Kate Luard Waits for the Bombs; George Coppard Loses a Pal; Edwin Vaughan in the Slough of Despond; Wilfred Owen Prepares to Meet a Maker

In the early morning hours of today, a century back, Kate Luard turned to her diary to stave off exhaustion and despair.

I feel dazed with going round the rows of silent or groaning wrecks and arranging for room for more in the night without opening new wards not yet equipped. Many die and their beds are filled instantly. One has got so used to their dying that it conveys no impression beyond a vague sense of medical failure. You forget entirely that they were once civilians, that they were alive and well yesterday, that they have wives and mothers and fathers and children at home; all you realise is that they are dead soldiers, and that there are thousands of others. It is all very like a battlefield. And between 10 and 11 to-night when I was writing to that boy’s mother at his father’s request, he dropped bombs on the Field Ambulance alongside of us, and killed an orderly and wounded others, and also on to the Officers’ Mess of the Australian C.C.S. alongside of them – not three minutes from us, and killed a Medical Officer and a Corporal. Pretty beastly, isn’t it? Shells are dropping about as usual – but farther off, I think.

The day brought little relief:

More dying men all day. Brilliant dazzling day. Capt. H. has gone to be O.C. Stretcher Bearers in the front line. He’s already got an M.C. and will now get a funeral. The news is bad, parts of it like Gommécourt, July 1st 1916 over again. They let us through and then bobbed up behind and before us and cut us to pieces with machine-guns. Gas-shelling going on heavily too. Officers and men say it is the bloodiest of all the battles. Remnants of Divisions are coming out to-night and new ones going in. He’s sure to come bombing tonight.

I’m dog-tired, going to bed early.

Here he is…[1]

 

George Coppard‘s memoir records one more death–the dead soldiers leave behind comrades, pals, and mates, too–in circumstances we seldom encounter.

…on 17 August heavy shelling started again in our vicinity.

Jock Hershell left the dugout during the shelling and didn’t return for a while. I became apprehensive and went along to a latrine sap where I thought he might be. I found him there, slumped in a heap, severely wounded. We carried him into the dugout. At a glance I saw that his broad back has caught a blast of shrapnel. I slit his tunic and underclothes with a hack-knife and separated them. I winced at the sight. Jock’s back was full of punctures, and blood bubbles were wheezing out of the holes as he breathed… He appeared to be in no pain, though he was anxious and kept asking the extent of the injuries he could not see. We lied like hell and gave him first-aid, using nearly all our bandages and iodine in the process. ‘You’ve got a Blighty one for sure,’ I cried.

It seemed hours before we got him away to a first-aid post, where we left him, knowing that we would never see him again. Strong as he was, he could not survive his terrible injuries, and he died shortly afterwards.[2]

It doesn’t mean anything that Herschell was mortally wounded while relieving himself, alone in a latrine trench. But it adds, somehow, to the pathos of trench warfare. There is no safe place, no private routine left undisturbed by the deadly chances of attrition.

 

Back in the salient, Edwin Vaughan does not witness death at close quarters today–but he still sees the dead.

It was dawn when I dropped into my shell-hole where Dunham had shaped a great armchair for me in mud. I stared vacantly at the large mound behind me like a four-foot-high tortoise until I became aware that I was staring into the face of a dead Tommy, upside down…

Although I was tired to death, I could not sleep, so removing my tin hat and ruffling my hair I stood up and looked over the front of my hole. There was just a dreary waste of mud and water, no relic of civilization, only shell-holes and faint mounds behind the German lines. And everywhere were bodies, English and German, in all attitudes and stages of decomposition. No sign was anywhere of a living man or a gun. The morning was clear and bright and everything now was deadly quiet. Sinking back into my mud chair I looked into the face of the body behind me. He had a diamond-shaped hole in his forehead through which a little pouch of brains was hanging, and his eyes were hanging down; he was very horrible but I soon got used to him. Then I heard a faint buzz far above and saw five Boche planes heading over our lines; I fell to watching them and saw a great battle when they were met by some of ours. I was quite sorry when, two of the planes having come down in flames, the combat ceased, the planes flying away to leave the world empty again.

The hours dragged slowly by and still I sat staring into the cloudless sky…

But the empty battlefield is teeming with life, of course, and attrition has its quotas to meet, even on a day when no new push is launched.

At about 3 p.m. I heard the German guns open and dragging myself up I saw a line of bursting shrapnel far away to the left. As salvo after salvo poured over, I got my glasses onto the spot and saw that they were pounding their own line. Soon a line of figures appeared running back out of the shelled zone; immediately our machine guns opened and mowed them down. I felt terribly sorry for them, for they looked very new and untried, and I was so tired and weary myself…[3]

Vaughan’s day involved further adventures of his own:  he discovered his own CO to be in a state something like shell shock after a hit on his command post, and then ventured, on his own initiative, to make contact with the neighboring battalion. There the atmosphere of slimy terror–rain, mud, darkness, bodies underfoot, German guns trained on the forward-facing entrances of their own former dugouts–takes on an air of fantastic, twilight-zone tension when Vaughan encounters a cowardly (or traumatized) subaltern who shares his surname being repeatedly ordered out into the storm of steel…

This is almost too good to be true–officers screaming at a cowardly Vaughan to brave the shell-fire even as our cowardly Vaughan has done so… but it should be read at length in the source.

 

In any case, that summary will have to do, as I want to take us back to Scotland, where Wilfred Owen added a post-script to a letter to his mother. He, too, is steeling himself for a new encounter on the morrow…

(Friday)

…I have just been reading Siegfried Sassoon, and am feeling at a very high pitch of emotion. Nothing like his trench life sketches has ever been written or ever will be written. Shakespere reads vapid after these. Not of course because Sassoon is a greater artist, but because of the subjects, I mean. I think if I had the choice of making friends with Tennyson or with Sassoon I should go to Sassoon.

That is why I have not yet dared to go up to him and parley in a casual way. He is here you know because he wrote a letter to the Higher Command which was too plain-spoken. They promptly sent him over here! I will send you his book, one day, and tell you what sort of pow-wow we’ve had.

your own W.E.O. x[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Unknown Warriors, 145-6.
  2. With a Machine Gun to Cambrai, 119-20.
  3. Some Desperate Glory, 200-205.
  4. Collected Letters, 484-5.

The Battle of Langemarck: Four Seconds in the Life of Harry Patch; Edwin Vaughan in Command

Today, a century back, is another day of battle, as the British (and French) forces in the Ypres Salient surge forward once again. The Master of Belhaven is firing in support and Kate Luard will be picking up the pieces, but we will focus on two infantrymen as they attack today in the segment of Third Ypres known as the Battle of Langemarck. Neither is in the first attacking wave, but there is more than enough horror for the supporting troops and each will experience one of the most terrible days of their war.

 

At 4:45 the bombardment began, and two battalions of the 61st Brigade attacked toward Langemarck. Harry Patch, with C Company of the 7th Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, was in the second wave.

I remember the names–Pilckem Ridge was one and the other was Langemarck… How were we to know that a pile of rubble was this village or that, or that a gentle slope was a particular ridge…? You only knew what was right next to you…

I have a memory of crossing a flooded stream…

This was the Steenbeck, the second waterway (after the Yser canal) that now marks the pilgrims’ progress out of Ypres and into the Slough of Despond.

Our guns’ opening bombardment had begun with an almighty clap of thunder. You can’t describe the noise, you can’t… There was an officer going down the line… He had drawn his revolver, and I got the distinct impression by the set look on his face that anybody that didn’t ‘go over’ would be shot for cowardice where they stood…

For once the British operational luck was good: the weather held (though the ground was still terribly muddy) and the German defense was disorganized due to a half-completed relief. Langemarck was swiftly taken, and by 5.45 the second wave was moving through to its attack positions.

It was absolutely sickening to see your own dead and wounded, some calling for stretcher-bearers, others semi-conscious and beyond all help… I saw one German… all his side and his back were ripped up, and his stomach was out on the floor, a horrible sight. Others were just blown to pieces; it wasn’t a case of seeing them with a nice bullet hole in their tunic, far from it, and there I was, only nineteen years old. I felt sick.

It got worse.

We came across a lad from A Company. He was ripped open from his shoulder to his waist by shrapnel, and lying in a pool of blood. When we got to him, he looked at us and said, ‘Shoot me.’ He was beyond all human help, and before we could draw a revolver he was dead. And the final word he uttered was ‘Mother!’ I was with him in the last seconds of his life. It wasn’t a cry of despair, it was a cry of surprise and joy… I’m positive that when he left this world, wherever he went, his mother was there, and from that day I’ve always remember that cry and that death is not the end.

I remember that lad in particular. It is an image that has haunted me all my life…

Patch and his team soon reached the German second (support) line, where they set up their gun to fire in support of the men of their battalion just ahead, who were pushing into the German third (reserve) line.

I’d just changed a magazine… and Bob was looking elsewhere in the support line when two or three Germans came out of a trench and one of them spotted the machine gun and came straight for us with rifle and bayonet…

My right hand was free… I drew my revolver and I shot him in the right shoulder. He dropped his rifle but he came stumbling on, no doubt to kick the gun in the mud and us to pieces if he could…

I had four seconds to make my mind up. I had three rounds in that revolver. I could have killed him with my first; I was a crack shot. What should I do? Four seconds to make my mind up. That Cornishman’s ‘Mother’ was ringing in my ears and I thought, ‘No I can’t kill him’, and I gave him his life. I shot him above the ankle, and above the knee. I brought him down… for him the war was over… at the end of the war he would rejoin his family. Perhaps he was married; perhaps he had children.[1]

 

No more than two or three miles to the south, Edwin Vaughan‘s day developed more slowly, as his 8th Royal Warwickshires moved up behind several attacking waves.

August 16

At 2 a.m. a guide led us out of the camp in an easterly direction. We moved in column of route, in silence and with no smoking. I was leading with Ewing, but it was pitch dark and as our guide led us, sometimes on a hard road then on to mud then again on a sleeper track, I could not follow our direction. At last we arrived at a canal, with a steep
bank on either side and a towing path. We crossed a rough bridge and Ewing gave the order to fall out.

We were at Bridge 2A of the Yser canal, a few hundred yards north of Ypres. The air was poisoned by a terrible
stench that turned me sick. In the dim light the water appeared to be a dark-green swamp wherein lay corpses of men and bodies of horses; shafts of waggons and gun wheels protruded from the putrefying mass and after a shuddering glance I hurried along the towing path to clearer air. The bank was honeycombed with dugouts, chiefly occupied by REs. At one point I saw a fingerboard ‘To the RC Chaplain’.

Our cookers now rolled up and the cooks carried a hot meal over to our men. For my part I had lost my fear now, and in spite of the imminent attack and the fearful mass below me, I ate a hearty breakfast of sausages and bacon…

Vaughan is a commanding writer, and one who is keen both to describe the remembered scene with all the tools of the language and to record the raw emotions of the moment:[2]

…I walked along the path to where Sergeant Major Chalk was standing on the bank, silhouetted against the sky. I climbed up beside him and stood gazing across the darkness of the earth into the dawn. After a few minutes of silence he said ‘what is the time. Sir?’

‘Four forty-five’ I said, and with my words the whole earth burst into flame with one tremendous roar as hundreds of guns hurled the first round of the barrage…

Spellbound I saw a line of coloured lights shoot up from the Boche and then Chalk tugged my sleeve to indicate that our Company was lining up on the towing path…

My nervousness was gone now; trembling with excitement, but outwardly perfectly reasonable, I drank in every detail of the scene almost with eagerness. To the east we moved along the winding track between batteries of heavies that belched smoke and fire as we passed. The light grew rapidly, and the line of fire changed to a line of smoke. Around us and ahead of us was earth, nothing but earth—no houses or trees or even grass just faint shapeless humps from which the great guns hurled their iron death…

The men sing as they march up to take their positions in support.

The road had now almost disappeared and we were marching over shell-holes around which was scattered debris and wreckage at which I now dared not look. I kept my eyes fixed on the distance until we came to some low buildings—Van Heule Farm.

These were some of the concrete pillboxes of which we had heard. In front of them were six dead Germans and a disembowelled mule…

I led my platoon off to the right and we continued to move steadily across that muddy waste until I realized that we were walking into a curtain of fire. We were right on top of the German barrage when glancing round I saw Ewing give the signal to halt.

I repeated the signal to my men, and we all dived into shell-holes right on the fringe of the shell-torn zone. With my head just over the edge of my shell-hole I lay blinking into the shrieking, crashing hail of death 30 yards in front. We were too close to fear anything except a direct hit and fascinated I stared at that terrible curtain through which we soon must pass. One gun was firing regularly onto a spot only a few yards in front of me and as I watched the bursts I became aware of Private Bishop in the shell-hole in front with a thick red stream running down his back. I shouted to him ‘Are you hurt, Bishop?’ Turning round he said, ‘No Sir’ in surprise. So I leaped across the edge of the hole and found that the stream proceeded from a shrapnel wound in a carton of jam in his haversack…

Soon the order comes to occupy a more forward position. Since they are some distance to the south, the line of the Steenbeck (which runs from south east to northwest across the west-to-east oriented battlefield) is further to the east than where Patch and his battalion crossed it.

Dully I hoisted myself out of the mud and gave the signal to advance, which was answered by every man rising and stepping unhesitatingly into the barrage… we were surrounded by bursting shells and singing fragments, while above us a stream of bullets added their whining to the general pandemonium. The men were wonderful! And it was astounding that although no one ran or ducked, whilst many were blown over by shells bursting at our very feet no one was touched until we were through the thickest part of the barrage and making for the little ridge in front.

Then I saw fellows drop lifeless while others began to stagger and limp; the fragments were getting us and in front was a belt of wire. At this moment I felt my feet sink and though I struggled to get on, I was dragged down to the waist in sticky clay. The others passed on, not noticing my plight until by yelling and firing my revolver into the air I attracted the attention of Sergeant Gunn, who returned and dragged me out. I caught up the troops who were passing through a gap in the wire, and I was following Corporal Breeze when a shell burst at his feet. As I was blown backwards I saw him thrown into the air to land at my feet, a crumpled heap of torn flesh.

Sick with horror I scrambled over him and stumbled down into the cutting, which was the Steenbeck Stream. Crouched in here we found the Irish Rifles, and we lined up with them. There was a padre who gave me a cheery grin and further along was a major smoking a pipe as he sat on the bank with his back to the enemy. I climbed out of the stream and saluted him, noticing out of the corner of my eye that a tank was ditched in the cutting. I sat down beside him and told him who we were, and then from the heap of flesh that had been Breeze, I saw the stump of an arm raised an inch or two. Others saw it too and before I needed to tell them, the stretcher-bearers were on their way to him. Very gently they brought him in to where I was sitting. He was terribly mutilated, both his feet had gone and one arm, his legs and trunk were torn to ribbons and his face was dreadful. But he was conscious and as I bent over him I saw in his remaining eye a gleam of mingled recognition and terror. His feeble hand clutched my equipment, and then the light faded from his eye. The shells continued to pour but we gave poor Breezy a burial in a shell-hole and the padre read a hurried prayer.

…The ground sloped up so sharply in front that I could only see for about 30 yards. Behind us was nothing but the shell-swept waste of mud and filth. So I called to Corporal Benjamin to come and talk to me. He had just made some reference to poor Breeze, when there was a clang and he staggered back, his helmet flying off into the stream. A bullet had gone through it without touching him and his comical look of amazement and indignation as he retrieved it made me shriek with laughter…

We are now at the stage of every battle where things slow down: whatever was planned so minutely has run its course, and the various units who have come “through” the attacking waves must now assess the situation, discovering just where the enemy has been destroyed or retreated, and where he is hanging on. And with every hour on the battlefield the danger increases, as the German artillery, too, discovers what territory has been held and what can now be fired upon.

At about 3 p.m. we saw two figures walking back behind us, and recognizing Radcliffe we hailed him and ran across. His right wrist had been shattered by a sniper’s bullet and he was very upset for it was a rotten sort of blighty for a Doctor of Music to get. With him was Sergeant Bell who had got a bullet in the arm from the same sniper. It was with real regret that we gripped their left hands and said goodbye—we knew for ever. We felt that this was the beginning of the break-up and we rejoined our troops in deep dejection.

Half an hour later Ewing arrived, breathless from dodging the energetic snipers, and told me that I was to take command of the Company as he was going to HQ as adjutant in place of Hoskins, who had been hit… My instructions were to move the Company at dusk straight over to the left, form up behind the Gloucesters and after dark to push forward and deal with any machine guns in front.

Vaughan has not always had the confidence of the higher-ups in his battalion, but needs must. Despite being issued vague orders to make a lateral movement across a battlefield and then attempt the sort of small-unit tactical feat that will be the stuff of hundreds of war movies to come, he seems to acquit himself well–at least at first.

Owing to the murk of battle and the misty rain, we were able to move at 6 o’clock, so stumbling and dodging round the shell-holes we followed our guide over half a mile of mud and water in front of what had been St Julien. The  snipers were very busy as we crossed, but the light was so bad that the shots sang over our heads and no one was hit.

By the time we had formed up behind the Gloucesters, it was quite dark, so I immediately sent out four small patrols to locate the enemy line. In a very few minutes machine guns opened out and sprayed bullets over our line. The patrols all returned and reported that the ground in front was a morass of mud and water, and before they had gone a hundred yards the Boche had heard them floundering about, and had opened fire. I believed them but to satisfy myself I took a couple of men and went out towards a spot where I had judged a gun to be. In five minutes we were stumbling into deep holes full of water, and the noise we made dragging our bodies through the mud caused flares to shoot up all along his line and the ground was swept by traversing guns. By the light of one flare I thought I saw a low pillbox with figures standing before it, but I was not sure. In any case it was obvious that to attempt a night attack would be madness, so I took my patrol back. On the way we stumbled into a large swamp and waded about in water for some time before striking our positions.

Vaughan’s habit of honesty about his own shortcomings as an officer is one of the most valuable aspects of his diary. He hasn’t quite refused to perform a direct order, but he has asserted his own judgment–as a second lieutenant of very limited combat experience–that the suggested attack is “madness,” and demurred. This could be interpreted–unfairly, but still–as a failure of nerve, an unwillingness to get some of his men killed in capturing an important local objective. As a company commander, Vaughan now has only the battalion’s commanding officer to answer to:

I found the CO waiting for me and I sat down in the mud beside him feeling dead beat and horribly ill. What he was saying I had no idea, for I must have fainted or gone to sleep. After what seemed a long time I heard a voice saying
unintelligible things, and I was just able to mutter, ‘I’m awfully sorry. Sir, but I haven’t the least idea what you’re saying.’ He shook me violently and said ‘Now, Vaughan, pull yourself together.’ Whereupon I was alert in a moment and he repeated his instructions. I was to form up my platoons in depth to the right of where we were then sitting. The Gloucesters were going out before dawn and the following night I was to spread out to the left and form a line joining the Ox and Bucks. Then he left me and I sat for a while staring into the darkness, realizing that we were in a hell of a place.

It was a very different attack from what I had imagined we would experience: terror and death coming from far away seemed much more ghastly than a hail of fire from people whom we could see and with whom we could come to grips. And now we were in an unknown district and must await through the long night the uncertainties of the dawn…

But they still must go forward–the uncertainties of dawn are likely to include a counter-attack, and they must prepare for this as best they can.

Chalk and I went in front… in a few moments a salvo of high-velocity shells kept us flattened out in the mud as they crashed amongst us.

Coincidentally, David Jones sketched a different British tank elsewhere in the Salient today, a century back

As we pushed on again we discerned dimly, through the rain and darkness, a derelict tank. ‘What about that for an HQ, Sir?’ said Chalk. I assented and when I had positioned the troops in front with Jimmy Harding among them, I led my staff of runners, signallers and pigeon carriers back to that spot. As we approached it, however, we were met by a filthy, overpowering stench and found that a shell had burst underneath it and it had burnt out. The charred bodies of the crew were inside or half out of the open door. So I sought the healthier atmosphere of a large crater 30 yards away and gathered my staff in neighbouring shell-holes.

I was very tired but had to stagger out at once to see that the line was unbroken and I had a rotten time dodging shells. Feeling half dead I was on my way back when I heard a voice yelling ‘Stretcher-bearers’. It was Sergeant Swingler with a chunk of shrapnel in his shoulder…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Last Fighting Tommy, 90-101. The name Harry Patch will be familiar to Great War cognoscenti and even perhaps to those with little reading in the subject, and/or an interest in alternative rock. He was not really a writer, but his story is terribly moving, and even almost hopeful: at his funeral, in 2009, soldiers from Belgium, France, and Germany accompanied his coffin--and, in strict accordance with his wishes, there were no weapons present, not even ceremonial swords. So that was Harry Patch, and it seemed a shame, in the strange logic of military history, not to include his terrible day, here, in some way. At the very least this trauma of a century back gave a renewed push to the effort to remember the Great War properly--in its full awfulness--in hte two decades leading up to the centenary. But there is a good methodological reason, too, for including him: his story, "as told to" interviewers (and, for the book, to the military historian Richard Van Emden) is the most extreme sort of counterpoint to what I generally value the most, here. Instead of a near-immediate record in a dated diary entry or letter, we have the memories of a day only after these memories have weathered eighty or nineties years in the mind of a survivor--Patch didn't start talking about the war until he was over a century old. It's a reminder of what, from another point of view, really matters, and a rebuke from a very gentle old man: the section I quote from, above, begins "I'm told we attacked on 16 August, but the date doesn't mean much to me..." and then he, in Hemingway/Fussell fashion still remembers the names, but, as the first ellipsis, above, continues "it is such a long time ago that I can't quite connect them up in my head."
  2. His diary will be extensively worked over after the fact, at least in part to achieve this effect.
  3. Some Desperate Glory, 193-200.

Toward Langemarck: More Gas for the Master of Belhaven; Kate Luard’s Saddest Sight; Harry Patch and Edwin Vaughan Arm for Battle

Today, a century back, was another eve of battle in the Ypres Salient. We begin with the Master of Belhaven, as the German artillery, surely aware of the new preparations, fire gas shells into the British support areas.

We were badly gassed last night. About midnight the Huns started off and we had to wear our gas-helmets for four consecutive hours. He is not content with firing .77 gas-shells, but is sending the gas over in 5.9 shells now. This is simply horrid, as the amount of gas liberated from one shell is so great that it is still highly concentrated at a considerable distance from where the shell burst. By bad luck the very first gas-shell that arrived last night burst just outside our dug-out. We were asleep at the time but woke at the crash and with the debris falling on the roof. In less than ten seconds the place was filled with concentrated phosgene. The first mouthful simply seized me by throat like a swallowing a spoonful of cayenne pepper. In the dark I was rather slow getting my gas mask on, and could not get the nose-clip to go on right. The result was that I got quite a lot of the horrible stuff. Within ten minutes I was feeling pretty bad–great difficulty in breathing and a dreadful sinking pain in the heart; the latter going rather fast and every now and then missing out a beat, which gave the sensation of sinking through the floor. This morning I am feeling very sick with a dull aching around the heart that is very uncomfortable. The bombardment is becoming intense again…[1]

 

Ypres is a cozy place, and if the smaller guns can’t reach the hospitals a few miles back, the big guns can–and so too the bombers, as Kate Luard reports. Few people can have had as much experience with the pathos of death from wounds as she has, but new situations can still bring home the depths of suffering which ripple outward from each of these torn bodies. Usually her duties as a nurse include easing the death of hopelessly wounded young men, and then providing what comfort she can to their parents–but not at the same time.

Wednesday, August 15th, 11.30p.m. This has been a horrid day. He bombed a lot of men near by and all who weren’t killed came to us. Some are still alive but about half died here. One of the saddest things I’ve ever seen is happening to-night. An officer boy is dying with his father (a Colonel) sitting holding his hand. The father happened to meet the Ambulance bringing him in, and the boy’s servant stopped him and told him his son was inside. He’s staying here to-night, and has just been pacing the duckboards with me, saying, ‘The other boy is a darling, but this one is the apple of our eye. I knew it must happen.’

…The Colonel’s boy died at 12.30.[2]

 

Going forward now are thousands of men from fresh divisions that have rotated into the line since the battle’s terrible first week. Edwin Vaughan now commands a platoon of the 8th Royal Warwickshires, the143rd Brigade, 48th (South Midland) Division. They are slated to support the new attack in the northern bulge of the Salient, near Saint-Julien, just south of Langemarck.

August 15

I could not sleep, but lay awake thinking and wondering about the attack, fancying myself blown to bits, or lying out on the wire with a terrible wound. It was not until dawn that I dozed off and slept fitfully until 9 a.m. The whole day we were busy, examining gas-masks, rifles, Lewis guns, field dressings, iron rations, identity discs, etc, and trying to joke with the troops despite the gnawing apprehension that was numbing our minds. Early in the evening I changed into Tommy’s uniform and tried to prepare for every contingency—spare laces and string in one pocket, spare pencils in another, scissors in my field dressing pochette, rations and cigarettes in my haversack with my maps, small message maps stuffed into my respirator satchel, and a pocketful of revolver ammunition. I also saw that my rosary was sewn into my tunic with the sovereign that Marie had given me for luck, and that my holy medals were firmly attached with my identity discs to my braces. We handed our money and decent cigarette cases over to CQMS Braham so that if anything happened to us Jerry would not have them. Then we mingled with the troops and talked lightly of tomorrow’s excitement.[3]

 

The 20th (Light) Division has recently taken the place of the 38th (Welsh) Division, so the 7th Duke of Connaught’s Light Infantry–among them a nineteen-year-old infantryman named Harry Patch–are assembling tonight in the area overrun by the comrades of David Jones and Hedd Wyn on the battle’s opening day. After taking up their burdens–as part of a Lewis gun team, Patch was issued a large amount of ammunition to carry along with the gun’s spare parts, his personal equipment, rations, water, and revolver–they crossed the Yser Canal at around 11:00 p.m.and headed toward the Steenbeck to take up positions for their early morning assault. [4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Diary, 367.
  2. Unknown Warriors, 144-5.
  3. Some Desperate Glory, 193.
  4. The Last Fighting Tommy, 89.

A Court Martial for Frederic Manning; A Quick Trial by his Peers for Siegfried Sassoon; Mud and Horror Before the Master Of Belhaven

We have only three short updates today, a century back.

First, Frederic Manning is up to his old tricks–but, perhaps, he is also under the influence of more recent experiences. By the time of his Court Martial today, a century back–the result of drunken conduct unbecoming the officer’s mess–Manning had been hospitalized for several days because “a sympathetic doctor diagnosed him as shell-shocked.” He was let off with nothing more than a reprimand–the Court Martial will shortly become a Medical Board.

Manning has had problems with drinking before–and with indulging in what might be either a personal or an Australian lack of due respect for the formal dignities of the British Officer Class. But he had a hard time on the Somme, and he has been having balance problems on the parade ground, so perhaps the doctor is as insightful as he is sympathetic–or perhaps Manning has luckily, narrowly escaped losing his second chance at becoming an officer.[1]

 

Yesterday was a day off from Ralph Hamilton‘s diary, here, but it was still a notable day–his first in the already-famous mud. He visited his Observation Post, the artilleryman’s foothold in the infantry line, which meant moving up through the battlefield–and getting stuck in mud “the consistency of porridge.”

It is really very dangerous, as the middle of the craters is so soft that one might easily sink over the head. As it was I got stuck to-day and it was all the combined effort of my party could do to pull me out. I was quite alarmed as I felt myself sinking deeper and deeper and could not move either foot…

Today, though perhaps less frightening, was more horrible.

We had just finished dinner and were having out cigars and coffee in our mud-holes when the S.O.S. broke out all along the front.

The German counter-attack–if that’s what it was–was stopped. But not without cost, of course.

…I saw a horrid sight. A gunner of some other battery ran right through the intervals of my guns. How he managed to avoid my shells I don’t know. I could hear him making queer noises as he passed, and by the light of the gun-flash I saw that he was holding one wrist from which the hand was missing…[2]

 

And last but not least, an interesting reaction, in today’s entry of Dr. Dunn’s chronicle of the 2nd Battalion, Royal Welsh Fusiliers, to the recent news from England.

Sassoon’s quixotic outburst has been quenched in a “shell-shock” retreat. He will be among degenerates, drinkers, malingerers, and common mental cases, as well as the overstrained.

It’s very easy to see where Sassoon got his snarky attitude towards his fellow patients at Craiglockhart–he, too, foregrounded the various “degenerate” types before admitting that there may in fact be some men there suffering from war-induced mental illness. But this is perhaps only the most obvious reminder–and Sassoon would have shared such prejudices before becoming an officer, anyway. In seeing how the battalion–or Dunn–view his fiery protest and its quick quenching, we’re reminded that part of the reason Sassoon might be dwelling on the poor lot among whom it is his lot to dwell is that he has belatedly realized just how completely the targets of his protest outmaneuvered him.

It is an astute means of denying our cold-blooded, cold-footed, superior persons the martyr they are too precious to find from their own unruly ranks. Sassoon gave a moral flavour to a gibe everywhere current at the front for a couple of years, that a lot of individuals in cushy jobs don’t care how long the War lasts. It used to be said laughingly, now it is said bitterly.[3]

No surprise, in other words, that the higher-ups who can’t sustain an offensive nevertheless know how to handle a political/publicity case. And–strikingly–no disagreement from the Voice of the Battalion about the grounds for protest, and no stronger condemnation than “quixotic”–and Quixote was an old campaigner of sorts, too, and a would-be martyr denied real martyrdom.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Coleman, The Last Exquisite, 132; Marwill, Frederic Manning, 183-4.
  2. War Diary, 360.
  3. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 372.

The Battle of Pilckem Ridge: Hedd Wyn and Francis Ledwidge; David Jones, Edmund Blunden, Phillip Maddison, Ralph Hamilton, and Kate Luard

After a difficult spring, it’s been a relatively quiet summer so far. But that’s over, today.

Looking a century back, we know that today’s attack begins the last of the truly enormous offensive disasters of the British war. After Third Ypres, that is, there is only one more disaster, and then one last offensive. But in 1917, of course, today wasn’t the last of anything, only the latest in the long series of “big pushes,” each of which has been very costly, and none of which has achieved a breakthrough into the German rear.

The reason I’m dwelling on our inevitable position of historical irony (i.e. knowing more than the writers knew then, a condition which this project usually seeks to obscure, due to the governing conceit that we are there, a century back, and know no more of the future) is that this may be the last of those days, before the end of the war, that seemingly everyone who was there (and some who weren’t) wrote about. It will be one of the last days, at least, that I will insist on exploring from many vantage points, and perhaps no day in the next fifteen months will produce so long a post. Even if the coming weeks will find the British army as miserably mired as it has ever been, for readers it may well be all downhill from here…

Which is all to say, please bear with me, today: there are several poems and several long prose extracts. It’s a terrible day.

 

We’ll begin, not entirely inappropriately, with melodramatic fiction. Henry Williamson‘s alter ego Philip Maddison never misses a battle, and there is a strange, fruitful tension between Maddison’s use as a tightly-grasped mirror onto the life-history of his creator and the plot contortions which deliver him to every major action of the British war to witness the “show.” It seems fitting to let him talk us into the opening of yet another battle, before we try to understand the experiences of the poets who were there.

Dragging clouds broke into rain on the night of July 31.[1] Some said it was due to the gunfire… Everything he had experienced in war so far was diminished by the sinister feeling all around him as he rode through the Grand Place [in Ypres], despite the almost furtive activity among the ruins, where were hidden masked batteries of guns, including a 15-inch howitzer known as ‘Clockwork Charlie’ for its regular bombardment of Passchendaele station thirteen thousand yards away.

…A psychical vacuum of lost life, old terror, and chronic hopelessness lingered in the crepuscular ruins… ahead lay nihilism… One of many hundreds of thousands who had passed that way, Phillip proceeded, nervous animation of flesh and bone on innocent horseflesh because there was no alternative, while he remained unbroken.[2]

But it will go easily with Phillip: he commands a Machine Gun Company’s transport unit[3] and will have no duties until it is time to bring ammunition up later in the day. He sleeps through the opening barrage.

 

This rose to a climax at around a quarter to 4:00 a.m., as dawn was breaking–or would have, if it were not so heavily overcast. At 3:50 the 15th Royal Welsh Fusiliers moved up and out. At the same time, their own 14th Battalion attcked from assembly trenches directly in front. To their left were other battalions of the 38th Division, then the Guards Division, and eventually a strong French force. To their right were the 51st and 39th Divisions, then divisions belonging to four other corps–including Canadians and Anzacs–arrayed further to the south.

A map of the area showing the precise expectations of advance. At four hours and five minutes after “Z”–7:55 A.M.–the 38th Division’s second wave should have arrived at a slight ridge line east of “Iron Cross,” often referred to as the “Green Line.”

The 15th RWF had been given the task of moving over the muddy wreckage of No Man’s Land and the German front lines, then “through” the 14th Battalion and its captured objectives near the village of Pilckem. This was accomplished with relative ease and few casualties: the enormous barrage had obliterated the lightly-held forward German positions (remember all those patrols into empty space) and it was not until the 15th were almost a mile into what had been German territory that they started taking direct fire.

The geography of Flanders favored the assault more than the Somme: the “ridge” that was the objective in this battle was only twelve or fifteen meters higher than the Yser Canal which the Royal Welch (and, just to the south, Edmund Blunden) have so frequently been crossing, so there would be no uphill advance into the muzzles of the enemy’s guns, as it were. Yet the flat terrain also meant that there would be very little cover for advancing infantry. (Worse, on the operational level, the geography of Flanders made resupply and consolidation miserable and difficult: unless there had been many days without rain, much of the area was waterlogged, and all resupply had to be through the open mud.)

At some time around 8:00, after resting briefly, the battalion launched its attack from near Pilckem village toward its own objectives to the east. They were now in the sights of the slightly elevated German machine guns, encased in concrete pillboxes, many of which had survived the opening barrage. The next few minutes are the sort of experience that defy description, and the Battalion War Diary perhaps wisely opts for simple elision.

Considerable opposition was met with at BATTERY COPSE & by this time there were but few officers remaining.

In other words, the battalion, though continuing to move forward, was met with murderous fire from nearby strong points, fell behind the carefully timed “walking” support barrage, and was stopped by that mysterious combination of moral failure, confusion, exhaustion, and physical depletion that leads to historians of battles using metaphors of physical force. They had done well, penetrating much further into the German lines than most of the units on the southern part of the assault, but still not quite as well as the ever-optimistic planners had hoped. And that planning was everything: there was no possibility of getting messages back over a mile of broken ground to the the telephones that could contact the artillery. There was no possibility of bringing up heavy weapons to address the German pill boxes. The ridge was held, by the German Third Guards, and when the barrage lifted they came up and fought. There was nothing for the Royal Welch to do but rush whatever German positions could be rushed, until they were… halted, pushed back, forced to a halt, and dug in.

The Diary remained matter-of-fact:

… the smoke barrage… tended to confuse the men… Lt. Col. C.C. Norman[4]… was wounded and ordered the Bn. to consolidate on the IRON CROSS ridge. As no officer remained, the Bn. was handed over to the R.S.M. Jones who saw to the consolidation which was being carried out some way in rear of the GREEN LINE giving a greater task to the 115 bde who were passing through us.

It is striking, even on such a day, that the battalion’s ranking member, only a few hours into the battle is the Regimental Sergeant Major: there should have been between twelve and twenty officers at the start, but all of those who went forward have been wounded or killed.

And many of the men, including Ellis Humphrey Evans, the Welsh shepherd and bard better known as Hedd Wyn.

Not long after the 15th Welsh began to advance from Pilckem he was hit, probably by a large piece of shrapnel from a German shell. The shell struck him in the stomach, or the back–a great wound would have been visible, in any case, on both sides of his body. He fell, somewhere near a crossroads on the road to Langemarck, and lay there for around three hours. Perhaps he was in shock at first, probably in terrible agony thereafter. At some time around midday, stretcher bearers found him, and struggled back through the thickening mud to an advanced dressing station.

Hedd Wyn–Private Ellis Humphrey Evans–died on a stretcher not long after arriving at the dressing station. There is a mention of his receiving morphia before the end (which we might fervently hope, even a century on, to be true) and unreliable accounts of last words.[5]

Evans–Hedd Wyn–will be buried nearby, with a chaplain reading the burial service in Welsh. His last letters and his last great poem–an ode written for the upcoming National Eisteddfod–will find their way slowly back to Britain over the next days and weeks. For many officers the telegram is sent within a day or two, but not to the far-off farming family of an enlisted man, living their lives in a language other than English. Hedd Wyn’s parents and siblings will have to wait through weeks of dire rumor before the War Office confirms his death.

 

This is one stanza from the ode that Hedd Wyn sent, only a few weeks ago, for adjudication at the National Eisteddfod:

Y macwy heulog, paham y ciliodd?                       Why did he depart, this radiant youngster?

Ba ryw hud anwel o’m bro a’i denodd?                  What drew him from me, what unseen power?

Ei oed a’i eiriau dorrodd, – ac o’i drig                Breaking his word and pledge together–then he

Ddiofal unig efe ddiflannodd                            In his carefree home was seen no longer.[6]

 

 

Onward. It seems that David Jones never met Hedd Wyn. He surely laid eyes on him, over the past two weeks, but I can find no record of anyone making Jones aware that he had “fought alongside,” however briefly, a true Welsh bard.[7] But he did not fight alongside him on his last day.

Yesterday, a century back, David Jones learned that he would be kept back from the attack along with a small cadre of officers[8] and men.

Jones was assigned to ‘battalion nuclear reserve’ — a group from which the already depleted battalion could be reconstituted if it were wiped out during the assault. Upon receiving his assignment, he asked the adjutant to be removed from the list so he could take part in the attack. Although he wanted merely to remain with his friends, he argued that he ought to trade places with a married man. The adjutant furiously berated him for ‘pretending to wish to be a bloody hero’ while knowing full well that men detailed had no choice in the matter. Simmering down, he told Jones that there would be plenty of other opportunities, that the nucleus was likely to be called upon anyway, and that he only wished he had been assigned to it. Feeling foolish, Jones tried to explain that he had not meant it that way. He was forced to endure the ignominy of relative safety…

Thomas Dilworth’s account of the battalion’s advance emphasizes their success in meeting and defeating German opposition between Pilckem village and the not-quite-obtained “Green Line,” even after the loss of so many officers.

Keeping in formation, the remainder struggled in deep mud past Pilckem village and concrete machine-gun emplacements, which they outflanked, compelling their garrisons to surrender. In reserve, listening to the gunfire, Jones worried about his friends and bitterly regretted his separation from them.[9]

Jones will nevertheless write their advance, presumably drawing on his comrades’ memories, in the thick description and black comic mood of the “Balaam’s Ass” section of The Sleeping Lord. The section about the openness of the advance, as the men contemplate their coming exposure to German machine guns, is frightening. Jones draws thorny little historical-personal sketches of the men of the unit, alternating several of these with sardonic and tragic descriptions of the landscape, or lack thereof:

It’s as level as Barking and as bare as your palm…

All the fine fiery waters in Headquarter’s larder won’t raise a mole-hill for Lieutenant Fairy on that open plain…

not a bush, no brick-bat, not any accidental & advantageous fold, no lie of dead ground the length of a body…

Not a rock to cleft for, not a spare drift of soil for the living pounds of all their poor bodies drowned in the dun sea…

Nor yet was there aid or covering wing, or upright, or linden hedge or agger or paraduct or mothering skirt for a frightened last-born, or gunnal for the evil swell; or anything drawn to mask or shadow…

The list of men, and the lack of cover that will kill them, goes on for pages before Jones, in an echo of the medieval Welsh “Triads,” names “the three who escaped.” And then the poem ends:

But for all the rest there was no help on that open plain.[10]

 

There were more than three survivors, in prose, and Jones will join them later on, where they hold their muddy positions near what had been the German second line and their “Black Line–“the penultimate line of intended advance. But the tone of tomorrow may be different than the tone of today: the survivors of the battalion took pride in its success, and celebrated it.

And so it is a curious fact that the one image I have found which links the material facts of this day to the work of one of our writers is about as traditionally triumphal as 1917 art could get: it is Jones’s sketch of a German howitzer–proof that they fought through the infantry and reached the artillery–captiured today, a century back, and drawn soon after.

 

By now it should be clear–to us if not to all the contemporary generals–that, as a matter of strategy, the front line positions on a Great War “battlefield” matter very little. They will change hands as counter-attacks and second efforts are launched, and the place where a battered battalion went to ground may not turn out to be defensible. What matters, really, is whether the newly occupied territory can be connected to the arteries of warfare in the rear. If reinforcements can be brought up quickly, if the cavalry can follow the infantry and the guns can get to new positions with vantage points over the enemy rear, then the offensive can be sustained.

These are deep battles, therefore, and when attacking waves of infantry face little in the way of enemy shellfire it is both because they are being left for the machine guns to deal with and because the artillery may also have “lifted” in order to focus on the interdiction of reserves. The infantry in the immediate rear, whether working or moving up in support, are the most vulnerable targets of shrapnel, gas, and high explosive as the day wears on.

The 1st Royal Inniskillings, therefore, had drawn a less dangerous assignment than leading the attack, but it is now far from a safe job. A few miles south-east of the Royal Welch, they have detailed to build the forward-area infrastructure that the offensive would depend upon.

Francis Ledwidge‘s biographer puts us with the men of his battalion, in support, questioning the only British soldiers they see who are likely to have some sense of how the battle is progressing.

All during the morning… the tide of wounded flowed back from the front line. Once again the stretcher-bearers had to raise their burdens shoulder-high as they sloshed along. Questioned how the day went, there was not much they could tell… All they could say was that the German front line of shell-craters was quickly taken, as it was manned by only scattered outposts. But immediately they found themselves in an inferno of gunfire as wave after wave of Germans came out against them, fighting like tigers.

Francis Ledwidge

Ledwidge and his comrades in reserve had been toiling since early morning at road-making…

There was a violent rainstorm in the afternoon, shrouding the region in a grey monochrome… Road-work could not be suspended, however, as the tracks were in use as fast as they were laid down. Tea was issued to the men and, drenched to the skin, they stopped to swallow it. A shell exploded beside Ledwidge and he was instantly killed.

There is no doubt about Ledwidge’s fate; the shell killed six other men and wounded many more. The battalion chaplain, Father Devas, was nearby, but still far too far away for last rites. He performed the burial service soon afterwards, and will write in his diary, tonight:

Ledwidge killed, blown to bits; at Confession yesterday and Mass and Holy Communion this morning. R.I.P.[11]

 

It was a battlefield burial, and not much like the one Ledwidge had described in “A Soldier’s Grave.”

Then in the lull of midnight, gentle arms
Lifted him slowly down the slopes of death,
Lest he should hear again the mad alarms
Of battle, dying moans, and painful breath.

And where the earth was soft for flowers we made
A grave for him that he might better rest.
So, Spring shall come and leave it sweet arrayed,
And there the lark shall turn her dewy nest.

 

Within a few miles and a few hours, Wales and Ireland lost their foremost war poets. Hedd Wyn was 30; Ledwidge, born half a year later, would have turned 30 in August. Both came from Celtic “peasant stock” and humble circumstances: Evans was one of nine children who survived infancy and left school at around the age of fourteen; Ledwidge, too, was one of nine children and left school perhaps a year earlier. Hedd Wyn stayed at home until conscription, but Ledwidge traveled–and only he crossed over into the language of the conquerors and received a lord‘s patronage and wide publication while he lived.

Each worked with their hands while working on their verse, and each will receive a posthumous epithet which confines their work even as it helps hold their place in collective memory: they were the Shepherd Poet and the Poet of the Blackbirds.

Each was looking forward to the reception of his latest work–Ledwidge’s second book, Hedd Wyn’s awdl for the Eisteddfod. Ledwidge, who had lost Ellie, wrote a last letter to Lizzie; Hedd Wyn, who had lost Lizzie, wrote a last letter to Jini. Both are buried, now, in Artillery Wood Cemetery.

Francis Ledwidge, who did not turn his poet’s pen toward the worst of the war, wrote these verses in February:

The silence of maternal hills
Is round me in my evening dreams;
And round me music-making bills
And mingling waves of pastoral streams.

Whatever way I turn I find
The path is old unto me still.
The hills of home are in my mind.
And there I wander as I will.

 

And Hedd Wyn wrote these lines about one of his friends who had gone before him to the war. It could have been for Ledwidge, almost, or, now, for himself:

Ceraist ti grwydro gwlwdydd pellenig,—             You loved to roam the distant lands
Y gwlwdydd sy ‘mhell tros y don;                           The countries beyond the sea,
Weithiau dychwelit i’th gartre mynyddig              Sometimes you’d return to your highland home,
A’th galon yn ysgafn a llon.                                    And so light of heart you’d be.

Gwelsom di ennyd cyn dychwel ohonot              We saw you awhile before you returned
I’r rhyfel sy’n crynu y byd;                                       To the war that makes the world quake,
Nodau y gwlatgar a’r beiddgar oedd ynot,           Bearing the marks so dearly bought
Y nodau sy’n costio mor ddrud.                              For your country and bravery’s sake.

Fe chwyth y corwynt tros fryniau Trawsfynydd    The storm rages over Trawsfynydd’s hills
O’th ôl fel yn athrist ei gainc;                                   After you, as if it would weep;
Tithau yng nghymni’r fataliwn ddi-hysbydd          You, who with numberless battalions in France
Sy’n cysgu’n ddi‑freuddwyd yn Ffrainc                   Lie there in a dreamless sleep.[12]

 

 

Does this strange practice of following a number of lives faithfully through their day-to-day progress, even to their deaths, help us see a perhaps-too-familiar war in a new light? Sometimes it doesn’t quite seem worth the effort. But on other days, even on sad days like this one, it does seem to intensify historical experience. And, yes, often in that familiar, bitterly ironic way.

What is to be done? Why are thoughtful young men from the green and pleasant hills of England’s first colonies (to say nothing of the thousands who came from England’s more recent and farther-flung colonies, essentially invisible in this project, or the English boys themselves) dying in Flanders? What good is it doing?

In England, the same papers that carried the news of the opening of the offensive at Pilckem Ridge carried news of yesterday‘s parliamentary questions about a certain unruly officer. Sassoon’s protest has fallen entirely between two battles. Inspired by Arras, it has lapsed during a quiet summer, and only the wake’s last mild ripple laps up against Passchendaele.

Robert Graves, now back at the Royal Welsh depot at Litherland, seems somewhat jealous of his friend’s publicity, however negative it is. (Only two newspapers will come out in support of Sassoon; others will mock him, dismiss him, or publish would-be exposés of his family history.)

My dear Sassons

…Well you are notorious throughout England now you silly old thing! Everybody here who’s been to France agrees with your point of view, but those that don’t know you think it was not quite a gentlemanly course to take: the ‘quixotic-English-sportsman’ class especially.’ But you have accomplished something I suppose… What a ridiculous business! I hope it won’t injure your poetry: and that old Gosse won’t think better of celebrating his protégé in the Edinburgh Review. I’m longing to get my Sorley back. Hurry up with it…

Poor devils at Pilkem![13]

 

Yes, the poor devils. Hedd Wyn and Francis Ledwidge would perhaps have written verse about the battle, if they had lived. Hedd Wyn surely would have; his war verse was very strong even before he had seen the war. But what could they have written about the attack itself? This war is beginning to produce great literature–small recompense for the suffering, but there is no way out of that moral-aesthetic fact–but it has yet to produce many good accounts of a major offensive. This is not surprising: it has always been very difficult first to make any sense of a battle and then represent it in words, let alone in verse. And it’s not getting any easier.

But Edmund Blunden, who is here and who will survive the day, will try. He wrote a poem (“Third Ypres”), a story (“Over the Sacks”), and he addressed the ongoing battle in the most harrowing chapter of his memoirs.

The story we will pass over (a page of the manuscript is at right, and it can be read in full at the First World War Poetry Digital Archive). And the poem is none of his best, not least because Blunden tries to describe the progress of the war, blow by blow. This is no wartime lyric, but an attempt, as it were, at a fragment of descriptive epic, something to fall between Vergil and Lucan.

It begins with the realization among the men of the writer’s battalion that the early stages of the attack are going well.

Triumph! How strange, how strong had triumph come
On weary hate of foul and endless war
When from its grey gravecloths awoke anew
The summer day. Among the tumbled wreck
Of fascined lines and mounds the light was peering,
Half-smiling upon us, and our newfound pride;
The terror of the waiting night outlived,
The time too crowded for the heart to count
All the sharp cost in friends killed on the assault.
No hook of all the octopus had held us,[14]
Here stood we trampling down the ancient tyrant.
So shouting dug we among the monstrous pits.

Amazing quiet fell upon the waste,
Quiet intolerable to those who felt
The hurrying batteries beyond the masking hills…

The War would end, the Line was on the move,
And at a bound the impassable was passed.
We lay and waited with extravagant joy.

This is verse, but it’s also historical witness. This is how the day went, for many of the battalions involved. The first waves did well, but the effort was impossible to sustain.

Now dulls the day and chills; comes there no word
From those who swept through our new lines to flood
The lines beyond? but little comes, and so
Sure as a runner time himself’s accosted.
And the slow moments shake their heavy heads,
And croak, “They’re done, they’ll none of them get through,
They’re done, they’ve all died on the entanglements,
The wire stood up like an unplashed hedge and thorned
With giant spikes — and there they’ve paid the bill.”

Then comes the black assurance, then the sky’s
Mute misery lapses into trickling rain,
That wreathes and swims and soon shuts in our world.

The rain happened that way too. Although the attack had been held back in the hopes that August would be drier than July, it began raining this afternoon and rained almost steadily for most of the next week. This rain was more than symbolic, but less than strategically decisive: the attack had failed to break through, so no matter how many Germans were killed, no matter how many guns were captured, it was already doomed to failure on the strategic level. The only remaining question is not strategic or tactical but attritional: there will be no breakthrough, but will one army or the other break?

Neither will collapse, yet, but no one could have known that for certain. Nevertheless, they could have guessed with more intelligence, or good sense, or pity. Instead, Haig and his staff will long press the question, on into an autumn of mud and misery and death.

Blunden’s account of today in Undertones of War begins with the Staff–but those who command the battle have already become irrelevant to its progress by the time it begins; another familiar irony. He improves on the poem in many ways, not least in allowing the generalized vision of battle to focus briefly–if distantly–on actual people. The runner is joined by captains and churls; the Thersites of the Royal Sussex and some of the far-off Captains of Contingents.

The hour of attack had been fixed by the staff much earlier than the infantry wanted or thought suitable. The night had passed as such nights often do, shelling being less than was anticipated, silent altogether at times. I suppose it was about 3:00 when I shook hands with Colonel Millward, mounted the black-oozing steps of battle headquarters in the burrows below Bilge Street, and got into the assembly ditch (Hornby Trench) with my signallers. It was thick darkness and slippery going, but we used an old road part of the way. Where we lay, there were in the darkness several tall tree stumps above, and it felt like a friendly ghost that watched the proceedings.

At 3:50, if I am right, shortly after Vidler had passed me growling epigrams at some recent shellburst which had covered him with mud, the British guns began; a flooded Amazon of steel flowed roaring, immensely fast, over our heads, and the machine-gun bullets made a pattern of sharper sound and maniac language against that diluvian rush. Flaring lights, small ones, great ones, went spinning sideways in the cloud of night; one’s eyes seemed not quick enough; one heard nothing from one’s shouting neighbour, and only by the quality of the noise and flame did I know that the German shells crashing among the tree stumpswere big ones and practically on top of us. We moved ahead, found No Man’s Land a comparatively good  surface, were amazed at the puny tags and rags of once multiplicative German wire, and blundered over the once-feared trench behind them without seeing it. Good men as they were, my party were almost all half-stunned by the unearthliness of our own barrage, and when two were wounded it was left to me to bandage them in my ineffective way. The dark began to be diluted with day, and as we went on we saw concrete emplacements, apparently unattended to as yet, which had to be treated with care and suspicion; I was well satisfied to find them empty. And indeed the whole area seemed to be deserted. German dead, so obvious at every yard of a 1916 battlefield, were not to be seen. We still went ahead, and the mist whitened into dawn; through it came running a number of Germans — a momentary doubt; no — “Prisoners!” shouted my batman. A minute more, and my advanced guard of signallers had come into touch with the companies, digging in along their captured objective. Meanwhile, I went ahead to see all the mist allowed; there were troops of our brigade advancing through the lines of men consolidating shell holes, and with map before me I could recognize some of the places which we had certainly captured. It seemed marvellous, for the moment! All ours — all these German trenches. Caliban Support, Calf Avenue, Calf Reserve. But, stay — even now a pity looks one in the face, for these trenches are mostlymere hedges of brushwood, hurdles, work for a sheep-fold, with a shallow ditch behind; and they have been taking our weeks of gunfire in these!

The sympathy actually occurred to me, but was soon obliterated by the day’s work and an increase in the German gunfire upon us. The passage of the tanks through our position was thought to be the reason, for as these machines wheeled aside from the pits where our men were digging, heavy shells came down with formidable accuracy. Besides, the enemy must have captured our operation maps with all the stages of advance displayed. I remember that I was talking with somebody about one “Charlie” Aston, an officer’s servant, who had been running here and there to collect watches from German dead. He had just returned to his chosen shell hole, with several
fine specimens, when a huge shell burst in the very place. But not much notice was taken, or elegy uttered, for everywhere the same destruction threatened. And Tice and Collyer were already killed—news as yet failing to have its full painfulness in the thick of things.

The battalion headquarters soon advanced from the old British front line, still conspicuous with the tall tree stumps, and crushed itself into a little concrete dugout with a cupola over it, formerly used for a perfect survey of the British defences. Road-making parties had lost no time and, strung out among the shellbursts, were shovelling and pummelling tracks across old No Man’s Land.

These men might be Ledwidge and his companions–except that they are in a neighboring division. The road they’ve made allow the staff–not the Olympian General Staff but its least august and most local branch office–to see the battle.

And then the brigade headquarters came, beautiful to look upon, and their red tabs glowed out of several shell holes. This was more than the German observers could endure, and in a short time there was such a shower of high explosive on that small area that the brains of the brigade withdrew, a trifle disillusioned, to the old British trenches. Another shower, and a more serious and incontestable one, was now creeping on miserably over the whole field. It was one of the many which caused the legend, not altogether dismissed even by junior officers, that the Germans could make it rain when they wanted to. Now, too, we were half aware that the attack had failed farther on, and one more brilliant hope, expressed a few hours before in shouts of joy, sank into the mud.[15]

This is life-history, or personal prose–but it seems to fit the battle. Or, at least, what the battle will become.

 

But that too is taking liberties with historiography. It was not raining in the morning, and the Germans did not make it rain–nor were all the staff’s objectives impossible to obtain. Can one attempt more traditional battlefield historiography, on a day like today?

Just to the left of the Royal Welch Fusiliers’ 38th Division were the Guards, including the Second Irish Guards, whose official historian, already on the job a century back, was Rudyard Kipling.

July 31st opened, at 3.30 a. m., with a barrage of full diapason along the army front, followed on the Guards sector by three minutes of “a carefully prepared hate,” during which two special companies projected oil-drums throwing flame a hundred yards around, with thermit that burned everything it touched. The enemy had first shown us how to employ these scientific aids, and we had bettered the instruction.

His barrage in reply fell for nearly an hour on the east bank of the canal. Our creeping barrage was supposed to lift at 4 a. m. and let the two leading battalions (2nd Irish Guards and 1st Scots Guards) get away; but it was not till nearly a quarter of an hour later that the attack moved forward in waves behind it. Twelve minutes later, Nos. 1 and 2 Companies of the Battalion had reached the first objective (Cariboo and Cannon trenches) “with only one dead
German encountered”; for the enemy’s withdrawal to his selected line had been thorough. The remaining companies followed, and behind them came the 1st Coldstream, all according to schedule; till by 5.20 a. m. the whole of the first objective had been taken and was being consolidated, with very small loss…

About half-past five, Colonel Greer, while standing outside advanced Battalion Headquarters dug-out in the first objective line, was killed instantly by shrapnel or bullet. It was his devoted work, his arrangement and foresight that had brought every man to his proper place so far without waste of time or direction. He had literally made the Battalion for this battle as a steeple-chaser is made for a given line of country. Men and officers together adored him for his justice, which was exemplary and swift; for the human natural fun of the man; for his knowledge of war and the material under his hand, and for his gift of making hard life a thing delightful. He fell on the threshold of the
day ere he could see how amply his work had been rewarded…

No Greek heroes here, but a Moses out of the grimmer warfare of the Hebrew Bible–they did it first, and we will do it more ruthlessly and competently. And he falls within sight of the promised land.

And here’s a strange if superficial coincidence: on a day when the Sassoon family is being dragged through the tabloids (Siegfried, though he was baptized and raised as an Anglican and identified with his maternal family–the eminently English Thornycrofts–descended from a prominent Sephardic Jewish mercantile clan) in search of their scion’s wretched anti-militarism, a half second cousin, Reginald Ellice Sassoon, is credited with speeding an important advance.

Lieutenant Sassoon, commanding No. 3, got his Lewis-gun to cover a flank attack on the machine-gun that was doing the damage, took it with seven German dead and five wounded prisoners, and so freed the advance for the Scots Guards and his own company. As the latter moved forward they caught it in the rear from another machine-gun which had been overlooked, or hidden itself in the cleaning-up of Hey Wood.

Sassoon sent back a couple of sections to put this thing out of action (which they did) and pushed on No. 4 Company, which was getting much the same allowance from concrete emplacements covering machine-guns outside Artillery Wood…

All in all, the Irish Guards had been quite successful.

Indeed, they admitted among themselves — which is where criticism is fiercest — that they had pulled the scheme off rather neatly, in spite of their own barrages, and that the map and model study had done the trick. By ten o’clock of the morning their work was substantially complete. They had made and occupied the strong points linking up between their advanced companies and the final objectives, which it was the business of the other brigades to secure. As they put it, “everything had clicked…”

Successful, yet still costly:

…At three o’clock Father Knapp appeared at Battalion Headquarters — that most insanitary place — and proposed to stay there. It was pointed out to him that the shelling was heavy, accommodation, as he could see, limited, and he had better go to the safer advanced dressing-station outside Boesinghe and deal with the spiritual needs of his wounded as they were sent in. The request had to be changed to a reasonably direct order ere he managed to catch it; for, where his office was concerned, the good Father lacked something of that obedience he preached. And a few hours after he had gone down to what, with any other man, would have been reasonable security, news arrived that he had been mortally wounded while tending cases “as they came out” of the dressing-station. He must have noticed that the accommodation there was cramped, too, and have exposed himself to make shelter for others…

The toll is taken: three officers, including the C.O. (but not the chaplain) killed, and three wounded. More paths cross here: Lady Dorothie Feilding‘s brother “Peter” (Henry) was a captain in the Coldstream Guards, and she will spend much of the rest of her honeymoon seeking news of him before finally learning that he is safe, for the moment–his battalion was in reserve. But as they use “their contacts in Flanders” to try to get news by letter and telegraph, her new husband, late of the Irish Guards, will learn that “his 3 best friends” were all killed today, a century back–Sir John Dyer, Col. Greer, and “Father Knapps who was to have married us.”[16]

Casualties in other ranks came to 280, a large part due to machine-gun fire. It was a steadying balance-sheet and, after an undecided action, would have been fair excuse for a little pause and reconstruction. But a clean-cut all-
out affair, such as Boesinghe, was different, though it had been saddened by the loss of an unselfish priest who feared nothing created, and a commanding officer as unselfish and as fearless as he…

Greer’s insistence that the men should know the model of the ground, and their officers the aeroplane maps of it, and his arrangements whereby all units could report lucidly at any moment where they were, had brought them success. So, with 50 per cent, of their strength gone, and the dismal wet soaking the stiff survivors to the bone, they hobbled about, saying, “If he were only here now to see how he has pulled this off!”[17]

Pilckem ridge, a bloody, partial success–or at least a qualified failure–is over. But the larger monstrosity known as Third Ypres has only begun; Passchendaele is coming…

 

We’ll close today with two more participants–our two most assiduous diarists–both in the British rear. Kate Luard, ready and waiting for the first torn bodies, wrote in her diary at the beginning and the end of the day.

4.15 a.m. …We crept out on to the duckboards and saw. It was more wonderful and stupendous than horrible…

6.30 a.m. We have just begun taking in the first cases…

Same day, 11 p.m. We have been working in the roar of battle every minute since I last wrote… Soon after 10 o’clock this morning he began putting over high explosive. Everyone had to put on tin-hats and carry on… no direct hits but streams of shrapnel, which were quite hot when you picked them up… we were so frantically busy that it was easier to pay less attention to it.

It doesn’t look as if we should ever sleep again…[18]

Luard’s forward hospital dealt with hundreds of abdominal wounds, saving many, perhaps, who would have died on the way to the usual Casualty Clearing Stations. If Hedd Wyn’s wound had only been a little less severe, if it had only been possible for the overburdened stretcher bearers to go farther and faster…

 

But just as Luard worked all day to save the broken bodies, the Master of Belhaven worked all day to break more. That’s in the nature of artillery work.

We… have fired without stopping all day… we have not got as far as was intended just here, I have only seen about a couple of hundred German prisoners, but I believe a great many have been taken. They have no doubt gone back by a different route. On the other hand, I believe we have done very well up to the North…

This is true–both the French advance and the near-achievement of the “Green Line” goal by the Guards and the 38th Division were accounted successes. But ground gained still must be weighed against the flesh and blood it cost. Hamilton summarizes the reports filtering back from the wounded infantry: “I am afraid our casualties have been very heavy.” As for his own batteries, it will not be a one-sided battle for long.

Very few shells have come over us to-day as we expected. During the actual attack the hostile artillery devote themselves to the infantry. Our hard time will come to-morrow.[19]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. By which he means the night of July 30-31st; and he's jumping the gun just a bit on the rain...
  2. Love and the Loveless, 218-19.
  3. As Williamson did, until he went sick and was sent to Cornwall to recuperate.
  4. The cool old officer whom David Jones had so recently glimpsed striding the parapet.
  5. Llwyd, The Story of Hedd Wyn, 93-115. Alan Llwyd has weighed the various testimonies about Hedd Wyn's death, and I follow his reconstruction of the most probable sequence of events.
  6. Trans. Howard Huws.
  7. It's more than possible that I have just missed this. If not--if no one figured this out during Jones's long life and told him about it--then it's a striking and somewhat sad slipped stitch in the patchwork of Great War literature. Jones worked for years to learn enough Welsh to integrate its myths and history into his war epic, and even if he would not, perhaps, have been unduly impressed by the mere coincidence of proximity in space and time, he might, if he had known that a chaired bard had been killed in his own battalion, have thought more about contemporary Welsh poetry and its place in a British accounting of France and Flanders. Or not--there are many things I do not understand about Welsh-language culture a century back--and now--and about the political and cultural complexities of translation. Do Welsh poets claim David Jones--or, rather, do they honor his application for honorary membership in their ranks--for his ancestry, artistry, and benign intent? Does the resurgence of Welsh culture after devolution mean that Hedd Wyn has been annexed, to some degree, away from some more pure bardic/local identity and flattened into a "heritage" figure, half Welsh Rupert Brooke and half Welsh Wilfred Owen? I wish I had started on this particular thread a bit earlier...
  8. This also accounts for all officers becoming casualties--a disproportionate number would have been held back. but still...
  9. Dilworth, David Jones in the Great War, 159-63.
  10. The Sleeping Lord, 100-111.
  11. Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge, 188.
  12. Trans. Howard Huws
  13. In Broken Images, 80.
  14. This line recalls--or rather foreshadows--the closing lines of Undertones of War.
  15. Undertones of War, chapter 21.
  16. Lady Under Fire, 219. The misspelling--"Knapps"--is presumably Lady Dorothie's.
  17. The Irish Guards in the Great War, II, 193-8.
  18. Unknown Warriors, 133-4.
  19. War Diary, 356-7.

Happy Birthday Richard Aldington; A Painful Encounter for Vivian de Sola Pinto; A Different Sort of Protest from Siegfried Sassoon; Duff Cooper is Saved by Alice; Ivor Gurney’s Delightful Present and Grim Portent

It’s a busy day, today, in England and France…

Today is Richard Aldington‘s twenty-fifth birthday and, having been newly trained as an officer, he was able to take a weekend’s leave and spend it with his wife, the poet H.D., at her rooms in the village of Brocton. It was a happy and productive time:

That birthday weekend she reassured him and helped him take stock of his situation. He wrote to [a friend]: ‘I have been thinking over writing, translation & similar matters & under the encouragement of my wife I have begun to try to build up the ruins again!’

With H.D.’s support, he was tackling the problems the war had brought him as a writer: the lack of time for any sustained work, the limited opportunities for publication–and, worst of all, his ‘writer’s block’, arising out of his not having the luxury (unlike Pound and Eliot) of being able to ignore the war and yet feeling that what he could write about it was weak and inadequate…[1]

Now if he would only date his manuscripts…

 

In any other regiment, Vivian de Sola Pinto would be a literary giant; in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, he is more of a minor memoirist. But it it really is a very good memoir–just short on hard dates, alas–and it’s not quite fair to the man that he will only feature prominently here as a supporting character, both tactically and literarily.

He arrived in France in April after long service–and a long illness–in Egypt, and recovery at home. Tonight, a century back, his current tour of duty will come to a sharp end.

On the night of 8th July, after completing our usual patrol of no-man’s-land I led my men over the bank into the sunken road. It was bright moonlight, and as we dropped on to the road, we found ourselves in the middle of a number of men in flat caps, obviously a German patrol. For a moment English and Germans stared at each other in amazement. I had my loaded revolver hung round my neck on a lanyard and in my excitement I raised it and fired into the mass of strangers. I thought I had fired one shot, but found afterwards that I had emptied all six chambers. I certainly hit a man near me and saw him fall. Then I saw a blinding flash and heard a tremendous roar. The next thing that I remember was regaining consciousness on a stretcher in our front line with a bandage round the bottom of my face and my mouth full of blood, feeling that, perhaps, my lower jaw had been blown off. Later I learnt that after I fired my revolver a German threw one of their stick-bombs, which exploded above my head and knocked me unconscious…

At the dressing station Pinto learns that his jaw is intact, but that “various teeth were knocked out and pieces of bomb were lodged in my tongue and left cheek.” Eating became something of a challenge in the short term, as, even equipped with a rubber tube, “it tended to spout out through the hole in my cheek.”

There followed a very long and uncomfortable journey on a motor ambulance to the railhead, where I was carried on my stretcher to a hospital train by two stretcher-bearers in strange uniforms with broad-brimmed hats like those of boy scouts. ‘Americans!’ I said to myself, and was thrilled by the thought that American units were now in France…[2]

Remarkably, his recovery will be so swift that Pinto will not see Blighty, but instead move directly from the American hospital to a convalescent home near Dieppe…

 

Duff Cooper has not been shot in the face. But he’s still taking his transition into the army rather hard.

July 8, 1917

I arrived in London at about 5 and went to my flat which seemed very desolate with everything put away. It was still raining hard. I telephoned to everyone I knew but not a soul was in London. Then a great cloud of depression came upon me and I felt even more miserable than I had been at Bushey and without hope.

This is a private diary, and surely he showed a stiffer upper lip–not to mention charm and wit–to the outside world. But still… it’s a bit melodramatic! Which befits, I suppose, one of the last of the devoted friends-and-pursuers of Diana Manning. But today, unexpectedly, Cooper turns a corner, emotionally. It must be the radiant love of the divine Diana, right?

Nope–maybe tomorrow. Today, it’s a stiff drink and a dose of Lewis Carroll that does the trick.

I went to the Junior Carlton, drank a pint of champagne and some sherry with a small dinner and read Through the Looking Glass. As if by enchantment my melancholy left me and I knew that I should not be unhappy again. Courage came back to me which I had lost, and I despised myself for having done so. I went back to my flat, changed into my uniform, spoke to the Montagus who had just returned and motored down to Bushey feeling perfectly happy.[3]

 

This sort of mood shift–and its means–might be one of the very few things that Cooper could share with Ivor Gurney. But Gurney’s spirits rise today through the usual pleasures: good food and fond memories of home. And alas that his reading, today, is significantly less fantastic.

8 July 1917

My Dear Friend:

…This village is still delightful, and today the weather is perfect.

Two days ago, I had a dinner of salad and deux pain-beurres. It was perfectly wonderful to have such a dainty meal after aeons of shackles (Englished — skilly: stew.)

Your parcel has arrived, and thank you very much for it. Especially the lemonade powder and the fruit, which are summery things; but do not suppose that the cake, cheese, biscuits and OXO go unappreciated.

Gloster county is packed full of beautiful things, and pink dogroses of the most delicate miraculousness find place therein. Also wild strawberries by the million, and would I were on Coopers Hill looking over to Malvern and Wales while easing my back at times. O God, that goes too deep though!

Then the letter turns on a dime–its import, that is, even though the tone remains light.

We are having really a pretty easy time now, and this means Over the Top, I think. Well, let come what come may, as the Victorians said, I shall have had my day. (And a — poor one at times.)

Alan Seeger’s poems must be interesting. I like “I have a rendezvous with Death” very much…

I have no change now, but next letter shall contain a 5 fr note to be applied to the purchase of Ralph Hodgson’s “Poems”, for you… Or would you prefer the Second Book of Georgian Verse…?

A Frenchwoman told me she never heard French soldiers sing half so much as English. This pleased me, and indeed 7 Platoon has been songful of late…

Your sincere friend,

Ivor Gurney[4]

Singing, then, and thinking of the summer beauties of Gloucestershire… and remembering another soldier’s prophetic/poetic rendezvous…

 

Finally, today, an update of sorts on the Siegfried Sassoon drama. First–and this will prove significant–Robbie Ross is now on the case.

8 July 1917
Hotel Albion, Brighton

Dearest Siegfried, I am quite appalled at what you have done! I can only hope that the C.O. at Litherland will absolutely ignore your letter. I am terrified lest you should be put under arrest.

Let me know at once if anything happens.

Ever your devoted

Robbie[5]

Sassoon has made an interesting choice–out of idleness, he will claim, but perhaps more truly out of a semi-conscious instinct for self-preservation. He informs his influential friends of his dramatic action when it has only half-begun: the letter is sent to Litherland, but the “Statement” is not yet published.

Among the immediate actions Ross will take is to send a letter to Robert Graves, on the Isle of Wight. But today, a century back, Graves is still in ignorance of Sassoon’s action. His letters of today and recent days are all poetry–or, rather, about the placement of poetry. He is drumming up support for his own book and negotiating with Eddie Marsh about the next Georgian Poetry anthology–in which he, Sassoon, and Robert Nichols will be prominent. And in each of these letters to mutual friends he both praises some of Sassoon’s verses and takes behind-the-back potshots at other poems…

Ironically, then, since Graves is about to throw up his poetry-mongering to take up his friend’s dangerous case–Sassoon is risking not only disgrace but imprisonment and, theoretically at least, capital punishment–Sassoon himself has not been as entirely idle as he would have us believe. He has also been tending to his poetic fortunes, and recently wrote to complain about a sharp review–to Charles Scott Moncrieff, as it happens. And today, a century back, Scott Moncrieff replied:

I enjoyed your book much more than I have said, but I do confidently think that you are too ‘good at’ poetry to waste your talents on such London Mail storyette effects as you have secured in ‘The Hero.’ If I had written it I should talk about myself for years after, on the head of cleverness. But that is another matter.[6]

It’s busy times, these days, what with poetry, literary maneuvering, and attempting to provoke a court martial…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Whelpton, Poet, Soldier, and Writer, 152-3.
  2. The City That Shone, 202-3.
  3. Diaries, 56.
  4. The Ordeal of Ivor Gurney, 174.
  5. Diaries, 179.
  6. Moorcroft Wilson, Siegfried Sassoon, 361.

Thomas Hardy Will Not Go For a War Writer; Olaf Stapledon Will Not Judge

First, today, a quick note to readers: for much of the next three weeks I will be on vacation–on holiday, that is–with my family (in England and Wales!) I’ve worked ahead and set the posts to be published each day, but I may not be able to check in regularly. Everything should be fine, but if there is any website snafu, please send me an email and I will try to fix it as soon as possible. There may be some problems with links to recently-published posts.

And if there are any big revelations in the next few weeks about the events of June/July 1917, they will not, alas, be discussed in a timely fashion here…  Thanks for reading!

 

Just two letters today: an inevitable crossing of paths and then some maintenance work on one of the longest and strongest bridges ever built over the “experiential gulf” from France to peaceful places.

For the last few months, John Buchan has been working like a Trojan as the first Director of the Department of Information. Way back in 1914, efforts were made to enlist the grand old men of English literature in a more amateurish sort of propaganda effort, and the greatest of them gently but firmly resisted, producing “war writing,” but only in his own voice and after his own fashion.

But now Thomas Hardy has been approached once again, and perhaps more cleverly–he has been asked to make an official visit to France (which would have put him in the way of C.E. Montague) alongside his friend James Barrie and Sir Owen Seaman of Punch.

I don’t think he wants to go, or see the war, or be seen trotting along in harness, implying support for the General Staff and all the unfatalistic vagaries of patriotism–but he need not say so outright.

Max Gate, Dorchester.
1 June 20; 1917

Dear Colonel Buchan:

I appreciate your thought of me: & there are many things that would have led me to embrace eagerly the opportunity of visiting the fighting lines in France in such attractive company. But I remember that I am not so young as I was, & am compelled to give up almost all enterprises nowadays that comprise travelling more than a few miles, though I am as well as anybody of my age.

I am endeavouring to console myself by thinking that in the past I have studied a good many battlefields and battles of the flint-lock & touch-hole period & that it is really not worth while for me to open up an investigation of modern scientific warfare, but to leave it for those who are young in these days, or unborn.

I must thank you for your consideration in sending the passport form, which shall be returned if required: otherwise I will keep it to show what I was on the brink of doing at 77. . .

Most sincerely yours

Thomas Hardy[1]

Hardy is yet only 76, but, war-wise, he’s a century-back sort of man. The Napoleonic Wars are worth writing about… these present calamities seem only lamentable evidence of human folly and cruelty…

 

And who better to balance Hardy than one of the young and most forward-looking. Actually, Olaf Stapledon is not so terribly young, but he seems young in his sweetness and ardor, and he is certainly the most forward-looking of our crew. But today’s missive to Agnes is not an idyll or a love-letter or a runnel of purest science fiction–it’s about regular everyday horror and suffering, and it’s the second recent letter in which a note of despairing sarcasm has inflected his usually sunny prose.

SSA 13
20 June 1917

…We are now further from the front than the convoy has ever been before… It is lovely peaceful hilly country with rivers for bathing and woods and “hanging” gardens…

Yesterday Sparrow went off on a call and got a man who had just had his legs cut off at the thigh by a train, cut off almost at the hip. Seems unnecessary for that sort of thing to happen now, doesn’t it…

Today, let’s be frank, we have startled this peaceful place by a display of a very bloodstained car. (Bloodstained! the little word one uses for a hanky that has a spot on it!)

Olaf than receives letters from Agnes–the mail between Australia and France, never swift, has been irregular of late–but even when being flattered he is careful to keep to his principles…

Cheers! Two long letters from you… you must not say I am a soldier when I am not, but only a rather militarised civilian engaged in clearing up the mess. You say a lot again about war & me in one of those letters. I don’t know whether the thing I am doing is right or wrong, but it seemed right when I began… Don’t be too hard on the fellows that don’t do anything. They may be right in their own cases…[2]

The wise know that it is not always best or easiest to do what is asked, or to do what everyone else is doing… and the good fight hard against the instinct to think less of those who do otherwise, and less…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. The Letters of Thomas Hardy, V, 220.
  2. Talking Across the World, 231-2.

Messines: The Master of Belhaven, C.E. Montague, Phillip Maddison, and Rowland Feilding are Eyewitnesses to Armageddon; Jack Martin Goes Forward; Robert Graves is Laid Low and Siegfried Sassoon Takes a Pacific Step; Paul Fussell Looks to the Future

The Ypres Salient is a crowded place, and the assault on Messines Ridge of early this morning, a century back, was one of the great spectacles of the war. We have quite a few men on the scene who witnessed what was at once an unprecedented stroke of operational surprise (preceded as it was by all of the bloody, unimaginative attacks that we have read about), a significant immediate victory for the British Army (but not enough to “break through” the German lines), and a staggering calamity in human terms. For over a year British miners have been working in terribly dangerous and difficult conditions. Many died, but they have won the day, today. The fruits of their labor involved the entombing of some 10,000 Germans–but this was not foremost on the mind of the British observers. Each is overwhelmed by the enormity of the explosions, and struggles to describe them.

First, the Master of Belhaven:

At exactly 3.10 a.m. Armageddon began. The timing of all batteries in the area was wonderful, and to a second every gun roared in one awful salvo. At the same moment the two greatest mines in history were blown up — Hill 60 and one immediately to the south of it. I cleared everyone out of the dug-outs and was watching for it. Never could I have imagined such a sight. First, there was a double shock that shook the earth here 15,000 yards away like a gigantic earthquake. I was nearly flung off my feet. Then an immense wall of fire that seemed to go half-way up to heaven. The whole country was lit with a red light like in a photographic dark-room. At the same moment all the guns spoke and the battle began on this part of the line. The noise surpasses even the Somme; it is terrific, magnificent, overwhelming. It makes one almost drunk with exhilaration, and one simply does not care about the fact that we are under the concentrated fire of all the Hun batteries. Their shells are bursting round now as I write, at 6.10 a.m., but it makes one laugh to think of their feeble little efforts compared to the “ausgezeichnete Ausstellung” that we are providing. We are getting our revenge for 1914 with a vengeance. It is now beginning to get light, but the whole world is wrapped in a grey haze of acrid fumes and dust.

 

Jack Martin, signaler with the 122nd brigade, had been sent to lie out in No Man’s Land just before 3:00.

It was an impressive time–the gunfire ceased altogether with the exception of an occasional shell here and there–a thick mist was over the land and we had to lie full length…  There was a strange groaning and rumbling from behind us and presently, looming out of the mist, came a tank, moving straight towards us…

Out of the silence came the sound of blackbirds from a clump of battered trees a little way back only to be rudely silenced at 3.10 a.m…

For several minutes the earth rocked to and fro oscillating quite twelve inches. It was an experience which I shall remember vividly for the rest of my life–all the phases of the preliminary bombardment, the calm silence that succeeded them suddenly broken by a most terrific uproar, the weird sights of moving men and things in the semi-darkness, the rolling clouds of smoke picked out every now and then with shooting tongues of flame, all formed a tremendously wonderful sight. It was stupendous beyond the imagination.

 

Henry Williamson‘s Phillip Maddison has, of course, gone strolling off to see the battle, as he does for every major assault that he is not himself participating in. The fictional alter-ego walks through a landscape that both he and his creator had fought over in 1914, and he struggles with his fear. But soon it is 3:00, and, as the preliminary bombardment tails off, time for the birds–but nothing so unresonant as blackbirds.

It was so quiet that he could hear nightingales singing far away. They were surely very late in singing, the eggs must have hatched by now, and normally the cockbird ceased to sing when the hen began to sit. Perhaps the unnatural noise of the guns had strained their nervous systems. Some birds, notably wrens, uttered nervous little trilling bursts of song when alarmed at night. Perhaps all beauty, whether or sound or colour or shape, came out of pain, or suppression of life, as poetry came from suffering…

He felt the being-drawn feeling between his legs and his mouth was dry–he looked at his watch–nine minutes past three.

Before he was ready for it a great tongue of deep yellow flame arose slowly into the moonlight. It went up silently and was followed by another and another…

 

Rowland Feilding was there as well, almost entirely free of responsibility for his scattered battalion.

I got up and went out at three o’clock. The exact moment of the assault… had been disclosed to us as 3.10 a.m. I climbed on to the bank of the communication trench, known as Rossignol Avenue, and waited. Dawn had not yet broken. The night was very still. Our artillery was lobbing over an occasional shell; the enemy—oblivious of the doom descending upon him—was leisurely putting back gas shells, which burst in and around my wood with little dull pops, adding to the smell but doing no injury.

The minute hand of my watch crept on to the fatal moment. Then followed a “tableau” so sudden and dramatic that I cannot hope to describe it. Out of the silence and the darkness, along the front, twenty mines—some of them having waited two years and more for this occasion—containing hundreds of tons of high explosive, almost simultaneously, and with a roar to wake the dead, burst into the sky in great sheets of flame, developing into mountainous clouds of dust and earth and stones and trees.

For some seconds the earth trembled and swayed. Then the guns and howitzers in their thousands spoke: the
machine-gun barrage opened; and the infantry on a 10-mile front left the trenches and advanced behind the barrage against the enemy.

 

And C.E. Montague, with new freedom (and responsibility) to conduct war correspondents near the front, came up late last night with his charges, promptly fell into a deep sleep–and nearly missed it. His diary recorded the view from the Scherpenberg.

Next thing I am aware of, through a film of sleep, is a light whimper of shrapnel bursting somewhere near. Just after, I am fully awakened by the rocking of the hill under me. I jump up, sagely thinking it must be an earthquake, and then see seven huge mines still exploding — geysers of flame with black objects in it, leaving huge palm-trees of smoke drifting away in file. Bombardment begins at same time (3.10 A.M.). Rather far off—more than three miles—it sounds like an extremely long, various piece played on a piano full of rather far-off thunder. Many great fires caused in woods, etc., by our drums of oil and phosphorus (I believe). The bombardment more, intense than that of April 9 at Arras. As the light comes we see a great number of our aeroplanes everywhere, very little shelled. No infantry fighting visible.[1]

 

At 5:00 Jack Martin moves forward. His brigade is initially in support but soon enters what is now the British front line in the Damstrasse, more than a half-mile from the jumping-off point. There, Martin’s signalling party took casualties from both German fire and British “shorts.” Tanks move through, and the infantry follows, settling eventually into the German rserve positions.

The Signal Office was small, and with two wounded men in it and one end under water, there was only room for one operator at a time, yet at certain periods it was necessary to have two instruments working, so I took a buzzer outside and rigged it up on a mound where the trench had been blown in. The dirt gradually wore away and disclosed the bare buttocks of a dead man so I moved into the Damstrasse where the only comparatively dry spot was alongside a dead German but he was not badly mutilated. An infantryman close by me was hit in the face by a quantity of shrapnel dust and his tears trickled down his cheeks. He cried out, ‘Oh my eyes, my eyes! My God, I am blind!’ The sudden realisation of his blindness seemed a greater agony than the pain of his wounds. I shall never forge that terrible cry of anguish…[2]

 

Meanwhile, the Master of Belhaven, with little to do as his batteries fire by plan, tries to assess the progress of the battle:

(6 a.m.) It is as noisy as ever. The wounded have been streaming past for the last two hours… [they] say that the wire on my zone is thoroughly well cut, both on the front and support German lines–that is a relief to know. We have been firing something like 4,000 shells a day into it for the last week…

 

Rowland Feilding, too, is eager for news.

The battle once launched, all was oblivion. No news came through for several hours: there was just the roar of the artillery; such a roar and such a barrage has never been before. Our men advanced almost without a check. The enemy–such of them as were not killed—were paralysed, and surrendered. In Wytschaete Village they rushed forward with their hands up, waving handkerchiefs and things. And no one can blame them. The ordeal through which they have been passing the last fortnight must have surpassed the torments of hell itself…

Writing tomorrow, Feilding’s enthusiasm for this unprecedented-in-the-present-war success carries him as far as some preliminary conclusions on the preparations. He seems very much in accord with the ex post facto and fictionalized account of Henry Williamson.

… the South Irish Division and the Ulster Division went forward side by side… I have been thinking to-day of the saying—that the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing-fields of Eton. That remark wants revision now. You must for the “playing fields of Eton” substitute the “offices of the Empire.” From the offices have been introduced business methods which are essential to the complicated operations of nowadays. The Staff work yesterday was perfect. What a contrast to the time of Loos!

We were inundated with paper beforehand on this win this war we certainly shall win it” ; but no contingency, so far as I know, was unforeseen, and within six hours of the first assault parties were already at work, making roads across the mutilated zone and even laying water-pipes…

There will soon be checks to the more sanguine British hopes, but so far the preparation has been very good indeed. Instead of the usual failure to supply the attacking troops in their new positions, by 10 a.m. the war machine is dragging itself efficiently forward.

Already our Field Artillery was on the move forward—a stirring sight which always fascinates me. As I watch them, though I have nothing to do with them, I feel a kind of pride in them. I, as everybody else was doing, walked freely over the surface; past and over the old front line, where we have spent so many bitter months. How miserable and frail our wretched breastworks looked! When viewed—as for the first time I now saw them—from the parapet instead of from inside—the parapet only a sandbag thick in many places—what death-traps they seemed!

Then over Noman’s Land. As we stepped out there, my orderly, O’Rourke, remarked: “This is the first time for two years that anyone has had the privilege of walking over this ground in daylight, sir.” We visited some of the mine craters made at the Zero hour, and huge indeed they are. Then we explored Petit Bois and Wytschaete Wood—blown into space by our fire and non-existent—the, scene of our raid of the night of June 4. We found the bodies of an officer and a man of ours, missing since that night, which I have since had fetched out and buried among many of their comrades.

Our Tanks were now advancing—a dozen or more of them—going forward to take part in the capture of the fifth and sixth objectives. Their duty is to reduce local opposition, when it is encountered, and there they were, lumbering along, picking their way through the honeycomb of shellholes and craters, getting into difficulties, getting out again, sometimes defeated, but generally in the end winning their way through this area of devastation, where nothing has been left alive, not even a blade of grass.

I cannot hope to describe to you all the details of a battle on this scale. The outstanding feature, I think, was the
astounding smallness of our casualties. The contrast in this respect with Loos and the Somme was most  remarkable…

But, as is always the way, we lost some of our best. A single shell and a small one at that—knocked out twelve, killing three outright and wounding nine—two of the latter mortally…

But as Feilding concludes his account of the day with attentions to the dead, it is Ireland and Germany which come to the fore. The ground is Belgian, and a ridge and some village have been taken swiftly. But the war will still only be won through attrition, and it is the state of the will to fight on of the two rival empires which matters most.

Willie Redmond also is dead. Aged fifty-four, he asked to be allowed to go over with his regiment. He should not have been there at all. His duties latterly were far from the fighting line. But, as I say, he asked and was allowed to go—on the condition that he came back directly the first objective was reached; and Fate has decreed that he should come back on a stretcher.

How one’s ideas change! And how war makes one loathe the party politics that condone and even approve when his opponents revile such a man as this! I classify him with Stephen Gwynn and Harrison—all three, men—Irish Nationalists, too, whom you and I, in our Tory schooling, have been brought up to regard as anathema! What effect will his death have in Ireland? I wonder. Will he be a saint or a traitor? I hope and pray it may teach all—North as well as South—something of the larger side of their duty to the Empire.

P.S. My men found a dead German machine-gunner chained to his gun. This is authentic. We have the gun, and the fact is vouched for by my men who took the gun, and is confirmed by their officer, who saw it. I do not understand the meaning of this:—whether it was done under orders, or was a voluntary act on the part of the gunner to insure his sticking to his gun. If the latter, it is a thing to be admired greatly…[3]

“Authentic” in Feilding’s trust in his men, but then again he does not claim eyewitness, or give precise details…

 

The master of Belhaven ends his account on a note of triumph similar to Feilding’s assessment:

(9 p.m.) The battle is over, and the victory is with us. We have gained the whole of our objective…[4]

 

But Phillip Maddison, a mercurial sort (not to mention a fictional product of retrospection and history-reading) already has an eye to the inevitable return of the pendulum. After several trips leading mule trains of ammunition he goes on another of his “Cook’s Tours” to see the ridge that the British have now taken. He is impressed with the panorama, but, walking among the infantry as the long day draws to a close, he hears rumors of German counter-attacks retaking ground…[5]

 

And where are our old stand-byes on this day of days, the petulantly yoked terrible twins at the heart of the war poetry revolt, who fought at Loos and on the Somme? Will they praise the sudden victory?

 

Robert Graves, home for months and putatively recovered, was nevertheless in need of a rest, and has just been detailed to head to a convalescent home on the Isle of Wight. The precipitating cause was a head wound sustained when he fell down a staircase in the dark. But this was not an isolated incident so much as a symptom of a fundamental exhaustion. Not only will his lungs never be right, but his nerves are from from settled–it seems likely that “some kind of nervous collapse” led to the reassignment… and no, he will not have much to say about Messines.[6]

 

Siegfried Sassoon, however, was in London, taking a break from portrait-sitting by lunching with H.W. Massingham, the editor of the influential radical weekly The Nation. As George Sherston, Sassoon looks back on the irony that the full picture affords:

At daybreak on June 7th the British began the Battle of Messines by exploding nineteen full-sized mines. For me the day was made made memorable by the fact that I lunched with the editor of the Unconservative Weekly at his club. By the time I entered that imposing edifice our troops had advanced more than two miles on a ten-mile front and a great many Germans had been blown sky-high. To-morrow this news would pervade clubland on a wave of optimism and elderly men would glow with satisfaction.

Sherston has written to “Markington” to offer to write something, as “a mouthpiece for the troops in the trenches.” He is nervous of the great man at first, but he warms to Markington when he finds him even more pessimistic about the war and eager to hear uncensored humorous anecdotes from the front. The diffident Sherston stretches his legs, ever so slightly:

He listened with gloomy satisfaction to my rather vague remarks about incompetent Staff work. I told him that our Second Battalion had been almost wiped out ten days ago because the Divisional General had ordered an impossible attack on a local objective. The phrase ‘local objective’ sounded good, and made me feel that I knew a hell of a lot about it. . . .

But this leads, with more twisting irony, to the detailing of his own deeply conflicted behavior, and to a confession which might not be as welcome to this leading critic of the war:

‘As a matter of fact I’m almost sure that the War doesn’t seem nearly such a bloody rotten show when one’s out there as it does when one’s back in England. You see as soon as one gets across the Channel one sort of feels as if it’s no good worrying any more — you know what I mean — like being part of the Machine again, with nothing to be done except take one’s chance. After that one can’t bother about anything except the Battalion one’s with…

I must say I’ve often felt extraordinarily happy even in the trenches. Out there it’s just one thing after another…

It’s only when one gets away from it that one begins to realize how stupid and wasteful it all is. What I feel now is that if it’s got to go on there ought to be a jolly sound reason for it, and I can’t help thinking that the troops are being done in the eye by the people in control.’ I qualified these temperate remarks by explaining that I was only telling him how it had affected me personally; I had been comparatively lucky, and could now see the War as it affected infantry soldiers who were having an infinitely worse time than I’d ever had — particularly the privates.

The account continues, and it’s rich with interest: Massingham suggests reading Tolstoy, and then he awakens the privileged “Sherston” to the political realities of the budding military-industrial complex, censorship, and the fact that Great Brittain has added “acquisitive” war aims to the professed cause of liberating France and Belgium… there is some matter of Mesopotamian oil wells, apparently, if one takes that point of view...[7]

 

Lest one object that giving the last word on a day of successful battle to a pair of half-pacifists lunching in comfort, I will give it instead to an academic yet unborn, a century back, and more than a quarter-century short of his own bitter disillusionment with war.

Very early in his cranky masterpiece, Paul Fussell makes one concession to the otherwise unalleviated chronicle of murderous failure.

The attack at Messines… had been brilliantly planned by General Sir Herbert Plumer, who emerges as a sort of intellectual’s hero of the British Great War… he had imagination. His mines totally surprised the Germans, ten thousand of whom were permanently entombed immediately.

This, it is worth mentioning, is half the British toll from the first day of the Somme. I want to write at greater length about what it means to celebrate a battle in which local victory kills so many and yet doesn’t really budge the war… but since none of the men on the spot do, it would be an imposition. So, instead, just this next bit, as a way of working in the subject of modern war’s resilience.

The most memorable detail in Fussell’s account of the battle, however, is one that none of our writers can know, since it reaches more than a generation into the future, and then a century again, and more:

…British miners had been tunneling for a year under the German front lines, and by early June they had dug twenty-one horizontal mineshafts stuffed with a million pounds of high explosive… Nineteen of them went up, and the shock wave jolted Lloyd George in Downing Street 130 miles away. Two failed to explode. One of these went off in July, 1955… The other, somewhere deep underground near Ploegsteert Wood, has not gone off yet.[8]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. C.E. Montague, 189.
  2. Sapper Martin, 71-4.
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 188-92.
  4. War Diary, 302-6.
  5. Love and the Loveless, 153-160.
  6. R.P. Graves, Robert Graves, the Assault Heroic,173.
  7. Complete Memoirs, 471-5.
  8. Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory, 14-15.

Phillip Maddison’s Off-Hand Heroics; J.R. Ackerley on the Attack

This morning, a century back, another major attack–another “phase” or renewed effort of the Battle of Arras–lurched into motion at 3:45. The objective is Bullecourt, a town on the Hindeburg Line to the south and east of Arras, and Henry Williamson‘s 208 Machine Gun Company is firing in support. Documents relating to Williamson’s participation–including the hortatory order of the day promulgated by the Divisional General two days earlier–can be seen here, in Anne Williamson’s excellent article on his service with 208 MGC.

But Henry Williamson also described the attack in his novel, once more illustrating the liminality of history and literature while at the same time intentionally blurring the line with the heel of his own writing hand, as it were.[1] Since he is with the transport of a Machine Gun Company, Williamson is several layers behind the attacking troops, amidst the supporting artillery. As is Phillip Maddison, when the barrage begins.

About 3.44 a.m., in the hush of darkness beginning to give way to a spectral pallor in which he could see the wire of the reserve line across the sunken road as a blackish mass, a lark rose in song above him. It was followed by another, and a third; and he waited, with the stillness of expectation, while the singing grew faint and shrill as the birds flew toward the paling stars. There was a great ragged orange flash, oval and instant, from the four 9.2 howitzers in the chalk quarry on his right, and while the flash went through his eyes into his mind the sky became one great raging sea of light.

It goes on, and it is rather well done, if overwrought: these mid-war larks sing on throughout the massive bombardment, “like the jingling of frailest silver chains” amidst the mixed ordnance. Edward Thomas‘s battery is somewhere nearby, contributing its four howitzers to the din.

But this is only preamble. There is, of course, a fierce German resistance, which includes accurate interdiction fire meant to prevent the British from supporting and supplying attacking troops, and to suppress any return fire when the German counterattacks come. There are many casualties among the men and mules of 208 MGC, and a comrade of Williamson’s, 2/Lt. A. C. Montford, is killed.

The attack fails–not least because the German counter-attack, coming from the down-slopes behind the Hindenburg, is quick and fierce–and Williamson’s diary has little else to say.

Thursday, 3 May: Z Day. Zero hour 3.45. Intensive barrage right up North & down to Bullecourt. Rumours of failure – prisoners in cages – walking wounded. 187 Brigade smashed up, ¾ Coy missing at evening. No shelling in rear areas. 7th Div. again attacks in evening. Montford killed.

But in fiction today becomes another moment for young Phillip Maddison to wander into heroism. There is a Montfort in the book, and he is killed, as in life. But there is also a Lt. Fenwick, who is reported lying badly wounded next to a Sergeant Butler.

One of the strange continuities of Williamson’s many-volumed novel is Maddison’s habit of going on long, improbable, unauthorized rambles through no man’s land (or even into the enemy’s rear). These seem to encapsulate Williamson/Maddison’s in-betweenness. He is neither boy nor man, neither working class enlisted man nor socially assured officer, both enthusiastic adventurer and sullen incompetent…  and he likes long walks in the country, whether in pre-war peace or mid-war pauses. In company, he is all good-will and blunders waiting to happen; but alone he can do great things…

Today’s invented action–it seems pretty clearly to be a fictional aristeia placed within a life-structured narrative, rather than a “version” of something that did occur, since Williamson, to my knowledge, mentions nothing like it–is a bit different. Maddison hears the report of the wounded men and immediately recognizes that they are lying in an area he knows well because of a previous unauthorized stroll, on a quiet day before the battle, right up to the face of the new German defenses.

This earlier brave-but-irresponsible ramble has equipped him to be unusually decisive, and once on course he is completely effective. Leaving his transport section and the excited survivors of the barrage, Maddison journeys up from his safe post in the rear, finds both wounded men in the danger zone, and brings them in under fire. He knows the map, so he goes. We get no real insight into why this petulant boy-officer is ready to exceed his duties in this way–he just goes, and does it. And just as the birds brought him up to the barrage, the birds bring him home.

From the echoing ruins of Croiselles white flashes of field-guns seemed to increase the singing of two nightingales on the hillside…

It’s a strange episode, all things considered. Williamson seems to be making the point that Phillip Maddison’s impetuosity can be a force for good as well as bad.

Certainly his sense of military propriety remains skewed–he doesn’t bother to report in that he has saved two men of the company, an MC-worthy action, even if one unlikely to be so recognized in an oft-reprimanded muleteer officer.

And so, next morning, the C.O., a socially generous and easygoing captain who has, nevertheless, frequently had cause to chew out his wayward transport officer, compliments Phillip with a touch of bemusement:

“Good effort, Sticks! You’ve got plenty of guts, to out there alone, in full view of the Boche.”

“Honestly, skipper, it was no more than going for a walk on Blackheath, on an August Bank Holiday evening…”

Phillip makes an awkward joke about women and that long ago-ago August, and just like that, the heroic episode is over.[2]

 

Just a bit to the north, and in real life, the 8th East Surreys are in the first wave of the same attack. The battalion, we may recall, includes two brother officers. It was J.R. Ackerley’s brother Peter who did not die in that February attack–he almost did, and I almost wrote it wrong. But Peter lived, and is recovering from his wound, although he did not return his brother’s watch. So today, a century back, it is the younger (though militarily senior) Ackerley’s turn:[3]

…I had to take my men over the top again, to capture the village of Cérisy[4] (what remained of it) in another sector of the line, and swapped my brother’s unreliable wrist-watch for that of my second-in-command, who was remaining in reserve. He lent it reluctantly; it was an engagement present from his fiancée. I promised to return it.

Well, ahem. But there are more ironies before we get to where we are going, today. On the march to the front, last night, Ackerley saw an old friend.

He was now a brigade major and what we contemptuously called a “Brass Hat.” Seated upon his horse by the wayside he beckoned me out of the line of march. In a low confidential voice he said he supposed that, as an old campaigner, I had no illusions about what lay ahead, and offered me an immediate job with him on brigade staff, out of harm’s way. He begged me to accept it.

Whatever the reason–and Ackerley will not obfuscate–this is quite bizarre. Even if the offer had taken place a day or two before the attack, even if it were not quite so direct, it’s hard to imagine such gross favoritism being so openly displayed–and it put Ackerley in an impossible position.

He had always been fond of me, I knew, indeed he had a crush on me, I think, for I was a pretty young man, and wanted to save me from a fate, of the prospects and hazards of which he doubtless knew far more than I, since brigade headquarters had planned it. “You’ve done your bit already,” said he gently. But I too was a mounted officer. I had a huge mare named Sally, larger than Titchy’s, the largest I had ever seen… and whenever I was perched upon her back I became more arrogant and conceited than I normally was. Titchy’s offer would certainly have attracted me if the bloody fool had made it earlier. But how could a company commander abandon his command on the very eve of battle? That would have been seen as plain cowardice, and cowardice should never be plain. Smiling down at him rather disdainfully from my superior mount, I thanked him and declined…

Ackerley’s account of the battle is, here,[5] brief and bitterly comic:

Suffice it to say here that mine was one of the only two companies to reach our first objective, the crest of a ridge. No special merit, however, should be inferred from that statement; we only ran forward, dashing from shell-hole to shell-hole; doubtless we happened to find more shell-holes than other companies involved…

This is wry sarcasm–and also reasonable tactical criticism. But although he likes to paint himself as a hapless pawn of circumstance, innocent of military knowledge or instinct, Ackerley immediately realizes that two companies can’t hold a line with their flanks in the air.

It’s instructive, perhaps, to compare everything about this account–the tactics, the role of the young Company Commander, the reaction of the Tommies, and the result–with Alf Pollard‘s recent Victoria Cross-winning gambit. The overused adverb “diametrically” comes to mind…

What to do? Heaven knew. I sent a runner back to battalion headquarters with an urgent request for reinforcements and sent my men to digging themselves in as they lay. While they were scratching away, like hens, with their trench tools, at the hard French soil, the Germans counter-attacked in considerable strength, firing from the hip as they advanced. The very sight of them was enough for my company. Rising as one man they deserted me and bolted. I bolted after, shouting “Stop!”–not that I wanted them to. The vain word may well have taken on a shriller note when a bullet struck me in the bottom, splintering my pelvis, as was discovered later, and dealing me a wound where, my father had sometimes remarked, echoing Siward, no good soldier should bear one. With a flying leap that Nureyev might have envied I landed in a shell-hole which already contained one of the things I most detested, a corpse, and was soon to harbor another wounded officer named Facer, and a man bleeding to death of a stomach wound. When dusk fell on that foolish and revolting day I was taken prisoner.[6]

Until this merciful and bathetic day’s end–no rescue and no nightingales for Ackerley–his experience was heading from an inverse-Pollard toward a recent Wilfred Owen. But there would have been nothing that even Ackerley’s penetrating irony could do about the prospect of spending a night in a shell hole among the dead and the dying.

instead, he is marched back “at bayonet point and parched,” grabbing the canteens of dead men but finding only neat rum. When he reaches the German aid station he is almost killed by a British aircraft dropping a bomb. Fittingly, then, given his attitude toward the war, Ackerley will precede Kurt Vonnecut into the exclusive club of major 20th century writers who were also allied infantryman captured by the Germans, then nearly killed by the bombs of their own side’s aircraft. Ackerley’s reminiscences will be without reliable dates, now, for some time…

 

References and Footnotes

  1. There is an article comparing--no doubt with greater insight and accuracy--the fictional and the historical aspects of today in Williamson's writing, behind a pay wall at the Henry Williamson Society.
  2. Love and the Loveless, 133-9.
  3. Ackerley gets the date wrong in his memoir, recalling the date as "Two months later, on April 3," but Peter Parker's biography has the correct date, which the battalion war diary, available here, corroborates.
  4. Chérisy, not Cerisey on the Somme.
  5. He refers the reader to another book, Hindoo Holiday, for a fuller account.
  6. My Father and Myself, 95-6.

The Battle of Arras Resumes: Charles Scott Moncrieff, A.P. Herbert, Geoffrey Thurlow, Alf Pollard, Frank Richards, and Kate Luard; Vera Brittain Ponders Sacrifice and Glory; Siegfried Sassoon Addresses the Warmongers

Today is St. George’s Day, Shakespeare’s birthday, the second anniversary of the death of Rupert Brooke, and the day that Billy Prior, shell-shocked and mute, came to in a Casualty Clearing Station. But that is all more than a century back, or fiction.

Today is also the beginning of the second phase of the Battle of Arras. In what will become known as the Second Battle of the Scarpe, elements of eleven divisions attacked on a nine mile front just east of Arras, from Gavrelle in the north to Croisilles in the south.

Charles Scott Moncrieff was in the first wave, leading a company of the 1st Battalion, the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, who went over the top at 4:45, attacking toward Monchy-le-Preux. Scott Moncrieff was hit very shortly thereafter, and spent a harrowing day on the field and being carried back. But by this evening he will be able to write:

23rd April.

I was wounded about five o’clock this morning when leading my battalion in the attack. My left leg is broken in two places. I am now in a clearing station where I shall stay a few days. I shall be at the Base shortly and then home—and expect the leg will heal very quickly. The attack seems to have gone very well, as far as I could see and control it from the ground.[1]

What the letter does not make clear is that Moncrieff was not only leading the attack but leading it as close as possible to the “walking” barrage–and that a short-fall from this barrage–a British shell–was what nearly killed him. He is in grave danger of losing his leg.

Scott Moncrieff experienced his wound as something of a “transcendental” experience, and it will shortly push him further toward a vocation that combines his linguistic and literary talents. Drawing on Paul Claudel’s ‘Hymne à SS Agnès,’ he wrote a poem about his rescue that comes close to the once-popular angelic-intervention tales, albeit in an exalted religious-literary manner, rather than in close imitation of the popular ghost story style of Arthur Machen and others.

I, like a pailful of water thrown from a high window, fell. . . . Alone.

An hour or two I lay and dozed…

. . . . Ah, whose mind prayed
Through mine then? Whose quiet singing heard I from my stretcher, swinging
Sorry, weary, sick, Strongly, clearly, belated back to Arras? Who dictated
Strongly, clearly, till I sung these French words with my English tongue?[2]

In a neighboring division, also largely Scottish, Captain John Eugene Crombie of the Gordon Highlanders, who had so recently written  “Easter Day 1917, The Eve of Battle,” was wounded near Roeux. Less fortunate than Scott Moncrieff, he will die of his wounds by the end of the day.[3]

On the left of the attack, the 63rd Division–The Royal Naval Division–led the attack on the village of Gavrelle. Rupert Brooke‘s old comrades in the Hood Battalion came up too quickly from reserve, through a heavy German barrage, and then pushed on into house-by-house fighting. In the neighboring brigade was the Drake battalion, pressing through the same barrage. A.P. Herbert, whose meditations on courage, cowardice, and institutional brutality will be set in the recent past but informed by this experience of battle, led his platoon while equipped with certain supererogatory liquid courage. He was soon hit:

Sub-Lieutenant Rackham saw him fling up his arms and fall. ‘He seemed to me to be in a bad way–dangerously
wounded, I thought at first.’ At a field-dressing station, jagged bits of shrapnel and hip-flask were found to be embedded deep in his left buttock; ignominious wound, honourably sustained. It was serious enough for him to be sent home again. He believed that the brandy from his flask was an effective sterilizing agent…[4]

Kate Luard received many such wounded men, and some who had fared much worse:

Monday, April 23rd, 10 p.m. Just come up to lie down for an hour before the next take-in. We have filled up twice, and they are hard at it again over the road; we come next… the earth-shaking noise this morning did its work; the wounded Germans tell me here are a great many dead. We have a splendid six-foot officer boy lying silently on his face with a broken back, high up. I hope he won’t live long…[5]

 

Alf Pollard and the Honourable Artillery Company–who are, naturally, really, a London-based militia regiment of infantry serving in a “Naval” infantry division–were in reserve on the central section of the assault.[6]

The barrage was terrific and it seemed impossible that anything could stand up against it. Nevertheless, the wire was very tenacious and… They put up an obstinate resistance.

It was not very long before we were required. A Company went first, but a few minutes later a call came for us and I moved forward. As we approached the position I could see the long lines of uncut wire with dead fusiliers hanging across it like pearls in a necklace where the Hun machine-guns had caught them. All the same some of them had penetrated through the gaps and the trench was captured. I had my usual luck and got my Company through the enemy’s counter-barrage without any casualties. My men were full of fight… There was no resistance; the few Huns we encountered surrendered instantly. At once I set about preparing the trench for the counter-attack which I knew would follow. The whole place was a shambles…

The town of Gavrelle was a few hundred yards on our right. The attacking troops had gone right through and our right consequently projected slightly beyond our left. We were the extreme left of the Divisional front. The Division on our left whose main attack was directed against Oppy Wood had failed with the result that the position was held in echelon…

The counter-attack was not launched until the following morning…[7]

A bit further south, the 10th Sherwood Foresters, part of the 17th Division, were in support of the assault just south of Monchy-le-Preux, near the town of Guémappe. Among the objectives on this front was the concentration of German artillery on the high ground in their rear. Perhaps, by the day’s end, the positions of the batteries that dueled with Edward Thomas‘s will be taken.

But not immediately; the leading battalions were held up and the 10th Sherwood Foresters were called forward, and took the first German trench. Geoffrey Thurlow, the last of Edward and Vera Brittain‘s close friends to remain unscathed, was there, and he had neither succumbed to the shell-shock that had afflicted him in 1916, nor to the fear of it. Safe in a German trench after the successful assault, he was asked once more to show his courage, and once again he didn’t let the school down. His commander will describe his actions in a letter he will write to Edward Brittain:

I sent a message to Geoffrey to push along the trench and find out if possible what was happening on the right. The trench was in a bad condition and rather congested, so he got out on the top. Unfortunately the Boche snipers were very active and he was soon hit through the lungs. Everything was done to make him as comfortable as possible, but he died lying on a stretcher about fifteen minutes later.[8]

So Geoffrey Thurlow, too, is dead.

Far away in Malta, Vera Brittain was just beginning to cope with the previous disaster to hit her tight-knit circle. In a letter which draws heavily on her diary of yesterday, she wrote to her brother:

Malta, 23 April 1917

My own dearest Edward

Your letter of the 8th has just arrived but contains no reference to the terrible news of the last day or two; it seems to be the only one that has come, so I suppose all my letters have missed the mail just when I wanted them most. It is dreadful to have to wait a week for details. That is the hardship of foreign service — not climate or distance so much as the separation by time & distance from anything that matters…

I am broken-hearted indeed about Victor. It is better to be anything than blind; I am not sure that it is not better to be dead.

This is not an idle question. Cruel as this is, it’s important to recognize that there is still no fundamental questioning of the meaning and the worth of all this suffering. She is not sure if Victor should wish to be dead, but she is confident that he will feel a sense of achievement at having matched his decorated school friends in military valor:

I suppose he is disfigured very much. His lovely eyes — I can’t bear to think they will never any more look ‘right into one’s soul’ as Mrs Leighton said they did. It is a terrible way to have bridged the gulf that lay between him & you — & Roland. I wish Roland were here to be with him & give him the strength he will so much need if he lives…

it is very hard to feel I can do nothing for him in return at the time of his greatest need. . . Anyhow. I know that you will make him understand, better than any letter could, my indescribable sorrow & regret–one can’t call it pity, as pity is not a sufficiently reverent feeling for one of those who ‘so marvellously overcame’. If there is anything I can do for him–anything at all–you will tell me, won’t you? It places all of us who cannot fight under a burden of debt almost more than we can bear–to feel that we owe our safety to the fives & sight & strength of such as you & Roland & him. I feel I could never repay it enough, even if trying to meant giving up practically all I ever meant to be or do. I feel as if Roland’s sad eyes were looking at me out of Eternity, imploring me to try to give Victor some of the comfort He would have given him if He had been here.[9]

 

We’re almost done, today, but here we have a different sort of irony of separation, of “sacrifice” and suffering and far-off emotion. Siegfried Sassoon is safely back, unaware that today is another spasm of intense violence, and that his battalion is caught up in it. It’s a particularly nasty irony that his reports from today are thus overshadowed by exactly what he now feels increasingly empowered too protest.

He has been working on another new poem, “To the Warmongers,” which begins:

I’m back again from hell
With loathsome thoughts to sell;
Secrets of death to tell;
And horrors from the abyss…

But the abyss is still there–and not yet taken. Two companies of the 2nd Royal Welch, in support of the 4th Suffolks, will once again move up from the Hindenburg Tunnel to attack along the Hindenburg Trench. A trench mortar barrage dropped neatly into the trench, clearing the German barricade and allowing the charging Suffolks to push back the defenders. The two companies of the 2/RWF came up and were at once employed in bringing up German prisoners from the deep dugouts. There is a long, detailed narrative of the intimate trench fighting in Dr. Dunn’s chronicle, growing grim as the two companies are held up and then located by the German trench mortar and rifle-grenade parties.

Sassoon’s friends “Binge” Owen and the pianist Ralph Greaves–both survivors of a late night in Amiens only three weeks ago–were now directing the fighting. One bomb hit a barricade and exploded next to Greaves’ right arm, mangling it. Owen was killed a few minutes later. Further attacks failed, although Captain N. H. Radford will remember hearing a Staff Captain give a fanciful heroic account of the “forcing of the barricade” only two weeks later, and remark that “that kind of myth outlives denial; it has appeared in print as fact.”[10]

The other two companies of the 2nd Royal Welch attacked later in the day, repeating a failed attack by another battalion, and with poorly coordinated artillery support. And in the open. They fared even worse. Frank Richards, a company signaler with B company, was in the assembly trench, and had a clear view of the attack:

From our parapet across to the objective our dead were laying thick, and for the first fifty yards it would have been impossible for a man to have walked three paces unless he stepped on a dead man. In the afternoon we attacked but were held up by machine-gun and rifle-fire the same as the previous battalions: not a man got further than halfway. The fortunate ones got back to their own trench, but the majority were laying where they fell… We brought our wounded in during the night, the enemy not firing a shot.[11]

 

We’ll end the day with Sassoon, in London, and trying somehow to move from personal experience to some reasonable appreciation of the “big picture:”

April 23 (In the Ward) —

Morning sunshine slants through tho many tall windows of the ward with its grey-green walls and forty white beds. Daffodils and primroses, red lilies and tulips make spots of colour…  Officers lie humped in beds smoking and reading morning papers; others drift about in dressing-gowns and slippers, going to and from the washing-room where they scrape the bristles from their contented faces. The raucous gramophone keeps grinding out popular airs…

Everyone is rather quiet. No one has the energy or the desire to begin talking war-shop till noon. Then one catches scraps of talk from round the fire-places.

‘barrage lifted at the first objective’
‘shelled us with heavy stuff’
‘couldn’t raise enough decent N.C.O.s’
‘our first wave got held up by machine-guns’
‘bombed them out of a sap’—etc etc.

There are no serious cases in this ward; only flesh-wounds and sick. No tragedies of gapped bodies and heavily bandaged faces; no groans at night, and nurses catching their breath while the surgeon deals with some ghastly gaping hole. These are the lucky ones, whom a few days of peace have washed clean of the squalor and misery and strain of ten days ago. They are lifting their faces to the sunlight: the nightmares have slunk away to haunt the sombre hearts of the maimed and shattered.[12]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 128.
  2. I've taken some supplementary information from Findlay, Chasing Lost Time, 127-130, but there are some military historical errors in her account, so it's possible that some of what I have quoted is off-base; if so, sincere apologies!
  3. Powell, A Deep Cry, 241.
  4. Pound, A. P. Herbert, 153.
  5. Unknown Warriors, 115.
  6. I have not unraveled the exact relative positions of these different units; despite the lack of major salients it is a difficult attack to visualize... and for most of our writers, it seems, Arras was a terribly quick battle. Although Alf Pollard, as it happens, will persist and more than persist.... in any event, apologies for the less-than-thorough military history here.
  7. Fire-Eater, 212-14.
  8. Letters From a Lost Generation; see also here.
  9. Letters From a Lost Generation, 341-2.
  10. Dunn, The War the Infantry Knew, 330-38.
  11. Old Soldiers Never Die, 229-30. There is likely hyperbole here in terms of the number and the concentration of men killed.
  12. Diaries 159-60.