Kipling’s Tales of the Rout at Cambrai; The Master of Belhaven Learns of the Debacle; The Darkness of Toby’s Room; Jack Martin and Edward Brittain in Italy

Ralph Hamilton, the Master of Belhaven, is back in the swing of things, with his battery to the south and east of the Cambrai conflagration.

All day the heavy battery cannonade was kept up, and rumours were received of trenches lost and even batteries captured. Late this morning I got a situation report, and found things were worse than we had realized. The Hun had penetrated our line to a depth of 8,000 yards in places, and some batteries were lost, including A/107, which is sad, as it belongs to our division… it is the first time we have lost any of our divisional artillery.[1]

 

This is the fight that the Guards are still fighting. They have been defeated–driven back, at least, in the impossible task of holding a salient improvidently grabbed, while massively outgunned. Kipling sings the Second Irish:

The dawn of the 30th November was ushered in by single shells from a long-range gun which found them during the night. Half an hour after they had the order to move to Heudicourt and had digested a persistent rumour that the enemy were through at Gonnelieu, telegrams and orders began to pour in. The gist of them was that the line had undoubtedly cracked, and that the Brigade would move to Gouzeaucourt at once. But what the Brigade was to do, and under whose command it was to operate, were matters on which telegrams and orders most livelily conflicted…

And so it is the part of the Imperial Bard to describe a… well, an inglorious retrograde movement, perhaps, if not a rout. But then that is the benefit of choosing the size of your story: this is a British embarrassment, but still a proud day, of sorts, for the Second Irish Guards:[2]

Over the ridge between Gouzeaucourt and Metz poured gunners, carrying their sights with them, engineers, horses and infantry, all apparently bent on getting into the village where they would be a better target for artillery. The village choked; the Battalion fell in, clear of the confusion, where it best could, and set off at once in artillery formation, regardless of the stragglers, into the high and bare lands round Gouzeaucourt. There were no guns to back them, for their own were at Flesquières. As was pointed out by an observer of that curious day — “‘Tis little ye can do with gun-sights, an’ them in the arrums av men in a great haste. There was men with blankets round ’em, an’ men with loose putties wavin’ in the wind, and they told us ’twas a general retirement. We could see that. We wanted to know for why they was returnin’. We went through ’em all, fairly breastin’ our way and — we found Jerry on the next slope makin’ prisoners of a Labour Corps with picks an’ shovels. But some of that same Labour Corps they took their picks an ‘shovels and came on with us.”

They halted and fixed bayonets just outside Gouzeaucourt Wood, the Irish on the left of the line, their right on the Metz-Gouzeaucourt road, the 3rd Coldstream in the centre, the 2nd Coldstream on the right, the 2nd Grenadiers in reserve in Gouzeaucourt Wood itself. What seems to have impressed men most was the extreme nakedness of the landscape, and, at first, the absence of casualties. They were shelled as they marched to the Wood but not heavily; but when they had passed beyond it they came under machine-gun fire from the village. They topped the rise beyond the Wood near Queen’s Cross and were shelled from St. Quentin Ridge to the east. They overran the remnant of one of our trenches in which some sappers and infantry were still holding on. Dismounted cavalry appeared out of nowhere in particular, as troops will in a mixed fray, and attached themselves to the right of the thin line. As they swept down the last slope to Gouzeaucourt the machine-gun fire from the village grew hotter on their right, and the leading company, characteristically enough, made in towards it. This pulled the Battalion a little to the right, and off the road which was supposed to be their left boundary, but it indubitably helped to clear the place.

The enemy were seen to be leaving in some haste, and only a few of them were shot or bayoneted in and out among the houses. The Battalion pushed in through the village to the slope east of it under Quentin Mill, where they dug in for the night. Their left flank was all in the air for a while…

Tanks were used on the right during the action, but they do not seem to have played any material part in the Battalion’s area, and, as the light of the short and freezing November day closed, a cavalry regiment, or “some cavalry,” came up on the left flank. The actual stroke that recovered Gouzeaucourt had not taken more than an hour, but the day had cost them a hundred and thirty men killed, wounded and missing…

This is a tale that will need salting–or sweetening–with rough and ready humor, if it is not to leave a terrible taste in the mouth of any believer in the B.E.F.

A profane legend sprang up almost at once that the zeal shown by the Guards in the attack was because they knew Gouzeaucourt held the supplies of the Division which had evacuated it. The enemy had been turned out before he could take advantage of his occupation. Indeed, a couple of our supply-trains were found untouched on rail at the station, and a number of our guns were recaptured in and around the place. Also, the Divisional rum-supply was largely intact. When this fact came to light, as it did — so to say — rum-jar by rum-jar, borne joyously through the dark streets that bitter night, the Brigade was refreshed and warmed, and, men assert, felt almost grateful to the Division which had laid this extra “fatigue” on them.

But no–I’ve sold Kipling short. Or underestimated his loyalty to the twists and turns of the tale. He is a very great historian, in the old-fashioned sense,[3] and when a bitter day slews toward maniac joy and then back again, he leans into the curves…

One grim incident stays in the minds of those who survived — the sight of an enormous Irishman urging two captives, whom he had himself unearthed from a cellar, to dance before him. He demanded the jigs of his native land, and seemed to think that by giving them drink his pupils would become proficient. Men stood about and laughed till they could hardly stand; and when the fun was at its height a chance shell out of the darkness to the eastward wiped out all that tango-class before their eyes. (‘”Twas like a dhream, ye’ll understand. One minute both Jerries was dancin’ hard to oblige him, an’ then — nothin’, nothin’ — nothin’ — of the three of them! “)[4]

 

Some time ago we opened another entire European front–but then things became busy. Remember Italy? I had intended to give some of Sapper Martin‘s itinerary, as a sort of modern take on the ancient form, because nothing says “timeless military misery” better than a long, long march. But, as the narrative has been without excessively necessary details, I have been passing him over–I merely want to note, then, that his march reached 148 miles, today, a century back, at the end of its second week.[5]

 

But Martin is not our only man headed to the front lines in northern Italy. Edward Brittain was able to give his sister Vera an update today as well, on the occasion of his birthday. And, as you know, an army marches on its stomach, even in Italy…

Italy, 30 November 1917

We are fairly close to the line though not within artillery range; we expect to be closer very soon; at present it does not seem that we shall suffer from artillery anything like as much as we did in the salient… We have had some very hard marching lately but the men have stuck it wonderfully well. . . We have managed to buy a turkey for my birthday dinner to-night for the absurdly small sum of 7 liras…

In time there will be E.F. Canteens as in France, I expect, but at present we suffer from our dissimilarity in taste from the Italians. 22 seems rather old in some ways but young in others, e.g. I have only 1 subaltern younger than me.[6]

Happy Birthday, then, to twenty-two-year-old Edward Brittain.

 

And then there is fiction, which can choose many forms of escapism–or brutal realism. I mentioned Pat Barker’s Toby’s Room two days ago, and Elinor Brooke’s conviction that Sassoon’s decision to go back to the horrors of war was the only possible one. Today, her [fictional] diary describes what she herself is doing for the war effort: an art student before the war, she now assists Henry Tonks, the artist and toweringly influential teacher at the Slade, in his work. Working as artists and recorders of the war’s damage, they draw the faces of mutilated soldiers, in order to aid in pioneering attempts at reconstructive plastic surgery.[7]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary, 414-5.
  2. I have taken the liberty of changing the great man's paragraphing.
  3. I.e. with the emphasis on story, on narrative, and not on any 19th century balance of facts or, still less, with any 21st century expectation of striving for unbiased perception.
  4. The Irish Guards in the Great War, I, 218-220.
  5. Sapper Martin, 149.
  6. Letters From a Lost Generation, 383.
  7. Toby's Room, 233-6.

George Coppard’s Machine Guns to Cambrai; Rowland Feilding’s Rangers at Bullecourt; Robert Graves Sets the Record Straight; Agnes Miller as Lizzie Bennet, Olaf Stapledon as Mr. Darcy

Today, a century back, was the first day of the battle of Cambrai. There shouldn’t have been any real hope for a breakthrough, especially so near to the beginning of winter. But the ground in front of Cambrai–between the Arras battlefield and the Somme battlefield–was relatively unspoiled, and it was conceivable that the British could take the town and the Bourlon Ridge and thus threaten to cut off the Hindenberg Line. It is also conceivable that since the Third Army hadn’t suffered horribly, lately, its restive commanders simply wanted to experiment with massed tanks and new artillery tactics, and so an intelligent commitment to holding the line gave way to an experimental local attack that grew out of scale as the planning continued.

But I’m not capable of giving an intelligent precis of the strategy here, nor do we really need one. Six divisions of infantry and over 400 tanks were massed for the traditional dawn assault, and there was some hope that the Germans, expecting a long barrage, would be unprepared for the sudden attack after a short, furious bombardment by over a thousand guns, most of which had been “silently” registered on their targets. The new tactics worked well, but they will not be enough to sustain initial successes against the heavily built-up Hindenberg Line.

Among the thousands lying out between the British front lines in the early morning hours were George Coppard and his two machine gun teams, part of the 37th Brigade, 12th Division.

There we were, a brigade of men, shivering on a cold November night, without a smoke, and suffering like drug addicts… we were only allowed to communicate in whispers. It was the queerest sensation being packed with a vast crowd of warriors, within 400 yards of our front line, and out in the open, after living like rabbits in burrows for many months. It was a spooky business, and we kept as quiet as mice…

Like all the rest I was excited at the prospect of going into battle behind these new-fangled Wellsian monsters. I felt they were really going to exact retribution, on behalf of all of us, for the countless miseries and privations that we poor blighters had suffered at Jerry’s hands.This was to be the reckoning…

Zero was at 6.30 am on that memorable day, 20 November. We heard the sound of tank engines warming up. The first glimpse of dawn was beginning to show as we stood waiting for the big bang that would erupt behind us at the end of the countdown. Lieutenant Garbutt and Sergeant Critcher were standing near me. At last the officer began to count. He was bang on, and in a flash the black sky at our backs was ablaze with stabbing shafts of light. A vast drum of terrible thunder swept along the eight-mile front and a chorus of shells screamed over to the east. The need for silence was over, and we exploded in a babble of excitement. That concentration of artillery was surely one of the greatest ever known. The tanks, looking like giant toads, became visible against the skyline as they approached the top of the slope. Some of the leading tanks carried huge bundles of tightly-bound brushwood, which they dropped when a wide trench was encountered, thus providing a firm base to cross over. Suddenly, the bombardment ceased. By now the tanks were near the German lines and shooting it out where resistance was met…

We went forward into enemy country in a manner never possible without the aid of tanks. ‘A’ section fell in behind the Queen’s, my two guns being on the right flank. No enemy fire of any sort impeded us until we passed Gonnelieu on our left… It was broad daylight as we crossed No Man’s Land and the German front line. I saw very few wounded coming back, and only a handful of prisoners. The tanks appeared to have busted through any resistance. The enemy wire had been dragged about like old curtains, though it was not comparable in density to the terrible wire at the beginning of the Somme battle.

As we moved forward… I could see several tanks rolling forward steadily. There did not appear to be any organised defence against them. Some changed directions to meet isolated spots of resistance, mostly from machine guns. One or two had come to a stand-still, probably with engine trouble…

From the general situation it seemed to me that the German infantry had either fled at the apparition of the tanks or had pulled out deliberately, leaving their machine guns to do what they could…

Whatever the reason for the feeble resistance, it suited my gun team very nicely, and we moved forward steadily with guns and gear. Officialdom had designated tanks sex-wise, i.e. those with light cannon were males and those with machine guns were females. This caused the lads to think up some bright expressions when viewing the lumbering monsters, such as, “Here’s an old bitch,’ or, ‘There goes a bloody great bull.’

Advancing along captured communications trenches, Coppard and his men eventually discovered that not all German resistance had been overcome. His wide-ranging memories of the day[1] narrow, now, as he comes under direct fire.

We reached a point where it cut through the banks of a sunken road. We had to cross the road, but pulled up sharp at the sight of three dead Tommies lying on it. I dashed across the road to where the trench continued–a matter of about ten feet. From a concealed position on my right a Jerry machine guns opened fire. My hair stood on end as the bullets hissed past my back. The gunner was just a trifle late to get me.

There was a tank nearby beginning to move after a stop. I told one of the crew about the enemy machine gun, ‘We’ll fix the bastard,’ he replied, and slowly the tank shuffled round on its tracks and rolled off in the direction of the hostile gun. Then came a fiery burst as the hapless weapon tried to beat off the tank, the bullets clanging and ricocheting. The teams crossed the road safely, well-bucked at this practical demonstration of a tank in action.

Other than this adventure, Coppard saw little action–most of the German artillery seems to have withdrawn before the attack–evidence, perhaps, that they were not in fact strategically surprised. The 37th Brigade advances seven kilometres, just as planned, and without finding targets along the way. After his two teams dig in for the night–and for the expected counter-attack–Coppard explored their immediate area, finding a German command dugout with a body at the bottom. Nauseated–and fearing booby traps–he and his hungry men forgo taking any of the food in the dugout…[2]

 

Rowland Feilding‘s battalion was part of the 16th (Irish) Division, and attacked not as part of the main effort at Cambrai but with the subsidiary attack several miles to the west, at Bullecourt. They held the right flank of their brigade attack, which would prove to be a difficult situation.

Shortly before Zero I headed for the front to wish the assaulting Companies good luck before they went over, but I was delayed, and found myself still in the fire-trench when, bursting out of almost perfect silence, our barrage started…

As a precautionary measure I had had the direction of the objective marked out with tape the night before, having learned, from previous experience, the difficulty of keeping direction in the dark.

Absolutely to the tick I watched the men scaling the ladders… and scrambling over the parapet, the signallers under their sergeant struggling with the coils of telephone wire that was to keep me in touch with the assaulting troops once they had established themselves in the German trench. Those are sights that are very inspiring, and which engrave themselves upon the memory, but I prefer to turn away from them…

By this time the usual inferno… had worked up to its full fury.

It is very clear, at least, that British synchronization has reached a high level of efficiency. Feilding describes the barrage, and his attempt to control the attack from a forward position, but the small dugout soon becomes crammed with wounded men and German prisoners, so he headed back to his “proper Headquarters.”

At this moment poor Brett came stumbling back, crimson with blood, having been shot through the face, bringing further confirmation of the news which I already had from him by runner, that the enemy was furiously counter-attacking our exposed right flank.

The two bunkers are visible in the upper left of the map segment, below, just to the left of the hatched vertical line. Both are marked, appropriately enough, with a symbol much like the conventional “mars” symbol, but in this case indicating a “mebus” machine gun emplacement.

In his next letter, Feilding will explain the tactical situation. The primary objectives of his two companies were two huge reinforced concrete bunkers (“Mebus” was then the term) known as “Mars” and “Jove.” Both were swiftly outflanked under a precise barrage and smoke-screen–“the advance to the attack across Noman’s Land had been carried out precisely as rehearsed”–and surrendered after brief resistance. Eventually, 152 prisoners were collected, but the engineers accompanying the infantry, focused on clearing mines and booby-traps, were unable to block all of the tunnels connecting the German network of defensive positions.

When the counter-attack came, less than an hour after zero, it was both over the open ground to their right and through tunnels that led to the bunker.

You will appreciate its severity when I tell you that the Commander and twenty-six out of twenty-eight other ranks of the right flank platoon became casualties. The officers and men fought with the most heroic determination in spite of a failing and finally disappearing supply of bombs…

At a critical moment one of the men, Private K. White, rushed close up to a traverse from behind which the enemy was bombing, and actually catching some of their bombs in the air, threw them back before they had exploded.

But it was not enough–after an hour, Captain Brett, shot through the face, led a retreat onto the other pillbox. This held, and after another hour, Feilding himself crossed No Man’s land with his orderly in order to visit the position.

I talked to the men as I passed along the line, and found them in good spirits, and confident in the knowledge of the splendid part they had played that morning…

They have done well–and still suffered heavy casualties.

The familiar scene of desolation confronted me. Each time I see this kind of thing I think it is worse than the last time, and indeed, on this occasion, so churned up was the surface that, but for the line of tunnel entrances and the trodden ground between them, there was little left to indicate where the trench had been. It was just a sea of overlapping craters of huge dimensions–a dismal chaos of fresh-turned earth.

Feilding, with little to do now that the counter-attack has petered out, explores the new position, coming upon the dead, the dying, and the wounded. Even though he is so close to the action–he was in command of the men who stormed the two pillboxes and took the tunnels with hand-grenades, he writes almost as an observer. He sees the horrible aftermath, promises aid to the wounded, and collects souvenirs…[3]

 

Back down in the main battle, Edward Horner (one of the last of the Coterie, and a great friend of both Diana Manners and Duff Cooper) moved up with his 18th Hussars as the battle began. We have read Coppard’s and Feilding’s tales of heavy machine guns, precise artillery coordination, and tank exploits against pillboxes, and the battlefield was overflown by hundreds of aircraft–1917 as a foreshadowing of 1939. But there were only a few hundred tanks to be had and, as we shall see, they were mechanically unreliable, and so the plan for exploiting any breakthroughs was essentially the same as it had been in 1915 and 1916, and behind the attacking tanks and infantry trotted three entire divisions of cavalry–Hussars, Dragoons, and Lancers no longer dressed in their flashing Napoleonic finery, but still booted, spurred, helmeted, and mounted. Cambrai was, in the words of one of our writers who was not there but will study the subject, “a harum-scarum affair, ill-planned and feebly directed.” It was a raid that got out of hand, in terms of its scale, and could only do what raids do: snatch a bit of ground which cannot be held. The tactical coordination may yet be a model for future operations, but they have not solved the operational problem of continuing the advance.

So, as the German counter-attack gathers, Horner’s Hussars, part of the 1st Cavalry Division, passed through the infantry and attacked the village of Noyelles, south-east of Cambrai. But too slowly: although in some places all three major layers of the Hindenberg Line were pierced to a distance of nearly five miles (a fourth line was incomplete), by the time the heavily-laden horses had picked their way through, the German defense had had time to organize. The cavalry were in it, at last, but they were not cantering through the open fields toward Berlin. They were fighting a confused battle on a torn up field, against undisturbed reserves who had easier access to heavy weapons.

 

Back to the infantry, now. E. A. Mackintosh’s 4th Seaforth Highlanders were in reserve, although they probably assumed that they would be called in when the attack bogged down. But they were not–and if the cavalry were both elated and disappointed to be involved in heavy fighting, the infantry were very pleased to have a short march forward into the captured area. So, despite yesterday’s note, Mackintosh saw no fighting today. During the night they will take over for the first waves, victorious but exhausted.[4]

 

Also in the battle were both of Isaac Rosenberg‘s recent units–the company of Royal Engineers with whom he had served as a laborer and the 11th King’s Own Royal Regiment (Lancaster). As with Mackintosh’s Seaforths, their easy first day will turn out to be only be a brief reprieve: the German counter-attack will come soon, and it will be as devastating as the British assault was successful. And so Rosenberg will come to know that he has been very fortunate to be very ill, and in hospital, and not in Bourlon Wood.[5]

 

It might make sense to end here, or to spend more time fleshing out these scattered notices of a large battle–but that, of course, is not how today, a century back, was experienced. It was all in bits in pieces, and only later would it be the beginning of a strategic story of ambition, success, and cruel but predictable reversal. In England the evening papers will have some news of the attack, but for most people, most of the day, their thoughts were elsewhere.

Robert Graves, for instance, is writing from his garrison job in Wales to Robert Nichols. The letter happily discusses their recent literary successes–“My God, Robert, we have lit such a candle as by God’s grace will set the whole barn alight”–and proposes various projects, before it works around to Graves’s real business–clearing the air of any lingering questions about his sexuality.

It’s only fair to tell you that since the cataclysm of my friend Peter, my affections are running in the more normal channels and I correspond regularly and warmly with Nancy Nicholson, who is great fun. I only tell you this so that you should get out of your head any misconceptions about my temperament. I should hate you to think I was a confirmed homosexual even if it were only in my thought and went no further.

Fair enough, perhaps. It is testimony to both Graves’s enthusiasm and his obliviousness that it might only recently have occurred to him that his habit of being honest about his (chaste) passion for a younger schoolboy might lead some to think that he was “a confirmed homosexual.” The topic may be on his mind, too, because Nichols–his heterosexuality confirmed by syphilis apparently contracted from prostitutes–has recently spent time with Siegfried Sassoon and Robbie Ross. And then there is one more poet whose affections run in less “normal” channels… and whom Graves, after connecting Nichols and Sassoon (though Ross was there to do the real work) will try to take credit for discovering, even though, of course, it was Sassoon who introduced them.

I think I have found a few poet as yet unfledged. One Owen, subaltern in the 2nd Manchester Regiment.[6]

Owen, meanwhile, left home this morning, a century back, his leave up, for garrison duty in Scarborough.[7]

 

Finally today, we’ll take a perversely wide view of “war literature” and swing from the tanks at Cambrai to the nineteenth century novel inspiring in Australia.

Agnes Miller–together with a score of other wives and sweethearts–suffers the compounded insult, here, of once again waiting quietly in the background while men’s words take center stage. The excuse, of course, is that we are interested, a century on, in the experience of the war and the problems of writing about it, and therefore the letters of those at the front naturally take precedence over those written from home to the soldiers (and ambulance drivers). Which is fine, as far as it goes, but it’s still a shame that this echoes the general devaluing of women’s voices, a century back. Although sometimes any fault is mine–I choose to omit the letters, that is–another reasonable excuse is that there is often no possibility of including the other half of the conversation: letters from the front could be bundled and laid lovingly away in drawers and trunks, while letters to the front were very often lost or simply thrown away, since a bundle of letters would become a burden to a front-line soldier.

But some recipients were able to keep at least some of their letters, and, while I often skip Agnes Miller’s tales of daily life in wartime Australia, today’s letter, though ill-timed to coincide with a major tank battle and the climax of one machine-gunner’s memoir, is impossible to resist. In fact, it’s about as excellent a letter from a lover as one could hope to receive… which is also to say that I approve of its subject and position, a century on. Moreover, after he will have received her long-delayed doubts on the strength of their relationship to survive these years apart, this letter will surely overwhelm Olaf Stapledon with love for his beloved–and with gratitude for the timely wisdom of that “lady novelist” then dead a century and four months.

20 November 1917

I wonder if perhaps you are at home now on leave—perhaps at this very minute waking up one morning at Annery. I have a habit of always thinking of you eight weeks ago, sort of. I don’t realise that you are really there keeping pace with me at every fresh minute of the day. It is nice to think that. It makes you more real. I have read two books in the past three days. That is my record! I kept thinking how much you would have enjoyed them if we had been reading them aloud to each other. Of course you must have read them—“Pride & Prejudice” & “Northanger Abbey.” You do like Jane Austen, don’t you? I simply love her. Such really artistic delightful writing. Such books make me think of diamonds, small diamonds but perfect in workmanship. Absolutely genuine—clean cut, perfectly smooth & sparkling. Full of such delicious humour & such sound good sense, & although the ways & the language that day are so very different from ours yet the characters are just such as we meet everywhere. I should like to have been friends with Jane & Elizabeth Bennett. . . . I should so like to be as bright & intelligent & sprightly as Elizabeth! No wonder Mr. Darcy “got it badly” when he did get it! I like to picture you in the characters of all the nice lovers— my
Mr. Darcy!

. . . I can understand Elizabeth very well. I can understand her resentment at such a sudden & unexpected declaration. I can understand her disapproval amounting to positive dislike on that occasion. I think she would understand my despair & sorrow—almost shame at having won a love that I could never hope to return. If she had understood my feeling she would not have been surprised to find me weeping upstairs in the darkened drawing room. . . .

Then next I see the beginnings of changes in both of us—changes which make us feel how far away we both were before from the real thing & at last “my Mr. Darcy” comes to me—or rather I write to him from the other end of the world & say, “Dear Mr. Darcy—Once, a long time ago, you asked me to be your wife & I said no & I was very cross & horrible & now I am sorry. Everything is different now & I am different too & I understand & if you will only ask me once again I will not say no—indeed I will not.”

And she did not.

Mr. & Mrs. Darcy were very happy after their stormy courtship & Mr. & Mrs. Stapledon will surely be even more so to make up for all the long time they have had to wait. . . . Jane Austen really is a tonic as well as an artist.[8]

We are to be grateful, however, that Agnes didn’t happen upon Persuasion, first, which might have romantically inclined her toward a long sharp wartime separation and a preference, after all, for brave, dashing, and fortunate officers, rather than principled and dreamy pacifists…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Which read a little bit too much, in a few places, as if they had been influenced by the style of later popular summary.
  2. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 122-6.
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 228-34.
  4. Campbell and Green, Can't Shoot a Man With a Cold, 204-5.
  5. Moorcroft Wilson, Isaac Rosenberg, 375.
  6. In Broken Images, 88-89. There is no date on the letter, but it is dated to today, a century back, by Jean Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 425.
  7. Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 283.
  8. Talking Across the World, 257-8.

Carroll Carstairs and Jack Martin are Witness to A Ghastly and Murderous Failure; Llewelyn Wyn Griffith Remembers a Very Successful Day

Carroll Carstairs has been moving up over the last few days–back “up” that perilous, horizontal ladder of railways and shelled roads, “corduroy” paths and communications trenches that leads from “rest” to battle.

There was no sleep for anyone. Through the long hours the nightmare persisted until at 5.40 a.m. the division on our right went over the top to the tune of the most mighty cannonade conceivable, and my life reached a peak of auricular experience. It was at last the whole world crashing about our ears. Gunfire had, at a moment, leaped into an intensity no human being could have realised without hearing. A veritable crescendo of sounds, so continuous as to merge and blend into a single annihilating roar, the roar of a train in a tunnel magnified a millionfold; only the rattle of the machine gun barrage, like clocks gone mad, ticking out the end of time in a final breathless reckoning, rose above it, while the accelerating blasts of enemy shells added weight to the crowning catastrophe. One imagined the very air ripped and torn by the flight of numberless shells, the very sky to have become a tattered blue garment.

I went to the entrance of our pill-box to see what I could of the battle and never was spectator so thrilled, so awed. Beyond the enemy lines, behind the high dust of battle, colour stole shamefacedly into the sky; the rising sun appeared, a blurred and murky mass. The light of another day crept chill and faint over a scene too desolate for further destruction. Great clouds of smoke and dirt spouted into the air and drifted like a dirty morning mist along the horizon line. Showers of sparks, made by incendiary shells, burst like monster fire crackers, while enemy rockets, signalling that the attack had begun, shot into the sky, breaking from red into green lights, like dragons’ eyes changing colour. Of troops I could see little. Specks too much the tone of the earth over which they were moving. For me the battle continued, a hurling and crashing of huge projectiles . . .

After a little, orderlies appeared coming back at the double, while soon after zero the sky was dotted with our contact aeroplanes. One came down in our lines.

The very day, made restless by its predecessors, gave us no peace, and shelling kept up, heavy as ever, while a tour of the Company’s front revealed the fact that it had escaped the terrible bombardment of the night with one man killed and a man “buried.”

All day the firing went on, until 6 p.m., when it turned again from scattered knocks into the prolonged, concerted bang of gun fire—attack or counter-attack? But one heard nothing and knew nothing except what was happening to one’s own Company—and not always much of that.

So Carstairs is unaware that another major phase of “Third Ypres” has opened up, known as “the Battle of the Menin Road Ridge.”

In the evening I was on trench duty. I sat with my back up against the end of the platoon slit, gazing at the blurred figure of the sentry or into a sky set with stats, hard and brilliant as precious stones. Fleecy clouds, like gauze, rubbed them to a brighter lustre. I spoke in an undertone to the sentry. I felt friendliness for him. I did not know his name—one of a hundred and fifty men—how long would he last? For the matter of that how long would I? But we were one now. Reacting identically. One through a common danger. Victims of the same caprice of fate. He watched out for me and if he gave the alarm, would I not act at once for him?

I smoked a cigarette. How life balanced! Here was a hundred per cent danger and discomfort, but here too was a hundred per cent pleasure out of a cigarette. Each puff was a brief, sweet intoxicant. A suggestion of past joys, drawn deep and fragrantly into the lungs and blown out into the crystal air.

Falling into a slight doze, I woke, feeling chilled. The darkness, like any night into the middle of which one woke, seemed everlasting.[1]

 

Sapper Jack Martin was only a few hundred yards behind this attack. He spent the day in the Brigade Signal Office, assembling “little bits of information.”

Putting them all together, the situation seems like this. Fritz had occupied some of the derelict tanks lying in no-man’s-land and had made strongpoints of them. He fought desperately and disputed every inch of ground and his snipers remained at their posts hidden in tree trunks etc, even after our troops had passed them, and continued to shoot our men from behind…

Martin reported that one battalion of the Hampshires lost every officer “and a great many men.” Strangely–or not, considering his position among a brigade staff–Martin’s heroes of the day are two Colonels, commanding battalions in the brigade. One of these captured–and chose not to kill–one of those German rearguard snipers, and another led the stout defense of a forward post even after being wounded..

A later entry on the same day confirms, however, that the attack has not gone as planned.

I expect that tomorrow the English papers will be shouting the news of a great victory, but it has been a ghastly and murderous failure.

…I was surprise to see some Military Police in these tunnels… Their business up here is to prowl round the tunnels looking for men who have taken shelter when they ought to be outside. A miserably ignoble trade![2]

 

So–was this was another miserable “balls up” which the staff will conceal and the papers lie about? It might seem that few fighting soldiers would disagree, but theirs are not the only opinions, the only memories–and it was a big attack, more bloody on some sectors than others. Three divisions formed the spearhead and many others were involved in supporting roles, and they were, from a strategic point of view, successful.

A new tactic–an innovation, once again of General Plumer, known as “bite and hold”–meant that after a relatively short advance the attacking troops dug in and prepared to meet counter-attacks. Instead of wrecking themselves against the deeper layers of the German trench system and being swept away when the counter-attack came, they could hold their new positions with prearranged artillery support. (This of course also meant that there would be no breakthrough–the dream of the queen breaking out into the enemy rear has been abandoned, but at least the pawn is being pushed forward without being annihilated).

And just as Carroll Carstairs can’t see much beyond his company, the staff can’t see the individuals who suffer and die to achieve a favorable overall result. Llewelyn Wyn Griffith, now a young officer on a divisional staff–no matter that he was a traumatized infantry officer as recently as last summer–will remember the day as a triumph:

I remember a very successful day on 20 September, when we captured all our objectives. Our casualties were slight and our men took 400 prisoners: I recall seeing a lot of them in cages. We were kept pretty busy, even though there were minimal counter-attacks and those there were, were smashed by our guns.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Generation Missing, 103-6.
  2. Sapper Martin, 104-6.
  3. Up to Mametz and Beyond, 156.

Wilfred Owen on the Next War; Hugh Quigley Confronts the Landscape; Kate Luard Allows a Late Night; Herbert Read’s Mock(ing) Letter

Today, a century back, presents us with a broad range of experience in four snippets.

Wilfred Owen is still writing copiously: this time it is a long, poetry-enclosing letter to his mother, which begins in the old style of detailed reports on his doings, in this case a long description of a visit to the home of some decidedly fashionable Edinburgh householders. But he is soon on to his new topic–Siegfried Sassoon.

Many thanks for Father’s Views (of Aberystwyth). Wish I had his views of S.S. I will copy out one or two of my recent efforts in Sassoon’s manner.

Even without such a clue, identifying poems such as “The Next War” as being heavily influenced by Sassoon is shooting critical finish in the biographical barrel. Or, given the quotation that heads the poem, simply being handed a dead fish.

 

The Next War

War’s a joke for me and you,
Wile we know such dreams are true.
– Siegfried Sassoon

Out there, we’ve walked quite friendly up to Death,
Sat down and eaten with him, cool and bland,–
Pardoned his spilling mess-tins in our hand.
We’ve sniffed the green thick odour of his breath,–
Our eyes wept, but our courage didn’t writhe.
He’s spat at us with bullets and he’s coughed
Shrapnel. We chorussed when he sang aloft,
We whistled while he shaved us with his scythe.

Oh, Death was never enemy of ours!
We laughed at him, we leagued with him, old chum.
No soldier’s paid to kick against His powers.
We laughed, knowing that better men would come,
And greater wars: when each proud fighter brags
He wars on Death, for Life; not men, for flags.

If this poem still feels somehow light, despite the subject matter, it’s for a promising reason: Owen’s lyrical apprenticeship has left him ready to write fluid and pleasant verse, his prosodic skill a tool that may have surprising applications. Owen’s letter continues:

…I find it well received by the public and praised by Sassoon with no patronizing manner but as a musical achievement not possible to him. He is sending copies of the Hydra to Personages!

Last night I had a consultation with Dr. Brock from 11 to midnight!

I asked him (for the first time) when he meant to have me boarded. He said there were no instructions given to him yet; and wasn’t I quite happy where I am? Very well . . .

I still have disastrous dreams, but they are taking on a more civilian character, motor accidents and so on.[1]

He is on his way to recovery–and therefore the current slow course is judged to be best. This is very lucky for Owen, but one wonders exactly what these nightmares were like. He doesn’t tell his mother, of course, and he didn’t tell Sassoon. Is his sleep merely “disturbed,” as we would say? Or does he wake screaming, terrified, every night, several times, as was common at Craiglockhart? It’s hard to wangle a clear explanation of trauma, isn’t it…

 

Herbert Read, writing to–and to impress–Evelyn Roff, strikes another pose today, this time the sarcastically self-aware world-weary officer in repose. Well, no, not repose, exactly…

2.ix.17

We are now ‘enjoying’ a rest! That blessed word ‘rest’. It has terrors for us almost equal to any the line can produce. It means a constant scrubbing and polishing… a continual state of qui vive, for safety releases all kinds of horrors upon us: fellows with red hats and monocles who seldom molest us in our natural haunt…

And then there are the tasks, which Read writes with the same strenuous jauntiness, of drilling the troops, both slovenly veterans and raw recruits, back up to the standards of non-combat duty and, worse, of reading their letters:

…two or three weary subalterns have to wade through two or three hundred uninteresting letters every day. Comme ci: ‘Dear old pal–Just a line hoping as how you are in the pink of condition as this leaves me at present. Well, old pal, we are out of the line just now in a ruined village. The beer is rotten. With good luck we shall be over the top in a week or two, which means a gold stripe in Blighty or a landowner in France. Well, they say it’s all for little Belgium, so cheer up, says I: but wait till I gets hold of little Belgium.

From your old pal, Bill.

And so on…[2]

 

Kate Luard, too, has been enjoying a rest–or, at least, a few days without dire trouble. But this phase of the war presents very little of interest to a working nurse on an afternoon at liberty.

I went with P. for a walk and saw a great many Tanks in their lair; hideous frights they are – named Ethel, Effie, Ernest, etc.

With her own preferred leisure activities so curtailed, will she soften her administrative heart to others? Yes, of course–and with ulterior motives, too.

Sunday, September 2nd.

The weather has not cleared up enough yet for Active Operations, so we are still slack. General S. told me to-day the exact drop in the numbers of daily casualties, and it is a big one. We have a piano in our Mess salved from 44. It brings the M.O.’s and their friends in every evening about 9 p.m., which is really bed-time, but one mustn’t be too much of a Dragon in these hard times. And last night I let them keep it up till 10.30, as it was a good and cheery cover for some rather nasty shelling that was going on, and had been all day – on both sides and beyond us (behind us as we face the line). It went on all night too, and lots of casualties were brought in; 6 died here, besides the killed in the Camps. Of course in one interval he must needs turn up overhead too. I only slept about an hour all night.[3]

 

Finally, today, our second reading of Hugh Quigley, and the second one in which we must be led through the analysis of an experience without having read the details. But we are familiar, I think, with the war in general, and judging from that, this all seems to make very good sense indeed:

One can never decide definitely about anything there; there is not time, even, for decent thinking; always on the move should be our war-cry. I have seen a vast chunk of France now and I don’t feel inclined to enthuse about its beauty. The same monotony of streamless plains. A new brand of nostalgia enters the system: one longs for a purling brook, a clear lake, and a whole village. I have seen enough ruins to send our feather-brained sentimentalists into the last stages of delirium.

I am beginning to overcome the lice nuisance…

Quigley goes on to discuss his reading–Conrad–and to weigh the best philosophical approaches to a soldier’s life:

The Epicurean idea is the best: make the most of a good thing when you have it and let the future go to the devil. In fact, a Stoic-Epiucurean would have a glorious time just now, and the old Cynic antagonist fill the trenches to every one’s satisfaction; but the doubt arises, would he do for fighting? Too canny, perhaps; too bald in his perception of facts. The barbarian is the darkest fighter after all; he goes right at it…

On a roll, now, Quigley discusses H.G. Wells, wartime sunsets, memorial language, Corot, and, memorably, his impressions of the battlefield around Achiet-le-Petit:

…not a tree was visible anywhere, yet such a perfect gradation of soft greys from rose to pale blue as I have never seen or even dreamt. We seemed to enter a dim world of fairy, grey warriors going into a new Valhalla, where all harshness and ruggedness had been smoothed down into quiet loveliness, and a peaceful contentment taken the place of violent action; where the spirit could forget yearning and find its faintest desires broaden out into a graciousness as if heaven were earth, and earth a kindlier God. It was morning, morning in full summer, when we went there, and a veil of rose lay over the earth, touching a far town–Achiet-le-Grand–to a golden mystery of wall and tree, and outlining with silver the broad road that led from it in the direction of Bapaume.[4]

But now, I think, we can with rare precision discuss absence as well as presence. We can, that is, gather something of what Quigley has not read. He goes on to claim that he has “lost all taste for pure landscape”–yet still he describes it. He hasn’t seen the worst of war, but it is still striking to note what his description of the road to Bapaume lacks. We might compare it to Sassoon’s “Blighters,” the very poem which Vivian de Sola Pinto, himself approaching the line in France, had recently committed to memory :

The House is crammed: tier beyond tier they grin
And cackle at the Show, while prancing ranks
Of harlots shrill the chorus, drunk with din;
“We’re sure the Kaiser loves the dear old Tanks!”
I’d like to see a Tank come down the stalls,
Lurching to rag-time tunes, or “Home, sweet Home,”
And there’d be no more jokes in Music-halls
To mock the riddled corpses round Bapaume.

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 490.
  2. The Contrary Experience, 107-8.
  3. Unknown Warriors, 155.
  4. Passchendaele and the Somme, 105-112.

Edwin Vaughan’s Longest Day, at Langemarck Ridge; Hugh Quigley’s Purpose; Thomas Hardy Praises a Dead Officer and a Living Poet

Two brief pleasant snippets, today–hopeful, literary–before we read a long and terrible day of battle.

 

We have been recently reminded–by his new acolyte Wilfred Owen, no less–that Siegfried Sassoon admires Thomas Hardy above all living writers. This missive, then, will bring him much happiness.

Max Gate, Dorchester, Aug. 27, 1917

Dear Mr Sassoon:

We were beforehand with you in respect of To any Dead Officer, for we cut it out of the Cambridge Magazine—not knowing that it would be reprinted. Many thanks for sending it all the same, as I have now two copies, one for lending to people who never return things. I am not clear as to where you are, so send this line through my friend Thornycroft.

Sincerely yours

Th: Hardy.

P.S. I need not say how much I like the poem.

T.H.[1]

To receive, at some point soon, a note of admiration from the great Hardy–routed through his sculptor uncle in order to reach him in golfing retreat from pacifist outrage at a war hospital for shell shocked officers–will be a nice representation of the conflicted position Sassoon is in…

 

“I am inclined to think you are causing yourself too much discomfort about me.” With these words we’ll belatedly begin reading Hugh Quigley’s diary-in-letters. The diary begins some months ago, but it is my hope that it will be a valuable addition to this project over the coming weeks, as Third Ypres morphs into Passchendaele.

Quigley is not there yet, but he came out in June and has been under fire on the line in France. He has written enough, it would seem, to have arrived at the need to write a major statement of purpose and declaration of his state of mind. This is, then, to put the analytical cart before the expository horse for us, but, alas, we go strictly by the dates:

Bertincourt, 27 August, 1917

After all, the worse I can get just now goes to a hardening. All I want you to consider is this: that so far I have told the unvarnished truth, coloured bareness in places, given sordid things a new gleam which might enliven them to my idea, but make them more squalid still perhaps to yours, but I have never consciously said things were well with me when they were not…

Thus I don’t want you to lay too much stress on any sickness you think to find in my letters; it is a mood rather than a condition…

One could easily  say: “I am in the pink”, etc., in every screed, but what’s the good of that? That has no value to anybody, least of all to the man who writes it. A letter, as I conceive it, is at best a picture… of the writer, and as such should be inherently true…

So far, war has remained a romance to me…

If I can keep patience, the cards will fall to me soon and give me a winning hand. I am sure of that…[2]

 

Edwin Vaughan has evolved a similar commitment to truth-in-reportage. But his diary has very little of the tract about it–it’s less a disquisition on truth to mood than a novel narrated by its moody protagonist. Vaughan is concerned to record each dip and dive of his spirits as it occurs, affording equal attention to his external experience and the emotions that shape it. Vaughan has now spent a long night and day under fire just behind the British front lines. An attack is planned, and his company is to be in reserve–but in the Salient there is really nowhere to hide…

August 27

In the rations came a gift from General Fanshawe which consisted of a special meat and vegetable meal in a self-heating tin called ‘Auto bouillant’. They were remarkably good and the troops blessed Fanny for a hot meal. There were also a lot of cold cooked rabbits in the rations! I said to Dunham jokingly. ‘You hang on to my rabbit, I’m going to eat that on Langemarck Ridge.’

Just after midnight I made my way over to the Boilerhouse where Pepper now had his HQ. He was in fairly cheerful mood but ridiculed the idea of attempting the attack. The rain had stopped for the time being, but the ground was utterly impassable being covered with water for 30 yards at a stretch in some parts, and everywhere shell-holes full of water. He showed me the final orders which detailed zero hour for 1.55 p.m.—a midday attack! My instructions were that at zero minus 10 (i.e. 1.45) I was to move my troops forward to the line of the Steenbeck. Then as the barrage opened Wood was to rush forward with three platoons to the gunpits while I reported to Colonel Hanson in the pillbox next to the Boilerhouse. While we were talking a message arrived from Brigade: ‘There is a nice drying wind. The attack will take place. Render any final indents for materials forthwith.’

Pepper read this out to me in a tone which implied ‘This is the end of us!’ Then he scribbled a few words on a message pad and tossed it across saying, ‘Shall I send that?’ He had indented for ‘96 pairs Waterwings. Mark III’. I laughed and bade him ‘cheerio’. As I went out, I met the CO moving up to his HQ. He stopped for a moment while I explained why I had done no work. Then I said ‘It doesn’t look very promising for the attack. Sir.’ ‘No,’ he said, seriously, ‘but it’s too late to put it off now.’ Then we parted and I returned to my blockhouse.

Wood was still lying on his bed in a fuddled state with eyes staring out of his head, and as I turned in I thought to myself bitterly, ‘What chance have we got of putting up a show tomorrow! My only officer out of action already and me commanding a company in which I don’t know a single man and only about two NCOs by sight. Thank God Merrick is a sergeant major I can hang my shirt on!’

…at 10 o’clock I went up to HQ to see if there were any new instructions. I took with me an old oilsheet with which to cover that distressing body at Steenbeck. My impression that his chest was white had been erroneous, for he is coal black but had dragged his tunic open to try to staunch his wound, and now a more or less white vest was exposed. I covered him up because I was frightened of his unnerving me when I passed him for the last time at zero hour.

…As the hands of my watch whirled round I busied myself with totally unnecessary enquiries and admonitions amongst the troops in order to keep my mind free from fear.Then from my wrist in lines of fire flashed 1.45, and feeling icy cold from head to foot I took my troops out and through the ominous silence of the bright midday we advanced in line to the Steenbeck Stream.

My position in the centre of the Company brought me right into my oilsheeted friend; I had grimly appreciated this when an 18-pounder spoke with a hollow, metallic ‘Bong’; then came three more deliberate rounds: ‘Bong! Bong! Bong!’ An instant later, with one mighty crash, every gun spoke, dozens of machine guns burst into action and the barrage was laid. Instantaneously the enemy barrage crashed upon us, and even as I rose, signalling my men to advance, I realized that the Germans must have known of our attack and waited at their guns.

Advancing behind the main attack, Vaughan and his men soon reach the Battalion HQ blockhouse he had visited in the morning.

At the Boilerhouse I sent Wood on to the gunpits with three platoons, while I grouped my HQ staff under shelter of the concrete wall before reporting to the CO. I found him peering round the corner of the pillbox watching the attack
and I stood beside him. With a laboured groaning and clanking, four tanks churned past us to the Triangle. I was dazed, and straining my eyes through the murk of the battle I tried to distinguish our fellows, but only here and there was a figure moving. In the foreground I saw some of Wood’s men reach the gunpits, but the bullets were cracking past my head, sending chips of concrete flying from the wall; the CO pulled me back under cover and I heard him muttering ‘What’s happened? What’s happened?’

Then, standing on the road in front with drums of ammunition in each hand, I saw Lynch shaking and helpless with fear. I ran out and told him to go forward. ‘Oh, I can’t. Sir, I can’t,’ he moaned. ‘Don’t be a fool,’ I said, ‘you will be safer in the gunpits than you are here—right in the barrage.’ ‘Oh, I can’t walk,’ he cried, and I shook him. ‘You know what your duty is,’ I told him. ‘Are you going to let Rogers and Osborne and the rest go forward while you stay here?’

‘No, Sir!’ he said, and ran across the road. Before he had gone three yards he fell dead…

The hours crept on; our barrage had lifted from the German line and now was falling on Langemarck Ridge. At last, when sick with the uncertainty and apprehension the CO, Mortimore, Coleridge and I were huddled in the tiny cubicle of HQ, a runner arrived with a report from Taylor that the attack was completely held up: ‘casualties
very heavy’…

It is time, then, to send up the reserves. There’s little that I could add to this culminating experience of Vaughan’s war-so-far–somehow, once again, death and misery and fragmenting minds mix with the hollow laughter of a grim, evil slapstick. This is the clutching, scrabbling, desperate, muddy futility that will make “Passchendaele” rival any of the other horror-evoking place names of the British war.

It was then 6.30 p.m. With grey face the CO turned to me saying, ‘Go up to the gunpits, Vaughan, and see if you can do anything. Take your instructions from Taylor.’ As I saluted, backing out of the low doorway, he added forlornly: ‘Good luck.’ I called up my HQ staff and told them that we were making for the gunpits, warning them to creep and dodge the whole way. Then I ran across the road and dived into the welter of mud and water, followed by Dunham and—at intervals—by the eight signallers and runners.

Immediately there came the crackle of bullets and mud was spattered about me as I ran, crawled and dived into shellholes, over bodies, sometimes up to the armpits in water, sometimes crawling on my face along a ridge of slimy mud around some crater. Dunham was close behind me with a sandbag slung over his back. As I neared the gunpits I saw a head rise above a shell-hole, a mouth opened to call something to me, but the tin hat was sent flying and the face fell forward into the mud. Then another head came up and instantly was struck by a bullet. This time the fellow was only grazed and, relieved at receiving a blighty, he jumped out, shaking off a hand that tried to detain him. He ran back a few yards, then I saw him hit in the leg; he fell and started to crawl, but a third bullet got him and he lay still.

I had almost reached the gunpits when I saw Wood looking at me, and actually laughing at my grotesque capers. Exhausted by my efforts, I paused a moment in a shell-hole; in a few seconds I felt myself sinking, and struggle as I might I was sucked down until I was firmly gripped round the waist and still being dragged in. The leg of a corpse was sticking out of the side, and frantically I grabbed it; it wrenched off, and casting it down I pulled in a couple of rifles and yelled to the troops in the gunpit to throw me more. Laying them flat I wriggled over them and dropped, half dead, into the wrecked gun position.

Here I reported to Taylor and was filled with admiration at the calm way in which he stood, eyeglass firmly fixed in his ashen face, while bullets chipped splinters from the beam beside his head. He told me that the attack had not even reached the enemy front line, and that it was impossible to advance across the mud. Then he ordered me to take my company up the hard road to the Triangle and to attack Springfield. He gave his instructions in such a matter-of-fact way that I did not feel alarmed, but commenced forthwith to collect ‘C’ Company men from the neighbouring shell-holes. Of all my HQ staff, only Dunham was left—the others had been picked off, and were lying with the numerous corpses that strewed the ground behind us. I sent Dunham all the way back to the Boilerhouse to lead the platoon from there up to the stranded tanks.

So many of our men had been killed, and the rest had gone to ground so well, that Wood and I could only collect a very few. The noise of the firing made shouting useless. I came across some of ‘C’ Company and amongst them MacFarlane and Sergeant Wilkes. I said to MacFarlane, ‘We’re going to try to take Springfield, will you come?’

‘No fear!’ he replied. ‘We’ve done our job.’

‘What about you, Wilkes?’

‘No, Sir. I’m staying here.’

Finally Wood and I led 15 men over to the tanks. The fire was still heavy, but now, in the dusk and heavy rain, the shots were going wide. As we reached the tanks, however, the Boche hailed shrapnel upon us and we commenced rapidly to have casualties. The awful spitting ‘coalboxes’ terrified the troops and only by cursing and driving could my wonderful Sergeant Major Merrick and myself urge them out of the shelter of the tanks.

Up the road we staggered, shells bursting around us. A man stopped dead in front of me, and exasperated I cursed him and butted him with my knee. Very gently he said ‘I’m blind. Sir,’ and turned to show me his eyes and nose torn
away by a piece of shell. ‘Oh God! I’m sorry, sonny,’ I said. ‘Keep going on the hard part,’ and left him staggering back in his darkness…

Perhaps it can’t get worse than that. The attack continues, the German position is overrun, the garrison surrenders, only to be mowed down by their own guns as they are sent to the rear. Vaughan calls off any further advance and takes stock of the prize.

It was a strongly-built pillbox, almost undamaged; the three defence walls were about ten feet thick, each with a machine gun position, while the fourth wall, which faced our new line, had one small doorway—about three feet square. Crawling through this I found the interior in a horrible condition; water in which floated indescribable filth reached our knees; two dead Boche sprawled face downwards and another lay across a wire bed. Everywhere was dirt and rubbish and the stench was nauseating.

On one of the machine gun niches lay an unconscious German officer, wearing two black and white medal ribbons; his left leg was torn away, the bone shattered and only a few shreds of flesh and muscle held it on. A tourniquet had been applied, but had slipped and the blood was pouring out. I commenced at once to readjust this and had just stopped the bleeding when he came round and gazed in bewilderment at my British uniform. He tried to struggle up, but was unable to do so and, reassuring him, I made him comfortable, arranging a pillow out of a Boche pack. He asked me faintly what had happened, and in troops’ German I told him ‘Drei caput-—others Kamerad,’ at which he dropped back his head with a pitiful air of resignation…

I picked up a German automatic from the bed and in examining it, loosed off a shot which hit the concrete near the Boche’s head; he gave a great start and turned towards me, smiling faintly when he saw that it was accidental. Then he commenced to struggle to reach his tunic pocket; I felt in it for him and produced three pieces of sugar. Taking them in his trembling hand, he let one fall into the water, gazing regretfully after it; another he handed to me. It was crumbling and saturated with blood so I slipped it into my pocket whilst pretending to eat it. I now produced some bread and meat; he would not have any, but I ate heartily sitting on the wire bed with my feet in the water and my hands covered in mud and blood. Dunham was sitting near me and pointing to the shapeless mass of mud-soaked sandbag I asked, ‘What the hell are you carrying in there Dunham?’

‘Your rabbit. Sir!’ he replied stoutly. ‘You said you would eat it on Langemarck Ridge.’

But The Three Musketeers this isn’t. The worst of it, now, is that there can be no evacuation, for either side, from such a tenuous forward position.

But when he had peeled off the sacking, we decided to consign the filthy contents to the watery grave below. Now with a shrieking and crashing, shells began to descend upon us from our own guns, while simultaneously German guns began to shell their own lines. In my haversack all this time I had been carrying a treasure which I now produced—a box of 100 Abdulla Egyptians. I had just opened the box when there was a rattle of rifles outside and a voice yelled ‘Germans coming over. Sir!’ Cigarettes went flying into the water as I hurled myself through the doorway and ran forward into the darkness where my men were firing. I almost ran into a group of Germans and at once shouted ‘Ceasefire!’ for they were unarmed and were ‘doing Kamerad’.

The poor devils were terrified; suspicious of a ruse I stared into the darkness while I motioned them back against the wall with my revolver. They thought I was going to shoot them and one little fellow fell on his knees babbling about his wife and ‘Zwei kindern’. Going forward I found that several of the party were dead and another died as I dragged him in. The prisoners clustered round me, bedraggled and heartbroken, telling me of the terrible time they had been having, ‘Nichts essen,’ ‘Nichts trinken,’ always shells, shells, shells! They said that all of their company would willingly come over. I could not spare a man to take them back, so I put them into shell-holes with my men who made great fuss of them, sharing their scanty rations with them…

From the darkness on all sides came the groans and wails of wounded men; faint, long, sobbing moans of agony, and despairing shrieks. It was too horribly obvious that dozens of men with serious wounds must have crawled for safety into new shell-holes, and now the water was rising about them and, powerless to move, they were slowly drowning. Horrible visions came to me with those cries—of Woods and Kent, Edge and Taylor, lying maimed out there trusting that their pals would find them, and now dying terribly, alone amongstthe dead in the inky darkness. And we could do nothing to help them; Dunham was crying quietly beside me, and all the men were affected by the piteous cries.

How long, I wondered, could this situation last. No message had reached me from HQ and at any moment the Boche might launch a counter-attack to recover Springfield. My pitiful defences would be slaughtered in a few minutes, and behind us, as far as I knew, was no second line, though somewhere in rear was the 4th Berks Battalion in reserve. We had no Very lights and only the ammunition that we carried in our pouches. In desperation I returned to the pillbox and commenced to flash messages back to HQ—knowing all the time that they could not be read through the rain and mist.

Suddenly, at 11.15, there came the squelching sound of many bodies ploughing through the mud behind. Wildly wondering whether the Boche had worked round behind us, I dashed back yelling a challenge; I was answered by
Coleridge who had brought up a company of 4th Berks. ‘To reinforce us?’ I asked.

‘No. To relieve you’—and my heart leapt…

No–this is the worst, the discovery of what has become of the wounded as Vaughan and the survivors of his company retrace their steps across the battlefield.

The cries of the wounded had much diminished now, and as we staggered down the road, the reason was only too apparent, for the water was right over the tops of the shellholes. From survivors there still came faint cries and loud
curses. When we reached the line where the attack had broken we were surrounded by the men who earlier had cheered us on. Now they lay groaning and blaspheming, and often we stopped to drag them up on to the ridges of earth. We lied to them all that the stretcher-bearers were coming, and most resigned themselves to a further agony of waiting. Some cursed us for leaving them, and one poor fellow clutched my leg, and screaming ‘Leave me, would you? You Bastard!’ he dragged me down into the mud. His legs were shattered and when Coleridge pulled his arms apart, he rolled towards his rifle, swearing he would shoot us. We took his rifle away and then continued to drag fellows out as we slowly proceeded towards HQ. Our runner was dead beat and we had to carry him the last part of the way.

I hardly recognized the Boilerhouse, for it had been hit by shell after shell and at its entrance was a long mound of bodies. Crowds of Berks had run there for cover and hadbeen wiped out by shrapnel. I had to climb over them to enter HQ, and as I did so, a hand stretched out and clung to my equipment. Horrified I dragged a living man from amongst the corpses. The shallow passageways and ruined cubicles were filled with wounded, amongst whom the medical staff were at work…

After reporting to his C.O., Vaughan is sent back to report to the brigadier.

…I went out and walked with Coleridge down the shell-swept road to St Julien, where, at the crossroads, a regular hail of shells was keeping most of the traffic out of the mud. But we were past caring, and walked through them unscathed. Before we reached Cheddar Villa our runner was killed and we dragged him out into a hole.

Brigade HQ was an elaborate concrete blockhouse with many rooms; I found Beart (the Brigadier Major) and Walker (Intelligence Officer) interrogating a German major. Beart greeted me cheerily and told me to go through to the Brigadier, so raising the blanket of an inner door I entered a small room lit by numerous candles. At a table covered by a clean cloth and bearing the remains of a meal sat Sladden, our Brigadier, and Watts, General commanding 145 Brigade. Sladden peered up at me, asking ‘Who’s that?’ ‘Vaughan of the Eighth, Sir,’ I replied, and he cordially bade me sit down while he poured me a whisky. He was very bucked to learn that we had come from Springfield and he asked me numerous questions about the intensity and accuracy of the barrage and the present dispositions of the enemy…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy, V, 224.
  2. Quigley, Passchendaele and the Somme, 103-5.
  3. Some Desperate Glory, 219-231.

Edwin Vaughan in the Purgatorial Slough; Wilfred Owen Praises Siegfried Sassoon: “If You Don’t Appreciate These Then It’s Na-Poo.”

Near St. Julien, in the Ypres Salient, Edwin Vaughan spent a long day under fire today, a century back, waiting for materials to arrive–his company is supposed to build camouflage screens for the assembly positions for tomorrow’s attack. But the wagons carrying the camouflage were hit on the way up, and the miserable night and day were for nought. Soon the attacking troops moved forward past his position.

There was still no sign of the camouflage, and in any case the heavy rain had turned the ground into a huge swamp upon which it would have been impossible to do any work. There was a terrific congestion of traffic on the road, including tanks, shell-waggons, cookers and limbers. From midnight on our machine guns kept up a constant fire to drown the noise of the tanks crawling up into position.[1]

 

Back in Scotland, Wilfred Owen continues our poetic project of the week, namely to write letters that include a sustained critical reading of Siegfried Sassoon‘s The Old Huntsman.

Or, in Owen’s case, fresh from his first two meetings with Sassoon, to write a letter of unstinting praise. Owen’s confidence is waxing these days–fewer nightmares, many activities, and a burgeoning acquaintance with a real live poet who is at once desirable (socially, physically), friendly (with all due restraint), and guardedly complimentary of Owen’s writing. There could be no surer sign of Owen’s refurbished self-confidence than writing a blithe letter to his father, with whom he is not on emotionally easy terms. Is it foolish to hope that his father will like his new friend’s poetry? Perhaps, but it still seems very good that his hopes are high.

26 August 1917

My dear Father,

I think this work of Sassoon’s will show you to the best possible advantage the tendencies of Modem Poetry. If you don’t appreciate these then it’s Na-poo. There is nothing better this century can offer you. I’ve marked the pieces for first reading, and those underlined are specially good. The Old Huntsman was put in as a title piece, to catch the hunting-people, and make ’em read the rest.

‘The Death-Bed’ is a piece of perfect art.

‘Morning Express’, page 56 is the kind of thing that makes me despair of myself; everyone says ‘I could have done that myself!’

Only no one ever did.

Please send me your Criticisms.

I am beginning to feel uncomfortably editorial again after a fortnight’s rest. Nobody is willing to write about our last Concerts, and it looks as if I shall have to fill half the Mag. myself, between now & tomorrow…

And then a choicely-phrased (he is an editor and writer, now, after all) explanation of why he cannot take leave to visit his family:

Realizing how impossible it is for me to be there has spoilt my holiday here. I was make-believing that I was a free creature here, but it is only that my chain has been let out a little. I should only hurt myself with tugging at it.

Fondest love to all.

Your W.E.O.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Some Desperate Glory, 219.
  2. Collected Letters, 488.

Night and Day in the Salient: The Master of Belhaven Empties his Pistol; Kate Luard Returns; Edwin Vaughan in Laughter and Terror; Ivor Gurney Finds Truth and Beauty in Siegfried Sassoon

Today, a century back, seems to be one of those days where any strange thing could happen–and many of them did. I suppose that a vague thematic connection among our first three entries might be the growing nastiness and desperation that characterized the fighting around Ypres, but that hardly even hints at the scope of the sudden violence we’ll encounter.

 

The Master of Belhaven‘s story should probably come first: it’s an unlikely escapade, told with nearly breathless disbelief by a man who is exhilarated to have survived. But it happened. It was a completely new experience–the veteran artillery officer in the midst of real trench fighting–and one which, despite the suffering and death involved, he writes, from beginning to end, as an adventure yarn. He has been writing of gas, shell-shock, and madness lately–but not today. Today was

The most exciting day I have had since I came out. It brackets with the first time I shot a rhino in East Africa.

The sentiment is clear, even if that comparison has not weathered the century well. Hamilton means to evoke the manly excitement of the hunt, rather than what we might see as joy in needless killing of a rare animal… but even a century back there would have been many to point out that the analogy is troubling: these are men that Hamilton is hunting, not beasts.

At dawn this morning I got a telegram… there was another gun firing from 50 yards north of the place I knocked out. I wired back to say that it should have my personal attention.

Hamilton has been praised for his initiative and his effectiveness, and he found it thrilling to actually watch his guns’ rounds hit from a mere few hundred yards away–this is an experience he would like to repeat.

First, however, Hamilton prepares for the “shoot” with exacting care. He registers a new gun and then re-registers his entire battery, firing on known targets to confirm that his calculations are precisely in accordance with each gun’s current state. Next, he lays new wire from the Observation Point back to the battery to ensure real-time communication. Only then does he proceed to the front line to lay his eyes on the target. But, as it turns out to be not-quite-visible even from a front-line post, he asks the Company Commander on the spot–Captain Flack of the First Royal Fusiliers–if he can go even further forward. Flack agrees, since the nearby trenches are not being held in force.

I must now describe the situation in some detail in order to make intelligible what follows.

The tension builds… but I will still cut in: Hamilton’s laying of the land is too detailed and repetitive, and we are familiar (I hope) with the idea of opposing groups of infantry holding “block” or “barrier” positions along a defunct communications trench which has come to serve as a sort of No Man’s Trench between them. In the present case the British barrier is 30 yards from a right-angle in the trench, which presumably turns again (these right-angle-bends are “traverses” meant to limit the effectiveness of enemy fire) and eventually meets a lateral trench still held by the Germans.

Even beyond this traverse, however, the Germans are believed to be “a long way off.” So it is safe to take a peek. Flack accompanies Hamilton in the spirit of a local guide or proprietor.

We drew our pistols and saw that they were loaded and in good order, and then proceeded to climb over the barricade… We crept along yard by yard, holding our pistols in front of us. We got almost up to the bend in the trench, that is, 30 yards from our barricade, when I saw an old hurdle across the trench just at the bend. Flack was about 5 yards behind me at the moment. Suddenly without any warning a German, with a pork-pie cap on, jumped up from behind the hurdle where he had been lying, and without a word flung a bomb in our faces.[1] It went over my head and burst with a crack between Flack and me. As the German rose up I threw myself forward onto my left hand, at the same time firing; at the moment I fired he had his hand above his head, having just let go the bomb. My bullet caught him in the throat; he threw up his other arm and collapsed like an ox that has been pole-axed…

The infantry captain, Flack, is wounded by the bomb. The German–rhino, ox, or human being–is dead, shot through the neck and chest by Hamilton. Our artillery battery commander has suddenly become a front line trench fighter, and, like Han Solo routing a party of storm troopers, he empties his pistol blindly around the corner to cover the retreat, as Flack’s men drag his limp body back over the barricade.

As soon as Flack had been got over, I turned and ran for it, scrambling over the barricade in record time. I knew I had been hit in the left knee, because I could feel the blood running down my leg… but I felt positively no pain at the time. I fired a parting shot just as I reached the barricade and immediately loaded a fresh magazine full of cartridges into my pistol. I was thankful I had an automatic and not an ordinary service revolver. Flack was lying in the bottom of the trench, simply covered with blood.

Hamilton takes command of the infantry detachment, orders the men nearby to prepare to defend against any German follow-up attack, and does what he can for Flack, who was “terribly wounded,” torn open in several places by the grenade’s explosion.

A few minutes later Hamilton hands over command to an infantry lieutenant and sees Flack carried to a dressing station. Captain W.G. Flack had been wounded four times and won the MC and bar, but this was his last fight–his CWGC entry indicates that he will die of these wounds in a few weeks in Étaples (among the hospitals where Vera Brittain now works).

Hamilton’s mission continues nonetheless. The idea of physically seeing the new gun position is now abandoned, of course, but he still wants to destroy any German guns that he can, and he knows approximately where they are located. Using the old vantage point and his high-powered binoculars, Hamilton discovers that–in a rather shocking lapse of tactical attention–the gun pit he destroyed a few days earlier has been reoccupied.

I could see numbers of the enemy walking about in the shade of the wood, so as soon as I got through [reaching his battery on the telephone] I turned all my guns on to it at the fastest rate of fire. The result was excellent…

This, presumably, was more like bagging pheasants than facing down a rhino.

I limped back to Battalion Headquarters, where I had a drink. They offered me food, but I could not touch anything with my hands, as they were simply caked with blood…

I went on to our Brigade Headquarters and reported the result of my day to the colonel, who was much horrified at my going out in front; however, I pointed out to him that if valuable information is to be obtained a certain amount of risk must be taken…[2]

Hamilton has proved his courage, initiative, and–although he would not have thought much of the utility of these at the beginning of the day–his reflexes and pistol marksmanship. He has earned the rather haughty tone of his last comment about risk–and then some. I don’t know how many artillery commanders drew their pistols–let alone fired them–in order to lay eyes to local targets (they stood greater risks for longer periods of time just by being with their guns while the enemy artillery searched for them, but that was the ordinary courage expected of them) but it can’t have been many.

Hamilton did not begin the day bloodthirsty; he was merely eager to do the very most with the means available to him. Yet it still feels–have I tried too hard to inculcate the infantryman’s “live and let live” attitude?–as if the killing today was in some way unnecessary. This despite the fact that it was warfare well done, and to refrain from it would have been foolish and irresponsible in strictly military operational terms. But.. must this sudden surprise killing be recounted in the style of a Boy’s Own Paper adventure?

Well. I may not like it, but I’m not sure that my distaste has any standing–Hamilton is not a great literary stylist, but he wrote out of his own experience, both his prior reading and his emotional state in the immediate aftermath of the events themselves. So perhaps he should be forgiven the adventure yarn/hunting story/action flick style in which people died today, a century back.

 

Next we come to Kate Luard. Her day, yesterday, was similarly intense, but in an almost opposite way. After weeks of near misses from German artillery and aircraft, a direct hit killed one of her nurses. And after weeks of misgivings, practical arguments, praise, and reflexive chauvinism, the medical powers-that-were immediately pulled the nurses out of their forward hospital, sending them to St. Omer. Kate Luard was torn, surely, to be sent back–but she also looked forward, with frank relief now that the test was over, to the idea of leave. For a few hours.

Thursday, August 23rd. No. 10 Sta. St. Omer. I’m afraid you’ll be very disappointed, but we are to re-open on the same spot so Leave is off. The Australians are not to go back, but we are to carry on the abdominal work alone as we did before they came up…

In tracing these reversals of course, Luard describes the initial decision, yesterday, to pull out. After the deadly shells, a discussion among the ranking medical officers “on our middle duckboards” about whether and how to relocate the hospitals ends in harrowing, cinematic fashion.

At that moment Fritz tactfully landed one of his best with a long-drawn crescendoing scream and crash, just on the railway. ‘Oh,’ said the General, ‘that was rather close.’ ‘That settles it,’ said the Q.M.G. firmly; ‘all three will evacuate.’ I made off to the Wards to tell the patients they were leaving, and you should have seen their looks of joy. ‘But you Sisters don’t stop here?’ they asked everywhere with great anxiety, bless them.

In an hour all were packed into Ambulances whether fit or dying, and the Padre was burying the dead. It took us a few hours to get away ourselves and one shell came slick into the Wards of 44 (which was then cleared of patients and Sisters) and blew an Orderly’s arm and leg off and tossed the Sergeant-Major, but he came down intact. By this time Ambulances were waiting for us and our kit, and the poor C.O. was frantic to get us away.

We reached St. Omer about 10 p.m., and it took till 1 a.m. before all were housed and fed and bedded (without any beds!) on the floors of an empty house. The personnel of our three C.C.S.’s came to over 100 and was divided between various Matrons here. We were dropping with fatigue by this time…

But back they will go: once again the belief that soldiers shouldn’t die because essential medical staff are being kept back from the guns wins out over the belief that women should not be exposed to the direct fire of the enemy. But the enemy are everywhere

Of course there was a Raid that night – there would be! – and one had to tear upstairs and order them all down on to the next floor out of their beds; 10 civilians were killed and a lot wounded. We, however, looked on that as child’s play; it seemed so far off, compared to our nightly entertainments…

It is only when you leave off that you realise how done you are, but fortunately having to begin again will correct that. I’m indulging in a pestilential cold, and a toothache. Otherwise I am very fit! The 36 Sisters to a man are loyal and good and vie with each other in attentiveness! The only real worry would be if they were tiresome.

The older Surgeons think it’s dreadful having us there, but as the C.O. says, without us they couldn’t carry on at all, so it’s worth it.[3]

 

With Edwin Vaughan we have yet another emotional reversal. Yesterday, a century back, the constant shelling was a laughing matter:

Pepper and the doctor—Carroll—amused me mightily by feigning abject terror and fighting to stand behind a tiny sapling about five inches across, whence they leered at the reeking shell-holes while chunks of iron sang about them. Pepper is awfully good fun nowadays…

Today, however, not so much:

During the night I was awakened by half a dozen tremendous crashes, apparently close to our tent. There were no yells and I was too tired to get up, but the next morning we found that the shells had all fallen within a hundred yards of us…

I got sudden windup this morning, for no reason whatever…

Later, after a ride with a tank unit, Vaughan’s courage returns. It would seem that, even under constant fire in reserve, the battalion’s morale remains impressively high:

I went to bed at 10 p.m. and at about midnight was awakened by an unusual sound. Far in the distance was the clanging of a gas gong—a warning that was taken up and came nearer and nearer until our own gong was struck. I woke Harding and went out of the tent to find the air faintly charged with a sweet scent of peppery butterscotch. I put on my gas-mask and went round the tents to find the men wearing theirs and playing at being lions and bears. Ewing, who had his tent flaps laced, did not smell the gas, so took no notice of the warning. He was not affected and the gas had dispersed in under half an hour.[4]

 

Three deadly back-and-forths in the Salient is enough for any one day, but bear with me for one more brief post. This one is a treat–from my point of view, at least. Some of our writers are writing in safety, some are in great danger. But while Owen sweats his guts out for Sassoon‘s approval, another poet in the firing line is traversing his critical eye across the horizon of The Old Huntsman.

Ivor Gurney‘s machine gun team is now in action, and, although he is personally in support, that is nevertheless well within the range of the guns. He too, shares all the difference the chances of a day can make, in war:

…last night on fatigue I had the roughest chanciest hour I ever had. My shrapnel helmet has an interesting dent in it….

We got caught in a barrage for an hour on the fatigue, and shrapnel caught me twice — once on the blessed old tin hat, (dint and scar) and once on the belt (no mark.) Pretty hot just there.

But today all is well, and he has time to read. And what? Well, Marion Scott is a very good friend/editor/patron, and she has promptly sent him a recent book of poems in which he had previously declared an interest:

I hope you will send me some more Sassoon, for his touch of romance and candour I like. He is one who tries to tell Truth, though perhaps not a profound truth…

Gurney is well off into a letter about his poetic hopes and his desire for long friendly conversations when another parcel arrives. He leaps into the book and dashes off his initial reactions–Sassoon’s poetry is something that strikes Gurney, evidently, as immediate in a way other art is not. And his criteria? Truth, and beauty, of course.

My Dear Friend: Your letter with Conan Doyle’s “Guns in Sussex” arrived yesterday, and Sassoon today. Thank you so much for the trouble and patience it must have cost you to copy them. The Conan Doyle is not very good; sincere but dull. The Sassoons not so good as a whole as they might be — but true…

Wisdom‘s last line is good.
Whispered Tale. True and good.
Absolution beautiful. But — one finds in it the fault of minor poets who make beautiful lines of unmeaning or not of any particular significance.

Why is time a wind, a golden wind, why does it shake the grass? I’ll tell you; because of “pass” and because it is a good line as a whole. He was proud of it, and may have written the poem round it.

Golgotha” is strained, though true, but not poetry.

They” needed to be said, but is journalism pure and simple…

Gurney now goes line by line through Sassoon, separating the inspired and “true” from the journalistic and merely verse-smithing. But he also comments with acuity (and, yes, the authority of himself being a poet in combat) on what Sassoon’s emotional intent might be:

…you must remember that a lot of this has been written to free himself from circumstance. They are charms to magic him out of the present. Cold feet, lice, sense of fear—all these are spurs to create Joy to such as he; since Beauty is the only comfort.

Stand-to: Good Friday Morning.

Not perfect; not what he meant, but good; and the end absolutely true, save perhaps “old”…

Thank you again. These thing stimulate me and give me hope. My Anthology enlargens.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. I don't like to break in to this paragraph, in the midst of describing a deadly fight only hours after it occurred, but it is interesting to note how much "genre"--by which I mean the expectations that go into Hamilton's processing of his experience between when it happens and when he writes it down--influences his account of this sudden violence. "Without any warning?" Of course not! "Without a word?" Would we expect a real life German trying to kill two armed, approaching men to take the time to shout "Gott strafe England?" But this is, to an extent, what Hamilton expected...
  2. War Diary, 375-77.
  3. Unknown Warriors, 151-3.
  4. Some Desperate Glory, 215-6.
  5. War Letters, 187-190.

Wilfred Owen Calls on Siegfried Sassoon; Edwin Vaughan in Charnel Hysterics; Ivor Gurney on Sassoonish Sonnets and the Fire and Fate of Francis Ledwidge

Life–and death–go on today, a century back, in the Salient. Kate Luard and her hospital survived another night of bombing, while for Edwin Vaughan “dullness and depression” beset his company on their third straight day of combat. But we must come as quickly as we can through his long day in the wasteland, and hasten back to Scotland where our main business lies.

I had had no sleep since the 15th but even now I dared not close my eyes… I was forced to divert my mind by climbing up again to look around…

Despite my searching, I could discover nothing of interest; the ridge, churned into a broad brown mudheap, showed no sign of life; there were no pillboxes on the slope and the horizon was so ragged that it was impossible to locate the various points. There only remained a few tree stumps and a few broken posts to show where gunpits had been. Then I lowered my glasses and fell to examining the foreground.

Vaughan’s diary today is a minor masterpiece of the eyewitness-to-horror genre, and to omit it entirely in favor of poetic friendship would be obscurely hypocritical. But a few short excerpts are, perhaps, enough:

The outstanding characteristic of this area was, of course, death. And this seemed to be brought home to me, not so much by the numerous corpses, as by the stranded and battered tanks. The nearest one was that which we had
visited when we arrived here, and I shuddered to see it standing gaunt and grim, its base distorted by a shell and a horrid black corpse half-turmbled out of the open door, whilst around it lay the black charred shapes that had been the crew.

…with gruesome fascination I concentrated on the bodies—tried to read the shoulder plates or recognize the battalion markings. The causes of death were mostly all too obvious, for death at Ypres is a fierce, distorting death—death from a direct hit or from a huge fragment. The mud which drags us down and breaks up our attacks has the one merciful effect of deadening the blasts of shells and localizing their death-dealing power.

Bodies there were in German uniform, mostly old and black, but many English killed in the last attacks with black, clotted blood still upon them. These are the most terrifying—if they can be terrifying now…

There was one which upset me. He was lying with the top of his head towards me; caught in the remnant of wire entanglement his two fists were raised clutching a strand. The backs of his hands looked white and slim, his hair fluffy and dusty like a miller’s. I don’t know why I didn’t like him, but he seemed somehow much more gruesome than the uglier bodies and I turned suddenly sick and was forced to sink down into my seat.

After a long day in the killing-slough, Vaughan’s relief arrives–and the company commander who is to take over the line is “windy”–trembling and unwilling to leave the meager shelter of a shell-hole. But Vaughan, now the sturdy veteran, forces him to do his duty in touring the line, with a subordinate in tow. A strange, demented sort of comedy ensues when shells begin falling in the mud around them:

…shell after shell hizzed through the darkness to burst with blinding flashes around us. I felt terrified but elated, and continued to sit on top making conversation while Hancocks leaned against me shaking. I was getting worried about him and kept giving him prods with my fist. Then suddenly there was an extra loud whizz and a smack as a dud slid into the mud almost under Hancocks. Spencer gave a hollow groan and Hancocks gave a loud shout of laughter, lying back with tears rolling down his face. I gave him a push, for I thought he had got shell shock, but when I realized that he was really tickled, I started to laugh too for the situation was really funny.

The sight of Spencer—bent almost double with his head pressed into the earth, looking at me and answering me upside down, his great bespectacled face white with fear and streaked with mud, his incoherent babblings, his starts and grunts at every shell burst—made us forget the danger. So Hancocks and I sat on the wet mud in the midst of the rain and shells and darkness of Ypres and laughed ourselves into hysterics.

After a while I realized that it was hysterics—that it was a temporary madness that had kept me dawdling in the shellfire, a disinclination to return to the reality of a new life out of the line. That my nerves had been giving way under the strain until I was reduced to the childishness of laughing at another man’s fear…[1]

This crazed stumbling from horror to hysteria provides an all-too-apt segue to “Dottyville,” as its inmates called the shell-shock-specializing hospital of Craiglockhart. There, today, a century back, a meeting took place which stands at the very center of this project.

 

It’s tempting to overwrite the first meeting of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, but, really, it’s an introduction that probably doesn’t need too much of an introduction. Their first encounter has been described by both men and by several noteworthy later writers, and it’s as if only Sassoon was surprised by what followed. This change meeting feels like one of the rare drops of sweetness distilled from war’s misery, a fortunate convergence of the twain that must be celebrated like a birth in a plague year, a new sort of orchid that blooming improbably in a new-mown field. See–overwritten.

In any event, the meeting was no surprise to Owen. He has known of Sassoon, he has read him, and he realized at some point recently that they were patients at the same hospital. They would have passed each other in the halls, but there would have been no way for Owen to discover what Sassoon looked like and come upon him “accidentally.” Today, a century back, Owen screwed up his courage and visited Sassoon in his room.

This small social step–dropping in on a fellow patient, a comrade of sorts–is hardly a heroic act. Yet it is a pretty good indicator of Owen’s returning calm and confidence. He may still be showing some of the outward signs of shell shock–the stammer, in particular–but he has otherwise been doing very well: he had “dumped bundles of his third Hydra outside the breakfast room that morning and was due to appear in the second part of Lucky Durham in the evening.” Which is all well and good, but it’s tempting to see Owen recognizing that the “the final stage of his cure” might involve both winning the respect of a hero (he admires his doctor, Brock, but not in the same worshipful way that Sassoon admires Rivers), and accomplishing something with regards to his own poetry, which matters much more to him than literary writing or the stage.[2]

But was it an auspicious meeting? All of the accounts focus to some degree or another on the distance between the two men: Sassoon is significantly older (six years, although Owen doesn’t realize this), significantly taller, and a full lieutenant. True enough, but the real differences are that he is a published and well-regarded poet and that he is from a much higher social class. Owen, the “station-master’s son,” is barely middle class and received a patchy education at non-prestigious local schools; Sassoon has a private income, rode to hounds, knows lords, ladies, and the London literary elite, and received a patchy education at Marlborough and Cambridge.

But what aspect of a first meeting of two friends can be more subject to revision in retrospect than the social angle from which they viewed each other as two strangers?

One morning at the beginning of August, when I had been at Craiglockhart War Hospital about a fortnight, there was a gentle knock on the door of my room and a young officer entered. Short, dark-haired, and shyly hesitant, he stood for a moment before coming across to the window, where I was sitting on my bed cleaning my golf clubs. A favourable first impression was made by the fact that he had under his arm several copies of The Old Huntsman. He had come, he said, hoping that I would be so gracious as to inscribe them for himself and some of his friends. He spoke with a slight stammer, which was no unusual thing in that neurosis-pervaded hospital. My leisurely, commentative method of inscribing the books enabled him to feel more at home with me. He had a charming honest smile, and his manners — he stood at my elbow rather as though conferring with a superior officer — were modest and ingratiating…

I had taken an instinctive liking to him, and felt that I could talk freely. During the next half-hour or more I must have spoken mainly about my book and its interpretations of the War. He listened eagerly, questioning me with reticent intelligence. It was only when he was departing that he confessed to being a writer of poetry himself, though none of it had yet appeared in print.

It amuses me to remember that, when I had resumed my ruminative club-polishing, I wondered whether his poems were any good! He had seemed an interesting little chap but had not struck me as remarkable. In fact my first view of him was as a rather ordinary young man, perceptibly provincial, though unobtrusively ardent in his responses to my lordly dictums about poetry. Owing to my habit of avoiding people’s faces while talking, I had not observed him closely. Anyhow, it was pleasant to have discovered that there was another poet in the hospital and that he happened to be an admirer of my work.[3]

Let not the calibrated self-mockery of “my lordly dictums” draw all the old sting from “perceptively provincial.” But what Sassoon acknowledges here is how Owen meets a need of his own, perhaps one that, in his instinctive diffidence about intellectual things, he had not yet recognized. Replete with mentors and advisors, goaded by his rivalry with the brash Graves, he has many co-conspirators, but never yet a follower. Sassoon may have failed to make a martyr of himself, but he will still welcome a disciple, a “faithful squire to [his] quixotic knight.”[4]

Which is exactly what Owen will sound like when he describes this meeting, in bantering faux-medieval style, to his cousin (and fellow poetic aspirant) Leslie Gunston.

22 August 1917 Craiglockhart

My dear Leslie,

At last I have an event worth a letter. I have beknown myself to Siegfried Sassoon… The sun blazed into his room making his purple dressing suit of a brilliance—almost matching my sonnet! He is very tall and stately, with a fine firm chisel’d (how’s that?) head, ordinary short brown hair. The general expression of his face is one of boredom…[5]

It’s customary, when quoting this letter, to omit the parenthetical “how’s that?” Which is a bit manipulative, since the winking parenthesis shows that Owen knows he is acting the part of the smitten fan. But the “boredom” does the trick too: Owen is aware of what he is up against, socially–and yet he is confident. He wouldn’t have dared to approach the Published Poet otherwise.

It’s a smoother story, perhaps, if Owen is all diffidence and unrecognized talent, and Sassoon all drawling confidence. Pat Barker’s version draws attention to Owen’s lingering stammer and emphasizes Sassoon’s bona fides as a poet of protest, although this is not what would have been most appealing to Owen.

A short, dark-haired man sidled round the door, blinking in the sudden blaze of sunlight. Sassoon, sitting on the bed, looked up from the golf club he’d been cleaning. ‘Yes?’

‘I’ve b-brought these.’

A few lines later, the meeting gets straight to the starting point of the poetic relationship:

‘Are you . . . quite sure your mother wants to be told that “Bert’s gone syphilitic?” I had trouble getting them to print that.’

‘It w-won’t c-come as a sh-shock… I t-tell her everything. In m-my l-letters.’

‘Good heavens,’ Sassoon said lightly, and turned back to the book.[6]

 

It’s a small world. In a letter to Marion Scott written today a century back, from the reserve areas in France, Ivor Gurney mentions Sassoon’s poetry by way of complimenting Scott’s.

My Dear Friend: Is “Field Daisy” yours? Then I may congratulate you very much…  I took it for Sassoon… The sonnet might have been Masefield’s, might have been Sassoon’s. Cheerio!

But Gurney is abreast of recent news, and the high spirits of the letter end in elegy. So we began today writing the mud of the ongoing offensive, then witnessed the beginning of a poetic friendship that will drive the development of war poetry–and now observe, with Gurney, a man still in the thick of it, the mysterious and terrible relationship between war and war poetry. We should all be irritated (or outraged) if a later commentator or critic were to make a remark along the lines of “violent death is terrible, of course, but at least it was good for his poetry”–this, surely, is a judgment that is meaningless, even offensive, without the “authority” that comes from considering such questions from within the soldier’s undetermined future. But Gurney has this authority.

…And so Ledwidge is dead. If the new book is not too.expensive you shall have it from me. He was a true poet, and the story of his life is (now) a sad but romantic tale, like that of so many others, so wastefully spent. Yet the fire may not have been struck in them save for the war; anyway it was to be, and is.[7]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Some Desperate Glory, 205-212.
  2. Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 267.
  3. Siegfried's Journey, 58.
  4. Ricketts, Strange Meetings, 104.
  5. Collected Letters, 485.
  6. Regeneration, 80-1.
  7. War Letters, 185-6.

The Battle of Langemarck: Four Seconds in the Life of Harry Patch; Edwin Vaughan in Command

Today, a century back, is another day of battle, as the British (and French) forces in the Ypres Salient surge forward once again. The Master of Belhaven is firing in support and Kate Luard will be picking up the pieces, but we will focus on two infantrymen as they attack today in the segment of Third Ypres known as the Battle of Langemarck. Neither is in the first attacking wave, but there is more than enough horror for the supporting troops and each will experience one of the most terrible days of their war.

 

At 4:45 the bombardment began, and two battalions of the 61st Brigade attacked toward Langemarck. Harry Patch, with C Company of the 7th Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, was in the second wave.

I remember the names–Pilckem Ridge was one and the other was Langemarck… How were we to know that a pile of rubble was this village or that, or that a gentle slope was a particular ridge…? You only knew what was right next to you…

I have a memory of crossing a flooded stream…

This was the Steenbeck, the second waterway (after the Yser canal) that now marks the pilgrims’ progress out of Ypres and into the Slough of Despond.

Our guns’ opening bombardment had begun with an almighty clap of thunder. You can’t describe the noise, you can’t… There was an officer going down the line… He had drawn his revolver, and I got the distinct impression by the set look on his face that anybody that didn’t ‘go over’ would be shot for cowardice where they stood…

For once the British operational luck was good: the weather held (though the ground was still terribly muddy) and the German defense was disorganized due to a half-completed relief. Langemarck was swiftly taken, and by 5.45 the second wave was moving through to its attack positions.

It was absolutely sickening to see your own dead and wounded, some calling for stretcher-bearers, others semi-conscious and beyond all help… I saw one German… all his side and his back were ripped up, and his stomach was out on the floor, a horrible sight. Others were just blown to pieces; it wasn’t a case of seeing them with a nice bullet hole in their tunic, far from it, and there I was, only nineteen years old. I felt sick.

It got worse.

We came across a lad from A Company. He was ripped open from his shoulder to his waist by shrapnel, and lying in a pool of blood. When we got to him, he looked at us and said, ‘Shoot me.’ He was beyond all human help, and before we could draw a revolver he was dead. And the final word he uttered was ‘Mother!’ I was with him in the last seconds of his life. It wasn’t a cry of despair, it was a cry of surprise and joy… I’m positive that when he left this world, wherever he went, his mother was there, and from that day I’ve always remember that cry and that death is not the end.

I remember that lad in particular. It is an image that has haunted me all my life…

Patch and his team soon reached the German second (support) line, where they set up their gun to fire in support of the men of their battalion just ahead, who were pushing into the German third (reserve) line.

I’d just changed a magazine… and Bob was looking elsewhere in the support line when two or three Germans came out of a trench and one of them spotted the machine gun and came straight for us with rifle and bayonet…

My right hand was free… I drew my revolver and I shot him in the right shoulder. He dropped his rifle but he came stumbling on, no doubt to kick the gun in the mud and us to pieces if he could…

I had four seconds to make my mind up. I had three rounds in that revolver. I could have killed him with my first; I was a crack shot. What should I do? Four seconds to make my mind up. That Cornishman’s ‘Mother’ was ringing in my ears and I thought, ‘No I can’t kill him’, and I gave him his life. I shot him above the ankle, and above the knee. I brought him down… for him the war was over… at the end of the war he would rejoin his family. Perhaps he was married; perhaps he had children.[1]

 

No more than two or three miles to the south, Edwin Vaughan‘s day developed more slowly, as his 8th Royal Warwickshires moved up behind several attacking waves.

August 16

At 2 a.m. a guide led us out of the camp in an easterly direction. We moved in column of route, in silence and with no smoking. I was leading with Ewing, but it was pitch dark and as our guide led us, sometimes on a hard road then on to mud then again on a sleeper track, I could not follow our direction. At last we arrived at a canal, with a steep
bank on either side and a towing path. We crossed a rough bridge and Ewing gave the order to fall out.

We were at Bridge 2A of the Yser canal, a few hundred yards north of Ypres. The air was poisoned by a terrible
stench that turned me sick. In the dim light the water appeared to be a dark-green swamp wherein lay corpses of men and bodies of horses; shafts of waggons and gun wheels protruded from the putrefying mass and after a shuddering glance I hurried along the towing path to clearer air. The bank was honeycombed with dugouts, chiefly occupied by REs. At one point I saw a fingerboard ‘To the RC Chaplain’.

Our cookers now rolled up and the cooks carried a hot meal over to our men. For my part I had lost my fear now, and in spite of the imminent attack and the fearful mass below me, I ate a hearty breakfast of sausages and bacon…

Vaughan is a commanding writer, and one who is keen both to describe the remembered scene with all the tools of the language and to record the raw emotions of the moment:[2]

…I walked along the path to where Sergeant Major Chalk was standing on the bank, silhouetted against the sky. I climbed up beside him and stood gazing across the darkness of the earth into the dawn. After a few minutes of silence he said ‘what is the time. Sir?’

‘Four forty-five’ I said, and with my words the whole earth burst into flame with one tremendous roar as hundreds of guns hurled the first round of the barrage…

Spellbound I saw a line of coloured lights shoot up from the Boche and then Chalk tugged my sleeve to indicate that our Company was lining up on the towing path…

My nervousness was gone now; trembling with excitement, but outwardly perfectly reasonable, I drank in every detail of the scene almost with eagerness. To the east we moved along the winding track between batteries of heavies that belched smoke and fire as we passed. The light grew rapidly, and the line of fire changed to a line of smoke. Around us and ahead of us was earth, nothing but earth—no houses or trees or even grass just faint shapeless humps from which the great guns hurled their iron death…

The men sing as they march up to take their positions in support.

The road had now almost disappeared and we were marching over shell-holes around which was scattered debris and wreckage at which I now dared not look. I kept my eyes fixed on the distance until we came to some low buildings—Van Heule Farm.

These were some of the concrete pillboxes of which we had heard. In front of them were six dead Germans and a disembowelled mule…

I led my platoon off to the right and we continued to move steadily across that muddy waste until I realized that we were walking into a curtain of fire. We were right on top of the German barrage when glancing round I saw Ewing give the signal to halt.

I repeated the signal to my men, and we all dived into shell-holes right on the fringe of the shell-torn zone. With my head just over the edge of my shell-hole I lay blinking into the shrieking, crashing hail of death 30 yards in front. We were too close to fear anything except a direct hit and fascinated I stared at that terrible curtain through which we soon must pass. One gun was firing regularly onto a spot only a few yards in front of me and as I watched the bursts I became aware of Private Bishop in the shell-hole in front with a thick red stream running down his back. I shouted to him ‘Are you hurt, Bishop?’ Turning round he said, ‘No Sir’ in surprise. So I leaped across the edge of the hole and found that the stream proceeded from a shrapnel wound in a carton of jam in his haversack…

Soon the order comes to occupy a more forward position. Since they are some distance to the south, the line of the Steenbeck (which runs from south east to northwest across the west-to-east oriented battlefield) is further to the east than where Patch and his battalion crossed it.

Dully I hoisted myself out of the mud and gave the signal to advance, which was answered by every man rising and stepping unhesitatingly into the barrage… we were surrounded by bursting shells and singing fragments, while above us a stream of bullets added their whining to the general pandemonium. The men were wonderful! And it was astounding that although no one ran or ducked, whilst many were blown over by shells bursting at our very feet no one was touched until we were through the thickest part of the barrage and making for the little ridge in front.

Then I saw fellows drop lifeless while others began to stagger and limp; the fragments were getting us and in front was a belt of wire. At this moment I felt my feet sink and though I struggled to get on, I was dragged down to the waist in sticky clay. The others passed on, not noticing my plight until by yelling and firing my revolver into the air I attracted the attention of Sergeant Gunn, who returned and dragged me out. I caught up the troops who were passing through a gap in the wire, and I was following Corporal Breeze when a shell burst at his feet. As I was blown backwards I saw him thrown into the air to land at my feet, a crumpled heap of torn flesh.

Sick with horror I scrambled over him and stumbled down into the cutting, which was the Steenbeck Stream. Crouched in here we found the Irish Rifles, and we lined up with them. There was a padre who gave me a cheery grin and further along was a major smoking a pipe as he sat on the bank with his back to the enemy. I climbed out of the stream and saluted him, noticing out of the corner of my eye that a tank was ditched in the cutting. I sat down beside him and told him who we were, and then from the heap of flesh that had been Breeze, I saw the stump of an arm raised an inch or two. Others saw it too and before I needed to tell them, the stretcher-bearers were on their way to him. Very gently they brought him in to where I was sitting. He was terribly mutilated, both his feet had gone and one arm, his legs and trunk were torn to ribbons and his face was dreadful. But he was conscious and as I bent over him I saw in his remaining eye a gleam of mingled recognition and terror. His feeble hand clutched my equipment, and then the light faded from his eye. The shells continued to pour but we gave poor Breezy a burial in a shell-hole and the padre read a hurried prayer.

…The ground sloped up so sharply in front that I could only see for about 30 yards. Behind us was nothing but the shell-swept waste of mud and filth. So I called to Corporal Benjamin to come and talk to me. He had just made some reference to poor Breeze, when there was a clang and he staggered back, his helmet flying off into the stream. A bullet had gone through it without touching him and his comical look of amazement and indignation as he retrieved it made me shriek with laughter…

We are now at the stage of every battle where things slow down: whatever was planned so minutely has run its course, and the various units who have come “through” the attacking waves must now assess the situation, discovering just where the enemy has been destroyed or retreated, and where he is hanging on. And with every hour on the battlefield the danger increases, as the German artillery, too, discovers what territory has been held and what can now be fired upon.

At about 3 p.m. we saw two figures walking back behind us, and recognizing Radcliffe we hailed him and ran across. His right wrist had been shattered by a sniper’s bullet and he was very upset for it was a rotten sort of blighty for a Doctor of Music to get. With him was Sergeant Bell who had got a bullet in the arm from the same sniper. It was with real regret that we gripped their left hands and said goodbye—we knew for ever. We felt that this was the beginning of the break-up and we rejoined our troops in deep dejection.

Half an hour later Ewing arrived, breathless from dodging the energetic snipers, and told me that I was to take command of the Company as he was going to HQ as adjutant in place of Hoskins, who had been hit… My instructions were to move the Company at dusk straight over to the left, form up behind the Gloucesters and after dark to push forward and deal with any machine guns in front.

Vaughan has not always had the confidence of the higher-ups in his battalion, but needs must. Despite being issued vague orders to make a lateral movement across a battlefield and then attempt the sort of small-unit tactical feat that will be the stuff of hundreds of war movies to come, he seems to acquit himself well–at least at first.

Owing to the murk of battle and the misty rain, we were able to move at 6 o’clock, so stumbling and dodging round the shell-holes we followed our guide over half a mile of mud and water in front of what had been St Julien. The  snipers were very busy as we crossed, but the light was so bad that the shots sang over our heads and no one was hit.

By the time we had formed up behind the Gloucesters, it was quite dark, so I immediately sent out four small patrols to locate the enemy line. In a very few minutes machine guns opened out and sprayed bullets over our line. The patrols all returned and reported that the ground in front was a morass of mud and water, and before they had gone a hundred yards the Boche had heard them floundering about, and had opened fire. I believed them but to satisfy myself I took a couple of men and went out towards a spot where I had judged a gun to be. In five minutes we were stumbling into deep holes full of water, and the noise we made dragging our bodies through the mud caused flares to shoot up all along his line and the ground was swept by traversing guns. By the light of one flare I thought I saw a low pillbox with figures standing before it, but I was not sure. In any case it was obvious that to attempt a night attack would be madness, so I took my patrol back. On the way we stumbled into a large swamp and waded about in water for some time before striking our positions.

Vaughan’s habit of honesty about his own shortcomings as an officer is one of the most valuable aspects of his diary. He hasn’t quite refused to perform a direct order, but he has asserted his own judgment–as a second lieutenant of very limited combat experience–that the suggested attack is “madness,” and demurred. This could be interpreted–unfairly, but still–as a failure of nerve, an unwillingness to get some of his men killed in capturing an important local objective. As a company commander, Vaughan now has only the battalion’s commanding officer to answer to:

I found the CO waiting for me and I sat down in the mud beside him feeling dead beat and horribly ill. What he was saying I had no idea, for I must have fainted or gone to sleep. After what seemed a long time I heard a voice saying
unintelligible things, and I was just able to mutter, ‘I’m awfully sorry. Sir, but I haven’t the least idea what you’re saying.’ He shook me violently and said ‘Now, Vaughan, pull yourself together.’ Whereupon I was alert in a moment and he repeated his instructions. I was to form up my platoons in depth to the right of where we were then sitting. The Gloucesters were going out before dawn and the following night I was to spread out to the left and form a line joining the Ox and Bucks. Then he left me and I sat for a while staring into the darkness, realizing that we were in a hell of a place.

It was a very different attack from what I had imagined we would experience: terror and death coming from far away seemed much more ghastly than a hail of fire from people whom we could see and with whom we could come to grips. And now we were in an unknown district and must await through the long night the uncertainties of the dawn…

But they still must go forward–the uncertainties of dawn are likely to include a counter-attack, and they must prepare for this as best they can.

Chalk and I went in front… in a few moments a salvo of high-velocity shells kept us flattened out in the mud as they crashed amongst us.

Coincidentally, David Jones sketched a different British tank elsewhere in the Salient today, a century back

As we pushed on again we discerned dimly, through the rain and darkness, a derelict tank. ‘What about that for an HQ, Sir?’ said Chalk. I assented and when I had positioned the troops in front with Jimmy Harding among them, I led my staff of runners, signallers and pigeon carriers back to that spot. As we approached it, however, we were met by a filthy, overpowering stench and found that a shell had burst underneath it and it had burnt out. The charred bodies of the crew were inside or half out of the open door. So I sought the healthier atmosphere of a large crater 30 yards away and gathered my staff in neighbouring shell-holes.

I was very tired but had to stagger out at once to see that the line was unbroken and I had a rotten time dodging shells. Feeling half dead I was on my way back when I heard a voice yelling ‘Stretcher-bearers’. It was Sergeant Swingler with a chunk of shrapnel in his shoulder…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Last Fighting Tommy, 90-101. The name Harry Patch will be familiar to Great War cognoscenti and even perhaps to those with little reading in the subject, and/or an interest in alternative rock. He was not really a writer, but his story is terribly moving, and even almost hopeful: at his funeral, in 2009, soldiers from Belgium, France, and Germany accompanied his coffin--and, in strict accordance with his wishes, there were no weapons present, not even ceremonial swords. So that was Harry Patch, and it seemed a shame, in the strange logic of military history, not to include his terrible day, here, in some way. At the very least this trauma of a century back gave a renewed push to the effort to remember the Great War properly--in its full awfulness--in hte two decades leading up to the centenary. But there is a good methodological reason, too, for including him: his story, "as told to" interviewers (and, for the book, to the military historian Richard Van Emden) is the most extreme sort of counterpoint to what I generally value the most, here. Instead of a near-immediate record in a dated diary entry or letter, we have the memories of a day only after these memories have weathered eighty or nineties years in the mind of a survivor--Patch didn't start talking about the war until he was over a century old. It's a reminder of what, from another point of view, really matters, and a rebuke from a very gentle old man: the section I quote from, above, begins "I'm told we attacked on 16 August, but the date doesn't mean much to me..." and then he, in Hemingway/Fussell fashion still remembers the names, but, as the first ellipsis, above, continues "it is such a long time ago that I can't quite connect them up in my head."
  2. His diary will be extensively worked over after the fact, at least in part to achieve this effect.
  3. Some Desperate Glory, 193-200.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Diary remained matter-of-fact:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Francis Ledwidge

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

My dear Sassons

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

Poor devils at Pilkem![13]

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Successful, yet still costly:

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

References and Footnotes

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