‘New Western Polovtsians’

                                                                                 On dry land

May 27th

Oh dearest Mrs P., I have been through another transformation, and am now a Scotch officer — in a first rate regular battalion. My address is 1st bn. K.O.S.B., 87th Brigade, 29th Div., Mediterranean Exped. Force, i.e. King’s Own Scottish Borderers — vanitously wishing I could get hold of a glengarry, with the red and white dice border — and have myself photographed in colours. We arrived yesterday afternoon and landed under the crumbled ruins of a white castle; a yellow sea shore and hill slopes at every angle, covered with camps and troops and huts and enclosures and stacks of stores; piquets of horses, lines of mules on the roads; young navy boys in dirty blue ordering sea captains and Colonels about for the landing — groups of Zouaves and Turcos on the pontoon pier where we landed, white breeches, red breeches, blue breeches, embroidered coats, bearded French faces, shiny African heads, fezzes, shakos, turbans, topies; and, on the Indian files of jogging mules, sad solitary Hindus in butter-muslin, with a cloth of the turban held by the hand over the mouth, or fixed like a yashmak.

So to a square place of sand, pegged out with barbed wire, a kind of little Gobi in the middle of the Sahara, where the men were drawn up, the draft, in their companies, and we (12) unattached officers in a group. Bang came a solitary shell of welcome and threw up a cloud of dust 100 yards away, disturbing a mule at his afternoon tea, but causing no other offence. Then a little marching and halting and detailing and waiting; I and some others with a fatigue party to get the officers’ baggage and lay it ready for the ‘supply column’, i.e. little mule carts in a caravan, some with boxes of wood, some with logs and dead branches, that go up at about 8 to the lines. At one of the haltings and waitings we were told that we were all for the K.O.S.B. […] Their HQ on the beach offered tea and bread and jam; my fatigue on the little wooden jetty was over, and [we] went up in the young moonlight with the mulecarts; I walked with a charming Scots corporal.

The firing had fallen still. Up the hill and onto a rolling plain, with broom and heath and a minty low shrub with a mauve flower. Two miles away a mound on a hill, the molehill top of a low mountain — that’s Him. And all the rolling plain lies open before him; he shells about, but does little harm.

[…]

After an hour or two, bed. This, for me, far off, in a big lonely ditch at the left of the line, with the stars above, the moon aslant and a corncrake rattling softly. Desultory sniping all night, a rattle of quick fusillade in the small hours, and the shells beginning slowly at getting-up time. Big spiders and little green lizards all among the bushes.

[…]

I saw a little wooden cross and a mound. The cross is made of two strips of a wooden case; and on it is written ‘In memory of one unknown. R.I.P.’.

Lunch is announced.

[…]

Since lunch I have been attending an instruction in bomb throwing from trench to trench. Very interesting. It is strange this careless, rather amused life, at leisure in the sunshine, in full view of Him on the big moleheap. Surely it must discourage him to see the tip-end of a big civilisation leisurely going about the routine of life while it closes up to swallow him.

[…]

Dust flies in plenty. Shells burst, four by four, now and again, angrily searching the big plain; Western civilisation sleepily pursues its gentle avocations. I am beginning to repeat myself.

A warm embrace for Tommy.

P.

We are like new Western Polovtsians swarming over a fated country, a revenge for the Tartar oncoming.

The K.O.S.B.’s are ‘in reserve’; neither on the beach nor in the firing line. The men are vara Scawtch.

The 1st KOSB had had a disastrous start at Y Beach on 26 April (see my post for that day), but had since become part of the very backbone of the 29th Division at Helles. In this letter George also tells us that he is in B Company, commanded by Captain Grogan (aged 25) of the 9th Ox and Bucks. George was a subaltern commanding one of the four platoons in this company.

The very long third sentence of the first paragraph, and the references to the enemy as ‘Him’, again mirror Tolstoy’s Sebastopol stories that George had been reading in Russian on the voyage.

For obvious reasons, George does not mention the sinking of the battleship H.M.S. Majestic off Cape Helles at 6.40 this morning by the German submarine U-21, although he must have witnessed the rescue of its crew.

The ‘big moleheap’ in the distance is Achi Baba, which the Allies had been trying to reach since 25 April.

The idea that the Turks were about to be ‘swallowed’ by ‘the tip-end of a big civilisation’ is either a joke on George’s part or a gross self-deception. The Polovtsians, a nomadic East Turkic people, were the heroes of ‘Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor‘, the ballet choreographed by George’s friend Fokine and first presented in London by Ballets Russes on 21 June 1911.

‘Tommy’ is George and Kittie’s mongrel dog, whom he exercised on Hampstead Heath.

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About Patrick Miles

I am a writer who specialises in Anton Chekhov and is writing a biography of George Calderon.
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