September 17, 1916 — The First World War brought fame to the likes of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, whose poetry was coloured by the mud and blood of the trenches. Captain Arthur Graeme West produced a few poems, too, but failed to achieve the level of acclaim accorded to his fellow soldier-poets.
He is remembered mainly for his diary entries that were collected together and published in 1919 as The Diary of a Dead Officer. The book, which includes a handful of poems, gives a caustic portrayal of army life.
It is seen as one of the most vivid accounts of horrific times in the trenches, as in this entry written on this day, a Sunday. (In accordance with wartime practice names and locations were disguised):
A tedious morning in the trenches prompts me to write down experiences and trivial little events which ordinarily I would not value enough to record, simply to pass the time.
The trenches I am in are near G, were originally German, and have been recently captured by the British. I have not been really in the trenches for a long time, and find the renewal of the experience particularly trying.
We got up here about 2.20am Sunday morning — a terribly long relief, for we started out for this line from G Ridge at 8.30pm Saturday night. The men were dog-tired when they got here, and though ordered to dig, complied very unwillingly, and were allowed to sit about or lean on their spades, or even to stand up and fall asleep against the side of the trench.
It was a smelly trench. A dead German — a big man — lay on his stomach as if he were crawling over the parades down into the trench; he had lain there some days, and that corner of the trench reeked even when someone took him by the legs and pulled him away out of sight, though not out of smell, into a shell-hole.
We sat down and fell into a comatose state, so tired we were. On our right lay a large man covered with a waterproof, his face hidden by a sand-bag, whom we took to be a dead Prussian Guardsman, but the light of dawn showed him to be an Englishman by his uniform. From where I sit I can just see his doubled-up knees.
The men lay about torpidly until 4.30am, when B ordered a stand-to. We tried to keep awake merely for form's sake while the light very slowly grew. Stand-down went at 5.30, and B made us tea, and added rum for the others; the very smell of rum makes me sick, because it is connected with the trenches last winter.
One always feels better with daylight — of this kind of life alone is the psalmist’s saying true — in ordinary modern life, where unhappiness consists so much in mental agitation, it is startlingly false.
West was born in London in 1891, the son of an evangelist and former missionary and went on to study at Oxford University. According to Cyril Joad, a long-time schoolfriend and Oxford colleague, West joined the army “from a feeling of duty and . . . patriotism.“
Joad, a pacifist who would become editor of The Diary of a Dead Officer, said that violence of any kind was abhorrent to West’s nature. “He was one of that numerous body of schoolboys who had never had a fight, and he hardly ever quarrelled. In the words of an old lady who knew him well, ‘Mr. West wouldn’t hurt a fly.’
In his introduction to the book, Joad wrote: “West enlisted convinced of the rightness of his cause, feeling it his duty to help his country, but disliking intensely – as any man that ever put on khaki – the work he had set out to do.”
Promoted for officer training, West endured what he saw as the incompetence of senior army staff and, coupled with the horrors he witnessed in France, gradually lost his belief in both the war and in religion. It was not long, Joad wrote, “before the bottom was being knocked out of all his beliefs . . . and God became for him a malignant practical joker, or at best an indifferent spectator of the woes of the world.”
West’s death in April, 1917 at the age of 25 came not in a blaze of glory. While in action near Bapaume he was struck by a chance sniper’s bullet as he was leaving his trench.
Joad wrote of his friend’s posthumously published diary: “If its detailed realism serves to correct in some measure the highly coloured picture of the soldier’s life and thoughts to which the popular Press has accustomed us, it will not have been written in vain.”
Published: September 11, 2020