Wilfred Owen’s Wound is Blighty-Worthy at Last; C.E. Montague Separates the War from the Militarists

Wilfred Owen‘s long, strange, slow journey back from the front recently took him as far as an American-run base hospital on the French coast. This seemed to him a very pleasant place to be… if he weren’t still suffering from the stress of his indefinite confinement and unclear diagnosis.

A recent letter to his mother was cautiously optimistic, and still very much aggravated:

I think it is very likely that the Americans will send me to England, but we must permit ourselves no jubilations yet. I shall believe it as soon as I find myself within swimming distance of the Suffolk Coast. The usual thing on arrival is a fortnight or more of genuine leave at home!

I am sorry! I can think of nothing else to write about, and if I went on about my expectations this letter would end in a scream. If I go bathing this afternoon it will be to practise swimming in Channel waters…[1]

Luckily there was no need for this extreme measure–today, a century back, in a private cabin on a converted luxury liner, Owen sailed for England. His first stop will be the enormous military hospital in Netley.

 

C.E Montague will eventually become a standard-bearer for the disenchanted. But it would be a gross oversimplification to portray him as someone who became broadly “anti-war” because of the failings of the British army. A letter to his wife of today, a century back–many months into his frustrations with the General Staff and his unhappy involvement in managing propaganda–thinks carefully through the ways in which a man can hate war and yet serve the British war effort. And yet the terms of his analogy are hardly pacific…

June 16, 1917

I look on the struggle as one between believers in the virtue of war and disbelievers in [it], and feel almost proud and glad that we are, in a way, amateurs at it compared with the Prussian professionals, just as I would rejoice to see a professional garotter choked by some inoffensive person who thought garotting beastly.

I do find it a little perplexing that one can’t cast out Satan except with his own instruments, and yet the result of our not casting him out would be so unspeakable that I can’t hesitate. But, all the more because of the moral puzzle, I feel very keen on our keeping to the cleanest methods we can and avoiding any of the special Prussian beastlinesses of bombing non-combatants, harsh treatment of prisoners, etc.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 469.
  2. C.E Montague, 166.

Rowland Feilding on the Success of Messines; Jack Martin Does Not Rest Assured

Over the past three days–since the great Messines assault–Jack Martin has grabbed a few minutes’ sleep with his hat for a pillow, eaten moldy bread while literally on the run, sent numerous telegraph messages while surrounded by German corpses, and flinched at thousands of shells. Yesterday, out of the line at last, he slept most of the day; but his nerves will not recover that quickly.

My hand still shakes too much to permit of letter writing without causing people to wonder what is the matter with me. This afternoon Davidson and I went up as far as the old no-man’s-land and had a look at two of the new mine craters. One solid concrete dugout had been blown up and rolled over bodily. The dead body of a German was still inside…

The official reports issued to the English press state that all the objectives were captured early in the morning of the 7th, but we know that the 47th Div. is still held up some distance from its final objective and it is quite likely that some of the Divisions on our right have failed to get as far as they were supposed to.[1]

 

However Rowland Feilding, who observed the attack with something approaching glee, remains sanguine. Or at least he is not yet willing to contradict official new in a letter to his wife. The letter does little to confirm or question the strategic benefit of the attack, but it does continue to confirm the high quality of the planning for the attack, which will in due time become a major emphasis of subsequent historiography and thus influence Henry Williamson‘s account of the days before

June 10, 1917 (Sunday). Kemmel Shelters.

I see from the papers that the battle of the 7th is considered to have been the most successful of the war to date. Of course, I could not even hint this to you, but, while we were behind “resting”—so-called, we were in reality practising the attack over fascinating “dummy” representations of the Petit Bois, etc., and the German trenches beyond
the Wytschaete-Messines Ridge. Nothing was left to chance. We even had a large-scale model, covering about an acre, which represented, to scale, Wytschaete, the woods, and the villages beyond. This latter—which I believe was
made by the engineers—was a triumph of skill. It looked like a huge toy village, and would have delighted the children.

We came out yesterday…

Willie Redmond is buried in the nuns’ garden, on almost the very spot I had chosen for myself.

A large number of the men of the battalion are now the proud possessors of wrist watches—trophies of war. We are refitting.[2]

It’s interesting that Feilding makes a relatively rare reference to his children during a discussion of a “breakthrough” military success. Except it wasn’t a breakthrough: Martin and Feilding, the private and the colonel, make a good pair of bookends around the newspapers of the day. Feilding is no fool, yet he is inclined to accept their interpretation–he saw the success with his own eyes, after all. Martin, however, disbelieves the complete success on the basis of hearsay.

And neither is wrong: it was a successful attack, but not as successful as the papers made it seem. “Most successful of the war to date?” Yes, but it was only a breakthrough in operational terms–on the strategic level, little has changed but the ownership of a few ruined miles of Belgium…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Sapper Martin, 78.
  2. War Letters to a Wife, 192-3.

Edwin Vaughan in Fine Fettle; Wilfred Owen a Nervous Wreck, or Possibly Almost Ready for Action; Vera Brittain Sees Victor Richardson

Two brief updates, today, before we face the meeting that has driven Vera Brittain‘s homecoming.

Wilfred Owen has been ill with a fever, and this minor illness has prevented, it seems, his being evacuated to England for treatment for a “nerve” disorder, namely (for the time being, at least) “shell shock.”

Monday, 28 May 1917

Dearest Mother,

Just a note. I was down on the list for evacuation all last week & up to last night. This morning the evacuation takes place—I and another, a Major, are crossed off the list at the last moment. It is sickening, more especially as this place becomes less and less pleasant. I suppose I shall wait for the next batch, but before that I may be turned out elsewhere—to some Line Battalion.

His frustration is understandable, but it is also remarkable: Owen seems honestly not to know whether his “nerves” have been so badly affected by his experiences that he will shortly be sent to Blighty for a long and honorable recuperation (and thus a long–and, to men more concerned with escaping mutilation and death than with being sure of their psychological condition, an intensely desirable–reprieve from the dangers of the front) or whether he is under suspicion of psychological weakness or malingering and likely to be sent straight back to the trenches as an unreliable officer needing no “cure” other than a chance to prove himself brave once again.

These are the days when last year the army was good to me. The same dreadful uncertainty overhangs me here as on that ‘Leave pending Gazette.’ Would I had to report at Witley Camp on June…

I am feeling quite well now, but I keep a sub-normal temp! Useful enough in this weather…

Your lovingest W.E.O. x[1]

 

Edwin Vaughan, now a swaggering veteran instead of a timorous new subaltern, has had a long rest. But today, a century back, his battalion is making ready to go once more up the line.

The usual ‘day-before’–inspections, returns of working strength, carting working materials back to HQ, etc. There was no excitement as we are familiar with the sector, but I believe my lads are quite pleased to be going back to the wild poppy-covered land of night patrols and daydreams. I know that there is that feeling somewhere in my mind.[2]

 

Which brings us to Vera Brittain. Last night, a century back, she “slept without thinking or dreaming.” But today, however, “the glamour of scarlet kimonos and idle cigarettes had firmly to be put aside. I had come home for a purpose and must now face up to it.”

She went, therefore, to 2nd London General Hospital.

I found Victor in bed in the garden, his pale fingers lethargically exploring a big book of braille. His head was still copiously bandaged, and one brown eye, impotently open, stared glassily into fathomless blackness. If I had not been looking for him I should not have known him; his face seemed to have emptied and diminished until what was visible of it was almost devoid of expression. ‘Hallo, Tah!’ I said, as casually as I could, self-consciously anxious to keep the shock of his appearance out of my voice.

He did not answer, but stiffened all over like a dog suddenly hearing its master’s call in the distance; the drooping lethargy disappeared, and his mouth curved into the old listening look of half-cynical intelligence. ‘Do you know who it is, Tah?’ I asked him, putting my hand on his.

‘Tah!’ he repeated, hesitating, expectant– and then all at once, with a ring of unmistakable joy in his voice, ‘Why–it’s Vera!’

All that afternoon we sat and talked. The world had closed in around him; he definitely discouraged the description of loveliness that he could no longer see, of activities that he could never again share, and at first seemed interested only in discussing the visits of his friends and the hospital detail of every day. But of his complete rationality there could be no question, and with time and the miraculous adaptability of the blind, the wider outlook would certainly return.

I saw no trace on that day, nor any of the successive afternoons on which I visited him, of the bitterness that Edward had mentioned; he seemed to have accepted his fate, to have embarked upon the conquest of braille, and to have compared, with a slight bias in favour of the former, the merits of an East End curacy with schoolmastering as a career for a blinded man…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 466.
  2. Some Desperate Glory, 136.
  3. Testament of Youth, 354-6.

Frank Richards is an Officer for a Day; Wilfred Owen is Healed in Body

The Royal Welch Fusiliers pride themselves on being a fine old regiment, full of their full two centuries of service. And the two Regular battalions–the 1st and 2nd–insist not only on maintaining a tradition of trench-fighting aggression, but on keeping up at least some of the old formalities and disciplines of the prewar army. But time waits for no battalion–or, perhaps, intramural rivalries are just the sort of happy old traditions too crucial to stand on old ceremony.

In any event, the two Regular Battalions, though in different divisions, found themselves close by in reserve today, a century back. It was a rare opportunity for fraternizing, and, as Doctor Dunn’s chronicle attests, all’s fair in war and tugs of war:

The 1st Battalion… invited us to their sports. Every Regular Soldier, and all officers who could be spared, went over. With “Ginger” Owens, our Mess Sergeant, and “Big Dick,” Richards–a signaller, two sterling fellows–as makeweight, we won an inter-Battalion tug-of-war for officers…[1]

That would be our own Frank Richards. His matter-of-fact description of the day is interesting in its understatement and framing:

a tug-of-war was arranged… twelve aside. Only ten of our officers were present, so Owens and I made up the number. After a long pull we were the victors. We spent a very pleasant evening, the First Battalion having a wet canteen…

Is the tug-of-war not such a big deal to him, or is this pride? He may be a humble signaller, averse to rising in the ranks despite many opportunities to do so, but he’s a strong and trusty man, and the officers chose him… Or is it ironic understatement, along the lines of “in the war I’m just a humble soldier, but for the tug of war I’m apparently a temporary gentleman?”

Some clue is offered by Richards’s tale of the aftermath of the field day. After that “wet” evening at the canteen, he, Owens, and another old soldier pal called Lane attempted the long walk back from the 1st Battalion’s camp to their own. They departed already “three sheets to the wind” and with a bottle of whiskey yet in hand. After drinking the bottle, they decided that a short nap would be in order, and passed out some miles short of their own battalion’s billets.

I was woke up some time during the night by what I thought was heavy rain falling. I was still half drunk and muddled and for a moment did not know where I was… Lane in his half-drunken condition had got up and had been mistaking the both of us for a shell hole. But Lane had unwittingly done us a good turn, saving us from a court-martial for desertion. We arrived back just in time to move off with the Battalion who were marching towards the line to make an attack the following morning…[2]

Colorful and amusing. But, as the last line makes so clear, there is another sort of pressure on this memory: retrospection forcing foreshadowing. Richards’s memory is off, but only by a day–the 2nd Royal Welch are slated to attack on the 27th.

Our only other piece of business, today, is a brief note from Wilfred Owen.

24 May 1917

41st Stationary Hospital

My own dearest Mother,

I feel normal today. Am sitting on the bed in the one Kimono left in this Rag Time Hospital. Have just had your Sat. evening (May 19) Letter, full of gracious truths: the most pleasing being the tales of your gardening. I am sure it will do you good, and I may indeed get Leave before the Summer falls, now that it is likely I am out of the ‘Area’ of the 2nd Battalion…

I am astonished at my Balance at Cox’s, but not so astonished as you.knowing it is deceptive. There have been, a number of Mess Bills, & other cheques drawn lately which are not yet entered at the Bank Moreover my Military Wardrobe will want renewing if there is another winter campaign.

On the other hand I confess—I mean I profess with pride—that I have not run into any kind of danger of losing moneys. My first Mess Bill for Jan. was £6: which I consider disgraceful for the kind of stuff we got…

It is evidently Trench fever I had, but I feel fine today…

Your own W.E.O.[3]

So Owen is cured of his fever; but this does not change the awkward fact that he is now in a Stationary Hospital which has been established to specialize in treating cases of “shell shock…” His frustrations mount, but there is no clear indication yet how the Army intends to recognize or treat his “neurasthenia…”

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Dunn, The War the infantry Knew, 347.
  2. Old Soldiers Never Die, 235.
  3. Collected Letters, 463-4.

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

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

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

 

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

May 16

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

My own dear Mother,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is it spoken in English only and French?

I do not believe so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

So I am well set up.

I am marked for the next Evacuation!!

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

Expect me—before Christmas.

Your—one and only—Wilfred x[4]

 

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

 

References and Footnotes

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

A Sunrise, a Hospital Barge, and a Ban on Pineapple Chunks from Wilfred Owen

A quiet day, for our writers, a century back. One letter from Wilfred Owen to his mother Susan will have to suffice–along with its verse enclosure, that is.

10 May 1917
13th Casualty Clearing Station

Dearest Mother,

…I sailed in a steam-tug about 6 miles down the Canal with another ‘inmate’.

The heat of the afternoon was Augustan; and it has probably added another year to my old age to have been able to escape marching in equipment under such a sun.

The scenery was such as I never saw or dreamed of since I read the Fairie Queene. Just as in the Winter when I woke up lying on the burning cold snow I fancied I must have died & been pitch-forked into the Wrong Place, so, yesterday, it was not more difficult to imagine that my dusky barge was wending up to Avalon, and the peace of Arthur, and where Lancelot heals him of his grievous wound.

I’ve already wondered whether there is not a bit of a false front here–can Owen really be so blessedly happy with a diagnosis of “shell shock” hanging over his head? But perhaps he can, as the comment about the march indicates. He has not yet been in any way dishonored, and he is neither marching with a pack nor in trenches. So he makes hay while the sun shines–which would have been a better joke if I had already indicated that this letter includes a draft of the poem “A Sunrise.”

In any event, there’s another poem clearly linked to today’s letter:

 

Hospital Barge at Cérisy

Budging the sluggard ripples of the Somme,
A barge round old Cérisy slowly slewed.
Softly her engines down the current screwed,
And chuckled softly with contented hum,
Till fairy tinklings struck their croonings dumb.
The waters rumpling at the stern subdued;
The lock-gate took her bulging amplitude;
Gently from out the gurgling lock she swum.

One reading by that calm bank shaded eyes
To watch her lessening westward quietly.
Then, as she neared the bend, her funnel screamed.
And that long lamentation made him wise
How unto Avalon, in agony,
Kings passed in the dark barge, which Merlin dreamed.

So I suppose it bears reminding that there are no straight lines from trauma to poetic innovation. This is no matter for a Roman road, but rather a rambling Celtic drover’s track, veering into history and fairy land… and, indeed, there certainly seems to be progress of a sort, here. There is music in this, of a sort that is rare in his earlier work: pleasant, side-wise rhyme and alliteration that is almost onomatopoeic–lazy barge music for a lazy barge song.

Although this poem is still to come, the Arthurian mood is certainly proper to this letter, and not cleanly divisible from the military milieu, either.

But the Saxon is not broken, as we could very well hear last night. Later, a real thunderstorm did its best to seem terrible, and quite failed.

The.next book for you to read is A Knight on Wheels. It is great.

Eh, I’m not so sure of that, but with a guilty conscience I must mention that this is a book by Ian Hay (Beith), whose The First Hundred Thousand is one of the most important mid-war publications by and on the British Army, but has made almost no impact here.

But let’s follow Owen’s train of thought: he’s got time, he’s written a poem, he’s a wounded warrior of sorts… what of service? what of his “contribution?” what of fame?

I, with the inherited diffidence of my distinguished Grandma, must say I could never do anything like so great.
I suppose in the million eyes of the Empire I have already done a thing greater than this merry book; but, then, more fools the million eyes . . .

This, perhaps, would be a good spot to interpolate the properly enclosed poem, straight-jacketed by diction, and with none of the easy command of the “Hospital Barge:”

 

A Sunrise

Loomed a pale Pearl more marvellous than the Moon’s,
Who thereby waned yet wanner than she was.
Because of the pallor of the Pearl of dawn,—because
Her Pearl was whiter than the wan, worn Moon’s.

The Pearl cleared Opal; Emerald eftsoons.
And the Emerald trembled peerless for an hour.
Till shower’d with shimmering Sapphires. (Their blue shower
Burst keen and brilliant as the first birds’ tunes.)

Then slowly through the shaking jewels of dawn.
Moved the immutable Ruby of the Sun,
Hung the immortal Ruby, huge with morn.

And the Moon was finished like a reel unspun.
She vanished as a Pearl that falls in wine.
She died: like the white Maid that once was mine.

 

There is some deftness here, rhyme-wise… but this is not the sort of stuff that–even imagining that the traditional register holds the field entire–will win fame and honor.

The fundamental fact, here, I think, is that Owen is in something of a holding pattern–whether he is really loving this interlude (The Idylls of the Subaltern?) or whether he is putting on a brave face for home and for himself to cover his anxiety–he is still awaiting a double verdict: will it be blighty, or back to the trenches? And are his “nerves” an acceptable war wound or a sign of weakness?

The letter leaves literature for the milder balm of the gossip of daily life–not that talk of food shortages, however light-hearted, is a cheery subject.

How are you rationing? The French hereabouts subsist chiefly on Dandelion Salad. I am not joking. The young leaves with oil make an excellent supper. Tell me how you find it.

I live mainly on Pine Apple Chunks. There are going to be certain things Afterwards which will be held by all who love me in everlasting TABOO,

One of these is Pine Apple Chunks.
Another is a lead pencil on bad paper.
Another is the smoke of a damp wood fire…

All Love from your very own Wilfred x[1]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 456-7.

Alfred Hale Gets Buttoned Up Right; Isaac Rosenberg Posts a Powerful Horror; Siegfried Sassoon Has a Volume of his Own; Wilfred Owen is Nervy in Limbo

Alfred Hale managed to get to sleep on his first night in camp, but he also managed to sleep with the wrong group of recruits–men of a higher fitness classification than he. He is, however, still in better shape than his poorer comrades: last night he had paid for dinner and a shave–his first correct guess at camp conditions, as the men scraping away with cold water over a tin basin at 6:30 soon discovered. One more paragraph, then, with Hale and his exquisite decline into the indignities of army life, before his memory blurs from specific mornings into the general daily tribulations of Thetford.

But, as I say, we went on parade that morning in companies at 7.30. Owing to my mistake of the night before, I found myself among the B2 men and after the parade was over was duly drilled with them by the sergeant with the loud bullying voice whose help I had so rashly invoked the night before. Before the drill began we were inspected by an officer… He said nothing to me, but as soon as his back was turned a corporal beckoned me out of the line and buttoned an unnoticed button of my tunic up for me in a sort of awestruck way. I felt much as a small boy would feel whose mother had taken his hat off for him on entering a church.

After cutting a “figure of fun” in drill, Hale is released for breakfast, and manages to find his own proper company, under the rule of a more kindly sergeant. But he is still in the army…[1]

 

Isaac Rosenberg is an inconsistent letter-writer. Not just in terms of the flow of correspondence–that too, but a nearly penniless private will generally not write as often as a well-heeled officer–but in tone as well. A recent letter to Eddie Marsh was couched in grand terms, high-flying and allusive; today’s effort is grammatically sketchy and must be one of the few letters to end up in Marsh’s inbox that mentions, in passing, running a wagon over corpses–Rosenberg has completed a draft of Dead Man’s Dump.

My Dear Marsh,

We are camping in the woods now and are living great. My feet are almost healed now and my list of complaints has dwindled down to almost invisibility. Ive written some lines suggested by going out wiring, or rather carrying wire up the line on limbers and running over dead bodies lying about. I dont think what Ive written is very good but I think the substance is, and when I work on it I’ll make it fine. Bottomley told me he had some very old poems in The Annual but of course its too bulky to send out here. Your extract from his ‘Atlantis’ is real Bottomleyian. The young Oxford poets you showed my things to Ive never come across yet, and I ll soon begin to think myself a poet if my things get admired so.

Im writing to my sister to send you the lines as she will type several copies

Yours sincerely

I R

I trust the colonial office agrees with you.[2]

It probably doesn’t, but the patron’s patron–Churchill–will be back doing war work soon enough.

So this letter is on the way, but Marsh’s thoughts today were surely with a more intimate protégé: it was today, a century back, that Siegfried Sassoon‘s The Old Huntsman was at last published.

 

Finally, there is Wilfred Owen‘s letter to his sister Mary. It begins ordinarily enough, with social banter and a list of new acquaintances. Wilfred entertains hopes of making useful publishing connections among these new friends… the 13th Casualty Clearing Station would seem to be a strange place to network, but there it is.

Two lines in the letter are of particular note. First, though Owen is at a forward hospital in France and not among “nerve” specialist, we have what I can’t help but see as an early example of a coming common theme, namely the all-powerfulness of psychiatrists.

…The Nerve Specialist is a kind of wizard, who mesmerises when he likes: a famous man. He is a friend of Dr. Keeble and the Reading Botany People!

You must not entertain the least concern about me because I am here. I certainly was shaky when I first arrived. But today Dr. Browne was hammering at my knees without any response whatever. (At first I used to execute the High Kick whenever he touched them) i.e. Reflex Actions quite normal.

So Owen believes himself to be improving. But what was the cause of his affliction?

You know it was not the Bosche that worked me up, nor the explosives, but it was living so long by poor old Cock Robin (as we used to call-2/Lt. Gaukroger), who lay not only near by, but in various places around and about, if you understand. I hope you don’t!

That would be the second weighty line. It is the same incident which he described in the long letter to his mother about his traumatic tour in the front line–but it is described with one crucial difference. At first it seemed that Lt. Gaukroger had been buried, “covered with earth,” near where Owen had to shelter. Now it would seem that his comrade’s dismembered remains had been scattered about.

I have no intimation at all about my next move.

Meanwhile I have superb weather, sociably-possible friends, great blue bowls of yellow Mayflower, baths and bed ad lib. Soon I shall have Letters from Home.

Your own W.E.O. x[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Ordeal of Alfred Hale, 52-4.
  2. Collected Works, 316.
  3. Collected Letters, 455-6.

Alf Pollard Summons the Band; Wilfred Owen is Possibly a Little Mad; Ivor Gurney Rates the War Poets; Vera Brittain Knows it is Very Difficult to Know What is the Right Thing to Do

The Honourable Artillery Company are back in rest, and resting on their considerable recent laurels. In Alf Pollard‘s memoirs, the mood of Boy’s Own boyishness persists. Today is his birthday and–on a dare–he requests that the Divisional Band be sent to serenade him. It is–and this being the Royal Naval Division, the Royal Marines Band arrives to play a long, formal concert. Pollard will have leave soon, so that he might disperse his high spirits elsewhere…

 

Wilfred Owen, meanwhile, remains near the line, but not in it, hospitalized due to the effects of shell shock. But it is hard to ascertain the state of his “nerves” in medical terms. His own bewilderment–manifesting in these letters as bemused confidence that everything will work out fine, soon–makes it difficult to tell whether he is under observation or suspicion. Is he still at the CCS because the doctors want to see whether he will improve away from the trenches or need further treatment Blighty, or because the fact of his being “shell-shocked” is in doubt?

4 May 1917
13th Casualty Clearing Station

My own dear Mother,

I have been expecting every day to be moved from here, but nothing happens; only a great calm happiness. We are a cheery crowd here this time, and I like everyone as a great & interesting fellow. Some of us have been sent down here as a little mad. Possibly I am among them. One man in particular is supposed to be a Brain Case. He is a Trinity College (Oxford) boy, and a nephew of Sir Frederick Treves;[1] and is going to get damages from his C.O. for libel or something of that sort; with Sir Frederick & F. E. Smith to back him up!! The chief arguments of his denouncers are (1) that he had an original Scheme for making a haul of German Prisoners, and (2) he happened to read the Bible. He is, of course, perfectly sane, but may be sent to England!

…I have no news, but that it has been splendidly hot lately, & we have been living the lounging, irresponsible life of a hydro. It will not last long for some of us…

Always your lovingest W.E.O. x[2]

 

Ivor Gurney wrote to Marion Scott today–a long, rambling, literary letter that seems intended to cheer her amidst a renewed bout of illness. And he must also thank her for a gift of books, including the most recent collection of Yeats’s poetry–a gift too precious for his state:

…this morning “Responsibilities” has turned up. It is too generous of you really, and of course far too good a book to keep out here; so that directly I think they have put me on a draft I will send it back to you. The glance at it seems to show it an immensely interesting book, obscure, and unaccountably failing and only just failing to be great poetry time after time. What will the next one be like? Is it Transition or the end of him? After the War I shall be only too pleased to resume possession, but as to taking it up the line that is not possible…

The Herrick poem is very beautiful, and makes me long for the time when after a long tramp out towards round and about Staunton and Corse — on the way to Jagged Malvern, I shall return tired and full of memories to set up singing in my mind — and then Mr Herrick, we shall collaborate to some purpose.

But there are more up-to-date things to read, too: our war poetry serpent now begins to nibble on its own tail. In fact, it’s a pretty big bite:

Also another kind friend has sent me “Soldier Poets”, in which there is precious little of value but much of interest. Julian Grenfell’s “Into Battle” is of course easily the best. Geoffrey Howard’s “Without Shedding of Blood,” E. MelboumesBefore Action”, “Back to Rest”. Victor Ratcliffe’s “Optimism”. Robertson’s “We shall drink”. Sorleys translation from “Faust”. The curiously alive and unequal “Charge at Neuve-Chapelle.” The last two verses of “To My People” of Wilkinson’s. (Have you seen any verse by a man named Sassoon? I remember having seen quite good stuff.)

This is a poet’s assessment, I think, not a soldier-poet’s, and still less a poet-historian’s. Gurney, humble private of the Gloucesters, is neither amazed nor offended by the war-worship of the aristocratic cavalryman, and he has kind words for other poems, both forgotten and remembered, here. Noel Hodgson–that would be “E. Melbourne”–writes a more self-consciously refined sort of verse than Gurney, but it’s not surprising his sure hand and quiet tone would appeal to him.

It’s the last name that comes as a surprising non-sequitur: Siegfried Sassoon is not in Soldier Poets, and The Old Huntsman is still days away from publication. So Gurney has seen one of the handful of recent poems that Sassoon has placed in magazines, and seen his promise immediately…

And as for his own?

You may send my things to Erskine Macdonald if you wish. The “Poetry Review” is a first rate pusher. Why cannot I write now? Dont know, but I believe after this long frowst and feed up, the line will give me beacoup ideas… In future however, I refuse absolutely to have any parcels sent. It is absurd and impossible to ask for them. And now the warm weather has come, we shall do very well.

We’ll see about that!

…O Robert Ross or whatever his name is—the Poetry Review man — is all bosh. Pope or Gray in the solidity of his good lines — ungoverned transcendability. A type of a different kind from Ella Wheeler Wilcox, but no better. Give me Walt Whitman…

It’s difficult to follow Gurney here, but one joke, at least, is on him. Robbie Ross is one of the main reasons he has had the chance to see “any verse by a man named Sassoon.” London literary connections are very important, and this Gloucestershire lad lacks them. He owes Marion Scott a very great deal indeed…

Tomorrow I start training, a good thing. You get frightfully slack doing nothing:

Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney[3]

 

Finally, today, in a letter to her mother, Vera Brittain reaffirms her new course.

Malta, 4 May 1917

When your letter Came saying how you wished I was in England to comfort Edward because of Victor, I felt rather mean in signing on again & being unable to be of use at home for 6 months at least, but when I got your cables saying that Geoffrey was killed, I knew that I must try to come home if possible, for I know that I can comfort him as no one else can. I am coming partly for your sake when he goes out again, partly because I may be of more help to Victor than any of you know, but chiefly for Edward, for I hope to get home before he goes out again . . .

Vera’s decision is complex. It’s not only a matter of what she wants to do, or even of the tug between ordinary selfish desires and what she wants to want to do–that noble, sacrificial self-image that is so important for her as for so many other Brooke-reading children of 1914. It’s also the fact that, although she may preside over the battered, shrinking cult of Roland, she is not, in her family’s eyes, a Romantic priestess… she is an unmarried young woman, with a duty to support her family. She has kicked against these restraints, but now she does not deny them:

Anyone–or no one–could take my place here, whereas nobody else could take my place with Edward or you or Victor, so after I had thought it out for a long time I felt you had the first claim. It is very difficult sometimes to know what is the right thing to do, but at least I know in this case that I am not making your need of me an excuse to go home, for since I intend to go on nursing till the War ends I would rather do it with this unit than anywhere; I love the system of this hospital, I have made many good friends… I don’t intend to leave the service for good, only for a little, time; after which I shall join up again all being well . . .

It seems terribly hard that Victor should be blinded & Geoffrey killed within a few weeks of each other; poor Edward must feel that there is no one left of his generation…

It is another case of ‘whom the Gods love’; I feel as though all the people I love are too splendid to last & that is why I lose them…

Goodbye–I hope I shall see you not long after you get this. I feel I must try to be of some use to the living since I can’t be of any use to the dead.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Sir Frederick Treves (1853-1923), Sergeant-Surgeon to King Edward VII.
  2. Collected Letters, 454-5.
  3. War Letters, 159-61.
  4. Letters From a Lost Generation, 349-50.

Siegfried Sassoon at the Reform; John Masefield in Mametz Wood; Rowland Feilding Risks an Irish Derby; Wilfred Owen Avoids a Breakdown

Siegfried Sassoon,continues to recover from his shoulder wound–and to take advantage of certain… advantages… of his position. Dining out from his London hospital, his old contacts with the world of literary eminence now put the heroic young poet in the way of some of the leading lights of London literature.

May 2

Lunch with Robbie Ross and Roderick at Reform. Talked to Wells and Arnold Bennett—the latter very affable… Sat in Hyde Park 3.30-4.30 in warm sun—very pleasant…[1]

 

One literary luminary that Sassoon does not know is John Masefield–which would be awkward, considering that Sassoon’s best pre-war work, “The Daffodil Murderer,” was a satire of his work. Now the prosy shoe is on the other poetic foot, and while Sassoon lunches at the Reform Club, working on his literary rolodex, Masefield is tramping about the ruined areas of the Somme, working on a war book. He is close to the scene of Sassoon’s earlier bout of heroics, but much closer, in location and tone, to David Jones.

I went today up to Mametz Wood, where a German machine gunner once had a nest in a tree. He was killed in his nest & stayed there till he fell to bits, but his nest is still there & two kestrels have built in it, & there are violets in blossom below & wood anemones. I believe every tree & nearly every bush in that big wood is dead, & the same in every wood in the battlefield; most of the big trees cut down by the fire & the rest blasted.[2]

 

Rowland Feilding is far from such horror, and yet not far enough. Any experienced commander must worry, now, that even the war’s most pleasant and convivial scenes might suddenly become killing grounds.

May 2, 1917. Birr Barracks {Locre).

The battalion has twice played football lately against battalions of the Carson (36th) Division, and I am sorry to say got beaten both times.

On the second occasion there was a big crowd of soldier spectators—certainly 2,000 or 3,000. The ground was the best that could be found, but was rather “close up,” and would not have been chosen had this large attendance
been foreseen. Moreover, the day (Sunday) was the clearest of days, as it happened.

When I arrived, the sight of the crowd, I confess, made me anxious. A hostile aeroplane overhead with wireless apparatus; a German battery behind; a sudden hurricane bombardment with shrapnel; and considerable damage might have followed. And I was the senior officer present.

But to stop a match in process of being cleanly fought before a sporting audience between the two great opposing factions of Ireland, in a spirit of friendliness which, so far as I am aware, seems unattainable on Ireland’s native soil–even though in sight (or almost in sight) of the enemy–was a serious matter; and I decided to let the game go on…[3]

 

Last and not least, today, is Wilfred Owen. He is safe, once again–but that is not to say that all is well, precisely.

2 May 1917
13th Casualty Clearing Station

Dearest Mother,

Here again! The Doctor suddenly was moved to forbid me to go into action next time the Battalion go, which will be in a day or two. I did not go sick or anything, but he is nervous about my nerves, and sent me down yesterday—labelled Neurasthenia. I still of course suffer from the headaches traceable to my concussion. This will mean that I shall stay here and miss the next Action Tour of Front Line; or even it may mean that I go further down & be employed for a more considerable time on Base Duty or something of the sort. I shall now try and make my French of some avail . . . having satisfied myself that, though in Action I bear a charmed life, and none of woman born can hurt me, as regards flesh and bone, yet my nerves have not come out without a scratch. Do not for a moment suppose I have had a ‘breakdown’. I am simply avoiding one.

This seems like wisdom, although we must take it only tentatively, coming as it does from a young man just diagnosed with a “nerve”–i.e., psychiatric–condition writing to his mother–and hard on the heels of a rather dramatic statement about his confidence in his own destiny.

But Owen really does not seem troubled, despite the state of his nerves. Should he be upset not to be going into action?

At the first Ambulance I arrived at in the Car, a Corporal came up to me with a staid air of sleepy dignity that seemed somehow familiar. And when he began to enter in a Note Book my name & age, we knew each other. It was old Hartop of the Technical! Bystanding Tommies were astounded at our fraternity. For the Good old Sort brought back in an instant all the days of study in Shrewsbury, and the years that were better than these, or any years to come… He was reading the same old books that we ‘did’ there. I was jolly glad to see them again, & to borrow…

Reading material thus acquired, Owen does work back to the subject of his current status. He seems to be reassuring himself–and his mother–that his hospitalization for nerves is a war wound honestly come by. It is, of course, as we have learned–he is suffering from posttraumatic stress, an after-effect of both physical concussion and emotional trauma. But there was little consensus on this matter, then, and Owen can’t help but think of what he is experiencing in terms of the more desirably incontrovertible bullet wound:

If I haven’t got a Blighty in this war, I will take good care not to get a Blight, as many have done, even from this Regiment. I should certainly have got a bullet wound, if I had not used the utmost caution in wriggling along the ground on one occasion. There was a party of Germans in a wood about 200 yds behind us, and his trench which we had just taken was only a foot deep in places, & I was obliged to keep passing up & down it. As a matter of fact I rather enjoyed the evening after the Stunt, being only a few hundred yds. from the Town, as you knew, and having come through the fire so miraculously; and being, moreover, well fed on the Bosche’s untouched repast!!

The next line is a good one, especially for us: Owen is startled by what we might term the historical immediacy of the written word:

It was curious and troubling to pick up his letters where he had left off writing in the middle of a word! If we had gone down from the line next day all would have been very well, but we were kept up (in another part of the line) for 9 days after it: under incessant shelling…

Your last Parcel has arrived, and I enjoyed the Munchoc right well. I had some compensation for lost parcels in being given a parcel sent to an officer who was wounded the first day he joined us. It is a regimental custom never to send Food Stuffs back after Officers who go down to Hospital! I shall soon want some more Players. Nothing else yet!—Don’t omit to address C.C.S. 13…

How strange that the fact that I am in Hospital means that all cause of uneasiness about me is removed from you!

Do not hawk this letter about! Nay, I would rather you told no one I am a Casual again!

Your very own Wilfred[4]

We will keep a close eye on Owen and his nerves.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 163.
  2. Letters From France, 268.
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 169-70.
  4. Collected Letters, 453-4.