Today, a century back, the survivors of the 2nd Royal Welch had the pleasure of being inspected by–and inspecting in turn–the Commander-in-Chief of the B.E.F.
The C.-in-C. rode on to the ground at 12.30, twenty minutes late. After pinning ribbons on a few he remounted and passed along the lines of Infantry. Then we marched past, uninspired, on our way back to billets. We were told that “these inspections are his only recreation.” He looked as if he took it sadly to-day…
Meanwhile, one of their more illustrious recent subalterns, Siegfried Sassoon, was in Scotland, writing to Robbie Ross.
3 October, 1917 Craiglockhart
My dear Robbie, I hope the air raids haven’t annoyed you? I am sending you some Cambridge Magazine cameos…
I have great difficulty in doing any work as I am constantly disturbed by nurses etc and the man who sleeps in my room—an awful bore. It is pretty sickening when I feel like writing something and have to dry up and try to be polite (you can imagine with how much success!) However, Rivers returns on Friday and may be able to get me a room to myself (or get me away from these imbeciles).
Oh, for a room of one’s own in which to write… And it’s pretty amusing that Sassoon describes his roommate in a two-person hospital room as “the man who sleeps in my room!”
But if he hasn’t been writing much, he has been reading: the war has gone on long enough to see another little loop of ours close: Sassoon is reading what we have recently been reading, as its events were taking place:
…Get Nothing of Importance by Bernard Adams (Methuen) He was in the First R.W.F. with me for eight months (and mentions me once under the name of Scott). The book is by no means bad and he was a nice creature.
“Was:” Adams died of wounds on February 27th.
Sassoon shows little to no indication of being interested in writing such a record himself–prose is only prose (“by no means bad” rather than “good”) and memoirs are for the dead. Poetry is still the truth and the way…
In between the two above sections of the letter, Sassoon had mentioned a new potential friend/patron:
Lady Margaret Sackville has sent me her war poems and asked me to lunch! A rival to Lady Ottoline; and
quite ten years younger!
But of course he has already passed Lady Margaret–in a gesture that can be read as both an act of literary/social generosity and a snub–on to his new sidekick, Wilfred Owen, who will invite her to contribute to The Hydra.
Then, in a postscript, Sassoon gets back to his own poetry, in particular to a poem that directly addresses some examples of what he generally considers to be the fouler sex:
I sent Massingham a very good sonnet, but be hasn’t replied! It is called ‘Glory of Women’—and gives them beans.
Beans! Ha! Well. This is certainly a slashing indictment of unfeeling “home front” types, so flaying the unfeeling idiots who wax complacent on the far side of the experiential gulf that this satire almost wins a conviction of their conspiracy to commit further war crimes.
You love us when we’re heroes, home on leave,Or wounded in a mentionable place.You worship decorations; you believeThat chivalry redeems the war’s disgrace.You make us shells. You listen with delight,By tales of dirt and danger fondly thrilled.You crown our distant ardours while we fight,And mourn our laurelled memories when we’re killed.You can’t believe that British troops “retire”When hell’s last horror breaks them, and they run,Trampling the terrible corpses—blind with blood.O German mother dreaming by the fire,While you are knitting socks to send your sonHis face is trodden deeper in the mud
Devastating… but wait–why “women?” There is nothing here that explains why it is, exactly, that the sins of women are particularly grave. Or that their political disempowerment and the social strictures that keep them from full participation in war (however much these strictures are evolving or temporarily loosened) might explain their apparently hypocritical position as actually far less hypocritical than the similar statements by the post-conscription aged male property-owners who run the country…
It’s a solid satirical sonnet–a great, sweeping, but errant blow. Like the rest of the letter, it offers proof that nasty myopia and broad-brush stereotyping can coexist with skillful prosody.
Not the least ironic bit of Sassoon’s letter is that it begins with that polite question about air raids. This might remind Sassoon that, yes, although no women in England have seen soldiers dying in actual trenches and that many no doubt mouth patriotic pieties instead of listening or seeking out the worst truths of war, thousands upon thousands are now being bombed on a regular basis, while he is safe in Scotland playing golf, writing poetry, and complaining about his roommate.
The air raids are troubling Diana Manning, for instance–or are they?
London, 3 October 1917
Thank God to be back even in these discordant nights. I dined with Ivor last night in the cellar of Wimborne House, after an hour in the Arlington Street basement, with some of the wounded, and screaming kitchenmaids — most trying. Later at Wimborne House arrived Jenny [Lady Randolph] Churchill and Maud Cunard, both a little tipsy, dancing and talking wildly. They had been walking and had got scared and had stopped for a drink. Maud had a set purpose to get to the opera, because it being raid-night the public required example…
I’ve ordered myself chemises embroidered in hand-grenades and a nightgown with fauns…
It’s not Lady Manning’s job to refute Sassoon’s misogyny–it’s just the luck of my date-obsessed bibliographic trawl. But it works out well, I think: she can be both a flighty and insensitive aristocrat and a victim of the war. She is enormously privileged, yet she has also sought out the war’s its suffering–more, really, than most people in her precise social position. She has lost friend after friend (including one whose grave we will visit tomorrow) and has worked long hours as a hospital volunteer, though she writes little about this aspect of her life. And her tendency to continue to live the high life and scoff at kitchenmaids and joke about bombs is neither heroic nor contemptible nor very different from Sassoon’s comportment. A wealthy woman in London rather than a soldier in the trenches watching faces get trodden deeper into the mud, she has not been as directly traumatized by the war as Sassoon. Which is perhaps why she is more consistent, and rather less hysterical…