Vera Brittain on Disappointment and a Sporting Chance; Lord Dunsany Abrim With Affection; Rudyard Kipling “Superfluous and Impotent”

First, today, we have Vera Brittain elaborating on what her brother’s departure from France for the Italian front means to her.

24th General, France, 12 November 1917

Father’s letter about Edward going to Italy … arrived to-day. It is very hard that he should have missed his leave after you have waited all this time, & as for me, half the point of being in France seems to be gone, and I didn’t realise until I heard he was going how much I had counted on & looked forward to seeing him walk up this road one day to see me. But I want you to try & not worry about him more because he is there, because whatever danger he meets with he could not possibly be in greater danger than he has been in the last few months…

And, apart from the disappointment of not seeing any of us, I think he will be very, glad of the change; no one who has not been out here has any idea how fed up everyone is with France & with the same few miles of ground that have been solidly fought over for three years. There is a more sporting chance anywhere than here ……. If only I get the chance of going I will; not that it would be so much advantage now, as now that the whole Western front is under one command I expect people will be moved about from Italy to France & vice-versa just as they have from one part of France to another, & won’t necessarily stay the whole time in either one or the other……..[1]

She’s not wrong, but it’s worth remembering that these aren’t simply the words of one member of a family of four excessively devoted to its one soldier. Her parents may well be assured by the fact that he will be somewhat safer in Italy. But Vera wants to be close to Edward, in several senses, not just because he is her beloved brother but because she is the last of the four young men she loved, in one way or another. They wouldn’t have seen each other often, but now they will not see each other for a long time, and distance is something to be feared…

 

Lord Dunsany has been writing home regularly, lately, and he was apparently very gratified to receive a return letter from his wife Beatrice, in which she copied out a poem he had mentioned hearing part of, Wordsworth’s Ode to Duty. Very thoughtful of her indeed, but still… this is a strangely fulsome letter.

My Darling Mink,

You’ve been a most dear Mink to me always. Words cannot express my gratitude. Perhaps I seldom tried to express it, but you knew it was there however much concealed. God bless you.

Pony[2]

 

After a family letter and an ominous missive to the beloved wife, we come to a business letter between two of the great (if not particularly good) men of the age–or, perhaps, Titans of the Age of Imperial Confidence that the Great War brought to an end… but Rudyard Kipling‘s letter to Theodore Roosevelt on the perniciousness of German propaganda becomes, in the course of a few paragraphs, something quite different.

Bateman’s
Burwash
Sussex
Nov. 12, 1917.

Dear Roosevelt:

Thank you very much for the book and the letter with it. Like you, I am rather aghast at the psychology of the Pacificist – and I should be more so if I did not know how long and how effectively Germany has worked upon them all over the world. If you go back far enough you’ll find that Marx – a Hun – was at the bottom of the rot. There must always be, I suppose, a certain percentage of the perverse among mankind to whom cruelty and abominations make a subconscious appeal… Someday the U.S.A. will awake to the fact that she too has been exploited psychologically by the world’s enemy…

I hope you have got some news from Kermit. The young villain hasn’t sent me a word since he went East so I am sending a chaser after him…

Kipling gathers himself, then, and turns back from worrying over Roosevelt’s son to discussing the latest positive developments in allied hate:

I hear very good accounts of your men at the front in France. They are not penetrated with any excess of love for the Hun: and I expect that by the time they have had a few thousand casualties they will be even less affectionate. The Hun has a holy dread of the U.S….  Hence his desperate whack at Italy – and all the propaganda that made the break in the Italian Army. It’s a long, long, and peculiarly bloody business that we are in for: but I maintain that the Hun’s temperament will impose his own destruction upon him.

But Kipling, in a revealing moment in this letter between a famous writer and a former president, suddenly comes all the way back in a moment from matters of grand strategy and vengeance to the overwhelming pain of personal loss.

Looking back these three years I find I have lost nearly everyone that I ever knew: John’s death gives one a sense of superfluous age and impotence. I hope you’ll not have to go through that furnace. With all good wishes and sincerest admiration believe me

Yours ever
Rudyard Kipling[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Letters From a Lost Generation, 381.
  2. Amory, Lord Dunsany, 147.
  3. The Letters of Rudyard Kipling, IV, 472-3.

Good Friday in Missouri; Ivor Gurney is Wounded; Edward Thomas Tunnels Onward; Siegfried Sassoon Marches Toward Spring–and the Guns

It is Good Friday, today, a century back, and a signal day in the war’s history: the United States has declared war. This fact seems to overshadow the coming assault at Arras. It’s hard, that is, with our short-sighted hindsight, not to begin treating the war as essentially all but over. After all, the Central Powers are nearly exhausted, they are blockaded, and now fresh armies will be on their way to bolster the Allies. But the German strategists are not fools, and they will gamble on ending the war before the United States’ contribution can be decisive–a gamble they will nearly win, especially after Russia’s collapse. From the cold and murderous point of view of Grand Strategy, another costly British effort to smash through their lines is surely welcome… a fact which will not help the men under the bombardment, or the men due to follow behind the curtain of shells on Monday morning.

But what, as the troublesome youngster asks, does this mean to me? To us, that is, steeped in the books and letters and diaries and poetry of British volunteers of 1914 and 1915. Well, I don’t know. There may well be more American voices here next year, although I’m not certain how much of a national shift will take place–perhaps very little.

In fact, I will begin with a curveball (or a changeup, perhaps–but I don’t expect too much criticism of my baseball metaphors, even today). In order to remind us that the U.S. will now be going through a sort of condensed-but-less-intense version of Britain’s 1914-15, with a long delay before the volunteers appear in large numbers in France–and also in order to sneak in a recommendation for one of the most perfect novels I’ve ever read–I’ll take as our first text today John Williams’s Stoner, a novel about the quiet life of a southern American academic. Many Americans will volunteer (and fight, and die) in the war, but many others will choose not to–this will never be an American war in the same way it was a British war (not to mention French or German, and not to speak of the East). About all we need to know is that the titular William Stoner is a doctoral student and instructor in the English department at the University of Missouri.

War was declared on a Friday, and although classes remained scheduled the following week, few students or professors made a pretense of meeting them. They milled about in the halls and gathered in small groups, murmuring in hushed voices… Once there was a brief-lived demonstration against one of the professors, an old and bearded teacher of Germanic languages, who had been born in Munich and who as a youth had attended the University of Berlin. But when the professor met the angry and flushed little group of students, blinked in bewilderment, and held out his thin, shaking hands to them, they disbanded in sullen confusion.

During those first days after the declaration of war Stoner also suffered a confusion, but it was profoundly different from that which gripped most of the others on the campus. Though he had talked about the war in Europe with the older students and instructors, he had never quite believed in it; and now that it was upon him, upon them all, he discovered within himself a vast reserve of indifference. He resented the disruption which the war forced upon the University; but he could find in himself no very strong feelings of patriotism, and he could not bring himself to hate the Germans.

But the Germans were there to be hated. Once Stoner came upon Gordon Finch talking to a group of older faculty members; Finch’s face was twisted, and he was speaking of the “Huns” as if he were spitting on the floor. Later, when he approached Stoner in the large office which half a dozen of the younger instructors shared, Finch’s mood had shifted; feverishly jovial, he clapped Stoner on the shoulder.

“Can’t let them get away with it, Bill,” he said rapidly. A film of sweat like oil glistened on his round face, and his thin blond hair lay in lank strands over his skull. “No, sir. I’m going to join up. I’ve already talked to old Sloane about it, and he said to go ahead. I’m going down to St. Louis tomorrow and sign up.” For an instant he managed to compose his features into a semblance of gravity. “We’ve all got to do our part.” Then he grinned and clapped Stoner’s shoulder again. “You better come along with me.”

“Me?” Stoner said, and said again, incredulously, “Me?”

Finch laughed. “Sure. Everybody’s signing up. I just talked to Dave–he’s coming with me.”

Stoner shook his head as if dazed. “Dave Masters?”

“Sure. Old Dave talks kind of funny sometimes, but when the chips are down he’s no different from anybody else; hell do his part. Just like you’ll do yours, Bill.” Finch punched him on the arm. “Just like you’ll do yours.”

Stoner was silent for a moment. “I hadn’t thought about it,” he said. ‘It all seems to have happened so quickly. I’ll have to talk to Sloane. I’ll let you know.”

“Sure,” Finch said. “You’ll do your part.” His voice thickened with feeling. “We’re all in this together now, Bill; we’re all in it together.”[1]

Stoner doesn’t go; he gets a post at the University instead, since jobs open up as other men volunteer. The smarmy Gordon Finch becomes an officer but remains in the United States, safe in training camps and still able to advance his own academic career. Stoner’s easygoing friend Dave Masters will be killed at Château-Thierry.

 

With the literary aspects of the U.S.’s contribution to the war effort thus entirely taken care of, we can turn our attention back to France.

Before we go to Arras, a sharp reminder that everyday attacks are still being carried out along other sections of the line. During one of these attacks, this evening, a century back, Ivor Gurney was shot in the arm. Despite being a few inches away from death, this wound was a good one–“clean through the right arm just underneath the shoulder.”

In fact, it may be too good a wound. Gurney was evacuated, but the wound was slight (and only briefly painful) and his first reaction after the immediate shock had worn off was fear that he might not make it all the way to Blighty. Soon afterwards, he remembered to be worried that he would be cut off from his lifeline to Blighty–it will take some time for the post to find a wounded soldier.[2]

 

Just outside of Arras, Edward Thomas, three days into the bombardment of the German positions that will be assaulted on Easter Monday, writes once again to reassure Helen. He would prefer to be calm and reassuring, describing what beauty he sees and maintaining the old connections between them by means of safe home-like gossip and natural description–to potter about the bridge over the experiential gulf without looking down.

But Helen’s most recent letter evidently pressed him to write more about his state of mind, and so Edward reluctantly ventures to explain how he intends to safeguard his inner self during the coming ordeal.

Beaurains
6 April
1917

There wasn’t a letter . . . but I will add a little more.—the pace is slackening today.

Still not a thrush—but many blackbirds.

My dear, you must not ask me to say much more. I know that you must say much more because you feel much. But I, you see, must not feel anything. I am just as it were tunnelling underground and something sensible in my subconsciousness directs me not to think of the sun. At the end of the tunnel there is the sun. Honestly this is not the result of thinking; it is just an explanation of my state of mind which is really so entirely preoccupied with getting on through the tunnel that you might say I had forgotten there was a sun at either end, before or after this business. This will perhaps induce you to call me inhuman like the newspapers, just because for a time I have had my ears stopped—mind you I have not done it myself—to all but distant echoes of home and friends and England. If I could respond as you would like me to to your feelings I should be unable to go on with this job in ignorance whether it is to last weeks or months or years…

We have such fine moonlight nights now, pale hazy moonlight. Yesterday too we had a coloured sunset lingering in the sky and after that at intervals a bright brassy glare where they were burning waste cartridges. The sky of course winks with broad flashes almost all round at night and the air sags and flaps all night.

I expect there will be a letter today. Never think I can do without one any more than you can dearest. Kiss the children for me.

All and always yours

Edwy[3]

 

As Siegfried Sassoon marches toward the sound of the guns–four of them directed, at times, by Edward Thomas–he seems to be in a solid and stable mood… but he is by no means able to resist the lure of bundling together the dawning spring, the coming battle, and some of the religious overtones of Eastertide.

April 6 (Good Friday)

Woke with sunshine streaming through the door, and broad Scots being shouted in the next huts by some Scottish Rifles. We remain here to-day…

I don’t think battle-nightmares haunt many of us. There isn’t time for thinking. We are ‘for it’—that’s enough for most of us. The wind is gone round to the east and we can hear the huge firing up at Arras.

I saw a signpost last evening with Arras 32 kilometres. I suppose that’s about the nearest point where hell begins… And I was walking, with nice old Major Poore, and talking about cricket and hunting.

And everywhere spring is not quite ready to break out in a sudden glory of flowers and leaves. The big woods round here are brown and sombre; in a fortnight they’ll be flashing and quivering, bowers of beech-trees, cages full of sunbeams, swaying alleys of Paradise.

Last night I went and stood in the moonlight, watching the stems and leafless branches, against the sky, and dreaming of summer dawns, till the startled birds rustled overhead, and something went plunging blindly through the undergrowth—it might have been Pan, or a roebuck, or a mule escaped from the Transport lines.[4] This morning romance had fled. Soldiers were practising on bugles and bagpipes at the wood’s edge.[5]

 

Finally, a poem–but not the sort of poem we might expect, after Sassoon’s pleasant pastoral fantasy. Sassoon is a country-loving English poetaster, sure, but he is a bit of an outlier–most men do not feel cheerful on the edge of battle, and praise the spring in the same voice that must shout over the guns.

Hamish Mann is a poet we read only very infrequently. But he, too, is waiting to see what the coming battle will bring. He writes, however, not of its present incongruous spring atmosphere, but of what battle has done in the past.

 

The Great Dead

Some lie in graves beside the crowded dead
In village churchyards; others shell holes keep,
Their bodies gaping, all their splendour sped.
Peace, O my soul… A Mother’s part to weep.

Say: do they watch with keen all-seeing eyes
My own endeavours in the whirling hell?
Ah, God! how great, how grand the sacrifice.
Ah, God! the manhood of you men who fell!

And this is War… Blood and a woman’s tears,
Brave memories adown the quaking years.[6]

References and Footnotes

  1. Williams, Stoner, New York Review Books, 33-4.
  2. War Letters, 153-4.
  3. Selected Letters, 163-4.
  4. I will lay even money that, with all of France to lose a mule in, Henry Williamson is somehow responsible for this.
  5. Diaries, 150.
  6. Powell, A Deep Cry, 240.

Henry Farnsworth Thinks of Reading, Writing, and Underwear; Vera Brittain Takes the Next Step

August 13, 1915

Dear Ellen:

I have received Mother’s of July 19 and 25 and can think of nothing but one quotation therefrom: “Our last note is off, and now if Germany persists, we shall have to take action.” Since then, according to Paris newspapers, another American boat has been blown up. When will people perceive that Wilson will never do anything but talk, and realize the Devil’s role that his calm views, high principles, and endless staying open to the other side’s point of view has played in Mexico?

I suppose as usual that all this will be put down as childish and unconsidered, but save this letter as you did the one about the Illusions Perdus, and you will see I am right later on. I feel more bitterly about Wilson and his bourgeois—in Balzac sense, not the ordinary French one—virtues than I ever did about any public thing before. As for local news, as usual there is rien à signaler

It’s natural enough that our Americans in France are disdainful of the slow simmer of American neutrality… but, yeah, that’s enough politics. After some soldierly grumbling, Henry Farnsworth turns briefly to the special subject of so many of his letters to his sister: his writing.

We march, clean rifles, present them and ourselves and our linen and our reserve rations till the grasshopper weighs like a cross and the men grumble and do it so stupidly that it’s worse than the infernal barking of the Sergeant.

We will probably go to the trenches shortly. If so, so much the better; but if we are liberated, I think I shall dash home by the first boat and stay there a month or six weeks and get my “Campaign with the Legion” written, and then try to get back again in the Aviation or Ambulance, or anything that Papa approves. This seems too ideally happy ever to come true—worse than that, I dreamt the whole thing last night, and my dreams never come true…

So a memoir is planned. But now, thinking of the past, young Farnsworth can’t help but look to the future as well:

…I am bored to death and make up for it by dreaming about past and present and future. The last looks bad. I don’t see as any of this campaign has done anything towards that hoped-for day when I shall be capable of earning my own living in the way the Da thinks I ought to. I suppose the poor Da realizes this and it adds to his worries; then, the more I gloom about present and future, the more I dream about Dedham and the happy days there with you and Mother and the Da, and long for another session of it with no worries in the wind.

This is a surprise, and a bit of a giveaway–it’s the letter of an unblooded soldier. Farnsworth looks to the future and–instead of proclaiming that he cannot bear to peer beyond the dangers of the war before him–he remains able to brood on his career prospects après la guerre!

Or should we say it’s the letter of a confident child of the New World, his only worry whether he can slay his father’s baleful influence and still rake in the big bucks, rather than the doom-laden future-shrouding of some languid child of the European twilight? No decadence! Burgeoning strength! Isn’t history silly when it is tossed, like a two-ton shipping pallet onto a paper cup, onto the letter-constructs of an individual?

An undated written to his mother at some point this month explains Farnsworth’s continued preference for the Legion, despite the lack of excitement and the large amount of what later American soldiers would label “chickenshit:” it is strict and exacting, and the other men are often brutes–but they are made into real soldiers–“to the very marrow of their bones.”

Farnsworth then reassures his mother about his “refinement and fears that I may lose it:” although his hands are “rather toughened,” his mind seems intact. Lofty, even:

I have of late been reading Charles Lamb, Pickwick, Plutarch, and a deal of cheap French novels, and “War and Peace” over again. If I see we are to spend winter in the trenches again, am thinking seriously of writing to London for a pair of real waterproof and practical boots and some Vicuna underwear. H. G.Wells’ “Ann Veronica” I found interesting, though it was trite and irritating at bottom. I wonder if you remember it. I wish from time to time you would send me one novel that you find interesting. Books are too heavy to carry when on the move. Naturally either in French or English. The state of the German mind, Plato, or Kant are not necessary for the moment, and I have read Milton, Shakespeare, and Dante.[1]

 

Vera Brittain went to London today to pursue the next step in her wartime career. To remain a probationary nurse at the Devonshire hospital is to linger in a sort of provincial young-ladyhood of the medical world. Real service is in London, with a Voluntary Aid Detachment.

Friday August 13th

Mother & I went to London for the day—and I was very lucky all through, in spite of the unpropitious date…

I found out that if you go to a good V.A.D. they will do all the wire-pulling for you and all you have to do is to volunteer. So I joined this V.A.D. and they will send me a Special Service form which when I have filled it up I shall return to them, volunteering to serve as a V.A.D. for 6 months either at home or abroad, wherever they want to send me. [Her friend] Cora & I asked if it were any good saying where we preferred to go, and if it were any use saying who we wanted to join with when we were sent. She & I of course want to go together, and Stella. The Secretary said she wouldn’t advise us to ask to be sent to any special place as they might keep us much longer and then not send us there in the end, but she said it was almost certain that we could all go together as V.A.D.s are sent out in batches, and she promised to write a note herself to the Commandant, asking if we could be together.

We enquired if there was any likelihood of our going abroad and she said there was a possibility but that it was more probable we should get somewhere in England, as for one thing nurses are more wanted in England just now and, for another, they usually send out abroad people more experienced than we are. Though we should of course prefer to be in London it doesn’t much matter where, we go so long as we go together, and I don’t much mind about not going abroad if I am wanted more in England; the chief point is to do what is needed.

The Secretary told us we aren’t likely to be called up till October as the demand for nurses follows the fighting, and as there has been a lull lately the length of the nursing waiting-list corresponds.[2]

It seems the Secretary of this V.A.D. has a good sense of when the next offensive will take place, and of how it will go.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Letters of Henry Farnsworth, 188-95.
  2. Chronicle of Youth, 232-3.

Donald Hankey is on His Way Home; Henry Farnsworth is Ashamed of Neutrality; Francis Ledwidge Arms for Landing

Donald Hankey is writing today, a century back, from some link in the long chain of aid posts, dressing stations, casualty clearing stations, hospital trains, and base hospitals that make up the medical evacuation system–most likely a base hospital near the coast. His wound, sustained in the recent counter-attack at Hooge, is stable enough to permit movement and yet serious enough to require a long convalescence. Blighty beckons, and thus Hankey will soon become, after T.E. Hulme, one of the first of our writers to experience the ironic reverse of the journey to the front: he is now approaching the rear–slowly, steadily, and painfully–and with each step comes greater ease, and greater safety.

Hankey is looking ahead now, to a time without marching, polishing, or ducking shells: he will recover, then train as an officer. There will be time to write, too, and he now has the authority–the experience–to write a certain sort of piece. He tells his sister of his plans:

August 6, 1915

Dear Hilda,

Thanks awfully for yours, and the handkerchief, etc. My leg is going along splendidly, and I shall probably be in England quite soon. This afternoon I am sitting up in a chair for the first time, and this evening I am going to play auction bridge. I have written two articles with a view to Mr. Strachey, but I don’t know that he will like them. One is on different kinds of courage, and one is called ” Flowers of Flanders,” and is about lots of things, including parcels and religion and love of nature and all that sort of thing. Neither could possibly have been written except by one who had been at the front. I shall be in England so soon that it really isn’t worth while for you to come out. I might be off almost any day now.

Your aff. brother,

Donald Hankey,[1]

 

Francis Ledwidge and the 5th Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers have reached the war zone. Ledwidge’s biographer reconstructs the scene:

On the afternoon of 6 August the S.S. Heroic arrived in Mitylene and berthed beside the Novian. Although the sides and bows of the newcomer had been repainted the same dark grey as the battleships [many of the Inniskillings] recognized her as a former passenger steamer that used to ply between Belfast and Liverpool. But the spruce vessel they remembered was now battle-scarred, her bridge and funnels pierced and dinged.

The men had been told to leave behind them on the Novian everything not essential for their personal needs at the war-front. The order did not prevent them from looking grotesquely overloaded as they filed across the gangway between the two vessels. Every soldier carried in a bulging pack his greatcoat, two blankets and a ground sheet. His haversack was filled with three days’ iron rations of tins of bully beef and bags of biscuits. Draped around his neck and packed into his pouch were two hundred rounds of ammunition. He carried on his person two respirators and a full water-bottle. He also had a rifle and bayonet, an entrenching implement, mess-tins, and either a pick, shovel, or camp-kettle. His pockets were stuffed with writing materials and an assortment of personal impedimenta.

The sun poured on the scene out of a brassy sky; underfoot, the decks were scorching. There was scrambling on board the Heroic as the men pushed and elbowed for the coveted space in the shade of the lifeboats. The ship weighed anchor again and and began to glide towards the harbour entrance. The men were looking their last on the dreamlike scene: still water reflecting motionless shipping; land like a painted back-drop of hills clothed in olive groves, peaceful farms, little villages twinkling in the sun. Once outside the long, narrow passage into the harbour, they encountered a pleasant breeze that tempered the heat.

The sea turned a darker blue, with lively foam-capped waves. When night fell, however, the tropical heat made it impossible to sleep below and the men, pouring with sweat, had to come up again to rest on the closely packed deck where the wind was chilly and the boards sticky with salt dew.[2]

The Inniskillings will not be long on Mytilene. Gallipoli is close by, and every available unit is being poured into the stalled landing zones at Suvla Bay and “Anzac Cove.” Tomorrow they will find their way to the landing craft, and we will take issue with this sort of historical prose: evocative, vivid, and bobbing along innocently unmoored from the specifics of historical experience.

 

While Gallipoli rages toward its conclusion, most of the line in France  has been quiet. Henry Farnsworth‘s letter home today is largely a settling of accounts, personal and political. He and Seeger, fighting for France, are, essentially, foreign adventurers–mercenaries. But they believe in their cause (or in some sort of historical destiny, anyhow) and each will find himself increasingly frustrated that his home nation has delicately avoided choosing sides.

August 6, 1915

Dear Papa:

News from Hottinguer of 330 francs has arrived just now and is more welcome than ever. Many thanks to you and Mother and Ellen and Alfred… Parcels I receive at weird intervals; I think five altogether—three of chocolates and two of cigarettes… The only kick I have about mail is that “Life” stopped coming some time ago—after four or five numbers, in fact. I much enjoyed it, though I could not agree with Mr. Martin’s high opinion of Wilson as President…

As long as the people “stand behind the President,” they will stay where the immediate profit leads. I am, of course, in no position to judge those things, and only splutter a bit because I remember the unwholesome position I was in last August, when there could be no feeling of pride in announcing my nationality. Here people seem well disposed towards Americans and many individuals are doing fine work, but as a Government I am ashamed to say that I really and truly feel that we are contemptible, and that it is Wilson’s talk and shilly-shally that makes us so.

We have an expression over here for the souls who never can take a leap at the Rubicon and yet are fine talkers—here in the Legion, but I shan’t obtrude it on you. I do wish you would write me at some length what you and your friends do think of our attitude.

With much love to you all, Henry[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Letters, 302-3.
  2. Curtayne, Ledwidge, 121.
  3. Letters of Henry Farnsworth, 186-8.