Duff Cooper: “The Dance is Over;” Wilfrid Ewart Arrives in Bourlon Wood; Wilfred Owen Directs the Staff

Before we go to Cambrai–and then back to England, where the battle’s losses are hitting home–we have Wilfred Owen reporting to his mother on his new assignment, his first spell of “Home Service” and “Light Duty” after the long and happy interlude at Craiglockhart. He is in Scarborough, one of his Regiment’s reserve bases, and he is playing an entirely unfamiliar role. But I should let him explain:

23 November 1917 6 (Reserve), Bn. Manchester Regt.
Northern Cavalry Barracks, Scarborough

Dearest Mother,

I have been put on a species of Light Duty which I little expected: I am Major Domo of the Hotel. There is a Mess President, the Doctor, Capt. Mather, whom I knew at Witley, and like very much; there is also a Food Specialist…

I have to control the Household, which consists of some dozen Batmen, 4 Mess Orderlies, 4 Buglers, the Cook, (a fat woman of great skill,) two female kitcheners, and various charwomen!

Owen is not exactly “Major Domo,” but rather “Camp Commandant” in the incongruous setting of a seaside hotel full of reserve officers of the Manchester Regiment. It is strange for the gentle, middle class poet to be managing domestic staff, and in the coastal town where his family once holidayed when he was a teenager.

He seems amused–at first–and so amuses his mother:

They need driving. You should see me scooting the buglers round the dining-room on their knees with dustpan and brush! You should hear me rate the Charwoman for leaving the Lavatory-Basins unclean. I am responsible for finding rooms for newcomers, which is a great worry, as we are full up. This means however that I have a good room to myself, as well as my Office!

I keep two officers under arrest in their rooms; & spent a dismal hour this morning taking one of these for exercise.

I get up at 6.30. to see that the breakfast is ready in time.

I spent this morning in Correspondence, and Inspection of rooms, working from 5 a.m. to 12. This afternoon I ordered from the Grocers and the Greengrocers vast quantities of food…

The list goes on, as his lists often do, so we’ll skip a bit:

It is interesting work but hardly ‘lighter’ than a Platoon Commander’s!

But here’s an irony: though safer, this sort of job is a danger to the thing Owen most values, now:

Confound this business mood which possesses me! It, as much as the busy-ness of my hours, will prove disastrous to my poems. But things will slack down next week, and so shall my temper…

I think I am marked Permanent Home Service.

He is not.

Always your own

W.E.O.[1]

 

Now to France, where Wilfrid Ewart was in Bourlon Wood, which has become, as these unexpected woods tend to do, the center of a vicious fight, the sort of place where advances bog down and horrors multiply. It was “a nightmare sort of place–pitch dark and none knew its torturous ways or quite where the Germans were.” His battalion resisted the urge to panic–a good thing, as the German counter attack that was rumored did not materialize. Not yet: but their machine guns are thick in the far side of the wood.

Ewart is now very much amidst the remnants of the attack of two and three days ago. It is as if the Cavalry and the Highlanders are still suffering the loss of our Edward Horner and E.A. Mackintosh: Ewart writes that, late in the night tonight, “[w]e… found some very windy Highlanders and dismounted cavalry…” shattered forces who are being replaced, now, by the Guards. Tomorrow, it will be the turn of Ewart’s First Scots Guards to try to push through the wood.[2]

 

Yesterday, a century back, Duff Cooper was gazetted as a “full blown Officer in the Grenadiers.” Today he was on leave in London, celebrating by playing bridge with a friend…

We had just finished two rubbers and we had settled down to a game of skip when Sybil came in and said she wanted to speak to me for a minute. I left the room feeling rather annoyed at her mysterious ways. On the landing she said ‘Edward has been killed and Diana is waiting for you outside.’ I went down and found Diana standing by the area railings crying. We got into a taxi and drove away… Edward meant so much in our lives. I loved no man better… By his death our little society loses one of the last assets that gave it distinction. to look back on our Venice party now, only four years ago, is to recall only the dead. The original four were Denny, Billy, George [Nairne?] and Edward of whom not one remains. The most precious guests… were Raymond and Charles… Only Patrick and I remain… I being to feel that the dance is over and that it is time to go.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 508-9.
  2. Scots Guard, 146-7.
  3. Diaries, 60-1.

Lord Dunsany Finds Comfort Among Friends, and a Near Miss and Wordsworth

Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany, has had a less than exalted military career. He’s never fit in well with his brother officers–perhaps because he is a prickly sort of character, perhaps because he’s a literary chap (and a fantasy-inclined literary chap at that), or perhaps because he was briefly an officer in the prewar army and had quit, thus demonstrating a preference for the life of a prickly, literary, adventurous, wealthy lord to that of a career army officer… For these reasons–or because of his outspokenness or his intermittent speaking up for an enlisted poet–and also certainly because of his status as a peer and the fact that his wound was bravely but awkwardly obtained in Dublin–Dunsany has spent very little time at the front. So it is with eager appreciation that he has found himself accepted, at last, into the less socially intimidating milieu of a line battalion.

He has found fellowship–friends and comrades, if not yet quite a band of brothers. And this makes him very happy. But how did it come about?

Because out here, where titles and outside interests are not of much account, he has passed the one test that really matters.

My Darling Mink,

We are well out of the way of shells and will still be when you get this letter. I hope you may some day meet all the officers of D. Co. with whom I have soldiered. They are all my friends, even Lacey, a typical ranker: they probably all started out with a prejudice against my inexperience, which I think changed in every case under shell-fire…

That is, the logically assumed that a titled, ex-professional officer with so little trench experience was either being protected or had previously proven to be a grave liability. But, as with Robert Graves and so many others, he finds that social resistance is not zealously maintained against an officer who can do his job under fire.

And, even better, the mixed lot of men now officering old Kitchener battalions are likely to be less hostile to the consolations of literature than a mess full of regular officers.

…and another is Williams… a journalist on the Manchester Guardian with a good appreciation for poetry. One night I was rummaging among philosophy to find comfort and he said did I know Wordsworth’s Ode to Duty. I asked him to repeat it, which he could not do, but he said what he could remember of it as we went along the line and I certainly found it inspiring. I don’t think I told you that I was hit one night but not hurt. It was that night, but it was later on that we were talking about Wordsworth, towards dawn.

Ever your loving

Pony[1]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Amory, Lord Dunsany, 147.

Siegfried Sassoon Converses on England, and Sacrifice, with a Proper English Lady; Edwin Vaughan’s Patrol; Henry Williamson on Magazines and Mule Races; Rowland Feilding’s Scruples

Edwin Vaughan and his company commander had a minor adventure in No Man’s Land in the wee hours of last night, a century back. It left him feeling confident and accomplished… and eager to contest the ground with the Germans opposite.

At about 12 noon I woke and, while Dunham still slept, I wormed my out under the oilsheet which screened the front of our hole, and standing erect in the trench I met a fresh sweet breeze and clear, warm sunlight that made me glowing and alert in a moment.  Raising my arms in a luxurious stretch I rose on tiptoe and looked round the stretch of ground behind me–a slight valley of long coarse grass thickly strewn with poppies and dog daisies…

The calm and silence seemed as fragile, and the sky as dainty, as the picture on a Dresden plate…

What could go wrong? Vaughan visits his men in their posts as they while away the day reading, day-dreaming, or cleaning their rifles…

Not a sound could be heard but the tinkle of a button stick in the next recess, until without warning there was a mighty crash and a spray of earth and stones fell over us as we flung ourselves against the trench side.

A high-velocity shell bursting 30 yards in front had effectively broken the spell and as Wood climbed back into his recess, I hurried back to mine–not that these holes afford the slightest protection, except against small splinters, but as a rabbit seeks its burrow, so we each dash to our own hole for safety. Dunham was standing in the trench with a tin of pork and beans in his hand and a look of mingled surprise and indignation on his face.

In January this would have occasioned a day of cowering terror–but Vaughan is a tyro no longer. Mere whizz-bangs! This threat they laugh off, or wish away… and the day passes. Later, Vaughan goes out to meet Radcliffe, the company commander. They are out in the open, along a segment of the line where a rise in the ground screens them from German observation.

We were still in the open near the right post when I grabbed his arm and we stood motionless. I had heard the faint crack of a ‘grenatenwerfer’–forgotten since Biaches–and after a faint short swish the bomb burst with a sharp shattering crash and a spurt of yellow sparks–overhead!

Immediately a cold fear gripped me, for I realized instantly that there was no cover from these. It was no use lying down, for their burst was downward and they were immediately overhead. We waited for several minutes, and as the fire was not repeated I cheered myself by saying that this was only an accidental premature, and that the ground busters were quite harmless.

But this hope was soon shattered, for suddenly there came a persistent stream of them all bursting at the same height over our lines. The fragments whizzed past us and struck the ground with horrid thuds, and our nerves were terribly racked. But reaching my post we found the troops taking not the slightest notice of them, so in feigned nonchalance we strolled along, chaffing the NCOs and questioning the sentries until the ‘pineapples’ ceased–15 minutes later.

Another false alarm. Or, not so much false as… merely alarming. But the night’s business is still ahead: will they be able to assert their dominance of the wide swath of No Man’s Land, or cede it to German patrols and working parties?

Radcliffe was taking his patrol out from my right post, so I waited there while he went back to fetch them, then one by one we passed through the gap in the wire and crouched in the wet grass until the formation was complete. We advanced in jumps, Raddy and I creeping forward with a runner, scenting the ground for 50 yards at a time, and then sending the runner back for the patrol. After a while we got tired of this, so we left the patrol where it was and we two crept on alone until we reached a junction of two roads that ran across No Man’s Land. The road was sunken and as we approached we heard faint voices and, looking over the bank, there, hard at work digging a hole, were eight or ten large Boche.

This odd locution–are these singular-plural Boche beasts to be hunted?–is yet another sign of Vaughan’s new veteran’s posture.

We were neither surprised nor alarmed. We just lay watching them amusedly for a couple of minutes, then crawled off back to the patrol. I was wondering what on earth induced them to dig holes in No Man’s Land, when a figure almost upright hurried past us and was lost in the darkness behind. So we stood up then and ran back to where our lads were lying chilled, wet and fed up. Quickly we told them what we had seen, and in a moment they were alert and we set off together–out for blood.

Alas! When we reached the crossroads nothing remained of the working party but a few chalky shovels. Se we had to be content with firing a few rounds down the road after them, and then we walked back, laughing and talking, whilst four of the silly asses marched the shovels between them with great ceremony and exaggerated caution as though they were enemy prisoners

This little jaunt has left us with our tails well up, and I, for one, am very keen on No Man’s Land. I fully appreciate the truth of the maxim that was dinned into us during training–‘Fighting patrols are the finest stiffeners of morale’..[1]

Vaughan, who has been so honest about his fears and insecurities, can thus perhaps be trusted on this matter a bit farther than we might ordinarily credit a diary drafted in post-patrol exhilaration. And–while not hoping (if that makes any sense, here, a century on) for more violence–it is interesting to note that this confidence-building patrol produces neither useful intelligence nor some “positive” attritional score. It’s a riskier version of “live and let live,” and it is certainly good for morale, and/but no harm was done. So–good!

But other units would have counted the escape of these Germans on consecutive nights as a failure to be sufficiently effectively bloodthirsty.

 

We have several more writers to get to, and today’s letter from Rowland Feilding contains no similarly dramatic descriptions of military escapades. But it’s worth our time as an excellent example of what makes his letters to his wife so valuable. Their promised commitment to honesty is neither fudged for the sake of their worries nor elided for matters of convenience. This couple monitors the gulf between them with the scrupulous intensity of responsible inspectors of public works, and so keep their connection as strong as possible and maintain the future historical value of their correspondence.

May 15, 1917 – Kemmel Shelters.

I feel disappointed when I get a letter from you telling me of troubles with servants, whom war and the high wages of the munition works seem to have so thoroughly unsettled. I hate picturing you in the midst of such annoyances, especially as there is nothing I can say or do can help you. Contrariwise, this remark no doubt applies equally to my stories to you of the goings on here, and I often wonder if I am right in keeping the promise I made you when I first came out to hide nothing from you.

The very fact of my being here must cause you intense anxiety, and, as I am helpless in the case of the servant problem, so it is equally true that there is nothing you can do to deter the enemy from any villainy he may contemplate.

And I continue writing to you of all the dangers of the war, remembering that you once said that if I hid anything you
would know it, and only imagine worse things than were really happening.[2]

 

Other correspondents are less reliable, not to mention less considerate about their addressee’s feelings. Henry Williamson is in rare form once again. Yesterday, he wrote to his mother a letter that–for all that I skip the most repetitive ones–you may feel as if you had read before:

Dear Mother,

Thank you for the little letter. Of course you always pile the agony on, dont you. Why am I a hero? I tell you frankly I would rather be here than at home–because out here I cant spend money, and also I have quite as good a time. I shant be going in any more attacks–as it is proved, thank God, that a T.O. is essential to send up supplies, etc during one… Of course one may die any second by hostile shelling, but even then, one has a sporting chance of seeing the war through…

Well mother, will you please give an order to a newsagent…

Now please dont forget… For heavens sake let this be the last request for these papers. Well I cant write any more now. Love to all. Harry.

His timing is as impeccable as his deportment. Today, a century back:

My dear Mother,

Thanks for the two bundles of papers etc arrived today. By the way, you never answered my query about how many boxes of souvenirs you got–I sent two tin boxes off, then a box of helmets, then a sandbag…  what about the first box?

We are having tomorrow some sports in the Transport Section…

I am willing to wager a good deal that–provided the box of almost definitely not live souvenir grenades made it past the censors and through the post–Mrs. Williamson did away with them rather swiftly.

In any case, there’s no sign that the grenades made it into Williamson’s archive… although a program for this Transport Section sport competition did. There are twelve events listed, most of them some variation on a mule race…

Did Henry participate? Perhaps not. But in the novel Philip Maddison got second place, riding a mule named Jimmy…[3]

 

Two days ago I posed the question of whether Siegfried Sassoon, recuperating in what sounds like an impossibly pleasant environment, redolent of his prewar country idylls, can possibly progress in his writing–the writing that was increasingly focused on protesting the horrors of war.

Well, yes and no…

May 15

Marvell’s poems are the best vintage for these days of tranquillity. In the morning I wake to hear a gardener whetting his scythe beyond the yew-hedges. And I know that a tree of silver blossom shakes in the morning sunshine above his head, and a blackbird sings to all the world, crying that, life is fresh and sweet and jolly.

Ye glow–worms, whose officious flame
To wandering mowers shows the way.
That in the night have lost their aim.
And after foolish fires do stray.[4]

And in the afternoon I breathe the country air blown up from weald and wood—the smell of earth after rain, the kindest smell that ever came to make me glad.

All the morning I sit under oaks and beeches in the glory of young leaves, a book on my knee—John Morley on some eighteenth-century Frenchman, the kind of book where one can read a page or two and then turn to the morning sky and the garden and the distant line of downs as infinitely preferable, like listening to a bird singing, outside the church during a dry sermon) as one watches, the shadows of leaves and wings against the coloured windows…

It would seem, then, that the only things Sassoon might be inclined to write are backsliding pastoral poems or, perhaps, a time-travel jeu d’esprit in which he falls into a fountain and emerges dripping to hold a conversation with a young Marie Antoinette.

Well, yes and no. Here’s what comes next in the notebook:

 

A Conversation

He told her how he’d been trying to make up his mind. It was all quite simple; a tale re-told in many hearts. Twice he had been to the war, and twice had come home wounded; and now his friends had half-persuaded him to take a ‘safe job’.

She listened to him, with her grey hair and tired white face, kind, aristocratic and emotionless, leaning a little forward over a piece of embroidery. She represented the patrician distinctions that he had fought for—the climbing woods and green fields that soldiers learn to love when death is over them. She was a Great Lady. And he was only a poet; but he knew that life was taking shape in his heart, and reputation a thing of small value compared with his hidden passion, for utterance and truth and beauty. For a while he thought that she understood.

He spoke without reserve of his longing for life and the task that lay before him, setting against it his mystical joy in the idea of sacrifice and the disregard of death. ‘But death is nothing’, she said, putting away her high-bred reserve like a rich cloak; ‘Life, after all, is only the beginning. And those who are killed in the war—they help us from “up there”, they are all helping us to win.’

For a moment he was struck dumb: he had forgotten that he spoke to an alien intelligence, that would not suffer the rebellious creed that was his. She was a good woman as well as a Great Lady. But her mind dwelt in another kingdom from his. He was the starry wind on the hills, arid the beast writhing in the mire, the strange traveller who had come to her gates and had been suffered to sit by the fire and rest his tired limbs. What was this ‘other world’ that she spoke of? It was a dream he had forgotten years ago–the simplicity of his childish prayers, the torment of his mocking youth that denied the God of priests, and triumphed in the God of skies and waters.

She spoke again, kind yet unrelenting, from the dais of her noble rank. ‘It isn’t as if you were an only child, with a big place to inherit. No; I can’t see any excuse for your keeping out of danger.’ And again, half-compassionate yet still tinged with the prejudice of caste, ‘But of course you can only decide a thing like that for yourself.’ And he knew she was right. He was heir to a dukedom that would never exist in the Peerage that moulded her judgements. Had he been the only son of an accredited Lord Parnassus, she would have said, in her clear firm voice: ‘The name must be preserved; it would never do for the place to go to that impossible creature in Canada.’

I suppose it would do, here, to break in and remark that, while Sassoon is no duke–and while his first actual trade publication (not that should measure Parnassian accomplishment, but still) is only days old–it is still the case that his mother owns a considerable property in Kent, that he has always been rich enough to keep horses and hunt (and never work a regular job) and that his only surviving brother is currently in Canada… A century on, with the Lords and Ladies very much faded and their estates eaten up, donated to the National Trust, or, if preserved, likely to be dwelt in by aging rock stars or financial necromancers, it’s hard to comprehend that Sassoon could have so easily assumed that the fundamental class divide is on the far side of his own status…

In any case, here in the century-back, Siegfried Sassoon, recuperating in a Stately Home in Sussex, is gently, ruminatively nibbling on the hand that has been feeding him. And nibbles have been known to turn to worries… So where are we, the readers, in the satirical reception of this piece?

But she would pray for him with all the strength of her generous perfect-mannered soul. And when he had died of his wounds she would say: ‘He was such a good boy, I am sure he is happier ‘‘up there’’. And he did so splendidly.’

And he would rot in his shallow grave, with all his plays and poems blown away on the smoke of some senseless battle—because his name was not worth preserving, and his ‘place’ was only a little book of the songs he had made, bidding farewell to earth as he stood on the verge of his promised kingdom. For he was not even the younger son of an obscure barony; he was only a poet who used to read the Bible for the glory of the language.
But death forgives many things; and he had died for England, after all.[5]

There’s the satiric manner that all of London’s reviewers are now grappling with, anyway.

It would seem that the Great Lady of this sketch is very closely based on his hostess, Lady Brassey, who was a baroness, the sister of an earl, and the daughter of a viscount. Her serene spiritual confidence in the propriety of his getting killed seems to have rubbed Sassoon the wrong way, for some reason…  let us hope that there is less journal-thievery here than in other great houses…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Some Desperate Glory, 117-21.
  2. War Letters to a Wife, 174-5.
  3. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 150-1; Love and the Loveless, 
  4. Andrew Marvell. ‘The Mower to the Glow-worms’, according to Sassoon's note--or not; Jean Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 567, notes that the reference is "almost certainly" to "Damon the Mower."
  5. Diaries, 164-7.

Robert Graves Informs Robert Nichols; Siegfried Sassoon Closes Another Loop; Ford Madox Hueffer Hymns the High-Life; Olaf Stapledon and Agnes Miller on a Live Wire and Mr. Britling; Richard Aldington Tells Off and Tells a Joke

February, it seems, will rival January as a cold and miserable month that nonetheless provides a great deal of interesting war writing. Poets writing to other poets! Poets reading original acenturyback sources! Tall tales of the troops that are actually funny! More Mr. Britling! Scabrous poets lashing out at all the other poets they can name!

The first piece of… several… today, comes from Robert Graves to his new friend Robert Nichols. Nichols is out of the war, we may recall, and has flatteringly asked Graves–with tongue-in-cheek preciousness–to inspire his poetry by “feeding my faun with cherries.”

2 February 1917

My dear Robert,

What a ripping letter! I wrote you one a day or two ago and though it’s a bad habit I must write another. You’re lucky, to be able to be so happy in England: I couldn’t while the war lasts…

A friendly letter, or a critical one? Mostly the former. With Graves it’s always possible that what might seem like a sharp reference to the experiential gulf–“you’re a civilian now, friend, oh-so-happy in England, while I’m a soldier”–is merely careless, and it certainly seems as if he is otherwise enthusiastic about this new relationship.

Next, Graves ups the ante by writing Nichols not prosy notes to inspire his poetry but rather a poem of his own. This is the revised version of the draft poem “To Robert Nichols” that made up much of today’s letter:

Here by a snowbound river
In scrapen holes we shiver,
And like old bitterns we
Boom to you plaintively:
Robert how can I rhyme
Verses for your desire—
Sleek fauns and cherry-time,
Vague music and green trees,
Hot sun and gentle breeze,
England in June attire,
And life born young again,
For your gay goatish brute
Drunk with warm melody
Singing on beds of thyme
With red and rolling eye,
All the Devonian plain,
Lips dark with juicy stain,
Ears hung with bobbing fruit?
Why should I keep him time?
Why in this cold and rime,
Where even to dream is pain?
No, Robert, there’s no reason:
Cherries are out of season,
Ice grips at branch and root,
And singing birds are mute.

Next, Graves presumes to preach to Nichols, affecting a frank, hale-fellow voice to knock (fairly, however) Nichols’s rather old-fashioned approach. We are Sorley‘s children, now, Robert!

Look here, Robert; I’ll risk your being annoyed, if you are you’d be no friend of mine, but nowadays one doesn’t ‘view the constellations quietly, quietly burning’, at least not after one’s left school. ‘Moral austerity’? Sorley talks of the spiky stars that shine: less luxuriant, sharper, more effective.

Call me a grandmother: I like being ragged. But oh, Robert, you’ve got all the qualities of a poet if you want, and it seems such a rotten stunt for you to sit in a kimono to view constellations quietly, quietly burning, and read Bridges. You want to get away from all that into a new method…

I don’t apologize for this. I mean it and I feel Somme trenches give me the right even to blasphemy of the Holy Spirit if I feel so inclined.

Yours affectionately

Robert[1]

Well, there you have it, quite openly in that last paragraph. There are many bases for asserting authority in poetry. But in war poetry, there is one only–experience. Having fought in “the Somme trenches,” Graves can criticize without restraint all poetry up to and including that which is divinely inspired… and his humorous hyperbole only half-covers the fact that he is less-than-half joking.

 

Siegfried Sassoon, left behind in Litherland Camp and not party to this new poetic friendship, is moping about and reading. ah, but who? One young but old-fashioned poet, and one fallen soldier–each of them one of our sources. Or, rather, one of them a source I came to late in his lie=fe and should have used more, and the other more of a source-to-come.

February 2

And now reading Charles Lister‘s letters in the hut and feeling deadly tired and depressed. I suppose I’ll worry along somehow in France. How, I don’t quite know.

Wilfrid Gibson’s new poems arrived today. He seems to be laying himself out to be a sort of Crabbe (modernised on Masefield Lines). Some of it is very good, but diffuse…

Charles Lister, another of the well-born young men who swarmed into the Royal Naval Division at the start of the war, was a friend of Patrick Shaw-Stewart and Rupert Brooke, and the third of the “Argonauts” to die. Lister’s father published his son’s letters, and while these will not have anything like the influence of Charles Sorley on the younger poets, it is another early case of a feedback loop.

Sassoon is reading one of the books we might read (and have read a bit of) in order to understand the experience of the war. His writing of his own life, therefore–not just in the memoir but in the near-“real-time” of his diary–is now influenced by Great War life-writing.

To reverse chronological course and restore our sense of future-mastery, I’ll note that it’s also interesting that he’s reading Wilfrid Gibson, who is most definitely a Georgian poet, but not–not yet–a war poet. But he will be. Although this project has seen numerous young men accepted despite severe vision problems, Gibson, already in his late thirties when the war broke out, was several times refused when he attempted to volunteer. But 1917 will bring increasing demands for men, and, accordingly, a loosening of such restrictions… so even as Sassoon reads the words of an Edwardian young man now long dead, he is reading the diffuse Georgian poetry of a poet who will soon know war.

 

Some weeks ago we dispatched the ailing Ford Madox Hueffer to the south of France. Another one of those hospital nightmares? Oh no, my friends!

…we had lived like gentlemen. A peeress of untellable wealth and inexhaustible benevolence had taken, for us alone, all the Hôtel Cap Martin [in Menton, on the French Riviera]–staff, kitchens, chef, wine-cellars. We sat at little tables in fantastically palmed and flowering rooms and looked, from the shadows of marble walls, over a Mediterranean that blazed in the winter sunlight. We ate Tournedos Meyerbeer and drank Château Pavie, 1906. We slept in royal suites… You looked round and remembered for a second that we were all being fattened for slaughter… But we had endless automobiles at our disposal and Monte Carlo was round the corner.

Yes, fattened for the slaughter–perhaps. But having pushed hard to see actual service in France, Ford is now hoping to escape the trenches, and one imagines that others who have gotten as far as the Riviera will as well. But surely not all.

There is so much to comment on, here–and letters to go before we sleep–but let’s try to register three critical touches.

First, it’s safe to say that Ford’s gambling in Monte Carlo–he won steadily using a mathematical system devised by a brilliant friend, then got bored and gambled it away again–alongside various eccentric aristocrats puts Sassoon’s fox hunting and golf to shame as an activity unbecoming an officer who is supposed to be disabled…

Second, a comparison to George Coppard‘s birthday memory is illuminating. For an enlisted man to land at an English aristocrat’s hospital where he will be pampered for a few weeks and given free cigarettes is “dead lucky;” but for an officer and high-liver like Hueffer/Ford to be moved to a similar admission–“untellable… inexhaustible… fantastically”–it takes Monte Carlo, succulent meats, fine Bordeaux, and endless automobiles…

Third, Ford is a bit of a genius. He will write the one and only High Modernist masterpiece dealing with the war, but that, in many ways, sprung fully-formed out of his possibly exaggerated shell shock and (other) modernist commitments. As this scrap of memoir makes clear, he might have been considered instead the forerunner of the realist-absurd World War Two style, or even of Post-Modernism in its beautiful chaos phase. By which I mean Heller, and then Pynchon–who else? If some of Ford’s descriptions recall the earnest efforts of Milo Minderbinder, this transition from French beachfront merriment to hard-edged despair is something that Tyrone Slothrop might have experienced (Ford would have added a trained octopus and mysterious femme fatale if he had known he could get away with it):

…On the 2nd of February, 1917 I had stood on that platform. There had been an icy wind and snow falling. I was going up the line again. If you have asked me then whether I felt despair I should have denied it–mildly. I had been conscious of being dull and numbed in a dull, numb station. All France up to Hazebrouck in Flanders was deep in snow. I was going to Hazebrouck in Flanders.[2]

 

But back to earth, now, with an unlikely pair: young lovers whose warrior half is not a warrior but a pacifist medic, firmly rooted in his dreams of the stars. Half a world away, today, a century back, Olaf Stapledon and Agnes Miller wrote to each other. I don’t often include much from Agnes’s letters–they tell of civilian life in Australia, and often engage Olaf in philosophical discussion–but today her question (ought America to join the war?) brings in the text-of-the-moment:

…there was a little paragraph in Wells’ book “Mr. Britling Sees It Through” which made me want America not to fight. It was where the young American explained that his country will betray her trust if she allowed herself to be drawn into war. He said America was the field for humanity to make a fresh start in, to turn over a new leaf, & it would be wrong got her to go back to the old lines. Do you think that?

Up until a few weeks ago. Oh, apologies–she was asking Olaf.

It would seem that although Olaf and Agnes are half a world away, they are on the same side of that generational gap, the biggest stumbling block on the approach to the experiential gulf. Never has Agnes Miller sounded so much like Vera Brittain (the Vera Brittain of 1914 and 1915).

Have you read “Mr. Britling” yet? I want to read it again to myself. We are going to discuss it at one of the Seekers meetings this year. Hugh’s letters made me cry. Dad said after reading one very harrowing one, “Well, it’s quite understandable that the men themselves wouldn’t see beyond their own trenches. They wouldn’t take a broad view.”–& I wanted to burst out indignantly, “No & why should they? Poor men! Why should anyone see beyond all the filth of it. They were not meant to, war is not the right way. It’s all a hideous madness.”–but I couldn’t have said anything without bursting into tears, so I said naught.

And Olaf, who will receive this letter in a month or two, is writing to Agnes about a book he is reading,

about feminism and marriage and love and the evolution of a nobler kind of society. The point of it all is really very simple, namely that women… must become free & independent economically and spiritually.

The world could do with more such. But he’s not here because he’s a good lad and a conscientious liberal–he’s here because he’s a good writer. Here’s a lovely metaphor:

Dear, you know how an electric wire conveys a current, and how if the current is too strong for it the wire fuses–goes white hot and breaks. Well, all this poor letter writing business is our electric wire, and it is too thin a wire for the current of understanding and sympathy and love that has to pass along it, that must pass along… When we meet, girl, there will be such a lot to learn of one another… The best thing I have learnt in these years of war is the sense of the supreme worth of sincerity in human thoughts and feelings…[3]

 

It’s been a long day and this is perhaps too much, but in guilt–or righteous concession–over the extent to which my dislike for Richard Aldington‘s personality and fiction informs my reading of his letters, I must include this one (to F.S. Flint, as usual). Aldington is certainly warming to the task:

My brave,

I fear my letter worried & annoyed you–but you must permit me a “grouch” occasionally. “The flesh is sad, alas”–& I have no books to read. Sometimes I wish you were here. One can “wag the beard” quite freely while working & we could discuss cadence & quantity & rhythm to the sound of pick and shovel…

So the weather is cold with you? Imagine! Here it is subtropical. We live on iced champagne & salads. The R.F.A. wear nothing but their trousers & socks. It is reported that the R.S.F. have abandoned all clothing except Japanese
umbrellas & fans.

The amazing thing is that in spite of the heat my shaving and tooth brushes are stiff with ice each morning. I have to thaw my towel before it will bend, the jam in tins is covered with a “crust” of ice &…but why continue? You think I
exaggerate? Come & see!

A yarn. Quidam barbarus–a certain Hun, taken prisoner at X on the 11th of Z was asked by a Tommy how long the
war would last. “Two years more,” quoth Fritz, “then we beat you with the bayonet. You’ll only need one ship to take your lot back then.” “Ho,” said our compatriot in wrath “and your blankety blank lot’ll go ’ome in a copulating perambulator.”

This was told me by one who vowed he’d seen it. No doubt the yarn appeared last June in the Journal & last
Saturday in The Evening Standard, but it’s new to me & maybe to you. I hope you’re edified.

See, that’s funny. And the joke requires three participants: the German stooge; the earthy lower-class Briton, profane but, on his best behavior, searching for euphemism; and the well-bred ear, there to appreciate the word-substitution (which was not a new necessity among those who frequently salted their speech with the earthy latrinogrammatic first-resorts represented by “copulating,” but seems to still give a frisson to the middle classes) as well as the metrical superabundance that makes “copulating perambulator” such a joy to find in a sentence that could have been, in a less eloquent age, “screw you, buddy.”

Finally, Aldington, for all that he is an enlisted laborer, now, is a very productive writer, and not only of letters. I’ve already excised about ten literary name-drops from this one, but it now becomes clear what Aldington is up to:

I wrote an article in malicious mood on modern English poetry in which I abused decisively & praised ironically some score of our villainous pundits of the pen. Still it was a poor affair–I lack verve & venom…

What do you think? A new Dunciad in prose with Abercrombie & Kipling & all that lousy crew round Monro elegantly dished and derided.

Perhaps this is what Aldington currently believes that his lowly stance in a copulating navvying unit might help him achieve: it’s a good crouch from which to chuck heavy objects at the marble busts atop the world of poetry. Kipling, popular master of the waning empire; Abercrombie, the reigning Georgian; and Harold Monro as the portfolio-holder for the rising-unmoderns.

Or he just wants to heap invective on a major modernist who has criticized–and critically!–Aldington’s recent translations from the Greek:

…a propos, that fatted imbecile of destruction, Eliot… Slay me this imbecile with a note to ’Arriet. “The Greeks put intelligence on their tombstones” quotha. Many, and the Yanks cannot even get it into the periodicals of their intellectual élite. Consult H.D. and use information and indignation here supplied to expose this festering lunatic, this bunion on the souls of Pound, this comPound [sic], this insult to God!

If you need it borrow some money from H.D. She usually gets a “check” about the 10th” of the month. Call
then…

Cheer up! Why I may be blown to bits to-morrow. Then you can write my biography.

Thine
R.[4]

Well, he sounds like he’s having a good time…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. In Broken Images, 65-66.
  2. War Prose, 65-7.
  3. Talking Across the World, 203-4.
  4. Imagist Dialogues, 180-2.

Robert Graves Rejoins the Second Royal Welch; George Coppard is Dead Lucky; Francis Ledwidge on the Somme

Last night, a century back, was one of ill-omen for our most literary battalion. “Tibs” Crawshay, highly-respected C.O. of the 2nd Royal Welch, was shot and wounded while out in no man’s land diligently inspecting the barbed wire. In one account it is a German patrol that took the “unlucky” shot, but rumor has it that he was fired on by nervous sentries of a neighboring battalion.[1]

And who is more likely to spread piping-hot rumors than Robert Graves, just now arrived with the battalion and tacking on a post-script to yesterday’s letter to Siegfried Sassoon:

PS. I have just arrived at the Second Battalion. James Cuthbert is commanding Tibs was shot last night through the arm and thigh by a bloody fool of a 20th Royal Fusilier: I don’t think he’s bad… We are at ‘freeze’ in both senses. Young Jagger has flu. Everyone else I know is on leave…[2]

This experience is common even to men like Max Plowman, still on his first tour but briefly absent at an Army School. For Graves, gone since July, the situation is even more stark–his best friend left behind, and none are here to smooth his path.

Actually, Graves does have friends. He is infuriating, but he has proven himself brave and generally competent, and that means a lot. And the battalion itself has changed, with fewer of the horsey, anti-intellectual career officers that had railed at his unconventionality but accepted a quiet sportsman like Sassoon. The most important friend he will have, however, is one of our most important informants: today is not so much a crossing of paths as a conjoining of two–Graves is now back within the purview of Dr. Dunn’s battalion chronicle.

I found the Second Battalion near Bouchavesnes on the Somme, but a very different Second Battalion. No riding-school, no Battalion Mess, no Quetta manners, no regular officers, except a couple of newly arrived Sandhurst boys. I was more warmly welcomed this time; my supposed spying activities had been forgotten…

Dr. Dunn asked me, with kindly disapproval, what I meant by returning so soon. I said I couldn’t stand England any longer.

Melodramatic, but perhaps not untrue. Graves is known to be brave, in trenches, and it is certainly another point in his favor that he has returned to the battalion in the miserable depths of winter rather than milk his injury for more time at the depot. He is, as it were, now proven to be operationally as well as tactically courageous. And his worst tormentors are gone–it’s safe, then, for him to be made safe, and Dr. Dunn steps in.

He told the acting C.O. that I was, in his opinion, unfit for trench service, so I took command of the Headquarter Company and went to live with the transport, back at Frises, where the Somme made a bend…

We lived in dug-outs, close to the river, which was frozen over completely but for a narrow stretch of fast-running water in the middle. I have never been so cold in my life. I used to go up to the trenches every night with the rations, Yates being sick; it was about a twelve-mile walk there and back.

Graves’s other memories of this period include focus on the cold, including inter-Company football played on the frozen river and piping hot dinners eaten in billets so cold that “ice had formed on the edge of out plates before we finished eating.”[3]

 

And two more brief updates for today, a century back.

George Coppard‘s engaging tale of life as a teenage machine gunner is of limited usefulness, here, because he did not keep a detailed diary and can apply few specific dates to his memoir. But everybody remembers his or her birthday! Coppard, shot in the foot by a pal, was cleared of wrongdoing and has been recovering at Lady Butler’s private hospital in Hereford.

I was dead lucky to have struck that hospital. I’ll never forget the food and perquisites we Tommies had there. Her Ladyship personally issued the daily ration of twenty cigarettes or an ounce of pipe tobacco per man. On my nineteenth birthday, I had a surprise birthday cake.[4]

 

Francis Ledwidge’s burgeoning prominence as a poet has not kept him from shipping out once again. It’s his first tour in France after a long odyssey in Gallipoli, Serbia, Macedonia, and Egypt. After a week of drill and instruction his battalion of the Royal Inniskillings had moved to a camp near Trônes Wood, on the Somme, for further combat training. This afternoon, a century back, they began their march to the front line. For men who had not seen France before this would have been a sobering–not to say awful–march: over a rutted road and then over miles of the old Somme battlefield, muddy and cold, safely traversed only by slick and icy duckboards. Men slipped into the mud whenever the duckboards tilted, and even tying sandbags over boots for better traction was of little avail. “After a horribly wearisome journey, they reached their line, consisting of a series of shell-holes connected by a shallow trench.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 293; Good-Bye to All That, 238.
  2. In Broken Images, 64.
  3. Good-Bye to All That, 238-9.
  4. With a Machine Gun, 105.
  5. Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 171.

Lady Feilding’s Papist Plot; Tolkien at Thiepval; Edmund Blunden on What He Would Read, and What He Will Not Write

Shaming famous women is easily done these days, but it was hardly much harder a century back–although calumny did spread only at the speed of print, which takes quite a few more clicks. So: a pamphlet in the post has assailed our most decorated ambulance volunteer and Catholic noblewoman. To some, apparently, her unusual combination of debutante/heroic voluntere celebrity and Catholicism is a sure-fire indication that she is some sort of secret-assistant-Whore of Babylon:

27th Sep
Mother dear–

I have received some priceless anti-popery pamphlets sent me for the good of my soul by the Protestant Tract Society of Ilford. One good one is headed ‘Rome – Rags & Rhum’.

Another is a very harmless plain press cutting about my old medal & pinned on to it a tract on which is written ‘shame’ very big in blue chalk & the following heavily underlined: ‘The Church of Rome always strives to remain in the public eye, regardless of the means employed.’

As far as I can gather my object in coming to Flanders was to be in the pay of the Pope to achieve his dastardly ends. You might mention to Snich the old boy hasn’t paid up for months & that my wages are long overdue so will he see about it. Unfortunately I don’t know who the devil is Pope just now or I’d write myself. I think it’s a Gregory V or Cascara XXXV but aren’t sure.

Do enlighten me.
Yr to a corpse & to ‘hell with the Pope’.
Yr ever Diddles

 

Another (generally more serious-minded) Catholic volunteer was making his way into harm’s way today, a century back. John Ronald Tolkien‘s 11th Lancashire Fusiliers are coming up into the battle for Thiepval Ridge, which had begun so well, yesterday. Relieving the 1/7th West Yorkshires, they made their way toward the village itself, and Tolkien spent the night in a dugout, recently German, and not far from the Schwaben Redoubt, the fortress still decidedly in German hands.[1]

 

Edmund Blunden is not far away, no more than a few miles to the north. But that can make all the difference–“on the edge” of an inferno is not anything like just behind it, and Blunden had time to write a letter home, todaym and mental space to muse about the psychological challenges of trench warfare.

I miss the companionship of books ever so and after the blessed war I shall be still more buried in the dust of old libraries and compassed about with leather quartos…

A lovely dream, but then there is the present:

Cold and wet and lack of sleep are enemies to the finest soldiers. There is also the added enemy of the presence of so many dead men. And after a while the dead become more than frightful to the mind. Some of the dugouts where some Germans were killed with bombs are indescribable–and, in any case, must not be described.[2]

Fortunately for us, Blunden will change his mind about this particular imperative.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Chronology, 91.
  2. Webb, Edmund Blunden, 62-5.

Bimbo Tennant’s Shoot-Out in Gas Alley

gas-alleycrop

The scrap of nowhere, northeast of Delville Wood, where Bim Tennant died. “Gas Alley” is the trench that runs across the center of the map, from southwest (where the transition from blue to red marks the ownership of the trench as of a few days ago) to the northeast.

The Somme battle was in a lull between major attacks today, a century back. The 4th Grenadiers had been sent up yesterday to help prepare the way for the next stab at the third German line. North of Ginchy, between Longueval toward Flers, there was a tangle of trenches where an earlier push had entered the German lines and then been halted.

The Grenadiers did not go “over the top” yesterday as Bimbo Tennant had expected, but found more painstaking work before them. They had to fight sideways through a trench system, up communications trenches that had been blocked by the German defenders, who then withdrew and lay in ambush.

This was work for Grenadiers indeed. But when Tennant’s friend and company commander Captain Spencer-Churchill[1] went over to try to connect “Gas Alley” with the next bit of trench, he was hit by snipers and wounded.

Tennant, cropped

Edward Wyndham Tennant, by John Singer Sargent, 1915

 

Bim Tennant was less fortunate. Left behind in Gas Alley, he took it upon himself to respond to the short-range Germans sniping, and “occupied his time in shooting at the enemy. Apparently, there was some movement by the Germans which led him to shoot with his revolver, and a moment later he fell dead, shot through the head by one of the enemy’s snipers.”[2]

 

Lady Glenconner (née Pamela Wyndham), was a much-beloved mother. We have so many of Bim’s letters to her, with her loving commentary, and the two seem to have been the best of friends. If there was ever a cross word, it was not preserved.

It seems cruel, in any case, to speculate: Lady Glenconner is a mother of dead children. In the spring she lost an infant far too young to speak, and in the beginning of Autumn, now, she has lost her eldest, all of nineteen years old, the boy who always wrote so sweetly of his love for her.

She will publish his poems and his letters, a continuation of their joint effort, in life. And more: the Sargent drawing Bim had wanted for the frontispiece of a little volume of poems will now be the frontispiece of his mother’s Memoir of his brief life. Productive in grief, Lady Glenconner will also publish many of Bim’s earliest poems and letters to her–overpoweringly sentimental and desperately sad proof of a little boy’s love for his beautiful, loving mother.

I have written before about the difficulty of integrating the writing of grief-stricken parents into this polyphonic project–grief-stricken mothers, for the most part. Lady Glenconner, however, writes sparingly in her own voice, and says much of what she would say in quotation–of young Bim above all. She means to show not only his love of her, but his love of life–both not to be doubted–and also, with some of the poems, his claim to poetic talent.

I’m not sure what to do but include some of what she preserved, here and over the coming days. It’s heartbreaking and, I hope, raw. I’ll close with something of hers, of his (if that makes sense).

But first, one mourner to begin the condoling: Osbert Sitwell, a friend and comrade who had made himself a family friend, is perhaps best positioned to call across the unfathomable gulf that now separates Bim and his mother,

I, though I only have known Bim for two years, feel a gap which can never be filled; I shall always feel the gratitude for his friendship. I am sure he faced death with the marvellous vitality, courage, and love of beautiful ideas and things that always actuated him. His only sorrow in death would be your sorrow, and that of those who loved him. You were always his one thought, and he would never even smoke, because he had promised you, once, not to. He was convinced of a future life. I am sure that a vitality such as his can never be wasted.

It was this same note–Christian, gentle, uplifting–that Lady Glenconner used when it came time for the abrupt transition from the letters of the living boy to the memorials of the dead officer.

The posthumous chapter begins with this epigraph:

“‘Out on thee, Death,’ Justice and Pity said,
‘Why take the young, and let the old go free?’
‘Religion is the worship of the dead,’
Death answered, ‘know ye not? more foolish ye.
How could Below look upward to Above
Did not these die, whom Gods and Mothers love?'”

F. W. Bain

Then there is a brief quotation from Tennyson–“That death whose truer nature is Onward. . . “–and Lady Glenconner’s brief confirmation of what every reader must already know:

On the 22nd September, 1916, Bim went on.[3]

But what could be as sad as this?bimbo-tennants-dedication-to-moth

References and Footnotes

  1. Edward George, I believe, a cousin at some distance to Winston.
  2. The Grenadier Guards in the Great War, II, 137.
  3. Memoir, 237-9.

The Prime Minister Grieves; Isaac Rosenberg and Edward Thomas Get On With Their Writing; Richard Aldington Goes for a Noncom; Bimbo Tennant’s Heart of Triple Bronze

A brief flurry of four letters, today, and several impending movements–some routine, others ominous.

First, the poets.

Isaac Rosenberg has been on the Somme front for much of the year. His battalion has not been in any of the attacks, but has seen a good deal of the war of attrition. In and out of trenches, working in salvage, Rosenberg has, by now, as great a claim to be a “poet of the trenches” as anyone. He has written much, but he has written well. And the tenuous connection to mainstream (i.e. Anglican, and wealthy or well-connected) poetry that Eddie Marsh has provided him is beginning to take hold. Gordon Bottomley has written to Rosenberg several times, now, with praise and advice, and reciprocal gifts are promised. In a letter postmarked today, a century back, Rosenberg thanks Bottomley and allows himself the luxury of dreaming for the future.

22311 A Coy 3 Platoon
11th KORL BEF

Dear Mr Bottomley

I have not had the chance till now of thanking you for your beautiful thought of me in your letter & book. It has been wet and mucky in the trenches for some time & the cold weather helping, we are teased by the elements as well as by the German fireworks, I don’t think Ive been dry yet these last few days… It gave me fine pleasure that you liked my drawing. I have not yet written home about that Adam & Eve drawing as I don’t remember where it is but I want you to have it when I get back if I am lucky…

I am most eager to read your early book but it would be far from safe to send it here, beside the little time there is for reading.

Yours Sincerely,

Isaac Rosenberg[1]

 

Back in London, Gordon Bottomley’s old friend Edward Thomas wrote once again to Eleanor Farjeon.[2] As artillery training and a commission approach, his poetic pen is once more drying up. But he did write several poems recently which we, dragged once more into death on the Somme, did not read here. Today he sends them–possibly “That Girl’s Clear Eyes” and “What Will They Do” (a poem we will return to)–to Farjeon, whom he recognizes as his best first reader. She’s the person he would prefer to send his draft verses to–rather, that is, than the powerful and distant Frost. It doesn’t hurt that she types them for him…

Wednesday

My dear Eleanor, I don’t know yet whether I am going. The exam was easy but I expect others found it so too. Of course if I don’t go to Trowbridge I shall see you before long. In case I don’t could you send me a copy of those last verses—the Blenheim Oranges—of mine? I can’t find one or the original. You will see I have written some more too—if you can see the faint type. Perhaps one of them is better than the others…

Yours ever
Edward Thomas[3]

 

And one more fairly dull London literary note: Richard Aldington, high-minded modernist and alternately strutting soldier and lamenting conscript, has been selected for training as a non-commissioned officer. This meant six days’ leave, and he and his wife, the poet H.D.–who had moved away to be near him in camp and was miserable there–“went straight to London to resume something resembling their former literary life.”

Aldington, H.D., F.S. Flint and several friends “dined together in Soho. Flint wrote to [Amy] Lowell that it was a ‘comprehensive gathering of the clan . . . the absent ones being yourself on the bay where the tea was spoiled and Lawrence on some little bay in Cornwall.’”[4] It’s worth noting that Aldington had not wanted to fight, waited nearly two years to be drafted, and then turned proud army man, writing sneeringly of people like Flint who were too physically infirm to be desirable to the draft boards. Meanwhile Flint seems to be casting aspersions on D.H. Lawrence, who has chosen a sort of internal exile on his “little bay,” in the hopes of weathering the storms of social backlash meted out to confirmed pacifists. Which is a difficult and uncompromised position…

 

Others, of course, who had no desire to go to war had promptly gone nonetheless. It seemed to many men to be, even in August 1914, an inevitable duty–which is to say that serving in the armed forces was both necessary and socially unavoidable, and therefore there was nothing to do but make the best of it.

Which is what Raymond Asquith did, preserving himself as a loving husband and father and a sharp-penned society wit, while also becoming a capable and widely-admired Guards officer. And he survived more than two years of war…

Today, a century back, a first letter from his father, the beleaguered prime minister, H.H. Asquith, reacting to his son’s death.

I can honestly say that in my own life he was the thing of which I was truly proud, and in him and his future I had invested all my stock of hope. That is all gone, and for the moment I feel bankrupt…

I drove from here yesterday to Mells, nearly 80 miles, to see Katherine who wanted me… I have never seen anyone so stunned and shattered: all she wants is to die. Only yesterday morning she had received a letter from him, written last Thursday:[5] she showed it to me–a delightful little love letter.[6]

Two things, at least, are needless to say: that a letter from beyond the grave, as it were, seems like a most sharp and perfect manifestation of the grim ironies of proximity; and that such a letter could hardly increase the real suffering of a bereaved wife. There’s little to be felt from a knife twisted in a such a gaping wound–but it hurts.

 

Asquith’s younger friend and fellow guardsman Bim Tennant (his polite acquaintance, really–the two were related by marriage and moved in the same circles, but they were not close, separated as they were by more than eighteen years and almost diametrically opposite temperaments) has avoided grieving for the many losses of September fifteenth. He has other matters to attend to: it will be his turn to go forward on the attack, soon.

20th September, 1916

“… To-night we go up to the last trenches we were in, and to-morrow we go over the top. Our Brigade has suffered less than either of the other two Brigades in Friday’s biff, so we shall be in the forefront of the battle. I am full of hope and trust, and pray that I may be worthy of my fighting ancestors. The one I know best is Sir Henry Wyndham, whose bust is in the hall at 44 Belgrave Square, and there is a picture of him on the stairs at 34 Queen Anne’s Gate. We shall probably attack over about 1200 yards, but we shall have such artillery support as will properly smash the Boche line we are going for. And even (which is unlikely) if the artillery doesn’t come up to our hopes the spirit of the Brigade of Guards will carry all resistance before it. The pride of being in such a great regiment! The thought that all the old men, ‘late Grenadier Guards,’who sit in the London Clubs, are thinking and hoping about what we are doing here! I have never been prouder of anything, except your love for me, than I am of being a Grenadier. To-day is a great day for me. That line of Harry’s rings through my mind, ‘High heart, high speech, high deeds, ‘mid honouring eyes[7] I went to a service on the side of a hill this morning, and took the Holy Communion afterwards, which always seems to help one along, doesn’t it? I slept like a top last night, and dreamed that someone I know very well (but I can’t remember who it was) came to me and told me how much I had grown. Three or four of my brother officers read my poems yesterday, and they all liked them very much which pleased me enormously. I feel rather like saying ‘If it be possible let this cup pass from me,’ but the triumphant finish ‘nevertheless not what I will but what Thou wiliest,’ steels my heart and sends me into this battle with a heart of triple bronze.[8]

I always carry four photies of you when we go into action, one is in my pocket-book, two in that little leather book, and one round my neck, and I have kept my little medal of the Blessed Virgin. Your love for me and my love for you, have made my whole life one of the happiest there has ever been; Brutus’ farewell to Cassius sounds in my heart: ‘If not farewell; and if we meet again, we shall smile.’ Now all my blessings go with you, and with all we love. God bless you, and give you Peace.

Eternal Love,

from BIM.”[9]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Liddiard, e.d, Poetry Out of My Head, 83-4.
  2. The letter is postmarked "21 September 1916," a Thursday.
  3. Farjeon, Edward Thomas..., 213.
  4. Whelpton, Richard Aldington, 137.
  5. This is either a truly "last" letter written on the 14th along with the last letter to Diana Manning that wasn't printed in the Life and Letters, or this one, written last Tuesday, the 12th.
  6. Webb, From Downing Street to the Trenches, 230.
  7. "Harry" Cust's Non Nobis.
  8. Congratulate me for recognizing this as Homeric--but Bimbo is probably taking it via Horace.
  9. Memoir, 234-5.

Bimbo Tennant Remembers the Good Life of the Souls; Ford Madox Hueffer’s Uncertain History

A few days ago Raymond Asquith wrote to cheer and enhearten Diana Manners, proclaiming in unusually emphatic tones that she–queen of their coterie–was not only incomparably beautiful but a pioneer of wit, a leader in their movement that disdained the dusty witticisms and precious vapidities of the Souls, their parents’ generation. It was a long letter, and it culminated (after an apparent break in composition) with a dark little joke about the death of Basil Hallam, so I cut rather heavily to move things along. I noted that Asquith took a shot at his step-mother’s father, but I elided the location at which he chose to set his “here’s-how-passé-the-Souls-are” joke. That step-grandfather is Bim Tennant‘s grandfather, and the Scottish estate at which this representative bit of the last century’s cleverness was uttered was “Glen,” which still remained–and still, apparently, does–in the family.

It what surely qualifies as a sort of metaphysical crossing-of-paths, Bimbo himself–significantly younger than Asquith yet frightfully traditional in his filial enthusiasms and his poetry alike–wrote a letter today in which he wistfully remembered his childhood days there.

Aug. 23.

” . . . I suppose you are still at Glen. I wish I could be there for the 31st. Talking of the hills, do you remember that day long ago, when a nursery-party we were all descending Minchmuir, and you thought I would be cold, and wrapped me in your rose-coloured lovely petticoat? I love to think of those days; and another time, in later years, when Zelle was balanced shriekingly, on the broad back of a hill pony, which was subsiding into a bog with her. Those were the days when David used to ride Little Diamond; I hope you haven’t forgotten how he and the groom were observed coming across the golf course, vente a terre, closely pursued by a wasp. What fun we all had then…

Do you remember when we were at Kirk House (Kirket) and you were sitting at your writing-table in the ‘tippits for mice’ drawing-room, when a grim procession passed the window headed by me, followed by Clare, one of the maids, two of the gardeners, Christopher, and finally Willson with a ladder, the whole thing explained by the fact that Mdlle. Kremser, the French governess, had climbed a tree and was totally unable to get down unaided? Then the games of cricket with a rubber ball when Jack Pease was unanimously received into the ‘uncledom.’

We had a splendid house in a tree behind Willie Houston’s house (where those little apples used to fall from the tree, and be so delightedly gathered and eaten) years came and went and Willie Houston’s relays of dogs were invariably called ‘Nellie’ quite regardless of sex : ‘Aye, I just ca’ him Nellie.’ What a perfect troll he was! God rest his soul. I think our family has many more good jokes than any other, don’t you?

That last line, in a gauzy nutshell, is why the “conflict of the generations” is a clumsy tool for fine work. Bimbo loves his mother immoderately, borrowed petticoats aside: she is beautiful and wise and, in keeping with the tradition established by her senior officer in the Souls, Lady Desborough, she may have strenuously insisted upon the fact that everyone, always, was having fun. If so, Bimbo is a most loyal scion, and manifestly unfitted for disenchantment.

Now endless love from your devoted son,

Bim.

P.S. I hope my proofs will come soon. I daresay if I wore black shirts, and painted execrable futurist pictures, and wrote verse that was quite incomprehensible, the reviewers would take it for genuine ‘poesie.'[1]

And yes, there’s the kicker. There is a middle ground, of course, namely the way shown by Sorley, which Rosenberg, Graves, and Sassoon are beginning to pursue. But if that Georgian-to-realist mode is not even in view, and if the cheerful young aristocrat-with-pen sees only the mad-eyed Futurists and his own not-even-neo Romantic juvinilia, well… Bim’s proofs shall be proof that mere months in the trenches cannot budge the fairy-strewn Medievalism lodged in some winsome hearts…

 

And now for one of those older men who bridges the 19th century novel and, if not quite the wacky excesses of true Futurism, then at least the arriving Modernist upheaval. Ford Madox Hueffer, we may remember, has recently been blown up and deprived of his memory. Or not. The published letters are carefully agnostic on this matter (although perhaps simply by way of the accidents of preservation), but there is hardly enough in the way of references to traumatic memory loss in these letters to Lucy Masterman (the first undated, but assigned tentatively to August) to bolster the shaky assumptions that have been made.

Attd. 9/Welch, 19th Div.
B.E.F, Belgium

Dear old Lucy,

Using a good deal of determination, I have got out of the muses’ hands & back to duty, after an incredibly tortuous struggle across France. I rather began to think that I shall not be able to “stick it”–the conditions of life are too hard and the endless waitings too enervating. However, that is on the knees of the Gods…

I… am not vastly happy with the people here–can’t get on with the C. O. or the adjt.—wh. is disagreeable. However, it is very interesting, all of it—if not gay.

So he has been away–in hospital, perhaps. But why “the muses?” Or has he been somewhere else since the hhospital? In any event, no word of memory loss and life-altering trauma.

Then, today, a century back:

Attd. 9/Welch
19th Div, B.E.F.
23.8.16

Dearest Lucy,

I am fairly cheerful again, thank you–tho’ I do not get on with the C. O., & the Adjt. overworks me because I talk Flemish… Still it is all very interesting & one learns a little more everyday.

Still no references, but then again this is very repetitive. Many letters, especially those that may be spaced by weeks, are repetitive–who can remember what they wrote? And trench warfare is repetitive, so this is no smoking gun of memory loss. Hm.

We have been out of the trenches since Monday & go in again almost immediately—but it is quiet here at its most violent compared with the Somme. Even the strafe that the artillery got up for George V—wh. the artillery off’rs called “great” or “huge” according to their temperaments—wd., for sound, have gone into an old woman’s thimble in Albert, not to speak of Bécourt or Fricourt. George V—whom I saw strolling about among the Cheshires—really was in some danger. At least he was in an O. P. that was being shelled fairly heavily when I was in it “for instruction.” But I guess they squashed the Bosche fire fairly effectually while he was here. Still he gave the impression of a “good plucked ‘un”—& the P. O. W.—who was quite unrecognizable, was perfectly businesslike.

Still no mention of debilities. Perhaps it hasn’t happened yet? Perhaps it happened, and has yet to be exaggerated-in-the-telling? In any event, prim reporting on the King’s recent visit is hardly indicative of any particularly strange fires akindle in the smithy of the Fordian soul.

But now there is a reference to a week in an ambulance. So it did happen, it would seem–although possibly not when he claimed, and probably not in the shockingly course-altering way he will come to describe it.

I rather think the staff is nibbling at me…[2] I shd. not be really sorry—because I have had my week in the Somme & three weeks here & a week in Field Ambulance & a week draft conducting. I shd. naturally prefer going on as a regimental off’r—but the C. O.—an ex-Eastbourne Town Councillor & the adjt, an ex-P. O. clerk—annoy me—the C. O. says I am too old & the adjt. thanks me all day long for saving the H. Q. Mess 2 frs. 22 on turnips & the like. I don’t know which I dislike most.

Well, that’s what you get for meandering into the New Army in 1915 and speaking some Flemish… this will all be fodder for the big novel. And it’s not that Ford couldn’t always write, it’s just that he is still writing in a less-than-revolutionary descriptive mode. Here’s a bit of “Trench Pastoral, with Bombardment:”

Still, otherwise, it is—tho’ you won’t believe it—a dreamy sort of life in a grey green country & even the shells as they set out on their long journeys seem tired. It is rather curious, the extra senses one develops here. I sit writing in the twilight &, even as I write, I hear the shells whine & the M. G.’s crepitate & I see (tho’ it is hidden by a hill) the grey, flat land below & the shells bursting…

Inconclusive, then. But the letter ends in unfortunately Fordian fashion: a plea for strings to be pulled (Lucy Masterman is the wife of the propaganda chief C.F.G. Masterman) and a pot-shot at his own de facto wife, soon to undergo transformation into one of Modernism’s most frightening ogresses.

 Love to C. F. G. I suppose he cd. not get me sent to Paris. I shd. like a weekend there and cd. spout about the Somme and here.

Yrs.

V[iolet Hunt] seems very queer; don’t tell her anything that I tell you, because she does so worry.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Memoir, 221-2.
  2. It is not. In fact, due to his German parentage, Ford and his brother are on a list that bars them from staff work.
  3. Letters of Ford Madox Ford, 68-70.

The Peacocks Scream in Dunsany; Rowland Feilding on the Quiet of the Somme; Bim Tennant Struts Gaily Upon the Stage; We Meet Ben Keeling

Lord Dunsany, still abed in Dublin in the rebel-held Jervis Street Hospital, began his day at 3 A.M., when Sister Basil woke him up in order to assure him that there was absolutely no danger at all.

It transpired that parts of Dublin, now under assault by troops loyal to the crown, was burning.

I learned then that if you have one thing to worry about, it is quite enough, and more do not matter. For instance the doctor did not know where my bullet had gone… And then there was the possibility of septic trouble; and there were the shells, though only one came our way, and that one had burst before it entered the hospital… And then there was a question as to what the Sinn Feiners, who had spared me while holding their ground, would do when they came back that way in defeat… There were the bullets too, and very low window-sills, so the prospect of being burned did not have my undivided attention; but Sister Basil was troubled about her patients. These flames were seen at my home, and they and the guns set the peacocks screaming all night, and rumour reported me dead.[1]

 

Rowland Feilding has been away from France for rather a while. In his letter to his wife, today, he describes a recent dinner–of whitebait–with a nearby general. The dinner is provided courtesy of “a very persevering mess cook, who sits on the bank of the Somme, with a gauze net at the end of a pole…it takes several hours to get a plateful.” A shameful waste of military manpower?

But they are very good, and I shall adopt the idea.

Yes, do that. More usefully, Feilding now describes the Somme area, which is new to him:

From a spectacular point of view this is probably the most interesting section of the British Front. A succession of rolling hills and ridges—in striking contrast to the flat low-lying lands further north—here permits of close and distant observation, with exceptional facility, and one lives with field-glasses “at the ready.”

…The sun was shining brightly, and the nightingales were singing for all they were worth, and all seemed very restful as we visited the outposts. One of those silent lulls was on, when both sides seem to have gone to sleep.[2]

 

Feilding’s even-more-well-born fellow-guardsman Bimbo Tennant is having an even less strenuous time of it. Extrapolating from small sample sizes is bad history, but it’s also what we’re doing here, day in and day out (although the sample size is steadily rising), but it’s hard not to notice that the Guards really do seem to function like an old noble and elite unit. They seem to have the easiest time of it out of the line, flush with perquisites and staff jobs and follies and plovers’ eggs. But when it comes to the cruxof a long-planned battle, they are expected to lead the way.

I suppose I have foreshadowed, but broadly enough. The battles will come again: right now it is meat and drink, wine and song…

. . . I rode with the General to inspect various battalions, transport-horses this morning. Then we came back, got into a motor and went about 2 miles in it to meet Sir Douglas Haig. I have just bought some things for my god-son, Wilfrid Gough’s boy, who has been christened George Wyndham Gough. I shall have his name put on them. I still perform gaily every night; it is meat and drink to me, and I shall be sorry when we close to-morrow night. You need not worry about me, if I should return to the battalion towards the middle of next month, nothing will happen for a fortnight after that as we are coming out for a rest. I hope everything is going well with you, I pray there may be no trouble. Of course I will not agitate to go back to the battalion until you are perfectly well.[3]

So Bimbo still treads the boards, and feels no guilt at being out of harm’s way, his reasoning being that to be in the trenches would cause his mother–who is pregnant–undue worry. No word yet on whether non-aristocratic (Bimbo’s father is Lord Glenconner, his aunt is married to the Prime Minister, etc.) enlisted men are afforded such considerations… but then again Bimbo is not taking action, but rather refraining from taking action, and in the grips of military bureaucracy this is always a more acceptable course…

 

Well, readers, I have found another interesting letter-writer. Where have you been Ben Keeling? How can I only now have set myself to scanning the letters of a man described–by his friend H.G. Wells–as “copious, egotistical, rebellious, disorderly, generous, and sympathetic?” A shocking lapse. Since I’m not sure we can really bear another such character–Winchester, Trinity College (Cambridge), restless (or feckless) intellectual striving, enlisted in August 1914 alongside Rupert Brooke, etc.–and since I haven’t read through the earlier letters, we’ll keep him as a “tag” rather than a “category” for now.

But this is an interesting debut, no?

…I am thankful that there has been no good war poetry, or very little. There is not much that is poetic about this war. It is bad enough to have to listen to those people who justify war because it gives them a quasi-sensual satisfaction to see humanity crucified after the manner of the founder of Christianity. It would be almost worse to find our intellectual reactionaries ineligible for the trenches deriving satisfaction from war as a stimulant of great literature. I am more interested in life than in poetry, and I should regard it as a disaster to humanity if really great war poems began to appear. It would imply that war did really express something essential and inevitable in the human soul…

Keeling’s assumptions here are interesting: first, that the war poetry would come from men “ineligible for the trenches” and not from writerly young officers; and second, that “great war poems” must necessarily be pro-war poems.

The second assumption is certainly a fair one, given literary history. And yet, although we might react with our superior knowledge of the future–or even our century-back-current awareness of the direction taken by Charles Sorley, and the signs Graves and Sassoon have given of following that lead–Keeling’s question holds up on a more fundamental level. Poetry will soon show the horror and the misery, the antipathy of warfare to the essentials of the human soul… yet we are reading it, and we remain fascinated with war.

Back to Keeling, as we complete our “registration” of his manner, tone, and point of view.

I have seen too much, and my heart is too much set on a new life, to leave me much emotion to spare for the ruined stones of Ypres. When I was there I acquired a sort of affection for the place from our Army’s association with it. But debris are debris, and the Cloth Hall is rather reminiscent of the dead beauty of Venice, which simply gets on my nerves…

The Boches have been sending pretty heavy stuff just over my head this morning. Am sorely tempted to come on leave next Wednesday. Only three of my men who have never missed trenches remain to go. Well, I must be off to have a look at my scavenging party. I hope to specialize on dead rats, which I think are rather pernicious.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Patches of Sunlight, 285-6.
  2. War Letters to a Wife, 73-5.
  3. Memoir, 190-1.
  4. Keeling Letters, 279-80.