Edmund Blunden Marches Back to the Line–Through Gas and Failed Patrols–and Has a Tooth Out; The Master of Belhaven Walks Back from the Firing Line, Through Searching Gas Shells, and Has a Tooth Out

We seem to be converging upon the coming battle in space, time, and experiential theme. Edmund Blunden, too, will go forward on the first day of Third Ypres, and several of the tales he tells about the days before chime closely with others we’ve heard. These are among the more powerful sections of his memoir, as his steady, dreamy, innocent style must put its head down and trudge forward into a muddy, deathly tide, a literary enactment of the effect of attrition on young minds.

It’s difficult to match his vague chronology, here, with the bare details of his Battalion Diary, but I believe that either the patrol described below or the march to the front line that follows took place today, a century back.

He begins on the foul Yser Canal, a notable landmark–and logistical obstacle–between Ypres itself and the front lines.

The Yser Canal had been drastically rearranged. New bridges crossed it, powerful works, carrying real roadways. On the far side, the old bank which alone afforded cover from view and splinters had been hewn through for the roadways and other tracks. Great heaps of warlike material stood up naked and unashamed; batteries glinted and bellowed in transparent air. These gay grimaces had not failed to upset the enemy, who was tearing up the old ground and venerable shelters with long-range guns. The best bridge, No. 4, was a ferocious target, but at the Ypres end the new solid crossing was swollen with dead mules tipped on the wayside. The water below, foul yellow and brown, was strewn with full-sized eels, bream, and jack, seething and bulged in death. Gases of several kinds oozed from the crumbled banks and shapeless ditches, souring the air. One needed no occult gift to notice the shadow of death on the bread and cheese in one’s hand, on the discoloured tepid water in one’s bottle.

Ypres in the late summer of 1917 will in many ways be the most horrible place yet: there is more gas, more water and mud, and still that terrible crowding that comes from the holding of a small “salient” and taking fire from three sides.

And the German troops are alert and efficient. This next episode sounds almost exactly like what has just happened to the 15th Royal Welch, although Blunden’s 11th Royal Sussex are further to the south:

On one of the preliminary evenings our new colonel, with his usual bad luck, sent forward from C Camp an officer fresh from England, and one or two men with him, to patrol the land over which our assault was intended, giving a special eye to the enemy’s concern with some ancient gunpits there. This officer took with him his set of the maps, panoramas, photographs, and instructions which had been served round with such generosity for this battle.[1] He never returned. The next night a seasoned officer from another battalion, patrolling the same ground, disappeared.

It was believed that these had been taken prisoner, but I was not much inclined to that view when, the third night, I was sent up with one or two old hands to see what I could see. We reached the very sketchy front line before it was quite dark, soon afterward crawled over the top, and were carefully making our way through our own wire — not that its puny tendrils needed much care! — when with a crash and flame on all sides at once a barrage began. Shells struck so fast that we seemed to be one shell hole away, and no more, from the latest, and as we dodged and measured our length in wild disorder, we drifted a long way into No Man’s Land. The barrage followed our direction and when it stopped, as we lay panting and muttering in the smell of explosive mixed with that of the dewy weeds and broken clods, I saw that we were a few yards from a sap, and I heard stealthy movement in that sap. This might have been the secret of my predecessors’ misfortune. After the shelling we were not much good for observation or offence, and found out no more…

Blunden was lucky to escape, as it seems that the lightly-held German front line has become an entrapment ground for British patrols–either this was a terrible coincidence or the German positions are held in such a way that they can spot enemy patrols, call in effective barrages, and possibly sally forth to kill or capture the survivors.

And Blunden’s long night wasn’t over yet.

I determined that we must rest the few hours till day in the Canal Bank. In order to save us a weary search among blown-in dugouts, and others specially allotted already, I called upon the Canal Bank Major, who was supposed to be in control of the accommodations. No sooner was I inside the sandbag porch than a shell knocked the porch in and some more of my nerve system with it…  There is a hypocritical tunelessness about a gas shell in flight and in explosion. With that, there was the thought of being pitched bleeding into the gummy filths and mortifications below. At last we were in a “small elephant” dugout, and I stretched myself on the dusty boards. I woke with a stiff neck in slightly gasiferous sunlight, mechanically receiving a mug of lurid tea with a dash of petrol from one of my invincibles.

Blunden escapes to return to his unit, but almost as soon as he is back they are marching up toward the front-line positions from which they will attack. First, though, a more quotidian experience of courage for pain:

I could dilate upon other drama that occurred toward July 31, 1917; there was, for instance, that tooth of mine, which our Irish doctor painfully extracted for me by muscular Christianity in the wood, surely the last afternoon there; all my signallers off duty stood round with a hideous pleasure, and one or two begged to offer their compliments on so great a fortitude! But the battle cannot be postponed longer. I had to thrust aside my Cambridge Magazine with Siegfried Sassoon‘s splendid war on the war in it; sent my valise along to the dump; and fell in, wondering how Sassoon could pass one or two technical imperfections (as I thought them) in his fine verse.

This, I think, is something other than irony. But it is very striking indeed: while Sassoon is beginning his long sojourn of self-discovery in the safety of Scotland, a young poet about to be ordered forward into the glutinous mud of Flanders is reading “To Any Dead Officer” and “The Redeemer.”

In the latter–written after nightmarish night work in the autumn of 1915–a Christ-like soldier is weighed down by his load, under fire, as he trudges through the mud. The poem ends with this couplet:

And someone flung his burden in the muck,
Mumbling: ‘O Christ Almighty, now I’m stuck!’

“To Any Dead Officer,” which connects the death of his friend Orme this May with the poet’s decision to protest the war, ends with the line.

I wish they’d killed you in a decent show.

It’s striking, and awful: the endings of the two poems perfectly foreshadow Passchendaele, which will include both the war’s worst mud and an increasing awareness of the miseries of death in failed attritional “pushes” are beginning to overwhelm traditional means of glorifying military sacrifice…

Back, for a moment, to Blunden:

The spirit of battle was not rampant among us that turgid, thirsty night; our route was complicated by design and accident, and the companionship of numbers of tanks and other troops confused us. The unfamiliar way was now narrow as a lane, now broad and undefined as a football ground, sometimes dark, then lit whitely to a distance. At last we occupied trenches on the scene of our proposed business.[2]

He’s ready, then, not for the “show,” but for the next bad deal.

 

Ralph Hamilton, Master of Belhaven has been serving his guns steadily not far behind our Salient infantry, preparing to aid them in the great assault. In another strange coincidence, he too is suffering dental agonies today, a century back, and he too must risk the German gas shells–but then again the Salient is a very small place.

…It is always the same thing–one works out everything in good time, and then at the last moment the programme is altered. I am suffering excruciating agony with my tooth. I could not even lie down last night, and have had absolutely no sleep whatsoever. We commenced the barrage at 5.15 this morning, and have been making a dreadful noise. It was really just like the Somme…

On the way to meet his colonel for a ride to the dentist, Hamilton, walking alone in the rear, is twice knocked down by near misses from a German 5.9. Picking himself up, he runs into the colonel, who is himself trying to nonchalantly dodge the shells.

It was really extremely funny; as we walked (very fast) down the road, a gas-shell fell 50 yards behind us, and this happened four times in about two hundred yards. These gas-shells make very little noise arriving, and burst on the ground with a little “pop” like pulling the cork out of a bottle… There was no smoke, either black or white; just the dust thrown up by the shell striking the dry ground, and a small cloud of yellow green vapour–much the colour of jade…

The comedy ends with the artillery, however, as Hamilton will now meet up with a ‘very rough-handed’ and incompetent dentist…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. This is a serious breach of protocol, naturally.
  2. Undertones of War, 214-9.
  3. War Diary, 352-3.

We Discover Dorothie Feilding, as She Finds Perfect Peace and Happiness; Wilfred Owen is in Blighty, and Still Abed

Dorothie Feilding can be disarmingly frank, but she is also more than a bit elusive. There was little indication in her letters that her friendship with Charles O’Hara Moore was becoming something more. But during her leave in May things accelerated rather quickly. We’ll move back to the 7th of June, as her letters home pick up again:

Dearest Mr Da…

…it’s so wonderful to feel perfect peace & happiness again it seems almost another life since I have felt really happy. I was scared to death the 1st day wondering if everything would be all right but now I am quite quite sure of it. As for Charles he is sure enough for six!

And then on June 9th, we get a bit more context–or, at least, a context we can imagine applying to the sudden decision to marry: we see Dorothie getting in a last hurrah with her many friends (and brothers) still in Belgium, and then addressing herself to another stratum of needs, desires, and obligations.

Mother mine–

I’ve had the most lovely day. I had plotted with that long suffering man the Bloke, to go & hunt up Tubby & Peter today as they are quite close. It was all settled when at 5 am this morning they suddenly blew in here, bursting with excitement & awfully pleased with themselves. We had the greatest fun & in the afternoon begged an array of nags off the sailors & Mish & all went nagging down the beach & dunes. Then to tea with the sailors & then they went off about six. It was a joy having them & they are both looking frightfully well. Peter said he was due for a drop of leave about July & would try his best to be at Newnham to ‘see me pass away’ so if we can fix it up for 1st week in July that ought to suit everybody.

Mother dearest, I feel it’s almost wrong to be so happy these days. I wish I could bring some happiness into you too to make up for your dear Hughie

Will you be glad I’m not in Flanders getting potted at any more? Mairi Chisholm ran in this morning, looking worlds better, she was so touched at your having her at Newnham & I never thanked you half enough. It was because I know that awful desolation that sweeps over every corner of one’s soul & being that I wanted so to help her a little…

It was so awfully nice of you to have her, & thank you so much dearest.

But a letter of June 12th has an entirely different air. Is Dorothie giving her mother comfort, or is she finding another way to refuse a daughter’s obligation to care for her mother when the men have gone away?

We learn this, and more: lost love has long lain below the surface of her persistent courage and daffy nonchalance over several years of ambulance work in Belgium.

Mother my darling–

I got your sad letter last night, & I have been a selfish beast. It seemed so wonderful to feel at peace & a desire to live once more that I have left you thinking all the help I have been to you these years is at an end. Mother dearest, my being happy won’t come between us for ‘a daughter is your daughter all her life’ & our sympathy is too deep for
anything to change it.

At times I have wished I hadn’t the power to feel things deeply & that the superficial beings are the happiest. But it’s not so–God gives you a bigger soul in exchange for pain & the power to be capable things.

Some time before the war Charles & I were very near caring for each other. Then, for no particular reason, we drifted away imperceptibly back to just friendship. I think it was then I first began to think a great deal of Tom. Then Tom went to India & I never saw him again as I went straight to France. But we wrote to each other & in so doing had both felt a deeper & newer affection growing out of our old camaraderie.

We weren’t engaged but I know we should have been had we met again–we both always thought we would meet again quite soon. Then he died just as my love for him was beginning to waken & the bottom seemed to have fallen out of my life. I didn’t care whether I lived or not so you see it wasn’t very meritorious to be brave. I just threw myself heart & soul into the work out here & I got to love my soldiers like my children. It was a positive need to me, to share the life & dangers of this war with them. My whole soul cried out for it & no other kind of work would have helped me one fraction as much; out here right at the heart & pulse of things one finds realities & greatness. The best of everyone comes out…

This is so different from Lady Feilding’s usual style that it helps bring home the adjustment we must make in our understanding of her substance. Like so many of her male counterparts, a vague desire to “serve” and an interest in adventure were part of her initial motivation to endure hardship and danger; and like a very large subset of those officers, a mixture of personal unhappiness and frustrated love morphed into an abiding love for the men under her care.

And yet of course she is in a very different position, vis a vis the continuing possibilities of Romantic love. “The Front” was nearly an all-male world (and due to both standard social and legal prejudice and the additional problem of the effect of hidden love affairs on military discipline, gay men could seek love only at great risk) and she was a young, attractive heiress. There must have been a constant barrage of interest and pressure, much of it in a style that we would now consider harassment. Some of this she laughed off, much of it must have gone unmentioned. But she does have the option of marrying a soldier…

…the sadness of it all worked its way into my very soul. Of all these men who cared for me, it only made it harder & the last 6 months I had got into a sort of mental stupor. I can’t describe it. Just a great ache & loneliness. You see, God by teaching me suffering had given me a bigger soul capable of far deeper feeling, but had given me nothing else as yet to make up for the suffering.

Feilding’s Catholic faith–and her conviction that her suffering soul indicates a coming reward–set her apart from Vera Brittain, but this next paragraph shows how similar their situations might have been:

I used to try & force myself sometimes to care for people I saw who sincerely loved & needed me, so that I might make them happy. But then at the last minute there was never anything but bare friendship & it couldn’t suffice me & I was afraid to marry with only that.

And Vera Brittain would have, in the deeper subsuming to family loyalty and self-sacrifice, married her brother’s blinded friend. As it happens, the ghostly paths of these so-similar-yet-so-different women crossed, in a way, today, a century back. As Lady Feilding was planning her wedding, Victor Richardson was awarded a posthumous Military Cross for his leadership in the Battle of Arras.

So back, now, to the happier and happy Lady Dorothie Feilding, whom we now seem to know three times better than we did after her first eighty-seven appearances here:

Mon. Ritz Hotel London [18 June]

Mother darling–

We have decided Thursday 5th not the 3rd after all for the funeral if that suits you.

That, of course, would be the wedding.

Could you put up Binkie, Charles & best man? His regimental pals, one or two as really want to come, could come by Irish mail to Rugby. I’ve asked Mellins to let Billy & David be pages. I’m getting a little plain white frock & veil, no train or bridesmaids or fuss, but would love those stugs as minute guardsmen with their white clothes & guards belts.

Any immediate relations of Charles who insist on coming we intend billeting on Aunt A at Holthorpe but haven’t broken it to her yet…

I couldn’t bear the thought of being cremated in London for the amusement of Tit Bits, Mothers Home & Pigeon World

This is quite funny, and apt: Lady Feilding has already been a darling of the popular press–titled young ladies driving ambulances made great copy in 1914–and her wedding will prove irresistible to the nascent tabloids, if not perhaps to the pigeon-fancying community. So she is back to her happy-go-lucky early style as the wedding approaches…

And yet her style did change, there, for a moment, and we got a glimpse of her different feelings. She’s an indifferent speller and a casual aristocrat, and has shown no signs of well-read Edwardian Romanticism–nevertheless she feels things just as deeply as any fulsome, long-tressed provincial young lady.

Back, for a moment to the letter of the 12th:

When I met Charles the other day & he told me how he cared, I felt for the 1st time, that he could awaken my power to love (which I thought had died in me) if he loved me strongly & enough. At the very beginning I was afraid perhaps my loneliness was influencing me unduly & that I had not yet found the real thing. But so very soon I was quite, quite sure everything was right.

This, too, is a war romance:

The big things in Charles had not been stirred before the war. He was inclined to be idle & drift through life without being properly alive. The army & war generally has done to him what it has done to many people including myself. He loves me so much, Mother dearest, & so deeply that he has made me love him; it is not just a wild wave of sentimentality, it is [a] real thing which grows greater every day & is coupled with an infinite trust & confidence in him & in what the future will bring. Please God, he will be some months at home, before all the mental ‘angoisse’ [anguish] begins again. I am feeling so small & stormtossed…

I need just a little bit of peace & happiness so badly Mother dearest…

Yr loving
DoDo[1]

 

Wilfred Owen is also very happy and at peace… and also writing to his mother, and also in need of additional funds for new clothes… after that the similarities drop away precipitously.

Monday, Welsh Hospital, Netley

Dearest of Mothers,

I had your letter this morning—a great delight. This place is very boring, and I cannot believe myself in England in this unknown region… It is pleasant to be among the Welsh—doctors, sisters, orderlies.

And nurses.

They kept me in bed all yesterday, but I got up for an hour & went out today, only to be recaught and put back to bed for the inspection of a specialist…

There was no choice of Hospitals when we were detailed off from Southampton, tho’ I tried to get the Birmingham Train, which those officers who lived hereabouts had to take!

When I get away I shall try to journey through London. There are new clothes I want… Here also we fare much better than anywhere in France. I sleep well and show every sign of health, except in the manipulation of this pencil.

Your own W.E.O. x[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Lady Under Fire, 211-16.
  2. Collected Letters, 470.

Kate Luard on Flowers and Horrors; Vera Brittain Misses Rome; Two Verses from Siegfried Sassoon on Quiet Gardens and the Far-Off Dead

I hope that there are still occasional surprises, here, even with our old familiar regulars–after all, if “real-time military history” doesn’t demonstrate how often expectation and routine are upended by events, then surely there is a double failure to represent the contingency of real life in subsequent life-writing. And yet I have felt myself falling into certain patterns, allotting certain roles to certain writers… which is all well and good as long as it does not unduly influence the choice of excerpts from their writings.

In any case, it has become Kate Luard‘s duty to juxtapose a quintessentially English interest in country walks and wildflowers with compassionate description of the war’s human wreckage.

Friday, May 25th

Dazzling weather and very little doing. The woods are full of bluebells and bugloss and stitchwort, and the fields of buttercups and sorrel. Our wards and own huts and tents are a mass of spring.

There is a boy in with his spinal cord exposed, lying on his face, who was wounded on Sunday and not picked up till Thursday morning. He was in a shell-hole crying to four other wounded in it the first night. They took no notice and in the morning he saw they had all died.[1]

 

Yesterday, a century back, Vera Brittain went through Rome on her way from Malta back to England. And what did the young Englishwoman do with a few hours to spare in the eternal city? “Had tea in an English restaurant; after tea drove to English quarter and wandered around curio shops.”

Ah, well. Today, the journey continued.

Friday, May 25th

Woke to find we were all among mountains, just going into Pisa. Saw Leaning Tower of Pisa from train. Glorious mountain scenery; mountain-sides covered with thick trees, cypresses and pines standing out among them…

At Modane Vera and her companions changed to the Paris express, which she described as the “most splendid train I have ever been in; seats very large and comfortable; got a corner. Had a most excellent dinner…”[2]

 

And Siegfried Sassoon has been writing verse again–two poems can be dated to today, a century back. The first is an uncharacteristically restrained sort of war poem, something that might remind us of Edward Thomas‘s work, except with still that hint of reflexively “poetic” diction or prettiness of sound, and less of Thomas’s unflinching gaze. Nevertheless, this is skilled work, and it makes sense to assume that Sassoon can hardly resist juxtaposing the loveliness of Chapelwood Manor (well provided with hawthorns) with his feelings of deep connection with the men who remain in France.

 

The Hawthorn Tree

Not much to me is yonder lane
Where I go every day;
But when there’s been a shower of rain
And hedge-birds whistle gay,
I know my lad that’s out in France,
With fearsome things to see,
Would give his eyes for just one glance
At our white hawthorn-tree.

Not much to me is yonder lane
Where he so longs to tread:
But when there’s been a shower of rain
I think I’ll never weep again
Until I’ve heard he’s dead.

 

This might be a slight poem, or then again it might make a “deep impression through its very restraint and understatement.” Still, if it is “reminiscent of Hardy,” it is Hardy’s earlier, generally more gentle Wessex work.

Not so the next, a similar juxtaposition but much more forceful, charging in like a veritable Satire of Circumstance. Once more we find ourselves in peace in an English pastoral setting, and thinking of Zero Hour.

 

Death in the Garden

I never thought to see him; but he came
When the first strangeness of the dawn was grey.
He stood before me, a remembered name,
A twilight face, poor lonely ghost astray.
Flowers glimmered in the garden where I stood
And yet no more than darkness was the green.
Then the wind stirred; and dawn came up the wood;
Add he was gone away: or had I seen
That figure in my brain? for he was dead;
I knew that he was killed when I awoke.
At zero-hour they shot him through the head
Far off in France, before the morning broke.[3]

 

This poem may memorialize a particular man, Ralph Brocklebank–“Brock” in the Memoirs–whom Sassoon had befriended at Litherland. Brocklebank, like Sassoon an enthusiastic hunter, had been killed in France on the 15th, news which Sassoon had just learned in a letter from Joe Cottrell. Brocklebank was nineteen. But the details are not quite right, and it makes more sense to say that the poem is about loss and a feeling of double exile: just as it may be about the gardens of Chapelwood and the death of Brocklebank, it may also touch on the death of Sassoon’s brother Hamo, and the garden at home in Kent in which the brothers once played and that Sassoon has since been avoiding. In either case, there is much still to be written, even with old unfussy rhymed pentameters, even with simple end-rhymes, like “dead.”[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Unknown Warriors, 126.
  2. Testament of Youth, 350-1.
  3. Diaries, 172.
  4. Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 365-7.

Ivor Gurney Longs for England–and Germany; Henry Williamson is All Over the Place

Henry Williamson writes a long and exceptionally rambling letter to his mother today, a century back. Some excerpts:

Dear Mum,

Excuse this bad writing, but I’ve been hit again, ever so slightly in the right thumb, so I’ve been wounded twice in this little campaign. It was a crump that burst near me and killed my horse & dented my hat, but didn’t hit me except in the thumb, & has only caused a little cut 1 inch long on the inside of the bone. My arm is quite OK now & neither is bad enough for hospital…

We are as far behind at present as you are from Whitefoot Lane & when we go in I stop behind with the mules & go up over shell plastered roads with the waggons. I have been on the gun bit owing to shellshock & nervous exhaustion (10 days fighting is no joke for anyone…)

I can tell you its nice to be here–altho the Ger has cut down trees, blown up each house, poisoned wells, etc etc etc… most of his stoves were done in, but mine wasn’t, but a nice little egg bomb was up the chimney ready for the first fire!! I’ve kept it as a souvenir. He had a piano or two down his dugouts, each one connected to a mine!!!

…Well, am just going to have tea, so will close. Thanks for books & pyjamas & toffee. Can you manage to send me a large cake for the mess… & a box or two of biscuits or shortbreads… Please send Motor Cycling & Motor Cycle & an occasional Daily Mail…

Will you send some Bachelor buttons and take my tunic to the CSSA & have an open collar put in instead of that stand up one and tell them to let it out down the back… Dont forget as I  may be home soon for a staff job…

Love to all, Harry.[1]

To review:

  1. A second scratch for Lt. Williamson is much discussed. There is no sense that he might want to omit any mention of–let alone self-mockingly downplay–such a minor injury.
  2. He is well, but he also considers himself shell-shocked–not concussed per se, but suffering from the neurological and/or psychological aftereffects of prolonged exposure to artillery. This is certainly possible, but this is very much the boy who cried wolf.
  3. He has a comfy dugout, despite or because of his suspiciously complete knowledge of German booby traps. But s a transport officer in the Machine Gun Corps, he would not be likely to be the first or second or tenth officer to check a certain spot for booby-traps. Finding them as he claims to have done is not impossible, but it’s not likely.
  4. He wears his pyjamas every night, which points more to the comfy than the shocking aspects of working in support of more advanced troops.
  5. He is in perpetual need of motoring mags and biscuits.
  6. And lastly, with those tailoring instructions, we are reminded that he is both dandified and delusional. It has hardly been a fortnight since Williamson was called on the carpet, with a hangover, accused of basic incompetence, and left convinced he would be fired from his relatively safe job with the transport. This tailoring assignment for poor old mum is a rank fantasy… He is not getting a staff appointment…

 

Ivor Gurney, humble private and laborer, has bigger things on his mind: battle draws near, as does the publication of his first book of verse. For once he is the more focused of our daily selection of letter-writers.

29 March 1917

My Dear Friend: It is too dangerous to move towards my valise, where your letter lies, there being too many men looking for seats, and the fire being too comfortable…

This, it would seem, is Gurney’s excuse for conducting only a general–and rather grumpy–discussion of his poetry. Which we’ll skip…

Well what thundering interesting things are happening now! O if I but knew German! Lots of newspapers, some quite late have come my way; and a book of short stories about Military Life—supposed to be humorous “Simpllicimus” “Berliner Tageblatt” etc etc. There is no room for souvenirs, as the opportunities for getting them later will probably be only too numerous. You cannot imagine the amount of work behind his lines; he must have worked very hard…

Let’s compare our two writers.

Henry Williamson is a fanciful youth, a dyed-in-the-wool spinner of tales, and so the German lines become a cheerfully Gothic obstacle course, full of wired-up pianos which don’t trouble him in the least. He is also, incredibly, a full lieutenant in charge of a number of grown men, solely responsible for keeping other grown men supplied with the necessary ammunition.

Ivor Gurney, five years older, is a private whose battalion has worked for months as ready labor for the engineers. Not only is he unable to lard his letters with tall tales (the censor would know, and he would be embarrassed) but he can neither load up on souvenirs nor fail to notice the salient fact about the German lines: these trenches and dugouts–the ones abandoned for a better-sited line fortified completely and at leisure–are still much better than the British lines he has worked so hard to improve.

Nor is he likely to hate or disrespect his enemy. Gurney has not been in a major battle, nor has he suffered the very worst of attritional trench-holding. But he is nearing a full year in France, and few of our writers could claim as complete an identification with the “Tommy” experience. He sees the Germans opposite as fellow front-fighters, rather than enemies.

Our mails arrive very well still. I hope they will continue to bring your letters, though my replies may be short and infrequent. I enclose something, which looks like a complete description of a German private but dont know. I found also about a dozen p[ost]c[ards]s, one of Nuremburg, which provoked sadness that we must never visit Germany. Anyway the place I want to visit now is Blighty. “Blighty is the place for me” as the song says. Goodbye, Good health and Good luck:

Your sincere Friend Ivor Gurney[2]

A melancholy souvenir.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 104-5.
  2. War Letters, 146-147.

Wilfred Owen’s Sonnet on the Unknown Soldier; Edwin Vaughan Meets a Madman; Victor Richardson to Vera Brittain: a Boy No More; Edward Thomas’s Most Beautiful Letter

We have a frightening short scrap on shell shock, today, and three letters from soldiers. Each of the two longer letters, different in tone but oddly parallel, will find a space for unvoiced love and for the repurposing of poetry–both Victor Richardson and, even yet, Edward Thomas, write themselves into a new light. As does Wilfred Owen, with verse of his own.

Since Owen’s is a lighter sort of new light, let’s start with him.

Perhaps it’s the concussion; perhaps it’s the leisure time in bed, but Owen is once again writing to a sibling about his bucolic post-war dreams:

24 March, 13th Casualty Clearing Station

My dear Colin,

In my walk this afternoon, considering at leisure the sunshine and the appearance of peace (I don’t mean from the news) I determined what I should do after the war.

I determined to keep pigs.

It occurred to me that after five years development of one pig-stye in a careful & sanitary manner, a very considerable farm would establish itself.

I should like to take a cottage and orchard in Kent, Surrey or Sussex, and give my afternoons to the care of pigs. The hired labour would be very cheap, 2 boys could tend 50 pigs. And it would be the abruptest possible change from my morning’s work…

This, young Colin Owen must be thinking, is madness, a result of that knock on the head. After all, big brother Wilfred has been raised to be a young gentleman, and considers himself an aspiring highbrow poet-aesthete!

Perhaps you will think me clean mad and translated by my knock on the head. How shall I prove that my old form of madness has in no way changed? I will send you my last Sonnet, which I started yesterday. I think I will address it to you.

Adieu, mon petit. Je t’embrasse. W.E.O.

SONNET—with an Identity Disc

If ever I had dreamed of my dead name
High in the Heart of London; unsurpassed
By Time forever; and the fugitive, Fame,
There taking a long sanctuary at last,
—I’ll better that! Yea, now, I think with shame
How once I wished it hidd’n from its defeats
Under those holy cypresses, the same
That mourn around the quiet place of Keats.
Now rather let’s be thankful there’s no risk
Of gravers scoring it with hideous screed.
For let my gravestone be this body-disc
Which was my yoke. Inscribe no date, nor deed.
But let thy heart-beat kiss it night & day . . .
Until the name grow vague and wear away.

This is private.
I stickle that a sonnet must contain at least 3 clever turns to be good.
This has only two.[1]

That’s about right–the yoke, the deed/screed rhyme… but perhaps by the time we come to the lips wearing away the inscription on the identity disk the joke has been too fully-sprung. But it is clever, and a good sign–this is no renunciation of Keats, or of love poetry in the best Romantic mode. Despite the jokes and the self-deprecation this is a love sonnet which takes up an ironic condition of the front line soldier-poet–the desire for fame, the likelihood of an unknown grave–and makes a lovely-sounding thing out of hope and fear.

 

While Owen is making clever jokes in the leisure of his concussion, Edwin Vaughan is coming to know how prolonged, repeated, unbearable concussions can affect a man. A group of replacements has reached his battalion, including a man named Corbett.

He it appears was a splendid NCO until he was badly wounded on the Somme in 1916, after which he went quite silly. Whenever he goes into the line he goes mad, though he never shows fear. At one time he secured a dugout, and if any stranger or undesirable visitor entered it, he hammered the fuse of a dud 9.2″ shell with an entrenching tool, until he was again alone…[2]

 

We’ll close with another letter from Edward Thomas, but first, I want to spend a little time on one of the letters written to Vera Brittain. She is far away in Malta, but the three young soldiers she cares for are all once more heading toward battle. Her brother, Edward–wounded on the first day of the Somme–is the safest, still working on training courses and yet to rejoin a fighting battalion. Geoffrey Thurlow and Victor Richardson, however, are in infantry battalions in France, preparing for the offensive. Victor Richardson, the sturdy, smiling Third Musketeer of Uppingham Days, has been an officer in the trenches for quite some time now–and he doesn’t write, any longer, from a subordinate or suppliant position. This is the first letter to Vera, I think, in which he assumes intellectual equality and writes as if they were essentially the same age.

France, 24 March 1917

My dear Vera,

Mrs Leighton has just sent me Rhymes of a Red Cross Man. They are indeed excellent, but their vivid realism is oppressive at least I find it so just now. With regard to ‘Pilgrims’ it is true in part. It is true that none of us would wish those we love to do other than ‘smile and be happy again’. But none of us wish to die… I venture to say that there is not one officer, warrant officer, N.C.O., or rifleman who looks on death as ‘The Splendid Release’. That is the phrase of ‘a Red Cross Man’ and not of a member of a fighting unit.

So Victor is no longer willing to accept uncritically the views that surround him. Vera has tended patronize him–he’s the fondly regarded lesser light, never as bright or as high-flying as Roland or her brother. But although she is by now “accustomed… to the sudden tragic maturities of trench life” she is surprised to see the sweet boy she remembers write now like tough-minded officer, too wise for easy answers. Victor, sounding more like Roland than he ever has, continues:

I often wonder why we are all here. Mainly I think, as far as I am concerned, to prevent the repetition in England of what happened in Belgium in August 1914. Still more perhaps because one’s friends are here. Perhaps too, ‘heroism in the abstract’ has a share in it all.

Victor Richardson believes, now, that “the attitude of 90% of the British Expeditionary Force” is one of cheerful resignation, as typified in “a marching song to the tune of Auld Lang Syne that the little old men have been heard to sing:

We’re here because
We’re here because
We’re here because
We’re here.”

And “here” is France, with the Spring Offensive growing ever nearer.

But not near enough for his taste:

The situation as far as we are concerned is at present only slightly changed, but I hope that on the day of the hunt it will alter considerably. You speak of being anxious about Geoffrey Thurlow. At the present moment I would gladly change places with him. He is probably well away and over the country by now, and open warfare has none of the terrors of breaking new ground…

Edward doesn’t seem to enjoy his Musketry Course. Just as I did he is taking it far too seriously. I can’t define exactly how he has changed since July 1st. In that one day I think he aged ten years. I wonder if I shall be the same: I don’t think so somehow or other, but it is quite impossible to say.

I can quite understand your desire to wander further. I am a restless spirit myself–in fact you yourself once accused me of being a rolling stone.

Well, Vera, I may not write again–one can never tell–and so, as Edward wrote to me, ‘it is time to take a long long adieu’.

Ever yours

ah[3]

This “valedictory resignation” will make Vera Brittain feel, when she reads this letter, that Malta and France–with more and more U-boats between them–are impossibly far apart. The old romantic idea that fierce feelings of closeness can stave off separation is getting harder to sustain.[4]

 

Finally, today, Edward Thomas wrote to his wife, Helen.

Arras
24 March 1917

Dearest,

I was in that ghastly village today. The Major and I went up at 7.30 to observe; through the village was the quickest way. I never thought it would be so bad. It is nothing but dunes of piled up brick and stone with here and there a jagged piece of wall, except that the little summerhouse placed under the trees that I told Baba about is more or less perfect. The only place one could recognize was the churchyard. Scores of tombstones were quite  undamaged.

Now is this Thomas’s writerly restraint, or the fact that he is unwilling to–or simply not interested in–frightening his wife with grim visions. If scores of tombstones were quite undamaged, others surely, were wrecked, and graves were damaged… and few of our writers avoid such horrific bounty as the irony and horror of ancient graves disturbed by modern war. Thomas would seem to prefer this–and yet, as his narrative moves on, he avoids neither destruction nor death.

All the trees were splintered and snapped and dead until you got to the outskirts… No Man’s Land below the village was simply churned up dead filthy ground with tangled rusty barbed wire over it… On the way we saw a Bosh fight two of our planes. He set one on fire and chased the other off. The one on fire had a great red tail of flame, yet the pilot kept it under control for a minute or more till I suppose he was on fire and then suddenly it reeled and dropped in a string of tawdry fragments.

Our new position—fancy—was an old chalk pit in which a young copse of birch, hazel etc. has established itself.

Fancy–why? This turns out to be a complicated question. Edward Thomas is something of a chalk-pit enthusiast, and he described and considered the symbolism of several chalk pits in his prose, and then in his poem “The Chalk-Pit.” This is a poetic dialogue (the form heavily influenced by Frost) in which two speakers discuss the resonances of an empty chalk pit–a man-made dell now overgrown with trees.

Then two more figures are invoked: a “man of forty” remembering coming there with “a girl of twenty with… hair brown as a thrush.” So it would seem as if Thomas is not just recalling any one of the chalk pits in the English countryside which they may have walked by in recent years, but the time of his long-ago courtship with Helen. The poem may also–although this would imply a strange sort of deceit–remember Thomas’s infatuation, some nine years before, with a teenage girl he met while away from home working on a book.[5]

But all that is rather too much, and it’s not certain that Thomas is even thinking of his poem. But a chalk pit is an evocative place, an old work of man that has been reclaimed by nature and thus “can be admired without misanthropy,” a most characteristic line. The chalk pit and its trees are Thomas’s ideal context:

…a silent place that once rang loud,
And trees and us–imperfect friends, we men
And trees since time began; and nevertheless
Between us we still breed a mystery.

And now–fancy–he will be living in one while he assists in bombarding the new German positions east of Arras.

Our dug out is already here, dug by the battery we are evicting. It is almost a beautiful spot still and I am sitting warm in the sun on a heap of chalk with my back to the wall of the pit which is large and shallow. Fancy, an old chalk pit with moss and even a rabbit left in spite of the paths trodden almost all over it. It is beautiful and sunny and warm though cold in the shade. The chalk is dazzling. The sallow catkins are soft dark white.

What quotidian concern could cast a pall over this lovely scene?

All I have to do is to see that the men prepare the gun platforms in the right way, and put two men on to digging a latrine.—I am always devilish particular about that.

This is a rambling letter to a wife, I know–it’s not a gripping account of modern war. But it’s all one song, as another sage once said, and it means something–something important–that Thomas writes so much, here, and so beautifully. Their marriage has been a troubled one, and if Helen is close to his heart theirs is not an intimate intellectual relationship; he rarely writes his poetry with or to her. But now he nearly is–this is as close to verse as he has gotten, since he came to France.

There are a few long large white clouds mostly low in the sky and several sausage balloons up and still some of our planes peppered all round with black Bosh smoke bursts. I ate some oatcakes for lunch just now. They were delicious, hard and sweet.

And it’s not just this sort of prose, and the chalk-pit and the trees–we have a thrush, too, and our sudden bloom of snowdrops to carry on. Am I overselling it? Probably. I’ll need an ellipsis for the paragraphs that keep track of parcels and acquaintances…

The writing pads were quite all right, though no longer so necessary after Oscar had sent me half a dozen…

…this particular place has never been shelled yet, so though I hear a big shell every now and then flop 200 or 300 yards away it feels entirely peaceful. But I can’t get over the fact that there is no thrush singing in it. There is only a robin. I don’t hear thrush ever. All the bright pale or ruddy stems in the copse and the moss underneath and the chalk showing through reminds me of Hampshire…

The wheat is very green in some of the fields a little behind us and they are ploughing near our orchard. I hope the old woman will get back to her cottage and apple trees and currant bushes and snowdrops and aconites and live happily ever after.

It is very idle of me to sit here writing, but the men are all at work and I can’t help them except by appearing at intervals and suggesting something obvious that ought to be done…

Now I have had tea and oatcakes and honey and also a cake from Burzard’s Mrs Freeman sent me. I am having an agreeably idle evening, but then I am up with the lark tomorrow for 24 hours at the O.P. No letters today and tomorrow I shan’t get them if there are any. Never mind. All is well.

I am all and always yours

Edwy

A timeless letter, a brave sally against loneliness, and the gulf, and misanthropy. A long moment of peace and love stolen from the war, and a record of coincidence between poetry and life… but with a post-script:

The latest is that perhaps we shan’t go in to the chalk pit. The general is always changing his mind.[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 446.
  2. Some Desperate Glory, 64.
  3. Letters From a Lost Generation, 326-8.
  4. Testament of Youth, 334-6.
  5. Longley, Edward Thomas, The Annotated Collected Poems, 236-9.
  6. Selected Letters, 153-5.

Ivor Gurney Absolves Himself of Half the Blame; Edward Thomas Discourses to His Son, and Friend; Edward Hermon on War’s Delightful Uncertainties; A Saucy Note for Jack Martin; Alphabet Soup with Kate Luard

None of our writers yet know the exact date of the coming offensive–and they can assume that the terrible weather and the operational wrench tossed in the works by the German withdrawal will delay it at least a bit more–but there is a growing sense that they may be only days away from the end of a winter which, for all its miseries, has seen men killed only by the handfuls and dozens, for the most part, and not by the thousands.

Girding for battle, then, we have five writers to read today–two provide lengthy and rather weighty letters, but we also have some lighter fare along the way…

 

Ivor Gurney, wrote to Marion Scott today, a century back. Scott is at once his friend and benefactress; she has put his songs before an audience, published his music, lectured on his poetry, helped him at every stage, and now is in the last stages of preparing his first book of poems for the press. As the editor of those poems, she has become less and less like a patron or facilitator and more and more like a partner: Gurney’s moods are changeable, his spelling and punctuation are shaky, and his ability to focus on revising his poems while serving as an infantryman is, rather understandably, limited. He is fortunate that his friend is both skilled and willing to edit with sensitivity, cleaning up his verse without heavy-handedly blotting out his oddities–and he is wise enough (or, again, fortunate) to recognize this.

23 March 1917

My Dear Friend: Things are beginning to move, and no one knows when may come the next opportunity for writing. I have just received your letter of March 11th… Do not consult me about these things, but do as your far more experienced judgement may lead you…

A frequent topic in these letters is Scott’s ill-health. She has a number of ongoing medical problems and has been very sick two different times in recent months, and Gurney, though sympathetic, often struggles to find a way to express his sympathy. Today an obvious path is open: he can share her joy at resuming music:

And it is good news that you are able to play sonatas again, and with a sympathetic pianist. It gives me a feeling of sharing your good-fortune to read of it; may your strength increase and give you hours a day of it…

One parcel of yours I have received — not yet the other. All the letters have arrived and all given pleasure. O to return to England and my friends! Such joys are there as are dangerous to imagine at present; not all at once will my mind and body become sound, but it cannot be so very very long before Joy becomes “used to me”…

The new state of things entered upon by the German retreat may mean little letter writing. This is the reason why I hasten to reply, though never have I felt more acutely the inadequacy of words. Last night and this afternoon have been so beautiful that my mind has been filled with Blighty thoughts. But consider what a queer past I have to look back on! Either I am a great musician or a chronic neurastheniac!

That’s a line worth remarking on. Many of our writers are in a similar position in that they sense the war will be the making or breaking of their literary ambitions, and yet few have struggled mentally and emotionally as much as Gurney has. The war is an intensifier–double or nothing, death or great beauty.

There is nothing outside it, for the visible world is hardly to be seen by me unless music hallows my spirit with  beauty and toughens it by the necessary work.

And yet Gurney is consistently grateful about another thing the war has done for him: throwing him among all sorts of men has cured him of much of his social awkwardness, at least among men. Suffering together has made a feeling of brotherhood possible.

You will be glad to hear however that as a personality I am rather popular in my company. It pleases me this, as so I know myself nearer Walt Whitmans perfect man; equal to shepherd and President; equal and familiar. O the joy to be able to go into a little Cotswold inn and drop into conversation with the nearest man! And that, compared with my tongue-tied shyness of 3 years ago. And if not here, then in the Shades I will be friends with men contemptuous of the fate to which some Power has doomed them, jovially drinking in some phantom pub over doubtful takes[1] and unprintable denunciation of the Infernal NCOs.

We’ve seen something like this before (not that I can currently place it, mind)–a soldier so pleased to belong that he humorously, but with real feeling, extends the dream of post-war camaraderie even to otherworldly environs. Gurney is then once again reminded that he is neglecting a different category of friend:

You patient correspondent, though you make no complaint, how should you not be tired of the continual self-analysis which makes up the bulk of my letters! And yet those letters are the safety-valves of my discomfort. It is a cheap amusement—grumbling—pleasing the writer and leaving the reader to read or not as she pleases. I
absolve myself therefore from half the blame, take the other half if you please.

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

…Goodbye and many sonatas. Unless I write very soon, more verse-books off:

Your sincere friend

Ivor Gurney[2]

 

Robert (Edward) Hermon’s latest letter to his wife Ethel picks up in the middle of a joint reminiscence about old holidays, but it is nevertheless overshadowed by the coming offensive.

…I fear those old days are gone for ever now… Let’s hope our next trip will be one here to see the result of the war with the Chugs.

Of course, by now you know more about the German retirement than I do, really, as you have had one more Times than I have…

According to the papers he is retiring there so that, if any preparations have been made by us for the much-talked-about spring offensive, we may have to start again… & in the meantime his submarines will sink all our ships. However the best-laid plans often go wrong…

War is one of those delightful uncertainties that a very small thing may completely upset. It is all most awfully interesting & I hope I shall see the end. I often long for the time when one will be able to read the history of the early phases & know why he didn’t do some of the many things that he ought to have done.

I got three delightful letters from the Chugs too, today. I wish I had time to answer them. Thank dear little Mary for her nice message & her letter too. I am so pleased to hear she sat on her pony so well when it fell down!

Goodnight my darling.[3]

 

Before we get to two letters from Edward Thomas–I know I have been including a great deal of his writing, but these show a different aspect of his personality–let’s do two brief bits of comic relief, one intentional and one rather by-the-way.

We haven’t heard from Jack Martin much–his diary has been sparse, as he seems to be in low spirits. I don’t know him well enough to suspect any particular mood (or mood disorder), but he seems to be suffering from the general malaise common to men who are excited to reach the front and then find not the thrill and terror of battle but the long slog of living and working in miserable winter conditions. His diary only springs to life when he can report letters from home or another test of wills with his commanding officer and sparring partner Lieutenant Buchanan. But today a bit of light comedy flutters out from an unsolicited parcel, in a moment much more redolent of 1915 and the heyday of Kitchener’s army than this tense muddy month, a century back:

23.3.17

Arrived at Dickebusch safely. Had a parcel from Lil containing a body belt folded up just as she had bought it. When I unfolded it a piece of paper dropped out–I picked it up and read this:

Miss Dulcie Bennett

111 Mansfield Road

Nottingham

Wishes the boy who receives this belt the best of luck and a safe return to Blighty. XXXX for luck

Oh, Dulcinea, I am no Don Quixote so I vulgarly displayed your missive to other eyes and there was quite a competition between several fellows as to who should have it and write to you…[4]

 

And I can’t resist the beginning of Kate Luard‘s diary for today, a century back. If we often look for “found poetry” hidden in the prose of our writers, today this old campaigner provides us a found nonsense-alphabet-jingle:

The three C.O.’s of the three C.C.S’s here were summoned to 3rd Army H.Q. to-day to a Conference with the D.M.S…[5]

 

Lastly, Edward Thomas, thrice. I absolve all readers not lavishly endowed with free time or particularly interested in a writer’s fine-grained choices from reading any further. It’s too much!

Or not… Well, we’ll begin with an excerpt from his diary, and then proceed to excerpts from two different letters.

Frosty clear. Ploughs going up over crest towards Beaurains. Rubin back from F. O. P. believes in God and tackles me about atheism–thinks marvellous escapes are ordained. But I say so are the marvellous escapes of certain telegraph posts, houses, etc.[6]

Next, a letter to his old friend Gordon Bottomley which does something rather odd: Thomas reviews the salient experiences and most striking sights of recent days (many of which we’ve read about) but he does so in a hurried, unliterary fashion. Usually the letters are more considered, more elaborate than the diary, but not here.

23 March
My dear Gordon,

I will write again while I can a little. Things are moving now & we move too. I have not long come back from 24 hours in our new front line. It was dirty wet & cold & I could only stand & mark the flashes of enemy guns at night, which was my business. Afterwards I slept 16 hours for the first time in my life. It taught me several things that others knew before. It made me cease to be alarmed by shells that could not harm me, for example, though they came over 20 or 30 a minute all night. They were flying home to a village that we used to fire at till this last move, a fascinating ghostly village of stark trees & ruins which I shall probably soon be sleeping in. It was beautiful coming down to the city in sunshine & seeing the old ruined Town Hall like a thick white smoke just beginning to curl. Crossing the old No Man’s Land crowded like a race course after a race, I couldn’t take seriously the few small shells thrown at the working parties. Oh, I did eat & rest & sleep…

Yesterday it was sunny & mild. Today it is cold & snows at times…

Is this sort of rote reporting motivated only by a sense of duty to an old friend? But Thomas does work around to some more intimate issues of the sort that once sustained his letters to Bottomley.

…Fear too, I have discovered—to that point where the worst moment is when you find you have survived & that all your fear was useless. You screw yourself up for a second to bear anything & nothing comes—except a curious disappointment which I suppose is also relief. Sometimes at night I have been in this state a hundred times, but partly through inexperience, not knowing what might mean harm. Still, I shall never like the shell that flaps as it falls, or the one that suddenly bounces into hearing & in a second is bursting far off—no sooner does it open the gate than it is right in the door, or even the small one that complains & whimpers & is called a ‘pipsqueak’ or a ‘whizzbang’, & flies into that ghastly village all night long like flights of humming birds.

Ah–and he is working on refining his descriptions of the shells. Through music, next, and friendship, the letter finally turns to his poetry–only to dodge, at the end, from success back toward despair.

…I conclude I don’t quite want friends here. I should be too introspective or too happy to meet the circumstance. And yet all sorts of things do make me happy—villages, the city in ruins, the larks in the bloody dirty dawn, the partridges, the magpies floating about among shellfire & once a bat, & a hundred different houses, in city, suburb, & village.

I hear now that America wants my verses & Poetry has taken some. Frost wants me to surrender my pseudonymity but I am not doing so. Of course I can’t think of writing here & only keep the briefest of diaries…

I haven’t met anybody out here yet who connected me with home. I don’t think of home. I never did have pictures on the wall since I was 1.

Goodbye. My love to Emily. Yours ever

Edward Thomas[7]

 

Last, today, Thomas’s letter to his son, Merfyn, now a teenager but working full time as an apprentice at a bus works. Is it his age that accounts for the formality of the letter, or the gaps in his relationship with his father, so often depressed or working away. And yes, he misspells his son’s name, sort of–the name is Welsh, so the “f” sounds as a “v,” anyway:

244 Siege Battery, 23 March 1917

My dear Mervyn,

I brought back a letter from you in the mail bags today and also a new battery for my torch. Thank you very much… It is most useful in crossing this dark street when crowded with lorries or columns of horses and limbers and on all sorts of occasions.

I was so glad to hear from you and how much you were earning for Mother as well as yourself. At the same time I am more anxious for you to learn than to earn at present and I hope you will soon be moved to a new shop.

But Merfyn will soon be eighteen, and in England, a century back, work is no longer the thing that most defines a man’s estate.

You haven’t found an O.T.C. yet, have you? I wish you could, though I hope you will not have to go further than that for a long time. I don’t think war would trouble you. I see lots of infantrymen no bigger or older than you. There was one machine gunner doing duty over the parapet the other night when I was in the very very front trench. He had to stand up there behind his gun watching for an hour. Then he was relieved and made some tea for me and himself and turned into his comic little shanty and slept till the next relief. He looked ever so much older as well as dirtier when morning came. He was a very nice bright Scotch boy. Well, I expect you could do just the same. His officer was the same age and very much like him so that I think he had to look unduly severe to show the distinction…

These, of course, are new thoughts, different thoughts, experiences filtered–and this is very rare, in what we read of Thomas–through the lens of fatherhood. But very strangely, Thomas segues from this paternal mode into a comparison of himself and his son. He had recently faced the task of climbing an enormous chimney for observation purposes, and backed down. Now he wonders if his boy could have done better.

I wonder could you climb that chimney? There were iron rings all the way up and I knew one was loose, but I didn’t know which. One bad feature was that you were always hanging out a bit, because the chimney tapered. It has been hit three times but only with small stuff. Now I suppose it is likely to survive as the enemy is farther off.

Even more strangely, he takes what might seem an offhand (to anyone not risking shellfire on a daily basis) approach to a completely fundamental question:

The crossroads round it became known as Windy Comer because everybody ‘got the wind up’ as he came near it. Thousands had to go that way and yet very few were injured and only about two killed. Isn’t it wonderful how some men get hit and some don’t. But it is the same with trees and houses, so that I don’t see why it makes some people ‘believe in God’. It is a good thing to believe. I think brave people all believe something and I daresay they are not so likely to be killed as those who don’t believe and are not so brave…

But then the formality–a certain awkwardness, at least–creeps back in, and Thomas begins to deluge his son with questions:

…It is going to be Spring soon. Are you glad? Are you often happy and usually contented, and if not contented, not often in despair? Try never to let despair at any rate make you idle or careless; But be as idle and careless as you can when you are happy and the chance comes. If you are troubled, remember that you can do what perhaps nobody else will be able to do for Mother and Bronwen and Baba: only don’t let that make you anxious either. All will come well if you keep honest and kind.Upon my word, this sounds like a sermon and I do hate sermons, of which it is not true to say that it is more blessed to give than to receive, but it is more easy to give a sermon than to receive.

Which is why, perhaps, he decides to close by giving something not every father can give–this sort of evocative, quietly emotional writing:

Do you have time to read now? I only read for ten minutes in bed, Shakespeare’s sonnets, with a pipe which I smoke about a quarter through and then put out the light and forget the flash of guns across the street and the rattle of the windows, everything except the thud of a shell in the marsh behind, but that seems to have stopped now. Goodnight.

Ever your loving

Daddy[8]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. As printed, but surely "tales" is intended?
  2. War Letters, 144-5.
  3. For Love and Courage, 342-3.
  4. Sapper Martin, 53-4.
  5. Unknown Warriors, 103.
  6. War Diary (Childhood), 172.
  7. Letters of Edward Thomas to Gordon Bottomley, 278-280.
  8. Selected Letters, 151-3.

Edward Thomas Can’t Stay to Tea; Kate Luard Plates her Moss; Bob Hermon Admires the New Knights; Covering the Retreat with Rudyard Kipling and Charles Carrington; St. Patrick’s Day in France and Revolution in England

The bad nights are spreading, a century back. From the Somme north to Arras, where Edward Thomas is roiled by nightmares.

A horrible night of bombardment, and the only time I slept I dreamt I was at home and couldn’t stay to tea… Then the most glorious bright high clear morning… A beautiful day, sunny with pale cloudless sky and W. wind, but cold in O.P. Clear nightfall with curled, cinerous cloud and then a cloudless night with pale stains in sky over where Bosh is burning a village or something…[1]

 

No, that’s not right–nightmares aren’t the real story. Most of our hardy souls are doing what they can to treat late winter as if it might be early spring. Kate Luard likes nothing better than wildflowers (especially if she can take a long walk and gather them herself), but an experienced Nursing Sister makes do.

Saturday, March 17th, and no sign of any buds out anywhere in these parts. I’ve got a plate of moss with a celandine plant in the middle, and a few sprouting twigs of honeysuckle that you generally find in January, and also a bluebell bulb in a jam tin…[2]

 

No, no, that’s not quite right either. Actually, many of our writers who are not yet engaged in combat are able to appreciate all that is traditional and right with the war. No need for winter or spring when chivalry abides! Any guesses whom Bob Hermon has just laid eyes on?

There’s been some wonderful air fights here today. There is a Hun who flies a bright scarlet machine & is real hot stuff. He seems to be a sort of star flyer & does most of the fighting. He is a real gallant fellow & we all admire him.[3]

The Red Baron himself.

 

But there is, of course, a ground war on. One of the reasons that Richtofen has been released to roam is that the German aircraft are getting their first crack at what will become a crucial task of tactical air power: covering the movement of infantry. Let’s step back two days (and south to the Somme) to see how the Guards are getting on with following up the German withdrawal:

Captain Alexander took our two forward companies… the German shelling was intense. They used 5.9’s and larger, as they were firing from a long way back. The trouble for the 2nd Irish Guards companies developed almost at once on their left, where their patrol was fired at by machine-guns from a German trench on the edge of the wood. Their own 1st Battalion, trying to push out of Sailly-Saillisel, was hung up, too — they heard and saw it — for the same reason. The Division could have driven through at the cost of fairly heavy casualties, but nothing was to be gained by wasting men in rushes on hidden machine-guns that can lay out thirty good lives in two minutes. The Scots Guards got on into the wood without much trouble at first, till they, too, ran on snipers between tree-stumps and up and down the defaced trenches, or opened some single machine-gun slinking from cover to cover. It was all slow “feeling,” with alternating advances at walking pace, and long checks — “something like drawing a gorse for wolves instead of foxes…”

As they worked their way more into St. Pierre Vaast Wood came the sensation, which there was no mistaking, that they were being played with by the Hun, and losing touch as he intended them to do. Certain vital trenches would be controlled by a few snipers and machine-guns; a sunk road offering shelter would be plastered with heavies, and a full company would be held in it, digging for more cover, by dead accurate long-range fire; while far and far behind the orderly German withdrawal of the main body continued in peace.

On the 17th March, for example, “we were never really in touch with the enemy’s rear-guard during the day except for one or two snipers…”

Which brings this narrative-of-a-period to today. But a little analysis of the general effectiveness of the German withdrawal is worth our while, too:

Here is the comment of the time and the place on our advance: “The German retreat was conducted very skilfully. One cannot say that we caused them to leave one position an hour before they intended. They inflicted upon us a considerable number of casualties (twenty in this battalion, while on our left the 1st Battalion lost considerably more). On the other hand, we saw no evidence that in the actual retirement we had even damaged one German. They left little or nothing behind.”

And the professional judgment is equally fair. “But of course it must be remembered that the task of the (German) regimental officers was an easy one, however difficult it may have been for the Staff. Given time, there is no difficulty in withdrawing battalions from trenches by night, for a few snipers and machine-gunners, knowing the ground, and retreating from trench to trench, can hang up an advance indefinitely unless the troops advancing have strong reserves and are prepared for heavy losses.”

This last was not our situation… things had to be done as cheaply as possible…

We are generally in sure hands when Rudyard Kipling takes up the military narrative–this is a work of memorial devotion, remember, and he suppresses his polemical opinions unless he feels that they are an echo of the those of the officer corps he is writing about. But we are in excellent hands when the worst of the war must be invoked on the scale of the battalion history–neither pointillistically subordinated to a grand narrative nor awash in the subjectivities of the personal.

The advance of the Second Irish Guards

…led them into a stale hell which had once been soil of France but was now beyond grace, hope, or redemption. Most of the larger trees in St. Pierre Vaast were cut down, and the smaller ones split by shell or tooth-brushed by machine-gun fire. The ground was bog, studded with a few island-like formations of fire-trench, unrevetted, unboarded, with little dug-outs ten or twelve feet deep, all wet and filthy. There were no regular latrines. Numberless steel helmets and heaps of stick-bombs lay about under foot. The garrisons must have been deadly uncomfortable, and there was good evidence that the enemy had economised men beyond anything that we dared. The ground had been cut to bits by our fire, and in one place yawned what had been a battery position wiped out, unseeing and unseen, weeks ago, as the dead teams round it testified. Very few booby-traps were left behind. The Battalion lost only five men in all through this cause.[4]

 

After several nights in No Man’s Land as patrols pushed into the old German lines, Charles Carrington too learned, today, how successful the German withdrawal had been:

This time, the morning of the 17th March, they really had gone. My captain went forward for orders and presently sent me back word to bring the company over the top, by daylight… to the German front line.

I cannot explain the consternation caused by this order. For two years no one had raised a hand over the parapet by daylight unless in the stress of battle and covered by an artillery barrage. Tired as we were… we were exhilarated. Open fighting had come…

It had not, of course, but Carrington remembers the high mood of the next few days as they pursued the Germans east toward the new line of defenses–which the British officers all knew of, of course, even if they could not realize its strength. There was the thrill of moving and of seeing cavalry units trotting about over open country. But this was not a victory:

The main German forces had gone when we moved forward, having burnt every house, blown up every church, public building and ancient monument, broken every bridge and culvert, mined every crossroads, polluted every well. They had carried away all the able-bodied men and women into captivity, leaving the old and feeble concentrated in one or two villages; and–which seemed to distress the French most–they had even found time to ring-bark the apple-trees in the cider orchards. The country was dead, laid waste with a destructive fervour worse than anything in the Thirty Years War… When we marched into Peronne… we saw a huge notice erected on the town hall: ‘NICHT ARGERN NUR WUNDERN’, ‘Don’t be angry, only wonder!’ Indeed it puzzled us a good deal. We were not angry but delighted that so large a region of France should be liberated and if we had any astonishment left it was at the ingenuities of German barbarity. What they had not destroyed they had defiled…

The sequel is not prettier, and it is a good deal bloodier than Kipling’s account of the Irish Guards:

On the first day we lost two officers from my mess, one shot by a German sniper when leading the advance guard, the other caught by a booby trap. In a German dugout he had sat down in a chair and had drawn it up to the table, thus igniting the fuse of a concealed bomb…[5]

 

So it goes. In the strangeness of this advance, many things are forgotten. What was missing from Kipling’s account of the Irish Guards today? (Other than deadly booby traps, which surely varied by location).

It says something about the English perspective of the officers that St. Patrick’s Day went unmentioned in the history of an Irish unit. Not so with the First Inniskillings, out of the line resting near Corbie after several days of following the German withdrawal, and counting among their number the poet Francis Ledwidge:

In the morning there was an issue of shamrock to all the Irishmen. The Australians, who happened to be going into action that day, also asked for shamrock and wore it in their caps. Most of the forenoon was taken-up with a church
parade…  In the afternoon, the Inniskilling fife and drum band played in the village to the great delight of the French children, who crowded around them. The men got up a concert for themselves in the afternoon. The officers went into Corbie, that night for dinner. The rations were greatly stepped up in honour of the feast and there was a good dinner too, in the mess, after which most of the men also went into town to sample the estaminets. These kept
open very late, as they did on Christmas Day. Despite the army concessions, however, commemorating their patron saint in such a setting inevitably made the Irishmen melancholy.[6]

 

And here’s a good example of why I hardly mention (or don’t cover at all, really) grand strategy and international affairs, despite their enormous influence on the war: their immediate effects are almost never felt by fighting soldiers. But here’s a strange example, in a tale told by the officer currently narrating in Dr. Dunn’s chronicle of the Second Royal Welch Fusiliers. He began a long-awaited leave today, a century back, taking a train to the coast and then a boat for England:

We had a fine crossing–to what? On debarking we were ordered to report at once to our local police, and be in readiness for any emergency.

Uniquely, the officers on leave found themselves marshaled to deal with expected unrest, as the government feared a rising in sympathy with the early stages of the Russian Revolution. There is sympathy, at first, in the officer’s voice–“the political air was sharpened” by privation and the wealth of war profiteers, by “the slaughter of the Somme.” And then much less sympathy: the conclusion, looking back from a later point in time, is that a wicked alliance of convenience has formed between armchair theorist liberals and trade unionists that will pressure the government into foolish concessions “to the serious hurt of the Army.”[7]

 

That is surely enough for today–unless you would prefer to close the day with Edward Thomas, in a quiet mood, writing a long letter to his wife Helen, and reflecting in relative tranquility on last night’s anxieties.

17 March 1917 Arras

Dearest

This has been quite a good day at the O.P. [Observation Post] and after a bad night of heavy shelling. The morning was bright and clear and all day long the sun shone and the sky has been pale and without a cloud. I have been drawing little panoramas.

Those I had done last time are more interesting now because the Old Hun has been destroying many of the buildings on the skyline. Tonight he is burning something away in that direction. The sky is lit up with two big glows beyond the crest. It hasn’t been tedious at all, and now we are installed in our dug out which hardly anything could penetrate. It is so small that if one moves the other five have to.

I am wondering if a letter has come for me at last. I think in any case I will keep this till I do hear, though Bronwen’s letter implied that there was nothing abnormal.

To cram this little room still more the men insisted on dragging in one of the box spring mattresses from the other place. They had to cut it to fit it in at all, and now three of us are sitting on it; we have a door up, a fire going, one candle alight and can only hear the rustle of a Daily Mail.

Now it is 11 p.m. I have to be awake till 12. Then I sleep until 6 unless I am wanted which I shall be unless the night is quite quiet. So far there has only been a distant roll now and then as I sat reading ‘Julius Ceasar’, warm in front because of the fire, cold behind because of a door leading up into the street.

I dreamt (almost for the first time since I left home) last night — a very feeble dream, that I was at home but did not stay to tea.

I don’t know who was there. I was a sort of visitor and I could not stay to tea. I think Baba asked if I wouldn’t stay to tea.

Every hour the telephonist tests the line to see if it is O.K. He has just done it and there is another hour to go before I begin to lie on those very bouncy springs…[8]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary (Childhood), 170.
  2. Unknown Warriors, 101.
  3. For Love and Courage, 338.
  4. The Irish Guards in the Great War, II, 120-1.
  5. Soldier From the Wars Returning, 138-42. Carrington, writing later, is careful--I think that's an appropriate qualification--to represent the innocence/confidence that still obtained, in his experience, in 1917, and only a few paragraphs after the booby traps he is making claims once again for the effectiveness (and gloriousness) of cavalry...
  6. Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 173-4.
  7. The War the Infantry Knew, 304-5.
  8. Letters to Helen, 84-7.

Siegfried Sassoon Between Loathing and Sacrifice; Rum Jars Aloft for Rowland Feilding; Edward Thomas is Shy Under Fire, or a Bored Dog in a Waiting Room; Henry Williamson is Safely Across; Tolkien to Yorkshire, and Hospital

Today, a century back, John Ronald Tolkien came before a medical board in Lichfield. He is still wracked by “pains in his legs and occasional fever,” and the board acknowledged these symptoms, declaring him unfit for even home service for two months and sending him to an officers’ convalescent hospital in Harrogate, Yorkshire, for the next month.[1]

 

Henry Williamson, meanwhile, is returning to the fray. When we read his departure letter, he was setting up a blazingly obvious code to inform his mother of his whereabouts. Today, a century back, we get a clue about why he might be confident in such transparent ruses: this letter, duly signed by the writer on its envelope, has also been approved by “Field Censor 828.” And the censor’s counter-signature? Well, it’s identical to the author’s…

208 M.G.Coy B.E.F. France. Tuesday 27 Feb ’17

Dear mother,

Just a line to let you know we had a safe crossing… I have seen Tanks: they are wonderful things…

By the time you get this I shall be round about the place where Charlie is now…

You ought to hear the artillery here: it is one continuous quaking and heaving of the earth, with blood red flashes always before one–always, always, always. My experiences with the LRB were nothing compared with this now. Must shut up now, as am very busy. Yours with love, Harry.[2]

Cousin Charlie Boon is nowhere, now–but his remains are buried near Beaumont Hamel. Williamson is our least reliable letter-writing narrator, but there could be no more typical observation from someone in his position (a good deal of experience in and just behind the line, but not since the huge buildups of the Somme) at this point in the war: the routine daily “hates” now exceed the intensity of bombardments that, in 1914, had seemed hellishly intense.

 

Although Siegfried Sassoon and Rowland Feilding still await us below, I want to first include a good chunk of a very long letter from Edward Thomas to his wife Helen. She is so often invisible in conversations (here, not least) about his mental and artistic mind, that it’s worth paying attention to how he unburdens himself to her.

This letter is long enough that it reminds us of something that is true of even the shortest note: that it is not so much evidence of a moment in time as a transcript of a short period during which a great deal–much, much more than can ever be recorded–goes on in a writer’s mind. Thomas loves his wife, but he has not always been open with her. It is, also, no simple thing to discuss depression, and danger, and the deep and inscrutable changes that war works on a personality, especially with someone who has suffered so much in the past from the shifting, jagged edges of his personality. But he tries, and in the letter’s changes of course and pausings for second efforts we can perhaps see more of this marriage (viewed from his side) than we have hitherto:

Diary observations covered at great length in this letter:

Arras | 27 February 1917

Dearest,

Only a word now. It is a fine sunny morning, but so was yesterday and they made full use of it. The guns here covered an infantry raid and you could not hear a word for over an hour. Then German prisoners began to arrive. Later on hostile shells began to arrive but they were hardly so alarming as they didn’t make anything like the same din. In the afternoon I had to go out to see if a certain position was visible to the enemy. This was the first time I was really under fire. About four shells burst 150 yards away, little ones–and then in the street fell a shower of machine gun bullets I confess I felt shy, but I went on with my field glass and compass as far as possible as if nothing had happened. This makes the heart beat but no more than if I were going to pay a call on a stranger.

This is not much different from yesterday’s letter to his friend Bottomley. Thomas is doing his best to preserve honesty without being unduly alarming.

I try to console myself by reflecting that you cannot escape either by running or by standing still. There is no safe place and consequently why worry? And I don’t worry. What did disturb me was an English 18 pounder firing when I had only gone 3 yards past the muzzle. They do that sort of thing. The order comes to fire and they fire, damn them. But I slept very well last night.

And that, briskly, is the record of a crucial, successful trial. Thomas has been tested by gunfire and found that he can handle it well, without any immediate crumbling of self-confidence or sanity. I really think that he had been fairly certain that he would weather the guns well enough, perhaps on the ironic assumption that a man who makes heavy weather of ordinary life may shrug off mortal peril better than men otherwise untested…

This morning is quiet again, though it is beautifully fine.

I haven’t settled to my fate here yet. I shall wait for a good opportunity of letting the Colonel know I want to get back. They are trying to drive an English plane back with shrapnel just overhead. It looks dangerous but neither the Huns nor we hit a plane once in 10,000 rounds, I believe. I’ve nothing to do this morning except try to settle a billeting question for 244…

They are a nice lot of officers here, better than 244’s, only I being temporary or uncertain I don’t get on as well as if I were going (for all I know) to remain. Still no thrushes singing here only chaffinches.

I’ve rather a rotten servant here, never has hot water, has a watch that is sometimes half an hour wrong, and never understands anything I say.

I have only once heard from Mother. Her parcel has not arrived. I wonder does she worry much. I I hope not.

You have had Eleanor there by this time and lost her too.

This wandering train of thoughts has taken an unfortunate series of switches: from his own domestic position, to servants, to mother, wife, and Eleanor Farjeon, the ever-helpful friend…  at this Thomas checks up, and makes an effort to assess his position.

But it becomes harder for me to think about things at home and somehow, although this life does not absorb me, I think, yet, I can’t think of anything else. I don’t hanker after anything I don’t miss anything. I am not even conscious of waiting. I am just quietly in exile, a sort of half or quarter man—at Romford I was half or three quarter man. Only sometimes I hear the things I really care for, far off as if at the end of a telephone. What I really should like is more hard physical exercise. I am rather often bored though and for fairly long periods. I am rather like a dog doing what it doesn’t want to do—as Belloc said of me years ago when I was going about with him on various errands of his before we could settle down to lunch together. The fact is it is a sort of interval in reality, a protracted railway waiting room. Yet of course not always merely that…

I have just walked up to 244 and found no one in but letters from you and Irene both written after she had been to see you. I don’t think I will write much more. I have just seen an English plane shot down and set afire by a German; another fell near here almost at the same time and also one yesterday. The machine gun bullets came down and cut a telephone wire close by. It has turned dull and chilly and I feel damnably like early spring. The pilot of the plane managed to right it soon and came down in a spiral, though flopping—I did not go to see his fate—he was well within our lines, so was the other.

He sounds tired, doesn’t he? Has he just seen a man die, or not? He’s not certain. It sounds like depression. Often Thomas plans his letters, or writes with the easy command of a man who has long written less-than-perfectly, but always cogently, and on a deadline. But not this letter–he once again piles into a blind alley that he should have seen coming. And when he gets going again it is easy to see the mental connection he omits. This war is going nowhere, fast, and their son will soon be old enough to fight.

I hope Mervyn will join an OTC. It could be a good thing in many ways. The war isn’t over yet even if the Germans are evacuating some dirty ground,[3] and Mervyn would be much more likely to get a commission if he had been to an OTC.

But I am depressed. Lots of food and too little exercise and spring. Tea will do me good and they will make some soon, if the others don’t come in.

We were sitting round the fire this evening talking about the way things are done in the Army, and I was saying we should suddenly have to signal (?) important orders to the batteries to fire instead of preparing them for probable targets—when in comes an urgent message ordering 244 and also another battery we know nothing about to open fire tomorrow. Good Lord, I hope we win the war. It will prove God is on our side…

All is well really.

All and always yours | Edwy[4]

 

Siegfried Sassoon, stuck in Rouen base camp with the measles, may have made an early foray into prose fiction, today.[5] It would be a bit too much to post the entire sketch “Reinforcements at Rouen”–the first of three sketches–but here is a telling excerpt. See if you can identify the protagonist:

Meanwhile this discerning young officer watched the crowd and tried to fit things together. He had loathed the business of coming out again, had talked wildly to his pacifist friends about the cruel imbecility of the war and the uselessness of going on with it. He came out with his  angry heart, resolved to hate the whole show, and write his hatred down in words of burning criticism and satire. Now he is losing all that; he has been drawn back into the Machine; he has no more need to worry. ‘Nothing matters now.’ He must trust to fate: the responsibility of life has been taken from him. He must just go on until something happens to him. And through his dull acquiescence in it all, he is conscious of the same spirit that brought him serenely through it last year; the feeling of sacrifice…

The man knows where he is going. There are two more sketches in the diary, but these likely date a few days hence–Sassoon did not always use the diary pages sequentially. Each will give rise to a very different poem, one a lacerating satire, the other a religious-romantic reverie…

 

Finally, Rowland Feilding, still unsure whether punishment awaits for permitting fraternization, once more reminds us that there is a war going on. He is diligent, and evidently concerned to prove that my decision to give “trench mortars” their own “tag” was a sound one.

February 27, 1917. Curragh Camp (Locre).

I have written to you much of the staying powers of the men—how they have stood night after night and day after
day in the wettest or most Arctic weather, behind these flimsy breastworks. You cannot dig trenches in this locality because you get drowned out. So you bank up sandbags and stand behind them. And the enemy flattens these every day or two with his “rum-jars” ; and we do the same to his.

“Rum-jar” is the soldiers’ name for the German canister which is their simplest form of heavy trench-mortar bomb. Picture a cylindrical oil-drum, 15 inches long and about 11 inches in diameter, flat at both ends, and filled with high explosive. That is the “rum-jar.” In the dark if you spot it coming, you can just distinguish it in the air, by the fizzling of the fuse.

But it arrives silently, and is not easy to detect, till it lands with a mighty bang. I once spoke slightingly of these things, but I spoke foolishly. It is true that, as a rule, they do little if any damage, because the effect is very local;  but if one happens to hit a man or a collection of men it blows them to bits. And these things come in hundreds, and are a perpetual menace to the men in the front line, day and night, often for four days and nights together, and more.

The material effect, as I have said, is small, but the constant stress is tiring to the morale, as it is intended to be, and, added to the other strains of trench life—the artillery strafes and the mines and other horrors which the poor infantry have to undergo, is very tiring to them. Yet, through it all, they stand, frozen and half-paralysed by the cold and wet, with no individual power of retaliation beyond the rifle which each man carries, and which is about as much use against the weapons by which he is tormented as a pop-gun.[6]

Feilding closes with two light amusements, tales of the disconnect between fighting units and their generals that are more in the nature of drawing room comedy than deadly and barely-concealed opposition. In one, a deserving sergeant gets a made-up citation and his officers get caught out; in another, a brigadier reconciles himself to his lot in life. But this has been a long day, and Feilding’s book is well worth seeking out…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Chronology, 99.
  2. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 88.
  3. See the note two days back on the withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line.
  4. Selected Letters, 141-44.
  5. I originally assumed that he had, based on the way the diary was subsequently published--but working a head a few days it became clear that some of or even all of these experiences may date to next Sunday, a century back...
  6. War Letters to a Wife, 159-60.

Christmas in Belgium with Rowland Feilding and Edmund Blunden; in France with Phillip Maddison and Richard Aldington and Kipling’s Irish Guards; Frederic Manning Returns; David Jones Reflects on the Year; Christmas Day with Edward Thomas and Family

Christmas is a busy day, here: not only is it a major holiday whose traditionally-associated sentiments take on heavy overtones in wartime, but the shadow of the first year’s Christmas truce will continue to cast a shadow either hopeful, dismal, or bitterly ironic over any thoughts of peace or Christian fellowship. Also, it’s a major holiday with a fixed date, so everyone remembers where they were, and my cup runneth over. We’ll work our way back from the front, more or less, beginning in the front-line trenches of the Salient and ending with the Thomas family, in Essex.

 

First, then, is Rowland Feilding: whose activities today–as a commanding officer, a host, a listener at a thunderous Christmas concert, an officer in a devoutly Catholic regiment, and an English gentleman with time and a gun on his hands–pretty much run the gamut:

Christmas Day, 1916.

Facing Messines— Wytschaete Ridge (Cooker Farm).

…Though this is Christmas Day, things have not been as quiet as they might have been, and though we have not suffered, I fancy the battalion on our right has done so to some extent. In fact, as I passed along their fire-trench, I saw them at work, digging out some poor fellows who had been buried by a trench-mortar bomb.

This evening since dark, for a couple of hours, the Germans have been bombarding some place behind us with
heavy shells. The battery from which the fire is coming is so far away that I cannot even faintly hear the report of the guns while I am in the open trench, though, from the dug-out from which I now write, I can just distinguish it,
transmitted through the medium of the ground. I hear the shells at a great altitude overhead rushing through the air. The sound of each continues for nearly a minute, the noise increasing to its maximum, then dying away, till I hear the dull muffled thud of the burst some miles behind our line. The shells are passing over at the rate of more
than one a minute.

This morning I was first visited by the Brigadier, who went on to wish the men in the fire-trench “as happy a
Christmas as possible under the circumstances.” Then the Divisional Commander came, accompanied by his A.D.C., who was carrying round the General’s visiting book for signature. This contained many interesting names. I
also had several other visitors.

When I had finished with my callers I went out with my little 45 gun to see if I could kill a pheasant. I got one, which we had for lunch. My servant Glover acts keeper on these occasions. I need scarcely say that I cannot spare time for shooting pheasants, and to-day was my first attempt, but the other officers go out, especially one—a stout Dublin lawyer in private life—who is a very good shot. He went out yesterday, and before starting consulted Glover, who at once brightened up, and said: “If you want a couple of birds for your Christmas dinner, sir, I can put you on to a certainty, if you don’t get shot yourself.” He took him and they got two. To-day, Glover took me to the same place:—but it turned out to be no spot to linger in:—a medley of unhealthily new shell-holes, under full view of the Germans. Certainly a good place for pheasants: but imagine what correspondence and courts-martial there would be if a casualty took place under such circumstances, and it became known!

I have now put that locality out of bounds, pheasants or no pheasants.

The Chaplain came up and said Mass for the men this morning. I was prevented from going at the last moment by the Divisional Commander’s visit, but it must have been an impressive sight. . The men manning the fire-trench of course could not attend, but it was not a case of driving the rest;—rather indeed of keeping them away. The intensity of their religion is something quite remarkable, and I had under-estimated it.

The service was held in the open—not more than 500 yards from the German line, in a depression in the ground
below the skeleton buildings known as Shamus Farm. Though the place is concealed from the enemy by an intervening ridge, promiscuous bits do come over, and I debated within my mind for some time whether to allow it. In the end, expecting perhaps a hundred men, I consented. But though, like most soldiers, and many others, they will shirk fatigues if they get the chance, these men will not shirk what they consider to be their religious duties, and about 300 turned up.

However, with the exception of a German shrapnel which burst harmlessly about a hundred yards away during the service, all went well…

In the evening I went round and wished the men—scarcely a Merry Christmas, but good luck in the New Year, and may they never have to spend another Christmas in the front line! This meant much repetition on my part, passing from one fire-bay to another, but I was amply rewarded. It is a treat to hear these men open out, and their manners are always perfect…

They are all going to have their Christmas dinner on the 30th, after we get out.[1]

 

From Edmund Blunden, whose battalion is in reserve rather than the front line, we get two accounts of the day’s festivities. The first, from a letter to his mother, radiates bluff good cheer:

We had Church on Christmas morning and dealt with the usual hymns in the best style. The Swains’ Vigil, or While Shepherds Watched, was favourably received–especially at the back part of the room. After prayers we had supper for the rest of the day–truly Gargantuan scenes were witnessed.[2]

And the second, worked over for memoir, well… it has basically the same facts and much the same spirit:

To our pleasure, we were back in a camp in the woods by Elverdinghe to celebrate Christmas. The snow was crystal-clean, the trees filigreed and golden. It was a place that retained its boorish loneliness though hundreds were there: it had the suggestion of Teniers. Harrison’s Christmas was appreciated by his followers perhaps more than by himself. He held a Church Parade and, while officiating, reading a Lesson or so, was interrupted by the band, which somehow mistook its cue. The Colonel is thought to have said: “Hold your b——- noise ” on this contretemps, which did not damp the ardour of the congregation, especially the back part of the room, as they thundered out “While Shepherds Watched.” After prayers we had supper for the rest of the day, and the Colonel visited all the men at their Christmas dinner. At each hut he was required by tradition to perfect the joy of his stalwarts by drinking some specially and cunningly provided liquid, varying with each company, and “in a mug.” He got round, but it was almost as much as intrepidity could accomplish.[3]

 

Neither of these witnesses has much to say about the food, good or bad. But in fiction, as in our recent reports from the home front, it remains a prominent theme.

In Richard Aldington‘s absolutely-no-spoilers-in-the-title novel, the protagonist, Winterbourne, has just reached France–in lockstep with his creator, as often happens in these first-war-novels. It will be hard to track Winterbourne’s progress once he (and Aldington) begin the enlisted man’s slog in and out of the line, in which days and dates are rarely remembered. But today, well…

They passed Christmas Day at the Base. The English newspapers, which they easily obtained a day or two late, were filled with glowing accounts of the efforts and expense made to give the troops a real hearty Christmas dinner. The men had looked forward to this. They ate their meals in huts which were decorated with holly for the occasion. The Christmas dinner turned out to be stewed bully beef and about two square inches of cold Christmas pudding per man. The other men in Winterbourne’s tent were furious. Their perpetual grumbling annoyed him and he attacked them:

‘Why fuss so much over a little charity? Why let them salve their consciences so easily? In any case, they probably meant well. Can’t you see that drafts at the Base are nobody’s children? The stuff’s gone to the men in the line, who deserve it far more than we do. We haven’t done anything yet. Or it’s been embezzled. Anyway, what does it matter? You didn’t join the Army for a bit of pudding and a Christmas cracker, did you?’

They were silent, unable to understand his contempt. Of course, he was unjust. They were simply grown children, angry at being defrauded of a promised treat. They could not understand his deeper rage. Any more than they could have understood his emotion each night when ‘Last Post’ was blown. The bugler was an artist and produced the most wonderful effect of melancholy as he blew the call–which in the Army serves for sleep and death–over the immense silent camp. Forty thousand men lying down to sleep–and in six months how many would be alive? The bugler seemed to know it, and prolonged the shrill, melancholy notes–‘last post! last post!’–with an extraordinary effect of pathos. ‘Last post! Last post!’ Winterbourne listened for it each night. Sometimes the melancholy was almost soothing, sometimes it was intolerable…[4]

 

Speaking of fictional protagonists, Phillip Maddison is back in France. While his alter ego, Henry Williamson, remains in England, Phillip’s training as a transport officer with a Machine Gun Company (supplying this quintessentially 20th-century weapon with ammunition requires a great deal of timeless expertise with mules) has been completed, and he was in the line on the Ancre by mid-December. Williamson then writes up this fete:

The company came out of the line on Christmas Eve, reaching Colincamps in the small hours of Christmas Day. There had been talk of an extra special Christmas dinner for the men; really good rations were to be issued this year, said the A.S.C., with a surprise for each man. The good ration turned out to be frozen pork and dried vegetables. These, boiled up together, were followed by a small slice of gritty Christmas pudding, and then the surprise–a ration cracker bonbon for each man, containing a paper cap.

Thus 1916 closes, at least in this novel–cold, gritty, and mean. (Aldington would do the same, but his story is too close to the beginning. There is innocence yet, with Winterbourne utterly acquainted with the line and therefore still amenable to romantic notions such as melancholy, or the indulgent belief that his “deeper” rage is really any different from that of his less sensitive comrades…)

But Williamson rarely misses a chance for symbolic site-citing, so Phillip Maddison takes one more ride on the Somme front.

In the afternoon Phillip rode down to Albert. The leaning Virgin upon the Campanile of the ruined red-brick basilica brought many memories… and helped him to see life clearly against a background of death. But O, how lonely was life after all…

It goes downhill from here. (Metaphorically. If the ground sloped down east of Albert things would have gone differently.) Phillip rides out to the Old Front Line of July 1st (when he was wounded–in reality, Williamson missed the battle of the Somme) and then heads up Mash Valley, amongst the relics.

A brass buckle; fragment of leather; skull with curls matted upon it… everywhere the dead merged with the ground… he was lost, helplessly, in chalky waste… Was this litter of burst and broken sandbags, collapsed and spilled, the trench where he had clambered out on that summer morning? This the wicker pigeon cage carried by Pimm, lying near a scatter of ribs, and, immediately by the handle, a cluster of tiny white finger and knuckle bones? … Was that his pelvis bone, in which three small coins, a franc and two 10-centime pieces, had been embedded by the shell explosion?. He felt the scar in his buttock tingling as he stood beside what was left of Pimm; and closing his eyes, gave the emptiness of himself to prayer…

Anguish rose in him… His mother’s face came to him, while he thought that the spirit of a million unhappy homes and found its final devastation in this land of the loveless. He went back the way he had come…[5]

 

Rarely does Henry Williamson fall into line with Rudyard Kipling. And yet today they are almost of a mood. Kipling, in his role as Official Chronicler of the Second Battalion Irish Guards, reports on the Christmas festivities with the grim frankness of an old soldier rather than the lofty perspective of a Bard of Empire.

Whether this was the vilest of all their War Christmases for the Battalion is an open question. There was nothing to do except put out chilly wire and carry stuff. A couple of men were killed that day and one wounded by shells, and another laying sand-bags round the shaft of a dug-out tripped on a telephone wire, fell down the shaft and broke his neck. Accidents in the front line always carry more weight than any three legitimate casualties, for the absurd, but quite comprehensible, reason that they might have happened in civilian life — are outrages, as it were, by the Domestic Fates instead of by the God of War.

This would be a decidedly unmiraculous Christmas, then. But the peripatetic following paragraph goes a long way toward recovering the diversity of experience of even one day on one sector of the front.

The growing quiet on the sector for days past had led people to expect attempts at fraternization on Christmas. Two “short but very severe bombardments ” by our Artillery on Christmas morning cauterized that idea; but a Hun officer, with the methodical stupidity of his breed, needs must choose the top of his own front-line parapet on Christmas Day whence to sketch our trench, thus combining religious principles with reconnaissance, and — a single stiff figure exposed from head to foot — was shot. So passed Christmas of ’16 for the 2nd Battalion of the Irish Guards. It had opened with Captain Young of No. 1 Company finding, when he woke in his dug-out, “a stocking stuffed with sweets and the like, a present from the N.C.O.’s and the men of his Company.”[6]

 

Back in London, another novelist of combat, Frederic Manning, is going in the opposite direction as Aldington. Like his protagonist, Bourne, he is a lance-corporal who has been recommended for a commission. Unlike Bourne, he is alive; he is also concealing a checkered past, including a blown first chance at a commission.

On Christmas day 1916 Manning, now a lance corporal, arrived in London on leave. He had applied for a commission in November and was awaiting orders to go to an Officers Cadet Battalion. It was in this application that he had altered his age and his religion. He also stated that he had “now outgrown the asthma” which had afflicted him as a youth. This too was untrue…  Included in Manning’s application was an affidavit from his mother agreeing to the false birth date and stating (wrongly) that “although my son was born in Australia he has been living in England for the past 18 years’’…

But he’s an educated man, who finished a long stint as a private and corporal without dishonor. An officer he will be…[7]

 

Penultimately, we have a letter from David Jones, who will become the author of the formidable In Parenthesis but has not yet found anything like that complex, intense, bewildering voice. Looking back on 1916, he is at once a veteran infantryman, with a wound and Mametz Wood behind him, and a very young man writing a self-consciously old-soldiery letter (to his vicar, although it will later be edited by his father and published).

This Christmas 1916 completed my first year of ‘life in Flanders’. A year ago I was just beginning to enter into the full realization of what war means to the ‘foot-slogger’–the common-place private of the infantry of the Line. The beginning of 1916 was, I think, a time of hope and looking forward to all of us, military and civil–both in Flanders and Britain. We all talked with great confidence and enthusiasm of the ‘Great Push’. We thought, at least most of us, that most likely 1916 would see the triumph of the Entente over the war lords of Odin. I remember quite well sitting in a very wet and particularly bad trench in the noted Richebourg sector with a chum. We were both very cold and very wet; our rations, such as they were, had unfortunately been dropped into the mud in the communication trench, so that, on the whole, the situation was far from what the official report would call ‘satisfactory’. After reviewing the situation with as much philosophy and as little pessimism as was possible, we both decided that the war could not possibly last another winter…

Ah, but are we downhearted?

Nearly a year has rolled by… although the Bosch [sic] is very far from being completely smashed, we have shown him in every way that he is, as a Tommy would say, ‘up against it’…

Jones then wanders into descriptions of behind-the-lines life, going for the comfortable genre-painting picture (see Blunden’s reference to Teniers, above) of British bonhomie in snug billets… it is almost as if he has forgotten the worst. But he hasn’t… he’s just not that writer yet…

Well of course one could go on writing for ever about life out here, but I think I must really finish here for the present. Give my kindest regards to everybody whom I know. Like yourselves at home, we have to live in hope that 1917 may see the end of the struggle–but of course to discuss the ‘duration of the war’ is worse than futile. So au revoir.

Yours very sincerely,

David Jones[8]

 

Rarely is there a good opportunity to get a child’s perspective on the war. But today we have the memories of Myfanwy Thomas–“Baba,” to friends and family–written down long after. Baba is six, this Christmas, the morning after her father, Edward Thomas, unexpectedly came home.

An almost unbearable suspense and excitement–should I ever get to sleep that Christmas Eve? Because if Father Christmas found me awake, there would be an empty stocking. Sleep must have come, for I awoke in the white darkness of the early morning and crept from the cosy warmth to the foot of the bed to feel the glorious bulging stocking hanging there, with a trumpet lolling over the top. Daddy was already downstairs, greatcoat over pyjamas, brewing tea; and when he carried up the tray of steaming cups, Bronwen, Merfyn and I all squeezed into their big bed to open our treasures. Stockings never had the proper presents in them, but exciting little oddments, all done up in crisp tissue paper, a painting book, crayons, bags of sweets, white sugar mice with pink eyes and string tails, a Russian lady of bright painted wood, containing a smaller and she a smaller still until there were five Russian ladies and one tiny Russian baby at the end…  Merfyn’s stocking had… a mouth organ. Besides the mouth organ was an assortment of BDV cigarettes with their beautiful silk ‘cards’, shaving soap, a comb for his springy-curls, which I so much envied and loved to brush, and to see the curls spring back again. Bronwen’s stocking had delicious grownup things like tiny bottles of scent, emery boards for her nails, sketch pad and Venus pencils, hair ribbons and lacey hankie. This year Merfyn immediately played ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary’ and ‘When Irish eyes are smiling’. I still had a doll’s tiny feeding bottle to unwrap, and a grey clockwork mouse which Daddy wound up. Mother, and we girls obligingly screamed as it scurried over the floor. Second cups of tea were brought and then we dressed hurriedly and ate a quick breakfast, for there on chairs and stools were our five piles of ‘proper’ presents in their brown paper or Christmas wrappings. Mother had dressed me a doll and had made several outfits, including a schoolgirl’s with gym tunic, white blouse and tie. I hastily admired the tiny trousseau, undid the buttons and fastenings, and dressed the doll in an old baby dress of mine. Wrapping her up in a grubby shawl, I tucked her up in the doll’s bed which I found inside another parcel.

In a huge parcel of presents beautifully wrapped in pretty paper and with tinselled ribbon, Eleanor Farjeon had sent Edward a large box of crystallized fruits, for he had an insatiable sweet tooth; but alas, they all–pears, apricots, greengages and cherries–tasted strongly of varnish…  Bronwen crouched over the fire, crunching nuts and reading Girl of the Limberlost. While I was helping Mother to lay the tea in the kitchen, with crackers by each plate, there was a sudden quiet in the little parlour and when it was time to call the others to tea, there was a Christmas tree, its coloured candles lit, and decorated with the most wonderful things I had ever seen: tinsel and spun glass ornaments glittering in the candle-light, and at the top a beautiful fairy, sparkling and smiling and waving her wand. What a Christmas! Never before had I seen a Christmas tree. Merfyn had dug it up from the forest some days before, and it had been carefully hidden in the wood-shed.

After I had been allowed to blow out the red, green and white stubs of the candles, and the lamp was lit in the sitting room, the fire made up with wood collected from the forest, the family contentedly reading, crunching nuts or peeling oranges…  Mother read me several poems from The Golden Staircase, the fat anthology given to me by my father; and then I sat on his knee while he sang my favourite Welsh song, ‘Gweneth gwyn’, and romping ones he had sung in camp and which were easy to learn. Now I stood on a chair by the window, the curtains not yet drawn, feeling the magic of Christmas, my father’s large, strong hand on my shoulder, looking out into the white, still forest, straining with my short-sighted eyes behind the small spectacles, hoping to see perhaps the deer with antlered heads and pricked ears, and whispering ‘Shall we see any? Are they out there? Are they cold and frightened? I wish I could see some,’ or even just one. ’ The cosy lamplight, the rising flames of the fire, my father’s hand: safe, warm and content…[9]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 136-9.
  2. Webb, Edmund Blunden, 69.
  3. Undertones of War, 132.
  4. Death of a Hero, 236-7.
  5. Love and the Loveless, 103-4.
  6. The Irish Guards in the Great War, II, 108-9.
  7. Marwil, Frederic Manning, 177; see also Coleman, The Last Exquisite, 126.
  8. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 141-4.
  9. Under Storm's Wing, 292-5.

A Comedy of Flares and Scrounging for Sidney Rogerson; Saki Falls In; Manning’s Bourne and the Westshires March for the Front; Isaac Rosenberg’s Timely Poem of Destructive Hoards

Today, a century back, is the second in front-line trenches for Sidney Rogerson and the 2nd West Yorkshires, and it begins with a jolt. Yesterday ended, more or less, with the late night arrival–with, once again, only two casualties–of the ration party.

With the day’s duties successfully accomplished and the enemy contenting himself with shelling of a desultory nature and mostly directed far away in rear, I curled myself up on the trench floor and was soon off to sleep. Hardly had my senses left me than I was up and on edge in a second! Shells had begun to fall more quickly all around us! Then, with  a whoosh of metal overhead, down came the barrage! Explosions whirled, stamped and pounded the tortured ground; the splitting hiss and band of the field guns screaming above the deep, earth-shaking thud! thud! of the heavies until they blended into the one steady pandemonium of drumfire. The trenches rocked and trebled, while their garrisons, blinded by the flashes, choked by the acrid fumes, pressed themselves tight to the sodden walls as the avalanche of metal roared above and all around them.

Out of the smoke along the trench emerged a runner, crouching low. “Front line–Verey lights–urgent!”

Amidst the barrage, a grim sort of comedy. The Verey lights–flares that can be used to communicate with the artillery–can’t be found. But a box of abandoned German flares turns up.

“Are you sure they are the white ones?” I roared back across the din. “Yes sir…”

The flares are sent with the runner back up the perilous hundred yards to the front trench. Rogerson, convinced that the German barrage is the prelude to an assault on his isolated position, readies his men.

Suddenly, from about the position of Fall Trench, over the brow there was a hiss, and up flew a rocket. Horror of horrors! It burst with a rosy glow and hung, a ball of claret light, over our line! Before it had died a second went up, bursting this time into golden rain. That German box of lights had been a mixed lot for signal purposes! But what had we done? Whatever request to the enemy had we in our extremity sent up? For a few breathless minutes we waited, momentarily expecting the barrage to be shortened and fall on our unlucky heads.

Instead, just as a thunder-shower abruptly ends, so the shelling on the instant died away, as suddenly as it had begun… after much fruitless conjecture over the first claret affair, we decide that he golden rain rocket must mean “Lengthen range: we are here…”

It turns out that this guess is correct. A very lucky accident indeed. Forgotten amidst the barrage is Robinson, the NCO who had gone scrounging. He returns safely, but only after spending a “smelly half-hour in the same shell-hole with ‘two dead Jerries,’ getting lost, and almost walking into the German lines.”

But once again, all of this midnight activity is only the beginning of Rogerson’s long day. After a few hours’ sleep, followed by the dawn ritual of stand-to, the day proves to be so foggy that they can move about in the open for the first time, and survey their circumstances.

Between the trenches, we found, were only enemy dead, here a field-grey arm poked out of a shell-hole, there a heavy boot, here a man lay, head on crooked arm, as if asleep; there the remains of three or four littered the crater made by the shell that killed them. Beside the communication trench a huge German lay sprawled on his back, arms and legs splayed starfish-like, sightless eyes gazing perplexedly heavenward…

A scrounging soldier presents his officer with a small piccolo taken from this corpse’s pocket. Soon afterwards, they jump back into the trench upon receiving word that the colonel is soon to arrive, in company with the brigadier. While Rogerson does not hesitate to criticize the out-of-touch staff, he is equally careful here to praise the colonel, the commanding officer of their battalion, whose daily tour of his forward positions involves at least four hours of “strenuous walking.” Some memoir-writers claim never to have seen a brigadier in a forward trench; but Rogerson’s Brigadier-General Fagan was there, today, a century back. The colonel’s praise of their efforts at trench improvement prompts a reflection on esprit de corps, and how many men will be able to look back fondly on the war as a time during which, despite the horror and the hardships, they belonged to a group that looked after all its members and took pride in its accomplishments:

In spite of all differences in rank, we were comrades, brothers, dwelling together in unity. We were privileged to see in each other that inner, ennobled self which is in the grim, commercial struggle of peace-time is all too frequently atrophied…

The rest of the day involves continuous movement punctuated by meals. A tour of the trenches, breakfast a tour of older German positions nearby; lunch. Then a paean to tea, then evening stand-to. Trench routine indeed: Corporal Robinson once again requests permission, at dusk, to go out “scrounging.” It is once again denied in such a way as to allow it. As night comes on, a runner comes up with orders: there will be a dummy attack tomorrow, on their front, at 5:45. But this must mean that the attack, elsewhere, will be real…[1]

 

Further to the north, the 22nd Royal Fusiliers assemble to support this attack. Lance-Sergeant Hector Munro is back among them, though he is not yet entirely recovered from his bout with malaria.[2] Also nearby were Frederic Manning and the 7th King’s Shropshire Light Infantry, and thus Bourne, Shem, and Martlow of the “Westshires.” One of The Middle Parts of Fortune‘s many representative subordinate characters–Miller, the profligate coward, the canny, several-time deserter-on-the-eve-of-action–comes to the fore today.

And the next day was the same, in all outward seeming. They got their tea, they washed, shaved, and had their breakfast, smoked, and fell in on parade, in the ordinary course of routine. The extra weight they were carrying was marked, but the overcoat worn banderole had been washed-out, a rumour among the men being that the colonel had sent a man up to Brigade, equipped as they had ordered, to show the absurdity of it. As he arrived in front of A Company’s huts, Bourne, Shem and Martlow found groups of men talking among themselves.

“What’s up?” he asked. “Miller. ‘E’s ‘opped it, again. I knew the bugger would. ‘E’s a bloody German spy, that’s what ‘e is. They should ‘ave shot the bugger when they ‘ad ‘im! One o’ them fuckin’ square’eads, an’ they let ‘im off!”

There was an extraordinary exultation in their anger; as they spoke, a fierce contemptuous laughter mingled with speech.

“Yes, they let a bloody twat like ‘im off; but if any o’ us poor fuckers did it, we’d be for th’ electric chair, we would. We’ve done our bit, we ‘ave; but it wouldn’t make any differ to us’ns.”

The angry, bitter words were tossed about from one to another in derision…

So the insider who squandered the value of corporate identity, who couldn’t hack it, who was forced into self-exile, has defaulted once again. If he is found he will likely be shot.

But that doesn’t matter. What matters, I think, is that the man who failed, the coward who ran, helps to bind the others to the group they are in, the implicit decision they have made to face battle, together, rather than save themselves, for the moment and become outcasts (and risk being executed by their own army). Miller’s work, then, is done.

The men fell in; and Captain Marsden, with Mr Sothern and Mr Finch, came on parade. The final inspection was a very careful one. Bourne noticed that Marsden, who often spoke with a dry humour, restricted himself to a minimum of words. He saw that one of Bourne’s pouches didn’t fasten properly, the catch being defective. He tried it himself, and then tried the clipped cartridges inside, satisfying himself apparently that they fitted into the pouch so tightly that they would not fall out until one clip had been removed. Anyway he ignored it, and loosening Bourne’s water-bottle, shook it to see if it were full. Bourne stood like a dummy while this was going on, and all the time Captain Marsden looked at him closely, as though he were trying to look into his mind. It angered Bourne, but he kept his face as rigid as stone: in fact his only emotion now was a kind of stony anger. Some of the men had forgotten to fill their bottles, and were told what bloody nuisances they were. Eventually it was over, and they went off to their huts for what little time was left to them. One had a vague feeling that one was going away, without any notion of returning. One had finished with the place, and did not regret it; but a curious instability of mind accompanied the last moments: with a sense of actual relief that the inexorable hour was approaching, there was a growing anger becoming so intense that it seemed the heart would scarcely hold it. The skin seemed shinier and tighter on men’s faces, and eyes burned with a hard brightness under the brims of their helmets. One felt every question as an interruption of some absorbing business of the mind. Occasionally Martlow would look up at Shem or Bourne as though he were about to speak, and then turn away in silence.

“We three had better try and keep together,” said Shem evenly. “Yes,” answered the other two, as though they engaged themselves quietly.

And then, one by one, they realised that each must go alone, and that each of them already was alone with himself, helping the others perhaps, but looking at them with strange eyes, while the world became unreal and empty, and they moved in a mystery, where no help was.

“Fall in on the road!”

With a sigh of relinquishment, they took up their rifles and obeyed, sliding from the field into the road, which was about five feet lower, down a bank in which narrow steps had once been cut, though rain and many feet had obliterated them. The details crowded there, to see them go. They fell in, numbered off, formed fours, formed two deep, and stood at ease, waiting, all within a few moments. A few yards on either side, the men became shadows in the mist. Presently they stood to attention again, and the colonel passed along the ranks; and this time Bourne looked at him, looked into his eyes, not merely through and beyond him; and the severity of that clear-cut face seemed today to have something cheerful and kindly in it, without ceasing to be inscrutable. His grey horse had been led down the road a few minutes before, and presently the high clear voice rang through the mist. Then came the voices of the company commanders, one after the other, and the quick stamping as the men obeyed, the rustle as they turned; and their own turn came, the quick stamps, the swing half-right, and then something like a rippling murmur of movement, and the slurred rhythm of their trampling feet, seeming to beat out the seconds of time, while the liquid mud sucked and sucked at their boots, and they dropped into that swinging stride without speaking; and the houses of Bus slid away on either side, and the mist wavered and trembled about them in little eddies, and earth, and life, and time, were as if they had never been.[3]

 

We must keep our attention fixed on the Somme, this week, so I will omit a letter from Edward Thomas to Eleanor Farjeon thanking her for her work on “The Trumpet.” But a very different sort of poet, Isaac Rosenberg, also on the Somme front (though safe in a salvage battalion), got a poem in the mail today to Gordon Bottomley, a member of Thomas’s circle and now an important mentor to Rosenberg. Rosenberg is a strange and wonderful poet, and no one else has quite his knack (although David Jones will approach similar ground from another angle) of putting the current conflict in a biblical frame.

And, thus framed, ancient and eternal warfare seem a fitting backdrop to the latest and last of the Somme.

We are now on a long march & have done a good deal towards flattening the roads of France. I wrote a little thing yesterday which still needs working on.[4]

 

The Destruction Of Jerusalem By The Babylonian Hordes

They left their Babylon bare
Of all its tall men,
Of all its proud horses;
They made for Lebanon.

And shadowy sowers went
Before their spears to sow
The fruit whose taste is ash,
For Judah’s soul to know.

They who bowed to the Bull god,
Whose wings roofed Babylon,
In endless hosts darkened
The bright-heavened Lebanon.

They washed their grime in pools
Where laughing girls forgot
The wiles they used for Solomon.
Sweet laughter, remembered not !

Sweet laughter charred in the flame
That clutched the cloud and earth,
While Solomon’s towers crashed between
To a gird of Babylon’s mirth.

References and Footnotes

  1. Twelve Days on the Somme, 51-75.
  2. Languth, Saki, 276.
  3. The Middle Parts of Fortune, 208-10.
  4. Liddiard, Poetry Out of My Head and Heart, 85.