Book 3 of the Parade’s End tetralogy
[Christopher Tietjens commanding his troops in the trenches in 1918]
It seemed to make it all the worse that they were all, with the exception of the Commanding Officer himself, of the little, dark, Cockney type and had the Cockney’s voice, gesture and intonation, so that Tietjens felt himself like a blond Gulliver with hair very silver in patches, rising up amongst a lot of Lilliputian brown creatures . . .
A large cannon, nearer than the one that had lately spoken, but as it were with a larger but softer voice, remarked: ‘Phohhhhhhhhh,’ the sound wandering round the landscape for a long while. After a time about four coupled railway-trains hurtled jovially amongst the clouds and went a long way away. Four in one. They were probably trying to impress the North Sea. It might of course be the signal for the German barrage to begin. Tietjens’ heart stopped; his skin on the nape of the neck began to prickle: his hands were cold. That was fear: the battle fear, experienced in strafes. He might not again be able to hear himself think. Not ever. What did he want of life? . . . Well, just not to lose his reason. One would pray: not that . . .
observations: To mark the anniversary of the outbreak of World War I.
This is the third part of Ford Madox Ford’s great work, Parade’s End (see earlier entries, and click on labels below) and it opens with the 1918 Armistice and then goes back to the trenches of the Western Front earlier that year. Christopher Tietjens’ military story shows the randomness of war, the importance of minor politicking, and the pettiness and vindictiveness of ordinary human beings caught up the in conflict. People make decisions for bizarre reasons, and the results are life-changing. Christopher himself stopped O Nine Morgan from going home, for what seemed like good reasons, only to have the Welsh soldier die in his arms.
Ford gives incredibly detailed descriptions of the administration and logistics of the troops: it is close to incomprehensible, and should be very boring, but you get a feel for it without thinking you could write a plan for the preparations for moving the troops up the line. You also find out that, for example, Tietjens can go riding for pleasure from the trenches, an unlikely image (though he is then suspected of being a spy.)
In one of his human moments, Tietjens wants less responsibility as an officer:
‘Do you think it makes any difference to them what officers they have?’ Tietjens asked. ‘Wouldn’t it be all the same if they had just anyone?’
The Sergeant said: ‘No, sir. They bin frightened these last few days. Now they’re better.’ This was just exactly what Tietjens did not want to hear.
He never shows much of a sense of humour, but then imagines a letter he would like to send to the woman he loves – the charm coming from the word ‘please’:
‘This is to tell you that I propose to live with you as soon as this show is over. You will be prepared immediately on cessation of active hostilities to put yourself at my disposal. Please. Signed, Xtopher Tietjens, Acting OC 9th Glams.’In fact, you wouldn’t be completely sure this was a joke, except it’s painstakingly spelled out: ‘A proper military communication.’
Tietjens decides that if he dies, Sylvia (his wife, and not the woman he loves) will look good in black with touches of white, and remarry very quickly, probably General Campion. He remembers the gold dress from the previous entry, which would look good with the general’s uniform.
The British Imperial War Museum has a haunting collection of photographs of WW1 soldiers, (we have used one before on the blog) and I chose this one (with the greatest possible respect) as looking almost like a painting, and resembling my idea of Tietjens. It is Bertie Frith Dinelli, who died in September 1916 at Delville Wood.