AN ENGLISH CUBIST
Letters to Sarah
The first ten of these letters were published as an appendix to Memories of the War to End War 1914--18 (4.5 Howitzer Gunner). The remainder, beginning with the letter-card to Norwich, were first published in William Roberts, Five Posthumous Essays and Other Writings (Valencia, 1990). © The Estate of John David Roberts. Reproduced with the permission of the William Roberts Society.
No. 123744 Gunner William Roberts, No. 7 Section
4 Depot RFA (Recruits)
Brookhill Quarters, Woolwich.
A day or so ago I was inoculated and have been unwell and miserable ever since. To be inoculated is, if you don't know, to have an injection in your left arm. This is supposed to prevent you from taking a fever, or I should say a disease like typhoid or something of the sort. Whether it really does what it pretends, I don't know nor do I care. It is one of the things you submit to as you do to joining the army at all. But there is one thing you do know about it, that it is very painful. Forty or more of us were marched off to the doctor, and we all returned with stiff left arms; some have felt so bad that they have kept to their beds ever since.
Jacob Kramer, The Artists's Sister [Sarah] (pastel and chalk), 1916
© The Estate of John David Roberts
I am writing this letter in the canteen; it is full of soldiers, so if this reads at all stupid, put it down to the noise that is going on. Woolwich, where we are (my regiment the Royal Field Artillery) is just on the outside of London. It is the place where the cannons and shells are made. We are only let out to a three-mile radius, so that Fitzroy Street and its charms are barred to me. Nevertheless I can refresh my weary self with a sight of Porter's studio, once a week on Sunday, by getting a pass from the sergeant-major. I'm afraid this stuff must bore you but I cannot make it interesting with news of the artists because I do not see them now. Still I dare say Laurie still gets drunk and Nelson continues to haunt the Café Royal. Your judicious surmise as to my being flattered is very true. I no longer counted on hearing, and have tried to make myself believe that I never sent a letter to Leeds. I am glad you have not stuck it contemptuously on the list of your captures. The Army seems to be making an appalling fool of me, and I'm sure I shall end up by becoming a veritable idiot. There is no likelihood of my getting leave for a month or two, and by the time that day arrives I fear we shall have forgotten each other. This is a very gloomy thought, but I am altogether a very gloomy person.
No. 123744 Gunner William Roberts G. Subsection 48th Reserve Battery
Weedon Barracks, Weedon, Northampton.
I have been up here about a week. This place, I believe, lies somewhere between London and Leeds. I shall go through my training here. The country is very nice, but it has one drawback: there are far too many soldiers about. I am sorry I have not written to you before, I have no excuse to give, except that letter-writing is stupid. But I don't want you to stop writing to me, all the same. I have to look forward to spending three months in this blasted barracks. I am so sick sometimes with drilling and horse grooming that I don't want to do anything and least of all write letters. Don't think that I do not want to write to you, but I have such little time, and it is so easy to put off doing so. I am not used yet to getting up at 5.30 in the morning and doing gun drill and grooming until the same time in, the evening. I shall always answer you, even if it takes a month to do it, but I don't suppose it will take so long as that. The difficulty is to find things to talk about now. We do exactly the same things each day, and they are not worth writing about. I wish the war was over. As soon as it is, I shall get out of this somehow, if I have to desert. When I have been here six weeks, I am going to try for a weekend leave. How is Jacob? Is he going to London again? Ask him will you, why he did not acknowledge the letter and the two drawings I sent him. If he has sold them, I would be very thankful for the money. I am rather in hard straits; I get five shillings a week from the Army.
Goodbye. I suppose we shan't get shot and the war will be over in a month and we shall leave the army wealthy and fit after the training. One can do no more than hope so.
I am sorry your father is dead. He had always been ill, I believe. When I saw him in London he was very unwell.
Weedon Barracks, Weedon, Northampton.
Have you discovered anything interesting during your voyages of exploration? I used to find that being in the country was very refreshing, and in a kind of way full of all sorts of mild excitements, once upon a time. But now the army has made me sick of this place; I have had enough of Weedon for the rest of my life. Are you camping in Jacob's rustic cottage and living on sardines as he does when he stays there? I have lived on sardines in my more fortunate days, when we had an artistic colony in Regent's Park. It seems after all that I shall not get leave, at least, not until I get what is called an overseas leave of six days, when, I mean, just before I go abroad. Still, in the army it is impossible to be certain of anything. But all I hope is that in another month I shall be moved along from here, to the Balkans or somewhere. I like hot countries best. Jacob once had an idea of joining the Navy; this North Sea fight will give him an opportunity, if he still feels like it; they will need men now. Is he staying in Fitzroy Street? Perhaps he will know whether Meninsky is still there, or not. Goodbye, I will try and talk less foolishly next time I write. I wish I were able to take part in those country walks of yours. Do you find them better than the Café Royal?
Gunner William Roberts 123744,
No. 1 Section C Subsection. 9th Divisional Ammunition column,
Royal Field Artillery BEF, France.
I have a fear that when you get this letter, you will wonder why I write to you, and that you will not care to answer it. I think you know why I have this feeling. Still, I know I shall not save myself by making excuses. Will you write to me however; I would like to hear from you. As regards my actions of two months ago, I can only hope that you will forgive a wretched soldier much. I wish I could see you instead of writing on this. I have not very greatly the gift for correspondence, and still less for pleading my cause. I have been in France a month, but it seems longer than that. Perhaps this is because we are at a quiet part of the 'Line'. The journey up here from Le Havre where we landed was amazing, at any rate, I think so now. We were travelling about two days and the first part of the journey we made in railway wagons, thirty men in each and more. It was a very tight pack, especially at night when we tried to lie down on the floor to sleep. For the present I am attached to the ammunition column; they supply the guns with shells. I say for the present because I have been made a signaller and am on a course of instruction and I expect when I have finished I will be sent up to join a battery. I have not heard from anyone in London since I came out here, I should say this is because I have not written to them. Sarah, I shall look out for an answer to this.
September 20th 1916
I have been trying to imagine what kind of man your 'premiere danseuse' is in appearance, and from your description I have built up an almost ghastly figure of a professional drinker. I hope he is nothing like what I picture him to be in reality, if he is, I can understand your contempt. But I find that everybody must drink more or less, and perhaps he is rather depressed by the war. I should very much like to see these dances that you take part in, but I am afraid it is only a waste of time, and not very pleasurable to wish for such things for a long time yet. I have changed my address since I first wrote to you; it now is D. Battery (Howitzer) 51st Brigade, 9th Division, Royal Field Artillery, etc. I am up with the guns, as a signaller, and live with some more signallers altogether in a dug-out in a little wood. The life in the fighting line has its good sides until it rains, everything then is mud, and there is nothing to say for it. It interests me to hear that your knowledge of army life has developed this last month or so. Has Chapeltown Barracks helped you in this? When I was in the ammunition Column, I bivouacked with a youth who had trained at Chapeltown Barracks in Leeds. He was full of stories of the good times he had had there and there seemed little doubt but that he had, well, to use an empty expression, 'seen life'. I believe Chapeltown is a depot only for the Royal Field Artillery. I should have liked to have been there myself, anyway. It is difficult to write much more about myself without blurting out something of 'Military Importance' as I have discovered on previous occasions. I only wish that I could tell you more of what I do out here, but I dare not, for fear of running my head against the censor.
I have not long received your letter; it had been at the column headquarters several days, before it was sent to me. I hope the time will go soon till my leave, or else the war end quickly.
Sarah have you a photograph of yourself that you would care to send me. I promise you I will give it a place of honour upon the 'mantelpiece' of my dug-out.
November 11th 1917
I have been expecting a letter from you, but somehow it does not seem to arrive. Dull and stupid isn't it, writing to me out here. I wonder, shall we ever see each other again? Don't for God's sake run off with any more actors; but there, why the devil shouldn't you; you must live your own way. The difficulty is our two ways of living and environment are so different that my judgement, for you, can have very little point. One whose existence is so absolutely monotonous, repetition always, every day lived to order; the only excitement being to dodge and duck for your bloody miserable life; finds it almost impossible to transport his imagination into the intricacies and complexities of town living. Simplicity is the keynote here, and too, a complete rest for the brain. You get up when you are told, walk, laugh, and work by command; it is altogether a glorious life. Do write soon. I try to keep alive by reading and drawing, for this is a quiet place. I foresee trouble ahead in the near future with the drawing activities, but I do not care a God Damn.
My dear Sarah,
For the past few days I have been unable to do anything but unpack, pack, and off again. The mail has been entirely upset so that your letters came altogether to me here. I believe we intend settling here for a time. I hope so: I shall then be able to improve my knowledge of the French peasantry. It is a pity these barns are such filthy places; can you imagine what it is like to sleep in a barn half destroyed, innumerable holes in the roof and walls? Whilst to further one's comfort, muddy stains on the floor, in the middle of November. I am thankful the weather has been more like spring, than winter, or else we would have been absolutely too cheerful. Meninsky's success is interesting. When the war is finished, and 'les miserables' or what remains of them, return minus arms or legs, he may perhaps deign to drop a copper to these 'poor might-have-beens'; say, as he comes forth from his mixed grill room, in the company of other 'immortals' also flushed with success. I began writing this at lunchtime, when the call of duty took me away to spend the afternoon scraping mud off the roads. I found it a very bracing pastime, much more so I should imagine than making beds. Still, if either can be regarded as doing 'our bit' we should both be infernally happy. My entire time now is spent on jobs like the one I mentioned; from reveille till dark we are 'on the go'. Only at night can I get away to an 'estaminet' to write or read. Various people send me books occasionally. Ezra Pound is the only one you are likely to have heard of. Once upon the Somme last winter, I had so many Gogol's and Dostoyevski's, etc., that when we were about to move away, I threw them into a shell hole filled with rain water, no doubt they are there still. I have been reading some stories of Anton Tchekov I can't spell the name Volodya, and some more. If you care to accept such an ignominious and humble present, I will send it to you; perhaps when you are not making beds, it might amuse you to read them. You will probably find it soiled and mud besmeared, but in my rank, the cartage of books is not allowed for, so they must suffer accordingly. Do you still correspond with the 'Wild Women of Golders Green' or are you no longer their 'Beloved Sister'? If I were able to remain in this place, I would be as optimistic as you about my getting back again. As it is, the farthest I can go in this direction is to foretell, with some certainty, that I shall have my Christmas Dinner in this world; after that the game of chance begins again. Everybody in this 'estaminet' is talking about the war, I mean shouting about it.
Writing is impossible.
[On back:] I have been told that all Officers more or less are Scandalmongers. So again I shall be patriotic. [Note by W. R.]
B. had pocket book and pay stolen. What ho for comrades in arms. [Note by S.]
My Dear Sarah,
Here are the stories I told you of. I like them. I wonder if you will. They were sent to me originally by a young man who went to the Slade when I did. Happy home of illusions! An artistic nursery! We are settling down here in our village. The barn already begins to look 'Homely'. The crossroads have become a drill-square. We are preparing for the final rounds. I hope to goodness so anyhow. Estaminets do not offer quite the same diversions as the Café Royal. It is true that a great world of a sort congregate in them, but rather of the 'born to blush unseen' order. Yet Limbergunners and crack 'lead drivers' are powers to be reckoned with should one ever feel in the mood to visit one of these 'estaminets'.
that period you were right! But I doubt whether this life, would do even a Samson good. If only I could get ill: trench feet, a fever of some kind, and thus get back to England, I should be happy. Write me a long letter, not just a line; I want to feel that I am talking with you, and not miles away in this hellish place. I am trying to get a commission in some Infantry Regt; if I do, perhaps I shall get to England for a few days.
My dear Sarah,
Your note came today lunch time. If you lived out here, you would understand why I have not written. Marching on the road for days on end with but a few hours sleep at night, then travelling in cattle trucks and working like niggers, with practically no food, whilst, as a welcome at the journey's end, there are bursting shells to greet you. I believe I possess the average amount of hope and patience, but this existence beats me. I have wanted to write to you many times, but on occasions like this it is impossible to post letters. Everything is upset for the time. What are you doing now? Have you been successful with any of your business schemes? Sarah this was begun several days ago, but since then, some unexpected changes have placed me once more up against the familiar and unpleasant smell of gunpowder. The Tchechov will not arrive yet, as I am completely penniless. When I began this I was in the possession of five francs, but the ensuing days being ones of extreme hunger I spent the entire lot on biscuits. What days of ease one gets on active service are dearly paid for. I am feeling very bitter against life altogether just at present. But there is one thing I curse above all others in this world, and that's 'open warfare'. I could strafe it, as 'Fritz' never did strafe Ypres, and if you saw that place you would understand the full extent of my hate.
April 16th 1918
Don't write any more to my battery, I have left it and any letters sent there would only be returned to you. I am now much nearer England. There is only a few miles of sea separating me and it. And I am expecting day by day to cross over. May perhaps see you when I do.
If you could manage to be in the vicinity of the railway station at Norwich when the twelve o'c train arrives, we might be able to take some coffee, without the knowledge of your business partner.
Unless the fire of your actor's affection has already made you indifferent to my
Gott Strafe your foolishness.
(Letter-card, one corner damaged by fire. Addressed 'c/o The Diplomacy Theatre, Norwich.' Addressee's name obliterated.
Sarah says that the visit to Norwich was to see Bomberg's brother-in-law act. Alice Bomberg was trying to promote a match between them.)
4 Fitzroy Street
Goodbye Sarah! Ariverdela! I shall be in the army by tomorrow. If I send you my address will you write to me? You said that you never wrote love letters, but they need not be. Tell me about Leeds or what you're doing, and keep your love letters for Machinly or Nelson. I should like to hear from you.
I shall come and stay in Leeds the first holiday I get and I expect you to show me the sights. Goodbye.
How long do you intend to follow your role of quiet goodness. You have changed very much if you can find home life pleasant. I don't believe that you do honestly. Don't, when you do break out again, blame me for not having had faith in you. The bad thing with letter writing is that what I say seems more cruel than I intend it to be, or rather I don't intend to be, yet am when I write what I wish.
You, I know, will say it is my indifference or that I am amusing myself, but that is rot. Still, a year's a very long time, a fearful long time, and writing to No. etc. Gunner. etc. must after a time become a dull affair. I feel mad sometimes, when I think about you but then I suppose it is the way of the world, and I must learn to reconcile myself to a loser's place in some things. Savez? I doubt if you do. Anyway write and tell me about your movements, and of the Actors, Genius, and people of the Great World that you meet. Your photograph came tonight. I like it. I have been having a moderately peaceful time among sand-dunes close to the sea living in cosy
Belgian dug-outs. Still for all the peace and cosiness I wish the nightmare would end. Goodbye.
On p. 56 is a request for a photograph; so that this letter belongs between Sep. 20th 1916 and Nov. 11th 1917.
My Dear Sarah
You don't want my appreciation, do you. You haven't gone back to Leeds just for my appreciation. I should feel inclined to strangle anyone who appreciated me. Why do you write like that. I did not intend to hurt you by my comparison. I fear sometimes I have been too sceptical with you.
If you only knew my thoughts about our affair sometimes, you certainly never would have anything more to do with me, but I cannot help these suspicions and doubts. But why should I care whether your feelings are hurt or not. You never do, besides you are always doing that which you have accused me of.
Would it mean anything to you if I wrote and said that I was glad and appreciated what you have just done. You don't want my gladness do you. I hope not anyway. These will not repay you for having made yourself unhappy, even if I said I loved you. I cannot picture you sitting down to endure another year and a half of waiting. Not in love, even, have I so much faith and confidence.
Sarah I'm an awful fool I don't know half what I've been writing about. It all seems fearfully preachy to me. I wish I could see you again. I could make you understand then. Perhaps I can get back again soon. I will write to you about it tomorrow. It is terribly late, I have been about six hours writing these three pages, nearly as bad as Flaubert who took a day to write twelve lines.
We are living in a wilderness of sand, a sort of Belgian Sahara, a most mournful place with empty and forlorn Villas perched upon sand dunes, where the affluent Belgians came to spend their seaside holidays in the piping times of peace.
I witnessed a most pathetic scene at Stulik's the night I left. At about three in the morning Madame La Proprietesse, together with a friend who collapsed completely, and an Officer Australian, got very drunk. The friend after drinking to the welfare of her parents who were far away started to weep. Madame was too far gone to do anything but laugh, while the officer was dragged to his room.
(Pencil: the last page, from 'of sand' has been inked in by Sarah.)
To me your letter seems to say that you are not enjoying your two weeks of country life, that you would rather be receiving one of Stulik's boxes of chocolates than a 'rural roll' on Christmas day. If you had wanted you could have come back last week end by writing so in your letter. My allusion to Stulik was not to make you envious. I could not know what kind of time you were having, with only Brett the Boy and the pony-trap to go upon. Tomorrow I will send you some money, and if you decide to come back at once let me know. Don't stay there and catch Flu or Neurasthenia or any of the thousand diseases that seem to thrive there around its thatched cottages and pony-traps.
The war is over, has been ended a year, and the last solitary Canadian backwoodsman with his khaki and his maple leaf has returned to his shack and black-eyed Susan in darkest Saskatchewan, the Strand beauties and the Beaver hat all long forgotten, and yet here you send me notepaper stamped all over with maple leaves and Canada, Canada. Have the papers lied, impossible, or are there still a few 'Jakies' lurking in Liphook's leafy glades.
Does Podge still wake up a hundred times a night or have you cured him of his bad habits. What did you say wait until next week and see.
I have just reread your letter, which at first glance is rather hard to follow. For instance, a word which I at first took to be Rolls (hence my reference to Rural Rolls) now turns out to be Holly, and the word following, which at first was a complete enigma, I now construe as mistletoe, which entirely changes the picture. I see you now in the midst of plenty. Holly mistletoe coloured papers. There surely must be a Turkey, a Turkey, amid such seasonable decorations.
I feel now, almost, that the first part of my letter has missed its mark, and this too leaves your objections to Stulik and returning of my letter unexplainable . . . or was it just childishness . . . ah childishness . . . eh
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