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

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

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

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

 

Gouzeaucourt: The Deceitful Calm

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

Roundel

(“Died of Wounds”)

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

February 1 (Limerick, Maine)

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

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

 

Idyll

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

February 1[4]

 

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

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

Max Gate, Dorchester, Feb 1. 1918.

My dear Clodd:

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

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

Sincerely yours,

Th. Hardy.[5]

 

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

Bateman’s
Burwash
Sussex

Feb. 1.1918.

Dear Colonel–

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

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

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

Very sincerely

Rudyard Kipling

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

 

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

The story begins with these memorable sentences:

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

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

 

References and Footnotes

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

Vera and Edward Brittain Share a Melancholy Leave; Rowland Feilding Spots a Pansy in Bloom

Vera Brittain has had a rough couple of weeks. Or, really, a rough week followed by a week of that bewildering mixture of joy and prospective fear, love and looming loss, that characterizes a leave shared with loved ones. Better, really, that she tell the tale:

On January 12th, a hard, bitter morning, a telegram suddenly arrived from Edward: “Just got leave. Can you get it too?” I went at once to the humane Scottish “Red-cape” who had succeeded the Matron of the autumn; I had been in France for nearly six months, and she told me that she would put in for my leave immediately. In a day or two my orders came through, and I packed up and started for England.

As I was too late for that afternoon’s boat I had to spend the night in Boulogne, where I scarcely slept for a burning head and a dull ache all over my body. Next morning a very rough and prolonged crossing made me feel so ill that I hardly knew how to bear it, and as the freezing train from Folkestone did nothing to aid my recovery, I reached Kensington in a state of collapse very different from the triumphant return from Malta. Edward, who had arrived from Italy four days earlier, had gone to Victoria to meet me, but in the crowd and the dark confusion we had some- how missed each other.

Fortified by a large dose of aspirin from Edward’s medical case, I went to bed at once, but woke next morning with a temperature of 103 degrees, and for several days had such high fever that the London doctor thought I should be obliged to overstay my leave. The particular “bug” that had assailed me was difficult to locate, but was obviously a form of “P.U.O.” or trench fever not dissimilar from the Malta disease in 1916. Perhaps, indeed, that old enemy was reasserting itself, stimulated by overwork or by my fatigued failure to dry my bedclothes sufficiently one recent morning when I had come off duty to find them saturated by a snowstorm which had blown open my hut window during the night.

After a week of feverish misery I was thankful to find myself beginning to feel better. The aches and pains had been bad enough, but worst of all was the conscience-stricken sense that I had spoiled Edward’s leave and overburdened my mother. Her health was certainly none too good; with one indifferent maid she had felt her powers taxed to their limit by the care of the flat, and must have been driven neatly frantic by the simultaneous appearance of a sick daughter who needed quite careful nursing, and a vigorous son who continually demanded her society at concerts or urged her to accompany him in a newly acquired selection of violin sonatas.

As soon as my temperature went down it seemed like a pleasant dream to have Edward once more beside me, telling me stories of the journey to Italy, and describing the grey rocks and dark pine forests of the Asiago Plateau. But by the time that I was able to go out, rather shakily holding his arm, only three days of his leave were left, and all that we could manage to achieve alone were two theatres and a few hours of Bach and Beethoven.

Our short time together, so long anticipated and so much discussed in letters, had been completely upset by my absurd illness, and on January 25th, almost before we had talked of anything, he was obliged to go back. I had missed so much of his society that I broke my resolution to avoid stations and saw him into the return leave-train for Italy at Waterloo; I compromised with superstition by leaving the platform before the train went out. At the flower-stall on the station he bought me a large bunch of the year’s first Parma violets, and though we did not mention it, we both thought of a verse in the song “Sweet Early Violets,” which he had bought for his gramophone in Italy and played over to me at home:

Farewell! Farewell!
Tho’ I may never see your face again.
Since now we say “good-bye!”
Love still will live, altho ’ it live in vain,
Tho’ these, tho’ these, my gift, will die!

How handsome he is now, I thought, but so grave and mature; it’s obviously an ageing business to become a company commander at twenty-one. Dear Edward, shall we ever be young again, you and I? It doesn’t seem much like it; the best years are gone already, and we’ve lost too much to stop being old, automatically, when the War stops — if it ever does.

If it ever does! The journey back from Waterloo, in a chilly Tube train, had a quality of wretchedness that no words can convey, though I had now said good-bye at stations so often that I had long outgrown the disintegrating paralysis which followed the first farewell to Roland in March 1915. I couldn’t help asking myself for the hundredth time if I should ever see Edward again, but the sorrow of parting had become almost a mechanical sorrow; like the superhuman achievements of ward rushes after convoys, it was an abnormality which had been woven into the fabric of daily life. I no longer even wondered when the War would end, for I had grown incapable of visualising the world or my own existence without it.

At home a flat dejection pervaded everything now that Edward was gone, and I firmly resisted the suggestion that I should use my semi-invalid weakness as an excuse to apply for extension of leave. The universal topics of maids and ration-cards now so completely dominated the conversation in every household that I felt quite glad when my own fortnight was up four days later, and I could return from food-obsessed England to France.[1]

 

And as for that war in France, Rowland Feilding reports on a mucky but quiet period, striving, as ever to bridge the gulf between home front and war that Vera Brittain feels so intensely, if only to stay connected with his wife.

January 25, 1918. Ronssoy

Things here are very tranquil. Indeed, the whole front seems quieter than it has been for years. Perhaps the weather accounts for it—and the mud of the trenches—which has to be seen to be believed. To-day has been sunny and warm, and I have seen a pansy in blossom in one of the devastated gardens among the ruins. This must have been a village of gardens once upon a time before the war.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Testament of Youth, 402-4.
  2. War Letters to a Wife, 248.

Olaf Stapledon Goes to Mass; Rowland Feilding Praises Courage Under Fire

There is a special pathos in following the conversation of Olaf Stapeldon and Agnes Miller, separated as it is by half the world, the long weeks it takes letters to traverse the distance, and the vagaries of wartime mail. Agnes has been having her doubts, recently, that their love can survive the long loneliness, but Olaf hasn’t learned of them yet. And before he does, her doubts have turned back to questions, which he will then have to answer.

It’s been hard (of course!) being separated for long years, with only letters to sustain them. And when Agnes sees young men going off to fight–or bright, brave young men like Olaf taking high-status roles as officers–her faith in his faith that a pacifist’s place is in the hard, humble duty of the Ambulance Corps wavers.

You see, conscription did not come here, so there was no need for him to go to prison. But just put yourself in his place in a free country like Australia. You need not go to war & you need not go to prison, but I don’t think you would be content if you lived here to go on with your daily work just as usual. I think you would have been drawn away to do Red Cross or relief work just as you have been doing. Would you not? If so I think you must be right in being there now. If you would not have gone, do you think it would have been more worthwhile to stick to your own work or to have joined the English C.O.s in their protest? Which?

This is a difficult hypothetical, and we must point out on Olaf’s behalf that he never had to make such a choice because he committed to the Friends’ Ambulance Unit long before conscription came to England, when his old classmates were joining the army in droves. And he has thought all this through, carefully, too…

But the conversation is months in arrears, and Olaf’s letter of the same day, a century back, is a colorful slice-of-life letter. And yet, like any wartime letter, it can hardly fail to address these questions of duty, suffering, principle, and motivation.

6 November 1917

It is a foggy, muddy November Sunday, and in our great rugger match this afternoon we shall get well plastered. These matches are a great institution; they give us something to talk about for a fortnight before the event and a fortnight afterwards. We discuss rugger as seriously as if it was the war. We estimate people’s respective merits. We tragically whisper that so and so is no use, you know.” We exclaim, with eyes round with adoration, that so and so is glorious. We rearrange the whole program of our work so as to enable The Team to be all off duty on the Day. In fact it is just like school…

Stapledon then tells us about a recent service at the local church. There is some condescension, here, from the well-bred English Quaker, about the ceremonies of rural French Catholicism… but as always with Stapledon, sympathy trumps whatever stiffness holds him back, and he is drawn in:

The other day was the French “Jour des Morts.” Some of us dressed up and went to church to represent the convoy. It was a little old church… packed with pale blue soldiers, and in the background were about four women in deep black. The service began in the ordinary way, and seemed lamentably unreal, insincere. The priest muttered and rang bells and waved his hands & did genuflexions, the intoning was very bad. Then came a solemn solo on some sort of hautbois, rather an improvement. Then, after more scampered chants, the band in the gallery began playing some fine stately piece or other. We all sat and listened and were rather strung up by it. Then came the sermon, a rather oratorical affair, and yet somehow sincere. He spoke very clearly, slowly, and with much gesture. He pictured the supreme sacrifice of Christ, the similar sacrifice of any man who dies avec les armes a la main, en se battant pour la France [in arms, fighting for France], or words to that effect. He described sympathetically the mud & misery of the trenches; and then urged men, if they ever felt inclined to give up the struggle, to remember devastated France who needed their help. He pictured the souls of the glorious dead enjoying heaven. And his last words were a moving summary of all the sufferings of France since the war began…

One felt as if the little church were some ship in a great storm, sweeping toward a fierce coast. One felt that the blue mariners, instead of pulling at ropes and sailing the ship, were praying to imaginary gods of the tempest. I don’t know. It was somehow terrible. One felt the awful fatal power of the world, and the littleness of men. Finally the band played Chopin’s dead march as people slowly moved out with wreaths for their friends’ graves. That nearly reduced some of us to tears, very much against our will. I can’t explain. There was something more than the obvious tragedy of human death about it, though indeed that is more than enough in itself, our blue soldiers, with their short-cropped black hair, and their matter-of-fact French faces. They had such a strange shamefaced way of crossing themselves, rather as if they suspected it was a foolish superstition but were determined to be on the safe side. They had seen hell all right but they did not know at all what heaven is…[1]

 

The only other piece today is almost a flash-forward. Rowland Feilding is neither a dreamer nor a pacifist, but he is, in another sense, what Olaf Stapledon hopes to be, namely an older married man, doing his duty, and keeping his beloved wife Edith as close as he can. Feilding has done more than any of our writers to hold to the plan of writing scrupulously honest and open letters to his wife, sparing her nothing.

But today there is a painful reversal, a vertigo at the edge of the experiential gulf: Feilding is safe in reserve, and his wife and children are in danger, in London. It’s a short letter, but it packs in love, a sort of befuddled proto-feminism, and the awkward tone of a husband/commander exhorting and commending his wife/subordinate from far away, in relative safety.[2]

I got your letter to-day, describing the air-raid, which interested me enormously and filled me with pride to think of you all joking at the bottom of the kitchen stairs.

I cannot tell you how much I admire the way in which you have handled this problem, forcing the children to look upon the air-raids as a game. It is splendid. The others will inevitably take their cue from you. Had you been a man you would have made an ideal soldier. Above all, I admire the way in which you have never woken the children till, in your opinion, the danger has become imminent. You are becoming a veteran now, and I have every faith in your leadership, and that it will carry you and the household through…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Talking Across the World, 254-6. Of all things--and allowing for the ten thousand miles separating the lovers--this scene recalls (or anticipates, rather) the Advent Evensong scene in Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow.
  2. He is probably not in "relative" safety; London was a big place and the raids did not kill very many compared to the constant bombardment even on quiet sectors of the rear areas in France and Belgium. Nevertheless, the thought that on some nights, at least, his family is in danger and he is not is strange and destabilizing...
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 223-4.

Edward Brittain Brings His Sister into the Salient; Lord Dunsany Returns to the Somme

Today we have an odd pair: two letters going the wrong way, as it were, letters written to our writers rather than from them. Ah, but there are connections! Of a sort!

First, we have a letter from Lady Dunsany dated today, a century back, thanking her husband for his recent letter from the front: “I have had many wonderful letters from you in my life but I really think the one from Amiens the best.”

It is pretty good indeed–not surprisingly, as it is one of the very few letters quoted in his biography (although with its own proper date, hence its placement here). The letter Lady Dunsany refers to must have been written a few days ago, a century back, and read today. It is a combination of the ruins-of-the-Somme description (of a piece with the Master of Belhaven‘s recent mini-masterpiece) and a tale of ironic proximity; a practical back-to-the-front piece and a bit of horror-tinged fantasy. The Vincent-Price-Reads-The-Bible tone and Romantic diction are pure Dunsany, who always likes to evoke a mood of supernatural fascination, is somewhat abashed to find that this tone/diction/mood fits the reality of what he sees so well. And, lest we be accused of insisting upon seeing a writer’s war-writing through the lens of his work in other genres, Lord Dunsany himself invokes fantasy illustrations–the greatest fantasy engraver of them all, as well as his own best illustrator–in order to indicate the effect he is striving for:

One of the blacker dreams of Sidney Sime, illustrator

What a changed town! …I came as it were as the connecting link between the battalion and the lights of London, as a missionary between the 20th century and the ancient abomination of desolation… For half my journey lay through the abomination of desolation, for the other half France smiled; and I noted that we have no way of knowing where we are, that it is autumn. Verily such a journey as I made this morning was never until recently made by man. Imagine Warerloo, Sebastopol, Ladysmith, Pompeii, Troy, Timgad, Tel el Kebir, Sodom and Gomorrah endlessly stretching one into the other; and twisted, bare, ghoulish trees leering downward at graves; and scenes very like Doré’s crucifixion and realities like the blackest dream of Sime; tanks lying with their noses pointing upwards still sniffing towards an enemy long since stiff or blown away in fragments like wounded rhinoceros’ dying. Imagine the wasted ruin of a famous hill that once dominated all this, now no more than a white mound with a few crosses on it, standing against the sky to show that Golgotha was once more with us. And over all this dreadful triumph of iron over man, and the spirit of man over iron, one feels that Nature is smiling softly to herself as she comes back with all her flowering children over villages that are no more than famous names and farms and roads and bridges that none can trace but those who remember them. At Albert in the Cathedral the desolation culminated, as though the Kaiser had knelt there before Satan to hear the Lord’s Prayer said backwards and receive the blessings of Hell, and we passed thence into happier fields like one who wakes from dark dreams on a summer morning…[1]

 

Edward Brittain, too, is picking up the thread of an earlier letter. his account of today, a century back, is the other sort of return, however: the return from the front lines to the blighted rear, which offers a contrast not with the living land of the untouched zone but with the deadly pits of the front line. The first job is to record the losses.

France, 24 October 1917

I will be a little more expansive to-day as we are a long way back from the line and I don’t think it matters my telling you whereabouts we have been. When the Bn. went into the line last time I was left behind to be O.C. Details (about 150 NCO’s and men); on the night of the 16th Lieut. J.W Jackson of C coy. was killed; on the night of the 17th Capt. Whyatt commanding C coy–one of the original officers of the battalion, he joined 3 weeks before me in 1914–was killed; on the morning of the 18th Lieut. Groves whom I mentioned to you the other day was badly wounded, 1 Sergt. and 3 men being killed by the same shell and Whittington who is also in A coy. went down with shell shock; as Clark was on leave this left Harrison by himself and only one officer in C coy, both companies being in the support line which, as you know, always gets the worst of the shelling. Consequently I got a message on the night of the 18th to go up the next morning which I did and joined Jack in a filthy bit of trench, nearly got killed the same night changing to another support fine, spent the next day in a pill-box, the night in a sap and got out safely in the morning. Jack also got out safely. Of course we lost quite a lot of men: some of them had only just joined but we might have come off worse considering that we were in the most pronounced salient just E of Polygon Wood — one of the worst bits of the whole front during the whole war…

It feels as if we’ve heard some variation on that “one of the worst bits” line about ten times in the last month…

Not long ago, in order to connect to a slightly mis-dated bit of her memoir, I skipped ahead in order to explain Vera Brittain‘s changed approach to front-line correspondence. She doesn’t want to try to correspond with her brother–the last young soldier she really loves–when he might be in the front lines. Because any delay, any ominous word… so she had told him that she couldn’t take it any more, that she doesn’t want to write letters that, in the doom-laden magical thinking of a member of the Lost Generation, mid-loss, could somehow cause him to not receive them, and her to begin fearing the post–or its absence–a few days later. As she explained that “his activities so distressed me that I seldom wrote to him at all, superstitiously believing that if I did he would certainly be dead before the letter arrived.” (Were this the early 21st century rather than 20th, some reference to Schrodinger’s Cat–either slightly inaccurate or slightly ironic–would be necessary.)

Edward, who has lost the same three close friends and no doubt sees more intense superstitions on a daily basis, doesn’t object to the irrational basis of his sister’s sudden failure as a correspondent. But neither does he accept it: he doesn’t seem to have anyone else left with whom he can discuss the truth of the war, and he needs to keep writing it. It’s not hard to imagine Edward composing lines of description to send to his sister as shells land and men around him are hit. Perhaps he believes that if his letter to her is unfinished he can’t be killed, yet.

In any case, he objects, and rather pointedly, too:

I quite understand why you didn’t write during the interval but, if possible, please don’t do it again or else I shall not tell you when I am about to face anything unpleasant and then you will not be able to help me face it…[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Amory, Lord Dunsany, 144-5.
  2. Letters From a Lost Generation, 379-80.

Rowland Feilding on Cleanliness and a Brilliant Corporal; David Jones (Re-)Draws Leave

Just two days ago, a century back, Rowland Feilding wrote to his wife about the new procedures for enlisted men going on leave. There is more attention now to cleanliness–which could be seen both as a sensible public health measure and a sort of propaganda of the body, a way to censor the physical condition of the men at the front as well as their words:

They are cleaned up and fitted with good clothes before they leave, so that they do not arrive at Victoria covered with the mud of the trenches. Each man, too, has to have a certificate that he is free from vermin; so I hope they arrive sufficiently pure and spick and span, though I am sure they cannot give half so much satisfaction in the streets of London as they would if they arrived muddy.

Today’s letter is what we might call a “reserve piece,” a pleasant discourse on the pleasures of life in the rear. And yet it’s of a piece with several of our recent posts from the Passchendaele trenches that emphasized the sanity-saving effects of humor. Feilding has discovered that a bombing corporal–“and a good one too”–is  also “a buffoon of a high order.” Lance-Corporal Pierpont is a clown and a contortionist, and, on this day of battalion sports, a goalkeeper of great repute (though notable more for his incessant working of the referee than for any particular skill on the goal line) but these skills seem to shade into something of a sorcerer’s powers:

Amongst other facilities which he possesses, or is believed to possess… is that of being able to judge exactly where a trench-mortar bomb is going to fall. His friends in his platoon collect around him when the German “rum-jars” are flying about, and he advises them what to do to dodge each one as he sees it coming through the air–signalling with his arms whether to move right or left along the trench, or to stand still.[1]

There is something remarkable about this combination of abilities: the magical corporal is a prodigy of body, wit, and will, and his influence over the minds of men–the referee, the laughing comrades–may extend even to missiles. But then again interpreting the sights and sounds of those terribly slow incoming mortar bombs can in fact be an art and a science rather than a more purely mystical art–it’s a very different claim than that of the charmed man who may be immune to bullets or whizz-bangs.

 

But back, now, to the lice…

Today, a century back, saw another of our enlisted poets go on leave. David Jones had actually been granted leave ten days ago, but he had refused it, knowing that his parents were just then moving house and not wanting “to spend his leave helping with unpacking and advising on the placement of furniture and the hanging the family pictures.” An “incredulous adjutant” and a helpful orderly-room sergeant arranged for Jones to swap places with one of the men in the next leave rotation, remarking that begging to have leave moved back was rather rare–and bad luck, in a superstitious world. But Jones survived his ten days of supererogatory duty and is now on his way to London. And, despite the precautions taken in Feilding’s battalion (not that the Royal Welch don’t also make efforts to fumigate their men) he is teeming with lice…[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 213-4.
  2. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 167.

Charles Carrington’s Ordeal Continues

Charles Carrington fought forward yesterday, a century back, taking all his company’s objectives–though this was not immediately clear in the nearly featureless mudscape at the time–at the cost of most of his company, including nearly every other officer. One Lieutenant Thorburn,[1] an officer who had been held back from the battle as an emergency reserve, came up in the evening. The purpose of this reserve is now fairly clear: it is to make sure not only that officers of sufficient experience are still unwounded the day after a major assault (as with Major Kearsey, who briefly commanded the 2/RFW after their advance last week), but also that there are a few leaders who are not yet too exhausted to lead effectively. Carrington/”Edmonds” does not shy away from telling us how close he was to collapse.

But the day begins on an easier note, with another of those exceptions to the rule of absent generalship:

In the morning I went out early to my men, and found all well and Thorburn a tower of strength. While we were cooking breakfast on a ‘Tommy’s cooker,’ General Hutchinson with a staff officer and his galloper came wandering up from the rear, and in full view of the enemy. He talked cheerily to us, as always, and then pointed out a wounded Boche in a little hollow, a few yards away, whose legs were shattered and who was trying to walk on his knees with two crutches of broken timber. We had known of this man before, but were leaving him until our own wounded were all in. ‘Hutchy’ insisted on our attending to this man first. Then he wandered on fearlessly to the front.

Carrington himself is left to consolidate yesterday’s positions, and he finds that the all-important work of one of his four Lewis gun sections (the Lewis gun, as the only portable automatic weapon, will be crucial in fending off mass counter-attacks) has been done–and done extremely well–by a new private who simply took over after the officer and senior NCOs had been killed or wounded.

So I put this prodigy, confirmed in the command of his section, to watch the crossing of the Stroombeek.

Taking stock of the rest of his company, Carrington finds that

Both officers, all four platoon Serjeants, eleven out of twelve section commanders had been hit; only Serjeant Walker and I and Lance-Corporal Reese, whose stripe was not a week old, were left. No wonder the company
was a little scattered.

Though the day had started well, it was to turn out the most wretched of my life. The three of us crouched happily enough in our circular pit, five feet in diameter, and dug it down till it was five feet deep.

And, with Carrington, we will find that his wretched day is a rewarding one for readers: one of the finest and most awful descriptions of a mind under bombardment, and then, in a mere parenthesis, an excellent “mud piece.”

As we were in full view of the enemy on the right front, along the valley of the Stroombeek, the movement of men in and near our position drew its reward. When the German gunners really settled down to their day’s shooting they gave us their fullest attention. There was no drumfire, no hurricane barrage, but a steady slow bombardment of the whole valley with heavies; all day the fire grew in intensity and accuracy; and occasionally the area was raked
over with a finer shower of field-gun shells. We had nothing to do but to sit and listen for the roar of the 5’9’s, lasting for five seconds each, perhaps twice a minute. One would be talking aimlessly of some unimportant thing when the
warning would begin. The speaker’s voice would check for an infinitesimal fraction of a second; then he would finish his sentence with a studied normality marvellously true to life. Everyone listened hard to the conversation, but with more than half an ear cocked in the direction of the enemy. If the shell were coming close, one would crouch down against the side of the pit, apparently as a mere perfunctory precaution, actually with delight that one could take cover unashamed. When the shell had burst in a smother of black smoke, and the clods and whining splinters had ceased to fall pattering around, one went on with the conversation. It was a kind of round game, in which a man felt he had lost a point every time a grunt or a remark about the danger was fetched out of him.

A bombardment is a war in miniature, and here it illustrates both the unavoidable general conclusions–war grinds down every man’s store of courage–and the specific surprises: some men are not what they seem.

Thorbum won easily; of course he had been through nothing yet but a night in a safe, dry trench. Yet this trial might well have finished off a fresh man. The shells fell consistently among our men (who, however, were well scattered
and in the deepest shell-holes); every other one would fling a shower of mud on to our helmets. About one in five or six would fall near enough to shake the parapet, blast its pungent fumes in our faces, and set every nerve in our bodies jangling.

Wolfe came out in an unexpected light; he was a tall, pale, flabby medical student in spectacles, and until that day I had had but a poor opinion of him. Every time a shell fell near he proceeded to tell us that he had a very strong presentiment; nothing was going to hit him that day. He said it so often, with such conviction, and so ingenuously, that it cheered me wonderfully, even at the worst moments. He did nothing and seemed to care little, but was
quite contented about himself.

Like Dr. Dunn before him, Carrington’s self-diagnosis is acute–this next paragraph sounds some like a particular form of shell-shock, a sort of trauma-induced O.C.D. But he is no doctor, after all, just a good writer making over to us a strong and terrible memory:

I needed some cheering up. I had had very much worse times than either of the others, but cannot deceive myself, all the same; I never could stand shell-fire. I got into a thoroughly neurotic state during the day. Enduring a bombardment is the opportunity for that kind of nervous disease which made Dr. Johnson touch every post as he walked along Fleet Street. You think of absurd omens and fetishes to ward off the shell you hear coming. A strong inward feeling compels you to sit in a certain position, to touch a particular object, to whistle so many bars of a tune silently between your teeth. If you complete the charm in time you are safe—until the next one. This absurdity becomes a dark, overpowering fatalism. You contemplate with horror that you have made a slip in the self-imposed
ritual, or that the augury sign of your own invention shows against you. You imagine that the shells are more deliberate and accurate than could be possible. They seem to have a volition of their own and to wander malevolently until they see a target on which to pounce; they seem to hurl themselves with intention sounding in the fierce roar of their near approach; they defy your mute relief when they fall far away, by sending slivers of jagged steel sighing and murmuring hundreds of yards towards you, long after the shock of the explosion is spent and gone.

Every gun and every kind of projectile had its own personality. Old soldiers always claimed that they knew the calibre of a shell by its sound and could always foretell which shells were going to fall dangerously close. Yet far more than they calculated depended on the range and the nature of the intervening ground. Sometimes a field-gun shell would leap jubilantly with the pop of a champagne cork from its muzzle, fly over with a steady buzzing crescendo, and burst with a fully expected bang; sometimes a shell would be released from a distant battery of heavies to roll across a.huge arc of sky, gathering speed and noise like an approaching express train, ponderous and certain. Shells flying over valleys and woods echoed strangely and defied anticipation; shells falling in enclosed spaces simply arrived with a double bang and no warning at all. Some shells whistled, others shrieked, others wobbled through space gurgling like water poured from a decanter.

So all the day you listened, calculated, hoped or despaired, making imaginary bargains with fate, laying odds with yourself on the chances of these various horrors. One particular gun would, seem to be firing more directly on you than the others. You would wait for its turn so intently as to forget other perhaps more real dangers. At last it comes. You hold frenziedly on to the conversation; you talk a little too fast; your nerves grow tense, and while you continue to look and talk like a man, your involuntary muscles get a little out of hand. Are your knees quivering a little? Are you blinking? Is your face contorted with fear? You wonder and cannot know. Force yourself to do something, say something, think something, or you will lose control. Get yourself in hand with some voluntary action. Drum out a tune with your finger-tips upon your knee. Don’t hurry—keep time—get it finished, and you will be safe this once.

Here superstition and neurasthenia step in. Like the child who will not walk on the lines in the pavement and finds  real safety in putting each foot on a square stone you feel that your ritual protects you. As the roar of an approaching shell rises nearer and louder you listen in inward frenzy to the shell, in outward calm to the conversation. Steady with those nervous drum-taps on your knee; don’t break time or the charm is broken and the
augury vain. The shell roars near. What is Thorburn saying?

“Oh yes! The rations came up at nine o’clock, enough for twice our numbers.” (Explosion!)

Thank God, the tune was finished soon enough. But then, comes an overwhelming rush of panic. The next shell will be the nearest, the climax of the day. What is the next shell when the air is never free from their sound? The next that is at all near. But how near? Which is near enough to break the tension? Thorburn is saying, “We haven’t issued the rum to-day. Best do it at dusk, don’t you think?” (Terrific explosion!) “God,” you say with a gasp, dropping for an instant the mask of indifference. You eye the others guiltily and wonder if they are going through the same performance. At least are you keeping up appearances as well as they do? What a comfort that Wolfe’s augury
is so optimistic.

Once in the afternoon I was on the point of breaking down. My luck turned; the self-deluding charm failed; omens were bad and a shell roared into the mud throwing clods and whining splinters on our heads. I swore and moved nervously and lost control of my features.

“Steady,” said Thorburn, putting a hand on my arm. That was my nadir. The shelling slackened and stopped, until between Wolfe’s optimism and Thorburn’s unconcern I revived my good spirits.

This is one of the essential descriptions of the stress of prolonged shelling, a war compressed into a few hours, a memoir into a few paragraphs.

A little while later, trying to guide another officer of the battalion to his position near the Steenbeek[2] Carrington is held up in the mud:

We wandered vaguely; it was as dark as the Pit. Presently a British battery opened fire, dropping shells unpleasantly close in front of us. We must be right up to the front line then, such front line as there was. A smart bombardment began, which forced us to crouch down, for we could take no proper cover in this marsh. (There are no words in English for the omnipresent wetness, the sliminess, the stickiness of the mud, the gouts that you found clogging your fingers, and wiped off accidentally in your hair when you adjusted your helmet, the smears of it that appeared on your clean message forms and your mess-tin, the saturation of your clothes with its semi-solid filthiness, the smell of it, and the taste of it, and the colour of it.)

Now Carrington is lost, and mired, and under fire:

As we could only expect, the German guns began to retaliate. We were not reassured to find ourselves between the two fires. The Boche shells fell close behind us, the English close in front; we had wandered out into No Man’s Land.

We moved about trying to avoid the danger, and soon became entirely confused as to direction. The shells whizzed down from all sides, bursting with red showers of sparks and whiffs of smoke, and, difficult as it was to locate it in the dark, we endeavoured to find the empty vortex of the storm. We were helpless here for some unmeasured time, wet through, cold and paddling through seas of slime, in absolute blackness broken only by the occasional gleam of a high bursting shell.

At last in a slight lull I caught sight of rising ground, and led the party in that direction, where we came into an area of big shell-holes, that is, a planless maze of high ridges and pits where it was impossible to see more than five yards in any direction. I was leading, not more than three paces ahead of the next man, when another whirl of shell-fire came down.

They flung themselves one way into cover, I another.

In a few seconds, when I stood up again, they had vanished.

“Newsom! ” I called, not too loud, for this was No Man’s Land. No answer.

I circled round, looking for them. They cannot have been more than thirty yards away, but in that noise, darkness and chaos, they were undiscoverable. At last I gave them up, found a good piece of cover where I could watch in
their supposed direction, and waited for something to happen.

In time, the shelling stopped. I wondered where I was, and how to get back through the lines. For all I knew, there might be a German sentry-group three feet away in the next shellhole. I wasn’t even sure which was east and which was west, though I was inclined to think we had missed our way by edging off too far to the right, southward from the Stroombeek.

My troubles were soon solved for me, when the clouds broke above and I caught a pale glimpse of the Pole Star. Now to apply the invariable rule—east for Germany and west for ‘Blighty.’ Not for the first time I kept the Pole Star on my right hand and walked straight for home.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. By chance the name of one of Edward Thomas's comrades and friends during his last days at Arras.
  2. There is no mention of the irrigation channels or small canals that connect to it on the map--presumably they are destroyed, rendering the entire area a marsh.
  3. A Subaltern's War, 155-69.

A Mole Hill for Bed and Cake for Dinner in Jack Martin’s Trench; Kate Luard is Nearly Halfway Through Her Letters

Two nights ago, a century back, Jack Martin

felt a small strange upheaval underneath me. My first thought was of rats, but I soon discovered that it was a mole working away under the canvas on which we lie. A molehill in the middle of your spine is not conducive to comfort so I had to move myself one pace to the right…

Martin is an engineer, and so happy, apparently, to practice “live and let live” with rival tunnelers. Or perhaps he was simply biding his time, unwilling to risk conflict before the next mail call. Yesterday was Martin’s 33rd birthday, which netted him a tidy total of four parcels, leaving his tent looking “like a canteen.”

4.9.17

At 10 p.m. last night Glasspoole and I proceeded on night duty with my parcels. There was too large an assortment for us to sample everything but we started on a chocolate cake… then we tackled a bottle of preserved mixed fruits with grape nuts and condensed milk…[1]

The feast will continue…

 

But the interlude of comparative peace will not. Yesterday was a quiet day for Kate Luard, too, although her time was occupied with less agreeable correspondence.

Crowds of letters from mothers and wives who’ve only just heard from the W.O. and had no letter from me, are pouring in, and have to be answered, from my book of addresses and notes of cases; it takes up hours. I’ve managed to write 200 so far, but there are 466.

Then yesterday’s quietly devastating task led into a long and far less quiet night.

1 a.m. Another spell of hell let loose, and now brilliant moonlight, desultory banging of our heavies and occasional squeakers whining over from him. Peace for the minute overhead. Nearly all the patients are sleeping.

Later. Shells getting nearer had me back in the hospital. The last shell looked to be on the edge of 44; it was a big crash and spattered me with spent splinters. His damnable engines are now approaching in the sky – must be off.

2.30. I just got to a ward where the Sister is alone with one patient when the bomb fell and blew one of our Night Orderlies’ sleeping tents out of existence: it is one of a group of Orderlies’ and M.O.’s tents and one of the only empty ones at night. Wasn’t it wonderful? They’d all have been wiped out if they’d been in bed, but they were all on Night Duty. No other tent was touched. Just left an excited group of M.O.’s in pyjamas, and men round the hole…

Today has reminded me, strangely, of the last days of Edward Thomas. He had a birthday not long before the end, though the parcels were delayed; he also spent a morning pondering a mole, his habitat disturbed by guns and engineers; and Thomas had one long argument about the theology of ignoring artillery shells that found their mark while praising a matrix of near misses as a pattern of miraculous escapes… all of this is echoed, today, both by skeptical engineers and world-weary but conventionally religious nurses.

Conventional–but not unreflectively pious.

Tuesday morning, September 4th. Got to bed in my clothes, at 4 a.m., up at 7.30. Slept well. Brilliant morning; Archie racket in full blast. This acre of front so far bears a charmed life, but how long can it last? Shells and bombs shave us on all four sides. Mad, isn’t it? Capt. B. and Capt. P. (the all-night-duty men) are topping people. We have huge jokes in the middle of it all – no one could stick it if everybody behaved with fitting solemnity and sang hymns. There is a bit of Thank God sometimes, but praying doesn’t somehow come in, which seems funny! You can be
doing that!

Later. Orders have come for the final evacuation of the Hospital – site considered too ‘unhealthy.’ We close down to-day, evacuate the patients still here, and disperse the personnel. I stay till the last patient is fit to be moved, probably to-morrow, or next day – then probably Leave for 14 days! But don’t count on it, as you never know.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Sapper Martin, 99-100.
  2. Unknown Warriors, 155-7.

C.E. Montague Behind the Old Lines; Siegfried Sassoon Drugs Himself With Dreams; Edward Thomas Knows Love

C.E. Montague‘s diary has only been published in widely-spaced fragments, so it is difficult to get a sense of his day-to-day life as a professional optimist concealing a private fury. But he, too, takes joy in the German retreat–the relative uncertainty of semi-open warfare is good news for a man who likes to “accidentally” roam too close to the line when he is supposed to be keeping his V.I.P. guests safe. Today, a century back, he finds there a sight that emphasizes the essential commonality of experience of all fighting soldiers:

March 27

By car, with Lance-Corporal Bonafoux, to . . . Boiry Becquerelle, our last village eastwards here. No trench, soldier, or line visible from here, but Hénin-sur-Cojeul, in German hands, visible a mile away to the N.E. One of our snipers busy a few hundred yards to the N. We walk E.S.E. through a washed garden of yews, box-edging, and fruit-trees, and beyond, in a corner of an orchard behind a hedge, I am challenged by a corporal in command of a sentry group of two men. I ask him where is our front line.

He says, ‘Well, Sir, I’m our most advanced post here. We had one up the road on the right, but it was scuppered the other night.’ I see the ‘road on the right’, a sunk road, sloping obliquely up a little rise towards Croisilles, an enemy strong point less than two miles away.

It looks sunny and peaceful and tempts me to reconnoitre it and see the lost post, if empty of Germans. Bonafoux and I go up the road, and in 300 yards come to two little shelters under the east bank of the sunken road. The captured men’s messing tins and waterproof sheets are lying about and the hay in the shelters is still moulded like a bird’s nest with the pressure of their bodies where those off duty rested. Fifty yards beyond the derelict post the explanation of its capture is made clear. A German communication trench, coming from the direction of Croisilles, debouches on the road, out of its north-eastern rising bank. Clearly the enemy, at night, streamed down this trench overpowered the little post and carried them off prisoners.

On right of road, near Boisieux-au-Mont, a German military cemetery, an extension of a French village cemetery. Near the entrance-gate a well-kept grave, with ivy and some sort of primulous flowers planted on it, and inscribed

Hier ruht in Gott
der englische Soldat
C. M. Cross
9 King’s L—pool Regt
gef. an 7.4.16.

Other well-kept and planted graves of English and French soldiers beside the road further on.[1]

 

Edward Thomas has also moved forward, into new positions from which they will now fire the big guns. Being closer to the German guns, however, will take some getting used to.

Rain and sleet and sun, getting guns camouflaged… Sat till 11 writing letters. As I was falling asleep great blasts shook the house and windows, whether from our own firing or enemy bursts near, I could not tell in my drowse, but I did not doubt my heart thumped so that if they had come closer together it might have stopped… Letters to Helen and Eleanor.[2]

Let’s read the one to Eleanor Farjeon, which confirms an unsurprising illogic: Thomas writes better, more thoughtful, more feeling letters when he is exhausted and close to the guns than when he is in reserve or doing office work behind the lines.

Rather than breaking in to comment, I’m just going to insert paragraph breaks into the flow of the letter. This, I think, will more gently underline the way Thomas links so many apparently disparate thoughts–thanks and ginger, friendship and death, expectation and anxiety–in one snaking but unbroken chain.

March 27
My dear Eleanor

As everybody is sleepier than I and I am alone I am going to drink hot brandy and water with you for a quarter of an hour. The gramophone (and Raymond Jeremy) is silent, and the guns are mostly half a mile off or more, and nothing is coming over. But these are busy times. Again the battle is promised us and we long to be into it, I suppose because then it will be nearer over.

We are up late and down early. We do all kinds of things. Today I solemnly took 10 men and an N.C.O. and a trench cart to steal a small truck for carrying shells on rails. I had to guide them and stand by officially as if it were an official act while they loaded the cart and marched off. The other things I did were more technical, and in doing them I dashed about over copse and made extra paths that the Hun will photograph. Just for 5 minutes Thorburn and I looked for primroses—in vain among the moss and ashtrees. We have to cut off 10 feet from the tops of the prettiest birchtrees, because they are dangerously in our way. Not one shell—touch wood—has fallen into the copse yet, though a quarter of a mile off they crack every day.

Yet we have pleasant and even merry hours and moments. We are kind to one another often. And we do eat well, in spite of the loss of that parcel, for the one that came from F. & M. was certainly not the one you spoke of. It contained sweets and muscatels and almonds and tinned paste and soup tablets. It contained also the wrapper of the originally misdirected parcel to explain the delay. You send what you like. Muscatels and almonds are what I like best, and fruit fresh or dried of any kind. Best of all is to have my pockets fat with your letters as they are now.

I was nearly forgetting to thank you for more ginger and several kinds of sweets. They were very good. I ate some of them in the sun at lunch in the O.P. the other day, sitting on some wooden steps till I suppose the Hun got envious and shelled me away. It is walking up to or among ruined houses—gable ends all big holes and piles of masonry round and splintered walnut—that I dislike most, with a lowering sky like this evening’s.

I keep feeling that I should enjoy it more if I knew I would survive it. I can’t help allowing it to trouble me, but it doesn’t prey on me and I have no real foreboding, only occasional trepidation and anxiety. The men are better but then they are comrades and I am usually alone or with them. I wish that what is coming would be more than an incident—the battle of——. Still I can’t wait a great while, though of course what is coming is to be worse than anything I know so far. It is worse for you and for Helen and Mother, I know. I wish I could keep back more of what I feel, but you mustn’t think it is often fear or ever dread for more than a moment.

You will be in your cottage by the time this arrives with all your pretty things. I wish I could like more pretty things—the only one I like is that gavotte from Ambrose Thomas’s ‘Mignon’. I shall get it played now and go to bed. Good night. Yours ever

Edward Thomas[3]

Thomas is in most ways a good man–as good as he can be–and he has a talent for friendship, even if he finds it frustrated among the men of an artillery battery. But love is another matter, and kindness, for him, can be an effort. This is especially true for those who intrude upon his solitude and misery by loving him. He has always been… inconsistent in mustering the strength to be generous and compassionate with those who love him most.

But now, writing to a dear and loyal friend on something almost like the eve of battle, he does her a quiet sort of honor and a very great kindness: by counting Eleanor with his mother and his wife among those always always for word of him–those whose lives are to a great degree suspended while he remains in danger–he recognizes in a formal, almost courtly way, a fact that is plain to them both–she loves him, and he knows it.

 

It is a burden to be loved, and a great thing to be free–but lovers are not supposed to feel burdened and free men are free to feel burdened. Siegfried Sassoon doesn’t think enough of his mother–the embarrassing, slightly batty figure who has already lost a son and has yet to endure the indignity of being translated into “George Sherston”‘s “Aunt Evelyn.” And not thinking of her there is no one else, really–there are many friends, but no one so firmly committed to him that he or she waits only for a line about Siegfried.

Instead, the prospect of his death remains, primarily, an item of philosophical contention between himself and… well, whoever. The establishment, the generals, the Germans, the phonies, the tension of an uncertain life, his inchoate opinions, his transubstantiating muse. Where shall (personal) peace be found? How about that rainy cathedral walk last night? What is there to live for?

We expect to be at Camp 13 until the end of this week; then probably go to St Pol, before proceeding to the battle—whatever that may mean. I felt last night (after a bottle of decent wine) that I would gladly die to guard Amiens Cathedral from destruction, but one can’t feel like that in the light of day.

Anyhow, I would rather be in a battle than at Camp 13. It would be interesting, though uncomfortable; and there would always be the possibility of release, to Blighty, or Elysian-fields.

In these days I drug myself with dreams. I have seen the Spectator for March 17, in which Heinemann advertises my book as ‘ready shortly’: Being about ten days behind the civilised world of London, I suppose I’m published by now![4]

He is not–these things go slowly! Battle will come in April, The Old Huntsman in May.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Elton, C. E. Montague, 157-8.
  2. War Diary (Childhood), 172.
  3. Farjeon, Edward Thomas, 257-9.
  4. Diaries, 145-6.

Siegfried Sassoon Joins the Second Battalion, in Several Frames of Mind; Unquiet Death Stalks Edwin Vaughan

After a long, slow train journey, a nasty night at Corbie, and a sticky tramp up to “Camp 13” at Chipilly, Siegfried Sassoon joined the Second Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers today, a century back.

He is not best pleased: his previous service had been with the First Battalion, and even finding his way to the one other Regular battalion of his own Regiment is not good enough to lift his spirits. (Many, indeed, were not so fortunate, in these days of expanding bureaucracy–he might have been sent to a Kitchener mob or even to some foreign, declassé regiment.) The chief appeal of the 2/RWF was to have been Robert Graves, but he is headed Blightyward, sick once again.

Will the dour and acid Sassoon of the Rouen sojourn remain utterly friendless, or will his gentler instincts (or the inevitable cycles of his changeable mien) prevail?

So far, at least, the former:

I was wearing my best friends, a pair of greased marching boots whose supple strength had never failed to keep the water out; how much those boots meant to me can only be understood by persons who have never shared my type of experience; I can only say that they never gave me sore feet; and if this sounds irrelevant, I must remind the reader that a platoon commander’s feet were his fortune.

Yes: when at long last he returns to a fighting unit of his regiment, after more than half a year a way, he sings a paean to his boots, preferring them to his human traveling companions, the two cadet officers he had “nothing in common with.”[1]

But as he points out, an infantry officer’s feet are very important… also, generally, are his friends.

Also, I have erred: those were the words of “George Sherston,” not Siegfried Sassoon. But as it happens, today, a century back, is the day that the exceedingly flimsy veil is rent by a draft–namely the draft of the foregoing passage of Memoirs of an Infantry Officer which made its way into Dr. Dunn’s battalion chronicle. I will wrest a slightly different bit from Dunn, to show that Sassoono does indeed remark on the men of his battalion, and not just the unsuitable officers.

I found myself in command of No. 8 platoon, which contained 8 Private Joneses.[2] Its total strength numbered 34, including 2 sergeants, 2 corporal and 6 lance-corporals. Eight of the 34 were Lewis gunners. These being deducted my compact little unit… seldom mustered 20 strong… A recent draft had added a collection of under-sized half-wits to the depleted Battalion. Several men in my platoon seemed barely capable of carrying the weight of their equpiment…[3]

Shorn of its sheen of fictionalization, this is still pretty harsh. At the very least it’s a less-than-ringing endorsement of the most literary battalion on the occasion of the arrival of its most appreciated litterateur…

But wait, there’s more! Here’s Sassoon in propria voce, taking the story from yesterday afternoon:

Left Rouen about 4 o’clock in sunlight… Got to Corbie at midnight… slept in Field Ambulance and went out to.Rest Camp at Chipilly next day to join Second R.W.F.

…My two R.W.F. companions are… quite dull and suitably impressed by the occasion. Everything seems conspiring to lower my spirits (our kits were lost and plundered on the way up…)

The poem he wrote is of a piece:

Return

I have come home unnoticed; they are still;
No greetings pass between us; but they lie
Hearing the boom of guns along the hill
Watching the flashes lick the glowering sky.

A wind of whispers comes from sightless faces;
‘Have patience, and your bones shall share our bed.
Their voices haunt dark ways and ruined places,
Where once they spoke in deeds who now are dead.

They wondered why l went; at last returning,
They guide my labouring feet through desolate mud.
And, choked with death, yet in their eyes discerning
My living Strength; they are quickened in my blood.

 

It becomes impossible to track down the “real” Sassoon–to fix him for than a few moments, here or there in the years, pen or indelible pencil in hand. When he was writing “Return,” at least, it would seem that a Sorley-inflected (but not Sorley-quality; indeed, wholly traditional and showing not a trace of his sharp recent satiric wit) poem about death and loss was the only thing that could express his true feelings. (Better, at least, then simple whingeing about uncongenial companions or slow trains.) It would seem, too, that his requirements of the Second Battalion are extremely unrealistic: it will not do unless it is officered by men he already knows and loves, despite the fact that many of these are dead or disabled…

But poetry is truth, right?

Ah, but what if the author himself returns to the poem and adds a footnote excoriating his own verse for its “entirely artificial emotionalism?”[4]

Sassoon is impossible, which is also to say that he’s never dull, even when he’s down. Let’s just give the last word to Frank Richards, old soldier and signaler of the battalion, and leave Sassoon for a better day:

Two new officers that had just arrived seemed of a far better stamp than some that we had had during the last few months, and one named Mr Sassoon, who was wearing the ribbon of the Military Cross, was soon very popular with the men of the Company he was posted to. He had been with the First Battalion before he came to us. The Battalion was doing the ordinary training… I had some glorious days in the villages some miles from the huts. We at least were getting all the enjoyment we could before going back to the blood-tub where we never knew what might happen to us.[5]

 

That’s more like it. But speaking of returning to the blood-tub:

Edwin Vaughan was also on the way up to the line last night, scrambling overland to rejoin his platoon in its scattered front-line posts. After a harrowing approach through machine gun and trench mortar fire, Vaughan had circled the posts, crawling through the viscous mud to visit each one and check in with the non-com in command. At one such post he found a normally reliable man–Corporal Bennett–in near panic (does that etymology lurk in Ledwidge’s recent pastoral?), begging to be relieved. But Bennett calmed down once Vaughan denied his request and explained that exceptions couldn’t be made. He was left in the post, in command of six men and Vaughan finished his tour and snatched a few hours of sleep in a dugout.

Early in the morning, a century back, Vaughan awoke and found a fellow officer making out a casualty report for Corporal Bennett:

A few minutes after I had left them a bomb had fallen amongst them. I told Holmes about Bennett’s nervousness and sudden return to fatalism and we agreed that he must have had a premonition.

But Vaughan’s description of his interaction with Bennett doesn’t mention a premonition or “fatalism.”

I’ve doubted details of Vaughan’s diary before–it seems to me to have been inconsistently “worked up,” with a lack of clear explanation of when it is and is not the plain daily diary it purports to be… but today’s tale actually seems to bolster the case that Vaughan is not always embroidering his experience.

First, although he is indeed “emplotting” events–turning a small disaster into a retrospective story of fate (or nerves and nemesis–it seems as if he is doing it as he writes. The story-fying of experience, that is, is taking place this very morning, a century back, and not later on (when the diary was recopied).

Second, because the CWGC database confirms some details of today’s account. One obvious question is why a corporal would be in command of a post of six men, and a possible answer is that he would if he had been formally invested with a sergeant’s responsibility by means of the arcane rank of “lance sergeant,” a sort of honorary half-promotion for corporals. I can’t find a Corporal Bennett at a close enough date, but there is a Lance-Sergeant Alfred Bennett of the Royal Warwickshires who is listed as having been killed tomorrow, a century back. That is a very small discrepancy, and it is even bolstered by the fact that Bennett has no known resting place. Many bodies were lost even in less difficult circumstances… I can’t quite match Bennet’s report of three other men being killed–and a fourth later in the day but, again, the database brings us fairly close: a few corporals and privates of the Warwickshires are reported killed today and buried at nearby cemeteries.

And then another wrinkle: Vaughan claims to have buried all four of the men “in shell-holes behind the post where they were killed.” Were some of them reburied later, while Bennett, who appears on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing, was never found? Very possible; I haven’t read ahead in Vaughan’s book yet, but perhaps that will clear things up to some degree.

So let’s move on, then, for the moment, genre sensors at the ready, to discover the reason that Vaughan gives these details:

After coming off duty, I was lying alone in the straw, and just dozing off, when I heard someone stop outside the cellar.  Sitting up, I saw the blanket slowly lifted and a head appeared in the dim light of the candle. I hardly repressed a scream of horror, and an icy numbness gripped me as I scanned–a blackened face, thick lips and acquiline nose, big eyes that stared at me, and a cap comforter drawn down almost to the eyebrows.  It was the face of the dead man that I had buried.

For fully half a minute we looked in silence at each other, then he asked me if I could tell him what time the rations would be up.  I laughed hysterically and made him come in so that I could dispel by conversation the awful fright that this appearance had given me. It was Corporal Harrison, his face blackened with wood-smoke but his every feature identical with that of the corpse.[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Complete Memoirs, 407.
  2. The paucity of family names in Wales seems to have been a never-ending source of humor to English observers. But it does stimulate an irresistible creativity in the way of cognomina...
  3. The War the Infantry Knew, 306.
  4. Diaries, 143.
  5. Old Soldiers Never Die, 221.
  6. Some Desperate Glory, 36-43.

Two Battalions on the Assault Near Courcelette: Edmund Blunden’s Sussex and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lancashires Attack Together

Today, a century back, two of our writers were in the same attack. Or, rather, their battalions–the 11th Royal Sussex and the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers–were.[1] Both Edmund Blunden and John Ronald Tolkien have been given headquarters jobs (Tolkien was Battalion Signals Officer, Blunden an odd-job man and assistant to the battalion C.O.) and were thus a few hundred yards behind the actual assault. So it is not a complete coincidence that both survived unscathed.

Today’s attack is of a piece with the September attacks, of which it is also a direct tactical continuation: British advance, measured success, and great casualties–especially among platoon officers.

Below is a heavily marked-up map of the Thiepval sector of the Somme front. Running down just left of the center is the British Front Line–the Old Front Line of July 1st. The thick red lines opposite are the German positions which were to have been taken that morning. Each numbered square is only a thousand yards to a side–a little over half a mile. Thiepval, in square 26, was a first day objective and was taken at the beginning of October.authille-ovillers-pozieres-courcelette

We will now zoom in to the upper-center-right portion of this map, on the reverse slope of little Thiepval Ridge–a crucial position because it overlooks the German lines further east and south. The amoeboid shape in the lower right quadrant of 19 and lower left of 20 is the notorious Schwaben Redoubt, the capture of which at the beginning of October marked the end of the battle of Thiepval–or would have, if it had not been repeatedly subjected to German counter-attacks. It was finally secured only a week ago, a century back.authille-ovillers-pozieres-courcelette-det

On this map the Old Front Line can just be seen at left, while newer German positions (or positions that were not fully known when this map was prepared in August) have been inked in blue. “Stuff Trench”–not marked–is officially located in square 20, leading away from the Schwaben Redoubt. But the “Stuff Trench” that was assaulted today is clearly a continuation somewhere near Stuff Redoubt in square 21, or even further to the east. Before reading on, it might be helpful, too, to find Zollern Trench, in 27, and note several further objectives of these assaults, including Regina Trench in 22-33, and Hessian Trench just to the south of it in 22.

So much for geography. Now for experience, beginning during the night, with Blunden’s memoir:

That night our attacking companies lay in a ditch with a few “baby-elephant” shelters in it, and much water, a little way behind their assembly positions. There was a white frost. Behind them a few field guns covered only with netting dressed up as withered foliage were waiting, too. I went to see them on the morning of the attack, and I remember chiefly the voice of F. Salter, stretching his stiff arms and trying to move his eyebrows like a man awake, cursing the frost; I remember the familiar song of my old companion Doogan, now for the last time, “Everybody’s doing the Charlie Chaplin walk.” He broke off, and without self-pity and almost casually he said: “It’s the third time. They’ve sent me over, this is the third time. They’ll get me this time.” Nor would it have availed to use in reply one’s familiar trench tags, nor to speak out the admiring friendship which never fully found words; Doogan seemed to know; and he was tired.

The clear autumn day was a mixed blessing for Harrison, who, in his determination to send over the companies to take Stuff Trench after as much “rest” as could be found in that Golgotha, had arranged that they should advance from the reserve trench direct to the assault. And by way of novelty the assault was to be made soon after noon; the men would therefore have to move forward in broad day and over a sufficiently long approach—liable to the air’s jealous eyes. Watches were synchronized and reconsigned to the officers, the watch hands slipped round as they do at a dance or a prize distribution; then all the anxiety came to a height and piercing extreme, and the companies moving in “artillery formation”—groups presenting a kind of diamond diagram—passed by Harrison’s headquarters in foul Zollern Trench. He stood on the mound roof of his dugout, a sturdy, simple, and martial figure, calling out to those as they went in terms of faith and love. Lapworth, who had just joined us, went by at the rear of his company, a youth with curling golden hair and drawing-room manners, sweetly swinging his most subalternish cane from its leather thong; and he was the last to go by.

Orders had been admirably obeyed; the waves extended, the artillery gave tongue at the exact moment. The barrage was heavy, but its uproar was diffused in this open region. Harrison had nothing to do but wait, and I with him, for I was acting as his right-hand man in this operation. News of the attack always seems to take years in reaching headquarters, and it almost always gets worse as it is supplemented. At last some messages, wildly scribbled, as may be imagined, but with a clearness of expression that may not be so readily imagined, came to Zollern Trench. One was from Doogan; Stuff Trench was taken, there were few men left, and he had “established bombing blocks.” G. Salter had sent back some forty prisoners. A message was brought with some profanity by my old friend C. S. M. Lee, whose ripped shirt was bloody, and who could not frankly recommend Stuff Trench. The concrete emplacement halfway thither, looking so dangerous on the maps, had not been found dangerous, and the gunner’s preparation there had been adequate; but, he said, we were being blown out of Stuff Trench. Should we be able to hold it? We—ll, we was ‘olding it when I got THIS; and so departed Lee, tall, blasphemous, and brave.

Looking about in the now hazier October light, I saw some German prisoners drifting along, and I stopped them. One elderly gentleman had a jaw which seemed insecurely suspended; which I bound up with more will than skill, and obtained the deep reward of a look so fatherly and hopeful as seldom comes again; others, not wounded, sourly and hesitatingly observed my directions down the communication trench. As they went, heavy German shells were searching thoroughly there, and I do not think they ever got through. Their countrymen lay thick in these parts. Even the great shell hole which we hazardously used as a latrine was overlooked by the sprawling corpses of two of them, and others lay about it.

Our regimental sergeant major was by this time in disgrace. This man, so swift in spirit and intelligence, had lifted his water bottle too often in the business of getting the battalion into action; and he had not unreasonably filled the bottle with rum. In the horrid candlelight of the deep dugout he had endeavoured to keep going and with piteous resolution answered what he thought the substance of his colonel’s questions; but it would not do, and Sergeant Ashford, the bright and clever signaller, took his place. Again the night came on; and in the captured trench the remnant who had primed themselves with the spirituous hope of being relieved had to hear that no relief was yet forthcoming. Their experience was to be gauged from the fact that even the company held in support in our original front line, employed on incidental tasks, was reported to be exhausted, and its commander appealed to Harrison for relief in ultimatory terms.[2]

Blunden writes vividly from the rear of the battle, and with the calm care that retrospection affords. It may be that he holds himself back from delivering painful news, or it may be that no one at headquarters yet knew the true cost of the attack and that the battalion diary was fixed up afterwards when there was more time for clerical work. (The diary is neatly typed, and even its draft form was probably not kept up day-by-day when the battalion was attacking.)

But the cost was heavy, and the official record comes down like an axe on the short-arced tragedy that Blunden has prepared. Doogan, of course, was right, and F. H. Salter was no luckier.

This is the entirety of the battalion diary for today, a century back:

The Battn. capture German First line (STUFF TRENCH) “B” & “C” Coys assaulted “A” & “D” Coys reinforced them in the new line. Heavy casualties were inflicted on the Enemy & many Prisoners taken. 2nd Lieuts. Ivens Salter & Doogan Killed, 2nd LIEUTE. V.H.B. D’Ivernoie & 2nd Lt. P.J. Hayes wounded–11 O.Rs killed 185 O.Rs wounded and 77 O.R missing.

Did Geoffrey Salter, sent back with the prisoners, know yet that his brother was dead?

To be clear, the 77 “missing” other ranks are surely almost all dead. Some may have fled or been wounded and misplaced–or even, conceivably, gone too far ahead and been captured. But most of the “missing,” in this war, are dead men whose bodies could not be carried back… it seems as if roughly a third of the battalion have become casualties.

It’s surprising, then, to realize that the beautiful young Lapworth has survived the battle…

 

While the Royal Sussex battled for the rest of Stuff Trench, Tolkien’s Lancashires were operating only a few hundred yards further east.[3] Marching up yesterday from Ovillers Post, their attacking companies were provided with weapons and other equipment and then assembled at Hessian Trench. Tolkien spent the night at Battalion headquarters, near ‘Lancs Trench’ (south of the detail above), trying to maintain communications between his battalion and the brigade.

Today, a century back, then, Tolkien was “in action” with his battalion, although like Blunden he would have been in the rear of the attacking companies. The 11th Lancashire Fusiliers attacked under the same just-after-noon barrage as the Royal Sussex, and had been “set the task of taking a five hundred-yard section of Regina Trench where it is at its closest to Hessian Trench.”

They seem to have had an easier time of it, coordinating well with the “walking” barrage and finding little resistance. The Lancashires took their objectives in a half hour and suffered “15 killed, 26 missing, and 117 wounded.” In these days this is a light toll.

Their signals officer–a 20th century man charged with maintaining electronic battlefield communications (if we may so dignify primitive telephone and telegraph lines)–also reported the success to Division by means of carrier pigeon…[4]

Tolkien noted the battle in his diary, but he will not choose to write much–if anything at all–about it.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Despite the similar names, the two battalions were in different divisions, the 25th and the 39th. It is an organizational quirk that the two writers came into action so close to each other--if the proximity is noted elsewhere I don't know of it... but it's a pretty general coincidence.
  2. Undertones of War, 107-9.
  3. As far as I can tell--I should have consulted the relevant divisional histories for operational details of this closely-confined battle, which is too small and too undramatic to get much attention in full scale histories of the Somme, but I haven't had a chance to do so.
  4. Chronology, 93-4.