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

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

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

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

My Darling Mink,

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

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

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

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

Ever your loving

Pony[1]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Amory, Lord Dunsany, 147.

Housman’s Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries; Robert Graves and the Lyric Appeal of Nancy Nicholson

The historian and biographer Peter Parker, whose The Old Lie was one of the most useful secondary sources for the early days of this project,[1] recently published a well-received book on A.E. Housman and his importance to the generation that is now earning its “lost” epithet. There were so many polite, literary, privileged, dreamy English boys who went to war with Housman’s A Shropshire Lad as their companion and poetic ideal, that it has become the type specimen of literary influence on the British experience of the war.

It’s a nice little collection of verses, but its enormous popularity within this demographic can only partially be explained by what’s actually there in the poems. More important is the ambiance: Housman represented a rural England (think The Shire) that was vanishing, the barely concealed homoeroticism of some of the lyrics held a particular appeal to many of his readers, and the frequent atmosphere of youthful tragedy was not only perfect for artistically-inclined adolescents but doubly powerful those who then found themselves asked to shoulder great responsibility amidst enormous loss.

A Shropshire Lad was published eighteen years before the war, and although Housman largely devoted his life to scholarship rather than poetry, he is till kicking around. This month, a century back, looking at the mounting carnage of Third Ypres, he found himself thinking of the heroic stand at First Ypres nearly three years before, made by a very different British archetype. This short poem, written over the coming weeks, is one of the war’s most memorable–Kipling, for one, thought it the very best.

 

Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries


These, in the days when heaven was falling,
The hour when earth’s foundations fled,
Followed their mercenary calling
And took their wages and are dead.
Their shoulders held the sky suspended;
They stood, and the earth’s foundations stay;
What God abandoned, these defended,
And saved the sum of things for pay.

 

A powerful poem, but a strange and estranging one, not least for those poetic schoolboys who have grown up to command platoons and companies of very different soldiers. Our elegies, here, tend to be for Kitchener’s Army–especially its poetic schoolboy officers–or for the men of the mixed and post-idealistic armies of 1917. It’s hard to even remember the professionals who went in 1914 and died in their thousands during the chaos of that autumn. The prewar Regular army really is gone–even if Frank Richards and a few others miraculously hold on–and it merits a memorial. Yet is it really satisfying to read a hard-bitten “epitaph”–both loudly disclaiming and tacitly accepting a sentimental position–written by an older, learned man who was a stranger to the grim old army of lower-class “mercenaries?”

 

From one of the Shropshire-readers who did survive–though absent, in this case, half a lung, healthy “nerves,” and peace of mind–we have a far happier note. Robert Graves‘s day both began and ended with Nancy Nicholson, in pursuit of whom he had crashed a fancy-dress party yesterday evening.

He escorted Nancy back from the dance at two in the morning; and then, not feeling like sleep, he persuaded Ben Nicholson to drive him all the way to Talsarnau, where they called on some other friends of theirs.

Later on Saturday, after snatching a few hours of sleep back at Erinfa, Robert paid another visit to Llys Bach. He was away for some time, and when he returned he said nothing to his family about Nancy, but told them that he had been playing with Nancy’s younger brother Kit, and then having supper with Ben. Whatever Robert’s feelings for Nancy, he kept them to himself at this stage: wisely, perhaps, in such a large and sharp-tongued family…[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. I've also profited from his book on Ackerley.
  2. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 182-3.

It’s 1917, and Ford is Feverish, Hermon Chilled, and Hardy Scarcely Conscious; Edward Thomas on a Thrush Undisturbed

There seems to be surprisingly little in the way of grand New Year’s pronouncements from “our” writers. All I have, really, are a handful of desultory letters and diary entries speaking more of illness, exhaustion, and disillusionment than of any fresh hope.

This, from Thomas Hardy:

January 1, 1917. Am scarcely conscious of New Year’s Day.[1]

 

There’s not much more to this next one, but at least it connects a few different writers. Ford Madox Hueffer sent greetings today, a century back, to F.S. Flint, who is a friend and frequent correspondent of Richard Aldington. It’s a personal status update, but it could almost stand in for the war itself…

IX Welch Regt
II Red X Hospital, Rouen
1.1.17

My dear Flint: A note to wish yr. poetic elbow all the power in the world from 1.1.17 to 31.12.17… I do often think of yr. power of evoking the beautiful—if it isn’t offensive to call it that. You see I am become timid in writing to poets & don’t any more know what to say. I don’t even know if this will reach you—but I hope it may. If it does, send me, will you? anything—everything—you have done lately & I will read them amongst stone pines and cypresses—for I understand I am to be evacuated to a hospital on the Mediterranean as soon as I can be moved. From there I hope to get to Mesopotamia as I am not fit for the front line—or shan’t be till the summer. It is annoying—but still it will be pleasant to see some dry fighting…

We’ll see about that… but isn’t this letter strangely wandering and inconsequential? What do you say, Ford?

This is a perfectly stupid letter—but my temperature is normal today for the first time for a long spell so I thought I’d let you know that I hadn’t forgotten you.[2]

 

The year-end fever has also struck Edward “Robert” Hermon–or, rather, the year-end chills:

1 January 1917–trenches, Bois Grenier Sector

I’ve got several nice letters from you these last few days old dear, but am feeling too seedy to answer them now. Perhaps I’m going to have three weeks leave to try & pull round. There’s nothing radically wrong with me dearie, but I just can’t get well again. Temperature about 96 & doesn’t seem to go up. My love to you old dear & will write you a better letter as soon as I can.[3]

 

We have seen that Edward Thomas is not inclined to the same lush, romantic view of his recent home-leave as his wife Helen is. Or, rather, that his letters are never as demonstrative and direct as her memoir–a difference of form as much as (or more than) temperament. And yet there is a softer tone, somehow, to his letter to her of today, a century back. Yes, this is simple reportage, under the heading of “we grow accustomed to our guns,” but it seems somehow to have some air of home comforts and shepherds-watching-their-flocks still clinging to it…

January 1, Lydd

Dearest,

…The crack of the 16 rounds didn’t do more than sting my ears though I was only 20 yards away. One thing or another made the show last from 1 till nearly 4. And all the evening we have been working for tomorrow’s shoot. It was a beautiful day and a thrush was singing in the gorse in the shingle close by. Some sheep feeding 100 yards off in front of the guns only scampered a little at the report…[4]

So an ordinary day for a man whose first trip to France looms as 1917 begins.

Another–Thomas’s former fellow Artists’ Rifles cadet, no less–has just set out. No symbolic New Year’s relocation could be weightier (with all that ironic weight of what we know will be written, but they haven’t written yet) than Wilfred Owen‘s arrival in France. For a full year he has trained and made ready, transferred and kitted out, and as the letters blurred one to the next and the big move never came, he faded into the background, here. But he is over there, now, and assigned to a battalion.

1 January 1917                                                               [France]

My own dearest Mother,

1.30 p.m. I have just received Orders to take the train at Étaples, to join the 2nd Manchesters. This is a Regular Regiment, so I have come off mighty well. The original Party from the 5th has in the last 2 days got completely dissolved, and as far as I know I am the only one for this Regt. It is a huge satisfaction to be going among well-trained troops and genuine ‘real-old’ Officers.

Here the letter breaks down–excitedly, uncomposedly, honestly–into a string of consecutive but unconnected sentences which deliver information (and touch on several tropes of this sort of letter) much more efficiently than is Owen’s navel-gazing wont: he is assigned to a (Regular) battalion, he plans for letters and parcels; he has a comic “accident” story and a report on his altered morale; he proposes a version of the censor-eluding code that so many letter-writers arrange, and… well, he can’t believe it…

I don’t pretend it was more than hazard that detailed me to this Battalion; but it is all very mysterious.

I got my Baggage before bed-time.

I have not alas! had any letter from you or anyone.

I think 1/2nd Manchester should find me. But don’t send any goods yet.

This is a sort of Hotel Camp where none stay more than 2 or 3 days!

I have not been uncomfortable so far, with a tent to myself, and with a diligent Orderly.

This morning I was hit! We were bombing and a fragment from somewhere hit my thumb knuckle. I coaxed out 1 drop of blood. Alas! no more!!

There is a fine heroic fueling about being in France, and I am in perfect spirits. A tinge of excitement is about me, but excitement is always necessary to my happiness.

I don’t think it is the real front I’m going to.

If on my Field Post Card I cross out ‘I am being sent down to the base’ with a double line ========= then I shall actually be at the Front.

Can’t believe it.

Nor must you.

Now I must pack.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. F. E. Hardy, The Life of Thomas Hardy, 374.
  2. Letters of Ford Madox Ford, 81.
  3. For Love and Courage, 320.
  4. This letter is available in the Oxford First World War Poetry Digital Archive.
  5. Collected Letters, 421.

Three Writers Down; The Royal Welch Fusiliers Before High Wood: Frank Richards a Runner and Robert Graves in Mid-Stride; A Letter from Harold Macmillan and a Phone Call for General Congreve

The Battle of the Somme continues, with the British forces near the center of the initial assault pushing north into the German second line. This phase is usually called the Battle of Bazentin Ridge, and the map below will help situate us: the contour lines the snake over the north of the map show the height of the ridge–and of the aptly named High Wood. Mametz Wood, now securely in the rear, is just to the south of the western section of this map.

As of this morning, the British have been driven out of High Wood, and the line generally runs across the central and southern reaches of this map. Elements of the 2nd Royal Welch Fusiliers are moving up toward the Cemetery (between the 8 and 9, left center) in support of another assault of the Wood, while South African troops have made their name in bloody fighting at Longueval and Delville Wood (in the lower right of the map). Today, a century back, the 2nd Royal Welch will await their turn to enter High Wood, while elements of Billy Congreve‘s 76th Brigade will attempt to secure the rest of Longueval.bazeintin ridge

 

 

 

 

 

 

Robert Graves preserved and published this battalion order, still in its signalling grid, that he received just after midnight, i.e. at the very beginning of today, a century back. He has now–that politically unfortunate Special Reserve seniority of his–been given command of B Company:

To O.C. B Co. 2nd R.W.F. 20.7.16.

Companies will move as under
to same positions in S14b
as were to have been
taken over from Cameronians aaa
A Coy. 12.30 a.m.
B Coy, 12.45 a.m.
C Coy. 1 a.m.
D Coy. 1.15 a.m. aaa
At 2 a.m. Company Commanders
will meet C.O. at X
Roads S14b 99. aaa
Men will lie down and
get under cover but equipment
will not be taken off
s14b99, bazentin

A lesson in map-reading from Robert Graves. A detail of the above map, we can find square 14, quarter-square “b” (always the top-right quarter-square), and the crossroads in the very top corner (9, 9 on the x and y axes). Amusingly, we’ve got the maps available online and Graves evidently didn’t have his handy when he was working from the battalion order: the crossroads is not near the churchyard. See the next map, below.

Graves continues:

S 14b 99 was a map reference for Bazentin churchyard. We lay here on the reverse slope of a slight ridge about half a mile from the wood. I attended the meeting of company commanders; the colonel told us the plan. He said: “Look here, you fellows, we’re in reserve for this attack. The Cameronians are going up to the wood first, then the Fifth Scottish Rifles; that’s at five a.m. The Public Schools Battalion are in support if anything goes wrong. I don’t know if we shall be called on; if we are, it will mean that the Jocks have legged it. As usual,” he added. This was an appeal to prejudice. “The Public Schools Battalion is, well, what we know, so if we are called for, that means it will be the end of us.” He said this with a laugh and we all laughed. We were sitting on the ground protected by the road-bank; a battery of French 75’s was firing rapid over our heads about twenty yards away.[1] There was a very great concentration of guns in Happy Valley now. We could hardly hear what he was saying. He told us that if we did get orders to reinforce, we were to shake out in artillery formation; once in the wood we were to hang on like death. Then he said good-bye and good luck and we rejoined our companies.

At this juncture the usual inappropriate message came through from Division. Division could always be trusted to send through a warning about verdigris on vermorel-sprayers, or the keeping of pets in trenches, or being polite to our allies, or some other triviality, when an attack was in progress. This time it was an order for a private in C Company to report immediately to the assistant provost-marshal back at Albert, under escort of a lance-corporal. He was for a court-martial. A sergeant of the company was also ordered to report as a witness in the case. The private was charged with the murder of a French civilian in an estaminet at Béthune about a month previously. Apparently there had been a good deal of brandy going and the French civilian, who had a grudge against the British (it was about his wife), started to tease the private. He was reported, somewhat improbably, as having said: “English no bon, Allmand très bon. War fineesh, napoo the English. Allmand win.” The private had immediately drawn his bayonet and run the man through. At the court-martial the private was exculpated; the French civil representative commended him for having “energetically repressed local defeatism.” So he and the two N.C.O.’s missed the battle.

It is very like Robert Graves to seize on this story of triplicate absurdity–bureaucracy’s impervious shamble, pointless violence and exculpatory cant–and insert it here between build-up and disaster. And yet: given what we know of Graves’s punctilious preference for the yarn over the whole cloth of the truth–and given what we will read of the difficulty of getting any message to the advanced battalions today, this must be, at the very least, an anecdote-out-of-time.

But the Royal Welch were in a bad position. They had moved forward (from the crossroads of the meeting into or near Bazentin Cemetery) but then waited for hours in an area devoid of real cover–an area, moreover, which was constantly searched by German artillery, firing against the nearby British batteries or seeking to drop shells on the routes used by reinforcements and carrying parties. By about 10 o’clock, the battalion had taken something like 100 casualties. When the barrage increased, Graves ordered B company to move slightly back, and as they did so, a German “crump”–a large-caliber shell–exploded among them.

I heard the explosion and felt as though I had been punched rather hard between the shoulder-blades, but had no sensation of pain. I thought that the punch was merely the shock of the explosion; then blood started trickling into my eye and I felt faint and called to Moodie: “I’ve been hit.” Then I fell down. A minute or two before I had had two very small wounds on my left hand; they were in exactly the same position as the two, on my right hand, that I had got during the preliminary bombardment at Loos. This I had taken as a sign that I would come through all right. For further security I had repeated to myself a line of Nietsche’s, whose poems, in French, I had with me:

Non, tu ne peux pas me tuer.[2]

It was the poem about a man on the scaffold with the red-bearded executioner standing over him. (This copy of Nietsche, by the way, had contributed to the suspicions about me as a spy. Nietsche was execrated in the papers as the philosopher of German militarism; he was more popularly interpreted as a William le Queux mystery-man–the sinister figure behind the Kaiser.)[3]

One piece of shell went through my left thigh, high up near the groin; I must have been at the full stretch of my stride to have escaped emasculation. The wound over the eye was nothing; it was a little chip of marble, possibly from one of the Bazentin cemetery headstones. This and a finger wound, which split the bone, probably came from another shell that burst in front of me. The main wound was made by a piece of shell that went in two inches below the point of my right shoulder and came out through my chest two inches above my right nipple, in a line between it and the base of my neck.

My memory of what happened then is vague. Apparently Doctor Dunn came up through the barrage with a stretcher-party, dressed my wound, and got me down to the old German dressing-station at the north end of Mametz Wood. I just remember being put on the stretcher and winking at the stretcher-bearer sergeant who was looking at me and saying: “Old Gravy’s got it, all right.”

Dr. Dunn came up indeed, and treated what he called “a bad chest wound of the kind that few recover from,” and then sent Graves on to the dressing station near Mametz Wood. This was at present overwhelmed with casualties coming back from the bungled attack in front. So, following standard procedure, Graves, unconscious with a sucking chest wound, was left to die while medics focused on helping those who could be saved.

 

But it still goes on. Colonel “Tibs” Crawshay[4] was by now frustrated nearly to distraction. His battalion is being destroyed, deedless, waiting to be committed to an attack that is obviously failing (the wounded of other battalions in the brigade are streaming back), by a command structure so far back that it can’t possibly do the right thing soon enough.

The passage of messages… between front and rear was always a difficulty, and a vexation at both ends. Before the action Radford had been asked for by Brigade to be employed as a Forward Liaison Officer. He was detailed with some signallers to use Bazentin-le-Petit Windmill, 200 yards east of the Cemetery, as the forward post of a relay system.

bazentin to high wood

The Churchyard, the Windmill, and High Wood

(On the map at right we can see the ground covered between Graves’s crossroads and the churchyard. Each of the smaller squares (i.e. quarters of the numbered squares) is 500 yards long and wide, so they had moved by about that much. The crossroads can be seen at center, bottom, and the cemetery and the windmill are at 8b-c and 9a-b, respectively; High Wood is some 1400 yards away to the northeast, in the upper right.)

Captain Radford, seconded to the Brigade for signalling, describes the problem of communications, the heart of “command and control:”

At the beginning of the morning attack the enemy barrage cut the wires. The barrage smoke made lamp signalling impossible… the wireless set provided was for transmission only, so it was not known if messages were being received… Brigade was in poor quarters… in… Mametz Wood, nearly two miles from High Wood, although deep and roomy dug-outs made for a German division were in Bazentin-le-Petit within a few yards of screened view-points from which the face of High Wood and the Flers road could be seen. Advanced Brigade, so-called, in the quarry by the Cemetery roadside, was a mere relay post. This remoteness was laid down in a General Routine Order issued because of casualties earlier in the War. The Order was circumvented by Brigadiers who know when and how to do it, but times without number it warranted the utter negation of Command when prompt and authoritative decision was needed, especially if more than one unit was concerned. Prompt decision and action were essential this day, ‘yet none of our Brigade Staff came within hundreds of yards of its dissolving units.’ The cost in all the lower ranks of preserving some General of brigade and division, and some members of their Staffs, is beyond reckoning, but must be stupendous.

 

Frank Richards‘s account of this attack is fascinating. A trained signaller, he was one of the men sent forward under Captain Radford and took up a position in the mill. Briefly, then:

We had a good view of everything from here, but we also found that when we were exchanging messages with the wood, the enemy would have an equally good view of us, especially when we were flag-waving… by 10 a.m. they had put up one of the worst barrages that I was ever under.

Richards has set up this moment well. A day or two before, a fierce barrage had left a man mortally wounded–Richards uses the transparent euphemism “hit low down”–and his buddies contemplating killing him to stop his agony. As they deliberated, a stretcher-bearer “went mad and started to undress himself. He was uttering horrible screams and we had to fight with him and overpower him before he could be got to the Aid Post.” The man died before any action was taken, but then Richards’s pal Duffy is also hit “low down.”

…it was a bad wound and I knew his case was hopeless; but he was conscious…

As Richards and three men carry him back, a shell splinter narrowly misses Richards’s foot.

Although Duffy was dying on the stretcher he noticed it as he hung his head over the side and said “Hard lines, Dick! If a youngster had been in your place he would have had a beautiful Blighty wound through the foot. We old ones aren’t lucky enough to stop one that way. We generally stop one the way I have done.”

Duffy dies not long after reaching the aid post, and Richards returns to action. Today, then, his parting words hang heavily. As the shelling picks up pace, five of the men in the brigade signalling post on the hilltop retreat to a shell-hole “absolutely useless and terror-stricken.” Richards has to summon a runner to write down a message as he reads it.

When I was about halfway through it, he gave a shout; I turned round and found him groaning on the ground. A shell splinter which must have passed high up between my legs had hit him in the thigh. It was a nasty wound…

Near-emasculation has become a strangely persistent theme, perhaps to counterbalance the fact that these of all wounds were impossible to introduce into polite company in 1916…

Nor does the message that nearly killed Richards get through. After the advanced signalling team is hit by shellfire, the flags are abandoned and Richards is ordered to run messages–literally run, since no more swift or more advanced form of communications is working–between brigade headquarters and the brigade’s advanced battalions in High Wood. He sees terrible things passing through the debatable valley. On one run he passes a trench full of men as he goes toward the wood, then re-passes it minutes later and sees that it is full of corpses and scattered body parts.

Richards has seen a lot, but today moved him to a rare note of protest:

I have often wondered since them, if all the leading statesmen and generals of the warring countries had been threatened to be put under the barrage during the day of the 20th July, 1916, and were told that if they survived it they would be forced to be under a similar one in a week’s time, whether they would have all met together and signed a peace treaty before the week was up.

Then, true to his “old soldier” persona, Richards ends the chapter on a different note. The Royal Welch took heavy casualties, but the well-born men of the Public Schools Battalion suffered even more.

It was the custom that all parcels that arrived for men who were casualties should be distributed among the survivors. The Commanding Officer of the Public Schools Battalion kindly sent a number of mailbags full of parcels for distribution among our men. We lived on luxuries for the next few days.[5]

 

Back, now, to Captain Radford’s account:

The supply of runners was soon exhausted and was not replaced. At noon I went to Brigade to report the futility of it all…

Ironically, as he left his post to protest its futility an earlier order from Brigade finally reached some of the forward battalions. It was hours late, and in urging reinforcements into the Wood it referred to an earlier stage of the attack, but it nevertheless gave Colonel Crawshay of the Royal Welch the excuse he needed to move forward. The battalion had been at roughly half-strength when it came up, then suffered many casualties and detached a good number of men for carrying parties and duties such as Richards’s signalling station. Only a few hundred men formed up. By the time they had organized, covered the shell-strewn near-mile to High Wood, and fallen out into attack formation, it was nearly 2 o’clock.

The 2nd Royal Welch entered High Wood in something like replay of the 15th entering Mametz Wood. Thick foliage, fallen trees, enfilade fire and bursting shells, confusion, no real sense of where the Germans were, the shattered panicky remnants of the earlier units… but the 2nd Battalion was a highly experienced battalion built around a core of prideful Regulars, and they cleared much of the wood in a furious “bush-mêlée” that the chronicle essentially cannot describe. Furious, and incredibly costly: there were 150 casualties in the batalion, perhaps more than half of the men engaged in the fight. Every single officer who entered the Wood was either killed or wounded.

And then, crippling anti-climax. The Welch and the other battalions of the brigade are now ordered to fall back because the farthest parts of the Wood are untenable due to German machine gun fire. But these machine guns had never been addressed by any part of the attack plan. So have they been sent, twice, to assault a position, at great cost, when it was never thought to be worth holding? Or is the staff at Division and Corps level so callous and foolhardy that they are willing to spend hundreds of lives to take a place and only then decide if it is worth the taking?

The interloper from the Divisional Staff who arrived in the early evening had no satisfactory answer.

Nothing, however, was so maddening as his parting remark, “the General has the situation in hand”–spoken with a straight face. The situation never was grasped. Fumbling fingers far away had trifled with opportunity for hours…[6]

Dr. Dunn’s chronicle is woven from the words of career soldiers, regulars of a proud regiment not given to undue carping about the higher-ups (and supplemented, too, by a few temporary officers and tough old soldiers and non-coms). These are not the disillusioned volunteers crying out against chateau generals. And yet their history, today, is one of foolish attack plans, horribly wasteful standing orders, poor management, and craven overconfidence–it’s not the chateau generals that did for their plan of attack, but rather the remote brigadier and the indifferent, ignorant, map-besotted divisional general–their few miles over hill and dale is more than enough for complete incomprehension.

The fog of war is to a certain extent inevitable, but there is no excuse for generals who believe that they can collate fragmentary and out-of-date reports, glance at the map, and know the truth. Decisive action in effective ignorance is worse than resignation, especially when there are capable officers actually on the scene. These generals are fraudulent seers and cold-eyed killer kings in one person, and all the worse if, in telling themselves that it’s tough job and someone has to do it, they don’t even realize what they are doing.

 

Apologies for the outburst. It’s a century gone, no? Anyway, this concludes today’s entry as far as the Royal Welch go. There is much more to come, of course–we will not leave Robert Graves lying on that stretcher under the eaves of Mametz Wood. But there was much fighting elsewhere on the Somme, and two more of our writers have been hit.

 

Amidst the staccato beat of calamity and notification, there is a more hopeful stroke, today. Harold Macmillan, too, has been wounded on the Somme:

I don’t know whether my postcard has reached you. I hope it didn’t frighten you. I wrote it as soon as I got down to the Bn. dressing station and had seen the Doctor.

Both my wounds are luckily very slight…

Macmillan had volunteered for a patrol, either last night or the night before, to ascertain the location of nearby German positions.

I said I would go, and I took 2 men, both of whom I knew and trusted.

We got out a good way and I think we obtained all the information that we wanted. Unfortunately, just as were were going to come home, about 2.30 a.m. we were spotted by a German bombing post in a sap. They challenged us, but we cd. not see them to shoot, and of course they were entrenched while we were in the” open. So I motioned to my men to lie quite still in the long grass. Then they began throwing bombs at us at random. The first, unluckily, hit
me in the face and back and stunned me for the moment… the men never moved or ran till I gave the word… A lot of flares were fired, and when each flare went up, we flopped own in the grass and waited till it had died down…

…I was able to master myself, and it was not till I got back in the trench that I found I was also hit just above the left temple, close to the eye. The pair of spectacles which I was wearing must have been blown off by the force of the explosion, for I never saw them again. Very luckily they were not smashed and driven into my eye…[7]

The rest of Macmillan’s letter–which omits the grim details of his men returning fire and killing at least one German at close range–is concerned with letting his family down easy. These are slight wounds, and he would only be sent to England if it so happened that the hospitals in France were still filled with the more seriously wounded. His duty, he explains, is to find a way to stay in France and return to his duties as soon as may be…

 

Finally, today, and worse, we have a family that won’t be notified in the usual way.

Billy Congreve was a conscientious Brigade Major, and when his brigade’s attack on Longeuval (see the first map, above) was held up, he went up himself to investigate. From a former German gun-pit he observed the front line and the German positions now under attack, ignoring warnings of nearby snipers. Exhausted after several days with little sleep and much movement around the battle zone–including multiple trips to bring in the wounded after failed attacks–Congreve seemed to the men around him to be depressed. He may have become incautious. And he was very tall.

Only minutes after Robert Graves was hit, a mile or two to the west, apparently killed but actually at the first stage of an excruciating odyssey, Congreve stepped down from the gun-pit into the main trench, and was shot through the neck. A sergeant standing next to him saw the bullet hit.

He stood for half a second and then collapsed. He never moved or spoke, and he was dead in a few seconds.

 

It’s unfortunate that this death reads here almost like a lost detail, a swallowed anti-climax of the already endlessly brutal Somme. This is not intentional, and it’s mostly unavoidable: Congreve had lost a volume of his diary, and if he began keeping another one it seems not to have made it home. So he fell silent, here, months before he was silenced.

congreve

Major Billy Congreve, VC

Congreve was a formidable soldier. Boyishly handsome and gangly, he was cool-headed and brave and had seized the opportunity of the war to swiftly advance the career he had just begun. A twenty-five-year-old (brevet) major, he had twice been decorated for gallantry, and his performance in the extreme situation of the last few days will soon earn him a posthumous Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest decoration for valor. This award had also been won by his father, W.N. Congreve.

And so the passing of the most terrible news began not with the usual grim race between the bureaucracy’s telegram and the notes of fellow-officers, but with a telephone call from 76th Brigade back to 3rd Division, and then across to XIII Corps Headquarters. A Brigadier General Greenly gave the news to General Congreve:

It was at a very important and critical moment, when the Corps were on the point of carrying out a very important and very daring operation, and where the direction of the corps commander was of the greatest importance. When I told him what had happened he was absolutely calm to all outward appearance and, after a few seconds of silence, said quite calmly, ‘He was a good soldier.'[8]

Billy Congreve was married to Pamela Maude on June 1st, and there was a brief honeymoon, but he parted from his wife in mid-June to return for the planning of the Somme Offensive. I don’t know this for certain, but it seems unlikely that he could have known, then, that he would become a father, in March. When the little girl is born, her father will be eight months dead.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The very battery that Rowland Feilding admired yesterday. It would seem, however, that the valleys on both sides of Mametz Wood have attracted the same black comedic nickname... Or perhaps I am confused: in any event, this "Happy Valley" is north of the wood, not the "Death Valley" south of it...
  2. "No, you cannot kill me."
  3. This is not the oft-trotted-out "that which does not kill us" quote, but rather an oddly off French translation of a line in "Unter Feinden," which reads "Sterben? Sterben kann ich nicht!" or "Die? I can't die!" Suffice it to say that Nietzsche's complex and contradictory writings are just about the last thing that can, or will, get a fair shake in the British Army of the Great War. Which is why, of course, Graves is into them...
  4. If General Blackader anticipates Atkinson, surely this is a Monty Python name, avant la lettre.
  5. Old Soldiers Never Die, 186-92.
  6. The War the Infantry Knew, 229-41.
  7. From Downing Street to the Trenches, 207-9.
  8. Armageddon Road, 193-4.

Ford Madox Hueffer Pens a Farewell; The Royal Welch Move Up: Rodents Flee and Guns are Trained on the Public Schools

Ford Madox Hueffer[1] has reached France, and, as new battalions are generally being rushed toward the grinding Somme battle, he expects to see his first action soon. And so today, a century back, he sat down to write a last letter to his two teenage daughters:

My dear Kids:

I am going up to the firing line–so that seems a proper moment to write to you both–though I do not seem to have much to say–Or rather, I have so much that it wd. be no use beginning. So take it all as said. I was looking thro’ the dedication of the book called Ancient Lights that I wrote for you, the other day. I don’t think I want to change it or add to it. Read it again yourselves if anything happens to me. You know that I have always loved you both very, very dearly–but I cd. not wrangle for you. I took the Commun[ion] this morning & prayed for you both. Pray for me.[2]

Well, prolific writers often reuse bits they’ve written, so… I suppose this is acceptable. Judges?

In Hueffer’s defense, it’s a hell of a dedication, running more than three pages. Some excerpts:

My dear Kids,

Accept this book, the best Christmas present that I can give you… certain other things underlie all the presents that a father makes to his children. Thus there is the spiritual gift of heredity. It is with some such idea in my head — with the idea, that is to say, of analysing for your benefit what my heredity had to bestow upon you that I began this book…

The book discusses the pre-Raphaelites, including Hueffer’s grandfather Ford Madox Brown. In relation, naturally, to the scribbling descendant:

I discovered that I had grown up only when I discovered quite suddenly that I was forgetting my own childhood…  I moved amongst somewhat distinguished people who all appeared to me to be morally and physically twenty-five feet high.

After a great deal about these Victorian luminaries, Hueffer veers back toward the point by discussion the flaws in his upbringing: strict discipline, and the message that he would never measure up to these giants of the previous generation. The point being that

…if I write this book, and if I give it to the world, it is very much that you may be spared a great many of the quite unnecessary tortures that were mine until I “grew up…”

Now, my dear children — and I speak not only to you but to all who have never grown up — never let yourselves be disheartened or saddened by such thoughts. Do not, that is to say, desire to be Ruskins or Carlyles. Do not desire to be Ancient Lights…

And remember this, that when you are in any doubt, standing between what may appear right and what may appear wrong, though you cannot tell which is wrong and which is right and may well dread the issue — act then upon the lines of your generous emotions even though your generous emotions may at the time appear likely to lead you to disaster…

Well, actually, all that does read rather well as a last letter from a father about to sally forth into battle. But can we take nothing inspiring from the cold shadow of all these ancient lights who came before us?

But they were never cold, they were never mean, they went to shipwreck with high spirits. I could ask nothing better for you if I were inclined to trouble Providence with petitions.

F. M. H.

Quite a dedication, all in all, even if I did have to snip out hundreds of words that dwelt rather fulsomely on the dedicator.

But back to the letter. It’s a sad letter, not least because it points up the less-than-hilarious aspects of leading a spectacularly disordered personal life. Hueffer and the girls’ mother, Elsie Martindale, married in 1894, but he had left her by the middle of the next decade and taken up with the writer Violet Hunt. When Hueffer and Hunt alleged that he had obtained a divorce in Germany (never mind Hueffer’s Catholicism and, despite his German emigre father, his lack of German citizenship) and tried to establish themselves socially as man and wife, Elsie sued. This was quite a scandal, to say the least.

One can understand, then, why Hueffer doesn’t see much of his daughters. And now, after having put them through all that for the sake of his relationship with Hunt, this too is failing. When he re-read the dedication, did he not notice that a significant chance to actually influence his daughters’ course in life has slipped by the wayside in the five-year gap between book and letter? So feel free to squirm, a bit, in reading this bid for pathos.

Now, though, I will make much the same category of faux pas and take something that was about family, past, and future and ransack it for insights into Great War soldiering.

The letter lacks any army-related doubts, which is something in and of itself, and the fact that Ford/Hueffer does not seem to have had a completely miserable time in the army prompts comparison with Robert Graves. Graves had many attributes that should have smoothed his social path: he could fight, he was brave, he was young–but his opinions and personal habits drove most other officers away from him. Hueffer is notorious, over the hill, not only outspoken but a confirmed and hardened sinner… and yet but most reports have him getting along well with his fellow officers.

There are two explanations. One is that Graves was something like a social idiot savant (although this surely cannot any longer be an acceptable term–I plead anachronism and analogy). He may have thought that he was willfully charming the intelligent and disposing of the conventional, but, as Sassoon has testified, he was a blundering teenager who could not control the behaviors that put most of his fellow officers off. The inattention to hygiene is particularly unfortunate. So Sassoon loves him, and others will too, but for the most part he receives the antipathy cruelly meted out to the awkward.

Ford/Hueffer, on the other hand, is much more willful in his offensiveness–more mature in his social non-conformity, we might say–and can play the clever bon vivant rather than the too-clever outsider, however outré his actual opinions and behaviors. It would be counter-intuitive, but for the nature of humanity: Graves, chaste and nearly teetotal, enthusiastic about soldiering, is distrusted as a loose cannon; Hueffer, a man really willing to break with convention, can get along nicely.

The other explanation is more simple: Graves has served in the two Regular Army battalions of the Royal Welch, a fashionable Regiment very high on tradition. Even mid-war, it is still drawing Sandhurst cadets and young men with family traditions in the regiment. These are the cool kids, the snobs, concerned with careers and reputations. Ford serves in a much more heterogeneous Kitchener’s Army battalion of a less prestigious regiment (even I grant the unofficial-but-asserted middle “c” to the Fusiliers, while leaving the Welsh Regiment with that Sassenach “s”) with a much more practical approach to war. These are “Service” battalions, intent on doing the present job: cowardice or incompetence will pose problems, but not mere eccentricity.

Hueffer will soon find himself in Sausage Valley–on the Somme, to be sure, but no longer the front lines. He wants to get to the real trenches, but he won’t. A heavy-set, middle-aged, voluble officer is wanted, but at a desk, in the immediate rear. There will be danger enough there, still well within reach of the big German guns. There is a touch of irony in the fact that Hueffer’s prodigious efforts on behalf of Modernism, as an editor, critic, and writer, will be of much use in the burgeoning bureaucracy of the New Army.

 

But back now to the old Army, specifically the 2nd Royal Welch, who have moved up to positions near the Bazentin cemetery. The Germans, of course, have the range. For a moment, Dr. Dunn’s chronicle is in his own voice:

For four hours of the afternoon our position was under a bombardment that caused losses in which H.Q. Details shared largely. One of the first to be wounded was a sergeant. I turned at the sound of a coming shell and saw it burst. Almost at the same moment he shouted, “I’m, hit,” in a joyful tone, flung off his equipment, and, grinning, came to me for his “ticket to Blighty, sir.” It didn’t occur to him to have the wound in his back looked at.

Next, the good doctor is back to quotation. The night was an unpleasant one:

‘Hordes of rats came over D Company’s ground. They made a noise like wind through corn. It was uncanny.'[3]

 

Uncanny as that was, Robert Graves reasserts his anecdotal predominance today. First we have admirable sang-froid during the above-mentioned shelling:

Three times running, my cup of tea was spilled by the concussion and filled with dirt. I happened to be in a cheerful mood, and only laughed. My parcel of kippers from home seemed far more important that any bombardment–I recalled with appreciation one of my mother’s sayings: ‘Children, remember this when you eat your kippers; kippers are cheap, yet if they cost a hundred guineas they would still find buyers among the millionaires.’

An excellent example of the “strange things one thinks of under fire” sub-genre. Graves later falls asleep under the shelling, but, unusually, he does not sleep soundly:

…on this occasion I had a fearful nightmare of somebody handling me secretly, choosing the place to drive a knife into me. Finally, he gripped me in the small of the back. I woke up with a start, shouting, punched at the assassin’s hand–and found I had killed a mouse which had run down my neck for fear of the bombardment.

Next we have a bathetic tale of night operations. Graves is holding two newly-dug strong points that now form the farthest extent of the British line in this recently-occupied sector when his men spot a large group of figures walking in no-man’s land. The Germans must be confused about their location! Graves orders a flare pistol and a Lewis gun (light machine-gun) fetched, to give them a chance to surrender, or, failing that, to mow them down efficiently. When the Lewis gun officer arrives he fires a flare and warning shots and an officer from the wandering group runs forward to surrender.

It is, of course, an officer of a now-famously-hapless Public Schools Battalion of the British Army, leading 50 men, lost and distracted, nearly unto death. (It’s the trench scene from The Meaning of Life meets the “The Upper Class Twit of the Year” competition!) As Graves explains, these battalions were formed in the early enthusiasms of 1914 with many men who would otherwise have taken commissions volunteering for the ranks instead. Later, since the battalions were full of men who fit even the early-war social expectations for officers, they were repeatedly combed for good officer material. What remained–those who did not volunteer, or were passed over–was a group that belonged neither socially nor militarily. This was a rump battalion, left by the haphazard British approach to building the New Armies, with a huge proportion of especially unfit men…

There is more during this eventful night, including a horribly forbidding German corpse that causes even the doubting Graves to cross himself when he must pass by, and the rescue of an excellent German souvenir (a lump of chalk heavily carved with German mementos) to be presented to Dr. Dunn himself.

But the next few days will be more eventful still…[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. A reminder: he has already altered his birth name by inserting the "Madox" of his English (and pre-Raphaelite) grandfather, but he has yet to replace his German surname with a redoubled forename...
  2. War Prose, 221.
  3. The War the Infantry Knew, 229.
  4. Good-Bye to All That, 212-215.

The Fates Keep Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon Apart: “Nobody Loves Me” and “So Does the Landscape Grow Dark at Evening”

The paths of Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves have almost intersected once again. Learning yesterday that Graves’s Second Battalion is now in the area, Sassoon sent him a note, then puttered about with the transport of the First Battalion, to which he was once again been relegated.

July 13

Still we remain in this curious camp, which leaves a jumbled impression of horse-lines and waggons and men carrying empty deal shell-boxes, and tents, and bivouacs, and red poppies, and blue cornflowers, and straggling Méaulte village a little way off among the dark-green July trees, with pointed spire in the middle…

I keep reading Tess and The Return of the Native—they fit in admirably with my thoughts…[1]

It doesn’t do to oversimplify big novels too much, but one must: by fitting “admirably with my thoughts,” Sassoon means to say that they are full of both dreamy/eternal scenes of the countryside–and grim evidences of the implacable heartlessness of fate.

But Hardy is an old bard now, headstrong and furious, novelistically silent for decades but all the while issuing queer, sardonic poetry from his tautly furious, tight-stabbing pen. And Sassoon, although he enjoys writing about fate and the near-certainty of his own demise, is in fact an intermittently light-hearted pseudo-youth, whose main interests include solo explorations of nearby earthworks and joint poetic enthusiasms:

The Battalion are still waiting at the Citadel, three-quarters of a mile away, over the thistled slopes. Haven’t seen Robert Graves yet: he is near, with the Second Battalion—unpopular, of course, poor dear…

Ouch. But true. In Good-Bye to All That Graves marks his arrival with the battalion with the usual flurry of clever stories–he missed the raid but got to write the report on it, complete with historical comparisons, etc.–and with praise of Dr. Dunn and two other officers. As for the rest, Graves offers a seemingly unlikely explanation for his unpopularity: he had made enemies during his time at the battalion depot in Wales, and they had harassed him about his German ancestry. Now one of these enemies has come out to the Second Battalion and spread the story that Graves is a spy. Few, surely, believed this–even though Graves did indeed have a German mother and the unhelpful middle name of Von Ranke–but such rumors may have encouraged other officers to give in to a common inclination among Regular Officer types and shun the odd, untidy, intellectual outsider.

Although Graves will write that he was unaware at the time that he was so disliked, a note of today, a century back, makes it clear that he was not that obtuse.

While Sassoon mooned at the flowers and the wagons, Graves had tried to track him down, but failed:

13 July 1916, Buire

My dear Sassons

It’s heartbreaking how Fates keep us apart.

Yes, Sassoon’s fates are the furies which killed David Thomas and, he believes, will kill him–the same ones who ruined Tess and did for about half the cast of The Return of the Native. And for Robert Graves they are the drawing-room imps who keep friends apart for an afternoon or two…

The night I got your note I couldn’t come over to see you, for Regimental reasons; this morning ditto. This afternoon I got one and a half hours’ leave, rode over to Méaulte, through Méaulte, all around Méaulte–nobody knew where you were… The officers here, with very very few exceptions, are first-class four letter men and nobody loves me–they won’t give me a company though third senior in the battalion–everybody’s as damnably cold-shouldered as the lower forms of a Public School…

Contrary to my usual principle I’m at last looking out for a cushy wound. This time thirteen months ago I was a much bigger bug in the Second Welch than I am now, and my peace of mind was much greater. I’m homesick for the First Battalion, I am…

I want to go home to a quiet hospital war with green screens and no cracks in the ceiling to make me think of trenches.

Best love, old man

Robert[2]

Sassoon was just a bit further back, his reveries undisturbed. Graves will try again tomorrow, but we’ll close this pas de deux with those unsettling reveries of Sassoon’s:

Sometimes when I see my companions lying asleep or resting, rolled in their blankets, their faces turned to earth or hidden by the folds, for a moment I wonder whether they are alive or dead. For at any hour I may come upon them, and find that long silence descended over them, their faces grey and disfigured, dark stains of blood soaking through their torn garments, all their hope and merriment snuffed out for ever, and their voices fading on the winds of thought, from memory to memory, from hour to hour, until they are no more to be recalled. So does the
landscape grow dark at evening; embowered with dusk, and backed with a sky full of gun-flashes. And then the night falls and the darkness of death and sleep.[3]

 

Adn another, most formidable writer is en route to the Somme. Ford Madox Hueffer, shambling literary provocateur and the unlikeliest subaltern in all the Welsh Regiment, left Cardiff today, a century back, with his battalion.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Sassoon includes a quotation, a landscape description, from The Return of the Native. In England, in a letter to his mother, Wilfred Owen quoted today a letter of Keats.
  2. In Broken Images, 54-55.
  3. Diaries, 92-3.
  4. Saunders, Ford Madox Ford, I 494.

Siegfried Sassoon Dwells on Yesterday’s “Dead in a Squalid, Miserable Ditch;” Lord Crawford on Sandbagging the Cathedral; A Letter for Stella Hodgson

Yesterday a seminal incident in the oft-told story of Siegfried Sassoon occurred.[1] I included both his diary and his “memoir,” yesterday, and the memoir version closed the day’s adventure in a mildly ironic vein.

Coming back from his one-man jaunt into Mametz Wood he idly expected some sort of praise, but was received angrily by his colonel–a barrage had been delayed for three hours because “British patrols”–i.e. Sassoon, alone–were still within the enemy lines. Chagrined and confused about whether he is a screw-up or a half-mad hero, Sassoon/Sherston goes off with a “sulky grin.”

And then the story shifts. For the first time we might notice that “Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man” implies no other people, really–the rest of the hunt, we might hope, is following several fields behind our galloping young self-discoverer. But “Memoirs of an Infantry Officer” really should include a close concern for infantrymen. And indeed, we now see Sassoon dwelling on the experience of others–others less fortunate. This turn in the story–from unrelentingly inward to tentatively outward–is most easily seen in the sudden change in Sassoon’s verse. But to get there, a bit more prose.

As his battalion is withdrawn into into reserve, today, a century back, Sassoon is thinking of the men left behind. In the memoir, the emphasis is on the manifest unreadiness of the Kitchener’s Army men (by-blows of his very own Regiment, as it happens, but this battalion of newly-arrived, sketchily trained men belong to the unblooded Welsh Division) who took over the positions of the 2/RWF before Mametz Wood late yesterday:

The incoming Battalion numbered more than double our own strength (we were less than 400) and they were unseasoned New Army troops. Our little trench under the trees was inundated by a jostling company of exclamatory Welshmen. Kinjack would have called them a panicky rabble. They were mostly undersized men, and as I watched them arriving at the first stage of their battle experience I had a sense of their victimization. A little platoon officer was settling his men down with a valiant show of self-assurance. For the sake of appearances, orders of some kind had to be given, though in reality there was nothing to do except sit down and hope it wouldn’t rain. He spoke sharply to some of them, and I felt that they were like a lot of children. It was going to be a bad look-out for two such bewildered companies, huddled up in the Quadrangle, which had been over-garrisoned by our own comparatively small contingent. Visualizing that forlorn crowd of khaki figures under the twilight of the trees, I can believe that I saw then, for the first time, how blindly War destroys its victims. The sun had gone down on my own reckless brandishings, and I understood the doomed condition of these half-trained civilians who had been sent up to attack the Wood.[2]

Sassoon/Sherston has been the primary innocent of his own Progress–until now. But he has known loss and gone on patrols and been in no man’s land and sought out combat–and he has done it all with a battalion that still draws on a backbone of Regular Army experience and discipline. He is not only aged by his day of solitary adventuring, but deep-dyed by his months with a Regular battalion and so he realizes, suddenly, from and with experience, that these amateur battalions are neither sturdy soldiers nor foolhardy, death-or-glory unattached young men. They are victims.

But that much is the memoir-as-novel-in-history: we will see what becomes of the Welsh Division in the next two weeks. The second pivot-point of yesterday’s experience was Sassoon’s close encounter with a German corpse. In yesterday’s post we read both “Sherston’s” discovery of the corpse and his realization that his feeble efforts to “protect” the vanished beauty of the dead German had been in vain:

He was down in the mud again, and someone had trodden on his face. It disheartened me to see him, though his body had now lost all touch with life and was part of the wastage of the war.

Today, in the rear, Sassoon turned to verse to try to work out what had happened. First he sets the scene. This is the battalion at rest:

The rank stench of those bodies haunts me still
And I remember things I’d best forget.
For now we’ve marched to a green, trenchless land
Twelve miles from battering guns: along the grass
Brown lines of tents are hives for snoring men;
Wide, radiant water sways the floating sky
Below dark, shivering trees. And living-clean
Comes back with thoughts of home and hours of sleep.

To-night I smell the battle; miles away
Gun-thunder leaps and thuds along the ridge;
The spouting shells dig pits in fields of death,
And wounded men, are moaning in the woods.
If any friend be there whom I have loved,
God speed him safe to England with a gash.

It’s sundown in the camp; some youngster laughs,
Lifting his mug and drinking health to all
Who come unscathed from that unpitying waste:
(Terror and ruin lurk behind his gaze.)
Another sits with tranquil, musing face,
Puffing bis pipe and dreaming of the girl
Whose last scrawled letter lies upon his knee.

The sunlight falls, low-ruddy from the west,
Upon their heads. Last week they might have died
And now they stretch their limbs in tired content.
One says ‘The bloody Bosche has got the knock;
‘And soon they’ll crumple up and chuck their games.
‘We’ve got the beggars on the run at last!’

Peace then, and pleasant thoughts for girls at home and blighty ones. This is the happy-enough warrior after battle. Never mind the failures: now is rest, and carelessness, and the thrumming bare gratefulness for survival, for life. These are the feelings Sassoon would be having if yesterday hadn’t changed him. The “poem,” however, rushes on:

Then I remembered someone that I’d seen
Dead in a squalid, miserable ditch,
Heedless of toiling feet that trod him down.
He was a Prussian with a decent face,
Young, fresh, and pleasant, so I dare to say.
No doubt he loathed the war and longed for peace,
And cursed our souls because we’d killed his friends.

One night he yawned along a half-dug trench
Midnight; and then the British guns began
With heavy shrapnel bursting low, and ‘hows’
Whistling to cut the wire with blinding din.
He didn’t move; the digging still went on;
Men stooped and shovelled; someone gave a grunt,
And moaned and died with agony in the sludge.

Then the long hiss of shells lifted and stopped.
He stared into the gloom; a rocket curved,
And rifles rattled angrily on the left
Down by the wood, and there was noise of bombs.
Then the damned English loomed in scrambling haste
Out of the dark and struggled through the wire,
And there were shouts and curses; someone screamed
And men began to blunder down the trench
Without their rifles. It was time to go:
He grabbed his coat; stood up, gulping some bread;
Then clutched his head and fell.

I found him there
In the gray morning when the place was held.
His face was in the mud; one arm flung out
As when he crumpled up; his sturdy legs
Were bent beneath his trunk; heels to the sky.

Sassoon has never written “poetry” like this, and indeed, he will not consider this to be a finished poem.[3] Is it too ugly–or too true? Too personal? Too impersonal?

But of course it’s not a finished poem–it’s the very beginning of an entirely new literary effort.

 

And now, with this belated focus on the dead–the anonymous, rather than the poetry-writing dead–I regret leaving out the long tale of the major raid by the Second Royal Welch yesterday, a century back. In a way it is a perfect counterpoint to the high hopes of the Somme: where the Somme hoped for everything and achieved very little at an enormous cost, this raid seems really to have had no strategic purpose at all, and yet “[t]he expenditure of shells, mortar-bombs, and rifle-grenades ran into the thousands,” and there were nearly 50 casualties, including seven dead. And the raid was accounted a success.

Dr. Dunn’s chronicle makes no reference to any strategic goal: the point of the thing is to punish the Germans opposite, kill some of them, destroy their front line positions, and then return, having seized the upper hand once again on the Givenchy front. The Germans lost a few more men–probably not enough to “make up for” the disaster of Red Dragon Crater, but still–and the more than forty prisoners will add to the battalion’s reputation. Plus the Germans will have some work to do to get their front line in order once again.

But so, of course, will the British, for the German retaliatory fire is fierce and accurate:

Now comes the most awful part of the Show. A man of A Company had a brother in C Company. When he got back after the raid he said, “Pass the word to my brother, ‘I am all right.'” A few minutes later he was sitting with two others in the trench when a German shell landed plumb among them, killing them all. Shortly after daybreak I met his brother coming to see him; he asked me if I knew where his brother was. His body had been taken to Cambrin for burial, but I couldn’t tell him. When he did find out he nearly went out of his mind.[4]

 

So sometimes the gap between worry and reassurance and the worst blow of knowledge–between proof of life and overtaking death–is not channel-wide and a few days long, but a matter of minutes.

But we’ll turn again, from the anonymous soldiers, figured now as victims rather than a price paid for strategy, to the young officers–known to us, and well-loved, and mourned. Noel Hodgson‘s friend Frank Worrall, learning only today of his death, wrote immediately to Noel’s sister Stella:

I’m just fearfully sorry for you, and you all. “Bill” was everything to me and more that a fellow could wish a pal to be. Perhaps you knew, he was so fond of you, what friends we were. I just loved him and I am only a hard case man and am not effusive at any time but he was such a loveable old thing, such a straight liver but up to anything, that a real man would think right. Always keen, but never at the expenses of others, for his men. Always to me my “Smiler.”[5]

 

But life–and the oddly literary war–go on. So here’s what maybe a gently cruel way to bring in the “normalcy” of those not in battle or reeling from new loss. Lord Crawford has recently been prodded to take up once more his ordinary estate: no longer an enlisted medical orderly, he is on his way to become one of those intelligence officers involved in public relations. And, for the time being, he will be another observer of the battle. Today, a century back, he does well: he moved from two symbolic locations–Montreuil, where Haig has his headquarters (in, yes, a chateau) and Amiens, the cathedral city and rail-head for the Somme–and provides both literary and artistic points of reference.

Thursday, 6 July 1916

A beautiful drive from Montreuil to Amiens through magnificently cultivated land. General Charteris wants me to go to Paris forthwith, whereas Colonel Hutton Wilson would like to keep me here to help him and to get an insight into the press censorship. Later, I went to the cathedral. The porch and many internal monuments sandbagged, and they are now, notwithstanding our advance, engaged in sandbagging the choir. It occurs to me that the Hotel de France at Montreuil must be the inn at which the sentimental traveller engaged his French servant; was he called La Flache? I forget. Anyhow, this association endears Montreuil to my heart.[6]

This is Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey, and it was not “La Flache” but ‘La Fleur”–who, incidentally, is a sort of marionette-mascot for the region of Picardie.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. I realize that this arm's-length, fiction-appropriate diction has become a tic: I could use historical terminology--e.g. "yesterday's events will weigh heavily..."--but even leaving aside fastidiousness about the difference between history and fictionalized autobiography it seems somehow inappropriate. Sassoon is experiencing his life not as a series of events but as an unfolding story. And yesterday the plot took a turn.
  2. Complete Memoirs, 337-8.
  3. Although Sassoon worked these verse over, but he will never seek to have them published.
  4. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 221.
  5. Zeepvat, Before Action, 206.
  6. Private Lord Crawford, 190.

Arthur Graeme West on the Futility of Training; Sherlock Holmes Gets a Tour; Olaf Stapledon Addresses a Heroine; Life and Death for Robert Nichols and Noel Hodgson

The 2/RWF are no ordinary battalion, but Dr. Dunn’s chronicle–nicely poised between a battalion history and a collective memoir–often provides excellent bits of day-to-day local color. (Appropriate, really, to get some pseudo-Celtic wit aboard on this 12th Bloomsday.)

In any event, it’s been a while since I’ve found a way to work in a reference to Arthur Conan Doyle:

A procession of “Cook’s tourists” are passing through the town these days: among others, Conan Doyle getting local colour for his new pot-boiler, and a Russian Prince, whose A.D.C., General Itchas, supplied the facetious with a topic…[1]

 

Yes, we seem to have hit an ominous mid-June lull–“these days” are filled with a tense false-calm, an expectancy. We have a few disparate updates.

First, George Coppard, after a pleasant interlude in Divisional training in the rear areas, marched up with his battalion to the rear areas of the Somme. From now on, Amiens is to be the most important railhead for the British army.

The company marched to Lillers and entrained for Amiens. It was strange passing through the city, with big solid buildings on either side of the streets. The shops were open and the market place was packed. One of the officers had returned from leave with four mouth organs, and ‘Tipperary’ was in full swing as we marched pas the great cathedral. Women and children waved flags and cheered as the column moved on….[2]

 

Robert Nichols is out of it, now. He is damaged, but physically intact. He has seen the war, and is setting himself now to write about it. His friends, of course, remain. But now they are one fewer: Harold Gough was killed today, a century back, in the Ypres Salient.[3]

 

Olaf Stapledon, meanwhile, continues his slow-developing intercontinental conversation with his intended, Agnes Miller. His tone, as it always is, is light, loving. Yet this is a question of the utmost seriousness to him: if she will remain conventionally patriotic and pro-war and he, though he is in the thick of it, will remain a committed pacifist, would society ever accept them? It’s a burning question… but, again, slow-burning. He is in Belgium, she is in Australia–duration first, then marriage.

Last night there was no end of a scrap. I was lying in bed in my car when it began. I was facing it and saw all the shrapnel flashes in the sky and the big shells far off landing with a dazzling blaze… All today there has been steady firing from the various batteries, shells going & coming, roaring and singing all over the place–crash–roarrrrrr-ban-bang-whewwww-crash, much tearing of calico & much humming-top song. Yet if one’s ears had been stopped up one would never have known there was war in this continent, save for a few puffs of smoke…

I have just been reading another dear letter that came from you today… Much of your letter was about patriotism and wanting to win. I don’t know, dear, but it all strikes me very differently. I won’t talk about it, for reasons censorial and others. You must judge for yourself, be loyal to your view of the truth; and I will be loyal to mine. Believe me, anyhow, England is no less to me than to you… I am not a crank nor an extremist, nor a little Englander even, but I fear you have gone and got engaged to a fellow whose views are not presentable in polite society, and I am deeply sorry for you… Can you really love with all your heart and soul one who does not even intend to live up to your ideal, but sticks to his own? If so you are a heroine, considering the relation of the two ideals.[4]

 

I introduced Arthur Graeme West two weeks ago as a noted cynic, a man angry at the army before he even got to France. Today he was exposed to one of the famous drill-lectures–not the famous bayonetin’ Scotsman, but a cavalry major–“a small man with an incredibly evil countenance… and… an inability to pronounce his R’s”–who lectures on physical drill more generally. West parodies his idiocy and–less unfairly–his failure to appreciate that discipline in the socially heterogeneous volunteer battalions of Kitchener’s army must be very different than in an old Regular battalion:

Story of officer whom nobody disobeyed twice. Someone disobeyed him once and he went to the hospital! Cheers!

This man babbled on about bayonet fighting and physical drill until 12.45, the C.O. simpering by, keeping a thousand men from their rest and their beer, and teaching them nothing.[5]

 

Grim. But I can close with good news, at least. Today, a century back, Noel Hodgson is an uncle. His sister gave birth, at their parents’ home in Ipswich, to a baby daughter. Mother and daughter are hale and healthy…[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The War the Infantry Knew, 206.
  2. With a Machine Gun, 77.
  3. Charlton, Putting Poetry First, 55.
  4. Talking Across the World, 156-7.
  5. Diary, 79-80.
  6. Zeepvat, Before Action, 185.

The Afterlife of Rupert Brooke XII: Siegfried Sassoon Goes Hun-Hunting with Poetry in Mind; An April Medieval Fantasy from Bimbo Tennant; Ralph Mottram’s Original Crime; Charles Scott Moncrieff on the Shelf

Our poem for April is a salutary reminder that literature neither moves in a straight line nor in unison. Edward Thomas and Siegfried Sassoon, for instance, have lately been pushing toward new ways of writing about the war.

And Bimbo Tennant? Less new. Here’s a poem he composed this month, a century back.

 

The Knight and the Russet Palmer

“Give you good day, Sir Knight,
And whither may you be bound?
Methinks I could read your hand,
Sir Knight, As sure as the world is round.”

“What do you lack, you Palmer old?
And what would you have wi’ me?
Will you give me word of my true-love
That sails across the sea?”

Skip a bit, brother! It goes on like this for many a stanza, and the pseudo-Medievalism (the influences, I suppose, are Tennyson and Morris) gets thicker.

“And where was my love when the storm was high,
You palsied heavy-eyed Sage?”
“I wot she brewed a draught, Sir Knight,
And conned a runic page…”

Long story short, the good Sir Knight oughtn’t to have put his faith in that lady. The poem is signed “Poperinghe, April, 1916,” and is adequate proof on its own that an inclination to verse may be completely distinct from an inclination to writing about the real experiences war.[1]

 

But better and more forward-looking writers await.

April 1916 was the cruelest month, at least when it came to the off-handed desecration of an outdoor shrine in the rear areas of the British sector in Flanders. The plot of Ralph Mottram‘s Spanish Farm Trilogy, which is probably the best long novel by an officer about the war (rather than the sharper, narrower experience of fighting in the trenches), turns on the fictional (or fictionalized) “crime”[2] that was committed this month. A soldier with the transport section of a battalion in reserve broke into the shrine, in the corner of a pasture of a large farm, in order to shelter his mules from the elements. The farm family–led by the formidable Madeleine Vanderlynden, who also played host to the officers billeted in the farmhouse–complained, and forms were filed.

The rest was history–or, rather, bureaucracy. Mottram’s three novels, which are difficult to discuss here owing to the absence of precise dates, circle around this event in several different ways. There is a sort of 19th century French novel involving Madeleine’s dramatic affair with an aristocratic French officer; there is another novel centered on Skene, a very Mottram-like New Army officer billeted in the farmhouse and later involved with its inhabitants and the seminal “crime;” and the whole thing takes on–with remarkable success–a time and place in which an enormous-yet-piddling bureaucracy worthy of Heller or Pynchon (or Kafka or Welles) coexists with a little world of stubborn, unchanging peasants… all of whom were brought together by the casual vandalism of a tired muleteer of Kitchener’s army, this month, a century back.[3]

 

Changing gears now, we have two bits of writing dated specifically to today, a century back. Charles Scott Moncrieff is something of an old soldier, a reservist with 1914 experience and many months in a Regular regiment. He is relatively rare, then, in being both a highly educated, literary sort of chap and an officer who has come by his old army prejudices honestly. He’s not impressed with the New Army:

1st April, 1916

…I am homesick here to be back with my company, or at least with our own 13th Field Ambulance, where I
should have Father Evans to talk to me. I can’t be bothered to beat up a Kitchener’s Army atmosphere among these people, and their different standards annoy me, e.g., their genuine keenness to get away from their regiments in the field. Also I left my company on the verge of a crisis, as my Sergeant-major is at last getting a commission, and my Quartermaster Sergeant came down here with pleurisy a few days before me, so that an extra responsibility devolves on the young shoulders of Machin, who only came back last Sunday from a fortnight in command of another company…[4]

Scott-Moncrieff, though young, is one of many whose constitution will prove unequal to the damp, cold, pestilential trenches. This fever will stay with him and soon send him home for a months-long spell of sick leave, light duty or home duty (i.e. training new troops). I’ve enjoyed bringing his chatty style and keen literary eye into the discussion, but like so many of our writers his letters cease when he’s near home, and so it will be quite a while before we hear from him again.

 

And finally, today, Siegfried Sassoon is taking matters into his own hands once again. Today he casts aside the coy passive voice: he has decided to go looking for Germans to kill, and he is not shy about writing it.

April 1

Got back to Morlancourt by 1 o’clock on a bright day—east wind, glare and dust. Got through last night all right.  About 9.30 I started creeping along the old sap which leads out to the crater where they put a fresh mine up in the afternoon; about forty yards from our parapet (it didn’t explode properly). Our sentry had seen two men go down into the crater at dusk—covering-party, I expect—while the others worked on the lip. After crawling about forty yards I got to the edge of the crater and could hear them working about twenty-five yards away. Couldn’t make out where the covering-party were, and was in mortal funk lest someone would shoot me. Crept back, and returned with Private Gwynne and four Mills bombs; we threw the bombs, I think with effect; a flare went up and I could see someone about five yards away, below me; fired six shots out of the revolver; and fled.

Gwynne was very steady, but I wish it had been O’Brien. Crawling out the first time was very jumpy work. Went out again at 8.30 this morning, and had a look, but could see no signs of work (or slaughtered Bosches).

I used to say I couldn’t kill anyone in this war; but since they shot Tommy I would gladly stick a bayonet into a German by daylight. Someone told me a year ago that love, sorrow, and hate were things I had never known (things which every poet should know!). Now I’ve known love for Bobbie and Tommy, and grief for Hamo and Tommy, and hate has come also, and the lust to kill. Rupert Brooke was miraculously right when he said ‘Safe shall be my going. Secretly armed against all death’s endeavour; Safe though all safety’s lost’. He described the true soldier-spirit…[5]

I don’t think much need be added to this, although it is sorely tempting to go into heavy analytical mode. It’s clear, anyway, that Sassoon is now “on a mission,” although but more in the hackneyed war movie sense than the literal. Are there any orders to go and chuck grenades at the German working party? Not really–it’s too early for his little actions to be construed as preparation for the coming offensive. It would seem, rather, that there is some sort of tacit, standing permission from the fire-eating Colonel Stockwell to mix things up, to display to the Germans opposite the bloody-minded confidence of the Royal Welch. Whether there are practical benefits to this approach is very doubtful, but it also seems clear that the Colonel is willing to use the aroused and angry sentiments of his grieving subaltern to serve this (questionable) military end. It would be good to hinder German works on their trenches–but won’t such actions just bring down artillery retribution or attract more German attention to their own work?

It’s hard to say…and the tactical debate will not be definitively decided. (My prejudices toward “live and let live” are, I think, honestly drawn from a wide reading of trench memoirs. Which can always be riposted by a careful explanation of the tactical and moral benefits of “dominating no-man’s land”–in this little debate, as in so many other Great War controversies, one’s position is probably more a matter of prior commitments–to the hard logic of military necessity or to the experience of war by men suffering in fear–than a priori reasoning about the situation presented.)

Leaving tactics aside, the question at hand, then, is not whether this sort of aggression works, but rather how one should describe it, at both first and second hand. Summary risks collapsing into cliché: Sassoon seems to be raging like Achilles after the death of Patroklos, crawling forward with murder in his mind to hurl grenades at unsuspecting German workers (or, perhaps, Germans even then tunneling toward him with evil intention). “It’s personal now,” Sassoon must be muttering… so, yes, cliché.

But Sassoon gives us something different, doesn’t he? He does an excellent job of pegging this night’s action to the general spirit of the war by citing Rupert Brooke‘s “miraculous” poetry. It’s strange–and yet not that strange–that a new-ish subaltern newly come to killing adopts the tone of Brooke’s last months. Whatever we think about Brooke’s poetry, it was a remarkably accurate guess–a very sensitive poetic anticipation–of what new soldiers steeped in old poetry would want to be thinking as they headed into combat. Brooke, who never saw real combat, had the wit to write a step ahead of his own experience.

But two steps? After that soldier’s spirit has been been worn away by unyielding attrition?

There will be changes, and changes again. But for now, the poet kills.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Available here, with spoilers nearby.
  2. Readers may remember that the army term embraces an extremely wide category of enlisted misdeeds, rather than merely actions that would be criminal in a civilian context.
  3. Spanish Farm Trilogy, 363, 677.
  4. Memories & Letters, 119-120.
  5. Diaries, 51-2.

Siegfried Sassoon Waxes Lyrical About the Countryside–and the Quarter-Master; Bim Tennant Trails Off

Yesterday and today, a century back, have afforded Siegfried Sassoon plenty of time for lyrical reverie:

March 16

If anyone were to ask me how I remember Morlancourt, I should say that it is a village resting among the folds of long slopes and ridges of naked ploughland; where five roads meet, and the houses begin where each road descends a different part of the hills; at each end of the village is a church, and in the hollow centre of the place is a congregation of buildings with a sort of small square, or wide space, with a pond on one side of it. Looking down on Morlancourt, one sees a confusion of slate roofs and tiled ones, with touches of white and drab and ochre which are the walls of cottages and farm-buildings, a number of trees, slender and leafless, mingling with the houses. Then the eye roves beyond the village to meet the long line of the hills all round, with a few straggling trees, a team of greys ploughing or dredging, some horsemen, trotting outlined along the white edge of the sky, or a hooded farm-cart, or a limber.

There! A limber–a two-wheeled conveyance for artillery ammunition. Up until that word this scene has been entirely peaceful–or, rather, war-less. But hark, we must go back for the larks:

There are strips of green wheat, and acres of drab fallow, mingled with the bright brown of the newly-ploughed land. And there are high banks where thorn-bushes grow, a cage for flitting birds that swing on the thorny twigs. The wind pipes across the open, soughing in the isolated trees, plane, willow or aspen. The open sky is full of lark-songs, as is proper for such places. And always the guns boom a few miles away, and the aeroplanes drone high up, looking down on the seams of unseen trench-lines with their tangle of wires and posts.

So, yes, unseen–but present. Sassoon doesn’t have the knack of being this subtle in his versified juxtapositions. But then again this isn’t so much a prose vs. poetry distinction as an essay in observation vs. an exercise of imagination. Sassoon is in the transport lines, in the unspoiled countryside of a Somme as-yet-un-fought-over. This is what he sees…

It is a country of expansive skies and delicate miniatures… The sunlight sweeps across it in a noble progress of wind and cloud… sunset brings it colour and mystery and sadness; and the night brings out the stars to watch over it, the hills fade, deep-hued and austere, and the whole region becomes an interminable dusk of looming slopes, with lights of village and bivouac, picked out here and there, sparks in the loneliness and serenity of time.

Sassoon follows this up with an odd, brief little dialogue, apparently written today, a century back. Odd, but significant. The “transport officer,” Sassoon himself, rants about the “selfish hogs” in England who have made no sacrifices, believe the baldest propaganda, and idly damn the “huns.” The “Quarter-master” replies by opining that the war is being fought exclusively by the “upper tenth” and the lower tenth, the “blue-bloods” and the down-and-outs. Everyone else are shirkers and profiteers.

A cynical view, but not an uncommon one. The quarter-master–he who will now be described in verse–is a real life character named Joe Cotterill,[1] an old soldier who seems to have cut quite a figure. Quarter-masters were generally promoted from the ranks–an otherwise rare occurrence in the pre-war army, and thus they not also straddled class identities but tended to loom large in their regiments as keepers of the collective memory. Sassoon, certainly, was impressed.

 

The Quarter-Master
cottrill

The Quarter-Master, in Earlier Days (Royal Welsh Museum)

Bad stations and good liquor and long-service
Have aged his looks beyond their forty-five
For eight and twenty years he’s been a soldier
And nineteen months of war have made him thrive.
He’s got a face to match his breast of medals
All stained and veined with purple and deep red.
His heart is somewhat bigger than his body,
And there’s a holy anger in his head.
See where he sits before the evening embers,
Warming his knotted fingers at the blaze,
The man whose life is in the old battalion
And all its battles in his gleaming gaze…

He’s chanced his arm with fate and found his glory
He’s swung the lead with many a roaring lad:
Good luck to him; good luck to all his kindred!
It’s meeting men like him that makes me glad.

 

It’s clear, I think, that this is self-consciously boyish verse. Sassoon is submitting to the urge to portray a man–to put it with minimal romance, a co-worker whom he outranks–as a hero from a boy’s own story. The verse is adroitly late-Victorian, eminently Kipling-esque.

So we can reassure ourselves–this is light verse! He Sassoon knows what he is doing! And yet, still, it’s writing poems like this that makes him glad.

 

And a brief note. Due to the vagaries of survival–not of men, but of letters–we won’t be hearing from Bim Tennant for a while. He wrote to his mother today, a century back, in the usual fawning and chatty tone. Our Bim is spoiled–very, very spoiled, and unpleasantly so: he lists a number of debts, asks his parents for money (and “two plucked and trussed fowls per week”), and then apologies for “the Hebraic note of this letter.” Charming.[2]

I will keep tabs on Bimbo as best I can during this epistolary lapse…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. He pops up in various sources as Cottrell or Cottrill, and I have yet to sort out which spelling is authoritative.
  2. Letters, 132-4.