John Masefield in the Great War

In July 1914 the Masefields were at their country place, Lollingdon Farm, on the Berkshire Downs. He wrote, later, in St George and the Dragon, a lecture he gave in New York on St George’s Day 1918

I had never seen England so beautiful as then, and a little company of lovely friends was there. Rupert Brooke was one of them, and we read poems in that old haunt of beauty, and wandered on the Downs. I remember saying that the Austro-Serbian business might cause a European war, in which we might be involved, but the others did not think this likely; they laughed (Errington, 237).

Masefield went on:

I know what England was, before the war. She was a nation which had outgrown her machine, a nation which had forgotten her soul, a nation which had destroyed Jerusalem among her dark Satanic mills.

And then, at a day’s notice, at the blowing of a horn, at the cry from a little people in distress, all that was changed, and she re-made her machine, and she remembered her soul, which was the soul of St George who fought the dragon, and she cried “I will rebuilt Jerusalem in this green and pleasant land or die in the attempt” (Errington 248).

In September 1914, The English Review published Masefield’s poem “August, 1914” (Errington, 35-37). “I never saw / so great a beauty on these English fields” was contrasted with “the misery of the soaking trench, / the freezing in the rigging”. It was a poem that meant a lot to Masefield. When reciting it at Yale University in 1916 he was so emotional that he fell silent half-way through, and had to apologise for being unable to finish.

The Masefields had to leave Lollingdon Farm almost immediately, as it was requisitioned for the use of the cavalry for a few weeks or months. They went back to their London house in Hampstead. Masefield tried enlisting; in a letter of 1916 he says that he was rejected on medical grounds, but accepted for the reserves. In a letter of December 1914, Rupert Brooke says that Masefield was drilling hard in Hampstead, “and told me with some pride, a month ago, that he was a Corporal and thought he was going to be promoted to Sergeant soon” (Errington, 3). The details are unclear, but by February 1915 he had decided to go to France with the Red Cross. He left on 1 March, and arrived at the château of Arc-en-Barrois, in the Haute-Marne, two days later. He served as a hospital orderly, helping with the wounded and in the operation theatre, carrying meals and so on. On 5 March he wrote to his wife:

I’m very well, & whenever I look at these poor fellows my soul boils. Nothing else in the world matters but to stop this atrocious thing. Blood & intellect & life are simply nothing. Let them go like water to end this crime. You’ve no idea of it, you can’t even guess the stink of it, from the bloody old reeking stretchers to the fragments hopping on crutches and half heads, & a leg gone at the thigh, & young boys blinded & grey headed men with their backs broken. I never knew I loved men so much. They are a fine lot, a noble lot, I love them all (Vansittart, 54).

A few days later, on 17 March, he wrote:

One must not say ‘O, one could do such work in England’, one could not; the need does not exist; & one must not say ‘O, it is a waste, your doing such work, you ought to write’; it is not waste; the real waste is war & spilt life & poor beautiful men bled dead for want of a man to hold them. I could not write, thinking of what goes on in those long slow filthy trains, full of mad-eyed whimpering men. You must think of this & we’ll talk of it when I come home, oh joyful lovely day, my sweet Con & pretty babes again, after these weeks of stink (Vansittart 69).

He returned home in April, to learn that Rupert Brooke had died on his way to Gallipoli. Masefield set about trying to raise money for a mobile field hospital, nearer the front lines; it had taken the French wounded he had cared for two or three days to get to the hospital, and for many that was too late. Masefield wrote in “Red Cross” (published only in 1939), of a surgeon weeping as he lost the life of a wounded man:

He said: ‘We have buried heaps since the push began.
From now to the Peace we’ll bury a thousand more.
It’s silly to cry, but I could have saved that man
Had they only carried him in an hour before’ (Errington, 319).

Masefield raised money; he sold some of his manuscripts to Americans. He was asked to report on French hospitals in the west of the country, which he did in July. But rather than try to set up mobile hospitals in France, he left for the Eastern Mediterranean, on 13 August, to help organise medical facilities there. He was at Gallipoli itself for a while: “I was at Anzac with the Australians, and had in a brief time, a full experience of war; lice, fleas, dysentery, shells, bombs, shrapnel, sniping, and a chase by a submarine” (Errington, 11). He was back in England by the middle of October.

Gilbert Parker was a leading figure in the propaganda department known as Wellington House, and he was in charge of countering German propaganda in the USA. He persuaded Masefield to go on a lecture tour, ostensibly to talk about four topics—Shakespeare, English tragedy, English poetry, and Chaucer—but also “on his recent experiences in France and at the Dardanelles while engaged in Red Cross work” (quoted Errington, 11). Masefield was in the USA for the first three months of 1916, finding the East Coast and the South generally pro-Ally, but the people of Chicago and the mid-West being quite pro-German. Masefield reported back on his return, and urged that writers be employed to counter German lies, and suggested that he himself could write something on Gallipoli. “There can be no doubt that the failure in the Dardanelles has damaged us in America in many ways. Americans neither understand nor pity failure, worshipping success, as they do, they dread it. The Germans, realising this, have emphasised our failure there, and the results are unpleasant. Much has been, and is being, said about ‘failure of generalship,’ ‘useless slaughter of men,’ divided counsels, etc” (Errington, 44). Masefield had asked if he could prepare an article, but it turned out to be a short book, which he wrote between April and June 1916.

Gallipoli (London: William Heinemann, 1916) was hugely successful, selling well over 40000 copies between September 1916 and March 1917: it is generally agreed that it is one of the most effective pieces of non-fiction about the war to emerge between 1914 and 1918. Glory in defeat, and the heroism of the common soldier, were themes that went down well in Britain. It is interesting, in the light of work done by medievalists on the way in which Great War writers harked back to the Middle Ages and to concepts of chivalry (see e.g. Allen J. Frantzen, Bloody Good: Chivalry, Sacrifice, and the Great War: Chicago: Chicago UP, 2003), that Masefield puts an epigraph at the beginning of each chapter which is a quotation from the Song of Roland—the great Old French poem about Roland’s glorious defeat in the Pyrenees.

Even before Gallipoli had been published, Wellington House had a new mission for him. On 18 August, C.F.G. Masterman, who was then in charge, explained: “He is going into the American Red Cross hospitals deliberately as an orderly in the humblest position in order to write his experiences for the American press. Although a poet, he is first class, and I think we should do everything for him we can” (Errington 15). (Although a poet… the English upper class speaks!)

Masefield did not enjoy the mission. He found getting information about the whereabouts of hospitals difficult to get; the Americans, he thought, were very poorly organised. Again he saw horrendous wounds and terrible conditions. But even before he got home his attention had been drawn, by the British commander, to another subject: the Somme. He visited the site in October 1916, and in a letter of 21 October told his wife what he had seen:

Imagine any 13 miles X 9 miles known to you, say from Goring to Abingdon, raking in Dorchester, Wallingford, Nettlebed & the Chilterns above Goring, you will get a hint of its extent. Then imagine in all that expanse no single tree left intact.[ …] Then imagine that in all that expanse no single house is left […] Then imagine that in all that expanse there is no patch of ground ten feet square that has not got its shell hole. To say that the ground is ‘ploughed up’ with shells is to talk like a child. It is gouged & blasted & bedevilled with pox of war, & at every step you are on the wreck of war, & up at the top of the ridge there is nothing but a waste of big grassless holes ten feet deep & ten feet broad, with defilement & corpses & hands & feet & old burnt uniforms & tattered leather all flung about & dug in & dug out again, like nothing else on God’s earth (Vansittart 192).

What was intended to be a great sequel to GallipoliThe Somme—became two imperfect volumes: The Old Front Line (1917) and The Battle of the Somme (1919). He did the research from February to May 1917. He got very little help; he couldn’t get hold of essential documents; he spent a lot of time on his own tramping around battlefields. And he began to get very critical of the way the war was run. He met some Australians—”jolly good fellows, though I fear they all think that we let them down at Suvla. The truth is, I’m afraid we did” (Errington, 20). On 16 April he wrote to his wife, noting that he was beginning to understand the battle-field of the Somme, “& to see clearly the enemy’s theories, & the depth of our own supineness & stupidity before the war, & the inadequacy of our thought” (Vansittart, 247). He remarked to her on 29 April about machine guns,

If only there were some means of destroying or getting past machine guns. The war is held up by enemy machine guns. […] One gun has as big a fire as 500 men, as I should think was plain to anybody, not a professional soldier. Yet at the beginning of the war, when Wells wrote on this point, a professional soldier replied, that Wells should write about the things he really knew, & leave the use of machine guns to soldiers, who knew their limitations, etc. I don’t know why; but that kind of critical ass has more power in England than in other countries (Vansittart 264).

At the beginning of 1918 Masefield went on another lecture tour in the USA. Two of his lectures were published: The War and the Future and St George and the Dragon. At his instance, he including speaking engagements at military camps in his itinerary. In June he got honorary doctorates from Harvard and Yale. On his return to the UK he was working for a new “Department of Hospitality to American Forces”, and he recruited speakers and went on speaking tours himself. On 9 November he met up with Siegfried Sassoon, whose writing he had admired, and signed a picture of himself in uniform to give him. Two days later, in a letter to his American friend Florence Lamont:

It is over now… The day of peace was dark, with a lowering sky and rain, so much rain, that the tumults were kept within bounds. Flags, yells, a little gunfire, and a little drunkenness saw the day through. Yesterday, being fine, they went further and burnt a bonfire in Piccadilly Circus. Tonight, being fine, and the streets lighter, I expect something rowdier and more drunken. But it has been a happy time of deliverance, a setting free from death, a loosing of bonds … may this great, kind, generous and truly noble people find its reward in beauty and happiness after all these years of death and hell (quoted in Errington, 26-27).

The primary material I have used is gathered in Philip W. Errington, ed., John Masefield’s Great War: Collected Works (Barnsley: Pen and Sword Military Classics, 2007) and Peter Vansittart, ed. John Masefield’s Letters from the Front, 1915-1917 (London: Constable, 1984).


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