An extract from Rowland Feilding’s War Letters to a Wife was a good choice, I thought, for the unseen passage in the AQA AS Level ‛Literature of the First World War’ paper this year.
Jonathan Walker’s preface to his excellent edition of the letters fills in the background on this very competent and thoughtful soldier. Here’s the gist.
In the 1890s, Feilding had briefly been a soldier, fighting in Matabeleland, but his real profession was that of mining engineer. Before the War, however, he had a role as a captain in a territorial battalion, and in August 1914 joined their headquarters in London.
When he was transferred to France in April 1915, his wife, Edith, whom he had married in 1903, made him promise that he would write letters containing the truth – because she knew that the War would be a grim one, and if she felt he was hiding anything, she would imagine the worst. Two of her brothers, after all, had died in the Boer War.
He went to France with the Coldstream Guards, but in 1916 was given the rank of acting major and transferred to command the 6th Connaught Rangers, an Irish battalion (all volunteers, of course). He describes the Irish soldiers under his command as easy to lead but hard to drive, and was constantly impressed by their commitment and resilience.
His letters to his wife are frank about the conditions of war and contain many lively descriptions of front-line events – his account of an impromptu truce to collect wounded is the best I’ve read. The section on the terrible fighting of Spring 1918 is particularly gripping. He gives a very full impression of his working life; only the sort of information potentially valuable to an enemy is self-censored. After a major attack, he apologises for not having let his wife know about it in advance, but seems confident that she will understand why.
The extract set for the AS exam comes from a letter of December, 1916. The bloke who sets the exam has played fair, as usual, providing candidates with plenty to write about. He always finds passages which display some kind of conflict in the writer’s thoughts and feelings. In this case, Feilding expresses his extreme admiration for the men under his command, while being clearly concerned that the circumstances of war force them to fight in such grim conditions and resentful of those at home who are doing nicely out of the war – especially the workers impeding the war effort by striking for higher wages while soldiers are enduring grim conditions for little reward.
I’ve just finished marking 200 AS exam scripts, each of which has to give an account of Feilding’s letter in the compulsory first question. Those with a wide knowledge of War literature and a basic grasp of history have done well, but some candidates have made heavy weather of it. Some, though, automatically assumed that any soldier who decribed trench conditions as icy must be making a Sassoon-style protest. But Rowland Feilding wasn’t like that. He describes the icy and unpleasant conditions in which they are fighting – but he does so in order to stress the determination and cheerfulness with which they uncomplainingly carry on.
The students who informed their examiner that ‛Rowland Feilding is obviously very anti-war’ should maybe consider this letter, which he sent to his wife a while after the Armistice:
After all, there was a good deal to be said in favour of the old trench life. There were none of the mean haunting fears of poverty there, and the next meal — if you were alive to take it — was as certain as the rising sun. The rations were the same for the “haves” and the “have nots,” and the shells fell, without favour, upon both.
In a life where no money passes the ownership of money counts for nothing. Rich and poor alike stand solely upon their individual merits, without discrimination. You can have no idea, till you have tried it, how much pleasanter life is under such circumstances.
In spite—or partly perhaps because of the gloominess of the surroundings, there was an atmosphere of selflessness and a spirit of camaraderie the like of which has probably not been seen in the world before — at least on so grand a scale. Such is the influence of the shells !
The life was a curious blend of discipline and good-fellowship; wherein men were easily pleased; where there was no gossip; where even a shell when it had just missed you produced a sort of exultation; — a life in the course of which you actually got used to the taste of chloride of lime in tea.
In short, there was no humbug in the trenches, and that is why—with all their disadvantages—the better kind of men who have lived in them will look back upon them hereafter with something like affection.
This is not necessarily, of course, a point of view with which all the soldiers under his command would have agreed.
While I mark, I occasionally like to imagine Rowland Feilding’s reactions to the things students write about him. So I’d definitely like his comment, for example, on the young woman who wrote
‛Lt.Col. Rowland Feilding hated everything about the war and was not at all patriotic.’
But most of all I’d like his response to the essay that began:
Rowland Feilding says: ‛I can never express in writing what I feel about the men in the trenches’. At this time homosexuality was a subject that people did not generally talk about…