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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Today, however, not so much:

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stand-to: Good Friday Morning.

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

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

 

References and Footnotes

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

Siegfried Sassoon’s Statement, “To Any Dead Officer;” Henry Williamson is Blighty Bound; Herbert Read’s Theories of Courage

Before we get to a statement–and a poem, and a memoir’s context for the two–we have two brief updates.

 

For the past week Henry Williamson has bounced about the hospitals of northern France. He believes that he has gotten a “whiff” of phosgene gas from German gas shells–but he may also just be sick, or run down. In any event, he finds it pleasant to be out of the line and hopes to be able to parlay the sick time into reassignment. In this he may well be lucky, as in the name of efficiency sick and wounded officers can no longer count on returning to their unit. Most fear and deplore this change, but Williamson (and probably his C.O. as well) would welcome it.

Dear Mother,

Please get those protectors for armpits in my new tunic at once–big ones under the lining–you probably know by this time that I am for England on the first boat which leaves any time… Mother, I thank God I am out of that inferno…

This hospital is a bon place–I live on champagne and fried plaice & chicken now!!

Love Willie.[1]

Williamson, whose intestinal health has long been an issue, can look forward to a lengthy recovery in Blighty…

 

Herbert Read is in rather a more bloody-minded state, and with sharper tales to tell. Or not: restraint in what he writes to Evelyn Roff is a point of pride–Read is a very purposeful sort, and he thinks twice about describing the war without a theoretical grasp of how such war tales might fit in with his theories of Modern literature. (He seems less concerned that a policy of mentioning, but not describing, certain experiences might not help their budding relationship flourish.)

Nevertheless, he has something to say, and it is the confirming converse of Williamson’s lonely experience: what makes it all worthwhile are the men. And what defines a man’s worth is the way in which he carries himself through danger.

15.vi.17

My present location is not too bad. We are now in the third week of our period in the line… and rather terrible days they were. But you can have no desire for me to ‘paint the horrors.’ I could do so but let the one word ‘fetid’ express the very essence of our experiences. It would be a nightmare to any individual, but we create among ourselves a wonderful comradeship which I think would overcome any horror or hardship. It is this comradeship which alone makes the Army tolerable to me. To create a bond between yourself and a body of men and a bond that will hold at the critical moment, that is work worthy of any man and when done an achievement to be proud of.

Incidentally my ‘world-view’ changes some of its horizons. I begin to appreciate, to an undreamt of extent, the ‘simple soul’. He is the only man you can put your money on in a tight corner. Bombast and swank carry a man nowhere our here. In England they are everything. Nor is the intellect not a few of us used to be so proud of of much avail. It’s a pallid thing in the presence of a stout heart. Which reminds me of one psychological ‘case’ which interests me out here: to what extent does a decent philosophy of life help you in facing death? In other words: Is fear a mental or a physical phenomenon? There are cases of physical fear–‘nerves,’ ‘shell-shock,’ etc. There are also certainly cases of physical courage… and there are, I think, men who funk because they haven’t the strength of will or decency of thought to do otherwise.

But I would like to think there was still another class (and I one of them) whose capacity for not caring a damn arose not merely from a physical incapacity for feeling fear, but rather from a mental outlook on life and death sanely balanced and fearlessly followed. But perhaps I idealize…[2]

Perhaps he does. Read has a good deal of trench experience by now, but he has not suffered the same sort of trench trauma–or string of losses of friends both fond and beloved–that has overburdened “Mad Jack” Sassoon. But it is an interesting break down of different types of courage–and an intelligent one. Cursed are dullards, blessed are the philosophers, strong of will–so it’s also a flattering one. But it asks no larger questions…

 

Today’s main event is Siegfried Sassoon‘s completion of a draft of his statement against the war.

It thus happened that, about midnight on the day my portrait was finished, I sat alone in the club library with a fair copy of the ‘statement’ before me on the writing-table. The words were now solidified and unalterable. My brain was unable to scrutinize their meaning any more. They had become merely a sequence of declamatory sentences designed to let me in for what appeared to be a moral equivalent of ‘going over the top’; and, at the moment, the Hindenburg Line seemed preferable in retrospect. For the first time, I allowed myself to reflect upon the consequences of my action and to question my strength to endure them. Possibly what I disliked most was the prospect of being misunderstood and disapproved of by my fellow officers. Some of them would regard my behaviour as a disgrace to the Regiment. Others would assume that I had gone a bit crazy. How many of them, I wondered, would give me credit for having done it for the sake of the troops who were at the Front? I had never heard any of them use the word pacifist except in a contemptuous and intolerant way, and in my dispirited mood I felt that my protest would have a pretty poor reception among them. Going to a window, I looked out at the searchlights probing the dark sky. Down below, the drone of London rumbled on. The streets were full of soldiers getting what enjoyment they could out of their leave. And there, on that sheet of paper under the green-shaded lamp, were the words I had just transcribed.

‘I believe that this war, upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest.’

This is the soon-to-be-famous opening of the published statement–I’ll include the rest when the newspapers get it. But Sassoon, using the privileges of the memoir writer, embeds the public breakthrough in a web of private doubt. Clean breaks and simple strong feelings are never to be his way…  Who is he doing this for, again?

To the soldiers it didn’t matter, one way or the other. They all wanted it to stop, but most of them would say that the Boches had got to be beaten somehow, and the best thing to hope for was ‘getting back to Blighty with a cushy wound’. Then I remembered that night, early in 1914, when I had been up in this room experiencing an emotional crisis in which I had felt that my life was being wasted on sport and minor poetry, and had imagined myself devoting my future to humanitarian services and nobly prophetic writings. On that occasion I had written some well-intentioned but too didactic lines, of which a fragment now recurred to me.

Destiny calls me home at last
To strive for pity’s sake;
To watch with the lonely and outcast,
And to endure their ache . . . .

Much had happened since then. Realities beyond my radius had been brought under my observation by a European War, which had led me to this point of time and that sheet of paper on the table. Was this the fulfilment of that feeble and unforeseeing stanza? . . . And somehow the workings of my mind brought me a comprehensive memory of war experience in its intense and essential humanity. It seemed that my companions of the Somme and Arras battles were around me; helmeted faces returned and receded in vision; joking voices were overheard in fragments of dug-out and billet talk. These were the dead, to whom life had been desirable, and whose sacrifice must be justified, unless the War were to go down in history as yet another Moloch of murdered youth…

I went back to the statement on the table with fortified conviction that I was doing right. Perhaps the dead were backing me up, I thought; for I was a believer in the power of spiritual presences. . . .

Well, how are things in Heaven? I wish you’d say,
Because I’d like to know that you’re all right.
Tell me, have you found everlasting day
Or been sucked in by everlasting night?

The words came into my head quite naturally. And by the time I went to bed I had written a slangy, telephonic poem of forty lines. I called it To Any Dead Officer, but it was addressed to one whom I had known during both my periods of service in France. Poignant though the subject was, I wrote it with a sense of mastery and detachment, and when it was finished I felt that it anyhow testified to the sincerity of my protest.

The dead officer is Orme/”Ormand” killed so recently in a pointless attack on the Hindenburg Line, his death described to Sassoon by Joe Cottrell. The poem, which Sassoon of the memoir would clearly prefer that we use to mark this day’s work, a century back, rather than the didactic “statement,” continues as follows:

For when I shut my eyes your face shows plain;
  I hear you make some cheery old remark—
I can rebuild you in my brain,
  Though you’ve gone out patrolling in the dark.
You hated tours of trenches; you were proud
  Of nothing more than having good years to spend;
Longed to get home and join the careless crowd
  Of chaps who work in peace with Time for friend.
That’s all washed out now. You’re beyond the wire:
  No earthly chance can send you crawling back;
You’ve finished with machine-gun fire—
  Knocked over in a hopeless dud-attack.
Somehow I always thought you’d get done in,
  Because you were so desperate keen to live:
You were all out to try and save your skin,
  Well knowing how much the world had got to give.
You joked at shells and talked the usual “shop,”
  Stuck to your dirty job and did it fine:
With “Jesus Christ! when will it stop?
  Three years … It’s hell unless we break their line.”
So when they told me you’d been left for dead
  I wouldn’t believe them, feeling it must be true.
Next week the bloody Roll of Honour said
   “Wounded and missing”—(That’s the thing to do
When lads are left in shell-holes dying slow,
  With nothing but blank sky and wounds that ache,
Moaning for water till they know
  It’s night, and then it’s not worth while to wake!)
Good-bye, old lad! Remember me to God,
  And tell Him that our politicians swear
They won’t give in till Prussian Rule’s been trod
  Under the Heel of England … Are you there? …
Yes … and the war won’t end for at least two years;
But we’ve got stacks of men … I’m blind with tears,
  Staring into the dark. Cheero!
I wish they’d killed you in a decent show.[3]

References and Footnotes

  1. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 163.
  2. The Contrary Experience, 97-8.
  3. Siegfried's Journey, 52-4; see also Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 373.

Vera Brittain and Victor Richardson

Throughout the last week Vera Brittain has been spending as much time as she can with Victor Richardson, the best school friend of her brother and her dead fiancé. She intends to marry him, despite the knowledge that he will be blind and disfigured for the rest of his life. She will marry him also because of his wounds, out of affection and pity and a sense of higher duty. Vera has been torn for years between an urge toward self-realization and various notions of service, but nothing has been quite right. After the double blow of Geoffrey Thurlow’s death and Victor’s terrible wound, she made an impulsive decision that in retrospect seems both tragically unwise and inevitable–but don’t they all?

She will love, and serve, and “sacrifice” herself for Victor–sacrifice in a way that is neither traditional, exactly, nor modern and liberated. It’s tragic and romantic, in keeping with the religion of her adolescence. So she has sat by his side for a week, and made plans about a future life that they might share.

Until yesterday, when delirium suddenly set in and the condition of Victor’s brain injury suddenly worsened. His family was called in, but soon he seemed to stabilize, and sleep, and so both families went home to the Brittains’ new flat.

Next day, just before breakfast, his father was summoned to the public telephone on the ground floor of the flats; my parents had not yet had a private telephone installed. The message was from the hospital, to say that Victor had died in the early hours of the morning. The Matron had tried to call us during the night, but could get no reply; apparently the night-porter’s attitude towards his duty was similar to that of my orderly in Malta.

I still remember that silent, self-imposed breakfast, and the dull stoicism with which we all tried to eat fried bread and bacon.

I can’t help but be reminded of Eleanor Farjeon, and what crossed her mind as she bobbed in the wake of the news that Edward Thomas was dead: now we must eat, especially now–because we must live.

Victor Richardson was twenty-two. Vera Brittain, still just twenty-three, has much experience in going through the motions of continuing to live:

Immediately afterwards we went down to Chelsea; on the way there the aunt and I bought a sheaf of lilies and white roses, for our minds were still too numbed to operate in any but the conventional grooves.

Victor’s body had already been taken to the mortuary chapel; although the June sunshine outside shone brilliant and cheerful, the tiny place was ice-cold, and grey as a tomb. Indifferently, but with the mechanical decorum of habit, the orderly lifted the sheet from the motionless figure, so familiar, but in its silent unfamiliarity so terrible an indictment of the inept humanity which condemned its own noblest types to such a fate.

I had seen death so often . . . and yet I felt that I had never seen it before, for I appeared to be looking at the petrified defencelessness of a child, to whose carven features suffering and experience had once lent the strange illusion of adulthood. With an overwhelming impulse to soften that alien rigidity, I laid my fragrant tribute of roses on the bier, and went quickly away .

Back at home, the aunt, kind, controlled, too sensitive to the sorrows of others to remember her own, turned to me with an affectionate warmth of intimacy which had not been possible before and would never, we both knew, be possible again. “My dear, I understand what you meant to do for Victor. I know you’d have married him. I do wish you could have. . . .”

“Yes,” I said, “I wish I could have,” but I did not tell her that the husband of my imagination was always Roland, and could never now be Victor. The psychological combats and defeats of the past two years, I thought, no longer mattered to anyone but myself, for death had made them all unsubstantial, as if they had never been. But though speech could be stifled, thought was less easy to tame; I could not cease from dwelling upon the superfluous torture of Victor’s long agony, the cruel waste of his brave efforts at vital readjustment. As for myself, I felt that I had been malevolently frustrated in the one serious attempt I had ever made to serve a fellow- creature. Only long afterwards, when time had taught me the limits of my own magnanimity, did I realise that his death had probably saved us both from a relationship of which the serenity might have proved increasingly difficult to maintain, and that I had always been too egotistical, too ambitious, too impatient, to carry through any experiment which depended for its success upon the complete abnegation of individual claims.

When Victor’s young brother had been sent for from school and the family had gone back to Sussex, I wandered about the flat like a desolate ghost, unable to decide where to go or what to do next. Only when twilight came could I summon sufficient resolution to write to Edward in the dim drawing-room, and to copy into my quotation-book Rupert Brooke’s sonnet “Suggested by some of the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research”:

Not with vain tears, when we’re beyond the sun,
We’ll beat on the substantial doors, nor tread
Those dusty high-roads of the aimless dead.
Plaintive for Earth; but rather turn and run
Down some close-covered by-way of the air.
Some low sweet alley between wind and wind,
Stoop under faint gleams, thread the shadows, find
Some whispering , ghost-forgotten nook, and there
Spend in pure converse our eternal day;
Think each in each, immediately wise;
Learn all we lacked before; hear, know and say
What this tumultuous body now denies;
And feel, who have laid our groping hands away;
And see, no longer blinded by our eyes..[1]

 

It’s not so much that the influence of Brooke lingers, as that it remains dominant across large swathes of the English poetry-reading public. The new books are coming out, and Gurney is reading Sassoon who has been influenced by Sorley. But that is, as yet, a tight-knit group…

Still, Vera Brittain’s own writing doesn’t need the influence of other writers to express emotions alien to Brooke. She will write a poem, too, in the coming days, the latest in a series of memorials for young men she loved, in one way or another:

 

Sic Transit

V.R., died of wounds, 2nd London General Hospital, Chelsea, June 9th, 1917
I am so tired.
The dying sun incarnadines the West,
And every window with its gold is fired,
And all I loved the best
Is gone, and every good that I desired
Passes away, an idle hopeless quest;
Even the Highest whereto I aspired
Has vanished with the rest.
I am so tired.
London, June 1917

References and Footnotes

  1. Testament of Youth, 357-9.

Duff Cooper Gets the Call; Henry Williamson is Laid Low; C.E. Montague Draws Strength From Hardy; Woolf Praises Sassoon; Francis Ledwidge Gropes Toward God; Isaac Rosenberg Lifts His Eyes to the Larks

I don’t mean to make fun of Duff Cooper–he is a capable man, and not nearly as daffy as he sounds in his journal–but, until today, all we’ve heard of his recent decision to take an Army commission is that is seemed to yield positive short-term results in his endless pursuit of Diana Manners. Ah–but has he forgotten the other woman in his life? Yes, yes he has.

In the afternoon Mother telephoned. She has found about my prospects of joining the army. She is naturally much upset–it is most awkward.[1]

 

Nor did I set out to make fun of Henry Williamson, today, but this disjunction between diary and novel is… also pretty funny:

Thursday, 31 May. Kicked on head by Tommy.

The editors add, helpfully, that “Tommy was a mule.” Which, given that Williamson is a mule-riding Transport Officer–and despite the fact that he describes stubborn men as “mules”–should probably be taken literally, and not as a slight on the stubborn character of some insubordinate “Tommy Atkins.”[2]

In the novel, instead of this misadventure, Phillip Maddison attend a conference held by Captain Hobart in which he is initiated into further tactical secrets of the coming Messines Ridge attack. There is much admiration expressed for General Plumer, the rare innovator among the British senior officers and the man most responsible for the novel use of what are essentially early modern siege warfare tactics scaled up by several orders of magnitude and undertaken over the course of many months: there will be some very big mines. Which, of course, were top secret at the time.

After the conference Phillip goes walkabout, as he so often does. Leaving his work to his sergeant, Phillip strolls past signs and organizational tapes and models and remarks on the fact that every possible preparation for the coming attack has been carefully thought out. He is then struck by the idea that if such detailed tactical information were to be passed on to the men of the Machine Gun Company, surely it would be a good thing for morale, and who better to lecture them than himself…[3]

 

But today is a busy day, and with those bits of silliness out of the way we can move toward a few more formal literary accomplishments.

First, I’d offer this definition of a worthy novel: a book that can offer intellectual and emotional support to a reader burdened by cares and mired in doubt, yet far from any easy resonance with its subject matter. We have a nomination, then, today, from C.E. Montague, writing to his wife:

May 31, 1917

A man here has got The Return of the Native and I borrowed it last night and read the first few pages again. How wonderful they are—I do believe the finest opening ever written for a novel of that kind. I shall try, at odd times, to read on. There is something massive and hill-like about Hardy which makes him good to read during this passing madness of the world—he helps one to feel what a mass of durable things in human nature as well as in other ‘nature’ are going on all right, all the time, and will be there to come back to when the evil time is overpast.[4]

 

Time in its dogged unidirectionality is a strange thing. Thomas Hardy has held out an austere kind of hope to many of our writers, and his approval meant more to Siegfried Sassoon than that of any writer… but if one were to try to sell an unacquainted reader on the merits of Sassoon’s poetry today, a more powerful endorsement might be felt to come from a review of his verses that was published today, a century back, in the Times Literary Supplement:

…the beauty in them, though fitful, is of the individual, indefinable kind which comes, we know not how, to make lines such as we read over each time with a renewed delight that after one comes the other.[5]

Thus Virginia Woolf on The Old Huntsman and Other Poems.

 

We also have a relative rarity, today: a long letter from Francis Ledwidge. Written from reserve billets in France, to Katherine Tynan, it shows Ledwidge in the thick of the action and, characteristically, able to wring beauty from the terror and violence of his surroundings.

I would have written to thank you for the sweets, only that lately we were unsettled, wandering to and fro between the firing-line and resting billets immediately behind. This letter is ante-dated by two hours, but before midnight we may be wandering in single and slow file, with the reserve line two or three hundred yards behind the fire trench. We are under an hour’s notice. Entering and leaving the line is most exciting, as we are usually but about thirty yards from the enemy, and you can scarcely understand how bright the nights are made by his rockets. These are in continual ascent and descent from dusk to dawn, making a beautiful Crescent from Switzerland to the sea. There are white lights, green, and red, and whiter, bursting into red and changing again, and blue bursting into purple drops and reds fading into green. It is all like the end of a beautiful world. It is only horrible when you remember that every colour is a signal to waiting reinforcements or artillery, and, God help us if we are caught in the open, for then up go a thousand reds, and hundreds of rifles and machine-guns are emptied against us, and all amongst us shells of every calibre are thrown, shouting destruction and death. We can do nothing but fling ourselves into the first shell-hole and wonder as we wait where we will be hit. But why all this

I am indeed glad to think you are preparing another book of verse. Will you really allow me to review it? I don’t want money for doing it. The honour would be more worth than money…

A. E. sets me thinking of things long forgotten, and Lord Dunsany of gorgeous Eastern tapestry and carpets. Do you get such impressions from the books you love? I met a traveller in Naples who told me that he never read Andrew Marvell but he remembered a dunce’s cap and a fishing-rod he had when a boy, and never could trace the train of thought far enough back to discover where the connection lay. I am writing odd things in a little book whenever I can. Just now I am engaged in a poem about the Lanawn Shee, who, you remember, is really the Irish Muse. One who sees her is doomed to sing. She is very close to you. I am writing it in the traditional style of the ‘Silk of the Kine.’

Here are the opening verses:

Powdered and perfumed the full bee
Winged heavily across the clover,
And where the hills were dim with dew,
Purple and blue the West looked over…

There is some more of this exercise in willful aestheticism, but Ledwidge also includes a finished poem in a very different vein:

 

Ascension Thursday, 1917

Lord, Thou hast left Thy footprints in the rocks,
That we may know the way to follow Thee,
But there are wide lands opened out between
Thy Olivet and my Gethsemane.

And oftentimes I make the night afraid,
Crying for lost hands when the dark is deep,
And strive to reach the sheltering of Thy love
Where Thou art herd among Thy folded sheep.

Thou wilt not ever thus, O Lord, allow
My feet to wander when the sun is set,
But through the darkness, let me still behold
The stony bye-ways up to Olivet.

 

Yet neither Sassoon nor Ledwidge can lay claim to the most important poetic reference point of today. Isaac Rosenberg wrote recently to Gordon Bottomley (the letter was posted today, a century back) about a number of things, including his new work alongside the Royal Engineers, putting out barbed wire at night. The letter mentions both Dead Man’s Dump and Daughters of War, and also seems to indicate that he has completed “Returning, We Hear the Larks,” a poem which can speak for itself, about many things, not least that a poet walking in the shadow of the valley of death who chooses not to look to God might also look to nature–even here–and then, through nature’s verse-entwined messengers, to poetry.

Sombre the night is:
And, though we have our lives, we know
What sinister threat lurks there.
Dragging these anguished limbs, we only know
This poison-blasted track opens on our camp—
On a little safe sleep.
But hark! Joy—joy—strange joy.
Lo! Heights of night ringing with unseen larks:
Music showering on our upturned listening faces.
Death could drop from the dark
As easily as song—
But song only dropped,
Like a blind man’s dreams on the sand
By dangerous tides;
Like a girl’s dark hair, for she dreams no ruin lies there,
Or her kisses where a serpent hides.[6]

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 54.
  2. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 157.
  3. Love and the Loveless, 144-5.
  4. C. E. Montague, 161.
  5. See Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, 360.
  6. I'm not entirely convinced by Moorcroft Wilson's dating of the poem to May 1917, but it seems plausible... and this is a poem that can't be left to slip through the cracks entirely...

A Rum Job for Robert Graves and the Royal Welch; Edward Thomas on Writing and on the Phone

Robert Graves is full of tall stories, and this one sounds a head too high to be true–but, as it turns out, it’s only a bit stretched.

Due to a strange concatenation of accident and illness, the twenty-one-year-old Graves, a schoolboy at the start of the war, found himself temporarily in command of a Regular Army battalion, the Second Royal Welch Fusiliers. Not only that, but during the day or two of his tenure the Royal Welch were due to participate in small attack–which, of course, did not feel like a small matter to the men who were supposed to cross the thickly mudded expanse of No Man’s Land with little to no support..

Opposite our trenches a German salient protruded, and the Brigadier wanted to ‘bite it off’ in proof of the Division’s offensive spirit. Trench soldiers could never understand the Staff’s desire to bite off an enemy salient. It was hardly desirable to be fired at from both flanks; if the Germans had got caught in a salient, our obvious duty must be to keep them there as long as they could be persuaded to stay. We concluded that a passion for straight lines, for which Headquarters were well known, had dictated this plan; but found no strategic or tactical excuse.

This is a bit cynical, but it’s also a common complaint and not, on its face, completely unfair. We’ve just heard Rowland Feilding, a sober, experienced soldier, make similar complaints about a similar operation, if in very different terms. There have been other such operations bruited, attempted, even successfully carried out, all along the line, lately. It seems to be a particular scourge of this winter–with the Somme battle three months behind and the next major British effort nearly two months away, the middling sorts of generals want to tidy up their maps and generate reports of their success and efficiency.

Now I’m being a bit cynical, but the wasting of lives on small offensive operations that can’t achieve anything of strategic importance seems misguided enough; doing it in terrible conditions and in such a way that major-attack-like casualties are all but inevitable seems particularly unimaginative, brutish, and, on several levels, self-defeating. But bureaucracies really do work that way, sometimes; and machines built for big efforts often trundle on, on low power, when they should be off and held in readiness; and conservative institutions will continue to generate behavior that has long been valued and rewarded (planning and executing “attacks,” as opposed to efficiently minding the attritional store) even after they have been shown to be destructive.

Graves, in his own telling, stepped up and stopped the raid–or at least demanded that it be postponed due to the mud. In Good-Bye to All That he goes to a brigade conference–probably yesterday, a century back, perhaps today–and shocks the old brass by refusing to participate. He doesn’t deny–nor dwell upon–the fact that he is only continuing his battalion’s policy in recent days under other commanders: object vociferously to a murderous and pointless plan. The 2/RWF, who consider themselves still an elite Regular battalion, have proven time and again that they are an aggressive, highly motivated unit, and the feeling is that they have the moral authority to resist plans like this.

For Graves, the depravity of the Staff (the local staff, mind you, at Division level) is confirmed by the fact that they resorted–today, a century back–to what was essentially a bribe. He includes the carbon copy of a message form still in his possession when he wrote his memoir (I doubt that Graves would entirely invent such a thing) and carrying today’s date:

So yo ho ho and an extra ration of rum. Graves learns shortly after his performance at the conference that the raid has indeed been postponed, and he took full credit for it, linking the cancellation to his “decision” as temporary O.C. (Officer Commanding) 2nd R.W.F. to object to the plan.[1]

Which annoyed his comrades. Sassoon, a fellow Fusilier with better relationships with some of the other officers of the battalion than Graves could boast of, will complain, and Dr. Dunn will describe the battalion’s resistance to the raid without mentioning Graves’s part. Nevertheless, the Welch will not be sent forward to ruin, tomorrow, and will presumably have to forgo the 7 1/2 gallons of liquid courage that have been offered…[2]

 

And in a less contentious vein, today, we have Edward Thomas writing to Eleanor Farjeon, of billets and books. Death isn’t hovering behind the next Brigade Order here, and Thomas, in any event, is disposed to sharper, quieter cynicism.

Feb 21

My dear Eleanor,

Your letter has just found me out in —— I am right in the town now, temporarily (I hope) on the headquarters staff of the Group which our battery is under. I don’t know why I am transferred except the little Adjutant here is away and an officer was wanted in his place. I hate office work, but so far I have avoided most of it and just go about with the Colonel or supervise jobs such as the present one of moving into a new billet—a fine modern mansion in the new quarter. We could have a room apiece if we liked. Our own guns all round us are the chief annoyance at present…

My proofs sound as if they would be perfect. Thank you ever so much for reinstating that line in ‘Lob’ and separating ‘When he should laugh’ from its neighbour. I shall begin reading again when the book arrives. For a week I haven’t read a Sonnet a day. I couldn’t think of writing, or so it seems. Except letters, that is, and a very brief diary.

Which we will continue to read, although Thomas, like others, is often in the habit of expanding upon his diary’s observations in his letters. When he does this, I’ll forgo the diary…

Farjeon is concealing the truth, by the way, that the printer has done a slapdash job in setting “Edward Eastaway’s” Poems. But she is working hard on correcting them…

The next bit from Thomas is quite funny.

My Colonel…  thinks because I am a writer that I might be able to write a diplomatic letter to a Town Mayor. He seems to think the chief thing in writing is to make grammatical sentences.

This is precisely the fate that befell R.H. Mottram and a number of other writers–and those who let on that they speak good French are even more likely to spend their days shuttling between desk and local dignitary. But Thomas is suffering a worse fate, now, during his temporary assignment to an Artillery Group H.Q.: minding an uncongenial and vaguely threatening piece of technology:

Now I am left alone at dusk in the old billet, now empty, to hang on to the telephone till they can get through to the new billet. It would be annoying to have to hang on all night. You will chuckle cruelly at the idea of me at the telephone.—I believe you are going to bring out a book of parodies now. The line ‘The greyness of the twilight and myself’ is, I believe, very just although impossible…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Good-Bye to All That, 242-3.
  2. When he revises Good-Bye to All That, Graves will alter "hear the decision" to "hear of my stand at the conference." See also R.P.G., Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 350 n22; Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 299-300.
  3. Farjeon, Edward Thomas..., 250-2.

A Phone Rings in Whitehall; Max Plowman on Sonnets, Duration, and Women’s Wartime Work; Tolkien in Zollern Redoubt

Max Plowman had time today, a century back, for a leisurely letter to his younger sister Gladys.

My Dear Gladys,

…You seem to be having a pretty dull time of it. Not that you say so or suggest it but I know what the Bank of England till 9 o’clock every night must be. Didn’t I serve in a shop not so far away, not so long ago? Well never mind… get all the consolation you can out of knowing that you are doing war work quite as indispensable as mine… plenty of men over here are doing less important work in my opinion than the average woman in England. Not every one who comes out here knows the feeling of “No Man’s Land” & plenty of the wonderful things you see in uniform know more about feather beds than they do about Front Line Trenches. Which is only a roundabout way of saying “& things are not what they seem”. And to point that moral in my own case: it’s exactly a month by the calendar since I heard a shell burst at anything like close quarters.

See, if I were prepared, I could have dated a section of his memoir from that very line… alas. It seems as if Plowman may want in on the betting pool action of a few days’ ago. Or perhaps it’s just that everyone has–must have–a fixed expectation of the war’s ending…

We are having a rare rest… I’m not in any particular hurry! It seems certain as anything can be that the war won’t be over this year… I should think next August will see the end of the war…. Some time before that I hope I shall have the chance of doing some really useful work, other than hanging about in trenches which are shelled from time to time & then of getting enough lead inside me to see me safely back till it’s all over…

First duration, now disenchantment. Barring the war’s end, there’s nothing for it: it’s the infantry’s lot to get shelled, and hope for a blighty. And how to sustain flagging hopes (or distract from them, at the least)? Poetry.

You talk about The Golden Book of Sonnets… I’m very glad you like it. Very few people (comparatively) like poetry at all. I’ve only met one fellow out here who reads any at all & he reads very, little, but poetry is the essence of literature & literature is… simply the best thought & feeling expressed in words… when you write again tell me what you like & why you like it…

A sad corrective to the sort of assumption this project encourages us to slip into: there are millions of men in uniform, so even several thousands of working and aspiring poets and memoir-writers are spread thin on the ground. Most battalions–the First and Second Royal Welch aside–might sport hardly a poet, and no more than a brace or two readers of poetry…

When the war’s over I think we’d better make another (& rather longer) tour on your way back to Switzerland… We might wander out from Amiens & end up at the “Café Cavour” & I’d show you the house & cellars & dugouts & trenches I’ve lived in when you wanted a thrill. Meantime my love to you & all at home…

Your affectionate brother

Max.

Tell them I am perfectly well.[1]

 

Ronald Tolkien, writer of poetry (but not, I don’t think a particularly devoted reader of it), is rather more busy at the moment. For ten straight days his battalion of Lancashire Fusiliers have been at the front lines near Thiepval. As battalion Communications Officer–working now out of the battalion headquarters in Zollern Redoubt–Tolkien has been kept busy establishing and maintaining telephone communications in the battered warren of the recent German positions and back over no man’s land to the higher echelon British formations. Busy, rather than idle–and so probably not writing much, be it letters or the private mythos that is now underway.[2]

 

Segues are one of many features of historical commentary that muffle our effort to connect empathetically to lived experience–especially the experience of a sudden shock.

The phone rang today, a century back, in the office of Lt. Col. Maurice Hankey, Secretary to the Committee of Imperial Defence.

Hankey answered it himself. He listened impassively to the voice at the other end; then, as he replaced the receiver, he merely remarked, ‘Donald‘s gone.’ After only a brief pause Maurice Hankey turned again to his stenographer. ‘Where was I, Owen?’ were his only words.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Bridge into the Future, 52-55.
  2. Chronology, 92.
  3. Kissane, Without Parade, 262. Kissane relies on his brother biographer, namely Roskill, Hankey, Man of Secrets, I, 308.

John Ronald Tolkien in Action at Thiepval; Rowland Feilding Out of Hell and Into Summer-Time; Edward Thomas Writes to a Different Trumpeter

The prose of Rowland Feilding is thick with hell these days, even though he himself has been removed from its current terrestrial location (i.e. the Somme) to the balefully, ironically pleasant surroundings of the Ypres Salient. (Which is not due to be hell-on-earth again until next year).

Two days ago he described his new surroundings to his wife:

September 26, 1916. Locre.

To-day I have been to reconnoitre the trenches, or rather breastworks, which we are to take over. They cross the swampy ground below the Wytschaete Ridge, which, crowned by the ruins of the Hospice and a red pile of brick, or what looks like brick, frowns down upon them. Some 5 miles to the left stands up the skeleton of Ypres, where the ruined Cathedral can from our trenches be seen, towering into the sky.

All was very quiet.

The line will be wet and nasty in winter, but to-day the sun was shining, and the whole country seemed smiling. The silence was quite extraordinary. There was no shelling.

Moreover, trees are standing, and many of the buildings are only slightly damaged. The fields are green and coloured with wild flowers; and to-day I saw two cows grazing not so very far behind the firing line, while, as I
walked along the communication trench, two cackling cock-pheasants flew overhead.

After the Somme it seems like coming from Hell to the Thames Valley in summer-time…

Albeit one in which the sights upon which idlers may feast their eyes include an observation balloon coming untethered and being shot down, “burning like a huge candle from the upper end” as it floated away…

September 28, 1916. In Front of Wytschaete.

I have walked—I don’t know how many miles—to-day, through our new trenches, well made by Canadian troops, but still requiring an enormous amount of spadework before the winter. I have a big digging party out tonight. In three days we hand over to another battalion, and move back into support, when my headquarters will be at another farm (“Siege Farm”), some 300 yards behind this one.

The news seems good. As the German papers say: “in the orgy of destruction on the Somme our soldiers are standing in Hell.” So are ours, but they take that as part of the day’s work, and will continue to do so, with smiling faces.[1]

 

Meanwhile, on the edge of that hell, John Ronald Tolkien and his battalion watched the attack of the 18th Division on the Schwaben Redoubt. There is no detailed record of what Tolkien saw, but it seems safe to conclude that–probably by position, and almost certainly by temperament–this was no case of feeling the Epicurean pleasure of being on the edge of a battle. For one thing, Tolkien will not ever (unless memory betrays) imagine a virtuous character feeling any such pleasure, but he will write several scenes in which essentially peaceful people quail in terror as they look out at the gathering clouds (literal as well as figurative) of battle.

For another, he had duties to attend to. Late in the afternoon today, a century back, three patrols of the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers went forward to occupy overrun trenches. They captured twenty-one Germans and pushed down the “communication trenches leading to the enemy’s close-support line.” Tolkien must have been busy as his battalion felt forward, under sketchy orders, to consolidate the attack–one of his signallers will the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his actions tonight. It was a dangerous and confusing time, and Tolkien’s memories of it seem to have been fragmentary–he will recall speaking in German to one of the captured officers, offering him water. Later, while he is on the trench telephone, “a field-mouse runs across his fingers.”[2]

 

Edward Thomas is wending his professional way closer to France, but he remains very much in England, acclimating to life as an artillery officer in training. Today, a century back, he wrote to his friend Walter de la Mare with his usual mix of self-deprecation and quiet confidence. Thomas is not the sort to immediately begin sneering at his non-combatant friends (that would be Richard Aldington), but neither does he melodramatically clam up and turn in profile, chin lifted at the horizon… he’s going to war, and he will not entirely avoid that uncomfortable fact…

Royal Artillery School
Trowbridge
Thursday 28 September 1916

My dear de la Mare,

…After all, I did pass the exam. I came here a week ago & am now fairly settled, as far as it is possible to be, in tents. The work is very hard & by 7.30 when it ends I have not really mastered the work of the day. Levers & pulleys &c are not in my line, I find. But we had some lovely days & nights & things are not as unpleasant as we were told…

The latest rumour is that the men over 35 may be put on coast defence, which I hope is not true. I suppose the coast has to be defended, but I would rather not be shelved at this time of day…[3]

There’s a smile to be provoked by this absurd diffidence. “Rather not be shelved at this time of day” means “have chosen to enter an unprecedented zone of destruction in order to fire enormous weapons at other men while they attempt to kill me with similar weapons, and would not like to be gainsaid in this choice.”

In the meantime, a noisy little fact of life and ready symbol has provoked a poem. Thomas He had written to Eleanor Farjeon on the 25th about the prominence of the trumpet in his new barracks. “The trumpet blows for everything and I like that too, tho the trumpeter is not excellent.” Nevertheless, he will also report that the way this “cracked” trumpet blows reveillé “pleases me”–enough, evidently, to set him writing another poem which treats the war directly, yet with a subtle ambivalence.[4]

 

The Trumpet

Rise up, rise up,
And, as the trumpet blowing
Chases the dreams of men,
As the dawn glowing
The stars that left unlit
The land and water,
Rise up and scatter
The dew that covers
The print of last night’s lovers—
Scatter it, scatter it!

 

While you are listening
To the clear horn,
Forget, men, everything
On this earth newborn,
Except that it is lovelier
Than any mysteries.
Open your eyes to the air
That has washed the eyes of the stars
Through all the dewy night:
Up with the light,
To the old wars;
Arise, arise!

This sounds very much like the sort of rousing, respectably militarist sort of thing that comes at the beginning of anthologies and little books of war poetry.[5] And so may it be–among its antecedents are Housman’s Reveillé and Hardy‘s Men Who March Away. The poem is in harmony with the sentiments of the trumpet–or in submission, for the most part.

But not completely. What does it mean, exactly, to urge men on to the “old wars?” And, more definitively ambivalent, as it were, why would the poet use this martial music to remind us of something so little calculated to inculcate the bayonet-charge spirit than the loveliness of mornings on earth?

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 122-4.
  2. Chronology, 91.
  3. Poet to Poet, 223.
  4. Farjeon, Edward Thomas, 214.
  5. See, generally, Longley, The Annotated Collected Poems, 312-3.

Tom Kettle Writes “To My Daughter Betty;” Raymond Asquith on Patrick Shaw-Stewart, Lady Desborough, and Notre Dame D’Amiens

I haven’t yet written of the Irish writer and politician (and “wit… scholar… orator,”[1] barrister, journalist, and economist) Tom Kettle–and I’m sorry for it. Like Francis Ledwidge, he was an Irish patriotic active in the drive for Home Rule who nonetheless saw it as his duty to fight for Britain against Germany. Unlike Ledwidge, Kettle was famous and influential, a friend of Joyce and a member of Parliament. Thirty-four at the outbreak of war, he chose nonetheless to serve as an infantry officer. Yesterday, a century back, knowing that his battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers was about to go into battle for the first time, he wrote a sort of political testament, explaining how his service–and possible death–in a British uniform should further the cause of Ireland. Today he addressed the possibility of his death in a more personal way while also placing it in the largest possible context: he wrote to his three-year-old daughter, and of salvation.

 

To My Daughter Betty, The Gift of God

In wiser days, my darling rosebud, blown
To beauty proud as was your Mother’s prime.
In that desired, delayed, incredible time,
You’ll ask why I abandoned you, my own,
And the dear heart that was your baby throne,
To die with death. And oh! they’ll give you rhyme
And reason: some will call the thing sublime,
And some decry it in a knowing tone.
So here, while the mad guns curse overhead,
And tired men sigh with mud for couch and floor,
Know that we fools, now with the foolish dead,
Died not for flag, nor King, nor Emperor,
But for a dream, born in a herdsman’s shed,
And for the secret Scripture of the poor.

 In the field, before Guillemont, Somme
September 4th, 1916

 

And I should leave it there–and would, but for a crossing… not of paths, but of references. A century on, we wreak mischief on the mischievous. Patrick Shaw-Stewart, still far off in the East, wrote a letter today, a century back, in which he enclosed the citation for his Croix de Guerre. He has been honored for his courage and general usefulness as the liaison officer to the French 17th Colonial Division–which is no mean honor, unless of course it is more or less pro forma for a well-liked and well-connected officer…[2]

High praise from the far-flung French–but he is being cut down rather closer to home. Raymond Asquith, Shaw-Stewart’s less-than-intimate friend and pseudo-rival (Asquith may feel as if Shaw-Stewart is the newer, inferior model of the socially climbing Eton-Balliol society wit) is full of opinions today.

3rd Grenadier Guards, B.E.F.
4 September 1916

. . . I’m glad you approved my contribution to Ettie’s book–an almost impossible thing to write even tolerably and probably, after she has doctored it, even less presentable than it originally was. She told me that she was going to cut out a bit in which I had said that Billy was insolent (as he most assuredly was) and as far as I recollect, the excision is bound to make nonsense of some of the least infelicitous paragraphs.

“Ettie” is, of course, Lady Desborough, mother of Julian and Billy Grenfell and society queen of the prior generation (she is to the Souls as Diana Manners is to the Coterie). Lady Desborough was always more than a bit much, and she is now assembling a memorial book for her sons, who were both killed last year. This trajectory–from hostess and symbol of society living to semi-public mourner and keeper of her sons’ flame–is now all too common.

Asquith is rude here, but hardly as rude as he could have been. He has submitted with near-grace to writing panegyric for two younger friends about whom he had a mixed sort of appreciation, to say the least. “Ettie’s” transmutation–from carefully eccentric inspiration for various pseudo-artistic men to full-time whitewasher of her sons’ memory–might be risible if it weren’t, in almost the correct classical sense, tragic. Asquith is much younger than Lady Desborough and positioned as an older friend of her sons rather than a younger admirer of her… but he has son of his own now. He is writing, after all, to the wife of a serving soldier and the mother of a boy who will have to go, if the war lasts into the mid-thirties…

So the fun-making, here, is in a minor key.

But there are other targets of opportunity in this mopping-up operation.

She also told me that she was going to put in Dunrobin and some of Bron’s houses as places where B and J and I had had fun together—which perhaps lends some colour to your charge of snobbery. As a matter of fact Ettie is a snob in the same simple harmless sense as Patrick [Shaw Stewart]. She meant to give her sons the best mise-en-scène from a worldly point of view which could be had and I suppose she wants people to know that she succeeded as she certainly did. She promised me the book but has not sent it–probably it is too big to travel.[3]

So our Shaw-Stewart, mailing home his citation, is only a harmless sort of snob. It’s an odd comparison–or, rather, Asquith is working with an odd definition of “snobbery.” He is citing Desborough–wife of a lord, lady in waiting, famous personality, wealthy landowner in her own right–with social climbing (or aesthetic scene-setting), and then declaring this to be a forgivable sin. It’s not that she looks down, but that, for her sons, she looks around, and arranges…

If that is snobbery, what, then, do we call a political scion hobnobbing with royalty?

I had a pleasant enough sojourn in A[miens]. Oliver and I and Sloper got the Prince to lend us his car. We went in on Saturday afternoon, got excellent rooms with soft beds and hot baths, and had several very well cooked meals and some drinkable champagne. The town was seething with other officers from the division and we rollicked about on Saturday night visiting the ladies of the town who provided a certain amount of amusement, but without (you will be glad to hear) any loss of chastity on my part or indeed on that of most of my companions.

amiens

Notre Dame D’Amiens in 1916, with sandbags (Imperial War Museum)

With Ettie Desborough and her sons and Patrick Shaw-Stewart thus taken care of–and a favor from the Prince of Wales to clear the palate[4]–the cantering rhythm of Asquith’s letters now resumes.

On Sunday night we drove back again and today in rain and wind have resumed the ordinary drudgery arid beastliness of life. It was pleasant to get back even for 24 hours to the decencies and indecencies of civilisation. The cathedral is very beautiful, but the first thing one instinctively looked at on seeing it was the sandbag barricade in front of the doors to see whether it was properly built according to the classical canons of trench architecture.

Tomorrow we have a Brigade Field Day. Yesterday there was a successful British attack on Ginchy and Guillemont[5] and if they capture Lenze-Wood (I don’t know yet whether they have done or not) comparatively open fighting may set in.

We have been put at 3 hours notice to move, but that happens so often that I don’t think it means anything.[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Chesterton, albeit via Wikipedia.
  2. Knox, Patrick Shaw-Stewart, 173-4.
  3. It is--Google claims it is over 600 pages but, despite its being long out of copyright, does not reproduce it. Lady Desborough's "Pages from a Family Journal" was privately printed and seems to be quite rare.
  4. Which isn't snobbery, I realize. I fail to score a point on Asquith on the counter-riposte: for Asquith to pretend he were not acquainted with the prince and that borrowing his car would not be useful would be a truer sort of snobbery.
  5. There was, and the Master of Belhaven was firing in support--Blunden's battalion's failed attack was on a different portion of the front).
  6. Life and Letters, 291-2.

The Master’s Guns in Action; Ben Keeling in a German Trench; Patrick Shaw-Stewart Wearily Under Canvas; Near Miss and Ham from Raymond Asquith

Ralph Hamilton, the Master of Belhaven, has been neglected of late. In all honesty, I brought him on board, as it were, not for his literary merits but for his strenuous regularity–he’s always near the front, and he writes almost every day. This is useful for filling in the corners of a daily project but it makes it difficult–without much forethought and planning, that is–to transform such an assiduous diary into a shapely narrative. With the Somme raging and Belhaven off in Ypres, I had not had much need of his generally short and businesslike reports on the artillery war. But his battery has recently moved south, and today Hamilton describes a bombardment which covered an attack by Ben Keeling’s Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, among other battalions.[1]

This is a good time to note not merely the futility of this sort of slow, attritional advance–however much ground the Allies take, the Germans have ample time to reinforce their deeper defenses–but also recent British tactical adaptations. One of the worst problems on July 1st was the time gap between the end of the supporting barrage and the arrival of the infantry. It only took a minute–even less, really, for the German machine gunners came out of their deep shelters and mount their weapons. This was disastrous to attacking infantry. So now the artillery is trying to increase its precision, keeping the Germans defenders under fire until the first wave is almost literally at their parapets. With Belhaven, we have an insider’s account of the new tactics.

The programme of our bombardment is very complicated; there are at least twenty phases in it. We are doing what is known as a “creeping barrage”–that is to say, we “lift as the infantry advance. First there is a period of intense bombardment… During this time out infantry leave their trenches and charge across “No Man’s Land” right up close to our barrage. They know they will lose some men from our fire but they are prepared for that in order that we may keep down the German machine-guns till the last moment; after that we lift our shells 50 yards every minute till we reach the next barrage…

This is good, cold-hearted tactics. Artillery is an exact science, but manufacturing tolerances and the vagaries of wind prevent perfect accuracy. To be completely safe from friendly fire is to risk facing returning defenders. It should work–if all goes according to plan. But if something slows up the infantry there is no way to get word to the guns, across no man’s land, through the inevitable counter-barrage, and thousands of yards behind. (Remember Milne and his shock that his telephone actually worked–and that was only in the original front lines, and hours after the attack had begun.)

The ball opened at about a quarter to five this afternoon… Exactly to the second hell broke loose and thousands of guns went off at the same moment. Never have I heard anything like it, or could have imagined such noises possible. It is quite impossible to describe to people who have not experienced it.

Ah, but it is never incumbent upon a diarist to entirely bridge the gulf, to master the representation of any aspect of war. It is only necessary to begin the work. And Hamilton realizes this, and gives us a good slice of the gunner’s experience:

It actually hurt, and for a time I felt as if my head would burst… After a time I retired to my telephone-pit… There matters were almost worse, the noises were not so violent, but the vibration was so great that at first I thought my heart was going to stop, from being so jolted. If one could imagine the vibration of the screw of a ship intensified a thousand-fold, it might give some idea of my sensations. Hour after hour it went on without a second’s pause… My guns have already fired nearly a thousand rounds each and are red-hot. We have to keep swilling them out with our precious little stock of water.[2]

 

I came to Ben Keeling’s letters late, and now it is entirely too late. The thirty-year-old Keeling was an Oxford man who had chosen an unusual path. A socialist and writer on social matters, he had been prominent in the labor movement before the war. His political beliefs surely had something to do with his decision to enlist as a private and, having risen to the rank of Company Sergeant Major, to refuse a commission. In a display of politically-tinged idiosyncrasy, he also insisted on keeping a full beard. Without any transfer or officer training or much in the way of leave he has seen a great deal of the war. He went forward today, a century back, as the leader of the Bombing Company of the 6th D.C.L.I.

He has known of the attack, and of his likely assignment–bombing up German trenches in the teeth of a counter-attack even as British shells fall around him–for at least a few days. Sometimes presentiment is nothing more than foreknowledge and a likely guess.

In a few days’ time, his colonel will write to the friend who compiled Keeling’s letters:

Dear Madam,

Lieutenant Barrington-Ward has handed to me your letter and cuttings of the local papers’ reference to Sergeant- Major Keeling. Seeing that you were one of his oldest friends, I should like to tell you how every officer and man in the battalion felt his loss. Perhaps his two years in the Army were the happiest and most useful that he spent. From the moment he joined with two thousand or more other men, his influence and brilliance were felt throughout the battalion. He was an immense factor for good among the non-commissioned ranks, and a link between officers and them. I three times asked him to take a commission, but he always replied he thought he was doing more useful work where he was. I have no hesitation in saying he was one of the bravest men I have ever seen, and he died leading a desperate bombing attack at a most critical moment.[3]

And the same Lieutenant Robert Barrington-Ward, Keeling’s friend and fellow-editor of a battalion paper:

You will, I expect, have learnt by this time that Keeling has been killed in action. All of us in the regiment are most awfully distressed about it. Though many good fellows went on the day of the battle (18 August), none left behind him more widespread regrets. He was killed out along a German trench up which our bombers were working. I understand that there was a risk of our bombers bombing our own men in this trench. Keeling jumped up on the parapet to make sure that the Germans were ahead, and he was caught by a bullet and died at once. The officer with the party took his papers off him. It is a very sad business. He did magnificently in the fight, and the party he was leading did particularly valiant work, protecting at a ticklish moment our own flank and the flank of the battalion on our right. We were unable to hold, at the time, the position we had taken, and the vigorous bombing offensive which Keeling’s party undertook saved us and ensured the success of the battalion on our right. I need not expound Keeling’s merits to you. I think, however, you may be interested to know how he was appreciated as a soldier by the rest of us.

“Died at once” is always to be hoped for–and thus it arouses suspicion. But I have no other information to offer, only arguments from silence, and absence: there is no mention of victory in either letter, and therefore Keeling was surely wounded or killed in a German trench that was relinquished, and his body left behind. Barrington-Ward will go on to edit the Times; Keeling’s friend H.G. Wells will help see his letters into print. Keeling has no known grave, and is therefore commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, with 72,000 others.

 

From this grim silence now to two other Oxford Scholars: our scintillating classicists, our men of the upper crust.

Patrick Shaw-Stewart wrote to his sister, today, a century back. He is far from the action, and quite safe, as a liaison officer in the Balkan campaign. He does manage a clever biblical reference, but he can’t quite hide the wistful tone.

Here, as you will have seen from the papers, we have started a certain liveliness. What the idea is, what we think we are doing, or what the enemy and Rumania intend to do about it, is all Greek to me: my own part in the matter consists of getting up horribly early in the morning, being at the end of a telephone which works exceedingly badly, and is very trying to the nerves, doing a vast deal of office work without the most primitive office appliances such as ink, a table, or a clerk, driving about very dusty roads in a Ford car (distances are generally too great at present for my trusty steeds), and watching picturesque artillery actions from a safe and elegant mountain.

This, once again, I will persist in seeing as a learned reference to Lucretius’s view that a battle viewed from a safe distance is an excellent example of happiness. Shaw-Stewart does not disagree–he’s a carefree and debonair pawn:

In fact, quite a reasonable way of carrying on war compared with many others. Very interesting of course from the tactical and what you may call the minor diplomatic (intermilitary) point of view, but so confusing and incomprehensible from the strategic and political as to be sometimes rather irritating. However, I dare say I shall understand when the History of the War comes out. The temperature is very decent now, and we are “under canvas” (I in a tent made by a Spanish Jew of Salonica, named Calderon, a trade-successor of St Paul, which cost me 200 good drachmas, but is really quite fair) in a little wood on the edge of some hills, much frequented by hoopoes and (I believe they are) pied shrikes. I am now resigned to my third grouseless Autumn (I have already dreed my third English-strawberryless Summer), and can’t help thinking the war is getting rather long.[4]

 

Shaw-Stewart’s friend and exemplar Raymond Asquith has never had a grouseless autumn or a unploverovum’d spring, and I’m sure Fortnum and Mason manage something, strawberry-wise. But he is in France, and his meals are regularly enlivened by iron supplements, courtesy of the German Imperial Army. Ha!

We’ve had a number of tales of the near-miss, but they are usually told as a fait accompli–as they must be, really. There are no first-person tales of the ones that didn’t miss.

Asquith, however, is a master raconteur, and he manages to put us–or rather his wife, Katherine–amidst the unfolding experience:

3rd Grenadier Guards, B.E.F.
18 August 1916

. . . We had just settled the men in and sat down to luncheon in a very nice green mess tent when the damnable sound of an approaching howitzer shell smote our ears. We looked at one another with sickly smiles each holding an oily sardine suspended half way between the cup and the lip while the thing came slowly through the air. One’s ear gets very delicate in these matters after a certain amount of practice and it was obvious to all that as far as direction was concerned the shell was coming straight for our tent; the only question was whether it would be short or over or just right. There were 4 tables in the tent; one for each company. Sloper and I were at the one nearest the enemy and at first I thought we were going to have the worst of it and then it became clear that there was just enough kick in the shell that would take it at least as far as the other side of the tent say 30 feet away, and then came the bang. The tent swayed about and rattled with mud and stones and the 4 officers at the far table threw themselves flat on the floor. There was no harm done. It had gone another 30 feet or so beyond the tent.

Then other shells began bursting…  It was 4 o’clock as a matter of fact before we were again sitting down to our sardines.

At 6.30 I was ordered to take out a dozen N.C.O.s to reconnoitre various ways out of the village up to the trenches. Just as we had finished our job and begun getting back the shelling began again with greater vigour than before. It
was rather disagreeable having to march back in the sunset into the middle of the cannonade. The shells were falling all about the camp and the houses and the hollow in which the village lay was full of dust and fumes and rolling clouds of smoke. When we got to the camp we found that everyone had left it for shelter in the fields…

We had just time for a hasty dinner off an excellent ham which Frances had sent and which arrived most felicitously…

I have made rather a story out of all this as I always do. There was nothing much in it really, except the damnable inconvenience of the noise beginning twice exactly at meal times, and as usually happens when there is shelling we were all more frightened than hurt…[5]

 

And just one more officer of the Guards. Or, rather, two: Bimbo Tennant seems to do little, these days, but prepare his poems. But not all of them, perhaps, should be destined for the volume his mother is editing. A family-produced book is all right, really… but perhaps the future lies with one’s friends?

I shall like to have some of my ‘pomes’ in the Anthology Osbert and his sister are bringing out, is it all right to send some of those that are to appear in my little book? About the dedication, I want to dedicate it to you and Uncle George and will send it as soon as I have framed it in suitable words…[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Battle of the Somme is grinding on, and to ease the task of military historians (or to help them impute good sense to bygone operational decisions) it was later subdivided, and certain periods of particular intensity were assigned dates and the name of a wood or town. We are moving, now, from the segment subsequently declared to be the Battle of Delville Wood toward the segment known as the Battle of Guillemont.
  2. War Diary, 232-3.
  3. Keeling Letters, 312-13.
  4. Knox, Patrick Shaw-Stewart, 173-4.
  5. Life and Letters, 285-6.
  6. Memoir, 217.

A. A. Milne Goes Forward Under Fire, with Jane Austen Holding his Train; Disaster for the Warwicks, and Mercy; Max Plowman Ponders the Gulf and the Writer’s Task; Edward Thomas Burns his Bridges; Wilfred Owen is Better at Rapid

As the clock turned over to today, a century back, A. A. Milne, signals officer of the 11th Warwicks, was sitting in a command dugout alongside his colonel and the rest of the headquarters and signalling sections. They were waiting for news of the battalion’s attack, which had begun an hour and a half before. They had another two hours to wait.

It was about two o’clock in the morning that a runner got through. The attack, as was to be expected, was a complete failure…

Advancing into machine gun and artillery fire, the Warwicks took heavy casualties and “were obliged to return to their original trenches.” Only one officer and eleven men were recorded in that day’s Battalion Diary as killed, but many of the 39 “missing” were also dead, lying between the German and British lines or in the German trenches themselves. The battalion commander, Col. Collison, will remember that three officers died, two were seriously wounded, and another was taken down the line suffering from shell-shock. At least 111 men were wounded.

But Collison and Milne didn’t know this at the time time. They knew almost nothing–which was a problem. And Milne was the communications officer.

“Am I to go back, sir?”

“No.” He caught the Major’s eye. The Major got up and strapped on his revolver. It was all too clearly the moment for me to strap on mine…

“Use your common sense,” said the Colonel. “If it’s impossible, come back. I simply cannot lose three signalling officers in a month.”

I promised, but felt quite unable to distinguish between commonsense and cowardice. The whole thing was so damned silly.

Milne knows, I think, that isn’t so much a brave confession as it is a nice little nutshell. He had wanted this rare independence to choose his own course. But, now–how was he to know where his duty lay? It’s somewhere between heroism and cowardice, out there in the dark.

Milne had to try, at least, to run a new line forward now, in the middle of the night, under fire. But he has only been in command of the signalling section for a single day–who should he choose to help him?

I told my sergeant that we were now going to run out a line, and asked him to pick two men for me. I knew nothing of the section then, save that there was a Lance-Corporal Grainger who shared my passion for Jane Austen, unhelpful knowledge in the circumstances.

The sergeant volunteers and picks a different man. Out they go into the night, following the major (probably the battalion’s second in command) toward the attacking companies.

We dashed. The Major went first–he was going to “reorganize the troops”; I went second, God knew why; the sergeant and the signaller came behind me, running out a line neatly and skilfully… From time to time the Major flung himself down for a breather, and down we flopped and panted, wondering if he would get up again. To our relief each time he was alive, and so were we. We passed one of the signal-stations, no longer a station but a pancake of earth on top of a spread-eagled body; I had left him there that evening, saying “Well, you’ll be comfortable here.” More rushes, more breathers, more bodies, we were in the front line. The Major hurried off to collect what men he could, while I joined up the telephone. Hopeless, of course, but we could have done no more. I pressed the buzzer…

The phone, unexpectedly, works.

I asked to speak to the Colonel. I told him what I knew. I ordered—what were telephones for?–a little counter-bombardment. Then with a sigh of utter content and thankfulness and the joy of living, I turned away from the telephone. And there behind me was Lance-Corporal Grainger.

“What on earth are you doing here?” I said.

He grinned sheepishly…

“I though I’d just like to come along, sir.”

“But why?”

He looked more embarrassed,

“Well, sir, I though I’d just like to be sure you were all right.” Which is the greatest tribute to Jane Austen that I have ever heard.[1]

 

This story pleases me immensely. Any self-respecting, Pooh-reading Janeite should end it there, in triumph. But delving into this action has raised some interesting issues. We have two witnesses writing this attack, but neither of them were really eyewitnesses at all. The attack was hundred of yards ahead of them, in a shell-stricken night. Milne tells his own story, but Collison tries to tell his battalion’s, and for that he must rely on the testimony of the single surviving officer he was subsequently able to interview.

The attack, Colonel Collison explains, was made with two companies in front. One, despite the loss of three officers, seemed to penetrate the German line. But even that is not certain. The other company was stopped well short of the trenches, and a supporting company lost its way and headed off at an oblique angle.

It must have been easy enough for the forewarned Germans to counter this very localized inroad into their front line. “It is certain that these bold spirits were all either killed or captured,” writes Collison. It was his plan–he, that is, drew up the plan he was ordered to draw up, and remained, blind and helpless, in the position that duty required him to maintain, while other men tried to carry it out.

His diary could be filled with defensive self-justification or a lament for the uselessly slaughtered. But neither of those approaches would serve much of a purpose. Rather, both his personal diary and the official Battalion War Diary testify to Collison’s decency and humanity–and to the free-thinking nature of his command. There is no protest, no dramatic gesture. But the War Diary, written in the clear hand of a clerk (or perhaps the adjutant) on an official army form, makes it perfectly clear that their orders were self-defeating: they were to attack just after–but not in coordination with–that barrage by the heavies. To write that this “no doubt advertised our intended attack” in the official record is a stinging rebuke. It suggests that Collison would have been morally justified in calling off the attack, but, realistically, that option was not open to him. Men were going to die, futilely. But nothing would prove the futility of their deaths unless orders were followed, and so they died.

Collison’s diary also provides a name for the body found by Milne, if we can allow for Milne’s having positioned a man described not as a signaller but as a “headquarters orderly” in that advanced command/signalling position. He was Private Saunders–William Richard Saunders–and Collison, too, steps aside from enumerating the day’s losses to remember a Warwickshire family tragedy: he tells us that Saunders had enlisted alongside his father, who had recently been killed.[2] But that’s it–that’s all the colonel can do, writing later on, to remember what was a very bad day for his battalion.

If the story has taken rather long in the telling, the whole affair… only lasted a few minutes…[3]

Collison even wearily compliments the Germans on their competent defense, but then again, he reminds us, they had been well-warned.

 

Much more remarkable is the Battalion Diary, presumably written today, a century back, or shortly thereafter. It makes it clear that sympathy for the plight of the 11th Warwicks was rather more widespread than we might have guessed:

At daybreak many of our men were still finding their way back to our trenches. The Germans showed themselves + shouted friendly remarks to our men + appeared anxious for a peaceful spell. Our stretcher-bearers went out and fetched in wounded men. For some hours the situation was very quiet…”

And it gets more interesting still. The end of that sentence is crossed out rather heavily–not merely stricken through, but then again not blacked or inked out. I’m confident restoring at least this much:

+ both sides sat[?] or stood[?] on the parapets quite f [3-6 letters illegible].

I wish I could make out the last word, but it seems clear that the Germans were merciful. If they had dead and wounded to evacuate they would have had a much easier time of it–they were in their own trenches. Instead, they took pity on the men they had shot down during the night and allowed for their rescue. Six weeks into the Battle of the Somme they craved some respite, some re-establishment of common humanity.

All this was duly described, then this honesty was regretted. Such an informal truce was, after all, against standing orders. Given Collison’s example of restraint, it wouldn’t do to fulminate–but this would seem to be a pretty clear example of front fighters on both sides united in passive resistance to the best efforts of their generals to get them all killed.

 

 

We have a letter today from Max Plowman on the happy occasion of his survival of his first tour in the front-line trenches. Or, more precisely, on his return to billets to discover a longed-for book in a parcel sent by his friend Janet Upcott. It’s Meredith, and it’s “a treasure.” The pleasure of having good reading to look forward to–his batman had neglected to pack other books when they came to the front–sends Plowman off on a rant about the newspapers.

I find there’s very little one can read out here. The newspapers on the war are nauseating… Whether the general censorship is to blame or not I don’t know but it’s all unreal–the horror & terror & misery are all ‘written down’ or covered with sham heroics by cheap journalism. Moreover, more than ever, I mistrust communiques. They are the window dressing of whitewash & varnish–true as a description of London would be which said “It was quite a large town, bigger than Oxford having many important & interesting churches in it of which St. George’s Hanover Square was considered by many to be the most interesting”. I’m not grumbling–no doubt these things are unavoidable but they look foolish from here & the armchair critic is made ridiculous. Truth has been sunk so deeply down the well now one wonders how long it will take to draw her up again. I should be glad if I thought I had the memory & luck & balance of mind & power of description to help in that direction but I don’t think I have.
This is a combination of a prayer and a writerly statement of purpose, the piety of a doubting writer mustered up and clutched close and slipping away through his fingers. But not all the way away…
Of course only fools believe the newspapers–I mean believe the Germans are cowards who won’t face bayonets–believe soldiers enjoy this kind of war–believe each British soldier who’s killed finds a beautifully tended grave and all the rest of the rot… One hates the vacuum that’s created and the journalistic blather is like a grinning mask on the face of death or a ballet dancer’s skirt on the figure of victory.
This lunging flèche seems a little too aggressive–the writer is back on the attack, but two such different metaphors!
Sorry!–I’ve been writing dull platitudes! Well I’ve been very frightened Janet. Shell fire is a very terrible thing, much more terrible than I had ever troubled to imagine… The men who decided to fire heavy guns on soldiers in trenches must have been possessed by the devil. To sit in an inferno of noise & light & wait to be blown to nothing with small earthquakes all round is a disgusting experience. Its stupidity strikes everybody up there…

The sympathy between Milne’s experience and Plowman ‘s writing is remarkable: “so damned silly” and “stupidity,” the disgust at propaganda and the frank contradiction of ostensible norms and orders shown by the Warwicks and their foes…

Plowman then goes on to describe the very slight wound he had received the previous Wednesday. That was a good joke, of course, but the relief that follows his first tour in the trenches is most sincere. Plowman describes this in a passage from his memoir:

Still alive

It is marvellous to be out of the trenches: it is like being born again. The cloud of uncertainty that hung above us every moment while we were under fire, putting its minatory query before the least anticipation, is lifted, and we are free to say, “In an hour’s time,” without challenging Fate with the phrase. When freedom to anticipate is being persistently challenged, one understands as never before how much man lives by hope. To be deprived of reasonable expectation — even of the next moment — is the real strain. I had not thought of that. Certainty, even of violent death, would often come as a relief. It is the perpetual uncertainty that makes life in the trenches endurance all the time. “Stick it” has become a password: intelligibly the right one. We have to forget “I shall.” It is this constriction of hope that depresses men in the trenches. “If” stands before every prospect, and it is no small “if” in this war. But here we are, alive again, like men redeemed from the grave. We have left the trenches behind.

Instinctively we feel as if we have earned the right to go home. We gave Death the chance. Death did not take it and we’ve escaped alive. What about it? Isn’t the war finished — at least for us? Some of these men have put their lives in pawn a hundred times. Haven’t at least they earned the right of respite? Surely you who live walled round by safety would not demand of these men that they shall keep on offering Death their lives till he accepts? Surely, despite your grey hairs, you’d rather leap from seats of assembly and run into the breach yourselves? I hope you would, but now I am wondering whether you’ve imagination enough to know what’s happening. I should like to remind army commanders, cabinet ministers and other members of parliament, that soldiers only respect those in command over them who are themselves willing to hazard their lives. Napoleon knew this. It behoves them to remember. If they are content merely to prescribe our fates, let them be assured that their share in the honours of posterity will be the award of con- tempt.

Anyway we are alive again for a time — most probably — though three men have been killed in a cook-house that was standing here when we left, but has since been shelled out of sight. Peace will come some day, bringing to some men, if not to us, its almost unthinkable reprieve. Peace might even come to-day. Who can tell?[4]

It’s a bit manipulative to segue back and forth from letter to memoir, but at least I can comfort myself knowing that its quality would provide some solace to the century-back Plowman. Here is how today’s letter concludes:

I wish I could come home & tell you all I know, now while the impressions are fresh because I suppose if I “stick it” long they’ll all get dull & in the desire to “get on or get out” I shall forget what war is really like & be as inarticulate as the rest when I do get back. But… I’m awfully glad I did get out here. This is a rotten letter because it tries to emphasise the terror & horror of the war which one can only vaguely realise in England…[5]

Well, it’s a tall order.

 

Meanwhile, back in England, Wilfred Owen continues with his training. It’s musketry, now, the hoary British army term for rifle-shooting. Let’s let Wilfred observe himself under observation:

Sat. Night [13 August 1916] Mytchett Musketry Camp

Dearest of Mothers,

Just had your Letter which came, as you designed, tonight. It came refreshingly, comparable to the cool rain that broke over this desert this evening…

My own shooting, alas, is the least of my cares. But it is a bit of a worry, because, in duty bound, one strafes the men for bad shooting, and is never sure of not doing worse than the worst of them. They keep a relentless watch on my Target. I have so far got a Pass every day, but I only do well in Rapid! I can get off 5 rounds in 30 secs, scoring 3 bulls and 2 inners, 17 marks out of 20. If allowed more time I do less well. It is an interesting point of my psychological ‘erraticness’…[6]

 

And one more brief, melancholy note, from Owen’s erstwhile fellow Artists’ cadet. Tonight, a century back, Edward Thomas is making a bonfire of books and letters that he can’t take with him. Two months after his landlady evicted him from his shack-study in his garden in Steep, his wife and children will be moving to a new cottage at High Beech. Thomas will continue to move among different barracks and camps, and soldiers–even soon-to-be-officers–must travel light.

I thought I should be accused of making a beacon for Zeppelins last night, I had such a huge bonfire…[7]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. From Milne's autobiography, It's Too Late Now, quoted and "slightly adapted" by Thwaite, A. A. Milne, 175-77.
  2. I can't corroborate this. Private Saunders' father is listed by the CWGC as Joseph Saunders, but I can't find a good match for him in their records.
  3. Milne's autobiography, It's Too Late Now, is quoted in Thwaite, A. A. Milne, 175; Collison, With the 11th Royal Warwicks in France, 1915-16, 100-8. The Battalion Diary is available online.
  4. A Subaltern on the Somme, 54-5.
  5. Bridge Into the Future, 47-9.
  6. Collected Letters, 404.
  7. Letters from Edward Thomas to Gordon Bottomley, 270.