Wilfrid Ewart in Bourlon Wood: What They Asked Us to Do Was Impossible; Doctor Rivers in Another Doctor’s Hell

The Battle of Cambrai has seen an unprecedented advance, a failure to break through, and stiff German resistance in another torn and terrible wood. The Guards have been called in, now–on both sides.

Although Cambrai is one of the few battles not to feature in his novel Way of Revelation, it provided the most harrowing moments of Wilfrid Ewart‘s war experience. At first light, three companies of the First Scots Guards were ordered to clear Bourlon Wood.

This of course was sheer open fighting, and quite different than anything we had done before except on field days.

But it didn’t last long. Machine guns pinned down one flank of the assault, and after several hours of stationary fighting it became clear that the British were outnumbered, and the attackers withdrew.

Then orders came up that they must try again, at two o’clock.

This was at 1.15, so there was not much time to arrange it, and I had the wind up as never before, feeling certain that it was impossible to take the place owing to the machine-guns which were supposed to be rushed with the bayonet…

It is now, I think, that the poor planning of the Cambrai offensive–the first few hours markedly improved in conception and execution, the rest abandoned to foolish hopes–becomes most clear.

There was a short and quite useless machine-gun barrage, no artillery. Just after we had gone over, Tyringham tried to stop us, as the Command realized the hopelessness of it, but it was then too late.

One company was “laid out together trying to rush the machine-guns.” The two guns then turn on Ewart and two men, out in front of his platoon, only fifteen yards away. They throw themselves down behind “a young oak-tree.”

The machine-gun fired absolutely point blank, but could not quite reach us on account of the tree… two Lewis Gunners… kept firing for all they were worth…working their guns in the open until they were killed. Every man was killed one after the other…

By this Ewart probably means every man among the Lewis gunners and their support teams. He is pinned down between the Germans and his men, watching the one kill the other, helpless. Some of his platoon are able to withdraw, it seems, but the Germans now begin throwing phosphorous grenades among the wounded, “which set light to them and burnt them up.”

Ewart and the two men are soon alone, and make a desperate retreat, crawling for the rear. One makes it, then the next is hit heavily (he will die of his wound). Ewart goes last.

I waited about five minutes and then did a lightning sprint on my stomach, and by all natural laws ought to have been hit–the bullets were knocking stones up into my face… It was an experience I shall never wish to repeat… what they asked us to do was impossible.[1]

The First Scots Guards were relieved that night, and due for a longer rest; but their Battle of Cambrai was not yet over.

 

So goes the latest of the war’s bloody battles. But what of those who have survived the earlier battles, their bodies undestroyed and yet not intact?

A good deal of the literature of the war has focused on the question of psychological trauma–“shell-shock”–and how it was diagnosed, treated, experienced, remembered, and written. We have, first and foremost, the poetry of the surviving soldiers who struggled with “shell shock” or post-combat “neurasthenia.” These are the most primary of sources, of course, but “shell shock”–with its dramatic traumas, unstable psyches, and uncertain social reception–calls out for third party treatment, as it were. The novel remains one of the best tools we have for exploring the human mind, and especially for depicting the attempt of one mind to reach another, over particularly terrible gulfs of experience. One series of such attempts, mediated through the mind of Dr. Rivers, becomes the central subject of Pat Barker’s incomparable Regeneration trilogy.

Readers of this project may remember that Dr. Rivers–pioneering neurologist, skilled and sensitive therapist, and father-figure-hero to Siegfried Sassoon–is currently on leave in London after a staff dust-up at Craiglockhart, and working on an academic paper about his work with “war neuroses.” Today, a century back (in the novel, at least), he takes the cruelest sort of busman’s holiday, going to the National Hospital to observe the methods of of Dr. Lewis Yealland, who has boasted of a 100% cure rate for cases of hysterical war neurosis. Readers of Regeneration will certainly remember this scene–it’s awful. Yealland is the villain of the piece, but as far as I can tell it (not far at all! caveat!) Barker represents his methods more or less accurately. Yealland takes patients who have been shocked/traumatized into mutism or who exhibit physical contortions that cannot be explained by physical injuries and he shocks them–literally–back into health.

Yealland believes, as most men once did, that such symptoms are merely the result of a failure of nerve–of a sort of hysterical cowardice rather than damage that has been done to honorable and healthy human beings. So, armored with contempt–Barker portrays him as so thorough a bully that he has no idea he is, in fact, torturing war victims–Yealland uses physical pain and pressure, including electrical shocks and even cigarette burns to force men to speak or unbend their twisted limbs.

It works: they walk again, and speak; they even go back to war.

Enough summary–if this sounds bearable, then read the book. You will come to see the scene–once its horrors are half-forgotten–as a clever piece of fiction, and a major step toward what becomes the most important theme of the trilogy. Not Sassoon’s growth or the renunciation of his protest, but Rivers’ journey from mere saint to fellow martyr: he becomes a witness to the harrowing of the lost generation, one of the few older men in Britain who, through their proximity to the minds of traumatized men, sufferer the war themselves.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Scots Guard, 148-9.
  2. See Regeneration, 223-35.

George Coppard’s Machine Guns to Cambrai; Rowland Feilding’s Rangers at Bullecourt; Robert Graves Sets the Record Straight; Agnes Miller as Lizzie Bennet, Olaf Stapledon as Mr. Darcy

Today, a century back, was the first day of the battle of Cambrai. There shouldn’t have been any real hope for a breakthrough, especially so near to the beginning of winter. But the ground in front of Cambrai–between the Arras battlefield and the Somme battlefield–was relatively unspoiled, and it was conceivable that the British could take the town and the Bourlon Ridge and thus threaten to cut off the Hindenberg Line. It is also conceivable that since the Third Army hadn’t suffered horribly, lately, its restive commanders simply wanted to experiment with massed tanks and new artillery tactics, and so an intelligent commitment to holding the line gave way to an experimental local attack that grew out of scale as the planning continued.

But I’m not capable of giving an intelligent precis of the strategy here, nor do we really need one. Six divisions of infantry and over 400 tanks were massed for the traditional dawn assault, and there was some hope that the Germans, expecting a long barrage, would be unprepared for the sudden attack after a short, furious bombardment by over a thousand guns, most of which had been “silently” registered on their targets. The new tactics worked well, but they will not be enough to sustain initial successes against the heavily built-up Hindenberg Line.

Among the thousands lying out between the British front lines in the early morning hours were George Coppard and his two machine gun teams, part of the 37th Brigade, 12th Division.

There we were, a brigade of men, shivering on a cold November night, without a smoke, and suffering like drug addicts… we were only allowed to communicate in whispers. It was the queerest sensation being packed with a vast crowd of warriors, within 400 yards of our front line, and out in the open, after living like rabbits in burrows for many months. It was a spooky business, and we kept as quiet as mice…

Like all the rest I was excited at the prospect of going into battle behind these new-fangled Wellsian monsters. I felt they were really going to exact retribution, on behalf of all of us, for the countless miseries and privations that we poor blighters had suffered at Jerry’s hands.This was to be the reckoning…

Zero was at 6.30 am on that memorable day, 20 November. We heard the sound of tank engines warming up. The first glimpse of dawn was beginning to show as we stood waiting for the big bang that would erupt behind us at the end of the countdown. Lieutenant Garbutt and Sergeant Critcher were standing near me. At last the officer began to count. He was bang on, and in a flash the black sky at our backs was ablaze with stabbing shafts of light. A vast drum of terrible thunder swept along the eight-mile front and a chorus of shells screamed over to the east. The need for silence was over, and we exploded in a babble of excitement. That concentration of artillery was surely one of the greatest ever known. The tanks, looking like giant toads, became visible against the skyline as they approached the top of the slope. Some of the leading tanks carried huge bundles of tightly-bound brushwood, which they dropped when a wide trench was encountered, thus providing a firm base to cross over. Suddenly, the bombardment ceased. By now the tanks were near the German lines and shooting it out where resistance was met…

We went forward into enemy country in a manner never possible without the aid of tanks. ‘A’ section fell in behind the Queen’s, my two guns being on the right flank. No enemy fire of any sort impeded us until we passed Gonnelieu on our left… It was broad daylight as we crossed No Man’s Land and the German front line. I saw very few wounded coming back, and only a handful of prisoners. The tanks appeared to have busted through any resistance. The enemy wire had been dragged about like old curtains, though it was not comparable in density to the terrible wire at the beginning of the Somme battle.

As we moved forward… I could see several tanks rolling forward steadily. There did not appear to be any organised defence against them. Some changed directions to meet isolated spots of resistance, mostly from machine guns. One or two had come to a stand-still, probably with engine trouble…

From the general situation it seemed to me that the German infantry had either fled at the apparition of the tanks or had pulled out deliberately, leaving their machine guns to do what they could…

Whatever the reason for the feeble resistance, it suited my gun team very nicely, and we moved forward steadily with guns and gear. Officialdom had designated tanks sex-wise, i.e. those with light cannon were males and those with machine guns were females. This caused the lads to think up some bright expressions when viewing the lumbering monsters, such as, “Here’s an old bitch,’ or, ‘There goes a bloody great bull.’

Advancing along captured communications trenches, Coppard and his men eventually discovered that not all German resistance had been overcome. His wide-ranging memories of the day[1] narrow, now, as he comes under direct fire.

We reached a point where it cut through the banks of a sunken road. We had to cross the road, but pulled up sharp at the sight of three dead Tommies lying on it. I dashed across the road to where the trench continued–a matter of about ten feet. From a concealed position on my right a Jerry machine guns opened fire. My hair stood on end as the bullets hissed past my back. The gunner was just a trifle late to get me.

There was a tank nearby beginning to move after a stop. I told one of the crew about the enemy machine gun, ‘We’ll fix the bastard,’ he replied, and slowly the tank shuffled round on its tracks and rolled off in the direction of the hostile gun. Then came a fiery burst as the hapless weapon tried to beat off the tank, the bullets clanging and ricocheting. The teams crossed the road safely, well-bucked at this practical demonstration of a tank in action.

Other than this adventure, Coppard saw little action–most of the German artillery seems to have withdrawn before the attack–evidence, perhaps, that they were not in fact strategically surprised. The 37th Brigade advances seven kilometres, just as planned, and without finding targets along the way. After his two teams dig in for the night–and for the expected counter-attack–Coppard explored their immediate area, finding a German command dugout with a body at the bottom. Nauseated–and fearing booby traps–he and his hungry men forgo taking any of the food in the dugout…[2]

 

Rowland Feilding‘s battalion was part of the 16th (Irish) Division, and attacked not as part of the main effort at Cambrai but with the subsidiary attack several miles to the west, at Bullecourt. They held the right flank of their brigade attack, which would prove to be a difficult situation.

Shortly before Zero I headed for the front to wish the assaulting Companies good luck before they went over, but I was delayed, and found myself still in the fire-trench when, bursting out of almost perfect silence, our barrage started…

As a precautionary measure I had had the direction of the objective marked out with tape the night before, having learned, from previous experience, the difficulty of keeping direction in the dark.

Absolutely to the tick I watched the men scaling the ladders… and scrambling over the parapet, the signallers under their sergeant struggling with the coils of telephone wire that was to keep me in touch with the assaulting troops once they had established themselves in the German trench. Those are sights that are very inspiring, and which engrave themselves upon the memory, but I prefer to turn away from them…

By this time the usual inferno… had worked up to its full fury.

It is very clear, at least, that British synchronization has reached a high level of efficiency. Feilding describes the barrage, and his attempt to control the attack from a forward position, but the small dugout soon becomes crammed with wounded men and German prisoners, so he headed back to his “proper Headquarters.”

At this moment poor Brett came stumbling back, crimson with blood, having been shot through the face, bringing further confirmation of the news which I already had from him by runner, that the enemy was furiously counter-attacking our exposed right flank.

The two bunkers are visible in the upper left of the map segment, below, just to the left of the hatched vertical line. Both are marked, appropriately enough, with a symbol much like the conventional “mars” symbol, but in this case indicating a “mebus” machine gun emplacement.

In his next letter, Feilding will explain the tactical situation. The primary objectives of his two companies were two huge reinforced concrete bunkers (“Mebus” was then the term) known as “Mars” and “Jove.” Both were swiftly outflanked under a precise barrage and smoke-screen–“the advance to the attack across Noman’s Land had been carried out precisely as rehearsed”–and surrendered after brief resistance. Eventually, 152 prisoners were collected, but the engineers accompanying the infantry, focused on clearing mines and booby-traps, were unable to block all of the tunnels connecting the German network of defensive positions.

When the counter-attack came, less than an hour after zero, it was both over the open ground to their right and through tunnels that led to the bunker.

You will appreciate its severity when I tell you that the Commander and twenty-six out of twenty-eight other ranks of the right flank platoon became casualties. The officers and men fought with the most heroic determination in spite of a failing and finally disappearing supply of bombs…

At a critical moment one of the men, Private K. White, rushed close up to a traverse from behind which the enemy was bombing, and actually catching some of their bombs in the air, threw them back before they had exploded.

But it was not enough–after an hour, Captain Brett, shot through the face, led a retreat onto the other pillbox. This held, and after another hour, Feilding himself crossed No Man’s land with his orderly in order to visit the position.

I talked to the men as I passed along the line, and found them in good spirits, and confident in the knowledge of the splendid part they had played that morning…

They have done well–and still suffered heavy casualties.

The familiar scene of desolation confronted me. Each time I see this kind of thing I think it is worse than the last time, and indeed, on this occasion, so churned up was the surface that, but for the line of tunnel entrances and the trodden ground between them, there was little left to indicate where the trench had been. It was just a sea of overlapping craters of huge dimensions–a dismal chaos of fresh-turned earth.

Feilding, with little to do now that the counter-attack has petered out, explores the new position, coming upon the dead, the dying, and the wounded. Even though he is so close to the action–he was in command of the men who stormed the two pillboxes and took the tunnels with hand-grenades, he writes almost as an observer. He sees the horrible aftermath, promises aid to the wounded, and collects souvenirs…[3]

 

Back down in the main battle, Edward Horner (one of the last of the Coterie, and a great friend of both Diana Manners and Duff Cooper) moved up with his 18th Hussars as the battle began. We have read Coppard’s and Feilding’s tales of heavy machine guns, precise artillery coordination, and tank exploits against pillboxes, and the battlefield was overflown by hundreds of aircraft–1917 as a foreshadowing of 1939. But there were only a few hundred tanks to be had and, as we shall see, they were mechanically unreliable, and so the plan for exploiting any breakthroughs was essentially the same as it had been in 1915 and 1916, and behind the attacking tanks and infantry trotted three entire divisions of cavalry–Hussars, Dragoons, and Lancers no longer dressed in their flashing Napoleonic finery, but still booted, spurred, helmeted, and mounted. Cambrai was, in the words of one of our writers who was not there but will study the subject, “a harum-scarum affair, ill-planned and feebly directed.” It was a raid that got out of hand, in terms of its scale, and could only do what raids do: snatch a bit of ground which cannot be held. The tactical coordination may yet be a model for future operations, but they have not solved the operational problem of continuing the advance.

So, as the German counter-attack gathers, Horner’s Hussars, part of the 1st Cavalry Division, passed through the infantry and attacked the village of Noyelles, south-east of Cambrai. But too slowly: although in some places all three major layers of the Hindenberg Line were pierced to a distance of nearly five miles (a fourth line was incomplete), by the time the heavily-laden horses had picked their way through, the German defense had had time to organize. The cavalry were in it, at last, but they were not cantering through the open fields toward Berlin. They were fighting a confused battle on a torn up field, against undisturbed reserves who had easier access to heavy weapons.

 

Back to the infantry, now. E. A. Mackintosh’s 4th Seaforth Highlanders were in reserve, although they probably assumed that they would be called in when the attack bogged down. But they were not–and if the cavalry were both elated and disappointed to be involved in heavy fighting, the infantry were very pleased to have a short march forward into the captured area. So, despite yesterday’s note, Mackintosh saw no fighting today. During the night they will take over for the first waves, victorious but exhausted.[4]

 

Also in the battle were both of Isaac Rosenberg‘s recent units–the company of Royal Engineers with whom he had served as a laborer and the 11th King’s Own Royal Regiment (Lancaster). As with Mackintosh’s Seaforths, their easy first day will turn out to be only be a brief reprieve: the German counter-attack will come soon, and it will be as devastating as the British assault was successful. And so Rosenberg will come to know that he has been very fortunate to be very ill, and in hospital, and not in Bourlon Wood.[5]

 

It might make sense to end here, or to spend more time fleshing out these scattered notices of a large battle–but that, of course, is not how today, a century back, was experienced. It was all in bits in pieces, and only later would it be the beginning of a strategic story of ambition, success, and cruel but predictable reversal. In England the evening papers will have some news of the attack, but for most people, most of the day, their thoughts were elsewhere.

Robert Graves, for instance, is writing from his garrison job in Wales to Robert Nichols. The letter happily discusses their recent literary successes–“My God, Robert, we have lit such a candle as by God’s grace will set the whole barn alight”–and proposes various projects, before it works around to Graves’s real business–clearing the air of any lingering questions about his sexuality.

It’s only fair to tell you that since the cataclysm of my friend Peter, my affections are running in the more normal channels and I correspond regularly and warmly with Nancy Nicholson, who is great fun. I only tell you this so that you should get out of your head any misconceptions about my temperament. I should hate you to think I was a confirmed homosexual even if it were only in my thought and went no further.

Fair enough, perhaps. It is testimony to both Graves’s enthusiasm and his obliviousness that it might only recently have occurred to him that his habit of being honest about his (chaste) passion for a younger schoolboy might lead some to think that he was “a confirmed homosexual.” The topic may be on his mind, too, because Nichols–his heterosexuality confirmed by syphilis apparently contracted from prostitutes–has recently spent time with Siegfried Sassoon and Robbie Ross. And then there is one more poet whose affections run in less “normal” channels… and whom Graves, after connecting Nichols and Sassoon (though Ross was there to do the real work) will try to take credit for discovering, even though, of course, it was Sassoon who introduced them.

I think I have found a few poet as yet unfledged. One Owen, subaltern in the 2nd Manchester Regiment.[6]

Owen, meanwhile, left home this morning, a century back, his leave up, for garrison duty in Scarborough.[7]

 

Finally today, we’ll take a perversely wide view of “war literature” and swing from the tanks at Cambrai to the nineteenth century novel inspiring in Australia.

Agnes Miller–together with a score of other wives and sweethearts–suffers the compounded insult, here, of once again waiting quietly in the background while men’s words take center stage. The excuse, of course, is that we are interested, a century on, in the experience of the war and the problems of writing about it, and therefore the letters of those at the front naturally take precedence over those written from home to the soldiers (and ambulance drivers). Which is fine, as far as it goes, but it’s still a shame that this echoes the general devaluing of women’s voices, a century back. Although sometimes any fault is mine–I choose to omit the letters, that is–another reasonable excuse is that there is often no possibility of including the other half of the conversation: letters from the front could be bundled and laid lovingly away in drawers and trunks, while letters to the front were very often lost or simply thrown away, since a bundle of letters would become a burden to a front-line soldier.

But some recipients were able to keep at least some of their letters, and, while I often skip Agnes Miller’s tales of daily life in wartime Australia, today’s letter, though ill-timed to coincide with a major tank battle and the climax of one machine-gunner’s memoir, is impossible to resist. In fact, it’s about as excellent a letter from a lover as one could hope to receive… which is also to say that I approve of its subject and position, a century on. Moreover, after he will have received her long-delayed doubts on the strength of their relationship to survive these years apart, this letter will surely overwhelm Olaf Stapledon with love for his beloved–and with gratitude for the timely wisdom of that “lady novelist” then dead a century and four months.

20 November 1917

I wonder if perhaps you are at home now on leave—perhaps at this very minute waking up one morning at Annery. I have a habit of always thinking of you eight weeks ago, sort of. I don’t realise that you are really there keeping pace with me at every fresh minute of the day. It is nice to think that. It makes you more real. I have read two books in the past three days. That is my record! I kept thinking how much you would have enjoyed them if we had been reading them aloud to each other. Of course you must have read them—“Pride & Prejudice” & “Northanger Abbey.” You do like Jane Austen, don’t you? I simply love her. Such really artistic delightful writing. Such books make me think of diamonds, small diamonds but perfect in workmanship. Absolutely genuine—clean cut, perfectly smooth & sparkling. Full of such delicious humour & such sound good sense, & although the ways & the language that day are so very different from ours yet the characters are just such as we meet everywhere. I should like to have been friends with Jane & Elizabeth Bennett. . . . I should so like to be as bright & intelligent & sprightly as Elizabeth! No wonder Mr. Darcy “got it badly” when he did get it! I like to picture you in the characters of all the nice lovers— my
Mr. Darcy!

. . . I can understand Elizabeth very well. I can understand her resentment at such a sudden & unexpected declaration. I can understand her disapproval amounting to positive dislike on that occasion. I think she would understand my despair & sorrow—almost shame at having won a love that I could never hope to return. If she had understood my feeling she would not have been surprised to find me weeping upstairs in the darkened drawing room. . . .

Then next I see the beginnings of changes in both of us—changes which make us feel how far away we both were before from the real thing & at last “my Mr. Darcy” comes to me—or rather I write to him from the other end of the world & say, “Dear Mr. Darcy—Once, a long time ago, you asked me to be your wife & I said no & I was very cross & horrible & now I am sorry. Everything is different now & I am different too & I understand & if you will only ask me once again I will not say no—indeed I will not.”

And she did not.

Mr. & Mrs. Darcy were very happy after their stormy courtship & Mr. & Mrs. Stapledon will surely be even more so to make up for all the long time they have had to wait. . . . Jane Austen really is a tonic as well as an artist.[8]

We are to be grateful, however, that Agnes didn’t happen upon Persuasion, first, which might have romantically inclined her toward a long sharp wartime separation and a preference, after all, for brave, dashing, and fortunate officers, rather than principled and dreamy pacifists…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Which read a little bit too much, in a few places, as if they had been influenced by the style of later popular summary.
  2. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 122-6.
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 228-34.
  4. Campbell and Green, Can't Shoot a Man With a Cold, 204-5.
  5. Moorcroft Wilson, Isaac Rosenberg, 375.
  6. In Broken Images, 88-89. There is no date on the letter, but it is dated to today, a century back, by Jean Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 425.
  7. Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 283.
  8. Talking Across the World, 257-8.

Lord Dunsany Finds Comfort Among Friends, and a Near Miss and Wordsworth

Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany, has had a less than exalted military career. He’s never fit in well with his brother officers–perhaps because he is a prickly sort of character, perhaps because he’s a literary chap (and a fantasy-inclined literary chap at that), or perhaps because he was briefly an officer in the prewar army and had quit, thus demonstrating a preference for the life of a prickly, literary, adventurous, wealthy lord to that of a career army officer… For these reasons–or because of his outspokenness or his intermittent speaking up for an enlisted poet–and also certainly because of his status as a peer and the fact that his wound was bravely but awkwardly obtained in Dublin–Dunsany has spent very little time at the front. So it is with eager appreciation that he has found himself accepted, at last, into the less socially intimidating milieu of a line battalion.

He has found fellowship–friends and comrades, if not yet quite a band of brothers. And this makes him very happy. But how did it come about?

Because out here, where titles and outside interests are not of much account, he has passed the one test that really matters.

My Darling Mink,

We are well out of the way of shells and will still be when you get this letter. I hope you may some day meet all the officers of D. Co. with whom I have soldiered. They are all my friends, even Lacey, a typical ranker: they probably all started out with a prejudice against my inexperience, which I think changed in every case under shell-fire…

That is, the logically assumed that a titled, ex-professional officer with so little trench experience was either being protected or had previously proven to be a grave liability. But, as with Robert Graves and so many others, he finds that social resistance is not zealously maintained against an officer who can do his job under fire.

And, even better, the mixed lot of men now officering old Kitchener battalions are likely to be less hostile to the consolations of literature than a mess full of regular officers.

…and another is Williams… a journalist on the Manchester Guardian with a good appreciation for poetry. One night I was rummaging among philosophy to find comfort and he said did I know Wordsworth’s Ode to Duty. I asked him to repeat it, which he could not do, but he said what he could remember of it as we went along the line and I certainly found it inspiring. I don’t think I told you that I was hit one night but not hurt. It was that night, but it was later on that we were talking about Wordsworth, towards dawn.

Ever your loving

Pony[1]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Amory, Lord Dunsany, 147.

Edward Brittain Brings His Sister into the Salient; Lord Dunsany Returns to the Somme

Today we have an odd pair: two letters going the wrong way, as it were, letters written to our writers rather than from them. Ah, but there are connections! Of a sort!

First, we have a letter from Lady Dunsany dated today, a century back, thanking her husband for his recent letter from the front: “I have had many wonderful letters from you in my life but I really think the one from Amiens the best.”

It is pretty good indeed–not surprisingly, as it is one of the very few letters quoted in his biography (although with its own proper date, hence its placement here). The letter Lady Dunsany refers to must have been written a few days ago, a century back, and read today. It is a combination of the ruins-of-the-Somme description (of a piece with the Master of Belhaven‘s recent mini-masterpiece) and a tale of ironic proximity; a practical back-to-the-front piece and a bit of horror-tinged fantasy. The Vincent-Price-Reads-The-Bible tone and Romantic diction are pure Dunsany, who always likes to evoke a mood of supernatural fascination, is somewhat abashed to find that this tone/diction/mood fits the reality of what he sees so well. And, lest we be accused of insisting upon seeing a writer’s war-writing through the lens of his work in other genres, Lord Dunsany himself invokes fantasy illustrations–the greatest fantasy engraver of them all, as well as his own best illustrator–in order to indicate the effect he is striving for:

One of the blacker dreams of Sidney Sime, illustrator

What a changed town! …I came as it were as the connecting link between the battalion and the lights of London, as a missionary between the 20th century and the ancient abomination of desolation… For half my journey lay through the abomination of desolation, for the other half France smiled; and I noted that we have no way of knowing where we are, that it is autumn. Verily such a journey as I made this morning was never until recently made by man. Imagine Warerloo, Sebastopol, Ladysmith, Pompeii, Troy, Timgad, Tel el Kebir, Sodom and Gomorrah endlessly stretching one into the other; and twisted, bare, ghoulish trees leering downward at graves; and scenes very like Doré’s crucifixion and realities like the blackest dream of Sime; tanks lying with their noses pointing upwards still sniffing towards an enemy long since stiff or blown away in fragments like wounded rhinoceros’ dying. Imagine the wasted ruin of a famous hill that once dominated all this, now no more than a white mound with a few crosses on it, standing against the sky to show that Golgotha was once more with us. And over all this dreadful triumph of iron over man, and the spirit of man over iron, one feels that Nature is smiling softly to herself as she comes back with all her flowering children over villages that are no more than famous names and farms and roads and bridges that none can trace but those who remember them. At Albert in the Cathedral the desolation culminated, as though the Kaiser had knelt there before Satan to hear the Lord’s Prayer said backwards and receive the blessings of Hell, and we passed thence into happier fields like one who wakes from dark dreams on a summer morning…[1]

 

Edward Brittain, too, is picking up the thread of an earlier letter. his account of today, a century back, is the other sort of return, however: the return from the front lines to the blighted rear, which offers a contrast not with the living land of the untouched zone but with the deadly pits of the front line. The first job is to record the losses.

France, 24 October 1917

I will be a little more expansive to-day as we are a long way back from the line and I don’t think it matters my telling you whereabouts we have been. When the Bn. went into the line last time I was left behind to be O.C. Details (about 150 NCO’s and men); on the night of the 16th Lieut. J.W Jackson of C coy. was killed; on the night of the 17th Capt. Whyatt commanding C coy–one of the original officers of the battalion, he joined 3 weeks before me in 1914–was killed; on the morning of the 18th Lieut. Groves whom I mentioned to you the other day was badly wounded, 1 Sergt. and 3 men being killed by the same shell and Whittington who is also in A coy. went down with shell shock; as Clark was on leave this left Harrison by himself and only one officer in C coy, both companies being in the support line which, as you know, always gets the worst of the shelling. Consequently I got a message on the night of the 18th to go up the next morning which I did and joined Jack in a filthy bit of trench, nearly got killed the same night changing to another support fine, spent the next day in a pill-box, the night in a sap and got out safely in the morning. Jack also got out safely. Of course we lost quite a lot of men: some of them had only just joined but we might have come off worse considering that we were in the most pronounced salient just E of Polygon Wood — one of the worst bits of the whole front during the whole war…

It feels as if we’ve heard some variation on that “one of the worst bits” line about ten times in the last month…

Not long ago, in order to connect to a slightly mis-dated bit of her memoir, I skipped ahead in order to explain Vera Brittain‘s changed approach to front-line correspondence. She doesn’t want to try to correspond with her brother–the last young soldier she really loves–when he might be in the front lines. Because any delay, any ominous word… so she had told him that she couldn’t take it any more, that she doesn’t want to write letters that, in the doom-laden magical thinking of a member of the Lost Generation, mid-loss, could somehow cause him to not receive them, and her to begin fearing the post–or its absence–a few days later. As she explained that “his activities so distressed me that I seldom wrote to him at all, superstitiously believing that if I did he would certainly be dead before the letter arrived.” (Were this the early 21st century rather than 20th, some reference to Schrodinger’s Cat–either slightly inaccurate or slightly ironic–would be necessary.)

Edward, who has lost the same three close friends and no doubt sees more intense superstitions on a daily basis, doesn’t object to the irrational basis of his sister’s sudden failure as a correspondent. But neither does he accept it: he doesn’t seem to have anyone else left with whom he can discuss the truth of the war, and he needs to keep writing it. It’s not hard to imagine Edward composing lines of description to send to his sister as shells land and men around him are hit. Perhaps he believes that if his letter to her is unfinished he can’t be killed, yet.

In any case, he objects, and rather pointedly, too:

I quite understand why you didn’t write during the interval but, if possible, please don’t do it again or else I shall not tell you when I am about to face anything unpleasant and then you will not be able to help me face it…[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Amory, Lord Dunsany, 144-5.
  2. Letters From a Lost Generation, 379-80.

Siegfried Sassoon Endures a Torrent of Drivel; Charles Carrington Chooses a Tank of Filth; Herbert Read Misses Out on Fear

We begin today with a brief update on Siegfried Sassoon–or, really, on his unbelievable Theosophist roommate.

7 October 1917, Craigockhart,

Dearest Robbie,

I am much relieved that the new poems have passed safely  through your judgment…

Rivers is back, and I hope he will get me a room to myself, as I can’t do anything with a prosy Theosophist there all the time–he maddens me with his stilted talk. When I told him our casualties (by official reports) were 102,000 for
September, he remarked ‘Yes, Sassoon, it is the Celestial Surgeon at work on humanity.’ But he may provide material for a poem some-day…[1]

Perhaps–but he will certainly provide material for the coming memoirs and novels…

 

But Ypres looms. Even those, like Herbert Read, who have missed the worst of Passchendaele seem to be able to put their finger on the essence of its late-war-of-attrition misery. This next letter sounds so much like the recent accounts of Carrington and Blunden that it feels almost like plagiarism. It’s not, though: it’s just that everyone is having the same experience. There is a really frightening unity of events here: the battalion successfully advances under a smothering barrage, and even holds its gains against counter-attacks, but it is nearly destroyed in doing so, and those who survive hardly more fit to continue than those who were maimed; the only fit officers are those who were left out of the initial attack and then sent forward to pick up the pieces…

When I arrived behind the line I found that the Battalion were in the thick of the fight. I had to stay behind until they came out, along with two others who had straggled in. All such stragglers for all the Brigade were billeted together–about 15 of us. We have a large mess-hut wherein some passing genius has built a wide open old-English fireplace of bricks. Fuel in plenty appears miraculously, so, as the weather is vile and tempestuous we build the fire high and sit around it in a circle. We were rather quiet, not knowing what has happened to our friends. Vague rumours come down to us every now and then. So-and-so is killed, so-and-so is wounded. The ——- have only two officers left out of the twenty that went into action. I hear that Col is wounded, but still ‘carrying on’. That sounds like him. Later someone comes down with shell-shock. He seems distracted and does not know anything definite. Some he has seen killed, others wounded. A few grim details he can give us. The attack was a great success–all objectives taken and so on. But for all we want to know we shall have to wait until they come out. The latest rumour says that is tomorrow and that we are going back to reorganize. We can only hope so.

Read, whose army career is intermittently difficult to follow, is something of a fire-eater himself (he led a raid this summer, and has been decorated for valor), so this next thought is certainly believable on its face. I think, however, that it touches on something deeper, something that helps explain why the war still goes on and why, a century on, it still fascinates:

I feel a little ashamed of having escaped it all. There is always a regret in not having shared dangers with friends. Perhaps one is jealous of their experiences…[2]

 

Charles Carrington has missed none of his comrades’ dangers, of late. Yesterday, a century back, he spent a long day crouching in the positions gained during the assault on October 4th, and we left him to his own devices. Today his increasingly exhausted and jumpy company are still waiting for their relief.

It seemed so quiet this morning that headquarters sent us orders to do salvage work. The wounded had all been brought in; the stretcher-bearers were collecting and burying the dead; I sent men to help in this and to collect arms and equipment. But during the morning it rained once more, and at times there was some shell-fire, at which the poor wretched men returned to their shell-holes. They got the worst of the weather; but we in our wooden shed right on the skyline soon began to attract the shells. The Colonials on our right were expecting trouble. Suddenly a signal went up, three little lights pale against the rainy sky, red and green and white. It was the SOS. Then both barrages fell and the ‘crumps’ burst all about the valley. Though it turned out to be a false alarm, the artillery never altogether died away, and as the afternoon wore on, the enemy’s guns searched the Stroombeek valley and the ridge whereon we were. Luckily the men in the open lower down the slope were in little danger.

And, as a few days ago, Carrington’s attention becomes fixed on one aspect of his surroundings. It’s not that he doesn’t describe the men and what they are going through, but it’s almost as if he has come to understand that the men hardly matter in such a grim war of attrition–it’s the shells, and what might save a man from their force and fragments. Carrington is a very frank writer, and perhaps this switch from close description to a sort of leisurely descriptive aside is just a lapse of attention to style–“now the pill-box bit, I guess.” But it feels almost as if it substitutes for further description of feeling: the experience is so overwhelming, the exhaustion so complete, that we will now stare at the wall for awhile.

Pill-boxes had begun by being concreted cellars in farm houses; they grew gradually into keeps of reinforced concrete in the midst of the wreckage of ruined houses; in the third stage the ruins were scattered by shell-fire and the square boxes of concrete were left standing alone. We had found in the vestibule of this mansion a little kennel door leading to a tiny cellar perhaps six feet in each dimension, half its depth being below ground-level. This closet was concreted over, and being watertight, had naturally filled up to ground-level with rain-water. At some time or other it had been used as a latrine, and the smell from it was prodigious.

When a second time the S O S was sent up (as far as we could-see, without reason) and again our barrage fell and the German retaliation came crashing round us, I began to look for cover. A near whizzbang decided me. Smell or no smell, I would explore the funkhole. I crawled in and found a ledge round the kennel and a few boards just above water-level stretched across the corners. It was safe from anything less than a direct hit from a 5’9. But if I let my hand drop carelessly or hung my foot over the edge of the board it fell into two feet of stagnant green water, fetid and slimy sewage. The smell of it was midway between a septic tank and a tidal river in an industrial town, and it had a staleness all its own.

Thorburn almost jeered when I crept into this tank, but when later in the evening a third SOS went up from the Colonials, and the shells fell closer than ever, Serjeant Walker and I went to earth together, and before long Thorburn swallowed his pride and joined us.

This is just one more incident, one more indignity, one more disgusting detail, but it really can stand as metonymy for Passchendaele–a place so awful that a septic tank is a welcome shelter. Even the men of 1916–men who put up humorous signboards and collected flowers to decorate the trenches–would be aghast.

To-night the battalion was to be relieved. We were already far enough back not to be continually on the alert. We sat and waited from seven o’clock till midnight crouched on boards, this dank pool three inches from the seats of our trousers and the roof three inches above our heads. Since an excursion or two showed that the men were not under fire, there was nothing to do beyond exchanging a few routine messages with headquarters about the relief. We sat and talked, sticking a candle-end on a ledge to light up the slime on the damp walls and our own unshaven faces.

One caller came to us, ‘Davy’ Jones, a little racecourse tout, a man of unlimited impudence, a singer of scurrilous songs, owner of the company Crown and Anchor board, always in trouble, but always well forward in action.
For once he was beat. He had been to headquarters on some errand or other (we had made him an acting section leader) and was standing in the little trench outside when two 5‘9’s came over together and burst on the parapet. With that curious uncertainty of shell-fire, they had almost blown the ground from under his feet without hurting him. But he was badly shaken and had lost his impudence. We brought him into our funkhole and made a fuss of him until the shelling was over.

And at the close of the day, exactly like Edmund Blunden, yesterday, Carrington and his comrades find themselves drawn to wistful reminiscences of better times. But not the endless summer of 1914, or cricket on the lawn, or school games, or English meadows… who can remember that anymore?

We soon fell into a sentimental conversation,

‘Of old unhappy far-off things
And battles long ago.’

Jones and I talked of our old fights, of Ovillers and Gommecourt, and the good times in summer out at rest, and of the friends who had ‘drawn their full issue’ long before…

At last our relief came. Section by section the relieving regiment arrived and replaced each of my groups with a platoon. Thorburn saw to the section reliefs; it was my place to ‘hand over’ company headquarters and explain the tactical situation…

I was full of anxiety to cross the Steenbeek and get away, being terribly frightened of being hit now at the last minute. We passed the Winnipeg road and the old Langemarck trench line, left on our right Janet Farm, where the doctor plied his trade, then crossed the little bridge over the Steenbeek among the rusting remains of twenty-two tanks lying dead in the bottom of the valley, and reached the road, where at last there was a firm foothold to find unless you trod in a shell-hole…

Terrified, Carrington jumps on a truck when shelling begins, and is separated from his sergeant and his men. Eventually he finds his way, alone, to the bivouac. “Edmonds'” account ends with an irony less bitter than most:

Serjeant Walker and all my stragglers came in. Cold, damp and utterly despondent I crept into my valise and slept.

It seemed to me that I had been feeble, inactive, and unnerved, but for my part in this battle I was given the Military Cross and a captaincy. I had expected a court-martial.

Casualties to the Battalion:

Killed        4 officers, 81 other ranks.
Wounded 6 officers, 171 other ranks.
10             252

The total, 262, being about half of those who took part in the battle. At this stage of the war, in order to avoid the disproportionate death-rate among officers, only sixteen per battalion went into action. This time ten were hit. My company set out with three officers, seventeen N.C.O.’s and ninety-two men. One officer, two N.C.O.’s and forty-four men survived the attack unhurt.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 189-90.
  2. The Contrary Experience, 109-110.
  3. A Subaltern's War, 170-85.

Dr. Dunn, Frank Richards, and Edmund Blunden at Third Ypres: Six Men Dead by a Chance Shell, Six by Deliberate Bombs, One by a Bullet; Trauma, Murder, and Angels in the Rocket-Lit Sunset

As yesterday became today, a century back, most of the remaining 2/Royal Welch were grabbing a few hours of sleep in their makeshift line of shell-holes and captured German pillboxes. Dr. Dunn’s day will hardly be any less eventful, although some relief is given to him and to Captain Radford when one Major Kearsey arrived from the Battalion reserve to take command. Within a few hours of dawn they were back into piecemeal combat, advancing into new holes left by more recently retreated Germans. But British “bite and hold” tactics must still contend with the German “defense in depth,” and the fighting is much more reminiscent of the platoon-driven tactics of the next war than of the “lines” of infantry attacking “lines” of trenches which were the common conceptual coinage of even last year’s battles. To advance means to find and eliminate those strong points that held out yesterday, and soon the Royal Welch, pushing out from Jerk Farm, take a number of prisoners in a now-isolated pillbox.

We will hear more about these men in a moment, but Dr. Dunn’s narrative proceeds quickly toward the late afternoon. If yesterday’s narrative involved an admirable suppression of his own very active role in commanding the battalion, today concludes with an admirable confession of what the day’s combat did to him.

In a lull not long after 5, a delusive lull, I went out to look for Mann’s body. Some Australians told me where about it was, and added that “one of our fellows is taking care of his ring…” Radford seemed to be amused at the game of I-Spy among the shell-holes that followed. Doubtless the snipers much enjoyed it, and perhaps a German artillery observer; I didn’t, much, until it was over. It was the longest quarter-hour of my life. Beginning near 6 o’clock there was half an hour’s sustained shelling of H.Q., so accurate, so concentrated, that my confidence in a new shell-hole as the safest shelter was shaken. I came to date a failure of nerve from impressions taken then.

In other words–slightly less old-fashioned words–Dunn chose to become a combatant (in violation of the laws of war) and help save his battalion from what otherwise may have been a collective failure. And in doing so, he pushed himself to the point of exhaustion and was exposed to so much trauma–“shell-shocked” by the physical facts of shelling but also psychologically affected by the experience–that he will suffer a stress reaction in the near future.

 

Frank Richards‘s account of today, a century back, is more detailed, and no less focused on the danger that the doctor–and he himself–faced.

Major Kearsley, the Doctor and I went out reconnoitring. We were jumping in and out of shell holes when a machine-gun opened out from somewhere in front, the bullets knocking up the dust around the shell holes we had just jumped into. They both agreed that the machine-gun had been fired from the pillbox about a hundred yards in front of us. We did some wonderful humping and hopping, making our way back to the bank. The enemy’s artillery had also opened out…

Richards also tells the tale–with obvious relish–of a timorous platoon officer (unfortunately paired with a “windy” sergeant) who has to be forced forward to take a German position. When this officer–“The Athlete”–balks in confusion and sends back for orders, Richards is sent to carry verbal instructions–an awkward task, to send a trusted, more experienced private to give orders to a young and hesitant second-lieutenant. Richards delivers the message, and then, returning from the newly-captured pillbox to the H.Q. unit, he becomes a near witness to a war crime:

The enemy were now shelling very heavily and occasionally the track was being sprayed by machine-gun bullets. I met a man of one of our companies with six German prisoners whom he told me he had to take back to a place called Clapham Junction, where he would hand them over. He then had to return and rejoin his company. The shelling was worse behind us than where we were…

I had known this man about eighteen months and he said, “Look here, Dick. About an hour ago I lost the best pal I ever had, and he was worth all these six Jerries put together. I’m not going to take them far before I put them out of mess.” Just after they passed me I saw the six dive in one large shell hole and he had a job to drive them out…

Some little time later I saw him coming back and I know it was impossible for him to have reached Clapham Junction and returned in the time… As he passed me again he said: “I done them in as I said, about two hundred yards back. Two bombs did the trick.” He had not walked twenty yards beyond me when he fell himself: a shell-splinter had gone clean through him. I had often heard some of our chaps say that they had done their prisoners in whilst taking them back, but this was the only case I could vouch for, and no doubt the loss of his pal had upset him very much.

This brutal tale is tied up too neatly. Unless, of course, that is exactly how it happened.

 

The day’s traumas are far from over. Richards has had a very lucky war so far: not a scratch on him and, as he is usually just behind the attack with the signallers, very little in the way of immediate deadly violence to perform. When he is hit today, it is only a spent piece of shrapnel that hammers him on a thickly-padded part of his leg, and he escapes with a painful bruise and a temporary limp. Which means that he can continue carrying messages over a most uncertain battlefield.

During the afternoon the Major handed me a message to take to A Company, which consisted of the survivors of two companies now merged into one under the command of a young platoon officer… The ground over which I had to travel had been occupied by the enemy a little while before and the Company were behind a little bank which was being heavily shelled. I slung my rifle, and after I had proceeded some way I pulled my revolver out for safety. Shells were falling here and there and I was jumping in and out of shell holes. When I was about fifty yards from the Company, in getting out of a large shell hole I saw a German pop up from another shell hole in front of me and rest his rifle on the lip of the shell hole. He was about to fire at our chaps in front who had passed him by without noticing him. He could never have heard me amidst all the din around: I expect it was some instinct made him turn around with the rifle at his shoulder. I fired first and as the rifle fell out of his hands. I fired again. I made sure he was dead before I left him…

This little affair was nothing out of the ordinary in a runner’s work when in attacks.

Returning after giving the message, Richards found Kearsey still in command and Dunn “temporarily back in the R.A.M.C.” After carrying another message to the hesitant “Athlete,” Richards is going forward once again alongside Kearsey when they are caught by a German machine gun, and the major is shot through the leg. Richards dresses the wound and helps Kearsey back to where Dunn and Radford and the H.Q. section were stationed.

The Major said that the Battalion would be relieved at dusk and he would try to stick it until then; but the Doctor warned him, if he did, that it might be the cause of him losing his leg.

He then handed over the command to Captain Radford, who said that he would much prefer the Doctor taking command, as he seemed to have a better grip of the situation than what he had. But the Major said he could not do that as the Doctor was a non-combatant, but that they could make any arrangements they liked when he had left…

Richards accompanies the Major back toward the CCS, and so misses what, precisely, those arrangements were…

Even though the battalion has acquitted itself well–it will shortly be withdrawn, with congratulations heaped upon its few remaining officers–both accounts are framed by implied criticisms of the British staff at brigade and division level (and higher).

Earlier in the day, Richards glimpsed an Australian brigadier in a shell hole, having come forward to see for himself what is happening to the men under his command.

It was the only time during the whole of the War that I saw a brigadier with the first line of attacking troops…[1]

Dunn praises the Australians as well, and in a precise parallel of Richards’ observation, he sees a medical officer from the divisional staff treating the wounded in the front line, and also notes that it was the only time he saw such an august medical personage actually treating the wounded under fire.[2]

 

The Royal Welch will soon be out of it, as will the 11th Royal Sussex. But they have been in the thick of it, too, only a mile or so due south (just on the other side of the chateau that was enfilading the Welsh yesterday). Edmund Blunden was a witness, not so long ago, to one of the worst direct hits we’ve seen; today, a century back–and hardly back with the battalion after a long spell of rest, training, and reserve–he was once again.

There is a special sort of terror in sitting in a pillbox that is very strong and very secure–but not strong enough, and with a door facing the wrong way.

Never (to our judgment) had such shelling fallen upon us. For what reason? The Germans had clearly no idea of letting the British advance any farther along the Menin Road. Their guns of all calibres poured their fury into our small area. Reports of casualties were the principal messages from the front line, and we had no reason to think them exaggerated, with such a perpetual rain of shells. The trenches immediately about our pillboxes were already full of bodies. One man in my headquarters died of shock from a huge shell striking just outside. We endeavoured to send off a pigeon, but the pigeon scared by the gunfire found his way into the dugout again, and presently a noise under the floorboards led to his discovery. The men thought that many shells struck the pillbox. The only question seemed to be when one would pierce it, and make an end.

Next door, so to speak, the adjutant, doctor, and their helpers had a slightly worse position, more exposed to enemy observation. The Aid Post was hit, and the doctor continued to dress the wounded though with only an appearance of protection; the wounded came in great number. I went over to ask for orders and information; Lewis was in an almost smiling mood, and quizzed me about “coming to dinner.” Old Auger, the mess corporal, winked at me over the Adjutant’s shoulder, and raised a tempting bottle from his box. I returned, and presently the firing decreased. Lewis called on us to see how we were, and told me that he really meant some sort of dinner would be going soon, and I was to be there. Colonel Millward had just rejoined, from leave, and I had seen him in the headquarters just now; evidently, I thought, the news he brings is promising. A runner visited me, and went back over the fifty yards to the other pillbox — his last journey. He had arrived in the doorway there, and joined the five or six men sheltering there, including the doctor, consulting about something, when the lull in the shelling was interrupted. I was called on the telephone (we had some inexhaustible linesmen out on the wire) by Andrews at the forward station.

“I say, hasn’t something happened at your headquarters?”

“Not that I know of—all right I believe.” (The sound of shelling had long ceased to impinge.)

“Yes, I’m afraid something’s wrong: will you find out?”

My servant Shearing hurried across, and hurried back, wild-eyed, straining: “Don’t go over, sir; it’s awful. A shell came into the door.” He added more details after a moment or two. The doctor and those with him had been
killed.

Curiously, given Richards’s account of the murder of six German prisoners, six men of the Royal Sussex were killed by this shell–the doctor and five “Other Ranks.”[3]

 

This is the worst of the day’s narrative. And yet only a paragraph later Blunden inserts what has always been for me one of the most memorable pastoral incongruities of the whole war:

During this period my indebtedness to an Eighteenth Century poet became enormous. At every spare moment I read in Young’s Night Thoughts on Life, Death, and Immortality, and I felt the benefit of this grave and intellectual voice, speaking often in metaphor which came home to one even in a pillbox. The mere amusement of discovering lines applicable to our crisis kept me from despair.

We were relieved in broad daylight, under observation, but nobody refused to move. The estimate of casualties was 400, and although the real number was 280 or so, the battalion had had enough…

By the end of today, a century back, Blunden has picked up on Dunn’s theme for today: the limits of mental endurance in even the bravest men. And the bitterness of the staff’s indifference to their suffering.

The battalion assembled in the neighbourhood of a small and wiry wood called Bodmin Copse, with tumult and bullets and sometimes shells in the air around…

A steady bombardment with big shells began, and luckily most of them fell a few yards short, but the mental torture, especially when, after one had been carefully listened to in flight and explosion, another instantly followed as though from nowhere, was severe. The trench around me was slowly choked and caved in.

Maycock came up with a train of mules carrying Royal Engineers’ material and petrol cans of water to a point near Bodmin Copse, a star turn for which he earned the General’s stern reproof on account of his not obtaining a receipt for the deliveries.

But gentle Blunden cannot end on that note. No: instead, we see yesterday’s incongruous beauty once again:

The eastern sky that evening was all too brilliant with rockets, appealing for artillery assistance. Westward, the sunset was all seraphim and cherubim.[4]

 

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Old Soldiers Never Die, 251-60.
  2. The War the Infantry Knew, 400-04.
  3. This according to the Battalion Diary; I have not tracked the men through the CWGC or ascertained whether there is a record of the adjutant being killed today.
  4. Undertones of War, 241-5.

Harry Patch Patched Up, and Loses Part of His Life; Jack Martin’s Near Miss; Guy Chapman in the Salient

The next evening, the doctor came. As shrapnel wounds went, mine was serious but not as serious as others’. He could see the shrapnel in my stomach and asked me, ‘Shall I take it out? before you answer yes, we’ve no anaesthetic in the can, it’s all been used on more seriously wounded than you and we’ve had no more to replace it.’ I thought for a moment. The pain from it was terrific, and I felt that perhaps a couple of minutes’ more intense pain might be worth it, so I said, ‘All right, carry on.’ The surgeon called for some help. Four people caught hold of me, one each leg, one each arm, and the doctor got busy, I’d asked him how long he’d be and he’d said, ‘Two minutes,’ and in those two minutes I could have damned well killed him. Swear poured off me. He cut around and then got hold of the shrapnel with tweezers, and dragged it out… It was two inches long, about half an inch thick, with a jagged edge. ‘Do you want it as a souvenir?’ he asked. ‘I’ve had the bloody stuff too long already,’ I told him and with that he threw it away. The doctor went over to the table and the fellow in the next bed said to me, ‘If he writes anything in the green book at the desk, you’re for Blighty…’

Harry Patch “was lucky, very lucky indeed, for the word Blighty meant everything to a soldier.” But, cut off from his unit and now in the grasp of the long tendrils of the medical evacuation system, he will not learn what other damage yesterday’s shell did until long after he reaches Blighty. When that “whizz-bang” shell hit, the last three men in the line, ammunition carriers for his gun team and his close comrades of many months, were all killed.

…it was like losing a part of my life… we belonged to each other… It is a difficult thing to describe, the friendship between us.[1]

 

Our writers continue to be not so much in lockstep as in stutter-step: now it is Jack Martin‘s turn to come out of the line, by night, into reserve, with his close friends and comrades around him. All that might differ is wind and weather, operational intentions and firing plans–or fickle fortune and sweet sister death.

It was a slow procession as the tramway track was blown up every hundred yards or so and we had to lift the wagon loaded with stores across shell holes. After about six of these adventures we met a very bad hole and decided to unload the wagon, carrying the things on our backs across the country till we should meet another truck. Fritz shelled us all the way but fortunately there were a large number of duds, the ground being so soft that the percussion was not sufficient to explode the shells. There were more stores than we could carry in one journey so we had to go back a second time. The distance was not far and just as we had put down the first load and were going back for the second a shell burst close to the wagon. A man who was making his solitary way down the line was very badly hit in the face and side and arm, his fingers were only hanging on by bits of skin. Two stretcher-bearers happened to be close by and they quickly carried him off. Just as we reached the wagon and were all crowded round it grabbing at the things in our haste to get back, another shell burst in the same place. The pieces flew all round us and over us and in between us but not one of us was scratched, whereas the other poor creature, making less than a twentieth of the target that we did, got so badly wounded. Such are the fortunes of war…[2]

 

And speaking of the fortunes of war in such an old-soldierly fashion, the next few days encompass one of the most vivid sections of Guy Chapman‘s A Passionate Prodigality, in which he fashions his unit as a bunch of grim and unflappable grognards. The precise dates of each event are difficult to ascertain, so I won’t be treating them at length. But if they weren’t, then his memoir would be as prominent here as Blunden’s, for it is nearly as good, and and the matter is similar enough to make an excellent close comparison: mud and confusion, blood and trauma, direct hits on dugouts, even bewildered carrier pigeons. I’ll see if I can tie down a date or two and copy some of the best bits of Chapman, but this note is more by way of recommendation: if you would read more of the particular grim insanity of Third Ypres, Chapman is your man…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Last Fighting Tommy, 110-12.
  2. Sapper Martin, 108-9.

Carroll Carstairs and Harry Patch Brave the Shells on the Way Out; Jack Martin Overhears a Grim Bargaining; R.A. Knox Finds Authority

Lately it seems that it is always night in the Salient, and that to survive a tour of a few days in its miserable morass is only to invite the special attentions of Nemesis on the march into reserve. Nevertheless, Carroll Carstairs’s memorable few days in the line came to a safe conclusion tonight, a century back:

That night I changed places with Knollys and the next night the Battalion was relieved by the 1st Essex (29th Division). These reliefs were devilish. The combination of black night, “uncertain” shelling, guides missing the way, duckboards along the routes shelled to bits in places making the going difficult, and feeling the responsibility of getting the men out without casualties—and something of the nightmare it was may be imagined. Those were days of open warfare as regards getting up to and back from the front line.

Slowly the men were assembled near Cannes Farm. A “whizz-bang” chipping its corner covered me with dust and plaster and my orderly thought I was a casualty.

With our backs to the enemy we moved in single file down the slippery duckboards. We reached White Hope Corner, where tea was served to the men. At Luneville Farm we entrained, and on the hard wood floor of my truck I slept the sleep of complete exhaustion. One hour in twenty-four had been my average in the line. At 5.40 a.m. we arrived at Proven. Dazed with insufficient rest I entered a world of endless slumber as I crawled into my sleeping bag.[1]

 

If Harry Patch’s memory served,[2] then he, too, was coming back out of the line tonight, a century back, marching along with the rest of his Lewis gun team. It would not end as well.

We were returning from the line, going back into reserve. It was a quiet night… It was always important to stick to communication trenches where you could, but, if there weren’t any, then you just went over the top in the open and took a chance. We’d stopped briefly as Bob was attending to the call of nature in a slight traverse, causing us to bunch up a little as we waited.

…I guess it was a whizz-bang that got us. The only thing I saw was a flash; I can’t recall any noise at all, but I certainly felt the concussion of that shell bursting, because I was taken off my feet and thrown to the ground. For a couple of minutes I couldn’t move…

I didn’t even know I was hit at first, but a growing pain told me otherwise…

Patch did his best to stop the bleeding from his stomach, but passed out. He was found by stretcher bearers and taken to a casualty clearing station, “where a doctor cleaned the wound of congealed blood and lice and put a clean white bandage on.” After that triage, Patch was no longer critical, and had to wait while doctors worked elsewhere, the shell splinter cooling inside his abdomen.[3]

 

Two more brief notices, today. First, Jack Martin once again makes us privy to the sort of negotiations that only take place at a certain level. We often see platoon and company commanders carrying out orders and, from time time time, we might see tight-lipped battalion commanders issuing the orders they know will get scores of their men killed. But as these units come in and out, mercilessly thrown back into the fray or spared for a slight respite, there is a constant negotiation going on at higher levels. The generals demand service, but no battalion can fight forever, and therefore a good commanding officer must be an advocate…

There is no doubting the seriousness of the situation for on the phone I overheard a most amazing conversation between our Brigadier and the Divisional Commander. The Brigadier was very firm in his insistence that our Infantry is thoroughly exhausted and totally unable to make any resistance if the Huns attacked. They would break right through our line if once they got beyond our artillery barrage, The Div. Commander tried his hardest to get the Brigadier to say that we can hold on for another twenty-four hours but General Towsey wouldn’t take the responsibility of making any such statement… When Gen. Towsey told him that the men could get neither rations nor water he merely replied, ‘Let them take the iron rations from the killed and wounded.’ This conversation lasted about half an hour and I expect it will result in a speedy relief…[4]

This conversation will be closely echoed half a world away and one world war on in James Jones’s The Thin Red Line.

 

Finally, today was a memorable day in the life of Ronnie Knox. The son of an Anglican bishop, a brilliant scholar in a brilliant family, precociously ascetic, Knox has been drawing closer and closer to Catholicism for years now. Helped along by the urgings his friend Charles Scott Moncrieff (but not, perhaps, by his former protege Harold Macmillan, who did not convert, and certainly not by his close friend Patrick Shaw Stewart, who did not manifest similar interests) Knox made the decision to formally convert, to the “lifelong disappointment and regret” of his family.

Yesterday, a century back, he thanked Moncrieff, sending him a card that read “Thank you awfully, yours affect. Ronnie.” Today, he took the plunge. Although he was not one of the bright young men who went to war (he considered himself barred from service by the nature of his vocation to the clergy), this friend-of-our-writers several times over was changed by it nevertheless, and it seems safe to assume that his search for what he considered the true faith was intensified by it.

He did not feel an special illumination, but he was so happy that he wanted to laugh out loud all through dinner in the refectory. He had found authority.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Generation Missing, 110-11.
  2. And it would have had to serve some seventy years longer than most; but "it is quite possible," in the judgment of Richard Van Emden, that his battalion's few casualties for today included Patch's friends.
  3. The Last Fighting Tommy, 108-110.
  4. Sapper Martin, 108.
  5. Chasing Lost Time, 101-2; Fitzgerald, The Knox Brothers, 131-2.

Isaac Rosenberg on Time and Freedom; Carroll Carstairs Lost in No Man’s Land; The Master of Belhaven Returns to the Somme

Before our inevitable return to the slogging battle of Third Ypres, we will take a moment to read a letter of today, a century back, from Isaac Rosenberg–on leave in London–to Gordon Bottomley:

The greatest thing of my leave after seeing my mother was your letter which has just arrived… I wish I could have seen you, but now I must go on and hope that things will tum out well, and some happy day will give me the chance of meeting you. … I am afraid I can do no writing or reading; I feel so restless here and un-anchored. We have lived in such an elemental way so long, things here don’t look quite right to me somehow; or it may be the consciousness of my so limited time here for freedom—so little time to do so many things bewilders me… One never knows whether one gets the chance again of writing. It happens my younger brother is on leave as well now, & my brother-in-law, & all my people are pretty lively & won’t let me isolate myself to write…

Yours sincerely

Isaac Rosenberg[1]

The happiness and confidence that we remarked upon are there–but also, clearly, both frustration and trepidation. Rosenberg has been doing some of his best work, of late, but in the trenches there is little time and much uncertainty, and even at home there is a more pleasant form of obstruction…

 

But we left Carroll Carstairs hunkering down under fire, as the battle flared up again not far away. Today begins with an archetypal tale of multiple confusions in the featureless gloom of the Salient… although given Carstairs’ writing style it’s hard not to imagine him as somehow debonair even as he follows a muddy tape through the shell-lit night.

At about 1 a.m. a shadowy form stood above me. It was Knollys with a message. A German prisoner had volunteered the information that an enemy counter-attack was to take place at dawn. As there was danger of its developing on our right flank, No. 3 Company had been warned to be ready to support No. 1. With a guide, my platoon sergeant and an orderly, I proceeded to No. 1 to make arrangements with Craigie in case the attack should include his company’s front.

Enemy shelling had begun again and through it we passed on our way to No. 1 Company Headquarters. It was something to be on the move, however, with an object in view. It was the road that the enemy was shelling, and down this we had to go or get completely lost in a maze of shell holes. After a certain distance we struck a point
from which a white tape led directly to Company Headquarters. This we followed with some difficulty, for it was cut at certain points and stained with mud. After a walk that seemed longer than it actually was we reached Company Headquarters. It was a relief to get under cover and linger there while I listened to instructions from Craigie. Three Verey lights fired along the ground was to be the signal that support was needed.

I finished my cigarette. I tucked the strap of my “tin” helmet under my chin, and then out again into a dark and dangerous world.

After a few minutes the guide suddenly announced that he had lost the tape. Where were we? We did not know. In vain we stared into the darkness. What could it reveal since the day itself could show nothing. How long had we been on the way? We stood irresolute. The air fanned our cheeks. Skyline and middle distance to left and right, before and behind, flashed and winked to gun and star-shell. We were completely lost. Oh, yes, the stars. Tricky though—this front was pretty ragged. Tentatively we stepped out, very slowly—a super blind man’s buff—we walked and walked, every now and then looking down to find no tape. A shadow loomed. What was it? It turned out to be No. 1 Company Headquarters. We had made a complete circle in No Man’s Land. How near to the German lines had we come?

We kept the blessed tape in view the next time, and finally reached the road, which was being thumped as heavily as ever. With great good luck we got safely back to our slit.

Day broke, with no signal from No. 1 Company and no enemy attack.

The morning passed quietly. An enemy aeroplane flying overhead was shelled; our “archies,” bursting in the sky with a snuffed sound, looked like jellyfish.

At noon we were heavily shelled for twenty minutes or so with 5.9’s, one shell following another at about ten seconds’ interval and bursting ten to twenty yards beyond. We crouched in the bottom of the slit waiting for the shell that would land on top of us. A splinter struck softly into the mud next to me and I had missed a “blighty” by an inch…[2]

 

The Salient is now unquestionably the worst battlefield, as so many different writers are currently attesting. But what of the other, older, first worst battlefield?

Ralph Hamilton, the Master of Belhaven has recently been pulled from the Salient and sent to the Somme sector with his artillery unit. It has been quiet there for nearly a year, and to return from battle to this stagnant battlefield is “weird in the extreme.”

Not given to wide-angle reflection, Belhaven nevertheless finds himself looking both backward and forward. In yesterday’s diary entry he had marveled (and been quietly outraged) at the brutal efficiency of the German efforts to destroy the rear areas before their famed withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line–a matter of well-placed charges and pancaked churches.

Today brings a different sort of ruin, and Hamilton’s pondering of both the speed with which a violent past can be erased and the persistence of its scars needs no commentary:

After lunch, Mortimer and I started off to the see the battlefields of the Somme; we reached Le Transloy in half an hour, and turned off the main road towards Les Boeufs. Both of these places have been completely obliterated by shell fire, and the cheering thing to think about is that it was all done by British guns. Other places like Ypres and Arras were destroyed by the German guns, but now we were able to see that our own fire is quite as bad as theirs…The moment the main road to Peronne is left behind, one enters the scene of utter desolation. One battle-field is like another so it is not worth describing it, except that this differs from all others in being now completely covered by a dense tropical growth of weeds. Never have I seen anything like it. The whole area for miles in every direction is covered with a uniform green growth, which is from 3 to 4 feet high. The shell-holes are still there, but they are all hidden, and woe betide the person who attempts to leave the road. It is impossible to walk one yard in any direction without falling into a deep pit… Every few yards there is a cemetery beside the road, varying from half a dozen to a hundred graves. In addition, one can see hundreds of white crosses sticking their heads out of the long grass. The must be thousands and thousands of these isolated graves all over the district. In many cases, the rifles stuck in the ground by the bayonet and with a steel helmet on top, are still standing besides the graves…. there must be many thousands who were never found. Also, what has happened to the countless German dead, as I did not see any German graves?

…I went along the sunken road till I came to the Quarry, but found it hard to believe it was the same dreadful place that I knew exactly a year ago. Gone were the thousands of empty shell-cases and the many hundreds of dead–both British and German. Instead, there was a sea of rank vegetation waist deep, through which it was almost impossible to force one’s way…

The absolute silence and absence of all movement was uncanny, and at the same time one felt like thousands of ghosts were in the air, and that any moment the barrage might break out. I found myself keeping instinctively close to the trenches, ready to drop in if a shell came…

What will the French do with the place after the war? It does not seem possible that the ground can ever be cultivated again. It would take years of work and cost millions to restore it to a level surface, to say nothing of the redraining everywhere. It certainly appears to be a rich soil, judging by the crop of weeds, and well it ought to be, considering that it has been watered by the blood of innumerable men; at the lowest estimate, I suppose a million, French, English, and Germans were killed or wounded on this particular tract of land.The belt of utter desolation is from ten to fifteen miles across and must extend for thirty miles north and south, and then on the flanks it only joins up with other battle-fields–Arras, Vimy, and finally, the more awful place by far–Messines and Ypres.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Works, 377-8; Liddiard, Poetry Out of My Head and Heart, 106-7..
  2. Generation Missing, 106-10.
  3. War Diary, 394-5.

Robert Graves De-Dedicates Siegfried Sassoon; Eddie Marsh Rededicates Himself to Winston Churchill, and Heads for Belgium

Robert Graves begins his letter to Siegfried Sassoon of today, a century back, with an apology: he has belatedly changed the dedication of Fairies and Fusiliers, his upcoming collection of poetry. Instead of being dedicated to Sassoon it will be the entire Royal Welch Fusiliers who share the honor.

Dearest Sassons,

If you’d been anyone else you’d have thought me a first-class four-letter man for changing the dedication like that, but you know it wasn’t meant for anything, except that I was afraid at the last moment of a dedication to an individual for fear of jealousy from Gosse, Ross, Marsh, Masefield or anyone like that of my ‘friends and lovers’ not to mention the family. Also, I thought that to point my devotion to the regiment would strengthen my expression of hatred for the war.

“I was afraid… fear… jealousy… hatred:” excuses, excuses. It also seems possible that this has something to do with the newest “lover,” Nancy Nicholson. She is, in most senses, Graves’s first lover, and not one that he would think Sassoon likely to approve of. But whatever his motivation, Graves is abjectly apologetic:

…I’m so sorry for my stupidity.

Well; but he must apologize: he is also asking Sassoon to read his proofs. This awkwardness taken care of, updates on mutual friends and comrades follow, including a mention of the luckless Julian Dadd:

Poor Julian was ill since he was discharged, brainfever due to worry about Ginchy where he somehow thinks he didn’t do well enough, but he’s in a good place I hear…

In other words, a mental breakdown of some sort. This sort of news can’t really be avoided–Sassoon is still in touch with other members of the regiment–yet it is still difficult to wade through. And any news of Graves’s current activities can only remind Sassoon not only that Graves is still “doing his duty” while he is playing golf, but also that Graves gave up a similarly cushy posting to a rest home on the Isle of Wight in order to come and deal with Sassoon’s protest. So Graves cutting to the chase is perhaps not, for once, unwelcome:

I do my best to cheer up the listless atmosphere of Litherland with wry jokes and my usual grotesques…

Sassons, I’d like you to tell me honestly are these shellshock fellow-patients of yours getting on our nerves? I’d be very unhappy if I thought they were: you talk of golf with lunatics, but I hope to God it’s not as bad as that. Damn Rivers, why should he go and get ill like that and leave you?

Yes, the inimitable Rivers, overworked and ill, has gone on a lengthy leave–an important interlude not only, perhaps, in his actual life, but in the fictional life he is given in Pat Barker’s Regeneration: he gets to reconnect with his mentor, check up on illustrative old patients, and observe the sickening methods used by less humane doctors to “cure” their patients’ neurological and psychological symptoms.

We can all, perhaps, agree, on the silver lining of Sassoon’s situation.

No, not all the golf:

…But one thing good is that you’re writing again… Stick to it and show me something good before New Year. Try… to cut down the slang as much as possible..

Another paragraph of advice ensues, but, since I imagine that, after rolling skyward, Sassoon’s eyes would not alight on the page again until the next paragraph, I will skip thence:

Some unknown friend has sent me the Loom of Youth: what an amazing book! I’m going to find out if Alec’s poetry is as good as his prose: he must be a wonder boy: he is I believe old Gosse’s nephew…

Sassoon has, presumably, heard about this book from Owen–although it is also possible that Owen would be unwilling, this early in their friendship, to emphasize the ground-breaking subject matter. But that would only be a sort of false irony: Graves, despite his own schoolboy crush (and later enthusiasm for the scandal-courting properties of writing about adolescent homosexuality), is about to embark on an exclusively heterosexual odyssey. If we were to assign labels–an unsatisfactory business at best–he is straight while Waugh, Sassoon, and Owen are, at least at this point in their lives, gay. In any event, Loom of Youth has clearly undercut Mr. Britling as the book of the moment…

Graves’s letter ends in bathos:

Robert Nichols will write to you for my proofs when you’re done. I have been all the week with a travelling medical board, as military representative, and have watched the fat old doctors passing the twisted weedy old syphilitics up from C3 into A: my only duty an occasional signature.

Tired. Goodbye.

Best love,

Robert[1]

 

By coincidence, we now begin a short period covered by a travel diary kept by Eddie Marsh, who has been Sassoon’s friend and advisor since before the war (he has also been of great help to Graves and to Isaac Rosenberg) as well as the essential organizer of both Georgian Poetry and semi-clandestine gay literary London society. He is also the private secretary to Winston Churchill–or had been, until Churchill’s ousting in late 1916. But Winston is back, baby, and so is Eddie:

‘…all my glory extinct,’ I served for the better part of a year in the West African Department (of the Colonial Office). But at last ‘came the dawn.’ My telephone rang, and it was Winston, announcing that Lloyd George had offered him the Ministry of Munitions, and would I come along? I went along.

It was delightful to be with him again…

The diary, which Marsh will later print “as a period piece,” shows an experienced public servant enjoying the ministerial life once more–and seeing the war with his own eyes for the first time in several years.

Sept. 13, 1917.

Crossed from Dover to Calais in the ‘P.11,’ starting soon after 9.30 and taking an hour. It was a perfect day and the
smoothest possible passage. We passed minesweepers, troopships, and several naval craft. The young Lt. whom I
talked to told me that the ship had lately got two ‘probables’ for destruction of submarines…

Later in the day, near Wytschaete Ridge, which had been reported “quiet,” Churchill, Marsh, and their escorts come come under fire–or a nearby battery does–from German shells.

Columns of smoke rose from the ground, 60-100 yards from us, and bits of shell fell quite close—5 or 6 yards off–while all the time our own shells were whistling and shrieking over our heads.

I was rather surprised at not feeling the least frightened—the only thing was that I was a tiny bit self-conscious, and perhaps a little unnecessarily anxious to keep up the conversation for fear the others should think I was rattled! The
landscape was extraordinary. There was a sudden line of demarcation between the fertile wooded country we had been driving through, and a tract of land where there was nothing but the black naked trunks of trees, with all their branches broken off short. The ground was practically all shell-holes, filled with water, and their edges all grown over already with vegetation, mostly a vigorous plant with flowers composed of masses of pink buds, which I happen to know is called persicaria…

Winston lent me his excellent field-glasses, through which I could see the emplacement of the Boche lines, about 3000 yards off in the plain—and several towns, including the utter ruin of Ypres, where I could make out no trace of the Cloth Hall or of the Cathedral.

Later, after a detour to see one of the Messines craters, they arrive at their first destination: Haig’s headquarters.

G.H.Q, is an ugly modern chateau, in nice green grounds with a pond and a little river. Sir Douglas doesn’t ‘do himself’ so well as Lord French did, when we stayed with him at St. Omer. There is no champagne here, the house is very cold, and the rear doesn’t lock![2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. In Broken Images, 83-4.
  2. A Number of People, 250-4.