Henry Williamson on the Shelf; Duff Cooper Closes the Office Door; Edmund Blunden of the Flashing Wit

Today a century back, two very different men have their recent hopes confirmed. Henry Williamson, ill once again–his condition perhaps aggravated by inhaling small amounts of phosgene gas–went before a Medical Board and was ruled “unfit for General Service for three months, unfit for Home Service for two months, and unfit for Light Duties for one month.” Long, long ago, he had joined the Territorials in order to escape some office drudgery and make friends, and this brought him into the bloody open warfare of the war’s early months. By now he has few consistent illusions or ambitions about the army, and he is surely overjoyed to have escaped the front for another summer.[1]

 

Duff Cooper–older and moving in much higher social circles–has stayed at his government job while so many of his friends volunteered, and fought, and were killed. Now, his way opened by the broadening pressure of conscription (and by his belated self-assertion as a volunteer), he has escaped the office at last, and may soon face the trenches for the first time.

June 22, 1917

Today I left the Foreign Office without a single regret…  I love to think of the dreary files of papers that I shall not see again. Even if I survive the war I doubt whether I shall go back to the Foreign Office. I should hate to face that monotonous routine again.[2]

 

But we’ll catch up today with Edmund Blunden. I may weary my readers with praise of his subtle, restrained, gorgeous prose… but that’s the memoir. It’s good to see him writing in a different vein to his younger school friend from Christ’s Hospital, Hector Buck–it’s a reminder that Blunden’s intelligence and coming excellence as a writer is not a guarantee of precocious wisdom.

A letter of June 9th begins in fine fettle, and in medias res (we’ll skip the Greek epithet at the beginning; but I will remind readers that Blunden was Senior Grecian before he was subaltern of infantry, and therefore it was hardly a stretch to come up with a sobriquet for a friend called “Hector”…)

Behold, yet a time again for my Indomitable Energy to foot the boards and imitate the well-rounded humours of those famous men Hy. Champion & Jas. Godden…

To my disgust and bile, it is nearly a fortnight since I had any news from anyone — for down at the Rest Camp I missed my mail, and after leaving there was sent on to this Rayless Void (Musketry School). So nothing has come from my probably exasperated Friends & Acquaintances. See to it my Son that this is altered at an Early Date…

I have been here since the evening of the 3rd; and I wrote to my battalion, with an exceeding bitter Cry, to be ransomed from this exile the day after; so I should be hearing very soon now what is happening to them and get back to them I hope.

This, in other words, will be something like a Music Hall turn. The high spirits may be due as much to the fact of having missed the danger of the Battle of Messines as to knowledge of the British success–but then again Blunden is always happier with his battalion than without.

Nevertheless, this is very much a school letter, and although Blunden jokes about how their old French master would approve of his scandalous new practical French, his questions about school and county cricket are in earnest. He betrays more anxiety about the pitch than the battlefield:

This capture of Messines is commonly called champion. I remember when I came out, there was a legend that the Guards had offered to take it if every man surviving could have a fortnight’s leave. But there was nothing doing. At that time too there was another fairy fable that any man capturing a German Very Light would in like manner receive a fortnight furlough. ‘O dream too Sweet, too Sweet, too Bitter’ (whose? why Christina Rossetti’s or some spinster). Walk march. Hop along Sister Mary, hop along.

Forbear, for I am more fool than knave, to be angry with my letter–is it not a little one? Mine’s a Malaga Mademoiselle. Alliteration alcoholic. No compris Zig-Zag. You plenty bon. How’s everyone?

Right. Since I’m not following that either, we’ll skip the part where Blunden stops doing imitation Carroll and just quotes the Jabberwock, and move on to today’s letter.

22nd June [1917]
Feast of Ancient Trulls
B.E.F.
Gaul Blimey

Sir Knight as it seems,

Gratitude be heaped on your head for your last letter to me, which came like Hy Champion on the vaudeville firmament, full of beans and grace. My feeble frame was strengthened as with Tono-Bungay. I was as
one that tasteth of the ripe October after marching from foreign parts through a Burning Heat & do not be dismayed if my answer is more like a glee party of wombats and armadillos in full cry than anything else yet devised by the wit of man…

But style is not substance. Although Blunden keeps up the jokey-referential schoolboy patter, he also goes to the heart of the matter. It sounds jolly, but this is still a letter confessing poisonous despair about the war, and suggesting the use of large doses of pastoral (or, rather, Georgic) recourses as an antidote:

I need not ‘stress’ (the Northcliffe influence) the depth of despondency to which I am permanently lowered. The ancient humour comforts me no more. I have lately taken all chances of studying Flanders farmers urging on their horses with cries reminiscent of sea-sickness perpetually threatening–I have stood for hours watching the Carnivora or whatever they are that live in farmyards, hoping to mimic the White Leghorns praising Jah [i.e. Jehovah], the Goat requesting food, the barn dog-proclaiming the moon, and the Oldest Inhabitant filling up the swine’s swill trough.

The clamour and tinsel heroics of Bayonet Fighting Instructors, the malapropisms and arm gestures of our R.S.M. [Regimental Sergeant-Major], the rages and quiffs of Generals and Staffs–I have noted them all and gone away in despair. The War is a sort of slow poison to me that keeps on drugging and deadening my mind. And I can tell you that the shelling just lately is far worse than anything we have been through before except for actual attacks. The Bosch is so windy that he puts on a barrage every few hours in case we are just assembling to attack him. But as far as the battalion is concerned, we are back now for a few days’ training.
Anyway I loathe the war & the army too. To hell with same.

Not only has Blunden rounded up the usual suspects–the bayonet instructor, the staff–but he has joined the ranks of the wrathful. Sensitive port-officers have been annoyed by the outcry against the loss of civilian life for more than two years now, but it has not been Blunden’s part yet to make the sharp angry complaint.

Nor does resentful ire bring out the best in him–there is another kind of puerility here too.

Why shouldn’t coves like Merk who go on in their petty self-inflations have some of the discomforts? There was more shriek in England over several hundred casualties in a bombing raid than there has been over several hundred thousand out here reported at a steady rate in Minion type on the back page among the advertisements of sheenies and toothwash wallahs. But forgive me…

I will consider it.

Why I am so cynical and tired of life lately I don’t know; but I expect Nature; is working normally and in due time I shall be removed to Bedlam.

The last few days have been stormy and I expect your hands are not being so buffeted by erratic fast bowling, but rather pushing awry the frequent wicket and startling the dozing Umpire into giving the incredulous Batsman Out…

So off the poise I am that I read the ‘Princess’ by Tennyson the Other day. Tennyson trying to be humorous, or realistic, is like a hippopotamus in violet tights attempting to cross Niagara Falls on a tightrope, so I laughed Long & Loud. But afterwards I read some of In Memoriam and repented myself.

But Literature languishes as a whole in the battalion except for two books ‘Flossie’ and ‘Aphrodite’ which the Archbishop of Canterbury has probably not read. I have got my ‘John Clare’s Poems’ and often tub thump over them, claiming him as one of the best. But no one wants to agree with me.

Please get the War stopped pretty soon. Some of us are as mummies, only we still carry on the motions of breathing, swathed round with red-tape and monotony. I wish you all jolly good luck…

My best wishes to you old son.

Keep on going.

Your friend,
E. Blunden[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 165.
  2. Diaries, 54.
  3. More Than a Brother, 4-9.

Scott Moncrieff Returns to London; Alfred Hale Endures Parental Bluster; Wyn Griffith in Red Tabs with Royalty; Vera Brittain on “The Profound Freemasonry” of Those Dead Beyond the Gulf

Today, a century back, we have rather a potpourri of four updates–and none are from the trenches.

First, we witness Charles Scott Moncrieff, now back in London, returning to a familiar literary orbit.

14th June

. . . Broadway (a brother officer here) is very good and faithful to me. He comes down after breakfast in a dressing gown and again (for messages) before he goes out. He has got me this writing pad. Colin came this afternoon and brought a great armful of roses. . . . My friend Robert Ross was in before Colin—fresh from a week-end with the Asquiths—and gave me a novel and a promise of all the latest poetry and other books. I was glad to see him as I wanted an expert’s eye cast on the portraits in this room. . . . I expect a good many brother officers this week. Broadway finds them. He is more obliging than words can say. This place is doing me a lot of good and I feel better already. Our surgeon is like the young villain in Hardy’s Laodicean—he looks about 14 but is very able…[1]

Reading Hardy, depending on Ross’s taste, Asquiths at arm’s reach… and, though he doesn’t mention it in this letter, he is also being regularly visited by Ronald Knox. It’s a small world… which I believe I’ve noted before.

 

While Moncrieff is returning from the war seriously wounded, Alfred Hale is slowly headed toward France. So slowly that he is still in the adjusting-to-training-camp stage. And it turns out that even our Old Man of the Air Force has parents. Hale may live a solitary life of privilege–before conscription that is–and see camp as an ordeal rather than an adventure, but he’s only 41… and he still has parents who write him their worries, reminding us that the generational gulf is, in terms of years on this earth, relative, and not absolute…

14 June: A letter from my father. A cousin had come to see him on Draft leave. He seemed to be bored with the War, especially with the prospect of death before his time from bullets or exposure… all of which surprised and shocked my father. ‘It didn’t matter how long the War lasted, but we must have a military victory at all costs’. (This last the burden of all letters from home)…

Hale senior also tells his son that at least his work as a batman is “setting free an abler man.” But Hale isn’t so sure. “Was I really doing that? Unfortunately, I much doubted it…” Nor is Hale accepting the idea that his music “must gain” from experience. He is fairly certain, in fact, that innocence of certain things is highly preferable…[2]

 

Llewelyn Wyn Griffith has recovered, to some extent, from the overwhelming disillusionment and horror at the murderousness of war that he felt after the death of his brother. Or perhaps he has just become more practical… and honest in his balance of emotional reaction and natural self-interest. In any event, he was very happy to be reassigned to the divisional staff a few days ago, replacing a wounded officer in an intelligence job running “an advanced information centre.” Griffith puts on his red tabs “with delight… I felt proud and important in red. Besides, I would be drawing pay at the rate of £400 a year, a tremendous jump for me.” And today, a century back, his elevated status put him in the way of royalty:

… the King and the Prince of Wales visited the headquarters on 14 June. The King shook hands with all the senior members of the corps and divisional staffs…[3]

 

A wounded young man of letters returning to the literary world, a middle-aged musician learning further humiliations, and a one-time trench fighter content to be on the staff. The war brings many changes–until the changes stop.

Vera Brittain comes to the end of the road, today, with Victor Richardson.

Five days after [his death] Victor was buried at Hove. No place on earth could have been more ironically inappropriate for a military funeral than that secure, residential town, I reflected, as I listened with rebellious anger to the calm voice of the local clergyman intoning the prayers: “Grant, we beseech Thee, O Lord, Thine Eternal Rest to all those who have died for their country…”

Eternal Rest, I reflected, had been the last thing that Victor wanted; he had told me so himself. But if, thus prematurely, he had to take it, how much I wished that fate had allowed him to lie, with other winners of the Military Cross, in one of the simple graveyards of France. I felt relieved, as I listened to the plaintive sobbing of the “Last Post” rising incongruously from amid the conventional civilian tombstones, that Edward had not been able to come to the funeral. The uncomprehending remoteness of England from the tragic, profound freemasonry of those who accepted death together overseas would have intensified beyond endurance the incommunicable grief which had thrust us apart.

But when, back in Kensington, I re-read the letter that he had written in reply to mine telling him of Victor’s death, I knew that he had never really changed towards me, and that each of us represented to the other such consolation as the future still held.

Vera then gives her brother the final words of the present chapter of her memoir, ending Edward’s fervent assurance of true brotherly love

I suppose it is better to have had such splendid friends as those three were rather than not to have had any particular friends at all, but yet, now that all are gone, it seems that whatever was of value in life has all tumbled down like a house of cards. Yet in Tah’s case I will not, I cannot say that I wished from the bottom of my heart that he should live…

Yes, I do say ‘Thank God he didn’t have to live it.’ We started alone, dear child, and here we are alone again… But we share a memory which is worth all the rest of the world, and the sun of that memory never sets. And you know that I love you, that I would do anything in the world in my power if you should ask it, and that I am your servant as well as your brother.

Edward[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 135-6.
  2. The Ordeal of Alfred Hale, 95.
  3. Up to Mametz and Beyond, 153.
  4. Testament of Youth, 359-61.

Messines: The Master of Belhaven, C.E. Montague, Phillip Maddison, and Rowland Feilding are Eyewitnesses to Armageddon; Jack Martin Goes Forward; Robert Graves is Laid Low and Siegfried Sassoon Takes a Pacific Step; Paul Fussell Looks to the Future

The Ypres Salient is a crowded place, and the assault on Messines Ridge of early this morning, a century back, was one of the great spectacles of the war. We have quite a few men on the scene who witnessed what was at once an unprecedented stroke of operational surprise (preceded as it was by all of the bloody, unimaginative attacks that we have read about), a significant immediate victory for the British Army (but not enough to “break through” the German lines), and a staggering calamity in human terms. For over a year British miners have been working in terribly dangerous and difficult conditions. Many died, but they have won the day, today. The fruits of their labor involved the entombing of some 10,000 Germans–but this was not foremost on the mind of the British observers. Each is overwhelmed by the enormity of the explosions, and struggles to describe them.

First, the Master of Belhaven:

At exactly 3.10 a.m. Armageddon began. The timing of all batteries in the area was wonderful, and to a second every gun roared in one awful salvo. At the same moment the two greatest mines in history were blown up — Hill 60 and one immediately to the south of it. I cleared everyone out of the dug-outs and was watching for it. Never could I have imagined such a sight. First, there was a double shock that shook the earth here 15,000 yards away like a gigantic earthquake. I was nearly flung off my feet. Then an immense wall of fire that seemed to go half-way up to heaven. The whole country was lit with a red light like in a photographic dark-room. At the same moment all the guns spoke and the battle began on this part of the line. The noise surpasses even the Somme; it is terrific, magnificent, overwhelming. It makes one almost drunk with exhilaration, and one simply does not care about the fact that we are under the concentrated fire of all the Hun batteries. Their shells are bursting round now as I write, at 6.10 a.m., but it makes one laugh to think of their feeble little efforts compared to the “ausgezeichnete Ausstellung” that we are providing. We are getting our revenge for 1914 with a vengeance. It is now beginning to get light, but the whole world is wrapped in a grey haze of acrid fumes and dust.

 

Jack Martin, signaler with the 122nd brigade, had been sent to lie out in No Man’s Land just before 3:00.

It was an impressive time–the gunfire ceased altogether with the exception of an occasional shell here and there–a thick mist was over the land and we had to lie full length…  There was a strange groaning and rumbling from behind us and presently, looming out of the mist, came a tank, moving straight towards us…

Out of the silence came the sound of blackbirds from a clump of battered trees a little way back only to be rudely silenced at 3.10 a.m…

For several minutes the earth rocked to and fro oscillating quite twelve inches. It was an experience which I shall remember vividly for the rest of my life–all the phases of the preliminary bombardment, the calm silence that succeeded them suddenly broken by a most terrific uproar, the weird sights of moving men and things in the semi-darkness, the rolling clouds of smoke picked out every now and then with shooting tongues of flame, all formed a tremendously wonderful sight. It was stupendous beyond the imagination.

 

Henry Williamson‘s Phillip Maddison has, of course, gone strolling off to see the battle, as he does for every major assault that he is not himself participating in. The fictional alter-ego walks through a landscape that both he and his creator had fought over in 1914, and he struggles with his fear. But soon it is 3:00, and, as the preliminary bombardment tails off, time for the birds–but nothing so unresonant as blackbirds.

It was so quiet that he could hear nightingales singing far away. They were surely very late in singing, the eggs must have hatched by now, and normally the cockbird ceased to sing when the hen began to sit. Perhaps the unnatural noise of the guns had strained their nervous systems. Some birds, notably wrens, uttered nervous little trilling bursts of song when alarmed at night. Perhaps all beauty, whether or sound or colour or shape, came out of pain, or suppression of life, as poetry came from suffering…

He felt the being-drawn feeling between his legs and his mouth was dry–he looked at his watch–nine minutes past three.

Before he was ready for it a great tongue of deep yellow flame arose slowly into the moonlight. It went up silently and was followed by another and another…

 

Rowland Feilding was there as well, almost entirely free of responsibility for his scattered battalion.

I got up and went out at three o’clock. The exact moment of the assault… had been disclosed to us as 3.10 a.m. I climbed on to the bank of the communication trench, known as Rossignol Avenue, and waited. Dawn had not yet broken. The night was very still. Our artillery was lobbing over an occasional shell; the enemy—oblivious of the doom descending upon him—was leisurely putting back gas shells, which burst in and around my wood with little dull pops, adding to the smell but doing no injury.

The minute hand of my watch crept on to the fatal moment. Then followed a “tableau” so sudden and dramatic that I cannot hope to describe it. Out of the silence and the darkness, along the front, twenty mines—some of them having waited two years and more for this occasion—containing hundreds of tons of high explosive, almost simultaneously, and with a roar to wake the dead, burst into the sky in great sheets of flame, developing into mountainous clouds of dust and earth and stones and trees.

For some seconds the earth trembled and swayed. Then the guns and howitzers in their thousands spoke: the
machine-gun barrage opened; and the infantry on a 10-mile front left the trenches and advanced behind the barrage against the enemy.

 

And C.E. Montague, with new freedom (and responsibility) to conduct war correspondents near the front, came up late last night with his charges, promptly fell into a deep sleep–and nearly missed it. His diary recorded the view from the Scherpenberg.

Next thing I am aware of, through a film of sleep, is a light whimper of shrapnel bursting somewhere near. Just after, I am fully awakened by the rocking of the hill under me. I jump up, sagely thinking it must be an earthquake, and then see seven huge mines still exploding — geysers of flame with black objects in it, leaving huge palm-trees of smoke drifting away in file. Bombardment begins at same time (3.10 A.M.). Rather far off—more than three miles—it sounds like an extremely long, various piece played on a piano full of rather far-off thunder. Many great fires caused in woods, etc., by our drums of oil and phosphorus (I believe). The bombardment more, intense than that of April 9 at Arras. As the light comes we see a great number of our aeroplanes everywhere, very little shelled. No infantry fighting visible.[1]

 

At 5:00 Jack Martin moves forward. His brigade is initially in support but soon enters what is now the British front line in the Damstrasse, more than a half-mile from the jumping-off point. There, Martin’s signalling party took casualties from both German fire and British “shorts.” Tanks move through, and the infantry follows, settling eventually into the German rserve positions.

The Signal Office was small, and with two wounded men in it and one end under water, there was only room for one operator at a time, yet at certain periods it was necessary to have two instruments working, so I took a buzzer outside and rigged it up on a mound where the trench had been blown in. The dirt gradually wore away and disclosed the bare buttocks of a dead man so I moved into the Damstrasse where the only comparatively dry spot was alongside a dead German but he was not badly mutilated. An infantryman close by me was hit in the face by a quantity of shrapnel dust and his tears trickled down his cheeks. He cried out, ‘Oh my eyes, my eyes! My God, I am blind!’ The sudden realisation of his blindness seemed a greater agony than the pain of his wounds. I shall never forge that terrible cry of anguish…[2]

 

Meanwhile, the Master of Belhaven, with little to do as his batteries fire by plan, tries to assess the progress of the battle:

(6 a.m.) It is as noisy as ever. The wounded have been streaming past for the last two hours… [they] say that the wire on my zone is thoroughly well cut, both on the front and support German lines–that is a relief to know. We have been firing something like 4,000 shells a day into it for the last week…

 

Rowland Feilding, too, is eager for news.

The battle once launched, all was oblivion. No news came through for several hours: there was just the roar of the artillery; such a roar and such a barrage has never been before. Our men advanced almost without a check. The enemy–such of them as were not killed—were paralysed, and surrendered. In Wytschaete Village they rushed forward with their hands up, waving handkerchiefs and things. And no one can blame them. The ordeal through which they have been passing the last fortnight must have surpassed the torments of hell itself…

Writing tomorrow, Feilding’s enthusiasm for this unprecedented-in-the-present-war success carries him as far as some preliminary conclusions on the preparations. He seems very much in accord with the ex post facto and fictionalized account of Henry Williamson.

… the South Irish Division and the Ulster Division went forward side by side… I have been thinking to-day of the saying—that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton. That remark wants revision now. You must for the “playing fields of Eton” substitute the “offices of the Empire.” From the offices have been introduced business methods which are essential to the complicated operations of nowadays. The Staff work yesterday was perfect. What a contrast to the time of Loos!

We were inundated with paper beforehand on this win this war we certainly shall win it” ; but no contingency, so far as I know, was unforeseen, and within six hours of the first assault parties were already at work, making roads across the mutilated zone and even laying water-pipes…

There will soon be checks to the more sanguine British hopes, but so far the preparation has been very good indeed. Instead of the usual failure to supply the attacking troops in their new positions, by 10 a.m. the war machine is dragging itself efficiently forward.

Already our Field Artillery was on the move forward—a stirring sight which always fascinates me. As I watch them, though I have nothing to do with them, I feel a kind of pride in them. I, as everybody else was doing, walked freely over the surface; past and over the old front line, where we have spent so many bitter months. How miserable and frail our wretched breastworks looked! When viewed—as for the first time I now saw them—from the parapet instead of from inside—the parapet only a sandbag thick in many places—what death-traps they seemed!

Then over Noman’s Land. As we stepped out there, my orderly, O’Rourke, remarked: “This is the first time for two years that anyone has had the privilege of walking over this ground in daylight, sir.” We visited some of the mine craters made at the Zero hour, and huge indeed they are. Then we explored Petit Bois and Wytschaete Wood—blown into space by our fire and non-existent—the, scene of our raid of the night of June 4. We found the bodies of an officer and a man of ours, missing since that night, which I have since had fetched out and buried among many of their comrades.

Our Tanks were now advancing—a dozen or more of them—going forward to take part in the capture of the fifth and sixth objectives. Their duty is to reduce local opposition, when it is encountered, and there they were, lumbering along, picking their way through the honeycomb of shellholes and craters, getting into difficulties, getting out again, sometimes defeated, but generally in the end winning their way through this area of devastation, where nothing has been left alive, not even a blade of grass.

I cannot hope to describe to you all the details of a battle on this scale. The outstanding feature, I think, was the
astounding smallness of our casualties. The contrast in this respect with Loos and the Somme was most  remarkable…

But, as is always the way, we lost some of our best. A single shell and a small one at that—knocked out twelve, killing three outright and wounding nine—two of the latter mortally…

But as Feilding concludes his account of the day with attentions to the dead, it is Ireland and Germany which come to the fore. The ground is Belgian, and a ridge and some village have been taken swiftly. But the war will still only be won through attrition, and it is the state of the will to fight on of the two rival empires which matters most.

Willie Redmond also is dead. Aged fifty-four, he asked to be allowed to go over with his regiment. He should not have been there at all. His duties latterly were far from the fighting line. But, as I say, he asked and was allowed to go—on the condition that he came back directly the first objective was reached; and Fate has decreed that he should come back on a stretcher.

How one’s ideas change! And how war makes one loathe the party politics that condone and even approve when his opponents revile such a man as this! I classify him with Stephen Gwynn and Harrison—all three, men—Irish Nationalists, too, whom you and I, in our Tory schooling, have been brought up to regard as anathema! What effect will his death have in Ireland? I wonder. Will he be a saint or a traitor? I hope and pray it may teach all—North as well as South—something of the larger side of their duty to the Empire.

P.S. My men found a dead German machine-gunner chained to his gun. This is authentic. We have the gun, and the fact is vouched for by my men who took the gun, and is confirmed by their officer, who saw it. I do not understand the meaning of this:—whether it was done under orders, or was a voluntary act on the part of the gunner to insure his sticking to his gun. If the latter, it is a thing to be admired greatly…[3]

“Authentic” in Feilding’s trust in his men, but then again he does not claim eyewitness, or give precise details…

 

The master of Belhaven ends his account on a note of triumph similar to Feilding’s assessment:

(9 p.m.) The battle is over, and the victory is with us. We have gained the whole of our objective…[4]

 

But Phillip Maddison, a mercurial sort (not to mention a fictional product of retrospection and history-reading) already has an eye to the inevitable return of the pendulum. After several trips leading mule trains of ammunition he goes on another of his “Cook’s Tours” to see the ridge that the British have now taken. He is impressed with the panorama, but, walking among the infantry as the long day draws to a close, he hears rumors of German counter-attacks retaking ground…[5]

 

And where are our old stand-byes on this day of days, the petulantly yoked terrible twins at the heart of the war poetry revolt, who fought at Loos and on the Somme? Will they praise the sudden victory?

 

Robert Graves, home for months and putatively recovered, was nevertheless in need of a rest, and has just been detailed to head to a convalescent home on the Isle of Wight. The precipitating cause was a head wound sustained when he fell down a staircase in the dark. But this was not an isolated incident so much as a symptom of a fundamental exhaustion. Not only will his lungs never be right, but his nerves are from from settled–it seems likely that “some kind of nervous collapse” led to the reassignment… and no, he will not have much to say about Messines.[6]

 

Siegfried Sassoon, however, was in London, taking a break from portrait-sitting by lunching with H.W. Massingham, the editor of the influential radical weekly The Nation. As George Sherston, Sassoon looks back on the irony that the full picture affords:

At daybreak on June 7th the British began the Battle of Messines by exploding nineteen full-sized mines. For me the day was made made memorable by the fact that I lunched with the editor of the Unconservative Weekly at his club. By the time I entered that imposing edifice our troops had advanced more than two miles on a ten-mile front and a great many Germans had been blown sky-high. To-morrow this news would pervade clubland on a wave of optimism and elderly men would glow with satisfaction.

Sherston has written to “Markington” to offer to write something, as “a mouthpiece for the troops in the trenches.” He is nervous of the great man at first, but he warms to Markington when he finds him even more pessimistic about the war and eager to hear uncensored humorous anecdotes from the front. The diffident Sherston stretches his legs, ever so slightly:

He listened with gloomy satisfaction to my rather vague remarks about incompetent Staff work. I told him that our Second Battalion had been almost wiped out ten days ago because the Divisional General had ordered an impossible attack on a local objective. The phrase ‘local objective’ sounded good, and made me feel that I knew a hell of a lot about it. . . .

But this leads, with more twisting irony, to the detailing of his own deeply conflicted behavior, and to a confession which might not be as welcome to this leading critic of the war:

‘As a matter of fact I’m almost sure that the War doesn’t seem nearly such a bloody rotten show when one’s out there as it does when one’s back in England. You see as soon as one gets across the Channel one sort of feels as if it’s no good worrying any more — you know what I mean — like being part of the Machine again, with nothing to be done except take one’s chance. After that one can’t bother about anything except the Battalion one’s with…

I must say I’ve often felt extraordinarily happy even in the trenches. Out there it’s just one thing after another…

It’s only when one gets away from it that one begins to realize how stupid and wasteful it all is. What I feel now is that if it’s got to go on there ought to be a jolly sound reason for it, and I can’t help thinking that the troops are being done in the eye by the people in control.’ I qualified these temperate remarks by explaining that I was only telling him how it had affected me personally; I had been comparatively lucky, and could now see the War as it affected infantry soldiers who were having an infinitely worse time than I’d ever had — particularly the privates.

The account continues, and it’s rich with interest: Massingham suggests reading Tolstoy, and then he awakens the privileged “Sherston” to the political realities of the budding military-industrial complex, censorship, and the fact that Great Brittain has added “acquisitive” war aims to the professed cause of liberating France and Belgium… there is some matter of Mesopotamian oil wells, apparently, if one takes that point of view...[7]

 

Lest one object that giving the last word on a day of successful battle to a pair of half-pacifists lunching in comfort, I will give it instead to an academic yet unborn, a century back, and more than a quarter-century short of his own bitter disillusionment with war.

Very early in his cranky masterpiece, Paul Fussell makes one concession to the otherwise unalleviated chronicle of murderous failure.

The attack at Messines… had been brilliantly planned by General Sir Herbert Plumer, who emerges as a sort of intellectual’s hero of the British Great War… he had imagination. His mines totally surprised the Germans, ten thousand of whom were permanently entombed immediately.

This, it is worth mentioning, is half the British toll from the first day of the Somme. I want to write at greater length about what it means to celebrate a battle in which local victory kills so many and yet doesn’t really budge the war… but since none of the men on the spot do, it would be an imposition. So, instead, just this next bit, as a way of working in the subject of modern war’s resilience.

The most memorable detail in Fussell’s account of the battle, however, is one that none of our writers can know, since it reaches more than a generation into the future, and then a century again, and more:

…British miners had been tunneling for a year under the German front lines, and by early June they had dug twenty-one horizontal mineshafts stuffed with a million pounds of high explosive… Nineteen of them went up, and the shock wave jolted Lloyd George in Downing Street 130 miles away. Two failed to explode. One of these went off in July, 1955… The other, somewhere deep underground near Ploegsteert Wood, has not gone off yet.[8]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. C.E. Montague, 189.
  2. Sapper Martin, 71-4.
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 188-92.
  4. War Diary, 302-6.
  5. Love and the Loveless, 153-160.
  6. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, the Assault Heroic,173.
  7. Complete Memoirs, 471-5.
  8. Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory, 14-15.

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

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

22.V.17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

22 May

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

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

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

 

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

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

The Siegfried we call it.

Yours really delighted with the Old Huntsman and other poems,

A.P.G.[3]

 

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

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

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

May 22nd

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

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

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

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

 

References and Footnotes

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

Phillip Maddison’s Off-Hand Heroics; J.R. Ackerley on the Attack

This morning, a century back, another major attack–another “phase” or renewed effort of the Battle of Arras–lurched into motion at 3:45. The objective is Bullecourt, a town on the Hindeburg Line to the south and east of Arras, and Henry Williamson‘s 208 Machine Gun Company is firing in support. Documents relating to Williamson’s participation–including the hortatory order of the day promulgated by the Divisional General two days earlier–can be seen here, in Anne Williamson’s excellent article on his service with 208 MGC.

But Henry Williamson also described the attack in his novel, once more illustrating the liminality of history and literature while at the same time intentionally blurring the line with the heel of his own writing hand, as it were.[1] Since he is with the transport of a Machine Gun Company, Williamson is several layers behind the attacking troops, amidst the supporting artillery. As is Phillip Maddison, when the barrage begins.

About 3.44 a.m., in the hush of darkness beginning to give way to a spectral pallor in which he could see the wire of the reserve line across the sunken road as a blackish mass, a lark rose in song above him. It was followed by another, and a third; and he waited, with the stillness of expectation, while the singing grew faint and shrill as the birds flew toward the paling stars. There was a great ragged orange flash, oval and instant, from the four 9.2 howitzers in the chalk quarry on his right, and while the flash went through his eyes into his mind the sky became one great raging sea of light.

It goes on, and it is rather well done, if overwrought: these mid-war larks sing on throughout the massive bombardment, “like the jingling of frailest silver chains” amidst the mixed ordnance. Edward Thomas‘s battery is somewhere nearby, contributing its four howitzers to the din.

But this is only preamble. There is, of course, a fierce German resistance, which includes accurate interdiction fire meant to prevent the British from supporting and supplying attacking troops, and to suppress any return fire when the German counterattacks come. There are many casualties among the men and mules of 208 MGC, and a comrade of Williamson’s, 2/Lt. A. C. Montford, is killed.

The attack fails–not least because the German counter-attack, coming from the down-slopes behind the Hindenburg, is quick and fierce–and Williamson’s diary has little else to say.

Thursday, 3 May: Z Day. Zero hour 3.45. Intensive barrage right up North & down to Bullecourt. Rumours of failure – prisoners in cages – walking wounded. 187 Brigade smashed up, ¾ Coy missing at evening. No shelling in rear areas. 7th Div. again attacks in evening. Montford killed.

But in fiction today becomes another moment for young Phillip Maddison to wander into heroism. There is a Montfort in the book, and he is killed, as in life. But there is also a Lt. Fenwick, who is reported lying badly wounded next to a Sergeant Butler.

One of the strange continuities of Williamson’s many-volumed novel is Maddison’s habit of going on long, improbable, unauthorized rambles through no man’s land (or even into the enemy’s rear). These seem to encapsulate Williamson/Maddison’s in-betweenness. He is neither boy nor man, neither working class enlisted man nor socially assured officer, both enthusiastic adventurer and sullen incompetent…  and he likes long walks in the country, whether in pre-war peace or mid-war pauses. In company, he is all good-will and blunders waiting to happen; but alone he can do great things…

Today’s invented action–it seems pretty clearly to be a fictional aristeia placed within a life-structured narrative, rather than a “version” of something that did occur, since Williamson, to my knowledge, mentions nothing like it–is a bit different. Maddison hears the report of the wounded men and immediately recognizes that they are lying in an area he knows well because of a previous unauthorized stroll, on a quiet day before the battle, right up to the face of the new German defenses.

This earlier brave-but-irresponsible ramble has equipped him to be unusually decisive, and once on course he is completely effective. Leaving his transport section and the excited survivors of the barrage, Maddison journeys up from his safe post in the rear, finds both wounded men in the danger zone, and brings them in under fire. He knows the map, so he goes. We get no real insight into why this petulant boy-officer is ready to exceed his duties in this way–he just goes, and does it. And just as the birds brought him up to the barrage, the birds bring him home.

From the echoing ruins of Croiselles white flashes of field-guns seemed to increase the singing of two nightingales on the hillside…

It’s a strange episode, all things considered. Williamson seems to be making the point that Phillip Maddison’s impetuosity can be a force for good as well as bad.

Certainly his sense of military propriety remains skewed–he doesn’t bother to report in that he has saved two men of the company, an MC-worthy action, even if one unlikely to be so recognized in an oft-reprimanded muleteer officer.

And so, next morning, the C.O., a socially generous and easygoing captain who has, nevertheless, frequently had cause to chew out his wayward transport officer, compliments Phillip with a touch of bemusement:

“Good effort, Sticks! You’ve got plenty of guts, to out there alone, in full view of the Boche.”

“Honestly, skipper, it was no more than going for a walk on Blackheath, on an August Bank Holiday evening…”

Phillip makes an awkward joke about women and that long ago-ago August, and just like that, the heroic episode is over.[2]

 

Just a bit to the north, and in real life, the 8th East Surreys are in the first wave of the same attack. The battalion, we may recall, includes two brother officers. It was J.R. Ackerley’s brother Peter who did not die in that February attack–he almost did, and I almost wrote it wrong. But Peter lived, and is recovering from his wound, although he did not return his brother’s watch. So today, a century back, it is the younger (though militarily senior) Ackerley’s turn:[3]

…I had to take my men over the top again, to capture the village of Cérisy[4] (what remained of it) in another sector of the line, and swapped my brother’s unreliable wrist-watch for that of my second-in-command, who was remaining in reserve. He lent it reluctantly; it was an engagement present from his fiancée. I promised to return it.

Well, ahem. But there are more ironies before we get to where we are going, today. On the march to the front, last night, Ackerley saw an old friend.

He was now a brigade major and what we contemptuously called a “Brass Hat.” Seated upon his horse by the wayside he beckoned me out of the line of march. In a low confidential voice he said he supposed that, as an old campaigner, I had no illusions about what lay ahead, and offered me an immediate job with him on brigade staff, out of harm’s way. He begged me to accept it.

Whatever the reason–and Ackerley will not obfuscate–this is quite bizarre. Even if the offer had taken place a day or two before the attack, even if it were not quite so direct, it’s hard to imagine such gross favoritism being so openly displayed–and it put Ackerley in an impossible position.

He had always been fond of me, I knew, indeed he had a crush on me, I think, for I was a pretty young man, and wanted to save me from a fate, of the prospects and hazards of which he doubtless knew far more than I, since brigade headquarters had planned it. “You’ve done your bit already,” said he gently. But I too was a mounted officer. I had a huge mare named Sally, larger than Titchy’s, the largest I had ever seen… and whenever I was perched upon her back I became more arrogant and conceited than I normally was. Titchy’s offer would certainly have attracted me if the bloody fool had made it earlier. But how could a company commander abandon his command on the very eve of battle? That would have been seen as plain cowardice, and cowardice should never be plain. Smiling down at him rather disdainfully from my superior mount, I thanked him and declined…

Ackerley’s account of the battle is, here,[5] brief and bitterly comic:

Suffice it to say here that mine was one of the only two companies to reach our first objective, the crest of a ridge. No special merit, however, should be inferred from that statement; we only ran forward, dashing from shell-hole to shell-hole; doubtless we happened to find more shell-holes than other companies involved…

This is wry sarcasm–and also reasonable tactical criticism. But although he likes to paint himself as a hapless pawn of circumstance, innocent of military knowledge or instinct, Ackerley immediately realizes that two companies can’t hold a line with their flanks in the air.

It’s instructive, perhaps, to compare everything about this account–the tactics, the role of the young Company Commander, the reaction of the Tommies, and the result–with Alf Pollard‘s recent Victoria Cross-winning gambit. The overused adverb “diametrically” comes to mind…

What to do? Heaven knew. I sent a runner back to battalion headquarters with an urgent request for reinforcements and sent my men to digging themselves in as they lay. While they were scratching away, like hens, with their trench tools, at the hard French soil, the Germans counter-attacked in considerable strength, firing from the hip as they advanced. The very sight of them was enough for my company. Rising as one man they deserted me and bolted. I bolted after, shouting “Stop!”–not that I wanted them to. The vain word may well have taken on a shriller note when a bullet struck me in the bottom, splintering my pelvis, as was discovered later, and dealing me a wound where, my father had sometimes remarked, echoing Siward, no good soldier should bear one. With a flying leap that Nureyev might have envied I landed in a shell-hole which already contained one of the things I most detested, a corpse, and was soon to harbor another wounded officer named Facer, and a man bleeding to death of a stomach wound. When dusk fell on that foolish and revolting day I was taken prisoner.[6]

Until this merciful and bathetic day’s end–no rescue and no nightingales for Ackerley–his experience was heading from an inverse-Pollard toward a recent Wilfred Owen. But there would have been nothing that even Ackerley’s penetrating irony could do about the prospect of spending a night in a shell hole among the dead and the dying.

instead, he is marched back “at bayonet point and parched,” grabbing the canteens of dead men but finding only neat rum. When he reaches the German aid station he is almost killed by a British aircraft dropping a bomb. Fittingly, then, given his attitude toward the war, Ackerley will precede Kurt Vonnecut into the exclusive club of major 20th century writers who were also allied infantryman captured by the Germans, then nearly killed by the bombs of their own side’s aircraft. Ackerley’s reminiscences will be without reliable dates, now, for some time…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. There is an article comparing--no doubt with greater insight and accuracy--the fictional and the historical aspects of today in Williamson's writing, behind a pay wall at the Henry Williamson Society.
  2. Love and the Loveless, 133-9.
  3. Ackerley gets the date wrong in his memoir, recalling the date as "Two months later, on April 3," but Peter Parker's biography has the correct date, which the battalion war diary, available here, corroborates.
  4. Chérisy, not Cerisey on the Somme.
  5. He refers the reader to another book, Hindoo Holiday, for a fuller account.
  6. My Father and Myself, 95-6.

Alf Pollard and Frank Richards Hold On at Arras; Patrick Shaw Stewart Idle in France; Kate Luard and the Glorious Maimed

After a day of stiffly resisted attacks along the Hindenburg Tunnel, the Royal Welch are left holding an improvised line, in the face of likely counter-attacks. Frank Richards reminds us of every soldier’s plight on the day after an advance, when lines of supply have been disrupted.

The following day we were without food and water and during the night some of us were out searching the dead to see if they had been carrying any with them. I was lucky enough to discover a half-loaf of bread, some biscuits and two bottles of water, which I would not have sold for a thousand pounds.[1]

But Richards also reports an incident confirmed by Dunn: while bringing in the wounded in the early morning, they are hailed by a wounded man of another regiment who had been lying close to the German line and had seen them pulling back during the night. This intelligence was quickly confirmed, and the 2nd Royal Welch moved up and dug in around the abandoned positions, which included concrete strong-points built for machine guns–early examples of a new era in tactical defense. These “pill-boxes” are immune to all but the heaviest caliber artillery, but vulnerable to being rushed by small numbers of men using careful “stalking” tactics.

The dead of five battalions… lay in front of the abandoned German machine-gun position… and exposed the tragic ineptitude of just going on throwing men against it after such a futile artillery bombardment… Ours was the third bull-at-a-gate attack… one of the occasions innumerable when a company or a battalion was squandered on an attack seemingly planned by someone who, lacking either first or second hand knowledge of the ground, just relied on our maps of moderate scale… we were relieved at the end of the day.[2]

It’s the “or second hand” which is really the most damning thing. It’s a huge war, and even the best-intentioned Corps Commander can hardly tour the front lines–it would be impossible, even, for a divisional general to acquire first-hand knowledge of all the ground on their front. By they have staffs, and they could summon the battalion C.O.s only two levels below them in the chain of command. They could find out… but instead they read their maps, and make their orders.

 

Alf Pollard and the H.A.C. faced a long day’s counter-attack between Oppy Wood and the Chemical Works at Monchy.

Time after time long lines of men in field grey appeared over the crest of the ridge only to be swept away before they had descended half way down the slope… Never once did they get within a hundred yards…

We went back to the Black line on the evening of the 24th. What was to happen next? That was the question that filled our minds. We were so near to breaking through that we were all keyed up for the next move. It was impossible that the authorities would let things rest where they were.[3]

They will spend a few days in reserve, in a part of the line that is in danger of becoming a salient. But after that rest, the H.A.C. will most emphatically return to the front lines…

 

Patrick Shaw Stewart has been able to shake free of further duty in the Eastern Mediterranean. He hopes to get back to his battalion in France–but that, of course, is not how things work. If he had had his way, perhaps, he would have already been in the battalion, and seen far too much of the Battle of Arras. But he has been fortunate in this frustration, and finds himself on the coast, some 60 miles due west of the fighting:

I’m well embarked on the Course at the Depot here. I can’t honestly say I think it’s teaching me very much I haven’t known by heart these three years back, except, perhaps, a little about gas and bomb-throwing: but there is a terrible lot of indifferent lecturing out of books and old-fashioned sloping of arms, which I really thought I had undergone once for all at the Crystal Palace. No doubt it is extremely good for the soul of a veteran like me to be marched about in fours and told to be in by 9 p.m., but occasionally one is tempted to forget how comic it all is, and also how tolerable. For it really is exceedingly tolerable, if measured by the discomforts that are always possible; I have my bed, I have a tent to myself, a very respectable mess, and a great stand-by in the shape of the Sutherland
Hospital, which is at a reasonable distance. I have dined there twice, and do it again to-night.

This would be the hospital founded by Millicent, Duchess of Sutherland, and desirable perhaps more for the society of its staff than its patients.

The only drawback is that after being marched about and bored to death from 8.20 to 4.15, one is rather
inclined to sink into a chair and drop into a hoggish sleep, more than to brush one’s hair nicely and walk another mile to a tram—or, indeed, to write letters or any other elegant occupation.

Le Touquet, April 24, 1917.[4]

 

In another hospital considerably closer to the front, Kate Luard, continues to praise the stoic and uncomplaining heroism of the maimed and dying.

Tuesday Morning.  …A Captain of the Yorks had his leg off yesterday and makes less of it than some people with a toe-nail off. The glorious boy with the broken back is lying on his back now; he doesn’t know about it and says he’s all right, only his back is a little stiff an aching.

In general I find Sister Luard’s emotional instincts to be eminently reasonable, and her writing precise. But that’s the problem: since she is precise and thoughtful, it’s fair to focus on that one word “glorious,” and to question what exactly it means. To be stoic is perhaps a virtue, and the remarkable lack of complaint from these terribly wounded men is… remarkable. It is testimony to almost unbearable reserves of human moral strength…

And yet it’s not that simple. It never is. Can we praise the sufferers without examining what their suffering is for, without asking why it has come about? This is similar, in a way, to praising the brilliant elan of a small-unit leader in an assault without noting that the skill he is exhibiting is, essentially, excellence in leadership in state-sanctioned killing. And in each case the men killing and being maimed are sent to do and to suffer by other men, men who aren’t dirtying their hands or risking life and limb. What these soldiers have suffered is something more, and more complex, than mere accident or disaster. They are volunteers, most of them, and yet they are also victims not of mischance or acts of God but of organized human activity.

And so then there is society. Luard is well aware that, since female nurses almost never serve any closer to the line than a Casualty Clearing Station, her presence is in itself remarkable. The glorious boys who come into her care haven’t seen a woman in days or weeks or months–and they haven’t seen a respectable Englishwoman, properly addressed with a title borrowed from religious and family life, in longer still.

Isn’t her presence a strong inducement to act the part, to play the game? Isn’t she–more, in some ways, than superior officers, backed by the threat of court-martial and punishment–an enforcer of the social order that has made it so difficult for so many increasingly skeptical men to question the conduct of the war? Would a bitter, angry man, convinced he has been victimized by an unfeeling state and a burgeoning military-industrial complex, spit in the face of a nurse whose approval of stoicism must be obvious? It would be a difficult thing… and so here, too, in the terrible pain and amazing kindness of a field hospital, there is a sort of censorship in place.

Courage when in great pain is an estimable thing–and an inestimable thing. So is consideration for those around you, even when selfishness and self pity–not to mention stark terror or an urge to self-destruction–would be more than understandable.

But… “glorious?” The young officer will never walk again, but they haven’t told him. He must die soon, and they haven’t told him. His strength is remarkable–wonderful, valuable. But a desire to bear pain and loss uncomplainingly, a living-up to the expectation of good manners even in the worst of situations, is not a thing that we should praise without any reference to the context.

If he wanted to scream, and make everyone around him know that he was terrified to be destroyed, to die–that he was sure, now, that all this isn’t worth it–would she hear him?

This is too much to lay at the feet of Sister Luard, of course, in the middle of the post-assault rush of horror. And she is the farthest thing from a prim manipulator. She will record her own struggles with disillusionment, soon, and even today, a century back, she obliquely addresses the meaning of the war through her praise of another praiseworthy human behavior.

Some of the men say they were picked up and looked after by Germans, so we are being extra kind to the Germans this time. There is in Hospitals an understood arrangement that all Germans (except when their lives depend on immediate attention) should wait till the last British has been attended to… It is only kept up in a very half-hearted way and is generally broken by the M.O.’s, who are most emphatic about it in theory!

And later?

Tuesday, 10.30 p.m. It has been a pretty sad day, 12 funerals… The spine boy has found out what is the matter with him and is quite cheery about it…[5]

There’s a lot going on, but it will be interesting to keep looking in on Sister Luard to see how her credo of infinite empathy and praise for the selflessness of the wounded holds up as the battle drags on.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Old Soldiers Never Die, 230.
  2. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 338-9.
  3. Fire-Eater, 214.
  4. Knox, Patrick Shaw Stewart, 194-5.
  5. Unknown Warriors, 116-7.

The Battle of Arras Resumes: Charles Scott Moncrieff, A.P. Herbert, Geoffrey Thurlow, Alf Pollard, Frank Richards, and Kate Luard; Vera Brittain Ponders Sacrifice and Glory; Siegfried Sassoon Addresses the Warmongers

Today is St. George’s Day, Shakespeare’s birthday, the second anniversary of the death of Rupert Brooke, and the day that Billy Prior, shell-shocked and mute, came to in a Casualty Clearing Station. But that is all more than a century back, or fiction.

Today is also the beginning of the second phase of the Battle of Arras. In what will become known as the Second Battle of the Scarpe, elements of eleven divisions attacked on a nine mile front just east of Arras, from Gavrelle in the north to Croisilles in the south.

Charles Scott Moncrieff was in the first wave, leading a company of the 1st Battalion, the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, who went over the top at 4:45, attacking toward Monchy-le-Preux. Scott Moncrieff was hit very shortly thereafter, and spent a harrowing day on the field and being carried back. But by this evening he will be able to write:

23rd April.

I was wounded about five o’clock this morning when leading my battalion in the attack. My left leg is broken in two places. I am now in a clearing station where I shall stay a few days. I shall be at the Base shortly and then home—and expect the leg will heal very quickly. The attack seems to have gone very well, as far as I could see and control it from the ground.[1]

What the letter does not make clear is that Moncrieff was not only leading the attack but leading it as close as possible to the “walking” barrage–and that a short-fall from this barrage–a British shell–was what nearly killed him. He is in grave danger of losing his leg.

Scott Moncrieff experienced his wound as something of a “transcendental” experience, and it will shortly push him further toward a vocation that combines his linguistic and literary talents. Drawing on Paul Claudel’s ‘Hymne à SS Agnès,’ he wrote a poem about his rescue that comes close to the once-popular angelic-intervention tales, albeit in an exalted religious-literary manner, rather than in close imitation of the popular ghost story style of Arthur Machen and others.

I, like a pailful of water thrown from a high window, fell. . . . Alone.

An hour or two I lay and dozed…

. . . . Ah, whose mind prayed
Through mine then? Whose quiet singing heard I from my stretcher, swinging
Sorry, weary, sick, Strongly, clearly, belated back to Arras? Who dictated
Strongly, clearly, till I sung these French words with my English tongue?[2]

In a neighboring division, also largely Scottish, Captain John Eugene Crombie of the Gordon Highlanders, who had so recently written  “Easter Day 1917, The Eve of Battle,” was wounded near Roeux. Less fortunate than Scott Moncrieff, he will die of his wounds by the end of the day.[3]

On the left of the attack, the 63rd Division–The Royal Naval Division–led the attack on the village of Gavrelle. Rupert Brooke‘s old comrades in the Hood Battalion came up too quickly from reserve, through a heavy German barrage, and then pushed on into house-by-house fighting. In the neighboring brigade was the Drake battalion, pressing through the same barrage. A.P. Herbert, whose meditations on courage, cowardice, and institutional brutality will be set in the recent past but informed by this experience of battle, led his platoon while equipped with certain supererogatory liquid courage. He was soon hit:

Sub-Lieutenant Rackham saw him fling up his arms and fall. ‘He seemed to me to be in a bad way–dangerously
wounded, I thought at first.’ At a field-dressing station, jagged bits of shrapnel and hip-flask were found to be embedded deep in his left buttock; ignominious wound, honourably sustained. It was serious enough for him to be sent home again. He believed that the brandy from his flask was an effective sterilizing agent…[4]

Kate Luard received many such wounded men, and some who had fared much worse:

Monday, April 23rd, 10 p.m. Just come up to lie down for an hour before the next take-in. We have filled up twice, and they are hard at it again over the road; we come next… the earth-shaking noise this morning did its work; the wounded Germans tell me here are a great many dead. We have a splendid six-foot officer boy lying silently on his face with a broken back, high up. I hope he won’t live long…[5]

 

Alf Pollard and the Honourable Artillery Company–who are, naturally, really, a London-based militia regiment of infantry serving in a “Naval” infantry division–were in reserve on the central section of the assault.[6]

The barrage was terrific and it seemed impossible that anything could stand up against it. Nevertheless, the wire was very tenacious and… They put up an obstinate resistance.

It was not very long before we were required. A Company went first, but a few minutes later a call came for us and I moved forward. As we approached the position I could see the long lines of uncut wire with dead fusiliers hanging across it like pearls in a necklace where the Hun machine-guns had caught them. All the same some of them had penetrated through the gaps and the trench was captured. I had my usual luck and got my Company through the enemy’s counter-barrage without any casualties. My men were full of fight… There was no resistance; the few Huns we encountered surrendered instantly. At once I set about preparing the trench for the counter-attack which I knew would follow. The whole place was a shambles…

The town of Gavrelle was a few hundred yards on our right. The attacking troops had gone right through and our right consequently projected slightly beyond our left. We were the extreme left of the Divisional front. The Division on our left whose main attack was directed against Oppy Wood had failed with the result that the position was held in echelon…

The counter-attack was not launched until the following morning…[7]

A bit further south, the 10th Sherwood Foresters, part of the 17th Division, were in support of the assault just south of Monchy-le-Preux, near the town of Guémappe. Among the objectives on this front was the concentration of German artillery on the high ground in their rear. Perhaps, by the day’s end, the positions of the batteries that dueled with Edward Thomas‘s will be taken.

But not immediately; the leading battalions were held up and the 10th Sherwood Foresters were called forward, and took the first German trench. Geoffrey Thurlow, the last of Edward and Vera Brittain‘s close friends to remain unscathed, was there, and he had neither succumbed to the shell-shock that had afflicted him in 1916, nor to the fear of it. Safe in a German trench after the successful assault, he was asked once more to show his courage, and once again he didn’t let the school down. His commander will describe his actions in a letter he will write to Edward Brittain:

I sent a message to Geoffrey to push along the trench and find out if possible what was happening on the right. The trench was in a bad condition and rather congested, so he got out on the top. Unfortunately the Boche snipers were very active and he was soon hit through the lungs. Everything was done to make him as comfortable as possible, but he died lying on a stretcher about fifteen minutes later.[8]

So Geoffrey Thurlow, too, is dead.

Far away in Malta, Vera Brittain was just beginning to cope with the previous disaster to hit her tight-knit circle. In a letter which draws heavily on her diary of yesterday, she wrote to her brother:

Malta, 23 April 1917

My own dearest Edward

Your letter of the 8th has just arrived but contains no reference to the terrible news of the last day or two; it seems to be the only one that has come, so I suppose all my letters have missed the mail just when I wanted them most. It is dreadful to have to wait a week for details. That is the hardship of foreign service — not climate or distance so much as the separation by time & distance from anything that matters…

I am broken-hearted indeed about Victor. It is better to be anything than blind; I am not sure that it is not better to be dead.

This is not an idle question. Cruel as this is, it’s important to recognize that there is still no fundamental questioning of the meaning and the worth of all this suffering. She is not sure if Victor should wish to be dead, but she is confident that he will feel a sense of achievement at having matched his decorated school friends in military valor:

I suppose he is disfigured very much. His lovely eyes — I can’t bear to think they will never any more look ‘right into one’s soul’ as Mrs Leighton said they did. It is a terrible way to have bridged the gulf that lay between him & you — & Roland. I wish Roland were here to be with him & give him the strength he will so much need if he lives…

it is very hard to feel I can do nothing for him in return at the time of his greatest need. . . Anyhow. I know that you will make him understand, better than any letter could, my indescribable sorrow & regret–one can’t call it pity, as pity is not a sufficiently reverent feeling for one of those who ‘so marvellously overcame’. If there is anything I can do for him–anything at all–you will tell me, won’t you? It places all of us who cannot fight under a burden of debt almost more than we can bear–to feel that we owe our safety to the fives & sight & strength of such as you & Roland & him. I feel I could never repay it enough, even if trying to meant giving up practically all I ever meant to be or do. I feel as if Roland’s sad eyes were looking at me out of Eternity, imploring me to try to give Victor some of the comfort He would have given him if He had been here.[9]

 

We’re almost done, today, but here we have a different sort of irony of separation, of “sacrifice” and suffering and far-off emotion. Siegfried Sassoon is safely back, unaware that today is another spasm of intense violence, and that his battalion is caught up in it. It’s a particularly nasty irony that his reports from today are thus overshadowed by exactly what he now feels increasingly empowered too protest.

He has been working on another new poem, “To the Warmongers,” which begins:

I’m back again from hell
With loathsome thoughts to sell;
Secrets of death to tell;
And horrors from the abyss…

But the abyss is still there–and not yet taken. Two companies of the 2nd Royal Welch, in support of the 4th Suffolks, will once again move up from the Hindenburg Tunnel to attack along the Hindenburg Trench. A trench mortar barrage dropped neatly into the trench, clearing the German barricade and allowing the charging Suffolks to push back the defenders. The two companies of the 2/RWF came up and were at once employed in bringing up German prisoners from the deep dugouts. There is a long, detailed narrative of the intimate trench fighting in Dr. Dunn’s chronicle, growing grim as the two companies are held up and then located by the German trench mortar and rifle-grenade parties.

Sassoon’s friends “Binge” Owen and the pianist Ralph Greaves–both survivors of a late night in Amiens only three weeks ago–were now directing the fighting. One bomb hit a barricade and exploded next to Greaves’ right arm, mangling it. Owen was killed a few minutes later. Further attacks failed, although Captain N. H. Radford will remember hearing a Staff Captain give a fanciful heroic account of the “forcing of the barricade” only two weeks later, and remark that “that kind of myth outlives denial; it has appeared in print as fact.”[10]

The other two companies of the 2nd Royal Welch attacked later in the day, repeating a failed attack by another battalion, and with poorly coordinated artillery support. And in the open. They fared even worse. Frank Richards, a company signaler with B company, was in the assembly trench, and had a clear view of the attack:

From our parapet across to the objective our dead were laying thick, and for the first fifty yards it would have been impossible for a man to have walked three paces unless he stepped on a dead man. In the afternoon we attacked but were held up by machine-gun and rifle-fire the same as the previous battalions: not a man got further than halfway. The fortunate ones got back to their own trench, but the majority were laying where they fell… We brought our wounded in during the night, the enemy not firing a shot.[11]

 

We’ll end the day with Sassoon, in London, and trying somehow to move from personal experience to some reasonable appreciation of the “big picture:”

April 23 (In the Ward) —

Morning sunshine slants through tho many tall windows of the ward with its grey-green walls and forty white beds. Daffodils and primroses, red lilies and tulips make spots of colour…  Officers lie humped in beds smoking and reading morning papers; others drift about in dressing-gowns and slippers, going to and from the washing-room where they scrape the bristles from their contented faces. The raucous gramophone keeps grinding out popular airs…

Everyone is rather quiet. No one has the energy or the desire to begin talking war-shop till noon. Then one catches scraps of talk from round the fire-places.

‘barrage lifted at the first objective’
‘shelled us with heavy stuff’
‘couldn’t raise enough decent N.C.O.s’
‘our first wave got held up by machine-guns’
‘bombed them out of a sap’—etc etc.

There are no serious cases in this ward; only flesh-wounds and sick. No tragedies of gapped bodies and heavily bandaged faces; no groans at night, and nurses catching their breath while the surgeon deals with some ghastly gaping hole. These are the lucky ones, whom a few days of peace have washed clean of the squalor and misery and strain of ten days ago. They are lifting their faces to the sunlight: the nightmares have slunk away to haunt the sombre hearts of the maimed and shattered.[12]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 128.
  2. I've taken some supplementary information from Findlay, Chasing Lost Time, 127-130, but there are some military historical errors in her account, so it's possible that some of what I have quoted is off-base; if so, sincere apologies!
  3. Powell, A Deep Cry, 241.
  4. Pound, A. P. Herbert, 153.
  5. Unknown Warriors, 115.
  6. I have not unraveled the exact relative positions of these different units; despite the lack of major salients it is a difficult attack to visualize... and for most of our writers, it seems, Arras was a terribly quick battle. Although Alf Pollard, as it happens, will persist and more than persist.... in any event, apologies for the less-than-thorough military history here.
  7. Fire-Eater, 212-14.
  8. Letters From a Lost Generation; see also here.
  9. Letters From a Lost Generation, 341-2.
  10. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 330-38.
  11. Old Soldiers Never Die, 229-30. There is likely hyperbole here in terms of the number and the concentration of men killed.
  12. Diaries 159-60.

Ivor Gurney Longs for England–and Germany; Henry Williamson is All Over the Place

Henry Williamson writes a long and exceptionally rambling letter to his mother today, a century back. Some excerpts:

Dear Mum,

Excuse this bad writing, but I’ve been hit again, ever so slightly in the right thumb, so I’ve been wounded twice in this little campaign. It was a crump that burst near me and killed my horse & dented my hat, but didn’t hit me except in the thumb, & has only caused a little cut 1 inch long on the inside of the bone. My arm is quite OK now & neither is bad enough for hospital…

We are as far behind at present as you are from Whitefoot Lane & when we go in I stop behind with the mules & go up over shell plastered roads with the waggons. I have been on the gun bit owing to shellshock & nervous exhaustion (10 days fighting is no joke for anyone…)

I can tell you its nice to be here–altho the Ger has cut down trees, blown up each house, poisoned wells, etc etc etc… most of his stoves were done in, but mine wasn’t, but a nice little egg bomb was up the chimney ready for the first fire!! I’ve kept it as a souvenir. He had a piano or two down his dugouts, each one connected to a mine!!!

…Well, am just going to have tea, so will close. Thanks for books & pyjamas & toffee. Can you manage to send me a large cake for the mess… & a box or two of biscuits or shortbreads… Please send Motor Cycling & Motor Cycle & an occasional Daily Mail…

Will you send some Bachelor buttons and take my tunic to the CSSA & have an open collar put in instead of that stand up one and tell them to let it out down the back… Dont forget as I  may be home soon for a staff job…

Love to all, Harry.[1]

To review:

  1. A second scratch for Lt. Williamson is much discussed. There is no sense that he might want to omit any mention of–let alone self-mockingly downplay–such a minor injury.
  2. He is well, but he also considers himself shell-shocked–not concussed per se, but suffering from the neurological and/or psychological aftereffects of prolonged exposure to artillery. This is certainly possible, but this is very much the boy who cried wolf.
  3. He has a comfy dugout, despite or because of his suspiciously complete knowledge of German booby traps. But s a transport officer in the Machine Gun Corps, he would not be likely to be the first or second or tenth officer to check a certain spot for booby-traps. Finding them as he claims to have done is not impossible, but it’s not likely.
  4. He wears his pyjamas every night, which points more to the comfy than the shocking aspects of working in support of more advanced troops.
  5. He is in perpetual need of motoring mags and biscuits.
  6. And lastly, with those tailoring instructions, we are reminded that he is both dandified and delusional. It has hardly been a fortnight since Williamson was called on the carpet, with a hangover, accused of basic incompetence, and left convinced he would be fired from his relatively safe job with the transport. This tailoring assignment for poor old mum is a rank fantasy… He is not getting a staff appointment…

 

Ivor Gurney, humble private and laborer, has bigger things on his mind: battle draws near, as does the publication of his first book of verse. For once he is the more focused of our daily selection of letter-writers.

29 March 1917

My Dear Friend: It is too dangerous to move towards my valise, where your letter lies, there being too many men looking for seats, and the fire being too comfortable…

This, it would seem, is Gurney’s excuse for conducting only a general–and rather grumpy–discussion of his poetry. Which we’ll skip…

Well what thundering interesting things are happening now! O if I but knew German! Lots of newspapers, some quite late have come my way; and a book of short stories about Military Life—supposed to be humorous “Simpllicimus” “Berliner Tageblatt” etc etc. There is no room for souvenirs, as the opportunities for getting them later will probably be only too numerous. You cannot imagine the amount of work behind his lines; he must have worked very hard…

Let’s compare our two writers.

Henry Williamson is a fanciful youth, a dyed-in-the-wool spinner of tales, and so the German lines become a cheerfully Gothic obstacle course, full of wired-up pianos which don’t trouble him in the least. He is also, incredibly, a full lieutenant in charge of a number of grown men, solely responsible for keeping other grown men supplied with the necessary ammunition.

Ivor Gurney, five years older, is a private whose battalion has worked for months as ready labor for the engineers. Not only is he unable to lard his letters with tall tales (the censor would know, and he would be embarrassed) but he can neither load up on souvenirs nor fail to notice the salient fact about the German lines: these trenches and dugouts–the ones abandoned for a better-sited line fortified completely and at leisure–are still much better than the British lines he has worked so hard to improve.

Nor is he likely to hate or disrespect his enemy. Gurney has not been in a major battle, nor has he suffered the very worst of attritional trench-holding. But he is nearing a full year in France, and few of our writers could claim as complete an identification with the “Tommy” experience. He sees the Germans opposite as fellow front-fighters, rather than enemies.

Our mails arrive very well still. I hope they will continue to bring your letters, though my replies may be short and infrequent. I enclose something, which looks like a complete description of a German private but dont know. I found also about a dozen p[ost]c[ards]s, one of Nuremburg, which provoked sadness that we must never visit Germany. Anyway the place I want to visit now is Blighty. “Blighty is the place for me” as the song says. Goodbye, Good health and Good luck:

Your sincere Friend Ivor Gurney[2]

A melancholy souvenir.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 104-5.
  2. War Letters, 146-147.

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

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

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

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

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

 

Base Details

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

 

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

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

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

 

March 4

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

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

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

The other surviving medieval rosace at Saint-Ouen

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

 

In the Church of St. Ouen

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

March 4

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

The rest of our business today can be quickly accomplished:

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

5th March, 1917.

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

Max Gate, Dorchester, March 4: 1917

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

References and Footnotes

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

Rowland Feilding Faces the Brass; Richard Aldington’s Odd Worms and Epitaphs; Edward Thomas Has a Birthday; Kate Luard is Back in Action

Those Great War generals are all bastards, right? They are donkeys sending lions over the top in pointless, badly-planned, unsupported raids, then spinning the results into victories in the press and lying to the staff so the same murderous tactics are inflicted on the poor bloody infantry again and again. Right? Well, no. Not all of them.

March 3, 1917. Derry Huts {near Dranoutre)

The Battalion Commanders were sent for this morning, to meet General Plumer, the Second (i.e. my) Army Commander, at Brigade Headquarters. We went in one by one, and had a tête-à-tête conversation with him.

When my turn came I found only Colonel Monck-Mason (temporarily commanding the Brigade during the Brigadier’s absence) and the Army Commander in the room.

The latter was very friendly, and very human. That is one of his many admirable qualities. He takes the trouble to know even his Battalion Commanders, and for this and other reasons has earned great confidence among the  troops of his army.

After shaking hands, he referred to the raid of February 19.

Rowland Feilding, competent and painstaking battalion commander, is about to get raked over the coals, it would seem.

He expressed the opinion that there should have been a preliminary bombardment by artillery, and asked me why this had not been done. Obviously, I could not enter into explanations, but he quickly turned to Colonel Monck-Mason, who replied that the trenches were too close together for that.

“Then,” said the General, “you should have had a trench-mortar bombardment.” Then he turned to me and said: “ I know all about your having asked for a Stokes mortar bombardment: General Pereira has told me.”

I felt I could see General Pereira telling him this, and explaining that it was he who had refused it; blaming himself, in fact, for the failure of the raid. Now, that is just Pereira all over, and I repeat it that you may know the man, and understand why every officer and soldier of his Brigade swears by him.

As one of my brother C.O.’s once said to me: “You know, if he trusts you, that he will defend you, and that no one will be allowed to belittle you except across his mangled corpse.” And the feeling in regard to Plumer among the fighting troops—I do not speak for his Staff who no doubt feel this also—is much the same.

We came here yesterday, into Brigade Reserve, to find that the enemy had been shelling the place with high explosive and gas, which latter still hangs heavily on the ground. One shell hit the house where my headquarters are, but the family (mother, baby and all) still cling on.

General Sir Herbert Plumer

(Midnight) I have just got my leave.[1]

Some small wartime tragedies, then, are not compounded by their sequels.

But Feilding is unusually fortunate in his generals, and not only the honorable and loyal Pereira: General Sir Herbert Plumer is one of the more unprepossessing generals the British have, but he is also the most innovative–a term which, though a shibboleth of our current culture, feels strange in its application to a Great War general. As it should, for it was an unusual trait among the many well-bred cavalry generals still struggling to cope with the reality of deep defense systems and the deeper realities of attrition. But Plumer has been thinking differently and, as we can see today, he is listening to the officers in the front lines. And even as they spoke, in fact, he is planning a major operation unlike any yet attempted on the Western Front…

 

To sing us back into the daily routine we have the matter-of-fact choral/chronicle voice of Dr. Dunn’s history of the 2/RWF. But today the chronicle is nearly as poetical as our poets. The battalion, long in the line and proud of its practical mien, does not neglect to notice the birds and the ruins:

March 3rd.–There is a coating of ice on still water. Today’s is the second great flight of starlings and of crows since we came here. Do French crows, like Scotch crows, start housekeeping on the first Sunday in March? We have scraped together a trench strength of 450 by taking in the Drums and other details usually left out. We marched by Eclusier. Near Feuillères a whizz-bang had stuck in the stem of a tree, projecting fore and aft. Enough of Clery is standing to make it ghostly. A village razed is not so sad to see as roofless, windowless, sagging walls; they give one creeps at night. On the wreck of one house a cat sat and blinked listlessly as we marched through…[2]

 

I know I shouldn’t pile relatively uneventful writings atop each other–especially when we still have “welcome back” and “happy birthday” entries to get to–but I can’t resist this letter of Richard Aldington‘s to F.S. Flint. Aldington is eager to be a good modernist: sentimental, but not. And in expressing his general indifference to the killing of older men (Aldington is twenty-four), he surprises with a more-than-modern bit of slang:

3/3/17
My dear Franky,

I emerged from several yards of mud to find among others your excellent & heartening letter. After a night in a somewhat lousy dug-out your poems were like sprays of fresh lilac & your unpublished letter a healthy dung-hill…

I got your parcel several days ago–of course just before we moved, so I had to eat the cake wolfishly in a single evening, instead of making it last it [sic] week. All the same I enjoyed it. Please thank your wife for her trouble…

During a recent thaw in a certain trench there was discovered a rough wooden cross. I scraped the mud off it & on it was written in indelible pencil the following–“here lies [sic] the remains of two unknown British soldiers. Heroes both!”

The next day about a mile from the same point I examined (as I always do if possible) another grave. On it was a little metal plate: “Ein unbekannte Deutsche soldat” [An unknown German soldier]. I thought of my friend Jacques Viguelle lying far away & of another friend Sergeant Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. I wonder if I shall ever see his grave…

I hope this talk of “worms & epitaphs” doesn’t depress you, but you know my mania for necrology. All wasted youth, broken hope, lost effort touches me deeply–and–you will think me very inhuman–I don’t mind when I see older men “clipped” & hear them moaning–it’s the boys, the dear heart of youth stabbed–that’s what hurts.

Cheer-o, old boy.

Keep the home fires burning – with your m.s.s.

Richard[3]

 

And, as promised, two brief observances. One, ironically, jollier than the other:

Edward Thomas is thirty-nine today, but the vagaries of the post have brought him nothing, and he perhaps feels justified, then, in omitting to mention the occasion or to write more than the minimum:

No post. Morning dull spent in office. But afternoon with Colonel to Achicourt to see O.P.s and then to new battery positions… saw my new quarters to be. Wrote to Mother and Helen…[4]

Finally, today, Kate Luard, the Nursing Sister, is back at the front. She arrived yesterday in a new camp at Warlencourt, behind the Arras front after a rough ride over terrible roads. The situation was primitive, and dangerous, and her great pleasure at the prospect of confronting these difficulties comes through in her writing:

This area hums with work… The Colonel has made a little compound for us, walled in with canvas all round… the kitchen is not finished yet and the Nissen hut not up, so we slept on stretchers in the Mess Hut of another C.C.S. just over the road…

Sister R. and I are going to search the country round for a cottage to take our laundry, and to look for possibilities of milk, eggs, and butter, as we are ten miles from shops.

A place a mile away is shelled every day, and they once had to evacuate the patients in the C.C.S. across the road for shelling. The guns sound very close, and last night one heard again the big shells reverberating through the air as they travelled. The German retirement will make a difference here. There was a very sharp frost again last night and it was hard, or rather impossible, to get warm.

If her further descriptions of the dumps and the road work were not enough, the fact that there is another several-hundred-bed Casualty Clearing Station just across the road clearly indicates that action is expected nearby. But there are also the guns: tomorrow’s diary describes tonight, a century back

We were cosily tucked up in bed with dozens of blankets, and our oil stoves burning in our canvas huts and I’d just put my lamp out, when big enemy shells came whizzing overhead from two directions. They burst a long way past us, but made a tremendous noise being fired (from a big naval gun they run up close to their line), and loud screams overhead. Our 9.2’s and 12-inch in the wood here kept it up all night with lions’ roars.[5]

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 163-4.
  2. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 301-2.
  3. Imagist Dialogues, 193-4.
  4. War Diary (Childhood), 167.
  5. Unknown Warriors, 96.