Olaf Stapledon Need Not Worry About Parting; Robert Graves Has a More Pleasant Walk in the Snow; Cynthia Asquith and Bernard Freyberg Clash… Over Siegfried Sassoon’s Hero; The Loves and Letters of Patrick Shaw Stewart

In a few moments it will be back to the Souls/Coterie and their tangle of letters and affairs, but we’ll begin today, a century back with a lonelier–and purer–soul. Olaf Stapledon, still home, still on leave, writes again to Agnes Miller, in Australia, and he takes yet another small step toward an uncharacteristic despair.

Sunday night, the last night of leave. I go early tomorrow. This evening Mother played some Rubinstein on the piano and part of it was a “melody” that you used to play. It brought back ancient days. Father and I had such a wet walk this morning. Thurstastone was all one driving blizzard.— But what’s the use of writing you a sort of schoolboy diary? The last night of leave is a poor night. It’s bad enough for oneself but it’s worse for one’s people; and their sorrow makes one grieve far more. It’s good to talk to you tonight, for I am not on the point of leaving you—alas, partings need not worry us, for we have not yet our meeting. You are always as near as ever, and as far.[1]

That rather sets the tone, doesn’t it? Despair and sorrow and high romance–and, that, of course is the use of writing such a diary.

 

Robert Graves, however, is more fortunate: his beloved is near at hand. His biographer notes yet another visit to Nancy Nicholson–and confirms that the Merseyside weather had reached London by evening.

On Sunday, after an early lunch, he went into town again, and did not arrive back in Wimbledon until three in the morning, after walking the last last of the journey, all the way from Putney, in a driving blizzard.[2]

 

Actually, it seems that it was snowing in London throughout the day. Last night, a century back, Cynthia Asquith locked her bedroom door after (somehow!) using “purple passages” of Shakespeare to hold off the advances of Bernard Freyberg. Today the two resumed their contest of wills in a proxy battle over–wait for it!–the poetry of a certain young writer absent from–though present in verse at–a recent soirée.

Sunday, 16th December

Slept badly after agitating evening and woke to swirling snowstorm. Mary resurrected and joined us after breakfast. Freyberg inveighed against the Georgian Poets and reproached me for holding a brief for Siegfried Sassoon. I maintained that, having fully demonstrated his personal physical courage, he had earned the right to exhibit moral courage as a pacifist without laying himself open to the charge of cloaking physical cowardice under the claim of moral courage. Freyberg is very uncompromising in his condemnation and, with some justice, says it is offensive to come back and say, ‘I can’t lead men to their death any more’—it implies a monopoly of virtue, as if other officers liked doing it because they acquiesced in their duty.

Yes, “some justice”–which is what Rivers led Sassoon to see, although–and this is an important distinction–with an emphasis more on the position of the men-to-be-led-to-their-deaths than on the unfairly maligned virtue of the other officers…

But Freyberg, an Argonaut, a 1914 volunteer, a V.C., and a young brigadier, is too canny, at least, to bring only a medal to a poetry fight. He has read some of Sassoon, and he has a practical objection:

He thought the poem called ‘The Hero’ caddish, as it might destroy every mother’s faith in the report of her son’s death. Certainly Siegfried Sassoon breaks the conspiracy of silence, but sometimes I strongly feel that those at home should be made to realise the full horror, even to the incidental ugliness, as much as possible.[3]

A strange “but” in that last sentence–but it is fascinating, of course, to find a woman at home taking the side of the poets’ realism/horror while the eminent fighting soldier stands up for the non-caddishness of comforting lies. Asquith’s declaration here is very much like the intense enthusiasm of later readers of Great War Poetry: not only does she hold a brief for Sassoon, but it’s essentially the same brief that has become canonical. She would deny the experiential gulf–or, rather, she would recognize it and esteem those poets who try to write across it, and read eagerly in order to be one of the better sort of home-front people, who read in order to understand the true war…

There are several ironies here, including Sassoon’s habit (which should be apparent to Asquith if she has read his books) of expressing a casual nastiness towards both aristocratic patronesses and older women and Asquith’s scoring such high marks in our implied hierarchy of worthy readers/home front loved ones while her husband, unmentioned in these sections of her diary, is overseas, and she is embroiled in a pseudo-affair with a brother officer…

But back to the practical point: there’s a war on, and someone must write something to a million grieving mothers. Freyberg has probably written dozens–he has been both a company commander and a battalion commander. And is absolute truth always a virtue? Was he definitively wrong to strive to find some balance between truth and mercy?

Here is ‘The Hero,’ then, Sassoon’s no-holds-barred assault on the convention of the C.O.’s condolence letter. It is also, incidentally, one of the few poems to feature a female character and yet not treat her scorn–condescension, perhaps, but not contempt.

‘Jack fell as he’d have wished,’ the mother said,
And folded up the letter that she’d read.
‘The Colonel writes so nicely.’ Something broke
In the tired voice that quavered to a choke.
She half looked up. ‘We mothers are so proud
Of our dead soldiers.’ Then her face was bowed.

Quietly the Brother Officer went out.
He’d told the poor old dear some gallant lies
That she would nourish all her days, no doubt
For while he coughed and mumbled, her weak eyes
Had shone with gentle triumph, brimmed with joy,
Because he’d been so brave, her glorious boy.

He thought how ‘Jack’, cold-footed, useless swine,
Had panicked down the trench that night the mine
Went up at Wicked Corner; how he’d tried
To get sent home, and how, at last, he died,
Blown to small bits. And no one seemed to care
Except that lonely woman with white hair.

 

There are other Argonauts abroad in London, and they have crossed paths all too quietly.

Missing, alas, from Diana Manners and Duff Cooper‘s diaries are accounts of Patrick Shaw Stewart‘s recent leave. The most probable explanation is simple awkwardness: Shaw Stewart has seen a great deal of the war, and Cooper is only recently commissioned, so there is a great gap of experience there, and experience is an incontestable, unexchangeable currency of honor… and yet it is the new subaltern Cooper who is on the verge of–to fall into the old sexist language, here–winning the prize they both coveted, and not the brigadier with the V.C.

Diana Manners avoided Shaw Stewart, seeing him only for a few meals, even when the two were thrown together (with Duff and a number of others) last weekend at a house party in Somerset. Shaw Stewart still enjoyed the party, describing a bag of fifty pheasants as “not a bad change from the winter campaign,” but, ignored by the woman he loved (and was still doggedly pursuing, by letter when not in person), he spent much of his time and energy on his more unconventional but equally intense relationship with “Ettie,” Lady Desborough, the light of the Souls, now fifty and the mother of Shaw Stewart’s dead friends Julian and Billy Grenfell.

Strange and intertwined as all these relationships are, it’s still remarkable to note that today, a century back[4] Shaw Stewart returned from leave to take over command of his battalion from Oc Asquith (the youngest of the three brothers, now promoted brigadier) after having left Manners (the intimate friend and best epistolary sparring partner of Raymond Asquith, the eldest of the three brothers) and Cooper behind, and then been seen to the train, a few days ago, by his friend and Naval Division colleague Bernard Freyberg. That’s right: Freyberg, who has been laying siege to the matrimonial loyalty of Cynthia Asquith, wife of the middle brother, Herbert, and who has let off all his guns to deter a nuisance foray in the form of a Siegfried Sassoon poem.

Shaw Stewart used that train journey to write to Lady Desborough, playfully refuting her suggestion that he had bought notepaper in order to write to “his girl friends–“even though he does fact continue to write to Diana Manners “almost daily.”

I did buy the notepaper, but it was to write to you to tell you how infinitely I adore you and how perfect and essential you have been to me this leave. What should I do without you? You are Julian and Billy, Edward and Charles to me, and then you are yourself.

Strange and effusive, but fitting, perhaps, for a letter between one of the great melodramatic late Victorians and an “Edwardian meteor.” And however overcooked we might find their social self-celebrations, however overheated their prose, there is no denying the fact that Lady Desborough, who has lost two of her three sons, and Shaw Stewart, who has lost the four friends he names (and many others), are united by harrowing and tremendous loss.

But, once more at the front, his letters–and loves–seem to have fallen into a more predictable course. Perhaps Diana was frustratingly cold when he was in England, but now, in the trenches, where it is bitterly cold in all too unmetaphorical sense, the old habit of reaching out to her, of telling his days to her, is still of great comfort: she is completely unobtainable, but the thoughts still warm him, perhaps. Shaw Stewart, ever the classicist, makes a nice tale of an ordinary, if severe, unpleasantness of winter duty:

Church Parade at 11 am… I thoughtfully issued an order that great-coats might be worn; then, proceeding through the icy blast to put on my own–the one you know too well–I found it caked with mud and the blood of my faithful uncomplaining horse. So, mindful of Hector’s rule that “it is impossible to make prayer to Zeus, lord of the clouds, all bespattered with mud and filth,”[5] I attended without, and nearly died of cold, besides having to sing to hymns without the band…

I inherited Oc’s half-shed and succeeded in putting on first, silk pyjamas, then flannel pyjamas, and then a fur lining, and then everything else on top, and in not waking more than twice in the night feeling cold…[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Talking Across the World, 261.
  2. R. P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 188-9.
  3. Diaries, 380-1.
  4. I think; the dating is not terribly clear. Oh for uniformly prim footnoting!
  5. Iliad VI, c. 263.
  6. Jebb, Patrick Shaw Stewart, An Edwardian Meteor, 236-8.

Georgian Poetry the Third; Wilfred Owen’s Busy Month; Sassoon and Nichols Together in the Country; the Rout at Cambrai Continues, with Phillip Maddison; We Meet Lady Cynthia Asquith, as she Entertains a New Zealander, and Doubts

December! First of the last months! I wasn’t sure we would make it to December, 1917, but somehow we have. In celebration, there will be an entire volume of “month poems,” some excellent and topical, some indifferent and timeless, in rather a b ad way: December 1917 will see the release of Georgian Poetry III, a volume notable for bringing several of our poets together, at least between two covers. Later this month Isaac Rosenberg, finishing his own works in the alphabetical layout, will happen upon Siegfried Sassoon and read him for the first time.

 

Now Sassoon is, in one important way, a very generous soul: he is generous to his readers, especially those who came afterwards and interest themselves in his solipsism. There are the two piles of autobiography, the letters, the poems, and… ah, but he has been neglecting the diary. It was a place for notes on combat, cris de couer, and, once upon a time, his sporting doings.

So, now that he is a poet of protest no more but not yet a Mad Jack returned unto the bosom of the only men worth having as comrades and followers, what is the post-Rivers, pre-redemption Sassoon to do? Which of the various Siegfrieds will come to the fore?

So far, at least, he is having his cake and eating it too. Visiting his mother, he is at once George Sherston, fox-hunting man, and Siegfried Sassoon, habitué of London literary drawing rooms:

Went on leave November 29. Friday, Saturday and Sunday at Weirleigh. Bob Nichols came for Saturday and Sunday…

Which means Nichols will depart tomorrow, a century back, with their somewhat inevitable, somewhat unlikely friendship cemented; and then, on Monday, the diary will resume its oldest form: a hunting journal.[1]

 

The First World War Poetry Digital Archive, Oxford

Sassoon’s other recent friendship–a far more momentous one–has reached a period of enforced cooling, as Wilfred Owen has been exiled to Scarborough and all-day duties as a Camp Commandant (not that Owen wasn’t trying to keep things simmering). Owen is on his own again, but he has begun–he has been started, as it were, and he is refreshed, driven. For those who didn’t follow the link above and read all of Georgian Poetry, then, here is a shorter and more aspirational document, looking ahead to the month’s accomplishments:

 

And what of the ongoing war?

 

For The Master of Belhaven, today was a day of false alarms. Standing-to from 5 a.m. until 9, they expected news of the assault of the German Guards Divisions, but his batteries, on the far flank of the Cambrai action, eventually stood down.[2]

 

So our war story, for the day, is carried on best in fiction. Henry Williamson‘s Phillip Maddison had yet another climax–and anti-climax–to his manifold military experiences. His Machine Gun Company is called into the line to stem the German counter-attack: the British near-breakthrough of November 20th has become a German near-breakthrough, and Williamson seems to take a cruel pleasure in depicting the routed and panicked men who stream back past “286 M.”

Phillip himself, though “windy” and teary, is back in heroic mode, fighting in his pyjamas and helping to hold the line on what was, by all accounts, a desperate day. But in a bitter irony–Williamson perhaps intends this as a microcosm for the belated bureaucratic reckoning which will come for the commanders at Cambrai–Maddison’s commander, Teddy Pinnegar, is blamed for the Machine Gun Company being in the wrong place, even though this happens as a result of Phillip’s decisions during last night’s march… It’s all very confusing.

The day ends with Phillip guilty, feverish, diagnosed with trench fever by an American doctor, and sent to Blighty–not grateful, as he has been in earlier, more fearful times, but rueful that he has let his commander down and is going home sick rather than with a heroic wound. The climax of the book’s non-military action will come in England over the next few weeks, as the war and Phillip’s romantic escapades come together at last.[3]

 

Finally, with the new month, I’d like to introduce one more–just one more!–society diary.

Lady Cynthia Asquith has few connections to anyone we know. Except that she is a daughter of two “souls,” her mother a Wyndham (the grace on the right) and her father Hugo Charteris, the Earl of Wemyss; her brothers Yvo and Hugo (“Ego”) have both been killed in action; she is a confidante of D.H. Lawrence, secretary to J.M. Barrie, daughter-in-law of the ex-Prime Minister (her husband, Herbert Asquith, still serving in uniform and most evidently away from home was Raymond‘s younger brother), and, generally, friends with all of the smart set of society still left in England.

Which includes Bernard Freyberg, a New Zealandish interloper on the group who has earned his stripes (and stars) as a member of the Argonauts and, now, a hero of the Naval Division’s land battles. Lady Asquith will become a prolific author, but already, a century back, it’s clear that, surrounded by war and loss, she knows how to write warriors very well. Ardent lovers, however, are another thing altogether…

Saturday, 1st December

Went down to Brighton by 11.40 to spend the day with Freyberg. He met me at the station. He is staying at the Royal York, but we drove straight to the Metropole for luncheon. He was looking better and had a fine appetite. With his youthful face and the insignia of his anomalous rank (his medals and preposterous number of gold stripes), he is very conspicuous and much stared at—obsequious deference from the waiters. I insisted on taking him to Professor Severn, the phrenologist, but he was hopelessly out about him, marking him low for self-esteem and concentration…

We walked to dinner at the Metropole. He told me of his wonderful swimming exploit in Gallipoli, when he swam for four hours and landed naked and alone, and crawled quite close to the enemy’s trenches and lit torches. His eyes shine and he becomes poeticised talking of military adventures, and I was touched to see his eyes fill with tears once when he was talking about his men. I find him very, very attractive.

He drove me to the station to catch the 9.40. He made love to me all day with simplicity and sweetness, and I don’t know what to do. Several times he said he thought he had better not see me any more, and I suppose I ought to take him at his word: it is the candle that should withdraw, the moth cannot, but it would require considerable unselfishness on my part. I should hate to give him up altogether—conscience tells me I should. He kept asking me if I would have married him had I been free. I enjoyed the day very much—injudicious as it was.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 197.
  2. War Diary, 414-5.
  3. Love and the Loveless, 333-49.
  4. Diaries, 374-5.

Bimbo Tennant’s Shoot-Out in Gas Alley

gas-alleycrop

The scrap of nowhere, northeast of Delville Wood, where Bim Tennant died. “Gas Alley” is the trench that runs across the center of the map, from southwest (where the transition from blue to red marks the ownership of the trench as of a few days ago) to the northeast.

The Somme battle was in a lull between major attacks today, a century back. The 4th Grenadiers had been sent up yesterday to help prepare the way for the next stab at the third German line. North of Ginchy, between Longueval toward Flers, there was a tangle of trenches where an earlier push had entered the German lines and then been halted.

The Grenadiers did not go “over the top” yesterday as Bimbo Tennant had expected, but found more painstaking work before them. They had to fight sideways through a trench system, up communications trenches that had been blocked by the German defenders, who then withdrew and lay in ambush.

This was work for Grenadiers indeed. But when Tennant’s friend and company commander Captain Spencer-Churchill[1] went over to try to connect “Gas Alley” with the next bit of trench, he was hit by snipers and wounded.

Tennant, cropped

Edward Wyndham Tennant, by John Singer Sargent, 1915

 

Bim Tennant was less fortunate. Left behind in Gas Alley, he took it upon himself to respond to the short-range Germans sniping, and “occupied his time in shooting at the enemy. Apparently, there was some movement by the Germans which led him to shoot with his revolver, and a moment later he fell dead, shot through the head by one of the enemy’s snipers.”[2]

 

Lady Glenconner (née Pamela Wyndham), was a much-beloved mother. We have so many of Bim’s letters to her, with her loving commentary, and the two seem to have been the best of friends. If there was ever a cross word, it was not preserved.

It seems cruel, in any case, to speculate: Lady Glenconner is a mother of dead children. In the spring she lost an infant far too young to speak, and in the beginning of Autumn, now, she has lost her eldest, all of nineteen years old, the boy who always wrote so sweetly of his love for her.

She will publish his poems and his letters, a continuation of their joint effort, in life. And more: the Sargent drawing Bim had wanted for the frontispiece of a little volume of poems will now be the frontispiece of his mother’s Memoir of his brief life. Productive in grief, Lady Glenconner will also publish many of Bim’s earliest poems and letters to her–overpoweringly sentimental and desperately sad proof of a little boy’s love for his beautiful, loving mother.

I have written before about the difficulty of integrating the writing of grief-stricken parents into this polyphonic project–grief-stricken mothers, for the most part. Lady Glenconner, however, writes sparingly in her own voice, and says much of what she would say in quotation–of young Bim above all. She means to show not only his love of her, but his love of life–both not to be doubted–and also, with some of the poems, his claim to poetic talent.

I’m not sure what to do but include some of what she preserved, here and over the coming days. It’s heartbreaking and, I hope, raw. I’ll close with something of hers, of his (if that makes sense).

But first, one mourner to begin the condoling: Osbert Sitwell, a friend and comrade who had made himself a family friend, is perhaps best positioned to call across the unfathomable gulf that now separates Bim and his mother,

I, though I only have known Bim for two years, feel a gap which can never be filled; I shall always feel the gratitude for his friendship. I am sure he faced death with the marvellous vitality, courage, and love of beautiful ideas and things that always actuated him. His only sorrow in death would be your sorrow, and that of those who loved him. You were always his one thought, and he would never even smoke, because he had promised you, once, not to. He was convinced of a future life. I am sure that a vitality such as his can never be wasted.

It was this same note–Christian, gentle, uplifting–that Lady Glenconner used when it came time for the abrupt transition from the letters of the living boy to the memorials of the dead officer.

The posthumous chapter begins with this epigraph:

“‘Out on thee, Death,’ Justice and Pity said,
‘Why take the young, and let the old go free?’
‘Religion is the worship of the dead,’
Death answered, ‘know ye not? more foolish ye.
How could Below look upward to Above
Did not these die, whom Gods and Mothers love?'”

F. W. Bain

Then there is a brief quotation from Tennyson–“That death whose truer nature is Onward. . . “–and Lady Glenconner’s brief confirmation of what every reader must already know:

On the 22nd September, 1916, Bim went on.[3]

But what could be as sad as this?bimbo-tennants-dedication-to-moth

References and Footnotes

  1. Edward George, I believe, a cousin at some distance to Winston.
  2. The Grenadier Guards in the Great War, II, 137.
  3. Memoir, 237-9.

Bim Tennant’s Perpetual Smile Falters; Kate Luard Among the Mad and the Mangled; Rudyard Kipling Will not Yield; Francis Ledwidge Hymns a Patron’s Pen

Today, a century back, we have a strange and terrible quartet. We will end with the gentlest sort of prospective-farewell poem, and preface that with a survivor’s half-suppressed outburst of grief and relief. But first, the obscenity of war’s damage to young bodies, and then a clenched, wretched testament to the ongoing agonies of a bereaved parent.

Kate Luard‘s hospital was, once, a fairly orderly place where minor wounds were dealt with quickly so the staff could focus on abdominal wounds. It is now, like any medical facility on the Somme, a shambles and a madhouse. (And I’m letting loose with the rhetoric only as suppressing fire, really: because today’s second entry is, in its quiet, specific way, worse.)

Monday, September 18th. We are all grappling with work all day now, some of it is wonderful, but much of it is nothing but black. There is a boy dying who has his Will in his Pay-book made out ‘to my beloved mother.’ He looks about 17…There is a mad boy who is very funny: when you feed him he says, ‘1,2,3 a cup of tea, bread and butter 4,5,6, it’s 238 now…’ All his thoughts are in numbers… The blind boy with both legs off is dying; he doesn’t know his legs are off, and is cheerfully delirious most of the time. He calls us ‘Teacher…’ He was murmuring ‘Such is life’ just now.[1]

 

Even the greatest writer with swiftest, strongest imagination can be brought to his knees by a form letter. Rudyard Kipling has carried on; it’s been nearly a year since his son John’s death, and he has continued to live, and to write. And he spared no effort in finding those of his son’s men and comrades who might shed light on his disappearance on the battlefield of Loos. And they, trying to be kind, may have been cruel–Kipling came away with hope, despite the fact that these witnesses saw his son shot down, fatally, in a failed attack. But maybe there was nothing else they could say.

Four days ago, a century back, the War Office generated a form letter stating that the younger Kipling must be officially considered dead “unless further information about his fate has been received.”

Bateman’s / Burwash / Sussex
18th September 1916.

The Secretary
War Office, Alexandra House

Sir,

In reply to your letter. No. 125146 /1 (C. 2 Casualties) of the 14th September, I should be glad if you would postpone taking the course you suggest in regard to my son Lieutenant John Kipling. All the information I have gathered is to the effect that he was wounded and left behind near Puits 14 at the Battle of Loos on September 27th 1915. I have interviewed a great many people and heard from many others, and can find no one who saw him killed, and his wound being a leg wound would be more disabling than fatal.

May I draw your attention to the fact that in your letter you state my son’s rank as 2nd Lieutenant, whereas he was Lieutenant. Also in the published casualty list, he was incorrectly report as “Missing” instead of “Wounded and
missing.”

Yours truly,
Rudyard Kipling.

But there isn’t any hope–his comrades know he was fatally shot, and other than desperate and melodramatic hopes about amnesiac survivals, there is no chance that a captured officer would not have been identified through neutral parties many months before. Even that second paragraph is desperately sad, a proud man cloaking desperation in simple fussy umbrage: John Kipling’s promotion was not formalized until after his death, so, in the present view of the bureaucracy, it cannot have taken place. He is missing, and he is dead, and forever a 2nd Lieutenant.[2]

 

The advance at Loos that killed Kipling was the last great action by the Guards in 1915. Three days ago, they suffered through their worst disaster of 1916. And Bimbo Tennant survived.

18th September

. . . Thank Heaven I have come safely out of this battle after two days and two nights of it. It started properly at 5 a.m. 15th, and the artillery fire was terrific. We were in support and went up about 7.45 and sat down again further up just the right side of the German barrage. Then I was sent across to the ——– Guards to go with them, find out where they proposed going, and lead the Battalion up beside it. Off I went, and joined the ——— Guards, and went forward with them. When we had skirted G, the further of the two G’s [Ginchy, not Guillemont?] and were going through a little dip in the ground, we were shot at by Boches on the high ground with rifles, there must have been about twenty shooting at us. I was walking in front with their C.O. and Adjutant, and felt sufficiently uncomfortable, but didn’t show it. Bullets scuffed up dust all around with a wicked little ‘zump,’ but they were nearly all short and none of us, at least who were in front, were hit. Thus we went on, and they took up their position between two of these huge steel tanks on the near side of the ridge. Then they lent me an orderly, and I started back to bring the Battalion along; it was an unpleasant journey of about half a mile over nothing but shell-holes full of dead and dying, with any amount of shells flying about: Several whizz-bangs landed very close to me, but I got back to the Battalion and explained the position to them and then we all went down there…

The C.O., the Adjutant, the Doctor, and I spent that afternoon, evening, and night in a large rocky shell-hole. We were severely shelled on and off the whole time, and about four men were done in in the very next shell-hole a couple of yards away. That night was one of the coldest and most uncomfortable it has ever been my fortune to spend–‘with the stars to see.’ Meanwhile most of the Battalion had gone up to support the ——– and ——– Brigade, who had done the attack at five that morning, and had lost heavily. At seven or eight next morning we moved our Batt. head-quarters to the line of trenches in front which had been dug the night before. This was safer than our shell-hole, and as we had the worst shelling I have ever experienced during that afternoon and evening, it was probably a very wise move.

An attack took place at 1.15 p.m. that day, and I will tell you more about it when I see you, D.V. My worst job was that of taking messages down the line of trenches to different captains. The trenches were full of men, so I had to go over the open. Several people who were in the trench say they expected every shell to blow me to bits. That night we were again shelled till about 8 p.m. and were relieved about midnight. We got in about 2.30. I was dog-tired, and Churchill,[3] who now commands No. 4 Company, was even more tired. Soup, meat, champagne, and cake, and I went to bed till about 2 p.m. That is the time one really does want champagne, when one comes in at 3 a.m. after no sleep for fifty hours. It gives one the strength to undress.

So far, so good–in the effort to write, as well as in the effort to survive the 15th. But young Bim makes an error here–he opens himself out to a somewhat irrational (if modest enough) hope, and this quickly brings down his facade of stoic endurance.

Now the great question is will leave start soon? They say it will. I wish my poems could come out soon. The lighter blue cover is sure to be charming. If there is any question of a photy in the papers please try and get my Sargent drawing in and not my other photographs, as most of them are bad…

Darling Moth’, I am so thankful to be alive; I suppose you have heard who are dead? Guy Baring, Raymond Asquith, Sloper Mackenzie, and many others. It is a terrible list. . . Poor Olive will be heart-broken–and so will Katherine. Death and decomposition strew the ground. . . . [4] I must tell you of other things.

I made a very pleasant discovery the other day. I had occasion to walk a few hundred yards with Corporal Jukes, one day, and he told me that his father was keeper at Clouds, and he remembers your wedding, and has a photy of it at home. He knows Willson as ‘Ernie,’ and remembers when Icke was footman! He is such a charming man. What is more, he has a sister, Polly Jukes (such a nice name), who was housemaid to Glen–Grandpapa at Glen, so he is altogether a great family friend. I was so glad he introduced himself. We had a very good talk about people like Mr. Mallet, Mrs. Vine, and suchlike hench-folk. Do write and tell me if you remember him? He was butler to some general in Cairo before the War, and is forty-one years old, very young-looking, and a perfect man. . . .[5]

I wouldn’t trade those last two paragraphs for a fat volume of careful trench-life description. Why does Bimbo write to his mother? Or rather, why–for his part–does he write to her? (Of course he writes to her to comfort her, to allay her worry for him, to interrupt the misery of a mother’s fear with his high-spirited hijinks… but this is, so far, selfless.) He writes, of course, to build the bridge from his end.

If goofy endearments wear on the reader, a century on, their purpose is revealed when he breaks here, and writes himself turning squarely from grief and loss and fear toward the sunlit uplands of the past. Was the past great and glorious because we have drunk deeply of the Soul-powdered kool-aid of aristocratic Panglossian self-celebration? Yes. Is this a voice of enormous privilege? Yes. But like many young men, he had a happy past, and now is heading into battle and sees… unhappy things ahead…

 

Finally–disparately, incongruously–today, Francis Ledwidge has written a poem, and dedicated it to his fellow-Irish-writer-and-Royal Inniskilling and patron Lord Dunsany. Or, rather, to one of his instruments. Ledwidge has been home from Gallipoli for months, but he will be going out again… eventually. There is some drama (and winking self-dramatizing) in this very poetic pose. The poet is not exactly on the brink of going forward with a forlorn hope, contemplating an object of significance before setting out for peril. But he has cause more than good enough to brood upon an awaiting Rubicon…

You have to like old-fashioned poetry to feel this sort of thing, I think. But if you do, then, crack a smile, please. Let the last of the singers lift your spirits.

 

To an Old Quill of Lord Dunsany’s

Before you leave my hands’ abuses
To lie where many odd things meet you,
Neglected darkling of the Muses,
I, the last of singers, greet you.

Snug in some white wing they found you,
On the Common bleak and muddy,
Noisy goslings gobbling round you
In the pools of sunset, ruddy.

Have you sighed in wings untravelled
For the heights where others view the
Bluer widths of heaven, and marvelled
At the utmost top of Beauty?

No! it cannot be; the soul you
Sigh with craves nor begs of us.
From such heights a poet stole you
From a wing of Pegasus.

You have been where gods were sleeping
In the dawn of new creations,
Ere they woke to woman’s weeping
At the broken thrones of nations.

You have seen this old world shattered
By old gods it disappointed,
Lying up in darkness, battered
By wild comets, unanointed.

But for Beauty unmolested
Have you still the sighing olden?
I know mountains healther-crested,
Waters white, and waters golden.

There I’d keep you, in the lowly
Beauty-haunts of bird and poet,
Sailing in a wing, the holy
Silences of lakes below it.

But I leave you by where no man
Finds you, when I too be gone
From the puddles on this common
Over the dark Rubicon.

Londonderry, September 18th, 1916.[6]

References and Footnotes

  1. Unknown Warriors, 88-9.
  2. Collected Letters, IV, 402-3.
  3. No, not he--this is a Captain Spencer-Churchill.
  4. I'm not certain, but I do think this is Bim's ellipsis, a dip of his own mask at the thought of Asquith...
  5. Memoir, 231-4.
  6. Complete Poems, 231-3.

Bimbo Tennant Remembers the Good Life of the Souls; Ford Madox Hueffer’s Uncertain History

A few days ago Raymond Asquith wrote to cheer and enhearten Diana Manners, proclaiming in unusually emphatic tones that she–queen of their coterie–was not only incomparably beautiful but a pioneer of wit, a leader in their movement that disdained the dusty witticisms and precious vapidities of the Souls, their parents’ generation. It was a long letter, and it culminated (after an apparent break in composition) with a dark little joke about the death of Basil Hallam, so I cut rather heavily to move things along. I noted that Asquith took a shot at his step-mother’s father, but I elided the location at which he chose to set his “here’s-how-passé-the-Souls-are” joke. That step-grandfather is Bim Tennant‘s grandfather, and the Scottish estate at which this representative bit of the last century’s cleverness was uttered was “Glen,” which still remained–and still, apparently, does–in the family.

It what surely qualifies as a sort of metaphysical crossing-of-paths, Bimbo himself–significantly younger than Asquith yet frightfully traditional in his filial enthusiasms and his poetry alike–wrote a letter today in which he wistfully remembered his childhood days there.

Aug. 23.

” . . . I suppose you are still at Glen. I wish I could be there for the 31st. Talking of the hills, do you remember that day long ago, when a nursery-party we were all descending Minchmuir, and you thought I would be cold, and wrapped me in your rose-coloured lovely petticoat? I love to think of those days; and another time, in later years, when Zelle was balanced shriekingly, on the broad back of a hill pony, which was subsiding into a bog with her. Those were the days when David used to ride Little Diamond; I hope you haven’t forgotten how he and the groom were observed coming across the golf course, vente a terre, closely pursued by a wasp. What fun we all had then…

Do you remember when we were at Kirk House (Kirket) and you were sitting at your writing-table in the ‘tippits for mice’ drawing-room, when a grim procession passed the window headed by me, followed by Clare, one of the maids, two of the gardeners, Christopher, and finally Willson with a ladder, the whole thing explained by the fact that Mdlle. Kremser, the French governess, had climbed a tree and was totally unable to get down unaided? Then the games of cricket with a rubber ball when Jack Pease was unanimously received into the ‘uncledom.’

We had a splendid house in a tree behind Willie Houston’s house (where those little apples used to fall from the tree, and be so delightedly gathered and eaten) years came and went and Willie Houston’s relays of dogs were invariably called ‘Nellie’ quite regardless of sex : ‘Aye, I just ca’ him Nellie.’ What a perfect troll he was! God rest his soul. I think our family has many more good jokes than any other, don’t you?

That last line, in a gauzy nutshell, is why the “conflict of the generations” is a clumsy tool for fine work. Bimbo loves his mother immoderately, borrowed petticoats aside: she is beautiful and wise and, in keeping with the tradition established by her senior officer in the Souls, Lady Desborough, she may have strenuously insisted upon the fact that everyone, always, was having fun. If so, Bimbo is a most loyal scion, and manifestly unfitted for disenchantment.

Now endless love from your devoted son,

Bim.

P.S. I hope my proofs will come soon. I daresay if I wore black shirts, and painted execrable futurist pictures, and wrote verse that was quite incomprehensible, the reviewers would take it for genuine ‘poesie.'[1]

And yes, there’s the kicker. There is a middle ground, of course, namely the way shown by Sorley, which Rosenberg, Graves, and Sassoon are beginning to pursue. But if that Georgian-to-realist mode is not even in view, and if the cheerful young aristocrat-with-pen sees only the mad-eyed Futurists and his own not-even-neo Romantic juvinilia, well… Bim’s proofs shall be proof that mere months in the trenches cannot budge the fairy-strewn Medievalism lodged in some winsome hearts…

 

And now for one of those older men who bridges the 19th century novel and, if not quite the wacky excesses of true Futurism, then at least the arriving Modernist upheaval. Ford Madox Hueffer, we may remember, has recently been blown up and deprived of his memory. Or not. The published letters are carefully agnostic on this matter (although perhaps simply by way of the accidents of preservation), but there is hardly enough in the way of references to traumatic memory loss in these letters to Lucy Masterman (the first undated, but assigned tentatively to August) to bolster the shaky assumptions that have been made.

Attd. 9/Welch, 19th Div.
B.E.F, Belgium

Dear old Lucy,

Using a good deal of determination, I have got out of the muses’ hands & back to duty, after an incredibly tortuous struggle across France. I rather began to think that I shall not be able to “stick it”–the conditions of life are too hard and the endless waitings too enervating. However, that is on the knees of the Gods…

I… am not vastly happy with the people here–can’t get on with the C. O. or the adjt.—wh. is disagreeable. However, it is very interesting, all of it—if not gay.

So he has been away–in hospital, perhaps. But why “the muses?” Or has he been somewhere else since the hhospital? In any event, no word of memory loss and life-altering trauma.

Then, today, a century back:

Attd. 9/Welch
19th Div, B.E.F.
23.8.16

Dearest Lucy,

I am fairly cheerful again, thank you–tho’ I do not get on with the C. O., & the Adjt. overworks me because I talk Flemish… Still it is all very interesting & one learns a little more everyday.

Still no references, but then again this is very repetitive. Many letters, especially those that may be spaced by weeks, are repetitive–who can remember what they wrote? And trench warfare is repetitive, so this is no smoking gun of memory loss. Hm.

We have been out of the trenches since Monday & go in again almost immediately—but it is quiet here at its most violent compared with the Somme. Even the strafe that the artillery got up for George V—wh. the artillery off’rs called “great” or “huge” according to their temperaments—wd., for sound, have gone into an old woman’s thimble in Albert, not to speak of Bécourt or Fricourt. George V—whom I saw strolling about among the Cheshires—really was in some danger. At least he was in an O. P. that was being shelled fairly heavily when I was in it “for instruction.” But I guess they squashed the Bosche fire fairly effectually while he was here. Still he gave the impression of a “good plucked ‘un”—& the P. O. W.—who was quite unrecognizable, was perfectly businesslike.

Still no mention of debilities. Perhaps it hasn’t happened yet? Perhaps it happened, and has yet to be exaggerated-in-the-telling? In any event, prim reporting on the King’s recent visit is hardly indicative of any particularly strange fires akindle in the smithy of the Fordian soul.

But now there is a reference to a week in an ambulance. So it did happen, it would seem–although possibly not when he claimed, and probably not in the shockingly course-altering way he will come to describe it.

I rather think the staff is nibbling at me…[2] I shd. not be really sorry—because I have had my week in the Somme & three weeks here & a week in Field Ambulance & a week draft conducting. I shd. naturally prefer going on as a regimental off’r—but the C. O.—an ex-Eastbourne Town Councillor & the adjt, an ex-P. O. clerk—annoy me—the C. O. says I am too old & the adjt. thanks me all day long for saving the H. Q. Mess 2 frs. 22 on turnips & the like. I don’t know which I dislike most.

Well, that’s what you get for meandering into the New Army in 1915 and speaking some Flemish… this will all be fodder for the big novel. And it’s not that Ford couldn’t always write, it’s just that he is still writing in a less-than-revolutionary descriptive mode. Here’s a bit of “Trench Pastoral, with Bombardment:”

Still, otherwise, it is—tho’ you won’t believe it—a dreamy sort of life in a grey green country & even the shells as they set out on their long journeys seem tired. It is rather curious, the extra senses one develops here. I sit writing in the twilight &, even as I write, I hear the shells whine & the M. G.’s crepitate & I see (tho’ it is hidden by a hill) the grey, flat land below & the shells bursting…

Inconclusive, then. But the letter ends in unfortunately Fordian fashion: a plea for strings to be pulled (Lucy Masterman is the wife of the propaganda chief C.F.G. Masterman) and a pot-shot at his own de facto wife, soon to undergo transformation into one of Modernism’s most frightening ogresses.

 Love to C. F. G. I suppose he cd. not get me sent to Paris. I shd. like a weekend there and cd. spout about the Somme and here.

Yrs.

V[iolet Hunt] seems very queer; don’t tell her anything that I tell you, because she does so worry.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Memoir, 221-2.
  2. It is not. In fact, due to his German parentage, Ford and his brother are on a list that bars them from staff work.
  3. Letters of Ford Madox Ford, 68-70.

Raymond Asquith on Beauty, Wit, and the Last Act of Basil Hallam, a Figure From Immensely Remote Days

Basil Hallam Radford went to Charterhouse, a few years before Robert Graves, and then on to Oxford, with any number of our literary subalterns. Otherwise, his path was quite unusual: he was an actor, first in Shakespearean roles, and then on the popular stage. At the age of twenty-five, he had a big music hall hit in 1914 with the character of “Gilbert the Filbert,” a caricature of the society dandy and waster, or “knut.”

Several of our writers recall hearing or singing the “Gilbert the Filbert,” song, performed and recorded by Hallam, as they went to war. The drawling Edwardian bonhomie should perhaps have seemed out of place for the beginning of a grim conflict, but instead it seemed perfect for the British spirit of 1914. Gilbert became a figure that the New Army volunteer might winkingly embrace as he set about learning the soldier’s trade with diffidence and ill-concealed seriousness.

I’m Gilbert the Filbert, the Knut with a K
The pride of Piccadilly, the blasé roué
Oh Hades, the ladies, who leave their wooden huts
For Gilbert the Filbert, the Colonel of the Knuts.

Hallam’s military path was also unusual: he enlisted, then volunteered for the Royal Flying Corps, then became an observer in the balloon corps. There was a tremendous expansion of both the number and role of powered aircraft in the first two years of the war, but the captive (i.e. moored to the ground) balloons still played a crucial role, spotting for the artillery and warning of enemy movements. It was hazardous work.

 

Today, a century back, Hallam’s life came to a horrifyingly visible end. Kipling‘s Irish Guards were nearby.

One little horror of a life where men had not far to look for such things stands out in the record of preparations that went on though the clangour and fury of the Somme around them. On a windy Sunday evening at Couin, in the valley north of Bus-les-Artois, they saw an observation-balloon, tethered near their bivouacs, break loose while being hauled down. It drifted towards the enemy line. First they watched maps and books being heaved overboard, then a man in a parachute jumping for his life, who landed safely. “Soon after, something black, which had been hanging below the basket, detached itself and fell some three thousand feet. We heard later that it was Captain Radford (Basil Hallam). His parachute apparently caught in the rigging and in some way he slipped out of the belt which attached him to it. He fell near Brigade Headquarters.” Of those who watched, there was not one that had not seen him at the “Halls” in the immensely remote days of “Gilbert the Filbert, the Colonel of the Nuts.”[1]

 

Near the Second Irish Guards were the 3rd Grenadier Guards, and Raymond Asquith. Asquith wrote a fairly sweet letter to his wife Katherine today: he joked about the photographs of their three children she had recently sent, he complained about their extended family, etc. But to Diana Manners, his companion in roué wickedness–or in talking that talk, at least–he wrote a rather shocking one. First, there is the extent of the endearments:

Candidly, my darling Dian—and not merely because of your divine charity to me this last week or so—you seem to me to have been adding every day a string or two to your bow; and bows, unlike broth, in this respect can hardly be spoiled by too many. As for your body I know it to be perfect in every cell, and certain to remain so if not for all time, for all the time that counts. And for me, and I believe for all who have seen you as you are, with eyes not bunged by cant, or fat, or age, you have spiked the guns of change and chance, and anchored in all our hearts a steady image of inviolate loveliness, which no weather can ever stain nor wind disturb…

Asquith’s letter then turns to the question of her wit and opinions, and the tone is no less exalted. It’s clear by now that he must be responding to some unusually plaintive letter from Manners in which she questions her own intellectual abilities. Oddly, considering what will come, Asquith plants the flag for the newness of the opinions of the Coterie–their group of twenty- and thirty-something society wits and high-livers. They are the children of the Souls, and they will not recycle their parents’ opinions:

We do not hunt the carted hares of 30 years ago. We do not ask ourselves and one another and every other poor devil we meet “How do you define Imagination?”, or “What is the difference between talent and genius?”, and score an easy triumph by anticipating the answer with some text-book formula, originally misconceived by George Wyndham in the early eighties…  because it was a sacred obligation to respect whatever struck the late Sir Charles Tennant as a cut above what he had heard in the night school at Paisley where they taught him double entry…

This, rather remarkably even for the snooty and wounding Asquith, is a shot at his step-mother’s father (also Bim Tennant‘s grandfather), a businessman who rose to the peerage through trade and politics. It’s hard to tell if Asquith, who after all has no great estates of his own, and money worriers, and had worked as a barrister, is exaggerating the snobbery for comic effect. But he is dead serious, I think, about what does and does not suit the Souls.

It is not for you and me to make our fingers bleed by picking the oakum of metaphysics, but if anyone has the fancy to speculate in a well-bred manner between the chinks, I am his man or hers…

It seems as if this letter was begun a day or two ago, set aside, and then finished after the drama of Hallam’s death.

This certain fall seems to come almost as a divine challenge to the mettle of the Utterly Heartless Novelty of Opinion that Asquith has just proposed. And Asquith disposes: he now goes on to describe Hallam’s death with a nasty little twist of black humor, lying like a hidden blade in the clever phrasing:

But I cannot end I suppose without telling you that Basil Hallam was killed before my eyes by falling 6000 ft. or
so from an escaped balloon. He came to earth in a village 1/2 a mile from where I stood, falling a few yards from Mark Tennant, shockingly foreshortened, but recognisable by his cigarette case.

His companion descended more gradually by parachute just the right side of the German lines, over which the empty balloon drifted. I saw Edgy Knollys today, who had come from burying him. A frightening death, even to look at. I do not know how sad this will make you, I hope not too sad. But I cannot say.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Irish Guards in the Great War, II, 91.
  2. Life and Letters, 286-8.

George Coppard Tours the Dugouts; Tolkien Back in Trenches; Bimbo Tennant Dodges Minnies; Flowers in This Noisy Desert from Raymond Asquith

George Coppard, machine-gunner, had witnessed the aftermath of the July 1st attack on one of the least successful sectors. By now the attack had pushed on enough for the German front lines to be used as support lines for the British. Which brings one more ratification of one of the great problems with that assault: that German preparation went much deeper, as it were, than the reach of British artillery, or imaginations of the General Staff.

On 25 July we took over trenches near Ovillers, which had just been captured by the Australians. We mounted the Vickers in the old German front line of 1 July, the exact sector that we had faced from our position in front of Aveluy Wood. Our dead were still hanging on the wire, but were shortly removed and buried.

It was staggering to see the high standard of the trenches that the Jerry front-line troops had used… Some of the dugouts were thirty feet deep, with as many as sixteen bunk-beds, as well as door bells, water tanks with taps, and cupboards and mirrors. Apart from the personal comfort enjoyed by the Germans in them, the deep dugouts had withstood everything that our heavy artillery had flung at them. When our hearts had leapt at the seemingly devastating bombardment of those trenches, and had imagined that Jerries were being smashed to bits, the enemy were in all probability playing cards or carousing… it seemed as if we were a load of amateurs when compared with the professional thoroughness of the Germans.[1]

 

Also moving up to trenches today, a century back, were the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers. John Ronald Tolkien, formerly the deputy to the Signals Officer, has recently been given the head job, and is thus responsible for keeping his battalion in touch with their brigade and higher formations. The Lancashires are in the front line near Beaumont-Hamel, a quiet sector now but still well within the reach of the German artillery. Taking several casualties, they began extensive work on improving the defenses in the sector: deepening dugouts, extending wire barriers, etc. Tolkien would have been involved in the laying of new, thicker cables from battalion headquarters to the rear. And just as he begins this cutting-edge practical work, G.B. Smith is writing him a letter from not far away, praising Tolkien’s poetic praise of a land that is now, to them, both Blighty and Faerie.[2]

 

So a quiet day for us, all in all, and thus another opportunity to check in on those left out of the battle. The Guards Division, battered during Loos and yet still a corps d’elite–especially in the social sense–is still manning the line in Belgium. In the 4th Battalion, Grenadier Guards, Bimbo Tennant has been writing home regularly, hoping to cheer his mother after the recent loss of her newborn daughter–the words “happy,” “jolly,” and “fun” seem to appear almost as regularly as he professes his love for her.

And, indeed, he has had little to complain about: he reads, climbs, goes fishing, and hardly seems to be within the sound of the guns. His chief excitement is their joint project: Lady Glenconner is seeing a small edition of her son’s poems into print.

But the war will not stay far away for long. Yesterday, Bimbo wrote that he had taken communion and was marching up to the trenches. It’s not the Somme, but neither is the Salient a picnic this July, and Bimbo promptly reminds us why his letters are so interesting. The almost insanely chipper tone–“jolly” is downgraded merely to “pleasant” when he enters the trenches–does not preclude military forthrightness. Does he wish to be honest, or does it not occur to him that a woman who has lost her baby might not care to read about the new perils faced by her eldest? But perhaps she does…

July 25th

We came into these trenches again last night at 11.15 P.M. and Constable and I walked about and directed work till daylight. At about 6 (after breakfast) I had a very pleasant ‘sneeping-party’ till about 10.45, when the C.O. came round. He was extremely pleasant. After he had been gone under an hour they shelled us a bit and treated us to an unpleasant device known as a ‘minnewerfer,’ and called a Minny for short. These are enormous trench mortars which shoot a missile about twice the size of a magnum of champagne, and make a fearful row when they land. Their only good point is that you can see them coming all the way (with luck), and so it is becoming quite a game. They don’t shoot well with them, and we always turn on our heavy guns when they start, so they don’t send over many. But it is an exciting moment when this clumsy thing soars into the air, seeming to halt at its zenith, before it comes down. It does not require much judgment to avoid them. I’ve just had a pleasant wash and shave in the trench, while Lomas kept a good look out for Minnies, and I feel very much refreshed. The post has not come in yet. I hope there will be a letter from you. We had a corporal wounded by a rifle grenade this morning; that is a bomb fired out of the muzzle of a rifle, which makes it go further. He was hit in the ankle and fore-arm, and was simply jubilant. The other chaps envied him a good deal, and so did I. He will probably go straight for England. There is no news except that I am well and happy and longing to see you.

Ever devoted Son.[3]

 

HugoCharteris

Hugo “Ego” Charteris, Lord Elcho

And nearby, in the 3rd Battalion of the same regiment (and, more to the point, in a neighboring brigade of the same division) is Raymond Asquith. I have neglected him for quite some time amidst all the action of the Somme, and missed significant–and very bad–news. Hugo (“Ego”) Charteris–brother-in-law of both Diana Manners (he married her sister Letty) and of Asquith himself (Cynthia Charteris, Ego’s sister had married Herbert Asquith, Raymond’s younger brother)–has been killed in Egypt.[4] His letter of July 10th to Diana begins as an elegy in his inimitable style, but moves swiftly to a sweeping statement of angry despair.

…How I wish that I could comfort you but I can’t. Ego is irreplaceable–you will never find another man who can even pretend (as he used to) not to want to kiss you. And he had other strange and fascinating qualities which we shall not see the like of again. A blind God butts about the world with a pair of delicately malignant antennae to detect whatever is fit to live and an iron hoof to-stamp it into the dust when found. It seems amazing that the bony fingers of fate and spite should push into what seemed the safest field of all the War and nip the finest flower in it. One’s instinct that the world (as we know it) is governed by chance is almost shaken by the accumulating evidence that it is “the best which is always picked out for destruction. But one ought not to jump to conclusions. Out here I believe one feels these disasters less than one would at home. If one thinks at all (which rarely happens) one feels that we are all living so entirely on the edge of doom, so liable at any moment to fall in with the main procession, that the order of going seems less-important, the only text that comes into my mind at these times is “Let determined things to destiny take unbewailed their way”–I think from Antony and Cleopatra, isn’t it?

I believe I have struck, at times, a somewhat prudish posture with regard to Asquith’s society habits–namely his constant praise of the beauty of a woman-friend who is, of course, not his wife. But this is writing! Which means it’s literature, which means it is supposed to lift us up, to sustain us, in some mysterious way. And is not beauty the best ammunition with which to blaze away against the steady bite-and-hold attacks of time’s relentless attacking waves?

It would be both hard-hearted and foolish to query the consolations of beauty–and of writing about it–from a man in the filth and misery of the Salient.

diana manners cooper 1914

Diana Manners

How right you are to go on claiming and expecting new love and new life, until physical decay throws us all back upon memories and ghosts and fables and films of the past. It seems hard to believe that time and chance which happens to all men can happen to you.

“For thy eternal beauty shall not fade
“Nor lose possession of that fair”

–and yet I suppose it will happen; but it has given me the worst twinge I have had in the War to think of the children not turning round to look at you any more.

Oh dear, this is a maudlin graveyard kind of letter, not at all what I meant to write. But after living in the same clothes for a fortnight one has no self respect left, either physical or intellectual.

. . . Your letters are flowers in this noisy desert.

 

There is much more from Asquith, but in order to bring us relatively swiftly to date, I shall have to excerpt from even the gripping parts.

On the same day, too, he wrote to his wife Katherine. Here he keeps leaves aside the lamenting cadenza to return to the tonic, the drone, the steady bass-note of war: senselessness, misery, and socks.

raymond asquith, 1915

Raymond Asquith

. . . I agree with you about the utter senselessness of war, but I do not think about it even so often as one day in seven; one of its chief effects being to make one more callous shortsighted and unimaginative than one is by nature. It extends the circle of one’s acquaintance, but beyond that I cannot see that it has a single redeeming feature. The suggestion that it elevates the character is hideous. Burglary, assassination; and picking oakum would do as much for anyone.

I also got last night a parcel of socks from Frances with your note inside and the frozen eau de cologne, which is very refreshing…

Yesterday I saw a very handsome fly with a bottle green bodice and magenta skirt. This is the nearest I can get to a pretty woman . . .

There are several more letters sharing anecdotes–near misses from aerial bombs, “rather boring cricket,” profitable games of “trench baccarat,” dinner with the Prince of Wales, –and sending thanks for elaborate parcels.

On the 23rd, Asquith brought himself to go swimming in a lake, a pastime he usually avoided. And then he went flower-gathering, which doesn’t seem quite like him either. But he manages nevertheless to preserve his favorite note of comic-gruesome realism.

by Cavendish Morton, platinum print, 1907

Katherine Asquith (National Portrait Gallery)

I went for a walk with another fellow to a place called Elverdinghe Chateau… There is a good big lake in the grounds and I was actually persuaded to bathe in it and found it quite enjoyable. Every now and then one ran into a large carp floating o a the surface killed by shell shock. On the way home I practised my botany which I found rather rusty. There are plenty of flowers about here and rather nice trees. I got chicory and corn flowers and poppies and michaelmas daisies and St John’s wort, and goldenrod and corn cockles, and many kinds of vetches and clovers and some caryophyllaceae which I did not know or could not remember . . .

Flowers and shell-shocked carp. And today, a century back, Asquith rises to an occasion:

3rd Grenadier Guards,
B.E.F.
25 July 1916

. . . Do you know that today’s the anniversary of our wedding? Nine years it is, as nearly as I can reckon. They seem very short and wonderfully pleasant as one looks back on them. You are sweeter and more lovely even than you were then, my Fawn, and I adore you a million times more and I am not sorry, not a bit.

Give my love to Trim[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 86.
  2. Chronology, 85.
  3. Memoir, 207-210.
  4. His brother Yvo, a friend of Osbert Sitwell, had died in 1915. This continues the decimation of the sons of the Souls that had begun with the deaths of the Grenfell brothers.
  5. Life and Letters, 273-8. Trim would be the baby, youngest of three...

Wilfred Owen on an Artists’ Private’s Life; More Royalty Spotting; Patrick Shaw-Stewart’s Serious Reading

Wilfred Owen updates his mother today, a century back:

Sunday [2 November 1913] Tavistock Square

Dearest Mother,

I have no post-cards, hence another letter, simply to say that the Second Inoculation has taken mildly enough. It was done at midday yesterday: there was enough pain to justify a morning in bed! This time one of my ‘friends’ did a faint.  It must be pure nerves: the ‘poison’ can’t invade the system in half-a-minute…

I spend a good part of my leisure polishing my buttons and badges. It is a frightful bore. Can this explain the military oath—‘Dash my buttons!’? This morning I have massaged my new boots with Castor Oil. We were told to pour it inside the boot! The stench resulting is perhaps the very first inconvenience I have yet endured.

Well, soldier, there is nothing more important than taking care of your feet. Observe! And, when you can, report.

By way of preface to this next paragraph I should note that all this attention to his kit is not so much dandyism or physical amour propre (not that Owen is entirely innocent of either) as it is residual excitement about the newness of the army combined with the family class obsession. Should he succeed in the Artists’–and thus win his commission–he will succeed in confirming the gentlemanly status his mother has always coveted for him. And you must look the part.

I have bought my swagger cane, and now feel perfectly normal in Khaki. Apart from the treasonable unlawfulness of appearing in mufti, I should feel positively ill at ease in it. No collar & tie means an economy of dressing-time; but it is paid for by the puttees, which… are difficult to arrange neatly. I wear the trousers bagged below the knee; but such as care to buy breeches may dress in cavalry style. In the Inns of Court no one wears the khaki provided but buys officer’s stuffs, (without stripes of course.) There is a pretty general feeling of contempt for the Inns of Court among our men, that may be founded on envy. We are forbidden to wear waterproofs or Burberrys or mufflers or brown boots—by a special Battalion Order! So far, then, our chiefest cares have been frivolous details of this sort, but there is a stem time coming—in Camp. There is a story that three men deserted from Camp. They were not shot at dawn, but simply excluded from Commissions…

If only this Life went on indefinitely I should be well pleased. It is really no great strain to strut round the gardens of a West-end square for six or seven hours a day. Walking abroad, one is the admiration of all little boys, and meets an approving glance from every eye of eld. I sometimes amuse myself by sternly contemplating the civilian dress of apparent Slackers. They return a shifty enough expression. When I clamp-clump-clamp-clumped into the Poetry Bookshop on Thursday, the poetic ladies were not a little surprised…

Swagger cane indeed. This is a bit of a silly letter, yet it’s also a good reminder of the dual purpose of military dress. Well, the triplex purpose, if one assumes that wearing a simple tunic and wrapping the lower legs in long strips of cloth (‘puttees’) is also done for practical reasons: the soldiers are rendered similar to each other (i.e. ‘uniform’) and set apart from the civilian world. And then of course there are all these little regimental differences: the Inns of Court? Those barrister-types are too posh, already aping the officers they will become. Then again, ordinary regiments are too slack–the Artists’ have it just right…

In an addendum dated tomorrow, a soldier’s proper thanks and more Bookshop-centric news:

Monday. The Parcel came-this morning. The handkerchiefs were just in time, and the chocs I seized with schoolboyish relish!

….Sgt. Knight has charge of us now—the county cricketer: do Father, or Colin know of his renown? There is a legend that our Doctor attended the King. Certainly he belongs to a noble Order, K.C.B. or something. There seem no Artists whatever among us!

This morning I was talking to a recruit of a Henry Irving countenance, who persists in wearing long strands of hair visible in front of the Cap. He has been ‘ticked-off’ four or five times for it; but is not yet shot at dawn.

This is new-soldier rhetoric. Those who have been to France, and know how busily the BEF has been shooting (at dawn, yes) soldiers who break down or run, will drop this little phrase from the jocular sections of their vocabulary.

I am fairly close cropped…

I found a room… right opposite the Poetry Bookshop! A plain enough affair—candlelight—no bath—and so on; but there is a coffee-shop underneath…[1]

 

But speaking of the King and his doctors (we were, there, briefly), we’ve been waiting with bated breath to discover the result of HM’s quickly-hushed-up accident. In short, it doesn’t seem like a big deal. In fact, it was a positive development, overall: the King having been so manifestly in harm’s way–suffering at least some danger from the mud–puts him a slight step closer to the old battlefield kings of the middle ages. Which is the point of largely symbolic leadership, after all.

Edward Hermon was a near eye-witness:

It is bad luck about the King. His horse came over backwards with him & I heard he had a rib broken but am not sure.[2] I was standing in the road as he left the first parade on the way to the second & he passed me quite close & then I went to a corner where I had some men & was just getting them mounted when to my horror I saw the Royal Car coming towards me as hard as it could go… I thought H.M. was lying back very far in his car & I knew he couldn’t have fulfilled his programme but I thought it was perhaps the wet that had stopped things… I did not hear until later in the day that he had had an accident.[3]

Kathleen Luard, with her hands rather more full, is less bothered by a riding accident. She does, however, approve of the King’s son, the future Edward VIII:

Tuesday, November 2nd

It has rained again all day without stopping. We are wondering who had been sent to the Château to nurse a certain august patient. The ‘damned good boy’ (Prince of Wales) has made himself a great name with everybody. They all call him ‘a stout fellow.’ He visits dug-outs when they’re being heavily shelled, and when he at last says, “I think we’ll go back now, the rapidly ageing officer in charge of him heaves a sigh of relief and gets him away…[4]

 

Finally, today, Patrick Shaw-Stewart, erstwhile habitué of as many balls and weekend parties as could be crammed into his schedule, is doing his best to keep up his social life. Yesterday he wrote to Raymond Asquith, leader of the Coterie; today he writes to his school mate Julian Grenfell‘s mother, Lady Desborough, thus uniting both famous high society cliques all in a day (or two’s) correspondence.

Part of the reason the two groups garnered so much attention was that they were unusually open to intellectual endeavor–or, at least wit. Much of high society limited itself to sport and nightlife, but the Souls and the Coterie carried books about. Which many of them could read, and discuss, while the rest made a point of affecting to pretend to.

And odd letter, then, reporting to one’s dead friend’s mother on one’s reading. But it is impressively varied:

I have read Lord Ormont and Redgauntlet and Lavengro and Finlay’s Greece under the Romans, and
Mademoiselle de Maupin, and Hewlett’s Open Country, and some Herodotus, and some Lucretius, and
re-read The Egoist, arid I am reading Bosanquet’s Theory of the State, and Macaulay’s History, and
Love and Mr Lewisham, also I have read some Gibbon, and Guy and Pauline. I sustained my opinion of The Egoist (which is an exalted one) very completely in re-reading. I have now lent it to a Frenchman who thinks he knows English well, with malicious joy.

Is he showing off? Yes. But is it impressive anyway? Yes. Novels, historical romances, histories… and that would be Herodotus in Greek and Lucretius in Latin, thank you very much. And The Egoist? Not, alas, the seminal Modernist periodical to which several of our writers have contributed, but rather the Meredith novel…[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 363-5.
  2. A pelvis, in fact, which sounds a good deal more painful.
  3. For Love and Courage, 125.
  4. Unknown Warriors, 29.
  5. Patrick Shaw-Stewart, 152-4.

Wilfred Owen on Inoculations and Readings; Osbert Sitwell and Bimbo Tennant on Fevers and Traumas; Horror on Sister Luard’s Station

Today marks the first official letter from the soldier Wilfred Owen to his beloved mother.

Thursday Mng. [21 October 1915]

Dearest of Mothers,

I [several words illegible] attacked the day by going straight to Headquarters. It was found that the Doctor had not given his signature to my papers so I was examined again—and passed. Three others at the same time were refused. One was mad about it and insisted on knowing why. ‘I don’t think you look a strong man’ was the first reply. (But he did!) More expostulation.

Dr. ‘I shouldn’t like to risk you—with those teeth in your head.’

Recruit.‘They can come out.’

Dr. ‘Well, if you must know, your heart murmurs sometimes.’ And so on with other apparently robust fellows! I still did not ‘swear in’; but spent the afternoon hunting for Rooms…

In the middle of this letter I was called to lunch; and then went to ‘swear in’. This time it is done: I am [in][1] the British Army! Three of us had to read the Oath together; the others were horribly nervous and read the wrong Paragraph until the Captain stopped them! ‘Kiss the Book!’ says Captain. One gives it a tender little kiss; the other a loud smacking one!!

After that we had to be inoculated for Typhoid. And that is why I am in bed since four o clock! The delightfully kind, confidence-inspiring doctor gave us full instructions. There were scores of Tommies taking the ordeal before me, and believe me some were as nervous as only fine, healthy animals can be before doctors. One fainted before his turn came, merely as a result of the Doctor’s description of possible symptoms!

You will be glad to hear, that though it is three hours ago, I have no constitutional symptoms whatever! Merely a local soreness… I feel so physically happy that it might have been Morphine injected! We have sick leave until Monday morning. The hours are 9:30 to 5! Jolly reasonable!

The Poetry Bookshop is about 7 mins, walk! There is a Reading this very night…

Fondest Love to Father, Mary and the Dearest of Boys,

From your lovingest of Boys Wilfred[2]

It’s a jolly, profusely exlcamatory holiday for our Wilfred, so far. And–even though I have been testing out my portentous historian’s gong, threatening to ring out the short second year of the war and usher in the third year early with a winter of undeniable, steel-helmeted stalemate–nothing quite says “the beginning of a Great War experience” like an enlistment letter written in the highest of spirits and culminating in the rapturous expectation of a poetry reading…

 

Speaking of high spirits, Bimbo Tennant is maintaining his, even in the face of trench fever.

21st October, Trafalgar Day.
My darling Moth’,

This is just to tell you that I have got a slight sore throat, and am in a comfortable hospital at Béthune. I expect
(D.V.) I shall be out to-morrow or the next day, and I shall not join the Battalion in the trenches this time…

My temperature was 99’4 yesterday morning, 99’2 last night, and 99’4 again this morning. It has gone down a bit since then I think. There are 15 beds in this ward, about 6 occupied. I feel like a cave man who has discovered how to be warm. This bed with sheets and a “swish,” [hot-water bottle] is celestial. When the Battalion comes out of these trenches they are going into tomorrow, the Guards Division is to have a well-earned fortnight’s rest. During which there will be some leave, but I don’t know whether I shall get any or not. It has made the whole difference to Osbert and I having each other’s company, and I hope I go back to him soon, for of course I am not nearly bad enough to be sent to the base. The quiet here seems quite unusual and I sometimes think that motors approaching are shells coming.

Because of his ingenuous and affectionate letter-writing style, or in spite of it? In any case, it seems clear that Bim is now in the early stages of a post-traumatic stress reaction.

I am still very unhappy about Ivo and will write to Aunt Mary to-night.

God bless you, darling Moth’. I am longing to see you soon (D.V.). My little cross disappeared mysteriously from off my neck, please send me another. I still treasure three photies of you, a St. Christopher Medal, a four-leaved clover, and a little Paschal Lamb…

That would be seven good luck charms–a lot, but not an atypical lot–of juju.

Now I must stop, darling Mummie.
Ever your devoted Son,

Bimbo.

P.S.—There was a young lady called Ryan,
Who went for a ride on a lion.
Of remains there are some.
In the lion’s tum-tum.
But the rest is an Angel in Sion.

Osbert told me this the other day and it amused me.

Loving Bimbo

 

What can’t Osbert Sitwell do? Competently command a company of Grenadier Guards? Spirit an unwilling subordinate to the hospital? Spread cheer in Limerick form?

He also wrote a letter, yesterday, to Lady Glenconner, none other than Bimbo’s darling Moth’. Which explains Bimbo’s condition in somewhat different terms. Aristocratic privilege, it would seem, trumps company commander-subordinate privilege… No, that’s not quite right. It’s more that one is bound to feel a bit silly when one realizes that that “best friend” the slightly older camp counselor has a crush on your mother, and is glossing your own letters home behind your back…

I have just taken Bimbo round to see the doctor (we are out of the trenches for three days), who has put him to bed, and given him aspirin and a gargle, as he is not very well. He has a slight temperature. It is the first time I have ever seen him depressed.

I think Ivo’s death and the terrific shelling we had have shaken him rather: but he is a bit better to-day.

I am afraid all this is rather like a letter from a doctor, but I feel it is what you want to know!

We are living in a ruin in Vermelles. But it seems like England after the last five or six days of trench-work.
I cannot see any possibility of this war ending within ten years.

And Bimbo is “depressed?” No–Bimbo is shell shocked, traumatized, on edge. Osbert is–apparently–fine, and indulging in dangerous mixtures of maternal reportage and Soul-imitating (Coterie coveting?) deadpan defeatism.

Do write and tell us if there is any cheery news in England.

Vermelles is certainly a curiously interesting city. There is not one stone left upon another. We all live in dark, deep cellars. I cannot think what crime can have been perpetrated by the former inhabitants, in order to bring down the fulfilment of a Biblical curse. It must have been very uninteresting. Perhaps that was its crime. At any rate, it has a fierce charm of its own now…

Bimbo says will you send him some gloves (for himself) and some cigarettes for the men? His singing, meanwhile, is very popular out here.

This letter now stops automatically for want of anything to say.

Yours ever,

Osbert[3]

 

If the war (or the war writing) will continue to evolve toward an adversary proceeding that pits traumatized combatants against fat and satisfied, noisily Hun-hating home-front jingos, then those non-combatants who see (and work with) the worst of war are in a special, liminal category. For the most part, the most obvious effect this middle position has on their writing is to strip it of the confounding complexity that Bimbo and Osbert have just muddled through.

Combatants struggle to express horror, to explain trauma, and to accurately describe their evolving feelings, all while maintaining the expected demeanor of confidence and good humor. Kathleen Luard, newly returned to the front lines of nursing, writes as a sympathetic observer. She sees more pain and suffering than most soldiers will, but it is not her pain, nor is she under ressure to drag every hardship and horror toward an uplifting ending.

A boy is lying smiling all day with his head, right hand and both legs wounded, and his left arm off. When asked ‘Are you happy?’ he said with a beam ‘Tryin’ to be.’

I happened to go into the Infant School [where one section of her Casualty Clearing Station is located] this morning, just in time to see a delirious boy, with a bad head-wound, with a large brain hernia, tear off all his dressings and throw a handful of his brains on to the floor. This is literally true, and he was talking all the time we re-dressed the hole in his head. Then we picked up the handful of brains, and the boy was quiet for a little while. He is very delirious and will not get better.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The editor of Owen's letters suggests that the omission of "in" might have been intentional--I'm not sure why.
  2. Letters, 259-60.
  3. Letters, 63-7.
  4. Unknown Warriors, 27.

Bimbo Tennant, Osbert Sitwell, and Rowland on the Life and Death of Ivo Charteris; Rowland Feilding Paints a War Picture of the Most Frightful Description; Edward Hermon on the Immortality of the Soul; Vera Brittain Prepares; Siegfried Sassoon Meets Robbie Ross

We begin today with a letter from tomorrow, a century back. Edward “Bimbo” Tennant has bad news. Since he is an ostentatiously loving and attentive son, we can chalk up the way he works around to it to sheer exhaustion:

18th October, 1915
Darling Moth’,

I am so sorry I haven’t written to you for some days, but we have been having such a restless and nerve-racking time since Thursday night…

I have not had four hours’ sleep on end since Thursday, but I manage to seize 20 minutes or sometimes 1 hour at odd times in even odder places, so I really manage very well and am as happy as can be expected seeing that dear Ivo was killed yesterday or the day before.

So this, perhaps, is how Lady Glenconner learned of the death of her nephew, Ivo Charteris, son of her sister (and fellow Sargent “Grace“) Lady Wemyss. Charteris, yet another nineteen-year-old Lieutenant, was killed today, a century back, in “a great bombing attack… by several Battalions of different Guards Brigades.”

Osbert and I are miserable about it, for no more lovable person ever stepped. I am terribly sorry for Aunt Mary and Mary, for she loved him very dearly. It is not yet officially stated that he is gone, but I fear it is too much to hope that the rumour is untrue…

How many times now have I declared Loos over “but for” some horrible little anatomic or natural metaphor? Spasms, contractions, ripples, aftershocks…

Well, it is still deadly, and the fighting around the Hohenzollern redoubt continues to be nasty. Little hills loom large, now.

It was fairly successful but we lost fairly heavily, even my battalion which sent its bombers up had over 40 casualties. Yesterday between 10 and 1 we were subjected to a terrific shell-fire, and as our artillery weren’t replying we heard only the awful sound of the approaching high explosive shells  and as they burst, belching black smoke, the earth shook and a shower of small stones and earth descended on us with an occasional piece of shell that whirs like a muffled factory engine and finishes with a thud as it strikes the top of the trench.

There’s no need, really, to connect the news of the death of his cousin to a new susceptibility to the sound of shells, to make this quick segue to his own impressions of deadly experiences a way to express inexpressible loss: Bim has been in action several weeks, now–and that’s about as long as most men can stand it unaffected…

I used to think I was fairly impervious to noise, but the crash upon crash, and their accompanying pillar of black smoke simply upset me, as they pitched repeatedly within 30 or 40 yards, and some even nearer. I don’t think I shewed I was any more frightened than any one else, perhaps I wasn’t.

What made it so racking was that there was nothing to do all the time but sit still waiting for the next, and the next. The strain was awful…

He is tired, strained–and although his close friend and first cousin is dead, life must go on, so it’s to the necessities that he goes next:

Now I must seize a little sleep. Moth’ darling. God bless you, and I trust we may be relieved to-morrow.  Could you send me a box of fairly substantial food?

Ever your devoted Son,
Bimbo[1]

I mentioned a few days ago that I had stumbled upon the letters of the chaplain John Ayscough. He had gone shopping on behalf of Lady Glenconner–for steel helmets. In a few weeks he will answer his own mother’s queries about whether this gift reached its recipient in time:

…poor young Yvo Charteris was already killed when I sent him the helmet. I fear it will make Lady Glenconner terrified for Bim. The officers of our Guards have suffered fearful losses from the very beginning of the war.[2]

Another of these officers–Osbert Sitwell again, Bim Tennant’s friend and company commander–is concerned for Lady Glenconner. Though only a few years older than Bim, he has appointed himself to be the special younger friend of the lady in question, and her son’s protector. And he too, will write of death and the sustenance of life.

My dear Lady Glenconner,

Please forgive me for not having written to thank you for the delightful food you sent me; but we have been so busy fighting. It was very kind of you. Bimbo and I are dreadfully sad over Ivo…

He was such a delightful and promising person. The only thing I can say is that I know he was quite unafraid
of death, having the real understanding of its inevitability, which seems extraordinarily uncommon.[3]

Later, looking back, Sitwell fleshes out this portrait considerably:

I can see Ivo now… Although so recently from school, he was, without any appearance of precocity, detached and ironic, nonchalant, in spite of decided opinions, and manifested in everything about him, even in the way he wore his top hat, innate style… his breeding showed in his whole appearance. He came plainly of a family long used to influence, and to the government of others… he would tell me of Stanway, the Elizabethan mansion that was his family home in Goucestershire, and which he loved so passionately… he would talk with such understanding of the countryside… But though he exhibited this deep, and rather unexpected feeling for nature, yet in all other respects a kind of eighteenth-century reasonableness, or love of reason, governed his outlook and conduct… he did not yield to impulse.[4]

Everyone is getting well practiced at writing eulogies.

 

So there is the microcosm: another bright young boy, another beloved son, another well-remembered scion of the aristocracy dead. And buried?

Probably not yet. Rowland Feilding is also on the scene of this assault, and in two days he will describe, in a letter to his wife, what is becoming one of the most thoroughly destroyed sectors of the front:

About 2 a.m. I visited Charles Noel in the Redoubt, and spent some time with him.

This shambles (you can call it nothing else) is about 200 yards in front of our old fire-trench. The part of it which we hold and the communication trench leading to it have been so shelled that, at the time we took them over, they were no longer trenches but ditches, very wide and shallow, with frequent upheavals in the floor, indicating the positions of dead men, now wholly or partly covered with earth splashed over them by the bursting shells and the passage of troops.

It would, I suppose, be an exaggeration to say that the parapets at this place are built up with dead bodies, but it is true to say that they are dovetailed with them, and everywhere arms and legs and heads protrude.

This is really an essential piece of writing. If it’s hard to capture the impact of the horrors of war in verse, it can also be very difficult to record them in prose. Almost everyone, when coming to write of their experiences, seems to permit the extension of the worst of what they saw: An hour of shelling punctuated by a few very close or very deadly bursts can read more like an hour entirely composed of closely packed explosions, an “inferno” that would really be impossible to survive; a stumbling attack into machine gun fire reads as if half the battalion was killed, but the statistics tell us that only a quarter (only!) were hit by the bullets.

This isn’t falsification so much as a misrepresentation of the quality of the lived-through past. We’re bad at that, as a species. (And, on the larger scale of months and years of war, rather than the minutes and hours of battle, one of the serious goals of this project is to attempt a reassessment of the qualities of passing historical time.) The extension of the worst, the crowding out of the less-memorable less-horrible, happens first unconsciously (i.e. the horrors loom large in their memory, while the moments of more ordinary terror evaporate) but is usually boiled down further with literary/historical intent.

History, if it does not purport (impossibly) to be chronicle–everything (but never everything) recorded in its place on the timeline–usually ends up being synecdoche: here are the few described events to stand for the period. Ir’s natural that a writer of war letters or a war memoir dwells upon the worst of war–and natural too, if rather more problematic, when historians follow suit.

Kudos to Rowland Feilding, then, for realizing (even at this early date) that he is about to record a cliché of trench horror, and–further kudos–for grasping that such clichés, coming straight from the front lines and on into the archives, not only do damage to “truth” but also tend to minimize the horrors. No trench can be built largely out of corpses,but a much-fought-over trench can be “dovetailed” with them: arms and legs, here and there, tucked in, like joined beams in a wall or roof.

Even without the staggering linguistic irony–probably not intended by Feilding–of the bird of peace alighting, through this carpentry term, upon war’s worst work yet–this is a wonderful example of fine, precise description of terrible, terrible things.

Interesting, too, is how Feilding goes now straight from horror to regimental spirit–good evidence again (quiet evidence, indirect evidence) of how much one’s pride in one’s unit can sustain the shattered spirit in conditions of fear and frightfulness.

At one place an arm and hand stuck out and dangled across the trench. On one of the fingers was a solid-looking gold ring, and in spite of the fact that, owing to the narrowness of the passage, each man that passed it had to brush the hand aside, it spoke well for the battalion, I thought, that to my knowledge the ring still remained untouched for more than twenty-four hours; and though in the end it disappeared I am convinced it was not taken by any Coldstreamer.

And then there is the soldier’s dawning realization that the constant reports of success do not match with the evidence of his eyes:

The artillery certainly did its work well here. The surface of the ground over a large area has been reduced to a shapeless jumble of earth mounds and shell-holes. The formidable wire entanglements have gone. On all sides lie the dead. It is a war picture of the most frightful description; and the fact that the dead are, practically speaking, all our dead, arouses in me a wild craving for revenge. Where are the enemy’s dead? We hear much of them, but we do not see them. During this fighting I have seen thousands almost count upon my fingers…

I am glad to have found so much excellent reportage in today’s letter. This has been an unexpected bonus, as it were, because I first went to Feilding: he, too, was part of the attack that cost Ivo Charteris his life:

At 5 a.m., while we were standing to, the Commanding Officer (Guy Baring) came hurrying along my trench. He said the plans had been changed, that we had just been detailed to take the place of the 3rd Grenadiers, and that we were to attack immediately. I asked for instructions. He replied: “There is no time for instructions. You must use your discretion.” Thus, as at the Chalk Pit, we had only a few minutes in which to organize our arrangements. Charles Noel’s bombers (No. 3 Coy.) and mine (No. 4) made the assault. I immediately reinforced Noel by sending one platoon under Jackson into the Redoubt, another to the communication trench leading to the Redoubt, and my remaining two platoons, under Daniell, to the first support trench. I myself, having seen the men into position, went into the Redoubt…

The bombers went in with dash, and to start with made good progress. They rushed the barricade separating us from the enemy, and bombed their way for a considerable distance beyond it. The trenches were, however, so flattened by shell-fire that they gave very little protection. At this spot they are, moreover, a regular tangle. There came a point where the party should have taken an insignificant-looking turning to the left, but in the darkness they bombed straight on. The trench they followed became so shallow that presently it ceased to give any cover at all. The Germans, who are always quick to spot a weakness of this kind, lost no time in making good their opportunity. They brought a machine-gun into position; and that ends the story.Our losses were not severe, but bad enough. I do not know what the casualties amounted to in the battalion.

Those in my Company, since we came up this time, are twenty-four, all told. These things begin to tell. I have lost, I suppose, ninety men, or half the Company, since we left Lumbres, and Nos. 1 and 2 Companies have lost considerably more, though the gaps have already been almost, if not entirely, filled by drafts from home.

I remained some hours in the Redoubt, which, at the time, was a very lively spot to be in. Fortunately for us, though the German shelling was very severe, it was a little wide of the ground we were fighting upon,—possibly owing to the proximity of many Germans, whose lives would have been jeopardized by closer shooting…

So the mixed attack of Grenadiers and Coldstreams has failed. Now, then, the retribution we have heard described above by Bimbo Tennant:

Our bombing attack brought on the heaviest bombardment I have yet sat under. It was at about its zenith at a
quarter to ten a.m. It lasted for over nine hours, and was intense during a great part of that time. The stream of German shells was continuous. They came in “coveys,” whistling through the air like a storm at sea. As I heard one of the men say—they came “in close column of platoons.” Often they were falling at the rate of quite a hundred a minute.

But our trenches here are like network: they are repeated—parallel after parallel; till not only by their very number are they confusing to the German gunners, but the area over which the fire is distributed is fortunately extended, and therein lies our chance of safety.

It is of course bewildering to be shelled like that. There is no denying that when such shelling happens to be concentrated on the particular bit of trench you are in, as it often is for an hour or more together, it is extremely disagreeable; but, on the whole, the damage done by these huge bombardments is out of all proportion to their cost, and they do not produce the moral effect—or rather the demoralizing effect —which is their sole object.

Once it is over you shake yourself and recover, and if you are healthily minded you soon have forgotten it, just as you forget the other disturbances of life. Yet, to tell the truth, I marvel myself sometimes how human nerves can stand the strain of our existence; day after day, night after night, hour after hour, being shelled; sometimes, for hours at a time, a heavy shell falling every few minutes within a few yards of you, shaking the ground beneath you, half stunning you with the crash of the explosion, and covering you with earth.[5]

 

We’ve had several records of the heavy bombardment today, now, and Edward Hermon, coming up to cope with the aftermath, closes this hard little chapter by turning to bigger questions. He too wrote–today–to his wife of what he had seen:

Well, I got back at 3 a.m. this morning alright after a very unpleasant night. Clearing a battlefield is not an amusement I can recommend except that it has the effect of making one perfectly callous to everything connected with life and death.

I cannot believe that this is the end of life. After what I saw last night I am convinced that the soul of man must be so to speak ‘detachable’. It is impossible that if there is a Divine will ruling all life, I cannot believe that this is the finish. The soul must leave to body to go elsewhere. I saw it last night as clearly as if it was written in capital letters. I buried 41 poor fellows…[6]

 

Lastly, two significant developments today for our writers in England. Although it has been a harrowing day, I want to include Vera Brittain‘s diary. She is starting a new chapter, now, preparing to travel to London, to embark upon a course of “real nursing” among the men shattered by Loos. There will be a few letters, but this is her last diary entry for a month.

Sunday October 17th

I mostly packed all day the things I have to take, and arranged for the disposal, since Mother & Father really are leaving Buxton, of what I did not want to take. I visited the spot where Roland & I sat and talked the first time he came here, and bade it farewell, for even if he & I remain after the War is over, it is not very likely we shall come back to Buxton again. This evening the leaves were falling fast, and the dusk enveloped all the glorious tints of autumn in a sad neutral shade.[7]

 

And, back in England, Siegfried Sassoon, still-in-reserve Lieutenant of the Royal Welch, once again attended a party at the house of Edmund Gosse. Today he met another important member of the literary establishment, Robbie Ross. Ross was famous–infamous to some–as the friend and posthumous defender of Oscar Wilde. He was obviously–if not exactly “openly”–gay, despite the dangers, but he was tolerated in official circles, working as an art critic and journalist and advising the government in several capacities. He was significantly older than Sassoon (who was himself much younger than his twenty-nine years, but the two apparently shared not only artistic interests but a sense of humor and soon became fast friends, with Ross in an avuncular and advisory role.

This will be a crucial friendship for Sassoon. The exact extent to which their shared homosexuality animated their relationship is impossible to gauge, given the need then for discretion, but Sassoon was clearly drawn to Ross’s freedom, strength of character, and loyalty. He, at the very least, showed a way forward for what had surely been troubling, suppressed feelings. And Ross will eventually become an important influence on Sassoon’s poetry–but not yet.[8]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Letters, 60-3.
  2. John Ayscough's Letters to His Mother, 262.
  3. (Tennant) Letters, 63-5.
  4. Laughter in the Next Room, 106-7.
  5. War Letters to a Wife, 57-63.
  6. For Love and Courage, 117-18.
  7. Chronicle of Youth, 289.
  8. Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, 203-5.