is still writing–another war poem today, a century back.
Out of the wood of thoughts that grows by night
To be cut down by the sharp axe of light,—
Out of the night, two cocks together crow,
Cleaving the darkness with a silver blow:
And bright before my eyes twin trumpeters stand,
Heralds of splendour, one at either hand,
Each facing each as in a coat of arms:
The milkers lace their boots up at the farms.
This is “Cock-crow,” a splendidly condensed poem of preparation. We have the poet–and soldier–in the long watches of the night, the glories of chivalry-inflected combat and the splendid antagonisms of nature… and then that curious last line. Less is more, sometimes, and critics love the gnarled and the ambiguous.
“At one level,” Edna Longley writes, “Cock-Crow reviews the process that has led to his enlistment.” It does–but it’s about as forthcoming as his letters. And it is also an homage–the cock crows in many poems, including Hardy‘s Men Who March Away–and a bit of a misdirection. This, after all, is the vision of a man startled from sleep. Thomas, awake and sharpening his pen, would never be the herald-envisioning sort. Coleridge a century on would need to lace his boots up and get to work…
So if it is not really in the heroic tradition, is “Cock-Crow” then a polished lump of Modern gold? Donald Davie found the poem to be a “small impersonal masterpiece,” with all the “‘hardness’ and ‘dryness’ that T.E. Hulme had asked for, but this seems to be belied by the last line. It’s a hammer blow, alright–the concluding, (too-)perfect pentameter–but one delivered by a subtler sort of craftsman.
Longley wisely reserves judgment, describing the “rhythmic momentum to which the last line may be climax, anti-climax, or reality-check.” It’s all three, but especially the last two. As Longley also notes, “this is the first poem of Thomas’s to feature a martial call.” Again, yes: but that call is allowed to die away even before the short poem has reached its end. The hammer blow glances off, the vision fades.
Thomas laces up his boots–gingerly–to return to drill, and the milkers go on about their work. But the daily life of the farm isn’t merely a “reality check”–it’s a remembrance of what he has turned away from, what he has given up. He wanted the farm, he longed for that life, but he knew it wasn’t in him. We must think of the soldier’s boots instead, and the milker’s boots do not stand for the “simple life” or “England,” but rather the life Thomas left behind when he went for a soldier.
There will be marching away, now, for Thomas–his ankle is mending, again–and no milking. This is the last poem he will write for quite some time.
Donald Hankey is a member of K1, the “First Hundred Thousand” volunteers to answer Lord Kitchener’s call. His battalion, 7/Rifle Brigade, has been gradually introduced to combat–a sensible policy. But there are no safe spots on the line. The battalion is part of the 14th Division, which has just been swapped into the line at Hooge, in the southern Ypres salient.
This is a familiar spot: after the explosion of a huge (for this stage of the war, at least) men of the 4/Middlesex–a battalion in Billy Congreve‘s 3rd Division–had seized elevated positions around the crater, and the 3rd was rotated to rest. So the New Army men of the 14th Division are now not only being trusted to hold the line, but to hold an active segment, where there is a high likelihood of a German counter-attack.
There was none today, but a more quotidian horror took its toll. Billy Congreve has experienced the large German trench mortar known as the Minenwerfer; which lobbed a missile so large that it was often referred to as an “Aerial torpedo.” Now it was the Rifle Brigade’s turn. Corporal Hankey of C company was unscathed. But D company took the brunt.
This had been Hankey’s original company, in which a man named Ronald Hardy had been his first platoon commander. Hankey was no schoolboy–he was thirty, had himself been an officer, and was shortly promoted sergeant–but he idolized the “Beloved Captain” from the first.
He came in the early days, when we were still at recruit drills under the hot September sun. Tall, erect, smiling: so we first saw him, and so he remained to the end.
And the end came today, a century back:
There was not one of us but would gladly have died for him. We longed for the chance to show him that. We weren’t heroes. We never dreamed about the V.C. But to save the captain we would have earned it ten times over, and never have cared a button whether we got it or not. We never got the chance, worse luck. It was all the other way.
We were holding some trenches which were about as unhealthy as trenches could be. The Bosches were only a few yards away, and were well supplied with trench mortars. We hadn’t got any at that time. Bombs and air torpedoes were dropping round us all day. Of course the captain was there. It seemed as if he could not keep away. A torpedo fell into the trench, and buried some of our chaps. The fellows next to them ran to dig them out. Of course he was one of the first. Then came another torpedo in the same place. That was the end.
Hankey will soon sit down to write the essay “The Beloved Captain,” from which this description was taken. It is very much worth reading, for two reasons: as a writer’s unjaundiced–and, indeed, frankly idealized–depiction of excellent small-unit leadership, and also for its insight into Donald Hankey, who does not fit very easily into our categories–neither blithe Public School boy (though he was, at Rugby) nor laboring enlisted man (though he had chosen that too); neither happy warrior nor incipient disenchantee.
Coming from a very young man from the lower reaches of Britain’s still-solid class system, this might provoke something like cringing resentment and doubt:
Somehow, gentle though he was, he was never familiar. He had a kind of innate nobility which marked him out as above us. He was not democratic. He was rather the justification for aristocracy. We all knew instinctively that he was our superior—a man of finer temper than ourselves, a “toff” in his own right. I suppose that that was why he could be so humble without loss of dignity. For he was humble too, if that is the right word, and I think it is. No trouble of ours was too small for him to attend to. When we started route marches, for instance, and our feet were blistered and sore, as they often were at first, you would have thought that they were his own feet from the trouble he took.
This is idolizing, if not idolatry, and strange in the mouth of a man from the same class, masquerading in a sergeant’s faux homespun. But it’s not all about class. The practical military matter of keeping feet healthy takes–and not nearly for the last time, here–now takes a religious turn. Hankey is a religious man, and intends to minister to the poor after the war, but even many casual Christians found that foot inspections provoked a remembrance of the gospels. Hankey works slowly around to it:
Of course after the march there was always an inspection of feet. That is the routine. But with him it was no mere routine. He came into our rooms, and if anyone had a sore foot he would kneel down on the floor and look at it as carefully as if he had been a doctor. Then he would prescribe, and the remedies were ready at hand, being borne by the sergeant. If a blister had to be lanced he would very likely lance it himself there and then, so as to make sure that it was done with a clean needle and that no dirt was allowed to get in. There was no affectation about this, no striving after effect. It was simply that he felt that our feet were pretty important, and that he knew that we were pretty careless. So he thought it best at the start to see to the matter himself. Nevertheless, there was in our eyes something almost religious about this care for our feet. It seemed to have a touch of the Christ about it, and we loved and honored him the more.
So: the natural aristocrat’s claim to lesser men’s allegiance, and Christ-like humility and concern. To this potent mix is added another familiar ingredient, namely the swaggering charisma of the prefect or team captain:
He had a smile for almost everyone; but we thought that he had a different smile for us. We looked for it, and were never disappointed. On parade, as long as we were trying, his smile encouraged us. Off parade, if we passed him and saluted, his eyes looked straight into our own, and his smile greeted us. It was a wonderful thing, that smile of his. It was something worth living for, and worth working for.
So much so that when Hardy was promoted and replaced by a martinet, Hankey insisted on transferring as well. He was not permitted to go with his beloved captain, but since he would not serve in the same place under a lesser leader, he moved to a different platoon and gave up his sergeant’s stripes. (He has since been promoted corporal, and now suspects that he will soon be sent back to England to take up his old rank and class identity.)
So Hankey was not in the same company when the inevitable happened.
We knew that we should lose him. For one thing, we knew that he would be promoted. It was our great hope that some day he would command the company. Also we knew that he would be killed. He was so amazingly unself-conscious. For that reason we knew that he would be absolutely fearless. He would be so keen on the job in hand, and so anxious for his men, that he would forget about his own danger. So it proved. He was a captain when we went out to the front. Whenever there was a tiresome job to be done, he was there in charge. If ever there were a moment of danger, he was on the spot.
So the Beloved Captain was killed today, acting as a brave and good captain should. It was only a routine bombardment, but it was deadly enough. Is it a total waste?
But he lives. Somehow he lives. And we who knew him do not forget. We feel his eyes on us. We still work for that wonderful smile of his. There are not many of the old lot left now; but I think that those who went West have seen him. When they got to the other side I think they were met. Someone said: “Well done, good and faithful servant.” And as they knelt before that gracious pierced Figure, I reckon they saw nearby the captain’s smile. Anyway, in that faith let me die, if death should come my way; and so, I think, shall I die content.
The Beloved Captain seems to move, in death, from idolization almost to idolatry–can a (presumably) Protestant Captain (and a man whose job requires him not only to take loving care o fhis own men but to direct the killing of others) be a saint? Well. But this is, I think, a good reminder of a foreground fact of Christianity that can be easy for the non-devout or secular to overlook: God became a man.
Perhaps this theological literalism is a bit unfair to Hankey. The fulsome Victorianism of the prose–he is, after all, eulogizing a brave officer, not writing a theological tract–begins to obscure his point. This man was not a saint, but he was a brilliant leader of men, and he inspired in his men the desire for greater efforts. Efforts that will bring them in better stead to the pierced Figure on “the other side?” Well… that’s not for me to say. But it will make them better soldiers.
But then again this is not the sort of battlefield that will be carried by elan, by the spirited charge of men who will not disappoint the brave man who leads them. It’s a war of attrition, and artillery is not lightning: it strikes, as well as it can, in the same place, again and again. He who rushes into danger runs the greatest risk of the second salvo.
Roland is at last in receipt of Vera‘s anguished missive:
Vllth Corps Headquarters, France, 23 July 1915
I am so very sorry to have made you anxious about me, but I hope you have got a letter by now.
Alas no. Tomorrow!
The difficulty is not so much to find time to write as to get letters sent off. When we are on the move as we have been so much lately the postal service is temporarily stopped and we cannot either send or receive any letters for perhaps a week. Hinc illae lacrimae…
Very nice: “Hence these tears.” This was already proverbial under Augustus–an old cliché. But the original context (in one of Terence’s comedies) is funerary.
Our bright boy is now in demand:
My C.O. came round yesterday and wanted to have me back again with the Battalion. The Camp Commandant wants to keep me here. So I at present don’t quite know what is going to happen. I prefer this to wandering over France doing nothing particular, but on the other hand don’t want to miss any real fighting.
Finally today, a brief note from Rowland Feilding. I would be remiss if I failed to note yet another accident…
July 23, 1915. Bethune
Yesterday was a bad day here in Bethune. In the morning, at bombing practice, one of our officers was
wounded—slightly. In the afternoon, while practising with a trench mortar, three were killed and four or five
wounded, the former including Mitchell, of the Black Watch, who took on Carpentier, the French boxer, last year.
But it gets worse. There is, of course, a good reason for why an amateur army is rushing so recklessly to train and equip itself.
In the evening there were in the town 128 casualties to our troops from shell-fire, including three men of ours.
A great many casualties were caused by a shell which burst in the “Ecole des jeunes filles,” which we use as a barrack. I passed the door with John Ponsonby as they were bringing them out. Certainly, this place is becoming very unhealthy, and I wish the civilians would clear out. Yesterday, I am told, a woman and two children were killed.
It is worth remembering: the Germans have bombed England, and England will return the favor, but the casualties from these primitive escapades will be relatively low. The lines are in Belgium and France, and it is the citizens of those (allied) countries who are suffering the most.
The old man and his wife with whom I am billeted still cling on, though I doubt if they will stand it much longer.
The poor old lady—a dear and very fat—sits down palpitating, each time the shells begin to fly, and counts
A sad picture of normal life in an artillery war. And how does the British Army handle it?
Our artillery has been retaliating pretty severely the last two nights, and to-day nobody would have been surprised at a super-exhibition of “frightfulness,” but so far, to-day, the enemy has not fired a shell into the town. In fact, we have been having a boxing competition; and, to-morrow, we have a horse-show.