Lord Dunsany Finds Comfort Among Friends, and a Near Miss and Wordsworth

Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany, has had a less than exalted military career. He’s never fit in well with his brother officers–perhaps because he is a prickly sort of character, perhaps because he’s a literary chap (and a fantasy-inclined literary chap at that), or perhaps because he was briefly an officer in the prewar army and had quit, thus demonstrating a preference for the life of a prickly, literary, adventurous, wealthy lord to that of a career army officer… For these reasons–or because of his outspokenness or his intermittent speaking up for an enlisted poet–and also certainly because of his status as a peer and the fact that his wound was bravely but awkwardly obtained in Dublin–Dunsany has spent very little time at the front. So it is with eager appreciation that he has found himself accepted, at last, into the less socially intimidating milieu of a line battalion.

He has found fellowship–friends and comrades, if not yet quite a band of brothers. And this makes him very happy. But how did it come about?

Because out here, where titles and outside interests are not of much account, he has passed the one test that really matters.

My Darling Mink,

We are well out of the way of shells and will still be when you get this letter. I hope you may some day meet all the officers of D. Co. with whom I have soldiered. They are all my friends, even Lacey, a typical ranker: they probably all started out with a prejudice against my inexperience, which I think changed in every case under shell-fire…

That is, the logically assumed that a titled, ex-professional officer with so little trench experience was either being protected or had previously proven to be a grave liability. But, as with Robert Graves and so many others, he finds that social resistance is not zealously maintained against an officer who can do his job under fire.

And, even better, the mixed lot of men now officering old Kitchener battalions are likely to be less hostile to the consolations of literature than a mess full of regular officers.

…and another is Williams… a journalist on the Manchester Guardian with a good appreciation for poetry. One night I was rummaging among philosophy to find comfort and he said did I know Wordsworth’s Ode to Duty. I asked him to repeat it, which he could not do, but he said what he could remember of it as we went along the line and I certainly found it inspiring. I don’t think I told you that I was hit one night but not hurt. It was that night, but it was later on that we were talking about Wordsworth, towards dawn.

Ever your loving



References and Footnotes

  1. Amory, Lord Dunsany, 147.

The Earth Opens Under the Royal Welch; Noel Hodgson Rides Toward the Hidden Places; We Get to Know Ivor Gurney–Under Fire, Fed Up, and Exalted

We begin in the early morning hours on the Givenchy front, with Captain Blair of the Royal Welch.

…it was about twenty minutes to two… There was stillness everywhere. I had just stepped off the fire-step into the sap–Pattison was about 5 yards from me–when I felt my feet lifted up beneath me and the trench walls seemed to move upwards. There was a terrific blast of air which blew my steel helmet Heaven knows where. I think that something must have struck me then on the head… I remember nothing more until I woke to find myself buried up to the neck and quite unable to move hand or foot…

I awoke to an appalling shindy going on, and gradually realized that heavy rifle and machine-gun fire was taking place and that bullets were whistling all round. Several men passed within a few feet of me… I remember hoping they would not trip over my head. The men were shouting to each other, but I was too dazed to appreciate that the language was German. When I heard a hunting-horn I was certain I was having the nightmare of my life–pegged down and unable to move, with a hailstorm of bullets all round, and men rushing about perilously near kicking my head. The firing died down, and I realized it was no nightmare but that I was very much awake.

By dawn C Company of the Welch and the Cameronians on their right had driven out the Germans who had occupied the huge crater–30 feet deep, and approximately the size of a football field (or pitch!)–in the minutes after the explosion. “Red Dragon Crater” will be a famous feature of the Givenchy front from now on.[1]

Frank Richards, fortunately, was a bit further from the blast:

I arrived back in my dug-out and about 1.30 a.m. was woken up by a terrific explosion on our right front. The ground shook and rocked as if an earthquake had taken place… the enemy had exploded a mine on our extreme right… all communication with the exception of D on our right had broken down. A little later the enemy shells began falling all along the Battalion’s front and the lines went between us and D and also we lost touch with Battalion Headquarters in the rear…

…with the exception of eight men the whole of B had been blown up by the mine and… the enemy had made a rush to occupy the crater, but had been repulsed by C Company and the eight survivors of B.

Dawn was now breaking and I made my way to C. Passing along the trench I came across the headless body of Sergeant Bale[2]… a piece of shell had took his head clean off and deposited it on the back parapet in such a way that it now seemed to be looking down at the body.

Richards goes on to praise Captain Stanway, who led the counter-attack and won a DSO, and Captain Blair himself, “a man with many lives.” He also wryly notes that another officer, who panicked and had his orders countermanded by an NCO, was given a minor decoration. For Richards, this horror is a personal story–the tale of a major near miss:

If the signallers of B had had a dug-out I might have stayed with them a couple of hours swopping yarns and brewing tea and would have gone West with them…[3]

Meanwhile, Captain Blair and the more severely wounded Sergeant Morris soon free their arms and begin to dig, throwing up a tiny parapet between themselves and the Germans. They spend all the long June day there, wedged against the body of one of their men, shelled and shot at whenever rescuers try to reach them.

After several hours I freed my right leg, but my left leg was fixed down firmly under me and felt quite dead. The sun was very hot… my eyes were very much worse, they were full of grit and dirt; they were running in streams and were excessively painful. Morris was in great pain and becoming light-headed.

When Morris becomes delirious and suicidal, and Blair punches him to quiet him. Morris recovers, but begs for water. It was not completely dark until 10:30, and then an agonizing hour of quiet waiting began.

We were parched with thirst and had visions of lying out another twenty-four hours without water. We were getting depressed and loosing hope when–it must have been nearly 11.30–I heard footsteps and a muttered whisper: English, thank Heaven.

Among the rescuers was Dr. Dunn himself:

To get to Morris, Blair, who was nearer the surface, had to be got away. With him joining in the work like a terrier, it took the better part of an hour to free his imprisoned leg from the grip of the damp, compressed earth and trench debris. The freeing of Morris from that tangle of barbed wire, torn sand-bags, pickets, angle irons, and one of Bayliss’s legs… was a long and difficult business…[4]


Today, a century back, Noel Hodgson was looking both forward and back as he completed the short prose sketch titled–and set on–Ascension Morning. We took a look at this piece back on June 1st: in it a young subaltern dwells on his memories of good times past and meditates on how such memories sustain the soul twice–in the moment, and in recollection. He recalls an earlier Ascension Morning, when he and a friend snuck out of school early to go bird-nesting spree… and then he talks with an Irish officer who is brooding on the friends he has lost:

“One died at Suvla Bay—they never found his body; and now the other is ‘ Dead,’ not even ‘killed in action,’
but dead in a hospital among strangers like any pauper in a workhouse ward. And this is Ascension Day.”

And I, knowing that it is given to man to be full of sorrows and that no sorrow is so heavy as to lose one’s
friend, could say nothing to him; and he walked on, fighting his battle.

Now we had come in our march to the crest of a hill, and before us lay a wide valley full of the morning sun,
where men were ploughing and women in blue hoods went up and down the fields. A rumble of carts and
the noise of horses was in the air, and the blue woodsmoke rose steeply from cottage chimneys.

And as I looked upon this ordered beauty and sufficiency, which seemed so right and of a part with Nature, and saw Irishman gazing at it with puzzled eyes, another recollection came to me–of a morning when I smoked my pipe under the hedge of a French farm-garden and watched the folk going about the day’s work, while inside the house they tried a man for his life. The Irishman looked up at me expectantly as if I should make it clear to him. But certain as I was of the truth of those things which I had thought earlier in the day, no words came to me; and, setting spur to Majoribanks, I rode forward down the white road which crossed the valley and ran over the further ridge into the hidden places of the downs.

June 22nd, 1916.[5]

Hodgson is too wise, here, to even hint at knowledge, at mastery. And the consoling voice of religion is quiet.

One wonders–did he view the model of the beckoning battlefield before or after he wrote this musing on cross-country vision and dawning uncertainty?[6]


Ivor Gurney, who has just completed a final course of training “embedded,” as we would say, with a more experienced (and blissfully Welsh) group of signallers, has nonetheless had time to write several looooong letters to Herbert Howells. These were posted together (envelopes being scarce) today, a century back. Some excerpts:

My Dear Howells:

How are you all this long time? Be good, and write me a long letter full of meaty things about College; a real gossipy letter full of all the little things I want to know…

Well, here we are in France, and almost at once shoved up into 1st line trenches, but where I write is reserve, in billetts, and surrounded by some of the attributes of civilisation, but not many…

The Chinese knew a little of torture, and had an inspiration named “Death by the thousand Cuts,” but amateurs they were besides the Grand High Inquisitors who run the British Army; which, while “resting” , has the natural aversion to wounds and death to a fear lest it should, by the anger of God, be left alive and physically fit to endure more of the same kind of “rest” — how it hurts a man with a sense of word-values so to misuse words! It is almost as bad as 3rd grade neurasthenia.

This is not an idle comment. Gurney’s mental health has been problematic, and if honesty about his worries about the war’s effect on his sanity is unusual, it is in part because he has more reason than most to fear mental breakdown.

But supposing I come at last through all this complete in mind and body, there will be some memories will remain. Our first night in trenches was one of the most surprising things that can ever happen to me. We set out I suppose about the beginning of the afterglow, and went eastward with the usual thoughts in our mind—at least I suppose so. In the communication trenches, which were very long, we had lots of opportunity to look at the West, and remember what lay under Venus; as Wordsworth did in a Sonnet written on Calais sands, beginning “Fair Star of evening” ; up we went, with now and again a bullet whizzing above us or a startling clatter of machineguns in the distance; and then at last the trenches — 2nd and then 1st. We made enquiries, and then C and I crawled into a signallers dugout, and so made the acquaintance of 4 of the nicest people that ever you could meet — and educated. They were absolutely first rate chaps. Unlike some men out here, they didn’t try to frighten us with horrible details, but gave us as much help as possible in getting hold of ordinary routine, and in making us feel as much at home as possible. I had no sleep for 36 hours. We talked of books and music. And they sang — Glory be — “David of the White Rock” and the Slumber Song that Somervell has arranged. What an experience! I have also got hold of an address of a man who is rather noted for his knowledge of these things. If there is anything left of either of us after the war I shall attend to it myself— if not, you will write to him and find out…

This, needless to say, is both an unexpected and an unusually beautiful culmination to the “approaching the trenches” narrative. Gurney, the sensitive soul, poet and composer, goes to receive his initiation into fear and horror, and finds music instead. “Experience” will come in many forms…

After much talk of music, Gurney’s mind returns to the war.

Ah, Howler, there will not be much the matter with me a year after the Army sees my back. —-

‘And joy shall overtake us like a flood
When everything that is sincerely good
And perfectly divine
with truth and PEACE and Love” shall shine once more on this poor distracted Europe of ours. And the swiftness of the Russian victories have given me much hope. In this connection, please O please try and get last Sundays Observer (June 12th or thereabouts). The leading article is a perfect exhibition of pusillanimous twaddling and a kind of sneaking shamefaced hope that the war will not last 4 years after all, as it might be — worked out on the blackboard by fainthearted blitherers. I believe it will be all over by September — even if I am over too. And that will annoy me; partly because I feel that when I have renewed and trained my spirit there is work for me to do, and partly…

If you would hear anything of life at the front, I am afraid that at present I have seen too little to qualify my description of it as a damn dull life. It is for me — “an expense of spirit in a waste of shame” save only for the glorifying touch of danger. One marches heavily burdened, cursing ones Fate, from the rear circuitously to the front, reaches ones post, and hopes for fine weather. I am a signaller, holding on to that name by my eyelids and teeth, and that is an infinitely softer job than the ranks, which nearly drive me mad for its monotony, lack of elementary commonsense living, and for what men like you and I must feel as insults repeated continually. But it is much better out here than in England — save only for the “Rests”…

The trenches are better than camp life in England–danger is not yet terrifying, and the discomfort and onerousness, well–they, too, will only grow more wearisome. But Gurney seems to have hated above all what American soldiers of the next war will call “chickenshit,” the petty indignities and willful inefficiencies of garrison and training-camp life.

So the front is a nice change, and–so far, so far–it has him positively reoriented toward the future:

It is sweet to think what a revenge of Joy I will have on Life for all this. For all this grey petty monotony, I will gather all the overstrength of spirit, so hardly earned and force it, coax it, lead it to the service of Joy for ever. And as Masefield points out in his wonderful little book on Shakespeare, no mind but a supremely happy is able adequately to brood with Pity and Anger on Tragedy…

Less an ars poetica than an ars vivendi, Gurney’s mood of near-elation is… both a very good sign and a very worrisome one. His moods have been uneven before–is he holding up well as he first experiences life in the line, or is he dangerously sanguine? His letter of today, a century back, to Marion Scott seems, however, to argue for good health, and a reasonable balance of exaltation and griping–he describes as well his first bombardment, which seems to have taken place overnight, a century back.

Dear Miss Scott: Still another interesting letter! Please dont expect such a one from me as the weather is very dull and sultry, and this is a small room with 8 signallers lying low from fatigue. However, interesting things have happened. We have come into reserve now, having gone through a strafe which a machine-gunner who had been through Loos said was worse than Loos while it lasted — which was for 1 1/4 hours. And it left me exalted and exulting only longing for a nice blighty that would have taken me away from all this and left me free to play the G minor Prelude from the Second Book of Bach. O for a good piano! I am tired of this war, it bores me; but I would not willingly give up such a memory of such a time. Everything went wrong, and there was a tiny panic at first — but everybody, save the officers, were doing what they ought to do, and settled down later to the proper job, but if Fritz expected us as much as we expected them, he must have been in a funk. But they behaved very well our men, and one bay filled with signallers and stretcher bearers sang lustily awhile a song called “I want to go home” very popular out here, but not at all military in feeling. The machine guns are the most terrifying of sound, like an awful pack of hell hounds at ones back. I was out mending wires part of the time, but they were not so bad then…Their explosives are not nearly so terrible as ours. You can see dugouts and duck boards sailing in the air during even in a trench mortar strafe (Toc Emma Esses — signallers talk). Theirs of course do damage enough, but nothing comparable. They began it, and were reduced to showing white lights, which we shot away, and sending up a white rocket. Floreat Gloucestriensis! It was a great time; full of fear of course, but not so bad as neurasthenia. I could have written letters through the whole of it. But O to be back out of it all!

The account of this bombardment is gripping, but not terribly clear. But now the reason (if reason it be) for Gurney’s exaltation becomes more clear: by staying out and mending the wires, he has proven himself brave. If Gurney hasn’t written much about this, never mind–it is as close as we can get to a truism of this project that all soldiers worry about whether, once under fire, they will not prove to be cowards. Gurney has passed this stiff first test:

My dear lady, I am pleased with myself. They tell me I was nearly recommended for a DCM or something or other that was done chiefly by other men. But all through I had time to wish I had chocolate, and wonder whether so much baccy was good for me. I may be chronically introspective (and this is a shocking life for that) but as little fearful as a stolid cow. It has given me still further confidence that once I get back to work my mind will take proper paths and let me be happy. You see I dont expect to get knocked about much, and dont intend to go on bombing stunts if I can help. I have forgotten what my other letters contained…

Lastly, a distracted hint of grandiosity:

…I tell you what, mamselle; when I return to England I am going to lie in wait for all men who have been officers, and very craftily question them on several subjects, and if the answers to my questions do not satisfy me, they may look out for squalls. This is deadly serious. Talk of the need of “dithipline” wont suit me.

Yours very sincerely

Ivor Gurney[7]


References and Footnotes

  1. The War the Infantry Knew, 209-10.
  2. Presumably no relation to Gareth Bale, current standout for the Welsh internationals...
  3. Richards, Old Soldiers Never Die, 167-9.
  4. The War the Infantry Knew, 210-17.
  5. Verse and Prose in Peace and War, 84-5.
  6. See also Zeepvat, Before Action, 185-7.
  7. War Letters, 70-6.

Edward Thomas Woos His Words; Ivor Gurney Laments the State of Youthful Poetry; Ronald Tolkien Goes for a Fusilier; The Temporary British Soldier in All His Glory: “Excuse Me, is This a Private Trench?”

It shouldn’t really be surprising that the epistolary friendship between Edward Thomas and Robert Frost heats up when there is poetry to be discussed. But it is: their fellowship and mutual affection so clearly goes above and beyond the alliance of like-minded poets that we share in their–or, rather, in Thomas’s–sense that something is amiss when criticism of poetry seems to be driving the conversation. Frost, after all, is a de facto guardian for Thomas’s son Mervyn, and their letters touch on love, war, ambition, and despair… nevertheless, they are struggling to maintain over such a distance the fast connection that they forged on their long country rambles. So, really, it is no bad thing when poetry stirs the pot and–to remix to my earlier metaphor–warms the waters just a bit.

Two days ago Frost made this rather amused reply to Thomas’s tortured apologies over his critical and emotional reaction to The Road Not Taken:

Franconia N.H. U.S.A.

June 26 1915

Dear Edward,

Methinks thou strikest too hard in so small a matter. A tap would have settled my poem. I wonder if it was because you were trying too much out of regard for me that you failed to see that the sigh was a mock sigh, hypo-critical for the fun of the thing…

Frost then gossips a little about his own situation–the Frosts are in the midst of purchasing a farm–before beginning the delicate task of modulating his friend’s hopes for the New World.

You may be right in coming over in your literary capacity. Elinor is afraid the rawness of these back towns will be too much for you. You know I sort of like it…

I don’t want to scare you, but I want to be honest and fair…

September would be all right–late in September when people are getting back to town. Bring all your introductions. Some of my new friends will be good to you. Some of them arent good to me even…

And there’s nothing licit to drink here.

Other objections as I think of them.

As for the war, damn it! You are surely getting the worst of it…

Yours ever,


Thomas, of course, will not receive that letter for a week or two. But today he was writing again, confident in his expectation that his successful, blustering friend will forgive the fit of pique. He seems not to have all that much to tell Frost, at first: the Marlborough book is still a thorn in his side, he is aggrieved that Walter de la Mare has won a pension from the government, etc. So why write, and on holiday at that?

It’s not de la Mare’s pension: Thomas is already over his reaction to that–or, really, his meta-reaction, since it was his horror at his own jealousy rather than simple annoyance at de la Mare’s good fortune that has been the real stumbling block. Thomas wrote to de la Mare today as well, exorcising the ghost of friendship-destroying covetousness with a gentle touch of passive-aggression:

My dear de la Mare

I was almost sorry to run into you by chance last week because I should have arranged to see you, but it was an unexpected visit. The week after next I shall be up again & see you. At the moment I am travelling to work off the effects of writing a book on Marlborough, which looks like my last job here. So I am planning to go to America in a month or 2 to see if there is anything to be had there.

You feel a little safer with your pension I hope. There is to be an attempt to get one for me but they say I have a very poor chance in a crowd of more elderly & more celebrated applicants…

How poor freedom is when it is thrown at you.

Yours ever


Amusingly light jabs. But I quote the letter mostly to show that Thomas is not writing to Frost in order to bend his ear about de la Mare.

Of course not: he’s writing to Frost because he has written.

Over the past few days of his post-Marlborough cycling tour with his old friend Jack Haines Thomas has written two poems, including “Words,” which he finished today and enclosed in the letter to Frost. This is surely Thomas’s most important statement on the nature of his poetic art since Lob.

Out of us all
That make rhymes
Will you choose
As the winds use
A crack in a wall
Or a drain,
Their joy or their pain
To whistle through–
Choose me,
You English words?

I know you:
You are light as dreams,
Tough as oak,
Precious as gold,
As poppies and corn,
Or an old cloak:
Sweet as our birds
To the ear,
As the burnet rose
In the heat
Of Midsummer:
Strange as the races
Of dead and unborn:
Strange and sweet
And familiar,
To the eye,
As the dearest faces
That a man knows,
And as lost homes are:
But though older far
Than oldest yew,–
As our hills are, old,–
Worn new
Again and again:
Young as our streams
After rain:
And as dear
As the earth which you prove
That we love.

Make me content
With some sweetness
From Wales
Whose nightingales
Have no wings,–
From Wiltshire and Kent
And Herefordshire,–
And the villages there,–
From the names, and the things
No less.
Let me sometimes dance
With you,
Or climb
Or stand perchance
In ecstasy,
Fixed and free
In a rhyme,
As poets do.

It’s safe to say that this is a poem of subtle complexity. It almost chimes, and seems at first to be heading toward a Hobbity little place of simple rhymes and pattering rhythms. But as in Adlestrop, the inclusion of county names seems to make the verses at once very specific and very English–so just another programmatic poem for the English (or, as in Thomas’s case, Anglo-Welsh, by affinity and ancestry if not language) poet.

The main “point” is deceptively simple as well: choose me, you English words, and let’s make music together! But there’s more to this, too. “Like Lob, Words mingles cultural defence, ars poetica, and more mysterious vistas.”[3]

The cultural defense is perhaps the simplest: there will be little argument from his readers about the value of English words, especially when they are so nicely nestled among those solid stand-bys of English pastoral, the yews and oaks and nightingales.

The second point, though, is stronger than it might look: Thomas often wrote, in critical mode, about the importance of treating words as living, changeable entities, not mere labels. Now he does this in verse, singing the song he has talked in prose, dancing in and among the living verbiage.

And pledging allegiance to the words themselves–the living words, one might say–is more than an empty gesture of reality. It connects, really, to his recent move toward a sort of fatalism. He speaks almost as a sorcerer, summoning the words that they might work their magic through him. Which might seem like a romantic gesture (and indeed there are many reminiscences of Wordsworth in this poem) but for his biography: Thomas is not a robed poetic magus supreme in his tower; he’s a ragged man at a crossroads, desperately hoping that some chance will determine his course, choose his road, relieve his indecision.

There are echoes of Hardy here, too, the grim fatalist of the late Victorian age. Thomas the poet seems to be aligning himself with Thomas the man, declaring that it is the words that have the power, and the events of the world, not the individual’s will–let the man and the poet give himself up to them, and be carried toward his fate.

This, then, is the “more mysterious” aspect of the poem, which Longley locates in its sneaky paradoxes: the strange and the familiar, the fixed and the free. The darker side of permanent quandary has emerged recently in his letters, but this is Thomas writing happily–on a day off, as it were; on holiday.

He will shortly decide to let the world carry him war-ward; but for now he is blissfully content to ask the English language to let him dance with it–and today it has.


John Ronald Tolkien formally applied today for a temporary commission in the Lancashire Fusiliers. Given Tolkien’s status as an Oxford graduate and his service in the Officers Training Corps during this past school year, his acceptance into an expanding regiment was virtually assured. Tolkien requested to be assigned to the regiment’s 19th Battalion (yes, Kitchener’s army is so big now that some regiments have added ten or fifteen battalions to their pre-war complement) and the appointment seems likely to go through. Tolkien’s friend G.B. Smith was serving in that unit and had been lobbying the commanding officer to take him. But the bureaucracy could be opaque.

Tolkien has maintained a scholarly and commendable degree of ignorance about army life, however: Smith wrote to him today to answer recent questions, and reminded him that any books or paints he brought with him into the army would have to be portable…[4]


And a brief letter from Ivor Gurney, today, still in camp, and apparently unable to make a gathering hosted by his friend Marion Scott.

28 June 1915

Pte Gurney, 2nd/5th Glosters, Wintry Farm Camp, Epping, Essex

Dear Miss Scott:

Very sorry, miss, but it couldn’t be helped. They left me uncertain up to the last moment, and the leave was not granted, so I heard, simply through the carelessness of an orderly corporal…

Cut off as he is from the literary world, Gurney has not yet seen a copy of the recently-published 1914 And Other Poems. He must depend on the kindness of reviewers to keep up with the poetic sensation of 1915:

Edward Thomas reviewed Brooke’s poems in the Chronicle, and I got another sonnet out of that—Now God be thanked that has matched us with this Hour–another very good one. It is curious how little great youthful-seeming poetry has been written; and sonnets seem especially fated to be the work of “solemn whiskered men, pillars of the state”.

It’s tempting to read this so closely as to go cross-eyed: “aha! Brooke is only ‘very good’ and there is no ‘great’ youthful seeming poetry… how high Gurney must dream!” But no, I think he admires Brooke very much–Brooke is the exception, and the ambition perhaps lies in the fact that Brooke did write good young poetry, but is gone.

And then the letter returns to a pleasant chattiness: here is the soldier in waiting, a state which has driven several of our other New Army men to fuming frustration. But Gurney–a private, remember, and thus entirely prevented from imagining that he might control his fate–seems much better able to tolerate the slow uncertainty…

Well, here we are in camp, and a nice old mix up it is! Whatever is wanted out of the ordinary is at the extreme wrong end of the kitbag. Everything has to come out, and at last in exasperation one stuffs things of hourly necessity in first, and language flows not wisely but too well. This lengthens the act of cleaning up at least 250%. But this is good for me…

At present I am “on sick” with lumbago, a horrid name. But this came just in time to prevent C.B. [confined to barracks] for a dirty rifle, which is thus put off—may it be forgotten!

…There is nowhere to put books here–nowhere! Only in that comic-tragic kit bag, Gott strafe it. A slot machine is what I want, or a valet.

Please excuse writing and the pencility thereof, but nothing else is possible in camp: with best wishes:

Yours very sincerely

Ivor Gurney[5]


Finally, today, here’s a lovely bit from the diary of Aubrey Herbert–our semi-blind, dress-up Guardsman now serving as insubordinate interpreter in Gallipoli. It’s titled, in the anthology in which I found it, “The Origin of a Legend:”

28th June. We have a clerk here, Venables. He has got tired of writing, and, wanting to change the pen for the sword, borrowed a rifle and walked up to the line at Quinn’s Post. There he popped his head in and said: “Excuse me, is this a private trench, or may anyone fire out if it?”[6]


References and Footnotes

  1. Elected Friends, 70-2.
  2. Poet to Poet, 203-4.
  3. Longley, The Annotated Collected Poems, 243.
  4. Tolkien Companion and Guide, Chronology, 69.
  5. War Letters, 31-2.
  6. Chapman, Vain Glory, 174.

Vera Brittain is in Despair; The Nursing Sister Watches the Preparations for the Big Attack; Julian Grenfell Praises Plato; and H.D. Takes The Lusitania Disaster On As a Personal Calamity

A grim day. There will soon be hard fighting on two sections of the front, as the German Army continues to claw at the salient, while, further to the south, in Artois, a massive bombardment heralds the next Anglo-French attack. And off the coast of Ireland, the Lusitania is torpedoed and sunk, with the loss of almost 1,200 lives.

The Nursing Sister is on night duty now, which accounts for the timing of these diary entries.

Friday, May 7th, 1 a.m.—The noise is worse than anywhere in London, even the King’s Road. The din that a column of horse-drawn, bolt-rattling waggons make over cobbles is literally deafening; you can’t hear each other speak. And the big motor-lorries taking the “munitions of war” up are almost as bad. These processions alternate with marching troops, clattering horses, and French engines all day, and very often all night, and in the middle of it all there are the guns. Tonight the rifle firing is crackling.

Sir John French and Sir Douglas Haig have been up here to-day, and every one is telling every one else when the great Attack is going to begin.

There are three field ambulances up here, and only work for two ( —th and —th), so the —th is established in a huge school for 500 boys, where it runs a great laundry and bathing establishment. A thousand men a day come in for bath, disinfection, and clean clothes; 100 French women do the laundry work in huge tubs, and there are big disinfectors and drying and ironing rooms…

My blackbird has laid another egg.

Friday, May 7th, 10 p.m.—A pitch-dark night, raining a little, and only one topic—the Attack to-morrow morning.

The first R.A.M.C. barge has come up, and is lying in the canal ready to take on the cases of wounds of lung and abdomen, to save the jolting of road and railway; it is to have two Sisters, but I haven’t seen them yet: shall go in the morning: went round this morning to see, but the barge hadn’t arrived.

There are a few sick officers downstairs who are finding it hard to stick in their beds, with their regiments in this job close by. There is a house close by which I saw this morning with a dirty little red flag with a black cross on it, where the C.-in-C. and thirty commanders of the 1st Army met yesterday.

Perhaps, then, the sister is at Merville, the French town a few miles to the southwest of Ypres (and due west of Aubers and Fromelles) which is currently First Army headquarters. Although it seems equally likely that the conclave occurred at a divisional HQ. In any event, the Nursing Sister continues with a helpful review of recent fighting and the great current fear: more gas attacks.

The news to-day of Hill 60 and the gases is another spur to the grim resolve to break through here, that can be felt and seen and heard in every detail of every arm. “Grandmother” is lovingly talked about.

The town, the roads, and the canal banks this morning were so packed with men, waggons, horses, bales, and lorries, that you could barely pick your way between them…

We are making flannel masks for the C.O. for our men…

These, of course, are the earliest attempts at gas masks–not very effective, but better than nothing.

4 a.m.—The 9.2’s are just beginning to talk.

Here is a true story. One of our trenches at Givenchy was being pounded by German shells at the time of N[euve]. Ch[apelle]. A man saw his brother killed on one side of him and another man on the other. He went on shooting over the parapet; then the parapet got knocked about, and still he wasn’t hit. He seized his brother’s body and the other man’s and built them up into the parapet with sandbags, and went on shooting.

When the stress was over and he could leave off, he looked round and saw what he was leaning against. “Who did that?” he said. And they told him.

They get awfully sick at the big-print headlines in some of the papers—”The Hill 60 Thrill”!

“Thrill, indeed! There’s nothing thrilling about ploughing over parapets into a machine-gun, with high explosives bursting round you,—it’s merely beastly,” said a boy this evening, who is all over shrapnel splinters.[1]

She has us on tenterhooks for the big attack, no?

This middle-distance look at the front is in so many ways the best. The soldiers may have no idea what is happening on any larger level, and they may be in any sort of mood. But the Nursing Sister is close enough to touch the bodies broken by the latest beastliness or folly and yet far enough from the trenches to see the generals massing and the big guns speaking; she reads the papers but knows from the mouths of the fighters themselves that the papers lie; she shares the soldiers’ contempt for propaganda, but she passes along dramatic tales of front-line trauma as definitively true…

Well, we will have to wait another day or two: the big attack has been be postponed.


Home in England, where attacks are only rumors until they are sudden surprises–and then always victories until the casualty lists come through–there is no matching expectancy. Instead only gloom, as a series of blows fall.

Friday May 7th

This has been about the worst day since the beginning of the war–at least it seems to me that it has; horror piled on horror, until one feels that the world can scarcely go on any longer. First you open The Times & see that the Russians are in retreat, the Germans owing to their use of poisonous gas have got Hill 60 back from the British, that the line at Ypres has had to be readjusted owing to an “enforced retirement”.

Then you open a letter from the person you love best in the world at the front. You find he has been hastily rushed off to support trenches where he is within sound of the guns at Ypres, that he has been under shell fire, & that it is a “nerve-racking job”. And every line somehow informs you that even on so keen an intellect & so strong a will the strain is beginning to tell–as it must, more & more–either shattered nerves or death, must it be?

And last thing at night you see by the stop press edition that the Lusitania, carrying over 1,000 passengers & crew, has been sunk by a torpedo, & that there is no word with regard to survivors. I felt so overcome by the horror that I could do no work or anything but think about it. “Always darkest before dawn”–how much darker is it to get than this? Does it mean that the black anguish of further personal loss must be added to all this before the dawn comes–& will the dawn ever come?

One of the great things about reading diaries is the sense of immediacy, of peering over someone’s shoulder and feeling the century evaporate in the intensity of her emotions. One of the difficult things about reading them historically is preserving that immediacy when we bring the rest of our knowledge to bear. Dawn, we know, is very far away, and it will get much blacker yet–so we can’t help but view Vera Brittain’s despair from an ironic distance.

It feels insensitive to Vera, but this is a good moment for a quick tutorial on irony. There are are two distinct types (at least) operating here: for us there is that historical irony of the last paragraph. We look on from the Olympian heights of a hundred years of history, and wish, perhaps, that we could tell the lonely student that the war will last for several more years, that the Lusitania will become, in yet another sense, an ironic calamity (the disaster bearing the seeds of victory), even that all this talk of dawns and darknesses is very subjective indeed, that she (as indeed she half-realizes) is mistaking personal experience for the grand sweep of history.

But I am trying to resist these sorts of badgering interjections. I don’t pretend that readers know nothing of the war’s course, and I allow myself some general foreshadowing (little nibbles of forbidden treats, when the writer should be delivering only a four-square and sensible meal). We wouldn’t be here if they were going to be home safe by Christmas.

But it is very important to A Century Back that we do not allow specific knowledge about any writer/character’s future to color their daily writing/experiences. If we read always with the ironic distance that our superior knowledge of the future imposes, then we will misread the experience as it was written. Gods may be  all-knowing and all-seeing, and they may glimpse the future, but they are notoriously bad at respecting the subjectivities of human experience. Historians who run back down the long slopes of history with a huge grader are going to grind away the little peaks and valleys that are all we see of our own lives as we live them.

I’m getting preachy. Quickly, then: the other sort of irony is Paul Fussell’s irony of proximity. It is constantly surprising, always odd, that normal home life in England goes blithely on so close to the terrible other-world of the trenches. So strange that Oxford could be pretty when Flanders has been ruined, so unsettling that it only takes a day or two for a letter to go from one to the other, and yet the the short gap will do nothing to end anxiety–he may have been killed mere hours after it wads posted.

Vera loves, too, to proclaim Roland’s special nature, to discuss how much heavier the burden of a violent and horrible life is on someone with a questing, sensitive, intellectually energetic nature. She’s not wrong, of course–but she is biased. Roland’s plight is only a more intense version of the cognitive challenge of ironic proximity. Thousands of soldiers are stuck by the uncanny persistence of the natural things they have loved–birds nesting and flowers blooming even in the trenches themselves.

But why, again, insist on this sort of correction? Vera is in love–of course she feels that Roland is unique. And who is harmed by this private, special pleading? It must be good, when crouching low under fire, to know that someone thinks that your sensitivity is a special burden of your unique and valuable nature.

Today’s letter includes this paragraph:

It is horrible to think of you under shell fire, & in support trenches. I suppose you really are very near the vast chaos that was Ypres–if not actually in it. I wonder, if all this ever ends–sometimes I feel as if nothing but the end of the world could finish it–& you are still left to us, if you will be very different. I suppose you are bound to be–people especially those whose sensibilities are fine & keen, can’t go through this sort of thing & remain the same. Your letters, certainly, don’t seem to illustrate you as fundamentally altering, but they do show you to me as becoming very much more all I have known you to be. It seems so characteristic of you to be facing death one moment, & seeing so clearly the beauty of the world, & life, & love, in the next…[2]

For a double-dose of the ironies of the home front, today, it seems that the distraction of having one’s beloved in harm’s way provides an ancillary benefit:

I was put into the first couple of the Somerville tennis six to-day. It seemed easy to get into the team, because I did not care.

True distraction, however–or peace of mind–are not to be found:

I practised tennis this afternoon, but it made me feel very tired; all the time the words [from Roland’s May 1st letter] sounded in my mind “Someone is getting hell, but it isn’t you–yet.”

At night I was so tired & full of despair I didn’t know what to do. I tried to find a little comfort from Wordsworth, & almost the first thing I opened him at was

Surprised by joy, impatient as the wind,
I turned to share the rapture–ah! with whom
But thee, deep buried in the silent tomb…[3]


So, a terrible day on several fronts–a matter of history’s slopes and vistas. But while Vera Brittain is in the hollows of despair, others may be galloping over their own private mole-hills. Julian Grenfell is in fine fettle:

Friday, 7 May:

Exercise 8 am. Plato’s idea of Happiness realised–no personal property or ties, just as ready to move or to stay. Saddle up 2 pm. Into billets at Thiennes… Dogs all right except Sandon run over by motor, shot him. Puppies grown out of knowledge.[4]

Grenfell will never be accused of sumptuously introspective writing. He has been up behind the lines–the cavalry are the last reserve, in these parts–but not into battle, and now they have returned to their billets at least twenty miles back. Here his primary joy has been keeping dogs and hunting when he can. (All hunting will be forbidden for the sake of the alliance–the French peasantry, having not all that long ago risen up and slaughtered the best part of its aristocracy, does not take as well as the British to having the well-bred churn up their fields and knock down their fences.) We will return to this matter of the injured dog, which Grenfell has to put down, in a few days.

Now, about this Plato reference. Happier without possessions? A sudden conversion to socialism? No. This is rather a more complete embrace of the military life than any sort of broader political aperçu. Julian Grenfell has plenty of possessions, draped all over his body and horse, sent from home by the cart-load, and lugged around by his soldier servant (who is almost never mentioned). What he has discovered that he likes is having no permanent social position–no real estate, as it were, to worry about, no ties. There is freedom in being under orders–many of our writers will experience something like this, although the feeling often passes–and he is discovered in addition a strong sense of belonging more fully to oneself when one belongs nowhere in particular. But Plato? Really? We’ll come back to this when Grenfell recycles the idea in a letter home.


And Captain Claude Templer, captured on December 22nd, escaped from prison camp today. He has been writing… verses.[5]


Finally, a word on the Lusitania. This is not the place for reportage on the human tragedy or its grand strategic implications. I realize that I end up writing a lot of “context” for the snippets of writing, and thus discussing the course of the war in general. But it is true enough to simply state that the sinking of the Lusitania, a century back, will have no real impact on the Western Front for two years.

But I have another brief, here, namely to track the development of war writing. So here is one awful, off-beat resonance of the disaster.

H.D. and Richard Aldington, modernist writers and unhappy married couple (the “power couple” cliche does not really apply), are expecting their first child. In a few weeks’ time  the child will be stillborn. This is a terrible thing, and neither the least nor the greatest after-effect of the agony will be the destruction of their marriage. H.D. will go on to write about the trauma several times, fictionalizing her experience in different ways and giving us an unsettling example of the “history” of the war being put to purposes both personal and fictional.

In an unpublished fictionalized memoir–Magic Mirror–she seems to blame Aldington for the loss of the baby, for shocking her with the news of the Lusitania. This is of a piece with many horror stories, ancient and less ancient, which connect terrible news with miscarriage. In the story “Bid Me To Live” the husband rushes in and shouts “don’t you realise what this means? Don’t you feel anything? The Lusitania has gone down.” This too leads to the loss of the child (suddenly delicate, I pass over the differences between a miscarriage and stillbirth).

In the autobiographical novel Asphodel–also unpublished during her lifetime–the death of the baby is attributed not to the loss of the Lusitania but to the shock of the first German air raid on London (which took place, historically, ten days after the stillbirth). And yet the trauma is still depicted as being in some way the husband’s fault. The Aldington figure has been mercilessly mocked by the nurses who surround his wife during and after her confinement:

Their cheeks went pink with almost consumptive joy and fervour while they drove and drove and drove one
towards madness. ‘Why isn’t Mr Darrington in Khaki?’

The H.D. stand-in thinks: ‘Khaki killed it. They killed it. . . . Good old ecstatic baby-killers like the Huns up there.’[6]

Millions of men have volunteered. But other millions have not, and Aldington is still one of the latter.


References and Footnotes

  1. Diary of a Nursing Sister, available here.
  2. Letters from a Lost Generation, 96-7.
  3. Chronicle of Youth, 191-8.
  4. Thompson, Julian Grenfell, Soldier and Poet, 296.
  5. Poems and Imaginings, 7.
  6. Whelpton, Richard Aldington, Poet, Soldier, Lover, 113-15.