A Century Back

Writing the Great War, Day by Day

Noel Hodgson Laid to Epigrammatic Rest; A Merciful Post for Vera Brittain; Siegfried Sassoon Goes Up to the Line; Alan Seeger’s Rendezvous with Death; The First Battlefield Tourists Report

First, today, the good news, from Vera Brittain‘s diary:

July 4th

When I went to the letter-rack at lunch-time there was–of all things on earth I least expected & most desired to see–a little pencil-scrawled envelope from Edward. I tore it open–it said “July 1st. I was wounded in the action this morning, in left arm & right thigh not seriously. Hope to come to England. Don’t worry. Edward.” It was written, I learnt later, from the Casualty Clearing Station. Heaven at least has had some measure of mercy on me–for this once.[1]

 

But mercy is unevenly distributed. It has been fashionable–and it remains good critical practice–to seek to separate the life from the art, the writer from the suspiciously writer-like character. This can be impossible in the case of fictionalized memoirs, inaccurate autobiographies, and highly personal first novels–i.e. the work of Siegfried Sassoon (who we’ll hear from below), Robert Graves, and Frederic Manning–but then again that is part of the challenge, part of the fun.

Highly personal poetry is a different beast. The lyric poet is supposed to speak personally, and yet we somehow feel that even if they address a specific moment they must do so, somehow, out of time; that they should rise above the detail-rich roughage of daily life and speak to eternal things. That should be the right way to read poetry, surely–but why is it, then, that there is such a strong overlap–a codependency, really–between poetry and the lives of poets? More specifically, why do the dramatic, too-often-tragic lives of good-looking young poets come to seem completely consonant with their poetic afterlife?

Are privileged young men with talent–and, often enough, charm and beauty–more likely to be poets, or just the sorts of poets we remember as poets?

Of course–and this is not their fault, but ours. Perhaps we can manage to remember the very greatest writers for the complexity of their achievement (and it helps, of course, if they leave us as little of their lives as their second-best bed), but with most of these guys, well, we’ll only remember them if we can keep the life and the work together, as it were: vatic bards going predictably down in drink or flames, poetic voluptuaries dying scandalous deaths…

And if it boosts one’s posthumous fame to live fast and burn out while still on an upward trajectory, then it helps all the more so if one appears to have written one’s own death. Rupert Brooke wrote a sort of aspirationally heroic repose, and his own bathetic death–not at the hands of the Huns but at the proboscis of a mosquito–tends to be half-forgotten. Instead, The Soldier claims the corner of the foreign field in which we remember him.

Julian Grenfell came closer. He was not charging the German trenches, exactly: he was killed at long range while observing. But he had gone Into Battle, fought bravely and aggressively, and been killed by the enemy, just as he wished, much as he had written.

And then there is Charles Sorley, who went with unfailing courage and unflinching intelligence to an early death. His poetry was sharp and uncompromising, and he died unheralded, with an unpublished sonnet about the fruitlessness of turning to the mouthless dead for wisdom or consolation literally in his pocket. He was the first to choose ghostly silence as a form of refused memorial–but that of course is a necessary irony.

And now Noel Hodgson has joined this company, this representative pantheon of poets whose deaths seem to be found in their late–youthful, yet still late–poetry. Hodgson was something like the ultimate nice English boy. He was studious and kind, quietly religious, loving to his family and loyal to his friends. He didn’t write himself Into Battle–instead he politely begged divine aid Before Action. And if he should be remembered for one more thing–Charlotte Zeepvat’s biography stresses this heavily–it was for the strong spirit of camaraderie among the young officers of his battalion. They were fast friends, and we can imagine, perhaps, that the enlisted men of the battalion were unusually close as well. (I’m straining here, in order to get to the famous end to this chapter of the story.)

Today, a century back, Ernest Crosse, the young chaplain of the 8th and 9th Devonshires and Hodgson’s friend, held a funeral for the men of the regiment killed on July 1st. 163 men were buried in what had been their front-line trench in Mansel Copse. The little cemetery will become famous for an inscription that echoes–appropriately enough, given the schooling and temperament of the Greek-reading Hodgson–a well-known section of Herodotus.

The Devonshires held this trench, the Devonshires hold it still.[2]

The Devonshires, though they were attacking a stronghold rather than defending a narrow place, are figured here as Spartans, resisting the invader to the last. The echo is of the famous elegiac couplet, attributed to Simonides, that was once (and is again) inscribed on the site of the Spartan last stand at Thermopylae.

Ὦ ξεῖν’, ἀγγέλλειν Λακεδαιμονίοις ὅτι τῇδε
κείμεθα, τοῖς κείνων ῥήμασι πειθόμενοι.

This, in a familiar English version, runs:

Go tell the Spartans, thou who passest by,
That here, obedient to their laws, we lie.

 

 

So Noel Hodgson is dead, and whether he received the help he asked for is not a thing we can know. But he is buried in a fashion we might imagine he would approve: faithful and apt, alongside his comrades forevermore.

A warrior-poet archetype of a very different sort went into action today as well. Alan Seeger of the French Foreign Legion has styled himself as a seize-the-day poet of action, a fiery spirit bent on experience. For us he is the American edition of the 19th century French early-modern: dramatically hard-living (but still privileged, with a safety net back home), and vociferously self-creating–the intellectual bad boy whose confusion of life and art may not be quite as intentional as he perceives it to be.

But I’m muddying the waters, which are foul enough. Today is another death-day. Seeger was eager to see battle, and sought it out years before his nation. He chose the hard life of the Foreign Legion and didn’t complain and–in his published writings at least–his interest in experiencing the glory and thrill of destructive warfare never waned, not even after he had accrued many months of experience in the trenches. He has been very confident, lately, that his part in the Battle of the Somme will be glorious, that the battle will be a great thing, and that victory will follow. And he has warned against trying to capture the greatness of battle in mere words.

And, he has written this:

I have a rendezvous with Death
At some disputed barricade,
When Spring comes back with rustling shade
And apple-blossoms fill the air—
I have a rendezvous with Death
When Spring brings back blue days and fair.

It may be he shall take my hand
And lead me into his dark land
And close my eyes and quench my breath—
It may be I shall pass him still.
I have a rendezvous with Death
On some scarred slope of battered hill,
When Spring comes round again this year
And the first meadow-flowers appear.

God knows ‘twere better to be deep
Pillowed in silk and scented down,
Where love throbs out in blissful sleep,
Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath,
Where hushed awakenings are dear…
But I’ve a rendezvous with Death
At midnight in some flaming town,
When Spring trips north again this year,
And I to my pledged word am true,
I shall not fail that rendezvous.

Nor did he. Today, a century back, he was killed during the attack on Belloy-en-Santerre. In the conclusion to the volume of Diary and Letters soon to be published by his family, an account of his final days is given by one of his comrades.

After passing the night at Fontaine-les-Cappy we moved in the morning toward what had been the German first lines. I passed almost all the day with Alan. He was perfectly happy. “My dream is coming true,” he said to me…

The field of battle was relatively calm, a few shells fell, fired by the enemy in retreat, and our troops were advancing on all sides. The Colonials had taken Assevillers and the next day we were to take their place in first line. On July 3rd about noon we moved toward Assevillers to relieve the Colonials at nightfall. Alan and I visited Assevillers, the next morning, picking up souvenirs, postcards, letters, soldiers’ notebooks, and chatting all the time, when suddenly a voice called out: “The company will fall in to go to the first line.”

About 4 o’clock the order came to get ready for the attack. None could help thinking of what the next few hours would bring. One minute’s anguish and then, once in the ranks, faces became calm and serene, a kind of gravity falling upon them, while on each could be read the determination and expectation of victory. Two battalions were to attack Belloy-en-Santerre, our company being the reserve of battalion. The companies forming the first wave were deployed on the plain. Bayonets glittered in the air above the corn, already quite tall.

alan_seeger3

Alan Seeger

The first section (Alan’s section) formed the right and vanguard of the company and mine formed the left wing. After the first bound forward, we lay flat on the ground, and I saw the first section advancing beyond us and making toward the extreme right of the village of Belloy-en-Santerre. I caught sight of Seeger and called to him, making a sign with my hand.

He answered with a smile. How pale he was! His tall silhouette stood out on the green of the cornfield. He was the tallest man in his section. His head erect, and pride in his eye, I saw him running forward, with bayonet fixed. Soon he disappeared and that was the last time I saw my friend…

The account continues, based, apparently, on other sources:

One of the first to fall was Alan Seeger. Mortally wounded, it was his fate to see his comrades pass him in their splendid charge and to forego the supreme moment of victory to which he had looked forward through so many months of bitterest hardship and trial. Together with those other generous wounded of the Legion fallen, he cheered on the fresh files as they came up to the attack and listened anxiously for the cries of triumph which should tell of their success.

It was no moment for rescue. In that zone of deadly cross-fire there could be but one thought,—to get beyond it alive, if possible. So it was not until the next day that his body was found and buried, with scores of his comrades, on the battle-field of Belloy-en-Santerre.[3]

 

It’s not inappropriate, I think, to follow Seeger’s death with the slow build-up to Siegfried Sassoon‘s first battle. There is something of Hodgson’s charming politeness in Sassoon, and something of Seeger’s willfully dashing adventurism. Sassoon’s diary, more than any other source just now, combines our two central interests: how soldiers write their experiences of the war, and how writers record what they see.

July 4, 4.50 a.m.

The Battalion started at 9.15 p.m. yesterday and after messing about for over four hours, got going with tools, wire,
etc and went through Mametz, up a long communication trench with three very badly mangled corpses lying in it: a man, short, plump, with turned-up moustaches, lying face downward and half sideways with one arm flung up as if defending his head, and bullet through his forehead. A doll-like figure. Another hunched and mangled, twisted and scorched with many days’ dark growth on his face, teeth clenched and grinning lips.

Came down across the open hillside looking across to Mametz Wood, and out at the end of Bright Alley. Found that the Royal Irish were being bombed and machine-gunned by Bosches in the wood and had fifteen wounded. A still grey morning; red east; everyone very tired.

12.30 p.m. These dead are terrible and undignified carcases, stiff and contorted. There were thirty of our own laid in two ranks by the Mametz-Carnoy road, some side by side on their backs with bloody-clotted fingers mingled as if they were hand-shaking in the companionship of death. And the stench undefinable. And rags and shreds of blood-stained cloth, bloody boots riddled and torn. This morning the facts were: R.W.F. and Royal Irish were sent up to consolidate trenches close to the south-east end of Mametz Wood and to clear the wood outskirts… Our A Company… were sniped on the road, and got into a quarry where they lost four wounded and one killed. The
Irish meanwhile had tried to bomb the Bosches in the wood, failed entirely, and suffered sixty casualties (one officer killed and one wounded). Our guns then chucked a lot of heavy shrapnel over the wood and the Irish got away. The whole thing seems to have been caused by bad staff-work (of the Division). We were out eleven hours and got back to our field about 8.30 a.m… Great fun these last two days.

9.15 p.m. The Battalion just moving off for the attack on Quadrangle Trench, by Mametz Wood, The XV Corps attack at 12.30 a.m. It rained in sheets from 1 to 4.30, but everyone has recovered, though all got soaked. The attack-scheme was sprung on us very much at the last moment.

C. Company can muster only twenty-six men, so we are carrying R[oyal].E[ngineers]. stuff. B. and D, attack. A. are-in reserve. We attack from Bottom Wood on a six-hundred-yard front.[4]

One more day’s postponement, then.

 

So… perhaps we should stop there. Perhaps we should have stopped with Seeger’s death. And yet it’s only been three days since the disastrous First of July. So, spared by the delay in the attack of the Royal Welch of any new tale of courage and carnage on the British section of the front, we can look back. Here is something ancient, and persistent: battlefield tourism.

Rowland Feilding is a serving officer, of course, but he has been free to roam of late, and to see what he can see. His letter is both a testament to what did go right for the British–he is on the southern flank of the assault, where the artillery did a better job and the objective were captured–and what didn’t. Those deep German dugouts…

His letter to his wife is a bridge to us, from the battle through the contemporary “tourist” and across the experiential gulf…

July 4, 1916.

…In the afternoon, with three of my officers, I visited the battlefield of three days ago. We lorry-jumped to Bray.
From there we struck off on foot along the road towards Mametz, one of the villages captured by our troops. The
fighting was still continuing in front, but in the ruined village itself all was quiet. Our heavy guns were firing over
our heads as we walked, but beyond an occasional shrapnel burst in the distance, the German artillery was quiescent, and we were able to explore the surface in safety. After proceeding 3 1/2 miles we reached what last Saturday was the British front line. It was very battered, and scarcely recognizable as a fire-trench. Then we crossed Noman’s Land, where we found infantry at work, salving equipment, and collecting the dead. Of the latter I
counted a hundred in one group—a pitiful sight! Then we came to what had been the German wire entanglements. Here our guns had certainly done their work well. The wire was completely demolished. Not one square yard had escaped the shells. Then we came to the German fire-trench. It is difficult to understand how any living creature could have survived such bombardment.

The trench was entirely wrecked, and so flattened that it could have given little if any cover at the end. Leigh
Bennett, who was with me and who has been fighting in Gallipoli, when he saw this—his first view of a French
battlefield—said: “I see now that what we thought was real shelling in Gallipoli was mere child’s play.”
Fifty yards beyond the German fire-trench was their support trench, and about the same distance further on, their
Reserve trench. Both had suffered severely. The ground is strewn with unexploded shells of ours, mostly of heavy
calibre.

I went into some of the dug-outs, but, as I had neither electric torch nor matches, it was not possible to see much.
They are of varying depths, some being quite 20 feet below the surface, and are well made, the sides and roofs being strongly supported by timber. I saw only one that had more than one entrance, and it was on fire. After exploring these remains of the German trenches we went on into Mametz village where living man was represented by the Salvage folk and a few infantry making their way up to the new front line. Scarcely a wall stands, and of the  trees nothing remains but mangled twisted stumps. The ruins present an appalling and most gruesome picture of the havoc of war, seen fresh, which no pen or picture can describe. You must see it, and smell it, and hear the sounds, to understand. It brings a sort of sickening feeling to me even now, though I consider myself hardened to such sights. To give an idea of the long period of time through which the line at this point has remained stationary, I may say that in Noman’s Land I saw two skeletons, one in German uniform, and the other in the long since discarded red infantry breeches of the French.[5]

These sights will become more common.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Chronicle of Youth, 326.
  2. Zeepvat, Before Action, 203.
  3. Letters and Diary, 212-16.
  4. Diaries, 87-8.
  5. War Letters to a Wife, 85-6.

The End of the First Day

[This is the fourth and final post for today, a century back–if you have not yet read the first three, you may wish to scroll down…]

We have yet to hear from George Coppard, whose machine gun team was with the 37th Division (part of the diversionary thrust to the north of the main effort, see map below), scheduled to go forward and defend any gains against any German counterattacks. I have no more symbolic larks to reference, today, but Coppard begins in a place we have been before: beneath the Golden Virgin, that precipitous and harrowing symbol of mercy askew.

the virginOn the afternoon of 1 July… we passed through Albert on our way to the front. We knew that the great assault had started early that morning. The red-brick cathedral looked in a sorry state. Adding to its wrecked appearance was the massive golden figure of the Virgin on the tall tower, leaning over at an angle of about 95 degrees…

There was a terrific crowd of troops and vehicles at Crucifix Corner.  The road forked there and in the angle, commanding the approach, stood a huge crucifix. The sorrowful face of Christ gazed down at the turmoil below. I remember looking at His face–a glance only–there was no time for more… The left fork led to Thiepval, la Boiselle, and Ovillers. The right to Fricourt and Contalmaison. We took the left…

A little later on, then,

…we entered Aveluy Wood… lachrymatory or tear shells literally drenched the wood. They caught us unawares, stinging the eyes painfully… it was too late to put on gas masks… A winding track led through the wood, and many wounded and dying lay on either side of it, but we could not stay to help them…

This is one of the disturbing new experiences of today, a century back. Raids and patrols and bombardments were over quickly, and then valor and care could be directed toward the wounded. But now discipline demands that they be left to misery and death.

Later in the afternoon Coppard takes stock of the grim situation:

Clear of the wood at last, we climbed into a trench, and before nightfall mounted the Vickers… As far as we could gather, the attack that morning had started at 7.30 am from the trench in which we stood. Darkness fell before we could sum up the situation in No Man’s Land, but the number of our dead in front of the gun position was an ominous clue.

Our primary job was defence, but we put up long bursts of indirect fire throughout the night, harassing the support areas immediately behind the enemy trenches…[1]

 

somme positions 3

Once more this map…

Donald Hankey was a few miles to the south. Left behind to supervise the resupply of hand grenades when his battalion went up, he now came forward while his battalion was held back, their attack canceled at least for the day.

After a day of idleness and depression I had to detail a party to carry bombs at top speed to some relics of the leading battalions, who were still clinging on to the extremest comer of the enemy’s front line some distance to our left. Being fed up with inaction, I took the party myself. It was a long way. The trenches were choked with wounded and stragglers and troops who had never been ordered to advance. In others they were waist-deep in water. By dint of much shouting I managed to get through with about ten of my men, but had to leave the others to follow with a sergeant. At last we sighted our objective, a cluster of chalk mounds surrounded with broken wire, shell craters, corpses, wreathed in smoke, dotted with men. I think we all ran across the ground between our front line and our objective, though it must have been more or less dead ground. Anyhow, only one man was hit.

Hankey’s biographer questions the one important difference between this account, in his diary, and the letter to his sister:

Which account is nearer the truth, which ‘fact’ might Hankey have ‘slightly altered’? Was he ordered into No Man’s Land with the bombs (‘had to carry’), or did he ‘have to’ in the sense of being impelled to follow his own impulsive nature (‘I took the party myself’) and either volunteered to lead, or quit his post to lead the carrying party? We cannot now know, although there is at least one ‘fact’ in Hankey’s letter to Hilda that is highly questionable, his assurance ‘PS I was never in any real danger.’ If there was a ‘cushy’ job amid the machine-gun and artillery fire in No Man’s Land in the Serre–Beaumont Hamel sector on 1 July, it perhaps was not lugging canvas buckets of grenades into the German lines.

Hankey, who had become a popular commentator on the war as “A Student in Arms”–before breaking with his editor over his desire to write less-than-perfectly upbeat, pro-war pieces–intends to join the Anglican priesthood after the war. This is, of course, no bar to holding slaughterous opinions: the clergy of all nations in this war were, generally, blind to the irony of claiming God’s blessing for the killing of their coreligionists. But Hankey has begun to have doubts, and he is willing to think carefully in order to express something of the strange tension that exists here. He wants to experience battle and to acquit himself well–to help his country win, which will involve killing many Germans–but he can no longer ignore, after today, just how terrible the war is. He will write this in the next few days:

I have never realized before what an awful thing war is… It may be good for a man & a nation; but it is nonetheless wholly evil in itself.[2]

 

Several miles to the south, it would seem that Siegfried Sassoon lacks either motive or opportunity to go forward himself. Opportunity, really: whatever he is feeling as he continues to write up his eyewitness account in his diary, he was surely required to remain with his unit. The attacks in the center have not been so much of an unmitigated disaster that the follow-up attacks have been canceled. His grenades and other supplies may yet be needed.

1.30. Manchesters attack at 2.30. Mametz and Montauban reported taken. Mametz consolidated.

2.30. Manchesters left New Trench and apparently took Sunken Road Trench, bearing rather to the right. Could see about 400. Many walked casually across with sloped arms. There were about forty[3] casualties on the left (from machine-gun in Fricourt). Through my glasses I could see one man moving his left arm up and down as he lay on his side; his face was a crimson patch. Others lay still in the sunlight while the swarm of figures disappeared over the hill. Fricourt was a cloud of pinkish smoke. Lively machine-gun fire on the far side of the hill. At 2.50 no one to be seen in no-man’s-land except the casualties (about half-way across). Our dug-out shelled again since 2.30.

5.0. I saw about thirty of our A Company crawl across to Sunken Road from New Trench. Germans put a few big shells on the Cemetery and traversed Kingston Road with machine-gun. Manchester wounded still out there. Remainder of A Company went across—about 100 altogether. Manchesters reported held up in Bois Français Support. Their Colonel went across and was killed.[4]

8.0. Staff Captain of our Brigade has been along. Told Barton that Seventh Division has reached its objectives with some difficulty, except on this Brigade front. Manchesters are in trouble, and Fricourt attack has failed. Several hundred prisoners brought in on our sector.

9.30. Our A Company holds Rectangle and Sunken Road. Jenkins gone off in charge of a carrying-party. Seemed all right again. C Company now reduced to six runners, two stretcher-bearers, Company Sergeant-Major, signallers, and Barton’s servant. Flook away on carrying-party. Sky cloudy westward. Red sunset. Heavy gun-fire on the left.[5]

And so we’ve come from bright dawn to red sunset. This means that the wounded, many of whom have been lying in the sun for fourteen hours, can begin to hope that help will come soon.

 

But before we trace the fate of our wounded young officers in the center of the assault, to England. In London, special editions were hitting the newsstands throughout the afternoon. There was no “news” in them except the bare fact of the battle’s beginning, and wildly inaccurate and overly optimistic reports predominated–and will predominate, until they give way to distressingly repetitive claims of the capture of the same cluster o villages that had been targeted for weeks, “victories” weighed down by the lengthening casualty lists.

But for now everyone in England dwells entirely in the experiential gulf. Whatever the papers claim, the millions of people with a loved one at the front in France now know both that there is a greatly increased chance that he is dead or wounded and that they can not possibly know anything definite for some days. Evil ironies abound now, for those families whose soldiers chose to send last letters or postcards assuring their family that they are well. They may not be, and yet the calming and confident letters will continue to arrive.

July 1st

Stella & I came out of Southwark Cathedral, where we had been listening to Brahms’ Requiem (such a theme for such a day!), to learn from newspapers & porters that a tremendous battle has opened on the Somme–very successfully they say–& that very fierce fighting is going on in the villages in front of Albert. And Edward–“De profundis Domine. . .[6]

But as you wait, you have to write to someone. So Vera Brittain wrote a quick note this evening, a century back, to her mother:

1st London General, 1 July 1916

The news in the paper–which was got at 4.0 this afternoon–is quite self-evident, so I needn’t say more about it. London was wildly excited & the papers selling madly. Of course you remember that Edward is at Albert & it is all around there that the papers say the fighting is fiercest–Montaubon–Fricourt–Mametz–I have been expecting this for days as when he was here he told me that the Great Offensive was to begin there & of the part his own regiment had to play in the attack… Naturally I am very anxious indeed…

Edward, we know, was shot during the morning, then wounded again by shrapnel.

But where many died, he lived, crawling back toward the British lines until he was rescued by stretcher bearers. It says something powerful about the relationship between brother and sister that Edward made sure to scrawl the following note from his stretcher:

France, 1 July 1916

Dear Vera,

I was wounded in the action this morning in left arm and right thigh not seriously. Hope to come to England. Don’t worry.[7]

 

For the fictional Phillip Maddison, the day followed a similar course. Late in the afternoon, wounded in the thigh and foot, scorched and tortured with thirst, he dragged himself within sight of the ironic/iconic vision of salvation of which his chaplain had reminded him.

Phillip, between periods of semi-consciousness following bouts of pain from the burns of phosphorous, and a greater drag of thirst, managed to crawl back… obsessed by one idea: he must get back for the sake of his mother… he seemed to be hearing the bell-like colours of the wildflowers with startling clearness… and about these flowers were wild bees and grasshoppers, scarlet soldier flies, and bronze beetles… They glowed and shimmered with varying sounds and colours. This period of hopeful beauty did not last long…

When the top of the leaning gilt figure on the church in the valley came into view, another feeling, of shame for his abject condition, came upon him as he saw hundreds of curious faces of soldiers waiting on their way up the line. Why did they have to stare like that… had they no manners?

Soon after, Phillip reaches medical orderlies who give him first aid, and after another delay he is taken on a stretcher toward Albert, past the astonishing figure of a painter, in uniform, busily sketching the battle.[8] After one more encounter with Father Aloysius, Phillip begins to move toward the rear, and blighty.[9]

 

So these men survived. Many others are dead, but, traditionally, the story doesn’t end there. There are nearly twenty thousand fruitless Hectors out there, and nearly every one had a family waiting for confirmation that his body has been put to rest.

Ernest Crosse, chaplain for the 8th and 9th Devonshires, has spent the day doing what he could for both the wounded and the dead.

After the first rush of injured men able to crawl or drag themselves off the battlefield ended, he had fretted for a chance to go out and look for men to help, but Lieutenant Colonel Storey wanted him to stay in safety. As soon as he could, Crosse made his way down the nearest communication trench to the front line, found four wounded men in a dugout, and helped bring them back. Around 3.30pm, he and the Medical Officer set off down the little track road to the back of Mansel Copse. As they neared the bottom of the hill, the tragedy of the first few minutes was laid out before them. ‘The road was strewn with dead. Almost the first I looked at being Martin.’

As Crosse’s diary is written, it appears that he went immediately from here to explore no man’s land, but at this time of the afternoon the slope side of the copse was still a death trap. It seems more likely that he and the Medical Officer did what they had gone to do and searched the bodies on and around the road first to make sure they were all dead, so that some time would have elapsed before Crosse moved forward. By 5pm Mansel Copse was safe, and he continues from a vantage point overlooking no man’s land:

‘In every shell hole all across the valley and up to the German saps were badly wounded who feebly raised a hand or cried out lest they should not be seen. I bandaged up a few as best I could and then went with Gertie [the Medical Officer] to collect the S.B.s [stretcher bearers].'[10]

And then he began the work of collecting the dead. The assault here had been relatively successful, if at a great cost, and the supporting battalions will soon move up and across no man’s land. Because the line has moved forward, and because so many of the Devonshires had been killed in Mansel Copse, both between the first and second British lines and in the first few yards of no man’s land–many of them cut down by the soon-to-be-famous machine gun at the Shrine–the front line fire trench suggested itself for another purpose. But it will be several days before all the bodies are in.

 

This is an almost completely British-focused project, and, given the paramount importance of Verdun to French history, the Somme is largely ceded to British memory anyway. Yet it was a joint effort, with the French contribution–to the south and across the River Somme, tens of thousands of French soldiers are now attacking–being nearly as large and significantly more successful than the British. We have one writer to represent the French half of the battle: Alan Seeger, the American poet in the French Foreign Legion. He too was in reserve, and spent the morning unloading heavy shells for the French artillery. But his regiment was warned that they will soon be sent forward, and in the afternoon they began their march.[11]

 

Just two more to go now. First, Charles Carrington once again, observing from the far left. Carrington is no shirker from responsibility, not least the officer’s responsibility to give a balanced account of an ongoing action:

At 7.30 the Londoners sent word that they were all back in their own trenches, all–that is–that could run. A wounded Scotsman crawled across our front and lay there writhing. One of our officers was just about to bring him in when I heard of it and gave him a positive order not to risk his own life until dusk, which made him very angry. There were plenty more lying about, a few hundred yards away. That evening a German medical officer with a white flag arranged a truce for half an hour to collect the wounded on the front of the Londoners…

How meagre had been our experience, yet our small contribution had been successful. We had formed the curtain of smoke just were it was required, we had drawn fire which might have been aimed at the attacking battalions, and had isolated the Gommecourt operation from the main battle…[12]

 

And finally, I want to include a long letter from Rowland Feilding to his wife. Feilding has had a unique vantage point, and if anything will restore us to the normal course of this project–a century back, on the human scale, yet striving to take in whatever is happening, whether a quiet day or the worst day in British history–it is this letter. It is also an excellent “opportunity for review,” as teachers say, and a reminder of just what was known and unknown, divined and (incorrectly) assumed, even by well-informed observers on the spot.

July 1, 1916 (Saturday). Corbie.

This has been a great day, as you will have learnt from the newspapers. The battle, for which we have for some months been preparing, has begun, and, thanks to a newly-made friend, Thornhill, and his car, I have been
able to see a lot of it.

The culmination of our bombardment—that is the infantry attack—took place this morning. It was originally planned for Thursday, but was postponed for forty-eight hours owing to the bad weather, which makes most of the roads, which in this part of France are not cobbled, impassable for heavy transport. When the weather is good the roads are good, and the reverse when it rains. The same rule no doubt applies to the roads on the German side.

The weather, yesterday, had become fine. To-day it was perfect. Between 6.30 and 7.30 a.m. our bombardment was intensified. To give you an idea of what it then became I quote Major Watkins, a Coldstream officer attached to the Staff of the XIII Corps, which is in front of us here. He told me that, on his Corps frontage alone (about 3,000 yards), 42,000 shells were sent over by our artillery in sixty-five minutes, or nearly 650 shells per minute. I hear we have 360 guns on this sector, including 8-inch, 12-inch, and 15-inch howitzers. At 7.30 the infantry went over.

Thornhill called for me between 9 and 9.30. We motored to Bronfay Farm, which is just behind Maricourt, opposite Mametz and Montauban. The battle was then in full swing, and the sight was inspiring and magnificent. From right to left, but particularly opposite the French, where the more rugged character of the country is especially adapted to spectacular effects, the whole horizon seemed to be on fire, the bursting shells blending with the smoke from the burning villages. As I have said before, this is essentially a district of long views. Never was there a field better suited for watching military operations, or for conducting them.

As we looked on, the shells from our heavier guns were screaming over our heads, but still, strange to say, the enemy was not replying behind our front line of the morning. The wounded—those who could walk—were streaming back, some supported by others; crowds of them. Parties of German prisoners too—I counted over seventy in one group—were being marched under escort to the rear.

They were pitiful objects to look upon; some with beards; all unshaven and dirty; some big, some small with spectacles; most with bare heads; a few wounded; all unkempt, dejected, abject, and dazed. Some looked up as they saw us. Most hung their heads and gazed at the ground. As Thornhill said: “Though our ambition is to kill as many of these people as we possibly can, when you see them beaten, like that, with that look in their eyes, you can hardly restrain a feeling of pity. I suppose it is the English sporting instinct asserting itself.”

We stayed half an hour or so at Bronfay; then, Thornhill remembering that we were what is here called “joy-riding,” and becoming a little anxious about his car, we motored to other parts of the line, passing through Meaulte and Albert, where the statue on the Cathedral is beginning to look very shaky. Here we saw many more wounded, and more German prisoners. I stopped and spoke to some of the former, most of whom looked tired but cheerful. All
were smoking the inevitable “fag.” Then we came home, stopping at various points along the way to watch the progress of the battle. Our artillery was still busy, and I counted twenty English and French observation balloons up together. Not a single German balloon was to be seen. All had been driven from the sky, for the time being, by
our wonderful airmen.

In the evening, once more, Thornhill came with his car, and we went towards the line. The scene had changed. In the morning the weather had been fine and clear. It was still fine, but, owing to the smoke and dust of the battle, there was now a thick haze. The cannonade had, for the time being, died away. With the exception of a little shelling far away to the right, all had become silent as the grave. One could only imagine our men hard at work in the trenches they had captured, converting them to their own use.

The German artillery scarcely replied to our bombardment of the past week, which must have been very exasperating to their infantry. They shelled our front-line trenches and did some damage, but, so far as this part of the line is concerned, they made no effort to silence the artillery or to block the roads. Even when the infantry attack commenced they failed to put up the usual “barrage.”

Probably, for the first time in the war, our supporting troops, helped by the undulations in the ground, were able to reach their positions without much difficulty. It is said that the Germans were unprepared for an offensive in this locality; that the last place they expected to be attacked was opposite the point of contact between the French and British armies;—that, in consequence, they had no great concentration of artillery to meet our troops.

If so, they must be blind. Our preparations have been so immense that any photograph from the air must have
revealed them. We have made new railways and new roads. The whole landscape has been altered, to say nothing of the fact that, for weeks past, every valley has been filled with troops, horses, guns, and transport.

We have been continually surprised at the way in which the enemy has allowed our transport to crowd over roads which are within easy reach of his artillery, and under direct observation from his balloons and even the ground observation posts.

I hope and believe our people have got the best of them this time, but do not expect to get much definite news for a few days yet. The wounded I have seen have mostly been hit by machine-guns. Judging from the numerous loaded ambulances I have passed, there must, I fear, be many casualties.

It has been a wonderful day, and my first experience of a battle as a sightseer. I feel rather a beast for having done it in this way, but shall continue to see all I can of it, nevertheless, for the sake of the experience, which may be useful later.[13]

 

If anyone has waded through these four posts, I am grateful. As I think I wrote at the beginning, this is an odd day for this project, and writing a great deal, yet neither taking in the whole battle nor wringing meaning from any one experience, was perhaps an unwieldy compromise. Will Streets, Rob Gilson, and Noel Hodgson are dead, along with nearly 20,000 other British soldiers, and I’m glad to have read them and written about them. Gilson will be remembered primarily for his association with his friend Tolkien, Streets as an exemplar of working-class fortitude, and of poetry as aspiration. And Hodgson, largely on the quiet strength of the eerily prophetic Before Action, will be much anthologized, a well-known if minor member of the growing company of dead “war poets.” I will return to Gilson, through Tolkien, and follow the news of Hodgson’s death and some of his after-life as a poet, but for the most part this project will move quickly on, leaving the dead where they lie.

I’m uncertain how to write the next few weeks: it will be difficult to return to the previous scale and yet still carry on some sense of the overall progress of the immense battle. I think I will have to opt for the former rather than the latter: instead of persistent maps and narrative connections, we will go back to seeing writers drop in and drop out when something particularly good has been written or something particularly momentous has taken place. For those of you who want a geographic or strategic sense of what will happen as the new battalions are thrown into the battle and the British Army struggles to push the line forward a few miles over the next several months, I would advise acquiring one of the several good narrative histories of the Somme as a handbook.

So tomorrow will see the battle continue, and in the coming days and weeks more of our central writers will come through the most harrowing passages of their war, or to their end. It will be a bloody summer and fall, but I hope to find a way back to balancing a reasonable amount of daily reading (and writing!) with the complexity of wartime experiences. Put another way, shorter posts and the omission of the writing of those writers who are not taking part in this battle will help me to find a compromise between the limits of human patience (“how many more banal letters home?”) and the limits of human memory (“wait, was this the guy who was just in that awful fight in the wood?”).

Never such innocence again, and never such experience.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. With a Machine Gun, 79-81.
  2. Davies, A Student in Arms, 170-5.
  3. Bizarrely, when Sassoon comes to write the memoir he sees fit to correct his estimate in the moment, revising it upward from 25 to 40.
  4. The diary contains further details of the attempt to clear Fricourt using reinforcements from 50th Brigade.
  5. Diaries, 85ff; Complete Memoirs, 331-4.
  6. Chronicle of Youth, 326.
  7. Letters from a Lost Generation, 264.
  8. Based, apparently, on Augustus John. Williamson is throwing a lot of detail-for-incongruity's sake in, here.
  9. The Golden Virgin, 292-7.
  10. Zeepvat, Before Action, 194-201.
  11. Letters and Diary, 212.
  12. Soldier From the Wars Returning, 115-16. Spoiler alert: Carrington's heavily retrospective comment on the slice of battle he had seen, based on post-war research to establish the enemy's point of view, leads him to "award the 55th Regiment [of the 2nd Guards Reserve Division] my certificate for the best demonstration of minor tactics I ever encountered in either world war."
  13. War Letters to a Wife, 81-4.

Wilfred Owen Visits Westminster Abbey; Alan Seeger on the Battle of Champagne, and the Glory of War

Two odds and ends and then a long overdue update:

Steel helmets reached the 2/Royal Welch’s section of the front today, a century back. But the Welch remained merely capped for the time being:

The first wearers we saw were Argylls. To the Adjutant a kilt was the limit of the ludicrous. The sight of one always excited his mirth, which he expressed in Army slang implying that these Jocks wear no under-garment. When he espied one of the objects of his derision in a tin-hat his thoughts found vent in terms of Rabelaisaian ribaldry that made new-comers gasp.[1]

 

Helmets for the jocks, but Wilfred Owen of the Artist’s Rifles doesn’t even have a uniform yet. His arm, though–man is it sore. 

Monday [Postmark 25 October 1915]

Post Office [Postmark London]

I had the first drill this mng: but got off this aft. because my arm is not really well. I went to Watson’s, & shall have my specs by tomorrow. I got full marks for Eyesight test at exam. On Sunday afternoon I went to Westminster Abbey: scholarly sermon on sociology and a dazzling fine Anthem. I am not yet in Khaki. The boarding house still pleases me, but I don’t know if I shall like the servitude of conforming to its menu and hours of meals! The conversation at my table was all against England. I made no objections. Tomorrow I shall surprise them. Many thanks for all the kind letters received. I am quite all right again, now you know. Another injection in ten days.

Yours ever W.E.O.[2]

 

Alan Seeger, whose diary for this period has gone missing, reminds us that he has survived the French component of September’s great battle. He wrote to his mother today, a century back:

October 25, 1915

The regiment is back in repos [rest, reserve] after the battle in Champagne, in which we took part from the beginning, the morning of the memorable 25th September. We are billeted in a pleasant little village not far from Compiegne, quite out of hearing of the cannon. It seems that absurd rumors were current about the fate of Americans in the Legion, so I hasten to let you know that I am all right. Quite a few Americans were wounded, but none killed, to my knowledge.

His knowledge, then, does not extend as far the fate of his erstwhile dinner companion Henry Farnsworth.

The part we played in the battle is briefly as follows. We broke camp about 11 o clock the night of the 24th, and marched up…

The cannonade was pretty violent all that night, as it had been for several days previous, but toward dawn it reached an intensity unimaginable to anyone who has not seen a modern battle. A little before 9.15 the fire lessened suddenly and the crackle of the fusillade between the reports of the cannon told us that the first wave of assault had left and the attack begun. At the same time we received the order to advance. The German artillery had now begun to open upon us in earnest. Amid the most infernal roar of every kind of fire-arms and through an atmosphere heavy with dust and smoke, we marched up through the boyaux [communications trenches]… At shallow places and over breaches that shells had made in the bank we caught momentary glimpses of the blue lines sweeping up the hill side or silhouetted on the crest where they poured into the German trenches…

We crossed the open space between the lines, over the barbed wire, where not so many of our men were lying as I had feared (thanks to the efficacy of the bombardment) and over the German trench, knocked to pieces and filled with their dead. In some places they still resisted in isolated groups. Opposite us, all was over, and the herds of prisoners were being already led down as we went up. We cheered, more in triumph than in hate, but the poor devils, terror-stricken, held up their hands, begged for their lives, cried “Kamerad,” “Bon Français,” even “Vive la France.”

We advanced and lay down in columns by two behind the second crest. Mean while, bridges had been thrown across trenches and boyaux, and the artillery, leaving the emplacements where they had been anchored a whole year, came across and took position in the open, a magnificent spectacle. Squadrons of cavalry came up. Suddenly the long, unpicturesque guerre de tranchees was at an end and the field really presented the aspect of the familiar battle pictures the battalions in manoeuvre, the officers, superbly indifferent to danger, galloping about on their chargers.

It seems as if the desire of the strategists to break out of the stalemate and return to some version of the grand war of movement that they grew up idealizing has been matched by Seeger’s desire to write traditional, sweeping, poetical descriptions of battle.

It won’t work, of course.

But now the German guns, moved back, began to get our range and the shells to burst over and around batteries and troops, many with admirable precision. Here my best comrade was struck down by shrapnel at my side painfully but not mortally wounded. I often envied him after that.

For now our advanced troops were in contact with the German second-line defenses, and these proved to be of a character so formidable that all further advance without a preliminary artillery preparation was out of the question. And our role, that of troops in reserve, was to lie passive in an open field under a shell fire that every hour became more terrific, while aeroplanes and captive balloons, to which we were entirely exposed, regulated the fire. That night we spent in the rain. With port able picks and shovels each man dug himself in as well as possible.

The next day our concentrated artillery again began the bombardment, and again the fusillade announced the entrance of the infantry into action. But this time only the wounded appeared coming back, no prisoners. I went out and gave water to one of these, eager to get news. It was a young soldier, wounded in the hand. His face and voice bespoke the emotion of the experience he had been through in a way that I will never forget.

Ah, les salauds!” [the bastards] he cried, “They let us come right up to  the barbed wire without firing. Then a hail of grenades and balls. My comrade fell, shot through the leg, got up, and the next moment had his head taken off by a grenade before my eyes.”

“And the barbed wire, wasn’t it cut down by the bombardment?”

“Not at all in front of us.”

I congratulated him on having a blessure heureuse [a blighty one, a fortunate wound] and being well out of the affair. But he thought only of his comrade and went on down the road toward Souain, nursing his mangled hand, with the stream of wounded…

The afternoon of the 28th should have been our turn. We had spent four days under an almost continual bombardment. The regiment had been decimated, though many of us had not fired a shot. After four such days as I hope never to repeat, under the strain of sitting inactive, listening to the slow whistle of 210-millimetre shells as they arrived and burst more or less in one’s proximity, it was a real relief to put sac au dos [backpack] and go forward.

We marched along in columns by two, behind a crest, then over and across an exposed space under the fire of their 77s, that cost us some men, and took formation to attack on the border of a wood, some where behind which they were entrenched. And here we had a piece of luck. For our colonel, a soldier of the old school, stronger for honor than expediency, had been wounded in the first days of the action. Had he been in command, we all think that we should have been sent into the wood (and we would have gone with élan)…

The newer commander, however–like the adjutant left in command of the 2/Royal Welch late on the first morning of Loos–calls off the pointless attack into unbroken wire.

So you have him to thank…

We spent two weeks on the front this time. But as luck would have it, the bombardment that thundered continually during this period did not fall very heavily on the wood where we were sheltered and we did not suffer seriously in comparison with the first days…

We can sum up the results of the big offensive in which we took part. No one denies that they are disappointing. For we know, who heard and cheered the order of Joffre to the army be fore the battle, that it was not merely a fight for a position, but a supreme effort to pierce the German line and liberate the invaded country; we know the immense preparation for the attack, what confidence our officers had in its success, and what enthusiasm ourselves. True, we broke their first line along a wide front, advanced on an average of three or four kilometers, took numerous prisoners and cannon. It was a satisfaction at last to get out of the trenches, to meet the enemy face to face, and to see German arrogance turned into suppliance. We knew many splendid moments, worth having endured many trials for.

But in our larger aim, of piercing their line, of breaking the long deadlock, of entering Vouziers in triumph, of course we failed…

This affair only deepened my admiration for, my loyalty to, the French. If we did not entirely succeed, it was not the fault of the French soldier. He is a better man, man for man, than the German…

What is the stimulus in their slogans of “Gott mit uns” [God is on our side] and “für Konig und Vaterland” [for king and country] beside that of men really fighting in defense of their country? Whatever be the force in international conflicts of having justice and all the principles of personal morality on one’s side, it at least gives the French soldier a strength that’s like the strength of ten against an adversary whose weapon is only brute violence. It is inconceivable that a Frenchman, forced to yield, could behave as I saw German prisoners behave, trembling, on their knees, for all the world like criminals at length overpowered and brought to justice. Such men have to be driven to the assault, or intoxicated. But the French man who goes up is possessed with a passion be side which any of the other forms of experience that are reckoned to make life worth while seem pale in comparison…

The authority vested by Seeger’s combat experience aside (as well as the real question of German war guilt, and how it–or, at least, how the question of being invaders or defenders–might affect morale) this is Romantic clap-trap.

It’s self-justifying, given his decision, as a neutral national, to fight with France. Which is fine by me. But it’s also something a little more sinister–as in the “battle piece” above, Seeger is willfully distorting reality to fit his literary and philosophical preconceptions. Even if everything transpired more or less as he describes, he assumes too much in his editorializing. The German troops were not driven like slaves; French morale will crack first, and worst, etc.

But it’s not the off-kilter moralizing (all but our very best, most sane writers are doing that), it’s the way the righteousness of fighting to defend the more free, more victimized nation slides into a defense of pseudo-Nietzschean praise for war itself.

On the news of a Harvard acquaintance who has decided to join the English, he remarks:

 He refused to be content, no doubt, with lesser emotions while there are hours to be lived such as are being lived now by young men in Flanders and Champagne. It is all to his credit.[3]

Seeger recovers his political equilibrium swiftly, discussing the question of neutrality against an aggressive, Lusitania-sinking Germany. But for a brief moment there he was proclaiming that these are great times to be alive, for war brings glory… righteousness, too. But glory. This is a man who chose war, and then chose France, not vice versa.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The War the Infantry Knew, 164-5.
  2. Collected Letters, 361.
  3. Letters and Diary, 164-72.

Wilfred Owen Returns to England; Alan Seeger is Fed Up With the Inglorious Dregs; Bim Tennant Dines in Style

Wilfred Owen arrived in London today, a century back, after leaving Bordeaux for good. He was escorting, as the last of a series of tutoring and au pair jobs, two french boys who had to come England to further their education. The three went sightseeing, hoping, in the manner of boys, to see Zeppelins–but there were no Zeppelins tonight.[1]

(There had, in fact, been a Zeppelin raid a few nights ago, which I will discuss tomorrow, on the occasion of a letter describing it.)

 

Two weeks ago, and a century back, Alan Seeger had, at last, some definite news about the reorganization of the Foreign Legion, and about his own Fate–which is, more or less, his way of referring to the future. He takes it with far less good grace than Henry Farnsworth seemed to show yesterday.

September 1

Great and unexpected news this morning at report. All American volunteers in the Legion are to be given the privilege of entering a French regiment. I have always been loyal to the Legion, notwithstanding the many obvious drawbacks, feeling that the origin of most of the friction within the regiment was in the fact that we had never been in action, and had consequently never established the bond of common dangers shared, common sufferings borne, common glories achieved, which knits men together in real comradeship.

So far I can follow Seeger’s logic. But now he reveals a strange and unsightly part of his personality. This is frustration speaking, but it is also prejudice. And if we follow our rule that diaries tend to show the unvarnished self–the varnish goes onto the letters–then we may be discovering that Alan Seeger has been, all along, both a snob and a Grenfellite glory-hound. Neither of these things should surprise us too deeply, and neither, if we take a breath and put ourselves a century back, is as damning as it would be now. Still. There are some phrases here that go down hard, and Henry Farnsworth‘s rather fickle romantic adventurism seems positively benign next to this frank declaration of allegiance to an ideal of personal military achievement.

It was a great mistake, it seems to me, not to have put the regiment into action immediately when we came on the front last year, when the regiment was strong and the morale good, instead of keeping us in the trenches in comparatively quiet sectors and in a state of inactivity, which was just the condition for all kinds of discontent to fester in. Of course discontent is the natural state of mind of the soldier, and I, who am accustomed to look beneath the surface, always have realized this, but it must be admitted that here discontent has more than the usual to feed upon, where a majority of men who engaged voluntarily were thrown in a regiment made up almost entirely of the dregs of society, refugees from justice and roughs, commanded by sous-officiers who treated us all without distinction in the same manner that they were habituated to treat their unruly brood in Africa. I put up with this for a year without complaint, swallowing my pride many a time and thinking only of the day of trial, shutting my eyes to the disadvantages I was under because I thought that on that day the regiment, which I have always believed to be of good fighting stock, would do well and cover us all with glory.

You are, you know, a volunteer from a non-combatant nation. You could not have expected an easy time, pride upon your lips and all unswallowed, as an enlisted man in the Foreign Legion. Where was the social pressure that you might blame for your predicament? Ah well.

Our chance, now that we are in with the Moroccan division, of seeing great things is better than ever. This has almost induced me, in fact, to turn down the offer and stay where I am, since perhaps the greatest glory will be here, and it is for glory alone that I engaged. But, on the other hand, after a year of what I have been through, I feel more and more the need of being among Frenchmen, where the patriotic and military tradition is strong, where my good will may have some recognition, and where the demands of a sentimental and romantic nature like my own may be gratified. I think there is no doubt that I will be happier and find an experience more remunerative in a French regiment, without necessarily forfeiting the chance for great action which is so good here now. Among the regiments of the 7th Army, from which we were allowed to choose, are three of the active, who it seems are in the Meuse in exciting sectors. I have chosen the 133e de ligne, whose dépôt is at Belley, and will leave the rest to Fate.

For once the plans seemed to conform to the rumor, and today, a century back, the two regiments of the Legion actually marched themselves out of their division, with great ceremony, as a prelude to their disassembly. This is the same parade, of course, to which Henry Farnsworth was so looking forward:

September 13

Another splendid review this morning at La Chapelle-sous-Chaux, before the Président de la République and Millerand and several generals. Perfect weather. Thrilled to the magnificent spectacle of the défilade, the “Marseillaise,” the disturbing music of the Tirailleurs. The whole division was there. Flags were given to the 1er and 2me Etranger. And now on returning comes the news of our definite departure tomorrow. I have reasons to be sorry to leave Plancher-Bas. Have had happy moments here.[2]

 

And finally, today, a report from Bim Tennant:

September 13th, 1915,
Blendecques, near St. Omer.

Darling Daddy,

The cigarettes arrived the day before yesterday, and as the small regimental issue was made yesterday every man is having a packet of ten served out to him to-day. Thank you so much for them…

Yes, I was at the “First Guards” dinner the other day. It was rather fun, and I saw lots of old Chelsea Barracks friends of
last year, who have been out here some time. I was quite ready to sing, but it didn’t come off…

One of these friends, of course, is Osbert Sitwell. Is the friendship more one-sided than we might have thought? Perhaps. But Sitwell may go unmentioned either because of his distinctly odd path–spectacular failures at school, odd transfers within the army–or his current family scandal. Or both. But back to the letter:

This morning we were instructed by a Royal Engineer captain how to make wire entanglements. They have coils of smooth wire which expand into sort of cylinders of wire about a yard in diameter. These are fastened in two lines with stobs and staples and a yard between the two rows, and then barbed wire is draped on them and more entanglements
are put in front. It was very interesting.

A healthy mix, then, of aristocratic living and practical trench training. And that parcel request–cigarettes for the men–was quite noble. There won’t be anything at the end of the letter that tips the balance, will there?

Please keep me supplied with a brace of grouse every day or two: they travel very well…

Ever your loving Son,

BIMBO[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 163.
  2. The Letters and Diary of Alan Seeger, 152-55.
  3. Letters, 17-18.

The Afterlife of Rupert Brooke XI: America Praises the Great Gift of War to English Literature; Tolkien Journeys to Aryador; Thomas Hardy Still Mourns; Henry Farnsworth Hopes for Better Things; Donald Hankey Regrets His Commission

We have a poem from Tolkien to get to today, as well as a trio of letters from Hardy and two letters from soldiers at the front. But first, an oblique crossing of paths, as Rupert Brooke is reviewed in the New York Times by none other than Joyce Kilmer, the Catholic public intellectual, critic, and recent author of “Trees.” This poem holds–or once held–a position relative to general perceptions of poetic taste much like the one Brooke’s “1914” sequence will hold in terms of war poetry: love it or despise it, but it does force one to pick a side. But the comparison is inexact. Kilmer’s ditty is the original “widely-beloved but critically-derided.” (Perhaps the politic thing is to declare it intentionally simple–it’s a sweet religious sentiment, pleasantly rhymed, suitable for Sunday school. Another way to put it would be “this is a cloying, awful poem.”) But Brooke’s sonnets are now nearly universally beloved (although we have heard some dissenting voices[1]) and will only later become the target of a major critical counter-attack.

Kilmer’s review, available here, is part of the first wave of high praise. He makes a booming–and very flawed–case not only for Brooke’s poetry but for the effect of war on soldier-writers. It kicks off with a rather definitive judgment:

Critics tell us, until they and we are tired, just what will be the war’s effect on literature. War stops literature, says one. War purifies and strengthens literature, says another. Rupert Brooke has proved them both right.

Kilmer goes on to declare Brooke, following his most fervent English admirers, to be a “genius” who, due to the war, is “certain of literary immortality.” But this is not, Kilmer argues, just because of his “romantic and noble death.” (Again, it feels churlish to point this out, but Brooke “sleeps under a little wooden cross on an island of olive trees” not because he fell in battle with the enemy but because of a mosquito bite, and subsequent questionable doctoring. Kilmer elides this fact, and lets the incautious reader assume that Brooke died gloriously.)

No–Kilmer’s claim is that Brooke was elevated by the war, from “a clever and whimsical rhymester” to a “great poet.” Brooke was older than Keats was when he died, and Kilmer quotes the entirety of “The Dead” as representative of Brooke’s Keatsian transformation. Alas, the sonnet he quotes is the fourth in the “1914” sequence, not the third (they have the same title), which Roland Leighton has just railed against–that would be too perfect a juxtaposition.

Still on the fence? Kilmer may be voicing a popular opinion, he may doing it on his own, and he may have some short-range critical justificaiton for praising portions of the “1914” poems. But now he really puts his foot in the bucket. Before Brooke “became a soldier… he had been writing cynical little songs, like those of Thomas Hardy.”

Whoa there, little fellah! The battle lines are now drawn. It’s possible that we’re seeing the effect of a religious/cultural divide, as opposition to Hardy often coalesced around the idea that his brutal tragedies of fate (not to mention his “Satires of Circumstance“) are essentially atheist.

Perhaps. But the “Satires” are ironic, not cynical. And such a judgment would require Kilmer to be unaware of Brooke’s own flirtations with atheism (not to mention bohemianism, bisexuality, and general petulant raunchiness). Which is possible–he seems to have fallen for the anodyne biographical note included in the forthcoming edition of his poems, which goes as far as mentioning Brooke’s socialism and vegetarianism but omits the more shocking alliegiances.

So let’s keep it critical… except we can’t. The rest of Kilmer’s review is just as circumstantial, and not so much ad hominem as pro homine ad homines: Brooke is held up as the great cleanser of English poetry, the man who beheld “Signor Marinetti and his Futurists, Ezra Pound and his Imagistes, Wyndham Lewis and his Vorticists” and rebelled–because “he was too much of a man and too much of a poet.”

I do miss Rupert Brooke, and it would have been painful fun to read this review over his shoulder: this is precisely the fame and glory he was aiming for with the 1914 sonnets, precisely the facile immortality he desperately desired. And, of course, in the eternal internal strife between his self-love and self-loathing, this is also a perfect proof of his own half-conscious betrayal of his significant poetic gifts.

He could have been a contender, a good, solid poet–but he made himself a hollow bronze god, suitable for mounting in a public square. And thereafter collecting pigeon shit.

And therefore this is precisely the critical misreading, the false career trajectory that he knew he was setting up as he sailed into the Aegean dawn, writing prettily accessible sentimental verses at last.

The war didn’t elevate Brooke by enabling his escape from “shoddy Bohemianism” and naughtily direct poetry. As we know, it enabled his escape from neurosis, self-doubt and intractable personal problems. It is sad that Brooke embraced war–and the hope of his own extinction–as something of an escape from his own mind, his own personality. Very sad.

But that he chose–once buoyed not by the spirit of the war per se (as Kilmer assumes) but rather by the sense of escape that the uniform allowed him–that he chose to write very different poetry is not a tragedy or a beautiful sad story. It was, in the classic American phrase of the last half-century, a sell-out.

Kilmer’s conclusion is that, while the loss is great, “English literature has gained by the thing that caused his death”–note the refusal there, as in later American executive actions, to avoid naming “war.” In fact, sins of omission for constitutional convenience are rather like critical smoke screens–dodging the word does no good, and can do evil. Silence can be cant, too.

But back to Kilmer’s argument: Brooke’s good death elevates his questionable life, and the poetry conveniently followed the same trajectory. Rupert Brooke is, apparently, to be seen as Sydney Carton, redeemed of a wasted life/talent in doing one great thing as history carted him off to slaughter.

This is a disgusting sentiment, really, a sort of Providentialist nihilism. Unforgivable and, given the events of the past century, lamentable.

But, first of all, Brooke was asking for it. And, second, my objection to Kilmer’s review is a gauntlet in my own face. If we don’t believe that the war–despite its horrors and destruction–elevated the writing of its participants, then what exactly are we doing here? Am I protesting too much, because Brooke is a secretly (even to himself) cynical patriot, and because I prefer the verses that will be written by other tortured souls, young men who didn’t really get a chance to “sell out” and pour the mold for their own fame?

 

Awkwardly–for Mr. Kilmer, for at least–Thomas Hardy‘s writing is about to take its own war-driven turn. It won’t be much less “cynical,” perhaps, and nothing like Brooke’s pleasant appreciation of his own demise, but it will be poetry touched by war nonetheless–and an improvement upon his dutifully pro-war 1914 work. But not yet. Over the last two weeks Hardy has been writing and writing again of the death of his young cousin at Gallipoli. Shouldn’t that death  be preceded by an adjective? “Senseless death?” “Tragic death?” “Useless death?” These short letters are something like drafts of the poetry to come.

Max Gate, Sept 4, 1915

Dear Mr Phillpotts:

My best thanks for your note… He was so much more to us than a cousin, & the most promising member of my family. I  wish he were not lying mangled in that shambles of the Gallipoli Peninsula, where we ought never to have gone. However, nothing can touch him further.

 

Max Gate 7 Sept, 1915

Dear Shorter:

Just a line to thank you for your letter. Please do not trouble about putting in that portrait till quite convenient. It is really for the sake of his poor mother. When he told us he was going to that shambles Gallipoli we thought he was doomed.

But Hardy is not immune to recognizing another sort of merit, distinct from the canceled “promise” of his future life:

Max Gate, Dorchester,  Sept 12, 1915

Dear Sir Evelyn Wood,

You may be interested in hearing of the end of my cousin young Frank George, whom you so kindly recommended for a commission in the 5th Dorsets. He was in that frightful night attack in Suvla Bay Aug 21-22, & was killed just as his company was leaving the trenches.

His colonel—(now Brig. General Hannay) tells me that he had done splendidly since they started fighting out there on the 7th August. On the 17th he distinguished himself particularly, & brought great credit to the 5th by rushing a Turkish trench with his platoon, for which his name was sent forward for reward. He bayonetted some 8 or 10 Turks & brought
back 14 prisoners.[2]

I called on his mother last week. Poor woman; she is a widow, but bears up as well as she can…

Sincerely yours
Thomas Hardy[3]

 

Reaching back to Kilmer-on-Brooke, here’s another sort of juxtaposition: a young writer as yet far from fame, who will one day achieve enormous popularity amidst vociferously mixed critical reviews. But his poetry…

Anyway, young lieutenant Tolkien is finding time while training at Whittington Heath camp to work on his evolving mythos. After again revising The Happy Mariners a few days ago–a work that lies near the heart of his imaginative leap from an English past to an Elven sub-creation–today he wrote ‘A Song of Aryador.'[4]

This poem envisions human beings dwelling in a green and pleasant land, knowing somehow that “Shadow Folk” are passing through. On the face of it, a typical example of 19th century fairy poetry, and nothing to get excited about. And yet the scene depicted in this poem will, with many changes in the conception and the context, take up a very minor but very firm place within the History of Middle Earth. Aryador is–or is in–Hisilómë, one of the regions of Beleriand. And the Shadow Folk are not 19th century fairies tripping mischievously or numinously along–they will become the High Elves, people of the Noldor or Teleri taking the long journey at last into the West–the slow movement of loss which runs through Tolkien’s work from beginning to end.

A Song of Aryador

In the vales of Aryador
By the wooded inland shore
Green the lakeward bents and meads
Sloping down to murmorous reeds
That whisper in the dusk o’er Aryador;

Do you hear the many bells
Of goats upon the fells
Where the valley tumbles downward from the pines?
Do you hear the blue woods moan
When the Sun has gone alone
To hunt the mountain-shadows in the pines?

She is lost among the hills
And the upland slowly fills
With the shadow-folk that murmur in the fern;
And still there are bells
And the voices on the fells
While Eastward a few stars begin to burn.

Men are kindling tiny gleams
Far below by mountain-streams
Where they dwell among the beechwoods near the shore,
But the great woods on the height
Watch the waning western light
And whisper to the wind of things of yore,

When valley was unknown,
And the waters roared alone,
And the shadow-folk danced downward all the night,
When the Sun had fared abroad
Through great forests unexplored
And the woods were full of wandering beams of light.

Then were voices on the fells
And a sound of ghostly bells
And a march of shadow-people o’er the height.
In the mountains by the shore
In forgotten Aryador
There was dancing and was ringing;
There were shadow-people singing
Ancient songs of olden gods in Aryador.

 

Donald Hankey has the most unusual, most conflicted relationship to military authority of any of our writers. An ex-cadet and ex-officer, he insisted on serving in the ranks, among the sort of men he intended to minister to after the war. He accepted promotion to sergeant, returned to the rank of private to avoid serving under an officer who didn’t measure up to his “beloved captain,” and then–as the army has been scouring its rolls for suitable officer material amidst all the enthusiastic enlistees of 1914–accepted persistent suggestions that he needed, for the nation’s state, to take a commission. And now he regrets it.

Sept. 12, 1915

Dear Grandmamma,

Thanks awfully for your encouraging letter. I still think that it was a mistake for me to apply for a commission, and that if I had waited another ten days I shouldn’t have done it. But it is no good crying over spilt milk, and I must try and make the best of existing circumstances…

I am going up to town to-morrow for the day, to see my dentist, banker, brother, tailor, boot-maker, publisher, etc.! It is promotion. I am getting very bored here, and I am afraid my sister finds me very grumpy! It is very interesting to be a rolling stone while one is rolling; but there is an indefiniteness of aim which is rather disquieting when one is made to stop and think. I don’t quite know what I want, and I don’t feel as if my personality was knit together sufficiently to find out. I suppose it is the old war of the spirit and the flesh!

Aha–one more of our not-quite-lost, not-quite-found souls who took some peace of mind from the lack of initiative and responsibility that military discipline imposed. But Hankey will not let himself off that easy. He segues quickly from his military career to his writing:

Sometimes I can write things which I don’t really feel at all, though I would like to be able to, and then other people take it for granted that I do feel like it, and I feel rather a humbug, and understand why it is that so many people write under noms de plume. However, I hope soon to be busy, and then I shall no longer be introspective, and anyhow it is a shame to worry you with my imaginations.

An excellent line. And yet, for Hankey–a serious Christian thinker–there is more to peace of mind than the avoidance of personal choice.

I agree with you that presentiments are a great argument for God’s fatherly government of life. My favorite cousin, D. G., has the most extraordinarily accurate ones quite often. Some of them, of course, are sheer telepathy, but others relate quite definitely to events in the immediate future. I am very sceptical on such subjects; but I admit that in her case I find it very hard not to believe some of the instances she has told me…

Your affec.,

Grandson[5]

 

Finally, today, Henry Farnsworth writes home to update his family on the confusing evolution of the Foreign Legion.

September 12,1915

Dear Mamma:

Your letters, two of which arrived this morning, are a great blessing. A little sympathy is a very grateful thing when one is bored to death and exasperated by every one else in the world.

I always try to write of the most interesting events in these surroundings, and the fact that you seem to look at them in something the same way makes it all seem a little less futile.

As for your glorious French Army—I beg to differ… Our old 3 de marche was never considered as a very remarkable outfit, but it is significant that all of the three secteurs we occupied, strengthened, fortified, and turned over to French regiments are now in the hands of the Germans—the last one, Tilloloy, what with the barbed-wire, sixty feet thereof, in front of the trenches, and heavily embanked loopholes, was untakable as long as the defenders stuck to their guns. That the thing was done by surprise makes it all the more inexcusable.

To-morrow, so they say, we leave at 3 a.m. for Division Headquarters and Poincaré presents the regiment with a flag. I suppose the ceremony will be impressive, but do not look forward to it very much. Marching orders are all I ask of Heaven, and there seems no sign of them.

Why we were rushed back from the trench-digging in Alsace and all our hopes raised is a question I suppose only the Chiefs can answer. The thought that they had their reasons gives one no comfort.

I wish you could or would read “War and Peace” again. Tolstoi, even more than Stendahl, arrives at complete expression of military life. Incidentally, his conception of family life is no less utterly true to nature, at least as I see and experience it…

Henry[6]

Tolstoy! Well, yes indeed. It’s interesting that War and Peace doesn’t come up all that much–the English are more likely to go to The Dynasts when looking for epic treatment of the great war of a century (further) back, so perhaps that explains it. There can be no complaining about the judgment for Tolstoy as the great military writer (although the “Sevastopol Sketches” come much closer to the atmosphere of the trenches), especially over Stendahl. But, really, the only thing these young Francophiles should be reading is Zola’s La Débâcle.

But, here at the end of a mammoth post, I digress. Tomorrow we will hear from Alan Seeger, who is now in the same unit as Farnsworth, and similarly doomed to reorganization, similarly hoping for a more violent future. But there the similarities end: Farnsworth, though the callower of the callow, remains proud of his unit–like the Guards or the Royal Welch, they pride themselves on having improved their section of the line and see evidence of their own elite status when another regiment loses the position. And with a sigh and some heavy reading he hopes for greater things–not that he is looking forward to the intervening parade.

Seeger, as we will see, has more or less given up on the Legion (he enlisted several months earlier, however, and in an older regiment, one with a unique set of pre-war problems) and yet is pleased by the prospect of military ceremonial. They both want action, but only one is consistent in identifying “glory,” rather than pride, experience, or service, as the foremost motivation.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. In the numerous previous "Afterlife" posts, especially from Edward Thomas and Charles Sorley.
  2. This is possible, but unlikely--I do not believe there was a posthumous decoration. Then again, Gallipoli was a lost cause at this point. but exaggeration, at least, is likely in this letter to the bereaved (and famous) relative.
  3. Letters, V, 122-3.
  4. Chronology 73.
  5. Letters of Donald Hankey, 312-13.
  6. Letters of Henry Farnsworth, 200-1.

Charles Sorley is a Captain, Henry Farnsworth a Well-Financed Ditch Digger

Charles Sorley turned twenty in May, and has demonstrated not only competence but initiative in his months in France. This is enough, in an expanding New Army battalion of the Suffolks, to win promotion to captain. Today, a century back, he returned his father’s letter of congratulations. But there is a significant downside to this honor:

2 September 1915

Many thanks for your letter and congratulations. Without this promotion, I should have been with you on “leaf” in a fortnight’s time: as it is, as junior Captain, no longer as second senior subaltern, I shall have to wait my time till the end of October–supposing the present state of busy deadlock continues, or that a bullet or shell or bomb does not quicken that desired time.

I have, of course, left behind my platoon and am now second in command of D Coy. The second in command’s job is with the Coy money and business–the pay, rations, records, etc., of the men: also unfortunately their correspondence. In so far as it gives me a training in accounts and business, it will be a very useful move for me. Curiously enough my platoon-sergeant has got a move at the same time: he is now Coy Quartermaster-sergeant, that is, I still have him to work with.

I now run (during our periods in reserve) a large public-house: buying barrels of beer direct from neighbouring brewers and selling it as nearly as possible at cost price to the men, thus saving them from the adulterated and expensive beer at the local estaminets. Selling beer at 10 centimes a pint I still manage to make a slight profit–about 5 francs to 60 gallons–which goes in mouth-organs and suet, the Suffolk’s love of suet pudding being as great almost as his love of sleep. The quartermaster-sergeant of course is the publican, myself merely the landlord.

We are still very busy, but more on our protections from weather than from Germans, the latter being about complete. The line can now never be bent backwards where we are: but I wonder if it can or will ever bend forward. Reading the casualty lists each morning I feel thankful our division was not sent to the Dardanelles.

Three sentences, neither vociferous nor disenchanted, and perfectly accurate–the stalemate is not hard to see.

During next week I take on the Adjutant’s job, that official going on leave. So you can think of me as hard-worked but absolutely safe in a triple-sandbagged office well removed from the front line. We are now dealing in our Coy Mess with a very excellent thing “The Field Force Canteen” just set up in France by the W.O. So perhaps Mother could save on her parcels to me to the advantage of ——-‘s brothers and her old hospital friends to whom she sends. . . A parcel once a fortnight. . . would be sufficient. You know we are rather spoiled out here at present![1]

A captain, now. Deputy company commander, and acting-adjutant-to-be, a landlord of the trenches well fixed for parcels. But with his accurate assessment of the defensive strength of the trench lines on both sides comes the apparent ignorance of the coming offensive. Sorley is sharp, and surely he has heard the rumors? Yes, probably, but he is far too junior to know if his battalion is actually slated for the assault, and why pass disturbing rumors home? Everything can change, quickly.

 

Away to the southeast, near the far end of the allied line, our Americans of the Legion continue to labor, and to hope for active combat. Henry Farnsworth, today, details precisely the same experience as his fellow legionnaire Alan Seeger, who recently completed nothing more glorious than a round-trip digging expedition. Which is not all that surprising, since their units have been amalgamated and now, it seems, may disperse.

September 2, 1915

Dear Papa:

…This time things are sure. We can’t stay here more than two or three days, and drill and reviews and all the hell of military life is over.

As to where we are going, nobody knows or cares very much. Some say Dardanelles, but I don’t think the tirailleurs would ever be sent to take Constantinople. It is too much in the foundation of their creed. Others say Champagne, Argonne, Alsace, etc., etc. Sukuna and I… pray for Belgium and a general drive alongside the English. We both want it so much that we do not put much faith in our arguments…

And yet, his confidence is running absurdly high. Farnsworth is a young romantic, and he missed the brutal battles of 1914.

…it is known that the Legion and the tirailleurs can break the German lines in one go, and it is merely a question of having troops that will go into the gap we make. I should think the English could hardly refuse that position, with the two million and the twenty kilometer front.

And that, by the way, is an excellent English-language precis of what the French are feeling right now. In 1914, the tiny British segment of the front fit the tiny Regular army. Britain still does not have conscription, and will never field the massive armies of France and Germany, but the New Army is indeed something like two million strong, and still holding only a few miles (it’s more than twenty kilometers, though!) of Belgium and the northernmost section of the line in France. The British General Staff, of course, is concerned that the New Army will buckle if it is tested too severely before it gains experience…  but soon, attack. And, thereafter, an expansion of the British sector into Picardy.

Farnsworth, meanwhile, is the very model of an unblooded enthusiast. Glory and destruction would be better than more hard work, anyway…

This would be very glorious indeed, and as the regiment would immediately be very much shot up, it might get what was left of us out of winter in the trenches. On the other hand, it is a sad fact that regimental changes are always for the worse, and I suppose shortly you will hear from me digging trenches in some filthy hole where it rains all the time.

As for the $85, thanks very much. It is easily thought I had better do without luxuries. I even see the point myself, but in the meantime a few francs make the well-nigh unbearable supportable with philosophy.

With love to all,

Henry[2]

I wonder if this means that father has softened his stance toward his wayward son. Henry has now been relatively uncomplaining for some time, and seems to have given up his midsummer hopes for abandoning the legion for yet another daring plan. He’s in, and facing a long, wet autumn campaign. America is too far for parcels, but money orders are always welcome…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Letters of Charles Sorley, 306-7.
  2. Letters of Henry Farnsworth, 195-7.

Vera Brittain on Those Left Behind; Charles Sorley at Long Leg; Alan Seeger Takes a Roundabout Route to an Anniversary; Bim Tennant is in Great Spirits; The Congreve Clan Mills About Hooge, From General to Scout

A very long post today–but there’s a novel sort of child-endangerment to reward persistent readers at the end. Meanwhile, normal life resumed, today for Vera Brittain. But can it, quite?

Tuesday August 24th

I went back to the Hospital, and because all interest in it had gone, tried all the harder to think it was interesting. At 6.0 Mother & Father came home, having been on a wild goose chase. Edward’s battalion had certainly gone out, but he himself, to his great disgust, had been left behind with 8 other subalterns including Thurlow to be attached to the 13th Sherwood Foresters (which is the reserve battalion at Lichfield). The reason for this was that the 11th had 38 officers and 8 had to be left behind. These were not necessarily the least competent or the youngest, but the ones the C.O. liked least. Edward has never been able to get on with him, and Thurlow has had this dislike reflected on him. Both Edward & the C.O. are probably to blame. Edward says he is shifty & not a gentleman, and probably shows he thinks so rather more than discipline admits as wise. He means to try for the Artillery again but I do not suppose that will be much good & he will just have to wait till they send him somewhere, whether he waits six weeks or six months.

When we were going to bed I told the family I was engaged to Roland. They received it first as unsympathetically as I expected; I don’t mean this was because of Roland as they both like him as well as they could like anyone so completely above their understanding. But they would have adopted the same attitude towards my engagement to whoever it had been. Father with his usual tactfulness said it seemed very ridiculous because of course Roland wouldn’t come back. I felt inwardly very angry indeed but merely said I thought that all the more reason for being engaged to him while he did exist.

Dear lord. Although it makes me wish it were possible to see Papa Brittain through eyes other than his daughter’s. Can he be this hurtful and obtuse? Or, allowing a more charitable interpretation, how bumbling, really, are his attempts to save his daughter pain?

Vera, perhaps, needs the spark of parental adversaries just now. Is the familiar pressure of opposition better than leaning into the emptiness of potential loss?

But it is a consolation to me to think that I am privileged beyond anything they have ever known, in loving Roland & being loved. Neither of them has the vaguest notion of the love of man and woman & its glory & inspiration and sacrifice.[1]

She suppresses all this in today’s letter to Roland, only asking after their original connection, the friend and brother whose military career has been so rocky so far:

Buxton, 24 August 1915

Apparently Edward is not going out with the battalion. They have 8 supernumerary officers and the Division has suddenly refused to have more than 30 going out with each battalion… Apparently he is very depressed about it all and has mad ideas of trying again for the Artillery. Write to him and find out for yourself about it…

Tell me honestly, does this eliminating him mean he is not much good or that the Colonel doesn’t like him–or is it just luck? I want to know really what you think…  I am sure he’s not a bad officer–he is too keen for that.

Roland, still in London on the last day of his leave, is in much better spirits–it’s a gentler transition then being suddenly thrown back upon the starchy bosom of one’s provincial home. (A slight irony: usually it’s the soldiers who are bewildered by the plunging transition from the normalcy of home into the cautery of battle, and vice versa.)

The Howard Hotel, London, 24 August 1915

In a way I am glad that I am going back tomorrow. If I cannot be with you I prefer to be as far away as possible. How much would I not give to be able to hold you and kiss you again even for a moment! And not being able to, I feel an insane desire to rush back to France before I need, and leave all to memory as all that matters is already left.

I have just written to your Father. It is entirely informative–not interrogative, and merely a brief & slightly formal notification of what the world is pleased to call our engagement. I should prefer that the world knew nothing about it; but that unfortunately is impossible.[2]

So. They are engaged–on their own finicky, hifalutin’ terms–and the leave is over. I feel almost as drained as Vera. But there’s a war on, and duty calls.

 

Having been overwhelmed with Buxton, Lowestoft, and London, it’s time to catch up with a few of our soldiers stationed at points further east. First, Charles Sorley, who wrote a brief note to his mother today, a century back:

24 August 1915

Our work and routine is still the same as ever. We are like the fielder who is put at long leg when a good batsman is at the wicket: not because the batsman will ever hit a ball there, but because, if the fielder in question were to be removed, he would…

This is the best argument I have yet read for the unique usefulness of cricket as a source for tactical analogy. Then again, I haven’t really pursued that quest…

Thanks also for the books. There are now enough to keep our Company Mess going for some time, as time for reading is nearly as limited as time for writing–but by no means quite as much so, because one is often free from duty but in a state in which output is an effort but absorption easy and delightful.[3]

A good reminder both of the importance of reading and the difficulty of writing–our letters are rarely written on the worst days, or in the most exhausted of states. They sing an upbeat song of life in the trenches.

 

And Alan Seeger, his regiment of the Foreign Legion pulled from the line weeks ago for reorganization, is on the move again–or seems to be. We’ll jump back a century and four days and pick up his diary:

August 20.–We were ordered to be in readiness at any moment… Got off shortly after four. Marched to Auxelles-Bas, where, branching to the right, all prospect of going toward Thann and the theatre of fighting near Munster was dissipated.

A beautiful morning as we crossed the continental divide, which separates the waters that flow into the Rhône and the Mediterranean from those that fall into the Rhine and the gray North Sea. Eastward into the sunrise stretched away the fair plains of Alsace. Moments of memorable emotion as we marched singing down the winding road that led us off to this glorious goal…

I am sitting now under a giant pear tree on a green slope outside the town, enjoying the most beautiful landscape as it fades away gradually in the dying daylight. Wide lowlands stretch away–fields of richest green, cultivated acres, hamlets, groves–bounded toward the southeast by the “many-folded mountains” of Switzerland that rise, crest after crest, each one more faint, toward the far clouds pink in the sunset. The boom of the cannon can be heard, more distant now, in Alsace. Two captive balloons are up along the line of the front. An aeroplane returns toward Belfort from a reconnaissance beyond the lines. A convoi of motor lorries raises the dust along the white road eastward. Automobiles dash back and forth. Exquisite peaceful summer evening. The green on forest and field has not begun to be browned yet, but already in the evenings the chill of Autumn is beginning to be felt. Moments of peace, sweet melancholy, resignation, self-content…

Seeger is keeping his hand in with some natural description and beautiful writing, yes–but he’s also preparing himself for the Next Big Thing, for a potentially heroic role in a late summer offensive. But soldiering rarely works out so prettily.

August 24.–Likelihood of an offensive in Alsace is not so good now. The reason we came here was to put in six days work on the second line defenses, each regiment in the division doing its turn. This done, we return, they say, to Plancher-Bas! We have already done two days hard labor renovating a second line trench…

News of the fall of Kovno makes these times very grave. This means the breaking up of the last Russian line of defence and the beginning of an indefinite retreat into the interior. How much of this army will be destroyed or fall into the hands of the Germans, as a result of this latest manoeuvre, remains to be seen. Things look badly for the Allies. The only hope of ultimate victory that I can see is the Balkan States marching with us. Today is the anniversary of my enlistment.[4]

 

Let’s catch up as well with Bim Tennant, newly deployed Grenadier Lieutenant, loving and beloved son. Back two days to the first of the inevitable Transactional Parcel Request Letters. But then, in a series of quick paragraphs, he hits almost every other note familiar from others’ early letters home:

Sunday, 22nd August

Darling Moth’,

The lovely parcel from Fortnum & Mason has just come, and very welcome too. Langley didn’t put in my valise the lovely oilskin sheet convertible to a cloak, which we bought. Will you inquire concerning it?

I am extremely happy here, and rode today with Flick (Fletcher) two miles out to lunch with the 1st Battalion, which was very nice. I am very lucky to be in his Company, he is the nicest Captain I have ever had over me, and if one or two people go sick (as they may being not thoroughly recovered from their wounds) he will be second in command, and I shall command the Company, which would be great for me, wouldn’t it?

He just sounds so young. So young. Does he worry that mother worries?

I wouldn’t be anywhere else but here, for the world, darling Moth’, I am on the highroad of my life! and any deviation therefrom would break my heart.

By the way, please send me my camera and some films. Aeroplanes buzz round here all day, and this morning I heard big guns for the first time. I crossed myself.

A notable step of the “approach” narrative. The requests for comforts and luxuries, the assurance of perfect happiness, then the assurance of perfect faith. He bounces back and forth between these two themes now. This letter, after so many stately, patiently composed (and/or diligently edited?) missives, puts me in mind of Henry Williamson–all that sentence-by-sentence bouncing about.

I saw Oliver Lyttleton in St. Omer; he is on some one’s staff. I wouldn’t have a staff job for anything…

Doth he protest too much? I doubt it. I think this is legitimate high spirits, rather than a sense of creeping guilt that his enthusiasm is directly related to the chance that his family will have to cope with bitter bereavement. He’s just so excited! God be praised who has kept us off the staff and away from boring, safe postings in this hour!

We couldn’t get a padre this morning, so we all made dozens of copies of “O God, our help,” and “Nearer, my God, to Thee,” and Flick conducted a very nice little service…

Hoping to see you in two or three months’ time, God bless you, darling Moth’.

Your devoted Son,
Bimbo

Something like Henry Williamson, although in place of the abrading self-doubt and confessions of fear we have brimming confidence. And, as far as we can tell, a much happier family. And, yes, a well-connected, gently bred family as well:

Tuesday night,
24th August, 1915
Darling Moth’,

I am still very well and in great spirits. The Divisional General (Lord Cavan) sent for me yesterday and shook hands with me, and said he was glad I was doing so well and that he was sure I’d be a great Grenadier: he asked me my age and so forth…[5]

Yes–and did he note down your name as a promising future company commander, or did he betake himself to a private chamber to weep at the pity of sending a boy into an endless war of attrition?

 

Speaking of well-connected families, time now too to look in on Billy Congreve. And who do we find with him but the entire Congreve clan, minus Mater. Two weeks ago Billy was dining with Dads after his (Dads’) 6th Division recaptured the Hooge crater. On the 15th he was once again free for dinner, and learned that his younger brother Geoff, a midshipman on leave, was visiting. Visiting the actual trenches, in and around the charnel house of Hooge. Young Geoff

saw all the gruesome sights there were to be seen. He came back with various Boche loot and intends taking the articles back to his battleship.

This is a strange sort of portent, for where Geoff went as a tourist, Billy and the 3rd Division soon returned to fight, and work. He wrote out his frustrations on the 21st:

Here we are, holding Hooge again. We hoped against hope that we were on the Canal line for the winter… Now all our work goes into others’ hands and we come to this beastly place, where everything has to be done over again.

Hooge is in a poor way… The dead bodies, old and new, made everything so fearfully slow, for one cannot dig a yard without coming on some grim relic which has either to be reburied or dug round…

The following day the family’s ranks were once again reinforced. This is a bit hard to believe, but, apparently, the 3rd Congreve boy–Christopher–also visited Dads. He was on the continent for the summer and was now to stay with his Father in and around Ypres for a few weeks. He was in uniform, so visiting the front lines to see the sites (and the occasional shell) was easily arranged.

Although it was a boy scout uniform–Christopher Congreve was twelve.

This sort of whimsical insanity we can’t linger on–there is too much singular fatuousness to get to.

Yesterday, Billy Congreve was taking stock of the line around Hooge. The front-line trenches were now so close to each other that no patrols were needed to bomb the enemy positions. There were “at least 250 dead Boches and a good many of our fellows” in the bottom of the crater.

I heard today that we are likely to have to do a further attack on this front. Of all places to choose on the British front, I suppose this is the worst. I only hope the General puts his heels in and refuses point-blank to do any such mad thing.

Well, let’s bring ourselves up to date…. what would you guess he wrote today?  Can we guess?

24th August

There is no doubt that we are to do this attack. General Allenby was here again today, and I suppose has bullied the General into the job…

This is bad news. And awful generalship, from the myopia and bull-headedness to the social dynamic: a bad choice is pressed upon a senior commander by means of a “bullying” superior.

It’s worse news strategically, and among the first of the many harbingers we will have of the next Offensive, at Loos.

I believe that our show is merely to co-operate with something big down south, which will mean the old game of not getting enough gun ammunition. Apparently modern tactics call for these feint attacks, though I can’t see that they do any good.[6]

 

And one last note, symptomatic and symbolic of a campaign in its death throes: today, a century back, Aubrey Herbert was evacuated from Gallipoli with advanced dysentery.[ref]Fitzherbert, The Man Who Was Greenmantle,
167.[/ref]

 

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Chronicle of Youth, 264-5.
  2. Letters From a Lost Generation, 144-5.
  3. The Letters of Charles Sorley, 301-3.
  4. Letters and Diary of Alan Seeger, 148-51.
  5. Glenconner, Letters from my Sons, 2-7.
  6. Armageddon Road, 166-8.

Charles Sorley on His Band of Brothers and the Madness of Anniversarial Retrospection; A Year of Brit(t)ain’s War: Intercessions and the Renewal of Vows for Vera Brittain’s People; Prime Minister Asquith on “These Singularly Fatuous Operations at Hooge;” Henry Farnsworth Bestows a Legionary Ring

Well, it has been quite a year… and a century… and a year. One year and one century back from today, Great Britain declared war on Germany. This fact is on the minds of several of our writers, surely?

Charles Sorley, who wrote a letter today to the Master of Marlborough, his old school, seems to be thinking of places rather than dates:

4 August 1915

Many thanks for your last letter. You’ll excuse a two months’ silence.

There is really very little to say about the life here. Change of circumstance, I find, means little compared to change of company. And as one has gone out and is still with the same officers with whom one had rubbed shoulders unceasingly for the last nine months… one does not notice the change: until one or two or three drop off. And one wonders why.

They are extraordinarily close, really, these friendships of circumstance, distinct as they remain from friendships of choice. If one looks back to early September and sees what one thought of these others then: how one would never, while not disliking them, have wished to see any of them again: but that incorrigible circumstance kept us penned together, rubbed off our odd and awkward corners where we grated: developing in each a part of himself that might have remained always unsuspected, which could tread on common ground with another. Only, I think, once or twice does one stumble across that person into whom one fits at once: to whom one can stand naked, all disclosed. But circumstance provides the second best: and I’m sure that any gathering of men will in time lead to a very very close half-friendship between them all (I only say half-friendship because I wish to distinguish it from the other). So there has really been no change in coming over here: the change is to come when half of this improvised “band of brothers ” are wiped away in a day…

This is a fairly calm manner in which to contemplate the destruction of so many men. It is only the war’s first anniversary, and much famous slaughter still lies in the future. Yet Sorley seems to take it for granted that a great attack will wipe out half of his battalion.

…when I think I should tell you something about the trenches,” I find I have neither the inclination nor the power.

Yet he will muster the effort, and hit upon something that will give the Master a sense of Sorley’s routine in France and also throw that long line of connection over the gulf that separates soldier and civilian, battleground and home country. It’s a pity that Sorley could not have been apprenticed to Edward Thomas–the much younger man has, in a way, begun to prove the proposition of the older man and recent enlistee: though one might fight in France, it is English earth which sustains.

This however. On our weekly march from the trenches back to our old farmhouse a mile or two behind, we leave the communication-trench for a road, hedged on one side only, with open ploughland to the right. It runs a little down hill till the road branches. Then half left up over open country goes our track, with the ground shelving away to right of us. Can you see it? The Toll House to the First Post on Trainers Down (old finishing point of A House sweats) on a small scale. There is something in the way that at the end of the hedge the road leaps up to the left into the beyond that puts me in mind of Trainers Down (as C House called it). It is what that turn into unhedged country and that leap promises, not what it achieves, that makes the likeness. It is nothing when you get up, no wildness, no openness. But there it remains to cheer me on each relief…

Sorley, a great walker and an accomplished cross-country runner at Marlborough, has summoned up a little bit of home space, of the fields he knows best, to sooth the worn mind of the warrior. A quick little reverie, before the inevitable next subject. namely a commiseration over the losses among the so very young Old Marlburians. But avert it though he will, his practical pen cannot entirely ignore the date, and the letter ends on a despairing note:

A year ago to-day–but that way madness lies.[1]

 

Vera Brittain has changed a great deal over the past year–from Oxford hopeful to respected young scholar to probationary nurse–and she is no longer the earnest young woman who filled her diary with recapitulations of the war news fin The Times. Still, she is a committed diarist, and still a scholarly Romantic. How could she resist a meditation on the meaning of the year?

Wednesday August 4th

The anniversary of our declaration of War on Germany. There is nothing to be said about this New Year of War, for it is so obvious that a year ago no one expected a second year of it that disquisitions on the subject take the form of mere truisms. There is more to be done than there is to be said–the renewal of our determination & our vows in a cause which now is much more obviously that of justice and freedom than it was a year ago.

Whatever the papers may say, the majority of us have passed beyond our blatant loud-voiced “patriotism”, our want of realisation, our irresponsibility, our inappropriate indifference, and are quiet & resolute, weary but still tenacious, confident of the issue and determined that come what may, it shall be.

It was an appropriate day, perhaps, for Edward’s last with us. He is typical, in some ways, of England’s best spirit at the present moment; confident & tranquil, ready for death if it must be, anxious to possess a thorough knowledge of the part demanded of him and not overtroubled about the rest of events which he cannot affect. He never worries and is never sentimental; never even emotional.

Being the anniversary of the war, there were special intercession services and prayers for the renewal of vows. There was a service at 7.0 and both Mother & Daddy were anxious that Edward & I should go, though we should both have preferred to stop away. Neither the Church of England nor one’s relations allow themselves to think for a moment that one can renew one’s vows much better in a private place, in resolutions not put into elegant clerical language by other people. God–if there be a God—is much nearer to one on the night-enshrouded moorlands than in a crowded & stuffy church. The only part of the service I liked was Cowper’s hymn “God moves in a mysterious way”, which I am always very fond of.

Vera has been getting her feet back under her, in recent weeks. Nursing is no mere hobby, now and Oxford is on hold. She has survived, too, the first scare over Roland. (He had been unable to write for a fairly long stretch, and she feared the worst.) These first challenges surmounted, she is sounding like the strong-minded, independent, principled woman of last summer’s intellectually rigorous flirtations with Roland and difficult assertions of her will to escape provincial young-ladyhood.

Still–rigor and confidence are powers of a personality, not defining characteristics of its root and bough. Partings and anniversaries are Romantic, and the English countryside beckons to her as well. It beckons, that is, to her and to her brother, Edward, who will soon to leave for the front and be forced back, like Charles Sorley, onto the moorlands of memory:

Edward & I walked up the Manchester Road right as far as the turning own to the Goyt Valley. The night wind blew fresh in our faces, and all around us lay the hills and moorlands, dark and silent. In the distance the lights from the town gleamed faintly & now & again a dim glow shone out from the window of some solitary cottage on the hillside. We talked for a long time & very seriously—much of it was about Roland & much of course about the war. Edward expressed again, as he did that evening in the garden at Oxford, the half-haunting instinct that he may not return. He says it is not as if he were a full-fledged & well-known composer; he cannot see that his life at present is much use to anyone; he is not even sure that it is much good to himself. We walked back the last part of the way almost in silence. There was so much to think—so little to be said. Afterwards he & Mother sat up talking in his room till a quarter to 12.0.[2]

 

Billy Congreve, a young officer in the know, approves of the struggle for Hooge, if not always of how it is conducted. It’s the high ground, and there’s a war to be won. Others far off may not understand the situation on the ground, but then again they may have a certain perspective on the pointlessness of so many dying for so little, when the war remains a matter of hundreds of miles of front, millions of men, and the awful inertia of mobilized economies.

Or they might just be fed up and angry. Which is understandable… and yet troubling, if one happens to be the Prime Minister, and the deaths one is lamenting are the deaths of family friends.

H.H. Asquith wrote to his new pseudo-paramour Sylvia Henley today, a century back. (One presumes that he addressed the solemn anniversary in other writings and public appearances.)

Isn’t it terrible that Ettie’s 2nd son Billy is also killed? …we have known him ever since he was 3ft high: such a bright clever creature and with lots of character and oceans of promise. I hardly dare to think of her. I gather from K[itchener] (whom I saw before lunch) that the poor boy was killed straight off by a machine gun the first time he had ever been in action, in these singularly fatuous operations at Hooge. French (who has been here for 2 days) told K that he knew little or nothing about them. Some one ought to be heavily dropped upon.

Yes indeed! Who should do the dropping? And, once dropped, how will they conduct the war in less fatuous fashion?

This is a frustratingly frustrated outpouring of frustration. To be clear: the Prime Minister has heard from the Secretary of State for War (Lord Kitchener) that the Commander of the BEF (General Sir John French), who is in London, is not particularly sure why whole brigades are being hurled into enormous craters to slightly improve the lie of the ground in the Ypres Salient, especially when that entire area of the line seems unpromising for any sort of breakthrough. Are the Corps commanders in charge? Are the divisional generals jostling for some murderous way to assert themselves? Why do this? And if it shouldn’t be done, shouldn’t the Prime Minister doing something about that?

Tomorrow, Asquith will turn again to thoughts of the personal cost, thinking of Ettie Desborough, the light of the Souls, and now the mother of martyrs:

I must write to Ettie about the death of poor Billy, but I cannot frame in my mind what to say. There is still one boy left, happily well under military age… Billy had a delightful nature, more so to my thinking than Julian: but they were rare and splendid boys, and her life henceforward will be a desert except for its memories.[3]

 

And finally, an unconnected bit from Henry Farnsworth, American boy Legionnaire–the date holds little meaning for either the Americans or the French. As is so often the case when he writes to his sister, he exerts himself to describe a “character” of the Legion. These letters are like a young immigrant’s remittances, treasure from the country of real life sent back to the safe-haven of home, a little bit of the novel-that-will-be to store away until the work can be commenced in earnest.

August 4th, 1915

Dear Ellen:

I am sending enclosed in this a little ring. It is not supposed, by myself at least, to be a thing of beauty, but it is interesting. It is made of aluminum from the fuse of a German or Austrian shellhead picked up at Tilloloy and made by an old Legionnaire with a little file he stole somewhere. How he made the little holes in it I don’t know, but he worked for some time, and gave it to me because I did him a good turn one night, when he was about to be arrested by the patrole for being out late at night in a state of obvious and noisy drunkenness.

I wish I could make you see the man in the flesh; people like him appear only, as far as my experience goes, in the Foreign Legion—a Roumanian from Constantinople, speaking Turk, Greek, Roumanian, French, a little English, Spanish, and Arab; about six feet two inches, and very skinny and pale, with a half-dozen long hairs on each side of his upper lip, about the color and consistency of a big tomcat’s whiskers. He has more useless accomplishments than can be stated. He imitates cats, dogs, and mules from Senegal—a peculiarly noisy breed—and can use his feet with the same force and accuracy. When he thinks drill is getting a little dull, he amuses the whole section by going through the motions as though he were a monkey, and when the Sergeant begins to scream, quotes accurately from the theory book how the thing should be done. He was once a sergeant himself…

He can also pour a litre of wine into his mouth, holding the bottle a foot away, and get it all down without spilling a drop. He is also an expert tailor, washerman, rifle-shot, etc., and was originally a law student in Constantinople. He has a fund of comic stories, falls in occasional glooms when off by himself, and sings Turk songs, gets drunk once a month, and stays so for three days.

There is something so incongruous about your wearing his ring that I don’t suppose you will, but the man is absolutely honest, which is more than many are under like circumstances, and even when drunk will never ask a sou from any one. He washes clothes, cleans rifles, mends capotes shaves people, cuts hair, greases boots, and mounts guard for others until he has enough. Also he is a brave man, and always cheerful when it rains and the marches are long and the sacks heavy.

The corporal d’ordinaire is screaming “Au potates;” which means that I must go and peel potatoes, so good-bye, dear, and love to the boys.

There is no news.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Letters of Charles Sorley, 291-4.
  2. Chronicle of Youth, 226-7.
  3. Webb, from Downing Street to the Trenches, 121.
  4. Letters of Henry Farnsworth, 184-6.

Will Harvey Kills His Man; Donald Hankey in Hospital; Henry Farnsworth on Parade; Vera Brittain’s Brother Prepares to Embark: “All I Care For Will Be At The Front”

Will Harvey went out on patrol tonight near Hebuterne, armed with a revolver and a “heavy bludgeon.” It was unusual for patrols to seek combat–especially when no officer was present–but the “Glosters” were apparently out for blood. The patrol went out 350 yards from their trenches toward a suspected enemy listening post and came upon several Germans, probably the covering force for a working party.

Will HarveyFiring broke out and Will Harvey, together with the corporal commanding the patrol, rushed the listening post. Our Gloucestershire poet shot two Germans with his revolver, killing them, and felled a third with his bludgeon. The potential prisoner apparently escaped when German reinforcements arrived but the patrol retreated without loss, bearing with them three German rifles and a Mauser pistol as trophies.

This exploit by a patrol of a New Army unit was deemed worthy of celebration (see the illustration at right, from Boden’s biography of Harvey). It even earned Lance-Corporal Harvey the Distinguished Conduct Medal,”for conspicuous gallantry on the night of Aug. 3-4, 1915, near Hebuterne.”[1]

It’s hard to know what to make of this. Harvey was a poet, a friend of the gentle Gurney, and a scholarly-looking fellow (for what little that’s worth). Perhaps it was simply his section’s turn for a patrol, but the nature of the action and the resulting decoration strongly imply that the violence involved voluntary valor. This is one of those writers, then, who is not out merely to experience the war, but to fight. And this is one of those units, apparently, that would rather kill the men opposite–thus preventing their working parties from strengthening their position–and suffer retaliation than to follow the path of “live and let live.”

 

When we last left Donald Hankey, he was–in semi-fictionalized form–crawling off with a wounded leg after a bitter, terrible day in trenches on the flank of the lost trenches of Hooge. Today, after an ordeal about which he will keep a stoic silence, he wrote a short letter home from hospital:

I suppose you will be expecting a bulletin! There is either a bullet or a shrapnel ball in my right thigh, but otherwise I am perfectly fit. I haven’t the foggiest idea how long my job is likely to take. At present they are only dressing it, and haven’t started to try and locate the ball, which seems to have lost its way inside somewhere. But I don’t suppose I shall be lucky enough to get a trip home anyway I think it is best not to let myself hope for it in case I am disappointed![2]

Hankey is playing down the wound: this, especially after the long day’s blood loss, was certainly a blighty one.

 

And Henry Farnsworth wrote home today, describing the same divisional parade that his new comrade-in-arms Alan Seeger has already written about. Farnsworth has seen no combat to speak of, and the spell of military spectacle lies heavily upon him:

Postmarked August 3, 1915

Dear Mamma:

I have received at least five letters from you and two from the Da. They are the greatest of blessings and come into my weary world most welcome. The two regiments being cast into one and the whole division being brought up to strength, etc., goes wearily on…

The other day we were waked at 2 a.m., and at 3 sent off in a pouring rain for some indefinite place across the mountains for a divisional review. We went off slowly through the wet darkness, but about dawn the sun came out and as is usual with the Legion, everybody cheered up, and at 7 a.m. we arrived at the parade ground after fifteen kilometers in very good spirits. The two regiments of Zouaves from Africa were already drawn up. We formed up beside them… Suddenly the Zouave bugles crashed out sounding the “Garde à vous” and in two minutes the division was lined up, every man stiff as a board—and all the time the bugles ringing angrily from up the line, and the short staccato trumpets of the Chasseurs answering from the other extremity. The ringing stopped suddenly, and the voices of the colonels crying ”Bayonnettes aux Canons”’ sounded thin and long drawn out and were drowned by the flashing rattle of the bayonets going on—a moment of perfect silence, and then the slow, courtly-sounding of the “General! General! qui passe!” broken by the occasional crash as regiment after regiment presented arms. Slowly the General rode down the lines, with the two Brigadiers and a Division General in his suite… The Zouaves led off, their bugles playing… Then the Tirailleurs playing some march of their own, slow and fine, the bugles answering the scream of the Arab reed flutes…

On and on went the bugles playing that light, slangy tune, some of the verses of which would make Rabelais shudder, and the minor variations of which bring up pictures of the Legion marching with thin ranks in foreign, blazing lands, and the drums of which, tapping slowly, sound like the feet of the regiment scrunching through desert sand. It was all very glorious to see and hear…

As for news, that’s all I have, but do continue to write me frequently, even if there is nothing to say. Here in this division I feel incredibly far from home. Love to Ellen and the boys and the Da. There is a rumor that we may go to Morocco, as things are going badly there, but I don’t believe it; we cannot be replaced here.[3]

 

Lastly, Vera Brittain reacts to the unwelcome news that Roland Leighton has returned to the front line.

Tuesday August 3rd

Roland is–alas for me!–back in the trenches…

They went back into the trenches 3 days from when the letter was written–to-day. [4]

Thus Roland’s letter provides a rare moment of real-time information: a letter written from the trenches doesn’t even guarantee that the writer was still alive on the date of the post-mark. But this slight respite from worry is little compared to the loss of the promise of relative safety in staff work:

Buxton, 3 August 1915

I am sorry you have left the Corps Headquarters. It was such a relief—even if only for a short time—to feel that you were safe. But I hope very much that the General will form his permanent Headquarters Company very soon and that you will go back. It would be a fine appointment…

Edward came here on Saturday & goes again on Thursday. He keeps telling the family most cheerfully that the 9th Sherwood Foresters had three last leaves, and the same thing may happen to him, but he told me privately that it is his opinion that they really are going in about a fortnight…

He talks mostly about music & books, with an interest that is quite unimpaired & not the least assumed. In town the day he came here he bought several new books to read & quite a lot of music to learn & try over while he was at home. And yet he isn’t the least in the dark about what the Front means—or the least afraid of facing the reality.

He had a long talk with one of my patients at the Hospital and the man—an absolutely straightforward & candid person–said to me afterwards that he thought he would be some good at the front and at any rate seemed to know well enough what he was in for. But he is very cheerful and unapprehensive, and the Future–near or far–doesn’t appear to trouble him very much. Although on Sunday night when we went for a walk together he became suddenly very serious as he told me a few things he wanted done if he should die…

I only know I don’t understand him at all. Perhaps I never shall now. He is about the last of all my friends & acquaintances to go.

When he is gone all I care for will be at the front—except your Mother. War or the Country or whatever name you like to call it will have taken almost all that makes my existence worth while–my work, my future and the people I love best.

Isn’t it queer that to-morrow is War’s first birthday! I wonder how many people there were who on last August 4th thought the War would not be over by that time next year.

And here we are after a year’s fighting further from the end than we were at the beginning! (That sounds like a paradox, but indeed when we began there seemed to be many more reasons for hoping for a speedy conclusion than there are now.)[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Boden, F.W. Harvey, 89-90.
  2. The Letters of Donald Hankey, 301-2. The apparently-loosely-fictionalized story of the charge was told in "The Honour of the Brigade," available here.
  3. Letters of Henry Farnsworth, 180-3.
  4. Chronicle of Youth, 226.
  5. Letters From a Lost Generation, 137-8.

Alan Seeger and Henry Farnsworth Take a Hike, Together, and Seeger Capitalizes History and Chooses an Epitaph; Ford Madox Ford Issues Challenges Both Literary and Personal; Colin Mitchell’s “Hooge!”; Robert Frost Writes to a Soldier

(What could be more mulish than beginning a long, multi-hued, and unusually eventful post with a very bad poem? Skip a little!)

I have some (fairly obvious) prejudices to confess. There is a tendency here to read prose–however overtly fictional–for its “historical” value, while at the same time approaching each poem first from an aesthetic point of view and then perhaps working in toward its deeper meanings. This is, in part, because poetry rarely any longer describes specific combat events. The days of the “Light Brigade”–still less of a hundred Greek hexameters of precisely described spear penetrations–are over. Good poetry may help elucidate experience, but there’s little point in reading bad poetry that can’t really be brought to bear on historical specifics. Yet there are still old-fashioned versifiers producing poems immediate and specific enough to speak to a particular event of interest. Can the struggle to render a horrifying defeat in clunky heroic stanzas give insight into the actual experience?

So, yes, there was another aspiring poet in the Rifle Brigade during yesterday’s desperate fighting around Hooge. Colin Mitchell, of the 8th Battalion, hacked out these verses in the aftermath:

Hooge! More damned than Sodom and more bloody,
‘Twas there we faced the flames of liquid fire.
Hooge! That shambles where the flames swept ruddy:
A spume of heat and hate and omens dire;
A vision of a concrete hell from whence
Emerged satanic forms, or so it seemed
To us who, helpless, saw them hasten hence.
Scarce understood we if we waked or dreamed.

“Stand To! Stand To! The Wurtembergers come!”
Shouting vile English oaths with gutter zest.
And boastful threats to kill they voice, while some,
In uniforms of grey and scarlet dressed,
Wear flame-projectors strapped upon their backs.
How face a wall of flame? Impossible!
“Back, boys! Give way a little; take the tracks
That lead to yonder wood, and there we’ll fill
Such trenches as are dug, and face the foe,
And no Hell-fire shall move us once we’re there.
We’re out to win or die, boys; if we go
Back and yet back, leaving good strongholds bare,
We’ll save our lives, perhaps, but not our name.
There’s no one in this well-trained company
Who’d save his skin and perjure his good fame.

I won’t transcribe the whole thing, but it does continue, and Mitchell should be credited with including not just the stirring words of the brave defenders but also descriptions of the damage done by the German weaponry:

…The scarlet splash
Shows everywhere, and everywhere the maimed
Are crawling, white-lipped, to a dug-out where
The doctor in a drip of sweat seems framed,
So hard he works to hide the horrid stare
Of wounds adrip; while many pass away,
And need no lint to bind their frailty,
For God has ta’en them; ’tis their triumph day
And all their sins shall expiated be…[1]

A rather desperate turn, there, in defeat, toward theological consolations.

 

From the trenches of traditional poetry to the rarest airs of militarized Modernism. Ford Madox Hueffer delivered a review of Blast II today, in the form of an all-guns-blazing counter-attack against the initial critical onslaught. Many of his judgments can only provoke a little grin from we-who-are-burdened-with-the-dramatic-irony-of-the-future–yes, Fordy, indeed: others will find this odd new American T.S. Eliot to be of interest.

Much of the rest of the review is actually less about high art or Modernism or the rendering of brash artistic theory into printed practice than it is about our basic question: how is the war to affect writing? Ford finds the self-declared Vorticists to be somewhat compromised, but admirably, partially, appropriately. He approves of the fact that their work–Wyndham Lewis and all the rest of his flock–has been inflected by the mood of the war, but not changed beyond recognition. They are themselves–modernist tricksters and tub-thumpers, yet, due to the horrors and disasters and disappointments of the war, less “jaunty” about their “larks.”

Ford, as was always his wont, turns toward himself at the end of the piece. But he does so by way of a quotation from Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, foremost of the modern artists who have died on the battlefield:

I have made an experiment. Two days ago I pinched from an enemy a Mauser rifle. Its heavy, unwieldy shape swamped me with a powerful image of brutality. I was in doubt for a longtime whether it pleased or not it pleased me. I found that I did not like it. I broke the butt off; with my knife I carved on it a design, through which I tried to express a gentler order of feeling, which I preferred. But I will emphasize that my design got its effect, just as the gun had, from a very simple composition of lines and effects.

I find that a very touching and wise passage of prose. And I will ask the reader to observe that it contains the thoughts of an artist who had a mystical and beautiful mind and who had been long under fire. Is it not interesting and valuable to observe what such a mind selects? If Blast had presented us with nothing else it would have been justified of its existence.[2]

And I find this a very revealing and precise passage of prose. Ordinarily I would have to follow this up with some coy suggestions about how we must wonder whether Ford will put his money where his mouth is, whether he will risk his flesh for the greater power of his pen. But we’ve got a very handy letter to that effect, to the poet Lucy Masterman:

South Lodge
Campden Hill Road
31/7/15

My dear Lucy,

You may like to know that I went round to the W[ar] O[ffice] after seeing you and got thrown into a commission in under a minute—the quickest process I have ever known…

I can assure you, for what it is worth, that it is as if the peace of God had descended on me—that sounds absurd—but there it is! Man is a curious animal…[3]

Relief, and a sense of peace–as with Edward Thomas. But Ford has a commission, and more writing to do.

 

And, at last, high in the hills of the Franche-Comté, our two Legionnaires cross paths:

July 31

Walked up to Plancher-les-Mines with Victor Chapman; there met Farnsworth, who is in the 1er Étranger, and we all had dinner together. A dozen sous-officiers–old légionnaires–were in the room, drinking and making good cheer. These were men who had been at Arras, and the camaraderie of soldiers whose bond is that of great exploits achieved in common was of a sort which does not exist among us, and which I envied…

Alas, but that is all. There is no report from either Farnsworth or Seeger, today, on what they thought of their fellow Harvard man and aspiring writer. Seeger, instead, launches into a major philosophical statement-of-purpose:

Perhaps historic fatality has decreed that Germany shall come out of this struggle triumphant and that the German people shall dominate in the twentieth century as French, English, Spanish, and Italian have in preceding centuries. To me the matter of supreme importance is not to be on the winning side, but on the side where my sympathies lie.

Feeling no greater dignity possible for a man than that of one who makes himself the instrument of Destiny in these tremendous moments, I naturally ranged myself on the side to which I owed the greatest obligation. But let it always be understood that I never took arms out of any hatred against Germany or the Germans, but purely out of love for France. The German contribution to civilization is too large, and German ideals too generally in accord with my own, to allow me to join in the chorus of hate against a people whom I frankly admire.

It was only that the France, and especially the Paris, that I love should not cease to be the glory and the beauty that they are that I engaged. For that cause I am willing to stick to the end. But I am ready to accept the verdict of History in this case as I do, and everyone does, in the old cases between Athens and Sparta, or between Greece and Rome. Might is right and you cannot get away from it however the ephemeridae buzz. “Victrix causa diis placuit, sed victa Catoni.” It may have to be the epitaph on my tomb. I can see it on some green slope of the Vosges, looking toward the East.[4]

What exactly were they drinking? This is a serious dose of fatalism, at a time when there is no very particular reason to despair. It seems very American–or, perhaps, German–to write of capital-D Destiny in such Historical terms and to choose to align oneself with some sort of beautifully-conceived disaster.

The quote, from Lucan’s Pharsalia, the maddest and most horrifying of the Latin epics, is well chosen: “the winning side pleased the gods, but the defeated pleased Cato.” This casts Germany as Caesar, the nascent emperor about to destroy the remnants of the old (very oligarchic) republic.

But there is a nearer parallel, a lost cause that has placed a prior claim on the reference: the quotation was a popular choice for Confederate memorials. An ugly association, although perhaps one unknown to Seeger.

Nevertheless, it is unusual to see such a willingness to relinquish the gods and truth and right and history. Seeger, perhaps, is prone to the dramatic gesture–recall his jealousy of Rupert Brooke–and indulging in a stock poetic fantasy of a beautiful and tragic and sacrificial death. But still: Germany’s aggression and responsibility for starting the war were broadly accepted (and have become so once again, mutatis mutandis), and, ever since the great advances of the first few months, the war in the West had been a stalemate. Why relinquish the gods to accept the role of Cato? Isn’t there a war to win?

 

Finally, today, Robert Frost has received Edward Thomas‘s letter of explanation:

Dear Edward:

I am within a hair of being precisely as sorry and as glad as you are.

You are doing it for the self-same reason I shall hope to do it for if my time comes and I am brave enough, namely, because there seems nothing else for a man to do.

You have let me follow your thought in almost every twist and turn toward this conclusion. I know pretty well how far down you have gone and how far off sideways. And I think the better of you for it all. Only the bravest could come to the sacrifice in this way…

I have never seen anything more exquisite than the pain you have made of it. You are a terror and I admire you. For what has a man locomotion if it isnt to take him into things he is between barely and not quite understanding…

Your last poem Aspens seem the loveliest of all. You must have a volume of poetry ready for when you come marching home.

I wonder if they are going to let you write to me as often as ever.

Affectionately

R.F.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Powell, A Deep Cry, 332-3.
  2. Outlook, 36 (31 July 1915), 143-4; Critical Essays, 185.
  3. Letters of Ford Madox Ford, 60-1.
  4. Letters and Diary of Alan Seeger, 139-41.
  5. Elected Friends, 86-7.