Frank Richards and Doctor Dunn on a Day of Battle for the Royal Welch: Desperate Measures under the Rockets’ Glare; Phillip Maddison Finds Balance; Ivor Gurney Overjoyed, Isaac Rosenberg to Return

The Second Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers is currently bereft of famous poet officers–Siegfried Sassoon is in Scotland while Robert Graves is with the depot in Wales–but two of their acquaintances are very much with the Regiment today, a century back, in one of its worst days in the Salient. It is a day of combat, and crisis, and an unusual confusion of roles. Dr. Dunn, we must remember, is both currently the battalion medical officer and subsequently the chief chronicler–but he has not been a fighting soldier for many years.

At the risk of aggravating Dunn, we’ll let Graves introduce the day’s story, even though it is not quite standard historical procedure to begin with hearsay before examining the eyewitness account. Ironically, however, Graves’s more dramatic rendering–based on reports he will get later from other members of the battalion–is probably more plainly true than the doctor’s account. Graves might self-aggrandize and take liberties with local truths, but he seems intent on giving the characters of the Regiment their due–especially when they themselves fail in to sing their own deeds quite loudly enough.

Doctor Dunn was what they call a hard-bitten man; he had served as a trooper in the South African War and won the D.C.M. He was far more than a doctor; living at battalion headquarters he became the right-hand man of three or four colonels in succession. When his advice was not taken this was usually afterwards regretted. On one occasion, in the autumn fighting of 1917, a shell burst among the headquarters staff, knocking out adjutant, colonel, and signals officer. Dunn had no hesitation in pulling off the red-cross armlets that he wore in a battle and becoming a temporary combatant officer of the Royal Welch, resigning his duties to the stretcher-bearer sergeant. He took command and kept things going. The men were rather afraid of him, but had more respect for him than for anyone else in the battalion.[1]

Today, a century back, would be that occasion. The 2/R.W.F. were in support of the second day’s push (of this new phase of Third Ypres, that is), and spent the early morning waiting as the battle raged to their east. It is only after they receive their orders, around 8.15, to attack at noon that we learn just how things are with the battalion. This is the collective account narrated by Dunn, now:

Poore called a conference of Company Commanders; the C.O. had gone on leave when we came out of rest. C and D companies were under their own commanders, Radford and Coster; but owing to leave, Battle Surplus, and the inexperience of subalterns, Moldy Williams had been transferred from C to B, and Hywel Evans from B to A., both only the previous day.[2] A shortage of maps caused some confusion to begin with…

A simplified battle plan is hammered out, and the battalion was soon marching over the Menin Road. Dunn, at this point following the battalion and tending to the wounded, saw a man desert for the rear, and noted that he was later arrested (whether he was shot for desertion is not made clear). This lone incident does more than a lengthy situation report to remind us just how hopeless and terrifying it would have felt to march over the shattered German defenses.. and toward the deep lines of still-intact German defenses…

Nevertheless, the battalion eventually reached its starting point “without serious loss.” But as they were forming up–without artillery support or a sure sense of where the enemy was–they came under machine gun fire. To some degree, their progress to this point is evidence of the success of the “Bite and Hold” tactics: it is the second or third day of an offensive, reinforcements are getting nearly intact nearly to their starting points, and the counter-attacks are not in the ascendancy.

But this is still the salient, with German artillery on three sides and German machine guns in hardened pillboxes nearly everywhere. Two officers, including Coster, were soon killed. Their maps proved to be incomplete. With McMaster University‘s archive available online, we can find their position on a map that is probably quite similar to the ones they were using. Dunn’s sketch of the tactical situation is actually a minor masterpiece of tactical clarity, and the Welch can be precisely placed, arrayed roughly north-south along the left middle of the excerpt above, in the mess of old trenches and pillboxes near Carlisle Farm (square 15) and under fire from the Polderhoek Château (bottom of 16) on their right. Pinned down and cut off from their own H.Q., the companies falling out of touch with each other and no clear objectives in sight, they continue to take casualties. The irony of Dunn’s precise record of their whereabouts is that it bears no tactical fruit. He knows–and he tells us–where he was, but confusion about the whereabouts of everyone else–including the Germans–will continue throughout the day.

Meanwhile, accurate enemy fire is constant, and no advance is possible.

When the Companies lay low the Germans held their fire, but any movement, even by one man, drew a very accurate fire. In these circumstances A and B ceased to shoot at their unseen enemy.

Several more company and platoon officers were wounded, and the Welsh lost touch with the Scottish and Australian troops around them.

At about 1.30, the doctor’s narrative returns to the first person, and the battalion’s leadership takes a direct hit.

…I, finding nothing more to do for the time being, and having had no food since last night’s dinner, was sent in the same direction to seek my servant. He and another man, with the heedless coolness which was so common, had lighted a fire on the enemy side of a pill-box, and made tea. They were about to give some to a young Australian with a bad belly wound. After stopping them I was trying to placate him when Signaller Barrett came and told me that while Colquhoun was talking to Poore and Casson, the Assistant Adjutant, a 5.9 burst along them, killing all three. That happened about 2 o’clock.

Dunn is not in command of the battalion, per se–he is permanently outside the chain of command, and quite unusual in being a doctor with combat service in a previous war. But someone needs to go forward from HQ and find the company commander who now must take over. Dunn will not explicitly acknowledge his heroism, here, but he seems to allude to the strangeness of the moment–as well as the general surrealism of prolonged battle–with this memory of the mind’s habit of recalling harmless happy moments to compare with some horrifying present vision.

Thereupon, I went to look for Radford about the Reutel road where I had seen him an hour before. On the way, two men suddenly rose into the air vertically, 15 feet perhaps, amid a spout of soil about 150 yards ahead. They rose and fell with the easy, graceful poise of acrobats. A rifle, revolving slowly, rose high above them before, still revolving, it fell. The sight recalled, even in these surroundings, a memory of boyhood: a turn that thrilled me in a travelling circus at St. Andrews…

He did not, perhaps, take time for the theatrical gesture of removing his red cross armbands. Or perhaps he did, to give the Germans a sporting chance of killing him while he considered himself a combatant, and modestly omits to tell us?

In any event, according to Dunn’s account he almost immediately found Radford, a company commander at the beginning of the day but now the senior combat officer, and stayed with him while he wrote out a report to be sent back to Brigade. Dunn does not mention Radford being in command, but he implies it… and then Radford vanishes from the narrative for some time, and the narrative slips into the passive voice.

The worst of the day is over, but there is still much consolidation to be done:

When the light failed A and B Companies were reorganized… After dark a sudden commotion was caused by D Company falling back on the Reutel road. They reported that the enemy was massing in Polygon Wood, and that they had very little ammunition left. The decision to fall back was made in consultation with the O.C. their Australian comrades…

But who made this decision with the Australian commander? It sounds like it was Dunn, as Graves suggests.

 

Let’s work back a bit, and see how Frank Richards saw this afternoon. Richards is the consummate old soldier, and not above tarting up a yarn for the benefit of his readers,[3] but he was indisputably an eyewitness to these events, serving as he did with the signallers of the battalion, and thus often alongside the headquarters contingent, or bearing messages to and fro.

Richards’s account of the terrible hour around noon is more direct and more, dare we say, cinematic:

A few minutes later Dr. Dunn temporarily resigned from the Royal Army Medical Corps. He told me to get him a rifle and bayonet and a bandolier of ammunition. I told him that he had better have a revolver, but he insisted on having what he had asked me to get. I found them for him, and slinging the rifle over his shoulder, he commenced to make his way over to the troops behind the bank. I accompanied him. Just before we reached there our chaps who were hanging on to the position in front of it started to retire back. The doctor barked at them to line up with the others. Only Captain Radford and four platoon officers were left in the Battalion and the doctor unofficially took command.

Radford’s presence is something of an embarrassment, then–why is this company commander not in active command of the battalion? And hence, perhaps, Dunn’s professional modesty is a cloak for the honor of a brother officer? But neither is there any suggestion that Radford failed to do his duty or did not fight well. It’s tempting to assume that he was momentarily overcome (as so many people would be in such a situation), but it is also possible that, given the force of Dunn’s character and his long service as a sort of consigliere to the colonel, it just seemed natural to Radford to continue commanding a consolidated line company and leave the direction of the battalion to the doctor.

In any case, no one hints that Dunn so any moral quandary in ceasing to be a healer–technically sacrosanct, even if those badges that he may or may not have removed were not often respected–and picking up a rifle and directly ordering men to wound and destroy those opposite. War is madness.

Back to Richards:

We and the Australians were all mixed up in extended order. Behind everyone had now left the standpoint and we all lined up behind the bank, which was about three feet high. We had lent a Lewis gun team to the 5th Scottish Rifles on our right, and when it began to get dark the doctor sent me with a verbal message to bring them back with me if they were still in the land of the living. When I arrived at the extreme right of our line, I asked the right hand man if he was in touch with the 5th Scottish. He replied that he had no more idea than a crow where they were, but guessed that they were somewhere in the front to the right of him. I now made my way very carefully over the ground. After I had walked some way I began to crawl. I was liable any moment to come into contact with a German post or trench. I saw someone moving in front of me, so I slid into a shell hole…

I waited in that shell hole for a while, trying to pierce the darkness in front. I resumed my journey, and, skirting one shell hole, a wounded German was shrieking aloud in agony… he must have been hit low down, but I could stop for no wounded man. But I saw two men in a shallow trench but did not know if they were the 5th Scottish or the Germans until I heard some good Glasgow English. When I got in their trench they told me that they had only just spotted me when they challenged. The Lewis-gun team were still kicking and my journey back with them was a lot easier than the outgoing one.

I reported to the Doctor that there was a gap of about 100 yards between the 5th Scottish Rifles and we; and he went himself to remedy it. The whole of the British front that night seemed to be in a semi-circle. We had sent some S O S rockets up in the air… they were only used when a situation was deemed critical, and everybody seemed to be in the same plight as ourselves…[4]

Dunn remembers these rockets as well:

Twice between dark and midnight the S O S went up in the Reutel direction, and was repeated by other units. It was a red-over-green-over-yellow parachute grenade at the time, a pleasing combination of colours hanging about the fretted outline of pines that stood in dark relief against a clear night sky. Each time the gunners on both sides opened promptly…[5]

 

These are two true stories of one battalion’s role in a major attack. We can also read, for a strange sort of leavening, Henry Williamson‘s fictional account of the attack. Williamson is still convalescing in England, but Phillip Maddison, for all that his (fictional) presence at nearly every major offensive is beginning to wear thin, witnessed the battle from his position with the supply train of a Machine Gun Company and described it in his patented “History Painting” style. Williamson is working from published histories, of course, so it is not surprising that he echoes the accounts we have just read. In fact, it’s quite useful, since Maddison consciously takes up a middle position between an army that is–in some quarters at least–beginning to despair and a propaganda machine that churns on without acknowledging the ratcheting tension of 1917.

Maddison writes in his pocket diary that “there ‘were persistent rumours of hundreds of thousands killed,'” yet he spent many evenings of the battle regularly hearing optimistic reports–internal army propaganda, essentially–read out to the troops by the rear-area ammunition dumps. So the army is preaching success to its own rear elements (who may or may not know about the disturbances at Étaples) even though they can look to the East and see precisely what Dunn and Richards have been describing: the colored SOS signals going up “again and again.”

For Phillip, at least, weariness is leading toward maturity: he begins to see a balance between the alarmist rumors of total collapse and tens of thousands of men killed and the sanguine army announcements. Under the tutelage of “Westy,”–the old heroic officer whose ex post facto facts about the Passchendaele campaign are clunkingly parachuted into the narrative at this point–Maddison is starting to see the war for what it is: a grim attritional battle that, at this moment, is narrowly tilted in the allies’ favor by Plumer’s operational initiatives.[6]

 

Finally, today, three short notes. In contradistinction to the misery of the Salient, let’s spend just a moment with Ivor Gurney, who is safely out of it all, for a few weeks at least, with a blighty touch of gas.

26 September 1917

My Dear Friend: To write to you on common notepaper, white and smooth, to be in between sheets white as snow—yesterday, but I smoke in bed! — and to hear noises domestic and well known flurries and scurries about one — how sweet are all these!

And to be within 17 miles of Enbro, that old city of Scott and R.L.S.; such is my nature that this last idea in fact is sweetest of all.

Ward 24, Edinburgh War Hospital, Bangour, Scotland is my present address. Only slowly and uncertainly is the conviction leaking in through the strong covering of frost and use that I am really in Blighty…

With time on his hands, Gurney’s letters ramble even more than usual, but he returns in the end to the simple theme of a soldier’s thankfulness at being somewhere safe and quiet–and clean:

Clean sheets, clean clothes and skin; no lice; today’s papers; ordinary notepaper. . . What next?

Good bye, and all good wishes for all good things:

Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney[7]

 

Many others will be coming to Blighty too. When Ronnie Knox converted to Catholicism last week, his father, an Anglican bishop, determined to cut off all contact with him for at least a year. But Bishop Knox will shortly be abrogating this policy in order to pass along a telegram. Ronnie’s older brother Eddie, an officer with the 2/4th Lincolns, was shot in the back today, a century back, by a German sniper somewhere east of the Menin Road, under those same SOS flares.[8]

 

And, of course, for every man that comes home, another most go back to take his place. In London, today, Isaac Rosenberg bid farewell to his family and belatedly caught a train back to the coast, his leave over. When he returns, he will be transferred from his assignment as a laborer attached to the engineers and sent back into the line.[9]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Good-Bye to All That, 260-1.
  2. What would Siegfried Sassoon have thought, in his room at Craiglockhart or out on the links, or wherever he is right this moment, were he able to listen in to this conference in real time?
  3. He will have the assistance in this of the very best, namely his one time battalion superior Robert Graves.
  4. Old Soldiers Never Die, 246-251.
  5. The War the Infantry Knew, 392-400.
  6. Love and the Loveless, 286-7.
  7. War Letters, 205-6.
  8. Fitzgerald, The Knox Brothers, 139-40. Eddie Knox was a talented satirist and frequent contributor to Punch. But he had not felt able to write amusing poems from the trenches and thus sidesteps the label of "war poet." He will survive the war, and his daughter Penelope will write the biography of him and his brothers from which this information derives--as well as several of the best 20th century British novels.
  9. Cohen, Journey to the Trenches, 171. His actual departure may have come two days later, after missing or being unable to take several trains. See Moorcroft Wilson, Isaac Rosenberg, 373.

Carroll Carstairs and Harry Patch Brave the Shells on the Way Out; Jack Martin Overhears a Grim Bargaining; R.A. Knox Finds Authority

Lately it seems that it is always night in the Salient, and that to survive a tour of a few days in its miserable morass is only to invite the special attentions of Nemesis on the march into reserve. Nevertheless, Carroll Carstairs’s memorable few days in the line came to a safe conclusion tonight, a century back:

That night I changed places with Knollys and the next night the Battalion was relieved by the 1st Essex (29th Division). These reliefs were devilish. The combination of black night, “uncertain” shelling, guides missing the way, duckboards along the routes shelled to bits in places making the going difficult, and feeling the responsibility of getting the men out without casualties—and something of the nightmare it was may be imagined. Those were days of open warfare as regards getting up to and back from the front line.

Slowly the men were assembled near Cannes Farm. A “whizz-bang” chipping its corner covered me with dust and plaster and my orderly thought I was a casualty.

With our backs to the enemy we moved in single file down the slippery duckboards. We reached White Hope Corner, where tea was served to the men. At Luneville Farm we entrained, and on the hard wood floor of my truck I slept the sleep of complete exhaustion. One hour in twenty-four had been my average in the line. At 5.40 a.m. we arrived at Proven. Dazed with insufficient rest I entered a world of endless slumber as I crawled into my sleeping bag.[1]

 

If Harry Patch’s memory served,[2] then he, too, was coming back out of the line tonight, a century back, marching along with the rest of his Lewis gun team. It would not end as well.

We were returning from the line, going back into reserve. It was a quiet night… It was always important to stick to communication trenches where you could, but, if there weren’t any, then you just went over the top in the open and took a chance. We’d stopped briefly as Bob was attending to the call of nature in a slight traverse, causing us to bunch up a little as we waited.

…I guess it was a whizz-bang that got us. The only thing I saw was a flash; I can’t recall any noise at all, but I certainly felt the concussion of that shell bursting, because I was taken off my feet and thrown to the ground. For a couple of minutes I couldn’t move…

I didn’t even know I was hit at first, but a growing pain told me otherwise…

Patch did his best to stop the bleeding from his stomach, but passed out. He was found by stretcher bearers and taken to a casualty clearing station, “where a doctor cleaned the wound of congealed blood and lice and put a clean white bandage on.” After that triage, Patch was no longer critical, and had to wait while doctors worked elsewhere, the shell splinter cooling inside his abdomen.[3]

 

Two more brief notices, today. First, Jack Martin once again makes us privy to the sort of negotiations that only take place at a certain level. We often see platoon and company commanders carrying out orders and, from time time time, we might see tight-lipped battalion commanders issuing the orders they know will get scores of their men killed. But as these units come in and out, mercilessly thrown back into the fray or spared for a slight respite, there is a constant negotiation going on at higher levels. The generals demand service, but no battalion can fight forever, and therefore a good commanding officer must be an advocate…

There is no doubting the seriousness of the situation for on the phone I overheard a most amazing conversation between our Brigadier and the Divisional Commander. The Brigadier was very firm in his insistence that our Infantry is thoroughly exhausted and totally unable to make any resistance if the Huns attacked. They would break right through our line if once they got beyond our artillery barrage, The Div. Commander tried his hardest to get the Brigadier to say that we can hold on for another twenty-four hours but General Towsey wouldn’t take the responsibility of making any such statement… When Gen. Towsey told him that the men could get neither rations nor water he merely replied, ‘Let them take the iron rations from the killed and wounded.’ This conversation lasted about half an hour and I expect it will result in a speedy relief…[4]

This conversation will be closely echoed half a world away and one world war on in James Jones’s The Thin Red Line.

 

Finally, today was a memorable day in the life of Ronnie Knox. The son of an Anglican bishop, a brilliant scholar in a brilliant family, precociously ascetic, Knox has been drawing closer and closer to Catholicism for years now. Helped along by the urgings his friend Charles Scott Moncrieff (but not, perhaps, by his former protege Harold Macmillan, who did not convert, and certainly not by his close friend Patrick Shaw Stewart, who did not manifest similar interests) Knox made the decision to formally convert, to the “lifelong disappointment and regret” of his family.

Yesterday, a century back, he thanked Moncrieff, sending him a card that read “Thank you awfully, yours affect. Ronnie.” Today, he took the plunge. Although he was not one of the bright young men who went to war (he considered himself barred from service by the nature of his vocation to the clergy), this friend-of-our-writers several times over was changed by it nevertheless, and it seems safe to assume that his search for what he considered the true faith was intensified by it.

He did not feel an special illumination, but he was so happy that he wanted to laugh out loud all through dinner in the refectory. He had found authority.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Generation Missing, 110-11.
  2. And it would have had to serve some seventy years longer than most; but "it is quite possible," in the judgment of Richard Van Emden, that his battalion's few casualties for today included Patch's friends.
  3. The Last Fighting Tommy, 108-110.
  4. Sapper Martin, 108.
  5. Chasing Lost Time, 101-2; Fitzgerald, The Knox Brothers, 131-2.

The Grenadier Guards Dig In; Edmund Blunden is Back, and then Out Again; C.E. Montague Will be a Better Writer

None of the Grenadier Guardsman who came up to the line last night, a century back, would have been surprised to learn that there will soon be a renewed attack in their sector. Carroll Carstairs describes a day of preparation and careful negotiation of the Salient’s grim landscape.

The following day the Company received orders to extend to the right. Company Headquarters was to move to the extreme right of the Company in a block-house between the road and the railway, and the Company would thus  occupy a wider frontage. We were informed that the division on our right flank was to attack on the 20th, and as the British bombardment would begin about three in the morning, it behoved the Company to be dug-in before that time.

At nightfall three platoons “felt” their right and dug, while Company Headquarters took an unusual time to travel its few hundred yards in a dark night, over a country with no remaining landmarks but the block-house itself that we had to reach. An occasional flare faintly radiated a morass of shell craters, as we slipped and floundered over its wet, uneven surface.

The officers’ servants actually took from 7 to 2.30 to cover the distance. Three days’ rations were distributed and at 1 a.m. I went along the line and found everyone dug in. I returned, feeling the quiet ominously, because of the noise that would soon begin. We waited, with more frequent looks at our watches than the passage of time required. An uncanny stillness reigned.[1]

 

Edmund Blunden has been fortunate to miss much of this sort of thing, lately–and it seems his good fortune will continue. He had been on leave, and then on a signals course.

This period ended, I returned to the battalion, not without difficulty, for they had been on the move. The first news I had of them, on arriving at a place where they had been, was from a transport driver, who said they “were going over the top in the morning.” The suggestion was crushing, for my servant and myself had already been carrying our burdens along for miles, and it was still many kilometres to the front. At the end of another dusty trudge we found the Transport Officer, Maycock, friendliest and most impulsive of our officers, who told me I should ride up to the battalion with him, and we set off at once. The battalion was drawn up in a field by the scanty ruins of Vierstraat, nearly ready to move; the sun shone with autumn light on the dun uniforms, and sack-clothed helmets, and broken trees with yellowing leaves, and trodden strings of grass underfoot. Tea was passing round among the companies. To my surprise Colonel Millward, though hailing me affectionately, did not want me for the coming tour in the line, and I found myself riding away with Maycock, while the battalion marched into the ruins of Hollebeke and Battle Wood.

So Blunden’s good fortune will continue, for another little while. But the day, alas, remains memorable–and dateable, as so often, from its disasters:

It was then that a shell fell among the headquarters staff on the way up, and killed Naylor,[2] the philosophic and artistic lieutenant who had served in the battalion almost all my time, whose quiet presence was a safeguard against the insolence of fortune. Another shell, bursting on a small party of non-commissioned officers as they were about to leave the trenches after relief, robbed us instantly of Sergeant Clifford, a man of similar sweetness of character and for months past invaluable in all necessities. These losses I felt, but with a sensibility blurred by the general grossness of the war. The uselessness of the offensive, the contrast in the quality of ourselves with the quality of the year before, the conviction that the civilian population realized nothing of our state, the rarity of thought, the growing intensity and sweep of destructive forces — these views brought on a mood of selfishness. We should all die, presumably, round Ypres.[3]

 

Misery, suffering, disenchantment, trauma, and a violent death so likely it seems inevitable. Why? What could possibly be worth it? But that is an unanswerable question. Better to ask a less total, less divisive corollary, a small echo of the bigger question: what good might come of it? They are all experiencing war, and they are all writers, and much of what we read–Blunden’s memoirs far from least–is a tacit answer to the question. C.E. Montague, writing to his wife today, a century back, addresses the question directly:

Sept. 18, 1917

I just long, too, to be writing again. I feel, conceitedly, that I could write so well now after all this change and new experience. I feel there are some futile tricks I used to have in writing that I should not fall into again, and also that I have got to understand better than before the mind of the sort of person who is nonliterary and yet good to write for…[4]

We’ll just have to wait, then, a century back…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. A Generation Missing, 99-100.
  2. The CWGC lists Naylor's date of death as occurring six days on, but whether Blunden is mistaken in remembering both shells hitting on the same day or whether Naylor died six days after being mortally wounded, I do not know.
  3. Undertones of War, 234-5.
  4. Elton, C.E. Montague, 195.

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.