Lord Dunsany is still a prisoner in Jervis Street Hospital; but the cavalry–or, rather, the infantry–have nearly arrived.
That night I got some sleep, and, when I woke up, the Leinsters had captured the hospital. There was a song that the men of the 5th Battalion used to sing on our marches round about Dublin, which I liked the least of all the songs that they sang. Many of their songs were delightful, but this was a vulgar song, that I always disliked. Now, in the bright morning, there was a soldier singing that song in Jervis Street; and, being rather weak, I was nearly moved to tears by it. And there was no one firing any more in the room above my head; but the roof was still occupied, and empty cartridges came tinkling down past my window.
I’ve been overusing the word “reverie,” usually with reference to Siegfried Sassoon‘s uncanny ability to summon a mood of pastoral beauty-mongering no matter what his actual circumstances. This is another sort of thing entirely: a fierce concentration of the autobiographer’s powers of memory on a period when time stretched endlessly out, when complete, enforced inaction was combined with distant sounds of deadly dramatic action. There is one natural metaphor for such an experience–blindness, stillness, the reliance on hearing–but an even better metaphor didn’t occur to me until I read this next bit.
Dunsany is revered by many as one of the founding English fantasists, the noble father to a proliferating progeny of impoverished genre productions, and his light way with wonder is certainly on display in these descriptions of lying abed during the Rising. But his greatest literary successes in his own time came as a playwright.
Troops came up the passage, and I have reason to believe that others went out by the other end of it, leaving the passage empty only for as long as the stage is sometimes left when an author does not wish two parties to meet, but at the same time must not leave the stage empty… Soon after this an officer of the Sherwood Foresters, Captain Okeover, came in, fit and well and unwounded, and, exercising a conqueror’s right, demanded a bath.
July will be the cruelest month, this year. April is the month of that early 20th century British specialty: the imperial side-show that distracts from the main-effort theaters of global conflict. From Ireland, now, to Mesopotamia, where Aubrey Herbert has been summoned to negotiate the surrender of the garrison of Kut to the Turkish general Khalil Pasha.
We three then went out to the trenches with a white flag, and walked a couple of hundred yards or so ahead where we waited, with all the battlefield smells round us. It was all a plain with a river to the north and the place crawling with huge black beetles and stinging flies, that have been feeding on the dead. After a time a couple of Turks came out. I said “We have got a letter to Khalil.” This they wanted to take from us, but we refused to give it up, and they sent an orderly back to ask if we might come into the Turkish lines. Meanwhile we talked amiably. The Turks showed us their medals, and we were rather chagrined at not being able to match them.
Several hours passed. It was very hot. I was hungry…
We were blindfolded and we went in a string of hot hands to the trenches banging against men and corners, and sweating something cruel. Beyond the trenches we went for half an hour, while my handkerchief became a wet string across my eyes. Then we met Bekir Sami Bey. He was a very fine man and very jolly…
After coffee and yogurt, a long ride to Khalil’s camp. Remember, Herbert, you are the living bridge between two British eras, the age of the “Dr. Livingston I presume” imperial adventurers and the Greenmantle-to-Bond secret agents. How to begin?
“Where was it that I met your Excellency last?”
And he said: “At a dance at the British Embassy.”
Khalil throughout the interview was polite. He was quite a young man for his position, I suppose about thirty-five, and a fine man to look at–lion-taming eyes, a square chin and a mouth like a steel trap… We began on minor points…
And thence they proceeded to the matter of the treatment of the Arab population in Kut, which had aided the British; to possible prisoner exchanges, to Khalil threatening to hang any Arab troops who had surrendered, to the destruction of the British big guns, and then to the question of British ransom payments. These will prove controversial… nothing is definitively decided, but there can be no more pretense that Britain has anything, really, to negotiate with. Khalil is secure, and the fate of Kut is in his hands… and so the British retire to tents to write their reports.
Herbert is pleased with himself. He shouldn’t be: he’s an amateur and flatters himself both that he is a gentleman dealing with gentlemen and that he has handed Khalil well, by extracting a hint of concessions despite the British position of weakness. This is either absent-minded overconfidence or willful blindness. (Apologies for going to this metaphor-to-hand so often, but I remind readers that Herbert is in fact extremely myopic.)
The Arabs of Kut will be badly treated nonetheless. The Turks are a dominant imperial people willing to ignore feeble notions of honor in order to punish a restive subject population–an action which should not stretch the British imagination very far. There will be reprisals, torture, massacres… and Herbert will return to negotiate about wounded prisoners, etc., while the rest of the British command turn to what we nowadays call “spin,” trying to suppress reports of their failure to win real concessions, of Townshend’s breakdown, and of the fact that their offer of payment–to be spurned by Khalil–was essentially a failed bribe offered to escape the consequences of military defeat.
A bad scene. But let’s tart it up in thematic dress: is this the death of amateurism, a grubby end to an imperial misadventure that clears the decks, in a way, for the different sort of full-on industrial disaster which will befall the British armies in July? Is this, then, the very last gasp of Britain’s 1914-and-before?
Or are we merely present at the sundering of romantic adventure from the action of military history?
There will still be armies, going forward. And there will be war literature in great profusion and terrible strength. But it will be much harder, now, to mistake a work of military history for a work of “romance.” It’s not that commando raids and spy escapades and guerrilla successes are not a part of military history; it’s that once they were close to its heart, holding the stage whenever big battles and sieges didn’t, and now they are mere rounding errors in the ledger of war.
What has Aubrey Herbert to do with the Somme? Or any one unusual man (sniper stories aside) with Verdun, or Stalingrad, or Kursk? We love adventure stories, light or dark–but what has Rambo, or Conrad’s Kurtz, to do with the Tet offensive or Operation Rolling Thunder? The size of the forest is imagination-beggaring, now, so we must leave the landscape to the serious historians, who only deign to decorate with individual trees when they sense our attention flagging. Meanwhile we may transplant the little saplings of romance, find some secluded glade, and clone them to our hearts’ desire.
Apologies for the semi-coherent critical cadenza, but I have a rare opportunity: who else is in that tent, scribbling away beside Herbert?
None other than the living embodiment of the escape from our nightmare of modern bureaucratic warfare–T.E. Lawrence! Lawrence of Mesopotamia just now, but not for long.
Lawrence, another talented irregular, was, like Herbert, irregularly attached to the staff. He too described today’s events in a letter home. Lawrence takes more interest in their adversary:
Colonel Beach, one of the Mesopotamian Staff, Aubrey Herbert (who was with us in Cairo) and myself were sent up to see the Turkish Commander in Chief, and arrange the release, if possible, of Townshend’s wounded. From our front trenches we waved a white flag vigorously: then we scrambled out, and walked about half-way across the 500 yards of deep meadow-grass between our lines and the Turkish trenches. Turkish officers came out to meet us, and we explained what we wanted. They were tired of shooting, so kept us sitting there with our flag as a temporary truce, while they told Halil Pasha we were coming–and eventually in the early afternoon we were taken blind-folded through their lines and about ten miles Westward till within four miles of Kut to his Headquarters.
He is a nephew of Enver’s, and suffered violent defeat in the Caucasus so they sent him to Mesopotamia as G.O.C. hoping he would make a reputation. He is about 32 or 33, very keen and energetic but not clever or intelligent I thought. He spoke French to us, and was very polite, but of course the cards were all in his hands, and we could not get much out of him. However he let about 1,000 wounded go without any condition but the release of as many Turks–which was all we could hope for.
We spent the night in his camp, and they gave us a most excellent dinner in Turkish style – which was a novelty to Colonel Beach, but pleased Aubrey and myself.
Surely we should down pens after Dublin and Kut, but it feels almost as if a little Raymond Asquith–idle, witty, but persistently human despite it all–would allow us to claim that we have run the gamut of war-letter-writing all in one day… or maybe it’s just that I just can’t resist a few of these bits. No war blog is complete without a reference to the difficulties of breast-feeding! First, snippets from two of yesterday’s letters, to his wife Katherine and to Diana Manners.
28 April 1916
…I’m delighted to hear that the baby has your eyebrows; as you say, one is grateful enough for their having anyone’s. I hope it may also inherit your eyes (not to mention “little classical”) and my own kind heart and hatred of impurity . . .
28 April 1916
Katharine has kept on telling me for weeks now that you have been very sweet to her but very low in your spirits. I do hope that you are not sick of love for one of these terribly young men?
. . . And yet there is a bitter pleasure in your being subject to chance and change like the rest of us . . . Much as one likes you, one would like you less if you were not (occasionally) depressed. Do you think yourself that you would love anyone who was so free from human vicissitude as to be always on the top of the wave? Perhaps you do think so. But if you do it is only because you regard people as if they were things. The Matterhorn would certainly lose its somewhat dreary point if once a week it looked like a molehill, and Venice similarly if it had moods of Manchester…
Finally, today, a century back, once again to Katherine Asquith, who, one presumes, has learned to deal with receiving sympathy in the form of self-centered humor:
29 April 1916
I have a beautiful long letter from you with a few complaints which I take to be a healthy sign. I always understood that the first clutch of infant lips on the breast was the most thrilling and exquisite moment in a woman’s life. Don’t tell me that I have been misinformed. Really I think you must be mistaken in supposing the sensation to be unpleasant.
…I am glad to hear that the child has a curly mouth as well as curly eyebrows, but a little surprised that it has not yet given proof of the exceptional cleverness which your children have always been used to display during the first few days of their lives at any rate . . .