28 May 1915

It may have seemed surprising, or even shocking, that Calderon did not end his letter to Kittie yesterday with any endearments to her, only a ‘warm embrace’ for their dog! But its beginning — ‘Oh dearest Mrs P.’ — is very immediate and seems to speak volumes. Moreover, the simple ‘P.’ with which he signs off has a circle drawn round it, signifying in Edwardian emoticons ‘I hug you so tightly my hands meet on the other side’.

Even so, the letter itself seems thoroughly low-key, even dull (‘I am beginning to repeat myself’). I am convinced that this is deliberate. It is an attempt by a wordsmith of great cunning to lull Kittie into thinking not much is happening, that he is leading a completely routine army life, and above all is in no danger whatsoever and never will be. The truth was quite different. At this point in the campaign you could not walk from Helles to the front line concealed in wide communication trenches. The camp George was at was in the open, exposed to shelling from Achi Baba and the Asian shore, as well as stray bullets, although it did include a number of trenches and dugouts. The reason he was being instructed in ‘bomb throwing from trench to trench’ was that the Turks had used grenades to devastating effect but the British had only just started making them (from jam-tins). All sources agree that the torpedoing of the Majestic at Helles yesterday and the rapid withdrawal of the battleships to Imros and Mudrops had a depressing effect on the troops. Finally, if Hamilton decided to fight a Third Battle of Krithia, there was absolutely no doubt that the KOSB would be in the front line.

A writer to whom I showed the 1914-15 chapter of my biography back in April responded: ‘All his mishaps and frustrations in trying to get where he wanted to be are entertainingly described — then the note darkens.’ I had hardly been aware of this myself, as I was just ‘showing it as it was’, but it is true. There are touches of Calderonian comedy in his descriptions of the clerics on board the Orsova, but on Gallipoli his humour (when it surfaces at all) is black. Here is an example from yesterday’s letter:

There are shell marks in the earth, and I found an unburst enemy shell, with the time fuse marked in foreign characters. Rattray buried it. Then a sergeant said it ought to be ‘handed in’; so I dug it up again and carried it across the camp. Six soldiers pronounced it dangerous and recommended reburial. I left them digging its grave. One said, ‘The fuse is set to time.’ I said: ‘I expect the time’s expired now.’ They were silent awhile then one laughed and they all laughed.

The precarious paradox is quintessential Calderon (see my post of 12 April), but one feels that at a deeper level the ‘joke’ is a defence mechanism. As we shall see, escape into the beauty of the landscape, the smells, sounds and sights of nature on the peninsula, was another form of defence mechanism for this super-refined man at the killing fields, pretending to be just one of the troops.

Next entry: ‘Nothing happened’


About Patrick Miles

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