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.

A Mole Hill for Bed and Cake for Dinner in Jack Martin’s Trench; Kate Luard is Nearly Halfway Through Her Letters

Two nights ago, a century back, Jack Martin

felt a small strange upheaval underneath me. My first thought was of rats, but I soon discovered that it was a mole working away under the canvas on which we lie. A molehill in the middle of your spine is not conducive to comfort so I had to move myself one pace to the right…

Martin is an engineer, and so happy, apparently, to practice “live and let live” with rival tunnelers. Or perhaps he was simply biding his time, unwilling to risk conflict before the next mail call. Yesterday was Martin’s 33rd birthday, which netted him a tidy total of four parcels, leaving his tent looking “like a canteen.”

4.9.17

At 10 p.m. last night Glasspoole and I proceeded on night duty with my parcels. There was too large an assortment for us to sample everything but we started on a chocolate cake… then we tackled a bottle of preserved mixed fruits with grape nuts and condensed milk…[1]

The feast will continue…

 

But the interlude of comparative peace will not. Yesterday was a quiet day for Kate Luard, too, although her time was occupied with less agreeable correspondence.

Crowds of letters from mothers and wives who’ve only just heard from the W.O. and had no letter from me, are pouring in, and have to be answered, from my book of addresses and notes of cases; it takes up hours. I’ve managed to write 200 so far, but there are 466.

Then yesterday’s quietly devastating task led into a long and far less quiet night.

1 a.m. Another spell of hell let loose, and now brilliant moonlight, desultory banging of our heavies and occasional squeakers whining over from him. Peace for the minute overhead. Nearly all the patients are sleeping.

Later. Shells getting nearer had me back in the hospital. The last shell looked to be on the edge of 44; it was a big crash and spattered me with spent splinters. His damnable engines are now approaching in the sky – must be off.

2.30. I just got to a ward where the Sister is alone with one patient when the bomb fell and blew one of our Night Orderlies’ sleeping tents out of existence: it is one of a group of Orderlies’ and M.O.’s tents and one of the only empty ones at night. Wasn’t it wonderful? They’d all have been wiped out if they’d been in bed, but they were all on Night Duty. No other tent was touched. Just left an excited group of M.O.’s in pyjamas, and men round the hole…

Today has reminded me, strangely, of the last days of Edward Thomas. He had a birthday not long before the end, though the parcels were delayed; he also spent a morning pondering a mole, his habitat disturbed by guns and engineers; and Thomas had one long argument about the theology of ignoring artillery shells that found their mark while praising a matrix of near misses as a pattern of miraculous escapes… all of this is echoed, today, both by skeptical engineers and world-weary but conventionally religious nurses.

Conventional–but not unreflectively pious.

Tuesday morning, September 4th. Got to bed in my clothes, at 4 a.m., up at 7.30. Slept well. Brilliant morning; Archie racket in full blast. This acre of front so far bears a charmed life, but how long can it last? Shells and bombs shave us on all four sides. Mad, isn’t it? Capt. B. and Capt. P. (the all-night-duty men) are topping people. We have huge jokes in the middle of it all – no one could stick it if everybody behaved with fitting solemnity and sang hymns. There is a bit of Thank God sometimes, but praying doesn’t somehow come in, which seems funny! You can be
doing that!

Later. Orders have come for the final evacuation of the Hospital – site considered too ‘unhealthy.’ We close down to-day, evacuate the patients still here, and disperse the personnel. I stay till the last patient is fit to be moved, probably to-morrow, or next day – then probably Leave for 14 days! But don’t count on it, as you never know.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Sapper Martin, 99-100.
  2. Unknown Warriors, 155-7.

Night and Day in the Salient: The Master of Belhaven Empties his Pistol; Kate Luard Returns; Edwin Vaughan in Laughter and Terror; Ivor Gurney Finds Truth and Beauty in Siegfried Sassoon

Today, a century back, seems to be one of those days where any strange thing could happen–and many of them did. I suppose that a vague thematic connection among our first three entries might be the growing nastiness and desperation that characterized the fighting around Ypres, but that hardly even hints at the scope of the sudden violence we’ll encounter.

 

The Master of Belhaven‘s story should probably come first: it’s an unlikely escapade, told with nearly breathless disbelief by a man who is exhilarated to have survived. But it happened. It was a completely new experience–the veteran artillery officer in the midst of real trench fighting–and one which, despite the suffering and death involved, he writes, from beginning to end, as an adventure yarn. He has been writing of gas, shell-shock, and madness lately–but not today. Today was

The most exciting day I have had since I came out. It brackets with the first time I shot a rhino in East Africa.

The sentiment is clear, even if that comparison has not weathered the century well. Hamilton means to evoke the manly excitement of the hunt, rather than what we might see as joy in needless killing of a rare animal… but even a century back there would have been many to point out that the analogy is troubling: these are men that Hamilton is hunting, not beasts.

At dawn this morning I got a telegram… there was another gun firing from 50 yards north of the place I knocked out. I wired back to say that it should have my personal attention.

Hamilton has been praised for his initiative and his effectiveness, and he found it thrilling to actually watch his guns’ rounds hit from a mere few hundred yards away–this is an experience he would like to repeat.

First, however, Hamilton prepares for the “shoot” with exacting care. He registers a new gun and then re-registers his entire battery, firing on known targets to confirm that his calculations are precisely in accordance with each gun’s current state. Next, he lays new wire from the Observation Point back to the battery to ensure real-time communication. Only then does he proceed to the front line to lay his eyes on the target. But, as it turns out to be not-quite-visible even from a front-line post, he asks the Company Commander on the spot–Captain Flack of the First Royal Fusiliers–if he can go even further forward. Flack agrees, since the nearby trenches are not being held in force.

I must now describe the situation in some detail in order to make intelligible what follows.

The tension builds… but I will still cut in: Hamilton’s laying of the land is too detailed and repetitive, and we are familiar (I hope) with the idea of opposing groups of infantry holding “block” or “barrier” positions along a defunct communications trench which has come to serve as a sort of No Man’s Trench between them. In the present case the British barrier is 30 yards from a right-angle in the trench, which presumably turns again (these right-angle-bends are “traverses” meant to limit the effectiveness of enemy fire) and eventually meets a lateral trench still held by the Germans.

Even beyond this traverse, however, the Germans are believed to be “a long way off.” So it is safe to take a peek. Flack accompanies Hamilton in the spirit of a local guide or proprietor.

We drew our pistols and saw that they were loaded and in good order, and then proceeded to climb over the barricade… We crept along yard by yard, holding our pistols in front of us. We got almost up to the bend in the trench, that is, 30 yards from our barricade, when I saw an old hurdle across the trench just at the bend. Flack was about 5 yards behind me at the moment. Suddenly without any warning a German, with a pork-pie cap on, jumped up from behind the hurdle where he had been lying, and without a word flung a bomb in our faces.[1] It went over my head and burst with a crack between Flack and me. As the German rose up I threw myself forward onto my left hand, at the same time firing; at the moment I fired he had his hand above his head, having just let go the bomb. My bullet caught him in the throat; he threw up his other arm and collapsed like an ox that has been pole-axed…

The infantry captain, Flack, is wounded by the bomb. The German–rhino, ox, or human being–is dead, shot through the neck and chest by Hamilton. Our artillery battery commander has suddenly become a front line trench fighter, and, like Han Solo routing a party of storm troopers, he empties his pistol blindly around the corner to cover the retreat, as Flack’s men drag his limp body back over the barricade.

As soon as Flack had been got over, I turned and ran for it, scrambling over the barricade in record time. I knew I had been hit in the left knee, because I could feel the blood running down my leg… but I felt positively no pain at the time. I fired a parting shot just as I reached the barricade and immediately loaded a fresh magazine full of cartridges into my pistol. I was thankful I had an automatic and not an ordinary service revolver. Flack was lying in the bottom of the trench, simply covered with blood.

Hamilton takes command of the infantry detachment, orders the men nearby to prepare to defend against any German follow-up attack, and does what he can for Flack, who was “terribly wounded,” torn open in several places by the grenade’s explosion.

A few minutes later Hamilton hands over command to an infantry lieutenant and sees Flack carried to a dressing station. Captain W.G. Flack had been wounded four times and won the MC and bar, but this was his last fight–his CWGC entry indicates that he will die of these wounds in a few weeks in Étaples (among the hospitals where Vera Brittain now works).

Hamilton’s mission continues nonetheless. The idea of physically seeing the new gun position is now abandoned, of course, but he still wants to destroy any German guns that he can, and he knows approximately where they are located. Using the old vantage point and his high-powered binoculars, Hamilton discovers that–in a rather shocking lapse of tactical attention–the gun pit he destroyed a few days earlier has been reoccupied.

I could see numbers of the enemy walking about in the shade of the wood, so as soon as I got through [reaching his battery on the telephone] I turned all my guns on to it at the fastest rate of fire. The result was excellent…

This, presumably, was more like bagging pheasants than facing down a rhino.

I limped back to Battalion Headquarters, where I had a drink. They offered me food, but I could not touch anything with my hands, as they were simply caked with blood…

I went on to our Brigade Headquarters and reported the result of my day to the colonel, who was much horrified at my going out in front; however, I pointed out to him that if valuable information is to be obtained a certain amount of risk must be taken…[2]

Hamilton has proved his courage, initiative, and–although he would not have thought much of the utility of these at the beginning of the day–his reflexes and pistol marksmanship. He has earned the rather haughty tone of his last comment about risk–and then some. I don’t know how many artillery commanders drew their pistols–let alone fired them–in order to lay eyes to local targets (they stood greater risks for longer periods of time just by being with their guns while the enemy artillery searched for them, but that was the ordinary courage expected of them) but it can’t have been many.

Hamilton did not begin the day bloodthirsty; he was merely eager to do the very most with the means available to him. Yet it still feels–have I tried too hard to inculcate the infantryman’s “live and let live” attitude?–as if the killing today was in some way unnecessary. This despite the fact that it was warfare well done, and to refrain from it would have been foolish and irresponsible in strictly military operational terms. But.. must this sudden surprise killing be recounted in the style of a Boy’s Own Paper adventure?

Well. I may not like it, but I’m not sure that my distaste has any standing–Hamilton is not a great literary stylist, but he wrote out of his own experience, both his prior reading and his emotional state in the immediate aftermath of the events themselves. So perhaps he should be forgiven the adventure yarn/hunting story/action flick style in which people died today, a century back.

 

Next we come to Kate Luard. Her day, yesterday, was similarly intense, but in an almost opposite way. After weeks of near misses from German artillery and aircraft, a direct hit killed one of her nurses. And after weeks of misgivings, practical arguments, praise, and reflexive chauvinism, the medical powers-that-were immediately pulled the nurses out of their forward hospital, sending them to St. Omer. Kate Luard was torn, surely, to be sent back–but she also looked forward, with frank relief now that the test was over, to the idea of leave. For a few hours.

Thursday, August 23rd. No. 10 Sta. St. Omer. I’m afraid you’ll be very disappointed, but we are to re-open on the same spot so Leave is off. The Australians are not to go back, but we are to carry on the abdominal work alone as we did before they came up…

In tracing these reversals of course, Luard describes the initial decision, yesterday, to pull out. After the deadly shells, a discussion among the ranking medical officers “on our middle duckboards” about whether and how to relocate the hospitals ends in harrowing, cinematic fashion.

At that moment Fritz tactfully landed one of his best with a long-drawn crescendoing scream and crash, just on the railway. ‘Oh,’ said the General, ‘that was rather close.’ ‘That settles it,’ said the Q.M.G. firmly; ‘all three will evacuate.’ I made off to the Wards to tell the patients they were leaving, and you should have seen their looks of joy. ‘But you Sisters don’t stop here?’ they asked everywhere with great anxiety, bless them.

In an hour all were packed into Ambulances whether fit or dying, and the Padre was burying the dead. It took us a few hours to get away ourselves and one shell came slick into the Wards of 44 (which was then cleared of patients and Sisters) and blew an Orderly’s arm and leg off and tossed the Sergeant-Major, but he came down intact. By this time Ambulances were waiting for us and our kit, and the poor C.O. was frantic to get us away.

We reached St. Omer about 10 p.m., and it took till 1 a.m. before all were housed and fed and bedded (without any beds!) on the floors of an empty house. The personnel of our three C.C.S.’s came to over 100 and was divided between various Matrons here. We were dropping with fatigue by this time…

But back they will go: once again the belief that soldiers shouldn’t die because essential medical staff are being kept back from the guns wins out over the belief that women should not be exposed to the direct fire of the enemy. But the enemy are everywhere

Of course there was a Raid that night – there would be! – and one had to tear upstairs and order them all down on to the next floor out of their beds; 10 civilians were killed and a lot wounded. We, however, looked on that as child’s play; it seemed so far off, compared to our nightly entertainments…

It is only when you leave off that you realise how done you are, but fortunately having to begin again will correct that. I’m indulging in a pestilential cold, and a toothache. Otherwise I am very fit! The 36 Sisters to a man are loyal and good and vie with each other in attentiveness! The only real worry would be if they were tiresome.

The older Surgeons think it’s dreadful having us there, but as the C.O. says, without us they couldn’t carry on at all, so it’s worth it.[3]

 

With Edwin Vaughan we have yet another emotional reversal. Yesterday, a century back, the constant shelling was a laughing matter:

Pepper and the doctor—Carroll—amused me mightily by feigning abject terror and fighting to stand behind a tiny sapling about five inches across, whence they leered at the reeking shell-holes while chunks of iron sang about them. Pepper is awfully good fun nowadays…

Today, however, not so much:

During the night I was awakened by half a dozen tremendous crashes, apparently close to our tent. There were no yells and I was too tired to get up, but the next morning we found that the shells had all fallen within a hundred yards of us…

I got sudden windup this morning, for no reason whatever…

Later, after a ride with a tank unit, Vaughan’s courage returns. It would seem that, even under constant fire in reserve, the battalion’s morale remains impressively high:

I went to bed at 10 p.m. and at about midnight was awakened by an unusual sound. Far in the distance was the clanging of a gas gong—a warning that was taken up and came nearer and nearer until our own gong was struck. I woke Harding and went out of the tent to find the air faintly charged with a sweet scent of peppery butterscotch. I put on my gas-mask and went round the tents to find the men wearing theirs and playing at being lions and bears. Ewing, who had his tent flaps laced, did not smell the gas, so took no notice of the warning. He was not affected and the gas had dispersed in under half an hour.[4]

 

Three deadly back-and-forths in the Salient is enough for any one day, but bear with me for one more brief post. This one is a treat–from my point of view, at least. Some of our writers are writing in safety, some are in great danger. But while Owen sweats his guts out for Sassoon‘s approval, another poet in the firing line is traversing his critical eye across the horizon of The Old Huntsman.

Ivor Gurney‘s machine gun team is now in action, and, although he is personally in support, that is nevertheless well within the range of the guns. He too, shares all the difference the chances of a day can make, in war:

…last night on fatigue I had the roughest chanciest hour I ever had. My shrapnel helmet has an interesting dent in it….

We got caught in a barrage for an hour on the fatigue, and shrapnel caught me twice — once on the blessed old tin hat, (dint and scar) and once on the belt (no mark.) Pretty hot just there.

But today all is well, and he has time to read. And what? Well, Marion Scott is a very good friend/editor/patron, and she has promptly sent him a recent book of poems in which he had previously declared an interest:

I hope you will send me some more Sassoon, for his touch of romance and candour I like. He is one who tries to tell Truth, though perhaps not a profound truth…

Gurney is well off into a letter about his poetic hopes and his desire for long friendly conversations when another parcel arrives. He leaps into the book and dashes off his initial reactions–Sassoon’s poetry is something that strikes Gurney, evidently, as immediate in a way other art is not. And his criteria? Truth, and beauty, of course.

My Dear Friend: Your letter with Conan Doyle’s “Guns in Sussex” arrived yesterday, and Sassoon today. Thank you so much for the trouble and patience it must have cost you to copy them. The Conan Doyle is not very good; sincere but dull. The Sassoons not so good as a whole as they might be — but true…

Wisdom‘s last line is good.
Whispered Tale. True and good.
Absolution beautiful. But — one finds in it the fault of minor poets who make beautiful lines of unmeaning or not of any particular significance.

Why is time a wind, a golden wind, why does it shake the grass? I’ll tell you; because of “pass” and because it is a good line as a whole. He was proud of it, and may have written the poem round it.

Golgotha” is strained, though true, but not poetry.

They” needed to be said, but is journalism pure and simple…

Gurney now goes line by line through Sassoon, separating the inspired and “true” from the journalistic and merely verse-smithing. But he also comments with acuity (and, yes, the authority of himself being a poet in combat) on what Sassoon’s emotional intent might be:

…you must remember that a lot of this has been written to free himself from circumstance. They are charms to magic him out of the present. Cold feet, lice, sense of fear—all these are spurs to create Joy to such as he; since Beauty is the only comfort.

Stand-to: Good Friday Morning.

Not perfect; not what he meant, but good; and the end absolutely true, save perhaps “old”…

Thank you again. These thing stimulate me and give me hope. My Anthology enlargens.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. I don't like to break in to this paragraph, in the midst of describing a deadly fight only hours after it occurred, but it is interesting to note how much "genre"--by which I mean the expectations that go into Hamilton's processing of his experience between when it happens and when he writes it down--influences his account of this sudden violence. "Without any warning?" Of course not! "Without a word?" Would we expect a real life German trying to kill two armed, approaching men to take the time to shout "Gott strafe England?" But this is, to an extent, what Hamilton expected...
  2. War Diary, 375-77.
  3. Unknown Warriors, 151-3.
  4. Some Desperate Glory, 215-6.
  5. War Letters, 187-190.

Wilfred Owen Calls on Siegfried Sassoon; Edwin Vaughan in Charnel Hysterics; Ivor Gurney on Sassoonish Sonnets and the Fire and Fate of Francis Ledwidge

Life–and death–go on today, a century back, in the Salient. Kate Luard and her hospital survived another night of bombing, while for Edwin Vaughan “dullness and depression” beset his company on their third straight day of combat. But we must come as quickly as we can through his long day in the wasteland, and hasten back to Scotland where our main business lies.

I had had no sleep since the 15th but even now I dared not close my eyes… I was forced to divert my mind by climbing up again to look around…

Despite my searching, I could discover nothing of interest; the ridge, churned into a broad brown mudheap, showed no sign of life; there were no pillboxes on the slope and the horizon was so ragged that it was impossible to locate the various points. There only remained a few tree stumps and a few broken posts to show where gunpits had been. Then I lowered my glasses and fell to examining the foreground.

Vaughan’s diary today is a minor masterpiece of the eyewitness-to-horror genre, and to omit it entirely in favor of poetic friendship would be obscurely hypocritical. But a few short excerpts are, perhaps, enough:

The outstanding characteristic of this area was, of course, death. And this seemed to be brought home to me, not so much by the numerous corpses, as by the stranded and battered tanks. The nearest one was that which we had
visited when we arrived here, and I shuddered to see it standing gaunt and grim, its base distorted by a shell and a horrid black corpse half-turmbled out of the open door, whilst around it lay the black charred shapes that had been the crew.

…with gruesome fascination I concentrated on the bodies—tried to read the shoulder plates or recognize the battalion markings. The causes of death were mostly all too obvious, for death at Ypres is a fierce, distorting death—death from a direct hit or from a huge fragment. The mud which drags us down and breaks up our attacks has the one merciful effect of deadening the blasts of shells and localizing their death-dealing power.

Bodies there were in German uniform, mostly old and black, but many English killed in the last attacks with black, clotted blood still upon them. These are the most terrifying—if they can be terrifying now…

There was one which upset me. He was lying with the top of his head towards me; caught in the remnant of wire entanglement his two fists were raised clutching a strand. The backs of his hands looked white and slim, his hair fluffy and dusty like a miller’s. I don’t know why I didn’t like him, but he seemed somehow much more gruesome than the uglier bodies and I turned suddenly sick and was forced to sink down into my seat.

After a long day in the killing-slough, Vaughan’s relief arrives–and the company commander who is to take over the line is “windy”–trembling and unwilling to leave the meager shelter of a shell-hole. But Vaughan, now the sturdy veteran, forces him to do his duty in touring the line, with a subordinate in tow. A strange, demented sort of comedy ensues when shells begin falling in the mud around them:

…shell after shell hizzed through the darkness to burst with blinding flashes around us. I felt terrified but elated, and continued to sit on top making conversation while Hancocks leaned against me shaking. I was getting worried about him and kept giving him prods with my fist. Then suddenly there was an extra loud whizz and a smack as a dud slid into the mud almost under Hancocks. Spencer gave a hollow groan and Hancocks gave a loud shout of laughter, lying back with tears rolling down his face. I gave him a push, for I thought he had got shell shock, but when I realized that he was really tickled, I started to laugh too for the situation was really funny.

The sight of Spencer—bent almost double with his head pressed into the earth, looking at me and answering me upside down, his great bespectacled face white with fear and streaked with mud, his incoherent babblings, his starts and grunts at every shell burst—made us forget the danger. So Hancocks and I sat on the wet mud in the midst of the rain and shells and darkness of Ypres and laughed ourselves into hysterics.

After a while I realized that it was hysterics—that it was a temporary madness that had kept me dawdling in the shellfire, a disinclination to return to the reality of a new life out of the line. That my nerves had been giving way under the strain until I was reduced to the childishness of laughing at another man’s fear…[1]

This crazed stumbling from horror to hysteria provides an all-too-apt segue to “Dottyville,” as its inmates called the shell-shock-specializing hospital of Craiglockhart. There, today, a century back, a meeting took place which stands at the very center of this project.

 

It’s tempting to overwrite the first meeting of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, but, really, it’s an introduction that probably doesn’t need too much of an introduction. Their first encounter has been described by both men and by several noteworthy later writers, and it’s as if only Sassoon was surprised by what followed. This change meeting feels like one of the rare drops of sweetness distilled from war’s misery, a fortunate convergence of the twain that must be celebrated like a birth in a plague year, a new sort of orchid that blooming improbably in a new-mown field. See–overwritten.

In any event, the meeting was no surprise to Owen. He has known of Sassoon, he has read him, and he realized at some point recently that they were patients at the same hospital. They would have passed each other in the halls, but there would have been no way for Owen to discover what Sassoon looked like and come upon him “accidentally.” Today, a century back, Owen screwed up his courage and visited Sassoon in his room.

This small social step–dropping in on a fellow patient, a comrade of sorts–is hardly a heroic act. Yet it is a pretty good indicator of Owen’s returning calm and confidence. He may still be showing some of the outward signs of shell shock–the stammer, in particular–but he has otherwise been doing very well: he had “dumped bundles of his third Hydra outside the breakfast room that morning and was due to appear in the second part of Lucky Durham in the evening.” Which is all well and good, but it’s tempting to see Owen recognizing that the “the final stage of his cure” might involve both winning the respect of a hero (he admires his doctor, Brock, but not in the same worshipful way that Sassoon admires Rivers), and accomplishing something with regards to his own poetry, which matters much more to him than literary writing or the stage.[2]

But was it an auspicious meeting? All of the accounts focus to some degree or another on the distance between the two men: Sassoon is significantly older (six years, although Owen doesn’t realize this), significantly taller, and a full lieutenant. True enough, but the real differences are that he is a published and well-regarded poet and that he is from a much higher social class. Owen, the “station-master’s son,” is barely middle class and received a patchy education at non-prestigious local schools; Sassoon has a private income, rode to hounds, knows lords, ladies, and the London literary elite, and received a patchy education at Marlborough and Cambridge.

But what aspect of a first meeting of two friends can be more subject to revision in retrospect than the social angle from which they viewed each other as two strangers?

One morning at the beginning of August, when I had been at Craiglockhart War Hospital about a fortnight, there was a gentle knock on the door of my room and a young officer entered. Short, dark-haired, and shyly hesitant, he stood for a moment before coming across to the window, where I was sitting on my bed cleaning my golf clubs. A favourable first impression was made by the fact that he had under his arm several copies of The Old Huntsman. He had come, he said, hoping that I would be so gracious as to inscribe them for himself and some of his friends. He spoke with a slight stammer, which was no unusual thing in that neurosis-pervaded hospital. My leisurely, commentative method of inscribing the books enabled him to feel more at home with me. He had a charming honest smile, and his manners — he stood at my elbow rather as though conferring with a superior officer — were modest and ingratiating…

I had taken an instinctive liking to him, and felt that I could talk freely. During the next half-hour or more I must have spoken mainly about my book and its interpretations of the War. He listened eagerly, questioning me with reticent intelligence. It was only when he was departing that he confessed to being a writer of poetry himself, though none of it had yet appeared in print.

It amuses me to remember that, when I had resumed my ruminative club-polishing, I wondered whether his poems were any good! He had seemed an interesting little chap but had not struck me as remarkable. In fact my first view of him was as a rather ordinary young man, perceptibly provincial, though unobtrusively ardent in his responses to my lordly dictums about poetry. Owing to my habit of avoiding people’s faces while talking, I had not observed him closely. Anyhow, it was pleasant to have discovered that there was another poet in the hospital and that he happened to be an admirer of my work.[3]

Let not the calibrated self-mockery of “my lordly dictums” draw all the old sting from “perceptively provincial.” But what Sassoon acknowledges here is how Owen meets a need of his own, perhaps one that, in his instinctive diffidence about intellectual things, he had not yet recognized. Replete with mentors and advisors, goaded by his rivalry with the brash Graves, he has many co-conspirators, but never yet a follower. Sassoon may have failed to make a martyr of himself, but he will still welcome a disciple, a “faithful squire to [his] quixotic knight.”[4]

Which is exactly what Owen will sound like when he describes this meeting, in bantering faux-medieval style, to his cousin (and fellow poetic aspirant) Leslie Gunston.

22 August 1917 Craiglockhart

My dear Leslie,

At last I have an event worth a letter. I have beknown myself to Siegfried Sassoon… The sun blazed into his room making his purple dressing suit of a brilliance—almost matching my sonnet! He is very tall and stately, with a fine firm chisel’d (how’s that?) head, ordinary short brown hair. The general expression of his face is one of boredom…[5]

It’s customary, when quoting this letter, to omit the parenthetical “how’s that?” Which is a bit manipulative, since the winking parenthesis shows that Owen knows he is acting the part of the smitten fan. But the “boredom” does the trick too: Owen is aware of what he is up against, socially–and yet he is confident. He wouldn’t have dared to approach the Published Poet otherwise.

It’s a smoother story, perhaps, if Owen is all diffidence and unrecognized talent, and Sassoon all drawling confidence. Pat Barker’s version draws attention to Owen’s lingering stammer and emphasizes Sassoon’s bona fides as a poet of protest, although this is not what would have been most appealing to Owen.

A short, dark-haired man sidled round the door, blinking in the sudden blaze of sunlight. Sassoon, sitting on the bed, looked up from the golf club he’d been cleaning. ‘Yes?’

‘I’ve b-brought these.’

A few lines later, the meeting gets straight to the starting point of the poetic relationship:

‘Are you . . . quite sure your mother wants to be told that “Bert’s gone syphilitic?” I had trouble getting them to print that.’

‘It w-won’t c-come as a sh-shock… I t-tell her everything. In m-my l-letters.’

‘Good heavens,’ Sassoon said lightly, and turned back to the book.[6]

 

It’s a small world. In a letter to Marion Scott written today a century back, from the reserve areas in France, Ivor Gurney mentions Sassoon’s poetry by way of complimenting Scott’s.

My Dear Friend: Is “Field Daisy” yours? Then I may congratulate you very much…  I took it for Sassoon… The sonnet might have been Masefield’s, might have been Sassoon’s. Cheerio!

But Gurney is abreast of recent news, and the high spirits of the letter end in elegy. So we began today writing the mud of the ongoing offensive, then witnessed the beginning of a poetic friendship that will drive the development of war poetry–and now observe, with Gurney, a man still in the thick of it, the mysterious and terrible relationship between war and war poetry. We should all be irritated (or outraged) if a later commentator or critic were to make a remark along the lines of “violent death is terrible, of course, but at least it was good for his poetry”–this, surely, is a judgment that is meaningless, even offensive, without the “authority” that comes from considering such questions from within the soldier’s undetermined future. But Gurney has this authority.

…And so Ledwidge is dead. If the new book is not too.expensive you shall have it from me. He was a true poet, and the story of his life is (now) a sad but romantic tale, like that of so many others, so wastefully spent. Yet the fire may not have been struck in them save for the war; anyway it was to be, and is.[7]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Some Desperate Glory, 205-212.
  2. Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 267.
  3. Siegfried's Journey, 58.
  4. Ricketts, Strange Meetings, 104.
  5. Collected Letters, 485.
  6. Regeneration, 80-1.
  7. War Letters, 185-6.

The Battle of Langemarck: Four Seconds in the Life of Harry Patch; Edwin Vaughan in Command

Today, a century back, is another day of battle, as the British (and French) forces in the Ypres Salient surge forward once again. The Master of Belhaven is firing in support and Kate Luard will be picking up the pieces, but we will focus on two infantrymen as they attack today in the segment of Third Ypres known as the Battle of Langemarck. Neither is in the first attacking wave, but there is more than enough horror for the supporting troops and each will experience one of the most terrible days of their war.

 

At 4:45 the bombardment began, and two battalions of the 61st Brigade attacked toward Langemarck. Harry Patch, with C Company of the 7th Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, was in the second wave.

I remember the names–Pilckem Ridge was one and the other was Langemarck… How were we to know that a pile of rubble was this village or that, or that a gentle slope was a particular ridge…? You only knew what was right next to you…

I have a memory of crossing a flooded stream…

This was the Steenbeck, the second waterway (after the Yser canal) that now marks the pilgrims’ progress out of Ypres and into the Slough of Despond.

Our guns’ opening bombardment had begun with an almighty clap of thunder. You can’t describe the noise, you can’t… There was an officer going down the line… He had drawn his revolver, and I got the distinct impression by the set look on his face that anybody that didn’t ‘go over’ would be shot for cowardice where they stood…

For once the British operational luck was good: the weather held (though the ground was still terribly muddy) and the German defense was disorganized due to a half-completed relief. Langemarck was swiftly taken, and by 5.45 the second wave was moving through to its attack positions.

It was absolutely sickening to see your own dead and wounded, some calling for stretcher-bearers, others semi-conscious and beyond all help… I saw one German… all his side and his back were ripped up, and his stomach was out on the floor, a horrible sight. Others were just blown to pieces; it wasn’t a case of seeing them with a nice bullet hole in their tunic, far from it, and there I was, only nineteen years old. I felt sick.

It got worse.

We came across a lad from A Company. He was ripped open from his shoulder to his waist by shrapnel, and lying in a pool of blood. When we got to him, he looked at us and said, ‘Shoot me.’ He was beyond all human help, and before we could draw a revolver he was dead. And the final word he uttered was ‘Mother!’ I was with him in the last seconds of his life. It wasn’t a cry of despair, it was a cry of surprise and joy… I’m positive that when he left this world, wherever he went, his mother was there, and from that day I’ve always remember that cry and that death is not the end.

I remember that lad in particular. It is an image that has haunted me all my life…

Patch and his team soon reached the German second (support) line, where they set up their gun to fire in support of the men of their battalion just ahead, who were pushing into the German third (reserve) line.

I’d just changed a magazine… and Bob was looking elsewhere in the support line when two or three Germans came out of a trench and one of them spotted the machine gun and came straight for us with rifle and bayonet…

My right hand was free… I drew my revolver and I shot him in the right shoulder. He dropped his rifle but he came stumbling on, no doubt to kick the gun in the mud and us to pieces if he could…

I had four seconds to make my mind up. I had three rounds in that revolver. I could have killed him with my first; I was a crack shot. What should I do? Four seconds to make my mind up. That Cornishman’s ‘Mother’ was ringing in my ears and I thought, ‘No I can’t kill him’, and I gave him his life. I shot him above the ankle, and above the knee. I brought him down… for him the war was over… at the end of the war he would rejoin his family. Perhaps he was married; perhaps he had children.[1]

 

No more than two or three miles to the south, Edwin Vaughan‘s day developed more slowly, as his 8th Royal Warwickshires moved up behind several attacking waves.

August 16

At 2 a.m. a guide led us out of the camp in an easterly direction. We moved in column of route, in silence and with no smoking. I was leading with Ewing, but it was pitch dark and as our guide led us, sometimes on a hard road then on to mud then again on a sleeper track, I could not follow our direction. At last we arrived at a canal, with a steep
bank on either side and a towing path. We crossed a rough bridge and Ewing gave the order to fall out.

We were at Bridge 2A of the Yser canal, a few hundred yards north of Ypres. The air was poisoned by a terrible
stench that turned me sick. In the dim light the water appeared to be a dark-green swamp wherein lay corpses of men and bodies of horses; shafts of waggons and gun wheels protruded from the putrefying mass and after a shuddering glance I hurried along the towing path to clearer air. The bank was honeycombed with dugouts, chiefly occupied by REs. At one point I saw a fingerboard ‘To the RC Chaplain’.

Our cookers now rolled up and the cooks carried a hot meal over to our men. For my part I had lost my fear now, and in spite of the imminent attack and the fearful mass below me, I ate a hearty breakfast of sausages and bacon…

Vaughan is a commanding writer, and one who is keen both to describe the remembered scene with all the tools of the language and to record the raw emotions of the moment:[2]

…I walked along the path to where Sergeant Major Chalk was standing on the bank, silhouetted against the sky. I climbed up beside him and stood gazing across the darkness of the earth into the dawn. After a few minutes of silence he said ‘what is the time. Sir?’

‘Four forty-five’ I said, and with my words the whole earth burst into flame with one tremendous roar as hundreds of guns hurled the first round of the barrage…

Spellbound I saw a line of coloured lights shoot up from the Boche and then Chalk tugged my sleeve to indicate that our Company was lining up on the towing path…

My nervousness was gone now; trembling with excitement, but outwardly perfectly reasonable, I drank in every detail of the scene almost with eagerness. To the east we moved along the winding track between batteries of heavies that belched smoke and fire as we passed. The light grew rapidly, and the line of fire changed to a line of smoke. Around us and ahead of us was earth, nothing but earth—no houses or trees or even grass just faint shapeless humps from which the great guns hurled their iron death…

The men sing as they march up to take their positions in support.

The road had now almost disappeared and we were marching over shell-holes around which was scattered debris and wreckage at which I now dared not look. I kept my eyes fixed on the distance until we came to some low buildings—Van Heule Farm.

These were some of the concrete pillboxes of which we had heard. In front of them were six dead Germans and a disembowelled mule…

I led my platoon off to the right and we continued to move steadily across that muddy waste until I realized that we were walking into a curtain of fire. We were right on top of the German barrage when glancing round I saw Ewing give the signal to halt.

I repeated the signal to my men, and we all dived into shell-holes right on the fringe of the shell-torn zone. With my head just over the edge of my shell-hole I lay blinking into the shrieking, crashing hail of death 30 yards in front. We were too close to fear anything except a direct hit and fascinated I stared at that terrible curtain through which we soon must pass. One gun was firing regularly onto a spot only a few yards in front of me and as I watched the bursts I became aware of Private Bishop in the shell-hole in front with a thick red stream running down his back. I shouted to him ‘Are you hurt, Bishop?’ Turning round he said, ‘No Sir’ in surprise. So I leaped across the edge of the hole and found that the stream proceeded from a shrapnel wound in a carton of jam in his haversack…

Soon the order comes to occupy a more forward position. Since they are some distance to the south, the line of the Steenbeck (which runs from south east to northwest across the west-to-east oriented battlefield) is further to the east than where Patch and his battalion crossed it.

Dully I hoisted myself out of the mud and gave the signal to advance, which was answered by every man rising and stepping unhesitatingly into the barrage… we were surrounded by bursting shells and singing fragments, while above us a stream of bullets added their whining to the general pandemonium. The men were wonderful! And it was astounding that although no one ran or ducked, whilst many were blown over by shells bursting at our very feet no one was touched until we were through the thickest part of the barrage and making for the little ridge in front.

Then I saw fellows drop lifeless while others began to stagger and limp; the fragments were getting us and in front was a belt of wire. At this moment I felt my feet sink and though I struggled to get on, I was dragged down to the waist in sticky clay. The others passed on, not noticing my plight until by yelling and firing my revolver into the air I attracted the attention of Sergeant Gunn, who returned and dragged me out. I caught up the troops who were passing through a gap in the wire, and I was following Corporal Breeze when a shell burst at his feet. As I was blown backwards I saw him thrown into the air to land at my feet, a crumpled heap of torn flesh.

Sick with horror I scrambled over him and stumbled down into the cutting, which was the Steenbeck Stream. Crouched in here we found the Irish Rifles, and we lined up with them. There was a padre who gave me a cheery grin and further along was a major smoking a pipe as he sat on the bank with his back to the enemy. I climbed out of the stream and saluted him, noticing out of the corner of my eye that a tank was ditched in the cutting. I sat down beside him and told him who we were, and then from the heap of flesh that had been Breeze, I saw the stump of an arm raised an inch or two. Others saw it too and before I needed to tell them, the stretcher-bearers were on their way to him. Very gently they brought him in to where I was sitting. He was terribly mutilated, both his feet had gone and one arm, his legs and trunk were torn to ribbons and his face was dreadful. But he was conscious and as I bent over him I saw in his remaining eye a gleam of mingled recognition and terror. His feeble hand clutched my equipment, and then the light faded from his eye. The shells continued to pour but we gave poor Breezy a burial in a shell-hole and the padre read a hurried prayer.

…The ground sloped up so sharply in front that I could only see for about 30 yards. Behind us was nothing but the shell-swept waste of mud and filth. So I called to Corporal Benjamin to come and talk to me. He had just made some reference to poor Breeze, when there was a clang and he staggered back, his helmet flying off into the stream. A bullet had gone through it without touching him and his comical look of amazement and indignation as he retrieved it made me shriek with laughter…

We are now at the stage of every battle where things slow down: whatever was planned so minutely has run its course, and the various units who have come “through” the attacking waves must now assess the situation, discovering just where the enemy has been destroyed or retreated, and where he is hanging on. And with every hour on the battlefield the danger increases, as the German artillery, too, discovers what territory has been held and what can now be fired upon.

At about 3 p.m. we saw two figures walking back behind us, and recognizing Radcliffe we hailed him and ran across. His right wrist had been shattered by a sniper’s bullet and he was very upset for it was a rotten sort of blighty for a Doctor of Music to get. With him was Sergeant Bell who had got a bullet in the arm from the same sniper. It was with real regret that we gripped their left hands and said goodbye—we knew for ever. We felt that this was the beginning of the break-up and we rejoined our troops in deep dejection.

Half an hour later Ewing arrived, breathless from dodging the energetic snipers, and told me that I was to take command of the Company as he was going to HQ as adjutant in place of Hoskins, who had been hit… My instructions were to move the Company at dusk straight over to the left, form up behind the Gloucesters and after dark to push forward and deal with any machine guns in front.

Vaughan has not always had the confidence of the higher-ups in his battalion, but needs must. Despite being issued vague orders to make a lateral movement across a battlefield and then attempt the sort of small-unit tactical feat that will be the stuff of hundreds of war movies to come, he seems to acquit himself well–at least at first.

Owing to the murk of battle and the misty rain, we were able to move at 6 o’clock, so stumbling and dodging round the shell-holes we followed our guide over half a mile of mud and water in front of what had been St Julien. The  snipers were very busy as we crossed, but the light was so bad that the shots sang over our heads and no one was hit.

By the time we had formed up behind the Gloucesters, it was quite dark, so I immediately sent out four small patrols to locate the enemy line. In a very few minutes machine guns opened out and sprayed bullets over our line. The patrols all returned and reported that the ground in front was a morass of mud and water, and before they had gone a hundred yards the Boche had heard them floundering about, and had opened fire. I believed them but to satisfy myself I took a couple of men and went out towards a spot where I had judged a gun to be. In five minutes we were stumbling into deep holes full of water, and the noise we made dragging our bodies through the mud caused flares to shoot up all along his line and the ground was swept by traversing guns. By the light of one flare I thought I saw a low pillbox with figures standing before it, but I was not sure. In any case it was obvious that to attempt a night attack would be madness, so I took my patrol back. On the way we stumbled into a large swamp and waded about in water for some time before striking our positions.

Vaughan’s habit of honesty about his own shortcomings as an officer is one of the most valuable aspects of his diary. He hasn’t quite refused to perform a direct order, but he has asserted his own judgment–as a second lieutenant of very limited combat experience–that the suggested attack is “madness,” and demurred. This could be interpreted–unfairly, but still–as a failure of nerve, an unwillingness to get some of his men killed in capturing an important local objective. As a company commander, Vaughan now has only the battalion’s commanding officer to answer to:

I found the CO waiting for me and I sat down in the mud beside him feeling dead beat and horribly ill. What he was saying I had no idea, for I must have fainted or gone to sleep. After what seemed a long time I heard a voice saying
unintelligible things, and I was just able to mutter, ‘I’m awfully sorry. Sir, but I haven’t the least idea what you’re saying.’ He shook me violently and said ‘Now, Vaughan, pull yourself together.’ Whereupon I was alert in a moment and he repeated his instructions. I was to form up my platoons in depth to the right of where we were then sitting. The Gloucesters were going out before dawn and the following night I was to spread out to the left and form a line joining the Ox and Bucks. Then he left me and I sat for a while staring into the darkness, realizing that we were in a hell of a place.

It was a very different attack from what I had imagined we would experience: terror and death coming from far away seemed much more ghastly than a hail of fire from people whom we could see and with whom we could come to grips. And now we were in an unknown district and must await through the long night the uncertainties of the dawn…

But they still must go forward–the uncertainties of dawn are likely to include a counter-attack, and they must prepare for this as best they can.

Chalk and I went in front… in a few moments a salvo of high-velocity shells kept us flattened out in the mud as they crashed amongst us.

Coincidentally, David Jones sketched a different British tank elsewhere in the Salient today, a century back

As we pushed on again we discerned dimly, through the rain and darkness, a derelict tank. ‘What about that for an HQ, Sir?’ said Chalk. I assented and when I had positioned the troops in front with Jimmy Harding among them, I led my staff of runners, signallers and pigeon carriers back to that spot. As we approached it, however, we were met by a filthy, overpowering stench and found that a shell had burst underneath it and it had burnt out. The charred bodies of the crew were inside or half out of the open door. So I sought the healthier atmosphere of a large crater 30 yards away and gathered my staff in neighbouring shell-holes.

I was very tired but had to stagger out at once to see that the line was unbroken and I had a rotten time dodging shells. Feeling half dead I was on my way back when I heard a voice yelling ‘Stretcher-bearers’. It was Sergeant Swingler with a chunk of shrapnel in his shoulder…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Last Fighting Tommy, 90-101. The name Harry Patch will be familiar to Great War cognoscenti and even perhaps to those with little reading in the subject, and/or an interest in alternative rock. He was not really a writer, but his story is terribly moving, and even almost hopeful: at his funeral, in 2009, soldiers from Belgium, France, and Germany accompanied his coffin--and, in strict accordance with his wishes, there were no weapons present, not even ceremonial swords. So that was Harry Patch, and it seemed a shame, in the strange logic of military history, not to include his terrible day, here, in some way. At the very least this trauma of a century back gave a renewed push to the effort to remember the Great War properly--in its full awfulness--in hte two decades leading up to the centenary. But there is a good methodological reason, too, for including him: his story, "as told to" interviewers (and, for the book, to the military historian Richard Van Emden) is the most extreme sort of counterpoint to what I generally value the most, here. Instead of a near-immediate record in a dated diary entry or letter, we have the memories of a day only after these memories have weathered eighty or nineties years in the mind of a survivor--Patch didn't start talking about the war until he was over a century old. It's a reminder of what, from another point of view, really matters, and a rebuke from a very gentle old man: the section I quote from, above, begins "I'm told we attacked on 16 August, but the date doesn't mean much to me..." and then he, in Hemingway/Fussell fashion still remembers the names, but, as the first ellipsis, above, continues "it is such a long time ago that I can't quite connect them up in my head."
  2. His diary will be extensively worked over after the fact, at least in part to achieve this effect.
  3. Some Desperate Glory, 193-200.