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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

Italy, 30 November 1917

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

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

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


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


References and Footnotes

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

Edward Horner and E. A. Mackintosh at Cambrai; Ivor Gurney Assesses Siegfried Sassoon

Yesterday, the Battle of Cambrai began: a marked success of tactical coordination followed by an advance of two or three miles–nearly five in some places. This was one of the quickest and least costly advances of the entire war, and an especially stark contrast to the long, dismal slog of Passchendaele. But the German line was not shattered, the penetration was narrow, and there were numerous reserves in place. Before the battle was twenty-four hours old it stalled, and today, a century back, the strategic tide (if it had ever been high for Britain) began to ebb.


The 18th Hussars had ridden into battle yesterday, cavalry following up the initial tank-and-artillery advance. They were now holding the village of Noyelles, south-east of Cambrai, and preparing to go forward when they were met by a local German counter-attack. Lieutenant Edward Horner–heir to Mells manor in Somerset, brother-in-law of Raymond Asquith, dear friend of Diana Manners and Duff Cooper, stalwart of the Coterie–was shot and killed, apparently by a sniper. His death was as quick as the cavalry’s wait to return to action had been long.

In a few years, Horner will become one of the last of England’s warriors to be memorialized by equestrian statue.


The 4th Seaforth Highlanders and the rest of the 154th brigade attacked at 6:30, from yesterday’s German front line toward the village of Cantaing. They advanced with pipes skirling, with both cavalry and tanks in sight and aircraft overhead, but by early afternoon they were pinned down in the open, taking machine-gun fire from Bourlon Wood as well as from numerous strafing planes. At some point before 3:30, Ewart Alan Mackintosh, one of Scotland’s most promising young poets, was killed, probably either by sniper or machine gun fire.

It was, we may fervently hope, not much like he had written it in his short, sharp, agonizing poem “Death:”

E. A. Mackintosh


Because I have made light of death
And mocked at wounds and pain,
The doom is laid on me to die
Like the humble men in days gone by
That angered me to hear them cry
For pity to me in vain.

I shall not go out suddenly
As many a man has done.
But I shall lie as those men lay
Longing for death the whole long day
Praying, as I heard those men pray,
And none shall heed me, none.

The fierce waves will go surging on
Before they tend to me.
Oh, God of battles I pray you send
No word of pity no help, no friend,
That if my spirit break at the end
None may be there to see.


It’s an eerie thing that even an entire slim book on Mackintosh can’t turn up much evidence about who may have been there to see, or not, and to tell what Mackintosh suffered.[1]


And we march onward. In England, Ivor Gurney, out of the hospital at last, is in good spirits. And he has been reading his own reviews…

21 November 1917 (P) Pte Gurney 241281, B Co 4th Reserve
Batt:, Gloucester Regt, Seaton Delaval, Northumberland.

My Dear Friend: Alas, for the two months! Today I am on ordinary training, and that means but a short stay if nothing happens…

Two of the local reviews have reached me. They are just what I expected—and didnt want. But I got a delightful letter from Haines — the man who knows Gibson and Abercrombie—which said how pleased he was at his first glance, and how it seemed to be a not unworthy companion for Sassoon’s Book, and Sorley-Turner, whom I have not read.

This, surely, must be Charles Hamilton Sorley–Gurney has mentioned him before, and that he has not been able to read him. Alas that Gurney, with his humble origins and Will Harvey long imprisoned, doesn’t have poetic comrades (in the military sense–Marion Scott could hardly be a better or more attentive friend) to read his work and pass him the latest books. No, instead he makes do with none-too-fresh poetic gossip (more or less accurate, at least), which he now passes on to Marion Scott.

By the way, some time ago Sassoon walked up to his colonel, and said he would fight no more. Flashes, of course: and blue fire. There were questions in the House, and a general dust-up; but at last they solved it in a becoming official fashion, and declared him mad, and put him in a lunatic-asylum; from which there will soon come a second book, and that it will be interesting to see…

It will indeed. From here, though, Gurney’s poetic gossip runs from the pacifist/heroic toward the ironic/practical.

When Rupert Brooke went abroad, he left his copyrights equally between Gibson, Abercrombie, and De La Mare. They have had £2000 each! That’s why Gibson has not died, and his family. Poetry pays — it took a War to make it; but still, there you are.

Best wishes: Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney[2]

It pays, but–we can’t forbear asking, given what was happening at Cambrai as he wrote–at what cost?


References and Footnotes

  1. There are no clear eyewitness accounts, and the bare fact that he was reportedly shot in the head is both entirely possible and faintly suspicious, since instantaneous and painless deaths were often described to next of kin in order to spare them the details of the actual death. See Campbell and Green, Can't Shoot a Man With A Cold, 206-10.
  2. War Letters, 231-2.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They have done well–and still suffered heavy casualties.

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

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


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

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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

20 November 1917

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

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

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

And she did not.

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

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


References and Footnotes

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

Edward Hermon is Off to Riding School; Raymond Asquith Rambles on About Rifle Grenades and the Rabbity Welsh; Bim Tennant Needs New Hunting Gear

The tone of Edward Hermon’s letters to his wife Edith have now settled back into a normal register. Receding is the heightened emotion of the Great Leave Taking Debacle… Cozy times!

21st December 1915, Vaudricourt

A blank day today like the day before yesterday but your two nice letters of yesterday are still sticking by me like a good fid[1] of plum duff!

…We are starting a class of instruction for young Divisional Cavalry officers… Harry Rawlinson sent for me today… I am going to spend a night… at Cavalry Corps H.Q. next week & so should see some old faces again. It really has been a most depressing day today, rain, rain & nothing but rain, simply teemed. I expect it is something to do with the increased amount of firing…

Best love.[2]


And with an elbow across the keyboard we transfer to Raymond Asquith, writing to his wife:

21 December 1915

. . . We had a better time in the trenches this last 2 days–nowhere much to sleep, but fine weather and a certain amount of liveliness. We had about a dozen casualties from rifle fire and at last the Boche succeeded in putting a shell right into the trench which damaged 3 men pretty badly. The company on my immediate right suffered much more and lost about 2 dozen men during the bombardment–largely their own fault as they went into dug-outs which are mere death-traps when high explosives are going over, instead of standing in the trench and taking their chance. But being only a line regiment I suppose they didn’t know any better…

Hm. Monumental disdain or–and then I have been misreading–nasty self-lacerating humor? But nothing else here is humorous. Asquith, something of a highbrow among Guardsmen, is nevertheless keen on being a good, attacking soldier. There are good men in line regiments and over-bred morons officering the Guards, but it would be foolish to take the bitter taste of social snobbery as an excuse to deny the basic principles that active battalions maintain higher morale, and that higher morale has positive practical benefits. (Which only sometimes outweigh the other effect of maintaining an active tactical posture in a war of attrition, namely attracting the ungentle affections of the enemy.)

I spent a good deal of time trying to spot Germans working on the parapet opposite and then getting one of our portable machine guns moved along the trench and loosing off 50 rounds at them in about 5 seconds. We got two or three that way. It keeps the men happy and amused.

Then yesterday afternoon the Germans began firing rifle grenades into the Duck’s Bill and wounded 2 of our men. A rifle grenade is a thing like one of those big blunt-nosed Italian fir cones on the end of a metal rod about 2 feet long. You put the rod into the barrel of a rifle and fire it with a blank cartridge.

Ours will go about 300 yds. and the Germans’ 500. It is a good form of sport because it is almost like shooting with a bow and arrow. You can see the missile all the time in the air. I fetched up 3 men who are experts in the game with a box of grenades and we gave them back volleys of these things–our plan now is always to give them back about 10 times as much of any particular form of beastliness which they begin to practise on us. We made very good shooting and kicked up great columns of black muck from their trench and parapet.

The grenade explodes like a bomb only much more violently when it touches the ground. The men get very excited when one of these duels is going on and swear and sweat horribly. It is almost the only fun they get in the trenches, poor dears…

Asquith then continues into a long story of another ruse–of his own devising–that is intended to cause worry and waste ammunition among the Germans opposite. This becomes one of his longest, most rambling letters until Asquith remembers how keen he is to be good writer, and pulls himself up short:

I suppose you are thinking that there is going to be some point to this story, but I suddenly realise, that there is absolutely none and I have simply been writing like a Russian novelist…

The next 3 days from now will probably be about the most disagreeable I have ever had. Most of tonight (which is supposed to be one of my 2 nights rest) I shall have to spend in taking 100 men to an engineers’ store and superintending them carrying gas cylinders from there to the front lines in the rain. Then tomorrow we go into a filthy bit of trench with nowhere to eat or sleep and every prospect of being worried by the Huns if the Brigade next door to us use these bloody cylinders which I am carrying up to them this evening.

And now, in honor of the arrival of several Territorial battalions of the Royal Welch Asquith returns to his least attractive guise, the all purpose army/class/ethnic insult-slinger:

Also we still have some of these wretched little Welsh Fusiliers attached to us, and in my company we have to stretch our limited resources in the way of beds and food to accommodate two of their harmless, rabbity little officers. They are terrified out of their lives by the discipline of the Brigade and a good deal startled at the gentlemanly way in which we contrive to live in trenches and billets. But the thing which has impressed them most so far has been my big candle. When it was lighted min the dug-out they fell down and worshipped it with strange Celtic cries…

I must stop this now and go out into the rain to look for these gas cylinders. It is really rather bloody to have the responsibility of a captain, the pay of a subaltern, and the work of a coolie–if not indeed of an elephant piling teak in a muddy slushy creek. Really they might find some more suitable work for the 1st regiment of Foot Guards than dunging.

Au revoir, beloved.[3]

Sheesh. I’m not exactly sure which brigade has been assigned to train which New Army battalion of the Royal Welch. but it’s possible that Asquith has been involved in training David Jones‘s unit (although it’s more likely that we’re a day or two off). I could wade deeper into the battalion histories and try to find out… but then how could we possibly recover from the idea that one of these “harmless” (a deadly insult, from a gentleman and a soldier, rabbity, declassé officers is Jones’s angelic Uccello-painted “Mr. Jenkins.” Even literature could not support such a subjective spread…


Our other high-letter-volume Grenadier Guards subaltern, the much more pleasant and even more privileged Edward Tennant, is harping upon another common theme of winter trench life.

Most darling Moth ’,

I am writing this from our dug-out in a very muddy trench, to wish you all the very happiest Christmas, under the circumstances. There are dozens of huge rats on every mud-heap behind our breastwork trenches, and I have great fun chasing them in the dark with a stick, electric lamp, and pistol. If you go to Edinburgh, or London, please send me a very small-bore pistol to shoot them with, as my automatic pistol is too heavy…

We had a dinner on Sunday night, about forty-three people, mostly Grenadiers. The Corps Commander (Haking), the Divisional General (Cavan), and the Brigadier (P. Heyworth), were all there…  After dinner I sung four or five songs, including “The Laird of Cockpen,” which people liked very much.

The Corps Commander at length departed, tanked to the gills, after averring several times, “We shall go through them like blotting-paper ” In a very sleepy but confident voice. Osbert is full of this assertion, and asks me to tell it you with his love.

When the Generals had all gone (there were now two sober people in the room, Osbert and I), every one charged about the room in a phalanx and, as only happens to revellers, none got their ribs broken. At 12 we went to bed, having revelled since 7.30. It was a very successful and typical “Grenadier evening,” the hot room and reek of tobacco became rather oppressive towards the end, but I enjoyed it all very much. Sunday was celebrated as Christmas Day, and the men had their Christmas dinner of pork and plum pudding, with libations of English beer. I am so sorry I have got nothing in time for Christmas for Dave and Steenie, but will try for the New Year.

With tons of love, and millions of kisses, and prayers for all of our wide-apart happy Christmases, Darling Moth’,

Your ever loving



References and Footnotes

  1. I waver in my commitment to avoiding "[sic]s"
  2. For Love and Courage, 147.
  3. Life and Letters, 228-9.
  4. Letters, 96-7.

Edward Thomas: It Is All Like Being Somebody Else; Robert Graves Can Read the Signs

One problem (among many) with the current operational doctrine of the British army is that the buildup deemed necessary for a success offensive–extra supplies, better roads and access (i.e. communications) trenches, above all the concentration of bug guns and ammunition–is impossible to conceal. The Germans can see it from spotter aircraft and captive balloons, and every ill-informed infantry subaltern on the British side can hazard an accurate guess. Robert Graves, for instance, assures us (with doubt-reducing precision) that “[a]s early as September 3rd, I had a bet with Robertson that our division would attack from the Cambrin-Cuinchy line.”[1]

You, reader, can draw your own conclusions on the nature of memoir and the likelihood that his prediction about the starting line of the Battle of Loos will prove accurate.


And back in England, today, a century back, private Edward Thomas of the Artists’ Rifles began another letter to Robert Frost. Much of it describes the characters with whom he is training, uneasy replacements now for the rural characters he loved to describe in his rural prose (and in some early poems as well.)

We are all now… 3 of us & a corporal in charge, killing time before supper. We gossip a little at a distance, the corporal leading, being an old soldier, who fought in the Boer War, & was a cavalry captain in this war till the expense of living broke him & he joined this corps [i.e. the Artists’ Rifles] to train for an infantry commission. He talks about women, & the rest try not to show what they know or don’t know on the subject. The 2 others are a schoolmaster from the west & a schoolboy who ought to have been at Oxford now, a very serious boy…

I feel almost as if we should know this boy immediately. Roland? Charles? Robert? But this one must either be a year younger or have a roundabout tale that explains his finding himself still only a private (and officer trainee at one remove).

The ex-cavalry captain is interesting, though. Most of our cavalry officers are so well off that they wouldn’t worry about the expense–keeping their own horses, paying more in mess fees than they receive in salary, etc. And in the infantry, at least, we know that the (always lower) lifestyle expectations are changing, to allow “temporary gentleman” and men without private means to get by without sticking out. But the cavalry resists, refusing to canter gently into the good night, It’s odd, though, that Thomas’s corporal could afford the cavalry before the war, and not during it.

But enough speculation–Edward Thomas is too important to be treated as a mere source for social history!

We are still not promised camp at all soon. I have begun musketry. I have lectures on making maps. Once a week we have night operations to get used to the sound & sight of troops in the dark. Once a week we have a march around Hampstead ending with a swim. It is all like being somebody else, or like being in a dream of school.

Oh, very nice. And note that the “dream” of school is probably very close to the reality of the more privileged Eton (and comparables) set. But Thomas, farther from his school days than most of our writers, knows how the dream now ends.

He next discusses the enormous officer casualties in the Dardanelles, casualties which explain what the Artists’ Rifles are up to: training large numbers of middles class men in military basics. The conclusion: “I may find myself with a commission within 3 months.” So Frost has been duly updated. And now Thomas has a cheeky little confession to make:

Do you know–at the last moment the Oxford Press asked me to fill up 2 pages that were blank in my anthology & I put in 60 lines of my own over my pseudonym.

These would be the two short poems by “Edward Eastaway”–Haymaking and The Manor Farm–that sit cheerily amongst Shakespeare and Wordsworth and all the rest in his This England anthology. Cheeky… and eminently passive-aggressive. Or passive-assertive, at least. He cannot not have done this in the hopes that some of his poetic and literary friends who had been less than fully supportive of his early poetry will read these lyrics in their august context and think “Good stuff. Timeless and yet not dated… Eastaway–but who can this be?”

Still, it’s nothing more than a Parthian shot at the poetry world that is not quite ready for him. Other work lies ahead.

But now I can’t think of writing. The country is a little strange to me. It seems as if in my world there was no Autumn though they are just picking hops in Kent. On Hampstead Heath the other day I watched the bees at the bramble flowers & green blackberries & they looked so unfamiliar…

I won’t make more of it than it is though.

We’ll see about that. If a month in the army has him dreaming of school and alienated from nature, what will actual combat do?[2]


References and Footnotes

  1. Good-Bye to All That, 141.
  2. Elected Friends, 94-6.

Alf Pollard On the Eve Of Battle; Vera Brittain Longs to Be Among the Wounded

The 15th June, 1915, was a broiling hot summer’s day. There was scarcely a breath of wind as we set off on the eight mile march which would take us to our “jumping off” position. The Poperinghe-Ypres road was, as usual, crowded with traffic; troops in large and small parties, some in full equipment, some in light fatigue dress; limbers drawn by horses, limbers drawn by mules; endless ammunition columns; siege guns and howitzers; strings of lorries; motor cycle despatch riders; every conceivable branch of the Service was represented going about its business in orderly confusion. Even the cavalry, who, since the inception of trench warfare were rather out of fashion, has their part in the pageant. They sat their horses with the same erectness as in peace time, but their drab equipment was in sad contrast to the shining breast-plates, scarlet cloaks, and nodding plumes with which they entrance the nursemaids in the Mall…

We turned off short of Hell Fire Corner… a stray shell knocked the Adjutant off his horse, though luckily without killing him… our big adventure had commenced.

A student of psychology would notice a subtle difference between troops marching away from the line for a rest, and the same troops going up the line into action…

On this occasion there was a tenseness in the bearing of the battalion quite different from our normal visits to the trenches. We started off with a swing as if we were going for a route march. Everyone walked jauntily and one could sense the excitement in the air. Gradually this spirit faded, helped no doubt by the heat of the day and the sweat of marching. The wounding of the Adjutant was like the period at the end of a paragraph. After that first shell scarcely a word was spoken. We were going into something of which we had no experience. No man felt sure he would live through the coming ordeal…

At last we reached our position. It consisted of row after row of narrow shallow trenches, each row being intended to accommodate successive waves of attacking troops. We were herded into ours literally like sardines…

Sleep was out of the question…[1]

Reader, if you have been toiling over this blog for many months, trying to keep all the soldiers straight and wondering whether this synoptic, trench-level view of the war will ever reward your diligence with a stereoscopic view of an actual battle, well: I have good news. The above account is Alf Pollard‘s, describing how the 1st/Honourable Artillery Company moved up toward their jumping-off points to support tomorrow’s attack’s second wave. Just in front of the HAC were John Lucy‘s 2nd Royal Irish Rifles, recovered and reconstituted from their pummeling in the fall. And Billy Congreve, ADC to General Haldane of the 3rd Division, has been deeply involved in the planning of the attack for several days. So, tomorrow we will read the Battle of Bellewaarde from several perspectives and in several styles.

It will be a nasty little battle, ambiguously successful–a sort of Great War in miniature. The planners seemed hardly to be aware of how much their strategic horizons have shrunk. They are committing a division to conquer a few hundred yards of trenches. Looking back–or indeed, imagining ourselves back then, outside of the Corps staff and looking in–it seems obvious that the goal of the operation was so extremely limited that even total success could never reasonably be viewed as worth the loss of many hundreds of lives. Pace Pollard, with his vision of cavalry reserves riding up, there was no hope for a breakthrough here.

This was a battle which can only be understood by looking at a map–indeed, it could only have been conceived by looking at a map (we’ll have maps galore tomorrow). The goal was to retake a few acres of Belgium that had recently been lost to the Germans and now formed a tiny German within the British-held Ypres Salient. It’s the same bit of territory that the cavalry had recently held and which had been fought over in April by our Grenfells. In fact, the objective for Pollard’s brigade is within sight of the hill on which Julian Grenfell received his fatal wound, and less than a mile from where Colwyn Philipps died.

So, yes: men will die tomorrow to retake a bit of land that was recently conceded, and no one hopes, really, to do anything more than win local bragging rights, a slightly improved local tactical situation, and a neater set of lines on a map.

Having built up to the battle with Pollard’s purple prose–who knew that “literally” was already abused, a century back?–and knowing that we will be spending a good deal of time walking through it tomorrow, I might as well continue with the general foreshadowing, and get us well-dipped in historical-perspective-fueled irony before tomorrow’s heavy battering.

Yes, it will be an archetypical mid-war attack: there was meticulous planning which relied too much on complex coordination with the artillery; there were not enough of the right weapons (especially hand-grenades); there was a reasonable tactical objective (the new German positions on the [relative] high ground of Bellewarde Ridge) but no real strategic point to the exercise; there were reserves on the scene but no way for the staff to figure out where and how to commit them before the enemy artillery woke up and made their movement impossible; all successful attacks would end with exhausted men exposed to immediate counter-attacks; there would be a few trenches taken, each at the cost of hundreds of casualties.

And everyone will write it down differently.


And Vera Brittain writes to Roland Leighton today, with an update on doings in the Brittain family and a noble second effort to succeed where she had recently caught herself failing, namely in expressing the serial griefs of this new kind of war in words that do not ring entirely hollow:

Oxford, 15 June 1915

I begin nursing almost at once after going down–on Sunday June 27th. It is getting very near now… It simply makes me feel that I want to start this minute. I should get just to love the men, I know. I am told they nearly all want to talk to you, & tell you all about it; some nurses haven’t the patience to listen but it wouldn’t be a question of patience with me; I should love to hear…

Vera next updates Roland on her brother’s efforts to transfer to the artillery. It is unclear exactly why Edward Brittain is so unhappy in his battalion, but Vera assumes that Roland–his best friend–understands.

…of course he doesn’t like his battalion, but doubtless you know why & all about it. I expect he will go out towards the autumn… A few weeks one way or the other doesn’t seem to make much difference now–the war will be so long that the last people who go to the front will have as much of it as they care about. At least that is how I feel just now. I don’t see what can end anything so tremendous…

Yesterday I saw the name of a man among the killed with whom I have done a considerable amount of amateur acting–& there was another the other day with whom I have often played tennis, & met out. I feel as if I shall soon have no acquaintances left, to say nothing of friends… I feel as if I were standing on a lonely & dismal shore, watching the tide gradually surround & cut me off, & I am almost sure that it will not turn before it has reached me.[2]

A noble effort, and better than boilerplate classical quotation. But neither is this a bold new form of self-expression, or entirely clear of cliché.

Vera plays it slightly cool with Roland, but her enthusiasm for the next step of her life–and her involvement with the war–is clearly very high, however low the prospect. A good illustration of finding happiness in (anticipated) action even when reflection can bring nothing but gloom–and we could hardly ask for a better illustration of the status of our “Oxford or War” question here at the end of the last term of the first year:

Tuesday June 15th

I went over Somerville Hospital this afternoon. It is really splendid–much better as a Hospital than a College… it is all so sweet & clean & fresh that it must be quite a joy to be convalescent here. Nearly everyone was in the garden. One poor man lay in a tent some little distance apart from the others; the Matron said they were afraid he would not recover. Most of those in bed were asleep. Others were lying about in chairs or on their beds, & all looked very pathetic. The ones suffering from shock go into the little rooms, where there are only two people & sometimes only one…

Under the circumstances, preserving some odd sense of the romance of war–or, perhaps, if we strain for the Victorian “female equivalent,” for the romance of sacrificing oneself to the infinitely tender nursing of heroes–through first contact with badly wounded and shell-shocked men is probably a good thing.

Oh! they are all so, so pathetic! Seeing them filled me with a longing to begin nursing right away. I know I shall get to love them, & like to hear them telling me all about it.[3]


References and Footnotes

  1. Pollard, Fire-Eater, 79-81.
  2. Letters From a Lost Generation, 123-4.
  3. Chronicle of Youth, 208.

George Coppard Embarks; Francis Ledwidge Woos; Morgan Crofton Goes for a Ride

George Coppard of the Queen’s Royal West Surrey Regiment is finally bound for the front. His battalion forms part of the 37th Brigade, 12th (Eastern) Division–one of the new units primarily composed of the volunteers of Kitchener’s Army.

Came 31 May 1915 and the battalion went on the binge, as it was our last night in Aldershot. The next day we left for Folkestone. A packet-boat called the Invicta sneaked out of the harbour at 9.45 am with the battalion on board, destination Boulogne.[1]


The war is changing. The New Army’s strength is rising and new writers with little or no connection to the world of our “fallen” aristocratic officers are heading for the trenches. These are the writers who will carry us forward through this year and into the next, and on through the war.

The wait is over as well for Charles Sorley, another member of the 12th Division. He landed in Boulogne yesterday, and will write his first letters tomorrow.

Francis Ledwidge‘s battalion of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers are not as far along–but they are moving. Not, perhaps, as swiftly as Ledwidge. Although he had recently lost his great love, Ellie Vaughey, has found another young woman to write to. He’ll be off to war soon–it’s good to have a girl waiting behind, no?

[postmark] 31 May 1915

My dear own Lizzie,

It is too bad that I have been so long in answering your welcome letter, but since we came here we have been in a state of great unrest, one day here and three somewhere else, as Paddy can tell you. Basingstoke is a beautiful place in the middle of Hampshire. It is a town not as big as Drogheda but better populated. The country around is beautiful. I have even come across a bog of several acres, on which turf never was cut, full of heather and little pools, white at the bottom with shells. We had dinner there on Whit Monday and Lizzie, as true as God I left my dinner and with a couple of bars of chocolate went into a little copse to dream of the bog far away.

You are beautiful, Lizzie, and I must win you for I am lonely without you and always thinking of you in the land of good hearts. God bless and keep you until I return. I never will forget the night myself and Paddy spent in Wilkinstown. I thought then I would be home by now but I seem to be as far away from returning as when I first joined the colours.

We expect to be going away soon and are glad as we are tired of the monotony of camp. The weather is frightfully
warm here for a month now. Remember me to all. I am sure the bog is lovely now, how I wish I were, there! There’s the bugle.

He writes lovely light-ish verse too, wouldn’t you know. This letter seems to me like pointed flirtation rather than a true outpouring of a soldier’s heart, but I don’t yet know Ledwidge all that well, so I will let his biographer rule on this:

Was anyone ever so ingenuous, or so foolishly hopeful? …When he joined, he expected a commission and
clerical work only; he looked on the army as an avenue to adequately paid work when the war was over; he was completely deceived by the current propaganda that ‘the Germans will be finished off in a few months’. How wide of the mark were his confident forecasts… He lives in a world of happy illusion. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the poet did not even read the daily papers…[2]

Ah, who needs to the daily papers. He’s bound for where he’s bound for, and he’ll go when they send him. And his first book of poems, which we’ll discuss here tomorrow, is finally moving toward the press…


So the rough young volunteers are coming. But how are those aristocratic Regulars–you know, the horsey fellows who have held the line these last three seasons–getting on? Morgan Crofton informs us:

Monday May 31

A splendid day. What a pleasure to wake up in my nice room, after the bleak schoolrooms and draughty barns in which I have spent so many months. Menzies arrived back last night from England after his 3 days’ leave, bringing with him some news and my telegraphic instrument, on which I wanted to train some more signallers…  Menzies said that he had heard on very good authority, that the total number of men that the British Empire has under arms in England and on the Continent is now over 3,800,000. He seemed to think that the authorities in England were against conscription because of the difficulty of equipping and feeding more men at the Front.


Notre-Dame de L’Assomption, Renescure

We had news from the trenches this morning. They got in all right without any casualties, and were situated near the Hooge Chateau. We sent a ham, some eggs and letters and papers up to them today by a motor cyclist. We haven’t heard for certain when they return.

That sounds serious. What should the officers in reserve do?

Went for a ride in the afternoon to Renescure…  Renescure has the quaintest old church dating from about 1570, which now looks most picturesque in its setting of lilac and laburnum, with very green grass and millions of buttercups.


The Chateau, Renescure

Close by is the chateau where General Briggs lives. Its main features are two unique turrets and a fine and very old sundial on the front of the house. The village square backed by the church tower is extremely pretty and old world…

A prettier little village would be hard to find anywhere.[3]


References and Footnotes

  1. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 15-6.
  2. Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 110-11.
  3. Massacre of the Innocents, 258-9.

C. E. Montague on the Beauty of Innocence, the Brim of Confidence, and the Glorious Camp Life of the New Armies; Kipling and Lister Write of Julian Grenfell; Morgan Crofton Stays at Peace

may 29 desborough diary

Lady Desborough’s Diary. Julian’s dying exclamation “Phoebus Apollo!” is at left. Today records a visit from Billy, training nearby with his battalion, and the lower right space is filled with a quotation from Hamlet, ending “the readiness is all.”

Rudyard Kipling, also father of a boy in uniform in France, wrote to Lord Desborough, Julian Grenfell‘s father, today, a century back:

Bateman’s / Burwash / Sussex / May 29, 1915

My dear Desborough
We saw the news yesterday–side by side with the poem that rounded out that splendid young life. No words can mean anything to you now, nor even the knowledge that we all lie under the shadow of a similar loss sooner or later: but we both send our love and our sorrow and our  sympathy to you two.

Ever most sincerely,

Rudyard Kipling


Charles Lister, wounded at Gallipoli and recovering on Malta, wrote to his father today, a century back. We’ve seen Lister as a companion of Rupert Brooke, but he had known Julian Grenfell longer–since Eton. It will take him another five days to find the words to write to Lady Desborough.

Blue Sisters Convent

May 29, 1915.

God! how sad it is about Julian. It’s the bitterest blow I have had since this war and am likely to have.

You must not make reservation about the “ultimately satisfactory issue.” [i.e. of the war.” I’d sooner spend my life in trenches than have any other issue…[1]


We’ll be hearing a bit from Morgan Crofton in the coming days, before the sweeping changes overtake him as well. So a brief status check today: and we find him once again exempted from the worst duty, although it seems that in his over-officered regiment he is hardly alone.

Saturday May 29

Another glorious day. It was lovely waking up in my nice room, and looking out of the windows across the park. The War seems miles away. For the first time for seven months I hardly hear any cannonading going on. What a relief. It is quite like staying in a nice country house at home. One feels one ought to get into tennis shoes and flannels instead of this shabby and dirty khaki.

Torrie gave me orders to stay behind and look after the horses while the Regiment was in the trenches. Only 3 Officers per squadron were to go up, and Gurney and l and about 10 others are to stay herd…

But at breakfast today, orders came that we were to relieve the 3rd Hussars in the front line trenches near Hooge, to the E of Ypres. We shall be anxious about them while they are up there, and anxiously watch the wind to see if it is favourable for gas.[2]


I’ve been making a big deal lately about how the end of May, 1915 seems to be a transition zone, a sort of geological boundary layer between the early days of the war–high hopes, aggressive tactics and more aggressive verse, the death of so many dashing aristocratic officers of the dashing but over-matched old Regular army–and the grim war of mass attrition (and strangely wonderful writing) that is to come.

Now, the very best book written about the collective experience of the war (i.e. one that takes a broader view than a typical memoir) by one of its participants is surely C.E. Montague‘s Disenchantment.[3] And there’s the spoiler right in the title. It’s a smart, precise, angry book,and one which dwells on the disasters and disappointments of the later phases of the war.

But bitter experience must be preceded by innocence, and old man Montague summons in the early pages of his masterwork a beautiful vision of the enchanted camp days of the volunteers. This is the essence of the early-war experience of the volunteers, the great days of fellowship before they went out to the horrors–and, well, yes, the disenchantments–of the trenches.

Last spring was England’s Last Spring. And so is this one.

Forgive me if I quote Montague at some length:

The mental peace, the physical joy, the divinely simplified sense of having one clear aim, the remoteness from all the rest of the world, all favoured a tropical growth of illusion. A man, says Tennyson, “imputes himself.” If he be decent he readily thinks other people are decent. Here were hundreds of thousands of quite commonplace persons
rendered, by comradeship in an enthusiasm, self-denying, cheerful, unexacting, sanely exalted, substantially good. To get the more fit to be quickly used men would give up even the little darling vices which are nearest to many simple hearts. Men who had entertained an almost reasoned passion for whisky, men who in civil life had messed up careers for it and left all and followed it, would cut off their whisky lest it should spoil their marching. Little white, prim clerks from Putney—men whose souls were saturated with the consciousness of class—would abdicate freely and wholeheartedly their sense of the wide, unplumbed, estranging seas that ought to roar between themselves and Covent Garden market porters. Many men who had never been dangerous rivals to St. Anthony kept an unwonted hold on themselves during the months when hundreds of reputable women and girls round every camp seemed to have been suddenly smitten with a Bacchantic frenzy. Real, constitutional lazy fellows would buy little cram-books of drill out of their pay and sweat them up at night…

Men warned for a guard next day would agree among themselves to get up an hour before the pre-dawn winter Reveille to practise among themselves the beautiful symbolic ritual of mounting guard in the hope of approaching the far-off, longed-for ideal of smartness, the passport to France… How could they not have the illusion that the whole nation’s sense of comradeship went as far as their own?

Who of all those who were in camp at that time, and still are alive, will not remember until he dies the second boyhood that he had in the late frosts and then in the swiftly filling and bursting spring and early summer of 1915?

The awakening birdnotes of Reveille at dawn, the two-mile run through auroral mists breaking over a still inviolate England…  the long, intent morning parades under the gummy shine of chestnut buds in the deepening meadows; the peace of the tranquil hours on guard at some sequestered post, alone with the Sylvester midnight, the wheeling stars and the quiet breathing of the earth in its sleep…  and then jocund days of marching and digging trenches in the sun; the silly little songs on the road that seemed, then, to have tunes most human, pretty, and jolly…

When you think of the youth that you have lost, the times when it seems to you now that life was most poignantly good may not be the ones when everything seemed at the time to go well with your plans, and the world, as they say, to be at your feet; rather some few unaccountable moments when nothing took place that was out of the way and yet some word of a friend’s, or a look on the face of the sky, the taste of a glass of spring water, the plash of laughter and oars heard across midsummer meadows at night raised the soul of enjoyment within you to strangely higher powers of itself. That spirit bloweth and is still: it will not rise for our whistling nor keep a time-table…  for a moment some intervening darkness had thinned and we were seeing further than we can see now into the heart of life.

Montague, who famously dyed his hair upon enlistment and was now a happily vigorous non-commissioned officer, generally combines historical commentary with memoir. The reverie gets personal, now:

To one recollection at least it has seemed that the New Army’s spring-tide of faith and joyous illusion came to its height on a night late in the most beautiful May of 1915, in a hut where thirty men slept near a forest in Essex. Nothing particular happened; the night was like others. Yet in the times that came after, when half of the thirty were dead and most of the others jaded and soured, the feel of that night would come back with the strange distinctness of those picked, remembered mornings and evenings of boyhood when everything that there was became everlastingly memorable as though it had been the morning or evening of the first day. Ten o’clock came and Lights Out, but a kind of luminous bloom still on the air and a bugle blowing Last Post in some far-away camp that kept worse hours than we…

I’m not sure if this particular passage is particularly celebrated, but it oughta be. It strikes me now that this is like a prose “Adlestrop.”[4] “No one left and no one came–” “Nothing particular happened. And now the blackbird and the bugle:

I believe the whole hut held its breath to hear the notes better. Who wouldn’t, to listen to that most lovely and melancholy of calls, the noble death of each day’s life, a sound moving about hither and thither, like a veiled figure…

Poetry compresses, of course, and Edward Thomas made the brilliant decision to include the station’s name–only the name–thus hitting early upon the ways in which conventional lyric (and, indeed, most literary forms) will fail to describe the war and be forced to fall back upon “the concrete names of villages.”

But Montague is doing something different. Remember that he has already mentioned how strong the memories of these halcyon days must be–for those still living. Many are not, and Montague has written neither a lyric poem–individual and universal–nor a solipsistic memoir, but a moment of collective memoir, tinged with elegy. A whole platoon remembers, and with them the readers.

…among the dim thoughts that we have about death the approaching extinguisher—resignation and sadness and unfulfilment and triumph all coming back to the overbearing sense of extinction in those two recurrent notes of “Lights Out”? One listens as if with bowed mind, as though saying “Yes; out, out, brief candle.”

A moment’s silence to let it sink in and the chaffing and laughter broke out like a splash of cool water in summer again. That hut always went to bed laughing and chaffing all round…

That is where I should break off, if prose and memory were our only subject here. But history. But irony:

…It made life seem too wonderful to end; such were the untold reserves that we had in this nation of men with a hold on themselves, of hardly uprightness…  What, then, must be the unused stores of greedless and fearless straightness in others above us, generals and statesmen, men in whom, as in bank-porters, character is three parts of the trade! The world seemed clean that night; such a lovely unreason of optimist faith was astir in us all, We felt for that time ravish ‘d above earth And possess’d joys not promised at our birth.

It seemed hardly credible now, in this soured and quarrelsome country and time, that so many men of different classes and kinds, thrown together at random, should ever have been so simply and happily friendly, trustful, and keen. But they were, and they imagined that all their betters were too. That was the paradise that the bottom fell out of.[5]


References and Footnotes

  1. Letters and Recollections, 185-6.
  2. Massacre of the Innocents, 255-6.
  3. I do loathe the misuse of superlatives--I am carving out space for Disenchantment here while remaining able both to declare The Great War and Modern Memory to be the best book about the war, hands down (non-participant writer!), and also to lavish a spread of superlatives on one or another of the self-centered traditional memoirs...
  4. Find the poem here--but 'ware spoilers in the comments.
  5. Disenchantment, 7-14.

Robert Graves on Sausages, Lechery, and Bricks; Reactions to Julian Grenfell’s Death; Tolkien is Still a Scholar; Morgan Crofton Outs the Idiocy of Francis Grenfell’s Comrades

Robert Graves introduces us today to one of the landmarks of the British sector, and–drawing on his re-purposed novel of trench life–he provides us with a chatty-but-useful sketch of the ways, wherefores, and weapons of static trench warfare.


Not a Western Mesa, but the Cuinchy Brick-Stacks

May 28th.  In trenches among the Cuinchy brick-stacks. Not my idea of trenches. There has been a lot of fighting hereabouts. The trenches have made themselves rather than been made, and run inconsequently in and out of the big thirty-foot-high stacks of bricks; it is most confusing. The parapet of a trench which we don’t occupy is built up with ammunition-boxes and corpses. Everything here is wet and smelly. The Germans are very close: they have half the brick-stacks, we have the other half. Each side snipes down from the top of its brick-stacks into the other’s trenches. This is also a great place for German rifle-grenades and trench mortars. We can’t reply properly; we have only a meagre supply of rifle-grenades and nothing to equal the German sausage mortar-bomb.

Nothing to be suspicious of here–this is a modest general sketch of what the Cuinchy trenches were like at this time. Although one hopes that we hear so often of corpse-incorporated parapets because the few such instances were so memorably appalling rather than because the practice was so common. But now Graves gets specific about the whens and wheres, and he goes straight to that favorite trope of the new soldier–the near-miss.

This morning about breakfast time, just as I came out of my dug-out, a rifle-grenade landed within six feet of me. For some reason, instead of falling on its head and exploding, it landed with its stick in the wet clay and stood there looking at me… I can’t understand why this particular rifle-grenade fell as it did. the chances were impossibly against it.

‘Sausages’ are easy to see and dodge, but they make a terrible noise when they drop. We have had about ten casualties in our company today from them. I find that my reactions to danger are extraordinarily quick; but everyone gets like that. We can sort out all the different explosions and disregard whichever don’t concern us…

Last night a lot of German stuff was flying about, including shrapnel. I heard one shell whish-whishing toward me and dropped flat. It burst just over the trench where ‘Petticoat Lane’ runs into ‘Lowndes Square’. My ears sang as though there were gnats in them, and a bright scarlet light shone over everything . My shoulder got twisted in falling and I thought I had been hit, but I hadn’t been. The vibration made my chest sing, too,in a curious way, and I lost my sense of equilibrium. I was ashamed when the sergeant-major came along the trench and found me on all fours, still unable to stand up straight.

Graves next returns to the comic description of his platoon of Welsh miners which had occupied much of a previous chapter. After relating instances of their easy black humour around corpses–a useful carryover from their former jobs–he explains their moral code:

It’s moral, for instance, to rob anyone of anything, except a man in their own platoon. They treat every stranger as an enemy until he proves himself their friend, and the there’s nothing they won’t do for him. They are lecherous, the young ones at least, but without the false shame of the English lecher. I had a letter to censor the other day, written by a lance-corporal to his wife. He said that the French girls were nice to sleep with, so she mustn’t worry on his account, but that he far preferred sleeping with her and missed he a great deal.[1]


The reactions to the death of Julian Grenfell continue. Raymond Asquith learned the news a day after his father:

It is simply bloody about Julian. I quite thought that his strength and pugnacity would pull him through.[2]


And Ivo Grenfell, Julian and Billy’s younger brother, wrote to their sister Monica:

Darlingest Casie

Juju is in peace and happy for evermore, and no one could have died so bravely… The world will never be quite the same again, but God does everything for the best… Juju has so nobly done his duty, and has died as I am sure he wished to die, fighting for his country… we must all try and be like Juju. He has triumphed over all, and he would never wish us to feel sad but rather what a glorious thing death is…

Ivo is sixteen, so he will have to wait some time for his chance to be like his brothers.[3]


Morgan Crofton is nearing the end of his tether. And soon, too, he will be left once again holding the tethers of the tether-holders–detailed to stay in rest billets with the horses while his regiment takes its turn in the trenches. Crofton is a fighting soldier–at least in his own self-estimation–but it is a bit suspicious that he seems to draw this duty repeatedly. Perhaps he is not as keen as the other senior officers of the regiment: his reaction to the news of the upcoming spell of trench duty (he had not yet learned that he would be left behind) was to write “What a nuisance it all is. I had hoped that we should have had a quiet time in Racquinghem.”

Today the regiment moved up toward the reserve lines in preparation for the next move into the actual trenches. Crofton’s honesty–to his diary–is one of his most valuable features for us. Today, he turns his uncensored criticism–albeit indirectly–on Francis Grenfell, late of the 9th Lancers.,

Friday May 28

Cold, but fine day. Breakfast at 7.30…

Was not sorry on the whole to leave Wallon-Cappel. Although it was better latterly than it was when we first went there in April, it really is an unhealthy village, and we were not too comfortable in billets…

I believe that the 9th Lancers are to take our place at Wallon-Cappel. They suffered very heavily from the gas in the trenches last Wednesday, chiefly owing to laziness on the part of the officers and men in not taking the trouble to put on respirators.

Noel Edwards (the polo player who played in America, in the Polo Team taken over by Wimborne last year) never bothered to put either a respirator or mask on, with a result that he was badly gassed, and although he succeeded in walking back through Ypres, he died some hours afterwards.[4]

Can this debacle explain the apparently very gallant–and strangely aggressive, given that the British were on the defensive at Second Ypres–behavior of Francis Grenfell several days later? Francis was an international polo player as well, and the 9th Lancers were his regiment. Did he dash forward for reasons of revenge? Or, perhaps, because criticism of his regiment’s foolish laziness were widespread and needed to be expunged? It’s impossible to tell–but it’s a reminder that the panegyric letters written after an officer’s death may stray very far indeed from the truth.

Crofton is no bureaucrat of the New Armies, but his grumpiness about the inefficient use of the cavalry and the swaggering disregard of the old-school sportsmen for the realities of modern warfare is more confirmation that the war is changing. Another gently born cavalryman goes bravely–and in this case, unquestionably stupidly–down into the dark, and the rough-and-ready infantry of the New Armies must come up to fill the gaps.


And John Ronald Tolkien, in his last weeks at Oxford, gave a paper today to The Psittakoi, a student literary society, reviewing The Quest of Beauty and Other Poems by H.R. Freston, a recent graduate. Several letters of advice from his friends and former classmates–of practical advice about the inevitable next step–are already in the post.


References and Footnotes

  1. Good-Bye to All That, 111-113.
  2. Raymond Asquith, Life and Letters, 200.
  3. Thompson, Julian Grenfell, 314.
  4. Massacre of the Innocents, 254.

A Bloodstained Letter from Julian Grenfell

At some point either late yesterday or early today, army chaplain H K Southwell, wrote a short note and placed it in an envelope, along with the bloodstained letter scrawled by the wounded officer.

From No 10 Casualty Clearing Session, BEF

Dear Madam

Your son gave me the enclosed to post, & I was obliged to put it into an envelope… You may be glad to know that Sir Anthony Bowlby saw him here this afternoon, & at once said that he could go on to Boulogne without any risk.[1]


May 14th, 1915

Darling Mother,

Isn’t it wonderful and glorious that at last after long waiting the Cavalry have put it across the Boches on their flat feet and have pulled the frying pan out of the fire for the second time. Good old “iron ration.”[2] We are practically wiped out; but we charged and took the Hun trenches yesterday. I stopped a Jack Johnson with my head, and my skull is slightly cracked. But I’m getting on splendidly. I did awfully well. Today I go down to Wimereux, to hospital, shall you be there?

All all love Julian of the ‘Ard ‘Ed.

Longing to see you and talk!!

Bless you![3]

Julian Grenfell has had, in a way, his heart’s desire. He fought bravely and successfully, and it was all very bloody. And he has had the good fortune to be evacuated not only toward the base hospital where his sister Monica (“Casie”) is working, but just before his parents were due to pay her a visit. Achilles is never wounded, but surely if he had been, Thetis would have met him at the beach, and brought Peleus and a nymph too, if necessary.

But the Royal Dragoons have been horribly mangled–only three of the fifteen officers remained alive and unwounded–and no battle has been won. And Grenfell’s description of yesterday’s fight is notably inaccurate: they did not charge any German trenches, and although they did well, their role in the battle involved courage under fire rather than any significant firing of their own.

The Germans have been stopped, yes, and their attempt to take Ypres is again petering out, but Grenfell’s letter does not dwell on the chances of this strategic victory. It’s about his share in the glory of the cavalry, and how he himself “did awfully well.” He did, surely, voluntarily carrying messages forward into great danger, but it’s impossible not to wonder about where this idea of a glorious charge into German trenches came from. Is it sheer fantasy, the fancy of a brave and imaginative officer wounded in the head, or is it based on misinformation or the misinterpretation of something he was told about the regiment’s actions in the hours after he was wounded? Even yesterday, with Colwyn Philipps, we saw the tendency of some officers to tell dramatic and unlikely stories about the demise of their comrades, so it seems possible that a wounded officer might be provided with well-meant exaggerations of the sequels to his actions.

Of all the feats of invasive close reading we will attempt in this long siege of war writing, a classical exegesis and factual nit-picking of the letter of a young officer writing to his mother with a shell splinter in his skull would surely be among the most foolish. Julian Grenfell is wounded, and despite his initial reaction to the shock and pain of the wound he is told that he will surely survive, and, perhaps, that his actions were part of a victory, rather than a holding action. So he writes what anyone would write–of relief that he has performed well and will now be able to indulge in pleasures long forgone. Many soldiers write of sleep and being clean and safe–Grenfell, rather impressively, emphasizes how much he has been looking forward to seeing his parents.

Except, except–it’s not relief, is it? It’s pride. He had done well, and no man could say he was better. Only a thunderbolt struck him down–no man’s spear. This is a brave young officer, but he’s also the boy who, in his school days, chose for the subject of a Greek oration the twenty-second book of the Iliad. This is the climax of the epic’s violence, in which Achilles, with divine aid, defeats, dispatches, despoils, and dishonors Hector.

Hector is a great hero and an honorable man, but in this book he runs, and stumbles, begs, bargains, and is slain. No matter fate, and the gods, and the fullness of the character of Hector, all of which many readers today find so much more compelling than the Wrath of Achilles–Hector is a foil to Achilles, and he is defeated.

To the Greeks that mattered very much indeed, just as it does to the British gentleman, just as it did to the British schoolboy who recited that passage.  Strange then, that despite Grenfell’s undoubted personal bravery and the grim effectiveness of the defense mounted by the two cavalry divisions yesterday, a bit of spurious kudos slips in into this letter. Is there a failure to find sufficient meaning in artillery wounds, in holding actions, in confused and complex battles of attrition?

The evacuation of casualties is efficient, and Julian Grenfell will reach the hospital in Boulogne tomorrow.


References and Footnotes

  1. Thompson, Julian Grenfell, Soldier and Poet, 307.
  2. I.e. the cavalry divisions--like iron rations, they have been preserved unused for long months in order to be ready as a last reserve when everything else breaks down.
  3. Thompson, Julian Grenfell, Soldier and Poet, 287.