Olaf Stapledon’s Little Twiddly Scrawls; Siegfried Sassoon’s Idyll Turns to Remorse; Edward Heron-Allen on Parade

Olaf Stapledon remains committed to the principle that the experiential gulf (not to mention the two hemispheres) that separates him from his beloved Agnes can best be bridged by creating familiarity with his circumstances. This letter isn’t quite up to his previous high standard of literary teleportation, but it operates on the same implicit premise: if I can write you into knowing the people I’m with, it will be like we are closer together…

SSA 13

4 February 1918

Yesterday I wrote you a scrap in a hurry; today I am beginning again or rather tonight, and under awkward circumstances, for I am at an aid post with three garrulous Englishmen and two garrulous Frenchmen. The latter have gone but the former remain. One of them is making cocoa, which is now an almost unheard of luxury. He is the well-bred and well-built younger [George Romney] Fox, our best runner, and a charming lad although he is a bit too pleased with himself. Another is one [William] Meredith, formerly in Cadbury’s works, a keen self-educating lad who suffers from two disadvantages, being neither of the well-to-do nor of the proper “working” class. He somehow always errs on the side of formality and over respectability; but he also is a good lad, a hard worker too. The third is the great and famous inhabitant of Liverpool, Alec Gunn, called the mitrailleuse on account of his endless rattle of talk. . . .

Goodnight. These silly little black twiddly scrawls that are our only lines of communication! Goodnight.[1]

It’s Stapledon’s gift–and his dogged project–to keep two hearts close together as their time apart stretches to many years.


And it’s Siegfried Sassoon‘s gift to house two different personalities within himself–Outdoor Sassoon (or George Sherston, the Fox-Hunting Man) and Indoor Sassoon, the poet. Today, however, he once again works from the outside in.

Hacked to meet—four miles from Limerick. Fine sunny morning. Rode Sheeby’s big bay mare…  [the fox] ran very twisting (a vixen). Slow hunting for about forty minutes, ran toward Limerick, and killed at a farm… A poorish day, but very jolly… Happy days.

Sassoon’s previous few days of “jolly” hunting produced poems that dwelt in the happy hunting grounds of his mind, keeping the war well in the background. But today this “jolly,” “happy” diary mood somehow twisted, vixen-like to produce a bloody, angry, haunted war poem in his old style.



Lost in the swamp and welter of the pit,
He flounders off the duck-boards; only he knows
Each flash and spouting crash,—each instant lit
When gloom reveals the streaming rain. He goes
Heavily, blindly on. And, while he blunders,
‘Could anything be worse than this?’—he wonders,
Remembering how he saw those Germans run,
Screaming for mercy among the stumps of trees:
Green-faced, they dodged and darted: there was one
Livid with terror, clutching at his knees…
Our chaps were sticking ’em like pigs. ‘O hell!’
He thought—‘there’s things in war one dare not tell
Poor father sitting safe at home, who reads
Of dying heroes and their deathless deeds.[2]


Sassoon does this sort of thing very well. What should I add? Either you are pummeled by the force of the imagery and the rhythm of the verse into a sharper awareness of the horror of war, or you are put off by the oversimplifications that such a direct assault necessitates. Or both…


Finally–this is an awkward segue, given that this is an older man, safe at home, and very impressed with his own father’s deathless deeds–we mark a major change in the circumstances of Edward Heron-Allen. After several years (but only a few entries, here) of life as a not-so-young and slightly cracked home-front volunteer, he is now to begin life as an elderly subaltern: he began training with his very own platoon of Sussex volunteers, today, a century back, at Tunbridge Wells.

Here I am at the end of the first day and if it is all going to be like today it will be interesting…

Perhaps: but the diary is not–unless it can be excerpted for the purpose of not-so-gentle mockery. The ankle deep mud on the parade ground at Tunbridge Wells gave Heron-Allen “an idea of the state of things in Flanders…” except for the fact that in the very next sentence they give up bayonet training because it is “too filthy,” and have a lecture instead. Just like in Flanders.[3]

But we will look in on Heron-Allen as his time in training camp continues… it will get more interesting for him, and for us as well…


References and Footnotes

  1. Talking Across the World, 280.
  2. Diaries, 209-10.
  3. Journal, 141-44.

George Coppard’s Military Medal, and Soup Ticket; Olaf Stapledon’s Transporting Domestic Scene

George Coppard brought his machine gun all the way to Cambrai, and his battered body back out of it, and to blighty. His officer knows that he was evacuated with a serious but not life-threatening wound, but not, perhaps, just how painful his recovery has been. Still, who wouldn’t want to receive such a note–as Coppard did today, a century back–to say nothing of its enclosure?

Dear Coppard,

Herewith I have great pleasure in enclosing your Soup Ticket. I have also great pleasure in informing you that you have been awarded the Military Medal. Please accept my heartiest congratulations…

W.D. Garbutt

The Soup ticket was a blue linen card, which read:

Your Commanding Officer and Brigade Commander have informed me that you have distinguished yourself by your conduct in the field.

I have read their report with much pleasure.

A B Scott
Major General
Commanding 12th Division[1]


Our only other bit today is a long letter from Olaf Stapledon to Agnes Miller, begun yesterday. The Friends Ambulance Unit is not your typical company–but neither is Stapledon your typical writer. This is a wonderfully detailed “characters of the company” piece, with something in common with every trench/dugout genre-painting-in-words as well as with the academic-studded salon world of Cynthia Asquith (whom we will read in two days’ time) or Ottoline Morrell.

But it is written by Olaf Stapledon (as I may have already mentioned once or twice) and so it is no pat pen-portrait or workmanlike sketch. By the end it will be a subtle response to Agnes’s questions about the justice of conscription and of pacifism–but that, perhaps, we will notice less than the fact that it is a beautiful lamp-lit fantasia, an act of teleportation by literary will. Read to the end, and find that Agnes herself has been summoned to view the scene, from all across the world, to witness the life of a group of men who will serve but not fight. And so it might feel that we, too, have been summoned, from over a century and back…

12 January 1918

. . . If you were here just now, sitting with me in this comparatively quiet corner of our billet, we would watch and listen together. Round the stove there is a ring of vigorous talkers all arguing rather flippantly about socialism. [Denis] Goodall, commonly called Saul, is the centre of it, and I fear he is doing no good to the cause with his flippancy and his knack of getting people’s backs up. But really he is sincere and kindly and clear-headed. At dinner today Saul was forcibly carried out because he was supposed to have purloined the cheese of another table. But look, beside me sits Richardson, the “Prof,” setting out on an evening of mathematical calculations, with his ears blocked with patent sound deadeners. Over in yon corner is a little quiet bridge party, smoking and talking softly together. Over on that bed (lower story) sits David Long formerly of Manchester University. He has settled down for a quiet read by the light of his hurricane lamp. That little fellow in the top bed squatting on his kit bag and writing, is Tom Ellis, one of the workshop staff. He comes from Manchester too, and speaks with a Manchester accent. He is almost deformed, & was once paralyzed on one side, but he is full of life and has a heart of gold. Funny lad! He sings musical songs in a piercing voice, and can be very rowdy and unrefined; yet he is passionately fond of Dickens and Shakespeare, and yesterday at our reading of “Othello” he took the title part, and did it really well. It was a revelation, such strong yet restrained feeling he put into it. On that other upper bed is little [John] Rees, the head of our motor stores department, a quiet but firm young person, rather aloof from the general ruck, a good Christian in all senses. He was Desdemona, but did not put enough expression into the part. Did you hear that cynical tenor laugh? That was Robertson the Scotch artist. He is behind the centre block of beds. Of him one feels that underneath layers and layers of woolly muddled thought and egotism there must really be some secret splendour of Life. I guess he is the laziest and most selfish of us all, but somehow one feels more sorry for him than angry with him, because of the said sadly overlaid splendour of love for pure beauty. Poor lonely fellow. He never gets to know anyone, simply because he affects a strange attitude of superior bantering. There in front us sits [Francis] Wetherall, the head mechanic and engineer, grey-haired, spectacled, reading some heavy tome on rationalism. He is a close man. No one knows much about him, save that he has a strong unrefined sense of humour, an astounding command of bad language when he is wrath, and a faculty for singing funny Irish songs. He does far more work than anyone else. He is never happy unless working or reading some scientific book. He wears a wedding ring and is a confirmed old bachelor. He is self-educated with a vast disorganised or rather ill-proportioned store of information and ideas about evolution and natural science. Here beside me,—no, beside you, who sit between him & me—sits Teddy. You know him. He is rather laboriously writing a letter, and now & then turning in our direction to ask for light upon nice points of syntax. Teddy is gradually beginning to take more interest in the great world. He regularly borrows my “Nation” (most glorious of all journals) and my “Common Sense.” Formerly his ideal seemed to be to keep clean and hale and full of the joy of pure life, and to be infinitely and unobtrusively kind to his neighbours. Now, he is more than that without having dropped any of that. Teddy’s only fault is a lack of push, not of strength, for he is as firm as a rock. Perhaps the push will come later. Anyhow lack push too, so I must not complain. Between you and the Prof sits Stap who has just had his hair cut very short and has suffered much chaff on the score of the visibility of a long scar that has been thereby laid bare on his head. “Daddy, what did you do in the great war?” “Look at my head, young man.” But alas it was only an artillery man’s boot! This same neighbour of yours is grimy, like the rest of us, and he is shy of sitting by you in such a grubby state. Otherwise he is much as you knew him, though (on dit) thinner. His right hand neighbour is the girl I think I see her sitting with her elbows on the table looking round at people with a curious, interested smile, her face lit by the hurricane lamp. I think I see her brows drawn together in a puzzled expression as she wonders exactly why each of these people is here and not in the trenches. They look a pretty healthy, sturdy lot, don’t they, and unashamed. Listen! There goes Harry Locke discussing Australian politics. I expect you would say he knows nothing about them. Perhaps, but I think he knows something about world politics, of which yours are a part. But goodnight now, dear Agnes. My pen is running dry, & it is bed time. . . .[2]


References and Footnotes

  1. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 132.
  2. Talking Across the World, 269-72.

Ivor Gurney in a Nutshell; Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon Eat, Drink, and Mock Merrily; Herbert Read the Very Model of the Modernist Company Commander

A day, today, of striking contrasts. First, Marion Scott seems to have asked Ivor Gurney for some biographical details, presumably for some task related to the publication of his Severn and Somme, which she has single-handedly seen into the press. He responded with a charmingly inexact potted bio:

26 October 1917

Details of the Life and Crimes of the private named Gurney.

Gloucester Cathedral 1900…

Head boy sometime

I have forgotten when I got the Scholarship (I have asked Mrs Hunt to tell you.)
Stanford — Composition
Mr Waddington (whom I like very much) for Counterpoint…

Also the Westminster Board.

Mr Sharpe (a good man) for Piano…

Centre-forward for Kings School

Owner of the “Dorothy” (defunct)

2nd best batting average
3rd best bowling — last term of school

crack platoon shot July 1917

Author of “Severn and Somme”
and a further unborn imbecility.

Army Feb. 9th (?) 1915

Proficiency pay. C[onfined to].B[arracks]. every now and then. Sang Widdecombe Fair
blushingly at Albert Nov: 1916

Wounded Good Friday night — or rather on the Sat:
Gassed (?) at Ypres.[1]


A few miles away in Edinburgh, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon spent the day together. It was something of a last hurrah,[2] since Owen’s Medical Board–not to mention Sassoon’s make-up Board–is looming on the horizon. But it was a low-key last hurrah, centered on two things dear to combat soldiers: food and laughter. Owen will write, tomorrow:

I am so happy with Sassoon. Spent all day with him yesterday. Breakfast, Lunch, Tea & Dinner, chiefly at the Conservative Club…[3]

Sassoon provided the chief amusement:

After a good dinner and a bottle of noble Burgundy had put us in good spirits, I produced a volume of portentously over-elaborate verse, recently sent me by the author. From this I began to read extracts—a cursory inspection having assured me that he would find them amusing.

The extracts included bizarrely eccentric lines such as

When Captain Cook first sniff’d the wattle
And love Columbus’d Aristotle…

Which left Owen “surrendering to convulsions of mirth in a large leather-covered armchair.” Before joining Owen in this surrender, Sassoon managed to get as far as:

What cassock’d misanthrope
Hawking peace-canticles for glory-gain,
Hymns from his rostrum’d height th’epopt of Hate?

O is it true I have become
This gourd, this gothic vacuum?[4]

Very bad poetry is funny, it’s true…


Herbert Read, however, is a serious-minded Modernist, and, in today’s letter to Evelyn Roff, he writes… well, perhaps from the heart, perhaps to impress, perhaps some of both. But he certainly becomes the first poet here to quote an abstract contemporary poem in lieu of describing what his latest tour in the line was like–in lieu of Dante, Bunyan,  or the Bible. It’s also, for us, a remote crossing of paths: the poem he quotes–almost accurately–is by the important Modernist H.D., wife of Richard Aldington (and current hostess of D.H. Lawrence).

We have had a terrible time–the worst I have ever experienced (and I’m getting quite an old soldier now). Life has never seemed quite so cheap nor nature so mutilated. I won’t paint the horrors to you. Some day I think I will, generally and for the public benefit.

This casual-but-major statement of intent, with Read’s habitual mix of studied rationality stretched thin over his ambition, is especially noteworthy if we follow his train of thought. It makes very good sense, of course, to go from horror to the hope of writing to the question of what writing the war might accomplish… which would be some sort of attempt to bridge–or at least signal across–the yawning gulf that separates combat veterans from civilians. Very good sense: but I feel as if we don’t often see these two thoughts nakedly next to each other, and in this order. Sassoon feels the gulf and then writes in anger and in ways which are neither didactic nor conciliatory; Read wants to write, and then thinks of the gulf…

I was thoroughly ‘fed up’ with the attitude of most of the people I met on leave–especially the Londoners. They simply have no conception whatever of what war is really like and don’t seem concerned about it at all. They are much more troubled about a few paltry air raids. They raise a sentimental scream about one or two babies killed when every day out here hundreds of the very finest manhood ‘go west’.

…and then he comes back to the anger. This we saw as long ago as 1915, but it is getting worse.

And yet Read pulls up short again, and turns, doing an unusual sort of somersault back over the gulf. He will describe war, but he will use the words of a civilian and a woman–a woman moreover in a position analogous to the letter’s addressee: both are women in England with long experience in waiting for the next letter, and fearing the next telegram.

Of course, everyday events are apt to become rather monotonous. . . . but if the daily horror might accumulate we should have such a fund of revulsion as would make the world cry ‘enough!’ So sometimes I wonder if it is a sacred duty after all ‘to paint the horrors’. This reminds me of a poem I’ll quote–by one of our moderns and a woman at that.

Another life holds what this lacks,
a sea, unmoving, quiet—
not forcing our strength
to rise to it, beat on beat—
a stretch of sand,
no garden beyond, strangling
with its myrrhlilies—
a hill not set with black violets
but stones, stones, bare rocks,
dwarf-trees, twisted, no beauty
to distract—to crowd
madness upon madness.

Only a still place
and perhaps some outer horror
some hideousness to stamp beauty,
a mark
on our hearts.


Perhaps the quotation has too much of the gesture about it–“See, I read women!”–but it’s not impossible to read it as whole sincere. This is a novel way of reaching out to Roff, across the gulf, and implying that she is to be considered an honorary combatant, able to understand something of its horror and not get hysterical about “a few paltry air raids.” And even if it is working hard to emphasize their connection, it’s not a bad quotation at all: the poem, with its horror and ruinscape and madness, is quite a good fit for the Salient in 1917. Which, I suppose, could be said of a lot of Modernist poetry, especially for those readers who might find the Christian framework of the old standby descriptions of Hell or the Slough of Despond off-putting…

In any event, Read is not just the impressively intellectual and in-touch boyfriend, here: he is also, to a surprising degree, given the emphasis on accumulating horrors, a happy warrior. This is not as uncommon a combination as we might think–Sassoon is the most obvious analogue, of course, but we might also remember gentle Roland Leighton‘s thirst for a decoration–and Read should, even in a somewhat preening letter, be given credit for facing up to the apparent contradiction.

War is horrible, but he’s enjoying himself; it’s more than can be borne, but he’s bearing it quite well:

My military progress continues… I  am now commanding a company… I thoroughly enjoy my despotism… I have got a fine lot of lads though they are fastly decreasing in numbers… they are a gallant crew: we have more decorations in our company than in any other in the battalion. I got four Military Medals today out of seven for the battalion. And damn proud of it we all are…

My subalterns (notice the ‘my’–sort of possessive pride) are quite a good lot…

The day grows long, so instead of transcribing the characters-of-the-company piece which closes the letter, I will merely summarize his band of brothers. They are much what we would expect: the quiet old guy of thirty or so; the sturdy, pretty-eyed optimist; the boastful but efficient sportsman; and, most promising, the “young rake of the cockney variety”…[5]


References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters, 226-7.
  2. But not as much as Sassoon remembers it to be, since he seems to confuse/conflate two memories, including aspects of their next evening out in this description, or vice versa...
  3. Collected Letters, 503.
  4. Siegfried’s Journey, 64-65. See also Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 278-9. The unfortunate author was one Aylmer Strong; Sassoon presented Owen with the volume.
  5. The Contrary Experience, 112-14.

Kate Luard Gets Cosy in Her New Digs; Edwin Vaughan Finishes the Job

When we last heard from Kate Luard the decision to withdraw her hospital from the salient in the wake of a fatal shelling had just been countermanded. Returning to the immediate rear areas of the salient, she found considerable peace of mind in a sturdy row of sandbags:

Saturday, August 25th, 10.30 p.m. Brandhoek. Got back here at 8 p.m. Had a lovely run – found everything quiet, and all our quarters sandbagged to the teeth. The bell-tents are raised and lined inside waist-high with sandbags and our Armstrong huts outside. We have to sleep on mattresses on stretchers instead of on beds so as to be below the line of sandbags. It looks and feels most awfully safe and cosy. There is also a dug-out with a concrete roof, not quite finished. It will be sandbagged all over.

We are all very happy to be back and united again and in good fettle for work…

After a quiet day, however, the rains began. This description will be familiar from Edwin Vaughan’s account of the horrors of yesterday, a century back:

Monday, August 27th. The rain began last evening and is still going on; an inch fell in 8 hours during the night. The ground is already absolutely waterlogged – every little trench inches deep, shell-holes and every attempt at bigger trenches feet deep. And thousands of men are waiting in the positions and will drown if they lie down to sleep. August 1-4 over again.

We have only 17 patients in and are all having a slack time and getting fit and rested…

She will connect “cosy” and “sandbags” for the second time in three days–but making the cheerful best of badconditions does not preclude recognizing what sandbags can and cannot protect against.

I am writing this in my extraordinarily cosy stretcher-and-mattress bed at 9.30 p.m., with the comfortable knowledge of two feet of sandbags between me and anything that may burst outside. Anything that may burst on top of you, whether armour-piercing 9.2’s like Tuesday’s, or bombs from above – you would know nothing about, as you’d merely wake to a better and more peaceful world.

…It is no good worrying about patients or Sisters on duty: as long as they put hospitals in such places they’ve got to be there, day or night, and can’t take any cover, and you can’t cover 300 beds. It is no good worrying over anything that you can’t alter, so the whole subject settles itself into a sort of fatalistic philosophy…[1]

Is this serenity or sense, religion or despair? Not the latter, with Sister Luard; but to write the problem out like this suggests that even for a woman of strong Christian faith it takes some mental effort to find a “cosy” peace of mind in a shell-strewn hospital.


Edwin Vaughan‘s account of today, a century back, picks up in mid-conversation as he walks back to the rear with a captured German major.

August 28

With ironical politeness I apologized in French for the condition of the roads and he replied in all seriousness that we had made a greater mess of theirs. Thinking he might be interested, I told him that Springfield had fallen, and he immediately asked me what had happened to the officer. He was very distressed when I told him for, he said, they had been at school together and also served together in the army. Close to Irish Farm he was taken off to the prisoner of war cage, while we continued on to Reigersburg. Not one word did we speak of the attack, and in the camp we separated in silence. I found that I was alone in my tent, which I entered soaked in mud and blood from head to foot. It was brightly lighted by candles and Martin had laid out my valise and pyjamas. As I dragged off my clothes he entered and filled my canvas bath with hot water.

Doggedly driving all thoughts out of my head I bathed, crawled into bed and ate a large plateful of stew. Then I laid
my utterly vacuous head upon the pillow and slept.

Today is the last day of the Vaughan’s diary. If the story began with Vaughan as a lone newcomer, it ends with the destruction of the group–not just the company he has commanded for only a few days but the larger battalion which has been his only home at war.

At about 9 a.m. I dragged myself wearily out to take a muster parade on which my worst fears were realized. Standing near the cookers were four small groups of bedraggled, unshaven men from whom the quartermaster sergeants were gathering information concerning any of their pals they had seen killed or wounded. It was a terrible list. Poor old Pepper had gone—hit in the back by a chunk of shell; twice buried as he lay dying in a hole, his dead body blown up and lost after Willis had carried it back to Vanheule Farm. Ewing hit by machine gun bullets had lain beside him for a while and taken messages for his girl at home.

Chalk, our little treasure, had been seen to fall riddled with bullets; then he too had been hit by a shell. Sergeant Wheeldon, DCM and bar, MM and bar, was killed and Foster. Also Corporals Harrison, Oldham, Mucklow and the
imperturbable McKay. My black sheep—Dawson and Taylor—had died together, and out of our happy little band
of 90 men, only 15 remained…

So this was the end of ‘D’ Company. Feeling sick and lonely I returned to my tent to write out my casualty report; but instead I sat on the floor and drank whisky after whisky as I gazed into a black and empty future.[2]


And that’s it. Vaughan will recover from the destruction of his unit and go on to serve with distinction, to win promotion and a Military Cross. He will survive the war. As far as we know, however, he did not continue the diary–or he did not rewrite into this form whatever diary he may subsequently have kept. We do not even know whether he turned the raw material of his diary into the ruminative, introspective account that we have been reading during the war or only in the years after. Their is retrospect built into the immediate accounts–but how much?

So he will survive; but in other ways Vaughan probably did not recover from the experiences he wrote so intensely about. His life after the war seems to have been unhappy, and he died young, plagued by ill health and killed by a doctor’s mistake. His diary was hidden away by his brothers and only rediscovered in the 1970s. When it was published, in 1981, Vaughan had been dead half a century, and over those fifty years the growing collection of memoirs of disillusionment and disenchantment had gradually seized hold of the collective historical memory of the war. His diary, assigned a famous poetic tag for its title, was well-received as a member of this company, and widely read…


References and Footnotes

  1. Unknown Warriors, 153-4.
  2. Some Desperate Glory, 231-2.

Edward Thomas Writes to Robert Frost; Siegfried Sassoon in Literary London, and Under Lady Ottoline’s Influence, but Hardy Beneath; Rowland Feilding: No Place is Safe

Yesterday, a century back, was Edward Thomas’s first full day at the front. But his battery has not yet gone into action, and things are slow.

No letters yet. Censoring as usual. Gramophone playing… 9 p.m. Great cannonade thudding and flashing quite continuously away south in Ancre.[1]

Slow enough to finally write–despite the gramophone–to Robert Frost, the friend whose regard and sympathetic understanding (and poetic gift) prodded Thomas into writing poetry in the first place. But with Frost across the Atlantic, and increasingly out of touch with Thomas’s mental world, the friendship has been lagging. Thomas recently received a copy of Frost’s new book, Mountain Interval; he is still hoping for help from Frost in seeing his own first collection published. Nevertheless, it is the friendship that matters most to Thomas, and it is hard not to think, once again, that Eleanor Farjeon gets the drafts, while Frost gets the polished work. This letter–the second paragraph in particular–is like a refined version of what he wrote to her yesterday.

244 Siege Battery BEF France 111 February 1917 and a Sunday they tell me

My dear Robert,

I left England a fortnight ago and have now crawled with the battery up to our position. I can’t tell you where it is, but we are well up in high open country. We are on a great main road in a farmhouse facing the enemy who are about 2 miles away, so that their shells rattle our windows but so far only fall a little behind us or to one side. It is near the end of a 3 week’s frost. The country is covered with snow which silences everything but the guns. We have slept—chiefly in uncomfortable places till now. Here we lack nothing except letters from home. It takes some time before a new unit begins to receive its letters. I have enjoyed it very nearly all. Except shaving in a freezing tent. I don’t think I really knew what travel was like till we left England.

Yesterday, our 2nd day, I spent in the trenches examining some observation posts to see what could be seen of the enemy from them. It was really the best day I have had since I began. We had some shells very near us, but were not sniped at. I could see the German lines very clear but not a movement anywhere, nothing but posts sticking out of the snow with barbed wire, bare trees broken and dead and half ruined houses. The only living men we met at bends in trenches, eating or carrying food or smoking. One dead man lay under a railway arch so stiff and neat (with a covering of sacking) that I only slowly remembered he was dead. I got back, tired and warm and red. I hope I shall never enjoy anything less. But I shall. Times are comparatively quiet just here. We shall be busy soon and we shall not be alone. I am now just off with a working party to prepare our Gun positions which are at the edge of a cathedral town a mile or two along the road we look out on. We are to fight in an orchard there in sight of the cathedral.

It is night now and cold again. Machine guns rattle and guns go ‘crump’ in front of us. Inside a gramophone plays the rottenest songs imaginable, jaunty unreal dirty things. We get on well enough but we are a rum company. There is a Scotch philosopher, an impossible unmilitary creature who looks far more dismal than he really can be—I like him to talk to, but he is too glaringly timid and apologetic and helpless to live with. The others are all commonplace people under 26 years old who are never serious and could not bear anyone else to be serious. We just have to be dirty together. I also cannot be sincere with them. Two are boys of 19 and make me think of the boys I might have had for company. One of the two aged about 24 is rather a fine specimen of the old English soldiers, always bright and smart and capable, crude but goodhearted and frivolous and yet thorough at their work. He has been 10 years in the army. All his talk is in sort of proverbs or cant sayings and bits of comic songs, coarse metaphors—practically all quotations.

But I am seldom really tired of them. I suppose I am getting to like what they are, and their lack of seriousness is no deception and is just their method of expression.

I used to read some of the Sonnets while we were at Havre, but not on these last few days of travel. ‘Mountain Interval’ also is waiting.

My love to you all.

Yours ever

(s/Lt) Edward Thomas[2]

It’s very nice to put one’s friend in the company of Shakespeare–for it’s his Sonnets which Thomas has been reading, and Frost’s Mountain Interval surely might wait a bit, then, and still be highly valued… what’s odd, though, is that Thomas seems to have already read the book, or at least most of it. Why does he not want to discuss it with Frost? Fatigue, perhaps…


The second leg of Siegfried Sassoon‘s last leave involved little in the way of attentive dogs, Elizabethan airs, or uncomfortable family silences. After a few days with his mother in Kent, Sassoon went to stay in London with Robbie Ross and was soon immersed in literary London, and particularly in its semi-clandestine gay social circles.

Today, a century back, Sassoon managed to eat three square meals, one with each of the three friendly patrons who have done the most to advance his poetic career.

Breakfast with Eddie Marsh at Gray’s Inn. Lunch at the Reform with Meiklejohn and Robbie Ross. Tea at Gower Street with ‘Brett’ to inspect her vast portrait of Ottoline Morrell. Dinner at Gosse’s. At 1.45 a.m. bed.

With Marsh Sassoon was discussing the proofs of his next book; with Ross it was “gallant efforts to keep our spirits up” in the best Victorian style (Ross had been the staunch friend of Oscar Wilde), and we might assume that dinner with Edmund Gosse was a more staid affair. And then there is tea, too, and the mention of Lady Ottoline Morrell (the Dorothy Brett portrait I don’t have, alas).

Sassoon–far from famous but no longer unknown–is now at the confluence of several literary streams. Marsh, of course, remains secretary to Winston Churchill (who is in the political wilderness, now) and the force behind Georgian Poetry and all things Brooke and Brookeish. Ross, who was openly gay in a time when that meant facing constant prejudice and the threat of prosecution, provided entree into gay life in London, about which Sassoon does not write. Gosse was highly respected, and although he too repressed homosexual desires he was an older family man–and an old friend of Sassoon’s family–and he represented a Victorian literary mode that even non-revolutionary types like Sassoon must have found rather stuffy.

And the there is Ottoline Morrell. Lady Ottoline was an influential, off-beat society figure whose various interests tilted much younger and more Modern than any of Sassoon’s other friendly patrons–she will come to patronize several other notable artists and writers. But much more important, now, is the fact that she is an outspoken pacifist.

Sassoon had spent a good deal of time at her house during the difficult-to-date middle period of his convalescent leave in the early autumn, and there he learned… well… influence is always difficult to pin down. Sassoon is always the first to acknowledge his own impressionability, but is it really a matter of his getting anti-war ideas from her circle? Not exactly. Even if he was not quite as putty-like as he would have us believe, this is not really a matter of ideas but rather of emotion. No one at Garsington Manor could teach Sassoon to hate the war, but they could model attitudes of expressing this hatred… So: is the Bohemian glamor of openly criticizing the war pushing Sassoon further off-kilter, further away from any comfort with his Mad Jack/Happy Warrior persona? Surely. But Sassoon–in retrospect, again–is also able to recognize the self-centeredness of this anti-war turn.

Distraction of a different character was provided by Lady Ottoline, with whom I spent two whole afternoons which were by no means beneficial to my state of mind… Lady Ottoline insisted on being intensely earnest and discursive. She was obsessed by what she felt to be the brutal stupidity and imbecile wastefulness of the War, and my own return to it had involved her in a crisis of emotional depression.This caused me to talk recklessly, with a sort of victimized bitterness. I should probably get killed, I said; but the main trouble was that I no longer new what I was being killed for. ‘One gets sent out again like a cabbage going to Covent Garden Market,’ I exclaimed, adding that cabbages were better off, because they didn’t claim to have unconquerable souls, and weren’t told that they were making a supreme sacrifice for the sake of unborn vegetables. These discussion led neither of us anywhere…[3]

So the later memoir, well-polished in its sheepish sloughing off of youthful confusions…

As for today’s diary entry, there is nothing else in Sassoon’s own voice. But immediately after the entry he copies in three (of four) stanzas of a Thomas Hardy poem.

Let me enjoy the earth no less
Because the all-enacting Might
That fashioned forth its loveliness
Had other aims than my delight.

From manuscripts of moving song
Inspired by scenes and dreams unknown
I’ll pour out raptures that belong
To others, as they were my own.

And some day hence, towards Paradise
And all its blest — if such should be —
I will lift glad, afar-off eyes
Though it contain no place for me.

So, come what may, he will write, in the manner of his coming dedicatee. And after that, an anticipatory list:

Books taken to France

Shakespeare’s Tragedies
Hardy’s Dynasts
Hardy’s (Golden Treasury) Poems
Conrad, Nostromo and A Set of Six
Lamb’s Essays and Letters (selection)
Chaucer, Canterbury Tales[4]

This book list hardly seems to fit with the witty Georgian-Modern literary London scene in which Sassoon spent his leave. But it does show the poet on a more steady trajectory than he might want us to see. Is he really blown hither and yon by the brave ideas of all his witty and passionate friends? Or is he on course?

Sassoon will bring Hardy to France, he is dedicating his poems to Hardy, he is copying Hardy into his notebook, and instead of scoffing at patriotic effusion or objecting to it on humanist grounds, he is preparing an unflinchingly satiric attack that seems like a plausible imitation of what Hardy might have been as an angry young man. Before leaving Liverpool, Sassoon had attended a show at the Hippodrome–he had a good time, he thinks (this is the later, ironic voice, not the coiled satirist of early 1917)–but he fantasized about seeing a tank come charging down the stalls of the music hall, crushing the ignorant home-front jingoists…

So he’s working on a poem to that effect, and the full-protest Sassoon who will emerge this year is quite recognizable even now. He is inspired by Hardy, not by any Georgian poet, and he is unwilling to be modest (surely an all-but-essential precursor to poetic achievement). But he’s not being fair… he has never seen a tank and he has spent more time over the past six months fox hunting and golfing than in military tasks… but then again he is going back, now. I’ll let the voice of the memoir have the last word:

The situation was too complex for the shy and callow young man I was on that dreary February afternoon.[5]


So we’ve had a lot of writing, today, and some turmoil–but all with very little war in it. And we haven’t heard from Rowland Feilding in a while… so, let’s.

Colonel Feilding is not the sort of man to be easily led into off-balance opinions or to criticize without carefully considering his own position and responsibilities. But he has promised utter honesty in his letters to his wife, and he does not hide his feelings about the grim reach of the war. This short letter, though devoid of “victimized bitterness,” becomes an accidentally effective commentary on the “imbecile wastefulness” of the war.

February 11, 1917. Kemmel Shelters.

I returned to the battalion last evening, and found that the enemy had been shelling my battalion in Camp. It is in Divisional Reserve—training in a safe (!) place. Four have been killed and nine wounded, and the huts so badly
smashed that two Companies have had to be moved elsewhere.

The place was properly knocked about, and it was a surprising bit of shelling, too, seeing that the huts were unusually well hidden in a wooded depression, in the lee of Mount Kemmel, and screened by the protection which that steep hill affords. Personally, I could have sworn that these huts, at any rate, would have been safe from bombardment.

But no place is safe…[6]


References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary (Childhood), 161.
  2. Selected Letters, 135-6.
  3. Siegfried's Journey, 46. The "cabbage" line may have been uttered this week, a century back, but he will record it in a few days time in his diary as if it had come to him then...
  4. Diaries, 131.
  5. Siegfried's Journey, 47.
  6. War Letters to a Wife, 150.

Ivor Gurney: New Bard of the Barracks-Room; Francis Ledwidge Is In France and Isn’t; Edwin Vaughan Knows Fear and Grows Venturesome

Francis Ledwidge is enduring his first winter in the trenches France, and he faces the task like a true poet. A true poet of one particular, fiercely rooted sort. Tell us, Francis, about your experiences, and about the trenches:

In France

The silence of maternal hills
Is round me in my evening dreams;
And round me music-making bills
And mingling waves of pastoral streams.

Whatever way I turn I find
The path is old unto me still.
The hills of home are in my mind.
And there I wander as I will.

February 3rd, 1917.

Before we get to Ivor Gurney‘s letter, we should catch up with Edwin Vaughan, prodigy of bathos. Since he joined his battalion while it was in rest, he still awaits his first trip up the line. Yesterday, a century back, he prepared for this momentous step:

Although the morning was spent in final packing, I did not feel at all excited; I think it was the long waiting that calmed me down, for we did not parade until 5 p.m…

But fate had another anticlimax in store, although one that Vaughan did not protest too much. While the battalion was indeed going into trenches, he learned that his company would be the one in reserve, in charge of rations and unlikely to face hostile action. Anticlimax, yes, but at least a gentle immersion into danger.

With little chance of being killed–or of discovering that he isn’t mentally tough enough for the ordeal of bombardment–Vaughan’s diary fills once again with lesser evils. Hatwell, the company commander Vaughan has quickly learned to detest, is quick to turn their simple supply mission into a fiasco. He goes up with the ration party, but fails to issue contingent orders to his platoon commanders, and there is complete confusion as elements of the party get lost, run into frightened French soldiers they can hardly communicate with, argue with them about their duties, get lost again, and then learn, once Hatwell returns, that their quarters had been moved and thus there is more marching ahead.

I was too utterly lost in bewilderment at my first night in the trenches. It was so eerie and dull, no lights, no shots or shells, no raids or mines–just darkness, duckboards and rations…

At the end of the long night there is little to be done:

I issued rum to the troops, then to myself, and turned in–still marveling at the ridiculous attempt at warfare I had just witnessed.

That was last night. Today, however, a century back, Vaughan is disconcerted to be reminded of his status as a newcomer.

On comparing notes with the others, I found that I was the only one who had been at all at a loss the night before…

And tonight it will be Vaughan’s turn to go up to the line himslef. His honesty and careful attention to detail in his diary make him a very fine writer–as far along in the recording of experience as he is short of actual experience.

At 6 p.m. Thomas and I set out with the Company to carry the rations up the line… as I walked beside Thomas I had no qualms of fear, when he said in a low voice, ‘If they start shelling, we will have to split up….’

At that, my teeth started to chatter, and I had to stop talking, for my voice trembled so. I don’t think I was really frightened physically, but there was a curious dread of the unknown and an excitement of the imagination. As we marched down the exposed lonely road to the communication trench, I heard in the far distance a curious musical moan which with a gradually changing key came nearer and nearer until, immediately overhead, it made a noise like an emptying drain and then died away. I asked Tommy what that was and he replied ‘Oh! Just one for the back areas.’ ‘One what?; ‘Shell, of course!’ So I had heard my first shell, and it was quite pretty…

At first I was afraid to leave the vicinity of the trench lest any danger should catch me in the open, but after a while I grew more venturesome and went across with Johnny to a belt of broken wire around which the snow was uneven, with scattered rubbish. Here we found the grave of a Frenchman, with the equipment lying beside it, from which I collected the rapier-bayonet as a souvenir. Then we played about in the snow, exploring dumps and shell-holes and graves until an hour later when the troops returned and we marched back…[1]

It remains for us to guess: is this the absurd–but natural–combination of fear and exhilaration which rules front-line life, as tightening fear and careless abandon slosh in turn through the stressed nervous system, or is it another literary anticipation of an ironic twist?

And is it similarly twisted, on my part, to be more worried for Vaughan when he is larking about in the snow than when he is creeping up toward the line–or is it merely the product of long reading in these sorts of books?


Finally today, just a bit more from Ivor Gurney to Marion Scott, enlarging on his quick pen-portraits of the men in his section–enlarging, most agreeably, into verse:

3 February 1917

My Dear Friend: The boys are nearly all asleep — eight of us in a room, say, 14 feet by ten, with a large stack of wood, a fireplace and equipment. Outside it is bitterly cold; in here, not so bad; and good companionship hides many things. A miner, an engineer, a drapers assistant, a grocer, an Inland Revenuist, and a musician among


Silent, bathed in firelight, in dusky light and gloom
The boys squeeze together in the smoky dirty room.
Crowded around the fireplace, a thing of bricks and tin
They watch the shifting embers, till the good dreams enter in

That fill the low hovel with blossoms fresh with dew
And blue sky and white cloud that sail the clear air through.
They talk of daffodillies and the blue bells skiey beds
Till silence thrills with music at the things they have said.

And yet, they have no skill of words, whose eyes glow so deep.
They wait for night and silence and the strange power of Sleep,
To light them and drift them like sea birds over the sea
Where some day I shall walk again, and they walk with me.

The letter gets even better:

But O, cleaning up! I suppose I get as much Hell as any one in the army; and although I give the same time to rubbing and polishing as any of the others, the results — I will freely confess it — are not all they might be. Today there was an inspection by the Colonel. I waited trembling, knowing that there was six weeks of hospital and soft-job dirt and rust not yet all off; no, not by a long way. I stood there, a sheep among the goats (no, vice versa) and waited the bolt and thunder. Round came He-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed. Looked at me, hesitated, looked again, hesitated, and was called off by the R.S.M.[2] who was afterwards heard telling the Colonel (a few paces away from me) “A Good man, sir, quite all right. Quite a good man, sir, but he’s a musician, and doesn’t seem able to get himself clean.” When the aforesaid RSM came round for a back view, he chuckled, and said “Ah Gurney, I am afraid we shall never make a soldier of you.”

It is a good thing they are being converted to this way of thought at last; it has taken a long time. Anyway the R.S.M. is a brick, and deserves a Triolet.

He backed me up once;
I shall never forget it.
I’m a fool and a dunce
He backed me up once
If theres rust I shall get it
Your soul, you may bet it
Yes, all sorts [and in?] tons. . . .
He backed me up once
I shall never forget it.

(Triolet form quite forgotten. Please let me have it.)

…Fire went out long ago, while I was hammering out “Firelight”. It is too cold to think, write or read. Then sleep. O if I could but dream such things as would mean escape for me. But I never dream, one way or the other; Please excuse writing:

Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney[3]

If Gurney can be a little frightening in his more extreme emotional states, he is really very winning as a lovable “parade’s despair,” playing the role of a hapless but well-looked-after private even while demonstrating how prolific and unusual he is: he can toss off verse–light verse, yes, but what of it?–and sharp, funny little vignettes with great facility and a graceful but nonetheless thoroughgoing empathy. So here’s to the kind RSM, and the deep-eyed, silent men of the infantry…


References and Footnotes

  1. Some Desperate Glory, 21-22.
  2. Regimental Sergeant Major--an enlisted man of the highest rank, his dignity, as opposed to that of a private soldier, utterly Olympian.
  3. War Letters, 125-7.

People Watching with Edward Thomas and Ivor Gurney

February never really dawns prettily, does it? It is perhaps not war’s cruelest month, but it may be the bleakest. As the month begins, Northern France and Belgium are in the midst of a long, hard cold snap. And if it were December or January there might be a reasonable hope, at least, for some mild weather and a period of relatively quiet winter duty. But it’s February, and any thaw might signal not just the exchange of ice for cold mud, but the possibility that the mud will give way, in only weeks, to major operations.

I don’t have a good “month poem” for February–most of our our poets are either poetically quiescent (which usually means they are on active duty) or doing an admirable job of dating their work, so there poems can be read on the day they were inspired or composed. But here, instead, is a suitably atmospheric sketch by David Jones, of a mill near the Scherpenberg, south of the Ypres Salient.[1]

But cruel accident keeps no monthly calendar, and we wouldn’t want to miss a grenade accident. This one is from Kipling‘s chronicle of the Irish Guards:

From the close of the month till the 19th of February they were in divisional reserve, all together at Ville in unbroken frost. While there (February 1), Lieutenant F. St. L. Greer, one of the best of officers and the most popular of comrades, was wounded in a bombing accident and died the next day.[2]


Edward Thomas will give us several new perspectives on the war in France. For one thing, he’s in the artillery; for another, he is poor. It must be difficult to be an officer who knows that any expenses he incurs will weigh on his children’s comfort, at home. But then again an officer’s mess provides a reasonably warm and inexpensive venue for one of the penniless writer’s great consolations–observing others in society.

Freezing and overcast… Battery on route march. I arrange to eat midday ration in tent to save lunch in Mess (2f.50). Guns and stores not here yet. Other officers mostly in Havre but my ankle prevents me. Down in lorry to Ordnance Store for field boots. Snow. Route march, but not for me. I write and censor letters. No fire in the mess till 3 p.m. Guns are coming today. Detachments reorganized.–Mess fills up.–Cockney rankers with two stars come in and drink standing and talk of Singapore and Pekin and duration officers look up. Some rapacious and sneering, some gentle. Read Sonnets.[3]

“Cockney rankers:” that is, pre-war enlisted men, from London, whose accents and references betray their origins. But they have two stars–they are full lieutenants–and thus outrank any new officers (ensigns or second-lieutenants), who have nearly all come from higher social classes and have been only a year or two in the army…  and let’s take “Read Sonnets” as a present imperative, not an abbreviated past statement…


We’ll close today with another letter from Ivor Gurney to Marion Scott.

1 February 1917

My Dear Miss Scott: Yes, back with the Batt; and doing the old dreary work, purposely designed to the breaking of hearts that the mud could not break. God reward the old sweats who run Army training in some suitable fashion of agony!

…this is a permanent stay, I think, for some weeks. The Black Prince did some stunt not far away, but one is too fed up in the Batt: to take walks for historys sake. By Jingo but it is cold! The cocoa dregs freeze in the messtins in
this old house, and most of us sleep almost in full kit…

But we know it’s cold! Something more writerly, please, Ivor. Ah yes, good: here’s a sketch of the men in his unit.

…There are six Gloucester-or-near and one Northerner, and on the whole despite the appalling language things go very smoothly with the crowd of us.

There is Ozzy, who has the sweetness of an angel, the Stretcherbearer corporal; certainly of Welsh blood, and certainly one of the nicest of men.

There is Don, never depressed, a corporal who mocks at all things military, and keeps his place because of his pluck, and would certainly have no stripes in the first B E F (Old Sweats Gang.)

Ac Emma, who is Brigade Bomb Store keeper — a lance corporal of extremely great powers of profanity.

Jem — who is really a nut. An old schoolmate of mine. Rather like Dick Swiveller in talk, and most india-rubbery as to feature. There is always laughter where Jem is, and usually at the Army.

Joe who is a lance corporal and Military Medallist. Also a bore, and the cleanest, most willing burnisher and brusher up in all the Company. (Curse him!) but a good sort.

And Dicky, a small Northern corporal of terrific energy and pluck, with the most wonderful eyes. His face shines with courage and chivalry, but as an old pit hand, his language. . . . is not to be taken seriously.

O, a good lot. And it will be nice to meet them in the after days, and talk over our past miseries together.

There is no Literary Supplement this week. Too much cleaning has dessicated my poetic vein…

Ah, but this sunlight, this cold, and these elms remind me so vividly of Minsterworth, and are so sharply different to the present business that I cannot get used to them. They and I are out of place.

Goodbye and all good wishes: Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney[4]


References and Footnotes

  1. This sentence was changed after a reader pointed out an egregious error on my part! Wrong Scherpenberg!
  2. The Irish Guards in the Great War, II, 115.
  3. War Diary (Childhood), 158.
  4. War Letters, 124-5.

Edmund Blunden Joins His Battalion, and We Begin to Read the Undertones

Edmund Blunden in Uniform (200xn)

Edmund Blunden

At last we can begin with Edmund Blunden and his Undertones of War, the most beautiful book written about the Great War,

Such declaration are, other than as expressions of individual enthusiasm, fairly meaningless. But, at the risk of protesting too much, I want to make it clear that I do not mean “beautiful” as a backhanded compliment. Nor do I want to play the silly old game of slapping down a splashy superlative and then hedging it around with qualifications, except for this: true war books are necessarily ugly, and there is plenty of horror and ugliness in Blunden’s memoir–its beauty does not obscure but, in an unusual way, facilitates truth-telling. The loveliness of the prose and the winsomeness of the narrative voice keep the sharp ironies of the war from ever dropping out of sight, while his quiet refusal to rage or despair keeps the reader more consistently in touch with the emotional landscape of the war. Undertones is a bed of nails by a Shaker master.

We have been reading a good deal of the dreamy, pretty prose with which Siegfried Sassoon fills his diary, and Blunden shares some of this sensibility with Sassoon. If many boys today dream of growing up to be athletes or rappers or pop stars, a surprising number of our 1890s English lads dreamt of becoming pastoral poets, and Blunden is very much of this tribe. Yet Sassoon’s memoir makes relatively little use of his day-to-day observations as he converts his memories and writings into a sturdily binocular exercise in navel-gazing. Sassoon is looking at the war, but only because his “binary vision” is fixed upon himself, and the war was very important to his growth and development. Blunden, for all that he steps in and out of the moment, acknowledging the centrality of retrospection to any memoir, is an observer throughout. His poetic responsibility to, above all, observe what is happening around him is never forgotten.

So Blunden is a keen observer, but he’s a better writer. Part of the appeal of Undertones of War is the quality of the prose–we are never far from poetry, and indeed Blunden included contemporary poems with the memoir. But more important, perhaps, is its persistent gentleness.

We begin innocent–of course we begin innocent!–yet not eager. The first sentence of the book is “I was not anxious to go.” When we go along with Blunden, then, we come somehow to sense that if we follow our guide–never angry, never rash, never unkind–we will be alright. There will, again, be horrible things–of course there will be horrible things!–but they will fall to the left of us, and the right. We will be there, we feel, not for glory or sacrifice or the shock of seeing our guide’s cocoon of innocence rent by some searing fragment of experience, but to observe through him, and to endure, to bear witness and to politely resist another sort of undertone that can be heard in almost all war memoirs: the one that says “be fearful, be awed, for this will change you irrevocably.”

I want to write on… but there will be opportunities, and rather than indulging in further prefatory rambles I should include a good chunk of the memoir. So, then, a few basics: Blunden does not include dates, and therefore his book, like so many of the best memoirs, is not as easy to use here as a diary or a collection of letters would be. But he doesn’t fictionalize or change names, either and–bravo Sussex!–the war diary of his battalion is available online, so I will periodically be able to connect something in the memoir to a particular day’s experience.

As for Blunden himself, not much needs be said: he is young, and a poet. At Christ’s Hospital, he was a top scholar–the “Senior Grecian”–and a cricketer more enthusiastic than excellent. Not yet eighteen at the outbreak of the war, he volunteered immediately after finishing school in the spring of 1915, and was commissioned into the Royal Sussex Regiment. When he sat down to write, he omitted virtually all of his first year in uniform and chose to begin the memoir only a few weeks back, replacing the standard biographical introduction with a few brief impressions.

These were carefully chosen: there is a long walk in the beautiful English countryside with a group of convalescent soldiers under his command; an old officer’s gift of a “pocket testament” which “went with me always, mainly unconsulted,” a pointed breaking-off of the standard farewell-to-mother scene at Victoria Station, and then his first encounter with veteran officers:

a lugubriously merry Highlander and a sturdy Engineer, to whom I had democratically appealed for help on some matter, who were themselves returning to the British Expeditionary Force next morning, asked me my age. I replied; and, discipline failing, the Scotchman murmured to himself, “Only a boy — only a boy,” and shed tears, while his mate grunted an angry sympathy.

Blunden is nineteen. His disillusion begins–gently–as soon as he reaches Étaples, now the most enormous of the British bases in France. Blunden places his officer’s cane–“the ebony walking-stick which had been my grandfather’s, and was to be my pilgrim’s staff”–on his valise and, in an inattentive moment, it is stolen. The war has begun to attack his innocent trust in his fellow man before it gets him within miles of the trenches.

So, dear reader, you know what happens next. At some point in ApriI,[1] while being instructed in the Étaples Bull-Ring, a Highland sergeant is lecturing on the proper use of the rifle-grenade…

According to my unsoldierlike habit, I had let the other students press near the instructor, and was listlessly standing on the skirts of the meeting, thinking of something else, when the sergeant major having just said, “I’ve been down here since 1914, and never had an accident,” there was a strange hideous clang. Several voices cried out; I found myself stretched on the floor, looking upward in the delusion that the grenade had been fired straight above and was about to fall among us. It had indeed been fired, but had burst by some error at the muzzle of the rifle: the instructor was lying with mangled head, dead, and others lay near him, also bloodmasked, dead and alive. So ended that morning’s work on the Bull Ring.

With the second chapter of Undertones–entitled “Trench Education”–we arrive at today, a century back, when the battalion war diary of the 11th Sussex notes that 2nd Lieuts. Blunden and Doogan joined.[2]

Although May had come, the day was dull and the clouds trailed sadly. In the hooded cart, we sat listening to the strong Sussex of the driver and looking out on the cultivated fields and the colonnades of trim trees. Here, said the transport man, turning a corner, a night or two before the Germans had dropped several very large shells, almost on top of the quartermaster and his horse. Blew his horse one-sided. This information sat heavily on me…

The cart soon drops our hero in “rustic Le Touret.”

In the farm we found the Quartermaster, Swain, talking with the padre. It was a cool, shady, swept and garnished interior in which Swain first came into our view, a man whose warmth of heart often cheers me in these later times–a plain, brave, affectionate man. Swain had come from Canada to the battalion, his hair already gone gray, his cheeks bright, and his eyes gleaming purpose. I well remember him crossing the flagged floor of the rustic parlour to welcome and accustom two boys. He did it well, for he had a boyish readiness about him such as gave confidence–and he knew what danger was and what duty was. Fear he respected, and he exemplified self-conquest. Swain told us that the Colonel wished us to go up to the battalion in the front line that evening “with the rations.” He gave us tea. He gave us anecdotes, even rallying the padre on a visit to a romantic bookshop in Bethune. The howitzer loosing off occasionally outside punctuated the amenities. The padre, a Catholic, selected Doogan as his affinity, Doogan also being a Catholic, and I felt that he repulsed me.

Here we get our first frame-breaking apostrophe, a relatively rare occurrence in Blunden:

Speak, any relic of honesty that may be in Blunden–was it not this slight and natural inequality, at this time, which caused you afterward to spread satirical parodies of the padre’s voice, remarks, and habits?

Soon we are back into relatively gentle irony. Blunden’s trench education goes quickly to the fact that aren’t really trenches in this sector at all:

…F. Prior, whose reputation was that of dryness and common sense… objected to the line. It was not a line at all, he said. I put in something about “trenches?” “Trenches be damned,” he said; “look here, I went up the road to the front line two nights ago and had to lie in the ditch every two minutes. There’s only one road and Fritz puts machine guns on it through the night. Same on the duckboard track. Lend us your note-book.”

We have been here before, with George Coppard, on Christmas Eve.

blunden trench map

The Sketch on Page Ten

He drew a sketch something like the one on page 10. So the scattered breastwork posts called the Islands were our front line: no communication trench sheltered the approach to them. What, at this stage of the war? Yes, shamelessly. But, the newspapers had said —— F. Prior told us to expect nothing, and went his way.

Before we meet the men of Blunden’s new company we must meet the dangers of his new environment. No one puts this better:

In the shallow ditch outside that Le Touret farm, among the black mud now nearly dry, were to be seen a variety of old grenades brown with rust. I looked at them with suspicion; and later on, returning on some errand, I saw them again. Why did no one see to it that these relics were duly destroyed? For that same summer they brought death to some idle Tommy whose curiosity led him to disturb the heap, seeming safe because of its antiquity. This was a characteristic of the war—its long arm reaching for its victim at its pleasure.

Blunden and Doogan now follow the rations up to the line:

With this ration party Doogan and I went awkwardly up the tram lines, often helping to push the trolleys which fell off their wooden railway now and then. “Wind favourable for whizzbangs?” said someone in the dark. It was both profoundly dark and still. In the afternoon, looking eastward from Le Touret, I had seen nothing but green fields and plumy gray-green trees and intervening tall roofs; it was as though in this part the line could only be a trifling interruption of a happy landscape. Now at night, following a trolley along a track which needed watching, I as yet made out little more about the fighting man’s zone, except the occasional lights flying and snooping on the east horizon. When at last the trolleys were at their terminus, and Doogan and myself went with a guide to find the battalion headquarters several furious insectlike zips went past my ear, and slowly enough I connected these noises with the loud hollow popping of rifles ahead, and knew that the fear of my infancy, to be among flying bullets, was now realized. The sense of being exposed now suddenly predominated.

We crossed a narrow wooden bridge, and II came under the shelter of a sandbag rampart, which to eyes striving through the darkness appeared vast and safe. Battalion headquarters was in this rampart, the Old British Line. It was a simple little cave, with a plain table and candlelight, and earth walls concealed with canvas. In it sat the commanding officer, W. L. Grisewood, dark-eyed and thoughtful, his brother, F. Grisewood, and his adjutant, T. Wallace. A somewhat severe air prevailed and not much was said, except that the Colonel was glad to see us, remarking that we were the first officer reinforcements to reach the 11th Royal Sussex.

Blunden has now arrived–is it such a long journey, after all?

Doogan was sent to A Company, I believe, then in the front trench; and I, luckier, as I felt, to C Company in the Old British Line, along which a guide soon led me on a greasy wooden track past sentries and strings of men with shovels and other burdens. The dugout in which C Company officers were was smaller and blacker and much more humane than those where the dark-eyed Grisewood and austere Wallace sat. I had, of course, more introductions at once. In charge of C Company was the boyish Captain Penruddock, perhaps one and twenty years old, rosy-faced, slender, argumentative. Second in command, Edmond Xavier Kapp appeared, ready with drawings and Joe Miller jokes not unworthy of his reputation as a satirical artist. Charlwood, inclined to stammer, who as I soon found out had played cricket for Sussex, and Limbery-Buse, the “Lumbering Bus,” who did stammer, made up the headquarters. These I saw in the dugout. Soon I was given a large enamel plate full of meat and vegetable rations, and not long after Penruddock told me to “get down to it.” At this early stage unused to going without sleep, I felt very weary, and gladly crawled into a kind of low recess in the dugout, where with sandbags below, above, around, and my British Warm coat, it was easy to sleep, and sleep deeply, too.[3]


References and Footnotes

  1. I tried for some time to find the date on this one in the manner of the similar event in Graves's book, but with no success.
  2. I am not sure of the copyright status of Undertones of War: in general I seek to limit my quotation from works that are under copyright--however silly such mickey mouse rules are--while letting fly with those that are clearly in the public domain. Undertones is available on archive.org (as well as in at least a half-dozen editions which I have picked up over the years), so I trust that I am not offending by including long passages therefrom.
  3. Undertones of War, chs. 1-2.

Two Artists’ Rifles Going Nowhere: Wilfred Owen and Edward Thomas Pine for Leave

We spend today in dreary Romford (or en route thither), where both of our poets in the Artists’ Rifles–unbeknownst to each other–catch up on their letter-writing. Wilfred Owen will be writing to his mother, of course, but Edward Thomas produced three variously chatty letters to his friends. Some highlights:

His letter to Gordon Bottomley mostly concerns the selection and publication of Thomas’s poems. But there is an amusing little bit in which the poets have a snicker at the society types who–at times, but indifferently–sponsor them.

Have you been wishing you were one of Elizabeth Asquith’s great bards who performed to a guinea audience? The Observer says nothing about them & a lot about Lady So & So,————& Mrs What d’jecall.

Serves them right…

Yours ever,

Edward Thomas[1]

So that would be Elizabeth, daughter of the P.M. and socially precocious teenage half-sister to Raymond Asquith. This feeble archness might seem to be an indication that Thomas is rushing through the letter. But there’s subtext, here: this awkward reference to the matter of singing for one’s supper–especially in the vicinity of the government–seems to draw attention to the semi-subtle efforts by Thomas’s friends to secure some government patronage for him. Thomas, as ever, is prickly and conflicted…

In his letter to Walter de la Mare, Thomas first touches on the same general themes I’ve omitted from the letter to Bottomley, above: leaves and visits and how they are unlikely to happen. Then spring:

…There is still no leave to be had except on special grounds, but I hope to see you before long & to find the children unable to whoop. They should have some fine days on the coast. Here we are finding nests & expecting the cuckoo.

Yours ever,

Edward Thomas[2]

Nothing too controversial there–but we wouldn’t go two letters without a mention of some bird or another.

And Thomas’s letter to Eleanor Farjeon is, as so often, both less guarded and less… respectful. With her, too, he broaches the subject that he is too genteel (or passive-aggressive) to discuss directly with de la Mare: the prospect of some sort of Civil List award or pension, in recognition of his writing.

16 iv 16

My dear Eleanor,

Thank you for the typed copies of Baba’s verses. I am on my way back to camp now after an unexpected week end. Unexpected but struggled for. There is still no regular leave, and I fear no hope of Easter leave. Still, it might come off…

There is no news. We have had a poor week, with only one day’s real work, which is quite another thing from having a holiday, though we did spend most of the time out of doors, doing no more work than we liked. It makes us feel unnecessary, and also helps the bad impression they have of us map-readers as truants, which we don’t want to maintain…

Things are moving in connection with the Civil List. But the opinion is that I am too young for a pension. A grant seems more possible. They are collecting letters from the great on my behalf.

How are you now?

Yours ever,

Edward Thomas[3]


Wilfred Owen is unaccountably much the busier (or more bustling) of the two would-be officers. Two days back, he reported on his progress:

Wed. [14 April 1916] Y.M.C.A. [Romford]

Dearest Mother,

I have a few minutes. They shall be Yours.

Yesterday we had an Oral Exam, in the form of an Interview with a no. of Officers. Apparently I made a satisfactory impression. I answered successfully the 3 Questions put to me. We also had another Written Exam, in which I have done pretty well, being above the average, and top of my Room. I can never beat a young blood of 17, but as he is going into the Scots Guards, and the Army is his family profession I am not annoyed…

Owen’s letters are, thus, usually limited to descriptions of his own activities and inquiries about his family. Today, however, he too admits to camaraderie. A nascent “characters of the company” piece, then:

I was suddenly struck the other day to realize that my Section, thrown together by pure chance, contains some desirable fellows. First Muff-Ford, Artist: then a Journalist & Reporter, then an Actor, now well established, tho’ quite young, and taking no end of money. He has promised me a job after the War…

Then Briggs, of the 5th Manchester, chemical student at Leeds. He is quite my closest chum: a boy of admirable industry, in work, inquiring mind, a hater of swank, malice, and all uncharitableness, and very Provincial.

This spark King, poetical aspirant. Public School Exhibitioner in Classics, sportsman, gamester, wag, has something of a ‘Set’ about him. I am partly of them, but my variable moods, and relapses into solemnity, won’t do for them.

There are rumours of Week-end Leave…

Today, a century back, Owen’s chatter is all of this potential leave…

Sunday, 16 April 1916 Romford

My Dearest Mother,

Very many thanks for the Letter received on Friday, which duly—or unduly—enclosed 10s. This I have not yet cashed but during next week hope to do away with it at one blow, and more than that, because there is a promise of 4 days Leave to 50% of the School. Preference is given to married men, and such as live at a distance. I am almost certain to get it… Shall I come home?

…There is no change in our position, and no foreknowledge of events when we ‘leave School’. Still there, is every reason to think that the Gazette will follow immediately after it.

“The Gazette” indicating, here, the award of a commission to officer cadet Owen. This is–and has been, since he volunteered–Owen’s immediate career goal: to be an officer, holding His Majesty’s commission. This would also represent–although these traditional terms are changing, under the enormous pressure to expand Britain’s historically small army, faster than society can quite acknowledge–a social achievement. Owen’s mother Susan has a firm and fixed idea of her family’s decayed gentility, and for her eldest to become an officer would be a significant reparation of family status.

Depend upon it I shall bestir myself to obtain this Leave, and heavily exaggerate the distance from here to Shrewsbury. Ah! The long time it seems since I saw you I cannot exaggerate. We said ‘Till Easter’ and till Easter it shall be; though I lie knavishly to the Orderly Room, and under the seat of a carriage all the way.[4]


References and Footnotes

  1. Letters of Edward Thomas to Gordon Bottomley, 265.
  2. Poet to Poet, 219.
  3. Farjeon, Edward Thomas..., 194.
  4. Collected Letters, 390-2.

Noel Hodgson Sketches a Company of Officers; The German Artillery Finds the Master of Bellhaven; Robert Graves Writes a Last Letter

Hodgson 1915cropped

“Smiler” Hodgson, second from right, and fellow officers, September 1915

Noel Hodgson, a young poet of Kitchener’s Army, is determined to write his war. But he’s new at this, and unsure how to proceed. Today he sent home to his sister Stella two short prose accounts of his experiences.

Many thanks for your long letter, and the delightful pictures which reduced me to a state of maudlin sentiment…  Many thanks for the books and toffee which arrived yesterday. Please don’t send me any more things just yet; I feel a hopeless mendicant…

I look forward to the time when with an attractive limp and my left arm in a sling I am driven by you round about the neighbourhood…

I am going to send you a couple of articles on life in our Mess which may interest you, and might be saleable.

Well… they’re pretty tentative. Charlotte Zeepvat describes the two articles–they seem too plotless to be thought of as short stories–as versions of the “characters of the company” piece.

‘Company Mess: In billets’, is set in the early evening when the day’s duties are over and the officers gather. They are D Company to the life: the second-in-command ‘Lance Captain’, whose hobby is designing new weapons; ‘the Bart’, ‘a budding barrister thirteen months ago’; …‘Nobby’, ‘a fresher of Hertford, Oxford;’ and ‘Smiler’, the Grenade Officer…

This, of course, is Hodgson, nickname and all, along with thinly fictionalized versions of the friends and fellow officers pictured above. There is an effort to show the easy relationship of these new/fast friends, and of the hardening they are attempting to prove to each other, before they are tested.

Nobby finds the name of a Christ Church man killed in the Dardanelles, and tells Smiler. “Smiler… looks troubled, ‘poor devil, he was a good chap.’ Such is the dead man’s epitaph, and Smiler goes on reading; it is so common, one cannot mourn them all.”

Very forced. Hodgson’s second effort sprawls the handful of officers akimbo on a hill, musing–unblooded, yet–on how far they have come from peacetime.

“A year ago–no thirteen months and a bit–I was yachting at Torquay. ’’

“And I was lying about in a punt at Maidenhead, reading Herodotus.”

“Herodotus, ’’ murmured the G.O. in a retrospective voice; “my Lord, I should have had my Greats viva by now and been a B.A.–Greats–Good Lord.”

Zeepvat, whose book on Hodgson and his battalion of the Devonshires I am relying on here, comments (wryly?) that

These articles do not seem to have sold. Perhaps there was not enough war in them to interest readers at home… But it is striking how closely they mirror his actual experience. The manuscript of the second is dated 19 September, which was indeed a Sunday…

The duties the three did not want Nobby to remind them about as they walked back down the hill were the final preparations for their first battle, just a few days away.[1]


Robert Graves wrote a rather remarkable letter today, a century back. Remarkable, given his literary output, for its quiet maturity and gentleness. He is back with the battalion, and has been officially informed that they will be attacking, over bad terrain, in a few days’ time. So naturally he writes a letter to be opened in the event of his death.

For an adolescent prone to flights of fancy and self-aggrandizement, Graves is able to contemplate death with surprising equanimity.

Dearest Family,

This is just in case I get killed. You are a dear lot of people & I send you my very best love–I want Mother to dispose of my personal property as she thinks fit: it isn’t much, but doubtless Father would like my sword & Mother my old school prizes & boxing cups & her signet ring back again & Ros my share in the old coin collection–My books I promised in an idle moment before the War to my friend Peter who is still at Charterhouse. I would like an inventory taken when they’ve been collected from Wimbledon Harlech & Oxford & Mother to write & ask when he’d like to take them over. If my verses are ever published I want the copyright held jointly between Claree Ros & Peter.[2] They won’t be much of a success of course, because even the melancholy interest of my early death will not make up for the immaturity of form & expression. If any good folk write & condole with you for my death, thank them from me & tell them that they’re dears.

And now goodbye till we meet again



Ralph Hamilton, the Master of Belhaven, marched his battery overnight, two nights ago, to take up positions in Vermelles, just behind the start line for the assault.

My O.P. is in a row of little hoses, locally known as “Artillery Mansions…” I go into the house… and then down into the cellar, which is well sand-bagged on top in case the house is brought down. From the cellar there is a low tunnel which leads under a tiny garden at the back and comes up in a small outhouse [I.e. outbuilding or shed]. Through a small hole in the wall I can see our trenches, and those of the Germans, to the outskirts of the town of St. Pierre…

Yesterday, after finishing the dispositions of his battery, he got to work:

Spent the morning laying out my lines of fire by the map and prismatic compass. I chose a church spire in St. Pierre that I could see well. After measuring the range and angles very carefully I went down to my Observation Post and commenced firing. The very first shot burst within 2 degrees of my target, which pleased me greatly… After that, I “registered” various things on the near side of St.Pierre. Then I searched all the likely places that I could see for German Artillery Observation Posts, and fired shrapnel through the windows. I don’t know if I hit anyone…

So everything is going well. By “registering” Hamilton means discovering–by trial and error–the exact angle and propellant needed to hit particular targets, so that fire can be quickly brought down onto them when needed.

But the Germans were not idle.

Grenay, 20th September, 1915

A tragic day. I went down to my Observation Post in the morning, with Shephard, and amused myself shelling the pit-head on my right, and also the German trenches just in front of it. I was in the middle of ranging on another large factory when I was rung up on the telephone and told that the colonel had just been killed. The Huns have been shelling Bde. H.Q. [Brigade headquarters] for the last two days, as there is a fresh battery of 75’s quite close… The colonel had been standing in the door when one burst just in front of him. It did not touch him, but killed one and wounded another infantryman who was passing. The colonel ran out to get in the wounded man. At that moment another shell landed close to him and killed him instantly…

Poor old man! It was very sporting of hum to have come out at his age–over sixty. Everyone was devoted to him and we shall feel his loss greatly. As soon as I heard the news I started back to Bde. H.Q…. I had just reached [it] and was stopping in front of the door, when a Jack Johnson bust right alongside of me. It seem[ed] to me to burst at my feet. I was flung down the road but not touched. I had an awful fright, as I thought I was stone blind… but in a few seconds I could distinguish things near me. I then realised that it was only the black smoke from the explosion. It is marvellous that I was not hit, as the whole air whistled with fragments of shells, bricks, glass, and stones.

Reaching Brigade H.Q., which was “swimming in blood,” Hamilton received the orders for the coming attack while standing over the body of the man whose job he would now step into. His first act in the new command was to move headquarters. Tomorrow, the “Great Bombardment” will begin.[4]


References and Footnotes

  1. Zeepvat, Before Action, 113-16.
  2. So Graves is leaving his literary legacy, such as it is, to two sisters and the boy he chastely loved at school.
  3. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 135-6.
  4. War Diary, 64-9.