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 distant sea.

HERMIES, 21 August, 1917

I wonder whether God has created this weather to show a more transcending mercy than heretofore, that a perfect day of sun can coincide with war and decide a beauty of its own. Last night and this morning!

After all, there rests some pleasure in life when two such harmonies of lovely colour and light float into vision and raise an enchanting face. The hollow road runs north and south, so that the rising sun measures off a gradation of gleam and shadow on the one side and the setting on the other. Two ladders of descending and ascending loveliness ! Below the sun-line a misty grey rounds off the edges of the corners, dwells in the hollows, and lingers on the road. The shed supports are bi-coloured – gold and pearl – and the stacks of boards, wire, iron, draw on the earthen wall a clearly outlined shadow, like an Assyrian picture. Then, above the line, what an overflow of dancing light!  Light in the earth shadow and the grass, light in the fields and broad sky so that the infinite seems to have descended to earth and embraced in a caress as infinite.

A khaki-clad officer comes down, half in shadow, half in sun. His feet move in a subdued twilight, while his head and shoulders are bathed in the gold. Clover- heads and thistles, in silhouette yet illuminated, hang drowsily their heads, uncertain of life and uncertain of light, mingling leaf and flower in a warm grey which gives a finer beauty to the dreamy azure overhead.

Then, last night, what a glory of haunting illumination was there ! The clouds had passed in a furry of rose from the sky and left a subtle gradation of pure colour from zenith to horizon, hovering and smiling in a thousand shimmering lights. It passed from the loveliest purple to a warm orange, through lilac, pale turquoise, amethyst, rose, pearl-grey, lemon, and gold, like one of those evening skies Stott paints to bathe an ordinary group of men or animals in a mysterious half-light, not dream and yet not reality.

Shadows slept in the road, blue as a sunlit sea and transparent as fine glass; above them the sun laid a long tapestry of orange, against which the grass tufts told startlingly. Men walking below had face and breast illuminated crudely, like figures in an impressionistic fresco – yellow features, outlined with dark-blue shadow. Yet with that, depth was in the air, a bottomless sea of beauty, where all thought of pain and yearning swam away in infinite peace, and the only reality of life was a sinking in it, a fortunate shipwreck, and the abiding truth came as vision, the chaste vision of an infinite harmony.

Sound gave utterance to the joy of earth beetles, droning in a curious bass tone that rang everywhere, flew from one bank-head to another ; there was a constant buzzing of flies in the damp hollows, murmurous in and overhead the sky echoed distance ; humming of invisible aeroplanes.

Not a shell burst anywhere. Only in the sky a few balls of white smoke from anti- aircraft shells became tenuous and gradually faded away. Calm on the earth and calm in sky! If there were calm in the world what a reward that would be, a renewed hope in an eternal rule, a new eye for the eternal beauty, and a sure faith through experience in an eternal kindness.

The night was a lyric in itself one of those magic soul-gleams that come but rarely to man, and are a constant attribute of harmony between sky and earth. Murmur, dream, and loveliness – all three rising and falling in perfect rhythm as the queen ‘s cloak when at the last she will throw aside the shuttle, and instead of weaving tapestries of divine beauty, will come across to vision, will come to rejoice the spirit with the long-sought beauty which is eternity in self and perfect grace.

The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.

Keats had his moment of surrender and gave utterance to the inner need. But if his words are lovely, they do nought but hint at the reality. Throned in the absolute such visions can only receive imperfect recognition and halting reproduction. The human has only a glimpse, and his picture remains incomplete.

AN ORCHARD IN VELU, 24 August, 1917

I found a German soldier’s diary in a rubbish-heap, an interesting relic of a life, past perhaps, which tells of an intimacy of friendship near to tears, something sacred between spirit and spirit which shrinks from the spoliator. A loving son, evidently, and a fine husband, newly married, he talks with evident delight of his bride, and gives a very careful address written in beautiful script. A native of Saxony, he kept a note of letters and field postcards written during the months from September 1916 to April of this year. His bride’s address is given : – 

Fraulein Anna Schmeder,

in Kuppelsdorf Post Dahwe,

Bei Schweinitz,

Provinz Sachsen,

and his own : –

Paul Schmaun,

Ruh Depot der 7 Fusz Kamp,



His letter written in case of accident runs :-

Liebe Kamaraden Sollte ich irgend verwundet oder den Heldentod fürs Vaterland sterben, so bitte ich denjenigen, der mir findet, sofort meine Angehörigen bescheid.

His greatest output of letters took place in I March, seventeen letters and six cards. I  think I have written more myself, but not being methodical like our Saxon hero, I can’t count any of them. Another lady’s address was:-

Frau Witwe Anna Schroder,

Diesdorf bei Magdeburg,

2 Mittelstrasse.

This lady wanted to convey her kind regards, a widow apparently. This she did through his mother.

Quite a unique thing, isn’t it?  Not complex, but very suggestive, telling of a home – life like our own with as strong affections.