A Gathering at Mrs. Colefax’s: Nichols, the Sitwells, Graves, Sassoon, and Sorley; Eliot and Huxley too; and Cynthia Asquith is Very Glad She Went

At precisely 5 o’clock in the afternoon of today, a century back, a reading–to benefit charity, as well as, naturally, the stature of the participants–began in Mrs. Colefax’s drawing room, in Argyll House, King’s Road, Chelsea. The eminent Edmund Gosse presided, insisted on speed, and then immediately launched into a rambling introduction memorable only for the fact that he broke off to scold a late arrival–T.S. Eliot, coming straight from work. Gosse then read a poem or two by the absent Robert Graves, and, after ceding the limelight, kept the attention of the crowd by “snapping” at the other poets throughout the night.[1]

Next came Robert Nichols, opening with a poem of Gosse’s (yes, that sort of thing flattered Gosse) and following with several of his own. Nichols was either a compellingly dramatic reader and performer, or he made an ass of himself by screaming and capering. It depends on whose account you favor–Sassoon’s opinion of his friend seems to state the former sort of opinion, but the language rather implies the latter. Nichols also read two poems by Charles Sorley, who has now been dead for twenty-six months. These didn’t, alas, make much of an impression–When You See Millions of the Mouthless Dead was evidently not on the bill.

Other performers included all three Sitwells–Osbert (still an unwounded and inexplicably free-and-easy-in-London subaltern of the Guards), Edith, and Sacheverell–as well as the actress Viola Tree, Irene Rutherford Mcleod, and Aldous Huxley. Irene Macleod impressed several of the onlookers, if more with her performance–“fierce, rapt”–than her work. It’s not clear what she read, but her next volume of poems will be dedicated to Aubrey de Sélincourt, classicist and fighter pilot, now languishing in a German P.O.W. camp.[2] Huxley had been rejected for military service because of his eyesight, spent some time at a desk job in the Air Ministry, and was now a young teacher at Eton and tending toward pacifism. He was probably thrilled to be there, but he did not take kindly to Gosse, whom he described as “the bloodiest little old man I have ever seen.” And while we’re at it we’d better get Huxley’s other much-quoted mot out of the way: it’s a description of Nichols, who, Huxley wrote, “raved and screamed and hooted and moaned… like a Lyceum Villain who hasn’t learnt how to act.” Which sounds like a hatchet job–or just a broad-for-effect version of Sassoon’s opinion. Nichols, however, had been previously put down by Vita Sackville West, and with much deadlier efficiency.

As for the Sitwells, only Sacheverell’s poetry impressed, but Edith’s work with the Wheels anthologies had forged an all-important link between “society” and Modernism. This, “the first recorded sighting of the three Sitwells operating publicly as a team,” was something of a coming out party for the artistically ambitious siblings.[3]

Among the literary lights in the audience was Arnold Bennett, who enjoyed the occasion and found Eliot’s choice of light verse–The Hippopotamus (which is indeed charming and light, for a half-realized and possibly self-deceiving satire on the Church of England)–to be the “best thing” about the evening. And of course it would be, as well, in any account that looked back on the day in the fullness of time and literary-consensual retrospect. T.S. Eliot! Months after “Prufrock!” Reading a satire as second-fiddle to a syphilitic third-rater and some absent “Georgian” war poets! Come on!

But Eliot wasn’t Eliot yet–he was an American of indeterminate talent whom no one, really, had read. His strange ascent had barely begun, while Robert Nichols was selling a ton and had surely achieved peak Robert Nichols. It was his show: he would have seemed the one to bet on. Not schoolboyish Huxley, who would soon give up poetry, and probably not the three slightly freakish Sitwells, at once too outré and suspiciously like aristocratic enthusiasts rather than major talents. And certainly not the amusing American banker, either: despite the English affinity for light satiric verse, it has hardly been a typical route to poetic world-conquest.

Eliot, however, enjoyed himself. After having written a purposefully obscene and nevertheless nasty letter to Ezra Pound about his invitation (“Shitwells,” etc.) he will soon manage a faintly preening letter to his mother.

I assisted in a poetry reading last week at the house of some rich person for the benefit of something. A hundred and fifty people were induced to pay 10/6 each, so it was rather a rich audience… It was rather amusing, as the audience and most of the poets were very solemn, and I read some light satirical stuff, and some of them didn’t know what to make of it…[4]

 

Which brings us to another attendee, whose judgment in most things I’ve recently come to trust. Cynthia Asquith gives us the most balanced–and most thorough–review of the evening:

Wednesday, 12th December

…Went with Mamma to the Poets’ Reading at Mrs Colefax’s. Somehow it was ever so much better than Elizabeth’s Parnassuses—smaller, more intime, and above all shorter. All the poets were young and most of them had fought in the war. It was very moving. I liked Nichols enormously, with his bright, intensely alive, rather stoat-like face. He read again in the same intensely passionate dramatic way: I like it, but a great many people don’t. As well as his own, he read two—as I thought—very beautiful poems by Sorley who was killed at twenty years of age. Gosse was in the chair and acquitted himself quite well. Three Sitwells, all looking very German—Osbert, Sacheverell, and Edith—all read from their works. The author of ‘Prufrock’ read quite a funny poem comparing the Church to a hippopotamus. There was a young man called Huxley, and a very remarkable, fierce, rapt girl called McLeod who read her own clever poems beautifully. Siegfried Sassoon didn’t appear, but his poems were read by this girl. Mamma was very much moved by the war poems. I was very, very glad I went. Dined with Freyberg at the  Trocadero again and we went on to play poker at Ruby’s—I won £3 2s. Freyberg took me home and found his way into the hall with me.[5]

All very interesting, not least in the sincerity of emotion in Asquith’s reaction to the reading. Jaded as I am by the years on this project, it’s hard not to see a society charity reading as something of a hollow performance (especially when, as we know, but Asquith didn’t, that the young poets present had seen very little of the worst of the war, compared to those who were absent). But Cynthia Asquith, who actually went to this and many other charity-literary events, know of what she writes, and was moved.

So much for the famous evening at Mrs. Colefax’s. And afterwards? It doesn’t seem, judging from Asquith’s diary, that Freyberg attended the reading, although at least one later writer assumes that he did.  It would have been interesting, certainly, to have him and his V.C. lording it over the doubly-absent M.C. of Sassoon. Regardless, Freyberg’s pursuit of the hesitating Asquith will shortly encounter Sassoon as something of an intellectual obstacle. If Freyberg wasn’t there, then Asquith surely discussed the reading with him at dinner, and Freyberg knows the poetry well enough to have at least have an opinion (which is not to say, of course, that he knows it well). Remarkably, even as flirtation (and/or unwanted advances) continues between the two, their disagreement on the whys and wherefores of Sassoon’s position will soon come between them, and his anti-war war-hero literary cachet will turn Sassoon into a shadow rival to Freyberg and his  muscular/dashing appeal.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. It should be noted here at the outset that this gathering is crying out to be the focal point of a trendy (if minor-key) potted literary history... but as far as I know its only wholly-owned chapter, even, is the one in Ricketts's book. The problem is that for all the writers, celebrities, and diarists present, no one wrote a very full account, or recorded much about what was actually read. No program survives, and so the evening remains only half-imaginable.
  2. Mcleod and de Sélincourt will marry after the war; her poetry seems to stop as his career (Herodotus, Livy, etc.) takes off; they will have two daughters, and become, naturally, the in-laws of Christopher Robin.
  3. Ziegler, Osbert Sitwell, 78.
  4. The Letters of T.S. Eliot, 241.
  5. Diary, 379-80.

Bob Nichols and Robbie Ross Rehearse the Big Show; Siegfried Sassoon Gallops Away

Yesterday found Siegfried Sassoon indoors, at a literary breakfast. Today, it is the outdoor man to the fore once again:

Rode to Witherley on Monday; weather frosty. Got on Chamberlayn’s black horse and rode on to Upton. Scent poor all day, but good fun, and lots of Atherstone hedges to jump. Back to Witherley.[1]

 

We’re accustomed to these turns from Sassoon, but this may have frustrated his friends more than most of his inscrutable reversals. Having left London behind, he had also left Robert Nichols with the impression that–despite his dislike of the first reading at which they performed together–he might still attend the next. Nichols and Ross have been cooking up a big charity reading, to be hosted by the society mover and shaker Sibyl Colefax two days hence, and Sassoon–his poetry increasingly popular, his person eminently presentable, and his past adding a dash of political protest glamor, would be an important adornment for the occasion…

Ross and Nichols had decided to go big–or wide, at least–in their selection of poets. In an attempt to secure their right flank, as it were, they had asked Edmund Gosse to chair the event. So they had a fussy but respectable and old-fashioned anchor for the evening, but they were also subjected to his whims: they have been told in no uncertain terms that the entire reading must be over in little more than an hour, all so that Gosse can go home and dress in time for a previous dinner engagement!

So it seems likely that the the rehearsal–scheduled for today, a century back–was somewhat stressful. In fact, it might not have come off at all: the sources are noncommittal on what actually took place, and no one explicitly mentions showing up and practicing. It might have been that the rehearsal was simply a meeting, and that they were forced to put their trust in Gosse’s experienced leadership and assume that whoever showed up would be able to read their own work effectively…

The roster, at least, is a very solid one. Gosse will lead the Georgian traditionalists and hopefully put the non readers/old money crowd at ease, while Nichols will represent the young war poets. Although he hopes that Graves and Sassoon will be his subsidiary musketeers (rather than absent fusiliers), it is probably clear to him that neither the camp commandant in Wales nor the hot-and-cold fox hunter are good bets to make it. So the plan is for Gosse to read for Graves while someone else will represent Sassoon if he doesn’t show.

There has also been a delicate getting-to-know-you lunch in which Gosse was introduced to the three Sitwells, who have been building their influence in Modernist circles through their Wheels anthologies. They have evolved a very… modern… strategy of shocking with their personal oddities and their commitment to all that is new while, inevitably, reassuring traditionalists like Gosse with their aristocratic pedigree and “beautiful manners.” Also passing muster with Gosse are a certain invective-slinging American banker/poet and a young schoolmaster-poet only just beginning to sample the brave new literary world… But Ezra Pound, another mooted possibility, has been ruled out: he had  insulted Gosse rather egregiously in a review of Gosse’s Swinbourne book, and that was a line that the organizers knew they could not cross…[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 197.
  2. Ricketts, Strange Meetings, 135.

A Quiet Day, Siegfried Sassoon at a Barrie Play, and Cynthia Asquith Opts for Genius

A quiet day, today.

For John Lucy, still holding the line near Cambrai, it was only “fairly quiet… except for bombing in the main trench.”[1] The battle, in other words, is falling back from fury to the more subdued viciousness of confused, close-quarters attrition.

 

For Siegfried Sassoon, still on leave, it was a quiet day in town. After his weekend with Robert Nichols and then some disappointing hunting, he lunched at leisure and then went to the theater with Robbie Ross to see Barrie’s Dear Brutus.[2] Yes, one of Barrie’s not-Peter-Pan plays. But it sounds like it should’ve struck a chord: “The setting is a country-house with a garden bathed in midsummer moonlight, owned by an aged Puck known as Lob.”

Lob? That Lob? Well, no, not exactly that Lob. But the play also features an enchanted wood, an unhappy artist, and “a disdainful female aristo,” and it shows Barrie’s interest in a less literal sort of male “arrested development…”[3]

 

For Cynthia Asquith, today brought yet another encounter with Bernard Freyberg, hero of the Naval Division. I think she thinks she can’t really figure him out, even though she can. Freyberg is a talented soldier, exceptionally brave and neither too brilliant to bear the shackles of army life not too dull to blaze his own path into the higher ranks still occupied almost exclusively by pre-war officer… but it’s doubtful that he is a “genius…”

Wednesday, 5th December

…I went to stay one night at Seaford House—lunching with Margot and Lord Howard de Walden. Freyberg called for me there and we dined at the Trocadero, and sat till late listening to music. He interested me enormously. He has the stamp of a high calling which I have hardly ever recognised in anyone. I believe him to be a genius. He said he would ‘do his damndest’ to forget me when he went out. I have never had the type of admirer who hates the ‘yoke’ and I respect him for it, and yet he wants the friendship side of the relationship and complains of loneliness. But I don’t think he should be degraded into the role of a ‘sentimental friend’, even if it could be more than that—which is out of the question—he could never ‘share a woman’. This he said: he also often says it would never do for him to marry, he considers it ruin to a soldier’s career in peacetime. I adore his consuming ambition, and long for him to get a division. He would be comparatively safe then. As a brigadier I’m afraid he exposes himself as much as any subaltern. I am so afraid he may get broken by fighting with some stupid superior—he would never obey what he thought a mistaken order. He swears suicide if he is either maimed or a failure. There is a distinct touch of the melodramatic in him, but I don’t mind that, and I like his grimness varied by startling gentleness…[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. There's a Devil in the Drum, 386.
  2. Diaries, 197.
  3. See here.
  4. Diaries, 376-7.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I wouldn’t do that,” I remonstrated.

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

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

And that’s all we learn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you want me any more?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carstairs’ memories move into the present tense, now:

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

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

It was the sergeant who showed presence of mind.

“We must follow.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

27 November 1917 Scarborough

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh! world you are making for me, Sassoon!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Um…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hope you will read through this, twice.

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

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

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

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

 

References and Footnotes

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

George Coppard’s Machine Guns to Cambrai; Rowland Feilding’s Rangers at Bullecourt; Robert Graves Sets the Record Straight; Agnes Miller as Lizzie Bennet, Olaf Stapledon as Mr. Darcy

Today, a century back, was the first day of the battle of Cambrai. There shouldn’t have been any real hope for a breakthrough, especially so near to the beginning of winter. But the ground in front of Cambrai–between the Arras battlefield and the Somme battlefield–was relatively unspoiled, and it was conceivable that the British could take the town and the Bourlon Ridge and thus threaten to cut off the Hindenberg Line. It is also conceivable that since the Third Army hadn’t suffered horribly, lately, its restive commanders simply wanted to experiment with massed tanks and new artillery tactics, and so an intelligent commitment to holding the line gave way to an experimental local attack that grew out of scale as the planning continued.

But I’m not capable of giving an intelligent precis of the strategy here, nor do we really need one. Six divisions of infantry and over 400 tanks were massed for the traditional dawn assault, and there was some hope that the Germans, expecting a long barrage, would be unprepared for the sudden attack after a short, furious bombardment by over a thousand guns, most of which had been “silently” registered on their targets. The new tactics worked well, but they will not be enough to sustain initial successes against the heavily built-up Hindenberg Line.

Among the thousands lying out between the British front lines in the early morning hours were George Coppard and his two machine gun teams, part of the 37th Brigade, 12th Division.

There we were, a brigade of men, shivering on a cold November night, without a smoke, and suffering like drug addicts… we were only allowed to communicate in whispers. It was the queerest sensation being packed with a vast crowd of warriors, within 400 yards of our front line, and out in the open, after living like rabbits in burrows for many months. It was a spooky business, and we kept as quiet as mice…

Like all the rest I was excited at the prospect of going into battle behind these new-fangled Wellsian monsters. I felt they were really going to exact retribution, on behalf of all of us, for the countless miseries and privations that we poor blighters had suffered at Jerry’s hands.This was to be the reckoning…

Zero was at 6.30 am on that memorable day, 20 November. We heard the sound of tank engines warming up. The first glimpse of dawn was beginning to show as we stood waiting for the big bang that would erupt behind us at the end of the countdown. Lieutenant Garbutt and Sergeant Critcher were standing near me. At last the officer began to count. He was bang on, and in a flash the black sky at our backs was ablaze with stabbing shafts of light. A vast drum of terrible thunder swept along the eight-mile front and a chorus of shells screamed over to the east. The need for silence was over, and we exploded in a babble of excitement. That concentration of artillery was surely one of the greatest ever known. The tanks, looking like giant toads, became visible against the skyline as they approached the top of the slope. Some of the leading tanks carried huge bundles of tightly-bound brushwood, which they dropped when a wide trench was encountered, thus providing a firm base to cross over. Suddenly, the bombardment ceased. By now the tanks were near the German lines and shooting it out where resistance was met…

We went forward into enemy country in a manner never possible without the aid of tanks. ‘A’ section fell in behind the Queen’s, my two guns being on the right flank. No enemy fire of any sort impeded us until we passed Gonnelieu on our left… It was broad daylight as we crossed No Man’s Land and the German front line. I saw very few wounded coming back, and only a handful of prisoners. The tanks appeared to have busted through any resistance. The enemy wire had been dragged about like old curtains, though it was not comparable in density to the terrible wire at the beginning of the Somme battle.

As we moved forward… I could see several tanks rolling forward steadily. There did not appear to be any organised defence against them. Some changed directions to meet isolated spots of resistance, mostly from machine guns. One or two had come to a stand-still, probably with engine trouble…

From the general situation it seemed to me that the German infantry had either fled at the apparition of the tanks or had pulled out deliberately, leaving their machine guns to do what they could…

Whatever the reason for the feeble resistance, it suited my gun team very nicely, and we moved forward steadily with guns and gear. Officialdom had designated tanks sex-wise, i.e. those with light cannon were males and those with machine guns were females. This caused the lads to think up some bright expressions when viewing the lumbering monsters, such as, “Here’s an old bitch,’ or, ‘There goes a bloody great bull.’

Advancing along captured communications trenches, Coppard and his men eventually discovered that not all German resistance had been overcome. His wide-ranging memories of the day[1] narrow, now, as he comes under direct fire.

We reached a point where it cut through the banks of a sunken road. We had to cross the road, but pulled up sharp at the sight of three dead Tommies lying on it. I dashed across the road to where the trench continued–a matter of about ten feet. From a concealed position on my right a Jerry machine guns opened fire. My hair stood on end as the bullets hissed past my back. The gunner was just a trifle late to get me.

There was a tank nearby beginning to move after a stop. I told one of the crew about the enemy machine gun, ‘We’ll fix the bastard,’ he replied, and slowly the tank shuffled round on its tracks and rolled off in the direction of the hostile gun. Then came a fiery burst as the hapless weapon tried to beat off the tank, the bullets clanging and ricocheting. The teams crossed the road safely, well-bucked at this practical demonstration of a tank in action.

Other than this adventure, Coppard saw little action–most of the German artillery seems to have withdrawn before the attack–evidence, perhaps, that they were not in fact strategically surprised. The 37th Brigade advances seven kilometres, just as planned, and without finding targets along the way. After his two teams dig in for the night–and for the expected counter-attack–Coppard explored their immediate area, finding a German command dugout with a body at the bottom. Nauseated–and fearing booby traps–he and his hungry men forgo taking any of the food in the dugout…[2]

 

Rowland Feilding‘s battalion was part of the 16th (Irish) Division, and attacked not as part of the main effort at Cambrai but with the subsidiary attack several miles to the west, at Bullecourt. They held the right flank of their brigade attack, which would prove to be a difficult situation.

Shortly before Zero I headed for the front to wish the assaulting Companies good luck before they went over, but I was delayed, and found myself still in the fire-trench when, bursting out of almost perfect silence, our barrage started…

As a precautionary measure I had had the direction of the objective marked out with tape the night before, having learned, from previous experience, the difficulty of keeping direction in the dark.

Absolutely to the tick I watched the men scaling the ladders… and scrambling over the parapet, the signallers under their sergeant struggling with the coils of telephone wire that was to keep me in touch with the assaulting troops once they had established themselves in the German trench. Those are sights that are very inspiring, and which engrave themselves upon the memory, but I prefer to turn away from them…

By this time the usual inferno… had worked up to its full fury.

It is very clear, at least, that British synchronization has reached a high level of efficiency. Feilding describes the barrage, and his attempt to control the attack from a forward position, but the small dugout soon becomes crammed with wounded men and German prisoners, so he headed back to his “proper Headquarters.”

At this moment poor Brett came stumbling back, crimson with blood, having been shot through the face, bringing further confirmation of the news which I already had from him by runner, that the enemy was furiously counter-attacking our exposed right flank.

The two bunkers are visible in the upper left of the map segment, below, just to the left of the hatched vertical line. Both are marked, appropriately enough, with a symbol much like the conventional “mars” symbol, but in this case indicating a “mebus” machine gun emplacement.

In his next letter, Feilding will explain the tactical situation. The primary objectives of his two companies were two huge reinforced concrete bunkers (“Mebus” was then the term) known as “Mars” and “Jove.” Both were swiftly outflanked under a precise barrage and smoke-screen–“the advance to the attack across Noman’s Land had been carried out precisely as rehearsed”–and surrendered after brief resistance. Eventually, 152 prisoners were collected, but the engineers accompanying the infantry, focused on clearing mines and booby-traps, were unable to block all of the tunnels connecting the German network of defensive positions.

When the counter-attack came, less than an hour after zero, it was both over the open ground to their right and through tunnels that led to the bunker.

You will appreciate its severity when I tell you that the Commander and twenty-six out of twenty-eight other ranks of the right flank platoon became casualties. The officers and men fought with the most heroic determination in spite of a failing and finally disappearing supply of bombs…

At a critical moment one of the men, Private K. White, rushed close up to a traverse from behind which the enemy was bombing, and actually catching some of their bombs in the air, threw them back before they had exploded.

But it was not enough–after an hour, Captain Brett, shot through the face, led a retreat onto the other pillbox. This held, and after another hour, Feilding himself crossed No Man’s land with his orderly in order to visit the position.

I talked to the men as I passed along the line, and found them in good spirits, and confident in the knowledge of the splendid part they had played that morning…

They have done well–and still suffered heavy casualties.

The familiar scene of desolation confronted me. Each time I see this kind of thing I think it is worse than the last time, and indeed, on this occasion, so churned up was the surface that, but for the line of tunnel entrances and the trodden ground between them, there was little left to indicate where the trench had been. It was just a sea of overlapping craters of huge dimensions–a dismal chaos of fresh-turned earth.

Feilding, with little to do now that the counter-attack has petered out, explores the new position, coming upon the dead, the dying, and the wounded. Even though he is so close to the action–he was in command of the men who stormed the two pillboxes and took the tunnels with hand-grenades, he writes almost as an observer. He sees the horrible aftermath, promises aid to the wounded, and collects souvenirs…[3]

 

Back down in the main battle, Edward Horner (one of the last of the Coterie, and a great friend of both Diana Manners and Duff Cooper) moved up with his 18th Hussars as the battle began. We have read Coppard’s and Feilding’s tales of heavy machine guns, precise artillery coordination, and tank exploits against pillboxes, and the battlefield was overflown by hundreds of aircraft–1917 as a foreshadowing of 1939. But there were only a few hundred tanks to be had and, as we shall see, they were mechanically unreliable, and so the plan for exploiting any breakthroughs was essentially the same as it had been in 1915 and 1916, and behind the attacking tanks and infantry trotted three entire divisions of cavalry–Hussars, Dragoons, and Lancers no longer dressed in their flashing Napoleonic finery, but still booted, spurred, helmeted, and mounted. Cambrai was, in the words of one of our writers who was not there but will study the subject, “a harum-scarum affair, ill-planned and feebly directed.” It was a raid that got out of hand, in terms of its scale, and could only do what raids do: snatch a bit of ground which cannot be held. The tactical coordination may yet be a model for future operations, but they have not solved the operational problem of continuing the advance.

So, as the German counter-attack gathers, Horner’s Hussars, part of the 1st Cavalry Division, passed through the infantry and attacked the village of Noyelles, south-east of Cambrai. But too slowly: although in some places all three major layers of the Hindenberg Line were pierced to a distance of nearly five miles (a fourth line was incomplete), by the time the heavily-laden horses had picked their way through, the German defense had had time to organize. The cavalry were in it, at last, but they were not cantering through the open fields toward Berlin. They were fighting a confused battle on a torn up field, against undisturbed reserves who had easier access to heavy weapons.

 

Back to the infantry, now. E. A. Mackintosh’s 4th Seaforth Highlanders were in reserve, although they probably assumed that they would be called in when the attack bogged down. But they were not–and if the cavalry were both elated and disappointed to be involved in heavy fighting, the infantry were very pleased to have a short march forward into the captured area. So, despite yesterday’s note, Mackintosh saw no fighting today. During the night they will take over for the first waves, victorious but exhausted.[4]

 

Also in the battle were both of Isaac Rosenberg‘s recent units–the company of Royal Engineers with whom he had served as a laborer and the 11th King’s Own Royal Regiment (Lancaster). As with Mackintosh’s Seaforths, their easy first day will turn out to be only be a brief reprieve: the German counter-attack will come soon, and it will be as devastating as the British assault was successful. And so Rosenberg will come to know that he has been very fortunate to be very ill, and in hospital, and not in Bourlon Wood.[5]

 

It might make sense to end here, or to spend more time fleshing out these scattered notices of a large battle–but that, of course, is not how today, a century back, was experienced. It was all in bits in pieces, and only later would it be the beginning of a strategic story of ambition, success, and cruel but predictable reversal. In England the evening papers will have some news of the attack, but for most people, most of the day, their thoughts were elsewhere.

Robert Graves, for instance, is writing from his garrison job in Wales to Robert Nichols. The letter happily discusses their recent literary successes–“My God, Robert, we have lit such a candle as by God’s grace will set the whole barn alight”–and proposes various projects, before it works around to Graves’s real business–clearing the air of any lingering questions about his sexuality.

It’s only fair to tell you that since the cataclysm of my friend Peter, my affections are running in the more normal channels and I correspond regularly and warmly with Nancy Nicholson, who is great fun. I only tell you this so that you should get out of your head any misconceptions about my temperament. I should hate you to think I was a confirmed homosexual even if it were only in my thought and went no further.

Fair enough, perhaps. It is testimony to both Graves’s enthusiasm and his obliviousness that it might only recently have occurred to him that his habit of being honest about his (chaste) passion for a younger schoolboy might lead some to think that he was “a confirmed homosexual.” The topic may be on his mind, too, because Nichols–his heterosexuality confirmed by syphilis apparently contracted from prostitutes–has recently spent time with Siegfried Sassoon and Robbie Ross. And then there is one more poet whose affections run in less “normal” channels… and whom Graves, after connecting Nichols and Sassoon (though Ross was there to do the real work) will try to take credit for discovering, even though, of course, it was Sassoon who introduced them.

I think I have found a few poet as yet unfledged. One Owen, subaltern in the 2nd Manchester Regiment.[6]

Owen, meanwhile, left home this morning, a century back, his leave up, for garrison duty in Scarborough.[7]

 

Finally today, we’ll take a perversely wide view of “war literature” and swing from the tanks at Cambrai to the nineteenth century novel inspiring in Australia.

Agnes Miller–together with a score of other wives and sweethearts–suffers the compounded insult, here, of once again waiting quietly in the background while men’s words take center stage. The excuse, of course, is that we are interested, a century on, in the experience of the war and the problems of writing about it, and therefore the letters of those at the front naturally take precedence over those written from home to the soldiers (and ambulance drivers). Which is fine, as far as it goes, but it’s still a shame that this echoes the general devaluing of women’s voices, a century back. Although sometimes any fault is mine–I choose to omit the letters, that is–another reasonable excuse is that there is often no possibility of including the other half of the conversation: letters from the front could be bundled and laid lovingly away in drawers and trunks, while letters to the front were very often lost or simply thrown away, since a bundle of letters would become a burden to a front-line soldier.

But some recipients were able to keep at least some of their letters, and, while I often skip Agnes Miller’s tales of daily life in wartime Australia, today’s letter, though ill-timed to coincide with a major tank battle and the climax of one machine-gunner’s memoir, is impossible to resist. In fact, it’s about as excellent a letter from a lover as one could hope to receive… which is also to say that I approve of its subject and position, a century on. Moreover, after he will have received her long-delayed doubts on the strength of their relationship to survive these years apart, this letter will surely overwhelm Olaf Stapledon with love for his beloved–and with gratitude for the timely wisdom of that “lady novelist” then dead a century and four months.

20 November 1917

I wonder if perhaps you are at home now on leave—perhaps at this very minute waking up one morning at Annery. I have a habit of always thinking of you eight weeks ago, sort of. I don’t realise that you are really there keeping pace with me at every fresh minute of the day. It is nice to think that. It makes you more real. I have read two books in the past three days. That is my record! I kept thinking how much you would have enjoyed them if we had been reading them aloud to each other. Of course you must have read them—“Pride & Prejudice” & “Northanger Abbey.” You do like Jane Austen, don’t you? I simply love her. Such really artistic delightful writing. Such books make me think of diamonds, small diamonds but perfect in workmanship. Absolutely genuine—clean cut, perfectly smooth & sparkling. Full of such delicious humour & such sound good sense, & although the ways & the language that day are so very different from ours yet the characters are just such as we meet everywhere. I should like to have been friends with Jane & Elizabeth Bennett. . . . I should so like to be as bright & intelligent & sprightly as Elizabeth! No wonder Mr. Darcy “got it badly” when he did get it! I like to picture you in the characters of all the nice lovers— my
Mr. Darcy!

. . . I can understand Elizabeth very well. I can understand her resentment at such a sudden & unexpected declaration. I can understand her disapproval amounting to positive dislike on that occasion. I think she would understand my despair & sorrow—almost shame at having won a love that I could never hope to return. If she had understood my feeling she would not have been surprised to find me weeping upstairs in the darkened drawing room. . . .

Then next I see the beginnings of changes in both of us—changes which make us feel how far away we both were before from the real thing & at last “my Mr. Darcy” comes to me—or rather I write to him from the other end of the world & say, “Dear Mr. Darcy—Once, a long time ago, you asked me to be your wife & I said no & I was very cross & horrible & now I am sorry. Everything is different now & I am different too & I understand & if you will only ask me once again I will not say no—indeed I will not.”

And she did not.

Mr. & Mrs. Darcy were very happy after their stormy courtship & Mr. & Mrs. Stapledon will surely be even more so to make up for all the long time they have had to wait. . . . Jane Austen really is a tonic as well as an artist.[8]

We are to be grateful, however, that Agnes didn’t happen upon Persuasion, first, which might have romantically inclined her toward a long sharp wartime separation and a preference, after all, for brave, dashing, and fortunate officers, rather than principled and dreamy pacifists…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Which read a little bit too much, in a few places, as if they had been influenced by the style of later popular summary.
  2. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 122-6.
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 228-34.
  4. Campbell and Green, Can't Shoot a Man With a Cold, 204-5.
  5. Moorcroft Wilson, Isaac Rosenberg, 375.
  6. In Broken Images, 88-89. There is no date on the letter, but it is dated to today, a century back, by Jean Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 425.
  7. Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 283.
  8. Talking Across the World, 257-8.

Vera Brittain on Night Duty and Edward in Italy; Back to the Front for Carroll Carstairs; Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Nichols Sing for their Society Supper, but Wilfred Owen Misses the Party

It’s an unsettled sort of day, today, a century back, with new experiences that are none too welcome. We have, first off, a letter from Edward Brittain to his sister Vera, his first from Italy.

I am rather disappointed with this part of the country — we are close to where Vergil was supposed to be born and the city forms the adjective so often applied to him (even in Tennyson’s ode to Vergil) – it is flat and not specially interesting apart from its novelty.

Mantua, that is: and a much more mainstream deployment of a decent classical education than some of the heroically obscure place-references of Patrick Shaw Stewart and the other argonauts. But what clever chap can resist such a minor violation of the rules about revealing military locations?

We marched through the city yesterday — it is old, picturesque and rather sleepy with narrow streets and pungent smells; we have been accorded a most hearty reception all the way and have been presented with anything
from bottles of so-called phiz, to manifestos issued by mayors of towns; flowers and postcards were the most frequent tributes. Some of the country we passed through was very fine; apres la guerre finie there are several places where you and I might like to stay a while…

But Vera has other things to worry about, today–or rather tonight.

That same evening I was sent on night-duty to an acute medical ward. Since each of my previous night-duties had become a sharp, painful memory of telegrams and death and brooding grief, I did not welcome the change, and wrote to my mother in a sudden fit of despondency, deepened by the renewed recollection that Edward, my fellow-survivor, was far away and depressed:

“I feel very old and sad these days, though Sister ‘Milroy’ . . . tells me she feels like my mother when she goes out with me, though she’s only eight years older. I wonder if I shall ever be eight years older, and if the next eight could possibly be as long as the last three. I suppose I am saturated with War, and getting thoroughly war-weary, like everyone else.”[1]

 

Carroll Carstairs, our American officer of the Grenadiers, was in the area as well, returning to the line after leave.

Trains! French trains… I watched the smoke from the engine drift into separate wisps that looked like shrapnel bursts. Leaning back in my seat, I felt myself being carried along by destiny itself.

The drums reminded me that I was back again, feeling, in the process of a slight readjustment, unreality in the midst of the greatest reality. While I was away the Battalion had moved by route march from Ypres to the Somme.[2]

Which is but a way of indicating that we will, shortly, as well.

 

But first, once again, to London. Today’s most interesting event, from a war literature point of view, was a crossing-of-paths between the two most significant soldier-poets of 1917, Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Nichols. Robert Graves is the key node between the two of them, having been enthusiastically talking them up to each other for months and very hopeful that the three shall form a musketeerish bond, but he is on duty in Wales, and actually in command of the garrison of the Royal Welch at Rhyl. Which was perhaps a good thing, as the three together might have made for an explosive stew of intense eagerness and disparate social anxieties.

Instead, the two poets met with the capable Robbie Ross to smooth the way. Tonight, then, was yet another soldier-poet dinner at the Reform Club, and it might very well have gone badly. Nichols’s Ardours and Endurances has been “the hit of the season,” but Sassoon’s assessment was not favorable. He is surely correct that Nichols was “not as good as Sorley,” and posterity has certainly agreed–but that would be getting ahead of ourselves. But it should be fairly obvious that the poems will not wear that well: they are pretty, but they ring hollow in too many places. Nichols was (too) confident in his talent, but then again he knew himself to be a lightweight in terms of military service compared to Sassoon, that well-known fire-eater and wearer of the MC, and that easily could have been a point of unpleasantness.

Had Nichols suspected that Sassoon knew himself to be the better poet–or if he knew how much Sassoon shared Graves’s scorn for his personal failings (i.e. Nichols’s adventures with shell shock and venereal disease)–it might have degenerated into a butting of heads or a competition in offense-taking. And Nichols had either missed–or chosen to overlook–the rather pointed use of the word  “ardours” in “Fight to the Finish,” which suggests that Sassoon recognized him for a bit of a phony and was willing to take a shot at him in print.

So, again, it was lucky that they had Robbie Ross, “expert conversational masseur.” The dinner went well and the friendship began, but the three did not retire thereafter to Ross’s flat in Half Moon Street, the decadent chambers to which Wilfred Owen had recently been initiated. No: they had been set up! Ross, after dining with them, duly delivered the two poets to a literary gathering at the home of Sibyl Colefax, “a rising society hostess, a ‘duchess-snob’, who liked to collected literary lions.”

Once they arrived, the poets, bait for the real prey–society eminences–learned that they were expected to perform. Nichols had done such a public reading before, and was a happy ham. He went first, melodramatically declaimed his verses, and then, even worse, was followed by a piano interlude of ragtime tunes played by Ivor Novello. Sassoon was thus perfectly primed to displease, and he certainly tried to, reading “The Hero, “The Rear-Guard,” and the famously controversial “They,” with its soldier “gone syphilitic” and blunt mockery of conventional religion.

It’s hard to tell if this was Sassoon just being “tough,” or, rather, whether he was trying to needle Nichols (who had seen nothing as horrible as the Hindenburg Tunnel, but did indeed know the horrors of syphilis). If Sassoon was “genuinely impressed” by Nichols, as one biographer has it, he was also irritated by his performance, which caused Sassoon “acute discomfort.”

But in any case Sassoon was a poor reader and he was out of every one of his various elements–this was not the sort of crowd that would either be impressed by a minor gentleman-sportsman from Kent with an MC, charmed by the handsome young jock-aesthete, or approving of quiet aloofness as a substitute for active wit.

Was he trying to shock the bourgeois? Perhaps, but one should credit him with a more nuanced appreciation of class: this wasn’t that crowd either. These were experienced high society women, flying far above the mere bourgeois, and three and a half years into the war. Lady Cynthia Asquith only recorded Sassoon’s shyness and prominent ears, while Vita Sackville-West, not surprisingly, saw through the ambitious Nichols, calling him “a horrid little bounder.”[3]

But what does that signify? At least the poets performed, and the ladies had something to say. Sassoon still had some dwindling notoriety as a protest poet, and some might notice that his poems “shocked” to good effect. Nichols was popular, and he delivered the goods, no matter that they are second-rate. The two will soon be invited back again, to enliven our last blogging December with their tales of the war’s largest literary waymeet…

 

Unfortunately for Wilfred Owen, however, his luck has run out–or it hasn’t yet run away enough for such things. He was in London too, today, a century back, on the way back home after visiting his cousin Leslie Gunston, and went to the Poetry Bookshop, where he was pleased to exchange winks with Harold Monro when a customer spoke of Sassoon. But then he was off to Shrewsbury, unaware that Sassoon and Nichols were with Ross…[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Testament of Youth, 392; Letters From a Lost Generation, 382.
  2. Generation Missing, 118.
  3. Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 423; Ricketts, Strange Meetings, 128-131.
  4. Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 283.

Hugh Quigley Signs Off; Wilfred Owen has a Chat with H.G. Wells; Thomas Hardy Despairs of Progress

Well, Hugh Quigley has burned bright and brief, here. I have to confess that, due to oversights and backlogs and such-like failures of the will, I had never read the book until it was almost too late–namely this August, well after he began writing, a century back.[1] So I could have made a bit more of Quigley, here, and gotten to know him through (in two senses) his writing. But perhaps not too much, or too well: his verbosity, his combination of Romantic idealism, frequent illusion, and chronologically torturous meditations on actual events was not a great fit for this project–they are more like sermons than letters. But it is a fascinating book, and I wish I knew more about him. In any case, it’s over. Today, a century back, Quigley wrote his valedictory from a hospital in Scotland (the location for literary war letters in 1917).

It’s hard to even summarize the many pages of philosophical musing, rhetorical posturing, and (yes, another trio of adjective-noun pairs! It’s infectious) proto-historical flag-planting that he managed to write, so we’ll make do with brief excerpts and long ellipses. It’s somewhat uncanny that he closes his reflections today, given what this date signifies to us–though it is of course the very last November 11th that will mean nothing to anyone then and there.

Glasgow, 11 November, 1917

Perhaps when the matter remains by me I might resume my ideas concerning the Passchendaele Ridge battle, not the historic, but the purely individual–something of the soul and nothing of the material. What can be the value of any thought expressed as a form of literature, even in embryo as it is in my letters, when it deals with mere ephemeral attributes, things, passing, even now past and gone to a limbo unregretted perhaps, vague monuments to perverted endeavour? I can still see those guns ranged along the Menin Road; their heads crowned with laurel leaves, which, on nearer approach, were bits of green paper strung on nets. A curious association, that of the laurel leaf: Ariosto and Tasso were crowned with it to express a love of serene, sun-flooded beauty; now we crown them to express our admiration of nature not beautiful, but strictly utilitarian…what lives?–is it the image or the gun?

True, the references to epic poets of the Italian Renaissance were not strictly necessary–although, as perhaps Quigley knows, Tasso used contemporary military knowledge when he wrote his epic, which was “based on historical events” (as we would say) and has a whole sub-plot involving siege warfare, artillery, and an enchanted wood… but never mind! Despite his elaborate style Quigley is getting to the heart of the question. Are we here for true facts recorded (i.e. the gun) or the varieties of human experience, as transmuted into literature?

But Quigley is not really interested in such pedestrian questions–he flies above the fray, so to speak, and looks down from a great height, too high for binaries such as history vs. literature or the horror of war vs. the rightness of the cause.

The sin of war is not surface; it goes to the very heart and centre of being, for the thought is ever poised of life dormant given to death–death a present thing… This reflection destroys every longing for the unattainable, for the glory, for the radiant unknown, and centres on the body itself, a grovelling physical fear rarefied and intensified to spiritual debasement.

The matter at hand, for him, is philosophical. Or spiritual, although not expressly religious. So maybe it’s literary-spiritual? In any event, the horror that Quigley found, in war, was tempered not only by the consolations of literature but redeemed, at least potentially, by the beauty that a committed Romantic might wrest from it by means of his art…

That attempt to answer intuitively the call of the beautiful in nature, even in the bleak horror of shell-holes, seemed the essence of life to me, the only thing worth seeking in the misery of this war. The call was everywhere, a fascinating thing; even within the fetid, slimy horror, of shell-holes it vibrated, for even there beauty smurred the filth with pure green and brought grass over it to hide the wound. But the final beauty of all lay in the spirit itself…

A glorification of the spirit undoubtedly, but if one neglected this spirit and faced reality, then life would have been unbearable in its bleak misery… The visionary triumphed over the warrior, and war itself became an abstraction, known only to a nightmarish imagination.

After a good deal more on philosophy, both historical and personal, as well as his Idealism and a none-too-subtle criticism of British generalship, the book comes back in its final paragraph to a less ambiguous position on the war:

War has ennobled the man to the angled, has stamped in gold the finest part of him, yet at what a price, what an agony, what a desecration of life! With that note of horror I shall close, for if every one could visualize always this horror and know its human application, war would absolutely cease, and our ruddy generals find a new occupation other than that of spreading an aureole round hell. There is only one thing real in life, and that is eternity. War remains at best a nauseous blasphemy.[2]

 

After such a peroration, no letter of Wilfred Owen to his mother could seem prolix or high-flown. But today’s brief note is very much down to earth, anyway–or to the earthen pavements of literary London, and the giants who walk it.

Dearest Mother,

I have just lunched with Ross, H. G. Wells, & Arnold Bennett. Wells talked exclusively to me for an hour over the coffee, & made jokes at the expense of the Editor of the Daily News, who joined us. I think I can’t honestly put more news under one penny stamp!

Your W.E.O.[3]

 

Speaking of literary eminence, and writers inclined to look down on human affairs from a height (ah, but this one doesn’t overwrite!) we have a letter today from Thomas Hardy, still the one elder held by our war poets in unbesmirched renown. The letter happens to be to Hamo Thornycroft, uncle of Siegfried Sassoon, and it lays bare a not entirely surprising despair, which is itself unsurprising in its effects–he is tired of London and correspondence, but he writes still, and wonders about the course of the war:

My dear Thornycroft:

Many thanks to the shade of Ovid for jogging your elbow to write—for to tell the truth we have been so benumbed by the events of the times as to have almost given up writing letters—or rather I have, for my wife still manages to keep on—unless some friend gives me a lead. However we are quite well, though London seems to get further & further off. We were there two days in the summer, & there was not time to do much, or see anybody, as you will imagine…

Do you think the raids will go on? They must cost our enemies an amount out of all proportion to the results. As to the war generally, it is not exhilarating to think that Germany is in a better position (or seems so, at the moment) than she was in three years ago, after all our struggles.

Kindest regards to all.

Yrs always sincerely

Thomas Hardy[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. It turns out that the title, Passchendaele and Somme, is inaccurate, and was probably stuck on this short collection of long, high-flown letters just to get the Two Most Disastrous Names next to each other in a bookshop window--Quigley was on the Somme before he was in the Passchendaele battle, and apparently saw no significant action there.
  2. Passchendaele and the Somme, 170-185.
  3. Collected Letters, 507.
  4. The Letters of Thomas Hardy, V, 231-2.

Jack Martin on a Just Punishment; Wilfred Owen Among the Literary Lights; Siegfried Sassoon Disabuses Lady Ottoline Morrell

Jack Martin, now waiting for reassignment to Italy, has an amusing story today, a century back, of generalship-as-moral instruction:

Had a practice stunt on the dunes repelling imaginary Austrians. I was running a Visual Station and of course we had divested ourselves of our equipment but the runners had to keep theirs on. Presently the Brigadier came along and after a few enquiries said ‘A shell has now dropped here and killed those men who are wearing their equipment. So they can get back to their billets at once…’ We leave here on Monday but I haven’t heard any details yet.[1]

Primary school teachers would greet this particular adverse stroke of artillery-fortune with approval, I think.

 

But the main action is not behind the lines in France today, but rather at home, in London and Edinburgh. Wilfred Owen’s letter, written tomorrow (a century back) to his mother, tells the tale best.[2] It’s a bit like one of those irritating “which living writers would you most like to eat dinner with?” questions. Except that he actually is:

Had a memorable dinner at the Reform last night, & stayed talking with Ross till one A.M. I and my work are a success. I had already sent something to the Nation which hasn’t appeared yet, but it seems the Editor[3] has started talking of me, and Wells told me he had heard of me through that Editor! H.G.W. said some rare things for my edification, & told me a lot of secrets. I only felt ill at ease with him once, and that was when he tried to make me laugh at Arnold Bennett. Wells is easily top dog when it comes to jests, and I’m afraid I took his side, and told Bennett I disapproved of his gaudy silk handkerchief!

…I got Bennett into a corner about Sassoon. I think they ‘noticed’ me because I stood up to them both politely when they shook hands to go, and argumentatively….[4]

 

Yesterday I quoted Siegfried Sassoon‘s biographer, Jean Moorcroft Wilson, on how Sassoon treated the visit of Lady Ottoline Morrell much as he had Robert Graves’s: by going about his business–namely playing golf–and only afterwards paying her some attention. But there was another sense in which LadyOttoline’s visit was similar to Graves’s: there were hard feelings deriving from an explicit clarification of sexual orientation.

While sexual attraction does not seem to have ever been an important element in the Graves-Sassoon relationship[5]–Graves had a crush of some sort but was not interested in sex, while Sassoon was not physically attracted to Graves–Graves opened a rift in the relationship when he announced his love for Nancy Nicholson. In this case, Lady Ottoline had evidently cherished certain hopes, but Sassoon will now definitively disabuse her. Today, a century back, they had a long walk and a short answer, in which “he told her quite specifically that he could ‘only like men, that women were antipathetic to him.'”

This wasn’t any lighthearted clearing of the air–“but, darling, I’m gay!”–but rather a fairly nasty encounter. Sexual preference aside, Sassoon has frequently shown a contempt for women bordering on (or making lengthy inroads into) misogyny, and he also apparently told Lady Ottoline, who was even more eccentrically dressed today than usual, that she was too “artificial” to take seriously. Sassoon, as self-absorbed as most poets and also as self-absorbed as most thoughtlessly immature young men, seems to be exhibiting merely a doubled cruelty, rather than any subtle binary vision. Lost in all this, too, is the context: he may have mocked Lady Ottoline behind her back the whole time he accepted her hospitality and made use of her connections, but adding this belittling sting to his rejection of her may not just be callousness or callowness–he is also clearing his flank as he retreats, leaving no question that he no longer wants anything to do with the pacifist/protest movement…[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Sapper Martin, 123.
  2. Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 280-1.
  3. H.W. Massingham; the poem in question is "Miners," to be published in January.
  4. Collected Letters, 507.
  5. This with all this with the usual caveats about reading between the lines in situations where openness about homosexuality was not possible, plus the usual complexity of parsing lines of love in tumultuous relationships.
  6. Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 418-9.

An Unwelcome Arrival, A Literary Lunch, and a Rueful Transfer

Wilfred Owen‘s first day in London as the new find/friend of Siegfried Sassoon began well: he lunched with Robbie Ross, who was both a central hub of literary London and the most important contact that a young gay Englishman could make. And it seems to have gone well: Owen left with an invitation to dine at the Reform Club tomorrow.[1]

 

As for Sassoon, left behind at Craiglockhart instead of among new friends and old in London, he found yet another reason to bemoan his company and circumstances, today, a century back: Lady Ottoline Morrell, his erstwhile friend and Pacifist/protest backer, has stubbornly insisted on visiting him in Scotland, despite the fairly obvious “I don’t really want to see you” tone of his recent letters.

Having failed to put off Ottoline’s threatened visit… he made the most of her stay. Though she felt neglected and complained bitterly of his thoughtlessness in booking her into one of Edinburgh’s most expensive hotels… he had accorded her exactly the same treatment as he had Graves, that is, fitted her round his games of golf.[2]

And just as Owen’s London literary life will hit a new high tomorrow, Sassoon’s relationship with Morrell will reach a new low.

 

And finally, today, there was an exchange of ordeals for Alfred Hale, our poor (but independently wealthy), clumsy (but musical), hopelessly incompetent airman. After two miserable months as a batman serving a Royal Flying Corps officer at a training facility–which meant long days of chopping wood and tending the officers’ stoves–“he was shunted to clerical work.” This would seem like a reprieve–but not so fast, dear reader. Hale may not be a hale or hardy outdoorsman or gifted with the skills and personality of a capable servant… but he is also utterly befuddled by machines, even those as simple as the typewriter or telephone…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 280-1.
  2. Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 418-9.
  3. The Ordeal of Alfred Hale, 119.

Wilfred Owen Writes to Siegfried Sassoon, Father-Confessor, Colonel, and Prophet; Lord Dunsany Dines with the Company

Today, a century back, two days after writing, then shelving a way-over-the-top letter to Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen sat down once again to write… a still-pretty-over-the-top letter to Siegfried Sassoon. I don’t think it needs much more introduction (or commentary).

5 November 1917

Mahim, Monkmoor Road, Shrewsbury

This was not the photograph in question, but rather the Philpot portrait (Fitzwilliam Museum); but see below

My dear Sassoon,

When I had opened your envelope in a quiet comer of the Club Staircase, I sat on the stairs and groaned a little, and then went up and loosed off a gourd, a Gothic vacuum of a letter, which I ‘put by’ (as you would recommend for such effusions) until I could think over the thing without grame.[1]

I have also waited for this photograph.

Show some rich anger if you will. I thank you; but not on this paper only, or in any writing. You gave—with what Christ, if he had known Latin & dealt in oxymoron, might have called Sinister Dexterity. I imagined you were entrusting me with some holy secret concerning yourself. A secret, however, it shall be until such time as I shall have climbed to the housetops, and you to the minarets of the world.

 

There is indeed a slight resemblance between the heretical sun king and the rebel poet

Smile the penny! This Fact has not intensified my feelings for you by the least—the least grame. Know that since mid-September, when you still regarded me as a tiresome little knocker on your door, I held you as Keats + Christ + Elijah + my Colonel + my father-confessor + Amenophis IV in profile.

What’s that mathematically?

In effect it is this: that I love you, dispassionately, so much, so very much, dear Fellow, that the blasting little smile you wear on reading this can’t hurt me in the least.

If you consider what the above Names have severally done for me, you will know what you are doing. And you have fixed my Life–however short. You did not light me: I was always a mad comet; but you have fixed me. I spun round you a satellite for a month, but I shall swing out soon, a dark star in the orbit where you will blaze. It is some consolation to know that Jupiter himself sometimes swims out of Ken!

If this sounds like a poem, that’s because it soon will be, a long effort entitled “This is the Track” and containing the lines:

To be a meteor, fast, eccentric, lone.
Lawless; in passage through all spheres.
Warning the earth of wider ways’, unknown
And rousing men with heavenly fears.

This marks the end of surely one of the most courageously sustained effusions that Sassoon has ever been subjected to. He must be writhing–and also flattered. Returning to the letter at hand, we find Owen, confident that his outburst of adoration will not have spoiled the friendship, returning to earthly matters:

To come back to our sheep, as the French never say, I have had a perfect little note from Robt. Ross, and have arranged a meeting at 12.30 on Nov. 9th. He mentioned staying at Half Moon St., but the house is full.

I have ordered several copies of Fairies & Fusiliers, but shall not buy all, in order to leave the book exposed on the Shrewsbury counters…

The connection between Sassoon and Owen is intense and important, even if it is not fully reciprocal. Sassoon esteems the young poet, and if he does not seems quite capable of intense warmth without intense passion, he clearly “values the relationship,” as we would say in our mercenary way. And Owen professes love for regard, friendship, and reading/editing/poetic fellowship–these things are the most important.

But Owen is not some blithe innocent or fashionably fancy-free poetic adventurer; he’s an ambitious poet, and Sassoon’s gift of entree into the literary world by means of associations with Roberts Ross and Graves is very welcome too… And it’s endearing that Owen reports his little scheme for drawing attention to Graves’s new book. With self-consciousness of his silliness, sure–but he still reports it.

Sassoon is a beloved friend–loudly and enthusiastically beloved, but still not the be-all-end-all. There is also Owen’s family, and the society of his many friends and contacts from his ergotherapeutic activities.

I am spending happy enough days with my Mother, but I can’t get sociable with my Father without going back on myself over ten years of thought.

What I most miss in Edinburgh (not Craiglockhart) is the conviviality of the Four Boys (L. vivere—to live) Someday, I must tell how we sang, shouted, whistled and danced through the dark lanes through Colinton; and how we laughed till the meteors showered around us, and we fell calm under the winter stars. And some of us saw the pathway of the spirits for the first time. And seeing it so far above us, and feeling the good road so safe beneath us, we praised God with louder whistling; and knew we loved one another as no men love for long.

Which, if the Bridge-players Craig & Lockhart could have seen, they would have called down the wrath of Jahveh, and buried us under the fires of the City you wot of.

This would appear to be one of the more open–though still oblique–references to homosexuality in Owen’s edited letters: the fire-buried city in question is surely Sodom, one of the two “Cities of the Plain” which another of our writers (and soon-to-be-path-crosser) will eventually choose as the euphemistic title of the fourth volume of the first English translation of the greatest French novel (or simply novel) then being written (or at any point). Got it?

To which also it is time you committed this letter. I wish you were less undemonstrative, for I have many.adjectives with which to qualify myself. As it is I can only say I am

Your proud friend,

Owen[2]

 

A much less dramatic/interesting/significant letter will play the “secondly, and anticlimactically” role, today. But Lord Dunsany‘s correspondence with Lady Beatrice is suddenly available these days, and perhaps we will wring some insights from it eventually. As it is, however, he seems a bit… aloof.

My Darling Mink,

The officers of D. Company gave me a dinner last night at the Club. We walked back  arm in arm with me in the middle, either to show that that was their natural and usual way of going home, not a necessity, or else to show that if ever I wanted help to get home after dinner, I should have it…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. A helpful note from the editor explains that "SS cannot explain this word."
  2. Collected Letters, 504-6.
  3. Amory, Lord Dunsany, 146.