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