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.
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.
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.
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.