Isaac Rosenberg’s Daughters of War; Francis Ledwidge’s Gods of Greece; Siegfried Sassoon Declares the Death of Youth

Some days we make do with an update and a diary excerpt or two… other days three important poets are writing about their minds and their methods.

Isaac Rosenberg posted a letter to Eddie Marsh today, which probably included a draft of his difficult, sui generis, mythological poem “Daughters of War.” It also contained an attempt to allay the perplexity the poem would cause:

I am now fearfully rushed, but find energy enough to scribble this in the minute I plunder from my work. I believe I can see the obscurities in the ‘Daughters’, but hardly hope to clear them up in France… The first part, the picture of the Daughters dancing and calling to the spirits of the slain before their last ones have ceased among the boughs of the tree of life, I must still work on. In that part obscure the description of the voice of the Daughter I have not made clear, I see; I have tried to suggest the wonderful sound of her voice, spiritual and voluptuous at the same time. The end is an attempt to imagine the severance of all human relationship and the fading away of human love. Later on I will try and work on it, because I think it a pity if the ideas are to be lost for want of work. My ‘Unicorn’ play is stopped because of my increased toil… It is to be a play of terror—terror of hidden things and the fear of the supernatural. But I see no hope of doing the play while out here. I have a way, when I write, to try and put myself in the situation, and I make gestures and grimaces.[1]

Of the play, more anon, I hope. And this almost touching personal detail is a reminder of just how difficult it must be to write poetry in the trenches, especially as a private. Of course he gestures and grimaces–and many writers talk to themselves, at their leisure, in rooms of their own…

As for “Daughters of War,” the poem has been long in gestation–Rosenberg sent an early draft to Gordon Bottomley in December–and it has been growing in power. Like the ancient poets who dreamt Valkyries and Amazons–and like David Jones and his Sweet Sister Death–Rosenberg summons up female embodiments of war’s power.

Space beats the ruddy freedom of their limbs,
Their naked dances with man’s spirit naked
By the root side of the tree of life…

I saw in prophetic gleams
These mighty daughters in their dances
Beckon each soul aghast from its crimson corpse
To mix in their glittering dances :
I heard the mighty daughters’ giant sighs
In sleepless passion for the sons of valour
And envy of the days of flesh,
Barring their love with mortal boughs across–
The mortal boughs, the mortal tree of life.
The old bark burnt with iron wars
They blow to a live flame
To char the young green clays
And reach the occult soul; they have no softer lure,
No softer lure than the savage ways of death.

We were satisfied of our lords the moon and the sun
To take our wage of sleep and bread and warmth–
These maidens came–these strong everliving Amazons,
And in an easy might their wrists
Of night’s sway and noon’s sway the sceptres brake,
Clouding the wild, the soft lustres of our eyes…

 

Next to this wrenching vision, full of sex and death, the melodious prose and harmonious rhymes of Francis Ledwidge seem to come from an entirely different war, a different era. They don’t, of course–they come from the same day. These are very different sensibilities: our two poets in the ranks and out of the working classes share very little else than those three facts of their identity.

Ledwidge wrote another letter to the prominent writer Katherine Tynan today, a century back, and it begins with a strange confusion.

19.6.17

This is my birthday. I am spending it in a little red town in an orchard.

Actually, it is not his birthday. Which goes a longer way to show one of the larger cultural and social gaps among our writers than a ream of commentary about Ledwidge’s rural roots or Lord Dunsany‘s reflexive condescension towards his Irish “peasant” protégé. It seems that birthdays were little regarded in rural County Meath a century and another score of years back, and even when he enlisted Ledwidge did not know the date of his birth. His mother, flustered, confused his and his brother Joe’s, or so the story goes. Our Frank Ledwidge was born on the 19th, but of August–his twenties have two months left to run.

Again I think of how this sort of confusion might have arisen in Rosenberg’s family too, with an absent father and Yiddish-speaking mother, or how Ledwidge and his surviving siblings might have shared, like Rosenberg and his brother, the “family suit.” But for such similarities there are more striking differences. Rosenberg is a child of the London slums. And Ledwidge?[2]

There is a lovely valley just below me, and a river that goes gobbling down the fields, like turkeys coming home in Ireland… I was down here earlier in the spring, when all the valley wore its confirmation dress, and was glad to return again in the sober moments of June. Although I have a conventional residence I sleep out in the orchard, and every morning a cuckoo comes to a tree quite close, and calls out his name with a clear voice above the rest of the morning’s song, like a tender stop heard above the lower keys in a beautiful organ…

If you go to Tara, go to Rath-na-Ri and look all around you from the hills of Drumcondrath in the north to the plains of Enfield in the south, where Allan Bog begins, and remember me to every hill and wood and ruin, for my heart is there. If it is a clear day you will see Slane Hill blue and distant. Say I will come back again surely, and maybe you will hear pipes in the grass or a fairy horn and the hounds of Finn…

Ledwidge also enclosed three new poems, “The Find,” “Stanley Hill,” and “The Old Gods:”

I thought the old gods still in Greece
Making the little fates of man,
So in a secret place of Peace
I prayed as but a poet can:

And all my prayer went crying faint
Around Parnassus’ cloudy height,
And found no ear for my complaint,
And back unanswered came at night.

Ah, foolish that I was to heed
The voice of folly, or presume
To find the old gods in my need,
So far from A. E.’s little room.[3]

 

Siegfried Sassoon has not written in his diary since beginning to work on his “declaration.” Today, a century back, he is very much still in declaration mode, railing angrily at the waste of the war and the evil cynicism of those who prolong it.

June 19

I wish I could believe that Ancient War History justifies the indefinite prolongation of this war. The Jingos define it as ‘an enormous quarrel between incompatible spirits and destinies, in which one or the other must succumb’. But the men who write these manifestos do not truly know what useless suffering the war inflicts.

And the ancient wars on which they base their arguments did not involve such huge sacrifices as the next two or three years will demand of Europe, if this war is to be carried on to a knock-out result. Our peace-terms remain the same, ‘the destruction of Kaiserism and Prussianism’. I don’t know what aims this destruction represents.

I only know, and declare from the depths of my agony, that these empty words… mean the destruction of Youth. They mean the whole torment of waste and despair which people refuse to acknowledge or to face; from month to month they dupe themselves with hopes that ‘the war will end this year’.

And the Army is dumb. The Army goes on with its bitter tasks. The ruling classes do all the talking. And their words
convince no one but the crowds who are their dupes.

The soldiers who return home seem to be stunned by the things they have endured. They are willingly entrapped by the silent conspiracy against them. They have come back to life from the door of death, and the world is good to enjoy. They vaguely know that it is ‘bad form’ to hurt people’s feelings by telling the truth about the war…

The diary continues, wandering into violent territory as Sassoon decries the bloodthirstiness of women and imagines a mob awakening to “lynch” the “dictator” who has plunged it into war.

The soldiers are fooled by the popular assumption that they are all heroes. They have a part to play, a mask to wear. They are allowed to assume a pride of superiority to the mere civilian. Are there no heroes among the civilians, men and women alike?

Of the elderly male population I can hardly trust myself to speak. Their frame of mind is, in the majority of cases, intolerable. They glory in senseless invective against the enemy… They regard the progress of the war like a game of chess, cackling about ‘attrition,’ and ‘wastage of man-power’, and ‘civilisation at stake’. In every class of society there are old men like ghouls, insatiable in their desire for slaughter, impenetrable in their ignorance.

Soldiers conceal their hatred of the war.
Civilians conceal their liking for it…[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Works, 375; Moorcroft Wilson, Isaac Rosenberg, 359-61.
  2. See Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 183.
  3. The Years of the Shadow, 294-6.
  4. Diaries, 175-6.

Wilfred Owen Goes Nowhere; A Dire Change for Victor Richardson

As the dust of Messines–or rather the thousands of upheaved tons of earth–settles, we go back to London. A week ago Vera Brittain returned to spend her time with the terribly wounded Victor Richardson, whom she intends to marry.

Only a week later–the day after a strange early morning shock like an earthquake had shaken southern England with its sinister intimation of the terrific mine-explosion at Messines Ridge–my mother and I went to Chelsea to find the usually cheerful, encouraging Matron with a face grown suddenly grave and personal. There was an unexpected change, she said, in Victor that morning. He had told his nurse that during the night something had “clicked” in his head, like a miniature explosion; since then he had gradually grown vaguer and stranger… She thought that perhaps it wold be wise to send for his people.

After a period of delirium, Victor returns to consciousness later in the afternoon, but Vera is not reassured.

So much human wreckage had passed through my hands, but this . . . well, this was different.

‘Tah dear Tah!’ I whispered, in sudden pitying anguish, and I took his fingers in mien and caressed and kissed them as though he had been a child. Suddenly strong, he gripped my hand, pressed it against his mouth and kissed it convulsively in return. His fingers, I noticed, were damp, and his lips very cold.[1]

Victor’s family are summoned, and hurry to visit him in the hospital. Afterward, with Victor seeming to stabilize, they come to stay with the Brittains at their flat in Kensington.

 

And in France, Wilfred Owen continues in limbo. His wounds are psychological, and perhaps not severe enough to merit a return to blighty. Two days ago he had essayed a jokey list-letter to his mother, thus forming a crucial literary bridge between those odd questionnaires of Proust’s days and the plague of internet listicles of the early 21st century.

6 June 1917 41st Stationary Hospital

Dearest Mother,

I go down today. Where to?—Nobody knows. May be in the Hosp. Train for days.

Health: quite restored.
Mood: highest variety of jinks.
Weather: sub-tropical.
Time: 11 a.m.
Appearance: sun-boiled lobster.
Hair: 8% Grey.
Cash in hand: 5 francs.
Size of Socks: same as previous consignment.
Sole Complaints: Nostalgia
Mosquito Bites
Last Book Read: A picked Company by Belloc.
Clothing: sparse, almost faun.
Religion: Primitive Christian.
Aim in War: Extinction of Militarism beginning with Prussian.
Aim in Life: Pearls before Swine.
Medicine: Iron
Nerve: Iron—(over?-) wrought.
Favourite Metal: Silver.
Favourite Colour: Sky-violet.
Favourite Drink: Natural Lemon Juice.
Favourite Animal: Children…

And today, a century back, he confirmed the inevitable disappointment of yet another attempted move.

8 June [1917] 41st Stationary Hosp.

Dearest Mother,

Two days ago we started forth in motors for the Railhead: The Train was there, but no accommodation for Officers. The O.C. Train a minute doctor, with many papers and much pince-nez, refused to let us board: especially as a Major who was with us expressed himself thus: ‘Aw I decline. I ebsolutely decline, to travel in a coach where there are—haw—Men!’

…It was slightly too hot that afternoon: they put some twenty Germans into this sumptuous train, and left us stamping on the platform: some indeed lying on stretchers in blankets under the staring sun. When we got back to the Hospital we were.the objects of some very ungratifying applause from the unlucky ones left behind. I am still on the List, & the thing may come off more successfully tomorrow or on Monday.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Testament of Youth, 356-7.
  2. Collected Letters, 467-8.

Vera Brittain and the Troop Train, then London and the War Unreal; A Disastrous Day for the Second Royal Welch

Vera Brittain‘s homeward journey has been, for the last few days, something like a maniacally condensed version of the Grand Tour. But she left Paris late last night; and today, a century back, she is back in the war.

May 27th

Woke up at 5.0 when train stopped at Amiens. Seething crowd of British and French officers and soldiers, most of them in a trench-state. Thought of Roland, Edward and Geoffrey as having been here; don’t think Victor ever was. Felt very near the war…

Brittain and the young nurses in the Red Cross train are cheered by young British troops, headed for the front–an experience which will shortly give rise to a poem:

The Troop Train

(France, 1917)

As we came down from Amiens,
And they went up the line,
They waved their careless hands to us,
And cheered the Red Cross sign.

And often I have wondered since,
Repicturing that train,
How many of those laughing souls
Came down the line again.

 

A predictable–which is to say irresistible–spark for the Romantic imagination. Or the realist, really–what else is there to think of, knowing what she knows and having seen what she has seen of soldiers’ bodies, as she passes so briefly through the central rail junction of the British Western Front?

A few hours later, after detraining and embarking in Boulogne, she is disorientingly far from the war once again:

…The white cliffs seemed to appear very quickly; it seemed like a dream to be seeing them again, or else a dream that I had ever left them…

One more quick train and she was in her parents’ new London flat by supper-time.

…pausing only to learn that Victor was still alive and still progressing, I threw off my dilapidated garments and jumped into a hot bath…

After supper I settled down luxuriously to smoke–a new habit originally acquired as a means of defence against the insect life in Malta–and to talk to my father about the hazards and adventures of my journey home. My parents took a gratifying pleasure in my assumption of worldly wisdom and the sophistication of the lighted cigarette…

Sitting before the open French windows of the big drawing-room, I looked out upon the peaceful, darkening square with a sense of unbelievable repose. Between the flats and the turmoil of London lay a long unspoilt area of wooded parkland; the great trees stretched eastward as far as I could see. Hidden by the cool green of their new spring foliage, innumerable birds twittered softly on the topmost branches. The War with its guns and submarines, its death and grief and cruel mutilations, might have been as innocuous and unreal as time and the smooth, patriotic selections of school history-books had made the Napoleonic campaigns of a century ago.[1]

A challenge to literature, then… and to the history-book-compilers of the future.

And naturally I can’t resist picking up on the “century ago.” So, a century from Waterloo to the Western Front–how much progress have we made? Since this whole project is, in a sense, an attempt to address the broader question of writing about war, it doesn’t make much sense to attempt an answer here. And on the narrower question of history textbooks I have little to add. The average American school child learns precious little about World War One, given the shorter participation of the United States and the war’s location in between the Civil War (about which the American schoolchild may still learn lies and obfuscations, especially about the racial terror of its aftermath) and the ever-fascinating and morally unambiguous Second World War.

Still, it is surely correct to say that the history books are aware that making war “innocuous” is a disservice to, among other capitalizable abstractions, History, Humanity, and Truth, and that, compared to the books of a century back, there is less knee-jerk glorification of all things warlike and far more attention to the human costs of war. And it is also correct to say that this has something to do with the efforts of Vera Brittain, Siegfried Sassoon and the rest…

But are we doing well enough? Will any aged eminences send satisfactory praise for our rendering of all that is cruel and despicable about what we have done in the past?

Well, well. But Vera Brittain didn’t come home to muse on the ironic dislocations of physical and temporal proximity–she came home to help her family, and to be with Victor. Visiting hours begin tomorrow.

 

That troop train was too far from the front–by a day’s military logistics or so–for the Tommies waving to the Red Cross nurses to be thrown into the meat grinder today. So it’s a poetic near-miss, as it were, for a crossing of the paths of Vera Brittain and the Second Royal Welch Fusiliers, who were already at the front and bound for the offensive, today, on a stubborn sector of the Hindenburg Line.

Siegfried Sassoon‘s day, though he can’t know it, is nevertheless wracked by a particularly vicious irony of proximity. He is in green and pleasant environs, not only unspoilt by the war but far from any direct reminders of it. And not so very far away, many of his comrades are being shot down in another futile attack.

It was on 1.55 on what was a beautiful, sunny Whitsun in Picardie, with “the fallow” of No Man’s Land “gay with yellow and gold,” that the barrage opened up. The assault was impossibly well-named for a descent from pastoral sweetness into military disaster: A and C companies of the 2nd Royal Welch Fusiliers attacked from “Plum Lane” toward a section of “Tunnel Trench.”

C Company’s commander, T.R. Conning, led the assault. He “chaffed the stiff-limbed and the laggards, and gave some of them a hand to climb out.” But the wire was thicker than expected and barrage lifted too quickly–and without doing significant damage to the Germans in Tunnel Trench or the machine guns supporting them. Within minutes, 165 men of the 2nd Royal Welch were hit. About half of these were killed, and ten of the 11 officers who had gone over the top were casualties. The dead included both Conning and E.L. Orme (“Dunning” and “Ormand” in the memoir), both particular friends of Siegfried Sassoon.[2]

Sassoon is in Sussex, lolling uneasily about Chapelwood Manor, and thus in ignorance of the planned attack.

There were times when I felt perversely indignant at the “cushiness” of my convalescent existence. These reactions were mostly caused by the few letters which came to me from the front. One of Joe Dottrell’s hastily pencilled notes could make me unreasonably hostile… and inarticulately unfriendly.

Dottrell/Cottrell, the quartermaster, had written to Sassoon recently about the death of “Young Brock,” i.e. Lt. Brocklebank, his hunting friend, and he will shortly write again about today’s slaughter, spurring a deeper bitterness with his details of this “hopeless failure” and its cost.[3]

For Frank Richards–who adds the detail, unreported in Dunn’s chronicle, that Dr. Dunn himself spent the afternoon “wandering about No Man’s Land” under fire,aiding the wounded–this “disastrous day for all concerned” provided a retrospective irony rather than a simultaneous one. Captain Radford, the only officer in the attack still alive and unwounded, saw Richards that evening and remarked “Well, Richards, only you, Sergeant Owens and I are left out of that tug-of-war team of the day before yesterday.”[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Testament of Youth, 353-4.
  2. Dunn, The War the infantry Knew, 349-54.
  3. Complete Memoirs of George Sherston, 468.
  4. It was actually three days earlier, an error of Richards' memory. Old Soldiers Never Die, 238.

Richard Aldington’s Glad Young April Day; Siegfried Sassoon, Three Fellows, and a Four-Footed Friend, the Morning After; Ivor Gurney on Morale; Edward Thomas’s Calendrical Heresy

This is going to be a cruel month. We’ll begin with a “month poem” from one of our writers who will be on the outskirts of the worst fighting. Others will be in it: the Battle of Arras, the first intense fighting since the Somme petered out in November, is due in only a week.

I

When I rose up in the morning
In a ruined town in France,
I heard the sparrows twitter
In gardens bare and grey
And watched the sunbeams dance.

O glad young April day!

II

When I lie down this evening
In a damp cellar of France
I’ll hear the big guns booming
By bare and blasted lanes,
And watch the shrapnel dance.

O wild sad April rains!

Richard Aldington[1]

 

For Siegfried Sassoon, the month began with nothing more cruel than a hangover and a goat. Today is the last day in rest billets at the unlovely Camp 13 for the 2nd Royal Welsh, and their unwilling replacement officer is beginning to warm to his fellows.

Last night Sassoon and three comrades had gone to Amiens for a bath and a good dinner at the Godbert—-“a cheerful experience, anyhow.” This morning they[2] posed with the regimental mascot (at right). Sassoon, at right seems to have maintained his good cheer, despite having consumed

2 John Collins   1 Japanese ditto.   1 Oyster cocktail

1 Sherry and Bitters.   Pommard Eclatante, trois verres.

1 Benedictine.

In spite of hankerings for “the good old 1st Battalion…” I was now beginning to identify myself with the equally “good old 2nd Battalion.”[3]

 

Ivor Gurney, still writing regularly to Marion Scott to discuss the editing of his poetry, is also maintaining relatively good spirits.

1 April 1917

My Dear Friend: This is the right day for such a business, if it were not so bitter, and surely a fest-day should not be so dull? Well, here it is, and fatigues are over, and this queer billet echoes and reechoes with the sound of tin whistles and mouth organs, just issued; and the lilt of some Scottish tunes our crack players are rollicking through make life a little alive and worth living…

But it is not an easy life, nor is the task of maintaining morale several years into a frustrated and stagnated war a light one. Exhaustion weighs on the mind as well as the body.

We have not had so bad a time lately, nothing like trench conditions, at any rate, though hard work and not enough food (or at any rate, food not seeming enough) have made us all weak, and upset our insides. I should put this down to the peculiarities of my own stupid constitution, did not men of farming and similar trades also complain. I believe a great deal is due to the dulness of the life, which makes every one look to meals more than ordinary; but anyway they are bound to work us; it being as certain as anything that only going keeps us going. We should all relapse into neurasthenia were we not driven. Considering everything, especially the callousness to certain things such a life must develop, the men are marvellously good to one another, and surely much finer than ever they were, bless em…

The baccy parcel arived last night, and we were all most grateful; everybody was short or bankrupt; and the cigar things were most grateful to us stranded wretches. (They are singing “Annie Laurie”. O the joy of it!)

I fear I can send you no money yet, but if you would send the paper covered National Song Book, and the small, selected Browning in Walter Scotts edition they would be most useful. The latter is 1/6 I believe. I believe “The Spirit of Man” is sucked dry for me, and my thirst for good verse, and short, is very strong.

Marion Scott had also reported to Gurney on a recent performance of his songs. Without access to a piano in the trenches (pace Henry Williamson and his two pianos–but those were booby trapped anyway) he has turned from musical composition to verse. But now, amidst the ruins of the German retreat, Gurney consoles himself with his own songs.

The day has been springlike on the whole, and last nights sky was gloriously tragic; I sang “In Flanders” to myself, facing the West, alone in a lately ruined house, spoiled by that unutterable thoroughness of the German destruction; and was somewhat comforted thereby. That has all been said for me in “In Flanders”…

But for Gurney, mad north by the west country, “In Flanders” can always mean “In Gloucestershire.”

The scene of “In Flanders” is obviously Coopers Hill. O times! O saisons, O chateaux!

Goodbye for now: Your sincere friend Ivor Gurney[4]

 

Edward Thomas, too, begins the month in relative ease, quiet, and lengthy letter-writing.

…a beautiful serene clear morning with larks at 5.15 and blackbirds at 6… All day sat writing letters to Helen, Father and Mother by the fire and censoring men’s letters etc…[5]

To Helen, first, with a plain but absorbing tale of his night’s doings:

Arras, 1 April 1917

Dearest,

Now the night is over I will tell you all about it before I go to bed, if I do go! I feel so cheerful for several reasons of which I will give you two. Firstly, I found a letter from you waiting for me when I returned at 7 a.m. Secondly, I found the car waiting for me as soon as I was clear of B., which was most cheering to a tired and overladen officer and four telephonists still more overladen.

Well, I didn’t have much of the fire. I just waited to hear that the working party was only going to carry up the stuff, which they did, and to do the work today or some other time soon. I had to decide to let them carry the heavy stuff (too heavy for them to carry through a sticky trench) along the crest which was being swept by machine guns from time to time. Which they did and luckily came to no harm. I went off to the cellar, leaving two telephonists to take their instrument off the wire and see that the wire on to the cellar was all right. The cellar was full of smoke, except the lowest twofeet of it, so that we (the two other telephonists and I) had to crouch or lie. Then shells began to fall in the direction of the O.P. In two hours the other telephonists had not arrived. I thought they had lost their way in the moonlight among the wire and ruins andtrenches of B. or had been wounded—or perhaps the working party had had a casualty. So I sent back the other two telephonists to see if they had left the O.P. I had thought myself rather clever—or rather I was very much relieved—to find my way in the moonlight.

Then, later, after learning that the lines are cut,

…I dozed for one hour or two, dreaming of being court-martialled, till up I got and had a quiet journey. The moon had gone and left all the stars and not a cloud. I was sure of my way by the Plough. But it was dirty and tiring, for I had on vest | shirt | two waistcoats | tunic | one Tommy’s leather waistcoat | British warm | and waterproof.

Only two or three shells came over and I found the telephonists dozing and there in a clay corner we dozed and smoked till daybreak. More heavy shells arrived well away from us. They moan and then savagely stop moaning as they strike the ground with a flap. They are 5.9s or Five Nines as we call them.—I had not been wanted on the telephone so all is well. Day broke clear and white and a lark rose at 5.15. Blackbirds began to sing at 6 and a yellowhammer. I got up and slopped through the trench and looked at the view over to the Hun, a perfect simple view of three ridges, with a village and line of trees on the first, a clump on the second and clumps and lines on the furthest, all looking almost purple and brown like heather in the dawn. Easter Sunday—a lovely clear
high dawn.

Strangely, it is not Easter at all. Thomas is, somehow, off by a week in terms of the liturgical calendar. He is not a religious man–in fact he is more or less and atheist, or rather a quiet but firm non-believer–but it’s still rather odd that he’s made this mistake. Wouldn’t the battery have special arrangements for church parade? Perhaps not.

He’s a quite fellow, but surely not so insular that he won’t notice the mistake or be put right by one of his fellow officers.

After more description of the end of his all-night duty, Thomas brings the letter slowly to a close.

Now everybody has breakfasted. There has been a shower and the sun has returned but among the clouds. I am not very sleepy yet, but just enjoying having nothing to do which is supposed to be the privilege of the day after the O.P.—that is in these peaceful days. You are having a fine Easter, I hope, as we are, though not a warm one yet. I like hearing of your days with Baba and Bronwen and Joy, and of Mervyn’s ride with Ernest, and intended ride to
Jesse’s…

Rubin has set the gramophone to ‘In Cellar Cool’. But everything, gramophone or not, out here forbids memories such as you have been writing. Memories I have but they are mixed up with my thoughts and feelings in B. or when I hear the blackbirds or when the old dog bangs the table leg with his tail or lies with his brains wasting in his skull. You must not therefore expect me to say anything outright. It is not my way, is it?

No, I’m sure she doesn’t. But surely she might wish it…

Now I must write and remind Mother she has sent only the inessential part of my mapcase, the waterproof cover for it.

A happy Easter! Goodbye

Edwy

The letter to his mother is less fulsome–perhaps it is more dutiful, perhaps he wrote to Helen in the jittering excitement of having survived his long night’s journey and is now “crashing”–but it does go beyond the merely parcel-related to gently take up two opposed themes: the destruction of war, and the coming of spring flowers.

The day has kept fine on the whole and if it were a little warmer it would be good Easter weather, fresh, and bright. Only I feel cold after sitting out all night as stout as a market woman with so many clothes on. My servant is washing for me out in the yard and the clothes are blowing on the line just beside the motor car which shines in the sun. The aeroplanes are buzzing overhead and as I sit by an open wood fire it is more like a scene in a small country inn at home than anything else except that one of our guns rattles all the windows.every now and then. We get good fires here with the boards and beams of ruined houses all round us. The servants will bum anything if you let them and I have just been lecturing mine on the evil of burning things that still serve the purpose for which they were made. The waste is indescribable. It would be interesting to compare the way the Germans spend their substance. The deep dug-outs they make are far beyond ours in strength and workmanship. We make them just as much as they do but we make wretched things skimped in work and materials so far as I have seen. The thing that is to shelter us in the battle is being made now in a hurry anyhow without any expert advice except that of a thatcher from Norfolk.

I am glad you had some violets. I have not seen any, nor primroses, nor celandines, not even a dandelion . . . It will be nice to have the kind of Easter weather it is good to sow seeds in. Nice for us, too. Goodbye.Ever your loving son

Edwy[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. I am pretty sure--but by no means entirely certain--that the inspirational April is this year, a century back.
  2. Sassoon writes that "Binge Owen" accompanied him, Greaves, and Conning; but the officer in the center of the picture is Coster, not Owen.
  3. Diaries, 146-7. The War the Infantry Knew, 307-8.
  4. War Letters, 150-1.
  5. War Diary (Childhood), 174.
  6. Selected Letters, 157-60.

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.

Ivor Gurney Longs for England–and Germany; Henry Williamson is All Over the Place

Henry Williamson writes a long and exceptionally rambling letter to his mother today, a century back. Some excerpts:

Dear Mum,

Excuse this bad writing, but I’ve been hit again, ever so slightly in the right thumb, so I’ve been wounded twice in this little campaign. It was a crump that burst near me and killed my horse & dented my hat, but didn’t hit me except in the thumb, & has only caused a little cut 1 inch long on the inside of the bone. My arm is quite OK now & neither is bad enough for hospital…

We are as far behind at present as you are from Whitefoot Lane & when we go in I stop behind with the mules & go up over shell plastered roads with the waggons. I have been on the gun bit owing to shellshock & nervous exhaustion (10 days fighting is no joke for anyone…)

I can tell you its nice to be here–altho the Ger has cut down trees, blown up each house, poisoned wells, etc etc etc… most of his stoves were done in, but mine wasn’t, but a nice little egg bomb was up the chimney ready for the first fire!! I’ve kept it as a souvenir. He had a piano or two down his dugouts, each one connected to a mine!!!

…Well, am just going to have tea, so will close. Thanks for books & pyjamas & toffee. Can you manage to send me a large cake for the mess… & a box or two of biscuits or shortbreads… Please send Motor Cycling & Motor Cycle & an occasional Daily Mail…

Will you send some Bachelor buttons and take my tunic to the CSSA & have an open collar put in instead of that stand up one and tell them to let it out down the back… Dont forget as I  may be home soon for a staff job…

Love to all, Harry.[1]

To review:

  1. A second scratch for Lt. Williamson is much discussed. There is no sense that he might want to omit any mention of–let alone self-mockingly downplay–such a minor injury.
  2. He is well, but he also considers himself shell-shocked–not concussed per se, but suffering from the neurological and/or psychological aftereffects of prolonged exposure to artillery. This is certainly possible, but this is very much the boy who cried wolf.
  3. He has a comfy dugout, despite or because of his suspiciously complete knowledge of German booby traps. But s a transport officer in the Machine Gun Corps, he would not be likely to be the first or second or tenth officer to check a certain spot for booby-traps. Finding them as he claims to have done is not impossible, but it’s not likely.
  4. He wears his pyjamas every night, which points more to the comfy than the shocking aspects of working in support of more advanced troops.
  5. He is in perpetual need of motoring mags and biscuits.
  6. And lastly, with those tailoring instructions, we are reminded that he is both dandified and delusional. It has hardly been a fortnight since Williamson was called on the carpet, with a hangover, accused of basic incompetence, and left convinced he would be fired from his relatively safe job with the transport. This tailoring assignment for poor old mum is a rank fantasy… He is not getting a staff appointment…

 

Ivor Gurney, humble private and laborer, has bigger things on his mind: battle draws near, as does the publication of his first book of verse. For once he is the more focused of our daily selection of letter-writers.

29 March 1917

My Dear Friend: It is too dangerous to move towards my valise, where your letter lies, there being too many men looking for seats, and the fire being too comfortable…

This, it would seem, is Gurney’s excuse for conducting only a general–and rather grumpy–discussion of his poetry. Which we’ll skip…

Well what thundering interesting things are happening now! O if I but knew German! Lots of newspapers, some quite late have come my way; and a book of short stories about Military Life—supposed to be humorous “Simpllicimus” “Berliner Tageblatt” etc etc. There is no room for souvenirs, as the opportunities for getting them later will probably be only too numerous. You cannot imagine the amount of work behind his lines; he must have worked very hard…

Let’s compare our two writers.

Henry Williamson is a fanciful youth, a dyed-in-the-wool spinner of tales, and so the German lines become a cheerfully Gothic obstacle course, full of wired-up pianos which don’t trouble him in the least. He is also, incredibly, a full lieutenant in charge of a number of grown men, solely responsible for keeping other grown men supplied with the necessary ammunition.

Ivor Gurney, five years older, is a private whose battalion has worked for months as ready labor for the engineers. Not only is he unable to lard his letters with tall tales (the censor would know, and he would be embarrassed) but he can neither load up on souvenirs nor fail to notice the salient fact about the German lines: these trenches and dugouts–the ones abandoned for a better-sited line fortified completely and at leisure–are still much better than the British lines he has worked so hard to improve.

Nor is he likely to hate or disrespect his enemy. Gurney has not been in a major battle, nor has he suffered the very worst of attritional trench-holding. But he is nearing a full year in France, and few of our writers could claim as complete an identification with the “Tommy” experience. He sees the Germans opposite as fellow front-fighters, rather than enemies.

Our mails arrive very well still. I hope they will continue to bring your letters, though my replies may be short and infrequent. I enclose something, which looks like a complete description of a German private but dont know. I found also about a dozen p[ost]c[ards]s, one of Nuremburg, which provoked sadness that we must never visit Germany. Anyway the place I want to visit now is Blighty. “Blighty is the place for me” as the song says. Goodbye, Good health and Good luck:

Your sincere Friend Ivor Gurney[2]

A melancholy souvenir.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 104-5.
  2. War Letters, 146-147.

Siegfried Sassoon Pines for Simplicity; Edmund Blunden on the March

A quieter day, today, with just two poets on the move. Or one: Siegfried Sassoon is still stuck in camp in Rouen, quarantined–though apparently not too closely–with the measles.

What sensitive young man doesn’t wish, at times, to suffer less in his soul, to be more like the dumb beasts? Ah, but to take one’s pretty, simple friend as the epitome of such animal contentment is… something that most sensitive not-quite-so-young men would find, on second thought, perhaps a bit condescending…

February 24

To-night returning from my twilight walk, among the glooming pines with the young thin moon and a few stars overhead, suddenly I felt an intense craving for simplicity; or even for stupidity. Just to be a good boy (like Bobbie Hanmer) and to have done with this itch to pull everything to shreds. For there is something very alluring in that Sunday-evening peacefulness of heart, where a church-bell rings, and the landscape twinkles with cottage-lights.

Bobbie Hanmer can kneel down every night and say his simple prayers to nothing, and fall asleep content to die or lose an arm or a leg for king and country. For him all England’s wars are Holy. His smooth head is no more perplexed with problems than a robin in a hedgerow. He cocks his bright eye at you like a bird, bless him. To-night I felt l should like to be the same: and all my unhappiness and discontent and hatred of war and contempt for the mean ways of men and women and myself seemed so easy to put away and forget: my morbid heresies
seethed like a lot of evil books that one might push into a dark shelf to gather dust. And even the ranks of solemn, brooding pines took on a sort of tenderness, and there was homeliness in the lights of the camp; and I couldn’t hear a bugle anywhere.

I think this craving for something homely is a feeling that overcomes all others out here; even my pseudo-cynical heart is beginning to be filled by it. I am not so angry with the world as I was a week ago. Soon I shall be utterly domestic, asking no more than a fireside and a book by Trollope, and the parson in to supper.[1]

 

We’ll see. The only other bit I have is a passage from Edmund Blunden that matches up with his battalion’s movements for today. It’s a quick piece of prose, and it reminds us of something that, reading so much in these books, I often forget: sometimes they are written not for posterity or latter-day historians or war-book-readers, but for other men who were there, and once knew each step of these marches…

With a sudden surprise order to return to the trenches these, affectionate times came to an end. We marched that great march of the British from Poperinghe, past hop-gardens and estaminets, past shattered estaminets and withered fields and battery shelters and hearths dripping with rain to that screened corner by Ypres Asylum, thence turning along Posthoornstraat into Kruisstraat, a suburb of Ypres where, we heard, the inhabitants had longest lingered on and sold wines against the fates.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 135-6.
  2. Undertones of War, 146-7.

Edward Thomas in Arras (and Wales); Siegfried Sassoon in Quarantine; Charles Moncrieff in Church; David Jones in Fragments; Rowland Feilding in Expectation of Disaster

There is anticlimax, and then there is anticlimax. Siegfried Sassoon, after months of girding himself for the return to battle, arrived at the base camp in Rouen two days ago, only to witness misery, mourning, and estrangement. Once he found his billet things hardly improved–he ignored his fellow officers and read Hardy and Chaucer. At least he was on his way to his battalion… until today, a century back, when he was sent to the hospital with the measles. The German measles…

 

One literary subaltern into hospital in a French cathedral town; another almost out: Charles Scott Moncrieff, who has seen more of the war than Sassoon, has not shown the same inclination toward protest or despair. With only intermittent letters it’s hard to guess at the roots of a man’s personality. But one readily available explanation is his faith:

I got away from Hospital on Sunday morning, and heard Mass at the Cathedral. There was a very small congregation, mostly grouped round the sides of the choir. It was bitterly cold, but we all sang lustily. . .[1]

 

Carreg Cennin

Edward Thomas has been writing briefly but faithfully in his “War Diary” since arriving in France. It contains his movements, his thoughts, the petty annoyances of his fellows, the sage sayings of his batman, a record of letters sent and received, and–best of all–compressed observations, notebook jottings for future poems. (Thomas, barely two years a poet, has from the very beginning been in the habit of reworking his observations into poems, often long after they were noted down.)

Today, there is a lovely bit, taking an artilleryman’s day on the Western Front and overlaying it with old rambles in Wales. In the poet’s mind, one medieval ruin evokes another, and we might see the old ruin shading into Faerie, while the recently smashed old building stands for the horrors of modern war.

Arras Town Hall

Afternoon to Arras–Town Hall like Carreg Cennin. Beautiful small white square empty. Top storey of high house ruined cloth armchair and a garment across it left after shell arrived. Car to Mendicourt and back by light of star shells…[2]

What will the poet make of such things?

 

Speaking of London-born, Welsh descended, Wales-loving poets, David Jones wrote a letter to a friend today, a century back. The letter made its way to Jones’s father, who copied a passage from it and carried the quotation around with him. It’s the only bit from Jones’s letters home that remains:

I am glad you called to see my people. I often wondered how they really took the war. I thought I knew what it was to love them before I left home — but I know now in truth… At any rate I shall see you in what our fathers called “the green fields of AvalIon’.

Like so many other soldiers, Jones was unable to save the letters he received at the front–but he, too, would record a short scrap from a letter: his mother once wrote “Really, David, the spelling in your last letter was a disgrace to the family–a child of four would do better.’’[3]

 

Finally, today, Rowland Feilding has grim news–more for himself than for his wife, Edith. There is a raid planned for tomorrow. And, he fears, it is not planned well. You can’t judge a leader from his letters, but Feilding makes both a fetish of complete honesty in these letters to his wife and an honest attempt at living up to that ideal. He feels he has no choice but to play his role, and it is tearing him up, so he writes home for solace. One could almost miss the fact that he is not likely to suffer in his own body the effects of this needless and ill-planned assault. He is heartbroken that he will have to send his men into such a thing.

February 18, 1917. “Doctor’s House,” Kemmel.

It is late at night, and at half-past three to-morrow morning we set off on a rather desperate enterprise, for the proper conditions for which we have been waiting many weeks; so long, in fact, that the programme has begun to
lose its bite.

The intention is to raid the enemy at three points in daylight, in a fog, or, failing a fog, under cover of a smoke cloud, without preliminary bombardment.

The weather so far has been entirely and persistently inappropriate to our purpose. The days have been clear and sunny; the nights bright with stars; and the wind has blown from the east into our faces, so that an artificial fog has been out of the question. Hence the long delay. To-night it seems that we may have the conditions we have wished for.

I am not entirely satisfied with the arrangements. First, Roche, the Trench-Mortar Officer, in whom I have complete faith, was sent away on a fortnight’s course, for a rest—much against his own will as well as mine—before the cutting of the enemy’s wire, which had been entrusted to the medium mortars, was anything like completed; and without him I do not quite trust the rest, either to make the necessary gaps, or to keep them open, when made, against the enemy’s repair work.

Secondly, I have lost two of the principal officers whom I had detailed for the raid—both leaders of assaulting parties; one wounded; the other away on an officer’s course (the curse, often, of us Battalion Commanders, since we have no option in the matter, and are obliged to send away officers when called for, however little we can spare them). I have applied for this officer back again, and have been refused him. Consequently, though the raid has been well practised over a replica of the German trench which I have had prepared behind our line, the training of these two important adjuncts has been thrown away.

These are bitter ironies of modern war. This raid has no strategic purpose, but it is necessarily conducted by a unit that lives under the impersonal thumb of the a bureaucracy created by the needs of grand strategy and an industrial war of attrition. They practice, good–but a surprise assault must depend to a great degree on leadership (in the simple old sense of the word), and the same bureaucracy that requires the raid strips the commander of the men he needs. One hand gins up courses for the long haul while another hurls a unit forward in hope of small local advantage.

Finally, a one-minute’s intense lightning Stokes mortar bombardment which I asked for at Zero has been vetoed, Pereira’s view being that this would alarm the Germans in the front line and bring them to their posts. It would doubtless bring him to his post, but he is apt to forget, I think, that all men are not like himself.

However, for better or worse, we tackle the job tomorrow morning, and all preparations having been completed in so far as is feasible under the circumstances, we have been having a game of Bridge; and now I am off for a few hours’ sleep before starting.[4]

Feilding will be too busy tomorrow, in any case, to write.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 125.
  2. War Diary (Childhood), 163.
  3. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 150.
  4. War Letters to a Wife, 151-2.

J.R. Ackerley Bids His Brother Farewell; The Afterlife of Rupert Brooke XVI: Ivor Gurney and the Protest of the Physical Against the Exalted Spiritual; Charles Scott Moncrieff in Amiens; Edwin Vaughan in the Front Line

It’s another one of those unexpectedly bountiful days in which a central writer is busily writing important poems while other diarists insist upon having the sort of experiences we can’t leave unrecorded…

 

Briefly then, through our first two. We find Charles Scott Moncrieff ill and in Amiens… and distinctly unimpressed. Perhaps it is the mark of the true Francophile (or, at least, the self-consciously discerning tourist) to be breezy about attractions like the great cathedral:

No. 1 N.Z. Stationary Hospital,
B.E.F., Amiens,
14th February, 1917.

. . . I went out to-day and saw the Cathedral, which certainly is very perfect and harmonious, walked the streets for a couple of hours and bought some books…[1]

 

And my own desire to forgo lengthy typing and move on to two important sonnets and a stark first-hand tale of loss and death will contribute, now, to Edwin Vaughan‘s persistent experience of anti-climax. Tonight, a century, back, he will reach the front line trenches at last, and I’ll cut down his diary by more than half…

It as a long and winding trench, which rather bewildered me, for the scattered sentry posts seemed to face in all directions… We hit the front-line trench at right angles, and almost opposite was another cellar into which Hatwell had disappeared in a moment.

I hardly noticed the troops melting away into different directions, but suddenly found myself quite alone outside the cellar. For a quarter of an hour I sat up against the side of the trench, soaking in the atmosphere. It was quite dark and damp, around my feet the mud was six inches deep, and above me I could see only the faint outline of the parapet all jagged and broken with bricks and stumps and over it the dim silhouette of loose wire. Occasionally a huge rat would scamper past, or a couple of men would stagger by, swearing gently at their load of sandbags or stakes. All was deathly quiet except for the low voices in the dugout or the faint click of a bayonet against a steel hat.[2]

Vaughan later tours the positions on the line, finding a number of men quietly and efficiently doing their work, the sentries watching the Germans intently, all business. Returning to the dugout, Vaughan reconsiders his attitude:

 When we had been out of the line, I had despised these officers and NCOs and criticized the men, but now I realized that I was the most useless object in the Company… still confused, wondering and fearful.

I drank several whiskies and dozed for an hour or two…[3]

 

Now for poetry. Ivor Gurney wrote again to Marion Scott today, a century back, continuing his new project of a counter-Brookean sonnet sequence.

14 February 1917

My Dear Miss Scott:

…The fates have been kind to me, and still leave me as canteen attendant; which means that though freezing one has time to oneself, and are off those confounded cleaning parades, which so gnaw at my life.

How are you and your influenza now? There can be little gadding about for you anyway, yet who knows what February may bring — that sometimes is so kind and smiles like Spring. Well, good luck to both of us, as I fancy cold is little good to either. And your book, tient-il? If you can sit up and refound musical literature, things will not be so bad; it would be like a Nice Blighty, which I do most heartily desire the Lord to send myself. Anyway do not get too ill to write…

This, I’ll wager, is Gurney being charmingly/winkingly, rather than obnoxiously/obliviously, self-centered.

There is more literature in this letter, but not yet. The literal translation of the pretty name of this place is The Star, and there are Earthworks all round, remains of 1870. Soon we go up again to the trouble; soon Fritz will be hurling high explosive compliments at us with gusto, and we close to the parapets. Well, tres bien, if there is no soft job, the hard one must do, but the first is better.

The title of the book I would prefer to be “Songs from Exile, or Songs from the Second Fifth” as subtitle. That is the real title, and besides, the second needs writing up to which I am unwilling to do.

This would be the first book of poems, which Scott is preparing for him. Now, then, for nos. 2 and 3 of the counter-attack on Rupert Brooke:

Home-sickness

When we go wandering the wide air’s blue spaces,
Bare, unhappy, exiled souls of men;
How will our thoughts over and over again
Return to Earth’s familiar lovely places.
Where light with shadow ever interlaces
No blanks of blue, nor ways beyond man’s ken —
Where birds are, and flowers; as violet, and wren,
Blackbird, bluebell, hedgesparrow, tiny daisies,
O tiny things, but very stuff of soul
To us . . . so frail. . . Remember what we are;
Set us not on some strange outlandish star.
But one love-responsive. Give us a Home.
There we may wait while the long ages roll
Content, unfrightened by vast Time-to-come.

The direct appeal to the reader here is striking, but perhaps not to every taste. We might dismiss it as almost maudlin, and hardly much of an improvement upon Brooke–a romanticizing of soldierly estrangement and suffering in exchange for a romanticizing of soldierly sacrifice.

So leave aside the ending, if it doesn’t suit; it’s the stuff of the appeal that matters. Until recently, Gurney has been dreamily, gauzily idealizing the countryside of his native Gloucestershire whenever he picks up his poet’s pen. Which is all very nice, but far from the war, no? But now he is bringing that loyalty to bear, mobilizing the stored energy produced by all that beauty, those lightly lovely birds and flowers, to say something about the war. We might miss it, if we didn’t have the Brookean intertext (apologies!): this isn’t about death and the harm-obscuring vision of a foreign-field-that-might-be, neatly adorned with English birds and flowers. It’s about drawing connections from a trench-that-is–a real trench, in a real corner of an actual French field–a trench that shelters living, frightened Englishmen all the way back to the memories of Home that might sustain them… These are day-dreaming, homesick men, looking for solace. They are not ghosts, yet, and they don’t seem enamored of the idea of their death, beautiful and meaningful or otherwise. Gurney is sacrificing his present comfort, his strength, his health; he’s not willing to dwell prettily on the likelihood that he will be dead soon, and call that a sacrifice as well…

If this sonnet re-connects to England in a different way, the next one–taking the sharply divided Petrarchan form–works around that new connection until it’s an unyielding grapple that forces us to confront the dreary misery of real soldiering…  before releasing us, suddenly, to remind us what the homesick man relies upon most: not thoughts of England, but other Englishmen.

 

Servitude

It it were not for England, who would bear
This heavy servitude one moment more?
To keep a brothel, sweep and wash the floor
Of filthiest hovels were noble to compare
With this brass-cleaning life. Now here, now there
Harried in foolishness, scanned curiously o’er
By fools made brazen by conceit, and store
Of antique witticisms thin and bare.

Only the love of comrades sweetens all.
Whose laughing spirit will not be outdone.
As night-watching men wait for the sun
To hearten them, so wait I on such boys
As neither brass nor Bosches may appall.
Nor guns, nor sergeant-major’s bluster and noise.

 

This is something new indeed. The old sonnet (Gurney’s spelling is… unusual) refurbished rather than merely dusted off. Only the love of comrades–and the brutal opposition of all things red-tabbed and unfeeling, explosive and chickenshit–could breathe new life into the form. But I should hush and let the poet explain:

These Sonnetts. For England. Pain. Homesickness. Servitude, and one other; are intended to be a sort of counterblast against “Sonnetts 1914”, which were written before the grind of the war and by an officer (or one who would have been an officer).

Thus far, Gurney’s claims are both radical and traditional. Down with the officer class and the privileged poet? Perhaps, but, so far, only on the strength of a claim to an alternate source of authority: these are the poems of a veteran, and of a soldier–one who bears the grind, and grinds no one in return.

Better, even:

They are the protest of the physical against the exalted spiritual; of the cumulative weight of small facts against the one large. Of informed opinion against uninformed (to put it coarsely and unfairly) and fill a place. Old ladies wont like them, but soldiers may, and these things are written either for soldiers or civilians as well informed as the French what “a young fresh war” means. (Or was it “frische (joyful) Krieg”. I cant remember, but something like it was written by the tame Germans in 1914.) I know perfectly well how my attitude will appear, but — They will be called “Sonnetts 1917.”

A counter-blast indeed, although a fairly restrained one, given what poetry will come. The civilians themselves are not attacked, and the sensitive among them are invited to join the side of virtue, of solidarity.

Is this, then, a “political” gesture? Not really–certainly not primarily. I don’t think these sonnets would have arrived just because Brooke’s themes–the beauty of sacrifice, the moral cleanliness of heading off to war–now feel outdated. There’s a poetic axe to grind, too.

Gurney had initially admired Brooke’s sonnets, after crossing paths with them in Edward Thomas’s review, but he had later turned rather decisively against them, writing one of his own first sonnets in a mood of resistance that both presaged this “counter-blast” and invoked Hardy.[4] As Thomas realized, as Sorley damningly pointed out, Brooke was “far too obsessed with his own sacrifice.” Gurney has come to write not of the soldier’s (i.e. the officer’s) inner beliefs but of the men who are two and a half years into shouldering a painful, nasty burden–and of his love for them.

But that’s not all, folks. Unless he misdated one or another of his letters (not unthinkable at all), Gurney received a letter from Scott and then sat down to write her another:

14 February 1917

My Dear Friend:

Thank you so much for your letter of the 5th of Feb…

…Most of the spare time till now has been in cleaning, always cleaning equipment. For anyone with more sensibility than the yokel it is a life infinitely full of pain. Whether the wind blows gales of icy needles with the temperature below zero; always the same. And no fires now, in most billets: From this, you will gather that “Rest” is merely a technical term. If you will take the trouble to copy out all those things one by one, please do so, and thank you — but dont write shorter letters because of it.

I shall be content if you attend to all matters of punctuation and merely ask my opinion on doubtful points. The name, as I have said is

Songs in Exile

or Songs from the Second-Fifth

The first poem will be To Certain Comrades; the last poems, the five sonnetts. (Perhaps an Envoi also.) Any poem you think needs correction, send on, and fear nothing…

So the sonnets are to close his first volume.

Gurney seems to wander, now, in his thoughts, but he was also discussing books in the previous letter, and it would seem now as if Scott has inquired after his reading. And who am I to delete a reference that suits my notions of Honesty and Influence in Great War Literature? After that, Gurney trails off into his post-war hopes–he is a composer too, we must remember.

“Under the Greenwood Tree” is perfectly charming, and very Shakespearean in feeling I think. Hardy is a marvel…

With these beautiful days it becomes more of a loss to feel music and books so far away, and my county. And the days slipping past so quickly in which I ought to acquire technique and get rhythm into my mind. Once I get back, for a while I will simply reek songs; mere exudations; while I study hard Wagner and Rachmaninoff and the Russians; also the 3 B’s and Folk Song for pleasure; and Chopin for piano technique. But, Time, you are so slow, and hold the secrets of doubtful things not yet disclosed…

Your sincere friend

Ivor Gurney[5]

 

Last and certainly not least, it’s a terrible day in the life or a writer whose great reputation rests far from his war writing. When we last heard from J.R. Ackerley, he was recounting his wounding during the disaster of the First Day on the Somme (he also later wrote verse about that morning). There are few dates in his memoir, and little in his written record that can fix him here, a century back. But today, well, there is.

In the meantime, Ackerley has recovered from the Somme–in body, at least–and learned to live awkwardly as an undeserving hero. And he has been promoted.

Yet so strange are we in our inconsistencies that I was not happy in Blighty and, in a few months’ time, got myself sent back to France.

So he has been enduring this brutal winter, but not alone: nearly two months ago, his brother Peter–older, but behind in his military progress due to an injury–joined him in the 8th East Surreys. So elder saluted younger, “gladly and conscientiously.” As our J.R. Ackerley–younger brother Joe–notes with cold irony, the only reason that he has obtained the rank of captain and Company Commander is because everyone else was killed on July 1st.

And then we come to today, a century back, and a very local attack to be mounted on a German position near Miraumont.

In front of my trenches, some four or five hundred yards away and slightly to the left, there was a bulge or salient in the German lines known as Point 85. It was a tiresome object, for it commanded a dangerous enfilading position down the trenches of the battalion next door.

Just the sort of thing for a quick surprise rush attack, needing only a platoon, and a likely subaltern to lead it.

We know what will happen, and Ackerley’s tone and voice erase any doubt…

…my brother got the job. Did he actually volunteer for it? It is one of the many things I am not clear about, but I fancy that he did. At any rate it is the sort of thing he would have done–and the very thing he wanted… he must have been longing to prove himself, and here was a situation which would have appealed to the actor in him, drama indeed, the lime-lit moment, himself in the leading role, all eyes on him. At all events, the result was that I had to make arrangements for him and his platoon to take off from my front line…

The stage was therefore fatefully set, and my brother bungled his entrance.

The newcomer is unaware that the jumping-off point, his brother’s dugout in Boom Ravine, is–much like the deep dugout not far away which recently sheltered Wilfred Owen–under the thumb of the German artillery. It is a German dugout, and thus deep and safe, but with its location is precisely known. So the shells never miss by much. What’s worse,

Unknown to him, the poor boy’s watch had stopped… his troops could be heard chatting, coughing, grousing, and clattering their equipment in the ravine above, all the welcome he got was a rough ticking off from Major Wightman who sent him flying back upstairs to deploy and silence his men.

I remember my brother when he returned standing before me in the candlelight, bunched up in his Burberry and equipment, loaded with hand-grenades and stuck about with a revolver, wire-cutters and Very pistol, his cap set jauntily at an angle. His visit, now that he was late, was of the briefest…

I offered him a quick drink, I remember; he said, “No thanks, I’ll take my rum with the men,” Then, could we swap watches, his own being unreliable. He would return mine afterwards, he said.  A heroic remark, and as I helped him strap on my watch, probably we both saw it unbuckled from his dead wrist. But then it was impossible to speak the most commonplace word or makes the most ordinary gesture without its at once acquiring the heavy over-emphasis of melodrama…

Then my brother’s hand thrust out to shake my own, his twisty smile, my “Good luck,” his jocular salute. “Don’t worry, sir,” said he to the Major as he left. It was his only piece of self-indulgence. His thin putteed legs retreated up the dugout steps and the sack curtain swung to behind him. I never saw him again.[6]

Ackerley doesn’t so much mask his grief as shrug his shoulders at it. What can be done?[7]

Peter Ackerley was shot during an attempt to take point 85, a tiny preliminary to a larger assault a few days hence. The battalion war diary notes that the attack began at 5:45.

5 minutes later a counter barrage opened up… Phone lines were cut immediately and runners were sent to HQ. The situation was very obscure and 2/Lt Ackerley was wounded and about 6 of his men were seen to have reached point 85.

When exactly he died is not clear… but his brother, Joe, our observer in the trench, our writer, seems certain that his brother has been killed

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 124.
  2. This is one of the many details that I find strange... are these fixed bayonets? If so, why, in the middle of the night? Or are both worn loose on a man's webbing? This section of the diary reads like stage directions for an atmospheric trench play... but then again there is all that stuff about "The Theater of War..."
  3. Some Desperate Glory, 27-30.
  4. But Gurney's opinion of Hardy wavered over time as well. These dramatic shifts in critical allegiance could--but needn't--be connected to general mental instability. It's more just, I think, to represent Gurney as a man of passionate moods, broadly construed.
  5. War Letters, 128-2.
  6. My Father and Myself, 80-4.
  7. A spoiler, for those not familiar with Ackerley: the memoir, written long after, is regarded as a masterpiece, but the war figures only for its most horrible, salient days. Immediately after the story of Peter's raid Ackerley launches into a long disquisition on the nature of history and literature. He reads his 30-year old manuscript describing today and wonders what could have been "true" then, what is "true" now, and what remains in his memory... an excellent contribution to the discussion of "binary vision," not less valuable for being brief and agnostic. I'll have more on this tomorrow; I have also edited the original post so as to do less damage to... history while still following the effect of Ackerley's literary choices.

Edward Thomas Entrains for the Front; If Francis Ledwidge Had a Golden Pound

Francis Ledwidge has his head in the game, still–the game of sentimental, home-loving poetry, that is. I think we can put him firmly, now, in the camp of those whose poetic instincts serve to insulate them from the horrors of the war, rather than those seeking to turn their poetry to the task of grappling with what they experience.

Had I A Golden Pound

(after the Irish)

Had I a golden pound to spend,
My love should mend and sew no more.
And I would buy her a little quern,
Easy to turn on the kitchen floor.

And for her windows curtains white,
With birds in flight and flowers in bloom,
To face with pride the road to town,
And mellow down her sunlit room.

And with the silver change we’d prove
The truth of Love to life’s own end,
With hearts the years could but embolden.
Had I a golden pound to spend.

February 5th, 1917.

 

Edward Thomas is a new officer rather than an old soldier, but it seems that he intends to do the opposite–or, rather, to continue to do what he has been doing and use his poetic gifts to refract and consider what he sees before him. But it is a halting beginning, to say the least. He arrived in France with an injured ankle and a nearly empty wallet, but even an artillery officer needs to walk a great deal, and he has been searching for new shoes. Finding none in the army stores or in the Havre shops that fit, he “bought low soft boots” on February 2nd and then returned to camp. Rather than drinking or visiting brothels, as many others were doing, Thomas had an “argument with Thorburn about morals, shame, whether poets must go through not only ‘sin’ but ‘repentance’–Dante, Shakespeare. Cold supper in our cold tent-iron ration and cheese and marmalade.”

The 3rd featured more of the same, as well as work preparing the guns and readying the battery for its move up to the front. Yesterday, a century back, the orders came. And naturally it was another case of “hurry up and wait:”

At 11 came warning to move at 5.30. Packing, Censoring, New servant…  Started at 4.45 for station with guns–held up 1 1/2 hours by train across road–2 hours at station doing notion, 1 1/2 hours entraining guns–platform all cotton bales and men singing ‘The nightingales are singing in the pale moonlight’… Sgt Major did practically all the work…

Men quite silent after first comic cries of ‘All tickets’ and imitating cattle…

The fact that soldiers were often transported to the line in train trucks designed for animals is mentioned by scores of memoir writers. An irresistible minor joke, or bit of dark irony… And at least the men are not baaing, voicing themselves as sheep to slaughter, as the French infantry will do.

As we start at 11 suddenly the silent men all yell ‘Hurray’ but are silent before we are clear of long desolate platform of cotton and trampled snow and electric light.

This is the sort of note that could very easily become a great poem.

And today, a century back, the journey continued:

Snow. Gradually flatter and poplars regular as telegraph poles, orchards, level crossings, children. Buchy at 10 a.m…. Amiens at 2… Pale sky and crimson sun at sunset. Doullens at 8. Guns all the time… A restless night.[1]

Not long ’till the line, now.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary (Childhood), 159-60.