Rowland Feilding Braves the Train; Siegfried Sassoon’s Moment of Waking; Thomas Hardy’s Fond Display; The Nerves and Lungs of Robert Graves

The holidays are over, now, and the war must resume. Rowland Feilding, who secured a Christmas leave at the last moment, is headed back to the front–and not best pleased.

January, 1918.

Front Line, Lempire.

Once more I have vowed that never again if I can help it will I travel by the “leave” train. I had forgotten to bring a candle, so, the cold being bitter and the windows broken, I shivered in the darkness.

It is beyond my powers adequately to describe the horrors of the “leave” train, the scandal of which still continues after 3 1/2 years of war. Though timed to arrive at Divisional Railhead in the early morning we did not do so till the afternoon, and, after fifteen hours on the train, I reached my transport lines near Villers Fauçon at 2 p.m. in a blizzard, having had nothing to eat, since last evening.

At the transport lines I found officers and men still under canvas and as the ground was deep in snow the appearance of everything was very uninviting and conducive to nostalgia:—I believe that is the word…

The line is very quiet.[1]

 

Siegfried Sassoon arrived in Limerick yesterday, a century back. It will be a “fresh start,” away from England and the dismal Litherland Camp and the memories of his strange and conflicted months of protest. Now, on garrison duty and with nothing in particular hanging over him, he will begin writing verse again. Immediately:

 

A Moment of Waking

 

I awoke; evilly tired, and startled from sleep;
Came home to seeing and thinking; shuddered; and shook
An ugly dream from my shoulders: death, with a look
Of malice, retreated and vanished. I cowered, a horrible heap.
And knew that my body must die; that my spirit must wait
The utmost blinding of pain, and doom’s perilous drop,
To learn at last the procedure and ruling of fate.
… I awoke; clutching at life; afraid lest my heart should stop.

January 8

 

Journey’s End

 

Saved by unnumbered miracles of chance.
You’ll stand, with war’s unholiness behind.
Its years, like gutted villages in France,
Done with; its shell-bursts drifting out of mind.
Then will you look upon your time to be.
Like a man staring over a foreign town.
Who hears strange bells and knows himself set free;
And quietly to the twinkling lights goes gladly down.
To find new faces in the streets, and win
Companionship from life’s warm firelit inn.

January 8[2]

 

While Sassoon is busily writing away, another writer is writing to him, with the sort of emphatically enthusiastic courtesy that suggests real esteem. And the esteem of Thomas Hardy is not so easily won.

Max Gate, Dorchester

Jan 8, 1918

Dear Siegfried Sassoon:

We have read out loud the poems you mention,[3] & liked them. Perhaps R. Nichols brings off his intention best in “To —”, & “Fulfilment.” But it is impossible to select, after all.

Strangely–but the past is a strange country–Sassoon had sent Hardy not only Georgian Poetry (and possibly Nichols’s volume) but also, apparently, a photograph of his recent portrait, without covering letter.

Yes, it’s a striking portrait of a handsome young man–but how, exactly does this is advance his poetry or their friendship?

That photograph!—We divined it to be you, but I was not certain, till a friend told us positively only a day before your letter came. It has been standing in my writing room calmly overlooking a hopeless chaos of scribbler’s litter. I shall be so glad to see you walk in some day.

Always sincerely,

Thomas Hardy[4]

That, one imagines, is an invitation that Sassoon will have to nerve himself to accept–but how could he resist?

 

Meanwhile, Robert Graves, to be married now in only a fortnight, is under pressure from his future in-laws to make more certain of his future. He traveled today to London to see Dr. James Fowler,

who told him, to his great relief, that his lungs were ‘soundish’, despite the fact that he had bronchial adhesions, and that his wounded lung had only a third of its proper expansion. This was good enough to satisfy Nancy’s mother; though Sir James had also noted that Robert’s nerves were still in a very poor state… active service in any theatre of war would lead to another breakdown.[5]

This accords with the decisions of Graves’s recent Medical Boards, and would have been good news for Graves as well as for his family-to-be: he is not likely to ever share Rowland Feilding’s experience of returning once again, and miserably, to the front line in France.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 246.
  2. Diaries, 201-2. See also Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 432.
  3. In the volume of Georgian Poetry that Sassoon had sent to Hardy.
  4. The Letters of Thomas Hardy, V, 242.
  5. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 190.

The Master of Belhaven Toasts Qualified Success; Alf Pollard Dumps the Americans; Duff Cooper Rededicated; The Winter Scene by Carroll Carstairs; Max Plowman’s Protest Begins with Home Service

We’ll begin the year with a cold-eyed appraisal from the Master of Belhaven:

To-day we start the fifth year of war, and I am convinced it will still be going on next New Year. The question is how many of us will be alive to see it? Some, at any rate, will survive. We saw the New Year in properly and at exactly midnight by the signal officer’s watch I gave the toast: “Success to ourselves and damnation to the  ——— Hun.”[1]

 

A New Year’s Card for 1918, designed by David Jones

And this we’ll follow with a hopeful (or bizarrely oblivious, or refreshingly oblivious, or weirdly-non-despairing, or eternally young and silly–it’s up to you, as the reception theorists say) bit of horseplay, interrupted by the stroke of midnight, last night, a century back. Alf Pollard and other English machine-gun instructors have planned a treacherous assault on their allies.

Close on one o’clock in the morning, I and three other fellows entered quietly by one door. Working in pairs we rapidly turned over all the beds with their occupants enveloped in their blankets and flea-bags. The pandemonium was terrific. Irate sons of the United States were hitting out at one another in their desire for retaliation. By the time the first light went on we were clear at the opposite end of the hut.[2]

 

Elsewhere, we have what amounts to a New Year’s resolution from Duff Cooper. He has dallied–or considered dalliance–lately, but no more: he will be true to the woman he loves best.

I get a letter from Diana every day and write to her. It is my chief occupation.[3]

 

But it’s not all hijinks and resolutions: we do have one piece of actual business. The Chelmsford Medical Board observes no holiday, today, and it is hearing the case of Max Plowman, among others. Plowman has had a long, slow recovery from shell shock–there seem to have been temporary cognitive effects as well as basic neurological (and,  of course, psychological) damage. But he is physically whole, now, and psychologically stable–and unwilling to fight any more. Plowman, who wrote poetry, memoir, and essays on the subject of war and its horrors, will explain how his return to his pacifist principles came about:

I was sitting in an Army tent at Chelmsford, reading Tagore on Nationalism, considering the argument quite objectively, when suddenly I knew that I had no right to be in the Army. The conviction was immediate, and seemingly spontaneous. But it was ludicrous, absurd, impossible, beyond entertainment: there I was, very definitely in the British Army. It was futile to think I had no right to be. Then it was as if a voice added “And now you have to come out of it.” The decree was flat and so peremptory I could have laughed. But it was true, and I knew it. So there was simply nothing for It but to assent. A confounded nuisance, but there wasn’t any option about it.

“Right,” I said to myself, “and that’s that”. Whereupon I had a sense of extraordinary elation, and with it an immense feeling of good-will. This was hardly due to a sense of release from personal danger, for I thought at the time I might be asking to be shot, but at that moment I knew what the sailor feels when he comes to port, what Bunyan’s pilgrim felt when the burden rolled off his back, what we all feel when we cease to live from our wills I felt as if I had received a free pardon from spiritual death.

If this experience provided a sense of philosophical relief, Plowman still needed to register his political change of direction–and then deal with the personal consequences. His essay “the right to live” stated the case (or asked the obvious and unanswerable questions) rather firmly. Of the men of the infantry–neither heroes nor stoic Tommies, here, but, as in Sassoon’s writing, helpless and abject victims, he wrote:

And for liberty they have suffered the torments of the damned. They have been shot and stabbed to death. They have been blown to pieces. They have been driven mad. They have been burned with liquid fire. They have been poisoned with phosgene. They have been mutilated beyond description. They have slowly drowned in mud. They have endured modern war. To what end?[4]

Plowman, however, cannot undo his own decision, long ago, to leave the ambulances and join the infantry. His own right to live is very much a vexed question. But, unlike Sassoon, his medical care and his public position against the war have not compromised each other: he went before the board today and took his chances.

Well, I went through the inquisition this morning. “one month’s Home Service” with an intimation that they were quite sure it would be the last–advice to take no notice of a dilated heart–& a hint that it was simply ‘up to me’ to be well by the next board. –So that’s that. Had they known they might have spared themselves the pains. As it is I think it is all to the good…[5]

In other words, the result is convenient, as regards his protest: Plowman can attempt to resign his commission in protest of the war’s prolongation while he himself is marked “Home Service.” Even though he decided upon this course weeks ago, and even though he believes that he will shortly be sent back to “the torments of the damned,” his opponents will not be able to accuse him of returning to pacifism at the very moment that the war will begin to directly threaten his own safety once again. And then, should he in fact be sent back to the front, the Army’s motivations might well seem suspect. (Though Plowman is happy to admit that their callousness in sending him back is not personal, but rather part of the general acceleration of the meat grinder, at least as far as it concerns those already fed into its maw.) It’s 1918, and idealism and cynicism are shadowboxing…

 

And finally, today–New Year’s Day itself has occasioned far less forward-looking meditation than the eve stimulated retrospect (which is natural enough, at this point in the war)–we have Carroll Carstairs, doing the foreboding winter scene in proper painterly fashion:

The first day of the new year came pale as death. The trees looked very black against the snow. The ruts in the roads were frozen hard. In the process of shaving, one’s fingers became so cold that one had to dip them in the hot water to be able to go on. We bought a tree from a farmer to use as kindling wood. The men tore off every loose plank in their huts for the same purpose. Very much against regulations, but who could have stopped them?[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary, 431.
  2. Fire-Eater, 241-2.
  3. Diaries, 63.
  4. The Right to Live, 33, 75-6; see Pittock, "Max Plowman and the Literature of the First World War.
  5. Bridge into the Future, 89.
  6. Carstairs, A Generation Missing, 147.

What a Night it is for Olaf Stapledon; Thomas Hardy Mourns the Son of Stourhead

Of all the young men born to a privileged English country background, with their birthright of rolling landscaped gardens and Latin tutors, Captain Harry Hoare lived the combination of country house and classical heritage more intensely than the rest–he came from Stourhead, the Wiltshire estate famed for its huge, carefully allusive garden dotted with “classical” temples seen along dramatic vistas.

Stourhead: Pantheon seen from across lake, with unidentified American children in foreground, routed by ducks

Stourhead: Pantheon, seen from Temple of Flora, with unidentified American child in foreground

The Hoare family had fallen on hard times (relatively speaking) in the later 19th century, and the estate was shuttered for years, until it passed from a childless cousin to Harry’s father. The family soon moved to Stourhead, renovating it slowly while they lived in a cottage on the grounds. There were setbacks, including a devastating fire in 1902, but the family continued to repair the estate and its grounds. During the first decade of the 20th century, Lady Hoare became friendly with Thomas Hardy and his wife Emma (and then, in turn, with his second wife Florence), who lived only 35 miles off.

Hardy, though in his novels so often a champion of the disregarded poor, was friendly with many aristocrats, and could hardly resist this family of down-to-earth landowners and their struggle to preserve the past, especially its dramatic temples and the (Two on a) tower folly which was (and remains) the high point, so to speak, of a longer walk on the estate.

Stourhead was still being rebuilt when the war broke out and Harry, the only son, volunteered, eventually becoming a captain in the Devonshire Yeomanry (a territorial cavalry unit that could hardly have had a more Hardy-like name, short of Wessex Light Horse).

 

On November 13th, Harry Hoare was wounded at Mughar Ridge in Palestine. He died at Alexandria on December 20th.

 

Max Gate, Dorchester, December 26, 1917

My dear Sir Henry & Lady Hoare:

Though one should be prepared for anything in these days it never struck me what I was going to read when I opened your letter.

It is no use to offer consolation. And not even Time may be able to give that—I mean real consolation. Once a wound, always a scar left, it seems to me. Though Time can & does enlarge our vision to perceive that the one who has gone has the best of it—& that we who are left are made to look rather poor creatures by comparison with the one who has got safely to the other side—has achieved Death triumphantly & can say:

“Nor steel nor poison—foreign levy—nothing
Can touch me further”.[1]

You may remember what was said by Ld Clarendon in his History of the Rebellion, on the death of Ld Falkland in the Battle of Newbury:

“If there were no other brand upon this odious & accursed War than that single loss, it must be most infamous & execrable to all posterity.”[2]

I write the above in great haste, to answer your letter quickly. Florence has been crying over her remembrance of climbing the tower with Harry. It is a satisfaction, if one may say so, to feel now that we did go to see you when you were all at home together. With deepest sympathy for both

Yours always sincerely

Thomas Hardy[3]

 

It’s hard to follow a letter of condolence from one of the great writers of England, reduced to gruff kindness, quotation and soft, heartfelt cliché. But it is pleasing, in some strange, sad sense–in aesthetic if not philosophical terms–to have Olaf Stapledon here as a counterbalancing writer. After Hardy’s taut, dutiful letter, in which he suppresses the voice of the grim old man who loves to stake out the pain of the indifferent universe’s cruel ironies and instead offers whatever meager gifts convention has to give, Olaf Stapledon regards the immensity of the universe (both literally and figuratively) with utterly different eyes. Stapledon is watching the skies with hope, standing in a different field and a different time of life, his searching spirit suffused by joy even in difficult circumstances, looking at boundless possibility instead of promise cut off.  And, of course, he’s right, too.

26 December 1917

The moon is brilliant, and the earth is a snowy brilliance under the moon. Jupiter, who was last night beside the moon, is now left a little way behind. Venus has just sunk ruddy in the West, after being for a long while a dazzling white splendour in the sky. I have just come in from a walk with our Professor [Lewis Richardson], and he has led my staggering mind through mazes and mysteries of the truth about atoms and electrons and about that most elusive of Cod’s creatures, the ether. And all the while we were creeping across a wide white valley and up a pine clad ridge, and everywhere the snow crystals sparkled under our feet, flashing and vanishing mysteriously like our own fleeting inklings of the truth about electrons. The snow was very dry and powdery under foot, and beneath that soft white blanket was the bumpy frozen mud. The pine trees stood in black ranks watching us from the hill crest, and the faintest of faint breezes whispered among them as we drew near. The old Prof (he is only about thirty-five, and active, but of a senior cast of mind) won’t walk fast, and I was very cold in spite of my sheepskin coat; but after a while I grew so absorbed in his talk that I forgot even my frozen ears. (I had been wishing I had put on my woollen helmet.) We crossed the ridge through a narrow cleft and laid bare a whole new land, white as the last, and bleaker. And over the new skyline lay our old haunts and the lines. Sound of very distant gunfire muttered to us. Three trudging figures slowly drew near, three “poilus” carrying their kits and rifles. As they passed, one of them greeted us in our own tongue, for he had heard us talking. What a night it is. . . .[4]

Atoms, electrons, “ether,” and the stars and planets will all figure into Olaf’s vision of the cosmos, stuff so sweeping that it will make epics seem to pass by like bubble-gum songs–and yet, yes, without forgetting the human scale of the one man killed to little purpose, or the three soldiers trudging through the snowy landscape…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The quotation is from Macbeth.
  2. I'll quote the editor of Hardy's letters: "TH's quotation is accurate apart from the (deliberate) omission of 'Civil' before War."
  3. The Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy, V, 235.
  4. Talking Across the World, 264-5.

Olaf Stapledon Need Not Worry About Parting; Robert Graves Has a More Pleasant Walk in the Snow; Cynthia Asquith and Bernard Freyberg Clash… Over Siegfried Sassoon’s Hero; The Loves and Letters of Patrick Shaw Stewart

In a few moments it will be back to the Souls/Coterie and their tangle of letters and affairs, but we’ll begin today, a century back with a lonelier–and purer–soul. Olaf Stapledon, still home, still on leave, writes again to Agnes Miller, in Australia, and he takes yet another small step toward an uncharacteristic despair.

Sunday night, the last night of leave. I go early tomorrow. This evening Mother played some Rubinstein on the piano and part of it was a “melody” that you used to play. It brought back ancient days. Father and I had such a wet walk this morning. Thurstastone was all one driving blizzard.— But what’s the use of writing you a sort of schoolboy diary? The last night of leave is a poor night. It’s bad enough for oneself but it’s worse for one’s people; and their sorrow makes one grieve far more. It’s good to talk to you tonight, for I am not on the point of leaving you—alas, partings need not worry us, for we have not yet our meeting. You are always as near as ever, and as far.[1]

That rather sets the tone, doesn’t it? Despair and sorrow and high romance–and, that, of course is the use of writing such a diary.

 

Robert Graves, however, is more fortunate: his beloved is near at hand. His biographer notes yet another visit to Nancy Nicholson–and confirms that the Merseyside weather had reached London by evening.

On Sunday, after an early lunch, he went into town again, and did not arrive back in Wimbledon until three in the morning, after walking the last last of the journey, all the way from Putney, in a driving blizzard.[2]

 

Actually, it seems that it was snowing in London throughout the day. Last night, a century back, Cynthia Asquith locked her bedroom door after (somehow!) using “purple passages” of Shakespeare to hold off the advances of Bernard Freyberg. Today the two resumed their contest of wills in a proxy battle over–wait for it!–the poetry of a certain young writer absent from–though present in verse at–a recent soirée.

Sunday, 16th December

Slept badly after agitating evening and woke to swirling snowstorm. Mary resurrected and joined us after breakfast. Freyberg inveighed against the Georgian Poets and reproached me for holding a brief for Siegfried Sassoon. I maintained that, having fully demonstrated his personal physical courage, he had earned the right to exhibit moral courage as a pacifist without laying himself open to the charge of cloaking physical cowardice under the claim of moral courage. Freyberg is very uncompromising in his condemnation and, with some justice, says it is offensive to come back and say, ‘I can’t lead men to their death any more’—it implies a monopoly of virtue, as if other officers liked doing it because they acquiesced in their duty.

Yes, “some justice”–which is what Rivers led Sassoon to see, although–and this is an important distinction–with an emphasis more on the position of the men-to-be-led-to-their-deaths than on the unfairly maligned virtue of the other officers…

But Freyberg, an Argonaut, a 1914 volunteer, a V.C., and a young brigadier, is too canny, at least, to bring only a medal to a poetry fight. He has read some of Sassoon, and he has a practical objection:

He thought the poem called ‘The Hero’ caddish, as it might destroy every mother’s faith in the report of her son’s death. Certainly Siegfried Sassoon breaks the conspiracy of silence, but sometimes I strongly feel that those at home should be made to realise the full horror, even to the incidental ugliness, as much as possible.[3]

A strange “but” in that last sentence–but it is fascinating, of course, to find a woman at home taking the side of the poets’ realism/horror while the eminent fighting soldier stands up for the non-caddishness of comforting lies. Asquith’s declaration here is very much like the intense enthusiasm of later readers of Great War Poetry: not only does she hold a brief for Sassoon, but it’s essentially the same brief that has become canonical. She would deny the experiential gulf–or, rather, she would recognize it and esteem those poets who try to write across it, and read eagerly in order to be one of the better sort of home-front people, who read in order to understand the true war…

There are several ironies here, including Sassoon’s habit (which should be apparent to Asquith if she has read his books) of expressing a casual nastiness towards both aristocratic patronesses and older women and Asquith’s scoring such high marks in our implied hierarchy of worthy readers/home front loved ones while her husband, unmentioned in these sections of her diary, is overseas, and she is embroiled in a pseudo-affair with a brother officer…

But back to the practical point: there’s a war on, and someone must write something to a million grieving mothers. Freyberg has probably written dozens–he has been both a company commander and a battalion commander. And is absolute truth always a virtue? Was he definitively wrong to strive to find some balance between truth and mercy?

Here is ‘The Hero,’ then, Sassoon’s no-holds-barred assault on the convention of the C.O.’s condolence letter. It is also, incidentally, one of the few poems to feature a female character and yet not treat her scorn–condescension, perhaps, but not contempt.

‘Jack fell as he’d have wished,’ the mother said,
And folded up the letter that she’d read.
‘The Colonel writes so nicely.’ Something broke
In the tired voice that quavered to a choke.
She half looked up. ‘We mothers are so proud
Of our dead soldiers.’ Then her face was bowed.

Quietly the Brother Officer went out.
He’d told the poor old dear some gallant lies
That she would nourish all her days, no doubt
For while he coughed and mumbled, her weak eyes
Had shone with gentle triumph, brimmed with joy,
Because he’d been so brave, her glorious boy.

He thought how ‘Jack’, cold-footed, useless swine,
Had panicked down the trench that night the mine
Went up at Wicked Corner; how he’d tried
To get sent home, and how, at last, he died,
Blown to small bits. And no one seemed to care
Except that lonely woman with white hair.

 

There are other Argonauts abroad in London, and they have crossed paths all too quietly.

Missing, alas, from Diana Manners and Duff Cooper‘s diaries are accounts of Patrick Shaw Stewart‘s recent leave. The most probable explanation is simple awkwardness: Shaw Stewart has seen a great deal of the war, and Cooper is only recently commissioned, so there is a great gap of experience there, and experience is an incontestable, unexchangeable currency of honor… and yet it is the new subaltern Cooper who is on the verge of–to fall into the old sexist language, here–winning the prize they both coveted, and not the brigadier with the V.C.

Diana Manners avoided Shaw Stewart, seeing him only for a few meals, even when the two were thrown together (with Duff and a number of others) last weekend at a house party in Somerset. Shaw Stewart still enjoyed the party, describing a bag of fifty pheasants as “not a bad change from the winter campaign,” but, ignored by the woman he loved (and was still doggedly pursuing, by letter when not in person), he spent much of his time and energy on his more unconventional but equally intense relationship with “Ettie,” Lady Desborough, the light of the Souls, now fifty and the mother of Shaw Stewart’s dead friends Julian and Billy Grenfell.

Strange and intertwined as all these relationships are, it’s still remarkable to note that today, a century back[4] Shaw Stewart returned from leave to take over command of his battalion from Oc Asquith (the youngest of the three brothers, now promoted brigadier) after having left Manners (the intimate friend and best epistolary sparring partner of Raymond Asquith, the eldest of the three brothers) and Cooper behind, and then been seen to the train, a few days ago, by his friend and Naval Division colleague Bernard Freyberg. That’s right: Freyberg, who has been laying siege to the matrimonial loyalty of Cynthia Asquith, wife of the middle brother, Herbert, and who has let off all his guns to deter a nuisance foray in the form of a Siegfried Sassoon poem.

Shaw Stewart used that train journey to write to Lady Desborough, playfully refuting her suggestion that he had bought notepaper in order to write to “his girl friends–“even though he does fact continue to write to Diana Manners “almost daily.”

I did buy the notepaper, but it was to write to you to tell you how infinitely I adore you and how perfect and essential you have been to me this leave. What should I do without you? You are Julian and Billy, Edward and Charles to me, and then you are yourself.

Strange and effusive, but fitting, perhaps, for a letter between one of the great melodramatic late Victorians and an “Edwardian meteor.” And however overcooked we might find their social self-celebrations, however overheated their prose, there is no denying the fact that Lady Desborough, who has lost two of her three sons, and Shaw Stewart, who has lost the four friends he names (and many others), are united by harrowing and tremendous loss.

But, once more at the front, his letters–and loves–seem to have fallen into a more predictable course. Perhaps Diana was frustratingly cold when he was in England, but now, in the trenches, where it is bitterly cold in all too unmetaphorical sense, the old habit of reaching out to her, of telling his days to her, is still of great comfort: she is completely unobtainable, but the thoughts still warm him, perhaps. Shaw Stewart, ever the classicist, makes a nice tale of an ordinary, if severe, unpleasantness of winter duty:

Church Parade at 11 am… I thoughtfully issued an order that great-coats might be worn; then, proceeding through the icy blast to put on my own–the one you know too well–I found it caked with mud and the blood of my faithful uncomplaining horse. So, mindful of Hector’s rule that “it is impossible to make prayer to Zeus, lord of the clouds, all bespattered with mud and filth,”[5] I attended without, and nearly died of cold, besides having to sing to hymns without the band…

I inherited Oc’s half-shed and succeeded in putting on first, silk pyjamas, then flannel pyjamas, and then a fur lining, and then everything else on top, and in not waking more than twice in the night feeling cold…[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Talking Across the World, 261.
  2. R. P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 188-9.
  3. Diaries, 380-1.
  4. I think; the dating is not terribly clear. Oh for uniformly prim footnoting!
  5. Iliad VI, c. 263.
  6. Jebb, Patrick Shaw Stewart, An Edwardian Meteor, 236-8.

Siegfried Sassoon Bombs Busily Along; Charles Carrington’s Half-Conscious Nightmare; Alf Pollard Finds the Germans, and Loses Some Men; Vera Brittain’s Immense Fact and General Malaise

We are surrounded by the Battle of Arras. We’ll finish in Malta, where Vera Brittain waits for news, and most of the post will follow Siegfried Sassoon‘s latest turn as “Mad Jack” in the developing battle. But we’ll begin with two other members of the supporting cast, each within a few miles of Sassoon, and each sharing important aspects of his experience.

The Battle of Arras, now in its second week, is neither trench-warfare-as-usual nor a matter of major “over the top” assaults, those strange aberrations in military history in which lines of troops abandon their subterranean life in order to move over open country, their shoulders hunched against the shell fire. Instead we have something rather like the tough, ceaseless, street-by-street urban warfare of later wars, with the trenches and strongpoints standing in for ruined cities. The weather, a cruel abridgement of the recent turn toward spring, only increases the misery.

 

Charles Carrington has been in the battle since near the beginning, but he remembered tonight, a century back, as one of the worst:

After many exacting days and freezing nights we finished with a night attack against two German outposts on 16th April, the date of Nivelle’s offensive that was to have finished the war. Our petty skirmish was for us as deadly as the greatest battle was for him. Again it was dark and wet, with a drizzle that turned to snow until before dawn a blizzard was blowing. Two of our companies blundered into one another and opened fire. The assaulting party ran into uncut wire which they could not see. They dug themselves in and waited for dawn when the Germans cleverly slipped away. That night my horse, impressed for duty as a pack pony to carry ammunition to the front line, died of exposure and so, very nearly, did its master, to whom the whole episode was a half-conscious nightmare of fluttering trench-mortar bombs, the kind we called ‘grey pigeons’, coming down through driving snow…[1]

 

And Alf Pollard, back in the nick of time, is out in front of the battle, and looking for more of a fight. The Honourable Artillery Company are north and east of Arras, where the advance has already taken several lines of German trenches–but not yet the local section of the Hindenburg Line.

On the afternoon of the 16th, a Brigade Major carefully examined this trench system through his binoculars, and, failing to observe any signs of life, came to the conclusion that Fritz must have fallen back even further. He at once issued orders that patrols were to be sent out.

Pollard volunteers, and asks to take only four men, since he has more experience with small patrols and, like Sassoon, likes to gallivant more or less on his own. But he is required to take an unwieldy twelve, as per staff orders. The thirteen men set out after nightfall, in moonless, rainy darkness. Feeling their way slowly between Gavrelle and Oppy Wood, they eventually reached the German line without encountering any signs of life, noisily cut their way through the wire, and reached the parapet of the trench. Almost by chance Pollard discovers that they are at the entrance to an occupied German dugout–the trench system is strongly held, but the sentries are either incompetent or derelict in their duties, sheltering from the cold rain.

The patrol has achieved its object, so Pollard withdraws–only to discover, back in No Man’s Land, that one of his men is missing. Two others have been left holding a hole in another portion of No Man’s Land while the remaining eight are now told to wait for him on a small ridge between the lines. Pollard takes a runner and goes back to the edge of the German trenches to look for the missing man–and this time they are discovered.

Someone challenged me sharply from the trench. I spun round in time to see the flash of his rifle. I fired two shots and heard him yell as I hit him.

The firing gave the alarm. Men were appearing in the trench like magic. Reggie and I were caught like rats in a trap. It would have been impossible to have broken our way out through the wire without offering a sitting target to the enemy.

There was only one thing to do. I seized Reggie by the arm and ran. Down the parapet we fled was fast as our legs would take us. Star-shells were going up in all directions. By their light I could see that the trench was of a pattern known as island traversed. That meant that here were two trenches parallel with one another joined at short intervals by cross-cuts. At intervals along the parapet were squares of concrete which I knew to be machine-gun emplacements. I realised it was a position that would take a lot of capturing.

We must have covered well over a hundred yards before I spotted it. It was a miracle that I saw it at all–just a narrow gap in the wire entanglement left so that the holders of the trench could get out easily if they wished to. I darted into it with Reggie close on my heels. It zig-zagged through both lines of wire. In a moment we were free of our cage…

Pollard and Reggie crawl back toward their lines, now sheltered by the thick belts of wire. But when the firing drops, they know a German patrol is coming after them. Pollard outfoxes the patrol by sheltering under the wire–so close to the German lines that the Germans overlook them. This is one of the places where Pollard’s memoir feels indistinguishable from a boy’s story of play-war–he is thrilled at the success of this simple stratagem, hiding by the seeker’s home base.

Once the patrol returns to its trenches, Pollard and Reggie meet up with the main group of their own patrol on the little ridge. They return to their own lines and all is well–the German line has been located and confirmed as being in an active state of defense, and Pollard, his eyes on bigger prizes, casually notes that they “gave me a bar to my Military Cross for that show.”

But this is sketchy sort of decoration, despite Pollard’s relish in describing his exploit. “He carried out a dangerous reconnaissance of the enemy’s front line,” as the citation will read–apparently all the other patrols sent out failed to find the Germans. But there is no mention in Pollard’s account of the missing man. Worse, he does mention that he simply forgot to pick up the two others who had been left on their own, and these are later learned to have been found by the German patrol that Pollard and the runner eluded. One was killed, another was taken prisoner, and the original man seems to have remained missing–not the most successful of all patrols.[2]

 

The action of today, a century back–a “bombing stunt” along the tunnels and trenches of the Hindenburg Line, fills an entire chapter of Siegfried Sassoon‘s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer. So we’ll read it instead in its entirety in its first written form, his diary of tonight, a century back:

April 16

At 3 a.m. the attack began on Fontaine-les-Croisilles. I sat in the First Cameronians H.Q. down in the tunnel until nearly 6, when I was told to despatch twenty-five bombers to help their B. Company in the Hindenburg front line. I took them up myself and got there just as they had been badly driven back after taking several hundred yards of the trench. They seemed to have run out of bombs, failing to block the trench etc, and were in a state of wind-up. However the sun was shining, and the trench was not so difficult to deal with as I had expected.

My party (from A. Company) were in a very jaded condition owing to the perfectly bloody time they’ve been having lately, but they pulled themselves together fine and we soon had the Bosches checked and pushed them back nearly four hundred yards. When we’d been there about twenty-five minutes I got a sniper’s bullet through the shoulder and was no good for about a quarter of an hour. Luckily it didn’t bleed much. Afterwards the rest of our men came up and the Cameronians were recalled, leaving me to deal with the show with about seventy men and a
fair amount of bombs, but no Lewis-guns.

I was just preparing to start bombing up the trench again when a message camp from Colonel Chaplin [of the Cameronians] saying we must not advance any more owing to the people on each side having failed to advance, and ordering me to come away, as he was sending someone up to take over. I left the trench about 9.45. Got wound seen to at our Aid Post in the tunnel, walked to Hénin—and was told to walk on to Boyelles. Got there very beat, having foot-slogged about four kilometres through mud. Was put on a motor-bus and jolted for an hour and a half to Warlencourt (20th Casualty Clearing Station) and told to expect to go to England. Written about 7.30 p.m. with rain pelting on the roof and wind very cold. I hate to think of the poor old Battalion being relieved on such a night after the ghastly discomforts of the last six days. The only blessing is that our losses have been very slight. Only about a dozen of my party to-day—most of them slight. No one killed. My wound is hurting like hell, the tetanus injection has made me very chilly and queer, and I am half-dead for lack of sleep, sitting in a chair in my same old clothes—puttees and all—and not having been offered even a wash. Never mind—‘For I’ve sped through O Life! O Sun!'[3]

And so the diary ends, for today. Sassoon is once again a hero, and he is wounded, and, managing to ride the falling edge of adrenaline and the rising tide of pain and exhaustion, he is writer enough to smoothly end the diary with an appropriate quotation, from Robert Graves‘s “Escape.” But what has this action-packed account omitted, and what has it emphasized?

The main points are confirmed by another writer in Dr. Dunn’s chronicle–as are the two necessary interpretive conclusions:

April 16th–At 3.A.M. the attack of two days ago was repeated… This was another dud show… Sassoon, a very stout man, was wounded in Tunnel Trench: his craving to renew the attack was not allowed.[4]

Sassoon was very brave, once again, and once again unnecessarily aggressive. We’ve seen enough of his moody self-doubt and in the diary to recognize that he is not playing a role, here–or not playing it in any dishonesty to himself, if that makes any sense. If it’s a performance, as all social endeavors to some degree are, then it’s all method…

Whatever Sassoon’s thoughts about the war, whatever his feelings about the wrecked bodies he has passed to get to this point, the battalion commands his loyalty, and his responsibility is to lead. He doesn’t talk about his men often–it seems like a dubious cliché, but I do think this burden of leadership was assumed, in both senses, by men of his social position, right along with the code of behavior that forbade complaining about it–but whenever he does it is clear that he is highly motivated by his determination to do right by them. If physically leading the way and taking the greatest risks is not always quite a satisfactory answer to the entire question, well, neither was it a bad start. Tonight, a century back, Frank Richards spoke to

an old soldier and one of the few survivors of old B Company who had taken part in the bombing raid. He said, ‘God strike me pink, Dick, it would have done your eyes good to have seen young Sassoon in that bombing stunt… It was a bloody treat to see the way he took the lead. He was the best officer I have seen in the line or out since Mr. Fletcher… If he don’t get the Victoria Cross for this stunt I’m a bloody Dutchman…”[5]

A good officer–and a fox hunting man with a Dutchman’s name.

Siegfried has been absurdly fortunate: not only is he safely wounded, but none of his men are killed or badly hurt. And the chance he wanted so badly fell into his lap, and he took it… it almost seems as if the half-committed pacifist, half-despairing lost boy of the last few months stamped his foot in willful insistence until the war begrudgingly gave him exactly what he wanted…  But the rough narrative of a successful fight won’t remain the full story–it’s only the brassy initial theme, and the undertones and variations won’t stay silent for very long. The war has given him horror, too, and no sure solace: if death-defying aggression can salve his conscience now, the memory of it will not last forever. Does Sassoon recognize this as clearly as he recognizes his good luck in merely not being killed?

I could go on and on, but I shouldn’t. Given the constraints of this project and the length of his memoir, there’s no real way to take it on here, except to point out to readers this excellent opportunity to see what “voice” can do–or, rather, how much an author’s control of irony and tone from his secure position of future knowledge can influence our sense of the meaning of events, even if they are, in terms of factual detail, recounted fairly faithfully. Sassoon will not pretend to understand the mood that produced this bombing stunt, nor will he condemn it. But he does deflate his own heroics with more jabs than are strictly necessary.

Some very brief excerpts, then, beginning when Sassoon goes ahead of his own men and meets up with a corporal of the Cameronians, the unit which he is meant to support:

(Looking back on that emergency… I find some difficulty in believing that I was there at all.) For about ten minutes we dodged and stumbled up a narrow winding trench…

…we went round the next bay. There my adventurous ardour experienced a sobering shock. A fair-haired Scotch private was lying at the side of the trench in a pool of his own blood… I slung a couple of combat at our invisible enemies, receiving in replay an egg-bomb, which exploded harmlessly behind me. After that I went bombing busily along, while the corporal (more artful and efficient than I was) dodged in and out of the saps–a precaution which I should have forgotten… in this manner [we] arrived at our objective without getting more than a few glimpses of retreating field-grey figures. I had no idea where our objective was, but the corporal informed me that we had reached it, and he seemed to know his business. This, curiously enough, was the first time either of us had spoken since we met.

Does the skill of the self-satire make us forget the blood? Is it lurid, absurd? Is it remarkable that the clueless toff is good at bombing Germans out of their trenches, or only that he is such a clueless toff in the first place, and can’t provide a more conventionally meaningful narrative? (Or is that the point, that this sense of boyish silliness can’t coexist in the same rational narrative as the suffering and death from which it is inextricable? Where are the bodies? Who are the men killed or wounded by Sassoon’s bombs? Can they really exist in a story that plays alliteration for laughs and turns men hunting other men into figures of drawing room comedy?)

Ignoring Jeeves, Bertie trips blithely on:

The whole affair had been so easy that I felt like pushing on… I thought what a queer state of things it all was, and then decided to take a peep at the surrounding country. This was a mistake which ought to have put an end to my terrestrial adventures, for no sooner had I popped my silly head out of the sap than I felt a stupendous blow in the back between my shoulders…

Sassoon comes to, and finds his own sergeant binding a neat bullet wound. (And I am reminded that Sassoon himself will note that he felt as if he were being ministered to by a well-trained servant, a characterization which no doubt prompted my Wodehouse reference, above.)

After a short spell of being deflated and sorry for myself, I began to feel rabidly heroical again, but in a slightly different style, since I was now a wounded hero, with my arm in a superfluous sling…

So, overly enthusiastic heroism? Proper, “very stout” aggression?

But what if it tips over into something else? The Sassoon of the diary doesn’t seem to realize that charging on, shot through the shoulder, beyond his objective–the very act that got him in hot water over the summer–is close to crazy. He will, though…

It did not occur to me that anything else was happening on Allenby’s Army Front except my own little show…[6]

 

Far away from all this, Vera Brittain is busy with her duties as a nurse in Malta, but she has also been pining, restive. Malta was a charming and wonderful novelty, her first experience of foreign living. But it’s also a base hospital on a safe island–demanding work, but far from the center of the action. The mails are slow, and her conversations with Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow lag weeks behind their actions. She cannot know whether they have been involved in the spring offensive. She is neither near the front nor near the young men she feels most close to.

When she picked up her diary today, a century back, for the first time in many weeks, it was to report her reawakening wanderlust:

April 16th Malta

Had a short letter from Miss Lorimer to say she is going out as an orderly to one of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals at Salonika. I want to go there more than ever.[7]

And then she wrote to Geoffrey Thurlow, who–though she cannot know this–has missed the initial Arras attack, but is about to be thrown in to the next desperate effort to shove the Germans back just a little bit more.

Malta, 16 April 1917

You are really a good correspondent; Mother says you are ‘most faithful’ to her too. Not like Victor, whose letters are few & far between, & very short when they do come. To me, at any rate, he conveys most by what he leaves unsaid. I have been rather anxious about him this last week, for last time I heard of his whereabouts he was at Arras, & I feel sure he must have been in the great battle–which at present we here only know of as an immense Fact, shorn of all its details. I hope you didn’t get into, even the fringe of it.

That is well put. For us the immense fact remains, outlined or obscured by clouds of innumerable details… but we still have to make a story.

I have been off-duty for a day or two with a bad throat & general malaise, but am back again to-night. I am beginning to be glad that I came out when I did, and not straight into the kind of weather that is just beginning. The nights are still quite cool but the days are getting very hot . . . The sirocco is blowing to-night in a hateful way, rushing down the stone verandah, & making the doors & shutters creak & groan. To me this particular wind always seems fraught with sinister things; it hides the stars, so that the night is as black as ink, & makes the men peevish & sends their temperatures up.[8]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Soldier From the Wars Returning, 144-5.
  2. Fire-Eater, 203-9.
  3. Diaries, 155-6.
  4. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 329.
  5. Old Soldiers Never Die, 227.
  6. Complete Memoirs, 440-5.
  7. Chronicle of Youth, 339.
  8. Letters From a Lost Generation, 334-5.

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

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

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

 

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

Near Vermand

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

 

References and Footnotes

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

The Afterlife of Rupert Brooke XV: Ivor Gurney Takes Aim; Siegfried Sassoon’s Last Leave at Home; Dorothie Feilding Heads for Neutral Territory; Alf Pollard Into Battle

It is now Siegfried Sassoon‘s turn for embarkation leave. He began his eight-day leave at home in Kent with his mother–the rest he will spend in London. “While staying with my mother I occupied myself with the revision of my book of poems, which had got itself into galley proofs, but I couldn’t pretend that I felt festive…” With these words he introduces today’s diary entry into his later memoir.

February 7.

At home again—for the last time before I go back to the unmitigated hell of ‘the spring offensive.’

A bright fire burning, topper licking his paws in an armchair; two candles alight; the friendly books all round me on the shelves, and blue moonlight filtering through the white curtains from the dazzling white snow and clear stars outside, while the wind makes a little crooning in the chimneys, and the hall clock strikes ten. And poor old Mother quite cheerful. I am afraid she don’t realise that l am for France this month. And I was playing Morris dances and old English airs on the piano, so gay and full of green fields.[1]

So reads the original diary. In the memoir Sassoon retouches it, mostly to smooth the prose, but also perhaps to soften slightly his coldness to his mother–in the memoir the strange implication that it is somehow “poor old mother’s” fault that she doesn’t “realize” his plans becomes “I have got to break it to poor mother that I’m going out again…”[2]

 

Ivor Gurney, laboring every day in the wicked cold–so never mind that spring offensive, it is a concept too far off–is having a good winter. His productivity has accelerated his relationship with Marion Scott–she has long been a good friend, an editor, and an important source of both material and moral support. Now she is working tirelessly to make some order of his various manuscripts. Whatever the feelings that pass between the two (I will read more on this, and come to it when I can) Gurney is tremendously fortunate to have an encouraging editor/collator/volunteer secretary with the expertise to handle both his music and his poetry.

I have suggested a parallel of “Gurney is to Scott as Thomas is to Farjeon,” and I’ve just read something in which Harry Ricketts has proposed the Sassoon/Marsh parallel. There’s something to that, too… but Scott, really, is more like Farjeon–she doesn’t promise connection, she is the connection. Today. a century back, she received a letter in which a new poetic project began.

My Dear Friend: Your great letter was received with joy this afternoon, and I sit up late by a candle, well within reach of a wood fire cunningly stolen, to show you I appreciate your criticism and praise…

Thank you for all the pretty and stern things you say. I relinquish “Framilode” with pleasure; if there is a whole after-the-war for me, little enough verse will I write again — most, most probably, I know which is my chief game.–“Time and the Soldier” I think will improve on you: it is W. H. Davies, but stronger; and one of my best. You are right about the roughness of some of my work; there is no time to revise here, and if the first impulse will not carry the thing through, then what is written gets destroyed. One virtue I know little of–that is, patience; and my mind is Hamlet’s a wavering self-distrustful one, though quick and powerful at its times. Will Peace bring me peace, though?

Once again Gurney wanders himself to a sharp point–a Hamlet-worthy question, that.

…What I said about trying to get a soft job is absolutely sincerely meant. Two years in the ranks, almost 9 months in France, is quite enough for one who loathes the life as I. Who has better right? And who desires Glory less? But the chief reason is, that no man in the company would blame me, but only envy. And anyway, here I am still, though at present in a haven of peace as odd job man at the canteen, which suits me very well. Only, it is undignified to go to frantic lengths for such a job.

Gurney next begins working on a sonnet in the very text of the letter. He then immediately revises it, producing this:

Pain

Pain, pain continual; pain unending;
Hard even to the roughest, but to those
Hungry for beauty . . . Not the wisest knows.
Nor most pitiful hearted, what the wending
Of one hour’s way meant. Gray monotony lending
Weight to the gray skies, gray mud where goes
An army of grey bedrenched scarecrows in rows
Careless at last of cruellest Fate-sending.
Seeing the pitiful eyes of men foredone.
Or horses shot, too tired merely to stir
Dying in shellholes both, slain by the mud.
Men broken, shrieking even to hear a gun . . .
Till Pain grinds down, or lethargy numbs her.
The amazed heart cries angrily out on God.

which is also an impromptu — the first of Sonnetts 1917, 5 of them, for admirers of Rupert Brooke. They will make good antitheses; but the. note of the rest will be quite different; this being the blackest…

I must to sleep. Goodbye: Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney[3]

“Relinquish ‘Framilode'” indeed–suddenly, we have an angry handful of a war poet. It may be that Gurney has slipped into a sort of “harmless madman” persona, here. Which is partially his fault–all these daffy letters to Marion Scott, the pleasure he takes in bad puns, chaotic self-expression, and disarming put-downs of his skills both military and artistic–and partially mine, for not resisting these more stoutly. Gurney is merely a working-class Gloucestershire lad who loves to write a tune or a poem, but he’s also a fearsomely talented musician and an increasingly powerful poet. As this powerful–and well-aimed–blast of a poem shows, he is mad north-north-west.

And yet it’s hard to tell why this he has suddenly taken up a gauntlet that has been lying in plain sight for as long as he has been in France. Part of Gurney’s instinct to self-deflation is self-protective: it was under the pressure of being sent to London as a musical wunderkind that he suffered a severe breakdown, just before the war. But whether it is his own increasingly certain sense of self or the effect of long exposure to the war (if he was not in the thick of the Somme he was rarely at rest, either) he is now taking things much more seriously: he may not remember how to craft a triolet, and he may misspell “sonnet,” but he’s not joking–not just joking–about catering to the admirers of Rupert Brooke. This may have been a spur-of-the-moment decision, this poem “Pain,” (or it may not), but Gurney will follow it up.

Perhaps we should review: the 1915 publication of 1914 created a sensation, and Brooke’s death soon after ensured that his sonnet sequence–five high flown, prettily-written sonnets–would dominate and define the poetry of the early war. Indeed, they remain, more than a century on, among the most-widely quoted poems of the war. But they were wrong–they weren’t true. They were, as Edward Thomas recognized, rhetorical. Rhetoric can’t be poetry, and those sonnets did not speak for the infantry (Brooke had been only very briefly on the outskirts of a battle, and never held a trench). Still less, of course, could they address the mood of a war entering its third year, and very little gained.

Gurney, now, is working up a riposte from the ranks, five sonnets in answer to Brooke, and a claim to the poetic mood of 1917…[4]

 

I have more or less given up on keeping close tabs on Alf Pollard‘s memoir of his own heroics–Fire-Eater is highly episodic and rarely securely dateable. But it does make rousing reading of the old-fashioned “Zap-Blast-Gott-Im-Himmel” sort, and Pollard is one of the rare happy warriors who narrated his own close combat in generally readable fashion. He has recently been volunteering for patrols across the frozen wastes of No Man’s Land, and his commander, Lt. Col. Ernest Boyle of the Honourable Artillery Company, approvingly chose him for a prominent role in an attack tonight, a century back.

We know this because Pollard’s account of the assault immediately follows the death of Colonel Boyle from a stray splinter of a stray shell-burst during a desultory nuisance bombardment–a freak accident, by the standards of the Great War, but evidence nonetheless that even if most staff officers were safe, the colonels of line battalions ran considerable risks. Just after eleven o’clock, two companies went forward under a rolling barrage, seizing a forward German position near Grandcourt that was enfilading another British position. Pollard led the assault and spent the early morning fending off counter-attacks, taking a bomb-fragment to the helmet and earning, in due time, a Military Cross for his troubles. The action is related in considerable detail in his memoir, with a rare level of tactical detail.[5]

 

Finally, today, a letter from Lady Dorothie Feilding to her father. It contains much of the usual entertaining palaver and charming cheek–and little of note about the war–but I include it because she will shortly be taking another long leave.

It’s worth mentioning that, for all that she has chosen hardship and danger–often great danger, danger and bloody service which she has steadfastly pursued and excelled in despite various obstructions from kindly anti-feminists, stern traditionalists, and frothing misogynists–she also makes regular use of the privileges of her irregular position (with a private ambulance corps attached to the French and Belgians), her social status, and her family’s wealth. She was home for a long time after the death of her brother, she managed several shorter leaves (one of which she describes below) to visit another brother fighting in France, and now she is off to Switzerland to be with her sister, whose husband, a prisoner of almost two years, is expected to be exchanged… so this will be the last letter for a while.

Feb 7th 17 Flanders

Tres cher monsieur le Colonel–

My letter to you complaining of your absence of epistles crossed the 1st of yours & since then letters from you have been pouring in. It’s most nice of you to write me so often & very many thanks for all the news. No, the sloe gin hasn’t yet come. It may possibly be that parcels are being hung up at Dover as they sometimes are, or again the DNTO [Dover Naval Transport Office] may have succumbed to the charms of your sloe gin. I spent two days at Staples during the time Rollo came last weekend & it was great fun. It’s too far away to get to as a rule but this time Jelly had to go to Boulogne & I stretched a point & got him to drop me there Sat night & pick me up early Mon. It was so nice seeing Tubby again & we had a cheery time.

The drive back from there to no 14 was hectic to a degree. The snow had come down very heavily in the night & where it had been swept on the hills had just become a sheet of ice & the car wheels couldn’t grip. Eventually, whenever we stuck, by beseeching the aid of any passing members of the British Army, I persuaded them to help push the pram up the hills. Then home here late that evening & most amazing cold–today I have a dirty cough & a throat & am feeling fed up & most shop soiled.

Timed my return just right because yesterday (Tues) we had a strafe on here up at N, no end of a tea party, artillery & infantry. All our cars were on the road all day, & we only got in late so I hadn’t time to write to Mother. P’raps you will please send this on to her…

The bombing season is quite over here now I am glad to say & I have invested in another 7 francs worth of glass for my bedroom window which bores me. The place here where we keep our reserve cars had the door knocked cock eye by the explosion of one… Nothing ever comes near no 14 so you mustn’t be fussed…

I am turning in early tonight to boil my cold, so am neglecting my sainted Ma p’raps you’d send her on this & she won’t be so fed up.

Good night & much love
Diddles[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 130-1.
  2. Siegfried's Journey, 45.
  3. War Letters, 127-8.
  4. It's worth noting that Gurney does not (at least I don't think) found his way to Charles Sorley, who was answering Brooke when Gurney was still in training camp...
  5. Fire-Eater, 168-86.
  6. Lady Under Fire, 198-99.

Ivor Gurney: New Bard of the Barracks-Room; Francis Ledwidge Is In France and Isn’t; Edwin Vaughan Knows Fear and Grows Venturesome

Francis Ledwidge is enduring his first winter in the trenches France, and he faces the task like a true poet. A true poet of one particular, fiercely rooted sort. Tell us, Francis, about your experiences, and about the trenches:

In France

The silence of maternal hills
Is round me in my evening dreams;
And round me music-making bills
And mingling waves of pastoral streams.

Whatever way I turn I find
The path is old unto me still.
The hills of home are in my mind.
And there I wander as I will.

February 3rd, 1917.

Before we get to Ivor Gurney‘s letter, we should catch up with Edwin Vaughan, prodigy of bathos. Since he joined his battalion while it was in rest, he still awaits his first trip up the line. Yesterday, a century back, he prepared for this momentous step:

Although the morning was spent in final packing, I did not feel at all excited; I think it was the long waiting that calmed me down, for we did not parade until 5 p.m…

But fate had another anticlimax in store, although one that Vaughan did not protest too much. While the battalion was indeed going into trenches, he learned that his company would be the one in reserve, in charge of rations and unlikely to face hostile action. Anticlimax, yes, but at least a gentle immersion into danger.

With little chance of being killed–or of discovering that he isn’t mentally tough enough for the ordeal of bombardment–Vaughan’s diary fills once again with lesser evils. Hatwell, the company commander Vaughan has quickly learned to detest, is quick to turn their simple supply mission into a fiasco. He goes up with the ration party, but fails to issue contingent orders to his platoon commanders, and there is complete confusion as elements of the party get lost, run into frightened French soldiers they can hardly communicate with, argue with them about their duties, get lost again, and then learn, once Hatwell returns, that their quarters had been moved and thus there is more marching ahead.

I was too utterly lost in bewilderment at my first night in the trenches. It was so eerie and dull, no lights, no shots or shells, no raids or mines–just darkness, duckboards and rations…

At the end of the long night there is little to be done:

I issued rum to the troops, then to myself, and turned in–still marveling at the ridiculous attempt at warfare I had just witnessed.

That was last night. Today, however, a century back, Vaughan is disconcerted to be reminded of his status as a newcomer.

On comparing notes with the others, I found that I was the only one who had been at all at a loss the night before…

And tonight it will be Vaughan’s turn to go up to the line himslef. His honesty and careful attention to detail in his diary make him a very fine writer–as far along in the recording of experience as he is short of actual experience.

At 6 p.m. Thomas and I set out with the Company to carry the rations up the line… as I walked beside Thomas I had no qualms of fear, when he said in a low voice, ‘If they start shelling, we will have to split up….’

At that, my teeth started to chatter, and I had to stop talking, for my voice trembled so. I don’t think I was really frightened physically, but there was a curious dread of the unknown and an excitement of the imagination. As we marched down the exposed lonely road to the communication trench, I heard in the far distance a curious musical moan which with a gradually changing key came nearer and nearer until, immediately overhead, it made a noise like an emptying drain and then died away. I asked Tommy what that was and he replied ‘Oh! Just one for the back areas.’ ‘One what?; ‘Shell, of course!’ So I had heard my first shell, and it was quite pretty…

At first I was afraid to leave the vicinity of the trench lest any danger should catch me in the open, but after a while I grew more venturesome and went across with Johnny to a belt of broken wire around which the snow was uneven, with scattered rubbish. Here we found the grave of a Frenchman, with the equipment lying beside it, from which I collected the rapier-bayonet as a souvenir. Then we played about in the snow, exploring dumps and shell-holes and graves until an hour later when the troops returned and we marched back…[1]

It remains for us to guess: is this the absurd–but natural–combination of fear and exhilaration which rules front-line life, as tightening fear and careless abandon slosh in turn through the stressed nervous system, or is it another literary anticipation of an ironic twist?

And is it similarly twisted, on my part, to be more worried for Vaughan when he is larking about in the snow than when he is creeping up toward the line–or is it merely the product of long reading in these sorts of books?

 

Finally today, just a bit more from Ivor Gurney to Marion Scott, enlarging on his quick pen-portraits of the men in his section–enlarging, most agreeably, into verse:

3 February 1917

My Dear Friend: The boys are nearly all asleep — eight of us in a room, say, 14 feet by ten, with a large stack of wood, a fireplace and equipment. Outside it is bitterly cold; in here, not so bad; and good companionship hides many things. A miner, an engineer, a drapers assistant, a grocer, an Inland Revenuist, and a musician among
them…

Firelight

Silent, bathed in firelight, in dusky light and gloom
The boys squeeze together in the smoky dirty room.
Crowded around the fireplace, a thing of bricks and tin
They watch the shifting embers, till the good dreams enter in

That fill the low hovel with blossoms fresh with dew
And blue sky and white cloud that sail the clear air through.
They talk of daffodillies and the blue bells skiey beds
Till silence thrills with music at the things they have said.

And yet, they have no skill of words, whose eyes glow so deep.
They wait for night and silence and the strange power of Sleep,
To light them and drift them like sea birds over the sea
Where some day I shall walk again, and they walk with me.

The letter gets even better:

But O, cleaning up! I suppose I get as much Hell as any one in the army; and although I give the same time to rubbing and polishing as any of the others, the results — I will freely confess it — are not all they might be. Today there was an inspection by the Colonel. I waited trembling, knowing that there was six weeks of hospital and soft-job dirt and rust not yet all off; no, not by a long way. I stood there, a sheep among the goats (no, vice versa) and waited the bolt and thunder. Round came He-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed. Looked at me, hesitated, looked again, hesitated, and was called off by the R.S.M.[2] who was afterwards heard telling the Colonel (a few paces away from me) “A Good man, sir, quite all right. Quite a good man, sir, but he’s a musician, and doesn’t seem able to get himself clean.” When the aforesaid RSM came round for a back view, he chuckled, and said “Ah Gurney, I am afraid we shall never make a soldier of you.”

It is a good thing they are being converted to this way of thought at last; it has taken a long time. Anyway the R.S.M. is a brick, and deserves a Triolet.

He backed me up once;
I shall never forget it.
I’m a fool and a dunce
He backed me up once
If theres rust I shall get it
Your soul, you may bet it
Yes, all sorts [and in?] tons. . . .
He backed me up once
I shall never forget it.

(Triolet form quite forgotten. Please let me have it.)

…Fire went out long ago, while I was hammering out “Firelight”. It is too cold to think, write or read. Then sleep. O if I could but dream such things as would mean escape for me. But I never dream, one way or the other; Please excuse writing:

Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney[3]

If Gurney can be a little frightening in his more extreme emotional states, he is really very winning as a lovable “parade’s despair,” playing the role of a hapless but well-looked-after private even while demonstrating how prolific and unusual he is: he can toss off verse–light verse, yes, but what of it?–and sharp, funny little vignettes with great facility and a graceful but nonetheless thoroughgoing empathy. So here’s to the kind RSM, and the deep-eyed, silent men of the infantry…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Some Desperate Glory, 21-22.
  2. Regimental Sergeant Major--an enlisted man of the highest rank, his dignity, as opposed to that of a private soldier, utterly Olympian.
  3. War Letters, 125-7.

Verey Lights on the Snow, Howitzers on the Ice, and Cold Snow Hours: Winter Wistfulness with Jack Martin, Dorothie Feilding, and Edward Thomas

I’ve dipped into Jack Martin‘s diary rather sparingly since introducing him early this month. It has largely been full of complaints that will be, by now, predictable: the cold, the discomfort, and the attentions of the German artillery. Although Martin does note that the latter has been lavished in “counter-battery” fire on the artillery behind rather than up near the line where his small unit of sappers is stationed–“For this we offer up thanks.”

Today, a century back, he gives us an update from the ranks on the conduct of the war:

31.1.17

Have had a little more snow. The ground is white everywhere and at night time it shows up a remarkable reflection from the Verey lights although they are four or five miles away in a straight line. The signs of the times seem to point towards increased activity on this front in the spring. A great deal of work is being done in this neighborhood in the way of dump-making and laying railway tracks… Of course, nobody knows what it all means–we can only guess.

Have had some lively arguments lately regarding the termination of the war. It is interesting to notice how desires form into opinions. Quite a number of the fellows reckon on March or April seeing the end. I laugh at them and say ‘1929’ but in serious argument I say that the war may last until 1920. So I am looked on as a miserable pessimist but despite all my hopes and desires I cannot imagine the war finishing this year. The people who are running the war are not doing any of the fighting![1]

 

This is both a prime mover of soldier’s gripes and an unavoidable truth. Next up is Dorothie Feilding, with another example of that mixed-message classic, the letter describing a bombardment. On the one hand, it emphasizes to the recipient that she, the writer, is near to deadly danger. On the other hand, this bombardment has, at least, passed by.

31st Jan 17

Well Ma–since you like ’em ‘often’ here’s another! Many thanks for your letters…

The most tremendous heavy firing last night & we were afraid it was the Boche making a stunt across the ice as the inundations are of course frozen. However they keep it broken every day with field guns enough to stop any serious advance over it. The noise turned out to be of the Belgians making however…

We had practically no casualties tho’ the noise was terrific, of course at night things always sound exaggerated & the flash of guns make everything light up. Hope Fritz was bored by the proceeding though I imagine he holds that part of the line as thinly as he possibly can, an old concierge every half mile or so & I bet they are wily old birds to get with an obus.

This, again, is not an original sort of joke, but it is uncommonly well done. One imagines that Lady Feilding would be charmingly condescending (in the Austenian sense) and a little flip upon discovering one of these shell-dodging, trench-holding concierges… but the humor distracts from the frightfulness.

I’ve just been talking to Mairi Chisholm whose farm is close by there & she says the old house was proper on the shake all night from the firing,so was no 14.

It’s awfully odd the way sound carries further inside a house… when there is heavy firing going on a long way away 30 miles or so you hear & feel it awfully plainly in the house. You then go outside to listen & you can hear nothing.

The vibration I suppose up the walls of the foundation in the ground.

Goodbye darling

Yr loving
Diddles[2]

 

Last and not least we have a letter from Edward Thomas to Eleanor Farjeon, his first to her from France. It elaborates on the most interesting aspect of his diary for today, a century back.

Wednesday 31. i. 17

Had to shift our lines in snow. 12 to a tent with 2 blankets each. Ankles bad. Nearly all water frozen in taps and basins. Mess crowded–some standing. Censoring letters about the crossing and the children and ailments etc. at home. Had to make a speech explaining that men need not be shy about writing familiar letters home…[3]

I’ve read a number of comments, from young officers, of the awkwardness of reading one’s men’s letters, but I can’t recall anyone else making a short speech about it in order to allay reservations. I know I make this point quite often, but it’s especially relevant here: Thomas can, perhaps, speak with some authority (or at least empathy) on the matter, since he too must write intimate letters to his family, while so many men in ordinary infantry units are having their letters home read by snobbish subalterns who may be teenagers and half their age.

Or is that worse? Thomas writes the same letters, but as an officer, he is not subject to regular censorship by someone he must see every day, and take orders from. He, who writes endearments to a wife and children, must promise that his reading of other men’s endearments will not be intrusive…

In any event, the letter to Farjeon:

My dear Eleanor I have time to write now, but if I had less time I should have more to write about. There is little to do and still less I can do, because of my ankles. Practically all I do is censoring letters. I try to rest my feet, but the place is extraordinarily uncomfortable and crowded. If I were able to get about I shouldn’t notice it, as there is a big town and harbour close by.

We await orders to go up country. The place is just a clearing house or junction, and all there is to do (besides completing our stores) is to go route marches. If we stay more than a day or 2 I am sure to run into somebody. Yesterday I met one old Artist I had known moderately well.

The worst of this hanging about is that everybody gets on ones nerves, or my nerves. They all worry me and I imagine I worry them, as they spend all the time possible out in the town and leave me to my own mercies.

So far all I have done when I have been alone in this little crowded room, is censoring letters and writing them, and sometimes looking at last month’s Sketch or so. I can’t read, I doubt even if I can write—I am practically certain I can’t, except a brief diary. I was interrupted by a boy going through a list of games and asking if I played any of them, which I didn’t.

I had better not go on with this negative news. Tea in —– cost me 2 frs; for I did take the train in yesterday and did my ankle no good by it.

The crossing was easy, and the departure and arrival beautiful and unforgettable. There were some cold slow hours to be passed and still are. I daresay what makes me not very cheerful is all the things to be seen and noticed and commented on and just undergone. I shall know more what I am seeing and feeling later on.

Confirmation of his hopes and intentions regarding his diary and letters… and a reminder that any really good poet is committed to honesty. Thomas strives, and doubts, and scours his own soul as often as possible.

We may move soon or late. We do not know. And I may not receive any letters till we have moved up into position. There is a notion that that position will be midway between the two I thought of. I can’t say more.

Tears doesn’t rhyme with care, does it? So I shan’t make it—but let me know when the verses begin to arrive.

This, cleverly enough, provides the answer key–by referencing his own verses, which Farjeon is now editing–to the above hinting about his location. It would be hard to miss the word-choice of “Harbour” as a reference to Le Havre–one of the only likely places of disembarkation, anyway. But the “Tears” bit tips off Farjeon that Thomas believes that his battery will be sent to Armentières. Sadly, even a much more obvious censor-evasion (obvious, and dubious, since he is spending hours of the same day censoring the men’s letters) in a letter to his wife Helen went unrecognized:

…he had written to Helen, ‘What do you think of “Armed Men in Tears” as the title of my next book?’ When we compared our letters Helen said, ‘I think it’s a very bad title, don’t you, Eleanor?’

A rare point scored from the ever-abnegating Eleanor on the ever-gentle Helen.

But back to the letter. Poor Eleanor: not only does she love him but come always second to his wife, but she also helps him incessantly and comes always second (of fifth, or tenth) to his greater poetic friend.

…I wonder would you make sure that the dedication

TO ROBERT FROST

doesn’t get left out.

I had your Goodbye just before I left. No more goodbyes now. I shall begin to look ahead perhaps, if I ever do look ahead again. Long it is since I did so. Yours ever

Edward Thomas[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Sapper Martin, 49-50.
  2. Lady Under Fire, 197-8.
  3. War Diary (Childhood), 158.
  4. Farjeon, Edward Thomas..., 246-7.

Robert Graves Lectures Robert Nichols on His Filthy Habits; Rudyard Kipling’s Tale of the Prayerful Pole; Edward Thomas Cuts Church and Parades the Countryside; Siegfried Sassoon on Vague Immolations and Carrying On

Today, a century back, Robert Graves went to meet Robert Nichols for the first time.[1] Although it has been only two weeks since Nichols introduced himself to Graves, they both seemed prepared to become fast friends. This despite the sharp difference in their temperaments and trajectories: Nichols, shell-shocked and psychologically unsuited to his job in the artillery, was invalided home after only a few weeks of active service and then discharged, while Graves is about to go to France for the fourth time, having pushed a medical board to send him despite his bad lungs. And Graves remains a bit of a scold and a prude, while Nichols–in an amusing contrast to his high-toned poetry, has become dissolute. As Graves will report to Sassoon, he met Nichols in a hospital where he was being treated for syphilis, and treated him to “a hell of a lecture on his ways… it was the usual story–shellshock, friends all killed, too much champagne, sex, desperate fornication, syphilis.”[2]

 

Syphilis? Poetry? We need a dose of Rudyard Kipling to straighten us out. Another tale of the Irish Guards, this one not rousing but rather quietly affecting. This project dwells on the suffering of a few score Englishmen, with a smattering of Englishwomen, Welshmen, Irishmen, Scots, and Americans–only a handful of them poor, and all of them white and born in Britain, its colonies, dominions, or former colonies… and once in a while, at least, we should be reminded how much more widely the misery of this World War extends…

The heavies behind them used the morning of the 21st to register on their left and away to the north. By some accident (the Battalion did not conceive their sector involved) a big shell landed in the German trench opposite one of their posts, and some thirty Huns broke cover and fled back over the rise. One of them, lagging behind the covey, deliberately turned and trudged across the snow to give himself up to us. Outside one of our posts he as deliberately knelt down, covered his face with his hands and prayed for several minutes. Whereupon our men instead of shooting shouted that he should come in. He was a Pole from Posen and the East front; very, very sick of warfare. This gave one Russian, one Englishman and a Pole as salvage for six weeks. An attempt at a night-raid on our part over the crackling snow was spoiled because the Divisional Stores did not run to the necessary “six white night-shirts ” indented for, but only long canvas coats of a whity-brown which in the glare of Very lights showed up hideously.[3]

 

I wish that I had a firmer grasp on Edward Thomas and the many friendships that shaped his life. In that case, I might be able to do something clever (in the Fussellian mode, naturally) about his friendship with Henry Newbolt, author of “Vitai Lampada,” and thus a convenient distillation of everything that is silly, boyish, and–once we have got as far as machine guns and poison gas–accidentally murderous about Victorian England. Presumably, the man was more complicated–but geez, even polite internet capsule biographies describe him as “eminently respectable,” and there is no denying his prominent place in the long and wicked history of Celebrating Military Achievement Through Sporting Metaphor.

Edward Thomas’s nature is so completely at odds with the “breathless hush in the close” aesthetic–and his own poetry so estranged from brassy patriotism and exhortation–that it seems hard to imagine the two men seeing eye-to-eye. Yet Thomas is such a prolific maker of friends that perhaps he effortlessly overlooks such differences and sees some common English ground… I just don’t know.

But today’s diary is very pretty, and as usual it is England–the countryside–that matters more than the mere men and women scattered upon its face:

No church parade for me. 9.30-1.20 walked over Stockton Down, the Bake, and under Grovely Wood to Barford St Martin, Burcombe, and to lunch at Netherhampton House with Newbolts… Beautiful Downs, with one or two isolated thatched barns, ivied ash trees, and derelict threshing machine. Old milestones lichened as with battered gold and silver nails. Back by train at 5. Tea alone. guns in line out on parade square…[4]

 

Siegfried Sassoon, interestingly enough, is also musing about sacrifice. With Robert Graves heading back to France, he is left with his thoughts, his books, and the attractive but otherwise unstimulating Bobbie Hanmer. Sassoon would understand the breathless hush–he is a skilled and enthusiastic cricketer. But he is after bigger game, tonight.

January 21

A funny mixture—reading The Brook Kerith and talking to simple, white-souled Bobbie about ‘religion and the war’ in a rambling sort of monologue. (I don’t remember B. saying anything at all!) But it all came back to me—the anxious unsettled ideas of last spring and summer—desire of death—emotion at facing danger unafraid—repugnance at the commonplace grossness of the majority and their incessant chatter about ‘Blighty’ and ‘cushy wounds’—their little souls wanting nothing nobler than to creep safely home to—what? But Bobbie at least understands the feeling of self-sacrifice—immolation to some vague (aspiration—whether our cause be a just one or not. Yet I never could find anyone who really got any value out of the Christian theology—out there. It was all ‘Carry on’ and ‘Get there somehow…[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. See yesterday's post about relying upon R.P. Graves's chronology.
  2. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, the Assault Heroic, 167-8.
  3. The Irish Guards in the Great War, II, 114. Incidentally, Edmund Blunden tells exactly the same story of a raid that was probably this same week, a century back, failing for lack of white camouflage.
  4. War Diary (Childhood), 155.
  5. Diaries, 122.