Siegfried Sassoon’s Statement, “To Any Dead Officer;” Henry Williamson is Blighty Bound; Herbert Read’s Theories of Courage

Before we get to a statement–and a poem, and a memoir’s context for the two–we have two brief updates.

 

For the past week Henry Williamson has bounced about the hospitals of northern France. He believes that he has gotten a “whiff” of phosgene gas from German gas shells–but he may also just be sick, or run down. In any event, he finds it pleasant to be out of the line and hopes to be able to parlay the sick time into reassignment. In this he may well be lucky, as in the name of efficiency sick and wounded officers can no longer count on returning to their unit. Most fear and deplore this change, but Williamson (and probably his C.O. as well) would welcome it.

Dear Mother,

Please get those protectors for armpits in my new tunic at once–big ones under the lining–you probably know by this time that I am for England on the first boat which leaves any time… Mother, I thank God I am out of that inferno…

This hospital is a bon place–I live on champagne and fried plaice & chicken now!!

Love Willie.[1]

Williamson, whose intestinal health has long been an issue, can look forward to a lengthy recovery in Blighty…

 

Herbert Read is in rather a more bloody-minded state, and with sharper tales to tell. Or not: restraint in what he writes to Evelyn Roff is a point of pride–Read is a very purposeful sort, and he thinks twice about describing the war without a theoretical grasp of how such war tales might fit in with his theories of Modern literature. (He seems less concerned that a policy of mentioning, but not describing, certain experiences might not help their budding relationship flourish.)

Nevertheless, he has something to say, and it is the confirming converse of Williamson’s lonely experience: what makes it all worthwhile are the men. And what defines a man’s worth is the way in which he carries himself through danger.

15.vi.17

My present location is not too bad. We are now in the third week of our period in the line… and rather terrible days they were. But you can have no desire for me to ‘paint the horrors.’ I could do so but let the one word ‘fetid’ express the very essence of our experiences. It would be a nightmare to any individual, but we create among ourselves a wonderful comradeship which I think would overcome any horror or hardship. It is this comradeship which alone makes the Army tolerable to me. To create a bond between yourself and a body of men and a bond that will hold at the critical moment, that is work worthy of any man and when done an achievement to be proud of.

Incidentally my ‘world-view’ changes some of its horizons. I begin to appreciate, to an undreamt of extent, the ‘simple soul’. He is the only man you can put your money on in a tight corner. Bombast and swank carry a man nowhere our here. In England they are everything. Nor is the intellect not a few of us used to be so proud of of much avail. It’s a pallid thing in the presence of a stout heart. Which reminds me of one psychological ‘case’ which interests me out here: to what extent does a decent philosophy of life help you in facing death? In other words: Is fear a mental or a physical phenomenon? There are cases of physical fear–‘nerves,’ ‘shell-shock,’ etc. There are also certainly cases of physical courage… and there are, I think, men who funk because they haven’t the strength of will or decency of thought to do otherwise.

But I would like to think there was still another class (and I one of them) whose capacity for not caring a damn arose not merely from a physical incapacity for feeling fear, but rather from a mental outlook on life and death sanely balanced and fearlessly followed. But perhaps I idealize…[2]

Perhaps he does. Read has a good deal of trench experience by now, but he has not suffered the same sort of trench trauma–or string of losses of friends both fond and beloved–that has overburdened “Mad Jack” Sassoon. But it is an interesting break down of different types of courage–and an intelligent one. Cursed are dullards, blessed are the philosophers, strong of will–so it’s also a flattering one. But it asks no larger questions…

 

Today’s main event is Siegfried Sassoon‘s completion of a draft of his statement against the war.

It thus happened that, about midnight on the day my portrait was finished, I sat alone in the club library with a fair copy of the ‘statement’ before me on the writing-table. The words were now solidified and unalterable. My brain was unable to scrutinize their meaning any more. They had become merely a sequence of declamatory sentences designed to let me in for what appeared to be a moral equivalent of ‘going over the top’; and, at the moment, the Hindenburg Line seemed preferable in retrospect. For the first time, I allowed myself to reflect upon the consequences of my action and to question my strength to endure them. Possibly what I disliked most was the prospect of being misunderstood and disapproved of by my fellow officers. Some of them would regard my behaviour as a disgrace to the Regiment. Others would assume that I had gone a bit crazy. How many of them, I wondered, would give me credit for having done it for the sake of the troops who were at the Front? I had never heard any of them use the word pacifist except in a contemptuous and intolerant way, and in my dispirited mood I felt that my protest would have a pretty poor reception among them. Going to a window, I looked out at the searchlights probing the dark sky. Down below, the drone of London rumbled on. The streets were full of soldiers getting what enjoyment they could out of their leave. And there, on that sheet of paper under the green-shaded lamp, were the words I had just transcribed.

‘I believe that this war, upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation, has now become a war of aggression and conquest.’

This is the soon-to-be-famous opening of the published statement–I’ll include the rest when the newspapers get it. But Sassoon, using the privileges of the memoir writer, embeds the public breakthrough in a web of private doubt. Clean breaks and simple strong feelings are never to be his way…  Who is he doing this for, again?

To the soldiers it didn’t matter, one way or the other. They all wanted it to stop, but most of them would say that the Boches had got to be beaten somehow, and the best thing to hope for was ‘getting back to Blighty with a cushy wound’. Then I remembered that night, early in 1914, when I had been up in this room experiencing an emotional crisis in which I had felt that my life was being wasted on sport and minor poetry, and had imagined myself devoting my future to humanitarian services and nobly prophetic writings. On that occasion I had written some well-intentioned but too didactic lines, of which a fragment now recurred to me.

Destiny calls me home at last
To strive for pity’s sake;
To watch with the lonely and outcast,
And to endure their ache . . . .

Much had happened since then. Realities beyond my radius had been brought under my observation by a European War, which had led me to this point of time and that sheet of paper on the table. Was this the fulfilment of that feeble and unforeseeing stanza? . . . And somehow the workings of my mind brought me a comprehensive memory of war experience in its intense and essential humanity. It seemed that my companions of the Somme and Arras battles were around me; helmeted faces returned and receded in vision; joking voices were overheard in fragments of dug-out and billet talk. These were the dead, to whom life had been desirable, and whose sacrifice must be justified, unless the War were to go down in history as yet another Moloch of murdered youth…

I went back to the statement on the table with fortified conviction that I was doing right. Perhaps the dead were backing me up, I thought; for I was a believer in the power of spiritual presences. . . .

Well, how are things in Heaven? I wish you’d say,
Because I’d like to know that you’re all right.
Tell me, have you found everlasting day
Or been sucked in by everlasting night?

The words came into my head quite naturally. And by the time I went to bed I had written a slangy, telephonic poem of forty lines. I called it To Any Dead Officer, but it was addressed to one whom I had known during both my periods of service in France. Poignant though the subject was, I wrote it with a sense of mastery and detachment, and when it was finished I felt that it anyhow testified to the sincerity of my protest.

The dead officer is Orme/”Ormand” killed so recently in a pointless attack on the Hindenburg Line, his death described to Sassoon by Joe Cottrell. The poem, which Sassoon of the memoir would clearly prefer that we use to mark this day’s work, a century back, rather than the didactic “statement,” continues as follows:

For when I shut my eyes your face shows plain;
  I hear you make some cheery old remark—
I can rebuild you in my brain,
  Though you’ve gone out patrolling in the dark.
You hated tours of trenches; you were proud
  Of nothing more than having good years to spend;
Longed to get home and join the careless crowd
  Of chaps who work in peace with Time for friend.
That’s all washed out now. You’re beyond the wire:
  No earthly chance can send you crawling back;
You’ve finished with machine-gun fire—
  Knocked over in a hopeless dud-attack.
Somehow I always thought you’d get done in,
  Because you were so desperate keen to live:
You were all out to try and save your skin,
  Well knowing how much the world had got to give.
You joked at shells and talked the usual “shop,”
  Stuck to your dirty job and did it fine:
With “Jesus Christ! when will it stop?
  Three years … It’s hell unless we break their line.”
So when they told me you’d been left for dead
  I wouldn’t believe them, feeling it must be true.
Next week the bloody Roll of Honour said
   “Wounded and missing”—(That’s the thing to do
When lads are left in shell-holes dying slow,
  With nothing but blank sky and wounds that ache,
Moaning for water till they know
  It’s night, and then it’s not worth while to wake!)
Good-bye, old lad! Remember me to God,
  And tell Him that our politicians swear
They won’t give in till Prussian Rule’s been trod
  Under the Heel of England … Are you there? …
Yes … and the war won’t end for at least two years;
But we’ve got stacks of men … I’m blind with tears,
  Staring into the dark. Cheero!
I wish they’d killed you in a decent show.[3]

References and Footnotes

  1. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 163.
  2. The Contrary Experience, 97-8.
  3. Siegfried's Journey, 52-4; see also Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 373.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

A Quiet Walk

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

When Beren first saw Luthien,

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

Dear Biddy,

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

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

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

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

 

References and Footnotes

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 25th

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

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

 

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

Ah, well. Today, the journey continued.

Friday, May 25th

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

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

 

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

 

The Hawthorn Tree

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

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

 

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

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

 

Death in the Garden

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

 

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

 

References and Footnotes

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

Alfred Hale Rides the Rails… and Misses His Tea; Duff Cooper Goes for a Soldier; Charles Scott Moncrieff’s Return

Before leaving Thetford camp this morning, a century back, Alfred Hale was given a medical inspection to assure the army of his physical fitness.

This meant going into the medical tent one by one and saluting the MO seated at a table, who then asked if you were ‘All right’, and on your replying, ‘Yes thank you, Sir,’ marked your paper and off you went.

This hurdle overcome, Hale was issued with various “belts and small equipment.”

This equipment I did not know how to put on, nor how even to get the rest of my kit into marching order, which much exasperated a corporal…

With two fellow conscripts also bound for the RFC, Hale then begins a train journey through “flat, sunlit country,” and with that things suddenly improve.

I had that delightful feeling, I recollect, of being as though on an adventure into the unknown, and on such a glorious summer day, too. For the first time after getting into Khaki I felt really happy.

Yes, but, well… the day dragged on. After the train and a long ride in a van to the camp where one of his fellows was deposited, Hale and another were driven off to an RFC camp still further off–several miles from anywhere, but nearest to St. Neots, Huntingdonshire. After dallying in the van and at a wayside in, it was well past tea-time when they arrived. And, therefore, disappointment:

So whereas if I had been an officer I should have had a proper late dinner, or at least an evening meal of some sort or kind had I been an NCO for instance, being only a private and a batman, the lowest and most despised being in the Royal Flying Corps, as I was soon to find out, I could only get bad coffee and penny bars of chocolate by paying for it out of my own pocket.

But the canteen hut. This was decorated, or had been decorated, apparently for the previous Christmas, with an inscription in large ornamental letters on the walls, which ran as follows: ‘The Compliments of the Season to Major Petrie and all our officers’. Well, I have no doubt Major Petrie deserved the compliments of the season at the Christmas of 1916; I have also less doubt that he ever went without anything to eat from lunch-time till the next morning while stationed at a home camp in England, or had to drink bad coffee and eat bits of stale penny chocolate bars lest he should go to bed in a starving condition…

This canteen reminded me for all the world of the descriptions in boys’ books of life in the backwoods…

And now I realized, if I had not done so before, that it would be my lot to have to shave myself next morning with the army razor issued to me, I having lost the safety razor I had specially provided myself with. The possibility of this happening I had indeed been dreading all that long afternoon since leaving Bedford. For I cannot shave myself at all with an ordinary razor; even a safety razor sometimes gives me trouble, but an ordinary razor, no; especially the sort issued to Army recruits…[1]

 

Duff Cooper is due for a medical himself. It may have just as perfunctory as Hale’s, but I’d wager it was conducted with a bit more formality. Cooper has been several years on the sidelines, but now, only two days after resolving to try for the army in the latest “comb out” of younger and less essential men in government jobs, he is, all of a sudden, in. Not that the he will lavish description on the process…

May 19th, 1917

Was medically examined for the army and passed A.

That takes care of that. Now he’ll just need to get a commission in a reputable regiment. But first things first.

Went down to Sutton with Diana by the 5.15 I had two pretty moments with Diana in the garden. She told me I must not come to her room as it was next to Lady Horner’s…

I woke at four. It was already getting light so in spite of instructions I crept to Diana’s room, a long and creaky journey. It was very beautiful when I arrived and we lay together until it was quite light and all the birds were singing, including a very monotonous and damnable cuckoo.[2]

There simply must be some clever remark to be made here about rare birds of paradise and damnable cuckoos and the pleasures of idleness and the rigors of military life… but it eludes me.

 

Charles Scott Moncrieff narrowly escaped death at Arras. Recently, he has learned that he may yet even keep his leg. Feeling, perhaps, that the hospital has become less an anteroom to hell and more a purgatory that may someday be escaped, he has begun to stave off despair and to write again. Today and tonight, a century back, these verses “came into” his head. They are strange… but seem to represent the wisdom of a soldier who did not survive, passed on now to his little brother in a mystical of visitation from the beyond.

 

The Return

The queerest thing of all now, is the way the sizes shift, Johnny;
Bracken Hill’s no height now, no height at all.
And the little dog Peter, was the weight I just could lift.
He has grown to hide high mountains, but the great dog’s starved and small.

Deep enough’s the pool to swim now, where for rocks we wouldn’t dive, Johnny,
But the river where we wouldn’t leap, ’tis no step over now;
And the wild bull’s field we wouldn’t pass the time I was alive,
I can lean across the hedge of it, and scratch his brow.

Stepmother’s so little and queer I needn’t ever cry, Johnny,
And her cruel way of talking leaves me easy in my rest;
But you I can’t see all at once, you’ve grown so high.
And that’s because the heart’s great that struggles in your breast.[3]

References and Footnotes

  1. The Ordeal of Alfred Hale, 64-9.
  2. The Duff Cooper Diaries, 53.
  3. Diaries, 129-30.

Alf Pollard’s Finest Hour; Max Plowman Meets an Interesting Man; Siegfried Sassoon Between Cussedness and Martyrdom; Beauty and Ugliness From Olaf Stapledon; Edwin Vaughan in Amiens

For two days, now, Alf Pollard and the Honourable Artillery Company have been back in the line near Gavrelle, on the Arras front.

I was in support to the First Battalion Royal Marines and did not anticipate that I should have anything to do at all. Consequently I disposed the whole of my Company in dug-outs and, retiring to my own, relaxed into much needed slumber.

I slept right through the barrage and the initial onslaught…

Of course he did, and with good classical precedent! Alexander the Great and many other heroes demonstrated their perfect confidence by sleeping late on the day of battle. But Pollard is awoken with a message ordering him to form a flank defense:

It was obvious that something had gone wrong. I must act at once.

Pollard emerges into a “curious hush,”  like the calm before the storm. But–he is a natural warrior, you see–his heart is pounding and his instincts tell him that he is in danger. The Marines have advanced up ahead, but Pollard’s is the last company on the Division’s left, and it would seem that the next Division over had failed in its attack and now a German counter-attack is threatening the unnamed unit directly to Pollard’s left.

I was at the limit of my own trench, which was the extreme left of the Divisional front, wondering what I should do next. Suddenly a bombing attack started from the direction of Oppy Wood. Bang! Bang! Zunk! Zunk! I could see the smoke from the explosions nearly a mile away. Fritz was attacking down the trench.

A few minutes later, Pollard sees the British troops resisting the counter-attack suddenly break and run.

Panic! Sheer unaccountable panic! …The sort of thing the greatest psychologist in the world could not explain; a sudden terror which affected the whole force simultaneously. It was a sight I hope I never see again. For a brief moment it had its effect on me.

For “what seemed like some minutes,” Pollard relates, he remained “shaking” and indecisive. But it was really only a few seconds: the Germans could now turn the flank of his own division, and something must be done.

Then the curious feeling came to me… that I was no longer acting under my own volition. Something outside myself, greater than I, seemed to take charge of me. Already under this mysterious influence I ran forward.

Pollard takes control of the strange troops and orders them to spread out and fire their rifles, more to regain their confidence than to hit anything. Then, leaving both these leaderless and recently panicked troops (he is confident that “The British Tommy does not do that sort of thing twice in a morning”) and his own company–his own command–behind, he explores down the trench the Germans had been attacking, followed by his runner and one more man, an ad hoc volunteer. They push up the trench away from his defensive line, and are joined by one more man. Pollard’s orders are simply to hurl their few bombs around the next traverse whenever he fires his pistol. For two hundred yards the trench is empty.

Then suddenly, as I entered one end of a stretch of trench between two traverses, a big Hun entered the other, rifle and bayonet in his hand. I fired; he dropped his rifle and clapped both hands to his stomach. Almost instantaneously with my shot I heard the whizz of Reggie’s bomb as it passed over my head. A second man appeared behind the first. I fired again and he dropped like a stone. Bang! Bang! The two other bombs thrown by my followers exploded one after the other.

The third man saw the fate of his predecessors and turned to go back. Those behind, not knowing what had happened tried to come forward. I fired again. Bang!  Zunk! went the remaining bombs of our small store. That was enough. The next instant the Hun attack was in full retreat.

This is an excellent example of several things. First, of the importance of on-the-spot tactical leadership–even irresponsible, desperately chancy leadership, so long as it seizes the initiative. Second, of the continued importance, albeit in a (literally) narrow category of actions (fighting along a trench, rather than “over the top”) of old-fashioned reckless aggression, a.k.a valor. (The charging maniac routing a timid multitude in a narrow space is a tired trope of action movies, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen.)

And if we examine those two points we realize that this action is important because it is exceptional–it’s a brave, reckless gamble, and very successful. But Pollard is not leading a storming party against a key gate or a forlorn hope against a breach; he is not inspiring the rest of the men who can see him as he charges across an open battlefield. He is winning a local action fought below ground level; at most he is stabilizing a front of a few hundred yards in a several-hundred-mile trench system. It’s a reminder that even exceptional valor can’t win wars anymore.

The valor is the same; it just doesn’t apply. Pollard isn’t just exceptionally good at fighting–he is also, necessarily, fortunate. In the good old days, half the potential Achilleses of the army weren’t killed by the artillery before they got into hand-weapon range. But Pollard has to first be lucky not to have been killed by weapons aimed in his general direction by calm men hundreds of yards or even a few miles away; only then can he begin being heroic in a convenient bit of trench.

Finally, this is an excellent example of what John Keegan will call “Zap-Blatt-BanzaiGott im Himmel-Bayonet in the Guts” history. Except Pollard’s Huns don’t even get to say that much.

In other words, this is an exciting tale, but I don’t think we can blithely accept its unspoken premise: that since the terms of the fight–kill or be killed, in essence–are set, we need give no further thought to the consequences of all this shooting and bomb-hurling. And what happens next–the four men press on without any bombs (grenades) but are able to collect enemy and grenades during a fortuitous lull in enemy action, then continue fighting by dodging around corners–is uncannily like a video game. Which is not to condemn video games for being violent: it’s to condemn true stories in which deadly violence goes completely unquestioned.

I’ll paraphrase the rest of the tale. Pollard and his three-man army press on into German territory though he proudly confesses that “discretion had gone to the winds”–a pointed word-choice given discretion’s proverbial counterpart. Why this recklessness?

…my blood was up. I felt a thrill only comparable to running through the opposition at Rugger to score a try.

He leaves one man with a collection of rifles by a barricade–this reminds him of Robinson Crusoe’s fantasy of solo defense–and, with the other two, makes ready to defend their gains with bombs. They do; soon “the air was thick with bombs” and though they throw nearly all they have, Pollard will not retreat. Then, providentially, the German attack breaks off, when one of Pollard’s friends–“Sammy,” a junior officer who seems to have figured out, without orders, that he should go up in support of his vanished company commander–arrives with the company and a large supply of bombs and ammunition. A more determined German attack is driven off, there are short digressions on different sorts of grenades and on Sammy’s coolness under fire (connected, surprisingly, to his descent from “the fighting tribes of Israel”), and then that’s that–Pollard has saved the day. He is eventually ordered to assume command of the position, then relieved after nightfall.

Pollard’s memoir is self-serving and self-aggrandizing–but that’s obvious, and so the notes of humility are, well, worth noting. They are either little nods to convention–“I should take the occasional breath while blowing my own horn,” “I wouldn’t want to court nemesis through hubris”–or, just possibly, symptoms of a much larger madness. We have seen Pollard note that “his blood was up,” admit that to press on was illogical, and mention in passing that he left his own command without clear orders in order to push on alone, to be followed by only three willing men.

That all seems plausible–but it read very differently when Siegfried Sassoon did a very similar thing. Why? Perhaps if Sassoon were to have been given a high military honor (he wasn’t, in part because the Royal Welch tried not to ask for honors for non-professional soldiers, in part because no high-level officers were near the spot, and in part because the position wasn’t held after he left it) he would have written a more heroic account. (Or perhaps not; Sassoon has been disillusioned for some time; Pollard, never.)

But that’s not the real difference. Pollard ends the chapter by noting that he has “often wondered what would have happened had Fritz come over the top instead of sticking to the trench.” It’s obvious: “Fritz” would have killed or captured him, and he would hen have been blamed for abandoning his men to go gallivanting into enemy territory. But though Pollard “wonders,” I don’t think he really believes it might have happened: just as he portrays his courage, modestly, as a force that overtakes him without his volition (after a humanizing, but brief, struggle with fear he becomes a “natural” or “inspired” warrior), he seems to trust completely in Providence. He can humbly acknowledge that he was fortunate to get the opportunity for heroism that he did–because he does not doubt that, on some level, he deserved it.[1]

 

And I too trust in provvy–that lesser Tyche that attends the scriveners of Clio. What I mean is: Pollard is a war hero, and I don’t mean to suggest that there is any point in denying or protesting that. But I don’t like the way he chose to write about the war, the way he elides death and suffering. So I would hope that reading and research would provide some apt rejoinders from today, a century back. And we are indeed fortunate–all two and a half of our regular pacifists have shown up for duty.

 

Max Plowman wrote to his friend Janet Upcott today, a century back, from the Bowhill Auxiliary Hospital for Officers. He is physically sound… but the after-effects of shell-shock may linger. At least, he feels healthy enough, yet he has been in one hospital or another for three months, now.

…Tell me Jane–honest, candid, sober, true… what your idea of this place is–or rather was before you got this? Did you think it was a sort of private lunatic asylum? My only reason for thinking it may be is that from asylums, I believe, the question that recurs to me is heard more often than from anywhere else. “Why do they still keep me?” –As a matter of fact I asked that so long ago that I’ve got tired of asking it, & now I’m beginning to get settled here for the duration I suppose I really shall soon be turfed out. I think the Doctor here has decided that normally I should have the hide of a rhinoceros & the nerves of a hauser, so if I’m really going to wait for that unhappy state to transpire, I’m sure the next time I leave here will be about 1947 in a long black box.

Still of course I don’t complain so far. The Ducal Mansion is perhaps preferable to snow on Vimy Ridge & I have no doubt that I have missed a good deal worth missing when I see that all my old company officers are now back or dead.

The letter continues, rambling and ruminating about the conduct of the war, the cynical way in which the vested interests seem disinterested in peace, and the foolish criticisms of military operations by those who have never fought in the trenches. Like other experienced officers with pacifist or anti-war opinions, Plowman is at once aghast at the waste of the war and the complacency of the high command and yet keenly interested in the new tactics that had showed promise at Arras. And like other experienced officers with pacifist or anti-war opinions, Plowman is working on his first collection of poetry–in that endeavor he’s a bit behind, but in another matter he takes precedence.

I met one rather interesting man up here. a Dr ______ who’s a professor of Psychology at Cambridge. He’s at Craiglockhart Edinburgh from which this place is an offshoot. I was talking to him about Freud’s book on dreams & he lent me Hart’s Psychology of Insanity as an introduction to it…

This would be Dr. W.H.R. Rivers, and thus our second prefiguring of Pat Barker’s Regeneration. Rivers is real, and he’s a remarkable man, combining in his modest person the Victorian adventurism of the heroic age of science, 20th century psychoanalytic healing, and timeless humanity and courage. Those who are interested in learning a bit more about this man–Cambridge professor, Freudian, South Pacific anthropologist, pioneering neurologist, and shell-shock-doctor-to-the-writers–can seek out more information easily enough, or read Barker’s historical fiction trilogy.

Amusingly, even though Plowman is our first writer to meet Rivers and be struck by his unique charisma (after all, he is the only person Plowman wants to discuss), and although he will be far from the best poet to do so, his initial reaction to the good doctor is to take offense at Rivers’s disinterest in poetry:

But I gave him up when he said he could no longer read poetry; not, really, because I wanted to inflict mine on him, but because now & from henceforth & for evermore I will not trust a mind which has become so divorced from nature it cannot appreciate poetry. The more you think either of words or the amoeba–either of material, mind, matter or Mumbo Jumbo the more amazing it becomes to here a confessedly learned man admit & say: “You know I can’t appreciate poetry now–my appreciation of the exact use of words is too great…” The sight of an exact word is the worst nightmare I can think of so far…

Yours ever

Max.[2]

 

Another officer with experience bombing more or less alone up an enemy trench, with pacifist or anti-war opinions (he would he the “half-pacifist,” in my dubious math, above), and with a future in medical care for a condition… let’s say “associated with” shell shock is, of course, Siegfried Sassoon, now recovering in London after being shot through the shoulder.

April 29

A lovely morning after a sleepless night. The trees outside have become misty with green since last night. I am just emerging from the usual beautiful dream about ‘not going back’–‘war over in the autumn’—‘getting a job in England’, etc. These ideas always emanate from one’s friends in:England, and one’s own feeble state of mind when ill, and fed up, arid amazed at being back in comfort and safety.

Things must take their course; and I know I shall be sent out again to go through it all over again with added refinements of torture. I am no good anywhere else: all I can do is to go there and set an example. Thank heaven I’ve got something to live up to. But surely they’ll manage to kill me next time! Something in me keeps driving me on: I must go on till I am killed. Is it cussedness (because so many people want me to survive the war)–or is it the old spirit of martyrdom—’ripe men of martyrdom’, as Crashaw says?[3]

This question–or this tangled skein of questions–will occupy us quite a bit over the coming months…

 

It’s been a long day, but I still feel that reading Olaf Stapledon is well worthwhile. This is a young man who rowed with Julian Grenfell, who could easily have spent much of the last few years enthusiastically killing Germans until they killed him–but he had chosen only to risk the latter, while trying instead to save the wounded victims of the war.

A few ago, a century back, he had appended to a previous letter a description of “a pretty dance with three cars that got stuck in a badly shelled spot.” This may be Olaf’s most explicit description of personal danger in his letters to Agnes, and it underscores how infrequently–though he agonizes about different types of pacifist commitment and often discusses the political and philosophical underpinnings of his actions–he mentions the mortal risks ambulance crews take.

One of them had to repairs done to it before it could be moved. We were four hours at it, alternately working & seeking cover as the bombardment varied in seriousness. All the cars were badly peppered by we got them all away without serious harm to them & no damage to ourselves, though we had some quite narrow escapes. The convoy has been “cited,” which means that we paint the croix de guerre on each car.

Then, today, there is the happier news that the ambulance unit is in rest–or, rather, “repos–” their first full-unit rest in eight months.

Our last day at the front was rather eventful because they bombarded our village with some success and the main street was literally strewn with dead and wounded… One shell accounted for about twenty men… It was an ugly business…

Next day we left with our division for repos, and just after we had cleared out a shell fell in the yard where we kept most of our cars. It would have done much damage had we been there, and probably would have killed a good number of us. So our departure was lucky…

Our present spot is very peaceful and the spring weather has come. Yesterday in memory of ancient days with you I wore a celandine in my buttonhole. That is a little spring rite with me…

There is no sound of war at all, but much singing of birds and bleating of sheep. And yesterday we heard the cuckoo and saw him lazily flap across a little glade. Oh  Agnes, there is such a lovely lovers’ walk down a little narrow valley…

There are cowslips and periwinkles, violets and wood anemones. We revel in all such things after months of winter, and after a surfeit of war…[4]

 

Finally, today, I would be courting Nemesis myself if I omitted a visit to the cathedral. With his battalion still in rest billets, Edwin Vaughan has been taking his ease in Amiens, still close to the front lines on the now quiescent Somme. Yesterday it was a bath at the Hôtel Belfort and lunch at the Hôtel du Rhin; today, breakfast in bed and late mass in the Cathedral… and nothing to say about it. Lunch at ‘L’Universe,’ ices, “luxurious haircuts and shampoos,” dinner at the Hôtel du France, and a late night–not a bad little war, altogether.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Fire-Eater, 217-24.
  2. Bridge into the Future, 63-5.
  3. Diaries, 162. Richard Crashaw is a metaphysical poet of the 17th century.
  4. Talking Across the World, 221-3.
  5. Some Desperate Glory, 105.

Will Harvey’s Great Escape Postponed; Henry Williamson Moves on Up; Edwin Vaughan’s Witness to Vandalism… and Gothic Imagination; C.E. Montague Reflects Before a Fire

Back on August 17th, Will Harvey decided it would be a good idea to go out and patrol no man’s land alone. He stumbled into a German post, was captured and eventually taken to Gütersloh Camp, in Westphalia. By the time he got there the tunneling had already begun, and his first book of poems–A Gloucestershire Lad–had been published. (His best friend, Ivor Gurney, mourned him, then rejoiced to hear that he was alive, and in any case continued to write about Harvey often.)

For months now, Harvey has been taking his turns in the tunnel and on lookout duty above, using coded whistles or songs to warn when German guards are about. The months dragged by… until yesterday, a century back, when the British contingent in the multi-national P.O.W. camp learned that they were about to be transferred. A night and day of feverish digging brought the tunnel out under the wire–and right beneath the beat of the German sentry. In a hurried meeting it was decided that, rather than making a dash out of the still-too-short tunnel and hoping for the best, it should be left concealed in place, in the hopes that the barracks’ next inmates–Russian P.O.W.s, in all probability–could continue the work. Today, a century back, Will Harvey, his captivity stretching into a ninth month and his book into its 4th printing, was transferred to Crefeld Camp.[1]

 

Meanwhile, Henry Williamson continues to advance into what was recently the German rear–and to keep his mother well informed of his whereabouts.

Dear mother Cherie,

This awkward phrasing is actually one of his more graceful turns of code-phrase. The letters “ACHIET” are marked out, four of them occurring in sequence in “cherie.”

We have not heard from anyone for about a week–heavens knows where the post goes to nowadays. I have had only about 5 letters from you to date–I wish you would date your letters.

Well I suppose all you in England at the time are rejoicing over the ‘fall’ of Bapaume–but it’s rather a funny business after all. I believe personally that the Bosche has done a very clever and good thing for himself–he is falling back…

So Williamson is back to considering the withdrawal a strategic benefit for Germany rather than a boon to the British, but only a few lines after pointing out that the news of cavalry in action is nothing but the false dawn of open warfare, merely a temporary screen as the British reestablish contact with their foe, he switches course again, implying that it may be a breakthrough after all: “only WAIT a bit and see.”

On the matter of parcels Williamson is more steadfast:

What I should like would be toffee, nice chocolates… a pair of pyjamas, and a cake or so…[2]

 

Edwin Vaughan has what we might call an active imagination, a knack both for finding terror in the quiet corners of trench life and for telling a tale the brings across the shivering horror he experienced. His account of yesterday, a century back–when his battalion advanced into the vacated German rear and took up residence among the booby-trapped dugouts near Péronne–is many pages long, and well worth dipping into.

It was a bright clear morning, and the country looked beautiful as I set off across the open fields…

The gently undulating fields were very little shelled, and the fresh grass was only spoiled here and there by a circular mud-rimmed hole. But each field was liberally besprinkled with graves, in which we took morbid interest. Not one of them had been dug to any depth, and in each case some portion of the corpse protruded–from one a bleached and polished skull, from another a rotted puttee and boot, from another the ammunition pouches. In several cases they had only been covered with a few inches of wet earth which now was caked and hard, giving the appearance of mummies, except where the burrowing rats had broken away the mud and displayed a patch of blue tunic.

There were a few unburied bodies about and I had much difficulty in getting Sissman past them–he wanted to stop and examine each for wounds and souvenirs… I’m afraid we progressed very slowly…

The afternoon becomes a different sort of macabre when Vaughan and a small party, now led by his company commander, Billy Kentish, stumbled up along a muddy canal road looking for their new billets. When Kentish, who foolishly brought his horse (a famous perquisite of company commanders, even in the infantry) on the journey, disappears after repeatedly foundering in difficult places. When he reappears without the muddy, stumbling beast, Vaughan suspects the worst. Eventually they arrive in Halle, where another company of their battalion is now in residence. On the walls of the house taken as HQ,

the playful Hun had left many sketches and ironic messages. Two that we saw were ‘Great British Advance. Many villages taken’ and ‘Haig takes Halle, 4,000 Germans captured–official.’

But their march continues until they reach Péronne, in which a major fire is burning–this was a day after Charles Carrington had entered the town–much of the historical center, including the old library and church, have been consumed.

During all this march I was very nervous. I had heard so many stories of booby-traps and delayed mines that I was terrified by the sight of any old oil drum or coil of wire, and at every cross-roads expected to find myself sailing up into the black sky. Nothing of the sort happened, however…

Instead, Vaughan and his fellow company officers take up residence in a partitioned cellar, and one by one fell asleep, while he listens to the drip of rain and smelled “a filthy smell of decaying vegetable matter.” Before long, Vaughan begins to hear “the tick-tock of a fuse.”

Here–although I suspect that this part of the diary was extensively rewritten after the fact–Vaughan is charmingly open about his failures of courage:

This grew louder and louder until I could stand it no longer, and by coughing loudly and banging the bed, I woke Kentish.

He sat up grumpily, rubbing his eyes. ‘What was that blasted row?’

‘Which one?’ I said guiltily. ‘There’s lots going on.’

He listened for a moment and then lay down again growling. But I didn’t intend to let him sleep. ‘Did you hear about the booby-traps in the Boche lines?’

‘Um!’

‘You know Sullivan found several in Halle?’–no answer.

‘How long do they usually delay before exploding?’–silence. I paused a bit and then asked timorously, ‘I say, Billy, can you hear a curious ticking?’

He pulled the coat from off his head and said ‘You bloody fool,’ and snuggled down again.

I was hurt by that, for I felt that nobody cared if I was blown up, so I resolved myself to die like a martyr and then when we met in the afterworld I could say to Kentish ‘I told you so!’ The consideration of this possibility rather cheered me, and casting aside my fears I fell asleep.

This brings us, more or less, into today, a century back.

I do not know how long I slept, but it must have been a couple of hours. I dreamt that I was lying there asleep, all being horribly quiet except for the drop of water and the wind. Suddenly through the rain and darkness appeared a huge figure stealing across the courtyard to the grating above me. he was muffled up in a great grey coat and spiked helmet. I struggled to wake Kentish and to shout, but I was powerless. I saw him take a bomb from under his coat, a smoking bomb, and slip it into the chimney. With a frantic struggle I overcame my paralysis and sat up shouting as a metallic sliding sound came from the chimney. Waiting for the explosion, I sat staring into the darkness with that apathy that comes when fear has passed its bounds.

But nothing more happened. Kentish slumbered on…

The night continues in a proto-Lovecraftian vein, and, appropriately enough, perhaps, in the morning we get our second sight of one of the weird masterpieces of nihilistic German humor:

Near the centre of the square, an iron paling surrounded a stone pedestal, from which the statue had been removed. I walked over to it, wondering what statue had been there, then I stopped–sickened by the sight of a body impaled on the iron spike. In a Frenchman’s blue uniform, gaily bedecked with ribbons, he hung with arms extended along the railing, his head hanging down on to his bright-buttoned chest, and his legs dangling.

Sick with horror but impelled by curiosity I went nearer, and saw some straw sticking out at the knee. Then I peered into the face–a black grinning mask–and saw that it was a realistic dummy. Nevertheless, in the eerie half-light, with the flicker of flames on that scene of devastation, it was a gruesome spectacle…

The German notice board on the ruins of the Peronne town hall

There is, as a matter of fact, direct photographic evidence of this particular act of desecration, available here.

And the next bit–already familiar to us from Carrington’s account, can be seen at the right:

Reapproaching the town hall I saw, fastened to its side wall, an enormous blue notice board–‘Nicht ärgern nur wundern!’–‘Do not be angry, only be surprised’. This in letters a foot deep.

 

Is it surprising, then, to find that Vaughan will not be sleeping well tonight, either? They are bedding down, now, in a quarry in what, for the moment, is the British reserve line.

…I was keen to know what cover we should take in case of shelling. He [Billy Kentish] answered abruptly, ‘There isn’t any cover,’ and blew his candle out…

‘Was that ours or theirs?’ I asked.

‘Ours now!’ And there was an impatient turn and snuggle.

Another thud! ‘How far away was that?’ No answer. It made me worse to think that he was going to sleep to leave me to face the danger alone. So I asked him: ‘I say, if a shell got us, would it hit the top of the quarry first, or drop straight in?’

At that he sat up in bed. ‘You are a windy young b—– Vaughan! You’ve got to chance it wherever you are, so for God’s sake shut up and go to sleep.’

I did shut up, but though thoroughly ashamed, I was still windy… At last, however, the lack of sleep on the previous night did its work and I slept peacefully…[3]

 

C.E. Montague may be the temperamental opposite of Edwin Vaughan: Montague is a fearless, practical, politic, hard-driving, modest rationalist… which does not mean he is not subject to melancholy. He had wanted–despite his age, his obvious fitness for an officer’s job, and his journalistic skills–to be an ordinary soldier in the trenches. But his age and his health–he turned 50 on New Year’s Day, and had proved too susceptible to infection–led to his being kicked upstairs to the dubious duty of greasing the wheels of the propaganda machine from a chateau well behind the lines.

That he’s an officer now, and can, at least, scare the daylights our of his touring V.I.P.s by bringing them too close to the line, sometimes seems like small consolation. A rare excerpt from his diary of today gives us some insight into how a reflective soul and a sharp mind near both the sinews of the army’s power and the engine of its self-misrepresentation feels about the German withdrawal:

Chateau de Rollencourt, 10.15 p .m., March 19, 1917

A year ago to-day I marched away from the front with my battalion, soon to leave it.

To-night I sit in an oil-lamp-lit room in a chateau, of 1770 perhaps. A log fire burns brightly in a big open, fenderless hearth, with little noises of hissing and crackling in the damp wood and the dry.

Outside an equinoctial gale is pressing on the house and whining and sniffing.

From the line E. of Arras-Nesle comes news at short intervals of further German retirements, of villages blazing in the Eastern sky at night, of cavalry entering empty villages, of aeroplanes bringing back word of the cavalry’s progress.

The big room is dark outside the zones of fire-light and lamp-light.

Five minutes ago the motor-cyclist despatch-rider came from G.H.Q. with our letters and to-day’s London papers. In a few minutes he will go into the night silence again, with my letter to M. and the other letters. Now and then a train can be heard on the railway to Arras, 300 yards off, doubled this winter for our advance, which the German retreat must be intended to baffle.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Boden, F.W. Harvey, Soldier, Poet, 125-59.
  2. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 99-100.
  3. Some Desperate Glory, 53-62.
  4. Elton, C.E. Montague, 156-7.

Edwin Vaughan Conjures a Village; Edward Thomas Hears his First French Thrush

Edwin Vaughan came out of the line in the early morning, two days ago, after a terrible tour in which he buried four mangled corpses and was visited by the shade of another. Or so it had seemed, anyway. After the exhilaration of relief, nearly twenty-four hours of sleep, and an idle day yesterday, his narrative picks up once again. He is out of the front line, but he has not escaped the malign mental world of the front line shambles–or, rather, he has stumbled into an allied but antithetical illusion.

Did no work during the day, but at dusk moved up to Herbécourt to mend roads. I suffered from an extraordinary delusion on this occasion. Before we left, Kentish, who was to command the working party, showed me the map and pointed out the place where we were to work–the road from Herbécourt to Flaucourt. It was bitterly cold, and I was not pleased at the thought of standing about in the darkness for hours. But then the picture of Flaucourt came into my mind. I imagined our arrival there after working along the cold wet road. The warm glow of the windows, the smell of the coffee shops and épiceries, and the rosy, warmly-clad villagers who would greet us. The picture made me quite cheery although in my sane mind I knew that the village is razed to the earth, being only just behind the line. Still, all the way up the Herbécourt road the image remained with me and kept me cheerful…

In the early morning hours, Vaughan reaches Herbécourt:

I found myself standing on top of a trench system, which ran around the foundations and ruins of some houses. Not a single wall was standing–all was a jumbled mass of broken brick and twisted iron. This was my village and I could have wept with disappointment…

Instead, Vaughan is met by a soldier who tells him that his friend Harcourt has died after having had both legs blown off by a booby trap left behind in a German dugout. Vaughan then returns to his men, who are still working on the road, in order to inform them that the Germans have withdrawn and left their trench system in British hands:

…with only a mild interest they enquired ‘Plenty of souvenirs?’ What to me was the glorious rout of the enemy and retreat of the Imperial Army meant to them ‘more blank marching!'[1]

They are right, of course, except for the perils now literally hard-wired to those potential souvenirs…

 

The withdrawal is proceeding at a slower pace up in Arras, at least from the point of view of the artillery–or a peripatetic poet. Edward Thomas‘s diary today shows little emotion–it generally doesn’t unless it reveals ominous signs of depression–but it does record an important addition to his spring birdsong count.

Larks and great tits. Ploughing field next to orchard in mist–horses and man go right up to crest in view of Hun at Beaurains…  Fired 100 rounds from 12-1.30. Sun shining but misty still. Letter from Bronwen.  The first thrush I have heard in France sang as I returned to Mess at 6 p.m.[2]

Notice how a hundred rounds of artillery fire slip by as a passing note, a matter of an hour and a half borrowed from correspondence, and from the birds. And yet each one of those rounds is enough to kill several Germans if it lands just right, while all the hundred are too few to guarantee anything more than the shifting of rumble. Which is quite a lot of uncertainty about the nature and effect of his work, but not a subject that Thomas wishes to take up.

Instead, this short diary jotting recalls or suggest a host of poems–larks are poetry’s favorite bird, and the man at his plow is the subject of one one of Thomas’s most moving poems. But let’s dwell on that first thrush. His first poetic resonance is of course Thomas Hardy‘s Darkling Thrush. But the thrush is not a seasonal bird–Edward Thomas heard one on New Year’s day–and so it is in no way freighted with a necessary message of hope, of nature returning to a forsaken landscape. This bird can mean many things, and Thomas himself has written the thrush, several times. In his work, “the thrush is the bird that Thomas most often aligns with… the poet.”[3]

Thomas’s most important thrush poem, a change-of-seasons meditation that is worth rereading now, is trenchantly intellectual–especially for a bird poem, as it were. While it recalls Keats and answers Hardy, Thomas’s “The Thrush” (written in November 1915) is not about inspiration or the swelling of emotion. Rather–and this is Thomas to the core–it features the poet and the natural singer apart and mutually regarding: emotional responses are raised, but they are to be checked and guided by the poet’s reasoning mind.

 

When Winter’s ahead,
What can you read in November
That you read in April
When Winter’s dead?

 

I hear the thrush, and I see
Him alone at the end of the lane
Near the bare poplar’s tip,
Singing continuously.

 

Is it more that you know
Than that, even as in April,
So in November,
Winter is gone that must go?

 

Or is all your lore
Not to call November November,
And April April,
And Winter Winter—no more?

 

But I know the months all,
And their sweet names, April,
May and June and October,
As you call and call

 

I must remember
What died into April
And consider what will be born
Of a fair November;

 

And April I love for what
It was born of, and November
For what it will die in,
What they are and what they are not,

 

While you love what is kind,
What you can sing in
And love and forget in
All that’s ahead and behind.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Some Desperate Glory, 50-2.
  2. War Diary (Childhood), 170.
  3. Longley, The Annotated Collected Poems, 260-1.

Siegfried Sassoon Joins the Second Battalion, in Several Frames of Mind; Unquiet Death Stalks Edwin Vaughan

After a long, slow train journey, a nasty night at Corbie, and a sticky tramp up to “Camp 13” at Chipilly, Siegfried Sassoon joined the Second Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers today, a century back.

He is not best pleased: his previous service had been with the First Battalion, and even finding his way to the one other Regular battalion of his own Regiment is not good enough to lift his spirits. (Many, indeed, were not so fortunate, in these days of expanding bureaucracy–he might have been sent to a Kitchener mob or even to some foreign, declassé regiment.) The chief appeal of the 2/RWF was to have been Robert Graves, but he is headed Blightyward, sick once again.

Will the dour and acid Sassoon of the Rouen sojourn remain utterly friendless, or will his gentler instincts (or the inevitable cycles of his changeable mien) prevail?

So far, at least, the former:

I was wearing my best friends, a pair of greased marching boots whose supple strength had never failed to keep the water out; how much those boots meant to me can only be understood by persons who have never shared my type of experience; I can only say that they never gave me sore feet; and if this sounds irrelevant, I must remind the reader that a platoon commander’s feet were his fortune.

Yes: when at long last he returns to a fighting unit of his regiment, after more than half a year a way, he sings a paean to his boots, preferring them to his human traveling companions, the two cadet officers he had “nothing in common with.”[1]

But as he points out, an infantry officer’s feet are very important… also, generally, are his friends.

Also, I have erred: those were the words of “George Sherston,” not Siegfried Sassoon. But as it happens, today, a century back, is the day that the exceedingly flimsy veil is rent by a draft–namely the draft of the foregoing passage of Memoirs of an Infantry Officer which made its way into Dr. Dunn’s battalion chronicle. I will wrest a slightly different bit from Dunn, to show that Sassoono does indeed remark on the men of his battalion, and not just the unsuitable officers.

I found myself in command of No. 8 platoon, which contained 8 Private Joneses.[2] Its total strength numbered 34, including 2 sergeants, 2 corporal and 6 lance-corporals. Eight of the 34 were Lewis gunners. These being deducted my compact little unit… seldom mustered 20 strong… A recent draft had added a collection of under-sized half-wits to the depleted Battalion. Several men in my platoon seemed barely capable of carrying the weight of their equpiment…[3]

Shorn of its sheen of fictionalization, this is still pretty harsh. At the very least it’s a less-than-ringing endorsement of the most literary battalion on the occasion of the arrival of its most appreciated litterateur…

But wait, there’s more! Here’s Sassoon in propria voce, taking the story from yesterday afternoon:

Left Rouen about 4 o’clock in sunlight… Got to Corbie at midnight… slept in Field Ambulance and went out to.Rest Camp at Chipilly next day to join Second R.W.F.

…My two R.W.F. companions are… quite dull and suitably impressed by the occasion. Everything seems conspiring to lower my spirits (our kits were lost and plundered on the way up…)

The poem he wrote is of a piece:

Return

I have come home unnoticed; they are still;
No greetings pass between us; but they lie
Hearing the boom of guns along the hill
Watching the flashes lick the glowering sky.

A wind of whispers comes from sightless faces;
‘Have patience, and your bones shall share our bed.
Their voices haunt dark ways and ruined places,
Where once they spoke in deeds who now are dead.

They wondered why l went; at last returning,
They guide my labouring feet through desolate mud.
And, choked with death, yet in their eyes discerning
My living Strength; they are quickened in my blood.

 

It becomes impossible to track down the “real” Sassoon–to fix him for than a few moments, here or there in the years, pen or indelible pencil in hand. When he was writing “Return,” at least, it would seem that a Sorley-inflected (but not Sorley-quality; indeed, wholly traditional and showing not a trace of his sharp recent satiric wit) poem about death and loss was the only thing that could express his true feelings. (Better, at least, then simple whingeing about uncongenial companions or slow trains.) It would seem, too, that his requirements of the Second Battalion are extremely unrealistic: it will not do unless it is officered by men he already knows and loves, despite the fact that many of these are dead or disabled…

But poetry is truth, right?

Ah, but what if the author himself returns to the poem and adds a footnote excoriating his own verse for its “entirely artificial emotionalism?”[4]

Sassoon is impossible, which is also to say that he’s never dull, even when he’s down. Let’s just give the last word to Frank Richards, old soldier and signaler of the battalion, and leave Sassoon for a better day:

Two new officers that had just arrived seemed of a far better stamp than some that we had had during the last few months, and one named Mr Sassoon, who was wearing the ribbon of the Military Cross, was soon very popular with the men of the Company he was posted to. He had been with the First Battalion before he came to us. The Battalion was doing the ordinary training… I had some glorious days in the villages some miles from the huts. We at least were getting all the enjoyment we could before going back to the blood-tub where we never knew what might happen to us.[5]

 

That’s more like it. But speaking of returning to the blood-tub:

Edwin Vaughan was also on the way up to the line last night, scrambling overland to rejoin his platoon in its scattered front-line posts. After a harrowing approach through machine gun and trench mortar fire, Vaughan had circled the posts, crawling through the viscous mud to visit each one and check in with the non-com in command. At one such post he found a normally reliable man–Corporal Bennett–in near panic (does that etymology lurk in Ledwidge’s recent pastoral?), begging to be relieved. But Bennett calmed down once Vaughan denied his request and explained that exceptions couldn’t be made. He was left in the post, in command of six men and Vaughan finished his tour and snatched a few hours of sleep in a dugout.

Early in the morning, a century back, Vaughan awoke and found a fellow officer making out a casualty report for Corporal Bennett:

A few minutes after I had left them a bomb had fallen amongst them. I told Holmes about Bennett’s nervousness and sudden return to fatalism and we agreed that he must have had a premonition.

But Vaughan’s description of his interaction with Bennett doesn’t mention a premonition or “fatalism.”

I’ve doubted details of Vaughan’s diary before–it seems to me to have been inconsistently “worked up,” with a lack of clear explanation of when it is and is not the plain daily diary it purports to be… but today’s tale actually seems to bolster the case that Vaughan is not always embroidering his experience.

First, although he is indeed “emplotting” events–turning a small disaster into a retrospective story of fate (or nerves and nemesis–it seems as if he is doing it as he writes. The story-fying of experience, that is, is taking place this very morning, a century back, and not later on (when the diary was recopied).

Second, because the CWGC database confirms some details of today’s account. One obvious question is why a corporal would be in command of a post of six men, and a possible answer is that he would if he had been formally invested with a sergeant’s responsibility by means of the arcane rank of “lance sergeant,” a sort of honorary half-promotion for corporals. I can’t find a Corporal Bennett at a close enough date, but there is a Lance-Sergeant Alfred Bennett of the Royal Warwickshires who is listed as having been killed tomorrow, a century back. That is a very small discrepancy, and it is even bolstered by the fact that Bennett has no known resting place. Many bodies were lost even in less difficult circumstances… I can’t quite match Bennet’s report of three other men being killed–and a fourth later in the day but, again, the database brings us fairly close: a few corporals and privates of the Warwickshires are reported killed today and buried at nearby cemeteries.

And then another wrinkle: Vaughan claims to have buried all four of the men “in shell-holes behind the post where they were killed.” Were some of them reburied later, while Bennett, who appears on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing, was never found? Very possible; I haven’t read ahead in Vaughan’s book yet, but perhaps that will clear things up to some degree.

So let’s move on, then, for the moment, genre sensors at the ready, to discover the reason that Vaughan gives these details:

After coming off duty, I was lying alone in the straw, and just dozing off, when I heard someone stop outside the cellar.  Sitting up, I saw the blanket slowly lifted and a head appeared in the dim light of the candle. I hardly repressed a scream of horror, and an icy numbness gripped me as I scanned–a blackened face, thick lips and acquiline nose, big eyes that stared at me, and a cap comforter drawn down almost to the eyebrows.  It was the face of the dead man that I had buried.

For fully half a minute we looked in silence at each other, then he asked me if I could tell him what time the rations would be up.  I laughed hysterically and made him come in so that I could dispel by conversation the awful fright that this appearance had given me. It was Corporal Harrison, his face blackened with wood-smoke but his every feature identical with that of the corpse.[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Complete Memoirs, 407.
  2. The paucity of family names in Wales seems to have been a never-ending source of humor to English observers. But it does stimulate an irresistible creativity in the way of cognomina...
  3. The War the Infantry Knew, 306.
  4. Diaries, 143.
  5. Old Soldiers Never Die, 221.
  6. Some Desperate Glory, 36-43.

J.R. Ackerley’s Brother Returns; Edwin Vaughan in the Front Lines, and Face to Face with a Spectre; Ivor Gurney Conjures Three, and Thanks Several Handfuls; Rowland Feilding is Witness to an Execution; Seventeen Letters for Edward Thomas; Siegfried Sassoon Curses Fate, and Departs

It’s another busy day, a century back, with one small sad action in the line and poetry behind it from Ivor Gurney and Siegfried Sassoon, who today leaves for the front once again.

But first, I did something odd in yesterday’s post. J.R. Ackerley writes the section of his memoir leading up to his brother’s role in the assault on Boom Ravine with heavy, ominous foreshadowing. The exchanged watches, the vision of unstrapping the watch from a dead wrist. Reading it, I was sure Pete Ackerley would die, so I wrote it up that way.

And for some hours, yesterday, a century back, Joe Ackerley seems to have believed that his brother was indeed dead. Then late reports came in that Pete was wounded, but Joe could do nothing. What was one wounded subaltern? The senior officers around him were busy attending to the tactical problems raised by the little raid,

And my brother was lying out wounded in no man’s land, and might have been the merest litter left about after a riotous party, for all the interest the Brigadier, the Colonel, or the Major evinced in his fate. And I did nothing either…

For several hours–and several pages–Ackerley wrestles with the question of what to do. His memory of this horrible time is so patchy that it is almost blank. Did he bravely go out into the open to look for his brother? Were the callous senior officers trying to allow him unofficially, heroically, to rescue his wounded brother? He’s not sure. Was he about to be a hero, or was he being a humbug?

Ackerley is not even sure if he was there, when his brother, finally, crawled back into the trench, wounded in the leg, not dangerously, hoping for another crack at the Huns. Pete Ackerley was sent back with a nice Blighty one, and spoke well of his brother at home. Joe Ackerley concludes the episode–written as the certain loss of a brother undone almost after the fact by a carelessly non-ruinous fate–by noting that “whatever happened I never recovered my watch.”

 

Hard on the heels of this strange account–but there’s a lot I want to cover, today–we have another trench baptism. Late last night, hours after coming up into the front line for the first time, Edwin Vaughan had toured the trenches with another officer, watching the men at work. There–and not for the first time–Vaughan’s anxiety washed over and eroded his heaped-up contempt, leaving him chastened. He may despise the officers and men when in billets, but he was impressed with their professionalism amidst the dangers of the fire trenches at night. Early this morning, after a fitful, drink-induced nap, he took his first turn on duty.

…as my sergeant did not arrive, I went out alone into the trench, where the eerie influences of the night descended up on me. It was deathly still, the mud, the smell of earth, the ragged sandbags, the gruesome litter numbed my brain; a cold fear chilled my spine and set my teeth chattering. I stood shaking and gazing horrified into the darkness, thinking: ‘this is war! and I am in the firing line!’ Then in a panic I set off down the trench. Reaching the first corner I drew back sharply and my heart stood still, for under the trenchboard bridge I saw a dark form pressed against the side of the trench.

In horror I glued my eyes upon it; the light was growing stronger, and it was quite distinct. And now I thought I saw a stealthy movement. Drawing my revolver and with just my head round the bend, I challenged it in a low voice. There was no reply… with my gun well forward I advanced and prodded–an old greatcoat hung on the trench side.

My relief at this anticlimax cheered me somewhat…

Anticlimax–as well as a suspiciously dense conglomeration of typical trench incidents–is Vaughan’s hallmark. But there is a different sort of anticlimax at 8 a.m., when his loathed Company Commander, Hatwell, wakes him under pretext of seeing the lovely morning but really “because he was jealous of my being asleep.”

And right after the beautiful morning? Hatwell gives Vaughan an ugly task: seeing to the burial of several nearby corpses.

Lying flat on their backs, with marble faces rigid and calm, their khaki lightly covered with frost, some with no wound visible, some with blood clotted on their clothes, one with a perfectly black face, they lay at attention staring up into the heavens. This was my first sight of dead men and I was surprised that it didn’t upset me. Only the one with the black face has stayed with me.[1] The thick, slightly curled lips, fleshy acquiline nose, cap-comforter pulled well down over his head and the big glassy eyes have become stamped on my brain.

In the afternoon, Vaughan experiences his first bombardment, rather confusingly described. Although he is in a deep dugout, he sees “the trench wall opposite” blow up and then a dud shell land “on the parados,” which would usually be directly over his head as he shelters in a dugout. These are trench mortars, as he explains:

…very destructive projectiles… their effect is so devastating and demoralizing that whenever they are used we inform our artillery who plaster the enemy lines heavily in retaliation. The idea is that their infantry will know that every time the mortars are used, they will catch out for it…

Vaughan’s first full day in the line is completed by a near miss from a German sniper–“my slip was an act of Providence–” and a failed attempt, after dark, to bury the nearby corpses. The ground is frozen, and they are left under a blanket…[2]

 

Rowland Feilding, commanding officer of the 6th Connaught Rangers, is an excellent correspondent both because he has pledged to tell his wife everything and because, despite his responsibilities, he is a sharp observer, and his anecdotes are pointed. Some small tragedies need little elaboration.

February 15, 1917. Facing Spanbroekmolen (Fort Victoria).

Here we are in the trenches again.

This morning, in daylight, a German came running across Noman’s Land with his hands up, and was shot by his own people just as he reached our wire. We shall get his body in to-night.

Ivan Garvey, who commands the Company holding the line at the point where it happened, says that three of his men immediately came rushing along the trench to tell him, and that when he went to the spot he found the platoon gazing over the parapet at the dead German. Some of them wanted to go and fetch him in then and there, but Garvey naturally did not allow that.[3]

 

Edward Thomas has been reading the letters written by his men, working to set up the battery, practicing. Today there was a training “shoot,” then more preparatory work in the afternoon. For several days his comrades have been grating on him, and he has seemed to take solace in his observations of the natural world:  “Black-headed buntings talk, rooks caw, lovely white puffs of shrapnel round planes high up…” Well, then: not so much nature reigning alone, but nature in her new context: “Dead campion umbels and grass rustling on my helmet through trenches.”

But this evening, a century back, brought relief and connection: the first post delivery since the battery embarked for France.

Letters arrived at 6. We sorted them and then spent an hour silently reading. 750 letters for me; 17 for me–from Helen, the children, father, mother, Eleanor, Freeman, Mrs. Freeman, Guthrie, Vernon and Haines.[4]

 

And Ivor Gurney wrote again to Marion Scott today, a century back. He lays the counter-Brookean sonnet sequence aside in order to address her requests for material for his first book of poetry, which she is preparing. The preface is rather fulsome, and shows one side of Gurney’s personality in full effect: he is effusive, generous, taking delight in being comically expansive.

15 February 1917 (P)

Preface

This book stands dedicated to one only of my friends, but there are many others to whom I would willingly dedicate singly and in state, if that did not mean the writing of 40 books of verse and dedications; a terrible thing for all concerned . . . So that under the single name and sign of homage and affection, I would desire such readers as come to me to add also—To my Father and Mother; F W Harvey, (also a Gloucestershire Lad;) Miss Marion Scott, whose criticism has been so useful, and she so kind; in spite of my continued refusal to alter a word of anything. The Vicar of Twigworth; H.N. Howells, (and this is not the last time you will hear of him;) Mr Hilaire Belloc, whose “Path to Rome” has been my trench companion, with the “Spirit of Man” ; Mr Wilfred Gibson, author of “Friends” , a great little book; many others also; including Shakespeare and Bach, both friends of mine; and last but not least — 5 Platoon, B Co, 2/5 Glosters; who so often have wondered whether I were crazy or not. Let them draw their own conclusions now, for the writing pf this book it was that so distracted me. . . . This is a long list, and even now does not include old Mrs Poyner that was so jolly and long-suffering; not my boat “Dorothy” now idle in the mud; though a poet sung of her full of glory at Framilode.

Even as I write the list becomes fuller, further extended, yet a soldier must face pain and so it remains shorter by far than might be. I fear that those who buy the book (or, even, borrow) to get information about the Second-Fifth will be disappointed. Most of the book is concerned with a person named Myself, and the rest with my county, Gloucester, that whether I die or live stays always with me; — being so beautiful in itself, so full of memories;  whose people are so good to be friends with, so easy-going and so frank.

Some of the aforementioned people I have never had good fortune enough to meet in the flesh, but that was not my fault. I hope they will forgive my using their names without permission. Ah, would they only retaliate in kind! That is however not likely, as I never was famous, and a Common Private makes but little show. All the verses were written in France, and in sound of the guns, save only two or three earlier pieces. May well be indulgent to one who thought of them so often, and whose images of beauty in the mind were always of Gloucester, county of Cotswold and Severn, and a plain rich blossomy and sweet of air — as the wise Romans knew, that made their homes in exile by the brown river, watching the further bank for signs of war.

And that’s not all, folks–Gurney has a ballad in him, today:

Compree. Ballad also
Ballad of the Three Spectres

As I went up by Ovillers
In mud and water cold to the knee.
There went three jeering, fleering spectres,
That walked abreast and talked of me.

The first said, “Heres a right brave soldier
That walks the darky unfearingly;
Soon he’ll come back on a fine stretcher.
And laughing at a Nice Blighty.

The second, “Read his face, old comrade.
No kind of lucky chance I see;
One day he’ll freeze in mud to the marrow.
Then look his last on Picardie.

Though bitter the word of these first twain
Curses the third spat venomously;
“He’ll stay untouched till the War’s last dawning.
Then live one hour of agony.

Liars the first two were. Behold me
At sloping arms by one — two — three;
Waiting the time I shall discover
Whether the third spake verity.

Not so bad eh?

By Gum, what will All the Good People of Gloster think of the Ugly Duckling they have hatched? There will be Some Surprise, what with one thing and another if the Tome appears. Roll on that time as soon as possible. Good luck with the Flu:

Your sincere Friend Ivor Gurney[5]

It’s difficult with Gurney, moody (i.e. mentally unstable) as he is–sometimes his letters seem to lay bare his suffering, to be uncertain records of his uncertain emotional terrain. But it’s reductive to insist that everything is about his mental state. He is a very good writer, and that requires–of course–embodying multiplicity, even contradiction. Or, simply, complexity–there’s nothing impossible or contradictory about what he has written. He is excited at the prospect of his first book, and he has, lately, found a new way to speak for the common soldiers… and yet he lives always under the grim little open end of his spectral “ballad:” for every death he dodges, many more possible deaths await, every day of the war, all the way until that last day’s dawning–and then a few hours more.

 

Finally, today, our foremost Fusilier is going back to the front. After an unhappy few months in camp near Liverpool and a whirlwind last few days of leave in London, Siegfried Sassoon began the freighted journey once more. Today, a century back, he left London for a base depot in France–and he described the experience, we will not be surprised to learn, more than once:

On February 15th I was at Waterloo for the noontide leave train (or, to be exact, the leave train the wrong way round). My mother was there to see the last of me, and Robbie had shepherded me to the station. My one desire was to have no feelings about anything. As we paced the platform I remarked to Robbie that the train was quite an old friend as this was the fourth time I had travelled by it. When it at length began to move, their faces kept up the usual forlorn pretence of looking bright. With the egotism of youth I couldn’t help wondering what they said to one another about me after they had turned away from the vanishing train…[6]

Ah but that is all retrospect. Here is the day’s diary, and a poem–with all thoughts forward and not a mention of mother or mentor bereft on the platform:

15 February

Left Waterloo 12 noon. Irish Hussar in carriage. Sunshine at Southampton…

Left London feeling nervous and rattled; but the worried feeling wears off once aboard the Archangel.

And as it does, Sassoon settles from the personal into the observational.

People seem to become happy in a bovine way as soon as they are relieved of all responsibility for the future. Soldiers going to the War are beasts of burden, probably condemned to death. They are not their own masters in any way except in their unconquerable souls.

Yet, when they have left their relatives and friends blinking and swallowing sobs on Waterloo platform, after a brief period of malaise (while watching the Blighty landscape flitting past) they recover. When the train has left Woking and the Necropolis in the rear ‘they begin to ‘buck’ themselves up’. After all, becoming a military serf or trench galley-slave is a very easy way out of the difficulties of life. No more perplexities there. A grateful Patria transports them inexpensively away from their troubles—nay, rewards them for their acquiescence with actual money and medals. But nevertheless they are like cabbages going to Covent Garden, or beasts driven to market.[7] Hence their happiness. They have no worries because they have no future; they are only alive through an oversight–of the enemy. They are not ‘going out’ to do things, but to have things done to them.

Not to make too much of one line, but this is the essence of Sassoon’s change of heart about the war, and it will be reflected in the change in the poetry as well. War, and poetry, once celebrated deeds. Now, in a latter-day phrase, men don’t do deeds, they are drafted into the galleys, shipped out like cabbages to become the subjects of passive suffering…

Finally, there is a poem of today’s journey which takes a step down the angry road that Sassoon has just sketched out:

Life-Belts (Southampton to Havre)

The Boat begins to throb; the Docks slide past;
And soldiers stop their chattering; mute and grave;
Doomed to the Push, they think ‘We’re off at last!’
Then, like the wash and welter of a wave,
Comfortless War breaks into each blind brain.
Swamping the hopes they’ve hugged to carry abroad;
And half-recovering, they must grope again
For some girl-face, or guess what pay they’ll hoard
To start a home with, while they’re out in France.
For, after all, each lad has got his chance
Of seeing the end. Like life-belts in a wreck,
They clutch at gentle plans—pathetic schemes
For peace next year. Meanwhile I pace the deck
And curse the Fate that lours above their dreams.[8]

Sassoon is speaking against “comfortless war,” now, and emphasizing the helplessness of these soldiers to influence the chances of their own survival.

A step toward protest, perhaps, but one expressed in a fairly traditional idiom. Any soldier–any human being–from any era may curse fate and still feel themselves to possess a fairly free hand for heroic self-fashioning. If this sort of poem is going to shock its readers out of the assumption that this war is, if not Great, at least generally noble and worthwhile, that hand of fate–in the person of British staff plans and German bombardments–will have to do more than merely lour

References and Footnotes

  1. Another indication that this "diary" is (re-)written after the fact.
  2. Some Desperate Glory, 30-34.
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 150.
  4. War Letters (Childhood), 162.
  5. War Letters, 133-5.
  6. Siegfried's Journey, 47.
  7. A phrase he took up in the memoir, moving it backwards a few days into a conversation with Lady Ottoline Morrell.
  8. Diaries, 131-2.

Siegfried Sassoon Makes a Hardy Request, and We Look A Century Back and Two Hundred Years After; Wilfred Owen Exposed, and Emboldened

A momentous day, today, a century back, in Great War Writing-Land. Or, rather, an overture to an important new movement, a bridging of the gulf, an act of loyal defection in the conflict of the generations.

Why has Siegfried Sassoon been so unconcerned about his friend’s new poetic friendship–about the fact that Robert Graves will be a dedicatee of Robert Nichols‘s new book?  (And if Sassoon knew Edward Thomas–he does not!–there would be Thomas’s upcoming dedication to Frost to be worried about too. But these are different circles…)

And it’s not just friendships. What about posturing? Why hasn’t Sassoon, like Richard Aldington, gotten those old-fashioned poets firmly in his sights? If he isn’t arrayed against some poetic malefactor(s), how is he to make a successful modern poet of himself?

Well, well: because he’s been working another angle. His respect and admiration for Thomas Hardy is sincere, but it is no doubt useful that Sassoon’s uncle is a friend of Hardy’s, and has carved a bust of him. That introduction paved a way for a first reading, and then for a request which Sassoon must have made right about the time that Graves departed for France. Here is Hardy’s reply:

Max Gate, Dorchester. February 4, 1917

Dear Mr Sassoon:

I am pleased that you should care to inscribe your coming book of poems to me, which of course you have my permission to do—if you think it worth while!

Many thanks for enclosing the proof of the little one about Corbie Ridge (I don’t know where that is.)

I hope the weather will be milder before you go back to France, & that you may have good luck over there.

Sincerely yours

Thomas Hardy[1]

There is something amusingly fussy about Hardy’s parenthetical remark. Well, of course he doesn’t know where Corbie Ridge is, and while a century on he might peck it into the search bar one key at a time and then be instantaneously better informed (and be able to affect knowingness about all the place-names of the Western Front in his reply) he’s not about to hustle down to the library and page through back issues just to discover what part of the line Sassoon is referring to.

But let that be. What about the poem, and the gesture of dedication? Sassoon has not been dwelling on Hardy, lately, but he is certainly more than just a conveniently famous family friend. He’s a great poet… and yet his only comment is to note his ignorance about Corbie Ridge? No kind words on the poem itself? Is there evidence of the craftsman’s promise, here?

But Hardy says nothing encouraging. And it was a well-chosen poem, too. Neither one of Sassoon’s older-fashioned pretty laments, nor one of his sharp new satires, Sassoon had sent a most Hardy-like poem. It is Sassoon-like as well, with the mud and the long retrospect, but is it too obviously an apprentice Satire of Circumstance?

 

Two Hundred Years After

Trudging by Corbie Ridge one winter’s night,
(Unless old hearsay memories tricked his sight)
Along the pallid edge of the quiet sky
He watched a nosing lorry grinding on,
And straggling files of men; when these were gone,
A double limber and six mules went by,
Hauling the rations up through ruts and mud
To trench-lines digged two hundred years ago.
Then darkness hid them with a rainy scud,
And soon he saw the village lights below.

But when he’d told his tale, an old man said
That he’d seen soldiers pass along that hill;
‘Poor silent things, they were the English dead
Who came to fight in France and got their fill.’

 

Read in this fashion, in this context, it’s a fair bet that Hardy saw the poem and worried that he might have a fawning imitator on his hands. Sassoon is promising–his verse is always smooth. But this scene, first imagined in June–the setting out on the cold downs, the trudging mules and hunched men and fatalistic rain (never mind the lorry!)–and then the reveal, in the final quatrain, that they are ghosts, futile ghosts, and that their war will never end–this scene could be titled “A Soldier’s Post-Script to Mr. Thomas Hardy’s Satires of Circumstance.” So Hardy, I think, is wary.

But how could we not be pleased? We must be. It is only a slight bit of imaginative hyperbole (two hundred years?!?!) that keeps this poem from being something like a joint standard-bearer (a tent-pole? an optio? the column at the other end of the pediment?) for A Century Back. Our namesake poem is Hardy’s At Lulworth Cove a Century Back, with its poets and ghosts and time-travel… if Sassoon had opted for the relatively restrained future-contemplation of a single century, then the parallel would be irresistible.

As things stand, in Dorset and Litherland, young Sassoon is on probation, I think–the twain are in mutual regard, but not convergence. And yet Sassoon’s forthcoming book is cleared to carry a dedication to the greatest living angry-fatalist poet…

 

We take one more step back down the chain of connection, now, to another even younger poet who is yet to converge with any of our other writers. But Wilfred Owen is making great strides nonetheless. In today’s letter to his mother winter hardships are the seeds of a poem, and percolating thoughts of that poem lead Owen closer toward a major statement against the war.

Sunday, 4 February 1917 [Advanced Horse Transport Depot]

My own dear Mother,

…since my last letter I have had another, strong dose of the advanced Front Line.

To begin with, I have come out quite unhurt, except for a touch of dysentery, which is now passed, and a severe cold and cough which keep me in bed today.

I have no mind to describe all the horrors of this last Tour. But it was almost wusser than the first, because in this place my Platoon had no Dug-Outs, but had to lie in the snow under the deadly wind. By day it was impossible to stand up or even crawl about because we were behind only a little ridge screening us from the Bosches periscope.

The bit of baby talk–“wusser” for “worse”–is discordant now where it wouldn’t have been a few weeks ago. Wilfred continues to write home to mum, and to complain, but this letter includes deep misery and death, and he is already mulling over the meaning of it all.

We had 5 Tommy’s cookers between the Platoon, but they did not suffice to melt the ice in the water-cans. So we suffered cruelly from thirst.

The marvel is that we did not all die of cold. As a matter of fact, only one of my party actually froze to death before he could be got back but I am not able to tell how many have ended in hospital. I had no real casualties from shelling, though for 10 minutes every hour, whizz-bangs fell a few yards short of us. Showers of soil rained on us, but no fragments of shell could find us.

Owen now waxes almost mystical:

I had lost my gloves in a dug-out, but I found 1 mitten on the Field; I had my Trench Coat (without lining but with a Jerkin, underneath.) My feet ached until they could ache no more, and so they temporarily died. I was kept warm by the ardour of Life within me. I forgot hunger in the hunger for Life. The intensity of your Love reached me and kept me living. I thought of you and Mary without a break all the time. I cannot say I felt any fear. We were all half-crazed by the buffetting of the High Explosives, I think the most unpleasant reflection that weighed on me was the impossibility of getting back any wounded, a total impossibility all day, and frightfully difficult by night.

We were marooned on a frozen desert.

There is not a sign of life on the horizon and a thousand signs of death. Not a blade of grass, not an insect; once or twice a day the shadow of big hawk, scenting carrion.

This is quite dramatic. Not that the misery and fear of holding such a line in such weather doesn’t merit such drama… it just seems as if he is straining for effect. It will feel very different, however, in verse. Owen may have begun working on the poem that would come to be “Exposure” within a day or two of today, a century back.

Our brains ache, in the merciless iced east winds that knive us . . .
Wearied we keep awake because the night is silent . . .
Low drooping flares confuse our memory of the salient . . .
Worried by silence, sentries whisper, curious, nervous,
       But nothing happens.
The poem, the first in which Owen sets out to portray something of the range of trench experience in verse, will also be the first in which he directly addresses, in apostrophe, his swift disillusionment:

 

Watching, we hear the mad gusts tugging on the wire,
Like twitching agonies of men among its brambles.
Northward, incessantly, the flickering gunnery rumbles,
Far off, like a dull rumour of some other war.
       What are we doing here?

 

The poignant misery of dawn begins to grow . . .

We only know war lasts, rain soaks, and clouds sag stormy.
Dawn massing in the east her melancholy army
Attacks once more in ranks on shivering ranks of grey,
       But nothing happens.

 

Needless to say, perhaps, but this is more than just a dawn recorded. Dawn is for poets–full of hope, full of meaning, pregnant with larks straining at the muse’s leash, ready to leap to the sky. “But nothing happens.”
Sudden successive flights of bullets streak the silence.
Less deadly than the air that shudders black with snow,
With sidelong flowing flakes that flock, pause, and renew,
We watch them wandering up and down the wind’s nonchalance,
       But nothing happens.

 

Pale flakes with fingering stealth come feeling for our faces—
We cringe in holes, back on forgotten dreams, and stare, snow-dazed,
Deep into grassier ditches. So we drowse, sun-dozed,
Littered with blossoms trickling where the blackbird fusses.
       —Is it that we are dying?

 

Slowly our ghosts drag home: glimpsing the sunk fires, glozed
With crusted dark-red jewels; crickets jingle there;
For hours the innocent mice rejoice: the house is theirs;
Shutters and doors, all closed: on us the doors are closed,—
       We turn back to our dying.

 

Well, so, there is melodrama, too, with that blackbird nattering out any hope. There is something not quite right here, a serious problem of tone. He affects to speak for all of his men–“we… we… our… our…”–but if he is to succeed in that, he will need a different sort of voice. Not the gruff or cheerful or stoic Bairnsfathery voice, but something much farther away from lyrical narcissism. This poem begins to bring some notes of wartime experience over into literature, but the voice is still innocent, if only because it is so self-regarding. Unconsciously, perhaps, we read “I” for all this “we.”
I don’t understand the force of the religious appeal in the penultimate stanza, but the last paragraph, despite the poem’s flaws, has real emotional power. As we will see, when we return to the letter, his sense of outrage–of a distaste or disgust, of a horror that not only merits but demands action–has outpaced his style.
Since we believe not otherwise can kind fires burn;
Now ever suns smile true on child, or field, or fruit.
For God’s invincible spring our love is made afraid;
Therefore, not loath, we lie out here; therefore were born,
       For love of God seems dying.

 

Tonight, this frost will fasten on this mud and us,
Shrivelling many hands, and puckering foreheads crisp.
The burying-party, picks and shovels in shaking grasp,
Pause over half-known faces. All their eyes are ice,
       But nothing happens.
Although its roots are in this last frigid tour, the poem itself is in the near future. Today, the rest of the letter remains, and it contains a common piece of irony: if a terrible experience is to lead to a poem, then there must also be a respite from terrible experience in which the inspiration can actually be written.
By degrees, day by day, we worked back through the reserve & support lines to the crazy village where the Battalion takes breath…

 

At last I got to the village, & found all your dear precious letters, and the parcel of good and precious things. The Lamp is perfect your Helmet is perfect, everything was perfect.

But he hasn’t just survived a tour in the trenches–he has won an unexpected reprieve.

Then I had the heavenly-dictated order to proceed on a Transport Course. Me in Transports? Aren’t you? When I departed, the gloom among the rest of the Subs, and even among Captains, was a darkness that could be felt. They can’t understand my luck…

The Course should last 1 month!!

Fondest love to all, & thanks for all their letters.

Your own Wilfred x

So Owen will be safe, now, for some time, in Abbeville.

We’ll close with a telling little post-script. Wilfred has been almost rapturous in writing to his mother; but it would be different, wouldn’t it, with his stern and doubting father?

P.S. I don’t at all deserve the spirited approbation which Father gives me. Though I confess I like to have his kind letters immensely. I shall read them less shamefacedly in dug-outs and trenches, than I do here in this pleasant peaceful town.

And the post-script goes on and on, leading, perhaps, to the mood in which the poem will begin.

Quite 10 years ago I made a study of this town & Cathedral, in the Treasury. It is all familiar now!

…I suppose I can endure cold, and fatigue, and the face-to-face death, as well as another; but extra for me there is the universal pervasion of Ugliness. Hideous landscapes, vile noises, foul language and nothing but foul, even from one’s own mouth (for all are devil ridden), everything unnatural, broken, blasted; the distortion of the dead, whose unburiable bodies sit outside the dug-outs all day, all night, the most execrable sights on earth. In poetry we call them the most glorious. But to sit with them all day, all night . . . and a week later to come back and find them still sitting there, in motionless groups, THAT is what saps the ‘soldierly spirit’ . . .[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Letters of Thomas Hardy, V, 201.
  2. Collected Letters, 430-2.