Goodbye to all that

Ben Chant, Head of School with Amanda Thornton, President of the Board.

Ben Chant, incoming Head of School with Amanda Thornton, President of the Board.

The first day of my new life as an idle good-for-nothing superannuated coffin-dodger (my brother’s description of retirees) coincides with the centenary of the first day of the Battle of the Somme – a day – and a battle that has long held my interest. Not so much because of the military aspects – fascinating as they are – but mostly because, like the wider war of which it was a kind of centerpiece, the Somme is a before-and-after cultural watershed moment in the history of that war, and in history.

After ten years as head of Poughkeepsie Day School and forty-five years as a teacher and administrator I am no longer employed.

While that will take a little getting used to – and I anticipate early September to be a rather strange time – I have every confidence that Poughkeepsie Day School will continue to do very well without me!

Over this last year I have kept two running lists in anticipation of leaving: One was headed: “This I won’t miss”. The other : “I will really miss this”  In terms of length they started to run about even by mid-year. And on top of that second list are all the people who turn-up every day and work so hard to make PDS the extraordinary place for children that it is. They made my daily commute to work a journey of anticipation and optimism.

I have thoroughly enjoyed the privilege of working at PDS and I am thankful to the board for giving me that opportunity. I leave with a raft of good memories. I learned a lot; had the good fortune to work with so many wonderful people and had the privilege of grappling with new ideas, complex challenges and ways of thinking. I am grateful for the opportunities and thank everyone for the wonderful send-off. (As to the size of that enormous bottle of gin I do wonder whether one person at least was trying to kill me off!)

I have much to reflect on, be thankful for, write about and share. All those small, and not so small, gestures, kind words and gifts. All a bit overwhelming really. I truly am grateful to everyone. And it will take me a while to take it all in. But – no need to rush into it all at once.

I wish my successor Ben Chant all the very best in his headship. From afar I will be cheering him and the school forward. With Ben as head and Amanda Thornton as board president I know that PDS is in excellent hands.

Goodbye To All That is of course the title of Robert Graves war memoir. In case you haven’t read it here is Chapter XX about his time on the Somme with that most literary of regiments – the  Royal Welch Fusiliers.  It includes his encounter with the bloated German corpse in Mametz Wood that is the occasion of his poem “A Dead Boche”. And the account of his wounds that led to the (mistaken) reports of his death.

XX

Four days after the raid we heard that we were due for the Somme. We marched through Béthune, which had been much knocked about and was nearly deserted, to Fouquières, and there entrained for the Somme. The Somme railhead was near Amiens and we marched by easy stages through Cardonette, Daours, and Buire, until we came to the original front line, close to the place where David Thomas had been killed. The fighting had moved two miles on. This was on the afternoon of 14th July. At 4 a.m. on the 15th July we moved up the Méaulte-Fricourt-Bazentin road which wound through ‘Happy Valley’ and found ourselves in the more recent battle area. Wounded men and prisoners came streaming past us. What struck me most was the number of dead horses and mules lying about; human corpses I was accustomed to, but it seemed wrong for animals to be dragged into the war like this. We marched by platoons, at fifty yards distance. Just beyond Fricourt we found a German shell-barrage across the road. So we left it and moved over thickly shell-pitted ground until 8 a.m., when we found ourselves on the fringe of Mametz Wood, among the dead of our new-army battalions that had been attacking Mametz Wood. We halted in thick mist. The Germans had been using lachrymatory shell and the mist held the fumes; we coughed and swore. We tried to smoke, but the gas had got into the cigarettes, so we threw them away. Later we wished we had not, because it was not the cigarettes that had been affected so much as our own throats. The colonel called up the officers and we pulled out our maps. We were expecting orders for an attack. When the mist cleared we saw a German gun with “First Battalion Royal Welch Fusiliers” chalked on it. It was evidently a trophy. I wondered what had happened to Siegfried(1) and my friends of A Company. We found the battalion quite close in bivouacs; Siegfried was still alive, as were Edmund Dadd and two other A Company officers. The battalion had been in heavy fighting. In their first attack at Fricourt they had overrun our opposite number in the German army, the Twenty-third Infantry Regiment, who were undergoing a special disciplinary spell in the trenches because an inspecting staff-officer, coming round, had found that all the officers were back in Mametz village in a deep dug-out instead of up in the trenches with their men. (It was said that throughout that bad time in March in the German trenches opposite to us there had been no officer of higher rank than corporal.) Their next objective had been The Quadrangle, a small copse this side of Mametz Wood. I was told that Siegfried had then distinguished himself by taking single-handed a battalion frontage that the Royal Irish Regiment had failed to take the day before. He had gone over with bombs in daylight, under covering fire from a couple of rifles, and scared the occupants out. It was a pointless feat; instead of reporting or signaling for reinforcements he sat down in the German trench and began dozing over a book of poems which he had brought with him. When he finally went back he did not report. The colonel was furious. The attack on Mametz Wood had been delayed for two hours because it was reported that British patrols were still out. “British patrols” were Siegfried and his book of poems. “It would have got you a D.S.O. if you’d only had more sense,” stormed the colonel. Siegfried had been doing heroic things ever since I had left the battalion. His nickname in the Seventh Division was “Mad Jack”. He was given a Military Cross for bringing in a wounded lance-corporal from a mine-crater close to the German lines, under heavy fire. He was one of the rare exceptions to the rule against the decoration of Third Battalion officers. I did not see Siegfried this time; he was down with the transport having a rest. So I sent him a rhymed letter, by one of our own transport men, about the times that we were going to have together when the war ended; how, after a rest at Harlech, we were going for a visit to the Caucasus and Persia and China; and what good poetry we would write. It was in answer to one he had written to me from the army school at Flixécourt a few weeks previously (which appears in The Old Huntsman).

I went for a stroll with Edmund Dadd, who was now commanding A Company. Edmund was cursing: “It’s not fair, Robert. You remember A Company under Richardson was always the best company. Well, it’s kept up its reputation, and the C.O. shoves us in as the leading company of every show, and we get our objectives and hold them, and so we’ve got to do the same again the next time. And he says that I’m indispensable in the company, so he makes me go over every time instead of giving me a rest and letting my second-in-command take his turn. I’ve had five shows in just over a fortnight and I can’t go on being lucky every time. The colonel’s about due for his C.B. Apparently A Company is making sure of it for him.”

For the next two days we were in bivouacs outside the wood. We were in fighting kit and the nights were wet and cold. I went into the wood to find German overcoats to use as blankets. Mametz Wood was full of dead of the Prussian Guards Reserve, big men, and of Royal Welch and South Wales Borderers of the new-army battalions, little men. There was not a single tree in the wood unbroken. I got my greatcoats and came away as quickly as I could, climbing over the wreckage of green branches. Going and coming, by the only possible route, I had to pass by the corpse of a German with his back propped against a tree. He had a green face, spectacles, close shaven hair; black blood was dripping from the nose and beard. He had been there for some days and was bloated and stinking. There had been bayonet fighting in the wood. There was a man of the South Wales Borderers and one of the Lehr regiment who had succeeded in bayoneting each other simultaneously. A survivor of the fighting told me later that he had seen a young soldier of the Fourteenth Royal Welch bayoneting a German in parade-ground style, automatically exclaiming as he had been taught: “In, out, on guard.” He said that it was the oddest thing he had heard in France.

I found myself still superstitious about looting or collecting souvenirs. The greatcoats were only a loan, I told myself. Almost the only souvenir I had allowed myself to keep was a trench periscope, a little rod-shaped metal one sent me from home; when I poked it up above the parapet it offered only an inch-square target to the German snipers. Yet a sniper at Cuinchy, in May, drilled it through, exactly central, at four hundred yards range. I sent it home, but had no time to write a note of explanation. My mother, misunderstanding, and practical as usual, took it back to the makers and made them change it for a new one.

Our brigade, the Nineteenth, was the reserve brigade of the Thirty-third Division; the other brigades, the Ninety-ninth and Hundredth, had attacked Martinpuich two days previously and had been stopped with heavy losses as soon as they started. Since then we had had nothing to do but sit about in shell-holes and watch the artillery duel going on. We had never seen artillery so thick. On the 18th we moved up to a position just to the north of Bazentin-le-Petit to relieve the Tyneside Irish. I was with D Company. The guide who was taking us up was hysterical and had forgotten the way; we put him under arrest and found it ourselves. As we went up through the ruins of the village we were shelled. We were accustomed to that, but they were gas shells. The standing order with regard to gas shells was not to put on one’s respirator but hurry on. Up to that week there had been no gas shells except lachrymatory ones; these were the first of the real kind, so we lost about half a dozen men. When at last we arrived at the trenches, which were scooped at a roadside and only about three feet deep, the company we were relieving hurried out without any of the usual formalities; they had been badly shaken. I asked their officer where the Germans were. He said he didn’t know, but pointed vaguely towards Martinpuich, a mile to our front. Then I asked him where and what were the troops on our left. He didn’t know. I cursed him and he went off. We got into touch with C Company behind us on the right and with the Fourth Suffolks not far off on the left. We began deepening the trenches and locating the Germans; they were in a trench-system about five hundred yards away but keeping fairly quiet.

The next day there was very heavy shelling at noon; shells were bracketing along our trench about five yards short and five yards over, but never quite getting it. We were having dinner and three times running my cup of tea was spilt by the concussion and filled with dirt. I was in a cheerful mood and only laughed. I had just had a parcel of kippers from home; they were far more important than the bombardment — I recalled with appreciation one of my mother’s sayings: “Children, remember this when you eat your kippers; kippers cost little, yet if they cost a hundred guineas a pair they would still find buyers among the millionaires.” Before the shelling had started a tame magpie had come into the trench; it had apparently belonged to the Germans who had been driven out of the village by the Gordon Highlanders a day or two before. It was looking very draggled. “That’s one for sorrow,” I said. The men swore that it spoke something in German as it came in, but I did not hear it. I was feeling tired and was off duty, so without waiting for the bombardment to stop I went to sleep in the trench. I decided that I would just as soon be killed asleep as awake. There were no dug-outs, of course. I always found it easy now to sleep through bombardments. I was conscious of the noise in my sleep, but I let it go by. Yet if anybody came to wake me for my watch or shouted “Stand-to!” I was alert in a second. I had learned to go to sleep sitting down, standing up, marching, lying on a stone floor, or in any other position, at a moment’s notice at any time of day or night. But now I had a dreadful nightmare; it was as though somebody was handling me secretly, choosing the place to drive a knife into me. Finally, he gripped me in the small of the back. I woke up with a start, shouting, and punched the small of my back where the hand was. I found that I had killed a mouse that had been frightened by the bombardment and run down my neck.

That afternoon the company got an order through from the brigade to build two cruciform strong-points at such-an-such a map reference. Moodie, the company commander, and I looked at our map and laughed. Moodie sent back a message that he would be glad to do so, but would require an artillery bombardment and strong reinforcements because the points selected, half way to Martinpuich, were occupied in force by the enemy. The colonel came up and verified this. He said that we should build the strong-point about three hundred yards forward and two hundred yards apart. So one platoon stayed behind in the trench and the other went out and started digging. A cruciform strong-point, consisted of two trenches, each some thirty yards long, crossing at right angles to each other; it was wired all round, so that it looked, in diagram, like a hot-cross bun. The defenders could bring fire to bear against an attack from any direction. We were to hold each of these points with a Lewis gun and a platoon of men.

It was a bright moonlight night. My way to the strongpoint on the right took me along the Bazentin-High Wood road. A German sergeant-major, wearing a pack and full equipment, was lying on his back in the middle of the road, his arms stretched out wide. He was a short, powerful man with a full black beard. He looked sinister in the moonlight; I needed a charm to get myself past him. The simplest way, I found, was to cross myself. Evidently a brigade of the Seventh Division had captured the road and the Germans had been shelling it heavily. It was a sunken road and the defenders had begun to scrape fire-positions in the north bank, facing the Germans. The work had apparently been interrupted by a counter-attack. They had done no more than scrape hollows in the lower part of the bank. To a number of these little hollows wounded men had crawled, put their heads and shoulders inside and died there. They looked as if they had tried to hide from the black beard. They were Gordon Highlanders.

I was visiting the strong-point on the right. The trench had now been dug two or three feet down and a party of Engineers had arrived with coils of barbed wire for the entanglement. I found that work had stopped. The whisper went round: “Get your rifles ready. Here comes Fritz.” I lay down flat to see better, and about seventy yards away in the moonlight I could make out massed figures. I immediately sent a man back to the company to find Moodie and ask him for a Lewis gun and a flare-pistol. I restrained the men, who were itching to fire, telling them to wait until they came closer. I said: “They probably don’t know we’re here and we’ll get more of them if we let them come right up close. They may even surrender.” The Germans were wandering about irresolutely and we wondered what the game was. There had been a number of German surrenders at night recently, and this might be one on a big scale. Then Moodie came running with a Lewis gun, the flare-pistol, and a few more men with rifle-grenades. He decided to give the enemy a chance. He sent up a flare and fired a Lewis gun over their heads. A tall officer came running towards us with his hands up in surrender. He was surprised to find that we were not Germans. He said that he belonged to the Public Schools Battalion in our own brigade. Moodie asked him what the hell he was doing. He said that he was in command of a patrol. He was sent back for a few more of his men, to make sure it was not a trick. The patrol was half a company of men wandering about aimlessly between the lines, their rifles slung over their shoulders, and, it seemed, without the faintest idea where they were or what information they were supposed to bring back. This Public Schools Battalion was one of four or five others which had been formed some time in 1914. Their training had been continually interrupted by large numbers of men being withdrawn as officers for other regiments. The only men left, in fact, seemed to be those who were unfitted to hold commissions; yet unfitted by their education to make good soldiers in the ranks. The other battalions had been left behind in England as training battalions; only this one had been sent out. It was a constant embarrassment to the brigade.

I picked up a souvenir that night. A German gun-team had been shelled as it was galloping out of Bazentin towards Martinpuich. The horses and the driver had been killed. At the back of the limber were the gunners’ treasures. Among them was a large lump of chalk wrapped up in a piece of cloth; it had been carved and decorated in colors with military mottos, the flags of the Central Powers, and the names of the various battles in which the gunner had served. I sent it as a present to Dr. Dunn. I am glad to say that both he and it survived the war; he is in practice at Glasgow, and the lump of chalk is under a glass case in his consulting room. The evening of the next day, July 19th, we were relieved. We were told that we would be attacking High Wood, which we could see a thousand yards away to the right at the top of a slope. High Wood was on the main German battle-line, which ran along the ridge, with Delville Wood not far off on the German left. Two British brigades had already attempted it; in both cases the counter-attack had driven them out. Our battalion had had a large number of casualties and was now only about four hundred strong.

I have kept a battalion order issued at midnight:

“To O.C. B Co. 2nd R.W.F. 20.7.16.”

Screen Shot 2016-07-01 at 1.26.48 PMS 14b 99 was a map reference for Bazentin churchyard. We lay here on the reverse slope of a slight ridge about half a mile from the wood. I attended the meeting of company commanders; the colonel told us the plan. He said: “Look here, you fellows, we’re in reserve for this attack. The Cameronians are going up to the wood first, then the Fifth Scottish Rifles; that’s at five a.m. The Public Schools Battalion are in support if anything goes wrong. I don’t know if we shall be called on; if we are, it will mean that the Jocks have legged it. As usual,” he added. This was an appeal to prejudice. “The Public Schools Battalion is, well, what we know, so if we are called for, that means it will be the end of us.” He said this with a laugh and we all laughed. We were sitting on the ground protected by the road-bank; a battery of French 75’s was firing rapid over our heads about twenty yards away. There was a very great concentration of guns in Happy Valley now. We could hardly hear what he was saying. He told us that if we did get orders to reinforce, we were to shake out in artillery formation; once in the wood we were to hang on like death. Then he said good-bye and good luck and we rejoined our companies.

At this juncture the usual inappropriate message came through from Division. Division could always be trusted to send through a warning about verdigris on vermorel-sprayers, or the keeping of pets in trenches, or being polite to our allies, or some other triviality, when an attack was in progress. This time it was an order for a private in C Company to report immediately to the assistant provost-marshal back at Albert, under escort of a lance-corporal. He was for a court-martial. A sergeant of the company was also ordered to report as a witness in the case. The private was charged with the murder of a French civilian in an estaminet at Béthune about a month previously. Apparently there had been a good deal of brandy going and the French civilian, who had a grudge against the British (it was about his wife), started to tease the private. He was reported, somewhat improbably, as having said: “English no bon, Allmand très bon. War fineesh, napoo the English. Allmand win.” The private had immediately drawn his bayonet and run the man through. At the court-martial the private was exculpated; the French civil representative commended him for having “energetically repressed local defeatism.” So he and the two N.C.O.’s missed the battle.

What the battle that they missed was like I pieced together afterwards. The Jocks did get into the wood and the Royal Welch were not called on to reinforce until eleven o’clock in the morning. The Germans put down a barrage along the ridge where we were lying, and we lost about a third of the battalion before our show started. I was one of the casualties.

It was heavy stuff, six and eight inch. There was so much of it that we decided to move back fifty yards; it was when I was running that an eight-inch shell burst about three paces behind me. I was able to work that out afterwards by the line of my wounds. I heard the explosion and felt as though I had been punched rather hard between the shoulder-blades, but had no sensation of pain. I thought that the punch was merely the shock of the explosion; then blood started trickling into my eye and I felt faint and called to Moodie: “I’ve been hit.” Then I fell down. A minute or two before I had had two very small wounds on my left hand; they were in exactly the same position as the two, on my right hand, that I had got during the preliminary bombardment at Loos. This I had taken as a sign that I would come through all right. For further security I had repeated to myself a line of Nietsche’s, whose poems, in French, I had with me:

Non, tu ne peux pas me tuer.

It was the poem about a man on the scaffold with the red-bearded executioner standing over him. (This copy of Nietsche, by the way, had contributed to the suspicions about me as a spy. Nietsche was execrated in the papers as the philosopher of German militarism; he was more popularly interpreted as a William le Queux mystery-man –the sinister figure behind the Kaiser.)

One piece of shell went through my left thigh, high up near the groin; I must have been at the full stretch of my stride to have escaped emasculation. The wound over the eye was nothing; it was a little chip of marble, possibly from one of the Bazentin cemetery headstones. This and a finger wound, which split the bone, probably came from another shell that burst in front of me. The main wound was made by a piece of shell that went in two inches below the point of my right shoulder and came out through my chest two inches above my right nipple, in a line between it and the base of my neck.

My memory of what happened then is vague. Apparently Doctor Dunn came up through the barrage with a stretcher-party, dressed my wound, and got me down to the old German dressing-station at the north end of Mametz Wood. I just remember being put on the stretcher and winking at the stretcher-bearer sergeant who was looking at me and saying: “Old Gravy’s got it, all right.” The dressing-station was overworked that day; I was laid in a corner on a stretcher and remained unconscious for more than twenty-four hours.

It was about ten o’clock on the 20th that I was hit. Late that night the colonel came to the dressing-station; he saw me lying in the corner and was told that I was done for. The next morning, the 21st, when they were clearing away the dead, I was found to be still breathing; so they put me on an ambulance for Heilly, the nearest field-hospital. The pain of being jolted down the Happy Valley, with a shell-hole at every three or four yards of the roads, woke me for awhile. I remember screaming. But once back on the better roads I became unconscious again. That morning the colonel wrote the usual formal letters of condolence to the next-of-kin of the six or seven officers who had been killed. This was his letter to my mother:

22/7/16

DEAR MRS. GRAVES,

I very much regret to have to write and tell you your son has died of wounds. He was very gallant, and was doing so well and is a great loss.

He was hit by a shell and very badly wounded, and died on the way down to the base I believe. He was not in bad pain, and our doctor managed to get across and attend him at once.

We have had a very hard time, and our casualties have been large. Believe me you have all our sympathy in your loss, and we have lost a very gallant soldier.

Please write to me if I can tell you or do anything.

Yours sincerely,

* * *

Later he made out the official casualty list and reported me died of wounds. It was a long casualty list, because only eighty men were left in the battalion.

Heilly was on the railway; close to the station was the hospital — marquee tents with the red cross painted prominently on the roofs to discourage air-bombing. It was fine July weather and the tents were insufferably hot. I was semi-conscious now, and realized my lung-wound by the shortness of breath. I was amused to watch the little bubbles of blood, like red soap-bubbles, that my breath made when it escaped through the hole of the wound. The doctor came over to me. I felt sorry for him; he looked as though he had not had any sleep for days. I asked him for a drink. He said: “Would you like some tea?” I whispered: “Not with condensed milk in it.” He said: “I’m afraid there’s no fresh milk.” Tears came to my eyes; I expected better of a hospital behind the lines. He said: “Will you have some water?” I said: “Not if it’s boiled.” He said: “It is boiled. And I’m afraid I can’t give you anything with alcohol in it in your present condition.” I said: “Give me some fruit then.” He said: “I have seen no fruit for days.” But a few minutes later he came back with two rather unripe greengages. I felt so grateful that I promised him a whole orchard when I recovered.

The nights of the 22nd and 23rd were very bad. Early on the morning of the 24th, when the doctor came to see how I was, I said: “You must send me away from here. The heat will kill me.” It was beating through the canvas on my head. He said: “Stick it out. It’s your best chance to lie here and not to be moved. You’d not reach the base alive.” I said: “I’d like to risk the move. I’ll be all right, you’ll see.” Half an hour later he came back. “Well, you’re having it your way. I’ve just got orders to evacuate every case in the hospital. Apparently the Guards have been in it up at Delville Wood and we’ll have them all coming in tonight.” I had no fears now about dying. I was content to be wounded and on the way home.

I had been given news of the battalion from a brigade-major, wounded in the leg, who was in the next bed to me. He looked at my label and said: “I see you’re in the Second Royal Welch Fusiliers. Well, I saw your High Wood show through field-glasses. The way your battalion shook out into artillery formation, company by company — with each section of four or five men in file at fifty yards interval and distance — going down into the hollow and up the slope through the barrage, was the most beautiful bit of parade-ground drill I’ve ever seen. Your company officers must have been superb.” I happened to know that one company at least had started without a single officer. I asked him whether they had held the wood. He said: “They hung on at the near end. I believe what happened was that the Public Schools Battalion came away as soon as it got dark; and so did the Scotsmen. Your chaps were left there alone for some time. They steadied themselves by singing. Later, the chaplain — R.C. of course — Father McCabe, brought the Scotsmen back. They were Glasgow Catholics and would follow a priest where they wouldn’t follow an officer. The middle of the wood was impossible for either the Germans or your fellows to hold. There was a terrific concentration of artillery on it. The trees were splintered to matchwood. Late that night the survivors were relieved by a brigade of the Seventh Division; your First Battalion was in it.”

That evening I was put in the hospital train. They could not lift me from the stretcher to put me on a bunk, for fear of starting hemorrhage in the lung; so they laid the stretcher on top of it, with the handles resting on the head-rail and foot-rail. I had been on the same stretcher since I was wounded. I remember the journey only as a nightmare.

My back was sagging, and I could not raise my knees to relieve the cramp because the bunk above me was only a few inches away. A German officer on the other side of the carriage groaned and wept unceasingly. He had been in an aeroplane crash and had a compound fracture of the leg. The other wounded men were cursing him and telling him to stow it and be a man, but he went on, keeping every one awake. He was not delirious, only frightened and in great pain. An orderly gave me a pencil and paper and I wrote home to say that I was wounded but all right. This was July 24th, my twenty-first birthday, and it was on this day, when I arrived at Rouen, that my death officially occurred. My parents got my letter two days after the letter from the colonel; mine was dated July 23rd, because I had lost count of days when I was unconscious; his was dated the 22nd.(1) They could not decide whether my letter had been written just before I died and misdated, or whether I had died just after writing it. ‘Died of wounds’ was, however, so much more circumstantial than ‘killed’ that they gave me up. I was in No. 8 Hospital at Rouen; an ex-chateau high above the town. The day after I arrived a Cooper aunt of mine, who had married a Frenchman, came up to the hospital to visit a nephew in the South Wales Borderers who had just had a leg amputated. She happened to see my name in a list on the door of the ward, so she wrote to my mother to reassure her. On the 30th I had a letter from the colonel:

30/7/16

DEAR VON RUNICKE,

I cannot tell you how pleased I am you are alive. I was told your number was up for certain, and a letter was supposed to have come in from Field Ambulance saying you had gone under.

Well, it’s good work. We had a rotten time, and after succeeding in doing practically the impossible we collected that rotten crowd and put them in their places, but directly dark came they legged it. It was too sad.

We lost heavily. It is not fair putting brave men like ours alongside that crowd. I also wish to thank you for your good work and bravery, and only wish you could have been with them. I have read of bravery but I have never seen such magnificent and wonderful disregard for death as I saw that day. It was almost uncanny — it was so great. I once heard an old officer in the Royal Welch say the men would follow you to Hell; but these chaps would bring you back and put you in a dug-out in Heaven.

Good luck and a quick recovery. I shall drink your health to-night.

**

I had little pain all this time, but much discomfort; the chief pain came from my finger, which had turned septic because nobody had taken the trouble to dress it, and was throbbing. And from the thigh, where the sticky medical plaster, used to hold down the dressing, pulled up the hair painfully when it was taken off each time the wound was dressed. My breath was very short still. I contrasted the pain and discomfort favorably with that of the operation on my nose of two months back; for this I had won no sympathy at all from anyone, because it was not an injury contracted in war. I was weak and petulant and muddled. The R.A.M.C. bugling outraged me. The ‘Rob All My Comrades,’ I complained, had taken everything I had except a few papers in my tunic-pocket and a ring which was too tight on my finger to be pulled off; and now they mis-blew the Last Post flat and windily, and with the pauses in the wrong places, just to annoy me. I remember that I told an orderly to put the bugler under arrest and jump to it or I’d report him to the senior medical officer.

Next to me was a Welsh boy, named O. M. Roberts, who had joined us only a few days before he was hit. He told me about High Wood; he had reached the edge of the wood when he was wounded in the groin. He had fallen into a shell-hole. Some time in the afternoon he had recovered consciousness and seen a German officer working round the edge of the wood, killing off the wounded with an automatic pistol. Some of our lightly-wounded were, apparently, not behaving as wounded men should; they were sniping. The German worked nearer. He saw Roberts move and came towards him, fired and hit him in the arm. Roberts was very weak and tugged at his Webley. He had great difficulty in getting it out of the holster. The German fired again and missed. Roberts rested the Webley against the lip of the shell-hole and tried to pull the trigger; he was not strong enough. The German was quite close now and was going to make certain of him this time. Roberts said that he just managed to pull the trigger with the fingers of both hands when the German was only about five yards away. The shot took the top of his head off. Roberts fainted.

The doctors had been anxiously watching my lung, which was gradually filling with blood and pressing my heart too far away to the left of my body; the railway journey had restarted the hemorrhage. They marked the gradual progress of my heart with an indelible pencil on my skin and said that when it reached a certain point they would have to aspirate me. This sounded a serious operation, but it only consisted of putting a hollow needle into my lung through the back and drawing the blood off into a vacuum flask through it. I had a local anesthetic; it hurt no more than a vaccination, and I was reading the Gazette de Rouen as the blood hissed into the flask. It did not look much, perhaps half a pint. That evening I heard a sudden burst of lovely singing in the courtyard where the ambulances pulled up. I recognized the quality of the voices. I said to Roberts: “The First Battalion have been in it again,” and asked a nurse to verify it; I was right. It was their Delville Wood show, I think, but I am uncertain now of the date.

A day or two later I was taken back to England by hospital ship.(3)


(1) “Siegfried” : Siegfried Sassoon. The account of Sassoon’s action which Graves refers to here is discussed at greater length in Sassoon’s ownMemoirs of an Infantry Officer.

(2) [Graves’ Footnote:] I cannot explain the discrepancy between his dating of my death and that of the published casualty list.

(3) For reaction to Graves’ injury from men of his own regiment, see J.C. Dunn’s The War the Infantry Knew.

Mametz-Wood_2871853b

Mametz Wood

A Dead Boche

To you who’d read my songs of War
And only hear of blood and fame,
I’ll say (you’ve heard it said before)
”War’s Hell!” and if you doubt the same,
Today I found in Mametz Wood
A certain cure for lust of blood:

Where, propped against a shattered trunk,
In a great mess of things unclean,
Sat a dead Boche; he scowled and stunk
With clothes and face a sodden green,
Big-bellied, spectacled, crop-haired,
Dribbling black blood from nose and beard.

2 Comments

  1. Laura Graceffa:

    You are still teaching.
    And btw, drinking a big bottle of gin all by yourself is only ONE option Re-wiring will bring more options, surely.

  2. Hi Laura – That’s why everyone steers clear of teachers at parties! They are either off-loading unwanted knowledge (“not many people know this” ) or talking shop!

    Meanwhile – on sharing the gin – that’s a novel idea. Never occurred to me! Actually I haven’t opened it yet. I like the wrapping too much to take it off.

    And then I have to run the potato mash-off experiment.

    (And that remark above about teachers is a most unfair generalization.)
    – J

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