A Madonna of the Trenches

Rudyard Kipling was three things: a prodigious storyteller, a problematic political figure, and too old to fight in the Great War. (He was many other things, it’s true, but I do like to hew to the main argument, once in a while.)

So it is only a venial violation of the rules against post-century-back peeking to note that Kipling will survive the war, and write about it. But that writing–the two volumes of the History of the Irish Guards in the Great War, as well as a number of short stories–will still be overshadowed by death. By the millions of combat dead around the world, the nearly a million British dead, the many hundreds of officers and men of the Irish guards, but, more than any of them, by the death of Kipling’s only son, Jack, while serving in that Regiment. The work is a memorial of sorts, but it also stretches toward a less well-lighted exploration of grieving. Several stories–including the incomparable “The Janeites“–are set in a rather peculiar Masonic lodge, where men come together for ritual and for learning, and to talk through the experiences that haunt them. The story takes place at about the time of its composition–several years after the war, when Kipling was researching and writing the histories, and steeping himself in the lives of the two Guards battalions.

“A Madonna of the Trenches” is strange, fascinating, and–depending upon your taste and Kipling-appreciation-tendencies–either a strangely double-filtered and portentously spooky story or a harrowing spine-tingler that crosses over from mere frisson to real tragedy. The story involves traumatic trench horrors, doomed love, suicide, a ghostly visitation, an obnoxiously masterful doctor, and the misery of a soldier, standing in for so many surviving soldiers, who is condemned to perpetually recall both the many ways that the trenches can kill a man, and the ways they keep the dead literally unquiet. But why continue to crib from an able summary and discussion which is available online?

One of the many “controversial”–which is, I think, here, only to say “not easy to settle”–aspects of the story is the significance of the date of the main (past) action of the tale, a date which is mentioned several times during the story. It’s today, a century back, which is also St. Agnes’s day, and, as such, may may refer to a poem by Keats (whom Sassoon is reading about just now) concerning star-crossed lovers both like and unlike the ones in the story.

The events of the story do not seem to have any direct connection to the factual action of the war or the experiences of the Irish Guards on this January 21st–but there’s the date in the text, plain as plain, nevertheless. Did I recently recommend reading a huge four-book Modernist novel just because an apparently haphazardly-chosen January 1918 date appears in it? That was silly… don’t do that

But do read this story–just a yarn, just a ghost story that revets its pathos with the horrors of the trenches. And also, just maybe, a short story of real affective power… What happened, in that trench, today, a century back?

“A Madonna of the Trenches” is available online here, at the website of the Kipling Society.


Siegfried Sassoon is Blighty Bound… and Eighteen Other Updates

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

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

April 17

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

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

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

Things to remember

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Dear Buxton,

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

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

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

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

Dear Mrs. Hermon,

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

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

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

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

Yours very sincerely,

H.E. Trevor[4]


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

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

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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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

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

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

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


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


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

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


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


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

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

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

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


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


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

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


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


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

April 17, 1917

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

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

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

And in his diary:

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


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

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


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

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


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

It was rather vile of me…

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

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

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

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

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


References and Footnotes

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

Robert Graves Saves the Day… or the Day, at Least, Has Been Saved; Edward Thomas and Siegfried Sassoon Are for the Birds; Richard Aldington Reads Frederic Manning; Edmund Blunden Blushes to His Boots; a Strange New Job for Charles Moncrieff

A six-writer-day today, but never fear: they’re mostly writing pithily.

First, it would seem that today, a century back, was the day that the raid of the 2/RWF was officially postponed. Dr. Dunn’s battalion chronicle confirms that the battalion has long resisted the bad plan, the likely waste of men, and the impossibility of digging in in ground that is awash in mud on the surface yet still frozen beneath. What the chronicle neglects to mention is that Robert Graves was the temporary CO during the last conference on the raid–in fact, Captain Graves is not mentioned at all, and, therefore, does not feature as the hero of the hour.

Instead, we get circumstantial confirmation today of the next milestone in Graves’s career. In Good-Bye to All That Graves notes a long night’s work, soon after his appearance at the raid conference, which ended in exhaustion and a diagnosis–from the very same writing Dr. Dunn who did not dwell upon his temporary command–of bronchitis. On the way out to the hospital, Graves sees a dead man–a suicide: “the miserable weather and fear of the impending attack were responsible for his death.”[1] Dunn confirms that on the 22nd the 2/RWF came out of the line and “one man had committed suicide” while over 130 had to be hospitalized for illnesses related to the weather.

So, while he doesn’t have the date to give in his memoir, it was therefore today, a century back, when Graves, relieved of his very temporary command, was one of the men sent down the line sick. It will be a long journey away for Graves, heading first for No. 8 hospital, Rouen, but not ending there…

And there is one more brutal note: one of the battalions of the relieving brigade inherited the poorly planned, postponed raid. When they launched it, “all went well until the raiders rose to their feet to make the assault, then they were raked by machine-guns and got no further.”[2]

No, no, one more note, before we leave the Royal Welch: today, a century back, the 2/RWF welcomed–perhaps not officially in exchange for Captain Graves, “a fine white goat from the Wynnstay Hills,” a gift from the reserve battalion back in Britain… Battalion parades have been sadly lacking in ceremony for quite some time, and will now be better fitted to honor Regimental Tradition…


I’ve been missing bashful Edmund Blunden, and there’s an anecdote that can be matched with today (via the Battalion Diary) which shows him at his bashfullest…

A thaw came on, and dirty rainstorms swept the bleak village ends. I felt how lucky I was to have received almost at that moment a pair of new and ponderous Wellingtons, though my size in boots was different; and in these I worked with Worley on a new plan for putting up barbed wire in a hurry, which we had ourselves pencilled out. The Divisional General rode by one morning as we were beginning, with our squad of learners, and when he returned we had put up quite a maze of rusty inconvenience. The good old Duke — no, the General — called me all trepidant to him, smiled, asked my age and service, liked the wire, and passed into the village. At lunch Harrison also smiled upon me. “Rabbit, I hear you were wiring this morning. . . . The General said you surprised him. He asked me, ‘Who was that subaltern in the extraordinary boots, Harrison? Well, he got up that wire very quick. We went down the street, and there wasn’t a yard of it: we came back and there was a real belt.’ — You’ve found another friend.” He began to laugh very heartily as he added: “Those boots, Rabbit!” This painful memory must be exorcised by being noted here. I presented my batman shortly afterward with a pair of new jack-boots.[3]


Edward Thomas and Siegfried Sassoon are separated by eight years of age that, due to their different family circumstances, seem like twenty-five; one is–or could be, were it not for the war–a carefree youth, while the other is a long-burdened family man. They are very different in outlook, temperament, and artistic commitment… despite a few friends and acquaintances in common it’s hard to imagine them getting along very well at all.

But they are both poets of a traditional bent, both have always spent a great deal of time outdoors, and both are in France and yet away from their units and stuck in big impersonal situations (Thomas on temporary assignment as an orderly officer with a larger unit, Sassoon quarantined in Rouen’s huge base camp with measles). Both are pining for home–or action–and spring. And so their diaries, today, make for an uncomfortably close antiphony.

Sassoon: “My fifth night in this squalid little ‘compound’… Four of my fellow patients play cards all day; their talk is all the dullest obscenity.”

Thomas: “Cold and wet… Office work and maps. Court of Inquiry on gassing of 4 men. Am I to stay on here and do nothing but have cold feet…?”

So far, so similar. Sassoon is more histrionic, more misanthropic (for Thomas, despair is too serious a thing to leave at the mercy merely of uncongenial company) and keyed up to protest, while Thomas has yet to experience combat or intense danger, and does not associate his unit with an ideal of world-defying fellowship.

So Sassoon complains a bit more–and has more time on his hands to complain–and the rest of his diary entry for today rails against the stupidity (now a favorite word of Sassoon’s) of the war, the reduction of the soldier from “a noble figure” to “a writhing insect,” and the pointlessness of religion. Which eventually becomes a bit much even for Sassoon, and so he acknowledges that he is frustrated and angry, and writes that “such things come from a distempered brain: an infantry officer only sees the stupidest side of the War:”

Distempered indeed:

Yet I should loathe the very idea of returning to England without having been scarred and tortured once more. I suppose all this ‘emotional experierice’ (futile phrase) is of value. But it leads nowhere now (but to madness).

It’s very bad: Sassoon also quotes Conrad twice. And ironic, of course, that the 2/RWF, the unit to which he will be assigned once his measles are gone, was almost in action today–an action in which they would have been more like insects than heroes.

Thomas, in Arras, is pithier: “What is to be done?”

The complaints are only roughly parallel, but the two poets’ searchings for solace in today’s diary entries are very similar–they look to the birds. Thomas:

No thrushes, yet, but a chaffinch says “Chink” in the chestnut in our garden…[4]

And Sassoon:

There are miles of pine-woods on one side of the camp; I went a walk among the quiet sterns yesterday… The silence, and the clean air did me good… I can see God among the pine trees where birds are flitting and chirping.[5]

But for Sassoon–an infantry officer, as he reminds us–the straight line from birds to spring does not describe an uplifting course: spring means the Spring Offensive. Nevertheless, these poets are for the birds, and tomorrow they will remain closely attuned.


Richard Aldington wrote again to F.S. Flint today, and once again we find that while infantrymen suffer the casual cruelty of shelling, they are better positioned than most to administer the casual critical cruelty of criticism: a man who carries all his belongings makes serious choices when he chooses to read, or to withhold the space for reading. Aldington is yet to see the front line, and so he presumably has at least some time to read, and though he must carry his pack, he isn’t stripping it down to the barest trench-essentials…

The good news is that he has read a fellow Imagist, and a fellow Writer That We Read… the bad news for this letter’s recipient is that it’s not his best pal Franky Flint.

My dear Franky,

If I wished to torment you I could invent all sorts of terrifying yarns about the fate of your m.s. You are too sensitive about it. And in any case, know that I respect always poems & H.D.’s letters. Your manuscript is in my pack & will remain there until it is crushed by many route marches, when I will solemnly devote it to Vulcan…

Ah but Aldington is only twitting Flint, here. He has just written that he read and liked the poems; this letter, evidently, is gentle mockery for Flint’s having inquired too soon, showing anxiety before the appreciative return-letter could possibly reach him.

You fill me with nostalgia when you speak of your evenings with Yeats, discussing Claudel & Peguy & Gide. Why man alive, I could talk with battalions & battalions of men & not find one who had ever heard of Claudel or even of Yeats…

Have you seen Manning’s poems? You don’t mention them, so I imagine you haven’t. Some of them are really fine, some quite good, & a residue rotten; but there is enough good stuff in the book to make it quite worth while. You must get a copy when it comes out…[6]

Yes; Frederic Manning’s biography (in both senses) is such that I have more or less missed the writing and publication of his poems. Aldington mentioned the book in that recent letter (and he surely does rate the poetry above Flint’s) but it is striking that Manning, who moved in the literary world before the war but has had a checkered career in the army, somehow managed to get Eidola (1917) published early this year, when he spent most of the autumn on the Somme. But then again Ivor Gurney is attempting the same feat…


Finally, today, a brief update from Charles Scott Moncrieff:

22nd February, 1917

. . . A new and strange job. I relieved Campbell Johnson last night in the Command of a Prisoners of War Company and am in a very comfortable little hut with tables and chairs, china plates, a lamp, etc. Near my hut is a large cage containing 500 Germans—who do the most amazing amount of work in various ways, and seem clean and good and docile.[7]

A strange job indeed, but the comfort will matter: whether commanding the prisoners or returning to hospital[8] when his illness flares up, Moncrieff will have a great deal of time to himself. While our poets in the trenches struggle to commit anything to writing, he will be able to further the work he did during his leave in establishing himself as a critic and essayist.


References and Footnotes

  1. Good-Bye to All That, 242-3.
  2. The War the Infantry Knew, 299-300.
  3. Undertones of War, 146.
  4. War Diaries, (Childhood), 163.
  5. Diaries, 133-4.
  6. Imagist Dialogues, 190-1.
  7. Diaries, 125.
  8. Scott Moncrieff's poor health, although he bears it stoically in his letters, might be looked upon as essential preparation for the major work he will one day take up...

Edward Thomas Explains Himself Prosily to Robert Frost, and Digs in Deeper in Verse; Edward Hermon Sketches a Bomb; Private Lord Crawford Speculates on Suicide

Hermon letterEdward Hermon included two sketches in his letter to his wife today, a century back. One shows a rather dodgy sort of stick-grenade that is “manufactured locally.” The other–“a great favourite as it isn’t alight until after it has been thrown”–looks like the new Mills bomb. “The others are all alight or dangerous in your hand…”

Yes indeed! This sort of illustrated candor–from a bombing instructor who has already had two close calls–must qualify as an unusually blatant new form of bad-luck baiting.[1]


Over the last few weeks we have watched Edward Thomas‘s slow, heavy-footed approach to a decision. He has enlisted. But the actual making of the decision has remained strangely hidden–a black box in the heart of a man who is a prolific friend and writer and yet remains stubbornly private. Not only does he nurse his melancholy but he throws his reasoning eyes away from the bitter alchemies by which impossible decisions are finally made. This avoidance allows him–thankfully–to approach the deep places obliquely, as a poet should. But it also leaves us in the dark.

Today, however, a century back, he makes his one great effort. He’s writing to Frost, and thus we have every reason to believe that he is harrowing himself to tell the truth. He tells us that he would have chosen escape if he could–farming, writing, no England and no war–if success could have been assured. But it might not have paid:

22. vii 15

My dear Robert,

Your letter of July 8 makes rather sore reading for me now, sitting in the king’s uniform in the rain with a bad heel. That is how it began. Six hours drill & a heavy boot pressing on the big tendon. They say it is not hopeless. It is not my idea of pleasure, but I do want to go right through. My idea of pleasure would be getting in ‘head first up to my ankles in (farm) filth & hard work.’

But it was too pleasant. I really couldn’t imagine it leading to a living. I would plough & hoe & reap & sow & be a farmer’s boy, but without any certainty & not the smallest private means I couldn’t set out as you did. It isn’t in me. Of course I know I shouldn’t starve & that that is all I can say of literary life here. I could not ask my father for anything. He has no more than he needs. Tho it is true that he & my mother have more or less undertaken to look after my family if——–

Yes, “if.” So–and this is perhaps too obvious and too unavoidable for Thomas himself to remark upon it–there is an unavoidable core here of male pride. He would not starve; his children will not starve. It would only be a crushing, emasculating embarrassment were he–still living–to fail so utterly at farming and writing that his father must step in to support his children. But the army will pay him–once he obtains a commission–a decent salary.

This question of financial independence goes almost unsaid, but the honesty otherwise is striking–“it isn’t in me.” It’s not, in the end, a question of ability; it’s a question of confidence, of effort, of belief, of hope.

But he still yearns. The quotations from “The Farmer’s Boy” are very nice and all, but they underscore the point: he’s a writing naturalist and an avid gardener–but a working farmer?

Then Thomas, the burden shifted, moves back into the mode of hopeful futurity. An irony, since he is most excellent when he broods on the past while so many of our once-hopeful young soldiers–worn down by attrition in the trenches–are now beginning to shed that same buoyant futurity and brood instead what they have lost.

But try & forgive me everything by thinking what an asset I shall be in summer camp if I have been in the trenches as well as at Oxford. I believe you know that to find myself living near you & not working for editors would be better than anything I ever did & better than I dare expect. There is no one to keep me here except my mother. She might come too. But I couldn’t in this present mess pack up & get born again in New Hampshire[.] I couldn’t have before I too the King’s shilling. Now of course I have to wait till the war’s over.

But it is hopeless writing about these things, & I haven’t talked about them since you went…

A month or two [ago] I dreamt we were walking near Ledington but we lost one another in a strange place & I woke saying to myself ‘somehow someday I shall be here again’ which I made the last line of some verses

Your ever,

Edward Thomas[2]

So Edward Thomas himself has pointed us back to his poetry.

He has always been a man interested in nature, in being close to the literal, physical ground, the good English earth. So perhaps it’s unfair to see a desire to refute Brooke‘s sentimentalized and sacrificial poeticizing of “forever England” lurking in every turn of the soil. Still, it’s notable that, yesterday, he drew a second poem from a notebook jotting–a few months old–on “Digging:”

What matter makes my spade for tears or mirth,
Letting down two clay pipes into the earth?
The one I smoked, the other a soldier
Of Blenheim, Ramillies, and Malplaquet
Perhaps. The dead man’s immortality
Lies represented lightly with my own,
A yard or two nearer the living air
Than bones of ancients who, amazed to see
Almighty God erect the mastodon,
Once laughed, or wept, in this same light of day.

It’s as if his much-bemoaned labor on a quickie biography of the Duke of Marlborough–those are his famous battles, in the fourth line–has been allowed to yield up a single slight contribution to the writer’s real effort. Such a poem is–for Thomas–surprisingly sentimental, and somewhat simple.

Perhaps. But it is strong, too. Terse and unyielding. Like an English soldier. Like Hardy. This is a tiny Satire of Circumstance, too, one too easy to pass over. But look at where it is situated! The new soldier buries his pipe, and aligns himself, solemnly and patriotically, with the stout heroes of England’s past. But real poets don’t fail to scratch beneath their shallow graves. Beneath are the ancients, the vanished beasts of prehistoric world.

I don’t know. The light of day is the same, but oh, the world is old. This is not a cheerful “immortality.”

This second “Digging” is but the first of a sharp little trio of poems occasioned by the beginning of his military service (and enabled by his immediate injury, which gave him the leisure to write.)

Today he wrote “Two Houses,” another melancholy memory poem, in which a picturesque scene of a riverside house is overlaid (or underlaid) with a vision of an ancient house that had stood there before, a sort of corpse upon which this present pleasantness uneasily rests. This is yet another “poem of departure for war… Thomas’s symbolic abodes split down the middle, into ‘sunny’ and dark’, as if The Manor Farm and The Combe were clamped together.”[3]

A good reading, and surely the right one–picking up as it does on the straightforward intent-to-dichotomize. Ah, but poetry, complexity…  is it too straightforward? Could Thomas be knowingly setting up a hollow comparison–English Picturesque and English Romantic faux-ruins–and implying that he fears his soldiering may bring out a vein of easy, trite poetry? Symmetry and England!


Speaking of which, the good Lord Crawford now reflects on becoming the humblest sort of laborer. First though, a rumination on some of the different ways in which officers and men react to combat stress. I’m not sure about this particular assumption, but–despite the fact that we should take Lindsay’s enormous condescension with more than a few grains of salt–there will be indeed be a surprising “class” distinction in the (observed) behavior of “shell shocked” officers and men.

Thursday, 22 July 1915

There is always a morbid curiosity about operating rooms–ours has no locks and It is moreover used as a passageway between the main building and the dining room. People going to and fro are apt to be mischievous, and need one add, import dirt on their boots. Then again it is essential that the broken-nerved patient should be prevented from messing about in rooms where there are instruments or poisons.

There have been many suicides among officers–few among the rank and file. It is not that the officers are more neurotic than then men–but the fundamental difference is that the rank and file on entering hospital find themselves on improved rations. The comfort of the stomach revives, cheers, consoles and encourages him–even those suffering from terrific wounds rejoice in their victuals if it be only beef tea.The officer does not enjoy this inducement to struggle for life. So his depression is more acute and sad cases are relatively far more frequent.

The man we operated on for the bullet wound in the thigh died early this morning–such a nice, young fellow and with a beautiful face. I should like to write to his mother. I wonder if he has one. He died of a secondary haemorrhage.

Put on my new uniform tonight–my old one is rapidly becoming a disgrace. But working as a porter, painter, artisan and scullery maid does take the shine out of one’s clothes.[4]


References and Footnotes

  1. For Love and Courage, 70-1.
  2. Elected Friends, 82-3.
  3. Longley, The Annotated Collected Poems, 255.
  4. Private Lord Crawford, 27-28.

Wilfred Owen Observes a Prime Minister in Free Fall; Robert Graves Writes His First Night in the Trenches

The liberal government headed by H.H. Asquith–father of Oc and Violet, who were close friends to Rupert Brooke in his last months–is tottering. The failure of the Dardanelles campaign will soon claim Churchill, and the shell shortage in France–a serious problem, but one of many faced by a mercantile empire with a welter-weight army that leapt unprepared into a continental conflagration–has been amplified by the press to super-scandal proportions (very modern indeed). Confidence in a quick and glorious Germany over upstart Germany had been high, and it has now been thoroughly disappointed–someone needs to pay a price. The now ubiquitous “Keep Calm and Carry On” is decades away from becoming an all-conquering British catch-phrase, and while that general sentiment was certainly strong, it is warring now (so to speak) with another stereotypical British mood, namely a seething affrontedness at bad service. One can only look the other way so long before having to throw down one’s napkin/shaving towel and sack the blunderers. And soon they shell–er,  shall.

(The remarkable thing, really, is not that the top military and civilian leaders are now being changed–Fisher has left, the cabinet is being shaken up now, and Sir John French will be out in December–but that there will not be another wholesale change again for the duration.)

Strangely, our closest witness to all this is the former aspiring student, former aspiring priest, and recent English-teaching French expatriate Wilfred Owen. He recently arrived in London today,[1] a century back, in part to represent associates of his French employers at a trade fair. But he was also planning to visit his family, and to take the measure of England in wartime…

Owen kept his mother informed of his doings in a postcard and then a letter sent later in the week.

I just got my Ticket (a matter of much bus-riding and lift-climbing) then went to the great meeting in Guildhall, of which you already read in papers. To hear Mr. Asquith on a day like this was a unique thing! Bonar-Law [a leader of the opposition Tories] spoke too… I think I saw Rudyard Kipling!

The public was not admitted but I got my ticket without trouble. I feel intensely happy in dear London!

Your W.E.O.[2]

Owen, then, will be one of the last to witness Asquith as Prime Minister.

(And we will not be so foolish here–though it’s tempting!–to make a big deal out of a possible path-crossing between Kipling and Owen. It’s a bit too early to pass the torch of war poetry, anyway…)


Late last night Robert Graves, newest temporary platoon officer of the Welsh Regiment, had reached the line. At company headquarters, where he “had expected a grizzled veteran with a breastful of medals” he met another nineteen-year-old, “one of the fellowship of ‘only survivors.'”

This is Graves, writing an intermittently fictionalizing memoir which he “stupidly” first drafted as a novel only to “re-translate it into history.” So we must be on our guard for tall-tales and composites[3]–but, alas, there is nothing impossible in the figure of a young captain commanding as the only unwounded officer left in his battalion.

Dunn did not let the War affect his morale at all. He greeted me very easily with: ‘Well, what’s the news from England? Oh, sorry, first I must introduce you. This is Walker—clever chap from Cambridge, fancies himself as an athlete. This is Jenkins, one of those elder patriots who chucked up their jobs to come here. This is Price—joined us yesterday, but we liked him at once: he brought some damn good whiskey with him. Well, how long is the War going to last, and who’s winning?’

The very model of a young man’s model of a dashing experienced-innocent man-boy hero.

Graves’s next line, though similarly slick, is acute:

I told them about the War, and asked them about the trenches.

This nicely hits another central irony of their condition: being of the war–in the trenches–precludes knowing much about it. One is too low down–figuratively/organizationally as well as topographically–to have a view of the larger strategy, and all news from those parts of the war distant enough to be out of earshot comes first as rumor, is then only “confirmed” a day or two slower than it hits the London newsagents, and is thereafter still widely (and wisely) doubted.

‘About trenches,’ said Dunn. ‘Well, we don’t know as much about trenches as the French do, and not near as much as Fritz does. Our time-table is: breakfast at eight o’clock in the morning, clean trenches and inspect rifles, work all morning; lunch at twelve, work again from one till about six, when the men feed again. “Stand-to” at dusk for about an hour, work all night, “stand-to” for an hour before dawn. That’s the general program. Then there’s sentry-duty. The men do two-hour sentry spells, then work two hours, then sleep two hours. At night, sentries are doubled, so working-parties are smaller. We officers are on duty all day, and divide up the night into three-hourly watches.’ He looked at his wrist-watch…

Time we all got to work. Look here, Graves, you lie down and have a doss on that bunk. I want you to take the watch before “stand-to”. I’ll wake you up and show you round. Where the hell’s my revolver? I don’t like to go out without it. Hello, Walker, what was wrong?’

Exit Dunn the Dashing. I just realized that I was thinking along these lines, but it is, of course, Paul Fussell who makes the point that Graves’s method is intensely dramatic. Memoir or novel, it reads in many places like a play, or perhaps a staged variety show.

When they went out, I rolled up in my blanket and fell asleep. Dunn woke me at about one o’clock.’Your watch,’ he said. I jumped out of the bunk with a rustle of straw; my feet were sore and clammy in my boots. I was cold, too.

This would bring us, then, in the memoir/novel/play’s chronology, to early this morning, a century back. But here I should dutifully spoil our fun by citing a diligent biographer:

…Robert admits [that today’s events are part of] a ‘reconstituted chapter’ of what was first written as an autobiographical novel. Thus in reality, on his first night he slept until stand-to, and did not take a watch at all; the incidents attributed to this mythical first watch… are no doubt a composite of various experiences during the next few days.[4]

Still, let’s see what that fictionalized-eternal first night was like:

‘Here’s the rocket-pistol and a few flares. Not a bad night. It’s stopped raining. Put your equipment on over your raincoat or you won’t be able to get at your revolver. Got a torch? Good. About this flare business. Don’t use the pistol too much. We haven’t many flares, and if there’s an attack we will want as many as we can get. But use it if you think that there is something doing. Fritz is always sending up flare lights, he’s got as many as he wants.’

He showed me round the line. The battalion frontage was about eight hundred yards. Each company held two hundred of these with two platoons in the front line and two platoons in the support line about a hundred yards back.

Dunn introduced me to the platoon sergeants, more particularly to Sergeant Eastmond of the platoon to which I was posted. He asked Sergeant Eastmond to give me any information that I wanted, then went back to sleep, telling me to wake him up at once if anything was wrong. I was left in charge of the line. Sergeant Eastmond was busy with a working-party, so I went round by myself…

The sentries stood on the fire-step at the corners of the traverses, stamping their feet and blowing on their fingers. Every now and then they peered over the top for a few seconds. Two parties, each of an N.C.O. and two men, were out in the company listening-posts, connected with the front trench by a sap about fifty yards long. The German front line was about three hundred yards beyond them. From berths hollowed in the sides of the trench and curtained with sandbags came the grunt of sleeping men. I jumped up on the fire-step beside the sentry and cautiously raising my head stared over the parapet. I could see nothing except the wooden pickets supporting our protecting barbed-wire entanglement and a dark patch or two of bushes beyond. The darkness seemed to move and shake about as I looked at it; the bushes started travelling singly at first, then both together. The pickets were doing the same. I was glad of the sentry beside me; his name, h told me, was Beaumont. ‘They’re quiet to-night, sir,’ h said, ‘a relief going on; I think so, surely.’ I said: ‘It’ funny how those bushes seem to move.’ ‘Aye, they do play queer tricks. Is this your first spell in trenches, sir?’ German flare shot up, broke into bright flame, dropped slowly and went hissing into the grass just behind our trench, showing up the bushes and pickets. Instinctively I moved. ‘It’s bad to do that, sir,’ he said, as a rifle bullet cracked and seemed to pass right between us. ‘Keep still sir, and they can’t spot you. Not but what a flare is a bad thing to have fall on you. I’ve seen them burn a hole in man.’

I spent the rest of my watch in acquainting myself with the geography of the trench- section, finding how easy it was to get lost among cul-de-sacs and disused alleys. Twice I overshot the company frontage and wandered among the Munsters on the left. Once I tripped and fell with a splash into deep mud. At last my watch was ended with the first signs of dawn. I passed the word along the line for the company to stand-to arms. The N.C.O’s whispered hoarsely into the dug-outs: ‘Stand-to, stand-to,’ and out the men tumbled with their rifles in their hands.

Alright. So this night, a century back, may be a composite. But it is still the “First Night in Trenches” of our Robert Graves. With what scene shall we choose to end it?

As I went towards company headquarters to wake the officers I saw a man lying on his face in a machine-gun shelter. I stopped and said: ‘Stand-to, there.’ I flashed my torch on him and saw that his foot was bare. The machine-gunner beside him said: ‘No good talking to him, sir.’ I asked: ‘What’s wrong? What’s he taken his boot and sock off for?’ I was ready for anything odd in the trenches. ‘Look for yourself. sir,’ he said. I shook the man by the arm and noticed suddenly that the back of his head was blown out.

The first corpse that I saw in France was this suicide. He had taken off his boot and sock to pull the trigger of his rifle with his toe; the muzzle was in his mouth. ‘Why did he do it?’ I said. ‘He was in the last push, sir, and that sent him a bit queer, and on top of that he got bad news from Limerick about his girl and another chap.’ He was not a Welshman, but belonged to the Munsters; their machine-guns were at the extreme left of our company. The suicide had already been reported and two Irish officers came up. ‘We’ve had two or three of these lately,’ one of them told me. Then he said to the other: ‘While I remember, Callaghan, don’t forget to write to his next-of-kin. Usual sort of letter, cheer them up, tell them he died a soldier’s death, anything you like. I’m not going to report it as suicide.’


References and Footnotes

  1. Very probably, but possibly yesterday as well.
  2. Collected Letters, 336-7.
  3. Which Dunn probably is--a cursory search did not turn up a plausible candidate, but Others Wiser may know who, if anyone in particular, he represents.
  4. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 343. R.P. Graves has some confusing arguments about what must have happened when in these next several days, but his general point that things were shifted around seems to make sense.