Siegfried Sassoon’s Dubious Cure is Complete; The Guards Prepare to Enter Bourlon Wood

Today, a century back, is another one of those dramatic days in the literary history of the war–meaning that, even if you haven’t seen the movie (Regeneration, a.k.a Behind the Lines), it’s hard not to imagine the scene dramatically staged, with sonorous speechifying punctuated by clipped phrases. Siegfried Sassoon–decorated infantry officer, poet of protests, and previous-medical-board-cutter–comes before a Medical Board to assure them that he has not changed his mind, refuses to acknowledge that he has been ill, and nevertheless insists not just on resuming military obedience but on actively fighting–he has Rivers’s word that he will be passed fit for general service abroad, and not shunted off to a depot or desk job.

It went fine, by most accounts, and the drama dissipated. Sassoon left Craiglockhart in what must have been a mood of anticlimax–Rivers had already left, Owen was gone, and he was off to a dismal depot in Wales to see if the War Office would keep the bargain and send him back into danger.

It’s possible that Sassoon was frustrated, that he was unsettled and unhappy to be going to a place with many acquaintances who would not understand his protest, and no real friends. But I don’t see any good reason to follow his biographer Jean Moorcroft Wilson in assuming that he was deeply depressed. He has sent some melodramatic letters in recent days, surely–and he is annoyed by Robert Graves‘s infatuation with Nancy Nicholson (although whether he viewed this primarily as a “defection” from a homosexual brotherhood–rather than just a male friend traducing an all-male society–is doubtful). But to assume that he “no longer cared whether he was alive or dead” (or, later on the same page, that he was “not caring much whether he lived or died”) seems unnecessary. Sassoon is prone to wallowing, but he never really manifested severe depression. His “almost complete despair” is an emotional position, rather than a psychological state. Either that or it’s a passing mood, and there are no German grenadiers near by to take him up on a temporary recklessness…[1]

In any event, his strange claims and steady demeanor got him past the board, despite his insistence that the war was still wrong and that he hasn’t changed his mind. This is true in one sense, but untrue in a more important one: he can do nothing right, or feel nothing to be right, until he is back with the troops.

And after the second board meets, naturally, the book ends. Regeneration, that is: the last scene in the novel sees Rivers completing the paperwork that sends Sassoon back to duty.

 

And none too soon–or, rather, far too late for him to see any of the worst of the 1917 fighting. The last of this will fall, as it often does, to the Guards division. We are back, now, with the American Carroll Carstairs, only just returned from leave. He found his battalion, the 3rd Grenadier Guards, a few days ago, hurrying up to the front to support the Cambrai attack.

The ’buses came at last and at 5.30 a.m. we arrived and went into huts. What was going to happen? All day we remained apprehensively at Boulencourt. I was one of so many that a sense of individual danger was lost. Death would be pure accident. No bullet be intended for me. One’s mind dodged the issue. You did not think of it. It thought of you. That was it. It considered you bodily; pinning you to earth; running you down. For we were certain—I was certain—to go into battle. What was that silly line in a story? It made me think of a battle as something so romantic as to be harmless…

It was here that British troops had so recently overrun the impregnable Hindenburg line. The tracks of the tanks that had flattened some six aprons of barbed wire could be seen. In their wake the infantry had followed. All very neatly done. No artillery preparation. Few shell holes. Little bloodshed. Many prisoners. Just a nice clean battle…

We were billeted in a deep dugout. Twenty-four steps. Very safe. In the trench a tank had been stuck, its nose
perpendicular in the air—looking a clumsy, helpless thing…

The Germans were shelling Anneux. The next day we were to take over the line in front of Anneux and facing Fontaine. Cambrai looked ridiculously within reach. Bourlon Wood, half British and half German, presented an inscrutable appearance. It was too late. We should not be used now. Again I was to miss a battle. On the way
back the moon was setting in a sky of violet…

Another day passes, and the romantic is disappointed. But he will get his battle, and he manages to describes his contradictory spirits with both jauntiness and sensitivity, seriousness and verve:

The next day was windy. The clouds had a smudged look as though a dirty finger had rubbed their edges. Towards evening the wind died out like the end of a long sigh and the day was still. Without moon and stars the night was black and threatened rain.

I had met the Battalion with the guides, but the Commanding Officer was nowhere to be seen. I found “Billy” though, who was much excited. He told me what was up, but I could not take it in. His announcement affected me physically before I had mentally grasped it. I felt it like a shock, like a blow, turning me sick. The Battalion was to
attack the following morning. Once the words had been formulated and the brain had recorded and repeated them there occurred an emotional ebb, leaving the system drained. Gradually I rallied to the fact itself, inevitable. All this within the space of a few seconds. I had morally run away, fallen, picked myself up, while remaining steadfastly on one spot.[2]

 

Carstairs is a surprisingly excellent chronicler of subjective experience. Rudyard Kipling, writing as official chronicler of the Irish Guards, is up to something different. And yet it can’t be so different: he can set the scene from behind, with the traditional “General’s Eye View” of the proceedings, but he knows the need, after tactical summary, for eyewitness testimony, however parenthetical and in dialect, to bring us into the experience of the day:

The official idea of the Brigade’s work was that, while the 3rd Grenadiers were attacking La Fontaine, the 2nd Irish Guards should sweep through Bourlon Wood and consolidate on its northern edge…

They would advance under a creeping barrage, that jumped back a hundred yards every five minutes, and they would be assisted by fourteen tanks. Above all, they were to be quick because the enemy seemed to be strong and growing stronger, both in and behind the Wood. The Battallion spent the night of the 26th working its way up to the front line, through Flesquières where bombs were issued, two per man; then to La Justice by Graincourt; and thence, cross-country, by Companies through the dark to the Bapaume—Cambrai road, where they found the guides for their relief of the Scots Guards. Just as they reached the south edge of Bourlon Wood, the enemy put down a barrage which cost forty casualties. Next it was necessary for the C.O. (Alexander) to explain the details of the coming attack to his Company Commanders, who re-explained it to their N.C.O.’s, while the Companies dressed in attack-order, bombs were detonated, and shovels issued. (‘There was not any need to tell us we were for it. We knew that, and we knew we was to be quick. But that was all we did know — except we was to go dancin’ into that great Wood in the wet, beyond the duck-boards. The ground, ye’ll understand, had been used by them that had gone before us— used and messed about; and at the back, outside Bourlon, all Jerry’s guns was rangin’ on it. A dirty an’ a noisy business was Bourlon.’[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Siegfried Sassoon, I, 424-428.
  2. Carstairs, A Generation Missing, 119-22.
  3. The Irish Guards in the Great War, II, 156.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They have done well–and still suffered heavy casualties.

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

20 November 1917

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

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

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

And she did not.

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

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

 

References and Footnotes

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

Edmund Blunden Marches West of Ruin and into Dreary New Quarters; Frederic Manning Confined to His; Siegfried Sassoon Hastens to Explain Himself to a Looming Lady Ottoline

Frederic Manning reported himself sick today, a century back. But, unfortunately, everyone knew that he had been out drinking the night before, and the Medical Officer refused to acknowledge the fiction, ordering him confined to quarters. Manning’s C.O., however, dragged his feet, no doubt debating how exactly to report this lapse–so soon after an exonerating Medical Board–to the War Office.[1]

 

Siegfried Sassoon, meanwhile, is keeping up with his correspondence. Lady Ottoline Morrell, who took Sassoon’s deflection from the anti-war cause in stride, seems to be less enthused about his coming defection. I’m not sure exactly what she has written to him, but there is a strong sense that she has demanded an explanation about how exactly he plans to rejoin the war effort without considering himself a traitor to her cause.

28 October 1917, Craiglockhart

My dear Ottoline,

The trouble is that if I continue my protesting attitude openly after being passed for General Service they will call it a ‘recrudescence’ or relapse and keep me shut up here or elsewhere. They will never court-martial me. The only chance would be—after being passed fit—to get an outside opinion from a man like Mercier. I don’t quite know how they’d act if he said I was normal.

So Sassoon is still thinking of his return in terms of guarantees and bureaucratic arm-twistings on the matter of his sanity, rather than success of the appeal, made by Rivers and Sassoon’s other friends, to his sense of loyalty to the fighting troops. What Sassoon writes doesn’t make a great deal of sense, and he says nothing, yet, to Lady Ottoline about his having skipped a medical board… It’s hard to tell if he acts as if he holds the cards in order to reassure her that he is still a principled pacifist or in order to conceal from himself that he has decided to give in–and that he only has Rivers’s assurances that this is a compromise rather than an unconditional surrender.

At present the War Office has been informed that the only conditions under which I will undertake soldiering again are with my old Battalion in France, which makes it fairly clear. I mean to get a written guarantee from them before I do anything definite, as I know their ways too well. I am glad you like ‘Death’s Brotherhood‘. It is the best that is in me, however badly I may have expressed it.

Nor does he want a visit from the eminent pacifist:

It isn’t worth while your corning all the way to Edinburgh in this awful weather. Wait a bit—I may be getting away soon…

I am not depressed—only strung up for supreme efforts—whether they’ll be out in that charnel-place or not is in the hands of chance. Only I want to be active somehow because I know I can do it. Strength is something to be glad for—and one needs it to be able to face the bare idea of going back to hell…[2]

 

Speaking of hell, Edmund Blunden has been in and out all autumn. Today, a century back–matching his memoir to the Battalion War Diary–he made it as far back as, if not quite paradise, something approaching the appropriate pastoral antithesis of Third Ypres…

A day or so later (my company being reconsigned to its ordinary commander) the battalion marched back several miles to another camp. The route lay through Kemmel, where we made a halt, wondering to see the comparatively sound state of the houses and particularly the chateau’s ridiculous mediaeval turrets in red brick. Its noble trees were a romance and poetry understood by all. The day was gloomy, but to be “stepping westward” among common things of life made it light enough. Gently the chestnut and aspen leaves were drifting down with the weight of the day’s dampness. We passed over hills still green, and by mossy cottages, with onions drying under the eaves. It was as though war forgot some corners of Flanders…

But that doesn’t mean that western Flanders can forget the war: their camp is no clutch of cozy cottages.

Our camp by Westoutre at length appeared, through a drifting rain, in the bottom of a valley, undisguised slabby clay; the houses hereabouts were mean, and no entertainment for the troops could be anticipated. Indeed, the mere physical needs were unanswered by the tattered canvas of this wretched open field. Protests were “forwarded,” and we were moved to a hutment camp in a wood, called Ottawa, as fine as the other was miserable…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Marwil, Frederic Manning, An Unfinished Life, 185.
  2. Diaries, 193.
  3. Undertones of War, 255.

Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, and Wilfred Owen Link Up–A New Spat and a New Friendship; Owen’s “Disabled,” and Isaac Rosenberg’s Simultaneous Prequel, “Girl to a Soldier”

Robert Graves spent the night on the train from London to Edinburgh. Arriving at Craiglockhart, today, a century back, he found Siegfried Sassoon in a bad mood, fed up with his intolerable Theosophist roommate (although it is unclear whether the man’s relentless Panglossianism, the actual tenets of his pseudo-faith, or merely his baroque shenanigans with English diction are the real cause of Sassoon’s ire). But Sassoon’s troubles are deeper, probably: after long weeks working with Rivers, and then a long break while Rivers himself was on sick leave, Sassoon is beginning to be convinced that regardless of the rightness of his cause–his protest, that is–there is no ethically acceptable course for himself but to rejoin the men he protested for, and put himself once more in harm’s way.

After all, for how long can one write and golf and complain when one’s friends (not to mention the soldiers who, by all accounts, respected Sassoon and would not fare as well under most other subalterns) are going back to war?

For a little while longer, evidently. Sassoon is most stubborn when others might want to give him a nudge. Even though Graves took the night train to see him, Sassoon couldn’t be bothered to wait, and called in a subordinate (of sorts) to entertain his guest.

 

Biography can be a sweeping, powerful genre, filled with insights into life and history and the human condition. But it’s also, fundamentally, an assemblage of interesting tit-bits. And here’s a good one: Wilfred Owen only became friendly with Robert Graves because this very morning, a century back, Sassoon would not, by Jove, be stayed from a round of golf, no matter how many friends-and-poets want to spend the morning with him. Owen appreciates the strange gesture of selfish generosity:

On Sat, I met Robert Graves (see last poem of O.H.) for Sassoon, whom nothing could keep from his morning’s golf; & took Graves over to the Course when he arrived. He is a big, rather plain fellow, the last man on earth apparently capable of the extraordinary, delicate fancies in his books.

No doubt he thought me a slacker sort of sub. S.S. when they were together showed him my longish war-piece ‘Disabled’ (you haven’t seen it) & it seems Graves was mightily impressed, and considers me a kind of Find!

No thanks. Captain Graves! I’ll find myself in due time.

So, yes, although he has just met another impressive published poet, not to mention a man, however gawky, from a literary family, with a Public School behind him and Oxford ahead (should he survive)–a man so esteemed of Sassoon that he is the addressee of several poems–Owen is able to puff out his chest and hold his head high. He might accept more friendship, but he doesn’t seem to be in need of any more mentors or patrons (though, of course, in the professional sense he very much is). Nor does he: “Disabled” is not one of Owen’s more subtle pieces, nor does it have that compression and swift, quiet musicality of some of his best poems. But it is direct, and very, very sad:

He sat in a wheeled chair, waiting for dark,
And shivered in his ghastly suit of grey,
Legless, sewn short at elbow. Through the park
Voices of boys rang saddening like a hymn,
Voices of play and pleasure after day,
Till gathering sleep had mothered them from him.
                            *        *        *        *        *
About this time Town used to swing so gay
When glow-lamps budded in the light-blue trees,
And girls glanced lovelier as the air grew dim,—
In the old times, before he threw away his knees.
Now he will never feel again how slim
Girls’ waists are, or how warm their subtle hands,
All of them touch him like some queer disease.
                            *        *        *        *        *
There was an artist silly for his face,
For it was younger than his youth, last year.
Now, he is old; his back will never brace;
He’s lost his colour very far from here,
Poured it down shell-holes till the veins ran dry,
And half his lifetime lapsed in the hot race
And leap of purple spurted from his thigh.
                            *        *        *        *        *
One time he liked a blood-smear down his leg,
After the matches carried shoulder-high.
It was after football, when he’d drunk a peg,
He thought he’d better join. He wonders why.
Someone had said he’d look a god in kilts.
That’s why; and maybe, too, to please his Meg,
Aye, that was it, to please the giddy jilts,
He asked to join. He didn’t have to beg;
Smiling they wrote his lie: aged nineteen years.
Germans he scarcely thought of, all their guilt,
And Austria’s, did not move him. And no fears
Of Fear came yet. He thought of jewelled hilts
For daggers in plaid socks; of smart salutes;
And care of arms; and leave; and pay arrears;
Esprit de corps; and hints for young recruits.
And soon, he was drafted out with drums and cheers.
                            *        *        *        *        *
Some cheered him home, but not as crowds cheer Goal.
Only a solemn man who brought him fruits
Thanked him; and then inquired about his soul.
                            *        *        *        *        *
Now, he will spend a few sick years in institutes,
And do what things the rules consider wise,
And take whatever pity they may dole.
Tonight he noticed how the women’s eyes
Passed from him to the strong men that were whole.
How cold and late it is! Why don’t they come
And put him into bed? Why don’t they come?

 

A good poem, terrible in its lingering agony.

But we were in the middle of a letter marked by Owen’s high spirits and new confidence. So: Owen is flattered by Graves’s compliments, and he values Sassoon very highly–esteems him, even loves him in some sense(s)–but he is his own poet now, and not so smitten that he doesn’t see the condescension and inequality of their relationship:

I think it a rather precious exhibition of esteem that S.S. lends me the MSS. of his next book. On the other hand, when I pointed out a quotation from Shakespere that I intended for my Frontispiece, he collared it by main force, & copied it out for himself![1]

 

Let’s return to Sassoon, and to what he is avoiding. And let’s give him his due as a thinker: he is slow to decide and easily influenced on the way to decision, but he is bullish and not easily swayed once underway, less brilliant than several of our young poets, but not nearly as plodding as he portrays himself in the proper-person autobiographies.

The problem is not what to do–he can hardly wait out an indefinite war as an asymptomatic victim of its neuroses, and he will not accept a sham permanent disability–but how to explain his about-face, how to justify it to himself as well as to others.

Graves, for instance, hates the war and fights on, but his explanations are not satisfactory to Sassoon:

It doesn’t matter what’s the cause.
What wrong they say we’re righting,
A curse for treaties, bonds and laws.
When we’re to do the fighting!
And since we lads are proud and true,
What else remains to do?

 

Graves generally styles himself as a bit of a rebel, but he is conventional, at least, in the fact that his pride in serving well–and in serving with well-respected units of a proud old Regiment–is a central facet of his war experience. Sassoon can’t object to this, exactly, but he also can’t express his loyalty this simplistically.

His irritation with Graves, however, may have relatively little to do with poetic expressions of dissent. He may be annoyed at another aspect of what could be seen as either immaturity or commendably heedless devotion. Not only is Graves fighting on with only the most conventional not-reasoning-why as his excuse, but he is (conventionally) besotted with a young woman, one whose outspokenness and enthusiasms (feminism, the literature of childhood) are hardly to Sassoon’s taste.[2]

There are worse things in the world than differences of opinions, friendly spats, and petulant devotion to previously planned rounds of golf, especially when they conspire to spark new friendships. Whatever the initial impressions that Owen and Graves garnered of each other, they will be friends, now, to the benefit of both. If Graves seems an unsuitable mentor he will still a very useful reader. And Owen, like most poets in the course of making leaps and bounds, makes good use of the criticism his work-in-progress receives.

 

But there are other poets not in Scotland. Isaac Rosenberg, for instance, is in France, where he recently returned from leave and promptly fell ill with influenza. One slim benefit of this dangerous illness is the ability to catch up on his correspondence…

Dear Mr. Bottomley

When I returned from my holiday I as taken sick and sent down the line. So I can write to you more leisurely than before. When I was in England I felt too restless to write or read…

Rosenberg then confides that he purchased a book of Bottomley’s, and proceeds to be assiduously complimentary of the work, as well as concerned about his mentor’s health–this from a sick, weak man who, if he survives the ‘flu, will be sent back into the line. But Rosenberg’s deferential attitude never falls all the way into obsequiousness. His leave was emotionally confusing (as of course it must be, after a first long experience of the trenches), but despite the feelings of dislocation his confidence is high:

I don’t knew whether you sent that photo you promised… but I am looking forward to seeing it very much. If ever I get the chance I will remind you of your promise to sit for me–if I still have the skill and power to draw. I wrote a small poem I’ll enclose, I may now be able to think about my unicorn although so many things happening puts all ideas our of ones head.

Yours sincerely,

I Rosenberg

The poem he included was this early draft of “Girl To A Soldier On Leave,” which makes, I now realize, a rather haunting companion–too late, or too early–to “Disabled.” Sex and death and fear ans suffering are all hand-in-hand, today…

 

Girl To A Soldier

I love you – Titan lover,
My own storm days Titan.
Greater than the sons of Zeus,
I know whom I should choose.

Pallid days, arid & wan
Tied your soul fast.
Babel cities smoky tops
Bore down on your growth
Vulturelike… What were you?
But a word in the brain’s ways
Or the sleep of Circe’s swine.
One gyve holds you yet.

Love! You love me, your eyes
Have looked through death at mine.
You have tempted a grave too much.
I let you – I repine.[3]

 

And, finally,–and just so we can get all five of the most famous surviving war poets into one post–let’s have a quote from the War Diary of the 11th Royal Sussex, for today, a century back:

Orders to move on 14th received. Party with Lieutenant Blunden reconnoitres camp near Vierstraat.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 499.
  2. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 185-6.
  3. Liddiard, Poetry Out of My Head, 110-12.

Robert Graves in Love, D.H. Lawrence on the Run

Today we have only a few very scattered updates, and all but one of them are to some extent either dark or dismal.

 

In Cork, Frederic Manning was released from the hospital where he has been recovering from symptoms of a breakdown related to his alcoholism (as well as his experiences on the Somme, surely). A sympathetic Medical Board has allowed him to resume “light duty” and to keep his commission…

 

In a field hospital in Belgium, Henry Feilding, Lady Dorothie‘s elder brother, died of wounds sustained two days ago…

 

In Cornwall, the cottage of D.H. Lawrence was raided and searched by the police. As a military-age man not in uniform, (Lawrence had a medical exemption) who did not hide his contempt for the war, Lawrence was a target of scorn and suspicion. It did not help that they lived on the sea, near where U-boats had recently sunk several British ships–or that Frieda Lawrence had been born Frieda Freiin von Richthofen, a distant cousin of the Red Baron. The Lawrences and their friends behaved, on principle, like civilized, open-minded, free-spoken people, and thus fell quickly afoul of the locals. Continuing to correspond with German family and to speak against the war, despite “a mounting campaign of intimidation,” they seem to have hoped for better from an ostensibly liberal society, even in wartime.

The police will return, bearing with them “an order under the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA): they had three days to leave Cornwall and must not travel to coastal or other protected (‘Class 2’) areas; within twenty-four hours of finding a new
residence, they must report to a police station. No appeal was allowed.”

The couple were “virtually penniless” and returned to London in some despair of finding a refuge from a cruelly militarized and intolerant society. After some time adrift, however, they will be taken in by Hilda Doolittle, the poet H.D., Richard Aldington‘s wife.[1]

 

But life goes on, and there is also young love to be celebrated, today! Another poet whose has had trouble because of his German connections (but who silenced them with combat service and wound stripes), Robert Von Ranke Graves, is currently in London–or, to be precise, in Wimbledon–spending his latest “last” leave with his family. (Graves’s Sassoon-saving interlude at the depot near Liverpool is over, and, while his damaged lung should keep him from active duty in France, he expects to be sent abroad again soon.)

Except that Graves went into London proper, today, a century back, to visit Nancy Nicholson, and missed the last train back…[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Whelpton, Poet, Soldier, Lover, 158.
  2. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 183.

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

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

Courcelles-le-Comte, 12 September, 1917

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Tuesday [22] September 1917

My own dear Mother,

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

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

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

We’ll never know… but probably not:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

References and Footnotes

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

Housman’s Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries; Robert Graves and the Lyric Appeal of Nancy Nicholson

The historian and biographer Peter Parker, whose The Old Lie was one of the most useful secondary sources for the early days of this project,[1] recently published a well-received book on A.E. Housman and his importance to the generation that is now earning its “lost” epithet. There were so many polite, literary, privileged, dreamy English boys who went to war with Housman’s A Shropshire Lad as their companion and poetic ideal, that it has become the type specimen of literary influence on the British experience of the war.

It’s a nice little collection of verses, but its enormous popularity within this demographic can only partially be explained by what’s actually there in the poems. More important is the ambiance: Housman represented a rural England (think The Shire) that was vanishing, the barely concealed homoeroticism of some of the lyrics held a particular appeal to many of his readers, and the frequent atmosphere of youthful tragedy was not only perfect for artistically-inclined adolescents but doubly powerful those who then found themselves asked to shoulder great responsibility amidst enormous loss.

A Shropshire Lad was published eighteen years before the war, and although Housman largely devoted his life to scholarship rather than poetry, he is till kicking around. This month, a century back, looking at the mounting carnage of Third Ypres, he found himself thinking of the heroic stand at First Ypres nearly three years before, made by a very different British archetype. This short poem, written over the coming weeks, is one of the war’s most memorable–Kipling, for one, thought it the very best.

 

Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries


These, in the days when heaven was falling,
The hour when earth’s foundations fled,
Followed their mercenary calling
And took their wages and are dead.
Their shoulders held the sky suspended;
They stood, and the earth’s foundations stay;
What God abandoned, these defended,
And saved the sum of things for pay.

 

A powerful poem, but a strange and estranging one, not least for those poetic schoolboys who have grown up to command platoons and companies of very different soldiers. Our elegies, here, tend to be for Kitchener’s Army–especially its poetic schoolboy officers–or for the men of the mixed and post-idealistic armies of 1917. It’s hard to even remember the professionals who went in 1914 and died in their thousands during the chaos of that autumn. The prewar Regular army really is gone–even if Frank Richards and a few others miraculously hold on–and it merits a memorial. Yet is it really satisfying to read a hard-bitten “epitaph”–both loudly disclaiming and tacitly accepting a sentimental position–written by an older, learned man who was a stranger to the grim old army of lower-class “mercenaries?”

 

From one of the Shropshire-readers who did survive–though absent, in this case, half a lung, healthy “nerves,” and peace of mind–we have a far happier note. Robert Graves‘s day both began and ended with Nancy Nicholson, in pursuit of whom he had crashed a fancy-dress party yesterday evening.

He escorted Nancy back from the dance at two in the morning; and then, not feeling like sleep, he persuaded Ben Nicholson to drive him all the way to Talsarnau, where they called on some other friends of theirs.

Later on Saturday, after snatching a few hours of sleep back at Erinfa, Robert paid another visit to Llys Bach. He was away for some time, and when he returned he said nothing to his family about Nancy, but told them that he had been playing with Nancy’s younger brother Kit, and then having supper with Ben. Whatever Robert’s feelings for Nancy, he kept them to himself at this stage: wisely, perhaps, in such a large and sharp-tongued family…[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. I've also profited from his book on Ackerley.
  2. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 182-3.

John Ronald Tolkien Works in a Sea Power; Ivor Gurney Writes of Sassoon and Hodgson, to Stave off the Shelling; Robert Graves Follows a Bandit Through the Welsh Countryside

Ivor Gurney‘s pen will not stay still, come “flary hell,” or high mud, trench living or German shells. In fact, it is the latter, and their effect on his mind, that drives him to keep on writing. Once more, then, to Marion Scott, his friend and editor and all-purpose patron. Their correspondence is spreading, now, beyond the practical matters of publication and the ordinary intercourse of friends. Not that there is any direct impropriety (Scott is some years older[1] and from a very different social milieu and the relationship was not openly romantic), but these letters in which Gurney discusses other writers with her are charged with more passion than his accounts of the war or his almost indifferent attention to refining his own work for publication.

August 31st 6 pm

My Dear Friend: Still moving along life’s weary road, not very pleased with the scenery of this section of it, and wishing the guns would give over; for these literally are never still…

Today I have been reading “The Bible in Spain”, that brilliant curious book. Indeed, but [George] Borrow is indispensable — “Lavengro”, “Wild Wales”, Rommany Rye and “The Bible in Spain”! A queer chap though, and often purposely queer…

When windy, “write letters,” and so — here you are.

For Fritz has been shelling and it has rattled me…

These letters, then, are in some sense artifacts of shell shock–but in what way does the fact of writing while jumpy and afraid, under constant neurological and physical assault, affect judgments such as these?

You are right about Sassoon; you are right about Hodgson. Sassoon is the half-poet, the borrower of magic. But as for the talk about poetry………. well, I think about that sometimes in this tittle concrete and steel emplacement holding 25 men, but O the crush! Slum conditions if you please…

As for the Imagists — I hate all attempts at exact definition of beauty, which is a half-caught thing, a glimpse. What the devil is a “cosmic poet”? Surely a better name would be cosmetic?

Hodgson is really the true thing, and so I would rather put off comment till later when I am better able to think of such things, and have read the “Song of Honour” in full…[2]

 

Robert Graves would no doubt be irked to be absent from the reading list of a war poet who is considering those other Somme poets Sassoon and Hodgson. Especially Sassoon–half-magic is better than no mention!

But Graves has other things on his mind today, a century back, as his nephew and biographer will attest. Working to train troops at Litherland, he is relatively close to the family’s country home on the Welsh coast.

It was to be a memorable long weekend. Robert heard that some of the Nicholsons were in Harlech; and on Friday evening, after an early supper, he walked over to Llys Bach to call on them. It was a pleasant walk along the country path which meandered from the gate at the back of Erinfa towards the village. The road was down to the right, but invisible beyond the trees; and to the left there was a little stretch of wooded ground, and then the hills. Robert had almost reached the outskirts of the village when he pushed open a gate to his right; and there, with views across the sea just as magnificent as those from Erinfa, stood Llys Bach.

This conjectural walk is, naturally, the prelude to a romance.

Ever since January, when he had last seen the Nicholsons, Robert had been curiously haunted by his last memory of Nancy in her black velvet dress; and now he found her transformed from a schoolgirl into a cheerful, rosy-cheeked and highly independent young woman, within a fortnight of her eighteenth birthday. Boyishly dressed as a bandit, Nancy was just about to set out for a fancy dress dance in a private house; and Robert, suddenly feeling that he wanted to stay with her, went along uninvited. That evening was the first occasion upon which Robert and Nancy spent much time talking to each other; and Robert was so elated by the experience that he stayed up half the night…[3]

 

And finally, today, J.R.R. Tolkien, safely married–he and Edith are expecting their first child–and safe on garrison duty in Humberside, has been taken ill again, with a recurrence of the fever that ended his Somme campaign last autumn. Once again hospitalized, he will spend the weekend redrafting his poem “Sea-Song of an Elder Day.” He did so with a particular end in mind, however: now subtitled “The Horns of Ulmo,” it was altered to fit “explicitly within his mythology.”[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. I wrote in the first version of this post that Marion Scott was married--a silly mistake. Gurney often asks after a Mr. Scott, so I merely assumed... sloppy! And ironic, given that Scott was a rare example of a single woman with an influential career in music and the arts, a century back. Apologies for the error! Marion Scott never married, yet was a great friend and patron to Gurney...
  2. War Letters, 193-4.
  3. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 182-3.
  4. Chronology, 101.

Edwin Vaughan’s Longest Day, at Langemarck Ridge; Hugh Quigley’s Purpose; Thomas Hardy Praises a Dead Officer and a Living Poet

Two brief pleasant snippets, today–hopeful, literary–before we read a long and terrible day of battle.

 

We have been recently reminded–by his new acolyte Wilfred Owen, no less–that Siegfried Sassoon admires Thomas Hardy above all living writers. This missive, then, will bring him much happiness.

Max Gate, Dorchester, Aug. 27, 1917

Dear Mr Sassoon:

We were beforehand with you in respect of To any Dead Officer, for we cut it out of the Cambridge Magazine—not knowing that it would be reprinted. Many thanks for sending it all the same, as I have now two copies, one for lending to people who never return things. I am not clear as to where you are, so send this line through my friend Thornycroft.

Sincerely yours

Th: Hardy.

P.S. I need not say how much I like the poem.

T.H.[1]

To receive, at some point soon, a note of admiration from the great Hardy–routed through his sculptor uncle in order to reach him in golfing retreat from pacifist outrage at a war hospital for shell shocked officers–will be a nice representation of the conflicted position Sassoon is in…

 

“I am inclined to think you are causing yourself too much discomfort about me.” With these words we’ll belatedly begin reading Hugh Quigley’s diary-in-letters. The diary begins some months ago, but it is my hope that it will be a valuable addition to this project over the coming weeks, as Third Ypres morphs into Passchendaele.

Quigley is not there yet, but he came out in June and has been under fire on the line in France. He has written enough, it would seem, to have arrived at the need to write a major statement of purpose and declaration of his state of mind. This is, then, to put the analytical cart before the expository horse for us, but, alas, we go strictly by the dates:

Bertincourt, 27 August, 1917

After all, the worse I can get just now goes to a hardening. All I want you to consider is this: that so far I have told the unvarnished truth, coloured bareness in places, given sordid things a new gleam which might enliven them to my idea, but make them more squalid still perhaps to yours, but I have never consciously said things were well with me when they were not…

Thus I don’t want you to lay too much stress on any sickness you think to find in my letters; it is a mood rather than a condition…

One could easily  say: “I am in the pink”, etc., in every screed, but what’s the good of that? That has no value to anybody, least of all to the man who writes it. A letter, as I conceive it, is at best a picture… of the writer, and as such should be inherently true…

So far, war has remained a romance to me…

If I can keep patience, the cards will fall to me soon and give me a winning hand. I am sure of that…[2]

 

Edwin Vaughan has evolved a similar commitment to truth-in-reportage. But his diary has very little of the tract about it–it’s less a disquisition on truth to mood than a novel narrated by its moody protagonist. Vaughan is concerned to record each dip and dive of his spirits as it occurs, affording equal attention to his external experience and the emotions that shape it. Vaughan has now spent a long night and day under fire just behind the British front lines. An attack is planned, and his company is to be in reserve–but in the Salient there is really nowhere to hide…

August 27

In the rations came a gift from General Fanshawe which consisted of a special meat and vegetable meal in a self-heating tin called ‘Auto bouillant’. They were remarkably good and the troops blessed Fanny for a hot meal. There were also a lot of cold cooked rabbits in the rations! I said to Dunham jokingly. ‘You hang on to my rabbit, I’m going to eat that on Langemarck Ridge.’

Just after midnight I made my way over to the Boilerhouse where Pepper now had his HQ. He was in fairly cheerful mood but ridiculed the idea of attempting the attack. The rain had stopped for the time being, but the ground was utterly impassable being covered with water for 30 yards at a stretch in some parts, and everywhere shell-holes full of water. He showed me the final orders which detailed zero hour for 1.55 p.m.—a midday attack! My instructions were that at zero minus 10 (i.e. 1.45) I was to move my troops forward to the line of the Steenbeck. Then as the barrage opened Wood was to rush forward with three platoons to the gunpits while I reported to Colonel Hanson in the pillbox next to the Boilerhouse. While we were talking a message arrived from Brigade: ‘There is a nice drying wind. The attack will take place. Render any final indents for materials forthwith.’

Pepper read this out to me in a tone which implied ‘This is the end of us!’ Then he scribbled a few words on a message pad and tossed it across saying, ‘Shall I send that?’ He had indented for ‘96 pairs Waterwings. Mark III’. I laughed and bade him ‘cheerio’. As I went out, I met the CO moving up to his HQ. He stopped for a moment while I explained why I had done no work. Then I said ‘It doesn’t look very promising for the attack. Sir.’ ‘No,’ he said, seriously, ‘but it’s too late to put it off now.’ Then we parted and I returned to my blockhouse.

Wood was still lying on his bed in a fuddled state with eyes staring out of his head, and as I turned in I thought to myself bitterly, ‘What chance have we got of putting up a show tomorrow! My only officer out of action already and me commanding a company in which I don’t know a single man and only about two NCOs by sight. Thank God Merrick is a sergeant major I can hang my shirt on!’

…at 10 o’clock I went up to HQ to see if there were any new instructions. I took with me an old oilsheet with which to cover that distressing body at Steenbeck. My impression that his chest was white had been erroneous, for he is coal black but had dragged his tunic open to try to staunch his wound, and now a more or less white vest was exposed. I covered him up because I was frightened of his unnerving me when I passed him for the last time at zero hour.

…As the hands of my watch whirled round I busied myself with totally unnecessary enquiries and admonitions amongst the troops in order to keep my mind free from fear.Then from my wrist in lines of fire flashed 1.45, and feeling icy cold from head to foot I took my troops out and through the ominous silence of the bright midday we advanced in line to the Steenbeck Stream.

My position in the centre of the Company brought me right into my oilsheeted friend; I had grimly appreciated this when an 18-pounder spoke with a hollow, metallic ‘Bong’; then came three more deliberate rounds: ‘Bong! Bong! Bong!’ An instant later, with one mighty crash, every gun spoke, dozens of machine guns burst into action and the barrage was laid. Instantaneously the enemy barrage crashed upon us, and even as I rose, signalling my men to advance, I realized that the Germans must have known of our attack and waited at their guns.

Advancing behind the main attack, Vaughan and his men soon reach the Battalion HQ blockhouse he had visited in the morning.

At the Boilerhouse I sent Wood on to the gunpits with three platoons, while I grouped my HQ staff under shelter of the concrete wall before reporting to the CO. I found him peering round the corner of the pillbox watching the attack
and I stood beside him. With a laboured groaning and clanking, four tanks churned past us to the Triangle. I was dazed, and straining my eyes through the murk of the battle I tried to distinguish our fellows, but only here and there was a figure moving. In the foreground I saw some of Wood’s men reach the gunpits, but the bullets were cracking past my head, sending chips of concrete flying from the wall; the CO pulled me back under cover and I heard him muttering ‘What’s happened? What’s happened?’

Then, standing on the road in front with drums of ammunition in each hand, I saw Lynch shaking and helpless with fear. I ran out and told him to go forward. ‘Oh, I can’t. Sir, I can’t,’ he moaned. ‘Don’t be a fool,’ I said, ‘you will be safer in the gunpits than you are here—right in the barrage.’ ‘Oh, I can’t walk,’ he cried, and I shook him. ‘You know what your duty is,’ I told him. ‘Are you going to let Rogers and Osborne and the rest go forward while you stay here?’

‘No, Sir!’ he said, and ran across the road. Before he had gone three yards he fell dead…

The hours crept on; our barrage had lifted from the German line and now was falling on Langemarck Ridge. At last, when sick with the uncertainty and apprehension the CO, Mortimore, Coleridge and I were huddled in the tiny cubicle of HQ, a runner arrived with a report from Taylor that the attack was completely held up: ‘casualties
very heavy’…

It is time, then, to send up the reserves. There’s little that I could add to this culminating experience of Vaughan’s war-so-far–somehow, once again, death and misery and fragmenting minds mix with the hollow laughter of a grim, evil slapstick. This is the clutching, scrabbling, desperate, muddy futility that will make “Passchendaele” rival any of the other horror-evoking place names of the British war.

It was then 6.30 p.m. With grey face the CO turned to me saying, ‘Go up to the gunpits, Vaughan, and see if you can do anything. Take your instructions from Taylor.’ As I saluted, backing out of the low doorway, he added forlornly: ‘Good luck.’ I called up my HQ staff and told them that we were making for the gunpits, warning them to creep and dodge the whole way. Then I ran across the road and dived into the welter of mud and water, followed by Dunham and—at intervals—by the eight signallers and runners.

Immediately there came the crackle of bullets and mud was spattered about me as I ran, crawled and dived into shellholes, over bodies, sometimes up to the armpits in water, sometimes crawling on my face along a ridge of slimy mud around some crater. Dunham was close behind me with a sandbag slung over his back. As I neared the gunpits I saw a head rise above a shell-hole, a mouth opened to call something to me, but the tin hat was sent flying and the face fell forward into the mud. Then another head came up and instantly was struck by a bullet. This time the fellow was only grazed and, relieved at receiving a blighty, he jumped out, shaking off a hand that tried to detain him. He ran back a few yards, then I saw him hit in the leg; he fell and started to crawl, but a third bullet got him and he lay still.

I had almost reached the gunpits when I saw Wood looking at me, and actually laughing at my grotesque capers. Exhausted by my efforts, I paused a moment in a shell-hole; in a few seconds I felt myself sinking, and struggle as I might I was sucked down until I was firmly gripped round the waist and still being dragged in. The leg of a corpse was sticking out of the side, and frantically I grabbed it; it wrenched off, and casting it down I pulled in a couple of rifles and yelled to the troops in the gunpit to throw me more. Laying them flat I wriggled over them and dropped, half dead, into the wrecked gun position.

Here I reported to Taylor and was filled with admiration at the calm way in which he stood, eyeglass firmly fixed in his ashen face, while bullets chipped splinters from the beam beside his head. He told me that the attack had not even reached the enemy front line, and that it was impossible to advance across the mud. Then he ordered me to take my company up the hard road to the Triangle and to attack Springfield. He gave his instructions in such a matter-of-fact way that I did not feel alarmed, but commenced forthwith to collect ‘C’ Company men from the neighbouring shell-holes. Of all my HQ staff, only Dunham was left—the others had been picked off, and were lying with the numerous corpses that strewed the ground behind us. I sent Dunham all the way back to the Boilerhouse to lead the platoon from there up to the stranded tanks.

So many of our men had been killed, and the rest had gone to ground so well, that Wood and I could only collect a very few. The noise of the firing made shouting useless. I came across some of ‘C’ Company and amongst them MacFarlane and Sergeant Wilkes. I said to MacFarlane, ‘We’re going to try to take Springfield, will you come?’

‘No fear!’ he replied. ‘We’ve done our job.’

‘What about you, Wilkes?’

‘No, Sir. I’m staying here.’

Finally Wood and I led 15 men over to the tanks. The fire was still heavy, but now, in the dusk and heavy rain, the shots were going wide. As we reached the tanks, however, the Boche hailed shrapnel upon us and we commenced rapidly to have casualties. The awful spitting ‘coalboxes’ terrified the troops and only by cursing and driving could my wonderful Sergeant Major Merrick and myself urge them out of the shelter of the tanks.

Up the road we staggered, shells bursting around us. A man stopped dead in front of me, and exasperated I cursed him and butted him with my knee. Very gently he said ‘I’m blind. Sir,’ and turned to show me his eyes and nose torn
away by a piece of shell. ‘Oh God! I’m sorry, sonny,’ I said. ‘Keep going on the hard part,’ and left him staggering back in his darkness…

Perhaps it can’t get worse than that. The attack continues, the German position is overrun, the garrison surrenders, only to be mowed down by their own guns as they are sent to the rear. Vaughan calls off any further advance and takes stock of the prize.

It was a strongly-built pillbox, almost undamaged; the three defence walls were about ten feet thick, each with a machine gun position, while the fourth wall, which faced our new line, had one small doorway—about three feet square. Crawling through this I found the interior in a horrible condition; water in which floated indescribable filth reached our knees; two dead Boche sprawled face downwards and another lay across a wire bed. Everywhere was dirt and rubbish and the stench was nauseating.

On one of the machine gun niches lay an unconscious German officer, wearing two black and white medal ribbons; his left leg was torn away, the bone shattered and only a few shreds of flesh and muscle held it on. A tourniquet had been applied, but had slipped and the blood was pouring out. I commenced at once to readjust this and had just stopped the bleeding when he came round and gazed in bewilderment at my British uniform. He tried to struggle up, but was unable to do so and, reassuring him, I made him comfortable, arranging a pillow out of a Boche pack. He asked me faintly what had happened, and in troops’ German I told him ‘Drei caput-—others Kamerad,’ at which he dropped back his head with a pitiful air of resignation…

I picked up a German automatic from the bed and in examining it, loosed off a shot which hit the concrete near the Boche’s head; he gave a great start and turned towards me, smiling faintly when he saw that it was accidental. Then he commenced to struggle to reach his tunic pocket; I felt in it for him and produced three pieces of sugar. Taking them in his trembling hand, he let one fall into the water, gazing regretfully after it; another he handed to me. It was crumbling and saturated with blood so I slipped it into my pocket whilst pretending to eat it. I now produced some bread and meat; he would not have any, but I ate heartily sitting on the wire bed with my feet in the water and my hands covered in mud and blood. Dunham was sitting near me and pointing to the shapeless mass of mud-soaked sandbag I asked, ‘What the hell are you carrying in there Dunham?’

‘Your rabbit. Sir!’ he replied stoutly. ‘You said you would eat it on Langemarck Ridge.’

But The Three Musketeers this isn’t. The worst of it, now, is that there can be no evacuation, for either side, from such a tenuous forward position.

But when he had peeled off the sacking, we decided to consign the filthy contents to the watery grave below. Now with a shrieking and crashing, shells began to descend upon us from our own guns, while simultaneously German guns began to shell their own lines. In my haversack all this time I had been carrying a treasure which I now produced—a box of 100 Abdulla Egyptians. I had just opened the box when there was a rattle of rifles outside and a voice yelled ‘Germans coming over. Sir!’ Cigarettes went flying into the water as I hurled myself through the doorway and ran forward into the darkness where my men were firing. I almost ran into a group of Germans and at once shouted ‘Ceasefire!’ for they were unarmed and were ‘doing Kamerad’.

The poor devils were terrified; suspicious of a ruse I stared into the darkness while I motioned them back against the wall with my revolver. They thought I was going to shoot them and one little fellow fell on his knees babbling about his wife and ‘Zwei kindern’. Going forward I found that several of the party were dead and another died as I dragged him in. The prisoners clustered round me, bedraggled and heartbroken, telling me of the terrible time they had been having, ‘Nichts essen,’ ‘Nichts trinken,’ always shells, shells, shells! They said that all of their company would willingly come over. I could not spare a man to take them back, so I put them into shell-holes with my men who made great fuss of them, sharing their scanty rations with them…

From the darkness on all sides came the groans and wails of wounded men; faint, long, sobbing moans of agony, and despairing shrieks. It was too horribly obvious that dozens of men with serious wounds must have crawled for safety into new shell-holes, and now the water was rising about them and, powerless to move, they were slowly drowning. Horrible visions came to me with those cries—of Woods and Kent, Edge and Taylor, lying maimed out there trusting that their pals would find them, and now dying terribly, alone amongstthe dead in the inky darkness. And we could do nothing to help them; Dunham was crying quietly beside me, and all the men were affected by the piteous cries.

How long, I wondered, could this situation last. No message had reached me from HQ and at any moment the Boche might launch a counter-attack to recover Springfield. My pitiful defences would be slaughtered in a few minutes, and behind us, as far as I knew, was no second line, though somewhere in rear was the 4th Berks Battalion in reserve. We had no Very lights and only the ammunition that we carried in our pouches. In desperation I returned to the pillbox and commenced to flash messages back to HQ—knowing all the time that they could not be read through the rain and mist.

Suddenly, at 11.15, there came the squelching sound of many bodies ploughing through the mud behind. Wildly wondering whether the Boche had worked round behind us, I dashed back yelling a challenge; I was answered by
Coleridge who had brought up a company of 4th Berks. ‘To reinforce us?’ I asked.

‘No. To relieve you’—and my heart leapt…

No–this is the worst, the discovery of what has become of the wounded as Vaughan and the survivors of his company retrace their steps across the battlefield.

The cries of the wounded had much diminished now, and as we staggered down the road, the reason was only too apparent, for the water was right over the tops of the shellholes. From survivors there still came faint cries and loud
curses. When we reached the line where the attack had broken we were surrounded by the men who earlier had cheered us on. Now they lay groaning and blaspheming, and often we stopped to drag them up on to the ridges of earth. We lied to them all that the stretcher-bearers were coming, and most resigned themselves to a further agony of waiting. Some cursed us for leaving them, and one poor fellow clutched my leg, and screaming ‘Leave me, would you? You Bastard!’ he dragged me down into the mud. His legs were shattered and when Coleridge pulled his arms apart, he rolled towards his rifle, swearing he would shoot us. We took his rifle away and then continued to drag fellows out as we slowly proceeded towards HQ. Our runner was dead beat and we had to carry him the last part of the way.

I hardly recognized the Boilerhouse, for it had been hit by shell after shell and at its entrance was a long mound of bodies. Crowds of Berks had run there for cover and hadbeen wiped out by shrapnel. I had to climb over them to enter HQ, and as I did so, a hand stretched out and clung to my equipment. Horrified I dragged a living man from amongst the corpses. The shallow passageways and ruined cubicles were filled with wounded, amongst whom the medical staff were at work…

After reporting to his C.O., Vaughan is sent back to report to the brigadier.

…I went out and walked with Coleridge down the shell-swept road to St Julien, where, at the crossroads, a regular hail of shells was keeping most of the traffic out of the mud. But we were past caring, and walked through them unscathed. Before we reached Cheddar Villa our runner was killed and we dragged him out into a hole.

Brigade HQ was an elaborate concrete blockhouse with many rooms; I found Beart (the Brigadier Major) and Walker (Intelligence Officer) interrogating a German major. Beart greeted me cheerily and told me to go through to the Brigadier, so raising the blanket of an inner door I entered a small room lit by numerous candles. At a table covered by a clean cloth and bearing the remains of a meal sat Sladden, our Brigadier, and Watts, General commanding 145 Brigade. Sladden peered up at me, asking ‘Who’s that?’ ‘Vaughan of the Eighth, Sir,’ I replied, and he cordially bade me sit down while he poured me a whisky. He was very bucked to learn that we had come from Springfield and he asked me numerous questions about the intensity and accuracy of the barrage and the present dispositions of the enemy…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy, V, 224.
  2. Quigley, Passchendaele and the Somme, 103-5.
  3. Some Desperate Glory, 219-231.

Wilfred Owen Calls on Siegfried Sassoon; Edwin Vaughan in Charnel Hysterics; Ivor Gurney on Sassoonish Sonnets and the Fire and Fate of Francis Ledwidge

Life–and death–go on today, a century back, in the Salient. Kate Luard and her hospital survived another night of bombing, while for Edwin Vaughan “dullness and depression” beset his company on their third straight day of combat. But we must come as quickly as we can through his long day in the wasteland, and hasten back to Scotland where our main business lies.

I had had no sleep since the 15th but even now I dared not close my eyes… I was forced to divert my mind by climbing up again to look around…

Despite my searching, I could discover nothing of interest; the ridge, churned into a broad brown mudheap, showed no sign of life; there were no pillboxes on the slope and the horizon was so ragged that it was impossible to locate the various points. There only remained a few tree stumps and a few broken posts to show where gunpits had been. Then I lowered my glasses and fell to examining the foreground.

Vaughan’s diary today is a minor masterpiece of the eyewitness-to-horror genre, and to omit it entirely in favor of poetic friendship would be obscurely hypocritical. But a few short excerpts are, perhaps, enough:

The outstanding characteristic of this area was, of course, death. And this seemed to be brought home to me, not so much by the numerous corpses, as by the stranded and battered tanks. The nearest one was that which we had
visited when we arrived here, and I shuddered to see it standing gaunt and grim, its base distorted by a shell and a horrid black corpse half-turmbled out of the open door, whilst around it lay the black charred shapes that had been the crew.

…with gruesome fascination I concentrated on the bodies—tried to read the shoulder plates or recognize the battalion markings. The causes of death were mostly all too obvious, for death at Ypres is a fierce, distorting death—death from a direct hit or from a huge fragment. The mud which drags us down and breaks up our attacks has the one merciful effect of deadening the blasts of shells and localizing their death-dealing power.

Bodies there were in German uniform, mostly old and black, but many English killed in the last attacks with black, clotted blood still upon them. These are the most terrifying—if they can be terrifying now…

There was one which upset me. He was lying with the top of his head towards me; caught in the remnant of wire entanglement his two fists were raised clutching a strand. The backs of his hands looked white and slim, his hair fluffy and dusty like a miller’s. I don’t know why I didn’t like him, but he seemed somehow much more gruesome than the uglier bodies and I turned suddenly sick and was forced to sink down into my seat.

After a long day in the killing-slough, Vaughan’s relief arrives–and the company commander who is to take over the line is “windy”–trembling and unwilling to leave the meager shelter of a shell-hole. But Vaughan, now the sturdy veteran, forces him to do his duty in touring the line, with a subordinate in tow. A strange, demented sort of comedy ensues when shells begin falling in the mud around them:

…shell after shell hizzed through the darkness to burst with blinding flashes around us. I felt terrified but elated, and continued to sit on top making conversation while Hancocks leaned against me shaking. I was getting worried about him and kept giving him prods with my fist. Then suddenly there was an extra loud whizz and a smack as a dud slid into the mud almost under Hancocks. Spencer gave a hollow groan and Hancocks gave a loud shout of laughter, lying back with tears rolling down his face. I gave him a push, for I thought he had got shell shock, but when I realized that he was really tickled, I started to laugh too for the situation was really funny.

The sight of Spencer—bent almost double with his head pressed into the earth, looking at me and answering me upside down, his great bespectacled face white with fear and streaked with mud, his incoherent babblings, his starts and grunts at every shell burst—made us forget the danger. So Hancocks and I sat on the wet mud in the midst of the rain and shells and darkness of Ypres and laughed ourselves into hysterics.

After a while I realized that it was hysterics—that it was a temporary madness that had kept me dawdling in the shellfire, a disinclination to return to the reality of a new life out of the line. That my nerves had been giving way under the strain until I was reduced to the childishness of laughing at another man’s fear…[1]

This crazed stumbling from horror to hysteria provides an all-too-apt segue to “Dottyville,” as its inmates called the shell-shock-specializing hospital of Craiglockhart. There, today, a century back, a meeting took place which stands at the very center of this project.

 

It’s tempting to overwrite the first meeting of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, but, really, it’s an introduction that probably doesn’t need too much of an introduction. Their first encounter has been described by both men and by several noteworthy later writers, and it’s as if only Sassoon was surprised by what followed. This change meeting feels like one of the rare drops of sweetness distilled from war’s misery, a fortunate convergence of the twain that must be celebrated like a birth in a plague year, a new sort of orchid that blooming improbably in a new-mown field. See–overwritten.

In any event, the meeting was no surprise to Owen. He has known of Sassoon, he has read him, and he realized at some point recently that they were patients at the same hospital. They would have passed each other in the halls, but there would have been no way for Owen to discover what Sassoon looked like and come upon him “accidentally.” Today, a century back, Owen screwed up his courage and visited Sassoon in his room.

This small social step–dropping in on a fellow patient, a comrade of sorts–is hardly a heroic act. Yet it is a pretty good indicator of Owen’s returning calm and confidence. He may still be showing some of the outward signs of shell shock–the stammer, in particular–but he has otherwise been doing very well: he had “dumped bundles of his third Hydra outside the breakfast room that morning and was due to appear in the second part of Lucky Durham in the evening.” Which is all well and good, but it’s tempting to see Owen recognizing that the “the final stage of his cure” might involve both winning the respect of a hero (he admires his doctor, Brock, but not in the same worshipful way that Sassoon admires Rivers), and accomplishing something with regards to his own poetry, which matters much more to him than literary writing or the stage.[2]

But was it an auspicious meeting? All of the accounts focus to some degree or another on the distance between the two men: Sassoon is significantly older (six years, although Owen doesn’t realize this), significantly taller, and a full lieutenant. True enough, but the real differences are that he is a published and well-regarded poet and that he is from a much higher social class. Owen, the “station-master’s son,” is barely middle class and received a patchy education at non-prestigious local schools; Sassoon has a private income, rode to hounds, knows lords, ladies, and the London literary elite, and received a patchy education at Marlborough and Cambridge.

But what aspect of a first meeting of two friends can be more subject to revision in retrospect than the social angle from which they viewed each other as two strangers?

One morning at the beginning of August, when I had been at Craiglockhart War Hospital about a fortnight, there was a gentle knock on the door of my room and a young officer entered. Short, dark-haired, and shyly hesitant, he stood for a moment before coming across to the window, where I was sitting on my bed cleaning my golf clubs. A favourable first impression was made by the fact that he had under his arm several copies of The Old Huntsman. He had come, he said, hoping that I would be so gracious as to inscribe them for himself and some of his friends. He spoke with a slight stammer, which was no unusual thing in that neurosis-pervaded hospital. My leisurely, commentative method of inscribing the books enabled him to feel more at home with me. He had a charming honest smile, and his manners — he stood at my elbow rather as though conferring with a superior officer — were modest and ingratiating…

I had taken an instinctive liking to him, and felt that I could talk freely. During the next half-hour or more I must have spoken mainly about my book and its interpretations of the War. He listened eagerly, questioning me with reticent intelligence. It was only when he was departing that he confessed to being a writer of poetry himself, though none of it had yet appeared in print.

It amuses me to remember that, when I had resumed my ruminative club-polishing, I wondered whether his poems were any good! He had seemed an interesting little chap but had not struck me as remarkable. In fact my first view of him was as a rather ordinary young man, perceptibly provincial, though unobtrusively ardent in his responses to my lordly dictums about poetry. Owing to my habit of avoiding people’s faces while talking, I had not observed him closely. Anyhow, it was pleasant to have discovered that there was another poet in the hospital and that he happened to be an admirer of my work.[3]

Let not the calibrated self-mockery of “my lordly dictums” draw all the old sting from “perceptively provincial.” But what Sassoon acknowledges here is how Owen meets a need of his own, perhaps one that, in his instinctive diffidence about intellectual things, he had not yet recognized. Replete with mentors and advisors, goaded by his rivalry with the brash Graves, he has many co-conspirators, but never yet a follower. Sassoon may have failed to make a martyr of himself, but he will still welcome a disciple, a “faithful squire to [his] quixotic knight.”[4]

Which is exactly what Owen will sound like when he describes this meeting, in bantering faux-medieval style, to his cousin (and fellow poetic aspirant) Leslie Gunston.

22 August 1917 Craiglockhart

My dear Leslie,

At last I have an event worth a letter. I have beknown myself to Siegfried Sassoon… The sun blazed into his room making his purple dressing suit of a brilliance—almost matching my sonnet! He is very tall and stately, with a fine firm chisel’d (how’s that?) head, ordinary short brown hair. The general expression of his face is one of boredom…[5]

It’s customary, when quoting this letter, to omit the parenthetical “how’s that?” Which is a bit manipulative, since the winking parenthesis shows that Owen knows he is acting the part of the smitten fan. But the “boredom” does the trick too: Owen is aware of what he is up against, socially–and yet he is confident. He wouldn’t have dared to approach the Published Poet otherwise.

It’s a smoother story, perhaps, if Owen is all diffidence and unrecognized talent, and Sassoon all drawling confidence. Pat Barker’s version draws attention to Owen’s lingering stammer and emphasizes Sassoon’s bona fides as a poet of protest, although this is not what would have been most appealing to Owen.

A short, dark-haired man sidled round the door, blinking in the sudden blaze of sunlight. Sassoon, sitting on the bed, looked up from the golf club he’d been cleaning. ‘Yes?’

‘I’ve b-brought these.’

A few lines later, the meeting gets straight to the starting point of the poetic relationship:

‘Are you . . . quite sure your mother wants to be told that “Bert’s gone syphilitic?” I had trouble getting them to print that.’

‘It w-won’t c-come as a sh-shock… I t-tell her everything. In m-my l-letters.’

‘Good heavens,’ Sassoon said lightly, and turned back to the book.[6]

 

It’s a small world. In a letter to Marion Scott written today a century back, from the reserve areas in France, Ivor Gurney mentions Sassoon’s poetry by way of complimenting Scott’s.

My Dear Friend: Is “Field Daisy” yours? Then I may congratulate you very much…  I took it for Sassoon… The sonnet might have been Masefield’s, might have been Sassoon’s. Cheerio!

But Gurney is abreast of recent news, and the high spirits of the letter end in elegy. So we began today writing the mud of the ongoing offensive, then witnessed the beginning of a poetic friendship that will drive the development of war poetry–and now observe, with Gurney, a man still in the thick of it, the mysterious and terrible relationship between war and war poetry. We should all be irritated (or outraged) if a later commentator or critic were to make a remark along the lines of “violent death is terrible, of course, but at least it was good for his poetry”–this, surely, is a judgment that is meaningless, even offensive, without the “authority” that comes from considering such questions from within the soldier’s undetermined future. But Gurney has this authority.

…And so Ledwidge is dead. If the new book is not too.expensive you shall have it from me. He was a true poet, and the story of his life is (now) a sad but romantic tale, like that of so many others, so wastefully spent. Yet the fire may not have been struck in them save for the war; anyway it was to be, and is.[7]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Some Desperate Glory, 205-212.
  2. Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 267.
  3. Siegfried's Journey, 58.
  4. Ricketts, Strange Meetings, 104.
  5. Collected Letters, 485.
  6. Regeneration, 80-1.
  7. War Letters, 185-6.