Wilfred Owen on “Militarian Subjects”–or Not; Olaf Stapledon Can’t Forget That There Are Trenches in the World

Wilfred Owen‘s letter of today, a century back, begins in a rather precious mode of poetic reverie but then quickly subsides back toward the plane of daily life. First, he tells his mother of plans to visit the school with which had been very involved during his “ergotherapy” at Edinburgh. This is a happy subject–a remembrance of good times, the pleasure and fulfillment he felt in teaching and in the admiration of the boys for the young officer come to instruct them. But while the mood stays jaunty–it almost always does, in these letters–the thread leads straight back to war. There is a shadow, even in a breezy letter from this sunny, undecorated, unheralded “major domo,” of the substance of Sassoon‘s protest–and of Owen’s determination (which may make his mother profoundly uncomfortable) to treat the suffering of the soldiers in Christian terms.

13 December 1917, Scarborough

Dearest Mother,

It is the quarter of an hour after lunch. The coffee has given me satisfaction and everybody else. (I serve coffee after lunch as well as dinner.) So I sit in the middle of my five-windowed turret, and look down upon the sea. The sun is valiant in its old age. I draw the Venetian blinds, so that the shadow of the lattices on the table gives an illusion of great heat…

Yesterday I was sent the Tynecastle School Magazine, very amusing. Mrs. Fullerton writes again this morning, reminding me how I promised to go up there for my first leave.

‘You can imagine our welcome better than I can write’ they say. Now, I find that Leave from Friday Night to Monday Night is granted every month! But Mrs. Fullerton is leaving the school for ever on the 21st. in order to be with her husband who will soon get sent out again.

There is much talk of Education for the ‘A 4’s’ of the Battalion, that is the tender younglings. I have been ‘approached’ on the subject, but I shall not consent to lecture on Militarian subjects. The scheme either comes of a desperate feeling that the race is going to perdition intellectually or else it is a Jesuitical movement to catch ’em young, & prepare them for the Eucharist of their own blood.

Dearest love from W.E.O.[1]


Interestingly, our other letter today is from Olaf Stapledon, the young pacifist whose entire war service has been a protest, as well as a “sacrifice” in the looser sense of something given (at great length and effort) where it might have been (selfishly) withheld. Stapledon, home on leave–in Merseyside, just across the island from Scarborough–is stewing, disgusted with the complacency and luxury which persist.

Stapledon and Owen are very different men in very different positions, but it’s tempting to consider some sort of equivalency. Stapledon, despite a period of crisis about the rights and wrongs of serving as an ambulance man (rather than as either a soldier or a pacifist abstainer, ready for the other martyrdom of prison and social ignominy) has been shielded from the full misery of the war: he has not had to fight, or sit for many hours under enemy shelling. He has been in danger and he has seen terrible things, but nothing so terrible as a long, muddy tour in front-line trenches. So is he, in late 1917, only now approaching the mild level of disgust of a 1915 or early 1916 infantryman, while Owen has gone through all that in a few short weeks at the front (and a few long months recovering) and moved beyond it, to happy forgetfulness pottering about in a base job, picking out furniture, visiting old friends, and not thinking about what comes next?

Tempting–but I should have resisted. What’s the point, after all, of a strict timeline (i.e. the whole war, day by day) if I don’t resist the temptation to validate it by twisting it in different directions? Suffice it to say that today, a century back, Stapledon–who has never doubted that fighting the war is wrong–is wondering about who and what those who are fighting are fighting for. Are those for whom the sacrifices are allegedly being made worthy of them? The logical next step is to question, again, whether taking any action that enables the continuation of the war is morally justifiable.


13 December 1917

. . . I am all adrift, all sixes and sevens and so bored, bored to tears with the war and my own stodgy self. This leave has been somehow unreal. It has largely consisted in going round talking platitudes to people about the war, and in slipping back comfortably into the artificial life that we all lead at home in our most excessive middle class luxury. Plates & dishes & knives & forks & furniture beyond the wildest need, & all so beautifully clean. Fires, hot baths, dainty food–& yet there are trenches in the world.[2]


References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 516.
  2. Talking Across the World, 260.

Wilfred Owen: Here is Poetry; Sassoon’s Example Furthered, and Traduced; Cynthia Asquith and Duff Cooper on the Air Raid–and (at Long Last!) a Discussion of Rasputin’s Endowment

Wilfred Owen is proving himself to be a man at ease with many roles: he runs a military hotel by day, but in his free time he vies with antique dealers, writes chatty letters to his mother, composes febrile poetry, and attends to the delicate balance of camaraderie and flattery (not to say worshipful enthusiasm) best calculated to hold his new friend’s personal interest while also soliciting his critical attention…

6 December 1917 Scarborough

My friend,

I shall continue to poop off heavy stuff at you, till you get my range at Scarborough, and so silence me, for the time. This ‘Wild with all Regrets’ was begun & ended two days ago, at one gasp. If simplicity, if imaginativeness, if sympathy, if resonance of vowels, make poetry I have not succeeded. But if you say ‘Here is poetry,’ it will be so for me.

What do you think of my Vowel-rime stunt in this, and ‘Vision’? Do you consider the hop from Flea to Soul too abrupt?[1]

Alas, I am not sure which poem “Vision” refers to, But the “flea”  bit is Owen is asking Siegfried Sassoon‘s advice about “Wild with all Regrets.” Owen’s self-deprecating comments are not simply pro-forma: the draft needs work.

But there is no lack of confidence here either, as the second paragraph shows. Owen is asking advice, but he is also pointing to a significant innovation in his poetry, the use of what he calls “vowel-rime,” a sort of half-rhyming that is unconventional yet fits very well with what is emerging as his method: to write traditionally-structured poems that go deep into horror and pathos while avoiding triteness. To rhyme in a way more consonant with speech is to avoid chiming, to avoid sounding just a bit too much like Tennyson, who never sung of shell-shocked men or bodies torn apart by explosives.



Following Owen’s presentation of evidence on how Sassoon’s influence is advancing the cause of war poetry, we have a sort of cross-examination to deal with. If Sassoon’s lead in speaking directly of the war’s horrors, of taking a colloquial voice in formal diction (more Hardy than Kipling, in its antecedents; more Drummer Hodge than Barrack Room Ballads) and using it to criticize the war can spur Owen towards his masterpieces of anguish, can his example also be betrayed for the purposes of military propaganda?

Oh, yes indeed. Gilbert Frankau, a rare presence here but a vigorous one during the war as he worked to stake a claim to the literary territory a brow and a half down the ladder of popular taste from Robert Nichols, is eager to support the cause. Even–and, if we are to be consistent, this is much to his credit, in a way–to the point of insisting on the rightness of its most disturbing concomitants. Like shooting your own men for running away. After all, doesn’t one propagandize pour encourager les autres?

Today, a century back, Frankau wrote three stanzas of Sassoonish pith that one would like to read as bitterly ironic. But if the form is Sassoonish, the mode isn’t: this will be the preface to a long, unironic, and “pitiless” poem in which the spirit of the titular deserter is barred from Valhalla…


The Deserter

I’m sorry I done it, Major.’
We bandaged the livid face;
And led him out, ere the wan sun rose,
To die his death of disgrace.

The bolt-heads locked to the cartridges;
The rifles stead to rest,
As cold stock nestled at colder cheek
And foresight lined on the breast.

‘Fire’ called the Sergeant-Major.
The muzzles flamed as he spoke:
And the shameless soul of a nameless man
Went up in cordite-smoke.[2]


It is a commonplace–or should be–of the study of the war’s literature to remind the reader that pro-war poetry and deeply traditional stuff were overwhelmingly more popular than Sorley/Sassoon et. al., during the war, and that “Disenchantment” didn’t set in until the wave of memoirs crested ten years after the armistice. And yet… Frankau’s little piece is not Brooke or “In Flanders Fields” or even an updated “Light Brigade.” It’s not simply pro-war, pro-violence, or a troublingly untroubled depiction of violent death: it’s a vindictive celebration of cold-blooded killing. A bloody-minded jingo could surely argue that “such things are necessary,” and even make the point that these poetic chaps should be commended for reminding us of what happens to bloody cowards, the stick to the carrot of heroic satisfaction…

But that doesn’t it make it any less disgusting. Sassoon perfected the hammer-blow line-end to make us feel the terrible waste of war. Frankau reduces it once more to doggerel, and celebrates that waste.


So much for war literature in England, today.

And what about the war? Well, there was an air raid in the early morning, which Sassoon, in London between hunts, only mentions in passing when he returns to his diary (he will, however, have something more to say about it presently, in a letter). But Cynthia Asquith weighs in with a nice dismissive mot:

Thursday, 6th December

Was woken at five by guns—another air-raid at last! I like them with my dinner, not with my dreams, felt sleepy and bored…[3]


Which would be the best upper-class-diary-mention-of-the-air-raid were it not for Duff Cooper‘s entry in the field. Cooper, on leave for the weekend, manages to undermine his own recent idealization of the halcyon trip to Venice, then give us our most bizarre and tangential mention of the events of Russia’s conspicuously eventful year, and only then get to the air raid…

Dined… in Upper Berkeley Street… Bertie Stopford drove me home. He is a notorious bugger and was very attentive to me, saying I looked younger than when he last saw me which was in Venice before the war, He has been in Russia for some time and talked to me about the murder of Rasputin. After Rasputin was dead, Felix [Yusupov] Elston fell on the body and beat it. Felix told Stopford this himself. He suspects that there had been some relationship between Felix and Rasputin. The great charm of the latter for women was that when he had them he never came and so could go on forever. Also he had three large warts on his cock.

I have forgotten to mention that at five o’clock this morning there was an air raid…

So the bombing didn’t make the biggest impression, being less notable, on first consideration, than third-hand information about Rasputin’s genitalia. What a piece of work is man, etc.

Cooper, who had never yet been in London for a major air raid, found it strange. “It was difficult to realize that this was war going on in London.” But he was not unduly alarmed, and considered it a good first test of his courage under fire. He was back in bed before the anti-aircraft guns ceased….[4]


References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 514-15.
  2. See Hibberd and Onions, ed., Winter of the World, 190-1.
  3. Diaries, 377.
  4. Diary, 62.

Olaf Stapledon Frozen Stiff; Siegfried Sassoon All Over the Place; Edward Thomas Lands in France

Olaf Stapledon, king of the dreamers, ambulance driver of the milky way, ardent lover of the half-a-world-distant Agnes… is very cold.


Frost, frost frost! Day after day of it, bright, beautiful and bitter cold. Since I wrote last much has happened. We got a sudden order to trek, accompanied by a document ‘not to be opened until the hour of departure.’ Our journey was not a long one, but we took two days over it…

Olaf and the Friends Ambulance Unit have moved to Châlons-sur-Marne, in support of the French army. For the first time, I think, the conditions of service have brought his high-flying and free-floating writing down to the ground, with a dull thump. There is only one thing he can write about.

The journey was made difficult by the frost. Every possible thing froze up. Hot water froze as soon as it reached the ground. One’s fingers froze to everything… I believe the thermometer was not very far from zero Fahrenheit…

This place is quite a big town, very far from the front, but at the base of the greatest of the French salients. If we are stuck here doing evacuation work forever, we shall be very depressed; but if this is merely a stage on the way to this new and important front, all is well.

Meanwhile oh for an end of the frost! … This is not a letter, because everything is so higgledy piggledy and frozen up that one simply can’t write yet. You know, don’t you dear, that there’s nothing I would rather do than write to you all the day, but it is not possible now… Your mittens have had such hard wear that they are already in holes…[1]


Courage, Olaf. And what of Siegfried Sassoon, ever since he wryly described his willing-and-unavoidable submission to the coldly irritable mustache that sent him back to the non-metaphorical freeze of the front? We step back two days, and find ourselves gusted upwards on a wave of angry exaltation.

January 28

I have lived and dreamed so immune, since August, that without knowing it I had forgotten the significance of going out again, although the thought of it has passed in my head a thousand times but only as a shadow, not the real storming tumult of fiends and angels.

Now the wings of death are over me once more. And while my body cries out that they are a savage threat (cowering as a bird under the hawk’s shadow in the sun) something within me lifts adoring hands, something is filled with noble passion and desire for that benison and promise of freedom. And all the greatness that was mine last year shall be mine again; and what that happiness means, who shall say, or foretell the end and the sequel?

Now that is a mood that defeats history. It cannot represent–cannot belong to–a single day in the history of the war, but only, rather, to a day in the life of one man. Sassoon is not even our most passionate writer–although never our least passionate, and not the most even-keeled. Will the fires of passion soar? Or bank, or stoop upon some nearer target?

January 29

Went to a concert of chamber music in a restaurant… all very well played by Arthur Catterall and his men (the pianist R. J. Forbes)…

Or sputter. Modern war is no faithful friend of emotional fortitude. Who is built for the psychological jibs and jabs of a hurry-up-and-wait bureaucracy? But he did know it would take a few weeks…

And so to today, a century back, some equilibrium, obtained by his usual means–retrospection:

January 30

…Weather still dreary and harsh, looks like snow, very severe frost since January 22. Procter in here very elated as he’d been passed for General Service again. Having been wounded at the first Battle of Ypres in November 1914, at Gallipoli in November 1915, and gassed at Plug Street Wood in October 1916, one would think he’s had enough of General Service!

This time last year we’d just got up to Morlancourt for the first time. And two years ago I left Canterbury with my broken arm and got home for two months of writing nature-poems. And three years ago I was having my hunting stopped by a week’s frost, and wondering if life would ever be anything but utterly futile!

And now I’m sitting by a stove in a stuffy hut and reading a silly book by Arnold Bennett. And it don’t matter to him whether I like his book or not, or whether I’m dead by breakfast-time.[2]


And Edward Thomas is in France, at last. It’s been just a year since he wrote the poem that fixed his eyes on this day. “Roads” is now fulfilled, and all roads lead up to the guns. Thomas’s diary entry is spare, and confirms what we must hope: that he is intent on recording the sensory impressions of his experiences, grist for the powerful poetic mill he has built over the last two years.

Arrived Havre 4 a.m. Light of stars and windows of tall pale houses and electric arcs on quay. Marching through bales of cotton in sun to camp. The snow first emptying its castor of finest white. Tents. Mess full of subalterns censoring letters…[3]


References and Footnotes

  1. Talking Across the World, 201-2.
  2. Diaries, 127-9.
  3. War Diary (Childhood), 158.

Ivor Gurney on Ledwidge and the Poor Folk; Patrick Shaw Stewart is Foiled by Diana; Wilfred Owen on England, and the Abode of Madness

Patrick Shaw Stewart has been too long in Limbo. Or, more accurately, in Macedonia, which is no one’s idea of either a glamorous or a crucial theater of war. His society there is limited mostly to French career officers. It could be worse, one would think, but Shaw Stewart has different standards: his ambition is to scale the heights of English society… and today, a century back, at long last, he arrived back in England. Instead of staying in London or going to visit his family he went straight for Belvoir, where Diana Manners was ensconced. Sometimes, brilliant or beautiful people–brilliant, beautiful, and frequently not-so-nice people–get what they deserve. Manners is or was the muse to many men, and many of these have been killed–Raymond Asquith was the greatest loss. But just because the suitors are being winnowed by war does not mean that Diana is ready to give up bow, quiver, and pack.

One assumes that Shaw Stewart was invited, but Manners was not looking forward to the visit, and “feared he was going to propose to her.” A telegram to another beau, Duff Cooper, joked “Pray God with me to face this great ordeal and to let me triumph.” But she was evidently more than a match for a single gallivanting officer.  Without having proposed, Shaw Stewart will move on tomorrow from Belvoir to Panshanger, where Lady Desborough is throwing the third of four consecutive weekend parties. Shaw Stewart will get to mix with lords, politicians, society belles, and the ghostly absence of her two elder sons, his friends Julian and Billy.[1]


Just a brief note on Edward Thomas‘s war diary for today, a century back. He merely jotted a few lines, but these nevertheless convey the strange ways in which officers in a different sort of Limbo–Codford is a staging camp, and orders for France may appear at any point, now–spend their days scattered among disparate activities. Thomas inspected latrines, issued pay to the men of the battery, wrote letters, learned to ride a motorcycle, and received, with a letter from his wife Helen, an edition of Shakespeare’s sonnets.[2]


Ivor Gurney has been writing prolifically to Marion Scott, of late, and today another of our poets crosses his pen:

O tis cold! but this barn is pretty strawy, and my oil-sheet is over my legs, and I go straight on. Merely through boredom I have turned out another masterpiece today. Also having seen the Observers appreciation of Ledwidge’s description of the robins note as being like tiny cymbals, I looked for a robin, found one, heard it — and dont agree, altogether. He must have thought a lot to have written that description — it being too out of the way to be spontaneously observed. Now please turn back to the back of page one, where further grace will flow from my pen.

Interesting, both in the critique and the unusually confident note of humorous self-deprecation. It feels like Gurney has put his finger upon one more way that the poetry of 1917 is betwixt and between: we cannot get by without robins (not to mention larks and nightingales)–but are we really listening to them anymore?

But Gurney is unique among our poets in the quality of his ear. He is–we shouldn’t for a moment forget this–a trained musician and a composer, and sounds are his province. His mood is light today, as he trips from the usual parcel-thank-yous to joking about the dearth of local musical facilities… and yet we could almost read this as a most grave lament.

I think everything you have sent me has arrived now. There are no stragglers left. Binyons verses, for which I thank you are here also, but — O I need a piano; though two verses are pretty well settled in me. For the sum of one franc I got an hour on a faint toned piano yesterday; but that was not good enough, and there was no Bach, my fingers were stiff and my mind wandering allways . . .

I should leave it there… it’s beautiful and sad, and not altogether crazy–there must be many officers in safe jobs behind the lines with regular access to pianos… But Gurney is a private, and isolated, here: Marion Scott is a faithful friend and a great help in his work, but her connections are relatively humble and run through the musical world. Gurney is far from the seething centers of war poetry–Clitherland Camp, Eddie Marsh’s office, the Poetry Bookshop–and his craft is still happily Georgian. But his opinions are, naturally, beginning to show a certain disenchantment. His latest poems have sung the scenery of his beloved Gloucester, but today he turns to the people:


Poor Folk

We wonder how the poor get on in England,
Who wonder how the troops get on in France.
We’re better off than many folks in England,
Although we’ve got to face the Great Advance…

Oh when at last there comes the Judgement Day,
I’ll ask of God some questions that he must
Answer me well. Or I’ll choose rather to be
Some free spirit of Hell, or merely dust.

As how the poor who fight so well in France,
Die with a smile for England in some ditch.
Seem never really to get a proper chance —
Their wars and justice made for them by the rich.[3]


And finally, today, Wilfred Owen. His last letter described his first, intense experience of the front line, and it marked a major watershed in his writing. But history too can tense and slacken as experience distends and relaxes (the emotional rhythm, too, of regular trench service) and today’s letter, although still that of a changed man, moves back toward a more familiar register.

Friday, 19 January 1917 [2nd Manchester Regt., B.E.F.]

We are now a long way back in a ruined village, all huddled together in a farm. We all sleep in the same room where we eat and try to live. My bed is a hammock of rabbit-wire stuck up beside a great shell hole in the wall. Snow is deep about, and melts through the gaping roof, on to my blanket. We are wretched beyond my previous imagination—but safe.

Last night indeed I had to ‘go up’ with a party. We got lost in the snow. I went on ahead to scout—foolishly alone—and when, half a mile away from the party, got overtaken by


It was only tear-gas from a shell, and I got safely back (to the party) in my helmet, with nothing worse than a severe fright! And, a few tears, some natural, some unnatural.

Here is an Addition to my List of Wants:

Safety Razor (in my drawer) & Blades
Socks (2 pairs)
6 Handkerchiefs
Celluloid Soap Box (Boots)
Cigarette Holder (Bone, Sd. or 6d.)
Paraffin for Hair.

(I can’t wash hair and have taken to washing my face with snow.)

Coal, water, candles, accommodation, everything is scarce. We have not always air! When I took my helmet off last night—O Air it was a heavenly thing!

…I scattered abroad some 50 Field Post Cards from the Base, which should bring forth a good harvest of letters. But nothing but a daily one from you will keep me up…

Owen moves now to a brief but telling self-survey of how a combatant’s attitudes might change. There is too much here to even begin to unpack. Better to let the writer unburden himself and see what still troubles his mind in the next letter…

We have a Gramophone, and so musical does it seem now that I shall never more disparage one. Indeed I can never disparage anything in Blighty again for a long time except certain parvenus living in a street of the same name as you take to go to the Abbey.

They want to call No Man’s Land ‘England’ because we keep supremacy there.

It is like the eternal place of gnashing of teeth; the Slough of Despond; could be contained in one of its crater-holes; the fires of Sodom and Gomorrah could not light a candle to it—to find the way to Babylon the Fallen.

It is pock-marked like a body of foulest disease and its odour is the breath of cancer.[4]

I have not seen any dead. I have done worse. In the dank air I have perceived it, and in the darkness, felt.

Those ‘Somme Pictures’ are the laughing stock of the army—like the trenches on exhibition in Kensington.

No Man’s Land under snow is like the face of the moon chaotic, crater-ridden, uninhabitable, awful, the abode of madness.

To call it ‘England’!

I would as soon call my House (!) Krupp Villa, or my child Chlorina-Phosgena.

Now I have let myself tell you more facts than I should, in the exuberance of having already done ‘a Bit.’ It is done, and we are all going still farther back for a long time. A long time. The people of England needn’t hope. They must agitate. But they are not yet agitated even. Let them imagine 50 strong men trembling as with ague for 50 hours!

Dearer & stronger love than ever. W.E.O.[5]


References and Footnotes

  1. Edwardian Meteor, 221.
  2. War Diary (Childhood), 155.
  3. War Letters, 122-3.
  4. This letter, too, will be the basis for--or shows the first metaphorical feeling toward--a later poem.
  5. Collected Letters, 428-9.

Bullets for John Ball and Private Watcyn: One More Day in Mametz Wood with David Jones and Wyn Griffith


The frontispiece: John Ball, crucified in the wood, and wounded in the leg

In the early morning hours today, a century back, in tangled, shell-swept thickets of Mametz Wood, Private David Jones of the 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers was shot in the lower leg. So too is Private John Ball, the figure at the center of Jones’s In Parenthesis.

And to Private Ball it came as if a rigid beam of great weight
flailed about his calves, caught from behind by ballista-baulk
let fly or aft-beam slewed to clout gunnel-walker
below below below.
When golden vanities make about,
you’ve got no legs to stand on.
He thought it disproportionate in its violence considering
the fragility of us.
The warm fluid percolates between his toes and his left boot
fills, as when you tread in a puddle–he crawled away in the
opposite direction.


Alone amidst the chaos, his training reasserts itself, and John Ball worries about abandoning his weapon as he limps toward the rear. But Jones interweaves his thoughts–the dictates and hearty bon mots of the R.S.M.[1] involuntarily replay in his mind–with a wide array of eternal-soldier resonances.

It’s difficult with the weight of the rifle.
Leave it–under the oak.
Leave it for a salvage-bloke
let it lie bruised for a monument
dispense the authenticated fragments to the faithful.
It’s the thunder-besom for us
it’s the bright bough borne
it’s the tensioned yew for a Genoese jammed arbalest and a
scarlet square for a mounted mareschal, it’s that county-mob
back to back. Majuba mountain and Mons Cherubim and
spreaded mats for Sydney Street East, and come to Bisley
for a Silver Dish. It’s R.S.M. O’Grady says, it’s the soldier’s
best friend…

Picture 053

Jones’s Map of Mametz Wood

Coax it man coax it–it’s delicately and ingeniously made
–it’s an instrument of precision–it costs us tax-payers,
money–I want you men to remember that.
Fondle it like a granny–talk to it–consider it as you would
a friend–and when you ground these arms she’s not a rooky’s
gas-pipe for greenhorns to tarnish.
You’ve known her hot and cold.
You would choose her from among many.
You know her by her bias, and by her exact error at 300, and
by the deep scar at the small, by the fair flaw in the grain,
above the lower sling-swivel–
but leave it under the oak.

Slung so, it swings its full weight. With you going blindly on
all paws, it slews its whole length, to hang at your bowed neck
like the Mariner’s white oblation.
You drag past the four bright stones at the turn of Wood

“Wood Support” is the trench marked in red at the center of the map at right, nearly even with the first (i.e. southern) of the cross rides. Ball/Jones is now halfway back through the wood.

But halfway is another way to say “in the very midst of.” And here we reach the mythical climax of the poem as John Ball comes upon the Queen of the Woods, adorning her new subjects, the freshly dead:


David Jones

The Queen of the Woods has cut bright boughs of various
These knew her influential eyes. Her awarding hands can
pluck for each their fragile prize.
She speaks to them according to precedence. She knows
what’s due to this elect society. She can choose twelve
gentle-men. She knows who is most lord between the high
trees and on the open down.
Some she gives white berries
some she gives brown
Emil has a curious crown it’s
made of gold saxifrage.
Fatty wears sweet-briar,
he will reign with her for a thousand years.
For Balder she reaches to fetch his.
Ulrich smiles for his myrtle wand.
That swine Lillywhite has daisies to his chain–you’d hardly credit it.
She plaits torques of equal splendour for Mr Jenkins and
Billy Crower.
Hansel with Gronwy share dog-violets for a palm, where
they lie in serious embrace beneath the twisted tripod.

Men and myths, Germans and English Welsh, plaited, plighted together in death. But John Ball, and David Jones, are allowed to pass through. He has dragged his rifle–his arbalest, his albatross, his sword, his cross–this far.

At the gate of the wood you try a last adjustment, but slung
so, it’s an impediment, it’s of detriment to your hopes, you
had best be rid of it–the sagging webbing and all and what’s
left of your two fifty–but it were wise to hold on to your

You’re clumsy in your feebleness, you implicate your tin-hat
rim with the slack sling of it.
Let it lie for the dews to rust it, or ought you to decently
cover the working parts.
Its dark barrel, where you leave it under the oak, reflects
the solemn star that rises urgently from Cliff Trench.
It’s a beautiful doll for us
it’s the Last Reputable Arm.
But leave it–under the oak.
Leave it for a Cook’s tourist to the Devastated Areas and crawl
as far as you can and wait for the bearers.

This is epic, I suppose (it’s its own thing, really) but it’s also on that sweeping edge of Modernism that toys with something “post:”[2] this is kitchen-sink, practically encyclopedic poetry, and even David Jones can’t resist that characteristic point of view of the soldier of the Great War, namely a quiet, rueful irony. Leave the helmet, leave the rifle–leave them for the tourists soon to come.[3]


The last illustration from the book: the biblical scapegoat, caught in the barbed wire of the war-torn wood

And soon he is free of the wood, and we are at epic’s end. The last words of the poem proper reference the Song of Roland, putting us both back in the middle ages and right in the center of the problem of Modern War Literature.

The geste says this and the man who was on the field… and who wrote the book… the man
who does not know this has not understood anything

Has the author any authority? Only if he was there. We must read, but we may not understand.

At the very end of the poem Jones places one of his paintings–an image, that seems to echo Picasso even as it ties the book back into its most ancient ruminations–opposite a last flurry of biblical quotation. This is the scapegoat of the Hebrew Bible, innocent, unknowing, heaped with the sins of the people. And, here, pierced with a spear that recalls Greece, and the Middle Ages, and the wounds of Christ, the goat is caught up in the barbed wire wood. If John Ball–and David Jones–escaped, many remained. And they left something of themselves as well.


And David Jones, free of the wood, fell back into the arms of the state, the army, the structure that had almost killed him, and now rescued him. He is found by stretcher-bearers, the bullet still in his leg, and carried back toward Mametz village during the morning.

Where, at some point, he crossed paths with Llewelyn Wyn Griffith. Griffith is now serving as Staff Captain to General Evans of the 115th Brigade which has been ordered up to take over the defense of Mametz Wood. Before dawn, the general and his brigade major headed into the wood, leaving Griffith to coordinate between the brigade and the larger elements (i.e. the 38th Division hierarchy) in the rear. But very soon the Brigade Major is wounded and evacuated, and Griffith is sent for.

As Griffith enters the wood, David Jones is leaving the battlefield. Loaded into a motor ambulance, Jones was driven through Mametz Wood, where he once more saw the roller amidst the ruins. Jones slept most of the day and awoke to “the nicest thing in the world,” the voice of a cultivated Englishwoman, a nurse at the dressing station. Among the many things we have not really had time to discuss is the strange place of the feminine in David Jones’s poetry (but “strange” describes so much of it). This nurse is a real woman, but she cannot but recall to us the mothers’ arms evoked at the very beginning of Part 7, or the many references to the Virgin.

She is, too, the real-world doppelganger of the fevered fantasy of the Queen of the Woods, who did not claim him. Jones has emerged from the woods at this early crucible of his life. He has escaped death–and he has a blighty one.[4]



Llewelyn Wyn Griffith

Wyn Griffith, meanwhile, now must make the harrowing journey up into the wood, to assume a position of fairly great responsibility.

A month ago, my military horizon was bounded by the limits of a company of infantry; now I was to be both Brigade Major and Staff Captain to a Brigadier-General in the middle of a battle…

Griffith’s journey across the open ground between the trenches and the wood is harrowing–but at least the German machine guns have been eliminated since yesterday. The artillery, however, is located behind the German Second Line and is still firing accurately.

I passed through two barrages before I reached the Wood, one aimed at the body, and the other at the mind. The enemy was shelling the approach from the South with some determination, but I was fortunate enough to escape injury and to pass on to an ordeal ever greater. Men of my old battalion were lying dead on the ground in great profusion. They wore a yellow badge on their sleeves, and without this distinguishing mark, it would have been impossible to recognize the remains of many of them. I felt that I had run away.

Griffith’s old battalion is David Jones’s, the 15th Royal Welch Fusililers. These, then, are the fallen comrades of John Ball: Aneirin Lewis, Mr. Jenkins, and the rest.

I borrowed from Griffith’s description of the wood yesterday, although it is proper to today, a century back.

My first acquaintance with the stubborn nature of the undergrowth came when I attempted to leave the main ride to escape a heavy shelling. I could not push through it, and had to return to the ride. Years of neglect had turned the wood into a formidable barrier, a mile deep. Heavy shelling of the southern end had beaten down some of the young growth, but it had also thrown trees and large branches into a barricade. Equipment, ammunition, rolls of barbed wire, tins of food, gas-helmets and rifles were lying about everywhere. There were more corpses than men, but there were worse sights than corpses.

He continues:

Limbs and mutilated trunks and here and there a detached head, forming splashes of red against the green leaves, and, as in advertisement of the horror of our way of life and death, and of our crucifixion of youth, one tree held in its branches a leg, with its torn flesh hanging down over a spray of leaf…

It would seem that David Jones’s poem, whatever its interpenetretations of myth and chronicle, had no need of conventional poetical “license” to depict the horror of this battle. Griffith, too, in his memoir, is of mindful of the lines connecting simple battlefield slaughter to the rest of human existence–and of the mind’s inability to assimilate what the senses witness:

A message was now on its way to some quiet village in Wales, to a grey farmhouse on the slope of a hill running down to Cardigan Bay, or to a miner’s cottage in a South Wales valley, a word of death…

That the sun could shine on this mad cruelty and on the quiet peace of an upland tarn near Snowdon, at what we call the same instant of Time, threw a doubt upon all meaning in words. Death was warped from a thing of sadness into a screaming horror, not content with stealing life from its shell, but trampling in lunatic fury upon the rifled cabinet we call a corpse.

Brigadier General Evans, commanding the 115th Brigade and responsible for the Wood, has made a personal reconnaissance. He found the line not so far advanced as he had been led to believe: the enemy was still holding the northern section of the wood, and his men were exhausted. To put it in the mild words of the Regimental History, “the moral of some of the units was shaken.”

But first, the personal journey of Wyn Griffith, now in the greatest danger of his life:

There are times when fear drops below the threshold of the mind; never beyond recall, but far enough from the instant to become a background. Moments of great exaltation, of tremendous physical exertion, when activity can dominate over all rivals in the mind, the times of exhaustion that follow these great moments; these are, as I knew from the teachings of the months gone by, occasions of release from the governance of fear…

It was life rather than death that faded away into the distance as I grew into a state of not-thinking, not-feeling, not-seeing. I moved past trees, past other things… it seemed a little matter whether I were destined to go forward to death or to come back to life…

I reached a cross-ride in the wood where four lanes broadened into a confused patch of destruction. Fallen trees, shell holes, a hurriedly dug trench beginning and ending in an uncertain manner, abandoned rifles, broken branches with their sagging leaves, an unopened box of ammunition, sandbags half-filled with bombs, a derelict machine gun propping up the head of an immobile figure in uniform, with a belt of ammunition drooping from the breech into a pile of red-stained earth–this is the livery of war. Shells were falling, over and short, near and wide, to show that somewhere over the hill a gunner was playing the part of blind fate for all who walked past this well-marked spot. Here, in the struggle between bursting iron and growing timber, iron had triumphed and trampled over an uneven circle some forty yards in diameter. Against the surrounding wall of thick greenery the earth showed red and fresh, lit by the clean sunlight, and the splintered tree trunks shone with a damp whiteness, but the green curtains beyond could reveal nothing of greater horror than the disorder revealed in this clearing.
 …Near the edge of this ring I saw a group of officers. The Brigadier was talking to one of his battalion commanders, and Taylor, the Signals officer, was arguing with the Intelligence officer about the position on the map of two German machine-guns.Mametz Wood from RWF history The map itself was a sign of the shrinking of our world into a small compass: a sheet of foolscap paper bearing nothing but a large scale plan of Mametz Wood, with capital letters to identify its many corners, was chart enough for our adventure that day…

The map at right, from the Regimental history of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, is either this same specially-prepared battle map or a very similar one.

Griffith asks his brigadier what they intend to do.

‘Get your notebook and take down the position of affairs at the moment. We have been sent here to take over the line and to make secure against counter-attacks….’

‘Are we supposed to attack and clear the Wood?’

‘No…. I’ve told the battalion commanders to reconnoitre and to push out where they can…

‘If we have to attack later on, how do you propose to do it?’

‘By surprise,’ answered the General. ‘With the bayonet only. That’s the only way to get through the Wood. If the artillery will keep quiet, we can do it.’

Griffith writes a report of their intentions for the Divisional Staff and finds his friend Taylor, the brigade signals officer.

‘How can I get this to Division?’

‘Give it to me: that’s my job. I’ve got a telephone down at Queen’s Nullah, and if a runner can get out of the Wood and through the barrage, the message gets through.’

‘Are the runners getting through?’

‘Some don’t… Don’t give me any messages that are not absolutely essential and urgent. I’m getting short of men…’

It is at this moment that a runner reaches them with a message from Division, telling them that “it is quite impossible” that the enemy is holding the Wood, and that they should take the rest of it without delay. The general–yes, astute readers, Major General Blackader–is confident that he understands the situation better than the men on the ground, and there is no avoiding the order.

Next, a young staff officer–perhaps one of the “tunicled” men who legged it, yesterday, in the poem, but possibly a man from on-even-higher, an officer from Corps or Army–arrives with his own orders to attack.

The Brigadier listened to him with the patience of an older man coldly assessing the enthusiasm of youth. When the Staff Officer finished, the General spoke.

‘I’ve just had orders from the Division to attack and clear the rest of the Wood, and to do it at once. The defence is incomplete, the units are disorganized, and I did not propose to attack until we were in a better position. My patrols report that the Northern edge is strongly held. I haven’t a fresh battalion, and no one can say what is the strength of any unit.’

‘What do you propose to do?’ asked the Staff Officer.

This, at least, is a concession. We know nothing of the staff officer’s mind. Has he come to sight-see, or to help? But he is no help, because his knowledge is out-of-date by the term of his journey forward: he knows nothing about the artillery program. The staff-wallah is content, then, to be sent back with the information that Brigadier-General Evans plans to attack–with the bayonet, and no artillery–at 3:00.

This would be foolhardy, if there were open ground (as there usually is, as there had been, at the eaves of the wood). But in this wood, with the flanking machine guns eliminated, the only danger–until his men are at close quarters with the German defenders at the wood’s northern edge–is German artillery. Which will only fire if forewarned of the attack.

So it is a good plan, perhaps.

At a quarter to three, with Evans’s orders irrevocably given to the battalions ahead in the wood, the British artillery–far behind and linked by no wires to the wood–starts up.

‘Good God,’ said the General. ‘That’s our artillery putting a barrage right on top of our battalion! How can we stop this? Send a runner down at once… send two or three by different routes… write the message down.’

Griffith springs into action and passes three messages to the Signals Officers. Three runners are sent, by different ways, while the German Artillery, alerted by the barrage, comes to life.

The Brigadier sat on a tree-trunk, head on hand, to all appearances neither seeing nor hearing the shells.

‘This is the end of everything… sheer stupidity…’

That this was both a tactical blunder and a deadly friendly-fire incident is confirmed by the Regimental History. If it were anything else than a debacle visited upon several battalions of the Royal Welch by Regimental outsiders among the higher-ups, there would be reticence. There is not, only the irony of cold understatement:

Orders were given to the infantry to advance as soon as the unwelcome barrage ceased–which was about 3.30 p.m. It was then found that although the artillery had effectively stopped our advance, it had failed to drive the enemy out of the wood.[5]

There is some panic, now, among the attacking troops, and more confusion. Most of the Wood is taken–but not all.

The entire 38th Division will be relieved tonight. It has accomplished much and suffered something like 25% casualties, but the emphasis in contemporary reports will be on how poorly it performed, rather than on its achievement in the face of unrealistic expectations.


For Wyn Griffith, too, this dire battle was the most terrible cautery of his war. It will become the focus and goal of his remembering, and of his memoir.

I can only call it a kind of emotional explosion inside me, and under its impetus I wrote on and on until I came towards a kind of climax, the Battle of Mametz  Wood… There I stopped, because I was afraid of my own memories and dreaded their coming to life… I found that there was no peace within me until I had faced and recorded this high point of the war where for me and so many other Welshmen the tragedy reached its culmination. The words had to be torn out of me, hurt as it must.[6]

There is one more reason–one more worst thing–that made this so.

Eerily, there is a Private Watcyn lost in the midst of the Wood in In Parenthesis. And in the real wood as well there was Private Watcyn Griffith, a runner for the 115th Brigade Signals Officer, Captain Taylor.

It was nearing dusk when Taylor came up to me.

‘I want to have a word with you,’ he said, drawing me away. I’ve got bad news for you…’

‘What’s happened to my young brother… is he hit?’

‘You know the last message you sent out to try and stop the barrage… well, he was one of the runners that took it. He hasn’t come back… He got his message through all right, and on his way back through the barrage he was hit… he’s gone.’

Griffith did his duty in passing the message, Taylor in sending runners, young Griffith in carrying it and in trying to return to his post. But it can never feel so simple.

So I had sent him to his death, bearing a message from my own hand, in an endeavour to save other men’s brothers; three thoughts that followed one another in unending sequence, a wheel revolving within my brain, expanding until it touched the boundaries of knowing and feeling. They did not gain in truth from repetition, nor did they reach the understanding. The swirl of mist refused to move.[7]


References and Footnotes

  1. Regimental Sergeant Major, in this circumstance the exact analogue of the stereotypical American Army/Marine drill sergeant.
  2. "Pre," really; Jones looks backwards and spreads to the eternal, rather than looking ahead and fragmenting for effect, like a true post-Modernist
  3. Jones provides many notes to the poem, and there is one here which defends this thought as contemporary. We might think, Jones says, that this is anachronism, that this is a thought from the latter days of disillusionment, but no--he remembers joking with a friend even in the midst of the carnage that soon, soon, the battlefield tourists will come. As indeed they have, in great droves. But many are better read than he might have thought...
  4. See especially, Dilworth, Reading David Jones, 107-118.
  5. Ward, Regimental Records, 209.
  6. From "The Pattern of One Man's Remembering," quoted in Gliddon, Battlefield Companion, 319.
  7. Up to Mametz, 208-223.

Mametz Wood “In Parenthesis:” David Jones’s Masterpiece and the Martyrdom of the Welsh

Mametz Wood from RWF history

Mametz Wood, in a contemporary map reproduced in the Regimental History of the Royal Welsh

Yesterday, a century back, the 38th Division was once again marshaled for an attack on Mametz Wood. This thick little forest, the largest wood on the Somme front, was now nearly a salient in the British line, and the higher-ups on the General Staff considered its capture to be essential to the next phase of the Somme battle, namely the assault on the second German defensive system (or “German 2nd Line,” as it is marked at right).

This time the 115th Brigade–with Llewelyn Wyn Griffith on brigade staff–was in reserve, while the 113th and 114th Brigades attacked.

The 113th Brigade, made up of four Kitchener’s Army battalions of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, would have the left flank of the attack, coming north from the bottom center of the map at right.

David Jones’s 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers will be in support, while the 16th and 14th battalions lead the way. The plan is much the same as it was during the disastrous attack on the seventh, the primary difference being that more troops are concentrated on a narrower frontage. The Germans will be better prepared, too, and the Welsh will have to attack across several hundred yards of open ground–ground that still slants uphill into the guns of the wood is and now strewn with the bodies of their countrymen. There is some hope that the artillery coordination will be better.


Mametz, July 1916; the metal roller is at bottom left

Around noon, yesterday, the 15th RWF marched up through the ruined village of Mametz, where Jones was struck by the sight of a huge metal roller sitting amidst the rubble (see the photograph at right).

For some two hours they had waited in the recently-German-held Dantzig Trench, before learning that the attack had been called off. Griffith, back at headquarters with the reserve brigade, knew at once that this was a mere twelve-hours’ postponement, but this information does not seem to have gotten to Jones’s battalion. Shouldering their eighty pounds of kit, the fifteenth marched back again to the rear, through clogged communications trenches, a process that took the rest of the day and lasted into the night. Then, before they could sleep, they were ordered back up, and back up they marched. And so

it was not until dawn on the 10th July that the flower of young Wales stood up to the machine-guns, with a success that astonished all who knew the ground.[1]

The attack began at 4.15 a.m. Leading the brigade’s assault on the southern tip of the wood (the 114th Brigade was to the right) was Lieutenant-Colonel Carden of the 16th Royal Welch, a man whom even the straight-laced Regimental history describes as “a gifted leader with a touch of fanaticism.” Waving a handkerchief on the end of his walking stick so as to be visible to his men, he walked forward from their assembly trenches, down into the gully (or “nullah,” a British Indian Army term) and up the gentle slope toward the woods. He was shot, fell, got up, continued, and was shot again and killed on the edge of the wood. Yet some of the men of the 16th reached the wood, now being pounded by the carefully-prepared artillery program. The surviving German defenders of a trench at the front of the wood surrendered, but many machine guns continued to fire from both flanks.

Meanwhile, the 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers had moved up into their assembly positions.


I believe that I once intended to hash out In Parenthesis day by day, to make something of the most difficult, most unusual, and most rewarding poem of the war.

Youthful folly. In Parenthesis is a masterpiece–a minor great work, or a great minor work, or some such thing. It’s also a terrible thicket of concentrated strangeness, intense mental experience, and deep allusion, intertwined–to bring us to the point–with precise details pertaining to David Jones’s experiences as an infantryman. And by tomorrow the poem will be over. So now or never.

The difficulty of the poem is, in a sense, easiest to deal with today. The fragmented Modernist narrative (“stream of consciousness” is a familiar term, but not quite right here–these are freshets, sinkholes, torrents and and sudden splashes, rather than a continuous stream) doesn’t need to be placed in its literary context because its lived context fits the form so well: fragmentation is, here, now, the chaos of battle. Battle is always experienced as a series of actions rather than a continuous state, and memory makes of it a number of searing fragments, often with the order jumbled and gaps of uncertain size between. There is no “better” way for the mind, in mortal terror, and the body, desperately aroused, to record it.

So we’ll leave aside the question of whether In Parenthesis doesn’t make a whole lot of sense and only coincidentally shares with its climactic Part 7 the senseless confusion of not just any battle but a crowded battle in a dense wood, or whether Jones has shaped his artistic choices to the nature of this most intense of his wartime experiences. It doesn’t matter. I’ll try to do what I generally do here: present the writing–be it straightforward memoir or Modernist Epic–link it to other histories of the day’s events, and comment where it might be useful.

Part 7 begins–and here is Jones in a nutshell–with a subtitle that references both the Passion and Lewis Carroll, an epigram from a medieval Welsh elegy, and three biblical allusions, two of them in Latin.

The Welsh poem, Y Gododdin, is referenced throughout In Parenthesis, and serves (this will be the first of dozens of oversimplifications today, for which I will apologize just this once) both to make the Welsh soldiers of the poem more Welsh–many of the 15th, and Jones himself, were London born and bred, of Welsh descent, but not steeped in the Welsh language or its folklore–and to open up their experience to other times. This project is in chronological lockstep with the past–one hundred years to the day–but Jones was determined both to include the specificities of his experience–numbers, map references, minutes, minute parts of complex machines and organizations–and to write this experience as if it were fully consubstantial with the experiences of the distant past, especially that of other soldiers. Jones’s project is both catholic and Catholic, and more than any other writing of the war it demands both that the instant of experience be recognized and that, in the eye of God, at least, it cannot exist: this experience is eternally and completely shared.

(Some of this garbled paean will, I hope, be borne out by the quotations below.)

And that subtitle? If Jones sounds over-serious then I have done a bad job explaining him. There is nothing more serious than war and death and religion–which is why no frame of reference is denied to the poem. “The Five Unmistakeable Marks” of Part 7 identify both Lewis Carroll’s Snark and the stigmata of Christ. Metaphorically, at least, this will be a sacrifice of the innocent.

And the quotations?

Picture 156

The Manuscript of the beginning of Part VII, from The First World War Poetry Digital Archive, Oxford

Invenimus eam in campus silvae–“We have come up on it in the fields of the woods.” Simple scene-setting, and gentle irony, for in the Psalms (131.6), what they have found is the tabernacle of the lord, not bloody battle.

The next line takes care of that: “and under every green tree.” This, again, means nothing without vast reading or studious legwork (or, yes, the internet–although there are many good secondary sources, several of which I will cite below). It references II Kings 12:10, where the Israelites sacrifice their children to foreign gods. Five little words, slid in at the beginning here, which align Jones’s work with the poetry of protest that has, a century back, hardly begun to be written. This is no jaunty “someone had blundered,” but a swift blow with all the driving power of both Testaments behind it: you are killing your children in vain.

The third quotation is from Lamentations (2.12, also part of the Good Friday service) and is even more devastating: although Jones draws it from the arid Latin, the ruthlessly keening old Hebrew poem describes children dying “like soldiers” in their mothers’ arms.

And so we have come five lines into a thirty-five page section of the poem. I will have to pick up the pace just a bit.

There is another prefatory section, an acknowledgement of the role of memory in artistic creation–“spilled bitterness, unmeasured, poured-out… demoniac-pouring.” This is fair warning and fertile ground, but not something that we, tied to the day, a century back, can deal with here.

Picture 053

David Jones’s handwritten map, with annotations

Finally, then, the subjects: “In the Little Hours they sing the Song of Degrees.” So “they”–the eternal/mythic/epic soldiers who are also the men of Number 6 Platoon, B Company, 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers–begin both the liturgical day and July 10th, 1916. They are in Queen’s Nullah, across from the southwestern edge of the Wood. Jones, an artist before he was a poet, drew the map at right, using the trench maps (the reference numbers can be seen at the top), with the Nullah at the bottom.

The horror begins immediately: this assembly-place is obvious, and has been used before. German shells are dropping all around, and a man is hit:

He found him all gone to pieces and not pulling himself together nor making the best of things.

The first “he” would seem to be Private John Ball, our protagonist, our David-Jones-in-the-Poem. The “him” is Aneirin Leiws “spilled there… who sleeps in Arthur’s lap” and will soon draw a brief spurt of allusive elegy.

Other men come upon the shattered corpse and weep “for the pity of it all.”

Ball/Jones eventually gets “his stuff reasonably assembled” and joined “the rest of the platoon belly-hugged the high embankment going up steep into thin mist at past four o’clock of a fine summer morning.”

So, then, fifteen minutes to go.

While “Private 25201 Ball pressed his body into the earth and the white chalk womb to mother him,” The colonel, J.C. Bell in life, Colonel Dell in the book (how like Sassoon this rhymed fictionalization of Royal Welch officers is), chats coolly with another officer.

But they already look at their watches and it is zero minus seven minutes.

Alright. I think I’ve demonstrated what can be done with interspersing commentary, matching the minutiae of battle-chronicle to the intimate twistings of Jones’s poem. But chronology will bend and shatter when they go forward (it is reasserted much later on), and I don’t think there are any arguments that can be made for the greatness–or even the necessity-to-any-certain-subject–of certain poems that can’t be nullified, defeated, or improved upon by lengthy quotation. So, here is an infantryman’s terror before the assault:[2]

Racked out to another turn of the screw
the acceleration heightens;
the sensibility of these instruments to register,
needle dithers disorientate.
The responsive mercury plays laggard to such fevers—you
simply can’t take any more in.
And the surfeit of fear steadies to dumb incognition, so that
when they give the order to move upward to align with ‘A’,
hugged already just under the lip of the acclivity inches below
where his traversing machine-guns perforate to powder
white creatures of chalk pounded
and the world crumbled away
and get ready to advance.

Two minutes, one minute–and then the advance. For a few pages we float amidst the disordered thoughts of John Ball and his comrades, and in and out of history and legend and myth.

But in amongst it all are Jones’s memories: As the 14th Battalion advanced, directly ahead of him, they sang “Jesu Lover of My Soul.”

And if the more literal/less literary-minded reader might begin to object to the poetical smearing of fact into impression, here is how the Regimental History describes the advance:

The approach to the wood was a ghastly affair… there was a general state of pandemonium… the most terrible “mix-up” I have ever seen.

Soon, the 15th are ordered to advance. Here, in the poem, Malory’s knightly host and Kitchener’s army advance together:

Tunicled functionaries signify and clear-voiced heralds cry
and leg it to a safe distance:
leave fairway for the Paladins, and Roland throws a kiss–
they’ve nabbed his batty for the moppers-up
                     and Mr. Jenkins takes them over
and don’t bunch on the left
for Christ’s sake.

“Batty” is one of the many Cockney slang expressions for a friend (or, in American military parlance, “buddy”). Roland is the hero of the Chanson de Roland, the Medieval French epic. Mr. Jenkins is the kind, decent platoon commander. And the “tunicled” higher-ups, it seems, will not be coming forward–at least not yet.

Mr. Jenkins leads them out of the trench in the hollow and down into the unbelievably long (at least 400 yards) open-field advance to the woods:

Every one of these, stood, separate, upright, above ground,
blinkt to the broad light
risen dry mouthed from the chalk…
moved in open order and keeping admirable formation
and at the high-port position
walking in the morning on the flat roof of the world

There remains hope, in each man’s mind, that somehow they will be spared. After all, death is always around, but rarely strikes–has never yet struck the mind that thinks the thought. Jones wrenches the ancient personification of death as a battle goddess through the language of St. Francis and into something new and harrowing:

But sweet sister death has gone debauched today and stalks on this high ground with strumpet confidence, makes no coy veiling of her appetite but leers from you to me with all her parts discovered.
By one and one the line gaps, where her fancy will–howsoever they may howl for their virginity
she holds them–who impinge less on space
sink limply to a heap
nourish a lesser category of being
like those other who fructify the land
like Tristram…

or all of them in shaft-shade
at straight Thermopylae…

    Jonathan my lovely one…


So the Royal Welch are joined by the battle heroes of the mythic Middle Ages, and the Bible, and Greek History.

But how intolerably bright the morning is where we who are alive and remain, walk lifted up, carried forward by an effective word.

And, after several more pages of intensely envisioned movement, they have crossed the open ground and almost reached the now-taken German trench at the edge of the wood.

Mr Jenkins half inclined his head to them – he walked just
barely in advance of his platoon and immediately to the left of
Private Ball.

He makes the conventional sign
and there is the deeply inward effort of spent men who would
make response for him,
and take it at the double.
He sinks on one knee
and now on the other,
his upper body tilts in rigid inclination
this way and back;
weighted lanyard runs out to full tether,
swings like a pendulum
and the clock run down.
Lurched over, jerked iron saucer over tilted brow,
clampt unkindly over lip and chin
nor no ventaille to this darkening
and masked face lifts to grope the air
and so disconsolate;
enfeebled fingering at a paltry strap—
buckle holds,
holds him blind against the morning.
Then stretch still where weeds pattern the chalk predella
–where it rises to his wire—and Sergeant T. Quilter takes

And so Mr Jenkins–Oliver, the beloved companion of Roland, but also Lieutenant R.G. Rees, son of Cordelia Rees, of 21, Woodland Way, Mitcham, Surrey, and the late Rev. William Rees, aged 25[3]–is killed.


A composite map from one of the stalwarts in the Great War Forum, with the modern memorial site indicated in the lower right.

Now they enter the trench at the edge of the wood.

The southern part of Mametz Wood–as far as the first “ride,” or cleared path (see the map at right, where the dashed lines of the rides are clear)–was now held by elements of several jumbled battalions.

Mametz Wood was a real wood. A hunting preserve before the war, it had not been cleared of underbrush for more than two years, nor–lying until recently between the German first and second lines–had it been shelled into oblivion. Instead, shelling had brought down a large number of trees, which became entangled with the thick underbrush and proliferating brambles.

Again, the Regimental Records vouch for the chaos, here:

All went into the wood, and naturally enough, once the troops reached the thick tangle, control became extremely difficult, if not impossible.

Wyn Griffith will describe the wood, too, giving us a middle ground between reportage and poetry:

My first acquaintance with the stubborn nature of the undergrowth came when I attempted to leave the main ride to escape a heavy shelling. I could not push through it, and had to return to the ride. Years of neglect had turned the wood into a formidable barrier, a mile deep. Heavy shelling of the southern end had beaten down some of the young growth, but it had also thrown trees and large branches into a barricade. Equipment, ammunition, rolls of barbed wire, tins of food, gas-helmets and rifles were lying about everywhere. There were more corpses than men, but there were worse sights than corpses.[4]


Jones’s Frontispiece for In Parenthesis

Back in the poem–and in the German trench–we see some these worse sights:

the sun-lit chalk is everywhere absorbing fresh stains.
Dark gobbets stiffen skewered to revetment-hurdles and dyed garments strung-up for a sign; but the sun shines also
on the living
and on Private Watcyn, who wears a strange look under his iron brim, like a small child caught at some bravado in a garden…


Mametz Wood itself beckons. Sergeant Quilter gathers the jumbled survivors of the platoon and leads them forward:

So these nineteen deploy
between the rowan and the hazel,
go forward to the deeper shades.

Again, historical precision anchors us to this time and place even as the boundaries of time and place grow hazy:

It was largely his machine guns in Acid Copse that did it, and our own heavies firing by map reference, with all lines phut and no reliable liaison.[5]

Much happens as the day draws on. The Regimental History records that the 15th Battalion was withdrawn, then sent in again, as more senior officers arrived on the scene and tried to makes sense of the battle in the wood. Nothing quite so clear happens in the poem. There are glimpses of German prisoners coming back; Sgt. Quilter is mortally wounded in the belly; another man–possibly Dai Greatcoat, who earlier in the poem makes a prodigious epic boast–is hit lower down (the bullet would seem to destroy his groin, or castrate him); the number of men still holding some semblance of the line, firing at invisible Germans, dwindles. Pages and pages.

Mametz Wood from RWF history, croppedThe careening literary references are interspersed with map references: a captain arrives and has the survivors dig in on the line of V, Y, O, and K (see the map at right, again): the 15th RWF now hold the second ride and the left flank of the wood, and have bombed the Germans out of the trenches on the left, but the northern extremities are still in enemy hands.

Throughout this last phase of the poem there is a widening of the mythic scope. Where else would men ancient and medieval enter, in their mortal terror, but a perilous wood?

But we will end with details that overlap precisely with Jones’s experience. Night begins to fall. The Royal Welch are ordered to dig in, to hold the line. Then, after dark, the orders come once more to advance:

At 21.35 hrs units concerned will move forward and clear his area of his personnel. There will be adequate artillery support.

And now no view of him whether he makes a sally, no possibility of informed action nor certain knowing whether he gives or turns to stand…grope in extended line of platoon through nether glooms … warily circumambulate malignant miraged obstacles, walk confidently into hard junk. Solid things dissolve, and vapours ape substantiality.

A flare goes up, and more horrors:

And the severed head of ’72 Morgan
its visage grins like the Cheshire cat
and full grimly.

And midnight passes…


We will pick up the end of the poem tomorrow, but we touch wood now with the history:

But night fell on the most bewildering state of affairs. No one could either see or move… There was… a great deal of wild firing through the night, and the relief of troops by the 115th Brigade was not possible until the morning.[6]


References and Footnotes

  1. Up to Mametz, 207.
  2. Apologies for ineptitude, but I don't know how to get the poem formatted correctly. I've preserved line breaks, but have not figured out how to preserve the indents that help shape of this closer to conventional verse-form...
  3. CWGC
  4. Up to Mametz, 209-210.
  5. We will have more on this "friendly fire" problem tomorrow.
  6. Ward, Regimental Records, 204-9. In addition to In Parenthesis, easily available thanks to an NYRB Classics reissue, I have drawn on Thomas Dilworth's work, particularly Reading David Jones, 80ff, and David Jones in the Great War. See also Remembering the Battle of Mametz Wood and this.

The Third Day: More Futile Attacks; Siegfried Sassoon Moves Up, and Marks his Progress with a Poem; Vera Brittain Calls on the Leightons; Ford Madox Ford Playfully Attacks in French (and Latin); Edward Thomas Braves “The Gallows;” Alan Seeger Goes Forward

George Coppard, whose work with the powerful but unwieldy Vickers machine gun keeps him in a defensive posture, has a very good view of the developing battlefield. The great attack, the unprecedented slaughter, is past, now, but the Big Push grinds on in a cascade of local attacks, most of them aimed at the first day’s objectives. Coppard will watch, now, as new troops are thrown against the German lines at the northern edge of the battle.

On July 3rd the Queen’s and the Royal West Kents attacked the German lines in our sector. Crossing the corpse-strewn No Man’s Land towards the black enemy wire, draped with dead Tommies, they met fierce machine-gun fire, and were completely repulsed. Many walking wounded who managed to struggle back filtered down our trench towards Aveluy Wood. I remember one youngster asking me to bandage him up. His right wrist had been lacerated by a large piece of shrapnel and the hand was hanging by a few sinews. The initial shock must have stifled the pain and he was almost cheery. “I’ve got a Blighty at last,” he said…[1]


I didn’t mention Roland Leighton on the first day of the Somme, but he was very much on Vera Brittain‘s mind as she realized that her brother was in combat. Would she lose her brother as she had lost his best friend, her fiancé? Roland was on Edward’s mind as well. The two had been close friends, and even the always-awkward overtaking of their friendship by the romance between sister and friend had not altered Edward’s regard for him. But would the diffident, music-loving Edward meet the standard of heroic expectation that Roland set upon himself? Could he succeed in battle when the great Roland, the Lancelot of their little group, was been uselessly shot down on an ordinary night’s trench relief?

But Vera isn’t thinking of heroism, surely, now–only of life and death. When she was called to the phone on Boxing Day she had expected nothing but joyful news. Now she could reasonably expect the very worst.

July 3rd

Had a half-day… & went down to see the Leightons–there had been no news of Edward all through this terrible week-end, and I could endure no longer without having them to talk to.[2]

Is this apotropaic magic? Does Vera hope that if she goes to the center of suffering, no further suffering can reach her there? Well, she will not have long to wait, for news.


Alas that I only recently stumbled upon the letters of Ben Keeling, for he writes beautifully. This is from a letter dated tomorrow, a century back, and thus describes tonight:

Last night I saw, I think, the most symbolical scene of warfare which I have ever come across. As I turned a corner of a trench with a young officer we suddenly faced a fair expanse of ground over which the contour lines enabled us to look. The horizon was near only three hundred yards or so away topped by an avenue of trees, bare and shell-stricken on the right, the end nearest the firing-line, and gradually becoming more leafy as we looked to the left. On the extreme right the scene ended in the hummocks, holes, and gradual slope upwards of one of the big mine craters. The dominating colour of the ground was white. Trenches, shell holes, and mine upheavals had torn up the chalk from below the surface soil, but there was a solid mass of scarlet poppies in the middle of the picture, contrasting wonderfully with the white and grey ground and the yellowish background of an early twilight sky. I shall never forget the vision of beauty and desolation which I saw in a flash that moment.[3]


Siegfried Sassoon of the First Royal Welch Fusiliers is watching the same sunset, a century back. It’s been a slow day, suitable for such observations. But tomorrow will be different. Tomorrow, the Welch will join the battle.

July 3, 11.15 a.m.

Greaves, self and party left Kingston Road at 6.45 a.m. The battalion assembled at 71 North and we marched across to a point north-west of Camoy where the 22nd Brigade concentrated. The four battalions piled arms and lay down in an open grassy hollow south of the Camoy-Mametz road, with a fine view of the British and (late) Bosche lines where the 91st Brigade attacked on Saturday, about Six hundred yards away. Everyone very cheery–no officer-casualties yet…

5.45 p.m. Everyone has been dozing in the sun all day…  As I dozed I could hear the men all round talking about the things they’d looted from the Bosche trenches.

Evening falls calm and hazy; an orange sunset, blurred at the last. At 8.15 I’m looking down from the hill, a tangle of long grass and thistles and some small white weed like tiny cow parsley. The four battalions are in four groups…

Sassoon’s brigade has earned its lazy day: at 9.15 p.m. they began their march forward, heavily laden with barbed wire and ammunition. But Sassoon had some creative energy to spare, and in that spare hour, a century back, he turned the diary’s poetical field notes into verse:


At Carnoy

Down in the hollow there’s the whole Brigade
Camped in four groups: through twilight falling slow
I hear a sound of mouth-organs, ill-played,
And murmur of voices, gruff, confused, and low.
Crouched among thistle-tufts I’ve watched the glow
Of a blurred orange sunset flare and fade;
And I’m content. To-morrow we must go
To take some cursèd Wood… O world God made![4]



A well-schooled writer would end the post there, I imagine. So this next bit is a terrible indulgence; the focus should be on the battle–but I can’t resist. Edward Thomas and Ford Madox Hueffer–both belated volunteers, both professional writers much older than most of their new comrades, whose work is only beginning to receive the appreciation it deserves–both wrote poems today, from the shattering safety of England.

And beneath these structural similarities the two are, like their poems, utterly unalike. Thomas is the unhappy family man, quiet, depressive, devoted to his friends and his countryside; Ford the larger-than-life literary brawler and loose-liver… both men know misery and irony and do not shrink from it. But could they handle it any differently?


The Silver Music

In Chepstow stands a castle—
My love and I went there.
The foxgloves on the wall all heard
Her footsteps on the stair.

The sun was high in heaven,
And the perfume in the air
Came from purple cat’s-valerian…
But her footsteps on the stair
Made a sound like silver music
Through the perfume in the air.

Oh I’m weary for the castle,
And I’m weary for the Wye;
And the flowered walls are purple,
And the purple walls are high,
And above the cat’s-valerian
The foxgloves brush the sky.
But I must plod along the road
That leads to Germany.

And another soldier fellow
Shall come courting of my dear;
And it’s I shall not be with her
With my lips beside her ear.
For it’s he shall walk beside her
In the perfume of the air
To the silver, silver music
Of her footstep on the stair.

Not only did Ford write such tripping love lyrics today, a century back, but he was also playing an elaborate game with a fellow orderly-room officer, H. C. James. Do you doubt the Latin acumen of our classically-schooled Englishmen? Well, you may doubt further, if you wish–stories of games played and attempts made do not always show the failed efforts and tend to make even quick and shoddy attempts seem like sustained efforts… But this is still impressive.

I’ll let Max Saunders, Ford’s biographer, explain, and strive to contextualize:

…the game was constructed as a military joke. Captain James listed the rhyme-words as if they were privates requiring disciplinary action (‘49522 Pte. Eyes 49642 Pte. Skies’, and so on).

Ford wrote the poem to the desired rhymes, and then passed the result to Captain James, who translated it into Latin.

The date is given as 3 July 1916, two days after the bloodiest battle in English military history. If they had any sense then of the scale of the Battle of the Somme, and yet could, divert themselves so light-heartedly, it was perhaps because they knew they would themselves soon be fighting on the Somme. One could read it as a
mad denial of war’s insanity, or as a typically Fordian fascination with how expressive a stiff-upper-lip expressionlessness could be. Readers of Parade’s End will recognize how, after that experience, Ford was to re-imagine the inventing of these ‘rough products’ in the coruscatingly produced, surreally insane scene in No More Parades in which Tietjens tries to distract the enervated Captain McKechnie and himself with bouts rimés just after a bombardment, and McKechnie offers to turn his sonnets into Latin hexameters in three minutes.[5]

Actually, I’ve included that quotation just to admit into this project a writer whose prose sesquipedalianly produces more spell-checkingly flagged adverbial phrases than I do. But this is to be expected from a man making his meals off of the spell-binding and nearly-unreadable writing of Ford. The scene in the novel is set rather later…


So, while one writer tosses off collaborative verse in linguistic triplicate, another sits down to wrestle with power and ugliness in the bright summer sunlight.


The Gallows

There was a weasel lived in the sun
With all his family,
Till a keeper shot him with his gun
And hung him up on a tree,
Where he swings in the wind and rain,
In the sun and in the snow,
Without pleasure, without pain,
On the dead oak tree bough.

There was a crow who was no sleeper,
But a thief and a murderer
Till a very late hour; and this keeper
Made him one of the things that were,
To hang and flap in rain and wind,
In the sun and in the snow.
There are no more sins to be sinned
On the dead oak tree bough.

There was a magpie, too,
Had a long tongue and a long tail;
He could talk and do–
But what did that avail?
He, too, flaps in the wind and rain
Alongside weasel and crow,
Without pleasure, without pain,
On the dead oak tree bough.

And many other beasts
And birds, skin, bone, and feather,
Have been taken from their feasts
And hung up there together,
To swing and have endless leisure
In the sun and in the snow,
Without pain, without pleasure,
On the dead oak tree bough.

This is a tremendous poem. First, I will slyly keep my contextualizing hands clean once again and let the formidable Edna Longley do the dirty work: “Even if it is probably too soon for him to have grasped the enormity of the Somme… The Gallows turns a familiar rural image into a powerful fable of mass slaughter.”

That “probably” should be a “surely–” or else that “grasped” should be understood as highly intuitive rather than a matter of confessed understanding. The great poets–and if we will allow that quiet poets can be great, then I begin to think that Thomas has a real claim–tend to get credit, even from professed rationalists, for being in mystical communion with the spirit of their times, far ahead of wandering newspapermen and hapless historians. If Vergil can encapsulate Rome’s greatness and rottenness in a mere twelve books and young Auden can call us to order on September 1st, 1939, then it’s no great trick, is it, to anticipate the casualty lists in the Times by a few days?

But that’s not what’s going on here, really. Thomas has had problems with gamekeepers before–he referred to one as “a policeman god,” a keeper of order grotesquely swollen in power–and we needn’t make this one into a crypto-German machine gunner to understand that the man with a gun who makes living creatures into “things that were” is the enemy. Thomas loved the natural countryside, but more Englishmen–or more wealthy Englishmen–loved to hunt over it, and they set their keepers on their competitors, human and otherwise. This is not a compromise that Thomas seems any longer inclined to accept, now that he has decided to fight. Instead, while Ford uses light verse to keep things light, Thomas goes to the heart of the Hardy-predicted predicament: “Thomas uses folksong structures to transmute anger into cosmic irony.”[6]

As to the horrifying image of mangled animals festooned on trees, it may well be a common one (I am far from an English countryman) but it was latterly given pride of place in the most gripping of Great War fictions, Pat Barker’s Regeneration. I don’t know if Barker was prompted by this poem, but her use of this image in the book (which I will try to work in, here, next year) seems to me to speak to Thomas, as if to say “Yes, indeed, this is a war poem, but from a poet who has yet to go to war. Think what might happen when a man who has been there and seen men-made-things hanging on the barbed wire comes home to see the keeper’s gallows?”


But I should bring us back to France. To the French Foreign Legion, in fact, which is moving forward to attack on the southern front of the Somme battle. Alan Seeger‘s regiment “moved toward Assevillers” this afternoon, a century back, and took over front-line positions “at nightfall.” Tomorrow, for this experienced and hard-bitten unit, death or glory.[7]


References and Footnotes

  1. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 82-4.
  2. Chronicle of Youth, 326.
  3. Keeling Letters and Recollections, 299-300.
  4. Diaries, 85-7.
  5. Saunders, Ford Madox Ford, A Dual Life, 492.
  6. Longley, The Annotated Collected Poems, 307-8.
  7. Letters and Diary, 212-213.

J.R. Ackerley and Billie Nevill Go Out; Three Poems from Edward Thomas, Turning and Turning War-Ward; Robert Graves in a Coy Competition with Siegfried Sassoon; Kate Luard and Another Bombing Victim; Raymond Asquith in the Salient’s Filth

A bit of a long post, today, but it’s another gamut-runner, and brief enough for that. We go from poetry of quiet beauty all the way to “sheer abomination undiluted by a single touch of beauty, grandeur or sentiment.”

Two days ago, Edward Thomas went sick once again. But with “sick call” comes a relief from duties, and so he took up his pen. First came “It was upon,” a sneaky sonnet that looks back, and forward. It’s no poetic innovation to go to the natural world in contemplation of the future–nor, indeed, to thresh the old store of bucolic/agricultural imagery to come up with some symbol of change. But Thomas goes deep into the subject, rifling the old English farmer’s word hoard to come up with the evocative “lattermath,” which refers to the second or third mowing of grass, for hay.

It was upon a July evening.
At a stile I stood, looking along a path
Over the country by a second Spring
Drenched perfect green again. ‘The lattermath
Will be a fine one.’ So the stranger said,
A wandering man. Albeit I stood at rest,
Flushed with desire I was. The earth outspread,
Like meadows of the future, I possessed.

And as an unaccomplished prophecy
The stranger’s words, after the interval
Of a score years, when those fields are by me
Never to be recrossed, now I recall,
This July eve, and question, wondering,
What of the lattermath to this hoar Spring?

Then, yesterday, a century back, Thomas wrote “Women he liked,” a.k.a. “Bob’s Lane.” Here once again an ominous mistrust in futurity creeps in around the edges of the landscape.
Women he liked, did shovel-bearded Bob,
Old Farmer Hayward of the Heath, but he
Loved horses. He himself was like a cob,
And leather-coloured. Also he loved a tree.
For the life in them he loved most living things,
But a tree chiefly. All along the lane
He planted elms where now the stormcock sings
That travellers hear from the slow-climbing train.
Till then the track had never had a name
For all its thicket and the nightingales
That should have earned it. No one was to blame.
To name a thing beloved man sometimes fails.
Many years since, Bob Hayward died, and now
None passes there because the mist and the rain
Out of the elms have turned the lane to slough
And gloom, the name alone survives, Bob’s Lane.

This one is a good one, a who-but-Thomas one. He has yet to see France, but he knows, of course, that those well-drained lands will be pounded to mud by infernal machines and so draw forth from good English Protestants, well-versed in their Bunyan, the inevitable reference to the “Slough of Despond” in The Pilgrim’s Progress.

But it’s not just such felicitous word choice: this is Thomas’s whole poetic persona being dragged toward war. It’s not quite a mind of metal and wheels pondering gunpowder under the eaves of ancient Fangorn, but it’s close.

The cob-like, tree-loving farmer here is another Lob, and his environs could almost be Adlestrop–and off-stage, as it were, the steam train lurks. It’s hard not to see in the slow-climbing train a portent of technological-aided disaster…

Finally, today, “There was a time.”
There was a time when this poor frame was whole
And I had youth and never another care,
Or none that should have troubled a strong soul.
Yet, except sometimes in a frosty air
When my heels hammered out a melody
From pavements of a city left behind,
I never would acknowledge my own glee
Because it was less mighty than my mind
Had dreamed of. Since I could not boast of strength
Great as I wished, weakness was all my boast.
I sought yet hated pity till at length
I earned it. Oh, too heavy was the cost.
But now that there is something I could use
My youth and strength for, I deny the age,
The care and weakness that I know—refuse
To admit I am unworthy of the wage
Paid to a man who gives up eyes and breath
For what would neither ask nor heed his death

It’s hard, of course, not to read this as coming straight from Thomas, rather than allowing for the assumption of a poetic mask. The speaker feels his age, but not in the flexingly heroic Tennysonian sense. He is still frustrated, still pitiable, but perhaps approaching a certain sort of peace. Or perhaps not. But in any case, as Edna Longley points out, the introvert has metamorphosed, however grudgingly, into a soldier. His choice of “wage” makes us think of Brooke, and realize (not for the first time) that this is not a metaphor that should be taken lightly.

There is no assumption of heroic or sacrificial “meaning” here, no perching of a dubious poem atop a hollow cairn of patriotic assumptions and religious implications: “[h]ere he acknowledges war as a paradoxical saviour, a perversely accepted test.” “Perverse” is exactly right. It doesn’t feel right because it can’t be right, but it’s acceptable all the same. The thinking man, the skeptic, the non-joiner has joined, and will fight–and possibly give up eyes and breath–for… well, he’s not sure for what. Thomas has fallen into step, and with a grimace he picks up something of the traditional language of the happy volunteer. But this language he takes “a little more seriously while still contesting it.” [1]


It’s a poetical sort of day: Robert Graves wrote to Siegfried Sassoon as well, a century back, and we get a bit of insight into the balance of power, as it were, in their friendship. Graves, recovered from his operation and stuck in camp, pines for camaraderie, but it would seem that Sassoon’s close-to-the-vest maneuvers on his own recent leave have left Our Robbie feeling a bit miffed:

23 June 1916

Bloody Litherland

Dear Sassons,

It is with bitter disappointment that I hear that you’ve been in Blighty on lave and dined with Eddie and never let me know. God! man, I’d have come down from John o’ Groats if you’d told me.

This is indeed an awful place. I’m so restless and enthusiastic and want-to-get-back-to-the-boys-ish that I have succeeded at one time or another in offending most of the more considerable people here…

Ah, so perhaps the young poet begins to recognize some of the foolishness of the war?

Roll on the trenches! I head you’ve been risking your precious life again among them craters: I am pleased, damn pleased, you’re doing so well; wish to hell I was with you–go on risking, and good luck. It’s a man’s game.

A bit forced? No: very, very forced, and nothing like the wiser-than-he-once-was ironist of Goodbye To All That. I’m tempted to instruct you, dear readers, to see the forgoing as a bit of a put-on, a jest made “in character.” But I don’t think so. Graves likes Sassoon and he really (probably) does hate camp enough to want to be back at war, but the competitive edge of their friendship–the desire to be close but also to surpass–is very keen. In fact there’s more edge than blade… some of the forced jollity here must be because Graves is leading up to a bit of a gloat: next, he shares some of the reviews–positive, if not unreservedly so–of his first book, Fairies and Fusiliers. Take that, self-published Siegfried!

…I have been frantically busy lately… sweating about the country all abouts, so of course when the match is burning my fingernails my bloody verses insist on forcing themselves to be written by me: they flock on me in shoals and I can’t refuse them: I can’t give them a hurried birth and then strangle ’em straight away. They want washing and clothing and suckling ans what not in my precious time, and then what happened to my Regimental duties? …I hope you are still writing with the same sudden genius of your last trench-letter. How strange that you have all at once struck what you have been searching for for so long; but I suppose now you want another little cushy Flixécourt tour to give you the time and leisure and quiet.

Best of luck when the Delayed Offensive actually comes, and may I be there with you old man!

…I’m getting my latest things typed to send you. The rules of the ‘mutual admiration society’ demand a similar step on your part. Or write, at any rate.

Sorley is still selling, and The Times has labelled him ‘Enrolled among the English Poets’ for which God bless that usually bloody paper…

Ever your affectionately


Isn’t it splendid that the RWF have now twice been singled out for special mention in a daily communiqué?[2]

That post-script does help to ground us: even in the memoir Graves owned up to an enduring regimental pride. Love the war or hate the war, he wanted to be identified with an honorable and glorious regiment:”May I be there with you” and “pleased, damn pleased” may ring false because they are strained, but they are not supercilious or sarcastic.


Two brief bits, now, before our last letter of the day. First, a look ahead:

The 8th East Surreys, a battalion of Kitchener’s Army with a year in France but little in the way of sharp combat experience, went into the line today, a century back, opposite Montauban, a few miles east of Albert, on the Somme. Among their officers were J.R. Ackerley, an innocent, awkward, gay, poetry-writing, Public School lieutenant, and his friend Wilfred “Billie” Nevill, a bluff, confident, outgoing Public School athlete. Captain Nevill brought along a couple of footballs…[3]


And, with Kate Luard, a look back at one of the most common and–in its commonness, at least–confounding themes of our reading of the war’s “long second year.”

Captain—– of the Suffolks, who died here two days ago from a bombing accident, picked up a live bomb which had fallen short to throw it again, but he was just too late and it got him; he was buried yesterday; the Suffolks lined the road with their band, and followed 4 deep finishing up with 30 officers marching behind. They were awfully cut up about it.[4]


Finally, today, we catch up with Raymond Asquith. Yesterday, a century back, he wrote to his wife Katherine. He fills us in on a brief bit of savagery that we, with our focus on the subalterns of the Regular and Kitchener battalions, have missed. There has been bloody fighting in the familiar wasteland around Hooge, in  the Ypres Salient, and the tough Canadian troops so admired by their imperial forebears have suffered greatly. All chaff to whet the wit of Raymond–and yet he spares his wife (or seems to spare her) nothing of the beastliness, which is a significant choice.

3rd Grenadier Guards,
22 June 1916

. . . We came out of the trenches last night and marched into camp about 3 this morning. Now we are out, I suppose there is no harm in saying what I daresay you have already guessed–that we were pushed in to relieve the Canadians opposite Hooge. The Canadians had almost all been killed in the recent fighting there (which was unlucky for them) and hardly any of them had been buried (which was unlucky for us). The confusion and mess were indescribable and the stinks hardly to be borne. No one quite knew where the line was…

It was impossible to show ourselves for a moment without being shelled and there were no adequate arrangements for hiding. Sloper Mackenzie, Eddy Ward and another officer were shut up for 48 hours in a dug-out meant for 2 at the best of times and when half flooded as it was with blood and water and filth of every kind quite unfit for habitation. We did our best to clean out some of the muck but the process was so disturbing that poor Sloper was physically sick in the middle of it. I couldn’t endure sleeping there so got hold of an old stretcher and lay on it in a shell-hole outside, which I think saved my life, though it might easily have ended it.

One would have given anything for a bottle of verbena or a yard of ruban de Bruges… I never saw anything like the foulness and desolation of this bit of the Salient.

This reminds me very strongly of Vera Brittain‘s revelation as she picked through Roland Leighton’s kit–that, for him, always a fastidious boy, the filth of trench warfare must have been a torment. For Asquith, too, there is surely much truth–and perhaps still a little self-pleasing bravado–in his preference for danger over horrible discomfort and sensory misery.

There were 2 woods near to us on which we roamed about picking up gruesome relics in the dusk–Maple Copse and Sanctuary Wood–not a leaf or a blade of grass in either of them, nothing but twisted and blackened stumps and a mesh of shell holes, dimpling into one another, full of mud and blood, and dead men and over-fed rats which blundered into one in the twilight like fat moths.

To my mind it was a far more impressive sight than the ruins of Ypres, because it was sheer abomination undiluted by a single touch of beauty, grandeur or sentiment…

Goodbye, my blessed angel. This morning I took my boots off and washed for the first time these 8 days. It was delicious.

Asquith has already written about a bombardment with… delicious… Epicurean aesthetic detachment. Today, a century back, he catches up with Diana Manners and takes the story from there through the recent nastiness. Thus in one swift missive he gives her both the (safe) beauty of war observed, and its worst pits of filth.

23 June 1916

. . . But, 2 nights out of a dreary 7 did make me think of you perhaps harder than usual–one for beauty and one for ugliness. The first was on the shore of a biggish lake with poplars and a honey-coloured moon, and one of the most
crashing bombardments of the War going on all round, shells bursting in front and behind to right and to left, but not just where I was, so that I felt as safe as if it had been the Charge of the Light Brigade and could enjoy the spectacle as such, and fancy almost that the lake was “Sutton Waters” and wished that you were there to enjoy it too as you would have done intensely–at any rate for a little. After an hour or two the noise gets on one’s nerves like music. There was a gas attack too in the middle which was boring, and for 40 minutes we had to stumble about slobbering into rubber snouts like animals in a pantomime.

Another, night I was in a much worse place than this–the most accursed unholy and abominable place I have ever seen, the ugliest filthiest most putrid and most desolate–a wood where all the trees had been cut off by the shells the week before, and nothing remained but black stumps of really the most obscene heights and thickness, craters swimming in blood and dirt, rotting and smelling bodies and rats like shadows, fattened for the market moving cunningly and liquorishly among them, limbs and bowels nestling in the hedges, and over, all the most supernaturally shocking scent of death and corruption that ever breathed o’er Eden. The place simply stank of sin and all Floris could not have made it sweet. . . The only dug-out turned out to be a ‘dirt trap’ if not a death trap, awash with sewage, stale eyeballs, and other debris, so I spent 2 days on a stretcher in a shell hole in the gutter certainly, but-looking all the while at the stars with which you have so richly studded my memory.

As a “filth and abomination” piece (a new tag!) this could hardly be bettered. The witty tone, the framing with beauty makes it all the more upsetting, and marks it as Asquith’s own. One imagines what Tolkien would have done with this–or what he will do, in a sense. But where Asquith writes to the great beauty and talks of the stars she has given him–and writes after the fact, having endured–Frodo will call on the star-hanging goddess and unleash her light in the face of the filth personified.

So Asquith makes it witty/horrible and frames the filth with Diana Manners herself–and I avoid its details by making a Tolkien reference of dubious relevance.

Asquith has also given us, I believe, our first disembodied eye: it’s an image he spares his wife but deploys to shock the unshockable Diana Manners. And does seem to be specially shocking: we will see more of such eyes, in literature and in lived experience.

I should end with Asquith. He is no Tolkien, but in his own naughty way he does not shirk theodicy, here:

There is a great deal after all to be said for the existence of evil; it might almost be held to prove the existence of God. Who else could have thought of it?[5]


References and Footnotes

  1. Longley, The Annotated Collected Poems, 304-6.
  2. In Broken Images, 51-3.
  3. Parker, Ackerley, 22.
  4. Unknown Warriors, 71.
  5. Life and Letters, 269-70.

A Cockney Farewell for Lord Kitchener; John Bernard Adams on a Bow at a Venture; Will Streets, An English Soldier; Rowland Feilding, Foolhardy No More; Tolkien Leaves the Lonely Isle for the Eastern Shore

The pace of the war, at least as we read it, begins to quicken, now, toward summer. There is much to get to today, a century back, and once again I beg forbearance: at the end of today’s post is a very long quotation from Adams’ Nothing of Importance–an incident of the greatest importance for his advancing understanding of the real nature of war.


On the 5th, Will Streets‘s battalion, the 12th Yorks and Lanks, were withdrawn from the line to the upspoiled country around Doullens. But they were still overshadowed by the Somme: their new home has been chosen for its physical resemblance to Serre, on the Somme. Tapes set out on the rolling ground represented the location of the German trenches they would now “practice” assaulting.

Nevertheless, it was a reprieve. It’s hard to keep dates on Will Streets, but today, a century back, he wrote a letter home to his mother:

For the first time since we have been at the front we are away from the sound of guns. It is certainly a blessed relief. The papers say there is a war–but who in these shining hours desires to read the papers! They disturb one’s ideas, for which of them tells you that it is Spring? It is only the kisses and faces of those ‘over there’ that we miss. But Spring is in the air and leads us to hope that soon we shall gaze upon those faces and accept those kisses, and the mother, let me tell you, that for us soldiers Spring will never end.

This is a high-spirited letter home, nothing more. But, of course, there are many ways that last line could be read. A poem written very close to this date does not avoid the issue.

An English Soldier

He died for love of race: because the blood
Of Northern freeman swell’d his veins: arose
True to tradition that like mountain stood
Impregnable, crown’d with its pathless snows.

When broke the call, from the sepulchred years
Strong voices urged and stirr’d his soul to life;
The call of English freeman fled his fears
And led him (their true son) into the strife.

There in the van he fought thro’ many a dawn,
Stood by the forlorn hope, knew victory;
Proud, scorning Death, fought with a purpose drawn,
Sword-edged, defiant, grand, for Liberty.
He fell: but yielded not his English soul:
That lives out there beneath the battle’s roll.

There is no disenchantment here, no unwillingness, in Streets’ writing persona, to be a sacrifice for his country; no bitterness from a young Derbyshire miner given so little by that country until he was asked to serve and sent out to prepare a daunting attack… And although he had to use his scant hours of leisure to scratch together something of the education that so many of our writers had handed to them–because, surely, of that conscious, aspirational investment–Streets has no interest at all in spurning traditional diction.

Streets’ letter to his mother reinforces his commitment to the undimmed ethos of Kitchener’s Army:

The English Tommy… needs not any praise, for what he does is natural and free, and wherever there is freedom of action there is freedom of spirit.[1]

It’s odd, to our ears, to hear a soldier claim “freedom of action.” But it shouldn’t be. Perhaps class–and Streets’ long-deferred dream of bettering himself through education–enters into it rather heavily here: the privileged officers who could find their way to safe billets if they were willing to risk a little social opprobrium may begin to doubt the whole enterprise, while the man who sees military service as an elevation to a larger sense of belonging is still carried forward by his initial motivations. And these are very fine, but generalized, impersonal.

Or then again perhaps not: perhaps Streets writes poetry when he writes poetry and reassures his mother when he writes to her, and perhaps he, like everyone else, is closely bound to the men of his platoon, and will fight for fear of letting them down… Even after all this reading, all we have are glimpses and guesses: do the men of Kitchener’s army really yearn to fight and win the big battle, or are they beginning to see that this war’s battles–even the hoped-for successes–are consumers of infantry more terrible than any hundred-handed monster of antiquity.


And speaking of Kitchener’s army, today, a century back, brought the shocking news of the sinking of the HMS Hampshire, victim of a German mine. 650 men drowned, including Field Marshal Lord Kitchener and his staff, en route to a strategic conference in Russia. The sudden demise of the Secretary of State for War–Britain’s greatest living soldier and already quite literally both the face and the namesake of its first mass army–was everywhere felt as a major loss. Or, almost everywhere.


Lord Kitchener as he appeared in one of the seminal 10th century posters

It’s not that Kitchener was such an effective administrator–famous old soldiers rarely are, and Kitchener was widely disliked by other cabinet ministers, an opinion he reciprocated. But in a constitutional monarchy whose monarchs were careful to tread quietly, Kitchener’s symbolic volume was very great.

A man–many men–died in a few terrible minutes, and then, as it happens in history, events began to be emplotted, interpreted. Kitchener died, some will say, just ahead of “his” army, like some sort of appropriately bitter and ironic twist on the Moses and Joshua story.

Or, from a victorious general, he became a sort of cabinet-level Rupert Brooke, an image of strength (or beauty) suddenly refigured as a sacrifice–but a “sacrifice” that doesn’t quite work. Is this death glorious? Nothing was accomplished by it, nothing furthered–Brooke died before he landed, and Kitchener’s mission ended in horrific mischance when it had hardly begun. Neither poetry nor strategy were furthered by these “sacrificial” deaths. But perhaps the paradigm lists away from the Christian story of redemptive sacrifice toward the old pagan practices: you can burn all you want on the altars of the pagan gods, and they may or may not accept your sacrifice… Try as they might to make this a sort of devotio (the ritual in which a Roman general charges the enemy alone, trading his life for the divine favor of victory), contemporary realists must try to understand that this was a military bureaucrat done in by a mine… nothing more.

So what did our writers make of it? We’ll hear a few, today and in coming days.

Vera Brittain remembers how her own happiness–her brother Edward is home on leave–was knocked awry by the loss of Lord Kitchener:

The afternoon of his return to London stands out very clearly in my recollection, for on that day the news came through of Kitchener’s death in the Hampshire. The words “KITCHENER DROWNED” seemed more startling, more dreadful, than the tidings of Jutland…

For a few moments during that day, almost everyone in England must have dropped his occupation to stare, blank and incredulous, into the shocked eyes of his neighbour. In the evening, Edward and our mother and I walked up and down, almost without a word beside the river at Westminster… So great had been the authority over our imagination of that half-legendary figure, that we felt as dismayed as though the ship of state itself had foundered in the raging North Sea.[2]

A pall cast over his short leave, brother and sister say goodbye in Piccadilly Service as she goes to work. The ship of state may have swamped there, for a moment, but Vera Brittain’s war–like everyone’s, really–is more about her people, her young men. And whatever Kitchener wrought, he is out of it now–and Edward is headed for the heart of it.

I climbed the steps of the ‘bus with a sinking heart, for I knew very well how many were the chances against our meeting again.[2]


Back to Kitchener, here, for some good soldierly black humor. Did all of Britain’s subjects meet the passing of the great warlord with such gravity? Not according to David Jones:

On 2 June the battalion returned to the familiar Richebourg sector, and made for the front-line trench near Moated Grange. While they moved along a communication trench towards the line, someone coming from the rear announced that Kitchener had been drowned at sea. Jones was passing a wet and weary Cockney who paused in his work to say, ‘Oh, ’e ’as, ’as ’e. Well roll on fuckin Duration.’’

To these men, no man’s death was important news.[4]

Rowland Feilding writes to his wife today, a century back, to continue their conversation (one sided, alas) on duty, honor, and pushing to put one’s self back in harm’s way. Two days ago he wrote to say that “it looks as if I shall have some difficulty in getting back to my battalion.” So that’s that–he will stay with the entrenching battalion rather than the a front line battalion, for the time being. Any regrets? Well, yes:

June 6, 1916, Bois des Tailles

I have been thinking things over to-day, and I feel I should not have worried you by telling you I was bored here, and wanted to get back to my battalion. I ought to have thought more of you and been contented to stay here. Anyhow, my efforts to get away have failed so far, and I shall not renew them. I shall wait until they send for me, though, if I see a chance of getting some more interesting job, I shall still take that.

This is interesting: most officers struggle continually with the balance between obedience and showing eagerness and aggression (or between safety and honor), so why a swift and complete reversal?

But my anxiety to get a more dangerous job is over. I had a walk with my C.O. yesterday, and he told me—more or less plainly—that he had heard I was too chancy. Anyhow, that is over for good and all. I can say, before God, that I have never risked a man’s life unless I was ordered, or thought it necessary: and I have never asked an officer or man to do a thing which I was not prepared to do myself.

He was good enough to say that I was too brave (meaning, I suppose, foolhardy); but, never mind, I won’t be brave in future. I shall hate it, but I will take any safe billet they may offer me.

When they say these things it makes me feel I have been unfair to you. But I have tried to act as I have thought you would like me to act. Besides, my inclinations are to be in the swim.

You must be most careful about yourself. Don’t tire yourself, and you need not worry about me, because I am absolutely safe here.[5]

I wish we knew more about Mrs. Feilding. But here at least is a combination of a regimental realization, as it were–there’s a fine line between brave and foolhardy, and he has been overstepping it–with a soldier’s acknowledgment of the constant buzzing fear that never leaves a wife on the other side of that yawning gulf. These men came out like young warriors, with that schoolboy (or, if we want to do the anthropological deep-dive, that tribal war-band) motivation to excel, to match and exceed their striving peers…

But now they have realized two things. First, that they fight not for a war band but as part of a ponderous bureaucracy that can be trusted neither to give the best the best opportunities nor to ask too much of some while rewarding others for giving less. Second, that they are neither schoolboys nor young unmade men, out to make their names–they have wives, already, and children. Even the Romans of the middle Republic–those paragons of virtuous Victorian aspiration–but the old experienced warriors in the third line.

So Rowland Feilding, like Edward (“Robert”) Hermon, now says, essentially, “I have risked myself, and proven to myself and others that I am willing. But now I won’t seek danger, and as long as I am here in this safe job, rest assured that no deadly telegram will reach you…”


Before we get to the 1/Royal Welch Fusiliers, a brief update on one John Ronald Tolkien. Today, a century back, he crossed the channel and made his way to Étaples. I’ll let the authors of the authorized authorial chronology takes us from certainty to speculation:

Equipment he had bought–including a camp bed, sleeping bag, mattress, and spare boots–having failed to arrive, he begs, borrows, or buys replacements. Possibly on this date he writes or begins to write a poem expressing his feelings for the land he has left, ending with ‘O lonely sparkling isle, farewell.’ The earliest, undated version has the Qenya title Tol Eressëa, but later the poem will be called The Lonely Isle (a literal translation from the Qenya) and will bear the dedication ‘For England’.

A weak mandate! Possibly, he began a poem. Ah, well, but here it is:

The Lonely Isle

O glimmering island set sea-girdled and alone –
A gleam of white rock through a sunny haze ;
O all ye hoary caverns ringing with the moan
Of long green waters in the southern bays ;
Ye murmurous never-ceasing voices of the tide ;
Ye plumèd foams wherein the shore and spirits ride ;
Ye white birds flying from the whispering coast
And wailing conclaves of the silver shore,
Sea-voiced, sea-wingèd, lamentable host
Who cry about unharboured beaches evermore,
Who sadly whistling skim these waters grey
And wheel about my lonely outward way –

For me for ever they forbidden marge appears
A gleam of white rock over sundering seas,
And thou art crowned in glory through a mist of tears,
Thy shores all full of music, and thy lands of ease –
Old haunts of many children robed in flowers,
Until the sun pace down his arch of hours,
When in the silence fairies with a wistful heart
Dance to soft airs their harps and viols weave.
Down the great wastes and in gloom apart
I long for thee and thy fair citadel.
Where echoing through the lighted elms at eve
In a high inland tower there peals a bell :
O lonely, sparkling isle, farewell!

Tolkien seems pretty committed to old-fashioned diction too, doesn’t he? And yet he is doing something strange and new, mapping a mythological world over his own. The citadel, as we have seen, is Warwick, and the isle is England. But no, they are Kortition, and Tol Eressëa, no simple island but a stepping stone carefully placed between the fallen world and an earthly heaven…[6]


Alas, after all this, that there are trenches to visit, and shells still to fall. Two days ago, Siegfried Sassoon reported on the spread of the “latest fashion:

Two raids are fixed for to-night, by the Division on our left…  in the swift glare of bursting shells can be seen the floating smoke and little clouds from shrapnel-bursts. Sometimes the glare is almost ruddy—suggesting burning cities and ruin and all horrors and confusion.

And somewhere a mile or two away the raiding parties are waiting till it’s time to go across–men with blackened faces and grim clubs and axes and bombs–men with knocking hearts, stifling the yawns of nervousness–wondering if our shells have cut the German wire–knowing that the enemy are ready for them–knowing they will probably be killed or wounded or caught like rats. O this bloody war! It will be my turn to go on a raid soon, I suppose.

The diary continues:

June 5

A heavy bombardment along, by La Boiselle, two miles to our left…

It was a battle seen in miniature against a black screen of midnight. Men were invisible: it was a struggle of giants hurling thunderbolts. Star-lights and flares, red and white, kept curving up from both lines…

The glare of the high explosive bursting was a fearful sight. One couldn’t imagine anything living in that hell. Orme and Morris were hit on Sunday night when up with the working-party.

June 6

The clouds are like giants tumbling and striving and leaping round the edge pf the clear blue sky. They are smoky-white and grey and golden-white. They strike huge attitudes and are blown shapeless again. I see colossal faces of Socrates and Diogenes—bearded sages–and slowly they lose their features.[7] The evening sun strikes the glinting wings of an aeroplane forging away westward—and it is a tiny speck of gold glinting high up. Swallows, skim above the long grass that almost hides the low wire in front of trenches; they are companions of light breezes, close to earth they sail, heedless of rifle-grenades.[8]


Finally today, we stay with the very same battalion, stepping only a few hours ahead in time from Sassoon’s diary as we return to John Bernard Adams. The next few days we will linger with this episodic memoir for the sake of an awful new episode. It has been nearly two months since disaster struck the officers of the 1/Royal Welch, and he has sketched in the period with a few undated topical sketches. But now, well–this chapter is worth reading.

“A Certain Man Drew a Bow at a Venture”

maple redoubt

Maple Redoubt is at center

It was ten o’clock as I came in from the wiring-party in front of Rue Albert, and at that moment our guns began. We were in Maple Redoubt. The moon had just set, and it was a still summer night in early June.

“Come and have a look,” I called to Owen, who had just entered the dug-out. I could see him standing with his back to the candlelight reading a letter or something.

He came out, and together we looked across the valley at the shoulder of down that was silhouetted by the continuous light of gun-flickers. Our guns had commenced a two hours’ bombardment.

“No answer from the Boche yet,” I said.

“They ‘re firing on C 2, down by the cemetery.”

“Yes, I hardly noticed it; our guns make such a row. By Jove, it’s magnificent.”

We gazed fascinated for a long time, and then went into the dug-out where Edwards and Paul were snoring rhythmically. I read for half an hour, but the dug-out was stuffy, and the smell of sand-bags and the flickering of the candle annoyed me for some reason or other. Somehow “Derelicts” by W. J. Locke failed to grip my attention. Owing to our bombardment, there were no working-parties, in case the Germans should take it into their head to retaliate vigorously. But at present there was no sign of that.

I went outside again, and walked along Park Lane until I came to the Lewis-gun position just this side of the comer of Watling Street. The sentry was standing up, with his elbows on the ground level (there was no parapet) gazing alert and interested at the continuous flicker of our shells bursting along the enemy’s trenches. Lance-Corporal Allan looked out of the dug-out, and, seeing me, came out and stood by us. And together we watched, all three of us, in silence. Overhead was the continual griding, screeching, whistling of the shells as they passed over, with- out pause or cessation; behind was a chain of gun-flickers the other side of the ridge; and in front was another chain of flashes, and a succession of bump, bump, bumps, as the shells burst relentlessly in the German trenches. And where we stood, under the noisy arch, was a steady calm.

“This is all right, sir,” said Lance-Corporal Allan. He was the N.C.O. in charge of this Lewis-gun team.

“Yes.” said I. “The artillery are not on short rations to-night.”

For always, through the last four months, the artillery had been more or less confined to so many shells a day. The officers used to tell us they had any amount of ammunition, yet no sooner were they given a free hand to retaliate as much as we wanted, than an order came cancelling this privilege. To-night at any rate there was no curtailment.

“I believe this is the beginning of a new order of things,” I said, half musing, to myself; “that is, I believe the Boche is going to get lots and lots of this now.”

“About time, sir,” said the sentry.

”Is there a push coming off?” said Lance-Corporal Allan.

“I don’t know,”  I replied. “But I expect we shall be doing something soon. It’s quite certain we’re going to get our three weeks’ rest after this turn in. The Brigade Major told me so.”

Corporal Allan smiled, and as he did so the flashes lit up his face. He was quite a boy, only eighteen, I believe, but an excellent N.C.O. He had a very beautiful though sensuous face that used to remind me sometimes of the ”Satyr” of Praxiteles. His only fault was an inclination to sulkiness at times, which was perhaps due to a little streak of vanity. It was no wonder the maidens of Morlancourt made eyes at him, and a little girl who lived next door to the Lewis-gunner’s billet was said to have lost her heart long ago. To-night I felt a pang as I saw him smile.

“We’ll see,” I said. “Anyway it’s going to be a good show giving the Boche these sort of pleasant dreams…”

We might skip a bit–but only a bit. For the pastoral interlude is, naturally, not to be missed:

The scene was one of the most perfect peace. The sun was not up, but by now the light was firm and strong; night had melted away. I went back and walked a little way along Park Lane until I came to a gap in the newly erected sand-bag parados. I went through the gap and into a little graveyard that had not been used now for several months. And there I stood in the open, completely hidden from the enemy, on the reverse slope of the hill. Below me were the dug-outs of 71 North, and away to the left those of the Citadel. Already I could see smoke curling up from the cookers. There was a faint mist still hanging about over the road there, that the strong light would soon dispel. On the hill-side opposite lay the familiar tracery of Redoubt A, and the white zigzag mark of Maidstone Avenue climbing up well to the left of it, until it disappeared over the ridge. Close to my feet the meadow was full of buttercups and blue veronica, with occasional daisies starring the grass. And below, above, everywhere, it seemed, was the tremulous song of countless larks, rising, growing, swelling, till the air seemed full to breaking point.

And there was not a sound of war. Who could desecrate such a perfect June morning! I felt a mad impulse to run up and across into No Man’s Land and cry out that such a day was made for lovers; that we were all enmeshed in a mad nightmare, that needed but a bold man’s laugh to free us from its clutches! Surely this most exquisite morning could not be the birth of another day of pain? Yet I felt how vain and hopeless was the longing, as I turned at last and saw the first slant rays of sunlight touch the white sand-bags into life.

“What time’s this working-party?” asked Paul at four o’clock that afternoon.

“I told the sergeant-major to get the men out as soon as they’d finished tea,” I replied. “About a quarter to five they ought to be ready. He will let you know all right.”

“Hullo!” said Paul.

“What are you ‘hulloing’ about?” I asked.

Paul did not answer. Faintly I heard a “wheeoo, wheeoo, wheeoo,” that grew louder and louder and ended in a swishing roar like a big wave breaking against an esplanade — and then “wump — wump — wump — wump” four 4.2’s exploded beyond the parados of Park Lane.

“Well over,” said Edwards.

“I expected this,” I answered. “They’ve been too d—d quiet all day—especially after the pounding we gave them last night.”

“There they are again,” I added. This time I had heard the four distant thuds, and we all waited.

“Wump, wump—CRUMP.” There was a colossal din, the two candles went out, and there was a shaking and jarring in the blackness. Then followed the sound of falling stuff, and I felt a few patters of earth all over me. Gradually it got lighter, and through the smoke-filled doorway the square of daylight reappeared.

“Je ne l’aime pas,” said I, as we all waited, without speaking. Then Edwards struck a match and lit the candles; all the table, floor, and beds were sprinkled with dust and earth. Then Davies burst in.

“Are you all right?” we asked.

“Yessir. Are you?”

“Oh, we’re all right, Davies,” said I. “But there’s a job for Lewis cleaning this butter up.”

At length we went outside, stepping over a heap of loose yielding earth, mixed up with lumps of chalk and bits of frayed sand-bags. Outside, the trench was blocked with debris of a similar kind. Already two men had crossed it, and several men were about to do so. It was old already. There was still a smell of gunpowder in the air, and a lot of chalk dust that irritated your nose.

“I think I’ll tell the sergeant-major not to get the working-party out just yet,”  I said to Paul. “They often start like that and then put lots more over about a quarter of an hour later.” And I sped along Park Lane quickly.

As I returned I heard footsteps behind me. I looked round, but the men were hidden by a traverse. And then came tragedy, sudden, and terrible. I have seen many bad sights—every man killed is a tragedy—but one avoids and hides away the hideousness as soon as possible. But never, save once perhaps, have I seen the thing so vile as now.

“Look out!” I heard a voice from behind. And as I heard the shell screaming down, I tumbled into the nearest dug-out. The shell burst with a huge “crump,” but not so close as the one that had darkened our dug-out ten minutes before. Then again another four shells burst together, but some forty or fifty yards away. I waited one, two minutes. And then I heard men running in the trench.

As I sprang up the dug-out steps, I saw two stretcher-bearers standing looking round the traverse. And then there was the faint whistling overhead and they pushed me back as they almost fell down the dug-out steps.

“Is there a man hurt?” I asked. “We can’t leave him.”

“He’s dead,” said one. And as he spoke there were three more explosions a little to the left

“Are you sure?”

“Aye,” said the stretcher-bearer and closed his eyes tight.

“He’s past our help,” said the other man.

At last, after a minute’s calm, we stepped out into the sunshine. I went round the traverse, following the two stretcher-bearers. And looking between them, as they stood gazing, this is what I saw.

In the trench, half buried in rags of sand-bag and loose chalk, lay what had been a man. His head was nearest to me, and at that I gazed fascinated; for the shell had cut it clean in half, and the face lay like a mask, its features unmarred at all, a full foot away from the rest of the head. The flesh was grey, that was all; the open eyes, the nose, the mouth were not even twisted awry. It was like the fragment of a sculpture. All the rest of the body was a mangled mass of flesh and khaki.

“Who is it?” whispered a stretcher-bearer, bending his head down to look sideways at that mask.

“Find his identity-disc,” said the other.

“It is Lance-Corporal Allan,” said I.

Then up came the regimental sergeant-major, and Owen followed him. They too gazed in horror for a moment. The sergeant-major was the first to recover.

“Hi! you fellows,” he called to two men.” Get a waterproof sheet.”

“Come away, old man,” said I to Owen.

Adams’ book is a different creature than the converted diaries or autobiographical memoirs. It’s a record of some months, but it foregrounds and focuses on the major traumas, of which this was one. I hope, if you have read this far, that you don’t begrudge him (or me) the time. If there is something heavy-handed about going back to the sudden, terrible death of a man and casting it in symbolic terms–the beautiful boy, the classical sculpture come to life, only to be instantaneously ended, reft and ruined–well, who is to say that that was the later hand of the writer? The mind of the witness has to do such things too, to cope with sudden death and the gruesome revelation of the body’s frailty and beauty’s uncertain duration. Either way, it’s a desperate attempt to make meaning of death.

In any event, I think Adams has earned his philosophizing and his biblical references by now. He goes to the bible to express the unbearable helplessness of living under artillery fire–to reject, in a sense, the very instinct he has just indulged, namely to tell a meaningful story about the one shell that happened to cut a man’s head in half.

In silence we walked back to the dug-out. But my brain was whirling. “A certain man drew a bow at a venture,” I thought again. That was how it was possible. No man could keep on killing, if he could see the men he killed. Who had fired that howitzer shell? A German gunner somewhere right away in Mametz Wood probably. He would never see his handiwork, never know what he had done to-day. He would never see; that was the point. Had he known, he would have rejoiced that there was one Englishman less in the world. It was not his fault. We were just the same. What of last night’s bombardment? (The memory of Lance-Corporal Allan up by his gun-position gave me a quick sharp pang.) Had we not watched with glittering eyes the magnificent shooting of our own gunners? This afternoon’s strafe was but a puny retaliation.

Slowly it came back to me, the half-formed picture that had arisen in my mind the night of Davidson’s death. “A certain man drew a bow at a venture,” expressed it perfectly. It was splendid twanging the bow, feeling the fingers grip the polished wood, watching the bow-string stretch and strain, and then letting the arrow fly. That was the fascinating, the deadly fascinating side of war. That was what made it possible to “carry on.” I remembered my joy in calling up the artillery in revenge for Thompson’s death. And then again, whenever we put a mine up, how exhilarating was the spectacle! Throwing a bomb, firing a Lewis gun, all these things were pleasant. It was like the joy of throwing stone over a barn and hearing them splash into a pond; like driving a cricket ball out of the field.

But the arrows fell somewhere. That was the other side of war. The dying king leant on his chariot, propped up until the sun went down. The man who had fired the bolt never knew he had killed a king. That was the other side of war; that was the side that counted. What I had just seen was war.

I leaned my face on my arm against the parados. Oh, this unutterable tragedy! Had there ever been such a thing before? Why was this thing so terrible? Why did I have this feeling of battering against some relentless power? Death. There were worse things than death. There were sights, such as I had just come from, as terrible in everyday life, in any factory explosion or railway accident. There was nothing new in death. Vaguely my mind felt out for something to express this thing so far more terrible than mere death. And then I saw it. Vividly I saw the secret of war.

What made war so cruel, was the force that compelled you to go on. After a factory explosion you cleared up things and then took every precaution to prevent its recurrence; but in war you did the opposite, you used all your energies to make more explosions. You killed and went on killing ; you saw men die around you, and you deliberately went on with the thing that would cause more of your friends to die. You were placed in an arena, and made to fight the beasts; and if you killed one beast, there were more waiting, and more and more. And above the arena, out of it, secure, looked down the glittering eyes of the men who had placed you there; cruel, relentless eyes, that went on glittering while the mouths expressed admiration for your impossible struggles, and pity for your fate!

“Oh God! I shall go mad!” I thought, in the agony of my mind. I saw into that strange empty chamber which is called madness: I knew what it would be like to go mad. And even as I saw, came the thought again of those glittering eyes, and the ruthless answer to my soul’s cry: “The war is utterly indifferent whether you go mad or not.”

Owen was standing waiting for me. I grew calm again, and tamed and put my hand on his shoulder. Together we reached the door of the dug-out.

“Oh, Bill,” he said, “have you ever seen anything more awful?”

“Only once. No, not more awful: more beastly. Nothing could be more awful.”

We told the others.

“Not Allan?” said Edwards. He was Lewis-gun officer, and Allan was his best man.

*Not Allan!*’ he repeated. “Oh, how will they tell his little girl in Morlancourt? What will she say when she learns she will never see him again?”

“Thank God she never saw him as we saw him just now,” I said, “and thank God his mother never saw him.”

“If women were in this war, there would be no war,” said Edwards.

“I wonder,” said I.[9]


References and Footnotes

  1. A Dream Within the Dark, 68-9.
  2. Testament of Youth, 272-3.
  3. Testament of Youth, 272-3.
  4. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 97.
  5. War Letters to a Wife, 78-9.
  6. Chronology, 80-1.
  7. This reminds me of the greatest English language historical novel of mid-19th century siege warfare--Ballard's Siege of Krishnapur (of course). There the dreamy clouds are made flesh--or, rather, stone--and the beleaguered colonialist actually fire these heads of the Western Canon from their (Western) cannon at the mutinous sepoys... Except in that case I think it's Plato and Socrates...
  8. Diaries, 72-3.
  9. Nothing of Importance, 256/267, 272-85.

Easter in the Trenches, and Elsewhere: A Poem from Will Streets, Tea with Bimbo Tennant, Siegfried Sassoon in Paradise, Raymond Asquith Head Over Heels, George Coppard in a Mined Redoubt; New Correspondents from Aberdeen to Alexandria

Will Streets did not lead a well-documented life. This is a shame, and one which I have not done much here to rectify. It’s  hard to follow a story if the dated fragments are spread too far apart. But I do want include a poem he wrote today, a century back, and so I should remind us a little of just who he is. John William Streets was an eldest son, and bright, and, as he wrote in a letter earlier this year, he had both drive and promise:

I had dreams, I had ambitions, because I strove even in boyhood after learning, after expression. But because I had love (I am proud to say this) I drowned all my ambitions of a brilliant career.

The love he writes of is love for his family. Streets was not the son of a school master, a professor, a writer and school administrator, a landed scion of a wealthy mercantile family, or a peer.[1] He was the son of a coal miner, and the eldest of twelve children. So in his mid-teens he went to work down the Derbyshire coal mines: twelve hour shifts in the pits, six days a week, for fourteen years, until the war came. The wonder, then, is not that his verse is less polished than most of what we read, but rather that he wrote so well despite his truncated formal education. Streets read whenever he could–and sketched, and painted–and, a committed Methodist, he dreamed at one time of becoming a clergyman. Instead he became instead a private of the Sheffield City Battalion of the York and Lancaster Regiment, one of the early “pals” battalions of Kitchener’s army. In 1915 they were briefly in Egypt; in March of this year they arrived on the Somme.

Many of our British writers, raised in a culture long steeped in Christianity yet–for most–without either much emotional intensity or the direct sensual appeal of Catholicism, were struck by the ubiquity of Christian imagery in rural France. The most irresistibly symbolic sight was the crossroads shrine with a crucifix, damaged by shellfire, looming over the men marching toward fear, pain, and death. Streets, the North Country Methodist, deserves to get a word in today, Easter Sunday:

Small chance of a service. How the mind flies back to past times when we used to sing ‘Christ is risen!’ Out here it is hard to believe that. We pass wayside crosses on which hangs an effigy of Christ, and we feel that Christ is crucified. We feel that the keynote of this world is sacrifice, that men are marching to Calvary.[2]

Sensible prose. And here’s the poetry:

O sweet blue eve that seems so loath to die,
Trailing the sunset glory into night,
Within the soft, cool strangeness of thy light,
My heart doth seem to find its sanctuary.

The day doth verge with all its secret care,
The thrush is lilting vespers on the thorn;
In Nature’s inner heart seems to be born
A sweet serenity; and over there

Within the shadows of the stealing Night,
Beneath the benison of all her stars
Men, stirr’d to passion by relentless Mars,
Laughing at Death, wage an unceasing fight.

The thunder of the guns, the scream of shells
Now seem to rend the placid evening air:
Yet as the night is lit by many a flare
The thrush his love in one wild lyric tells.

O sweet blue eve! Lingering awhile with thee,
Before the earth with thy sweet dews are wet,
My heart all but thy beauty shall forget
And find itself in thy serenity.


And how was Easter at the other end of the social scale, in the rear, among the staff? The Honorable Bimbo Tennant confides:

This is only just a love-line to tell you how I loved getting the little Andalusian charm, and what a happy Easter I spent. It was a beautiful day, and I went to the Holy Communion in the morning. Then I went to enquire after General Ponsonby who has not been well the last day or two. After tea I rode leisurely about 2 1/2 miles to the 55th Co. R.E., with whom I spent a most delightful evening. They had a good pianist so we had ‘moosit’ and great fun.[3]


Siegfried Sassoon is rather less social in his habits, less convivial in his moods. He continues to write in a mode of alternating melodramatic passivity: a hunched and forward rush toward action (and fierce writing) when in trenches, then a subsidence into a sort of lazy, aesthetic, pastoral back-float when in reserve. Today, sent away from his battalion for a month of “school,” (one wonders: is this due to long-gestating bureaucratic processes, or have his recent escapades been worrying his superiors?) the country boy took in the landscape once more–even the cityscape.

April 23 (Easter Sunday)

Out of trenches yesterday; the last two days have been wet and horrid…

Easter and church. Started 8.45. Amiens 11.15—miller’s waggon and four horses—Corbie church with two towers, and the chimney-stacks.

After this last period—since Tommy got shot—though spring was on the way, and trees putting on a vesture of faint green, though the sun shone on many days—yet most seem to have been dark and unhappy—since March 26 I have done eighteen days in the trenches, and those days and nights are a mechanical and strained effort.

Coming away from it all—to find the world outside really acknowledging the arrival of spring—oh it was a blessed thing—the journey on a sunny morning, pleasantly blown by a north-west wind, about twenty-five miles in a sort of motor-bus—the landscape looking its best—all the clean colour of late April—the renewal of green grass and young leaves—and fruit-trees in blossom—and to see a civilian population well away from the danger-zone going to church on Easter morning—soldiers contented and at rest—it was like coming back to life, warm and secure—it was to feel how much there is to regain. Children in the streets of towns and villages—I saw a tiny one fall, to be gathered up and dusted, soothed, comforted—one forgets ‘little things’ like those up in the places where men are killing one another with the best weapons that skill can handle.

And water—rivers flowing, taking the sky with them—and lakes coloured like bright steel blades, their smooth surfaces ruffled by ripples of wind—and a small round pool in a garden, quite still and glassy, with vivid green blades of iris growing along the edge. The great city of Amiens, Sunday-quiet, with the cathedral lording it beyond the gleaming roofs, sombre and unshining-grey, ancient, like a huge fretted rock or cliff, a train moving out of a station when we halted at the crossing-gates with rumble and clank of wheels on the rails. I had not thought of a train or seen one since I came from England seven weeks ago (it was at this very moment, on a Sunday, that I left Waterloo, and saw the faces of my people left behind as the carriage slid along the platform, all the world before me once more, and the unfinished adventure waiting to be resumed).

I may often write as if Sassoon is unaware of the extent to which his moods and writing change as his military position changes, but he is clearly conscious of some of the oscillation. And yet he gets carried away: he mentions men dying, and weapons–but are they really here today? Are these things palpable, horrible? Not when he refers to the “adventure.” Or fortune:

And now fortune has given me another space to take breath and look back on the grim days. Four blessed weeks in a clean town with fresh companions and healthy routine of discipline and instruction, and all this in the good time when spring’s at the full. At the end of May I shall return to the Battalion, eager and refreshed, and glad to be with my fellow-officers again (but one wants a rest from their constant presence to really appreciate them). O yes, I am a lucky dog.

And at 7 o’clock I climbed the hill and gazed across the town—the red wrinkled roofs of the great jute-factory below and the huddle of grey roofs with their peaceful smoke going up in the quiet air. I turned along a grassy, tree-guarded track that led to where a half-finished house stood, red and white, overlooking the town, with a lovely wood behind it. Sunset was fading, with a long purple-grey cloud above the west: and oh the wood was still, with slender stems of trees, all in their vesture of young green—and bluebells were on the ground, and young fresh grass, and blackbirds and thrushes scolding and singing in the quiet, and the smell of wet mould, wet earth, wet leaves, and voices of children coming up from a cottage below the hill. It was a virgin sanctuary of trees, and blessed peace for my soul and heaven for my eyes and music for my ears; it was Paradise, and God, and the promise of life.[4]


This is not Sassoon meant by “the promise of life,” but it will do: yesterday, a century back, Katherine Asquith was safely delivered of a boy. A telegram, it would seem, reached the happy father today:


23 April 1916

My Angel

You really, are a wonder. It seemed hardly possible that you would get the sex right as well as the date. The whole thing is a triumph of organisation which the Government would do well to imitate. What with the Resurrection, Shakespeare’s death and now Trimalchio’s birth, I hardy know whether I am standing on my head or my heels today. Shall we send him into the Cabinet or into the Grenadiers? Have you arranged a marriage for him yet? or will he have to attest? If so I shall raise the cry of “weaned men first”. Above all, does he give away any of your guilty secrets or might he so far be mistaken for my own?

High spirits well-earned. Even Raymond Asquith can’t be a cynic on the day he learns of the birth of his son and and heir–but he can manage conscription/breast-feeding jokes and note the religious and literary observances of the day… They will name the lad not Trimalchio (the reference is to Petronius, and it’s a pretty funny in-utero nickname) but Julian.

My sweet, I do hope it was less long and tiresome for you than the other two and that you are already beginning to feel well again. But the last I suppose is too much to hope. Still a boy must be much less of a shock than a girl and will beckon you on up the hill of convalescence . . . Darling angel, I adore you.[5]


An Eastertide birth, and a happy cynic–but there was killing too, and there were more lucky escapes.

George Coppard, one of our few other voices from the ranks, spent Easter in the line. And, no, this holiday merited no truce:

On the morning of Easter Sunday the Germans blew up two mines in the redoubt. The blast from one of them knocked Mr Wilkie off his feet. We saw the bulging piecrust slowly rise before the centre burst, hurling the vast mass upwards. In a few moments the descent began and the ground shook with the buffeting. We squirmed to the side of the trench like frightened rabbits. One piece of earth, no more than two ounces in weight, struck the nape of my neck. I had a black-out for a short while, but apart from a stiff neck for a week, I was none the worse for the tap. The Queen’s lost men that Easter morning from the two explosions, which destroyed the front line where they were standing. Jerry made no attempt to capture the craters.[6]

No attempt: this was punishment only, then, the ordinary violence of attrition: what the soldiers liked to refer to as a “hate.”


I want to close today’s overstuffed holiday dinner with that most unpalatable of addenda: seed corn. Easter is a memorable day, plus there the date’s significance for English letters, and so two writers who will arrive on the scene here rather late (once the Somme has opened up gaps for filling, as it were) are worth visiting with today, if only to provide some linkages later, when they become prominent contributors here and diligent readers wonder about their origins.

Vivian de Sola Pinto wore glasses, and so he went up to Oxford in 1914. By 1915, however, he was in, commissioned from the OTC into a Territorial battalion–of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, naturally. By late 1915, Gallipoli; then illness and exhaustion, and Alexandria. After shuttling around several Egyptian hospitals, de Sola Pinto was back in Alexandria and on the mend. Nothing like a day out, sacred and profane, Western and Eastern, ancient and modern…

On Easter Sunday, 1916, Anson and I had tea at the fine Greek patisserie of Athenaios, one of our favourite resorts, and then went to hear a service at a Greek Orthodox church with its gaudy silver lamps and ikons and congregation squatting on the floor. From there we went on to a Roman Catholic church w(h)ere we heard a powerful sermon preached by a French monk. We ended the day with dinner at Bonnard’s excellent French restaurant and a visit to an open-air cinema where we saw a Charlie Chaplin film with dubbings in French, Greek, and Arabic…[7]


Eric Linklater is a schoolboy still, reading Classics and English in Aberdeen. But not for want of trying. Linklater had enlisted in a Territorial battalion in August of 1914, until the two most common–and generally, if not universally, disqualifying–handicaps for a boy of his station were discovered: he too was very short-sighted, and he was also fifteen. So back to school it was. Linklater will not find a way into the army until next year.

Today, a century back, he was celebrating an auspicious day, (and enlarging, for us, upon Asquith’s reference to this anniversary, above):

I remember too–but now with shame–another occasion that provoked laughter almost as boisterous, and with far less cause. Its date is firmly fixed in history–it was 23 April 1916–and the newly appointed Professor to the Chair of English Literature and Language at the University had been persuaded to deliver, to the boys of the Grammar School, an address in celebration of the tercentenary of Shakespeare’s death… Professor Jack–Alfred Adolphus Jack… was still a stranger in Aberdeen, and both his appearance and his voice emphasised a strangeness that I and my rascally companions found risible beyond restraint. He was a highly coloured man with a thick growth of hair, the hue of oranges, a bright pink face, and brilliantly protruding blue eyes. He had, moreover, been trained to outmoded rhetorical style–reminiscent of Victorian drama–and he was in love with his subject.

To express that love he advanced slowly to the rostrum that had been set up for him–he leaned forward across the lectern–and in a voice whose high-pitched peculiarity was aggravated by his inability to pronounce the letter r, he slowly declaimed, with a measured pause between his words, ‘Fwee — hundwed — years — ago today — Shakespeare died!'[8]


References and Footnotes

  1. That would be Brooke, Sorley, Graves, Sassoon, and Grenfell, all but Graves born within a year or two of Streets.
  2. Piuk, A Dream Within the Dark, 60-1.
  3. Memoir, 190. This letter is dated "20th" in the Memoir, but this must, due to the Easter reference be a mistake.
  4. Diaries, 57-59.
  5. Life and Letters, 259-60.
  6. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 73.
  7. The City that Shone, 175.
  8. Fanfare for a Tin Hat, 49.