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.

Kate Luard is Open For Business Once Again; Edwin Vaughan Heads Back to the Front; Wilfred Owen Drops his Cheek and Dreams of Vengeance

Through Kate Luard we learn today, a century back, that the offensive is lurching forward once more. Five miserable days of rain, followed by three dry days (not nearly enough to dry the mud) and then another downpour on the 8th had entirely halted the offensive. But yesterday and today were fairly clear, and better weather was in the offing. The major effort on the Gheluvelt plateau was aimed at capturing remaining objectives from July 31st–essentially the “black line” of secondary objectives rather than the furthest “green line.”

The Attack began on the two corners of the Salient to-day… A lot of abdominals and some femurs are still coming in… Sir Anthony Bowlby came round to-day… A bashed-to-pieces Officer with both legs, both arms, face and back wounded, gassed, and nearly blind, saluted with one bandaged arm… (Died at 8 a.m.)[1]

In an increasingly familiar pattern, the initial gains under a well-planned barrage will be considerable, then largely lost to German counter-attacks later in the day…

 

Edwin Vaughan has missed the battle so far–his unit is in reserve and he has been on leave. But now he returns, in a cascade of inauspicious signs. There was the night at the “hateful, uncomfortable, ill-administered rest camp” near Southampton, then a crossing in “a filthy old tub,” and then this welcome to the old battalion:

When I reached Jans-ter-Biezen, I found the Battalion on the other side of the road, sharing a large field with the Brigade Trench Mortar Battery. I received a cheery welcome and we had a happy little dinner of celebration, to which we invited Sullivan who is now with the TMBs. Later a Boche plane came across and dropped a lot of bombs—fortunately into the other camps. We were untouched but the night was rent with crashes, by the screams of archies and the frantic spluttering of Lewis guns.[2]

 

Lastly today, we are once again back in Britain with a shell-shocked officer. Wilfred Owen has been flourishing at Craiglockhart, but regaining self-confidence and a sense of balance and self-mastery is not the same as forgetting or moving past the war.

Tonight’s letter to his mother is both unusual and significant. It begins ordinarily enough, however, with reports in the old intimate-conversational style on the doings of the Field Club and his upcoming appearance in a play being put on by a group of patients, some with previous professional theater experience.

Friday Night

My own dear Mother,

The Field Club went a long walk over the Pentland foot-hills this afternoon… between us we managed to observe and philosophize the country to about half the extent that say Belloc would have done, had he taken that walk.

I held my own in the matter of Water Plants, and my ancient chippings at Geology came in useful… it is very kind of the Army to provide this free-and-easy Oxford for me. It was a unique walk. We had lunch on the roadside, and tea in a cottage…

I read your letter by a waterfall. The Parcel has not yet come. Many thanks for the considerable trouble of packing it off. Where then is my green cap? So glad you thought of socks. The Expense will be refunded by the Club. I forgot to tell you this…

But it is through his mother’s report of her intended charitable work that Owen’s thoughts turn from his activities back to their looming, inescapable context. The next statement, unfortunately, also obliges us to overlook casual racism in order to see his point. It is a bad example, too–the “white man’s burden” is not the main thrust of the thought here. Instead, Owen’s rejection of Christianity as it is practiced by the belligerents moves from a diffident satiric pose toward purposeful, concerted, protest. The stock reference to the “heathen” other points us back to the culprit: Christianity, yes, but as it is embodied in what Owen sees as a deeply hypocritical “civilized” culture.

I’m overjoyed that you think of making bandages for the wounded. Leave Black Sambo ignorant of Heaven. White men are in Hell. Aye, leave him ignorant of the civilization that sends us there, and the religious men that say it is good to be in that Hell.

(Continued, because important) Send an English Testament to his Grace of Canterbury, and let it consist of that one sentence, at which he winks his eyes:

‘Ye have heard that it hath been said: An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:

But I say that ye resist not evil, but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.’

And if his reply be ‘Most unsuitable for the present distressing moment, my dear lady! But I trust that in God’s good time . . . etc.’—then there is only one possible conclusion, that there are no more Christians at the present moment than there were at the end of the first century.

Toward protest, I think–but he is not all the way there. To act out these intentions in a fantasy in a letter to his mother is a very different thing than taking on the church–or, more generally, patriotic militarist cant–in public writing. It’s hard to tell how much Owen means this mood (indeed, he will write tomorrow that he does not trust himself to re-read the letter) but this is still more than mere maudlin sentimentality.

While I wear my star and eat my rations, I continue to take care of my Other Cheek; and, thinking of the eyes I have seen made sightless, and the bleeding lad’s cheeks I have wiped, I say: Vengeance is mine, I, Owen, will repay…

The emotion is genuine, and even if the conviction is not fully empowered to production, he’s on the cusp. Dominic Hibberd, working from the physical remains of the archive rather than the printed text, notes that “[t]he handwriting of this letter, scribbled late at night on 10 August 1917, slants awkwardly across the page, and around the phrase ‘made sightless’ there are marks that could be blots or tears.[3]

Or perspiration, or archival water damage… or tears. The last few letters might have led us to believe that Owen’s course of ergotherapy and his intense-yet-superficial bond with his mother are healing his outer self without addressing the inward–yet intellectual–revulsion stemming from his war experience. Owen still doubts whether these grand phrases and feelings can quite be trusted:

I fear I’ve written like a converted Horatio Bottomley.

And to you who need no such words.

That is why I want you not to destroy them; for I write so because I see clear at this moment. In my eye there is no mote nor beam, when I look through you across the world…[4]

And that intensity of vision will, I think, now be essential to his growth as a poet. The rhetoric is not there, but the habit of unrestrained emotional outpouring–albeit in prose, and to a completely supportive audience–has readied him to write something that, unlike Sassoon‘s tortured attempt to wrestle a gift for satire into a posture of humane protest, can transmute the suffering of the soldiers into effective, moving poetry.

All that he needs is someone to reorient his gifts and his gaze, and give him a little push…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Unknown Warriors, 142.
  2. Some Desperate Glory, 188-9.
  3. Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 262.
  4. Collected Letters, 482-4.

Herbert Read Writes of Reading Writers Aright; Praise for Siegfried’s Lines; Henry Williamson’s Dark Journey; Vera Brittain Starts for Home

We’ll begin today with a letter from Herbert Read to Evelyn Roff. We don’t know Read well, and he’s different from many of our young officers–he reads Nietzsche! he hails from Yorkshire!–but, then again, not really all that different. He’s just another young poet, missing the English spring and reporting on his ambitious reading…

22.V.17

Your letter arrived yesterday and did indeed manage to convey to me the very spirit of spring in England, so that I was away in Yorkshire, with the daffodils in Farndale and the brown moors reviving with green–until my eyes were dim and my breath was still . . .  and then I began to curse the chance that makes of me an exile, and then to curse myself for a sentimental fool.

Spring we do have here, but in an abortive sort of way. The felled trees bloom, but for the last time, and forget-me-nots spring up among the ruins. But everything is sad, and our few flowers are like wreaths among so much desolation.

The lull I told you of is lasting longer than we expected, and we have now been in rest ten days. It is significant that during this time I have never been tempted to write to you–our present existence is rather passive and unimpressive. We spent most of the first week cleaning–skins and clothes. We are up early, drilling, etc., until noon, and then the rest of the day is left to our own devices, which mostly taking the form of football, riding, eating, reading, and various shooting competitions…

But any day–any hour–we expect sudden orders to back into the thick of it. And none of us really cares how soon those order come, for the sooner our fate is settled the better, we argue.

And that is that. The letter then turns to literature, as these letters so often do. Read and Roff’s mutual attraction is to some degree intellectual… which is to say that Read seems very interested in proclaiming and explaining his opinions. Despite her careful praise for Read’s youthful first volume of poems, Songs of Chaos, Roff’s other opinions do not meet with unconditional approval:

…I don’t see how Kipling fits in. He is one of my bêtes noires–a landmark in Philistia, though that is rather a rash judgment of the author of Kim and Puck of Pook’s Hill. It’s the man’s Idealism that is wrong–not his pure imagination. I’ll second your favour of Richard Jeffries and Morris, and Ruskin is good as art… Matthew Arnold no bon… The Rossettis are fine…[1]

Read doesn’t write much like our other poets–his “wreaths among so much desolation” seem at once those of an unreconstructed Romantic and a budding free verse rebel–but his reading is certainly “correct.” It will take a while for the appreciation of Kipling’s style and fertility and constancy to escape the bonds of his association with militarism and empire, but William Morris lurks behind many of our writers (Tolkien not least) and Richard Jeffries was beloved of both Charles Sorley and Edward Thomas. The boy just have to get himself to London… although Ypres is in the way.

 

Two days ago I mentioned a… highly improbable statement by Henry Williamson, namely that he had been sent on a flying visit to the War Office in London and somehow charmed his way into a new assignment on a signal course. His diary records nothing of the kind, but mentions that he is to be sent to a signalling course in one of the rear areas in France.

In today’s letter to his mother, however, he repeats the tale:

22 May

Dear Mother, Just a short note to let you know I am O.K., and a staff job at last!!! And on Army Staff Corps too!!! I got it by luck–went to the W.O. the other day special duty, & came back to a course, & clicked at once.

This makes no sense. The editor of his papers breaks in with a rare parenthetical to write that “there is no detail or confirmation of this rather extraordinary event.” Worse, there is no further bragging or later fictionalizing, which are de rigueur with Williamson.

So it seems clear that he just made the story up, for no reason (that I can see) other than to impress his mother and mislead his family. They are meant to think, I guess, that he has somehow “wangled” a “staff” job, when in fact he has merely been sent to learn signal work, either because the Army likes sending officers on courses or because his own unit wants to be rid of him…[2]

 

Before we come to a leave-taking in Malta, let’s take this pleasant interlude from the pen of none other than Alfred Percival Graves, Celtophile, man of letters, and father to Robert. He, too, has been urged by son to read his friend’s verses and–despite possible misgivings about the satiric tone of some of the poems–he wrote approvingly to Siegfried Sassoon today, a century back, in (light) verse of his own.

The Hindenburg Line
By bombardment and mine,
We may wear through,
Or tear through
Or powder quite fine,
But I Donner-wetter!
I know of a better
And mightier line!
None other can shape it…

The Siegfried we call it.

Yours really delighted with the Old Huntsman and other poems,

A.P.G.[3]

 

Finally, then, Vera Brittain. She has decided to come home, to be of what use she can to her family–and to Victor Richardson, last of her brother’s intimate friends, blind and badly wounded. She is breaking her contract as a V.A.D., but this is permissible, and, really, the bureaucracy has been surprisingly swift in giving its permission and sending her home. She will look back on today as the beginning of a journey with nothing of the romance that clung to the journey out.

On May 22nd, with a small home party of home-going Sisters and V.A.D.s, I began my long, dirty and uncomfortable journey to an England that seemed, at the outset, curiously improbable and remote. We had to send our heavy luggage by sea… and were allowed to carry only one package, into which, disregarding uniform and equipment, I stuffed the silks, laces, pale blue kimono and other treasures acquired in Valleta. We were told to carry food for six days, and filled our haversacks with bread, butter, tinned milk and potted meat, all of which had become repulsively languid by the end of the second outrageously hot day. Somehow I found a corner for my diary…

Yes, her neglected diary. Well, habits change, and, alas, it will continue to be neglected, leaving us more dependent on reminiscence and correspondence. But she did describe today, a century back:

May 22nd

Left Malta. I hated to go, for I had been very happy there, & it was a real pain to say goodbye to Stella, with whom I have been for so long.

We were taken by transport to Grand Harbour, & after waiting on docks for about an hour, put on the Isonzo. It was a rough, wet & stormy day, & as there were no chairs we had to sit on deck on our piled-up luggage. We had not been long out of the harbour when the waves seemed mountains high &: the ship pitched & rolled to an angle, as they afterwards told us, of 42°. All the luggage piled up at the back, to say nothing of ourselves, rolled down the deck right as far as the rails. This happened three times; the last time I sat in almost two inches of dirty water, & slid in it nearly down to the rails, which effectually ruined all the clothes I had on.[4]

To this cranky diarist’s account she will add, much later, a smooth memoir-writer’s touch.

I do not know why I omitted an incident which I recalled long after other details of the journey were forgotten–the melancholy sadness of listening, at sunset in Syracuse harbour, to the “Last Post” being sounded for a Japanese sailor who had been washed overboard from the destroyer that had acted as our convoy across the turbulent Mediterranean.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Contrary Experience 95-6.
  2. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 154.
  3. See Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 362.
  4. Chronicle of Youth, 341.
  5. Testament of Youth, 347-8.

Lady Feilding and the Gas Attack; Hope for Kate Luard’s Glorious Boy; Visitors for Siegfried Sassoon; Henry Williamson: Wasting Mules, Skyhigh Verbiage, and Safe Souvenirs

As we catch up with several writers who have not been on the front lines at Arras, we have a few shorter updates, today, as well as an overdue missive from Lady Feilding.

In something like a literary crossing of paths, Thomas Hardy wrote to Edmund Gosse, today, praising his new book. Gosse, meanwhile, was visiting with a young family connection also known to Hardy through the younger man’s uncle, Hamo Thornycroft. Siegfried Sassoon is evidently pleased to be so distracted:

April 26

My sixth day in this hospital. Roderick came this afternoon. And afterwards Robbie and Edmund Gosse, who was in delightful good humour.[1]

 

Sassoon’s battalion, meanwhile, is out of the line, though far smaller than it was when he left it. In reserve, but knowing that they will soon march again, the 2nd/Royal Welch engage in one of the milder ironies of industrial warfare’s waste.

…moved to Blairville. Socks, dozens of pairs, are being thrown out all over the camp, the result of a consignment from the Welfare Association having been delivered. Those in the packs of the dead were just thrown out, and shirts too, all good, to rot or be burned.

Our casualties for the tour are 13 officers, 4 of them killed, and about 120 other ranks out of a trench strength of 350.[2]

 

Two days ago, a century back, Henry Williamson was once again in trouble. After a visit from a military vet, who found some of the mules under his care “apparently neglected, and wasting away,” he was “straffed like hell” by his superiors.

There is no mention of this latest bump in the road in a letter he then wrote to his mother. Instead he produced a long, strenuously literary, sentimental letter, full of swooping birds (at least six different species are mentioned) and melodramatic and ominous sights. A brief sampling:

In the vast blue above the newly arrived swallows wheel and call and from yonder grim and black wood the cuckoo sings. Spring is here with its promise of life and hope–and Death.

…I ‘spose the blue-tits will soon vibrate with the thunder of the guns–tons of earth will be blown skyhigh in huge black fountains–the shrapnel will burst in white soft clouds above the wire–Hell itself will be let loose, and soon the beauty of the spring will disappear, and shattered trees and torn earth alone be left–and among it, pathetic little bundles of wasting flesh will strew the ground… and the sky will still be blue, and at night the stars will shine out…

All that, perhaps, in lieu of “I got yelled at at work again today, mum.”

But by today, a century back, the elevated mood has come back toward earth, while a more familiar epistolary persona is in evidence:

The souvenirs Williamson sent home… but where are the German hand grenades?

Dearest,

Just got your letter saying you got helmets–good…Thanks for toffee & Cycling. Aren’t those helmets good souvenirs? the spikes screw on top. The flat fellow is Bavarian. Write soon send Kentish Mercury.

Love Harry. PS Guns going like hell.[3]

What became of the pickelhaubes, I do not know…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And Dorothie Feilding is in Flanders, as ever, and not on the Arras front, where things are most active. But just as “minor surgery” is surgery on someone else, there is no point objecting that someone under attack is not actually part of the day’s major offensive.

Perhaps as a response to the allied push, the Germans in Belgium launched a gas attack, not, apparently, to screen or support any major operations, but simply to damage and disconcert their enemy and perhaps take any trenches that might be abandoned or lightly held. It began three days ago, with clouds of gas–probably primarily phosgene–rolling over the lines and into the rear areas where the Munro Ambulance Corps was stationed. The scale of the attack prompted a brief telegram to her mother at home on the 24th, stating, concisely, “All well Dorothie.” Today, a century back, she elaborated in a letter to her father.

Lady Feilding generally shrugs off being almost killed by shellfire, preferring a blithe and rather daffily dismissive style. But either because of that frighteningly brief telegram or because this new experience was far more frightful than the familiar ambulance-driving under shrapnel fire, she narrates the hours after the attack in detail.

My dear Colonel

Things have been moving here just lately but I haven’t had time to write you much about them, also I was waiting till the events had been duly recited in the communique before writing about them, as it is always wisest.

This having been done I will now tell you more about it, also the rubber bath has come before I forget to thank you for it. It is a dashed fine one & I am very grateful to Mr Da.

On the 23rd about four am, Fritz suddenly started launching gas at us from the local metropolis up at N. The wind wasn’t very good for him, too much to the N with the result the gas came diagonally back from the lines & we here at no 14 got a very bad go of it. Jelly smelt it & woke up which was most intelligent of him; we all got up & threw on a few garments & of course hadn’t a gas mask in the house as ours were in the car, which that night happened to be in the other garage down in the town. There was the limousine here however & Jelly started that & then he went off with the ambulance up to the lines & the gas being very bad by then here I evacuated Winkie & Helene & the girl next door up to a hospital a few miles up the road. There I borrowed some gas masks & a spare driver as I was feeling rather faint & thought it best to have two drivers in the car. I left Winks & CO there & tore back to no 14 to find the gas had cleared away very quickly from there, as a matter of fact it had been following the road we took to the left & we were in it for 3 or 4 miles & so by bad luck got much more than the people who stayed here. By this time I was quite sure the Boche had overrun the sector as I couldn’t imagine our having it so bad & the lines being still tenable. As a matter of fact, the waves were very local & came in gusts. For instance, the main part of the town here got none. It just travelled down in long columns. I rushed up to our barracks & was awfully relieved to find them all ok. They had had very good masks & the main gas column had passed to the right of them & on our way.

Then we just worked like navvies all day till dark. Simply never an engine stopped all day & we were all pretty beat at the end of it. At the beginning, Boche had rushed our lines but we drove them out again as the commimique said & things are exactly as they were before now which is very satisfactory. The sector was very lucky to get off with the line in the old place.

It’s a dirty business gas & rather frightening; comes in great foggy waves & makes you cough your head off. Those poor, poor devils of men. I can’t tell you what it’s like to see them all lying about unconscious & in the most awful states. Much worse than blesses in a way because there is so desperately little you can do for them. In many cases they are alright for 12 to 24 hrs & then go down like logs. The Boche had a lot of casualties from our fire & we got some prisoners too.

I felt quite (fairly) alright the day itself after the 1st hour. Just rather cut. It didn’t work on me till 24hrs after when, at about 5am, I couldn’t breathe except like a scared rabbit & went down to get a drink & then felt awfully faint. This kept coming on at intervals all that day, so I went to bed in the afternoon & have been there ever since. I am quite all right again now & am getting up again now as I haven’t had a proper go of it since yesterday. It’s a beastly feeling–you can’t get a proper deep breath…

This is a long scrawl isn’t it?[4]

 

Finally, today, from behind the lines at Arras, Kate Luard reports on the status of a particularly affecting patient.

Thursday, April 26th, 10.30 p.m.

…The officer boy with the fractured spine isn’t going to die yet… I got the colonel to put him on the Evacuation list tonight to give him a chance to get X-rayed at the Base and perhaps recover…[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 162.
  2. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 340.
  3. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 131-4.
  4. Lady Under Fire, 205-7.
  5. Unknown Warriors, 115.

Edward Thomas: “The Artillery is Like a Stormy Tide;” Edward Hermon is Likely to be Pretty Busy; Siegfried Sassoon Feels Elation and Absolute Confidence; A.A. Milne Debuts a Comedy

Tomorrow will be Easter, and particularly well-suited to pondering life and death, pain and sacrifice. Today, a century back, our two Edwards at Arras–though Edward Hermon goes by “Robert”–both write pre-battle, pre-bedtime letters to their wives.

My darling,

I’ve had a rather strenuous time in the line these last three days & so beyond a postcard I haven’t been able to do much for you, old dear.

We have been in for three days during which time our guns have been most particularly active. The result being that one hasn’t known a moment’s peace. The bottom of the trenches has had water & mud over it to the depth of the top of my field boots. Last night I was relieved, thank goodness, & the adjutant, the Doctor and I walked back here together getting in at 6 a.m. (My town residence.)

Three more weary, mud-bespattered officers it would have been hard to find. I just flung myself down on the bed and slept as I never slept before with guns blotting off in all directions close to me without ever hearing a sound till Buckin woke me about noon. I hadn’t had six hours’ sleep in the three days, been damned nearly killed once & was what you call pleasantly weary, but it’s a wonder how very quickly a few hours’ sleep revives one…

The guns make life quite unbearable in the house & now I’m down in a cellar where I’ve got my orderly room & a nice brazier of coke & am really quite warm & comfortable tho’ it sounds hardly so…

I go in the line again tomorrow…

My own dear lass, I must go to bed now as I must store up what energy I can, as I shall probably need it these next few days as I’m likely to be pretty busy so far as I can see. Give the dear little Chugs my love & a kiss from Dad & with all my love to you old dear, & your dear old face to love.

Ever your Robert.[1]

 

Edward Thomas managed a few lines in his diary–including one striking line that places the poet of roads and trees and rainfall more firmly in the ruin-scape than he has ever been–and then wrote once more to Helen.

Up at 6 to O.P. A cold bright day of continuous shelling… Infantry all over the place preparing Prussian Way with boards for wounded. Hardly any shells into Beaurains. Larks, partridges, hedge-sparrows, magpies by O.P. A great burst in red brick building in N.-Vitasse stood up like a birch tree or a fountain. Back at 7.30 in peace. Then at 8.30 a continuous roar of artillery.[2]

Saturday
Beaurains
April 7 or 8 1917

Dearest,

Here I am in my valise on the floor of my dugout writing before sleeping. The artillery is like a stormy tide breaking on the shores of the full moon that rides high and clear among white cirrus clouds. It has been a day of cold feet in the O.P. I had to go unexpectedly. When I posted my letter and Civil Liabilities paper in the morning I thought it would be a bad day, but we did all the shelling. Hardly anything came near the O.P. or even the village.

So he was safe–but that is not news, for the letter is written. But what does he see?

I simply watched the shells changing the landscape. The pretty village among trees that I first saw two weeks ago is now just ruins among violated stark tree trunks. But the sun shone and larks and partridges and magpies and hedgesparrows made love and the trench was being made passable for the wounded that will be harvested in a day or two. Either the Bosh is beaten or he is going to surprise us. The air was full of aeroplane flights. I saw one enemy fall on fire and one of ours tumble into the enemy’s wire. I am tired but resting.

Yesterday afternoon was more exciting. Our billet was shelled. The shell fell all round and you should have seen Horton and me dodging them. It was quite fun for me, though he was genuinely alarmed, being more experienced. None of us was injured and our house escaped. Then we went off in the car in the rain to buy things.

The near misses are coming thick and fast–and see how both men, so different in temperament and literary refinement, laugh off the shell that almost got them, emphasize their great weariness, and tread lightly on the way in which hard work and danger will come hand in hand over the next few days. But not too lightly–he does mention the ways being made for the wounded. Does this terrify Helen with its reminder of possible mutilation, or is it a welcome suggestion that he may be honorably and not too dangerously wounded, and carried home?

We shall be enormously busy now. Rubin goes off tomorrow on a course of instruction and may be a captain before long, our sergeant major has left with a commission. One officer has to be at the O.P. every day and every other night. So it will be all work now till further notice—days of ten times the ordinary work too. So goodnight and I hope you sleep no worse than I do…[3]

 

The third of our officers in France today is Siegfried Sassoon–younger, unmarried and unattached, possessed of a very different psychological makeup. Hermon and Thomas are both brave: Hermon no doubt expected to be just as stolidly brave as he was bred to be, while Thomas was perhaps mildly surprised and relieved to find that he withstood shellfire better than most.

But Sassoon is… fickle. He is certainly brave, but in a curious way he has shown a lack of ability to be the sort of brave that this war demands: enduring, under constant pressure, despite the inability to reply to the danger or to funnel nervous tension into bursts of physical activity. In the Second War they might have made him a fighter pilot or a commando, but an infantry subaltern of the Great War is more akin to a bomber pilot, tasked to fly again and again, in tight formation, through the black flak and nightmare fighters.

Sassoon has forgotten this. He is ready for action, ready to leave behind the introvert poet, the budding anti-war activist, the romantic sulker, and become ‘Mad Jack’ once again. It’s a short few days of marching from bitter moods to combat euphoria.

And yet Sassoon, though on the way up (in two senses of the phrase), still has eyes for the birds: blackbirds confirmed! And could he bring a darkling thrush to Edward Thomas at Beuarains?

April 7 7 p.m.

We are now at Saulty, a village just off the Doullens-Arras road (about twelve miles from Arras)…

I am sitting on a tree-stump, in the peaceful park of a big white chateau which one sees among the trees. The sun is looking over the tree-tops now, and birds singing a way off, and a few little deer grazing; nothing to remind me of the battle, except the enormous thudding of guns from eastward. The brown of the trees and undergrowth grows purple, and the birds sing, thrushes and blackbirds, while a few rooks flap overhead. The bombardment must be terrific. Three Army Corps are reported to be attacking between Arras and Lens. We move to our final concentration area to-morrow (Easter Sunday!)—about four miles from here.

The next paragraph is as nice a blend of insight and bemused resignation as we are likely to find. And another good reminder for we-who-would-understand-the-war: if even a self-studying diarist can’t begin to comprehend his own emotions, how are we to make sense of it all?

I don’t suppose anyone would believe me if I said I was absolutely happy and contented. Of course this is written after a good meal of coffee and eggs. But the fact remains that if I had the choice between England to-morrow and the battle, I would choose the battle without hesitation. Why on earth is one such a fool as to be pleased at the prospect? I can’t understand it. Last year I thought it was because I had never been through it before. But my feeling of quiet elation and absolute confidence now is something even stronger than last summer’s passionate longing for death and glory.

I keep such music in my brain
No din this side of death can quell.[4]

(I never wrote truer words than those.)

This battle may be nothing at all, or it may give me a fine chance. I only hope we are in the forefront of it. Sitting in support and getting shelled is no fun at all. I may even be left out, awful anticlimax for the hero!

The men seem very cheery and have done the forty-odd miles well. These occasions when soldiers are on the verge of hell always seem to show them at their very best. Of course the officers are very prone to a sentimental ave atque vale frame of mind. For the men it is a chance of blighty, and anything for a change.

Aeroplanes are humming in the clear sky, and the sun is a glint of crimson beyond the strip of woodland. And still that infernal banging continues away on the horizon. Holmes, has applied for me to go to the First Battalion, but I
suppose I’ll stay here now.[5]

 

And here’s a quirky reminder that life goes on, even in wartime–never really an inappropriate reflection, from either angle, lately. London is still London, and even with the cost of the war, and conscription, and rationing, and shortages, life–and the show–must go on. For Alan Milne, like Tolkien a victim of “trench fever” in the last months of the Somme, a long convalescence has let him get on with his writing.

And his big break has come quickly: tonight, a century back, on forty-eight hours leave from his new job as a signals instructor, Milne saw the premier of his first play, a comic one-act called Wurzel-Flummery, at the New Theatre in London. The setting was ideal: his play appeared between two other short plays by J.M. Barrie, and the theater was filled with soldiers on leave, eager to be entertained. It was a signal success…[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. For Love and Courage, 350.
  2. War Diary (Childhood), 175.
  3. Selected Letters, 164-5.
  4. The first lines of his 'Secret Music,' written in December and shortly to be published.
  5. Diaries, 151-2.
  6. Thwaite, A.A. Milne, 181.

Edward Hermon Has a Pow-Wow; Siegfried Sassoon Would Dose the Fighting Man With Dreams; Edward Thomas Reckons with War and Death; Edwin Vaughan’s Poor Jerry

A busy day, today, with thoughtful letters from Edward Thomas and poetry from Sassoon. But I do want to begin with Edward Hermon–Ethel’s Bob, and the C.O. of the 24th Northumberland Fusiliers–who describes a jolly little gathering with some of the brass.

…had quite a pleasant day. Saw Richardson & Temple & old Trevor lent me a horse. Met the Corps Commander and the Div. Commander. The former a most charming old gent. Perfect manners & most pleasant.

If this puts you in mind, as it does me, of Meriadoc Brandybuck meeting Theoden of Rohan, I’m afraid that the resonance is more apt than we might hope. This little get-together is not social–it is on the eve and the edge of a great tumult. The charming old gent is coming down to issue his detailed orders for the coming battle of Arras.

I wish we were together for just one night as I could tell you so much more than one could write & lots that would interest you, but if speech is silver, silence is golden.[1]

 

Siegfried Sassoon, away south on the quiescent Somme front and able to write unreservedly in his diary, is in a reflective mood. He will have a lot to say in the coming days, so let’s review, shall we?

March 30 (Hotel Belfort, Amiens)

Alone at last after a typical ‘war evening’. After yet another ‘lorry-journey’ in rain and westerly wind, I got to this town again for a ‘final jolly’. On 30 March 1914 I was looking forward with acute anxiety to the Atherstone point-to-point meeting (to be held next day). All my world was centred[2] in the desire to steer old Cockbird first past the post in some wily, jolly race over hedge and ditch.

And I did it. And the world went on just the same! On 30 March 1916 I was in the trenches at Fricourt-Mametz, hating the Germans for killing my friend, and wondering if they’d kill me.

But they didn’t! And tonight I’ve been guzzling at the Godbert restaurant with a captain of the Dublin Fusiliers, and a captain of the Cameronians, and three other Welsh Fusiliers; and the bill was 250 francs; and we drank Veuve Clicquot; and the others have gone into the dark city, to look for harlots; and I’m alone in my room; looking out of a balconied window at the town; with few lights, and the Moon and silver drifts of cloud going eastward; and the railway station looming romantic as old Baghdad. And next week we march away to ‘hazards whence no tears can win us’.

Sassoon next writes a short prose piece that amounts to a reverie proposing remedy by reverie. “Dream Pictures” imagines that he might console homesick soldiers, bored by the same old letters and the dull news, by giving them “a healthy dose of domestic sentimental recollection” which would “turn them loose in some dream-gallery of Royal Academy pictures of the late-nineteenth century.

I would show them bland summer landscapes, willow and meadowsweet reflected in calm waters, lifelike cows coming.home to the byre with a golden sunset behind them. I would take them to gateways in garden-walls that they might gaze along dewy lawns with lovers; murmuring by the moss-grown sundial; I would lead them twixt hawthorn hedgerows, and over field path stiles; to old-world orchards where the lush grass is strewn with red-cheeked apples, and even the wasps have lost their stings…[3]

That’s just in case you thought it was the latter-day English professors making too big a deal about the “consolations of the pastoral…”

 

Edward Thomas is dutiful both to his sense of others’ claim on his time–if he is free from work, he should write to those who love him–and to his own commitment not to write poetry at the front. His diary receives many of the observational fragments that might become poems. But some make it into his letters, try though he might to stick to the stuff of prose.

First, though, a letter to Eleanor Farjeon. He has acknowledged that she loves him; now he treats her as an intimate friend, striving to do her the honor of a frank, clear, straightforward letter. The poetry will sneak into the next letter, when he can still, almost paradoxically, write freely as he writes down.

March 30

My dear Eleanor,

Another penultimate letter before I shall be unable to write from press of work. And first I must thank you for sending the apples and also for the apples themselves, which arrove today.

It was a good post, a parcel also from Mother and letters from Helen and Mother…

Everything is useful, and will be especially in the time to come when I have to take up food for perhaps considerably over 24 hours and pig it in noise and darkness and worse. Subalterns are told nothing but I happen to know what is intended, only not what difference this rain may make. I say this rain, but a most lovely cold bright evening, clear and still, has just passed, with many blackbirds singing. I fancy though that the Easter weather is not really beginning yet. I wish it was. I should welcome a warm night…

You will hear soon enough about what is doing, before I can tell you…

The town is catching it badly now and we are well away—touch wood—though we aren’t in a paradise or the bagpipes wouldn’t have played what they did last night. The crossings and corners are dirty places. But the Hun must be confounded with our numbers, though you might think he couldn’t fire without hurting more than the open fields. Luckily he often does…

In a strange burst of high spirits, the letter ends with a different sort of verse: Thomas segues suddenly into a folk song–one evidently known to Farjeon (they are both connoisseurs).

It isn’t nice, though, going up in the cold dawn. If only one could keep warm without being burdened with clothes and all sorts of ornaments—glasses, maps, waterbottles, haversacks, gas-helmets, periscopes etc., so that a trenchcoat isn’t wide enough and if you have to throw yourself down you feel like an old woman
home from marketing and still more so when you get up—while you on shore and a great many more are sleeping warm and dry— oh. Don’t forget your old houseboat mate, Fol-de-rol-de-riddlefol-de-rol-de-ri-do. Who is ever yours

Edward Thomas[4]

And straight from that bit of whimsy to this letter, to both his mother and his younger brother Julian.

Beaurains, 30 March 1917

Dear Mother,

I will write you another letter to-night because I have nothing to do but be in the battery till the Major and Captain come back from dinner. One has always to be here and to-night is my turn…

Nothing much is happening yet, though the firing seldom ceases. However, to-day has been a better day, with plenty to do and after much cold rain plenty of sunshine to do it in as the evening came on. Which somehow reminds me I ought to be writing to Julian, which I should have done had I not your parcel and your letter today to thank you for. The parcel came safe and was welcome as ever. A plain cake would be very nice whenever you can send it. The chocolate etc. will be most useful on days when I am up at the O.P. and do not want to have to carry more food than is necessary. Your letter and Eleanor’s and Helen’s give me a very clear picture of their visit with Myfanwy…

In other words Thomas, though writing from a dugout near Arras and helping to bombard the Germans, is in receipt of three letters describing the same evidently uneventful family visit. Few men are as tethered to home.

And yet he snaps the band, in a way, without even turning the page. He writes to his brother, now, man to man. Instead of discussing daily life and parcels he takes on the simple subject of war. Nothing more than war and death and killing and suffering and happiness and misery, in a paragraph.

Now I will write to Julian.

My dear Julian I am sorry I have not written specially to you till I had one to answer and that I have had for a week now. There is not much really to tell you that I can tell you or that it would be permissible or profitable to tell you till it is all over. We are having a dirty long picnic, you know, with many surprising and uncomfortable things in it….

War, of course, is not altogther different from peace, except that one may be blown to bits and have to blow others to bits. Physical discomfort is sometimes so great that it seems a new thing, but of course it is not. You remember cycling in the rain towards Salisbury. It really is seldom quite a different thing than that. Of course, one seems very little one’s own master, but then one seldom does seem so. Death looms, but however “it comes it is unexpected, whether from appendicitis or bullet. An alternation of comfort and discomfort is always a man’s lot. So is an alternation of pleasure or happiness or intense interest with tedium or dissatisfaction or misery. I have suffered more from January to March in other years than in this. That is the plain fact. I will not go into it any more. I hope I do not seem to be boasting. I am too often idle and inefficient and afraid to want to boast.

I cannot talk about books…

Give my love to Maud and the baby and everyone.

P.S. I was just going to tell you not to take too seriously my request, for Epsom Salts when the order was given ‘Battery. Action.’ and now we are giving 167 rounds at a hostile battery over there in the dark.

Ever your loving son

Edwy[5]

 

One brief final note. Edwin Vaughan has had a few days in billets, but his battalion has just marched up to some of the new territory now being entrenched by the British. His task tonight, a century back, was to supervise the putting out of new barbed-wire emplacements.

It was a very quiet and lonely scene, the slope of snow down from behind us, nothing visible but the whiteness of the earth merging into the grey of the sky. The line of little men at their noiseless tasks and the cold moonlight over all. As I sat drinking in this scene, Breeze touched me on the arm, ‘There’s someone declared peace’, he said and pointed across past the last stake.

Covered with snow, as with a sheet, lay the body of a Boche, looking calm and, I somehow felt, happy. Yet the sight of him made me feel icily lonely. It seemed such a terrible thing to lie alone, covered with snow throughout the night, with never a sound until we came along, and tapped and clipped and never spoke, then went away forever. It seemed so unfriendly, and for a long time I sat wishing we could do something for him.

Later on, as his men line up to march back, he notices a man of his platoon carrying a pair of boots.

I asked him where he got them. He said brightly ‘Jerry up on the hill, Sir.’ My poor poor Jerry. We marched back and left him.[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. For Love and Courage, 346.
  2. I link to this not because the date is right but because it is, I think, my longest expostulation on the pre-war Sassoon.
  3. Diaries, 146-7.
  4. Farjeon, Edward Thomas..., 259-60.
  5. Selected Letters, 155-7.
  6. Some Desperate Glory, 73-4.

Edward Thomas Contemplates the Moles; Henry Williamson Prepares for France; Wilfred Owen’s Happiness

The Citadel in Arras in More Recent Days

First, today, a century back, Edward Thomas seems in better spirits. Is it the weather?

A dull morning turns sunny and warm. Chaffinches and partridges, moles working on surface.

The birds provided a bit of their usual sort of uplift, it would seem, and then the moles complicate matters. But Thomas is drawn into the human world as he goes about his business. He notes the “beautiful 18th century citadel” in which some of their units are housed, and he discusses the battery’s disposition with his colonel. But those moles are on his mind, and at the end of the short diary entry, he returns to them:

“Does a mole ever get hit by a shell?”[1]

 

Today, a century back, Henry Williamson–busiest of our fictionalizers and possessor of one of the longest and most peripatetic military careers we have seen–is headed back to the front. Although he packed his alter-ego Phillip Maddison off to France in December and sent him on a tour of the Somme battlefield, Williamson himself has only reached as far as Southampton. Like his hero Maddison, Williamson now commands the transport company of a machine gun unit–208 Machine Gun Corps. And, since he carefully preserved a great deal of paperwork from this job, we shall be hearing not only more of mice and men these coming weeks but of mules and machine guns as well.

Before boarding his ship–a tricky matter, given the mules–Williamson posted a letter to his mother.

Dear Mother,

It is 10 oclock Sunday morning, & we have got to Southampton Docks… We are expecting to sail tonight… We shall be in France on Monday morning and I expect we shall go right up the line.

I hope you got the blankets: will you have them washed: they are my own private property. Will you get my British warm from Jerry, and gave it dry cleaned. Tell him I want you to send it out here but dont do so until, and if, I write you.

Williamson is swiftly back to one of his old selves–self-important and grasping. He indicates that his unit will be on some unusually direct course into unusually great danger, although there seems no reason to think this. He is bustling and rather short with his devoted mother, and then his swagger continues as he condescends to explain his cryptographic brilliance for his mother’s benefit:

By the way, when you see a letter of mine with an X at the top, you will know it has a message in it: probably the place we are at: and if it is Ypres I will put a dot under the letters thus ‘Y.es, p.resently we r.e.turn ever s.o. wet.’ Reads Ypres, see?[2]

Cunning. Williamson’s letter then makes some bold predictions about prices and the war’s future, and he signs off in a manner that demonstrates the root of his persistent social troubles better than many paragraphs of analysis:

Well goodbye & my love to everyone. I only send my kind regards to my own people: others you can give no message to until I actually write, but I [don’t] mind you giving them my address. I am waiting for them to move, comprenez? Well, best of love, Harry.

PS. The mules are very good up to now…[3]

 

And from Wilfred Owen, today, we have a fragmentary letter that hints at richer explanations to come: he discusses–for the first time in a long while–his poetry.

Sunday, 25 February 1917 [Advanced Horse Transport Depot]

Mine own Mother,

Just had your letter of Tuesday 20th…

My ‘Happiness’ is dedicated to you. It contains perhaps two good lines. Between you an’ me the sentiment is all bilge. Or nearly all. But I think it makes a creditable Sonnet. You must not conclude I have misbehaved in any way from the tone of the poem (though you might infer it if you knew the tone of this Town.) On the contrary I have been a very good boy…

“Happiness” is a strange production, possibly the first poem Owen has written since his harrowing first tour in the trenches. It is indeed a “creditable” sonnet… and sentimental, too. The explanation for the form and title is that he had agreed with his cousin Leslie Gunston some time ago to write poems on set topics… is it, then, even about the war? Not necessarily–and, yes.

Ever again to breathe pure happiness,
So happy that we gave away our toy?
We smiled at nothings, needing no caress?
Have we not laughed too often since with Joy?
Have we not stolen too strange and sorrowful wrongs
For her hands’ pardoning? The sun may cleanse,
And time, and starlight. Life will sing great songs,
And gods will show us pleasures more than men’s.

Yet heaven looks smaller than the old doll’s-home,
No nestling place is left in bluebell bloom,
And the wide arms of trees have lost their scope.
The former happiness is unreturning:
Boys’ griefs are not so grievous as our yearning,
Boys have no sadness sadder than our hope.

The sonnet is creditable in part because it is smoothly written and nicely varied–it’s good verse. It conforms, too, to one school of sonneteering, using the octet to pose a question and the sestet to answer it–and it’s the answer that makes it clear that this is indeed a war poem.

If it’s trite to hymn happiness and evoke heaven, at least the opening line of the sestet gives a deft twist to the form. The poem hints, in its pretty and conventional way, at the same permanent loss of innocence that Larkin will one day describe…

When the letter picks up after a missing sheet, Owen is damning the popularity of cheap and morally worthless souvenirs:

…I have no intention of collecting souvenirs of any description. What England will need will be an anti-souvenir…[4]

Yes, it will. And the Owen of six weeks ago seemed unlikely to furnish it with one. He’s a bit less unlikely–but a crucial bit–now.

 

Finally, today, a century back the German army began a long-planned withdrawal to a completely new defensive position, known (to them) as the Siegfried Stellung and called by the British the Hindenburg Line. By withdrawing a few miles, the Germans gave up only a thin slice of ravaged French territory and gained a better-sited, carefully constructed, in-all-ways-tactically-superior defensive position. The British, who had been wasting lives and resources to scratch forward on the old Somme front and points northwards, will in the coming days pick up and walk forward into what had been the German rear–where thousands of booby-traps awaited–and begin constructing a new line of their own, under observation and under fire, in the location of their opponents’ choosing. Moles working on the surface indeed…

If it felt like a moral victory to move forward, the men who had seen their friends die to win positions that were now of no account may instead have felt anger and foreboding… and the move clearly showed that the German High Command, in possession of enemy territory, was willing to conduct a more strategically cogent form of attritional warfare…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diaries, (Childhood), 165.
  2. This is silly, and wouldn't pass any censor bothering to do his job; but then again it is a common dodge and some readers failed to pick up on it. But that was a whole book that Sapper Martin sent...
  3. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 87-88.
  4. Collected Letters, 437-8.

Robert Frost’s Mountain Interval, a Darkling Edward Thomas and the Missing Thrush; Siegfried Sassoon Anticipates the Blackbirds; Ivor Gurney on His Monument and His Prisoner Pal; Rowland Feilding Bangs the Gong

If you can hold on through the moody poets and sentimental verse, today, there is a bracing bit of trench doggerel waiting at the end…

First, though, Edward Thomas and Siegfried Sassoon continue to record their adjacent poetic vigils. Sassoon, near Rouen:

February 23

The stillness of the pine-tree’s is queer. They stand like blue-green walls fifty or sixty feet high with the white sky beyond and above. They seem to be keeping quite still, waiting for the war to end. This afternoon, off the road by the training-ground, I found an alley leading downhill to a big shuttered red house that overlooks the valley and the distant wall of hills. It was so quiet along, the paths with.green moss growing-under the pine-stems. And chiffchaffs and tits chattering; and some Frenchmen chopping timber in a brown copse down below. It might almost have been England (though I don’t know what difference that would make).

Now that’s a striking parenthesis. Doesn’t the English countryside make all the difference? It was supposed to. The first time I read this next bit I missed the slide from observation to anticipation, but that makes all the difference too, in February, in France:

I could hear a dog barking in the stable-yard, a cow lowing, and hens clucking. These homely things come strangely when one is up to the neck in camps and suchlike. And it is good to think of spring being near, and daylight at 6 o’clock soon. Blackbirds scolding among bushes in gardens, and red sunsets fading low down, and the smell of late March, and daffodils shining in the dusk and the orchard grass.[1]

 

And now Thomas, in too February a mood to summon the sights and sounds of spring:

Chaffinch sand once… Partridges twanging in fields…

For a moment, there, I thought I had made an epochal literary discovery–until I realized that chaffinches and chiff-chaffs are not, in fact, the same bird. Nowhere close! Still, the poets are making similar observations…

Thomas’s eye is drawn, next, to human things–he is inspecting the “sordid ruin of an estaminet” in which some men are billeted, and he includes a long list of the litter to be found therein. The men he hardly seems to see, although they are there, but they are natural (as it were) to the scene of a much-shelled ruin. What strikes him later is the presence–and absence–of the birds.

2 owls in garden at 6. The shelling must have slaughtered many jackdaws but has made home for many more.

So while Sassoon anticipates the absent blackbirds, Thomas notes–as we will see, in a moment–their absence only after he notes the absence of birds that, seasonally speaking, might have been there. Owls, blackbirds, jackdaws…

Thomas does not have evening duties, and so he girds himself now to write a letter that he has probably been brooding over for some time. I wondered recently how it was that he could claim not to have read Robert Frost’s “Mountain Interval.” It seems that Thomas may have been carefully correct in his statement: he read all but the final poem before he left England, so he hadn’t “read it” in the sense of having not completely finished it. Until today:

Finished Frost’s ‘Mountain Interval’. Wrote to Frost.[2]

The letter:

My dear Robert,

It is going to be harder than ever for us to talk, I suppose. I did write you a week or so back after I first went & had a look round in the trenches… Well, I have read “Snow” today & that puts me on to you. I liked it. You go in for ‘not too much’ in a different sense from Horace’s yet your ‘not too much’ is just as necessary. But I can’t read much…

Is this loyal brevity? Terse praise? Something of a slap in the face? Exhaustion preventing a decent concealment of his adverse reaction?

I don’t know. And any letter from a soldier so new to the war zone will soon turn to describing “what it’s like.” But it is still hard not to see this quick transition as carrying the force of “no time for that sort of poetry now–I am almost in action, not reflection.”

We are living in rather a palace–a very cold dark palace–about 2000 yards from the Hun, in a city which is more than half in ruins already… I woke last night thinking I heard someone knocking excitedly at a door nearby. But I am persuaded now it was only a machine gun…

But I am very anxious to go back soon to my battery. They are only 3 miles away & when I walk over to see them it is something like going home…

A wan effort, so far, and now Thomas musters some intellectual effort in order to avoid offending Frost–to send the message that he misses him, that he wishes he could write a better letter.

You know that life is in so strange that I am only half myself & the half that knows England & you is obediently asleep for a time. Do you believe me? It seems that I have sent it to sleep to make life endurable–more than endurable, really enjoyable in a way. But with the people I meet I am suppressing practically everything (without difficulty tho not without pain). I reserve all criticism just as I reserve all description. If I come back I shall boast of the book I did not write in this ruined city…

This is plaintive, a depressive writer’s twist on all the other versions of “if I should die” that are to be found in soldiers’ letters. And a little afterthought dash of humor will not sweeten the absence of the birds:

I daren’t tell a neutral more than that it is a small cathedral city. It is beautiful chalk country all round. What puzzles me is that I haven’t heard a thrush sing yet, & of course not a blackbird.

Do you write when you can to 244 Siege Battery, B.E.F., France, if only because I am probably the only man in A[rras] who has read “Mountain Interval.’ My love to you all.

Yours ever

Edward Thomas[3]

Sassoon imagines the blackbirds, soon; Thomas only imagines the slaughtered jackdaws…

 

One reason–though not the foremost–for the trough in the friendship between Frost and Thomas is that Thomas suspects that Frost is not exerting himself to get his (Thomas’s) book published in America. Ivor Gurney, in this way at least, is more fortunate in his friends. He writes once again to Marion Scott, who is almost solely responsible for the fact that his poems will soon be published.

Those whose interest in Gurney and his waxing poetic skills has been well-piqued should read on; others might want to skim his remarkably clear and brief poetic mission statement (the numbered list, below) and skip to the end…

23 February 1917

My Dear Friend: Soon we are to be at work again — after the Rest — that is we go into trenches; for myself there are not many regrets, for Resting is a tiring business; and though being shelled is not pleasant, yet the escape from death gives in itself some slight interest in life. Anyway, Spring’s first signs cannot be so far off now, and the cold relaxes a little…

Gurney then launches into the minutiae of proof-reading, answering Scott’s questions about his upcoming first boom of verse. But the specific leads to the general, and this major statement of purpose:

What I want to do with this book is

(1) To leave something definite behind if I am knocked out
(2) To say out what Gloucester is, and is to me; and so to make Gloucester people think about their county
(3) To have some good stuff in it, whatever one might say about the whole.
(4) To make people realise a little what the ordinary life is.

Anyway it was good fun, writing; and gave me something to do. “Hail and Farewell’ I think will stand; it is impossible for me to try and perfect these things, save after 6 months of life in peace and beauty…

From his book his thoughts turn to death, via Scott’s news of the death of a friend (from cancer, even in wartime) to thoughts of his own lost friend, Will Harvey, Gloucester poet, decorated front fighter, and German prisoner, and from there, well, where else but England?

I wonder how FWH has got on in his prison lately . . . My thoughts of England are first and foremost of the line of Cotswold ending with Bredon Hill, near Tewkesbury, and seen with him. Or the blue Malvems seen at a queer angle, from the hayfield, talking when War seemed imminent, and the whole air seemed charged with fateful beauty. For illness I can feel strong sympathy, but Death means not much to me. Either I do not care much, or care a great deal and am not separated…

This is one of those days where there is no way to keep up with Gurney. We’ll note these scattershot thoughts on such little matters as the Gloucestershire of the Mind which sustains him, and friendship, and the ubiquity of death in wartime…

A few more corrections and details follow, and then Gurney pauses, sniffs, and senses an omission (here, too, for I have avoided discussing the details of Gurney and Scott’s relationship; I still need to learn more).

It sometimes puzzles me what you find to interest you in my letters, since what is not verse, is either about verse or myself. You support all this very bravely, and deserve better things: but so much it means to me to cling to verse, the one interest (now cafe au lait is not possible) left to me in life, and so good to talk about it, that I fear you will have to suffer yet more.

All I can think of is — What an unholy waste of time this is, what a lot I have to learn…

As for my comrades — after the war I can be interesting about them, but not yet. Goodness knows I am fond of them — some of them; but I cling to life by deliberately trying to lose myself in my thoughts of other things; trusting to some innate pluck in me to save me at moments when pluck is wanted. This is not the way to make a soldier of oneself — just the opposite in fact; and increasing sensibility must balance the advantage gained by concentration of thought on other things. But though I were sure of saving my life if I altered, and losing it did I not, still I should be the same, having set all on the future.

Forgive all this egotism, and may your book and you progress cheerily. Continue, flourish and triumph, and put up a little longer with my cockeyed epistles. With best wishes:

Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney

Although he dates the first of these two poems “January 1917,” both were included in today’s letter to Scott. The first is strong, but sentimental–one Gloucestershire soldier’s paean to another. The second is very strange. Very charming, that is, but strange to find here.

Afterglow        to FWH

Out of the smoke and dust of the little room.
With teatalk loud and laughter of happy boys,
I passed into the dusk. Suddenly the noise
Ceased with a shock; left me alone in the gloom,
To wonder at the miracle hanging high
Tangled in twigs, the silver crescent clear —
Time passed from mind. Time died; and then we were
Once more together, in quiet, you and I.
The elms with arms of love wrapped us in shade.
That watched the ecstatic West with one desire.
One soul uprapt; and still another fire
Consumed us, and our joy yet greater made —
That Bach should sing for us; mix us in one
The joy of firelight and the sunken sun.

Praise

O Friends of mine, if men mock at my name.
Say “Children loved him”.
Since by that word you will have far removed him
From any bitter shame.[4]

I don’t doubt they did. But what children, here? I wish I knew more…

 

And finally, today, Rowland Feilding is waiting for the other shoe to drop after the failed raid and informal armistice of last week. He may even be trying to edge out from underneath that dropping shoe. In the meantime, some light verse:

February 23, 1917. Curragh Camp (Locre).

The battalion is out of the trenches for eight days. The weather has completely changed, and there is a dense fog, which is almost constant.

I have applied for twenty-one days’ leave, to which I am entitled. I feel I want a little time and opportunity to
freshen up.

I found the following poetic effort, the other day, posted up by the gas gong at S[trong].P[oint]. 10.

To H.M. Troops

If the German gas you smell.
Bang this gong like blazing hell.
Put on your helmet.
Load your gun,
And prepare to meet
The ruddy Hun.[5]

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 134-5.
  2. War Diaries, (Childhood), 163-4.
  3. Elected Friends, 179-80.
  4. War Letters, 136-9.
  5. War Letters to a Wife, 157.

John Ronald Tolkien’s Lost Play; Wilfred Owen’s Equipoise is Tested

John Ronald Tolkien is being drawn back into the war’s orbit, but not without quiet mental resistance of a fairly unusual sort. He is, of course, writing “fairy stories,” which is to say he is working in another world. Recovered from “trench fever” and with the end of his convalescent leave looming, Tolkien wrote, today, to the War Office to report the expiration of his leave (in ten days’ time) and give his current address. Also today–across the table, at the same time, one likes to imagine–his wife Edith dated the school exercise book in which she had made a painstaking fair copy of the first version of her husband’s poem “The Cottage of Lost Play.”[1]

It’s a nice poem, and, confined as we are in our unknowing of all developments more recent than a century back, we might classify it securely as whimsical escapism, evidence that many literary young officers in 1915 and 1916 were not moving together in a loose skirmish line toward the undiscovered country of realism and disillusionment, but rather retrenching along their sentimental flanks. But it’s never quite that simple. There are ideas hidden in plain sight in this poem which some readers might recognize, and the road and the cottage–which seem at first to be provided by Cliched Victorian Location Scouting Ltd.–hint at other shores entirely…

 

The only other correspondence we have today is Wilfred Owen, still in fine fettle, to his mother.

Monday [12] February 1917

My own dear Mother,

I thought to write yesterday, but we were working all day; sick animals in the morning, and riding in the afternoon. In spite of the hard ground we went out into the country. I had a horse with a reputation of ‘warming up’. Sure enough, he would not let me remount after a halt. When at last I swung over, and before I could get the reins properly gathered, he bolted. It was not so much a gallop, as a terrific series of ricochets off the ground, as if we had been fired from a Naval Gun. But the worst part was the sudden checks. Once I found myself with my hands in the brute’s mouth; but I was still on top of him somewhere, and never actually touched ground. I was only thoroughly shaken.

Your 3 parcels came within 2 days of each other, 2 actually together. It is so unlucky that they did not reach me up the line, where everything has a tenfold value. Still nothing can take from the preciousness of the presents you send me…

So Wilfred is still safe and content on his transport course. In fact, he’s better than content, since it must be a pleasure to write to his mother (long obsessed with what she believes is her family’s decline from true gentility) about all this horsey business, however comical. There is a thriving sub-genre of “riding school” vignettes, in which an officer of either the lower middle or the urban middle classes confronts the ultimate living, breathing, quadrupedal embodiment of the traditional squirearchy. Generally, said officer struggles–and generally the horse is cast as something like a vengeful footman who knows how to put the jumped-up interloper in his place, “downstairs” be damned.

But we have an even stronger indication of Owen’s equestrian privilege and far-from-the-trenches good fortune:

The socks have almost exceeded my need. Withhold Socks for another month or more.

Unprecedented. With sore feet exchanged for a sore seat, Wilfred is now galloping full-tilt toward some Georgian Poetical version of the Sugar Plum Fairy’s Kingdom of Sweets.

Gingerbreads arrived in fine condition—both lots. They are the most homelike bits in all the parcel.

You made a very cunning choice of Biscuits. You overwhelm me with Chocolate. I am keeping it, like most of the sweet-stuff, for going up the Line…

I am settling down to a little verse once more…

Alas, practicality on Owen’s part–and historiographical dutifulness on mine–ends the tasty cadenza back with a return to a more earthly note.

I have lost a bundle of my MSS, together with all the photographs I brought out. They were left out of packing. That’s the sort of servant I’ve got. Please send some photographs. Also would you mind getting an Army Book Animal Management pub. by Gale & Polden, Aldershot.

Please thank Mary specially for her dear letters which I read constantly.

As for yours, I live by them.

Ever your loving W.E.O. x[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Chronology, 99.
  2. Collected Letters, 433-4.

Edwin Vaughan Approaches the Line, With Nightmares of His Own Demise; Francis Ledwidge Dreams of Fairies

Edwin Vaughan is due to see the front line at last. Denied first by being posted to a battalion at rest, then again when the battalion was sent into trenches but his company was kept in battalion reserve, he will at last have a chance to see the elephant, if only while leading up a ration party.

On the 4th another officer had taken the rations up to the companies in the line. He returned late, after the “terrific rumble and growling” of a barrage, to report that the enemy–Vaughan, oddly, specifies the German regiment–has attacked three times, apparently either a raid or a local effort to seize some trench (more likely a raid, as the Germans were not at this time much interested in advancing their line). This is all a little too specific and certain, but then again that is in the nature of rumors, and it is quite possible that previous raids have identified the Germans opposite. The truth of the matter is of less moment than how it affected Vaughan:

This story seriously disturbed my rest: it brought danger so close to me. I lay awake for hours, thinking that I might have been in the line during that barrage and attack… Then how would I have acquitted myself? I saw horrible pictures of myself lying dead in a shattered trench, or helplessly bleeding to death in a shell-hole with no power to call for help. And not less terrible I saw myself on the road, panic-stricken and unable to go forward with the rations.

No–no less terrible; men have been shot for less.

Devoutly I wished that the war would be over before our turn came to go into the line.

It will not be. But late the next night Vaughan is sent up not with but rather after a ration party, ordered to catch them up on a bicycle. This is surely a strange first approach to the line.

I started off in great fear, fully expecting a repetition of last night’s barrage. The cold was terrible, and I had no gloves… the handlebars… felt like white-hot metal… on every side gaped great black holes, and the snow around was blackened with debris, or yellow with explosive.

Very shortly I sniffed a curious, sweet, choking smell, and falling from my bicycle, I dragged out my gas-mask with numb fingers and pulled it over my head…

I sped on, almost mad with panic, passing no one on the way except two limbers, whose masked drivers were urging their teams into a stumbling trot, until, at last, I felt that my head and heart were bursting, and falling off my bike on to the side of the road I dragged off my helmet and took great gulps of air, not caring whether it were gas-laden or not.

As a matter of fact the air was now quite clear and being close to the trench, I left my bike and walked along to it…

A hero’s welcome? Not in this war book.

I was astounded and chagrined to find in the dugout a strange crowd of officers who told me that my Battalion had been relieved some time before…

This was such an anticlimax and I was so annoyed that I walked back to my bike and then cycled home in an unhurried and serene fashion, not giving another thought to the possibilities of shelling.[1]

 

I can think of no smooth transition from Vaughan’s latest schlimazeling to Francis Ledwidge‘s latest poem, unless it is that counter-intuitive serenity. There is something heroic in being so completely immune to the atmosphere of a grim winter war.

 

Fairies

Maiden-Poet, come with me
To the heaped up cairn of Maeve,
And there we’ll dance a fairy dance
Upon a fairy’s grave.

In and out among the trees,
Filling all the night with sound,
The morning, strung upon her star,
Shall chase us round and round.

What are we but fairies too,
Living but in dreams alone.
Or, at the most, but children still,
Innocent and overgrown?

February 6th, 1917.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Some Desperate Glory, 23-4.