When she broke forth from below,
Flowers came, hell-hounds on her heels
“Purple Anemones,” D.H. Lawrence.
I am fed up with the book. Fed up with the blog. My song bones are dry as matchsticks.
This is my arrangement of a song transcribed by D.H. Lawrence in the spring of 1915 when he and Frieda, married in July 1914, were living in Greatham, Sussex in a cottage owned by the writer, Viola Meynell. It wasn’t composed by Lawrence. There are a number of versions the first of which appeared (presumably) after the assassination of US President William McKinley in 1901.McKinley was killed by Leon Czolgosz, an anarchist, at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York.
I first heard the Carter Family’s “Cannonball” but I didn’t know it was the same song – they use different lyrics – until I read a post on the mudcat.org website. I fell in love with Woody Guthrie’s version (first line: “You can wash my jumper, starch my overalls”) and played it to death in the nineties. I never thought I would rediscover it in such a surprising way – in Eleanor Farjeon‘s biography of Edward Thomas.
Edward Thomas, of course, the hugely influential war poet who took up poetry “at 36 in the shade”. Eleanor Farjeon, a children’s writer, poet and memoirist (she wrote the hymn “Morning Has Broken” amongst other things) who became friendly with Thomas in 1912. It was a kind of literary love affair, possibly as important to Thomas’s poetry as his friendship with Robert Frost, but less well understood. People can’t resist a bromance, especially a transatlantic one.
Incidentally, Farjeon’s grandfather was a celebrated American actor, Joseph Jefferson. Her father and brothers were all writers, actors and musicians. It was through her brother, Bertie, that Thomas and Farjeon met in 1912.
One thing that appealed to me about looking now at spring 1915 was that I could briefly survey where some of the subjects of my book were at in a small window of time. [If you don’t want a snapshot of an unfinished book feel free to skip to McKinley.] The book, “Grim’s Bitch”, is a kind of lo-fi biography: a dog-biography I call it, as in dog-rose, dog-violet. The starting point is three officers including my great Uncle Toby*, who trained together in Berkhamsted, near London, before serving on the Western Front. These three became six when I realised I had been researching for years and barely had enough material to write a field postcard: a “whizz-bang” as they were popularly known. So I enlisted the help of some writers as guides. They could – I hoped – be foils to my unsung heroes.
Charles Hartert‘s story I had thought of as part of another book, but over the course of my research two books became one. Charles is in many ways the heart of the book. I don’t think Uncle Toby would mind. I’m not a novelist: there’s a limit to what a biographer (at least a dog-biographer) can write about one 18 year old however nobly he might have died.
The end point (actually not quite the end) is Easter Monday 1917, when the third of my initial subjects, Walter Wilkinson, is killed – like Edward Thomas – on the opening day of the Battle of Arras.
I say not quite the end. One of my three comes back from the dead – not terribly remarkable at the time – except to his nearest and dearest.
Walter doesn’t come back but a dogged search across two continents brings me to a diary with news of him from beyond the grave.
Charles Sorley, who Robert Graves thought perhaps the best poet of the war, was nineteen in 1914 when his “gap year” was interrupted in dramatic fashion: he was in Germany and briefly interned.
In spring 1915 he is at Aldershot with France looming. “… we all but sleep with puttees on.” He is underwhelmed by Rupert Brooke’s (died 23rd April 1915) last sonnets. He writes to his mother on the 28th April:
“He is far too obsessed with his own sacrifice, regarding the going to war of himself (and others) as a highly intense, remarkable and sacrificial exploit, whereas it is merely the conduct demanded of him (and others) by the turn of circumstances, where non-compliance with this demand would have made his life intolerable.”
Charles has had a “delightful” weekend with his friend Kenneth in London: eating chocolate almonds at the Old Vic, watching “Macbeth”, with “more beautiful poetry in it than any other tragedy.” With the letter he encloses some of his own poetry, hurriedly written on scraps of paper. “Le Revenant” imagines the narrator returning to Marlborough as a ghost. Not in khaki, he writes to the Master of Marlborough in May, 1915 “but in grey bags, an old coat and a knapsack, coming over the downland from Chiseldon” – like his literary hero, Richard Jefferies, in fact.
Edmund Blunden, who would survive the battle that would kill Uncle Toby the following year, is still a schoolboy in the spring of 1915, at Christ’s Hospital in Sussex. Already a published poet, at least privately published. A letter from his mother’s godmother, Lady Verney, at the end of February, is encouraging. His biographer, Barry Webb, singled out “Joy and Grief” as the best of the early efforts with the lines:
“There is a joy in spring,
There is a grief in spring.”
Jack Semple, Uncle Toby’s cousin wounded at 2.00pm on the 4th May, dies on 27th.
Dennis Grim, age 13, my grandfather, is at Newbury for Easter 1915, with the Trevor-Ropers, the family to whom his grandmother had been a governess. He has been given a lovely Easter egg and is teaching the Parrot some songs. Geoffrey has got a commission, Dennis thinks, in the Isle of Wight regiment. Geoffrey and his brother, Charles, an actor in civilian life, will both be killed at Ypres in 1917. Charles’s son will be killed in the next war and the ancestral pile, Plas Teg, sold off to pay death duties.
Captain George Upton Robins, who wrote a poem about Ivinghoe Beacon (“Never held dreamland a prospect more gracious: Sunlight and shadow on Ivinghoe Hill”) is killed on Hill 60 – the spoil heap from a railway cutting in Belgium, on May 5th. “They have gassed the Dukes,” his last words according to Valentine Williams quoted in Arthur Conan Doyle‘s history, “I believe I was the last man to leave the hill. The men up there are all dead. They were splendid. I thought I ought to come and report.”
Ernst Hartert, the first curator of Walter Rothschild’s natural history museum, records seeing the first swallow of the summer in Tring on the 26th March 1915.
One of the reasons I like reading the correspondence of bird watchers during wartime is that it reclaims positive dates from a conflict that is oversupplied with terrible anniversaries. A bird weighing a couple of ounces with a brain the size of a parched pea making a 2000 mile journey across burnt out farms and sinking ships, hospital trains and zigzag trenches. A message of hope caught in the cross-hair; jotted down in the new subaltern’s notebook or on P.O.W. toilet paper.
On 21st April Ernst Hartert is still reeling from the deaths of his father and several friends. Lord Rothschild’s death at the end of March hasn’t changed anything: the Hon. Walter Rothschild, who will inherit his father’s title isn’t about to take an interest in the family business. He is, and will remain, a zoologist.
The ornithological congress scheduled for Sarajevo in spring 1915 has been postponed indefinitely.
On 27th May Claudia Hartert writes to a friend in Jersey but the letter is intercepted by MI5. Files reveal that she and Eva Greene, aunt of the future novelist, Graham Greene, are both under suspicion. Strangely MI5 don’t seem to notice that Ernst keeps up a correspondence with his German protégé throughout the war.
Erwin Stresemann, would become the leading ornithologist of his generation and the Director of the Berlin Zoological Museum. In the spring of 1915, age 26, he is an observation balloon officer in a German artillery unit in German Lothringen (now French Lorraine). He became friendly with Hartert when he studied bird skins at Tring before the war.
He has not seen a copy of the “Ibis”, the journal of the British Ornithologists’ Union, since July 1914.
When the guns are quiet he still manages to observe and sometimes collect birds. During the war he writes and publishes “The Use of the Rangefinder” in ornithology and “Observations on the Height and Flight of Swifts”.
Charles Hartert, age 23, a Second Lieutenant in the 8th East Yorkshire Regiment is training in Halton, a few miles away from his parents in Tring. On 2 May 1915 he is enjoying the sunshine with his friend T.B.D. “Toppy” Hough, who writes to his parents in Bridlington:
“Yesterday I got a motorbike and cycled to Oxford with Hartert. He showed me round Oxford as he was at Wadham College some time ago. It was very nice at Oxford, the river was ripping.”
Bucks Herald – Sat 22 May 1915
“Charles Hartert, Lieutenant in the 8th East Yorks, did not appear in answer to a summons for failing to produce his motor licence, at Aylesbury, on May 11, – PC Smith stated that on May 11 he saw the defendant riding a motor cycle in the market square. He asked him to produce his licence, and he said he had left it in camp.- Fined 10s.”
The points on his licence, and everything else, wiped clean by a German shell the following year.
Swords into Flamethrowers: The Somme at 90
In 2006 I went to a conference at the Imperial War Museum which occupies part of the old Bethlem Hospital in Southwark. The conference was a re-evaluation of the Somme battle on its 90th anniversary. The message was “forget lions led by donkeys”; the lessons learned during the four-and-a-half-month battle would eventually lead to the defeat of the Germans in 1918. The mood music: “WE WON!”
But I looked at Charles Hartert – his birth registered in Berkhamsted to German parents. I looked at his death in the English line from a German shell. And it wasn’t clear to me who “we” were. His death by definition futile: he died fighting himself.
Some of the places that feature in the book c. spring 1915:
Berkhamsted: was enjoying beautiful weather in May 1915. The common was ablaze with colour from the blooming furze after a dry spell which brought fire as well as flower.
At the Tring Whitsuntide Sale twenty one-and-a-half and two-year-old short horn cattle were sold by Mr TF Dwight of Castle Hill, Berkhamsted, owing to land taken for military purposes.
By the spring of 1915 there were several thousand officer cadets in billets or under canvas behind Berkhamsted Castle. Miles of trenches zigzagged across the common. Halton was home to 12,000 men of the 21st Yorkshire Division. There were rumoured to be more trenches in England than across the channel.
Chalk Downs: the chalk spine of south east England links nearly all of my subjects. Much military training was carried out on the chalk. For many it was also their last view of England. I look for ghosts with Paul Nash and Edward Thomas in the Chilterns, Charles Sorley on the Ridgeway above Swindon.
Epping Forest: became home to the Artists’ Rifles in July 1915. The 3/28 Battalion London Regiment (Artists’ Rifles) was, like the IOCOTC, an officer training battalion. Edward Thomas was a map reading instructor and later set up home in the forest – if that’s the right word – with his family in the bitter winter of 1916.
But that’s in the future. In the spring of 1915 the South West Essex Battalion are digging trenches near Chingford golf course. Forest Keeper Palmly is not pulling his weight at Dog Corner. And the Royal Gunpowder and Small Arms Factories are seeking permission to widen the road leading from the Nazeing Road to Fishers Green Farm.
Southend: But lists are boring. The book goes to a lot of places. Sometimes they’re relevant. Sometimes they’re just places where a dog-biographer can be let off the lead. Southend, happily, both.
I will just mention London is represented twice – once where it’s always been, where the mist blows down from the salt marshes on a September evening. And another one, a grim facsimile, sculpted in chalk on a French hillside.
The Inns of Court OTC headquarters was in Chancery Lane, at the heart of the fog. We will linger a while on the day that Toby, Aubrey and Walter enlist – the day after the most lethal Zeppelin raid so far.
LONDON FOG. – A Dog.
The London Fire Brigade’s Street Station (a caravan equipped with a small hose cart) in Bartholomew Close, one of the medieval streets north of St Paul’s, files its service record for the two years up to June 1915:
District call (1)
Home call (1)
Small fires (4)
Chimney alarms (2)
Tells you pretty much all you need to know about the world which was about to end in the Autumn of 1915.
If you want to know what links Walter Wilkinson and Lord Nelson‘s estate on the Mediterranean island of Sicily, you will have to read the book. Or I will have to write it. Or something.
*Uncle Toby is a fictional analogue of my great uncle, John Graham “Jock” Goffey, who was briefly a contemporary of Charles Hartert’s at Berkhamsted School. I know little about my real uncle except that he was a clerk in London when he enlisted in September 1915, and died at the Ancre aged 18 leaving no written traces – at least none which have survived – apart from his army service record.
But it is fiction only in the sense that Edward Thomas described George Borrow’s “Lavengro”, “fiction with all 4 legs on the ground of fact …” (I won’t add as Thomas did “but baying at the moon.” That’s not for me to decide. And there are worse crimes than barking.
It also provides an alternative ending. Sterne’s Uncle Toby was the old boy mine – and many like him might have become. The great war robbed a generation of their right to become their best selves, not just the exceptional, but the ordinary and bland: the right perhaps to become a boring old duffer, practising his golf swing on the front lawn, and turning his back garden into a reconstructed trench system with deep dugouts and a machine gun nest or two.
Battering Rams of the Ancients – Somme Progress
When I found out that there was a Siege of Namur in the first world war too, I knew I had made the right decision.
Sterne’s fictional character and my own uncle were both horribly injured: Sterne’s by a stone thrown up by a cannon ball, mine by fragments of a shell which exploded on the parapet of Charing X trench on 3 September 1916.
My Uncle Toby wasn’t killed either, at least not straight away, he stumbled on into No Man’s Land – “leading his men,” Aunt Barbara said – and took cover in a crump hole, his servant making him as comfortable as possible with the travel pillow Cousin Addie had given him in June, and died at some point in the next 48 hours from loss of blood and shock or some other reason not known to Corporal Trim, who was wounded trying to bring him in.
I should say that that’s what I believe to be the most likely narrative from many possible alternatives, some of which are discussed in the book. He almost certainly died not knowing that he was the wrong end of a learning curve. His dog tag was returned to the family in Berkhamsted a year later.
Edmund Blunden survived to write.
“Here half a century before might I,
Had something chanced, about this point have lain,
Looking with failing sense on such blue sky,
And then become a name with others slain.”
From “Ancre Sunshine” written when the poet returned to the battlefield with his wife, Claire, on 3 September 1966.
He would have been in good company. But I’m glad he didn’t.
Billeted with Uncle Toby in Berkhamsted were Aubrey Raymond-Barker (whose colleague, Rex Philpott, was a friend of Charles Sorley), and Walter Wilkinson: the adopted son of a Scottish writer whose husband, William Sharp wrote under a female pseudonym and nearly drowned (perhaps) whilst visiting W.B. Yeats in Paris to discuss the formation of a Celtic Mystical Order.
“Spring is Coming! Bringing Debility”
– an ad. for a patent medicine, pinned above Edward Thomas’s desk at Steep: the house in the clouds.
1. Mr McKinley he ain’t done no wrong
He went down to Buffalo way Michigan along
For to lay him down, boys,
For to lay him down.
2. Mr McKinley he went there just for fun
An’ Sholgosh ‘e shot him with an Ivor Johnson gun
3. Mrs McKinley she hollered and she swore
When she heard her old man wasn’t comin’ back no more
4. Sholgosh they shoved him into Sing Sing gaol
And all the money in the world wouldn’t get
him out on bail
For to etc.
5. Sholgosh they put him in the ‘lectric chair
And they shocked him so hard that they shocked
off all his hair
For to etc.
6. You should have seen old Satan grin
When they opened Hell doors an’ shoved old
For to lay him down, boys, for to lay him
Lawrence sent the lyric to Eleanor Farjeon on 1 May 1915. He had taught her the song in Sussex and she wanted to get the lyrics straight so she could teach it to Edward Thomas.
Thomas was an avid collector (and by all accounts no mean singer) of folk songs and sea shanties.
Music, like map-reading and the outdoor life that he’d enjoyed since childhood were things that the army couldn’t completely destroy – perhaps the opposite in a strange sort of way. Many people noted that he looked better after he’d joined up. Paul Nash thought Thomas’s time in the Artists’ one of the happiest bits of his life.
But Thomas’s take on martial music was typically askew, magnetic rather than paper north. He hated “Pack up Your Troubles” for example. He taught his fellow instructors “Blow the Man Down”, which they loved but couldn’t march to. And he taught his children barrack room ballads which raised eyebrows at their friends’ dinner tables.
Thomas never met Lawrence but had this in common, Farjeon thought: “they shared a scorn of sham and hypocrisy and what each gave you of himself was true.”
And they both liked “McKinley”. Thomas even performed it on stage at Wanstrow (near Frome in Somerset), in November, 1916.
The lyric had a ready appeal to Lawrence who perhaps knew he was dying and wanted passionately to live and to Thomas for a similar or opposite reason.
But it wasn’t just personal. “McKinley” with its darkly comic and frankly insane cycle of violence and retribution was the spirit of the time. Forget “If you were the only girl in the world”.
Another version has the lines:
“Mr. McKinley, why didn’t you run
When you saw that man coming with a smokin’ ’41?”
Ever since I found out what really happened to my uncle and his friends, I’ve been asking the same question.
I’m not expecting to find an answer any time soon.
Line of Sight. – An imaginary line passing through the sights and the Target- it is immaterial whether the Target can be seen from the gun, this line remains the same.
Not another biography of Edward Thomas?
There are some very good biographies of Thomas out there. The ones by his wife, Helen, and Eleanor Farjeon are still essential reading. Modern biographies, taking their lead from the latter, zoom in on the last four years of his life – his poetic flowering or whatever you want to call it. But all the biographies, old and new, get the last four minutes wrong. It takes a dog-biographer to blow the fleas off that one.
(In Memorium E.T.)
In the last letter that I had from France
You thanked me for the silver Easter egg
Which I had hidden in the box of apples
You liked to munch beyond all other fruit.
You found the egg the Monday before Easter,
And said, “I will praise Easter Monday now-
It was such a lovely morning.” Then you spoke
Of the coming battle and said, “This is the eve.
“Good-bye. And may I have a letter soon.”
That Easter Monday was a day for praise,
It was such a lovely morning. In our garden
We sowed our earliest seeds, and in the orchard
The apple-bud was ripe. It was the eve.
There are three letters that you will not get.
Eleanor Farjeon, “First and Second Love”, 1947.
An incomplete list: the Cambridge Letters of D.H. Lawrence, Volume II, 1913-16, Eds. George J. Zytaruk & James T. Boulton, 1981 (“McKinley” is on p332); The Complete Poems of D.H. Lawrence, Wordsworth Poetry Library, 1994, “Purple Anemones” is on p244); The British Campaigns in Europe, 1914-1918, Arthur Conan Doyle, 1928, p211. The collected letters of Charles Hamilton Sorley, Jean Moorcroft Wilson, 1990; Edmund Blunden, Barry Webb, 1990; “Ancre Sunshine”, in The Deceitful Calm, A New Selection of Poems by Edmund Blunden, Eds. Rennie Parker & Margi Blunden, 2006. The correspondence between Hartert & Stresemann has been published (in German) in Haffer, J. (ed.) “Ornithologen-Briefe des 20. Jahrhunderts.” Oekologie der Voegel 19, (1997), the wartime letters kindly translated for me by Bente Pile; the letters of 2 Lt. TBD Hough are in Nothing More To Say, Ed. Mike Wilson, 2013; Edward Thomas The Last Four Years, Eleanor Farjeon, 1958; “W.B. Yeats, William Sharp, and Fiona Macleod: A Celtic Drama, 1897” William F. Halloran in Yeats Annual No 14, Ed. Warwick Gould, 2001.
© Richard Shepherd, 2015