Robert Graves Reaches Out to Sassoon, but Sassoon is Intent on his Quarry; David Jones Disbands

Today, a century back, was another good day for Outdoor Siegfried Sassoon.

February 6 (Limerick. Ballingrane)

A wet day, south-west wind. Found in some gorse… ran nicely back a half-circle to Nantinan, where he tried the earths… and ran us out of scent. A nice twenty minutes…  A glorious ride—very sad that we did so little…[1]

 

But Outdoor Sassoon is neglecting his indoor friends–the poets, that is. Even the recently married poet-comrades…

Dear old Sassons

I have been intending to write for so long but find it difficult: don’t know why. Was the wedding a success? ask me! It would have been more so if you had been able to attend. I am for the moment confined to my couch with a cold but in the last three days have written 45 letters, 3 new poems, recast four old ones, two of which I sent to Colour and got £ 3.3.0 by return, read two books, pasted in my press cuttings, compiled an address book and played patience, and even washed my face–no, I haven’t, but shaved once.

Is Graves joking to lighten the mood of a soldier waiting to ship out? Perhaps, but the willingness to make fun of himself in this way has just a tinge of the abject about it. I don’t think Graves is quite sure what’s he done to lose Sassoon’s approval–or he doesn’t want to admit that Sassoon is simply in a snit about his “defection” into marriage.

The letter moves on now to news of their widening circle of acquaintance among the bright young literary things: the popular poet of 1917, the scandal/success debut novelist of 1917, and perhaps the most prolific and influential young reviewer-in-uniform:

Bob Nichols is back in London since February 1st; write to him. Did I tell you Alec Waugh is an enormous admirer of your poems? I have it on the authority of Scott-Moncrieff…  He [Waugh] is producing a book of poems in the spring, Moncrieff says. I wonder will it be good? I expect not.

I hear you’re under orders for Palestine from a subaltern called Roberts whose letter just arrived from Limerick.

And thus Graves circles back to the same subject that he opened with: not weddings or postings, but why Sassoon is so out of touch about such important things. But then Graves shows–or claims–that the real reason for their estrangement is his own good fortune and being just wounded enough to be safe:

I am getting a job in No. 17 Cadet Battalion here as soon as the details leave for Ireland, so that Nancy and I can make up our minds to settle down. The contrast between you and me makes me so ashamed: that’s why I find it difficult to write. But Sassons, though I know you wanted to return to a line battalion I know it’s much better as it is; the strain in Palestine isn’t nearly so great on you and you aren’t likely, or so likely, to get killed. I’m most awfully keen on you living on because as soon as the war stops I know your nerves will get absolutely rested again and you’ll be your old self (like when you saw me here the other day only more so) again and write miraculous poetry.

Best love always,

R.[2]

 

And while these two officers of the Royal Welch write about Ireland, Palestine, and Merry Olde England, a soldier of their regiment is reduced, abandoned, and reassigned. David Jones serves the melancholy purpose, today, of reminding us of the costs of this war of attrition: each infantry brigade throughout the B.E.F is being reduced from four battalions to three, a major structural change. This is supposed to be a mere reorganization, but it’s clearly not so simple. No new brigades are coming into the line, so this is at best a shuffling of forces and an admission that reinforcements for the existing four battalions are not to be had; at worst, it’s an acknowledgement that manpower limitations mean that three men will have to do the work of four. And this with a German offensive in the offing…

But that is war on the level of the bureaucrat: from the point of view of the infantryman themselves, the worst thing is that the unlucky fourth battalion of each brigade is not to be reassigned elsewhere, but simply dissolved in place, its men going as replacements to the other three. For an army that long prided itself on Regimental Tradition and esprit de corps to simply sacrifice battalions to bureaucratic convenience was shocking, and a sore blow to many of its soldiers. What were all those football matches and parades about, if the army is simply going to play Russian roulette with each foursome of its core units of identity? What can be trusted, now, when the army mouths slogans? And how can new, sustaining relationships be formed at this late date?

David Jones, though he is a gentle soul and an artist to the core, is nevertheless an old soldier, and proud of his unit. Even those little inclined to group-think or cliquishness are driven to collective identification during the stress of combat, and, after the Somme, Jones has good reason to be proud of what the London Welsh have endured. But today, a century back, it was announced that the 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers are shortly to be disbanded, and he took it hard:

As one of the few surviving members to arrive with the battalion in France, he, more than most, dreaded the end of ‘cap-badge loyalty’, an aspect of the fellowship that made military life endurable. On 6 February, the battalion was officially disbanded in a funerary ceremony for which Colonel Bell returned specially to deliver a eulogy.

After this collective death, Jones, disfellowshipped, will wait for reassignment for a week or more, and then be sent into the line near Armentieres with the 13th Battalion of the R.W.F.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 210.
  2. In Broken Images, 92.
  3. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 147.

Ralph Hamilton on a Flurry of Deadly Folly; Elizabeth Bishop In the Waiting Room

Just one brief note from the war, today, and then a very strange centennial… the most powerful straight-back-to-a-particular-moment-in-time poem I’ve ever read. It has nothing to do with this project except its date…  and also consciousness of the war and a deep binary (i.e. in the sense of an older writer looking back upon an incident as recorded by her younger mind) contemplation of the the mystery of the human condition. So, upon reflection, it has everything to do with this project, albeit in a distant sense. I’ve been really looking forward to this bit…

 

But first, Ralph Hamilton, the Master of Belhaven is here to steady us on an excitable morning. His diary reminds us of the confusion and deadly silliness of the war of attrition as he analyzes a sudden artillery duel on his sector of the line. He tosses off his conclusion, but one imagines that it probably took some extensive detective work to figure out what actually took place…

As far as I can make out this morning, nothing really happened, except that both sides lost their heads. The Germans started the excitement by seeing spooks. They bombed their own wire and put up their S.O.S., whereupon our people thought they were going to be attacked and sent up our S.O.S. Both artilleries promptly replied, and for the next half-hour there was hell in the front lines. I fancy it was fairly expensive for both sides, as I imagine there were a lot of casualties.[1]

“Expensive,” that is not just in the financial cost of huge amounts of ammunition fired to no strategic effect, but in terms of blood and suffering.

 

Humanity: confused, frightened, driven mad with fear and the strangeness of the other–yet beginning to see, perhaps, in glimpses of insight, that though we are all utterly alone, we are also all utterly alone together. We are human beings, clotted into tribes of strange and foolish other human beings, and we may (or may not) have long lives to live among them…

 

Now, I’ve read a lot of Great War literature and history and poetry and memoir over the past twenty years, especially during the last four. (I’m pounding through two mediocre novels set this March, as we speak!) But, happily, I do find some time to read some other things as well. One of this past year’s projects was Elizabeth Bishop (born 1911) who produced a smallish oeuvre of poetry in a variety of forms and moods. This smallish oeuvre is richly studded, however, with tremendous, unforgettable poems. I had read some of her brilliant descriptive poems of people and animals, I knew the perfect villanelle about losing things, but I had never read In the Waiting Room. There must be other brilliant poems of remembered childhood experience, but if I knew of any even approaching this one I have long forgotten them…

I don’t like to post entire long poems here, for several reasons, so please follow the link above and read the whole thing (it’s only a few pages). Or read below: I will excerpt a few large sections, perforating her meditative brilliance with my eager interjections.

 

In Worcester, Massachusetts,
I went with Aunt Consuelo
to keep her dentist’s appointment
and sat and waited for her
in the dentist’s waiting room.
It was winter. It got dark
early. The waiting room
was full of grown-up people,
arctics and overcoats,
lamps and magazines.

 

Young Elizabeth then picks up the February 1918 National Geographic and reads. Something about the dramatic presentation of human difference that the magazine offers–there are Brave White Explorers, there is man killed in tribal fighting, there are African women, with their breasts hanging low, horrifying the proper American girl–stirs her sense of self, and then, as overhead sound merges with the thoughts bred from words, an epiphany strikes.

 

Suddenly, from inside,
came an oh! of pain
–Aunt Consuelo’s voice–
not very loud or long.
I wasn’t at all surprised;
even then I knew she was
a foolish, timid woman.
I might have been embarrassed,
but wasn’t. What took me
completely by surprise
was that it was me:
my voice, in my mouth.
Without thinking at all
I was my foolish aunt,
I–we–were falling, falling,
our eyes glued to the cover
of the National Geographic,
February, 1918.

I said to myself: three days
and you’ll be seven years old.
I was saying it to stop
the sensation of falling off
the round, turning world.
into cold, blue-black space.
But I felt: you are an I,
you are an Elizabeth,
you are one of them.
Why should you be one, too?
I scarcely dared to look
to see what it was I was.
I gave a sidelong glance
–I couldn’t look any higher–
at shadowy gray knees,
trousers and skirts and boots
and different pairs of hands
lying under the lamps.
I knew that nothing stranger
had ever happened, that nothing
stranger could ever happen.

 

No, nothing could. To be at once aware of the full force of self-hood, of the boundaries that separate your own little body from the shuffling, yelping others around you, and of your full membership in a species so familiar and yet so terrible and strange…

And it’s three days before her seventh birthday. (The poem itself was written many decades later, when Bishop was belatedly being recognized as one of the century’s great poets.)

Worcester, MA, is far from Templeux, where those two panicky barrages are falling on two sets of trenches despite the fact that neither gallant infantry officers nor wicked staff brass hats actually harbored any murderous raid plans for this morning, a century back.

But I haven’t bent the rules of this project as far as it might seem. At the very end of this childish/timeless/rivetingly powerful poem, we will have the date as well as the reminder of the war. National Geographic may point to a different way of seeing the world (with all its own problems), but looming over this day, a century back–and over young Elizabeth’s new perception of her humanity and her Elizabeth-ness in all its strangeness–is the fact that humanity is conducting one of its most destructive experiments yet.

 

The waiting room was bright
and too hot. It was sliding
beneath a big black wave,
another, and another.

Then I was back in it.
The War was on. Outside,
in Worcester, Massachusetts,
were night and slush and cold,
and it was still the fifth
of February, 1918.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary, 451.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

Monday, 3rd December

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

References and Footnotes

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

Wilfred Owen: Oh! World You are Making for Me, Sassoon!; Kipling and Carstairs on the Chaos of Bourlon Wood

There is a long letter from Wilfred Owen to Siegfried Sassoon to get to, today, but comradeship rightly comes after battle.

First, then, two accounts of one of the most desperate days at Cambrai. We enter Bourlon Wood with Carroll Carstairs and the 3rd Grenadier Guards. I know almost nothing of Carstairs, but his writing is consistently interesting. He indulges a bit in the blasé roué routine, but only so far: when he comes to the worse of experience he slows down and concentrates, carefully reconstructing the sights and sounds of battle. But he doesn’t become merely a sort of responsible, roving eye or recording camera, either: Carstairs doesn’t spare himself, analyzing his own feelings even in the most trying circumstances.

It was about four in the morning when the Commanding Officer himself woke me. The candles, stuck in bottles on the table, burned as straight as on any altar. Each step up the twenty-two of the dugout was a conscious movement. Now we were at the entrance. The night was still, breathless. It had been raining. The air on our faces
left a moisture. The ground was soggy and the going difficult. The mud stuck to our boots until we were walking on huge pads.

We came upon No. 1 Company—mutes and shadows and something more than men. The Commanding Officer went down a dugout to have a last word with “Mary” Bowes-Lyon while I remained and joked with the two subalterns. How is it one can jest at such a time? It’s a question of tuning up. Laughter is the loophole through
which joy enters the soul. We were slipping along again. An interminable walk to go a few yards. But we had missed No. 2 Company and were out in No Man’s Land heading for the enemy. We made for the road which divided the Battalion. By the time we had reached Nos. 3 and 4 Companies they were forming up. Sinister shadows filling the gloom, as silent as the night itself, only the immense discipline of the Brigade of Guards kept one from remembering they were men cold and wet and dulled with fear…

At 6.20 our barrage came down and while I thought of the Battalion as a unit, five hundred men had begun their perilous progress towards the enemy trenches.

Carstairs is left in support: he sees other units attacking, a light barrage dropping, and then wounded men coming back. With the battle raging ahead, he moves up with the battalion HQ and reserves.

We had reached the foot of the village without a casualty. I was standing on ground newly won. To my left and right stretched deserted enemy entrenchments.

Near me lay two wounded Grenadiers. One was in a ditch full of water. They were remarkably quiet. I felt I should get them back somehow, but there were no stretcher bearers about.

Out of the house next to which I was standing appeared three Germans. They were holding up their hands. One had his foot in a bandage and was being helped along by the others. They looked frightened and miserable. While they are chattering in German, a wounded Grenadier turned up, quite off his head.

“That’s all right, sir,” he addressed me. “I’ll kill them.”

“I wouldn’t do that,” I remonstrated.

“Oh, that’s quite all right. You just leave them to me.” He threatened them with his rifle. The wounded German started to whimper and shuffled off.

The Grenadier followed, herding his little party together. He used his rifle like a shepherd’s staff. Could he have been a shepherd in civilian life? They disappeared in the direction of an out-house. Whatever happened to them? They were not heading strictly for the British lines.

And that’s all we learn.

At least this is a true war story: there may be honor and mercy, or, more likely it seems, madness and atrocity. But Carstairs has his own task and his own peril to worry about, and must move on… and so must we.

Another small party of prisoners appeared with a wounded Grenadier as escort. He was dazed and shaking with fright.

“Take a door off this house and have these prisoners carry back this wounded man.” But he did not understand.
The prisoners stood nervously about wishing to be gone. I showed them what I wanted done and they complied with alacrity.

Soon they were off, carrying the wounded Grenadier. It must have been a heavy load. I could not help fearing they would drop him half way in their eagerness to get out of danger. But if they had any thought of doing so it was intercepted by a German shell which burst in their midst after they had gone two hundred yards.

More prisoners turning up, removed another door from a house, on which they placed the man lying in the ditch of water.

Suddenly a large group of Germans approached. Their leader was a big man and the rest followed with a martial tread that contrasted oddly with their upraised hands and white handkerchiefs, energetically waved by some. One or two dodged into houses, but the rest marched on until they had reached us. The big man addressed me and I felt like a traffic policeman as I pointed to the British lines and watched them hurry off. Messages arrived from Nos. 3 and 4 Companies. They had captured their objectives, they were held up by heavy German machine-gun fire, they had suffered considerably and were in need of reinforcements. No word from either Nos. 1 or 2 Companies—a bad sign.

The Commanding Officer turned up. I saluted as though on parade.

He looked anxious. “We must go up and see what is happening.”

Together we proceeded up the main street of Fontaine-Notre-Dame, down which machine-gun bullets were pouring with the volume of water from a fire-hose. We hugged the houses to minimize the danger of being hit.

We reached the cross-roads and I marvelled that a man could get so far and remain alive. We were in the van of the battle. It seemed a miracle had happened to me.

Knollys greeted us. His Company Commander had been wounded. He was holding his position with about forty men and one machine-gun. It was almost all that was left of the Battalion. Nos. 1 and 2 Companies had  disappeared into the blue. They had been, as a matter of fact, wiped out. All officers (including both Company Commanders killed) both Sergeant-Majors, and all Sergeants casualties, and two-thirds of the men. Knollys was not certain but he thought No. 4 Company was somewhere up on the left.

Joining one of his friends in the aftermath of the fight, Carstairs continues to describe the intense strangeness of the persistence of human interactions in the midst of deadly battle.

Our consultation was interrupted by the appearance of a tank. It stopped, and out of it an officer descended.

“Do you want me any more?”

“No.” I felt as though I were dismissing a taxi.

He climbed back into the tank and down the street it waddled away.

We occupied a difficult position. The road to our rear joined with the left flank of No. 3 Company. We stood at the junction of the two other roads, one of which led to the station and the other in the direction of Bourlon Wood. The 1st Coldstream were somewhere on our left. A wide gap divided us, a gap impossible to bridge.

Suddenly to our right we saw the enemy attacking down the main road that led to the centre of No. 3 Company’s position. We were well placed to enfilade, which we did with a will. We watched the Germans being beaten back, holding up their arms before their faces as though warding off blows from sticks and stones.

With that attack driven back we thought of No. 3 Company as secure. The men were posted to overlook the roads. We had no thought of our rear. I sent a runner with a message giving our position…

But it soon becomes clear that they are, in fact, in touch with no other British unit–No 3. Company has been driven back by the same attack which his men have just fired on.

Our situation was awkward, to say the least. Sixty men with both flanks in the air cannot hold a village against a strong and inevitable counter-attack.

I caught sight of my face in a mirror. It was pink and normal. I had not taken in the seriousness of our position. I was still in a kind of a dream. A mental smokescreen obscured my vision.

Even the sergeant’s astonishing announcement reached me dimly, “Germans are coming up be’ind!” By no selective reasoning did I find myself, with revolver drawn, behind the wall, while the others stood in the entrance of the yard.

Carstairs’ memories move into the present tense, now:

And to be suddenly shooting at grey uniformed Germans was accompanied by no thrill. How big they were! Was it because he was aiming straight at my head that this German appeared so big? The motion of his rifle coming up to his shoulder increased his stature. My revolver lost power to hurt, for after I had fired the Germans remained in the same position. And yet they were so near it would have seemed impossible to have missed them. (A week before I had hit an envelope at twenty paces.) It did not seem as though I was missing but rather as though my bullets, turning into pellets, were bounding harmlessly off. Nor did the German’s rifle seem to function. There was no smoke, no flash, and I heard no bullet whistle uncomfortably close to my head. The whole thing took on the unreality of a “movie” until one of the Germans dropped. It seemed the signal for which his fellows had been waiting, for with one accord they spun round and ran away. I have never seen people run so fast. I can see
again that man as he turned the corner, the play of his big grey legs from hip to knee. He is gone.

I gazed at Carrington and he at me. It was from our rear that we had been attacked. Where is No. 3 Company?

It was the sergeant who showed presence of mind.

“We must follow.”

Someone shouted. “Collect the rest of the men.”

We broke into a run; following in the wake of the Germans. We passed the wounded German. He had raised himself on his elbow and, stretching out a hand, said something. A plea for mercy, for help? The bullet had hit the bone below the eye, leaving a bloody gash.

We reached the bend in the road. This had been the left of No. 3 Company’s position. Only a dead Grenadier remained. Did we expect to meet the enemy as we stopped stock-still at the corner? I expected nothing. I had ceased to think. It was as though our legs had outstripped thought. Time itself had stopped. The surprise attack, the brief duel, the pursuit, following in swift succession seemed all to belong to the same moment. Only now was time passing. An eternity, while one stood irresolute, wondering what to do.

“We must cut in be’ind these ’ouses, otherwise we’re lost.” It was the sergeant again who spoke.

The thirty survivors of the company escape by climbing through the back gardens of the village of Fontaine. But they do make it back to the rest of the battalion, and Carstairs once again takes time to reflect–once again we are in the past tense.

Experience, at first stimulating, ends by draining the system. Through the high storm of enemy shelling I passed, with any capacity for registering further emotion at last microscopically diminished. I felt no fear because I could feel nothing more. Slithering down the steep and muddy flight of stairs into the dim interior of Battalion  Headquarters’ dugout was a purely mechanical performance, and its shadowy occupants unreal. Its gloom and earthen smell reminded my subconscious self of former rest and security, which acted soporifically upon me and, at the end of my narrative, I fell forward on to the table into a sleep more profound and dreamless than any I had ever known.

I woke into a strange world. The events of the preceding hours rushed kaleidoscopically upon me, leaving me to fit myself, like a piece in a picture puzzle, into my immediate surroundings.

The Battalion was soon to move. Billy was sitting with his head in his hands saying, “Oh, my head! Oh, my head!”
In the midst of the most acute anxiety, disappointment and distress, the Commanding Officer had patience to repeat for the nth time, “Poor Billy!”

The Adjutant and the Padre returned from a final futile hunt for the bodies of “Nibs” and “Mary.” “Missing, believed killed” they will remain until the end of time, with the rest of a generation missing.

A miserable and stricken little family, the survivors of the 3rd Battalion left the “line.”[1]

 

Once again, for the sake of stylistic comparison, we can match the memoir (or personal history) of one Guards’ Regiment officer with the official historian of another.

They led off at 6.20 behind their own barrage, in two waves… Everything was ready for them, and machine-guns opened on well-chosen and converging ranges. Almost at the outset they met a line of enemy posts held in strength, where many of the occupants had chosen to shelter themselves at the bottom of the trenches under oil- sheets, a protection hampering them equally in their efforts to fight or to surrender. Here there was some quick killing and a despatch of prisoners to the rear; but the Wood offered many chances of escape, and as our guards were necessarily few, for every rifle was needed, a number broke away and returned…

[T]he Battalion took half-a-dozen machine-guns and lost more men at each blind step… A man once down in the coppice, or bogged in a wood-pool, was as good as lost, and the in-and-out work through the trees and stumpage broke up the formations…

Nevertheless, the 2nd Irish Guards carry the wood–for a little while. The entire Battalion’s experience sounds much like that of Carstairs:

Not long after this, they tried to dig in among the wet tree-roots, just beyond the Wood’s north edge. It seemed to them that the enemy had fallen back to the railway-line which skirted it, as well as to the north of La Fontaine village. Officially, the objective was reached, but our attacking strength had been used up, and there were no reserves. A barrage of big stuff, supplemented by field-guns, was steadily thrashing out the centre and north of the Wood, and, somewhere to the rear of the Battalion, a nest of machine-guns broke out viciously and unexpectedly. Then the whole fabric of the fight appeared to crumble, as, through one or other of the many gaps between the Battalions, the enemy thrust in, and the 2nd Irish Guards, hanging on to their thin front line, realised him suddenly at their backs. What remained of them split up into little fighting groups; sometimes taking prisoners, sometimes themselves being taken and again breaking away from their captors, dodging, turning, and ducking in dripping coppices and over the slippery soil, while the shells impartially smote both parties…

It looked like complete and unqualified disaster. But men say that the very blindness of the ground hid this fact to a certain extent both from us and the enemy, and the multiplied clamours in the Wood supplied an additional blindage. As one man said: ‘If Jerry had only shut off his dam’ guns and listened he’d ha’ heard we was knocked out; but he kept on hammer-hammering an’ rushin’ his parties back and forth the Wood, and so, ye see, them that could of us, slipped back quiet in the height of the noise.’ Another observer compared it to the chopping of many foxes in cover — not pleasant, but diversified by some hideously comic incidents. All agreed that it was defeat for the Guards — the first complete one they had sustained; but the admitted fact that they had been turned on at a few hours’ notice to achieve the impossible, did not spoil their tempers…

One of the handful of company officers not to become a casualty, today, in Bourlon Wood, was R.E. Sassoon, Siegfried‘s second cousin, who had been held back as a reserve with battalion headquarters.

Cambrai may have given hope and encouragement in England, but those who had been through it remained Sadducees. There were those who said that that hour was the psychological one to have gone on and taken advantage of the moral effect of breaking the Hindenburg Line, but this theory was put forward after the event; and a total of eleven thousand prisoners and a hundred and forty-five German guns for three weeks’ fighting seems small foundation for such large hopes. Every one on the field seems to have been agreed as to the futility of trying to work with, and making arrangements for the keep of, masses of cavalry on the chance that these might break through and overrun the enemy in the background.[2]

 

True enough… but we were going to use Captain Sassoon as a segue to a letter from his second cousin’s friend, admirer, and poetic master-surpassing-pupil. Wilfred Owen, has settled into life as a military hotel manager of sorts, but this is only tolerable because of his confidence that his intellectual life is not just elsewhere but flourishing… there.

27 November 1917 Scarborough

I sit alone at last, and therefore with you, my dear Siegfried. For which name, as much as for anything in any envelope of your sealing, I give thanks and rejoice.

The 5th have taken over a big Hotel, of which I am Major Domo…

I had a Third Heaven of a time in London, arid should have got into a Fourth or Fifth if I had not missed you on Wednesday. Were you there for a ‘Reading?’ I know nothing of it to this day.

He was. Should Sassoon have included Owen? No–it was Ross’s gig, not Sassoon’s, and he was none too pleased to be there himself. Besides, Owen is not as established as Nichols, and arranging such things by letter and telegraph takes a bit more forethought than would be required nowadays… but Owen might also have been wrong for such things because he was not socially correct. He was neither low enough in the social order to be a curiosity nor high enough to be acceptable: he had been to neither Public School nor University, and Sassoon is painfully (read that adverb however you will) aware of Owen’s declassé accent.

After London, I went to Winchester to see my Cousin, whose fine Book cover with its enclosed pages I dare to send you herewith…

In Town, then, R.R. gave me a glorified morning at The Reform, & evening at Half Moon St.—When he had steered me to a lunch-table I found beside me an upstart rodent of a man, who looked astonished to find himself there. But dear Ross sang out with blessed distinctness ‘Mister Amnoldd Bennnettt’. So I stood up and shook hands.  Presently I became aware of a pair of bayonet-coloured eyes, threatening at me from over, as it were, a brown sandbag. ‘H. G. Wells!’ So I stood up and shook hands. I think these men noticed me because I stood up to them in two senses. Anyhow I got A.B. into a comer about you, as I will tell you someday. And H.G. talked to me exclusively for an hour. I was only ill at ease with him once, and that was when he tried to make me laugh with him at Bennett’s gaudy handkerchief.

If you have read through this rehashing of the non-momentous meetings with a roll of the eyes–that Owen is a bit too star struck!–it’s interesting to see what comes next. Even in this somewhat fawning letter to Sassoon, he is willing to, well, fawn, and only just after frankly wondering about Sassoon’s taste in his new friends…

What sport for my imagination is the idea of your Meeting with R. Nichols.—He is so self-concerned & vaniteux in his verse that I thought he must efface himself in a room: even as you who write so acid are so—unsoured; and me, who write so big, am so minuscule…

Oh! world you are making for me, Sassoon!

The only question is, which is the real gift: the criticism and the confidence, the poetic push, or, rather, the exciting entree into literary life?

Owen is quite amusing, actually, in his reading of Sassoon’s and Graves‘s work. There is something very charming about his light-spiritedness, even if he leans on it rather heavily. He presumes a bit too much on his intimacy with the sometimes-frosty Sassoon… but then he laughs at his own excessive glorying:

I think I liked reading his Letter to you more than yours to him, but for no better reasons than that I like the future better than the past, and hope you will learn the piccolo…

If these tetrameters aren’t enough to bring you to your senses. Mad Jack, what can my drivel effect to keep you from France?

Have you been very sat upon by this Board? Do tell me quick what your movements are.

I have studied and expanded every sentencience of your sole letter to me; until I can make no more out of it, and want some more, please…

Owen then–to his credit–at least passes on some of his cousin’s work, with apologetic notes on how to get through them most painlessly. But he also includes his own work, both the unpublished “A Vision of Whitechapel” and another poem, as strange as his mood:

My ‘Vision’ is the result of two hours’ leisure yesterday,—and getting up early this morning! If you have objections to make, would you return it? If not, pass it on to R.R.

I trust you’ll like the ‘Soldier’s Dream’ well enough to pass it on to the Nation or Cambridge?

Um…

I dreamed kind Jesus fouled the big-gun gears;
And caused a permanent stoppage in all bolts;
And buckled with a smile Mausers and Colts;
And rusted every bayonet with His tears.

And there were no more bombs, of ours or Theirs,
Not even an old flint-lock, not even a pikel.
But God was vexed, and gave all power to Michael;
And when I woke he’d seen to our repairs.

Sassoon will blush here–if not for the effusiveness, the nick-naming, and tje suddenly unreasonable-seeming hopes of publication, than for the plainness of one fact: Owen does not make a very good Sassoon. The punchy satirical style doesn’t work as well without the anger behind it… also, those are some awful rhymes.

No; Owen will realize, soon, that Sassoon’s attention and example have made him–Owen–a much better poet, and no mere fanboy. But he is that, also.

…There is no one here whose mind is Truth, or whose body Keats’s synonym for Truth.

I’ll mind my business. I’m a good worm.

Could you get me another portrait for my room here? I framed the one, and could not pack it.

But don’t make it an excuse for delaying a letter.

I hope you will read through this, twice.

I hope you read Graves’s Letter to S.S. twice a day, till war ends.

We have had some strong sunshine; and when it strikes anything blue I see you sitting by the bedside as on That Morning in September

I am Owen; and I am dying.
I am Wilfred; and I follow the Gleam.[3]

Never fear: this is not some sort of crazed or suicidal swerve at the end of the letter, but a quotation (read “Merlin” for both “Owen” and “Wilfred) from Tennyson’s “Merlin and The Gleam.” What a letter!

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Carstairs, A Generation Missing, 121-139.
  2. The Irish Guards in the Great War, II, 157-62.
  3. Collected Letters, 510-12.

George Coppard’s Machine Guns to Cambrai; Rowland Feilding’s Rangers at Bullecourt; Robert Graves Sets the Record Straight; Agnes Miller as Lizzie Bennet, Olaf Stapledon as Mr. Darcy

Today, a century back, was the first day of the battle of Cambrai. There shouldn’t have been any real hope for a breakthrough, especially so near to the beginning of winter. But the ground in front of Cambrai–between the Arras battlefield and the Somme battlefield–was relatively unspoiled, and it was conceivable that the British could take the town and the Bourlon Ridge and thus threaten to cut off the Hindenberg Line. It is also conceivable that since the Third Army hadn’t suffered horribly, lately, its restive commanders simply wanted to experiment with massed tanks and new artillery tactics, and so an intelligent commitment to holding the line gave way to an experimental local attack that grew out of scale as the planning continued.

But I’m not capable of giving an intelligent precis of the strategy here, nor do we really need one. Six divisions of infantry and over 400 tanks were massed for the traditional dawn assault, and there was some hope that the Germans, expecting a long barrage, would be unprepared for the sudden attack after a short, furious bombardment by over a thousand guns, most of which had been “silently” registered on their targets. The new tactics worked well, but they will not be enough to sustain initial successes against the heavily built-up Hindenberg Line.

Among the thousands lying out between the British front lines in the early morning hours were George Coppard and his two machine gun teams, part of the 37th Brigade, 12th Division.

There we were, a brigade of men, shivering on a cold November night, without a smoke, and suffering like drug addicts… we were only allowed to communicate in whispers. It was the queerest sensation being packed with a vast crowd of warriors, within 400 yards of our front line, and out in the open, after living like rabbits in burrows for many months. It was a spooky business, and we kept as quiet as mice…

Like all the rest I was excited at the prospect of going into battle behind these new-fangled Wellsian monsters. I felt they were really going to exact retribution, on behalf of all of us, for the countless miseries and privations that we poor blighters had suffered at Jerry’s hands.This was to be the reckoning…

Zero was at 6.30 am on that memorable day, 20 November. We heard the sound of tank engines warming up. The first glimpse of dawn was beginning to show as we stood waiting for the big bang that would erupt behind us at the end of the countdown. Lieutenant Garbutt and Sergeant Critcher were standing near me. At last the officer began to count. He was bang on, and in a flash the black sky at our backs was ablaze with stabbing shafts of light. A vast drum of terrible thunder swept along the eight-mile front and a chorus of shells screamed over to the east. The need for silence was over, and we exploded in a babble of excitement. That concentration of artillery was surely one of the greatest ever known. The tanks, looking like giant toads, became visible against the skyline as they approached the top of the slope. Some of the leading tanks carried huge bundles of tightly-bound brushwood, which they dropped when a wide trench was encountered, thus providing a firm base to cross over. Suddenly, the bombardment ceased. By now the tanks were near the German lines and shooting it out where resistance was met…

We went forward into enemy country in a manner never possible without the aid of tanks. ‘A’ section fell in behind the Queen’s, my two guns being on the right flank. No enemy fire of any sort impeded us until we passed Gonnelieu on our left… It was broad daylight as we crossed No Man’s Land and the German front line. I saw very few wounded coming back, and only a handful of prisoners. The tanks appeared to have busted through any resistance. The enemy wire had been dragged about like old curtains, though it was not comparable in density to the terrible wire at the beginning of the Somme battle.

As we moved forward… I could see several tanks rolling forward steadily. There did not appear to be any organised defence against them. Some changed directions to meet isolated spots of resistance, mostly from machine guns. One or two had come to a stand-still, probably with engine trouble…

From the general situation it seemed to me that the German infantry had either fled at the apparition of the tanks or had pulled out deliberately, leaving their machine guns to do what they could…

Whatever the reason for the feeble resistance, it suited my gun team very nicely, and we moved forward steadily with guns and gear. Officialdom had designated tanks sex-wise, i.e. those with light cannon were males and those with machine guns were females. This caused the lads to think up some bright expressions when viewing the lumbering monsters, such as, “Here’s an old bitch,’ or, ‘There goes a bloody great bull.’

Advancing along captured communications trenches, Coppard and his men eventually discovered that not all German resistance had been overcome. His wide-ranging memories of the day[1] narrow, now, as he comes under direct fire.

We reached a point where it cut through the banks of a sunken road. We had to cross the road, but pulled up sharp at the sight of three dead Tommies lying on it. I dashed across the road to where the trench continued–a matter of about ten feet. From a concealed position on my right a Jerry machine guns opened fire. My hair stood on end as the bullets hissed past my back. The gunner was just a trifle late to get me.

There was a tank nearby beginning to move after a stop. I told one of the crew about the enemy machine gun, ‘We’ll fix the bastard,’ he replied, and slowly the tank shuffled round on its tracks and rolled off in the direction of the hostile gun. Then came a fiery burst as the hapless weapon tried to beat off the tank, the bullets clanging and ricocheting. The teams crossed the road safely, well-bucked at this practical demonstration of a tank in action.

Other than this adventure, Coppard saw little action–most of the German artillery seems to have withdrawn before the attack–evidence, perhaps, that they were not in fact strategically surprised. The 37th Brigade advances seven kilometres, just as planned, and without finding targets along the way. After his two teams dig in for the night–and for the expected counter-attack–Coppard explored their immediate area, finding a German command dugout with a body at the bottom. Nauseated–and fearing booby traps–he and his hungry men forgo taking any of the food in the dugout…[2]

 

Rowland Feilding‘s battalion was part of the 16th (Irish) Division, and attacked not as part of the main effort at Cambrai but with the subsidiary attack several miles to the west, at Bullecourt. They held the right flank of their brigade attack, which would prove to be a difficult situation.

Shortly before Zero I headed for the front to wish the assaulting Companies good luck before they went over, but I was delayed, and found myself still in the fire-trench when, bursting out of almost perfect silence, our barrage started…

As a precautionary measure I had had the direction of the objective marked out with tape the night before, having learned, from previous experience, the difficulty of keeping direction in the dark.

Absolutely to the tick I watched the men scaling the ladders… and scrambling over the parapet, the signallers under their sergeant struggling with the coils of telephone wire that was to keep me in touch with the assaulting troops once they had established themselves in the German trench. Those are sights that are very inspiring, and which engrave themselves upon the memory, but I prefer to turn away from them…

By this time the usual inferno… had worked up to its full fury.

It is very clear, at least, that British synchronization has reached a high level of efficiency. Feilding describes the barrage, and his attempt to control the attack from a forward position, but the small dugout soon becomes crammed with wounded men and German prisoners, so he headed back to his “proper Headquarters.”

At this moment poor Brett came stumbling back, crimson with blood, having been shot through the face, bringing further confirmation of the news which I already had from him by runner, that the enemy was furiously counter-attacking our exposed right flank.

The two bunkers are visible in the upper left of the map segment, below, just to the left of the hatched vertical line. Both are marked, appropriately enough, with a symbol much like the conventional “mars” symbol, but in this case indicating a “mebus” machine gun emplacement.

In his next letter, Feilding will explain the tactical situation. The primary objectives of his two companies were two huge reinforced concrete bunkers (“Mebus” was then the term) known as “Mars” and “Jove.” Both were swiftly outflanked under a precise barrage and smoke-screen–“the advance to the attack across Noman’s Land had been carried out precisely as rehearsed”–and surrendered after brief resistance. Eventually, 152 prisoners were collected, but the engineers accompanying the infantry, focused on clearing mines and booby-traps, were unable to block all of the tunnels connecting the German network of defensive positions.

When the counter-attack came, less than an hour after zero, it was both over the open ground to their right and through tunnels that led to the bunker.

You will appreciate its severity when I tell you that the Commander and twenty-six out of twenty-eight other ranks of the right flank platoon became casualties. The officers and men fought with the most heroic determination in spite of a failing and finally disappearing supply of bombs…

At a critical moment one of the men, Private K. White, rushed close up to a traverse from behind which the enemy was bombing, and actually catching some of their bombs in the air, threw them back before they had exploded.

But it was not enough–after an hour, Captain Brett, shot through the face, led a retreat onto the other pillbox. This held, and after another hour, Feilding himself crossed No Man’s land with his orderly in order to visit the position.

I talked to the men as I passed along the line, and found them in good spirits, and confident in the knowledge of the splendid part they had played that morning…

They have done well–and still suffered heavy casualties.

The familiar scene of desolation confronted me. Each time I see this kind of thing I think it is worse than the last time, and indeed, on this occasion, so churned up was the surface that, but for the line of tunnel entrances and the trodden ground between them, there was little left to indicate where the trench had been. It was just a sea of overlapping craters of huge dimensions–a dismal chaos of fresh-turned earth.

Feilding, with little to do now that the counter-attack has petered out, explores the new position, coming upon the dead, the dying, and the wounded. Even though he is so close to the action–he was in command of the men who stormed the two pillboxes and took the tunnels with hand-grenades, he writes almost as an observer. He sees the horrible aftermath, promises aid to the wounded, and collects souvenirs…[3]

 

Back down in the main battle, Edward Horner (one of the last of the Coterie, and a great friend of both Diana Manners and Duff Cooper) moved up with his 18th Hussars as the battle began. We have read Coppard’s and Feilding’s tales of heavy machine guns, precise artillery coordination, and tank exploits against pillboxes, and the battlefield was overflown by hundreds of aircraft–1917 as a foreshadowing of 1939. But there were only a few hundred tanks to be had and, as we shall see, they were mechanically unreliable, and so the plan for exploiting any breakthroughs was essentially the same as it had been in 1915 and 1916, and behind the attacking tanks and infantry trotted three entire divisions of cavalry–Hussars, Dragoons, and Lancers no longer dressed in their flashing Napoleonic finery, but still booted, spurred, helmeted, and mounted. Cambrai was, in the words of one of our writers who was not there but will study the subject, “a harum-scarum affair, ill-planned and feebly directed.” It was a raid that got out of hand, in terms of its scale, and could only do what raids do: snatch a bit of ground which cannot be held. The tactical coordination may yet be a model for future operations, but they have not solved the operational problem of continuing the advance.

So, as the German counter-attack gathers, Horner’s Hussars, part of the 1st Cavalry Division, passed through the infantry and attacked the village of Noyelles, south-east of Cambrai. But too slowly: although in some places all three major layers of the Hindenberg Line were pierced to a distance of nearly five miles (a fourth line was incomplete), by the time the heavily-laden horses had picked their way through, the German defense had had time to organize. The cavalry were in it, at last, but they were not cantering through the open fields toward Berlin. They were fighting a confused battle on a torn up field, against undisturbed reserves who had easier access to heavy weapons.

 

Back to the infantry, now. E. A. Mackintosh’s 4th Seaforth Highlanders were in reserve, although they probably assumed that they would be called in when the attack bogged down. But they were not–and if the cavalry were both elated and disappointed to be involved in heavy fighting, the infantry were very pleased to have a short march forward into the captured area. So, despite yesterday’s note, Mackintosh saw no fighting today. During the night they will take over for the first waves, victorious but exhausted.[4]

 

Also in the battle were both of Isaac Rosenberg‘s recent units–the company of Royal Engineers with whom he had served as a laborer and the 11th King’s Own Royal Regiment (Lancaster). As with Mackintosh’s Seaforths, their easy first day will turn out to be only be a brief reprieve: the German counter-attack will come soon, and it will be as devastating as the British assault was successful. And so Rosenberg will come to know that he has been very fortunate to be very ill, and in hospital, and not in Bourlon Wood.[5]

 

It might make sense to end here, or to spend more time fleshing out these scattered notices of a large battle–but that, of course, is not how today, a century back, was experienced. It was all in bits in pieces, and only later would it be the beginning of a strategic story of ambition, success, and cruel but predictable reversal. In England the evening papers will have some news of the attack, but for most people, most of the day, their thoughts were elsewhere.

Robert Graves, for instance, is writing from his garrison job in Wales to Robert Nichols. The letter happily discusses their recent literary successes–“My God, Robert, we have lit such a candle as by God’s grace will set the whole barn alight”–and proposes various projects, before it works around to Graves’s real business–clearing the air of any lingering questions about his sexuality.

It’s only fair to tell you that since the cataclysm of my friend Peter, my affections are running in the more normal channels and I correspond regularly and warmly with Nancy Nicholson, who is great fun. I only tell you this so that you should get out of your head any misconceptions about my temperament. I should hate you to think I was a confirmed homosexual even if it were only in my thought and went no further.

Fair enough, perhaps. It is testimony to both Graves’s enthusiasm and his obliviousness that it might only recently have occurred to him that his habit of being honest about his (chaste) passion for a younger schoolboy might lead some to think that he was “a confirmed homosexual.” The topic may be on his mind, too, because Nichols–his heterosexuality confirmed by syphilis apparently contracted from prostitutes–has recently spent time with Siegfried Sassoon and Robbie Ross. And then there is one more poet whose affections run in less “normal” channels… and whom Graves, after connecting Nichols and Sassoon (though Ross was there to do the real work) will try to take credit for discovering, even though, of course, it was Sassoon who introduced them.

I think I have found a few poet as yet unfledged. One Owen, subaltern in the 2nd Manchester Regiment.[6]

Owen, meanwhile, left home this morning, a century back, his leave up, for garrison duty in Scarborough.[7]

 

Finally today, we’ll take a perversely wide view of “war literature” and swing from the tanks at Cambrai to the nineteenth century novel inspiring in Australia.

Agnes Miller–together with a score of other wives and sweethearts–suffers the compounded insult, here, of once again waiting quietly in the background while men’s words take center stage. The excuse, of course, is that we are interested, a century on, in the experience of the war and the problems of writing about it, and therefore the letters of those at the front naturally take precedence over those written from home to the soldiers (and ambulance drivers). Which is fine, as far as it goes, but it’s still a shame that this echoes the general devaluing of women’s voices, a century back. Although sometimes any fault is mine–I choose to omit the letters, that is–another reasonable excuse is that there is often no possibility of including the other half of the conversation: letters from the front could be bundled and laid lovingly away in drawers and trunks, while letters to the front were very often lost or simply thrown away, since a bundle of letters would become a burden to a front-line soldier.

But some recipients were able to keep at least some of their letters, and, while I often skip Agnes Miller’s tales of daily life in wartime Australia, today’s letter, though ill-timed to coincide with a major tank battle and the climax of one machine-gunner’s memoir, is impossible to resist. In fact, it’s about as excellent a letter from a lover as one could hope to receive… which is also to say that I approve of its subject and position, a century on. Moreover, after he will have received her long-delayed doubts on the strength of their relationship to survive these years apart, this letter will surely overwhelm Olaf Stapledon with love for his beloved–and with gratitude for the timely wisdom of that “lady novelist” then dead a century and four months.

20 November 1917

I wonder if perhaps you are at home now on leave—perhaps at this very minute waking up one morning at Annery. I have a habit of always thinking of you eight weeks ago, sort of. I don’t realise that you are really there keeping pace with me at every fresh minute of the day. It is nice to think that. It makes you more real. I have read two books in the past three days. That is my record! I kept thinking how much you would have enjoyed them if we had been reading them aloud to each other. Of course you must have read them—“Pride & Prejudice” & “Northanger Abbey.” You do like Jane Austen, don’t you? I simply love her. Such really artistic delightful writing. Such books make me think of diamonds, small diamonds but perfect in workmanship. Absolutely genuine—clean cut, perfectly smooth & sparkling. Full of such delicious humour & such sound good sense, & although the ways & the language that day are so very different from ours yet the characters are just such as we meet everywhere. I should like to have been friends with Jane & Elizabeth Bennett. . . . I should so like to be as bright & intelligent & sprightly as Elizabeth! No wonder Mr. Darcy “got it badly” when he did get it! I like to picture you in the characters of all the nice lovers— my
Mr. Darcy!

. . . I can understand Elizabeth very well. I can understand her resentment at such a sudden & unexpected declaration. I can understand her disapproval amounting to positive dislike on that occasion. I think she would understand my despair & sorrow—almost shame at having won a love that I could never hope to return. If she had understood my feeling she would not have been surprised to find me weeping upstairs in the darkened drawing room. . . .

Then next I see the beginnings of changes in both of us—changes which make us feel how far away we both were before from the real thing & at last “my Mr. Darcy” comes to me—or rather I write to him from the other end of the world & say, “Dear Mr. Darcy—Once, a long time ago, you asked me to be your wife & I said no & I was very cross & horrible & now I am sorry. Everything is different now & I am different too & I understand & if you will only ask me once again I will not say no—indeed I will not.”

And she did not.

Mr. & Mrs. Darcy were very happy after their stormy courtship & Mr. & Mrs. Stapledon will surely be even more so to make up for all the long time they have had to wait. . . . Jane Austen really is a tonic as well as an artist.[8]

We are to be grateful, however, that Agnes didn’t happen upon Persuasion, first, which might have romantically inclined her toward a long sharp wartime separation and a preference, after all, for brave, dashing, and fortunate officers, rather than principled and dreamy pacifists…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Which read a little bit too much, in a few places, as if they had been influenced by the style of later popular summary.
  2. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 122-6.
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 228-34.
  4. Campbell and Green, Can't Shoot a Man With a Cold, 204-5.
  5. Moorcroft Wilson, Isaac Rosenberg, 375.
  6. In Broken Images, 88-89. There is no date on the letter, but it is dated to today, a century back, by Jean Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 425.
  7. Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 283.
  8. Talking Across the World, 257-8.

Jack Martin and Edward Brittain are Caporetto Bound

Today brings a clarification–in plain English–from Edward Brittain. It doesn’t address the matter directly, but it confirms what his recent Latin epistle made clear–relatively clear, that is, if one can call upon “the elusive shades of Pass Mods.” He is leaving (for Italy, along with his entire division), and soon–and with no chance for leave to see his sister Vera, even though she is but a short journey away, at Étaples.

France, 4 November 1917

It is awfully hard to command a company when you have a rotten memory like I have; I have to put every blooming little thing down or else I should be in a mess in a few hours… I tried to get 2 days or even 1 local leave but it wasn’t really possible as Harrison went rather suddenly and is now struck off the strength and so, unless I make a mess of it which I suppose I shall do sooner or later when I have been sufficiently discouraged, I am to remain OC company.

. . .  If you don’t get letters from me for a bit you will not be surprised nor will you stop writing to me when opportunity allows.[1]

As Vera Brittain told us yesterday, she will write to their parents that her brother’s sudden transfer removed “half the point of being in France.” But she has quit nursing before, and this time she will soldier on, hoping for no further bereavement.

 

As it happens, Sapper Jack Martin will be part of the same mission. The situation is still considered severe enough (the Caporetto offensive began only eleven days ago) that several divisions will be rushed off without delay. Martin records the news in his diary, and makes it clear how well understood it is that the purpose of the swift reinforcement of Italy is “moral” as well as strategic.

4.11.17

Our destination is Italy. While I was on duty Jessie had a parade of the Signals and told them that the part of Italy to which we are going is inhabited by a very poor peasantry and we must be kind to them. From what I can make out we have got to raise the morale of the Italians as well as fight the Austrians.[2]

Third Ypres, now in its death throes, has been considered an allied success. But given the collapse of Russia and the near-Collapse of Italy, confidence will not be high this winter. And the Germans are already planning to gamble it all on one throw, come spring…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Letters from a Lost Generation, 380-1.
  2. Sapper Martin, 123.

A Shell Inscribes a Line in Edward Brittain’s Hand; Hugh Quigley Girds for Battle; Herbert Read Welcomes the Conquering Heroes; Isaac Rosenberg Goes Under the Weather; Phillip Maddison Goes from Safety to the German Lines, and from the German Lines to G.H.Q.

Today, a century back, brings a welter of writing–wry, wet, windy, and ominous.

 

Hugh Quigley knows that he about to march back into the thick of things, and so he writes, to someone he loves, with the cruel candor of the soldier before battle:

I expect this will be the last letter you will get from me for at least ten days. You know what that means. I can only only hope to get out safely, or, at worst, with a comfortable wound. If the same fate happens to me as to Peter, I have done my duty, according to conventional standards. By higher and more ideal standards, it is too perverted to be called duty at all, if it does not immediately help to stop war and avoid sacrifice.

Our men are growing more confident everyday; in fact, one could almost go into battle now with a bag of provisions and a walking-stick. The rifle plays only a small part, for the enemy invariably throw up their hands when the infantry approach…

Quigley’s confidence is more than a bit overstated, but then again this is a letter home, a last letter before combat, meant to reassure. Or something along those lines. While it is true that the rifle-toting infantryman is increasingly just a pawn in an artillery war, the idea that there will not be any fighting necessary in an advance against German pillboxes is ridiculous, as we have seen so often, recently.

Regardless, Quigley is soon back in a full-blown romantic mode: he even finds a “curiously apposite” French poem on a scrap of paper.

This paper was lying beside a tombstone under the shadow of a great church. I spent an afternoon wandering round that church, sentimentalizing to my heart’s content, with no one to disturb me and no one to utter bald consolations about the price of life. The slow passage of time came to a sweetness of thought, not melancholic, not poignant, just a lingering tenderness and a faint regret, tenuous as a web of sun in the tree-shadows. High chestnuts, browning through shimmering gold, dropped solitary leaves with a faint pat on the flat stones or rustled them through the wire-enclosed wreaths hanging from grey crosses, half-ruined, green with a decay of beauty, so that the harmony of life came very close to death, reality to dream…

You will see the old sentiments cannot die… They are worth something more than this, farther and higher… Not ephemeral, but progressive and continuous on a way of perfection…

Each man prepares for the ordeal of a tour in the trenches in a different way. Quigley, it’s safe to say, complicates the stereotype of the enlisted man’s “this leaves me in the pink” letter before battle…[1]

 

And Vera Brittain, who has lost a fiancé and two close friends after letters more or less like that one, has decided that she can’t hang on every turn of the front line/reserve/rest rotation of her only brother. So Edward writes to her today, only when he is safely out of the latest mess. I include this letter mostly for how it begins:[2] with a mark made by the war, not just on a day, a century back, but in a single moment:

France, 10 October 1917

— That curious dash because a shell made me jump. This is rather a filthy place… We haven’t had a mail for 3 days owing to our sudden move and so I expect there will be a letter from you when it does come. I am very glad you have written some more poems so as to make enough for a small volume; I will ask Mrs L[eighton] about it; I believe you were thinking of Erskine Macdonald before. By the way why haven’t you sent me any of your new poems as you know I should like to have them?[3]

 

Isaac Rosenberg has just had leave–his first–and has been writing poems. But the heavy rain of the last few days has done no good for his always-problematic lungs. The weather will save him, perhaps, if it doesn’t kill him: today, a century back, he went sick with influenza, which for a man of his physique is certainly more dangerous than ordinary trench duty.[4]

 

Comfort and the fortunes of leave are also on the mind of Herbert Read, guilt-stricken at having missed his battalion’s part in the Passchendaele battle. He can make amends by preparing decent beds for them all: having been held back in reserve and appointed billeting officer, he spent a long day’s negotiation with the inhabitants of a poor northern French village–“Mais c’est la guerre, as they all say.”

10.x.17

They came in shortly after midnight, very weary and ready to drop down and sleep anywhere. It isn’t three weeks since I left them, but it was like greeting long lost friends… It isn’t only fancy that makes them seem to have aged five years and more. They have gone through what as probably the most intense shell fire since the war began.[5]

 

Finally, today, we have a date-in-a-novel, a time-stamped activity from our strangest and most carefully calendrical fictional war book. Henry Williamson himself missed the summer and Passchendaele because of a long stint recovering from symptoms that may have been simple illness or may have been worsened by gas or the psychological toll of his service in the winter and spring around Arras. But his enormous semi-autobiographical sequence on the life of Phillip Maddison elongates the author’s combat experiences, compresses his time at home, and puts the protagonist always where the action is. Phillip Maddison never misses a battle.

Today, a century back, his heroic mentor, “Westy,” has turned up again as well, and this time Phillip plunges in unlikely fashion into the German lines (as he has done several memorable times before, including during the Christmas Truce and at Loos) as a sidekick rather than as a lone ranger.

Before sending us over the top, as it were, Williamson dutifully gives us a potted military history of the “Fourth Step” of Third Ypres, a.k.a. the “Battle of Poelcappelle.” Which is all well and good,[6] but sits rather jarringly with the most Gumpish of the many Gumpish moments in the series so far. I will quote and then summarize, as best as I can.

(The whole sequence of novels is a slog, but so very interesting: there is an unprecedented devotion to raking oneself over the coals of memory while raking out the embers of traditional military history at the same time–just not well-enough written to enchant other than a devoted reader over several thousand pages.)

The day after the fourth step had been launched, two men, each with a long stick in his hand, were walking on one of the many duck-board tracks lying parallel to the Wieltje-Frezenberg road, alongside which was an almost continuous row of 18-pounder field-guns….  The senior of the two, whose diminutive scarlet gorget patches on the collar of his ranker’s tunic were concealed under a woolen scarf, carried, in addition, a map-case.

“I don’t see how the infantry can possibly move in this weather, Westy. Must the attacks go on?”

“If only the Chief could have had his own way, and attacked up here last May, instead of down south, as demanded by Joffre… Third Ypres was put off in 1916, and again last spring. With the results that everyone can now see–only everyone, as usual, will draw the wrong conclusions.”

Well, Westy, you didn’t really answer the question.

Now commences the aforementioned Gumpish adventure, a sort of shark-jumping in the Passchendaele mud. It’s ridiculous to find this (over and over again) in a book that is generally concerned both to represent the progress of the war from a young soldier’s point of view and to dwell on the very real push-and-pull between rashness and cowardice, confidence and self-loathing that seems to have riven Williamson’s character, as well as that of his alter ego. Ridiculous, and suited more to a pot-boiler than an attempt at literature/transmuted memoir, but nonetheless fascinating. If Williamson had a slightly steadier hand, we could even begin to make the argument that his sprawling Bildungsroman is actually an argument that the realist novel is a poor sort of form for telling war stories…

The setting is this: “Westy,” the clear-eyed, far-seeing, casually imperturbable Cassandra of the Old Contemptibles, has become a sort of minister-without-portfolio for the staff, charged to roam wherever he will and report on the “real” situation without regard for the normal channels of command. He takes Maddison forward with him into the front lines, where another assault–the “Fifth Step” of the battle–is about to take place. Commandeering a platoon of Lancashire Territorials, the two adventurers cross into no man’s land near the town of Passchendaele itself, and find a crucial hole in the German defenses.

So far, only the freelancing of Westy and Maddison is ridiculously far-fetched. There does seem to have been a disconnect–mostly environmental and unavoidable (and to some extent a product of bureaucratic awkwardness and scale management and inefficient traditions)–between the enormous effort put into planning an attack in the weeks and months before it and the failure to process any knowledge of German plans and movements during the days when the pending attack must have been obvious to them. The strategic plan must be, to a large extent, inflexible, but there is a horrible sense that while the attack could be built to respond to reports from the front in the last days–to adjust to the adjustments made by the defense–the will just isn’t there. It’s such a big bureaucracy, and the top planners are so very far from the trenches…  The British guns mass on known German positions, there are raids and counter-raids, withdrawals and new positions… and the machinery of the attack clicks slowly forward…

More or less alone in a gap in the vaunted German defenses, “Westy” writes out a dispatch, describing the tactical omission and opportunity. But while he is doing so the green subaltern of the platoon they have borrowed blows a whistle, as if he were on parade or mid-attack. Alerted, a German machine gun opens up, Westy us shot through the chest–his eighth wound–and it is left to Maddison to save the day.

And here’s where it gets interesting. Maddison–touched now by the hand of of the divine and possibly dying West–is suddenly, once again, brave and resolute, decisive and dashing. But he is also on a segment of the line where he is known to various officers, and not well liked. He has a significant reputation for both shirking and for wild immaturity, and so the perils which spring up to prevent him from getting Westy’s report to the men who must read them are not just physical obstacles like broken country and German bullets, but also the enemies of his past, among his own army.

Calm and collected, Maddison takes off, D’Artagnan-like, but find that he must explain himself to an officer who knows him from his days a misfit and lead-swinger.. He is disbelieved, disrespected, place under arrest, and then left alone with a horse and an easily-bluffed enlisted man. So Phillip Maddison, veteran of First and Third Ypres, Loos and the Somme, turns horse-thief, and gallops off to G.H.Q… and there, dropping dead with exhaustion and telling a strange tale, he is warmly listened to, fed and bedded, and made to tell his tale to the assembled mucky-mucks. There is good food and wine and cigars, but also the confident formality (of the very well-bred Englishmen). The unkempt messenger is heeded, and a better plan is put in motion… Phillip has saved day, and will have a pleasant rest at G.H.Q. before returning to his ordinary duty as a transport officer in a humble Machine Gun Company… And Henry Williamson leaves us wondering–is this a personal triumph in the face of the cold indifference of strategy? Is the implication that the Staff, with its cigars and clean clothes and expensive liquor, is nonetheless doing the best it can by men like Westy (not to mention all those thousands of platoons in the front lines? Or are the two worlds as incompatible as they feel, since the distance between the two seems to have grown greater after the unlikely gallop of our hero from one to another, rather than smaller?

I’m not sure. The simple answer, surely, is that when Williamson is writing of a time when he was abed in England, he works from a military history and indulges himself by writing a Boy’s Own Paper adventure. Whether this means that he was unable to consistently write a giant realist novel as a consistently realistic “War Book,” or simply unwilling to do so, is another matter.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Passchendaele and the Somme, 144-7.
  2. If there is an image of it available somewhere, I didn't find it with a desultory search, alas.
  3. Letters From a Lost Generation, 377.
  4. Cohen, Journey to the Trenches, 172.
  5. The Contrary Experience, 111.
  6. It seems a relatively clear and balanced history of the battle as seen from the decades afterwards, and didn't Tolstoy do much the same thing, after all?

Frank Richards and Doctor Dunn on a Day of Battle for the Royal Welch: Desperate Measures under the Rockets’ Glare; Phillip Maddison Finds Balance; Ivor Gurney Overjoyed, Isaac Rosenberg to Return

The Second Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers is currently bereft of famous poet officers–Siegfried Sassoon is in Scotland while Robert Graves is with the depot in Wales–but two of their acquaintances are very much with the Regiment today, a century back, in one of its worst days in the Salient. It is a day of combat, and crisis, and an unusual confusion of roles. Dr. Dunn, we must remember, is both currently the battalion medical officer and subsequently the chief chronicler–but he has not been a fighting soldier for many years.

At the risk of aggravating Dunn, we’ll let Graves introduce the day’s story, even though it is not quite standard historical procedure to begin with hearsay before examining the eyewitness account. Ironically, however, Graves’s more dramatic rendering–based on reports he will get later from other members of the battalion–is probably more plainly true than the doctor’s account. Graves might self-aggrandize and take liberties with local truths, but he seems intent on giving the characters of the Regiment their due–especially when they themselves fail in to sing their own deeds quite loudly enough.

Doctor Dunn was what they call a hard-bitten man; he had served as a trooper in the South African War and won the D.C.M. He was far more than a doctor; living at battalion headquarters he became the right-hand man of three or four colonels in succession. When his advice was not taken this was usually afterwards regretted. On one occasion, in the autumn fighting of 1917, a shell burst among the headquarters staff, knocking out adjutant, colonel, and signals officer. Dunn had no hesitation in pulling off the red-cross armlets that he wore in a battle and becoming a temporary combatant officer of the Royal Welch, resigning his duties to the stretcher-bearer sergeant. He took command and kept things going. The men were rather afraid of him, but had more respect for him than for anyone else in the battalion.[1]

Today, a century back, would be that occasion. The 2/R.W.F. were in support of the second day’s push (of this new phase of Third Ypres, that is), and spent the early morning waiting as the battle raged to their east. It is only after they receive their orders, around 8.15, to attack at noon that we learn just how things are with the battalion. This is the collective account narrated by Dunn, now:

Poore called a conference of Company Commanders; the C.O. had gone on leave when we came out of rest. C and D companies were under their own commanders, Radford and Coster; but owing to leave, Battle Surplus, and the inexperience of subalterns, Moldy Williams had been transferred from C to B, and Hywel Evans from B to A., both only the previous day.[2] A shortage of maps caused some confusion to begin with…

A simplified battle plan is hammered out, and the battalion was soon marching over the Menin Road. Dunn, at this point following the battalion and tending to the wounded, saw a man desert for the rear, and noted that he was later arrested (whether he was shot for desertion is not made clear). This lone incident does more than a lengthy situation report to remind us just how hopeless and terrifying it would have felt to march over the shattered German defenses.. and toward the deep lines of still-intact German defenses…

Nevertheless, the battalion eventually reached its starting point “without serious loss.” But as they were forming up–without artillery support or a sure sense of where the enemy was–they came under machine gun fire. To some degree, their progress to this point is evidence of the success of the “Bite and Hold” tactics: it is the second or third day of an offensive, reinforcements are getting nearly intact nearly to their starting points, and the counter-attacks are not in the ascendancy.

But this is still the salient, with German artillery on three sides and German machine guns in hardened pillboxes nearly everywhere. Two officers, including Coster, were soon killed. Their maps proved to be incomplete. With McMaster University‘s archive available online, we can find their position on a map that is probably quite similar to the ones they were using. Dunn’s sketch of the tactical situation is actually a minor masterpiece of tactical clarity, and the Welch can be precisely placed, arrayed roughly north-south along the left middle of the excerpt above, in the mess of old trenches and pillboxes near Carlisle Farm (square 15) and under fire from the Polderhoek Château (bottom of 16) on their right. Pinned down and cut off from their own H.Q., the companies falling out of touch with each other and no clear objectives in sight, they continue to take casualties. The irony of Dunn’s precise record of their whereabouts is that it bears no tactical fruit. He knows–and he tells us–where he was, but confusion about the whereabouts of everyone else–including the Germans–will continue throughout the day.

Meanwhile, accurate enemy fire is constant, and no advance is possible.

When the Companies lay low the Germans held their fire, but any movement, even by one man, drew a very accurate fire. In these circumstances A and B ceased to shoot at their unseen enemy.

Several more company and platoon officers were wounded, and the Welsh lost touch with the Scottish and Australian troops around them.

At about 1.30, the doctor’s narrative returns to the first person, and the battalion’s leadership takes a direct hit.

…I, finding nothing more to do for the time being, and having had no food since last night’s dinner, was sent in the same direction to seek my servant. He and another man, with the heedless coolness which was so common, had lighted a fire on the enemy side of a pill-box, and made tea. They were about to give some to a young Australian with a bad belly wound. After stopping them I was trying to placate him when Signaller Barrett came and told me that while Colquhoun was talking to Poore and Casson, the Assistant Adjutant, a 5.9 burst along them, killing all three. That happened about 2 o’clock.

Dunn is not in command of the battalion, per se–he is permanently outside the chain of command, and quite unusual in being a doctor with combat service in a previous war. But someone needs to go forward from HQ and find the company commander who now must take over. Dunn will not explicitly acknowledge his heroism, here, but he seems to allude to the strangeness of the moment–as well as the general surrealism of prolonged battle–with this memory of the mind’s habit of recalling harmless happy moments to compare with some horrifying present vision.

Thereupon, I went to look for Radford about the Reutel road where I had seen him an hour before. On the way, two men suddenly rose into the air vertically, 15 feet perhaps, amid a spout of soil about 150 yards ahead. They rose and fell with the easy, graceful poise of acrobats. A rifle, revolving slowly, rose high above them before, still revolving, it fell. The sight recalled, even in these surroundings, a memory of boyhood: a turn that thrilled me in a travelling circus at St. Andrews…

He did not, perhaps, take time for the theatrical gesture of removing his red cross armbands. Or perhaps he did, to give the Germans a sporting chance of killing him while he considered himself a combatant, and modestly omits to tell us?

In any event, according to Dunn’s account he almost immediately found Radford, a company commander at the beginning of the day but now the senior combat officer, and stayed with him while he wrote out a report to be sent back to Brigade. Dunn does not mention Radford being in command, but he implies it… and then Radford vanishes from the narrative for some time, and the narrative slips into the passive voice.

The worst of the day is over, but there is still much consolidation to be done:

When the light failed A and B Companies were reorganized… After dark a sudden commotion was caused by D Company falling back on the Reutel road. They reported that the enemy was massing in Polygon Wood, and that they had very little ammunition left. The decision to fall back was made in consultation with the O.C. their Australian comrades…

But who made this decision with the Australian commander? It sounds like it was Dunn, as Graves suggests.

 

Let’s work back a bit, and see how Frank Richards saw this afternoon. Richards is the consummate old soldier, and not above tarting up a yarn for the benefit of his readers,[3] but he was indisputably an eyewitness to these events, serving as he did with the signallers of the battalion, and thus often alongside the headquarters contingent, or bearing messages to and fro.

Richards’s account of the terrible hour around noon is more direct and more, dare we say, cinematic:

A few minutes later Dr. Dunn temporarily resigned from the Royal Army Medical Corps. He told me to get him a rifle and bayonet and a bandolier of ammunition. I told him that he had better have a revolver, but he insisted on having what he had asked me to get. I found them for him, and slinging the rifle over his shoulder, he commenced to make his way over to the troops behind the bank. I accompanied him. Just before we reached there our chaps who were hanging on to the position in front of it started to retire back. The doctor barked at them to line up with the others. Only Captain Radford and four platoon officers were left in the Battalion and the doctor unofficially took command.

Radford’s presence is something of an embarrassment, then–why is this company commander not in active command of the battalion? And hence, perhaps, Dunn’s professional modesty is a cloak for the honor of a brother officer? But neither is there any suggestion that Radford failed to do his duty or did not fight well. It’s tempting to assume that he was momentarily overcome (as so many people would be in such a situation), but it is also possible that, given the force of Dunn’s character and his long service as a sort of consigliere to the colonel, it just seemed natural to Radford to continue commanding a consolidated line company and leave the direction of the battalion to the doctor.

In any case, no one hints that Dunn so any moral quandary in ceasing to be a healer–technically sacrosanct, even if those badges that he may or may not have removed were not often respected–and picking up a rifle and directly ordering men to wound and destroy those opposite. War is madness.

Back to Richards:

We and the Australians were all mixed up in extended order. Behind everyone had now left the standpoint and we all lined up behind the bank, which was about three feet high. We had lent a Lewis gun team to the 5th Scottish Rifles on our right, and when it began to get dark the doctor sent me with a verbal message to bring them back with me if they were still in the land of the living. When I arrived at the extreme right of our line, I asked the right hand man if he was in touch with the 5th Scottish. He replied that he had no more idea than a crow where they were, but guessed that they were somewhere in the front to the right of him. I now made my way very carefully over the ground. After I had walked some way I began to crawl. I was liable any moment to come into contact with a German post or trench. I saw someone moving in front of me, so I slid into a shell hole…

I waited in that shell hole for a while, trying to pierce the darkness in front. I resumed my journey, and, skirting one shell hole, a wounded German was shrieking aloud in agony… he must have been hit low down, but I could stop for no wounded man. But I saw two men in a shallow trench but did not know if they were the 5th Scottish or the Germans until I heard some good Glasgow English. When I got in their trench they told me that they had only just spotted me when they challenged. The Lewis-gun team were still kicking and my journey back with them was a lot easier than the outgoing one.

I reported to the Doctor that there was a gap of about 100 yards between the 5th Scottish Rifles and we; and he went himself to remedy it. The whole of the British front that night seemed to be in a semi-circle. We had sent some S O S rockets up in the air… they were only used when a situation was deemed critical, and everybody seemed to be in the same plight as ourselves…[4]

Dunn remembers these rockets as well:

Twice between dark and midnight the S O S went up in the Reutel direction, and was repeated by other units. It was a red-over-green-over-yellow parachute grenade at the time, a pleasing combination of colours hanging about the fretted outline of pines that stood in dark relief against a clear night sky. Each time the gunners on both sides opened promptly…[5]

 

These are two true stories of one battalion’s role in a major attack. We can also read, for a strange sort of leavening, Henry Williamson‘s fictional account of the attack. Williamson is still convalescing in England, but Phillip Maddison, for all that his (fictional) presence at nearly every major offensive is beginning to wear thin, witnessed the battle from his position with the supply train of a Machine Gun Company and described it in his patented “History Painting” style. Williamson is working from published histories, of course, so it is not surprising that he echoes the accounts we have just read. In fact, it’s quite useful, since Maddison consciously takes up a middle position between an army that is–in some quarters at least–beginning to despair and a propaganda machine that churns on without acknowledging the ratcheting tension of 1917.

Maddison writes in his pocket diary that “there ‘were persistent rumours of hundreds of thousands killed,'” yet he spent many evenings of the battle regularly hearing optimistic reports–internal army propaganda, essentially–read out to the troops by the rear-area ammunition dumps. So the army is preaching success to its own rear elements (who may or may not know about the disturbances at Étaples) even though they can look to the East and see precisely what Dunn and Richards have been describing: the colored SOS signals going up “again and again.”

For Phillip, at least, weariness is leading toward maturity: he begins to see a balance between the alarmist rumors of total collapse and tens of thousands of men killed and the sanguine army announcements. Under the tutelage of “Westy,”–the old heroic officer whose ex post facto facts about the Passchendaele campaign are clunkingly parachuted into the narrative at this point–Maddison is starting to see the war for what it is: a grim attritional battle that, at this moment, is narrowly tilted in the allies’ favor by Plumer’s operational initiatives.[6]

 

Finally, today, three short notes. In contradistinction to the misery of the Salient, let’s spend just a moment with Ivor Gurney, who is safely out of it all, for a few weeks at least, with a blighty touch of gas.

26 September 1917

My Dear Friend: To write to you on common notepaper, white and smooth, to be in between sheets white as snow—yesterday, but I smoke in bed! — and to hear noises domestic and well known flurries and scurries about one — how sweet are all these!

And to be within 17 miles of Enbro, that old city of Scott and R.L.S.; such is my nature that this last idea in fact is sweetest of all.

Ward 24, Edinburgh War Hospital, Bangour, Scotland is my present address. Only slowly and uncertainly is the conviction leaking in through the strong covering of frost and use that I am really in Blighty…

With time on his hands, Gurney’s letters ramble even more than usual, but he returns in the end to the simple theme of a soldier’s thankfulness at being somewhere safe and quiet–and clean:

Clean sheets, clean clothes and skin; no lice; today’s papers; ordinary notepaper. . . What next?

Good bye, and all good wishes for all good things:

Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney[7]

 

Many others will be coming to Blighty too. When Ronnie Knox converted to Catholicism last week, his father, an Anglican bishop, determined to cut off all contact with him for at least a year. But Bishop Knox will shortly be abrogating this policy in order to pass along a telegram. Ronnie’s older brother Eddie, an officer with the 2/4th Lincolns, was shot in the back today, a century back, by a German sniper somewhere east of the Menin Road, under those same SOS flares.[8]

 

And, of course, for every man that comes home, another most go back to take his place. In London, today, Isaac Rosenberg bid farewell to his family and belatedly caught a train back to the coast, his leave over. When he returns, he will be transferred from his assignment as a laborer attached to the engineers and sent back into the line.[9]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Good-Bye to All That, 260-1.
  2. What would Siegfried Sassoon have thought, in his room at Craiglockhart or out on the links, or wherever he is right this moment, were he able to listen in to this conference in real time?
  3. He will have the assistance in this of the very best, namely his one time battalion superior Robert Graves.
  4. Old Soldiers Never Die, 246-251.
  5. The War the Infantry Knew, 392-400.
  6. Love and the Loveless, 286-7.
  7. War Letters, 205-6.
  8. Fitzgerald, The Knox Brothers, 139-40. Eddie Knox was a talented satirist and frequent contributor to Punch. But he had not felt able to write amusing poems from the trenches and thus sidesteps the label of "war poet." He will survive the war, and his daughter Penelope will write the biography of him and his brothers from which this information derives--as well as several of the best 20th century British novels.
  9. Cohen, Journey to the Trenches, 171. His actual departure may have come two days later, after missing or being unable to take several trains. See Moorcroft Wilson, Isaac Rosenberg, 373.

Carroll Carstairs and Jack Martin are Witness to A Ghastly and Murderous Failure; Llewelyn Wyn Griffith Remembers a Very Successful Day

Carroll Carstairs has been moving up over the last few days–back “up” that perilous, horizontal ladder of railways and shelled roads, “corduroy” paths and communications trenches that leads from “rest” to battle.

There was no sleep for anyone. Through the long hours the nightmare persisted until at 5.40 a.m. the division on our right went over the top to the tune of the most mighty cannonade conceivable, and my life reached a peak of auricular experience. It was at last the whole world crashing about our ears. Gunfire had, at a moment, leaped into an intensity no human being could have realised without hearing. A veritable crescendo of sounds, so continuous as to merge and blend into a single annihilating roar, the roar of a train in a tunnel magnified a millionfold; only the rattle of the machine gun barrage, like clocks gone mad, ticking out the end of time in a final breathless reckoning, rose above it, while the accelerating blasts of enemy shells added weight to the crowning catastrophe. One imagined the very air ripped and torn by the flight of numberless shells, the very sky to have become a tattered blue garment.

I went to the entrance of our pill-box to see what I could of the battle and never was spectator so thrilled, so awed. Beyond the enemy lines, behind the high dust of battle, colour stole shamefacedly into the sky; the rising sun appeared, a blurred and murky mass. The light of another day crept chill and faint over a scene too desolate for further destruction. Great clouds of smoke and dirt spouted into the air and drifted like a dirty morning mist along the horizon line. Showers of sparks, made by incendiary shells, burst like monster fire crackers, while enemy rockets, signalling that the attack had begun, shot into the sky, breaking from red into green lights, like dragons’ eyes changing colour. Of troops I could see little. Specks too much the tone of the earth over which they were moving. For me the battle continued, a hurling and crashing of huge projectiles . . .

After a little, orderlies appeared coming back at the double, while soon after zero the sky was dotted with our contact aeroplanes. One came down in our lines.

The very day, made restless by its predecessors, gave us no peace, and shelling kept up, heavy as ever, while a tour of the Company’s front revealed the fact that it had escaped the terrible bombardment of the night with one man killed and a man “buried.”

All day the firing went on, until 6 p.m., when it turned again from scattered knocks into the prolonged, concerted bang of gun fire—attack or counter-attack? But one heard nothing and knew nothing except what was happening to one’s own Company—and not always much of that.

So Carstairs is unaware that another major phase of “Third Ypres” has opened up, known as “the Battle of the Menin Road Ridge.”

In the evening I was on trench duty. I sat with my back up against the end of the platoon slit, gazing at the blurred figure of the sentry or into a sky set with stats, hard and brilliant as precious stones. Fleecy clouds, like gauze, rubbed them to a brighter lustre. I spoke in an undertone to the sentry. I felt friendliness for him. I did not know his name—one of a hundred and fifty men—how long would he last? For the matter of that how long would I? But we were one now. Reacting identically. One through a common danger. Victims of the same caprice of fate. He watched out for me and if he gave the alarm, would I not act at once for him?

I smoked a cigarette. How life balanced! Here was a hundred per cent danger and discomfort, but here too was a hundred per cent pleasure out of a cigarette. Each puff was a brief, sweet intoxicant. A suggestion of past joys, drawn deep and fragrantly into the lungs and blown out into the crystal air.

Falling into a slight doze, I woke, feeling chilled. The darkness, like any night into the middle of which one woke, seemed everlasting.[1]

 

Sapper Jack Martin was only a few hundred yards behind this attack. He spent the day in the Brigade Signal Office, assembling “little bits of information.”

Putting them all together, the situation seems like this. Fritz had occupied some of the derelict tanks lying in no-man’s-land and had made strongpoints of them. He fought desperately and disputed every inch of ground and his snipers remained at their posts hidden in tree trunks etc, even after our troops had passed them, and continued to shoot our men from behind…

Martin reported that one battalion of the Hampshires lost every officer “and a great many men.” Strangely–or not, considering his position among a brigade staff–Martin’s heroes of the day are two Colonels, commanding battalions in the brigade. One of these captured–and chose not to kill–one of those German rearguard snipers, and another led the stout defense of a forward post even after being wounded..

A later entry on the same day confirms, however, that the attack has not gone as planned.

I expect that tomorrow the English papers will be shouting the news of a great victory, but it has been a ghastly and murderous failure.

…I was surprise to see some Military Police in these tunnels… Their business up here is to prowl round the tunnels looking for men who have taken shelter when they ought to be outside. A miserably ignoble trade![2]

 

So–was this was another miserable “balls up” which the staff will conceal and the papers lie about? It might seem that few fighting soldiers would disagree, but theirs are not the only opinions, the only memories–and it was a big attack, more bloody on some sectors than others. Three divisions formed the spearhead and many others were involved in supporting roles, and they were, from a strategic point of view, successful.

A new tactic–an innovation, once again of General Plumer, known as “bite and hold”–meant that after a relatively short advance the attacking troops dug in and prepared to meet counter-attacks. Instead of wrecking themselves against the deeper layers of the German trench system and being swept away when the counter-attack came, they could hold their new positions with prearranged artillery support. (This of course also meant that there would be no breakthrough–the dream of the queen breaking out into the enemy rear has been abandoned, but at least the pawn is being pushed forward without being annihilated).

And just as Carroll Carstairs can’t see much beyond his company, the staff can’t see the individuals who suffer and die to achieve a favorable overall result. Llewelyn Wyn Griffith, now a young officer on a divisional staff–no matter that he was a traumatized infantry officer as recently as last summer–will remember the day as a triumph:

I remember a very successful day on 20 September, when we captured all our objectives. Our casualties were slight and our men took 400 prisoners: I recall seeing a lot of them in cages. We were kept pretty busy, even though there were minimal counter-attacks and those there were, were smashed by our guns.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Generation Missing, 103-6.
  2. Sapper Martin, 104-6.
  3. Up to Mametz and Beyond, 156.