of youthful confusions…

As for today’s diary entry, there is nothing else in Sassoon’s own voice. But immediately after the entry he copies in three (of four) stanzas of a Thomas Hardy poem.

Let me enjoy the earth no less
Because the all-enacting Might
That fashioned forth its loveliness
Had other aims than my delight.

From manuscripts of moving song
Inspired by scenes and dreams unknown
I’ll pour out raptures that belong
To others, as they were my own.

And some day hence, towards Paradise
And all its blest — if such should be —
I will lift glad, afar-off eyes
Though it contain no place for me.

So, come what may, he will write, in the manner of his coming dedicatee. And after that, an anticipatory list:

Books taken to France

Shakespeare’s Tragedies
Hardy’s Dynasts
Hardy’s (Golden Treasury) Poems
Conrad, Nostromo and A Set of Six
Lamb’s Essays and Letters (selection)
Chaucer, Canterbury Tales[4]

This book list hardly seems to fit with the witty Georgian-Modern literary London scene in which Sassoon spent his leave. But it does show the poet on a more steady trajectory than he might want us to see. Is he really blown hither and yon by the brave ideas of all his witty and passionate friends? Or is he on course?

Sassoon will bring Hardy to France, he is dedicating his poems to Hardy, he is copying Hardy into his notebook, and instead of scoffing at patriotic effusion or objecting to it on humanist grounds, he is preparing an unflinchingly satiric attack that seems like a plausible imitation of what Hardy might have been as an angry young man. Before leaving Liverpool, Sassoon had attended a show at the Hippodrome–he had a good time, he thinks (this is the later, ironic voice, not the coiled satirist of early 1917)–but he fantasized about seeing a tank come charging down the stalls of the music hall, crushing the ignorant home-front jingoists…

So he’s working on a poem to that effect, and the full-protest Sassoon who will emerge this year is quite recognizable even now. He is inspired by Hardy, not by any Georgian poet, and he is unwilling to be modest (surely an all-but-essential precursor to poetic achievement). But he’s not being fair… he has never seen a tank and he has spent more time over the past six months fox hunting and golfing than in military tasks… but then again he is going back, now. I’ll let the voice of the memoir have the last word:

The situation was too complex for the shy and callow young man I was on that dreary February afternoon.[5]

 

So we’ve had a lot of writing, today, and some turmoil–but all with very little war in it. And we haven’t heard from Rowland Feilding in a while… so, let’s.

Colonel Feilding is not the sort of man to be easily led into off-balance opinions or to criticize without carefully considering his own position and responsibilities. But he has promised utter honesty in his letters to his wife, and he does not hide his feelings about the grim reach of the war. This short letter, though devoid of “victimized bitterness,” becomes an accidentally effective commentary on the “imbecile wastefulness” of the war.

February 11, 1917. Kemmel Shelters.

I returned to the battalion last evening, and found that the enemy had been shelling my battalion in Camp. It is in Divisional Reserve—training in a safe (!) place. Four have been killed and nine wounded, and the huts so badly
smashed that two Companies have had to be moved elsewhere.

The place was properly knocked about, and it was a surprising bit of shelling, too, seeing that the huts were unusually well hidden in a wooded depression, in the lee of Mount Kemmel, and screened by the protection which that steep hill affords. Personally, I could have sworn that these huts, at any rate, would have been safe from bombardment.

But no place is safe…[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary (Childhood), 161.
  2. Selected Letters, 135-6.
  3. Siegfried's Journey, 46. The "cabbage" line may have been uttered this week, a century back, but he will record it in a few days time in his diary as if it had come to him then...
  4. Diaries, 131.
  5. Siegfried's Journey, 47.
  6. War Letters to a Wife, 150.

Siegfried Sassoon Makes a Hardy Request, and We Look A Century Back and Two Hundred Years After; Wilfred Owen Exposed, and Emboldened

A momentous day, today, a century back, in Great War Writing-Land. Or, rather, an overture to an important new movement, a bridging of the gulf, an act of loyal defection in the conflict of the generations.

Why has Siegfried Sassoon been so unconcerned about his friend’s new poetic friendship–about the fact that Robert Graves will be a dedicatee of Robert Nichols‘s new book?  (And if Sassoon knew Edward Thomas–he does not!–there would be Thomas’s upcoming dedication to Frost to be worried about too. But these are different circles…)

And it’s not just friendships. What about posturing? Why hasn’t Sassoon, like Richard Aldington, gotten those old-fashioned poets firmly in his sights? If he isn’t arrayed against some poetic malefactor(s), how is he to make a successful modern poet of himself?

Well, well: because he’s been working another angle. His respect and admiration for Thomas Hardy is sincere, but it is no doubt useful that Sassoon’s uncle is a friend of Hardy’s, and has carved a bust of him. That introduction paved a way for a first reading, and then for a request which Sassoon must have made right about the time that Graves departed for France. Here is Hardy’s reply:

Max Gate, Dorchester. February 4, 1917

Dear Mr Sassoon:

I am pleased that you should care to inscribe your coming book of poems to me, which of course you have my permission to do—if you think it worth while!

Many thanks for enclosing the proof of the little one about Corbie Ridge (I don’t know where that is.)

I hope the weather will be milder before you go back to France, & that you may have good luck over there.

Sincerely yours

Thomas Hardy[1]

There is something amusingly fussy about Hardy’s parenthetical remark. Well, of course he doesn’t know where Corbie Ridge is, and while a century on he might peck it into the search bar one key at a time and then be instantaneously better informed (and be able to affect knowingness about all the place-names of the Western Front in his reply) he’s not about to hustle down to the library and page through back issues just to discover what part of the line Sassoon is referring to.

But let that be. What about the poem, and the gesture of dedication? Sassoon has not been dwelling on Hardy, lately, but he is certainly more than just a conveniently famous family friend. He’s a great poet… and yet his only comment is to note his ignorance about Corbie Ridge? No kind words on the poem itself? Is there evidence of the craftsman’s promise, here?

But Hardy says nothing encouraging. And it was a well-chosen poem, too. Neither one of Sassoon’s older-fashioned pretty laments, nor one of his sharp new satires, Sassoon had sent a most Hardy-like poem. It is Sassoon-like as well, with the mud and the long retrospect, but is it too obviously an apprentice Satire of Circumstance?

 

Two Hundred Years After

Trudging by Corbie Ridge one winter’s night,
(Unless old hearsay memories tricked his sight)
Along the pallid edge of the quiet sky
He watched a nosing lorry grinding on,
And straggling files of men; when these were gone,
A double limber and six mules went by,
Hauling the rations up through ruts and mud
To trench-lines digged two hundred years ago.
Then darkness hid them with a rainy scud,
And soon he saw the village lights below.

But when he’d told his tale, an old man said
That he’d seen soldiers pass along that hill;
‘Poor silent things, they were the English dead
Who came to fight in France and got their fill.’

 

Read in this fashion, in this context, it’s a fair bet that Hardy saw the poem and worried that he might have a fawning imitator on his hands. Sassoon is promising–his verse is always smooth. But this scene, first imagined in June–the setting out on the cold downs, the trudging mules and hunched men and fatalistic rain (never mind the lorry!)–and then the reveal, in the final quatrain, that they are ghosts, futile ghosts, and that their war will never end–this scene could be titled “A Soldier’s Post-Script to Mr. Thomas Hardy’s Satires of Circumstance.” So Hardy, I think, is wary.

But how could we not be pleased? We must be. It is only a slight bit of imaginative hyperbole (two hundred years?!?!) that keeps this poem from being something like a joint standard-bearer (a tent-pole? an optio? the column at the other end of the pediment?) for A Century Back. Our namesake poem is Hardy’s At Lulworth Cove a Century Back, with its poets and ghosts and time-travel… if Sassoon had opted for the relatively restrained future-contemplation of a single century, then the parallel would be irresistible.

As things stand, in Dorset and Litherland, young Sassoon is on probation, I think–the twain are in mutual regard, but not convergence. And yet Sassoon’s forthcoming book is cleared to carry a dedication to the greatest living angry-fatalist poet…

 

We take one more step back down the chain of connection, now, to another even younger poet who is yet to converge with any of our other writers. But Wilfred Owen is making great strides nonetheless. In today’s letter to his mother winter hardships are the seeds of a poem, and percolating thoughts of that poem lead Owen closer toward a major statement against the war.

Sunday, 4 February 1917 [Advanced Horse Transport Depot]

My own dear Mother,

…since my last letter I have had another, strong dose of the advanced Front Line.

To begin with, I have come out quite unhurt, except for a touch of dysentery, which is now passed, and a severe cold and cough which keep me in bed today.

I have no mind to describe all the horrors of this last Tour. But it was almost wusser than the first, because in this place my Platoon had no Dug-Outs, but had to lie in the snow under the deadly wind. By day it was impossible to stand up or even crawl about because we were behind only a little ridge screening us from the Bosches periscope.

The bit of baby talk–“wusser” for “worse”–is discordant now where it wouldn’t have been a few weeks ago. Wilfred continues to write home to mum, and to complain, but this letter includes deep misery and death, and he is already mulling over the meaning of it all.

We had 5 Tommy’s cookers between the Platoon, but they did not suffice to melt the ice in the water-cans. So we suffered cruelly from thirst.

The marvel is that we did not all die of cold. As a matter of fact, only one of my party actually froze to death before he could be got back but I am not able to tell how many have ended in hospital. I had no real casualties from shelling, though for 10 minutes every hour, whizz-bangs fell a few yards short of us. Showers of soil rained on us, but no fragments of shell could find us.

Owen now waxes almost mystical:

I had lost my gloves in a dug-out, but I found 1 mitten on the Field; I had my Trench Coat (without lining but with a Jerkin, underneath.) My feet ached until they could ache no more, and so they temporarily died. I was kept warm by the ardour of Life within me. I forgot hunger in the hunger for Life. The intensity of your Love reached me and kept me living. I thought of you and Mary without a break all the time. I cannot say I felt any fear. We were all half-crazed by the buffetting of the High Explosives, I think the most unpleasant reflection that weighed on me was the impossibility of getting back any wounded, a total impossibility all day, and frightfully difficult by night.

We were marooned on a frozen desert.

There is not a sign of life on the horizon and a thousand signs of death. Not a blade of grass, not an insect; once or twice a day the shadow of big hawk, scenting carrion.

This is quite dramatic. Not that the misery and fear of holding such a line in such weather doesn’t merit such drama… it just seems as if he is straining for effect. It will feel very different, however, in verse. Owen may have begun working on the poem that would come to be “Exposure” within a day or two of today, a century back.

Our brains ache, in the merciless iced east winds that knive us . . .
Wearied we keep awake because the night is silent . . .
Low drooping flares confuse our memory of the salient . . .
Worried by silence, sentries whisper, curious, nervous,
       But nothing happens.
The poem, the first in which Owen sets out to portray something of the range of trench experience in verse, will also be the first in which he directly addresses, in apostrophe, his swift disillusionment:

 

Watching, we hear the mad gusts tugging on the wire,
Like twitching agonies of men among its brambles.
Northward, incessantly, the flickering gunnery rumbles,
Far off, like a dull rumour of some other war.
       What are we doing here?

 

The poignant misery of dawn begins to grow . . .

We only know war lasts, rain soaks, and clouds sag stormy.
Dawn massing in the east her melancholy army
Attacks once more in ranks on shivering ranks of grey,
       But nothing happens.

 

Needless to say, perhaps, but this is more than just a dawn recorded. Dawn is for poets–full of hope, full of meaning, pregnant with larks straining at the muse’s leash, ready to leap to the sky. “But nothing happens.”
Sudden successive flights of bullets streak the silence.
Less deadly than the air that shudders black with snow,
With sidelong flowing flakes that flock, pause, and renew,
We watch them wandering up and down the wind’s nonchalance,
       But nothing happens.

 

Pale flakes with fingering stealth come feeling for our faces—
We cringe in holes, back on forgotten dreams, and stare, snow-dazed,
Deep into grassier ditches. So we drowse, sun-dozed,
Littered with blossoms trickling where the blackbird fusses.
       —Is it that we are dying?

 

Slowly our ghosts drag home: glimpsing the sunk fires, glozed
With crusted dark-red jewels; crickets jingle there;
For hours the innocent mice rejoice: the house is theirs;
Shutters and doors, all closed: on us the doors are closed,—
       We turn back to our dying.

 

Well, so, there is melodrama, too, with that blackbird nattering out any hope. There is something not quite right here, a serious problem of tone. He affects to speak for all of his men–“we… we… our… our…”–but if he is to succeed in that, he will need a different sort of voice. Not the gruff or cheerful or stoic Bairnsfathery voice, but something much farther away from lyrical narcissism. This poem begins to bring some notes of wartime experience over into literature, but the voice is still innocent, if only because it is so self-regarding. Unconsciously, perhaps, we read “I” for all this “we.”
I don’t understand the force of the religious appeal in the penultimate stanza, but the last paragraph, despite the poem’s flaws, has real emotional power. As we will see, when we return to the letter, his sense of outrage–of a distaste or disgust, of a horror that not only merits but demands action–has outpaced his style.
Since we believe not otherwise can kind fires burn;
Now ever suns smile true on child, or field, or fruit.
For God’s invincible spring our love is made afraid;
Therefore, not loath, we lie out here; therefore were born,
       For love of God seems dying.

 

Tonight, this frost will fasten on this mud and us,
Shrivelling many hands, and puckering foreheads crisp.
The burying-party, picks and shovels in shaking grasp,
Pause over half-known faces. All their eyes are ice,
       But nothing happens.
Although its roots are in this last frigid tour, the poem itself is in the near future. Today, the rest of the letter remains, and it contains a common piece of irony: if a terrible experience is to lead to a poem, then there must also be a respite from terrible experience in which the inspiration can actually be written.
By degrees, day by day, we worked back through the reserve & support lines to the crazy village where the Battalion takes breath…

 

At last I got to the village, & found all your dear precious letters, and the parcel of good and precious things. The Lamp is perfect your Helmet is perfect, everything was perfect.

But he hasn’t just survived a tour in the trenches–he has won an unexpected reprieve.

Then I had the heavenly-dictated order to proceed on a Transport Course. Me in Transports? Aren’t you? When I departed, the gloom among the rest of the Subs, and even among Captains, was a darkness that could be felt. They can’t understand my luck…

The Course should last 1 month!!

Fondest love to all, & thanks for all their letters.

Your own Wilfred x

So Owen will be safe, now, for some time, in Abbeville.

We’ll close with a telling little post-script. Wilfred has been almost rapturous in writing to his mother; but it would be different, wouldn’t it, with his stern and doubting father?

P.S. I don’t at all deserve the spirited approbation which Father gives me. Though I confess I like to have his kind letters immensely. I shall read them less shamefacedly in dug-outs and trenches, than I do here in this pleasant peaceful town.

And the post-script goes on and on, leading, perhaps, to the mood in which the poem will begin.

Quite 10 years ago I made a study of this town & Cathedral, in the Treasury. It is all familiar now!

…I suppose I can endure cold, and fatigue, and the face-to-face death, as well as another; but extra for me there is the universal pervasion of Ugliness. Hideous landscapes, vile noises, foul language and nothing but foul, even from one’s own mouth (for all are devil ridden), everything unnatural, broken, blasted; the distortion of the dead, whose unburiable bodies sit outside the dug-outs all day, all night, the most execrable sights on earth. In poetry we call them the most glorious. But to sit with them all day, all night . . . and a week later to come back and find them still sitting there, in motionless groups, THAT is what saps the ‘soldierly spirit’ . . .[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Letters of Thomas Hardy, V, 201.
  2. Collected Letters, 430-2.

Olaf Stapledon Frozen Stiff; Siegfried Sassoon All Over the Place; Edward Thomas Lands in France

Olaf Stapledon, king of the dreamers, ambulance driver of the milky way, ardent lover of the half-a-world-distant Agnes… is very cold.

Agnes,

Frost, frost frost! Day after day of it, bright, beautiful and bitter cold. Since I wrote last much has happened. We got a sudden order to trek, accompanied by a document ‘not to be opened until the hour of departure.’ Our journey was not a long one, but we took two days over it…

Olaf and the Friends Ambulance Unit have moved to Châlons-sur-Marne, in support of the French army. For the first time, I think, the conditions of service have brought his high-flying and free-floating writing down to the ground, with a dull thump. There is only one thing he can write about.

The journey was made difficult by the frost. Every possible thing froze up. Hot water froze as soon as it reached the ground. One’s fingers froze to everything… I believe the thermometer was not very far from zero Fahrenheit…

This place is quite a big town, very far from the front, but at the base of the greatest of the French salients. If we are stuck here doing evacuation work forever, we shall be very depressed; but if this is merely a stage on the way to this new and important front, all is well.

Meanwhile oh for an end of the frost! … This is not a letter, because everything is so higgledy piggledy and frozen up that one simply can’t write yet. You know, don’t you dear, that there’s nothing I would rather do than write to you all the day, but it is not possible now… Your mittens have had such hard wear that they are already in holes…[1]

 

Courage, Olaf. And what of Siegfried Sassoon, ever since he wryly described his willing-and-unavoidable submission to the coldly irritable mustache that sent him back to the non-metaphorical freeze of the front? We step back two days, and find ourselves gusted upwards on a wave of angry exaltation.

January 28

I have lived and dreamed so immune, since August, that without knowing it I had forgotten the significance of going out again, although the thought of it has passed in my head a thousand times but only as a shadow, not the real storming tumult of fiends and angels.

Now the wings of death are over me once more. And while my body cries out that they are a savage threat (cowering as a bird under the hawk’s shadow in the sun) something within me lifts adoring hands, something is filled with noble passion and desire for that benison and promise of freedom. And all the greatness that was mine last year shall be mine again; and what that happiness means, who shall say, or foretell the end and the sequel?

Now that is a mood that defeats history. It cannot represent–cannot belong to–a single day in the history of the war, but only, rather, to a day in the life of one man. Sassoon is not even our most passionate writer–although never our least passionate, and not the most even-keeled. Will the fires of passion soar? Or bank, or stoop upon some nearer target?

January 29

Went to a concert of chamber music in a restaurant… all very well played by Arthur Catterall and his men (the pianist R. J. Forbes)…

Or sputter. Modern war is no faithful friend of emotional fortitude. Who is built for the psychological jibs and jabs of a hurry-up-and-wait bureaucracy? But he did know it would take a few weeks…

And so to today, a century back, some equilibrium, obtained by his usual means–retrospection:

January 30

…Weather still dreary and harsh, looks like snow, very severe frost since January 22. Procter in here very elated as he’d been passed for General Service again. Having been wounded at the first Battle of Ypres in November 1914, at Gallipoli in November 1915, and gassed at Plug Street Wood in October 1916, one would think he’s had enough of General Service!

This time last year we’d just got up to Morlancourt for the first time. And two years ago I left Canterbury with my broken arm and got home for two months of writing nature-poems. And three years ago I was having my hunting stopped by a week’s frost, and wondering if life would ever be anything but utterly futile!

And now I’m sitting by a stove in a stuffy hut and reading a silly book by Arnold Bennett. And it don’t matter to him whether I like his book or not, or whether I’m dead by breakfast-time.[2]

 

And Edward Thomas is in France, at last. It’s been just a year since he wrote the poem that fixed his eyes on this day. “Roads” is now fulfilled, and all roads lead up to the guns. Thomas’s diary entry is spare, and confirms what we must hope: that he is intent on recording the sensory impressions of his experiences, grist for the powerful poetic mill he has built over the last two years.

Arrived Havre 4 a.m. Light of stars and windows of tall pale houses and electric arcs on quay. Marching through bales of cotton in sun to camp. The snow first emptying its castor of finest white. Tents. Mess full of subalterns censoring letters…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Talking Across the World, 201-2.
  2. Diaries, 127-9.
  3. War Diary (Childhood), 158.

Everyone Wounded and Ill: George Coppard’s Sandwich-Bearing Angels; Henry Williamson’s Year of Anemia, and the Likely Fates of Vera Brittain’s Three Boys

First today, we follow the elated George Coppard–cleared of wrongdoing in the matter of his “blighty one”–from the war zone to Blighty itself.

On 23 October I was aboard the hospital ship Western Australia. The wooded banks of the Seine were in a blaze of autumn colour as we set out on the eight-hour journey down to Le Havre. Everything was so peaceful and quiet that it seemed to belong to another world. It was a happy trip, with sing-songs and good eating…

At Southampton, a crowd of uniformed angels hovered around with lashings of sandwiches, drinks, and cigarettes It is not easy to find the right words to describe my feelings then. I leave it to the reader to imagine.[1]

 

With Vera Brittain in Malta, where the mails take weeks, her correspondence with three young officers has taken on an even greater importance in her life. And with winter coming and the Somme entering its final throes, I will try to keep closer tabs on their doings. Geoffrey Thurlow, for instance, wrote to Edward Britain three days ago to let him know where his battalion was headed. The next day, Edward forwarded the news–or, more likely, similar news from a slightly older letter–without knowing himself that Thurlow evidently had just missed the nasty fighting between Thiepval and Courcelette–the attach that had killed several subalterns of Blunden‘s and Tolkien‘s acquaintance.

London, 21 October 1916

The arm is doing v. well though it is not quite right but I am quite fit for light duty. I applied for a board 10 days ago but as usual have heard nothing so far and the present leave is supposed to be up on Monday next… Geoffrey still seems to be existing but every time he writes he seems to expect the attack soon but if that goes on much longer the weather will soon make attacks impossible…

So Edward is nearly recovered from his wounds, but will be safe from actual combat duty for some time to come, while Thurlow’s fate is still day-to-day. And Victor Richardson?

Tah is in great form judging by a letter from him last Sunday; he thinks the 9th K.R.R., his brigade, and his division are the best of their kind that God ever made. Discipline and general management seem to please him greatly and, as he is apparently in a fairly quiet part ‘some miles North of where Roland was’–probably near Arras, he is doing well at present…

And Geoffrey, for his part, is working on a long letter to Vera:

France, 22—25 October 1916

Edward seems to ‘find life hard’ with most of the people out here he knows; I know the feeling well but I do hope he remains in England for a very long time tho’ the war doesn’t seem to be in its final stage yet by a long way, despite the opinions of some armchaired people at home.

Sensible, so far. But Vera loves Geoffrey in part because of his delicate nature, his sensibility. He, too, has been writing up the sunsets:

Our stunt was suddenly washed out at the 11th hour[2] and we are now settling a little farther South. Our present billet is in some charming scenery; a village in a valley surrounded by wooded hills with the many varied autumn tints on the trees and as the Sun has been brilliant yesterday & today the whole place is beautiful… But our time here is limited alas and we shall go on in motor buses, so soon we shall be in War again and shall be able to look back on our brief stay here with pleasure.

Yes, but where in the war? Vera will want to know, and yet the censors must be evaded. I think we can figure this one out:

And I think we may see again the town with the hanging figure from the Church which Edward knows so well.

So Thurlow expects to see the Somme again, and soon. And of what value is it to have a trusted friend, someone who know something of the pressures that young soldiers and young officers must bear, who can be a confidante outside the little circle of masculine reserve, the straight-jacket that pains them even as it helps them to bear up–for a little while longer–under the stress of battle.

All I hope is that I don’t fail — for I must confess I’m a bit of a coward to use a strong word; not so much for myself but for the men under me am I afraid. Still let’s hope for the best!

(Lunch is ready so must stop. Once again am I Mess President & can’t enthuse over it much!)

This is a startling letter, I think, coming from a straight-laced[3] young man. It speaks both to his need to confess his fears and to the depth of the intimacy that grew up between Vera and Geoffrey in a few short months last winter and spring.

And of course, as a letter from a serving soldier, it is fragmentary and odd, too. Thurlow returns to share this scene:

Monday

We had a cold interesting ride here… we set off and passed thro’ the most charming country I’ve seen here yet. It grew colder as the sun went in and during the halts at odd intervals the A.S.C. man told me all his life history which was both amusing and interesting — he came out in Aug 1914 & had some exciting times in a usually monotonous existence. As we were leaving a main road — it was dark — the road turned to the right at right angles and we saw red and other lights which looked like a hospital train but in “reality it was the front part of the Convoy & I looked back & saw more lights twinkling away to the rear for miles. It was a fairy like sight.[4]

 

And finally today, a century back, Henry Williamson, after fourth months’ convalescence from a bout with dysentery, faced a medical board, and was passed fit for… home service. He will rejoin a unit of the Machine Gun Corps and, incongruously–to us, that is–continue learning about the proper care of horses, donkeys, and mules.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 103-4.
  2. And carried out by, among others, the 11th Royal Sussex and the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers...
  3. Yes, I'm growing aware of the persistence with which I come back to these metaphors; and I don't mean to be dropping heavy hints about the strong possibility that there is a repression of sexuality at play here as well... that is part of the story, perhaps. But it seems sometimes as if the proper, middle-class kids who should be in college now come from an older, stricter world than the likes of Asquith, Shaw-Stewart, et. al. Even though it's the same world, just with less London sophistication, I suppose...
  4. Letters From a Lost Generation, 280-2.
  5. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 80.