Before we continue with Edwin Vaughan’s harrowing tour in the line we will catch up with Henry Williamson’s latest effort at self-sabotage… but before that, we should begin with Edward Thomas‘s early spring bird count. Yesterday, a century back, Thomas saw rooks nesting and heard partridges and “pipsqueaks.” Today, it was a
Blackbird trying to sing early in dull marsh. A dull cold day… I was in position all day.
It seems an ominous addition after the uplifting larks, but then again, I suppose, nature is indifferent to its poetic resonances…
When we last saw Henry Williamson, on the night of the 10th, he was dining with Canadian officers–and overindulging. Whether by coincidence or unusually swift action, he was in hot water by the next afternoon.
His diary entry for the 11th:
Note from G.O.C. Brigade to attend at 4 oclock. Saw damning report from Capt. King ‘incompetent, useless etc’ Road shelled a bit.
The next day–we’re up to yesterday, a century back, now–he pleaded his case before a more sympathetic tribunal:
Am quite well and fit, but a rather unhappy as I fear I will lose my job—there has been trouble, but anyhow I don’t think I shall lose much, it is all work and no pay. So don’t be astonished if I go to the artillery or the A[rmy]S[ervice]C[orps]—I have had more during the last week than I got in 4 months in the Flemish sector. By God, it’s awful—we are shelled day & night—the roads are barraged and 12 inch How[itzer]s knock hell into us all day & night, but our guns knock the Bosche to hell & back…
Well I am just going along a —– awful road with a little river along it (the only one here) & expect to get a blighty one… Well Cheero dear old thing…
This is a strange, almost recklessly cruel letter. He makes it clear that he has blundered and may lose his job; then he emphasizes (and probably exaggerates) his nightly danger, and then he shares a presentiment that he will be… safely wounded?
So is he dramatizing in order to give his mother relief in his next letter–a sort of manipulation that both the real Henry and the fictional Phillip are very prone to–or is he glossing over something like a suicidal mood?
His diary seems to demonstrate the latter:
Artillery ominously quiet early morning… Am taking Ammunition through Miraumont tonight. Have a presentiment…
But nothing happened, last night, except for (once more?) bungling his job:
Took 16 mules thro Miraumont. Got lost. Lost 2 mules. Arrived back at 3 o’clock dead beat…
So what will he tell his mother, today, hard on the heels of a letter that hinted at dejection and a shell with his name on it?
Please send me April magazines. Have seen the March ones. The mud is awful—3 mules drowned in shell craters last night, it is terrible. Men lie down in the mud & ask to be allowed to die they are so exhausted & beat, it takes one 7 hours to go 4000 yards cross country. The Ger has an 8.2 armour piercing shell here… & has already killed ½ my drivers & mules & destroyed nearly all my waggons damn him. Love William. Don’t forget 1. Sweets (caramels etc) 2. Magazines (including Motor Cycle & Motorcycling) 3. 1 pair pyjamas. 4. Sox.
It’s a day-to-day life on the line, and in Williamson’s mind.
On the back of this letter is a (terrible) poem, containing–as a representative example–the line “are you weaving dreams of glory tinged with fames effulgent glow?”
Evidently, he has entirely forgotten his baleful presentiment of a day before…
His diary for today adds little—another resupply trip, tonight—but it provides one important contextual fact: the Germans are now withdrawing in this sector, too, and this event allows us to find our place in Williamson’s enormous novel. In Love and the Loveless Phillip Maddison goes forward past happy British soldiers, and is given a copy of the Corps Summary of Intelligence—“Comic Cuts” to the sardonic troops—which is quoted at length. So instead of a letter to mother, his fiction reproduces an official document… strange.
But I’m more interested, naturally speaking, in two observations which surround the quotation:
Before going to sleep, he wrote in his Charles Lett’ Self-Opening Pocket Diary and Note Book for 1917 by candle-light, “Heard a chiff-chaff in Miraumont, among some willows.“
He didn’t–or, that is, this is fiction, an addition to the novel that is not based on the contemporary diary or his letters home. Williamson is a strange bird, but he always was a birder and a rambler and an amateur naturalist (one thing he very much shares with Edward Thomas, so different though they otherwise are). And after he quoted intelligence report, more birds–and no more writerly subtlety:
Then through the moonless dark came the cries of flighting mallard, flying west to the peaceful marshes of the Ancre. They would be nesting soon, he thought. For birds, the spring meant love–for men, the spring offensive, and the kiss of bullets.
Between the contortions of Williamson and the horror that is to come, let’s have a bit of nearly-fatal slapstick. In the middle of the night, a century back, Wilfred Owen “was going round through pitch darkness to see a man in a dangerous state of exhaustion.” He then “fell into a kind of well, only about 15 ft.” but hit his head “on the way down.”
I am formally obligated to leave us in some suspense as to the outcome of his tumble, but even my cleverness in omitting the first person pronoun will probably not conceal the fact that he will live to tell the tale.
Now to darker doings. Edwin Vaughan has been back from a course for only a few days, but already he has been nearly killed, hastily buried four men, and almost cracked up when he mistakes another man for the risen dead. Today, at least, is the last day of their tour in the front line, and it passes pleasantly enough. Almost.
…we were to be relieved at 7 p.m., a thought which made us very bright and cheerful throughout the day.
At 5 p.m., as we sat in our dugout, a message in Playfair code was handed up by a signaller. It took some time to decipher and it was 5.15 p.m. when Holmes read out the following message: ‘Our heavy artillery will bombard enemy front lines, commencing 5.20 p.m. Withdraw advanced posts.’
Of course it was impossible to withdraw our posts, which were half an hour’s crawl away…
A few minutes later, Vaughan’s section of the line is bracketed by their own guns, firing short.
…Now they rained upon us; all along the trench we could hear them falling, as we sat with fixed grins upon our faces, trembling in every limb… a louder, fierce screech swooped upon us and a terrific crash flung us in all directions and into darkness.
It felt quite pleasant to be dead…
Reader, he has not died. Coughing out a mouthful of dust, Vaughan and his comrades in the company command dugout learn that they have
had a miraculous escape, for the shell had hit the corner of the cellar and blown it in… no one had been touched except Browne–Holmes’ servant–who had been hit in the back by a flying brick.
Our guns had now ceased fire, but we could hear them receiving a few shells from the Germans. I now found that during the few seconds when I had believed myself dead, I had closed my note book, snapped round the elastic and returned the pencil to its socket.
The command dugout now prepares for their relief, and while Browne is sent to alert the NCOs nearby, Vaughan begins piling sandbags over the hole in their roof.
After a few minutes Browne returned, rather white in the face, saying that he could not find the NCO’s dugout. This was only ten yards away… Holmes guessed that Brown was shaken up by the shelling, so he laughed and said, ‘Come on then, I’ll help you to search for it, perhaps someone’s pinched it.’ And they set off together down the muddy trench.
I was just finishing off the roof, when Browne came tumbling in moaning and laughing hysterically. He stared at me screaming ‘Oh God! It is. It is.’ Then we slung him in a chair, gave him a tot of rum, and ran off down the trench to the mine shaft which had been occupied by Sergeant Phillips, Sergeant Bennett, Corporal Everett and Corporal Hollins.
They are all dead, killed by their own artillery. And my guesswork work yesterday turns out not to have been very accurate: I erred in assuming that the Corporal Bennett who was killed yesterday is the Lance-Sergeant Bennett listed in the CWGC database as being killed today. He’s not: he’s his brother.
The last task before withdrawing to reserve then, will be the exhuming and reburial of the four men.
We started at once to pull away the wreckage of the entrance, and had just come to Sergeant Phillips, when Jerry started his “blue pigeon” strafe…
As we worked down the sides, we realized (in the darkness) that the beams and sides were splashed with blood and flesh. The stench of lyddite and fresh blood was ghastly, and the foulness of our groping in the dark cannot be described. At last we could stand it no longer, and regardless of consequences, we lit a candle and commenced working by its shaded light. This evoked a showed of ‘pineapples’ and bullets which continued to fall until we had cleared the shaft.
Of Corporal Everett we found no trace; he must have been struck by the shell and blown to atoms. Bennett was badly shattered and most of his head was gone, whilst Hollins, who had been sitting with his rifle between his knees, was unrecognizable and the twisted rifle was buried in front of his body.