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.”
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.
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.
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
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. This morning romance had fled. Soldiers were practising on bugles and bagpipes at the wood’s edge.
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.