Archive | Letters RSS feed for this section

100D #5 | Yeats Refuses to Declare

20 Oct

During the course of reading a marvelous new volume just out this year from the Bodleian Library — From Downing Street to the Trenches: First-Hand Accounts from the Great War, 1914-1916 — I was thrilled to discover something that sheds another sliver of light onto the matter of the Authors’ Declaration of 1914.

It comes in the form of a letter to the eminent classicist Sir Gilbert Murray from the influential Irish poet W.B. Yeats.  I think it is a mark of the direction in which history has unfolded that Yeats should need no contextualizing hyperlink while Murray surely does, but in their time it was Murray who was the titan and Yeats still the rising star.  In this letter, we discover that Yeats had been asked by Murray to endorse the Authors’ Declaration with his signature — but Yeats refused.

Here is the text of that letter, dated 15 September 1914:

Dear Murray,

No.  I am sorry, but No.  I long for the defeat of the Germans but your manifesto reads like an extract from the newspapers, and newspapers are liars.  What have we novelists, poets, whatever we are, to do with them?

First: I don’t know whether England or Germany brought on this war, and you don’t.  Diplomatic documents published in the White Book deal with matters of form.  The question is whether Germany has as England believes been arming for years to wage war on England, or whether as Germany believes, England has surrounded her with hostile alliances waiting their moment to attack, through which she had to force her way at the first likely moment.  That knowledge will be kept by secret diplomacy for a good many years to come.

Second: I cannot see who this document is going to influence.  It has every sign of its origin ‘drawn up to include as many people as possible’ that is to say to be something which nobody will wholeheartedly believe, and which looks all its insincerity.  If a manifesto is to move anybody the man who made it must at least believe in it.  I would gladly join with you if you would get up a declaration against secret diplomacy when the time comes, or get up a manifesto demanding some responsible investigation of German outrages.  The present campaign may result in reprisals that will make this war more shameful than that of the Balkans.

There should be no anonymous charges, and when the war is over the whole question of atrocities by whatever nation committed should be sifted out by the Hague or some other tribunal.  It doesn’t seem possible to doubt the atrocities in many cases, but one hopes that investigation would prove that great numbers of German commanders and soldiers have behaved with humanity.  I gather from stray allusions in the Press that the Germans are carrying on an atrocity campaign not only against the Belgians but against the French and English.

Yours sincerely

WB Yeats.

There is much in this that will already seem familiar to the anti-propagandist reader of the modern age — the skepticism of newspaper accounts, the condemnation of ‘secret diplomacy’, the dismissal of the Declaration‘s power on account of its seeming banality.  Yeats, in this letter, is very much a man ahead of his time.

Still, it is possible to be too much ahead of one’s time.  Modern scholarship — in volumes like John Horne and Alan Kramer’s German Atrocities 1914 (2001), Jeff Lipkes’ Rehearsals (2007), and Alan Kramer’s Dynamic of Destruction (2007) — has shown that the vicious destruction of Belgium was all too real an event, and Yeats would have stood upon firm ground in condemning it if his qualms about the manifesto in question had been less fervent.

This is not a rarity, though.  Many at the time were suspicious of claims focused on German atrocities in Belgium, believing them to be likely propaganda inventions.  This notion was further cemented in the years following the war, with volumes like Irene Cooper Willis’ England’s Holy War (1928) and Arthur Ponsonby’s Falsehood in War-Time (1928) insisting that such claims were the fatuous inventions of Allied propagandists.  History has proven otherwise, but this only lends further flavour to Yeats’ contemporary refusal.

New posting series to begin at last

13 May

[N.B. I had initially planned to get this ball rolling back in March, but the tide of events turned against me and all was delayed.  The time has now come to get it all back on track, however, so here we go.]

It is a curious quirk of fate that there are currently no fewer than three books on the market organized around the theme of exploring the First World War “…in 100 Objects.”  Gary Sheffield’s is one; Peter Doyle’s is another; I confess I can’t remember who prepared the third, and I apologize to that author for the omission.  Whatever the case, it’s a popular format.

Mimicking it too closely myself would probably be a bad idea.  I am not an historian of material culture, and still less do I feel qualified to give any sort of overview of the war through descriptive engagements with objects-as-objects.  I am also, when it comes right down to it, not really an historian at all, but rather a literary scholar: I work, instead, with words.

With this in mind, and as a helpful spur to productivity, I’ve decided to start a new, intermittent posting series based instead on exploring the First World War in 100… Documents.  The threshold for “document” will be pretty broad, it must be confessed; readers can expect to see pieces on all sorts of things, be they poems, sermons, essays, posters, newspaper ads, proclamations, or goodness knows what else.  Everything from multi-volume books to two-line telegrams is on the table, but you’ll have to keep checking back to see what’s next.

The first post in this series has already appeared.

22 July 1917 | A Letter from a German Prison Camp

19 Jul

I’m posting this here because I don’t imagine I’ll ever get the chance to bring it up otherwise.  The following is a letter from the French Archives nationales, dated 22 July, 1917.  It is from a young woman in the civilian prison camp at Limburg, and is addressed to her husband, another civilian who had been forced to work in Battalion 2 of the Zivilarbeiter Bataillonen, stationed somewhere in northern France.  This latter group, easily distinguishable in public by the red armbands they were forced to wear, was comprised of French and Belgian civilians who were essentially enslaved to support the German war effort through their labour.  From Audoin-Rouzeau and Becker’s 14-18 (2000):

They were blackmailed in a particularly odious manner.  Either they voluntarily agreed to work for the Germans, in which case their situation was one of ‘free’ salaried employees who were entitled to leaves and to contact with their relatives; or they refused, in which case they were rounded up and subjected to compulsory labour.  [. . .] Since most mayors refused to hand over lists of their town’s unemployed, the Germans simply rounded up men in the streets and deported them. [75]

It is against this backdrop that we must read this heartbreaking letter from the young Eugénie Broyart.  Her original grammar has been preserved as much as is possible in translation:

22 July 1917

Dear Lucien,

I’m surprised by your silence I havent received news since your cards of 3 and 11 March, yet I would be very happy to get some for I miss you a lot and regardless of my courage and my resignation I don’t know if I can stand this suffering of being separated from the whole family as we are if I knew where my little children and my parents are I’d take courage more easily.  In spite of everything I’m in good health and so is my little Henri and I hope my letter will find you well also, which is what we must ask for in our sad situation.  Rosa is fine still works outside she sends you her greetings but still doesn’t know about her misfortune she received another card this week from your parents they sent back to non-occupied France… all these upheavals of all these families, Rosa doesn’t know where Raymond is either.

Dear Lucien if you can try to look into the fate of our poor little children, because for myself I can’t and you will write me but write me always as much as possible, that will be a very precious consolation… I feel like everyone is abandoning me, though, dear husband we must not get too discouraged for we’re still needed on earth to bring up our little family.  I hope though that there will be an end and that we will all be reunited to live happier days after so many cruel ordeals we certainly deserve to I don’t have much else to tell you hello from my comrades to Cousin Désiré and to you I hope you are still together.

A thousand loving kisses from afar while waiting to kiss each other close up what a happy day, dear Lucien, but when… let’s hope for God’s clemency.  Yours for life.

Eugénie Broyart

(Above all, send me good news from you soon, I forgot to tell you I haven’t yet received news of the plea for pardon that I asked for I hope.)

Pause to think on all that is contained above.

In any event, it reminds me of nothing so much as this remarkable passage from Edith Wharton’s The Marne (1918), which sees a young American man head off to France as a volunteer after having been briefly exposed to the war in its early months during the initial German invasion.  He arrives in the little town he and his family used to visit so often, seeking news of the friendly family that had acted as hosts and tutors in French.

Troy jumped down, and began to ask questions. At first the only person who recognized the name of Gantier was an old woman too frightened and feeble-minded to answer intelligibly. Then a French territorial who was hoeing with the women came forward. He belonged to the place and knew the story.

“M. Gantier – the old gentleman? He was mayor, and the Germans took him. He died in Germany. The young girl – Mlle. Gantier – was taken with him. No, she’s not dead… I don’t know… She’s shut up somewhere in Germany… queer in the head, they say. …The sons – ah, you knew Monsieur Paul? He went first… What, the others? … Yes; the three others – Louis at Notre Dame to Lorette; Jean on a submarine; poor little Félix, the youngest, of the fever at Salonika. Voilà… The old lady? Ah, she and her sister went away… some charitable people took them, I don’t know where… I’ve got the address somewhere…”

He fumbled, and brought out a strip of paper on which was written the name of a town in the centre of France.

“There’s where they were a year ago. … Yes, you may say: there’s a family gone – wiped out. How often I’ve seen them all sitting there, laughing and drinking coffee in the arbour! They were not rich, but they were happy, and proud of each other. That’s over.”

He went back to his hoeing. [64-66]

This story, and others like it, repeated itself over and over, in the millions, throughout France and Belgium from the autumn of 1914 onwards.  The focus on the trenches, while understandable, does tend sometimes to obscure this fact.

More on Raymond Asquith, sort of

31 May

Previously I posted a short meditation from Raymond Asquith on his erstwhile colleague Julian Grenfell, one of the war’s more militant poets.  Both men died in the war, much to the detriment of English letters, but I haven’t had much to say about Asquith himself just yet.  I hope to in time (he’s no end of interesting), but for the moment here’s another short snippet in the same spirit as the earlier post.

Maurice Baring (who thankfully did NOT die in the war), in a letter to Dame Ethel Smyth, Sept. 20th, 1916:

“Life is a strain now, isn’t it? Scaffolding falls about one daily, one’s old friends and one’s new friends are killed or disappear like flies; the floor of life seems to have gone, and one seems to live in a permanent eclipse and a seasonless world – a world with no summer and no winter, only a long, grey, neutral-tinted Limbo. Raymond Asquith is the latest. I was certain he would be killed. I dined with him the night before he went back to his regiment after a spell at G.H.Q. – I felt I would never see him again…”

This sense of loss was one that was felt keenly throughout all the world as the war continued to expand and consume, expand and consume.

Brittain, Kipling(s), Roosevelt

20 May

Alan Bishop and Mark Bostridge have edited a fantastic volume of wartime letters that were sent to and among Vera Brittain’s intimate circle of friends and lovers — Letters from a Lost Generation: First World War Letters of Vera Brittain and Four Friends (1998).  It’s a fine collection of correspondence marked with a necessary sense of impending loss, given the frequency with which Brittain’s doomed fiance, Roland Leighton, comes up.  His own letters are included as well.

What struck my eye while browsing the volume, however, was a remarkable letter from Vera to Roland in October of 1915, after the Battle of Loos.  This was the ill-starred battle that led to the now infamous death of John Kipling, Rudyard Kipling’s only son; its immortalization in numerous books, articles, a play, and a (reasonably good) TV movie have seen the young Kipling take on a symbolically resonant status.  Much of this is intentionally emphasized — even exaggerated — in the art that surrounds the event, of course; what better image could there be, from the still-disillusioned modern point of view, than that of a bright young men sent off to a war he barely understood at the urging of his famous, wealthy father?  What better than that he should die unceremoniously and immediately, his body vanishing (this is debatable) forever into the mud-soaked hell of the trenches?  They couldn’t have done it better in a novel, and the degree to which a superficial reading of the situation lends itself exactly to the template played up by so many post-war books and poems and plays has made it hard to separate fact from fancy.  My Boy Jack is fine entertainment, but it should hardly be taken as a totally reliable account of these events.

Anyway, this letter, dated October 7th of that fateful year, contains a surprising meditation on Brittain’s part on the death of John Kipling.  It’s like nothing I’ve ever read from a now-canonical author of the war, and offers a perspective that would be very hard to fit into what we’re all supposed to think everyone then was supposed to be thinking.

And so:

Vera to Roland. Buxton, 7 October, 1915.

I could often have wept at the casualty lists that have kept coming in this week – so many officers and most of them so young too. Rudyard Kipling’s son is among the ‘Missing believed killed’. I always feel sorrier when they are the sons of intellectual & brilliant people. I don’t know why I should be, but somehow I always feel that they must mean even more to their parents than those of the more ordinary ones do to theirs…

Amazing — and rather against the grain of how many now feel in an age that persists in seeing Wilfred Owen’s death as tragic while viewing the national grief at the death of Rupert Brooke as quaint and silly.

Three years later, in July of 1918, Rudyard Kipling himself opened up to a friend about a similar matter and about the gulf that the loss of so many young men had left in his life and in the lives of those around him.  He takes as his pretext the death in action of another “son of intellectual & brilliant people” — that of Quentin Roosevelt, former president Theodore Roosevelt’s youngest son.  The younger Roosevelt had joined the air force and was killed in action over France on July 14, 1918.  Roosevelt’s own response to this (and his correspondence with Kipling on that very subject) will likely turn up on this blog later, but for now I’m going to stick to Kipling’s letter to Edmonia Hill:

I see to-day that poor young Quentin Roosevelt has been killed flying.  One doesn’t  mind these things so much for oneself as one does for other people.  I know Kermit and like him immensely but I believe Quentin was a great favorite of his father’s and a most promising man.  His mother will feel it – and more as the years roll around.

Can you imagine such a life as it is with us here now – where there are no young men left among the people one knows, within eight visiting miles of us, every house has lost its son.  Now my second young cousin – younger than John – has just gone out to take John’s place in the Irish Guards, and I’m praying that he’ll get a good satisfactory deep-seated wound that will keep him quiet for six or eight months.

We had a boy staying with us one Sunday night.  He had just recovered from a wound and was off on Monday morning.  By Thursday he was wounded and back again in hospital.  Now he is out once more at the front twice wounded and a Major at the age of twenty-three!  Another friend of mine is a Brigadier General, aged twenty-six! which when you remember the ancient Generals in the East seems revolutionary.

Theodore Roosevelt would not have long to grieve his son — he would die six months later, Jan. 6, 1919.  Kipling would endure with his increasingly estranged wife and daughter until 1936, dying within days of his friend, King George V.  The monarch, as My Boy Jack is at pains to emphasize, also lost a son during this time — though not because of the war.  But that is another post for another day…

Letters from Teddy

4 Apr

Another feature I hope to provide regularly here at Wellington House is that of selections from the wartime letters and writings of former president Theodore Roosevelt.  Roosevelt fascinates me greatly, and could with some justice be called the best prose stylist of all the American presidents.  Quality aside, there’s also the quantity: Roosevelt produced dozens of books and hundreds of articles, chapters, addresses and the like on any topic you can imagine.  Ecology, religion, physical fitness, literary study, travel, military history… it’s all there.

The letters he both sent to and received from various figures in the years after his presidency are a treasure.  They show an amazingly talented and charismatic man determined to maintain his influence on the world stage in spite of no longer being in the Oval Office.  They also show a man who was not afraid to speak candidly in private what his position as a former president made it impossible to say in public.

Some of the better ones are too long for me to transcribe just now (including an excellent one to Sir Edward Grey in January of 1915), but I will get to them in time.  For now, I’m going to start with two telegrams that were sent during a somewhat earlier war — that between Russia and Japan in 1905.  They have considerable relevance to us here, however, as the first is addressed to Kaiser Wilhelm II, and the second to Tsar Nicholas II.  Their status as telegrams should account for their rather clipped style; rest assured that his actual letters are much more mellifluous.

August 27, 1905.  Oyster Bay.

To William II:

Peace can be obtained on the following terms.  Russia to pay no indemnity whatever and to receive back north half of Sakhalin for which it is to pay Japan whatever amount a mixed commission may determine.  This is my proposition to which the Japanese have assented reluctantly and only under strong pressure from me.  The plan is for each of the contending parties to name an equal number of members of the commission and for them themselves to name the odd member.  The Japanese assert that Witte has in principle agreed that Russia should pay something to get back the north half of Sakhalin and indeed he intimated to me that they might but it back at a reasonable figure, something on the scale of that for which Alaska was sold to the United States.

These terms which strike me as extremely moderate I have not presented in this form to the Russian Emperor.  I feel that you have more influence with him than either I or anyone else can have.  As the situation is exceedingly strained and the relations between the plenipotentiaries critical to a degree, immediate action is necessary.  Can you not take the initiative by presenting these terms at once to him?  Your success in the matter will make the entire civilized world your debtor.  This proposition virtually relegates all the unsettled issues of the war to the arbitration of a mixed commission as outlined above, and I am unable to see how Russia can refuse your request if in your wisdom you see fit to make it.

August 31, 1905.  Oyster Bay.

To Nicholas II:

I thank you heartily for your message.  I congratulate you upon the outcome and I share the feelings of all other sincere well-wishers to peace in my gratitude for what has been accomplished.  I earnestly hope for every blessing upon you and your great country.

Much more to come — including a letter of congratulation from Roosevelt to General John Pershing, and another in cordial and candid thanks to King George V.