Robert Graves in Love, D.H. Lawrence on the Run

Today we have only a few very scattered updates, and all but one of them are to some extent either dark or dismal.


In Cork, Frederic Manning was released from the hospital where he has been recovering from symptoms of a breakdown related to his alcoholism (as well as his experiences on the Somme, surely). A sympathetic Medical Board has allowed him to resume “light duty” and to keep his commission…


In a field hospital in Belgium, Henry Feilding, Lady Dorothie‘s elder brother, died of wounds sustained two days ago…


In Cornwall, the cottage of D.H. Lawrence was raided and searched by the police. As a military-age man not in uniform, (Lawrence had a medical exemption) who did not hide his contempt for the war, Lawrence was a target of scorn and suspicion. It did not help that they lived on the sea, near where U-boats had recently sunk several British ships–or that Frieda Lawrence had been born Frieda Freiin von Richthofen, a distant cousin of the Red Baron. The Lawrences and their friends behaved, on principle, like civilized, open-minded, free-spoken people, and thus fell quickly afoul of the locals. Continuing to correspond with German family and to speak against the war, despite “a mounting campaign of intimidation,” they seem to have hoped for better from an ostensibly liberal society, even in wartime.

The police will return, bearing with them “an order under the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA): they had three days to leave Cornwall and must not travel to coastal or other protected (‘Class 2’) areas; within twenty-four hours of finding a new
residence, they must report to a police station. No appeal was allowed.”

The couple were “virtually penniless” and returned to London in some despair of finding a refuge from a cruelly militarized and intolerant society. After some time adrift, however, they will be taken in by Hilda Doolittle, the poet H.D., Richard Aldington‘s wife.[1]


But life goes on, and there is also young love to be celebrated, today! Another poet whose has had trouble because of his German connections (but who silenced them with combat service and wound stripes), Robert Von Ranke Graves, is currently in London–or, to be precise, in Wimbledon–spending his latest “last” leave with his family. (Graves’s Sassoon-saving interlude at the depot near Liverpool is over, and, while his damaged lung should keep him from active duty in France, he expects to be sent abroad again soon.)

Except that Graves went into London proper, today, a century back, to visit Nancy Nicholson, and missed the last train back…[2]


References and Footnotes

  1. Whelpton, Poet, Soldier, Lover, 158.
  2. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 183.

Siegfried Sassoon is Blighty Bound… and Eighteen Other Updates

Although I am almost as tired of writing extremely long posts as you are of reading them, so very many of our writers committed some sort of date-fixable act today, a century back, that I thought I should nod to the fates and survey everyone who showed up.[1]

After we wrap up with Siegfried Sassoon, withdrawn from the Hindenburg trench to the Hindenburg tunnel with a new “patriotic perforation” in his shoulder, and after we read the progress of Edward Hermon‘s widow, I will try to be judiciously brief with the others. Somehow, yesterday, Sassoon was not only seen and treated by the battalion Medical Officer, but was swiftly evacuated to a Casualty Clearing Station. Within hours of being held back from an attempted one-man bombing war, he is tucked in and headed for Blighty.

April 17

After a blessed eight hours’ sleep (more than I’d had since last Wednesday) I waited till 5 o’clock reading Far from the Madding Crowd, when we got on board a Red Cross train of serpentine length. Five hundred men and thirty-two officers on board. Warlencourt is eighteen kilometres from Arras—quite near Saulty, where we stayed on April 7. We passed through Doullens about 6 p.m. and Abbeville at 8.30 and reached Camiferes at midnight.

An officer called Kerr is with me—one of the First Cameronians. He was hit in the bombing show about an hour before I got up there on Monday morning, so I’ve got some sidelights on what really happened.

At present I am still feeling warlike, and quite prepared to go back to the line in a few weeks. My wound is fairly comfortable, and will be healed in a fortnight, they say. I know it would be best for me not to go back to England, where I should probably be landed for at least three months, and return to the line in July or August, with all the hell and wrench of coming back and settling down to be gone through again. I think I’ve established a very strong position in the Second Battalion in the five weeks I was with them. My luck never deserts me; it seems inevitable
for me to be cast for the part of ‘leading hero!’

Things to remember

The dull red rainy dawn on Sunday April 15, when we had relieved the 15th Northumberland Fusiliers—our Company of eighty men taking over a frontage of nine hundred yards.

During the relief—stumbling along the trench in the dusk, dead men and living lying against the sides of the trench one never knew which were dead and which living. Dead and living were very nearly one, for death was in all our hearts. Kirkby shaking dead German[2] by the shoulder to ask him the way.

On April 14 the 19th Brigade attacked at 5.30 a.m. I looked across at the hill where a round red sun was coming up. The hill was deeply shadowed and grey-blue, and all the Country was full of shell-flashes and drifting smoke. A battle picture.

Scene in the Hénin Dressing Station. The two bad cases—abdomen (hopeless) and ankle. The pitiful parson. My walk with Mansfield.

Sergeant Baldwin (A. Company) his impassive demeanour—like a well-trained footman. ‘My officer’s been hit.’ He bound up my wound.[3]

As these notes suggest, there will be a good deal more to write about all this.


A few days after learning of her husband’s death, Ethel Hermon received the heartfelt letter from his long-time manservant Gordon Buxton.

Dear Buxton,

Your letter came this morning & I can never thank you enough for your loving care of him & your sympathy & prayers. I knew you would be heartbroken & that I should have all your sympathy as you probably knew as well as anyone could know how much we were to each other.

You will by now have had my other letter telling you that I have asked Gen. Trevor… to let you come home if it is possible as I simply long to talk to you… I seem to know all that pen & paper can tell, one just longs to talk to someone who was there…

I should leave it there, as we press on into this massively choral day. To summarize, Ethel also charges Buckin with seeing that her husband’s valuable and useful possessions are distributed to his friends, and that the items that had been personal, close to his body–“the old basin & cover & its contents”–be returned to her. She hopes, too, that he can care for her husband’s grave. Which he will do–and he will come home.

A British tank ditched in the German lines at Arras, IWM

Dear Mrs. Hermon,

I’m sending this note by Buxton who goes on leave today to report to you. He will bring the papers etc. found on your husband…

…a tank was caught up on the German front line… & the Boches were firing at it… there seems little doubt that one these rifle bullets hit your husband just below the heart… The medical officer tells me he thinks a big blood vessel below the heart was severed & that death was almost instantaneous.

Your husband’s horses are being sent to Div. Hd. Qrs with the groom…

I can only repeat how much I feel for you in your irreparable loss.

Yours very sincerely,

H.E. Trevor[4]


Kate Luard‘s parade of horrors (we’ve read but a little, lately) has abated, as the Arras push lags. So time for a stroll–and paperwork.

We have had a lull the last two days, and everybody has been off duty long enough to go for a walk in relays and pick Lent lilies, cowslips, and anemones…  I believe another stunt is expected tomorrow…

I got about 60 behind in Break-the-News letters the first few days of last week…[5]


Ivor Gurney, realizing perhaps that he is even more lucky to be wounded and out of it than he had thought, managed a post card today to Marion Scott:

Dear Friend: Still at the Base. No certain address. No certain tomorrow. No luck. No money. No damage to my arm, save a hole. Yet, had the boats been running, I might have got to Blighty…[6]


Let’s see: what else is happening with the Great War writers?


Christopher Wiseman arrived in Harrogate to visit John Ronald Tolkien, and to help him in compiling a memorial volume of their friend G.B. Smith’s work.[7]


In fiction, today is the key date in “The Colonel’s Shoes,” a curious supernatural shaggy-dog short story by Ford Madox Hueffer. It’s a tale told in retrospect that hinges on bitter, childish infighting among a few officers and plays out in the orderly room of their overworked battalion. Today, a century back, a vindictive captain writes up a Company-Sergeant-Major for perceived insubordination, and it will take a very, very minor miracle to set things right…[8]


And after the excitement of last night’s chaotic patrol, tonight’s action provided tension in a lower key for Alf Pollard and the H.A.C. Ordered to move forward under cover of darkness and entrench within 200 yards of the Germans, Pollard accidentally led his men all the way up to the German wire obstacles. But once again “Fritz was keeping a very bad watch” and Pollard and his men are able to withdraw to the proper distance and begin entrenching before they are discovered. Pollard being Pollard, he ascertains that the battalion on his left is in the wrong position and blusters back under fire to explain his prowess and sure grasp of the situation to the Brigadier, as well as the embarrassed colonel of that neighboring battalion…[9]


Rowland Feilding missed the first week of the battle, but it is now the lot of his battalion to hold trenches in the worst possible weather, and fight the same war of patrol and counter-patrol.

April 17, 1917. “‘Turnerstown Left” (Fierstraat Sector).

I think this year must be accursed. Never was a fouler day than to-day. After a wet night it is still raining this morning, and the wind is howling dismally, but overhead. There are points, after all, in being in a trench. The French seem to have made a spectacular re-entry into the arena yesterday, but they must have been greatly handicapped by the weather, like our men at Vimy.

Last night we captured two big Prussian Grenadiers (unwounded) on our wire. They were brought to my dugout at 2 a.m., looking frightened—with their hands still outstretched in the orthodox manner of the surrendered prisoner who desires to show that he is not armed; coated with mud; one bleeding from a tear from the wire; but neither seeming too unhappy. If one only knew German this would be the proper time to extract information. They are too scared to lie much. Later, when they find out how kindly is the British soldier, they become sly and independent.[10]


Llewelyn Wyn Griffith, whose harrowing summer was followed by a long spell of peaceful staff work, was sent back to his battalion today, a century back, taking over C Company of the 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers. We hear time and again how officers pine for their comrades and their men when they are sent off to safe billets and cushy staff positions–not so Griffith, who “set off despondently” to return to the hardships of the line.[11]


And with another Kitchener battalion of the Royal Welch, David Jones is also heading back toward the front.

On the 17th, in wind and sleet, they left for divisional reserve at Roussel Farm–the cold mud so deep that it took hours to pass through 400 yards of communication trench. They arrived at 3.30 a.m.[12]


Henry Williamson “wrote a lot of letters” today, including one to his mother enclosing a piece of army propaganda about German demoralization and one to his father describing the roar of the big naval guns, the sight of a British tanker driven mad by the gunfire concentrated on his tank, and the recent transaction of parcels: cake and bullseyes to Henry in France, and souvenirs–including “2 tin boxes of bombs, etc., and 3 lovely helmets… & a saw bayonet”–sent home.[13]


Vera Brittain remains too far from the front, and full of worry. To her brother Edward, today, a century back:

I have to keep on writing letters, because the vague bits of news from France that filter through to us make me so anxious to receive them. From the long list of names that appear in the telegrams there seems to be a vast battle going on along the whole of our front & the French one too, but it is very difficult to make out at all what is happening. Is Geoffrey anywhere in the Bapaume direction? The longer the War goes on, the more one’s concern in the whole immense business seems to centre itself upon the few beings still left that one cares about, & the less upon the general issue of the struggle. One’s personal interest wears one’s patriotism rather threadbare by this time. After all, it is a garment one has had to wear for a very long time, so there’s not much wonder if it is beginning to get a little shabby![14]

Looking back on this night, she will add these thoughts:

Yet another night’s red moon, I thought, looking up after finishing Edward’s letter at the ominous glow in the unquiet sky. Another night, and still no news. Is Victor still alive? Is Geoffrey? Oh, God–it’s intolerable to be out here, knowing nothing till ages afterwards, but just wondering and wondering what has happened![15]


Jack Martin, in billets at Dickebusch, took today to write out fairly lengthy pen-portraits of some of his comrades… but I’m only human…[16]


Vivian de Sola Pinto, working for weeks now at the Bull Ring near Rouen, records today’s date–I would guess a scrap of his orders was preserved, for there are few dates and few such specifics in his book–as the occasion of a “huge fatigue party” that spent the entire day loading lorries. But it was also a memorable occasion because the station from which he was to supervise the loading contained a sergeant and two classes of furniture: a comfy chair and a biscuit tin.

With wry approval de Sola Pinto notes the sergeant’s insistence–“a fine example of what I would call a manly spirit of volunteer subordination”–that the officer take the better chair, despite the fact that both of them “knew he was an infinitely better soldier than I should ever be.” de Sola Pinto insists on taking turns, but recognizes that the Sergeant’s principled, if nominal, subordination “actually enhanced” his dignity.[17]


George Coppard, recovered from the accidental shooting in the foot, arrived today at “Camiers, a reception base for drafts.”[18]


C.E. Montague wrote both a letter and a diary entry recording his view of the battle from close behind. Wise though he is, he still feels bereft that his old companions are in battle and he is not. And he shows what a man with the time for literary composition on his hands can do. This is a good mix of eyewitness reportage and refined “battle-piece” history.

April 17, 1917

…Behold me again in the midst of our long-drawn battles—-meet incidents of our long-drawn war.

I saw the beginning of this one, before daylight on the morning of the 9th, from a little height above our front, from which I could see all our guns flash off together at the second of starting, like a beaded line of electric lights all turned on from one switch, and then each of them turned on and off and on again as fast as possible by a switch of its own. At intervals beyond this line of flashes there were the big geysers of flame, and dark objects visible in the middle of it, spouting up from our mines under the German front trench; and then at every two or three hundred yards there went up signal rockets from the German trenches, that seemed like visible shrieks to their artillery and supports to protect them from our infantry, who, they knew, were then on their way across from our trenches. I could see all this going on along several miles of front, and it was strangely dramatic, though all expressed through lights in the darkness alone, until the day broke and we could see our infantry already beyond the second line of enemy trenches and sauntering across quietly to the third, with our barrage of smoke walking steadily in front of them like the pillar of smoke in the desert—only of course it cannot give complete safety; and now and then the line would have a gap made in it by a shell and would join up again across the gap, and go strolling, with the strange look of leisureliness that an infantry charge of the scientific kind has now, until the time comes to rush the last few yards and jump down into the enemy’s trench.

It is grievous to to think that my battalion has twice had this great moment since I left it last midsummer, and that I may never know any more thrilling contact with the enemy than mutual sniping and a little reconnoitring of ground between his trenches and ours. The only compensation, so far as it goes, is that I see much more of the war and of the front as a whole, and the battlefield of the moment in particular, than one sees when engaged in honest regimental labour.

And in his diary:

Miles and miles of our front begin to dance in the dark, with twinkling and shimmering flashes. Suggests a long keyboard on which notes of light are being swiftly played. Then, from points all along German front, signal red and white and green rockets go up. Also ‘golden rains’ of our liquid fire, and one or two mine volcanoes. Dawn breaks on this firework show. Then on to a huge earthwork, an outwork of Arras citadel and lie on safe side and look over with fieldglass. Our infantry visible advancing in successive waves to take the second German trench-line N.E. of
Arras. Disquieted flocks of rooks. Then to Divl. H.Q., to find good news.


Charles Carrington‘s writing is honest, balanced, and well-informed. But he generally takes pains to, as they say, accentuate the positive. His morale and that of his unit’s was generally good–they have not despaired, they are more grim and more devoted to each other when they have started, but they would not acknowledge any sea change in their motivations, etc. But some days–and some nights, like last night, a century back, as they pressed up through the wreckage of this second push at Arras–were enough to drive a man to madness, despair, and self-slaughter. Last night he huddled under trench mortars; today was worse.

…In the morning, when we advanced unopposed, I passed the corpse of a British sergeant, not of my regiment. He lay on his back holding a revolver in his hand, shot through the throat at such an angle that I wondered if it had been suicide. If I had been suicidally inclined that night would have driven me to it.[19]


Edwin Vaughan and his battalion have been following the attack as well, and he writes voluminously of these days. But given his sensitive nature and penchant for drama, I don’t think he would mind my making this the representative incident:

At the Epéhy crossroads, we found a huge cat squatting on the chest of a dead German, eating his face. It made us sick to see it, and I sent two men to chase it away. As they approached it sprang snarling at them, but they beat it down with their rifles and drove it into the ruined houses. Then we covered the body with a sack, and went on.[20]


But we’ll end in Britain, in safety, and in the boudoir, where Duff Cooper has also been engaged in dire combat. Patrick Shaw-Stewart has been called back to war, but Cooper’s worries about other adversaries have pushed him closer to total war. Or, at least, to warfare unbefitting a gentleman. During Diana Manners‘ temporary absence from their long house party in Scotland he had been “obliged”–this is four days ago, a century back–to take a bath in her room. Where he opened and read her locked diary.[21]

It was rather vile of me…

It was, and we’ll skip the justifications. Amazingly, Cooper is both moved by learning “how much she loved Raymond” and urged to take action against his living rivals for her affection, including one Wimborne and a Lt-Col. Wilson who, of course, is known as “Scatters.”

There is no reference to me in the diary that I could quarrel with but I do not think she loves me… I rose from the perusal of this intimate diary which I had no right to read, loving, liking, and admiring her more than before.

And somehow this added up to progress. Cooper confessed his deed and was not banished. In fact, by last night he was reading her pages of his diary, then listening in agony outside her door while she (scandalously) entertained “Scatters” in the wee hours of today, a century back, and then returning in before dawn to wake her up with recrimination.

She cried and reproached me bitterly with not trusting and spying on her. I felt in the wrong and implored forgiveness which only after long pleading she granted. Then we had a night of the most wild and perfect joy. The best perhaps we ever had.[22]

And somewhere, every dawn, some men attack, and many sighs are drained.


References and Footnotes

  1. This may be--I joke here, almost completely, and with full apology for trespassing on the sanctity of life-or-death experience "from my armchair" (three words which I omitted from the Memoirs yesterday; but the armchair was only one possible destiny, for Sassoon)--the centennial blogger equivalent of Sassoon's mood at the very end of his escapade, yesterday, a century back...
  2. See Sassoon's "The Rear Guard," at the bottom of that post.
  3. Diaries, 156-7.
  4. For Love and Courage, 355, 358.
  5. Unknown Warriors, 114.
  6. War Letters, 155.
  7. Chronicle, 100.
  8. War Prose, 159-69.
  9. Fire-Eater, 209-11.
  10. War Letters to a Wife, 168.
  11. Griffith, Up to Mametz and Beyond, 138.
  12. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 153.
  13. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 119-20.
  14. Letters from a Lost Generation, 334-5.
  15. Testament of Youth, 339.
  16. Sapper Martin, 60-4.
  17. The City that Shone, 190.
  18. With a Machine Gun, 106.
  19. Soldier From the Wars Returning, 145.
  20. Some Desperate Glory, 95-6.
  21. What, I ask you, is the point of all of that fancy classical education if Cooper can pull up and manage some allusion to Actaeon, transformed into a deer and torn apart by his own hounds after seeing Artemis in the bath. Perhaps, as he considers leaving the Foreign Office for the Army, the vengeful hounds of his old hunting partners, become ravening ghosts, perhaps, are a bit too frightening to contemplate.
  22. Duff Cooper Diaries, 50-1.

A Medical Board for Robert Graves; Hope for Return for Edward Thomas; Edmund Blunden: Back and There Again

Three poets are almost on the move today, a century back: one cleared to leave, another about to be reprieved, and a third gone to England and, in a flash, back over there again.


Two of these we can cover in the briefest of notes. First, Robert Graves. He returned to limited duties at Litherland Camp some weeks ago, more or less recovered from his wounds and very happy to be reunited with Siegfried Sassoon. But like so many young veterans, he feels at loose ends away from combat. Although his wounds had been severe and his several breathing problems–lung wound, nose problems, sensitivity to gas–should have been enough to get him barred from service in the trenches (where gas masks were a frequent necessity), he seems to have encouraged today’s Medical Board to pass him fit for a return to France. Which they duly did.[1]


Next, Edward Thomas–Thomas has not yet been to France, but he too is unhappy with the half-measure of home service. After volunteering for immediate assignment to a battery, he has been assuming that he will receive no leave before his posting. He may be wrong, as today’s postcard to Eleanor Farjeon reveals:

After all, I believe I may get away and see you on Friday. Isn’t it—or won’t it—be luck?

E. T.[2]

He means, of course, that it would be. And yet when he had volunteered, there was relief at the possibility of France without further leave–no final partings, no more emotional strain at home until the emotional strain of combat had been felt. Did he write home, as well, or does the hoped-for leave encompass London, but not his family, at Steep? Time will tell…


And finally, Edmund Blunden. Blunden’s memoir–which I cannot praise enough, but should occasionally leave off praising–is self-consciously a memoir of the experience of war. This includes battle, and trench duty, and even–especially, perhaps–the camaraderie of the quiet moments that soldiers share behind the lines. Or the not so quiet moments in billets–it’s all part of the adventure. But while some memoirs dwell on how the longed-for leave can turn out to be so difficult and the irony of the proximity of home to trench so destabilizing–while others briefly emphasize the great joy of even a temporary reunion with loved ones–Blunden has a simpler solution to narrative and emotional discontinuity: he omits it.

On December 5th, his battalion had marched back from the vicinity of Ypres and entrained for a long period of rest in the town of Moulle. There they were reinforced and resupplied, rebuilt morale through several days of games, and received weapons training. And, of course, the officers indulged in the familiar comedy of gentle Englishmen billeted among French countryfolk. For Blunden, shy enough to have earned the nickname “rabbit,” this experience centered on his landladies, including “the lady of the curé’s house.”

She, with hostile rays of repellence, scarcely let me pass the door into that dim religious atmosphere as of cassock and taper, but perhaps something had gone wrong in the days before me. My room was adorned with inexpensive angels, who also seemed distant and cold. Another billet here was the lair of a most formidable woman of bosomy immenseness, who assailed me in full fury out of the void. Her children, all rejoicing to inherit a bass voice and a squint, were very handy in filching our meat and coal. I was tempted to avenge myself and us by leaving her a safety razor as a parting gift.[3] But these little charities were interrupted when suddenly the lunatical news reached me that I was to go on leave, and the mess cart was driving down to St. Omer with me in it and a yellow warrant in my hand.

How to express that hour?
Do not try.

At St. Omer the expected report hit me a punch combining the talent of Spring, Fitzsimmons, and Dempsey. “All leave stopped.”

This was a lie.

In other words, he did go on leave. But blink and you will miss it. Undertones continues with this one characteristic anecdote of the lovable young subaltern and his kindly demigod of a commanding officer, and then we are whisked back to Ypres:

I wore a little warm-coat, a cyclist’s coat, experimentally made. Harrison had given it to me, and had repeated these words: “Rabbit, you are not to go on leave in that coat.” As I was standing on Victoria Station about to enter the return train for Folkestone and France I caught sight of my colonel in conversation with someone even more Olympian than himself. There was no help for it. I ran up, and saluted. “Rabbit!” Harrison roared with laughter. “That coat!” His friend smiled sympathy at me, but I was in torment, and as usual, in the words of one of our contemporaries, I had only myself to blame.

Going on leave, I had heard a colonel on the seat opposite indulge in a little eloquence about the evil icyness of some gunpits by Zillebeke Lake, just out of Ypres, the winter before; and returning, I guessed by my movement order that the battalion was in the line, and meditated a little. Still, however, the weather was misty and peaceful, and the worst was not yet to be feared by a healthy youth. At Poperinghe a draft of perhaps sixty soldiers was put in my charge, and I was told to make my way to the Red Hart Estaminet on the canal bank near Ypres. It did not strike me at first that an estaminet with a name like that would be a surly ruin, not dealing in malaga, thin beer, or grenadine.

And so he’s back–not a word on England, home,or family.

The details in the paragraph below–particularly the arrival of Olive (today, a century back, according to the Battalion War Diary) make it likely that Blunden returned to France today:

Nor, even when I arrived there, did the unholy Salient at first reveal itself. The battalion was in dugouts along the broad Yser Canal, with its lines of slender trees and its neat wooden bridges. Handing over my reinforcements to Daniels, whose swift glance and fine word of command immediately shepherded them into our fighting strength, I went along to the head- quarters dugout, and, looking round first, asked, “How’s things?” The battalion had been in the trenches above, and a wonderful tranquillity had blessed it. There was only one flaw, and that was the presence of the “fraud,” who at the moment was elsewhere. I meanly rejoiced to hear that he had slunk about the trenches with his head well down (whether he had or not), and we all hoped Harrison would shake off his trance when he returned. For two or three days we were here, in the remarkable terraced shelters on the bank of that drowsy canal, and working parties and wanderings were all that happened. Machine guns did homage to Night, and that was almost the only unrest. A spy was reported to be lurking about Wilson Farm, but nobody could find him; and from the company headquarters one heard such cheerful singings and improvisations as seemed to hail the Salient as the garden of Adonis. Here first I came upon Olive, a new officer younger than myself, and addressed him with the gravity and the philosophy of old age.[4]


References and Footnotes

  1. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 167.
  2. Farjeon, Edward Thomas..., 235.
  3. This, at least to my memory, is the nastiest thing Blunden writes in his book... how out of character!
  4. Undertones of War, 130-1.

Three Writers Down; The Royal Welch Fusiliers Before High Wood: Frank Richards a Runner and Robert Graves in Mid-Stride; A Letter from Harold Macmillan and a Phone Call for General Congreve

The Battle of the Somme continues, with the British forces near the center of the initial assault pushing north into the German second line. This phase is usually called the Battle of Bazentin Ridge, and the map below will help situate us: the contour lines the snake over the north of the map show the height of the ridge–and of the aptly named High Wood. Mametz Wood, now securely in the rear, is just to the south of the western section of this map.

As of this morning, the British have been driven out of High Wood, and the line generally runs across the central and southern reaches of this map. Elements of the 2nd Royal Welch Fusiliers are moving up toward the Cemetery (between the 8 and 9, left center) in support of another assault of the Wood, while South African troops have made their name in bloody fighting at Longueval and Delville Wood (in the lower right of the map). Today, a century back, the 2nd Royal Welch will await their turn to enter High Wood, while elements of Billy Congreve‘s 76th Brigade will attempt to secure the rest of Longueval.bazeintin ridge







Robert Graves preserved and published this battalion order, still in its signalling grid, that he received just after midnight, i.e. at the very beginning of today, a century back. He has now–that politically unfortunate Special Reserve seniority of his–been given command of B Company:

To O.C. B Co. 2nd R.W.F. 20.7.16.

Companies will move as under
to same positions in S14b
as were to have been
taken over from Cameronians aaa
A Coy. 12.30 a.m.
B Coy, 12.45 a.m.
C Coy. 1 a.m.
D Coy. 1.15 a.m. aaa
At 2 a.m. Company Commanders
will meet C.O. at X
Roads S14b 99. aaa
Men will lie down and
get under cover but equipment
will not be taken off
s14b99, bazentin

A lesson in map-reading from Robert Graves. A detail of the above map, we can find square 14, quarter-square “b” (always the top-right quarter-square), and the crossroads in the very top corner (9, 9 on the x and y axes). Amusingly, we’ve got the maps available online and Graves evidently didn’t have his handy when he was working from the battalion order: the crossroads is not near the churchyard. See the next map, below.

Graves continues:

S 14b 99 was a map reference for Bazentin churchyard. We lay here on the reverse slope of a slight ridge about half a mile from the wood. I attended the meeting of company commanders; the colonel told us the plan. He said: “Look here, you fellows, we’re in reserve for this attack. The Cameronians are going up to the wood first, then the Fifth Scottish Rifles; that’s at five a.m. The Public Schools Battalion are in support if anything goes wrong. I don’t know if we shall be called on; if we are, it will mean that the Jocks have legged it. As usual,” he added. This was an appeal to prejudice. “The Public Schools Battalion is, well, what we know, so if we are called for, that means it will be the end of us.” He said this with a laugh and we all laughed. We were sitting on the ground protected by the road-bank; a battery of French 75’s was firing rapid over our heads about twenty yards away.[1] There was a very great concentration of guns in Happy Valley now. We could hardly hear what he was saying. He told us that if we did get orders to reinforce, we were to shake out in artillery formation; once in the wood we were to hang on like death. Then he said good-bye and good luck and we rejoined our companies.

At this juncture the usual inappropriate message came through from Division. Division could always be trusted to send through a warning about verdigris on vermorel-sprayers, or the keeping of pets in trenches, or being polite to our allies, or some other triviality, when an attack was in progress. This time it was an order for a private in C Company to report immediately to the assistant provost-marshal back at Albert, under escort of a lance-corporal. He was for a court-martial. A sergeant of the company was also ordered to report as a witness in the case. The private was charged with the murder of a French civilian in an estaminet at Béthune about a month previously. Apparently there had been a good deal of brandy going and the French civilian, who had a grudge against the British (it was about his wife), started to tease the private. He was reported, somewhat improbably, as having said: “English no bon, Allmand très bon. War fineesh, napoo the English. Allmand win.” The private had immediately drawn his bayonet and run the man through. At the court-martial the private was exculpated; the French civil representative commended him for having “energetically repressed local defeatism.” So he and the two N.C.O.’s missed the battle.

It is very like Robert Graves to seize on this story of triplicate absurdity–bureaucracy’s impervious shamble, pointless violence and exculpatory cant–and insert it here between build-up and disaster. And yet: given what we know of Graves’s punctilious preference for the yarn over the whole cloth of the truth–and given what we will read of the difficulty of getting any message to the advanced battalions today, this must be, at the very least, an anecdote-out-of-time.

But the Royal Welch were in a bad position. They had moved forward (from the crossroads of the meeting into or near Bazentin Cemetery) but then waited for hours in an area devoid of real cover–an area, moreover, which was constantly searched by German artillery, firing against the nearby British batteries or seeking to drop shells on the routes used by reinforcements and carrying parties. By about 10 o’clock, the battalion had taken something like 100 casualties. When the barrage increased, Graves ordered B company to move slightly back, and as they did so, a German “crump”–a large-caliber shell–exploded among them.

I heard the explosion and felt as though I had been punched rather hard between the shoulder-blades, but had no sensation of pain. I thought that the punch was merely the shock of the explosion; then blood started trickling into my eye and I felt faint and called to Moodie: “I’ve been hit.” Then I fell down. A minute or two before I had had two very small wounds on my left hand; they were in exactly the same position as the two, on my right hand, that I had got during the preliminary bombardment at Loos. This I had taken as a sign that I would come through all right. For further security I had repeated to myself a line of Nietsche’s, whose poems, in French, I had with me:

Non, tu ne peux pas me tuer.[2]

It was the poem about a man on the scaffold with the red-bearded executioner standing over him. (This copy of Nietsche, by the way, had contributed to the suspicions about me as a spy. Nietsche was execrated in the papers as the philosopher of German militarism; he was more popularly interpreted as a William le Queux mystery-man–the sinister figure behind the Kaiser.)[3]

One piece of shell went through my left thigh, high up near the groin; I must have been at the full stretch of my stride to have escaped emasculation. The wound over the eye was nothing; it was a little chip of marble, possibly from one of the Bazentin cemetery headstones. This and a finger wound, which split the bone, probably came from another shell that burst in front of me. The main wound was made by a piece of shell that went in two inches below the point of my right shoulder and came out through my chest two inches above my right nipple, in a line between it and the base of my neck.

My memory of what happened then is vague. Apparently Doctor Dunn came up through the barrage with a stretcher-party, dressed my wound, and got me down to the old German dressing-station at the north end of Mametz Wood. I just remember being put on the stretcher and winking at the stretcher-bearer sergeant who was looking at me and saying: “Old Gravy’s got it, all right.”

Dr. Dunn came up indeed, and treated what he called “a bad chest wound of the kind that few recover from,” and then sent Graves on to the dressing station near Mametz Wood. This was at present overwhelmed with casualties coming back from the bungled attack in front. So, following standard procedure, Graves, unconscious with a sucking chest wound, was left to die while medics focused on helping those who could be saved.


But it still goes on. Colonel “Tibs” Crawshay[4] was by now frustrated nearly to distraction. His battalion is being destroyed, deedless, waiting to be committed to an attack that is obviously failing (the wounded of other battalions in the brigade are streaming back), by a command structure so far back that it can’t possibly do the right thing soon enough.

The passage of messages… between front and rear was always a difficulty, and a vexation at both ends. Before the action Radford had been asked for by Brigade to be employed as a Forward Liaison Officer. He was detailed with some signallers to use Bazentin-le-Petit Windmill, 200 yards east of the Cemetery, as the forward post of a relay system.

bazentin to high wood

The Churchyard, the Windmill, and High Wood

(On the map at right we can see the ground covered between Graves’s crossroads and the churchyard. Each of the smaller squares (i.e. quarters of the numbered squares) is 500 yards long and wide, so they had moved by about that much. The crossroads can be seen at center, bottom, and the cemetery and the windmill are at 8b-c and 9a-b, respectively; High Wood is some 1400 yards away to the northeast, in the upper right.)

Captain Radford, seconded to the Brigade for signalling, describes the problem of communications, the heart of “command and control:”

At the beginning of the morning attack the enemy barrage cut the wires. The barrage smoke made lamp signalling impossible… the wireless set provided was for transmission only, so it was not known if messages were being received… Brigade was in poor quarters… in… Mametz Wood, nearly two miles from High Wood, although deep and roomy dug-outs made for a German division were in Bazentin-le-Petit within a few yards of screened view-points from which the face of High Wood and the Flers road could be seen. Advanced Brigade, so-called, in the quarry by the Cemetery roadside, was a mere relay post. This remoteness was laid down in a General Routine Order issued because of casualties earlier in the War. The Order was circumvented by Brigadiers who know when and how to do it, but times without number it warranted the utter negation of Command when prompt and authoritative decision was needed, especially if more than one unit was concerned. Prompt decision and action were essential this day, ‘yet none of our Brigade Staff came within hundreds of yards of its dissolving units.’ The cost in all the lower ranks of preserving some General of brigade and division, and some members of their Staffs, is beyond reckoning, but must be stupendous.


Frank Richards‘s account of this attack is fascinating. A trained signaller, he was one of the men sent forward under Captain Radford and took up a position in the mill. Briefly, then:

We had a good view of everything from here, but we also found that when we were exchanging messages with the wood, the enemy would have an equally good view of us, especially when we were flag-waving… by 10 a.m. they had put up one of the worst barrages that I was ever under.

Richards has set up this moment well. A day or two before, a fierce barrage had left a man mortally wounded–Richards uses the transparent euphemism “hit low down”–and his buddies contemplating killing him to stop his agony. As they deliberated, a stretcher-bearer “went mad and started to undress himself. He was uttering horrible screams and we had to fight with him and overpower him before he could be got to the Aid Post.” The man died before any action was taken, but then Richards’s pal Duffy is also hit “low down.”

…it was a bad wound and I knew his case was hopeless; but he was conscious…

As Richards and three men carry him back, a shell splinter narrowly misses Richards’s foot.

Although Duffy was dying on the stretcher he noticed it as he hung his head over the side and said “Hard lines, Dick! If a youngster had been in your place he would have had a beautiful Blighty wound through the foot. We old ones aren’t lucky enough to stop one that way. We generally stop one the way I have done.”

Duffy dies not long after reaching the aid post, and Richards returns to action. Today, then, his parting words hang heavily. As the shelling picks up pace, five of the men in the brigade signalling post on the hilltop retreat to a shell-hole “absolutely useless and terror-stricken.” Richards has to summon a runner to write down a message as he reads it.

When I was about halfway through it, he gave a shout; I turned round and found him groaning on the ground. A shell splinter which must have passed high up between my legs had hit him in the thigh. It was a nasty wound…

Near-emasculation has become a strangely persistent theme, perhaps to counterbalance the fact that these of all wounds were impossible to introduce into polite company in 1916…

Nor does the message that nearly killed Richards get through. After the advanced signalling team is hit by shellfire, the flags are abandoned and Richards is ordered to run messages–literally run, since no more swift or more advanced form of communications is working–between brigade headquarters and the brigade’s advanced battalions in High Wood. He sees terrible things passing through the debatable valley. On one run he passes a trench full of men as he goes toward the wood, then re-passes it minutes later and sees that it is full of corpses and scattered body parts.

Richards has seen a lot, but today moved him to a rare note of protest:

I have often wondered since them, if all the leading statesmen and generals of the warring countries had been threatened to be put under the barrage during the day of the 20th July, 1916, and were told that if they survived it they would be forced to be under a similar one in a week’s time, whether they would have all met together and signed a peace treaty before the week was up.

Then, true to his “old soldier” persona, Richards ends the chapter on a different note. The Royal Welch took heavy casualties, but the well-born men of the Public Schools Battalion suffered even more.

It was the custom that all parcels that arrived for men who were casualties should be distributed among the survivors. The Commanding Officer of the Public Schools Battalion kindly sent a number of mailbags full of parcels for distribution among our men. We lived on luxuries for the next few days.[5]


Back, now, to Captain Radford’s account:

The supply of runners was soon exhausted and was not replaced. At noon I went to Brigade to report the futility of it all…

Ironically, as he left his post to protest its futility an earlier order from Brigade finally reached some of the forward battalions. It was hours late, and in urging reinforcements into the Wood it referred to an earlier stage of the attack, but it nevertheless gave Colonel Crawshay of the Royal Welch the excuse he needed to move forward. The battalion had been at roughly half-strength when it came up, then suffered many casualties and detached a good number of men for carrying parties and duties such as Richards’s signalling station. Only a few hundred men formed up. By the time they had organized, covered the shell-strewn near-mile to High Wood, and fallen out into attack formation, it was nearly 2 o’clock.

The 2nd Royal Welch entered High Wood in something like replay of the 15th entering Mametz Wood. Thick foliage, fallen trees, enfilade fire and bursting shells, confusion, no real sense of where the Germans were, the shattered panicky remnants of the earlier units… but the 2nd Battalion was a highly experienced battalion built around a core of prideful Regulars, and they cleared much of the wood in a furious “bush-mêlée” that the chronicle essentially cannot describe. Furious, and incredibly costly: there were 150 casualties in the batalion, perhaps more than half of the men engaged in the fight. Every single officer who entered the Wood was either killed or wounded.

And then, crippling anti-climax. The Welch and the other battalions of the brigade are now ordered to fall back because the farthest parts of the Wood are untenable due to German machine gun fire. But these machine guns had never been addressed by any part of the attack plan. So have they been sent, twice, to assault a position, at great cost, when it was never thought to be worth holding? Or is the staff at Division and Corps level so callous and foolhardy that they are willing to spend hundreds of lives to take a place and only then decide if it is worth the taking?

The interloper from the Divisional Staff who arrived in the early evening had no satisfactory answer.

Nothing, however, was so maddening as his parting remark, “the General has the situation in hand”–spoken with a straight face. The situation never was grasped. Fumbling fingers far away had trifled with opportunity for hours…[6]

Dr. Dunn’s chronicle is woven from the words of career soldiers, regulars of a proud regiment not given to undue carping about the higher-ups (and supplemented, too, by a few temporary officers and tough old soldiers and non-coms). These are not the disillusioned volunteers crying out against chateau generals. And yet their history, today, is one of foolish attack plans, horribly wasteful standing orders, poor management, and craven overconfidence–it’s not the chateau generals that did for their plan of attack, but rather the remote brigadier and the indifferent, ignorant, map-besotted divisional general–their few miles over hill and dale is more than enough for complete incomprehension.

The fog of war is to a certain extent inevitable, but there is no excuse for generals who believe that they can collate fragmentary and out-of-date reports, glance at the map, and know the truth. Decisive action in effective ignorance is worse than resignation, especially when there are capable officers actually on the scene. These generals are fraudulent seers and cold-eyed killer kings in one person, and all the worse if, in telling themselves that it’s tough job and someone has to do it, they don’t even realize what they are doing.


Apologies for the outburst. It’s a century gone, no? Anyway, this concludes today’s entry as far as the Royal Welch go. There is much more to come, of course–we will not leave Robert Graves lying on that stretcher under the eaves of Mametz Wood. But there was much fighting elsewhere on the Somme, and two more of our writers have been hit.


Amidst the staccato beat of calamity and notification, there is a more hopeful stroke, today. Harold Macmillan, too, has been wounded on the Somme:

I don’t know whether my postcard has reached you. I hope it didn’t frighten you. I wrote it as soon as I got down to the Bn. dressing station and had seen the Doctor.

Both my wounds are luckily very slight…

Macmillan had volunteered for a patrol, either last night or the night before, to ascertain the location of nearby German positions.

I said I would go, and I took 2 men, both of whom I knew and trusted.

We got out a good way and I think we obtained all the information that we wanted. Unfortunately, just as were were going to come home, about 2.30 a.m. we were spotted by a German bombing post in a sap. They challenged us, but we cd. not see them to shoot, and of course they were entrenched while we were in the” open. So I motioned to my men to lie quite still in the long grass. Then they began throwing bombs at us at random. The first, unluckily, hit
me in the face and back and stunned me for the moment… the men never moved or ran till I gave the word… A lot of flares were fired, and when each flare went up, we flopped own in the grass and waited till it had died down…

…I was able to master myself, and it was not till I got back in the trench that I found I was also hit just above the left temple, close to the eye. The pair of spectacles which I was wearing must have been blown off by the force of the explosion, for I never saw them again. Very luckily they were not smashed and driven into my eye…[7]

The rest of Macmillan’s letter–which omits the grim details of his men returning fire and killing at least one German at close range–is concerned with letting his family down easy. These are slight wounds, and he would only be sent to England if it so happened that the hospitals in France were still filled with the more seriously wounded. His duty, he explains, is to find a way to stay in France and return to his duties as soon as may be…


Finally, today, and worse, we have a family that won’t be notified in the usual way.

Billy Congreve was a conscientious Brigade Major, and when his brigade’s attack on Longeuval (see the first map, above) was held up, he went up himself to investigate. From a former German gun-pit he observed the front line and the German positions now under attack, ignoring warnings of nearby snipers. Exhausted after several days with little sleep and much movement around the battle zone–including multiple trips to bring in the wounded after failed attacks–Congreve seemed to the men around him to be depressed. He may have become incautious. And he was very tall.

Only minutes after Robert Graves was hit, a mile or two to the west, apparently killed but actually at the first stage of an excruciating odyssey, Congreve stepped down from the gun-pit into the main trench, and was shot through the neck. A sergeant standing next to him saw the bullet hit.

He stood for half a second and then collapsed. He never moved or spoke, and he was dead in a few seconds.


It’s unfortunate that this death reads here almost like a lost detail, a swallowed anti-climax of the already endlessly brutal Somme. This is not intentional, and it’s mostly unavoidable: Congreve had lost a volume of his diary, and if he began keeping another one it seems not to have made it home. So he fell silent, here, months before he was silenced.


Major Billy Congreve, VC

Congreve was a formidable soldier. Boyishly handsome and gangly, he was cool-headed and brave and had seized the opportunity of the war to swiftly advance the career he had just begun. A twenty-five-year-old (brevet) major, he had twice been decorated for gallantry, and his performance in the extreme situation of the last few days will soon earn him a posthumous Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest decoration for valor. This award had also been won by his father, W.N. Congreve.

And so the passing of the most terrible news began not with the usual grim race between the bureaucracy’s telegram and the notes of fellow-officers, but with a telephone call from 76th Brigade back to 3rd Division, and then across to XIII Corps Headquarters. A Brigadier General Greenly gave the news to General Congreve:

It was at a very important and critical moment, when the Corps were on the point of carrying out a very important and very daring operation, and where the direction of the corps commander was of the greatest importance. When I told him what had happened he was absolutely calm to all outward appearance and, after a few seconds of silence, said quite calmly, ‘He was a good soldier.'[8]

Billy Congreve was married to Pamela Maude on June 1st, and there was a brief honeymoon, but he parted from his wife in mid-June to return for the planning of the Somme Offensive. I don’t know this for certain, but it seems unlikely that he could have known, then, that he would become a father, in March. When the little girl is born, her father will be eight months dead.


References and Footnotes

  1. The very battery that Rowland Feilding admired yesterday. It would seem, however, that the valleys on both sides of Mametz Wood have attracted the same black comedic nickname... Or perhaps I am confused: in any event, this "Happy Valley" is north of the wood, not the "Death Valley" south of it...
  2. "No, you cannot kill me."
  3. This is not the oft-trotted-out "that which does not kill us" quote, but rather an oddly off French translation of a line in "Unter Feinden," which reads "Sterben? Sterben kann ich nicht!" or "Die? I can't die!" Suffice it to say that Nietzsche's complex and contradictory writings are just about the last thing that can, or will, get a fair shake in the British Army of the Great War. Which is why, of course, Graves is into them...
  4. If General Blackader anticipates Atkinson, surely this is a Monty Python name, avant la lettre.
  5. Old Soldiers Never Die, 186-92.
  6. The War the Infantry Knew, 229-41.
  7. From Downing Street to the Trenches, 207-9.
  8. Armageddon Road, 193-4.

The Fates Keep Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon Apart: “Nobody Loves Me” and “So Does the Landscape Grow Dark at Evening”

The paths of Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves have almost intersected once again. Learning yesterday that Graves’s Second Battalion is now in the area, Sassoon sent him a note, then puttered about with the transport of the First Battalion, to which he was once again been relegated.

July 13

Still we remain in this curious camp, which leaves a jumbled impression of horse-lines and waggons and men carrying empty deal shell-boxes, and tents, and bivouacs, and red poppies, and blue cornflowers, and straggling Méaulte village a little way off among the dark-green July trees, with pointed spire in the middle…

I keep reading Tess and The Return of the Native—they fit in admirably with my thoughts…[1]

It doesn’t do to oversimplify big novels too much, but one must: by fitting “admirably with my thoughts,” Sassoon means to say that they are full of both dreamy/eternal scenes of the countryside–and grim evidences of the implacable heartlessness of fate.

But Hardy is an old bard now, headstrong and furious, novelistically silent for decades but all the while issuing queer, sardonic poetry from his tautly furious, tight-stabbing pen. And Sassoon, although he enjoys writing about fate and the near-certainty of his own demise, is in fact an intermittently light-hearted pseudo-youth, whose main interests include solo explorations of nearby earthworks and joint poetic enthusiasms:

The Battalion are still waiting at the Citadel, three-quarters of a mile away, over the thistled slopes. Haven’t seen Robert Graves yet: he is near, with the Second Battalion—unpopular, of course, poor dear…

Ouch. But true. In Good-Bye to All That Graves marks his arrival with the battalion with the usual flurry of clever stories–he missed the raid but got to write the report on it, complete with historical comparisons, etc.–and with praise of Dr. Dunn and two other officers. As for the rest, Graves offers a seemingly unlikely explanation for his unpopularity: he had made enemies during his time at the battalion depot in Wales, and they had harassed him about his German ancestry. Now one of these enemies has come out to the Second Battalion and spread the story that Graves is a spy. Few, surely, believed this–even though Graves did indeed have a German mother and the unhelpful middle name of Von Ranke–but such rumors may have encouraged other officers to give in to a common inclination among Regular Officer types and shun the odd, untidy, intellectual outsider.

Although Graves will write that he was unaware at the time that he was so disliked, a note of today, a century back, makes it clear that he was not that obtuse.

While Sassoon mooned at the flowers and the wagons, Graves had tried to track him down, but failed:

13 July 1916, Buire

My dear Sassons

It’s heartbreaking how Fates keep us apart.

Yes, Sassoon’s fates are the furies which killed David Thomas and, he believes, will kill him–the same ones who ruined Tess and did for about half the cast of The Return of the Native. And for Robert Graves they are the drawing-room imps who keep friends apart for an afternoon or two…

The night I got your note I couldn’t come over to see you, for Regimental reasons; this morning ditto. This afternoon I got one and a half hours’ leave, rode over to Méaulte, through Méaulte, all around Méaulte–nobody knew where you were… The officers here, with very very few exceptions, are first-class four letter men and nobody loves me–they won’t give me a company though third senior in the battalion–everybody’s as damnably cold-shouldered as the lower forms of a Public School…

Contrary to my usual principle I’m at last looking out for a cushy wound. This time thirteen months ago I was a much bigger bug in the Second Welch than I am now, and my peace of mind was much greater. I’m homesick for the First Battalion, I am…

I want to go home to a quiet hospital war with green screens and no cracks in the ceiling to make me think of trenches.

Best love, old man


Sassoon was just a bit further back, his reveries undisturbed. Graves will try again tomorrow, but we’ll close this pas de deux with those unsettling reveries of Sassoon’s:

Sometimes when I see my companions lying asleep or resting, rolled in their blankets, their faces turned to earth or hidden by the folds, for a moment I wonder whether they are alive or dead. For at any hour I may come upon them, and find that long silence descended over them, their faces grey and disfigured, dark stains of blood soaking through their torn garments, all their hope and merriment snuffed out for ever, and their voices fading on the winds of thought, from memory to memory, from hour to hour, until they are no more to be recalled. So does the
landscape grow dark at evening; embowered with dusk, and backed with a sky full of gun-flashes. And then the night falls and the darkness of death and sleep.[3]


Adn another, most formidable writer is en route to the Somme. Ford Madox Hueffer, shambling literary provocateur and the unlikeliest subaltern in all the Welsh Regiment, left Cardiff today, a century back, with his battalion.[4]


References and Footnotes

  1. Sassoon includes a quotation, a landscape description, from The Return of the Native. In England, in a letter to his mother, Wilfred Owen quoted today a letter of Keats.
  2. In Broken Images, 54-55.
  3. Diaries, 92-3.
  4. Saunders, Ford Madox Ford, I 494.

Robert Graves Participates in a Curio Execution; Charles Sorley Takes Root

Today, a century back, is the date–in the loose-with-the-facts “autobiography,” at least–of one of Robert Graves‘s most entertaining letters from France.

We are billeted in the cellars of Vermelles, which was taken and re-taken eight times last October. Not a single house has remained undamaged in the town, which once must have had two or three thousand inhabitants. It is beautiful now in a fantastic way. We came up two nights ago; there was a moon shining behind the houses and the shells had broken up all the hard lines of roofs and quaintly perforated the grim walls of a brewery. Next morning we found the deserted gardens of the town very pleasant to walk about in; they are quite overgrown and flowers have seeded themselves about wildly. Red cabbages and roses seeded themselves about wildly. Red cabbages and roses and madonna lilies are the chief ornaments.

In such an enchanted/haunted environment we would do well to be on our guard. Is this how Graves perceived things in the moment, or is he re-writing, later, to heighten the theme of ruinous beauty, to established an ironized appreciation of the aesthetics of destruction? Probably at least some of the latter, yet it is not improbably for a young man arriving at a new section of trenches to see them in such a “poetic” way.

Quickly, now, from sophisticated artistic appreciations to a comedy of manners:

One garden has currant bushes in it. I and the Company Sergeant-major started walking along the line from opposite ends without noticing each other. When we did, we both remembered our dignity, he as a company sergeant-major, and I as an officer. He saluted, I acknowledged the salute, we both walked away. A minute or two later, we both came back hoping that the coast was clear and again, after an exchange of salutes, had to leave the currants and pretend that we were merely admiring the flowers. I don’t quite know why I behaved like that. The C.S.M. is a regular, and therefore obliged to stop eating in the presence of an officer. So, I suppose, courtesy to his scruples made me stop too. Anyhow, along came a couple of privates and stripped the bushes clean.

This afternoon we had a cricket match, officers versus sergeants, in an enclosure between some houses out of observation from the enemy. Our front line is perhaps three-quarters of a mile away. I made top score, twenty-four; the bat was a bit of a rafter; the ball, a piece of rag tied round with strong; and the wicket, a parrot cage with the clean, dry corpse of a parrot inside. It had evidently died of starvation when the French evacuated the town. I recalled a verse of Skelton’s…

Too weird/good to be true? The transition to an apt and fairly obscure parrot poem is suspiciously slick…[1]

Machine-gun fire broke up the match. It was not aimed at us; the Germans were shooting at one of our aeroplanes…

This is a very idle life, except for night-digging on the reserve line. We can’t drill because we are too near the Germans…

Today two spies were shot: a civilian who had hung on in a cellar and was, apparently, flashing news to the Germans; and a German soldier disguised as an R.E. corporal, found tampering with the telephone wires…

Graves, toying with the emotions of his readers, leaves this little horror unexplained. Is it rumor? Truth? Mistaken identity? Who was just killed, and why?!?!? Perhaps this is the lesson–life is cheap, etc., and suspicion and violence are too numerous to query. A soldier’s focus should be on the piece of No Man’s Land before him…

Still, it’s a jarring move from these highly suspect “judicial” murders to a set-piece of heavy-handed symbolic comedy.

This one pops up in anthologies, for all that it seems a bit too good to be true. Let’s see, how about a comic story that will show us war as liberation, allowing a young would-be rebel’s disdain for bourgeois convention to shine through:

We officers spend a lot of time revolver-shooting. Jenkins brought out a beautiful target from the only undestroyed living-room in our billet-areas: a glass case full of artificial fruit and flowers. We put it up on a post at fifty yards range. he said ‘I’ve always wanted to smash one of these damn objects. My aunt has one. It’s the sort of thing that would survive an intense bombardment.’ I smothered a tender impulse to rescue it. So we had five shots each, in turn. Everyone missed. Then we went up to within twenty yards and fired a volley. Someone hit the post and knocked the case off into the grass. Jenkins said “Damn the thing, it must be bewitched. Let’s take it back.’ The glass was unbroken, but some of the fruit had come loose. Walker said: ‘No, it’s in pain. We must put it out of its suffering.’ He gave it the coup de grâce from close quarters.

From here the comedy gets darker. They explore an old Norman church, also much shelled, and Graves gives a piece of broken stained glass to this same Jenkins. (Close reading, by the way, reveals multiple instances of forms of the verb “to break.”

“‘Souvenir,’ I said.” Immediately, two Catholic soldiers of the Munsters pass by, of course:

One of them warned him: ‘Shouldn’t take that, Sir; it will bring you no luck.’ [Jenkins got killed not long after.]

And the comedy gets yet more cruel:

One of our company commanders here is Captain Furber, whose nerves are in pieces. Somebody played a dirty trick on him the other day–rolling a bomb, undetonated, of course, down the cellar steps to frighten him. This was thought a wonderful joke. Furber is the greatest pessimist in France. He’s laid a bet with the Adjutant that the trench lines won’t be more than a mile from where they are in this sector two years hence.[2]

There’s a footnote here, dear reader, which reports on the results of the wager. But you’ll have to wait two years…


Charles Sorley wrote two letters to family members today, a century back, in which he adds to our burgeoning collection of trench-dweller-as-small-furry-creature metaphors.

24 June 1915

The war is at present apparently held over until visits from Cabinet Ministers and Labour Leaders shall have ceased. As it is hot there is no objection to this. We lead a mole-like existence: above ground only at night, and even then blind.

But neither side shows a great disposition to leave its comparatively comfortable quarters..

I have absolutely nothing to tell you. There is a very great desultoriness everywhere. I believe I meant to say sultriness, but desultoriness will do just as well. I was expected to say something. The sense of wasting one’s time that haunted one at Aldershot is absolutely nothing to the certainty that oppresses one here. One day a man will invent automatic entrenching tools and automatic mowing machines, which will take the place of infantry in war.

This would not be the time for me to wave my “Sorley the prophet!” flag. He is joking, drawling, be idly dorle… and yet… well, he’s right. All that is indeed coming, isn’t it–and faster than he might think.

For the present one would have thought a spiked wall might have been erected along the British front, with several spiked walls behind in case the first got shattered, and these would do our job as efficiently as we: and would probably stand a bombardment better. I noticed in yesterday’s Times a cheerful statement that we mustn’t mind if the great advance, now overdue, had to be postponed till next spring. I suppose we mustn’t.

What could be more British than a men-as-moles metaphor?

I dunno, trees?

Meanwhile we have taken root like trees, and like trees we vegetate…[3]


References and Footnotes

  1. Oh, yes, certainly too good to be true. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 344, confirms that the learned quotation from Skelton must post-date today, a century back. Nor does the rest of the rewritten letter have much basis in his letters home at the time--Graves is rewriting freely. Which, again, doesn't prove the inaccuracy (whatever that might mean) of any particular fact, and certainly doesn't require that we entirely reject his writings as evidence for the experience of trench warfare. But grains of salt a-plenty must be scattered...
  2. Good-Bye to All That, 115-18.
  3. The Letters of Charles Sorley, 279-80.

Sorley Appreciates the Peasantry; Aldington and H.D. Are Uncomfortable in Arcadia; Tolkien Battles the Bard

Charles Sorley wrote to his father today, updating him on the slow progress of his battalion toward the line and adding some entertaining observations of the French locals. Sorley remains unique, here on A Century Back: he is clever, incisive, and fiercely opposed to all blandishments, bullshit, blather, and propaganda–and yet he manages to avoid the snarling cynicism that is the usual posture of anti-romantic youth. This is an angry young man who keeps his head–and his humanity. His sense of humor is sharp enough to wound, but he seems wise enough to see no point in cutting to the bone.

11 June 1915

We are billeted in a town of single-line tramways and mean streets: four-foot square vegetable gardens, where plaintive lettuces wither: cobbles, tenements, and cats that walk on tiles. The kindness and Gemütlichkeit [warm friendliness] of the Franco-Flemish population said to be all spies is in contradiction to their surroundings. We have now seen a stretch of northern France: passed through ruddy villages, where the dark-haired buxom sallow Amazonian beauties stand dumbly on their door-steps and do not concern themselves much with the current of us aliens, to here where mine hostesses are wizender but chattier and much more wide-awake: always busy if a little “near”: but in that and their tousled dress and appearance, their openness, initiative and fussy motherliness, remind me of the Scots peasantry. So far it has been no more than a “Cook’s Personally Conducted…”[1]

Note that Sorley is having nothing of the still-widespread–and terribly destructive–assumption that any flanking sniper fire or accurate artillery work indicates traitorous peasants involved in some elaborate scheme to signal German forces. Well. The Cook’s Tour will soon lead all the way to the trenches…


Today, a century back, Hilda Doolittle (i.e. H.D.) left the nursing home in which she had been staying since the stillbirth of her baby. She and her husband, Richard Aldington, went to stay at a friend’s country cottage in Kent. Since we have already peeked ahead to see the troubling ways in which H.D. fictionalized this personal disaster, pinning it on a cowardly and insensitive husband, it seems only a gentle violation of our foreshadowing ban to remark that any attempts by Aldington to cover up misery with breezy wit are unlikely to meet with success.

He described their new surroundings in a letter to his friend F.S. Flint:

We are on a hillside looking out across half a county; there are deep-scented white carnations, red large poppies, blue and yellow lupins, gladiolus, irises, pansies and roses, in the garden; we get our water from a well & use a dainty earth closet. Et ego in…Arcadia.[2] There is a quarry full of wild red fox-gloves within half a league. I shall abandon poetry and become a market gardener.[3]


And in Oxford, J. R. R. Tolkien sat for exams on Chaucer and Shakespeare…[4]


References and Footnotes

  1. The Letters of Charles Sorley, 272.
  2. This is a traditional reference to death, the speaking "I" (ego) who is always there, even in Arcadia. I'm not quite sure, however, if Aldington is making a more or less sincere allusion, i.e. "yes, it's pretty, but even in Arcadia... " In that case, he may mean simply that pretty flowers do not distract a couple from the loss of their child. But I think it more likely that this is a simple joke about the rustic facilities: in Arcadia we shit in a bucket.
  3. Whelpton, Aldington, 115-16.
  4. Tolkien Companion and Guide, Chronology, 66.

Rupert Looks Heroic; The Guards Turn a Prince Away and Solicit Julian Grenfell; A Hardy Snub for Thomas; Billy Congreve Doesn’t Care What Happens Now

Rupert Brooke breakfasted this morning, a century back, as he had so often done in the years before the war, with Eddie Marsh. Marsh had come to Blandford the night before, along with the Churchills, in preparation for today’s royal review of the outward-bound Royal Naval Division. An hour later, with the thousands of sailors paraded on the downs and the First Lord of the Admiralty awaiting the arrival of his Majesty the King, Violet Asquith–the Prime Minister’s daughter and one of Brooke’s several very special lady friends–“cantered among the lines of serried men” alongside Clemmie Churchill. Violet Asquith later wrote in her diary:

Rupert looked heroic… they all looked quite splendid sweeping past in battalion formation–& I had a great thrill when the Hood came on preceded by its silver band–& Quilter [Lt. Col. John Quilter, commander of the Hood Battalion] roared like a lion ‘Eyes Rrright’ & all their faces turning. I hadn’t realised what a different colour men of the same race can be–Patrick [Shaw-Stewart] was arsenic green–Oc [Asquith, her brother] primrose–Kelly slate-grey–Rupert carnation pink–Denis Browne the most lovely mellow Giorgione reddish-brown…

It somehow wasn’t quite the fun it ought to have been, I had a tightening of the heart throughout.[1]

And there, in one sentence, is much of our subject: the expectation that bidding young amateur soldiers off on a long-range amphibious assault mission should be nothing but great fun, and the nagging feeling that all these lovely multi-hued heroes will not be coming back unscathed, or whole, or at all. When Violet is finished waving, the endless waiting for letters–and the terrible negative expectation of telegrams with worse news–will begin.


In France with the Irish Guards, we get a good quick summary of the calculations involved in deploying the trappings of monarchy for maximal positive effect on morale–and minimal risk of  disaster.

Towards the end of the month our men had finished their trench-cleanings and bricking-up, had buried all dead that could be got at, and word went round that, if the situation on the 25th February could be considered “healthy” the Prince of Wales would visit them. The Germans, perhaps on information received (for the back-areas were thronged with spies), chose that day to be very active with a small gun… For this reason the Prince was not taken quite up to the front line, at which “he was rather annoyed.” The precautions was reasonable enough, A few minutes after he had left a sector judged “comparatively safe” 2nd Lieutenant T. Allen was killed by a shell pitching on the parapet there. Three privates were also killed and 4 wounded by shell or bomb on that “healthy” day…[2]


Speaking of the Guards, Julian Grenfell has begun to contemplate a transfer.

Darling Mother

An order has come round the cavalry asking for volunteer officers for the Foot Guards (for the war only). This of course was a heaven-sent opportunity for me, You know I have never believed much in the possibility of any extensive cavalry work here–nothing more than a dash now and then. Perhaps I’m quite wrong. Anyhow, I would always have taken an infantry job, Territorials or anything. So now this does seem to be a golden opportunity, in every way. There must be the real pressing need there for officers; and if one is to go footslogging, who could one go to, better than the Guards…

It will be a great step for me, because I expect they will give me sooner or later a job of my own… It is obviously the “pushing” thing to do. And just think of the unthinkable glory of being a Guardee…

The Guards are the most exclusive regiments, their officers being generally the richest and lordliest, hailing from the most famous old military families. Amongst their peacetime perquisites are guarding the Royal Family–which means not only that they have light duties and the pick of equipment but also that they tend to be stationed in London, rather than in far-flung and sleepy garrison towns. And in war, they could still expect to be given the most difficult and/or glorious assignments–they hope to lead the Spring offensive.

It’s hard to get into the Guards (unless, like Osbert Sitwell, your father can pull the right aristocratic strings), but then again the Foot Guards may be elite, by they are not cavalry. So, in the traditional estimation of Army social hierarchy, the only way to transfer from a cavalry regiment without loss of caste would be to find some war-expanded loophole through which to enter one of the handful of Foot Guards regiments, thus becoming a temporary Guard and remaining a Cavalryman. Grenfell would have to tolerate being a begrudgingly accepted temporary officer–but then again his parents’ social prominence, his accomplishments (in riding, hunting, and athletics–not his writing), and his educational pedigree (Eton, Balliol) would give him an excellent chance of being accepted by the Guards officers. And he should be able to count on seeing more action–a golden opportunity indeed,

Another cavalryman and sometime poet, Colwyn Philipps, had heard this news three days ago, and reacted in much the same way:

A notice has just come round to ask if any captains or subalterns will give their names to be attached to the Foot Guards at the front. Of course I have sent in my name… if I am taken it will be splendid, as while remaining a Blue I shall fight with the flower of our army, and if there is one corps who does things it is the Foot Guards...[3]

And so back to Grenfell:

I long to know what you think. And I’d got some thrilling things to tell you. But I’m afraid I shan’t be able to now, because they’ve stopped all leave from March 1st…

This, for any war-starved readers, is the first definite harbinger of the Spring Offensive. It will begin in just a few weeks (quashing, incidentally, the hopes of these and other would-be Guards transfers) and be known to posterity as the Battle of Neuve Chapelle.

Do send out some more of those good cakes, and some port…

Are you well, Mummy?

I wish I’d been a militiaman, and that I were at home now, It’s so dull here J.[4]

A strange ending, the little parody of a boy whingeing to mother, wishing for home just after expressing excitement at a chance for more action with the infantry. And yet consistent: he wants to see battle, any way there is, with the elites or with the amateurs.

And “seeing” battle is, for Grenfell, mere euphemism: he wants to fight, and to kill…   Other letters to a female friend this winter hit the same note–she has been hunting, and he is jealous. Trench maintenance and occasional sniping (remember, too, that the authorities have curtailed his self-starting patrols of no-man’s-land) are not as exciting as hunting through the fields on horseback, and being in at the kill… He wants danger, and more entries for the game book, whether man or beast.

Is this bizarre sadism-cum-indolence, or the true warrior’s (not to say the true soldier’s, or the responsible officer’s) outlook?

Grenfell is difficult to deal with–but March and April will provide ample opportunity to discuss his outlook through his writing. At the risk of jarring the senses, then, let us shift from the heroic (or classical, or psychotic) esteem of battle to other central concerns of this project: literature (however petty) and death.


Down in the trenches of literary work, where the great men can be glimpsed soaring high above on Taube-ish wings of rich royalties and national esteem, Edward Thomas is still struggling to put together the anthology that will become This England. He had written to his friend Walter de la Mare with some forthright flattery about making him one of only two living poets included. Thomas Hardy, alas, is out:

There were things I could, should have taken from Hardy. But I heard he was annoyed by my article in ‘Poetry & Drama.’ (I said he was a peasant) & I daren’t ask now.

Cheeky. De la Mare, not surprisingly, asked for clarification:

Steep 25 February 1915

My dear de la Mare,

I am sorry you are troubling about the book. It doesn’t matter a bit. I have just done without it, & as I have to
avoid most copyright work it is just as well…

It was Garnett told me about Hardy. He had it from Scott-James who had been visiting Hardy. It is a pity because I have a very great admiration for Hardy’s poetry & some rustic parts of his novels.

Yours ever


Finally, Billy Congreve faces today the inevitable outcome of his friend’s grievous head wound.

This morning we woke up to find the snow thick on the ground. Maurice a good deal worse…. Even my optimism is at an end. It seems so cruelly hard that he should die.

…Later–I have just got back. The padre tells me that Maurice died quite peacefully at 12.30. I knew this before I saw him. I feel I don’t much care what happens now.[6]


References and Footnotes

  1. Quoted in Jones, Rupert Brooke, 407.
  2. Kipling, The Irish Guards, I, 84.
  3. Colwyn Erasmus Arnold Philipps, 111.
  4. Julian Grenfell, Soldier and Poet, 263-4.
  5. Poet to Poet: Edward Thomas’s Letters to Walter de la Mare, 199-200.
  6. Armageddon Road, 103-4.

Edward Thomas Has Taken Five Strong Steps; John Buchan Has Taken Thirty-Nine; Captain Crofton Defaces a School With Decadent Wit; Dodo, Diddles, Rollo, and Tubby Feilding Are Reunited

Edward Thomas has, at long last, hit his stride. Today he “began his fifth poem in five days,” “The Sign-post.” The poem is very much his own, in diction and in sentiment:

At the hilltop by the finger-post;
The smoke of the traveller’s-joy is puffed
Over hawthorn berry and hazel tuft.

I read the sign. Which way shall I go?

A voice says: You would not have doubted so
At twenty. Another voice gentle with scorn
Says: At twenty you wished you had never been born.
All true, of Thomas. And yet in the simplicity and density of the lines there is a little something of Hardy (although at this point I see Hardy lurking in everyone’s iambics):
Whatever happens, it must befall,
A mouthful of earth to remedy all
And, especially in those earlier lines, more than a little that might remind us of Robert Frost. And Frost, it’s true had taken many walks in the woods with Thomas, and suffered his indecision. And Thomas sent his friend this poem for commentary and criticism, and Frost returned it with approving remarks. And before too long Frost would write a more famous hesitation-in-the-woods poem with his friend Thomas in mind. But anyway, it’s a good poem:
And if there be a flaw in that heaven
’Twill be freedom to wish, and your wish may be
To be here or anywhere talking to me,
No matter what the weather, on earth,
At any age between death and birth,
To see what day or night can be,
The sun and the frost, the land and the sea…

This looks forward. (It must!) To the time when Thomas will feel himself compelled to make a choice to see things of the world he would rather not feel as if he must see.


And so, since Hardy and Frost are old and American and thus out of it, it’s hard for me here, now, not to compare Thomas with C.E. Montague.

Not just because of their age–so many  of our writers are in that coveted 18-to-34 demographic–but because of their seriousness. It’s easy to complain, to rebel, to rail, to cast aspersions like bombs and spew traversing disdain for everyone who hasn’t… well, whatever: seen the war, seized the essence of modernity, written the right way, shocked the bourgeois, sucker-punched a father figure, understood the ironies and hypocrisy. There’s lots of disdain going around, and there will be more, once the gap widens between the old and England-bound and the traumatized multitudes of serving soldiers.

(It’s not, by the way as if there aren’t sincere and very talented Modernist assholes. There are–there are even a few very talented and not utterly self-absorbed Vorticists and Futurists and Imagists. [And on the flip side, Robert Frost hangs out with the universally friendly Georgians, and he can be a pretty big pain. But I doubly digress.])

It’s just that the young writers in this war tend to be angry, and anger clouds critical judgment. Or, worse, self-identifying as an angry young writer requires party-line disparagement of the artistic enemy, whatever his quality.

Thomas and Montague are good writers and good critics, who would never lean in this direction, let alone stoop so low.

And they are men with families who cannot–and would not–rush off to war without considering their responsibilities. But there the similarities end, more or less.

Thomas has always struggled to make ends meet and to keep himself together, while Montague has been steadier, with an easier road to family contentment and professional success as a newspaperman, critic, and novelist. (Or so it appears, but I should read that book on Montague before opining further…) Thomas is 36, with three young children–not a position from which volunteers are expected–at least at this stage of the war. Montague, at 47, will never be young enough for Bellona to cast an eye in his direction.

And, most strikingly, Thomas has struggled to re-invent himself as a writer and has broken through only as his inward crisis about his own role in the war intensifies. Montague, a facile and productive writer, has decided to send his muse packing until he “grows up” (as he will put it tomorrow) into a new man. Opposite writerly directions, and yet the same soldierly determination.


And here’s another of a similar sort. John Buchan is thirty-nine, with a little fiction to his credit but good Oxford connections, a steady journalistic-to-propagandistic job at Nelson’s, and once-and-future political aspirations. We’ve been using him a lot here–but as a writer rather than a participant, drawing on the histories and memories he will shortly begin churning out.

He will eventually get to France (although his sword work is primarily pen-work–he will be one of the war’s most prolific propagandists), but ever since August the “should one enlist?” question has been moot–Buchan has been mostly bedridden with a long-term stomach and/or digestive complaint.[1] He’s reading and writing on the war, but he had recently had success with a serialized pot-boiler and channeled his excess energy into a second one. Today, a century back, he sent in the manuscript of The Thirty-Nine Steps.[2]


To Morgan Crofton, quickly, for some lighter observations on billeting in the gritty towns of northern France. Would it surprise you if this British aristocrat was rather contemptuously amused?

Monday December 7th

About 11 o’clock I was sent for by Torrie who told me that he had orders to send a billeting party on to the General’s house at once…  He gave me orders to take up a new billeting area west of the railway line Hazebrouck-Cassel…

I reached Staple about 1.30 and after sending for the Maire [mayor] proceeded to find billets for 200 men and horses…

The Maire was very ancient and incoherent, and looked like the Ancient Mariner. He spat a good deal but didn’t do much else. I rapidly trotted round the farms and village and by 3 o’clock had allotted all the billets. As usual I fixed on the school as the sleeping abode of the Headquarters, so thither we directed our steps accompanied by the Maire, and by this time most of the village.

A class of little boys was being held at the school. The master appeared and was informed that the schools would be required at once for the troops, and so the little boys were to be en vacances as long as we were here. The Master seemed to bear up very well, and there was the greatest enthusiasm amongst the pupils who cheered and shouted like mad.

We next went off to commandeer the Girls’ school for the sick horses. Here the Mistress gave way even before she was asked, and luckily approved an apparently unlimited holiday. On being told that the seizure of the school would necessitate a holiday, she replied that ‘there was nothing that she would like better’. When I added that the visit of British soldiers would be a pleasant remembrance she said that it was quite true, and that it would serve as a history lesson in future.

Amusing. But Crofton is actually quite judicious with praise amidst the gentle chaffing. It gets amusing-er, until at last this Captain of the Guards is moved to graffiti:

The village clusters as usual round the little church which is dated 1737. The inside is rather meretricious and tawdry but large for so small a village. The system of teaching children in the French schools I have seen is distinctly good. There is always a compass painted on the ceiling and the words Nord, Sud, Quest, Est, written on the four walls. The walls are covered with pictures showing plains, plateaux, mountains, etc., and very amusing prints showing virtue always winning, and vice getting a very bad time.

There are also dozens of precepts dotted about the room. Over the door was the excellent advice that ‘Greybeards are to be saluted whenever youth meets them’. This possibly accounts for the reverence with which our interpreter is treated in the various villages in which we stay. Although in reality fairly youthful, he has the appearance of premature senile decay.

They seem to have an awful down on alcohol in France. In this school there are 15 tracts which deal with this subtle temptation and here are a few of them:

Alcohol paralyses the brain.
Alcohol does not help the digestion.
Alcohol is not nourishing.
Alcohol doesn’t give any strength.
Alcohol doesn’t warm you up. (It does.)
Alcohol causes you to lose your will.
Alcohol doesn’t quench your thirst.
To buy Alcohol is to buy Death.
The door of the Tavern leads to the Hospital.

I couldn’t help writing under all these Oscar Wilde’s mot.

Nothing succeeds like excess.

If the children will only absorb half these maxims, future France should indeed be an Utopia. The chef d’oeuvre is a large picture over the desk which shows two nice little girls handing over a watch to a very doubtful-looking policeman and under which is written

To keep what one finds is to steal.[3]


Finally, today, Lady Feilding has at long last achieved a family reunion at the front.

Rollo’s village[4]

Dec 7th about

Mon três cher Herr Papa –
I never answered your last letter for which many tanks [sic]. This is our last day at Meteren with Tubby & we have been having huge fun.

So much for the censor-evading heading!

It does one good to be with one’s own belongings again you know & everyone here has been too nice to us. We started off by hiding on all fours under the bed pretending to be the ______! & ended up by going the round of all the messes & being given vast dinners by all the colonels we had started off by being so frightened of.

I have no idea what is supposed to be elided, there, but the gist of the thing is that Dorothie is keen to visit her brother but afraid of the angry objections to the presence of women near the front that have stopped her from doing her ambulance work before. (Although in fairness to the suspected misogynists, Feilding is not now working, and surely breaking a great many rules by dropping by a front line unit.) But never fear: the Guards are gentlemen all.

The result was instead of staying 2 days we have stayed a week. But we felt justified on account of dear old Tubby getting his DSO [Distinguished Service Order]. ‘George’ [King George V] pinned it on himself the other morning at Hazebrouck & Mellins[5] & I hid in a doorway only a few yards off & watched it all, which was splendid. Wasn’t it a bit of luck our just being here for it? Rollo keeps swearing he can’t make out why he got it, but it is very obvious why he got it when one hears his fellow officers’ opinion of how he has been running things all that sticky 5 weeks. Poor devils, they must have had a ghastly time & what is more done wonders.

We 3 have been snug as bugs here in digs in the village, & all just loafed around & felt happy. It is so restful being just with one’s own ‘espèce’ [species] again. You don’t realise till you get away from them, how trying it is being months at a time without people of one’s own walk of life, however excellent the others may be individually.

Well, she may be a young heroine, fearless under fire and stalwart amidst ruined roads and ruined bodies, but we didn’t expect her not to be a snob, did we? There is more privilege coming:

I go back to my cave at Pervyse tomorrow & will just look up Marjie at Dunkerque on my way home.[6] I expect I shall get kicked on turning up by Munro for taking an extension of leave without orders!

Well goodbye Mr Da dear & for heavens sake stay on the East coast & don’t go travelling around Europe…

Much love father darling.

Yr Diddles.

And to her mother, who, apparently, somehow, ridiculously, has also made her way to the Belgian/French front:

Tuesday [7 December]

Mother darling–

I am just off back to my cave – having had such a nice rest here & it has been so nice seeing Tubby – we have had great fun dodging Generals & Brigadiers & people & by being tactful & being prepared to ‘evacuate’ at a minute’s notice.

It was so nice having you these days & this week of seeing you all has bucked me up no end.

Yr loving



And let’s cram the pope in here at the end, shall we? Benedict XV, elected only in September, today issued a plea for the belligerents to unite in declaring a Christmas truce. Good moral leadership from a religious prince of fading temporal power? Perhaps, but also a cynical PR move: It wasn’t going to work; therefore it would give an opportunity for some blatant religion-based grandstanding to whichever side decided to take it–and this side would be reflecting the false glory of momentary forbearance back upon the Holy See. And not to mention that a unified observance of the truce would of course require the largely Russian-allied Orthodox world to get their calendars in sync with the West, unless of course Benedict meant for Germany and Austria to pause again when the Eastern Christmas rolled around in January…

Let’s just say we’ll follow this Christmas truce idea as it develops…


References and Footnotes

  1. Duodenal ulcers, apparently.
  2. Smith, John Buchan, 194. It's a model pot-boiler, and was later made into a classic film--but it also capitalizes deftly on the spy mania and German-demonizing that was the bread and butter of the 1914-15 press.
  3. Massacre of the Innocents, 58-61.
  4. "Rollo" is Feilding's eldest brother Rudloph, Viscount Feilding, a Major in the Coldstream Guards.
  5. Probably the 3rd, based on Kipling's history of the Irish Guards, who were in the same brigade as both battalions of the Coldstream
  6. Her sister Marjorie, who was apparently an accomplished amateur mountaineer, but not with an ambulance or nursing unit; I'm not sure why she should be in Dunkirk. 
  7. Lady Under Fire, 34-6.

A Showdown in a Wood for Edward Thomas and Robert Frost; The Nursing Sister is at it Again

I need to bend the rules just a bit today. Edward Thomas, he of the long walks and the poetic friendships, took a long walk with a poet friend… just about a century back, give or take a day. It seems as if his visit with Robert Frost began on the 25th, and he wrote about the incident on the 27th… so today, a century back, seems much the most likely date.[1]

Naturally, I wouldn’t go off-mission for an insignificant affair, but this was a matter of some moment to one of our poets. The walk became a run-in with an armed man, and although Robert Frost went from fulminating to laughing it off, “for Edward Thomas, the encounter would leave him haunted.”[2]

The incident was recorded by Thomas in a thoughtful, probing notebook entry, but his wife and daughter also wrote about its future effect on him, and Frost wrote about it both in letters just after the fact, and in post-war retrospect.[3] The facts of the matter can be retailed fairly simply.

Frost was renting a cottage from Lascelles Abercrombie, who had formal permission from Lord Beauchamp to stroll about in his woodlands. Frost assumed–incorrectly–that this permission extended to him as well. Off the two poets strolled, and who should they meet but a Lord Beauchamp’s surly gamekeeper Bott, brandishing his trusty 12-gauge. The keeper threatened the poets and ordered them to clear off, then followed them onto the road (and thus out of his keeperly jurisdiction) and threatened them some more. He was, by all accounts, an unpleasant man. Shades of every dazzling urbanite’s deep fear of the less-traveled road wrongly taken, into the arms of the predatory hillbilly.

Alone, Edward Thomas, a landless Englishman of the middle class, would surely have turned and walked away. He was also a sensible, non-confrontational type, and there was a shotgun pointed at him.

But alongside him was a truculent American, of late a hardscrabble farmer from the stone-strewn libertarian breeding grounds of northern New England.

Incensed, Frost was on the verge of accosting the man, but hesitated when he saw Thomas back off. Heated words continued to be had, with the adversaries goading then finally parting and the poets talking heatedly of the incident as they walked. Thomas said that the keeper’s aggression was unacceptable and that something should be done. Frost’s ire peaked as he listened to Thomas: something would indeed be done right now…

So the poets about-face, and Frost takes the argument to the keeper’s cottage, where he makes a nice display of door-banging and threatening.

What happened next would be a defining moment in the friendship of Robert Frost and Edward Thomas, and would plague Thomas to his dying days.

The keeper, recovering his wits, reached above the door for his twelve-bore shotgun and came outside, this time heading straight for Thomas, who until then had not been the keeper’s target. The gun was raised again; instinctively, Thomas backed off, and the gamekeeper saw the men from his property…[4]

What was this strange encounter?

Nothing more or less than silly macho bullshit. Universal, dopey, not-even-species-specific male territorial head-banging, retribution-promising, and status flourishing. Begun, sure, by a surly gamekeeper, a nasty piece of work overfond of his little power of chivvying trespassers, happy to sneer and, for a moment, lord it over men of a better class. But continued by educated, middle class men (however poetic and impoverished).

Men of that large and ill-defined gentle class which holds in its stiff embrace virtually all of our several-score writers. But never mind class. Don’t real men walk away from a pointless pissing contest with any sort of inferior?[5] The shotgun is bad form–which is why it shouldn’t enter into a gentleman’s considerations of his actions.

So. No harm was done, and after the poisonous rage and adrenaline filtered out the adversaries systems, both of the principle combatants could profit from the encounter by bragging about successfully facing down (i.e. pointlessly threatening and railing it) a belligerent idiot. It became a nice little story for Frost to trot out, all about half-mad, half-Medieval England, about English lords and the cretinous, violent, forest-dwelling yokels in their employ.

For the locals, apparently, it was lumped in with the silliness of the moment, that generalized spy paranoia that entertained fools, worried all but the most discerning of the citizenry, and brought terrible trouble to a few unfortunate strangers and aliens. Bott, the irascible keeper, had run off a strange-speaking foreign cottager, and good riddance. Might have been a German!

For the gentlemen (i.e. Abercrombie, and his and Thomas’s and Frost’s mutual friend Wilfrid Gibson) who were stuck between the friend they must loyally back and the local powers they had good reason not to annoy, it was an awkward blunder caused by an uncomprehending American and a troublesome retainer.[6] And, again, no one really suffered and Frost and Bott could both preen about the silly affair.

But all this doesn’t cover Edward Thomas. He had backed off from the first confrontation, then, as was his wont, questioned his own actions, which precipitated the second act. Then he had retreated, leaving the keeper and his shotgun in possession of the field.

As assiduous readers must realize, I am deeply impressed with Edward Thomas. With his prose and his verse and most of all his wisdom, his steadfast refusal–despite the claims on his time, the difficulties of his life, and the specter of crippling depression–to let life, and least of all his own decisions, pass by unexamined. He knew full well that the confrontation had not been about anything significant, that it should have dwindled quickly to anecdotal status. But some things aren’t that simple.

Perhaps it’s worth pointing out that Thomas was a very good writer recently aware of his ambition to write verse, and his friend Frost, though really only one big step ahead–North of Boston, published just that summer, was his first mature collection–was clearly a major poet in the making. (And he would, of course, make his most famous poem in the image of his indecisive, wood-walking English friend.)

But no–it’s not even that complicated. Thomas was abashed, maybe even appalled at how much the incident bothered him, but it did. And what bothered him was not the idiot gamekeeper or Frost’s belligerence, what bothered him was that he had backed down while his friend stood up to a bully. Maybe it was a stupid test, but it was still a test. Maybe he was a highly intelligent critic and writer, but he was still a man. His “mettle had… been tested in the presence of his friend.” He was gun shy; he had flinched.

Worse, Thomas had many memories of running from gamekeepers in the woods of his youth, and of being punished when caught trespassing. But that had been boyish fun, and now, it seemed, “something that had amused him as a child now frightened him.” He couldn’t shake the sense that he had proved himself to be a coward before the eyes of a friend, a man whose good opinion he valued. This despite the fact that “Frost made no such suggestion; even had he believed it to be the case he would not have needed to express it. He knew that Thomas’s profound self-examination would make that unnecessary.”

So. I think this is comprehensible. Regrettable–how much does one’s response in this one sort of situation really matter?–but comprehensible. Sometimes in life you have to stand up to a bully, and in those situations it is better to be bold and brave than hesitant and retreating. Thomas thought that his friend thought he was a coward, and this was intolerable.

Courage is not an absolute good, but it never shades so grey that it can be confused with pusillanimity–it is never less good than its opposite. Discretion is never a complete good, but only a holding action, a better part of a better whole that will include more timely courage, and just retribution.

So the slope got slippery. Thomas was not interested in grabbing shotguns from obnoxious gamekeepers or in starting fist fights with bullies, but he wanted very much to see himself as a courageous man. Not, again, because courage is a monolithic thing, a quality utterly incompatible with a moment of weakness or disinclination to conflict. It’s not. There’s no reason why the same man can’t be possessed of phenomenal moral courage and yet flinch from the upraised fist or shotgun. More, the courage it takes to survive prolonged artillery fire with nerves intact is very different from the courage it takes to antagonize an armed man, or to charge thousands of them.

And oh yes–there it is. This matters more than it would have in the spring, or in the late autumn woods of 1913. Thomas has been writing and thinking about the war, constantly and consistently. It’s not beginning to slip from his mind as it is, perhaps, from the minds of other men who have decided to stay in school, or to hunker down and hope more volunteers won’t be called for. War is a test of character that he has been staring down, a test he knows there are many good reasons to postpone sitting for. But now he had been blindsided, and a chance encounter appears to prove that he is too fearful to fight. Thomas could not let the thing go; he brooded over his actions for weeks, for months.

Wisdom–still less cleverness or facility with language–do not make a whole man. Frost had been flooded with the same emotions as Thomas–saturated with the same internal poisons, if you like–but he had wrung himself out that day and after, and moved on. Purged, for the moment. Thomas was flooded too, but never drained. When the emotions left him they left him warped and wrinkled, a brave new volume of poetry, blank and yet corrugated, stained, marred. Intellect is not enough. He knew that the affair should mean nothing, but he knew he could not reason his feelings away. Does any person–or here, perhaps, the gendering is forgivable, even almost correct–does any man ever forget the sour taste of fear, especially with the unbearably bitter admixture of submission to the physical dominance of another?

Frost later opined that the incident was why Edward Thomas would soon choose to go to war. Matthew Hollis believes that it is what finally made him a poet.[7]

Well, perhaps. But certainly a double catalyst, an event that shook Thomas and hurried on his slow and searching self-examination. It’s almost as if Edward Thomas has strayed into a Thomas Hardy narrative poem, a rough-hewn country house built on the lines of Greek tragedy: sudden violence in the English countryside, the heavy hand of fate lurking behind a chance meeting on a rural road, lives suddenly altered, and not for the better.


And we wouldn’t want to miss one of the Nursing Sister‘s cathedral visits: by my count she has toured at least eight Gothic churches (she may be indiscriminate with the term “cathedral,” which properly applies only to a bishop’s home church), including those of St. Nazaire, Ypres, Le Mans, and the great cathedrals of Rheims and Rouen.

Thursday, November 26th

We loaded up to-day at Bailleul, where we have been before–headquarters of 3rd and 4th Divisions. We had some time to wait there before loading up, so went into the town and saw the Cathedral–beautiful old tower, hideously restored inside, but very big and well kept. The town was very interesting. Sentries up the streets every hundred yards or so; the usual square packed with transport, and the usual jostle of Tommies and staff officers and motor-cars and lorries. We saw General French go through…

We have a lot of cases of frost-bite on the train. One is as bad as in Scott’s Expedition; may have to have his foot amputated. I’d never seen it before. They are nearly all slight medical cases; very few wounded, which makes a very light load from the point of view of work… One of us is doing all the train half the night, and another all the train the other half… We’ve never had a light enough load for one to do the whole train before. The men say things are very quiet at the Front just now…[8]

References and Footnotes

  1. Although without access to his notebooks, I can't be sure--Hollis's account in Now All Roads Lead to France, 174-82, which I'm relying on here (again!)--doesn't date the walk precisely, but at certain points it seems as if the notebook entry from the 27th is going over the same day's events... so it might be tomorrow.
  2. Hollis, 181.
  3. A local boy also apparently witnessed the exchange, but his testimony, gathered much later, does not seem to be of much use.
  4. Hollis, 175-6.
  5. Half-hearted apologies for the ugly class-ism here, but a) these were the facts as England then understood them, and b) class aside, Thomas and Frost clearly thought themselves worthier men than a quarrelsome gamekeeper.
  6. They did act to make sure that the keeper was chastised, despite the fact that Frost had chosen to exacerbate the situation. Frost, of course, was dissatisfied with the reported reprimand, offended that more dramatic retribution could not legally be visited upon the knave.
  7. Hollis, 180-2.
  8. Diary of a Nursing Sister, available here.