It’s another busy day, a century back, with one small sad action in the line and poetry behind it from Ivor Gurney and Siegfried Sassoon, who today leaves for the front once again.
But first, I did something odd in yesterday’s post. J.R. Ackerley writes the section of his memoir leading up to his brother’s role in the assault on Boom Ravine with heavy, ominous foreshadowing. The exchanged watches, the vision of unstrapping the watch from a dead wrist. Reading it, I was sure Pete Ackerley would die, so I wrote it up that way.
And for some hours, yesterday, a century back, Joe Ackerley seems to have believed that his brother was indeed dead. Then late reports came in that Pete was wounded, but Joe could do nothing. What was one wounded subaltern? The senior officers around him were busy attending to the tactical problems raised by the little raid,
And my brother was lying out wounded in no man’s land, and might have been the merest litter left about after a riotous party, for all the interest the Brigadier, the Colonel, or the Major evinced in his fate. And I did nothing either…
For several hours–and several pages–Ackerley wrestles with the question of what to do. His memory of this horrible time is so patchy that it is almost blank. Did he bravely go out into the open to look for his brother? Were the callous senior officers trying to allow him unofficially, heroically, to rescue his wounded brother? He’s not sure. Was he about to be a hero, or was he being a humbug?
Ackerley is not even sure if he was there, when his brother, finally, crawled back into the trench, wounded in the leg, not dangerously, hoping for another crack at the Huns. Pete Ackerley was sent back with a nice Blighty one, and spoke well of his brother at home. Joe Ackerley concludes the episode–written as the certain loss of a brother undone almost after the fact by a carelessly non-ruinous fate–by noting that “whatever happened I never recovered my watch.”
Hard on the heels of this strange account–but there’s a lot I want to cover, today–we have another trench baptism. Late last night, hours after coming up into the front line for the first time, Edwin Vaughan had toured the trenches with another officer, watching the men at work. There–and not for the first time–Vaughan’s anxiety washed over and eroded his heaped-up contempt, leaving him chastened. He may despise the officers and men when in billets, but he was impressed with their professionalism amidst the dangers of the fire trenches at night. Early this morning, after a fitful, drink-induced nap, he took his first turn on duty.
…as my sergeant did not arrive, I went out alone into the trench, where the eerie influences of the night descended up on me. It was deathly still, the mud, the smell of earth, the ragged sandbags, the gruesome litter numbed my brain; a cold fear chilled my spine and set my teeth chattering. I stood shaking and gazing horrified into the darkness, thinking: ‘this is war! and I am in the firing line!’ Then in a panic I set off down the trench. Reaching the first corner I drew back sharply and my heart stood still, for under the trenchboard bridge I saw a dark form pressed against the side of the trench.
In horror I glued my eyes upon it; the light was growing stronger, and it was quite distinct. And now I thought I saw a stealthy movement. Drawing my revolver and with just my head round the bend, I challenged it in a low voice. There was no reply… with my gun well forward I advanced and prodded–an old greatcoat hung on the trench side.
My relief at this anticlimax cheered me somewhat…
Anticlimax–as well as a suspiciously dense conglomeration of typical trench incidents–is Vaughan’s hallmark. But there is a different sort of anticlimax at 8 a.m., when his loathed Company Commander, Hatwell, wakes him under pretext of seeing the lovely morning but really “because he was jealous of my being asleep.”
And right after the beautiful morning? Hatwell gives Vaughan an ugly task: seeing to the burial of several nearby corpses.
Lying flat on their backs, with marble faces rigid and calm, their khaki lightly covered with frost, some with no wound visible, some with blood clotted on their clothes, one with a perfectly black face, they lay at attention staring up into the heavens. This was my first sight of dead men and I was surprised that it didn’t upset me. Only the one with the black face has stayed with me. The thick, slightly curled lips, fleshy acquiline nose, cap-comforter pulled well down over his head and the big glassy eyes have become stamped on my brain.
In the afternoon, Vaughan experiences his first bombardment, rather confusingly described. Although he is in a deep dugout, he sees “the trench wall opposite” blow up and then a dud shell land “on the parados,” which would usually be directly over his head as he shelters in a dugout. These are trench mortars, as he explains:
…very destructive projectiles… their effect is so devastating and demoralizing that whenever they are used we inform our artillery who plaster the enemy lines heavily in retaliation. The idea is that their infantry will know that every time the mortars are used, they will catch out for it…
Vaughan’s first full day in the line is completed by a near miss from a German sniper–“my slip was an act of Providence–” and a failed attempt, after dark, to bury the nearby corpses. The ground is frozen, and they are left under a blanket…
Rowland Feilding, commanding officer of the 6th Connaught Rangers, is an excellent correspondent both because he has pledged to tell his wife everything and because, despite his responsibilities, he is a sharp observer, and his anecdotes are pointed. Some small tragedies need little elaboration.
February 15, 1917. Facing Spanbroekmolen (Fort Victoria).
Here we are in the trenches again.
This morning, in daylight, a German came running across Noman’s Land with his hands up, and was shot by his own people just as he reached our wire. We shall get his body in to-night.
Ivan Garvey, who commands the Company holding the line at the point where it happened, says that three of his men immediately came rushing along the trench to tell him, and that when he went to the spot he found the platoon gazing over the parapet at the dead German. Some of them wanted to go and fetch him in then and there, but Garvey naturally did not allow that.
Edward Thomas has been reading the letters written by his men, working to set up the battery, practicing. Today there was a training “shoot,” then more preparatory work in the afternoon. For several days his comrades have been grating on him, and he has seemed to take solace in his observations of the natural world: “Black-headed buntings talk, rooks caw, lovely white puffs of shrapnel round planes high up…” Well, then: not so much nature reigning alone, but nature in her new context: “Dead campion umbels and grass rustling on my helmet through trenches.”
But this evening, a century back, brought relief and connection: the first post delivery since the battery embarked for France.
Letters arrived at 6. We sorted them and then spent an hour silently reading. 750 letters for me; 17 for me–from Helen, the children, father, mother, Eleanor, Freeman, Mrs. Freeman, Guthrie, Vernon and Haines.
And Ivor Gurney wrote again to Marion Scott today, a century back. He lays the counter-Brookean sonnet sequence aside in order to address her requests for material for his first book of poetry, which she is preparing. The preface is rather fulsome, and shows one side of Gurney’s personality in full effect: he is effusive, generous, taking delight in being comically expansive.
15 February 1917 (P)
This book stands dedicated to one only of my friends, but there are many others to whom I would willingly dedicate singly and in state, if that did not mean the writing of 40 books of verse and dedications; a terrible thing for all concerned . . . So that under the single name and sign of homage and affection, I would desire such readers as come to me to add also—To my Father and Mother; F W Harvey, (also a Gloucestershire Lad;) Miss Marion Scott, whose criticism has been so useful, and she so kind; in spite of my continued refusal to alter a word of anything. The Vicar of Twigworth; H.N. Howells, (and this is not the last time you will hear of him;) Mr Hilaire Belloc, whose “Path to Rome” has been my trench companion, with the “Spirit of Man” ; Mr Wilfred Gibson, author of “Friends” , a great little book; many others also; including Shakespeare and Bach, both friends of mine; and last but not least — 5 Platoon, B Co, 2/5 Glosters; who so often have wondered whether I were crazy or not. Let them draw their own conclusions now, for the writing pf this book it was that so distracted me. . . . This is a long list, and even now does not include old Mrs Poyner that was so jolly and long-suffering; not my boat “Dorothy” now idle in the mud; though a poet sung of her full of glory at Framilode.
Even as I write the list becomes fuller, further extended, yet a soldier must face pain and so it remains shorter by far than might be. I fear that those who buy the book (or, even, borrow) to get information about the Second-Fifth will be disappointed. Most of the book is concerned with a person named Myself, and the rest with my county, Gloucester, that whether I die or live stays always with me; — being so beautiful in itself, so full of memories; whose people are so good to be friends with, so easy-going and so frank.
Some of the aforementioned people I have never had good fortune enough to meet in the flesh, but that was not my fault. I hope they will forgive my using their names without permission. Ah, would they only retaliate in kind! That is however not likely, as I never was famous, and a Common Private makes but little show. All the verses were written in France, and in sound of the guns, save only two or three earlier pieces. May well be indulgent to one who thought of them so often, and whose images of beauty in the mind were always of Gloucester, county of Cotswold and Severn, and a plain rich blossomy and sweet of air — as the wise Romans knew, that made their homes in exile by the brown river, watching the further bank for signs of war.
And that’s not all, folks–Gurney has a ballad in him, today:
Compree. Ballad also
Ballad of the Three Spectres
As I went up by Ovillers
In mud and water cold to the knee.
There went three jeering, fleering spectres,
That walked abreast and talked of me.
The first said, “Heres a right brave soldier
That walks the darky unfearingly;
Soon he’ll come back on a fine stretcher.
And laughing at a Nice Blighty.
The second, “Read his face, old comrade.
No kind of lucky chance I see;
One day he’ll freeze in mud to the marrow.
Then look his last on Picardie.
Though bitter the word of these first twain
Curses the third spat venomously;
“He’ll stay untouched till the War’s last dawning.
Then live one hour of agony.
Liars the first two were. Behold me
At sloping arms by one — two — three;
Waiting the time I shall discover
Whether the third spake verity.
Not so bad eh?
By Gum, what will All the Good People of Gloster think of the Ugly Duckling they have hatched? There will be Some Surprise, what with one thing and another if the Tome appears. Roll on that time as soon as possible. Good luck with the Flu:
Your sincere Friend Ivor Gurney
It’s difficult with Gurney, moody (i.e. mentally unstable) as he is–sometimes his letters seem to lay bare his suffering, to be uncertain records of his uncertain emotional terrain. But it’s reductive to insist that everything is about his mental state. He is a very good writer, and that requires–of course–embodying multiplicity, even contradiction. Or, simply, complexity–there’s nothing impossible or contradictory about what he has written. He is excited at the prospect of his first book, and he has, lately, found a new way to speak for the common soldiers… and yet he lives always under the grim little open end of his spectral “ballad:” for every death he dodges, many more possible deaths await, every day of the war, all the way until that last day’s dawning–and then a few hours more.
Finally, today, our foremost Fusilier is going back to the front. After an unhappy few months in camp near Liverpool and a whirlwind last few days of leave in London, Siegfried Sassoon began the freighted journey once more. Today, a century back, he left London for a base depot in France–and he described the experience, we will not be surprised to learn, more than once:
On February 15th I was at Waterloo for the noontide leave train (or, to be exact, the leave train the wrong way round). My mother was there to see the last of me, and Robbie had shepherded me to the station. My one desire was to have no feelings about anything. As we paced the platform I remarked to Robbie that the train was quite an old friend as this was the fourth time I had travelled by it. When it at length began to move, their faces kept up the usual forlorn pretence of looking bright. With the egotism of youth I couldn’t help wondering what they said to one another about me after they had turned away from the vanishing train…
Ah but that is all retrospect. Here is the day’s diary, and a poem–with all thoughts forward and not a mention of mother or mentor bereft on the platform:
Left Waterloo 12 noon. Irish Hussar in carriage. Sunshine at Southampton…
Left London feeling nervous and rattled; but the worried feeling wears off once aboard the Archangel.
And as it does, Sassoon settles from the personal into the observational.
People seem to become happy in a bovine way as soon as they are relieved of all responsibility for the future. Soldiers going to the War are beasts of burden, probably condemned to death. They are not their own masters in any way except in their unconquerable souls.
Yet, when they have left their relatives and friends blinking and swallowing sobs on Waterloo platform, after a brief period of malaise (while watching the Blighty landscape flitting past) they recover. When the train has left Woking and the Necropolis in the rear ‘they begin to ‘buck’ themselves up’. After all, becoming a military serf or trench galley-slave is a very easy way out of the difficulties of life. No more perplexities there. A grateful Patria transports them inexpensively away from their troubles—nay, rewards them for their acquiescence with actual money and medals. But nevertheless they are like cabbages going to Covent Garden, or beasts driven to market. Hence their happiness. They have no worries because they have no future; they are only alive through an oversight–of the enemy. They are not ‘going out’ to do things, but to have things done to them.
Not to make too much of one line, but this is the essence of Sassoon’s change of heart about the war, and it will be reflected in the change in the poetry as well. War, and poetry, once celebrated deeds. Now, in a latter-day phrase, men don’t do deeds, they are drafted into the galleys, shipped out like cabbages to become the subjects of passive suffering…
Finally, there is a poem of today’s journey which takes a step down the angry road that Sassoon has just sketched out:
Life-Belts (Southampton to Havre)
The Boat begins to throb; the Docks slide past;
And soldiers stop their chattering; mute and grave;
Doomed to the Push, they think ‘We’re off at last!’
Then, like the wash and welter of a wave,
Comfortless War breaks into each blind brain.
Swamping the hopes they’ve hugged to carry abroad;
And half-recovering, they must grope again
For some girl-face, or guess what pay they’ll hoard
To start a home with, while they’re out in France.
For, after all, each lad has got his chance
Of seeing the end. Like life-belts in a wreck,
They clutch at gentle plans—pathetic schemes
For peace next year. Meanwhile I pace the deck
And curse the Fate that lours above their dreams.
Sassoon is speaking against “comfortless war,” now, and emphasizing the helplessness of these soldiers to influence the chances of their own survival.
A step toward protest, perhaps, but one expressed in a fairly traditional idiom. Any soldier–any human being–from any era may curse fate and still feel themselves to possess a fairly free hand for heroic self-fashioning. If this sort of poem is going to shock its readers out of the assumption that this war is, if not Great, at least generally noble and worthwhile, that hand of fate–in the person of British staff plans and German bombardments–will have to do more than merely lour…