Some authors are blessed with illustrators who enhance their work with the distinction of their own. So it was in 1919 with Richard Aldington.
When Images of War was first published it was with a cover design and eleven colored woodcut illustrations by Paul Nash. They are matched with poems and depict scenes from the western front – trenches, bombardment, ruins, barbed wire, blasted trees – in a semi-abstract style. Nash’s black and white sketches – with notes about suggested colors – are held in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Here’s one
The cover design was an abstract pattern evoking shell fire and explosions. Nash later adapted it for a textile.
Nash who also illustrated the covers for Aldington’s Death of a Hero and Roads to Glory.
Before he returned to the western front in April 1918, Aldington negotiated with Cyril Beaumont for a limited edition of some of his war poems with the Nash drawings.
A total of 200 copies were produced – 30 numbered copies printed on Japanese vellum signed by the author and artist; 50 numbered copies on cartridge paper and 120 copies on hand-made paper numbered 81 to 200.
Aldington was already a published poet and noted literary figure before the war. He edited the influential magazine “The Egoist” and was a member of a wide circle that included the prominent literary figures of the time – T.S.Eliot, Ezra Pound, D.H. Lawrence among others. He was married to the poet H.D.and together they were the leaders of the Imagist movement – poets who sought to capture the essence of a feeling, an object or experience with a single image, with brevity and precise concrete language and form.
Aldington was conflicted about the war. He believed it was a necessary evil that threatened his way of life and his values but he was not eager to serve. He may have tried to join the Honourable Artillery Company in 1914 only to be rejected on medical grounds. He was not a conventional man and the conformity and anxiety of war oppressed him. He saw the war as a dramatic struggle of opposing forces that were political, personal and even poetic. In December 1914 he wrote to Amy Lowell:
This war is killing us all … the daily waiting, the anxiety, the constant strain is making us all ‘old’. Only just over four months! And those last four months seem immeasurably longer to me the all the rest of my life. I cannot concentrate my mind for long enough on beautiful things to be able to write good poetry – there is too much at stake in Belgium and France for me to forget them for long. For this is the great war, the war of democracy against autocracy, of the individual against the state, of the Anglo-Latin civilization against the Prussian, even of vers libre against academic meters! …If we lose I don’t see the use of my going on with my work. Logically I should have to become a professional soldier. So you see, I can’t work well at present.
The way they wobble … Well, thank God for rum.
As the war dragged on the decision of whether to enlist became more pressing. By 1916 he decided he could not be a conscientious objector and, in May – in the hope that it might allow a choice of regiment – he decided to enlist as a private soldier before conscription made the choice for him. In June he was inducted as an infantry private into the Devonshire regiment and began training.
Aldington called army life a “soul-destroying mechanism” and he was not anxious to go to the front. He worked on schemes to delay the inevitable by – for example – being eager to show himself a quick learner and adept with a rifle in order to be selected for NCO training. It worked but In December – now a lance-corporal – he was soon en route for France.
He served in a pioneer battalion stationed near Loos. Pioneers were trained to serve as manual or infantry units depending on the need. They were often used for building and repairing trenches and dugouts and for maintaining roads and railways – work often undertaken in forward areas and often under heavy fire. As infantry, they were used to consolidate captured positions and clean and clear trenches. They often defended trenches against counter-attack. Among his duties were making crosses and digging graves for burials.
In the summer of 1917 he was offered a commission with the Royal Sussex regiment and returned to England for officer training.
In her biography of H.D. Barbara Guest was rather scathing about Aldington’s war experience:
This seems more than uncharitable and unfair. There was nothing heroic and gallant about enduring bombardment, living with the threat of immediate death or mutilation and the terror of seeing modern warfare up close and personal. And surely the idea that some one else had it even worse is irrelevant.
Nash had enlisted in 1914 and experienced the war first hand. When appointed as an official British war artist in 1917, he witnessed the appalling aftermath of the Battle of Passchendaele. From these experiences Nash revealed the terrifying landscapes or war by employing the angular abstraction of Cubism and Vorticism.
Here’s another page with the added rest of the poem: “Trench Idyll”. The poem has men of different rank conversing in a trench. In flat colloquial language and in the rhythms of everyday speech it moves from convivial thoughts of life elsewhere to tell an understated anecdote of grisly horror. Nash’s illustration of the dead hanging on the old barbed wire lends an additional ghastly impact.
Richard Aldington and H.D.: Their Lives in Letters, Volume 4. Richard Aldington, H. D. (Hilda Doolittle), Hilda Doolittle. Manchester University Press, 2003
Richard Aldington: Poet, Soldier and Lover 1911-1929. Vivian Whelpton, Lutterworth press 2014.