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.

The Battle of Pilckem Ridge: Hedd Wyn and Francis Ledwidge; David Jones, Edmund Blunden, Phillip Maddison, Ralph Hamilton, and Kate Luard

After a difficult spring, it’s been a relatively quiet summer so far. But that’s over, today.

Looking a century back, we know that today’s attack begins the last of the truly enormous offensive disasters of the British war. After Third Ypres, that is, there is only one more disaster, and then one last offensive. But in 1917, of course, today wasn’t the last of anything, only the latest in the long series of “big pushes,” each of which has been very costly, and none of which has achieved a breakthrough into the German rear.

The reason I’m dwelling on our inevitable position of historical irony (i.e. knowing more than the writers knew then, a condition which this project usually seeks to obscure, due to the governing conceit that we are there, a century back, and know no more of the future) is that this may be the last of those days, before the end of the war, that seemingly everyone who was there (and some who weren’t) wrote about. It will be one of the last days, at least, that I will insist on exploring from many vantage points, and perhaps no day in the next fifteen months will produce so long a post. Even if the coming weeks will find the British army as miserably mired as it has ever been, for readers it may well be all downhill from here…

Which is all to say, please bear with me, today: there are several poems and several long prose extracts. It’s a terrible day.

 

We’ll begin, not entirely inappropriately, with melodramatic fiction. Henry Williamson‘s alter ego Philip Maddison never misses a battle, and there is a strange, fruitful tension between Maddison’s use as a tightly-grasped mirror onto the life-history of his creator and the plot contortions which deliver him to every major action of the British war to witness the “show.” It seems fitting to let him talk us into the opening of yet another battle, before we try to understand the experiences of the poets who were there.

Dragging clouds broke into rain on the night of July 31.[1] Some said it was due to the gunfire… Everything he had experienced in war so far was diminished by the sinister feeling all around him as he rode through the Grand Place [in Ypres], despite the almost furtive activity among the ruins, where were hidden masked batteries of guns, including a 15-inch howitzer known as ‘Clockwork Charlie’ for its regular bombardment of Passchendaele station thirteen thousand yards away.

…A psychical vacuum of lost life, old terror, and chronic hopelessness lingered in the crepuscular ruins… ahead lay nihilism… One of many hundreds of thousands who had passed that way, Phillip proceeded, nervous animation of flesh and bone on innocent horseflesh because there was no alternative, while he remained unbroken.[2]

But it will go easily with Phillip: he commands a Machine Gun Company’s transport unit[3] and will have no duties until it is time to bring ammunition up later in the day. He sleeps through the opening barrage.

 

This rose to a climax at around a quarter to 4:00 a.m., as dawn was breaking–or would have, if it were not so heavily overcast. At 3:50 the 15th Royal Welsh Fusiliers moved up and out. At the same time, their own 14th Battalion attcked from assembly trenches directly in front. To their left were other battalions of the 38th Division, then the Guards Division, and eventually a strong French force. To their right were the 51st and 39th Divisions, then divisions belonging to four other corps–including Canadians and Anzacs–arrayed further to the south.

A map of the area showing the precise expectations of advance. At four hours and five minutes after “Z”–7:55 A.M.–the 38th Division’s second wave should have arrived at a slight ridge line east of “Iron Cross,” often referred to as the “Green Line.”

The 15th RWF had been given the task of moving over the muddy wreckage of No Man’s Land and the German front lines, then “through” the 14th Battalion and its captured objectives near the village of Pilckem. This was accomplished with relative ease and few casualties: the enormous barrage had obliterated the lightly-held forward German positions (remember all those patrols into empty space) and it was not until the 15th were almost a mile into what had been German territory that they started taking direct fire.

The geography of Flanders favored the assault more than the Somme: the “ridge” that was the objective in this battle was only twelve or fifteen meters higher than the Yser Canal which the Royal Welch (and, just to the south, Edmund Blunden) have so frequently been crossing, so there would be no uphill advance into the muzzles of the enemy’s guns, as it were. Yet the flat terrain also meant that there would be very little cover for advancing infantry. (Worse, on the operational level, the geography of Flanders made resupply and consolidation miserable and difficult: unless there had been many days without rain, much of the area was waterlogged, and all resupply had to be through the open mud.)

At some time around 8:00, after resting briefly, the battalion launched its attack from near Pilckem village toward its own objectives to the east. They were now in the sights of the slightly elevated German machine guns, encased in concrete pillboxes, many of which had survived the opening barrage. The next few minutes are the sort of experience that defy description, and the Battalion War Diary perhaps wisely opts for simple elision.

Considerable opposition was met with at BATTERY COPSE & by this time there were but few officers remaining.

In other words, the battalion, though continuing to move forward, was met with murderous fire from nearby strong points, fell behind the carefully timed “walking” support barrage, and was stopped by that mysterious combination of moral failure, confusion, exhaustion, and physical depletion that leads to historians of battles using metaphors of physical force. They had done well, penetrating much further into the German lines than most of the units on the southern part of the assault, but still not quite as well as the ever-optimistic planners had hoped. And that planning was everything: there was no possibility of getting messages back over a mile of broken ground to the the telephones that could contact the artillery. There was no possibility of bringing up heavy weapons to address the German pill boxes. The ridge was held, by the German Third Guards, and when the barrage lifted they came up and fought. There was nothing for the Royal Welch to do but rush whatever German positions could be rushed, until they were… halted, pushed back, forced to a halt, and dug in.

The Diary remained matter-of-fact:

… the smoke barrage… tended to confuse the men… Lt. Col. C.C. Norman[4]… was wounded and ordered the Bn. to consolidate on the IRON CROSS ridge. As no officer remained, the Bn. was handed over to the R.S.M. Jones who saw to the consolidation which was being carried out some way in rear of the GREEN LINE giving a greater task to the 115 bde who were passing through us.

It is striking, even on such a day, that the battalion’s ranking member, only a few hours into the battle is the Regimental Sergeant Major: there should have been between twelve and twenty officers at the start, but all of those who went forward have been wounded or killed.

And many of the men, including Ellis Humphrey Evans, the Welsh shepherd and bard better known as Hedd Wyn.

Not long after the 15th Welsh began to advance from Pilckem he was hit, probably by a large piece of shrapnel from a German shell. The shell struck him in the stomach, or the back–a great wound would have been visible, in any case, on both sides of his body. He fell, somewhere near a crossroads on the road to Langemarck, and lay there for around three hours. Perhaps he was in shock at first, probably in terrible agony thereafter. At some time around midday, stretcher bearers found him, and struggled back through the thickening mud to an advanced dressing station.

Hedd Wyn–Private Ellis Humphrey Evans–died on a stretcher not long after arriving at the dressing station. There is a mention of his receiving morphia before the end (which we might fervently hope, even a century on, to be true) and unreliable accounts of last words.[5]

Evans–Hedd Wyn–will be buried nearby, with a chaplain reading the burial service in Welsh. His last letters and his last great poem–an ode written for the upcoming National Eisteddfod–will find their way slowly back to Britain over the next days and weeks. For many officers the telegram is sent within a day or two, but not to the far-off farming family of an enlisted man, living their lives in a language other than English. Hedd Wyn’s parents and siblings will have to wait through weeks of dire rumor before the War Office confirms his death.

 

This is one stanza from the ode that Hedd Wyn sent, only a few weeks ago, for adjudication at the National Eisteddfod:

Y macwy heulog, paham y ciliodd?                       Why did he depart, this radiant youngster?

Ba ryw hud anwel o’m bro a’i denodd?                  What drew him from me, what unseen power?

Ei oed a’i eiriau dorrodd, – ac o’i drig                Breaking his word and pledge together–then he

Ddiofal unig efe ddiflannodd                            In his carefree home was seen no longer.[6]

 

 

Onward. It seems that David Jones never met Hedd Wyn. He surely laid eyes on him, over the past two weeks, but I can find no record of anyone making Jones aware that he had “fought alongside,” however briefly, a true Welsh bard.[7] But he did not fight alongside him on his last day.

Yesterday, a century back, David Jones learned that he would be kept back from the attack along with a small cadre of officers[8] and men.

Jones was assigned to ‘battalion nuclear reserve’ — a group from which the already depleted battalion could be reconstituted if it were wiped out during the assault. Upon receiving his assignment, he asked the adjutant to be removed from the list so he could take part in the attack. Although he wanted merely to remain with his friends, he argued that he ought to trade places with a married man. The adjutant furiously berated him for ‘pretending to wish to be a bloody hero’ while knowing full well that men detailed had no choice in the matter. Simmering down, he told Jones that there would be plenty of other opportunities, that the nucleus was likely to be called upon anyway, and that he only wished he had been assigned to it. Feeling foolish, Jones tried to explain that he had not meant it that way. He was forced to endure the ignominy of relative safety…

Thomas Dilworth’s account of the battalion’s advance emphasizes their success in meeting and defeating German opposition between Pilckem village and the not-quite-obtained “Green Line,” even after the loss of so many officers.

Keeping in formation, the remainder struggled in deep mud past Pilckem village and concrete machine-gun emplacements, which they outflanked, compelling their garrisons to surrender. In reserve, listening to the gunfire, Jones worried about his friends and bitterly regretted his separation from them.[9]

Jones will nevertheless write their advance, presumably drawing on his comrades’ memories, in the thick description and black comic mood of the “Balaam’s Ass” section of The Sleeping Lord. The section about the openness of the advance, as the men contemplate their coming exposure to German machine guns, is frightening. Jones draws thorny little historical-personal sketches of the men of the unit, alternating several of these with sardonic and tragic descriptions of the landscape, or lack thereof:

It’s as level as Barking and as bare as your palm…

All the fine fiery waters in Headquarter’s larder won’t raise a mole-hill for Lieutenant Fairy on that open plain…

not a bush, no brick-bat, not any accidental & advantageous fold, no lie of dead ground the length of a body…

Not a rock to cleft for, not a spare drift of soil for the living pounds of all their poor bodies drowned in the dun sea…

Nor yet was there aid or covering wing, or upright, or linden hedge or agger or paraduct or mothering skirt for a frightened last-born, or gunnal for the evil swell; or anything drawn to mask or shadow…

The list of men, and the lack of cover that will kill them, goes on for pages before Jones, in an echo of the medieval Welsh “Triads,” names “the three who escaped.” And then the poem ends:

But for all the rest there was no help on that open plain.[10]

 

There were more than three survivors, in prose, and Jones will join them later on, where they hold their muddy positions near what had been the German second line and their “Black Line–“the penultimate line of intended advance. But the tone of tomorrow may be different than the tone of today: the survivors of the battalion took pride in its success, and celebrated it.

And so it is a curious fact that the one image I have found which links the material facts of this day to the work of one of our writers is about as traditionally triumphal as 1917 art could get: it is Jones’s sketch of a German howitzer–proof that they fought through the infantry and reached the artillery–captiured today, a century back, and drawn soon after.

 

By now it should be clear–to us if not to all the contemporary generals–that, as a matter of strategy, the front line positions on a Great War “battlefield” matter very little. They will change hands as counter-attacks and second efforts are launched, and the place where a battered battalion went to ground may not turn out to be defensible. What matters, really, is whether the newly occupied territory can be connected to the arteries of warfare in the rear. If reinforcements can be brought up quickly, if the cavalry can follow the infantry and the guns can get to new positions with vantage points over the enemy rear, then the offensive can be sustained.

These are deep battles, therefore, and when attacking waves of infantry face little in the way of enemy shellfire it is both because they are being left for the machine guns to deal with and because the artillery may also have “lifted” in order to focus on the interdiction of reserves. The infantry in the immediate rear, whether working or moving up in support, are the most vulnerable targets of shrapnel, gas, and high explosive as the day wears on.

The 1st Royal Inniskillings, therefore, had drawn a less dangerous assignment than leading the attack, but it is now far from a safe job. A few miles south-east of the Royal Welch, they have detailed to build the forward-area infrastructure that the offensive would depend upon.

Francis Ledwidge‘s biographer puts us with the men of his battalion, in support, questioning the only British soldiers they see who are likely to have some sense of how the battle is progressing.

All during the morning… the tide of wounded flowed back from the front line. Once again the stretcher-bearers had to raise their burdens shoulder-high as they sloshed along. Questioned how the day went, there was not much they could tell… All they could say was that the German front line of shell-craters was quickly taken, as it was manned by only scattered outposts. But immediately they found themselves in an inferno of gunfire as wave after wave of Germans came out against them, fighting like tigers.

Francis Ledwidge

Ledwidge and his comrades in reserve had been toiling since early morning at road-making…

There was a violent rainstorm in the afternoon, shrouding the region in a grey monochrome… Road-work could not be suspended, however, as the tracks were in use as fast as they were laid down. Tea was issued to the men and, drenched to the skin, they stopped to swallow it. A shell exploded beside Ledwidge and he was instantly killed.

There is no doubt about Ledwidge’s fate; the shell killed six other men and wounded many more. The battalion chaplain, Father Devas, was nearby, but still far too far away for last rites. He performed the burial service soon afterwards, and will write in his diary, tonight:

Ledwidge killed, blown to bits; at Confession yesterday and Mass and Holy Communion this morning. R.I.P.[11]

 

It was a battlefield burial, and not much like the one Ledwidge had described in “A Soldier’s Grave.”

Then in the lull of midnight, gentle arms
Lifted him slowly down the slopes of death,
Lest he should hear again the mad alarms
Of battle, dying moans, and painful breath.

And where the earth was soft for flowers we made
A grave for him that he might better rest.
So, Spring shall come and leave it sweet arrayed,
And there the lark shall turn her dewy nest.

 

Within a few miles and a few hours, Wales and Ireland lost their foremost war poets. Hedd Wyn was 30; Ledwidge, born half a year later, would have turned 30 in August. Both came from Celtic “peasant stock” and humble circumstances: Evans was one of nine children who survived infancy and left school at around the age of fourteen; Ledwidge, too, was one of nine children and left school perhaps a year earlier. Hedd Wyn stayed at home until conscription, but Ledwidge traveled–and only he crossed over into the language of the conquerors and received a lord‘s patronage and wide publication while he lived.

Each worked with their hands while working on their verse, and each will receive a posthumous epithet which confines their work even as it helps hold their place in collective memory: they were the Shepherd Poet and the Poet of the Blackbirds.

Each was looking forward to the reception of his latest work–Ledwidge’s second book, Hedd Wyn’s awdl for the Eisteddfod. Ledwidge, who had lost Ellie, wrote a last letter to Lizzie; Hedd Wyn, who had lost Lizzie, wrote a last letter to Jini. Both are buried, now, in Artillery Wood Cemetery.

Francis Ledwidge, who did not turn his poet’s pen toward the worst of the war, wrote these verses in February:

The silence of maternal hills
Is round me in my evening dreams;
And round me music-making bills
And mingling waves of pastoral streams.

Whatever way I turn I find
The path is old unto me still.
The hills of home are in my mind.
And there I wander as I will.

 

And Hedd Wyn wrote these lines about one of his friends who had gone before him to the war. It could have been for Ledwidge, almost, or, now, for himself:

Ceraist ti grwydro gwlwdydd pellenig,—             You loved to roam the distant lands
Y gwlwdydd sy ‘mhell tros y don;                           The countries beyond the sea,
Weithiau dychwelit i’th gartre mynyddig              Sometimes you’d return to your highland home,
A’th galon yn ysgafn a llon.                                    And so light of heart you’d be.

Gwelsom di ennyd cyn dychwel ohonot              We saw you awhile before you returned
I’r rhyfel sy’n crynu y byd;                                       To the war that makes the world quake,
Nodau y gwlatgar a’r beiddgar oedd ynot,           Bearing the marks so dearly bought
Y nodau sy’n costio mor ddrud.                              For your country and bravery’s sake.

Fe chwyth y corwynt tros fryniau Trawsfynydd    The storm rages over Trawsfynydd’s hills
O’th ôl fel yn athrist ei gainc;                                   After you, as if it would weep;
Tithau yng nghymni’r fataliwn ddi-hysbydd          You, who with numberless battalions in France
Sy’n cysgu’n ddi‑freuddwyd yn Ffrainc                   Lie there in a dreamless sleep.[12]

 

 

Does this strange practice of following a number of lives faithfully through their day-to-day progress, even to their deaths, help us see a perhaps-too-familiar war in a new light? Sometimes it doesn’t quite seem worth the effort. But on other days, even on sad days like this one, it does seem to intensify historical experience. And, yes, often in that familiar, bitterly ironic way.

What is to be done? Why are thoughtful young men from the green and pleasant hills of England’s first colonies (to say nothing of the thousands who came from England’s more recent and farther-flung colonies, essentially invisible in this project, or the English boys themselves) dying in Flanders? What good is it doing?

In England, the same papers that carried the news of the opening of the offensive at Pilckem Ridge carried news of yesterday‘s parliamentary questions about a certain unruly officer. Sassoon’s protest has fallen entirely between two battles. Inspired by Arras, it has lapsed during a quiet summer, and only the wake’s last mild ripple laps up against Passchendaele.

Robert Graves, now back at the Royal Welsh depot at Litherland, seems somewhat jealous of his friend’s publicity, however negative it is. (Only two newspapers will come out in support of Sassoon; others will mock him, dismiss him, or publish would-be exposés of his family history.)

My dear Sassons

…Well you are notorious throughout England now you silly old thing! Everybody here who’s been to France agrees with your point of view, but those that don’t know you think it was not quite a gentlemanly course to take: the ‘quixotic-English-sportsman’ class especially.’ But you have accomplished something I suppose… What a ridiculous business! I hope it won’t injure your poetry: and that old Gosse won’t think better of celebrating his protégé in the Edinburgh Review. I’m longing to get my Sorley back. Hurry up with it…

Poor devils at Pilkem![13]

 

Yes, the poor devils. Hedd Wyn and Francis Ledwidge would perhaps have written verse about the battle, if they had lived. Hedd Wyn surely would have; his war verse was very strong even before he had seen the war. But what could they have written about the attack itself? This war is beginning to produce great literature–small recompense for the suffering, but there is no way out of that moral-aesthetic fact–but it has yet to produce many good accounts of a major offensive. This is not surprising: it has always been very difficult first to make any sense of a battle and then represent it in words, let alone in verse. And it’s not getting any easier.

But Edmund Blunden, who is here and who will survive the day, will try. He wrote a poem (“Third Ypres”), a story (“Over the Sacks”), and he addressed the ongoing battle in the most harrowing chapter of his memoirs.

The story we will pass over (a page of the manuscript is at right, and it can be read in full at the First World War Poetry Digital Archive). And the poem is none of his best, not least because Blunden tries to describe the progress of the war, blow by blow. This is no wartime lyric, but an attempt, as it were, at a fragment of descriptive epic, something to fall between Vergil and Lucan.

It begins with the realization among the men of the writer’s battalion that the early stages of the attack are going well.

Triumph! How strange, how strong had triumph come
On weary hate of foul and endless war
When from its grey gravecloths awoke anew
The summer day. Among the tumbled wreck
Of fascined lines and mounds the light was peering,
Half-smiling upon us, and our newfound pride;
The terror of the waiting night outlived,
The time too crowded for the heart to count
All the sharp cost in friends killed on the assault.
No hook of all the octopus had held us,[14]
Here stood we trampling down the ancient tyrant.
So shouting dug we among the monstrous pits.

Amazing quiet fell upon the waste,
Quiet intolerable to those who felt
The hurrying batteries beyond the masking hills…

The War would end, the Line was on the move,
And at a bound the impassable was passed.
We lay and waited with extravagant joy.

This is verse, but it’s also historical witness. This is how the day went, for many of the battalions involved. The first waves did well, but the effort was impossible to sustain.

Now dulls the day and chills; comes there no word
From those who swept through our new lines to flood
The lines beyond? but little comes, and so
Sure as a runner time himself’s accosted.
And the slow moments shake their heavy heads,
And croak, “They’re done, they’ll none of them get through,
They’re done, they’ve all died on the entanglements,
The wire stood up like an unplashed hedge and thorned
With giant spikes — and there they’ve paid the bill.”

Then comes the black assurance, then the sky’s
Mute misery lapses into trickling rain,
That wreathes and swims and soon shuts in our world.

The rain happened that way too. Although the attack had been held back in the hopes that August would be drier than July, it began raining this afternoon and rained almost steadily for most of the next week. This rain was more than symbolic, but less than strategically decisive: the attack had failed to break through, so no matter how many Germans were killed, no matter how many guns were captured, it was already doomed to failure on the strategic level. The only remaining question is not strategic or tactical but attritional: there will be no breakthrough, but will one army or the other break?

Neither will collapse, yet, but no one could have known that for certain. Nevertheless, they could have guessed with more intelligence, or good sense, or pity. Instead, Haig and his staff will long press the question, on into an autumn of mud and misery and death.

Blunden’s account of today in Undertones of War begins with the Staff–but those who command the battle have already become irrelevant to its progress by the time it begins; another familiar irony. He improves on the poem in many ways, not least in allowing the generalized vision of battle to focus briefly–if distantly–on actual people. The runner is joined by captains and churls; the Thersites of the Royal Sussex and some of the far-off Captains of Contingents.

The hour of attack had been fixed by the staff much earlier than the infantry wanted or thought suitable. The night had passed as such nights often do, shelling being less than was anticipated, silent altogether at times. I suppose it was about 3:00 when I shook hands with Colonel Millward, mounted the black-oozing steps of battle headquarters in the burrows below Bilge Street, and got into the assembly ditch (Hornby Trench) with my signallers. It was thick darkness and slippery going, but we used an old road part of the way. Where we lay, there were in the darkness several tall tree stumps above, and it felt like a friendly ghost that watched the proceedings.

At 3:50, if I am right, shortly after Vidler had passed me growling epigrams at some recent shellburst which had covered him with mud, the British guns began; a flooded Amazon of steel flowed roaring, immensely fast, over our heads, and the machine-gun bullets made a pattern of sharper sound and maniac language against that diluvian rush. Flaring lights, small ones, great ones, went spinning sideways in the cloud of night; one’s eyes seemed not quick enough; one heard nothing from one’s shouting neighbour, and only by the quality of the noise and flame did I know that the German shells crashing among the tree stumpswere big ones and practically on top of us. We moved ahead, found No Man’s Land a comparatively good  surface, were amazed at the puny tags and rags of once multiplicative German wire, and blundered over the once-feared trench behind them without seeing it. Good men as they were, my party were almost all half-stunned by the unearthliness of our own barrage, and when two were wounded it was left to me to bandage them in my ineffective way. The dark began to be diluted with day, and as we went on we saw concrete emplacements, apparently unattended to as yet, which had to be treated with care and suspicion; I was well satisfied to find them empty. And indeed the whole area seemed to be deserted. German dead, so obvious at every yard of a 1916 battlefield, were not to be seen. We still went ahead, and the mist whitened into dawn; through it came running a number of Germans — a momentary doubt; no — “Prisoners!” shouted my batman. A minute more, and my advanced guard of signallers had come into touch with the companies, digging in along their captured objective. Meanwhile, I went ahead to see all the mist allowed; there were troops of our brigade advancing through the lines of men consolidating shell holes, and with map before me I could recognize some of the places which we had certainly captured. It seemed marvellous, for the moment! All ours — all these German trenches. Caliban Support, Calf Avenue, Calf Reserve. But, stay — even now a pity looks one in the face, for these trenches are mostlymere hedges of brushwood, hurdles, work for a sheep-fold, with a shallow ditch behind; and they have been taking our weeks of gunfire in these!

The sympathy actually occurred to me, but was soon obliterated by the day’s work and an increase in the German gunfire upon us. The passage of the tanks through our position was thought to be the reason, for as these machines wheeled aside from the pits where our men were digging, heavy shells came down with formidable accuracy. Besides, the enemy must have captured our operation maps with all the stages of advance displayed. I remember that I was talking with somebody about one “Charlie” Aston, an officer’s servant, who had been running here and there to collect watches from German dead. He had just returned to his chosen shell hole, with several
fine specimens, when a huge shell burst in the very place. But not much notice was taken, or elegy uttered, for everywhere the same destruction threatened. And Tice and Collyer were already killed—news as yet failing to have its full painfulness in the thick of things.

The battalion headquarters soon advanced from the old British front line, still conspicuous with the tall tree stumps, and crushed itself into a little concrete dugout with a cupola over it, formerly used for a perfect survey of the British defences. Road-making parties had lost no time and, strung out among the shellbursts, were shovelling and pummelling tracks across old No Man’s Land.

These men might be Ledwidge and his companions–except that they are in a neighboring division. The road they’ve made allow the staff–not the Olympian General Staff but its least august and most local branch office–to see the battle.

And then the brigade headquarters came, beautiful to look upon, and their red tabs glowed out of several shell holes. This was more than the German observers could endure, and in a short time there was such a shower of high explosive on that small area that the brains of the brigade withdrew, a trifle disillusioned, to the old British trenches. Another shower, and a more serious and incontestable one, was now creeping on miserably over the whole field. It was one of the many which caused the legend, not altogether dismissed even by junior officers, that the Germans could make it rain when they wanted to. Now, too, we were half aware that the attack had failed farther on, and one more brilliant hope, expressed a few hours before in shouts of joy, sank into the mud.[15]

This is life-history, or personal prose–but it seems to fit the battle. Or, at least, what the battle will become.

 

But that too is taking liberties with historiography. It was not raining in the morning, and the Germans did not make it rain–nor were all the staff’s objectives impossible to obtain. Can one attempt more traditional battlefield historiography, on a day like today?

Just to the left of the Royal Welch Fusiliers’ 38th Division were the Guards, including the Second Irish Guards, whose official historian, already on the job a century back, was Rudyard Kipling.

July 31st opened, at 3.30 a. m., with a barrage of full diapason along the army front, followed on the Guards sector by three minutes of “a carefully prepared hate,” during which two special companies projected oil-drums throwing flame a hundred yards around, with thermit that burned everything it touched. The enemy had first shown us how to employ these scientific aids, and we had bettered the instruction.

His barrage in reply fell for nearly an hour on the east bank of the canal. Our creeping barrage was supposed to lift at 4 a. m. and let the two leading battalions (2nd Irish Guards and 1st Scots Guards) get away; but it was not till nearly a quarter of an hour later that the attack moved forward in waves behind it. Twelve minutes later, Nos. 1 and 2 Companies of the Battalion had reached the first objective (Cariboo and Cannon trenches) “with only one dead
German encountered”; for the enemy’s withdrawal to his selected line had been thorough. The remaining companies followed, and behind them came the 1st Coldstream, all according to schedule; till by 5.20 a. m. the whole of the first objective had been taken and was being consolidated, with very small loss…

About half-past five, Colonel Greer, while standing outside advanced Battalion Headquarters dug-out in the first objective line, was killed instantly by shrapnel or bullet. It was his devoted work, his arrangement and foresight that had brought every man to his proper place so far without waste of time or direction. He had literally made the Battalion for this battle as a steeple-chaser is made for a given line of country. Men and officers together adored him for his justice, which was exemplary and swift; for the human natural fun of the man; for his knowledge of war and the material under his hand, and for his gift of making hard life a thing delightful. He fell on the threshold of the
day ere he could see how amply his work had been rewarded…

No Greek heroes here, but a Moses out of the grimmer warfare of the Hebrew Bible–they did it first, and we will do it more ruthlessly and competently. And he falls within sight of the promised land.

And here’s a strange if superficial coincidence: on a day when the Sassoon family is being dragged through the tabloids (Siegfried, though he was baptized and raised as an Anglican and identified with his maternal family–the eminently English Thornycrofts–descended from a prominent Sephardic Jewish mercantile clan) in search of their scion’s wretched anti-militarism, a half second cousin, Reginald Ellice Sassoon, is credited with speeding an important advance.

Lieutenant Sassoon, commanding No. 3, got his Lewis-gun to cover a flank attack on the machine-gun that was doing the damage, took it with seven German dead and five wounded prisoners, and so freed the advance for the Scots Guards and his own company. As the latter moved forward they caught it in the rear from another machine-gun which had been overlooked, or hidden itself in the cleaning-up of Hey Wood.

Sassoon sent back a couple of sections to put this thing out of action (which they did) and pushed on No. 4 Company, which was getting much the same allowance from concrete emplacements covering machine-guns outside Artillery Wood…

All in all, the Irish Guards had been quite successful.

Indeed, they admitted among themselves — which is where criticism is fiercest — that they had pulled the scheme off rather neatly, in spite of their own barrages, and that the map and model study had done the trick. By ten o’clock of the morning their work was substantially complete. They had made and occupied the strong points linking up between their advanced companies and the final objectives, which it was the business of the other brigades to secure. As they put it, “everything had clicked…”

Successful, yet still costly:

…At three o’clock Father Knapp appeared at Battalion Headquarters — that most insanitary place — and proposed to stay there. It was pointed out to him that the shelling was heavy, accommodation, as he could see, limited, and he had better go to the safer advanced dressing-station outside Boesinghe and deal with the spiritual needs of his wounded as they were sent in. The request had to be changed to a reasonably direct order ere he managed to catch it; for, where his office was concerned, the good Father lacked something of that obedience he preached. And a few hours after he had gone down to what, with any other man, would have been reasonable security, news arrived that he had been mortally wounded while tending cases “as they came out” of the dressing-station. He must have noticed that the accommodation there was cramped, too, and have exposed himself to make shelter for others…

The toll is taken: three officers, including the C.O. (but not the chaplain) killed, and three wounded. More paths cross here: Lady Dorothie Feilding‘s brother “Peter” (Henry) was a captain in the Coldstream Guards, and she will spend much of the rest of her honeymoon seeking news of him before finally learning that he is safe, for the moment–his battalion was in reserve. But as they use “their contacts in Flanders” to try to get news by letter and telegraph, her new husband, late of the Irish Guards, will learn that “his 3 best friends” were all killed today, a century back–Sir John Dyer, Col. Greer, and “Father Knapps who was to have married us.”[16]

Casualties in other ranks came to 280, a large part due to machine-gun fire. It was a steadying balance-sheet and, after an undecided action, would have been fair excuse for a little pause and reconstruction. But a clean-cut all-
out affair, such as Boesinghe, was different, though it had been saddened by the loss of an unselfish priest who feared nothing created, and a commanding officer as unselfish and as fearless as he…

Greer’s insistence that the men should know the model of the ground, and their officers the aeroplane maps of it, and his arrangements whereby all units could report lucidly at any moment where they were, had brought them success. So, with 50 per cent, of their strength gone, and the dismal wet soaking the stiff survivors to the bone, they hobbled about, saying, “If he were only here now to see how he has pulled this off!”[17]

Pilckem ridge, a bloody, partial success–or at least a qualified failure–is over. But the larger monstrosity known as Third Ypres has only begun; Passchendaele is coming…

 

We’ll close today with two more participants–our two most assiduous diarists–both in the British rear. Kate Luard, ready and waiting for the first torn bodies, wrote in her diary at the beginning and the end of the day.

4.15 a.m. …We crept out on to the duckboards and saw. It was more wonderful and stupendous than horrible…

6.30 a.m. We have just begun taking in the first cases…

Same day, 11 p.m. We have been working in the roar of battle every minute since I last wrote… Soon after 10 o’clock this morning he began putting over high explosive. Everyone had to put on tin-hats and carry on… no direct hits but streams of shrapnel, which were quite hot when you picked them up… we were so frantically busy that it was easier to pay less attention to it.

It doesn’t look as if we should ever sleep again…[18]

Luard’s forward hospital dealt with hundreds of abdominal wounds, saving many, perhaps, who would have died on the way to the usual Casualty Clearing Stations. If Hedd Wyn’s wound had only been a little less severe, if it had only been possible for the overburdened stretcher bearers to go farther and faster…

 

But just as Luard worked all day to save the broken bodies, the Master of Belhaven worked all day to break more. That’s in the nature of artillery work.

We… have fired without stopping all day… we have not got as far as was intended just here, I have only seen about a couple of hundred German prisoners, but I believe a great many have been taken. They have no doubt gone back by a different route. On the other hand, I believe we have done very well up to the North…

This is true–both the French advance and the near-achievement of the “Green Line” goal by the Guards and the 38th Division were accounted successes. But ground gained still must be weighed against the flesh and blood it cost. Hamilton summarizes the reports filtering back from the wounded infantry: “I am afraid our casualties have been very heavy.” As for his own batteries, it will not be a one-sided battle for long.

Very few shells have come over us to-day as we expected. During the actual attack the hostile artillery devote themselves to the infantry. Our hard time will come to-morrow.[19]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. By which he means the night of July 30-31st; and he's jumping the gun just a bit on the rain...
  2. Love and the Loveless, 218-19.
  3. As Williamson did, until he went sick and was sent to Cornwall to recuperate.
  4. The cool old officer whom David Jones had so recently glimpsed striding the parapet.
  5. Llwyd, The Story of Hedd Wyn, 93-115. Alan Llwyd has weighed the various testimonies about Hedd Wyn's death, and I follow his reconstruction of the most probable sequence of events.
  6. Trans. Howard Huws.
  7. It's more than possible that I have just missed this. If not--if no one figured this out during Jones's long life and told him about it--then it's a striking and somewhat sad slipped stitch in the patchwork of Great War literature. Jones worked for years to learn enough Welsh to integrate its myths and history into his war epic, and even if he would not, perhaps, have been unduly impressed by the mere coincidence of proximity in space and time, he might, if he had known that a chaired bard had been killed in his own battalion, have thought more about contemporary Welsh poetry and its place in a British accounting of France and Flanders. Or not--there are many things I do not understand about Welsh-language culture a century back--and now--and about the political and cultural complexities of translation. Do Welsh poets claim David Jones--or, rather, do they honor his application for honorary membership in their ranks--for his ancestry, artistry, and benign intent? Does the resurgence of Welsh culture after devolution mean that Hedd Wyn has been annexed, to some degree, away from some more pure bardic/local identity and flattened into a "heritage" figure, half Welsh Rupert Brooke and half Welsh Wilfred Owen? I wish I had started on this particular thread a bit earlier...
  8. This also accounts for all officers becoming casualties--a disproportionate number would have been held back. but still...
  9. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 159-63.
  10. The Sleeping Lord, 100-111.
  11. Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 188.
  12. Trans. Howard Huws
  13. In Broken Images, 80.
  14. This line recalls--or rather foreshadows--the closing lines of Undertones of War.
  15. Undertones of War, chapter 21.
  16. Lady Under Fire, 219. The misspelling--"Knapps"--is presumably Lady Dorothie's.
  17. The Irish Guards in the Great War, II, 193-8.
  18. Unknown Warriors, 133-4.
  19. War Diary, 356-7.

David Jones on the Flank of Another Disaster; Kate Luard Goes There and Back Again; Ivor Gurney and the Afterlife of Rupert Brooke XX: He Was Lucky, He Died Early in the War; Edward Brittain Asks for Nichols

One of the fascinations of reading Kate Luard is the occasional glimpse of a daredevil lurking beneath the persona of a calm and omnicompetent senior nurse. While it is primarily her fierce devotion to duty that drives her to seek the most dangerous assignments–she can do the most good as a nurse and administrator closest to where the wounds are received–she also shows something like a childish enthusiasm for adventure and danger. She wants to be where the action is, and, with her new posting as the Senior Sister at what will now be a pioneering forward surgery center in the Salient, she will be.

Friday, July 27th.

…This venture so close to the Line is of the nature of an experiment in life-saving, to reduce the mortality rate from abdominal and chest wounds. Their chance of life depends… mainly on the length of time between the injury and the operation… Hence this Advanced Abdominal Centre, to which all abdominal and chest wounds are taken from a large attacking area, instead of going on with the rest to the C.C.S.’s six miles back…

But this is all, from Luard’s point of view, too good to be true.

And then the Blow fell–not the shell but the sentence: Army H.Q. couldn’t sleep in its bed for thinking of the 29 precious Sisters exposed to the enemy fire up at Brandhoek, and sent an order at 10 p.m. that all the Sisters were to go off to two Canadian C.C.S.’s about 6 miles back… The pretty Canadians were full of concern and hospitality for the poor refugees, but we felt most awful frauds.

It’s wonderful that the one time Sister Luard allows her letters home to slide into the old soldier’s bitter sarcasm it is because she is being forced to give up a difficult and dangerous job for a safer one. (She doesn’t mean any backhanded compliment to the Canadians, I’m sure, but it certainly reads that way: “pretty,” indeed–there’s a battle brewing!)

But even if the Staff wallahs are intent on mucking things up with their old-fashioned ideas about women and danger (are there not bombing raids on base camps, and on London?), the doctors who actually depend on these nurses understand the situation. By 9 this morning Luard had already been summoned back to resume work in preparing the hospital, and it seems clear that the senior medical officers are advocating for the nurses’ return…[1]

 

Further forward still, there were indications that a German withdrawal from their front lines was underway, so A Company of the 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers–only two days after D company lost sixteen men to what must have been a German ambush–mounted something between a patrol and a raid–a “reconnaissance”–to discover where they were.

[David] Jones was sent forward with his platoon to guard one of the flanks. The raiders advanced to find the front line empty and advanced further to the support trenches where two German battalions waited. As the night darkened, fighting was furious, and the outnumbered raiders were annihilated.

The German strategy makes sense: an attack is obviously coming, and they have confidence in their deep defenses–why leave men to be killed by the British bombardment? It is too late for the British to move up to the new positions, so they will just have a longer run to meet established German resistance… which can await them in concrete having ceded only a few hundred yards of Belgian mud.

But the British planners of the battle want, predictably, to know where they stand, hence the reconnaissance, and the German preparedness, and another local disaster for the Welsh, several times more costly than the day before yesterday’s debacle.

Nor is Dilworth’s “annihilated” much of an exaggeration. The battalion diary states, rather chillingly, that A Company “met with considerable opposition & for the most part were either killed or wounded. Weather fine.”

This is strangely sloppy record-keeping, and a high price to pay for a battalion that is expected to take part in the attack in the next few days. A quick search of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission database shows forty-six[2] members of the battalion who died either today or tomorrow, a century back. A high price to pay for confirmation of an intelligence officer’s surmise.

Whether Hedd Wyn was involved, we do not know–but it should have been about even odds that he either participated in one of these two raids or, like Jones, was part of their covering parties. One of Jones’s good friends, however, had gone out into the German lines, and came back. Which led to this strange little story about “Lazarus Black,” a one-time roommate of Jones’s:

After returning to the firing trench, he confided to Jones that he would ask for a decoration for saving an officer’s life by killing a German. Jones was astounded. The night had been pitch dark, the raid disastrous. He urged Black not to make the request since word was sure to leak out and he would be a laughing stock. The next day, Black nevertheless made his appeal to officers immediately above him, who scoffed at him but passed on his request. News of this quickly spread, and Black was ridiculed, though not as much as Jones had feared. Later, Black confided to him that he had wanted the decoration solely to make his wife and four children happy.”[3]

 

While battle approaches in the salient, life goes on elsewhere. Edward Brittain is in France, a month into his service with a new battalion. His correspondence with his sister Vera has largely involved requests for help tracing and replacing the valise that was lost when he came out. But today shows Brittain still striving after literature, despite the deaths of all three of his close friends and fellow aspirants. One of our amateurs is drawn, now, into the readership of one of our nascent professionals:

France, 27 July 1917

…In the Times Lit. Supplement of July 12th there is a long article about Robert Nichols who seems to be a poet of unusual merit; his works up to date complete are only 3/6 so you might like to get them; don’t send me the book but I should like some of the best of them in my own book; those quoted in the article are excellent.[4]

 

And lastly, today, Ivor Gurney, like Brittain a musician (though further advanced in that path) and about to join Nichols as a published “War Poet,” writes to Marion Scott, primarily about the business end of this first publishing contract. Often flighty, Gurney adopts a mode of sustained and balanced self-criticism, and he does an astute job of placing himself amongst–or rather off to the side of–the new pantheon:

27 July 1917

My Dear Friend: Your letter of terms etc has arrived. Thank you for it. It seems to me you have done very well, but still — that is no reason why you should not try to do better still, since publishers are our lawful prey and natural enemies. Personally (again) when the book was written there was no thought of making money behind it, but chiefly an occupation and mind exercise. For all that I really do not see why the book should not pay, though I do not expect any very laudatory reviews in the “Times” etc. You have won the preliminary skirmishes anyhow.

My own opinion of the book is, that it is very interesting, very true, very coloured; but its melody is not sustained enough, its workmanship rather slovenly, and its thought, though sincere, not very original and hardly ever striking. For all that, the root of the matter is there, and scraps of pure beauty often surprise one; there is also a strong dramatic sense. Where it will fail to attract is that there is none, or hardly any of the devotion of self sacrifice, the splendid readiness for death that one, finds in Grenfell, Brooke, Nichols, etc.

All this is fair, and accurate. And important: it is 1917, almost on the eve of Passchendaele, and poetic self-sacrifice does not hold the same sort of market share it once did (although, as we need frequently to be reminded, it will remain much more popular than the poetry of protest until years after the war).

Alas that Gurney, who, for all Scott’s support, is essentially alone in his craft (Will Harvey being otherwise engaged), has only summoned Sassoon, and not yet had the opportunity to read him at length. But he explains, now, why he writes about war the way he does–and it sounds very much like Sassoon’s recent writing. Only he is a private, with no possible chance of mounting a protest.

That is partly because I am still sick of mind and body; partly for physical, partly for mental reasons; also because, though I am ready if necessary to die for England, I do not see the necessity; it being only a hard and fast system which has sent so much of the flower of Englands artists to risk death, and a wrong materialistic system; rightly or wrongly I consider myself able to do work which will do honour to England. Such is my patriotism, and I believe it to be the right kind. But how to write such poems as “If I should die” in this mood? (Also, I am not convinced that poets believe what they write always. Brooke was a sincere exception, but then, he was lucky; he died early in the war. So often poets write of what they wish to believe, wish to become, as one prays for strength and virtue not yet obtained.) Golly, what a lecture! Serves you right…

I should like a talk with you, and yet would a talk be sufficient? For one forgets so easily things which one knows too well…

Be happy and get well. You are hereby appointed G.L.A. (Grand Literary Agent) with double salary:

With best wishes:

Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney…

P.S. How many complimentary copies?[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Unknown Warriors, 130-1.
  2. I did not examine the results to see if there are any detached members, those who died of earlier wounds, outright errors in the database, etc.
  3. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 161.
  4. Letters From a Lost Generation, 367.
  5. Letters, 178-9.

Messines: The Master of Belhaven, C.E. Montague, Phillip Maddison, and Rowland Feilding are Eyewitnesses to Armageddon; Jack Martin Goes Forward; Robert Graves is Laid Low and Siegfried Sassoon Takes a Pacific Step; Paul Fussell Looks to the Future

The Ypres Salient is a crowded place, and the assault on Messines Ridge of early this morning, a century back, was one of the great spectacles of the war. We have quite a few men on the scene who witnessed what was at once an unprecedented stroke of operational surprise (preceded as it was by all of the bloody, unimaginative attacks that we have read about), a significant immediate victory for the British Army (but not enough to “break through” the German lines), and a staggering calamity in human terms. For over a year British miners have been working in terribly dangerous and difficult conditions. Many died, but they have won the day, today. The fruits of their labor involved the entombing of some 10,000 Germans–but this was not foremost on the mind of the British observers. Each is overwhelmed by the enormity of the explosions, and struggles to describe them.

First, the Master of Belhaven:

At exactly 3.10 a.m. Armageddon began. The timing of all batteries in the area was wonderful, and to a second every gun roared in one awful salvo. At the same moment the two greatest mines in history were blown up — Hill 60 and one immediately to the south of it. I cleared everyone out of the dug-outs and was watching for it. Never could I have imagined such a sight. First, there was a double shock that shook the earth here 15,000 yards away like a gigantic earthquake. I was nearly flung off my feet. Then an immense wall of fire that seemed to go half-way up to heaven. The whole country was lit with a red light like in a photographic dark-room. At the same moment all the guns spoke and the battle began on this part of the line. The noise surpasses even the Somme; it is terrific, magnificent, overwhelming. It makes one almost drunk with exhilaration, and one simply does not care about the fact that we are under the concentrated fire of all the Hun batteries. Their shells are bursting round now as I write, at 6.10 a.m., but it makes one laugh to think of their feeble little efforts compared to the “ausgezeichnete Ausstellung” that we are providing. We are getting our revenge for 1914 with a vengeance. It is now beginning to get light, but the whole world is wrapped in a grey haze of acrid fumes and dust.

 

Jack Martin, signaler with the 122nd brigade, had been sent to lie out in No Man’s Land just before 3:00.

It was an impressive time–the gunfire ceased altogether with the exception of an occasional shell here and there–a thick mist was over the land and we had to lie full length…  There was a strange groaning and rumbling from behind us and presently, looming out of the mist, came a tank, moving straight towards us…

Out of the silence came the sound of blackbirds from a clump of battered trees a little way back only to be rudely silenced at 3.10 a.m…

For several minutes the earth rocked to and fro oscillating quite twelve inches. It was an experience which I shall remember vividly for the rest of my life–all the phases of the preliminary bombardment, the calm silence that succeeded them suddenly broken by a most terrific uproar, the weird sights of moving men and things in the semi-darkness, the rolling clouds of smoke picked out every now and then with shooting tongues of flame, all formed a tremendously wonderful sight. It was stupendous beyond the imagination.

 

Henry Williamson‘s Phillip Maddison has, of course, gone strolling off to see the battle, as he does for every major assault that he is not himself participating in. The fictional alter-ego walks through a landscape that both he and his creator had fought over in 1914, and he struggles with his fear. But soon it is 3:00, and, as the preliminary bombardment tails off, time for the birds–but nothing so unresonant as blackbirds.

It was so quiet that he could hear nightingales singing far away. They were surely very late in singing, the eggs must have hatched by now, and normally the cockbird ceased to sing when the hen began to sit. Perhaps the unnatural noise of the guns had strained their nervous systems. Some birds, notably wrens, uttered nervous little trilling bursts of song when alarmed at night. Perhaps all beauty, whether or sound or colour or shape, came out of pain, or suppression of life, as poetry came from suffering…

He felt the being-drawn feeling between his legs and his mouth was dry–he looked at his watch–nine minutes past three.

Before he was ready for it a great tongue of deep yellow flame arose slowly into the moonlight. It went up silently and was followed by another and another…

 

Rowland Feilding was there as well, almost entirely free of responsibility for his scattered battalion.

I got up and went out at three o’clock. The exact moment of the assault… had been disclosed to us as 3.10 a.m. I climbed on to the bank of the communication trench, known as Rossignol Avenue, and waited. Dawn had not yet broken. The night was very still. Our artillery was lobbing over an occasional shell; the enemy—oblivious of the doom descending upon him—was leisurely putting back gas shells, which burst in and around my wood with little dull pops, adding to the smell but doing no injury.

The minute hand of my watch crept on to the fatal moment. Then followed a “tableau” so sudden and dramatic that I cannot hope to describe it. Out of the silence and the darkness, along the front, twenty mines—some of them having waited two years and more for this occasion—containing hundreds of tons of high explosive, almost simultaneously, and with a roar to wake the dead, burst into the sky in great sheets of flame, developing into mountainous clouds of dust and earth and stones and trees.

For some seconds the earth trembled and swayed. Then the guns and howitzers in their thousands spoke: the
machine-gun barrage opened; and the infantry on a 10-mile front left the trenches and advanced behind the barrage against the enemy.

 

And C.E. Montague, with new freedom (and responsibility) to conduct war correspondents near the front, came up late last night with his charges, promptly fell into a deep sleep–and nearly missed it. His diary recorded the view from the Scherpenberg.

Next thing I am aware of, through a film of sleep, is a light whimper of shrapnel bursting somewhere near. Just after, I am fully awakened by the rocking of the hill under me. I jump up, sagely thinking it must be an earthquake, and then see seven huge mines still exploding — geysers of flame with black objects in it, leaving huge palm-trees of smoke drifting away in file. Bombardment begins at same time (3.10 A.M.). Rather far off—more than three miles—it sounds like an extremely long, various piece played on a piano full of rather far-off thunder. Many great fires caused in woods, etc., by our drums of oil and phosphorus (I believe). The bombardment more, intense than that of April 9 at Arras. As the light comes we see a great number of our aeroplanes everywhere, very little shelled. No infantry fighting visible.[1]

 

At 5:00 Jack Martin moves forward. His brigade is initially in support but soon enters what is now the British front line in the Damstrasse, more than a half-mile from the jumping-off point. There, Martin’s signalling party took casualties from both German fire and British “shorts.” Tanks move through, and the infantry follows, settling eventually into the German rserve positions.

The Signal Office was small, and with two wounded men in it and one end under water, there was only room for one operator at a time, yet at certain periods it was necessary to have two instruments working, so I took a buzzer outside and rigged it up on a mound where the trench had been blown in. The dirt gradually wore away and disclosed the bare buttocks of a dead man so I moved into the Damstrasse where the only comparatively dry spot was alongside a dead German but he was not badly mutilated. An infantryman close by me was hit in the face by a quantity of shrapnel dust and his tears trickled down his cheeks. He cried out, ‘Oh my eyes, my eyes! My God, I am blind!’ The sudden realisation of his blindness seemed a greater agony than the pain of his wounds. I shall never forge that terrible cry of anguish…[2]

 

Meanwhile, the Master of Belhaven, with little to do as his batteries fire by plan, tries to assess the progress of the battle:

(6 a.m.) It is as noisy as ever. The wounded have been streaming past for the last two hours… [they] say that the wire on my zone is thoroughly well cut, both on the front and support German lines–that is a relief to know. We have been firing something like 4,000 shells a day into it for the last week…

 

Rowland Feilding, too, is eager for news.

The battle once launched, all was oblivion. No news came through for several hours: there was just the roar of the artillery; such a roar and such a barrage has never been before. Our men advanced almost without a check. The enemy–such of them as were not killed—were paralysed, and surrendered. In Wytschaete Village they rushed forward with their hands up, waving handkerchiefs and things. And no one can blame them. The ordeal through which they have been passing the last fortnight must have surpassed the torments of hell itself…

Writing tomorrow, Feilding’s enthusiasm for this unprecedented-in-the-present-war success carries him as far as some preliminary conclusions on the preparations. He seems very much in accord with the ex post facto and fictionalized account of Henry Williamson.

… the South Irish Division and the Ulster Division went forward side by side… I have been thinking to-day of the saying—that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton. That remark wants revision now. You must for the “playing fields of Eton” substitute the “offices of the Empire.” From the offices have been introduced business methods which are essential to the complicated operations of nowadays. The Staff work yesterday was perfect. What a contrast to the time of Loos!

We were inundated with paper beforehand on this win this war we certainly shall win it” ; but no contingency, so far as I know, was unforeseen, and within six hours of the first assault parties were already at work, making roads across the mutilated zone and even laying water-pipes…

There will soon be checks to the more sanguine British hopes, but so far the preparation has been very good indeed. Instead of the usual failure to supply the attacking troops in their new positions, by 10 a.m. the war machine is dragging itself efficiently forward.

Already our Field Artillery was on the move forward—a stirring sight which always fascinates me. As I watch them, though I have nothing to do with them, I feel a kind of pride in them. I, as everybody else was doing, walked freely over the surface; past and over the old front line, where we have spent so many bitter months. How miserable and frail our wretched breastworks looked! When viewed—as for the first time I now saw them—from the parapet instead of from inside—the parapet only a sandbag thick in many places—what death-traps they seemed!

Then over Noman’s Land. As we stepped out there, my orderly, O’Rourke, remarked: “This is the first time for two years that anyone has had the privilege of walking over this ground in daylight, sir.” We visited some of the mine craters made at the Zero hour, and huge indeed they are. Then we explored Petit Bois and Wytschaete Wood—blown into space by our fire and non-existent—the, scene of our raid of the night of June 4. We found the bodies of an officer and a man of ours, missing since that night, which I have since had fetched out and buried among many of their comrades.

Our Tanks were now advancing—a dozen or more of them—going forward to take part in the capture of the fifth and sixth objectives. Their duty is to reduce local opposition, when it is encountered, and there they were, lumbering along, picking their way through the honeycomb of shellholes and craters, getting into difficulties, getting out again, sometimes defeated, but generally in the end winning their way through this area of devastation, where nothing has been left alive, not even a blade of grass.

I cannot hope to describe to you all the details of a battle on this scale. The outstanding feature, I think, was the
astounding smallness of our casualties. The contrast in this respect with Loos and the Somme was most  remarkable…

But, as is always the way, we lost some of our best. A single shell and a small one at that—knocked out twelve, killing three outright and wounding nine—two of the latter mortally…

But as Feilding concludes his account of the day with attentions to the dead, it is Ireland and Germany which come to the fore. The ground is Belgian, and a ridge and some village have been taken swiftly. But the war will still only be won through attrition, and it is the state of the will to fight on of the two rival empires which matters most.

Willie Redmond also is dead. Aged fifty-four, he asked to be allowed to go over with his regiment. He should not have been there at all. His duties latterly were far from the fighting line. But, as I say, he asked and was allowed to go—on the condition that he came back directly the first objective was reached; and Fate has decreed that he should come back on a stretcher.

How one’s ideas change! And how war makes one loathe the party politics that condone and even approve when his opponents revile such a man as this! I classify him with Stephen Gwynn and Harrison—all three, men—Irish Nationalists, too, whom you and I, in our Tory schooling, have been brought up to regard as anathema! What effect will his death have in Ireland? I wonder. Will he be a saint or a traitor? I hope and pray it may teach all—North as well as South—something of the larger side of their duty to the Empire.

P.S. My men found a dead German machine-gunner chained to his gun. This is authentic. We have the gun, and the fact is vouched for by my men who took the gun, and is confirmed by their officer, who saw it. I do not understand the meaning of this:—whether it was done under orders, or was a voluntary act on the part of the gunner to insure his sticking to his gun. If the latter, it is a thing to be admired greatly…[3]

“Authentic” in Feilding’s trust in his men, but then again he does not claim eyewitness, or give precise details…

 

The master of Belhaven ends his account on a note of triumph similar to Feilding’s assessment:

(9 p.m.) The battle is over, and the victory is with us. We have gained the whole of our objective…[4]

 

But Phillip Maddison, a mercurial sort (not to mention a fictional product of retrospection and history-reading) already has an eye to the inevitable return of the pendulum. After several trips leading mule trains of ammunition he goes on another of his “Cook’s Tours” to see the ridge that the British have now taken. He is impressed with the panorama, but, walking among the infantry as the long day draws to a close, he hears rumors of German counter-attacks retaking ground…[5]

 

And where are our old stand-byes on this day of days, the petulantly yoked terrible twins at the heart of the war poetry revolt, who fought at Loos and on the Somme? Will they praise the sudden victory?

 

Robert Graves, home for months and putatively recovered, was nevertheless in need of a rest, and has just been detailed to head to a convalescent home on the Isle of Wight. The precipitating cause was a head wound sustained when he fell down a staircase in the dark. But this was not an isolated incident so much as a symptom of a fundamental exhaustion. Not only will his lungs never be right, but his nerves are from from settled–it seems likely that “some kind of nervous collapse” led to the reassignment… and no, he will not have much to say about Messines.[6]

 

Siegfried Sassoon, however, was in London, taking a break from portrait-sitting by lunching with H.W. Massingham, the editor of the influential radical weekly The Nation. As George Sherston, Sassoon looks back on the irony that the full picture affords:

At daybreak on June 7th the British began the Battle of Messines by exploding nineteen full-sized mines. For me the day was made made memorable by the fact that I lunched with the editor of the Unconservative Weekly at his club. By the time I entered that imposing edifice our troops had advanced more than two miles on a ten-mile front and a great many Germans had been blown sky-high. To-morrow this news would pervade clubland on a wave of optimism and elderly men would glow with satisfaction.

Sherston has written to “Markington” to offer to write something, as “a mouthpiece for the troops in the trenches.” He is nervous of the great man at first, but he warms to Markington when he finds him even more pessimistic about the war and eager to hear uncensored humorous anecdotes from the front. The diffident Sherston stretches his legs, ever so slightly:

He listened with gloomy satisfaction to my rather vague remarks about incompetent Staff work. I told him that our Second Battalion had been almost wiped out ten days ago because the Divisional General had ordered an impossible attack on a local objective. The phrase ‘local objective’ sounded good, and made me feel that I knew a hell of a lot about it. . . .

But this leads, with more twisting irony, to the detailing of his own deeply conflicted behavior, and to a confession which might not be as welcome to this leading critic of the war:

‘As a matter of fact I’m almost sure that the War doesn’t seem nearly such a bloody rotten show when one’s out there as it does when one’s back in England. You see as soon as one gets across the Channel one sort of feels as if it’s no good worrying any more — you know what I mean — like being part of the Machine again, with nothing to be done except take one’s chance. After that one can’t bother about anything except the Battalion one’s with…

I must say I’ve often felt extraordinarily happy even in the trenches. Out there it’s just one thing after another…

It’s only when one gets away from it that one begins to realize how stupid and wasteful it all is. What I feel now is that if it’s got to go on there ought to be a jolly sound reason for it, and I can’t help thinking that the troops are being done in the eye by the people in control.’ I qualified these temperate remarks by explaining that I was only telling him how it had affected me personally; I had been comparatively lucky, and could now see the War as it affected infantry soldiers who were having an infinitely worse time than I’d ever had — particularly the privates.

The account continues, and it’s rich with interest: Massingham suggests reading Tolstoy, and then he awakens the privileged “Sherston” to the political realities of the budding military-industrial complex, censorship, and the fact that Great Brittain has added “acquisitive” war aims to the professed cause of liberating France and Belgium… there is some matter of Mesopotamian oil wells, apparently, if one takes that point of view...[7]

 

Lest one object that giving the last word on a day of successful battle to a pair of half-pacifists lunching in comfort, I will give it instead to an academic yet unborn, a century back, and more than a quarter-century short of his own bitter disillusionment with war.

Very early in his cranky masterpiece, Paul Fussell makes one concession to the otherwise unalleviated chronicle of murderous failure.

The attack at Messines… had been brilliantly planned by General Sir Herbert Plumer, who emerges as a sort of intellectual’s hero of the British Great War… he had imagination. His mines totally surprised the Germans, ten thousand of whom were permanently entombed immediately.

This, it is worth mentioning, is half the British toll from the first day of the Somme. I want to write at greater length about what it means to celebrate a battle in which local victory kills so many and yet doesn’t really budge the war… but since none of the men on the spot do, it would be an imposition. So, instead, just this next bit, as a way of working in the subject of modern war’s resilience.

The most memorable detail in Fussell’s account of the battle, however, is one that none of our writers can know, since it reaches more than a generation into the future, and then a century again, and more:

…British miners had been tunneling for a year under the German front lines, and by early June they had dug twenty-one horizontal mineshafts stuffed with a million pounds of high explosive… Nineteen of them went up, and the shock wave jolted Lloyd George in Downing Street 130 miles away. Two failed to explode. One of these went off in July, 1955… The other, somewhere deep underground near Ploegsteert Wood, has not gone off yet.[8]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. C.E. Montague, 189.
  2. Sapper Martin, 71-4.
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 188-92.
  4. War Diary, 302-6.
  5. Love and the Loveless, 153-160.
  6. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, the Assault Heroic,173.
  7. Complete Memoirs, 471-5.
  8. Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory, 14-15.

Siegfried Sassoon Bombs Busily Along; Charles Carrington’s Half-Conscious Nightmare; Alf Pollard Finds the Germans, and Loses Some Men; Vera Brittain’s Immense Fact and General Malaise

We are surrounded by the Battle of Arras. We’ll finish in Malta, where Vera Brittain waits for news, and most of the post will follow Siegfried Sassoon‘s latest turn as “Mad Jack” in the developing battle. But we’ll begin with two other members of the supporting cast, each within a few miles of Sassoon, and each sharing important aspects of his experience.

The Battle of Arras, now in its second week, is neither trench-warfare-as-usual nor a matter of major “over the top” assaults, those strange aberrations in military history in which lines of troops abandon their subterranean life in order to move over open country, their shoulders hunched against the shell fire. Instead we have something rather like the tough, ceaseless, street-by-street urban warfare of later wars, with the trenches and strongpoints standing in for ruined cities. The weather, a cruel abridgement of the recent turn toward spring, only increases the misery.

 

Charles Carrington has been in the battle since near the beginning, but he remembered tonight, a century back, as one of the worst:

After many exacting days and freezing nights we finished with a night attack against two German outposts on 16th April, the date of Nivelle’s offensive that was to have finished the war. Our petty skirmish was for us as deadly as the greatest battle was for him. Again it was dark and wet, with a drizzle that turned to snow until before dawn a blizzard was blowing. Two of our companies blundered into one another and opened fire. The assaulting party ran into uncut wire which they could not see. They dug themselves in and waited for dawn when the Germans cleverly slipped away. That night my horse, impressed for duty as a pack pony to carry ammunition to the front line, died of exposure and so, very nearly, did its master, to whom the whole episode was a half-conscious nightmare of fluttering trench-mortar bombs, the kind we called ‘grey pigeons’, coming down through driving snow…[1]

 

And Alf Pollard, back in the nick of time, is out in front of the battle, and looking for more of a fight. The Honourable Artillery Company are north and east of Arras, where the advance has already taken several lines of German trenches–but not yet the local section of the Hindenburg Line.

On the afternoon of the 16th, a Brigade Major carefully examined this trench system through his binoculars, and, failing to observe any signs of life, came to the conclusion that Fritz must have fallen back even further. He at once issued orders that patrols were to be sent out.

Pollard volunteers, and asks to take only four men, since he has more experience with small patrols and, like Sassoon, likes to gallivant more or less on his own. But he is required to take an unwieldy twelve, as per staff orders. The thirteen men set out after nightfall, in moonless, rainy darkness. Feeling their way slowly between Gavrelle and Oppy Wood, they eventually reached the German line without encountering any signs of life, noisily cut their way through the wire, and reached the parapet of the trench. Almost by chance Pollard discovers that they are at the entrance to an occupied German dugout–the trench system is strongly held, but the sentries are either incompetent or derelict in their duties, sheltering from the cold rain.

The patrol has achieved its object, so Pollard withdraws–only to discover, back in No Man’s Land, that one of his men is missing. Two others have been left holding a hole in another portion of No Man’s Land while the remaining eight are now told to wait for him on a small ridge between the lines. Pollard takes a runner and goes back to the edge of the German trenches to look for the missing man–and this time they are discovered.

Someone challenged me sharply from the trench. I spun round in time to see the flash of his rifle. I fired two shots and heard him yell as I hit him.

The firing gave the alarm. Men were appearing in the trench like magic. Reggie and I were caught like rats in a trap. It would have been impossible to have broken our way out through the wire without offering a sitting target to the enemy.

There was only one thing to do. I seized Reggie by the arm and ran. Down the parapet we fled was fast as our legs would take us. Star-shells were going up in all directions. By their light I could see that the trench was of a pattern known as island traversed. That meant that here were two trenches parallel with one another joined at short intervals by cross-cuts. At intervals along the parapet were squares of concrete which I knew to be machine-gun emplacements. I realised it was a position that would take a lot of capturing.

We must have covered well over a hundred yards before I spotted it. It was a miracle that I saw it at all–just a narrow gap in the wire entanglement left so that the holders of the trench could get out easily if they wished to. I darted into it with Reggie close on my heels. It zig-zagged through both lines of wire. In a moment we were free of our cage…

Pollard and Reggie crawl back toward their lines, now sheltered by the thick belts of wire. But when the firing drops, they know a German patrol is coming after them. Pollard outfoxes the patrol by sheltering under the wire–so close to the German lines that the Germans overlook them. This is one of the places where Pollard’s memoir feels indistinguishable from a boy’s story of play-war–he is thrilled at the success of this simple stratagem, hiding by the seeker’s home base.

Once the patrol returns to its trenches, Pollard and Reggie meet up with the main group of their own patrol on the little ridge. They return to their own lines and all is well–the German line has been located and confirmed as being in an active state of defense, and Pollard, his eyes on bigger prizes, casually notes that they “gave me a bar to my Military Cross for that show.”

But this is sketchy sort of decoration, despite Pollard’s relish in describing his exploit. “He carried out a dangerous reconnaissance of the enemy’s front line,” as the citation will read–apparently all the other patrols sent out failed to find the Germans. But there is no mention in Pollard’s account of the missing man. Worse, he does mention that he simply forgot to pick up the two others who had been left on their own, and these are later learned to have been found by the German patrol that Pollard and the runner eluded. One was killed, another was taken prisoner, and the original man seems to have remained missing–not the most successful of all patrols.[2]

 

The action of today, a century back–a “bombing stunt” along the tunnels and trenches of the Hindenburg Line, fills an entire chapter of Siegfried Sassoon‘s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer. So we’ll read it instead in its entirety in its first written form, his diary of tonight, a century back:

April 16

At 3 a.m. the attack began on Fontaine-les-Croisilles. I sat in the First Cameronians H.Q. down in the tunnel until nearly 6, when I was told to despatch twenty-five bombers to help their B. Company in the Hindenburg front line. I took them up myself and got there just as they had been badly driven back after taking several hundred yards of the trench. They seemed to have run out of bombs, failing to block the trench etc, and were in a state of wind-up. However the sun was shining, and the trench was not so difficult to deal with as I had expected.

My party (from A. Company) were in a very jaded condition owing to the perfectly bloody time they’ve been having lately, but they pulled themselves together fine and we soon had the Bosches checked and pushed them back nearly four hundred yards. When we’d been there about twenty-five minutes I got a sniper’s bullet through the shoulder and was no good for about a quarter of an hour. Luckily it didn’t bleed much. Afterwards the rest of our men came up and the Cameronians were recalled, leaving me to deal with the show with about seventy men and a
fair amount of bombs, but no Lewis-guns.

I was just preparing to start bombing up the trench again when a message camp from Colonel Chaplin [of the Cameronians] saying we must not advance any more owing to the people on each side having failed to advance, and ordering me to come away, as he was sending someone up to take over. I left the trench about 9.45. Got wound seen to at our Aid Post in the tunnel, walked to Hénin—and was told to walk on to Boyelles. Got there very beat, having foot-slogged about four kilometres through mud. Was put on a motor-bus and jolted for an hour and a half to Warlencourt (20th Casualty Clearing Station) and told to expect to go to England. Written about 7.30 p.m. with rain pelting on the roof and wind very cold. I hate to think of the poor old Battalion being relieved on such a night after the ghastly discomforts of the last six days. The only blessing is that our losses have been very slight. Only about a dozen of my party to-day—most of them slight. No one killed. My wound is hurting like hell, the tetanus injection has made me very chilly and queer, and I am half-dead for lack of sleep, sitting in a chair in my same old clothes—puttees and all—and not having been offered even a wash. Never mind—‘For I’ve sped through O Life! O Sun!'[3]

And so the diary ends, for today. Sassoon is once again a hero, and he is wounded, and, managing to ride the falling edge of adrenaline and the rising tide of pain and exhaustion, he is writer enough to smoothly end the diary with an appropriate quotation, from Robert Graves‘s “Escape.” But what has this action-packed account omitted, and what has it emphasized?

The main points are confirmed by another writer in Dr. Dunn’s chronicle–as are the two necessary interpretive conclusions:

April 16th–At 3.A.M. the attack of two days ago was repeated… This was another dud show… Sassoon, a very stout man, was wounded in Tunnel Trench: his craving to renew the attack was not allowed.[4]

Sassoon was very brave, once again, and once again unnecessarily aggressive. We’ve seen enough of his moody self-doubt and in the diary to recognize that he is not playing a role, here–or not playing it in any dishonesty to himself, if that makes any sense. If it’s a performance, as all social endeavors to some degree are, then it’s all method…

Whatever Sassoon’s thoughts about the war, whatever his feelings about the wrecked bodies he has passed to get to this point, the battalion commands his loyalty, and his responsibility is to lead. He doesn’t talk about his men often–it seems like a dubious cliché, but I do think this burden of leadership was assumed, in both senses, by men of his social position, right along with the code of behavior that forbade complaining about it–but whenever he does it is clear that he is highly motivated by his determination to do right by them. If physically leading the way and taking the greatest risks is not always quite a satisfactory answer to the entire question, well, neither was it a bad start. Tonight, a century back, Frank Richards spoke to

an old soldier and one of the few survivors of old B Company who had taken part in the bombing raid. He said, ‘God strike me pink, Dick, it would have done your eyes good to have seen young Sassoon in that bombing stunt… It was a bloody treat to see the way he took the lead. He was the best officer I have seen in the line or out since Mr. Fletcher… If he don’t get the Victoria Cross for this stunt I’m a bloody Dutchman…”[5]

A good officer–and a fox hunting man with a Dutchman’s name.

Siegfried has been absurdly fortunate: not only is he safely wounded, but none of his men are killed or badly hurt. And the chance he wanted so badly fell into his lap, and he took it… it almost seems as if the half-committed pacifist, half-despairing lost boy of the last few months stamped his foot in willful insistence until the war begrudgingly gave him exactly what he wanted…  But the rough narrative of a successful fight won’t remain the full story–it’s only the brassy initial theme, and the undertones and variations won’t stay silent for very long. The war has given him horror, too, and no sure solace: if death-defying aggression can salve his conscience now, the memory of it will not last forever. Does Sassoon recognize this as clearly as he recognizes his good luck in merely not being killed?

I could go on and on, but I shouldn’t. Given the constraints of this project and the length of his memoir, there’s no real way to take it on here, except to point out to readers this excellent opportunity to see what “voice” can do–or, rather, how much an author’s control of irony and tone from his secure position of future knowledge can influence our sense of the meaning of events, even if they are, in terms of factual detail, recounted fairly faithfully. Sassoon will not pretend to understand the mood that produced this bombing stunt, nor will he condemn it. But he does deflate his own heroics with more jabs than are strictly necessary.

Some very brief excerpts, then, beginning when Sassoon goes ahead of his own men and meets up with a corporal of the Cameronians, the unit which he is meant to support:

(Looking back on that emergency… I find some difficulty in believing that I was there at all.) For about ten minutes we dodged and stumbled up a narrow winding trench…

…we went round the next bay. There my adventurous ardour experienced a sobering shock. A fair-haired Scotch private was lying at the side of the trench in a pool of his own blood… I slung a couple of combat at our invisible enemies, receiving in replay an egg-bomb, which exploded harmlessly behind me. After that I went bombing busily along, while the corporal (more artful and efficient than I was) dodged in and out of the saps–a precaution which I should have forgotten… in this manner [we] arrived at our objective without getting more than a few glimpses of retreating field-grey figures. I had no idea where our objective was, but the corporal informed me that we had reached it, and he seemed to know his business. This, curiously enough, was the first time either of us had spoken since we met.

Does the skill of the self-satire make us forget the blood? Is it lurid, absurd? Is it remarkable that the clueless toff is good at bombing Germans out of their trenches, or only that he is such a clueless toff in the first place, and can’t provide a more conventionally meaningful narrative? (Or is that the point, that this sense of boyish silliness can’t coexist in the same rational narrative as the suffering and death from which it is inextricable? Where are the bodies? Who are the men killed or wounded by Sassoon’s bombs? Can they really exist in a story that plays alliteration for laughs and turns men hunting other men into figures of drawing room comedy?)

Ignoring Jeeves, Bertie trips blithely on:

The whole affair had been so easy that I felt like pushing on… I thought what a queer state of things it all was, and then decided to take a peep at the surrounding country. This was a mistake which ought to have put an end to my terrestrial adventures, for no sooner had I popped my silly head out of the sap than I felt a stupendous blow in the back between my shoulders…

Sassoon comes to, and finds his own sergeant binding a neat bullet wound. (And I am reminded that Sassoon himself will note that he felt as if he were being ministered to by a well-trained servant, a characterization which no doubt prompted my Wodehouse reference, above.)

After a short spell of being deflated and sorry for myself, I began to feel rabidly heroical again, but in a slightly different style, since I was now a wounded hero, with my arm in a superfluous sling…

So, overly enthusiastic heroism? Proper, “very stout” aggression?

But what if it tips over into something else? The Sassoon of the diary doesn’t seem to realize that charging on, shot through the shoulder, beyond his objective–the very act that got him in hot water over the summer–is close to crazy. He will, though…

It did not occur to me that anything else was happening on Allenby’s Army Front except my own little show…[6]

 

Far away from all this, Vera Brittain is busy with her duties as a nurse in Malta, but she has also been pining, restive. Malta was a charming and wonderful novelty, her first experience of foreign living. But it’s also a base hospital on a safe island–demanding work, but far from the center of the action. The mails are slow, and her conversations with Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow lag weeks behind their actions. She cannot know whether they have been involved in the spring offensive. She is neither near the front nor near the young men she feels most close to.

When she picked up her diary today, a century back, for the first time in many weeks, it was to report her reawakening wanderlust:

April 16th Malta

Had a short letter from Miss Lorimer to say she is going out as an orderly to one of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals at Salonika. I want to go there more than ever.[7]

And then she wrote to Geoffrey Thurlow, who–though she cannot know this–has missed the initial Arras attack, but is about to be thrown in to the next desperate effort to shove the Germans back just a little bit more.

Malta, 16 April 1917

You are really a good correspondent; Mother says you are ‘most faithful’ to her too. Not like Victor, whose letters are few & far between, & very short when they do come. To me, at any rate, he conveys most by what he leaves unsaid. I have been rather anxious about him this last week, for last time I heard of his whereabouts he was at Arras, & I feel sure he must have been in the great battle–which at present we here only know of as an immense Fact, shorn of all its details. I hope you didn’t get into, even the fringe of it.

That is well put. For us the immense fact remains, outlined or obscured by clouds of innumerable details… but we still have to make a story.

I have been off-duty for a day or two with a bad throat & general malaise, but am back again to-night. I am beginning to be glad that I came out when I did, and not straight into the kind of weather that is just beginning. The nights are still quite cool but the days are getting very hot . . . The sirocco is blowing to-night in a hateful way, rushing down the stone verandah, & making the doors & shutters creak & groan. To me this particular wind always seems fraught with sinister things; it hides the stars, so that the night is as black as ink, & makes the men peevish & sends their temperatures up.[8]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Soldier From the Wars Returning, 144-5.
  2. Fire-Eater, 203-9.
  3. Diaries, 155-6.
  4. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 329.
  5. Old Soldiers Never Die, 227.
  6. Complete Memoirs, 440-5.
  7. Chronicle of Youth, 339.
  8. Letters From a Lost Generation, 334-5.

Ethel Hermon Writes to Her Laddie; The Afterlife of Rupert Brooke, XVII: Re-Read by Read; Duff Cooper and Patrick Shaw Stewart and the Huntress Hunted; Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and Alf Pollard All Draw Near to Battle

We have a full complement of disparate subjects today: grief on the home front, idle high society, and a new wave of soldier-writers going forward in France.

 

We’ll begin in England, where the toll of April 9th is still being felt–except where it has yet to become known.

In 2008, Anne Nason published a book of letters written by her Grandather, Edward “Robert” Hermon, to her grandmother Ethel. Nearly 600 letters tucked away in a desk drawer had remained there for almost a century, until after the death of her mother, the Hermons’ second daughter, Mairy. For Love and Courage contains most of those letters, but the even greater number of letters that Ethel sent to Robert did not survive–letters to serving soldiers are hard to store away in desk drawers, and few made it out of the war even when their recipients survived. All of Ethel Hermon’s letters to Robert were lost except for one, written today, a century back, in ignorance of the fact that the man to whom she writes has been dead for three days.

Laddie my own,

I got a lovely letter this morning, 52, written on the 7th & doubly appreciated as you must have been feeling far more like going to bed that writing to me. You must be having a desperate, strenuous time, so laddie, do spend your spare minutes in a bit of rest & not in writing.

I know, of course, now that you must have been in the front line when the show started on Monday… All surmise is quite useless, I know, & yet one simply can’t help thinking & picturing things…

I could read so easily between the lines that you knew big & strenuous things were in front of you & I do so hope & pray you’ll come thro’ them safely laddie my own…

My best of everything to you dear, dear laddie.

Yours ever,

Ethel[1]

This letter will be returned to Ethel Hermon in the coming days, the envelope marked “Killed in Action.” When his effects reach her, they will include a card she wrote for her “laddie” this summer, enclosing a lucky clover. The double hole made by the bullet passing through is visible on either side of the center fold.

 

In London, Eleanor Farjeon waits to find out where Helen Thomas has gone, so that they can mourn together the man they both loved.

I went back home, to wait for the next news. It came in the morning, in Helen’s letter forwarded from the
Billingshurst post-office. She did not say much, only that she had had the telegram, was coming to her sister Mary’s in Chiswick, and would be returning almost at once to High Beech, and wanted me to go with her. I got in touch with Mary and was told the train Helen would take to Loughton next day.[2]

One thing her sister Mary seems to have helped Helen with is mailing some of the letters she had composed a few days earlier, informing their friends of Edward‘s death:

Post Mark: Battersea S.W. 11.15p.m. 12 April 1917

High Beech, nr. Loughton, Essex

My dear Emily & Gordon,

I wanted to be the one to tell you that Edward was killed on Easter Monday.

You will know how desolate I feel, in spite of the perfect union of our souls which death only completes. He lives on.

Helen[3]

 

 

Herbert Read is a fascinating case–a fierce intellect and by now an experienced infantry officer, but he is a young northerner in a northern regiment, and seems far from the turmoil stirring among London-based artists. But it’s hard to tell just where he is: he has been difficult to include here, too hard to pin down to particular dates. A slew of recent letters have been, essentially, philosophy-addled love letters, and I am to be praised for omitting them despite my eagerness to discuss him…

But today’s letter–also to the young woman he admires–goes a long way toward demonstrating both that he will eventually be very interesting to compare with Siegfried Sassoon and that he is not “there,” yet. It’s 1917, and Read has served in the trenches before (his first tour came to a premature end after he was injured by barbed wire, and it’s been a slow path back), and he’s a fiercely independent skeptic and cutting edge modernist… in theory. But look whom he’s quoting…

12.iv.17

Three weary days have passed, waiting rather impatiently for orders to proceed up the line. I was inoculated this morning–and now umteen million germs are disporting themselves in my blood, making me somewhat stiff–and cross.

But I really feel extraordinarily calm and happy–very different sensations from those that accompanied my former ‘coming out’. Then I felt reckless with the rest–and rather bacchanalian. Didn’t care a hang what happened. And, in a way, I don’t care a hang this time, but it’s a different way, a glad way. And it rather troubles my soul to know why? Because, as you may know, I’m not exactly a warrior by instinct–I don’t glory in fighting for fighting’s sake. Nor can I say that I’m wildly enthusiastic for ‘the Cause’. Its ideals are a bit too commercial and imperialistic for my liking. And I don’t really hate the Hun–the commonest inspiration among my comrades. I know there are a lot of nasty Huns–but what a lot of nasty Englishmen there are too. But I think my gladness may be akin to that Rupert Brooke expressed in one of his sonnets:

Now, God be thanked who has matched us with his hour,
      And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping!
With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power,
      To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping,
Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary;
      Leave the sick hearts that honor could not move,
And half-men, and their dirty songs and dreary,
      And all the little emptiness of love.

But the real surprise is still to come: Read sees himself as less disillusioned than Brooke. And it’s a fair reading–at least of the last four lines. But, in the context of the last two years’ celebration of Brooke, an odd one. Which Read may belatedly realizes, as he glosses the verses:

Though I must say I’m not yet so ‘fed up’ with the world as the sonnet implies. I haven’t yet proved ‘the little emptiness of love.’

A good point to make, since he’s writing to a girl.

The half-men I still have with me in goodly numbers. And I’ve still faith that there are hearts that can be moved by honour and ideals. But England of these last few years has been rather cold and weary, and one finds little left standing amid the wreckage of one’s hopes. So one is glad to leap into the clean sea of danger and self sacrifice.

So, then, he’s half-rejecting the fastidious and hypocritically extroverted self-loathing that informs Brooke’s casting of the 1914 world as “dirty?” And despite the fact that he can substitute two more brutal years of war for Brooke’s hatred of peacetime England, he is still eager to die for his king and country?

But don’t think that I am laying claim to a halo. I don’t want to die for king and country, If I do die, it’s for the salvation of my own soul, cleansing it of all its little egotisms by one last supreme egotistic act.

All this is rather melodramatic; and forgive me if it is morbid. It is only a mood and has more to do with inoculation than anything else…[4]

Well that’s a nice way to wiggle out at the end. He quotes Brooke, but he doesn’t want to die; he isn’t fed up with love and doesn’t hate the small men of little England enough to seek sacrifice… but nor does he like England, either, though he might die for it, except not for it but for himself in some neo-Romantic sacrificial mode. Except it’s just the germs talking.

 

Will not any member of the old Coterie stand up for the glamorous, cynical, privileged, pre-war social-aesthetic staus quo?

Well, as it happens, I have been waiting for a good opportunity to introduce here a new acquisition, namely the diaries of Duff Cooper, who is essentially the last of the men of the “Coterie” not in his grave or in uniform. I didn’t get the book initially because, well, he’s not in uniform. (Cooper has a job at the Foreign Office.) He’s not a bad writer, but he comes off, in his diary, as a bit of a rake (pretty accurate) and a bit of a dope (not entirely accurate). In retrospect, I should have consulted him on the loss of so many of his friends, especially in the Royal Naval Division and the Grenadier Guards. But today, in the midst of tracking the grief caused by the attack at Arras, he is here for painful counterpoint only. Society–like strategy–being drawn into our trench narrative largely for the purpose of dark ironic comparison.

Diana Manners is the muse of the wits of the Coterie, the Queen of the clique, the shining light, just as Raymond Asquith, probably her only equal in social skill, had been (despite his marriage to Katherine Horner) the “king” of their circle. But Asquith is dead, along with many of their friends. Katherine’s brother Edward is with the cavalry in France, and only Duff Cooper and Patrick Shaw-Stewart, back in England after his long sojourn in the East, remain as intra-Coterie suitors for the elusive Diana.

This weekend–life goes on–they are all at a house party in Scotland. Don’t worry–in a few days I will attempt an even more gruesome juxtaposition of the romantic high jinks of the idle rich and what is going on in the trenches.

April 12, 1917

We spent the morning in Diana’s room reading The Egoist.[5] It was delightful–while Patrick and I enjoyed the contemplation of Diana–but he watched both our faces all the time. He had a cryptic telegram this morning to say his orders had arrived and he will probably have to go back to London tomorrow and to France on Monday. I am so sorry. I am very fond of him. I do hope that his luck will not desert him. His death now would matter to me more than anyone’s and would be a terrible blow to our small diminishing society.

Which is to say that the leading contender can afford to be magnanimous to the man on the outside looking in… but the campaign is not won yet.[6]

 

It is once again Siegfried Sassoon‘s turn to look for a solution to his confusion in the direct and deadly challenge of battle. Well, almost his turn. Today, a century back, the 2nd Royal Welch Fusiliers draw within sight of the battle front.

April 12 10 p.m.

Moved to St Martin-Cojeul, a demolished village about four kilometres north-west of Croisilles, three kilometres south-east of Wancourt where the Germans counter-attacked to-day. We take over an old German third-line trench from the 17th Manchesters. Arrived about 3 o’clock in wet weather after a fine morning. The snow has gone and left bad mud. The British line is about a mile in front of us. A dead English soldier lying by the road as we came to the village, his head hideously battered. I visited the underground Dressing Station this evening, and got my hands seen to.[7] Several wounded in there—one groaning with broken leg. A few five-nines dropped in the village, which is the usual heap of bricks. Absolute desolation—and the very strong line of German wire which they left. They have cut down even the pollard willows by the river.

Writing this in a tiny dug-out, but luckily it has a stove. Just room for Kirkby and self to sit. He is asleep. Rations getting very short. Only one meal to-day, and that scrappy to a degree. Casson and I finished our last orange to-night but feeling fairly fresh (just the usual trench-mouth). A fair amount of grumbling going on all round… Quite impossible to sleep as it is bitter-cold, and nowhere to lie down.[8]

 

Lastly, today, as Sassoon leads an inexperienced platoon toward the Hundenburg line, two other officers–one battle tested, one tried only in the ordinary cauteries of trench-holding–are rejoining their old units, each of which has lately seen action.

 

Wilfred Owen missed his battalion’s last action in hospital with a concussion, but he will not miss its next. With the recovered Owen marching at the head of his platoon, the 2nd Manchesters moved back up to the line today, a century back, in support of recent gains before the Hindenburg Line on the southern end of the British sector.[9]

 

And, near Arras, Alf Pollard hopped from one train to another, rushing to bring his draft of replacements back to the Honourable Artillery Company before the rumored supporting attack could begin without him. However, he hopped too quickly, and the men he was supposed to be leading missed the train.

This is only a comic mishap: the important thing is that he is there, and cannot be accused of missing an attack, as he once missed an assault in order to visit his mother. The draft? No big deal…

“Where are they?”

“I’ve lost them,” I said innocently.

The Adjutant was horrified… I laughed. What did I care about the draft now that I was back with my beloved battalion.”

There’s no question mark in the text. The H.A.C. will go up to the line tomorrow–not for an attack, but to hold trenches, for a few days, at least…[10]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. For Love and Courage, 351.
  2. Farjeon, Edward Thomas, The Last Four Years, 261.
  3. Letters of Edward Thomas to Gordon Bottomley, 283.
  4. The Contrary Experience, 89-90.
  5. Meredith's novel, not the modernist periodical!
  6. Duff Cooper Diaries, 50.
  7. Sassoon has some infected scratches; he has not been wounded.
  8. Diaries, 153.
  9. Collected Letters, 452.
  10. Fire-Eater, 202-3.

Edward Hermon’s Last Words; Edward Thomas Mourned; Olaf Stapledon and Kate Luard on the Edge of the New Slaughter

103 Inf. Bde.

Dear Mrs. Hermon,

You will know that you have the very deepest sympathy from all ranks in the brigade concerning the death of your husband. He had established himself as a very able & gallant commander in the Field & was recommended for promotion to command a Brigade.

On the morning of the 9th inst. about 5.30 a.m. an attack on a very large scale was launched on the German lines… The attack succeeded & about 6 a.m. your husband decided to move his Hd Qrs from our own trenches to one in the German line & follow up his Battn…

An enemy shrapnel bullet caught him as he was walking forward. It appears to have gone through the papers in his left top jacket pocket & killed him instantaneously. I am sending you the papers in a small parcel…

He was buried at Roclincourt as shown on attached map this afternoon about 3 p.m. I’ve seen his servant and he is looking after your husband’s kit…

This would be Gordon Buxton, known as “Buckin,” who had been Edward Hermon‘s manservant before the war and his batman throughout. He appears quite often in Hermon’s letters, although infrequently in the excerpts I chose to include here. “Buckin” will soon plant primroses around Hermon’s grave. He will survive the war and go on to raise a family in a cottage on the Hermon estate.

The brigadier’s letter continues:

I know that nothing I can say can be of any use to you…

I hope you may be given strength to bear your sorrow which I feel acutely (as I once told you) because I am responsible for his becoming an infantry C.O. I hope to write to you again later & you will of course let me know whether I can do anything for you. With deepest sympathy,

Yours very sincerely

H.E. Trevor.

The last words your husband said (as stated by his adjutant who was behind him) was ‘Go on’ to his Battalion.[1]

With the War Office swamped by casualty notifications from the attacking army, Ethel Hermon has yet to learn of her husband’s death.

 

Helen Thomas has, and although she will come to write voluminously about her last days with her husband, she will not write about her first days without him. But many people loved Edward Thomas, so, instead, their daughter Myfanwy and their friend Eleanor Farjeon will take up the thread of the lament on what I take to be today, a century back.

The day after, before arrangements were made for us to go to London to stay with Auntie Mary, I was looking at my favourite picture in a story book, an engraving which Bron had delicately coloured for me. Suddenly I ripped it out, screwed it up and flung it on the fire in a rage of tears–for what couldn’t possibly happen to us had happened. My father would never come back. Why had I only prayed for his safety crossing the stormy sea? No answer.[2]

And Farjeon:

At night in the cottage, among my ‘pretty things’, I wrote to Edward once more before I left; and when I posted my letter at Billingshurst Station I did not know that another was on its way to Gillman’s from Helen in High Beech, where she had received the news that broke her heart. I went blithely in ignorance to London, and in Fellows Road found an envelope addressed in Viola Meynell’s delicate hand. The family was sitting at the supper-table; still standing, I opened the letter.

‘My darling Eleanor, I can hardly bear this for you . . .’

I made some sort of cry as I dropped the note. Somebody said, ‘What is it?’ I said, ‘Edward’, and went upstairs to my room where I went on standing in a state beyond feeling. The door opened and my mother came to me, and stood there with her mouth trembling and her eyes full of tears. I heard myself saying to her very clearly, ‘Mother, it was never as you feared with Edward and me’. I say I heard myself, for I seemed separated from my body’s movements and words and actions. I remember her saying, ‘Nellie—– ’ pleadingly. After a little while we went back to the dining-room, and I sat down with the others. I never forgot Harry’s quiet injunction the day our Father died: ‘We’ve got to eat, you know’: at times when I’ve known I mustn’t break down.[3]

 

It’s bad form, I know, to only touch on strategy for purposes of identifying bitter ironies. But despite the initial success of the Arras attack it must be put in the context of the larger allied plan for the Spring, known as the “Nivelle Offensive” for the French general now in control. The British attack is only a prelude to this coming, largely French effort, another clumsy smaller thrust in another one of the grandiose, arrows-on-large-scale-map plans that have bedeviled the war since von Schlieffen’s demise (which was, in fact, before the war, but then again that is the point). The stalemate will not be broken this Spring, and, just as the total human misery of Verdun far exceeded that of the Somme (but such sums are meaningless, in literature, too huge to weigh in balance and difficult to translate) the Aisne campaign will be a bigger disaster than the Arras offensive.

Olaf Stapledon of the Friends Ambulance Unit, attached to the French Army, is our only writer on the spot. They have been newly stationed in a village just outside Rheims. He writes, as always, to his fianceé, Agnes, in Australia.

Olaf Stapledon in 1917, in front of the Sunbeam ambulance

SSA 13
11 April 1917

…I am in a deserted château that is an aid post. Our people on duty there have stood us coffee and now I am squatting down to write a line on a piece of paper on my knee. This place was once a great private house with marble pillars and a huge conservatory. Now the whole thing has gone to decay though it has not been strafed at all. There is a pretty big bombardment going on and the whole place is shaking and clattering with the shock of very many guns…

We are living a funny sort of life at present, so ordinary in all outward appearance and yet it is one long excitement. In our village all is peaceful but–No, I had better not prattle, because of the censor…

You ask for photos. We are not allowed to send them, so whenever I get hold of any I send them by anyone who is going home on leave…. A snap of me standing in front of my car reading a letter from Dot is now on the way to you probably.[4]

 

 

And what does he have to look forward to? A little bit of what Kate Luard experienced today:

Wednesday, April 11th. Post just going. We began admitting, evacuating, operating at 1 a.m.

I could tell you for hours, stories of the men and the officers, brave, funny, tragic, ghastly, especially the first and the last, but they’ll be lost, because this kind of life allows only work and sleep… The moribund Ward is (fortunately) indescribable; about 25 have died there to-day…[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. For Love and Courage, 357-8.
  2. Under Storm's Wing, 301.
  3. Farjeon, Edward Thomas, The Last Four Years, 260-1.
  4. Talking Across the World, 219-220.
  5. Unknown Warriors, 112.

Arras and After: Horrors All Day and All Night, and the Ripples of the Death of Edward Thomas

Easter Tuesday, April 10th. The 3rd Army went over the top yesterday and a wire came through by mid-day that we’d taken Vimy and 4,000 prisoners… The Cavalry are after them, and the Tanks leading the Infantry, and all is splendid, but here are horrors all day and all night.[1]

I didn’t have the heart to write about the actual battle of Arras, yesterday, but Kate Luard‘s assessment will do very well.

In tactical terms the battle was much more successful than previous efforts: the Canadians surged forward at Vimy Ridge, and massive concentrated artillery fire, carefully coordinated with the infantry, did a better job not just of killing the German defenders but of destroying barbed-wire obstacles ahead of the attacking infantry. So miles have been gained. But it will all amount to relatively little, once the dust settles: an advance, but, with the deep German defensive lines so well organized, nothing close to a breakthrough. Tens of thousands of Germans will die over the next few weeks, but so will a roughly equal number of British troops, and beyond the wasted battlefield there are still more trenches, studded with concrete pillboxes. Nor have the Germans been effectively “distracted” from defending against the next, horribly costly French offensive on the Aisne, soon to begin.

But here are horrors enough, anyway.

First, there is more death. Arthur James “Hamish” Mann turned twenty-one on the 5th; on the 6th he wrote The Great Dead; yesterday, leading his platoon, he was wounded in the assault; and today, a century back, he died as a result of his wounds.[2]

Victor Richardson lives. His left eye is gone and the bullet is still lodged in the right side of his skull. But he is alive, and slowly making his way–unconscious, one hopes–through the maze of Advanced Dressing Stations and Field Ambulances and Casualty Clearing Stations and Base Hospitals. It will be some days before word of his wound spreads as far as his school friend, Edward Brittain.

Bob Hermon is dead and buried, but the telegram will take two days more to arrive home, a cruel coda to his hundreds of steady, loving letters.

 

Which means we focus, today, on Edward Thomas. I’m not sure what day the telegram reached the house at High Beech–each of the sources I’ve consulted avoids the question, which suggests that it is not easily solved. It may have been tomorrow.

But it may have been today, a century back, that Helen Thomas learned her husband was dead.[3]

I wrote yesterday that Edward Thomas was killed instantly and with an eerie lack of visible violence: the sudden vacuum caused by the shell passing so close to his body stopped his heart, killing him without leaving a mark, without even breaking his pipe. We have learned to distrust stories of painless death–especially of a painless death as described by surviving comrades writing to the dead man’s loved ones. We can never approach the truth too closely, and certainly when the writing mind we know is gone and we must rely on new witnesses.

But in Thomas’s case there is a relic–his diary.

The National Library of Wales

Before they buried Edward Thomas, they removed his effects, notably the “war diary” he carried in his tunic pocket, and the papers tucked into it. These came home to Helen, and it was discovered that the pages had been creased by the pressure wave of the shell that killed him, leaving ridges like “ripples in standing water.”[4] These are just visible in the photograph at right. So the violent disturbance in the air that killed Edward Thomas left no mark on his body, but it did leave a mark on his words.

I am uncomfortable with this–not the object as historical point of reference, as a physical fact that can confirm a subjective account–but with the object as relic. It’s misleading. It’s a sentimental smoke screen, an irresistible metaphor, to see the blast wave over his handwriting and imagine it affecting its meaning.

But the blast wave couldn’t touch his words. I don’t mean that his words are immortal (they are, as far as that goes) but something like the opposite: they are fixed, because he is dead. This is or will be true of any writer, of any words, but if we allow ourselves special pleading for Edward Thomas it only makes the reality more painful: much of what we see on the rippled surface is not testimony or evidence or finished work or communications which served their purpose during his life–they are notes for future poems which, now that that blast has passed through them, will not be written.

The last pages of the diary include a few stray, undated lines:

The light of the new moon and every star

And no more singing for the bird…

I never understood quite what was meant by God…

Neuville in early morning … the beauty of this silent empty scene of no inhabitants and hid troops, but don’t know why I could have cried and didn’t.

Tucked into the diary was a photograph of Helen, an army pass, and a scrap of paper with a few addresses on one side and three lines of verse on the other:

Where any turn may lead to Heaven

Or any corner may hide Hell

Roads shining like river up hill after rain.[5]

 

So those are the last words: now comes intense grief, futile condolence, and memorial.

Myfanwy Thomas–Baba, the youngest of the three Thomas children–was six years old in 1917.

…on that bright April day after Easter, when mother was sewing and I was awkwardly filling in the pricked dots on a postcard with coloured wool, embroidering a wild duck to send to France, I saw the telegraph boy lean his red bicycle against the fence. Mother stood reading the message with a face of stone. ‘No answer’ came like a croak, and the boy rode away. Mother fetched our coats and we went shivering out into the sunny April afternoon. I clutched her hand, half-running to keep up with her quick firm step, glancing continually up at the graven face that did not turn to meet my look.

There were no children in the playground as we hurried to the post office, no calls which I could not have borne–for
although I knew the shouts of ‘Four Eyes’ were aimed at me, Mother also wore spectacles. I waited, with dry mouth and chilled heart, outside the post office, while wires were sent off to Mother’s sisters, to Granny and to Eleanor.[6]

 

Eleanor Farjeon is away from home, and will not receive that telegram until tomorrow. But she preserved not only the letter that was being written today, a century back, by Edward’s C.O.,–to Helen, of course–but also her own inaccurate memory of a tale (or accurate memory of an inaccurate tale) told to her soon after in a chance meeting.

Here, first, is the letter which Captain Lushington wrote to Helen today, a century back.

April 10th, 1917.

Dear Mrs. Thomas,

You will have heard by now from Mr. Thorburn of the death in action of your husband. I asked him to write immediately we knew about it yesterday, but delayed writing myself until the funeral, from which I have just returned.

I cannot express to you adequately in words how deep our sympathy is for you and your children in your great loss. These things go too deep for mere words. We, officers and men, all mourn our own loss. Your husband was very greatly loved in this battery, and his going has been a personal loss to each of us. He was rather older than most of the officers and we all looked up to him as the kind of father of our happy family.

He was always the same, quietly cheerful, and ready to do any job that was going with the same steadfast unassuming spirit. The day before his death we were rather heavily shelled and he had a very narrow shave. But he went about his work quite quietly and ordinarily as if nothing was happening. I wish I could convey to you the picture of him, a picture we had all learnt to love, of the old clay pipe, gum boots, oilskin coat, and steel helmet.

With regard to his actual death you have probably heard the details. It should be of some comfort to you to know that he died at a moment of victory from a direct hit by a shell, which must have killed him outright without giving him a chance to realise anything,—a gallant death for a very true and gallant gentleman.

We buried him in a little military cemetery a few hundred yards from the battery: the exact spot will be notified to you by the parson.

As we stood by his grave the sun came and the guns round seemed to stop firing for a short time. This typified to me what stood out most in your husband’s character—the spirit of quiet, sunny, unassuming cheerfulness…

Yours very sincerely,
Franklin Lushington
(Major Comdg. 244 Siege Battery, R.G.A.)

There is no reason to distrust this account–though it is almost painful to read how little the outward Edward Thomas, as eulogized by his commander, accords with the painfully introspective writer, determined not to succumb once again to depression, that we read. It’s a letter of condolence and praise–but at least it hints that Thomas was successful in keeping his demons under control, in being a good officer, in presenting a usefully cheerful disposition to the men with whom he shared his last months.

But if we were to mistrust it, then the existence of this alternate version, told to Farjeon in the coming weeks by a sergeant on leave whom she chanced to meet, raises familiar questions:

‘At the end of the day when the battle was over we had the Huns on the run, and the plain was full of our men shouting and singing and dancing. We thought we had won the war! Mr. Thomas came up from the dug-out behind his gun and leaned in the opening filling his clay pipe. One of the Huns turned as he was running and shot a stray shot, and Mr. Thomas fell. It was all over in an instant. I went out to the men and called, “Men, we’ve lost out best officer.” The cry went up—“Not Mr. Thomas?” and there was no more shouting that day…’

This was the story as nearly as I remember it in the Sergeant’s own words. But my memory had misled me about the stray shot, it was a stray shell. When Helen came to know Edward’s Captain, Franklin Lushington, he told her that as Edward stood by his dugout lighting his pipe all the Germans had retreated, but a last shell they sent over passed so close to him that the blast of air stopped his heart. ‘He told me,’ Helen writes, ‘there was no wound and his beloved body was not injured.

This was borne out by the fact that when the contents of his pockets were returned to me—a bundle of letters, a note-book and the Shakespeare Sonnets I had given him, they were all strangely creased as though subject to some terrible pressure, most strange to see. There was no wound or disfigurement at all. He just died standing there in the early morning after the battle.’ Captain Lushington told Helen that Edward could have had a job ‘back and safe, but he chose the dangerous front observation post.’

Farjeon, struggling to end her book about her friend, harks back to a letter Thomas wrote in December, just after he volunteered for immediate service in France:

We have beautiful clear weather and for a few days (at any rate) I can enjoy this flat shingle and the long rows of low huts &c enormously. Lydd itself a few 100 yds away is beautiful—an old group round a very tall church tower and a line of elm trees, the only tall things in all the marsh at all near to us. I find though that nobody else likes it as much.

Farjeon continued:

The news of his going went round among our friends. ‘He won’t come back you know,’ said Arnold Bax. It was what many of us felt.

Those who never knew him, in whose thoughts Edward may live as a man who died, unfulfilled, too soon, I would ask to read again attentively the last paragraph of the letter which came to us as the forerunner of his death. It is not a startling paragraph, and has none of the special beauties which he turned into poems when he stopped writing prose; but it expresses the daily bread of his life while he lived…

Edward lived thirty-nine years. In all of them he kept his senses fresh, and liked what he saw. He saw more than  anybody I ever knew, and he saw it day and night. The seasons and the weather never failed him. It made him wonderful to I walk with, and to talk with, and not to talk with. And when he was alone—as I think he loved best to be, except when Robert Frost increased what he saw and smelt and heard and felt and tasted—he walked with himself, with his eyes and his ears and his nostrils, and his long legs, and his big hands, in shape so strong, in touch so sensitive… he liked what he saw. And knew that nobody else liked it as much as he did.

 

It’s been almost three years since I began this odd project, and more than two since I began to read Edward Thomas seriously. All this time one of the strange regular disciplines of the project–never “revealing” anything that took place in the century after the “current” century-back date–helped to emotionally enmesh me in the lives of the writers. But none more than Thomas, and lately there has been a steadily increasing dread as, in footnote after footnote, I elided the full title of Eleanor Farjeon’s loving collection of letters and recollections, compiled and commented on long after the war.[7] Who was I fooling? What was I hoping to avoid? Now the ellipses only seem to have indicated the path of the shell, an inch away from the man…

Anyway. The footnote for the above paragraphs should read: “Eleanor Farjeon. Edward Thomas: The Last Four Years, 231-2.”

 

 

Now two last words on Edward Thomas–first, a contemporary writer, then back to Eleanor, even though she has yet to learn of her beloved friend’s death.

Thomas features in Robert Macfarlane’s strange and often fascinating The Old Ways, a mix of travel book, essay collection, and memoir, with a chapter given over to a… creative… imagining of his last days. It closes thus:

What was Thomas seeing as he wrote those last verses in his Arras notebook? The old ways of the South Country, or the shell-swept support roads that wound to the front? Both, perhaps, folded together, the one kind of path having led its way to the other.[8]

 

Easter Monday

(In Memoriam E .T.)

In the last letter that I had from France
You thanked me for the silver Easter egg
Which I had hidden in the box of apples
You liked to munch beyond all other fruit.
You found the egg the Monday before Easter,
And said, ‘I will praise Easter Monday now–
It was such a lovely morning.’ Then you spoke
Of the coming battle and said, ‘This is the eve.
Good-bye. And may I have a letter soon.’

That Easter Monday was a day for praise.
It was such a lovely morning. In our garden
We sowed our earliest seeds, and in the orchard
The apple-bud was ripe. It was the eve.
There are three letters that you will not get.

Eleanor Farjeon[9]

No, now I’ve changed my mind–the last words today should be from Thomas himself, the last stanzas of Roads, to which the lines found on his body seem to allude:

Now all roads lead to France
And heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead
Returning lightly dance:
Whatever the road bring
To me or take from me,
They keep me company
With their pattering,
Crowding the solitude
Of the loops over the downs,
Hushing the roar of towns
and their brief multitude.[10]

References and Footnotes

  1. Unknown Warriors, 110.
  2. Powell, A Deep Cry, 230.
  3. The artillery stayed in position as the infantry advanced, and with intact communications it's not impossible that a war office telegram could have been dispatched within thirty hours or so after an officer's death. Finding this death to be particularly upsetting--and well documented, and such a terrible loss to the many people who loved him and, yes, to English literature--I want to begin handling it today, anyway, and press on.
  4. Macfarlane, The Old Ways, 354.
  5. War Diary (Childhood), 175.
  6. Under Storm's Wing, 300-1.
  7. It was mostly a question of the finality of the title, of course, but it was also, I realize, a matter of identifying with Farjeon. She knew him (and she was a very good writer), and she loved him, but he couldn't love her back.
  8. Macfarlane, The Old Ways, 355.
  9. Harvey, ed., Elected Friends, 20.
  10. Returning to these verses reminds me that I should thank Matthew Hollis, whose Now All Roads Lead to France has been invaluable--less a resource, for Thomas is so well documented, than a first primer on how to read his life and his writing.

Ivor Gurney Absolves Himself of Half the Blame; Edward Thomas Discourses to His Son, and Friend; Edward Hermon on War’s Delightful Uncertainties; A Saucy Note for Jack Martin; Alphabet Soup with Kate Luard

None of our writers yet know the exact date of the coming offensive–and they can assume that the terrible weather and the operational wrench tossed in the works by the German withdrawal will delay it at least a bit more–but there is a growing sense that they may be only days away from the end of a winter which, for all its miseries, has seen men killed only by the handfuls and dozens, for the most part, and not by the thousands.

Girding for battle, then, we have five writers to read today–two provide lengthy and rather weighty letters, but we also have some lighter fare along the way…

 

Ivor Gurney, wrote to Marion Scott today, a century back. Scott is at once his friend and benefactress; she has put his songs before an audience, published his music, lectured on his poetry, helped him at every stage, and now is in the last stages of preparing his first book of poems for the press. As the editor of those poems, she has become less and less like a patron or facilitator and more and more like a partner: Gurney’s moods are changeable, his spelling and punctuation are shaky, and his ability to focus on revising his poems while serving as an infantryman is, rather understandably, limited. He is fortunate that his friend is both skilled and willing to edit with sensitivity, cleaning up his verse without heavy-handedly blotting out his oddities–and he is wise enough (or, again, fortunate) to recognize this.

23 March 1917

My Dear Friend: Things are beginning to move, and no one knows when may come the next opportunity for writing. I have just received your letter of March 11th… Do not consult me about these things, but do as your far more experienced judgement may lead you…

A frequent topic in these letters is Scott’s ill-health. She has a number of ongoing medical problems and has been very sick two different times in recent months, and Gurney, though sympathetic, often struggles to find a way to express his sympathy. Today an obvious path is open: he can share her joy at resuming music:

And it is good news that you are able to play sonatas again, and with a sympathetic pianist. It gives me a feeling of sharing your good-fortune to read of it; may your strength increase and give you hours a day of it…

One parcel of yours I have received — not yet the other. All the letters have arrived and all given pleasure. O to return to England and my friends! Such joys are there as are dangerous to imagine at present; not all at once will my mind and body become sound, but it cannot be so very very long before Joy becomes “used to me”…

The new state of things entered upon by the German retreat may mean little letter writing. This is the reason why I hasten to reply, though never have I felt more acutely the inadequacy of words. Last night and this afternoon have been so beautiful that my mind has been filled with Blighty thoughts. But consider what a queer past I have to look back on! Either I am a great musician or a chronic neurastheniac!

That’s a line worth remarking on. Many of our writers are in a similar position in that they sense the war will be the making or breaking of their literary ambitions, and yet few have struggled mentally and emotionally as much as Gurney has. The war is an intensifier–double or nothing, death or great beauty.

There is nothing outside it, for the visible world is hardly to be seen by me unless music hallows my spirit with  beauty and toughens it by the necessary work.

And yet Gurney is consistently grateful about another thing the war has done for him: throwing him among all sorts of men has cured him of much of his social awkwardness, at least among men. Suffering together has made a feeling of brotherhood possible.

You will be glad to hear however that as a personality I am rather popular in my company. It pleases me this, as so I know myself nearer Walt Whitmans perfect man; equal to shepherd and President; equal and familiar. O the joy to be able to go into a little Cotswold inn and drop into conversation with the nearest man! And that, compared with my tongue-tied shyness of 3 years ago. And if not here, then in the Shades I will be friends with men contemptuous of the fate to which some Power has doomed them, jovially drinking in some phantom pub over doubtful takes[1] and unprintable denunciation of the Infernal NCOs.

We’ve seen something like this before (not that I can currently place it, mind)–a soldier so pleased to belong that he humorously, but with real feeling, extends the dream of post-war camaraderie even to otherworldly environs. Gurney is then once again reminded that he is neglecting a different category of friend:

You patient correspondent, though you make no complaint, how should you not be tired of the continual self-analysis which makes up the bulk of my letters! And yet those letters are the safety-valves of my discomfort. It is a cheap amusement—grumbling—pleasing the writer and leaving the reader to read or not as she pleases. I
absolve myself therefore from half the blame, take the other half if you please.

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

…Goodbye and many sonatas. Unless I write very soon, more verse-books off:

Your sincere friend

Ivor Gurney[2]

 

Robert (Edward) Hermon’s latest letter to his wife Ethel picks up in the middle of a joint reminiscence about old holidays, but it is nevertheless overshadowed by the coming offensive.

…I fear those old days are gone for ever now… Let’s hope our next trip will be one here to see the result of the war with the Chugs.

Of course, by now you know more about the German retirement than I do, really, as you have had one more Times than I have…

According to the papers he is retiring there so that, if any preparations have been made by us for the much-talked-about spring offensive, we may have to start again… & in the meantime his submarines will sink all our ships. However the best-laid plans often go wrong…

War is one of those delightful uncertainties that a very small thing may completely upset. It is all most awfully interesting & I hope I shall see the end. I often long for the time when one will be able to read the history of the early phases & know why he didn’t do some of the many things that he ought to have done.

I got three delightful letters from the Chugs too, today. I wish I had time to answer them. Thank dear little Mary for her nice message & her letter too. I am so pleased to hear she sat on her pony so well when it fell down!

Goodnight my darling.[3]

 

Before we get to two letters from Edward Thomas–I know I have been including a great deal of his writing, but these show a different aspect of his personality–let’s do two brief bits of comic relief, one intentional and one rather by-the-way.

We haven’t heard from Jack Martin much–his diary has been sparse, as he seems to be in low spirits. I don’t know him well enough to suspect any particular mood (or mood disorder), but he seems to be suffering from the general malaise common to men who are excited to reach the front and then find not the thrill and terror of battle but the long slog of living and working in miserable winter conditions. His diary only springs to life when he can report letters from home or another test of wills with his commanding officer and sparring partner Lieutenant Buchanan. But today a bit of light comedy flutters out from an unsolicited parcel, in a moment much more redolent of 1915 and the heyday of Kitchener’s army than this tense muddy month, a century back:

23.3.17

Arrived at Dickebusch safely. Had a parcel from Lil containing a body belt folded up just as she had bought it. When I unfolded it a piece of paper dropped out–I picked it up and read this:

Miss Dulcie Bennett

111 Mansfield Road

Nottingham

Wishes the boy who receives this belt the best of luck and a safe return to Blighty. XXXX for luck

Oh, Dulcinea, I am no Don Quixote so I vulgarly displayed your missive to other eyes and there was quite a competition between several fellows as to who should have it and write to you…[4]

 

And I can’t resist the beginning of Kate Luard‘s diary for today, a century back. If we often look for “found poetry” hidden in the prose of our writers, today this old campaigner provides us a found nonsense-alphabet-jingle:

The three C.O.’s of the three C.C.S’s here were summoned to 3rd Army H.Q. to-day to a Conference with the D.M.S…[5]

 

Lastly, Edward Thomas, thrice. I absolve all readers not lavishly endowed with free time or particularly interested in a writer’s fine-grained choices from reading any further. It’s too much!

Or not… Well, we’ll begin with an excerpt from his diary, and then proceed to excerpts from two different letters.

Frosty clear. Ploughs going up over crest towards Beaurains. Rubin back from F. O. P. believes in God and tackles me about atheism–thinks marvellous escapes are ordained. But I say so are the marvellous escapes of certain telegraph posts, houses, etc.[6]

Next, a letter to his old friend Gordon Bottomley which does something rather odd: Thomas reviews the salient experiences and most striking sights of recent days (many of which we’ve read about) but he does so in a hurried, unliterary fashion. Usually the letters are more considered, more elaborate than the diary, but not here.

23 March
My dear Gordon,

I will write again while I can a little. Things are moving now & we move too. I have not long come back from 24 hours in our new front line. It was dirty wet & cold & I could only stand & mark the flashes of enemy guns at night, which was my business. Afterwards I slept 16 hours for the first time in my life. It taught me several things that others knew before. It made me cease to be alarmed by shells that could not harm me, for example, though they came over 20 or 30 a minute all night. They were flying home to a village that we used to fire at till this last move, a fascinating ghostly village of stark trees & ruins which I shall probably soon be sleeping in. It was beautiful coming down to the city in sunshine & seeing the old ruined Town Hall like a thick white smoke just beginning to curl. Crossing the old No Man’s Land crowded like a race course after a race, I couldn’t take seriously the few small shells thrown at the working parties. Oh, I did eat & rest & sleep…

Yesterday it was sunny & mild. Today it is cold & snows at times…

Is this sort of rote reporting motivated only by a sense of duty to an old friend? But Thomas does work around to some more intimate issues of the sort that once sustained his letters to Bottomley.

…Fear too, I have discovered—to that point where the worst moment is when you find you have survived & that all your fear was useless. You screw yourself up for a second to bear anything & nothing comes—except a curious disappointment which I suppose is also relief. Sometimes at night I have been in this state a hundred times, but partly through inexperience, not knowing what might mean harm. Still, I shall never like the shell that flaps as it falls, or the one that suddenly bounces into hearing & in a second is bursting far off—no sooner does it open the gate than it is right in the door, or even the small one that complains & whimpers & is called a ‘pipsqueak’ or a ‘whizzbang’, & flies into that ghastly village all night long like flights of humming birds.

Ah–and he is working on refining his descriptions of the shells. Through music, next, and friendship, the letter finally turns to his poetry–only to dodge, at the end, from success back toward despair.

…I conclude I don’t quite want friends here. I should be too introspective or too happy to meet the circumstance. And yet all sorts of things do make me happy—villages, the city in ruins, the larks in the bloody dirty dawn, the partridges, the magpies floating about among shellfire & once a bat, & a hundred different houses, in city, suburb, & village.

I hear now that America wants my verses & Poetry has taken some. Frost wants me to surrender my pseudonymity but I am not doing so. Of course I can’t think of writing here & only keep the briefest of diaries…

I haven’t met anybody out here yet who connected me with home. I don’t think of home. I never did have pictures on the wall since I was 1.

Goodbye. My love to Emily. Yours ever

Edward Thomas[7]

 

Last, today, Thomas’s letter to his son, Merfyn, now a teenager but working full time as an apprentice at a bus works. Is it his age that accounts for the formality of the letter, or the gaps in his relationship with his father, so often depressed or working away. And yes, he misspells his son’s name, sort of–the name is Welsh, so the “f” sounds as a “v,” anyway:

244 Siege Battery, 23 March 1917

My dear Mervyn,

I brought back a letter from you in the mail bags today and also a new battery for my torch. Thank you very much… It is most useful in crossing this dark street when crowded with lorries or columns of horses and limbers and on all sorts of occasions.

I was so glad to hear from you and how much you were earning for Mother as well as yourself. At the same time I am more anxious for you to learn than to earn at present and I hope you will soon be moved to a new shop.

But Merfyn will soon be eighteen, and in England, a century back, work is no longer the thing that most defines a man’s estate.

You haven’t found an O.T.C. yet, have you? I wish you could, though I hope you will not have to go further than that for a long time. I don’t think war would trouble you. I see lots of infantrymen no bigger or older than you. There was one machine gunner doing duty over the parapet the other night when I was in the very very front trench. He had to stand up there behind his gun watching for an hour. Then he was relieved and made some tea for me and himself and turned into his comic little shanty and slept till the next relief. He looked ever so much older as well as dirtier when morning came. He was a very nice bright Scotch boy. Well, I expect you could do just the same. His officer was the same age and very much like him so that I think he had to look unduly severe to show the distinction…

These, of course, are new thoughts, different thoughts, experiences filtered–and this is very rare, in what we read of Thomas–through the lens of fatherhood. But very strangely, Thomas segues from this paternal mode into a comparison of himself and his son. He had recently faced the task of climbing an enormous chimney for observation purposes, and backed down. Now he wonders if his boy could have done better.

I wonder could you climb that chimney? There were iron rings all the way up and I knew one was loose, but I didn’t know which. One bad feature was that you were always hanging out a bit, because the chimney tapered. It has been hit three times but only with small stuff. Now I suppose it is likely to survive as the enemy is farther off.

Even more strangely, he takes what might seem an offhand (to anyone not risking shellfire on a daily basis) approach to a completely fundamental question:

The crossroads round it became known as Windy Comer because everybody ‘got the wind up’ as he came near it. Thousands had to go that way and yet very few were injured and only about two killed. Isn’t it wonderful how some men get hit and some don’t. But it is the same with trees and houses, so that I don’t see why it makes some people ‘believe in God’. It is a good thing to believe. I think brave people all believe something and I daresay they are not so likely to be killed as those who don’t believe and are not so brave…

But then the formality–a certain awkwardness, at least–creeps back in, and Thomas begins to deluge his son with questions:

…It is going to be Spring soon. Are you glad? Are you often happy and usually contented, and if not contented, not often in despair? Try never to let despair at any rate make you idle or careless; But be as idle and careless as you can when you are happy and the chance comes. If you are troubled, remember that you can do what perhaps nobody else will be able to do for Mother and Bronwen and Baba: only don’t let that make you anxious either. All will come well if you keep honest and kind.Upon my word, this sounds like a sermon and I do hate sermons, of which it is not true to say that it is more blessed to give than to receive, but it is more easy to give a sermon than to receive.

Which is why, perhaps, he decides to close by giving something not every father can give–this sort of evocative, quietly emotional writing:

Do you have time to read now? I only read for ten minutes in bed, Shakespeare’s sonnets, with a pipe which I smoke about a quarter through and then put out the light and forget the flash of guns across the street and the rattle of the windows, everything except the thud of a shell in the marsh behind, but that seems to have stopped now. Goodnight.

Ever your loving

Daddy[8]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. As printed, but surely "tales" is intended?
  2. War Letters, 144-5.
  3. For Love and Courage, 342-3.
  4. Sapper Martin, 53-4.
  5. Unknown Warriors, 103.
  6. War Diary (Childhood), 172.
  7. Letters of Edward Thomas to Gordon Bottomley, 278-280.
  8. Selected Letters, 151-3.

Will Harvey’s Great Escape Postponed; Henry Williamson Moves on Up; Edwin Vaughan’s Witness to Vandalism… and Gothic Imagination; C.E. Montague Reflects Before a Fire

Back on August 17th, Will Harvey decided it would be a good idea to go out and patrol no man’s land alone. He stumbled into a German post, was captured and eventually taken to Gütersloh Camp, in Westphalia. By the time he got there the tunneling had already begun, and his first book of poems–A Gloucestershire Lad–had been published. (His best friend, Ivor Gurney, mourned him, then rejoiced to hear that he was alive, and in any case continued to write about Harvey often.)

For months now, Harvey has been taking his turns in the tunnel and on lookout duty above, using coded whistles or songs to warn when German guards are about. The months dragged by… until yesterday, a century back, when the British contingent in the multi-national P.O.W. camp learned that they were about to be transferred. A night and day of feverish digging brought the tunnel out under the wire–and right beneath the beat of the German sentry. In a hurried meeting it was decided that, rather than making a dash out of the still-too-short tunnel and hoping for the best, it should be left concealed in place, in the hopes that the barracks’ next inmates–Russian P.O.W.s, in all probability–could continue the work. Today, a century back, Will Harvey, his captivity stretching into a ninth month and his book into its 4th printing, was transferred to Crefeld Camp.[1]

 

Meanwhile, Henry Williamson continues to advance into what was recently the German rear–and to keep his mother well informed of his whereabouts.

Dear mother Cherie,

This awkward phrasing is actually one of his more graceful turns of code-phrase. The letters “ACHIET” are marked out, four of them occurring in sequence in “cherie.”

We have not heard from anyone for about a week–heavens knows where the post goes to nowadays. I have had only about 5 letters from you to date–I wish you would date your letters.

Well I suppose all you in England at the time are rejoicing over the ‘fall’ of Bapaume–but it’s rather a funny business after all. I believe personally that the Bosche has done a very clever and good thing for himself–he is falling back…

So Williamson is back to considering the withdrawal a strategic benefit for Germany rather than a boon to the British, but only a few lines after pointing out that the news of cavalry in action is nothing but the false dawn of open warfare, merely a temporary screen as the British reestablish contact with their foe, he switches course again, implying that it may be a breakthrough after all: “only WAIT a bit and see.”

On the matter of parcels Williamson is more steadfast:

What I should like would be toffee, nice chocolates… a pair of pyjamas, and a cake or so…[2]

 

Edwin Vaughan has what we might call an active imagination, a knack both for finding terror in the quiet corners of trench life and for telling a tale the brings across the shivering horror he experienced. His account of yesterday, a century back–when his battalion advanced into the vacated German rear and took up residence among the booby-trapped dugouts near Péronne–is many pages long, and well worth dipping into.

It was a bright clear morning, and the country looked beautiful as I set off across the open fields…

The gently undulating fields were very little shelled, and the fresh grass was only spoiled here and there by a circular mud-rimmed hole. But each field was liberally besprinkled with graves, in which we took morbid interest. Not one of them had been dug to any depth, and in each case some portion of the corpse protruded–from one a bleached and polished skull, from another a rotted puttee and boot, from another the ammunition pouches. In several cases they had only been covered with a few inches of wet earth which now was caked and hard, giving the appearance of mummies, except where the burrowing rats had broken away the mud and displayed a patch of blue tunic.

There were a few unburied bodies about and I had much difficulty in getting Sissman past them–he wanted to stop and examine each for wounds and souvenirs… I’m afraid we progressed very slowly…

The afternoon becomes a different sort of macabre when Vaughan and a small party, now led by his company commander, Billy Kentish, stumbled up along a muddy canal road looking for their new billets. When Kentish, who foolishly brought his horse (a famous perquisite of company commanders, even in the infantry) on the journey, disappears after repeatedly foundering in difficult places. When he reappears without the muddy, stumbling beast, Vaughan suspects the worst. Eventually they arrive in Halle, where another company of their battalion is now in residence. On the walls of the house taken as HQ,

the playful Hun had left many sketches and ironic messages. Two that we saw were ‘Great British Advance. Many villages taken’ and ‘Haig takes Halle, 4,000 Germans captured–official.’

But their march continues until they reach Péronne, in which a major fire is burning–this was a day after Charles Carrington had entered the town–much of the historical center, including the old library and church, have been consumed.

During all this march I was very nervous. I had heard so many stories of booby-traps and delayed mines that I was terrified by the sight of any old oil drum or coil of wire, and at every cross-roads expected to find myself sailing up into the black sky. Nothing of the sort happened, however…

Instead, Vaughan and his fellow company officers take up residence in a partitioned cellar, and one by one fell asleep, while he listens to the drip of rain and smelled “a filthy smell of decaying vegetable matter.” Before long, Vaughan begins to hear “the tick-tock of a fuse.”

Here–although I suspect that this part of the diary was extensively rewritten after the fact–Vaughan is charmingly open about his failures of courage:

This grew louder and louder until I could stand it no longer, and by coughing loudly and banging the bed, I woke Kentish.

He sat up grumpily, rubbing his eyes. ‘What was that blasted row?’

‘Which one?’ I said guiltily. ‘There’s lots going on.’

He listened for a moment and then lay down again growling. But I didn’t intend to let him sleep. ‘Did you hear about the booby-traps in the Boche lines?’

‘Um!’

‘You know Sullivan found several in Halle?’–no answer.

‘How long do they usually delay before exploding?’–silence. I paused a bit and then asked timorously, ‘I say, Billy, can you hear a curious ticking?’

He pulled the coat from off his head and said ‘You bloody fool,’ and snuggled down again.

I was hurt by that, for I felt that nobody cared if I was blown up, so I resolved myself to die like a martyr and then when we met in the afterworld I could say to Kentish ‘I told you so!’ The consideration of this possibility rather cheered me, and casting aside my fears I fell asleep.

This brings us, more or less, into today, a century back.

I do not know how long I slept, but it must have been a couple of hours. I dreamt that I was lying there asleep, all being horribly quiet except for the drop of water and the wind. Suddenly through the rain and darkness appeared a huge figure stealing across the courtyard to the grating above me. he was muffled up in a great grey coat and spiked helmet. I struggled to wake Kentish and to shout, but I was powerless. I saw him take a bomb from under his coat, a smoking bomb, and slip it into the chimney. With a frantic struggle I overcame my paralysis and sat up shouting as a metallic sliding sound came from the chimney. Waiting for the explosion, I sat staring into the darkness with that apathy that comes when fear has passed its bounds.

But nothing more happened. Kentish slumbered on…

The night continues in a proto-Lovecraftian vein, and, appropriately enough, perhaps, in the morning we get our second sight of one of the weird masterpieces of nihilistic German humor:

Near the centre of the square, an iron paling surrounded a stone pedestal, from which the statue had been removed. I walked over to it, wondering what statue had been there, then I stopped–sickened by the sight of a body impaled on the iron spike. In a Frenchman’s blue uniform, gaily bedecked with ribbons, he hung with arms extended along the railing, his head hanging down on to his bright-buttoned chest, and his legs dangling.

Sick with horror but impelled by curiosity I went nearer, and saw some straw sticking out at the knee. Then I peered into the face–a black grinning mask–and saw that it was a realistic dummy. Nevertheless, in the eerie half-light, with the flicker of flames on that scene of devastation, it was a gruesome spectacle…

The German notice board on the ruins of the Peronne town hall

There is, as a matter of fact, direct photographic evidence of this particular act of desecration, available here.

And the next bit–already familiar to us from Carrington’s account, can be seen at the right:

Reapproaching the town hall I saw, fastened to its side wall, an enormous blue notice board–‘Nicht ärgern nur wundern!’–‘Do not be angry, only be surprised’. This in letters a foot deep.

 

Is it surprising, then, to find that Vaughan will not be sleeping well tonight, either? They are bedding down, now, in a quarry in what, for the moment, is the British reserve line.

…I was keen to know what cover we should take in case of shelling. He [Billy Kentish] answered abruptly, ‘There isn’t any cover,’ and blew his candle out…

‘Was that ours or theirs?’ I asked.

‘Ours now!’ And there was an impatient turn and snuggle.

Another thud! ‘How far away was that?’ No answer. It made me worse to think that he was going to sleep to leave me to face the danger alone. So I asked him: ‘I say, if a shell got us, would it hit the top of the quarry first, or drop straight in?’

At that he sat up in bed. ‘You are a windy young b—– Vaughan! You’ve got to chance it wherever you are, so for God’s sake shut up and go to sleep.’

I did shut up, but though thoroughly ashamed, I was still windy… At last, however, the lack of sleep on the previous night did its work and I slept peacefully…[3]

 

C.E. Montague may be the temperamental opposite of Edwin Vaughan: Montague is a fearless, practical, politic, hard-driving, modest rationalist… which does not mean he is not subject to melancholy. He had wanted–despite his age, his obvious fitness for an officer’s job, and his journalistic skills–to be an ordinary soldier in the trenches. But his age and his health–he turned 50 on New Year’s Day, and had proved too susceptible to infection–led to his being kicked upstairs to the dubious duty of greasing the wheels of the propaganda machine from a chateau well behind the lines.

That he’s an officer now, and can, at least, scare the daylights our of his touring V.I.P.s by bringing them too close to the line, sometimes seems like small consolation. A rare excerpt from his diary of today gives us some insight into how a reflective soul and a sharp mind near both the sinews of the army’s power and the engine of its self-misrepresentation feels about the German withdrawal:

Chateau de Rollencourt, 10.15 p .m., March 19, 1917

A year ago to-day I marched away from the front with my battalion, soon to leave it.

To-night I sit in an oil-lamp-lit room in a chateau, of 1770 perhaps. A log fire burns brightly in a big open, fenderless hearth, with little noises of hissing and crackling in the damp wood and the dry.

Outside an equinoctial gale is pressing on the house and whining and sniffing.

From the line E. of Arras-Nesle comes news at short intervals of further German retirements, of villages blazing in the Eastern sky at night, of cavalry entering empty villages, of aeroplanes bringing back word of the cavalry’s progress.

The big room is dark outside the zones of fire-light and lamp-light.

Five minutes ago the motor-cyclist despatch-rider came from G.H.Q. with our letters and to-day’s London papers. In a few minutes he will go into the night silence again, with my letter to M. and the other letters. Now and then a train can be heard on the railway to Arras, 300 yards off, doubled this winter for our advance, which the German retreat must be intended to baffle.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Boden, F.W. Harvey, Soldier, Poet, 125-59.
  2. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 99-100.
  3. Some Desperate Glory, 53-62.
  4. Elton, C.E. Montague, 156-7.