Sunday, 25 September 2011

Edward Thomas at Buchy

Edward Thomas, according to a recent review in The Guardian, is ‘arguably the most influential English poet of the 20th century’. A judgment like this would have seemed extraordinary forty years ago; but such is Thomas’s standing today that the recent biography by Matthew Hollis, Now All Roads Lead to France (Faber, 2011) got headline reviews everywhere.

I have admired Edward Thomas’s poetry for as long as I have been teaching: ‘March’, ‘Old Man’ and ‘Tall Nettles’ are the poems I first encountered and can never forget.  I admire many things about Hollis’s biography, too. For a start, his account of the friendships, tensions and rivalries between the Dymock Poets in the summer of 1914 is very good; then, in the final pages of the book, his description of Thomas’s life as a soldier, both in England and finally in France, is very movingly told. What’s more, Hollis has reminded me of several things about the poet that I had forgotten I knew.

Two examples: first, I thought it was news to me that Thomas may very possibly have met Wilfred Owen – indeed, that he may well have instructed him in map reading while in training at Hare Hall Camp in Essex. But I realize now I had come across this before: Andrew Motion’s essay Edward Thomas: an Imaginary Life (2004) takes as its premise the idea that instead of being killed by the blast of a shell at the Battle of Arras on 9th April 1917, Thomas had been knocked unconscious by a piece of shrapnel. When he woke up in hospital Thomas found his left arm had been amputated. (‘I could spare an arm. I shouldn’t want to lose / A leg’ he had written in ‘As the Team’s Head Brass’.) Motion invents a passage from an imagined Autobiography (1929) in which Thomas recalls his one and only conversation with Owen at Hare Hall and his post-war admiration for Owen’s poetry.  The conversation may be imagined; the fact that they overlapped in this training camp is not.

The second example is a single place name: Buchy. Hollis notes that when Thomas eventually crossed to France, he went by train to the Front from Le Havre via Buchy, Alaincourt and Amiens. I should have remembered this. In his diary for 5th February 1917 Thomas records the following:

At 7 a.m. after many stops and starts we were close under partly wooded chalk hills, among railway trucks, and near a village with here and there an upper storey quite open like a loft. Snow. Gradually flatter and poplars regular as telegraph poles, orchards, level crossings, children.  Buchy at 10 a.m. – Y.M.C.A. –  Leave train. Nearly lost train. Fine snowfall.

I have been to Buchy. It’s a small town 25 km north east of Rouen.  Flaubert used it as a location in Madame Bovary. When Edward Thomas stopped at the station, the population of Buchy was barely 1000 people. Actually the station is some way out of the town at a hamlet called Montérolier, a place with a station café, a railway bridge and a couple of farms nothing more. But during the Great War, Buchy was a name known to hundreds of thousands of British troops: the trains from the Channel to the Front stopped there (there were no buffet cars on the troop trains – the men travelled in cattle trucks: 36 men to each truck. Only the officers had compartments to share) so comfort stops were a necessity. There was indeed a Y.M.C.A. canteen at the station, where ‘other ranks’ could get a free cup of tea and send a postcard home. This canteen was staffed by volunteers from England, middle-aged clergymen and young women who wanted to work near the Front but were not trained nurses or ambulance drivers. These would be the last English women many of the men would ever see.

Such railway stops were of unpredictable length, which is no doubt why Edward Thomas almost missed his train. I expect he walked up the hill from the station to get away from the queue at the Y.M.C.A. canteen, to stretch his legs and to see what he could see. Across the snow-covered fields he would not have missed the tents and huts of no. 11 Convalescent Depot, a huge British army encampment where troops came for a few days’ rest and recuperation from the trenches or to recover from minor injuries before rejoining their units ‘somewhere in France’. At the top of the hill was alternative refreshment: the station café, where perhaps he went for a coffee and met the formidable proprietress, Mme Bigot, famous beyond her wildest dreams:

Half of the British Army knows Madame Bigot. The other half has heard of her…. It is time that the women at home learnt of the subtle power wielded by one woman.

This is the opening of a newspaper article by Hilda M. Love, a war correspondent whose reports from France, addressed to ‘the women at home’, were syndicated around the world. Look her up on Google: you’ll see she features in newspapers in London and New York and across the British Empire, from the Straits Times (Singapore), to the Western Gazette (Kalgoorlie, W. Australia), and the Wanganui Chronicle (New Zealand). Her special brand of belligerent sentimentality outraged Ezra Pound, who denounced her in The New Age (November 8th, 1918), and she was certainly not the Kate Adie of the Western Front; but at least she wrote about Buchy at the time Edward Thomas stopped there unwontedly, got off the train and was nearly left behind:

Madame Bigot, who might have lived and died unknown in a tiny village of France, has spread the fame of that village throughout the world, has worked her way into the hearts of the British Army with such homely weapons as a casserole and a frying pan.

Her little inn stands on a hillside and the door commands a view of one of the finest provinces of France. In spring-time a sea of apple-blossom stretches away in all directions. To-day a sea of grey tents stretches away to the left of madame’s windows, while to the right khaki figures gather at their favourite rendezvous, the railway bridge.

It is the presence of the railway that has brought madame such wide fame.  On the boards of that village station are painted names that will wring the heart of France for ever, and the trains that daily pass through that countryside daily carry khaki thousands who have sworn to avenge those significant names.

And, unlike the supercilious expresses that thundered over the rails in peace time, these trains of war stop for an hour or more at this wayside village. Men who have been sitting cramped for long, weary hours, tired, cold, and hungry, rise and stretch themselves, tumble out of the train, and douche their heads in the big wooden tubs of water along the line, while from madame’s inn travel ravishing odours that lure. Etc. etc.

I do not know in which newspaper this article appeared. All I have is a cutting pasted into an old pocket book that belonged to my grandfather, the Rev. Edward Barlow. And why? Because in 1917, the same year Edward Thomas passed this way, my grandfather was a volunteer in the Y.M.C.A. canteen serving tea and handing out postcards to soldiers who had stopped briefly, like the most influential poet of the twentieth century, at Buchy, en route for the Front.

[photo: the station at Buchy, early 20th century


  1. One of your best articles yet. Keep up the good work!

  2. I very much enjoyed reading this, having just read Hollis's biography. I felt such a sense of loss for the poems not written. It was clear that he wanted to come back and the prose records in the diaries and letters would have been the source of some great poetry. I am sure there would have been one about Buchy and Madame Bigot!

  3. I was in W.H. Smith's in Churchill Square Brighton this week looking up Matthew Hollis's biography of Edward Thomas. I must say that I was nearly tempted away by a discounted Claire Tomalin hardback on the life of Dickens but am glad I plucked up the courage to ask an assistant to find me what I was really looking for (assistants in Smiths are always seemingly busy). The first few pages were enough to tell me that I was reading a really good book and discovering an unusual life, or rather lives, as the presence of Robert Frost attests. A thoroughly-researched book, but lively rather than tediously academic. In fact with a touch of the detective novel about it. Equally on a par with Claire Tomalin, I'm sure, whose life of Mrs Jordan is a milestone in biographical writing, with its focus on an obscure eighteenth-century actress whose obscurity deserved to be 'clarified', as it were. This is not a book about a man in distress, it is on a par with Somerset Maughan's 'The Moon and Sixpence' on the life of Gauguin: a poet, an artist, 'in the toils' and whose suffering was brought, for us at least, greedy consumers of consumate art, too soon to an end, with a merciful blow that stopped his heart but maintained his beauty intact.

    1. Dear Garry, I don’t know whether you have read the yet more recent biography of Edward Thomas by Jean Moorcroft Wilson? She is another biographer to be taken seriously - her books on Sassoon and Rosenberg are essential reading - but to my dismay (and perhaps yours?) she have proved that it isn’t true Thomas was killed by the blast of a shell that left him unmarked, as all previous writers on Thomas (myself included) have believed and stated. Evidently he was shot through the chest. The origin of this myth about Thomas can be traced back to his widow Helen’s nevertheless fine memoirs ‘As it Was’ and ‘World Without End’....