Siegfried Sassoon is Signed and Sealed; Duff Cooper is Beside Himself; The Irish Guards in a Doll House Garden

Topographical models are becoming something of a theme, as well as an irresistible literary device. They might stand for the increasing professionalism and preparation of the British staff, or–just as well–for the monstrously perverse allocation of time and skill that this war of attrition has demanded: pilots, photographers, surveyors, cartographers, and skilled artisans and artists devote themselves to producing detailed simulacra so that they next costly and non-war-winning assault can be rehearsed in precise detail.

But will the models actually help? We seen some of our officers ratifying the idea, and others doubting it. And how about Rudyard Kipling‘s Irish chorus?

His Majesty the King came on the 6th July to watch a brigade attack in the new formation. It was a perfect success, but the next week saw them sweated through it again and again in every detail, till “as far as the Battalion was concerned the drill of the attack was reduced almost to perfection.” In their rare leisure came conferences, map- and aeroplane-study, and, most vital of all, “explaining things to the N.C.O.’s and men.” They wound up with a model of a foot to a hundred yards, giving all the features in the Battalion’s battle area. The men naturally under-
stood this better than a map, but it was too small. (“‘Twas like a doll’s-house garden, and it looked you would be across and over it all in five minutes. But we was not! We was not!”)[1]

The follow-up question would be, then, whether the models helped less by making the visualization of tactical detail possible than by increasing confidence. But every false inflation of morale is a double or nothing gamble…


Duff Cooper, meanwhile, remains mired in misery.

July 6, 1917

…This morning I had a telegram from Diana saying ‘Be brave darling, already I feel derelict’. I had indeed need of her exhortation. Never have I felt so miserable as this morning… There were really moments when I could have cried. The strangeness, roughness, and degradation of it all appalled me. I wrote to Diana and told her how unhappy I was. The worst of all was to think that these lovely summer months which I ought to be spending with her are being wasted.[2]

Now that does sound horrifically spoiled, privileged… even weak. Which is to say that I am grateful for the publication of diaries (intrusive? perhaps, but remember how Duff behaved with Diana’s diary!) as an antidote to too many well-managed memoirs. This is how he felt, privately–and precisely today–a century back. It’s something quite close to emotional history…

So let Duff write exultantly of sexual farces at house parties, idealistically about love, frankly about the allure of war, and despondently about the lumpy beds and sad loneliness of training camp… it will be interesting reading.


Lastly, today, the continuing story of Siegfried Sassoon. There is no diary entry today–in fact he will be abandoning his diary for some time. Which is, frankly, quite a blow. We will now have no way of keeping tabs on him except through the letters of his many friends, the letters of the new friends he will shortly make, the letters of his literary frenemies, the memoirs of his many friends, his doctor’s notes, his several appearances in major newspapers and journals, an insightful later novel, his own memoir, and his other memoir.

But I digest.

Sassoon did write something in his diary today, a century back: he copied into it a letter that he has just posted.

If it has been a meandering journey from decorated officer to military rebel, this, today, was much the most firm of several hesitantly fateful recent steps.

Copy of letter to the C.O of the Third R.W.F. Sent off July 6th.

I am writing you this private letter with the greatest possible regret. I must inform you that it is my intention to refuse to perform any further military duties. I am doing this as a protest against the policy of the Government in prolonging the War by failing to state their conditions of peace.

I have written a statement of my reasons, of which I enclose a copy. This statement is being circulated. I would have spared you this unpleasantness had it been possible.

My only desire is to make things as easy as possible for you in dealing with my case, I will come to Litherland immediately I hear from you, if that is your wish.

I am fully aware of what I am letting myself in for.[3]

There are several unlikely statements in that letter–but the last sentence stands out among them in its naiveté.

Sassoon will now also begin informing his eminent friends, but not as swiftly, and not all at once…


References and Footnotes

  1. Kipling, the Irish Guards in the Great War, II, 129.
  2. Diaries, 55.
  3. Diaries, 177.

Scott Moncrieff Returns to London; Alfred Hale Endures Parental Bluster; Wyn Griffith in Red Tabs with Royalty; Vera Brittain on “The Profound Freemasonry” of Those Dead Beyond the Gulf

Today, a century back, we have rather a potpourri of four updates–and none are from the trenches.

First, we witness Charles Scott Moncrieff, now back in London, returning to a familiar literary orbit.

14th June

. . . Broadway (a brother officer here) is very good and faithful to me. He comes down after breakfast in a dressing gown and again (for messages) before he goes out. He has got me this writing pad. Colin came this afternoon and brought a great armful of roses. . . . My friend Robert Ross was in before Colin—fresh from a week-end with the Asquiths—and gave me a novel and a promise of all the latest poetry and other books. I was glad to see him as I wanted an expert’s eye cast on the portraits in this room. . . . I expect a good many brother officers this week. Broadway finds them. He is more obliging than words can say. This place is doing me a lot of good and I feel better already. Our surgeon is like the young villain in Hardy’s Laodicean—he looks about 14 but is very able…[1]

Reading Hardy, depending on Ross’s taste, Asquiths at arm’s reach… and, though he doesn’t mention it in this letter, he is also being regularly visited by Ronald Knox. It’s a small world… which I believe I’ve noted before.


While Moncrieff is returning from the war seriously wounded, Alfred Hale is slowly headed toward France. So slowly that he is still in the adjusting-to-training-camp stage. And it turns out that even our Old Man of the Air Force has parents. Hale may live a solitary life of privilege–before conscription that is–and see camp as an ordeal rather than an adventure, but he’s only 41… and he still has parents who write him their worries, reminding us that the generational gulf is, in terms of years on this earth, relative, and not absolute…

14 June: A letter from my father. A cousin had come to see him on Draft leave. He seemed to be bored with the War, especially with the prospect of death before his time from bullets or exposure… all of which surprised and shocked my father. ‘It didn’t matter how long the War lasted, but we must have a military victory at all costs’. (This last the burden of all letters from home)…

Hale senior also tells his son that at least his work as a batman is “setting free an abler man.” But Hale isn’t so sure. “Was I really doing that? Unfortunately, I much doubted it…” Nor is Hale accepting the idea that his music “must gain” from experience. He is fairly certain, in fact, that innocence of certain things is highly preferable…[2]


Llewelyn Wyn Griffith has recovered, to some extent, from the overwhelming disillusionment and horror at the murderousness of war that he felt after the death of his brother. Or perhaps he has just become more practical… and honest in his balance of emotional reaction and natural self-interest. In any event, he was very happy to be reassigned to the divisional staff a few days ago, replacing a wounded officer in an intelligence job running “an advanced information centre.” Griffith puts on his red tabs “with delight… I felt proud and important in red. Besides, I would be drawing pay at the rate of £400 a year, a tremendous jump for me.” And today, a century back, his elevated status put him in the way of royalty:

… the King and the Prince of Wales visited the headquarters on 14 June. The King shook hands with all the senior members of the corps and divisional staffs…[3]


A wounded young man of letters returning to the literary world, a middle-aged musician learning further humiliations, and a one-time trench fighter content to be on the staff. The war brings many changes–until the changes stop.

Vera Brittain comes to the end of the road, today, with Victor Richardson.

Five days after [his death] Victor was buried at Hove. No place on earth could have been more ironically inappropriate for a military funeral than that secure, residential town, I reflected, as I listened with rebellious anger to the calm voice of the local clergyman intoning the prayers: “Grant, we beseech Thee, O Lord, Thine Eternal Rest to all those who have died for their country…”

Eternal Rest, I reflected, had been the last thing that Victor wanted; he had told me so himself. But if, thus prematurely, he had to take it, how much I wished that fate had allowed him to lie, with other winners of the Military Cross, in one of the simple graveyards of France. I felt relieved, as I listened to the plaintive sobbing of the “Last Post” rising incongruously from amid the conventional civilian tombstones, that Edward had not been able to come to the funeral. The uncomprehending remoteness of England from the tragic, profound freemasonry of those who accepted death together overseas would have intensified beyond endurance the incommunicable grief which had thrust us apart.

But when, back in Kensington, I re-read the letter that he had written in reply to mine telling him of Victor’s death, I knew that he had never really changed towards me, and that each of us represented to the other such consolation as the future still held.

Vera then gives her brother the final words of the present chapter of her memoir, ending Edward’s fervent assurance of true brotherly love

I suppose it is better to have had such splendid friends as those three were rather than not to have had any particular friends at all, but yet, now that all are gone, it seems that whatever was of value in life has all tumbled down like a house of cards. Yet in Tah’s case I will not, I cannot say that I wished from the bottom of my heart that he should live…

Yes, I do say ‘Thank God he didn’t have to live it.’ We started alone, dear child, and here we are alone again… But we share a memory which is worth all the rest of the world, and the sun of that memory never sets. And you know that I love you, that I would do anything in the world in my power if you should ask it, and that I am your servant as well as your brother.



References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 135-6.
  2. The Ordeal of Alfred Hale, 95.
  3. Up to Mametz and Beyond, 153.
  4. Testament of Youth, 359-61.

Siegfried Sassoon a Country Wanderer Once More; Wilfred Owen’s Faith Shifts: Christ is Literally in No Man’s Land; John Buchan in the Halls of the Great; Ralph Hamilton is Reassigned

Is the once and future thriller-writer Lt. Col. John Buchan taking to his role as head of the Information Office? He is. In France in April to win the acquiescence of Haig in his propaganda efforts, he is now working hand in glove with even more august personages.

16 May 1917. I was working till all hours yesterday. I had to go to the Palace this morning, for I have a shocking amount to do with Royalties these days. Then I had the War Cabinet in the afternoon and a long time with the Prime Minister; and after that correspondents and secret-service agents till all hours.[1]


Siegfried Sassoon remains ensconced in the charming, subtly galling precincts of Chapelwood Manor, Sussex. It’s the precincts that charm, however, and the priestess who galls–so today’s entry, heavy on countryside and light on human interaction, is a happy one.

May 16

For a while I am shaking off the furies that pursued me. I am an Orestes freed from the tyranny of doom. The War is a vague trouble that one reads about in the morning paper. The communiqués are almost insignificant. I no longer visualise the torment and wretchedness there.

The world is just a leafy labyrinth with clouds floating above the silence of vivid green woods and clean meadows bright with cowslips and purple orchis. My thoughts have the voices of the tiny brook that runs along the woodland, slipping and twisting over mossy stones, and bubbling out into a rushy field to gurgle merrily in its narrow bubbling channel.

I am a country wanderer once more—climbing gates and staring through tangled hedges at the mossy boughs of apple-trees laden with blossom, while the sun comes out after a passing shower. I roam the narrow lanes, light-hearted as a lambkin, emotionless as a wise gander. I desire nothing more than to stop and discuss.the weather with an old gaffer mending the gaps in a hedgerow. I could almost praise the Apostles Creed to the village parson if I chanced to meet him in the road, or saw him leaning over his garden gate as I passed. And the Sunsets are
yellow and serene—never dyed with crimson or hung with banners of war.[2]

This is too much, and Sassoon realizes it, of course. Hence the tongue-in-cheek gamboling: it’s so overdone that it becomes unsettling, as if some sort of overdecorated 18th century French baroque painting is being foisted onto unassuming, blooming Sussex. The landscape might pass with unaffected appreciation, but all these sun-drenched rosy-cheeked swains on swings, paradoxically, seem to remind us of the absent war, and the invisible, mud-caked, sallow-cheeked subalterns.

And this encounter with a wise old gaffer during a ruminative walk in the English countryside… it’s exactly like something Edward Thomas would write about. And yet nothing about the way it is written is anything like Thomas… Sassoon laughs, but bitterly, and he writes his country walk at a sharp angle…


This undated letter of Wilfred Owen‘s was probably written today–and if he seems confused, it is the fault of the bureaucracy: the 13th Casualty Clearing Station seems to have been reorganized around him, and shortly he will be in the same bed, but in a new Stationary Hospital… And yet perhaps he would be grateful for the metaphor: as he will explain in the letter, he has not altered in his Christian faith, but he feels the bureaucracy of his belief system shifting around him…

My own dear Mother,

Just had yours of Sat. Evening and was astonished to apprehend that the Great Shadow is creeping on towards Colin. What will he be next birthday, seventeen?

I wrote him a wholesome bit of realism in that last letter, as well as a fantasy in the language of the Auth: Ver: of 1611. I have changed my mind and see no reason why you should not have that letter and that fantasia…

I did it without any reference to the Book, of course; and without any more detraction from reverence, than, say, is the case when a bishop uses modem slang to relate a biblical story. I simply employed seventeenth century English, and was carried away with it.

Incidentally, I think the big number of texts which jogged up in my mind in half-an-hour bears witness to a goodly store of them in my being. It is indeed so; and I am more and more Christian as I walk the unchristian ways of Christendom. Already I have comprehended a light which never will filter into the dogma of any national church: namely that one of Christ’s essential commands was: Passivity at any price! Suffer dishonour and disgrace; but never resort to arms. Be bullied, be outraged, be killed; but do not kill. It may be a chimerical and an ignominious principle, but there it is. It can only be ignored: and I think pulpit professionals are ignoring it very skilfully and successfully indeed.

The letter rambles on into some stern criticism of institutional religion, both high church and evangelical. At first this reads rather as if Wilfred is concerned mainly to allay an sense of gross impiety that the letter to Colin may have imparted. He is not messing around with the Bible, he implies, but, rather, thinking seriously about how its precepts might apply. He is working up to a religious argument that rests on his own authority, as well:

Christ is literally in no man’s land. There men often hear His voice: Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life—for a friend.

Is it spoken in English only and French?

I do not believe so.

Thus you see how pure Christianity will not fit in with pure patriotism. I am glad you sent that cutting from Wells’ Book.

This would be The Soul of a Bishop, just out.[3]

I hope you understood it. I did not. Not a word of it can I make sense of. I would rather we did not read this Book. Now The Passionate Friends I found astounding in its realism but like all the great terrible books it is impossible to take sides. It is not meant to be a comfortable book; it is discussional; it refuses to ignore the unpleasant.

(This practice of selective ignorance is, as I have pointed out, one cause of the War. Christians have deliberately cut some of the main teachings of their code.)

Just as I was going to speculate that Owen is trying to disguise the reasonably radical (if logically irrefutable) opinion that pure patriotism and pure Christianity are incompatible by moving on to discuss secular literature, Own returns to his criticism. He blithely tacks away again into a discussion of his other reading material, but the point is made, and I do not think that his mother would consider it a light one, especially because it rests on that new source of authority: clergymen fulminating at home against the Germans do not understand what Christ might be like in the trenches, but Owen does. The experiential gulf has theological implications, now…

At present I am deep in a marvellous work of Hugo’s The Laughing Man. By the same post as your letter came two books from Leslie by O. Henry.

So I am well set up.

I am marked for the next Evacuation!!

…Many thanks for Punch, Yes Colin has been very good in writing to me. Keep him up to it. It will do him good, don’t-you-know! And as for me: they bring me Shropshire, even as yours bring me Home.

Expect me—before Christmas.

Your—one and only—Wilfred x[4]


Finally, a brief update on Ralph Hamilton, the Master of Belhaven. Hamilton began work today, a century back, in command of a new battery, part of the 106th Brigade, near Cassel. The transfer, he believes, is because he will shortly be promoted to command a brigade. The journey over the last two days was quite arduous, owing both to confusion about the location of the units and sub-standard railway porting–“I have got a lot of stuff… Bath and I… had to carry it ourselves”–but Hamilton made use of the day to get to know his new subordinates. The next task, of course, will be to announce his presence with authority…[5]


References and Footnotes

  1. Smith, John Buchan, 204.
  2. Diaries, 167.
  3. In two days' time, Patrick Shaw Stewart will mention to Ronald Knox, future clergyman and popular writer, that "[b]y the way, I have of course ordered [Wells's] new book about God, and we shall probably disagree violently about it.’ Knox, Patrick Shaw Stewart, 197.
  4. Collected Letters, 460-2.
  5. War Diary, 285-6.

David Jones: The Fusilier Sentry and the Charming Prince; Edwin Vaughan in No Man’s Land; Kate Luard Among the Ruins; Charles Moncrieff’s Troublesome Leg; Wilfred Owen in Rare Form

We have several reports to get to, and we don’t even have a terribly good fix on the activities of David Jones precisely today, a century back. Nevertheless, I’d like to start with him. With the unhappy experiment of putting his artistic talents to dubious use as a military observer now ended, he is once more in the line with the battalion–an ordinary rifleman, subject to the ordinary chances of the line. His battalion has been spared major fighting, but neither is it on one of the increasingly mythical “quiet sectors.” The last eight days have been particularly bad.

On May 6th, an enemy raiding party entered the lines of the 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers, killing two men and taking three prisoners. Jones helped to repel the raid, but this would have been a significant “black eye” for the battalion. Then, later the same day, his particular friend Reggie Allen was killed by a trench mortar bomb. This was a blow that Jones took some time to get over–he will dedicate his war epic to many men, but ‘especially’ to ‘PTE. R. A. LEWIS-GUNNER FROM NEWPORT MONMOUTHSHIRE.’

But there was no rest for the weary, or the grieving. The battalion was “heavily shelled” almost daily. Then, today, a century back, the bombardment began again, but did not end as usual. When the artillery did cease, the “unmistakable crackle” of rifle fire meant that an attack was in progress. It was another large-scale raid, which Jones helped fight off, this time without prisoners, although eight men were killed. Our gentle Anglo-Welsh poet will remember the experience as “exhilarating.”

Into this grab-bag of a week must go one other incident. As Jones was shaving in a communication trench not far from the front line,

A pleasant voice from around a revetment said, ‘Good morning’. Turning his head, [Jones] was astonished to see the Prince of Wales, wearing a short ‘British Warm’ and light woollen scarf.

‘Do you happen to know’, Edward asked, ‘which of these trenches leads directly to… the forward trench?’

Embarrassed, with lather on his face and wearing a tattered waistcoat, Jones indicated the trench and advised the Prince to be careful by a certain trench-sign ‘as it’s exposed, sir’.

Edward said, ‘Thanks, can’t have a fag with you–an awful hurry’, and disappeared.

A few minutes later, a red-faced colonel, puffing to catch his breath, stuck his head round the revetment and asked, ‘Have you seen Wales?’ Jones said yes and that he had directed him to the forward trench. ‘Why didn’t you stop him?’ asked the colonel, and, as the colonel ran off, Jones said, ‘How could I, sir?’ (The Prince was not supposed to be alone in areas subject, as this was, to violent bursts of fire.)

Jones’s biographer goes on to remind us that–despite both men’s tenuous connections to the actual country of Wales–Jones was impressed with the young prince. He was very pleased to have seen him so close to the line, evidently giving his minders the slip. This was precisely the sort of informal and (mildly) dangerous royal behavior that gave heart to ordinary troops. (As the phrase goes; David Jones was an unremarkable soldier but surely a very remarkable man, more so than the polite, electively–and thus selectively–brave young aristocrat in a soldier’s coat.)

Edward’s courtesy and courage stirred in Jones the affection that most infantrymen felt for him. In some respects this was an encounter of the sort that might have occurred in one of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, of which Jones was sometimes reminded while on sentry duty, scanning the local wonderland through a periscope’s looking-glass.

Young Wales will even make it into In Parenthesis, in a isolated, humorous cameo:

‘A young man in a British warm… enquired if anyone had seen the Liaison Officer from Corps, as one who asks of the Tube-lift man at Westminster the whereabouts of the Third Sea Lord’.[1]


Last night, a century back, Edwin Vaughan‘s company relieved another unit in the front line. In the early morning hours, his platoon now in position, Vaughan and his company commander, Radcliffe, explored the wide expanse of No Man’s Land in front of their new position.

I felt awfully frightened and my heart beat very high as for the first time I passed through the wire into the silence and mystery of the unknown ground. The moon was giving a faint light through the clouds, which enabled us to see dimly for about 50 yards.

For about a hundred yards we walked slowly forward, seeing nothing but grass and occasionally a shell-hole. Then suddenly Radcliffe grasped my arm and pulled me quietly but quickly down into the long grass. Holding my breath I heard a faint but distinct rustle of knees ploughing through clover and then dimly in front I saw a small party of men approaching us. They halted 40 yards away and I lay frozen with fear and excitement. But Radcliffe was gurgling with laughter. I punched him in the ribs but he breathed gurglingly, ‘They didn’t reckon on my trench club!’ and he shoved forward the thin swishy cane he had brought with him.

What part of this is pure courage and what part nervous hilarity is difficult to say–but now, at least, we know the precise difference between a “fighting patrol” and an “officer’s patrol.”

The two officers crawl back and don’t fire–the German patrol is passing, and they are only two men. And yet it is interesting to note that they are perfectly happy to let the Australians on their left deal with the migrating German patrol, rather than send their own men after it. Whatever their sense of the need for supremacy in No Man’s Land, it does not include a doctrinaire insistence on all possible violence.

And this sort of exploit does settle the nerves wonderfully:

I was so pleased at having broken the ice that I felt quite anxious to get out again with a fighting patrol behind me.[2]


Kate Luard, meanwhile, used a lull in the carnage to make an informative visit to another hospital. It seems a safe guess that she is equally pleased to be gaining useful medical knowledge, to have a day out amongst the greenery (such as it is), and to manage to get herself even closer to the front lines.

…Sister G. and I set off in a Motor Ambulance to visit the Abdominal Centre higher up. The driver had not the dimmest notion of the name of the place or how to get there, but I headed him off from various attempts at all other points of the compass with the help of my map, and eventually we got there.

It was Gommécourt over again but in newly sprung green this time. I think it made the little hilly, curly orchards and wooded villages look sadder than ever to see the blossom among the ruins, and the mangled woods struggling to put their green clothes on to their distorted spikes. And in that country every tree along each side of every road was neatly cut through about three feet from the ground, and lying by its stump. It was a weird sight…[3]


And while Sister Luard handles the theme of Spring amidst the ruins, Charles Scott Moncrieff will speak for the wounded left behind. He is still recovering at a base hospital from the severe wound he suffered at Arras.

14th May.

Yesterday’s bulletin was that I may perhaps keep my leg, and shall be here a month longer. . . . There is a little crane at the foot with a sandbag hanging from it into which so many people bumped that I got into a state of chronic terror when anyone passed up or down the ward—which happens perhaps a thousand times a day. Finally, last night a fat old parson who crusades round these wards, ran full tilt into it. “Look out,” I said. He turned to see what he had done and said blandly, “Aha, you stick out too much.” After this I could stand no more, and got my bed shifted across the ward.[4]


And finally, today, a very long and very strange letter from Wilfred Owen to his younger brother Colin. Owen, though still in a forward hospital with “nerve” issues, is once more in a buoyant mood.

14 May 1917 [13th Casualty Clearing Station]
Dearest Colin,

Here is some Loot, from a Pocket-which I rifled on the Field. I was thinking of you when I was unbuckling the Bugle from the equipment, and being then in a particularly noble frame of mind, meant to present it to you some day. But now I have got too fond of the thing to part with it!

After this opening, the letter moves to Owen’s most elaborate description of his one “attack” so far. As he will explain, the attack (a local action) ended up being successful without being bloody–the Germans had withdrawn. So it is not necessary to wonder why his description of the exhilaration (our word of the day, evidently) doesn’t tip over into horror. Interestingly, however, Pat Barker will draw upon this letter for exactly that purpose, giving some of these words to Billy Prior, to describe an attack that did become intensely traumatic.

The sensations of going over the top are about as exhilarating as those dreams of falling over a precipice, when you see the rocks at the bottom surging up to you. I woke up without being squashed. Some didn’t. There was an extraordinary exultation in the act of slowly walking forward, showing ourselves openly.

There was no bugle and no drum for which I was very sorry. I kept up a kind of chanting sing-song:

Keep the Line straight!
Not so fast on the left!
Steady on the Left!
Not so fast!

Then we were caught in a Tornado of Shells. The various ‘waves’ were all broken up and we carried on like a crowd moving off a cricket-field. When I looked back and saw the ground all crawling and wormy with wounded bodies, I felt no horror at all but only an immense exultation at having got through the Barrage.[5] We were more than an hour moving over the open and by the time we came to the German Trench every Bosche had fled. But a party of them had remained lying low in a wood close behind us, and they gave us a very bad time for the next four hours.

More insight, too, into the tenuousness of any moral state among men in such a tense and unusual situation:

When we were marching along a sunken road, we got the wind up once. We knew we must have passed the German outposts somewhere on our left rear. All at once the cry rang down ‘Line the Bank’. There was a tremendous scurry of fixing bayonets, tugging off breach-covers & opening pouches, but when we peeped over, behold one solitary German, haring along towards us, with his head down and his arms stretched in front of him, as if he were going to take a high dive through the earth (which I have no doubt he would like to have done). Nobody
offered to shoot him, he looked too funny; that was our only prisoner that day!

The letter now turns to less intense experiences, and Wilfred begins to quiz Colin about his work on a farm. Once he is started on the idea of agriculture as a post war calling, the letter then turns into a sort of Georgic reverie and biblical pastiche:

…he departed unto Some Area, and seeing a tree, he also pruned it that it might bring forth more fruit.

After that the tree died also, and he lay down, and slept under the shadow thereof forty days and forty nights; and gathered in his ears in due season, the mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds, yet brought forth ten fold, fifty fold, and an hundred fold.

And with the price thereof he bought a field, which is called the Potter’s Field, because he pottered there day and night and wrought nothing.

But dined sumptuously every day of locusts and wild asses’ milk.

And it came to pass that a woman besought him saying ‘Give me, I pray thee, a little water to drink.’ Instead of water he gave her the milk. And the same woman was bent double for eighteen years. And went out sorrowful, and wept by the river of Babylon. And all fish that were in the river died…

It goes on like this for several pages. I’m not sure what to make of it, but presumably this is not an Important Milestone in his Poetic Development, but, rather, evidence that Owen is desperate to distract himself from daily life during a long stay at the 13th CCS.

…And he shook the dust off his feet, and they were all smitten with blindness, because of the things that fell upon the earth.

And he went on his way, rejoicing, and grinning like a dog that licketh the crumbs that the swine would fain have eaten.

And the ass leaped like the hills, even the hill of Basan, which is an high hill. Selah.


You can send this to Harold: to be returned to me! I have let my imagination run riot. You must not show these sheets at home. But I hope you will get an innocent laugh out of ’em. I have. It has passed an afternoon very well.

Best love, dear boy. W.E.O. x[6]


References and Footnotes

  1. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 155-6; In Parenthesis, 97.
  2. Some Desperate Glory, 115-7.
  3. Unknown Warriors, 124-5.
  4. Diaries, 129.
  5. This sight will be addressed in verse.
  6. Collected Letters, 457-60.

Kate Luard in Bloom and Good Cheer; Edward Brittain at Buckingham Palace

I would like once again to thank Caroline Stevens for her work on the legacy of her great aunt, Kate Luard. Although Sister Luard went home on leave earlier in the fall, she is now working for a relatively short period this winter at another hospital in France, during which time there is a considerable gap in her letters home.

Coincidentally, there is a general paucity of war writing this month–in fact, the cupboard would have been all but bare for today, a century back, until Ms. Stevens sent me the text of a letter to Sister Luard from her brother Trant, of the Royal Marines. It’s dated “Sultan Hussein Club, Alexandria, 17 December 1916.”

Dear Evelyn,

Here’s the best in 1917 and may it see the Bosche on his knees. Thanks for jolly letter from Birch  …. They all say at home you look younger and more blooming & cheerier every time you come home. How you do it beats me with all you are seeing and hearing and dealing with … it must be a fearful strain on your feelings …

Kate’s family called her by her middle name, and this shift in address–and, of course, into her brother’s voice–is a welcome reminder of that a person is more than a writing persona. Our even-keeled diarist, formidably capable Nursing Sister, and sensitive observer of the enormous misery–and courage, and compassion–in the hospitals behind the lines is also a beloved actual sister. And yes, there must be a fearful strain on her feelings, but it is not something she often writes about…


While I don’t have another piece of writing dated today, a century back, there is an amusing writer-related event. Edward Brittain learned months ago that he would receive the Military Cross in recognition of his calm leadership during the debacle of July 1st. But it was not until today that he received his medal.

I came up to town on Tuesday the 16th, went to Buckingham Palace on the 17th at 10.30 am. Mother came with me in the taxi from home and I dropped her just outside the gates and drove in alone; I ascended a wide staircase and deposited my hat and stick in a sort of cloak room, keeping my gloves (your gloves), went up more stairs, was asked by an old boy in a frock coat what I was to receive, was then directed to another old boy who verified my name etc and told me to stand on one side of the room–a large room with portraits of royal personages round the walls. There were 3 C.M.G.’s, about 12 D.S.O.’s and about 30 M.C.’s so it was a fairly small investiture. We were instructed what to do by a Colonel who I believe is the King’s special private secretary and then the show started. One by one we walked into an adjoining room about 6 paces — halt — left turn — bow — 2 paces forward — King pins on cross — shake hands — pace back — bow — right turn and slope off by another door… The King spoke to a few of us including me; he said ‘I hope you have quite recovered from your wound’, to which I replied ‘Very nearly thank you. Sir’, and then went out with the cross in my pocket in a case…[1]


References and Footnotes

  1. Letters From a Lost Generation, 301-02.

Vera Brittain on the Passing of an Emperor; Richard Aldington on the Coming Darkness

Since recovering from a fever and getting to work as a nurse in Malta’s sprawling hospital complex, Vera Brittain has been neglecting her diary. The hours are long, the attractions of the island many–and her letters have become her most important form of self-expression. Today is the only diaryentry for weeks, but it does connect us to some of her other recent writing.

November 22nd

A padre from Spinola came in to see the men in C Block-to-night & told us that the Emperor of Austria is dead. I wonder if this can make any possible difference to the duration of the War. Poor old man, he has been a long time in dying.[1]

Within minutes of writing this, it would seem, she learned about the sinking of the Britannic, which she will reflect upon in her memoir. This she learns quickly, because it is a Mediterranean event. But she has, as yet, no idea that her friends have lately been in action on the Somme, or that the weather there has more or less obviated any chance of major operations for months…

And what is there, really, to say about Franz Joseph I, who died yesterday, a century back? This was a man born in 1830–before the voyage of the Beagle, before Dickens had published, before Queen Victoria had ascended the throne–and who outlived the battle of the Somme. A man who essentially succeeded Metternich–Napoleon’s nemesis–and then tried throughout the nearly 68 years of his rule to resist the inroads of 19th-century modernity on his sprawling medieval empire, only to walk with it almost to the edge of the precipice of 20th century war and nationalism from which it will shortly be hurled…  Such drama. But it’s one more way in which the Great War’s seems to sprawl on either side of a deep a crease in history…[2]


And those a-training in England may be no better informed about the Somme. Richard Aldington, poetic voice of the generation of gloomy conscripts, wrote to F. S. Flint once again today, a century back.

20455. L/Cpl R.A.
“D.” Company
44 T.R.B.
Verne Citadel
[22 November 1916] Portland, Dorset.

Dear Franky,

It is quite possible that I may “go across” in a week or so. I don’t know anything definite of course, but I believe an Army Order is coming out soon for all trained N.C.O.’s & officers to proceed to France. Anyhow there is another “push” coming off soon on the Somme. I believe the bombardment has already started…

Once again–and I know it feels as if I am being unusually hard on Aldington, a stance I can’t fully explain–his worry for his wife’s worries about him seems less like love and more like reflected self-concern. She is a U.S. citizen, a Neutral, which–gender and Aldington’s pessimistic predictions aside–puts her in a very different position. And in these dark times, fearful men sometimes grasp always at the worst of rumor…

Don’t tell H.D. this, because It may be a myth, & I don’t want to worry her uselessly. But you might see her & try to find out if she has made any preparations for such an eventuality. Personally I still favour the U.S. trip—I don’t mind betting that all women under, 30 without children are industrially conscripted within 6 months. You are all a lot of kids—you don’t realize what’s impending: frightful battles, huge casualty lists, diminishing trade & production, famine prices, forced labour—each follows from the other…

I know you think I’m mad on this—but contrast the state of affairs now with Nov 1915. What do you think things will be like in Nov. 1917 & Nov. 1918?[3] Remember things will get worse more rapidly. If H.D. is industrially conscripted I shall never forgive you people who have persuaded her to stay. You and Alec, don’t forget, were among the omniscient gentry who knew we should never have forced Military Service.

I don’t want to be unkind, but we mustn’t shirk facing things as they are & they’re damned bad. Think it over, talk it over once more with Alec &, H.D., & let me know if you still think it wise for her, to stay.

All affectionate greetings, dear boy, & cordiale poignee de mains.[4]



References and Footnotes

  1. Chronicle of Youth, 336.
  2. And yes, I Englished most of his comparisons for our benefit; I doubt that Franz Joseph was much concerned about the Somme...
  3. Resist the smugness of our historical-ironical position!
  4. A warm handshake.
  5. Autobiography in Letters, 22.

A Military Medal for Lady Feilding; Ford Madox Hueffer on Dawn, and Shells, and Fear, and Nervous Strain

Dorothie Feilding is by all accounts brave. Except by her own, which is conventionally modest in a uniquely daffy way. We are reading her letters home, calculated to not terrify, usually by turning severe scares into adventures viewed from safety. And she knows–as we know–that the press, both official (i.e. propaganda-compliant) and unofficial (she is a titled lady, a celebrity, a star of the society pages) loves nothing more than an aristocratic hero, unless it’s a marriageable aristocratic heroine. So we take note today of another decoration present to Lady Feilding cum grano salis, but also with renewed appreciation for a woman who, however silly she makes herself out to be–Diddles and Winkie ate too many chocolate creams for brekker!–left a life of balls and country weekends and safe-as-houses charity work to drive an ambulance through artillery barrages and unperturbably minister to shattered men and machines.

Getting a tin cross from a dear old Belgian king is all very well, but today, a century back, Lady Feilding was at Windsor Castle where she was presented with a decoration that was rather less grand, but surely more meaningful. Feilding is the first British woman to receive the Military Medal, a new decoration for non-officers which explicitly recognized “bravery in the field under fire.” Although thousands of enlisted men had already won the award, the implication of the king’s action is clear: this is not a vague foreign honor, a recognition for being a well-known, well-born, well-respected volunteer–it’s a military medal for valor. Letters of recommendation… are letters of recommendation–but still:


I have the honour to submit for your consideration the services rendered by Lady Dorothie Feilding to the unit under my command, with a view to their adequate recognition…

Dr Jellett’s services have already been recognised and I venture to submit that those of Lady Dorothie Feilding should in like manner be rewarded.

The circumstances are peculiar in that, this being an isolated unit, no medical organisation existed for clearing casualties other than this voluntary one and owing to indifferent means of communication etc, it was necessary for the ambulance to be in close touch with the guns when in action. Lady Dorothie Feilding was thus frequently exposed to risks which probably no other woman has undergone.

She has always displayed a devotion to duty and a contempt of danger which has been a source of admiration to all…

This theme–that Feilding, because of her gender, is an exemplar and an inspiration, not simply a very brave ambulance volunteer–is repeated.

It is indeed impossible to overestimate the moral effect of her courage and self sacrifice and in an official letter it is proving difficult to do justice to either[1]


With a grind of the gears we change course, heading into the bumptious storm of dripping verbiage that is Ford Madox Hueffer. There has been a certain mystery to his whereabouts, but now he has definitely surfaced. He is back with his battalion, which has moved to the Ypres Salient, and, today (and tomorrow), he most definitely has time to write.

First, with dawn, a mock hymn. Mock not in the sense of toying lightly with the tradition–Hueffer does nothing lightly, really, and certainly not his Catholicism (he might treat it cavalierly, but that is a very different matter for an old Tory!)–but in mockery of the civilian. Ford is not yet a year in uniform, but he has almost two months on the Somme, now, as well as the experience of shell shock: he is a soldier, now. And he has been a professional writer in the fray for many years–he’s not about to to dig in quietly and scribble, with a view to a future novel or memoir. Well, that too. But he has quite a bit to write.

This particular poem is a shout across the experiential gulf. Greeting the dawn in Flanders, and taking the words of an early Latin hymn for his title, Ford appears to wryly salute those English civilians still abed, ignorant of the great and horrible experience of war.


Oh, quiet peoples sleeping bed by bed
Beneath grey roof-trees in the glimmering West,
We who can see the silver grey and red
Rise over No Man’s Land—salute your rest.

Oh, quiet comrades, sleeping in the clay
Beneath a turmoil you need no more mark,
We who have lived through yet another day
Salute your graves at setting in of dark.

And rising from your beds or from the clay
You, dead, or far from lines of slain and slayers,
Thro’ your eternal or your finite day
Give us your prayers!

A nice twist, worthy of (or purloined from) Hardy‘s Satires of Circumstance: the only comrades he recognizes in England are those asleep in beds of clay. The prayers of the civilian are not worth asking for. But the dead…


But Ford Madox not-yet-Ford contains multitudes, if only briefly–they all come tumbling out onto the page. A day or two ago he had begun a rambling letter to Joseph Conrad which he continued today, a century back.

My dear Conrad:

…we have a very big artillery strafe on—not, of course as big as others I have experienced—but still very big. I happened to be in the very middle—the centre of a circle—of H. A. and quite close to a converted, naval how[itzer]…  I did not notice that it was raining and suddenly and automatically I got under the table on the way to my tin hat…

Well I was under the table and frightened out of my life—so indeed was the other man with me. There was shelling just overhead—apparently thousands of shells bursting for miles around and overhead. I was convinced that it was all up with the XIX Div. because the Huns had got note of a new & absolutely devilish shell or gun.

It was of course thunder. It completely extinguished the sound of the heavy art[iller]y, and even the how[itzer] about 50 yds. away was inaudible during the actual peals and sounded like stage thunder in the intervals. Of course we were in the very vortex of the storm, the lightning being followed by thunder before one cd. count two—but there we were right among the guns too…

This, by the way, is all very believable. I have questioned aspects of Ford’s autobiography, but he will be subjected to numerous aspersions about his courage and service which take up the fact that his colonel kept him from the front lines, giving him transport jobs and the like. Such jobs were certainly safer during attacks (witness, e.g., the recent survivals of Blunden and Sassoon) but they were often as dangerous–or more dangerous–than front line duty in a quiescent sector. Located among the artillery, Ford/Hueffer the infantry officer is caught up in the artillery war, and very much more likely to be blown up than a prudent platoon commander up in trenches.

The letter goes on to discuss praise from the French over his recently-translated propaganda writing, fame and ambition, literary goals, etc. He’s holding out for that staff job… and forgetting, it would seem, to mention his recent experience of being blown through the air by a shell. Although–and isn’t this just like him–he makes a precise observation of the way shell shock really works even as he accidentally undermines the story he will tell about his more conventionally dramatic experience. A near-miss and heavy concussion will cause “shell shock,” to be sure, but many more men will suffer significant psychological wounds inflicted by long exposure to shelling. These manifest through a gradual degrading of their nervous system, but the symptoms can often be concealed until some seemingly minor bombardment causes a breakdown.

I have been for six weeks continuously within reach of German missiles &. altho’ one gets absolutely to ignore them, consciously, I imagine that subconsciously one is suffering. I know that if one of the cooks suddenly opens, with a hammer, a chest close at hand, one jumps in a way one doesn’t use when the “dirt” is coming over fairly heavily.

The continuation of today, a century back, now picks up the thread. Conrad and Hueffer had collaborated in the past, and these letters have the feel of a writer bequeathing his experiential notes to a trusted co-worker. An executor, if necessary.

9/Welch, 19th Div,
B. E. F.

My dear,

I will continue, “for yr information and necessary action, please,” my notes upon sounds.

In woody country heavy artillery makes most noise, because of the echoes—and most prolonged in a diluted way. On marshland—like the Romney Marsh—the sound seems alarmingly close: I have seldom heard the Hun artillery in the middle of a strafe except on marshy land. The sound, not the diluted sound, is also at its longest in the air.

On dry down land the sound is much sharper; it hits you & shakes you. On clay land it shakes the ground & shakes you thro’ the ground…

In hot, dry weather, sounds give me a headache—over the brows & across the skull, inside, like migraine. In wet weather one minds them less, tho’ dampness of the air makes them seem nearer.

Shells falling on a church: these make a huge “corump” sound, followed by a noise like crockery falling off a tray—as the roof tiles fall off. If the roof is not tiled you can hear the stained glass, sifting mechanically until the next shell. (Heard in a church square, on each occasion, about 90 yds away). Screams of women penetrate all these sounds—but I do not find that they agitate me as they have done at home. (Women in cellars round the square. Oneself running thro’ fast)

Ford, not surprisingly, is also good on the way in which expectation inevitably mediates experience:

Emotions again: I saw two men and three mules (the first time I saw a casualty) killed by one shell. A piece the size of a pair of corsets went clear thro’ one man, the other just fell–the mules hardly any visible mark. These things gave me no emotion at all—they seemed obvious, rather as it wd. be. A great many patients on stretchers—a thousand or so in a long stream is very depressing–but, I fancy, mostly because one thinks one will be going back into it. . .

And so, naturally, from noise and shells to wounds and suffering. Which leads Ford at last to his own hospitalization. I’m still not sure when it occurred, or how long it was, but it seems to have happened at some point in August. This scene will reappear, somewhat altered, in Ford’s war novel:

When I was in hospital a man three beds from me died very hard, blood passing thro’ bandages and he himself crying perpetually, “Faith! Faith! Faith!” It was very disagreeable as long as he had a chance of life—but one lost all interest and forgot him when one heard he had none.


This of course is the devil–& worst because it is so very capricious. Yesterday I was buying–or rather not buying–flypapers in a shop under a heap of rubbish. The woman was laughing & saying that all the flies came from England. A shell landed in the chateau into whose wall the shop was built. One Tommie said, “Crumpl” Another: “Bugger the flies” & slapped himself. The woman—about thirty, quick, & rather jewish–went on laughing. I said, “Mais je vous assure, Madame, qu’il n y a plus comme ça de mouches chez nous.” [I assure you, madame, that we don’t have more flies than this.] No interruption, emotion, vexed at getting no flypapers. Subconscious emotion, thank God the damn thing’s burst.”

Yet today, passing the place, I wanted to gallop past it & positively trembled on my horse. Of course I cdnt. gallop because there were Tommies in the street.

Writer to writer, man to man, on fear (which of course also is to say “on courage”) and the sounds of war.

There are two more letters which show the writer’s mind from slightly different angles at this same point in time. First, to Lucy Masterman:

9/Wclch, 19/Divn.
B. E. F, France

Dearest Lucy,

Why does nobody write to me? Does one so quickly become a ghost, alas!

I have had nothing for a week but notes from V[iolet Hunt] deploring the fact that I have lost my bicycle & the like–wh. of course takes one’s mind off oneself–& before then no one wrote to me for ever so long except French ministers of sorts. We are in a h-ll of a noise, just now—my hand is shaking badly—our guns are too inconsiderate—they pop up out of baby’s rattles & tea cosy & shake the rats thro’ the earth….[2]

More whining to his women friends, but the same note on noise–Ford would choose to write during a bombardment!

I am also amused that the great modernist goes in for the oldest established metaphor–a “hell” of a noise–but demurely dashes out one of the letters…

Finally, there is also a letter of the same date from the prolific Hueffer to his mother. This one does not dwell on the capricious of fear but rather has him “perfectly well… & for the time, perfectly safe.”



References and Footnotes

  1. Lady Under Fire, 159-60.
  2. Letters of Ford Madox Ford, 71-5.
  3. War Prose, 225. Another letter to his mother, undated--conspiracy!--but placed by Saunders in "c. late August" does refer to a prior "shaking up." This, too, sounds like his alleged late July shell shock, now adjusted downward in severity for maternal consumption...

Tom Kettle Writes “To My Daughter Betty;” Raymond Asquith on Patrick Shaw-Stewart, Lady Desborough, and Notre Dame D’Amiens

I haven’t yet written of the Irish writer and politician (and “wit… scholar… orator,”[1] barrister, journalist, and economist) Tom Kettle–and I’m sorry for it. Like Francis Ledwidge, he was an Irish patriotic active in the drive for Home Rule who nonetheless saw it as his duty to fight for Britain against Germany. Unlike Ledwidge, Kettle was famous and influential, a friend of Joyce and a member of Parliament. Thirty-four at the outbreak of war, he chose nonetheless to serve as an infantry officer. Yesterday, a century back, knowing that his battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers was about to go into battle for the first time, he wrote a sort of political testament, explaining how his service–and possible death–in a British uniform should further the cause of Ireland. Today he addressed the possibility of his death in a more personal way while also placing it in the largest possible context: he wrote to his three-year-old daughter, and of salvation.


To My Daughter Betty, The Gift of God

In wiser days, my darling rosebud, blown
To beauty proud as was your Mother’s prime.
In that desired, delayed, incredible time,
You’ll ask why I abandoned you, my own,
And the dear heart that was your baby throne,
To die with death. And oh! they’ll give you rhyme
And reason: some will call the thing sublime,
And some decry it in a knowing tone.
So here, while the mad guns curse overhead,
And tired men sigh with mud for couch and floor,
Know that we fools, now with the foolish dead,
Died not for flag, nor King, nor Emperor,
But for a dream, born in a herdsman’s shed,
And for the secret Scripture of the poor.

 In the field, before Guillemont, Somme
September 4th, 1916


And I should leave it there–and would, but for a crossing… not of paths, but of references. A century on, we wreak mischief on the mischievous. Patrick Shaw-Stewart, still far off in the East, wrote a letter today, a century back, in which he enclosed the citation for his Croix de Guerre. He has been honored for his courage and general usefulness as the liaison officer to the French 17th Colonial Division–which is no mean honor, unless of course it is more or less pro forma for a well-liked and well-connected officer…[2]

High praise from the far-flung French–but he is being cut down rather closer to home. Raymond Asquith, Shaw-Stewart’s less-than-intimate friend and pseudo-rival (Asquith may feel as if Shaw-Stewart is the newer, inferior model of the socially climbing Eton-Balliol society wit) is full of opinions today.

3rd Grenadier Guards, B.E.F.
4 September 1916

. . . I’m glad you approved my contribution to Ettie’s book–an almost impossible thing to write even tolerably and probably, after she has doctored it, even less presentable than it originally was. She told me that she was going to cut out a bit in which I had said that Billy was insolent (as he most assuredly was) and as far as I recollect, the excision is bound to make nonsense of some of the least infelicitous paragraphs.

“Ettie” is, of course, Lady Desborough, mother of Julian and Billy Grenfell and society queen of the prior generation (she is to the Souls as Diana Manners is to the Coterie). Lady Desborough was always more than a bit much, and she is now assembling a memorial book for her sons, who were both killed last year. This trajectory–from hostess and symbol of society living to semi-public mourner and keeper of her sons’ flame–is now all too common.

Asquith is rude here, but hardly as rude as he could have been. He has submitted with near-grace to writing panegyric for two younger friends about whom he had a mixed sort of appreciation, to say the least. “Ettie’s” transmutation–from carefully eccentric inspiration for various pseudo-artistic men to full-time whitewasher of her sons’ memory–might be risible if it weren’t, in almost the correct classical sense, tragic. Asquith is much younger than Lady Desborough and positioned as an older friend of her sons rather than a younger admirer of her… but he has son of his own now. He is writing, after all, to the wife of a serving soldier and the mother of a boy who will have to go, if the war lasts into the mid-thirties…

So the fun-making, here, is in a minor key.

But there are other targets of opportunity in this mopping-up operation.

She also told me that she was going to put in Dunrobin and some of Bron’s houses as places where B and J and I had had fun together—which perhaps lends some colour to your charge of snobbery. As a matter of fact Ettie is a snob in the same simple harmless sense as Patrick [Shaw Stewart]. She meant to give her sons the best mise-en-scène from a worldly point of view which could be had and I suppose she wants people to know that she succeeded as she certainly did. She promised me the book but has not sent it–probably it is too big to travel.[3]

So our Shaw-Stewart, mailing home his citation, is only a harmless sort of snob. It’s an odd comparison–or, rather, Asquith is working with an odd definition of “snobbery.” He is citing Desborough–wife of a lord, lady in waiting, famous personality, wealthy landowner in her own right–with social climbing (or aesthetic scene-setting), and then declaring this to be a forgivable sin. It’s not that she looks down, but that, for her sons, she looks around, and arranges…

If that is snobbery, what, then, do we call a political scion hobnobbing with royalty?

I had a pleasant enough sojourn in A[miens]. Oliver and I and Sloper got the Prince to lend us his car. We went in on Saturday afternoon, got excellent rooms with soft beds and hot baths, and had several very well cooked meals and some drinkable champagne. The town was seething with other officers from the division and we rollicked about on Saturday night visiting the ladies of the town who provided a certain amount of amusement, but without (you will be glad to hear) any loss of chastity on my part or indeed on that of most of my companions.


Notre Dame D’Amiens in 1916, with sandbags (Imperial War Museum)

With Ettie Desborough and her sons and Patrick Shaw-Stewart thus taken care of–and a favor from the Prince of Wales to clear the palate[4]–the cantering rhythm of Asquith’s letters now resumes.

On Sunday night we drove back again and today in rain and wind have resumed the ordinary drudgery arid beastliness of life. It was pleasant to get back even for 24 hours to the decencies and indecencies of civilisation. The cathedral is very beautiful, but the first thing one instinctively looked at on seeing it was the sandbag barricade in front of the doors to see whether it was properly built according to the classical canons of trench architecture.

Tomorrow we have a Brigade Field Day. Yesterday there was a successful British attack on Ginchy and Guillemont[5] and if they capture Lenze-Wood (I don’t know yet whether they have done or not) comparatively open fighting may set in.

We have been put at 3 hours notice to move, but that happens so often that I don’t think it means anything.[6]


References and Footnotes

  1. Chesterton, albeit via Wikipedia.
  2. Knox, Patrick Shaw-Stewart, 173-4.
  3. It is--Google claims it is over 600 pages but, despite its being long out of copyright, does not reproduce it. Lady Desborough's "Pages from a Family Journal" was privately printed and seems to be quite rare.
  4. Which isn't snobbery, I realize. I fail to score a point on Asquith on the counter-riposte: for Asquith to pretend he were not acquainted with the prince and that borrowing his car would not be useful would be a truer sort of snobbery.
  5. There was, and the Master of Belhaven was firing in support--Blunden's battalion's failed attack was on a different portion of the front).
  6. Life and Letters, 291-2.

Bimbo Tennant Remembers the Good Life of the Souls; Ford Madox Hueffer’s Uncertain History

A few days ago Raymond Asquith wrote to cheer and enhearten Diana Manners, proclaiming in unusually emphatic tones that she–queen of their coterie–was not only incomparably beautiful but a pioneer of wit, a leader in their movement that disdained the dusty witticisms and precious vapidities of the Souls, their parents’ generation. It was a long letter, and it culminated (after an apparent break in composition) with a dark little joke about the death of Basil Hallam, so I cut rather heavily to move things along. I noted that Asquith took a shot at his step-mother’s father, but I elided the location at which he chose to set his “here’s-how-passé-the-Souls-are” joke. That step-grandfather is Bim Tennant‘s grandfather, and the Scottish estate at which this representative bit of the last century’s cleverness was uttered was “Glen,” which still remained–and still, apparently, does–in the family.

It what surely qualifies as a sort of metaphysical crossing-of-paths, Bimbo himself–significantly younger than Asquith yet frightfully traditional in his filial enthusiasms and his poetry alike–wrote a letter today in which he wistfully remembered his childhood days there.

Aug. 23.

” . . . I suppose you are still at Glen. I wish I could be there for the 31st. Talking of the hills, do you remember that day long ago, when a nursery-party we were all descending Minchmuir, and you thought I would be cold, and wrapped me in your rose-coloured lovely petticoat? I love to think of those days; and another time, in later years, when Zelle was balanced shriekingly, on the broad back of a hill pony, which was subsiding into a bog with her. Those were the days when David used to ride Little Diamond; I hope you haven’t forgotten how he and the groom were observed coming across the golf course, vente a terre, closely pursued by a wasp. What fun we all had then…

Do you remember when we were at Kirk House (Kirket) and you were sitting at your writing-table in the ‘tippits for mice’ drawing-room, when a grim procession passed the window headed by me, followed by Clare, one of the maids, two of the gardeners, Christopher, and finally Willson with a ladder, the whole thing explained by the fact that Mdlle. Kremser, the French governess, had climbed a tree and was totally unable to get down unaided? Then the games of cricket with a rubber ball when Jack Pease was unanimously received into the ‘uncledom.’

We had a splendid house in a tree behind Willie Houston’s house (where those little apples used to fall from the tree, and be so delightedly gathered and eaten) years came and went and Willie Houston’s relays of dogs were invariably called ‘Nellie’ quite regardless of sex : ‘Aye, I just ca’ him Nellie.’ What a perfect troll he was! God rest his soul. I think our family has many more good jokes than any other, don’t you?

That last line, in a gauzy nutshell, is why the “conflict of the generations” is a clumsy tool for fine work. Bimbo loves his mother immoderately, borrowed petticoats aside: she is beautiful and wise and, in keeping with the tradition established by her senior officer in the Souls, Lady Desborough, she may have strenuously insisted upon the fact that everyone, always, was having fun. If so, Bimbo is a most loyal scion, and manifestly unfitted for disenchantment.

Now endless love from your devoted son,


P.S. I hope my proofs will come soon. I daresay if I wore black shirts, and painted execrable futurist pictures, and wrote verse that was quite incomprehensible, the reviewers would take it for genuine ‘poesie.'[1]

And yes, there’s the kicker. There is a middle ground, of course, namely the way shown by Sorley, which Rosenberg, Graves, and Sassoon are beginning to pursue. But if that Georgian-to-realist mode is not even in view, and if the cheerful young aristocrat-with-pen sees only the mad-eyed Futurists and his own not-even-neo Romantic juvinilia, well… Bim’s proofs shall be proof that mere months in the trenches cannot budge the fairy-strewn Medievalism lodged in some winsome hearts…


And now for one of those older men who bridges the 19th century novel and, if not quite the wacky excesses of true Futurism, then at least the arriving Modernist upheaval. Ford Madox Hueffer, we may remember, has recently been blown up and deprived of his memory. Or not. The published letters are carefully agnostic on this matter (although perhaps simply by way of the accidents of preservation), but there is hardly enough in the way of references to traumatic memory loss in these letters to Lucy Masterman (the first undated, but assigned tentatively to August) to bolster the shaky assumptions that have been made.

Attd. 9/Welch, 19th Div.
B.E.F, Belgium

Dear old Lucy,

Using a good deal of determination, I have got out of the muses’ hands & back to duty, after an incredibly tortuous struggle across France. I rather began to think that I shall not be able to “stick it”–the conditions of life are too hard and the endless waitings too enervating. However, that is on the knees of the Gods…

I… am not vastly happy with the people here–can’t get on with the C. O. or the adjt.—wh. is disagreeable. However, it is very interesting, all of it—if not gay.

So he has been away–in hospital, perhaps. But why “the muses?” Or has he been somewhere else since the hhospital? In any event, no word of memory loss and life-altering trauma.

Then, today, a century back:

Attd. 9/Welch
19th Div, B.E.F.

Dearest Lucy,

I am fairly cheerful again, thank you–tho’ I do not get on with the C. O., & the Adjt. overworks me because I talk Flemish… Still it is all very interesting & one learns a little more everyday.

Still no references, but then again this is very repetitive. Many letters, especially those that may be spaced by weeks, are repetitive–who can remember what they wrote? And trench warfare is repetitive, so this is no smoking gun of memory loss. Hm.

We have been out of the trenches since Monday & go in again almost immediately—but it is quiet here at its most violent compared with the Somme. Even the strafe that the artillery got up for George V—wh. the artillery off’rs called “great” or “huge” according to their temperaments—wd., for sound, have gone into an old woman’s thimble in Albert, not to speak of Bécourt or Fricourt. George V—whom I saw strolling about among the Cheshires—really was in some danger. At least he was in an O. P. that was being shelled fairly heavily when I was in it “for instruction.” But I guess they squashed the Bosche fire fairly effectually while he was here. Still he gave the impression of a “good plucked ‘un”—& the P. O. W.—who was quite unrecognizable, was perfectly businesslike.

Still no mention of debilities. Perhaps it hasn’t happened yet? Perhaps it happened, and has yet to be exaggerated-in-the-telling? In any event, prim reporting on the King’s recent visit is hardly indicative of any particularly strange fires akindle in the smithy of the Fordian soul.

But now there is a reference to a week in an ambulance. So it did happen, it would seem–although possibly not when he claimed, and probably not in the shockingly course-altering way he will come to describe it.

I rather think the staff is nibbling at me…[2] I shd. not be really sorry—because I have had my week in the Somme & three weeks here & a week in Field Ambulance & a week draft conducting. I shd. naturally prefer going on as a regimental off’r—but the C. O.—an ex-Eastbourne Town Councillor & the adjt, an ex-P. O. clerk—annoy me—the C. O. says I am too old & the adjt. thanks me all day long for saving the H. Q. Mess 2 frs. 22 on turnips & the like. I don’t know which I dislike most.

Well, that’s what you get for meandering into the New Army in 1915 and speaking some Flemish… this will all be fodder for the big novel. And it’s not that Ford couldn’t always write, it’s just that he is still writing in a less-than-revolutionary descriptive mode. Here’s a bit of “Trench Pastoral, with Bombardment:”

Still, otherwise, it is—tho’ you won’t believe it—a dreamy sort of life in a grey green country & even the shells as they set out on their long journeys seem tired. It is rather curious, the extra senses one develops here. I sit writing in the twilight &, even as I write, I hear the shells whine & the M. G.’s crepitate & I see (tho’ it is hidden by a hill) the grey, flat land below & the shells bursting…

Inconclusive, then. But the letter ends in unfortunately Fordian fashion: a plea for strings to be pulled (Lucy Masterman is the wife of the propaganda chief C.F.G. Masterman) and a pot-shot at his own de facto wife, soon to undergo transformation into one of Modernism’s most frightening ogresses.

 Love to C. F. G. I suppose he cd. not get me sent to Paris. I shd. like a weekend there and cd. spout about the Somme and here.


V[iolet Hunt] seems very queer; don’t tell her anything that I tell you, because she does so worry.[3]


References and Footnotes

  1. Memoir, 221-2.
  2. It is not. In fact, due to his German parentage, Ford and his brother are on a list that bars them from staff work.
  3. Letters of Ford Madox Ford, 68-70.

John Ronald Tolkien is Told Off; Rowland Feilding Watches a Battle, and Reports Two Victories; Donald Hankey on Discipline, Comradeship, and a Need for Balls

It seems sometimes as if the truly well-bred officer must consider himself an Epicurean. It is de rigueur to comment, for the benefit of the folks at home, on how delicious it is to watch a bombardment from a distance. But Rowland Feilding begs to differ with this Lucretian view of battlefield spectatorship. This may be compassion, and it may also have something to do with the fact that Feilding has been out of action himself for quite some time. In any event, he describes today, for his wife, the continuation of the battle that killed Ben Keeling yesterday.

August 18, 1916. Near Fricourt

This afternoon I watched a huge battle between Martinpuich and Guillemont. I watched from the high ground just south-east of Fricourt, which commands a wonderful view of the country for a long distance in front—from a spot which was visited by the King when he was here, and is now known as King George’s Hill.

The preliminary bombardment, which had continued all through last night and this morning, was greatly intensified, and smoke clouds were turned loose shortly before 2.45 p.m., which was the time appointed for the infantry assault. The latter took place punctually, as was very evident from the simultaneous and sudden crowding of the sky with the bursting shrapnel of the German barrage. Then Hell prevailed till the horizon became blotted out by smoke and dust. It was a terrible sight. To the onlooker on these occasions, as I have said before, it seems almost impossible that any living creature can be in it and survive. But that is not so.

After half an hour the shelling subsided to some extent, though it was renewed about five o’clock on another section of the front.

It was a big show—far bigger, I daresay, than anyone might suppose from reading the newspaper reports of it which will no doubt appear to-morrow.

Feilding, unusually, actually follows up on his supposition. He includes these two communiqués in a subsequent letter:

August 19, 1916. Saturday.
British Official

Our success reported last night has been maintained and extended.

During the night the enemy delivered several very determined counter-attacks against the positions which we had captured. Except on our extreme right, where the enemy regained a little ground, these counter-attacks were everywhere repulsed.

From High Wood to the point where we join up with the trench we have advanced our line over a frontage of more than 2 miles for a distance varying between 200 yards and 600 yards.

We now hold the western outskirts of Guillemont, and a line thence northwards to midway between Delville Wood and Ginchy; also the Orchards north of Longueval Between High Wood and the Albert-Bapaume Road we have captured some hundreds of yards of enemy trench…

As a result of these operations several hundred prisoners have been taken by us.

So much for the British version of events. Next, the Germans.

August 19, 1916. Berlin Saturday Afternoon.
German Official

Our brave troops yesterday victoriously resisted with self-sacrificing tenacity a stupendous effort on the part of our
combined enemy.

At about the same time in the afternoon, after artillery preparation, which increased to the utmost violence, Anglo-French masses advanced to the assault to the north of the Somme on the Ovillers-Fleury front over a section of about 20 kilometres…

At several points the enemy penetrated into our first line of trenches and was driven out again.

Trench sections captured on both sides of Guillemont—which remains firmly in our hands—were occupied. Between Guillemont and Maurepas we have somewhat shortened during the night our salient line in accordance with our plans.

The enemy has paid with tremendous sanguinary losses for his efforts, which, on the whole, have failed…

In the eastern sector of Chapitre Wood over 100 prisoners were taken during a counter-attack…[1]

This is propaganda, of course, and if you read a map very carefully you could confirm that standard measure of military accomplishment: the British have inched forward, and the Germans have “shortened” their lines… but, really, who won? It does rather shake one’s faith–if any remains–in the relationship between military event and narrative description, at least as far as the conventional tendency of each toward some sort of “decision.”


A few days ago, John Ronald Tolkien wrote a long letter to his friend G.B. Smith. It was an elegy of sorts, but a philosophically severe one. In it, Tolkien set out his view of how, exactly, the nature of their schoolboy creative fellowship, the T.C.B.S., has been altered by the death of Rob Gilson, one of its four core members. In short, Tolkien accepted Gilson’s death as the definitive breaking of that fellowship–Rob cannot have been a great writer, now. This opinion was given not so much out of fatalism as from within a consistent worldview: the world is as the world is, and while romantic inventions may still point to the future, there is no sense in allowing them to contradict the past. The others must carry on with their hopes to write, to create beautiful things–but Rob is dead, and the T.C.B.S. has ceased to exist.

Geoffrey Bache Smith begs to differ. Their battalions are both in reserve in the neighborhood of Hédauville, and Smith hoped that they could meet today, but Tolkien proved to be away on a short training course. So Smith sent this howler his way instead:

The idea that the T.C.B.S. has stopped is for me entirely impossible…

The T.C.B.S. is not so much a society as an influence on the state of being. I never for two consecutive seconds believed in the four-ideal-friends theory except in its very widest sense as a highly important and very worthy communion of living souls. That such an influence on the state of being could come to an end with Rob’s loss is to me a preposterous idea… The T.C.B.S. is not finished and never will be.

I am not quite sure whether I shall shake you by the hand or take you by the throat, so enormously do I disagree with your letter and agree with myself![2]

This uncompromising letter written, Tolkien returned to camp the same afternoon, and the two friends were able to meet after all. There is no record of any throat-taking, and one presumes that they agreed to mourn their friend and to redouble their creative efforts.


Finally, today, Donald Hankey, wrote to Will Clift, a friend from his days working among the poor in Bermondsey. If this sounds a little preachy, well, it comes from an officer who was once a missionary of sorts among Will and his friends, and who intends to become a preacher after the war. But it is interesting to see the requests that Hankey is making. He’s a sensitive officer in a New Army battalion, with his men in mind. Perhaps there are other letters to family begging sweets and succulents for himself, but this one shows him preoccupied with the health and morale of his men even out of the line. It’s also, surely, an intentional bridging of his old mission and his new commission, a chance for good deeds to be done all around.

…could you get me some balls for my boys to play with in billets. Any sort of fairly serviceable rubber balls, such as last year’s tennis balls, would come in very handy. It is no good having the sort that split easily, or anything smaller than a tennis ball, or anything very hard. Could you also send me four stout footballs? I understand they cost about 15s. each; and so I enclose a cheque for £3. I am tremendously convinced that the only way to keep fellows straight out here is to give them a chance to amuse themselves in billets, and at present they do nothing but sleep, grumble, and talk smut, I’m afraid. Will, Bermondsey has taught me absolutely the love of the boy. The boys here are topping fellows. You should see the way they smile even when they are fagged out and soaked through and lousy and quaking. Every one–nearly–quakes. But the boys try to hide it with a smile.

Discipline is a wonderful thing teaching men continually to do what they do not want to do for the sake of a great cause, teaching them that as individual units they matter very little, but that as members of an army every trivial detail of their lives is significant. It teaches at once humility and pride, self-control and self-subordination, thoroughness, comradeship. Love to Alice and Ed and the rest of my friends. Yours ever…[3]


References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 101-3.
  2. Chronology, 88.
  3. Letters of Donald Hankey, 347-8.