28 September-5 October 1915: Edward Thomas at Camp

Edward Thomas often did not date his letters, other than writing the day of the week at the top of the page.  He is far from the only person to have done this, the Wandsworth archive collections are full of correspondence which is not well dated and for which other information has to be used to establish when it were written.  For two letters written to Eleanor Farjeon in late September/early October 1915, one has a postmark which dates it to this week and the other has no clue at all – the envelope has been lost and all that Edward Thomas wrote on it by way of date was “Wednesday”.

ET Oct 1915The letter with the postmark was postmarked Loughton, 9.30pm, 30 September 1915.  Thomas gives no address, but the later letter was written from Hut 23, Harehall Camp, Gidea Park. Romford South, so it seems reasonable to assume that the earlier letter was as well.  Thomas had joined the Artists’ Rifles, more information about them in Harehall Camp can be found here and here, and Havering Museum have photographs of the Camp and local area here.

Thomas’s opinion of the camp was that: “It is not so bad, but now that the rain has come it is worse.  There is no comfort after wking + it is dark.  The canteen is the only place, noisy, draughty and ugly.  Everything is badly arranged, ugly and dirty.  But one has an appetite and can satisfy it, and the country is beautiful, and for a week the weather was perfect.”

He was writing in response to a letter from Eleanor, which presumably asked after his own reading or writing:

“No.  Books are all off except a 6d one on Company Training, which I must learn by heart…I find I can learn some things yet, and I am just curious what I shall be able to do with a pen if and when I take to it again”

His other letter from this period, undated, but place in the sequence of letters as if written the following week,  also refers to writing: “We are having too easy a time, so that again I have reverted and written some verses, I am afraid they aren’t finished.  I never have any time really to myself and have continually to be putting my paper away..I will copy out the verses as they exist now + if you like them will you make a copy or two of them?”

The verses in question are a draft of the poem, There’s Nothing Like the Sun:

There’s nothing like the sun as the year dies

Kind as it can be, this world being so,

To stones and men and beasts and beer and flies,

To all things that it tricks except snow

Whether on mountainside or street of town

The south wall warms me.  November has begun.

Yet never shone the sun as fair as now

While the sweet last-left damsons from the bough

With spangles of the morning’s storm drop down

Because the starling shakes it whistling what

Once swallows sang.  Yet I can forget not

That there is nothing, too, like March’s sun,

Like April’s, or July’s, or June’s, or May’s,

Or January’s, or February’s, great days:

August, September, October and December

Have equal days, all different from November.

No day of any month but I have said –

Or if I could live long enough should say –

There’s nothing like the sun shining today –

There’s nothing like the sun till a man’s dead.

ET October 1915 2

Edward Thomas letters to Eleanor Farjeon, 123 &124, ref: D112/1/3

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20-26 July 1915: Poetry written whilst waiting in Balham

Last week’s blog post mentioned the letter from Edward Thomas to his friend Eleanor Farjeon about coming to London to be attested.  This week’s post looks at the letters he wrote a few days after he joined up, again to Eleanor.

On Tuesday 20th July, Edward wrote from his parents’ house in Rusham Road, Balham, that “yesterday I was attested”.  Attestation was the start of the process of joining up when the recruit completed the attestation forms.  He also wrote that he had been having trouble with his feet and was due to visit the doctor, apologising for delay in writing:

Otherwise I should wait longer until I had seen the doctor.  I only hope he won’t give me leisure to think why I joined.  Several people have asked me; but I could not answer yet. 

The following day he writes again, also from Balham, having had to be signed off by the doctor until the tendons in his foot had recovered.

Letter to Eleanor Farjeon

Letter to Eleanor Farjeon

This letter finishes with him requesting “don’t tell anybody I aren’t a soldier yet, tho I am in uniform”, presumably in relation to being signed off, but the bulk of it refers to the poetry he has been writing whilst in Balham waiting:

…six hours over ten lines which perhaps are not right yet.  But if you would type them for me could see them better.  They are

What matter makes my spade for tears or mirth

Letting down two old pipes into the earth?

The one I smoked, the other a soldier

Of Blenheim, Ramillies, & Malplaquet

Perhaps.  The dead man’s immortality

Lies lightly represented with my own,

A yard or two nearer the air of day

Than bones of ancients who, amazed to see

Almighty God erect the mastodon,

One laughed or wept at what earth had to bear

Detail of "Digging"

Detail of “Digging”

The finished version of the poem can be seen here.  Prior to the war Thomas had mainly written criticism, rather than poetry, the outbreak of the war and the influence of his friend Robert Frost meant that he began writing poems in autumn 1914. He often sent drafts or material for typing to Eleanor, getting her to comment on it as well as to type it up – the commentary was a service he provided for her as well.  Drafts of his poems within the collection include “Lob” and “Lights Out”, the latter we’ll come to in a future blog.

Letters to Eleanor Farjeon, 1915, ref: D112/1/3

Letters quoted are numbers 114 &115 and available on microfilm in the first instance.

 

13th – 19th July 1915: Battersea Council controversy and Edward Thomas plans to join up

The minutes of the Battersea Borough Council meeting of 14 July 1915 do not give much hint of a controversial meeting.  Amidst the usual business, four members of staff from the Highways department were given permission to join the Forces (W Franklin, labourer; J Connolly, roadman; R G Vollar, pavior; G W Sinden, labourer), as were W J Kelly, a second class clerk with the Borough Surveyor’s department and J Lee, whose permission came from the Baths and Washhouses Committee but doesn’t record his occupation.  There was also a decision not to pay an additional War Bonus requested by the London, Erith and Southall District Allied Engineering Trades Joint Committee.

The controversy, well reported by the South Western Star but only hinted at in the minutes, was over the reduction in labour required by the Highways Department.  The recommendation was for the Council to approve the road cleansing section going from 142 workmen to 100, pensioning 30 of the men and saving £1784 18s a year (roughly £76,857 in today’s money).  Mr Willis stood down as leader of the Progressives on Battersea Council, because they had wanted to refer all the reductions back to the Finance Committee and raise the money to keep the posts by further appealing to the ratepayers.  The Star refers to this as a “noble stand”.  After much discussion over whether other Committees were also cutting back, and if it was right to cut jobs – with one councillor protesting that it was taking bread out of the mouths of the poor and he could not agree as he was a “trade union leader” – the decision eventually went to a vote.  33 members of the Council voted in favour, and 22 against.  This caused uproar in the gallery, with people calling Mr Willis a traitor and a turncoat – although the Star acknowledged that Mr Willis was clearly affected by emotion during the proceedings.

Elsewhere the paper reports on the ongoing recruitment drive, saying that there were now 100 men in the Battersea battalion.  It also records that Wandsworth had instituted a “corps of lady recruiters… Battersea will go one better, it always does when in competition with Wandsworth.  Wait a little while and we shall have a recruiting procession in Battersea that will make Wandsworth despair”.

The recruitment drive across the country was clearly having an effect, as on 15th July the writer and critic Edward Thomas wrote to his friend, Eleanor Farjeon:

My mystery was this.  I have just seen the doctor and been passed by him + am coming up to town again on Monday to join the Artists Rifles…

Wandsworth Heritage Service holds Thomas’s letters to Eleanor Farjeon and we’ll be coming back to what he writes about his experiences in future weeks.

Battersea Borough Council minutes, ref: MBB/1/15

Edward Thomas correspondence, ref: D112/1/3

South Western Star available on microfilm