Three Poems for February: Edmund Blunden’s Deceitful Calm, Vera Brittain’s Dream Grown Vain, and Siegfried Sassoon’s Upteenth Idyll; Thomas Hardy Looks to Past Collapse; Kipling and the War at Home; Happy Birthday Muriel Spark

And so we come to February, a strange month. It will be slow, here (though enlivened by two strange and awesome childhood visitations by later writers, on which see below). In fact, it’s really the last “slow” month of the war. Is the end in sight? Well, in hindsight, yes. But, then, of course, to see February in this light is a violation of the terms of our compact. Yes, a German offensive is expected, and yes, the strategists see this spring and summer as crucial, because Germany is under tremendous pressure to strike a winning blow after the collapse of Russia and before the weight of the United States can turn the tide on the Western Front. But “the strategists” have been promising breakthroughs for several years now, and we can hardly be look complacently forward and congratulate them for being right. And yet…

I have three poems, today–one dated to the day and the other two appearing as “month poems.” And the first one, at least, is a bit of a cheat. The argument I’m trotting out here is that this February occupies a doubly ironic position: there is no reason to expect–or so the poor bloody infantry would feel–any change, any way to remember another cold, muddy month in the fourth winter of a war of attrition. And yet there is no way to remember this month other than as the month before[1] the last German offensive, before everything changed.

On the other hand, many things stay the same, so we’ll hear from two great Victorian writers as well. And on the other, other hand, “everything changed;” so we’ll also hear from a Modern woman as yet unborn–this morning, that is–and yet at the top of her game.

 

Gouzeaucourt: The Deceitful Calm

How unpurposed, how inconsequential
Seemed those southern lines when in the pallor
Of the dying winter
First we went there!

Grass thin-waving in the wind approached them,
Red roofs in the near view feigned survival,
Lovely mockers, when we
There took over.

There war’s holiday seemed, nor though at known times
Gusts of flame and jingling steel descended
On the bare tracks, would you
Picture death there.

Snow or rime-frost made a solemn silence,
Bluish darkness wrapped in dangerous safety;
Old hands thought of tidy
Living-trenches!

There it was, my dears, that I departed,
Scarce a plainer traitor ever! There too
Many of you soon paid for
That false mildness.[2]

 

So Edmund Blunden, looking back only to look ahead, and writing yet another agonized version of the survivor’s poem, this time in retrospect and prospect at once.

 

Vera Brittain, barred by her gender from any sense of comradeship in the face of death–indeed, from any tighter embrace of danger (she’s done as much as she can, in that regard, to get to a hospital in France)–is already a three-fold survivor. Her poem–written this month, a century back, amidst the calm that Blunden would remind us is about to be disturbed–looks steadfastly back at the first love she lost. This is more than personal mourning or general disenchantment. Given the short lines and traditional rhymes this reads, at first, as a rather prim poem–which makes the sharpness of its despair surprising: a pretty thing with jagged edges.

 

Roundel

(“Died of Wounds”)

 

Because you died, I shall not rest again,
    But wander ever through the lone world wide,
Seeking the shadow of a dream grown vain
            Because you died.

 

I shall spend brief and idle hours beside
    The many lesser loves that still remain,
But find in none my triumph and my pride;

 

And Disillusion’s slow corroding stain
    Will creep upon each quest but newly tried,
For every striving now shall nothing gain
            Because you died.[3]

 

 

Siegfried Sassoon is also sad today–“very sad,” in fact.

February 1 (Limerick, Maine)

Went to the Meet… but weather very wet and stormy, and hounds went home from the meet… Twenty-three miles for nothing… Very sad.

Once again Outdoor Sassoon comes home from a hunt and writes a poem, its music sweet and its sentiment… sentimental.

 

Idyll

In the grey summer garden I shall find you
With day break and the morning hills behind you
There will be rain-wet roses; stirring wings;
And down the wood a thrush that wakes and sings.
Not from the past you’ll come, but from that deep
Where beauty murmurs to the soul asleep:
And I shall know the sense of life re-born.
From dreams into the mystery of morn
Where gloom and brightness meet. And standing there
‘Til that calm song is done, at last we’ll share
The league-spread quiring symphonies that are
Joy in the world, and peace, and dawn’s one star.

February 1[4]

 

And back in England, two great men of the older generation (two different older generations, really) cope with the war in very different ways. Sometimes it seems as if there are really only two modes of being an old (i.e. past military age) man in times like these: you either lament the war and all its foolish, backward, wickedness, or you fantasize about taking part.

Thomas Hardy, in this letter to Edward Clodd, takes the first course.

Max Gate, Dorchester, Feb 1. 1918.

My dear Clodd:

My best thanks for “The Question” which I shall read with interest, as I do everything of yours…

What a set-back this revival of superstition is! It makes one despair of the human mind. Where’s Willy  Shakespeare’s “So noble in reason” now! In another quarter of a century we shall be burying food & money with our deceased, as was done with the Romano-British skeletons I used to find in my garden.

Sincerely yours,

Th. Hardy.[5]

 

And then there’s Rudyard Kipling–a great writer in a different mode. In terms of sheer narrative energy and storytelling verve he is almost without peer–which says little enough about his life or his politics, which are both far less exemplary and entertaining. But I don’t comment, here, upon his imperialist writings, or his celebrations of the manly spirit of adventure. I just quote from this letter, about how, having sussed out the movements of the enemy by careful observance of the natives, he has to stay home this weekend to defend his castle against maliciously anti-Kipling rioters and other crypto-socialist/peacenik undesirables.

Bateman’s
Burwash
Sussex

Feb. 1.1918.

Dear Colonel–

I ought to go up to London tomorrow for the week end as I have a good deal of important business there. But I understand that some sort of “demonstration” with regard to the food question is being planned by some of the women in the village, for Saturday night, which is not the sort of thing to leave behind one as it might easily end in window-breakings and other things that would upset our maids…

There has been in our service a Mrs. Smith–sister of Fennels–who has been here as charwoman. She has suddenly given notice for no reason though she has no other work and has been carried by us through hard times; and I understand that she is among the women concerned.

This seems to point to Bateman’s as one of the objectives in the “demonstration.”

Very sincerely

Rudyard Kipling

The editor of Kipling’s letters notes that there are no records of disturbances in Sussex this weekend, a century back. There is general unhappiness about food shortages at home, and Kipling is far from the only person in Britain tempted to believe the rumors of nefarious doings afoot. But if any vengeful members of the working class laid siege to Kipling’s Keep, he seems to have annihilated them in complete secrecy… I imagine that his gardeners diligently kept the grass short, otherwise I would imagine the Great White Hunter stalking up and down in the long grass in pith helmet and tweeds, shouldering his elephant gun…[6]

 

Finally, to begin a week in which we observe (in a very clever and literary way!) the birthdays of two major women writers of the mid-20th century, I should mention that Muriel Spark was born today, a century back. This would be trivia rather than literature were it not for her brilliant, lacerating satirical story, “The First Year of My Life.” This makes Spark surely the youngest person to contribute a properly dated fictionalized memoir to A Century Back.

The story begins with these memorable sentences:

I was born on the first day of the second month of the last year of the First World War, a Friday. Testimony abounds that during the first year of my life I never smiled.

It’s viciously good–and, much like Blunden’s backward-looking song of February–it rather spoils the outcome of the war, noting her babyish progress at each of the major milestones to come. Reader, the war will end in November, and the unsmiling baby will grow up to write a great deal, and little enough of it smile-provoking…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Well, there were also three quiet weeks at the beginning of March...
  2. Later published in Undertones of War.
  3. Later published in Verses of a V.A.D.
  4. Diaries, 208-9.
  5. Collected Letters, V, 247.
  6. The Letters of Rudyard Kipling, IV, 482.

Miners and a Black Book; Max Plowman Hears from Rivers; Siegfried Sassoon Rides the Emerald Isle; Isaac Rosenberg is Not Strong

Two very different publications of today, a century back, are worth noting. The Nation, one of the few periodicals willing to publish “anti-war” poetry, ran Wilfred Owen‘s poem Miners. The poem was written, despite its unusual pararhyme, in a matter of hours, promptly submitted, and is published now only two weeks after the event–a topical and quietly political work, and as such a confirmation of Owen’s complete and Sassoon-influenced departure from his youthful aestheticism.

And The Imperialist, Noel Pemberton-Billing’s histrionic nativist scandal sheet, ran an article claimingthat German intelligence held a “black book” which contained the names of 47,000 British gay men and lesbians who had been blackmailed and compromised. This might be insanity (quite literally, in the case of Pemberton-Billing’s assistant Harold Spencer), but Pemberton-Billing’s ridiculous lies played ably enough on existing hatreds for the political effects to be distressingly real. The Imperialist specialized in anti-German polemic (with virulent anti-Semitism lumped in for good measure) and was prepared to exploit not just homophobia but class resentment, using salacious allegations to get traditional folks all worked up against fancy London types and their immoral goings on, which must of course conceal deep disloyalty to a vague and negatively-defined ideal of British greatness…

So Wilfred Owen has gotten a poem in the paper–and earned two guineas for it–and on the very same day that the gay literary community he has just had the privilege of joining comes under siege.

 

Elsewhere, today, Max Plowman wrote to his close friend Hugh de Selincourt. The letter opens with an apology for not having written sooner–it runs along the lines of the “I wrote the simple letters first” excuse.

…My dear, I feel rather like a snake that has forgotten to shed its skins for the past few years & now begins the healthy business. I didn’t expect my self-assertion to have that effect particularly but it seems to be happening… I see now that preface & my Right to Live (in large measure), & those little topical verses, very much as signs of irritation the snake has with skins which did not fit it. Bitterness comes through low living & I see now that mine was all the more acute because I thought the low living inevitable…

Plowman eventually moves past this high-minded metaphorical mode and writes of reading about bellicose speeches given by leading politicians in both Germany and Britain.

And then it slowly dawned on me that it wasn’t my duty to stand between men with consciences of tanned hide & try & filter the stream of lies & hypocrisy they poured at one another…

In any actual fighting for peace I feel I should now be useless… I’ve got to start more or less where I left off 3 years & more ago & work like a galley slave to catch up.

He has come to see his service as an infantry officer–as A Subaltern on the Somme, in fact–as an unbecoming interlude in the life of a politically aware pacifist. But, of course, he is still an army officer, under arrest and awaiting trial–at least in the loose and philosophical sense of the word, if not necessarily the juridical.

…What shall I tell you about my affairs? …I live in a top room of a large house… & there I have my meals brought me as I don’t want to inflict my necessarily chilling company on the “Mess”, & all day long (subject to conditions) I do just what I damned well please. And this will last I think until next Friday when I go for my ordinary Board. I expect to be put under arrest any day after that… the charge will be “Refusing to obey an order.”

What is to be done? And who might be able to help?

Oh you know I wrote to X——-? He did not reply but evidently sent my letter on to Dr ________, F.R.S. (The Camb. psychological Professor) we were both under at Edinburgh.

We know who this is. I can’t be certain, actually, that X is Sassoon, but it certainly sounds like him. In any case, Sassoon and Plowman shared a doctor who was a Cambridge professor and an FRS–W.H.R. Rivers. Thus it must be Rivers who, as we will read below, is willing to help with Plowman’s “case.” But in what way, exactly? Is this another offer to “cure” a patient by thinking him through the ramifications of his pacifism?

Plowman and Sassoon are both writers, both young officers troubled by all that they have seen. And Plowman was even quite literally shell shocked before being sent to Rivers to be treated. But as that distinction suggests, the differences in the manner and motivation of their pacifist protests are considerable.

______wrote the day I came here saying he was at Hampstead & would like to know if he could be of any use… which is extraordinarily decent of him, don’t you think? If I were to have any trouble with the Medical people he might be an excellent Court of Appeal. He says X—–has returned to duty & is quite happy in it, & of course as X——-merely acted on the question of British war aims he was to be satisfied. A queer half-way house, but I daresay it was useful…[1]

This logic is a bit hard to follow. What is “useful,” to Plowman? Does he want Rivers to help shunt his protest aside, and have it be deemed an after-effect of shell shock? I don’t think so. I think he may want the opposite–but does he imagine, then, that Rivers offers to help him to pacifist martyrdom by asserting his sanity and full recovery from shell shock?

Well, at the very least it’s clear that Plowman is not at the stage where he desires any sort of half-measure. He won’t fight any more, and his objection is not on the score of war aims, a minor detail in the monstrosity of war without end…

 

Speaking of Siegfried Sassoon, as I think we probably have been, it’s quite true that he is back on duty and “quite happy:”

January 26

Motored with two Irishmen to a place eighteen miles from Cork—Roore’s Bridge—to meet of the Muskerry Hounds. A grey, windy day, southwest wind. Rode a chestnut of J. Rohan’s—good performer. A poor day’s hunting, but very enjoyable. Fine country—along the River Lee–a wide, rain-swollen stream, flowing down long glens and reaches. The whole landscape grey-green and sad and lonely. Ireland is indeed a haunted, ancient sort of land. It goes deep into one’s heart.[2]

 

Finally, today, another writer both slightly connected to all of the turmoil of literary London–he has long been in touch with, and occasionally helped by, Eddie Marsh–and very far away from it. Isaac Rosenberg writes to remind his old patron that he still lives, however miserably, and that he still reads, and writes. After a long bout of illness, Rosenberg is back in the trenches, and it is not going well.

My dear Marsh,

I have been in topsy turveydom since I last saw you and have not been able to write. Even now it is in the extremest difficulties that Im writing this. I wanted to talk about the Georgian Book which I had sent over to me but have not had time to more than glance through. I liked J. C. Squire poem about the ‘House’ enormously and all his other poems. Turners are very beautiful and Sassoon has power. Masefield seemed rather commonplace, but please don’t take my judgment at anything because I have hardly looked at them. I am back in the trenches which are terrible now. We spend most of our time pulling each other out of the mud. I am not fit at all now and am more in the way than any use. You see I appear in excellent health and a doctor will make no distinction between health and strength. I am not strong…

Yours sincerely

I Rosenberg[3]

Rosenberg does not ask, but it is unlikely that there are any strings near enough to Marsh’s hand (through Winston Churchill’s) to pull him all the way out of the trenches…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Bridge into the Future, 93-4.
  2. Diaries, 206.
  3. Collected Works, 320-1.

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.

congreve

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

Robert[2]

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
E.T[5]

 

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.