Wilfred Owen Writes to Siegfried Sassoon, Father-Confessor, Colonel, and Prophet; Lord Dunsany Dines with the Company

Today, a century back, two days after writing, then shelving a way-over-the-top letter to Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen sat down once again to write… a still-pretty-over-the-top letter to Siegfried Sassoon. I don’t think it needs much more introduction (or commentary).

5 November 1917

Mahim, Monkmoor Road, Shrewsbury

This was not the photograph in question, but rather the Philpot portrait (Fitzwilliam Museum); but see below

My dear Sassoon,

When I had opened your envelope in a quiet comer of the Club Staircase, I sat on the stairs and groaned a little, and then went up and loosed off a gourd, a Gothic vacuum of a letter, which I ‘put by’ (as you would recommend for such effusions) until I could think over the thing without grame.[1]

I have also waited for this photograph.

Show some rich anger if you will. I thank you; but not on this paper only, or in any writing. You gave—with what Christ, if he had known Latin & dealt in oxymoron, might have called Sinister Dexterity. I imagined you were entrusting me with some holy secret concerning yourself. A secret, however, it shall be until such time as I shall have climbed to the housetops, and you to the minarets of the world.

 

There is indeed a slight resemblance between the heretical sun king and the rebel poet

Smile the penny! This Fact has not intensified my feelings for you by the least—the least grame. Know that since mid-September, when you still regarded me as a tiresome little knocker on your door, I held you as Keats + Christ + Elijah + my Colonel + my father-confessor + Amenophis IV in profile.

What’s that mathematically?

In effect it is this: that I love you, dispassionately, so much, so very much, dear Fellow, that the blasting little smile you wear on reading this can’t hurt me in the least.

If you consider what the above Names have severally done for me, you will know what you are doing. And you have fixed my Life–however short. You did not light me: I was always a mad comet; but you have fixed me. I spun round you a satellite for a month, but I shall swing out soon, a dark star in the orbit where you will blaze. It is some consolation to know that Jupiter himself sometimes swims out of Ken!

If this sounds like a poem, that’s because it soon will be, a long effort entitled “This is the Track” and containing the lines:

To be a meteor, fast, eccentric, lone.
Lawless; in passage through all spheres.
Warning the earth of wider ways’, unknown
And rousing men with heavenly fears.

This marks the end of surely one of the most courageously sustained effusions that Sassoon has ever been subjected to. He must be writhing–and also flattered. Returning to the letter at hand, we find Owen, confident that his outburst of adoration will not have spoiled the friendship, returning to earthly matters:

To come back to our sheep, as the French never say, I have had a perfect little note from Robt. Ross, and have arranged a meeting at 12.30 on Nov. 9th. He mentioned staying at Half Moon St., but the house is full.

I have ordered several copies of Fairies & Fusiliers, but shall not buy all, in order to leave the book exposed on the Shrewsbury counters…

The connection between Sassoon and Owen is intense and important, even if it is not fully reciprocal. Sassoon esteems the young poet, and if he does not seems quite capable of intense warmth without intense passion, he clearly “values the relationship,” as we would say in our mercenary way. And Owen professes love for regard, friendship, and reading/editing/poetic fellowship–these things are the most important.

But Owen is not some blithe innocent or fashionably fancy-free poetic adventurer; he’s an ambitious poet, and Sassoon’s gift of entree into the literary world by means of associations with Roberts Ross and Graves is very welcome too… And it’s endearing that Owen reports his little scheme for drawing attention to Graves’s new book. With self-consciousness of his silliness, sure–but he still reports it.

Sassoon is a beloved friend–loudly and enthusiastically beloved, but still not the be-all-end-all. There is also Owen’s family, and the society of his many friends and contacts from his ergotherapeutic activities.

I am spending happy enough days with my Mother, but I can’t get sociable with my Father without going back on myself over ten years of thought.

What I most miss in Edinburgh (not Craiglockhart) is the conviviality of the Four Boys (L. vivere—to live) Someday, I must tell how we sang, shouted, whistled and danced through the dark lanes through Colinton; and how we laughed till the meteors showered around us, and we fell calm under the winter stars. And some of us saw the pathway of the spirits for the first time. And seeing it so far above us, and feeling the good road so safe beneath us, we praised God with louder whistling; and knew we loved one another as no men love for long.

Which, if the Bridge-players Craig & Lockhart could have seen, they would have called down the wrath of Jahveh, and buried us under the fires of the City you wot of.

This would appear to be one of the more open–though still oblique–references to homosexuality in Owen’s edited letters: the fire-buried city in question is surely Sodom, one of the two “Cities of the Plain” which another of our writers (and soon-to-be-path-crosser) will eventually choose as the euphemistic title of the fourth volume of the first English translation of the greatest French novel (or simply novel) then being written (or at any point). Got it?

To which also it is time you committed this letter. I wish you were less undemonstrative, for I have many.adjectives with which to qualify myself. As it is I can only say I am

Your proud friend,

Owen[2]

 

A much less dramatic/interesting/significant letter will play the “secondly, and anticlimactically” role, today. But Lord Dunsany‘s correspondence with Lady Beatrice is suddenly available these days, and perhaps we will wring some insights from it eventually. As it is, however, he seems a bit… aloof.

My Darling Mink,

The officers of D. Company gave me a dinner last night at the Club. We walked back  arm in arm with me in the middle, either to show that that was their natural and usual way of going home, not a necessity, or else to show that if ever I wanted help to get home after dinner, I should have it…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. A helpful note from the editor explains that "SS cannot explain this word."
  2. Collected Letters, 504-6.
  3. Amory, Lord Dunsany, 146.

Ivor Gurney Hears the Music of the Stars; Siegfried Sassoon Stands Up a Board and Still Fails to See the Moon

Another digressive letter from Ivor Gurney of today, a century back, contains one of the nicest expressions of his musicality. And by “nice” I mean something that I can more or less grasp–only actual musicians would be able to follow much of his discussions with Marion Scott, and these I generally puzzle over, than omit. But not only can we grasp this one, perhaps, but we might even connect it to his war–to something, at least, that he sees before him:

Last night — O lucky me! — a Scottish Rifle sat up besides the stove with me, which glowed and made believe it was a fire. And he had travelled and could talk, and we had the same politics and the same tastes. His eyes were steady, his laugh open and easily provoked, and a smile that could not be long checked being chiefly an affair of the eyes. O well, it must have been 12.30 when we illicitly walked under the stars, watching Orion and hearing his huge sustained chord…

Gurney then writes into the letter a bass and treble clef, fitting them out with the chord he heard: a grand D Major, with the F# only present in the bass.

From this heavenly synesthesia,[1] he segues directly into verse, quoting Hilaire Belloc, then Yeats, and then delivering himself of this programmatic declaration:

The great test of Art—the Arts of Music, Writing, Painting anyway is to be able to see the eyes kindly and full of calm wisdom that would say these things behind the page. I will not try to write verse in England. Once out there, it will leak from me in vulgar streams.

With best wishes,

Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney[2]

 

And there we must leave Gurney to traipse only a few miles away to another War Hospital on the outskirts of Edinburgh. The segue is not poetic, alas, but a question of “out there–” in two senses. We will learn that the path back to the trenches can take different turns for different men and, more curiously, that it must have been clear in Scotland last night, and cloudy tonight…

Today, a century back, is the big day for Siegfried Sassoon: he recently announced his readiness to return to active service, his protest notwithstanding, and Dr. Rivers agreeably arranged a Medical Board, which is intended to end the fiction of his having a (symptomatic) “war neurosis” and pronounce him fit for duty. So off to the board he goes… or off to the waiting room, at least.

Even if you don’t know the story, you can probably guess that Sassoon–Mad Jack, the quiet poet, the petulant schoolboy–is not going to proceed according to plan.

I regret not using more of Sherston’s Progress lately, because it’s really good stuff… my excuses are that Sassoon puts few dates into it, that these are often slightly off, that he writes this section in a much more openly “binary,” flash-forward-ridden way, and that it is still, technically, a fictionalized memoir rather than a “straight” personal history.[3]

But in volume three of Sherston’s memoirs the fiction is growing thin. Rivers is Rivers, too influential to be damned by faint pseudonym. And although poetry–and therefore Owen–doesn’t enter into Sassoon’s account of “Sherston’s” stay at “Slateford,” everything else is more or less exactly where it should be. He tells us of his intolerable roommate, the relief of getting a lonely garret to himself, the consolations of literature as the weather turns against golf, etc. And very nicely, too. But about today he has different feelings.

There are two ways of telling a good story well — the quick way and the slow way. Personally I prefer a good story to be told slowly. What I am about to tell is not a good story. It is merely an episode which cannot be left out. A certain abruptness is therefore appropriate.

Well, rats! But this is protesting too much, isn’t it still a good story?

On the appointed afternoon I smartened myself up and waited to be called before the medical board. I was also going to tea with the astronomer, who had promised to let me have a look at the moon through his telescope. But I was feeling moody and irritable…

Sassoon–or, rather, just barely, Sherston–wonders if he didn’t perhaps have a touch of a cold coming on, which might explain… no, no, it doesn’t. He doesn’t let himself off and, as promised, he skips the story.

The Board was running late, he didn’t like to be kept waiting, and so he walked out: Lt. Siegfried Sassoon, M.C., former prominent pacifist and alleged neurotic, “cut” the Medical Board that was to decide his fate, with the excuse that the army shouldn’t make him late for tea.

The story is missing its middle, but it has a lovely last word. Naturally, when “Sherston” arrived, the astronomer’s telescope was not working (though, in a wry detail, Sassoon got instead a glimpse at a mysterious instrument and a lecture on the precise measurement of “infinitesimal fractions of a second”). The conclusion?

So even the moon was a washout.

But one point we can certainly take away from Sassoon’s treatment of the episode: there’s no need to over-complicate the story. A cold? An adamantine sense of social propriety? Others suggest, plausibly, a “fit of pique.” But isn’t it plausible that Sassoon wasn’t quite sure about his decision, or that he wanted more time with Rivers, the father figure who had recently abandoned him for his own sick leave, and knew that Rivers would cover for him?

In any case, that is precisely what happened. Rivers was furious with Sassoon–the only time, “Sherston” tells us, that he was so–but before the interview is over he laughs, forgives, and agrees to schedule a new Board in a month’s time.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Which reminds me more than a bit of Tolkien, who will cast his cosmological creation in musical terms, with heavy emphasis on starlight--and who brings Orion recognizably into the stars of Middle Earth.
  2. War Letters, 225-6.
  3. Another reason, I think, is that I once read Sassoon's laying-open of his youthful follies as a commendable effort in biographical soul-shriving. I'm not so sure, now: he stays in control of the effort, and seems at times to be almost political in his careful revelations, as if he is revealing what he must in such a way that he will earn commendation, while keeping the most embarrassing stuff safely hidden...
  4. Complete Memoirs, 551-2. See also Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 418.

Charles Carrington’s Ordeal Continues

Charles Carrington fought forward yesterday, a century back, taking all his company’s objectives–though this was not immediately clear in the nearly featureless mudscape at the time–at the cost of most of his company, including nearly every other officer. One Lieutenant Thorburn,[1] an officer who had been held back from the battle as an emergency reserve, came up in the evening. The purpose of this reserve is now fairly clear: it is to make sure not only that officers of sufficient experience are still unwounded the day after a major assault (as with Major Kearsey, who briefly commanded the 2/RFW after their advance last week), but also that there are a few leaders who are not yet too exhausted to lead effectively. Carrington/”Edmonds” does not shy away from telling us how close he was to collapse.

But the day begins on an easier note, with another of those exceptions to the rule of absent generalship:

In the morning I went out early to my men, and found all well and Thorburn a tower of strength. While we were cooking breakfast on a ‘Tommy’s cooker,’ General Hutchinson with a staff officer and his galloper came wandering up from the rear, and in full view of the enemy. He talked cheerily to us, as always, and then pointed out a wounded Boche in a little hollow, a few yards away, whose legs were shattered and who was trying to walk on his knees with two crutches of broken timber. We had known of this man before, but were leaving him until our own wounded were all in. ‘Hutchy’ insisted on our attending to this man first. Then he wandered on fearlessly to the front.

Carrington himself is left to consolidate yesterday’s positions, and he finds that the all-important work of one of his four Lewis gun sections (the Lewis gun, as the only portable automatic weapon, will be crucial in fending off mass counter-attacks) has been done–and done extremely well–by a new private who simply took over after the officer and senior NCOs had been killed or wounded.

So I put this prodigy, confirmed in the command of his section, to watch the crossing of the Stroombeek.

Taking stock of the rest of his company, Carrington finds that

Both officers, all four platoon Serjeants, eleven out of twelve section commanders had been hit; only Serjeant Walker and I and Lance-Corporal Reese, whose stripe was not a week old, were left. No wonder the company
was a little scattered.

Though the day had started well, it was to turn out the most wretched of my life. The three of us crouched happily enough in our circular pit, five feet in diameter, and dug it down till it was five feet deep.

And, with Carrington, we will find that his wretched day is a rewarding one for readers: one of the finest and most awful descriptions of a mind under bombardment, and then, in a mere parenthesis, an excellent “mud piece.”

As we were in full view of the enemy on the right front, along the valley of the Stroombeek, the movement of men in and near our position drew its reward. When the German gunners really settled down to their day’s shooting they gave us their fullest attention. There was no drumfire, no hurricane barrage, but a steady slow bombardment of the whole valley with heavies; all day the fire grew in intensity and accuracy; and occasionally the area was raked
over with a finer shower of field-gun shells. We had nothing to do but to sit and listen for the roar of the 5’9’s, lasting for five seconds each, perhaps twice a minute. One would be talking aimlessly of some unimportant thing when the
warning would begin. The speaker’s voice would check for an infinitesimal fraction of a second; then he would finish his sentence with a studied normality marvellously true to life. Everyone listened hard to the conversation, but with more than half an ear cocked in the direction of the enemy. If the shell were coming close, one would crouch down against the side of the pit, apparently as a mere perfunctory precaution, actually with delight that one could take cover unashamed. When the shell had burst in a smother of black smoke, and the clods and whining splinters had ceased to fall pattering around, one went on with the conversation. It was a kind of round game, in which a man felt he had lost a point every time a grunt or a remark about the danger was fetched out of him.

A bombardment is a war in miniature, and here it illustrates both the unavoidable general conclusions–war grinds down every man’s store of courage–and the specific surprises: some men are not what they seem.

Thorbum won easily; of course he had been through nothing yet but a night in a safe, dry trench. Yet this trial might well have finished off a fresh man. The shells fell consistently among our men (who, however, were well scattered
and in the deepest shell-holes); every other one would fling a shower of mud on to our helmets. About one in five or six would fall near enough to shake the parapet, blast its pungent fumes in our faces, and set every nerve in our bodies jangling.

Wolfe came out in an unexpected light; he was a tall, pale, flabby medical student in spectacles, and until that day I had had but a poor opinion of him. Every time a shell fell near he proceeded to tell us that he had a very strong presentiment; nothing was going to hit him that day. He said it so often, with such conviction, and so ingenuously, that it cheered me wonderfully, even at the worst moments. He did nothing and seemed to care little, but was
quite contented about himself.

Like Dr. Dunn before him, Carrington’s self-diagnosis is acute–this next paragraph sounds some like a particular form of shell-shock, a sort of trauma-induced O.C.D. But he is no doctor, after all, just a good writer making over to us a strong and terrible memory:

I needed some cheering up. I had had very much worse times than either of the others, but cannot deceive myself, all the same; I never could stand shell-fire. I got into a thoroughly neurotic state during the day. Enduring a bombardment is the opportunity for that kind of nervous disease which made Dr. Johnson touch every post as he walked along Fleet Street. You think of absurd omens and fetishes to ward off the shell you hear coming. A strong inward feeling compels you to sit in a certain position, to touch a particular object, to whistle so many bars of a tune silently between your teeth. If you complete the charm in time you are safe—until the next one. This absurdity becomes a dark, overpowering fatalism. You contemplate with horror that you have made a slip in the self-imposed
ritual, or that the augury sign of your own invention shows against you. You imagine that the shells are more deliberate and accurate than could be possible. They seem to have a volition of their own and to wander malevolently until they see a target on which to pounce; they seem to hurl themselves with intention sounding in the fierce roar of their near approach; they defy your mute relief when they fall far away, by sending slivers of jagged steel sighing and murmuring hundreds of yards towards you, long after the shock of the explosion is spent and gone.

Every gun and every kind of projectile had its own personality. Old soldiers always claimed that they knew the calibre of a shell by its sound and could always foretell which shells were going to fall dangerously close. Yet far more than they calculated depended on the range and the nature of the intervening ground. Sometimes a field-gun shell would leap jubilantly with the pop of a champagne cork from its muzzle, fly over with a steady buzzing crescendo, and burst with a fully expected bang; sometimes a shell would be released from a distant battery of heavies to roll across a.huge arc of sky, gathering speed and noise like an approaching express train, ponderous and certain. Shells flying over valleys and woods echoed strangely and defied anticipation; shells falling in enclosed spaces simply arrived with a double bang and no warning at all. Some shells whistled, others shrieked, others wobbled through space gurgling like water poured from a decanter.

So all the day you listened, calculated, hoped or despaired, making imaginary bargains with fate, laying odds with yourself on the chances of these various horrors. One particular gun would, seem to be firing more directly on you than the others. You would wait for its turn so intently as to forget other perhaps more real dangers. At last it comes. You hold frenziedly on to the conversation; you talk a little too fast; your nerves grow tense, and while you continue to look and talk like a man, your involuntary muscles get a little out of hand. Are your knees quivering a little? Are you blinking? Is your face contorted with fear? You wonder and cannot know. Force yourself to do something, say something, think something, or you will lose control. Get yourself in hand with some voluntary action. Drum out a tune with your finger-tips upon your knee. Don’t hurry—keep time—get it finished, and you will be safe this once.

Here superstition and neurasthenia step in. Like the child who will not walk on the lines in the pavement and finds  real safety in putting each foot on a square stone you feel that your ritual protects you. As the roar of an approaching shell rises nearer and louder you listen in inward frenzy to the shell, in outward calm to the conversation. Steady with those nervous drum-taps on your knee; don’t break time or the charm is broken and the
augury vain. The shell roars near. What is Thorburn saying?

“Oh yes! The rations came up at nine o’clock, enough for twice our numbers.” (Explosion!)

Thank God, the tune was finished soon enough. But then, comes an overwhelming rush of panic. The next shell will be the nearest, the climax of the day. What is the next shell when the air is never free from their sound? The next that is at all near. But how near? Which is near enough to break the tension? Thorburn is saying, “We haven’t issued the rum to-day. Best do it at dusk, don’t you think?” (Terrific explosion!) “God,” you say with a gasp, dropping for an instant the mask of indifference. You eye the others guiltily and wonder if they are going through the same performance. At least are you keeping up appearances as well as they do? What a comfort that Wolfe’s augury
is so optimistic.

Once in the afternoon I was on the point of breaking down. My luck turned; the self-deluding charm failed; omens were bad and a shell roared into the mud throwing clods and whining splinters on our heads. I swore and moved nervously and lost control of my features.

“Steady,” said Thorburn, putting a hand on my arm. That was my nadir. The shelling slackened and stopped, until between Wolfe’s optimism and Thorburn’s unconcern I revived my good spirits.

This is one of the essential descriptions of the stress of prolonged shelling, a war compressed into a few hours, a memoir into a few paragraphs.

A little while later, trying to guide another officer of the battalion to his position near the Steenbeek[2] Carrington is held up in the mud:

We wandered vaguely; it was as dark as the Pit. Presently a British battery opened fire, dropping shells unpleasantly close in front of us. We must be right up to the front line then, such front line as there was. A smart bombardment began, which forced us to crouch down, for we could take no proper cover in this marsh. (There are no words in English for the omnipresent wetness, the sliminess, the stickiness of the mud, the gouts that you found clogging your fingers, and wiped off accidentally in your hair when you adjusted your helmet, the smears of it that appeared on your clean message forms and your mess-tin, the saturation of your clothes with its semi-solid filthiness, the smell of it, and the taste of it, and the colour of it.)

Now Carrington is lost, and mired, and under fire:

As we could only expect, the German guns began to retaliate. We were not reassured to find ourselves between the two fires. The Boche shells fell close behind us, the English close in front; we had wandered out into No Man’s Land.

We moved about trying to avoid the danger, and soon became entirely confused as to direction. The shells whizzed down from all sides, bursting with red showers of sparks and whiffs of smoke, and, difficult as it was to locate it in the dark, we endeavoured to find the empty vortex of the storm. We were helpless here for some unmeasured time, wet through, cold and paddling through seas of slime, in absolute blackness broken only by the occasional gleam of a high bursting shell.

At last in a slight lull I caught sight of rising ground, and led the party in that direction, where we came into an area of big shell-holes, that is, a planless maze of high ridges and pits where it was impossible to see more than five yards in any direction. I was leading, not more than three paces ahead of the next man, when another whirl of shell-fire came down.

They flung themselves one way into cover, I another.

In a few seconds, when I stood up again, they had vanished.

“Newsom! ” I called, not too loud, for this was No Man’s Land. No answer.

I circled round, looking for them. They cannot have been more than thirty yards away, but in that noise, darkness and chaos, they were undiscoverable. At last I gave them up, found a good piece of cover where I could watch in
their supposed direction, and waited for something to happen.

In time, the shelling stopped. I wondered where I was, and how to get back through the lines. For all I knew, there might be a German sentry-group three feet away in the next shellhole. I wasn’t even sure which was east and which was west, though I was inclined to think we had missed our way by edging off too far to the right, southward from the Stroombeek.

My troubles were soon solved for me, when the clouds broke above and I caught a pale glimpse of the Pole Star. Now to apply the invariable rule—east for Germany and west for ‘Blighty.’ Not for the first time I kept the Pole Star on my right hand and walked straight for home.[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. By chance the name of one of Edward Thomas's comrades and friends during his last days at Arras.
  2. There is no mention of the irrigation channels or small canals that connect to it on the map--presumably they are destroyed, rendering the entire area a marsh.
  3. A Subaltern's War, 155-69.

Peace Under the Stars for Ivor Gurney; A Box Barrage for the Irish Guards

The recent protagonists are all quiet today. Instead we have two brief and sharply contrasting bits: a moment of peace and the worst of the war’s “hate.”

Ivor Gurney will write, tomorrow to Marion Scott, describing an evening of quiet beauty:

Last night there was a pure colourless October Sunlight, and I could smell apples in the Minsterworth orchards and feel for a moment that soon we should go in and company with Bach, to talk of books and things of peace. How later I should go swiftly under the night towards Orion, home; there to smoke and read myself sleepy, and not to go upstairs till just this side of unconsciousness.[1]

 

The Irish Guards had a different sort of evening, and their Regimental historian–Rudyard Kipling–makes it stand in for all the nastiest experiences of the war of attrition, in this its late phase of intense and highly accurate artillery fire.

On the 14th of July there was a German raid, preceded by an hour’s “box” barrage of trench mortars, .77’s, and machine-guns, on two platoons of No. 4 Company then in the front line behind the canal. A shrapnel-barrage fell also on the supports. A “box” barrage is a square horror of descending fire cutting off all help, and ranks high among demoralising experiences. Luckily, the line was lightly held, and the men had more or less of cover in dug-outs and tunnels in the canal bank. A Lewis-gun post in a covered emplacement, almost on the bed of the canal itself, was first aware, through the infernal racket, of Germans crossing the canal, and fired at them straight down the line of its bed. They broke and disappeared in the rank weed-growth, but there was another rush over the parapet of the line between two sentry groups in the firing bays. The trenches were alive by then with scattered parties stumbling through the black dark, and mistaking each other for friends or enemies, and the ruin of the works added to the confusion. As far as can be made out, one officer, Lieutenant H. J. B. Eyre, coming along what was left of a trench, ran literally into a party of the enemy. His steel helmet and revolver, all chambers fired, were found afterwards near the wreck of a firing-bay, but there was no other trace. It was learned later that he had been mortally wounded and died that evening. In trench-raids, when life, death, or capture often turn on a step to the left or the right, the marvel was that such accidents were not more frequent.

A wounded German was captured. He had no marks of identification, but said he belonged to a Schleswig regiment, and that the strength of the raid was intended to be two hundred. It did not, as the men said, “feel” anything like so many, though the wild lights of explosion that lit the scene showed large enemy parties waiting either in the bed of the canal or on the opposite bank. These, too, vanished into the dark after their comrades in the trenches had been turned out. Probably, it was but an identification fray backed by a far-reaching artillery “hate” that troubled all the back-areas even up to Elverdinghe.

Our front-line casualties in the affair were but one officer and one man missing and one wounded. Yet the barrage blew the men about like withered leaves, covered them with mud, plastered them with bits of sand-bags, and gapped, as it seemed, fathoms of trench at a stroke, while enemy machine-guns scissored back and forth over each gap. The companies in the support-line who watched the affair and expected very few to come out of it alive, suffered much more severely from the shrapnel-barrage which fell to their share.[2]

So only a few men died, or were torn by all this airborne metal. But Kipling makes it clear that helpless terror takes a heavy toll even on those who are physically untouched.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters, 175.
  2. The Irish Guards in the Great War, I, 198-9.

Richard Aldington’s Glad Young April Day; Siegfried Sassoon, Three Fellows, and a Four-Footed Friend, the Morning After; Ivor Gurney on Morale; Edward Thomas’s Calendrical Heresy

This is going to be a cruel month. We’ll begin with a “month poem” from one of our writers who will be on the outskirts of the worst fighting. Others will be in it: the Battle of Arras, the first intense fighting since the Somme petered out in November, is due in only a week.

I

When I rose up in the morning
In a ruined town in France,
I heard the sparrows twitter
In gardens bare and grey
And watched the sunbeams dance.

O glad young April day!

II

When I lie down this evening
In a damp cellar of France
I’ll hear the big guns booming
By bare and blasted lanes,
And watch the shrapnel dance.

O wild sad April rains!

Richard Aldington[1]

 

For Siegfried Sassoon, the month began with nothing more cruel than a hangover and a goat. Today is the last day in rest billets at the unlovely Camp 13 for the 2nd Royal Welsh, and their unwilling replacement officer is beginning to warm to his fellows.

Last night Sassoon and three comrades had gone to Amiens for a bath and a good dinner at the Godbert—-“a cheerful experience, anyhow.” This morning they[2] posed with the regimental mascot (at right). Sassoon, at right seems to have maintained his good cheer, despite having consumed

2 John Collins   1 Japanese ditto.   1 Oyster cocktail

1 Sherry and Bitters.   Pommard Eclatante, trois verres.

1 Benedictine.

In spite of hankerings for “the good old 1st Battalion…” I was now beginning to identify myself with the equally “good old 2nd Battalion.”[3]

 

Ivor Gurney, still writing regularly to Marion Scott to discuss the editing of his poetry, is also maintaining relatively good spirits.

1 April 1917

My Dear Friend: This is the right day for such a business, if it were not so bitter, and surely a fest-day should not be so dull? Well, here it is, and fatigues are over, and this queer billet echoes and reechoes with the sound of tin whistles and mouth organs, just issued; and the lilt of some Scottish tunes our crack players are rollicking through make life a little alive and worth living…

But it is not an easy life, nor is the task of maintaining morale several years into a frustrated and stagnated war a light one. Exhaustion weighs on the mind as well as the body.

We have not had so bad a time lately, nothing like trench conditions, at any rate, though hard work and not enough food (or at any rate, food not seeming enough) have made us all weak, and upset our insides. I should put this down to the peculiarities of my own stupid constitution, did not men of farming and similar trades also complain. I believe a great deal is due to the dulness of the life, which makes every one look to meals more than ordinary; but anyway they are bound to work us; it being as certain as anything that only going keeps us going. We should all relapse into neurasthenia were we not driven. Considering everything, especially the callousness to certain things such a life must develop, the men are marvellously good to one another, and surely much finer than ever they were, bless em…

The baccy parcel arived last night, and we were all most grateful; everybody was short or bankrupt; and the cigar things were most grateful to us stranded wretches. (They are singing “Annie Laurie”. O the joy of it!)

I fear I can send you no money yet, but if you would send the paper covered National Song Book, and the small, selected Browning in Walter Scotts edition they would be most useful. The latter is 1/6 I believe. I believe “The Spirit of Man” is sucked dry for me, and my thirst for good verse, and short, is very strong.

Marion Scott had also reported to Gurney on a recent performance of his songs. Without access to a piano in the trenches (pace Henry Williamson and his two pianos–but those were booby trapped anyway) he has turned from musical composition to verse. But now, amidst the ruins of the German retreat, Gurney consoles himself with his own songs.

The day has been springlike on the whole, and last nights sky was gloriously tragic; I sang “In Flanders” to myself, facing the West, alone in a lately ruined house, spoiled by that unutterable thoroughness of the German destruction; and was somewhat comforted thereby. That has all been said for me in “In Flanders”…

But for Gurney, mad north by the west country, “In Flanders” can always mean “In Gloucestershire.”

The scene of “In Flanders” is obviously Coopers Hill. O times! O saisons, O chateaux!

Goodbye for now: Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney[4]

 

Edward Thomas, too, begins the month in relative ease, quiet, and lengthy letter-writing.

…a beautiful serene clear morning with larks at 5.15 and blackbirds at 6… All day sat writing letters to Helen, Father and Mother by the fire and censoring men’s letters etc…[5]

To Helen, first, with a plain but absorbing tale of his night’s doings:

Arras, 1 April 1917

Dearest,

Now the night is over I will tell you all about it before I go to bed, if I do go! I feel so cheerful for several reasons of which I will give you two. Firstly, I found a letter from you waiting for me when I returned at 7 a.m. Secondly, I found the car waiting for me as soon as I was clear of B., which was most cheering to a tired and overladen officer and four telephonists still more overladen.

Well, I didn’t have much of the fire. I just waited to hear that the working party was only going to carry up the stuff, which they did, and to do the work today or some other time soon. I had to decide to let them carry the heavy stuff (too heavy for them to carry through a sticky trench) along the crest which was being swept by machine guns from time to time. Which they did and luckily came to no harm. I went off to the cellar, leaving two telephonists to take their instrument off the wire and see that the wire on to the cellar was all right. The cellar was full of smoke, except the lowest twofeet of it, so that we (the two other telephonists and I) had to crouch or lie. Then shells began to fall in the direction of the O.P. In two hours the other telephonists had not arrived. I thought they had lost their way in the moonlight among the wire and ruins andtrenches of B. or had been wounded—or perhaps the working party had had a casualty. So I sent back the other two telephonists to see if they had left the O.P. I had thought myself rather clever—or rather I was very much relieved—to find my way in the moonlight.

Then, later, after learning that the lines are cut,

…I dozed for one hour or two, dreaming of being court-martialled, till up I got and had a quiet journey. The moon had gone and left all the stars and not a cloud. I was sure of my way by the Plough. But it was dirty and tiring, for I had on vest | shirt | two waistcoats | tunic | one Tommy’s leather waistcoat | British warm | and waterproof.

Only two or three shells came over and I found the telephonists dozing and there in a clay corner we dozed and smoked till daybreak. More heavy shells arrived well away from us. They moan and then savagely stop moaning as they strike the ground with a flap. They are 5.9s or Five Nines as we call them.—I had not been wanted on the telephone so all is well. Day broke clear and white and a lark rose at 5.15. Blackbirds began to sing at 6 and a yellowhammer. I got up and slopped through the trench and looked at the view over to the Hun, a perfect simple view of three ridges, with a village and line of trees on the first, a clump on the second and clumps and lines on the furthest, all looking almost purple and brown like heather in the dawn. Easter Sunday—a lovely clear
high dawn.

Strangely, it is not Easter at all. Thomas is, somehow, off by a week in terms of the liturgical calendar. He is not a religious man–in fact he is more or less and atheist, or rather a quiet but firm non-believer–but it’s still rather odd that he’s made this mistake. Wouldn’t the battery have special arrangements for church parade? Perhaps not.

He’s a quite fellow, but surely not so insular that he won’t notice the mistake or be put right by one of his fellow officers.

After more description of the end of his all-night duty, Thomas brings the letter slowly to a close.

Now everybody has breakfasted. There has been a shower and the sun has returned but among the clouds. I am not very sleepy yet, but just enjoying having nothing to do which is supposed to be the privilege of the day after the O.P.—that is in these peaceful days. You are having a fine Easter, I hope, as we are, though not a warm one yet. I like hearing of your days with Baba and Bronwen and Joy, and of Mervyn’s ride with Ernest, and intended ride to
Jesse’s…

Rubin has set the gramophone to ‘In Cellar Cool’. But everything, gramophone or not, out here forbids memories such as you have been writing. Memories I have but they are mixed up with my thoughts and feelings in B. or when I hear the blackbirds or when the old dog bangs the table leg with his tail or lies with his brains wasting in his skull. You must not therefore expect me to say anything outright. It is not my way, is it?

No, I’m sure she doesn’t. But surely she might wish it…

Now I must write and remind Mother she has sent only the inessential part of my mapcase, the waterproof cover for it.

A happy Easter! Goodbye

Edwy

The letter to his mother is less fulsome–perhaps it is more dutiful, perhaps he wrote to Helen in the jittering excitement of having survived his long night’s journey and is now “crashing”–but it does go beyond the merely parcel-related to gently take up two opposed themes: the destruction of war, and the coming of spring flowers.

The day has kept fine on the whole and if it were a little warmer it would be good Easter weather, fresh, and bright. Only I feel cold after sitting out all night as stout as a market woman with so many clothes on. My servant is washing for me out in the yard and the clothes are blowing on the line just beside the motor car which shines in the sun. The aeroplanes are buzzing overhead and as I sit by an open wood fire it is more like a scene in a small country inn at home than anything else except that one of our guns rattles all the windows.every now and then. We get good fires here with the boards and beams of ruined houses all round us. The servants will bum anything if you let them and I have just been lecturing mine on the evil of burning things that still serve the purpose for which they were made. The waste is indescribable. It would be interesting to compare the way the Germans spend their substance. The deep dug-outs they make are far beyond ours in strength and workmanship. We make them just as much as they do but we make wretched things skimped in work and materials so far as I have seen. The thing that is to shelter us in the battle is being made now in a hurry anyhow without any expert advice except that of a thatcher from Norfolk.

I am glad you had some violets. I have not seen any, nor primroses, nor celandines, not even a dandelion . . . It will be nice to have the kind of Easter weather it is good to sow seeds in. Nice for us, too. Goodbye.Ever your loving son

Edwy[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. I am pretty sure--but by no means entirely certain--that the inspirational April is this year, a century back.
  2. Sassoon writes that "Binge Owen" accompanied him, Greaves, and Conning; but the officer in the center of the picture is Coster, not Owen.
  3. Diaries, 146-7. The War the Infantry Knew, 307-8.
  4. War Letters, 150-1.
  5. War Diary (Childhood), 174.
  6. Selected Letters, 157-60.

Edward Thomas is Worn Out and Wretched While Ivor Gurney Shivers in a Crouch–But Beauty is Everywhere

A bleak ending to March, a century back. First we have Edward Thomas, miserable but open to all the beauty around him. This diary both records his impressions and seems to edge toward a new sort of poetry.

Up at 5 worn out and wretched. 5.9’s flopping on Achicourt while I dressed. Up to Beaurains. There is a chalk-stone cellar with a dripping Bosh dugout far under and by the last layer of stones is the lilac bush, rather short. Nearby a graveyard for the ‘tapfer franzos soldat’ with crosses and Hun names. Blackbirds in the clear cold bright morning early in black Beaurains. Sparrows in the elder of the hedge I observe through–a cherry tree just this side of hedge makes projection in trench with its roots. Beautiful clear evening everything dark and soft round Neuville-Vitasse, after the rainbow there and the last shower. Night in lilac-bush cellar of stone like Berryfield… Machine gun bullets snaking along–hissing like little wormy serpents.[1]

 

After many months of hard work and trench holding, Ivor Gurney is headed for the war’s sharper end. Today, a century back, his battalion of the Gloucesters took up positions near Vermand, and prepared to attack. Of this experience will come this poem:

Near Vermand

Lying flat on my belly shivering in clutch-frost,
There was time to watch the stars, we had dug in:
Looking eastward over the low ridge; March scurried its blast
At our senses, no use either dying or struggling.
Low woods to left (Cotswold her spinnies if ever)
Showed through snow flurries and the clearer star weather.
And nothing but chill and wonder lived in mind; nothing
But loathing and fine beauty, and wet loathed clothing.
Here were thoughts. Cold smothering and fire-desiring,
A day to follow like this or in the digging or wiring.
Worry in snow flurrying and lying flat, flesh the earth loathing.
I was the forward sentry and would be relieved
In a quarter or so, but nothing more better than to crouch
Low in the scraped holes and to have frozen and rocky couch —
To be by desperate home thoughts clutched at, and heart-grieved.
Was I ever there — a lit warm room and Bach, to search out sacred
Meaning; and to find no luck; and to take love as believed.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary (Childhood), 174.
  2. The Ordeal of Ivor Gurney, 96.

Charles Scott Moncrieff is Up Again, and Down; Wilfred Owen Burns the Midnight Petrol; Edward Thomas Observes; John Buchan is Drafted

After a long convalescence, Charles Scott Moncrieff has been back on front line duty for a few weeks. At the end of January, he described his position, near Soues:

. . . On this plain we have among the mud, scarred with last summer’s shell holes, mile upon mile of wooden pathways, boards placed end to end like dominoes, and zigzagging over the country. The effect, especially by moonlight on the snow, is extraordinary. . . . I am still at Headquarters. We get very well looked after in the way of food, etc., having a Mess Corporal who scours the country in search of stores.

That night his battalion went up in relief of two others which had attacked German positions. Moncrieff’s battalion of the Kings Own Scottish Borderers then “consolidated,” the new position “and have, I think, given general satisfaction.” Today, a century back, there is more news:

9th Feb.

A great many changes and excitements. We came out of trenches on the 4th, and got a wire that evening that Campbell Johnson would take command of a company of German prisoners near by, and that Major Pennyman would return to us. C. J. went off in the morning to take a court martial, so I was in command for a few hours. Next day the Colonel returned. I meanwhile had been rather seedy, so on the 7th, as the regiment was coming out for their 12 days’ rest, I was buzzed down to Amiens in a motor ambulance and landed here in hospital. To-day I am as yellow as a guinea…

I am glad to have an opportunity of seeing this town. It is practically out of bounds for the troops outside. It is ridiculous my going sick so soon, but it happened very opportunely (while the regiment is resting), and I hope for nothing better than to rejoin in about a fortnight. The sunlight through the glass looks very bright and cheery. I believe in trenches we had 25 degrees of frost one morning, and being mostly out of doors, or just indoors, it is felt all the more. . . .[1]

This is at least the third time that Moncrieff’s service has been interrupted by ill-health, so it remains to be seen if his confidence in the short duration of his illness is warranted…

 

From a Scotsman, then, to a Shropshire lad being discommoded by a Scotsman. Wilfred Owen wrote to his mother today from his enviably safe new billet on a transport course well behind the lines. It’s a light letter, and his joy at not being amidst the frozen mud and shell bursts of the front line shines through the minor complaints. Owen notices that he is not quite the personally conservative mama’s boy he had been before the trenches… all that violent death has a liberalizing effect on one’s sense of quotidian risk.

My own dear Mother,

I am in a hut now, because the Scot disturbed me by rolling in every midnight, and when at last he got into our bed, his three sheets did not somehow add to the warmth.

Last night I burnt a petrol lamp under my bed!! I don’t know what Risk is, now.

In the morning, the top blanket was stiffish with frost. Don’t think I suffer. Every detail of this blessed Life is sweet and precious. 3 more weeks of it yet!

…no more now but my perfect Love to you.

W.E.O. X X X[2]

 

Finally, today, three brief notices:

 

Edward Thomas and his battery marched up through the bitter cold today, a century back, toward their first position behind the lines near Arras. His diary, written hastily at the end of the day, is a series of notes, aides-memoires for a writer too busy to write.

…(Remember Berneville courtyard, with ruined pigeon house by well and church behind what was manor house.) Graveyard for 3 ‘Mort pout la patrie’ below our billet. A wonderful night of all the stars and low full moon.[3]

 

Richard Aldington, pioneer private, is still writing busily. A letter to F.S. Flint today was relatively short, with only time for a few slanders of literary rivals–but it included two poems! Which, by the time the letter was archived, were “no longer with letter.”[4]

 

And it was today, a century back, that John Buchan officially joined the war effort. He was appointed, by cabinet minute, to be the first director of the new Department of Information.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 123.
  2. Collected Letters, 432-3.
  3. War Diary (Childhood), 161.
  4. Imagist Dialogues, 183.
  5. Smith, John Buchan, 200.

Olaf Stapledon Frozen Stiff; Siegfried Sassoon All Over the Place; Edward Thomas Lands in France

Olaf Stapledon, king of the dreamers, ambulance driver of the milky way, ardent lover of the half-a-world-distant Agnes… is very cold.

Agnes,

Frost, frost frost! Day after day of it, bright, beautiful and bitter cold. Since I wrote last much has happened. We got a sudden order to trek, accompanied by a document ‘not to be opened until the hour of departure.’ Our journey was not a long one, but we took two days over it…

Olaf and the Friends Ambulance Unit have moved to Châlons-sur-Marne, in support of the French army. For the first time, I think, the conditions of service have brought his high-flying and free-floating writing down to the ground, with a dull thump. There is only one thing he can write about.

The journey was made difficult by the frost. Every possible thing froze up. Hot water froze as soon as it reached the ground. One’s fingers froze to everything… I believe the thermometer was not very far from zero Fahrenheit…

This place is quite a big town, very far from the front, but at the base of the greatest of the French salients. If we are stuck here doing evacuation work forever, we shall be very depressed; but if this is merely a stage on the way to this new and important front, all is well.

Meanwhile oh for an end of the frost! … This is not a letter, because everything is so higgledy piggledy and frozen up that one simply can’t write yet. You know, don’t you dear, that there’s nothing I would rather do than write to you all the day, but it is not possible now… Your mittens have had such hard wear that they are already in holes…[1]

 

Courage, Olaf. And what of Siegfried Sassoon, ever since he wryly described his willing-and-unavoidable submission to the coldly irritable mustache that sent him back to the non-metaphorical freeze of the front? We step back two days, and find ourselves gusted upwards on a wave of angry exaltation.

January 28

I have lived and dreamed so immune, since August, that without knowing it I had forgotten the significance of going out again, although the thought of it has passed in my head a thousand times but only as a shadow, not the real storming tumult of fiends and angels.

Now the wings of death are over me once more. And while my body cries out that they are a savage threat (cowering as a bird under the hawk’s shadow in the sun) something within me lifts adoring hands, something is filled with noble passion and desire for that benison and promise of freedom. And all the greatness that was mine last year shall be mine again; and what that happiness means, who shall say, or foretell the end and the sequel?

Now that is a mood that defeats history. It cannot represent–cannot belong to–a single day in the history of the war, but only, rather, to a day in the life of one man. Sassoon is not even our most passionate writer–although never our least passionate, and not the most even-keeled. Will the fires of passion soar? Or bank, or stoop upon some nearer target?

January 29

Went to a concert of chamber music in a restaurant… all very well played by Arthur Catterall and his men (the pianist R. J. Forbes)…

Or sputter. Modern war is no faithful friend of emotional fortitude. Who is built for the psychological jibs and jabs of a hurry-up-and-wait bureaucracy? But he did know it would take a few weeks…

And so to today, a century back, some equilibrium, obtained by his usual means–retrospection:

January 30

…Weather still dreary and harsh, looks like snow, very severe frost since January 22. Procter in here very elated as he’d been passed for General Service again. Having been wounded at the first Battle of Ypres in November 1914, at Gallipoli in November 1915, and gassed at Plug Street Wood in October 1916, one would think he’s had enough of General Service!

This time last year we’d just got up to Morlancourt for the first time. And two years ago I left Canterbury with my broken arm and got home for two months of writing nature-poems. And three years ago I was having my hunting stopped by a week’s frost, and wondering if life would ever be anything but utterly futile!

And now I’m sitting by a stove in a stuffy hut and reading a silly book by Arnold Bennett. And it don’t matter to him whether I like his book or not, or whether I’m dead by breakfast-time.[2]

 

And Edward Thomas is in France, at last. It’s been just a year since he wrote the poem that fixed his eyes on this day. “Roads” is now fulfilled, and all roads lead up to the guns. Thomas’s diary entry is spare, and confirms what we must hope: that he is intent on recording the sensory impressions of his experiences, grist for the powerful poetic mill he has built over the last two years.

Arrived Havre 4 a.m. Light of stars and windows of tall pale houses and electric arcs on quay. Marching through bales of cotton in sun to camp. The snow first emptying its castor of finest white. Tents. Mess full of subalterns censoring letters…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Talking Across the World, 201-2.
  2. Diaries, 127-9.
  3. War Diary (Childhood), 158.

Vera Brittain and the Two Musketeers: Stars for Roland Leighton; A Fable and an Argument from Olaf Stapledon

This is one of those days on which the literary coincidences are somewhat uncanny. Our most ardent lover, these days, is Olaf Stapledon, the dreamy pacifist ambulance driver whose pen can turn anything–even found fairy tales–into love letters, full of the promise that as soon as this little annoyance of the war is out of the way, he and Agnes will begin a long and wonderful life together. So first, today, Olaf’s letter to his love-across-the-world; then Vera’s anniversary of crushing loss.

SSA 13
23 December 1916

Agnes,

There is an old, old, very old woman who lives near us and goes out into the forest to gather sticks. Sometimes she goes by herself, sometimes a little girl goes with her. Many times a day the old woman passes the place where we keep our cars, and each time that she is coming back with her load she is bent so low that her face is on a level with her hips and it is only with difficulty that she can raise her eyes to see before her. Her steps are very slow and unsteady, and her burden is always so unwieldy that the mere swinging of it nearly upsets her. She carries it in a curious way over one hip, so that her whole body is twisted like the face of a flat-fish. As she is passing one sees her ancient face, withered and very placid. Because of her very great stoop no one ever sees her face full, but only in profile. She never looks at anyone, but goes plodding on with her eyes to the ground. When she has passed one looks after her and sees her as a great moving bush of twigs and branches, with one mighty gnarled hand spread queerly over the waist of her bundle, holding it to her back. The girl also carries a bundle, but her going is in swift staggering stages, each followed by a long rest while the old woman comes up and passes her with never a pause. The girl is fresh to look at–fair-haired, blue-eyed. The labour is irksome to her. She looks round for things of interest, jerks her bundle into a more comfortable position and at last drops it with a sigh, her whole body stretching with the relief of the sudden freedom. But the old woman creeps on as steadily as the hand of a clock, and almost as imperceptibly. She wears a funny old dirty white sunbonnet, and on her feet wooden shoes that look loose. One expects them to clatter on her bony ankles. There is something weird about her. She is like a witch, but too serene.  She is like some ancient woman in an ancient myth. There is something classic about her, something inevitable, and a divine calm. She has none of the childlike joy of the old woman in the picture “Words of Comfort.’’ She is too wise to accept comfort. She has found out the world and she has no more dreams about it, nor about any other world. Yet she is not sad, still less bitter. She has seen the vanity of life; but she seems strangely content, as if all the while she held some great and solemn secret that was deeper than the vain world of pain-dreaders and joy-desirers, of little self-seekers and inflated idealists. I thought at first that she was like old, bent France, carrying load after load of sticks to the fire of war. But now I think she is the Wise Woman who takes whatever she chooses from the forest that is mankind to keep alight her magic hearth fire. And what purpose she has, and what good or evil potions she brews in her cauldron, no man knows, but only she. . . .

Last night as I was going to bed (first time), there was a great discussion. Picture: a dark but starry night, a line of cars in a forest glade, one car a tourer with hood up, and in it arranging his rugs and strapping himself in by the light of a little petrol lamp, Olaf; outside, prowling round the car. Big Smell [Routh Smeal], sometimes poking his head in, the better to talk, sometimes listening and watching the stars. The discussion was the usual that takes place between us. The gist of it was, on Smeal’s part, “Nothing is any good really. There’s no point about living. What is the object of it all? Goodness? Beauty? What are they for? What are they?” And on my part, “Why, Good Heavens, man alive, you seem to forget that you can’t get right to the bottom by pure reason, simply because
reason is only a guide, and must begin on some initial feeling. You can’t explain the feeling. The world is very beautiful. Why? Good God, man, I don’t know why; but it just is. What more do you want? If you care for a person you don’t dissect the feeling & explain it all away and then say, ‘What’s the use of it?’ You just love, & act accordingly… after much talk and much fumbling with rugs on my part, and prowling about on his, he said slowly in his deep voice, “I think I see what you mean.” Then there was a long silence a stillness. Then he said, “Well, I’ll be going to bed.” Smeal is a seeker after reality. No fairy tales for him, no comfortable self deceptions. And what he thinks, he lives. He thinks cynically, so he talks & acts cynically. But he wants to grasp some more worthy truth…

Bed time now. Perhaps there will be a letter from you tomorrow. Christmas Eve, or on the day itself. It won’t be Christmas without a letter from you. One more Christmas with the globe between us, but this will be the last, I do hope.[1]

 

A year ago–and a century back–Roland Leighton, after being shot while leading a patrol, died.

December 23rd

The anniversary of Roland’s death—and for me farewell to the best thing in my life. I am glad I am far from Keymer–far from London; I could not have borne the associations of either. And now I am in Malta, working hard to try & make other people happy for their Christmas in exile, & in so doing, happier than I have been for months. Yes, even on this foreign service I dreaded so much, on which I told Him I would go if He died. I wonder where He is–and if He is at all; I wonder if He sees me writing this now. It is absurd to say time makes one forget; I miss Him
as much now as ever I did. One recovers from the shock, just as one gradually would get used to managing with one’s left hand if one has lost one’s right, but one never gets over the loss, for one is never the same after it. I have got used to facing the long empty years ahead of me if I survive the war, but I have always before me the realisation of how empty they are and will be, since He will never be there again. One can only live through them as fully and as nobly as one can, and pray from the depths of one’s lonely heart that

Hand in hand, just as we used to do,
We two shall live our passionate poem through
On God’s serene to-morrow.[2]

It is not surprising that Vera Brittain would solemnly mark this anniversary. Nor that she would open her diary for the first time in a month and once again confront unresolved religious questions–and reaffirm that certain questions of eternal love and devotion very much resolved, not least by quoting a fragment of verse by Roland that had served as a sort of shorthand representation of their love. But how–other than fulfilling her promise to see dangerous and difficult service of her own–she will fulfill the vow to live “as fully and as nobly as one can” is something of an open question.

And if anyone would question whether we can really take the measure of a man from his fiancée’s profession of loss, there are also resounding ratifications from his friends. Both of the surviving “Three Musketeers” of Uppingham, though weighted with their own cares as young infantry officers, remembered the date and wrote to Vera about it–and one even addressed the same question with the very same quotation.

Edward Brittain Vera’s brother, will write:

Dearest, I know it is just a year, and you are thinking of Him and His terrible death, and of what might have been, even as I am too. This year has, I think, made him seem very far off but yet all the more unforgettable. His life was like a guiding star which left this firmament when he died and went to some other one where it still shines as brightly, but so far away. I know you will in a way live through last year’s tragedy again but may it bring still greater
hopes for ‘the last and brightest Easter day’ which you and I can barely conceive let alone understand, when

‘We too shall live our passionate poem through
On God’s serene to-morrow’.

How happy I would be to see you meet again!

 

And Victor Richardson will write to Vera a few days hence. The capitalization of Roland’s pronoun is common to all of their letters.

We came out of trenches on the anniversary of the day on which He was mortally wounded. That afternoon was the most glorious sunset I have seen out here. Only a coincidence of course, but it appealed to me. I have felt His loss more in the last three months than ever before. I feel that He would have been able to banish all my doubts and fears for the future.[3]

I don’t have Vera’s reply to Victor, but although she sometimes condescends when writing about him, I would imagine that she would approve of these sentiments. Roland is an inspiration, still, and despite Victor’s formal profession of skepticism–i.e. the notable sunset as “coincidence”–he joins fully in the ratification of Roland’s special status as their dearly departed but eternal leader.

Vera will receive her brother’s letter next week, and in writing back to him she will tell him about tonight. From France to Malta the sky tonight is numinous and significant, and Vera’s adherence to reason and skepticism–again, “just coincidence of course”–feels more tenuous even than Victor’s.

It seems rather curious that on the night of Dec. 23rd I was kneeling by my bed in the dark thinking about Him & that night last year when suddenly just before 11.0 at the very hour of His death the whole sky was suddenly lighted up & everything outside became queerly & startlingly visible. At first I thought it was just lightning, which is very frequent at night here, but when the light remained & did not flash away again I felt quite uncanny & afraid & hid my face in my hands for two or three minutes. When I looked up again the light had gone; I went to the window but could see nothing at all to account for the sudden brilliant glow.

A day or two after I heard that there had been a most extraordinary shooting-star which had lit up the whole sky for two or three minutes before it had fallen to earth. Shooting stars also are common here, or rather, there is so much less atmosphere between us & the stars than there is in England that we can see them much more clearly; but this was quite an extraordinary star; of course they never light up the sky like that one did. (Someone suggested it was the Star of Bethlehem fallen to earth because it could no longer shine in the dark horror of War.) Just coincidence of course, but strange from my point of view that it should have happened at that hour. I remember one day last winter how Clare pointed out to me a star, which shone very brightly among the others & said ‘Wouldn’t it be strange if that star were Roland’…[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Talking Across the World, 193-6.
  2. Chronicle of Youth, 336.
  3. Letter From a Lost Generation, 307.
  4. Letters From a Lost Generation, 307-11.

Patrick Shaw-Stewart Can’t Catch a Break; We Approach the Climax of the Somme: Frederic Manning’s Privates Get Their Marching Orders; Sidney Rogerson on the Mud of Dewdrop Trench

All roads still lead to the Somme. That is, although we are only a week away from the “official” end of the Battle of the Somme–i.e. the weather-related, exhaustion-necessitated abandonment of all major operations for several months–there will be one last intense concentration of activity that draws together more of this project’s writers than at any time since July 1st.

Which is to say: bear with me, there are several long posts coming over the next five or six days. Not only will we follow Sidney Rogerson through his Twelve Days, but Frederic Manning‘s novel now comes to a head, and several other familiar names are involved either in the attack itself or its supporting operations. Not every writer will live to write about it.

Before we pick up the thread of Rogerson’s account, however, I want to seize upon the chance to update us on one far-flung correspondent who will miss his unit’s next big thing.

 

Patrick Shaw-Stewart, was once one of the Argonauts, that dashing band of highly accomplished young men and amateur soldiers who up and joined the navy and sailed off to Gallipoli to endure one of Britain’s least-well-thought-out military campaigns. Rupert Brooke died, and several of his friends were killed, but the remainder of the Royal Naval Division–essentially an infantry unit with naval trappings–has long since returned to France, where it will be thrown into the coming battle. Shaw-Stewart, with his manners and his languages and his connections, has been serving for a long time now as a liaison officer with the French staff on the Salonika front. A prestigious, safe job in a backwater.

Today, a century back, he wrote two letters explaining his efforts to return to his unit. To his sister:

…the obvious thing seemed to be to apply to return to the R.N.D., which I did, with full expectation of its going through: with leave first, of course. No sooner had I done it than I met my Chief, who said “It’s almost certain to be refused.” Next thing, I discovered that the Chief of Staff wanted me to come on the Army Staff (Operations) here. I said politely but firmly that I didn’t want to, and I have fought it for three days, but no good. They simply will not let me go to France: so the only thing to do is to be good and tame and get leave as soon as I can. These soldiers,
poor innocents, cannot get it out of their heads that I ought to jump at a thing “so good for my career,” and it’s difficult to say to them that I don’t care two kicks on the behind for my career in the damned old Army. Anyhow, there it is—I am set down, from to-morrow, to sticking pins into a map, from eight to one, two to seven, and nine-fifteen to eleven. God help me. Do pity me…

Anyhow, you may certainly feel I am SAFE here: just a shade safer than I should be in the War Office, and several shades more bored and disgusted.

Safe indeed. He can have no knowledge of the fact that his old comrades in the R.N.D. will attack in three days, either. We need to rush off to the Somme, but I can’t omit Shaw-Stewart’s other letter, which is to Lady Desborough–the older woman he most admires, and the mother of his friend Julian Grenfell. It covers much of the same ground in a rather different tone:

My Chief told me he didn’t need me with the French Army after all, so I popped in my application to “rejoin my unit…”  In the afternoon he met me and said, “ It’s almost certain not to be granted,” but wouldn’t explain…

We had the usual argument…  Next morning I saw the C.G.S… Finally he said I could in no case go to France: but I might go to a battalion here if I insisted! There of course, he had me, because that I certainly don’t want to do.  Being killed in France, after a nice leave in London, and in the Hood with my old friends and my old status, is one thing: being killed chillily on the Struma after being pitchforked into God knows what Welsh Fusiliers or East Lancs Regiment is quite another…

Meanwhile, to-morrow I begin my gruesome bottle-washing duties in a God-forsaken office in this blasted town. No
doubt I shall make, with my City training, a very fair confidential clerk; and no doubt that’s what they think, damn them.[1]

Shaw-Stewart is no Raymond Asquith. That is, the leaden weight of snobbery and self-regard overwhelm his much more feeble attempts to inflate his writing with mirth and wit. But set the snobbery aside–I doubt it would have offended Ettie Desborough, or made her think twice. (I, of course, take great offense on behalf of the Royal Welch, though it seems only to be expected that Shaw-Stewart disdains their New Army regiments in the area.)

But what about the fact that he writes this sort of carefree-young-man, devil-may-care bit about dying in France to Lady Desborough, two of whose sons died in France only last year? It’s breathtakingly insensitive. But then again, considering the way in which she chose to interpret (and write) her sons’ deaths–especially Julian’s, for which she was in attendance–this may not touch her either. It would be nice to see young Patrick in London, and wonderful to die prettily in France, so that all makes sense…

The strangeness of this letter aside, Shaw-Stewart’s situation is understandable. He has no intention of making the army a post-war career; he’s lonely, and–although his letters are far more opaque on the matter than Asquith’s–he may really be dogged by the very fact of his safety. Can boredom and loneliness in war often overpower a normal man’s healthy aversion to putting himself in harm’s way? Of course.

So Shaw-Stewart will continue to try to come “home,” both for leave and to his old battalion. But for now he is in Salonkia, bottle-washing. And the Hood Battalion are on the Somme, girding themselves for battle.

 

When we last left Sidney Rogerson, he had gone to bed early so as to be ready for the early morning’s task–finding his way, as the advance party, toward the front-line positions his battalion will take up, tonight. They will not be in the coming assault, which will take place on the northern end of the “battlefield,” where little progress has been made. Rogerson’s battalion is going out to a muddy, debatable salient near Lesboeufs, where, due to the September and October advances made by the Guards and others, the central sector has been extended several miles east into what had been German territory. One of the reasons that the attack will now be pressed further north–there are several–is that it becomes more and more difficult to continue attacking in the same sector, since supplies and reinforcements must come up over the wrecked ground of their comrades costly successes. The necessity of this shifting of the front will be amply demonstrated by Rogerson’s next few hours and days.

So, he went to bed early…

…though I found it no easier to rise with alacrity when called next morning at 4.30 a.m. Still half asleep, I struggled into the clothes I was to wear for three days. I put on trench boots, donned a heavy cardigan, decorated with woolly mascots, under my khaki jacket, and a leather jerkin above it. Over all I buckled on the various items of my “Christmas tree”–gas respirator, water bottle, revolver and haversack–took a rolled-up groundsheet instead of an overcoat, wound a knitted scarf round my next and exchanged my cap for a “battle bowler…”

After coffee and breakfast at battalion HQ, Rogerson and another officer began their trek to the new positions, where the they are to represent the battalion as an advance party.

…we set out into the darkness, winding our way along crazy duck-board tracks, past holes in the ground where guttering candles and muffled voices told of human occupation, past dimly-seen gun positions and subterranean dressing stations until, just as dawn was breaking, we reached the headquarters of the Devon Regiment in the sunken road to the left of Lesboeufs Wood.

There they pick up guides, and approach the fighting lines.

We crossed a low valley where the shell-ploughed ground was carpeted with dead, the khaki outnumbering the field-grey by three to one. There must have been two or three hundred bodies lying in an area of a few hundred yards around Dewdrop Trench–once a substantial German reserve line, but now a shambles of corpses, smashed dug-outs, twisted iron and wire…

This is where Leslie Coulson was mortally wounded; some of the dead are his men.

At a company headquarters–a ditch roofed with stretchers, Rogerson is offered tea, but it has been brewed with water brought up in petrol tins that were not properly cleaned first–one more way in which the difficulties of supplying the front lines (or, in the view of the infantry, the betrayals of the lazy and inefficient Army Service Corps) lead to nauseous misery. Rogerson retches, and continues on his way. Eventually, he meets Hill, a Devon subaltern of one of their front companies, and is given a tour of the position. It’s not good.

In short, the position was as obscure as it was precarious. The two companies were virtually isolated on their ridge without knowledge of the exact dispositions of the enemy in front, and behind them, no trench, just mile after mile of battered country under its pall of mud… “All the Boche has got to do is to pop a barrage down in the valley behind you and come over on both flanks, and you’re marching off to Hunland… and now I think I’ve given you all the facts… except that you’ll find the mud a bit trying in places.

This, needless to say, is understatement:

I had not gone twenty yards before I encountered the mud, mud which was unique even for the Somme. It was like walking through caramel. At every step the foot stuck fast, and was only wrenched out by a determined effort, bringing away with it several pounds of earth till legs ached in every muscle.

No one could struggle through that mud for more than a few yards without rest. Terrible in its clinging consistency, it was the arbiter of destiny, the supreme enemy, paralysing and mocking English and German alike. Distances were measured not in yards but in mud.

Rogerson cuts here from observation to analysis:

One of the war’s greatest tragedies was that the High Command so seldom saw for themselves the state of the battle zone. What could the men at G.H.Q. who ordered the terrible attacks on the Somme know of the mud from their maps? If they had known, they could never have brought themselves to believe that human flesh and blood could so nearly achieve the impossible, and often succeed in carrying out orders which should never have been issued.

Much of the rest of the tale of today, a century back, is devoted to similar thoughts. Rogerson completes his tour and now must wait for dark, after which his battalion will actually struggle up to relieve the Devons. Staring out at “mile upon mile of emptiness” he wishes for a painter’s powers,

not with any idea of holding a mirror up to the futility of war, but to show the talkers, the preachers, and the shirkers at home what they were missing, and how little they could ever understand of our feelings, our hopes or our fears…

One sees Rogerson’s point, but then again, can’t the writing of “War Books”–of letters, poems, etc.–also seek to bridge that gulf?

The 2nd West Yorkshires set out from their camp, a few miles away, at around 4:00 p.m. At around 11:00, with the Devonshires growing very restless, they finally arrive in the front lines, having taken only two casualties from artillery fire during the endless march. Remarkably, and companionably, the Devons leave a half-full rim jar for their relief. As today turned to tomorrow, a century back, Rogerson moved about getting the two companies settled into their trenches.[2]

 

While I’m not fully confident in my dating of the fictional events of Frederic Manning’s The Middle Parts of Fortune, I think it’s fairly clear that the major attack near the end of his novel is the one which his battalion, the 7th King’s Shropshire Light Infantry, lost heavily. Working backward through the novel, it would seem that today, a century back, is the day that Bourne and his companions learn of the attack.

But before I turn to an excerpt from the novel, though, more direct evidence from today, a century back, in a letter Manning wrote about the terrors of working as a runner.

We are supposed to go in pairs but so far I haw always gone alone, and it is a curious sensation. I am not ashamed to say that I have felt fear walking beside me like a live thing: the torn and flooded road, the wreckage, mere bones of what were living houses … absolute peace of the landscape and indifferent stars, then the ear catches the purr of a big shell, it changes from a purr to a whine and detonates on concussion. Another comes, then a third. After that a short space of quiet. Sometimes, as I have said, I feel fear, but usually with the fear is mingled indifference which is not pious enough to be termed resignation.[3]

A short excerpt, but a letter remarkable for its clarity of expression. He is out there, now, and preparing for the assault which he will later place at the climax of his novel. That sort of fear and resignation will come, but first, today, there is ironic plenty, and humor. This is a great war novel:

It was a large mail. Shem had gone off on his own somewhere, and one of the first letters was for him, so Bourne took it; Martlow had a letter and a parcel: but the remarkable feature of that particular post was that there were fourteen letters and parcels for Bourne…

It was remarkable that so many of his friends should have shown their solicitude for Bourne’s welfare about the same time. After a couple of parcels and three letters had been thrown at him, the repetition of his name was answered by groans from the crowd, and even the post-corporal seemed to resent the fact that he should be expected to deliver so many things to one man.

“Bourne!” he shouted impatiently, and shied another letter through the air like a kind of boomerang.

The pile gradually decreased, but Bourne’s name was reiterated at intervals, to be met with a chorus of derisory complaint.

“D’you want the whole bloody lot?” someone cried.

He was childishly delighted, and laughed at the kind of prestige which the incident brought to him. At last there were only a few letters left, and one rather large box of three-ply wood, with a label tacked flat on it. One of the few remaining letters was tossed to him, and at last only the box remained. The post-corporal lifted it in both hands and read the label.

“Bourne; ‘ere, take your bloody wreath,” he cried disgustedly, and the sardonic witticism brought down the house. The box actually contained a large plum cake. When Bourne got back to his hut, he divided the contents of his parcels among the whole section, keeping only the cigarettes, cake, and a pork pie, which a farmer’s wife of his acquaintance had sent him, for himself. Most of it was food, though there were a few woollen comforters and impossible socks, as well as a couple of books, with which one could not encumber oneself.

But then the news of the impending attack arrived–with, of course, an impossible innovation from the ever-resourceful staff. The “Westshires” are to attack with their overcoats stretched over their pack-tops, an extra burden that will impede their success… and keep them warm, afterwards.

When the overcoat had been rolled up into a tubular form, one end was inserted in the other and fastened there, and a man put his head and one arm through the kind of horse-collar which it formed, so that it rested on one shoulder and passed under the other arm. The first man to achieve this difficult feat of arms was an object of admiration to his fellows.

“Oo’s the bloody shit ‘oo invented this way o’ doin’ up a fuckin’ overcoat?” shouted Glazier indignantly.

“It’s a bloody wonder to me ‘ow these buggers can think all this out. ‘Ow the ‘ell am a to get at me gas mask?” asked Madeley.

“You put on your gas ‘elmet afterwards, see,” said Wilkins, an old regular who was explaining matters to them. “But it beats me ‘ow you’re goin’ to manage. You’ll ‘ave your ordinary equipment, an’ a couple of extra bandoliers, an’ your gas bag, and then this bloody overcoat.”

“A can tell thee,” said Weeper, “the first thing a does when a goes over the bloody top is to dump it. What bloody chance would us’ns ‘ave wi’ a bay’net, when we can scarce move our arms.”

“It’s fair chokin’ me,” said Madeley.

“Fall in on parade,” shouted Corporal Marshall, putting his head through the door; and divesting themselves for the moment of this latest encumbrance, they turned out into the twilight.

Amidst much grumbling, preparations begin. After having their boots altered to improve their traction in the mud, Bourne and his two mates, Shem and Martlow–along with the company misery-monger, “Weeper” Smart–are detailed for a carrying party. And at last they see a tank:

While they were drawn up waiting by the dump, they heard something ponderous coming towards them, and, looking sideways along the road, saw their first tank, nosing its way slowly through the stagnant fog. They drew in their breath, in their first excitement, wondering a little at the suggestion of power it gave them; for its uplifted snout seemed to imply a sense of direction and purpose, even though it was not, in bulk, as formidable as they had expected. A door opened in the side, and a gleam of light came from it, as a man inside questioned another in the road: there was a tired note even in their determined voices.

“If a can’t be inside one o’ them, a don’t want to be anywhere near it,” said Weeper, with absolute decision.

The carrying party moved off, just as the tank was being manoeuvred to change direction; and the men, their eyes searching the fog for it on their return, found it gone. They marched the whole way back to billets, and, tired after a long day, as soon as they had finished drinking some tea and rum, slept heavily.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Knox, Patrick Shaw-Stewart, 179-82.
  2. Twelve Days on the Somme, 24-36.
  3. Coleman, The Last Exquisite, 125.
  4. The Middle Parts of Fortune, 198-202.