Vera Brittain and Siegfried Sassoon Under Bombardment, in London; Olaf Stapledon on Mr. Britling; Rowland Feilding on the Things they Carry; The Master of Belhaven Has a Near Miss

Today, a century back, Siegfried Sassoon–keeping his options well open–went to Cambridge for the day to interview for a job in a cadet battalion.[1] He may have left without a degree, but Cambridge is different now, and he has come back with an MC. He seems a prime candidate for what would be a respectable and conventionally honorable “safe job”–but the trip from London to Cambridge, ironically, was less than safe. Sassoon describes the day in the wry retrospective voice of George Sherston. Or, rather, the wry retrospective way in which he puffs apart Sherston and his experience by blowing a thin layer of warm ironic air in between the first-person description of experience and the world around that half-oblivious subject:

Supervising a platoon of Cadet Officers at Cambridge would have been a snug alternative to ‘general service abroad’ (provided that I could have bluffed the cadets into believing that I knew something about soldiering). I was going there to be interviewed by the Colonel and clinch my illusory appointment; but I was only doing this because I considered it needful for what I called ‘strengthening my position’ I hadn’t looked ahead much, but when I did so it was with an eye to safeguarding myself against ‘what people would say’…

Anyhow, on a glaring hot morning I started to catch a train to Cambridge. I was intending to stay a night there, for it would be nice to have a quiet look round and perhaps go up to Grantchester in a canoe. Admittedly, next month was bound to be ghastly; but it was no good worrying about that. . . . Had I enough money on me! Probably not; so I decided to stop and change a cheque at my bank in Old Broad Street. Changing a cheque was always a comforting performance. ‘Queer thing, having private means,’ I thought. ‘They just hand you out the money as if it was a present from the Bank Manager.’ It was funny, too, to think that I was still drawing my Army pay.

But it was the wrong moment for such humdrum cogitations, for when my taxi stopped in that narrow thoroughfare, Old Broad Street, the people on the pavement were standing still, staring up at the hot white sky. Loud bangings had begun in the near neighbourhood, and it was obvious that an air-raid was in full swing. This event could not be ignored; but I needed money and wished to catch my train, so I decided to disregard it. The crashings continued, and while I was handing my cheque to the cashier a crowd of women clerks came wildly down a winding stairway with vociferations of not unnatural alarm. Despite this commotion the cashier handed me five one-pound notes with the stoical politeness of a man who had made up his mind to go down with the ship. Probably he felt as I did—more indignant than afraid; there seemed no sense in the idea of being blown to bits in one’s own bank. I emerged from the building with an air of soldierly unconcern; my taxi-driver, like the cashier, was commendably calm, although another stupendous crash sounded as though very near Old Broad street (as indeed it was). I suppose we may as well go on to the station/ I remarked, adding, ‘it seems a bit steep that one can’t even cash a cheque in comfort!’ The man grinned and drove on. It was impossible to deny that the War was being brought home to me.

But is it? No, I think it is, but with that special, rueful emphasis on the last two words–“to me.” The air raid here appears first in the context of absurdity and a classic evocation of British character: “Sherston” carefully contrasts it with his very English position as a man with “private means” who might ride to hounds or ride off to war but doesn’t expect to earn a living or face violence during the ordinary course of his privileged day. This is about, in our terms, an irruption across the experiential gulf. But it’s treated as a dastardly blow, some piece of bad form, a punch after the bell, and not as the beginning of the end of any notion of war as a reliably distant event, the early days of “total war.”

At Liverpool Street there had occurred what, under normal conditions, would be described as an appalling catastrophe. Bombs had been dropped on the station and one of them had hit the front carriage of the noon express to Cambridge. Horrified travellers were hurrying away. The hands of the clock indicated 11.50; but railway-time had been interrupted; for once in its career, the imperative clock was a passive spectator. While I stood wondering what to do, a luggage trolley was trundled past me; on it lay an elderly man, shabbily dressed, and apparently dead. The sight of blood caused me to feel quite queer. This sort of danger seemed to demand a quality of courage dissimilar to front line fortitude. In a trench one was acclimatized to the notion of being exterminated and there was a sense of organized retaliation. But here one was helpless; an invisible enemy sent destruction spinning down from a fine weather sky; poor old men bought a railway ticket and were trundled away again dead on a barrow; wounded women lay about in the station groaning. And one’s train didn’t start. . . . Nobody could say for certain when it would start, a phlegmatic porter informed me; so I migrated to St. Pancras and made the journey to Cambridge in a train which halted good-naturedly at every station. Gazing at sleepy green landscapes, I found difficulty in connecting them (by the railway line) with the air-raid…

 

Vera Brittain had less trouble finding emotional context for the same bombing raid, coming as it did in the desolation following Victor Richardson’s miserable and lonely death. But her experience–and her initial reaction, as an overseas veteran of sorts who would rather be heading toward the war than held helpless underneath it–is quite similar to Sassoon’s:

Although three out of the four persons were gone who had made all the world that I knew, the War seemed no nearer a conclusion than it had been in 1914. It was everywhere now; even before Victor was buried, the daylight air-raid of June 13th “brought it home,” as the newspapers remarked, with such force that I perceived danger to be infinitely preferable when I went after it, instead of waiting for it to come after me.

She hasn’t been in combat, but she has been to the wars; but then again she hasn’t been under fire… In any event, membership in the categories of alienated veteran or older civilian are not a sure guide to one’s reaction to a sudden irruption of violence into a London spring day.

I was just reaching home after a morning’s shopping in Kensington High Street when the uproar began, and, looking immediately at the sky, I saw the sinister group of giant mosquitoes sweeping in close formation over London. My mother, whose temperamental fatalism had always enabled her to sleep peacefully through the usual night-time raids, was anxious to watch the show from the roof of the flats, but when I reached the doorway my father had just succeeded in hurrying her down to the basement; he did not share her belief that destiny remained unaffected by caution, and himself derived moral support in air-raids from putting on his collar and patrolling the passages. The three of us listened glumly to the shrapnel raining down like a thunder-shower upon the trees in the park — those quiet trees which on the night of my return from Malta had made death and horror seem so unbelievably remote. As soon as the banging and crashing had given way to the breathless, apprehensive silence which always followed a big raid, I made a complicated journey to the City to see if my uncle had been added to the family’s growing collection of casualties.

In a grimly amusing coincidence, this uncle is a banker, and so Vera too finds herself making small talk in a bank in the aftermath of the raid.

The streets round the Bank were terrifyingly quiet, and in some places so thickly covered with broken glass that I seemed to be wading ankle-deep in huge unmelted hailstones. I saw no dead nor wounded, though numerous police-supervised barricades concealed a variety of gruesome probabilities. Others were only too clearly suggested by a crimson-splashed horse lying indifferently on its side, and by several derelict tradesman’s carts bloodily denuded of their drivers. These things, I concluded, seemed less inappropriate when they happened in France, though no doubt the French thought otherwise.[2]

And that gives us rather a strong clue as to where Vera Brittain will turn her thoughts, now that her sacrifice of her nursing career for the love of Victor Richardson has come to nothing. Somewhere where mangled bodies and enormous suffering might seem more… appropriate.

 

But to return to Sassoon is to escape the bombs and their bad memories and head for Cambridge, where George Sherston can think of “war” in 1914 terms, when it was healthy outdoor tin-soldiering for overgrown boy scouts, and before it came to connote the indiscriminate bombing of cities.

But here was Cambridge, looking contented enough in the afternoon sunshine, as though the Long Vacation were on. The Colleges appeared to have forgotten their copious contributions to the Roll of Honour. The streets were empty, for the Cadets were out on their afternoon parades — probably learning how to take compass-bearings, or pretending to shoot at an enemy who was supposedly advancing from a wood nine hundred yards away. I knew all about that type of training. ‘Half-right; haystack; three fingers left of haystack; copse; nine hundred; AT THE COPSE, ten rounds rapid, FIRE!’

There wasn’t going to be any musketry-exercise instructing for me, however. I was only ‘going through the motions’ of applying for a job with the Cadet Battalion. The orderly room was on the ground floor of a college. In happier times it had been a library (the books were still there) and the Colonel had been a History Don with a keen interest in the Territorials. Playing the part of respectful young applicant for instructorsliip in the Arts of War, I found myself doing it so convincingly that the existence of my ‘statement’ became, for the moment, an improbability…

Sherston, concealing his combustibly mixed feelings by dint of instinct or good breeding, gets the job: the colonel “shook my hand rather as if I’d won a History Scholarship” and sends him on his way. But Sherston lingers in the groves of Academe.

Sitting in King’s Chapel I tried to recover my conviction of the nobility of my enterprise and to believe that the pen which wrote my statement had ‘dropped from an angel’s wing’. I also reminded myself that Cambridge had dismissed Tyrrell from his lectureship because he disbelieved in the War. ‘Intolerant old blighters!’ I inwardly ex- claimed. ‘One can’t possibly side with people like that. All they care about is keeping up with the other colleges in the casualty lists.’ Thus refortified, I went down to the river and hired a canoe.

 

And after those two very closely aligned bits of memoir, we have three short but disparate chunks, interludes of labor, love, and near death from around the front.

 

Rowland Feilding will not shy from criticism of his superiors any more than he would speak out openly against their conduct. But like any perceptive correspondent from the front, he will mark out, from time to time, how the lot of the infantryman grows ever grimmer.

June 14, 1917  Oultersteene.

Yesterday, we marched back here—to safety—in grilling heat. What with their box respirators with extensions, steel helmets, P.H. gas helmets, rifles, ammunition, packs, etc., there is little doubt but that the infantry soldier is getting
over-loaded for marching. His equipment grows as the inventions for killing grow.

Already, he must carry between 70 lbs. and 80 lbs. And after a long bout of inactivity in the trenches (I refer only to the lack of exercise), you can well understand that he is not in condition for weight-carrying. Moreover, he does not improve matters by lapping water out of his water-bottle at every halt, as is his habit if not carefully watched. However, the authorities are beginning to appreciate these difficulties, and to provide motor-lorries for carrying the
packs, when such are available.[3]

Is this progress, or is this only maintaining misery by adjusting impossible burdens back down to the barely tolerable?

 

As for Olaf Stapledon, although treacherous mails have lately lengthened the lag between Agnes Miller and himself (some of their letters were lost at sea to German submarines), he is still faithfully following Agnes Miller’s suggestions. Which makes him rather late to the literary bandwagon of late 1916:

…I have begun to read “Mr. Britling,” on your recommendation. It promises well…

We are very indignant because the other two FAU convoys, which were in successful bits of offensive, have had croix-de-guerre rewards… [even though] under the circumstances our work was much more arduous than theirs. It’s bad luck…  However… we ought not to bother about such things. Moderate pacifists tend to bother about such things just as tokens that they are not mere shirkers.[4]

 

The Master of Belhaven has been hard at work behind Messines all week, and today, a century back, he attended a conference at which new forward firing positions were assigned. On the way back, he had a close call very similar to one experienced by Edward Thomas.

I… got back without incident, beyond being nearly killed by an 18-pounder that was firing across the road I was on. I did not see it till I was almost in front of the muzzle and about ten yards in front; at that moment it fired. I was knocked backwards by the blast of the gun and nearly had the drums of my ears broken. People ought to lookout before firing and see that the place is clear…[5]

We’ve seen friendly fire kill the infantry, but artillery officers who are not careful run the risk of a more shocking sort of accidental demise when passing by camouflaged batteries.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, I, 377.
  2. Testament of Youth, 365-6.
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 195.
  4. Talking Across the World, 230-1.
  5. War Diary, 316.

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

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

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

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

23rd April.

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

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

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

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

An hour or two I lay and dozed…

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So Geoffrey Thurlow, too, is dead.

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

Malta, 23 April 1917

My own dearest Edward

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

April 23 (In the Ward) —

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

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

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

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

 

References and Footnotes

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

Ivor Gurney in Perforated Good Spirits; Spring Offensive: Wilfred Owen Goes Over the Top; Siegfried Sassoon on the Effect of the Bombardment; Billy Prior’s Attack

Today is a day of blood and gore and foreboding. But we’ll start with the good news.

Pretty good news, at least: Ivor Gurney is wounded, and thus safe. There is pain, yes, but it hasn’t bought the best of news–early hopes of Blighty have faded. Gurney informs Marion Scott of his condition in a letter posted today, a century back:

My Dear Friend: Well, I am wounded: but not badly; perhaps not badly enough; as although kind people told me it meant Blighty for me, yet here I am at Rouen marked “Tents”. I do not yet give up hopes, but very few boats have been running lately; none at all for some days; and the serious cases go first of course. It was during an attack on Good Friday night that a bullet hit me and went clean through the right arm must underneath the shoulder—the muscles opposite the biceps, to describe them more or less accurately. It hurt badly for half an hour, but now hurts not at all…  there is no real damage done to my arm, not enough to please me.

Alas! Alas! There are hardly any books here! And the life is made up of hanging about waiting to be shifted again. Now if I could find some real hard reading to do–something to distract my mind–all might be well; or if I had some MS and a few books of verse, I would turn out something in spite of the flatness of my mind. O well, hopes
are not yet gone…

Though this Spring is cold and unclement, I cannot keep out of mind what April has meant for me in past years — Minsterworth, Framilode, and his companionship. And my sick mind holds desperately on to such memories for Beauty’s sake; and the hope of Joy…

So, if I can send you an address, please send me some small books of verse, and Tolstoi’s Cossacks (Worlds Classics – Pocket Ed.) I wonder whether at last I might try Housmans “Shropshire Lad”?

I will write again in half a shake:

Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney

(I write with my perforated arm, so you see not much is wrong.)[1]

 

It could be much worse. Which Kate Luard can make too painfully clear:

Saturday night April 14th. I’ve never in my life seen so many aeroplanes or so many dead men or so many German prisoners; they are marched in hundreds down our road…

One Cockney boy with both arms smashed said to the Padre, ‘Sy a prayer for me, will yer? That would be nahce. Can’t yer confirm me?’ It’s the only time I’ve seen the Padre laugh. Then the boy offered to sing ‘Tooleroolerity, I want to go to Blighty–Blighty is the plice for me.’ And then he died.[2]

 

 

So. Now another strange non-convergence. Two of our poets who have been creeping toward the line come even closer today–one attacks while the other is on the edge of the action–while a third man who will come to occupy the same space as both of them, but who did not exist, suffered some portion of both of their experiences.

 

During the morning, Wilfred Owen and the 2nd Manchesters moved forward to their attack positions… and found that the staff work had been very bad indeed. First, there was a simple problem of time and distance: “It was realised by the battalion at the outset that it was impossible to cover the distance in artillery formation with the loads and paraphanalia [sic] that the private soldier is called upon to carry in the attack in the time given.” To make matters worse, the last 1,000 yards of the approach involved moving across the enemy’s front, and when the Manchesters appeared in view the Germans immediately placed a hurricane barrage on the ground to be covered. Nor did they know what they were attacking, or where the other British units in the area were. The C.O., Lt. Col. Luxmore, rode off to consult with brigade and came back at 12:20, ten minutes before the scheduled attack time, saving his battalion by ordering a postponement and a flank march to a different position.

But they still had to attack, and they still had to cross a hillside in full view of German-held St. Quentin just to reach the jumping-off point.

Though this barrage was straight in the middle of the Battalion, they moved forward through it as steadily as going on parade, each wave keeping its dressing and distance and every carrier retaining his load. By the Grace of God alone only 30 men were lost in this barrage.

This took long enough that the newly-agreed-upon assault time of 1:00 was also missed. It seems as if there had been no allowance made for the fact that this is not an assault from long-held trenches with reasonably secure telephone connections to the rear but rather an exploratory attack by a unit feeling its way through new country. If the stakes weren’t so high the image of the colonel galloping about in Napoleonic fashion as if he were his own dispatch rider would be comical.

In any event, his arrival was doubly providential, since someone needed to take tactical command on the spot and ignore whatever brigade-level plans remained. Since staying out in accurate artillery fire meant certain destruction and the German wire barriers did not seem too imposing, the Manchesters mounted a quick frontal assault on a German-held trench near their objective, through the barrage and long-range machine-gun fire. Reaching the trench, they found it to be abandoned. This was victory, of a sort, and the day’s work done, so they turned the position over to their relief and went briefly into reserve.[3]

Wilfred Owen was physically unscathed, but this was his first real attack, his first day in the open, under fire. His letter to his mother will strike a tone somewhere between exhilaration and disbelief:

Twice in one day we went over the top, gaining both our objectives. Our A Company led the Attack, and of course lost a certain number of men. I had some extraordinary escapes from shells & bullets. Fortunately there was no bayonet work, since the Hun ran before we got up to his trench. You will find mention of our fight in the Communique; the place happens to be the very village which Father named in his last letter![4] Never before has the Battalion encountered such intense shelling as rained on us as we advanced in the open.[5]

But neither the battalion diary–which is in fact quite detailed and emotional for such a document–nor the letter do much to make us feel what it must have been like to have been there. Marching about, with no cover; uncertain of directions, of objections, of intentions–uncertain of anything except the fact that there would be no safety until some indeterminate length of shell-harrowed, bullet-swept ground was crossed.

But Owen will write it another way, in his poem “Spring Offensive,” which closes with these stanzas:

So, soon they topped the hill, and raced together
Over an open stretch of herb and heather
Exposed. And instantly the whole sky burned
With fury against them; and soft sudden cups
Opened in thousands for their blood; and the green slopes
Chasmed and steepened sheer to infinite space.
Of them who running on that last high place
Leapt to swift unseen bullets, or went up
On the hot blast and fury of hell’s upsurge,
Or plunged and fell away past this world’s verge,
Some say God caught them even before they fell.
But what say such as from existence’ brink
Ventured but drave too swift to sink.
The few who rushed in the body to enter hell,
And there out-fiending all its fiends and flames
With superhuman inhumanities,
Long-famous glories, immemorial shames—
And crawling slowly back, have by degrees
Regained cool peaceful air in wonder—
Why speak they not of comrades that went under?

 

There are many facile ways to make this next transition: “As Owen’s experience opens out, as his poetry rises, Sassoon descends…” Or, perhaps: “While Owen does not deny God and heaven, he writes with biblical force and yet pointedly fails to confirm any solace or meaning to the day’s ‘inhumanities;’ meanwhile, Sassoon is becoming confirmed in his beliefs about where fault for slaughter lies.” That sort of thing. But even if we eschew easy parallels, there is a striking juxtaposition here. Siegfried Sassoon–who has been hoping for open battle, in which he knows he will either excel or be killed–will get instead a new experienced of compressed horror, and one that will push his angry poetry toward something even deeper and darker. Not above ground and into the great wide shell-swept open, but down underground, in the subterranean fastnesses of the Hindenburg line, where, safe from the shells, it will be grenade- and knife-work, and hell will be no Miltonic abstraction of fiends and flames but mappable terrain, still contested by the damned…

Tonight, a century back, Sassoon is still on the verge of this. His diary picks up late last night:

April 14

At 9 p.m. we started off to relieve the 15th Northumberland Fusiliers in Hindenburg support (Second R.W.F. being in support to the First Cameronians). It was only an hour’s walk, but our Northumberland Fusilier guides lost themselves and we didn’t arrive and complete the relief until 4 a.m. Luckily it was fine. I went to bed at 5 a.m., after patrolling our 900-yard front alone!—in a corridor of the underground communication-trench of the Hindenburg Line—a wonderful place. Got up at 9.30 after a miserable hour’s sleep—cold as hell—and started off at 10.45 with a fatigue-party, to carry up trench-mortar bombs from dump between St Martin-Cojeul and Croisilles. Got back very
wet and tired about 4.30. Rained all day—trenches like glue.

But in beginning to transmute the experience to memoir, Sassoon will bring a sense of helpless victimization–of abject horror–to the fore:

Stage by stage we had marched to this monstrous region of death and disaster. From afar it had threatened us with the blink and din of its bombardments. Now we groped and stumbled along a deep ditch to the place appointed for us in that zone of human havoc. The World War had got our insignificant little unit in its mouth; we were there to be munched, maimed or liberated.[6]

So not Milton–Dante. The great devil mouth churning, while little dead men run up and down the twisting trenches in his hide, hurling bombs at each other…

We will see what the morrow will bring. But this stay amidst the wreckage of the attack will yield some of the most viscerally upsetting and vividly “anti-war” of Sassoon’s poems. One example will do, I think:

 

The Effect

‘The effect of our bombardment was terrific.
One man told me he had never seen so many dead before.’
War Correspondent.

‘He’d never seen so many dead before.’
They sprawled in yellow daylight while he swore
And gasped and lugged his everlasting load
Of bombs along what once had been a road.
‘How peaceful are the dead.’
Who put that silly gag in some one’s head?

‘He’d never seen so many dead before.’
The lilting words danced up and down his brain,
While corpses jumped and capered in the rain.
No, no; he wouldn’t count them any more…
The dead have done with pain:
They’ve choked; they can’t come back to life again.

When Dick was killed last week he looked like that,
Flapping along the fire-step like a fish,
After the blazing crump had knocked him flat…
‘How many dead? As many as ever you wish.
Don’t count ’em; they’re too many.
Who’ll buy my nice fresh corpses, two a penny?’

 

So a Dante, but a Dante who has lost sight of Purgatory, and knows that Paradise is impossible. This shocking turn in Sassoon’s poetry on the very day of Owen’s first attack makes an uncannily good introduction for our next subject.

Sassoon, as his diary shows, was sleepless and agitated and keyed-up, but he was not yet shocked into losing his mental equilibrium. Owen has survived his first attack and is uncertain yet what meaning he can wring out of it, or what it has wrung out of him.

Which brings us to Lt. Prior. Billy Prior is, in the literary sense, real–more real to me, having read his story several times, and seen it enacted–than many historical figures. But he’s also fictional. He began life, I think it’s fair to say, as a “composite character” in Pat Barker’s Regeneration, a sort of stock figure of well-researched historical fiction, well-equipped with a 20th century panoply of trauma, neurosis, and defiant energy. But then he took on a life of his own. Regeneration is the sort of book that with great modesty and intelligence–two essential characteristics, along with compassion, that it shares with its (non-fictional) hero, Dr. William Rivers–would wave off such superlatives as “the best of its kind.” But it is–the trilogy is an incomparable fictional exploration of the psychological damage wrought by the war, and Billy Prior is the most compelling fictional Great War officer I can think of.[7]

But it’s early days, and he has not yet opened out into that full fictional life. Prior will be “shell-shocked” into both amnesia and temporary mutism, and the account of the battle (read the book!) that he provides for his therapist is stubbornly matter-of-fact. In fact–and very interestingly–Prior’s memories of today, a century back, draw heavily both on Owen’s first sharp experience of walking under shell fire “as steadily as going on parade” as well as on the sort of edge-of-madness clarity that Sassoon’s poetic voice summons. This is good historical fictional practice, of course, but there are lots of good accounts of such attacks (I’ve heard there’s a blog…) and it’s interesting that Prior’s trauma borrows in such a way from two “real life” figures whose paths will cross his own, in fiction.

I’ll include now a short excerpt from Regeneration: as it fades out one might either take up the novel itself or read once more Owen’s letter and his battalion’s history.

Prior dragged on the cigarette and, momentarily, closed his eyes. He looked a bit like the boys you saw on street corners in the East End. That same air of knowing the price of everything. Rivers drew the file towards him. ‘We left you in billets at Beauvois.’

‘Yes. We were there, oh, I think about four days and then we were rushed back into the line. We attacked the morning of the night we moved up.’

‘Date?’

‘April the 14th.’

Rivers looked up. It was unusual for Prior to be so accurate.

‘St. George’s Day. The CO toasted him in the mess. I remember because it was so bloody stupid.'[8]

‘You were in the casualty clearing station on the …’ He glanced at the file. ’23rd. So that leaves us with nine days unaccounted for.’

‘Yes, and I’m afraid I can’t help you with any of them.

‘Do you remember the attack?’

‘Yes. It was exactly like any other attack.’

Rivers waited…[9]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters, 153-5.
  2. Unknown Warriors, 113.
  3. War Diary, WO/2392/2, page 160 (of pdf).
  4. Fayet.
  5. Collected Letters, 452.
  6. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 316.
  7. I'm not sure if Christopher Tietjens should count; George Sherston probably shouldn't...
  8. St. George's Day is usually April 23rd, not April 14th, and the calendrical complexities which move it later under certain conditions shouldn't have resulted in making it the 14th in 1917. I have a very limited understanding of the liturgical calendar, but this would seem to be a simple slip, occasioned perhaps by the fact that the next day Rivers mentions--the end of the total gap in Prior's life history--is the 23rd--unless I am simply misreading the fictional conversation? Is Prior playing some game with the dates, testing Rivers in some way? I don't think we are meant to subtly infer than his amnesia is feigned... In any event, it's fiction! And I'm very pleased to have an excuse to begin considering Regeneration, the most important (ah, superlatives) of the Great War novels written by later generations, before the time of its main action (all too infrequently dateable) this summer and autumn.
  9. Regeneration, 77.

Edward Hermon Has a Pow-Wow; Siegfried Sassoon Would Dose the Fighting Man With Dreams; Edward Thomas Reckons with War and Death; Edwin Vaughan’s Poor Jerry

A busy day, today, with thoughtful letters from Edward Thomas and poetry from Sassoon. But I do want to begin with Edward Hermon–Ethel’s Bob, and the C.O. of the 24th Northumberland Fusiliers–who describes a jolly little gathering with some of the brass.

…had quite a pleasant day. Saw Richardson & Temple & old Trevor lent me a horse. Met the Corps Commander and the Div. Commander. The former a most charming old gent. Perfect manners & most pleasant.

If this puts you in mind, as it does me, of Meriadoc Brandybuck meeting Theoden of Rohan, I’m afraid that the resonance is more apt than we might hope. This little get-together is not social–it is on the eve and the edge of a great tumult. The charming old gent is coming down to issue his detailed orders for the coming battle of Arras.

I wish we were together for just one night as I could tell you so much more than one could write & lots that would interest you, but if speech is silver, silence is golden.[1]

 

Siegfried Sassoon, away south on the quiescent Somme front and able to write unreservedly in his diary, is in a reflective mood. He will have a lot to say in the coming days, so let’s review, shall we?

March 30 (Hotel Belfort, Amiens)

Alone at last after a typical ‘war evening’. After yet another ‘lorry-journey’ in rain and westerly wind, I got to this town again for a ‘final jolly’. On 30 March 1914 I was looking forward with acute anxiety to the Atherstone point-to-point meeting (to be held next day). All my world was centred[2] in the desire to steer old Cockbird first past the post in some wily, jolly race over hedge and ditch.

And I did it. And the world went on just the same! On 30 March 1916 I was in the trenches at Fricourt-Mametz, hating the Germans for killing my friend, and wondering if they’d kill me.

But they didn’t! And tonight I’ve been guzzling at the Godbert restaurant with a captain of the Dublin Fusiliers, and a captain of the Cameronians, and three other Welsh Fusiliers; and the bill was 250 francs; and we drank Veuve Clicquot; and the others have gone into the dark city, to look for harlots; and I’m alone in my room; looking out of a balconied window at the town; with few lights, and the Moon and silver drifts of cloud going eastward; and the railway station looming romantic as old Baghdad. And next week we march away to ‘hazards whence no tears can win us’.

Sassoon next writes a short prose piece that amounts to a reverie proposing remedy by reverie. “Dream Pictures” imagines that he might console homesick soldiers, bored by the same old letters and the dull news, by giving them “a healthy dose of domestic sentimental recollection” which would “turn them loose in some dream-gallery of Royal Academy pictures of the late-nineteenth century.

I would show them bland summer landscapes, willow and meadowsweet reflected in calm waters, lifelike cows coming.home to the byre with a golden sunset behind them. I would take them to gateways in garden-walls that they might gaze along dewy lawns with lovers; murmuring by the moss-grown sundial; I would lead them twixt hawthorn hedgerows, and over field path stiles; to old-world orchards where the lush grass is strewn with red-cheeked apples, and even the wasps have lost their stings…[3]

That’s just in case you thought it was the latter-day English professors making too big a deal about the “consolations of the pastoral…”

 

Edward Thomas is dutiful both to his sense of others’ claim on his time–if he is free from work, he should write to those who love him–and to his own commitment not to write poetry at the front. His diary receives many of the observational fragments that might become poems. But some make it into his letters, try though he might to stick to the stuff of prose.

First, though, a letter to Eleanor Farjeon. He has acknowledged that she loves him; now he treats her as an intimate friend, striving to do her the honor of a frank, clear, straightforward letter. The poetry will sneak into the next letter, when he can still, almost paradoxically, write freely as he writes down.

March 30

My dear Eleanor,

Another penultimate letter before I shall be unable to write from press of work. And first I must thank you for sending the apples and also for the apples themselves, which arrove today.

It was a good post, a parcel also from Mother and letters from Helen and Mother…

Everything is useful, and will be especially in the time to come when I have to take up food for perhaps considerably over 24 hours and pig it in noise and darkness and worse. Subalterns are told nothing but I happen to know what is intended, only not what difference this rain may make. I say this rain, but a most lovely cold bright evening, clear and still, has just passed, with many blackbirds singing. I fancy though that the Easter weather is not really beginning yet. I wish it was. I should welcome a warm night…

You will hear soon enough about what is doing, before I can tell you…

The town is catching it badly now and we are well away—touch wood—though we aren’t in a paradise or the bagpipes wouldn’t have played what they did last night. The crossings and corners are dirty places. But the Hun must be confounded with our numbers, though you might think he couldn’t fire without hurting more than the open fields. Luckily he often does…

In a strange burst of high spirits, the letter ends with a different sort of verse: Thomas segues suddenly into a folk song–one evidently known to Farjeon (they are both connoisseurs).

It isn’t nice, though, going up in the cold dawn. If only one could keep warm without being burdened with clothes and all sorts of ornaments—glasses, maps, waterbottles, haversacks, gas-helmets, periscopes etc., so that a trenchcoat isn’t wide enough and if you have to throw yourself down you feel like an old woman
home from marketing and still more so when you get up—while you on shore and a great many more are sleeping warm and dry— oh. Don’t forget your old houseboat mate, Fol-de-rol-de-riddlefol-de-rol-de-ri-do. Who is ever yours

Edward Thomas[4]

And straight from that bit of whimsy to this letter, to both his mother and his younger brother Julian.

Beaurains, 30 March 1917

Dear Mother,

I will write you another letter to-night because I have nothing to do but be in the battery till the Major and Captain come back from dinner. One has always to be here and to-night is my turn…

Nothing much is happening yet, though the firing seldom ceases. However, to-day has been a better day, with plenty to do and after much cold rain plenty of sunshine to do it in as the evening came on. Which somehow reminds me I ought to be writing to Julian, which I should have done had I not your parcel and your letter today to thank you for. The parcel came safe and was welcome as ever. A plain cake would be very nice whenever you can send it. The chocolate etc. will be most useful on days when I am up at the O.P. and do not want to have to carry more food than is necessary. Your letter and Eleanor’s and Helen’s give me a very clear picture of their visit with Myfanwy…

In other words Thomas, though writing from a dugout near Arras and helping to bombard the Germans, is in receipt of three letters describing the same evidently uneventful family visit. Few men are as tethered to home.

And yet he snaps the band, in a way, without even turning the page. He writes to his brother, now, man to man. Instead of discussing daily life and parcels he takes on the simple subject of war. Nothing more than war and death and killing and suffering and happiness and misery, in a paragraph.

Now I will write to Julian.

My dear Julian I am sorry I have not written specially to you till I had one to answer and that I have had for a week now. There is not much really to tell you that I can tell you or that it would be permissible or profitable to tell you till it is all over. We are having a dirty long picnic, you know, with many surprising and uncomfortable things in it….

War, of course, is not altogther different from peace, except that one may be blown to bits and have to blow others to bits. Physical discomfort is sometimes so great that it seems a new thing, but of course it is not. You remember cycling in the rain towards Salisbury. It really is seldom quite a different thing than that. Of course, one seems very little one’s own master, but then one seldom does seem so. Death looms, but however “it comes it is unexpected, whether from appendicitis or bullet. An alternation of comfort and discomfort is always a man’s lot. So is an alternation of pleasure or happiness or intense interest with tedium or dissatisfaction or misery. I have suffered more from January to March in other years than in this. That is the plain fact. I will not go into it any more. I hope I do not seem to be boasting. I am too often idle and inefficient and afraid to want to boast.

I cannot talk about books…

Give my love to Maud and the baby and everyone.

P.S. I was just going to tell you not to take too seriously my request, for Epsom Salts when the order was given ‘Battery. Action.’ and now we are giving 167 rounds at a hostile battery over there in the dark.

Ever your loving son

Edwy[5]

 

One brief final note. Edwin Vaughan has had a few days in billets, but his battalion has just marched up to some of the new territory now being entrenched by the British. His task tonight, a century back, was to supervise the putting out of new barbed-wire emplacements.

It was a very quiet and lonely scene, the slope of snow down from behind us, nothing visible but the whiteness of the earth merging into the grey of the sky. The line of little men at their noiseless tasks and the cold moonlight over all. As I sat drinking in this scene, Breeze touched me on the arm, ‘There’s someone declared peace’, he said and pointed across past the last stake.

Covered with snow, as with a sheet, lay the body of a Boche, looking calm and, I somehow felt, happy. Yet the sight of him made me feel icily lonely. It seemed such a terrible thing to lie alone, covered with snow throughout the night, with never a sound until we came along, and tapped and clipped and never spoke, then went away forever. It seemed so unfriendly, and for a long time I sat wishing we could do something for him.

Later on, as his men line up to march back, he notices a man of his platoon carrying a pair of boots.

I asked him where he got them. He said brightly ‘Jerry up on the hill, Sir.’ My poor poor Jerry. We marched back and left him.[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. For Love and Courage, 346.
  2. I link to this not because the date is right but because it is, I think, my longest expostulation on the pre-war Sassoon.
  3. Diaries, 146-7.
  4. Farjeon, Edward Thomas..., 259-60.
  5. Selected Letters, 155-7.
  6. Some Desperate Glory, 73-4.

Robert Graves Saves the Day… or the Day, at Least, Has Been Saved; Edward Thomas and Siegfried Sassoon Are for the Birds; Richard Aldington Reads Frederic Manning; Edmund Blunden Blushes to His Boots; a Strange New Job for Charles Moncrieff

A six-writer-day today, but never fear: they’re mostly writing pithily.

First, it would seem that today, a century back, was the day that the raid of the 2/RWF was officially postponed. Dr. Dunn’s battalion chronicle confirms that the battalion has long resisted the bad plan, the likely waste of men, and the impossibility of digging in in ground that is awash in mud on the surface yet still frozen beneath. What the chronicle neglects to mention is that Robert Graves was the temporary CO during the last conference on the raid–in fact, Captain Graves is not mentioned at all, and, therefore, does not feature as the hero of the hour.

Instead, we get circumstantial confirmation today of the next milestone in Graves’s career. In Good-Bye to All That Graves notes a long night’s work, soon after his appearance at the raid conference, which ended in exhaustion and a diagnosis–from the very same writing Dr. Dunn who did not dwell upon his temporary command–of bronchitis. On the way out to the hospital, Graves sees a dead man–a suicide: “the miserable weather and fear of the impending attack were responsible for his death.”[1] Dunn confirms that on the 22nd the 2/RWF came out of the line and “one man had committed suicide” while over 130 had to be hospitalized for illnesses related to the weather.

So, while he doesn’t have the date to give in his memoir, it was therefore today, a century back, when Graves, relieved of his very temporary command, was one of the men sent down the line sick. It will be a long journey away for Graves, heading first for No. 8 hospital, Rouen, but not ending there…

And there is one more brutal note: one of the battalions of the relieving brigade inherited the poorly planned, postponed raid. When they launched it, “all went well until the raiders rose to their feet to make the assault, then they were raked by machine-guns and got no further.”[2]

No, no, one more note, before we leave the Royal Welch: today, a century back, the 2/RWF welcomed–perhaps not officially in exchange for Captain Graves, “a fine white goat from the Wynnstay Hills,” a gift from the reserve battalion back in Britain… Battalion parades have been sadly lacking in ceremony for quite some time, and will now be better fitted to honor Regimental Tradition…

 

I’ve been missing bashful Edmund Blunden, and there’s an anecdote that can be matched with today (via the Battalion Diary) which shows him at his bashfullest…

A thaw came on, and dirty rainstorms swept the bleak village ends. I felt how lucky I was to have received almost at that moment a pair of new and ponderous Wellingtons, though my size in boots was different; and in these I worked with Worley on a new plan for putting up barbed wire in a hurry, which we had ourselves pencilled out. The Divisional General rode by one morning as we were beginning, with our squad of learners, and when he returned we had put up quite a maze of rusty inconvenience. The good old Duke — no, the General — called me all trepidant to him, smiled, asked my age and service, liked the wire, and passed into the village. At lunch Harrison also smiled upon me. “Rabbit, I hear you were wiring this morning. . . . The General said you surprised him. He asked me, ‘Who was that subaltern in the extraordinary boots, Harrison? Well, he got up that wire very quick. We went down the street, and there wasn’t a yard of it: we came back and there was a real belt.’ — You’ve found another friend.” He began to laugh very heartily as he added: “Those boots, Rabbit!” This painful memory must be exorcised by being noted here. I presented my batman shortly afterward with a pair of new jack-boots.[3]

 

Edward Thomas and Siegfried Sassoon are separated by eight years of age that, due to their different family circumstances, seem like twenty-five; one is–or could be, were it not for the war–a carefree youth, while the other is a long-burdened family man. They are very different in outlook, temperament, and artistic commitment… despite a few friends and acquaintances in common it’s hard to imagine them getting along very well at all.

But they are both poets of a traditional bent, both have always spent a great deal of time outdoors, and both are in France and yet away from their units and stuck in big impersonal situations (Thomas on temporary assignment as an orderly officer with a larger unit, Sassoon quarantined in Rouen’s huge base camp with measles). Both are pining for home–or action–and spring. And so their diaries, today, make for an uncomfortably close antiphony.

Sassoon: “My fifth night in this squalid little ‘compound’… Four of my fellow patients play cards all day; their talk is all the dullest obscenity.”

Thomas: “Cold and wet… Office work and maps. Court of Inquiry on gassing of 4 men. Am I to stay on here and do nothing but have cold feet…?”

So far, so similar. Sassoon is more histrionic, more misanthropic (for Thomas, despair is too serious a thing to leave at the mercy merely of uncongenial company) and keyed up to protest, while Thomas has yet to experience combat or intense danger, and does not associate his unit with an ideal of world-defying fellowship.

So Sassoon complains a bit more–and has more time on his hands to complain–and the rest of his diary entry for today rails against the stupidity (now a favorite word of Sassoon’s) of the war, the reduction of the soldier from “a noble figure” to “a writhing insect,” and the pointlessness of religion. Which eventually becomes a bit much even for Sassoon, and so he acknowledges that he is frustrated and angry, and writes that “such things come from a distempered brain: an infantry officer only sees the stupidest side of the War:”

Distempered indeed:

Yet I should loathe the very idea of returning to England without having been scarred and tortured once more. I suppose all this ‘emotional experierice’ (futile phrase) is of value. But it leads nowhere now (but to madness).

It’s very bad: Sassoon also quotes Conrad twice. And ironic, of course, that the 2/RWF, the unit to which he will be assigned once his measles are gone, was almost in action today–an action in which they would have been more like insects than heroes.

Thomas, in Arras, is pithier: “What is to be done?”

The complaints are only roughly parallel, but the two poets’ searchings for solace in today’s diary entries are very similar–they look to the birds. Thomas:

No thrushes, yet, but a chaffinch says “Chink” in the chestnut in our garden…[4]

And Sassoon:

There are miles of pine-woods on one side of the camp; I went a walk among the quiet sterns yesterday… The silence, and the clean air did me good… I can see God among the pine trees where birds are flitting and chirping.[5]

But for Sassoon–an infantry officer, as he reminds us–the straight line from birds to spring does not describe an uplifting course: spring means the Spring Offensive. Nevertheless, these poets are for the birds, and tomorrow they will remain closely attuned.

 

Richard Aldington wrote again to F.S. Flint today, and once again we find that while infantrymen suffer the casual cruelty of shelling, they are better positioned than most to administer the casual critical cruelty of criticism: a man who carries all his belongings makes serious choices when he chooses to read, or to withhold the space for reading. Aldington is yet to see the front line, and so he presumably has at least some time to read, and though he must carry his pack, he isn’t stripping it down to the barest trench-essentials…

The good news is that he has read a fellow Imagist, and a fellow Writer That We Read… the bad news for this letter’s recipient is that it’s not his best pal Franky Flint.

My dear Franky,

If I wished to torment you I could invent all sorts of terrifying yarns about the fate of your m.s. You are too sensitive about it. And in any case, know that I respect always poems & H.D.’s letters. Your manuscript is in my pack & will remain there until it is crushed by many route marches, when I will solemnly devote it to Vulcan…

Ah but Aldington is only twitting Flint, here. He has just written that he read and liked the poems; this letter, evidently, is gentle mockery for Flint’s having inquired too soon, showing anxiety before the appreciative return-letter could possibly reach him.

You fill me with nostalgia when you speak of your evenings with Yeats, discussing Claudel & Peguy & Gide. Why man alive, I could talk with battalions & battalions of men & not find one who had ever heard of Claudel or even of Yeats…

Have you seen Manning’s poems? You don’t mention them, so I imagine you haven’t. Some of them are really fine, some quite good, & a residue rotten; but there is enough good stuff in the book to make it quite worth while. You must get a copy when it comes out…[6]

Yes; Frederic Manning’s biography (in both senses) is such that I have more or less missed the writing and publication of his poems. Aldington mentioned the book in that recent letter (and he surely does rate the poetry above Flint’s) but it is striking that Manning, who moved in the literary world before the war but has had a checkered career in the army, somehow managed to get Eidola (1917) published early this year, when he spent most of the autumn on the Somme. But then again Ivor Gurney is attempting the same feat…

 

Finally, today, a brief update from Charles Scott Moncrieff:

22nd February, 1917

. . . A new and strange job. I relieved Campbell Johnson last night in the Command of a Prisoners of War Company and am in a very comfortable little hut with tables and chairs, china plates, a lamp, etc. Near my hut is a large cage containing 500 Germans—who do the most amazing amount of work in various ways, and seem clean and good and docile.[7]

A strange job indeed, but the comfort will matter: whether commanding the prisoners or returning to hospital[8] when his illness flares up, Moncrieff will have a great deal of time to himself. While our poets in the trenches struggle to commit anything to writing, he will be able to further the work he did during his leave in establishing himself as a critic and essayist.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Good-Bye to All That, 242-3.
  2. The War the Infantry Knew, 299-300.
  3. Undertones of War, 146.
  4. War Diaries, (Childhood), 163.
  5. Diaries, 133-4.
  6. Imagist Dialogues, 190-1.
  7. Diaries, 125.
  8. Scott Moncrieff's poor health, although he bears it stoically in his letters, might be looked upon as essential preparation for the major work he will one day take up...

Isaac Rosenberg, Strained and Weak; F.S. Flint is Read (by Richard Aldington) and Freely Given (by Ford Madox Hueffer)

Today is a day of literary letters, headed back across the channel in loose formation, nodding to each other in terse recognition, and speeding their pleas to the same few destinations. First, a wilting off-shoot of the Georgian/Dymock set–and after him the Modernists.

Isaac Rosenberg had written to Gordon Bottomley in early January about his plans–lousy and otherwise–and his reading.  He was fairly chipper, then, even about his miseries: “I fancy it was a touch of the flue… I wonder if Aeschylus as a private in the army was bothered as I am by lice.” Less so, in a letter postmarked today, a century back:

Dear Mr Bottomley

Your letters always give me a strange and large pleasure; and I shall never think I have written poetry in vain, since it has brought your friendliness in my way. Now, feeling as I am, castaway and used up, you don’t know what a letter like yours is to me. Ever since Nov, when we first started on our long marches, I have felt weak; but it seems to be some inscrutable mysterious quality of weakness that defies all doctors… I believe I have strained my abdomen in some way…[1]

Still, the letter included a “sketch” of “Louse Hunting,” and all was not as dark as Rosenberg’s mood. Not long ago Eddie Marsh had written–informally, of course–to Rosenberg’s adjutant, with the result that he will be transferred, probably at some point this month, from the “works” battalion to a less labor-intensive job in a trench mortar unit.[2]

 

It’s a small literary world: Bottomley is good friends with Edward Thomas and central to the now far-flung Dymock crew. Rupert Brooke was the strongest connection between Dymock and the Georgian Anthology, but Bottomley and de la Mare are others, and even if Thomas has avoided Marsh’s influence they are known to each other. And Marsh, of course, is not intervening lightly in Rosenberg’s military career–he was also a crucial early patron. Between Bottomley and Marsh there are few promising young writers of somewhat traditional verse more than one friendly letter away.

But oh yes–there are other literary microcosmoi, and with our advantage of historical vantage, we know that another small world considering au courant and modern will grab the stage and boot Georgian Poetry into the footlights. Or footnotes.

The Modernists, grouped around a few small journals,[3] see the Georgians more as almost indecently exposed targets of opportunity, prim ladies showing a touch of ankle while the Imagists are stripping to their all togethers to describe. Although Richard Aldington ceded his editorial post at The Egoist to his wife, H.D., when he went for a soldier, he still knows who and what to read.

Yesterday, a century back, Aldington wrote to F.S. Flint, his good friend and fellow subaltern in the Modernist enterprise; today, the august Ford Madox Hueffer, something of an elder statesman among the young ruffians (how’s that?) aimed a missive at the same target. We may set a record, today, for box-barrage-style name-dropping.

Although Aldington could hardly be more unlike his fellow poetical footslogger Ivor Gurney in either personality or poetic  predilection–Gurney has made a literal Dymock pilgrimage–the two rising poets and private soldiers offer the same criterion for poetic appreciation: is it pack-worthy?

My dear Franky,

I carried your poem and Manning’s poems in my pack for I know not how many kilometres–what more devotion to
literature can you ask? I am immensely pleased by your poem, & as I wrote to H.D., feel that it justifies amply your months of silence… Certainly, compel Monro to print the poem in a chap-book & add any “dug-outs” you have…

The horrid thought strikes me that, if U.S. goes to war, Amy will insist on writing and publishing patriotic verse. This must be barred strenuously–we have foreborn to intrude our nationalism, to “let wrath embitter the sweet mouth of song”; so must she. I have sent H.D. a few scraps of vers libre put down from time to time recently. They may not be much good, for I think they are lazy due to a state of intoxication derived from the happy discovery that one can boil Quaker Oats in one’s “billycan”…

This concern–that Amy Lowell will influence the decline of Modern poetry in America even as she has helped to elevate in England, fades into yet another reverie about war’s end. A popular topic, this winter:

I am back for “a rest”, having shed no blood of my own or anyone else’s, save when I gashed my thumb on a bullybeef tin. And poor May Sinclair will go on thinking I’m an ’eroe”! What women have to answer for! After the war–when everything will of course be ideal–we must rendez vous in your earthly paradise & idle long days in sun and long grass… I desire my Horatian otium cum dignitate [leisure with dignity] just as much as ever. If I get back you will not find me a rampagious & lustful legionary, but the same apostle of pastoral culture as of old. Old books, old wine, old pictures–young women & young songs…

Well, I will conclude this empty raving…

Au revoir, old lad, & a hundred congratulations on your fine piece of work.

R.

“Empty raving,” quotha? Naturally, but this is something a man–a ponderous master like Ford Madox Hueffer–could do with a lighter sort of brio, especially if he is behind the likes of drunken junior Modernist officer cadets like Manning…

Attd. IX Welch, No. 6, 1.B.D.
B.E.F., France
19.2.17

I very ungraciously didn’t answer yr. letter–wh. reached me in the far South. However, I was lazy there–where the Mediterranean spurts up into the rosemary and lavender. But this is the bare, cold & trampled North, with nothing
but khaki for miles & miles…Bare downs… & tents… & wet valleys… & tents…& AAC guns… & mud… & bare
downs…& huts…& bare downs…& RFC…& mud…& motor lorries… & mud… & bare downs.

And I am promoted to Adj.–& run a Bn. much as I used to run the Eng[lish] Rev[iew]–It’s the same frame of mind, you know, & much, much easier–or more difficult, according to one’s mood…

Surely this great literary effort must in effect be some sort of preamble?

I want to ask you a favour: I somehow pine to publish a vol. of poems before the war ends or I am killed. Cd. you, do you think?, arrange for someone to publish:

Antwerp
The Old Houses
Two or three poems written in the trenches & other nasty places
& Heaven

in one volume? And could you collect and arrange them, somewhat in that order?

…I fancy it wd. make a pretty good volume. I have got rather a good one written to the dead of the Welch Regt & so on…. Let me know?

I do admire yr. work very much–you know. “Cadences” is an ever so beautiful volume.

And here’s the funny bit. “I admire your work very much.” Enough to schlepp it? Surely yes? You are, after all, an officer, with a servant, who hasn’t been in trenches in months, you must have trunks of books…

I gave it to some people in Mentone–not because I.did not value the gift, but because it wd. spread yr. fame a little–& because in my valise here it wd. only disintegrate amongst revolvers & straps & the mud in wh. one lives.

Goodbye, my dear.

I am personally very happy in this sort of life: in the end it suits me better to write:

“O.C. Canadaous will detail a fatigue party of 1 NCO & 10 men at 4:30 a.m…” than to watch the Mediterranean foam spattering over rosemary and lavender–for I don’t believe I am really, really Highbrow–as you truly are.

But God bless you, all the same…[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Liddiard, ed., 89-90.
  2. See Moorcroft Wilson, Isaac Rosenberg, ch. 18.
  3. E.G. Blast, tied to various writers we read here, including Ford, below; and the newer Wheels, featuring the Sitwells and other Grenadier Guardsmen, several Imagist Anthologies... and yes, there are also people like Pound and Eliot being published, somewhere, presumably...
  4. Imagist Dialogues, 182-6.

Robert Graves is Headed Back to France, and Siegfried Sassoon is Bereft; A Painful Initiation for Edwin Vaughan

There’s a bit of a muddle today about the whereabouts of Robert Graves, the sort of thing that could (should?) be dismissed as being of only “academic” relevance. But since I’m not terribly sure what that semi-slur means anymore, and since this entire project is an exercise in calendrical close-reading, it must be worth doing. At least a little!

Siegfried Sassoon wrote in his diary for today, a century back, that “Robert left for France to-day with nine other officers,” but the sources drawn on by Graves’s nephew and biographer suggest that he left camp yesterday, and spent his embarkation leave visiting friends and family. R.P. Graves has made some mistakes on dates before, but I think he’s likely to be in the right on this one, which would mean that Sassoon has either misdated his journal or is actually describing yesterday’s departure from Litherland. But I’m not sure why he would do that… in any event, it’s impossible to figure this out without violating my own rules on looking ahead. Suffice it to say that the different sources are quite entangled, and seem to lean on each other rather than on a foundation of fact… ah, the lures of textual criticism.

Whatever the case, the Two Fusiliers are once more separated, and certainly by today, a century back, Graves has left the Royal Welch depot en route for France. He either is or has been at home, in Wimbledon, and thence off to spend a day of his seventy-two hours of “last leave” at Charterhouse, visiting Peter Johnstone, the “Dick” of his schoolboy obsession.[1] Sassoon, interestingly, has taken it upon himself to see Graves’s recent poems printed–a rare instance of deliberate care-taking and non-self-centered behavior on Sassoon’s part.

This little pamphlet of verse he is getting out will keep his mind occupied and take away a little of the blankness of going out for the third time. We have had more than six weeks here together. Lucky to get that in these uncertain times. I wonder if he will really get killed this time. One never expects anything else, so perhaps the green of summer will bring relief. I don’t think it will. I don’t, I don’t. It was a raw drizzling day—suitable for the event.

Suitable–and yet recollections of the event differ in more than dates–and in less, too, in a way. Graves and Sassoon can surely be trusted to recall things that happened to them, and yet both imply that Graves went straight from Litherland to France (without explicitly stating so). In Sassoon’s fictionalized account of their parting in Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, “David Cromlech”

…butted his way along the crowded platform with shoulders hunched, collar turned up to his ears and hands plunged in pockets. A certain philosophic finality was combined with the fidgety out-of-luck look which was not unusual with him. “I’ve reduced my kit to a minimum this time. No revolver. I’ve worked it out that the chances are five to one against my ever using it,” he remarked, as he stood shuffling his feet to try and keep them warm. He hadn’t explained how he’d worked the chances out, but he was always fond of a formula. Then the train began to move and he climbed awkwardly into his compartment. “Give my love to old Joe when you get to the First Battalion,” was my final effort at heartiness. He nodded with a crooked smile. Going our for the third time was a rotten business and his face showed it.

“I ought to be going with him,” I thought…[2]

In Good-Bye to All That the scene is quite similar:

I went back an old soldier, as my kit and baggage proved. I had reduced my original Christmas tree to a pocket-torch with a fourteen-day battery, and a pair of insulated wire-cutters strong enough to cut German wire (the ordinary Army issue would cut only British wire).

Graves also takes along the pack and clothes of an enlisted man, since Germans snipers will target conspicuous officers, and confirms that, having lost his revolver when wounded, he has not bought another–he plans to carry a rifle, should he be called upon to attack.

I also took a Shakespeare and a Bible… a Catullus and a Lucretius in Latin; and two light-weight folding canvas arm-chairs…

I commanded a draft of ten young officers. Young officers, at this period, were expected… to be roistering blades over wine and women. These ten did their best. Three of them got venereal diseases at the Rouen Blue Lamp They were strictly brought-up Welsh boys of the professional classes, had never hitherto visited a brothel, and knew nothing about prophylactics…[3]

The two writers having been there, and the two agreeing…  and yet R.P. Graves seems quite certain that Robert Graves was at liberty today and tomorrow, and left–without any mention of nine other officers–from Waterloo Station on the 22nd.

The solution must be either that R.P. Graves has goofed (possible; I don’t have his sources) or that both Robert Graves and Sassoon are somewhat mistaken at least in the details of their memory. It’s funny, but the very fact that both Graves and Sassoon have a group of precisely ten officers seems to undermine their “facts:” surely one is the source for the other, and the source may be corrupt, for all that it is the remembering mind of the man who was there. The influence may even flow from one to the other and then back again… R.P. Graves, moreover, has dated family papers to support his view, which can be ranged directly against Sassoon’s diary.

For my part (heretical historian and narrative enthusiast that I am) the most convincing item is neither date nor document but rather the fact that both Graves and Sassoon seem to draw a straight line from Litherland to France in order to underscore a literary purpose.

Sassoon’s account in the Memoirs of seeing “Cromlech” off and thinking that he too should be in France is immediately followed by more idle dreaming about a hunt (outdoor Sassoon, pre-war Sassoon, mindless Sassoon, binary vision, etc.) and a scene in which he goes back to his hut and reads a Danish newspaper article questioning the conduct of the war–has this become a war of mutual aggression rather than a war in defense of Belgium?

A good question… but he had actually read the article in question on January 4th. The Memoir runs so close to his experience that even the wary reader would (and generally should) like to take it as a version of reality… but sometimes it’s a set-up, and dates are no more sacred than other facts, when it comes to “fictionalization:” this section is a dramatization not of January 20th, 1917, but of “George Sherston’s” change of heart, c. January 1917. His friend’s return to the line is paired with an eye-opening bit of reading to express two sides of the same particular sort of “disillusionment” that propels him back toward the war rather than away from it…

And Graves, for his part, is hurrying himself back to France because there are no particular comic episodes to wring from his family this time around, and because part of the effect of his anecdote of the Blue Lamp–the nastiness of the war in its seemingly cynical treatment of foolish young men–depends on the nine young officers (of the “Welsh… professional classes”) taking their chapel-bred virginity straight to the flesh-pots. Presumably they, too, spent a few days with their family before mustering again in London or Southampton.

But let’s get back to Sassoon’s diary. The change of mood may be emphasized by arrangement in the fictionalized memoir, but it was real, today, a century back:

No hunting to-morrow as it has been freezing all the week. And Robert’s gone.

April will come again, and sunrays be shafting among the hazels and beeches, and birds be flitting low and startled, and shallow brooks be juggling with the glitter of noon. Slowly the big white clouds will sail across to Lebanon and its blue-green slopes. And all the music of the earth and of men’s hearts must be destroyed, because man desires only the things that he had put behind him—killing, and the pride of women with child by a warrior. O their gluttonous eyes: I think they love war, for all their lamenting over the sons and lovers.When I go out again I will be mad as ever. And the others will laugh at my secret frenzy. But the loveliness of earth will be a torment and a sweet tumult in my heart. And I shall be longing for the humility of green fields and quiet woods. I shall be longing for lonely hills and skies flushed with morning glory. And nights that were one rich chord that echoes and murmurs from a thousand strings, and fades not, until the stars go out and the birds begin their merry jargon in thicket and garden.[4]

No hope for the war, but hope for poetry still.

 

Meanwhile, in France, Edwin Vaughan has been racking up behind-the-lines experiences. He has been thoroughly disappointed in his company and his company commander (“Lieutenant Hatwell… very small and quite inefficient, though full of bounce and bluff”) and he found a likeable fellow officer only to realize that he is a drunk. And today, a century back, Vaughan went through another rite of passage of the less-than-upper-class volunteer officer.

There was a football match at Sorel today: the mess was riding over en bloc, and although I had never been on a horse before, I did not like to refuse…

There followed half an hour of agony whilst Fat Dolly lumbered after the other horses, with me clinging to the saddle and swaying from side to side. I was a very unhappy spectator of the match…

Strangely, Vaughan’s major complaint after the ride was of a pounding headache; the usual complaints after a long first ride situate themselves somewhat lower…[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, the Assault Heroic, 167.
  2. Complete Memoirs, 392-3.
  3. Good-Bye to All That, 235-6.
  4. Diaries, 121-2.
  5. Some Desperate Glory, 10-12.

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.

Rowland Feilding is All in For Ireland; Sidney Rogerson’s Twelve Days Begin; Catching Up With Vera, Victor, Geoffrey and Edward; The Afterlife of Rupert Brooke XIV: Mud and Cake

We have another book beginning today–a tightly-drawn arc across the twilight sky of the Late Somme. Sidney Rogerson, the officer who will write Twelve Days on the Somme, fits our usual profile: bright, young, middle-class, talented with pen and pencil. At Cambridge at the outbreak of the war he volunteered early but did not reach the front for almost two years. In July he was posted to the 2nd West Yorkshires, a Regular battalion which had been shredded on July 1st, attacking toward Ovillers. He is now a twenty-two-year-old company commander with several months’ experience holding a grim but quiet sector near Vermelles, where his battalion was brought back up to strength. It was a section of the old Loos battlefield, and there they had to dig new trenches, periodically unearthing the horrors of the war’s first two years. Rogerson has seen a lot, but he has, as of yet, a century back, no experience of battle.

It was a cold night… the three of us, with soot-blackened faces and aching lungs, lay in our flea-bags and smoked, and sipped whiskey and water out of tin cups, and cursed and discussed the latest rumours–wonderful rumours that we were to entrain for Italy, for Salonika, for any other front but the Somme.

rogerson-1

A sketch made by Rogerson today, a century back, included with a reissue of his memoir.

It was the evening of November 7, 1916, when the Somme offensive was spluttering out in a sea of mud. The place was Citadel Camp… near the one-time village of Fricourt…

A rap on the tent canvas and the announcement of “Battalion Orders, sir,” brought us back to reality with a bump…

The sector we were to take over from the Devon Regiment was at the very apex of the salient formed by the offensive, a little to the left of Lesboeufs Wood, and almost exactly opposite what was left of the village of Le Transloy. As the crow flies, Citadel Camp was little more than six miles behind this line, yet such were the conditions that this comparatively short distance had to be accomplished in two stages… Having passed the gist of these instructions on to Company Sergeant-Major Scott, I turned in to get as much sleep as possible.[1]

A short, sharp campaign-length memoir will continue tomorrow…

 

Let’s use the rest of today, then, to catch up with two of our old-established correspondents.

When we last heard from Rowland Feilding, he was expressing some reservations about commanding an Irish nationalist politician. Let’s jump back a bit, and see how it goes. Feilding, though an Englishman, is a Catholic (like all the Feildings, apparently), which helps explain his sudden posting to command an Irish battalion. Still, this is the British army, run by Englishmen (with a strong helping of Scots), and the Easter Rising is hardly a half-year ago.

October 26, 1916. Butterfly Farm (in Brigade Reserve).

Stephen Gwynn arrived to-day. He has just been in to lunch. He is the very antithesis of the Irish politician as popularly represented by the Tory School. He is old for a Company Commander—fifty-two. All the more sporting therefore to have come out in that capacity, especially since he seems to have had a hard tussle with the War Office Authorities before they would consent to send him.

 

October 29, 1916 (Sunday). Butterfly Farm.

We have our tails up to-day because we have just heard that Private Hughes, of this battalion, has been awarded the V.C. for his behaviour at Guillemont. It is something to have a V.C. belonging to your battalion!

 

October 31, 1916. In Front of Wytschaete.

… How war alters one’s preconceived ideas! You know the sort of impression one is apt to get in England of the Irish Nationalist M.P.  Well, ours here!–you should see him–a refined, polished, brave gentleman; adored by his Company, which he commanded before, earlier in the war. Knee-deep in mud and slush; enthusiastically doing the duty of a boy of twenty. I have seldom met a man, who, on first acquaintance, took my fancy more…

 

By today, a century back, Feilding is branching out into Gwynn’s small fellowship of nationalists-in-imperial-service.

November 7, 1916.

I enclose two newspaper cuttings. They quote what were probably the last writings of Kettle, a talented Nationalist
member of Parliament, who belonged to this Brigade… I think his ode to his child is very fine.[2]

Feilding includes an excerpt from Kettle’s “political testament,” and then his “To My Daughter Betty.

 

And finally, today, Vera Brittain. Although she is far away in Malta–a matter of a few weeks rather than a few days, mail-wise–she continues to be the central node in a four-way, high-intensity epistolary friendship. One letter now on its way to her was from Victor Richardson, in the trenches after years of delays, and brimming with enthusiasm–at last the ability to write a proper trench letter! He then fills her in on the nature of his battalion and of all the familiar German presences–whizz-bangs, 5.9s, machine guns, trench mortars, etc.–before modestly concluding that “the above notes on trench life might possibly interest you. I have so far come across nothing more gruesome than a few very dead Frenchmen in No Man’s Land, so cannot give you very thrilling descriptions.”

This sort of sweet, derivative stuff was expected from Victor, who than guilelessly goes on to write about how Roland must have had similar experiences… But Geoffrey. a more intimate friend, whom Vera sees as deserving more intellectual respect, has done her a dirty deed, writing two similar–and yet different–letters. In his letter to Edward Brittain he manfully pulls no punches. Or, rather, he does–but he makes clear what exactly he is leaving out. A night-time relief over muddy open ground quickly turns nasty:

We got into a bit of a mess… we slipped & fell over a waste of mud & it was almost the last straw when I fell over on top of a mule long dead & got covered with–well you know what… The trenches were frightfully muddy so much so that men got stuck for hours on end before they could be dug out — unlike the liquid mud at Ypres.

Vera, to what would be her considerable indignation, gets what we must call a sanitized version of this adventure. With a properly poetic overture, of course. There are worse symbols of Rupert Brooke‘s current status, a century back, than his being adored but bedraggled with both foul mud and sweet cake…

France, 3 November 1916

I quite agree about one’s friends: abroad they mean far more to one than at peace in England & after the War people will be more sincere I think than before.. . . I should love to see Malta and all its reminiscences of the Past and glorious colourings tho’ the heat must be appalling.

Yes! I love Rupert Brooke & took him up with some of the other verses which Edward gave me, to the trenches the last time but owing to wet, mud and squashed cake in my pack, which, the cake, seemed to permeate everything my edition is somewhat dilapidated now tho’ the dearer for that. We had a fairly bad time of it & when relieved at 8 one night we didn’t get back here until 9 the next morning so you can understand how far we came.. .

To start with the entire Coy got out to go back over the top at the same time instead of by platoons at intervals & the Huns started shelling so I got on & took all the available men & went on which was the only thing to be done, feeling very ‘windy’. Well! I had been over the land by day & as there were no landmarks, by night it was difficult to find the way so we plunged on splashing thro mud & crump hole. I halted & heard Wilmot’s voice behind & found almost the entire Coy. following: later we came across Daniel & we all egged on. The trenches were full of sticky mud & some men got in for 16 hrs without being able to get out. We got up the hill & finally got on duckboards & by this time we were rolling along asleep for the most part — however with much effort we struggled into camp — 10 miles is a long way to come after a tour in trenches don’t you think?

I snipped and cut at the letter to Edward, above, and then realized that for several stretches it was word for word the same as the foregoing paragraph. Except for one thing: Vera is spared the dead mule.

Well! This morning I spent in spring cleaning & as I had fallen flat twice I was literally covered with mud from head to foot! Also my servant got hit so have been showing my new laddie how to carry on–but these domestic details must be horribly boring.

 

Then–only three days back, now!–Vera, writing in response to her brother’s letter about Victor at last going to France, anticipates Victor’s letter to her rather nicely.

St George’s Hospital, Malta, 4 November 1916

It seems queer still to think of Victor at the front. I don’t wonder he thinks his regiment a marvel after what he has been used to; any form of active service must be quite a godsend after the P.B.s [Provisional Battalions] & the old women there that he has been used to…

She too, meanwhile, has moved from the probationary frustrations of England to the real responsibility of overseas:

I like this hospital immensely & cannot say anything good enough about the Matron & Assistant M. There are the fewest possible conventions & the greatest possible freedom; all the rules are so Sensible that no one dreams of breaking them. As for the nonsense about V.A.Ds being unable to be left on duty without a Sister no one thinks anything of it here; if they did the Sisters couldn’t get off duty as often there is only one to each block. It is
a frequent occurrence to have charge of anything between 50 & 100 patients for a whole afternoon or evening & sometimes for a whole day when the Sister has a day off… It makes me laugh to think how in some wards at the 1st London I wasn’t allowed to give a single medicine…

But by the time this gets to Edward, his time for musing on the new responsibilities of others will be long past. Two days ago Edward began a response to an older letter of Vera’s; and as we reach today, a century back, he has news to give–he has recovered enough from his July 1st wounding to expect immediate reassignment.

I will most certainly send you a cable if anything of the least importance happens to Tah or Geoffrey… I don’t know if Father has forgiven you for going to Malta but he never says anything about it now if he hasn’t because he knows my opinion on the subject…

Nov: 7th

Such a lot of things seem to have occupied me that this had been a bit out of it for 2 days. Had a letter from W.O. [War Office] this morning telling me to report my address to Hqrs. London District, Home Guards, Whitehall and that I should have medical board ‘shortly’, after which I must proceed at once (in italics) to the 3rd Battalion at Sunderland, so I expect I shall go about the end of this week or beginning of next…

This post has been rather a melange–or a run-on–but even though I have largely avoided discussing Marie Leighton and her book about her son Roland, this bemused paragraph about the book’s reception is pretty interesting…

…Various people are writing to Mrs L. via Hodder and Stoughton with ref. to Boy of my Heart. One was a girl whose fiance was killed after being in France a week and who thought he was just like Roland. Another was an officer of the delightful name of Gerald Wynne Rushton who first wrote some weeks ago, saying that he was badly wounded and was going to have a serious operation and if it turned out badly and he was dying she must come and see him (in Dublin if you please) before he died. He has however got over the operation and now wants to meet Mrs Leighton, but his glamour has rather disappeared since he enclosed a very rotten poem of his in his last letter. Another is a Flying Officer who writes in the handwriting and style of a man of 50 but is really 19. His name is Reginald Lowndes but he always signs himself Reg. . . . In his letters he explains what an awful sinner he is which he says is due to being badly brought up and having a very worldly mother; he is pleased to think that he and Roland would have been great friends and he seems to admire him very much and Mrs Leighton…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Twelve Days on the Somme, 3-9.
  2. War Letters to a Wife, 129-31.
  3. Letters From a Lost Generation, 283-8.

Max Plowman Approaches the Line; Olaf Stapledon Pines for the Great Times

Today, a century back,[1] Max Plowman and his platoon take up positions in the second line of a very familiar area. The first long section of his memoir excerpted below completes his initial “approach” narrative, while the next covers his first night in the trenches. I’ll put in a link or two, but I’ll refrain from commentary. Rather than breaking in to underline familiar sights and variations on themes, I’ll trust that the veteran reader will take pleasure in finding them for herself–by now we are ready to win a good deal of extra-textual, comparative wisdom from descriptions such as these.

Trenches on the Somme

We are going to the trenches. That little knot of men two hundred yards ahead, just disappearing over the barren crest of the rise, is Hill’s platoon. Two hundred yards behind us is Smalley’s. This afternoon the sun glares down on earth that has lost its nature, for, pitted everywhere with shell-holes, it crumbles and cracks as though it has indeed been subject to earthquake. Up here we can be seen by the enemy; but there is no hurrying, for we have to keep distance between platoons. Hill has halted: we must halt, too. The men behind me swear with nervous irritation and mutter about being stuck out here to be fired at, I turn to look at them. Standing loaded up with boxes of bombs and sandbags of rations, how utterly unlike the red-coats of romance they appear.

We are off again, now traversing the slope that leads to the valley of Longueval. “Death Valley,” it is nicknamed, and it has earned its title, for everywhere there are signs of death: an inverted bottle with a bit of paper in it: a forage-cap hung on a stick: a rough wooden cross bearing the pencilled inscription, “To an Unknown British Soldier.” These signs recur: pathetic, temporary memorials; will they outlast the war? In the bottom of the valley lie broken trucks and the shattered rails of a tramway. As we come to the end of the tram-line we have to pass the body of a dead horse, foul and distended, poisoning the air. Suddenly, like a rat, a human figure comes out of the earth. Who would have thought there were dug-outs here? As quickly it disappears and we pass on. We march in silence, broken occasionally by a jest that fails to catch on, or by an irritable rebuke from one jogged by his companion. There is no singing now; ’tis as if we moved under an invisible cloud.

We halt for a moment in a chalk-pit where the M.O. has his dug-out, and then follow the narrowing sunken road that leads up St. George’s Hill. By the time we have reached the top we are moving in single file round the horseshoe bend of the trench we are to occupy, pushing by the troops that wait for us to relieve them.

This is an old German trench that has been reversed and now forms part of our second line facing High Wood, just distinguishable as such, about five hundred yards away on the hill opposite. We have hardly entered the trench before we come on a stretcher lying on the ground. It bears the body of a boy: the face quite black. He has just been killed. It appears there was an old German latrine close to the parapet of the trench; two boys had gone to it when a shell came over and killed them both. As we push along I find that this particular sector falls to my platoon. The shell has made a big breach. To-night we shall have to repair it and clean up the mess which is beyond description.

The men are posted and the relieved troops scuttle out. In this narrow gap between two deep walls of clay we shall spend the next four days. The air is tainted with the sickly-sweet odour of decaying bodies. At certain corners this odour intensified by the heat, becomes a stench so foul the bay cannot be occupied. Just now I tripped over a lump in the floor of the trench. It was necessary to get a shovel and quickly cover the spot. Literally we are the living among the dead.

Shelling is incessant. There is not a moment when something is not passing overhead; but the fire is not upon this trench, it is meant for the batteries now crammed up close behind on the rearward slope of the hill. Our batteries are replying, shell for shell. Somewhere very close to my sector a French seventy-five barks deafeningly.

I look for a place to lay my ground-sheet and rations, and find a hole burrowed in the side of the parapet and a new German saxe-blue coat lying on the floor. This hole will give cover from shrapnel and serve to deaden the noise if there’s any chance of sleep; but it would prove an ugly death-trap if a shell dropped near. I lay my things in the hole and turn to see Rowley and the company-sergeant-major coming along to inspect. We go round together till we come to a spot in a traverse behind my sector where the smell of decay is so strong they are convinced there is a body lying out. Sure enough, just behind the parados, the dead body of a gunner lies on a stretcher evidently left in haste. Both shin-bones are broken, but otherwise the poor fellow looks unhurt. We have the corpse carried out along the narrow trench: a difficult, awkward business.

I see Jackson considering the gap in our parapet and speak to him about it. He has the whole thing sized up, and without any fuss makes himself responsible for a particularly filthy job, telling me just what he proposes to do as soon as it is dark. He seems more at his ease in the trenches. I shall like this man.

Wondering how Hill fares I go down the trench to see him, and we decide we shall have to spread out our platoons, that are much under strength if we are to keep in touch. I am just returning along the unoccupied gap between us when rapid rifle-fire suddenly starts in the valley below. What does it mean? I get up on a firestep and peer over. There’s nothing to see, but the firing continues, causing a cloud of smoke that begins to fill the air. Are they coming over? If they do–well, I’ve this bit of the line to myself. I pull out my revolver, load it and wait, wondering ironically what anyone would give for my chances. If they come as soon as this, it will have been quick work. The firing continues so that the smoke obscures all view. Then to my relief the sergeant-major comes along. He too is wondering what is going to happen and we wait together silently. Gradually the firing dies down. It ceases. We go back to my platoon and beyond to see Smalley on the right. He has put his men into their P.H. helmets, mistaking the smoke for a gas attack. “All’s well that ends well.” But we do not fail to chaff Smalley about his precaution.

Night in the trenches

Night has fallen. The stars shine brilliantly and (these trenches facing north) I gaze at The Plough dipping towards High Wood. What joy it is to know that you in England and I out here at least can look upon the same beauty in the sky! We’ve the stars to share. Look at them! They have become seers–images of divine stability–guardians of a peace and order beyond the power of weak and petty madness. Upon what havoc and ruin have they looked down in days of Greece and Rome and centuries beyond! Still they shine and keep their calm serenity. They, at least, will outlast the war and still be beautiful. We cannot shoot the stars.

If only those two guns on the horizon beyond High Wood could stop! They flash a pair of devilish eyes and we, trembling, wait the result; for they are firing on us. Already they have knocked the trench in twice, luckily at unoccupied places. It’s all because of that damned machine-gun that keeps hammering away on our left. Why on earth do they want to keep firing into the dark like that?

Hill and I think it our duty to find out. After some difficulty we discover the machine-gun and ask the gunners if they can’t stop for a while. Sorry, but they’ve instructions to carry on overhead fire all night on a road beyond the hill which it is reported the Germans use every night.

We come back to my burrow and crawl in, drawing the ground-sheet across the opening so that we can strike a match and by the light of a candle eat and smoke.

This is the first time in the trenches for us both, and we marvel at the continuous shelling, wondering if it is ever going to stop. Hill falls asleep and with friendship’s pity I look upon his sleeping face.

Then a whiz-bang bursts just above us and he wakes, scared like a child. We climb out and parade, for the rest of the night up and down the trench.[2]

 

I have been neglecting Olaf Stapledon for quite some time, so let’s work him in just a bit here. First, we go all the way back to July 11th for a very typical observation. It is lovely, dreamy, and expansive, starting with a boy and his spyglass but then leaping enormously to continental scale. No one muses on the personal-to-the-cosmic like Olaf does.

…Beyond all the ruins I can see with my glass a wind mill quietly turning, and a certain tower beside it. If the wind did not shake my hand I could see a man if he chose to appear there. That shows how narrow the actual fighting area really is, for it is all between us and that mill; and the hypothetical man would be a bosche. And that thin strip that I can see across is bordered on each side by wider strips of sporadic ruination, and from our sand dune, back at our camp, you can see the two extreme limits of these wider strips, and beyond those, on each side, war is not visible, bit only a kind of terrible report. And this great belt, so very narrow on the map in comparison with its length, stretches away down many days’ journey into the south.

But we’re reading Stapledon today, a century back, because today’s letter contrasts so interestingly with Max Plowman. Plowman had begun the war a principled pacifist; Stapledon too. Although neither joined immediately, they were both in the ambulances by 1915. Stapledon came to France, then, and cheerfully manhandled his ambulance over rutted French and Belgian roads, often enough under fire, risking his life to save those of others. His conviction that war is an absolute evil, that it is wrong to do violence, and that it is nevertheless an honorable course to aid the allied cause by ministering to its wounded is often queried and tested, but it does not break.

Plowman, by contrast, had found himself in a less-inspirational, less-principled RAMC unit, and came to see service in a non-combatant branch of the army as a half-measure. It is perhaps not to cynical to suggest, too, that where Stapledon resisted considerable “peer pressure” (he rowed with Julian Grenfell!), Plowman may have been unable to quiet the longing to take a commission like all the other guys. In any event, he did, and was trained in time to come out as a replacement officer in the wake of the Somme’s first day and its terrible casualties.

Meanwhile the political situation had changed, and Kitchener’s Army gave way to the Derby Scheme and then to conscription. Many men who had not wanted to go to war in any capacity registered as conscientious objectors. They could now be drafted and sent into non-combat units like the once-proudly-independent Friends’ (i.e. Quaker) Ambulance Unit.

Reflecting on all this, Stapledon seems confused. He holds to his principles and has done nothing wrong. But there has been little action lately in his part of the line (the far north) and he is forced to confront both the changing nature of his unit–the sullying of its purity of intention, although he should be above such thoughts–and the fact that, suddenly, he seems to be running far fewer risks than a man like, for instance, Max Plowman. Can a philosopher be both unimpeachably correct and wistful?

Ah, but a human being can…

We are scandalously safe, and there is no getting over the fact… though we on the convoys do get a certain amount of real war, the vast majority of the FAU gets next to nothing of it. And worse still there are crowds of new fellows always coming out (popularly known as conscription-dodgers) and the authorities never seem to give them any serious work…the FAU used to be considered rather a fine thing in the early days, but soon the world will say it is the lair of the conscription dodgers, and no more. We shall certainly get no credit from anyone after the war, militarist or pacifist. But we did not come for credit, so I suppose we must not complain…

Yet one must not sweepingly blame the newcomers. Many, I know, were sticking to their guns in not coming out until they were forced. Many of them are very decent fellows too, but the general average is not very prepossessing. And of course they have not their hearts in the work even as much as we have. I wonder whether all this will be censored! I shall never cease to regret that I could not have come out here earlier, when all the great times were.[3]

You can take the well-brought-up boy out of the Public School/Oxford/Edwardian Upper Middle Class world, but you can’t… well, actually, you can take much of that out, if you have a beautiful, careful mind and a great deal of help from the Quakers. But you can’t get all the way down into the boyish substrata of that personality and extinguish the yearning for romance, be it the Christian heroes of the early ambulance corps or the redcoats of yore…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Working backwards from the "three days" that apply to the morning of the 9th, based on the "Wednesday" mentioned in the letter of the 13th.
  2. A Subaltern on the Somme, 41-7.
  3. Talking Across the World, 162-5.