Carroll Carstairs Decorated in Retreat; Herbert Read: the Game is not Worth the Candle; Rowland Feilding: Another Life Well Snuffed Out

Not long ago we saw Carroll Carstairs to the Casualty Clearing Station with a raging fever that will carry him all the way to Blighty. As he lay there, thinking “[h]ow cool these sheets and how warm these blankets” he also fantasized about pinning on the “pretty ribbon” of the Military Cross he had earned during a desperate withdrawal near Cambrai. Today, a century back–in his absence–the award was paraded, along with four other officers of the 3rd Grenadier Guards, before their reserve billets in Arras.[1]


Rowland Feilding‘s letter of today, a century back, is the purest war story we’ve had in quite some time–and it, too, is a story of determined and courageous defense rather than aggressive valor.

January 10, 1918. Front Line, Lempire.

A few minutes before four o’clock this morning the enemy tried to raid one of my Lewis gun posts which is placed, necessarily in an isolated position, well out in Noman’s Land, about 150 yards in front of the fire-trench, in a sunken road which crosses both lines of trenches. The raiders came across the snow in the dark, camouflaged in white overalls.

In parenthesis, I may explain that while I have been away there have been two unfortunate cases of sentries mistaking wiring parties of the Divisional pioneer battalion for the enemy;—whether owing to the failure of the wiring parties to report properly before going out, or to overeagerness on the part of the sentries, I do not profess to know. No one was hurt on either occasion, but a good deal of fuss was made about it, our new Brigadier blaming the men who did the shooting—his own men—and saying so pretty forcibly.

When I first heard of this I thought that a mistake had been made—if for no other reason than that there would for a time at any rate be a disinclination on the part of sentries to shoot promptly, which might prove dangerous;—and that is what happened this morning.

The double sentries on duty in the sunken road heard, but in the darkness did not see, a movement in front of them. Hesitating to shoot, they challenged. The immediate reply was a volley of hand-grenades. Private Mayne, who had charge of the Lewis gun, was hit “all over,” in many parts, including the stomach. His left arm was reduced to pulp. Nevertheless, he struggled up, and leaning against the parapet, with his uninjured hand discharged a full magazine (forty-seven rounds) into the enemy, who broke, not a man reaching our trench. Then he collapsed and fell insensible across his gun. The second sentry’s foot was so badly shattered that it had to be amputated in the trench. The doctor has just told me that he performed this operation without chloroform, which was unnecessary owing to the man’s numbed condition, and that while he did it the man himself looked on, smoking a cigarette, and with true Irish courtesy thanked him for his kindness when it was over.

Words cannot express my feelings of admiration for Private Mayne’s magnificent act of gallantry, which I consider
well worthy of the V.C. It is, however, improbable that he will live to enjoy any decoration that may be conferred upon him.[2]


So one Irish soldier lies dying, and another has lost his foot–and who knows how many Germans were killed or wounded in the pointless raid, in January, months away from any possibility of “strategic” effect.

Could the war have gone otherwise?

Of course–and of course not. But it really does seem that this is the season of discontent among the more philosophically-minded officers of the B.E.F.–and not just Plowman, with his liberal political ties and pacifist past, or Sassoon, with his impulsiveness and sensitivity. Although career officers like Feilding may still generally confine their criticisms to aspects of the conduct of the war with which they themselves are familiar–the slack pioneers, the short-sighted brigadier–more and more “fighting officers” are turning against the entire war of attrition, now in its fourth bitter winter.

Herbert Read is a happier warrior than many, equipped as he is with a fondness for Nietzsche, an aptitude for small-unit warfare, and unusually deep reserves of mental fortitude. But though the tone is different and the protest oblique rather than direct, he is in more or less the same place, in terms of ethical calculation, as Sassoon and Plowman: the war of attrition is a foolish waste, and cannot be won by indefinite persistence. Courage notwithstanding and courtesy aside, Feilding’s two Irish sentries might agree.

Read’s letter to Evelyn Roff begins ordinarily enough, but soon works toward the somewhat surprising admission of his own public statement against the war.

We are midway through a long weary tour of trench duty. We do four days in the line and then four in support and four in reserve–and this sometimes for more than a month…

As a Company commander I get a much easier time in the line–no long dreadful night-watches. I manage to get a little reading done. I’ve just finished one of Conrad’s novels–Under Western Eyes. Like all Conrad’s it is extraordinarily vivid and a fine appreciation of life. You must read Conrad… Get hold of Lord Jim if you haven’t already read it. There’s a human hero for you…

I also managed to write a short article and send it on to the New Age…  I called it ‘Our Point of View and my chief points were:

a) That the means of war had become more portentous than the aim–i.e. that the game is not worth the candle.

b) That this had been realized by the fighting soldier and on that account has been, out here, an immense growth of pacifist opinion.

Of course, it might offend the Censor. But it is the truth. I know my men and the sincerity of their opinions. They know the impossibility of a knock-out blow and don’t quite see the use of another long year of agony. We could make terms now that would clear the way for the future. If, after all that Europe has endured, her people can’t realize their most intense ideal (Good-will)–then Humanity should be despaired of–should regard self-extinction as their only salvation. But I for one have faith, and faith born in the experience of war.[3]


References and Footnotes

  1. Generation Missing, 150.
  2. War Letters to a Wife, 246-7.
  3. The Contrary Experience, 116-7.

Rowland Feilding Stands Up with a Sentry; The Master of Belhaven Welcomes the Staff

Rowland Feilding and the 6th Connaught Rangers came out of the line today, a century back, after sixteen days in trenches. It was a quiet sector of the line in France, but “quiet” is a strictly relative term. Writing to his wife two days hence, Feilding tells her this tale of today:

Three types of granatenwerfer rounds

To switch off to the front line. How brave–before the war–we should have thought a man who sat looking through a periscope, with no protection over his head beyond the “tin-hat,” immobile, while high explosive was being dropped around him! That is what our sentries do. The last morning my battalion was up, while I was doing my rounds, I was standing with one of the Company Commanders beside a sentry, trying to make out what some object was in Noman’s Land–a heap of tangled wire or something of that kind;–when a faint “swish” sounded above, and with a sudden bang–in great contrast to the silence that prevailed–there exploded a few yards away a granatenwerfer, or aerial dart, or pine-apple, or whatever you like to call it;–one of those triangular fish-tailed things, with a body like a prickly pear.

Our interest in the heap of wire quite suddenly vanishes. We wait for “the next,” which we know will follow shortly. Strictly, it is my duty to move away. It is the sentry’s duty to continue looking through the periscope. But I cannot leave him like that. Therefore I hang about until the second bomb crashes. Then I say a word or two to the sentry and pass along on my rounds. I give you that by way of a glimpse into the life of the trenches.[1]


We might say that the Master of Belhaven‘s diary for today, a century back, harmonizes with Feilding’s tale. Here too is a story of ordinary war-of-attrition courage, the insistence on maintaining a bit of unnecessary risk for the sake of morale. And hey, the staff shows up as well…

I rode round the batteries and both battalion headquarters this morning. As it was a misty day I risked riding over the sky-line, and went straight across country. As a matter of fact it was much clearer than I had thought, and I was in full view of the German position for 500 yards. I suppose he did not think it was worth while wasting shells on trying to hit two horses at a long range. However, I have no doubt it will appear in his Divisional Summary of Intelligence to-night: “Two horsemen were seen to cross the sky-line in ________ square, and disappeared into the valley.” Just as I rode up to B Battery I saw two staff officers coming along, and was surprised to find it was the corps commander–old General Snow; it is not often one meets so exalted a person in the line. He said he would like to see B’s gun position, so I took him over it. He was delighted with all the little paths they have in the wood and asked the men the usual questions about rations, etc.[2]


References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 222-3.
  2. War Diary, 410-11.

Edward Thomas is Worn Out and Wretched While Ivor Gurney Shivers in a Crouch–But Beauty is Everywhere

A bleak ending to March, a century back. First we have Edward Thomas, miserable but open to all the beauty around him. This diary both records his impressions and seems to edge toward a new sort of poetry.

Up at 5 worn out and wretched. 5.9’s flopping on Achicourt while I dressed. Up to Beaurains. There is a chalk-stone cellar with a dripping Bosh dugout far under and by the last layer of stones is the lilac bush, rather short. Nearby a graveyard for the ‘tapfer franzos soldat’ with crosses and Hun names. Blackbirds in the clear cold bright morning early in black Beaurains. Sparrows in the elder of the hedge I observe through–a cherry tree just this side of hedge makes projection in trench with its roots. Beautiful clear evening everything dark and soft round Neuville-Vitasse, after the rainbow there and the last shower. Night in lilac-bush cellar of stone like Berryfield… Machine gun bullets snaking along–hissing like little wormy serpents.[1]


After many months of hard work and trench holding, Ivor Gurney is headed for the war’s sharper end. Today, a century back, his battalion of the Gloucesters took up positions near Vermand, and prepared to attack. Of this experience will come this poem:

Near Vermand

Lying flat on my belly shivering in clutch-frost,
There was time to watch the stars, we had dug in:
Looking eastward over the low ridge; March scurried its blast
At our senses, no use either dying or struggling.
Low woods to left (Cotswold her spinnies if ever)
Showed through snow flurries and the clearer star weather.
And nothing but chill and wonder lived in mind; nothing
But loathing and fine beauty, and wet loathed clothing.
Here were thoughts. Cold smothering and fire-desiring,
A day to follow like this or in the digging or wiring.
Worry in snow flurrying and lying flat, flesh the earth loathing.
I was the forward sentry and would be relieved
In a quarter or so, but nothing more better than to crouch
Low in the scraped holes and to have frozen and rocky couch —
To be by desperate home thoughts clutched at, and heart-grieved.
Was I ever there — a lit warm room and Bach, to search out sacred
Meaning; and to find no luck; and to take love as believed.[2]


References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary (Childhood), 174.
  2. The Ordeal of Ivor Gurney, 96.

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.

Wilfred Owen Reaches the Front Line, and Sets a Sentry; Edward Thomas Turns Toward Tintown

Today, a century back, Wilfred Owen passed from innocence to experience. Melodramatic, yes, but so was the reality of his first day of combat. After snow and intense cold there has been a thaw, which means disastrous mud, and he is headed for one of those forward positions that had been won from the Germans at such cost during the Somme battle, and yet never put in a fit state for proper defense, let alone habitation. Owen will survive to describe the experience in a letter to his mother.

We had a march of 3 miles over shelled road then nearly 3 along a flooded trench. After that we came to where the trenches had been blown flat out and had to go over the top. It was of course dark, too dark, and the ground was not mud, not sloppy mud, but an octopus of sucking clay, 3, 4, and 5 feet deep, relieved only by craters full of water. Men have been known to drown in them. Many stuck in the mud & only got on by leaving their waders, equipment, and in some cases their clothes. High explosives were dropping all around out, and machine guns spluttered every few minutes. But it was so dark that even the German flares did not reveal us.

Three quarters dead, I mean each of us 3/4 dead, we reached the dugout, and relieved the wretches therein. I then had to go forth and find another dug-out for a still more advanced post where I left 18 bombers. I was responsible for other posts on the left but there was a junior officer in charge.

My dug-out held 25 men tight packed. Water filled it to a depth of 1 or 2 feet, leaving say 4 feet of air.

One entrance had been blown in & blocked.

So far, the other remained.

The Germans knew we were staying there and decided we shouldn’t.[1]

Owen was a callow youth not long ago. This morning he was still a replacement officer, untested by the responsibility of holding a forward position in defense or the enduring of a bombardment that might not cease for days. Tonight, a century back, he’s a veteran. His experience of the world and its terrors and miseries has now in some respects exceeded that of most poets–or most people who have strutted and fretted their long hour. All he has to do, of course, is hold the line, for two nights and two days, until relieved. The Germans won’t be coming. They’ll just be shooting.

It has been quite a long time since Owen focused on his poetry; and what poetry he wrote was, while often not unpleasing, nothing powerful or striking. And there is a long road ahead, and there will be many more experiences (if few that will be as hard to endure as the next two days) before he becomes the poet he will become. But when he begins to write as a true war poet he will come back to this, his first night in the line:

We’d found an old Boche dug-out, and he knew,
And gave us hell, for shell on frantic shell
Hammered on top, but never quite burst through.
Rain, guttering down in waterfalls of slime
Kept slush waist high, that rising hour by hour,
Choked up the steps too thick with clay to climb.
What murk of air remained stank old, and sour
With fumes of whizz-bangs, and the smell of men
Who’d lived there years, and left their curse in the den,
If not their corpses. . . .

The rest of “The Sentry” we will read in two days’ time.



So Owen has arrived, and become of sharp necessity a different sort of writer. Edward Thomas is a step or two behind. He has already moved from the relative calm of training and poetic composition into the turbulent waters of endless good-byes. Today, a century back, he says the last of his familial farewells and enters the (busy) calm of military preparation. In the morning he bid farewell to his daughter Bronwen, his parents, and his brothers. But life doesn’t always conform to the clear symbolic staging that literature would prefer. Thomas then stopped for lunch with a sister-in-law and a niece and visited another friend, visits of convenience on the way to the train. By evening he was back in Tin Town, Lydd, and back writing–eight letters before bed.[2]


References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 425-7. See also Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 209-212.
  2. War Diary, (Childhood, 153.)

The Nursing Sister on Beauty and Blindness; Roland and Vera, Dissonant; Alan Seeger Writes a Romantic Epistle Which Turns Against Civilization

The Nursing Sister offers consolation to the maimed, and finds her own consolation in the scenery:

Friday, February 5th, Boulogne.—We did get in late last night, and got to bed at 1 a.m. They are unloading during the night again now, and also loading up at night.

One boy last night had lost his right hand; his left arm and leg were wounded, and both his eyes. “Yes, I’ve got more than my share,” he said, “but I’ll get over it all right.” I didn’t happen to answer for a minute, and in a changed voice he said, “Shan’t I? shan’t I?” Of course I assured him he’d get quite well, and that he was ticketed to go straight to an eye specialist. “Thank God for that,” he said, as if the eye specialist had already cured him, but it is doubtful if any eye specialist will save his eyes.

To-day has been a record day of brilliant sun, blue sky and warm air, and it has transformed the muddy, sloppy, dingy Boulogne of the last two months into something more like Cornwall… went in the town in the morning, and on the long stone pier in the afternoon, and then to tea at the buffet at the Maritime (where you have tea with real milk and fresh butter, and jam not out of a tin, and a tablecloth, and a china cup—luxuries beyond description). On the pier there were gulls, and a sunny sort of salt wind and big waves breaking, and a glorious view of the steep little town piled up in layers above the harbour, which is packed with shipping.[1]


I have been very much enjoying following the tentatively torrid romance between Vera and Roland–and I hope you have as well. But today’s writings are a much needed check–a reminder that a core idea of this project is to remain always mindful of the way in which experience (and the record of experience) is shaped into a story about the past.

And, just as with the universe (cue Star Trek theme music), the vast majority of the mass of any history is invisible–it’s the dark matter, the stuff that has been left out.

Roland and Vera write to each other often, have seen each other twice recently, and have fallen in love. Not unreasonably: they are similar in many ways, and they get on as two attractive, somewhat arrogant, intellectually powerful teenagers with obstacles in their way will tend to do. Drama! Passion! Kindred spirits!

Well. But they are far away. One is a young lieutenant in a training camp and the other is in her first year at college. Each must be occupied–at almost all times–by concerns very different from the other’s.

Term has started again, and Vera is only human. She’s young, too, still girlish at times. Here, then, is not discord or disharmony between the lovers so much as simple dissonance:

Friday February 5th

This evening I put on my new blue & grey dress, in consideration of the fact that Miss Fry was arriving – also that there was a lecture… I got great satisfaction out of the dress, which seemed to ensure me a pleasant evening. Quite an embarrassing number of people came up to me specially just to say how pretty it was, so it must really be strikingly pretty as things have to be striking here to be noticed at all.[2]

And, written at the same time, give or take a few hours, Roland’s terse report on his attempts to get himself transferred to a more-quickly-France-bound unit:

Lowestoft, 5 February 1915

No. It was no good after all.The two officers hurriedly asked for by the battalion at the front had already been sent off two days before…

I was informed on Sunday that the 4th Suffolks had very few officers ready to go, and I had hopes of being one of the two… I saw the Colonel of the Reserve Battalion at Colchester and he was quite willing and in fact eager to transfer me to his regiment. But he could only offer me a problematical chance of getting sent out in May; and so I am refusing the offer…

It is very disappointing, n ’est-ce pas, not to be able to do what one wants? I should not mind so much if it were some definite and immutable disqualification that keeps me back–my eyesight, for instance–but it is always some annoying detail. I am going up to the War Office on Monday to see if there is any other Territorial regiment at the front that needs fresh officers.[3]


Lastly, Alan Seeger had a letter dated today published in The New York Sun. I know you were all eager for more updates on the Kaiser’s birthday. But there’s a lot more here, actually, including an extended rhapsody about a near-front-line posting that–far from the mud of the British sector–seems far from miserable:

February 5, 1915

We are back in cantonment after eight days on the firing line. This is the longest stretch we have yet done without relief. The reason? The Kaiser’s birthday. We looked for trouble on that day and there was no lack of indications that we were going to have it…

…the long night wore away and the day came and passed without incident for us. The blow had fallen on some other point of the line. Strewn pitifully along the summit of the crest opposite we who were on guard could still see the bodies of the French soldiers where they have been lying ever since September, when the magnificent élan of the battle of the Marne finally broke on this bleak hillside and ever since when both sides have been sitting facing each other, neither risking the perils of a further attack. Once more we have been cheated in our hope for action, but it may not be for long.

The greatest change has come over our life here lately. In my last letter I described the soldier’s days and nights in the trenches, and I am afraid I drew a rather gloomy though by no means exaggerated picture. For the last month, however, we have not been living in trenches at all, but in a ruined village. It has been much more romantic…

At C—–our quarters are most picturesque. They are the wine cellars of the village’s two châteaux…

The big château has been completely burned down. Nothing remains but the shell. It sits in the midst of an immense, heavily wooded park, the wall of which, several kilometers long, forms part of our line of defence. Pretty paths intersect the dense groves. There are benches here and there, fountains and summer houses. The lawn that encircles the chateau slopes down behind to a charming little artificial lake. Everything bespeaks the pleasure retreat of some man of wealth and taste. Before the ruined mansion, truly seigniorial in its proportions, stand ancestral pines.

Nothing could be more romantic on a moonlit night than the view of these silent walls gleaming amid the great black cones; nothing more eerie than the silent grove, in which there is never the complete assurance that the park wall completely separates one from the lurking enemy. The little chateau is in the town itself, surrounded by no considerable estate. It has been ripped open with bombardment, but was not set on fire. Strange enough, the pillaging of six months has not begun to exhaust the loot that litters its floors knee deep. Here all the possessions of some once comfortable family lie scattered about as they have been pulled from desk, cupboard and bureau. Sheets and pillowcases lie mixed up with family photographs and correspondence in a chaos of disorder.

Most pathetic to me was a little girl’s post card collection cards from all over Europe, with their little messages of love or greeting. But most precious were the remains of a beautiful library, the last thing to be violated by the rude hands that have ransacked everything else and left not a bottle of wine in the whole town. Here, stacked just as they were before the invasion, I found finely bound, immaculate sets of Rousseau, Voltaire, Corneille and Racine. The wind and rain that blew in through the immense rents in the walls had not yet harmed them in the least. They were as fresh as the day they left the famous early nineteenth century presses of which they were the choicest examples. I took away a few of these volumes, esteeming that the pious duty of rescuing an old book doomed otherwise to certain destruction might absolve me from the gravity of the charge that such an act made me liable to…

Romantic and picturesque. But not far from the enemy. Seeger does his best version of a sort of Flemish genre picture, now–the rough but contented life of the soldiers in their rustic billets, shielded by hillside and wood from direct fire.

But the was is still close and constant. There is also night duty in the forward positions:

To us, who are lodged now regularly in the cellars of the big chateau, guard usually falls at points along the park wall. At sunset, in little groups of four, we take up positions at a door, on a scaffolding rigged up inside, or in a little trench dug without. “Guard” means standing here with every nerve strained on the dark world outside; relief, sitting huddled in a blanket near by, walking up and down to shake off drowsiness or stamping the feet to drive out the cold. When moon or star light makes it possible to see some distance into the orchard, field, or grove outside this job is not so bad. But when the sky is covered and complete darkness draws the lurking menace down to within a few meters of this post then the sentinel creates for himself a thousand imaginary dangers.

As the night wears on the tension begins to tell. The senses of sight and hearing become subject to strange hallucinations. Surely some one is whispering out there in the darkness. Or else it is a low whistle, or such signals as pass between the members of a patrol. A black spot in the night takes shape and seems to move. A human form detaches itself from a tree trunk. As a shot rings out near by along the wall the sentry’s hand tightens on his rifle.

But if there is no real attack then, well, this is as bad as gets at present, and back he goes to the warm fires, the companionable men, and the well-bound classics.

There is no good reason for these men to endanger themselves. The Germans are too well dug in above them to want to come down and take this low-lying and ruined village “without strategic importance,” and the French would lose too heavily in attacking the German front lines, which are already supported, in any case, by other defenses further uphill. (This tactical situation will obtain over much of the line throughout the war: the Germans, who occupy enemy territory, felt no compunction about following rational military assessments and withdrawing slightly to more defensible positions. And, for years, the British and French generally followed, occupying inferior positions and suffering in the war of attrition in order to reclaim a little slice of France.) As Seeger puts it, “the likelihood of an attack en masse at this point is less than at most others.”

But there’s a lot that that statement does not rule out. There is still the little war, the war that ignores strategy and even tactics: the war for bragging rights and confidence, the push-back against passive fear. The elective war, the enthusiasts’ war, the daily devilry of the nuisance raid and hit-and-run mission…

I am struggling, obviously, to find a good general term. “Raid,” is surely the best, although we will soon find raids of varying intensity and size being ordered by brigade and divisional commanders. But now, and even later in the war’s more thoroughly routinized phases, young officers who desire–from an excess of patriotism, enthusiasm, sensation-seeking, pent-up boyish energy, or psychotic energies that can now be easily channeled and released–to go and kill people may seek to do so.

This ground has not been very closely contested and there is plenty of latitude to circulate in between. Confined to the underground shelters during the day by the artillery that thunders continually all around, yet little parties are free to go out at night and pursue more primitive and more exciting methods of warfare. If prolonged inaction becomes too exasperating there is always this nocturnal man hunting to break the monotony and no lack of volunteers for it. The simplest form of it is what we call “shooting up a petit poste.”

Under the big pines in the chateau park we left a little mound and cross the first time we returned from C——-. In modern warfare, where the chances for individual prowess are so reduced, one must give credit to the man who can achieve it one way or another, even if he be an enemy. And it was a little coup d’audace, well conceived and well executed, that cost us the life of our corporal the first night at the chateau.

The third guard had just gone on. Two sentinels were placed at a point in the wall where the breach made by a shell had been rudely barricaded. Enough of the hole was left open to command a view of the hillside approaches by which an attack might be delivered, but of the ground immediately on the other side nothing at all. The moon had just risen.

The sentinels had hardly been on long enough to reconnoitre their post when a grenade fell at their very feet. The fuse sputtered a second and went out without explosion. A bolt out of the blue could not have astonished the two men more. With sickening certainty the realization came upon them that the enemy had approached without their knowledge and were standing there two yards away without their being able to strike a blow in self-defence.

It was a moment for quick decision. Yet no course of action that presented itself seemed very satisfactory. To fire was useless, for no possible angle commanded the ground just be hind the wall. The call to arms might have precipitated the danger, which still hanging in suspense offered a better opportunity for over coming. Leaving his comrade at the breach, therefore, the mobile sentry ran down to the petit poste, which was only about fifty yards along the walk, and called up the corporal of the guard, warning him of what had occurred.

A little incredulous, the old soldier buckled on his equipment, took his rifle, and preceding the sentinel, walked up the path toward the barricade. Before he had time to arrive an other fuse appeared spinning over the wall at the same spot. Realizing the danger, he cried out to the sentinel who had remained, to save himself. He had hardly spoken when the bomb burst with a terrific explosion. Turning toward the petit poste the corporal shouted “Aux armes!” These were his last words. Almost simultaneously with the explosion of the grenade the enemy burst in the barricade, fired down through the smoke, and were off again before the bewildered men inside had time to answer. They shot well, for almost with the first ball the old veteran of Morocco and Tonkin fell, struck in the temple, and never moved again.

That night there was not much difference at petit poste between the two hours on guard and the two hours off. Every one was on the alert, keyed up with apprehension. But nothing happened, as indeed there was no reason to suppose that anything would. Only about midnight, from far up on the hillside, a diabolical cry came down, more like an animal’s than a man’s, a blood-curdling yell of mockery and exultation.

In that cry all the evolution of centuries was levelled. I seemed to hear the yell of the warrior of the stone age over his fallen enemy. It was one of those antidotes to civilization of which this war can offer so many to the searcher after extraordinary sensations.[4]

That last paragraph I should let lie, and return to later on. And I will–it bears comparison to what other aspiring writers want to make of “romance” and “war” and “civilization” and “sensation.” (Compare for instance Robert Graves‘ stated desire to get romance out of his prose–but he is still in Britain.)

So, briefly:

Seeger’s thriller-ish narration of the killing of the corporal during the raid is a strange set-up for his closing pronouncement, leaving us–perhaps intentionally–slightly bewildered.

Is this simple conservatism, “civilization has always been but the skin on the onion, violence is our true nature, the Hun gets us or we get the Hun,” a concomitant of the whole “England has gotten weak, we shall find reality in violence!” idea so much discussed over the summer?

Or is he striking the pose of the amoral observer/participant? Should we hear Nietzsche, and the sensation-seeking madness of various futurists and the claim that war may be right or wrong but who cares–it’s something you need to feel?

Well, he’s a young man posing for publication in a paper back home… his private letters are also interested in sight and sensation, but more from the artist’s point of view than the thrill-seeking, civilization-denying, proto-nihilist.

So it’s a pose? A simple (and undeniable) observation–out here, lots o’ folks discover they like to sneak around and kill folks–tarted up a little in épater-the-readers prose?

I’m not sure, and he’s left some wiggle room… but the positioning of violence as an “antidote” to civilization is a frightening thing…


References and Footnotes

  1. Diary of a Nursing Sister, available here.
  2. Chronicle of Youth, 115.
  3. Letters from a Lost Generation, 52-3.
  4. Letters and Diary of Alan Seeger, 54-68.