When I was first contacted by the international man of mystery who organises these events, I was asked to write something on Belloc and the Great War. In August of this year I visited the Shrine of Our Lady of Consolation at West Grinstead, astonishingly for the first time, and so I was particularly mindful of the fact that this year is the centenary of another event, certainly one of the most important, in Belloc’s life. To my mind there is a clear kinship between the private tragedy of the death of Belloc’s wife, Elodie, in February 1914 and the public tragedy that consumed him and so many others over the course of the Great War, so that considering them both in this talk seemed obvious – indeed a ‘clever stratagem’.
I am now not so sure that I haven’t produced something rather schizophrenic. As a sort of balance between this private matter of a loved one’s death and this public matter of the outbreak of war, and as both struck roughly midway through the Master’s life (indeed, how clearly he felt that year of 1914 as though in a dark wood, following a path that would lead through Hell to Purgatory and thence – please God – to Heaven), I am going to plunge us all into the middle of that year of 1914. Please bear with me! There is hopefully method in my madness.
It is the close of July 1914:
“Nothing was further from my mind than war and armament as the sun rose on that glorious July morning, right out of a clean horizon, towards which the wind blew fresh and cool. It was a light but steady wind of morning that filled my sails as I sat at the tiller with a blanket about me, and laying her head to the north.
We had just rounded the Start at dawn. My companion went below to sleep. I watched, over the quarter, the Start Light flashing pale and white in the broadening day, and at last extinguished. Then the sun rose… Immediately after its rising a sort of light haze filled the air to eastward. It was denser than it seemed to be for it did not obscure the low disc of the sun nor redden it, but, as you will read in a moment, it performed a mystery. The little ship slipped on, up past the Skerries Bank, and I could see far off the headland which bounds Dart Bay. There was no sail in sight. I was alone upon the sea; and the breeze neither freshening nor lowering, but giving a hearty line of course (along which we slipped, perhaps five knots or six) made the water speak merrily upon the bows and along the run of our low sides. In this loneliness and content, as I sailed northward, I chanced to look after an hour’s steering or so, eastward again towards the open sea – and then it was that there passed me the vision I shall remember for ever, or for so long as the longest life may last.
Like ghosts, like things themselves made of mist, there passed between me and the newly risen sun, a procession of great forms, all in line, hastening eastward. It was the Fleet recalled.
The slight haze along that distant water had thickened, perhaps, imperceptibly; or perhaps the great speed of the men-of-war buried them too quickly in the distance. But, from whatever cause, this marvel was of short duration. It was seen for a moment, and in a moment it was gone.
Then I knew that war would come, and my mind was changed.”
Now, these ships were not the only ghosts that he saw that year, or in those years that followed. Only a short while into that year of 1914 he must have reflected of another’s life: “It was seen for a moment, and in a moment it was gone.” For while 1914 brought War, it also brought a more particular ending, the death of the person closest to him – like a final note long-sounded which echoed throughout the years afterwards. Truly, this year afflicted Belloc like no other, and by its end more than his mind was perhaps changed.
We are all perhaps familiar – at least to some extent – with how frequently the themes of mortality, loss, loneliness, and death feature in Belloc’s writings, in his prose as in his poetry, in his essays and in some of his longer, more considered writings. It is tempting to think, at first, that these writings are a feature of the older Belloc, of the man seated before a dying fire in his late middle or old age, pondering the passing of family and friends and the dimming of the glorious effulgence of youth. But so much of what he wrote in youth, or at least during those years of rising sap and brimming energy carry these same marks – of awareness of final doom, of the hardening of affection and sadness that accompanies the passing of years, of how all life is loss and a gradual fading of perceptions and feelings.
Think of the sorrow that permeates his 1909 reflection on that image of his daughter running across the grass – The Portrait of a Child – that is manifestly full of almost grieving wisdom. Of essays on failure, loss, a soul always wandering unable to find its home, of dreams fading and shattered illusions – and these written by a man not yet forty years old and in the prime of life. Think of that doleful – if magnificent – passage of prose in The Four Men, mostly written in 1910, on “the worst thing in the world”, not untouched by wry humour, perceptive, but oh! so heavy with melancholy and the sense of loss that all talk of “the best thing in the world” that follows it seems – to me at least – strangely muted:
“When friendship disappears then there is a space left open to that awful loneliness of the outside which is like the cold of space between the planets. It is an air in which men perish utterly. Absolute dereliction is the death of the soul.”
How things that once seemed delightful lose their savour. How even the light loses its colour. How all things suddenly appear heavy, graceless, void:
“I was thinking of the light that shines through the horn, and how when the light is extinguished, the horn thickens cold and dull. I was thinking of irrevocable things.”
It is almost as though Belloc had some foresight of the tragedy that would strike him in February 1914, as though his writings had been an unconscious preparation for his loss.
It is difficult to know how to approach the death of Elodie Belloc. For anyone who holds the Master in great reverence – indeed who loves him – her death is a sad and painful matter. And yet it so deeply became part of what he was that in a way we can only be grateful for it. How many of us are not moved by the manner of mourning he adopted in her memory each day of his life until death. How many of us are not torn in some deep place at the vision of him passing by her bedroom door each night on the way to the chapel she had so lovingly prepared, to which she had given so much care. That door, sealed, the room behind left as it were, him passing before it to trace there the Sign of the Cross – the sign of dereliction, of abandonment, of pain – yes, but also of hope, for in hoc signo vinces.
Elodie had had a difficult winter as 1912 passed into 1913 – exhausted from the running of the house, its outbuildings and the land around them, a succession of heavy colds and fevers afflicting the children; so Belloc, upon advice, took her abroad to France to aid her recovery – as much in spirit as in body, for France was the country she loved almost beyond all others. He took her to Paris, then to Lourdes in the Pyrenees, where he left her for a month as he travelled yet more. Then, after re-joining her in Lourdes, they returned to Paris and thence back to Sussex. From reading the account of their daughter, Eleanor, most of the time he was away with her and Elizabeth, while Elodie rested. They climbed crags and crossed torrents in the mountains; and in Paris they visited galleries and churches, and relived the steps that he had taken with their mother all those years before.
That autumn the girls, Eleanor and Elizabeth, went to boarding school for the first time, aged 14 and 13 respectively – the boys were already away. Elodie’s health seems to have deteriorated fairly rapidly. Most of his biographers say it was cancer, although we cannot be sure. Some of her contemporaries thought it was a stroke, or a heart condition. Just before Christmas – that time she helped make so beautiful at King’s Land, and which Belloc wrote about so evocatively in his essay, A Remaining Christmas – she fell seriously ill and became very suddenly unable to swallow food. The Christmas period was spent by Belloc in a torpor of anxiety – outwardly busy as doctors visited from London and nurses came to stay, but inwardly all he felt was the still oppression of worry catching in his throat.
Her condition worsened over the New Year, but then there was a brief, cruel, respite. By 8 January she seemed better, or at least her condition, being no worse, appeared an improvement. The ‘Troll’s Hut’ in the grounds at King’s Land was “christened” on the Feast of St Hilary, and the children were taken to a pantomime in Brighton before their return to boarding school. By the 22 January there had been little further change – in other words, still no improvement – and Belloc wrote to a friend that she was “no better and no worse”. In truth, she was failing – her inability to recover was a sign of her terminal weakness.
Suddenly her condition worsened, the children were recalled from their schools and a priest was sent for. Belloc’s diary entries for this period end on 27 January. He wrote to a friend a few days later, on 30 January: “today and tomorrow will be anxious indeed”. She had received the Last Rites that morning; her refined, adopted, English accent began to lapse into her native Californian Irish; and, on the Feast of the Purification of Our Blessed Lady, that great Feast of Candlemas, just before midnight, she died.
“Nunc dimittis servum tuum Domine
Secundum verbum tuum in pace”
“Now dost Thou dismiss they servant, O Lord, according to Thy Word, in peace.” It was somehow fitting that she should die on such a great Feast, and one dedicated to Our Blessed Lady to whom she was so devoted. Fitting too that her body, laid out the following day in the hall at King’s Land for friends, family, servants and neighbours to pay their respects, was surrounded by bright candles.
“Lumen ad revelationem gentium” – a light of revelation to the Gentiles.
Fr Vincent McNabb, a new friend of Belloc’s and of his family, came down immediately from Leicester and said Holy Mass next to her body in the hall at King’s Land. It was the first time he had been there in his Dominican habit, and it was on this occasion that he walked with Belloc in the gardens outside his home to console and strengthen him – a walk that Belloc remembered as being vivid with the holiness of that great Dominican when he wrote his moving encomium for McNabb in Blackfriars some twenty-nine years later. Her requiem took place at the Shrine of Our Lady of Consolation, West Grinstead, their parish church, at 3.30pm on Thursday 5 February, the feast of St Agatha. Although the Propers of the Mass for that feast would not have been said at her Requiem, the words of the Tract are apposite, I think:
“Qui seminant in lacrimis in gaudio metent. Euntes ibant et flebant, mittentes semina sua. Venientes autem cum exsultatione, portantes manipulos suos.”
“They that sow in tears shall reap in joy. Going they went, and wept, casting their seeds. But coming, they shall come with joyfulness, carrying their sheaves.”
But, for Belloc, this was beyond being a time of tears. This was a time of utter desolation of spirit, for tears can be a consolation, but Belloc strained at the borders of despair. At her death he had flung himself sobbing upon her body and had been dragged away from her corpse, so great was his grief.
(from Down Channel)
“There will be no meeting of eyes, nor any blessing,
After the run.
The lips are still and the hand has ceased from caressing.
There is nothing more to be done.”
The weeks and indeed months that followed were a very great trial for him – his Faith was tested, and possibly his virtue and his honour.
He had once written of February in tones of quiet hope as winter passes and some small signs of new life emerge:
“The winter moon has such a quiet car
That all the winter nights are dumb with rest.
She drives the gradual dark with drooping crest,
And dreams go wandering from her drowsy star.
Because the nights are silent, do not wake:
But there shall tremble through the general earth,
And over you, a quickening and a birth,
The sun is near the hill-tops for your sake.
The latest born of all the days shall creep
To kiss the tender eyelids of the year;
And you shall wake, grown young with perfect sleep,
And smile at the new world, and make it dear,
With living murmurs more than dreams are deep.
Silence is dead, my Dawn; the morning’s here.”
How different now each February would seem to him, marked at its very outset not with new life but with the dulling tremor of remembered death!
In those days that followed her death, he felt the strength within him wane, as the integrity of his mind and soul trembled and seemed in danger of loss. He was fearful that her death would leave him unmanned and unable to continue.
We all know that Belloc was a man of considerable energy, but his flight from King’s Land shortly after Elodie’s death was quite staggering in its dynamism.
Towards the end of February, three weeks after Elodie’s death, he set off to Rome, a city Elodie had dearly loved, to see the Holy Father, Pope Pius X (not long for this world – his heart was to be broken by war). From there he travelled to Naples, then to Sicily. He had wanted to go to the Holy Land but felt that the featureless voyage by sea would be too long for his haunted mind to bear. Instead he crossed Sicily by foot and then took ship to Tunisia. From the North African coast he went inland and, after crossing the Atlas heights, spent two days looking down over the Sahara from their southernmost bulwarks. From thence he returned to the coast, took ship to Marseilles, journeyed through Provence, crossing the pass of La Croix Haute into Dauphiné, and then travelled north to Lorraine to visit Domrémy, and the home of St Jeanne d’Arc, before heading south a little to visit the French garrison at Toul (where most of the soldiers were very soon to fall under the scythe of War). By 17 March, perhaps some three weeks after setting out from King’s Land, he was in Lyons, and by 28 March he was back at King’s Land.
Exhausting as that itinerary sounds even to modern ears used to the convenience of air flight and modern travel, his great memory of these days was of sleepless nights, an affliction that would only grow worse as he grew older, but which was at this time particularly grievous for one so wounded by loss. He confessed to feeling abominably alone: “on many nights awake I did not think I could endure the coming of day, and… during certain days I did not think I could endure the coming of night”. In a letter to John Phillimore, sent from Lyons, he wrote:
“I desire you to take such means as should be taken, whether by prayers or by Masses, or any other means for my preservation… I am in peril of my intelligence and perhaps of my conduct and therefore of my soul, which deserves little through the enormity of what has happened… I find myself without powers, like a man shot in the stomach and through the spine.”
What was he fleeing? One thing for which Belloc was known – and greatly admired even by those who could not warm to other aspects of the man – was his capacity to bring the past to life. A significant part of this ability was that he seemed to see things that were not there – or at least no longer there – more clearly, more vividly, than most people see things that are there.
Historical imagination, some call it – except imagination seems to suggest thinking on things that are not and never were (“vain imaginaries”, to steal another’s term). Historical empathy, almost a clairvoyance of the past, was what Belloc possessed, recalling what was, as it was. An anamnesis, to use a technical, liturgical term – a recalling, a making real through remembrance of things past. But let us not choke on our madeleines.
He could make real in our minds as readers or listeners what he made real in his own – and if in that process of transference from his mind to ours there is some loss of the real, of colour, of shape and form, as surely there must be, then, given how substantial and active it still remains in our minds, how much more powerfully tangible it much have been in his – almost as though, in the empty fields at Silchester, amongst the ghostly ruins at Timgad, on the fabled battlefield of Valmy, or watching that lone farmer walking next the furrow of his plough in the gap at Hippo, he could reach out and, as it were, touch what was there, so real was it to him.
So, how the shade of Elodie must, near-substantive with his sorrow, have filled his home and the paths of his daily life, her movements, the lineaments of her face and form, the sound of her voice, each soft and smiling cadence, her perfume perhaps – how she must still have inhabited where he walked, where he sat, where he ate and smoked and drank and slept. And the intimate intensity of their married life forbade Belloc her bedroom forever, where memory, that vivid recalling, would simply have been too much for him to bear.
How desolate his home must have felt. King’s Land –
“Stand thou forever among human Houses,
House of the Resurrection, House of Birth;
House of the rooted hearts and long carouses,
Stand and be famous over all the Earth.”
Indeed, his secretary, Miss Ruby Goldsmith, in a letter to him after he had left for Rome, seems to infer that there was a suggestion that Belloc would close up the house and move elsewhere, so full of doleful memory would it be to him:
“… I think it would be a desecration to leave it (or any part of it) shut up and unused and I so hope you will never do that. But I now realise more than ever how overwhelmingly difficult it will be for you to live here again.”
Part of me hopes – believes – that when Belloc finally got permission to keep the Blessed Sacrament reserved in his chapel at King’s Land, he never again felt so severely the awful loneliness of Elodie’s ghostly presence, as instead another Presence would fill the house, and his soul, with Its solace.
Perhaps for now we should leave the tale of these sad months with the touching words of his daughter Eleanor, who was 14 years old when her mother died:
“…on February 2nd 1914, our beloved Mamma died, and life for HB, Kingsland, and us five children was never the same again. By August of that year the Great War thundered and slaughtered just beyond the Downs over the Channel and I began to grow up. My father told me that after a great loss and abiding grief there is always duty and toil left to pull us together and to enable us to start life again. He did his very best for us as far as he could, but without Mamma it must have been an intolerable burden at times.”
Burden indeed it was, and over the next months and years the world’s burden of woe was to grow to unimaginable proportions.
For now, to the War!
It is somehow refreshing that Belloc, often so broad in his knowledge of things continental, and so prophetic, neither knew immediately where Sarajevo was or who exactly the Archduke Franz Ferdinand was, nor felt immediately – or even upon reflection in the days afterwards – that war would ensue. It was during a break from his coastal tour upon his boat the “Nona”, a tour that he undertook in the early summer following Elodie’s death, that he heard the news of the assassination:
“I was staying in Hampshire with a friend who had a house in the New Forest. It was on a Sunday I set out thence. He sent me in his motor to Salisbury, where I wished to get to Mass before going on by train. During the Mass, the priest, after his announcements, asked the congregation to pray for the soul of the Archduke Heir-Apparent of Austria, who had been murdered at a place called Sarajevo. I had never heard the name, and I had but a vague idea of who this Archduke was, of his relationship to the Emperor, and of his heirship to the throne of Hapsburg-Lorraine. I came to the “Nona” where she lay, and sailed out with her into the sea for some days. I had no conception that anything could be brewing.”
Back upon land some small time later, he returned to London where he “found the air to be filled with all the possibilities of that time.” He spoke to many people, and only one felt the likely advent of war, and that not a war that would engulf Britain. The reasons this man gave were thin and Belloc dismissed them. Yet the man was right:
“It was a good example [he later said] of hitting a mark by firing wide: like the duellist in the dark room who in mercy shot up the chimney, yet brought down his opponent”.
It was only, as we have already heard, when Belloc was back at sea at the tail-end of July and saw the Fleet returning that he knew war was certain.
And so we come to August and the outbreak of the war:
“The soldier month, the bulwark of the year,
That never more shall hear such victories told;
He stands apparent with his heav’n-high spear,
And helmeted of grand Etruscan gold,
Our harvest is the bounty he has won,
The loot his fiery temper takes by strength.
Oh! Paladin of the Imperial sun!
Oh! Crown of all the seasons come at length.
This is sheer manhood; this is Charlemagne,
When he with his wide host came conquering home,
From vengeance under Roncesvalles ta’en.
Or when his bramble beard flaked red with foam
Of bivouac wine-cups on the Lombard plain,
What time he swept to grasp the world at Rome.”
Now, I am not here as an historian of the Great War but as a man speaking on Belloc. However, I have read enough of the causes of the War and the ongoing controversies as to where blame most lies – and even as to whether it was a War worth fighting at all – that all I can say is that the jury will always be out. There can be no unanimous decision. Twelve good men and true will always disagree. Russian movements towards the East Prussian border suggested mobilisation to the Germans; but Russian mobilisation – when it came – was so wretchedly done that it hardly looked like mobilisation at all to some Allied observers. The French said the Germans came too near the border; the Germans blame the French for the same offence. In a game of continental chicken, the question of who moved first – and whether that movement was sufficient to justify what followed, even against the background of tinder-box foreign policies, rising anxiety and flammable nationalisms – seems almost irrelevant.
As an aside, and as a home-schooling father of eight children, it strikes me as pertinent that Chesterton blamed compulsory state education for the War.
Belloc wrote in 1911 (he tells us – I cannot find the text) that continental war at some point was inevitable but that it was still some way off. Changes to conscription and the training of reservists in Germany triggered off analogous changes in France, and that escalation – similar to the “dreadnought duel” with Britain – seemed to Belloc to indicate the need for an eventual reckoning.
Belloc admits how little he understood at the time how near the War was: but there is one thing he repeats again and again in his work – that the War might have been avoided but for the prevarication of British politicians. Perhaps we see here his lingering resentment for the political class with which he dabbled in his pre-parliamentary Chelsea days and during those so often unsatisfactory Sessions in the Commons as an MP. It is difficult in reading his verdict on the dithering of the Cabinet not to admit that his assessment of most politicians of his day as being little more than Party-controlled pygmies incapable of responding with decisiveness and acuity to sudden momentous events played some part in this judgement:
“It was later, when I had come ashore again, and had reached London, that I learnt of the prolonged hesitation among the politicians, men by their petty trade unused to and unfit for tasks of magnitude; of the French President’s letter and that ambiguous reply to it, drafted and published; of the final voting when, by a majority of one, the Cabinet decided upon war. Had the virility of such a decision been known even four days earlier, war would not have come. But it was too late.”
And so Belloc blames Britain. Germany was prepared for continental war on two fronts. She rated Britain’s military contribution on land as very slight – that contemptible little army – but knew that the British fleet could place such a stranglehold on Germany that she would starve to death unless German victory was sudden and complete. And there lay the risk. Would Germany have stepped back from the brink if that Cabinet decision had been made earlier, or would Prussian hubris have driven it on, reckoning quick victory certain?
What I find startling and an interesting counterpoint to the spiritual jingoism of Father McNabb in his book Europe’s Ewe Lamb, and to Chesterton’s rather strident patriotism of the time, is Belloc’s generous assessment of those who opposed Britain’s going to war in Cabinet. For, despite this ladling of blame over the senior political class, he is more generous to them than might be expected – at least by the time he wrote The Cruise of the Nona, ten to eleven years after the events of that summer of 1914:
“Amongst the nine who gave their votes in favour of the neutrality of Britain, some were actuated, as we know, by base, one, as we know too well, by the basest of motives: mere trivial personal ambition for success in the wretched tawdry game of professional politics, which was the only craft he knew. But some also acted from the noblest of motives and rise for the moment above the foetid marsh-mist of Westminster. These I shall always respect for the strength of their wills and the clarity of their convictions in so awful a moment.”
When War came, Belloc was all for it, knowing Prussianism for the evil menace that it was. Yet he knew that no treaty or compact of nations could hold one nation to pursue a course to self-destruction, and that if Britain had felt in those dreadful days that that war would consume and destroy it, then it could – indeed should – have held back:
“I would say that even if a formal and solemn alliance had existed, anyone holding authority in England at that moment, and conceiving that participation in the Continental war would ultimately ruin Great Britain, had a right to seek for any phrase in the written pact which could save his country from disaster – and such phrases can always be found. I will go further: I will say that the certitude of disaster on such a scale would excuse even a breach of faith.”
Such a balanced – even bloodless – perspective on this matter is something most would not expect from a man for whom the German nation represented much of what he loathed about the post-Reformation, indeed post-Roman, European settlement. Yet, as those who have read much of his historical and biographical work will conclude, he was a man – deemed polemical and bigoted by those who often do not read him – who was capable of very just assessment, and generous to the virtues of even those he considered to be the enemies of the Light.
As I think we all know, within weeks of War breaking out, Belloc was approached by Murray (Jim) Allison to write articles on the War for Land and Water. After three hours of hard negotiation, he agreed, and thereby reached the greatest regular audience of his life (for Land and Water was to have a circulation of some 100,000 weekly). Some have suggested that in so doing he was working for the official propaganda wing of the Government (as many, many authors of the time did – from G K Chesterton to John Buchan). However, his writings in some respects seem not to fall so simply into this category, although they were yet marked by a gleam of optimism that events themselves did not suggest was entirely appropriate.
And so, for Belloc, the War – and the opportunity it provided him for work - was in some respects a God-send: they provided an opportunity for busy-ness and distraction. And Belloc did more than write – he spoke very frequently at public meetings and held the floor at gatherings of volunteers and public. He was – on account of the popularity of Land and Water – in great demand. He visited the Front on numerous occasions (or as close to the Front as he was allowed to get, certainly nearer the action than Haig’s apocryphal drinks cabinet, but not that much nearer), hobnobbing with both the British and French militaries. He claimed that the French gave him easier access to better intelligence – and his articles in Land and Water reflect both his interest in what was happening to the French, who were often barely in the minds of other journalists, and his understanding of how the French – obviously – were key to the future course of the War.
Distraction of a less welcome sort was also provided in a different way by the deaths that began to cluster around him like moths about his flame of memory. Such a torrent of sad news, of grim news, such a catalogue of sorrow and doom, might have seemed in some way to dilute the deep sorrow of his loss of Elodie. This is not in any way to minimise that loss, which stayed with him, which marked him – as well as his garb – for the rest of his life. But, although their cause was different, he was able to share his loss with so many friends – and hundreds of thousands unknown to him – who also lost those closest to them. An intolerable burden can just be borne when it is known to be shared: sometimes, the grief of another causes us not to tarry so long, or so often, in our own sad and grey garden. Of such is the least and most natural boon of what we call the Communion of Saints.
He sought employment of course, believing that – despite his age – he must be of use to someone. Of course, in France, some of their Territorials called up (some of whom, large with the benison of French cuisine and long days watching their children toil in the fields) nonetheless deftly shielded the left flank of the BEF at Le Cateau. And Belloc was a fit and very active man at 44, who could probably outmarch many of those called back to fill the ranks of half-strength British battalions at the depots in those first weeks of August.
There was a proposal for Belloc, as someone who possibly knew well the roads in northern France, to join the staff of the Duke of Westminster who, early in the War, was arming six Rolls Royce armoured cars to join in the ‘Race to the Sea’. This came to nothing, as did the proposal by Bron Lucas later in the War for Belloc to join Churchill’s personal staff at the Admiralty – Churchill lost his position there before this could be realised. There was even some scheme for Belloc to travel out to India. Surprisingly it seems that nothing was forthcoming from the French side either, despite the better access he seemed to have to their headquarters staff, their leadership and their intelligence material.
This must have been a blow to Belloc’s sense of himself and to his desire to contribute, and, in some small way, to relive his days with the French guns (“the best days of his life”, he said during one Parliamentary debate). His optimism was typically superb at the outset: in a letter to Maurice Baring written in October 1914 he said:
“They have not let me go to the War, and I am correspondingly peevish, but by dint of perpetual effort I shall go.”
He was wrong.
As was commonly held during and after the War, at least until arose the fashion for portraying all generals as knaves and fools, and all soldiers as addled sheep, tricked – deceived craftily – into mistaken self-sacrifice, and the War itself as no more than an inglorious waste of life, those who had died fighting for their country were considered almost as martyrs:
“The souls of the just are in the hand of God, and the torments of death shall not touch them. In the sight of the unwise they seemed to die, and their departure was taken for misery; and their going away from us for utter destruction: but they are in peace. And though in the sight of men they suffered torments, their hope is full of immortality. Afflicted in few things, in many they shall be rewarded: because God hath tried them and found them worthy of himself.”
Not, in this instance, the words of Belloc, but words with which he would have been familiar, from the Book of Wisdom, and the Mass of the Common of Two or More Martyrs of the immemorial Roman Rite.
Now, there is less to be said about Belloc as an historian of the Great War than many think. Essentially his works are those of a well-read and intelligent journalist. Near contemporary history is very difficult to write at the best of times (distance lends perspective and perspective provides context) – but during a time of war, unless given access to a level of information even unavailable to divisional commanders, famously in the dark especially in the early War about what was going on even to either side of them, it is pretty much impossible.
Belloc produced four books during the War all compiled from his articles for Land and Water, edited, amended and updated as appropriate.
· A General Sketch of the European War: the first phase – published 1 June 1915
· The Two Maps of Europe and some other aspects of the Great War – published June 1915
· A General Sketch of the European Way: the second phase – published July 1916
· The Second Year of the War – published in the late summer of 1916
No further books were compiled although his articles for Land and Water continued beyond that year – this probably says as much about the public’s declining appetite for such material, as the War’s horrors deepened and casualty lists grew, as about his waning reputation as an accurate and trusted war-writer. Most of this material that appeared in book-form deals only with the very first few months of the War – months that set the scene for the debilitating deadlock that followed, but which still only represented a fraction of the conflict taken as a whole.
Access to detailed information from the Western Front (even for the best connected) was massively limited. (Knowledge of the Eastern Front was thinner still, relying almost entirely upon official dispatches – even Liaison Officers for the Allied Powers observing the critical passage of arms at Tannenberg, Lemberg and the Masurian Lakes were all but oblivious to the details of what was transpiring no more than 20 or 30 miles from where they were stationed with the local Russian Army headquarters.)
Notably, however, Belloc doesn’t fall wholesale for some of the wilder – and well-believed tales – coming out of the War, especially in the first months: the ‘Angel of Mons’, the landing of Russians in Belgium (or alternatively in north-east England) or the inspiring (absurd) picture of Highland battalions charging into battle hanging on to the stirrups of British cavalry (some ‘journo’ or ‘squaddie’ elaboration of Tacitus on the barbarians of Germania, ironically). He also didn’t fall into the fashion of believing the War would be over before Christmas, or before the leaves fall, and held with Kitchener that it would be a long struggle. He certainly had a better grasp of continental military realities that many of those writing on the War, and also understood the nature of the landscape over which the War would rage before gouging down like a wound across the countryside.
It is obviously not just right and appropriate, but also fitting and just, to be giving this talk in this centenary year, but also upon this date – and not only because it is the 96th anniversary of that silence that fell when the guns stopped. We ought not to forget that on this day 100 years ago, 11 November 1914, took place the great attack by Army Group Fabeck, principally against the BEF in the early salient around Ypres. The first penetration of the Allied line that day was blamed on a regiment of Zoauves breaking under artillery fire. Foch had given Haig use of some French battalions on account of the depletion of the BEF since August (many units were reduced from near 1,000 men to little more than 200, the worst losses being recent and not yet recouped with extra reservists). Also the front the British troops were required to cover was too great without some Allied support.
Yet, despite the German breakthrough, the BEF held on. In the same way that the thwarting of the German attack on Gheluvelt just twelve days before made the name of the Worcesters renowned, the driving of the Germans – the Prussian Guard Division, at that – from the Nun’s Copse on 11 November exalted the name of the Ox and Bucks Light Infantry. Some consider that this action saved the War for the Allies, and was the most critical encounter of the whole “First Wipers”. It was certainly the last major attack of the year on the British lines: when the Germans had broken through there were no reserves – and nothing lay between the Prussian Guardsmen and the BEF Corps Headquarters. If the Germans had not been thrown back, the game would have been up.
“November is that historied Emperor,
Conquered in age, but foot to foot with fate,
Who from his refuge high has heard the roar
Of squadrons in pursuit, and now, too late,
Stirrups the storm and calls the winds to war,
And arms the garrison of his last heirloom,
And shakes the sky to its extremest shore
With battle against irrevocable doom.
Till, driven and hurled from his strong citadels,
He flies in hurrying cloud and spurs him on,
Empty of lingerings, empty of farewells
And final benedictions, and is gone.
But in my garden all the trees have shed
Their legacies of the light, and all the flowers are dead.”
If anything, despite the reputation Belloc received for unwarranted optimism and a perhaps inevitable tendency to over-state likely German casualties and minimise those amongst the Allies, Belloc’s assessment of the War as it dragged on was cautious and – to be blunt – not a little dull. I have not been able to scour all Belloc’s articles for Land and Water (a considerable task awaiting someone with greater energy and focus, and a more detailed historical knowledge than I could possibly lend to the task). Many of those articles relating to the early War are available online and repay some reading. Admittedly the war of manoeuvre that surged back and forth across north-western Europe makes for more gripping reading than the attritional ‘bite and hold’ assaults on trench fortifications that predominated through the years that followed.
Nonetheless, Belloc’s account of the first year of the War in his books reads far too much like a mathematical treatise in which calculations about size, manoeuvrability and momentum will in some weird way dictate with axiomatic inevitability a definite and particular outcome. In reality, the March to the Marne and the retreat to the Aisne where the Germans just held their position along the shattered chalk-white crest of the Chemin des Dames, followed by the ‘Race to the Sea’ and the desperate, bloody grappling around the Ypres salient, was more a product of confusion than calculation – and the German failure to seize Paris was as much to do with logistical failure, miscalculation and miscommunication as it was Gallieni and the taxis of Paris, the rallying of the BEF, or Foch’s heroics at Mondement and the Marshes of St Gond.
How many times, I wonder, as he wrote of those opening weeks of the war, was his mind drawn back to his own time with the guns, when at exercise and manoeuvres he and his comrades often traversed the same land as that over which the War was now raging, set their guns perhaps below the crest of the same hills, and bivouacked in the same combes. And how many times, as he thought of those still, dark hours seeking sleep below the stars with his comrades around him, did his mind go back to memories of who had visited him during those nights?
“You came without a human sound,
You came and brought my soul to me;
I only woke, and all around
They slumbered on the firelit ground,
Beside the guns in Burgundy.
I felt the gesture of your hands,
You signed my forehead with the Cross;
The gesture of your holy hands
Was bounteous – like the misty lands
Along the hills in Calvados.
But when I slept I saw your eyes,
Hungry as death, and very far.
I saw demand in your dim eyes
Mysterious as the moons that rise
At midnight, in the Pines of Var.”
In short, the books which sprang from Belloc’s writings during the War, writings which brought him a larger regular audience than he ever had before (or had afterwards), are some of his least readable and interesting books. There is an irony in this – they are something for which he received, at least initially, the most popular praise (or notice, at least) and for which he reached the attention, the eyes and ears, of the most people across the country for something that represents, relatively, the dross of his writing. I don’t want to be unfair – the level of detail in his articles is greater than that in his books which read rather like geometrical treatises: there is much good sense in his articles, steady and authoritative assessment of forces, of topographical influence upon the campaign: a careful and comprehensible exposition of the principles of strategy and tactics for the changing war of the time. But there is little to make the blood sing or heart race, and the articles and the books, like the War itself, become attritional and heavy and wear the reader down.
“Here are two oblongs – A, left blank, and B, lightly shaded. Supposing these two oblongs combined to represent the area of two countries which are in alliance, and which are further so situated that B is the weaker Power to the alliance both (1) in his military strength, and (2) in his tenacity of purpose. Next grant that B is divided by the dotted line, CD, into two halves – B not being one homogeneous State but two States, B1 and B2.
Next let it be granted that while B1 is more likely to remain attached in its alliance to A, B2 is more separate from the alliance in moral tendency, and is also materially the weaker half of B. Finally, let the whole group AB, be subject to the attack of enemies from the right and from the left (from the right along the arrows XX, and from the left along the arrows YY) and by two groups of enemies represented by M and N respectively.”
Readers of this may have had the benefit of a map to assist them – but you get the drift.
The principal value today of the most considerable part of Belloc’s books and articles on the War is historiographical – to see how the narrative and the analysis of the War was conducted at the time, and to discern the trends and paths that guided, or misdirected, the inevitably more considered and evidence-based historical writing which followed.
It would be unfair to use this journalism, however relatively well-informed it was, to form a judgement as to Belloc’s reputation as a military historian. That is perhaps a matter for another evening – but anyone who has studied military history and has read Belloc’s Six British Battles, The Strategy and Tactics of the Great Duke of Marlborough, his book on the French retreat from Moscow, his monograph on Warfare in England, knows that he had a thorough and practical grasp of the subject. His grasp of topography, his clear understanding of how armies march and of how they are supplied – and how they fight at the end of a march as opposed to at the beginning of one – his insight into the moral forces which motivate soldiers in the field, and his keen appreciation of the psychology of general-ship, all – I believe – grant him a high position in the pantheon of military historians.
And so it may not be entirely fair to Belloc’s memory that most references to him now in histories of the Great War are to the volume What I Know About The War by Blare Hilloc, a book published during that War which when opened revealed blank pages throughout. It may not be fair, but it is however understandable.
The War did however provide Belloc with what, for him, was a rare opportunity – the chance to meet a hero. Belloc held relatively few living people in such high regard – many in high affection and respect – but Maréchal Foch he almost worshipped. He first met him in June 1917, and described him in one of his letters at the time as “a really delightful man, full of genius and movement.” Foch drew a rough map – at Belloc’s request – to show how he disposed his forces at the Marne, which Belloc took back to Britain and had framed to hang in King’s Land. (As we know, Belloc always had a ‘thing’ for sketch maps and deployed them with great regularity in his books). He claimed in a letter to Mrs Reginald Balfour that the sketch map would be “the most precious possession” he had in his house.
Shortly after the War two of Foch’s books were published in English translation – translations undertaken by Belloc – namely The Principles of War and Precepts and Judgements. This must have been a considerable task for Belloc – who never claimed a natural facility in French – as both books, the former in particular, are of considerable girth and significant technicality. Given how few substantial works Belloc did translate, it is testimony to his high regard for Foch that Belloc undertook such a task. The first of these books must have been translated as the last months of the War still raged – in a campaign masterminded by Foch which was ultimately successful.
Towards the end of the war, Louis, Belloc’s eldest son, decided to become a pilot, having previously been a sapper, serving on the Somme and being gassed in August 1917. The survival rate for new pilots at this stage in the War was appalling. This was commonly known, and Belloc knew it more comprehensively than most through his friendship with Maurice Baring who was with the RFC. Belloc, who had not had the easiest relationship with Louis over the last four years, knew that he could not dissuade him from this course: “there was no escaping what youth so intensely desired”. On August 26, Louis was reported missing, presumed lost in combat. As inquiries were made as to what had happened to him – even as to whether or not he might have survived and be in German hands – we should imagine the Master toiling away at the galley proofs of these translations of Foch, in a bid to drive away his anxiety over the fate of his son. Louis’s body was of course never found. Belloc had lost a second family member in four years, another knife thrust into his guts to the very spine.
As he wrote in November 1918, when his son Louis was still missing, presumed dead:
“These things [the loss of those closest] have the effect of clouding the mind. They destroy its vision. Dogma alone remains: that is of supreme value. But vision is lost for the moment. He is undoubtedly safe and his mother has him. But the mind in this world has no relief.”
Interestingly, Belloc only stepped into a plane for the very first time at the age of 71, some 23 years after his eldest son’s death.
As I have contrived to break the parameters of 1914, it seems just briefly to recall not only the death of his eldest son but also of his close friends – Basil Blackwood, Bron Lucas, Edward Horner and Cecil Chesterton. We all know that most families were rent by death at this time, of kindred and friends, and Belloc was not alone. But to lose one’s wife just months before the War began and then to lose one’s eldest son so soon before the War ended must have been a very great burden even for a man such as Belloc. Losing close friends – including comrades-in-arms such as Cecil Chesterton – can only have added significantly to this burden.
When I began reading in preparation for this talk I reflected upon my assumption that after Elodie’s death, certainly after the War years, that ‘well of joy’ within Belloc had sunk even if it had not run dry. I noted the titles of those books he brought out after the War – his greater fixation upon social and political problems (admittedly a trend begun before the War), and upon the historical narrative leading up to the crisis of his time. I compared the essays he had written before 1914 with those he wrote afterwards, and I weighed all of this in one hand against what I felt the death of a loved wife and eldest son – and the deaths of close friends – would mean to him, in the other.
But I am less convinced now that the tragedy of these years alone changed what he wrote and how he wrote – or even that what he wrote and how he wrote it, changed as much as we sometimes think. Along the trajectory of any man’s life, even when untouched by great changes, sudden passions or significant tragedy, there is movement of mood and theme. Subjects do not just suggest themselves from within, but proceed by the mind moving amongst those things without – amongst the things of the world and its tumult.
Age instead will no doubt account for some of the loss of ebullience in his work, for some of the hardening – or sharpening – of humour into occasionally bitter satire. But the world of the 1920s and 1930s was a very different place than the Victorian and Edwardian world in which Belloc had grown up and become a man, a husband and a father. He became, like most of us here perhaps, increasingly alienated from the contemporary world as he grew older, from its fashions and moods and bluster, from a world in which those younger were rising as he, in some respects, fell into the background.
If Elodie had not died, if Louis Belloc had not died, I think we would still have seen a shift in what he wrote and in how he wrote. I cannot say – and am not saying – that these events of 1914 and of the War had no effect upon him; although they may have had less effect on his writings than we think. It is noticeable that when Mandell and Shanks wrote their encomium on Belloc in 1916 (a book he always later said he read whenever he needed cheering up), they spoke of Belloc as a man rising to the national stage, of a man on the move, who would in the next ten years become more prominent and more influential. When Eleanor Belloc’s future husband, Rex Jebb, met Belloc in the early 1920s, he speaks clearly of seeing Belloc in his prime, not as a man fading under woes and loneliness – but a man at the peak of his powers. This is also how Peter Belloc’s friends remember him in the mid-to-late 1920s, friends such as D B Wyndham Lewis and J B Morton, who walked and talked and sang and feasted with him.
Belloc persevered in his work, in his serious writing and in his journalism. It was duty in part that kept Belloc going, his sense, as he wrote to Evan Charteris in 1914, that “man must carry his weight and fulfil his term” – that “the worst evils of Life must be supported with mastery and every adverse current… be met by the inflexible dignity of a man”. As Father McNabb was later to write to him:
“You have been a light-house for almost more than the run of a life-time. It has brought you a certain loneliness amongst the sea and winds. But your moments of conscious loneliness can hardly be more than moments when you know – as we must make you know – how many your light has guided and how many your heroism of accepted loneliness has heartened. What I personally owe to the light-house that you are, I can only dimly discern and can never repay.”
And so it is perhaps appropriate to end with the sea, as we began with the sea.
Now, for those of us who don’t sail, Belloc’s intense love for the sea, however well he explains it, and describes its enchantment and merits, may always remain something of a mystery. Yet for Belloc, a man never entirely at ease with his own people – his eyes always on Heaven, fulfilment and repose – the sea presented him with an opportunity for contemplation, away from pestering intrusion by friends and acquaintances, the immediate call of familial duty (or of duty to other people and things), and placed him under the protection of the Almighty. His quasi-pagan sense of the ‘inhabitation of places’ was particularly strong at sea: there are passages in The Cruise of the Nona, for example, where he reads as much like a classical Greek writer about to invoke the gods as a twentieth Century Catholic. The sea was also a memento mori to him, being redolent of the eternal and final, providing him with a chance to see all things per speculum aeternitatis.
As much as Belloc was changed by the events of 1914, and of its aftermath, he always had the sea – a constant in a changing world. One might almost say: “Stat mare dum volvitur orbis”: to translate freely – “The Sea remains as the World changes.”
Yes, we will end as we began, with Belloc upon the sea, drawing that strange restful grace from the restless waters in the year when he most needed that grace, a year which drove him to sail the sea like no other, the memory of those travels to remain with him always:
“The sea is the consolation of this our day, as it has been the consolation of the centuries. It is the companion and receiver of men. It has moods for them to fill the storehouse of the mind, perils for trial, or even for an ending, and calms for the good emblem of death. There, on the sea, is man nearest to his own making, and in communion with that from which he came, and to which he shall return… The sea is the matrix of creation, and we have the memory of it in our blood.''
But far more than this is the sea. It presents, upon the greatest scale we mortals can bear, those not mortal powers which brought us into being. It is not only the symbol or the mirror but especially is it the messenger of the Divine.
There, sailing the sea, we play every part of life: control, direction, effort, fate: and there can we test ourselves and know our state. All that which concerns the sea is profound and final. The sea provides visions, darknesses, revelations. The sea puts ever before us those twin faces of reality: greatness and certitude... The sea has taken me to itself whenever I sought it and has given me relief from men. It has rendered remote the cares and wastes of the land: for of all creatures that move and breathe upon the earth we of mankind are the fullest of sorrow. But the sea shall comfort us, and perpetually show us new things and assure us. It is the common sacrament of this world. May it be to others what it has been to me.”
Thank you. And thank God for Belloc.
Given in Victoria, London (11th of November 2014).