We Discover Dorothie Feilding, as She Finds Perfect Peace and Happiness; Wilfred Owen is in Blighty, and Still Abed

Dorothie Feilding can be disarmingly frank, but she is also more than a bit elusive. There was little indication in her letters that her friendship with Charles O’Hara Moore was becoming something more. But during her leave in May things accelerated rather quickly. We’ll move back to the 7th of June, as her letters home pick up again:

Dearest Mr Da…

…it’s so wonderful to feel perfect peace & happiness again it seems almost another life since I have felt really happy. I was scared to death the 1st day wondering if everything would be all right but now I am quite quite sure of it. As for Charles he is sure enough for six!

And then on June 9th, we get a bit more context–or, at least, a context we can imagine applying to the sudden decision to marry: we see Dorothie getting in a last hurrah with her many friends (and brothers) still in Belgium, and then addressing herself to another stratum of needs, desires, and obligations.

Mother mine–

I’ve had the most lovely day. I had plotted with that long suffering man the Bloke, to go & hunt up Tubby & Peter today as they are quite close. It was all settled when at 5 am this morning they suddenly blew in here, bursting with excitement & awfully pleased with themselves. We had the greatest fun & in the afternoon begged an array of nags off the sailors & Mish & all went nagging down the beach & dunes. Then to tea with the sailors & then they went off about six. It was a joy having them & they are both looking frightfully well. Peter said he was due for a drop of leave about July & would try his best to be at Newnham to ‘see me pass away’ so if we can fix it up for 1st week in July that ought to suit everybody.

Mother dearest, I feel it’s almost wrong to be so happy these days. I wish I could bring some happiness into you too to make up for your dear Hughie

Will you be glad I’m not in Flanders getting potted at any more? Mairi Chisholm ran in this morning, looking worlds better, she was so touched at your having her at Newnham & I never thanked you half enough. It was because I know that awful desolation that sweeps over every corner of one’s soul & being that I wanted so to help her a little…

It was so awfully nice of you to have her, & thank you so much dearest.

But a letter of June 12th has an entirely different air. Is Dorothie giving her mother comfort, or is she finding another way to refuse a daughter’s obligation to care for her mother when the men have gone away?

We learn this, and more: lost love has long lain below the surface of her persistent courage and daffy nonchalance over several years of ambulance work in Belgium.

Mother my darling–

I got your sad letter last night, & I have been a selfish beast. It seemed so wonderful to feel at peace & a desire to live once more that I have left you thinking all the help I have been to you these years is at an end. Mother dearest, my being happy won’t come between us for ‘a daughter is your daughter all her life’ & our sympathy is too deep for
anything to change it.

At times I have wished I hadn’t the power to feel things deeply & that the superficial beings are the happiest. But it’s not so–God gives you a bigger soul in exchange for pain & the power to be capable things.

Some time before the war Charles & I were very near caring for each other. Then, for no particular reason, we drifted away imperceptibly back to just friendship. I think it was then I first began to think a great deal of Tom. Then Tom went to India & I never saw him again as I went straight to France. But we wrote to each other & in so doing had both felt a deeper & newer affection growing out of our old camaraderie.

We weren’t engaged but I know we should have been had we met again–we both always thought we would meet again quite soon. Then he died just as my love for him was beginning to waken & the bottom seemed to have fallen out of my life. I didn’t care whether I lived or not so you see it wasn’t very meritorious to be brave. I just threw myself heart & soul into the work out here & I got to love my soldiers like my children. It was a positive need to me, to share the life & dangers of this war with them. My whole soul cried out for it & no other kind of work would have helped me one fraction as much; out here right at the heart & pulse of things one finds realities & greatness. The best of everyone comes out…

This is so different from Lady Feilding’s usual style that it helps bring home the adjustment we must make in our understanding of her substance. Like so many of her male counterparts, a vague desire to “serve” and an interest in adventure were part of her initial motivation to endure hardship and danger; and like a very large subset of those officers, a mixture of personal unhappiness and frustrated love morphed into an abiding love for the men under her care.

And yet of course she is in a very different position, vis a vis the continuing possibilities of Romantic love. “The Front” was nearly an all-male world (and due to both standard social and legal prejudice and the additional problem of the effect of hidden love affairs on military discipline, gay men could seek love only at great risk) and she was a young, attractive heiress. There must have been a constant barrage of interest and pressure, much of it in a style that we would now consider harassment. Some of this she laughed off, much of it must have gone unmentioned. But she does have the option of marrying a soldier…

…the sadness of it all worked its way into my very soul. Of all these men who cared for me, it only made it harder & the last 6 months I had got into a sort of mental stupor. I can’t describe it. Just a great ache & loneliness. You see, God by teaching me suffering had given me a bigger soul capable of far deeper feeling, but had given me nothing else as yet to make up for the suffering.

Feilding’s Catholic faith–and her conviction that her suffering soul indicates a coming reward–set her apart from Vera Brittain, but this next paragraph shows how similar their situations might have been:

I used to try & force myself sometimes to care for people I saw who sincerely loved & needed me, so that I might make them happy. But then at the last minute there was never anything but bare friendship & it couldn’t suffice me & I was afraid to marry with only that.

And Vera Brittain would have, in the deeper subsuming to family loyalty and self-sacrifice, married her brother’s blinded friend. As it happens, the ghostly paths of these so-similar-yet-so-different women crossed, in a way, today, a century back. As Lady Feilding was planning her wedding, Victor Richardson was awarded a posthumous Military Cross for his leadership in the Battle of Arras.

So back, now, to the happier and happy Lady Dorothie Feilding, whom we now seem to know three times better than we did after her first eighty-seven appearances here:

Mon. Ritz Hotel London [18 June]

Mother darling–

We have decided Thursday 5th not the 3rd after all for the funeral if that suits you.

That, of course, would be the wedding.

Could you put up Binkie, Charles & best man? His regimental pals, one or two as really want to come, could come by Irish mail to Rugby. I’ve asked Mellins to let Billy & David be pages. I’m getting a little plain white frock & veil, no train or bridesmaids or fuss, but would love those stugs as minute guardsmen with their white clothes & guards belts.

Any immediate relations of Charles who insist on coming we intend billeting on Aunt A at Holthorpe but haven’t broken it to her yet…

I couldn’t bear the thought of being cremated in London for the amusement of Tit Bits, Mothers Home & Pigeon World

This is quite funny, and apt: Lady Feilding has already been a darling of the popular press–titled young ladies driving ambulances made great copy in 1914–and her wedding will prove irresistible to the nascent tabloids, if not perhaps to the pigeon-fancying community. So she is back to her happy-go-lucky early style as the wedding approaches…

And yet her style did change, there, for a moment, and we got a glimpse of her different feelings. She’s an indifferent speller and a casual aristocrat, and has shown no signs of well-read Edwardian Romanticism–nevertheless she feels things just as deeply as any fulsome, long-tressed provincial young lady.

Back, for a moment to the letter of the 12th:

When I met Charles the other day & he told me how he cared, I felt for the 1st time, that he could awaken my power to love (which I thought had died in me) if he loved me strongly & enough. At the very beginning I was afraid perhaps my loneliness was influencing me unduly & that I had not yet found the real thing. But so very soon I was quite, quite sure everything was right.

This, too, is a war romance:

The big things in Charles had not been stirred before the war. He was inclined to be idle & drift through life without being properly alive. The army & war generally has done to him what it has done to many people including myself. He loves me so much, Mother dearest, & so deeply that he has made me love him; it is not just a wild wave of sentimentality, it is [a] real thing which grows greater every day & is coupled with an infinite trust & confidence in him & in what the future will bring. Please God, he will be some months at home, before all the mental ‘angoisse’ [anguish] begins again. I am feeling so small & stormtossed…

I need just a little bit of peace & happiness so badly Mother dearest…

Yr loving


Wilfred Owen is also very happy and at peace… and also writing to his mother, and also in need of additional funds for new clothes… after that the similarities drop away precipitously.

Monday, Welsh Hospital, Netley

Dearest of Mothers,

I had your letter this morning—a great delight. This place is very boring, and I cannot believe myself in England in this unknown region… It is pleasant to be among the Welsh—doctors, sisters, orderlies.

And nurses.

They kept me in bed all yesterday, but I got up for an hour & went out today, only to be recaught and put back to bed for the inspection of a specialist…

There was no choice of Hospitals when we were detailed off from Southampton, tho’ I tried to get the Birmingham Train, which those officers who lived hereabouts had to take!

When I get away I shall try to journey through London. There are new clothes I want… Here also we fare much better than anywhere in France. I sleep well and show every sign of health, except in the manipulation of this pencil.

Your own W.E.O. x[2]


References and Footnotes

  1. Lady Under Fire, 211-16.
  2. Collected Letters, 470.

Herbert Read Writes of Reading Writers Aright; Praise for Siegfried’s Lines; Henry Williamson’s Dark Journey; Vera Brittain Starts for Home

We’ll begin today with a letter from Herbert Read to Evelyn Roff. We don’t know Read well, and he’s different from many of our young officers–he reads Nietzsche! he hails from Yorkshire!–but, then again, not really all that different. He’s just another young poet, missing the English spring and reporting on his ambitious reading…


Your letter arrived yesterday and did indeed manage to convey to me the very spirit of spring in England, so that I was away in Yorkshire, with the daffodils in Farndale and the brown moors reviving with green–until my eyes were dim and my breath was still . . .  and then I began to curse the chance that makes of me an exile, and then to curse myself for a sentimental fool.

Spring we do have here, but in an abortive sort of way. The felled trees bloom, but for the last time, and forget-me-nots spring up among the ruins. But everything is sad, and our few flowers are like wreaths among so much desolation.

The lull I told you of is lasting longer than we expected, and we have now been in rest ten days. It is significant that during this time I have never been tempted to write to you–our present existence is rather passive and unimpressive. We spent most of the first week cleaning–skins and clothes. We are up early, drilling, etc., until noon, and then the rest of the day is left to our own devices, which mostly taking the form of football, riding, eating, reading, and various shooting competitions…

But any day–any hour–we expect sudden orders to back into the thick of it. And none of us really cares how soon those order come, for the sooner our fate is settled the better, we argue.

And that is that. The letter then turns to literature, as these letters so often do. Read and Roff’s mutual attraction is to some degree intellectual… which is to say that Read seems very interested in proclaiming and explaining his opinions. Despite her careful praise for Read’s youthful first volume of poems, Songs of Chaos, Roff’s other opinions do not meet with unconditional approval:

…I don’t see how Kipling fits in. He is one of my bêtes noires–a landmark in Philistia, though that is rather a rash judgment of the author of Kim and Puck of Pook’s Hill. It’s the man’s Idealism that is wrong–not his pure imagination. I’ll second your favour of Richard Jeffries and Morris, and Ruskin is good as art… Matthew Arnold no bon… The Rossettis are fine…[1]

Read doesn’t write much like our other poets–his “wreaths among so much desolation” seem at once those of an unreconstructed Romantic and a budding free verse rebel–but his reading is certainly “correct.” It will take a while for the appreciation of Kipling’s style and fertility and constancy to escape the bonds of his association with militarism and empire, but William Morris lurks behind many of our writers (Tolkien not least) and Richard Jeffries was beloved of both Charles Sorley and Edward Thomas. The boy just have to get himself to London… although Ypres is in the way.


Two days ago I mentioned a… highly improbable statement by Henry Williamson, namely that he had been sent on a flying visit to the War Office in London and somehow charmed his way into a new assignment on a signal course. His diary records nothing of the kind, but mentions that he is to be sent to a signalling course in one of the rear areas in France.

In today’s letter to his mother, however, he repeats the tale:

22 May

Dear Mother, Just a short note to let you know I am O.K., and a staff job at last!!! And on Army Staff Corps too!!! I got it by luck–went to the W.O. the other day special duty, & came back to a course, & clicked at once.

This makes no sense. The editor of his papers breaks in with a rare parenthetical to write that “there is no detail or confirmation of this rather extraordinary event.” Worse, there is no further bragging or later fictionalizing, which are de rigueur with Williamson.

So it seems clear that he just made the story up, for no reason (that I can see) other than to impress his mother and mislead his family. They are meant to think, I guess, that he has somehow “wangled” a “staff” job, when in fact he has merely been sent to learn signal work, either because the Army likes sending officers on courses or because his own unit wants to be rid of him…[2]


Before we come to a leave-taking in Malta, let’s take this pleasant interlude from the pen of none other than Alfred Percival Graves, Celtophile, man of letters, and father to Robert. He, too, has been urged by son to read his friend’s verses and–despite possible misgivings about the satiric tone of some of the poems–he wrote approvingly to Siegfried Sassoon today, a century back, in (light) verse of his own.

The Hindenburg Line
By bombardment and mine,
We may wear through,
Or tear through
Or powder quite fine,
But I Donner-wetter!
I know of a better
And mightier line!
None other can shape it…

The Siegfried we call it.

Yours really delighted with the Old Huntsman and other poems,



Finally, then, Vera Brittain. She has decided to come home, to be of what use she can to her family–and to Victor Richardson, last of her brother’s intimate friends, blind and badly wounded. She is breaking her contract as a V.A.D., but this is permissible, and, really, the bureaucracy has been surprisingly swift in giving its permission and sending her home. She will look back on today as the beginning of a journey with nothing of the romance that clung to the journey out.

On May 22nd, with a small home party of home-going Sisters and V.A.D.s, I began my long, dirty and uncomfortable journey to an England that seemed, at the outset, curiously improbable and remote. We had to send our heavy luggage by sea… and were allowed to carry only one package, into which, disregarding uniform and equipment, I stuffed the silks, laces, pale blue kimono and other treasures acquired in Valleta. We were told to carry food for six days, and filled our haversacks with bread, butter, tinned milk and potted meat, all of which had become repulsively languid by the end of the second outrageously hot day. Somehow I found a corner for my diary…

Yes, her neglected diary. Well, habits change, and, alas, it will continue to be neglected, leaving us more dependent on reminiscence and correspondence. But she did describe today, a century back:

May 22nd

Left Malta. I hated to go, for I had been very happy there, & it was a real pain to say goodbye to Stella, with whom I have been for so long.

We were taken by transport to Grand Harbour, & after waiting on docks for about an hour, put on the Isonzo. It was a rough, wet & stormy day, & as there were no chairs we had to sit on deck on our piled-up luggage. We had not been long out of the harbour when the waves seemed mountains high &: the ship pitched & rolled to an angle, as they afterwards told us, of 42°. All the luggage piled up at the back, to say nothing of ourselves, rolled down the deck right as far as the rails. This happened three times; the last time I sat in almost two inches of dirty water, & slid in it nearly down to the rails, which effectually ruined all the clothes I had on.[4]

To this cranky diarist’s account she will add, much later, a smooth memoir-writer’s touch.

I do not know why I omitted an incident which I recalled long after other details of the journey were forgotten–the melancholy sadness of listening, at sunset in Syracuse harbour, to the “Last Post” being sounded for a Japanese sailor who had been washed overboard from the destroyer that had acted as our convoy across the turbulent Mediterranean.[5]


References and Footnotes

  1. The Contrary Experience 95-6.
  2. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 154.
  3. See Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 362.
  4. Chronicle of Youth, 341.
  5. Testament of Youth, 347-8.

Max Plowman on Death and Memory; John Masefield on the Ruins of Martinpuich; Duff Cooper’s Bearings Shift

Max Plowman appears here infrequently, now that his memoir’s span is done, and generally as a letter-writer–and it’s his complex relationship with pacifism that holds our attention, rather than his modest skill as a poet. But today’s letter includes a threnody he wrote for the son of a family friend, recently killed in action, and I think it is worth our time. Plowman didn’t know this “boy” well, but he responds to his death as a challenge–as an example of the challenge that the immensity of the war’s carnage presents to the frailty of human emotional intention:

Amid so many dead
Why should I sing of you?
Or seek to crown your head
With wreath of rue
Who wear the immortal crown ordained for you?

Myriads are dead–are slain
And many thousands more
As votaries to Pain
Will touch the shore
Where Memory wanders, and is seen no more

But your name lives in me.
Your life for earth I keep.
You died for Liberty.
‘Tis she doth weep
And in her heart your dear remembrance keep.[1]

There is something to the rhythm of this, as Plowman remarks in his own self-deprecating comment on the verses. The middle stanza, I think, rises above the more familiar sentiments of the other two: he is not just pledging to remember a dead soldier, but doing so while noting that both the scale of the slaughter and the ways in which pain blanches memory will make such vows more difficult to keep than they might at first seem.


Most of Duff Cooper‘s school friends long ago joined the armed forces. Many of them have been killed. But this option was not open to him as a matter of course, because he held a post in the Foreign Office (although I have not read that he vigorously pursued an exception in order to go fight; others did). He has brooded on this fact intermittently, but his diary, as we have it, reads most of the time like the narrative of the thoughts of a feckless young man and eager wooer. The war is serious business, yes, but not nearly as all-consuming as the pursuit of Diana

And yet, now, opportunity knocks.

The government want more men for the army and we in the Foreign Office are all to be medically examined and I think they will have to let some of us go. If anyone is allowed to go I shall be as I am the youngest of the permanent staff, unmarried and I should think perfectly fit…

He has waited for events to approach him, and, suddenly, they have. Will he back away? Rush toward them? Or wait some more–wait, that is, to be asked to become a sort of conscript?

The thought fills we with exhilaration. I don’t own to it as people would believe it was bluff and I dare say too that I shall very soon wish myself back.

This is wisdom, surely: caution, as well as a highly-developed sense of social propriety. One might not have gone to war in the first rush (or second, or third), but to bluster about a safe job would be unforgivable.

What follows next is impressive: Cooper may seem callow and love-smitten, pursuing the beautiful and monumentally coy Diana to the exclusion of all war aims and most thoughts about the suffering troops… but he is honest. Or he is honest enough to be persuasive: if what follows is bluster, than I am taken in. Even the afterthought, suddenly, seems true. And cruel.

But I am eager for change. I always wished to go to the war though less now than I did at first. I envy the experience and adventure that everyone else has had. I am not afraid of death though I love life and should hate to lose it. I don’t think I should make a good officer. The only drawback is the terrible blow it would be to Mother. I don’t know how I should dare to tell her. I think Diana too would mind.[2]

Yes, I think she might.


Finally, today, a brief bit from the letters of John Masefield. Preparing a book on the Somme battle, he has been touring the devastated areas, and writing regularly to his wife. Masefield is not a combatant, but he is a war writer in his own way, and a very good one, as we will see. In addition, he is one of the most important contemporary references for several of our poets, and thus a useful point of comparison to their more intense and immediate forms of witness. He is good–necessarily–on ruins; and he too chooses the writer’s paradox of sharp description tempered by self-doubting agnosticism:

I was out yesterday at Morval, on the east of the battlefield, & today at Martinpuich; both busy places when I was here first & noisy with cannon & none too safe, but now as quiet as tombs, utterly deserted wrecks & ruins of pleasant little towns, Morval on a hill top, like a little Troy, & M’puich along a ravine, like (I suppose) Nineveh. It is not possible to describe either place. They are both collections of big holes, with shattered wood in them, & a sort of mound in each, where the church was. In M’puich there were a lot of the cure’s sermons, in script, lying in the mud, all about Jesus & the holy Marie, & a lot of rather blasted gardens, with currant bushes & May flowering tulips. But no man can describe them. They have to be seen. Once they must each have had 3 or 400 souls in them, with homes & smoke & fires & dinner times & beasts in the stable, & now, my God, they lie out in the blasted field, unvisited by man, & they look like the cities of the plain, & the corpses’ knees & hands & boots stick up out of the mud at one as one goes by, & the rats come out sick over one’s feet. No more news.

Bless you all & my dear love to all.

Your old lover


References and Footnotes

  1. Bridge Into the Future, 68.
  2. The Duff Cooper Diaries, 53.
  3. Letters From France, 1917, 285.

Alfred Hale’s First Day on the Job; Ivor Gurney in Rouen; Vera Brittain on Love, Beauty, and Sacrifice, or the Afterlife of Rupert Brooke, XIX: Eminent Victorian

We left Alfred Hale forlorn and sleepless on his first night in barracks. But a man can adjust to most things–even the army.

…the last part of that night I must have slept a little, as I woke up about dawn… a sentry passed the window, returning off guard with his rifle and knapsack and other military equipment. Yesterday evening I had heard someone say that Sergeant so-and-so had said to him that he was making up a firing party, and I thought of the lot of the man led out to be shot on such a dawn as this…

But this cheerless brooding on my part was soon to be cut short with a corporal coming in and telling us to get up at once…

After a short march, breakfast–“fried eggs and bacon and tea out of an urn, both rather dirtily served”–and an eminently forgettable first full day in the army:

…that whole place seemed to be made up of huge depressing buildings overshadowing endless parade grounds, where much-drilled platoons of men daily and hourly trod the gravel. Just inside the entrance gates was a large recreation ground with tennis courts–for the officers, I suppose.

What was done with us recruits that morning I have completely forgotten…[1]

This is surely because the army is merely marking time while sorting its catvh. Tomorrow, a century back, Hale will be assigned to his first unit.


This snippet from Ivor Gurney would be out of place wherever we put it. But his surprising reaction to another of the great Gothic masterpieces makes a fine counterpoint to Hale’s initiation into the grim wonders of London military architecture.

Yesterday I managed to get to Rouen again, and was for a brief two hours and a half my own master. It really is a  fine town, and a great rock which stands smiling and huge just out of the town and on the river is very impressive. I did not go into the Cathedral, whose iron spire struck me with increased horror; a dreadful thing. St Ouen has a very much finer spire.[2]


Another letter from Vera Brittain–to her brother, Edward–confirms her growing belief that the Brotherhood (and Maiden) of the Survivors of Roland must serve one another most intensely now in their deepest need.

Malta, 6 May 1917

You say that you & I must make things worth while to Victor as his family is inadequate for dealing with the situation, & Mother says that in future days ‘he must be our especial care’. I have thought a great deal about both your letters. No one could realise better than I our responsibility towards him–not only because of our love for him, but because of his love for us, & the love felt for him by the One we loved & lost. I am not sure that this doesn’t apply more to me than to any of you. I at any rate know this, that I should be more glad than I can say to offer him a very close & life-long devotion if he would accept it, & I can’t imagine that Roland, if He had known what was to be–if He knows–would be anything but glad too. Those two are beyond any aid of ours–They who have died; and  the only way to repay even one little bit of the debt to Them is through the one who remains: ‘Happiness’ said Olive
Schreiner ‘is a great love and much serving.’ For his sake–for all your sakes — there is nothing I would not do for him…

I dare not think much about Geoffrey. As I work there is a shadow over everything; I know it is there but I try not to think why it is there or to analyse it too much.

This is a delicate matter–or, perhaps, it’s just the sort of thing that I hesitate to pronounce upon with certainty. Neo-Victorian prudery!

But what intense jumble of romantic, Romantic, and filial feelings produces this intense devotion, to others, in the name of Roland? Vera isn’t precisely proposing to become consort-nurse or wife to Victor, so she is certainly hinting at just the type of non-standard relationship that, unless it were formalized through marriage, would, indeed, seem very strange to her peers.

And Geoffrey–who did not attend Uppingham and was never a close friend of Roland’s–is now drawn more snugly into the little circle. His status derives from three things: his close friendship with Edward Brittain, the fact that he spent so much time with Vera just after Roland was killed, and the fact that he is dead now, and beyond the harm of confused emotions,

Do you think it strange, I wonder, that while I loved — & love — Roland so much, I loved Geoffrey a little too? To me there always seemed to be something very much in common between them — though I suppose there always is something in common between ‘whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report . . . . .’[3] This something, whatever it was, seemed to express itself in their mutual love of Rupert Brooke, their mutual sense of the glory of the earth, in Geoffrey’s love of Roland’s poems. . .

When I think of Roland & Geoffrey & Victor & you I am reminded of Carlyle’s mourning in the ‘French Revolution’ over the loss of ‘the eloquent, the young, the beautiful, the brave’. How better could you describe Them–Roland the eloquent, Geoffrey the beautiful, & all four of you so brave & so tragically young. (Victor’s conduct on the Day was glorious–worthy of Roland & of his best self. I almost wept in reading of it–dear old Tah.) . . .

There it is again–the nurse describing the maimed young man as “glorious.” But if I have repented of that critique, especially since Kate Luard soon afterwards gave voice, through her patients, to a more nuanced view of the war’s emotional toll.

Yet this usage remains problematic, here: Brittain is not, as Luard was, commenting on a patient. She is choosing to read third-hand military reports as mitigating factors in the “meaning” of the destruction of Victor’s health, youth, face, and eyesight.

And she brought “beauty” into the conversation, too. One can hardly expect (or even desire) clear critical thinking about such things so close to the event… and yet. Shouldn’t there be some resistance to this romantic resistance to the threat of meaninglessness?

Vera Brittain fancied herself something of a rebel, a feminist conscientious objector, at least, to unquestioning Victorian for religio-patriotic pablum. But as she absorbs these terrible blows she seems to be losing her tentative footing in any sort of “modern” or critical point of view. She writes of saintly fallen heroes, she borrows from the arch-Victorian historian, she proposes an almost monastic sort of self-sacrifice… and in all of this she is abetted by their joint reading of Rupert Brooke.

Which is a bit of a challenge to us, here. Isn’t the influence of beauty and poets–and beautiful poets–one that perhaps we should respect, especially when the sentimental appeal receives covering fire from our guiding muse, the inexorable angel of calendrical coincidence?

Strange that Geoffrey should die on exactly the same day as his beloved Rupert Brooke 2 years before. And the same day of the month as Roland.[4]


References and Footnotes

  1. The Ordeal of Alfred Hale, 47.
  2. War Letters, 161-2.
  3. Philippians 4:8.
  4. Letters From a Lost Generation, 350-1.

Siegfried Sassoon Bombs Busily Along; Charles Carrington’s Half-Conscious Nightmare; Alf Pollard Finds the Germans, and Loses Some Men; Vera Brittain’s Immense Fact and General Malaise

We are surrounded by the Battle of Arras. We’ll finish in Malta, where Vera Brittain waits for news, and most of the post will follow Siegfried Sassoon‘s latest turn as “Mad Jack” in the developing battle. But we’ll begin with two other members of the supporting cast, each within a few miles of Sassoon, and each sharing important aspects of his experience.

The Battle of Arras, now in its second week, is neither trench-warfare-as-usual nor a matter of major “over the top” assaults, those strange aberrations in military history in which lines of troops abandon their subterranean life in order to move over open country, their shoulders hunched against the shell fire. Instead we have something rather like the tough, ceaseless, street-by-street urban warfare of later wars, with the trenches and strongpoints standing in for ruined cities. The weather, a cruel abridgement of the recent turn toward spring, only increases the misery.


Charles Carrington has been in the battle since near the beginning, but he remembered tonight, a century back, as one of the worst:

After many exacting days and freezing nights we finished with a night attack against two German outposts on 16th April, the date of Nivelle’s offensive that was to have finished the war. Our petty skirmish was for us as deadly as the greatest battle was for him. Again it was dark and wet, with a drizzle that turned to snow until before dawn a blizzard was blowing. Two of our companies blundered into one another and opened fire. The assaulting party ran into uncut wire which they could not see. They dug themselves in and waited for dawn when the Germans cleverly slipped away. That night my horse, impressed for duty as a pack pony to carry ammunition to the front line, died of exposure and so, very nearly, did its master, to whom the whole episode was a half-conscious nightmare of fluttering trench-mortar bombs, the kind we called ‘grey pigeons’, coming down through driving snow…[1]


And Alf Pollard, back in the nick of time, is out in front of the battle, and looking for more of a fight. The Honourable Artillery Company are north and east of Arras, where the advance has already taken several lines of German trenches–but not yet the local section of the Hindenburg Line.

On the afternoon of the 16th, a Brigade Major carefully examined this trench system through his binoculars, and, failing to observe any signs of life, came to the conclusion that Fritz must have fallen back even further. He at once issued orders that patrols were to be sent out.

Pollard volunteers, and asks to take only four men, since he has more experience with small patrols and, like Sassoon, likes to gallivant more or less on his own. But he is required to take an unwieldy twelve, as per staff orders. The thirteen men set out after nightfall, in moonless, rainy darkness. Feeling their way slowly between Gavrelle and Oppy Wood, they eventually reached the German line without encountering any signs of life, noisily cut their way through the wire, and reached the parapet of the trench. Almost by chance Pollard discovers that they are at the entrance to an occupied German dugout–the trench system is strongly held, but the sentries are either incompetent or derelict in their duties, sheltering from the cold rain.

The patrol has achieved its object, so Pollard withdraws–only to discover, back in No Man’s Land, that one of his men is missing. Two others have been left holding a hole in another portion of No Man’s Land while the remaining eight are now told to wait for him on a small ridge between the lines. Pollard takes a runner and goes back to the edge of the German trenches to look for the missing man–and this time they are discovered.

Someone challenged me sharply from the trench. I spun round in time to see the flash of his rifle. I fired two shots and heard him yell as I hit him.

The firing gave the alarm. Men were appearing in the trench like magic. Reggie and I were caught like rats in a trap. It would have been impossible to have broken our way out through the wire without offering a sitting target to the enemy.

There was only one thing to do. I seized Reggie by the arm and ran. Down the parapet we fled was fast as our legs would take us. Star-shells were going up in all directions. By their light I could see that the trench was of a pattern known as island traversed. That meant that here were two trenches parallel with one another joined at short intervals by cross-cuts. At intervals along the parapet were squares of concrete which I knew to be machine-gun emplacements. I realised it was a position that would take a lot of capturing.

We must have covered well over a hundred yards before I spotted it. It was a miracle that I saw it at all–just a narrow gap in the wire entanglement left so that the holders of the trench could get out easily if they wished to. I darted into it with Reggie close on my heels. It zig-zagged through both lines of wire. In a moment we were free of our cage…

Pollard and Reggie crawl back toward their lines, now sheltered by the thick belts of wire. But when the firing drops, they know a German patrol is coming after them. Pollard outfoxes the patrol by sheltering under the wire–so close to the German lines that the Germans overlook them. This is one of the places where Pollard’s memoir feels indistinguishable from a boy’s story of play-war–he is thrilled at the success of this simple stratagem, hiding by the seeker’s home base.

Once the patrol returns to its trenches, Pollard and Reggie meet up with the main group of their own patrol on the little ridge. They return to their own lines and all is well–the German line has been located and confirmed as being in an active state of defense, and Pollard, his eyes on bigger prizes, casually notes that they “gave me a bar to my Military Cross for that show.”

But this is sketchy sort of decoration, despite Pollard’s relish in describing his exploit. “He carried out a dangerous reconnaissance of the enemy’s front line,” as the citation will read–apparently all the other patrols sent out failed to find the Germans. But there is no mention in Pollard’s account of the missing man. Worse, he does mention that he simply forgot to pick up the two others who had been left on their own, and these are later learned to have been found by the German patrol that Pollard and the runner eluded. One was killed, another was taken prisoner, and the original man seems to have remained missing–not the most successful of all patrols.[2]


The action of today, a century back–a “bombing stunt” along the tunnels and trenches of the Hindenburg Line, fills an entire chapter of Siegfried Sassoon‘s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer. So we’ll read it instead in its entirety in its first written form, his diary of tonight, a century back:

April 16

At 3 a.m. the attack began on Fontaine-les-Croisilles. I sat in the First Cameronians H.Q. down in the tunnel until nearly 6, when I was told to despatch twenty-five bombers to help their B. Company in the Hindenburg front line. I took them up myself and got there just as they had been badly driven back after taking several hundred yards of the trench. They seemed to have run out of bombs, failing to block the trench etc, and were in a state of wind-up. However the sun was shining, and the trench was not so difficult to deal with as I had expected.

My party (from A. Company) were in a very jaded condition owing to the perfectly bloody time they’ve been having lately, but they pulled themselves together fine and we soon had the Bosches checked and pushed them back nearly four hundred yards. When we’d been there about twenty-five minutes I got a sniper’s bullet through the shoulder and was no good for about a quarter of an hour. Luckily it didn’t bleed much. Afterwards the rest of our men came up and the Cameronians were recalled, leaving me to deal with the show with about seventy men and a
fair amount of bombs, but no Lewis-guns.

I was just preparing to start bombing up the trench again when a message camp from Colonel Chaplin [of the Cameronians] saying we must not advance any more owing to the people on each side having failed to advance, and ordering me to come away, as he was sending someone up to take over. I left the trench about 9.45. Got wound seen to at our Aid Post in the tunnel, walked to Hénin—and was told to walk on to Boyelles. Got there very beat, having foot-slogged about four kilometres through mud. Was put on a motor-bus and jolted for an hour and a half to Warlencourt (20th Casualty Clearing Station) and told to expect to go to England. Written about 7.30 p.m. with rain pelting on the roof and wind very cold. I hate to think of the poor old Battalion being relieved on such a night after the ghastly discomforts of the last six days. The only blessing is that our losses have been very slight. Only about a dozen of my party to-day—most of them slight. No one killed. My wound is hurting like hell, the tetanus injection has made me very chilly and queer, and I am half-dead for lack of sleep, sitting in a chair in my same old clothes—puttees and all—and not having been offered even a wash. Never mind—‘For I’ve sped through O Life! O Sun!'[3]

And so the diary ends, for today. Sassoon is once again a hero, and he is wounded, and, managing to ride the falling edge of adrenaline and the rising tide of pain and exhaustion, he is writer enough to smoothly end the diary with an appropriate quotation, from Robert Graves‘s “Escape.” But what has this action-packed account omitted, and what has it emphasized?

The main points are confirmed by another writer in Dr. Dunn’s chronicle–as are the two necessary interpretive conclusions:

April 16th–At 3.A.M. the attack of two days ago was repeated… This was another dud show… Sassoon, a very stout man, was wounded in Tunnel Trench: his craving to renew the attack was not allowed.[4]

Sassoon was very brave, once again, and once again unnecessarily aggressive. We’ve seen enough of his moody self-doubt and in the diary to recognize that he is not playing a role, here–or not playing it in any dishonesty to himself, if that makes any sense. If it’s a performance, as all social endeavors to some degree are, then it’s all method…

Whatever Sassoon’s thoughts about the war, whatever his feelings about the wrecked bodies he has passed to get to this point, the battalion commands his loyalty, and his responsibility is to lead. He doesn’t talk about his men often–it seems like a dubious cliché, but I do think this burden of leadership was assumed, in both senses, by men of his social position, right along with the code of behavior that forbade complaining about it–but whenever he does it is clear that he is highly motivated by his determination to do right by them. If physically leading the way and taking the greatest risks is not always quite a satisfactory answer to the entire question, well, neither was it a bad start. Tonight, a century back, Frank Richards spoke to

an old soldier and one of the few survivors of old B Company who had taken part in the bombing raid. He said, ‘God strike me pink, Dick, it would have done your eyes good to have seen young Sassoon in that bombing stunt… It was a bloody treat to see the way he took the lead. He was the best officer I have seen in the line or out since Mr. Fletcher… If he don’t get the Victoria Cross for this stunt I’m a bloody Dutchman…”[5]

A good officer–and a fox hunting man with a Dutchman’s name.

Siegfried has been absurdly fortunate: not only is he safely wounded, but none of his men are killed or badly hurt. And the chance he wanted so badly fell into his lap, and he took it… it almost seems as if the half-committed pacifist, half-despairing lost boy of the last few months stamped his foot in willful insistence until the war begrudgingly gave him exactly what he wanted…  But the rough narrative of a successful fight won’t remain the full story–it’s only the brassy initial theme, and the undertones and variations won’t stay silent for very long. The war has given him horror, too, and no sure solace: if death-defying aggression can salve his conscience now, the memory of it will not last forever. Does Sassoon recognize this as clearly as he recognizes his good luck in merely not being killed?

I could go on and on, but I shouldn’t. Given the constraints of this project and the length of his memoir, there’s no real way to take it on here, except to point out to readers this excellent opportunity to see what “voice” can do–or, rather, how much an author’s control of irony and tone from his secure position of future knowledge can influence our sense of the meaning of events, even if they are, in terms of factual detail, recounted fairly faithfully. Sassoon will not pretend to understand the mood that produced this bombing stunt, nor will he condemn it. But he does deflate his own heroics with more jabs than are strictly necessary.

Some very brief excerpts, then, beginning when Sassoon goes ahead of his own men and meets up with a corporal of the Cameronians, the unit which he is meant to support:

(Looking back on that emergency… I find some difficulty in believing that I was there at all.) For about ten minutes we dodged and stumbled up a narrow winding trench…

…we went round the next bay. There my adventurous ardour experienced a sobering shock. A fair-haired Scotch private was lying at the side of the trench in a pool of his own blood… I slung a couple of combat at our invisible enemies, receiving in replay an egg-bomb, which exploded harmlessly behind me. After that I went bombing busily along, while the corporal (more artful and efficient than I was) dodged in and out of the saps–a precaution which I should have forgotten… in this manner [we] arrived at our objective without getting more than a few glimpses of retreating field-grey figures. I had no idea where our objective was, but the corporal informed me that we had reached it, and he seemed to know his business. This, curiously enough, was the first time either of us had spoken since we met.

Does the skill of the self-satire make us forget the blood? Is it lurid, absurd? Is it remarkable that the clueless toff is good at bombing Germans out of their trenches, or only that he is such a clueless toff in the first place, and can’t provide a more conventionally meaningful narrative? (Or is that the point, that this sense of boyish silliness can’t coexist in the same rational narrative as the suffering and death from which it is inextricable? Where are the bodies? Who are the men killed or wounded by Sassoon’s bombs? Can they really exist in a story that plays alliteration for laughs and turns men hunting other men into figures of drawing room comedy?)

Ignoring Jeeves, Bertie trips blithely on:

The whole affair had been so easy that I felt like pushing on… I thought what a queer state of things it all was, and then decided to take a peep at the surrounding country. This was a mistake which ought to have put an end to my terrestrial adventures, for no sooner had I popped my silly head out of the sap than I felt a stupendous blow in the back between my shoulders…

Sassoon comes to, and finds his own sergeant binding a neat bullet wound. (And I am reminded that Sassoon himself will note that he felt as if he were being ministered to by a well-trained servant, a characterization which no doubt prompted my Wodehouse reference, above.)

After a short spell of being deflated and sorry for myself, I began to feel rabidly heroical again, but in a slightly different style, since I was now a wounded hero, with my arm in a superfluous sling…

So, overly enthusiastic heroism? Proper, “very stout” aggression?

But what if it tips over into something else? The Sassoon of the diary doesn’t seem to realize that charging on, shot through the shoulder, beyond his objective–the very act that got him in hot water over the summer–is close to crazy. He will, though…

It did not occur to me that anything else was happening on Allenby’s Army Front except my own little show…[6]


Far away from all this, Vera Brittain is busy with her duties as a nurse in Malta, but she has also been pining, restive. Malta was a charming and wonderful novelty, her first experience of foreign living. But it’s also a base hospital on a safe island–demanding work, but far from the center of the action. The mails are slow, and her conversations with Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow lag weeks behind their actions. She cannot know whether they have been involved in the spring offensive. She is neither near the front nor near the young men she feels most close to.

When she picked up her diary today, a century back, for the first time in many weeks, it was to report her reawakening wanderlust:

April 16th Malta

Had a short letter from Miss Lorimer to say she is going out as an orderly to one of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals at Salonika. I want to go there more than ever.[7]

And then she wrote to Geoffrey Thurlow, who–though she cannot know this–has missed the initial Arras attack, but is about to be thrown in to the next desperate effort to shove the Germans back just a little bit more.

Malta, 16 April 1917

You are really a good correspondent; Mother says you are ‘most faithful’ to her too. Not like Victor, whose letters are few & far between, & very short when they do come. To me, at any rate, he conveys most by what he leaves unsaid. I have been rather anxious about him this last week, for last time I heard of his whereabouts he was at Arras, & I feel sure he must have been in the great battle–which at present we here only know of as an immense Fact, shorn of all its details. I hope you didn’t get into, even the fringe of it.

That is well put. For us the immense fact remains, outlined or obscured by clouds of innumerable details… but we still have to make a story.

I have been off-duty for a day or two with a bad throat & general malaise, but am back again to-night. I am beginning to be glad that I came out when I did, and not straight into the kind of weather that is just beginning. The nights are still quite cool but the days are getting very hot . . . The sirocco is blowing to-night in a hateful way, rushing down the stone verandah, & making the doors & shutters creak & groan. To me this particular wind always seems fraught with sinister things; it hides the stars, so that the night is as black as ink, & makes the men peevish & sends their temperatures up.[8]


References and Footnotes

  1. Soldier From the Wars Returning, 144-5.
  2. Fire-Eater, 203-9.
  3. Diaries, 155-6.
  4. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 329.
  5. Old Soldiers Never Die, 227.
  6. Complete Memoirs, 440-5.
  7. Chronicle of Youth, 339.
  8. Letters From a Lost Generation, 334-5.

Good Friday in Missouri; Ivor Gurney is Wounded; Edward Thomas Tunnels Onward; Siegfried Sassoon Marches Toward Spring–and the Guns

It is Good Friday, today, a century back, and a signal day in the war’s history: the United States has declared war. This fact seems to overshadow the coming assault at Arras. It’s hard, that is, with our short-sighted hindsight, not to begin treating the war as essentially all but over. After all, the Central Powers are nearly exhausted, they are blockaded, and now fresh armies will be on their way to bolster the Allies. But the German strategists are not fools, and they will gamble on ending the war before the United States’ contribution can be decisive–a gamble they will nearly win, especially after Russia’s collapse. From the cold and murderous point of view of Grand Strategy, another costly British effort to smash through their lines is surely welcome… a fact which will not help the men under the bombardment, or the men due to follow behind the curtain of shells on Monday morning.

But what, as the troublesome youngster asks, does this mean to me? To us, that is, steeped in the books and letters and diaries and poetry of British volunteers of 1914 and 1915. Well, I don’t know. There may well be more American voices here next year, although I’m not certain how much of a national shift will take place–perhaps very little.

In fact, I will begin with a curveball (or a changeup, perhaps–but I don’t expect too much criticism of my baseball metaphors, even today). In order to remind us that the U.S. will now be going through a sort of condensed-but-less-intense version of Britain’s 1914-15, with a long delay before the volunteers appear in large numbers in France–and also in order to sneak in a recommendation for one of the most perfect novels I’ve ever read–I’ll take as our first text today John Williams’s Stoner, a novel about the quiet life of a southern American academic. Many Americans will volunteer (and fight, and die) in the war, but many others will choose not to–this will never be an American war in the same way it was a British war (not to mention French or German, and not to speak of the East). About all we need to know is that the titular William Stoner is a doctoral student and instructor in the English department at the University of Missouri.

War was declared on a Friday, and although classes remained scheduled the following week, few students or professors made a pretense of meeting them. They milled about in the halls and gathered in small groups, murmuring in hushed voices… Once there was a brief-lived demonstration against one of the professors, an old and bearded teacher of Germanic languages, who had been born in Munich and who as a youth had attended the University of Berlin. But when the professor met the angry and flushed little group of students, blinked in bewilderment, and held out his thin, shaking hands to them, they disbanded in sullen confusion.

During those first days after the declaration of war Stoner also suffered a confusion, but it was profoundly different from that which gripped most of the others on the campus. Though he had talked about the war in Europe with the older students and instructors, he had never quite believed in it; and now that it was upon him, upon them all, he discovered within himself a vast reserve of indifference. He resented the disruption which the war forced upon the University; but he could find in himself no very strong feelings of patriotism, and he could not bring himself to hate the Germans.

But the Germans were there to be hated. Once Stoner came upon Gordon Finch talking to a group of older faculty members; Finch’s face was twisted, and he was speaking of the “Huns” as if he were spitting on the floor. Later, when he approached Stoner in the large office which half a dozen of the younger instructors shared, Finch’s mood had shifted; feverishly jovial, he clapped Stoner on the shoulder.

“Can’t let them get away with it, Bill,” he said rapidly. A film of sweat like oil glistened on his round face, and his thin blond hair lay in lank strands over his skull. “No, sir. I’m going to join up. I’ve already talked to old Sloane about it, and he said to go ahead. I’m going down to St. Louis tomorrow and sign up.” For an instant he managed to compose his features into a semblance of gravity. “We’ve all got to do our part.” Then he grinned and clapped Stoner’s shoulder again. “You better come along with me.”

“Me?” Stoner said, and said again, incredulously, “Me?”

Finch laughed. “Sure. Everybody’s signing up. I just talked to Dave–he’s coming with me.”

Stoner shook his head as if dazed. “Dave Masters?”

“Sure. Old Dave talks kind of funny sometimes, but when the chips are down he’s no different from anybody else; hell do his part. Just like you’ll do yours, Bill.” Finch punched him on the arm. “Just like you’ll do yours.”

Stoner was silent for a moment. “I hadn’t thought about it,” he said. ‘It all seems to have happened so quickly. I’ll have to talk to Sloane. I’ll let you know.”

“Sure,” Finch said. “You’ll do your part.” His voice thickened with feeling. “We’re all in this together now, Bill; we’re all in it together.”[1]

Stoner doesn’t go; he gets a post at the University instead, since jobs open up as other men volunteer. The smarmy Gordon Finch becomes an officer but remains in the United States, safe in training camps and still able to advance his own academic career. Stoner’s easygoing friend Dave Masters will be killed at Château-Thierry.


With the literary aspects of the U.S.’s contribution to the war effort thus entirely taken care of, we can turn our attention back to France.

Before we go to Arras, a sharp reminder that everyday attacks are still being carried out along other sections of the line. During one of these attacks, this evening, a century back, Ivor Gurney was shot in the arm. Despite being a few inches away from death, this wound was a good one–“clean through the right arm just underneath the shoulder.”

In fact, it may be too good a wound. Gurney was evacuated, but the wound was slight (and only briefly painful) and his first reaction after the immediate shock had worn off was fear that he might not make it all the way to Blighty. Soon afterwards, he remembered to be worried that he would be cut off from his lifeline to Blighty–it will take some time for the post to find a wounded soldier.[2]


Just outside of Arras, Edward Thomas, three days into the bombardment of the German positions that will be assaulted on Easter Monday, writes once again to reassure Helen. He would prefer to be calm and reassuring, describing what beauty he sees and maintaining the old connections between them by means of safe home-like gossip and natural description–to potter about the bridge over the experiential gulf without looking down.

But Helen’s most recent letter evidently pressed him to write more about his state of mind, and so Edward reluctantly ventures to explain how he intends to safeguard his inner self during the coming ordeal.

6 April

There wasn’t a letter . . . but I will add a little more.—the pace is slackening today.

Still not a thrush—but many blackbirds.

My dear, you must not ask me to say much more. I know that you must say much more because you feel much. But I, you see, must not feel anything. I am just as it were tunnelling underground and something sensible in my subconsciousness directs me not to think of the sun. At the end of the tunnel there is the sun. Honestly this is not the result of thinking; it is just an explanation of my state of mind which is really so entirely preoccupied with getting on through the tunnel that you might say I had forgotten there was a sun at either end, before or after this business. This will perhaps induce you to call me inhuman like the newspapers, just because for a time I have had my ears stopped—mind you I have not done it myself—to all but distant echoes of home and friends and England. If I could respond as you would like me to to your feelings I should be unable to go on with this job in ignorance whether it is to last weeks or months or years…

We have such fine moonlight nights now, pale hazy moonlight. Yesterday too we had a coloured sunset lingering in the sky and after that at intervals a bright brassy glare where they were burning waste cartridges. The sky of course winks with broad flashes almost all round at night and the air sags and flaps all night.

I expect there will be a letter today. Never think I can do without one any more than you can dearest. Kiss the children for me.

All and always yours



As Siegfried Sassoon marches toward the sound of the guns–four of them directed, at times, by Edward Thomas–he seems to be in a solid and stable mood… but he is by no means able to resist the lure of bundling together the dawning spring, the coming battle, and some of the religious overtones of Eastertide.

April 6 (Good Friday)

Woke with sunshine streaming through the door, and broad Scots being shouted in the next huts by some Scottish Rifles. We remain here to-day…

I don’t think battle-nightmares haunt many of us. There isn’t time for thinking. We are ‘for it’—that’s enough for most of us. The wind is gone round to the east and we can hear the huge firing up at Arras.

I saw a signpost last evening with Arras 32 kilometres. I suppose that’s about the nearest point where hell begins… And I was walking, with nice old Major Poore, and talking about cricket and hunting.

And everywhere spring is not quite ready to break out in a sudden glory of flowers and leaves. The big woods round here are brown and sombre; in a fortnight they’ll be flashing and quivering, bowers of beech-trees, cages full of sunbeams, swaying alleys of Paradise.

Last night I went and stood in the moonlight, watching the stems and leafless branches, against the sky, and dreaming of summer dawns, till the startled birds rustled overhead, and something went plunging blindly through the undergrowth—it might have been Pan, or a roebuck, or a mule escaped from the Transport lines.[4] This morning romance had fled. Soldiers were practising on bugles and bagpipes at the wood’s edge.[5]


Finally, a poem–but not the sort of poem we might expect, after Sassoon’s pleasant pastoral fantasy. Sassoon is a country-loving English poetaster, sure, but he is a bit of an outlier–most men do not feel cheerful on the edge of battle, and praise the spring in the same voice that must shout over the guns.

Hamish Mann is a poet we read only very infrequently. But he, too, is waiting to see what the coming battle will bring. He writes, however, not of its present incongruous spring atmosphere, but of what battle has done in the past.


The Great Dead

Some lie in graves beside the crowded dead
In village churchyards; others shell holes keep,
Their bodies gaping, all their splendour sped.
Peace, O my soul… A Mother’s part to weep.

Say: do they watch with keen all-seeing eyes
My own endeavours in the whirling hell?
Ah, God! how great, how grand the sacrifice.
Ah, God! the manhood of you men who fell!

And this is War… Blood and a woman’s tears,
Brave memories adown the quaking years.[6]

References and Footnotes

  1. Williams, Stoner, New York Review Books, 33-4.
  2. War Letters, 153-4.
  3. Selected Letters, 163-4.
  4. I will lay even money that, with all of France to lose a mule in, Henry Williamson is somehow responsible for this.
  5. Diaries, 150.
  6. Powell, A Deep Cry, 240.

Ford Madox Hueffer Entertains Joseph Conrad; the Charges Against Edwin Dyett

Grim business today, a century back. But first, a rollicking literary update.

Ford Madox Hueffer (Ford), has a high reputation in Modernist circles, and with both an early interest in Tudor historical fiction and a Great Book worthy of BBC adaptation, he is not about to fall entirely out of popular memory. But in some circles, at least, he is an odd, difficult-to-place, odobenine figure, while his early collaborator, Joseph Conrad, is a lean hero, the master of the hard-hitting pre-cinematic novel of adventure. Well… yes. It’s a good thing Ford never set out to write something for Coppola and a better thing that Conrad did not pioneer the dense, destabilizing Modernist-subjective doorstop novel.

But back to today, a century back. Hueffer is once again ailing, and once again between gigs… but he’ll tell you all about it.

3/Attd IX Welch
No ii Red X Hospital
Rouen, 19.12.16

My dear:

It must be all of five months since I heard from you…

The trenches are not gay in this weather.

As for me, c’est fini de moi [I’m done], I believe, at least as far as fighting is concerned—my lungs are all charred up & gone—they appeared to be quite healed but exposure day after day has ended in the usual stretchers and ambulance trains—& this rather queer Rouen—wh. for its queerness wd. delight you—but I am too stupid to explain. But I saw the trésors[?] of Flaubert & the whole monument of Bouilhet thro’ the tail of the ambulance that brought me here, in the Rue Thiers.

I have been reading—rather deliriously—”Chance” since I have been in this nice kind place. The end is odd, you know, old boy. It’s like a bit of Maupassant tacked onto a Flaubert facade.

There are a few clustering ironies, here: that Conrad’s greatest novels (in the eyes of later critics) are behind him while Chance nevertheless will make his fortune, just as Hueffer, more or less broke, was blundering through the experiences which will produce his own masterpiece… and offers here a fairly perceptive critique of Chance‘s weaknesses…

Pardon me if that sounds inept: I think still a good deal about these things—but not cleverly I—And one lives under the shadow of G[ustave] F[laubert] here. After all you began yr. literary career here—and I jolly nearly ended mine here too—And I assure you I haven’t lost a jot of the immense wonder at the immensities you bring down onto paper. You are a blooming old Titan, really—or do I mean Nibelung? At any rate even in comparatively loose work like “Chance” there is a sense of cavernous gloom, lit up by sparks from pickaxes. But that’s stupid too. . . .

But this is rather queer: the last active military duty I performed was to mount guard over some wounded Germans in hospital huts. As I had to wait for some papers and it was snowing I went into a tent. I asked one of the prisoners—who was beautifully warm in bed, where he came from and what he did before the war. I was wet thro’ and coughing my head off—not in the least interested anyhow. So I don’t know where he came from—somewhere in Bavaria. But as for his occupation, he said, “Herr Offizier, Geisenhirt!” So there was our: “Excellency, a few goats!” quite startlingly jumped at me.

With thanks to the editor of Ford’s letters, I can explain: when Conrad and Ford were collaborating on Romance, Ford gave to a minor character hauled before a magistrate the words “Excellency, a few goats!” and Conrad found it uproarious, “genius.” So it’s an old joke, you see… and Ford was not a bad romancer…

And then, it may interest you to know, he smiled a fatuous and ecstatic peasant boy’s smile and remarked: “But it is heaven here!”

I suppose he took me to be friendly and benevolent,—but as things drag on & all one’s best friends go–(of fourteen who came out with me in July I am the only one here and of sixty who came from 3/W since, eleven are killed & one gets very fond of these poor boys!)—one gets a feeling of sombre resentment against the nightmare population that persists beyond No Man’s Land.

So do we make Ford an official exception to that majority of infantryman writer who profess not to hate the Germans when not actually engaged against them, or do we look to his paucity of actual front line trench service as an explanation for this deviation?

At any rate it is horrible—it arouses in me a rage unexpressed and not easily comprehensible—to see, or even to think about, the dead of one’s own regt, whether it is just the Tommies or the NCO’s or one’s fellow officers.

“Just the Tommies!”

But anyhow: the few goats turned up again!

However, perhaps all this does not interest you: I can’t tell. Since I have been out here this time I have not had one letter from one living soul. So one’s conviction does not get much from wh. to gain anything!

The M.O. who has just sounded my poor old lungs again says I am to be sent to Nice as soon as they can move me. God bless you, my dear, and may Xmas be a propitious season to all of you.


It is not much use writing to me because, after Nice, I shall very likely be transferred to one of the regular Bns. in the East or some other non-pulmnonary district of the war—but wireless me a kind thought.[1]

Ford is jesting there, at the end. A romantic jeu d’esprit, that friends might be able to reach each other wirelessly at any moment anywhere, interrupting whatever experience is actually occurring with half-baked thoughts and tenth-hand witticisms…  what a joint twitter feed these two might have managed. Or not.

In any case, yes: Ford Madox Hueffer’s lungs have been recognized as too damaged for front-line service, and so the obscure and punishing wheels of military bureaucracy have sent him to winter in the south of France…



Back in November, I first mentioned the case of Sub-Lieutenant Edwin Dyett, the officer of the Nelson Battalion of the Royal Naval Division who apparently broke down–and disappeared–during the last major action of the Somme battle. He turned up two days after he had been expected in the front lines, rejoining his battalion behind the lines after having entirely missed the fighting. He was then arrested. Dyett’s experience–in Gallipoli, on the Somme, and, now, in the hands of British military justice–will be drawn upon by his fellow R.N.D. officer A.P. Herbert in his The Secret Battle.

For a month, it would seem, various authorities deliberated. But today, a century back, the first papers were filed.

The accused, Temporary Sub-Lieutenant Edwin Leopold Arthur Dyett RNVR, an officer of the Nelson Battalion, 63rd Division, is charged when on active service deserting His Majesty’s Service

in that he

in the field on the 13th November 1916, when it was his duty to join his battalion, which was engaged in operations against the Enemy, did not do so, and remained absent from his battalion until placed under arrest at Englbelmer on the 15th November 1916.[2]


References and Footnotes

  1. Letters, 78-80.
  2. Sellers, Death for Desertion, 30.

Vera Brittain on History and the War; Rowland Feilding’s Men in the Mud; Lady Dorothie Feilding in London; Rudyard Kipling’s Russo-Irish Romance

Four rapid-fire notes for today, a century back. First, Vera Brittain, writing to her mother, reflects on the greatness of the current hour. It’s a little self-important, considering the beginning.

Malta, 12 December 1916

I do wonder if I shall ever see him again;

This is Edward, of course, Vera’s only sibling. Vera has given herself to war work and has increased her own share of danger as much as she might–she was fascinated by the sinking of the ship that brought her overseas–but Edward has been shot, and blown up, and will return to face daily gunfire once again. So it’s a bit awkward to segue so suddenly from discussing the strong possibility of their beloved Edward’s death to musing on the larger meanings of the war…

it is very hard that we should be the generation to suffer the War, though I suppose it is very splendid too, & is making us better & wiser & deeper men & women (at any rate some of us……..) than our ancestors ever were or our descendants ever will be. It seems to me that the War will make a big division of ‘before’ & ‘after’ in the history of the World, almost if not quite as big as the ‘B.C.’ & ‘A.D.’ division made by the birth of Christ… We are all very excited about the Fall of the Government, and very glad, as it is bound to make a change in the prosecution of the War, & it could hardly be a change for the worse! We are anxiously waiting for details.[1]

That, I think, is an anticlimactic transition.


As is this next letter. Or so it might seem it first. Really, though, I think it speaks more directly and thus more eloquently to the same subject. This is Rowland Feilding, to his wife Edith:

December 12, 1916

Facing Messines— Wytschaete Ridge {Cooker Farm).

Sleet has been falling more or less continuously, and the men are wet through. Yet, I never hear them complain.[2]

I would guess that there are a good handful of memoirs by officers for every one from the ranks, even though the proportion of actual serving officers to men was the other way around, and then some. And while later publications of letters and diaries have redressed the balance somewhat, there are still many silent men for every officer who speaks for himself. Silent–but often, at least, spoken for, as above. Ah, but then again perhaps they complained very much, and he did not notice…


And cousin Dorothie? There is no place like home for our Lady Feilding–or Town, at least.

38 Cadogan place, SW
Tuesday night [12 Dec]

Oh Mother mine–

It’s very nice to be in Blighty, indeed it is. I’ve had a lovely hot bath, have a fire in my room, am writing snug as a bug in bed with a Jim, linen sheets and a loverley [sic] pink ribbon in a nifty nightie.

In fact the war seems very far away–I wish it was really.

It was very nice to hear your voice on the phone to night Mother dear. Father rang me up just after to say he will be in London on Thursday night & he is very anxious for me to spend that evening with him as he won’t be able to get down to Newnham — he is wiring me his plans tomorrow. If he wd like me to I will try & arrange & come down early Friday morning instead of Thurs aft as I’d intended.

That rotten Tonks hasn’t arrived yet I am furious as I asked him on purpose to come & shop with me![3]

Ever so much love darling

A great big hug from Diddles[4]


Finally, Kipling. Is history literature or is some literature history? And is a battalion history a glorified chronicle or a tale-in-fragments? And can historical experience be more Kiplingesque than Kipling? What if it’s written by Kipling?

More tales of the Irish Guards, today, a century back:

A mystery turned up on the night of the 12th December in the shape of a wild-looking, apparently dumb, Hun prisoner, brought before Captain Young of the Support Company, who could make naught of him, till at last “noticing the likeness between his cap and that affected by Captain Alexander” he hazarded “Russky?” The prisoner at once awoke, and by sign and word revealed himself as from Petrograd. Also he bolted one loaf of bread in two counted minutes. He had been captured at Kovel by the Huns, and brought over to be used by them to dig behind their front line. But how he had escaped across that wilderness that wild-eyed man never told.[5]


References and Footnotes

  1. Letters From a Lost Generation, 299.
  2. War Letters to a Wife, 133.
  3. This would seem to refer to her period.
  4. Lady Under Fire, 187.
  5. The Irish Guards in the Great War, II, 107.

May Cannan’s Lamplight; Max Plowman on an Unostentatious Hero and his Just Reward

For poem of the month, this month, we have a choice between one of the most powerful single poems of the war–Isaac Rosenberg‘s “Break of Day in the Trenches”–published this month but written this summer–or the elegiac and somewhat trite “Lamplight,” by May Wedderburn Cannan. Well, it’s December–I’ll include Cannan’s poem of regret. (But we looked at Rosenberg’s poem when it was written.)



We planned to shake the world together, you and I
Being young, and very wise;
Now in the light of the green shaded lamp
Almost I see your eyes
Light with the old gay laughter; you and I
Dreamed greatly of an Empire in those days,
Setting our feet upon laborious ways,
And all you asked of fame
Was crossed swords in the Army List,
My Dear, against your name.

We planned a great Empire together, you and I,
Bound only by the sea;
Now in the quiet of a chill Winter’s night
Your voice comes hushed to me
Full of forgotten memories: you and I
Dreamed great dreams of our future in those days,
Setting our feet on undiscovered ways,
And all I asked of fame
A scarlet cross on my breast, my Dear,
For the swords by your name.

We shall never shake the world together, you and I,
For you gave your life away;
And I think my heart was broken by the war,
Since on a summer day
You took the road we never spoke of: you and I
Dreamed greatly of an Empire in those days;
You set your feet upon the Western ways
And have no need of fame –
There’s a scarlet cross on my breast, my Dear,
And a torn cross with your name.

It will be the task of Max Plowman, then, to return us to prose. One of my biggest regrets about the way in which we read through the Somme battle, here, was how little of Plowman’s memoir I was able to include–Subaltern on the Somme is only dated by the month, and I was not able to obtain the battalion diary and link more incidents to dates.

But today’s letter, at least, allows us to drop anchor and consider one of the most considerable minor characters of the memoir.

On Active Service
Friday. 1st December. 1916.

My Dear Janet,

Forgive me–though it looks as if I were a ‘base’ hare I’m not really–I’m a ‘forward’ hare. And a very grateful one too–ever so glad to get your letters, quietly blessing you too for thinking of things like food for mind body & estate. I’m keeping the cocoa rations & mittens. Some day (when you feel a current of warm air) you’ll know it’s a prayer for his patron saint (St Jeanne) wafted over to you from some nose-biting trench. I always try & make a small collection before I go into trenches nowadays & though it usually means finding oneself an unholy beast of burden…

For instance, when we went up last, about a month ago, I took a packet of raisins D. had sent me, two tins of cigarettes, some oxo cubes & a sack full of Shell Dressings. Oh & 8 pairs of socks. As a result I’m still here. Whether that’s a blessing or not I’m not quite so sure, but since one didn’t enlist to go sick I suppose ‘the answer is in the affirmative’…

We were only “in the line” actually 8 days (two spells of 4 each) but about a dozen officers got “trench feet” & I don’t know how many men. I gave about half my socks away to men but the other half saved me…

The place was a nightmare of mud & deep shell-holes full of water…

We will go back a few days into the “November” section of Plowman’s memoir and read about this tour in just a moment. But first, Plowman has a curious writerly note to make.

If only I could get decently wounded now I should be most awfully glad I’d been out here. Sum it all up & I think nothing has surprised me except the way in which some of the men “stick it.” And that will always be a romance in my mind. I’ve a little corporal I’m thinking of at the moment. He’s a wisp of a man with a groggy knee which sent him home after Ypres last year & has never really got well, & a faint treble voice…

I’d willingly have given him a V.C. if it had been mine to give it, just for “carrying on” & helping & encouraging men to do likewise when he himself was dead-beat. It was a wonderful show. Unfortunately he’ll get nothing beyond an extra stripe just because our regiment’s not in good odour… But I never shall forget fellows like him & if I ever get the chance I’d sooner write about them than any other side of the war…[1]

“Romance?” There’s a hardy word, a concept that carries on doing what good it can do despite the obviously adverse circumstances. Well, reader, Plowman followed through:

Corporal Jackson… Odd the way that man always seems to be the first in the trenches and the last out. I noticed, too, that directly we get into the trenches his nonchalant air disappears and he becomes keen on whatever job falls to him. When I went to see him just now, he told me in his piping, far-away voice exactly how he was holding the post and what he should do if there was any trouble, showing clearly that he had worked the whole situation out for himself. He is my best N.C.O.

And his value only increases as Plowman’s men become more exhausted and demoralized.

It is early morning before we find the camp on the hill. As we enter wearily, ominous shoutings and groanings come from all directions. These sounds tell the tale. The men are crying out with the pain in their feet. But there is nothing to be done now and, dog-tired, I am on the point of dropping into a tarpaulin-covered hole, when I remember my platoon. What can I do for them? Well, at least I ought to see how they are. Wandering round alone I come on a coke-fire burning at the end of one of the shelters. A dark figure stands by tending it. It is Jackson.

“Hullo! What are you doing?”

“Only looking to this fire, sir. I thought if I kept it going on this side, the wind ‘d blow the heat through.”

“Where are they?”

“They’re all in there. There’s only Collins and Roberts bad. The sergeant’s pretty fair. He’s inside. Shall I fetch him?”

“No. That’s all right. How about yourself? Where are you going to sleep? Is there any room there?”

“No, sir, but I shall be all right. There’s several of them want looking to. I’d as soon be here. I’m getting dry.”

I bid him good night, and go back to the officers’ shelter, thinking of heroism and wherein it consists. This is the unostentatious kind. Here’s a wisp of a man with a permanently troublesome knee. He has just come from trenches, said to be worse than Ypres in 1914, where he has done two men’s work, besides helping crocks out of the mud, supporting them and carrying their rifles. Under the foulest conditions his spirits have never November flagged. I have heard him whistling when no other bird on earth would sing; and now, when by all the laws of Nature he ought to have dropped half-dead, he has appointed himself to the role of Florence Nightingale, and has not even left himself room to lie down. I cannot sleep for thinking of him. The Lady of the Lamp. The Gentleman of the Brazier.

An unostentatious hero, a corporal beyond price, a man to compare with Sidney Rogerson’s similarly fire-starting Corporal Robinson. But this is a war story–a Great War story–and as such it must be ironic.

Later, Max Plowman, our conscientious, left-leaning friend-of-the-working-man saunters up to tell Jackson that he has done him a good deed. Or tried to. Will Jackson get a medal? No, because the battalion is out of favor, regardless of the merits of its men. But still, it’s a nice gesture, right?

When I told Jackson this morning I had put his name up, but no recommendations were to be forwarded, he looked bored and unconcerned; rather as if I had betrayed his confidence to fools. I had.[2]


References and Footnotes

  1. Bridge Into the Future, 58-9.
  2. Subaltern on the Somme, 88, 140, 170-3, 186.

Richard Aldington on the Soldier’s Lot; Rudyard Kipling’s Irish in the Mud

Today we can use to catch up with Richard Aldington, our most literary conscript–in that he’s deeply involved in foreign literature and is the only conscription-era writer we’ve been following closely…

I don’t like Aldington very much at all–he is alternately whingeing and bombastic, and his quickness to condescend to others once he was in the ranks (again, not before conscription forced his hand) is deeply unappealing to anyone who cannot help but feel an affinity for all the young writers who joined up in 1914 or 1915, and paid such a terrible price. And he’s not so great to his wife, the poet Hilda Doolittle (H.D.) For example, there is this letter of last week, a century back, to his friend F.S. Flint:

20455L/CpI. R.A.
“D” Company
44 T.R.B.
Westham camp

My dear Franky,

Your letter is so kind and affectionate–I was very happy to get it. You must know that this present trip to U.S.A. was suggested by H.D. herself, for I had not mentioned it for several weeks. She need not feel any pressure from me, though I do believe she would be more tranquil in U.S.A. But “let that rest”. If she wants to stay, she stays; whatever happens later is not my fault. The responsibility will be with her–and her advisers! You may or may not remember that 18 months [ago] I wanted to go to America… But “let that rest” too.

We shall, since I can’t pretend to know the intricacies of this relationship. What follows is interesting, in that it seems to show Aldington coming around to the life of the soldier. Or, at least, coming around to the usefulness of taking up the rhetorical position of the stout, uncomplaining Tommy. It’s not only for comic effect (e.g., “exasperates,” below):

Dear boy, your affection entirely exasperates my importance in the world! So many better men have perished in this foolish contest that I have no faintest right to claim a hope for exemption for myself. You misunderstand me a little, I think. I am not a suicide. I am a soldier, considered trained, and next week, tomorrow, I could be warned for a draft. I don’t say I shall be, but I might. And those who go out to this war run very grave risks. A man who runs those risks without being prepared to lose his life is deceiving himself, and–can’t you see?–it is not easy to die, but one makes it easier by renouncing those things which have made life dear or agreeable. To feel that you are making other people wretched by your own inconsiderable demise is a torture; and what I have done has been only an attempt to minimise the shock to the person I love most. It is not my fault that I have been misunderstood; but it won’t help me to stand knee-deep in mud under shrapnel if I knew H.D. is in an agony of apprehension in England. If she were in America, letters would be sent to her from England & she need never know I were abroad. Then any bad news might come as a shock, but without much preliminary agony; & if I came out safe, autant de gagner [at least that’s something]! As to being seen when one is ill or wounded – you ought to know that it is not easy to see a soldier in hospital & that many cases never even leave France… But, what is the use? I am only justifying what may see[m] a harsh or even cruel attitude to H.D. If I was cruel, it was from kindness.

So we haven’t let it rest, after all. It’s unkind and condescending, but there is a logic here that we should appreciate: to be in England is to be removed from the trenches by only two or three days–the postal service is still excellent. Every news item that mentions fighting in a certain general section of the line will occasion a few days of terror and anxiety, even though it contains little or no information that can actually be linked to higher risk. A soldier in the line might die any day, but to be far removed from news does enable an emotional distance from the ups and downs of a newspaper war…

And, dear boy, there are no “rights”–there are only those with power and those without power. I belong to the latter, and, I assure you, that, except for a very few personal friends, my extinction would as little trouble the world, & be as little loss, as that of my other junior N.C.O. in H.M. Army!

Cheer up, old boy; I hope to see you at Xmas,



Aldington’s next letter to Flint–which I included in due time on the 15th–is pure comedy, and worth quoting again in full:

Dear Franky,

Cheer up, you silly old bugger! We fuckers is off to the above bleedin’ hole to-morrow, and fucked if it won’t be cold. Us poor buggers has to sleep on bare floors to night, while you wallows in feathers, you old piss-tub. Well, I must fuck off, so I lays down me pen and bids you good-bye–bugger you.

T[on] A[mi]


High spirits! But this whole let’s-read-historical-experience-in-real-time-and-live-the-past-in-the-imperfect-tense project is a mug’s game. Today he’s down again:

20455 L/CpI. R.A.
“D” Company
Verne Citadel
Sat. [19“’ November 1916]

My dear lad,

I feel rather depressed to-night so you must pardon it if my letter is depressing. This is a wild desolate spot with dispiriting associations. The fortress itself is of course geometric in an ugly way and gloomy; the icy wind shoots, as if through a funnel, across the parade ground and freezes face, hands and feet until we almost weep with the pain. The barrack rooms are like a vast row of wine-cellars cut out of the ramparts: or rather in size and shape exactly the arches of a railway viaduct walled and windowed at each end. Along the back runs a long, gloomy, vaulted corridor, foul with smoke from the fires & impure air, echoing from end to end at one’s step, filthy with dust…

Am I too depressing? May I go on?

You may. This is depressing stuff, wallowing in the lot of the soldier in winter camp, in a nation still behind the curve of the modern nation-in-arms, struggling to support and train and equip its citizen army. But seldom has a writer lavished so much sharp, allusive language on the grim environs of training camp. It’s good stuff, too, a stony new twist on the theme of the eternal soldier:

Outside the fort (for from the inside one sees nothing but walls and the everlasting grey sky) there are cliffs of greyish-blue and pinkish-yellow Portland stone, rushing to the grey sea in rough waves of tumbled boulders and blocks. Everywhere there are desolate quarries, everywhere the traces of the unhappy convicts in the prison here. Useless heart-breaking toil is apparent everywhere–vast Cyclopean blocks of stone have been dragged with sweat from the living rock, chipped laboriously into shape–and then left abandoned!

If an arch is needed it is made of huge rough lumps of stone like those at Stonehenge. The effect of one arch was terrific in its rudeness, in its barbarity, its Egypt-like witness of forced slave-labour. Another was more regular, Homeric, like the gate of the tomb of Agamemnon–vast, desolate, implacable! Far below is the dismal, curdled sea, and beyond the grey, sickly greenish line of “England”: its edges lapped by a foul desolate marsh! Complete the picture by a few long, black warships at anchor, and numbers of oil-tanks along the shore and you have some idea of what the outside of Portland has to offer! It is grand and desolate, a little melodramatic if it were not so austere, so stonily toned in grey, so massive. To your impressionable friend here it was rather appalling–for, d’you know, in this great place, with its draw-bridges & walls & ramparts and ditches, one feels damnably like a prisoner! I feel horribly sympathetic towards the unfortunate convicts.

You mustn’t feel too sorry for me–my existence, after all, is less dreary and bitter than that of millions of our fellows in Europe. I have only pity for us all–but my pity explodes into hate for those imbeciles who pretend that there is
anything fine and ennobling or romantic in soldiering. It is simply dreary routine, dreary endurance, dreary “heroism” of dying at the word of command! Somehow some of us will endure to the end, but what shall we be worth? Don’t feel too many scruples at being out of it–you have a certain task (which by the way you don’t seem to be carrying out very enthusiastically!) & that is to keep alive something of the gradually enfeebled tradition of beauty in life which we have received from other times.

…I’ve written 12 poems & 3 essays since I’ve been in the Army (no swank intended!)–now produce your contribution, instead of those old “dug-ups” you sent for the next anthology!

All affectionate greetings to you, dear lad,



Speaking of both romance and the realities of soldiering, here’s a nice bit from the Old Guard to set against Aldington’s agitations.

Every Great War writer–even historians of a certain age writing from the other side of the experiential gulf–tries his hand at a “mud piece.” From Kipling‘s history of the Second Battalion, Irish Guards:

Their wholly unspeakable front line was five miles distant from this local paradise. You followed a duckboard track of sorts through Trones Wood, between ghastly Delville and the black ruins of Ginchy, and across the Ginchy ridge where the chances of trouble thickened, through a communication-trench, and thereafter into a duckboarded landscape where, if you were not very careful, the engulfing mud would add you to its increasing and matured collection of “officers and other ranks.” These accidents overcome, you would discover that the front line was mud with holes in it. If the holes were roundish they were called posts; if oblong they were trenches with names, such as Gusty Trench and Spectrum Trench. They connected with nothing except more mud. Wiring peered up in places, but whether it was your own or the enemy’s was a matter of chance and luck. The only certainty was that, beyond a point which no one could locate, because all points were wiped out by a carpet-like pattern of closely set holes, you would be shelled continuously from over the bleak horizon. Nor could you escape, because you could never move faster than a man in a nightmare. Nor dared you take cover, because the mud-holes that offered it swallowed you up.

Here, for instance, is what befell when No. 1 Company went up to relieve a grenadier company on the night of the 19th November. They started at 3 p.m. in continuous mud under steady shelling. Only three out of their four platoon guides turned up. The other had collapsed. Ten men were hit on the way up; a number of others fell out from sheer exhaustion or got stuck in the mud. The first man who set foot in the front-line trench blocked the rest for a quarter of an hour, while four of his comrades were hauling him out. This was five hours after they had begun. The two Lewis-guns and some stragglers, if men hip-deep in mud and water can straggle, were still unaccounted for. Lance-Sergeant Nolan brought them all in by hand at three in the morning under shell-fire. Then they were heavily shelled (there was hardly any rifle-fire), and three men were wounded. Luckily shells do not burst well in soft dirt. It was Private Curran’s business to shift two of them who were stretcher-cases to Battalion Headquarters one mile and a half distant. This took two relays of eight men each, always under shell-fire, and Curran’s round trip was completed in nine hours…

There was one time when a sergeant (Lucas) was buried by a shell, and a brother sergeant (Glennon) “though he knew that it meant almost certain death” went to his aid, and was instantly killed, for the enemy, naturally, had the range of their own old trenches to the inch. To be heroic at a walk is trying enough, as they know who have plowtered behind the Dead March of a dragging barrage, but to struggle, clogged from the waist down, into the white-hot circle of accurately placed destruction, sure that if you are even knocked over by a blast you will be slowly choked by mud, is something more than heroism. Equally, to lie out disabled on an horror of shifting mud is beyond the sting of Death. One of our corporals on patrol heard groaning somewhere outside the line. It proved to be a grenadier, who had lain there twenty-four hours “suffering from frost-bite and unable to move.” They saved him. Their stretcher-bearers were worn out, and what sand-bags at last arrived were inadequate for any serious defence. “We were fighting purely against mud and shells, as the German infantry gave us no trouble.” When No. 2 was relieved at the same time as No. 1 Company, they dribbled into camp by small parties from two till ten in the morning, and three of the men never turned up at all. The Somme mud told no tales till years later when the exhumation parties worked over it.[2]


References and Footnotes

  1. Imagist Dialogues, 150-4.
  2. The Irish Guards in the Great War, II, 104-5.