Archive for the 'First World War' Category

Frank Richards: Old Soldiers Never Die

January 14, 2018

Certainly one of the most interesting memoirs from the Great War I’ve read so far, because of the different perspective: this one isn’t by a well-spoken, articulate and reflective officer, but by a private, a Welsh miner who gets on with what is expected of him, without thinking too much about it. He grumbles a good deal, certainly, but the most astonishing thing is he survives the entire war, a large part of it as a signaller, which was one of the most dangerous jobs of all. A reservist, he returns to the ranks the morning after war is declared, serves in Flanders and on the Somme, and is there at the Armistice…

So here we have a genuine, working-class voice, straight-spoken and calling a spade a spade. He passes judgements on many of the officers he encounters, most of which seem accurate; he doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and this probably contributed to his survival. The book, however, is rather chaotic at times, and often slides into a vaguely connected series of anecdotes, often wryly humorous, and certainly painting a picture of the total chaos in the early days of the war. The book abounds in rather annoying typos, some of which may be due to the writer’s level of education, but it could certainly have done with a better editor and proof-reader.

Richards is often in the very thick of the action in different places on the front. His tone is rather even, unvaried, which can make for some monotony in places, but it’s his perspective that ultimately makes it a successful and worthwhile read: his outlook may be narrower that that of other memoirs from the likes of Graves and Sassoon (both of whom he obviously met whilst at the front, for he name-drops them along with many other officers he encounters) but it feels genuinely true-to-life. He’s not a philosopher, he doesn’t really reflect on things, but he is very touching in the way he accepts the deaths of many pals in his stride: there’s a genuine affection and comradeship that comes across along with the fatalism.

As the war progresses, between the lines the utter charnel-house of trench warfare emerges clearly, and I could understand precisely why the strategy wasn’t repeated in the next war, and hasn’t been since. Richards is highly critical of the recruiting and lack of proper training given to conscripts in the later stages of the war – they really do come across as mere cannon-fodder – as well as the increasing numbers of men who sought cushy numbers behind the lines; he understands fully why they would, and we can sense the unfairness he feels as a man doing a decent job and accepting of the likelihood of death at any instant…

Overall, this was a man I warmed to as the book progressed, and I was outraged by the disgraceful treatment of real soldiers in terms of disability payments and pensions once the conflict was over; no surprises there, really, as that always seems to be the way that powerful states treat those who have fought and suffered in their armed forces.

If you only read one account of time in the trenches this year, I’d suggest it ought to be this one.

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Bernard Adams: Nothing of Importance

January 4, 2018

51yxyb3Bv0L._AC_US218_A couple of months ago I finally watched a documentary on poets and writers of the Great War which I’d recorded a couple of years ago (!). And, despite having taught the literature of that time to sixth-formers for many years, several writers who I’d never come across were mentioned. Tracking down texts wasn’t difficult and I’m catching up on some literature of those times.

What far better-know title does Nothing of Importance remind you of? Bernard Adams‘ book is nothing like the great Erich Maria Remarque‘s masterpiece, though. Whereas Remarque’s novel gives the lie to its title, being full of violence, mayhem and chaos, much of Adams’ memoir is of what comes across as a very quiet time at the front. He spent time first in Flanders, before being transferred to the Somme for the four months leading up to the great July 1916 offensive.

What struck me first of all was how ordinary he made it all seem: his matter-of-fact tone meant that nothing surprised him, nothing really shocked or horrified him. Shelling, squalor, the occasional death or wound, everything quite easily became normal, routine. And although he is aware of this, it doesn’t move him much.

He’s very good at explaining all sorts of technical details to the ordinary reader through careful pencil diagrams which pepper the text, and his maps also clarify a lot of the details of the safeties and dangers of being in the trenches; his approach made issues of topography a good deal clearer to me. He was absolutely fascinating on mines and countermines, and I realised where some of the more recent writers like Sebastian Faulks might have got some of the knowledge they used in their fictions.

There are blow-by-blow accounts of things like patrols into no man’s land which again fascinate because a century later a reader finds it hard to imagine the fine details. We share his exhilaration, even though we also find ourselves asking, ‘yes, but what, exactly, was the point of that?’ And because, although we know exactly where he is on the front lines, his experiences are not linked to the greater sweep of the war itself, are in isolation, really, it’s impossible to understand the significance of anything that he sees or does… It’s clear he was regarded as an effective and efficient soldier and officer, by his men, his peers and his superiors.

The book, and his tone, become a good deal more serious, though, when a number of his fellow officers are killed: the suddenness and meaninglessness of it hits him hard, and is thereby so much more powerful in its effect on the reader. The real horrors do seem to begin to shake his sanity, though the language of a century ago conceals this somewhat. He is pleased to receive a ‘blighty’ wound towards the end of June 1916, when everyone can see that something big is in the offing; we experience his shock, and as he gradually convalesces, his anti-war sentiments come out more strongly. He’s not outspoken in a Sassoon sort of way, but comes over more as a decent sort who can make points effectively.

He obviously wrote his book while convalescing, for after recuperation he went back to the front, and was killed there in 1917. It’s a good read, because very much of its time, and is available as a free download on the Internet Archive website.

La Grande Guerre des Ecrivains

December 15, 2017

5156FKt5BOL._AC_US218_I have spent a lot of time reading literature of the Great War, in French as well as English; sometimes it has felt almost like an obsession. I’m searching for something – understanding? To make sense of it all? And I’ve visited quite a few of the key sites on the Western Front. I have come to realise how differently the French inevitably viewed that war, a war which invaded and destroyed their territory. This anthology has been very interesting in a number of ways.

There’s an excellent introductory survey by Antoine Compagnon – an academic essay, really – from a French perspective, naturally, and which remind me of Paul Fussell’s writings on the war. He presents a full survey of literature on and about the war from then up to the present day, taking in poetry, prose and drama, including writing from a wide range of different countries, too. In French, novels and short stories were the primary literature of the war, whereas in English literature we have stunning and powerful poetry and a wide array of memoirs. After reaching the end of the collection, my feeling was that the range of writing in English is richer than in French.

Although I have used various – shorter – school examination anthologies, I’ve not come across a similar, wide-ranging (over 800 pages) anthology in English, and I think that’s a pity.

The editor is a translator too, and I was astonished to read some of his excellent translations of the most well-known English poems of the war; his translation of Rupert Brooke’s The Soldier outshines the original in one respect, with a fortuitous but wonderfully effective internal rhyme in the final line, which isn’t there in the original… there are stunning translations of Owen and Sassoon too, faithful to the original metre as well as the meaning and sense.

What does the collection add to what I’ve read before? The unspeakable vileness of conditions in the trenches conveyed even more graphically; the nature of fear and what you do, what it makes you do, and what it teaches you; how rats set about devouring a corpse – Giono is grimmer than any other wirter I’ve ever read; Hemingway on the decomposition of corpses and how bodies are blown to bits; a chilling piece by Barbusse – author of the grim novel Le Feu/ Under Fire (1915); a story by Jules Romains on a day in the life of a general, which draws out what Sassoon succinctly conveys in his poem of that name.

I also became aware of how a number of French war heroes and writers were later drawn into extreme nationalism and anti-semitism in the ugliness of the nineteen-thirties, and sometimes into collaboration with the Nazis during the Second World War; in fact several of the writers anthologised were executed for that offence…

I came to realise too, that whereas now we read memoirs of the Great War or novels set at the time, the war had a much more pervasive effect on literature in the years immediately afterwards, as writers struggled to come to terms with what Europe had done to itself, alongside their fellow-citizens living with its consequences: effects of the war and its victims and survivors crop up as characters in a wide range of novels and stories that would in no way be classified as war novels.

It was a gruelling read and a useful one, although not all the extracts spoke to me.

Otto Dix: The Evil Eye

November 20, 2017

I’ve been a fan of this German artist for a long time, since seeing some of his work in Stuttgart years ago, and even more since I saw his series of etchings Der Krieg (The War) at the museum of the First World War in Peronne a few years ago. So I was thrilled to be able to see a major exhibition at Tate Liverpool last month, and to get this book, which accompanied the exhibition.

I hadn’t really realised how versatile an artist he was: pen and ink drawings, watercolours, oil and tempera paintings, etchings; in your face anti-bourgeois art featuring prostitutes and sexual violence, beautifully illustrated scrapbooks for his children, astonishing portraits as bread-and-butter work, powerfully graphic anti-war drawings, and while in internal exile during the Nazi era, more spiritual landscapes…

It’s still the anti-war etchings that grip me most, though. He was on the Western Front and survived, marked by his experiences and yet at the same time conscious of a kind of exhilaration in them, which of course he would never have been able to express had he not come through alive… The etchings are mostly very graphic, and horrifyingly violent – indeed one, of a German soldier raping a Belgian nun, a story which featured widely in atrocity propaganda of the time, was suppressed from the opening exhibition on the grounds that the authorities would immediately have used it as an excuse to ban the entire exhibition… There are fifty etchings, using a range of techniques, in five folios in all, presenting a wide range of aspects of the horrors of the Great War.

As I’ve remarked else where, because of my relative lack of knowledge of art, techniques and terminology, I do find it hard to articulate my responses to much of what I see, other than saying, well, I like it, or, it appeals to me… I have found that good art makes me stop and look carefully, think and reflect; it often draws me back to it. I won’t know why, exactly, but this arresting effect feels important. I think it is akin to my response to a good deal of modern poetry: I am brought up short by being made to see something with a different eye, from a different perspective. And surely, this is the gift of a great artist or writer, to make us see afresh, anew?

Edith Wharton: Fighting France

September 29, 2017

51zB99-bd4L._AC_US218_Another very interesting Librivox find: despite having taught Great War literature for years, I do keep coming across interesting finds. I’ve never felt moved to read anything by Edith Wharton but downloaded this a while ago. Apparently it was a best-seller during the war years.

An American by birth, she was living in Paris when the war broke out, and describes the scenes in there at the time, as well as her own impressions and reactions. Her account covers roughly the first year of the war, and in 1915 she embarked on a tour of the Western Front from Dunkerque to Belfort, with some official help; aided by her connections, she was one of few foreigners allowed to travel like this. I have the impression that the French wanted the right kind of message to get back to the USA, and her narrative is also spiced with stories of German atrocities. She got to visit Verdun, and various other places now part of the history books including Ypres and Dunkerque; she got taken to front-line trenches, watched bombardments, and did seem to have been in one or two slightly hairy situations, saw parts of Lorraine which had been re-captured from the Germans, dined and conversed with French troops and officers… All very different from the ways in which reporters and journalists are handled in war situations today!

It’s a relatively short book, only six chapters, the last of which sums up her impressions of France, the French, and their efforts thus far. Hindsight is always a wonderful thing: clearly the dreadful grind of the later years was still to come, when such journeys could not have been undertaken, and there is also a certain freshness and innocence in accounts written while the war had not reached its end. On the other hand, there is no indication of the horrendous French casualties in the early months of the war when they threw everyone they had at the Germans in a desperate attempt to halt their advance. A very interesting read, or rather, listen.

On death in literature (cont’d)

September 4, 2017

By way of contrast, I shall look at more recent encounters with death that have struck me in my reading, which I know is quite particular and in some ways obscure.

Two novellas focus on death itself, Victor Hugo‘s Last Day of a Condemned Man, and Leo Tolstoy‘s Death of Ivan Illich. This latter I found interesting both because of the hero’s perplexity as a seemingly trivial affliction turns out to be fatal, and also the strange withdrawal of his family and friends as they realised that he was terminally ill. I can understand both of these reactions, and yet it was quite unnerving actually to see them unfold as the story progressed. The idea that we do not know what do do about death or how to react it, is clear.

A play I studied at school for A Level, Eugene Ionesco‘s Le Roi Se Meurt, has never left me. The king learns that he must die – as must all mortals – but will not accept this; he is the king, after all. It’s an absurdist drama which nevertheless brings home real truths to all of us. He has two queens, one of whom insists he prepare himself for the inevitable, and the other who assists his refusal to accept it. Meanwhile, the kingdom physically disintegrates around him, ready for his disappearance. And he eventually realises that nobody can help him, because ‘tout le monde est le premier à mourir‘.

In Gunter Grass’ The Tin Drum, I have always found the suicide of the Jewish toyseller Sigismund Markus, because of the growing power of the Nazis and their anti-semitism, profoundly moving, precisely because it is presented through the eyes of the hero who is and who is not, a three year-old child. He describes calmly, almost lyrically, the dead body of the toy seller who has taken poison, and then proceeds to steal another of his beloved tin drums…

Umberto Eco leads us almost to love his young narrator Adso of Melk, the novice who accompanies William of Baskerville during his adventures in The Name of The Rose, who comes to know sexual love once, briefly, before a lifetime of chastity, and who says farewell to us in his dying days, having chronicled those events of his youth. He doesn’t die but we are saddened knowing the end is almost upon him.

Harper Lee teaches the children an important lesson about courage in To Kill A Mockingbird through the slow death of Mrs Henry Lafayette Dubose, who determinedly breaks her morphine addiction with their help before she dies. And Philip Pullman, in His Dark Materials, makes his readers think very deeply about life, death and the soul through his use of daemons in Lyra’s world, and the visit that Will and Lyra make to the world of the dead. To be sure, that isn’t our world, but there is much to lead us to reflect on the significance of our own eventual passing.

Readers will be aware of my interest in the Great War. The telephone numbers of casualties can only chill us so much; it takes the death of individuals to really move us, as great poets like Owen and Sassoon surely realised, in such poems as A Working Party and Dulce et Decorum Est. And the first time I read it I was shocked: in the finally volume of her Regeneration trilogy, Pat Barker imagines Owen’s death. It comes along quite suddenly, quite unexpectedly, and is over in a couple of paragraphs before we realise what is really happening – just like so many pointless deaths in war. A masterstroke of writing, though.

Literature allows us to experience things we would otherwise perhaps never experience, to think about things we might not otherwise consider. Some writers help us to confront the great unknown.

On death in literature (1)

September 4, 2017

I hope readers will bear with me, and not find the following posts too gloomy, but occasionally in a novel I come across a death which strikes me deeply. Characters die in novels all the time, in all manner of ways, and most of the time, because we are plot-driven, we register the death and then continue with the remaining characters and the rest of the story.

We are the only species that know about death, in that we must one day die; at that time, everything ends for us (pace those believers in an afterlife) and yet everything also goes on for everyone else, as if we had never been. What, if anything, comes next, we know not, as Hamlet once told us about ‘that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns’; everyone is the first person to die. It has long struck me that we devised religion as a way of coping with these awful certainties, and until relatively recently religion has done a fair, if obscurantist job; however, as the twentieth century progressed, and with it the gradual disappearance of religion from the lives of many, especially in the West, we have been inevitable brought to face our end unsupported, and our main response seems to have been to try and ensure we live as long as possible…

We are (mostly) creatures endowed with reason, and memory; we can think and reflect, and we develop attachments to people, places and things which can go beyond the merely instinctive, beyond the emotional, to another level, and here is our problem. Often we avoid, and novelists are not exempt from this ostrich-posture.

Jonathan Swift, in his Gulliver’s Travels, satirised the idea of living for ever, or even living as long as possible, far better than anyone has done since. The Struldbruggs are immortal; some of the ones met in the third part of Gulliver’s voyage are over six hundred years old, and they are the unhappiest creatures alive. Because, of course, for everyone life goes on: children want inheritances, younger folk want and need jobs; language changes over time and after six hundred years who will understand us and the way we speak? The immortals are an encumbrance. Does this remind you of anything today?

At the other end of the spectrum of taste and decorum, let’s put Jane Austen for a few moments. There are deaths in her novels, but only passim, at the very edges of the story, of minor characters, in order to facilitate an inheritance or shift the plot in a different direction, usually financial or marital: nowhere is such an unsuitable subject allowed to impinge with any depth. Eventually, at some vague point long after the end of the novel, the valetudinarian Mr Woodhouse will ‘pass away’ and Emma and Mr Knightley will finally move to Donwell Abbey…

Religion long determined artistic responses to death. In Marlowe‘s Doctor Faustus, the eponymous hero’s death must accompany Lucifer’s taking of his soul at the end of the contracted twenty-four years, but what horrifies Faustus and creates the terror at the end of the play is not so much the devils tearing Faustus limb from limb as his realisation of what eternity in Hell means; he thinks he could put up with damnation if there were an end in sight, but of course this is just what there is not. Similarly the young Stephen Dedalus, in Joyce‘s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, is driven to distraction by the famous hell-fire sermon delivered during a school retreat: the walls of Hell are four thousand miles thick, and eternity is more years than all the grains of sand on all the seashores of the world… and it’s his destination for his sexual sins.

To be fair, religion recognised how difficult it was for the individual mortal to contemplate and prepare for death and did its best to help; in mediaeval times there was the Ars Moriendi, a treatise on how to die well, and, recognising that such help is still needed in our secular age, the Catholic church in England and Wales has just launched a new website The Art of Dying Well, which offers much careful and thoughtful advice, obviously from its particular perspective. But for religion, of course, death is a beginning – mors ianua vitae – which many cannot now credit.

Adam and Eve, in Milton‘s Paradise Lost, are the only humans who don’t know what Death is. In the Garden of Eden, there is no death, all are immortal, but Death is a latent threat which will be actualised by their disobedience of God’s command not to eat of the forbidden fruit. And the fallen pair are aware that they will die, that Death is part of their punishment, but still don’t know what it actually is. Will it come immediately and strike them into oblivion, or is it to be feared and awaited at some distant moment? Genesis has Adam live for several hundred years… But the point is, Milton recognises, understands and explores this psychological fear, this existential angst, which struck those first two mythical humans, our ancestors.

to be continued

Helen Zenna Smith: Not So Quiet…

August 17, 2017

This novel was apparently written in a few weeks, based upon the diaries of a woman who had served as an ambulance driver on the Western Front; it appeared a little while after the much more well-known All Quiet on the Western Front by the German writer Erich Maria Remarque and was intended as a version of this novel from a female viewpoint. Certainly the similarities are noticeable. But it stands very much as a powerful, if little known work, in its own right. It shocked me when I first read it, and has lost none of that power.

Women were recruited as volunteers to work in various roles near or at the front; nursing and ambulance-driving were the most perilous because they meant being very close to the action. Many middle-class and upper-class women served, and they saw at first-hand the products of mechanised warfare; they cared for and tried to repair broken men; they were fully aware of the horrors.

We follow the transformation of a respectable English woman, shocked by what she has to deal with and also the unbridgeable gulf between what she sees and knows and what the do-gooding matrons back home with their committees imagine. Here she is as determined as Siegfried Sassoon to let everyone back home know the reality, and the hypocrisy, even though we are more than ten years after the end of the war. The bitterness comes across even more strongly than Sassoon’s, and the overt anti-war stance and criticism of politicians extends even to some of the young men due to go into action.

Initially we gain the impression that some self-censorship of the horrific details is going on, but this is merely to lull the reader into a false sense of security: alluded to obliquely at first, the full horrors hit us as she describes the unloading of the ambulances at the field hospital, in her mind addressing her mother back home, whom she wishes could see and experience what she is actually going through. There is no heroism or glory here: the narrator is terrified a lot of the time and admits to this…

Behind the scenes everything is about keeping up appearances, whilst sexuality rears its head and lesbianism lurks in the background; this last is a little muted and some critics have accused the writer of seeking to normalise the heterosexual: this may be true, and the context is complex, and also not what I’m interested in here. What does come across is the extraordinary pressure on both men and women when so close to the possibility of death: the narrator’s sister has to procure the money for an abortion, and the narrator herself chooses to sleep with an officer heading to the front lines the next day. Later on in the novel she learns that her fiancé has not only been blinded and lost a leg from the hip, but has also been emasculated.

There is a feeling – partly from the hectic pace of the novel and the nature of the narrative style – of great honesty in the narrator as she shares her experiences and feelings, including the death of her friend in an air-raid, and she raises the question of what is to become of her once the war is over. I mentioned similarities with Remarque’s novel earlier, and this is one of them: in All Quiet, Paul wonders what his generation will be like after the war; he is never to find out, of course, although the author does explore the lives of those who returned. There is also the return home: Paul returns on leave and hates it because he has nothing to say to those back home, who are incapable of understanding; so too the heroine of Not So Quiet, who is sent back home on sick leave, and clashes with parents, relatives and all those who are ‘doing their bit’ to support the ‘war effort’ without knowing what that actually entails.

Women like her are mentally and emotionally destroyed just as the men are, even though they may have missed out on the actual fighting in the trenches. Ultimately everything is taken from her, and although I rate All Quiet as probably the most powerful and effective novel that came out of the Great War, there are enough punches to the gut in this book to make it a worthy challenger for the title.

Siegfried Sassoon: A Working Party

August 13, 2017

Three hours ago he blundered up the trench,
Sliding and poising, groping with his boots;
Sometimes he tripped and lurched against the walls
With hands that pawed the sodden bags of chalk.
He couldn’t see the man who walked in front;
Only he heard the drum and rattle of feet
Stepping along barred trench boards, often splashing
Wretchedly where the sludge was ankle-deep.

Voices would grunt `Keep to your right — make way!’
When squeezing past some men from the front-line:
White faces peered, puffing a point of red;
Candles and braziers glinted through the chinks
And curtain-flaps of dug-outs; then the gloom
Swallowed his sense of sight; he stooped and swore
Because a sagging wire had caught his neck.

A flare went up; the shining whiteness spread
And flickered upward, showing nimble rats
And mounds of glimmering sand-bags, bleached with rain;
Then the slow silver moment died in dark.
The wind came posting by with chilly gusts
And buffeting at the corners, piping thin.
And dreary through the crannies; rifle-shots
Would split and crack and sing along the night,
And shells came calmly through the drizzling air
To burst with hollow bang below the hill.

Three hours ago, he stumbled up the trench;
Now he will never walk that road again:
He must be carried back, a jolting lump
Beyond all needs of tenderness and care.

He was a young man with a meagre wife
And two small children in a Midland town,
He showed their photographs to all his mates,
And they considered him a decent chap
Who did his work and hadn’t much to say,
And always laughed at other people’s jokes
Because he hadn’t any of his own.

That night when he was busy at his job
Of piling bags along the parapet,
He thought how slow time went, stamping his feet
And blowing on his fingers, pinched with cold.
He thought of getting back by half-past twelve,
And tot of rum to send him warm to sleep
In draughty dug-out frowsty with the fumes
Of coke, and full of snoring weary men.


He pushed another bag along the top,
Craning his body outward; then a flare
Gave one white glimpse of No Man’s Land and wire;
And as he dropped his head the instant split
His startled life with lead, and all went out. 

Inevitably I pair Owen with Sassoon, in lots of different ways. Sassoon was Owen’s mentor at Craiglockhart, and in so many ways the pupil outshone the master. That’s not what I’m really interested in, though; what catches my eye and ear are the similarities and the differences, given the closeness of their experiences. And my writing about my chosen Owen poems over the last few days has called this particular one of Sassoon’s back to my memory, because it’s one of those where Sassoon seems to me to come closest to Owen’s way of writing.

It has the same feel in its structure as Disabled: a series of moments both connected and not, like slides, but there is a major difference, which for me adds to the poem’s power and effectiveness. Halfway through the poem we’re told of the man’s death, and then the poem shifts almost into slow motion, or action-replay mode as Sassoon shows us just how easily and swiftly a single life is ended on the western front. Notice the almost repetition of the opening line at the start of the fourth section. And there isn’t even any actual fighting going on…

The pace of the poem is slow, matching the painful trudging up to the front to repair the wire: lengthy lines and occasional incomplete rhymes develop the effect. Present participles ‘sliding… poising… groping‘ show us the difficulty of moving, as do long vowel sounds ‘lurched…pawed‘. He uses alliteration peered…puffing…point, swallowed…sense…sight…stooped…swore…sagging – why?

Two sections set the scene in considerable detail. I’m reminded of Owen’s The Sentry here, too. Then all is illuminated – look at the long ‘i’ sounds in ‘shining whiteness‘ – and then the flare dies out: ‘the slow silver moment died in dark‘. Onomatopoeia echoes the rifle-shots through short, sharp vowel-sounds: ‘split…crack…sing; how do shells come ‘calmly? and burst with ‘hollow bang? I’m really aware of Sassoon using the language to its fullest extent, in terms of poetic techniques, in the same way as Owen does, in this poem.

Somehow the man is killed: look at the stresses ‘now…never, and the now is at the start of the line and gets extra emphasis from its position. Depersonalised in death: a ‘jolting lump‘, and then humanised again briefly: ‘beyond all need of tenderness and care‘.

Then we are into the second half of the poem and Sassoon is magnificent here. Like Owen, the focus is on a single individual and that’s where the full power of the poem comes from, just as in The Sentry, Dulce et Decorum Est, or Disabled especially. It’s the ordinariness that Sassoon stresses in his detailed description in the fourth stanza – a ‘decent chap‘, looking forward to a drink and a sleep; again the alliteration makes this more appealing ‘draughty dug-out, frowsty…fumes.

The final stanza is slow-motion until the suddenness of the last two lines, with the effective combination of the rhyme ‘head/lead and the alliteration of ‘split… startled and ‘life..lead and the permanence of ‘all went out.

Although Sassoon does the bitter and sardonic very well in lots of different short poems where he rubs his readers’ faces in the horrors that they don’t know and can’t imagine, I find him much more moving and effective in longer poems where he takes the time to create a sense of time, place and atmosphere, and makes us care about the fate of an individual, just like his pupil Owen; in a war where casualties are counted in telephone numbers, we need this personal angle to draw us in and make us realise the full horror.

Wilfred Owen: The Send-off

August 12, 2017

The Send-off

Down the close, darkening lanes they sang their way
To the siding-shed,
And lined the train with faces grimly gay.

Their breasts were stuck all white with wreath and spray
As men’s are, dead.

Dull porters watched them, and a casual tramp
Stood staring hard,
Sorry to miss them from the upland camp.
Then, unmoved, signals nodded, and a lamp
Winked to the guard.

So secretly, like wrongs hushed-up, they went.
They were not ours:
We never heard to which front these were sent.

Nor there if they yet mock what women meant
Who gave them flowers.

Shall they return to beatings of great bells
In wild trainloads?
A few, a few, too few for drums and yells,
May creep back, silent, to still village wells
Up half-known roads.

A very low-key poem, this one, and another of my favourites, but for personal reasons. I’ve tracked Owen’s life and death over the years: he was born in Shrewsbury, which is where my other half comes from; in fact the Owen family home was not that far from hers. So I’ve visited the Abbey many times, in which is the original war memorial from straight after the Great War. The huge tablet on the wall lists the fallen of the Manchester Regiment among others, and Owen’s name figures there. And then in the Abbey grounds is a more recent, rather brutalist monument commemorating the attempt to cross the Sambre Canal, where Owen was killed.

I’ve visited the Maison Forestière near Le Cateau Cambrésis in northern France, which is the house in the cellar of which Owen spent his last few nights alongside his men and from where he wrote his last letter home; it’s been turned into a a very moving memorial installation. And then there is his grave, one among dozens of others all killed that same day, in the nearby village of Ors.

And for a good number of years I lived in Ripon, which during the Great War boasted a huge army camp, larger than the city itself, where Owen spent his last weeks in England, recuperating, training and polishing his poems, living in a small rented cottage near the river. From its ‘upland camp’ he headed back to France and eventually, some weeks later, to his death.

So I always referred to this one as the Ripon poem when we studied it; a small detail perhaps, but then it’s often the small details which get through to us…

Structurally it looks like a poem of four five-line stanzas and the rhyme-scheme supports this, but Owen has divided it differently. It’s only something one would notice looking at it on a printed page, unless a reader made it very obvious. But he must have had a reason: what was it? That was another thing we could do in practical criticism classes: speculate, imagine what went on in a writer’s head; no way of knowing with any certainty, of course, but we were opening ourselves up to that crucial idea, informed personal response…

The pace of the poem is noticeable: does it echo the tired march of the men on their way to war? Alliteration makes itself felt from the start. And think about the conciseness of the phrase ‘grimly gay’, how much more powerful it is than talking about putting a brave face on things… Positioning of words can be important: look at the way ‘dead‘ ends that first stanza, at the end of a half-line, so we are brought up short as we notice it, and it gains extra power from the rhyme with ‘shed‘ – maybe we’ve anticipated the word? no less powerful if we did.

Owen creates the banality of the situation. We need to recall the excitement and the cheering crowds of 1914 to get the force of the contrast: here it’s evening, the porters are ‘dull‘, the tramp ‘casual‘ and already missing the free cigarettes. The railway signals, personified in silent conspiracy against the men, are particularly chilling: ‘unmoved‘, ‘nodded‘, ‘winked‘: it’s all so casually done, because done hundreds of times before; we are in 1918 now, remember. The men are anonymous, ‘they were not ours’.

And the final stanza has an air of prophecy about it, the few that will return, the poet not among them. I’ve always found the story of Owen’s parents receiving the telegram announcing their son’s death on the day everyone else was celebrating the Armistice unbelievably sad. It matches that chilling sequence in the film O What A Lovely War which reminds us that someone had to be the very last soldier to be killed and takes us through that scene… Those who returned ‘creep back‘ – why? so marked and scarred by their experiences they wish to hide, remain unknown, undisturbed? Their lives will never be the same again. And I’m reminded by how skilfully Sebastian Faulks captured some of this mental and emotional trauma in Birdsong.

So, that was a few of my personal reflections on several of Owen’s poems that particularly speak to me.

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