Olaf Stapledon on Utopia in England. and a Queer and Vengeful Justice

Olaf Stapledon, writing regularly to his beloved Agnes now that he is home on leave (and thoroughly fed up with bourgeois complacency), recommends a book, today, and reveals an influence that we might well have suspected, a link which connects one of the most earnest young writers of what will soon be called science fiction with the author of several important late 19th century works of fantasy and speculation. Who would have thought that a Quaker-allied sentimentalist determined to work toward the enlightenment of working men would enjoy a classic of19th century utopian socialism?

14 December 1917

… I have told the bookseller to send you a wee book when he can get a copy of it. It is William Morris’s “News from Nowhere.” You will like it, am sure. It is a sort of tale, and also a picture of a Happy England that might be. Read it thinking of the things we want to help to bring to pass when we are married. It is only a little book, and a very readable one. Of course it is open to much criticism, but that matters not. It gives a charming though rather limited picture. . . .

News From Nowhere features a Morris-surrogate protagonist who goes to sleep in the 19th century and wakes up in a post-industrial social utopia some hundred-plus years in the future. He wanders among the kind and forthright citizens, traveling up the Thames from London and learning about all that is wonderful now that was once cruel or sordid. There are a lot of hale and happy men, thoroughly pretty and contented women, and satisfied artisans of both sexes. (Actually, he more or less anticipates the early 21st century artisanal/contentment-driven/self-help/pseudo-anti-capitalist style.  Which is a shame, because he was writing from a time when the destructiveness of unchecked capitalism was so much more apparent even in the places where the rich were benefiting, and before such a complete victory of corporate industry was anything like a forgone conclusion. Morris was trying to be a revolutionary, and he will end up as the beardy great-grandfather whose pretty things are fetishized–and they are very pretty–while his passions and fond, foolish hopes are more or less forgotten.)

But anyway: in Morris’s tale the time traveler soon comes to learn from local antiquarians how this beatific state had been born out of the collapse of industrial capitalism at the end of the 19th century. It is, like much of Morris’s graphic and textile productions, both lovingly crafter and willfully impractical. He simply does away with competition, profit-seeking, and social stratification without really explaining how such things came to pass, putting his faith in human nature. Even the specifics of how beauty, plenty, and freedom all now peacefully coexist are a little wonky: surely a repeating polemic against iron bridges is not a necessary element of Utopia? Perhaps some aspects of mechanical development might have qualified as babies worthy of cherishing, of careful indoctrination in the new world order instead of being thrown out with the rest of the sooty, coal-fired bath water?

In any event, Stapledon is right about two things: it is a charming little book, and, if it pictures far more than it can properly propose, at least it begs the question “and why couldn’t England be happier than it is?”

I don’t think that Stapledon has only just read the book–he is thinking of it again, now, and sending it to Agnes, perhaps in part because it shows an eminently successful man and an honorable socialist writing dreamy, future-gazing prose. But his thoughts of the book follow, I think, from his recent musings about the difference between participatory pacifism and a true anti-war stance, and from his new distaste for bourgeois complacency.

What if it is not enough to try to aid the wounded, and hope that the war ends? What if England really needs to step towards Utopia, and soon? The dark satanic mills of Morris’s time have brightened slightly (even if they have turned all the young women yellow), and the lot of the working man has been gradually improving as political participation broadened. But Stapledon sees, now, in place of the frank classist exploitation of mid-Victorian times or the Social Darwinian justification for the subjugation of the masses, a new hypocrisy that ties industry, war, and the moral plight of young men all too tightly together.

The letter continues:

Miss Graveson sent her love to you… Miss G told us of Kenneth Robinson an old school fellow of mine who is a C[onscientious] O[bjector]. He stayed long to help his father in business, and at last was called to a tribunal. His position was much like mine—ready to do anything but military service, and very anxious to join the F. A. U. He trained for that, but the Tribunal would not grant him exemption for it because, if you please, his father & brothers were not COs. He was left at large for some time, but was finally arrested and given eighteen months hard at Wormwood Scrubs, you know what that means— solitary confinement with possibility of going mad. He’s a nice chap, so gay and unassuming and simple. Oh England, for shame! And here am I sitting in mufti before a nice fire with my feet on a thick fur rug and a meal preparing for me. Yet he and I are of the same persuasion, mind you. The only difference is that he was tied down by the need of helping his old father while I went off before the conscription act came in. It is a queer justice that lets me do the job I wanted and refuses it to him. . . [1]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Talking Across the World, 260.

A Gathering at Mrs. Colefax’s: Nichols, the Sitwells, Graves, Sassoon, and Sorley; Eliot and Huxley too; and Cynthia Asquith is Very Glad She Went

At precisely 5 o’clock in the afternoon of today, a century back, a reading–to benefit charity, as well as, naturally, the stature of the participants–began in Mrs. Colefax’s drawing room, in Argyll House, King’s Road, Chelsea. The eminent Edmund Gosse presided, insisted on speed, and then immediately launched into a rambling introduction memorable only for the fact that he broke off to scold a late arrival–T.S. Eliot, coming straight from work. Gosse then read a poem or two by the absent Robert Graves, and, after ceding the limelight, kept the attention of the crowd by “snapping” at the other poets throughout the night.[1]

Next came Robert Nichols, opening with a poem of Gosse’s (yes, that sort of thing flattered Gosse) and following with several of his own. Nichols was either a compellingly dramatic reader and performer, or he made an ass of himself by screaming and capering. It depends on whose account you favor–Sassoon’s opinion of his friend seems to state the former sort of opinion, but the language rather implies the latter. Nichols also read two poems by Charles Sorley, who has now been dead for twenty-six months. These didn’t, alas, make much of an impression–When You See Millions of the Mouthless Dead was evidently not on the bill.

Other performers included all three Sitwells–Osbert (still an unwounded and inexplicably free-and-easy-in-London subaltern of the Guards), Edith, and Sacheverell–as well as the actress Viola Tree, Irene Rutherford Mcleod, and Aldous Huxley. Irene Macleod impressed several of the onlookers, if more with her performance–“fierce, rapt”–than her work. It’s not clear what she read, but her next volume of poems will be dedicated to Aubrey de Sélincourt, classicist and fighter pilot, now languishing in a German P.O.W. camp.[2] Huxley had been rejected for military service because of his eyesight, spent some time at a desk job in the Air Ministry, and was now a young teacher at Eton and tending toward pacifism. He was probably thrilled to be there, but he did not take kindly to Gosse, whom he described as “the bloodiest little old man I have ever seen.” And while we’re at it we’d better get Huxley’s other much-quoted mot out of the way: it’s a description of Nichols, who, Huxley wrote, “raved and screamed and hooted and moaned… like a Lyceum Villain who hasn’t learnt how to act.” Which sounds like a hatchet job–or just a broad-for-effect version of Sassoon’s opinion. Nichols, however, had been previously put down by Vita Sackville West, and with much deadlier efficiency.

As for the Sitwells, only Sacheverell’s poetry impressed, but Edith’s work with the Wheels anthologies had forged an all-important link between “society” and Modernism. This, “the first recorded sighting of the three Sitwells operating publicly as a team,” was something of a coming out party for the artistically ambitious siblings.[3]

Among the literary lights in the audience was Arnold Bennett, who enjoyed the occasion and found Eliot’s choice of light verse–The Hippopotamus (which is indeed charming and light, for a half-realized and possibly self-deceiving satire on the Church of England)–to be the “best thing” about the evening. And of course it would be, as well, in any account that looked back on the day in the fullness of time and literary-consensual retrospect. T.S. Eliot! Months after “Prufrock!” Reading a satire as second-fiddle to a syphilitic third-rater and some absent “Georgian” war poets! Come on!

But Eliot wasn’t Eliot yet–he was an American of indeterminate talent whom no one, really, had read. His strange ascent had barely begun, while Robert Nichols was selling a ton and had surely achieved peak Robert Nichols. It was his show: he would have seemed the one to bet on. Not schoolboyish Huxley, who would soon give up poetry, and probably not the three slightly freakish Sitwells, at once too outré and suspiciously like aristocratic enthusiasts rather than major talents. And certainly not the amusing American banker, either: despite the English affinity for light satiric verse, it has hardly been a typical route to poetic world-conquest.

Eliot, however, enjoyed himself. After having written a purposefully obscene and nevertheless nasty letter to Ezra Pound about his invitation (“Shitwells,” etc.) he will soon manage a faintly preening letter to his mother.

I assisted in a poetry reading last week at the house of some rich person for the benefit of something. A hundred and fifty people were induced to pay 10/6 each, so it was rather a rich audience… It was rather amusing, as the audience and most of the poets were very solemn, and I read some light satirical stuff, and some of them didn’t know what to make of it…[4]

 

Which brings us to another attendee, whose judgment in most things I’ve recently come to trust. Cynthia Asquith gives us the most balanced–and most thorough–review of the evening:

Wednesday, 12th December

…Went with Mamma to the Poets’ Reading at Mrs Colefax’s. Somehow it was ever so much better than Elizabeth’s Parnassuses—smaller, more intime, and above all shorter. All the poets were young and most of them had fought in the war. It was very moving. I liked Nichols enormously, with his bright, intensely alive, rather stoat-like face. He read again in the same intensely passionate dramatic way: I like it, but a great many people don’t. As well as his own, he read two—as I thought—very beautiful poems by Sorley who was killed at twenty years of age. Gosse was in the chair and acquitted himself quite well. Three Sitwells, all looking very German—Osbert, Sacheverell, and Edith—all read from their works. The author of ‘Prufrock’ read quite a funny poem comparing the Church to a hippopotamus. There was a young man called Huxley, and a very remarkable, fierce, rapt girl called McLeod who read her own clever poems beautifully. Siegfried Sassoon didn’t appear, but his poems were read by this girl. Mamma was very much moved by the war poems. I was very, very glad I went. Dined with Freyberg at the  Trocadero again and we went on to play poker at Ruby’s—I won £3 2s. Freyberg took me home and found his way into the hall with me.[5]

All very interesting, not least in the sincerity of emotion in Asquith’s reaction to the reading. Jaded as I am by the years on this project, it’s hard not to see a society charity reading as something of a hollow performance (especially when, as we know, but Asquith didn’t, that the young poets present had seen very little of the worst of the war, compared to those who were absent). But Cynthia Asquith, who actually went to this and many other charity-literary events, know of what she writes, and was moved.

So much for the famous evening at Mrs. Colefax’s. And afterwards? It doesn’t seem, judging from Asquith’s diary, that Freyberg attended the reading, although at least one later writer assumes that he did.  It would have been interesting, certainly, to have him and his V.C. lording it over the doubly-absent M.C. of Sassoon. Regardless, Freyberg’s pursuit of the hesitating Asquith will shortly encounter Sassoon as something of an intellectual obstacle. If Freyberg wasn’t there, then Asquith surely discussed the reading with him at dinner, and Freyberg knows the poetry well enough to have at least have an opinion (which is not to say, of course, that he knows it well). Remarkably, even as flirtation (and/or unwanted advances) continues between the two, their disagreement on the whys and wherefores of Sassoon’s position will soon come between them, and his anti-war war-hero literary cachet will turn Sassoon into a shadow rival to Freyberg and his  muscular/dashing appeal.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. It should be noted here at the outset that this gathering is crying out to be the focal point of a trendy (if minor-key) potted literary history... but as far as I know its only wholly-owned chapter, even, is the one in Ricketts's book. The problem is that for all the writers, celebrities, and diarists present, no one wrote a very full account, or recorded much about what was actually read. No program survives, and so the evening remains only half-imaginable.
  2. Mcleod and de Sélincourt will marry after the war; her poetry seems to stop as his career (Herodotus, Livy, etc.) takes off; they will have two daughters, and become, naturally, the in-laws of Christopher Robin.
  3. Ziegler, Osbert Sitwell, 78.
  4. The Letters of T.S. Eliot, 241.
  5. Diary, 379-80.

Bob Nichols and Robbie Ross Rehearse the Big Show; Siegfried Sassoon Gallops Away

Yesterday found Siegfried Sassoon indoors, at a literary breakfast. Today, it is the outdoor man to the fore once again:

Rode to Witherley on Monday; weather frosty. Got on Chamberlayn’s black horse and rode on to Upton. Scent poor all day, but good fun, and lots of Atherstone hedges to jump. Back to Witherley.[1]

 

We’re accustomed to these turns from Sassoon, but this may have frustrated his friends more than most of his inscrutable reversals. Having left London behind, he had also left Robert Nichols with the impression that–despite his dislike of the first reading at which they performed together–he might still attend the next. Nichols and Ross have been cooking up a big charity reading, to be hosted by the society mover and shaker Sibyl Colefax two days hence, and Sassoon–his poetry increasingly popular, his person eminently presentable, and his past adding a dash of political protest glamor, would be an important adornment for the occasion…

Ross and Nichols had decided to go big–or wide, at least–in their selection of poets. In an attempt to secure their right flank, as it were, they had asked Edmund Gosse to chair the event. So they had a fussy but respectable and old-fashioned anchor for the evening, but they were also subjected to his whims: they have been told in no uncertain terms that the entire reading must be over in little more than an hour, all so that Gosse can go home and dress in time for a previous dinner engagement!

So it seems likely that the the rehearsal–scheduled for today, a century back–was somewhat stressful. In fact, it might not have come off at all: the sources are noncommittal on what actually took place, and no one explicitly mentions showing up and practicing. It might have been that the rehearsal was simply a meeting, and that they were forced to put their trust in Gosse’s experienced leadership and assume that whoever showed up would be able to read their own work effectively…

The roster, at least, is a very solid one. Gosse will lead the Georgian traditionalists and hopefully put the non readers/old money crowd at ease, while Nichols will represent the young war poets. Although he hopes that Graves and Sassoon will be his subsidiary musketeers (rather than absent fusiliers), it is probably clear to him that neither the camp commandant in Wales nor the hot-and-cold fox hunter are good bets to make it. So the plan is for Gosse to read for Graves while someone else will represent Sassoon if he doesn’t show.

There has also been a delicate getting-to-know-you lunch in which Gosse was introduced to the three Sitwells, who have been building their influence in Modernist circles through their Wheels anthologies. They have evolved a very… modern… strategy of shocking with their personal oddities and their commitment to all that is new while, inevitably, reassuring traditionalists like Gosse with their aristocratic pedigree and “beautiful manners.” Also passing muster with Gosse are a certain invective-slinging American banker/poet and a young schoolmaster-poet only just beginning to sample the brave new literary world… But Ezra Pound, another mooted possibility, has been ruled out: he had  insulted Gosse rather egregiously in a review of Gosse’s Swinbourne book, and that was a line that the organizers knew they could not cross…[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 197.
  2. Ricketts, Strange Meetings, 135.

The Master of Belhaven Aghast; George Coppard in (and out) of Danger; Jack Martin at Rest, Siegfried Sassoon in the Field, and Cynthia Asquith on the Stage

A peripatetic day, today, a century back. But first we should tidy up matters on the Western Front.

The Master of Belhaven is doomed to remain on the outskirts of the battle of Cambrai, now in what is essentially its final day.

An intense bombardment began at 5 o’clock, but I don’t know who is attacking. It is still raging now at midday…

The current action will remain opaque to Hamilton, but he meets one of his former subordinates who lost his guns in the initial German counterattack. Perhaps he should have known not to trust what he was reading in the papers when away from the front.

The disaster seems to have been much worse than we have been told… There is no doubt this is the worst reverse the British Army has ever had in France. I believe we lost about 4,000 prisoners, but it is impossible to get any reliable information.

It’s still not so easy, in such cases where entire battalions melt away and brigades are surrounded–but the real number of prisoners was probably about 6,000.

The cold is something dreadful, thick ice everywhere–I can hardly hold a pen to write.[1]

Which also explains why “major offensive operations” are over for the winter.

More irony: just as Hamilton learns that things have been wildly out of control, they are once again stabilizing. Although the German counter-attack will continue, it was essentially forestalled by Haig with the expedient decision to retire–i.e. retreat–along most of the line, falling back onto defensible positions not all that different from the start line of November 20th.

Two more days of fighting will lead to a stalemate with little net change of position. In fact, in what is as neat an irony of attrition as one could wish, the situation is probably worse for the infantry on both sides, as on one section of the line the British held early gains while on another they ceded more than a mile of territory to the Germans, resulting in a double salient. Which meant that both sides could pound the new lines with mortars and machine guns from multiple angles and closer distances.

 

But we left George Coppard in a bad way, in hospital, and the operating theatre under preparation.

When I came to my senses the following morning my mother and grandmother were sitting beside the bed. There was a basket affair over my leg and I thought the leg had been amputated, but I was soon put at ease on that score. Happy though I was to see my folks I had no inclination to talk. A policeman had informed them that I was on the danger list, and had handed them free rail passes from Croydon to Birkenhead. They stayed for two days, but money was tight and they had to return home… I had discovered that getting a “Blighty one” was not always what it was cracked up to be…[2]

Coppard will suffer another major bleeding incident in a few days, but after that third loss of blood, his recovery, though slow, will proceed without major interruptions…

 

Next we check in on Jack Martin, who is enjoying the slower pace of life in Italy:

An Italian Labour Company is working in our vicinity making trenches and barbed wire entanglements, and they are making them well. It is amusing to see how they scuttle for shelter at the slightest alarm. We cannot help laughing as, compared with Ypres and the Somme, this is like being back at rest.[3]

 

But, of course, not actually like being at rest. That would be more like what Siegfried Sassoon is doing, in his own active fashion:

Bob Nichols came for Saturday and Sunday. Monday December 3 went to Lewes and hunted with Southdown at
Offham. Poor day: very sharp frost. Stayed at Middleham.[4]

I’m glad that Sassoon, on this bit of leave which he was awarded after his four-month stay as a (healthy) hospital patient, is able to complain about the effects of the cold. Soon, no doubt, like the Master of Belhaven, he will be sharing the ill-effects of such weather with the men for whom he made that protest…

 

To London, now, and our second excerpt from the diary of Lady Cynthia Asquith, who bears (and bares) the vicissitudes of the privileged in wartime with perhaps a bit more tongue-in-cheek bravado than Sassoon. I’m not really sure, if I happened to enjoy mounted blood sports, whether I would consider a frigid and poor hunt a worse day out than what seems to be some sort of ill-conceived society fundraiser… a close call, no dout:

Monday, 3rd December

… Lunched in and had to go off to the Albert Hall for the Tombola–the worst of all the horrors of war. We, the Seven Ages of Women—Self (carrying baby) Erlanger child (flapper), Sonia Keppel (debutante), Diana (betrothed). Ruby (mother), Belgian woman (queen of the household), and Baroness D’Erlanger (old lady)—dressed and made up in the most preposterous discomfort in a curtained-off space…

Basil Gill (as Old Father Time) had to recite the most appalling doggerel verses—one for each of us—and one by one (me first, carrying that damned baby) we had to walk through columns on a stage before a dense, gaping crowd. Never have I felt so great a fool!

And then there is more silliness and naughty decadence. Or not: perhaps we should be reading this as a frightening situation of sexual aggression sanctioned by social attitudes. Asquith has admitted to an attraction to Bernard Freyberg, the comrade of her friends and relatives, but it’s unclear to what extent she is being harassed or pressured by him, in the absence of her husband.

Ava Astor drove me home. Mary Strickland, Oc, and I dined with Freyberg at Claridges. Mamma called for Mary and took her off; Oc, Freyberg, and I sat and talked—discussing marriage, and so on—then we dropped Oc at the Manners’ and Freyberg insisted on coming into the flat. I oughtn’t to have let him, but he commands me like a subaltern. I had an awfully difficult time with him. He stayed till 1.30.[5]

 

Finally, today–for those growing tired of society diaries and poetry fragments–there happens to be an old-fashioned war yarn in the short story collection Everyman at War entitled “La Vacquerie, December 3rd, 1917.”

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary, 416-7.
  2. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 131.
  3. Sapper Martin, 150.
  4. Diaries, 197.
  5. Diaries, 375-6.

Georgian Poetry the Third; Wilfred Owen’s Busy Month; Sassoon and Nichols Together in the Country; the Rout at Cambrai Continues, with Phillip Maddison; We Meet Lady Cynthia Asquith, as she Entertains a New Zealander, and Doubts

December! First of the last months! I wasn’t sure we would make it to December, 1917, but somehow we have. In celebration, there will be an entire volume of “month poems,” some excellent and topical, some indifferent and timeless, in rather a b ad way: December 1917 will see the release of Georgian Poetry III, a volume notable for bringing several of our poets together, at least between two covers. Later this month Isaac Rosenberg, finishing his own works in the alphabetical layout, will happen upon Siegfried Sassoon and read him for the first time.

 

Now Sassoon is, in one important way, a very generous soul: he is generous to his readers, especially those who came afterwards and interest themselves in his solipsism. There are the two piles of autobiography, the letters, the poems, and… ah, but he has been neglecting the diary. It was a place for notes on combat, cris de couer, and, once upon a time, his sporting doings.

So, now that he is a poet of protest no more but not yet a Mad Jack returned unto the bosom of the only men worth having as comrades and followers, what is the post-Rivers, pre-redemption Sassoon to do? Which of the various Siegfrieds will come to the fore?

So far, at least, he is having his cake and eating it too. Visiting his mother, he is at once George Sherston, fox-hunting man, and Siegfried Sassoon, habitué of London literary drawing rooms:

Went on leave November 29. Friday, Saturday and Sunday at Weirleigh. Bob Nichols came for Saturday and Sunday…

Which means Nichols will depart tomorrow, a century back, with their somewhat inevitable, somewhat unlikely friendship cemented; and then, on Monday, the diary will resume its oldest form: a hunting journal.[1]

 

The First World War Poetry Digital Archive, Oxford

Sassoon’s other recent friendship–a far more momentous one–has reached a period of enforced cooling, as Wilfred Owen has been exiled to Scarborough and all-day duties as a Camp Commandant (not that Owen wasn’t trying to keep things simmering). Owen is on his own again, but he has begun–he has been started, as it were, and he is refreshed, driven. For those who didn’t follow the link above and read all of Georgian Poetry, then, here is a shorter and more aspirational document, looking ahead to the month’s accomplishments:

 

And what of the ongoing war?

 

For The Master of Belhaven, today was a day of false alarms. Standing-to from 5 a.m. until 9, they expected news of the assault of the German Guards Divisions, but his batteries, on the far flank of the Cambrai action, eventually stood down.[2]

 

So our war story, for the day, is carried on best in fiction. Henry Williamson‘s Phillip Maddison had yet another climax–and anti-climax–to his manifold military experiences. His Machine Gun Company is called into the line to stem the German counter-attack: the British near-breakthrough of November 20th has become a German near-breakthrough, and Williamson seems to take a cruel pleasure in depicting the routed and panicked men who stream back past “286 M.”

Phillip himself, though “windy” and teary, is back in heroic mode, fighting in his pyjamas and helping to hold the line on what was, by all accounts, a desperate day. But in a bitter irony–Williamson perhaps intends this as a microcosm for the belated bureaucratic reckoning which will come for the commanders at Cambrai–Maddison’s commander, Teddy Pinnegar, is blamed for the Machine Gun Company being in the wrong place, even though this happens as a result of Phillip’s decisions during last night’s march… It’s all very confusing.

The day ends with Phillip guilty, feverish, diagnosed with trench fever by an American doctor, and sent to Blighty–not grateful, as he has been in earlier, more fearful times, but rueful that he has let his commander down and is going home sick rather than with a heroic wound. The climax of the book’s non-military action will come in England over the next few weeks, as the war and Phillip’s romantic escapades come together at last.[3]

 

Finally, with the new month, I’d like to introduce one more–just one more!–society diary.

Lady Cynthia Asquith has few connections to anyone we know. Except that she is a daughter of two “souls,” her mother a Wyndham (the grace on the right) and her father Hugo Charteris, the Earl of Wemyss; her brothers Yvo and Hugo (“Ego”) have both been killed in action; she is a confidante of D.H. Lawrence, secretary to J.M. Barrie, daughter-in-law of the ex-Prime Minister (her husband, Herbert Asquith, still serving in uniform and most evidently away from home was Raymond‘s younger brother), and, generally, friends with all of the smart set of society still left in England.

Which includes Bernard Freyberg, a New Zealandish interloper on the group who has earned his stripes (and stars) as a member of the Argonauts and, now, a hero of the Naval Division’s land battles. Lady Asquith will become a prolific author, but already, a century back, it’s clear that, surrounded by war and loss, she knows how to write warriors very well. Ardent lovers, however, are another thing altogether…

Saturday, 1st December

Went down to Brighton by 11.40 to spend the day with Freyberg. He met me at the station. He is staying at the Royal York, but we drove straight to the Metropole for luncheon. He was looking better and had a fine appetite. With his youthful face and the insignia of his anomalous rank (his medals and preposterous number of gold stripes), he is very conspicuous and much stared at—obsequious deference from the waiters. I insisted on taking him to Professor Severn, the phrenologist, but he was hopelessly out about him, marking him low for self-esteem and concentration…

We walked to dinner at the Metropole. He told me of his wonderful swimming exploit in Gallipoli, when he swam for four hours and landed naked and alone, and crawled quite close to the enemy’s trenches and lit torches. His eyes shine and he becomes poeticised talking of military adventures, and I was touched to see his eyes fill with tears once when he was talking about his men. I find him very, very attractive.

He drove me to the station to catch the 9.40. He made love to me all day with simplicity and sweetness, and I don’t know what to do. Several times he said he thought he had better not see me any more, and I suppose I ought to take him at his word: it is the candle that should withdraw, the moth cannot, but it would require considerable unselfishness on my part. I should hate to give him up altogether—conscience tells me I should. He kept asking me if I would have married him had I been free. I enjoyed the day very much—injudicious as it was.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 197.
  2. War Diary, 414-5.
  3. Love and the Loveless, 333-49.
  4. Diaries, 374-5.

More Bad News for Diana Manners; Wilfred Owen is Perfectly Aware; Isaac Rosenberg Keeps Up His Correspondence

Wilfred Owen wrote to his mother once again, today, a century back, still dwelling on the momentous meeting-of-the-poets five days before. I have remarked many times in the last few months on Owen’s growing confidence and rapidly burgeoning poetic skill, but this letter makes something else clear: he is also rising to the challenge of being befriended by men with loftier social backgrounds and much more experience with professional literary friendships. He is very grateful to Sassoon, but he has no wild illusions about Sassoon’s somewhat condescending view of him. And now, it seems, he has Robert Graves figured out as well.

Thursday, 18 October, 1917 Craiglockhart

My own Mother,

I think I described to you my meeting with Robert Graves, and how S.S. said of him: he is a man one likes better after he has been with one.

So it turns out with my case. You will be amused with his letter. He carried away a Poem, or was carried away with it, without my knowledge. It was only in a Draft State, & I was perfectly aware of all the solecisms…

Always your W.E.O. x[1]

“Perfectly aware…” This could be defensive–petty, even, since Sassoon and Graves both believe that Graves can help improve Owen’s work. Or it can simply be confident: “I can handle these guys, and accept their criticism on certain points without yielding entirely to their influence…”

 

Diana Manners has been a regular witness to the drumbeat of loss among the socially fashionable Eton-Oxford-Grenadier Guards set. Today marks another such loss, and it’s also the occasion of a rare (and terrifically drawn) appearance by one of our original contributors

Arlington Street 18 October 1917

Jack Pixley has been killed. It upsets me a lot. My endurance is weakening. Osbert told me as he often does — a great ill-omened bird — in the middle of the opera, and I have come home and cried and been beastly to Mother on the subject of my lovers, which O shame! comforted me. I must try and be better. At what?

It’s an oblique connection, but these losses and this way of handling them suggests something that Manners hasn’t really explained: why, after the loss of so many friends and lovers, she has decided to commit herself to Duff Cooper. More on that anon, of course, but I don’t want to let this Osbert Sitwell sighting to pass by unnoticed.[2]

Sitwell is such a strange figure, here: “great ill-omened bird” so nicely captures his preening and his selfish ghoulishness (as well as something of the Sitwell physiognomy), but it doesn’t explain anything of his military career or his artistic merits. He straddles the divide between “important writer” and”important player in the art world,” mooving in the highest circles but also affecting a hard-charging Modernism and a willingness to find poetic talent off the beaten path. His wartime military career, which he barely touches on in his autobiographies, is something of a cipher. Without disgrace or disablement, very few young officers have seen as little action in recent years as he has… but it’s hard to tell just what sort of privilege or good fortune has kept him from the war’s grind.  More on Sitwell too, in coming months…

 

Finally, today, Isaac Rosenberg–someone who could profit from the notice of an Osbert Sitwell–is working whatever connections he has. Much like Ivor Gurney he is making the most of his time in bed, which in Rosenberg’s case is in the influenza ward of a field hospital in France. He is writing poetry, but he also sees the necessity of maintaining the few tenuous relationships he has with possible patrons, in this case, G.M. Trevelyan:

My sister sent your letter on to me here. I liked your letter and very much your little boys verses. ‘And the wind
blows so violent’ takes me most; I hope he will always go direct to nature like that and not get too mixed up with artifice when he has more to say about nature, I brought your play back with me but Im afraid its lost now. I lent it to a friend in the Batt but that day I fell sick and was sent down here to hospital…

Rosenberg is always careful to make the effort to read whoever it is he is corresponding with, no matter how different their style from his own. Getting away with not doing the reading is, alas, another privilege he can’t risk…

Your play was all I read at home—I read it in bed—the rest of my time I spent very restlessly—going from one place to another and seeing and talking to as many people as I could. G. Bottomley sent me nearly all the poems in the annual before so I knew them. ‘Atlantis’ is an immense poem—and as good as anything else he has done…

Yours sincerely

Isaac Rosenberg[3]

We will read one of Rosenberg’s own efforts in a few days’ time.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 500-1.
  2. Autobiography, 157.
  3. Collected Works, 356.

Eddie Marsh in the Weeds of G.H.Q.; Vera Brittain Amidst the German Ward–and the Mutiny

We will spend the day, today, with two non-combatants in France. First, we rejoin the brief but lively diary of Eddie Marsh, patron of the poets and secretary to Winston Churchill.

Marsh, despite his Passchendaele-appropriate moniker, is rather unimpressed with the rear-area scenery–but happier with the company.

Friday Sept. 15th.

Another uneventful day. I had a good walk with Philip in the morning on Helfaut Ridge—and spent the afternoon,
after an unsuccessful attempt to see Millie Sutherland, hanging about till Winston was ready.

That would be Philip Sassoon, M.P., city cousin of Siegfried, and Millicent Leveson-Gower, Duchess of Sutherland. Philip is a member of the much more prominent branch of the Sassoons that had intermarried both with the Rothschilds and the old landed English nobility, and he has been a staff officer with Haig since the beginning of the war, putting his social skills and connections at the service of the notably taciturn Commander in Chief.

 

…It was a pity we were at G.H.Q. for quite such a quiet time (though we should have been more in the way if more had been going on). Even so I was much struck by the ease and serenity with which Haig carries his burden—I am sure he is quite imperturbable. He and W. seemed to warm to one another as the visit went on, and at our last luncheon Haig was quite genial and cracked several jokes. Philip says the passion of his life is for being talked to, but that he combines this with a fatal propensity to nip topics in the bud. The tone of G.H.Q. is tremendously optimistic—so much so that I found other people were quite irritated. Kiggell told me he thought the Boches were in the position of a man who is clinging with his fingers to the edge of a precipice—and they evidently all think that if only we can get a spell of good weather we can do wonders, even this year…[1]

 

Perhaps. But in Étaples, today, a century back, Vera Brittain is observing “The Boches” from a more intimidate and humane angle.

“Have just been writing a poem on the German ward,” I told my mother on September 15th; “was composing it this morning while watching a patient who was rather sick come round from an operation.”

 

The German Ward

When the years of strife are over and my recollection fades
Of the wards wherein I worked the weeks away,
I shall still see, as a visions rising ‘mid the War time shades,
The ward in France where German wounded lay.

I shall see the pallid faces and the half-suspicious eyes,
I shall hear the bitter groans and laboured breath,
And recall the loud complaining and the weary tedious cries,
And the sights and smells of blood and wounds and death.

I shall see the convoy cases, blanket-covered on the floor,
And watch the heavy stretcher-work begin,
And the gleam of knives and bottles through the open theatre door,
And the operation patients carried in.

I shall see the Sister standing, with her form of youthful grace,
And the humour and the wisdom of her smile,
And the tale of three years’ warfare on her thin expressive face,
The weariness of many a tire filled while.

I shall think of how I worked for her with nerve and heart and mind,
And marvelled at her courage and her skill,
And how the dying enemy her tenderness would find
Beneath her scornful energy of will.

And I learnt that human mercy turns alike to friend or foe
When the darkest hour of all is creeping nigh,
And those who slew our dearest, when their lamps were burning low,
Found help and pity ere they came to die.

So, though much will be forgotten when the sound of War’s alarms
And the days of death and strife have passed away,
I shall always see the vision of Love working amidst arms
In the ward wherein the wounded prisoners lay.

Not for the first time, here, I have revived a work that the author might wish forgotten:

…As anyone who can visualise the circumstances of its composition will imagine, it was not a good poem…

No, not particularly. But it will begin to earn Brittain some recognition for her writing. She, too–though far less devoted to the practice of poetry than most of our writers–will have a book of verse out before too long.

In the memoir, this place-holding mention of the poem is followed by a long story of going out to lunch with a friend, only to be embarrassed by finding a nurse and an officer on an obvious assignation. After this, she writes of being confined to quarters because of the unrest in the camp surrounding the hospitals:[2]

At the time, this somewhat disreputable interruption to a Holy War was wrapped in a fog which the years have deepened, for we were not allowed to mention it in our letters home, and it appears, not unnaturally, to have been omitted from standard histories by their patriotic authors.

I feel less guilt-ridden about this breaking of the rules against “flash forwards” given the extent of the censorship that surrounded the mutiny. In any event, it is an extremely sharp irony that just when we have this window thrown open onto the visit of modern Britain’s most famous politician–and, later, military historian–to its most ineffective (or controversially ineffective) military leader–champagne! optimism!–we have a former provincial young lady’s firsthand testimony on the secrecy surrounding the violence done to British soldiers by other British soldiers.

We were told that the disturbance began by a half-drunken “Jock ” shooting the military policeman who had tried to prevent him from taking his girl into a prohibited café. In some of the stories the girl was a young Frenchwoman from the village, in others she had turned into one of the newly arrived W.A.A.C.S ; no doubt in the W.A.A.C. camp she was said to be a V.A.D. Whatever the origin of the outbreak, by the end of September Étaples was in an uproar…

Quite who was against whom I never clearly gathered, but one party was said to be holding the bridge over the Canche and the others to be trying to take it from them. Obviously the village was no place for females, so for over a fortnight we were shut up within our hospitals, to meditate on the effect of three years of war upon the splendid morale of our noble troops. As though the ceaseless convoys did not provide us with sufficient occupation, numerous drunken and dilapidated warriors from the village battle were sent to such spare beds as we had for slight repairs. They were euphemistically known as “local sick.”[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. A Number of People, 255-6.
  2. This memory may be displaced by a few days, which makes sense given the lack of records she alludes to--few memoir writers can be specific about dates without (illegal) diaries, letters, or military records to make reference to, and the mutiny was suppressed in all such sources.
  3. Testament of Youth, 385-6.

Wilfred Owen Dines Out, and Richard Aldington at the Death Agonies of a Civilization

Wilfred Owen had another evening out tonight, a century back, a guest of literate/srtistic upper middle class Edinburgh society. Everything really is going well, it would seem, with Owen’s humane and successful course of treatment…

Went with Mayes to a perfect little dinner at the Grays’ and passed an evening of extraordinary fellowship in All the Arts. The men are not of the expansive type—one is a History Honoursman at Oxford, the other owner of a large Munition Works. The ladies have more effusiveness, but are genuine. One is really witty and the other is a sculptor of great power.[1]

 

The pleasantness of this recuperation still makes an odd contrast with the dreariness of ordinary life as an officer on home service in Britain–the life of Richard Aldington, to take a convenient example. And yet the contrasting of conditions is not as sharp as that between Owen’s peppy and enthusiastic attitude and Aldington’s posing Modernist cynicism, as expressed in this letter to F.S. Flint…

A Company,
No. 8 Cadet Battalion,
Whittington Barracks,
Lichfield
Weds. [6th September 1917]

Dear old Franky,

We are “at it” for umpteen hours a day here, dodging from one military subject to another with incredible rapidity. We get up at 5.30 ack emma, and do strenuous runs of 3 miles of [sic] so most evenings, so I generally feel pretty wilted by the time letter writing time arrives.

On the whole, though, this is a great deal better than the 11th Devons, where I was being tortured at this time last
year.

I hope to heaven neither you nor anything that is yours suffered in last night’s raid. We know little about it here yet, except the usual yarns of Oxford St. in ruins &c. And a bloody good job if it were. We are apparently assisting at the death-agonies of a civilisation, & the quicker it gets through the better.

Wouldn’t Huysmans have enjoyed the spectacle–if he were over military age.

He was a kind of prophet, for when he and Mallarmé “got at” the society of their days as being like decadent Rome they were not so far wrong. We haven’t seen the fall of Paris, but we’ve seen the bombardment of London & we’ll probably see the fall of Petrograd. The more cities that fall the better. I remember thinking that one day on Hill 70, watching our howitzers knocking hell out of Lens. There were 2000 women & children in the town too! Bon pour soldat, no bon pour civile!

What a shocking frisson, and how terribly artistic! But Aldington, who has seen relatively little of the war, comes off more as a poseur old soldier than a second-rate shocker-of-the-bourgeois. This violent separation between civilian and military–and the principled insistence that we query our instinctive horror of civilian deaths in the light of so many more pointless military deaths–is nothing that polite, serious young men had not been expressing years ago, or angry poets some months back.

I may be being too harsh–it is against our principles, or should be, to judge a man’s state of mind by trying to relate the amount of fighting he’s seen (i.e. the amount of shelling he has experienced) to his “right” to break down or seek a way out. These things are subjective. And, of course, he is not all that far wrong. The coming thirty years will see hundreds of cities bombed and burnt, and millions of women and children murdered… but his melodramatic style makes his predictions of these sorts of things in the current context of attrition and stalemate, a century back, seem glib. And it’s cruel to slap on the old charge of “decadence” because it fits his artistic preferences…

And if Aldington wins some sympathy by reminding us that he is married and separated from his wife, that he has seen barrages and fears to endure them again, he promptly loses it by noting that he gets to see her regularly, and by rolling confessions of damaged nerves into another facile dream of revolution…

H.D. is in Lichfield–3 miles from here… Each week-end I get a sleeping out pass; so altogether I feel I could stand this for duration. The sober fact is that I’ll be back in France by December, & I’ve got the wind up horribly. I think I shall just lie down and sob if I get into another artillery barrage.

Well, I suppose one will get along somehow. But I do wish the capitalists would rise in revolt & give us the job of quelling them. I would use a Lewis gun not a rifle!

…Ever thine

R.[2]

As a point of comparison, recall Siegfried Sassoon’s tank, crushing the profiteers and ignorant civilians–that is a naked fantasy, first of all, and in it the writer is the vengeful observer. Here we have a wish rooted in actual politics (the profiteers as “capitalists,” rather than leering, “harlot”-accompanied revelers, in Sassoon’s fever dream) even if it is not much more likely to come true. And Aldington would do the imaginary shooting, would he? If this is the fear of the shells speaking, it’s still coming out sideways, and in a distinctly unflattering way…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 491.
  2. Imagist Dialogues, 211-2.

Alf Pollard and Frank Richards Hold On at Arras; Patrick Shaw Stewart Idle in France; Kate Luard and the Glorious Maimed

After a day of stiffly resisted attacks along the Hindenburg Tunnel, the Royal Welch are left holding an improvised line, in the face of likely counter-attacks. Frank Richards reminds us of every soldier’s plight on the day after an advance, when lines of supply have been disrupted.

The following day we were without food and water and during the night some of us were out searching the dead to see if they had been carrying any with them. I was lucky enough to discover a half-loaf of bread, some biscuits and two bottles of water, which I would not have sold for a thousand pounds.[1]

But Richards also reports an incident confirmed by Dunn: while bringing in the wounded in the early morning, they are hailed by a wounded man of another regiment who had been lying close to the German line and had seen them pulling back during the night. This intelligence was quickly confirmed, and the 2nd Royal Welch moved up and dug in around the abandoned positions, which included concrete strong-points built for machine guns–early examples of a new era in tactical defense. These “pill-boxes” are immune to all but the heaviest caliber artillery, but vulnerable to being rushed by small numbers of men using careful “stalking” tactics.

The dead of five battalions… lay in front of the abandoned German machine-gun position… and exposed the tragic ineptitude of just going on throwing men against it after such a futile artillery bombardment… Ours was the third bull-at-a-gate attack… one of the occasions innumerable when a company or a battalion was squandered on an attack seemingly planned by someone who, lacking either first or second hand knowledge of the ground, just relied on our maps of moderate scale… we were relieved at the end of the day.[2]

It’s the “or second hand” which is really the most damning thing. It’s a huge war, and even the best-intentioned Corps Commander can hardly tour the front lines–it would be impossible, even, for a divisional general to acquire first-hand knowledge of all the ground on their front. By they have staffs, and they could summon the battalion C.O.s only two levels below them in the chain of command. They could find out… but instead they read their maps, and make their orders.

 

Alf Pollard and the H.A.C. faced a long day’s counter-attack between Oppy Wood and the Chemical Works at Monchy.

Time after time long lines of men in field grey appeared over the crest of the ridge only to be swept away before they had descended half way down the slope… Never once did they get within a hundred yards…

We went back to the Black line on the evening of the 24th. What was to happen next? That was the question that filled our minds. We were so near to breaking through that we were all keyed up for the next move. It was impossible that the authorities would let things rest where they were.[3]

They will spend a few days in reserve, in a part of the line that is in danger of becoming a salient. But after that rest, the H.A.C. will most emphatically return to the front lines…

 

Patrick Shaw Stewart has been able to shake free of further duty in the Eastern Mediterranean. He hopes to get back to his battalion in France–but that, of course, is not how things work. If he had had his way, perhaps, he would have already been in the battalion, and seen far too much of the Battle of Arras. But he has been fortunate in this frustration, and finds himself on the coast, some 60 miles due west of the fighting:

I’m well embarked on the Course at the Depot here. I can’t honestly say I think it’s teaching me very much I haven’t known by heart these three years back, except, perhaps, a little about gas and bomb-throwing: but there is a terrible lot of indifferent lecturing out of books and old-fashioned sloping of arms, which I really thought I had undergone once for all at the Crystal Palace. No doubt it is extremely good for the soul of a veteran like me to be marched about in fours and told to be in by 9 p.m., but occasionally one is tempted to forget how comic it all is, and also how tolerable. For it really is exceedingly tolerable, if measured by the discomforts that are always possible; I have my bed, I have a tent to myself, a very respectable mess, and a great stand-by in the shape of the Sutherland
Hospital, which is at a reasonable distance. I have dined there twice, and do it again to-night.

This would be the hospital founded by Millicent, Duchess of Sutherland, and desirable perhaps more for the society of its staff than its patients.

The only drawback is that after being marched about and bored to death from 8.20 to 4.15, one is rather
inclined to sink into a chair and drop into a hoggish sleep, more than to brush one’s hair nicely and walk another mile to a tram—or, indeed, to write letters or any other elegant occupation.

Le Touquet, April 24, 1917.[4]

 

In another hospital considerably closer to the front, Kate Luard, continues to praise the stoic and uncomplaining heroism of the maimed and dying.

Tuesday Morning.  …A Captain of the Yorks had his leg off yesterday and makes less of it than some people with a toe-nail off. The glorious boy with the broken back is lying on his back now; he doesn’t know about it and says he’s all right, only his back is a little stiff an aching.

In general I find Sister Luard’s emotional instincts to be eminently reasonable, and her writing precise. But that’s the problem: since she is precise and thoughtful, it’s fair to focus on that one word “glorious,” and to question what exactly it means. To be stoic is perhaps a virtue, and the remarkable lack of complaint from these terribly wounded men is… remarkable. It is testimony to almost unbearable reserves of human moral strength…

And yet it’s not that simple. It never is. Can we praise the sufferers without examining what their suffering is for, without asking why it has come about? This is similar, in a way, to praising the brilliant elan of a small-unit leader in an assault without noting that the skill he is exhibiting is, essentially, excellence in leadership in state-sanctioned killing. And in each case the men killing and being maimed are sent to do and to suffer by other men, men who aren’t dirtying their hands or risking life and limb. What these soldiers have suffered is something more, and more complex, than mere accident or disaster. They are volunteers, most of them, and yet they are also victims not of mischance or acts of God but of organized human activity.

And so then there is society. Luard is well aware that, since female nurses almost never serve any closer to the line than a Casualty Clearing Station, her presence is in itself remarkable. The glorious boys who come into her care haven’t seen a woman in days or weeks or months–and they haven’t seen a respectable Englishwoman, properly addressed with a title borrowed from religious and family life, in longer still.

Isn’t her presence a strong inducement to act the part, to play the game? Isn’t she–more, in some ways, than superior officers, backed by the threat of court-martial and punishment–an enforcer of the social order that has made it so difficult for so many increasingly skeptical men to question the conduct of the war? Would a bitter, angry man, convinced he has been victimized by an unfeeling state and a burgeoning military-industrial complex, spit in the face of a nurse whose approval of stoicism must be obvious? It would be a difficult thing… and so here, too, in the terrible pain and amazing kindness of a field hospital, there is a sort of censorship in place.

Courage when in great pain is an estimable thing–and an inestimable thing. So is consideration for those around you, even when selfishness and self pity–not to mention stark terror or an urge to self-destruction–would be more than understandable.

But… “glorious?” The young officer will never walk again, but they haven’t told him. He must die soon, and they haven’t told him. His strength is remarkable–wonderful, valuable. But a desire to bear pain and loss uncomplainingly, a living-up to the expectation of good manners even in the worst of situations, is not a thing that we should praise without any reference to the context.

If he wanted to scream, and make everyone around him know that he was terrified to be destroyed, to die–that he was sure, now, that all this isn’t worth it–would she hear him?

This is too much to lay at the feet of Sister Luard, of course, in the middle of the post-assault rush of horror. And she is the farthest thing from a prim manipulator. She will record her own struggles with disillusionment, soon, and even today, a century back, she obliquely addresses the meaning of the war through her praise of another praiseworthy human behavior.

Some of the men say they were picked up and looked after by Germans, so we are being extra kind to the Germans this time. There is in Hospitals an understood arrangement that all Germans (except when their lives depend on immediate attention) should wait till the last British has been attended to… It is only kept up in a very half-hearted way and is generally broken by the M.O.’s, who are most emphatic about it in theory!

And later?

Tuesday, 10.30 p.m. It has been a pretty sad day, 12 funerals… The spine boy has found out what is the matter with him and is quite cheery about it…[5]

There’s a lot going on, but it will be interesting to keep looking in on Sister Luard to see how her credo of infinite empathy and praise for the selflessness of the wounded holds up as the battle drags on.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Old Soldiers Never Die, 230.
  2. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 338-9.
  3. Fire-Eater, 214.
  4. Knox, Patrick Shaw Stewart, 194-5.
  5. Unknown Warriors, 116-7.

Poets in Peril: Edward Thomas Gets Dressed Early, and Wilfred Owen is Aimed At; Patrick Shaw Stewart Works the System

Edward Thomas is not the sort for dry self-deprecation, exactly. But he isn’t the sort for harrowing self-reflection, either. This is, I think, just plain description of what other writers might gin up into a stark tale of terror in the pre-dawn darkness.

Shelling heavy from about 5 a.m. I only dressed because I thought it would be better to have my clothes on… our artillery really made most of the noise, and I being just wakened and also inexperienced mistook it.[1]

Over breakfast, Thomas continues yesterday’s letter to his wife Helen:

2 March. 6.30 a.m.

We are still being bombarded. But the Colonel and I have to go out to a village to see a man about a dog, you know, so I am having breakfast. I dressed soon after 5 because I thought it would be better if anything happened, to have my clothes on, and lying in bed warm one merely wondered which way It would come, whether through the ceiling or through which window or wall. Nothing fell on the house, though fragments were whistling over all the time and the house shook. However I heard men whistling in the street. Also when I got up and decided I would change my shirt etc. and shave and clean my teeth and eat my apple and drink my glass of water etc., these things sent the time along. The whistling outside of course made me certain the attack wasn’t with gas shell. It is still going on, but more intermittently. At present it is very misty and I can see nothing but the garden tree and the stone dog on the wall.

There is another break in the narrative as he goes about his business:

I’ve been to — and back. From what the others say I gather that the bombardment was not so bad, as a lot of the noise was From us and not To us. I am new, you see. Well anyhow I was not upset.

A small statement, again, signifying much: “I am, happily, proving to be considerably brave.”

It was quite nice to be going out in the misty frosty morning and picking a place to put a gun in a hurry.

Now I must try to see 244 today and get a letter from you which is probably waiting.

It is now 11 and I am having a second breakfast — (the first having been at 6.15) of marvellous good thick hard shortbread that Herrington has had sent him.

I hope you are all well, all of you, and enjoying many things. This goes off on March 2.

All and always yours Edwy[2]

In the afternoon Thomas viewed the rubble of the Faubourg Ronville, which looks very different–more ruinous, somehow–in his sparse notes-for-future-consideration than it will in the relatively crowded vignettes of his letters:

…its whistling deserted ruined streets, deserted roadway, pavement with single files of men. Cellars as dugouts, trenches behind and across road. Dead dry calf in stables. Rubble, rubbish, filth and old plush chair…[3]

 

Also today, a century back, Wilfred Owen is back from his transport course–he arrived yesterday, to be precise. March will be a month of the rejoining of units, a mustering in preparation for the Spring Offensive. But Wilfred has not been in a battle before, and he is happy with his new surroundings. His battalion, the 2nd Manchesters, are in trenches north of the Somme, near Fresnoy–part of the long section of the line that has just been relinquished in favor of the Siegfried Stellung. What could go wrong?

Nothing, for the moment. But we do have, from yesterday, an amusing parcel-post vignette:

1 March [1917] My Dug-Out

Dearest Mother,

Have just reported at B.H.Q. Dug Out. Find myself posted to B. Coy… this is a glorious part of the Line, new to us, and indeed, to the English (sh!) Most comfortable dug-outs, grass fields, woods, sunshine, quiet. True we are in reserve today, but I hear the very front line is a line, and a quiet one.

…It was in an astonishing way I had your parcel. A man rose up from a hole in a field holding it above his head. It was a fine moment. I soon rushed down & tore it open. Socks most specially valuable, as my servant forgot to put any spare in my Trench Kit. Likewise, I took no Cigarettes, hoping to find 50 in the Parcel. Lo! here are thousands! How good of you all…

I shall not touch the goodies until the very front line is reached…

Yours as ever, but slightly happier than usual. W.E.O.

So all things are sunny but–as the fact that socks are once again welcome would indicate–not really expected to remain so. But irony abounds, of course. Owen’s letter of today, a century back, begs for details of what battle looks like from one who had seen it: mother has been to the “Somme” pictures.

2 March 1917          B Coy’s Dug-Out

My dearest Mother,

I am in a good warm Dug-Out, decorated with French postcards, picturing embraces, medals, roses and mistletoe!

Is it possible I was living civilly no more than 2 days ago? From letter of last night I hear you have seen the illusory War Films. However, they must hint at the truth, and if done anywhere on this Front, would not be quite devoid of realism. But, as you know, a just idea of the First Place could best be got by a tour around Purgatorio.

Did you see any Shell-bursts?

And did they bang tins or whack drums?

Did you see any Red X at the front?

Under no circumstance do we! A good half of their work is done by S. Bearers of our own Coys.

But that’s as far as that joke will go. Owen is back in the line, and, battle or no, there are risks. Which he doesn’t hide from his mother, though he softens them into epistolary chuckles.

You don’t mention Dug-Outs snipers. I was marked by one of the Pests yesterday. His ‘Direction’ was good, only his ‘Elevation’ slightly high. A curious thing was who first hissed ‘Get down. Sir!’?

One of my old Fleetwood Musketry Party! Quite a few are with me…

‘Colin’s’ socks are splendid things…

Ever your fondest Wilfred

 

But a letter of the same day (written to his younger brother Colin, evidently before the letter to mother) makes a different sort of tale out of the near-miss; it also paints a generally more warlike picture of this section of the front:

2 March 1917     B Coy Dug-Out

My dearest Colin,

This is the first time I have written from a Dug-Out. I am in a French one now. We have straw to sleep on, but it is pretty lousy—after the poilus!

There is a gas-alarm on just now, but I don’t really expect it. The air is too still. Just this moment, and since I sat down, a tremendous artillery strafe has opened up. We all remark to each other that it seems there is a war on. I went up to the Front Line with a Fatigue Party for digging. Let me tell you in confidence that I was for the first time a Target.* I ran over the top to get to the head of the Party in the Trench, & stood a moment to shout an order, when a bullet went Ping, a good 3 ft. over my silly head.

Owen–a good big brother, an excitable correspondent, or perhaps just a very diligent writer of personal history–will gloss that asterisk tomorrow. It’s as close as we’ll come to a real point in time, a century back:

Next day. Where you see the * I left off because the order came ‘Stand to Arms!’ What a commotion! We half expected an attack, but nothing happened. I have no paper to write more, but this letter should be interesting circumstantially.

Dearest love to you, sweet my Brother. W.E.O.[4]

 

While we’re in the habit of flagrant rule-breaking, we’ll look ahead to a letter of tomorrow–describing, therefore, today–by  Patrick Shaw-Stewart:

I have had my Board yesterday morning, and they passed me for General Service with the recommendation that I should not be sent back to the East. That was my own suggestion: they would quite certainly have passed me for anything I jolly well liked. That being so, I shall in a day or two probably be informed of it officially by the W.O., whereupon I will communicate with Freyberg, who will apply for me. It will all take some time probably: nothing is done in a hurry in the British Army.

Please don’t be perturbed about my inside. It is very well indeed, and in this country (and presumably in France), I should never give it a thought. In Gallipoli, and places like that, of course it has been occasionally dickey with little goes of “dysentery” and jaundice and what not, but nothing to what most people have out here, and nothing which would have been worth mentioning, except with an ulterior object. I feel more and more that I have been right to play my last card to get out of Salonica and back to France. In fact, I think I have conducted the personal problem of this war with exceptional felicity, and made the best of both worlds. Please try and agree with me…[5]

Well, it’s hard not to. This will not be the last rigged medical board we shall see, but it’s hard to believe that Shaw Stewart is cheating His Majesty out of too much when he emphasizes his stomach troubles to escape further French Liaison duty on the Salonika front–and hard to doubt his character (in this matter) when the result of the rigged exam is to get him sent to a much more dangerous assignment, under the command of more or less the last of his original comrades, those Argonauts of 1914. Shaw Stewart saw Gallipoli, but he has seen little else in the last two years, while Bernard Freyburg has become a hero with a V.C. The future–even of the over-educated officers of the Royal Naval Division–is in France.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary (Childhood), 166-7. This description is under the heading for yesterday, a century back, but in light of the letter, below, clearly refers to today.
  2. Letters to Helen, 83-84.
  3. War Diary (Childhood), 167.
  4. Collected Letters, 439-442.
  5. Knox, Patrick Shaw Stewart, 193-4.