All agreed that 1917 had been a sad offender. All observed that 1918 did not look promising at its birth.
At midnight on New Year’s Eve 1918 the poet Edmund Blunden looked out over the whole Ypres battlefield:
It was bitterly cold, and the deep snow all round lay frozen. We drank healths, and stared out across the snowy miles to the casual flares, still rising and floating and dropping. Their writing on the night was as the earliest scribbling of children, meaningless; they answered none of the questions with which a watcher’s eyes were painfully wide.
Midnight; succession of coloured lights from one point, of white ones from another, bullying salutes of guns in brief bombardment, crackling of machine-guns small on the tingling air; but the sole answer to unspoken but important questions was the line of lights in the same relation to Flanders as at midnight a year before.
All agreed that 1917 had been a sad offender. All observed that 1918 did not look promising at its birth.
– Undertones of War, p. 264-5
Blunder was just 21. He had enlisted straight from school and had arrived in France in May 1916 as a an officer with the battalion of the Royal Sussex regiment still a teenager just in time to see active service on the Somme. His battalion nicknamed him Rabbit.That 21st birthday was spent as the battle of Passchendaele was in its final days.
This is how Blunden had spent his 21st birthday just two months earlier :
An engineer officer pointed out to us the position of the proposed trench; we walked up to it, through trees like black tusks, and brown clods of hillocks, blue shadows, weak sunlight, a naked poverty. Just behind the tape already laid for the trench a British airplane had fallen, its nose downward in the mud. We were about to examine it more closely, but the gunners opposite, who all this while had us under observation, resented this, and sent over some shrapnel and high explosive. This high explosive was fitted with the instantaneous fuse, and the speed and range of its hissing fragments were formidable. Having outlived this little disturbance, we surveyed our business, and decided how best to bring up and distribute the battalion, when darkness fell. As we walked back to Larch Wood, a fragment from a shell bursting on my side happened to ricochet and freakishly wounded Worley in the leg. He regarded this as insult rather than injury, and hobbled on.
That night the battalion dug for hours and made the best part of a valuable trench; for once all were satisfied, and there were scarcely any casualties. Larch Wood Tunnels served as headquarters. To- ward daybreak the companies left the line, and pass- ing Zillebeke found the lorries awaiting them (like angels of mercy) near Shrapnel Corner. Our new doctor, Crassweller of Detroit, was on his way down with me, and we had somehow lost direction, when an intense though local shelling broke upon us. It was a mixture of gas and high explosive, and we thought our time had come; scurrying through the tumult we saw a dugout entrance, rushed for it, slithered into it, just as a couple of gas shells burst in the opening. Below, miners were at work, and in spite of words about gas they would not put on their masks. Before we went, two or three of these obstinate men were gassed, and fell exhausted. I suddenly re- membered, here, that this was my twenty-first birthday. At last the noise on top ceased and with clipped noses we hurried through the vaporous darkness, on to Shrapnel Corner and seats in a lorry, than which vehicle at the right hour and in the right road the chariots of Israel are not more glorious.
Undertones of War p. 258- 260
This battle – also known as Third Ypres – had begun with days of heavy bombardment followed by an infantry attack on July 31st. The heavy shelling churned the clay soil and smashed the drainage systems. Within a few days, the heaviest rain for 30 years turned the battlefield into a quagmire, producing thick mud that clogged up rifles and immobilized tanks. Men and horses drowned in the mud and disappeared.
The village that lends its name to this infamous battle lay barely five miles beyond the starting point of the offensive. On 6 November British and Canadian forces finally captured what remained of Passchendaele. Field Marshall Haig called off the offensive and claimed victory. The struggle that led to 325,000 Allied and 260,000 German casualties had made a small dent in the bulge in the line of the Ypres salient.
That December 31st Blunden was on a signaling course at Mont Des Cats a few miles back from the front line that he had left with characteristically mixed feelings.
It was wonderful to be promised an exeat from war for weeks, but I saw once again the distasteful process of separation from the battalion, and felt as usual the injustice of my own temporary escape while others who had seen and suffered more went on in the mud and muck.
Blunden survived the war but it haunted him for life. His memoir Undertones of War is one of the most affecting and memorable accounts of the war. Elegiac and understated it moves easily from humorous to the harrowing. Blunden is one of the writers whose words and memories help shape our understanding of the war.
Arthur Lewis Jenkins was a classical scholar destined for the Indian Civil Service. He was commissioned in September 1914in the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry in 1914 and served with his regiment for a year in India. He was then in charge of a machine gun section in Aden. His poem Arabia tells of his time there before he was moved to Palestine. It was published in Punch magazine and opens with:
An aching glare, a heat that kills,
Skies hard and pitiless overhead,
And, overmastering lesser ills,
Sad bugles keening comrades dead:
Fever and dust and smiting sun,
In sooth a land of little ease:
Yet, now my service here is done,
I think on other things than these
In Happy Warriors he reflected on the dead and the many friends he had lost:
Surely they sleep content, our valiant dead,
Fallen untimely in the savage strife:
They have but followed whither duty led,
To find a fuller life.
Jenkins had seen his fill of war. He was ready to go home and settle down – thoughts he expressed in several poems including Bondage
Oh, I am sick of ways and wars
And the homeless ends of the earth,
I would get back to the northern stars
And the land where I had birth, ….
The wine of war is bitter wine,
And I have drunk my fill;
My heart would seek its anodyne
In homely things and still….
From Palestine to Egypt where his section was disbanded. He joined the Royal Flying Corps, trained in Egypt and returned to England in 1917 to serve with a home-defence squadron in Yorkshire.
This is Night Patrol from 1917. I’ve looked for the Christmas card of 76th squadron but no luck. the illustration is Swooping Down on a Taube by C.R.W Nevinson 1917
Night did take it’s toll. Jenkins was killed in a flying accident on the last night of the year.
Another and better remembered poet who was developing a quite different sensibility and understanding of the war was also busy that night – New Year’s Eve 1917.
Wilfred Owen was also in Yorkshire – with his regiment at Scarborough – writing to his mother. He had been cleared by a Medical Board in October 1917 and was preparing to return to active service. In his letter he reflects on his past and on his new found place in the world of poets:
And so I have come to the true measure of man.
I am not dissatisfied [with] my years. Everything has been done in bouts: Bouts of awful labour at Shrewsbury and Bordeaux; bouts of amazing pleasure in the Pyrenees, and play at Craiglockhart; bouts of religion at Dunsden; bouts of horrible danger on the Somme; bouts of poetry always; of your affection always; of sympathy for the oppressed always.
I go out of this year a poet, my dear mother, as which I did not enter it. I am held peer by the Georgians; I am a poet’s poet. I am started. The tugs have left me; I feel the great swelling of the open sea taking my galleon.
Last year, at this time (it is just midnight, and now is the intolerable instant of the Change), last year I lay awake in a windy tent in the middle of a vast, dreadful encampment. It seemed neither France nor England, but a kind of paddock where the beasts are kept a few days before the shambles.
I heard the revelling of the Scotch troops, who are now dead, and who knew they would be dead. I thought of this present night, and whether I should indeed — whether we should indeed — whether you would indeed — but I thought neither long nor deeply, for I am a master of elision. But chiefly I thought of the very strange look on all faces in that camp; an incomprehensible look, which a man will never see in England, though wars should be in England; nor can it be seen in any battle. But only in Etaples.
It was not despair, or terror, it was more terrible than terror, for it was a blindfold look, and without expression, like a dead rabbit’s. It will never be painted, and no actor will ever seize it. And to describe it, I think I must go back and be with them. We are sending seven officers straight out to-morrow. I have not said what I am thinking this night, but next December I will surely do.
Owen never had that opportunity to write what he was really thinking. On November 4th – a week before the Armistice – he was killed while standing on the bank of a canal below the tiny village of Ors. Owen was encouraging his men as they attempted to set up a floating bridge. Wave after wave were killed by German machine gun fire.
I Fought My First Battle With Snowballs
America had entered the war in April of 1917 and by the end of the year thousands of men were already in France and in training. This is the holiday card from Camp Upton in Yaphank, Suffolk County, New York. It had a capacity of 18,000 troops. It looks like there was snow on Long Island that year.
Here the AmericanDoughboy and the French poilu march arm in arm into the new year with a confident and comradely stride. This card was sent by Leon Quintin in December 1917 from Somewhere in France
1917 was a bitter and dispiriting year of a war that had already dragged by too many Christmases. But while they could not know that it would ever end, the war did grind down to a faltering halt before the end of 1918. There was reason again for hope of better times ahead.
On December 31st 1917 crowds gathered in Times Square to watch the ball drop. The weather was frigid – 1 degree fahrenheit with a wind chill factor of minus 18 degrees F. It will be bitter again tonight but no doubt thousands will be undeterred.by the cold. Wherever you are Happy New Year everyone.
Let’s work to make sure that 2018 is better and more hopeful than 2017 has been for most of us.