Robert Graves Reaches Out to Sassoon, but Sassoon is Intent on his Quarry; David Jones Disbands

Today, a century back, was another good day for Outdoor Siegfried Sassoon.

February 6 (Limerick. Ballingrane)

A wet day, south-west wind. Found in some gorse… ran nicely back a half-circle to Nantinan, where he tried the earths… and ran us out of scent. A nice twenty minutes…  A glorious ride—very sad that we did so little…[1]


But Outdoor Sassoon is neglecting his indoor friends–the poets, that is. Even the recently married poet-comrades…

Dear old Sassons

I have been intending to write for so long but find it difficult: don’t know why. Was the wedding a success? ask me! It would have been more so if you had been able to attend. I am for the moment confined to my couch with a cold but in the last three days have written 45 letters, 3 new poems, recast four old ones, two of which I sent to Colour and got £ 3.3.0 by return, read two books, pasted in my press cuttings, compiled an address book and played patience, and even washed my face–no, I haven’t, but shaved once.

Is Graves joking to lighten the mood of a soldier waiting to ship out? Perhaps, but the willingness to make fun of himself in this way has just a tinge of the abject about it. I don’t think Graves is quite sure what’s he done to lose Sassoon’s approval–or he doesn’t want to admit that Sassoon is simply in a snit about his “defection” into marriage.

The letter moves on now to news of their widening circle of acquaintance among the bright young literary things: the popular poet of 1917, the scandal/success debut novelist of 1917, and perhaps the most prolific and influential young reviewer-in-uniform:

Bob Nichols is back in London since February 1st; write to him. Did I tell you Alec Waugh is an enormous admirer of your poems? I have it on the authority of Scott-Moncrieff…  He [Waugh] is producing a book of poems in the spring, Moncrieff says. I wonder will it be good? I expect not.

I hear you’re under orders for Palestine from a subaltern called Roberts whose letter just arrived from Limerick.

And thus Graves circles back to the same subject that he opened with: not weddings or postings, but why Sassoon is so out of touch about such important things. But then Graves shows–or claims–that the real reason for their estrangement is his own good fortune and being just wounded enough to be safe:

I am getting a job in No. 17 Cadet Battalion here as soon as the details leave for Ireland, so that Nancy and I can make up our minds to settle down. The contrast between you and me makes me so ashamed: that’s why I find it difficult to write. But Sassons, though I know you wanted to return to a line battalion I know it’s much better as it is; the strain in Palestine isn’t nearly so great on you and you aren’t likely, or so likely, to get killed. I’m most awfully keen on you living on because as soon as the war stops I know your nerves will get absolutely rested again and you’ll be your old self (like when you saw me here the other day only more so) again and write miraculous poetry.

Best love always,



And while these two officers of the Royal Welch write about Ireland, Palestine, and Merry Olde England, a soldier of their regiment is reduced, abandoned, and reassigned. David Jones serves the melancholy purpose, today, of reminding us of the costs of this war of attrition: each infantry brigade throughout the B.E.F is being reduced from four battalions to three, a major structural change. This is supposed to be a mere reorganization, but it’s clearly not so simple. No new brigades are coming into the line, so this is at best a shuffling of forces and an admission that reinforcements for the existing four battalions are not to be had; at worst, it’s an acknowledgement that manpower limitations mean that three men will have to do the work of four. And this with a German offensive in the offing…

But that is war on the level of the bureaucrat: from the point of view of the infantryman themselves, the worst thing is that the unlucky fourth battalion of each brigade is not to be reassigned elsewhere, but simply dissolved in place, its men going as replacements to the other three. For an army that long prided itself on Regimental Tradition and esprit de corps to simply sacrifice battalions to bureaucratic convenience was shocking, and a sore blow to many of its soldiers. What were all those football matches and parades about, if the army is simply going to play Russian roulette with each foursome of its core units of identity? What can be trusted, now, when the army mouths slogans? And how can new, sustaining relationships be formed at this late date?

David Jones, though he is a gentle soul and an artist to the core, is nevertheless an old soldier, and proud of his unit. Even those little inclined to group-think or cliquishness are driven to collective identification during the stress of combat, and, after the Somme, Jones has good reason to be proud of what the London Welsh have endured. But today, a century back, it was announced that the 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers are shortly to be disbanded, and he took it hard:

As one of the few surviving members to arrive with the battalion in France, he, more than most, dreaded the end of ‘cap-badge loyalty’, an aspect of the fellowship that made military life endurable. On 6 February, the battalion was officially disbanded in a funerary ceremony for which Colonel Bell returned specially to deliver a eulogy.

After this collective death, Jones, disfellowshipped, will wait for reassignment for a week or more, and then be sent into the line near Armentieres with the 13th Battalion of the R.W.F.[3]


References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 210.
  2. In Broken Images, 92.
  3. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 147.

David Cuthbert Thomas–and Goliath; Prose and Poetry from Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, and John Bernard Adams

We will see today’s grim events in the trenches just south of Fricourt from several angles. First up is Robert Graves, whose account of a casual conversation last night, a century back, casts a disturbing fore-shadow.

trafalgar square at 9d

Trafalgar Square, unmarked at center: British trench maps generally do not show their own trenches, lest the map fall into enemy hands. Red lines are German trenches, and each of the small squares is only 500 yards in length.

One evening (near “Trafalgar Square,” should any of my readers remember that trench-junction), Richardson, David Thomas and I met Pritchard and the Adjutant. We stopped to talk. Richardson complained what a devil of a place this was for trench-mortars.

“That’s where I come in,” said Pritchard. As Battalion Trench-Mortar Officer he had just been given two Stokes mortar-guns. “They’re beauties,” Pritchard went on. “I’ve been trying them out, and tomorrow I’m going to get some of my own back. I can put four or five shells in the air at once.”

“About time, too,” the Adjutant said. “We’ve had three hundred casualties in the last month here. It doesn’t seem so many as that because, curiously enough, none of them have been officers. In fact, we’ve had about five hundred casualties in the ranks since Loos, and not a single officer.”

Then he suddenly realised that his words were unlucky.

“Touch wood!” David cried. Everybody jumped to touch wood, but it was a French trench and unriveted. I pulled a pencil out of my pocket; that was wood enough for me.

Richardson said: “I’m not superstitious, anyway.”[1]

Is that how it happened? Is this information that has been selected and presented, yet remains well within the accepted margins of autobiography (i.e. personal history)? Or is there some invention here, in Graves’s famously unreliable memoir?

We’ll have three fusiliers weighing in today, and there is a striking, even eerie similarity of approach in John Bernard Adams’s memoir.[2]

“No officer wounded since we came out in October,” said Edwards: “we’re really awfully lucky, you know.”

“For heaven’s sake, touch wood,” I cried. We laughed, for the whole of our establishment was wood. We were sitting on a wooden seat, leaning our hands against wooden uprights, eating off a wooden table, and resting our feet on a wooden floor. Sometimes, too, we found splinters of wood in the soup…[3]

How strange that each memoirist makes an anecdote of the reflexive superstition of “touch wood,” yet in opposite ways. All plausible, though: the first scene is in a trench and the second in a dug-out. And Adams also confirms the basic accuracy of Graves’s account with his own description of Pritchard’s conduct as trench mortar officer. We’ve heard quite a bit about which battalions generally tried to “live and let live” and which preferred to kill and be killed, using whatever methods were available to them–patrolling, raiding, and, now, firing trench mortars–to assert themselves and dominate no man’s land, never mind the retaliation.

The first Royal Welch have always been one of the latter, and just because these are new officers rather than old regulars doesn’t mean that there is not a strong general expectation of–and even enthusiasm for–maintaining the old standards. In the passage below, which is inserted into the account of tonight’s events in Adams’s memoir, David Pritchard, a good friend of the author, is given the fictional identity of “Davidson.”

There was the trench-mortar officer who was never to be found, but who left a sergeant with instructions not to fire without his orders; there was the trench-mortar officer who “could not fire except by Brigade orders”; there was the trench-mortar officer who was “afraid of giving his position away”; there was the trench-mortar officer who “couldn’t get any ammunition up, you know; they won’t give it me, only too pleased to fire, if only…”; there was the trench-mortar officer who started firing on his own, without consulting the company commander, just when you had a big working-party in the front trenches; and lastly there were trench-mortar officers like Davidson…

There is no major attack planned, but “Davidson”/Pritchard has a new weapon, and he is spoiling for a fight. This is a sentiment of which the officers of the Royal Welch approve–however much they may want to live out the war, if they might. Such aggressiveness is also being encouraged by the battalion’s new commanding officer, Colonel Stockwell,[4] a martinet keen to display his credentials as a fighting soldier.

With this background, we may be able to guess what will happen tonight, a century back.


Ah, but this biblical little battalion has two young Davids: Pritchard, who is nineteen, and Thomas, who is twenty. Back, then, to Graves’s memoir.

The following evening I led “A” Company forward as a working-party. “B” and “D” Companies were in the line, and we overtook “C” also going to work. David [Thomas], bringing up the rear of “C,” looked worried about something.

What’s wrong?” I asked.

“Oh, I’m fed up,” he answered, “and I’ve got a cold.”

“C” Company filed along to the right of the Battalion frontage; and we went to the left. It was a weird kind of night, with a bright moon. Germans occupied a sap only forty or fifty yards away. We stood on the parapet piling the sandbags, with the moon at our backs, but the German sentries ignored us–probably because they had work on hand themselves…

Nevertheless, a continuous exchange of grenades and trench-mortars had begun.

Several canisters went over, and the men found it difficult to get out of their way in the dark; but for the first time we were giving the enemy as good as they gave us. Pritchard had been using his Stokes mortars all day, and sent over hundreds of rounds; twice the Germans located his emplacement and forced him to shift hurriedly.

“A” Company worked from seven in the evening until midnight. We must have put three thousand sandbags into position, and fifty yards of front trench were already looking presentable.

John Bernard Adams–“Bill” to his pals–has recently taken command of B Company. Sitting in his dugout, he witnessed A Company going out, led by Captain Mervyn Richardson, whom he calls “Robertson” in the memoir.

The door flew open, and Captain Robertson looked in.

“Hullo, Robertson; you’re early!”

It was not much past half-past seven. “You’ve got those sand-bags up by 78 Street?” he said, sitting down.

”Yes, 250 there, and 250 right up in the Loop. The rest I shall use on the Fort. Oh! by the way, you know we are strafing at 12.05? We just had a message up from Dale. I shall knock off at 11.45 to-night!”

‘I’ll see how we get on. I want to finish that traverse. Righto. I’m just drawing tools and going up now.”

“See you up there in a few minutes.” And the muttering stream of “A” Company filed past the dug-out, going up to the front line. The door swung open suddenly, and each man looked in as he went by.

Adams’s account–available here–goes on. B company also files out to work, and Adams gives us a brief primer on the art of sand-bag construction. He tours his company’s positions, checking on sentries, and noting a bayonet that “glistened in the moonlight.” Adams falls into a reverie, contemplating the beauty of no man’s land:

Craters by moonlight are really beautiful; the white chalk-dust gives them the appearance of snow-mountains.

And–dare I say “of course?”–he finds himself grasping at war’s strangeness as he stands beside a silent sentry:

What was it all about? …”Good God!” I felt inclined to exclaim. “Has there ever been anything more idiotic than this? What in the name of goodness are you and I doing here?”[5]

But Adams, a good officer, says nothing so existentially troubling in front of one of his men.

Graves and Adams differ only slightly about the timing of what happened next.

About ten o’clock I went back to Trafalgar Square. There I heard that Thompson of C Company had been wounded. From what I could gather he had been able to walk down to the dressing-station, so I concluded he was only slightly hit. But it came as rather a shock, and I wondered whether he would go to “Blighty.”[6]

“Thompson” is, of course, David Thomas. To Robert Graves, now, who uses the real names:

About half-past ten, rifle-fire broke out on the right, and the sentries passed along the news: “Officer hit.”

Richardson hurried away to investigate. He came back to say: “It’s young Thomas. A bullet through the neck: but I think he’s all right. It can’t have hit his spine or an artery, because he’s walking to the dressing-station.”

I was delighted: David should now be out of it long enough to escape the coming offensive, and perhaps even the rest of the War.


Siegfried Sassoon was even closer to David Thomas than Graves was. They had been fast friends for months of training, and in Sassoon’s diaries and fictionalized memoir it seems fairly clear that Thomas is beloved of him–that he is an object of Sassoon;s devotion and desire. Chaste desire only, perhaps, yet something much more than was due a friend or comrade.

When Sassoon looked back on this day he had to write it from a different point of view. Graves produced an “auto-biography” that tells tall tales and plays fast and loose with the facts; Sassoon wrote a “memoir” that reads, variously, like a novel, bildungsroman and roman à clef. He changes his own name and he changes important details of his pre-war life. Yet once Sassoon begins describing actual combat, his fictionalization is generally much closer to historical reality than Graves’s. Sassoon’s memoirs “of George Sherston” are much closer to the conventional memoir of John Bernard Adams: all the details are there, and only the names are changed.

When David Cuthbert Thomas was shot, Sassoon wasn’t there, nor was he in an adjacent line company, like Graves in A or Adams in B. He was the battalion transport officer, stationed a few miles behind the trenches, and generally visiting the front lines only once a day. But in looking back, and writing, Sassoon, no less than the wood-touching company officers, can’t resist foreshadowing. His foreboding is set weeks before, when he was given the transport job. In Sassoon’s Memoirs, David Thomas is “Dick Tiltwood.”

There was one thing which worried me; I disliked the idea of Dick going into the front line while I stayed behind. I said so, and he told me not to be an old chump.

Siegfried Sassoon and David Thomas

Sassoon also lingers over seeing Thomas the night before he was shot. There seems to be some significant compression of time here, since the memoir pinches together last night and the night that Sassoon returned from leave, with a gift–smoked salmon–for his comrades.

Pushing past the gas-blanket, I blundered down the stairs to the company headquarters’ dug-out. There were twenty steps to that earthy smelling den, with its thick wooden props down the middle and its precarious yellow candlelight casting wobbling shadows. Barton was sitting on a box at the rough table, with a tin mug and a half-empty whisky bottle. His shoulders were hunched and the collar of his trench-coat was turned up to his ears. Dick was in deep shadow, lying on a bunk (made of wire-netting with empty sandbags on it). It was a morose cramped little scene, loathsome to live in as it is hateful to remember. The air was dank and musty; lumps of chalk fell from the ‘ceiling’ at intervals. There was a bad smell of burnt grease, and the frizzle of something frying in the adjoining kennel that was called the kitchen was the only evidence of ordinary civilization—that and Barton’s shining pince-nez, and the maps and notebooks which were on the table. . . .

Smoked salmon from Piccadilly Circus was something after all. It cheered Barton immensely. He unpacked it; he sniffed it; and no doubt it brought the lights of London into his mind. “Gosh, if only this war would stop!” he exclaimed… “I’d be off to Scott’s oyster-bar like a streak of light and you’d never get me away from it again!”

He held the smoked salmon under Dick’s nose and told him what a lucky young devil he was to be going on leave in two or three days’ time. Dick wasn’t as bright as usual; he’d got a rotten headache, he said. Barton told him he’d better let Ormand go out with the wiring-party instead of him. But he said no, he’d be all right by then, and Ormand had been out last night…

Dick was still lying in his dark corner when I said good-night and groped my way up the steps, leaving them to make the most of the smoked salmon. Going down Canterbury Avenue it was so pitch black that I couldn’t see my own hand; once or twice a flare went up in the spectral region on the shoulder of the hill behind me; lit by that unearthly glare the darkness became desolation.

This darkness–on a night which was otherwise remembered as very bright–could have had something to do with the time of night or cloud cover, but it does seem to push this scene further back in time–or further into the grey area of memoir-telescoped memory. It is a dark night of the semi-fictionalized soul…


Back now to Robert Graves, happily working away with the rest of A Company, in the firm hope that his friend Thomas has a blighty one.

At twelve o’clock we finished for the night. Richardson said: “Von Ranke,” (only he pronounced it “Von Runicke”–which was my Regimental nickname) “take the Company down for their rum and tea, will you? They’ve certainly earned it tonight. I’ll be back in a few minutes. I’m going out with Corporal Chamberlen to see what the wiring-party’s been at.”

As I took the men back, I heard a couple of shells fall somewhere behind us. I noticed them, because they were the only shells fired that night: five-nines, by the noise. We had hardly reached the support line on the reverse side of the hill, when we heard the cry: “Stretcher-bearers!” and presently a man ran up to say: “Captain Graves is hit!”

That raised a general laugh, and we walked on: but all the same I sent a stretcher-party to investigate. It was Richardson: the shells had caught him and Corporal Chamberlen among the wire. Chamberlen lost his leg and died of wounds a day or two later. Richardson, blown into a shell hole full of water, lay there stunned for some minutes before the sentries heard the corporal’s cries and realized what had happened. The stretcher-bearers brought him down semi-conscious; he recognized us, said he wouldn’t be long away from the Company, and gave me instructions about it. The doctor found no wound in any vital spot, though the skin of his left side had been riddled, as we saw, with the chalky soil blown against it. We felt the same relief in his case as in David’s: that he would be out of it for a while.

It’s the push and pull of the storytelling urge and the senseless cruelty of war (or fate) that animates these tales of death in such an interesting way. A second officer falls–but he is fine. And have we forgotten about the first?


Then news came that David was dead. The Regimental doctor, a throat specialist in civil life, had told him at the dressing-station: “You’ll be all right, only don’t raise your head for a bit.” David then took a letter from his pocket, gave it to an orderly, and said: “Post this!” It had been written to a girl in Glamorgan, for delivery if he got killed. The doctor saw that he was choking and tried tracheotomy; but too late.

It gets worse.

Edmund and I were talking together in “A” Company Headquarters at about one o’clock when the Adjutant entered. He looked ghastly. Richardson was dead: the explosion and the cold water had overstrained his heart, weakened by rowing in the Eight at Radley. The Adjutant said nervously: “You know, somehow I feel–I feel responsible in a way for this: what I said yesterday at Trafalgar Square. Of course, really, I don’t believe in superstition, but . . .”

Just at that moment three or four whizz-bang shells burst about twenty yards off. A cry of alarm went up, followed by: “Stretcher-bearers!”

The Adjutant turned white, and we did not have to be told what had happened. Pritchard, having fought his duel all night, and finally silenced the enemy, was coming off duty. A whizz-bang had caught him at the point where the communication trench reached Maple Redoubt–a direct hit. The total casualties were three officers and one corporal.

Three officers, then, are dead: Richardson, Pritchard, and Thomas.

It seemed ridiculous, when we returned without Richardson to “A” Company billets at Morlancourt to find the old lady still alive and to hear her once more quaver: “Triste, la guerre!” when her daughter explained that le jeune capitaine had been killed. The old woman had taken a fancy to le jeune capitaine; we used to chaff him about it.[7]

So Graves skips ahead to the death of Pritchard before further considering the effect of David Thomas’s death on his friends. He will recognize (as we will see) that it hit Sassoon harder.

Here is how “George Sherston” learns of the death of “David Thomas:”

Coming up from the transport lines at twelve o’clock next morning I found Joe Dottrell[8] standing outside the Quartermaster’s stores. His face warned me to expect bad news. No news could have been worse. Dick had been killed. He had been hit in the throat by a rifle bullet while out with the wiring-party, and had died at the dressing-station a few hours afterwards. The battalion doctor had been a throat specialist before the War, but this had not been enough.[9]

For Adams, the news of Thomas’s death came early, with the rest of the bad night still to unfold. Patrolling the front line, directing suppressing fire on suspected German rifle grenade positions, Adams runs into his neighboring company commander, Richardson/”Robertson:”

We talked. A tremendous lot of work had been done, and the big traverse was practically finished. “I’m knocking off now,” said I. It was a quarter to twelve, and I went along with the “Cease work” message.

“All right,” said Robertson, “I’m just going to have another look at my wirers. I’ll look in as I go down.”

Adams sees his men back to their positions, where soup has been brought up from the rear.

I stopped and had a taste. It was good stuff. As I turned off down the trench, I heard the Germans start shelling again on our left, but they stopped almost directly. I thought nothing of it at the time.

It was just midnight when I reached Trafalgar Square and bumped into Davidson coming round the comer.

“Davidson” is David Pritchard.

“I was looking for you,” said he. “You’ve heard about Tommy?”

“Yes,” I answered. “But he’s not badly hit, is he?”

“Oh, you haven’t heard. He died at eleven o’clock.”

Died! My God I this was something new. Briefly, tersely, Davidson told me the details. He had been hit in the mouth while working on the parapet, and had died down at the dressing station. I looked hard at Davidson, as we stood together in the moonlight by the big island traverse at Trafalgar Square. Somehow I felt my body tense; my teeth were pressed together; my eyes did not want to blink. Here was something new. I had seen death often: it was nothing new. But it was the first time it had taken one of us. I wondered what Davidson felt; he knew Thompson much better than I. Yet I knew him well enough—only a day or so ago he had come to our billet in the butcher’s shop, and we had talked of him afterwards—and now—dead–

All this flashed through my brain in a second. Meanwhile Davidson was saying,

“Well, I’m just going off for this strafe,” when I heard men running down a trench.

“Quick! stretcher-bearers. The Captain’s hit,” came from someone in a low voice.

It is eerie, even after pursuing this project for over a year and a half, to get this stereo effect, to hear the same voices calling down through the pages of two memoirs, from the same trench, only a few yards away from each other.

The captain who has been hit is “Robertson”/Richardson. Adams and “Davidson”/Pritchard are now pushed beyond numbness and toward a killing rage. They decide to change Richardson’s plans for a post-midnight “strafe” and instead coordinate a heavier retaliatory bombardment of the German front lines.

We know what will happen, already, from the way in which Adams has described his last several meetings with Pritchard. For Graves and Sassoon it is David Thomas who is the crushing loss, and Pritchard the lesser tragedy (Richardson, it seems, was liked and respected, but not loved). For Adams, the death of David Thomas pushes him from reverie to rage, but it is Pritchard’s now literarily-inevitable death that will strike at his heart.

It was at this point, in reading up on this deadly day, that I realized there has been more “compression” of events. Sassoon made it seem as if Thomas was killed only one night after he returned from leave, eliding several days for dramatic purposes. But Graves has compressed in a different direction, as it were, pulling tomorrow’s tragedy into today, apparently in order to stress the intensity of this sudden spate of officers’ deaths in this long-safe battalion. Graves makes it seem as if Pritchard was killed the same night as Richardson and Thomas–but he wasn’t. Adams’s much more carefully dated memoir and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission must be counted on to outweigh the solitary Graves–and they are clear that he lived until tomorrow.

Did Graves forget? Did his memories of this harrowing two days shrink them to one? Or did he move a fact that is usually as stark and historically sacrosanct as possible–a man’s death, a date carved in stone–in order to wring more drama out of the death of his friend and the collective loss of innocence in his battalion? I’m not sure.

Back now to Adams’s narrative. It is, of course, after midnight–so really tomorrow, a century back. But this retaliation is the proper end of today’s story. Graves misremembered–or cheated–by folding all three deaths into one day, but it’s a five-act drama. First the foreboding, the long safety, the touching of wood; then disaster, with Thomas and Robertson cut down. Now, Act III, vengeance:

I stood alone at Trafalgar Square. There was a great calm sky, and the moon looked down at me. Then with a “thud” the first football went up. Then the Stokes answered.

“Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang!” Up they sailed into the air all together, and exploded with a deafening din.

“Thud— thud!”

“Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang!”

Then the Boche woke up. Two canisters rose, streamed, and fell, dropping slightly to my right. But still our trench mortars went on. Two more canisters tried for Davidson’s gun.

I was elated. “This for Thompson and Robertson,” I said, as our footballs went on methodically.

Then the whizz-bangs began on Trafalgar Square.

I went to the telephone.

“Artillery,” I said briefly. “Retaliate C I Sector.”

And then our guns began.

“Scream, scream, scream” they went over.

“Swish–swish” answered the Boche whizz-bangs.

“Phew,” said Sergeant Tallis, the bombing-sergeant, as he looked out of his dug-out.

“More retaliation,” I said to the signaller, and stepped out again.

A grim exaltation filled me. We were getting our own back. I did not care a straw for their canisters or whizz-bangs. It pleased me to hear Sergeant Tallis say “Phew.” My blood was up, and I did not feel like saying “Phew.”

“The officer wants to know if that is enough,” said the telephone orderly, who had come out to find me.

“No,” I answered; “I want more.” The Boche was sending “heavies” over on to Maple Redoubt. I would go on until he stopped. My will should be master. Again our shells screamed over. There was no reply.

Gradually quiet came back. Then I heard footsteps, and there was Davidson. His face was glowing too.

“How was that?” he asked.

How was that? He had fired magnificently, though the Boche had sent stuff all round him. How was that?

“Magnificent! We’ve shut them up.”

“I’ve got six shells left. Shall I blaze them off?”

“Oh, no!” said I; “I think we’ve avenged Tommy.”

His face hardened.

“Good night, Bill!”

But I did not feel like sleep. I still stood at the corner, waiting for I knew not what.

“Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang!” went the Stokes gun. There was a pause, and “bang, bang, bang, bang, bang!” came the sound of them bursting. There was a longer pause.

“Bang!” I watched the spark floating through the sky.

“Bang!” came the sound back from the German trench.

I waited. There was no answer. And for the first time that night I fancied the moon smiled.

Interestingly, Adams undercuts his own dramatic scene by juxtaposing it with his official report. There is quiet irony in this sort of procedure, of course–here is the terror and elation of combat, and the dry diction of communication with the uncomprehending higher-ups. But Adams chose to leave us with those last six shots. They fell, but clearly they are not finished: they were the superabundance of rage, a thing which neither the heroes of epic nor the fates of tragedy will neglect.


Daily Summary. C 1. (Left Company)

6 P.M. 18.3.16—3.30 P.M. 19.3.16

(a) Operations.

11 P.M. Enemy fired six rifle-grenades from F10/5. The approximate position of the battery was visible from the Fort, and Lewis gun fire was brought to bear on it, which immediately silenced it.

11.30 P.M. Enemy fired several trench-mortar shells and H.E. shells…

12.45 P.M. Our T.M. Battery fired 12 footballs, and our Stokes gun 32 shells at enemy’s front line trench in F10/5. The enemy sent a few canisters over, but then resorted to H.E.’s. Our artillery retalliated. Our Stokes gun continued to fire until enemy was silent, no reply being sent to our last 6 shells.

7.45 A.M. Enemy fired several rifle-grenades and bombs. Our R.G.’s retaliated with 24 R.G.’s…

J. B. P. Abams, Lt., O.C. “B” Coy.[10]


So David Pritchard/”Davidson” lives yet. And Siegfried Sassoon remains in ignorance of David Thomas’s death.

We’ll close today’s tangled and deadly post with Graves, looking back on what Thomas’s death meant to him–and there’s a glimpse too, of what Sassoon’s future reaction will be:

I felt David’s death worse than any other since I had been in France, but it did not anger me as it did Siegfried. He was Acting Transport Officer and every evening now, when he came up with the rations, went out on patrol looking for Germans to kill. I just felt empty and lost.

One of the anthems that we used to sing in the Mess was: “He that shall endure to the end, shall be saved.” The words repeated themselves in my head, like a charm, whenever things went wrong. “Though thousands languish and fall beside thee, And tens of thousands around thee perish. Yet still it shall not come nigh thee.” And there was another bit: “To an inheritance incorruptible . . . Through faith unto salvation, Ready to be revealed at the last trump.” For “trump” we always used to sing “crump.” A crump was German five-point-nine shell, and “the last crump” would be the end of the War. Should we ever live to hear it burst safely behind us? I wondered whether I could endure to the end with faith unto salvation . . . My breaking point was near now, unless something happened to stave it off. Not that I felt frightened. I had never yet lost my head and turned tail through fright, and knew that I never would. Nor would the break-down come as insanity; I did not have it in me. It would be a general nervous collapse, with tears and twitchings and dirtied trousers; I had seen cases like that.[11]


Finally, one of several poems which will leave a long literary memory of David Cuthbert Thomas. This, again, is Graves, and Graves at something like his best. He may be a scholar distinguished more by the breadth of his visions than their solidity, but he knows how to take an obvious theme and make of it something that is both poetically efficient and emotionally effective.

Goliath and David

Yet once an earlier David took
Smooth pebbles from the brook:
Out between the lines he went
To that one-sided tournament,
A shepherd boy who stood out fine
And young to fight a Philistine
Clad all in brazen mail. He swears
That he’s killed lions, he’s killed bears,
And those that scorn the God of Zion
Shall perish so like bear or lion.
But … the historian of that fight
Had not the heart to tell it right.

Striding within javelin range,
Goliath marvels at this strange
Goodly-faced boy so proud of strength.
David’s clear eye measures the length;
With hand thrust back, he cramps one knee,
Poises a moment thoughtfully,
And hurls with a long vengeful swing.
The pebble, humming from the sling
Like a wild bee, flies a sure line
For the forehead of the Philistine;
Then … but there comes a brazen clink,
And quicker than a man can think
Goliath’s shield parries each cast.
Clang! clang! and clang! was David’s last.
Scorn blazes in the Giant’s eye,
Towering unhurt six cubits high.
Says foolish David, “Damn your shield!
And damn my sling! but I’ll not yield.”
He takes his staff of Mamre oak,
A knotted shepherd-staff that’s broke
The skull of many a wolf and fox
Come filching lambs from Jesse’s flocks.
Loud laughs Goliath, and that laugh
Can scatter chariots like blown chaff
To rout; but David, calm and brave,
Holds his ground, for God will save.
Steel crosses wood, a flash, and oh!
Shame for beauty’s overthrow!
(God’s eyes are dim, His ears are shut.)
One cruel backhand sabre-cut—
“I’m hit! I’m killed! ” young David cries,
Throws blindly forward, chokes … and dies.
And look, spike-helmeted, grey, grim,
Goliath straddles over him.

References and Footnotes

  1. Good-Bye to All That, 193-4.
  2. I do not mean to imply that one influenced another--I think it's a striking coincidence, and an unparalleled example of what we might call the necessity of emplotment, especially as regards sudden death from long range. These are not stories that can really be "chronicled" or shaped into a meaningful historical narrative, complete with causation, responsibility, lessons, etc. These are calamities, catastrophes--literal down-strokes of ill-fortune. They must be told as though they were somehow fated, lest meaninglessness come to seem like madness... all that said, it is possible that Sassoon read Adams before he wrote.
  3. Nothing of Importance, 163/172.
  4. Perhaps well-known to many readers as the "Kinjack" of Sassoon's memoirs.
  5. Nothing of Importance, 164-70/173-81.
  6. Good-Bye to All That, 194.
  7. Good-Bye to All That, 194-7.
  8. Joe Cottrell, the battalion quarter-master.
  9. Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, 272.
  10. Nothing of Importance,177-80/187-91.
  11. Good-Bye to All That, 197-198.

Siegfried Sassoon Takes Up His Pen; Roland Leighton Wonders if He Might Seem Like a Phantom, to Vera Brittain; Greenmantle’s Seminal Band of Secret Agents Assembles; Edward Hermon on the Bravery of Women; Raymond Asquith on Horace and the Georgians

Siegfried Sassoon has had a languid war so far. Despite joining the Yeomanry almost literally on the eve of the war, he has been kept from France by a riding accident, a broken arm, and the various delays occasioned by taking a commission and transferring to the Royal Welsh. Until today, a century back. Siegfried, bored and dreamy, has not been giving a very good account of himself, either–in the specific sense that he has left few dated thoughts or deeds behind him. But that changes today as well, with his first diary entry:

November 17

1.15 Victoria. Got to Folkestone pier 6., Victoria, sailed about 7 in bright moonlight; for Boulogne. Changed course after an hour and reached Calais 9.30. Last hour rough. Went ashore about 1 and slept on floor in hotel.[1]

I don’t want to get too cute here. Sassoon is generally a writer for long musings rather than close readings, and this, besides, is a name-and-dates sort of diary, not a reflective journal.

HOWEVER. There’s almost an entire war there in those few lines. Irony? How about Victoria station and a ship called Victoria? Do two victories make a defeat? And how about Victoria changing course? Or bright moonlight giving way to stormy seas? There is speed, too–from London to the old English holding in France in an afternoon and an evening–and then delay. Three and a half hours of nothing before disembarking, and then a doss on a hotel floor? Disappointing!

And too cute. Sassoon and several brother officers will now have several days of bureaucratic limbo, waiting to discover to which battalion of the Royal Welch they will be posted. But we will be seeing more of Siegfried now. Hardly sixteen months in and one of our primary sources is now deployed!


And a fateful meeting of three formidable characters took place in London today, a century back: Major Richard Hannay, veteran of Loos, met a comically broad (in both senses) American businessman called John Blenkiron, and was reunited with his old friend Sandy Arbuthnot. Old Sandy, second son of a Scottish barony nearly as ancient as Dunsany, was

educated at Eton and New College, Oxford, was a captain in the Tweeddale Yeomanry, and served for some years as honorary attache at various embassies. The Peerage will stop short at this point, but that is by no means the end of the story. For the rest you must consult very different authorities. Lean brown men from the ends of the earth may be seen on the London pavements now and then in creased clothes, walking with the light outland step, slinking into clubs as if they could not remember whether or not they belonged to them. From them you may get news of Sandy. Better still, you will hear of him at little forgotten fishing ports where the Albanian mountains dip to the Adriatic. If you struck a Mecca pilgrimage the odds arc you would meet a dozen of Sandy’s friends in it. In shepherds’ huts in the Caucasus you will find bits of his cast-off clothing, for he has a knack of shedding garments as he goes. In the caravanserais of Bokhara and Samarkand he is known, and there are shikaris in the Pamirs who still speak of him round their fires. If you were going to visit Petrograd or Rome or Cairo it would be no use asking him for introductions; if he gave them, they would lead you into strange haunts. But if Fate compelled you to go to Llasa or Yarkand or Seistan he could map out your road for you and pass the word to potent friends. We call ourselves insular, but the truth is that we are the only race on earth that can produce men capable of getting inside the skin of remote peoples. Perhaps the Scotch are better than the English, but we’re all a thousand per cent, better than anybody else. Sandy was the wandering Scot carried to the pitch of genius. In old days he would have led a crusade or discovered a new road to the Indies. To-day he merely roamed as the spirit moved him, till the war swept him up and dumped him down in my battalion.

Rudyard Kipling may have been shocked into a different sort of writing, but the Imperial Romance is clearly alive, and profitable, and dramatically embedded, here, in recent history. This is Greenmantle, the quick follow-up to the highly popular The Thirty-Nine Steps, penned by John Buchan (who will shortly be a uniformed propagandist) in moments of respite from his voluminous chronicles of the war.

Much in this fictional meeting–written up only a few months after its assigned date–should appeal to us. The bluff American, all apologies for his “nootrality” is welcome both for his own work as an agent for the British and in recognition of the fact that “the French Foreign Legion is full of young Americans,” and he is immediately put to use as the character who can voice criticisms that a British officer might not:

You have seen fighting, Major? The Battle of Loos? Well, I guess that must have been some battle. We in America respect the fighting of the British soldier, but we don’t quite catch on to the de-vices of the British Generals. We opine that there is more bellicosity than science among your highbrows. That is so? My father fought at Chattanooga, but these eyes have seen nothing gorier than a Presidential election.

The backdrop, too, is not simply recent history–Loos as the highlight of the war’s first movement–but the general sense of wily, British perseverance amidst tragedy. The officer who assembles this rag-tag group and gives them their mission to thwart German nefariousness and raise the Muslim world for the allies by means of a sort of false messiah (nothing less!) is… well, the plot begins with his own son staggering in from a secret mission and dropping dead…

Sandy looked at me sharply. “You feel like that? Same with me. It’s idiocy, but all war is idiotic, and the most whole-hearted idiot is apt to win. We’re to go on this mad trail wherever we think we can hit it. Well, I’m with you. But I don’t mind admitting that I’m in a blue funk. I had got myself adjusted to this trench business and was quite happy. And now you have hoicked me out, and my feet are cold.” “I don’t believe you know what fear is,” I said. “There you’re wrong, Dick,” he said earnestly. “Every man who isn’t a maniac knows fear. I have done some daft things, but I never started on them without wishing they were over. Once I’m in the show I get easier, and by the time I’m coming out I’m sorry to leave it. But at the start my feet are icy.” “Then I take it you’re coming?” “Rather,” he said. “You didn’t imagine I would go back on you?”[2]

So tonight, in Hannay’s London flat, the ridiculous plot of this amateur MI6–this embryo of every freshly assembled gang of troubled but talented adventurers in every spy/heist/military infiltration movie–hatch their plan to spend two months traversing Europe, meet up in Constantinople, and foil all German plans to bring the Muslim world (that famously monolithic and biddable entity) in on the side of the Central Powers.


Before we get on to the serious business of lovers and husbands and wives and children, one more dutiful letter that I cannot resist–due to its dutifully unpulled punches. Raymond Asquith wrote to his wife Katherine today, with basic trench news and desultory sallies:

November 1915

. . .I am left in command of the Company, for which I am not sorry as I shall get a better dug-out and have more responsibility and less work.

I think we are going back again to the same trenches but they ought to-be less muddy if the Scots Guards have done their duty during the 48 hours of their tenancy. On the other hand it has rained very hard today and the water may be deeper…

I hope your dream about my leave may come true… The stupidity of the authorities in not making any adequate preparation for winter life in the trenches is very striking. There ought at least to be trench boots for every man, but in our division so far every other man has to go without and probably other divisions are worse off still, But I believe they are getting out a further supply. Then one would have thought they would have arranged to make watertight trenches by now after last year’s experience but they seem to have learned nothing and there is just as much mud and water and discomfort as there was in 1914.

Well, yes, he’s not pulling all of those “the Staff are morons” punches, but I meant this:

. . . I don’t think it’s any good your sending me Eddie [Marsh]’s new volume of Georgian poets. I never read anything but Horace out here and not much of him. But I suppose even Eddie would admit that Horace was better than Brooke. . .[3]

Ha! A good sally, but it only takes on a heavy weight of shot with the full benefit of historical irony: Asquith cannot know that a much lesser classicist and better writer will appropriate and redeploy Horace, one day, in the war’s most famous poem.

For now we have merely another sneering shrug–it’s war, pick your reading materials carefully. We could try harder, and make this a staunch vote for the undying relevance of the classics as against the special pleading of famous, recent poets–but no, it’s just a dig at the pale, swooning moderns, especially those who are friendly with your little brother or shepherded into print by your pal Winston’s secretary…


A busy day today. Roland Leighton, his spirits apparently on the upswing, but still unaware that his petulance and spotty letter-writing has provoked real anger in his fiancée, Vera Brittain, writes unconcernedly with the usual updates. Or is there a nagging fear there, that he has erred?

France, 17 November 1915

Am still with the Somersets—in the trenches at present. It is quite a holiday really. There is very little for me to do, and everyone here is very charming. There is a great difference between a Regular officer and a Territorial. I wish in a way that I had gone into the Regular, but of course that involves being tied by the heels after the war.

The weather is getting colder & colder every day. We have had snow all yesterday and today. It is quite Canadian in appearance now.

I expect I shall be recalled to my Battn. tomorrow or the next day. I shall be rather sorry to go back in a way. I haven’t had a letter from you for a long time, it seems, and you haven’t had one from me either. Do I seem very much a phantom in the void to you? I must. You seem to me rather like [a] character in a book or someone whom one has dreamt of & never seen. I suppose there exists such a place as Lowestoft and that there once was a person called Vera Brittain who came down there with me.[4]

The question, then, is whether Roland is aware that he had more or less stopped writing to Vera and that his sojourn with the Somersets has prevented her much more regular (though not cloyingly prolific) letters from reaching him with the usual dispatch. He should be aware.

So is he semi-consciously trying to ease back into intimacy with this gentle, dreamy characterization of their long-sundered reality, or does he really believe that, given Vera’s vigorous efforts to bridge the experiential gulf that yawns between them (not to mention his own efforts, until the last month or so), she will be pleased to accept the idea that he just happens to be “phantom”-like, rather than withdrawn, depressed, distant?

Vera will be letting us know, shortly–and she has already fired the warning shot designed to bring Roland back to attention.


Finally, today, a touching letter from Edward Hermon to his wife Ethel. He has been celebrating the news of the birth of their fifth child. Today he received a backlog of letters from his wife and realized–shocker!–that the birth had not been as easy as the reassuring first reports had had it.

…you are a brave old rascal because you have never let on that you were in pain all the next day, it’s very naughty of you not to tell the truth as I always do to you. I would love to be with you dearie, as you say.

All of a sudden a flash: here is another experiential gulf, one that is age old, front and center, and rarely realized by those on the one side. Hermon seems a good man and a good husband, and he–as he will remark in a moment–has shells to worry about. But he has shared, admirably, his own fear and near-despair, and he realizes of course that his wife has been shielding him. Silly of him, really, and yet compare this mature relationship to the rather more intellectually fierce but so much more tentative letters of Vera and Roland.

Darling mine you have been a dear brave old thing over this, not a word of all your pain, & your nice cheery card only a few hours afterwards makes one feel but a very poor thing when one thinks how one dislikes these damned shells which if they do hit one makes the job instantaneous.

Really the bravery of the women is something far finer than the ordinary man’s in some stirring moment. I shall never forget the calm bravery of these women out here. It is what the parson would call ‘beautiful.’ They ‘sit still & never show it’ kind, the hardest of all.

Any damn fool can run along in a crowd but it’s the ‘all alone’ that wants sticking & my very own dear I can see you have stuck more, and more bravely than ever this time my darling, & my love and admiration dearie is more than it ever was before.[5]


References and Footnotes

  1. Hart-Davis, ed. Diaries, 1915..., 19.
  2. Buchan, Greenmantle, chapters I and II.
  3. Life and Letters, 215.
  4. Letters From a Lost Generation, 187-8.
  5. For Love and Courage, 138.

Robert Graves Encloses the New War Poetry; Rowland Feilding on the Last Assault; Bim Tennant in Good Spirits and Bad; Kipling and Bombs and a Chaplain and Helmets, all for the Guards

I am still dwelling on the death of Charles Sorley in the attack, two days ago, in and around the Hohenzollern Redoubt. From Rowland Feilding we learn that it involved gas, and that it seemed less like a simple “dud show” or a last ripple, but rather a powerful death spasm, the last of Loos. It was

the second great British attack…  a sort of repetition of September 25. The news we have received so far is very fragmentary, but they say it has been successful.

The abridgment of this hope is mere paragraphs away.

The fact that this attack has been made unseals my lips, and I can tell you now of the mysterious work we were doing in the trench opposite Hohenzollern Redoubt, and at which I could only hint before. We were excavating emplacements under the parapet and filling them with cylinders of chlorine gas, in preparation for yesterday’s attack. We stored 420 of these cylinders in our bit of trench.

When I said that on the night I stayed behind the Germans started shelling just when we did not want it, I meant that they did so at a time when the trench was packed with cylinders, to say nothing of the men who were bringing them in; and, when I explain that these cylinders are big and heavy and each requires four men to carry it (two carriers and two reliefs), you will be able to picture the congestion that was produced in the narrow trench, and you can imagine what the effect would have been if a chance splinter of shell had happened to puncture a cylinder and let out the gas; and this condition of things continued during two nights.

To repeat, we prepared but did not take an active part in the attack. We did, however, supply a platoon under a subaltern which held the smoke candles, and produced the smoke cloud which concealed the advance of the attackers;—a device which is reported to have been very effective.

Was it? Feilding will pick up the tale in another letter, written a few days hence:

On Friday, the 15th, we got orders at 2 p.m. to be ready in half an hour to march from Priere de Ste Prie to the trenches, and we arrived in position in front of Hohenzollern Redoubt at midnight. We found ourselves immediately to the right of the sector we had occupied a few days previously —in the portion which was then held by the Irish Guards. On our way up we saw the Prince of Wales, who stood by the roadside as we passed.

We found the trenches greatly changed since we had left them. The big attack of Wednesday, the 13th, had been made, and contrary to the first messages that came through, had failed with very heavy losses. Only a part of the trench which had formed the front of Hohenzollern Redoubt was still held by our troops; the rest of the Redoubt was in German hands, with the exception of such part of it as had been transformed into Noman’s Land, having been blown sky-high by the artillery.

This bit of trench we proceeded to occupy, as well as the old front line in which we had placed the gas. The
cylinders were now empty. The communication trenches—and in many parts the fire-trenches also—had been blown in by the enemy’s shells. Both were littered with the sweepings of war—gas-pipes and cylinders, discarded rifles and equipment, bombs, small arm ammunition-boxes, and the dead. On the ground in front lay hundreds of our dead.

The narrow communication trenches were also crowded with living men, scrambling in the dark to pass one another.

I suppose there is nothing in the world where theory differs from practice so much as in war. Contrast the practice trenches in Windsor Park with the trenches here…

They are crossed and re-crossed and threaded by telephone wires—many of them loose and dangling—which trip you up, and catch you by the head; and, during the period which has elapsed since the war began, a perfect maze of trenches has evolved, in which no amount of organization will prevent men losing their way, especially in the dark.

The congestion in the trenches at night, during this time of battle, must be seen to be appreciated.. The communication trenches, except where blown in by shells, are generally just wide enough for two men with packs to squeeze past one another with difficulty. Picture what happens when—as is often the case—a Company or Battalion going in takes the wrong turn and meets another coming out! The chaos becomes more bewildering still when they meet in a tunnel; and when, as last night, one is being relieved by people who make such a noise that the relief is spotted and the enemy opens fire with shrapnel, the climax is reached.

Well, on Friday evening, we ran into all these things…[1]


The Guards, having been spent and expended in the battle’s second act, missed this encore (they will not miss the very last). From Feilding’s Coldstreams to Bim Tennant of the Fourth Grenadiers. Yesterday, all was well:

Thursday, 14th October

Darling Moth’,

Just a line to tell you that we came out of our trenches early on Wednesday morning, and arrived in billets at a village called Vertigueul about 8 a.m., having been marching all night.

I was dog-tired, and Osbert and I went to bed in an Estaminet kitchen, and slept till about 3.15, when we rose and had most delightful baths, and got into trousers and shoes…

Your splendid “parsoos” from Gibson’s in Edinburgh came last night, and a marvellous leather waistcoat and thick drawers, for which many a thank.

I am in the very best of health and spirits, and my cold is nearly gone (D.V.).

My fondest love to all from
Your devoted Son,

P.S.—Osbert sends his love and thanks you enormously for the parcel you sent him.

But today the short rest is over:

Friday, 15th October, 1915

Darling Moth’,

I am now in old and rather dilapidated trenches behind our lines at Hohenzollern Redoubt (which we took the day before yesterday). We are in the fifth line support-trenches which sounds very safe but isn’t. I have had a terribly tiring three days. First we were relieved in our other front trenches on Wednesday at 1 and then started to walk six miles to our billets, after taking nearly two hours to thread the endless communication trenches miles long which lead out near Vermelles. I have never walked all night and seen the day dawn as I marched before: you see after four days in trenches the men can only march very slowly and as the Brigade Staff failed to send us any guides we couldn’t find the way for ages…

We changed our billets on Thursday morning and on that evening (last night) we started for these trenches at 7.30. After extreme confusion as to where the Staff-Major had assigned us to, we discovered he had given us a piece of trench hardly big enough for 1/2 of the Battalion… it was 3.30 this morning before I composed myself to sleep for one hour before “stand to” at 4.30. To-day was spent improving our trench. I buried four men (not Grenadiers) to-day under shell-fire, and read bits out of “Revelations” over their grave. I had only a New Testament. It was rather moving: just the four men of the grave-digging party and I, but I am very glad to have been able to do it…

Thank you so much for my photos. Now I must stop; I am longing to see you all.

Ever your devoted,


Two more notes on the Guards. First, the fruit of an accidental googling. There once was a middle-aged chaplain named John Ayscough who maintained a vigorous correspondence with his elderly mother. Like any good establishment cleric, he is solicitous of the great ladies:

October 16, 1915 (Saturday, 11 a.m.)

Yesterday… I went in to Paris, where I had to buy two more helmets at Lady Glenconner’s request; one for a son of her sister, Lady Wemyss (who was Lady Elcho when you met her long ago; since then her very old father-in-law has died, and her husband has become Lord Wemyss); the other helmet is for another brother-officer of Bim’s, Osbert Sitwell.

So Lady Glenconner has intervened for two dear friends of her son–Sitwell and her nephew Ivo Charteris. Helmets are only just being issued–the war, so far, has been fought in soft caps. The British Army, so strict in some respects, is fairly loose about matters of dress and equipment. There is no Valley Forge convention here, no expectation that the officers endure the worst of what their men must. So a gift of steel helmets would be no idle parcel…[3]

Second, a brief note in homage to the ideal of balanced history. The Second Irish Guards held bombing practice today, a century back, and one hundred and twenty-eight men each threw a live bomb, apparently without incident. So sometimes it goes well…[4]


Finally, today, a century back, Robert Graves was promoted to captain. This, as it happened, would increase the awkwardness of his relations with his fellow officers. He was just twenty, with mere months of active service, but because he had joined so early he was promoted automatically–in the Special Reserve, not as a Regular officer–a fact which gave him the satisfaction of a significant increase in salary but also launched him “over the heads of elder officers who had longer trench service and were better trained than myself.” In a fairly rare moment of perceptiveness, Graves offered not to assume his rank, but was told that the will of the bureaucracy had to be honored.[5]

Graves was, however, spared the awkwardness of being put directly over more experienced regular officers by being assigned to the brigade sappers, in charge of special construction efforts in the trenches. About this time (the letter is dated only “October,” Graves decided to renew his acquaintance with Eddie Marsh.

My dear Eddie

Your letter came to cheer a very lonely soldier: this life is enough to send anybody off his head even when he’s in the society of people he likes. But I left the good old Welsh Regiment after three months and came here to the only more or less intact regular battalion in the Army, and a crack one at that, and a type of regular officer who lives the sort of life I have always abominated. I have less objection, tho’, to the idea of living among people whose sole topics of conversation are wine, women, racing, hunting and musical comedy, than I have a sentimental dread of dying in such a society.

I don’t know how I came through the last show unhurt; when our losses in combatant officers are considered, the odds worked out a three-to-one against my being the lucky survivor. Oh Eddie, there were some awful scenes that morning of the 25th!…

The men were splendid. I am the only survivor now of five 3rd Battalion [i.e. Welch Fusiliers reserve] officers who came up together five months ago into the very same trenches from which we attacked on the 25th September…

The Captain who commands my company is a regular with some considerable service and can’t see the use of ‘a man like Graves who never goes with a woman or gets tight or shows any interest in hinting or racing or the stage and can’t even play Auction.’

That last bit would qualify as a sort of draft of his pen-portrait of the “Actor,” who will eventually be given a snappier version of these lines in a part of Graves’s “memoir” that dates to September.

However, I am hoping to get a separate job in charge of the battalion sapping platoon which will save me from too close a comradeship with these people. However I get on very well with the men which is some comfort, and occasionally hear from George [Mallory] and other good friends at home and make shift to cheer myself with vague dreams of a glorious après-la-guerre which I don’t really expect to see.

But my chief solace, which makes up for everything really, is a fairly regular correspondence with Peter–or so the Gods call him, as Homer would say, though men call him George Johnstone–my best friend, a poet long before I’ll ever be, a radiant and unusual creature… still wholesome-minded and clean-living. Thank God he’s to young to come out and get killed before another year or so. When I go west I want you to write to him and look out and be a good friend to him as you have been to me. He’ll repay it.

Perhaps Graves goes in so heavily for bitter, knowing ironies in his retrospective memoir not only because the war was so awful and the old men lied but also because similar ironies of ignorance tripped him up in his contemporary, awkward youth. He is writing to a famous literary patron whom he hardly knows (although Marsh had been kind and encouraging) and he praises as his friends one of his school masters (the climber George Mallory) and the significantly younger boy he had been in love with, while claiming that all the officers in his battalion are intolerable philistines. This is not the most comprehensively believable account of one’s own social failures.

There is further irony in that, while Graves will eventually realize/discover that he is (rather stridently) heterosexual (although–with commendable honesty, as well as an inerrant sense for profitable scandalousness–he will not deny the importance of love between schoolboys but rather try to contextualize it as a natural outgrowth of homosociality), he is writing now to a gay man (which he perhaps half realizes) about his own love for a “wholesome” boy.

“Peter” will not, however, prove to be the wholesome, Platonic (i.e. the beautiful, elevating love-object) beloved of his imagination but, rather, both gay and sexually active. Whether it’s matters of the heart and the (for Graves, at least) virginal loins or matters of the hunt and how-to-get-along-with-different-sorts-of-folks, Graves has no idea what is going on.

But he’s got some good ideas for some poems…

In the last month or so an inspiration seems to have come to me of what the New Poetry is to be and I feel that given a good rest and congenial society to settle my shaken mind I could write something really good. But here thought is quite impossible. My only hope is for a ‘cushy wound’ or for some high-souled General (if only I kept a pet General) to get me a transfer to a Reserve Battalion in England or a nice base job or indeed any old thing, for tho’ still loyal and willing I’ve ceased to feel aggressive and winter is hard at hand. However–‘c’est la guerre. Et quand finira-t-elle? Oh, encore deux ans.

through the periscope1A reference to Marsh’s troubles with Rupert Brooke‘s mother follows, and then an apology for not finding Marsh during his September leave–“my family kept me up in North Wales the whole week except one night I snatched to spend at Charterhouse”–before getting to the point. Or the two points, really: poetry and (potential) death.

Now I’m going to inflict some verses on you…

In another three days we expect to be back in the line…I’ll want all your best wishes. And now farewell.

Yours affectionately,


through the periscope2

Manuscript of today’s letter to Marsh, with Through the Periscope included. New York Public Library, courtesy of First World War Poetry Digital Archive, Oxford.

Yesterday I wrote of the influence that Sorley’s published poems will have on Graves. The two young subalterns had very different temperaments–the wry onlooker and the blustering misfit–which were reflected in each poet’s approach to the problem of wrenching traditional verse toward a register that could reflect the horrors of their experiences.

Of the two Graves is perhaps the more fecund, the more heedlessly devoted to poetic expression. He has written some other interesting, excitable poems recently (“I Hate the Moon” was also copied out in this letter to Marsh), but when he comes, today, to write directly of the sights of the trenches–the title of the poem is “Through the Periscope”–it’s all attempted shock and no poetic awe.

Sorley’s example will teach Graves to attempt control, to let the nastiness and terror of the war speak in the poet’s scheme, without shrill amplification.

This poem is, surely, like few that have yet made their way to the carefully curated apartment in Raymond Buildings. But there will be many more. The rhymes are blunt–it will end almost in (unintended) black comedy with “again/brain” enclosing a bullet’s crack–and the attempt at conversational diction is clumsy (many leagues away from what Robert Frost and Edward Thomas have recently achieved).

But however ungainly the result–Graves, later, will not choose to publish this poem–he is, at least, writing directly about the war. “Indecent burials” may be a “tag” here, and the idea of men living and fighting among corpses buried too shallow–or half-buried, or not buried at all–may be a commonplace of the Great War experience as it has come down to us, but it wasn’t yet a thing that had come to the forefront of many poems:

Trench stinks of shallow buried dead
Where Tom stands at the periscope,
Tired out. After nine months he’s shed
All fear, all faith, all hate, all hope.

Nor, for that matter, had poetry expressed the mental exhaustion that Graves sketches here–and which he was beginning to feel, after only a few long months at the front.


References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 55-8.
  2. Letters, 57-60.
  3. John Ayscough's Letters to His Mother, 253.
  4. Kipling, The Irish Guards, II, 33.
  5. Good-Bye to All That, 169-70.
  6. In Broken Images, 34-6.

The Royal Welch Attack at Festubert; The Nursing Sister on Mud and Blood; A Bloodstained Letter From Julian Grenfell Reaches Home

We haven’t heard much from the Royal Welch Fusiliers of late, for two reasons. The two reasons, actually, in terms of the twin subjects (war and writing) that drive this project: the Second Battalion (2/RWF) has long been on a quiet sector of the line, with little for the battalion history to report or its ranker-memoirist to attach a date to; and its two canonical writers have yet to join the regiment in the field. We will hear from both soon–but first, the First Battalion.

Today, a century back, the 1/RWF was in the spearhead of the fruitless renewal of the Battle of Aubers Ridge. It attacked toward Festubert this morning alongside other battalions of the 7th Division. The eventual advance of their brigade was “the most successful operation” of the day, taking almost a mile of German trenches before bogging down amidst the flat, wet landscape and its cross-hatching of trenches. This bloodless summary comes from Buchan‘s Nelson’s History, which describes “The Battle of Festubert, as it may well be called, [which] would in other wars, looking at the casualties and numbers engaged, have been a major action… in this campaign is ranked only an episode–one link in the long-drawn chain of the Allied attack.”[1]

The battalion does seem to have have fought well–but not bloodlessly. There was a terrible cost from undamaged enemy machine guns, and they were under accurate artillery fire from before dawn until nightfall, as they slowly advanced. Regimental memories, moreover, focus on what Buchan elides: the positions they gained were untenable, and they were withdrawn during the night, to discover that over three-quarters of the men of the battalion were casualties–dead, wounded, or missing. Captain Stockwell, until recently the bullying tormentor of Frank Richards‘ company in the 2nd Battalion, now found himself in command of the entire First Battalion, all senior officers having been killed or wounded. This had happened to the first battalion before. At First Ypres a young subaltern had briefly commanded a battalion of only about forty unwounded men. It will happen again.

Which is why so many replacements were needed–of men, but especially of junior officers. Robert Graves, in fact, will start tomorrow, and another young amateur has just joined the regiment as well–next week, when there is a quiet moment, we will at long last hear from Siegfried Sassoon.


Some of the wounded of the First Royal Welch may well have passed through the Nursing Sister‘s hands:

Sunday, 11.30 a.m. May 16th.—They began coming in at 3.30, and by 8 a.m. the place was full to bursting. We managed to get all the stretcher cases to bed, and as many of the others as we had beds for, without sending for the other two Sisters, who came on at 8.15, and are now coping. Most of them were very cheery, because things seem to be going well. Two lines of trenches taken, all the wire cut, and some of the earthworks down; but it is always an expensive business even when successful—only then nobody minds the expense. There are hundreds more to come in, and the seriously wounded generally get brought in last, because they can’t get up and run, but have to hide in trenches and shell holes. One man, wounded on Sunday and found on Friday night, had kept himself alive on dead men’s emergency rations. They were all sopping wet with blood or mud or both.

And how does the sister spend her time off duty?

After breakfast I went to the Cathedral, and then…  the big dressing station at the French Hospital, where all the dressings are done and the men evacuated, armed with a huge linen bag of cigarettes, chocolate, and writing-cases which came last night. I met the C.O., who said I could have a look round, and then rowed me for not being in bed, and said we should be busy to-night and for some time. It was very interesting, and if you brought your reason to bear on it, not too horrible.

Every corridor, waiting-room, ward, and passage was filled with them, the stretchers waiting their turn on the floors, and the walking cases (which on the A.T. we used to call the sitting-ups) in groups and queues. No one was fussing, but all were working at full pitch; and very few of the men were groaning, but nearly all were gruesomely covered with blood. And they look pretty awful on the bare gory stretchers, with no pillows or blankets, just as they are picked up on the field. Many are asleep from exhaustion…

One has to remember that a great many get quite well, though many have a ghastly time in store for them in hospital.The barge is in the canal again taking in the non-jolters…

The news from the “scene of operations” is still good, so they are all still cheerful. The difference to the wounded that makes is extraordinary. That is why last Sunday’s show was such a black blight to them and to us.[2]


Yes, the initial news was good. And yet no significant permanent gains were made. Festubert will be remembered as a short, bloody battle of attrition, a harbinger or bigger, worse things.

We have a wounded man from Ypres to track as well.

This morning, a century back, the postman came to Taplow with Julian Grenfell‘s blood-stained letter. Lord and Lady Desborough were, however, spared much of that moment of post-box terror. For so many parents, the sight of a letter from France in an unfamiliar hand (for the letter had been sent on by a chaplain) began an intolerable moment of anxious horror that might last the time it takes to tear and read a good word or last the rest of their lives. Julian Grenfell’s parents were spared this because their daughter’s telegram had already reached them.

Distance, ironic proximity, and imperfect information.

So Lord and Lady Desborough waited at home, hoping to be told which English hospital would received their son. But in Boulogne an x-ray was performed, and it was discovered that “the shell splinter had gone one and a half inches through his skull, and there was damage to the brain.” Julian was operated on, and would stay in Boulogne.

Monica at once sent another telegram–“Decided keep Julian here for few days know you will both come tomorrow”–but it was the previous telegram from the hospital’s commandant that arrived first:[3]

Son wounded in head better come show this for permit[4]

Lady Desborough recorded the rest of the frantic day in her diary:

16 May: Telegram at 4 summoning us to Boulogne from Commandant at Julian’s hospital. No steamer til tomorrow, got leave from Admiralty to cross in ammunition-boat. Seven minutes to pack & start. Flew up to London in motor… caught train Victoria. Newhaven 9.6. Authorities so kind, gave us din[ner]. got Cas[sie]’s telegram, rather consoled. Started at 11. Calm night.[5]


References and Footnotes

  1. Nelson's History, Vol II, 78-9.
  2. Diary of a Nursing Sister, available here.
  3. Mosley, Julian Grenfell, 261.
  4. Thompson, Julian Grenfell, Soldier and Poet, 306.
  5. Thompson, Julian Grenfell, Soldier and Poet, 296.

T.E. Hulme Marches for the Line; The Welch Sing of Mud and Ricochets; Roland Proposes a Meeting

The 2/Royal Welch have been in their new trenches near Bois Grenier for a few days now, but these are still so deep in water and mud that they are almost untenable, and all movement during the day is impossible. Therefore:

The hours of darkness were, as always, the most strenuous. Everything entailing movement or disturbance of the surface that could be seen by day was done at night: carrying rations and stores; making, improving, and repairing trenches; putting in loopholes; wiring; patrolling…

January 13th.–Now, and for several months, sniping was the most active form of infantry action. Seven Germans were claimed during the day… ‘Later on, when the ground was frozen, I [Captain Aubrey Attwater] remember walking out from the line in the early morning with Stanway, to the curious music of birds singing and ricochets humming and purring.’

At night the 1st Battalion [i.e. the other Royal Welch Regular Battalion] took over trenches on our right. The Germans opposite C Company were heard singing and playing a piccolo…[1]


Roland Leighton has put the wheels in motion. The plan is to meet Vera Brittain–unchaperoned–during her journey back to Oxford for the start of term.

Peterborough, 13 January 1915

I have managed to get my leave for Saturday all right, though the Colonel would probably be somewhat surprised if he knew the real reason for my wanting to go to Leicester. I can catch the 7.45 a.m. train from here which arrives at about 10 o’clock or soon after. This will give me plenty of time to meet your train…

I have just caught the regimental cold which has made me very hoarse and inclined to the Quiet Voice. I hope it will have disappeared by Saturday.

I am looking forward so much to seeing you. If I could not have got leave I should have come without.[2]


T.E. Hulme continues his description of the long approach to the line:

We left the place I last wrote from on Wednesday. It was pouring with rain and we had to march about 6 miles altogether I should think. It sounds very little but when you have all your equipment and very heavy packs it becomes very tiresome. We were told before we set out that we should, in a few miles, be inside the area of shell fire. The roads are simply fearful with mud and you keep meeting supply motors and carts which push you to the side of the road in the mud. All you can think of on the march, is various ways of shifting the weight of your pack from one shoulder to another, every now and then you rest and you bend down something like this in order to save the weight of your pack on the shoulders. You look reflectively at your feet and the patterns of the mud as you do this, and that will be the predominant impression that I shall carry away from this war…

This is the first flash in quite a while of Hulme the critic/philosopher. It’s a good bit. There are many short pieces on the weariness of marching, but this is much stronger than most, focusing as it does on a moment of rest and redoubled memory, rather than trying to capture impressionistically the whole long slog itself…

And now Hulme goes on, naturally (and without comment on the transition), from the question of memory to the conjunction of experience and expectation:

The first thing that looked at all characteristic of war (in the old Boer War sense) was when we were overtaken by a transport wagon taking food, guarded by men on horseback with rifles slung across their shoulders. These we met at the corner of a road where we seemed to have lost our way…

Nicely done: the old wagon and the mounted troopers might as well be an image from the Boer War–or the Thirty Years’ War, for that matter, save only the absent figure of Mother Courage–and the foot-sloggers are lost in the mud…

About midday we passed through a village… They kept us standing here 20 min. without letting us take our packs off, every man swearing. Finally about a mile further on… the man on horseback who was supposed to be guiding us… pointed out to us [a farmhouse] as the one where we were to eat. There was a big barn there, where we could shelter from the rain. We waded across a field and through a farmyard with mud above our ankles, only to be turned back by a staff officer who said we had made a mistake.

Hulme is precocious: he has yet to even officially join his battalion in the field, and he has already been privy to the haughty indifference of the staff to the troops… This letter is a straightforward narration of actual events–that is, it certainly seems to be such a report–but this experience of abject disorganization and an indifferent staff officer on the way to the trenches reads like heavy-handed foreshadowing.

This was the last straw–some of us wandered off by ourselves and found a little cowshed where we took off our packs at last and ate bully beef. When we got a 1/4 mile from the village we were making for, we had to stop and wait till dusk, as it is rather exposed to shell fire. We heard fearfully unpleasant noises of guns going off, but they were our own batteries just behind us. After dusk we got in the village where our men were.

About half the houses have one side or a roof missing… There is a very incongruous bandstand in the centre, surrounded by barbed wire entanglement ready to be moved to the trenches.

We were marched up to some large schools where we were billeted. In the evening I went round to see some of the people I used to know in the 1st Battalion. All looked very different, their faces and clothes a sort of pale mud colour, all very tired of it and anxious to get back.[3]


References and Footnotes

  1. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 106-7.
  2. Letters from a Lost Generation, 48.
  3. Ferguson, ed., The... Life of T.E. Hulme, 189-90.

So This Is Christmas: War Is Briefly Suspended, If You Want It


Soldiers of Henry Williamson’s Battalion, the London Rifles, mixing with Saxon troops between the lines, Christmas Day, 1914. Unless it’s not–other sources have this as Boxing Day…

As a historical event, the Christmas truce is a bit slippery: like other less heart-warming battlefield events it was no unified, coordinated mass movement but rather a concatenation of many different individual actions, differently recalled.

Historians pretty much always fail to resist the urge to slap some simple larger meaning onto the events, making “the” truce into a unique moment of resistance to the horrors of war, or a last moment of old-fashioned European togetherness, or a sideways slipping into some counter-factual reality–a road, away from stalemate and slaughter and the rest of the wicked twentieth century, not taken.

It wasn’t any of these things. It was a series of compromises–truces, unevenly observed–wrought by men confronted by a new contradiction: war as fruitless and static suffering, and a common religious calendar indicating an expectation of… well, peaceful good fellowship. This is the first Christmas, the first major holiday, the first challenge to all those stories of the enemy’s perfidy and our heroism. And there are, as Michael Holroyd’s Christmas Eve letter indicates, other sorts of stories already in circulation.

The legend of what might take place in this first entrenched Christmas preceded the events, a fact which illustrates just how much the participants in these truces were driven by a sense of (conflicting) duty: there is plain old military duty, sure, but there is also the living up to expectation, the requirement that one act up to one’s preconceptions of proper and honorable behavior. We have seen this again and again in terms of the arrival of soldiers at the battlefield with the outdated heroic expectations of their reading–as Paul Fussell might have put it, you go to war with the last war you read about. And yet, in British and German culture alike, stories of Christmas miracles, of the thawing of hard hearts, etc., were very common… isn’t this how it’s supposed to go? Isn’t this what we should do, if we play this by the book? Screw the officers, let’s go have Christmas…

The Germans–in many cases units of Catholic and less enthusiastically militaristic Bavarians–seem to have taken the initiative. Many of the accounts from the French and Belgian sectors emphasize simple humanity or sincerely religious gesture: German troops along the Yser canal returned a looted communion vessel to the Belgians opposite and took i return their letters, to be sent to family members in occupied Belgium.[1] In many places truces were arranged primarily for the purposes of burying the festering, frozen corpses that lay between the lines.

Although mutual burials also took place along the British sections of the lines, in general the Germans and British seem to have had a more jocular time of it. In some places there was singing and shouted greetings, while the men of some units–including the 2nd Royal Welch–actually met and exchanged gifts with their “enemies.” (The soccer game(s) often mentioned in later accounts are not well supported by contemporary evidence, however, and if any occurred they were probably brief pick-up games.) While some units fraternized, others only a few hundred yards along merely refrained from ordinary sniping, and in other sectors the daily violence went on abated–and no one told the artillery it was Christmas.

So rather than pontificate (which didn’t work anyway–Benedict XV’s call for a Christmas truce was rejected by Russia and ignored, despite German grandstanding, by every other government) about the meaning of the truce I’ll let a few of our regular writers describe what they experienced, and then check in with several others at home or in Camp. One thing, though: we will start with truce experiences, then go to English Christmases, but I want to come back to Belgium and discuss Henry Williamson’s experience at the end. It seems to have had a huge impact on him, both in terms of the way he would write the war and the way he would come to see the world.

First, Frank Richards of the Royal Welch Fusiliers:

On Christmas morning we stuck up a board with ‘A Merry Christmas’ on it. The enemy had stuck up a similar one. Platoons would sometimes go out for twenty-four hours rest–it was a day at least out of the trench and relieved the monotony a bit–and my platoon had gone out in this way the night before, but a few of us stayed behind to see what would happen. Two of our men then threw their equipment off and jumped on the parapet with their hands above their heads. Two of the Germans done the same and commenced to walk up the river bank, our two men going to meet them. They met and shook hands and then we all got out of the trench. Buffalo Bill rushed into the trench and endeavoured to prevent it, but he was too late: the whole of the Company were now out, and so were the Germans. He had to accept the situation, so soon he and the other company officers climbed out too. We and the Germans met in the middle of no-man’s-land. Their officers was also now out. Our officers exchanged greetings with them. One of the German officers said that he wished he had a camera to take a snapshot, but they were not allowed to carry cameras. Neither were our officers.

We mucked in all day with one another. They were Saxons and some of them could speak English. By the look of them their trenches were in as bad a state as our own. One of their men, speaking in English, mentioned that he had worked in Brighton for some years and that he was fed up to the neck with this damned war and would be glad when it was all over. We told him that he wasn’t the only one that was fed up with it. We did not allow them in our trench and they did not allow us in theirs.The German Company-Commander asked Buffalo Bill if he would accept a couple of barrels of beer and assured him that they would not make his men drunk. They had plenty of it in the brewery. He accepted the offer with thanks and a couple of their men rolled the barrels over and we took them into our trench. The German officer sent one of his men back to the trench, who appeared shortly after carrying a tray with bottles and glasses on it. Officers of both sides clinked glasses and drunk one another’s health. Buffalo Bill had presented them with a plum pudding just before. The officers came to an understanding that the unofficial truce would end at midnight. At dusk we went back to our respective trenches.

…Just before midnight we all made it up not to commence firing before they did… During the whole of Boxing Day we never fired a shot, and they the same.[2]

Dr. Dunn’s History adds some corroborating evidence for the Welch-Saxon truce. The maker of the signboard was the pioneer sergeant “Nobby” Hall, and Ike Sawyer is named as the first Fusilier to go and meet the Germans. And then we get to hear from Buffalo Bill himself, a.k.a. Captain Stockwell:

I think I and my Company have just spent one of the most curious Christmas Days we are ever likely to see. It froze hard on Christmas Eve, and in the morning there was a thick ground-fog… the Saxons opposite had been shouting across in English. Strict orders had been issued that there was to be no fraternizing on Christmas Day. About 1 p.m., having seen our men get their Christmas dinners, we went into our shelter to get a meal. The sergeant on duty suddenly ran in and said the fog had lifted and that half a dozen Saxons were standing on their parapet without arms. I ran out into the trench and found that all the men were holding their rifles at the ready on the parapet,

Well there’s a slight difference: do we trust the captain who indicates that his men followed his orders, or the private who portrays the officer, elsewhere, as a dishonest bully and claims here that the men were moved to their own private truce, and the officer had to follow suit to save face? History! Buffalo Bill, tell us what you saw:

…the Saxons were shouting, “Don’t shoot. We don’t want to fight to-day. We will send you some beer.” A cask was hoisted on to the parapet and three men started to roll it into the middle of Nomansland. A lot more Saxons then appeared without arms. Things were getting a bit thick. My men were getting a bit excited, and the Saxons kept shouting out to them to come out. We did not like to fire as they were all unarmed, but we had strict orders and someone might have fired, so climbed over the parapet and shouted, in my best German, for the opposing Captain to appear. Our men were all chattering and saying, “The Captain’s going to speak with them.”

Yeah, I’m with Frank Richards. Even without the strong circumstantial evidence that Buffalo Bill is an asshole, he’s clearly spinning a yarn here that is at once self-aggrandizing and ass-covering:

A German officer appeared and walked out into the middle of Nomansland, so I moved out to meet him amidst the cheers of both sides. We met and formally saluted. He introduced himself as Count Something-or-other, and seemed a very decent fellow. He could not talk a word of English. He then called out to his subalterns and formally introduced them with much clicking of heels and saluting. They were all very well turned out, while I was in a goatskin coat…

Stockwell explains that the two officers very sensibly agree to ignore their orders to keep shooting, but that they should clear out of no man’s land. But the Germans have already brought out a barrel of beer, and social obligations are social obligations.

…We agreed not to shoot until the following morning when I was to signal that we were going to begin. He said. “You had better take the beer. We have lots.” So I called up two men to take the barrel to our side.

Note, please, the discrepancy about the number of beer barrels. Richards does insist, however, that it was weak stuff, impossible to get properly drunk on, in any case.

As we had lots of plum-puddings I sent for one and formally presented it to him in exchange for the beer. He then called out, “Waiter,” and a German private whipped out six glasses and two bottles of beer, and with much bowing and saluting we solemnly drank it amid cheers from both sides. We then all formally saluted and returned to our lines. our men had sing-songs, ditto the enemy.[3]


Edward Hulse was also involved in a prolonged and chummy truce, and he wrote perhaps the best-known contemporary letter about it… but not until the 28th. So we will look back again on the truce in three days’ time.

But it was not beer and plum pudding everywhere on the line. For the Irish Rifles,

The Christmas Truce of 1914 reached the Battalion in severely modified form. They lay among a network of trenches, already many times fought over, with communications that led directly into the enemy’s lines a couple of hundred yards away. So they spent Christmas Day, under occasional bombardment of heavy artillery, in exploring and establishing themselves as well as they might among these wet and dreary works. In this duty Lieutenant G.P. Gough and Lieutenant F. H. Witts and six men were wounded.

Earl Kitchener, their [ceremonial] Colonel, sent them Christmas wishes and the King’s and Queen’s Christmas cards were distributed. Their comfort was that Christmas night was frosty so that the men kept dry at least.[4]


Billy Congreve, our man on the divisional staff, has recently been highly critical of orders which failed to take into account the real situation at the front. And yet today, while men of his old battalion, the 3/Rifle Brigade, enjoyed “a day of perfect peace” and were entertained by a German juggler in No Man’s Land, Congreve, out of view of the front line, believes that tall of his division have obeyed orders and “opened rapid fire on” unarmed Germans, “which is the only sort of truce they deserve.” To add a further shading to the spread of opinions on what exactly is godly, sporting, or soldierly on Christmas day, Congreve’s father, a brigadier general, reported that some of his officers unwillingly followed their men into fraternization, but took the opportunity to locate a sniper’s loophole and, while sharing a cigar with the sniper himself, planned how “to down him tomorrow.”

Congreve does give the details of “a great Xmas dinner–oxtail soup (from a tin), fillet of beef with macaroni, oie rôti, plum pudding (on fire), caviare, champagne and port to drink. The chef quite rose to the occasion. It’s not a bad Xmas day, but I hope the next I shall spend at home.”[5]


Morgan Crofton also reports a Crofton xmas card 2quiet and Crofton xmas card 1culinary Christmas. Rather cleverly, someone turned the ubiquitous Field Service Postcard into a Christmas dinner menu/report card. See how many bad puns/forced war references you can find! (Both sides are reproduced, at right and below.)


Lady Feilding, writing to her family, reports a distinct lack of a truce in Pervyse.

Xmas Day 1914

To my family in general & each individual one in particular.

What a life! – Here I am on Xmas Day warming my toes up at the old dressing station – we thought the Teutons would have the decency to leave us in peace, as we expected they would be just as excited over their plum pudding as we over ours. But blessed if the offensive blighters didn’t spend the whole morning throwing shrapnel and shells at us, having gone to the trouble to bring a gun up closer too under cover of the fog – a really dirty trick & most unchristmassy I consider…

I never got to church this morning which was rather sad. There was midnight mass on in a barn last night about 3 miles off. I wanted so to go, but couldn’t very well as I didn’t hear about it until going to bed & could not go all that way alone – if I had known about it I could have got one of the soldiers to be a bodyguard…

Such a frosty day. Lovely for Xmas, a gorgeous morning but foggy now. We are very merry here — I feel we are friends & are having a much nicer Xmas than you people at home – the front is really the only place where one can be genuinely happy ‘on occasions’ these days…

Much love all – Luv,



So a range of opinions, then, on where Christmas cheer and peace of mind can be found. Mairi Chisholm, with Dorothie Feilding in Pervyse, adds the detail that the shells not only wounded several soldiers but did so as they were lining up to receive Christmas presents from the staff at the aid station. For the record, socks: “the joy of a new pair of dry socks was worth the risk.” And Christmas Dinner included not only plum pudding but also oxtail soup, fowl, and potatoes. And yes, shrapnel.[7]

While many soldiers and nurses in France and Belgium were longing for their families. Back in England, Francis Grenfell, still recovering from his wounds, is facing his first Christmas without his twin, Rivy, killed on September 14th. An orphan and now a lone youngest son, the family he longs for is his squadron, in France. John Buchan writes of the intensity of regimental identity–“Old comradeships in sport and play and the easy friendliness of peace-time are transformed into something closer even than friendship. Every communal success becomes an individual triumph, every loss an individual sorrow”–but seems to miss the point that Francis is most attached to the men of his actual squadron. This is small-unit esprit, loyalty to a particular group of men, each one known by name and face and habit, rather than affiliation with the undying life of the old regiment. Francis wrote this Christmas Day missive to his men:

I wish you all the very best of luck and good wishes for Christmas and the New Year. I am always thinking of you, and hope very soon to return. Sir John French said the regiment had exceeded the greatest traditions of the army, and in this ‘ B ‘ Squadron has played the leading part. You were the first squadron of the regiment in action at the beginning on 24th August, and have since always given the lead. Remember the brave that have fallen, and be determined to serve England as faithfully as they. You have all my very, very best wishes and thoughts. God bless you and keep you, and help you to remain the finest squadron in the world the only squadron that has got for itself already a D.C.M., a Legion d’Honneur, a commission, and a V.C.[his own], for what is won by the leaders belongs to the men. God bless you all.[8]


Rupert Brooke, utterly unseparated from the men under his command, writes instead to one of his many women friends–Christmas is also, of course, a traditional time for jollity.

Hood Battalion, 2nd Naval Brigade

Blandford, Dorset

Xmas Day

My dear Violet,

I couldn’t read in your letter where you were going to for Christmas (though I rather suspect you’ll be in bed at Downing Street).[9]

I get six days leave from Wednesday the twenty-ninth… are you going to be at Walmer for that week-end?

…Never say we’re not a hilarious nation. Christmas Day in the Naval Division is a revelation. The Battalion C.P.O., a very fat man, who has been drunk since dawn, is conducting the band in an Irish jig in the middle of the parade-ground. He can’t beat time, but he dances very convincingly… Half my stokers are dancing half-naked in their huts. They spent the night on cheap gin. The surrounding woods are full of lost and sleeping stokers…

I’ve discovered that this is the site of a Roman Camp. Does that move you? …I gave my platoon the slip yesterday morning (they were out gathering holly): and went a delicious country walk, decanting drops of a poem (don’t report me)–

‘And drowsy drunken seamen/Straying belated home,

Meet with a Latin challenge,/ From sentinels of Rome–‘

‘In dreams they doff their khaki,/ Put greaves and breastplate on:/

In dreams each leading stoker,/Turns a centurion–‘ etc…

Good luck for next year.


There is a fundamental injustice to this project–or at least an injudiciousness. Today is a sticky-huge pudding of Christmas bounty, but most days only a few of the writers I’ve been following produce dateable writing. And whatever they wrote–once we allow for the vagaries of manuscript survival and publication–becomes who they are, here. There are long silences and chatty periods; there are poems written with public intent and letters meant for a single pair of eyes.

So Rupert Brooke has been a bit of a dick, lately, writing catty letters to male friends and eyelash-batting flirtations to Cathleen, Eileen, Violet, et. al. But he’s also been writing a bit of poetry. Five sonnets, in fact, since November. Not, alas, dating them precisely, but mentioning them from time to time. Two days ago, for instance, he scribbled down a line for the nascent fifth of the sequence: “If I should die, think only this of me.”  Well, avert the omen–but a promising pentameter, all things considered. Today, a century back, he not only wrote the above light verse, but banged out the rest of that fifth sonnet. They will make a splash–which will give us a second centennial now in which to consider Brooke as a writer of verse.[11]


Edward Thomas, home with his family, is also writing on Christmas. It’s another poem, now known as “An Old Song I,” (a second “Old Song” will arrive tomorrow) and it appears to be a simple thing, another exercise in finding his own voice through his gentle mastery of old folk idioms, in this case the rural ballad tradition. There is a repeated refrain of “delight of a shiny night in the season of the year,” and at first it’s as if he’s written a new Christmas standard. But the rural singer voicing the six-stanza song swiftly proves to be very much Thomas himself:

I took those walks years after, talking with friend or dear,/ Or solitary musing; but when the moon shone clear/

I had no joy or sorrow that could not be expressed…

Since then I’ve thrown away the chance to fight a gamekeeper;/ And I less often trespass, and what I see or hear/ Is mostly fro the road or path by day: yet still I sing…

A gentle thought. But even on Christmas, even in the midst of another celebration of the English rural poetic tradition, Edward Thomas’s failure to fight–or, really, his failure to fruitlessly brawl–is eating at him.


Thomas Hardy minces fewer words in reflecting to a clergyman friend on the challenge posed to the conscious conscience during a wartime Christmas:

Max Gate | 25 Dec. 1914

We go to London occasionally on brief visits, but do not care about it in the winter, particularly now that it is so dark there. Dorchester is more or less full of soldiers & German prisoners, & I suppose this sort of thing will go on for a long time yet, for I see no prospect of any conclusion to the war.

A newspaper editor asked me to send him a Christmas greeting for his readers, & I told him the puzzle was too hard for me, seeing that present times are an absolute negation of Christianity…

Sincerely yours,

Thomas Hardy[12]


Time, then, to return to the front. I want the Nursing Sister to have the last word;–she is beginning to seem to be something like a star to steer by, a steady median: not in combat, but seeing its worst on a daily basis; conventional yet not entirely sentimental; a sharp observer who keeps her self at arm’s reach from all interpretive challenge even though no one is more literally in touch with the horror of war.

But first, a great deal of Henry Williamson, who experienced the truce, and then extensively re-wrote it in his later novel, A Fox Under My Cloak.

Princess Mary's Christmas Card, WilliamsonDec 26 1914 Trenches

Dear Mother, I am writing from the trenches. It is 11 o’clock in the morning. Beside me is a coke fire, opposite me a ‘dug-out’ (wet) with straw in it. The ground is sloppy in the actual trench, but frozen elsewhere. In my mouth is a pipe presented by Princess Mary. In this pope is tobacco. Of course, you say. But wait. In the pipe is German tobacco. Of course, you say, from a prisoner or found in a captured trench. Oh, dear, no! From a German soldier. Yes a live German soldier from his own trench. Yesterday the British & Germans met & shook hands in the Ground between the trenches, & exchanged souvenirs, & shook hands.

This is Henry in his manic mode, writing high and fast, getting a bit too far ahead, repeating himself. He may seem to be showing an unusual sustenance-of-mood–he’s writing tomorrow, a century back, and yet still breathlessly excited. But the event continues:

Williamson relics-matchbox, Mary's gift, tobacco

Henry Williamson’s Christmas 1914 Relics: Princess Mary’s Gift Box, with tobacco and matches (A. Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War)

Yes, all day Xmas day, & as I write [i.e. on Boxing Day too]. Marvellous, isn’t it? Yes. This is only for about a mile or two on either side of us (so far as we know). It happened thiswise. On Xmas eve both armies sang carols and cheered & there was very little firing. The Germans… called to our men to come & fetch a cigar & our men told them to come to us. This went on for some time, neither fully trusting the other, until, after much promising to ‘play the game’ a bold Tommy crept out & stood between the trenches, & immediately a Saxon came to meet him. They shook hands & laughed and then 16 Germans came out. Thus the ice was broken. They are landsturmers or landwehr [i.e. militias] I think, & Saxons & Bavarians (no Prussians). Many are gentle looking men in goatee beards & spectacles, and some are very big and arrogant looking… We had a burial service in the afternoon…[13]

So a good time was had by all. Williamson is all exuberance, here, but his Christmas in No Man’s Land seems to have thrown its symbolic weight around his mind for years. It wasn’t so much that the hopeful message he took from the truce curdled with the continuation of the war–in fact almost the opposite.

It wasn’t the aberration of the truce that he continued to remember as much as its fundamental humanity, its appropriateness. War was the aberration. “Christmas” was an idea to try out in its new trench warfare context, but then it was over. Yet Williamson seemed unable to take the idea of “the brotherhood of man,”–or, more to the point, of the essential fellowship of German and English front-line fighters–and collapse it again, stow it away for the duration.

So to the novel. Williamson takes many liberties in writing Phillip Maddison’s Christmas Eve, adding in details of other truce accounts and inventing new events to give Maddison a more thoroughly symbolic experience.

For starters, Maddison is sent out into No Man’s Land on Christmas Eve night with a working party trying to stealthily reinforce a threatened position. Lying out on the frozen, torn earth in one of the curious goat-skin coats, under a dangerously bright moon, the men of the “London Highlanders” gradually realized that they will not be fired upon, even though they are improving their defenses. Then

from the German parapet a rich baritone voice had begun to sing a song Phillip remembered from his nurse Minny singing it to him. Stille Nacht! Heilige Nacht–Tranquil Night! Holy Night!

The grave and tender voice rose out of the frosty mist; it was all so strange; it was like being in another world, to which he had come through a nightmare; a world finer than the one he had left behind, except for beautiful things like music, and springtime on his bicycle in the county.

A bicycle ride is, believe it or not, on the agenda for Phillip’s dream Christmas. But first, in the early morning hours, with all military discipline apparently in abeyance, he wanders into a temporary cemetery behind the lines, a clearing “which seemed almost of a fairy world, until he saw wooden crosses in rows. There was not a sound, as he stood there. It was as though all the soldiers had gone, except the dead.”

Williamson is really in fine form here, using the quirks of the man-child he has developed over several novels–his propensity for strolling reveries at any time, his awkwardness–in concert with the strange but historical fact that this uniquely non-violent day offered strange license to explore the new topography of war. Nor does Williamson the novelist shrug off his commitment to realism, just because the day was really like a dream: Phillip is stricken (as Henry apparently was, although he was too fastidious to put it into his letters) with a gastrointestinal complaint, and runs off now to squat painfully in a shell-crater.

On Christmas morning, the symbolic or expansive continues to mix with the historical. Phillip first explores a shell-damaged chateau, pondering the unburied bodies of several Germans, wondering about who they had been in life, whether they might have had friends, fears, etc. Heavy handed moral preparation, no?

The waking dream continues–the roman fleuve style of Williamson’s Chronicle is nowhere better suited to military history–and Phillip is soon trading smokes with Germans and chatting up a former London hotel waiter (both common occurrences, a century back).

But when Phillip witnesses a joint burial service, he doesn’t think of the honorableness of it, or feel the pleasure of a religious rite restored, or think of the families of the men whose identity disks are being retrieved, their fate now certified. He thinks of the humanity of the dead and soon comes to ponder the odd German claim that their men are heroes fighting the good fight.

A soccer game starts up between the lines, and Williamson again pivots his fictional creation away from the historical reality (although as noted above, there were probably no formal football games in No Man’s Land–yet stories about such things grew in the telling and pervaded the folk history of the truce). Phillip, the loner, decides that if a soccer game is acceptable, so will a solo bicycle ride be. Peddling off, he is carried away with the excitement of freewheeling freedom:

What a wonderful adventure it was! The whole thing was a miracle!

How the people at home would be utterly astonished, when they heard that the Germans were not just brutes, as hitherto everyone had imagined!

And then, of course, as with most of Phillip Maddison’s bouts of enthusiasm, he goes too far. In this case, literally. Here, again, fiction “improves” on history: Phillip accidentally turns north and east and rides straight toward the German outposts. He suddenly realizes that whatever truce held back where he began, here he might be shot as a spy (or madman). For once his enthusiasm carries the day, and as he shouts greetings in broken German, the sentries hold their fire.

The ride continues, behind the German first lines, and over the terrain near Messines and Wulverghem which had been the scene of the dreadful battle on Halloween. The impetuous, awkward boy is behaving ridiculously, dangerously, but he’s also, in a sense, rising to the moment.

Soon he realizes that he is not far from where his cousin’s battalion is stationed. Cousin Willy is in the London Rifles–a fictional cousin for a fictional protagonist, but serving in a real battalion, Henry Williamson’s battalion.

If Phillip’s long ride is a bit over the top, it’s in service of a remarkable little juxtaposition of history and fiction. Cleverly, unsettlingly, Williamson uses the real truce to cross a few miles of Belgium and bend fiction back into a confrontation with history. He brings the fictional alter-ego, by means of a surreal bike ride through the intervening Germans, to his own location near Ploegsteert Wood. He was there, and perhaps, if he were a pioneer of meta-fictional gamesmanship instead of a belated nineteenth century novelist, he might have confronted himself. Instead, he produces Phillip’s Cousin Willy to take his own place (literally his own physical location on that morning) and to carry on a sort of doubly-masked inner dialogue:

Willie was full of the strangeness of the Christmas Day.

“I’ve been talking to a Saxon, Phil, all night. We went out to the wire, at the exact same time. It’s most extraordinary, but the Germans think exactly about the war as we do! They can’t lose, they say, because God is on their side. And they say they are fighting for civilisation, just as we are! Surely, if all the Germans and all the English knew this, at home, then his ghastly war would end! If we started to walk back, and they did, too, it would be over!”

“I wish it were as easy as that, Willie.”

“But it is true, Phillip!”

“It would be a miracle if it could happen.”

“But this is a miracle now, Phil! Look, ‘For Fatherland and Freedom’! Isn’t that just the same as our side’s ‘For God, King, and Country’… Why then, when everyone wants it to stop, should it have to go on?

But here, later history intrudes. It’s against the rules for me to discuss the future, and Willie and Phil’s lengthy discussion of German and British Brotherhood, of war guilt and atrocity and the role of the press, is not really a 1914 conversation. It has too much of the quandaries of later, darker Christmastides. And the opinions the author mouths are not, to say the least, in accord with the current historical consensus. Axes that are now only gleaming lumps in the mind of the weaponsmith will later need much grinding…  better to end the real/fictional truce with observation instead of second-hand politicking:

The talk had taken place under the broken crucifix at the cross-roads of Le Gheer, about a hundred yards behind the British front line… German dead lay in the first cottage… one whiff was enough. Outside in the flooded ditch, just under the ice, lay a British soldier, on his back, his blue eyes open as though staring at the sky, arms extended, fingers spread. A look of terror was still visible through the ice.[14]


Lastly, the Nursing Sister:

7 P.M.–Loaded up at Merville and now on the way back; not many badly wounded but a great many minor medicals, crocked up, nothing much to be done for them. We may have to fill up at Hazebrouck, which will interrupt the very festive Xmas dinner the French Staff are getting ready for us. It takes a man, French or British, to take decorating really seriously. The orderlies have done wonders with theirs. Aeroplanes done in cotton-wool on brown blankets is one feature. This lot of patients had Xmas dinner in their Clearing Hospitals to-day, and the King’s Xmas card, and they will get Princess Mary’s present. Here they finished up D.’s Xmas cards and had oranges and bananas, and hot chicken broth directly they got in.

12 Midnight.–Still on the road. We had a very festive Xmas dinner, going to the wards which were in charge of nursing orderlies between the courses. Soup, turkey, peas, mince pie, plum pudding, chocolate, champagne, absinthe, and coffee. Absinthe is delicious, like squills. We had many toasts in French and English. The King, the President, Absent Friends, Soldiers and Sailors, and I had the Blessés [wounded] and the Malades [sick]. We got up and clinked glasses with the French Staff at every toast, and finally the little chef came in and sang to us in a very sweet musical tenor. Our great anxiety is to get as many orderlies and N.C.O.’s as possible through the day without being run in for drunk, but it is an uphill job; I don’t know where they get it.[15]



References and Footnotes

  1. Hastings, Catastrophe, 556-8.
  2. Richards, Old Soldiers Never Die, 65-7.
  3. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 101-2.
  4. Kipling, The Irish Guards, I, 70.
  5. Norman, ed., Armageddon Road, 96-7.
  6. Lady Under Fire, 40-1.
  7. Atkinson, Elsie and Mairi Go to War, 77.
  8. Buchan, Francis and Riversdale Grenfell, 223-4.
  9. Violet Asquith is the Prime Minister's daughter, and the sister of one of Brooke's new friend's and fellow-subalterns.
  10. The Letters of Rupert Brooke, 645-6.
  11. Jones, Rupert Brooke, 398.
  12. The letters of Thomas Hardy, V, 71-72.
  13. A. Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 46-7.
  14. Williamson, A Fox Under My Cloak, 36-60.
  15. Diary of a Nursing Sister, available here.

Vera Brittain Makes Some Friends; The Royal Welch Dispute the Record; Billy Congreve Dines on Pork

Busy with her studies and the all-consuming social drama of “fresher” life, Vera Brittain’s diary entries have lately been short and focused on Somerville College. But there is still a little room for the war:

Sunday November 15th

Very sad news greeted us this morning in the death of our dear old Lord Roberts in France. Although he was 83 he wanted to inspect the Indian troops & had been abroad about a week. It seems so tragic that he has not lived to see how England, to which his whole life was devoted, will emerge from the struggle in which she is now engaged…

A jarring use of the conventional “tragic” to describe the death from illness of an octogenarian Commander-in-Chief. As for the potentially “tragic,” he did live long enough, you may remember, to pull the strings that got myopic boy Jack Kipling into the army.

And back to Oxford:

I have advanced quite far — for me — to-day in the direction of familiarity with people; I now call two individuals by their Christian names — Miss Wood, who is Katharine, & Miss Wadham, who is Dorothy.[1]


Julian Grenfell’s letters home are getting, if possible, even more boyish. Yet he is a well-bred boy, and knows how to say “thank you.”

In a house!! Nov 15 1914

I’ve made a list of all the things that have arrived, as far as I can remember them–and of the things I want. You don’t know how wonderful the whiskey was–in this cold. If you could have seen the look on the faces of “B” Sqdn mess when I said I had got some, you would feel as 10:1 compared with the Good Samaritan.

Well, that’s an odd way of putting it. Presumably Lady Desborough often gives the Good Samaritan long odds against herself. Grenfell continues the accounting with the woolens-and-smokeables department, and then describes life on the line in the cold dawn of static trench warfare.

It’s our first morning of snow today. It’s been raining a lot lately, and the roads and fields and even the insides of the houses are two inches deep in slush; while the trenches of course are just muck-pits. We’ve been doing all shelled trench work lately, and it’s horrible. You just lie there, hunched up; and all day long the shells burst–just outside the trench, if you’re lucky, and just inside, if you’re unlucky. Anyhow the noise is appalling, and one’s head is rocking with it by the end of the day…[2]


Today, too, the Royal Welch were at long last relieved,  “and reached billets at Sailly-sur-la-Lys,” finishing a stretch of stubborn resistance in the primitive trenches around La Cordonnerie that was looked back upon by its survivors “with a pride and awe no other name calls up.”

But Dr. Dunn and his informants have a bone to pick with the Official History, which informs its readers that one of the four brigades of the 6th Division had, during this time, always been at rest, implying a regular rotation that spared men the constant rigors the trenches:”That gives a wrong impression.” “The 19th Brigade”–of which the 2nd Royal Welch was a part–“was never relieved between October 19th… and November 14th.”

And then there were the Official History’s maps, which show a slight withdrawal of the lines over a similar period.

That is an error. The Battalion handed over to its relief the trenches it dug on October 22nd; not even one of its sections had been dislodged or withdrawn in that interval.

At the end of the “The Race for the Sea” the Germans held the advantage of ground all along the line, not only as a tactical position but as habitable ground. Both sides were physically exhausted, and they had scarcely a shot left in their artillery limbers. For a few months there was fairly general quiet while they recuperated, made up their depleted supplies, and laboured to make the trenches habitable. [3]

Tenaciously holding ground of dubious strategic value has long been overvalued by military minds great and small. We will see the criminal waste of holding onto disadvantageous lines from sheer stubbornness or the belief that suffering greater attrition is better than suffering the moral blow of voluntary withdrawal in the face of the enemy. We will see a lot of it.

This is something different–regimental pride. It’s not the duty of the Royal Welch, from bandsman up to CO, to worry about whether they would be better out of the Salient. And this is not a war of mobility, where the destruction of the enemy can be achieved by the clever operational use of ground. Their job was to hang on, and hang on they did–and damn the historian who says otherwise.


Reminiscent of the Royal Welch in lighter moments is this short tale from Billy Congreve:

Today (15th)

Our house was simply rained on by shrapnel… Goodness knows how it escaped. Wonderful tor elate that nobody was even hit, except two pigs who were killed two yards outside the back doors. It was an ill wind, for we have had splendid pork chops ever since–shrapnel-killed pork! Quite a new diet![4]


References and Footnotes

  1. Chronicle of Youth, 125.
  2. Julian Grenfell, Soldier and Poet, 241.
  3. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 94.
  4. Armageddon Road, 83.

A Four-Legged Fusilier is Hit (No, Not the Regimental Goat)

The Royal Welch Fusiliers, who had been living on cold rations for days, faced a further diminution in their food supply today, a century back.

November 8th–The heavy shelling was resumed, but only one man was wounded. Stockwell’s cow was killed–‘damned nuisance.'[1]

Good battalion diary humor. But we’d prefer an old soldier’s yarn, no?

One morning the officers were about to have breakfast… One of the officers’ servants, whose duty it was to milk the cow so that the officers could have milk in their tea, reported that the cow had broken loose and that they would have to do without milk that morning. Buffalo Bill jumped to his feet, revolved out, and roared at the man: “My God, you’ll catch that cow and milk her or I’ll blow your ruddy brains out!” The cow was grazing about twenty yards away where there was a dip in the ground. The man ran after her, the cow ran up the slope in the rear, the man following; if they kept on they would soon be in full view of the enemy. Buffalo Bill saw the danger the man would soon be in. He shouted: “Come back, you ruddy fool, and never mind the cow!” The man evidently did not hear him, but kept on. One or two bullets hit up the dirt around him. The enemy had been sending over a few light shells that morning, and now they sent over one or two more. One burst quite close to the cow. The cow got killed and the man received a nice wound in the leg which took him back to Blighty. I expect when he got home he blessed Buffalo Bill, also the cow and the German who shot him…[2]

See: keystone cop-ish antics, threatening officers, dead cows, and–happy ending–blighty wounds. War’s a picnic!

“Blighty,” I should explain for the uninitiated, is the single most essential piece of Great War soldier’s slang. Like much surviving pre-war slang it derives from the army’s Indian experience.” Blighty” is mangled Hindi for “home,” and during the war it came to signify not just Britain itself but any wound severe enough to require evacuation all the way thither. As the war went on, this sort of wound became a more and more desirable thing. Small flesh wounds and chronic problems would be treated at a base hospital in France, and you would be quickly sent back to the line–no good. A man might still hope to survive the war, and to do so without being maimed. But there were precious few other ways to escape the drudgery, hardship, danger, and more or less inevitable psychological deterioration of life in the trenches–officers got somewhat regular leave but enlisted men very little, even in calmer periods than this.

Richards acknowledges that this is a well-known phenomenon of the later periods of the war, but asserts that even then the troops–old soldiers all–recognized a nice medium-sized flesh wound as a piece of luck.


References and Footnotes

  1. Dunn, The War The Infantry Knew, 91.
  2. Old Soldiers Never Die, 49-50.

Frank Richards and the Royal Welch Face a Night Assault; John Lucy and the Royal Irish Face Their Losses

The 29th October, 1914, was a miserable rainy day. one young soldier remarked that he did not believe anyone was in support or reserve to us. But Duffy said “What the hell does it matter about supports or reserves? We have plenty of small-arm ammunition, and as long as our rifles hold out we can stop any attack, especially if they make it during the day.”

Frank Richards knows his foreshadowing, at least at point-blank range. He tells us that, overnight, a party of engineers had set up a barbed wire obstacle in front of their trench: a single strand.

The Old Soldier of the platoon remarked that the British government must be terribly hard up, what with short rations, no rifle-oil, no shells, and now sending Engineers up to the front line to stretch one single bloody strand of barbed wire out, which he had no doubt was the only single bloody strand in the whole of France, and which a bloody giraffe could rise up and walk under. It was enough to make good soldiers weep tears of blood…

Well, it was still raining on the night of the 19th when heavy rifle-fire broke out on the extreme right of our front. At the same time out listening-post [men stationed at the end of a sap driven forward from the firing trench into no man’s land] sent back to say that the enemy was getting out of their trenches… and presently we could see dim forms in front of us. Then our right platoon opened out with rapid fire. We opened out with rapid fire too.

One of the most useful aspects of Richards’ narrative is that he gives us this staggered, staccato sense of combat–the experience of battle as it was waged on the platoon level. With Lucy at Neuve Chapelle we had the overwhelming immediacy of battle and the man-by-man, section-level narrative of fear and trembling in a single fire-bay. Richards enjoys his sang-froid, and, a proper old soldier himself, gives us instead unfolding small-unit tactics.

We were firing as fast as we could pull the trigger: no man can take a sight in the dark so we were firing directly in front of us. One of our eighteen-pounders fired a star shell which enabled us to see the enemy dropping down on their stomachs. Five or six ordinary shells were fired too, and one of them set fire to the straw-rick on our right front which was soon burning merrily. The enemy in front of us were held up for the time being, so we opened fire on our right front where we could see some more of them quite clearly by the light of the burning rick…

One of our chaps, in turning to get another bandolier of ammunition out of the box, noticed three men coming towards our trench from the back. “Halt! Hands up! Who are you?” he challenged. We turned around, We knew it was quite possible for some of the enemy to have got through the gap between us and our left platoon and come around the back of us. Instead of answering the challenge two of the men dropped on their stomachs and the other mumbled something which we did not understand. Two men opened fire on him and he dropped; then one of the men on the ground shouted: “You bloody fools! We’re artillery signallers and you’ve shot our officer.”

…He was the young officer who used to visit us: one bullet had gone through his jaw and the other through his right side. The two men carried him back and we all hoped that he would recover from his wounds; but we never heard any more news of him.[1]

The men of Richards’ company kept firing all night, as the German attackers continued to move on their front. One by one their rifles–over-heated, inadequately oiled, and now picking up mud and grit from where they were rested on the dirt parapet to aim and fire–jammed. Tomorrow’s dawn will bring a renewed attack…


Francis Grenfell, too, will soon be seeing serious action:

On the 29th the 9th Lancers were back at Neuve Eglise, behind the Messines position. That experience gave Francis his first notion of the real seriousness of the German attack. Before, he had been confident, and had credited every optimistic rumour ; now he saw that the enemy was indeed flinging the dice for victory, and that the scanty British forces were faced with preposterous odds. On 29th October, as we know, began the critical stage of the First Battle of Ypres. The chief danger points were at the apex of the salient around Gheluvelt and on its southern flank about Zillebeke. But there was also an attack at the southern re-entrant, and heavy fighting along the whole Messines Ridge.[2]


From two units about to be tested to one that has been tested and persevered–and nearly been destroyed in the process:

Our little party moved back to La Couture on 29th October, arriving there in twilight: La Couture where this grim battle of La Bassée has begun seventeen days ago, or was it seventeen years? The battalion transport and riderless chargers, large out of all proportion to our numbers, came behind us. We looked more like its escort than its established unit of one battalion.

On one cart a bundle of swords testified to our missing officers, and to the uselessness of a form of weapon already out of date.

John Lucy will struggle to rally a bit from this sombre state. Tonight there will mild comic tales of their billets behind the lines–smothering feather beds and cross-dressing with stolen civilian underclothing–and an effort to signal to his readers that, if the battalion could have gone on in the same manner as it always had, despite its losses, so too would his narrative. But, as he will report in a few days’ time, it can’t.

References and Footnotes

  1. Old Soldiers Never Die, 44-46.
  2. Buchan, Francis and Riversdale Grenfell, 215.