Part of my walk today took me past Kiel Trench (east of Bois Francais), where Siegfried Sassoon earned his MC carrying in the dead and wounded from a raid he lead on May 25, 1916. Some vestiges of the fighting remain in the pastures bordering the Bois and in the open fields, where not even modern tractors and plows have been able to erase the traces of a large mine crater. One of the men Sassoon carried in, Corporal O’Brien is buried in Citadel New Military Cemetery. And not far away, in Point 110 New Military Cemetery, lies David Thomas, Sassoon and Grave”s intimate friend, who died in March of 1916. The former based the character Dick Tiltwood in Memoir of an Infantry Officer, on Thomas, whose death is often given as the reason for Sassoon’s daring, indeed reckless, nightly forays into no-man’s-land. These earned him the sobriquet ‘Mad-Jack’ and, as a result of the May 25 action, a decoration for bravery. This trauma must also be considered a key factor in his eventual disillusionment with the war and those administering it from positions of safety.
When I think of Thomas and Sassoon, the poem The Dugout comes to mind.
Why do you lie with your legs ungainly huddled,
And one arm bent across your sullen, cold,
Exhausted face? It hurts my heart to watch you,
Deep-shadowed from the candle’s guttering gold;
And you wonder why I shake you by the shoulder;
Drowsy, you mumble and sigh and turn your head…
You are too young to sleep forever;
And when you sleep you remind me of the dead.
To read: Bernard Adams’ (a brother officer and poet of Sassoon and Graves) Nothing of Importance.