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
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.
A SOLIS ORTUS CARDINE
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.
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:
B. E. F, France
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….
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.”