Kipling’s Tales of the Rout at Cambrai; The Master of Belhaven Learns of the Debacle; The Darkness of Toby’s Room; Jack Martin and Edward Brittain in Italy

Ralph Hamilton, the Master of Belhaven, is back in the swing of things, with his battery to the south and east of the Cambrai conflagration.

All day the heavy battery cannonade was kept up, and rumours were received of trenches lost and even batteries captured. Late this morning I got a situation report, and found things were worse than we had realized. The Hun had penetrated our line to a depth of 8,000 yards in places, and some batteries were lost, including A/107, which is sad, as it belongs to our division… it is the first time we have lost any of our divisional artillery.[1]

 

This is the fight that the Guards are still fighting. They have been defeated–driven back, at least, in the impossible task of holding a salient improvidently grabbed, while massively outgunned. Kipling sings the Second Irish:

The dawn of the 30th November was ushered in by single shells from a long-range gun which found them during the night. Half an hour after they had the order to move to Heudicourt and had digested a persistent rumour that the enemy were through at Gonnelieu, telegrams and orders began to pour in. The gist of them was that the line had undoubtedly cracked, and that the Brigade would move to Gouzeaucourt at once. But what the Brigade was to do, and under whose command it was to operate, were matters on which telegrams and orders most livelily conflicted…

And so it is the part of the Imperial Bard to describe a… well, an inglorious retrograde movement, perhaps, if not a rout. But then that is the benefit of choosing the size of your story: this is a British embarrassment, but still a proud day, of sorts, for the Second Irish Guards:[2]

Over the ridge between Gouzeaucourt and Metz poured gunners, carrying their sights with them, engineers, horses and infantry, all apparently bent on getting into the village where they would be a better target for artillery. The village choked; the Battalion fell in, clear of the confusion, where it best could, and set off at once in artillery formation, regardless of the stragglers, into the high and bare lands round Gouzeaucourt. There were no guns to back them, for their own were at Flesquières. As was pointed out by an observer of that curious day — “‘Tis little ye can do with gun-sights, an’ them in the arrums av men in a great haste. There was men with blankets round ’em, an’ men with loose putties wavin’ in the wind, and they told us ’twas a general retirement. We could see that. We wanted to know for why they was returnin’. We went through ’em all, fairly breastin’ our way and — we found Jerry on the next slope makin’ prisoners of a Labour Corps with picks an’ shovels. But some of that same Labour Corps they took their picks an ‘shovels and came on with us.”

They halted and fixed bayonets just outside Gouzeaucourt Wood, the Irish on the left of the line, their right on the Metz-Gouzeaucourt road, the 3rd Coldstream in the centre, the 2nd Coldstream on the right, the 2nd Grenadiers in reserve in Gouzeaucourt Wood itself. What seems to have impressed men most was the extreme nakedness of the landscape, and, at first, the absence of casualties. They were shelled as they marched to the Wood but not heavily; but when they had passed beyond it they came under machine-gun fire from the village. They topped the rise beyond the Wood near Queen’s Cross and were shelled from St. Quentin Ridge to the east. They overran the remnant of one of our trenches in which some sappers and infantry were still holding on. Dismounted cavalry appeared out of nowhere in particular, as troops will in a mixed fray, and attached themselves to the right of the thin line. As they swept down the last slope to Gouzeaucourt the machine-gun fire from the village grew hotter on their right, and the leading company, characteristically enough, made in towards it. This pulled the Battalion a little to the right, and off the road which was supposed to be their left boundary, but it indubitably helped to clear the place.

The enemy were seen to be leaving in some haste, and only a few of them were shot or bayoneted in and out among the houses. The Battalion pushed in through the village to the slope east of it under Quentin Mill, where they dug in for the night. Their left flank was all in the air for a while…

Tanks were used on the right during the action, but they do not seem to have played any material part in the Battalion’s area, and, as the light of the short and freezing November day closed, a cavalry regiment, or “some cavalry,” came up on the left flank. The actual stroke that recovered Gouzeaucourt had not taken more than an hour, but the day had cost them a hundred and thirty men killed, wounded and missing…

This is a tale that will need salting–or sweetening–with rough and ready humor, if it is not to leave a terrible taste in the mouth of any believer in the B.E.F.

A profane legend sprang up almost at once that the zeal shown by the Guards in the attack was because they knew Gouzeaucourt held the supplies of the Division which had evacuated it. The enemy had been turned out before he could take advantage of his occupation. Indeed, a couple of our supply-trains were found untouched on rail at the station, and a number of our guns were recaptured in and around the place. Also, the Divisional rum-supply was largely intact. When this fact came to light, as it did — so to say — rum-jar by rum-jar, borne joyously through the dark streets that bitter night, the Brigade was refreshed and warmed, and, men assert, felt almost grateful to the Division which had laid this extra “fatigue” on them.

But no–I’ve sold Kipling short. Or underestimated his loyalty to the twists and turns of the tale. He is a very great historian, in the old-fashioned sense,[3] and when a bitter day slews toward maniac joy and then back again, he leans into the curves…

One grim incident stays in the minds of those who survived — the sight of an enormous Irishman urging two captives, whom he had himself unearthed from a cellar, to dance before him. He demanded the jigs of his native land, and seemed to think that by giving them drink his pupils would become proficient. Men stood about and laughed till they could hardly stand; and when the fun was at its height a chance shell out of the darkness to the eastward wiped out all that tango-class before their eyes. (‘”Twas like a dhream, ye’ll understand. One minute both Jerries was dancin’ hard to oblige him, an’ then — nothin’, nothin’ — nothin’ — of the three of them! “)[4]

 

Some time ago we opened another entire European front–but then things became busy. Remember Italy? I had intended to give some of Sapper Martin‘s itinerary, as a sort of modern take on the ancient form, because nothing says “timeless military misery” better than a long, long march. But, as the narrative has been without excessively necessary details, I have been passing him over–I merely want to note, then, that his march reached 148 miles, today, a century back, at the end of its second week.[5]

 

But Martin is not our only man headed to the front lines in northern Italy. Edward Brittain was able to give his sister Vera an update today as well, on the occasion of his birthday. And, as you know, an army marches on its stomach, even in Italy…

Italy, 30 November 1917

We are fairly close to the line though not within artillery range; we expect to be closer very soon; at present it does not seem that we shall suffer from artillery anything like as much as we did in the salient… We have had some very hard marching lately but the men have stuck it wonderfully well. . . We have managed to buy a turkey for my birthday dinner to-night for the absurdly small sum of 7 liras…

In time there will be E.F. Canteens as in France, I expect, but at present we suffer from our dissimilarity in taste from the Italians. 22 seems rather old in some ways but young in others, e.g. I have only 1 subaltern younger than me.[6]

Happy Birthday, then, to twenty-two-year-old Edward Brittain.

 

And then there is fiction, which can choose many forms of escapism–or brutal realism. I mentioned Pat Barker’s Toby’s Room two days ago, and Elinor Brooke’s conviction that Sassoon’s decision to go back to the horrors of war was the only possible one. Today, her [fictional] diary describes what she herself is doing for the war effort: an art student before the war, she now assists Henry Tonks, the artist and toweringly influential teacher at the Slade, in his work. Working as artists and recorders of the war’s damage, they draw the faces of mutilated soldiers, in order to aid in pioneering attempts at reconstructive plastic surgery.[7]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary, 414-5.
  2. I have taken the liberty of changing the great man's paragraphing.
  3. I.e. with the emphasis on story, on narrative, and not on any 19th century balance of facts or, still less, with any 21st century expectation of striving for unbiased perception.
  4. The Irish Guards in the Great War, I, 218-220.
  5. Sapper Martin, 149.
  6. Letters From a Lost Generation, 383.
  7. Toby's Room, 233-6.

Dr. Dunn on Passchendaele: Unburyable Corpses and Magical Light; George Coppard in Blighty; Phillip Maddison at Cambrai; The Master Learns the Cathedral

Today, a century back, George Coppard, shot through the leg during the battle of Cambrai, arrived at Birkenhead Borough Hospital:

It was not a fancy place, but after the turmoil of war it seemed as near to heaven as I was likely to get. Britain was still celebrating the victory of the the Third Army [at Cambrai] and the bells of the churches had rung out in praise. At that time the tank thrust was regarded as the first real turn of the tide against German might… fresh from the fray, I attracted my little share of attention from the visitors and nursing staff… but there was trouble ahead.

And not just with the strategic failures at Cambrai; Coppard’s wound, which has severed the femoral artery and been staunched by his own none-too-sterile thumb, was both too deep to easily repair and liable to infection…[1]

 

Cambraiis no victory–but at least it took us away from Passchendaele. Remember Passchendaele? Tens of thousands of infantrymen are still there, holding the miserable wasteland into the winter. Today brings one of the most striking passages in Dr. Dunn’s narrative of the 2nd Royal Welch Fusiliers. He[2] has been on leave and, returning, is struck anew by the sheer wretchedness of the battlefield. Dunn would never make such a dramatic statement, but… only men could make such a hell.

At dawn I went with Radford round part of the line. Many scarcely recognizable dead lie about, a few of them Germans. Passchendaele is not quite levelled… Mud flows through entrances, and rain drops through the cracked cemented-brick floors roofing the cellars, on to the occupants… When the position is overlooked the men are pinned down by day, and numbed with cold by day and night… In the morning some of our planes came over in an objectless-looking way…

A rapidly filling cemetery… is a most unrestful place. It is the labour of a squad to keep the dead in their graves. A sapper officer was killed and buried in the morning; his tormented body had to be reburied twice during the day.

The next line comes as a shock. But should it?

But for all the havoc up here the effect of a glint of sunshine on the waste is magical.[3]

 

Ralph Hamilton, the Master of Belhaven, is in Amiens, on the way back from an officers’ course in England.

Let’s see: misery, destruction, attrition, mass death… all modern and unavoidable, now. But perhaps one of the more overlooked ways in which the Great War qualifies as the first modern war is that the regular rotations of leaves and courses–and habits like tourism while on military journeys–rarely stop.

I had a good lunch there and went to see the Cathedral with an excellent guide-book. I spent an hour there and discovered all sorts of interesting things that I did not know before…

He will reach his batteries, still on a quiet sector of the Somme, after midnight…[4]

 

Finally, today, Henry Williamson is still in England on Home Service, but Phillip Maddison, his tireless alter ego, is drawing nearer to the cauldron of Cambrai. His “diary,” which fills several pages of the novel Love and the Loveless at this point, is an improbably knowledgeable (he is still, despite his brush with greatness, a mere lieutenant charged with resupplying a Machine Gun Company currently in reserve) crib from the history books, explaining all the movements of, for instance, the Guards in Bourlon Wood.

But tonight the company moves up, and Williamson writes a long scene full of many familiar elements–the confusion of a night relief, the misery of a march under fire–and some stranger ones, such as the description of horses and mules “screaming” through their gas masks. When the German counter-attack breaks through, Phillip will be, as always, on the scene.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 130.
  2. I believe it's Dunn himself; it's sometimes difficult to tell who the "speaker" is.
  3. The War the Infantry Knew, 417.
  4. War Diary, 414.
  5. Love and the Loveless, 333-49.

Carstairs on Leave; The Master Returns; Toby’s Room at Garsington

After the intensity of Bourlon Wood, today is a quiet day, a transfer day–with time, then, for a fictional foray.

When Carroll Carstairs came to write his narrative of the harrowing battle for Bourlon Wood, he did so with an oddly light yet gripping style–and he scanted neither the intensely subjective experience of being a man alone under fire nor the nature of infantry combat as a contest of small groups of men all negotiating fear, discipline, compassion, loyalty, and violence. His coda to the episode hints at the difficulties ahead for soldiers who pass through such experiences.

The next day—at a time when I was well able to appreciate it—my leave to England came through.

I made a wide circle to avoid a particular point being shelled; fearful, now that I was temporarily a detached human, of being hit.[1]

 

Going the opposite way, today, a century back, was Ralph Hamilton, the Master of Hamilton, returning from an apparently useless senior officers’ course on Salisbury Plain. He dutifully notes the stages of his approach, but has nothing, as yet, to say of the battle that awaits him.[2]

 

Finally, today, another fictional introduction. Well into the fourth year of this project, I am highly sympathetic to novelists who find a way to put their earlier research to a second use. Pat Barker’s novel Toby’s Room follows a brother and sister and a small group of friends through the war: there is a good deal about art and medicine, and, merging the two in Great War fashion, about the horrors of disfigurement. The novel, too, mines Vera Brittain‘s experience and opens a dialogue with Virginia Woolf’s fictional treatment of the war.

But I mention Toby’s Room now because it also makes a flying visit to Historical Sassoonland, the point of origin of Barker’s Regeneration books. Today, a century back, the novel’s protagonist, Elinor Brooke, begins keeping a diary… which coincides with a visit to Ottoline Morrell’s Garsington Manor, at which “the talk was all of Ottoline’s recent trip to Edinburgh to see Siegfried Sassoon, who… does seem to have treated her rather badly…” But Elinor’s sympathy is with Sassoon, hating the war and yet trying to find a place in it where he can do some good, even if it is only to take care of his men. The “diary” continues for the next few days…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Carstairs, A Generation Missing, 139.
  2. War Diary, 414.
  3. Toby's Room, 233-6.

Siegfried Sassoon’s Dubious Cure is Complete; The Guards Prepare to Enter Bourlon Wood

Today, a century back, is another one of those dramatic days in the literary history of the war–meaning that, even if you haven’t seen the movie (Regeneration, a.k.a Behind the Lines), it’s hard not to imagine the scene dramatically staged, with sonorous speechifying punctuated by clipped phrases. Siegfried Sassoon–decorated infantry officer, poet of protests, and previous-medical-board-cutter–comes before a Medical Board to assure them that he has not changed his mind, refuses to acknowledge that he has been ill, and nevertheless insists not just on resuming military obedience but on actively fighting–he has Rivers’s word that he will be passed fit for general service abroad, and not shunted off to a depot or desk job.

It went fine, by most accounts, and the drama dissipated. Sassoon left Craiglockhart in what must have been a mood of anticlimax–Rivers had already left, Owen was gone, and he was off to a dismal depot in Wales to see if the War Office would keep the bargain and send him back into danger.

It’s possible that Sassoon was frustrated, that he was unsettled and unhappy to be going to a place with many acquaintances who would not understand his protest, and no real friends. But I don’t see any good reason to follow his biographer Jean Moorcroft Wilson in assuming that he was deeply depressed. He has sent some melodramatic letters in recent days, surely–and he is annoyed by Robert Graves‘s infatuation with Nancy Nicholson (although whether he viewed this primarily as a “defection” from a homosexual brotherhood–rather than just a male friend traducing an all-male society–is doubtful). But to assume that he “no longer cared whether he was alive or dead” (or, later on the same page, that he was “not caring much whether he lived or died”) seems unnecessary. Sassoon is prone to wallowing, but he never really manifested severe depression. His “almost complete despair” is an emotional position, rather than a psychological state. Either that or it’s a passing mood, and there are no German grenadiers near by to take him up on a temporary recklessness…[1]

In any event, his strange claims and steady demeanor got him past the board, despite his insistence that the war was still wrong and that he hasn’t changed his mind. This is true in one sense, but untrue in a more important one: he can do nothing right, or feel nothing to be right, until he is back with the troops.

And after the second board meets, naturally, the book ends. Regeneration, that is: the last scene in the novel sees Rivers completing the paperwork that sends Sassoon back to duty.

 

And none too soon–or, rather, far too late for him to see any of the worst of the 1917 fighting. The last of this will fall, as it often does, to the Guards division. We are back, now, with the American Carroll Carstairs, only just returned from leave. He found his battalion, the 3rd Grenadier Guards, a few days ago, hurrying up to the front to support the Cambrai attack.

The ’buses came at last and at 5.30 a.m. we arrived and went into huts. What was going to happen? All day we remained apprehensively at Boulencourt. I was one of so many that a sense of individual danger was lost. Death would be pure accident. No bullet be intended for me. One’s mind dodged the issue. You did not think of it. It thought of you. That was it. It considered you bodily; pinning you to earth; running you down. For we were certain—I was certain—to go into battle. What was that silly line in a story? It made me think of a battle as something so romantic as to be harmless…

It was here that British troops had so recently overrun the impregnable Hindenburg line. The tracks of the tanks that had flattened some six aprons of barbed wire could be seen. In their wake the infantry had followed. All very neatly done. No artillery preparation. Few shell holes. Little bloodshed. Many prisoners. Just a nice clean battle…

We were billeted in a deep dugout. Twenty-four steps. Very safe. In the trench a tank had been stuck, its nose
perpendicular in the air—looking a clumsy, helpless thing…

The Germans were shelling Anneux. The next day we were to take over the line in front of Anneux and facing Fontaine. Cambrai looked ridiculously within reach. Bourlon Wood, half British and half German, presented an inscrutable appearance. It was too late. We should not be used now. Again I was to miss a battle. On the way
back the moon was setting in a sky of violet…

Another day passes, and the romantic is disappointed. But he will get his battle, and he manages to describes his contradictory spirits with both jauntiness and sensitivity, seriousness and verve:

The next day was windy. The clouds had a smudged look as though a dirty finger had rubbed their edges. Towards evening the wind died out like the end of a long sigh and the day was still. Without moon and stars the night was black and threatened rain.

I had met the Battalion with the guides, but the Commanding Officer was nowhere to be seen. I found “Billy” though, who was much excited. He told me what was up, but I could not take it in. His announcement affected me physically before I had mentally grasped it. I felt it like a shock, like a blow, turning me sick. The Battalion was to
attack the following morning. Once the words had been formulated and the brain had recorded and repeated them there occurred an emotional ebb, leaving the system drained. Gradually I rallied to the fact itself, inevitable. All this within the space of a few seconds. I had morally run away, fallen, picked myself up, while remaining steadfastly on one spot.[2]

 

Carstairs is a surprisingly excellent chronicler of subjective experience. Rudyard Kipling, writing as official chronicler of the Irish Guards, is up to something different. And yet it can’t be so different: he can set the scene from behind, with the traditional “General’s Eye View” of the proceedings, but he knows the need, after tactical summary, for eyewitness testimony, however parenthetical and in dialect, to bring us into the experience of the day:

The official idea of the Brigade’s work was that, while the 3rd Grenadiers were attacking La Fontaine, the 2nd Irish Guards should sweep through Bourlon Wood and consolidate on its northern edge…

They would advance under a creeping barrage, that jumped back a hundred yards every five minutes, and they would be assisted by fourteen tanks. Above all, they were to be quick because the enemy seemed to be strong and growing stronger, both in and behind the Wood. The Battallion spent the night of the 26th working its way up to the front line, through Flesquières where bombs were issued, two per man; then to La Justice by Graincourt; and thence, cross-country, by Companies through the dark to the Bapaume—Cambrai road, where they found the guides for their relief of the Scots Guards. Just as they reached the south edge of Bourlon Wood, the enemy put down a barrage which cost forty casualties. Next it was necessary for the C.O. (Alexander) to explain the details of the coming attack to his Company Commanders, who re-explained it to their N.C.O.’s, while the Companies dressed in attack-order, bombs were detonated, and shovels issued. (‘There was not any need to tell us we were for it. We knew that, and we knew we was to be quick. But that was all we did know — except we was to go dancin’ into that great Wood in the wet, beyond the duck-boards. The ground, ye’ll understand, had been used by them that had gone before us— used and messed about; and at the back, outside Bourlon, all Jerry’s guns was rangin’ on it. A dirty an’ a noisy business was Bourlon.’[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Siegfried Sassoon, I, 424-428.
  2. Carstairs, A Generation Missing, 119-22.
  3. The Irish Guards in the Great War, II, 156.

A Bad Night for Dr. Rivers; Thomas Hardy’s Blood Runs Cold; Wilfred Owen is Slightly Impolitic

After his nightmare of a day, yesterday, attending Lewis Yealland’s therapy/torture sessions, Dr. W.H.R. Rivers awoke from a nightmare in the wee hours of today, a century back. He had dreamed of the contorted men he had seen, and one had mouthed to him the words of Siegfried Sassoon‘s protest… then he himself had tortured another patient with an electrode–forcing it down his throat… until the electrode turned into a horse’s bit, and he woke up in a cold sweat.

So it went, in the novel, of course; but Pat Barker eases up on her hero in the full light of day. Rivers visits his mentor, Henry Head, and is consoled and reassured–his methods, of course, are very, very different from Yealland’s. But, then again, those gentler methods had still put the bit back in Sassoon’s mouth. And it is time for Rivers to return to Craiglockhart, now, for the second attempt at Sassoon’s Medical Board.[1]

 

Speaking of Sassoon-approved elders, here is a pertinent letter from Thomas Hardy to one J.M. Bulloch, explaining why he doesn’t have war poems to spare:

Max Gate, Dorchester, 25th. November 1917.

Dear Mr Bulloch:

I should like to write something about the War for The Graphic if I ever wrote anything in prose nowadays. But I have got out of the way of that sort of thing—I suppose because I have written nothing but verse for the last
twenty years and more…

I sent off elsewhere the only two war poems I had. If I had known I should have been pleased to let you have one. Perhaps another will come into my mind; but I don’t know. The machine-made horrors of the present war make one’s blood run cold rather than warm as a rule…

Yours sincerely,

Thomas Hardy.[2]

 

This letter from an eminence to an importunate editor is echoed by Wilfred Owen‘s letter to his perfervid but not terribly talented cousin, Leslie Gunston. I don’t think Owen means to be cruel about Gunston’s vanity-published poems, but… yikes.

Sunday, 26 November 1917 Clarence Gardens Hotel, Scarborough

My dear Leslie,

Received the Books last night, and spent an exciting few minutes looking through the poems. I congratulate you on the Binding & Type…

And from that opening the praise gets fainter (with a few bones thrown in, for pity’s sake). The interesting bit, for us, is this:

I don’t like ‘Hymn of Love to England’, naturally, at this period while I am composing ‘Hymns of Hate’…[3]

 

But we have forgotten France: it is Isaac Rosenberg‘s twenty-seventh birthday today, a century back, and he is celebrating it in hospital, where he continues to recover from a dangerous flu. Which is fortunate, as his battalion is being destroyed in Bourlon Wood.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. See Regeneration, 234-42.
  2. The Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy, V, 233.
  3. Collected Letters, 509-10.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

References and Footnotes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They have done well–and still suffered heavy casualties.

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

20 November 1917

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

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

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

And she did not.

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

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

 

References and Footnotes

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

Lord Dunsany Gets Off with a Scratch–and a Jab; Patrick Shaw Stewart Thinks Big; Doctor Rivers Departs, and Just Possibly Worries About Sassoon’s Soul

Lord Dunsany‘s follow-up explains yesterday’s profuse profession: It didn’t end up being a “last letter”–but he had reason to think it might have been. In an envelope marked “Fit and Well,” Dunsany hastens to explain himself:

My Darling Mink,

It is your bad luck to get flattering expressions of devotion from me when I see something bad ahead as I thought I did last night. However, nothing bad came, though I am sick of this square peg in a round hole business, which is good for neither. I am excused all duty for forty-eight hours at least and I write this far enough from the Boche. I did not go sick but I started talking to an officer of the R.A.M.C., and before I knew where I was one of his orderlies had innoculated me in the chest with anti-tetanus serum which I enjoyed so much last time. I don’t know why unless that while crawling about I had stepped with my left hand into a coil of old barbed wire (British).

Every your loving,

Pony[1]

So Lord Dunsany has been on either a dangerous patrol or a raid–and all is not as well with his battalion as it recently seemed to be… but he had survived, and with nothing worse than illness, a cut hand, and a needle-jabbed chest. Not something, perhaps, for a young soldier who’s an old soldier to write home about, but Dunsany, though he is nearly forty, has seen little front-line action so far, and so he did indeed write home. Which says more about the Dunsany’s marriage than anything I’ve read yet.

 

Speaking of younger old soldiers, Patrick Shaw Stewart is once again a battalion commander. Which he jokes about in writing to Ronald Knox:

Meanwhile, Oc Asquith has gone on leave and left me in command, by Jove! No nonsense from the junior officers, I can tell you. My first action was to put myself in for immediate promotion to Lieutenant-Commander, sound, don’t you think? My second, to place a man who has just arrived from spending three years in England, more or less, and who is senior, not only to all my company commanders, but to myself, handsomely—to place him, I say, second in command of a company.[2]

That first bit must be a joke… but the second probably isn’t. It’s all upside down in France nowadays…

 

Thirdly, finally, and even more off-kilter, today, a century back was Doctor Rivers’s last day at Craiglockhart. If, that is, Pat Barker’s date-in-a-novel is correct. Then again, even if this was indeed his last day, the novel indulges in some minor fudging of dates, keeping Sassoon around for a last talk with his mentor and father-figure-hero when he was in fact on his way to London for a leave-between-the-Medical-Boards. This provides an opportunity, in the novel, for a last talk between hero doctor and poet patient, in which they discuss Lady Ottoline’s recent visit. Rivers, who will return for Sassoon’s Medical Board (as well he might, considering what happened last time) sees in Sassoon’s bitter summary of his discussion with Morrell less an insight about his sexuality (Barker assumes, quite logically, that Sassoon’s homosexuality was no secret from Rivers) than a new worry, namely that Sassoon’s “peace” with the war has left him dead inside:

…perhaps he’d just given up hope. At the back of Rivers’s mind was the fear that Craiglockhart had done to Sassoon what the Somme and Arras had failed to do. And if that were so, he couldn’t escape responsibility.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Amory, Lord Dunsany, 147-8.
  2. Knox, Patrick Shaw Stewart, 203.
  3. Regeneration, 220-1.

A Shell Inscribes a Line in Edward Brittain’s Hand; Hugh Quigley Girds for Battle; Herbert Read Welcomes the Conquering Heroes; Isaac Rosenberg Goes Under the Weather; Phillip Maddison Goes from Safety to the German Lines, and from the German Lines to G.H.Q.

Today, a century back, brings a welter of writing–wry, wet, windy, and ominous.

 

Hugh Quigley knows that he about to march back into the thick of things, and so he writes, to someone he loves, with the cruel candor of the soldier before battle:

I expect this will be the last letter you will get from me for at least ten days. You know what that means. I can only only hope to get out safely, or, at worst, with a comfortable wound. If the same fate happens to me as to Peter, I have done my duty, according to conventional standards. By higher and more ideal standards, it is too perverted to be called duty at all, if it does not immediately help to stop war and avoid sacrifice.

Our men are growing more confident everyday; in fact, one could almost go into battle now with a bag of provisions and a walking-stick. The rifle plays only a small part, for the enemy invariably throw up their hands when the infantry approach…

Quigley’s confidence is more than a bit overstated, but then again this is a letter home, a last letter before combat, meant to reassure. Or something along those lines. While it is true that the rifle-toting infantryman is increasingly just a pawn in an artillery war, the idea that there will not be any fighting necessary in an advance against German pillboxes is ridiculous, as we have seen so often, recently.

Regardless, Quigley is soon back in a full-blown romantic mode: he even finds a “curiously apposite” French poem on a scrap of paper.

This paper was lying beside a tombstone under the shadow of a great church. I spent an afternoon wandering round that church, sentimentalizing to my heart’s content, with no one to disturb me and no one to utter bald consolations about the price of life. The slow passage of time came to a sweetness of thought, not melancholic, not poignant, just a lingering tenderness and a faint regret, tenuous as a web of sun in the tree-shadows. High chestnuts, browning through shimmering gold, dropped solitary leaves with a faint pat on the flat stones or rustled them through the wire-enclosed wreaths hanging from grey crosses, half-ruined, green with a decay of beauty, so that the harmony of life came very close to death, reality to dream…

You will see the old sentiments cannot die… They are worth something more than this, farther and higher… Not ephemeral, but progressive and continuous on a way of perfection…

Each man prepares for the ordeal of a tour in the trenches in a different way. Quigley, it’s safe to say, complicates the stereotype of the enlisted man’s “this leaves me in the pink” letter before battle…[1]

 

And Vera Brittain, who has lost a fiancé and two close friends after letters more or less like that one, has decided that she can’t hang on every turn of the front line/reserve/rest rotation of her only brother. So Edward writes to her today, only when he is safely out of the latest mess. I include this letter mostly for how it begins:[2] with a mark made by the war, not just on a day, a century back, but in a single moment:

France, 10 October 1917

— That curious dash because a shell made me jump. This is rather a filthy place… We haven’t had a mail for 3 days owing to our sudden move and so I expect there will be a letter from you when it does come. I am very glad you have written some more poems so as to make enough for a small volume; I will ask Mrs L[eighton] about it; I believe you were thinking of Erskine Macdonald before. By the way why haven’t you sent me any of your new poems as you know I should like to have them?[3]

 

Isaac Rosenberg has just had leave–his first–and has been writing poems. But the heavy rain of the last few days has done no good for his always-problematic lungs. The weather will save him, perhaps, if it doesn’t kill him: today, a century back, he went sick with influenza, which for a man of his physique is certainly more dangerous than ordinary trench duty.[4]

 

Comfort and the fortunes of leave are also on the mind of Herbert Read, guilt-stricken at having missed his battalion’s part in the Passchendaele battle. He can make amends by preparing decent beds for them all: having been held back in reserve and appointed billeting officer, he spent a long day’s negotiation with the inhabitants of a poor northern French village–“Mais c’est la guerre, as they all say.”

10.x.17

They came in shortly after midnight, very weary and ready to drop down and sleep anywhere. It isn’t three weeks since I left them, but it was like greeting long lost friends… It isn’t only fancy that makes them seem to have aged five years and more. They have gone through what as probably the most intense shell fire since the war began.[5]

 

Finally, today, we have a date-in-a-novel, a time-stamped activity from our strangest and most carefully calendrical fictional war book. Henry Williamson himself missed the summer and Passchendaele because of a long stint recovering from symptoms that may have been simple illness or may have been worsened by gas or the psychological toll of his service in the winter and spring around Arras. But his enormous semi-autobiographical sequence on the life of Phillip Maddison elongates the author’s combat experiences, compresses his time at home, and puts the protagonist always where the action is. Phillip Maddison never misses a battle.

Today, a century back, his heroic mentor, “Westy,” has turned up again as well, and this time Phillip plunges in unlikely fashion into the German lines (as he has done several memorable times before, including during the Christmas Truce and at Loos) as a sidekick rather than as a lone ranger.

Before sending us over the top, as it were, Williamson dutifully gives us a potted military history of the “Fourth Step” of Third Ypres, a.k.a. the “Battle of Poelcappelle.” Which is all well and good,[6] but sits rather jarringly with the most Gumpish of the many Gumpish moments in the series so far. I will quote and then summarize, as best as I can.

(The whole sequence of novels is a slog, but so very interesting: there is an unprecedented devotion to raking oneself over the coals of memory while raking out the embers of traditional military history at the same time–just not well-enough written to enchant other than a devoted reader over several thousand pages.)

The day after the fourth step had been launched, two men, each with a long stick in his hand, were walking on one of the many duck-board tracks lying parallel to the Wieltje-Frezenberg road, alongside which was an almost continuous row of 18-pounder field-guns….  The senior of the two, whose diminutive scarlet gorget patches on the collar of his ranker’s tunic were concealed under a woolen scarf, carried, in addition, a map-case.

“I don’t see how the infantry can possibly move in this weather, Westy. Must the attacks go on?”

“If only the Chief could have had his own way, and attacked up here last May, instead of down south, as demanded by Joffre… Third Ypres was put off in 1916, and again last spring. With the results that everyone can now see–only everyone, as usual, will draw the wrong conclusions.”

Well, Westy, you didn’t really answer the question.

Now commences the aforementioned Gumpish adventure, a sort of shark-jumping in the Passchendaele mud. It’s ridiculous to find this (over and over again) in a book that is generally concerned both to represent the progress of the war from a young soldier’s point of view and to dwell on the very real push-and-pull between rashness and cowardice, confidence and self-loathing that seems to have riven Williamson’s character, as well as that of his alter ego. Ridiculous, and suited more to a pot-boiler than an attempt at literature/transmuted memoir, but nonetheless fascinating. If Williamson had a slightly steadier hand, we could even begin to make the argument that his sprawling Bildungsroman is actually an argument that the realist novel is a poor sort of form for telling war stories…

The setting is this: “Westy,” the clear-eyed, far-seeing, casually imperturbable Cassandra of the Old Contemptibles, has become a sort of minister-without-portfolio for the staff, charged to roam wherever he will and report on the “real” situation without regard for the normal channels of command. He takes Maddison forward with him into the front lines, where another assault–the “Fifth Step” of the battle–is about to take place. Commandeering a platoon of Lancashire Territorials, the two adventurers cross into no man’s land near the town of Passchendaele itself, and find a crucial hole in the German defenses.

So far, only the freelancing of Westy and Maddison is ridiculously far-fetched. There does seem to have been a disconnect–mostly environmental and unavoidable (and to some extent a product of bureaucratic awkwardness and scale management and inefficient traditions)–between the enormous effort put into planning an attack in the weeks and months before it and the failure to process any knowledge of German plans and movements during the days when the pending attack must have been obvious to them. The strategic plan must be, to a large extent, inflexible, but there is a horrible sense that while the attack could be built to respond to reports from the front in the last days–to adjust to the adjustments made by the defense–the will just isn’t there. It’s such a big bureaucracy, and the top planners are so very far from the trenches…  The British guns mass on known German positions, there are raids and counter-raids, withdrawals and new positions… and the machinery of the attack clicks slowly forward…

More or less alone in a gap in the vaunted German defenses, “Westy” writes out a dispatch, describing the tactical omission and opportunity. But while he is doing so the green subaltern of the platoon they have borrowed blows a whistle, as if he were on parade or mid-attack. Alerted, a German machine gun opens up, Westy us shot through the chest–his eighth wound–and it is left to Maddison to save the day.

And here’s where it gets interesting. Maddison–touched now by the hand of of the divine and possibly dying West–is suddenly, once again, brave and resolute, decisive and dashing. But he is also on a segment of the line where he is known to various officers, and not well liked. He has a significant reputation for both shirking and for wild immaturity, and so the perils which spring up to prevent him from getting Westy’s report to the men who must read them are not just physical obstacles like broken country and German bullets, but also the enemies of his past, among his own army.

Calm and collected, Maddison takes off, D’Artagnan-like, but find that he must explain himself to an officer who knows him from his days a misfit and lead-swinger.. He is disbelieved, disrespected, place under arrest, and then left alone with a horse and an easily-bluffed enlisted man. So Phillip Maddison, veteran of First and Third Ypres, Loos and the Somme, turns horse-thief, and gallops off to G.H.Q… and there, dropping dead with exhaustion and telling a strange tale, he is warmly listened to, fed and bedded, and made to tell his tale to the assembled mucky-mucks. There is good food and wine and cigars, but also the confident formality (of the very well-bred Englishmen). The unkempt messenger is heeded, and a better plan is put in motion… Phillip has saved day, and will have a pleasant rest at G.H.Q. before returning to his ordinary duty as a transport officer in a humble Machine Gun Company… And Henry Williamson leaves us wondering–is this a personal triumph in the face of the cold indifference of strategy? Is the implication that the Staff, with its cigars and clean clothes and expensive liquor, is nonetheless doing the best it can by men like Westy (not to mention all those thousands of platoons in the front lines? Or are the two worlds as incompatible as they feel, since the distance between the two seems to have grown greater after the unlikely gallop of our hero from one to another, rather than smaller?

I’m not sure. The simple answer, surely, is that when Williamson is writing of a time when he was abed in England, he works from a military history and indulges himself by writing a Boy’s Own Paper adventure. Whether this means that he was unable to consistently write a giant realist novel as a consistently realistic “War Book,” or simply unwilling to do so, is another matter.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Passchendaele and the Somme, 144-7.
  2. If there is an image of it available somewhere, I didn't find it with a desultory search, alas.
  3. Letters From a Lost Generation, 377.
  4. Cohen, Journey to the Trenches, 172.
  5. The Contrary Experience, 111.
  6. It seems a relatively clear and balanced history of the battle as seen from the decades afterwards, and didn't Tolstoy do much the same thing, after all?

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.