Edward Thomas and Arras, at the IWM

I spent a good afternoon yesterday at the Imperial War Museum, attending an event organised jointly by the Edward Thomas Fellowship and the War Poets Association.
Thomas met his death at the Battle of Arras, of course, and the two speakers yesterday afternoon came at that subject from interestingly different directions.
First Sir Martin Gilbert gave a lucid account of the background of the battle, and its miserable course. The British only fought there because Nivelle insisted that the French attack on the Aisne would be decisive, if a British attack diverted troops and covered the French flank.
It was April, but the weather was wintry. The British attacked first, with tanks and a creeping barrage, and had immense initial success, breaking through the first two German lines. Once the breakthrough was made, the cavalry advanced, disappearing into a blizzard of snow as they sang the Eton Boating Song (“jolly boating weather”) before being pushed back by machine gun fire.
Nivelle’s offensive was a complete disaster and those British initial successes were wasted. The average of daily British casualties in this battle was greater than at either the Somme or Passchendaele.
This was the battle where Edward Thomas found himself as a forward observer for artillery (dangerous job) and where he was killed by a shell blast. Jean Moorcroft Wilson, who is currently writing a biography of Thomas, tried to untangle the motives that led him to enlist. He hated jingoism, he was worried about leaving his wife and children in the lurch, he was a man who disliked crowds, an dhe was something of a hypochondriac. Not obvious soldier material, yet over the year after August 1914 he seems gradually have come to the conclusion that he should enlist. Jean Moorcroft Wilson suggested that his reasons were a mixture of the private and the public. Perhaps his sometimes fraught relationship with Robert Frost ahd something to do with it? What I found most interesting was the suggestion that he developed a growing (non-jingoistic) identification with the country whose wartime state he had been reporting for Austin Harrison’s English Review.
Jean Moorcroft Wilson indicated that she is still struggling fully to understand Thomas, a man whom she finds it harder to like than previous biographical subjects like Rosenberg and Sassoon. I look forward to reading her full judgment on him in the book, when it appears in a couple of years.
So it was a good afternoon, and the event was well worth going to, even though the rail journey there was awful. Chiltern Railways took two and a half hours to carry me from Bicester to London. Luckily I had a very good book with me – The World My Wilderness, Rose Macaulay’s novel about a wild child at large in the bombsites of post-WWII London. Highly recommended.

2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] by the Hero of the “Planter” by noreply@blogger.com (Ron Coddington) at Faces of War5. Edward Thomas and Arras, at the Iwm by George Simmers at Great War Fiction6. Review: a Guide to the Battles of the American Revolution […]

  2. […] by the Hero of the “Planter” by noreply@blogger.com (Ron Coddington) at Faces of War5. Edward Thomas and Arras, at the Iwm by George Simmers at Great War Fiction6. Review: a Guide to the Battles of the American Revolution […]

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