Osbert Sitwell in the Great War

Osbert Sitwell 1926The third volume of Sitwell’s autobiography, Great Morning, deals with his memories of his time at Renishaw in Derbyshire and his early days in the military. He talks about premonitions of the war during the spring and summer of 1914.

Nearly all the brother-officers of my own age had been, three or four months earlier in the year, to see a celebrated palmist of the period—whom, I remember, it was said, with what justification I am not aware, that Mr Winston Churchill used sometimes to consult. My friends, of course, used to visit her in the hope of being told that their love affairs would prosper, when they would marry, or the direction in which their later careers would develop. In each instance, it appeared, the cheiromant had just began to read their fortunes, when, in sudden bewilderment, she had thrown the outstretched hand from her, crying “I don’t understand it! It’s the same thing again! After two or three months, the line of life stops short, and I can read nothing.” To each individual to whom it was said, this seemed merely an excuse she had improvised for her failure: but when I was told by four or five persons of the same experience, I wondered what it could portend… But nothing could happen, nothing (GM, 265).

At Whitsun he found himself in Somerset, walking with two senior men at the German Embassy, who ended up questioning him seriously how his regiment would act if ordered to oppose the Ulster Volunteers (who might well have started a civil war in Ireland if Home Rule had been put into effect). It looked as if the Germans were planning something.. “But that was impossible!…” (GM, 267).

Later in the summer, he was talking with a “very shrewd and politically-minded brother-officer” whose judgement he trusted. “‘The scare is off,’ he said; ‘the news is much better. There is no chance of war'” (GM, 296). Shortly afterwards, Sitwell was in London, reporting to his Reserve Battalion and saying goodbye to his friends who were also leaving (and destined never to return). “Two or three of the most confident I heard instructing their servants to pack their evening-clothes, since they would need them in a week or two in Berlin…” (GM, 297).

Not knowing when he was going to leave for the Front, he went to a fortune-teller. She says that he is going to return from the war and carry on with his career. What was that, Sitwell asked, not wanting to carry on being a soldier forever. “That is very clearly marked on your hand. Look, there’s the star of fame! You’re a writer, aren’t you?” (GM 298).

The third volume of his autobiography ends there, and the story of his war does not start up again until page 74, when he makes a reference to this palmist. He notes that it was on the last day before he left for the Front that the German Navy shelled Scarborough: a piece of shell went through his father’s front door. The following day, Sitwell’s mother come down by train to say goodbye to her son, and brought a piece of shell as a mascot.

Sitwell was on leave for several months from March to July 1915. He took part in the Battle of Loos, where several of his friends were killed.

One scene I remember particularly well, because of its irony. I saw it a week after the battle. We were quarter in the grounds of an immense château, almost entirely destroyed. The large park, situated among the winder-heaps and primitive machinery of coal-mines, was full of the remains of temples, summer-houses, bridges, caves, and grottoes; everything, in fact, had been pulverised—except a sham ruin, plainly erected a few months before a war which was to bestow upon the neighbourhood as many ruins as the most perfervid romantic would have craved (LNR 101).

In April 1916 he returned to England, seriously ill with blood-poisoning. He went to the family house at Renishaw, and was given a nurse; his father, who had been used to being the chief patient of the house, was very put out. When he was better, he was posted to Chelsea Barracks again, and he was back in London society.

My views on the war began to make me feel in general uncomfortable in the company of those who did not share them, and grow intolerant of the fashionable world and its complacency: the manner in which it accepted the wholesale slaughter as just one more war (which must be fought to a finish)—whereas it was something different called by the same name; a massacre, and the sooner it ended, the better, if the fabric of European civilisation was to survive (114).

After musing on how much better it would have been if it had ended in 1916 (no Bolshevik Revolution, no Hitler), he adds:

I had never been able to see beauty in war, which from the first had appeared to me as an endless foulness masquerading under an honoured but obsolete name. But now came a phase of active rebellion: though my feelings were based more, I believe, on intellectual than sentimental reasons. […] During the progress of the war, it became, further, clear to me that the only true heroism was to think for oneself, and then to act on your opinions; and, finally, that many conscientious objectors, though daily nagged at, and held yup to ridicule and for hatred as cowards, in the contemporary daily papers, were, though often wrong-headed, as deserving of respect on this score as the greatest of military paladins. As for the volunteer stretcher-bearers and ambulance-drivers, their profession during war constituted a very high form, and needed a very high degree, of courage (115-6).

And thus Sitwell became an admirer of Shaw, of H.W. Nevinson, and H.W. Massingham, and of Siegfried Sassoon. (He was a good friend of Robert Graves too, until what he sees as the unpardonable insults published in Goodbye to All That.)

He would later say, though, that the most important moment in the war for him was in his second period in the trenches, in a billet near Ypres, when he wrote his first poem. And it was published, as ‘Babel’, in The Times, on 11 May 1916.

From the moment of my beginning to write, my life, even in the middle of war, found a purpose. Within the bounds of a few years, the new power revealed to me had sharpened my character, late, like that of all the members of my family in the past, in developing. […] I had acquired through my education no ability to concentrate. […] And the story of the next few years is necessarily one of increasing self-application, until within the span of a decade I was able to reach that point where the idea of a book lay so near to me as to abide with me by day and night, returning to me at first waking, and permeating the hours with its particular scent and shape, until, indeed,  I was able immediately to supply a lost page of my first novel, Before the Bombardment, because I knew the whole book by heart (LNR 124-125).

There is no more about the War in Laughter in the Next Room. But the book had started not with the beginning of the war, but with his thoughts of Armistice Day, seen from 1949.

After the Second World War, Winged Victory dangles from the sky like a gigantic draggled jackdaw that has been hanged as a warning to other marauders: but in 1918, though we who had fought were even more disillusioned that our successors of the next conflict about a struggle in which is was plain that no great military leaders had been found, we were yet illusioned about the peace. During the passage of more than four years, the worse the present had shown itself, the more golden the future, unreal as the conventional heaven, had become to our eye: an outlook common, perhaps, to those of all ages of war and revolution. And today—the 11th of November 1918—that long present had suddenly become changed to past, clearly to be seen as such. Hence both the boy and the earnestness of dancers in street and square tonight: hence, too, the difficulty of finding a way in which to describe to the reader the movements that so precisely interpreted conflicting emotions: the long drawn-out misery and monastic stultification of the trenches, and then the joy of a victory that in the end had rushed on us with the speed and impact of a comet—for it was difficult, I realised that fully, as, with my companions, Diagheliw [his spelling] and Massine, I stopped to watch for a moment the shifting general pattern of the mass of people (LNR 1).

His mind, he said, always reverted to two scenes:

First to the landscape of an early September morning, where the pale golden grasses held just the colour of a harvest moon, as they shone under the strong, misty sun of autumn in northern France; a wide flatness of gentle, tawny land, where dead bodies in khaki and field-grey lay stiff and glittering in the heavy dew, among the blue clouds of the chicory flowers which reflected the sky and, as it were, pinned it down. […] Though tainted subtly by tear-gas and by the smell of earth freshly thrown up among the craters, and by the odours of decomposition, it was a superb morning; such a morning, I would have hazarded, as that on which men, crowned with the vast semicircles of their gold helmets, clashed swords at Mycenae, or outside the towers of Tory, only to be carried from the field to lie entombed in air and silence for millenniums under their stiff masks of thin virgin gold; (how far had we descended, crawling now, earth-coloured as grubs, among the broken stumps of trees, and the barbed wire, until we were still, among the maggoty confusion, and our faces took on the tints of the autumn earth and the rest discoloration of dry blood!). Then the alternate scene switched before me: No-Man’s-Land, that narrow strip of territory peculiar to the First World War; the very dominion of King Death; where his palace was concealed, labyrinthine in its dark corridors, mysterious in its distances, so that sometimes those who sought him spent hours, whole days, a week even, in the ante-chambers that led to his presence, and lay lost in the alleys and mazes of barbed wire (LNR 2-3).

This is of course remembering and creating and imagining from thirty years distance. His own mood of bitterness back in 1918 is perhaps better understood from his first two collections of poems. Argonaut and Juggernaut (1919) was, as Cevasco says, “a slender book of fifty poems filled with the indignation and bile that had built up in him during his war years”. With At the House of Mrs Kinfoot (1921) the bitterness has barely abated.

I am quoting from Osbert Sitwell, Great Morning: Left Hand, Right Hand. Volume III, An Autobiography (London: Quartet, 1977; a reissue of the 1948 Macmillan original) and Laughter in the Next Room: Being the Fourth Volume of Left Hand, Right Hand (London: Macmillan, 1958) (a reedition of the 1949 original). I am indebted also to G.A. Cevasco’s entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

 

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