Tuesday, 26 June 2018

Siegfried's Last Stand

We are fast approaching the centenary of Siegfried Sassoon's final appearance on the Western Front. On 13th July 1918, he was wounded, as a result of which he was invalided home, once and for all, and never had to return to battle. Since it was a head wound, his thinking was affected for several days afterwards, so the feelings of relief (mixed with guilt) he would doubtless otherwise have experienced took some time to come to the fore.
He voices these feelings in a diary entry from hospital: "When I was hit it seemed an unspeakable thing to leave my men in the lurch, to go away into safety." As he was leaving the trench, he reassured the sergeant-major that he would be coming back. "You'll see me in three weeks," he told another officer as he attended the dressing-station. Determined not to return to Blighty, he wrote to friends saying he would remain in France until he was able to return to duty.
He had returned to the Western Front in May, after a period of service in Palestine, where there was little action apparently going on. At first bored, he had come to enjoy his time in the Middle East. He had not yet met T E Lawrence, "Lawrence of Arabia", who would become a firm friend. Thrown together with a medical officer, Captain Biggar, who was also a naturalist, he had begun bird-spotting, and regularly escaped into the woods and hills, partly in order to get away from the rest of the officers, many of whom he regarded with contempt because of their superior attitude. During this period he continued to receive letters from WIlfred Owen (whom he had met at Craiglockhart a year earlier), though, as Sam Gray showed in his recent talk at the joint London meeting, Siegfried was not very good at replying. Of the poems he wrote during that period, he commented, acknowledging his debt to Owen, "Unconsciously, I was getting nearer to Wilfred Owen's method of approach."
He had often thought about death, but perhaps not about the possibility of escaping death. "It seemed that across the Channel I had nothing to go back to..." He missed the company of his men and other officers such as his second-in-command Vivian da Sola Pinto, who had rapidly become a friend. Pinto too would survive the war. A visit from Rivers, while Sassoon was in the hospital at Lancaster Gate, put him in a better frame of mind.
Embarrassment must also have played a part in Sassoon's feelings. The wound that put him out of action was caused by his own recklessness. Returning from a patrol in no-man's-land, without his helmet, he was shot in the head by a sergeant from his own platoon, who mistook him for a German. It seems rather typical of Sassoon, from what we know of his earlier exploits, that he should have been so careless.
After a while, he began to imagine he could return to the Front as a disinterested commentator, but recognised this as an irrational desire. He hoped for a request to return as a representative of the Ministry of Information, but this idea was soon put paid to by Eddie Marsh, who told him that his reputation as a poet made it "unimaginable" that he might be employed by any government body. Eventually, in August, Wilfred was in London, and Siegfried was well enough to meet him for that "hot cloudless afternoon" (much like the weather as I write). They had tea at Osbert Sitwell's house in Swan Walk, Chelsea, and Sitwell took them to an impromptu concert at the home of the harpsichordist Violet Gordon Woodhouse, an important figure in the Early Music revival. Sassoon did not know that it would be the last time he would see Owen before he departed for France, still less that it would be their last meeting ever. He wrote to Owen from Coldstream, and received a reply while Owen was out of the line.
I do not know why he was so confident that he was never going back. Despite the failure of the German spring offensive and a general feeling that Britain was getting into a winning position, the war could easily have lasted another year or two. Yet somehow Sassoon felt assured that his war was over. In September he hoped to be offered a job with the Ministry of Munitions, but in the end he turned it down because of a feeling that it would be "inconsistent with my previous outburst against the prolongation of the War".
Yet he no longer felt as though he was still on active service, and had begun to feel "liberated and irresponsible". He would remain haunted by memories and regrets, especially after the Armistice in November, but for the moment he was happy, having encountered among his fellow convalescent officers another poet, Frank "Toronto" Prewett. The end of the war would eventually bring both joy and sorrow - the loss of his friend Wilfred Owen, and his replacement by two new friends, Thomas Hardy and T E Lawrence. There were many obstacles to be overcome before he could return to any semblance of normal life, and perhaps he never really would.

Thursday, 14 June 2018

Jerome K Jerome, "a broken man"

If you find the title of this post surprising, you probably weren't at the recent Annual Conference of the Alliance of Literary Societies. After hearing Tony Gray's talk on the subject of Jerome K Jerome's life, I was certainly surprised, and wanted to know more. What could have happened to the author of Three Men in a Boat, one of English literature's funniest books, to cause him to lose his sense of humour?
Jerome Klapka Jerome (his middle name was apparently borrowed from the surname of a Hungarian military hero, in preference to his father's original surname of Clapp) was born in Walsall, and had a very successful literary career by the time of the First World War, when he was in his fifties. He was a supporter of British involvement in the war, and was eager to enlist. Being too old for active service, he travelled out to the Western Front as an ambulance driver for the French army. One of his uniforms is on display at his recently-restored birthplace.
In 1919, Jerome produced one of his last works, a novel called All Roads Lead to Calvary, clearly based on his own experiences even though the main protagonist is female. Critics have highlighted the stereotypical characters and situations, but, among other things, the themes treated in the book reveal similarities between Jerome and Sassoon in terms of their spiritual development and changing attitudes to war.
The Great War was not Jerome's first introduction to suffering. On the contrary, he had gone through some very hard times as a child and a young man, beginning when his father's bankruptcy resulted in the family having to leave their home. He subsequently found himself an orphaned clerical worker reliant on his older sisters for support, then an out-of-work actor, and finally a hack journalist going from one temporary job to another. So it might have been expected that the hardships to be endured during his military service would not have taken him unawares; yet it seems that, in late middle age, he was unable to adapt.
With the success of his writing had come personal happiness, as he met and married the divorcee Georgina "Ettie" Morris and acquired a stepdaughter. They later had a daughter of their own, Rowena. The family lived in Dresden, Germany, for two years, thus they had many German friends and acquaintances. At the time war broke out, they were living in Marlow, Buckinghamshire.
After his participation in the conflict, Jerome wrote that he emerged from the experience "cured of any sneaking regard I may ever have had for war", something that was true of so many people (including Siegfried Sassoon). His long-serving secretary commented, "The old Jerome had gone. In his place was a stranger." His subsequent novels were quite a departure, and he even showed leanings towards socialism in his 1921 novel Anthony John. It was, of course, at around this time that Sassoon, under the influence of William Rivers, was considering standing for Parliament.
The death of his beloved stepdaughter Elsie in 1921, only in her thirties, was a devastating blow for Jerome, and his later years were spent in quiet domesticity until the final, fatal stroke he suffered in 1927. Relatively few people are aware of his later work. Like Siegfried, he could easily have said, "Most people think I died in 1919." Fortunately, both have thriving literary societies to foster the understanding of their work and ensure that their memory endures.