Withdrawals and Approaches: Charles Carrington, Hugh Quigley, Edmund Blunden, and Guy Chapman near Passchendaele Ridge

Before we turn to the tribulations of Charles Carrington on the Steenbeek, we must look to our immediate rear, where we have such a build-up of memoir writers in the support lines of the Salient that poetry can pass from one to the next…

 

First is Hugh Quigley, soon headed back toward the front lines. A fell mood is upon him:

The Canal Bank, Ypres, 6 October, 1917

I am right in the thick of it again, in this historic place which I shall describe some time. When I think of the glorious weather, sunlight shimmering in the molten sky, slow winds just breathing over the wilderness of shell-holes, it seems so hard throwing it all aside for an uncertain end. Yet it must be done. Perhaps Fate may have some kindness in store for me. Last night I had a strangely poignant dream: I was lying in the hospital trying madly to move my legs, both tied down in splints, and biting my lips to overcome pain coming from the right groin. A comfortable wound might be the outcome of this premonition. Let us hope so: then I can see again the Old Country I had given up for lost, hear the old voices, look at the friendly glad faces.[1]

 

Edmund Blunden, too, is on the way back in. His last tour had been harrowing, although of course it could have been worse. All of his unsurpassed talent for knitting together Gothic horror and pastoral idyll in close company on the page is exerted here, as he describes the withdrawal and then the time in reserve:

After the most vigorous display by the Bosch artillery that I have yet had to cast my eye upon and a narrow escape from being pulled under in a swamp on the way out (I was in such a hurry to get out of the barrage that my foot missed the dead man I was going to use as a duckboard),  we came back to this Corydonian spot for a B.E.F. rest. We feed in a barn which smells most pleasantly of hops…

Or not–not yet: this is not the studied, sumptuous memoir bur rather a contemporary letter to his school friend Hector Buck, which soon more fully embraces the usual tone of frenetic gaiety:

A bevy of milkmaids flitters about and warbles dithyrambs in the sunny air; at times they cease to warble but make a noise exactly similar by working an obese and crotchety cream separator. Since I knew they were on the go I have broken my vow and shaved; but even then my Charms are not availing.[2]

The memoir also fills us is in on how Blunden and the 11th Royal Sussex were really spending their time out of the line: drilling, marching, shooing on rifle and pistol ranges, and practicing for some of the least Arcadian recourses of the war.

This next episode–gas training–makes it possible, using the Battalion War Diary, to date this description fairly securely to today, a century back:

It was even a pleasure here to see Williams, the divisional gas officer, and his same old sergeant, at their kindly, deadly work again. I forget what type of gas it was that Williams discharged upon us, leaving it to us to get our helmets on or pass out. However, I believe it was not at full strength, for some hens poking about in the stubble did not suffer. Perhaps God tempers the gas to the Ypres hen.

But here is a point of interest not only specifically to this project but to the entire genre of the war memoir. Several of our writers involved in Passchendaele have–even while describing its horrors at great length–begun to refuse to dwell firmly in their evolving historical moment. In 1917 the war has become too much to bear–or its young wager-victims have become too prematurely old to live without the melancholy shoring-up of reminiscence:

Our minds receded with actual joy to the 1916 war, and particularly that season when we were within the kindly influence of Bethune. When had we heard the word “a bon time” since? How few there were left even to understand what hopes had then borne the battalion on, singing, toward the Somme! When we left this camp of disastered 1917, to be merged again in the slow amputation of Passchendaele, there was no singing. I think there were tears on some cheeks.

More prosaically, Blunden reports that he was passed over for promotion at this time–“the General would not hear of it, claiming that I was too young. My offences against propriety of speech and demeanour were in any case sufficient to spoil my chances…”–but also that he will be given a company nonetheless (to command as First Lieutenant, rather than a Captain).

Before that I had had a special duty to do. It was to act as “Tunnel Major” in Hedge Street Tunnels — to regulate the very limited and fiercely coveted accommodation there, and the traffic in and out. This took me back to the accursed area again, and even while I made my way there the evil nature of the place displayed itself. Going up by way of Zillebeke, I was obliged to stop. An “area shoot” began, a solid German bombardment for an hour on a chosen space, enclosing several battery positions. This shelling was so concentrated and geometrical that, leaning against the side of our old trench just beyond its limit, one was in safety. But the area covered was treated as with a titanic roller and harrow. About half an hour after this shoot began, from the very middle of the furnace two artillerymen suddenly emerged, running like demons but unwounded.

Outside the large dugout which I was to supervise a quartermaster-sergeant’s body was lying. Men were afraid to pause even a few seconds at this point and bodies were not quickly buried…

I found the tunnels crammed with soldiers on business and otherwise. The Colonel and Adjutant of the R. F.’s, who had taken our place in the Tower Hamlets sector a fortnight or so before, were occupying a new and half-finished dugout; they used me very hospitably. The Colonel remarked, pouring me out a drink, “We no longer exist.” I asked how: he explained that their casualties had been over 400.

Our experience had been only the prelude to their full symphony…[3]

 

Guy Chapman‘s symphony, as it happens–it was his battalion of the Royal Fusiliers which greeted Blunden, though Blunden does not recall the young officer’s name.[4]

On our third evening in Hedge Street we welcomed a very young, very fair and very shy subaltern from the Royal Sussex, who were to relieve us the next day. His battalion had preceded us at Tower Hamlets and had suffered a like experience. Late that evening a 6-inch How-battery commander came in to ask for accommodation and stayed to dinner. He was a pale bald man with a near fair moustache. He thumped on the table and recited Kipling for our entertainment.

This next bit, then, would be proper to tomorrow, a century back:

On the next day I showed our incoming tenant from the Sussex over his noxious habitation. As we bade him good-bye, he shyly put a small paper-covered book into my hand. The Harbingers, ran the title, ‘Poems by E.C. Blunden.’ It went into my it along with the battered Shakespeare, the torn Evan Harrington, and Sir Thomas Browne.[5]

 

Finally, though, we must skip ahead, more in the geographical than the anticipatory sense. We left Charles Carrington (the “Edmonds” of A Subaltern’s War), yesterday, about to grab a few hours overnight in the A Company dugout. After two long sleepless days and nights, he was exhausted, jumpy, and not too proud to simply sleep in a place of greater safety, “a little bit of narrow trench partly covered with a sheet of iron.”

After dawn, Carrington/Edmonds continued to lay as low as he decently could.

I determined quite basely to take shelter for a few hours in C company’s pill-box, and presently plucked up courage and squattered across through the stream to it.

This pill-box was the only piece of good cover in the battalion area. Imagine a small room ten feet square and six feet high with walls of thick rough concrete. There is only one opening, the door, over which a waterproof sheet is draped. The furniture consists of four bunks made of wire stretched on wooden frames. Signallers and officers’ servants have made a little hutch under the lee of the outer wall. Inside, live Marriott and Flint, a serjeant, and as many other people as are thought to deserve refuge. During the day Newsom and Wolfe each pay a visit to get some rest. I come first and stay longest. After all, the headquarters of a front-line company make quite a good command-post for a support company commander, and Thorburn’s position is within shouting distance and full view by daylight. On such a little journey had we lost our way last night.

Flint is something in the same exhausted state as myself; Marriott, who came up from reserve with Thorburn and Wolfe after the attack, is very cheerful and doing most of the work…

Descriptions of pill-boxes will be a major feature of “Edmonds'” narrative from here on out, with loving attention both to their horribleness and their precise degree of protection against different armaments.

But war narratives can never be truly predictable: today passes pleasantly and amusingly, with a tone of light comedy, however much strained, by tension, toward hysteria:

Marriott welcomed me cordially enough, and found me the dry corner of a bed, where I tried to get an hour’s sleep, but with little success. After a time he came into the pill-box, grinning, to ask me to take away some men of mine who were creating a disturbance in his trench. I went out and found the ten ration-carriers of last night all roaring drunk. The poor devils had got lost, just like everyone else, had wandered all night, and finally decided that the company was annihilated. Not without good sense they decided not to starve. They did their best with a whole company’s rations, but a whole company’s rum defeated them. Hither they had wandered very happy and very sleepy, but rather inclined to sing themselves to sleep. We saved the rest of the food and rum, and sent over the
remains, plenty for my handful of men.

It was difficult to know what to do with these men. One or two were helpless and comatose, one or two were incurably cheerful, the others varied from one extreme to the other. To arrest them and send them down the line would bring shell-fire on them and their escort, besides weakening the outposts. I stormed at them in my severest manner, promising them all courts-martial and death sentences. Some understood me and sobered a little, but Bridgwater and two or three others only blinked and looked more amiable than ever. If I had had any laughter in me I should have burst out laughing, too. We brought most of them round to a condition soon where they could go back to the company. The hopeless cases we left to sleep it off. There were no shooting parties at dawn, after all, as a sequel to this episode.

During the rest of the day I remained almost entirely in the pill-box. The shell-fire gradually increased as it had done yesterday, but we had no direct hits, any one of which would have done for us. Marriott kept up a running fire of conversation all day, little jokes and reminiscences, sly hints about my company and the rum, comparisons of our men with the Colonials, anecdotes of the day and of old battles. He had a N.C.O. in the pill-box with him, as orderly serjeant, one of those professional humorists without whom no company could hang together. The queer turns of his dialect, and an attractive little stuttering in his speech, an acute street-arab sense of humour, combined with the
manners and deference of a gentleman, made him perhaps a perfect example of the urban soldier. The stories flowed out of him all day, his adventures with long-forgotten brigadiers, ‘madamaselles’ or serjeant-majors, his friends and their idiosyncrasies, love and war and the weather, the bitterness of things, red tape and bad language.
(I cannot refrain from quoting ‘that our armies swore terribly in Flanders.’) He could tell a tale against a staff officer always with tact enough not to scandalise the officers present. If I were Dickens and could write down what he said,
my fortune as a novelist would be made. But I’m afraid the jokes that made us reel with laughter would be flat to-day. One jumped at any excuse to be gay, and to laugh meant to forget that open door, facing the wrong way, through which a shell might come at any moment to burst in the midst of us…

But relief from anxiety through laughter is temporary–relief from the front line, by another battalion, is what they crave.

At dusk when we were all ready the orderly arrived again. Where were the Berks? we asked. Not yet come up. But he had brought instead a large rough mongrel sheep dog, trained to carry messages through fire. Marriott grew quite despondent. “I thought they were going to send up the Berkshires,” he said, “ but all we’re going to get now is barks”; at which we laughed uproariously. The Berks never did come, but before long a company of another regiment began to arrive. I collected my gear (we were in full marching order), and splashed through the stream to Thorburn, who had had another day’s shelling and felt a little neglected. We headed back a second time to the jumping-off line, where we were now to be reserve company. Marriott withdrew his men to our position in the shell-holes by the Stroombeek.

As Thorburn and I ploughed through the mud after our men, we passed one of the relieving platoons going forward. Their subaltern gripped me by the arm.

“Who are you? Where are you going? Where’s the front line? Have you seen A company?” he asked all in a rush.

“Keep straight on,” I answered jauntily, “follow the tape. Your captain’s up there. We’ve just been relieved.”

“Don’t go! ” he said. “Don’t leave us! For God’s sake, show us the way.” I had met someone more frightened than
myself. My confidence came back to me in a moment. This man was in a shivering funk.

“God damn it!” I said. “You’re all right. You’re much stronger than we were. There’s a good dugout up there—you can’t miss it.”

And I shook him off and walked on. I wonder what state that poor devil was in at the end of his tour. But I had only gained a momentary confidence, and before morning was sinking back into the same apathy of suppressed fear as before.

We took up our position on the right half of the jumping-off line, quite near headquarters. There were about twenty-seven men to organise in four sections, and place in the best shell-holes. For company headquarters Serjeant Walker, Thorburn and I found an old incomplete pill-box called on the map Cluster House. It was one of those early German efforts made of concrete on the western and of wood on the eastern side, so that in case of capture it would give no cover against German shell-fire. But it gave shelter from the rain, and here we settled. To make some amends to Thorburn for the twenty-four hours duty he had taken alone, I sent him to battalion headquarters to sleep, where they found him a corner of some kind. Walker took the top bunk in the little room, I took the lower one, but could only doze for an hour or two, in spite of the fact that I had not had eight hours’ sleep out of the last ninety. It was very cold and I was acutely aware of my wet knees.[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Passchendaele and the Somme, 133-4.
  2. More Than a Brother, 12.
  3. Undertones of War, 246-9.
  4. Blunden's poetry will soon be well known; Chapman published his memoir five years after Blunden's Undertones.
  5. A Passionate Prodigality, 207.
  6. A Subaltern's War, 170-77.

Carroll Carstairs and Harry Patch Brave the Shells on the Way Out; Jack Martin Overhears a Grim Bargaining; R.A. Knox Finds Authority

Lately it seems that it is always night in the Salient, and that to survive a tour of a few days in its miserable morass is only to invite the special attentions of Nemesis on the march into reserve. Nevertheless, Carroll Carstairs’s memorable few days in the line came to a safe conclusion tonight, a century back:

That night I changed places with Knollys and the next night the Battalion was relieved by the 1st Essex (29th Division). These reliefs were devilish. The combination of black night, “uncertain” shelling, guides missing the way, duckboards along the routes shelled to bits in places making the going difficult, and feeling the responsibility of getting the men out without casualties—and something of the nightmare it was may be imagined. Those were days of open warfare as regards getting up to and back from the front line.

Slowly the men were assembled near Cannes Farm. A “whizz-bang” chipping its corner covered me with dust and plaster and my orderly thought I was a casualty.

With our backs to the enemy we moved in single file down the slippery duckboards. We reached White Hope Corner, where tea was served to the men. At Luneville Farm we entrained, and on the hard wood floor of my truck I slept the sleep of complete exhaustion. One hour in twenty-four had been my average in the line. At 5.40 a.m. we arrived at Proven. Dazed with insufficient rest I entered a world of endless slumber as I crawled into my sleeping bag.[1]

 

If Harry Patch’s memory served,[2] then he, too, was coming back out of the line tonight, a century back, marching along with the rest of his Lewis gun team. It would not end as well.

We were returning from the line, going back into reserve. It was a quiet night… It was always important to stick to communication trenches where you could, but, if there weren’t any, then you just went over the top in the open and took a chance. We’d stopped briefly as Bob was attending to the call of nature in a slight traverse, causing us to bunch up a little as we waited.

…I guess it was a whizz-bang that got us. The only thing I saw was a flash; I can’t recall any noise at all, but I certainly felt the concussion of that shell bursting, because I was taken off my feet and thrown to the ground. For a couple of minutes I couldn’t move…

I didn’t even know I was hit at first, but a growing pain told me otherwise…

Patch did his best to stop the bleeding from his stomach, but passed out. He was found by stretcher bearers and taken to a casualty clearing station, “where a doctor cleaned the wound of congealed blood and lice and put a clean white bandage on.” After that triage, Patch was no longer critical, and had to wait while doctors worked elsewhere, the shell splinter cooling inside his abdomen.[3]

 

Two more brief notices, today. First, Jack Martin once again makes us privy to the sort of negotiations that only take place at a certain level. We often see platoon and company commanders carrying out orders and, from time time time, we might see tight-lipped battalion commanders issuing the orders they know will get scores of their men killed. But as these units come in and out, mercilessly thrown back into the fray or spared for a slight respite, there is a constant negotiation going on at higher levels. The generals demand service, but no battalion can fight forever, and therefore a good commanding officer must be an advocate…

There is no doubting the seriousness of the situation for on the phone I overheard a most amazing conversation between our Brigadier and the Divisional Commander. The Brigadier was very firm in his insistence that our Infantry is thoroughly exhausted and totally unable to make any resistance if the Huns attacked. They would break right through our line if once they got beyond our artillery barrage, The Div. Commander tried his hardest to get the Brigadier to say that we can hold on for another twenty-four hours but General Towsey wouldn’t take the responsibility of making any such statement… When Gen. Towsey told him that the men could get neither rations nor water he merely replied, ‘Let them take the iron rations from the killed and wounded.’ This conversation lasted about half an hour and I expect it will result in a speedy relief…[4]

This conversation will be closely echoed half a world away and one world war on in James Jones’s The Thin Red Line.

 

Finally, today was a memorable day in the life of Ronnie Knox. The son of an Anglican bishop, a brilliant scholar in a brilliant family, precociously ascetic, Knox has been drawing closer and closer to Catholicism for years now. Helped along by the urgings his friend Charles Scott Moncrieff (but not, perhaps, by his former protege Harold Macmillan, who did not convert, and certainly not by his close friend Patrick Shaw Stewart, who did not manifest similar interests) Knox made the decision to formally convert, to the “lifelong disappointment and regret” of his family.

Yesterday, a century back, he thanked Moncrieff, sending him a card that read “Thank you awfully, yours affect. Ronnie.” Today, he took the plunge. Although he was not one of the bright young men who went to war (he considered himself barred from service by the nature of his vocation to the clergy), this friend-of-our-writers several times over was changed by it nevertheless, and it seems safe to assume that his search for what he considered the true faith was intensified by it.

He did not feel an special illumination, but he was so happy that he wanted to laugh out loud all through dinner in the refectory. He had found authority.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Generation Missing, 110-11.
  2. And it would have had to serve some seventy years longer than most; but "it is quite possible," in the judgment of Richard Van Emden, that his battalion's few casualties for today included Patch's friends.
  3. The Last Fighting Tommy, 108-110.
  4. Sapper Martin, 108.
  5. Chasing Lost Time, 101-2; Fitzgerald, The Knox Brothers, 131-2.

Edward Brittain on Victor Richardson, and What Remains; Ivor Gurney on Food and Fatalism; Patrick Shaw Stewart Lolls and Reads

First, today, a letter from Edward Brittain to his sister Vera, his first to her since the death of Victor Richardson. There is something still clinging to this letter of the Romantic idealism that has always marked this group of friends–but not much. Edward is not in a mood to be sentimental about cruel wounds, or to fool himself about pain.

Roker, Sunderland, 11 June 1917

Dearest Vera —

I suppose it is better to have had such splendid friends as those three were rather than not to have had any particular friends at all, but yet, now that all are gone it seems that whatever was of value in life has all tumbled down like a house of cards. Yet in Tah’s case I will not, I cannot say that I wished from the bottom of my heart that he should live; I have a horror of blindness, and if I were blinded myself I think I should wish to die. The idea of long years without the light of the sun and the glory of its setting and without the immortal lamp of life is so abhorrent to me — and the thought of that has been hanging over me these 2 months — that I cannot altogether deplore the opening of the gates of eternal rest to that Unconquerable Soul, although I loved him in a way that few men can love one another. I am so very glad that you were near and saw him so nearly at the end; in a way too I am glad not to have been there; it is good to remember the cheerfulness with which he faced the living of a new life fettered by the greatest misfortune known to men.

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

Edward[1]

 

So life goes on, even if there is nothing but love to get down behind in the mud and push.

Ivor Gurney, today, is thinking of life–and food… and poetry… and food again… and ends.

11 June 1917

My Dear Friend: Out of the line once more, but for once, not hungry, for the Lord and the ASC have been kind to us, and liberal gentlemen have bestowed cake upon me…

Yes, the College Mag. and the TLS have arrived. I am sorry I forgot to thank you. If there are any complementary copies please send them to Mrs Chapman and Mrs Hunt…

Today there are orgies of cleaning, and men brush and polish frantically at brass and leather. The weather is beautiful, and there is plenty of water to wash with, so we are not unhappy. Also there is plenty to eat…

Gurney is writing to Marion Scott, of course, and he includes several rondels in a similarly light-hearted vein. But see the last lines–light-heartedness is a passing mood, in the trenches, and never the note of resolution.

Rondels

1. Letters

“Mail’s up”! the vast of night is over
And love of friends fills all one’s mind
(His wife, his sister, or his lover.)
Mail’s up, the vast of night is over.
The grey-faced heaven Joy does cover
With love, and God once more seems kind.
“Mail’s up”! The vast of night is over
And love of friends fills all one’s mind.

2. Shortage

God God! No Jam! No Bread!!
No Butter!!!
Whatever are we coming to?
O desolation, anguish utter —
Good God! No jam, no bread, no butter.
I hear the brutal soldiers mutter.
And strong men weep as children do.
Good God! No jam, no bread,
No butter!
Whatever are we coming to?

3. Paean

There’s half a loaf per man today?
O Sergeant, is it really true?
Now biscuits can be given away.
There’s half a loaf per man today;
And Peace is ever so near they say.
With tons of grub and nothing to do.
There’s Half a Loaf Per Man today!
O Sergeant is it Really True?

4. Strafe (1)

I strafe my shirt most regularly.
And frighten all the population.
Wonderful is my strategy!
I strafe my shirt most regularly;
(It sounds like distant musketry.)
And still I itch like red damnation!
I strafe my shirt most regularly
And — frighten all the population………….

5. Strafe (2)

The “crumps” are falling twenty to the minute.
We crouch and wait the end of it, — or us
Just behind the trench, before, and in it.
The “crumps” are falling twenty to the minute;
(O Framilode! O Maisemore’s laughing linnet!)
Here comes a monster like a motor bus.
The “crumps” are falling twenty to the minute;
We crouch and wait the end of it — or us

I wonder if the proofs are with Sidgwick and Jackson yet. That will interest me, and also (when the time comes) to know what Gloucester people think. Last night I read some to a friend of mine, and was surprised to find how little I cared for them, and how remote they seemed. As for Spring 1917, it is as I thought long dull, and unvaried…

With best wishes; Yours sincerely Ivor Gurney[2]

 

Finally, today, an update from Patrick Shaw Stewart, now with the Royal Naval Division in France. It’s a discursive letter, and I’ll make some cuts to get us to the good parts… who could he be reading, now that he’s reached the Western Front at last?

…The battery commander is out, so I am lying flat on my tummy in the grass outside his habitat in the amiable sun, waiting till he comes in; one of the pleasanter phases of war. When I have written to you, and X, and Y, and Z, I will
go on with Tom Jones, which I am in the middle of and which is far and away the best book I ever read. Messrs Meredith and James are simply silly beside it, and as for the Victorians ——–. I got through Sense and Sensibility the other day, by the way, not bad, but not half as good as Pride and Prejudice, or Emma.

I did tell you about our time up the line? It was quite agreeable, good weather (though a lot of mud), and a quiet time, very few casualties. I had rather luck having a chain of posts very much advanced in a rather well-known place, so far advanced as to be clear of mud and also clear of shelling. The only trial was that I hardly got a wink of sleep—one has to re-acquire the habit of sleeping in a sitting-position on a petrol tin in the later half of the morning…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Letters From a Lost Generation, 355.
  2. War Letters, 168-70.
  3. Knox, Patrick Shaw-Stewart, 198-99.

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.

Ethel Hermon Writes to Her Laddie; The Afterlife of Rupert Brooke, XVII: Re-Read by Read; Duff Cooper and Patrick Shaw Stewart and the Huntress Hunted; Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and Alf Pollard All Draw Near to Battle

We have a full complement of disparate subjects today: grief on the home front, idle high society, and a new wave of soldier-writers going forward in France.

 

We’ll begin in England, where the toll of April 9th is still being felt–except where it has yet to become known.

In 2008, Anne Nason published a book of letters written by her Grandather, Edward “Robert” Hermon, to her grandmother Ethel. Nearly 600 letters tucked away in a desk drawer had remained there for almost a century, until after the death of her mother, the Hermons’ second daughter, Mairy. For Love and Courage contains most of those letters, but the even greater number of letters that Ethel sent to Robert did not survive–letters to serving soldiers are hard to store away in desk drawers, and few made it out of the war even when their recipients survived. All of Ethel Hermon’s letters to Robert were lost except for one, written today, a century back, in ignorance of the fact that the man to whom she writes has been dead for three days.

Laddie my own,

I got a lovely letter this morning, 52, written on the 7th & doubly appreciated as you must have been feeling far more like going to bed that writing to me. You must be having a desperate, strenuous time, so laddie, do spend your spare minutes in a bit of rest & not in writing.

I know, of course, now that you must have been in the front line when the show started on Monday… All surmise is quite useless, I know, & yet one simply can’t help thinking & picturing things…

I could read so easily between the lines that you knew big & strenuous things were in front of you & I do so hope & pray you’ll come thro’ them safely laddie my own…

My best of everything to you dear, dear laddie.

Yours ever,

Ethel[1]

This letter will be returned to Ethel Hermon in the coming days, the envelope marked “Killed in Action.” When his effects reach her, they will include a card she wrote for her “laddie” this summer, enclosing a lucky clover. The double hole made by the bullet passing through is visible on either side of the center fold.

 

In London, Eleanor Farjeon waits to find out where Helen Thomas has gone, so that they can mourn together the man they both loved.

I went back home, to wait for the next news. It came in the morning, in Helen’s letter forwarded from the
Billingshurst post-office. She did not say much, only that she had had the telegram, was coming to her sister Mary’s in Chiswick, and would be returning almost at once to High Beech, and wanted me to go with her. I got in touch with Mary and was told the train Helen would take to Loughton next day.[2]

One thing her sister Mary seems to have helped Helen with is mailing some of the letters she had composed a few days earlier, informing their friends of Edward‘s death:

Post Mark: Battersea S.W. 11.15p.m. 12 April 1917

High Beech, nr. Loughton, Essex

My dear Emily & Gordon,

I wanted to be the one to tell you that Edward was killed on Easter Monday.

You will know how desolate I feel, in spite of the perfect union of our souls which death only completes. He lives on.

Helen[3]

 

 

Herbert Read is a fascinating case–a fierce intellect and by now an experienced infantry officer, but he is a young northerner in a northern regiment, and seems far from the turmoil stirring among London-based artists. But it’s hard to tell just where he is: he has been difficult to include here, too hard to pin down to particular dates. A slew of recent letters have been, essentially, philosophy-addled love letters, and I am to be praised for omitting them despite my eagerness to discuss him…

But today’s letter–also to the young woman he admires–goes a long way toward demonstrating both that he will eventually be very interesting to compare with Siegfried Sassoon and that he is not “there,” yet. It’s 1917, and Read has served in the trenches before (his first tour came to a premature end after he was injured by barbed wire, and it’s been a slow path back), and he’s a fiercely independent skeptic and cutting edge modernist… in theory. But look whom he’s quoting…

12.iv.17

Three weary days have passed, waiting rather impatiently for orders to proceed up the line. I was inoculated this morning–and now umteen million germs are disporting themselves in my blood, making me somewhat stiff–and cross.

But I really feel extraordinarily calm and happy–very different sensations from those that accompanied my former ‘coming out’. Then I felt reckless with the rest–and rather bacchanalian. Didn’t care a hang what happened. And, in a way, I don’t care a hang this time, but it’s a different way, a glad way. And it rather troubles my soul to know why? Because, as you may know, I’m not exactly a warrior by instinct–I don’t glory in fighting for fighting’s sake. Nor can I say that I’m wildly enthusiastic for ‘the Cause’. Its ideals are a bit too commercial and imperialistic for my liking. And I don’t really hate the Hun–the commonest inspiration among my comrades. I know there are a lot of nasty Huns–but what a lot of nasty Englishmen there are too. But I think my gladness may be akin to that Rupert Brooke expressed in one of his sonnets:

Now, God be thanked who has matched us with his hour,
      And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping!
With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power,
      To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping,
Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary;
      Leave the sick hearts that honor could not move,
And half-men, and their dirty songs and dreary,
      And all the little emptiness of love.

But the real surprise is still to come: Read sees himself as less disillusioned than Brooke. And it’s a fair reading–at least of the last four lines. But, in the context of the last two years’ celebration of Brooke, an odd one. Which Read may belatedly realizes, as he glosses the verses:

Though I must say I’m not yet so ‘fed up’ with the world as the sonnet implies. I haven’t yet proved ‘the little emptiness of love.’

A good point to make, since he’s writing to a girl.

The half-men I still have with me in goodly numbers. And I’ve still faith that there are hearts that can be moved by honour and ideals. But England of these last few years has been rather cold and weary, and one finds little left standing amid the wreckage of one’s hopes. So one is glad to leap into the clean sea of danger and self sacrifice.

So, then, he’s half-rejecting the fastidious and hypocritically extroverted self-loathing that informs Brooke’s casting of the 1914 world as “dirty?” And despite the fact that he can substitute two more brutal years of war for Brooke’s hatred of peacetime England, he is still eager to die for his king and country?

But don’t think that I am laying claim to a halo. I don’t want to die for king and country, If I do die, it’s for the salvation of my own soul, cleansing it of all its little egotisms by one last supreme egotistic act.

All this is rather melodramatic; and forgive me if it is morbid. It is only a mood and has more to do with inoculation than anything else…[4]

Well that’s a nice way to wiggle out at the end. He quotes Brooke, but he doesn’t want to die; he isn’t fed up with love and doesn’t hate the small men of little England enough to seek sacrifice… but nor does he like England, either, though he might die for it, except not for it but for himself in some neo-Romantic sacrificial mode. Except it’s just the germs talking.

 

Will not any member of the old Coterie stand up for the glamorous, cynical, privileged, pre-war social-aesthetic staus quo?

Well, as it happens, I have been waiting for a good opportunity to introduce here a new acquisition, namely the diaries of Duff Cooper, who is essentially the last of the men of the “Coterie” not in his grave or in uniform. I didn’t get the book initially because, well, he’s not in uniform. (Cooper has a job at the Foreign Office.) He’s not a bad writer, but he comes off, in his diary, as a bit of a rake (pretty accurate) and a bit of a dope (not entirely accurate). In retrospect, I should have consulted him on the loss of so many of his friends, especially in the Royal Naval Division and the Grenadier Guards. But today, in the midst of tracking the grief caused by the attack at Arras, he is here for painful counterpoint only. Society–like strategy–being drawn into our trench narrative largely for the purpose of dark ironic comparison.

Diana Manners is the muse of the wits of the Coterie, the Queen of the clique, the shining light, just as Raymond Asquith, probably her only equal in social skill, had been (despite his marriage to Katherine Horner) the “king” of their circle. But Asquith is dead, along with many of their friends. Katherine’s brother Edward is with the cavalry in France, and only Duff Cooper and Patrick Shaw-Stewart, back in England after his long sojourn in the East, remain as intra-Coterie suitors for the elusive Diana.

This weekend–life goes on–they are all at a house party in Scotland. Don’t worry–in a few days I will attempt an even more gruesome juxtaposition of the romantic high jinks of the idle rich and what is going on in the trenches.

April 12, 1917

We spent the morning in Diana’s room reading The Egoist.[5] It was delightful–while Patrick and I enjoyed the contemplation of Diana–but he watched both our faces all the time. He had a cryptic telegram this morning to say his orders had arrived and he will probably have to go back to London tomorrow and to France on Monday. I am so sorry. I am very fond of him. I do hope that his luck will not desert him. His death now would matter to me more than anyone’s and would be a terrible blow to our small diminishing society.

Which is to say that the leading contender can afford to be magnanimous to the man on the outside looking in… but the campaign is not won yet.[6]

 

It is once again Siegfried Sassoon‘s turn to look for a solution to his confusion in the direct and deadly challenge of battle. Well, almost his turn. Today, a century back, the 2nd Royal Welch Fusiliers draw within sight of the battle front.

April 12 10 p.m.

Moved to St Martin-Cojeul, a demolished village about four kilometres north-west of Croisilles, three kilometres south-east of Wancourt where the Germans counter-attacked to-day. We take over an old German third-line trench from the 17th Manchesters. Arrived about 3 o’clock in wet weather after a fine morning. The snow has gone and left bad mud. The British line is about a mile in front of us. A dead English soldier lying by the road as we came to the village, his head hideously battered. I visited the underground Dressing Station this evening, and got my hands seen to.[7] Several wounded in there—one groaning with broken leg. A few five-nines dropped in the village, which is the usual heap of bricks. Absolute desolation—and the very strong line of German wire which they left. They have cut down even the pollard willows by the river.

Writing this in a tiny dug-out, but luckily it has a stove. Just room for Kirkby and self to sit. He is asleep. Rations getting very short. Only one meal to-day, and that scrappy to a degree. Casson and I finished our last orange to-night but feeling fairly fresh (just the usual trench-mouth). A fair amount of grumbling going on all round… Quite impossible to sleep as it is bitter-cold, and nowhere to lie down.[8]

 

Lastly, today, as Sassoon leads an inexperienced platoon toward the Hundenburg line, two other officers–one battle tested, one tried only in the ordinary cauteries of trench-holding–are rejoining their old units, each of which has lately seen action.

 

Wilfred Owen missed his battalion’s last action in hospital with a concussion, but he will not miss its next. With the recovered Owen marching at the head of his platoon, the 2nd Manchesters moved back up to the line today, a century back, in support of recent gains before the Hindenburg Line on the southern end of the British sector.[9]

 

And, near Arras, Alf Pollard hopped from one train to another, rushing to bring his draft of replacements back to the Honourable Artillery Company before the rumored supporting attack could begin without him. However, he hopped too quickly, and the men he was supposed to be leading missed the train.

This is only a comic mishap: the important thing is that he is there, and cannot be accused of missing an attack, as he once missed an assault in order to visit his mother. The draft? No big deal…

“Where are they?”

“I’ve lost them,” I said innocently.

The Adjutant was horrified… I laughed. What did I care about the draft now that I was back with my beloved battalion.”

There’s no question mark in the text. The H.A.C. will go up to the line tomorrow–not for an attack, but to hold trenches, for a few days, at least…[10]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. For Love and Courage, 351.
  2. Farjeon, Edward Thomas, The Last Four Years, 261.
  3. Letters of Edward Thomas to Gordon Bottomley, 283.
  4. The Contrary Experience, 89-90.
  5. Meredith's novel, not the modernist periodical!
  6. Duff Cooper Diaries, 50.
  7. Sassoon has some infected scratches; he has not been wounded.
  8. Diaries, 153.
  9. Collected Letters, 452.
  10. Fire-Eater, 202-3.

Will Harvey’s Great Escape Postponed; Henry Williamson Moves on Up; Edwin Vaughan’s Witness to Vandalism… and Gothic Imagination; C.E. Montague Reflects Before a Fire

Back on August 17th, Will Harvey decided it would be a good idea to go out and patrol no man’s land alone. He stumbled into a German post, was captured and eventually taken to Gütersloh Camp, in Westphalia. By the time he got there the tunneling had already begun, and his first book of poems–A Gloucestershire Lad–had been published. (His best friend, Ivor Gurney, mourned him, then rejoiced to hear that he was alive, and in any case continued to write about Harvey often.)

For months now, Harvey has been taking his turns in the tunnel and on lookout duty above, using coded whistles or songs to warn when German guards are about. The months dragged by… until yesterday, a century back, when the British contingent in the multi-national P.O.W. camp learned that they were about to be transferred. A night and day of feverish digging brought the tunnel out under the wire–and right beneath the beat of the German sentry. In a hurried meeting it was decided that, rather than making a dash out of the still-too-short tunnel and hoping for the best, it should be left concealed in place, in the hopes that the barracks’ next inmates–Russian P.O.W.s, in all probability–could continue the work. Today, a century back, Will Harvey, his captivity stretching into a ninth month and his book into its 4th printing, was transferred to Crefeld Camp.[1]

 

Meanwhile, Henry Williamson continues to advance into what was recently the German rear–and to keep his mother well informed of his whereabouts.

Dear mother Cherie,

This awkward phrasing is actually one of his more graceful turns of code-phrase. The letters “ACHIET” are marked out, four of them occurring in sequence in “cherie.”

We have not heard from anyone for about a week–heavens knows where the post goes to nowadays. I have had only about 5 letters from you to date–I wish you would date your letters.

Well I suppose all you in England at the time are rejoicing over the ‘fall’ of Bapaume–but it’s rather a funny business after all. I believe personally that the Bosche has done a very clever and good thing for himself–he is falling back…

So Williamson is back to considering the withdrawal a strategic benefit for Germany rather than a boon to the British, but only a few lines after pointing out that the news of cavalry in action is nothing but the false dawn of open warfare, merely a temporary screen as the British reestablish contact with their foe, he switches course again, implying that it may be a breakthrough after all: “only WAIT a bit and see.”

On the matter of parcels Williamson is more steadfast:

What I should like would be toffee, nice chocolates… a pair of pyjamas, and a cake or so…[2]

 

Edwin Vaughan has what we might call an active imagination, a knack both for finding terror in the quiet corners of trench life and for telling a tale the brings across the shivering horror he experienced. His account of yesterday, a century back–when his battalion advanced into the vacated German rear and took up residence among the booby-trapped dugouts near Péronne–is many pages long, and well worth dipping into.

It was a bright clear morning, and the country looked beautiful as I set off across the open fields…

The gently undulating fields were very little shelled, and the fresh grass was only spoiled here and there by a circular mud-rimmed hole. But each field was liberally besprinkled with graves, in which we took morbid interest. Not one of them had been dug to any depth, and in each case some portion of the corpse protruded–from one a bleached and polished skull, from another a rotted puttee and boot, from another the ammunition pouches. In several cases they had only been covered with a few inches of wet earth which now was caked and hard, giving the appearance of mummies, except where the burrowing rats had broken away the mud and displayed a patch of blue tunic.

There were a few unburied bodies about and I had much difficulty in getting Sissman past them–he wanted to stop and examine each for wounds and souvenirs… I’m afraid we progressed very slowly…

The afternoon becomes a different sort of macabre when Vaughan and a small party, now led by his company commander, Billy Kentish, stumbled up along a muddy canal road looking for their new billets. When Kentish, who foolishly brought his horse (a famous perquisite of company commanders, even in the infantry) on the journey, disappears after repeatedly foundering in difficult places. When he reappears without the muddy, stumbling beast, Vaughan suspects the worst. Eventually they arrive in Halle, where another company of their battalion is now in residence. On the walls of the house taken as HQ,

the playful Hun had left many sketches and ironic messages. Two that we saw were ‘Great British Advance. Many villages taken’ and ‘Haig takes Halle, 4,000 Germans captured–official.’

But their march continues until they reach Péronne, in which a major fire is burning–this was a day after Charles Carrington had entered the town–much of the historical center, including the old library and church, have been consumed.

During all this march I was very nervous. I had heard so many stories of booby-traps and delayed mines that I was terrified by the sight of any old oil drum or coil of wire, and at every cross-roads expected to find myself sailing up into the black sky. Nothing of the sort happened, however…

Instead, Vaughan and his fellow company officers take up residence in a partitioned cellar, and one by one fell asleep, while he listens to the drip of rain and smelled “a filthy smell of decaying vegetable matter.” Before long, Vaughan begins to hear “the tick-tock of a fuse.”

Here–although I suspect that this part of the diary was extensively rewritten after the fact–Vaughan is charmingly open about his failures of courage:

This grew louder and louder until I could stand it no longer, and by coughing loudly and banging the bed, I woke Kentish.

He sat up grumpily, rubbing his eyes. ‘What was that blasted row?’

‘Which one?’ I said guiltily. ‘There’s lots going on.’

He listened for a moment and then lay down again growling. But I didn’t intend to let him sleep. ‘Did you hear about the booby-traps in the Boche lines?’

‘Um!’

‘You know Sullivan found several in Halle?’–no answer.

‘How long do they usually delay before exploding?’–silence. I paused a bit and then asked timorously, ‘I say, Billy, can you hear a curious ticking?’

He pulled the coat from off his head and said ‘You bloody fool,’ and snuggled down again.

I was hurt by that, for I felt that nobody cared if I was blown up, so I resolved myself to die like a martyr and then when we met in the afterworld I could say to Kentish ‘I told you so!’ The consideration of this possibility rather cheered me, and casting aside my fears I fell asleep.

This brings us, more or less, into today, a century back.

I do not know how long I slept, but it must have been a couple of hours. I dreamt that I was lying there asleep, all being horribly quiet except for the drop of water and the wind. Suddenly through the rain and darkness appeared a huge figure stealing across the courtyard to the grating above me. he was muffled up in a great grey coat and spiked helmet. I struggled to wake Kentish and to shout, but I was powerless. I saw him take a bomb from under his coat, a smoking bomb, and slip it into the chimney. With a frantic struggle I overcame my paralysis and sat up shouting as a metallic sliding sound came from the chimney. Waiting for the explosion, I sat staring into the darkness with that apathy that comes when fear has passed its bounds.

But nothing more happened. Kentish slumbered on…

The night continues in a proto-Lovecraftian vein, and, appropriately enough, perhaps, in the morning we get our second sight of one of the weird masterpieces of nihilistic German humor:

Near the centre of the square, an iron paling surrounded a stone pedestal, from which the statue had been removed. I walked over to it, wondering what statue had been there, then I stopped–sickened by the sight of a body impaled on the iron spike. In a Frenchman’s blue uniform, gaily bedecked with ribbons, he hung with arms extended along the railing, his head hanging down on to his bright-buttoned chest, and his legs dangling.

Sick with horror but impelled by curiosity I went nearer, and saw some straw sticking out at the knee. Then I peered into the face–a black grinning mask–and saw that it was a realistic dummy. Nevertheless, in the eerie half-light, with the flicker of flames on that scene of devastation, it was a gruesome spectacle…

The German notice board on the ruins of the Peronne town hall

There is, as a matter of fact, direct photographic evidence of this particular act of desecration, available here.

And the next bit–already familiar to us from Carrington’s account, can be seen at the right:

Reapproaching the town hall I saw, fastened to its side wall, an enormous blue notice board–‘Nicht ärgern nur wundern!’–‘Do not be angry, only be surprised’. This in letters a foot deep.

 

Is it surprising, then, to find that Vaughan will not be sleeping well tonight, either? They are bedding down, now, in a quarry in what, for the moment, is the British reserve line.

…I was keen to know what cover we should take in case of shelling. He [Billy Kentish] answered abruptly, ‘There isn’t any cover,’ and blew his candle out…

‘Was that ours or theirs?’ I asked.

‘Ours now!’ And there was an impatient turn and snuggle.

Another thud! ‘How far away was that?’ No answer. It made me worse to think that he was going to sleep to leave me to face the danger alone. So I asked him: ‘I say, if a shell got us, would it hit the top of the quarry first, or drop straight in?’

At that he sat up in bed. ‘You are a windy young b—– Vaughan! You’ve got to chance it wherever you are, so for God’s sake shut up and go to sleep.’

I did shut up, but though thoroughly ashamed, I was still windy… At last, however, the lack of sleep on the previous night did its work and I slept peacefully…[3]

 

C.E. Montague may be the temperamental opposite of Edwin Vaughan: Montague is a fearless, practical, politic, hard-driving, modest rationalist… which does not mean he is not subject to melancholy. He had wanted–despite his age, his obvious fitness for an officer’s job, and his journalistic skills–to be an ordinary soldier in the trenches. But his age and his health–he turned 50 on New Year’s Day, and had proved too susceptible to infection–led to his being kicked upstairs to the dubious duty of greasing the wheels of the propaganda machine from a chateau well behind the lines.

That he’s an officer now, and can, at least, scare the daylights our of his touring V.I.P.s by bringing them too close to the line, sometimes seems like small consolation. A rare excerpt from his diary of today gives us some insight into how a reflective soul and a sharp mind near both the sinews of the army’s power and the engine of its self-misrepresentation feels about the German withdrawal:

Chateau de Rollencourt, 10.15 p .m., March 19, 1917

A year ago to-day I marched away from the front with my battalion, soon to leave it.

To-night I sit in an oil-lamp-lit room in a chateau, of 1770 perhaps. A log fire burns brightly in a big open, fenderless hearth, with little noises of hissing and crackling in the damp wood and the dry.

Outside an equinoctial gale is pressing on the house and whining and sniffing.

From the line E. of Arras-Nesle comes news at short intervals of further German retirements, of villages blazing in the Eastern sky at night, of cavalry entering empty villages, of aeroplanes bringing back word of the cavalry’s progress.

The big room is dark outside the zones of fire-light and lamp-light.

Five minutes ago the motor-cyclist despatch-rider came from G.H.Q. with our letters and to-day’s London papers. In a few minutes he will go into the night silence again, with my letter to M. and the other letters. Now and then a train can be heard on the railway to Arras, 300 yards off, doubled this winter for our advance, which the German retreat must be intended to baffle.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Boden, F.W. Harvey, Soldier, Poet, 125-59.
  2. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 99-100.
  3. Some Desperate Glory, 53-62.
  4. Elton, C.E. Montague, 156-7.

J.R. Ackerley’s Brother Returns; Edwin Vaughan in the Front Lines, and Face to Face with a Spectre; Ivor Gurney Conjures Three, and Thanks Several Handfuls; Rowland Feilding is Witness to an Execution; Seventeen Letters for Edward Thomas; Siegfried Sassoon Curses Fate, and Departs

It’s another busy day, a century back, with one small sad action in the line and poetry behind it from Ivor Gurney and Siegfried Sassoon, who today leaves for the front once again.

But first, I did something odd in yesterday’s post. J.R. Ackerley writes the section of his memoir leading up to his brother’s role in the assault on Boom Ravine with heavy, ominous foreshadowing. The exchanged watches, the vision of unstrapping the watch from a dead wrist. Reading it, I was sure Pete Ackerley would die, so I wrote it up that way.

And for some hours, yesterday, a century back, Joe Ackerley seems to have believed that his brother was indeed dead. Then late reports came in that Pete was wounded, but Joe could do nothing. What was one wounded subaltern? The senior officers around him were busy attending to the tactical problems raised by the little raid,

And my brother was lying out wounded in no man’s land, and might have been the merest litter left about after a riotous party, for all the interest the Brigadier, the Colonel, or the Major evinced in his fate. And I did nothing either…

For several hours–and several pages–Ackerley wrestles with the question of what to do. His memory of this horrible time is so patchy that it is almost blank. Did he bravely go out into the open to look for his brother? Were the callous senior officers trying to allow him unofficially, heroically, to rescue his wounded brother? He’s not sure. Was he about to be a hero, or was he being a humbug?

Ackerley is not even sure if he was there, when his brother, finally, crawled back into the trench, wounded in the leg, not dangerously, hoping for another crack at the Huns. Pete Ackerley was sent back with a nice Blighty one, and spoke well of his brother at home. Joe Ackerley concludes the episode–written as the certain loss of a brother undone almost after the fact by a carelessly non-ruinous fate–by noting that “whatever happened I never recovered my watch.”

 

Hard on the heels of this strange account–but there’s a lot I want to cover, today–we have another trench baptism. Late last night, hours after coming up into the front line for the first time, Edwin Vaughan had toured the trenches with another officer, watching the men at work. There–and not for the first time–Vaughan’s anxiety washed over and eroded his heaped-up contempt, leaving him chastened. He may despise the officers and men when in billets, but he was impressed with their professionalism amidst the dangers of the fire trenches at night. Early this morning, after a fitful, drink-induced nap, he took his first turn on duty.

…as my sergeant did not arrive, I went out alone into the trench, where the eerie influences of the night descended up on me. It was deathly still, the mud, the smell of earth, the ragged sandbags, the gruesome litter numbed my brain; a cold fear chilled my spine and set my teeth chattering. I stood shaking and gazing horrified into the darkness, thinking: ‘this is war! and I am in the firing line!’ Then in a panic I set off down the trench. Reaching the first corner I drew back sharply and my heart stood still, for under the trenchboard bridge I saw a dark form pressed against the side of the trench.

In horror I glued my eyes upon it; the light was growing stronger, and it was quite distinct. And now I thought I saw a stealthy movement. Drawing my revolver and with just my head round the bend, I challenged it in a low voice. There was no reply… with my gun well forward I advanced and prodded–an old greatcoat hung on the trench side.

My relief at this anticlimax cheered me somewhat…

Anticlimax–as well as a suspiciously dense conglomeration of typical trench incidents–is Vaughan’s hallmark. But there is a different sort of anticlimax at 8 a.m., when his loathed Company Commander, Hatwell, wakes him under pretext of seeing the lovely morning but really “because he was jealous of my being asleep.”

And right after the beautiful morning? Hatwell gives Vaughan an ugly task: seeing to the burial of several nearby corpses.

Lying flat on their backs, with marble faces rigid and calm, their khaki lightly covered with frost, some with no wound visible, some with blood clotted on their clothes, one with a perfectly black face, they lay at attention staring up into the heavens. This was my first sight of dead men and I was surprised that it didn’t upset me. Only the one with the black face has stayed with me.[1] The thick, slightly curled lips, fleshy acquiline nose, cap-comforter pulled well down over his head and the big glassy eyes have become stamped on my brain.

In the afternoon, Vaughan experiences his first bombardment, rather confusingly described. Although he is in a deep dugout, he sees “the trench wall opposite” blow up and then a dud shell land “on the parados,” which would usually be directly over his head as he shelters in a dugout. These are trench mortars, as he explains:

…very destructive projectiles… their effect is so devastating and demoralizing that whenever they are used we inform our artillery who plaster the enemy lines heavily in retaliation. The idea is that their infantry will know that every time the mortars are used, they will catch out for it…

Vaughan’s first full day in the line is completed by a near miss from a German sniper–“my slip was an act of Providence–” and a failed attempt, after dark, to bury the nearby corpses. The ground is frozen, and they are left under a blanket…[2]

 

Rowland Feilding, commanding officer of the 6th Connaught Rangers, is an excellent correspondent both because he has pledged to tell his wife everything and because, despite his responsibilities, he is a sharp observer, and his anecdotes are pointed. Some small tragedies need little elaboration.

February 15, 1917. Facing Spanbroekmolen (Fort Victoria).

Here we are in the trenches again.

This morning, in daylight, a German came running across Noman’s Land with his hands up, and was shot by his own people just as he reached our wire. We shall get his body in to-night.

Ivan Garvey, who commands the Company holding the line at the point where it happened, says that three of his men immediately came rushing along the trench to tell him, and that when he went to the spot he found the platoon gazing over the parapet at the dead German. Some of them wanted to go and fetch him in then and there, but Garvey naturally did not allow that.[3]

 

Edward Thomas has been reading the letters written by his men, working to set up the battery, practicing. Today there was a training “shoot,” then more preparatory work in the afternoon. For several days his comrades have been grating on him, and he has seemed to take solace in his observations of the natural world:  “Black-headed buntings talk, rooks caw, lovely white puffs of shrapnel round planes high up…” Well, then: not so much nature reigning alone, but nature in her new context: “Dead campion umbels and grass rustling on my helmet through trenches.”

But this evening, a century back, brought relief and connection: the first post delivery since the battery embarked for France.

Letters arrived at 6. We sorted them and then spent an hour silently reading. 750 letters for me; 17 for me–from Helen, the children, father, mother, Eleanor, Freeman, Mrs. Freeman, Guthrie, Vernon and Haines.[4]

 

And Ivor Gurney wrote again to Marion Scott today, a century back. He lays the counter-Brookean sonnet sequence aside in order to address her requests for material for his first book of poetry, which she is preparing. The preface is rather fulsome, and shows one side of Gurney’s personality in full effect: he is effusive, generous, taking delight in being comically expansive.

15 February 1917 (P)

Preface

This book stands dedicated to one only of my friends, but there are many others to whom I would willingly dedicate singly and in state, if that did not mean the writing of 40 books of verse and dedications; a terrible thing for all concerned . . . So that under the single name and sign of homage and affection, I would desire such readers as come to me to add also—To my Father and Mother; F W Harvey, (also a Gloucestershire Lad;) Miss Marion Scott, whose criticism has been so useful, and she so kind; in spite of my continued refusal to alter a word of anything. The Vicar of Twigworth; H.N. Howells, (and this is not the last time you will hear of him;) Mr Hilaire Belloc, whose “Path to Rome” has been my trench companion, with the “Spirit of Man” ; Mr Wilfred Gibson, author of “Friends” , a great little book; many others also; including Shakespeare and Bach, both friends of mine; and last but not least — 5 Platoon, B Co, 2/5 Glosters; who so often have wondered whether I were crazy or not. Let them draw their own conclusions now, for the writing pf this book it was that so distracted me. . . . This is a long list, and even now does not include old Mrs Poyner that was so jolly and long-suffering; not my boat “Dorothy” now idle in the mud; though a poet sung of her full of glory at Framilode.

Even as I write the list becomes fuller, further extended, yet a soldier must face pain and so it remains shorter by far than might be. I fear that those who buy the book (or, even, borrow) to get information about the Second-Fifth will be disappointed. Most of the book is concerned with a person named Myself, and the rest with my county, Gloucester, that whether I die or live stays always with me; — being so beautiful in itself, so full of memories;  whose people are so good to be friends with, so easy-going and so frank.

Some of the aforementioned people I have never had good fortune enough to meet in the flesh, but that was not my fault. I hope they will forgive my using their names without permission. Ah, would they only retaliate in kind! That is however not likely, as I never was famous, and a Common Private makes but little show. All the verses were written in France, and in sound of the guns, save only two or three earlier pieces. May well be indulgent to one who thought of them so often, and whose images of beauty in the mind were always of Gloucester, county of Cotswold and Severn, and a plain rich blossomy and sweet of air — as the wise Romans knew, that made their homes in exile by the brown river, watching the further bank for signs of war.

And that’s not all, folks–Gurney has a ballad in him, today:

Compree. Ballad also
Ballad of the Three Spectres

As I went up by Ovillers
In mud and water cold to the knee.
There went three jeering, fleering spectres,
That walked abreast and talked of me.

The first said, “Heres a right brave soldier
That walks the darky unfearingly;
Soon he’ll come back on a fine stretcher.
And laughing at a Nice Blighty.

The second, “Read his face, old comrade.
No kind of lucky chance I see;
One day he’ll freeze in mud to the marrow.
Then look his last on Picardie.

Though bitter the word of these first twain
Curses the third spat venomously;
“He’ll stay untouched till the War’s last dawning.
Then live one hour of agony.

Liars the first two were. Behold me
At sloping arms by one — two — three;
Waiting the time I shall discover
Whether the third spake verity.

Not so bad eh?

By Gum, what will All the Good People of Gloster think of the Ugly Duckling they have hatched? There will be Some Surprise, what with one thing and another if the Tome appears. Roll on that time as soon as possible. Good luck with the Flu:

Your sincere Friend Ivor Gurney[5]

It’s difficult with Gurney, moody (i.e. mentally unstable) as he is–sometimes his letters seem to lay bare his suffering, to be uncertain records of his uncertain emotional terrain. But it’s reductive to insist that everything is about his mental state. He is a very good writer, and that requires–of course–embodying multiplicity, even contradiction. Or, simply, complexity–there’s nothing impossible or contradictory about what he has written. He is excited at the prospect of his first book, and he has, lately, found a new way to speak for the common soldiers… and yet he lives always under the grim little open end of his spectral “ballad:” for every death he dodges, many more possible deaths await, every day of the war, all the way until that last day’s dawning–and then a few hours more.

 

Finally, today, our foremost Fusilier is going back to the front. After an unhappy few months in camp near Liverpool and a whirlwind last few days of leave in London, Siegfried Sassoon began the freighted journey once more. Today, a century back, he left London for a base depot in France–and he described the experience, we will not be surprised to learn, more than once:

On February 15th I was at Waterloo for the noontide leave train (or, to be exact, the leave train the wrong way round). My mother was there to see the last of me, and Robbie had shepherded me to the station. My one desire was to have no feelings about anything. As we paced the platform I remarked to Robbie that the train was quite an old friend as this was the fourth time I had travelled by it. When it at length began to move, their faces kept up the usual forlorn pretence of looking bright. With the egotism of youth I couldn’t help wondering what they said to one another about me after they had turned away from the vanishing train…[6]

Ah but that is all retrospect. Here is the day’s diary, and a poem–with all thoughts forward and not a mention of mother or mentor bereft on the platform:

15 February

Left Waterloo 12 noon. Irish Hussar in carriage. Sunshine at Southampton…

Left London feeling nervous and rattled; but the worried feeling wears off once aboard the Archangel.

And as it does, Sassoon settles from the personal into the observational.

People seem to become happy in a bovine way as soon as they are relieved of all responsibility for the future. Soldiers going to the War are beasts of burden, probably condemned to death. They are not their own masters in any way except in their unconquerable souls.

Yet, when they have left their relatives and friends blinking and swallowing sobs on Waterloo platform, after a brief period of malaise (while watching the Blighty landscape flitting past) they recover. When the train has left Woking and the Necropolis in the rear ‘they begin to ‘buck’ themselves up’. After all, becoming a military serf or trench galley-slave is a very easy way out of the difficulties of life. No more perplexities there. A grateful Patria transports them inexpensively away from their troubles—nay, rewards them for their acquiescence with actual money and medals. But nevertheless they are like cabbages going to Covent Garden, or beasts driven to market.[7] Hence their happiness. They have no worries because they have no future; they are only alive through an oversight–of the enemy. They are not ‘going out’ to do things, but to have things done to them.

Not to make too much of one line, but this is the essence of Sassoon’s change of heart about the war, and it will be reflected in the change in the poetry as well. War, and poetry, once celebrated deeds. Now, in a latter-day phrase, men don’t do deeds, they are drafted into the galleys, shipped out like cabbages to become the subjects of passive suffering…

Finally, there is a poem of today’s journey which takes a step down the angry road that Sassoon has just sketched out:

Life-Belts (Southampton to Havre)

The Boat begins to throb; the Docks slide past;
And soldiers stop their chattering; mute and grave;
Doomed to the Push, they think ‘We’re off at last!’
Then, like the wash and welter of a wave,
Comfortless War breaks into each blind brain.
Swamping the hopes they’ve hugged to carry abroad;
And half-recovering, they must grope again
For some girl-face, or guess what pay they’ll hoard
To start a home with, while they’re out in France.
For, after all, each lad has got his chance
Of seeing the end. Like life-belts in a wreck,
They clutch at gentle plans—pathetic schemes
For peace next year. Meanwhile I pace the deck
And curse the Fate that lours above their dreams.[8]

Sassoon is speaking against “comfortless war,” now, and emphasizing the helplessness of these soldiers to influence the chances of their own survival.

A step toward protest, perhaps, but one expressed in a fairly traditional idiom. Any soldier–any human being–from any era may curse fate and still feel themselves to possess a fairly free hand for heroic self-fashioning. If this sort of poem is going to shock its readers out of the assumption that this war is, if not Great, at least generally noble and worthwhile, that hand of fate–in the person of British staff plans and German bombardments–will have to do more than merely lour

References and Footnotes

  1. Another indication that this "diary" is (re-)written after the fact.
  2. Some Desperate Glory, 30-34.
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 150.
  4. War Letters (Childhood), 162.
  5. War Letters, 133-5.
  6. Siegfried's Journey, 47.
  7. A phrase he took up in the memoir, moving it backwards a few days into a conversation with Lady Ottoline Morrell.
  8. Diaries, 131-2.

Max Plowman Approaches the Line; Olaf Stapledon Pines for the Great Times

Today, a century back,[1] Max Plowman and his platoon take up positions in the second line of a very familiar area. The first long section of his memoir excerpted below completes his initial “approach” narrative, while the next covers his first night in the trenches. I’ll put in a link or two, but I’ll refrain from commentary. Rather than breaking in to underline familiar sights and variations on themes, I’ll trust that the veteran reader will take pleasure in finding them for herself–by now we are ready to win a good deal of extra-textual, comparative wisdom from descriptions such as these.

Trenches on the Somme

We are going to the trenches. That little knot of men two hundred yards ahead, just disappearing over the barren crest of the rise, is Hill’s platoon. Two hundred yards behind us is Smalley’s. This afternoon the sun glares down on earth that has lost its nature, for, pitted everywhere with shell-holes, it crumbles and cracks as though it has indeed been subject to earthquake. Up here we can be seen by the enemy; but there is no hurrying, for we have to keep distance between platoons. Hill has halted: we must halt, too. The men behind me swear with nervous irritation and mutter about being stuck out here to be fired at, I turn to look at them. Standing loaded up with boxes of bombs and sandbags of rations, how utterly unlike the red-coats of romance they appear.

We are off again, now traversing the slope that leads to the valley of Longueval. “Death Valley,” it is nicknamed, and it has earned its title, for everywhere there are signs of death: an inverted bottle with a bit of paper in it: a forage-cap hung on a stick: a rough wooden cross bearing the pencilled inscription, “To an Unknown British Soldier.” These signs recur: pathetic, temporary memorials; will they outlast the war? In the bottom of the valley lie broken trucks and the shattered rails of a tramway. As we come to the end of the tram-line we have to pass the body of a dead horse, foul and distended, poisoning the air. Suddenly, like a rat, a human figure comes out of the earth. Who would have thought there were dug-outs here? As quickly it disappears and we pass on. We march in silence, broken occasionally by a jest that fails to catch on, or by an irritable rebuke from one jogged by his companion. There is no singing now; ’tis as if we moved under an invisible cloud.

We halt for a moment in a chalk-pit where the M.O. has his dug-out, and then follow the narrowing sunken road that leads up St. George’s Hill. By the time we have reached the top we are moving in single file round the horseshoe bend of the trench we are to occupy, pushing by the troops that wait for us to relieve them.

This is an old German trench that has been reversed and now forms part of our second line facing High Wood, just distinguishable as such, about five hundred yards away on the hill opposite. We have hardly entered the trench before we come on a stretcher lying on the ground. It bears the body of a boy: the face quite black. He has just been killed. It appears there was an old German latrine close to the parapet of the trench; two boys had gone to it when a shell came over and killed them both. As we push along I find that this particular sector falls to my platoon. The shell has made a big breach. To-night we shall have to repair it and clean up the mess which is beyond description.

The men are posted and the relieved troops scuttle out. In this narrow gap between two deep walls of clay we shall spend the next four days. The air is tainted with the sickly-sweet odour of decaying bodies. At certain corners this odour intensified by the heat, becomes a stench so foul the bay cannot be occupied. Just now I tripped over a lump in the floor of the trench. It was necessary to get a shovel and quickly cover the spot. Literally we are the living among the dead.

Shelling is incessant. There is not a moment when something is not passing overhead; but the fire is not upon this trench, it is meant for the batteries now crammed up close behind on the rearward slope of the hill. Our batteries are replying, shell for shell. Somewhere very close to my sector a French seventy-five barks deafeningly.

I look for a place to lay my ground-sheet and rations, and find a hole burrowed in the side of the parapet and a new German saxe-blue coat lying on the floor. This hole will give cover from shrapnel and serve to deaden the noise if there’s any chance of sleep; but it would prove an ugly death-trap if a shell dropped near. I lay my things in the hole and turn to see Rowley and the company-sergeant-major coming along to inspect. We go round together till we come to a spot in a traverse behind my sector where the smell of decay is so strong they are convinced there is a body lying out. Sure enough, just behind the parados, the dead body of a gunner lies on a stretcher evidently left in haste. Both shin-bones are broken, but otherwise the poor fellow looks unhurt. We have the corpse carried out along the narrow trench: a difficult, awkward business.

I see Jackson considering the gap in our parapet and speak to him about it. He has the whole thing sized up, and without any fuss makes himself responsible for a particularly filthy job, telling me just what he proposes to do as soon as it is dark. He seems more at his ease in the trenches. I shall like this man.

Wondering how Hill fares I go down the trench to see him, and we decide we shall have to spread out our platoons, that are much under strength if we are to keep in touch. I am just returning along the unoccupied gap between us when rapid rifle-fire suddenly starts in the valley below. What does it mean? I get up on a firestep and peer over. There’s nothing to see, but the firing continues, causing a cloud of smoke that begins to fill the air. Are they coming over? If they do–well, I’ve this bit of the line to myself. I pull out my revolver, load it and wait, wondering ironically what anyone would give for my chances. If they come as soon as this, it will have been quick work. The firing continues so that the smoke obscures all view. Then to my relief the sergeant-major comes along. He too is wondering what is going to happen and we wait together silently. Gradually the firing dies down. It ceases. We go back to my platoon and beyond to see Smalley on the right. He has put his men into their P.H. helmets, mistaking the smoke for a gas attack. “All’s well that ends well.” But we do not fail to chaff Smalley about his precaution.

Night in the trenches

Night has fallen. The stars shine brilliantly and (these trenches facing north) I gaze at The Plough dipping towards High Wood. What joy it is to know that you in England and I out here at least can look upon the same beauty in the sky! We’ve the stars to share. Look at them! They have become seers–images of divine stability–guardians of a peace and order beyond the power of weak and petty madness. Upon what havoc and ruin have they looked down in days of Greece and Rome and centuries beyond! Still they shine and keep their calm serenity. They, at least, will outlast the war and still be beautiful. We cannot shoot the stars.

If only those two guns on the horizon beyond High Wood could stop! They flash a pair of devilish eyes and we, trembling, wait the result; for they are firing on us. Already they have knocked the trench in twice, luckily at unoccupied places. It’s all because of that damned machine-gun that keeps hammering away on our left. Why on earth do they want to keep firing into the dark like that?

Hill and I think it our duty to find out. After some difficulty we discover the machine-gun and ask the gunners if they can’t stop for a while. Sorry, but they’ve instructions to carry on overhead fire all night on a road beyond the hill which it is reported the Germans use every night.

We come back to my burrow and crawl in, drawing the ground-sheet across the opening so that we can strike a match and by the light of a candle eat and smoke.

This is the first time in the trenches for us both, and we marvel at the continuous shelling, wondering if it is ever going to stop. Hill falls asleep and with friendship’s pity I look upon his sleeping face.

Then a whiz-bang bursts just above us and he wakes, scared like a child. We climb out and parade, for the rest of the night up and down the trench.[2]

 

I have been neglecting Olaf Stapledon for quite some time, so let’s work him in just a bit here. First, we go all the way back to July 11th for a very typical observation. It is lovely, dreamy, and expansive, starting with a boy and his spyglass but then leaping enormously to continental scale. No one muses on the personal-to-the-cosmic like Olaf does.

…Beyond all the ruins I can see with my glass a wind mill quietly turning, and a certain tower beside it. If the wind did not shake my hand I could see a man if he chose to appear there. That shows how narrow the actual fighting area really is, for it is all between us and that mill; and the hypothetical man would be a bosche. And that thin strip that I can see across is bordered on each side by wider strips of sporadic ruination, and from our sand dune, back at our camp, you can see the two extreme limits of these wider strips, and beyond those, on each side, war is not visible, bit only a kind of terrible report. And this great belt, so very narrow on the map in comparison with its length, stretches away down many days’ journey into the south.

But we’re reading Stapledon today, a century back, because today’s letter contrasts so interestingly with Max Plowman. Plowman had begun the war a principled pacifist; Stapledon too. Although neither joined immediately, they were both in the ambulances by 1915. Stapledon came to France, then, and cheerfully manhandled his ambulance over rutted French and Belgian roads, often enough under fire, risking his life to save those of others. His conviction that war is an absolute evil, that it is wrong to do violence, and that it is nevertheless an honorable course to aid the allied cause by ministering to its wounded is often queried and tested, but it does not break.

Plowman, by contrast, had found himself in a less-inspirational, less-principled RAMC unit, and came to see service in a non-combatant branch of the army as a half-measure. It is perhaps not to cynical to suggest, too, that where Stapledon resisted considerable “peer pressure” (he rowed with Julian Grenfell!), Plowman may have been unable to quiet the longing to take a commission like all the other guys. In any event, he did, and was trained in time to come out as a replacement officer in the wake of the Somme’s first day and its terrible casualties.

Meanwhile the political situation had changed, and Kitchener’s Army gave way to the Derby Scheme and then to conscription. Many men who had not wanted to go to war in any capacity registered as conscientious objectors. They could now be drafted and sent into non-combat units like the once-proudly-independent Friends’ (i.e. Quaker) Ambulance Unit.

Reflecting on all this, Stapledon seems confused. He holds to his principles and has done nothing wrong. But there has been little action lately in his part of the line (the far north) and he is forced to confront both the changing nature of his unit–the sullying of its purity of intention, although he should be above such thoughts–and the fact that, suddenly, he seems to be running far fewer risks than a man like, for instance, Max Plowman. Can a philosopher be both unimpeachably correct and wistful?

Ah, but a human being can…

We are scandalously safe, and there is no getting over the fact… though we on the convoys do get a certain amount of real war, the vast majority of the FAU gets next to nothing of it. And worse still there are crowds of new fellows always coming out (popularly known as conscription-dodgers) and the authorities never seem to give them any serious work…the FAU used to be considered rather a fine thing in the early days, but soon the world will say it is the lair of the conscription dodgers, and no more. We shall certainly get no credit from anyone after the war, militarist or pacifist. But we did not come for credit, so I suppose we must not complain…

Yet one must not sweepingly blame the newcomers. Many, I know, were sticking to their guns in not coming out until they were forced. Many of them are very decent fellows too, but the general average is not very prepossessing. And of course they have not their hearts in the work even as much as we have. I wonder whether all this will be censored! I shall never cease to regret that I could not have come out here earlier, when all the great times were.[3]

You can take the well-brought-up boy out of the Public School/Oxford/Edwardian Upper Middle Class world, but you can’t… well, actually, you can take much of that out, if you have a beautiful, careful mind and a great deal of help from the Quakers. But you can’t get all the way down into the boyish substrata of that personality and extinguish the yearning for romance, be it the Christian heroes of the early ambulance corps or the redcoats of yore…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Working backwards from the "three days" that apply to the morning of the 9th, based on the "Wednesday" mentioned in the letter of the 13th.
  2. A Subaltern on the Somme, 41-7.
  3. Talking Across the World, 162-5.

Robert Graves to London; Raymond Asquith Makes Like a Military Textbook, and Marches South

Only a day behind Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves has been shipped from Rouen to London. He was able to get a wire sent to his parents with the time his train was due, and A.P. Graves, fresh from two weeks of rushing about trying to discover if his son was alive or dead, was not going to be denied this opportunity to see him in the flesh. Going to Waterloo Station this afternoon, a century back, he pushed through the crowds cheering the returned heroes. But A.P. Graves is rather more committed than the wobbling middle-aged bicyclist that Sassoon spied yesterday, and lays siege to the medical services, first demanding information and then sending packages of fruit into the train while the wounded await their ambulances. Then,

…by rushing out to look in each ambulance, I at last succeeded in seeing [Robert] and gaining his attention. He waved to me and I signalled with my brolly.

This, naturally, the resurrected recent teenager and newly minted war hero found to he mortifying. Really, there could hardly be a better example of a simple historical event confirmed by a second source that nevertheless sees it from a sharply different angle. Here is Graves the Younger’s version of this brolly-signalling:

As I looked idly at the crowd, one figure detached itself, to my embarrassment–I recognized my father, hopping about on one leg, waving an umbrella and cheering with the best of them.[1]

This is mostly fond, despite the “signalling” being rendered down into “hopping… waving.” But “cheering” is something different. It’s the cheering that lumps old dad in with the patriotic multitude, and the implication is that cheering is necessarily unthinking, and as such it is never entirely forgivable in a member of the non-combatant older generation… there are surely men much more mutilated than Graves on this train.

But this is a father-and-son vignette. When Robert’s ambulance pulled away from the station, Alfred followed, taking the tube and a tram and actually beating the ambulance to West Hill, whereupon the medical bureaucracy bowed to the persistence of the overjoyed father and stopped for him, carrying him with his son to Queen Alexandra’s Hospital, Highgate. There his father stayed for an hour and a half, heard the tale of Robert’s nearly fatal wound, and told him the story of his alleged death.[2]

 

With our wild young raconteur on the shelf for a while, it seems a good time to check in with the Wittiest Guardsman, Raymond Asquith. Despite his penchant for obnoxiousness and his sometimes loathsome opinions, I’ve grown very fond of Asquith. Is it in part because he can always be located in a digital search by typing three adjacent, left-handed letters? In part, yes.

But it’s mostly because his letters–most of them to his wife Katherine and to Diana Manners–are entertaining in a way that is both honest and, actually, serious. He hates being serious–it’s all wit, irony, sarcasm, etc. But he’s serious about not being serious, about being entertaining. Asquith will  complain about his lot–in the time-honored British way of complaining about what we might take to be smaller things (discomfort) far more often than he will complain about existential issues (e.g. the likelihood of death and dismemberment)–but he is only epistolarily depressed when he thinks that he is not writing well.

No doubt Asquith takes his duty as an officer of the Grenadier Guards seriously, but when he writes he understands that his task is to provide an assurance of some slight normalcy to those who worry both about his safety and about the baleful effects that war might have on his personality. The only thing he can do to help his friends and family at home is to demonstrate–through his characteristic snarky wit–that he is o.k.

We’ll jump back to July so he can tease his wife about not having forgotten their anniversary.

3rd Grenadier Guards, B.E.F.
30 July 1916

You wrote me a very sweet letter to celebrate our golden wedding or whatever it is, and as luck would have it I had already written to you in the desired sense without prompting. I think that I have changed in the last 9 years a good deal more than you have, but not as far as you are concerned except for the better.

As for you, you have preserved and even accentuated your original flavour and at the same time widened your scope, increased your range and amplified your field of fire. So you have no need to reproach yourself as you do with an excessive stability . . .

But never fear, there is more than marital endearment here! The Guards are on the move!

The war has become suddenly much more amusing since I last wrote–because for a day or two we have got away from the stereotyped and traditional stagnation and immobility of the Western front, and are really doing in a mild enough form the things one used to read about in military manuals.

Yesterday evening at 7.30 I marched off an advanced party to a station about 8 miles away where we loaded the battalion 1st line transport onto a train–a big business, as we have 70 horses and about 30 waggons and limbers, not to mention boxing rings, bicycles and all the apparatus of cricket and football.

About 1.30 a.m. the battalion entrained, the men frightfully crowded in cattle trucks, the officers fairly comfortable 4 to a 2nd class compartment. It didn’t look like getting any sleep, but somehow one did–that is the greatest change
the War has wrought in me. I can sleep in a luggage rack or on a bicycle pedal.

About 6.30 a.m. we detrained and marched for an hour and a half along a rather pretty road, halting in a field where we were soon overtaken by the cookers and had an excellent breakfast and a rest of an hour or so. Then we marched on for 3 hours under a scorching sun up and down the undulations of chalk downs covered with corn and poppies with lovely woods in the hollows, till we got to a village where we are to spend tonight and most of tomorrow before marching on.

What with steel helmets and gas helmets and all the other paraphernalia which the variety of modem warfare necessitates (to which I see Conan Doyle with characteristic sagacity proposes to add a steel shield weighing 30 lbs.) the men fell out like flies under the terrific weight of their equipment and the fearful glare of the sun. I was marching light myself and did not feel the least tired or even bored at the end of it. Strange considering that for months and months one has hardly had any exercise beyond lifting a glass of old brandy from the table to the lip.

Good lord. Would the men gasping at the side of the road appreciate this pleasant good humor? Can it be ironic self-mockery? I hope so–he knows he is “marching light..” but somehow I doubt it.

One was a little sustained I suppose by an illusion of the romance of war which any kind of movement is enough to create after all these sedentary months. We were doing the same sort of thing as Wellington and Napoleon did-only incomparably better–I mean we do it incomparably better… the sun shining, the air motionless, the drums playing and the guns booming at a safe distance–really the whole thing was most enjoyable. But weather is
the secret of everything…

Lest we think that he might mention flowers without birds, his letter of the same date to Diana Manners covers the field:

…I can’t tell you the joy of at last, after all these sedentary months, behaving as people do in military textbooks, or in the Illustrated London News of 40 years ago–and then at the end of it a clean billet in a farm, with liquor so good that it might be the best cider, and so ambiguous that it might be the worst champagne–stock, doves crooning far
more pleasantly than shells, white cats licking themselves silently on the summits of gables like fantails and the ecstacy of choosing your own poussin in the yard and knowing that it will appear perfectly roasted on the table at
8.15 . . .

The brutal irony here is that they are marching south in this lovely weather, from the relatively quiet Salient toward the smoldering Somme.

Asquith does try–but the ability to write a jaunty letter erodes, like so many other military skills, under exhaustion. Today, a century back, after several consecutive days of marching and then reinforcing their new positions near Hébuterne, he can manage only this:

3rd Grenadier Guards, B.E.F.
3 August 1916

Two lines just to tell you that I am well and undamaged, though terribly tired. We have been moving about a great deal lately and digging all night and doing things in the day also.

The heat has been terrific. In the day time one sleeps when one can and drinks what one can. But I have only managed to get 6 hours sleep in the last 3 days and today I degraded myself so far as to drink both lemonade and ginger beer.

It is now 6.30 a.m. and I have just got back from the trenches ready for nothing but sleep. The post goes at 7, so goodnight and good morning.[3]

Alas, the “cider… champagne” reference was in the letter to Diana Manners, and this lemonade and ginger beer bathos is in a letter to Katherine Asquith, whose last letter contained but a passing reference to brandy. A confusion? A coincidence? Is Asquith so tired that his attempt at a clever allusion to his own recent near-ecstatic letters goes awry?

He will pick himself up tomorrow, no doubt…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Good-Bye to All That, 226.
  2. Quoted in R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 157.
  3. Life and Letters, 279-80.

Ford Madox Hueffer Pens a Farewell; The Royal Welch Move Up: Rodents Flee and Guns are Trained on the Public Schools

Ford Madox Hueffer[1] has reached France, and, as new battalions are generally being rushed toward the grinding Somme battle, he expects to see his first action soon. And so today, a century back, he sat down to write a last letter to his two teenage daughters:

My dear Kids:

I am going up to the firing line–so that seems a proper moment to write to you both–though I do not seem to have much to say–Or rather, I have so much that it wd. be no use beginning. So take it all as said. I was looking thro’ the dedication of the book called Ancient Lights that I wrote for you, the other day. I don’t think I want to change it or add to it. Read it again yourselves if anything happens to me. You know that I have always loved you both very, very dearly–but I cd. not wrangle for you. I took the Commun[ion] this morning & prayed for you both. Pray for me.[2]

Well, prolific writers often reuse bits they’ve written, so… I suppose this is acceptable. Judges?

In Hueffer’s defense, it’s a hell of a dedication, running more than three pages. Some excerpts:

My dear Kids,

Accept this book, the best Christmas present that I can give you… certain other things underlie all the presents that a father makes to his children. Thus there is the spiritual gift of heredity. It is with some such idea in my head — with the idea, that is to say, of analysing for your benefit what my heredity had to bestow upon you that I began this book…

The book discusses the pre-Raphaelites, including Hueffer’s grandfather Ford Madox Brown. In relation, naturally, to the scribbling descendant:

I discovered that I had grown up only when I discovered quite suddenly that I was forgetting my own childhood…  I moved amongst somewhat distinguished people who all appeared to me to be morally and physically twenty-five feet high.

After a great deal about these Victorian luminaries, Hueffer veers back toward the point by discussion the flaws in his upbringing: strict discipline, and the message that he would never measure up to these giants of the previous generation. The point being that

…if I write this book, and if I give it to the world, it is very much that you may be spared a great many of the quite unnecessary tortures that were mine until I “grew up…”

Now, my dear children — and I speak not only to you but to all who have never grown up — never let yourselves be disheartened or saddened by such thoughts. Do not, that is to say, desire to be Ruskins or Carlyles. Do not desire to be Ancient Lights…

And remember this, that when you are in any doubt, standing between what may appear right and what may appear wrong, though you cannot tell which is wrong and which is right and may well dread the issue — act then upon the lines of your generous emotions even though your generous emotions may at the time appear likely to lead you to disaster…

Well, actually, all that does read rather well as a last letter from a father about to sally forth into battle. But can we take nothing inspiring from the cold shadow of all these ancient lights who came before us?

But they were never cold, they were never mean, they went to shipwreck with high spirits. I could ask nothing better for you if I were inclined to trouble Providence with petitions.

F. M. H.

Quite a dedication, all in all, even if I did have to snip out hundreds of words that dwelt rather fulsomely on the dedicator.

But back to the letter. It’s a sad letter, not least because it points up the less-than-hilarious aspects of leading a spectacularly disordered personal life. Hueffer and the girls’ mother, Elsie Martindale, married in 1894, but he had left her by the middle of the next decade and taken up with the writer Violet Hunt. When Hueffer and Hunt alleged that he had obtained a divorce in Germany (never mind Hueffer’s Catholicism and, despite his German emigre father, his lack of German citizenship) and tried to establish themselves socially as man and wife, Elsie sued. This was quite a scandal, to say the least.

One can understand, then, why Hueffer doesn’t see much of his daughters. And now, after having put them through all that for the sake of his relationship with Hunt, this too is failing. When he re-read the dedication, did he not notice that a significant chance to actually influence his daughters’ course in life has slipped by the wayside in the five-year gap between book and letter? So feel free to squirm, a bit, in reading this bid for pathos.

Now, though, I will make much the same category of faux pas and take something that was about family, past, and future and ransack it for insights into Great War soldiering.

The letter lacks any army-related doubts, which is something in and of itself, and the fact that Ford/Hueffer does not seem to have had a completely miserable time in the army prompts comparison with Robert Graves. Graves had many attributes that should have smoothed his social path: he could fight, he was brave, he was young–but his opinions and personal habits drove most other officers away from him. Hueffer is notorious, over the hill, not only outspoken but a confirmed and hardened sinner… and yet but most reports have him getting along well with his fellow officers.

There are two explanations. One is that Graves was something like a social idiot savant (although this surely cannot any longer be an acceptable term–I plead anachronism and analogy). He may have thought that he was willfully charming the intelligent and disposing of the conventional, but, as Sassoon has testified, he was a blundering teenager who could not control the behaviors that put most of his fellow officers off. The inattention to hygiene is particularly unfortunate. So Sassoon loves him, and others will too, but for the most part he receives the antipathy cruelly meted out to the awkward.

Ford/Hueffer, on the other hand, is much more willful in his offensiveness–more mature in his social non-conformity, we might say–and can play the clever bon vivant rather than the too-clever outsider, however outré his actual opinions and behaviors. It would be counter-intuitive, but for the nature of humanity: Graves, chaste and nearly teetotal, enthusiastic about soldiering, is distrusted as a loose cannon; Hueffer, a man really willing to break with convention, can get along nicely.

The other explanation is more simple: Graves has served in the two Regular Army battalions of the Royal Welch, a fashionable Regiment very high on tradition. Even mid-war, it is still drawing Sandhurst cadets and young men with family traditions in the regiment. These are the cool kids, the snobs, concerned with careers and reputations. Ford serves in a much more heterogeneous Kitchener’s Army battalion of a less prestigious regiment (even I grant the unofficial-but-asserted middle “c” to the Fusiliers, while leaving the Welsh Regiment with that Sassenach “s”) with a much more practical approach to war. These are “Service” battalions, intent on doing the present job: cowardice or incompetence will pose problems, but not mere eccentricity.

Hueffer will soon find himself in Sausage Valley–on the Somme, to be sure, but no longer the front lines. He wants to get to the real trenches, but he won’t. A heavy-set, middle-aged, voluble officer is wanted, but at a desk, in the immediate rear. There will be danger enough there, still well within reach of the big German guns. There is a touch of irony in the fact that Hueffer’s prodigious efforts on behalf of Modernism, as an editor, critic, and writer, will be of much use in the burgeoning bureaucracy of the New Army.

 

But back now to the old Army, specifically the 2nd Royal Welch, who have moved up to positions near the Bazentin cemetery. The Germans, of course, have the range. For a moment, Dr. Dunn’s chronicle is in his own voice:

For four hours of the afternoon our position was under a bombardment that caused losses in which H.Q. Details shared largely. One of the first to be wounded was a sergeant. I turned at the sound of a coming shell and saw it burst. Almost at the same moment he shouted, “I’m, hit,” in a joyful tone, flung off his equipment, and, grinning, came to me for his “ticket to Blighty, sir.” It didn’t occur to him to have the wound in his back looked at.

Next, the good doctor is back to quotation. The night was an unpleasant one:

‘Hordes of rats came over D Company’s ground. They made a noise like wind through corn. It was uncanny.'[3]

 

Uncanny as that was, Robert Graves reasserts his anecdotal predominance today. First we have admirable sang-froid during the above-mentioned shelling:

Three times running, my cup of tea was spilled by the concussion and filled with dirt. I happened to be in a cheerful mood, and only laughed. My parcel of kippers from home seemed far more important that any bombardment–I recalled with appreciation one of my mother’s sayings: ‘Children, remember this when you eat your kippers; kippers are cheap, yet if they cost a hundred guineas they would still find buyers among the millionaires.’

An excellent example of the “strange things one thinks of under fire” sub-genre. Graves later falls asleep under the shelling, but, unusually, he does not sleep soundly:

…on this occasion I had a fearful nightmare of somebody handling me secretly, choosing the place to drive a knife into me. Finally, he gripped me in the small of the back. I woke up with a start, shouting, punched at the assassin’s hand–and found I had killed a mouse which had run down my neck for fear of the bombardment.

Next we have a bathetic tale of night operations. Graves is holding two newly-dug strong points that now form the farthest extent of the British line in this recently-occupied sector when his men spot a large group of figures walking in no-man’s land. The Germans must be confused about their location! Graves orders a flare pistol and a Lewis gun (light machine-gun) fetched, to give them a chance to surrender, or, failing that, to mow them down efficiently. When the Lewis gun officer arrives he fires a flare and warning shots and an officer from the wandering group runs forward to surrender.

It is, of course, an officer of a now-famously-hapless Public Schools Battalion of the British Army, leading 50 men, lost and distracted, nearly unto death. (It’s the trench scene from The Meaning of Life meets the “The Upper Class Twit of the Year” competition!) As Graves explains, these battalions were formed in the early enthusiasms of 1914 with many men who would otherwise have taken commissions volunteering for the ranks instead. Later, since the battalions were full of men who fit even the early-war social expectations for officers, they were repeatedly combed for good officer material. What remained–those who did not volunteer, or were passed over–was a group that belonged neither socially nor militarily. This was a rump battalion, left by the haphazard British approach to building the New Armies, with a huge proportion of especially unfit men…

There is more during this eventful night, including a horribly forbidding German corpse that causes even the doubting Graves to cross himself when he must pass by, and the rescue of an excellent German souvenir (a lump of chalk heavily carved with German mementos) to be presented to Dr. Dunn himself.

But the next few days will be more eventful still…[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. A reminder: he has already altered his birth name by inserting the "Madox" of his English (and pre-Raphaelite) grandfather, but he has yet to replace his German surname with a redoubled forename...
  2. War Prose, 221.
  3. The War the Infantry Knew, 229.
  4. Good-Bye to All That, 212-215.