Rowland Feilding Belatedly Locates the Machine Guns of the Somme; John Ronald Tolkien Still Suffers from its Fevers; Ivor Gurney on the Courage of Women

Rowland Feilding has been mixing light letters about life in reserve with accounts of how he is spending his own free time (which, as a battalion commander, can be considerable), namely walking the old battlefield of the Somme and remembering what he and his men endured during the Battle of Ginchy last September 9th.

You will remember what a terrific fire we encountered when we attacked at this place. I have ever since been curious to know where that fire came from, and how so powerful a concentration of machine-guns could have complete escaped our artillery. Now I know. A well-concealed and winding trench, branching into two, and worked in conjunction with nests of shell-holes adapted as machine-gun positions! That is what we ran into, and it was a hopeless task we undertook that day…[1]

 

One of the casualties of the Somme–of its infectious diseases rather than its bullets, shrapnel, or gas–was John Ronald Tolkien. He has yet to return to full health, and, after a severe relapse which put him in the hospital for nine weeks, he went before a Medical Board today in Hull. The report was middling:

He has still not recovered his strength; he suffers from debility and pain in his arms and shins, and he looks delicate

Declared “30 per cent disabled,” Tolkien was sent back to the 3rd Lancashire Fusiliers at Thirtle Bridge, for light duty. The board’s decision may be changed later, but for now Tolkien has some reason to hope that he has seen the last of the trenches.[2]

 

Alas for Ivor Gurney that this is not true. He remains in hospital, but with a wink and a nod: his lungs are more or less fine–it is his talented fingers which keep him there, accompanying all the would-be singers in their own recoveries.

16 October 1917

My Dear Friend: This is a most lovely morning, and I ought to be out on the hills somewhere instead of writing letters, even to you. For letter writing is work of a sort, though I like it not badly here, and in France it is often a pleasure.

There is not much to tell you, there is no masterpiece of chiselled and exquisite verse…

Is it wise of me to play music? Well, I do, but know only too well that the effort to forget will be an extra difficulty against the little serenity I shall have in France. Unless I grow stronger of soul of course, and so much stronger is unlikely. The things I should most like to write are things of beauty with a vinegary ending, something after “The Fire Kindled”. Heine I believe is famous for that sort of thing. It is best to be Shakespeare but good to be Heine — though not Thersites.

Gurney is almost always etceterative–and occasionally tremendous. What an idea–to write beautiful, vinegary things, like Heine. And Thersites is a rare reference, but an excellent one: Gurney perhaps remembers him as the one common soldier who makes a role for himself in the Iliad, where Thersites is an ugly, misshapen grumbler amongst the gleaming heroes and handsome demigods who lead the Greek army, a would be mutineer who is scorned and battered into silence by his betters. But he is, nevertheless, a common man with a voice in the great poem.

Gurney is, as usual, writing to Marion Scott, and he segues now from his own classically-cast ambition (and muted grumbling) to a consideration of women at war. It is typical of his intelligence that he takes an observation (and one which runs against the grain of all-too-typical prejudices) and proceeds without much fanfare to a sensitive (and sensible) reconsideration of a Big Concept–courage, in this case  .

…Nurses are really wonderful people to do so many things distasteful and still to smile. There is a very nice set of nurses here (have I told you?) that could hardly be better. They call this the “Ragtime Ward”, a name of envy given by men oppressed in places of female dragons and discipline. The courage of women is certainly not less than that of men. To my mind, that is. The serene performance of hateful duties, and the refusal to be depressed by them is the finest form of courage. The more sensational are the wilder forms — no higher. There are a few soldiers who go on till they are knocked out, not heeding wounds, most of these comparative few have supported their nerves only too freely beforehand. The rest may be the flower of earth, but the man who can be brotherly and crack a joke on a winter night in a shell hole has undoubted undeniable unsupported courage, which is not always certain of the spectacular gentlemen, who may be Berserk or drunk. But there! It is only my preference perhaps for serene and quiet strength rather than for the violent kind. Violence is waste of energy.

Here endeth the umptieth lesson…

Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 215.
  2. Chronology, 102.
  3. War Letters, 222-4.

Ivor Gurney’s Memory, After Music; Wilfred Owen Drafts a Masterpiece

Ivor Gurney has been writing letters nineteen to the dozen lately from a hospital near Edinburgh, and I promised that we would get caught up. His letters are all over the place–at some points nearly manic–and much of what he has to say he has already said, and recently. Gurney is cooped up in the hospital, dragooned into bashing out popular tunes for sing-songs, uncertain if the swallowed gas that landed him here is causing much real trouble, or that his mind isn’t

An undated letter to Marion Scott praises some of the personalities he has met since landing in the hospital, and strains to produce verse:

Damn the War!

…Last night I played Bach and Beethoven for two hours, and got a little into swing towards the end. That was good. I am too lazy to write, and besides nothing will come to me when I try to pump — the bilge pumps, I think, by the results.

Memory, let all slip

Memory, let all slip save what is sweet
Of Ypres plains.
Keep only autumn sunlight and the fleet
Cloud after rains.

Blue skies and mellow distance softly blue;
These only hold
Lest I shall share my panged grave with you.
Else dead. Else cold.

Needless to say, a failed ode to forgetting trauma is not the greatest indicator of good spirits. Another letter discusses minor tragedies–lost manuscripts–and the uplifting arrival of a chaplain “touched with greatness, supremely alive, warmblooded, interested, interesting, fine looking with eyes of humourous power.” (There is also a remarkable pen portrait of “a coalminer of Fife,” an autodidact and force of nature (“he had the Celtic temperament”) whose charisma invigorates Gurney.

They talk of the power of great music to move–but, with no little irony, Gurney’s powers to make lesser music now cause him to stay put.

I am likely to be here another fortnight, for on the colonel’s inspection I was one of the very few not marked Con: Camp. “Why?” “Accompaniments, my dear”. For once, I saw the Army winking its eye at me, and wunk back.

I really like “wunk back.” There are also polite interrogations of Scott and interminable discussions of grand strategy (it’s hard not to suspect that Scott wrote of these things to Gurney because she wanted to write about the war without writing about the experience of the trenches, and that Gurney wrote back in a similar spirit–to please her and to think about less-than-completely-traumatic things).

And there is a delightful discussion of soldiers’ slang and humor… But I will–I must!–cut it short, since we have a very big poem to get to.

…Hearing a few casual catchwords flying around, it struck me that you might like to know some of them — such as I can remember. Poor bare jests, almost too familiar to remember at will.

There is one (just heard for the thousandth time) which brings a picture of a tragic roll call. A man may be shouted for who is not present, and the room answers, “On the wire, at Loos”. A lighter answer, a mock of this last, is “Gassed at Mons”.

Amusing, you see, because although British casualties at Mons were extremely high, it was before gas was used…

A coming strafe means carrying parties, and they are greeted with “More iron rations for Fritz”…

And many similar expressions, plus the rather surprising assertion that “an officer always takes whisky into the line, and his being drunk on any critical occasion is always condoned.”

This we are meant to pass by with a shrug, it’s merely how things go, more or less. But Gurney’s letters do get on to a subject that will occupy us today, and, increasingly, for the rest of the war: namely, how the soldier goes on fighting when the experiential gulf that yawns between them and those at home is so well-defended with a box barrage of lies. Speaking of the typical Tommies of his acquaintance, Gurney writes that

Their faith in newspapers has been sorely shaken for ever by the comparison of accounts with realities. But chiefly by the contrast between the phrase “Mastery of the Air” and the reality. Parliament is a haunt of people who talk and dont care what happens to him and his like.

Today’s letter to Scott begins with a seriocomic rant against low-quality writing implements.

The man who would attempt to write verse with a pencil when a pen is handy and convenient to him would rob a church without more thought than he would give to the flicking of cigarette ash — which indeed is frequently the trick of the melodramatic villain. For the writing of music there can be none so foul of spirit as to contemplate aught but the pen as instrument…

Let us use ink whenever Fate and Supply allow us, for so we shall show ourselves cognisant of and grateful for the civilisation of Europe, that once again has survived onslaught of the barbarian; who showed himself nakedly to all when he would destroy a “scrap of paper”, and the work of pen and ink without a pang…

Gurney is hard to take in large doses, and he is sometimes minor, and sometimes something close to very great, a composer and a poet full of sound and fury:

 

After Music

Why, I am on fire now, and tremulous
With sense of Beauty long denied; the first
Opening of floodgate to the glorious burst
Of Freedom from the Fate that limits us
To work in darkness pining for the light,
Thirsting for sweet untainted draughts of air.
Clouds sunset coloured. Music . . . O Music’s bare
White heat of silver passion fiercely bright.
While sweating at the foul task, we can taste
No Joy that’s clean, no Love but something lets
It from its power, the wisest soul forgets
What’s beautiful, or delicate, or chaste.
Orpheus drew me, as once his bride, from Hell
If wisely, she or I, the Gods can tell.[1]

 

Gurney will continue to try to find ways of wrestling the truth of the war into a traditional poetic context–capitalized Beauty and Music, uneasily combined with images and memories of the trenches. But Wilfred Owen has taken a great leap forward, toward one of the greatest of the war’s poems, and one that, more than any other, succeeds in addressing–and riveting–the attention of the reader on the far side of the experiential gulf. Here he sets out to separate–emphatically, calmly, and unassailably–the combat soldier’s truth from the old lies of his “friends” far from the trenches.

At Craiglockhart, today, a century back, (and only a few miles, again, from where Gurney writes) Owen wrote a first draft of what will become Dulce et Decorum Est. I assume that everyone is familiar with this poem; but I’ll put it here nonetheless–its power certainly holds up…

 

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

 

Siegfried Sassoon will remark that he did not realize how terrible Owen’s few weeks on the line last winter were–but these verses would seem to hint strongly at just such an experience. (They also give the lie, as it were, to Gurney’s insistence that swallowing gas was no worse than a cold–although clearly Gurney had received a much lower dose.) And we must read carefully to notice that in between Owen’s cheerful, busy, haler-and-heartier-by-the-week days at Craiglockhart come terrible nights of “disastrous dreams”–dreams in which his helpless sight has been replaying these traumas.

So, you know–biography, experience. But also poetry: while many serious readers of Owen prefer his more subtle poems, this is still a remarkable achievement for a young man who was writing forgettable verse only months ago. (This is one of the least forgettable poems I know.) The task here is simple and direct, like the poem’s address: show what this is that has happened, and what it was like. Declare not some foolish overweening confidence in “what it all means,” but show what it proves cannot be true. This does the job with the efficiency and clarity of a mature poet.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters, 214-22.

Rowland Feilding Pays His Respects on the Somme; Siegfried Sassoon Reads Its Subaltern; Charles Carrington’s Subaltern’s War in the Valley of the Shadow of Death

Today, a century back, is another one of those days when everyone is a-doing or a-writing, or both, and more than once. In order to keep things under 5,000 words, we will catch up with Edmund Blunden‘s battalion in rest in a few days’ time, and with Ivor Gurney too, hospitalized and hypergraphic.

Moving selectively, then, through a few updates and wandering letters too interesting to postpone, we will shortly arrive at Charles Carrington‘s intense and intensely written experience of the new phase of the Passchendaele battle.

But what better way (in a measure-the-real-reach-of-memory project), to approach a new apex of intense and traumatic combat than to visit last year’s crucible of suffering and destruction?

So, before we even approach today’s battle in the Salient, we will read just a few atmospheric bits of Rowland Feilding‘s remarkable letter to his wife. Feilding had been on leave and now, returned to his regiment, has transferred to the Somme, quiet now, where–very much like Ralph Hamilton only two weeks ago–he picks over the gruesome and unsettling remains of the battlefield.

…it has been a wonderfully interesting though a melancholy day.

The notorious villages–Guillemont and Ginchy–are conspicuous by their absence. I can truthfully say I have never seen a whole brick…

Miles of devastation and deserted ruined villages and shell-holes–all grown over with weed and grass. Not a living creature but the magpies…[1]

The ground is just as it was left, thickly littered with the debris of battle. Rifles with the bayonets fixed lie as they were dropped… perforated shrapnel helmets…

A land whose loneliness is so great that it is almost frightening. A land of wooden crosses, of which, wherever you stands, you can count numbers dotted about…

After miles of this I came upon the first living human beings–parties of the Salvage Corps, working forwards from the old battle line… These are mostly coloured men, who have come from all parts of the world. The first party I saw was composed of Burmans from Mandalay, and, dressed as they were, with woolen Balaclava helmets pulled down over their heads and shoulders, cringing from the wet and cold, they looked like the ghosts of the dead.

Further back, I came upon the work of the Graves Registration Unit… Its job is to “prospect” for the dead, and, so skillful have its members become at detecting the position of a buried soldier, that their “cuttings” seldom draw blank.

After visiting one of the minor miraculous Virgins of the battle–this statue is since toppled and beheaded–Feilding searches out his comrades:

I then wandered through one of our cemeteries at Guillemont, and saw Raymond Asquith‘s grave, and those of one or two Coldstreamers I knew.[2]

 

Siegfried Sassoon is also dwelling on the Somme–specifically, on a Subaltern on the Somme–in a letter, this time to Robert Graves, that covers  rather similar to yesterday’s (which was also to Robbie Ross).

4 October

My dear Robert,

Thanks for photograph. It is like you, except the forehead, which looks so flat and receding. I believe you
washed your face before being taken! Hope you didn’t catch cold. You might write to me when you aren’t too busy. I am reading Bill Adams’s book. If you and I had re-written and added.to it it would have been a classic; as it is it is just Bill Adams—and a very good book—expressing bis quiet kindliness to perfection. He saw a lot through those spectacles of his.

Note to self, and to writerly comrade: “Royal Welch War Memoir: promising project.” Or not–all Siegfried’s attention is to verse:

The Nation quoted my ‘syphilitic’ poem in an article on ‘Venus and Mars’ last Saturday.

I am on the way to doing a good, long poem in blank verse—sort of reminiscent of the wars, with stress on the heroism of Private Morgan-Hughes-Davies-Evans-Parry. But I can’t get a room alone, and 8-11 p.m. is my brainy time, so I am rather hung up at present. Rivers returns on Friday, I hope. He has been rather ill.

I have been playing golf every day with a chattering R.A.M.C. man who is a very fine, player—partly to try and become immensely healthy, but mainly to escape from the truly awful atmosphere of this place of wash-outs and shattered heroes. Result: go to bed every night tired and irritable, and write querulous peace-poems.

Love from S.S.[3]

There’s an answer here to a question we may not have asked yet. How does the suffering of war change the sufferer? Does he become more sympathetic to the sufferings of others?

Too broad a question, of course, and even a general affirmative answer must come with a large caveat: war traumatizes and brutalizes many of those it damages, turning them into abusers or themselves or others; in a small minority of men it seems to unleash psychopathologies that might have otherwise lain dormant. But a qualified affirmative also might be usefully clarified thus: it does make men more sympathetic to suffering, but other aspects of their personality determine how far–and to whom–they are willing to extend that sympathy. Left-leaning thinkers who pass through the war might become radiant pacifists; buttoned-up scholars might find themselves able to write movingly of love and loyalty among men from different stations; and a guarded, solipsistic man like Sassoon might find himself moved to write passionately on behalf of a class of men he would otherwise have more or less ignored–but not to extend that sympathy much further than comrades and the men under his own command.

 

And now to Ypres. C. E. Montague witnessed the battle, and wrote–desultorily, but not heartlessly–of a battle piece seen on a ridge. This can serve us as a very brief starter for today’s main course:

Oct. 4–Third Flanders push; battle of Broodseinde.

Up at five, drizzling rain. No breakfast. Out with Gibbs to near Wieltje to see battle. Fine battle-piece on S. part of Passchendaele Ridge. Our guns thick—needs care to thread way between them. Germans dropping fair number of H.E. shells our way, but no gas. Great trains of wounded and prisoners coming in, and a track of bloodstains all along the road. Some of wounded have evidently died on the way.[4]

 

This would be the “Battle of Broodseinde,” which plays a major part in Charles Carrington‘s memoirs, of which there are two. One describes his mental state as he began the battle thusly:

Always a little schizophrenic… I had now withdrawn myself altogether, leaving a Zombie in command of ‘B’ Company, the 1/5th Royal Warwickshire Regiment. I knew that my luck had turned. I felt sure that I should not survive the next battle… Meanwhile… the Zombie was a quite good company commander…[5]

But that is further retrospect. Nearer to the battle, “Charles Edmonds” described today’s action over many pages, and depicts himself as neither a zombie nor an entirely living man. The account begins, as all attacks now must, with the massing of troops and the approach to the line on the night before:

Towards dusk we marched out by platoons. Men going into action support themselves by a sort of enforced hysterical cheerfulness, but no one could be cheerful in the Third Battle of Ypres…

As always, when anticipation at last gave way to action, I found my mind clearing. The mental numbness of the last few days had given place to a numbness in the pit of the stomach. I was not now afraid, though I had a growing presentiment that I should be wounded.

The next bit of pilgrim’s progress is a review of the past two months: out through Ypres, over the canal, and toward the Steenbeck (Or Steenbeek):

As we approached St. Julien there was some confusion when platoons lost touch; mules and men and wagons crowded in the narrow way, until where the culvert passed over the Steenbeek the traffic jammed, shoulder to wheel. This was a windy moment, for on this line the Boche guns were laid and here from time to time they dropped hurricane barrages of shell-fire. Indeed, a few shells had already fallen to our right, and massacre might come at any minute; but we got through in safety. Beyond the Steenbeek there were no roads: guides led us by marked tracks among the shell-holes…

To find the way in the dark was a task worthy of Bunyan’s’ pilgrim: ‘ the pathway was here also exceeding narrow, and therefore good Christian was the more put to it; for when he sought in the dark, to shun the ditch on the one hand, he was ready to tip over into the mire on the other.’

The quotation continues for some time, as well it might. We are in the heart of what Paul Fussell called “the one book everybody knew:”

Front-line experience seemed to become available for interpretation when it was seen how closely parts of it resemble the action of Pilgrim’s Progress.

John Bunyan’s Protestant religious “Romance” had soaked into the British cultural atmosphere long before, and it has been used as a paradigm, a crutch, and a point of entry by many war writers since at least 1915. But now it is becoming inescapable, and I find, in going back to Fussell, that he featured the above quotation, letting it run on to give a sense of why this “Romance” is so applicable: its “scenes of hazardous journeying” go on and on with no decent respect for “plot” (i.e. strategy) or the limits of human endurance such as familiarity with the novel would lead us to expect.[6]

 

And for “Edmonds” and his company, the day’s journey hasn’t even begun. They wait nervously for Zero Hour, but the wait is made terrible by the fact that a German barrage opens up on their position. It’s unclear if this is coincidence or evidence that the Germans have precisely intuited the timing of the British attack. Soon the German barrage is answered, and Carrington launches into a present-tense battle piece that aims to catch something of the ferocity and insanity of close-combat.

It is no coincidence that describing not only death but morally questionable killing in the present tense allows it to seem to slide pace the cold judgment we might wish to pass on something stated in the perfect or simple past. This war was, but it wasn’t, exactly: it is, its violence happened in an ongoing, unstoppable present that nevertheless feels faster than ordinary experience::

Suddenly the sky behind us threw up a stab of flame! A roll of thunder like the last trump itself opened with some few single blows and steadied into a throbbing roar. The shells screamed overhead so thick and fast they seemed to eclipse the sky as with an invisible roof, rumbling like earthquakes behind, crashing like a thousand cymbals before us, a pillar of fire against, the dark sky, a pillar of cloud against the dawning east—leading us on!

It was zero hour and our barrage had fallen, blotting out the German bombardment with a drumfire forty times as great; there was no more thought or feeling, no more fear or doubt; only an endless blast of sound; a flicker of flame in the sky, a roaring and howling of shells over our heads, and a smoky pall of shrapnel.

My brain cleared though my ears were singing; the plan stood in my mind like a picture: I wondered how many men were left to carry it out. We must follow hard on the barrage and be on the enemy before they had recovered from
the first shock of it. I jumped out of the trench, shouting to my little group, and together we stumbled forward towards the enemy. Behind me came Serjeant Walker, my servant Stanley, three runners, Lewis, Campbell and Greenwood, and then the signallers struggling with their gear and quickly falling behind. Looking round I can see no one else, no sign of human life or activity; but who cares? Skirting round shell-holes, and straggling over rough ground in half darkness, our group loses all order and trails after me in single file. There looms up in front a bank undercut by a row of dug-outs, familiar enough by the map. I draw my revolver, but they are smashed and empty. Over and on behind the thunder and lightning of the barrage. (Like cannon balls rolled down sheets of iron over our heads.) One is thankful for a steel helmet.

Through the tumult I isolate a distinct noise, a spitting, a crackling, like children’s fireworks. Rifle bullets! Phut! Phut! Small arms indeed! We look about vaguely. It seems to have grown already a little lighter, so that lumps loom up irregularly in front thirty yards away—half left. Heads! Three or four heads of Boches in a shell-hole shooting at us! We see them together. Stanley shouts and brandishes his bayonet. Then I see Campbell lying curled up and grey-faced at my feet. Why, he’s dead!

And by God, they’ve hit ‘Tiny’ Greenwood. He is staggering about and bellowing, his hand on his chest. Stanley catches and lowers him to the ground behind the stunted ruins of a hedgerow which gives a little cover. Crack, crack, crack, come the bullets at thirty yards’ range, aimed more distinctly every moment as the light grows and the barrage lifts ahead. The enemy are even near enough to throw a bomb, Stanley and I fumble with field-dressings. There are now only three of us and three or four Boches shooting at us from cover. At least let’s quiet this poor lad’s confounded roaring and then make a plan. Poor ‘ Tiny ’ Greenwood, the smallest man in the company and the willingest. I remember my morphine tablets and give him one, two and three till he is silent. Stanley rises and shouts again, “Come on, sir, let’s go for the swine.”

“No,” I say, “get down in this shellhole,” and I am right. There is no chance for three men to charge three over the mud and pitfalls. Stanley plucks me by the sleeve and says plaintively. “Aw, come on, sir.” Walker and I get down in the hole and begin to shoot though Stanley stands and calls us once more. “Come down, you fool,” I order him. Then he comes down, slithering on the edge of the shell-hole, dropping his rifle with a clatter. A bullet has hit him in the eye, smashing his left brow and cheek-bone into a ghastly hole. I am dumbfounded with rage and horror. They have got Stanley, best of friends and loyallest of servants, and my last orderly. Walker and I are pent up in this hole and dare not move. Stanley is dead, who has always supported me, Stanley who gave me confidence in myself.

I sat stupidly in the half-light, not looking at my servant’s body, and then vaguely imitated Walker, who was firing on the Boches when they showed their heads. I must have emptied my revolver before this time, and now picked up
Stanley’s rifle, coated with mud from fixed bayonet to stock. With difficulty I fired a round or two, wrenching at the clogged mechanism after each shot. Walker gave a cry of joy as he got one Boche through the head, but one or two more ran up from neighbouring shell-holes and made the odds still heavier against us. Still our own guns thundered overhead, and now, the German guns began to reassert themselves, dropping a few shells experimentally in their own lines, which they guessed had fallen into our hands.

The stubborn group confronting us still held their place under fire of their own artillery. Ceasing to fire at us except when we showed our heads, they sent up signal rockets to give their position to their own observers. But for the roaring of our own shrapnel two hundred yards away, there was no sign of English activity. No other Englishman could be seen or heard, and, fatal event, we had ‘lost the barrage.’ In the midst of a great battle ours was an independent duel. Down in a shell-hole where the view was restricted by towering ridges and ramps of thrown-up earth, we had the limited vision of the mole. There must have been ten thousand men hidden in the landscape, though we had not seen ten.

I began to wonder whether our attack had been destroyed and was to be the tragedy of to-morrow’s communique in the German Press. “Yesterday after intense drumfire the English attacked east of Ypres and were driven back to their lines by our gallant ‘field greys’.” Perhaps, even, my own group was the only one which had advanced, in which case we might be able to hide here all day and creep back at dusk, to the remnants of the shattered battalion. How could the day be not lost now that the shrapnel banged so far ahead and no one seemed to be advancing? As we waited in the broadening light time passed—seconds or hours, we had no conception, till we heard voices behind us, a Lewis-gun rattling, and a reserve platoon at hand. I shouted to them to support us by outflanking this group of Germans, and as we opened fire again, invisible Lewis-gunners crept closer over the mountainous shell-holes. The Boches ceased fire.

At that moment Walker leaped up with a shout and began to shoot in a new direction. Following his aim I saw straight to the front and a hundred yards away a crowd of men running towards us in grey uniforms. Picking up another rifle I joined him in pouring rapid fire into this counterattack. We saw one at least drop, to Walker’s rifle I think, then noticed that they were running with their hands held up. Laughing, we emptied our magazines at them in spite of that, but at this point one of my favourite N.C.O.s, Corporal Fell, came tumbling into the shell-hole, hit through both thighs and bearing the pain with no more than a grunt or two. While I was trying to bandage his four wounds with one field dressing, and he to explain how his Lewis-gun had appeared to save us, I forgot the crowd of ‘ Kamerads.’ Just as I was telling him to crawl home as best he could, twenty or thirty Germans came running up with that shambling gait and bucolic manner I had always noticed in them, emphasised by the awkward gesture of their raised hands. The nearest had not seen me in the shell-hole, and as he approached, noticing a red cross on his arm I reached up and pulled him up short by the skirt of his greatcoat with a jerk that frightened him out of his wits.

“Ambulance,” I said, pointing to the wounded corporal. Then hardly stopping to see more. Walker and I rose, collected the Lewis-gun and its team and continued our advance. The surrendering Germans carried back our wounded men and we barely noticed in the excitement that the four snipers who had held us up so long slipped into the crowd of captives and went away with them. We should certainly not have given them quarter if we had thought of it in time…

Carrington’s honesty is not, I think, tinged with either shame or braggadocio. Shortly thereafter–this is the part of the battle-day, now, which involves memorable incidents rather than unforgettable, intensities crowded into swift, endless minutes after Z Hour–this curious reunion takes place:

I halted to write a report and mark up a situation map; then leaving my Lewis-gun with the serjeants I continued to advance with Serjeant Walker and two or three men. On our right were Colonial troops attacking in much greater strength than ours, so that my own front looked empty but theirs crowded with men, and before long one of their platoons came straying across my front. It suddenly struck me that the platoon commander was a friend whom I had not seen since I was a child; I seized him by the hand and introduced myself. As we exchanged civilities I became aware that we were under machine-gun fire. I was explaining that he had gone astray when this diversion occurred in his proper direction, and hastily clapping him on the back, I sent him off with his men to strafe the machine-gun, an order which he willingly obeyed. This odd incident, evidence of the unreal state of mind engendered by the excitement of battle, passed from my memory, to drift up again into my consciousness a few days later, blurred like the remembrance of a dream so that I have never been able to recall my old friend’s face and do not know who he was. At least the machine-gun shortly ceased to fire.

Carrington’s company now moves onto this section of the map, from the lower left toward the upper right, across the line of the Steenbeek. The most striking thing about Carrington’s tale of terror and death is, perhaps, that it is describing a tactical success:

Crossing the bridge we deployed half left and advanced up a slope towards some wreckage which we took to be Albatross or Wellington Farm. Under heavy shell-fire and some distant machine-gun fire we skirmished up the slope from hole to hole, till Flint reached the ruin and dugout that we thought was Wellington; but to our surprise it was already in English hands. It had been taken by a platoon of A.Co. who were delighted at having captured a German anti-tank gun. For the last few minutes the battle had really been proceeding according to plan. Still like a man in a dream I had been commanding and even manoeuvring considerable bodies of men, mostly, it must be admitted, of neighbouring companies. The advance was orderly and regular, and recorded in formal written messages which I sent back at intervals to headquarters; and we were near our objective…

We selected a large shell-hole under the lee of the broken pill-box of Winchester for my few men and those of the 16th, and settled down to resist the probable counter-attack. Soon Hesketh, an officer of the 16th, arrived with a Reserve platoon and my handful became an insignificant detail of the defence…

There was very little for me to do except to send even Serjeant Walker away to look for any more of my company. We were disappointed to find that a large party of men moving up in artillery formation was not our second wave but D company, all of whose officers were hit and who were now lost. Then a trench mortar battery came forward to take up a position near us; but no third wave passed through to follow the barrage which now fell three hundred yards ahead.

The morning wore on. Attackers and defenders at this point had spent their force. We had got our objective and were too ludicrously weak to move again. A few shells were coming over and a persistent sniper fired occasionally, his bullets crashing into the ruins of the pill-box beside us…

Towards midday, the enemy shelling really began. Black shrapnels crashed overhead and huge crumps burst round us among the ruins. We all crouched down in our one huge shellhole, which I began to regret, as a single shell in it would kill us all. One or two men were hit; especially, I remember, one who was standing up with his sleeves rolled up, when a shrapnel burst right above us. A sliver of steel came down and hit him lengthwise, on the bare forearm, making a clean cut three inches long between the two bones, as if his arm had been slit with a knife. To my horror the wound gaped open like a freshly cut shoulder of mutton. Though this was as ‘cushy’ a wound as man could desire, the sight of it cured me of hoping for a ‘blighty one.’ The victim agreed with me, for he danced and cried out with the pain.

My Lewis-gunners were now in position close by, and it seemed that the best way to reduce the crowd in the shell-hole was to go away myself. Hesketh didn’t want me and showed it; goodness knows, I didn’t want to stay there; so, by agreement with the major who passed that way again, I decided to leave my Lewis Gun section with Hesketh while Serjeant Walker and I withdrew to Stroppe Farm to pick up stragglers, and reorganise. So Walker, Bridgwater and I turned back down the hill through very heavy shell-fire, across the Stroombeek, and over the plain, now scattered with grey drifting clouds of smoke from high-explosive shells. Hardly out of the swamp we ran into Lance-Corporal Reese of No. 7 platoon with a few men and another gun. They were all that was left of the platoon, and had dug in, satisfied that they had reached their objective.

At last we got back to Stanley’s body, where I stopped not without a shudder to remove my glasses, all spattered with brains and blood, from his shoulder; I had to leave the strap, which was too gruesome to carry. Then we found our company stretcher-bearers performing prodigies of work, in spite, they were convinced, of being under deliberate German shell-fire, and using the little trench where I had visited one of my platoons last night as a rendezvous…

After taking stock of his company, Carrington decides to report in person to Battalion Headquarters.

Always very nervous when alone under shellfire, and badly shaken after the day’s experiences and the bombardment at Winchester, I found the walk of two or three hundred yards to Victoria Farm terrifying. Shells seemed to pursue me up the slope, and catch me when no deep shellhole was near. I floundered in oceans of kneedeep mud and flung myself flat, when one shell fell close, on what looked like fairly solid ground, but turned out to be as thin as half-cooked porridge. So the whole front of me from the chest down was soaked through and coated with slime. At last I struggled up to the little half-broken pill-box called Victoria and went in. The Colonel and Adjutant were plainly very pleased to see me. From their account I was able at last to get some sort of general picture of the battle. All our objectives had been reached and a hundred and fifty Germans taken prisoner, but at a cost in casualties which had shattered the battalion. All the severest fighting had been in the first few minutes, which had seen a score of petty duels like my own, group against group among the shell-holes. Most of our officers and N.C.O.s were hit, and until I came they had counted me too a casualty, all the messages which I had proudly composed in such careful military form having gone astray.

They gave me the good news that Thorburn, my reserve officer, had been sent for and would join me to-night, and the bad news, too, that, casualties or no casualties, we were not to be relieved for three days. The Colonel suggested that when Thorburn arrived I should come and join them in the dugout to get some sleep. Then he came out with me and we returned to the remnants of my company.

More tragedies! While I was away Whitworth had been sitting above the trench talking. In the dusk he was suddenly silent. No one had noticed a shell splinter from some far-away burst fly over and hit him in the head. He was breathing when we arrived, but, the stretcher-bearers said, as good as dead already. Nevertheless, they took him down to the dressing-station. The poor devils were beat after saving lives all day.

Then I settled down in the little trench, about twelve feet long and six feet deep and wonderfully dry, to wait for Thorburn who arrived with a runner about eight o’clock very cheery…  We agreed that our conversation a week before had proved prophetic: the battalion had taken a  nasty knock this time. Leaving him in charge I returned to Victoria, where the C.O. shared a tin of hot food with me, my first square meal that day.

The day ends with another tale of death. Carrington has lost friends, and he has seen scores of men killed, deliberately and by the great impersonal scythe of the artillery. But this strange and terrible story, hung all the way at the end, is deeply unsettling, like a reminder that even those who survive will have come too close to madness:

Armstrong, the intelligence officer, took me in hand with an endless story about himself, the C.O. and a wounded Boche.

“When I was going round with the C.O. this morning after you’d gone over we found a wounded Boche lying in the mud—down there by the Stroombeek where you couldn’t get him out. He was dying, I should think.”

“Yes,” said I sleepily, “there were hundreds.”

“Well, this one,” Armstrong continued, “he was done for, squirming, the poor devil was, and anyhow there was no chance of getting him down to a dressing-station from there. Best to put him out of his misery, you’d say, wouldn’t
you, Edmonds?”

“Yes, I suppose so; let’s get some sleep.”

“Oh, well,” said Armstrong, “just wait. Damn funny it was. We found this Boche; there was the C.O. and me and a runner; and the C.O. said to the runner, ‘You’d best shoot the poor fellow,’ and the Boche just lay there and groaned. He knew. But, you know, the runner couldn’t do it. He unslung his rifle and fingered the trigger and just couldn’t do it. So the C.O. turned to me and when it came to the point no more could I: so the C.O. drew his gun himself and went up to the Boche and looked fierce, and the Boche squirmed and I’m damned if the C.O. didn’t weaken too. Damn funny, wasn’t it? And we just left him there, so I suppose he’ll die in the mud to-night.”

But by this time I was asleep, having found a quiet corner. It was luxury for five of us to lie down on a concrete floor in a cellar only fifteen feet square and with no door, that chilly autumn evening.[7]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. So few are our references to birds, these days!
  2. War Letters to a Wife, 208-10.
  3. Diaries, 188-9.
  4. C.E. Montague, 191.
  5. Soldier From the Wars Returning, 191.
  6. The Great War and Modern Memory, 135-41.
  7. "Edmonds" (Carrington), A Subaltern's War, 132-55.

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

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

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

Yours sincerely

Isaac Rosenberg[1]

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

References and Footnotes

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

Isaac Rosenberg in London; Eddie Marsh Sees the Sights; Agnes Miller Cries in the Dark

After two days in transit, Isaac Rosenberg reached London today, a century back, on his first leave since his service in the B.E.F. began. Before he even reached home he was among friends, and in high spirits: on the bus from Victoria Station he saw Joseph Leftwich and jumped off to greet him looking “well and fit… more boisterously happy than I had ever seen him.”

Isaac Rosenberg (seated) with his younger brother Elkon

Over the next ten days Rosenberg will spend much time with his family, but he will also go in search of art and literature, revisiting old haunts such as the Slade and heading to the Café Royal, his poems in his pockets. but he will miss his two most important patrons–Sidney Schiff and Eddie Marsh (on whom see below)–but he probably saw both Anetta Raphael and Sonia Cohen, whom he had painted most memorably (and probably loved, unrequitedly, before losing her to a doomed relationship with John Rodker).

In any case Rosenberg’s poetry will reflect both a surge in personal confidence and a reconsideration of past loves. Strikingly, for a sickly and fragile man who had gone for a soldier more out of poverty than out of any Romantic belief in war’s exalting or transformative powers, he has been, if not exalted, than at least positively transformed by some aspects of his experience. He might hate the war, but being in London he feels empowered in some way: the war may be awful, but it is still intense, and returning to the scene of his prior life probably made that life seem “‘pallid’… and unexciting” by contrast.

It is difficult to track Rosenberg’s next few days, but at some point he and his brother Elkon went to sit for a photograph. Elkon is nine years younger and a newly minted soldier rather than a veteran of the trenches, but here he looks the hale and protective elder brother.[1]

 

It seems typical of Rosenberg’s luck that the one patron best positioned to help him in matters literary, artistic, and military had been in London for years–and now is touring Belgium and France. Eddie Marsh’s diary for today, a century back, begins with a clever allusion suitable for dutiful tourism.

These V.I.P.s can really get their sight-seeing done quickly, especially when they begin their tour from the right spot, namely Amiens, the capital of behind-the-lines-of-the-British-Sector-of-the-Somme:

Saturday Sept. 16th

Like Mrs. Micawber, I felt that ‘having come so far, it would be rash not to see the Cathedral’—so I rushed round before breakfast. I had only 5 minutes there, but in a sense it was enough. I hadn’t for a long time seen anything of that kind—of that majestic and overwhelming beauty—and it was ‘a bit much.’

We started at 10.15 for Arras. There was nothing much to notice (except German prisoners working by the roadside—and farther on some native labour contingents) till we got to Albert—but from the moment I caught sight of the Virgin in her arrested fall, the day was a succession of thrills. The Virgin is curiously moving. She’s nothing in herself, the battered church is a hideous and vulgar building, and she gives the tower the shape of a fool’s cockscomb. Yet her position is so evidently a miracle—the edge of her pedestal has somehow just caught in the parapet, and there she stays month in and month out in the very act of her headlong dive—one feels it must be an omen.

Here is an experienced and not-easily-impressed man greatly impressed by ominous coincidence–by strange chance amidst the drama of war.

Next, with Marsh’s fresh eyes we see once again the road to the front.

For a few minutes beyond Albert the country is still country—I saw an untouched bend of the Ancre, flowing through grass meadows among poplars and willows. Then comes a sudden change—the land becomes featureless and unmeaning, like the face of a leper—(a leper with smallpox as well, for it’s all pitted with shell-holes). Coarse grass and weeds have sprung up everywhere, so the unimaginable desolation one used to read about has passed off—but there are still the fines of bare tree trunks with their stumps of boughs—and everywhere the tiny nameless white crosses, single or in clusters, ‘like snowdrops’ as Winston said—and here and there a regular cemetery with larger named crosses. Of the smaller villages, such as Pozières, not a trace remains (just a fragment of wall, 4 feet high, which was once the Chateau de Pozieres). We passed the crater of La Boisselle, where the German fines began—and the white mound of the Butte de Warlencourt—and then came to Bapaume, which looks as if some one had crumpled it up and torn it into little bits, meaning to throw it into the waste-paper-basket…

Then, near Lens, Marsh comes upon the truly empty battlefield:

The whole countryside is covered with red towns, Liévin, Salournies, etc.—as thickly almost as the parts round Manchester (Loos was just hidden by Hill 70). Nowhere a trace of humanity, except one or two Tommies walking
about in the Bois des Hirondelles round a battery which the Boches were trying to shell…

After about half an hour Neville and I went back to H.Q., where we found Winston lunching with the Generals, in a tunnel-shaped tin hut. W. then started on foot to visit his old Regiment, the R.S.F., who were close by, and Neville and I motored into Arras. The Cathedral there makes a fine ruin no doubt it’s better now than before, as it was an uninteresting classical building, but the broken masses are fine…

The sightseeing will exceed its allotted time–or, rather, time will tarry long enough for Churchill’s party to try and get themselves into a bombardment.

We went back to H.Q., where Winston joined us at 4.15, so we were already about two hours late in starting. And
we hadn’t gone far before he was attracted by the sight of shells bursting in the distance. This, we were told, was a
daylight raid on Chérizy—irresistible!—out we got, put on our steel helmets, hung our gas-masks round our necks, and walked for half an hour towards the firing—there was a great noise, shells whistling over our heads, and some fine bursts in the distance—but we seemed to get no nearer, and the firing died down, so we went back after another hour’s delay. W.’s disregard of time, when there is anything he wants to do, is sublime—he firmly believes that it waits for him.

We drove back on the same road as far as Bapaume, and then straight on through Le Transloy, Sailly-Saillisel (of
which not a trace remains)—to Péronne, which must have been a lovely little place. The sunset light, when we got there soon after six, was the loveliest I’ve ever seen and the ruins, softened and glowing in its warmth and sweetness, were unutterably pathetic…[2]

 

Finally, today, as a counterpoint to the military gourmandise of Churchill-amidst-the-ruins, we have a faint sigh escaping from halfway across the world. Agnes Miller pines–nobly, and demurely–for Olaf Stapledon. What good would it do to complain about her fate, as she waits for him, in Australia, to complete a service that is arduous and dangerous, but not, in the eyes of her friends and family, glorious? No good at all… their marriage will have to wait for duration.

But sometimes it’s hard–especially when a friend and her beau plan to tie the knot. In a letter of today, a century back, Agnes allows herself a confession of low spirits, a brief reversal of the frequent soldier’s decision to put the principle of honesty-across-the-gulf before that of adding nothing unnecessary to the loved one’s worries:

Do you know their engagement was just about as different from ours as it could possibly have been. We discussed ours for about 2 1/2 years & then became engaged. They discussed theirs for about 2 1/2 hours & became engaged there & then…

They told me about it that Sunday night [9 September] when I first began this letter. I was dead tired, & it was after 10. They were boiling eggs hard for a picnic breakfast for the morrow. I sat on one table swinging my legs & they sat together opposite me on the other table swinging their long legs. They told me in answer to my question that until that famous night, a week ago, they had never said anything to each other which the world might not have heard! So evidently they had been going along their ways & had drawn nearer & nearer together without saying a word until suddenly they found they were both on the same path. How lovely that must have been, must it not? No wonder the dear kids are happy with their so newly found treasure. I disgraced myself that evening. I was so tired. We stopped talking & mused. Lionel took Rosie’s hand & they looked so comfy & happy. I thought of you away there & me here on the kitchen table & the tears would not be kept back & I had to make a dive for my bedroom & have a good old cry in the dark.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. See Cohen, Journey to the Trenches, 169-71; Moorcroft Wilson, Isaac Rosenberg, 371.
  2. A Number of People, 257-9.
  3. Talking Across the World, 249.

Edward Brittain Faces Another July First; Rowland Feilding and La Belle France; Robert Graves on the Isle of Wight–and What is Siegfried Sassoon Up To?

Now that Edward Hermon is dead, Rowland Feilding is probably our most consistently uxorious writer. He writes faithfully and fully, concealing nothing of his feelings or–once the demands of military secrecy are met–of the danger that he is (or has recently been) in. But today, a century back, he is safely in the rear… and he has something else to confess, namely a raging crush on a local girl.

June 30, 1917. Bollezeele (near Zeggers Cappel).

I am getting rather bitten with agriculture. No wonder these peasants get rich;—or, if they do not (and I really do
not know), I should say there must be something radically wrong with the whole system of land tenure in this country. They are the most industrious and the thriftiest people I have ever seen…

I am sure it must be impossille for those who have not seen it to realize what cultivation means in France and Belgium, or to picture the seas of corn and potatoes and roots, extending as far as the eye can reach and further; the forests of hops, weedless; without a barren patch or a neglected spot anywhere. In the farm where I am billeted there is a farm-hand—a girl of about eighteen. She sleeps on the straw, on the floor of a stable. She is up, bursting with life and spirits, each morning at five o’clock; and she works, at top pressure, without ceasing, till dark. Then she returns to her straw. She is slim, but has the strength of an average man. She handles the farm horses with a single rein (attached to one ring of the bit only), and by word of mouth. Apparently, she neither eats nor drinks.

It is the “manure” season. That is to say, it is the time of year when they carry out the loathsome liquid accumulation of the past twelve months and spread it over the fields, and so wrapt up is this girl in the work, that you would think she revelled in it.

She moves always at the double—whether through the chicken run, whence every bird flies scared and panic-stricken at her wild approach, or through the manure heap (for she never goes round it). Each time I pass her she
looks up with full face and a cheery grin. I don’t suppose she ever washes, and she must reek of manure, but she fascinates me because of her extraordinary vitality. It is quite exciting to watch her at her work.

But, as I look upon her, I despair of the English as an agricultural nation.[1]

 

Before returning to France we need to visit the Isle of Wight, where Robert Graves has recently been ensconced in a Victorian palace (it was one of Queen Victoria’s retreats) to convalesce at his leisure. His ailments are quite real–exhaustion, damaged lungs, and semi-undiagnosed shell shock–but, as he tells the story, he is still eager to enjoy himself.

Along with several new compatriots, Graves founded “The Albert Edward Society,” a college-style faux secret society in “mock honour” of the prince consort. They ate strawberries and drank wine, “sang bawdy songs” and otherwise celebrated their being alive to celebrate bygone days–Graves, after all, is impetuous, irrepressible, creative, and twenty-one years old.

In Good-Bye to All That he calls the society the “Royal Albert Society” and gives several more examples of concurrent high jinks and clevernesses, including changing the labels on the paintings in the gallery, dressing up a piece of driftwood as a drowned sailor, and defending the society from boorish intrusion by outdoing all the efforts of the intruders at telling filthy stories. Which makes a lousy anecdote, since Graves is not at liberty to repeat the story he told to win the day… his point, however, is that he is no longer quite the prude he once was.

In keeping with the guiding principle of his memoir, Graves also throws in entertaining stories that chime with perceived reading-public interests and drops whatever names he can. Therefore he mentions A.A. Milne (slightingly) and he tells of his interactions with a curious colony of French Benedictines in exile on the island who strike him as urbane and humane, despite not keeping poetry in their library. Graves has the sad task of describing to one of these monks what his native Béthune looks like now. And, as if in an echo of the several young Anglican officers who have become Catholics or are moving in that direction, Graves claims that these interactions–and his general esteem, pace the skill with filthy stories, for the monastic life–brought him some way in a similar direction: “Catholicism ceased to repel me.” Which is vintage Graves, whether or not the self-centeredness and backhanded snark are intended…[2]

Graves’s letters from this period, however, mostly concern his efforts to advance his poetry and that of his friends.

30 June 1917
Osborne, Isle of Wight

Dear old Sassons,

Without doubt a great poem: poor little Orme, he’d have been awfully pleased with it. The simple effect would be strengthened by a more regular sweep in the first half of each verse: as it stands it would worry people who didn’t know much about poetry: it breaks the flow of sense.

Trusting to your good nature I’ve pencilled in some tentative suggestions…

Mindful of my constant impositions on the patience of others, I will not excerpt from the individual word-queries and quibbles of scansion that Graves then lists…

…I know you’ll forgive these remarks, because you’ve patched up poems for me before now. And without my corrections it is a great poem, so you needn’t notice them…

Robbie has my Fairies and Fusiliers manuscript if you happen to be in town and want to see what I’ve been at.

Best love

Robert

And then–this very same day, a century back–Graves received a letter from Sassoon which seems to have given a general sketch of his intention to protest against the war. Graves will spend a good deal of time in his memoir emphasizing Sassoon’s poor health–exhaustion, shell shock, general malaise. But this sounds like how he has been feeling at this time. Sassoon himself has hardly made any physical complaints, and sees himself as aggravated and motivated rather than ill. The two men may, of course, have reasons to differ about the etiology of Sassoon’s intent to protest…. but I would not be surprised if the (lost) letter to Graves read something like Sassoon’s fictionalized account of this period:

Back at Butley, I had fully a fortnight in which to take life easily before tackling ‘wilful defiance of military authority’. I was, of course, compelled to lead a double life, and the longer it lasted the less I liked it… it wasn’t easy to sustain the evangelistic individuality which I’d worked myself up to in London. Outwardly those last days of June progressed with nostalgic serenity. I say nostalgic, because in my weaker moods I longed for the peace of mind which could have allowed me to enjoy having tea out in the garden on fine afternoons. But it was no use trying to dope my disquiet with Trollope’s novels or any of my favourite books. The purgatory I’d let myself in for always came between me and the pages; there was no escape for me now…[3]

No, no escape. But he was only passive north-by-northwest, as the warning-shot letter to Graves demonstrates.

Graves wrote back, clearly alarmed, but neither aware that Sassoon has actually written his protest and set the wheels in motion to have it read out in the House of Commons, nor that he had not yet actually published it.

It is only too much like Sassoon to do what he has in fact done: taken several steps toward dramatic action, then wandered off with the act uncompleted, the rebellion hanging fire but liable to set itself off at any time. Graves seems to suspect something like this:

I have just posted a letter I wrote this morning but your new one has come. Look here, why don’t you come and see me down here…

I want to know what characteristic devilment this is. Are you standing as a pacifist MP? That’s the most characteristic thing I can think of next to your bombing Lloyd George.

Yours,

R

But the alarm has only begun to ring, as Graves’s post-script–as usual, critical of a mutual friend–shows:

I’ve also written on Sorley. Bob Nichols of course is not Sorley but he’s next best, a devout admirer.

I’ve a copy of my new poems here.[4]

So Graves is alerted… but has not not yet leapt into action. He will act, and soon–as a loyal friend, if not always a true one.

 

The idea of the protest, remember, is to stop the madness. Edward Brittain has just returned to it. And he too writes two letters, today, both to his sister Vera.

France, 30 June 1917

I have arrived at the transport lines and shall be starting for the trenches in half an hour or so. The battalion is apparently just at the place where one would wish it wasn’t, as the papers have not failed to mention the place every day for the last week or so…

Opposite Lens, in other words, where the British staff is convinced that a hasty offensive might unseat “demoralised” the German defenders.

And not only is Brittain’s new battalion in the area of contemplated operations–it is slated to attack. An entire year–less about ten hours–after his wounding, after months and months of rehabilitation, and waiting, and training, he is suddenly thrust back into the very forefront of the war.

France, 30 June 1917
A dug-out

8.45 p.m.

The unexpected has happened again and I am in for another July 1st. If it should be that ‘Ere the sun swings his noonday sword’ I must say goodbye to all of this — then good-bye. You know that, as I promised, I will try to come back if I am killed.

It is all very sudden and it is bad luck that I am here in time, but still it must be. All the love there is in life or death to you, dear child.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 197-8. This, too, must put one in mind of The Spanish Farm Trilogy--but there, it being a (good) novel, the "girl" is a woman with a spirit to match her physical energy, and a full life half-hidden from (and imagined by) the decorous English officer...
  2. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 175; Good-Bye to All That, 250-4.
  3. Complete Memoirs, 488-9.
  4. In Broken Images, 71-2.
  5. War Letters from a Lost Generation, 362-3.

Kate Luard Prepares for Battle; Ivor Gurney Welcomes the Spring; Edward Thomas Reassures; C.E. Montague Estranged from Sacrifice

Everywhere in the British sector of Northern France there is an air of tense expectation. Kate Luard‘s Casualty Clearing Station at Warlencourt has just begun to take in large numbers of the wounded from the preliminary bombardments around Arras. She describes the “Preparation-for-Theatre” (i.e. pre-op) Ward:

Here the number of battered men, generally from 50 to 60, never seems to grow less, as although they are carried when ready to the operating Teams in the Theatre, their places are continually filled by others.

All the layers of sodden or caked stiff clothing are cut off, pyjamas or long flannel pinafore gowns put on… Hot blankets, hot-water bottles, hot drinks, subcutaneous salines and hypodermics are given them, as also in the Resuscitation Ward to which all the apparently hopeless cases are taken…

It often happens that no M.O. can be spared for this tent, so a great deal of responsibility is thrown to us…

Once when I was cutting off a split boot of a man wounded in the head, chest, and the other thigh, half his foot came off in it–a detail overlooked in the Dressing Hut and the Field Ambulance with all his other injuries…

What we have had so far is child’s play to what is to come…[1]

 

Edward Thomas is an inexperienced artillery subaltern, but he too knows that a grim test awaits. The firing plans his battery has been practicing since they arrived on the Arras front as well as the escalating bombardments of the last two days would make it abundantly clear (even if there had been total information security) that a major assault is only days away. Which is significant, but no sufficient reason to give up reading, looking for beauty, or tracking the progress of spring.

A dull morning turns misty with rain. Some 4.2s coming over at 10. Air flapping all night with great sails in strong gusty wind (with artillery)–thick misty windless air. Sods on f/c’s dugout begin to be fledged with fine green feathers of yarrow. Sun and wind drying the mud. Firing all day,… Beautiful pale hazy moonlight and the sag and flap of air. Letters to Mother and Helen. HAMLET.[2]

Thomas is reading Shakespeare, and perhaps a bit too tired to combine reading-recording with humor: the play has not destabilized his letters to his wife or mother in any noticeable way…

The letter to Helen is, in fact, notably calm. Thomas expands on the bare observations of the diary in a way that makes it clear that his primary purpose in writing is to steady and reassure:

5 April 1917
Dearest,

This is the second day, a much better day so far, beginning misty and turning warm. We have been firing faster, but I have sat in the sun at my job most of the time and got warm. I slept pretty well in the dug-out till our guns began. The other firing all night merely flapped and flapped like great sails in the heavy misty air. I woke hearing a wren sing and many blackbirds. The clods on my little hole where I work between 3 and 4 guns are getting fledged with fine green yarrow shoots all feathery.

The old dog this morning was delighted with running after Horton’s stick and bringing it back. He laid it down and started gnawing it, and then barked for it to be thrown again. His barking delighted us very much. I don’t think I had heard a dog bark in play for these three months. Then he went down into a shell-hole and drank the water in it.

The Somme pictures are absurd, compared with what I could tell you in five or six minutes and shall do someday I hope.

Goodbye. I am all and always yours Edwy.[3]

And the letter to his mother is, despite a similar calm acknowledgment that they are two days into the pre-assault bombardment, notably domestic:

5 April 1917
Dear Mother,

We are now in the thick of it, though not quite in the middle. This is the second day, and a beautiful day it is, sunny and misty, the sun sometimes failing behind the mist and coming through again quite warm, which I have enjoyed as I sat out on the bank between No. 3 and No. 4 guns while we fired. Yesterday was cold and slippery and dirty and I got clean tired out by the end when I was relieved at 9.30 p.m. after beginning at 5.30 a.m. I moved into the battery position to a dug-out I have been strengthening, because any day the Hun might see the wisdom of laying our street flat with the ground. It is a little damp in the dug-out but wonderfully quiet except when our No.1 and No.2 guns fire straight over it. All the other artillery only makes the air flap heavily all night. It is nice to wake up practically out of doors and hear the wrens in the copse. For the dug-out is dug out of a bank and not down into the ground, so that the light of day reaches it, and it has the advantage of lying across the line of fire of our own and the enemy’s guns, with the entrance not facing either.

I live for the moment in trousers concealed by rubber boots almost to the waist. This shortens the time of dressing and undressing by a quarter of an hour, as I have no boots or breeches to lace up. Otherwise I remain civilised and clean so far.

He’s a good boy, Edward is. But he returns, after this faint smile, to recent developments and the near future: his eight pseudonymous poems are being well reviewed, and the big push is only days away.

I have just seen quite a respectable review of the Annual in the Times and I hear there will be one in the New Statesman . . .

As things are at present arranged I may see exciting things within 3 or 4 days. But of course the future is obscure and we do not know what the Hun will do, or if he is where we think he is—if he is, he is having a bad time. I do not mind how bad if it helps to end the war. Goodbye . . .

Ever your loving son

Edwy[4]

 

C.E. Montague and Edward Thomas must have known each other at least in passing, English journalism being a smallish world, and they share a subject today, a century back. But whereas Thomas is reticent about his atheism and capable still of the simple hope that the latest effort will help end the war, Montague is thoroughly miserable and completely negative about the course the war has taken. He does not deny Christ–in fact he associates Christian virtue with the faithfulness of the soldiers he so admires–but that also requires aligning those who control the course of the war with the persecutors and executioners of God.

Diary
April 5, 1917 (eve of Good Friday)

…Still, we may win. The multitude of men who think of nothing but serving hard and faithfully unto death, who do not hope for distinctions or promotions, may carry the world into safety and a new life. Hundreds and thousands of them will die, after this Good Friday, more painfully than on a Cross. Our hope is that in them, as in Christ, a
worse world may die into a better, and larger life come out of death, and mankind be ennobled by losing its noblest men—the old mystery of the Cross and of evolution.

I seem to have lost my chance of thus following Christ. There seems to be no hope of getting back to my battalion. Because I am 50 I must live among the embusqués [shirkers] and not with the friends I love and honour since I came to know the depth of their courage and patience in the trenches. It is cheap even to murmur against it. It is like trying to combine my ignominious safety with a little easy aspiration after self-sacrifice. But I do mean it.

Cavalry moving up all the roads. Procession of Red Cross trains up St. Pol-Arras line. Push put off from 8th to 9th.[5]

Skeptical and disenchanted, Montague is now voicing–privately–the newer sort of protest. But despite the bitterness about the slaughter he does not consider “turning pacifist” or otherwise refusing to continue to be party to the passion of the Tommy. In fact, the key to his bitterness is his estrangement from his original unit–the same thing that so many others, in other moods, identified as the best thing about the war. Montague was too old and too sickly for the rigors of combat, and so he was denied, after short service in the trenches, what almost all of our writers crave: the unmatched intensity of the fellowship of combat infantry. To “murmur” from safety would only compound the betrayal he feels (although it was not his choice to leave). Montague, now tasked with escorting VIPs in the battle zone, even forswears what his friends all remark upon: that he seeks danger whenever his cushy job permits. He doesn’t want to play at martyrdom–it would be disloyal, almost blasphemous. And yet given how much emphasis is on “small unit cohesion” the ready paradigm–as he notes, tomorrow is Good Friday–doesn’t really fit. It’s not Christ who is going to his passion alone; it’s a whole platoon of disciples, going together at the behest of the gods of war, hundreds of times over…

 

Finally, today, Ivor Gurney‘s Gloucesters are stationed far to the south of the coming Arras attack, but they will be in action soon nonetheless. There is fighting to be done as new positions are established opposite the Hindenberg line.

Private Gurney is still uncertain of the date of the coming attack (he is uncertain even of today‘s date), but he is nevertheless certain of some things: art, beauty, and Gloucestershire. He writes, as so often, to Marion Scott.

April 4 or 5th

I thought we were going over the top tonight, but it has been postponed — a state of things which will inevitably lead to souloutpourings. My state of mind is — fed up to the eyes; fear of not living to write music for England; no fear at all of death. Yesterday we had a little affair with a German patrol, which made me interested for 5 minutes; after which I lapsed into the usual horrid state of boredom. O that the Nice Blighty may come soon! I do not bear pain and cold well, but do not grumble too much; so I reckon that cancels out. One cannot expect to have everything, or to make one’s nature strong in a week. It snowed like anything yesterday, but today has been quite beautiful, and I have strolled about chatting of Maisemore Wood and such-like things of beauty…

My dear friend, it has been very kind of you to write to my friends as you have, and I know they are grateful. It is something to know that my father realises his trouble and sacrifice have not been all wasted. He has been only too good always; especially considering the difference of our temperaments, and my long wasted time. Surely my life must lead to something. Surely the apprenticeship has almost passed?

I am afraid there are no poems again. The conditions are against it…

Here we are called up.

Goodbye: Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney

Ah, but that was only April 4th, and he has lived to fight, at least, another day.

Next day

…This morning was beautifully sunny, and daisies are poking their heads out here and there — without steel helmets! O the Spring, the Spring! Come late or early, you must give hope ever to the dwellers in the house of flesh…[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Unknown Warriors, 108-9.
  2. War Diary (Childhood), 175.
  3. Letters to Helen, 94.
  4. Selected Letters, 162-3.
  5. C.E. Montague, 167-8.
  6. War Letters, 152-3.

Kate Luard’s Near Miss; Edwin Vaughan in a Lousy Boche Trap; Siegfried Sassoon Can Almost See England; God Amidst the Shellfire for Edward Hermon; Geoffrey Thurlow Asks Vera Brittain About the Afterlife

Kate Luard, her hospital warned that their first convoy of wounded is only days away, took what she expects to be a last day of leisure for quite some time. She wants to see the sights–and now that the German withdrawal has put the old front line well in the rear, she can tour the Somme battlefield for the first time. So she does, and runs smack into the apparent paradox that so many of our writers confront or avoid, but necessarily both confirm and deny:

…we have been over No-Man’s Land an down into the deep German dug-outs on the scene of the tragedy last July at Gommécourt. It is all indescribable. Bairnsfather has drawn it, but no one can ever, in words, make anyone realise what it is like.

As Rabbi Tarfon says, it is not incumbent upon you to finish the job; but neither are you at liberty to completely avoid it….

The wood and the orchards are blackened spikes sticking up out of what looks now like a mad confusion of deep trenches and deep dug-outs battered to bits. We went with an electric torch deep down two staircases of one and stepped into a pond at the bottom…

I cast Kate Luard, often enough, in the role of The Wise Woman, our Old Campaigner among the medics. Which, like any such shoehorning, is not terribly fair. She features here so often because she is a keen observer and a good writer, not because she is infallibly wise. In her own sphere, we’ve come to except extreme competence and compassion… but off for an exciting tour of the forbidden zone, she succumbs to a common and foolish enthusiasm–the search for souvenirs.

I picked up a nose-cap; and the sapper who was with us said hastily, ‘That’s no good,’ snatched it out of my hand and threw it out of sight; it still had the detonator in it. Then he picked one up without its detonator and gave it to me…

The village we and the Germans have been shelling for 2 years made you feel dazed. But the battlefield made you feel sick. We got some snowdrop roots with the flowers out, from under a boulder at Gommécourt.

Here you get to the culmination of destruction for which all civilised nations are still straining all their resources. Isn’t it hopelessly mad?[1]

More snowdrops! A paragraph of further description intervenes before Luard comes to tell of their long walk back to the hospital, so perhaps the uplifting irony I see in the last sentences of the day is not actually intended. But after being compelled to condemn the madness of civilization, Sister Luard and her companions, returning, are invited to tea three times on their walk back by three different groups of British N.C.O.s and officers, and then have coffee pressed upon them by a Frenchwoman.

 

Edwin Vaughan is headed in the opposite direction. He had a harrowing march up through the devastated town of Péronne and toward his battalion’s new billets in what had until recently been the German rear–harrowing, at least, for him. Other writers might have treated a near-miss and a blighty for a fellow officer with less candor: “He wasn’t a scrap disturbed by his wounds, but they made me feel faint and I had to go out for some air.”

But then several men are killed by shells accurately dropped on a well, and the survivors are grateful to take shelter in their new digs–three German dugouts.

I lay for a while on my upper berth, smoking and reading a book on trench warfare. then I began to feel itchy, and the itchiness grew, and spread so much that I was unable to concentrate on my book. So I lay on my back looking at the timber roof a foot above me, and I wondered whether the saw-marks across the beams were the work of the Boche to ensure the roof falling in when a time-mine exploded. I was distracted from this thought, with its potential horrors, by the sight of moving insects. Raising the candle I found that the place was crawling with lice. During the night I felt them dropping onto my face, and in the morning I was infested with them.[2]

 

Robert (Edward) Hermon’s letter home to his wife of tonight, a century back, is a bit of a surprise. Hermon is our conventional English family man, the non-intellectual squire and kindly C.O. He’s not a great writer, but this account of church amidst a bombardment is one of the more moving ones I’ve read. Of all things (all things!) it reminds me of a scene in Gravity’s Rainbow.

Tonight I went to church in one of the church Army Huts close here & we had such a nice little service, ending with a celebration[3] for which I stayed. All the time the service was going on the Hun was throwing some very heavy shells into the village about half a mile off & what with the church being lit up & it dark outside & the whistle & crash of the shells it made the whole thing very weird & also impressive & I’m afraid that my voice was not particularly strong as I sang the third verse of hymn 322…

Then the world re-intrudes, and we are back to clocks and bunks–and men of god in their human frailties.

Well dearie mine I’m busy these days and must to bed now especially as we started summer time last night & I lost an hour of sleep, not to mention the fact that the padre, who sleeps just under me, dreamt that he saw a man cutting the rope of one of the observation balloons & jumped up shouting at the top of his voice to stop him & nearly flung me out of bed in the process, & I felt rather as tho’ a mine had gone off underneath.[4]

 

Only a day after Victor Richardson wrote to Vera Brittain, Geoffrey Thurlow–her brother’s intimate friend from training camp, and now the third of the soldiers that she cares for and corresponds with–writes to her on the same subject. But then what are the chances that two nicely brought-up young men will write about certain things not to each other but to a young woman they admire?

France, 25 March 1917

Don’t you often speculate on what lies beyond the gate of Death? The after life must be particularly interesting. No chance of getting leave… Haven’t heard from Victor Richardson for a long long time–hope he is still going strong…

Tonight I walked home with Wilmot who is in a convalescent home near here. It has been a brilliant day with a fresh wind: we passed along between fields, some green and some with bright red earth recently plowed: and then came to a large forest. The wind made a delightful rustling in the trees & had it not have been for the distant continual bumping of guns War might not have existed…[5]

 

Lastly, today, Siegfried Sassoon evokes a mood of either wistful poetasting or listless carping, depending upon how you see it. But he is a dependable man for observing the landscape, after all.

After five weeks in France (and two with Second R.W.F.) I have not yet been within five miles of a German gun. Instead of getting nearer, the war has actually receded… Yesterday afternoon I got on to a lorry and went bumping
along the Corbie road for three or four miles…  Then I walked down the hill to Heilly on the Ancre, where we camped for four days early in July last year, and marched away to the line again on a hot dusty afternoon. The water still sings its deep tune by the bridge, and the narrow stream goes twinkling away past the bend, and past the garden where I used to walk when I came over from Morlancourt to the Field Cashier. About 5 o’clock I started off up the hill again with the sun setting low and red and the valley hazy and quiet, the wind blowing shrewd, and a plough-team working the ridge.

Another plow team on the ridge!  One begins to suspect a conspiracy between the English outdoor poets and the French peasantry… some sort of pay-to-plow scandal.

And is it a bit too hard on a poor diarist–who after all has a perfect right to record consecutive, incompatible moods–to take him to task for the reach toward a vision of peace, only to follow it with the bathos of one of modern life’s most hackneyed gripes?

I could imagine myself walking home to some friendly English village until the aerodromes loomed in the dusk, and I came to the main road with lines of lorries, and a brazier glowing red where the sentry stands at the cross-roads. And so down the hill to this abominable camp, and a foul dinner in the smoky hut and early to bed, too fed-up to read. And summer begins to-night—which means an hour less in bed, and absolutely nothing else.[6]

In defense of Hermon and Sassoon, the novelty of summer time (a.k.a. daylight savings time) was rather greater a century back…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Unknown Warriors, 104-5.
  2. Some Desperate Glory, 66-7.
  3. I.e. communion
  4. For Love and Courage, 344-5.
  5. Letters From a Lost Generation, 325-6.
  6. Diaries, 144-5.

Siegfried Sassoon Goes to Town, and Writes of Base Details and Lofty Imaginings; Also: Tolkien Encouraged; Henry Williamson on the Somme; Moncrieff in the Cathedral; Thomas Hardy on Prisoners; Edward Thomas Queries the Incoming

On the most martial day in the calendar–“March Forth!”–Siegfried Sassoon, a century back, did. In verse. In body he was lolling about, still stuck in Rouen’s massive base, released from hospital but moldering, deedless, without any responsibilities, awaiting assignment to a line battalion. So he did what any angry young man might do, and got the best luncheon he could, at the Hôtel de la Poste, and thought nasty thoughts about the other diners.

I was a bit tentative when I first discussed Sassoon’s prose sketches at Rouen–and a good thing, too. I’m not sure how to read Jean Moorcroft-Wilson’s suggested dating of lunch, prose description, and poem[1]–but I don’t think we can know for certain since Sassoon evidently flipped around in his pocket notebook (beautifully scanned by the University of Cambridge), using different sections for notes, sketches, poem drafts, and the chronological diary. But I would hazard a guess that he did not write “Lunch on Sunday in Rouen” until today, a century back. The published diary prints the sketches immediately after the February 27th entry, but it makes more sense to assume that the luncheon took place today, when the dated diary entry confirms that Sassoon left the camp for a day in Rouen proper. Even if the lunch was earlier, today’s trip to Rouen certainly gave rise to at least one poem (about church-going–see below), and it seems likely that Sassoon lunched, saw the church, went for a walk, returned to camp, wrote the sketches, and then, afterward, the two poems. Sassoon, at least, dates both poems “March 4th,” then again this might be a smoking gun of autobiographical fallicizing: he could be dating the poetry not by its writing but by its conception in his life experience…

In any case, we have two experiences which give rise to much writing and which are linked by the figure of a “stout Staff Major.” The protagonist of “In the Cathedral” is reflecting on the inspirational beauty of the church of Saint-Ouen (not, in fact, the famous Rouen cathedral but rather a smaller church similarly equipped with magnificent Gothic windows) but when he comes away he runs into the major, who seems to personify the loss of his elevated mood. Our tentatively religious but gallopingly aesthetic officer concludes that nothing really matters and that “the War went on, pitiless, threatening to continue for ever.” But the fat major really belongs, thematically, to the next piece, “Lunch on Sunday in Rouen,” in which the now-cynical poet’s-view officer inwardly curses the contented staff officers he finds gorging themselves over luncheon.

But Sassoon had a considerable poetic gift for compressed, nasty fits of pique. Some stories are worth telling at great length, in prose, twice, but others work best in verse. Other than borrowing a favorite phrase–“scarlet majors”–from Robbie Ross, “Base Details” draws directly on the language of the prose piece, and to great effect.

 

Base Details

If I were fierce, and bald, and short of breath,
I’d live with scarlet Majors at the base,
And speed glum heroes up the line to death.
You’d see me with my puffy petulant face,
Guzzling and gulping in the best hotel,
Reading the Roll of Honour. ‘Poor young chap,’
I’d say—‘I used to know his father well.
Yes, we’ve lost heavily in this last scrap.’
And when the war was done and youth stone dead,
I’d toddle safely home and die — in bed.

 

This is a great leap forward in invective, and it begins with the “scarlet majors,” a damning term freighted with allusion. First, the rank of major has become an important symbol of military bureaucracy: it’s the lowest rank that is not usually in command of an actual unit of men (captains get companies, lieutenant-colonels get battalions), and for that reason it is most likely to contain indifferent career soldiers and middle-aged New Army nonentities,men who can order about even the most heroic small-unit leader. Heller’s Major Major Major is not far off. Second, “scarlet” does yoeman’s work, two-syllable proof of all that poetic compression can accomplish. It’s a flowery adjective, a romantic word, and yet it connotes sin and hints at various other emotional states: are these majors sinful? are they prone to livid screaming? flushed with drink? Finally, it points to the red badges worn on cap and uniform tabs by members of the staff–scarlet, the color of the old British Army, and laughably ill-suited to being anywhere within actual sight of the enemy. They are safe, they are well-fed, they are inconsequential (turning on the generals and the politicians would require taking a different tack), and their jobs are, indeed, to speed young heroes up the line, to whatever awaits them there.

Then there’s all that good work with onomatopoeia as the contented staff officers tear at their rich food, the excellent mimicry of a certain sort of self-satisfied utterance… there’s the irresistible “up the line to death,” which will make this poem not only an anthology stalwart but an anthology title… and there’s the hammer-blow of the last couplet (“toddle” was a late improvement on “waddle”). This isn’t a protest against the war, exactly, but it is a heavy blow against its conduct, almost unforgettable in its slamming conclusion. It will do more than any other poem to draw the conceptual line between aggrieved, disillusioned young combatants and the older/safer/staffier cohort who are no longer worthy of their respect–or, the poem argues, ours.

So, has Siegfried Sassoon made a full conversion to rage? Not exactly.

 

March 4

One of the medieval Rosaces of Saint-Ouen; the lancet window Sassoon describes I have not yet found

Half-an-hour in the glorious Eglise de St. Ouen, with soft notes of the organ and chanting voices, and burning blossoms of colour in the high windows; one was a narrow arch of green and silver with touches of topaz and pale orange—most delicate and saintly. Below was the huddle of black-cloaked and bonneted women and grey-headed men, with a few soldiers, French and English, and children.

Then a train hurried me up the hill to Bois Guillaume… woods with a chilly wind soughing in the branches of beech and oak, and a grey sky overhead, and a carpet, of dry beech-leaves underfoot. And one thrush singing a long way off, singing as if he did not yet quite believe in the end of winter.

The other surviving medieval rosace at Saint-Ouen

The delicate, aspiring, grey pillars of St.Ouen are noble, and the rich colours there do not change, except when darkness falls outside. There will be such beauty in these woods at the end of April as no Mediaeval builder could imitate. But they had the idea in their heads, when they lifted up that miracle of stone and crystal, and crowned it with deep-toned bells, calling down the peace of God to comfort the good citizens of Rouen.

 

In the Church of St. Ouen

Time makes me a soldier; but I know
That had I lived six hundred years ago,
I might have tried to build within my heart
A church like this; where I could dwell apart,
With chanting peace; my spirit longs for prayer,
And, lost to God, I seek him everywhere.
Here, while the windows, burn and bloom like flowers,
And sunlight falls and fades with tranquil hours,
I could be half a saint, for like a rose
In heart-shaped stone the glory of Heaven glows.
But where I stand, desiring yet to stay,
Hearing rich music at the close of day
The Spring Offensive (Easter is its date)
Calls me. And that’s the music I await.

March 4

An entirely different poem–one so lush (“purple”) that Sassoon, faintly embarrassed, will not offer it for publication. Entirely different–a religious sonnet, a sincere paean to beauty, a dream without cynicism, a thing belonging to a world of quiet contemplation…  until the last couplet, when the war returns with a thump. See here, and throughout the diary for more of Sassoon’s notes on St. Ouen, including several sketches…

I’m displeased that he doesn’t see the date-pun (or perhaps he does, and lets it lie very quietly here, to march 4th to the Spring Offensive) but clearly Sassoon is of two minds–one furious, the other exalted/tragic. I also need not point out, surely, that dating the coming offensive to Easter is less a subaltern divulging crucial strategic details to his poetry notebook than a non-religious poet, standing in the glory of a rosace, and diffidently taking up the fabulously rich cultural tradition that delivers to him in the appointed hour a narrative of suffering, violent death at the hands of imperial soldiers, and–if I remember correctly–redemption.

Complexity? Negative capability? The containing of multitudes? Near madness? Sassoon, in the next but in his diary, opts for the last:

This will never do…  Now to be a saint one must suffer. And I am more qualified for the job after six months in the front line than after sixty years in a cathedral cloister. Religious feeling is a snare set by one’s emotional weakness. Religion is a very stern master, who promises nothing and demands all.

The distant rumble of guns can be heard from the line… There is a sort of unreasoning, inhuman gaiety in the air which is beyond description… I sometimes feel that everyone (even the Base-Colonels) will suddenly go stark mad arid begin shooting one another instead of the Germans. The whole business is so monstrously implacable to all human tenderness. We creep about like swarms of insects. And all the while there is the spectacle of Youth being murdered.[2]

 

Phew. Well, Sassoon’s stagnation has produced some strong writing; will the trenches be as kind to his seething muse?

The rest of our business today can be quickly accomplished:

First, a near-miss. Charles Scott Moncrieff, too, is church-going in Rouen. He and Sassoon might have passed on the street, although they attended different churches. This letter of tomorrow describes today, a century back:

5th March, 1917.

Left hospital yesterday—Sunday, as I had done a fortnight earlier. Went down to the Cathedral, and was surprised and rather pleased to find a very splendid young Cardinal—I think the new Archbishop of Rouen—who made a fine figure in the usually empty throne. I was outside the grille of the choir just opposite him. When he stood up to give the Benediction his voice at once filled the huge, hollow, cold and empty building. . . .[3]

 

And Henry Williamson began a new diary today, a century back–and visited the Somme battlefield.

Weather clearing. Went to Beaumont Hamel. Saw Y Ravine. Terrible place. Deep dugouts. Artillery moving forward. Strafe tonight. Coy. goes in line Tuesday.[4]

The visit may have been part pilgrimage, to look for the grave of his cousin Charlie Boon. But Williamson is an inveterate wanderer, and he will make use of this mid-war bit of battlefield tourism when he comes to place his alter ego in the thick of the Somme battle. The deep dugouts, in fact, become a major fixation of his fictional account of June, 1916.

 

Back in Dorset, a letter from Thomas Hardy–the least scarlet of all old men–shows his persistently humane and tragic view of the war, even in a time of calls for national service.

Max Gate, Dorchester, March 4: 1917

We are living uneventful lives here (if the news of war events are not reckoned) feeling no enterprize for going about & seeing people while the issue of the great conflict is in the balance—& I fear that by the time the issue is  reached I shall be too far on to old age to care to do so. The actual reminder in this house that the struggle is going on is that I have some German prisoners at work in the garden, cutting down some trees, & clearing the ground for more potato-room. They are amiable young fellows, & it does fill one with indignation that thousands of such are led to slaughter by the ambitions of Courts & Dynasties. If only there were no monarchies in the world, what a chance for its amelioration![5]

 

Christopher Wiseman sent a letter today, a century back to the only fellow survivor of the four core members of the T.C.B.S. The letter is both elegiac and hortatory: Tolkien must carry on, both with publishing G.B. Smith’s poems and with developing his own work:

The reason why I want you to write the epic is because I want you to connect all these [poems and tales] up properly, & make their meaning & context tolerably clear. [6]

 

Finally, Edward Thomas. Yesterday was a less than ideal birthday. Today his presents arrived, but his mind is elsewhere–and not in a good place.

Shelling at 5.30. I don’t like it. I wonder where I shall be hit as in bed I wonder if it is better to be on the window or outer side of room or on the chimney on inner side, whether better to be upstairs where you may fall or on the ground floor where you may be worse crushed. Birthday parcels from home.[7]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. See Moorcroft-Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 325-6.
  2. Diaries, 139-42.
  3. Diaries, 125-6.
  4. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 91.
  5. The Letters of Thomas Hardy, V, 204.
  6. Chronology, 99.
  7. War Diary (Childhood), 167.

Poets in Peril: Edward Thomas Gets Dressed Early, and Wilfred Owen is Aimed At; Patrick Shaw Stewart Works the System

Edward Thomas is not the sort for dry self-deprecation, exactly. But he isn’t the sort for harrowing self-reflection, either. This is, I think, just plain description of what other writers might gin up into a stark tale of terror in the pre-dawn darkness.

Shelling heavy from about 5 a.m. I only dressed because I thought it would be better to have my clothes on… our artillery really made most of the noise, and I being just wakened and also inexperienced mistook it.[1]

Over breakfast, Thomas continues yesterday’s letter to his wife Helen:

2 March. 6.30 a.m.

We are still being bombarded. But the Colonel and I have to go out to a village to see a man about a dog, you know, so I am having breakfast. I dressed soon after 5 because I thought it would be better if anything happened, to have my clothes on, and lying in bed warm one merely wondered which way It would come, whether through the ceiling or through which window or wall. Nothing fell on the house, though fragments were whistling over all the time and the house shook. However I heard men whistling in the street. Also when I got up and decided I would change my shirt etc. and shave and clean my teeth and eat my apple and drink my glass of water etc., these things sent the time along. The whistling outside of course made me certain the attack wasn’t with gas shell. It is still going on, but more intermittently. At present it is very misty and I can see nothing but the garden tree and the stone dog on the wall.

There is another break in the narrative as he goes about his business:

I’ve been to — and back. From what the others say I gather that the bombardment was not so bad, as a lot of the noise was From us and not To us. I am new, you see. Well anyhow I was not upset.

A small statement, again, signifying much: “I am, happily, proving to be considerably brave.”

It was quite nice to be going out in the misty frosty morning and picking a place to put a gun in a hurry.

Now I must try to see 244 today and get a letter from you which is probably waiting.

It is now 11 and I am having a second breakfast — (the first having been at 6.15) of marvellous good thick hard shortbread that Herrington has had sent him.

I hope you are all well, all of you, and enjoying many things. This goes off on March 2.

All and always yours Edwy[2]

In the afternoon Thomas viewed the rubble of the Faubourg Ronville, which looks very different–more ruinous, somehow–in his sparse notes-for-future-consideration than it will in the relatively crowded vignettes of his letters:

…its whistling deserted ruined streets, deserted roadway, pavement with single files of men. Cellars as dugouts, trenches behind and across road. Dead dry calf in stables. Rubble, rubbish, filth and old plush chair…[3]

 

Also today, a century back, Wilfred Owen is back from his transport course–he arrived yesterday, to be precise. March will be a month of the rejoining of units, a mustering in preparation for the Spring Offensive. But Wilfred has not been in a battle before, and he is happy with his new surroundings. His battalion, the 2nd Manchesters, are in trenches north of the Somme, near Fresnoy–part of the long section of the line that has just been relinquished in favor of the Siegfried Stellung. What could go wrong?

Nothing, for the moment. But we do have, from yesterday, an amusing parcel-post vignette:

1 March [1917] My Dug-Out

Dearest Mother,

Have just reported at B.H.Q. Dug Out. Find myself posted to B. Coy… this is a glorious part of the Line, new to us, and indeed, to the English (sh!) Most comfortable dug-outs, grass fields, woods, sunshine, quiet. True we are in reserve today, but I hear the very front line is a line, and a quiet one.

…It was in an astonishing way I had your parcel. A man rose up from a hole in a field holding it above his head. It was a fine moment. I soon rushed down & tore it open. Socks most specially valuable, as my servant forgot to put any spare in my Trench Kit. Likewise, I took no Cigarettes, hoping to find 50 in the Parcel. Lo! here are thousands! How good of you all…

I shall not touch the goodies until the very front line is reached…

Yours as ever, but slightly happier than usual. W.E.O.

So all things are sunny but–as the fact that socks are once again welcome would indicate–not really expected to remain so. But irony abounds, of course. Owen’s letter of today, a century back, begs for details of what battle looks like from one who had seen it: mother has been to the “Somme” pictures.

2 March 1917          B Coy’s Dug-Out

My dearest Mother,

I am in a good warm Dug-Out, decorated with French postcards, picturing embraces, medals, roses and mistletoe!

Is it possible I was living civilly no more than 2 days ago? From letter of last night I hear you have seen the illusory War Films. However, they must hint at the truth, and if done anywhere on this Front, would not be quite devoid of realism. But, as you know, a just idea of the First Place could best be got by a tour around Purgatorio.

Did you see any Shell-bursts?

And did they bang tins or whack drums?

Did you see any Red X at the front?

Under no circumstance do we! A good half of their work is done by S. Bearers of our own Coys.

But that’s as far as that joke will go. Owen is back in the line, and, battle or no, there are risks. Which he doesn’t hide from his mother, though he softens them into epistolary chuckles.

You don’t mention Dug-Outs snipers. I was marked by one of the Pests yesterday. His ‘Direction’ was good, only his ‘Elevation’ slightly high. A curious thing was who first hissed ‘Get down. Sir!’?

One of my old Fleetwood Musketry Party! Quite a few are with me…

‘Colin’s’ socks are splendid things…

Ever your fondest Wilfred

 

But a letter of the same day (written to his younger brother Colin, evidently before the letter to mother) makes a different sort of tale out of the near-miss; it also paints a generally more warlike picture of this section of the front:

2 March 1917     B Coy Dug-Out

My dearest Colin,

This is the first time I have written from a Dug-Out. I am in a French one now. We have straw to sleep on, but it is pretty lousy—after the poilus!

There is a gas-alarm on just now, but I don’t really expect it. The air is too still. Just this moment, and since I sat down, a tremendous artillery strafe has opened up. We all remark to each other that it seems there is a war on. I went up to the Front Line with a Fatigue Party for digging. Let me tell you in confidence that I was for the first time a Target.* I ran over the top to get to the head of the Party in the Trench, & stood a moment to shout an order, when a bullet went Ping, a good 3 ft. over my silly head.

Owen–a good big brother, an excitable correspondent, or perhaps just a very diligent writer of personal history–will gloss that asterisk tomorrow. It’s as close as we’ll come to a real point in time, a century back:

Next day. Where you see the * I left off because the order came ‘Stand to Arms!’ What a commotion! We half expected an attack, but nothing happened. I have no paper to write more, but this letter should be interesting circumstantially.

Dearest love to you, sweet my Brother. W.E.O.[4]

 

While we’re in the habit of flagrant rule-breaking, we’ll look ahead to a letter of tomorrow–describing, therefore, today–by  Patrick Shaw-Stewart:

I have had my Board yesterday morning, and they passed me for General Service with the recommendation that I should not be sent back to the East. That was my own suggestion: they would quite certainly have passed me for anything I jolly well liked. That being so, I shall in a day or two probably be informed of it officially by the W.O., whereupon I will communicate with Freyberg, who will apply for me. It will all take some time probably: nothing is done in a hurry in the British Army.

Please don’t be perturbed about my inside. It is very well indeed, and in this country (and presumably in France), I should never give it a thought. In Gallipoli, and places like that, of course it has been occasionally dickey with little goes of “dysentery” and jaundice and what not, but nothing to what most people have out here, and nothing which would have been worth mentioning, except with an ulterior object. I feel more and more that I have been right to play my last card to get out of Salonica and back to France. In fact, I think I have conducted the personal problem of this war with exceptional felicity, and made the best of both worlds. Please try and agree with me…[5]

Well, it’s hard not to. This will not be the last rigged medical board we shall see, but it’s hard to believe that Shaw Stewart is cheating His Majesty out of too much when he emphasizes his stomach troubles to escape further French Liaison duty on the Salonika front–and hard to doubt his character (in this matter) when the result of the rigged exam is to get him sent to a much more dangerous assignment, under the command of more or less the last of his original comrades, those Argonauts of 1914. Shaw Stewart saw Gallipoli, but he has seen little else in the last two years, while Bernard Freyburg has become a hero with a V.C. The future–even of the over-educated officers of the Royal Naval Division–is in France.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary (Childhood), 166-7. This description is under the heading for yesterday, a century back, but in light of the letter, below, clearly refers to today.
  2. Letters to Helen, 83-84.
  3. War Diary (Childhood), 167.
  4. Collected Letters, 439-442.
  5. Knox, Patrick Shaw Stewart, 193-4.