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.

A. A. Milne Loses a Bet and Dares a Bullet; C.E. Montague to the Rescue

Today, a century back, Alan A. Milne, former Punch mainstay and current battalion signals officer, wrote to his brother and sister-in-law. Things have been better since the horrors of July–a long stretch in reserve, the writer coming to the notice of the divisional general–but now the battalion is moving again. Milne, uxorious and ardent, is moved to tell his sister-in-law (“Maudie”) how he plans to spend his time once he is reunited with his wife (“Daff.”)

Oh Maudie… When the war is over Daff and I are going to sit hand in hand for the rest of our lives. We shall never go and see anybody, and if anybody comes to see us they will have to shake Daff’s right hand and my left. If you want to know what being in love is like come out here.

…Daff bet me 10/- when I came out that I’d be home by October 20th–nothing but a nice cushy wound can do it now, so I look like being 10/- up. I have already chosen my present–a case for her letters. At present I carry them in my pocket, and there are enough now to make a bullet think twice.

True love, then–and let us hope that Milne and his hesitating bullets will not test the truth of the old “bullet in a bible” story. But when it comes to talismans redundancy is always best: in addition to this personal pocket scripture, Milne carried a toy dog given to him by Daphne when he left for France.[1]

 

After his brave sally at trench warfare as a middle-aged sergeant, C.E. Montague has fallen back on a commission and an Intelligence job shepherding V.I.P.s around the battlefield–or, rather, about the relatively-safe-but-thrillingly-scenic immediate rear. But safety is just that–relative. We recently found Lady Feilding cracking wise about earning her medals with the fire brigade, but Montague really was out of the frying pan last night, a century back. Even Amiens, capital of the Somme rear areas, may be hit by aircraft… or accident.

Oct. 13.—About eleven at night I see part of top floor of Hôtel du Rhin burning gaily heavenward. Going across, I find rooms over old wing burning, and burning wood beginning to fall on the stairs. French firemen have a hose up the stairs and are working well; but staircase is threatened. I go up and go through all bedrooms on first and second floors, but find everyone has bolted except a Colonial officer with a game leg, whom I drive forth–in his pyjamas, boots and overcoat. Fire is put out soon afterwards. I go back to the mess and tell them. . . . A Commodore of the R.N., visiting at the mess, jumps up, says, ‘I must go and see that my chauffeur is all right’.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Thwaite, A. A. Milne, 177-8.
  2. Elton, C.E. Montague, 146-8.

Edmund Blunden on Digging for Keeps and Waiting for the Deep Blue Lights; Robert Graves Meets Lloyd George; Francis Ledwidge Rebels, a Little

Reconnaissance of KEEPS and Routes to O[ld]. B[ritish]. L[ine]. Quiet Day. Fatigues on R.E. work. Weather fine.[1]

Again, today, a century back, the War Diary of the 11th Royal Sussex gives us a give opportunity to dip into Edmund Blunden‘s continuing trench education.

It’s usually hard to tell one trench sector from another, but there are a few unusual places–the breastworks of the Salient, the Cuinchy brickstacks, the Islands, and, now, the keeps near Festubert.

Our men lived in the “keeps” which guarded the village line. East Keep in particular was a murky cellar and emplacement. To go from keep to keep alone in the hour before dawn, by way of supervising the “stand to arms,” was an eccentric journey. Then, the white mist (with the wafting perfume of cankering funeral wreaths) was quietly and deceivingly working its way above the pale grass; the frogs in their fens were uttering their long-drawn “co-aash, co-aash”; and from the line the popping of rifles grew more and more threatening, and more and more bullets flew past the white summer path. Festubert was a great place for bullets. They made a peculiar anthem, some swinging past with a full cry, some cracking loudly like a child’s burst bag, some in ricochet from the wire or the edge of ruins groaning as in agony or whizzing like gnats. Giving such things their full value, I took my road with no little pride and fear; one morning I feared very sharply, as I saw what looked like a rising shroud over a wooden cross in the thick mist. Horror! but on a closer study I realized that the apparition was only a flannel gas helmet spread out over the memorial.

The quiet life here yet had its casualties, for we were sent up as working parties in the nighttime, to dig a new communication trench. The procession groped dispassionately past the church with its toppling crucifix, and the brewery’s sentinel in the shadow (“That you, Dick?” “‘Ow’s business, Dick?”), along the Old British Line, and so to the place of work. All trenches hereabouts were merely cast-up ridges of earth held in places by stakes, wire, hurdles, and wooden framework. Underneath their floors of boards and slats water stagnated, and an indescribable nocturnal smell, mortal, green-weedy, ratty, accompanied the tramp of our boots to and fro. The process of thickening the trench walls meant working in the open, and the enemy laid his machine guns accurately enough on the new job which could not be concealed from him, letting drive as he chose. So we lost men. The company worked well, though not in very good temper; the continued want of rest was naturally resented; but they were men who knew how to use spades, and I was ashamed of my puny hasty efforts in comparison with their long and easy stroke. After work, there was a glow of satisfaction among us. The nights being cold as yet, a soup kitchen was still kept open in Festubert, and we were glad of it. There I first saw F. Worley, a glorious fellow whose real connection with my story begins somewhat later.

This next bit is only very loosely connected to this day, or any other, but it’s one of the very best–beautiful, sad; hopeless, hopeful; rooted in reality, blithely fanciful:

Over all our night activities the various German lights tossed their theatrical horror. Three blue lights, it was half humorously said, were the signal for peace; as time, went on the definition was revised — four black lights. But superstition could not be altogether thrust back in this district of miasma and mist, and when one evening a wisp of vapour was seen by my working party to glide over the whole sky from west to east, preserving all the time a strange luminous whiteness and an obvious shape, as some said, that of a cross, as others antipathetically held, of a sword, then there was a subdued conversation about it. My batman, Shearing, whose characteristic attitude was “It is the Lord: let Him do what seemeth Him good,” told me that he read coming disaster in this sword.[2]

 

Next, today, two brief updates. First, Robert Graves is back in London, listening, with his father, to David Lloyd-George–Welshman, recent Chancellor of the Exchequer, current Minister of Munitions and leader of the Liberal opposition–give a speech to the “Honourable Cymmrodorion Society.” Graves “felt that ‘the substance of what he was saying was common-place, idle and false’, and noted that his eyes ‘were like those of a sleep-walker.'” Graves met the great man after the speech, and then went off for a weekend visit to Charterhouse, his old school.[3]

 

Finally, today, a century back, Francis Ledwidge committed to a symbolic act of semi-rebellion. He had reached Ireland a few days ago, but he had spent much of his leave stewing in Manchester, waiting for the travel restrictions to Ireland to be lifted. His leave is now up, but instead of reporting to his regiment in Derry he went to Richmond Barracks in Dublin and demanded an extension. Ledwidge, an ardent nationalist who has nevertheless fought loyally for Britain–against a common foe, as he sees it–was apparently insulted by the officer’s immediate refusal, which came with a “slighting” reference to the rebellion. Standing in a barrack that had recently hosted the injudiciously swift trial and death sentences of several of the rebel leaders–including Ledwidge’s “good friends” Pearce and MacDonagh–Ledwidge made an impromptu, insubordinate speech. Threats were issued, but Ledwidge walked away, and deliberately took his time heading north…[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. 11th Royal Sussex War Diary, May 1916, Appendix, 3.
  2. Undertones of War, chapter two, "Trench Education."
  3. R. P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 147-8. R.P. Graves has this occurring on "Friday the 18th," but I don't know if he mistakes the date or the day.
  4. Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 159.