[This is a journal in three sections. I didn’t start reading a new section until I’d finished writing about the one before, so I didn’t know how any of it would turn out until I got to the end.]
29 December 2015
Preface and Parts 1-3
A memoir of Jones’s first few months as a soldier in the First World War… but also a poetic response to his experiences. It was first published in 1937 and must have been distilled from nearly twenty years of remembering and reflecting. There seems to be no ‘I’ in the body of this memoir, but there is ‘you’ and ‘he’ – and it’s this third person, John Ball, whose point of view we are offered more than anybody else’s. He seems to be an Everyman, a not-quite John Bull – not so steadfast a representative of Britain, not so bullish – whose uncomfortable, often chaotic arrival in France we follow step by exhausted step.
The poetry doesn’t come from John Ball, but from Jones himself, explaining his references and thought processes as he goes along in the end-notes that add nearly an extra 20% to the length of the book. Here there is an ‘I’, being unself-consciously helpful. The book is what it is, Jones seems to be saying, but at least he can offer these occasional explanations of what on earth he was thinking of. ‘In this passage I had in mind…’ (Part 3, note 36); ‘Cf. Coleridge, Ancient Mariner, part I, verses 13 and 18. This poem was much in my mind during the writing of Part 3’ (note 40). I’ll come back to those notes.
Jones was writing at the height of Modernism. The book couldn’t have been written at any other time, with those easy slides from one stream of consciousness to another, the references that seem impossibly obscure until you turn to the notes, the poetic distortions of syntax and vocabulary which, to a modern reader, seem wilful in a work of prose. And the Introduction, quoted at some length on the back of my paperback edition, is by – wait for it – T S Eliot. To him, the book is a masterpiece. Of course it is. Jones’s writing isn’t exactly like Eliot’s, but there are a lot of overlaps. There’s the way everyday speech is slipped seamlessly into the text, and the unembarrassed comparison of ordinary lives with those of great characters in literature or mythological heroes. With Jones the characters are often those in Shakespeare’s Henry V which, as he tells us in a note, army life ‘brought… pretty constantly to the mind.’ The heroes are those of the great Welsh epics that Jones seeks to place on a similar footing to the classics that Eliot was so keen on.
I’m making it sound as though I don’t like it. In fact, I can see exactly why Eliot considered it a masterpiece. Whilst Jones’s Modernist voice is as far as it could possibly be from journalism or documentary, I’ve never encountered a more vivid evocation of what, in the Preface, he calls ‘the intimate, continuing, domestic life of small contingents of men.’ This is the life, he tells us, that ended at the Battle of the Somme in July 1916, after which the ‘wholesale slaughter of the later years … knocked the bottom out of [it].’ So what he writes about, he tells us, will be the months between the company’s departure from England in December 1915 and this appalling full stop. But by the end of Part 3, perhaps a third of the way through the book, John Ball and the others are still only just getting used to life in the trenches. Parts 1 and 2, both short, are about the hour-by-hour, sometimes step-by-step grind of de-camping from England and getting across the Channel.
Everything is there. Between the Welsh recruits and the cockneys in the regiment there is more camaraderie than you might expect – Jones never calls it that, but he is careful to explain how these men have more in common than separates them – and there are all the other things you would expect in an army still run along rigid lines of class. There’s the easy drawl of a floppy-haired young officer brought up to expect his orders to be carried out (I might be mixing up two different ones), the not-quite sincere deference of the corporals and sergeant-majors. And, right from the start, there’s the self-conscious discomfort of Ball, late on parade and being made to feel like a schoolboy. We don’t know that Ball is to be a main protagonist at this point: he’s just another private being punished for not doing properly what nobody wants to do anyway. In other words, he’s like all of us, and everything about his predicament is familiar.
The experiences of all these men seem intimate and focused on the sensations of the individual: ‘platoon upon platoon formed single file and moved towards an invisible gangway. Each separate man found his own feet stepping in the darkness on an inclined plane, the smell and taste of salt and machinery, the texture of rope, and the glimmer of shielded light about him.’ All the men, all their senses. And suddenly, in the middle of the night, they’re in France. It’s now that Jones occasionally moves the narrative into that unspecified second person form. ‘You feel exposed and apprehensive in this new world.’ Earlier in the same paragraph it had been ‘they’. Maybe he’s done it before without my noticing, as he also often moves the tenses around. If ‘you’ feels right, or if the present tense feels right, he’ll slip into using them because rules are for disregarding if they get in the way of the immediacy.
The long journey to the Front still hasn’t ended by the opening of Part 3. They’re in a commandeered barn, knowing that they won’t be sleeping there tonight, or they’re on a dark road negotiating an obstacle, perhaps a shell-hole, after which the platoon ahead seems to have turned an unexpected corner and contact is lost. Despite the officers’ and NCOs’ commands it always feels chaotic and very real, and their arrival at wherever it is they are going is incremental. There’s danger from German machine guns before they reach the trenches, and by the time they get there the hellish weirdness of it all seems part of their consciousness. They know about it now.
None of what I’m saying conveys any of the almost dreamlike confusion of it. ‘Confusion’ is another word that I don’t think Jones uses. He is intent on showing it rather than telling, so Part 3 opens who knows where. ‘Proceed … without lights … prostrate before it …’ (those are Jones’s pauses) and then it’s the moon, an intermittent presence during the long night: ‘Cloud shielded her bright disc-rising yet her veiled presence illumined the texture of that place….’. As I’ve said, this isn’t journalism. Jones takes us through the night that begins before their short rest and never seems to end. It does end, I suppose, but I couldn’t tell you when, or how they reach the trenches. They march, ‘so close behind to blunder, toe by heel tripping, file-mates; blind on-following, moving with a singular identity. / Half-minds, far away, divergent, own-thought thinking,’ almost impossibly close yet utterly separate.
And the reader learns about this new world and its new geography at the same time as the men. Somebody in charge comes up and speaks gibberish: ‘– you’ve three hundred yards to the communication trench – turn left into Sandbag Alley – right at the OBL – left along Oxford Street….’ There are moments of pure cinema: ‘Now when a solitary star-shell rose, a day-brightness illumined them; long shadows of their bodies walking, darkening out across the fields; slowly contracting with the light’s rising.’ Jones likes those kennings, the efficient contractions that waste no words at all. A body being carried along a trench isn’t described as such. ‘Lazarus figures lift things, and a bundle-thing out; its shapelessness sags. From this muck-raking are singular stenches, long decay leavened….’ It’s totally alien, and yet – yet what? There’s something familiar about it, a lot of that ‘intimate… domestic life’ of men in close proximity that Jones writes of in the Preface.
There are ten more pages of this, the feel of boards underfoot that could slide away in a moment – ‘leg moving rigid, awkward, lengthway, negotiating’ – or newly familiar sounds: ‘Telephonic buzzing makes the wilderness seem curiously homely.’ Always there are other men passing, ‘at another fork-way, voices, heavy material in contact,’ and that second-person address again: ‘you too are assimilated, you too are of this people.’ It’s a whole new community with its rules and norms and language. Some of that language, as Jones has explained in the Preface, can’t be printed in a respectable memoir. He has to slide over it, hinting at it through consonance: ‘you employ the efficacious word….’ I bet you do. And you’re on sentry duty, exhausted. ‘Your body fits the crevice of the bay in the most comfortable fashion imaginable.’ Your relief is surprised to find you there – ‘kipping mate? – christ, mate – you’ll ‘ave ‘em all over.’ It’s John Ball sleeping through his watch, but it could be anyone.
And that’s it for Part 3. Except… those end-notes. The main body of the memoir might be self-consciously poetic – at least, that’s how I sometimes find it – but the notes are transactional, informative, documentary. They are becoming a parallel narrative, not only filling in blanks but offering straightforward descriptions in more ordinary, more familiar language. Here, Jones’s eccentric spellings – clipt and lengthway – would be out of place, and he never uses them. I’m not always sure why he does in the main text.
Parts 4 and 5
If Jones liked stock subtitles, Part 4 would be Trench Life and Part 5 would be The Calm Before the Storm. He decides not to move the chronology on at all in Part 4, opening it on the morning after John Ball’s unpromising sentry duty at the end of Part 3. But this becomes a typical morning, leading into a typical day. There are details of the distribution of rations, the way that men find as private a place to eat as they can after having decided, like everyone else, what they will eat now and what they will eat later. There’s the distribution of tobacco and rum… and the men’s complaints about its poor quality are exactly what we would expect. We know what they’re like now. In Part 5 it’s suddenly late June, and every reader knows that what the men don’t. What they are preparing for is the Battle of the Somme.
It’s all as interesting as the earlier parts. But as I read on, I realised that I was enjoying the notes as much as the main text. Two examples from Part 4, starting with its opening.
‘So thus he sorrowed till it was day and heard the foules sing, then somewhat was comforted. (note)
Stand to arms.
Stealthly, imperceptibly stript back, thinning
and insubstantial barriers dissolve.’
It goes on, as the light of dawn gradually begins to reveal the forms of the other men and of the trenches themselves.
The first line is clearly a quotation, and the note explains that it’s from the same Malory text as the subtitle to Part 4, King Pellam’s Launde. Ok. The note to ‘Stand-to’ isn’t a reference, but a 13-line explanation: ‘Shortly before daybreak all troops in the line stood in their appointed places, their rifles in their hands…’ and so on. It’s the documentary journalism I’ve described before and, as I carried on reading, I realised that the notes are actually a parallel text, as important to understanding (and enjoyment) as the text they refer to.
Back in the main text (it’s a good idea to keep two bookmarks in place) we get that description of the ‘unshrouding’ of night. It’s a perfect little poem, slotted into the text as unannounced as the snatches of men’s speech that we get elsewhere. I’m fine with that – it’s as convincing an evocation of daybreak as anybody could hope for. But… a few lines further on comes that familiar mannered voice: ‘Her fractured contours dun where soon his ray would show more clear her dereliction.’ The personifications, I guess, refer to the moon and the sun, and I’m not convinced by them.
Later, Jones decides to evoke the pride of one of the veterans through the use of an ancient literary form. This is the warrior’s boast, and it goes on for five pages of unrhymed verse:
‘My fathers were with the Black Prinse of Wales
at the passion of
the blind Bohemian king….’
The notes to this speech run to four pages themselves, in lettered sub-sections that run all the way from A to N, plus occasional ‘supplementary notes’ within the sub-sections. ‘The long boast in these pages,’ Jones tells us, ‘I associate with the boast of Taliessin at the court of Maelgwn.’ But it could have been Beowulf’s boast, or King David’s in the Psalms: ‘I have pursued mine enemies, and overtaken them: neither did I turn again till they were consumed. / I have wounded them that they were not able to rise: they are fallen under my feet.’ Later antecedents are in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and James Joyce’s Ulysses. Maybe the last of these offers the biggest clue to what Jones is doing. Like Joyce in the ‘Cyclops’ chapter featuring the Citizen, he has no problem slowing things down to a standstill in order to achieve an effect – even though, in both cases, a lot of explication is needed. In one note, Jones blithely tells us that ‘there is a fusion of themes’ in a particular passage. In another he explains how he uses the name of a character we haven’t heard of as ‘that secondary, urging influence without which the evil thing might not have been brought to fruition.’ Nice to have that sorted out.
By the end of Book 4 it’s still some time around Christmas. As Book 5 opens we have no idea at first that we’re about to be told of the short nights around the summer solstice. Nor do we know that we’re in an estaminet, now a regular haunt for the men when off-duty. The previous section had been focused on claustrophobic details of the trenches’ awkward narrowness and the men’s constant crouching avoidance of enemy sniper-fire. It’s a surprise to learn how much freedom to move there now is behind the front line. And there are new points of view, like those of the café owners who, as the section continues, notice platoons of unfamiliar men marching purposefully to some new destination.
Part 5 itself moves from what has clearly become a familiar pattern of existence to something new. The soldiers are no more impressed by army life than they ever were, but their superiors seem convinced that something extraordinary will be achieved now that they have got everything just right. The reader knows that all these arrangements are for the Somme offensive. So after the men’s commanding officer has given them a detailed precis of the bombardment being planned – the ‘field-howitzers and seventy-sevens running to three figures’ – and they are ‘permitted to cheer,’ it has a terribly hollow ring. Soon, as the men march towards some unknown rendezvous, Jones describes the mounted officers: ‘the four horsemen speak comfortable words.’ I bet they do.
Jones’s reporting of the details of orders issued become ever more frankly satirical: ‘… packs will be dumped at a convenient hour by company arrangement together with … must see that all men …’ ‘N.B. Uniformity of practice re groundsheets: these will be folded on top of the haversack, not underneath, the over-lap will not exceed two inches.’ It’s all about the details. We hear one officer’s fussiness over the timing of a particular rendezvous: ‘countermanding one seven one five hours / substituting one six five five hours…’ and the runner, when given the message, is reminded to note the correction. Two pages later, at the end of Part 5, the men begin to advance ‘by section’ to their allotted positions, and Ball begins to find the range.
We know, of course, that this time the devil isn’t in the detail. But these men don’t.
Parts 6 and 7 – to the end
These sections are extraordinary. I had thought, wrongly, that by the end of Part 5 the men were in position to begin the long advance on foot. In fact there are something like two days and nights of further preparations, further re-positionings – and an ever heavier crescendo of bombardments of the German lines. Even by the beginning of Part 7, the advance hasn’t begun for the men we’re with. Some pages in, with the men already being cut down as they stand, there are still ‘seven minutes to zero-hour’, plenty of time for the men to reach a kind of ecstasy of dread. And what comes after the ‘millennium’ of the final minute is unlike anything I’ve ever read before.
How to describe it? Like the earlier sections, the final two are a mix of poetic description, snatches of conversation, details of everyday life in the army, quotations from Shakespeare and Malory, references to Welsh epics only Jones expects his readers to know nothing about…. As I read on, I began to assume that the act of writing must have been cathartic, that it is like this because it couldn’t be anything else. Jones recreates the experience of a mind living through something unimaginable, and there aren’t any rules for a project like that.
Part 6. ‘The terrain of bivouac was dark wrapt.’ This after four lines of snatches from Malory and the Old Testament: ‘… and threw many great engines … and shot great guns …’ so that the army world that Jones evokes goes back millennia. There are rumours about the apparent lack of retaliation – ‘Fishy he don’t put some back’ – and the ‘anguish’ of having comrades suddenly reassigned to other units when men feel that ‘they feel so perilous and transitory in the world.’ A couple of pages later: ‘these three loved each other.’ Not the same three, as it happens.
And, for a while, we’re with whoever has been assigned the duty of messenger, ill-at-ease in the tent of the top brass, as ‘conscious of his soiled coat’s original meanness of cut’ as the lower classes have always felt in such company. Messengers bring as many rumours as clear instructions: ‘Anyway it was a cert they were to do battle with him tomorrow morn in the plain field.’ A quotation, I suppose. It doesn’t matter where from, because it links this push into all those that have gone before. Is it true the push will be tomorrow? Who knows? All that comes to mind for John Ball, or whoever it is, as some German shells reach or even over-reach their target are memories of the seaside: ‘yet will some flow swell in with make-believe recovery, to flood again the drying shingle and mock with saucy spray the accuracy of their tide-charts.’ These waves ‘make brats too venturesome… and guardian nurses squeal.’ Funny how the mind works under stress. Later – is it next morning, or the one after that? – someone, in a blind panic, seems unable to get up and it’s a different childhood memory: ‘Cousin Dicky doesn’t cry nor any of this nonsense – why, he ate his jam-puff when they came to take Tiger away….’
But we’re not at that moment yet. All the time, it’s rumour and counter-rumour – ‘no-one seemed to know anything much as to anything and you got the same served up again garnished with a different twist’ – and orders are endlessly re-drafted ‘with some final detail and runners countermanding last-minute memoranda.’ Eventually, after the final light has disappeared from the ridge – there are a lot of details of the setting of the sun – the men move, again, and dig themselves shallow trenches, again. It’s next day when they reach a vacated German trench – ‘now you seemed to be in some foreign, awfully well made place’ – but, on what really does prove to be the eve of the final advance, ‘God knows what it was all about, but they moved you back again that evening to another field of bivouac.’
Fast-forward to Part 7. I found it riveting, even the second time – I read both 6 and 7 twice, and I’m reading them again now to try to catch a flavour of how on earth Jones does it. There are five lines of Latin, then what sounds like a terrible warning of what is to come: ‘The memory lets escape what is over and above – as spilled bitterness, unmeasured, poured-out, and again drenched down – demoniac pouring….’ Jones had suffered a breakdown only four years before the book’s publication, and he’s writing from the heart – and it’s only a few lines on that ‘He found him all gone to pieces and not pulling himself together nor making the best of things….’ This is where the line about Cousin Dicky appears. It’s a nightmarish nursery. And who ‘he’ is who finds ‘him’ all gone to pieces is anybody’s guess. Is John Ball one of them? Neither? Both?
Most of Part 7 is as ambiguous as that. We gather that Ball’s platoon is not in the first wave, but only because they witness the deaths of other men as they lie ‘in the place of their waiting, a long burrow… but all too shallow against this violence.’ They are animals now, so there is ‘no-one to care there for Aneirin Lewis spilled there,’ and they are up against ‘organised chemists [who] can let make more riving power than ever’ – than ever what? Than at any ancient epic battle Jones can think of as an antecedent. And this is when there are still seven minutes to go. A page later there’s ‘another turn of the screw,’ and half a page beyond that ‘you have not capacity for added fear, only the limbs are leaden to negotiate the slope….’
And there are nearly 30 pages yet to go. You’ve seen the line thinning even before zero-hour – ‘He’s getting it now more accurately and each salvo brackets more narrowly’ – as men try to even out the gaps left by fallen comrades. ‘Perhaps they’ll cancel it… like a wet afternoon or the King’s birthday.’ But the last minute finally arrives, then passes, and ‘the world falls apart.’ You advance, terrifyingly slowly, ‘in open order, and keeping admirable formation and at the high-port position.’ And there are no euphemisms for the horror of it as some of them approach the wood on the ridge. ‘Who under the green tree had awareness of his dismembering, and deep-bowelled damage; for whom the green tree bore scarlet memorial…. Sweet sister death has gone debauched today and stalks on this high ground… makes no coy veiling of her appetite but leers from you to me with all her parts discovered.’
‘He’, or you, or they, have managed to survive against the odds, to find trenches and barbed wire the Germans have left behind, ‘to snare among the briars, with meadow-sweet and lady-smock for a fair camouflage’. And… and again I’m managing not to convey any of the restless, almost hysterical anxiety of it. In the wood, or before you reach it, men die whose name Ball knows and we think we might too. Mr Jenkins the lieutenant has done his best, but… ‘He sinks on one knee, / and now on the other,’ and soon his helmet is a ‘jerked iron saucer over tilted brow, / clampt unkindly over lip and chin, / nor no ventaille to this darkening.’
Up in the wood you recognise nobody as an officer counts nineteen men from various platoons or companies and re-groups them as best he can. There are new orders to take more ground or whatever it is you’re supposed to be doing, and terrible things carry on happening. An attempt to staunch the bleeding of a wounded soldier comes to nothing as ‘the darking blood percolates and he dies in your arms.’ There’s the head of a man who was your comrade until just now, grinning like a Cheshire Cat. The living are little better off, and there is and imagined future of ‘glass eyes to see and synthetic parts to walk in the Triumphs’ while the blinded one ‘will learn a handicraft.’ The bitterness of it is almost unbearable.
More happens in the meantime. Plans continue to be made, and orders given, and the Acorn-sprite continues her work. (‘I meant that the oak spirit… took these men to herself in the falling tree,’ the note informs us.) Confusion reigns – ‘which way is front, which way’s the way on and where’s the corporal’ – and ‘it’s a monumental bollocks every time.’
The last four pages are terribly sad: ‘when golden vanities make about (note) you’ve got no legs to stand on. / He thought it disproportionate in its violence considering the fragility of us. / The warm fluid percolates between his toes and his left boot fills…. / It’s difficult with the weight of the rifle.’ It takes him two pages do leave the rifle which, it has been drummed into him – ‘Fondle it like a granny – talk to it –’ is the best friend he has. There are stretcher-bearers on duty, but ‘how many men could bear away a third of us?’ so… ‘Lie still under the oak… The feet of the reserves tread level with your forehead; and no word for you; they whisper one with another….’ It seems he is no longer there, and Jones ends with a translation from La Chanson de Roland:
‘… the man who does not know this does not know anything.’