Vera Brittain and Siegfried Sassoon Under Bombardment, in London; Olaf Stapledon on Mr. Britling; Rowland Feilding on the Things they Carry; The Master of Belhaven Has a Near Miss

Today, a century back, Siegfried Sassoon–keeping his options well open–went to Cambridge for the day to interview for a job in a cadet battalion.[1] He may have left without a degree, but Cambridge is different now, and he has come back with an MC. He seems a prime candidate for what would be a respectable and conventionally honorable “safe job”–but the trip from London to Cambridge, ironically, was less than safe. Sassoon describes the day in the wry retrospective voice of George Sherston. Or, rather, the wry retrospective way in which he puffs apart Sherston and his experience by blowing a thin layer of warm ironic air in between the first-person description of experience and the world around that half-oblivious subject:

Supervising a platoon of Cadet Officers at Cambridge would have been a snug alternative to ‘general service abroad’ (provided that I could have bluffed the cadets into believing that I knew something about soldiering). I was going there to be interviewed by the Colonel and clinch my illusory appointment; but I was only doing this because I considered it needful for what I called ‘strengthening my position’ I hadn’t looked ahead much, but when I did so it was with an eye to safeguarding myself against ‘what people would say’…

Anyhow, on a glaring hot morning I started to catch a train to Cambridge. I was intending to stay a night there, for it would be nice to have a quiet look round and perhaps go up to Grantchester in a canoe. Admittedly, next month was bound to be ghastly; but it was no good worrying about that. . . . Had I enough money on me! Probably not; so I decided to stop and change a cheque at my bank in Old Broad Street. Changing a cheque was always a comforting performance. ‘Queer thing, having private means,’ I thought. ‘They just hand you out the money as if it was a present from the Bank Manager.’ It was funny, too, to think that I was still drawing my Army pay.

But it was the wrong moment for such humdrum cogitations, for when my taxi stopped in that narrow thoroughfare, Old Broad Street, the people on the pavement were standing still, staring up at the hot white sky. Loud bangings had begun in the near neighbourhood, and it was obvious that an air-raid was in full swing. This event could not be ignored; but I needed money and wished to catch my train, so I decided to disregard it. The crashings continued, and while I was handing my cheque to the cashier a crowd of women clerks came wildly down a winding stairway with vociferations of not unnatural alarm. Despite this commotion the cashier handed me five one-pound notes with the stoical politeness of a man who had made up his mind to go down with the ship. Probably he felt as I did—more indignant than afraid; there seemed no sense in the idea of being blown to bits in one’s own bank. I emerged from the building with an air of soldierly unconcern; my taxi-driver, like the cashier, was commendably calm, although another stupendous crash sounded as though very near Old Broad street (as indeed it was). I suppose we may as well go on to the station/ I remarked, adding, ‘it seems a bit steep that one can’t even cash a cheque in comfort!’ The man grinned and drove on. It was impossible to deny that the War was being brought home to me.

But is it? No, I think it is, but with that special, rueful emphasis on the last two words–“to me.” The air raid here appears first in the context of absurdity and a classic evocation of British character: “Sherston” carefully contrasts it with his very English position as a man with “private means” who might ride to hounds or ride off to war but doesn’t expect to earn a living or face violence during the ordinary course of his privileged day. This is about, in our terms, an irruption across the experiential gulf. But it’s treated as a dastardly blow, some piece of bad form, a punch after the bell, and not as the beginning of the end of any notion of war as a reliably distant event, the early days of “total war.”

At Liverpool Street there had occurred what, under normal conditions, would be described as an appalling catastrophe. Bombs had been dropped on the station and one of them had hit the front carriage of the noon express to Cambridge. Horrified travellers were hurrying away. The hands of the clock indicated 11.50; but railway-time had been interrupted; for once in its career, the imperative clock was a passive spectator. While I stood wondering what to do, a luggage trolley was trundled past me; on it lay an elderly man, shabbily dressed, and apparently dead. The sight of blood caused me to feel quite queer. This sort of danger seemed to demand a quality of courage dissimilar to front line fortitude. In a trench one was acclimatized to the notion of being exterminated and there was a sense of organized retaliation. But here one was helpless; an invisible enemy sent destruction spinning down from a fine weather sky; poor old men bought a railway ticket and were trundled away again dead on a barrow; wounded women lay about in the station groaning. And one’s train didn’t start. . . . Nobody could say for certain when it would start, a phlegmatic porter informed me; so I migrated to St. Pancras and made the journey to Cambridge in a train which halted good-naturedly at every station. Gazing at sleepy green landscapes, I found difficulty in connecting them (by the railway line) with the air-raid…

 

Vera Brittain had less trouble finding emotional context for the same bombing raid, coming as it did in the desolation following Victor Richardson’s miserable and lonely death. But her experience–and her initial reaction, as an overseas veteran of sorts who would rather be heading toward the war than held helpless underneath it–is quite similar to Sassoon’s:

Although three out of the four persons were gone who had made all the world that I knew, the War seemed no nearer a conclusion than it had been in 1914. It was everywhere now; even before Victor was buried, the daylight air-raid of June 13th “brought it home,” as the newspapers remarked, with such force that I perceived danger to be infinitely preferable when I went after it, instead of waiting for it to come after me.

She hasn’t been in combat, but she has been to the wars; but then again she hasn’t been under fire… In any event, membership in the categories of alienated veteran or older civilian are not a sure guide to one’s reaction to a sudden irruption of violence into a London spring day.

I was just reaching home after a morning’s shopping in Kensington High Street when the uproar began, and, looking immediately at the sky, I saw the sinister group of giant mosquitoes sweeping in close formation over London. My mother, whose temperamental fatalism had always enabled her to sleep peacefully through the usual night-time raids, was anxious to watch the show from the roof of the flats, but when I reached the doorway my father had just succeeded in hurrying her down to the basement; he did not share her belief that destiny remained unaffected by caution, and himself derived moral support in air-raids from putting on his collar and patrolling the passages. The three of us listened glumly to the shrapnel raining down like a thunder-shower upon the trees in the park — those quiet trees which on the night of my return from Malta had made death and horror seem so unbelievably remote. As soon as the banging and crashing had given way to the breathless, apprehensive silence which always followed a big raid, I made a complicated journey to the City to see if my uncle had been added to the family’s growing collection of casualties.

In a grimly amusing coincidence, this uncle is a banker, and so Vera too finds herself making small talk in a bank in the aftermath of the raid.

The streets round the Bank were terrifyingly quiet, and in some places so thickly covered with broken glass that I seemed to be wading ankle-deep in huge unmelted hailstones. I saw no dead nor wounded, though numerous police-supervised barricades concealed a variety of gruesome probabilities. Others were only too clearly suggested by a crimson-splashed horse lying indifferently on its side, and by several derelict tradesman’s carts bloodily denuded of their drivers. These things, I concluded, seemed less inappropriate when they happened in France, though no doubt the French thought otherwise.[2]

And that gives us rather a strong clue as to where Vera Brittain will turn her thoughts, now that her sacrifice of her nursing career for the love of Victor Richardson has come to nothing. Somewhere where mangled bodies and enormous suffering might seem more… appropriate.

 

But to return to Sassoon is to escape the bombs and their bad memories and head for Cambridge, where George Sherston can think of “war” in 1914 terms, when it was healthy outdoor tin-soldiering for overgrown boy scouts, and before it came to connote the indiscriminate bombing of cities.

But here was Cambridge, looking contented enough in the afternoon sunshine, as though the Long Vacation were on. The Colleges appeared to have forgotten their copious contributions to the Roll of Honour. The streets were empty, for the Cadets were out on their afternoon parades — probably learning how to take compass-bearings, or pretending to shoot at an enemy who was supposedly advancing from a wood nine hundred yards away. I knew all about that type of training. ‘Half-right; haystack; three fingers left of haystack; copse; nine hundred; AT THE COPSE, ten rounds rapid, FIRE!’

There wasn’t going to be any musketry-exercise instructing for me, however. I was only ‘going through the motions’ of applying for a job with the Cadet Battalion. The orderly room was on the ground floor of a college. In happier times it had been a library (the books were still there) and the Colonel had been a History Don with a keen interest in the Territorials. Playing the part of respectful young applicant for instructorsliip in the Arts of War, I found myself doing it so convincingly that the existence of my ‘statement’ became, for the moment, an improbability…

Sherston, concealing his combustibly mixed feelings by dint of instinct or good breeding, gets the job: the colonel “shook my hand rather as if I’d won a History Scholarship” and sends him on his way. But Sherston lingers in the groves of Academe.

Sitting in King’s Chapel I tried to recover my conviction of the nobility of my enterprise and to believe that the pen which wrote my statement had ‘dropped from an angel’s wing’. I also reminded myself that Cambridge had dismissed Tyrrell from his lectureship because he disbelieved in the War. ‘Intolerant old blighters!’ I inwardly ex- claimed. ‘One can’t possibly side with people like that. All they care about is keeping up with the other colleges in the casualty lists.’ Thus refortified, I went down to the river and hired a canoe.

 

And after those two very closely aligned bits of memoir, we have three short but disparate chunks, interludes of labor, love, and near death from around the front.

 

Rowland Feilding will not shy from criticism of his superiors any more than he would speak out openly against their conduct. But like any perceptive correspondent from the front, he will mark out, from time to time, how the lot of the infantryman grows ever grimmer.

June 14, 1917  Oultersteene.

Yesterday, we marched back here—to safety—in grilling heat. What with their box respirators with extensions, steel helmets, P.H. gas helmets, rifles, ammunition, packs, etc., there is little doubt but that the infantry soldier is getting
over-loaded for marching. His equipment grows as the inventions for killing grow.

Already, he must carry between 70 lbs. and 80 lbs. And after a long bout of inactivity in the trenches (I refer only to the lack of exercise), you can well understand that he is not in condition for weight-carrying. Moreover, he does not improve matters by lapping water out of his water-bottle at every halt, as is his habit if not carefully watched. However, the authorities are beginning to appreciate these difficulties, and to provide motor-lorries for carrying the
packs, when such are available.[3]

Is this progress, or is this only maintaining misery by adjusting impossible burdens back down to the barely tolerable?

 

As for Olaf Stapledon, although treacherous mails have lately lengthened the lag between Agnes Miller and himself (some of their letters were lost at sea to German submarines), he is still faithfully following Agnes Miller’s suggestions. Which makes him rather late to the literary bandwagon of late 1916:

…I have begun to read “Mr. Britling,” on your recommendation. It promises well…

We are very indignant because the other two FAU convoys, which were in successful bits of offensive, have had croix-de-guerre rewards… [even though] under the circumstances our work was much more arduous than theirs. It’s bad luck…  However… we ought not to bother about such things. Moderate pacifists tend to bother about such things just as tokens that they are not mere shirkers.[4]

 

The Master of Belhaven has been hard at work behind Messines all week, and today, a century back, he attended a conference at which new forward firing positions were assigned. On the way back, he had a close call very similar to one experienced by Edward Thomas.

I… got back without incident, beyond being nearly killed by an 18-pounder that was firing across the road I was on. I did not see it till I was almost in front of the muzzle and about ten yards in front; at that moment it fired. I was knocked backwards by the blast of the gun and nearly had the drums of my ears broken. People ought to lookout before firing and see that the place is clear…[5]

We’ve seen friendly fire kill the infantry, but artillery officers who are not careful run the risk of a more shocking sort of accidental demise when passing by camouflaged batteries.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 377.
  2. Testament of Youth, 365-6.
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 195.
  4. Talking Across the World, 230-1.
  5. War Diary, 316.

Edmund Blunden: Joy and the Shadow; Siegfried Sassoon’s Quiet Walk Disturbed; Of J.R.R. Tolkien and Luthien; Vera and Edward Brittain Are Reunited; Henry Williamson’s Mule Driving Plans Fall Through

June will be another month in which the British experience centers on one enormous offensive effort, this time at Messines, in the Ypres salient. Edmund Blunden, describing the period of rest and training his battalion is now undergoing, sets the tone by looking back–and thence, forward.

Yet more training, more countryside soldiering was allotted to the battalion when I had rejoined it; there was a merry round of work and pleasure at Houlle in the marsh by St. Omer, one of the battalion’s best times… we now had a week or two of camp life, some in tents, some in brewery warehouses, some in fine bedrooms, all in high summer. The great ponds and canals were a delight after the day’s strenuous business, which began often before dawn. Having attacked and trenched and reinforced and counter-attacked through the yellowing corn, and discussed this manoeuvre, that quarry, that cross-road until the afternoon, we came into the splendid silences of evening with intense joy.

“The picture taken that day” in May or June, 1917, of five Royal Sussex Officers and Old Blues of Christ’s Hospital: standing are W. J. Collyer, H. Amon, and E.W. Tice; Sitting are A.G. Vidler and Blunden.

It was during this rest that Vidler, Amon, Collyer, Tice, and myself, all of Christ’s Hospital, went together into St. Omer, and roamed the streets, the cathedral, and the shops with such exhilarations of wit and irony that we felt no other feast like this could ever come again; nor was the feeling wrong.

The picture taken that day is by me now; the vine winds over the white wall, a happy emblem of our occasion; and the five of us, all young and with an expression of subdued resoluteness and direct action, are looking on the world together. What do we care for your Three Musketeers? And after all, we know their very roads better than they did.

I recollect the battalion on the march through gray and pink boulevards and faubourgs, in misty morning dripping dew; and there was a night when we slept on doorsteps by the road; I recollect the enormous sidings at Hazebrouck station, and one more languid, unconversational, clumsy journey in the open trucks to Poperinghe, with ominous new shell holes in the fields alongside; but most of all, out of a deranged chronology and dimmed picture, I recollect the strange sight of red-rose-like fires on the eastward horizon at dusk, the conflagrations of incendiary shells tumbling into that ghat called Ypres with which we must now renew acquaintance.

 

 

Siegfried Sassoon–who will necessarily avoid the ugliness of Messines due to his wound (even if he were not building toward a disqualifying counter-attack of his own)–wrote today in strikingly similar terms of pastoral beauty and looming misery, but with very different style and effect. Blunden is all fiercely quiet foreboding for the coming sorrow, while Sassoon spends six lines stalking beauty only to will the rest of his non-sonnet into confrontation with ugliness and fear.

 

A Quiet Walk

He’d walked three miles along the sunken lane,
A warm breeze blowing through hawthorn-drifts
Of silver in the hedgerows, sunlit clouds
Moving aloft in level, slow processions.

And he’d seen nobody for over an hour,
But grazing sheep and birds among the gorse.

He all-but passed the thing; half-checked his stride,
And looked–old, ugly horrors crowding back.

A man was humped face downward in the grass,
With clutching hands, full-skirted grey-green, coat,
And something stiff and wrong about the legs.
He gripped his loathing quick . . . some hideous wound . . .
And then the stench. . . A stubbly-bearded tramp
Coughed, and rolled over and asked him for the time.

 

This is not prospective misery or even a leaping of contemporary distance to the deaths and wounds that are being meted out in France and Belgium–or perhaps it is that as well. But it should probably be read as, primarily, a visitation from the recent dead. The “tramp” seems to stand in for “Brock”/Brocklebank, the young officer whose death was described in Joe Cottrell’s recent letter to Sassoon.

But this is poetry, of course, and needn’t be simple or unambiguous… so we might treat it as pure poetry and remark only that Sassoon has skill, but lacks both the willing vision or the sure touch of Edward Thomas. He can write a reverent country-ramble poem with a subtext of unease, but instead of a tense, complex calm the horror comes crashing through to the surface…

But no; biographical fallacy aside, this is surely a poem about Sassoon’s current experience. He is even now wandering the sunken, hawthorn-strewn lanes of Sussex, and finding himself unable to think of anything but the war, and its horrors, and the mute question these dead men might pose to comfortable lane-strollers…

 

Not everyone dwells on the war, however, and some men have their hearts in England, and not with the old battalion, and their minds as much as possible on the literary hopes of après la guerre… So from beauty to horror we return to beauty, with a very rare excuse to see biography in the writing of John Ronald Tolkien.

Tolkien was “boarded” again today, a century back, near his current garrison post in Yorkshire. For the first time since falling ill with trench fever on the Somme he was declared “fit for general service,” but he was ordered to remain with his current unit at Thirtle Bridge for the time being. This was especially welcome news since Edith, his wife, had come to live at Roos to be near him, and they were able to spend a good deal of time together.

Some day soon–this spring or early summer–they will walk together “in a small woodland glade filled with hemlocks,” and Edith, “her hair… raven, her skin clear, her eyes brighter than you have seen them,” will sing and dance for her young husband. Later, John Ronald will transpose this scene to Middle Earth, writing of a careworn human warrior fleeing from trauma and coming upon an immortal elf-maiden, the most beautiful being who ever lived, singing and dancing in a forest glade. These are Beren and Luthien, central figures in the mythos that he is only now beginning to flesh out–and the only two whose names he will assign to people of this world.

When Beren first saw Luthien,

Blue was her raiment as the unclouded heaven, but her eyes were grey as the starlit evening; her mantle was sewn with golden flowers, but her hair was dark as the shadows of twilight.

Appropriately enough for the feminine ideal vision of a poetic young man of Tolkien’s generation, Luthien will be likened to a nightingale, and her singing to lark song…[1]

 

Another central tale of Tolkien’s Silmarillion will draw not on his own experience but on Finnish ballad traditions for the tragic story of a fate-tormented brother and sister… but this is to contrive a segue to our last two updates of today, which each involve a brother and a sister and pseudo-romantic entanglements…

 

Vera Brittain has been home from Malta for only a few days, and today, a century back, her brother Edward took a weekend leave from his work as a training camp officer and came to London. The two siblings, very close, haven’t seen each other for the better part of a year. But it was not a good visit.

When he did come he was an unfamiliar, frightening Edward, who never smiled nor spoke except about trivial things, who seemed to have nothing to say to me and indeed hardly appeared to notice my return. More than his first weeks in the trenches, more even than the Battle of the Somme, the death of Geoffrey and the blinding of Victor had chanced him. Silent, uncommunicative, thrust in upon himself, he sat all day at the piano, improvising plaintive melodies, and playing Elgar’s ‘Lament for the Fallen.’[2]

 

Henry Williamson provides bathos, then, in the conclusion to an odd scheme of his own as well as to this wandering first post of June. Last month he had hatched a plan to involve his sister in correspondence with a lonely soldier of his transport section. Why? It’s not clear, but it’s not working out…

Dear Biddy,

Thanks for your note. No, dont send any more parcels to Bevan. He didn’t write the letter–I was away when the letter was written but I should imagine the Sergt composed the answer in order to impress one I suppose what a genteel fellow he was… Bevan wont write or read or do anything–he is quite a mule.[3]

(I refer the careful reader to my recent speculations about the literal or figurative status of the “mule” who kicked Williamson in the head.)

But Williamson has recently parted ways with his alter ego Phillip Maddison. Behind the lines of what will shortly be the Battle of Messines, Phillip has conceived the idea of delivering a lecture on the coming attack. This is highly improbable, but it provides the reader of the novel with useful tactical and operational plot exposition for the coming battle. The lecture, however, is not a success–despite Phillip providing the men with a snack by way of buying their good will. It’s described in the novel in a fictional diary entry of tomorrow, a century back, but seems to have taken place “today.”

Gave a lecture, felt feeble. Contrast today with old days, Loos, etc. Nothing left to chance this time… Everything is foreseen… the bones of Loos have become chalk, the Somme dead are soil again: their sacrifices were not all in vain. Almost the fear of death is overcome, certainly depression… Even so, I am still a stranger in this land of 1914, which haunts me.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. See Chronology, 101.
  2. Testament of Youth, 357.
  3. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 158-9.
  4. Love and the Loveless, 146.

Kate Luard on Flowers and Horrors; Vera Brittain Misses Rome; Two Verses from Siegfried Sassoon on Quiet Gardens and the Far-Off Dead

I hope that there are still occasional surprises, here, even with our old familiar regulars–after all, if “real-time military history” doesn’t demonstrate how often expectation and routine are upended by events, then surely there is a double failure to represent the contingency of real life in subsequent life-writing. And yet I have felt myself falling into certain patterns, allotting certain roles to certain writers… which is all well and good as long as it does not unduly influence the choice of excerpts from their writings.

In any case, it has become Kate Luard‘s duty to juxtapose a quintessentially English interest in country walks and wildflowers with compassionate description of the war’s human wreckage.

Friday, May 25th

Dazzling weather and very little doing. The woods are full of bluebells and bugloss and stitchwort, and the fields of buttercups and sorrel. Our wards and own huts and tents are a mass of spring.

There is a boy in with his spinal cord exposed, lying on his face, who was wounded on Sunday and not picked up till Thursday morning. He was in a shell-hole crying to four other wounded in it the first night. They took no notice and in the morning he saw they had all died.[1]

 

Yesterday, a century back, Vera Brittain went through Rome on her way from Malta back to England. And what did the young Englishwoman do with a few hours to spare in the eternal city? “Had tea in an English restaurant; after tea drove to English quarter and wandered around curio shops.”

Ah, well. Today, the journey continued.

Friday, May 25th

Woke to find we were all among mountains, just going into Pisa. Saw Leaning Tower of Pisa from train. Glorious mountain scenery; mountain-sides covered with thick trees, cypresses and pines standing out among them…

At Modane Vera and her companions changed to the Paris express, which she described as the “most splendid train I have ever been in; seats very large and comfortable; got a corner. Had a most excellent dinner…”[2]

 

And Siegfried Sassoon has been writing verse again–two poems can be dated to today, a century back. The first is an uncharacteristically restrained sort of war poem, something that might remind us of Edward Thomas‘s work, except with still that hint of reflexively “poetic” diction or prettiness of sound, and less of Thomas’s unflinching gaze. Nevertheless, this is skilled work, and it makes sense to assume that Sassoon can hardly resist juxtaposing the loveliness of Chapelwood Manor (well provided with hawthorns) with his feelings of deep connection with the men who remain in France.

 

The Hawthorn Tree

Not much to me is yonder lane
Where I go every day;
But when there’s been a shower of rain
And hedge-birds whistle gay,
I know my lad that’s out in France,
With fearsome things to see,
Would give his eyes for just one glance
At our white hawthorn-tree.

Not much to me is yonder lane
Where he so longs to tread:
But when there’s been a shower of rain
I think I’ll never weep again
Until I’ve heard he’s dead.

 

This might be a slight poem, or then again it might make a “deep impression through its very restraint and understatement.” Still, if it is “reminiscent of Hardy,” it is Hardy’s earlier, generally more gentle Wessex work.

Not so the next, a similar juxtaposition but much more forceful, charging in like a veritable Satire of Circumstance. Once more we find ourselves in peace in an English pastoral setting, and thinking of Zero Hour.

 

Death in the Garden

I never thought to see him; but he came
When the first strangeness of the dawn was grey.
He stood before me, a remembered name,
A twilight face, poor lonely ghost astray.
Flowers glimmered in the garden where I stood
And yet no more than darkness was the green.
Then the wind stirred; and dawn came up the wood;
Add he was gone away: or had I seen
That figure in my brain? for he was dead;
I knew that he was killed when I awoke.
At zero-hour they shot him through the head
Far off in France, before the morning broke.[3]

 

This poem may memorialize a particular man, Ralph Brocklebank–“Brock” in the Memoirs–whom Sassoon had befriended at Litherland. Brocklebank, like Sassoon an enthusiastic hunter, had been killed in France on the 15th, news which Sassoon had just learned in a letter from Joe Cottrell. Brocklebank was nineteen. But the details are not quite right, and it makes more sense to say that the poem is about loss and a feeling of double exile: just as it may be about the gardens of Chapelwood and the death of Brocklebank, it may also touch on the death of Sassoon’s brother Hamo, and the garden at home in Kent in which the brothers once played and that Sassoon has since been avoiding. In either case, there is much still to be written, even with old unfussy rhymed pentameters, even with simple end-rhymes, like “dead.”[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Unknown Warriors, 126.
  2. Testament of Youth, 350-1.
  3. Diaries, 172.
  4. Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 365-7.

Herbert Read Writes of Reading Writers Aright; Praise for Siegfried’s Lines; Henry Williamson’s Dark Journey; Vera Brittain Starts for Home

We’ll begin today with a letter from Herbert Read to Evelyn Roff. We don’t know Read well, and he’s different from many of our young officers–he reads Nietzsche! he hails from Yorkshire!–but, then again, not really all that different. He’s just another young poet, missing the English spring and reporting on his ambitious reading…

22.V.17

Your letter arrived yesterday and did indeed manage to convey to me the very spirit of spring in England, so that I was away in Yorkshire, with the daffodils in Farndale and the brown moors reviving with green–until my eyes were dim and my breath was still . . .  and then I began to curse the chance that makes of me an exile, and then to curse myself for a sentimental fool.

Spring we do have here, but in an abortive sort of way. The felled trees bloom, but for the last time, and forget-me-nots spring up among the ruins. But everything is sad, and our few flowers are like wreaths among so much desolation.

The lull I told you of is lasting longer than we expected, and we have now been in rest ten days. It is significant that during this time I have never been tempted to write to you–our present existence is rather passive and unimpressive. We spent most of the first week cleaning–skins and clothes. We are up early, drilling, etc., until noon, and then the rest of the day is left to our own devices, which mostly taking the form of football, riding, eating, reading, and various shooting competitions…

But any day–any hour–we expect sudden orders to back into the thick of it. And none of us really cares how soon those order come, for the sooner our fate is settled the better, we argue.

And that is that. The letter then turns to literature, as these letters so often do. Read and Roff’s mutual attraction is to some degree intellectual… which is to say that Read seems very interested in proclaiming and explaining his opinions. Despite her careful praise for Read’s youthful first volume of poems, Songs of Chaos, Roff’s other opinions do not meet with unconditional approval:

…I don’t see how Kipling fits in. He is one of my bêtes noires–a landmark in Philistia, though that is rather a rash judgment of the author of Kim and Puck of Pook’s Hill. It’s the man’s Idealism that is wrong–not his pure imagination. I’ll second your favour of Richard Jeffries and Morris, and Ruskin is good as art… Matthew Arnold no bon… The Rossettis are fine…[1]

Read doesn’t write much like our other poets–his “wreaths among so much desolation” seem at once those of an unreconstructed Romantic and a budding free verse rebel–but his reading is certainly “correct.” It will take a while for the appreciation of Kipling’s style and fertility and constancy to escape the bonds of his association with militarism and empire, but William Morris lurks behind many of our writers (Tolkien not least) and Richard Jeffries was beloved of both Charles Sorley and Edward Thomas. The boy just have to get himself to London… although Ypres is in the way.

 

Two days ago I mentioned a… highly improbable statement by Henry Williamson, namely that he had been sent on a flying visit to the War Office in London and somehow charmed his way into a new assignment on a signal course. His diary records nothing of the kind, but mentions that he is to be sent to a signalling course in one of the rear areas in France.

In today’s letter to his mother, however, he repeats the tale:

22 May

Dear Mother, Just a short note to let you know I am O.K., and a staff job at last!!! And on Army Staff Corps too!!! I got it by luck–went to the W.O. the other day special duty, & came back to a course, & clicked at once.

This makes no sense. The editor of his papers breaks in with a rare parenthetical to write that “there is no detail or confirmation of this rather extraordinary event.” Worse, there is no further bragging or later fictionalizing, which are de rigueur with Williamson.

So it seems clear that he just made the story up, for no reason (that I can see) other than to impress his mother and mislead his family. They are meant to think, I guess, that he has somehow “wangled” a “staff” job, when in fact he has merely been sent to learn signal work, either because the Army likes sending officers on courses or because his own unit wants to be rid of him…[2]

 

Before we come to a leave-taking in Malta, let’s take this pleasant interlude from the pen of none other than Alfred Percival Graves, Celtophile, man of letters, and father to Robert. He, too, has been urged by son to read his friend’s verses and–despite possible misgivings about the satiric tone of some of the poems–he wrote approvingly to Siegfried Sassoon today, a century back, in (light) verse of his own.

The Hindenburg Line
By bombardment and mine,
We may wear through,
Or tear through
Or powder quite fine,
But I Donner-wetter!
I know of a better
And mightier line!
None other can shape it…

The Siegfried we call it.

Yours really delighted with the Old Huntsman and other poems,

A.P.G.[3]

 

Finally, then, Vera Brittain. She has decided to come home, to be of what use she can to her family–and to Victor Richardson, last of her brother’s intimate friends, blind and badly wounded. She is breaking her contract as a V.A.D., but this is permissible, and, really, the bureaucracy has been surprisingly swift in giving its permission and sending her home. She will look back on today as the beginning of a journey with nothing of the romance that clung to the journey out.

On May 22nd, with a small home party of home-going Sisters and V.A.D.s, I began my long, dirty and uncomfortable journey to an England that seemed, at the outset, curiously improbable and remote. We had to send our heavy luggage by sea… and were allowed to carry only one package, into which, disregarding uniform and equipment, I stuffed the silks, laces, pale blue kimono and other treasures acquired in Valleta. We were told to carry food for six days, and filled our haversacks with bread, butter, tinned milk and potted meat, all of which had become repulsively languid by the end of the second outrageously hot day. Somehow I found a corner for my diary…

Yes, her neglected diary. Well, habits change, and, alas, it will continue to be neglected, leaving us more dependent on reminiscence and correspondence. But she did describe today, a century back:

May 22nd

Left Malta. I hated to go, for I had been very happy there, & it was a real pain to say goodbye to Stella, with whom I have been for so long.

We were taken by transport to Grand Harbour, & after waiting on docks for about an hour, put on the Isonzo. It was a rough, wet & stormy day, & as there were no chairs we had to sit on deck on our piled-up luggage. We had not been long out of the harbour when the waves seemed mountains high &: the ship pitched & rolled to an angle, as they afterwards told us, of 42°. All the luggage piled up at the back, to say nothing of ourselves, rolled down the deck right as far as the rails. This happened three times; the last time I sat in almost two inches of dirty water, & slid in it nearly down to the rails, which effectually ruined all the clothes I had on.[4]

To this cranky diarist’s account she will add, much later, a smooth memoir-writer’s touch.

I do not know why I omitted an incident which I recalled long after other details of the journey were forgotten–the melancholy sadness of listening, at sunset in Syracuse harbour, to the “Last Post” being sounded for a Japanese sailor who had been washed overboard from the destroyer that had acted as our convoy across the turbulent Mediterranean.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Contrary Experience 95-6.
  2. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 154.
  3. See Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 362.
  4. Chronicle of Youth, 341.
  5. Testament of Youth, 347-8.

Siegfried Sassoon a Country Wanderer Once More; Wilfred Owen’s Faith Shifts: Christ is Literally in No Man’s Land; John Buchan in the Halls of the Great; Ralph Hamilton is Reassigned

Is the once and future thriller-writer Lt. Col. John Buchan taking to his role as head of the Information Office? He is. In France in April to win the acquiescence of Haig in his propaganda efforts, he is now working hand in glove with even more august personages.

16 May 1917. I was working till all hours yesterday. I had to go to the Palace this morning, for I have a shocking amount to do with Royalties these days. Then I had the War Cabinet in the afternoon and a long time with the Prime Minister; and after that correspondents and secret-service agents till all hours.[1]

 

Siegfried Sassoon remains ensconced in the charming, subtly galling precincts of Chapelwood Manor, Sussex. It’s the precincts that charm, however, and the priestess who galls–so today’s entry, heavy on countryside and light on human interaction, is a happy one.

May 16

For a while I am shaking off the furies that pursued me. I am an Orestes freed from the tyranny of doom. The War is a vague trouble that one reads about in the morning paper. The communiqués are almost insignificant. I no longer visualise the torment and wretchedness there.

The world is just a leafy labyrinth with clouds floating above the silence of vivid green woods and clean meadows bright with cowslips and purple orchis. My thoughts have the voices of the tiny brook that runs along the woodland, slipping and twisting over mossy stones, and bubbling out into a rushy field to gurgle merrily in its narrow bubbling channel.

I am a country wanderer once more—climbing gates and staring through tangled hedges at the mossy boughs of apple-trees laden with blossom, while the sun comes out after a passing shower. I roam the narrow lanes, light-hearted as a lambkin, emotionless as a wise gander. I desire nothing more than to stop and discuss.the weather with an old gaffer mending the gaps in a hedgerow. I could almost praise the Apostles Creed to the village parson if I chanced to meet him in the road, or saw him leaning over his garden gate as I passed. And the Sunsets are
yellow and serene—never dyed with crimson or hung with banners of war.[2]

This is too much, and Sassoon realizes it, of course. Hence the tongue-in-cheek gamboling: it’s so overdone that it becomes unsettling, as if some sort of overdecorated 18th century French baroque painting is being foisted onto unassuming, blooming Sussex. The landscape might pass with unaffected appreciation, but all these sun-drenched rosy-cheeked swains on swings, paradoxically, seem to remind us of the absent war, and the invisible, mud-caked, sallow-cheeked subalterns.

And this encounter with a wise old gaffer during a ruminative walk in the English countryside… it’s exactly like something Edward Thomas would write about. And yet nothing about the way it is written is anything like Thomas… Sassoon laughs, but bitterly, and he writes his country walk at a sharp angle…

 

This undated letter of Wilfred Owen‘s was probably written today–and if he seems confused, it is the fault of the bureaucracy: the 13th Casualty Clearing Station seems to have been reorganized around him, and shortly he will be in the same bed, but in a new Stationary Hospital… And yet perhaps he would be grateful for the metaphor: as he will explain in the letter, he has not altered in his Christian faith, but he feels the bureaucracy of his belief system shifting around him…

My own dear Mother,

Just had yours of Sat. Evening and was astonished to apprehend that the Great Shadow is creeping on towards Colin. What will he be next birthday, seventeen?

I wrote him a wholesome bit of realism in that last letter, as well as a fantasy in the language of the Auth: Ver: of 1611. I have changed my mind and see no reason why you should not have that letter and that fantasia…

I did it without any reference to the Book, of course; and without any more detraction from reverence, than, say, is the case when a bishop uses modem slang to relate a biblical story. I simply employed seventeenth century English, and was carried away with it.

Incidentally, I think the big number of texts which jogged up in my mind in half-an-hour bears witness to a goodly store of them in my being. It is indeed so; and I am more and more Christian as I walk the unchristian ways of Christendom. Already I have comprehended a light which never will filter into the dogma of any national church: namely that one of Christ’s essential commands was: Passivity at any price! Suffer dishonour and disgrace; but never resort to arms. Be bullied, be outraged, be killed; but do not kill. It may be a chimerical and an ignominious principle, but there it is. It can only be ignored: and I think pulpit professionals are ignoring it very skilfully and successfully indeed.

The letter rambles on into some stern criticism of institutional religion, both high church and evangelical. At first this reads rather as if Wilfred is concerned mainly to allay an sense of gross impiety that the letter to Colin may have imparted. He is not messing around with the Bible, he implies, but, rather, thinking seriously about how its precepts might apply. He is working up to a religious argument that rests on his own authority, as well:

Christ is literally in no man’s land. There men often hear His voice: Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life—for a friend.

Is it spoken in English only and French?

I do not believe so.

Thus you see how pure Christianity will not fit in with pure patriotism. I am glad you sent that cutting from Wells’ Book.

This would be The Soul of a Bishop, just out.[3]

I hope you understood it. I did not. Not a word of it can I make sense of. I would rather we did not read this Book. Now The Passionate Friends I found astounding in its realism but like all the great terrible books it is impossible to take sides. It is not meant to be a comfortable book; it is discussional; it refuses to ignore the unpleasant.

(This practice of selective ignorance is, as I have pointed out, one cause of the War. Christians have deliberately cut some of the main teachings of their code.)

Just as I was going to speculate that Owen is trying to disguise the reasonably radical (if logically irrefutable) opinion that pure patriotism and pure Christianity are incompatible by moving on to discuss secular literature, Own returns to his criticism. He blithely tacks away again into a discussion of his other reading material, but the point is made, and I do not think that his mother would consider it a light one, especially because it rests on that new source of authority: clergymen fulminating at home against the Germans do not understand what Christ might be like in the trenches, but Owen does. The experiential gulf has theological implications, now…

At present I am deep in a marvellous work of Hugo’s The Laughing Man. By the same post as your letter came two books from Leslie by O. Henry.

So I am well set up.

I am marked for the next Evacuation!!

…Many thanks for Punch, Yes Colin has been very good in writing to me. Keep him up to it. It will do him good, don’t-you-know! And as for me: they bring me Shropshire, even as yours bring me Home.

Expect me—before Christmas.

Your—one and only—Wilfred x[4]

 

Finally, a brief update on Ralph Hamilton, the Master of Belhaven. Hamilton began work today, a century back, in command of a new battery, part of the 106th Brigade, near Cassel. The transfer, he believes, is because he will shortly be promoted to command a brigade. The journey over the last two days was quite arduous, owing both to confusion about the location of the units and sub-standard railway porting–“I have got a lot of stuff… Bath and I… had to carry it ourselves”–but Hamilton made use of the day to get to know his new subordinates. The next task, of course, will be to announce his presence with authority…[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Smith, John Buchan, 204.
  2. Diaries, 167.
  3. In two days' time, Patrick Shaw Stewart will mention to Ronald Knox, future clergyman and popular writer, that "[b]y the way, I have of course ordered [Wells's] new book about God, and we shall probably disagree violently about it.’ Knox, Patrick Shaw Stewart, 197.
  4. Collected Letters, 460-2.
  5. War Diary, 285-6.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

May 15, 1917 – Kemmel Shelters.

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

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

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

 

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

Dear Mother,

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

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

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

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

My dear Mother,

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

We are having tomorrow some sports in the Transport Section…

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

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

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

 

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

Well, yes and no…

May 15

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Conversation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

References and Footnotes

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

Edwin Vaughan is Back in the Trenches; Siegfried Sassoon is Back in the English Countryside

Edwin Vaughan‘s spring has been a quiet one so far. But tonight, a century back, he writes a tidy little “back to the front” piece which gives us a good, detailed reminder of what ordinary trench-holding–specifically the “relief” of one unit by another–involved.

Yesterday, there had been a cricket match and tea shared with rear-echelon troops. Today, packing and the issue of new maps. The approach march halted until dusk fell, waiting beyond the limit of German observation. Then, in the dark, they began their march toward Cambrai.

For an hour we marched in perfect quiet and then far ahead was a flash followed by the boom of one of our guns. Almost at the same moment we had to spread out to avoid a shell-hole. From there on the shell-holes became more frequent and the road was littered with large, loose cobbles…

The rain–of course–had started, and things seemed pretty miserable to me as I lay in the wet grass in full pack with the front line half a mile off. Pushing on we moved across a faint track and had just climbed on to an open plain when the order ‘Gas Alert’ was passed back. We got our gas-masks ready but save for a slight smell of pineapple there was no development.

Presently guides arrived and we were led away to the right whilst the rest of the Battalion carried on…

At the trench wherein we learnt was the Company HQ dugout, we picked up one guide per platoon, and took our separate paths to the front line…

A gradual downward slope of 200 yards brought us to a trench barely 20 yards long. Here an officer greeted me and climbed up on top. I dropped Dunham, Sergeant Jowett and the reserve section and the remainder of us went forward to the line of posts in front…

Having posted these sections we returned to the trench behind and climbed down the slippery earth steps. A small cubby-hole had been scooped into the front of the trench, and into this we crawled. There was just room for us to lie full length on the straw, with a candle stuck between us on a piece of stick jabbed into the side. Here I signed for the stores of bombs, Very lights, ammunition and petrol tins which I had checked, and I asked the officer if he had any tips to give me about the trench. He told me that everything was very quiet but that no one could move by day. At night Jerry had strong patrols out in No Man’s Land, but his line was a thousand yards away.[1]

So they have arrived, and mastered the trench. But now there is No Man’s Land to be dealt with.

 

Siegfried Sassoon, meanwhile, has been enjoying the social aspects of a London recovery from a less than dangerous wound. But, in another highly suggestive quirk of medical bureaucracy, he is sent out of London just as his book (its merits trumpeted by his many well-connected friends) is starting to make an impact. Sassoon has arrived for a stay at Chapelwood Manor, in Sussex, the seat of Lord and Lady Brassey, who have graciously made it into a convalescent home for officers. Although Sassoon is not thinking much about his book–so far as we can see from his diary, at least–he is writing again. It would seem that London is always an interlude, while the more perfect contrast of country-house recovery with the misery of the trenches stimulates reflection.

May 13 3.30 a.m. (in a white bedroom at Chapelwood Manor)

This notebook began not many miles from Arras in the bloody month of April, when guns began to bellow. And now my disciplined wanderings have sent me to a very pleasant country house, where perfect good taste prevails, and nobody sleeps in the clothes he wore last week and this.

It is a grey-timbered and many-gabled house, built twelve years ago. Dark yew-hedges and formal gardens are round it. And its windows look across Sussex toward Lewes and Beachy Head—all woods and sloping meadows and hedges in their young green, and growing wheat, with clumps of daffodils in the field beyond the gardens.

Sleepless, I am waiting for the dawn and the first English birds I have heard sing out their maytime madrigals since 1915. The gables of the house begin to show distinct against a clear, starry sky, Cocks are crowing; an owl hooting away in the woods; and the busy clock ticks on the mantelpiece. I feel as if I were soon to get up and dress for a cub-hunt—swallow my cocoa and boiled eggs, and then hear the horses’ feet trampling the gravel outside.

All this is a long way from Arras and the battles. I am back in the years before battles were invented or Rolls of Honour thought about at all. As I lie on my bed with a yellow-shaded electric lamp shining (on my pink pyjamas) I can see the sky through the open, uncurtained window. The sky is a wonderful deep-blue colour, as I see it. When I turn out the light the window is a patch of greyish white on the darkness, with treetops standing up, very shadowy and still. It is the quietest of mornings; not a breath of wind.

I hear a cuckoo a long way off. Then a blackbird goes scolding along the garden trees. Soon the chorus will begin. Put out the light.[2]

Lovely stuff. But time travel is only a mood, and even Sassoon can only bear so much of this intense Brit-Lit atmosphere. And what comes next? Once the birdsong fades out and the Sussex sun climbs high, will the poet-half-reborn really take up his pen and head grimly back down the Hindenburg Tunnel, to finish what he started?

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Some Desperate Glory, 114-15.
  2. Diaries, 163-4.

Lady Feilding and the Gas Attack; Hope for Kate Luard’s Glorious Boy; Visitors for Siegfried Sassoon; Henry Williamson: Wasting Mules, Skyhigh Verbiage, and Safe Souvenirs

As we catch up with several writers who have not been on the front lines at Arras, we have a few shorter updates, today, as well as an overdue missive from Lady Feilding.

In something like a literary crossing of paths, Thomas Hardy wrote to Edmund Gosse, today, praising his new book. Gosse, meanwhile, was visiting with a young family connection also known to Hardy through the younger man’s uncle, Hamo Thornycroft. Siegfried Sassoon is evidently pleased to be so distracted:

April 26

My sixth day in this hospital. Roderick came this afternoon. And afterwards Robbie and Edmund Gosse, who was in delightful good humour.[1]

 

Sassoon’s battalion, meanwhile, is out of the line, though far smaller than it was when he left it. In reserve, but knowing that they will soon march again, the 2nd/Royal Welch engage in one of the milder ironies of industrial warfare’s waste.

…moved to Blairville. Socks, dozens of pairs, are being thrown out all over the camp, the result of a consignment from the Welfare Association having been delivered. Those in the packs of the dead were just thrown out, and shirts too, all good, to rot or be burned.

Our casualties for the tour are 13 officers, 4 of them killed, and about 120 other ranks out of a trench strength of 350.[2]

 

Two days ago, a century back, Henry Williamson was once again in trouble. After a visit from a military vet, who found some of the mules under his care “apparently neglected, and wasting away,” he was “straffed like hell” by his superiors.

There is no mention of this latest bump in the road in a letter he then wrote to his mother. Instead he produced a long, strenuously literary, sentimental letter, full of swooping birds (at least six different species are mentioned) and melodramatic and ominous sights. A brief sampling:

In the vast blue above the newly arrived swallows wheel and call and from yonder grim and black wood the cuckoo sings. Spring is here with its promise of life and hope–and Death.

…I ‘spose the blue-tits will soon vibrate with the thunder of the guns–tons of earth will be blown skyhigh in huge black fountains–the shrapnel will burst in white soft clouds above the wire–Hell itself will be let loose, and soon the beauty of the spring will disappear, and shattered trees and torn earth alone be left–and among it, pathetic little bundles of wasting flesh will strew the ground… and the sky will still be blue, and at night the stars will shine out…

All that, perhaps, in lieu of “I got yelled at at work again today, mum.”

But by today, a century back, the elevated mood has come back toward earth, while a more familiar epistolary persona is in evidence:

The souvenirs Williamson sent home… but where are the German hand grenades?

Dearest,

Just got your letter saying you got helmets–good…Thanks for toffee & Cycling. Aren’t those helmets good souvenirs? the spikes screw on top. The flat fellow is Bavarian. Write soon send Kentish Mercury.

Love Harry. PS Guns going like hell.[3]

What became of the pickelhaubes, I do not know…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And Dorothie Feilding is in Flanders, as ever, and not on the Arras front, where things are most active. But just as “minor surgery” is surgery on someone else, there is no point objecting that someone under attack is not actually part of the day’s major offensive.

Perhaps as a response to the allied push, the Germans in Belgium launched a gas attack, not, apparently, to screen or support any major operations, but simply to damage and disconcert their enemy and perhaps take any trenches that might be abandoned or lightly held. It began three days ago, with clouds of gas–probably primarily phosgene–rolling over the lines and into the rear areas where the Munro Ambulance Corps was stationed. The scale of the attack prompted a brief telegram to her mother at home on the 24th, stating, concisely, “All well Dorothie.” Today, a century back, she elaborated in a letter to her father.

Lady Feilding generally shrugs off being almost killed by shellfire, preferring a blithe and rather daffily dismissive style. But either because of that frighteningly brief telegram or because this new experience was far more frightful than the familiar ambulance-driving under shrapnel fire, she narrates the hours after the attack in detail.

My dear Colonel

Things have been moving here just lately but I haven’t had time to write you much about them, also I was waiting till the events had been duly recited in the communique before writing about them, as it is always wisest.

This having been done I will now tell you more about it, also the rubber bath has come before I forget to thank you for it. It is a dashed fine one & I am very grateful to Mr Da.

On the 23rd about four am, Fritz suddenly started launching gas at us from the local metropolis up at N. The wind wasn’t very good for him, too much to the N with the result the gas came diagonally back from the lines & we here at no 14 got a very bad go of it. Jelly smelt it & woke up which was most intelligent of him; we all got up & threw on a few garments & of course hadn’t a gas mask in the house as ours were in the car, which that night happened to be in the other garage down in the town. There was the limousine here however & Jelly started that & then he went off with the ambulance up to the lines & the gas being very bad by then here I evacuated Winkie & Helene & the girl next door up to a hospital a few miles up the road. There I borrowed some gas masks & a spare driver as I was feeling rather faint & thought it best to have two drivers in the car. I left Winks & CO there & tore back to no 14 to find the gas had cleared away very quickly from there, as a matter of fact it had been following the road we took to the left & we were in it for 3 or 4 miles & so by bad luck got much more than the people who stayed here. By this time I was quite sure the Boche had overrun the sector as I couldn’t imagine our having it so bad & the lines being still tenable. As a matter of fact, the waves were very local & came in gusts. For instance, the main part of the town here got none. It just travelled down in long columns. I rushed up to our barracks & was awfully relieved to find them all ok. They had had very good masks & the main gas column had passed to the right of them & on our way.

Then we just worked like navvies all day till dark. Simply never an engine stopped all day & we were all pretty beat at the end of it. At the beginning, Boche had rushed our lines but we drove them out again as the commimique said & things are exactly as they were before now which is very satisfactory. The sector was very lucky to get off with the line in the old place.

It’s a dirty business gas & rather frightening; comes in great foggy waves & makes you cough your head off. Those poor, poor devils of men. I can’t tell you what it’s like to see them all lying about unconscious & in the most awful states. Much worse than blesses in a way because there is so desperately little you can do for them. In many cases they are alright for 12 to 24 hrs & then go down like logs. The Boche had a lot of casualties from our fire & we got some prisoners too.

I felt quite (fairly) alright the day itself after the 1st hour. Just rather cut. It didn’t work on me till 24hrs after when, at about 5am, I couldn’t breathe except like a scared rabbit & went down to get a drink & then felt awfully faint. This kept coming on at intervals all that day, so I went to bed in the afternoon & have been there ever since. I am quite all right again now & am getting up again now as I haven’t had a proper go of it since yesterday. It’s a beastly feeling–you can’t get a proper deep breath…

This is a long scrawl isn’t it?[4]

 

Finally, today, from behind the lines at Arras, Kate Luard reports on the status of a particularly affecting patient.

Thursday, April 26th, 10.30 p.m.

…The officer boy with the fractured spine isn’t going to die yet… I got the colonel to put him on the Evacuation list tonight to give him a chance to get X-rayed at the Base and perhaps recover…[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 162.
  2. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 340.
  3. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 131-4.
  4. Lady Under Fire, 205-7.
  5. Unknown Warriors, 115.

Edmund Blunden and Edwin Vaughan Are Among Friends; Siegfried Sassoon is Blighty Bound; Richard Aldington Remembers Edward Thomas; Geoffrey Thurlow Bids Edward and Vera Brittain a Provisional Farewell

We haven’t been keeping up with Edwin Vaughan, and things have changed. First, his battalion has been withdrawn from the line and gone into billets in Péronne. Second, he has at long last found fellowship in his battalion–he dined yesterday in a “ripping” mess and discovered that his fellow D Company officers–including three new replacements–were in fact “excellent fellows.” So we’ll begin with him, as a bit of unexpected light comedy before the more dire notices to come.

Today, a century back, the new band of brothers of D Company “sallied forth in a body after breakfast” and went promenading. Exploring Péronne, they wended their way to the citadel–once again a fortress, its moat converted to a rifle range–and, in exploring one of its attics found, incredibly, “an ancient arquebus,” daring the eldest of their company to carry it out as his sidearm for the next parade…[1]

 

Edmund Blunden, in ominously peaceful Ypres, is on precisely the same wavelength as Vaughan. Today, a century back, an officer named Tice, a schoolfellow of his friend Vidler, joined the battalion, filling out a group of five fast friends:

Vidler now had a fresh audience for his school recollections and mimicry; he almost gave his orders in the nasal tones of our famous writing master, and filled the desert air with imitations which a starling would have been proud of Amon and Collyer, his old schoolfellows, bore the burden, Tice with his sweet mournfulness listened and gave suggestions and approval, while I made up the party of five and the colloquy of Sussex at peace with all my heart.[2]

 

Siegfried Sassoon, meanwhile, is about to be parted from his own new band of brothers. Today he was sent home from France, transferred to the Fourth London Hospital, a clear indication that his wound, while not dangerous, will take a considerable time to completely heal.

 

Arras has been quiet for some days now, but, further to the south and east, the main French thrust of the Nivelle Offensive has been launched. Olaf Stapledon‘s ambulance unit is there.

SSA 13
20 April 1917

Agnes,

We have had the first dose. Twenty-four hours at the front & 24 hrs. working behind. Most of us worked 36 hrs. on end, or more. We had very good luck–only two fellows wounded & neither bad, and one car reduced to scrap iron. I drove sometimes the Sunbeam, sometimes an ambulance, & sometimes I filled up shell holes in the road, & sometimes I helped to drag dead horses off the road, but mostly I just helped to load ambulances…[3]

 

But Arras is only temporarily quiet. The units slated to take place in the new assault that will open the second phase of the battle are now preparing to march for the front. Geoffrey Thurlow, concerned to get his letters posted before leaving billets, added a quick post-script to his recent letter to Edward Brittain, quoting Tennyson and otherwise expressing a very great wish very simply:

Later 20th

We moved [back] a bit last night & are now down in deep dugouts for a day & a bit & then we move again and in haste to get this posted…

‘Pray for my soul. More things are wrought by prayer than this world knows of’

Hoping to see you sometime in the future.

Thine.

Gryt

 

But even as he himself faced battle, Geoffrey Thurlow learned about Victor Richardson–a man he knows primarily as the other close friend of his close friends. But he took time to write to Vera Brittain, and to open his heart to her once again. As with so many of our young soldiers, he will need to write himself into intimacy over the course of the letter. Beginning with the horrible immediacy of another’s severe wound, he takes a winding tour through a numinous landscape before arriving at a place where he can speak to his own private feelings:

France, 20 April 1917

I have had a note from Edward today to say that Victor Richardson is at Rouen and badly wounded. Awfully sorry & I can only hope he will soon get over it and that by time you get this you will have had better news of him. It was a very brief note from Edward and yet terribly concise.

After tea tonight wanting to be alone–we came back last night for a day or two & then we go up for a stunt–I walked out along a high embankment and everything was fresh and cool quite in contrast to the heated atmosphere of our dugout. As I looked westward I saw just below me in front of the embankment the battered outline of Hun trenches with 2 long straggling communication trenches winding away into some shell torn trees: the setting sun reflected in the water at the bottom of many crump holes making them look masses of gold. Over this derelict plain a thin line of men going back to billets in a large town, which stood outlined against a pale yellow sky with dark purple clouds low down in the sky: over to the right tall trees astride a river also looking gold in the last rays of the sun and beyond the river more ruined houses from which occasionally flashed a large gun.

Well! It was all quite beautiful & I wish Edward could have been with me if it were any other place than this…

This is easier to say to Vera, I think, than Edward–not that she understands the full measure of Geoffrey’s longing for Edward. Thurlow will also need more up-to-date poetic armor than the gleaming hauberks of Tennyson–of the five now-canonical sonnets available to him, he will choose to quote from “Safety“:

Everything seems very vague but none the less certain here & I only hope I don’t fail at the critical moment as truly I am a horrible coward: wish I could do well especially for the School’s sake.

I think you would love Chigwell–everything is so peaceful there. Often have we watched the many splendours of the Sunset from the School field. But all this will be boring you.

‘War knows no power safe shall be my going
Safe tho’ all safety’s lost, safe where men fall
And if these poor limbs die, safest of all’

Rupert Brooke is great and his faith also great. If Destiny is willing I will write later

In haste

G .R .Y .T .

And in Malta, where she can only learn more news of Victor by telegram, and where she cannot receive Geoffrey’s beautiful letter until weeks after the battle, Vera is feeling the twin frustrations of distance and ignorance. She writes to her mother:

Malta, 20 April 1917

There really does not seem much point in writing anything until I hear further news of Victor, for I cannot think of anything else . . . I knew he was destined for some great action, even as I knew beforehand about Edward, for only about a week ago I had a most pathetic letter from him–a virtual farewell. It is dreadful to be so far away & all among strangers…[4]

 

Finally today, it’s been some time since we’ve had a chatty letter from Richard Aldington to F.S. Flint, and it will be a while until the next one, as the correspondence will lag. I include this one not so much for Aldington’s experience (or his wit) but because it’s an early chance to see the ripples of Edward Thomas‘s death spreading far beyond the initial plunge into grief.

20/4/17

My brave [My dear fellow],

…You will be glad to know I’ve had several very close shaves in the past fortnight & missed one particularly dirty do by a fortunate accident.

I collected some souvenirs for you but chucked them away on account of the weight, but I have in my pocket a
button cut from a Boche uniform which I’ll present you with one day, d.v…

I hope you escape, in your capacity of an ailing functionary, from this new half million; I don’t think you’d find it very amusing here. It lacks repose and distinction…  But honestly I think that a week in the trenches teaches a man more than six months in England.

I see poor Edward Thomas is dead in the last shove–he must have caught a long-digger, as he was in the R.G.A.,
who, as a rule, are miles back of the line. I’m sorry for him, he was a pleasing and melancholy individual I remember to have seen at literary teas–odd to think of him out here…

Au revoir, dear boy; there’s a beastly battery firing right in my left ear!

Cheer-O.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Some Desperate Glory, 97-99.
  2. Undertones of War, 159-60. See the Battalion History for the date.
  3. Talking Across the World, 220.
  4. Letters From a Lost Generation, 336-8.
  5. Imagist Dialogues, 204-5.

Ivor Gurney in Perforated Good Spirits; Spring Offensive: Wilfred Owen Goes Over the Top; Siegfried Sassoon on the Effect of the Bombardment; Billy Prior’s Attack

Today is a day of blood and gore and foreboding. But we’ll start with the good news.

Pretty good news, at least: Ivor Gurney is wounded, and thus safe. There is pain, yes, but it hasn’t bought the best of news–early hopes of Blighty have faded. Gurney informs Marion Scott of his condition in a letter posted today, a century back:

My Dear Friend: Well, I am wounded: but not badly; perhaps not badly enough; as although kind people told me it meant Blighty for me, yet here I am at Rouen marked “Tents”. I do not yet give up hopes, but very few boats have been running lately; none at all for some days; and the serious cases go first of course. It was during an attack on Good Friday night that a bullet hit me and went clean through the right arm must underneath the shoulder—the muscles opposite the biceps, to describe them more or less accurately. It hurt badly for half an hour, but now hurts not at all…  there is no real damage done to my arm, not enough to please me.

Alas! Alas! There are hardly any books here! And the life is made up of hanging about waiting to be shifted again. Now if I could find some real hard reading to do–something to distract my mind–all might be well; or if I had some MS and a few books of verse, I would turn out something in spite of the flatness of my mind. O well, hopes
are not yet gone…

Though this Spring is cold and unclement, I cannot keep out of mind what April has meant for me in past years — Minsterworth, Framilode, and his companionship. And my sick mind holds desperately on to such memories for Beauty’s sake; and the hope of Joy…

So, if I can send you an address, please send me some small books of verse, and Tolstoi’s Cossacks (Worlds Classics – Pocket Ed.) I wonder whether at last I might try Housmans “Shropshire Lad”?

I will write again in half a shake:

Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney

(I write with my perforated arm, so you see not much is wrong.)[1]

 

It could be much worse. Which Kate Luard can make too painfully clear:

Saturday night April 14th. I’ve never in my life seen so many aeroplanes or so many dead men or so many German prisoners; they are marched in hundreds down our road…

One Cockney boy with both arms smashed said to the Padre, ‘Sy a prayer for me, will yer? That would be nahce. Can’t yer confirm me?’ It’s the only time I’ve seen the Padre laugh. Then the boy offered to sing ‘Tooleroolerity, I want to go to Blighty–Blighty is the plice for me.’ And then he died.[2]

 

 

So. Now another strange non-convergence. Two of our poets who have been creeping toward the line come even closer today–one attacks while the other is on the edge of the action–while a third man who will come to occupy the same space as both of them, but who did not exist, suffered some portion of both of their experiences.

 

During the morning, Wilfred Owen and the 2nd Manchesters moved forward to their attack positions… and found that the staff work had been very bad indeed. First, there was a simple problem of time and distance: “It was realised by the battalion at the outset that it was impossible to cover the distance in artillery formation with the loads and paraphanalia [sic] that the private soldier is called upon to carry in the attack in the time given.” To make matters worse, the last 1,000 yards of the approach involved moving across the enemy’s front, and when the Manchesters appeared in view the Germans immediately placed a hurricane barrage on the ground to be covered. Nor did they know what they were attacking, or where the other British units in the area were. The C.O., Lt. Col. Luxmore, rode off to consult with brigade and came back at 12:20, ten minutes before the scheduled attack time, saving his battalion by ordering a postponement and a flank march to a different position.

But they still had to attack, and they still had to cross a hillside in full view of German-held St. Quentin just to reach the jumping-off point.

Though this barrage was straight in the middle of the Battalion, they moved forward through it as steadily as going on parade, each wave keeping its dressing and distance and every carrier retaining his load. By the Grace of God alone only 30 men were lost in this barrage.

This took long enough that the newly-agreed-upon assault time of 1:00 was also missed. It seems as if there had been no allowance made for the fact that this is not an assault from long-held trenches with reasonably secure telephone connections to the rear but rather an exploratory attack by a unit feeling its way through new country. If the stakes weren’t so high the image of the colonel galloping about in Napoleonic fashion as if he were his own dispatch rider would be comical.

In any event, his arrival was doubly providential, since someone needed to take tactical command on the spot and ignore whatever brigade-level plans remained. Since staying out in accurate artillery fire meant certain destruction and the German wire barriers did not seem too imposing, the Manchesters mounted a quick frontal assault on a German-held trench near their objective, through the barrage and long-range machine-gun fire. Reaching the trench, they found it to be abandoned. This was victory, of a sort, and the day’s work done, so they turned the position over to their relief and went briefly into reserve.[3]

Wilfred Owen was physically unscathed, but this was his first real attack, his first day in the open, under fire. His letter to his mother will strike a tone somewhere between exhilaration and disbelief:

Twice in one day we went over the top, gaining both our objectives. Our A Company led the Attack, and of course lost a certain number of men. I had some extraordinary escapes from shells & bullets. Fortunately there was no bayonet work, since the Hun ran before we got up to his trench. You will find mention of our fight in the Communique; the place happens to be the very village which Father named in his last letter![4] Never before has the Battalion encountered such intense shelling as rained on us as we advanced in the open.[5]

But neither the battalion diary–which is in fact quite detailed and emotional for such a document–nor the letter do much to make us feel what it must have been like to have been there. Marching about, with no cover; uncertain of directions, of objections, of intentions–uncertain of anything except the fact that there would be no safety until some indeterminate length of shell-harrowed, bullet-swept ground was crossed.

But Owen will write it another way, in his poem “Spring Offensive,” which closes with these stanzas:

So, soon they topped the hill, and raced together
Over an open stretch of herb and heather
Exposed. And instantly the whole sky burned
With fury against them; and soft sudden cups
Opened in thousands for their blood; and the green slopes
Chasmed and steepened sheer to infinite space.
Of them who running on that last high place
Leapt to swift unseen bullets, or went up
On the hot blast and fury of hell’s upsurge,
Or plunged and fell away past this world’s verge,
Some say God caught them even before they fell.
But what say such as from existence’ brink
Ventured but drave too swift to sink.
The few who rushed in the body to enter hell,
And there out-fiending all its fiends and flames
With superhuman inhumanities,
Long-famous glories, immemorial shames—
And crawling slowly back, have by degrees
Regained cool peaceful air in wonder—
Why speak they not of comrades that went under?

 

There are many facile ways to make this next transition: “As Owen’s experience opens out, as his poetry rises, Sassoon descends…” Or, perhaps: “While Owen does not deny God and heaven, he writes with biblical force and yet pointedly fails to confirm any solace or meaning to the day’s ‘inhumanities;’ meanwhile, Sassoon is becoming confirmed in his beliefs about where fault for slaughter lies.” That sort of thing. But even if we eschew easy parallels, there is a striking juxtaposition here. Siegfried Sassoon–who has been hoping for open battle, in which he knows he will either excel or be killed–will get instead a new experienced of compressed horror, and one that will push his angry poetry toward something even deeper and darker. Not above ground and into the great wide shell-swept open, but down underground, in the subterranean fastnesses of the Hindenburg line, where, safe from the shells, it will be grenade- and knife-work, and hell will be no Miltonic abstraction of fiends and flames but mappable terrain, still contested by the damned…

Tonight, a century back, Sassoon is still on the verge of this. His diary picks up late last night:

April 14

At 9 p.m. we started off to relieve the 15th Northumberland Fusiliers in Hindenburg support (Second R.W.F. being in support to the First Cameronians). It was only an hour’s walk, but our Northumberland Fusilier guides lost themselves and we didn’t arrive and complete the relief until 4 a.m. Luckily it was fine. I went to bed at 5 a.m., after patrolling our 900-yard front alone!—in a corridor of the underground communication-trench of the Hindenburg Line—a wonderful place. Got up at 9.30 after a miserable hour’s sleep—cold as hell—and started off at 10.45 with a fatigue-party, to carry up trench-mortar bombs from dump between St Martin-Cojeul and Croisilles. Got back very
wet and tired about 4.30. Rained all day—trenches like glue.

But in beginning to transmute the experience to memoir, Sassoon will bring a sense of helpless victimization–of abject horror–to the fore:

Stage by stage we had marched to this monstrous region of death and disaster. From afar it had threatened us with the blink and din of its bombardments. Now we groped and stumbled along a deep ditch to the place appointed for us in that zone of human havoc. The World War had got our insignificant little unit in its mouth; we were there to be munched, maimed or liberated.[6]

So not Milton–Dante. The great devil mouth churning, while little dead men run up and down the twisting trenches in his hide, hurling bombs at each other…

We will see what the morrow will bring. But this stay amidst the wreckage of the attack will yield some of the most viscerally upsetting and vividly “anti-war” of Sassoon’s poems. One example will do, I think:

 

The Effect

‘The effect of our bombardment was terrific.
One man told me he had never seen so many dead before.’
War Correspondent.

‘He’d never seen so many dead before.’
They sprawled in yellow daylight while he swore
And gasped and lugged his everlasting load
Of bombs along what once had been a road.
‘How peaceful are the dead.’
Who put that silly gag in some one’s head?

‘He’d never seen so many dead before.’
The lilting words danced up and down his brain,
While corpses jumped and capered in the rain.
No, no; he wouldn’t count them any more…
The dead have done with pain:
They’ve choked; they can’t come back to life again.

When Dick was killed last week he looked like that,
Flapping along the fire-step like a fish,
After the blazing crump had knocked him flat…
‘How many dead? As many as ever you wish.
Don’t count ’em; they’re too many.
Who’ll buy my nice fresh corpses, two a penny?’

 

So a Dante, but a Dante who has lost sight of Purgatory, and knows that Paradise is impossible. This shocking turn in Sassoon’s poetry on the very day of Owen’s first attack makes an uncannily good introduction for our next subject.

Sassoon, as his diary shows, was sleepless and agitated and keyed-up, but he was not yet shocked into losing his mental equilibrium. Owen has survived his first attack and is uncertain yet what meaning he can wring out of it, or what it has wrung out of him.

Which brings us to Lt. Prior. Billy Prior is, in the literary sense, real–more real to me, having read his story several times, and seen it enacted–than many historical figures. But he’s also fictional. He began life, I think it’s fair to say, as a “composite character” in Pat Barker’s Regeneration, a sort of stock figure of well-researched historical fiction, well-equipped with a 20th century panoply of trauma, neurosis, and defiant energy. But then he took on a life of his own. Regeneration is the sort of book that with great modesty and intelligence–two essential characteristics, along with compassion, that it shares with its (non-fictional) hero, Dr. William Rivers–would wave off such superlatives as “the best of its kind.” But it is–the trilogy is an incomparable fictional exploration of the psychological damage wrought by the war, and Billy Prior is the most compelling fictional Great War officer I can think of.[7]

But it’s early days, and he has not yet opened out into that full fictional life. Prior will be “shell-shocked” into both amnesia and temporary mutism, and the account of the battle (read the book!) that he provides for his therapist is stubbornly matter-of-fact. In fact–and very interestingly–Prior’s memories of today, a century back, draw heavily both on Owen’s first sharp experience of walking under shell fire “as steadily as going on parade” as well as on the sort of edge-of-madness clarity that Sassoon’s poetic voice summons. This is good historical fictional practice, of course, but there are lots of good accounts of such attacks (I’ve heard there’s a blog…) and it’s interesting that Prior’s trauma borrows in such a way from two “real life” figures whose paths will cross his own, in fiction.

I’ll include now a short excerpt from Regeneration: as it fades out one might either take up the novel itself or read once more Owen’s letter and his battalion’s history.

Prior dragged on the cigarette and, momentarily, closed his eyes. He looked a bit like the boys you saw on street corners in the East End. That same air of knowing the price of everything. Rivers drew the file towards him. ‘We left you in billets at Beauvois.’

‘Yes. We were there, oh, I think about four days and then we were rushed back into the line. We attacked the morning of the night we moved up.’

‘Date?’

‘April the 14th.’

Rivers looked up. It was unusual for Prior to be so accurate.

‘St. George’s Day. The CO toasted him in the mess. I remember because it was so bloody stupid.'[8]

‘You were in the casualty clearing station on the …’ He glanced at the file. ’23rd. So that leaves us with nine days unaccounted for.’

‘Yes, and I’m afraid I can’t help you with any of them.

‘Do you remember the attack?’

‘Yes. It was exactly like any other attack.’

Rivers waited…[9]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters, 153-5.
  2. Unknown Warriors, 113.
  3. War Diary, WO/2392/2, page 160 (of pdf).
  4. Fayet.
  5. Collected Letters, 452.
  6. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 316.
  7. I'm not sure if Christopher Tietjens should count; George Sherston probably shouldn't...
  8. St. George's Day is usually April 23rd, not April 14th, and the calendrical complexities which move it later under certain conditions shouldn't have resulted in making it the 14th in 1917. I have a very limited understanding of the liturgical calendar, but this would seem to be a simple slip, occasioned perhaps by the fact that the next day Rivers mentions--the end of the total gap in Prior's life history--is the 23rd--unless I am simply misreading the fictional conversation? Is Prior playing some game with the dates, testing Rivers in some way? I don't think we are meant to subtly infer than his amnesia is feigned... In any event, it's fiction! And I'm very pleased to have an excuse to begin considering Regeneration, the most important (ah, superlatives) of the Great War novels written by later generations, before the time of its main action (all too infrequently dateable) this summer and autumn.
  9. Regeneration, 77.