Wilfred Owen: Oh! World You are Making for Me, Sassoon!; Kipling and Carstairs on the Chaos of Bourlon Wood

There is a long letter from Wilfred Owen to Siegfried Sassoon to get to, today, but comradeship rightly comes after battle.

First, then, two accounts of one of the most desperate days at Cambrai. We enter Bourlon Wood with Carroll Carstairs and the 3rd Grenadier Guards. I know almost nothing of Carstairs, but his writing is consistently interesting. He indulges a bit in the blasé roué routine, but only so far: when he comes to the worse of experience he slows down and concentrates, carefully reconstructing the sights and sounds of battle. But he doesn’t become merely a sort of responsible, roving eye or recording camera, either: Carstairs doesn’t spare himself, analyzing his own feelings even in the most trying circumstances.

It was about four in the morning when the Commanding Officer himself woke me. The candles, stuck in bottles on the table, burned as straight as on any altar. Each step up the twenty-two of the dugout was a conscious movement. Now we were at the entrance. The night was still, breathless. It had been raining. The air on our faces
left a moisture. The ground was soggy and the going difficult. The mud stuck to our boots until we were walking on huge pads.

We came upon No. 1 Company—mutes and shadows and something more than men. The Commanding Officer went down a dugout to have a last word with “Mary” Bowes-Lyon while I remained and joked with the two subalterns. How is it one can jest at such a time? It’s a question of tuning up. Laughter is the loophole through
which joy enters the soul. We were slipping along again. An interminable walk to go a few yards. But we had missed No. 2 Company and were out in No Man’s Land heading for the enemy. We made for the road which divided the Battalion. By the time we had reached Nos. 3 and 4 Companies they were forming up. Sinister shadows filling the gloom, as silent as the night itself, only the immense discipline of the Brigade of Guards kept one from remembering they were men cold and wet and dulled with fear…

At 6.20 our barrage came down and while I thought of the Battalion as a unit, five hundred men had begun their perilous progress towards the enemy trenches.

Carstairs is left in support: he sees other units attacking, a light barrage dropping, and then wounded men coming back. With the battle raging ahead, he moves up with the battalion HQ and reserves.

We had reached the foot of the village without a casualty. I was standing on ground newly won. To my left and right stretched deserted enemy entrenchments.

Near me lay two wounded Grenadiers. One was in a ditch full of water. They were remarkably quiet. I felt I should get them back somehow, but there were no stretcher bearers about.

Out of the house next to which I was standing appeared three Germans. They were holding up their hands. One had his foot in a bandage and was being helped along by the others. They looked frightened and miserable. While they are chattering in German, a wounded Grenadier turned up, quite off his head.

“That’s all right, sir,” he addressed me. “I’ll kill them.”

“I wouldn’t do that,” I remonstrated.

“Oh, that’s quite all right. You just leave them to me.” He threatened them with his rifle. The wounded German started to whimper and shuffled off.

The Grenadier followed, herding his little party together. He used his rifle like a shepherd’s staff. Could he have been a shepherd in civilian life? They disappeared in the direction of an out-house. Whatever happened to them? They were not heading strictly for the British lines.

And that’s all we learn.

At least this is a true war story: there may be honor and mercy, or, more likely it seems, madness and atrocity. But Carstairs has his own task and his own peril to worry about, and must move on… and so must we.

Another small party of prisoners appeared with a wounded Grenadier as escort. He was dazed and shaking with fright.

“Take a door off this house and have these prisoners carry back this wounded man.” But he did not understand.
The prisoners stood nervously about wishing to be gone. I showed them what I wanted done and they complied with alacrity.

Soon they were off, carrying the wounded Grenadier. It must have been a heavy load. I could not help fearing they would drop him half way in their eagerness to get out of danger. But if they had any thought of doing so it was intercepted by a German shell which burst in their midst after they had gone two hundred yards.

More prisoners turning up, removed another door from a house, on which they placed the man lying in the ditch of water.

Suddenly a large group of Germans approached. Their leader was a big man and the rest followed with a martial tread that contrasted oddly with their upraised hands and white handkerchiefs, energetically waved by some. One or two dodged into houses, but the rest marched on until they had reached us. The big man addressed me and I felt like a traffic policeman as I pointed to the British lines and watched them hurry off. Messages arrived from Nos. 3 and 4 Companies. They had captured their objectives, they were held up by heavy German machine-gun fire, they had suffered considerably and were in need of reinforcements. No word from either Nos. 1 or 2 Companies—a bad sign.

The Commanding Officer turned up. I saluted as though on parade.

He looked anxious. “We must go up and see what is happening.”

Together we proceeded up the main street of Fontaine-Notre-Dame, down which machine-gun bullets were pouring with the volume of water from a fire-hose. We hugged the houses to minimize the danger of being hit.

We reached the cross-roads and I marvelled that a man could get so far and remain alive. We were in the van of the battle. It seemed a miracle had happened to me.

Knollys greeted us. His Company Commander had been wounded. He was holding his position with about forty men and one machine-gun. It was almost all that was left of the Battalion. Nos. 1 and 2 Companies had  disappeared into the blue. They had been, as a matter of fact, wiped out. All officers (including both Company Commanders killed) both Sergeant-Majors, and all Sergeants casualties, and two-thirds of the men. Knollys was not certain but he thought No. 4 Company was somewhere up on the left.

Joining one of his friends in the aftermath of the fight, Carstairs continues to describe the intense strangeness of the persistence of human interactions in the midst of deadly battle.

Our consultation was interrupted by the appearance of a tank. It stopped, and out of it an officer descended.

“Do you want me any more?”

“No.” I felt as though I were dismissing a taxi.

He climbed back into the tank and down the street it waddled away.

We occupied a difficult position. The road to our rear joined with the left flank of No. 3 Company. We stood at the junction of the two other roads, one of which led to the station and the other in the direction of Bourlon Wood. The 1st Coldstream were somewhere on our left. A wide gap divided us, a gap impossible to bridge.

Suddenly to our right we saw the enemy attacking down the main road that led to the centre of No. 3 Company’s position. We were well placed to enfilade, which we did with a will. We watched the Germans being beaten back, holding up their arms before their faces as though warding off blows from sticks and stones.

With that attack driven back we thought of No. 3 Company as secure. The men were posted to overlook the roads. We had no thought of our rear. I sent a runner with a message giving our position…

But it soon becomes clear that they are, in fact, in touch with no other British unit–No 3. Company has been driven back by the same attack which his men have just fired on.

Our situation was awkward, to say the least. Sixty men with both flanks in the air cannot hold a village against a strong and inevitable counter-attack.

I caught sight of my face in a mirror. It was pink and normal. I had not taken in the seriousness of our position. I was still in a kind of a dream. A mental smokescreen obscured my vision.

Even the sergeant’s astonishing announcement reached me dimly, “Germans are coming up be’ind!” By no selective reasoning did I find myself, with revolver drawn, behind the wall, while the others stood in the entrance of the yard.

Carstairs’ memories move into the present tense, now:

And to be suddenly shooting at grey uniformed Germans was accompanied by no thrill. How big they were! Was it because he was aiming straight at my head that this German appeared so big? The motion of his rifle coming up to his shoulder increased his stature. My revolver lost power to hurt, for after I had fired the Germans remained in the same position. And yet they were so near it would have seemed impossible to have missed them. (A week before I had hit an envelope at twenty paces.) It did not seem as though I was missing but rather as though my bullets, turning into pellets, were bounding harmlessly off. Nor did the German’s rifle seem to function. There was no smoke, no flash, and I heard no bullet whistle uncomfortably close to my head. The whole thing took on the unreality of a “movie” until one of the Germans dropped. It seemed the signal for which his fellows had been waiting, for with one accord they spun round and ran away. I have never seen people run so fast. I can see
again that man as he turned the corner, the play of his big grey legs from hip to knee. He is gone.

I gazed at Carrington and he at me. It was from our rear that we had been attacked. Where is No. 3 Company?

It was the sergeant who showed presence of mind.

“We must follow.”

Someone shouted. “Collect the rest of the men.”

We broke into a run; following in the wake of the Germans. We passed the wounded German. He had raised himself on his elbow and, stretching out a hand, said something. A plea for mercy, for help? The bullet had hit the bone below the eye, leaving a bloody gash.

We reached the bend in the road. This had been the left of No. 3 Company’s position. Only a dead Grenadier remained. Did we expect to meet the enemy as we stopped stock-still at the corner? I expected nothing. I had ceased to think. It was as though our legs had outstripped thought. Time itself had stopped. The surprise attack, the brief duel, the pursuit, following in swift succession seemed all to belong to the same moment. Only now was time passing. An eternity, while one stood irresolute, wondering what to do.

“We must cut in be’ind these ’ouses, otherwise we’re lost.” It was the sergeant again who spoke.

The thirty survivors of the company escape by climbing through the back gardens of the village of Fontaine. But they do make it back to the rest of the battalion, and Carstairs once again takes time to reflect–once again we are in the past tense.

Experience, at first stimulating, ends by draining the system. Through the high storm of enemy shelling I passed, with any capacity for registering further emotion at last microscopically diminished. I felt no fear because I could feel nothing more. Slithering down the steep and muddy flight of stairs into the dim interior of Battalion  Headquarters’ dugout was a purely mechanical performance, and its shadowy occupants unreal. Its gloom and earthen smell reminded my subconscious self of former rest and security, which acted soporifically upon me and, at the end of my narrative, I fell forward on to the table into a sleep more profound and dreamless than any I had ever known.

I woke into a strange world. The events of the preceding hours rushed kaleidoscopically upon me, leaving me to fit myself, like a piece in a picture puzzle, into my immediate surroundings.

The Battalion was soon to move. Billy was sitting with his head in his hands saying, “Oh, my head! Oh, my head!”
In the midst of the most acute anxiety, disappointment and distress, the Commanding Officer had patience to repeat for the nth time, “Poor Billy!”

The Adjutant and the Padre returned from a final futile hunt for the bodies of “Nibs” and “Mary.” “Missing, believed killed” they will remain until the end of time, with the rest of a generation missing.

A miserable and stricken little family, the survivors of the 3rd Battalion left the “line.”[1]

 

Once again, for the sake of stylistic comparison, we can match the memoir (or personal history) of one Guards’ Regiment officer with the official historian of another.

They led off at 6.20 behind their own barrage, in two waves… Everything was ready for them, and machine-guns opened on well-chosen and converging ranges. Almost at the outset they met a line of enemy posts held in strength, where many of the occupants had chosen to shelter themselves at the bottom of the trenches under oil- sheets, a protection hampering them equally in their efforts to fight or to surrender. Here there was some quick killing and a despatch of prisoners to the rear; but the Wood offered many chances of escape, and as our guards were necessarily few, for every rifle was needed, a number broke away and returned…

[T]he Battalion took half-a-dozen machine-guns and lost more men at each blind step… A man once down in the coppice, or bogged in a wood-pool, was as good as lost, and the in-and-out work through the trees and stumpage broke up the formations…

Nevertheless, the 2nd Irish Guards carry the wood–for a little while. The entire Battalion’s experience sounds much like that of Carstairs:

Not long after this, they tried to dig in among the wet tree-roots, just beyond the Wood’s north edge. It seemed to them that the enemy had fallen back to the railway-line which skirted it, as well as to the north of La Fontaine village. Officially, the objective was reached, but our attacking strength had been used up, and there were no reserves. A barrage of big stuff, supplemented by field-guns, was steadily thrashing out the centre and north of the Wood, and, somewhere to the rear of the Battalion, a nest of machine-guns broke out viciously and unexpectedly. Then the whole fabric of the fight appeared to crumble, as, through one or other of the many gaps between the Battalions, the enemy thrust in, and the 2nd Irish Guards, hanging on to their thin front line, realised him suddenly at their backs. What remained of them split up into little fighting groups; sometimes taking prisoners, sometimes themselves being taken and again breaking away from their captors, dodging, turning, and ducking in dripping coppices and over the slippery soil, while the shells impartially smote both parties…

It looked like complete and unqualified disaster. But men say that the very blindness of the ground hid this fact to a certain extent both from us and the enemy, and the multiplied clamours in the Wood supplied an additional blindage. As one man said: ‘If Jerry had only shut off his dam’ guns and listened he’d ha’ heard we was knocked out; but he kept on hammer-hammering an’ rushin’ his parties back and forth the Wood, and so, ye see, them that could of us, slipped back quiet in the height of the noise.’ Another observer compared it to the chopping of many foxes in cover — not pleasant, but diversified by some hideously comic incidents. All agreed that it was defeat for the Guards — the first complete one they had sustained; but the admitted fact that they had been turned on at a few hours’ notice to achieve the impossible, did not spoil their tempers…

One of the handful of company officers not to become a casualty, today, in Bourlon Wood, was R.E. Sassoon, Siegfried‘s second cousin, who had been held back as a reserve with battalion headquarters.

Cambrai may have given hope and encouragement in England, but those who had been through it remained Sadducees. There were those who said that that hour was the psychological one to have gone on and taken advantage of the moral effect of breaking the Hindenburg Line, but this theory was put forward after the event; and a total of eleven thousand prisoners and a hundred and forty-five German guns for three weeks’ fighting seems small foundation for such large hopes. Every one on the field seems to have been agreed as to the futility of trying to work with, and making arrangements for the keep of, masses of cavalry on the chance that these might break through and overrun the enemy in the background.[2]

 

True enough… but we were going to use Captain Sassoon as a segue to a letter from his second cousin’s friend, admirer, and poetic master-surpassing-pupil. Wilfred Owen, has settled into life as a military hotel manager of sorts, but this is only tolerable because of his confidence that his intellectual life is not just elsewhere but flourishing… there.

27 November 1917 Scarborough

I sit alone at last, and therefore with you, my dear Siegfried. For which name, as much as for anything in any envelope of your sealing, I give thanks and rejoice.

The 5th have taken over a big Hotel, of which I am Major Domo…

I had a Third Heaven of a time in London, arid should have got into a Fourth or Fifth if I had not missed you on Wednesday. Were you there for a ‘Reading?’ I know nothing of it to this day.

He was. Should Sassoon have included Owen? No–it was Ross’s gig, not Sassoon’s, and he was none too pleased to be there himself. Besides, Owen is not as established as Nichols, and arranging such things by letter and telegraph takes a bit more forethought than would be required nowadays… but Owen might also have been wrong for such things because he was not socially correct. He was neither low enough in the social order to be a curiosity nor high enough to be acceptable: he had been to neither Public School nor University, and Sassoon is painfully (read that adverb however you will) aware of Owen’s declassé accent.

After London, I went to Winchester to see my Cousin, whose fine Book cover with its enclosed pages I dare to send you herewith…

In Town, then, R.R. gave me a glorified morning at The Reform, & evening at Half Moon St.—When he had steered me to a lunch-table I found beside me an upstart rodent of a man, who looked astonished to find himself there. But dear Ross sang out with blessed distinctness ‘Mister Amnoldd Bennnettt’. So I stood up and shook hands.  Presently I became aware of a pair of bayonet-coloured eyes, threatening at me from over, as it were, a brown sandbag. ‘H. G. Wells!’ So I stood up and shook hands. I think these men noticed me because I stood up to them in two senses. Anyhow I got A.B. into a comer about you, as I will tell you someday. And H.G. talked to me exclusively for an hour. I was only ill at ease with him once, and that was when he tried to make me laugh with him at Bennett’s gaudy handkerchief.

If you have read through this rehashing of the non-momentous meetings with a roll of the eyes–that Owen is a bit too star struck!–it’s interesting to see what comes next. Even in this somewhat fawning letter to Sassoon, he is willing to, well, fawn, and only just after frankly wondering about Sassoon’s taste in his new friends…

What sport for my imagination is the idea of your Meeting with R. Nichols.—He is so self-concerned & vaniteux in his verse that I thought he must efface himself in a room: even as you who write so acid are so—unsoured; and me, who write so big, am so minuscule…

Oh! world you are making for me, Sassoon!

The only question is, which is the real gift: the criticism and the confidence, the poetic push, or, rather, the exciting entree into literary life?

Owen is quite amusing, actually, in his reading of Sassoon’s and Graves‘s work. There is something very charming about his light-spiritedness, even if he leans on it rather heavily. He presumes a bit too much on his intimacy with the sometimes-frosty Sassoon… but then he laughs at his own excessive glorying:

I think I liked reading his Letter to you more than yours to him, but for no better reasons than that I like the future better than the past, and hope you will learn the piccolo…

If these tetrameters aren’t enough to bring you to your senses. Mad Jack, what can my drivel effect to keep you from France?

Have you been very sat upon by this Board? Do tell me quick what your movements are.

I have studied and expanded every sentencience of your sole letter to me; until I can make no more out of it, and want some more, please…

Owen then–to his credit–at least passes on some of his cousin’s work, with apologetic notes on how to get through them most painlessly. But he also includes his own work, both the unpublished “A Vision of Whitechapel” and another poem, as strange as his mood:

My ‘Vision’ is the result of two hours’ leisure yesterday,—and getting up early this morning! If you have objections to make, would you return it? If not, pass it on to R.R.

I trust you’ll like the ‘Soldier’s Dream’ well enough to pass it on to the Nation or Cambridge?

Um…

I dreamed kind Jesus fouled the big-gun gears;
And caused a permanent stoppage in all bolts;
And buckled with a smile Mausers and Colts;
And rusted every bayonet with His tears.

And there were no more bombs, of ours or Theirs,
Not even an old flint-lock, not even a pikel.
But God was vexed, and gave all power to Michael;
And when I woke he’d seen to our repairs.

Sassoon will blush here–if not for the effusiveness, the nick-naming, and tje suddenly unreasonable-seeming hopes of publication, than for the plainness of one fact: Owen does not make a very good Sassoon. The punchy satirical style doesn’t work as well without the anger behind it… also, those are some awful rhymes.

No; Owen will realize, soon, that Sassoon’s attention and example have made him–Owen–a much better poet, and no mere fanboy. But he is that, also.

…There is no one here whose mind is Truth, or whose body Keats’s synonym for Truth.

I’ll mind my business. I’m a good worm.

Could you get me another portrait for my room here? I framed the one, and could not pack it.

But don’t make it an excuse for delaying a letter.

I hope you will read through this, twice.

I hope you read Graves’s Letter to S.S. twice a day, till war ends.

We have had some strong sunshine; and when it strikes anything blue I see you sitting by the bedside as on That Morning in September

I am Owen; and I am dying.
I am Wilfred; and I follow the Gleam.[3]

Never fear: this is not some sort of crazed or suicidal swerve at the end of the letter, but a quotation (read “Merlin” for both “Owen” and “Wilfred) from Tennyson’s “Merlin and The Gleam.” What a letter!

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Carstairs, A Generation Missing, 121-139.
  2. The Irish Guards in the Great War, II, 157-62.
  3. Collected Letters, 510-12.

Edmund Blunden Behind the Heroics; Siegfried Sassoon’s Editorial Impression on Wilfred Owen’s Anthem

Edmund Blunden missed his battalion’s last tour in the front lines of the Salient, as he returned from a signalling course only to be kept with the reserve. But…

This time I was wanted; my horse was sent back, and the Adjutant, Lewis, told me to go up immediately to the new front with him. No one knew, except in the vaguest form, what the situation was, or where it was.

Suddenly, therefore, I was plucked forth from my comparative satisfaction into a wild adventure. Lewis, a reticent man, hurried along, for the afternoon sun already gave warning, and to attempt to find our position after nightfall would have been madness. First of all he led his little party to our old familiar place, Observatory Ridge, and Sanctuary Wood, where we expected those once solid trenches Hedge Street and Canada Street; never was a transformation more surprising. The shapeless Ridge had lost every tree; the brown hummock, burst and clawed
up, was traversed by no trenches. Only a shallow half-choked ditch stood for Hedge Street or Canada Street, with the entrance to the dugouts there in danger of being buried altogether…

The eye was hurt with this abrupt skeleton of isolation. But farther off against the sunset one saw the hills beyond Mount Kemmel, and the deep and simple vision of Nature’s health and human worthiness again beckoned in the windmills resting there.

But Blunden will not be in the very front: with his new signalling expertise, he will be behind the fighting companies, coordinating communications from the headquarters dugouts, which are

…a set of huge square pillboxes on a bluff, which the low-shot light caused to appear steep and big.

This would bring us up to today, a century back,[,ref]See the War Diary of the 11th Royal Sussex, page 101 of the available pdf.[/ref] and Blunden now cedes the stage to the man of the hour.

What the companies in the forward craters experienced I never heard in detail. Their narrative would make mine seem petty and ridiculous. The hero was Lindsay Clarke… He took charge of all fighting, apparently, and despite being blown off his feet by shells, and struck about the helmet with shrapnel, and otherwise physically harassed, he was ubiquitous and invincible. While Clarke was stalking round the line in his great boots, poor Burgess in a pillbox just behind was wringing his hands in excess of pity, and his headquarters was full of wounded men. With him sat one Andrews, a brilliant young officer, not of our battalion, carrying on some duty of liaison with brigade headquarters. But as even we hardly ever had certain contact with him, his lot was not a happy one.

With this ominous note we will leave Blunden and return to Blighty, but Blunden’s is praise of Clarke is emphatically ratified by the ordinarily staid Battalion War Diary:

Capt. Clark counterattacked on our own front & gave the enemy no chance, running out into No Man’s Land to meet him after which he safeguarded our left flank by clearing the Germans from a dugout on the road. Our front therefore remained intact. Enemy’s artillery was of unprecedented violence and our casualties were heavy.

 

At Craiglockhart, near Edinburgh, Wilfred Owen produced another chatty and upbeat letter to his mother today, a century back–but with one crucial difference. After the news of Edinburgh society dinners, boy scout meetings and guest lectures of various sorts (ergotherapy in action!) comes this:

I am to be boarded today, and am waiting to be called in at any moment. Dr. Brock says I shall be given an extension.

I had one horrid night since I last wrote.

I send you my two best war Poems.

Sassoon supplied the title ‘Anthem’: just what I meant it to be….

Will write soon again. Your very own Wilfred x[1]

Given both the battle in Flanders and our dependence on Owen’s letters for actual dates, we have heard little of what Owen and Sassoon are up to in their writing and editing sessions. But it is now clear that the student has hurtled past the master.

While Owen, waiting for that medical board, enclosed “Anthem for Doomed Youth” in a letter to his mother, Sassoon was writing to Robbie Ross, bitterly mocking his new roomate in what only pretends to pass itself off as humor:

I hear an RWF friend of mine has had one arm amputated and will probably lose the other. As he was very keen on playing the piano this seems a little hard on him, but no doubt he will be all the better in the end. At least the Theosophist thinks so.

Love from Siegfried

Did you see my poem in the Cambridge Magazine for September 22?[2]

Sassoon is alerting Ross to the fact that he has just published “Editorial Impressions:”

He seemed so certain “all was going well,”
As he discussed the glorious time he’d had
While visiting the trenches.
One can tell
You’ve gathered big impressions!” grinned the lad
Who’d been severely wounded in the back
In some wiped-out impossible Attack.
“Impressions? Yes, most vivid! I am writing
A little book called Europe on the Rack,
Based on notes made while witnessing the fighting.
I hope I’ve caught the feeling of ‘the Line,’
And the amazing spirit of the troops.
By Jove, those flying-chaps of ours are fine!
I watched one daring beggar looping loops,
Soaring and diving like some bird of prey.
And through it all I felt that splendour shine
Which makes us win.”
The soldier sipped his wine.
“Ah, yes, but it’s the Press that leads the way!”

 

An effective satire, perhaps, but very mid-1917. The future of war poetry is with Owen, not Sassoon. His “Anthem” was worked over by Sassoon, and profited from his suggestions–their joint session, by the way, makes for an unusually effective scene of “literature in action” in Pat Barker’s Regeneration. But the poem is Owen’s work, and it is powerful. When finished, it will read like this:

 

Anthem for Doomed Youth

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
      — Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
      Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
      Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
      And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
      Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
      The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

At the medical board, Owen, despite and because of his good health, is granted a reprieve–an extension of his time at Craiglockhart under Dr. Brock’s care. More time with Sassoon, and more time to write.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 495-6.
  2. Diary, 187.

Kate Luard is Open For Business Once Again; Edwin Vaughan Heads Back to the Front; Wilfred Owen Drops his Cheek and Dreams of Vengeance

Through Kate Luard we learn today, a century back, that the offensive is lurching forward once more. Five miserable days of rain, followed by three dry days (not nearly enough to dry the mud) and then another downpour on the 8th had entirely halted the offensive. But yesterday and today were fairly clear, and better weather was in the offing. The major effort on the Gheluvelt plateau was aimed at capturing remaining objectives from July 31st–essentially the “black line” of secondary objectives rather than the furthest “green line.”

The Attack began on the two corners of the Salient to-day… A lot of abdominals and some femurs are still coming in… Sir Anthony Bowlby came round to-day… A bashed-to-pieces Officer with both legs, both arms, face and back wounded, gassed, and nearly blind, saluted with one bandaged arm… (Died at 8 a.m.)[1]

In an increasingly familiar pattern, the initial gains under a well-planned barrage will be considerable, then largely lost to German counter-attacks later in the day…

 

Edwin Vaughan has missed the battle so far–his unit is in reserve and he has been on leave. But now he returns, in a cascade of inauspicious signs. There was the night at the “hateful, uncomfortable, ill-administered rest camp” near Southampton, then a crossing in “a filthy old tub,” and then this welcome to the old battalion:

When I reached Jans-ter-Biezen, I found the Battalion on the other side of the road, sharing a large field with the Brigade Trench Mortar Battery. I received a cheery welcome and we had a happy little dinner of celebration, to which we invited Sullivan who is now with the TMBs. Later a Boche plane came across and dropped a lot of bombs—fortunately into the other camps. We were untouched but the night was rent with crashes, by the screams of archies and the frantic spluttering of Lewis guns.[2]

 

Lastly today, we are once again back in Britain with a shell-shocked officer. Wilfred Owen has been flourishing at Craiglockhart, but regaining self-confidence and a sense of balance and self-mastery is not the same as forgetting or moving past the war.

Tonight’s letter to his mother is both unusual and significant. It begins ordinarily enough, however, with reports in the old intimate-conversational style on the doings of the Field Club and his upcoming appearance in a play being put on by a group of patients, some with previous professional theater experience.

Friday Night

My own dear Mother,

The Field Club went a long walk over the Pentland foot-hills this afternoon… between us we managed to observe and philosophize the country to about half the extent that say Belloc would have done, had he taken that walk.

I held my own in the matter of Water Plants, and my ancient chippings at Geology came in useful… it is very kind of the Army to provide this free-and-easy Oxford for me. It was a unique walk. We had lunch on the roadside, and tea in a cottage…

I read your letter by a waterfall. The Parcel has not yet come. Many thanks for the considerable trouble of packing it off. Where then is my green cap? So glad you thought of socks. The Expense will be refunded by the Club. I forgot to tell you this…

But it is through his mother’s report of her intended charitable work that Owen’s thoughts turn from his activities back to their looming, inescapable context. The next statement, unfortunately, also obliges us to overlook casual racism in order to see his point. It is a bad example, too–the “white man’s burden” is not the main thrust of the thought here. Instead, Owen’s rejection of Christianity as it is practiced by the belligerents moves from a diffident satiric pose toward purposeful, concerted, protest. The stock reference to the “heathen” other points us back to the culprit: Christianity, yes, but as it is embodied in what Owen sees as a deeply hypocritical “civilized” culture.

I’m overjoyed that you think of making bandages for the wounded. Leave Black Sambo ignorant of Heaven. White men are in Hell. Aye, leave him ignorant of the civilization that sends us there, and the religious men that say it is good to be in that Hell.

(Continued, because important) Send an English Testament to his Grace of Canterbury, and let it consist of that one sentence, at which he winks his eyes:

‘Ye have heard that it hath been said: An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:

But I say that ye resist not evil, but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.’

And if his reply be ‘Most unsuitable for the present distressing moment, my dear lady! But I trust that in God’s good time . . . etc.’—then there is only one possible conclusion, that there are no more Christians at the present moment than there were at the end of the first century.

Toward protest, I think–but he is not all the way there. To act out these intentions in a fantasy in a letter to his mother is a very different thing than taking on the church–or, more generally, patriotic militarist cant–in public writing. It’s hard to tell how much Owen means this mood (indeed, he will write tomorrow that he does not trust himself to re-read the letter) but this is still more than mere maudlin sentimentality.

While I wear my star and eat my rations, I continue to take care of my Other Cheek; and, thinking of the eyes I have seen made sightless, and the bleeding lad’s cheeks I have wiped, I say: Vengeance is mine, I, Owen, will repay…

The emotion is genuine, and even if the conviction is not fully empowered to production, he’s on the cusp. Dominic Hibberd, working from the physical remains of the archive rather than the printed text, notes that “[t]he handwriting of this letter, scribbled late at night on 10 August 1917, slants awkwardly across the page, and around the phrase ‘made sightless’ there are marks that could be blots or tears.[3]

Or perspiration, or archival water damage… or tears. The last few letters might have led us to believe that Owen’s course of ergotherapy and his intense-yet-superficial bond with his mother are healing his outer self without addressing the inward–yet intellectual–revulsion stemming from his war experience. Owen still doubts whether these grand phrases and feelings can quite be trusted:

I fear I’ve written like a converted Horatio Bottomley.

And to you who need no such words.

That is why I want you not to destroy them; for I write so because I see clear at this moment. In my eye there is no mote nor beam, when I look through you across the world…[4]

And that intensity of vision will, I think, now be essential to his growth as a poet. The rhetoric is not there, but the habit of unrestrained emotional outpouring–albeit in prose, and to a completely supportive audience–has readied him to write something that, unlike Sassoon‘s tortured attempt to wrestle a gift for satire into a posture of humane protest, can transmute the suffering of the soldiers into effective, moving poetry.

All that he needs is someone to reorient his gifts and his gaze, and give him a little push…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Unknown Warriors, 142.
  2. Some Desperate Glory, 188-9.
  3. Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 262.
  4. Collected Letters, 482-4.

Ivor Gurney on Severn and Somme and Aircraft Above; Kate Luard’s Picnic Interrupted; The Master of Belhaven Bracketed; Sassoon is Free to Act… and Sit;

Ivor Gurney wrote to Marion Scott today, a century back, of dog-fights and poetry.

4 June 1917

My Dear Friend:

Fritzs aeroplanes are ever so high above us, and shrapnel is bursting round them; shrapnel which never seems to fall anywhere. This is an old and stale game to us, would there were here in our place men who would be interested in such things…

As it happens, Kate Luard is. Her unit is packing up and moving to the Ypres Salient, which affords her a day of country-walk leisure to take in just such sorts of sights which, while not completely unfamiliar, are far less frequent a few miles back then they will be in the closer confines of the Ypres Salient.

Like many veterans, Luard is assiduous about finding havens of peace whenever the war gives her respite. But this is getting harder and harder, and the relative novelty of fighter planes does not change the fact that they rather spoil the country-walk feel…

June 4, 1917

Today I took a book, a cigarette, the 4 last Birch bullseyes and a sun umbrella to a green valley with a running stream where I paddled and dried my feet in the sun while Bristol fighters and tri-planes came and took photographs of them to send to HQ with their photos of German positions. Whatever lovely Peace is about you there is always War in the sky.  Now it’s blue, with larks singing in it.[1]

And if Gurney’s letter fails to mention larks–for shame!–it does bring up the pastoral (or riparian?) title that will be affixed to his coming poetry collection. His comments on this title are amusing:

The title “Severn and Somme” might sell the book a little better. It sounds like a John Bull poster, but otherwise there is nothing objectionable about it. Severn people may buy if Somme people dont: my French not being equal to translation of works so delicate of language. At present my desire is to get the thing off my chest, and my chest out of Khaki. (Please excuse dirt.)[2]

 

The Master of Belhaven, also recently reassigned ahead of the coming “push” at Messines, is also mixing peacetime riverside joys with martial realities… but in memory, only. Today was all guns…

Zillebeke, 4th June, 1917

What a 4th of June! I wonder if they are having the procession of boats at Eton today; certainly we can compete with them for fireworks; there has been nothing like it before. Our guns and the Germans’ roar night and day and never stop for a moment…

After being shelled in a staff car on the way to a Divisional conference, Hamilton decided to ride back on horseback, avoiding the roads so well known to the German gunners.

I took the new sand track and was able to canter for the first two miles without drawing rein. I could have ridden farther, but when I got into the area that is shelled at night there were so many dead horses lying on the road that my mare began to object. I don’t blame her, as she could not hold a handkerchief to her nose like I did…

On arrival at my own brigade I found that A and D had been heavily shelled whilst I was away. D had bad luck, a 5.9 shell crashing into one of their gun-pits and killing two and wounding seven men. I do not think it was meant for them at all, but was a bad shot for A Battery. The Hun has “bracketed” them with a 25 yrd. bracket, so I have warned Dallas to look out for trouble…[3]

This increase in accurate counter-battery fire is not the best of signs for the coming offensive…

 

Finally, today, Siegfried Sassoon left Chapelwood Manor, his convalescence now entering what should be it’s final stage, namely a month’s leave. But his time amidst the luxury, quiet beauty, and atmosphere of haughty insensibility to the war’s costs has done more than any miserable battle to make a radical of him.

My discontent was now simmering rebellious and had acquired an added momentum. I went up to London resolved to write something more definitely antagonistic than the satiric epigrams in The Cambridge Magazine.

This would be, among others, Base Details. But back to Sassoon:

Four weeks of independence were ahead of me and I meant to make the most of them. I would go to Garsington and investigate the war situation by talking to the Morrells and Bertrand Russell… Meanwhile I was to be in London during the next two weeks. One reason for this was that Robbie [Ross] has arranged with Glyn Philpot that he should do a drawing of me, and more than a single sitting would be needed…[4]

Glyn Philpot’s portrait of Sassoon (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge)

So… not to hit the issues of privilege too hard, here, but: Sassoon is preparing his protest on behalf of the troops–voiceless, politically powerless men who might be killed any day–but, while he is doing so, he will spend the better part of a fortnight sitting for Philpot and sharing sumptuous teas after each session… It’s a bargain, though: due to some combination of Ross’s influence and Sassoon’s charm, Philpot has decided to paint a portrait of Sassoon while only charging him for the originally-planned drawing–50 guineas, rather than 500 pounds.

But despite Robbie Ross’s influence–not to mention the belief of Robert Graves and other friends that Sassoon is poised to accept a safe job, perhaps training cadets at Cambridge as Graves is doing at Oxford–Sassoon is making slow and (for him) steady plans for revolt. He will stay at his club, for instance, rather than with Ross, so as to have an independent base of operations. And in addition to Russell and the Morrells, he has already taken the initiative of writing to a foremost anti-war publisher…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Unknown Warriors, 204.
  2. War Letters, 165.
  3. War Diary, 299-301.
  4. Siegfried's Journey, 48-9. See also Moorcroft Wilson, I, 370.

A.P. Herbert at Zero Hour; Siegfried Sassoon is Satisfied with Praise; Wilfred Owen Contemplates a Wound Stripe

A.P. Herbert, finds–exactly as Siegfried Sassoon did, three days ago–that no matter how far from the trenches he might be, his thoughts are inevitably drawn home. Well, that’s not quite right. They are drawn, geographically speaking, away from what had been home and out toward the old battalion, fighting a foreign war. Soldiers in the trenches long for Blighty, but, once there, they realize that it is hard to leave their band of brothers without feeling some guilt of survival and abandonment. Is home a place, or a community? The experiential gulf casts this old question into new and troubling relief.

And so Herbert finds himself thinking of those brothers in arms, out there, waiting to attack. But Herbert writes for Punch, and the style is very different from Sassoon’s. Caught between a serious subject and a humorous style, this comes perilously close to doggerel.

 

Zero

(“Zero-hour”—commonly known as ” Zero “—is the hour fixed for the opening of an Infantry attack.)

I woke at dawn and flung the window wide.
Behind the hedge the lazy river ran;
The dusky barges idled down the tide;
In the laburnum tree the birds began;
And it was May, and half the world in flower;
I saw the sun creep over an Eastward brow,
And thought, “It may be, this is Zero-hour;
Somewhere the lads are ‘going over’ now.”

Somewhere the guns speak sudden on the height.
And build for miles their battlement of fire;
Somewhere the men that shivered all the night
Peer anxious forth and scramble through the wire,
Swarm slowly out to where the Maxims bark.
And green and red the panic rockets rise;
And Hell is loosed, and shyly sings a lark,
And the red sun climbs sadly up the skies…

Yes, there’s the lark, uncomfortably rhymed with a machine gun’s noise. The description of the fight in the next several stanzas reads as semi-parodic, and is fairly clunky, so we’ll skip it. But the doggerel can still drive home one of the increasingly obvious truths of the literature of this war, namely that no description, no matter how skillful, can both describe and situate its experience. It doesn’t take a Hemingway to figure out that proper names wield special power in a static war, and when Herbert rhymes “Gavrelle” with hell, the former is more compelling. He doesn’t quite have the poetic power to pull this off, but he’s made a decent run at a powerful theme.

I see it all. I see the same brave souls
To-night, to-morrow, though the half be gone,
Deafened and dazed, and hunted from their holes.
Helpless and hunger-sick, but holding on
I shall be happy all to-morrow here,
But not till night shall they go up the steep.
And, nervous now because the end is near.
Totter at last to quietness and to sleep.

And men who find it easier to forget
In England here, among the daffodils,
That Eastward there are fields unflowered yet.
And murderous May-days on the unlovely hills–
Let them go walking where the land is fair.
And watch the breaking of a morn in May,
And think, “It may be Zero over there,
But here is Peace” — and kneel awhile, and pray.

And speaking of Sassoon, if there is one word of praise that matters most to him, and one friendly rival he is most likely to crow to about it, well: Sassoon wrote today to Robert Graves, confiding that “Hardy of Wessex” praised a number of his poems, which he then lists. After that, some delicious understatement. This praise…

…is satisfactory. I did not expect him to be very excited, but to appreciate the grim humour which he is so capable of judging.[1]

Satisfactory! Sassoon is at work, too, on the poem “Supreme Sacrifice,” which will scathingly contrast the opinions of his hosts, “aged Earls and Countesses, who have outlived their austere emotions,” and the grim fates of young fighters.

Finally, today, Wilfred Owen is very put out, but only because he has not yet been put out. The 13th Casualty Clearing Station has disappeared, and in its place the 41st Stationary Hospital has arisen–but both, it seems, were intended to specialize in the treatment of what is variously being described as war neurosis, neurasthenia, or shell shock. This is clear enough in the letter, but it’s notable, still, that Owen avoids directly mentioning it.

23 May 1917

41st Stationary Hospital

Dearest Mother,

I wondered why it was such an effort to write the short notes of a day or two ago. I have discovered that I had a temperature of 102.9, so it was not surprising. I am still feverish but on the right side of 100°. I suppose it is Trench Fever, which has been incubating all this time, but they don’t say what it is and I don’t think they know.

I have had a wretched enough time, not from the fever in myself but from the stew that the whole hospital has got into. A completely new staff from England has taken over. The old people cleared off bag and baggage, bed & bedding, before even the new things arrived. They did put us in some sort of beds, but otherwise they stripped the ward stark, taking even the drugs. There was not left one chair, one mug, one teapot, one rug, one screen. ‘They took the very ashtrays to which indeed they were welcome, for they are not worth a farthing, and I don’t smoke.

No, I could no more smoke a cigarette than any unborn chicken…

A smoke screen of complaint thus laid, Owen rather contrarily girds himself and plows right through it. What follows is his most concerted attempt yet to face–and to prepare his mother to face–the fact that he is suffering from a psychological wound. With raised eyebrow he airily tries out some weighty arguments. We know, of course, that he is not wrong. But not all that many would have agreed, in 1917.

It is quite likely that I shall appear in the Casualty List, as Neurasthenia is marked W(ound) not S(ick)—not wrongly I think. I know that Capt. Sorrel was mentioned for Shock, and that some persons wear gold stripes for neurasthenia!

Many more are worn for bullet grazes which did not more harm than a needle-scratch…

Yours ever W.E.O. X

The new staff of the hospital will no doubt start unpacking today. But I shall never get over my indignation at the manner of the Relief![2]

References and Footnotes

  1. Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 359.
  2. Collected Letters, 462-3.

Siegfried Sassoon Converses on England, and Sacrifice, with a Proper English Lady; Edwin Vaughan’s Patrol; Henry Williamson on Magazines and Mule Races; Rowland Feilding’s Scruples

Edwin Vaughan and his company commander had a minor adventure in No Man’s Land in the wee hours of last night, a century back. It left him feeling confident and accomplished… and eager to contest the ground with the Germans opposite.

At about 12 noon I woke and, while Dunham still slept, I wormed my out under the oilsheet which screened the front of our hole, and standing erect in the trench I met a fresh sweet breeze and clear, warm sunlight that made me glowing and alert in a moment.  Raising my arms in a luxurious stretch I rose on tiptoe and looked round the stretch of ground behind me–a slight valley of long coarse grass thickly strewn with poppies and dog daisies…

The calm and silence seemed as fragile, and the sky as dainty, as the picture on a Dresden plate…

What could go wrong? Vaughan visits his men in their posts as they while away the day reading, day-dreaming, or cleaning their rifles…

Not a sound could be heard but the tinkle of a button stick in the next recess, until without warning there was a mighty crash and a spray of earth and stones fell over us as we flung ourselves against the trench side.

A high-velocity shell bursting 30 yards in front had effectively broken the spell and as Wood climbed back into his recess, I hurried back to mine–not that these holes afford the slightest protection, except against small splinters, but as a rabbit seeks its burrow, so we each dash to our own hole for safety. Dunham was standing in the trench with a tin of pork and beans in his hand and a look of mingled surprise and indignation on his face.

In January this would have occasioned a day of cowering terror–but Vaughan is a tyro no longer. Mere whizz-bangs! This threat they laugh off, or wish away… and the day passes. Later, Vaughan goes out to meet Radcliffe, the company commander. They are out in the open, along a segment of the line where a rise in the ground screens them from German observation.

We were still in the open near the right post when I grabbed his arm and we stood motionless. I had heard the faint crack of a ‘grenatenwerfer’–forgotten since Biaches–and after a faint short swish the bomb burst with a sharp shattering crash and a spurt of yellow sparks–overhead!

Immediately a cold fear gripped me, for I realized instantly that there was no cover from these. It was no use lying down, for their burst was downward and they were immediately overhead. We waited for several minutes, and as the fire was not repeated I cheered myself by saying that this was only an accidental premature, and that the ground busters were quite harmless.

But this hope was soon shattered, for suddenly there came a persistent stream of them all bursting at the same height over our lines. The fragments whizzed past us and struck the ground with horrid thuds, and our nerves were terribly racked. But reaching my post we found the troops taking not the slightest notice of them, so in feigned nonchalance we strolled along, chaffing the NCOs and questioning the sentries until the ‘pineapples’ ceased–15 minutes later.

Another false alarm. Or, not so much false as… merely alarming. But the night’s business is still ahead: will they be able to assert their dominance of the wide swath of No Man’s Land, or cede it to German patrols and working parties?

Radcliffe was taking his patrol out from my right post, so I waited there while he went back to fetch them, then one by one we passed through the gap in the wire and crouched in the wet grass until the formation was complete. We advanced in jumps, Raddy and I creeping forward with a runner, scenting the ground for 50 yards at a time, and then sending the runner back for the patrol. After a while we got tired of this, so we left the patrol where it was and we two crept on alone until we reached a junction of two roads that ran across No Man’s Land. The road was sunken and as we approached we heard faint voices and, looking over the bank, there, hard at work digging a hole, were eight or ten large Boche.

This odd locution–are these singular-plural Boche beasts to be hunted?–is yet another sign of Vaughan’s new veteran’s posture.

We were neither surprised nor alarmed. We just lay watching them amusedly for a couple of minutes, then crawled off back to the patrol. I was wondering what on earth induced them to dig holes in No Man’s Land, when a figure almost upright hurried past us and was lost in the darkness behind. So we stood up then and ran back to where our lads were lying chilled, wet and fed up. Quickly we told them what we had seen, and in a moment they were alert and we set off together–out for blood.

Alas! When we reached the crossroads nothing remained of the working party but a few chalky shovels. Se we had to be content with firing a few rounds down the road after them, and then we walked back, laughing and talking, whilst four of the silly asses marched the shovels between them with great ceremony and exaggerated caution as though they were enemy prisoners

This little jaunt has left us with our tails well up, and I, for one, am very keen on No Man’s Land. I fully appreciate the truth of the maxim that was dinned into us during training–‘Fighting patrols are the finest stiffeners of morale’..[1]

Vaughan, who has been so honest about his fears and insecurities, can thus perhaps be trusted on this matter a bit farther than we might ordinarily credit a diary drafted in post-patrol exhilaration. And–while not hoping (if that makes any sense, here, a century on) for more violence–it is interesting to note that this confidence-building patrol produces neither useful intelligence nor some “positive” attritional score. It’s a riskier version of “live and let live,” and it is certainly good for morale, and/but no harm was done. So–good!

But other units would have counted the escape of these Germans on consecutive nights as a failure to be sufficiently effectively bloodthirsty.

 

We have several more writers to get to, and today’s letter from Rowland Feilding contains no similarly dramatic descriptions of military escapades. But it’s worth our time as an excellent example of what makes his letters to his wife so valuable. Their promised commitment to honesty is neither fudged for the sake of their worries nor elided for matters of convenience. This couple monitors the gulf between them with the scrupulous intensity of responsible inspectors of public works, and so keep their connection as strong as possible and maintain the future historical value of their correspondence.

May 15, 1917 – Kemmel Shelters.

I feel disappointed when I get a letter from you telling me of troubles with servants, whom war and the high wages of the munition works seem to have so thoroughly unsettled. I hate picturing you in the midst of such annoyances, especially as there is nothing I can say or do can help you. Contrariwise, this remark no doubt applies equally to my stories to you of the goings on here, and I often wonder if I am right in keeping the promise I made you when I first came out to hide nothing from you.

The very fact of my being here must cause you intense anxiety, and, as I am helpless in the case of the servant problem, so it is equally true that there is nothing you can do to deter the enemy from any villainy he may contemplate.

And I continue writing to you of all the dangers of the war, remembering that you once said that if I hid anything you
would know it, and only imagine worse things than were really happening.[2]

 

Other correspondents are less reliable, not to mention less considerate about their addressee’s feelings. Henry Williamson is in rare form once again. Yesterday, he wrote to his mother a letter that–for all that I skip the most repetitive ones–you may feel as if you had read before:

Dear Mother,

Thank you for the little letter. Of course you always pile the agony on, dont you. Why am I a hero? I tell you frankly I would rather be here than at home–because out here I cant spend money, and also I have quite as good a time. I shant be going in any more attacks–as it is proved, thank God, that a T.O. is essential to send up supplies, etc during one… Of course one may die any second by hostile shelling, but even then, one has a sporting chance of seeing the war through…

Well mother, will you please give an order to a newsagent…

Now please dont forget… For heavens sake let this be the last request for these papers. Well I cant write any more now. Love to all. Harry.

His timing is as impeccable as his deportment. Today, a century back:

My dear Mother,

Thanks for the two bundles of papers etc arrived today. By the way, you never answered my query about how many boxes of souvenirs you got–I sent two tin boxes off, then a box of helmets, then a sandbag…  what about the first box?

We are having tomorrow some sports in the Transport Section…

I am willing to wager a good deal that–provided the box of almost definitely not live souvenir grenades made it past the censors and through the post–Mrs. Williamson did away with them rather swiftly.

In any case, there’s no sign that the grenades made it into Williamson’s archive… although a program for this Transport Section sport competition did. There are twelve events listed, most of them some variation on a mule race…

Did Henry participate? Perhaps not. But in the novel Philip Maddison got second place, riding a mule named Jimmy…[3]

 

Two days ago I posed the question of whether Siegfried Sassoon, recuperating in what sounds like an impossibly pleasant environment, redolent of his prewar country idylls, can possibly progress in his writing–the writing that was increasingly focused on protesting the horrors of war.

Well, yes and no…

May 15

Marvell’s poems are the best vintage for these days of tranquillity. In the morning I wake to hear a gardener whetting his scythe beyond the yew-hedges. And I know that a tree of silver blossom shakes in the morning sunshine above his head, and a blackbird sings to all the world, crying that, life is fresh and sweet and jolly.

Ye glow–worms, whose officious flame
To wandering mowers shows the way.
That in the night have lost their aim.
And after foolish fires do stray.[4]

And in the afternoon I breathe the country air blown up from weald and wood—the smell of earth after rain, the kindest smell that ever came to make me glad.

All the morning I sit under oaks and beeches in the glory of young leaves, a book on my knee—John Morley on some eighteenth-century Frenchman, the kind of book where one can read a page or two and then turn to the morning sky and the garden and the distant line of downs as infinitely preferable, like listening to a bird singing, outside the church during a dry sermon) as one watches, the shadows of leaves and wings against the coloured windows…

It would seem, then, that the only things Sassoon might be inclined to write are backsliding pastoral poems or, perhaps, a time-travel jeu d’esprit in which he falls into a fountain and emerges dripping to hold a conversation with a young Marie Antoinette.

Well, yes and no. Here’s what comes next in the notebook:

 

A Conversation

He told her how he’d been trying to make up his mind. It was all quite simple; a tale re-told in many hearts. Twice he had been to the war, and twice had come home wounded; and now his friends had half-persuaded him to take a ‘safe job’.

She listened to him, with her grey hair and tired white face, kind, aristocratic and emotionless, leaning a little forward over a piece of embroidery. She represented the patrician distinctions that he had fought for—the climbing woods and green fields that soldiers learn to love when death is over them. She was a Great Lady. And he was only a poet; but he knew that life was taking shape in his heart, and reputation a thing of small value compared with his hidden passion, for utterance and truth and beauty. For a while he thought that she understood.

He spoke without reserve of his longing for life and the task that lay before him, setting against it his mystical joy in the idea of sacrifice and the disregard of death. ‘But death is nothing’, she said, putting away her high-bred reserve like a rich cloak; ‘Life, after all, is only the beginning. And those who are killed in the war—they help us from “up there”, they are all helping us to win.’

For a moment he was struck dumb: he had forgotten that he spoke to an alien intelligence, that would not suffer the rebellious creed that was his. She was a good woman as well as a Great Lady. But her mind dwelt in another kingdom from his. He was the starry wind on the hills, arid the beast writhing in the mire, the strange traveller who had come to her gates and had been suffered to sit by the fire and rest his tired limbs. What was this ‘other world’ that she spoke of? It was a dream he had forgotten years ago–the simplicity of his childish prayers, the torment of his mocking youth that denied the God of priests, and triumphed in the God of skies and waters.

She spoke again, kind yet unrelenting, from the dais of her noble rank. ‘It isn’t as if you were an only child, with a big place to inherit. No; I can’t see any excuse for your keeping out of danger.’ And again, half-compassionate yet still tinged with the prejudice of caste, ‘But of course you can only decide a thing like that for yourself.’ And he knew she was right. He was heir to a dukedom that would never exist in the Peerage that moulded her judgements. Had he been the only son of an accredited Lord Parnassus, she would have said, in her clear firm voice: ‘The name must be preserved; it would never do for the place to go to that impossible creature in Canada.’

I suppose it would do, here, to break in and remark that, while Sassoon is no duke–and while his first actual trade publication (not that should measure Parnassian accomplishment, but still) is only days old–it is still the case that his mother owns a considerable property in Kent, that he has always been rich enough to keep horses and hunt (and never work a regular job) and that his only surviving brother is currently in Canada… A century on, with the Lords and Ladies very much faded and their estates eaten up, donated to the National Trust, or, if preserved, likely to be dwelt in by aging rock stars or financial necromancers, it’s hard to comprehend that Sassoon could have so easily assumed that the fundamental class divide is on the far side of his own status…

In any case, here in the century-back, Siegfried Sassoon, recuperating in a Stately Home in Sussex, is gently, ruminatively nibbling on the hand that has been feeding him. And nibbles have been known to turn to worries… So where are we, the readers, in the satirical reception of this piece?

But she would pray for him with all the strength of her generous perfect-mannered soul. And when he had died of his wounds she would say: ‘He was such a good boy, I am sure he is happier ‘‘up there’’. And he did so splendidly.’

And he would rot in his shallow grave, with all his plays and poems blown away on the smoke of some senseless battle—because his name was not worth preserving, and his ‘place’ was only a little book of the songs he had made, bidding farewell to earth as he stood on the verge of his promised kingdom. For he was not even the younger son of an obscure barony; he was only a poet who used to read the Bible for the glory of the language.
But death forgives many things; and he had died for England, after all.[5]

There’s the satiric manner that all of London’s reviewers are now grappling with, anyway.

It would seem that the Great Lady of this sketch is very closely based on his hostess, Lady Brassey, who was a baroness, the sister of an earl, and the daughter of a viscount. Her serene spiritual confidence in the propriety of his getting killed seems to have rubbed Sassoon the wrong way, for some reason…  let us hope that there is less journal-thievery here than in other great houses…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Some Desperate Glory, 117-21.
  2. War Letters to a Wife, 174-5.
  3. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 150-1; Love and the Loveless, 
  4. Andrew Marvell. ‘The Mower to the Glow-worms’, according to Sassoon's note--or not; Jean Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 567, notes that the reference is "almost certainly" to "Damon the Mower."
  5. Diaries, 164-7.

Francis Ledwidge Remembers Spring; F.S. Flint Dines With the Inimitable Ford, Who “Still Invents His Life, Rather;” Dirty Rhymes from Siegfried Sassoon; Good News Brings No Relief to Edward Thomas; Bob Hermon Arrives in Arras

We’ll open today with Francis Ledwidge, minding poetry’s seasonal business. Is it spring, yet, in France? No; but it is Spring at home, in a sense:

Spring

Sweet by the river’s noisy brink
The water-lily bursts her crown,
The kingfisher comes down to drink
Like rainbow jewels falling down.

And when the blue and grey entwine
The daisy shuts her golden eye,
And peace wraps all those hills of mine
Safe in my dearest memory.

France,
March 8th, 1917.

 

Next comes an amusing letter to Richard Aldington from his friend, fellow Imagist, and frequent correspondent F.S. Flint. Aldington, I often forget, was once private secretary to Ford Madox Hueffer:

…I had a telephone call yesterday, and a voice said. Is that you, Flint. I’m Ford Madox Hueffer! Good god, I cried. Yes, can you come and dine with me to-night? –Rather, where can I meet you? So I met him at 5.30 outside Shipwrights, the barber’s, in Coventry Street. We walked to his lodging in the Y.M.C.A. bungalow at Victoria, thence by way of the R.C. Cathedral to the Authors’ Club, where we had a sherry and bitters… we proceeded by way of the tube to the Rendezvous in Soho, where Ford spend [sic] 16/6 on a dinner consisting of Chambertin (I think), hors d’oeuvres varies, salmon and turkey, large helpings of each, to keep within the three course limit. Thence we returned in a taxi to the Authors’ Club, where I took down a list of the poems Ford wants collected in a volume which he wants me to look after.

He had already asked me from France to do this, but I like a churl refused in beautiful French and sent him Poverty. I repented in a few days… and sent him another letter begging his pardon, and accepting the job. He had had neither of these letters. Ford is very quiet, some great change has taken place in him. He says he is going to stay in the Army and not write another book. He laughed when I chaffed him and pointed out the inconsistency of this declaration with his wanting me to pilot a book of poems for him. But he is changed. He is no longer the fat man he was, and he is uglier, and there is another look in his eyes. He still invents his life rather, but I felt that he was rather down and out. Here is a poem I have written as a result of our meeting. It has not come off, but I feel that if I concentrate on it again, it will come out all right…[1]

No, the poem does not quite come off. But what a description of Ford! Changed, and yet unchanged in his total changeability–gorging himself, but on a budget; forswearing art but pushing his war poems. The down-and-outness seems just right, and the propensity for fabulation is something we have been tracing ever since Ford started writing of his experiences in France last summer. And yet can Flint, loyal modernist of the younger generation, have any idea that Ford’s tendency to mythologize his own life will lead to a great fat brilliant beast of a war novel?

 

Things with Edward Thomas could be better–he’s stuck doing office work away from his battery, where he might be doing something to alleviate the feelings of uselessness and loneliness that have been tugging him down toward depression. But things could also be much worse: he’s had a walk, and a good word from across the pond.

Snow blizzard—fine snow and fierce wind… but suddenly a blue sky and soft white cloud through the last of the snow… I liked the walk. Letters from Helen, Eleanor, Oscar and Frost (saying he had got an American publisher for my verses). [2]

Thomas wrote back to Eleanor Farjeon the same day–but there is little of the good cheer we might have hoped for:

March 8

My dear Eleanor, Another letter from you today. I think I already owed you one, but was waiting for the Fortnum and Mason to arrive. It hasn’t done so yet, so I won’t wait any longer, though I doubt if I can do much tonight. I have become rather fed up by this job. It has meant a lot of idle cold hours indoors, a lot of dissatisfaction with myself and some with other people. The Colonel here, though a charming and often entertaining man, is very tyrannical and I have done many trivial things that annoyed me to have to do. Also the nights have been disturbing. I must expect that, but of course artillery in a city is exceptionally noisy. As a matter of fact though I fall asleep very quickly both on putting out my candle and after being wakened up by the fear of God. You mustn’t joke about leave. There is no leave for anyone in this army, neither for men who have been out 9 months nor for men whose wives are dying. If I come back it will be wounded or at the end of the war, I don’t mind which…

This is a poor letter for you. I hope it will find you in fine weather in your cottage garden and able to imagine me much better off than in this belated frost.

Can this be a peevish sort of joke? (The “frost,” I mean, not this early-onset hope for a blighty one.)

…I have heard from Frost—or Helen did, saying he had found a pushbike, but too late, I suspect.[3]

 

The bad mood would seem to be general, though manifesting very differently in our different poets. Siegfried Sassoon wrote to Robbie Ross today, a century back, including in the letter satiric verse both unusual and unsettling. In “The Optimist,” Sassoon has a dull-witted officer spout clichés about soundly beating the Germans–the usual skewering of safe staff officers, at least until it is revealed that the speaker has suffered a head wound… The poem will be published soon, but Sassoon will regret this… it’s not a very satisfactory satire.

The second bit of verse he included was never intended for publication. We have seen the unfortunate conjoining of Sassoon’s snobbery and prudery descend upon the young Welsh officers out for the first time–really, the Sassoon who bemoans the murder of youth should be in sympathy with them. But not if they are speaking with uncouth accents and patronizing the local prostitutes. Hoping to entertain the “unshockable” Robbie Ross, Sassoon archly pities the “poor harlots… how tired they must be of the Welsh dialect and the Lloyd George embrace!”

But the verse is even worse:

She met me on the stairs in her chemise;
I grinned and offered her a five franc note;
Poor girl, no doubt she did her best to please;
But I’d have been far happier with a goat.

This is obnoxious, but one could choose to read it as merely a juvenile rhyme, a nasty private joke. The Royal Welch, after all, have a regimental goat, and such jokes… But that would be to deny that this, too, might be a window into Sassoon’s conflicted character, “a particularly virulent manifestation of Sassoon’s distaste for heterosexual activity.”[4] Perhaps–but Robert Graves, in principle and later practice an enthusiastic heterosexual–was just as snobbish/prudish and cutting about the sordid business of young soldiers and military brothels.

 

We’ll end with a sharp turn back toward traditional family values then, and check in with Bob Hermon:

My darling,

Your letter about the lovely weather is most encouraging but as I happen to be sitting in a house without any glass in the windows & as it is snowing hard, I fail to see it! I am in the big town close handy to were I was…

I rode down here yesterday in the most biting cold wind I ever remember…[5]

The big town is Arras–Hermon’s battalion, too, is being moved into position for the next big push…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Imagist Dialogues. 196-7.
  2. War Diary (Childhood), 168.
  3. Farjeon, Edward Thomas... 254-5.
  4. Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, 325-7.
  5. For Love and Courage, 334-5.

Siegfried Sassoon Goes to Town, and Writes of Base Details and Lofty Imaginings; Also: Tolkien Encouraged; Henry Williamson on the Somme; Moncrieff in the Cathedral; Thomas Hardy on Prisoners; Edward Thomas Queries the Incoming

On the most martial day in the calendar–“March Forth!”–Siegfried Sassoon, a century back, did. In verse. In body he was lolling about, still stuck in Rouen’s massive base, released from hospital but moldering, deedless, without any responsibilities, awaiting assignment to a line battalion. So he did what any angry young man might do, and got the best luncheon he could, at the Hôtel de la Poste, and thought nasty thoughts about the other diners.

I was a bit tentative when I first discussed Sassoon’s prose sketches at Rouen–and a good thing, too. I’m not sure how to read Jean Moorcroft-Wilson’s suggested dating of lunch, prose description, and poem[1]–but I don’t think we can know for certain since Sassoon evidently flipped around in his pocket notebook (beautifully scanned by the University of Cambridge), using different sections for notes, sketches, poem drafts, and the chronological diary. But I would hazard a guess that he did not write “Lunch on Sunday in Rouen” until today, a century back. The published diary prints the sketches immediately after the February 27th entry, but it makes more sense to assume that the luncheon took place today, when the dated diary entry confirms that Sassoon left the camp for a day in Rouen proper. Even if the lunch was earlier, today’s trip to Rouen certainly gave rise to at least one poem (about church-going–see below), and it seems likely that Sassoon lunched, saw the church, went for a walk, returned to camp, wrote the sketches, and then, afterward, the two poems. Sassoon, at least, dates both poems “March 4th,” then again this might be a smoking gun of autobiographical fallicizing: he could be dating the poetry not by its writing but by its conception in his life experience…

In any case, we have two experiences which give rise to much writing and which are linked by the figure of a “stout Staff Major.” The protagonist of “In the Cathedral” is reflecting on the inspirational beauty of the church of Saint-Ouen (not, in fact, the famous Rouen cathedral but rather a smaller church similarly equipped with magnificent Gothic windows) but when he comes away he runs into the major, who seems to personify the loss of his elevated mood. Our tentatively religious but gallopingly aesthetic officer concludes that nothing really matters and that “the War went on, pitiless, threatening to continue for ever.” But the fat major really belongs, thematically, to the next piece, “Lunch on Sunday in Rouen,” in which the now-cynical poet’s-view officer inwardly curses the contented staff officers he finds gorging themselves over luncheon.

But Sassoon had a considerable poetic gift for compressed, nasty fits of pique. Some stories are worth telling at great length, in prose, twice, but others work best in verse. Other than borrowing a favorite phrase–“scarlet majors”–from Robbie Ross, “Base Details” draws directly on the language of the prose piece, and to great effect.

 

Base Details

If I were fierce, and bald, and short of breath,
I’d live with scarlet Majors at the base,
And speed glum heroes up the line to death.
You’d see me with my puffy petulant face,
Guzzling and gulping in the best hotel,
Reading the Roll of Honour. ‘Poor young chap,’
I’d say—‘I used to know his father well.
Yes, we’ve lost heavily in this last scrap.’
And when the war was done and youth stone dead,
I’d toddle safely home and die — in bed.

 

This is a great leap forward in invective, and it begins with the “scarlet majors,” a damning term freighted with allusion. First, the rank of major has become an important symbol of military bureaucracy: it’s the lowest rank that is not usually in command of an actual unit of men (captains get companies, lieutenant-colonels get battalions), and for that reason it is most likely to contain indifferent career soldiers and middle-aged New Army nonentities,men who can order about even the most heroic small-unit leader. Heller’s Major Major Major is not far off. Second, “scarlet” does yoeman’s work, two-syllable proof of all that poetic compression can accomplish. It’s a flowery adjective, a romantic word, and yet it connotes sin and hints at various other emotional states: are these majors sinful? are they prone to livid screaming? flushed with drink? Finally, it points to the red badges worn on cap and uniform tabs by members of the staff–scarlet, the color of the old British Army, and laughably ill-suited to being anywhere within actual sight of the enemy. They are safe, they are well-fed, they are inconsequential (turning on the generals and the politicians would require taking a different tack), and their jobs are, indeed, to speed young heroes up the line, to whatever awaits them there.

Then there’s all that good work with onomatopoeia as the contented staff officers tear at their rich food, the excellent mimicry of a certain sort of self-satisfied utterance… there’s the irresistible “up the line to death,” which will make this poem not only an anthology stalwart but an anthology title… and there’s the hammer-blow of the last couplet (“toddle” was a late improvement on “waddle”). This isn’t a protest against the war, exactly, but it is a heavy blow against its conduct, almost unforgettable in its slamming conclusion. It will do more than any other poem to draw the conceptual line between aggrieved, disillusioned young combatants and the older/safer/staffier cohort who are no longer worthy of their respect–or, the poem argues, ours.

So, has Siegfried Sassoon made a full conversion to rage? Not exactly.

 

March 4

One of the medieval Rosaces of Saint-Ouen; the lancet window Sassoon describes I have not yet found

Half-an-hour in the glorious Eglise de St. Ouen, with soft notes of the organ and chanting voices, and burning blossoms of colour in the high windows; one was a narrow arch of green and silver with touches of topaz and pale orange—most delicate and saintly. Below was the huddle of black-cloaked and bonneted women and grey-headed men, with a few soldiers, French and English, and children.

Then a train hurried me up the hill to Bois Guillaume… woods with a chilly wind soughing in the branches of beech and oak, and a grey sky overhead, and a carpet, of dry beech-leaves underfoot. And one thrush singing a long way off, singing as if he did not yet quite believe in the end of winter.

The other surviving medieval rosace at Saint-Ouen

The delicate, aspiring, grey pillars of St.Ouen are noble, and the rich colours there do not change, except when darkness falls outside. There will be such beauty in these woods at the end of April as no Mediaeval builder could imitate. But they had the idea in their heads, when they lifted up that miracle of stone and crystal, and crowned it with deep-toned bells, calling down the peace of God to comfort the good citizens of Rouen.

 

In the Church of St. Ouen

Time makes me a soldier; but I know
That had I lived six hundred years ago,
I might have tried to build within my heart
A church like this; where I could dwell apart,
With chanting peace; my spirit longs for prayer,
And, lost to God, I seek him everywhere.
Here, while the windows, burn and bloom like flowers,
And sunlight falls and fades with tranquil hours,
I could be half a saint, for like a rose
In heart-shaped stone the glory of Heaven glows.
But where I stand, desiring yet to stay,
Hearing rich music at the close of day
The Spring Offensive (Easter is its date)
Calls me. And that’s the music I await.

March 4

An entirely different poem–one so lush (“purple”) that Sassoon, faintly embarrassed, will not offer it for publication. Entirely different–a religious sonnet, a sincere paean to beauty, a dream without cynicism, a thing belonging to a world of quiet contemplation…  until the last couplet, when the war returns with a thump. See here, and throughout the diary for more of Sassoon’s notes on St. Ouen, including several sketches…

I’m displeased that he doesn’t see the date-pun (or perhaps he does, and lets it lie very quietly here, to march 4th to the Spring Offensive) but clearly Sassoon is of two minds–one furious, the other exalted/tragic. I also need not point out, surely, that dating the coming offensive to Easter is less a subaltern divulging crucial strategic details to his poetry notebook than a non-religious poet, standing in the glory of a rosace, and diffidently taking up the fabulously rich cultural tradition that delivers to him in the appointed hour a narrative of suffering, violent death at the hands of imperial soldiers, and–if I remember correctly–redemption.

Complexity? Negative capability? The containing of multitudes? Near madness? Sassoon, in the next but in his diary, opts for the last:

This will never do…  Now to be a saint one must suffer. And I am more qualified for the job after six months in the front line than after sixty years in a cathedral cloister. Religious feeling is a snare set by one’s emotional weakness. Religion is a very stern master, who promises nothing and demands all.

The distant rumble of guns can be heard from the line… There is a sort of unreasoning, inhuman gaiety in the air which is beyond description… I sometimes feel that everyone (even the Base-Colonels) will suddenly go stark mad arid begin shooting one another instead of the Germans. The whole business is so monstrously implacable to all human tenderness. We creep about like swarms of insects. And all the while there is the spectacle of Youth being murdered.[2]

 

Phew. Well, Sassoon’s stagnation has produced some strong writing; will the trenches be as kind to his seething muse?

The rest of our business today can be quickly accomplished:

First, a near-miss. Charles Scott Moncrieff, too, is church-going in Rouen. He and Sassoon might have passed on the street, although they attended different churches. This letter of tomorrow describes today, a century back:

5th March, 1917.

Left hospital yesterday—Sunday, as I had done a fortnight earlier. Went down to the Cathedral, and was surprised and rather pleased to find a very splendid young Cardinal—I think the new Archbishop of Rouen—who made a fine figure in the usually empty throne. I was outside the grille of the choir just opposite him. When he stood up to give the Benediction his voice at once filled the huge, hollow, cold and empty building. . . .[3]

 

And Henry Williamson began a new diary today, a century back–and visited the Somme battlefield.

Weather clearing. Went to Beaumont Hamel. Saw Y Ravine. Terrible place. Deep dugouts. Artillery moving forward. Strafe tonight. Coy. goes in line Tuesday.[4]

The visit may have been part pilgrimage, to look for the grave of his cousin Charlie Boon. But Williamson is an inveterate wanderer, and he will make use of this mid-war bit of battlefield tourism when he comes to place his alter ego in the thick of the Somme battle. The deep dugouts, in fact, become a major fixation of his fictional account of June, 1916.

 

Back in Dorset, a letter from Thomas Hardy–the least scarlet of all old men–shows his persistently humane and tragic view of the war, even in a time of calls for national service.

Max Gate, Dorchester, March 4: 1917

We are living uneventful lives here (if the news of war events are not reckoned) feeling no enterprize for going about & seeing people while the issue of the great conflict is in the balance—& I fear that by the time the issue is  reached I shall be too far on to old age to care to do so. The actual reminder in this house that the struggle is going on is that I have some German prisoners at work in the garden, cutting down some trees, & clearing the ground for more potato-room. They are amiable young fellows, & it does fill one with indignation that thousands of such are led to slaughter by the ambitions of Courts & Dynasties. If only there were no monarchies in the world, what a chance for its amelioration![5]

 

Christopher Wiseman sent a letter today, a century back to the only fellow survivor of the four core members of the T.C.B.S. The letter is both elegiac and hortatory: Tolkien must carry on, both with publishing G.B. Smith’s poems and with developing his own work:

The reason why I want you to write the epic is because I want you to connect all these [poems and tales] up properly, & make their meaning & context tolerably clear. [6]

 

Finally, Edward Thomas. Yesterday was a less than ideal birthday. Today his presents arrived, but his mind is elsewhere–and not in a good place.

Shelling at 5.30. I don’t like it. I wonder where I shall be hit as in bed I wonder if it is better to be on the window or outer side of room or on the chimney on inner side, whether better to be upstairs where you may fall or on the ground floor where you may be worse crushed. Birthday parcels from home.[7]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. See Moorcroft-Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 325-6.
  2. Diaries, 139-42.
  3. Diaries, 125-6.
  4. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 91.
  5. The Letters of Thomas Hardy, V, 204.
  6. Chronology, 99.
  7. War Diary (Childhood), 167.

Siegfried Sassoon Between Loathing and Sacrifice; Rum Jars Aloft for Rowland Feilding; Edward Thomas is Shy Under Fire, or a Bored Dog in a Waiting Room; Henry Williamson is Safely Across; Tolkien to Yorkshire, and Hospital

Today, a century back, John Ronald Tolkien came before a medical board in Lichfield. He is still wracked by “pains in his legs and occasional fever,” and the board acknowledged these symptoms, declaring him unfit for even home service for two months and sending him to an officers’ convalescent hospital in Harrogate, Yorkshire, for the next month.[1]

 

Henry Williamson, meanwhile, is returning to the fray. When we read his departure letter, he was setting up a blazingly obvious code to inform his mother of his whereabouts. Today, a century back, we get a clue about why he might be confident in such transparent ruses: this letter, duly signed by the writer on its envelope, has also been approved by “Field Censor 828.” And the censor’s counter-signature? Well, it’s identical to the author’s…

208 M.G.Coy B.E.F. France. Tuesday 27 Feb ’17

Dear mother,

Just a line to let you know we had a safe crossing… I have seen Tanks: they are wonderful things…

By the time you get this I shall be round about the place where Charlie is now…

You ought to hear the artillery here: it is one continuous quaking and heaving of the earth, with blood red flashes always before one–always, always, always. My experiences with the LRB were nothing compared with this now. Must shut up now, as am very busy. Yours with love, Harry.[2]

Cousin Charlie Boon is nowhere, now–but his remains are buried near Beaumont Hamel. Williamson is our least reliable letter-writing narrator, but there could be no more typical observation from someone in his position (a good deal of experience in and just behind the line, but not since the huge buildups of the Somme) at this point in the war: the routine daily “hates” now exceed the intensity of bombardments that, in 1914, had seemed hellishly intense.

 

Although Siegfried Sassoon and Rowland Feilding still await us below, I want to first include a good chunk of a very long letter from Edward Thomas to his wife Helen. She is so often invisible in conversations (here, not least) about his mental and artistic mind, that it’s worth paying attention to how he unburdens himself to her.

This letter is long enough that it reminds us of something that is true of even the shortest note: that it is not so much evidence of a moment in time as a transcript of a short period during which a great deal–much, much more than can ever be recorded–goes on in a writer’s mind. Thomas loves his wife, but he has not always been open with her. It is, also, no simple thing to discuss depression, and danger, and the deep and inscrutable changes that war works on a personality, especially with someone who has suffered so much in the past from the shifting, jagged edges of his personality. But he tries, and in the letter’s changes of course and pausings for second efforts we can perhaps see more of this marriage (viewed from his side) than we have hitherto:

Diary observations covered at great length in this letter:

Arras | 27 February 1917

Dearest,

Only a word now. It is a fine sunny morning, but so was yesterday and they made full use of it. The guns here covered an infantry raid and you could not hear a word for over an hour. Then German prisoners began to arrive. Later on hostile shells began to arrive but they were hardly so alarming as they didn’t make anything like the same din. In the afternoon I had to go out to see if a certain position was visible to the enemy. This was the first time I was really under fire. About four shells burst 150 yards away, little ones–and then in the street fell a shower of machine gun bullets I confess I felt shy, but I went on with my field glass and compass as far as possible as if nothing had happened. This makes the heart beat but no more than if I were going to pay a call on a stranger.

This is not much different from yesterday’s letter to his friend Bottomley. Thomas is doing his best to preserve honesty without being unduly alarming.

I try to console myself by reflecting that you cannot escape either by running or by standing still. There is no safe place and consequently why worry? And I don’t worry. What did disturb me was an English 18 pounder firing when I had only gone 3 yards past the muzzle. They do that sort of thing. The order comes to fire and they fire, damn them. But I slept very well last night.

And that, briskly, is the record of a crucial, successful trial. Thomas has been tested by gunfire and found that he can handle it well, without any immediate crumbling of self-confidence or sanity. I really think that he had been fairly certain that he would weather the guns well enough, perhaps on the ironic assumption that a man who makes heavy weather of ordinary life may shrug off mortal peril better than men otherwise untested…

This morning is quiet again, though it is beautifully fine.

I haven’t settled to my fate here yet. I shall wait for a good opportunity of letting the Colonel know I want to get back. They are trying to drive an English plane back with shrapnel just overhead. It looks dangerous but neither the Huns nor we hit a plane once in 10,000 rounds, I believe. I’ve nothing to do this morning except try to settle a billeting question for 244…

They are a nice lot of officers here, better than 244’s, only I being temporary or uncertain I don’t get on as well as if I were going (for all I know) to remain. Still no thrushes singing here only chaffinches.

I’ve rather a rotten servant here, never has hot water, has a watch that is sometimes half an hour wrong, and never understands anything I say.

I have only once heard from Mother. Her parcel has not arrived. I wonder does she worry much. I I hope not.

You have had Eleanor there by this time and lost her too.

This wandering train of thoughts has taken an unfortunate series of switches: from his own domestic position, to servants, to mother, wife, and Eleanor Farjeon, the ever-helpful friend…  at this Thomas checks up, and makes an effort to assess his position.

But it becomes harder for me to think about things at home and somehow, although this life does not absorb me, I think, yet, I can’t think of anything else. I don’t hanker after anything I don’t miss anything. I am not even conscious of waiting. I am just quietly in exile, a sort of half or quarter man—at Romford I was half or three quarter man. Only sometimes I hear the things I really care for, far off as if at the end of a telephone. What I really should like is more hard physical exercise. I am rather often bored though and for fairly long periods. I am rather like a dog doing what it doesn’t want to do—as Belloc said of me years ago when I was going about with him on various errands of his before we could settle down to lunch together. The fact is it is a sort of interval in reality, a protracted railway waiting room. Yet of course not always merely that…

I have just walked up to 244 and found no one in but letters from you and Irene both written after she had been to see you. I don’t think I will write much more. I have just seen an English plane shot down and set afire by a German; another fell near here almost at the same time and also one yesterday. The machine gun bullets came down and cut a telephone wire close by. It has turned dull and chilly and I feel damnably like early spring. The pilot of the plane managed to right it soon and came down in a spiral, though flopping—I did not go to see his fate—he was well within our lines, so was the other.

He sounds tired, doesn’t he? Has he just seen a man die, or not? He’s not certain. It sounds like depression. Often Thomas plans his letters, or writes with the easy command of a man who has long written less-than-perfectly, but always cogently, and on a deadline. But not this letter–he once again piles into a blind alley that he should have seen coming. And when he gets going again it is easy to see the mental connection he omits. This war is going nowhere, fast, and their son will soon be old enough to fight.

I hope Mervyn will join an OTC. It could be a good thing in many ways. The war isn’t over yet even if the Germans are evacuating some dirty ground,[3] and Mervyn would be much more likely to get a commission if he had been to an OTC.

But I am depressed. Lots of food and too little exercise and spring. Tea will do me good and they will make some soon, if the others don’t come in.

We were sitting round the fire this evening talking about the way things are done in the Army, and I was saying we should suddenly have to signal (?) important orders to the batteries to fire instead of preparing them for probable targets—when in comes an urgent message ordering 244 and also another battery we know nothing about to open fire tomorrow. Good Lord, I hope we win the war. It will prove God is on our side…

All is well really.

All and always yours | Edwy[4]

 

Siegfried Sassoon, stuck in Rouen base camp with the measles, may have made an early foray into prose fiction, today.[5] It would be a bit too much to post the entire sketch “Reinforcements at Rouen”–the first of three sketches–but here is a telling excerpt. See if you can identify the protagonist:

Meanwhile this discerning young officer watched the crowd and tried to fit things together. He had loathed the business of coming out again, had talked wildly to his pacifist friends about the cruel imbecility of the war and the uselessness of going on with it. He came out with his  angry heart, resolved to hate the whole show, and write his hatred down in words of burning criticism and satire. Now he is losing all that; he has been drawn back into the Machine; he has no more need to worry. ‘Nothing matters now.’ He must trust to fate: the responsibility of life has been taken from him. He must just go on until something happens to him. And through his dull acquiescence in it all, he is conscious of the same spirit that brought him serenely through it last year; the feeling of sacrifice…

The man knows where he is going. There are two more sketches in the diary, but these likely date a few days hence–Sassoon did not always use the diary pages sequentially. Each will give rise to a very different poem, one a lacerating satire, the other a religious-romantic reverie…

 

Finally, Rowland Feilding, still unsure whether punishment awaits for permitting fraternization, once more reminds us that there is a war going on. He is diligent, and evidently concerned to prove that my decision to give “trench mortars” their own “tag” was a sound one.

February 27, 1917. Curragh Camp (Locre).

I have written to you much of the staying powers of the men—how they have stood night after night and day after
day in the wettest or most Arctic weather, behind these flimsy breastworks. You cannot dig trenches in this locality because you get drowned out. So you bank up sandbags and stand behind them. And the enemy flattens these every day or two with his “rum-jars” ; and we do the same to his.

“Rum-jar” is the soldiers’ name for the German canister which is their simplest form of heavy trench-mortar bomb. Picture a cylindrical oil-drum, 15 inches long and about 11 inches in diameter, flat at both ends, and filled with high explosive. That is the “rum-jar.” In the dark if you spot it coming, you can just distinguish it in the air, by the fizzling of the fuse.

But it arrives silently, and is not easy to detect, till it lands with a mighty bang. I once spoke slightingly of these things, but I spoke foolishly. It is true that, as a rule, they do little if any damage, because the effect is very local;  but if one happens to hit a man or a collection of men it blows them to bits. And these things come in hundreds, and are a perpetual menace to the men in the front line, day and night, often for four days and nights together, and more.

The material effect, as I have said, is small, but the constant stress is tiring to the morale, as it is intended to be, and, added to the other strains of trench life—the artillery strafes and the mines and other horrors which the poor infantry have to undergo, is very tiring to them. Yet, through it all, they stand, frozen and half-paralysed by the cold and wet, with no individual power of retaliation beyond the rifle which each man carries, and which is about as much use against the weapons by which he is tormented as a pop-gun.[6]

Feilding closes with two light amusements, tales of the disconnect between fighting units and their generals that are more in the nature of drawing room comedy than deadly and barely-concealed opposition. In one, a deserving sergeant gets a made-up citation and his officers get caught out; in another, a brigadier reconciles himself to his lot in life. But this has been a long day, and Feilding’s book is well worth seeking out…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Chronology, 99.
  2. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 88.
  3. See the note two days back on the withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line.
  4. Selected Letters, 141-44.
  5. I originally assumed that he had, based on the way the diary was subsequently published--but working a head a few days it became clear that some of or even all of these experiences may date to next Sunday, a century back...
  6. War Letters to a Wife, 159-60.

Siegfried Sassoon Makes a Hardy Request, and We Look A Century Back and Two Hundred Years After; Wilfred Owen Exposed, and Emboldened

A momentous day, today, a century back, in Great War Writing-Land. Or, rather, an overture to an important new movement, a bridging of the gulf, an act of loyal defection in the conflict of the generations.

Why has Siegfried Sassoon been so unconcerned about his friend’s new poetic friendship–about the fact that Robert Graves will be a dedicatee of Robert Nichols‘s new book?  (And if Sassoon knew Edward Thomas–he does not!–there would be Thomas’s upcoming dedication to Frost to be worried about too. But these are different circles…)

And it’s not just friendships. What about posturing? Why hasn’t Sassoon, like Richard Aldington, gotten those old-fashioned poets firmly in his sights? If he isn’t arrayed against some poetic malefactor(s), how is he to make a successful modern poet of himself?

Well, well: because he’s been working another angle. His respect and admiration for Thomas Hardy is sincere, but it is no doubt useful that Sassoon’s uncle is a friend of Hardy’s, and has carved a bust of him. That introduction paved a way for a first reading, and then for a request which Sassoon must have made right about the time that Graves departed for France. Here is Hardy’s reply:

Max Gate, Dorchester. February 4, 1917

Dear Mr Sassoon:

I am pleased that you should care to inscribe your coming book of poems to me, which of course you have my permission to do—if you think it worth while!

Many thanks for enclosing the proof of the little one about Corbie Ridge (I don’t know where that is.)

I hope the weather will be milder before you go back to France, & that you may have good luck over there.

Sincerely yours

Thomas Hardy[1]

There is something amusingly fussy about Hardy’s parenthetical remark. Well, of course he doesn’t know where Corbie Ridge is, and while a century on he might peck it into the search bar one key at a time and then be instantaneously better informed (and be able to affect knowingness about all the place-names of the Western Front in his reply) he’s not about to hustle down to the library and page through back issues just to discover what part of the line Sassoon is referring to.

But let that be. What about the poem, and the gesture of dedication? Sassoon has not been dwelling on Hardy, lately, but he is certainly more than just a conveniently famous family friend. He’s a great poet… and yet his only comment is to note his ignorance about Corbie Ridge? No kind words on the poem itself? Is there evidence of the craftsman’s promise, here?

But Hardy says nothing encouraging. And it was a well-chosen poem, too. Neither one of Sassoon’s older-fashioned pretty laments, nor one of his sharp new satires, Sassoon had sent a most Hardy-like poem. It is Sassoon-like as well, with the mud and the long retrospect, but is it too obviously an apprentice Satire of Circumstance?

 

Two Hundred Years After

Trudging by Corbie Ridge one winter’s night,
(Unless old hearsay memories tricked his sight)
Along the pallid edge of the quiet sky
He watched a nosing lorry grinding on,
And straggling files of men; when these were gone,
A double limber and six mules went by,
Hauling the rations up through ruts and mud
To trench-lines digged two hundred years ago.
Then darkness hid them with a rainy scud,
And soon he saw the village lights below.

But when he’d told his tale, an old man said
That he’d seen soldiers pass along that hill;
‘Poor silent things, they were the English dead
Who came to fight in France and got their fill.’

 

Read in this fashion, in this context, it’s a fair bet that Hardy saw the poem and worried that he might have a fawning imitator on his hands. Sassoon is promising–his verse is always smooth. But this scene, first imagined in June–the setting out on the cold downs, the trudging mules and hunched men and fatalistic rain (never mind the lorry!)–and then the reveal, in the final quatrain, that they are ghosts, futile ghosts, and that their war will never end–this scene could be titled “A Soldier’s Post-Script to Mr. Thomas Hardy’s Satires of Circumstance.” So Hardy, I think, is wary.

But how could we not be pleased? We must be. It is only a slight bit of imaginative hyperbole (two hundred years?!?!) that keeps this poem from being something like a joint standard-bearer (a tent-pole? an optio? the column at the other end of the pediment?) for A Century Back. Our namesake poem is Hardy’s At Lulworth Cove a Century Back, with its poets and ghosts and time-travel… if Sassoon had opted for the relatively restrained future-contemplation of a single century, then the parallel would be irresistible.

As things stand, in Dorset and Litherland, young Sassoon is on probation, I think–the twain are in mutual regard, but not convergence. And yet Sassoon’s forthcoming book is cleared to carry a dedication to the greatest living angry-fatalist poet…

 

We take one more step back down the chain of connection, now, to another even younger poet who is yet to converge with any of our other writers. But Wilfred Owen is making great strides nonetheless. In today’s letter to his mother winter hardships are the seeds of a poem, and percolating thoughts of that poem lead Owen closer toward a major statement against the war.

Sunday, 4 February 1917 [Advanced Horse Transport Depot]

My own dear Mother,

…since my last letter I have had another, strong dose of the advanced Front Line.

To begin with, I have come out quite unhurt, except for a touch of dysentery, which is now passed, and a severe cold and cough which keep me in bed today.

I have no mind to describe all the horrors of this last Tour. But it was almost wusser than the first, because in this place my Platoon had no Dug-Outs, but had to lie in the snow under the deadly wind. By day it was impossible to stand up or even crawl about because we were behind only a little ridge screening us from the Bosches periscope.

The bit of baby talk–“wusser” for “worse”–is discordant now where it wouldn’t have been a few weeks ago. Wilfred continues to write home to mum, and to complain, but this letter includes deep misery and death, and he is already mulling over the meaning of it all.

We had 5 Tommy’s cookers between the Platoon, but they did not suffice to melt the ice in the water-cans. So we suffered cruelly from thirst.

The marvel is that we did not all die of cold. As a matter of fact, only one of my party actually froze to death before he could be got back but I am not able to tell how many have ended in hospital. I had no real casualties from shelling, though for 10 minutes every hour, whizz-bangs fell a few yards short of us. Showers of soil rained on us, but no fragments of shell could find us.

Owen now waxes almost mystical:

I had lost my gloves in a dug-out, but I found 1 mitten on the Field; I had my Trench Coat (without lining but with a Jerkin, underneath.) My feet ached until they could ache no more, and so they temporarily died. I was kept warm by the ardour of Life within me. I forgot hunger in the hunger for Life. The intensity of your Love reached me and kept me living. I thought of you and Mary without a break all the time. I cannot say I felt any fear. We were all half-crazed by the buffetting of the High Explosives, I think the most unpleasant reflection that weighed on me was the impossibility of getting back any wounded, a total impossibility all day, and frightfully difficult by night.

We were marooned on a frozen desert.

There is not a sign of life on the horizon and a thousand signs of death. Not a blade of grass, not an insect; once or twice a day the shadow of big hawk, scenting carrion.

This is quite dramatic. Not that the misery and fear of holding such a line in such weather doesn’t merit such drama… it just seems as if he is straining for effect. It will feel very different, however, in verse. Owen may have begun working on the poem that would come to be “Exposure” within a day or two of today, a century back.

Our brains ache, in the merciless iced east winds that knive us . . .
Wearied we keep awake because the night is silent . . .
Low drooping flares confuse our memory of the salient . . .
Worried by silence, sentries whisper, curious, nervous,
       But nothing happens.
The poem, the first in which Owen sets out to portray something of the range of trench experience in verse, will also be the first in which he directly addresses, in apostrophe, his swift disillusionment:

 

Watching, we hear the mad gusts tugging on the wire,
Like twitching agonies of men among its brambles.
Northward, incessantly, the flickering gunnery rumbles,
Far off, like a dull rumour of some other war.
       What are we doing here?

 

The poignant misery of dawn begins to grow . . .

We only know war lasts, rain soaks, and clouds sag stormy.
Dawn massing in the east her melancholy army
Attacks once more in ranks on shivering ranks of grey,
       But nothing happens.

 

Needless to say, perhaps, but this is more than just a dawn recorded. Dawn is for poets–full of hope, full of meaning, pregnant with larks straining at the muse’s leash, ready to leap to the sky. “But nothing happens.”
Sudden successive flights of bullets streak the silence.
Less deadly than the air that shudders black with snow,
With sidelong flowing flakes that flock, pause, and renew,
We watch them wandering up and down the wind’s nonchalance,
       But nothing happens.

 

Pale flakes with fingering stealth come feeling for our faces—
We cringe in holes, back on forgotten dreams, and stare, snow-dazed,
Deep into grassier ditches. So we drowse, sun-dozed,
Littered with blossoms trickling where the blackbird fusses.
       —Is it that we are dying?

 

Slowly our ghosts drag home: glimpsing the sunk fires, glozed
With crusted dark-red jewels; crickets jingle there;
For hours the innocent mice rejoice: the house is theirs;
Shutters and doors, all closed: on us the doors are closed,—
       We turn back to our dying.

 

Well, so, there is melodrama, too, with that blackbird nattering out any hope. There is something not quite right here, a serious problem of tone. He affects to speak for all of his men–“we… we… our… our…”–but if he is to succeed in that, he will need a different sort of voice. Not the gruff or cheerful or stoic Bairnsfathery voice, but something much farther away from lyrical narcissism. This poem begins to bring some notes of wartime experience over into literature, but the voice is still innocent, if only because it is so self-regarding. Unconsciously, perhaps, we read “I” for all this “we.”
I don’t understand the force of the religious appeal in the penultimate stanza, but the last paragraph, despite the poem’s flaws, has real emotional power. As we will see, when we return to the letter, his sense of outrage–of a distaste or disgust, of a horror that not only merits but demands action–has outpaced his style.
Since we believe not otherwise can kind fires burn;
Now ever suns smile true on child, or field, or fruit.
For God’s invincible spring our love is made afraid;
Therefore, not loath, we lie out here; therefore were born,
       For love of God seems dying.

 

Tonight, this frost will fasten on this mud and us,
Shrivelling many hands, and puckering foreheads crisp.
The burying-party, picks and shovels in shaking grasp,
Pause over half-known faces. All their eyes are ice,
       But nothing happens.
Although its roots are in this last frigid tour, the poem itself is in the near future. Today, the rest of the letter remains, and it contains a common piece of irony: if a terrible experience is to lead to a poem, then there must also be a respite from terrible experience in which the inspiration can actually be written.
By degrees, day by day, we worked back through the reserve & support lines to the crazy village where the Battalion takes breath…

 

At last I got to the village, & found all your dear precious letters, and the parcel of good and precious things. The Lamp is perfect your Helmet is perfect, everything was perfect.

But he hasn’t just survived a tour in the trenches–he has won an unexpected reprieve.

Then I had the heavenly-dictated order to proceed on a Transport Course. Me in Transports? Aren’t you? When I departed, the gloom among the rest of the Subs, and even among Captains, was a darkness that could be felt. They can’t understand my luck…

The Course should last 1 month!!

Fondest love to all, & thanks for all their letters.

Your own Wilfred x

So Owen will be safe, now, for some time, in Abbeville.

We’ll close with a telling little post-script. Wilfred has been almost rapturous in writing to his mother; but it would be different, wouldn’t it, with his stern and doubting father?

P.S. I don’t at all deserve the spirited approbation which Father gives me. Though I confess I like to have his kind letters immensely. I shall read them less shamefacedly in dug-outs and trenches, than I do here in this pleasant peaceful town.

And the post-script goes on and on, leading, perhaps, to the mood in which the poem will begin.

Quite 10 years ago I made a study of this town & Cathedral, in the Treasury. It is all familiar now!

…I suppose I can endure cold, and fatigue, and the face-to-face death, as well as another; but extra for me there is the universal pervasion of Ugliness. Hideous landscapes, vile noises, foul language and nothing but foul, even from one’s own mouth (for all are devil ridden), everything unnatural, broken, blasted; the distortion of the dead, whose unburiable bodies sit outside the dug-outs all day, all night, the most execrable sights on earth. In poetry we call them the most glorious. But to sit with them all day, all night . . . and a week later to come back and find them still sitting there, in motionless groups, THAT is what saps the ‘soldierly spirit’ . . .[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Letters of Thomas Hardy, V, 201.
  2. Collected Letters, 430-2.