Robert Graves Makes Colorful Plans; High Quigley Gets His Blighty; Vera Brittain Learns the Meaning of Emergency

Around lunch-time, today, a century back, the Graves family’s worries were alleviated by a telegram announcing that Robert had spent the night at the Nicholsons’ home. Robert, twenty-two, is entranced by Nancy, all of eighteen, as is she with him. They are thinking of marriage, already, and of collaboration: she is a painter, and will illustrate his planned writings for children.

In Nancy, Robert had discovered a woman who shared his growing conviction that there was something better and more true in the myths and legends of childhood than in the terrible ‘reality’ of the adult world’: When Nancy showed Robert some of her paintings, which included illustrations to Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, he found that ‘my child-sentiment and hers–she had a happy childhood to look back on–answered each other.

Graves spent the morning running errands, but he also dropped in on Edmund Gosse and then said an early good-bye to his family. Graves is bound for Scotland, but first he returned to Nancy, having dinner with the Nicholsons and then going with them to a revue, Graves’s first-ever experience of popular entertainment of this sort. He must have been in an excellent mood when he caught the night-train for Edinburgh, and another meeting with Siegfried Sassoon[1]

 

It’s been only two days since we heard from Hugh Quigley, portentously preparing for battle. He was right to worry about a wound–and lucky.

Le Treport, 12 October, 1917

I got that comfortable wound I mentioned in my last letter: some intuition must have told me what was going to happen. The pain is not too great, although the right leg is useless just now; the doctor says it will come in time. I am expecting to be home in two days…

Our division had the pleasing task of making a bold bid for Passchendaele: of course, the officers told us the usual tale…

But none of us knew where to go when the barrage began, whether half-right or half-left: a vague memory of following the shell-bursts as long as the smoke was black, and halting when it changed to white… I was knocked out before I left the first objective, a ghastly breast-work littered with German corpses. One sight almost sickened me before I went on: thinking the position of a helmet on a dead officer’s face rather curious, sunken down rather far on the nose, my platoon sergeant lifted it off, only to discover no upper half to the head. All above the nose had been blown to atoms, a mass of pulp, brain, bone and muscle.

After this horror, a concessive clause under absurd pressure:

Apart from that, the whole affair appeared rather good fun.

It’s a transition, in a letter, and we shouldn’t make too much of it… but this is the madness of war in one pivoting sentence. Quigley pursues the idea:

You know how excited one becomes in the midst of great danger. I forgot absolutely that shells were meant to kill and not to provide elaborate lighting effects, looked at the barrage, ours and the Germans’, as something provided for our entertainment–a mood of madness, if you like.

Well, yes, madness: he’s gotten there himself.

Next comes a detailed description of the assault, including a mad Highlander screaming at them as they move deliberately behind the walking barrage, and a comrade stopping to loot a German corpse. It is far more horrible than his breezy letter made it seem, but his claim about the uselessness of the rifle–at this stage, at least–is borne out.

We got the first objective easily, and I was leaning against the side of a shell hole, resting along with others, when an aeroplane swooped down and treated us to a shower of bullets. None of them hit. I never enjoyed anything so much in my life–flames, smoke, lights, SOS’s, drumming of guns, and swishing of bullets, appeared stage-properties to set off a great scene. From the pictorial point of view nothing could be finer or more majestic; it had a unity of colour and composition all its own, the most delicate shades of green and grey and brown fused wonderfully in the opening light of morning. When the barrage lifted and the distant ridge gleamed dark against the horizon, tree-stumps, pill-boxes, shell-holes, mine-craters, trenches, shone but faintly, fragmentary in the distant smoke. Dotted here and there, in their ghostly helmets and uniforms, and the enemy were hurrying off or coming down in batches to find their own way to the cages…

Then, going across a machine-gun barrage, I got wounded. At first I did not know where, the pain was all over, and then the gushing blood told me.

Quigley follows a German prisoner back to a dressing-station, and is then carried back over the rear areas of the torn battlefield:

…a wilderness of foul holes littered with dead men disinterred in the barrage. One sight I remember very vividly: a white-faced German prisoner tending a whiter “Cameron” who had been struck in the stomach. In spite of the fierce shelling he did not leave him, but stayed by him as long as I could see. I confess my first feeling of deadly fear arose when on the stretcher. The first excitement was wearing off and my teeth were chattering with cold.

There was a German shrapnel barrage to get through, too, which killed more than a few of the wounded and stretcher-bearers. Wounded, but carried through this secondary maelstrom safely, Quigley praises the Medical Corps very highly:

…my stretcher bearers, R.A.M.C., were good stuff, afraid of nothing, and kind-hearted, apologizing for any jolting. How they kept it up during that ghastly 10-kilometre journey is a mystery. I would rather go over the top than suffer that fatigue.[2]

 

Quigley’s curious and florid prose-style has been a welcome addition here, but many of the more experienced veterans are still professing their inability to describe the horrors of Passchendaele. (Will time tame his style?) Vera Brittain, for instance, waits at a mid-point in the lines of evacuation that begin with that German prisoner and those heroic stretcher-bearers:

24th General, France, 12 October 1917

Someday perhaps I will try to tell you what this first half of October has been like, for I cannot even attempt to describe it in a letter & of course we are still in the middle of things; the rush is by no means over yet–Three times this week we have taken in convoys & evacuated to England, & the fourth came into our ward all at the same time. Every day since this day last week has been one long doing of the impossible–or what seemed the impossible before you started. We have four of our twenty-five patients on the D.I.L. (dangerously ill list, which means their people can come over from England to see them) and any one of them would keep a nurse occupied all day but when there are only two of you for the whole lot you simply have to do the best you can. One does dressings from morning till night. I never knew anything approaching it in London, & certainly not in Malta. No one realises the meaning of emergencies who has not been in France. Nor does one know the meaning of ‘bad cases’ for they don’t get to England in the state we see them here; they either die in France or else wait to get better before they are evacuated…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, The Assault Heroic, 183-5.
  2. Passchendaele and the Somme, 147-53.
  3. Letters From a Lost Generation, 377-8.

Siegfried Sassoon is Blighty Bound… and Eighteen Other Updates

Although I am almost as tired of writing extremely long posts as you are of reading them, so very many of our writers committed some sort of date-fixable act today, a century back, that I thought I should nod to the fates and survey everyone who showed up.[1]

After we wrap up with Siegfried Sassoon, withdrawn from the Hindenburg trench to the Hindenburg tunnel with a new “patriotic perforation” in his shoulder, and after we read the progress of Edward Hermon‘s widow, I will try to be judiciously brief with the others. Somehow, yesterday, Sassoon was not only seen and treated by the battalion Medical Officer, but was swiftly evacuated to a Casualty Clearing Station. Within hours of being held back from an attempted one-man bombing war, he is tucked in and headed for Blighty.

April 17

After a blessed eight hours’ sleep (more than I’d had since last Wednesday) I waited till 5 o’clock reading Far from the Madding Crowd, when we got on board a Red Cross train of serpentine length. Five hundred men and thirty-two officers on board. Warlencourt is eighteen kilometres from Arras—quite near Saulty, where we stayed on April 7. We passed through Doullens about 6 p.m. and Abbeville at 8.30 and reached Camiferes at midnight.

An officer called Kerr is with me—one of the First Cameronians. He was hit in the bombing show about an hour before I got up there on Monday morning, so I’ve got some sidelights on what really happened.

At present I am still feeling warlike, and quite prepared to go back to the line in a few weeks. My wound is fairly comfortable, and will be healed in a fortnight, they say. I know it would be best for me not to go back to England, where I should probably be landed for at least three months, and return to the line in July or August, with all the hell and wrench of coming back and settling down to be gone through again. I think I’ve established a very strong position in the Second Battalion in the five weeks I was with them. My luck never deserts me; it seems inevitable
for me to be cast for the part of ‘leading hero!’

Things to remember

The dull red rainy dawn on Sunday April 15, when we had relieved the 15th Northumberland Fusiliers—our Company of eighty men taking over a frontage of nine hundred yards.

During the relief—stumbling along the trench in the dusk, dead men and living lying against the sides of the trench one never knew which were dead and which living. Dead and living were very nearly one, for death was in all our hearts. Kirkby shaking dead German[2] by the shoulder to ask him the way.

On April 14 the 19th Brigade attacked at 5.30 a.m. I looked across at the hill where a round red sun was coming up. The hill was deeply shadowed and grey-blue, and all the Country was full of shell-flashes and drifting smoke. A battle picture.

Scene in the Hénin Dressing Station. The two bad cases—abdomen (hopeless) and ankle. The pitiful parson. My walk with Mansfield.

Sergeant Baldwin (A. Company) his impassive demeanour—like a well-trained footman. ‘My officer’s been hit.’ He bound up my wound.[3]

As these notes suggest, there will be a good deal more to write about all this.

 

A few days after learning of her husband’s death, Ethel Hermon received the heartfelt letter from his long-time manservant Gordon Buxton.

Dear Buxton,

Your letter came this morning & I can never thank you enough for your loving care of him & your sympathy & prayers. I knew you would be heartbroken & that I should have all your sympathy as you probably knew as well as anyone could know how much we were to each other.

You will by now have had my other letter telling you that I have asked Gen. Trevor… to let you come home if it is possible as I simply long to talk to you… I seem to know all that pen & paper can tell, one just longs to talk to someone who was there…

I should leave it there, as we press on into this massively choral day. To summarize, Ethel also charges Buckin with seeing that her husband’s valuable and useful possessions are distributed to his friends, and that the items that had been personal, close to his body–“the old basin & cover & its contents”–be returned to her. She hopes, too, that he can care for her husband’s grave. Which he will do–and he will come home.

A British tank ditched in the German lines at Arras, IWM

Dear Mrs. Hermon,

I’m sending this note by Buxton who goes on leave today to report to you. He will bring the papers etc. found on your husband…

…a tank was caught up on the German front line… & the Boches were firing at it… there seems little doubt that one these rifle bullets hit your husband just below the heart… The medical officer tells me he thinks a big blood vessel below the heart was severed & that death was almost instantaneous.

Your husband’s horses are being sent to Div. Hd. Qrs with the groom…

I can only repeat how much I feel for you in your irreparable loss.

Yours very sincerely,

H.E. Trevor[4]

 

Kate Luard‘s parade of horrors (we’ve read but a little, lately) has abated, as the Arras push lags. So time for a stroll–and paperwork.

We have had a lull the last two days, and everybody has been off duty long enough to go for a walk in relays and pick Lent lilies, cowslips, and anemones…  I believe another stunt is expected tomorrow…

I got about 60 behind in Break-the-News letters the first few days of last week…[5]

 

Ivor Gurney, realizing perhaps that he is even more lucky to be wounded and out of it than he had thought, managed a post card today to Marion Scott:

Dear Friend: Still at the Base. No certain address. No certain tomorrow. No luck. No money. No damage to my arm, save a hole. Yet, had the boats been running, I might have got to Blighty…[6]

 

Let’s see: what else is happening with the Great War writers?

 

Christopher Wiseman arrived in Harrogate to visit John Ronald Tolkien, and to help him in compiling a memorial volume of their friend G.B. Smith’s work.[7]

 

In fiction, today is the key date in “The Colonel’s Shoes,” a curious supernatural shaggy-dog short story by Ford Madox Hueffer. It’s a tale told in retrospect that hinges on bitter, childish infighting among a few officers and plays out in the orderly room of their overworked battalion. Today, a century back, a vindictive captain writes up a Company-Sergeant-Major for perceived insubordination, and it will take a very, very minor miracle to set things right…[8]

 

And after the excitement of last night’s chaotic patrol, tonight’s action provided tension in a lower key for Alf Pollard and the H.A.C. Ordered to move forward under cover of darkness and entrench within 200 yards of the Germans, Pollard accidentally led his men all the way up to the German wire obstacles. But once again “Fritz was keeping a very bad watch” and Pollard and his men are able to withdraw to the proper distance and begin entrenching before they are discovered. Pollard being Pollard, he ascertains that the battalion on his left is in the wrong position and blusters back under fire to explain his prowess and sure grasp of the situation to the Brigadier, as well as the embarrassed colonel of that neighboring battalion…[9]

 

Rowland Feilding missed the first week of the battle, but it is now the lot of his battalion to hold trenches in the worst possible weather, and fight the same war of patrol and counter-patrol.

April 17, 1917. “‘Turnerstown Left” (Fierstraat Sector).

I think this year must be accursed. Never was a fouler day than to-day. After a wet night it is still raining this morning, and the wind is howling dismally, but overhead. There are points, after all, in being in a trench. The French seem to have made a spectacular re-entry into the arena yesterday, but they must have been greatly handicapped by the weather, like our men at Vimy.

Last night we captured two big Prussian Grenadiers (unwounded) on our wire. They were brought to my dugout at 2 a.m., looking frightened—with their hands still outstretched in the orthodox manner of the surrendered prisoner who desires to show that he is not armed; coated with mud; one bleeding from a tear from the wire; but neither seeming too unhappy. If one only knew German this would be the proper time to extract information. They are too scared to lie much. Later, when they find out how kindly is the British soldier, they become sly and independent.[10]

 

Llewelyn Wyn Griffith, whose harrowing summer was followed by a long spell of peaceful staff work, was sent back to his battalion today, a century back, taking over C Company of the 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers. We hear time and again how officers pine for their comrades and their men when they are sent off to safe billets and cushy staff positions–not so Griffith, who “set off despondently” to return to the hardships of the line.[11]

 

And with another Kitchener battalion of the Royal Welch, David Jones is also heading back toward the front.

On the 17th, in wind and sleet, they left for divisional reserve at Roussel Farm–the cold mud so deep that it took hours to pass through 400 yards of communication trench. They arrived at 3.30 a.m.[12]

 

Henry Williamson “wrote a lot of letters” today, including one to his mother enclosing a piece of army propaganda about German demoralization and one to his father describing the roar of the big naval guns, the sight of a British tanker driven mad by the gunfire concentrated on his tank, and the recent transaction of parcels: cake and bullseyes to Henry in France, and souvenirs–including “2 tin boxes of bombs, etc., and 3 lovely helmets… & a saw bayonet”–sent home.[13]

 

Vera Brittain remains too far from the front, and full of worry. To her brother Edward, today, a century back:

I have to keep on writing letters, because the vague bits of news from France that filter through to us make me so anxious to receive them. From the long list of names that appear in the telegrams there seems to be a vast battle going on along the whole of our front & the French one too, but it is very difficult to make out at all what is happening. Is Geoffrey anywhere in the Bapaume direction? The longer the War goes on, the more one’s concern in the whole immense business seems to centre itself upon the few beings still left that one cares about, & the less upon the general issue of the struggle. One’s personal interest wears one’s patriotism rather threadbare by this time. After all, it is a garment one has had to wear for a very long time, so there’s not much wonder if it is beginning to get a little shabby![14]

Looking back on this night, she will add these thoughts:

Yet another night’s red moon, I thought, looking up after finishing Edward’s letter at the ominous glow in the unquiet sky. Another night, and still no news. Is Victor still alive? Is Geoffrey? Oh, God–it’s intolerable to be out here, knowing nothing till ages afterwards, but just wondering and wondering what has happened![15]

 

Jack Martin, in billets at Dickebusch, took today to write out fairly lengthy pen-portraits of some of his comrades… but I’m only human…[16]

 

Vivian de Sola Pinto, working for weeks now at the Bull Ring near Rouen, records today’s date–I would guess a scrap of his orders was preserved, for there are few dates and few such specifics in his book–as the occasion of a “huge fatigue party” that spent the entire day loading lorries. But it was also a memorable occasion because the station from which he was to supervise the loading contained a sergeant and two classes of furniture: a comfy chair and a biscuit tin.

With wry approval de Sola Pinto notes the sergeant’s insistence–“a fine example of what I would call a manly spirit of volunteer subordination”–that the officer take the better chair, despite the fact that both of them “knew he was an infinitely better soldier than I should ever be.” de Sola Pinto insists on taking turns, but recognizes that the Sergeant’s principled, if nominal, subordination “actually enhanced” his dignity.[17]

 

George Coppard, recovered from the accidental shooting in the foot, arrived today at “Camiers, a reception base for drafts.”[18]

 

C.E. Montague wrote both a letter and a diary entry recording his view of the battle from close behind. Wise though he is, he still feels bereft that his old companions are in battle and he is not. And he shows what a man with the time for literary composition on his hands can do. This is a good mix of eyewitness reportage and refined “battle-piece” history.

April 17, 1917

…Behold me again in the midst of our long-drawn battles—-meet incidents of our long-drawn war.

I saw the beginning of this one, before daylight on the morning of the 9th, from a little height above our front, from which I could see all our guns flash off together at the second of starting, like a beaded line of electric lights all turned on from one switch, and then each of them turned on and off and on again as fast as possible by a switch of its own. At intervals beyond this line of flashes there were the big geysers of flame, and dark objects visible in the middle of it, spouting up from our mines under the German front trench; and then at every two or three hundred yards there went up signal rockets from the German trenches, that seemed like visible shrieks to their artillery and supports to protect them from our infantry, who, they knew, were then on their way across from our trenches. I could see all this going on along several miles of front, and it was strangely dramatic, though all expressed through lights in the darkness alone, until the day broke and we could see our infantry already beyond the second line of enemy trenches and sauntering across quietly to the third, with our barrage of smoke walking steadily in front of them like the pillar of smoke in the desert—only of course it cannot give complete safety; and now and then the line would have a gap made in it by a shell and would join up again across the gap, and go strolling, with the strange look of leisureliness that an infantry charge of the scientific kind has now, until the time comes to rush the last few yards and jump down into the enemy’s trench.

It is grievous to to think that my battalion has twice had this great moment since I left it last midsummer, and that I may never know any more thrilling contact with the enemy than mutual sniping and a little reconnoitring of ground between his trenches and ours. The only compensation, so far as it goes, is that I see much more of the war and of the front as a whole, and the battlefield of the moment in particular, than one sees when engaged in honest regimental labour.

And in his diary:

Miles and miles of our front begin to dance in the dark, with twinkling and shimmering flashes. Suggests a long keyboard on which notes of light are being swiftly played. Then, from points all along German front, signal red and white and green rockets go up. Also ‘golden rains’ of our liquid fire, and one or two mine volcanoes. Dawn breaks on this firework show. Then on to a huge earthwork, an outwork of Arras citadel and lie on safe side and look over with fieldglass. Our infantry visible advancing in successive waves to take the second German trench-line N.E. of
Arras. Disquieted flocks of rooks. Then to Divl. H.Q., to find good news.

 

Charles Carrington‘s writing is honest, balanced, and well-informed. But he generally takes pains to, as they say, accentuate the positive. His morale and that of his unit’s was generally good–they have not despaired, they are more grim and more devoted to each other when they have started, but they would not acknowledge any sea change in their motivations, etc. But some days–and some nights, like last night, a century back, as they pressed up through the wreckage of this second push at Arras–were enough to drive a man to madness, despair, and self-slaughter. Last night he huddled under trench mortars; today was worse.

…In the morning, when we advanced unopposed, I passed the corpse of a British sergeant, not of my regiment. He lay on his back holding a revolver in his hand, shot through the throat at such an angle that I wondered if it had been suicide. If I had been suicidally inclined that night would have driven me to it.[19]

 

Edwin Vaughan and his battalion have been following the attack as well, and he writes voluminously of these days. But given his sensitive nature and penchant for drama, I don’t think he would mind my making this the representative incident:

At the Epéhy crossroads, we found a huge cat squatting on the chest of a dead German, eating his face. It made us sick to see it, and I sent two men to chase it away. As they approached it sprang snarling at them, but they beat it down with their rifles and drove it into the ruined houses. Then we covered the body with a sack, and went on.[20]

 

But we’ll end in Britain, in safety, and in the boudoir, where Duff Cooper has also been engaged in dire combat. Patrick Shaw-Stewart has been called back to war, but Cooper’s worries about other adversaries have pushed him closer to total war. Or, at least, to warfare unbefitting a gentleman. During Diana Manners‘ temporary absence from their long house party in Scotland he had been “obliged”–this is four days ago, a century back–to take a bath in her room. Where he opened and read her locked diary.[21]

It was rather vile of me…

It was, and we’ll skip the justifications. Amazingly, Cooper is both moved by learning “how much she loved Raymond” and urged to take action against his living rivals for her affection, including one Wimborne and a Lt-Col. Wilson who, of course, is known as “Scatters.”

There is no reference to me in the diary that I could quarrel with but I do not think she loves me… I rose from the perusal of this intimate diary which I had no right to read, loving, liking, and admiring her more than before.

And somehow this added up to progress. Cooper confessed his deed and was not banished. In fact, by last night he was reading her pages of his diary, then listening in agony outside her door while she (scandalously) entertained “Scatters” in the wee hours of today, a century back, and then returning in before dawn to wake her up with recrimination.

She cried and reproached me bitterly with not trusting and spying on her. I felt in the wrong and implored forgiveness which only after long pleading she granted. Then we had a night of the most wild and perfect joy. The best perhaps we ever had.[22]

And somewhere, every dawn, some men attack, and many sighs are drained.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. This may be--I joke here, almost completely, and with full apology for trespassing on the sanctity of life-or-death experience "from my armchair" (three words which I omitted from the Memoirs yesterday; but the armchair was only one possible destiny, for Sassoon)--the centennial blogger equivalent of Sassoon's mood at the very end of his escapade, yesterday, a century back...
  2. See Sassoon's "The Rear Guard," at the bottom of that post.
  3. Diaries, 156-7.
  4. For Love and Courage, 355, 358.
  5. Unknown Warriors, 114.
  6. War Letters, 155.
  7. Chronicle, 100.
  8. War Prose, 159-69.
  9. Fire-Eater, 209-11.
  10. War Letters to a Wife, 168.
  11. Griffith, Up to Mametz and Beyond, 138.
  12. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 153.
  13. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 119-20.
  14. Letters from a Lost Generation, 334-5.
  15. Testament of Youth, 339.
  16. Sapper Martin, 60-4.
  17. The City that Shone, 190.
  18. With a Machine Gun, 106.
  19. Soldier From the Wars Returning, 145.
  20. Some Desperate Glory, 95-6.
  21. What, I ask you, is the point of all of that fancy classical education if Cooper can pull up and manage some allusion to Actaeon, transformed into a deer and torn apart by his own hounds after seeing Artemis in the bath. Perhaps, as he considers leaving the Foreign Office for the Army, the vengeful hounds of his old hunting partners, become ravening ghosts, perhaps, are a bit too frightening to contemplate.
  22. Duff Cooper Diaries, 50-1.

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.

The Legend of C.E. Montague; Siegfried Sassoon on Elgar, Poetry, Spiritualism, Loss, and the Turning of the Plow; Edward Thomas Reads Frost; Tolkien is Boarded

Is the little anti-Semitic outburst of yesterday still hanging on the mind of Siegfried Sassoon? Probably not. It’s probably a coincidence, probably just the music, and not any lingering need to assert his English identity by addressing the Christian story…

Elgar’s Violin Concerto… made me glorious with dreams to-night. Elgar always moves me deeply, because his is the melody of an average Englishman (and I suppose I am more or less the same)…

 

The Elgar Violin Concerto

I have seen Christ, when music wove
Exulting vision; storms of prayer
Deep-voiced within me marched and strove.
The sorrows of the world were there.
A God for beauty shamed and wronged?
A sign where faith and ruin meet.
In glooms of vanquished glory thronged
By spirits blinded with defeat?
His head forever bowed with pain.
In all my dreams he looms above
The violin that speaks in vain—
The crowned humility of love.
O music undeterred by death.
And darkness closing on your flame,
Christ whispers in your dying breath,
And haunts you with his tragic name.

This poem of religious intensity is awkwardly followed, in the diary, by a note on a recent and unusually divisive publication.

A bitter attack on Oliver Lodge’s spook book in the Daily Mail. Stuff like Raymond repels me utterly. Having discovered the fatuity of it in my own case, and watched that pathetic, foolish clinging to the dead which goes on among so many women who (like my own mother) have nothing else to distract their minds from war and wretchedness. It is the worst confession of weakness—a ridiculous hiding of one’s head in a stuffy cupboard, when there is the whole visible earth outside the windows.

If I am killed, no doubt my [Page torn out].

Well that tears it–these must be surgical strikes. Let it not be said that Sassoon was either a negligent or a subtle self-editor. The most offensive pages have gone…

When the diary resumes, Sassoon is more angered by spiritualism than he is inspired by music. So he then tries to walk it off.

Shrivelled by icy blasts, I went an hour’s footpath-walk among starved, colourless fields and cowering, straggly thorn-hedges; skirting chimney-pots and the factories whose thin smokestreamers flew with the sunless, bitter north wind. Once I watched a scattering of gulls that followed the newly-turned furrows; their harsh wrangle mingling with the faint creak and rattle of the plough, as they swung and settled like enormous grey snow-flakes. While the team halted at the hedge, and the man was turning, with a grumble at the wretchedness of the afternoon, they all sat still like some cloaked, attentive congregation, yet their bills were busy at the soil: then the big steady horses moved forward again, with a confusion of dull-silvery wings flickering in the wake of the toilers, as the queer procession
began another journey across the stubble…

There is a striking similarity, here, to one of Edward Thomas’s most important poems. It’s an accident, I suppose: it’s still an old agricultural world, for the most part, and the plowing is there to be observed by any poetical passer-by. And who could fail to be moved by the sight of the team turning at the end of the furrow… there is labor, cyclic imagery, ancient line and habits, and raucous nature attendant on man. Good stuff!

The rain has ceased. Broken clouds drift slowly from the west, glorious with fringes of evening colour. On a hillside I am alone with my happiness, hearing everywhere the faint drip and rustle of summer green: there is a stirring in the grass; each flower has a message to give me. All sounds are small and distinct, as though they expressed the liquid clarity of the air. The country is now properly arrayed in a sort of rich calm, shining and yet subdued and gracious.

I was about to impose an ellipsis… but no. Pure observation yields, now, to introspection. Sassoon has walked out his anger and into his memory. The subject of his brother Hamo does not often come up in his writing:

The roofs and stacks of the farm among its trees below the hill, the farm-house chimney with its wisp of smoke, a bird winging out across the valley-orchards, and the sound of a train going steadily on, miles away—all are as I would have them, as I would keep them remembered. I am back in childhood; home with my kind dreams; soon I shall hear my brother’s voice along the garden, where moths will be fluttering like flowers that are free from their hot parades in sunshine, free to go where they will among the dimness of quiet alleys. O brother, tell me what you have seen to-day, what have you done?

He will not answer, for he is dead. And I am far from the garden, far from the summer that is past. I am alone in this bitter winter of unending war.

It is curious, always, to watch the mind zig and zag, dart and dive–can we, like Holmes watching Watson’s eyes, anticipate the next direction his thoughts will take? No? Poetry.

I don’t think purely descriptive verse should be rhymed, but should sometimes give a feeling of rhyme-endings (a sort of ‘singing-touch’ effect).

But that’s it for technical discussion–and it will be some time before he realizes this idea, and passes it on to another poet who will do even greater things with it. The rest of the diary entry grumpily complains of how difficult it is to write poetry when one is constantly interrupted by friendly fellow-officer roommates…[1]

 

The legend of C.E. Montague is a legend forestalled. He dyed his hair, he joined the ranks, and he did the trenches as a sergeant… and then he fell ill, and fell from the grace of dangerous service–and the rarefied sense of companionship that brings–into a commission and an Intelligence job. Now he spends his days touring dignitaries behind the lines and his evenings sitting among staff officers and journalists and other anteroom-of-hell-as-far-as-the-infantry-are-concerned types in the Château de Rollencourt.

But friends of his among the writers who assembled there to be led on safe tours of the rear and spoon-fed optimistic reports remembered what Montague was like at this time. Despite the bitter cold and the bitterer knowledge that “mediocrities promoted to importance by the war” could order him about–a fifty-year-old writer of wide sympathies and great skill–he did his duty with brisk, reserved professionalism. H.M. Tomlinson, a prominent journalist, understood this reserve to be an expression of his continuing solidarity with those he had briefly been among: “If he could not have the trenches, then at least he would sit in an uncomfortable chair.” Montague made certain to be a good officer, a loyal cog in the claptrap propaganda machine, yet he was becoming thoroughly disenchanted, and one evening he unbent so far as to admit that “he wanted to do one good book before he died.”

He will. But despite being sent down from the trenches (the irony that men who had served longer than he could only long for such a reprieve would not have escaped him) Montague is no idle writer yet. Today, a century back, he was sent with a dispatch to General Haig himself:

I find the C.-in-C. knows about my various conducting expeditions, and is very friendly. Says, ‘I hear you’re a terrible fellow at going along the trenches’.

So Montague is not immune to a well-placed compliment (and highly-placed complimentor). But around this time he also showed a less sanguine mood:

If we were a band of brothers for one month, I believe we should have won the war. If we could all forget decorations and promotions for six months, it would be over too. If we, outside the trenches, bore what men in the trenches do, it would be over too. If all these miracles happened together, it would be over at once.

Ferreting about for themselves in this soft cheeselike world of fecklessness and self-seeking and public spiritlessness are the sturdy maggots like ————, intimidating all the little timid professional soldiers and corrupting the discipline of the army. Can we win still, in spite of it all, or is it to be the end of freedom and joy
for us all?

But back to that “terrible fellow” business. One of the luminaries he shepherded about within the sound of the guns was George Bernard Shaw:

At the chateau where the Army entertained the rather mixed lot who, being nondescript, were classified as Distinguished Visitors, I met Montague. Finding him just the sort of man I like and get on with, I was glad to learn that he was to be my bear-leader on my excursions…

The standing joke about Montague was his craze for being under fire, and his tendency to lead the distinguished
visitors, who did not necessarily share this taste (rare at the front), into warm corners. Like most standing jokes it was inaccurate, but had something in it. War is fascinating even to those who, like Montague, have no illusions about it, and are not imposed on by its boasting, its bugaboo, its desperate attempts to make up for the shortage of capable officers by sticking tabs and brass hats on duffers, its holocausts of common men for nothing, its pretences of strategy and tactics where there is only bewilderment and blundering, its vermin and dirt and butchery and terror and foul-mouthed boredom. None of these things were lost on a man so critical as Montague any more than they were lost on me. But neither of us ever asked the other ‘And what the devil are you doing in this galley?’ Both of
us felt that, being there, we were wasting our time when we were not within range of the guns. We had come to the theatre to see the play, not to enjoy the intervals between the acts like fashionable people at the opera.

We had, nevertheless, no great excitements…

Shaw can write. But Montague’s book will be a slim milestone, a durable landmark in the interpretation and expression of the war.

Montague was a typical daredevil; that is, a quiet, modest-looking, rather shy elderly man with nothing of the soldier about him except his uniform. He would have been a hopeless failure on the stage as Captain Matamore. He had something of the Tolstoyan bitterness and disillusion that war produces at close quarters, less by its horrors, perhaps, than by its wastes and futilities. But to this he gave no intentional expression: his conversation and manner were entirely kindly. He said nothing of the exploits for which he was mentioned in despatches. . .[2]

 

And two brief notes to close. Yesterday, a century back, Edward Thomas went to “Gloster” (i.e. Gloucester, I assume) to see his friend Jack Haines, and sat up past midnight “gossiping about Frost, de la Mare, and the army, marching songs etc.” Haines had a present for him: Frost’s new book, Mountain Interval.

Today Thomas spent the morning with the Haines family, then read most of Mountain Interval on the train back to camp. There is less than a week to go, now, before embarkation, but the strange mix of business and idleness, of focused expectation and open-ended waiting, seems not to trouble Thomas unduly. Not so all of his comrades: one of the officers Thomas shared quarters with had “a screaming nightmare” last night.[3]

 

Finally, today, John Ronald Tolkien went before a medical board at 1st Southern General Hospital in Birmingham. As we have seen in the past, although the army is loath to send soldiers home from France unless they are really quite ill, it also seems to be generous with convalescent leave, allowing officers to recuperate their strength before returning to duty. Tolkien is no longer ill, but he is “still pale and weak” and liable to recurrences of fever and other symptoms. Accordingly, the medical board granted him a further month of leave, with at least one more month of home service after that.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 124-6.
  2. Elton, C.E. Montague, 152-64.
  3. War Diary (Childhood), 156.
  4. Chronology, 99.

Wilfred Owen in Front of the Line; Edmund Blunden’s Theatrical Interlude is Over; Edwin Vaughan’s Drastic Disillusionment

We have another full day, today, with excerpts from Edmund Blunden and Edwin Vaughan that each get at one (or more) of the core questions of how wartime experiences are transformed into literature. But first, today, we should begin by finishing with Wilfred Owen‘s first combat experience. Lasting from the 12th to the 15th, that nightmarish slog-and-cower affair is over–but today, a century back, Owen wrote the letter to his mother that described it. I’ll omit most of what we have already read, but the beginning and end of the letter itself make it clear why this letter really is the foundation of his war-writing.

Tues. 16 January 1917 [2nd Manchester Regt., B.E.F.]

My own sweet Mother,

I am sorry you have had about 5 days letterless. I hope you had my two letters ‘posted’ since you wrote your last, which I received tonight.

I am bitterly disappointed that I never got one of yours.

I can see no excuse for deceiving you about these last 4 days. I have suffered seventh hell.

I have not been at the front.

I have been in front of it.

I held an advanced post, that is, a ‘dug-out’ in the middle of No Man’s Land…

The narrative of the days in the line follows. When Owen begins his conclusion by criticizing the performance of other officers it is clear that he is not being snarky but rather expressing a sense of great relief: tere but for the grace of God he would have gone…

The officer of the left Platoon has come out completely prostrated and is in hospital.

I am now as well, I suppose, as ever.

I allow myself to tell you all these things because I am never going back to this awful post. It is the worst the Manchesters have ever held, and we are going back for a rest.

I hear that the officer who relieved me left his 5 Lewis Guns behind when he came out. (He had only 24 hours in). He will be court-martialled…

Don’t pass round these sheets but have portions typed for Leslie etc…

Your very own Wilfred x[1]

There were moments in this letter when it felt like straight, unfiltered reportage. “Downloading,” as we like to call it. But of course this is never perfectly true–our minds don’t work like that. The letter begins with grand dramatic statements, and if it proceeds through an intense and fairly unadorned description of horror, it ends with an awareness of itself. With, that is, the letter as a sensitive (in several senses) record of what has been experienced.

 

Now from a war-poet a-borning to the middle of the war’s most beautiful and harrowing memoir. When we last read Edmund Blunden it was not long after his Ypres Christmastime. Early in the new year he saw the town itself, and was shocked by the reality of this battered crucible of the war in Belgium.

I had longed to see Ypres, under the old faith that things are always described in blacker colours than they deserve; but this view was a tribute to the soldier’s philosophy. The bleakness of time had found its proper theatre. The sun could surely never shine on such a simulacrum of divine aberration.

“Theatre,” as a matter of fact, crops up in the title of this chapter of the memoir–“Theatre of War”–and thence to Paul Fussell‘s book, where it did the same duty. Today, a century back, a new act opened as his battalion went back into the line:

The new year was yet very young when the battalion filed through Ypres to take over trenches at Potijze, which we came to know very well. It was not the worst place in the Salient. I had seen it already, and its arrangement was simple — a breastwork front line, running from the Zonnebeke road to a railway bank on the south; a support line; two good (or not too bad) communication trenches — Haymarket and Piccadilly. Battalion headquarters dugout was at Potijze Chateau, beside the road. It boasted a handsome cheval-glass and a harmonium, but not a satisfactory roof.

This headquarters also enjoyed a kind of Arcadian environment, for the late owner had constructed two or three ponds in the grounds with white airy bridges spanning them, weeping willows at their marges, and there were even statues of Venus and other amorous deities, although I did not examine them closely. The chateau itself, much injured as it was, was not destroyed, and in the upper story my observers gazed through a telescope on a dubious landscape; lucky these, whose day could not begin before eight and ended at four with the thickening of what little light there had been. Littered on the floor beside them were old maps of parts of the estate, some of great age, and registers of the number of woodcock, hares, rabbits, and I forget what, formerly laid low by shooting parties of this fine house. At least we had not done that![2]

No huntsman he. But note, too, “Arcadian–” a second Fussell chapter title. This should remind us that, although we lost many good men and good writers in 1916–and though in many ways the stereotypical or shorthand view of the British experience of the war is essentially that of 1916, remembering the Somme and forgetting much of what came after–some of the most essential writers still have much of their war still ahead of them. The spring of 1917 will be eventful, the autumn as awful as anything on the Somme.

 

Finally, today, our newest diarist completes his approach to the line. Edwin Vaughan‘s big day was yesterday, a century back. He left camp outside Rouen, bound for the front line trenches–or so he thought.

As I drove down in the rattling, bone-shaking old taxi, I tried hard to convince myself that the moment I had lived for had arrived and that I was now a real Service man. But this was difficult: there was no band playing, no regiment bearing the old colours into the fray, only little me…

As the semi-official truck-train jerked out of Rouen, it began to snow hard, and the bare truck wherein I, the only passenger on the train, sat on my rolled up valise, was soon full of whistling snow…

And yesterday brought neither relief, resolution, nor rest. Left on a bare platform for his 1 a.m. connection to a branch line, Vaughan spent several hours walking to keep warm.

The cold was intense, and in addition I was wet through, beastly hungry and over the boots in snow.[3]

Today proper began with another slow, freezing train journey, this time not alone but in a compartment Vaughan shared with a wordless, whimpering Hussar and two fighting rats.

Once again I am struck not just by the novelistic writing style but with the extreme compliance of the accidents of his experience with the expectations of the form. Vaughan, that is, seems both ready to write a “war book” and fortunate to be readily experiencing numerous “set pieces” that fit the bill. Part of this, at least, is a good reminder for us: it’s 1917, and while the “war book” is not as strongly constructed or familiar an idea as it will be next year (not to mention 1929), it’s quite possible now for men to come to the front full not of Tennyson, Malory, Newbolt, and Brooke, but of Barbusse, Sorley, and the letters and word-of-mouth experiences of disillusioned officers (though Vaughan has shown no direct influence of these, as of yet).[4]

The other side of the equation are Vaughan’s intentions: more than most, this diary is akin to a novelistic memoir. What will he focus on? What will he choose to omit?

In any case he is unusually aware of the way in which his expectations dominate his experience, and his writing is very much colored by the disappointment of those expectations. He writes, in other words, in a strongly ironic mode.

Today’s entry continues at some length. By 6 a.m. a small station and breakfast, then a journey by lorry up to division HQ “beside a driver who annoyed me by regarding this journey up the line as a matter of no especial importance.”

As we drove out of Sénapont on to the main road, I began to question the driver about the line, picturing the Battalion in the midst of fire and smoke. He told me about the locality in which they were stationed, and I, with my eyes prepared to meet a scene of wire entanglements, shell bursts and trenches, was confused by his references to the estaminets the men frequented, the girls they met, and the cushy time they were having. Finally I discovered that we were just outside of Abbeville and many many miles from the line! It was a drastic disillusionment and I did not know whether to be annoyed or relieved.

That’s enough quotation for today, but the let-down will continue: from taxi to train to train to lorry to mess cart, and from base to division to actual combat unit Vaughan finally meets the officers of his battalion, billeted in an old hotel in Arraines-sur-Somme. He is greeted generally with either rudeness or indifference, and of course the first person he meets is the standard-issue useless major who is being kept from interfering with the unit’s actual operations…

The clouds clear briefly when Vaughan “chummed up with a fellow called Hawkins,” and then settle again definitively when the hostesses–“vile hag”–stumbles in, straight out of Victor Hugo, except that in this case both of the little girls who work for her are starved and overworked… Vaughan has pulled off a minor masterpiece of approaching-the-line bathos.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Collected Letters, 427-8. See also Hibberd, Wilfred Owen, 209-217.
  2. Undertones of War, 136.
  3. Once again it is clear that Vaughan's diary is carefully dated, but not always composed on the day indicated.
  4. The term "disillusion" will appear, below... and I should add that my sense that the diary was not merely "transcribed" much later on but actually, to some significant degree, rewritten, is growing. As far as I know it is impossible to know what "belongs" to the date, what was written within a few days, and what may have been added or altered long after...
  5. Some Desperate Glory, 6-8.

Rogerson, Blunden, and Carrington on the Edge of the Beaumont Hamel Battle; The Tragedy of Edwin Dyett Begins; Saki Sick in the Line; Frederic Manning, and Bourne’s Band of Brothers, Under Fire

Today, a century back, is a day of battle. In keeping with the usual procedure, here, I will not attempt any broad description of the action–it is “in the histories,” as one of our writers will note. It’s the last convulsion of the Somme, the last, exhausted shove forward into the battered German positions that if been in the British sights since July. It’s an especially notable day, here, because several of our most evocative memoir-writers were under fire–and because its events loomed large in two of the war’s most vividly rendered fictional lives, Frederic Manning‘s Bourne and A.P. Herbert’s Penrose.

We will begin with two writers on the outskirts of the battle, and work our way in from there. First, Sidney Rogerson, awaiting the return of his marauding Corporal Robinson.

About midnight Robinson reappeared, looking like some vendor of cheap jewellery at a fair. He was garlanded with watch-chains, and his pockets and haversack bulged with the haul of his gruesome search. He reported his return  to me and added “You know that shell-hole with the two dead Jerries in it where I had to shelter last night, sir? Well, there aren’t two. It’s the same Jerry, sir, only his head has been blown across the other side of the hole!”

This news he gave me with the cheerful air of one correcting a piece of false information, with no hint of either horror or disgust.

Forthwith he proceeded to spread out his trophies on the fire-step as if arranging a shop-counter… There were six or seven German watches complete with chains, two gold rings, an automatic pistol, several pocket-books…

As per his unofficial orders, he has also collected twenty pay books, which will serve as proof of decease for the British dead. I’ll pass over more discussion of parcels, trench cooking, and a rare admission that some of the infantry’s complaints about their own artillery may have been ill-founded, in order to get us to today’s main event. An officer named Hawley is just receiving a cup of hot café au lait brewed from a casualty’s parcel,

…when suddenly the flashing of a distant line of light lit up the night sky above the trench. Silence. A great cool rush of steel overhead. Then the roar of a thousand guns rushed upon us and over us, submerging us in a sea of sound. Hawley jumped, spilt scalding liquid down his chin, swore vigorously…

But the barrage–a feint, on their section of the front–is over quickly. Not so elsewhere.

And that is how we were unwittingly stallholders for one of the biggest shows of the Year of Grace, 1916. A few miles north of us the 5th Army had attacked on a wide front. It is known to history as the Battle of Beaumont Hamel. But this we only learnt afterwards. At the time of the assault we drank, smoked, and sang with never a thought for the thousands of lives being choked out by bullet, bayonet, or bomb within a few miles of us. We were content to know someone else was “for it.”

…simultaneously with the 5th Army’s offensive far away to the left, the French had attacked on a smaller scale some few hundred yards to our right, and the front line troops had found themselves in the orchestra stalls for a battle-piece. According to Mac the spectacle was so fantastic as to be scarcely credible. Pressing the metaphor of the theatre, the stage, seen through the curtain of the early morning misty, was lit by the dancing flames of the barrage, the din of which, drowning all else, gave the muted movement of a silent film…

This second-hand description of the French attack continues for a long paragraph–it’s very good, especially with our Fussellian interest in the “theater of war.” But as some of those lives being choked out on the left concern us, we will tread, fearfully, northward.[1]

 

Next comes Edmund Blunden‘s appreciation of Beaumont Hamel, viewed from near the Schwaben Redoubt.

Our own part was subsidiary, and the main blow was to be struck northward toward Grandcourt and Beaumont Hamel. Struck it was in the shabby clammy morning of November 13th.

That was a feat of arms vying with any recorded. The enemy was surprised and beaten. From Thiepval Wood battalions of our own division sprang out, passed mud and wire and took the tiny village of St. Pierre Divion with its enormous labyrinth, and almost two thousand Germans in the galleries there. Beyond the curving Ancre, the Highlanders and the Royal Naval Division overran Beaucourt and Beaumont, strongholds of the finest; and as this news came in fragments and rumours to us in Thiepval, we felt as if we were being left behind. Toward four o’clock orders came that we were to supply three hundred men that night, to carry up wiring materials to positions in advance of those newly captured, those positions to be reconnoitred immediately. This meant me.

A runner called Johnson, a red-cheeked, silent youth, was the only man available, and we set off at once, seeing that there was a heavy barrage eastward, but knowing that it was best not to think about it. What light the grudging day had permitted was now almost extinct, and the mist had changed into a drizzle; we passed the site of Thiepval Crucifix, and the junction of Fiennes Trench and St. Martin’s Lane (a wide pond of grayness), then the Schwaben — few people about, white lights whirling up north of the Ancre, and the shouldering hills north and east gathering inimical mass in their wan illusion. Crossing scarcely discernible scrawls of redoubts and communications, I saw an officer peeping from a little length of trench, and went to him. “Is this our front line?” “Dunno: you get down off there; you’ll be hit.” He shivered in his mackintosh sheet. His chin quivered; this blackness was coming down cruelly fast. “Get down.” He spoke with a sort of anger. By some curious inward concentration on the matter of finding the way, I had not much noticed the frantic dance of high explosive now almost around us. At this minute, a man, or a ghost, went by, and I tried to follow his course down the next slope and along a desperate valley; then I said to Johnson: “The front line must be ahead here still; come on.” We were now in the dark, and before we realized it, inside a barrage; never had shells seemed so torrentially swift, so murderous; they seemed to swoop over one’s shoulder. We ran, we tore ourselves out of the clay to run, and lived. The shells at last skidded and spattered behind us, and now where were we? We went on.

Monstrously black a hill rose up before us; we crossed; then I thought I knew where we were. These heavy timber shelters with the great openings were evidently howitzer positions, and they had not been long evacuated, I thought, stooping hurriedly over those dead men in field-gray overcoats at the entrances, and others in “foxholes” near by. The lights flying up northward, where the most deafening noise was roaring along the river valley, showed these things in their unnatural glimmer; and the men’s coats were yet comparatively clean, and their attitudes most lifelike. Again we went on, and climbed the false immensity of another ridge, when several rifles and a maxim opened upon us, and very close they were. We retreated aslant down the slope, and as we did so I saw the wide lagoons of the Ancre silvering in the Beaucourt lights, and decided our course. Now running, crouching, we worked along the valley, then sharply turning, through huge holes and over great hunks of earth, came along high ground above what had been St. Pierre Divion, expecting to be caught at every second; then we plunged through that waterfall of shells, the British and German barrages alike now slackening; and were challenged at last, in English. We had come back from an accidental tour into enemy country, and blessed with silent gladness the shell hole in which, blowing their own trumpets in the spirit of their morning’s success, were members of four or five different units of our division. We lay down in the mud a moment or two, and recovered our senses.

The way to Thiepval was simpler. At the edge of the wood a couple of great shells burst almost on top of us; thence we had no opposition, and, finding a duckboard track, returned to the battalion headquarters. Johnson slipped down the greasy stairway, and turned very white down below. We were received as Lazarus was. The shelling of the Schwaben had been “a blaze of light,” and our deaths had been taken for granted. Harrison was speaking over the telephone to Hornby, and I just had vitality enough to hear him say: “They have come back, and report an extraordinary barrage; say, it would be disaster to attempt to send up that party. Certain disaster. Yes, they say so, and from their appearance one can see that they have been through terrific shelling. . . . Yes, I’ll bring him along.” “That’s all right,” he turned to his second in command. “No wiring party. Seven o’clock — take it easy; Rabbit, we’ll go and see the General when you feel a bit better.”[2]

 

Charles Carrington, too, had a small part to play in the day’s battle. First the theater, then a brief brush with the war:

On 13th November 1916 there took place the last active operation of the Somme Battle, when the Durham Light Infantry of the 50th Division attacked the Butte of Warlencourt. We had moved to Prue Trench, a reserve position far down the forward slope, and enjoyed a view from the stalls, just as on 1st July we had watched the assault on Gommecourt from Hebuterne trenches…

I’ve had a tough time finding good maps for today’s action–our viewers are widespread, and the attacks happen to spread out over several sheets, few of which (available in the unparalleled McMaster University online archive) show anything like the current extent of the trenches. Here, then, is a large-scale map of the battlefield without any trenches at all, which will at least show the relative position of the many towns and villages mentioned.

beaumont-hamel

Serre is in the extreme northwest; Beaumont Hamel in the north center, Thiepval east and south of center…

 

Carrington at least got to fire a shot in the battle, if only from the periphery. He fired point-blank, from a Lewis Gun mounted on his corporal’s soldier, at a German airman, “a florid young man with a little dark moustache,” as he swooped down, strafing their trench. “We both missed.”[3]

 

So Charles Carrington and “Rabbit” Blunden have survived their day on the periphery of the battle. Others are headed for its center. The 22nd Royal Fusiliers were in reserve, but still directly behind the main line of the attack and sure to get into action eventually. They formed by 3 a.m., and in their ranks was Hector Munro–Saki–just back from the hospital so as not to miss the show. “He looked a very sick man and should have been in bed, but I knew his thoughts and the reason for his being fit.”

The 22nd moved up behind the troops attacking Beaumont Hamel, taking over the old British assault positions later in the morning. By mid-afternoon they had taken up a flanking position in no man’s land, protecting the new advance from possible counter-attack.[4]

 

Leading the assault, in the center of today’s action, was the Royal Naval Division. This unusual division–formed of two battalions of marines and six battalions, named after famous admirals, of volunteers and surplus sailors–did not perhaps have the trust of the army command, especially after the failures of Gallipoli (which were hardly the fault of the infantry, naval or otherwise). But today, despite heavy casualties, they were successful, taking several lines of German defense and the town of Beaumont Hamel. The hero of the battle will be the New Zealand athlete and Friend of Rupert Bernard Freyberg, commanding the Hood Battalion.

The Nelson battalion will take terrible casualties, losing almost all of its officers before Freyberg rallied its remnants to cover a floating left flank. Two officers of the Nelson who survived the day were A.P. Herbert and Edwin Dyett. Herbert will avoid describing the day in any detail, but neither is it absent from his later novel:

 I shall not tell you about it (it is in the histories); but it was a black day for the battalion. We lost 400 men and 20 officers, more than twice the total British casualties at Omdurman… Harry and myself survived.

Ah, but now I have crossed into fiction. Harry, in whose mind is waged The Secret Battle, is an officer whose struggle with his failing nerve is based–to a certain extent, at least–on Edwin Dyett. But while “Harry Penrose” will struggle on into 1917, today was the day that Dyett failed.

Dyett was considered unreliable. He was “windy”–which might mean either that he was anxious and jumpy or that he was considered to be cowardly, but which is a pretty good colloquial place holder for what we should think of as “exhibiting symptoms of PTSD.” He had also applied for transfer four times, letting his commanders know that his “nerves” were not bearing up under the strain. Dyett, accordingly, was left with the small cadre of reserves, back with the Divisional headquarters, out of the battle.

But not all the way out of it–just in reserve, cut off from his men and his fellow-officers, whether scornful or understanding. Late in the day, Dyett was ordered up, along with another officer, to take charge of reinforcements at Brigade headquarters and lead them into the line. The other officer found his men and, after showing Dyett a map of their destination, marched off. But Dyett disappeared somewhere between Brigade and the front, and no one will lay eyes between the middle of the afternoon and the end of the battle.[5]

 

So much for the men who were there (more or less). But the most affecting piece of writing that I can associate with today, a century back, is Frederic Manning‘s The Middle Parts of Fortune. The entire novel is devoted to the mental life of Bourne as he endures the long Somme campaign, and to his observation of the men of his company. It’s a very, very good book, and the chapter that takes place today is in most ways the climax. It is based, surely, on today’s attack on Serre (on the left of the line, to the north of the R.N.D.’s attack on Beaumont Hamel), in which Manning’s 7th Shropshire Light Infantry took part, suffering heavy casualties before returning to their trenches.

I can’t post an entire chapter, but I will post most of it… and I have more justification, perhaps, than usual. I haven’t read deeply in the literature on Manning, but I have several times come across statements to the effect that he named his fictional alter ego after the town of Bourne, where he had lived. But in my sketchy research aimed at ascertaining that today was indeed the day on which his fictional battalion attacked–i.e. on which his real battalion suffered heavy casualties–I came across an entry in the CWGC database that I have not seen referenced in the Manning scholarship. I’ll save that (possible) revelation, though, for after this lengthy excerpt…

If you have been reading along then you have been working up to this attack for several days. If not, the following details will suffice: Bourne, an educated man in the ranks, has had to slowly win the trust of the laborers and countrymen in his battalion. But he has done so: he is accepted as a good soldier, despite the fact that he was recently given a stripe (i.e. promotion to Lance-Corporal) in earnest of his officers’ intention to send him, against his wishes, to be trained as an officer. Bourne doesn’t want to go–he feels that he belongs with his battalion, and he has flatly refused to be sent away before the attack. So, today, he marches into it, together with his two particular mates, Shem and young Martlow.

 

Chapter XVI

We see yonder the beginning of day, but I think we shall never see the end of it…
I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle.

SHAKESPEARE

The drumming of the guns continued, with bursts of great intensity. It was as though a gale streamed overhead, piling up great waves of sound, and hurrying them onward to crash in surf on the enemy entrenchments. The windless air about them, by its very stillness, made that unearthly music more terrible to hear. They cowered under it, as men seeking shelter from a storm. Something rushed downward on them with a scream of exultation, increasing to a roar before it blasted the air asunder and sent splinters of steel shrieking over their heads, an eruption of mud spattering down on the trench, and splashing in brimming shellholes. The pressure among the men increased. Someone shouldering a way through caused them to surge together, cursing, as they were thrown off their balance to stumble against their neighbours.

“For Christ’s sake walk on your own fuckin’ feet an’ not on mine!” came from some angry man, and a ripple of idiot mirth spread outwards from the centre of the disturbance. Bourne got a drink of tea, and though it was no more than warm, it did him good; at least, it washed away the gummy dryness of his mouth. He was shivering, and told himself it was the cold. Through the darkness the dripping mist moved slowly, touching them with spectral fingers as it passed. Everything was clammy with it. It condensed on their tin hats, clung to their rough serge, their eyelashes, the down on their cheekbones. Even though it blinded everything beyond the distance of a couple of yards, it seemed to be faintly luminous itself. Its damp coldness enhanced the sense of smell. There was a reek of mouldering rottenness in the air, and through it came the sour, stale odour from the foul clothes of the men. Shells streamed overhead, sighing, whining and whimpering for blood; the upper air fluttered with them; but Fritz was not going to take it all quietly, and with its increasing roar another shell leaped towards them, and they cowered under the wrath. There was the enormous grunt of its eruption, the sweeping of harp-strings, and part of the trench wall collapsed inwards, burying some men in the landslide. It was difficult to get them out, in the crowded conditions of the trench.

Bourne’s fit of shakiness increased, until he set his teeth to prevent them chattering in his head; and after a deep, gasping breath, almost like a sob, he seemed to recover to some extent. Fear poisoned the very blood; but, when one recognised the symptoms, it became objective, and one seemed to escape partly from it that way. He heard men breathing irregularly beside him, as he breathed himself; he heard them licking their lips, trying to moisten their mouths; he heard them swallow, as though overcoming a difficulty in swallowing; and the sense that others suffered equally or more than himself, quietened him. Some men moaned, or even sobbed a little, but unconsciously, and as though they struggled to throw off an intolerable burden of oppression. His eyes met Shem’s, and they both turned away at once from the dread and question which confronted them. More furtively he glanced in Martlow’s direction; and saw him standing with bent head. Some instinctive wave of pity and affection swelled in him, until it broke into another shuddering sigh, and the boy looked up, showing the whites of his eyes under the brim of his helmet. They were perplexed, and his underlip shook a little. Behind him Bourne heard a voice almost pleading: “Stick it out, chum.”

“A don’t care a fuck,” came the reply, with a bitter harshness rejecting sympathy.

“Are you all right, kid?” Bourne managed to ask in a fairly steady voice; and Martlow only gave a brief affirmative nod. Bourne shifted his weight onto his other foot, and felt the relaxed knee trembling. It was the cold. If only they had something to do, it might be better. It had been a help simply to place a ladder in position. Suspense seemed to turn one’s mind to ice, and bind even time in its frozen stillness; but at an order it broke. It broke, and one became alert, relieved. They breathed heavily in one another’s faces. They looked at each other more quietly, forcing themselves to face the question. “We’ve stuck it before,” said Shem. They could help each other, at least up to that point where the irresistible thing swept aside their feeble efforts, and smashed them beyond recovery…

“It’ll soon be over, now,” whispered Martlow.

Perhaps it was lighter, but the stagnant fog veiled everything. Only there was a sound of movement, a sudden alertness thrilled through them all with an anguish inextricably mingled with relief. They shook hands, the three among themselves and then with others near them.

Good luck, chum. Good luck. Good luck.

He felt his heart thumping at first. And then, almost surprised at the lack of effort which it needed, he moved towards the ladder.

Martlow, because he was nearest, went first. Shem followed behind Bourne, who climbed out a little clumsily. Almost as soon as he was out he slipped sideways and nearly fell. The slope downward, where others, before he did, had slipped, might have been greased with vaseline; and immediately beyond it, one’s boots sank up to the ankle in mud which sucked at one’s feet as they were withdrawn from it, clogging them, as in a nightmare. It would be worse when they reached the lower levels of this ill-drained marsh. The fear in him now was hard and icy, and yet apart from that momentary fumbling on the ladder, and the involuntary slide, he felt himself moving more freely, as though he had full control of himself…

Then suddenly that hurricane of shelling increased terrifically, and in the thunder of its surf, as it broke over the German lines, all separate sounds were engulfed: it was one continuous fury, only varying as it seemed to come from one direction now, and now from another. And they moved. He didn’t know whether they had heard any orders or not: he only knew they moved. It was treacherous walking over that greasy mud. They crossed Monk Trench, and a couple of other trenches, crowding together, and becoming confused. After Monk was behind them, the state of the ground became more and more difficult: one could not put a foot to the ground without skating and sliding. He saw Mr Finch at one crossing, looking anxious and determined, and Sergeant Tozer; but it was no more than a glimpse in the mist. A kind of maniacal rage filled him. Why were they so slow? And then it seemed that he himself was one of the slowest, and he pressed on. Suddenly the Hun barrage fell: the air was split and seared with shells. Fritz had been ready for them all right, and had only waited until their intentions had been made quite clear. As they hurried, head downward, over their own front line, they met men, some broken and bleeding, but others whole and sound, breaking back in disorder. They jeered at them, and the others raved inarticulately, and disappeared into the fog again. Jakes and Sergeant Tozer held their own lot together, and carried them through this moment of demoralisation: Jakes roared and bellowed at them, and they only turned bewildered faces to him as they pressed forward, struggling through the mud like flies through treacle. What was all the bloody fuss about? they asked themselves, turning their faces, wide-eyed, in all directions to search the baffling fog. It shook, and twitched, and whirled about them: there seemed to be a dancing flicker before their eyes as shell after shell exploded, clanging, and the flying fragments hissed and shrieked through the air. Bourne thought that every bloody gun in the German army was pointed at him. He avoided some shattered bodies of men too obviously dead for help. A man stumbled past him with an agonised and bleeding face. Then more men broke back in disorder, throwing them into some confusion, and they seemed to waver for a moment. One of the fugitives charged down on Jakes and that short but stocky fighter smashed the butt of his rifle to the man’s jaw, and sent him sprawling. Bourne had a vision of Sergeant-Major Glasspool.

“You take your fuckin’ orders from Fritz!” he shouted as a triumphant frenzy thrust him forward.

For a moment they might have broken and run themselves, and for a moment they might have fought men of their own blood, but they struggled on as Sergeant Tozer yelled at them to leave that bloody tripe alone and get on with it. Bourne, floundering in the viscous mud, was at once the most abject and the most exalted of God’s creatures. The effort and rage in him, the sense that others had left them to it, made him pant and sob, but there was some strange intoxication of joy in it, and again all his mind seemed focused into one hard bright point of action. The extremities of pain and pleasure had met and coincided too.

He knew, they all did, that the barrage had moved too quickly for them, but they knew nothing of what was happening about them. In any attack, even under favourable conditions, the attackers are soon blinded; but here they had lost touch almost from the start. They paused for a brief moment, and Bourne saw that Mr Finch was with them, and Shem was not. Minton told him Shem had been hit in the foot. Bourne moved closer to Martlow. Their casualties, as far as he could judge, had not been heavy. They got going again, and, almost before they saw it, were on the wire. The stakes had been uprooted, and it was smashed and tangled, but had not been well cut. Jakes ran along it a little way, there was some firing, and bombs were hurled at them from the almost obliterated trench, and they answered by lobbing a few bombs over, and then plunging desperately among the steel briars, which tore at their puttees and trousers. The last strand of it was cut or beaten down, some more bombs came at them, and in the last infuriated rush Bourne was knocked off his feet and went practically headlong into the trench; getting up, another man jumped on his shoulders, and they both fell together, yelling with rage at each other. They heard a few squeals of agony, and he saw a dead German, still kicking his heels on the broken boards of the trench at his feet. He yelled for the man who had knocked him down to come on, and followed the others. The trench was almost obliterated: it was nothing but a wreckage of boards and posts, piled confusedly in what had become a broad channel for the oozing mud. They heard some more bombing a few bays further on, and then were turned back. They met two prisoners, their hands up, and almost unable to stand from fear, while two of the men threatened them with a deliberate, slow cruelty.

“Give ’em a chance! Send ’em through their own bloody barrage!” Bourne shouted, and they were practically driven out of the trench and sent across no-man’s-land.

On the other flank they found nothing; except for the handful of men they had encountered at first, the trench was empty. Where they had entered the trench, the three first lines converged rather closely, and they thought they were too far right. In spite of the party of Germans they had met, they assumed that the other waves of the assaulting troops were ahead of them, and decided to push on immediately, but with some misgivings. They were now about twenty-four men. In the light, the fog was coppery and charged with fumes. They heard in front of them the terrific battering of their own barrage and the drumming of the German guns. They had only moved a couple of yards from the trench when there was a crackle of musketry. Martlow was perhaps a couple of yards in front of Bourne, when he swayed a little, his knees collapsed under him, and he pitched forward on to his face, his feet kicking and his whole body convulsive for a moment. Bourne flung himself down beside him, and, putting his arms round his body, lifted him, calling him.

“Kid! You’re all right, kid?” he cried eagerly.

He was all right. As Bourne lifted the limp body, the boy’s hat came off, showing half the back of his skull shattered where the bullet had come through it; and a little blood welled out onto Bourne’s sleeve and the knee of his trousers. He was all right; and Bourne let him settle to earth again, lifting himself up almost indifferently, unable to realise what had happened, filled with a kind of tenderness that ached in him, and yet extraordinarily still, extraordinarily cold. He had to hurry, or he would be alone in the fog…

Bourne leaves Martlow and catches up with the main attacking wave.

And Bourne struggled forward again, panting, and muttering in a suffocated voice.

“Kill the buggers! Kill the bloody fucking swine! Kill them!”

All the filth and ordure he had ever heard came from his clenched teeth; but his speech was thick and difficult. In a scuffle immediately afterwards a Hun went for Minton, and Bourne got him with the bayonet, under the ribs near the liver, and then unable to wrench the bayonet out again, pulled the trigger, and it came away easily enough.

“Kill the buggers!” he muttered thickly.

He ran against Sergeant Tozer in the trench.

“Steady, of son! Steady. ‘Ave you been ‘it? You’re all over blood.”

“They killed the kid,” said Bourne, speaking with sudden clearness, though his chest heaved enormously. “They killed him. I’ll kill every bugger I see.”

“Steady. You stay by me…”

 

They were now convinced they could not go on by themselves. They decided to try and get into touch with any parties on the left. It was useless to go on, as apparently none of the other companies were ahead of them, and heavy machine-gun fire was coming from Serre. They worked up the trench to the left, and after some time, heard footsteps. The leading man held up a hand, and they were ready to bomb or bayonet, when a brave voice challenged them.

“Who are ye?”

“Westshires!” they shouted, and moved on, to meet a corporal and three men of the Gordons. They knew nothing of the rest of their battalion…

Some Huns were searching the trench. Sergeant Tozer, with the same party, went forward immediately. As soon as some egg-bombs had burst in the next bay, they rushed it, and flung into the next. They found and bayoneted a Hun, and pursued the others some little distance, before they doubled back on their tracks again. Then Mr Finch took them back to the German front line, intending to stay there until he could link up with other parties. The fog was only a little less thick than the mud; but if it had been one of the principal causes of their failure, it helped them now. The Hun could not guess at their numbers; and there must have been several isolated parties playing the same game of hide-and-seek. The question for Mr Finch to decide was whether they should remain there. They searched the front line to the left, and found nothing but some dead, Huns and Gordons.

Bourne was with the Gordons who had joined them, and one of them, looking at the blood on his sleeve and hands, touched him on the shoulder.

“Mon, are ye hurt?” he whispered gently.

“No. I’m not hurt, chum,” said Bourne, shaking his head slowly; and then he shuddered and was silent. His face became empty and expressionless. Their own barrage had moved forward again; but they could not get into touch with any of their own parties…

 

By now it is clear that the attack has failed (despite the success to the east, of which they could know nothing).

To remain where they were was useless, and to go forward was to invite destruction or capture.

“Sergeant,” said Mr Finch, with a bitter resolution, “we shall go back.”

Sergeant Tozer looked at him quietly.

“You’re wounded, sir,” he said, kindly. “If you go back with Minton, I could hang on a bit longer, and then take the men back on my own responsibility.”

“I’ll be buggered if I go back with only a scratch, and leave you to stick it. You’re a bloody sportsman, sergeant. You’re the best bloody lot o’ men…”

His words trailed off shakily into nothing for a moment.

“That’s all right, sir,” said Sergeant Tozer, quietly; and then he added with an angry laugh: “We’ve done all we could: I don’t care a fuck what the other bugger says.”

“Get the men together, sergeant,” said Mr Finch, huskily.

The sergeant went off and spoke to Jakes, and to the corporal of the Gordons. As he passed Bourne, who’d just put a dressing on Minton’s wound, he paused.

“What ‘appened to Shem?” he asked.

“Went back. Wounded in the foot.”

“E were wounded early on, when Jerry dropped the barrage on us,” explained Minton, stolidly precise as to facts.

“That bugger gets off everything with ‘is feet,” said Sergeant Tozer.

“E were gettin’ off with ‘is ‘ands an’ knees when I seed ‘im,” said Minton, phlegmatically.

There was some delay as they prepared for their withdrawal. Bourne thought of poor old Shem, always plucky, and friendly, without sentiment, and quiet. Quite suddenly, as it were spontaneously, they climbed out of the trench and over the wire. The clangour of the shelling increased behind them. Fritz was completing the destruction of his own front line before launching a counterattack against empty air. They moved back very slowly and painfully, suffering a few casualties on the way, and they were already encumbered with wounded. One of the Gordons was hit, and his thigh broken. They carried him tenderly, soothing him with the gentleness of women. All the fire died out of them as they dragged themselves laboriously through the clinging mud. Presently they came to where the dead lay more thickly; they found some helplessly wounded, and helped them. As they were approaching their own front line, a big shell, burying itself in the mud, exploded so close to Bourne that it blew him completely off his feet, and yet he was unhurt. He picked himself up, raving a little. The whole of their front and support trenches were being heavily shelled. Mr Finch was hit again in his already wounded arm. They broke up a bit, and those who were free ran for it to the trench. Men carrying or helping the wounded continued steadily enough. Bourne walked by Corporal Jakes, who had taken his place in carrying the wounded Gordon: he could not have hurried anyway; and once, unconsciously, he turned and looked back over his shoulder. Then they all slid into the wrecked trench…

Bourne has survived. Of his two great friends, the canny Shem has been lucky, and gotten a blighty one in the foot. But Martlow, the kid, is dead, and Bourne is in shock.

…He sat with his head flung back against the earth, his eyes closed, his arms relaxed, and hands idle in his lap, and he felt as though he were lifting a body in his arms, and looking at a small impish face, the brows puckered with a shadow of perplexity, bloody from a wound in the temple, the back of the head almost blown away; and yet the face was quiet, and unmoved by any trouble. He sat there for hours, immobile and indifferent, unaware that Sergeant Tozer glanced at him occasionally. The shelling gradually died away, and he did not know it. Then Sergeant Tozer got up angrily.

“Ere, Bourne. Want you for sentry. Time that other man were relieved.”

He took up his rifle and climbed up, following the sergeant into the frosty night. Then he was alone, and the fog frothed and curdled about him. He became alert, intent again; his consciousness hardening in him. After about half an hour, he heard men coming along the trench; they came closer; they were by the corner.

“Stand!” he cried in a long, low note of warning.

“Westshire. Officer and rations.”

He saw Mr White, to whom Captain Marsden came up and spoke. Some men passed him, details and oddments, carrying bags of rations. Suddenly he found in front of him the face of Snobby Hines, grinning excitedly.

“What was it like, Bourne?” he asked, in passing.

“Hell,” said Bourne briefly.

Snobby moved on, and Bourne ignored the others completely. Bloody silly question, to ask a man what it was like. He looked up to the sky, and through the travelling mist saw the half-moon with a great halo round it. An extraordinary peace brooded over everything. It seemed only the more intense because an occasional shell sang through it.[6]

 

bourne-perhapsThere is no dating fiction, really, but it would be strange to deny that Manning’s depiction of the attack on Serre in his novel is not based on the day his battalion attacked Serre, losing many men.

And it is very strange indeed to learn–this is the aforementioned fact that I stumbled upon on the CWGC website–that one of the men who of the battalion who was killed today, a century back, was a lance-corporal named John Bourne.

Is this a mere coincidence? Simply a name from the battalion that Manning bore with him, that linked a place and a feeling and a man in his mind? Or did this man, the real-life Bourne, mean something more to Manning?

If it’s entirely a coincidence, it’s uncanny. John Bourne’s body moulders in no known grave–he is listed, with the other missing of the Somme, on an Addenda Panel of the Thiepval Memorial. And then there’s the odd fact that his name is hand-written belatedly into the register–a correction or an afterthought (see at right). Unlike most of his fellow casualties, there is no information about his family.

I don’t know anything about the provenance of the CWGC’s documents… is it possible that this entry is “reality” influenced by fiction, that someone has written Bourne into the record after reading the novel? That would be strange indeed… it seems more likely that there was a John Bourne in the Shropshires, known to Manning.And so in some sense–weighty and interesting? trivial?–this man may have been the model for Manning’s Bourne, one of Great War Literature’s most important characters..

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Twelve Days on the Somme, 75-85.
  2. Undertones of War, 119-21.
  3. Soldier From the Wars Returning, 129-130.
  4. Munro, "Biography," 101; Langguth, Saki, 276-7.
  5. Herbert, The Secret Battle, 131-6; Seelers, Death for Desertion, 44.
  6. The Middle Parts of Fortune, 211-21.

Thiepval Falls: Tolkien, Graeme West, Blunden, and a Bunch of Dummies are On Hand; C.E. Montague Leads the Feckless, Kate Luard Takes a Long Walk

aerial_photograph_of_thiepval_bombardment_25-09-1916_iwm_q_63740

Aerial photograph of Thiepval under bombardment, 1916 (Imperial War Museum) The squiggles are German trenches, the pockmarks large-caliber shell holes

Yet another phase of the Somme began today, a century back, with the first assault of the British Reserve Army, a relatively new formation made up of several whole and rested divisions, including the First Canadian Division. Guns on Thiepval Ridge had killed hundreds on July 1st, and progress in that central section of the front had been measured in yards.

But today, in one long afternoon’s struggle, Mouquet Farm and the village of Thiepval finally fell. A few tanks aided the attack, but it was British artillery superiority and a more skillful use of the “walking barrage” and other hard-won infantry/artillery tactics that made the most difference. German resistance was fierce, but even the best-defended fortress can be taken if the artillery remains on it until the infantry arrive–and if there is insufficient footing for a quick counter-attack. British and French progress to the east and south had narrowed Thiepval to something like a salient and–not least because there were other less ruinous lines of defense long prepared and only a few miles to the east–the German commanders soon decided to cede the area and withdraw.

This vanished village, shelled for three months before it was finally taken (see the reconnaissance photo at right), will become the site, after the war, of Edwin Luytens’ Memorial to the Missing of the Somme, one of the great masterpieces of memorial architecture (see below).

None of our writers were in this assault, but several were in direct support. John Ronald Tolkien‘s 11th Lancashire Fusiliers marched from rest billets yesterday as far as Forceville, and today, a century back, they reached Hedauville, a town with a melancholy association for us. Tolkien spent the night sharing a tent with another officer, with camp to be struck in the morning.[1]

 

thiepval_memorial_to_the_missing

The Memorial to the Missing of the Somme

Also marching up into support–and much closer to the action–was Arthur Graeme West of the 6th Ox and Bucks.

Tuesday, Sept. 26th, 1916

Moved at 8.30 towards the Front. Everybody rather fed up and tired. Reached a shell-torn ridge just near G….. about noon… then moved up to occupy trenches near M….. A quiet enough night, but not much sleep.[2]

These would be–I think–either Guillemont or Gunchy and Morval, the desolate places taken between the beginning of the month and yesterday (largely by the battered Guards Division) that lie south of Thiepval and east of the horror-woods of July and August.

In the quieter section of the line north of the Thiepval ridge, Edmund Blunden and the 11th Royal Sussex had a curious part to play in the assault.

Their battalion diary preserves–as an appendix to the month’s doings–several details of the carefully-typed battalion orders. “Appendix B” details the activities of our sweet young poetical subaltern–harmless enough, today, for a man on the edge of Thiepval’s hell. (If only there were a more literary word we might use as a variation for this tired metaphor!)

  1. No smoke will be discharged unless the wind is between South and West. 2/Lt Blunden will be held responsible for this.
  2. 2/Lt. Blunden and 2 N.C.O.’s will assist the Brigade Bombing Officer who will be in charge of the smoke arrangements.

And assist them he did. It is characteristic of his memoir that Blunden modestly fulfills a strange martial task while another man–more rural, more practically skilled–does something altogether more interesting. Smoke screens… and straw-men.

Also, yes, Blunden will deliver that more resonant word for hell…

Recollection paints these autumn weeks in the Beaumont Hamel sector as a tranquil time. Naturally, there on the edge of the Thiepval inferno, there were ungentle interludes….

Other lacerations fell on the battalion in connection with the attacks on Thiepval south of the river. This name Thiepval began to have as familiar and ugly a ring as any place ever mentioned by man; and as yet we knew it by report only. Our present business was to divert some of the enemy’s heavy artillery from it when another forlorn hope was clutching the air before it: we made ostentatious “smoke attacks,” which gave me a change of employment. These attacks deluded some German machine gunners, and drew some shellfire, perhaps intended rather as a snub to impudence than as a genuine display of anxiety. The regimental sergeant-major, talented and gentlemanly Daniels, was ordered, about four one afternoon, to provide several hundred men of straw, which were to be raised above the parapet amid a heavy smoke cloud next morning. There was no straw. But with sandbags and grass and whatever trench theatricalities we could gather, with the aid of the regimental police, the ingenious man produced some dummies before midnight. And, I think, scarcely a dummy was lifted up next morning without becoming a casualty to the machine-guns. A good joke: but with this subaudible meaning, that the operators might have been playing the part of these marionettes, and no doubt would be yet.[3]

The Battalion Diary reports that this subterfuge “had the desired effect of distracting the Enemy & he shrapnelled our Front line & Supports, he also put a shrapnel barage across NO-MANS-LAND. No Casualties resulted.

 

Two brief bits, now, to close a curiously lighthearted day of dancing around the main violence. C. E. Montague is still playing pedagogue (if we might revert to the older sense of the word, in which a man of lower status and greater knowledge leads children to their lessons). He describes his day for his wife, and at least gives us what may be a tongue-in-cheek Rodin reference to sooth our hell-tired eyes:

I picked up my two charges and motored them over to an approach to an interesting part of the front… there was just enough shelling to give our guests thrills and finally decide them to come back, without really endangering them. They got another little thrill afterwards, as the Boche, in his wayward way, suddenly took to shelling the road about half a mile in front of the car–not thickly, but just here and there… you should have seen the way the excitable American chauffeur took the car over the mauvais pas, talking loudly all the time, and sending us flying up from the seats wherever the bumpy road was particularly bumpy. Nothing fell near us, but the guileless civilians imagined they had been in a real hot place, and were talking about having been in the gates of hell, etc., for a long time after… One feels ashamed to be going about with visitors who excite themselves if for two minutes in one day of their lives they run the quite small risk which every man in the trenches is running–and thinking nothing of–all the time. It is as if you and I were to escort the high-heeled tourist across the Mer de Glace.[4]

 

Finally, Kate Luard, whose “diary” for today reminds us that it is, in fact, a series of letters for her family members back in England. Although she has many times deplored the awfulness of violence and always treated German wounded with the utmost compassion, she is still cheered by a familiar English victory:

Great news of two Zepps brought down in Essex… I wonder did you see any of it? Proud moment for the Special Constable who took the 22 Germans prisoner in the middle of the night!

Also, after a harrowing summer, she has found an unexpected pause today in the constant duties of a head nurse. Having packed off three survivors of gangrene who “did their best to die” under her care, Kate Luard and a friend took a long walk–a favorite pastime long months in abeyance–and returned to have their rest immediately disturbed by a gas alarm: siren, then church bell, then village dogs.

It was a false alarm, and so back to bed, “after tea with the Night Sisters.”[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Chronology, 91.
  2. Diary..., 132.
  3. Undertones of War, 96-7.
  4. C.E. Montague, 144-5.
  5. Unknown Warriors, 90-1.

Siegfried Sassoon Invokes the Spirit of the Years; Edmund Blunden Will Be Left Behind; Noel Hodgson’s “Before Action.”

The Battle of the Somme was scheduled to begin this morning, a century back, but it has been postponed for two days. July 1st–a date to remember, a date to compress history with–will be the day the Big Push begins.

Three poets today, then, in the quiet of what was to have been the storm–two memories in prose and then an archetypal poem.

Siegfried Sassoon, who was to have rotated into support, is still holding trenches with the 1st Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. Under fire, he reads–yesterday, it was one of Hardy‘s great tragic novels. Today, he quotes the Spirit of Dramatic History:

June 29

Steady bombardment. Enemy quiet (up to 1.50 p.m.), weather cool and cloudy–no rain.

SPIRIT OF THE EARTH

What of the Immanent Will and Its designs?

SPIRIT OF THE YEARS

It works unconsciously, as heretofore,
Eternal artistries in Circumstance,
Whose patterns, wrought by rapt aesthetic rote,
Seen[1] in themselves Its single listless aim,
And not their consequence.

SPIRIT OF THE YEARS

Yet but one flimsy riband of Its web
Have we here watched in weaving—web Enorm,
Whose furthest hem and selvage may extend
To where the roars and plashings of the flames
Of earth-invisible suns swell noisily,
And onwards into ghastly gulfs of sky,
Where hideous presences churn through the dark—
Monsters of magnitude without a shape,
Hanging amid deep wells of nothingness.

(from Hardy, The Dynasts)[2]

Dodgy stuff, this cherry-picking from a vast reading to suit the circumstances of the day….  But, yes, these lines, written by Hardy to dramatize the Europe-ravaging, world-convulsing wars of just over a century back (i.e. the Napoleonic wars) fit very well for the century-back now. Battle looms, and Siegfried Sassoon is simultaneously grief-stricken, fairly happy, and engaging in battle-and-glory-tinged suicidal ideation.

 

Always unruffled and unassuming, Edmund Blunden is on the verge of what will be his first battle. He is near Richebourg-Saint-Vaast, north of the Somme, where a diversionary attack–which is intended to confuse the Germans and/or draw their reserves–is about to be launched.

Before long “secret” attack orders came, which everyone had to know. The phrase was that “The following officers and men have been carefully selected to participate,” or some such honorific proscription; however, our battalion was supplying only various detached parties, the real offensive falling to the share of the other three in the brigade. My name was not among the selected, and in that moment, so absurdly dominant is the desire to be talked about, disappointment was among my feelings.

Put this beside Sassoon’s voluntary heroics–not to mention Robert Graves‘s bellowing praise of them–and we have a good short-hand for the personalities of these three major war poets. Blunden, brave as the rest and considerably newer, is gentle and quiet. But, it would seem, even if he is too wise (or too retiring) to be “eager to go,” he is not master enough of his independent self-hood to escape disappointment. Ah, but then he recognizes the “absurdity…”

A further irony, of course, is built into the concept of the diversionary attack:

But what was the attack? This: The German line ran out in a small sharp cape here, called The Boar’s Head. This was to be “bitten off,” no doubt to render the maps in the chateaux of the mighty more symmetrical. The other battalions were being hurriedly exercised a mile or two behind through wheatfields, where the Pioneers had run up a canvas model of the enemy lines, and instead of some weeks, some days only were left; the day of decision came swooping upon the brigade. Over the way the Bois du Biez, with many trees still black and scowling amid the greenness of June, and empty houses along its verges, stood in our common gaze, nor was the legend that, when Neuve Chapelle (also close at hand, in sight) was assaulted, battalions went into the wood to be heard of never again, separable from its gaunt omnipresence. I explored some of the derelict trenches built for assembling infantry in the offensive of a year before, and found them terribly punished and shapeless, full of warnings, sown with jagged iron.

 And yet, these strong, cheerful, clean, determined men? these accumulations of trench-mortar bombs, hand grenades, bright blue wire, small-arms ammunition? these cruelly gleaming machine guns in hitherto unrevealed emplacements of our trenches, neat as office safes? On the afternoon before the attack, Penruddock (now away from us on some special duty) came up to give our selected ones the latest instructions, and also lanyards wherewith to bind numbers of prisoners. On that same afternoon our heavy artillery thundered away for hours at the German line; no answer came. How could we lose?

 

This question, of course, needs no answer from me. Nor does the following poem demand commentary. Noel Hodgson is somewhat akin to Blunden–gentle, countryish, classically trained. “Smiler,” though, is outgoing, while “Rabbit” is more of an alert watcher. Both go in for quietly effective poetry, but while Blunden’s will have depths to be explored, Hodgson tends to lay plain his meaning.

And that, in this case at least, is no criticism. Hodgson sat down, recently, to write what was on his mind as he prepared himself for battle–he may have completed “Before Action” as recently as a few days ago, but it was published today, a century back, in The New Witness.

 

Before Action

By all the glories of the day
And the cool evening’s benison,
By that last sunset touch that lay
Upon the hills when day was done,
By beauty lavishly outpoured
And blessings carelessly received.
By all the days that I have lived
Make me a soldier, Lord.

By all of all man’s hopes and fears,
And all the wonders poets sing.
The laughter of unclouded years.
And every sad and lovely thing;
By the romantic ages stored
With high endeavour that was his.
By all his mad catastrophes
Make me a man, O Lord.

I, that on my familiar hill.
Saw with uncomprehending eyes
A hundred of thy sunsets spill
Their fresh and sanguine sacrifice.
Ere the sun swings his noonday sword
Must say good-bye to all of this;–
By all delights that I shall miss
Help me to die, O Lord.

 

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Sassoon's mistake, I think--it should be "Seem."
  2. Diaries, 81.

Patrick Shaw-Stewart Located by Lions; Ivor Gurney on Welsh Music; David Jones on Patrol; Siegfried Sassoon in a Brown Study; John Bernard Adams is Hit

A lot to get to today, but I will trust in my readers’ fortitude and build slowly through the little updates toward the main event, which is another bloody day for the 1/Royal Welch Fusiliers of Siegfried Sassoon and John Bernard Adams.

First, then, our last man in the East, Patrick Shaw-Stewart, is up to his usual trick of censor-eluding by means of a classical atlas.

…If you were a reader of Herodotus I might talk of the place where Xerxes’ camels were attacked by lions, and where his army drank one river dry among several named: Ronald would tell you that, if you asked him, and, indeed, one might even perhaps with impunity name the Echedorus, as the name is not exactly in modern use.

7 June, 1916.[1]

Indeed not–but, a century on, a little sleuthing can reveal his location: he is near the Gallikos river, in northern Greece.

 

But Ivor Gurney is in the trenches, in France. Here is his first big “from the trenches” letter to his friend and patron Marion Scott:

7 June 1916

Dear Miss Scott: Your letter has just reached me, here, dans les tranchées. Where and how of course I may not say; bang in the front seats we are…

But O what luck! Here am I in a signal dugout with some of the nicest, and most handsome young men I ever met. And would you believe it? — my luck I mean; they talk their native language and sing their own folksongs with sweet natural voices. I did not sleep at all for the first day in the dugout — there was too much to be said, asked, and experienced: and pleasure in watching their quick expressions for oblivion. It was one of the notable evenings of my life….

Like most happy poets, Gurney has found music in his comrades–Welshmen, it would seem–and like pretty much all happy Englishmen in France, he has found something of England in the scenery:

Some of the country we passed through was very beautiful — rather like the Stroud Valley only far longer, and there was later a river, most serenely set in trees, long lines of trees…

The food in trenches is curiously arranged, apparently. I dont know whether the A[rmy] S[ervice] C[orps] steal it, but nobody gets more than a third of a loaf ever, and as a rule only a quarter. This is serious to a battallion that has innocently trusted to the army and spent all its money, before knowing how fickle and uncertain is the day of pay. Where everybody is broke there is of course a certain consolation of comradry, but O give me any other reason to be thankful for this spirit which binds the Infantry into a happy band of brothers. But who may resist French bread, and the inviting open door of cafes?

Like Frank Richards, Gurney sings the praises of the signaller’s life:

But these few days in the signal dugout with my Cymric friends are of the happiest for years. Out of the company to an extent we breathe the air of freedom almost forgotten. It really does not do for one who so much desires freedom as myself to think of the general conditions of the last few months.

A waste of spirit in an expense of shame…

His high spirits are tempered, still, by the accumulated indignities of army life. But that is merely personal–and a poet and composer has higher thoughts to tend to:

War’s damned interesting. It would be hard indeed to be deprived of all this artists material now; when my mind is becoming saner and more engaged with outside things. It is not hard for me to die, but a thing sometimes unbearable to leave this life; and these Welsh God makes fine gentlemen. It would seem that War is one of His ways of doing so.

Best wishes for health: Yours very sincerely Ivor Gurney[2]

 

Speaking of artists and the Welsh, we have now an update from our Royal Welch–but only half-Welsh, although increasingly Cymrophilic, albeit non-Welsh-speaking artist and poet David Jones:

Went on patrol with Lieut. Frost in search of working party on German crater. Bombs thrown. Frost–splendid, but a bit “wild”.

The patrol ran into a German patrol, but the skirmish that developed resulted in no injuries. Although Jones manifests here, through his writing, as mild-mannered and unsoldierly, he admired–with reservation–the reckless courage of the aggressive subaltern. His biographer comments:

Courage of the sort that made Lt. Frost ‘splendid’ meant a lot to Jones… Without ever laying claim to courage himself, Jones admired it above all other virtues… ‘fortitude is the cardinal virtue because without fortitude, which is the same thing as courage, you can’t have charity, you can’t do anything because you’re too cowardly–you’re unjust because you’re too cowardly.”[3]

 

From this sensible paean to courage we go to another Fusilier’s self-doubt. It’s a dark late-afternoon of the soul today for Siegfried Sassoon.

June 7 7:30 p.m.

Sitting in a dark dug-out twenty steps down after tramping about the sticky trenches all day. I suppose this cramped cellar is really rather ‘picturesque’ with its three candles and six thick wooden props down the middle and beams…

And I’m feeling a bit worried about being given the job of Sniping Observing’ Officer (knowing nothing about sniping or map-making) though it’s a less strenuous job than being a company officer. On these rare occasions when I lose my courage to face the future there is usually some explanation for it: Liver or over-smoking or we weather. I shall have to do a patrol in the long grass to-night to get rid of this hemmed-in feeling.

I don’t often descend to the desire of a blighty one which everyone talks about. If I get one I’m sure it won’t be a ‘cushy’ one. And I rather want to see the summer out, and get the experience of the big battle which surely must come next month. And as for dying, I know it’s nothing, and there’s not much for me to lose except a few years of ease and futility…

Here it would seem that we come close to despair–and yet does despair produce what sounds like a first political statement (about the recent death of the very high and mighty)? Does despair permit the wit to sketch such an indelible image of symbolic “Victory?”

I can’t see things in proportion at all to-night. Death seems the only fact to be faced; the rest all twaddle and purposeless energy. Lord Kitchener is drowned—there’s another shock to everyone’s tender hearts. And yet, why shouldn’t he die? We’re all dying. And the war will go and on till we can’t stick it any longer and Victory will greet us with a very wry smile and a dud shell in each hand. I suppose I’m feeling what Robert Graves felt when he wrote ‘Is this limbo?’ Shut in; no chance of escape. No music; the quest for beauty doomed. But I must go on finding beauty here and now; not the sort of beauty I used to look for.

I’ll take this next bit as a pretty devastating pre-emptive attack–with a century’s anticipation no less, on my recent attempts to work up the honest headlong joy and relief of the “going home on leave” piece. Good lord Sassoon is down today, and cutting.

And then I shall be going home on leave next week. There’ll be the tedious train-journey down to Havre, and the boat waiting in the twilight, and chatter of officers going home like me. Then the beastly hours of trying not to feel ill, and Southampton, and the sentimental thrill as one sets foot on an English railway-platform (the eyes should fill with unbidden tears—England, my mother, and so on). Then London, and luxury, and being clean and tidy, and going down to Paddock Wood, and the Weirleigh garden in the June sunset; and poor old Mother trotting out to meet me. It’s all so nice, but do I really long for it (to keep me safe) as much as I long to keep my freedom out here? For it is freedom, even when it rains and I get the blues. And I have been most awfully slack in every way till I had to be a soldier. Really, I’m in a desperate muddle to-night, and I haven’t written down anything which will bring this hour back to me vivid and true. It’s the little details that speak out clear.[4]

Sometimes Siegfried Sassoon is a very good writer with very bad instincts.

 

And, it would seem, a soldier “slack” enough to be entirely disconnected from the events taking place on the very same day in a different company of his own battalion. Sassoon has no comment on what for John Bernard Adams was very much a “day after.”

Lance-Corporal Allan was killed on Tuesday the 6th of June. For the rest of that day I was all “on edge” I wondered sometimes how I could go on: even in billets I dreamed of rifle-grenades; and though I had only returned from leave a fortnight ago, I felt as tired out in body and mind as I did before I went…

My nerves were all jangled, and my brain would not rest a second. We were nearly all like that at times.

Barbed-wire_2871765c

A type of pre-fab wire obstacle similar to the one Adams describes

beaumont_hamel_trench

What heavily-wired sections of non man’s land might come to look like…

I decided therefore to go out again to-night with our wires. I had been out last night, and Owen was going to-night, but I wanted to be doing something to occupy my thoughts. I knew I should not sleep. At a quarter to ten I sent word to Corporal Dyson, the wiring-corporal, to take his men up at eleven instead of ten, as the moon had not quite set. At eleven o’clock Owen and I were out in No Man’s Land putting out concertina wire between 80a and 81a bombing posts, which had recently been connected up by a deep narrow trench. There was what might be called a concertina craze on: innumerable coils of barbed wire were converted into concertinas by the simple process of winding them round and round seven upright stakes in the ground; every new lap of wire was fastened to the one below it at every other stake by a twist of plain wire; the result, when you came to the end of a coil and lifted the whole up off the stakes was a heavy ring of barbed wire that concertina’d out into ten-yard lengths. They were easily made up in the trench, quickly put up, and when put out in two parallel rows, about a yard apart, and joined together with plenty of barbed wire tangled in loosely, were as good an obstacle as could be made. We had some thirty of these to put out to-night.

This was last night, a century back, but it will be a long night.

When you are out wiring you forget all about being in No Man’s Land, unless the Germans are sniping across. The work is one that absorbs all your interest, and your one concern is to get the job done quickly and well. I really cannot remember whether the enemy had been sniping or not…

After a time I went along to Owen, whose party was working on my left. Here Corporal Dyson and four men were doing well also. All this strip of land between the trench and the crater edge was an extraordinary tangle of shell-holes, old beams and planks, and scraps of old wire. Every square yard of it had been churned and pounded to bits at different times by canisters and “sausages” and such-like. Months ago there had been a trench along the crater edges; but new mines had altered these, and until we had dug the deep, narrow trench between 80a and 81a about a fortnight ago, there had been no trench there for at least five months. The result was a chaotic jumble, and this jumble we were converting into an obstacle by judiciously placed concertina wiring…

I had just looked at my luminous watch, which reported ten past one, when I noticed that the sky in the east began to show up a little paler than the German parapet across the crater. “Dawn,” I thought, “already. There is no night at all, really. We must knock off in a quarter of an hour. The light will not be behind us, but half-past one will be time to stop.”

It seems like an impossibly early dawn, but it isn’t: the army has not yet put its clocks forward (this month, a century back, saw the first imposition of Summer or “Daylight Savings” time) and Northern France is more northerly than one thinks, at times.

So, treacherous light draws near:

I was lying out by the bombers, gazing into the black of the crater. It was a warm night, and jolly lying out like this, though a bit damp and muddy round the shell-holes. Then I got up, told Corporal Evans to come in after fixing the coil he was putting up, and was walking toward 80a post, when ”Bang” I heard from across the crater, and I felt a big sting in my left elbow and a jar that numbed my whole arm.

“Ow,” I cried out involuntarily, and doubled the remaining few yards, and scrambled down into the trench.

Corporal Dyson was there.

“Are you hit, sir!”

“Yes. Nothing much—here in the arm. Get the wirers in. It’ll be light soon.”

Then somehow I found my equipment and tunic off; there seemed a lot of men round me; and I tried to realize that I was really hit. My arm hung numb and stiff, with the after-taste of a sting in it I felt this could not be a proper wound, as there was no real throbbing pain such as I expected. I was surprised when I saw a lot of blood in the half light. Corporal Dyson asked me if I had a field-dressing, and I said he would find one in the bottom right-hand corner of my tunic. To my annoyance he did not seem to hear, and used one of the men’s. Then Owen appeared, with a serious peering face.

“Are all the wirers in?” I asked.

“Yes,” he answered. “How are you feeling?”

His serious tone amused me. I wanted to say, “Good heavens, man, I’m as fit as anything. I shall be back to-morrow, I expect.” But I felt very tired and rather out of breath as I answered “Oh! all right.”

By this time my arm was bandaged and I started walking back to Maple Redoubt, leaning on Corporal Dyson. I wanted to joke, but felt too tired. It seemed an interminable way down, especially along Watling Street.

I had only once looked into the dressing-station, although I must have passed it several hundred times. I was surprised at its size: there were two compartments. As I stepped down inside, I wondered if it were shell-proof. In the inner chamber I could hear the doctor’s quick low voice, telling a man to move the lamp: and it seemed to flash across me for the first time that there ought to be some kind of guarantee against dressing-stations being blown in like any ordinary dug-out. And yet I knew there was no possibility of any such guarantee.

Adams is shortly examined by the battalion doctor.

“Now then, Bill,” said the doctor. “So sorry to keep you…”

It smarted as he undid the bandage. I don’t know what he did. I never looked at it.

“What sort of a one is it?” I asked.

“I could just do with one like this myself,” said the doctor.

“Is it a Blighty one?”

“I’d give you a fiver for it any minute,” answered the doctor.

This, needless to say, is a very skillful translation of the bedside manner to a front-line dugout. Within a few minutes, Adams begins the long journey back down the line.

“I can’t make out why there’s not more pain,” said I.

“Oh, that’ll come later. You see the shock paralyzes you at first. Here, take one of these.” And he gave me a morphia tabloid.

“Cheero, Bill,” he said, and I went out of the dug-out leaning on a stretcher-bearer. Bound my neck hung a label, the first of a long series. “Gun-shot wound in left forearm,” it contained. I found later, “? fracture. 1.15 a.m., 7.6.16.”

Outside Lewis was waiting with my trench kit. He had appeared a quarter of an hour back at the door of the dressing-station, and had been told by the doctor so rapidly and forcibly that he ought to know that he would go with me to the clearing station, and that he had five minutes in which to get my kit together, that he had fairly sprinted away. Poor fellow! How should he know, seeing that he had been my servant over six months, and I had never got wounded before! But the doctor always made men double.

As I passed our dug-out, Edwards, Owen, Paul, and Nicolson were all standing outside. “Cheero,” I shouted. “Good luck. The doctor says it’s nothing much. I’ll be back soon.”

…I wanted to say such a lot I wanted to say that I was sure to be back in a week or so. I wanted to think hard… I wanted to talk to Sergeant Andrews… But the stretcher-bearer was walking on, and I must go as he pleased… in the full light of dawn, about half-past two, I was rolled serenely down the hill to the Citadel.

Adams’ day is only beginning. At the citadel, a tetanus shot and an ambulance, then the Casualty Clearing Station at Heilly, where he rested and waited for a surgeon’s attentions. It was here that Adams learned, of all things, of Kitchener’s demise. His impressions, available here–but spoilers abound–of the work of orderlies, nurse, matron, and surgeon are interesting to set against all we’ve read from Lord Crawford and, especially, Kate Luard.

The upshot, if one pardons the phrase, was that Adams’ wound was quickly repaired, and he awoke to pain and anxiety: anxiety because the bone was not broken after all. Would he still see blighty?[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Knox, Patrick Shaw-Stewart, 168-9.
  2. War Letters, 67-8.
  3. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 98.
  4. Diaries, 74-5.
  5. Nothing of Importance, 268-284, 285-95.

Siegfried Sassoon Contemplative, and Gathering Primitive Weapons; Raymond Asquith on Boredom, Fear, and the Boring Fear of Growing Old

It’s once again time to check in with Raymond Asquith, and see how the regimental life is suiting him. We’ll go back five days, as far as a letter to Diana Manners

25 May 1916

. . . We came out to this utterly bloody camp where we now are on Sunday night, marching between fields of deep cool green corn in the early morning. It was wonderfully like what coming home from a ball through Covent-Garden ought to be, but, as we know, isn’t–leaving behind one the flash and clatter of machine guns and pressing one’s brow against the dewy peace of the vegetable world…

That, it must be said, is an unexpected metaphor.

Katherine writes that you have been an angel to her which I like to hear, and also that you are utterly stagestruck which I like less. Tell me when you next write, about the stage and why you like it. It makes me think that you might like Ypres…

A brutal orderly has come for the post while I still had much more to say. Write as much as you can without putting a burden on yourself.

And to Katherine, his wife:

25 May 1916
. . . I spent yesterday from 8.30 a.m.-4.30 p.m. in a wood near here with Ham. We took 100 men to put up wooden huts there and spent quite a pleasant and restful day lying on our backs on the moss drinking whisky, listening to the song of the nightingales and reading aloud to one another a book by Ouida called Chandos which we both thought very funny.

Never mind the decadent drinking and reading while the enlisted men labor: is Asquith surrendering, at long last, to the lazy siren song of the pastoral?

It was a fine warm day and the only trouble was that we were harassed incessantly by midges and mosquitoes . . .

Nope. Two days back, now, a more serious letter.

3rd Grenadier Guards,
B.E.F.
28 May 1916

I notice a distinct change in the morale of this battalion since I was last with them–the officers I mean. They are more tired of the war, more frightened of shells and talk more constantly about the prospects of peace. I think it is almost entirely boredom which produces this effect, because it is absurd to pretend, as some people do, that there is anything in the nature of continuous nervous strain in this war. Shelling certainly has a cumulative effect, but even in the Salient there is hardly more than 1 day a month when it is bad enough to cause real distress.

This is an odd conclusion, but one we might have expected: boredom is Asquith’s bête noire and he has a rather expansive sense of it. So we might try to bend his words to fit the idea that prolonged inaction under intermittent shellfire… but no, he goes right out and says that he does not believe that ordinary service in the trenches should cause “cumulative strain.”

There are many opinions about this, and Asquith is surely entitled to his, but then again he hasn’t been in a major bombardment, he has just had a nice long break at G.H.Q., and he is likely to be seeing the reflection of his own experience and mistaking it for others’. He loathes boredom and it saps his morale, so others… but still, it’s odd that he will acknowledge the “cumulative” nature of nervous strain but deny that it may be happening to others. Asquith is, needless to say, on the wrong side of history (or, rather, military historiography) on this one.

Finally, a letter of today, a century back, in which Asquith recovers his equilibrium with a virtuoso performance of the finding of lemons and the making of delightfully tarter lemons.

3rd Grenadier Guards,
B.E.F.
30 May 1916

Last night we had an open air concert in the dusk, a long succession of super-sentimental songs, about people being married for 40 years and still playing the same old tune on the piano and so on. I wondered what we should be like in 40 years; and came to the conclusion that you would still be very sweet indeed, though poor Trim [their infant son] would be just developing the “middle-aged spread”. What a terrible place the world is. Even in war time one can’t help having more apprehensions about living to be old than about being cut off in the flower of one’s youth–if indeed one can still call it that…[1]

 

More youthful by some eight years, and recently very much both in flower and in peril, Siegfried Sassoon is still coming back to the good green French earth after the excitement of the failed raid.

May 30, 6.30 p.m.

Sitting on a milestone which says ‘Amiens 29.7k.’ Pérorine 22.9k’. A cloudless white evening—the tall green wheat shaking in a light southerly breeze. A steam-roller puffing and crunching a couple of hundred yards down the road toward Corbie (12.3k. Bray-sur-Somme 4.4k).

Well, that’s a nice one for the next project: traveling around France and Flanders affixing hand-hewn stone plaques to the precise locations of Great War literature.

Some guns thudding a few miles away; and the long dark green line of the Bois de Taille (full of Devons and Border Regiment) with telegraph-poles standing in the foreground. Rode over to Corbie this morning and saw Stansfield at the clearing hospital there. He is out of danger. A nice ride–with our cheery Medical Officer—in cool grey weather after a rainy night.

This is good news, since Stansfield’s injuries were thought to be severe. And so have we finished with the Great Raid of the Royal Welch? No–the hero is lingering upon the field.

Had a narrow squeak on Friday night when I went out to try and collect the debris of the raid: a bomb (from a catapult) fell about a yard from me, but I was lying flat, so everything passed over me, and I was only half-deafened by the noise. Got three axes and a knobkerrie, but I don’t think if was worthwhile. Still, my luck seems to hold. Name been sent in for M.C. (so rumour says). Lord, how pleased everyone will be if I get it.

Worthwhile? No, risking one’s life to pick up simple tools is generally not. Note too what Sassoon does not mention: the dead. Not Corporal O’Brien, killed in the raid; and not David Thomas. Has action changed him?

Walking home, there was an acre of thick wet clover, deep-red and tipped with paler pink, and in those lush tangles were a few small scarlet poppies. And the sun was low above delicate, watery-green landscapes tufted with trees; and Morlancourt in the basin with smoke going up looked very peaceful: and brown bees were in the clover-patch, and the sun went down like a poppy.[2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Life and Letters, 263-5.
  2. Diaries, 65-7.