Ivor Gurney’s Memory, After Music; Wilfred Owen Drafts a Masterpiece

Ivor Gurney has been writing letters nineteen to the dozen lately from a hospital near Edinburgh, and I promised that we would get caught up. His letters are all over the place–at some points nearly manic–and much of what he has to say he has already said, and recently. Gurney is cooped up in the hospital, dragooned into bashing out popular tunes for sing-songs, uncertain if the swallowed gas that landed him here is causing much real trouble, or that his mind isn’t

An undated letter to Marion Scott praises some of the personalities he has met since landing in the hospital, and strains to produce verse:

Damn the War!

…Last night I played Bach and Beethoven for two hours, and got a little into swing towards the end. That was good. I am too lazy to write, and besides nothing will come to me when I try to pump — the bilge pumps, I think, by the results.

Memory, let all slip

Memory, let all slip save what is sweet
Of Ypres plains.
Keep only autumn sunlight and the fleet
Cloud after rains.

Blue skies and mellow distance softly blue;
These only hold
Lest I shall share my panged grave with you.
Else dead. Else cold.

Needless to say, a failed ode to forgetting trauma is not the greatest indicator of good spirits. Another letter discusses minor tragedies–lost manuscripts–and the uplifting arrival of a chaplain “touched with greatness, supremely alive, warmblooded, interested, interesting, fine looking with eyes of humourous power.” (There is also a remarkable pen portrait of “a coalminer of Fife,” an autodidact and force of nature (“he had the Celtic temperament”) whose charisma invigorates Gurney.

They talk of the power of great music to move–but, with no little irony, Gurney’s powers to make lesser music now cause him to stay put.

I am likely to be here another fortnight, for on the colonel’s inspection I was one of the very few not marked Con: Camp. “Why?” “Accompaniments, my dear”. For once, I saw the Army winking its eye at me, and wunk back.

I really like “wunk back.” There are also polite interrogations of Scott and interminable discussions of grand strategy (it’s hard not to suspect that Scott wrote of these things to Gurney because she wanted to write about the war without writing about the experience of the trenches, and that Gurney wrote back in a similar spirit–to please her and to think about less-than-completely-traumatic things).

And there is a delightful discussion of soldiers’ slang and humor… But I will–I must!–cut it short, since we have a very big poem to get to.

…Hearing a few casual catchwords flying around, it struck me that you might like to know some of them — such as I can remember. Poor bare jests, almost too familiar to remember at will.

There is one (just heard for the thousandth time) which brings a picture of a tragic roll call. A man may be shouted for who is not present, and the room answers, “On the wire, at Loos”. A lighter answer, a mock of this last, is “Gassed at Mons”.

Amusing, you see, because although British casualties at Mons were extremely high, it was before gas was used…

A coming strafe means carrying parties, and they are greeted with “More iron rations for Fritz”…

And many similar expressions, plus the rather surprising assertion that “an officer always takes whisky into the line, and his being drunk on any critical occasion is always condoned.”

This we are meant to pass by with a shrug, it’s merely how things go, more or less. But Gurney’s letters do get on to a subject that will occupy us today, and, increasingly, for the rest of the war: namely, how the soldier goes on fighting when the experiential gulf that yawns between them and those at home is so well-defended with a box barrage of lies. Speaking of the typical Tommies of his acquaintance, Gurney writes that

Their faith in newspapers has been sorely shaken for ever by the comparison of accounts with realities. But chiefly by the contrast between the phrase “Mastery of the Air” and the reality. Parliament is a haunt of people who talk and dont care what happens to him and his like.

Today’s letter to Scott begins with a seriocomic rant against low-quality writing implements.

The man who would attempt to write verse with a pencil when a pen is handy and convenient to him would rob a church without more thought than he would give to the flicking of cigarette ash — which indeed is frequently the trick of the melodramatic villain. For the writing of music there can be none so foul of spirit as to contemplate aught but the pen as instrument…

Let us use ink whenever Fate and Supply allow us, for so we shall show ourselves cognisant of and grateful for the civilisation of Europe, that once again has survived onslaught of the barbarian; who showed himself nakedly to all when he would destroy a “scrap of paper”, and the work of pen and ink without a pang…

Gurney is hard to take in large doses, and he is sometimes minor, and sometimes something close to very great, a composer and a poet full of sound and fury:

 

After Music

Why, I am on fire now, and tremulous
With sense of Beauty long denied; the first
Opening of floodgate to the glorious burst
Of Freedom from the Fate that limits us
To work in darkness pining for the light,
Thirsting for sweet untainted draughts of air.
Clouds sunset coloured. Music . . . O Music’s bare
White heat of silver passion fiercely bright.
While sweating at the foul task, we can taste
No Joy that’s clean, no Love but something lets
It from its power, the wisest soul forgets
What’s beautiful, or delicate, or chaste.
Orpheus drew me, as once his bride, from Hell
If wisely, she or I, the Gods can tell.[1]

 

Gurney will continue to try to find ways of wrestling the truth of the war into a traditional poetic context–capitalized Beauty and Music, uneasily combined with images and memories of the trenches. But Wilfred Owen has taken a great leap forward, toward one of the greatest of the war’s poems, and one that, more than any other, succeeds in addressing–and riveting–the attention of the reader on the far side of the experiential gulf. Here he sets out to separate–emphatically, calmly, and unassailably–the combat soldier’s truth from the old lies of his “friends” far from the trenches.

At Craiglockhart, today, a century back, (and only a few miles, again, from where Gurney writes) Owen wrote a first draft of what will become Dulce et Decorum Est. I assume that everyone is familiar with this poem; but I’ll put it here nonetheless–its power certainly holds up…

 

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

 

Siegfried Sassoon will remark that he did not realize how terrible Owen’s few weeks on the line last winter were–but these verses would seem to hint strongly at just such an experience. (They also give the lie, as it were, to Gurney’s insistence that swallowing gas was no worse than a cold–although clearly Gurney had received a much lower dose.) And we must read carefully to notice that in between Owen’s cheerful, busy, haler-and-heartier-by-the-week days at Craiglockhart come terrible nights of “disastrous dreams”–dreams in which his helpless sight has been replaying these traumas.

So, you know–biography, experience. But also poetry: while many serious readers of Owen prefer his more subtle poems, this is still a remarkable achievement for a young man who was writing forgettable verse only months ago. (This is one of the least forgettable poems I know.) The task here is simple and direct, like the poem’s address: show what this is that has happened, and what it was like. Declare not some foolish overweening confidence in “what it all means,” but show what it proves cannot be true. This does the job with the efficiency and clarity of a mature poet.

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters, 214-22.

Withdrawals and Approaches: Charles Carrington, Hugh Quigley, Edmund Blunden, and Guy Chapman near Passchendaele Ridge

Before we turn to the tribulations of Charles Carrington on the Steenbeek, we must look to our immediate rear, where we have such a build-up of memoir writers in the support lines of the Salient that poetry can pass from one to the next…

 

First is Hugh Quigley, soon headed back toward the front lines. A fell mood is upon him:

The Canal Bank, Ypres, 6 October, 1917

I am right in the thick of it again, in this historic place which I shall describe some time. When I think of the glorious weather, sunlight shimmering in the molten sky, slow winds just breathing over the wilderness of shell-holes, it seems so hard throwing it all aside for an uncertain end. Yet it must be done. Perhaps Fate may have some kindness in store for me. Last night I had a strangely poignant dream: I was lying in the hospital trying madly to move my legs, both tied down in splints, and biting my lips to overcome pain coming from the right groin. A comfortable wound might be the outcome of this premonition. Let us hope so: then I can see again the Old Country I had given up for lost, hear the old voices, look at the friendly glad faces.[1]

 

Edmund Blunden, too, is on the way back in. His last tour had been harrowing, although of course it could have been worse. All of his unsurpassed talent for knitting together Gothic horror and pastoral idyll in close company on the page is exerted here, as he describes the withdrawal and then the time in reserve:

After the most vigorous display by the Bosch artillery that I have yet had to cast my eye upon and a narrow escape from being pulled under in a swamp on the way out (I was in such a hurry to get out of the barrage that my foot missed the dead man I was going to use as a duckboard),  we came back to this Corydonian spot for a B.E.F. rest. We feed in a barn which smells most pleasantly of hops…

Or not–not yet: this is not the studied, sumptuous memoir bur rather a contemporary letter to his school friend Hector Buck, which soon more fully embraces the usual tone of frenetic gaiety:

A bevy of milkmaids flitters about and warbles dithyrambs in the sunny air; at times they cease to warble but make a noise exactly similar by working an obese and crotchety cream separator. Since I knew they were on the go I have broken my vow and shaved; but even then my Charms are not availing.[2]

The memoir also fills us is in on how Blunden and the 11th Royal Sussex were really spending their time out of the line: drilling, marching, shooing on rifle and pistol ranges, and practicing for some of the least Arcadian recourses of the war.

This next episode–gas training–makes it possible, using the Battalion War Diary, to date this description fairly securely to today, a century back:

It was even a pleasure here to see Williams, the divisional gas officer, and his same old sergeant, at their kindly, deadly work again. I forget what type of gas it was that Williams discharged upon us, leaving it to us to get our helmets on or pass out. However, I believe it was not at full strength, for some hens poking about in the stubble did not suffer. Perhaps God tempers the gas to the Ypres hen.

But here is a point of interest not only specifically to this project but to the entire genre of the war memoir. Several of our writers involved in Passchendaele have–even while describing its horrors at great length–begun to refuse to dwell firmly in their evolving historical moment. In 1917 the war has become too much to bear–or its young wager-victims have become too prematurely old to live without the melancholy shoring-up of reminiscence:

Our minds receded with actual joy to the 1916 war, and particularly that season when we were within the kindly influence of Bethune. When had we heard the word “a bon time” since? How few there were left even to understand what hopes had then borne the battalion on, singing, toward the Somme! When we left this camp of disastered 1917, to be merged again in the slow amputation of Passchendaele, there was no singing. I think there were tears on some cheeks.

More prosaically, Blunden reports that he was passed over for promotion at this time–“the General would not hear of it, claiming that I was too young. My offences against propriety of speech and demeanour were in any case sufficient to spoil my chances…”–but also that he will be given a company nonetheless (to command as First Lieutenant, rather than a Captain).

Before that I had had a special duty to do. It was to act as “Tunnel Major” in Hedge Street Tunnels — to regulate the very limited and fiercely coveted accommodation there, and the traffic in and out. This took me back to the accursed area again, and even while I made my way there the evil nature of the place displayed itself. Going up by way of Zillebeke, I was obliged to stop. An “area shoot” began, a solid German bombardment for an hour on a chosen space, enclosing several battery positions. This shelling was so concentrated and geometrical that, leaning against the side of our old trench just beyond its limit, one was in safety. But the area covered was treated as with a titanic roller and harrow. About half an hour after this shoot began, from the very middle of the furnace two artillerymen suddenly emerged, running like demons but unwounded.

Outside the large dugout which I was to supervise a quartermaster-sergeant’s body was lying. Men were afraid to pause even a few seconds at this point and bodies were not quickly buried…

I found the tunnels crammed with soldiers on business and otherwise. The Colonel and Adjutant of the R. F.’s, who had taken our place in the Tower Hamlets sector a fortnight or so before, were occupying a new and half-finished dugout; they used me very hospitably. The Colonel remarked, pouring me out a drink, “We no longer exist.” I asked how: he explained that their casualties had been over 400.

Our experience had been only the prelude to their full symphony…[3]

 

Guy Chapman‘s symphony, as it happens–it was his battalion of the Royal Fusiliers which greeted Blunden, though Blunden does not recall the young officer’s name.[4]

On our third evening in Hedge Street we welcomed a very young, very fair and very shy subaltern from the Royal Sussex, who were to relieve us the next day. His battalion had preceded us at Tower Hamlets and had suffered a like experience. Late that evening a 6-inch How-battery commander came in to ask for accommodation and stayed to dinner. He was a pale bald man with a near fair moustache. He thumped on the table and recited Kipling for our entertainment.

This next bit, then, would be proper to tomorrow, a century back:

On the next day I showed our incoming tenant from the Sussex over his noxious habitation. As we bade him good-bye, he shyly put a small paper-covered book into my hand. The Harbingers, ran the title, ‘Poems by E.C. Blunden.’ It went into my it along with the battered Shakespeare, the torn Evan Harrington, and Sir Thomas Browne.[5]

 

Finally, though, we must skip ahead, more in the geographical than the anticipatory sense. We left Charles Carrington (the “Edmonds” of A Subaltern’s War), yesterday, about to grab a few hours overnight in the A Company dugout. After two long sleepless days and nights, he was exhausted, jumpy, and not too proud to simply sleep in a place of greater safety, “a little bit of narrow trench partly covered with a sheet of iron.”

After dawn, Carrington/Edmonds continued to lay as low as he decently could.

I determined quite basely to take shelter for a few hours in C company’s pill-box, and presently plucked up courage and squattered across through the stream to it.

This pill-box was the only piece of good cover in the battalion area. Imagine a small room ten feet square and six feet high with walls of thick rough concrete. There is only one opening, the door, over which a waterproof sheet is draped. The furniture consists of four bunks made of wire stretched on wooden frames. Signallers and officers’ servants have made a little hutch under the lee of the outer wall. Inside, live Marriott and Flint, a serjeant, and as many other people as are thought to deserve refuge. During the day Newsom and Wolfe each pay a visit to get some rest. I come first and stay longest. After all, the headquarters of a front-line company make quite a good command-post for a support company commander, and Thorburn’s position is within shouting distance and full view by daylight. On such a little journey had we lost our way last night.

Flint is something in the same exhausted state as myself; Marriott, who came up from reserve with Thorburn and Wolfe after the attack, is very cheerful and doing most of the work…

Descriptions of pill-boxes will be a major feature of “Edmonds'” narrative from here on out, with loving attention both to their horribleness and their precise degree of protection against different armaments.

But war narratives can never be truly predictable: today passes pleasantly and amusingly, with a tone of light comedy, however much strained, by tension, toward hysteria:

Marriott welcomed me cordially enough, and found me the dry corner of a bed, where I tried to get an hour’s sleep, but with little success. After a time he came into the pill-box, grinning, to ask me to take away some men of mine who were creating a disturbance in his trench. I went out and found the ten ration-carriers of last night all roaring drunk. The poor devils had got lost, just like everyone else, had wandered all night, and finally decided that the company was annihilated. Not without good sense they decided not to starve. They did their best with a whole company’s rations, but a whole company’s rum defeated them. Hither they had wandered very happy and very sleepy, but rather inclined to sing themselves to sleep. We saved the rest of the food and rum, and sent over the
remains, plenty for my handful of men.

It was difficult to know what to do with these men. One or two were helpless and comatose, one or two were incurably cheerful, the others varied from one extreme to the other. To arrest them and send them down the line would bring shell-fire on them and their escort, besides weakening the outposts. I stormed at them in my severest manner, promising them all courts-martial and death sentences. Some understood me and sobered a little, but Bridgwater and two or three others only blinked and looked more amiable than ever. If I had had any laughter in me I should have burst out laughing, too. We brought most of them round to a condition soon where they could go back to the company. The hopeless cases we left to sleep it off. There were no shooting parties at dawn, after all, as a sequel to this episode.

During the rest of the day I remained almost entirely in the pill-box. The shell-fire gradually increased as it had done yesterday, but we had no direct hits, any one of which would have done for us. Marriott kept up a running fire of conversation all day, little jokes and reminiscences, sly hints about my company and the rum, comparisons of our men with the Colonials, anecdotes of the day and of old battles. He had a N.C.O. in the pill-box with him, as orderly serjeant, one of those professional humorists without whom no company could hang together. The queer turns of his dialect, and an attractive little stuttering in his speech, an acute street-arab sense of humour, combined with the
manners and deference of a gentleman, made him perhaps a perfect example of the urban soldier. The stories flowed out of him all day, his adventures with long-forgotten brigadiers, ‘madamaselles’ or serjeant-majors, his friends and their idiosyncrasies, love and war and the weather, the bitterness of things, red tape and bad language.
(I cannot refrain from quoting ‘that our armies swore terribly in Flanders.’) He could tell a tale against a staff officer always with tact enough not to scandalise the officers present. If I were Dickens and could write down what he said,
my fortune as a novelist would be made. But I’m afraid the jokes that made us reel with laughter would be flat to-day. One jumped at any excuse to be gay, and to laugh meant to forget that open door, facing the wrong way, through which a shell might come at any moment to burst in the midst of us…

But relief from anxiety through laughter is temporary–relief from the front line, by another battalion, is what they crave.

At dusk when we were all ready the orderly arrived again. Where were the Berks? we asked. Not yet come up. But he had brought instead a large rough mongrel sheep dog, trained to carry messages through fire. Marriott grew quite despondent. “I thought they were going to send up the Berkshires,” he said, “ but all we’re going to get now is barks”; at which we laughed uproariously. The Berks never did come, but before long a company of another regiment began to arrive. I collected my gear (we were in full marching order), and splashed through the stream to Thorburn, who had had another day’s shelling and felt a little neglected. We headed back a second time to the jumping-off line, where we were now to be reserve company. Marriott withdrew his men to our position in the shell-holes by the Stroombeek.

As Thorburn and I ploughed through the mud after our men, we passed one of the relieving platoons going forward. Their subaltern gripped me by the arm.

“Who are you? Where are you going? Where’s the front line? Have you seen A company?” he asked all in a rush.

“Keep straight on,” I answered jauntily, “follow the tape. Your captain’s up there. We’ve just been relieved.”

“Don’t go! ” he said. “Don’t leave us! For God’s sake, show us the way.” I had met someone more frightened than
myself. My confidence came back to me in a moment. This man was in a shivering funk.

“God damn it!” I said. “You’re all right. You’re much stronger than we were. There’s a good dugout up there—you can’t miss it.”

And I shook him off and walked on. I wonder what state that poor devil was in at the end of his tour. But I had only gained a momentary confidence, and before morning was sinking back into the same apathy of suppressed fear as before.

We took up our position on the right half of the jumping-off line, quite near headquarters. There were about twenty-seven men to organise in four sections, and place in the best shell-holes. For company headquarters Serjeant Walker, Thorburn and I found an old incomplete pill-box called on the map Cluster House. It was one of those early German efforts made of concrete on the western and of wood on the eastern side, so that in case of capture it would give no cover against German shell-fire. But it gave shelter from the rain, and here we settled. To make some amends to Thorburn for the twenty-four hours duty he had taken alone, I sent him to battalion headquarters to sleep, where they found him a corner of some kind. Walker took the top bunk in the little room, I took the lower one, but could only doze for an hour or two, in spite of the fact that I had not had eight hours’ sleep out of the last ninety. It was very cold and I was acutely aware of my wet knees.[6]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Passchendaele and the Somme, 133-4.
  2. More Than a Brother, 12.
  3. Undertones of War, 246-9.
  4. Blunden's poetry will soon be well known; Chapman published his memoir five years after Blunden's Undertones.
  5. A Passionate Prodigality, 207.
  6. A Subaltern's War, 170-77.

Siegfried Sassoon Whets his Waterman; Carroll Carstairs Re-Treads the Military Road; Hugh Quigley Among the Corpses, Old and New

Before we march alongside one writer into the lurid atmosphere of the Salient and thrash through its horrors and terrors with another, we will begin with a friendly and pleasingly literary letter. Siegfried Sassoon wrote to Robbie Ross today, and the letter makes it clear that he has already received Robert Graves’s recent missive. Sassoon is in good spirits–complimentary and confident, and apparently willing to forgive Graves’s decision to dedicate his next book to the Regiment rather than to Sassoon:

17 September, Craiglockkart

My dear Robbie,

Robert sent me his proofs: His new poems are delightful, and the whole book is a wonderful expression of him. I hope you are feeling refreshed by your country visits.

I have got about 300 lines of verse for you to inspect; but am too lazy to copy it out…

I was rejoicing in my luck in getting a room to myself—my late companion having gone–but after two days a man of forty-five with iron-grey hair, an eyeglass and an aquiline nose has floated in.

This is the man Sassoon will describe in Sherston’s Progress–memorably and amusingly–as “The Theosophist.”

There follows an obscure reference to the book of Job–meaning, apparently, that he talks war shop or swaggers with his comrades–and a clever ratification of the fact that Sassoon, like Owen before him, is finding the writing life at Craiglockhart to be good for his nerves (whatever ails them–or doesn’t).

…I play golf every day, and say ‘Ha ha,’ among the captains. But in the dusk I whet my trusty Waterman and slay them all with songs!

Yours ever S.S.[1]

 

Others will have a harder time finding a quiet evening to write. Judging from the War Diary of the Grenadier Guards, the following night relief described by the American officer Carroll Carstairs took place tonight, a century back:

It was dusk. The men were falling in. The evening was quiet, The night sinister and sombre. The men looked ominous, set and serious—a visual translation of my own sensations. I listened to the simple words of command and read in them an added meaning and a new significance.

“Slope arms—move to the right in fours—form fours—right—by the left, quick march.” We stepped out while some gunners watched with admiration those slightly supermen—the Guards.

“We’re givin’ ’em socks to-night,” said one.

We reached White Hope Corner, and then that inevitable halt. I watched the huddled remnant of Boesinghe Wood tremble to an occasional flare. The men talked in whispers or were silent. Silent mostly. No smoking allowed, of course, just when one most needed a cigarette.

After what seemed an interminable time we moved on, halted again, moved, halted—it tried one’s nerves. At last we struck the duckboards—Clarges Street, with enemy shells falling well to our right.

“Good old Military Road again,” I thought. “That old road is certainly living up to its name.”

Now and then we were threatened as a shell dropped close, and once I tripped and fell flat on my face.

Can anything be slower than these night reliefs, whose speed is controlled by the darkness, the difficult way and the responsibility each man had for the man behind him?

We approached Cannes Farm while it was a target for enemy shelling and a party of Scots Guards scattered from it and among us, and to avoid a mix up we proceeded straight into the zone of fire.

The men were seen into shallow slits where they were packed as tight as sardines in boxes. No trench system there; dig down until you strike water, which was at a depth of about three feet, and get what protection you could.

The officers were better off in a tiny pillbox, a new entrance to which had been made by a British shell, so narrow that to get inside you had to take off all your equipment.

After a time I made a tour of our lines. We were “Company in support.” Two companies were in the front line and the fourth in reserve. The night was dark as pitch and threatened rain. I tripped on some loose strands of barbed wire and cut my hand. Although there was a certain amount of shelling, we had so far escaped casualties.

The night passed…[2]

 

Hugh Quigley, though not far away from Carstairs, is much further along in his experience of Third Ypres–he is enduring, in fact, what Sassoon’s statement had been intended to protest. We move, now, from a jaunty letter and an atmospheric narrative to one of the most characteristic types of Great War pieces, namely an attempt to describe the indescribable that soon breaks down into a catalogue of horrors.

Vlamertinghe, 17 September, 1917

You will have read of Belgium in every newspaper dispatch and every book written on war. The best I can do is simply to tell you what I experienced–and suffered more or less patiently. The country resembles a sewage-heap more than anything else, pitted with shell-holes of every conceivable size, and filled to the brim with green, slimy water, above which a blackened arm or leg might project. It becomes a matter of great skill picking a way across such a network of death-traps…

Quigley’s experiences of the Salient also includes this encounter, from earlier in the week:

…we dug out a new trench. While plying the spade, I encountered what looked like a branch sticking out of the sand. I hacked and hacked at it until it fell severed, and I was picking it up prior to throwing it over the parapet when a sickness, or rather nausea, came over me. It was a human arm.

It gets worse:

…we set out on patrol, but had to take refuge in a deserted pill-box in No Man’s and because the enemy had sighted us. This pill-box had been used at one time as a a charnel-house; it smelt strongly of one and the floor was deep with human bones. From there we watched the Very lights flickering outside, and, casting a weird light through the doorway, the red flash of bursting shells. Occasionally a direct hit shook us to the very soul. While sitting there, the odour overcame me and I fainted. Waking up an hour afterwards, I found myself alone, without the faintest idea of my whereabouts, uncertain where the enemy’s lines were or my own. Some authors practise the description of fear, but nothing they could do could even faintly realize my state. It went beyond fear, beyond consciousness, a grovelling of the soul itself.

Quigley eventually calms down and saves himself; but this letter continues to be densely populated with horrifying corpses. Stumbling back to his own trench that morning he falls, and finds his “hands clutching at a dead man’s face.” And then there is this:

Our road to Company H.Q. from Ypres is shown in places by dead men in various postures, here three men lying together, there a dead “Jock” lying across a trench, the only possible bridge, and we had to step on him to get across.[3] The old German front-line… must be the most dreadful thing in existence, whether in reality or imagination, a stretch of slimy wicker-work bordering a noisome canal of brown water, where dead men float and fragments of bodies and limbs project hideously, as if in pickle. The remembrance of one attitude will always haunt me, a German doubled up with knees under his chin and hand clutching hair above a face of the ghastliest terror.

But this is only horror. The dead, rather than death, decay rather than suffering.

…my first experience of death was worse than this. Our battalion had entrained almost as far as Ypres, and we rested beside the railway…

Where they are spotted by German observers. The very first rounds from the heavy artillery are on target:

…our two companies had just got over when I heard a scream of a shell. Instantly we got on our noses: I looked up cautiously, just in time to see it explode in a thick mass of other companies on the railway. The scream of despair and agony was dreadful to hear, men shell-shocked out of reason and others dying of frightful wounds. That shell caused fifty casualties and shook the whole battalion for several days… That cry of dying men will ring in my ears a long time after everything else will be forgotten.[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Diaries, 186.
  2. A Generation Missing, 97-99.
  3. Why, one wonders, couldn't they remove this body?
  4. Passchendaele and the Somme, 120-5.

Robert Graves De-Dedicates Siegfried Sassoon; Eddie Marsh Rededicates Himself to Winston Churchill, and Heads for Belgium

Robert Graves begins his letter to Siegfried Sassoon of today, a century back, with an apology: he has belatedly changed the dedication of Fairies and Fusiliers, his upcoming collection of poetry. Instead of being dedicated to Sassoon it will be the entire Royal Welch Fusiliers who share the honor.

Dearest Sassons,

If you’d been anyone else you’d have thought me a first-class four-letter man for changing the dedication like that, but you know it wasn’t meant for anything, except that I was afraid at the last moment of a dedication to an individual for fear of jealousy from Gosse, Ross, Marsh, Masefield or anyone like that of my ‘friends and lovers’ not to mention the family. Also, I thought that to point my devotion to the regiment would strengthen my expression of hatred for the war.

“I was afraid… fear… jealousy… hatred:” excuses, excuses. It also seems possible that this has something to do with the newest “lover,” Nancy Nicholson. She is, in most senses, Graves’s first lover, and not one that he would think Sassoon likely to approve of. But whatever his motivation, Graves is abjectly apologetic:

…I’m so sorry for my stupidity.

Well; but he must apologize: he is also asking Sassoon to read his proofs. This awkwardness taken care of, updates on mutual friends and comrades follow, including a mention of the luckless Julian Dadd:

Poor Julian was ill since he was discharged, brainfever due to worry about Ginchy where he somehow thinks he didn’t do well enough, but he’s in a good place I hear…

In other words, a mental breakdown of some sort. This sort of news can’t really be avoided–Sassoon is still in touch with other members of the regiment–yet it is still difficult to wade through. And any news of Graves’s current activities can only remind Sassoon not only that Graves is still “doing his duty” while he is playing golf, but also that Graves gave up a similarly cushy posting to a rest home on the Isle of Wight in order to come and deal with Sassoon’s protest. So Graves cutting to the chase is perhaps not, for once, unwelcome:

I do my best to cheer up the listless atmosphere of Litherland with wry jokes and my usual grotesques…

Sassons, I’d like you to tell me honestly are these shellshock fellow-patients of yours getting on our nerves? I’d be very unhappy if I thought they were: you talk of golf with lunatics, but I hope to God it’s not as bad as that. Damn Rivers, why should he go and get ill like that and leave you?

Yes, the inimitable Rivers, overworked and ill, has gone on a lengthy leave–an important interlude not only, perhaps, in his actual life, but in the fictional life he is given in Pat Barker’s Regeneration: he gets to reconnect with his mentor, check up on illustrative old patients, and observe the sickening methods used by less humane doctors to “cure” their patients’ neurological and psychological symptoms.

We can all, perhaps, agree, on the silver lining of Sassoon’s situation.

No, not all the golf:

…But one thing good is that you’re writing again… Stick to it and show me something good before New Year. Try… to cut down the slang as much as possible..

Another paragraph of advice ensues, but, since I imagine that, after rolling skyward, Sassoon’s eyes would not alight on the page again until the next paragraph, I will skip thence:

Some unknown friend has sent me the Loom of Youth: what an amazing book! I’m going to find out if Alec’s poetry is as good as his prose: he must be a wonder boy: he is I believe old Gosse’s nephew…

Sassoon has, presumably, heard about this book from Owen–although it is also possible that Owen would be unwilling, this early in their friendship, to emphasize the ground-breaking subject matter. But that would only be a sort of false irony: Graves, despite his own schoolboy crush (and later enthusiasm for the scandal-courting properties of writing about adolescent homosexuality), is about to embark on an exclusively heterosexual odyssey. If we were to assign labels–an unsatisfactory business at best–he is straight while Waugh, Sassoon, and Owen are, at least at this point in their lives, gay. In any event, Loom of Youth has clearly undercut Mr. Britling as the book of the moment…

Graves’s letter ends in bathos:

Robert Nichols will write to you for my proofs when you’re done. I have been all the week with a travelling medical board, as military representative, and have watched the fat old doctors passing the twisted weedy old syphilitics up from C3 into A: my only duty an occasional signature.

Tired. Goodbye.

Best love,

Robert[1]

 

By coincidence, we now begin a short period covered by a travel diary kept by Eddie Marsh, who has been Sassoon’s friend and advisor since before the war (he has also been of great help to Graves and to Isaac Rosenberg) as well as the essential organizer of both Georgian Poetry and semi-clandestine gay literary London society. He is also the private secretary to Winston Churchill–or had been, until Churchill’s ousting in late 1916. But Winston is back, baby, and so is Eddie:

‘…all my glory extinct,’ I served for the better part of a year in the West African Department (of the Colonial Office). But at last ‘came the dawn.’ My telephone rang, and it was Winston, announcing that Lloyd George had offered him the Ministry of Munitions, and would I come along? I went along.

It was delightful to be with him again…

The diary, which Marsh will later print “as a period piece,” shows an experienced public servant enjoying the ministerial life once more–and seeing the war with his own eyes for the first time in several years.

Sept. 13, 1917.

Crossed from Dover to Calais in the ‘P.11,’ starting soon after 9.30 and taking an hour. It was a perfect day and the
smoothest possible passage. We passed minesweepers, troopships, and several naval craft. The young Lt. whom I
talked to told me that the ship had lately got two ‘probables’ for destruction of submarines…

Later in the day, near Wytschaete Ridge, which had been reported “quiet,” Churchill, Marsh, and their escorts come come under fire–or a nearby battery does–from German shells.

Columns of smoke rose from the ground, 60-100 yards from us, and bits of shell fell quite close—5 or 6 yards off–while all the time our own shells were whistling and shrieking over our heads.

I was rather surprised at not feeling the least frightened—the only thing was that I was a tiny bit self-conscious, and perhaps a little unnecessarily anxious to keep up the conversation for fear the others should think I was rattled! The
landscape was extraordinary. There was a sudden line of demarcation between the fertile wooded country we had been driving through, and a tract of land where there was nothing but the black naked trunks of trees, with all their branches broken off short. The ground was practically all shell-holes, filled with water, and their edges all grown over already with vegetation, mostly a vigorous plant with flowers composed of masses of pink buds, which I happen to know is called persicaria…

Winston lent me his excellent field-glasses, through which I could see the emplacement of the Boche lines, about 3000 yards off in the plain—and several towns, including the utter ruin of Ypres, where I could make out no trace of the Cloth Hall or of the Cathedral.

Later, after a detour to see one of the Messines craters, they arrive at their first destination: Haig’s headquarters.

G.H.Q, is an ugly modern chateau, in nice green grounds with a pond and a little river. Sir Douglas doesn’t ‘do himself’ so well as Lord French did, when we stayed with him at St. Omer. There is no champagne here, the house is very cold, and the rear doesn’t lock![2]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. In Broken Images, 83-4.
  2. A Number of People, 250-4.

C.E. Montague’s Tirade for Truth; Edmund Blunden Borrows an Ypres-in-Autumn Scene from a Certain Poet-Historian

C. E. Montague is in a ticklish position. A journalist strenuously devoted to the truth, he has been detailed to act as a censor and passive propagandist. But he will keep his integrity intact, not to mention his ire at those who choose, for reasons other than military necessity, to circumscribe their experiences in their personal writing. Our writers-of-letters tend to divide pretty squarely between those who will not write the worst home (often to mothers or sweethearts) and those who unburden themselves completely (often to wives), in the fervent hope that an experiential gulf will not make it impossible to go home again, as it were. Montague is emphatically of the latter camp:

Sept. 5, 1917

I’ve noticed… a sort of assumption, as a matter of course, that everybody writing out here keeps back all sorts of untold horrors of physical suffering from people at home. I can’t understand this a bit. Of course, just as in ordinary life one does not go out of the way to describe details of a friend’s death by cancer or locomotor ataxy, so one does not keep harping on details of incised, contused, and lacerated wounds and of the special agonies one has seen in some few cases But why should one? One assumes that every adult knows for himself that death by bayonet or shell wounds cannot be a pleasant experience or sight, any more than the horrible deaths at home in bed are, or the deaths by mountain or river accidents. I can’t help feeling that at the back of the minds of people like ———- there is an unconscious craving that we should go out of our way to make the incurring of probable death, in a good cause, a more terrifying and repulsive thing than it is for a natural-minded person. Forgive this tirade.[1]

 

And by a strange coincidence–unless it isn’t–Edmund Blunden crosses paths in memory with Montague on a day that might be today, a century back. Which is to say that, attempting to coordinate Blunden’s memoir with his battalion’s Diary, this may have been the day he was sent from his battalion to a signalling school in the rear. When he came to thinking back upon that day and write about it, Blunden thought of Montague’s writing. Got it? Perhaps we should go to the texts…[2]

…I was ordered to be ready for attending a signalling school in the real “back area.” This development, promising in itself a period of rest and safety, was bad news; for experience was that to be with one’s battalion, or part of it, alone nourished the infantryman’s spirit. Now amid a thousand tables I should pine and want food.

Next morning, therefore, while the young sunlight freshened the darkened greenery of the year, I was sitting among a load of equipment, officers, N. C. O’s, and men in a lorry, hurtling along the causeway toward Cassel, through villages where one imagined one would like to come from a normal trench tour, past cottages at whose doors women sat on chairs to pick the hop vines heaped about them…

The signalling school was a large camp in a meadow, with an ugly, depressing red house at the far end. Here days went by without incident; above, the sky was usually clear and calm; around, the spirit of apathy and unconcern with the war was languidly puffing at its cigarette or warbling revue melody. Yet only a few miles off was that commanding hill Cassel, whence radiated constantly the dynasty of the Ypres battle. The road thither secluded, ran between the amazing fruitage of blackberries in the low hedges; one climbed until presently at a bold curve the track joined the stone road, with its rattling railway. At the top, the cool streets of Cassel led between ancient shop fronts and archways, maintaining in their dignity that war had nothing to do with Cassel. There was one memorable inn in whose shadowy dining room almost all officers congregated. Far below its balcony the plain stretched in all the
semblance of untroubled harvest, golden, tranquil, and lucent as ever painter’s eye rested upon. Some confused noise of guns contested one’s happy acquiescence. But what one saw and what one felt at Cassel’s watchtower that September are taken from time by the poet-historian C. E. Montague.[3]

A claim for ex post facto memory influence–for the interposition of powerful writing between a man’s experience and his writing of it… a mickle blow is struck against simplistic views of historiographic fidelity and the continuity of life-writing!

Let us follow (or, rather, belatedly precede) Blunden by reading Montague: here we find, at the proper time and place, the War in Autumn, and as good a proof of the ability of war’s ugliness to provoke beautiful writing as we are likely to find:

In the autumn of 1917 the war entered into an autumn, or late middle-age, of its own. “Your young men,” we are told, “shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.” The same with whole armies. But middle-aged armies or men may not have the mists of either morning or evening to charm them. So they may feel like Corot, when he had painted away, in a trance of delight, till the last vapour of dawn was dried up by the sun; then he said, “You can see everything now. Nothing is left,” and knocked off work for the day. There was no knocking off for the army.

But that feeling had come. A high time was over, a great light was out; our eyes had lost the use of something, either an odd penetration that they had had for a while, or else an odd web that had been woven across them, shutting only ugliness out.

The feeling was apt to come on pretty strong if you lived at the time on the top of the little hill of Cassel, west of Ypres. The Second Army’s Headquarters were there. You might, as some Staff duty blew you about the war zone, be watching at daybreak one of that autumn’s many dour bouts of attrition under the Passchendale Ridge, In the mud, and come back, the same afternoon, to sit in an ancient garden hung on the slope of the hill, where a great many pears were yellowing on the wall and sunflowers gazing fixedly into the sun that was now failing them. All the corn of French Flanders lay cut on the brown plain under your eyes, from Dunkirk, with its shimmering dunes and the glare on the sea, to the forested hills north of Arras. Everywhere lustre, reverie, stillness; the sinking hum of old bees, successful in life and now rather tired; the many windmills fallen motionless, the aureate light musing over the aureate harvest; out in the east the broken white stalks of Poperinghe’s towers pensive in haze; and, behind and about you, the tiny hill city, itself in its distant youth the name-giver and prize of three mighty battles that do not matter much now. All these images or seats of outlived ardour, mellowed now with the acquiescence of time in the slowing down of some passionate stir in the sap of a plant or the spirit of insects or men, joined to work on you quietly. There, where the earth and the year were taking so calmly the end of all the grand racket that they had made in their prime, why not come off the high horse that we, too, in that ingenuous season, had ridden so hard?

It was not now as it had been of yore. And why pretend that it was?[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Elton, C.E. Montague, 193-4.
  2. This hinges on the timing of Blunden's leave, which is not, unfortunately, recorded in the Battalion Diary--there is a letter in which he mentions returning on August 26th.
  3. Undertones of War, 231-2.
  4. Disenchantment, 156-8.

Edwin Vaughan Volunteers for Patrol; A Near-Run Thing for the Master of Belhaven; Kate Luard is Ypres-Bound; Henry Williamson is “No Bon”

Edwin Vaughan has lately been in reserve, serving as “escort” to an Australian artillery unit. In contrast to the usual stereotypes–and to the frequent British opinion that the Australians, while valuable soldiers, are too rough around the edges–he has found them to be well-mannered and considerate. This friendliness was thrown into relief when his own adjutant, a man with less front line experience than Vaughan, chewed him out for the minor (and probably common) lapse of asking for supplies over a telephone line without resorting to code. Vaughan, newly confident in his veteran-of-a-few-months status, gave the adjutant a piece of his mind–his trench experience meant more than the adjutant’s higher rank.

But in any event, as we learned yesterday, Vaughan’s battalion is returning to the front lines–and he is raring to go.

Everything was cleared up and I said goodbye to the Australians with real regret, thanking them from the bottom of my heart for their hospitality to me when I came, a stranger, amongst them. One of the most pathetic features of the war is this continual forming of real friendships which last a week or two, or even months, and are suddenly shattered for ever by death or division.

The remainder of the Company came up to us an hour before dusk, and we led them on, Ewing walking with me in front. He was in high humour and consequently quite communicative… As we marched Ewing told me that an order had been circulated emphasizing the need for offensive patrols, in accordance with which each of our platoons was to carry out an all-night patrol in turn. I had a sudden inspiration and asked if I and my platoon might monopolize the honour and do them all. He jumped at the idea…[1]

This sounds unhinged, but Vaughan’s men have enjoyed recent patrols–they would rather be out doing, apparently, than sitting tight–and a big part of the appeal is that men who are out at night are allowed to rest from fatigues during the day. But the last tour had little in the way of bombardment, and the German infantry opposite disinterested in midnight skirmishes–will this remain the case?

 

And well might the artillery might spare the poor infantryman, if it is too intent in its search for the British artillery. Up near Ypres, the Master of Belhaven, new battery firmly in hand, is facing more than his share.

We had a dreadful night, as we were heavily shelled, and we have no head cover beyond a tarpaulin. I got no sleep till dawn, and then only an hour…

All the afternoon they had been registering on Bedford House, a ruined château not far from me. I noticed that they were firing guns of all calibres, first one and then another. This made me suspicious, and I was not surprised when, at 9 o’clock, a perfect hurricane of shells arrived, large and small mixed. They kept it up for half an hour or more, but they were nearly all two or three hundred yards over me. Suddenly they stopped and began a creeping barrage right across the flank of my battery and on my mess. Franklyn, the doctor, Bath, and I rushed out and threw ourselves down flat in a little trench outside. It was only 18 in. deep and the same width.The hurricane of shells lasted about five minutes, mostly shrapnel bursting in air and 4.2’s bursting on impact. There must have been dozens bursting at the same moment, all round and over us. I have never seen anything like it before, except our own barrages on the Somme. We were covered with earth and sods that were being flung up, and the shrapnel bullets fell on the ground all round just like a hailstorm. Suddenly there was a tremendous roar and the whole country was lit up like day… one of my ammunition dumps had blown up. The concussion set off another dump near it, but, instead of blowing up, it started burning, the H.E. shells going over in dozens just like a Chinese cracker, only each crack was an 18 lb. shell…

We were 200 yards from the battery and it was absolutely necessary to get back to the men. Franlkyn and I agreed to risk it and ran as hard as we could past the burning ammunition to the battery. How we got across alive I don’t know; neither of us had the smallest hope of surviving…[2]

 

Kate Luard has always been eager to get as close as possible to the shells that keep her hospitals in business. Soon she will be stationed closer still.

Tuesday, May 29th

…The C.O. had another message to-day to ‘prepare to move to another Area…’ He has told me in a whisper where it probably is; of course it is just the exact part I’ve always longed (and intended!) to go to if anything was doing there…[3]

She is not a woman for quiet sectors, evidently. Ypres it will be, and soon…

 

Lastly, today, we have Henry Williamson. After telling a strange tall tale about his assignment to a signalling course, he now must tell his mother that he has been sent back. He seems to see, if he hadn’t before, that the writing is on the wall for him with the 208th Machine Gun Company. But his failure on the signalling course he will insist on viewing as a minor setback, and bluster off on another tack:

Dear mother,

Am quite well. I was sent back from the Signal School as no bon… I am transferring by the way, to another Coy–at least I have applied for it–I could never agree with my C.O. and now he’s back again…

But he knows he doesn’t have the power to transfer himself, bon or no bon. And, breezy though he may be, his thoughts alight on what he likely fears most: a return to the infantry.

…Occasionally one gets fed up–but on transport there is just enough danger (e.g. tonight–a few crumps over, & gas shells, & an unlucky hit will finish us, mules & all, but really the risk is not one millionth what the infantry, poor devils, run!) Well give my love to everyone…[4]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Some Desperate Glory, 136-7.
  2. War Diary, 293-4.
  3. Unknown Warriors, 127.
  4. Anne Williamson, Henry Williamson and the First World War, 156-7.

Edward Thomas Sails for France; Dorothie Feilding Laid Low by Winter at Last; Edmund Blunden Astonied at Ypres; D.H. Lawrence Repays in Kind; Richard Aldington: Pioneer, Bibliophile, Dreamer

We have the departure of Edward Thomas and updates from a new soldier and an increasingly experienced officer in France, today, a century back, but first, from Belgium, a post-script to Dorothie Feilding‘s winter’s tale of frigid woe. She is a past master of the letter-of-comically-deflated-complaint:

29th Jan 17
Mother dear–

My fingers are frozen absolutely stiff & I cannot write you a sparkling letter in consequence for I am much too cross.

All the canals here are frozen the most amazing thickness & I go sliding in the evenings when we come in, until the ends of my toes are all blistered.

I shall have to give over for a day or two. It annoys me when I slide 10 yds & sit down hard to see a tiny Flam in vast sabots slide some 500 yds all out.

Lots of love
DoDo[1]

 

Edward Thomas acquired his blisters in more conventional fashion, visiting his youngest child one last time, in borrowed shoes. Now his road leads straight to France, via Southampton and the Mona Queen.

Up at 5. Very cold. Off at 6.30, men marching in frosty dark to the station singing ‘Pack up your troubles in your old kit-bag’. The rotten song in the still dark brought one tear… Southampton at 9.30 and there had to wait till dusk, walking up and down, watching ice-scattered water, gulls and dark wood beyond, or London Scottish playing improvised Rugger, or men dancing to concertina, in a great shed between railway and water… sailed at 7… I’m in 2nd officer’s cabin with Capt. and Horton, the men outside laughing and joking and saying fucking… Remember the entirely serious and decorous writing in urinal whitewash–name, address, unit, and date of sailing. A tumbling crossing, but rested.[2]

“Remember–” so the diary as well as the letters will serve as an aide-memoire to future writing.

 

Edmund Blunden is an old soldier by now, but almost all of his service has been on the Somme. Today, a century back, was his first acquaintance with Ypres, the great ruined city (large medieval town, that is) of the northern part of the British sector.

The battalion, being relieved from Potijze breastworks, occupied various billets of less or more insecurity in Ypres. Though many cellars existed in the town, most of them were battered in and waterlogged, and the Ramparts were overcrowded. Our principal shelter was the Convent, now the husk of a building, but concealing a many-chambered underground lodging for a considerable number of men, who might parade for working or carrying parties in its courtyard; that cobbled yard will ever be to me the stage on which Maycock stands glaring at the round white moon, and shaking his fist at her, and crying: “It’s that bloody old witch — until she changes we’ll keep being frozen.” At one corner was the entrance to a garden the paths of which had been adorned by some patient enthusiasts of the autumn before with their regimental badges done in coloured glass; and passing that way, as one would do, one had the choice of admiring their workmanship, or the sweet simplicity of the pigeons curving and glinting round the Cathedral’s tattered tower, or the fact that the German gunners were shooting high explosive to burst in the air innocuously round that aiming-mark of theirs.

Over the sepulchral, catacombed city airplanes flew and fought in the cold winter sun. Sentries blew their whistles in warning from broken archways; the brass shell cases used for gas gongs gleamed with a meaning beside them; and all of a sudden flights of shells came sliding into the town. Few people were seen on the streets, and it is difficult to recall in realistic sensation one’s compulsory walks in Ypres. The flimsy red post office, a blue poster for Sunlight Zeep, a similar advertisement for Singer’s Naaimaschinen, the noble fragment of a gateway to St. Martin’s Cathedral, interior walls with paintings of swans on green ponds, the rusty mass of ironware belonging to some small factory with an undestroyed chimney, ancient church music nobly inscribed on noble parchment, wicker chairs in the roadway outside St. Jacques, a scaffolded white building in the Place (the relic of a soon disillusioned optimist), a pinnacle, a railing, a gilded ceiling — those details one received, but without vivacity. One set out to arrive at a destination in Ypres, and even in quiet times one was not quiet. As if by some fantastic dream, the flush and abundance of life and memorial and achievement, such as blend into the great spirit harmony of the cities in that part of Europe, stole suddenly and faintly over the mind; then departed. This city had been like St. Omer, like Amiens. How obvious, and how impossible![3]

 

Before we get to Richard Aldington, we observe an oblique crossing of paths. Not long ago, on the same day an accused coward was shot, an accused pacifist defended himself. Today, a century back, D.H. Lawrence wrote again to Eddie Marsh, central node of all literary favor-asking. And look whose poetry he compliments in the post-script…

Monday 29 Jan. 1917

Thank you very much for your note and the green form. I hope they will let us go away.

Have I showed any public pacifist activity? …At any rate I am not a pacifist.

I have come to the conclusion that mankind is not one web and fabric, with one common being. That veil is rent for me. I know that for those who make war, war is undeniably right, it is even their vindication of their being. I know also, that for me, war, at least this war, is utterly wrong, a ghastly and unthinkable falsity. And there it is. One’s old great belief in the oneness and wholeness of humanity is torn clean across, for ever…

Well, amen to that. But note the rather more limited place to which the broad statement leads:

So how should I be a pacifist? I can only feel that every man must fulfil his own activity, however contrary
and nullifying it may be to mine.

Duckworth refused the novel…

Aha. But Marsh has apparently provided with a form that may enable emigration. What does he get in return?

I am getting ready another book of poems. My last and best. Perhaps I shall never have another book of poems to publish: or at least, for many years. Would you like to see this MS., when I have done it? Then, if there should happen to be anything you would like for Georgian Poetry, ever, you can take it. . . .

If I go to America, and can make any money, I shall give you back what you lent me. I do not forget it.

D. H. Lawrence.

P.S. Don’t you think H.D.—Mrs. Aldington—writes some good poetry? I do—really very good.’[4]

She does. And what about the man who cheated on her not long after a miscarriage, but then generously suggested that his friend might procure for her while he was at the wars? Mr. Aldington writes again to F.S. Flint:

29′” January 1917

My good, (to be as French as we can!),

I have well receive [sic] your letter so fair and blackguardly… It’s no good! I need the fantasies of language of Huysmans & Rabelais to write well in a letter. I can’t handle the epistolary style in English somehow.

…Dear boy, oh for one hour in either of our dens, with books & wine & smokes and the talk half French, half English, rolling from the latest Parisian poetaster to Meleager & from Marinetti to Folgore da San Gemignano!

Apropos, H.D. has sent Bubb my translation of Folgore–the best Italian work I’ve done – as well as the Konallis poems. So with the Imagist anthology & a possible small collection of prose poems, 1917 won’t be altogether a blank for me. Every day in which one begins nothing, every year in which one publishes nothing, is lost! How I yearn for the dear, musty smell of old vellum & the crisp rustle–like unto banknotes, yet how much more precious!–of those unreadable Aldines I collected with such gusto…

When oh when this armed strife is o’er I shall retire to Rome for a season, grow hyacinths in my shrapnel helmet–which I intend to purchase or abduct as a “souveneet” [s/c]–and mess about in the Vatican library. Also wander about that city with H.D. whose gusto for antiquities fits in gloriously with mine. There is a little church on the Aventine, dedicated to Santa Sabina, where I hope to sit one whole morning & listen to the silence. It has some fine Byzantine mosaics if I remember rightly, but hang them! Can you imagine the pleasure of listening to the silence, while the sunlight runs over the worn flag stones? What a place to think in! Perhaps you will abandon respectability & a government job & come with me. There’s nothing like vagabondage, freedom, the arts, starving & feasting together as luck turns. Then life has a tang where it is now insipid. Then one can dream great things besides one’s best friend–you know whom I mean–& be content if the year ends with nothing done…

I don’t like Aldington–I’ve read a good deal of what he writes–and I haven’t hidden that, here. I could ding him, too, for putting on his Old Soldier airs (although, in fairness, he did much more of that in other recent letters; old soldiers don’t wax rhapsodic about old books) without realizing either that a true veteran of the trenches would be ashamed to think of buying a souvenir or that such a figure would never “abduct” but rather “win” it.

But never mind. That above paragraph is the best “après la guerre” daydream I’ve read since Graves hymned Sassoon. And Aldington is including his wife in the reverie–how nice. I wonder if the post script will explain why he talks of her so much more fondly in this letter than in letters previous…

But I should give him some impartial credit for high spirits, in a pioneer battalion, in winter. It’s clearly rooted in self-regard, but hey–morale is morale.

One’s art, looked at selfishly, is less important for what it produces for others, than for what it adds to one’s own life making things poignant & strange & beautiful where otherwise they would be “just ordinary.”

Never feel angry or grieved about me–a prophet is not without honour!–and whatever happens I have something
that cannot be destroyed. I had a talk with a fieldmouse in the trenches the other day–we got on splendidly! And there are hawks & crows & chaffinches & sparrows & owls & starlings & grey crows to look at & understand. They are so delightfully unorganised, such vagabonds! So you see I have found friends.

Au revoir, dear boy; forgive all this babble. But my mind is becoming vegetable through disuse.

Thine
R.

P.S. I’ve forgotten your address so must send this via H.D. Couldn’t send Almanac–against regulations. Send your
poem when finished.[5]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Lady Under Fire, 197.
  2. War Diary (Childhood), 157-58.
  3. Undertones of War, 144-5.
  4. A Number of People, 232.
  5. Imagist Dialogues, 173-5.

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

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

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

My own sweet Mother,

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

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

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

I have not been at the front.

I have been in front of it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your very own Wilfred x[1]

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

References and Footnotes

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

Tragedy and Pride from Rowland Feilding; Vera Brittain on the Mediterranean Sun: Shining Copper, Deepest Purple, and an Easily Mitigated Disadvantage

Vera Brittain is still convalescent after a serious fever and has hard nursing work ahead of her. But she is also a young woman on a Great Adventure…

Sunday October 15th

This really is a most fascinating place; I have not had much to do with it yet, but the more one sees of it, the more attractive it becomes… The unbuilt-over part of the Island would be one vast tract of this brown grass were it not that all the land is divided up into plots the size of fields by low white stone walls. Someone told me yesterday that this place is supposed to be just like the Holy Land–even to the stone wall divisions. Before I heard this it had struck me as being just like pictures I had seen of Palestine, & several times this evening I passed a barren-looking but slightly cultivated field with some little mosque or shrine in the background which reminded me exactly of illustrations I have seen in children’s books of the Parable of the Sower…

The sun here seems to set not only in the West but all over the sky, so that sometimes it is quite difficult to tell where the West is. This evening I felt infinitely little & unimportant, landing on along white road beneath an
immense dome of shining copper & deepest purple.[1]

Ah, but we always are our best (or best-written) selves when luxuriating in our diaries. Could this letter to her brother Edward really be from the same day? How fickle are our moods, how powerful an impediment to the transmission of pure historically-situated feeling is the tightly-gripped pen!

Malta, 15 October 1916

The chief disadvantages of Malta, as I can see already–though I like it ever so much better than I expected to–are 1. Flies 2. Lack of water 3. Glare of the sun. The third disadvantage of course can easily be mitigated, as, as soon as I leave here, I shall go into Valetta, where one can buy almost everything, & not expensively, and get a pair of green glasses!. And if this is not enough I can always buy a solar topee…[2]

 

There are highs and lows from Rowland Feilding today as well. I omitted an interesting letter on the 12th because even as Feilding was touring Ypres, Donald Hankey was leading his last advance. We return to it now, and find that this letter’s sense of “tragedy” seems to foreshadow the loss of a friend and comrade.

October 12, 1916. La Clytte.

To-day I took my mare—the best I have ridden since I came to France, inherited from poor Lenox-Conyngham—the late Colonel of this battalion, and rode into Ypres. I have long yearned to see the city. But what a scene of desolation!—truly, a city of the dead; a ghostly solitude. Not a sound unless that of a gun or bursting shell: not a soul to be seen in the long streets of ruins, except rarely, here and there, an English sentry, or a party of English soldiers, with rifle, pick, and shovel, marching to or from the trenches:—not a man, woman, or child of the nation
that built and owns the city. It is indeed a tragic sight.

October 15, 1916. In Front of Wytschaete.

During my rounds this afternoon I met poor Parke (who till a few days ago was acting as my second in command) being carried along the communication trench known as Watling Street, on a stretcher.

He had just been killed by a direct hit from a chance shell. He was forty-seven years old, and I was just trying to get him a rest behind the line;—which, added to the fact that he was only recently married and had just returned from spending a short leave with his wife, makes it all the sadder. He was brother to the Parke who was with Stanley in “Darkest Africa.” He was a cheery fellow, and I shall miss him very much.

I hear to-day that the Divisional Commander has recommended me for the permanent command of this battalion, and that the recommendation has been approved, with effect from September 6—the date I took over on the  Somme.

It is now the strongest and the show battalion of the Division.

This, from a devoted and detailed writer, is an almost offensively passing reference–as passing as the death itself and his chance meeting with the corpse. But Feilding had to move on to career news–he is busy and wanted to close the letter, surely. Yet… well… but what is this other than one of our many little death-and-fortune vignettes? The chance shell, the stray bullet with only one man’s name on it…

And it’s another sort of story, too, when told from Feilding’s passing perspective: it’s the near-miss that didn’t miss. Captain Parke, a newlywed, surely intended to write home tonight as well…[3]

 

References and Footnotes

  1. Chronicle of Youth, 332-3.
  2. Letters From a Lost Generation, 279.
  3. War Letters to a Wife, 127.

John Ronald Tolkien in Action at Thiepval; Rowland Feilding Out of Hell and Into Summer-Time; Edward Thomas Writes to a Different Trumpeter

The prose of Rowland Feilding is thick with hell these days, even though he himself has been removed from its current terrestrial location (i.e. the Somme) to the balefully, ironically pleasant surroundings of the Ypres Salient. (Which is not due to be hell-on-earth again until next year).

Two days ago he described his new surroundings to his wife:

September 26, 1916. Locre.

To-day I have been to reconnoitre the trenches, or rather breastworks, which we are to take over. They cross the swampy ground below the Wytschaete Ridge, which, crowned by the ruins of the Hospice and a red pile of brick, or what looks like brick, frowns down upon them. Some 5 miles to the left stands up the skeleton of Ypres, where the ruined Cathedral can from our trenches be seen, towering into the sky.

All was very quiet.

The line will be wet and nasty in winter, but to-day the sun was shining, and the whole country seemed smiling. The silence was quite extraordinary. There was no shelling.

Moreover, trees are standing, and many of the buildings are only slightly damaged. The fields are green and coloured with wild flowers; and to-day I saw two cows grazing not so very far behind the firing line, while, as I
walked along the communication trench, two cackling cock-pheasants flew overhead.

After the Somme it seems like coming from Hell to the Thames Valley in summer-time…

Albeit one in which the sights upon which idlers may feast their eyes include an observation balloon coming untethered and being shot down, “burning like a huge candle from the upper end” as it floated away…

September 28, 1916. In Front of Wytschaete.

I have walked—I don’t know how many miles—to-day, through our new trenches, well made by Canadian troops, but still requiring an enormous amount of spadework before the winter. I have a big digging party out tonight. In three days we hand over to another battalion, and move back into support, when my headquarters will be at another farm (“Siege Farm”), some 300 yards behind this one.

The news seems good. As the German papers say: “in the orgy of destruction on the Somme our soldiers are standing in Hell.” So are ours, but they take that as part of the day’s work, and will continue to do so, with smiling faces.[1]

 

Meanwhile, on the edge of that hell, John Ronald Tolkien and his battalion watched the attack of the 18th Division on the Schwaben Redoubt. There is no detailed record of what Tolkien saw, but it seems safe to conclude that–probably by position, and almost certainly by temperament–this was no case of feeling the Epicurean pleasure of being on the edge of a battle. For one thing, Tolkien will not ever (unless memory betrays) imagine a virtuous character feeling any such pleasure, but he will write several scenes in which essentially peaceful people quail in terror as they look out at the gathering clouds (literal as well as figurative) of battle.

For another, he had duties to attend to. Late in the afternoon today, a century back, three patrols of the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers went forward to occupy overrun trenches. They captured twenty-one Germans and pushed down the “communication trenches leading to the enemy’s close-support line.” Tolkien must have been busy as his battalion felt forward, under sketchy orders, to consolidate the attack–one of his signallers will the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his actions tonight. It was a dangerous and confusing time, and Tolkien’s memories of it seem to have been fragmentary–he will recall speaking in German to one of the captured officers, offering him water. Later, while he is on the trench telephone, “a field-mouse runs across his fingers.”[2]

 

Edward Thomas is wending his professional way closer to France, but he remains very much in England, acclimating to life as an artillery officer in training. Today, a century back, he wrote to his friend Walter de la Mare with his usual mix of self-deprecation and quiet confidence. Thomas is not the sort to immediately begin sneering at his non-combatant friends (that would be Richard Aldington), but neither does he melodramatically clam up and turn in profile, chin lifted at the horizon… he’s going to war, and he will not entirely avoid that uncomfortable fact…

Royal Artillery School
Trowbridge
Thursday 28 September 1916

My dear de la Mare,

…After all, I did pass the exam. I came here a week ago & am now fairly settled, as far as it is possible to be, in tents. The work is very hard & by 7.30 when it ends I have not really mastered the work of the day. Levers & pulleys &c are not in my line, I find. But we had some lovely days & nights & things are not as unpleasant as we were told…

The latest rumour is that the men over 35 may be put on coast defence, which I hope is not true. I suppose the coast has to be defended, but I would rather not be shelved at this time of day…[3]

There’s a smile to be provoked by this absurd diffidence. “Rather not be shelved at this time of day” means “have chosen to enter an unprecedented zone of destruction in order to fire enormous weapons at other men while they attempt to kill me with similar weapons, and would not like to be gainsaid in this choice.”

In the meantime, a noisy little fact of life and ready symbol has provoked a poem. Thomas He had written to Eleanor Farjeon on the 25th about the prominence of the trumpet in his new barracks. “The trumpet blows for everything and I like that too, tho the trumpeter is not excellent.” Nevertheless, he will also report that the way this “cracked” trumpet blows reveillé “pleases me”–enough, evidently, to set him writing another poem which treats the war directly, yet with a subtle ambivalence.[4]

 

The Trumpet

Rise up, rise up,
And, as the trumpet blowing
Chases the dreams of men,
As the dawn glowing
The stars that left unlit
The land and water,
Rise up and scatter
The dew that covers
The print of last night’s lovers—
Scatter it, scatter it!

 

While you are listening
To the clear horn,
Forget, men, everything
On this earth newborn,
Except that it is lovelier
Than any mysteries.
Open your eyes to the air
That has washed the eyes of the stars
Through all the dewy night:
Up with the light,
To the old wars;
Arise, arise!

This sounds very much like the sort of rousing, respectably militarist sort of thing that comes at the beginning of anthologies and little books of war poetry.[5] And so may it be–among its antecedents are Housman’s Reveillé and Hardy‘s Men Who March Away. The poem is in harmony with the sentiments of the trumpet–or in submission, for the most part.

But not completely. What does it mean, exactly, to urge men on to the “old wars?” And, more definitively ambivalent, as it were, why would the poet use this martial music to remind us of something so little calculated to inculcate the bayonet-charge spirit than the loveliness of mornings on earth?

 

References and Footnotes

  1. War Letters to a Wife, 122-4.
  2. Chronology, 91.
  3. Poet to Poet, 223.
  4. Farjeon, Edward Thomas, 214.
  5. See, generally, Longley, The Annotated Collected Poems, 312-3.