Flanders. Part 1

BERTINCOURT,  27 August, 1917

I am inclined to think you are causing yourself too much discomfort about me. After all, the worse I can get just now goes to a hardening. All I want you to consider is this : that so far I have told the unvarnished truth, coloured bareness in places, given sordid things a new gleam which might enliven them to my idea, but make them more squalid still perhaps to yours, but I have never consciously said things were well with me when they were not. It might sound harsh to your ear at the time, weak, nostalgic, but nothing loses in repetition, and if pleasure comes and I say so, then you can believe me to your heart’s content and not be deceived. Thus I don’t want you to lay too much stress on any sickness you think to find in my letters ; it is a mood rather than a condition, wears off in a minute and may be replaced by an intense momentary delight.

Some write letters as a mere formality, not too careful about facts, and always insisting on the top note, like a mavis on a spring morning. One could easily … Read the rest

The Somme. Part 9


A romantic gentleman has just joined our platoon, a Highlander of Highlanders, fresh from the Old Country. On Friday evening I was lying back reading Dante when I  heard “glou-glou”  of subdued music. In the distance, sitting on the edge of his bed, our friend played a chanter of peculiarly low pitch. All I could see was a white gleam of hand going up and down, a nose and towsy mass of hair speckled with light. A real clansman, speaking English with difficulty and filled with stories of his great father, the piper “par excellence”, who had taught him all the chants worthy of his home. He rendered the common, well-known clan songs, pibrochs, in a dropping of murmurous notes, like water falling to a pool. The most delicious melody I have heard, not by sheer beauty of sound, but by the suggestive lack of emphasis. The dreamer had room to dream while it went on, and the spirit had inspiration to create a world around that play of wavering note. Yesterday he was brimful of anecdote of life among the Cuchullin Hills of Skye, days spent at nothing else but lying on heather watching white cloud and … Read the rest

The Somme. Part 8

HERMIES, 19 August, 1917

I had my first real experience of a bombardment last night in an observation-post just opposite Havrincourt. “Minenwerfer”  and whizzbangs were dropping all round me, bursting redly in the long grass and crashing on the sunless road beneath. The characteristic of a whizzbang is its speed: the  victim has no time to estimate his chances before the shell is on him. It travels as swift as sound, with the result that the bang of the gun coincides with the explosion. I was wondering which one would get me next, but the enemy found it impossible to get anything like a direct hit. One, however, covered me with dirt and gave me a nice hour’s work shaking shirt and trousers clear.

If you are in a mood for fireworks and artificial illumination, the scene last night would have satisfied your wildest expectations. The brigade to the right of us put over liquid-fire and shell-gas. I was dreaming comfortably at my post, watching thistle heads bob up and down and rats trip lightly over the sandbags when a sudden fare on the opposite ridge wakened me to reality. A long, low bank of white smoke became visible in … Read the rest

The Somme. Part 7

HERMIES,  16 August, 1917

The Literary Supplement was to me as a warmth-giving tonic, especially when the thought comes that perhaps the old life of ruminating among books and among past pictures, memorials of past centuries, will be difficult of reattainment, and that this may be one of the means of keeping in touch and not entirely forgetting that peculiar beauty or favour of a more cultured world. It seems so strange writing thus in this desolation. Even now, in the open, away from the heavy atmosphere of the dug-out, a rat scampers across the path and disappears beneath a sheet of corrugated-iron.

The Army does not study individualities, but it has indulged a fondness of mine. We have a unique opportunity of viewing sunrise and sunset in the trenches owing to the decree that men must stand-to at day-break and nightfall. Perhaps without this one would forget or lack resolution to study the sky on one’s own initiative. I have felt sometimes that there was nothing really worth while, and lethargy overtook me when one of those far-flung sunsets flaming over the hill reminded me that I had something more to live for than sleep in a muddy trench, … Read the rest

The Somme. Part 6

ROYALCOURT, 15 August, 1917

I am writing this from a dug-out made by cutting a square recess in a sloping bank and covering it with corrugated iron and earth. A rabbit existence, sleep all day, and a modicum of work at night. Entrance is gained by crawling on all fours through a low opening, slithering painfully over legs and bodies to a fixed place. War appears to be a matter of listening to a few whistling shells exchanged at long intervals, of marking out minute figures on a dull-brown hill-side crowned with trees and a phantom-like hedge of poplars. Not a movement anywhere ; even the sun lingers more drowsily here than elsewhere, and the grass bends but seldom to uncertain winds. The old conception of a violent strife of combatants or even the modern of an inferno of bursting shells dies down to quiescence, and there dwells a sober touch about the whole landscape, as if it were alone given to droning bees, fluttering butterflies, and flitting swallows.

Last night the desolation received a quiet haunting beauty, the moon dreaming through haze from a dewy earth, mist lying in long swaths in every hollow and below the trees. There … Read the rest

The Somme. Part 5

ROYALCOURT, 9 August, 1917

I might tell you of a night-march I went through last week. We had been in the trenches and were due to be relieved at nightfall. I remember the stormy sunset flashing and dying across the valley: purple clouds broken by shell-bursts on the hill- crest and a curling wave of white thinning down into air. The trenches lay deep in mud until we crept up on the parapet and walked along, knee-deep in wild flax, vetch, ragwort, and other heavy-headed weeds. The raindrops fell in showers from the plants over puttees and boots. A figure stationed here and there whispered directions or stopped us until the others came. The romantic aspect appealed to me at once : strange to say, the enemy did not stir at all except to send up a few lights, while our own batteries kept a continuous booming. One gun especially delighted me ; it had such a clear hard way of spitting forth its projectiles.

Along hedges, by skeletons of houses eerie in a vague starlight, down a rutty street we crept, and then rested in a sunken road while the company gathered together. Whenever the leading files encountered an … Read the rest

The Somme. Part 4

BERTINCOURT, 6 August, 1917

I’m enjoying life to the full here. Of course, I go out determined to be interested, and that makes all the difference. As La Rochefoucauld says in a scrap of paper I found beside the pond where the transport mules are washed : – 

La douceur de l’esprit est un air facile et accommodant et qui plaît toujours quand il n’est pas fade.

While memory is still fresh, I might continue my description of labour among the rubbish heaps. In the whole village there were only three houses where literature made itself evident one, a notary’s office sprinkled with law-books and journals dating from the eighteenth century, and an occasional note-book showing that someone there had been attending a Lycée (I have one by me discussing French literature of the classical age) ; the second, the town office already described, with this addition, that records had been kept of the best scholars in the local school, judging from the “cahiers” lying scattered among municipal papers ; a third, something like home, where an inherent taste for good literature had reigned without partaking of a purely academic character – a collection of books gathered from love of … Read the rest

The Somme. Part 3

BERTINCOURT,  5 August, 1917

We came down here from Arras along a famous road, or rather a road that will be famous in our future history. From Arras to the Somme, a transition from a peacefully complete landscape of full-foliaged trees and flowering fields to a recent scene of desolation, where Nature is only beginning to cover up her wounds with a profusion of verdure and scented grasses ; where the trees lie in mere fragments and the avenue roads have lost their poplars and elms, rising to a bare skyline and immense overhanging sky. At dusk our buses passed through Bapaume, and with a dying sun falling in a blaze of gold from the sky, came on a straight road rising and falling in regular succession for miles. Dusk came suddenly, and darkness so clear against the horizon that a near hill seemed to lead to a great sea of mystery, immaterial as a dream. Behind us the road was a winding snake of many jewels, buses succeeding one another at regular intervals occasionally we passed an obscurely lighted “château”, or “estaminet”,’ the walls and façades vaguely splendid in the uncertain light.

I don’t know how long we travelled … Read the rest

The Somme. Part 2

ISEL-LE-HAMEAU, 28 July, 1917

I have a peculiarly distinct memory of a wonderful dream-picture seen last night. I  had been sleeping fitfully without opening my eyes, half-conscient of things and sensitive to tenuous imaginings, when a resolution came to wander out under the trees and look at the giant in the grey starlight. This giant was a strangely fashioned shadow of foliage against the sky, tall trees over-lapping so that he appeared to be rising from sleep, head and shoulders above the coverlets.

The sudden image called forth a curious echo, involuntary as a cry when one falls into water, a swift shrinking and a sharp pain suddenly gone, a faint fear that penetrated to the utmost depth of unseizable perception and touched chords unsuspected before.

That was the first time, and then I thought the shadowy attitude implied menace, but, as I see it every night since, the indistinct grows luminous and the darkness is full of the gleaming of eyes – kindly eyes looking down on me, like a Sphinx become benevolent. Sometime imagination might evoke a smile, a smile of good portent. I can see a child grown wise under that shadow and flowered to a dreamy … Read the rest

The Somme. Part 1

LIGNY-ST. FLOCHEL, 25 July, 1917

I wonder when I shall escape the art obsession. Not that I want to escape, for the only relief from melancholy lies in a generous giving of imagination, a whole- hearted surrender to delight to a need for image. Today the Barbizons occurred to me again when we journeyed from billets to a Trench Mortar School. The country, to the shimmering wave of horizon, stretched back in a delicate intertexture of line, flat as a board and only darkened by an occasional cloud-shadow or a sun-shadowed clump of tall trees hiding a village or château. Nothing in it resembled my own country, and insensibly I began to have a faint understanding why the French landscapists emphasised and found so much inspiration in the figures of peasants at work in the fields.

In such a quiet harmony: of fields the moving figure, whether animal or human, remains the centre of interest, and not being far below the skyline always possesses the additional charm of silhouette. In the lapse of projecting land-peculiarity, the French peasant appears unconsciously a symbol, a method of natural utterance. The eye fixes on that one object and understands the surroundings by comparison … Read the rest