Posts Tagged ‘first world war’

R H Mottram: The Spanish Farm Trilogy

May 20, 2019

51m2b9ula+L._AC_UL436_  I came across this in a second-hand bookshop last year; I’d never heard of it or the author; now that I’ve read it, I really am not sure what to make of it…

Let’s start with a summary: according to Wikipedia, R H Mottram wrote dozens of novels, all of which seem to have disappeared without trace. He served in the Great War, and published this trilogy in 1929, so ten years after, like a good deal of the literature from those days. The novels are linked by place: the Spanish Farm, which lies more or less on the Belgian/ French border, and a few miles behind the British front lines in Flanders, around Ypres. The first book describes events from the perspective of a young Flemish woman, a farmer’s daughter, showing how she struggles to survive when troops are constantly passing through, being billeted, demanding to be fed, and helping themselves to whatever they fancy. She helps her father to keep the farm running and is also determined to track down the son of the local baron who actually owns the land, with whom she had an affair before he went off to war. And she also has a brief relationship with a French-speaking British captain who is billeted at the farm.

The second volume looks at the war from the same place, but this time from the perspective of the British officer, Skene: we see his war experience as well as the relationship that develops with Madeleine, the farmer’s daughter. The third part is from the viewpoint of yet another British officer, this time a behind-the-lines one who is charged with trying to resolve a growing scandal which is creating tensions between the British and French: a British solder vandalised a wayside shrine on the farm’s property and in due military form there must be an identifiable culprit, an arrest, an investigation and the payment of compensation… in the middle of the war. A satire worthy of Evelyn Waugh…

A good deal of the trilogy is actually pretty dull – the writing is lacklustre, the use of language run-of-the-mill, and yet it also rings true as a document of the times which could only have been written by someone who had been there. There is the grimness of the border territory – which anyone who has passed through the area will recognise – and the struggles of ordinary people to get on with their lives, their business, their survival. And the central female character is particularly feisty and determined and usually gets her way – a very interesting creation by a male writer in the late 1920s. Her sexual freedom is quite convincingly depicted, too, and I found myself reminded of some of the strong women who populate various parts of Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy.

The portrayal of the British army officers is also very enlightening. We see how family, background, schooling and career paths were considered so important. Ridiculous amounts of time are spent in bureaucracy and infighting between various sections with different axes to grind; I did get the impression of everything being ultimately on so colossal a scale that nothing was ever going to work as intended, and that therefore the ordinary soldier was randomly disposable.

All novelists who have set stories during the Great War seem clear about the general incompetence of the higher levels of command, and also the utter futility of trench warfare, and Mottram is no exception. The experience of leave is generally portrayed as surreal, and men are glad to get back to the reality and camaraderie of the front, even though death stares them in the face: those at home just do not get it…

So Mottram was there and experienced it all, understood the total pointlessness of the war, and at times comes across as powerfully as Barker, Faulks and others. He doesn’t pass over shell-shock, either. Upon reflection, what shocked me most was the laconic nature of his presentation of warfare: no gross or gruesome details; insanity as routine and accepted as a side-effect of warfare.

And then there was the cynicism, the bureaucracy, the class divide, the casual racism of the logistics corps behind the lines, low-risk jobs and a cushy number generally: a whole class of officers totally divorced from the reality of the war itself.

I said at the start of this post I was unsure what I felt: ultimately it’s a useful read, interesting at times but not all the time, a book that complements other reading but probably isn’t necessary unless you’re after completeness.

Philip Johnstone: High Wood

November 5, 2018

2013-09-21 09.44.12 sommeLadies and gentlemen, this is High Wood,
Called by the French, Bois des Fourneaux,
The famous spot which in Nineteen-Sixteen,
July, August and September was the scene
Of long and bitterly contested strife,
By reason of its High commanding site.
Observe the effect of shell-fire in the trees
Standing and fallen; here is wire; this trench
For months inhabited, twelve times changed hands;
(They soon fall in), used later as a grave.
It has been said on good authority
That in the fighting for this patch of wood
Were killed somewhere above eight thousand men,
Of whom the greater part were buried here,
This mound on which you stand being…
Madame, please,
You are requested kindly not to touch
Or take away the Company’s property
As souvenirs; you’ll find we have on sale
A large variety, all guaranteed.
As I was saying, all is as it was,
This is an unknown British officer,
The tunic having lately rotted off.
Please follow me – this way …
the path, sir, please
The ground which was secured at great expense
The Company keeps absolutely untouched,
And in that dug-out (genuine) we provide
Refreshments at a reasonable rate.
You are requested not to leave about
Paper, or ginger-beer bottles, or orange-peel,
There are waste-paper-baskets at the gate.

When I first used this poem in school many years ago, I imagined it must be some sardonic reflection from long after the Great War, and I was rather shocked to discover that it had been written in 1918. Certainly, tourism of the former Western Front took off pretty rapidly after the end of the war, and the removal of corpses and obvious unexploded munitions; there are Michelin Guides from the early 1920s (some of which have been reprinted by Smiths of Easingwold, if you are interested).

The poet focuses on a real spot – I took the photo on a visit a few years ago, and the site is privately owned and not accessible to visitors – and a real battle, the Battle of the Somme. He mimics perfectly the patter of a bored tourist guide who has done this dozens of times before: the ‘Observe’, and ‘here is wire’ suggest a lecture, and there is the slight frisson implied by the reference to ‘This mound on which you stand being…’ Equally there is the concern for keeping the exhibits in good condition – ‘kindly not to touch’ / ‘the path, sir, please’ – and the references to ‘the Company’s property’. The idea of guaranteed souvenirs is macabre, perhaps, as is the suggestion that the remains of an actual corpse is on display. The ground was secured ‘at great expense’: to what expense and whose exactly is our guide referring here? And then the alliteration of the refreshments at a reasonable rate’ rounds it all off…

Except that this has not been my experience of British visitors to the war sites. I have seen coachloads of teenage schoolchildren stunned into silence at the Tyne Cot cemetery near Ypres and been moved by floral tributes left at many war cemeteries by school parties, including flowers and cards placed on German war graves. I have seen people hunting down the names of relatives on the Thiepval Memorial, seen a wreath from my former grammar school at the Menin Gate, and talked with many people involved in projects where their village had decided to hunt down and photograph the last resting-places of those war dead listed on the war memorials in the village. I noticed that it was no longer just the British who were coming to find the graves of their forebears, Germans were beginning to do the same. The only time I have ever been surprised by what I felt was inappropriate behaviour was by French visitors at their national ossuary at Douaumont near Verdun: some were noisy, loud and disrespectful.

So, although I can understand the poet’s cynicism, the idea that all the horrors would soon be forgotten, I am heartened that he has been proven wrong in his imaginings, and that ordinary people’s responses are largely silent and reverent. When I have stood in any of these places, I have been lost for words, unable to believe what I know to be the truth about what happened, faced with the reality and the enormity.

Balance sheet of the First World War

November 3, 2018

Earlier this year I did a series of posts which were a translation of a 1930s French poster detailing the true and lasting costs of the Great War. I’ve now created an easy page of links to access them all, if anyone’s interested in such a resource. The last one, for me, was in a strange way the most shocking…

On another centenary…

November 2, 2018

My father was born a subject of the last Tsar, of a nationality without a nation. My researches have shown me that he will have spent the early years of his life pretty close to the lines of the Eastern Front during the Great War. And then came November 1918, the end of the war, and the re-establishment of an independent Poland, after well over a century of non-existence. The Second Republic was born.

You can read about Polish history elsewhere; if you need a recommendation, the excellent books by Norman Davies are the best I know in English. Although only half-Polish, I do feel some pride in the history of the nation, once the largest on the European continent, in the form of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Somewhere I read, the first country to abolish corporal punishment for children; not quite sure how that actually worked. But a nation which elected its monarch? A great idea in theory, perhaps, but which was one of the factors leading to its downfall. A country with a nobility where membership went with your name, not your status and wealth and importance: though my origins are in the peasantry in the middle of nowhere, our name is in the book, the Index of Polish Nobility. It doesn’t do me any good; the Second Republic abolished the nobility in 1919, I think.

Re-creating a nation after over a century is a pretty impossible task, and the Second Republic didn’t do terribly well, torn between those who wanted Poland to be for the Poles and those who hankered after the old, vast commonwealth encompassing many peoples, and much wider territory. It didn’t take long before Poland was another of the fairly grubby semi-dictatorships that spread over much of central Europe. And then there were the Jews, getting on for a quarter of the population, and not always popular, in a country full of poor peasants who saw some prosperous Jews. Because they couldn’t own land, Jews turned to trade and property to make their living; my father said they sometimes taunted poorer Poles: “You may own the land, but we own what is built on it.”

My father was called up in August 1939; living in the eastern part of the country, his section of the army was not involved in trying to hold back the Germans. On 17 September he and his mates were taken by the invading Russians before they could leave their barracks, and shortly after, Poland once again ceased to exist. He and his fellow-soldiers were marched off to Siberia like many thousands of other Poles, where they endured appalling conditions in various camps for more than two years. Enough has been written about the bestiality of the German occupation; what the Soviets did is less well-known. Once Hitler invaded Russia, Poles were grudgingly allowed to leave and make their way to the West to join Allied forces for the struggle against the Nazis. It wasn’t easy; disease and semi-starvation took their toll. But my father ended up in England, joined the 1st Independent Polish Parachute Brigade and was trained to be dropped as part of the liberation of his country – which never happened. He was part of the abortive Arnhem operation, and then Poland was sold down the river by the Western allies.

Newly ‘liberated’ Poland shifted a hundred miles or so to the West and my father’s homeland became part of the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic, which meant that technically, were he to return home, he would be a Soviet citizen. But Soviet citizens who had been in the West were dangerously suspect, so he did not return, one of many thousands in that plight. He knew some who did return, and who then vanished.

Under the Soviet umbrella, Poland attempted to become a nation again, with a certain amount of success, in the sense that there was stability of a kind for the next forty years or so, and also an ethnically homogeneous nation, almost entirely Polish. However, as recent events have begun to show, that has not been a wholly good thing: Poland does not welcome refugees which, given its own past, is rather sad. And the fact that opposition to the Soviet-imposed regime was centred on the Catholic church has created other difficulties, too, for a nation now free of one set of shackles but seemingly unsure of its future direction…

I’ll not apologise for that personal take on Polish and family history. I’ve wrestled with my origins for over sixty years now, and in many ways I’m as English as they come; I was an English teacher for my entire career. I’ve visited Poland five times, and I would not want to live there, not because I don’t like it – I do – but because I’m English too. I’m entitled to Polish citizenship and a Polish passport if I stump up about €1000, and I’ve been briefly tempted, because of all the Brexit insanity. But I think that currently Poland is in a different kind of mess because of its past. Collectively, though Poles are justifiably proud of their record in the Second World War, they seem as yet unable to come to terms with the fact that not every Pole behaved with honour or decency towards his Jewish fellow-citizens. And I’m not casting any stones here, because the English have not a clue as to what life under Nazi occupation for Poles, whom the Nazis also regarded as an inferior race, was like. Poles have yet to face up to the anti-semitism fostered and fanned by the Catholic church in the inter-war years.

But Poland is a free and independent nation, and has been free of the Soviet shackles for nearly thirty years, even if it has found others instead. I try to imagine what my father would have made of it all. Though he saw the successes of the Solidarity movement, and eventually free elections in Poland, he died a month before the coup against Mikhail Gorbachev, six months before the collapse and disappearance of the Soviet Union, which had so radically altered his life…

Carol Ann Duffy: The Wound in Time

October 22, 2018

I’d just finished the last of my current series of posts on various poems from the First World War which have spoken to me lately, when this timely article appeared on my laptop; I’ve linked to it for the new poem by Carol Ann Duffy which will obviously be copyrighted, so I don’t reproduce it here. I think it’s a marvellous response from our time to a century ago.

I’ve always felt an affinity with Duffy: I’ve always admired her poetry and taught it whenever I could at school – which was most years – and she and I are of an age. After I’d graduated I discovered that she and I had been students in the English Literature department at the University of Liverpool at exactly the same time; our paths had never crossed because she had read English & Philosophy and I’d read English & French…

The post of Poet Laureate had always seemed to me uniquely British and utterly redundant until she took up the post. She hasn’t produced fawning drivel for state occasions and self-important people as other laureates did: she did what in my mind a poet ought to do, which is react in a personal way to public events and commemorations so as to offer the people of the nation an opportunity to pause and think about the subject in a new way. This she also does with the centenary of the 1918 armistice which is fast approaching.

Her poem is a sonnet, as were many of the best-known poems from the war-poets, but it’s a twenty-first century sonnet: there are the fourteen lines and there is the rhythm of the sonnet but none of the traditional structure of the Shakespearean or Petrarchan sonnet: she offers us the concept and its potential for a certain kind of reflection and meaning, as she has done many times previously in similar poems.

The title brings together the idea of a wound as a lasting scar as well as a physical injury and links it with the passage of time, perhaps reminding us of the idea of time healing all wounds, except that she will go on to develop her idea that this has not happened.

Read the poem aloud in your head and savour the sonorous beauty of Duffy’s use of language and imagery: that lapidary opening half-line, for starters, and the linking of time and tide in that line. Death’s birthing-place is wonderfully compact, the linked images of birthing, nursing and hatching so much more effective as a threesome. Listen to the power of those alliterated bs as the men sail off to France or Flanders, and the end of God as so many men lost their faith during the slaughter.

The latter half of the poem is quieter, calmer as Duffy acknowledges the intention behind the men’s sacrifice – love you gave your world for – even thought that was not the actuality. And then come the lessons not learned, reinforced as she moves into the present tense: we learn nothing from your endless sacrifice: war continues unabated a century later; the futility of it all.

There are a couple of clever echoes of earlier poems, I think: to Owen’s famous Dulce et Decorum Est in Poetry gargling in its own blood, and to Philip Larkin’s fiftieth anniversary poem MCMXIV in the town squares silent, awaiting their cenotaphs.

I know that this is an instant reaction, but I think this is a very fine poem and a worthy commemoration of those times; I think Duffy balances the horrific waste with the good intentions and reminds us that it’s our – contemporary – responsibility that nothing has changed.

Wilfred Owen: Futility

October 22, 2018

Move him into the sun –
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields unsown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.

Think how it wakes the seeds, –
Woke, once, the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides,
Full-nerved – still warm – too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
– O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth’s sleep at all?

I think Owen gets pretty close to despair in this poem, which reflects on the corpse of a soldier, presumably a villager, a rural fellow, newly killed: what is the point of the human species’ existence at all? It is pretty grim.

The sun frames the poem, both stanzas. In the first it is a kindly force, in the second almost a stupid one, and this personification shocks through its incongruity. The first stanza is hushed, as we often are in the presence of death, with the gentleness of being awoken by the rising sun, wherever you are, until you are dead and this cannot happen any more. Look at Owen’s use of the mournful-sounding long ‘o’ sounds in awoke, home, sown, and the way those sounds frame the third line, as well as ending so many lines in that first stanza. Notice also how Owen has used consonants which are quiet and soft-sounding; nothing harsh at all until the final couplet where the shock of the plosives in fatuous and break emphasise the poet’s anger.

Owen’s use of imperfect rhyme often contributes to creating a slightly unnerving or uneasy effect, and I think it works well in this poem: look at line endings sun/sown, once/France, seeds/sides, star/stir, tall/toil. Devices like this are so easily overlooked because they do not impinge as evidently as full rhyme, but that subtlety does not mean that they have no effect, just that the effect is less consciously received.

Owen’s knowledge of planetary formation as shown in the opening of the second stanza, with the idea of the sun warming a cold planet and thus generating life, is obviously completely wrong, but that’s not the point here. The poet is focused on the sun’s life-giving properties which are due to radiated heat, germinating seeds in the springtime – an idea that our dead soldier from his rural background would surely have been familiar with – and the idea that the sun might be able, via its warmth, to revive the body not yet gone cold, briefly calls to Owen. Were humans, formed from the dust of the ground according to Genesis, created to be killed like this?

Thus the despairing cry that rises from that final couplet: the long ‘o’ sound again, the fatuous sunbeams – what an idea, as jarring as Sassoon’s glum heroes – the sun is foolish or silly to have bothered bringing forth life on the planet in the first place… And by the time this poem was written, I can see why someone with Owen’s experience of the Western Front would think like this. Indeed, with the state of our world today, I quite often experience the same feeling…

August favourites #30: Wilfred Owen poem

August 30, 2018

This one is a bit of a cheat, if you’ve been following this series, as I already named Owen’s poem Disabled as my favourite war poem, and yet I’m about to name another, and different poem by Owen in this post. But hey, it’s my blog so I can do that. And I wrote about it last year, so I shall suggest that you have a read of that post

So Abram rose, and clave the wood, and went,
And took the fire with him, and a knife.
And as they sojourned both of them together,
Isaac the first-born spake and said, My Father,
Behold the preparations, fire and iron,
But where the lamb for this burnt-offering?
Then Abram bound the youth with belts and straps,
and builded parapets and trenches there,
And stretchèd forth the knife to slay his son.
When lo! an angel called him out of heaven,
Saying, Lay not thy hand upon the lad,
Neither do anything to him. Behold,
A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;
Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him.

But the old man would not so, but slew his son,
And half the seed of Europe, one by one.

 

Why this one? Because it shows a different side from the usual Owen, a more thoughtful and a cleverer one, in playing with what would have been a very familiar story to his contemporaries from their Sunday school Bible stories, and making a powerful message out of it.

I’m doing something different for the holiday month of August, writing about some of my favourites: poems, plays, music, art and other things, a short piece on a different topic each day. The categories are random, as are the choices within them, meaning that’s my favourite that day, and is subject to change… And I will try and explain why each choice is special for me. As always, I look forward to your comments.

August favourites #2: War Poem

August 2, 2018

I’m doing something different for the holiday month of August, writing about some of my favourites: poems, plays, music, art and other things, a short piece on a different topic each day. The categories are random, as are the choices within them, meaning that’s my favourite that day, and is subject to change… And I will try and explain why each choice is special for me. As always, I look forward to your comments.

Wilfred Owen: Disabled

There’s a full-length post and the text of the poem here.

Again, I have met so many war poems – lyrical, angry, satirical, in your face, you name it – and I always come back to this one of Owen’s, which seems to me to encapsulate so much. At nineteen, one is immortal; to be immortal and reduced to the state of Owen’s character is too bitter and cruel to contemplate. In the poem he sums up forever, for me, the utter pointlessness and waste of war, in a world where old and shrivelled men compel younger and fitter ones who haven’t had the chance to enjoy life yet, to be maimed and killed, and sentence their families to years of sadness and irretrievable loss.

Charles Hamilton Sorley: When you see millions

June 20, 2018
When you see millions of the mouthless dead 
Across your dreams in pale battalions go, 
Say not soft things as other men have said, 
That you'll remember. For you need not so. 
Give them not praise. For, deaf, how should they know 
It is not curses heaped on each gashed head? 
Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow. 
Nor honour. It is easy to be dead. 
Say only this, 'They are dead.' Then add thereto, 
Yet many a better one has died before.' 
Then, scanning all the o'ercrowded mass, should you 
Perceive one face that you loved heretofore, 
It is a spook. None wears the face you knew. 
Great death has made all his for evermore. 

A grim Petrarchan sonnet, this one. The alliteration in the open line shocks, with the enormous number, as well as the idea that the dead cannot speak; pale suggests ghostliness, too. Say not soft things: are these the whispered words of condolence, uttered out of embarrassment? Things hints at the speaker lost for what is appropriate to say in the circumstances, rather like the man in Owen’s Disabled who thanks the boy and enquires about his soul… Or is there a hint of the colloquial meaning of soft, as stupid? The poem will carry both. And anyway, the words you utter are for you, not those who are dead, and that is the point the poet is now going to hammer home: it’s too late now for you to do or say anything that will do any good or make any difference: this is the entire force of the octave.

They do not need praise; they are unable to distinguish it from curse; neither do they need tears, or honour – perhaps reminding us of Falstaff’s famous speech about honour in Henry IV Part 2: honour is just a word. Notice too, how Sorley has the dead first mouthless, then deaf and finally blind too; there is a sense of helplessness as well as being beyond help: it is easy to be dead. This was surely very true in the Great War.

Things shift slightly in the sestet: at first they are still a mass, indistinguishable, a crowd, until the hearer spots one that s/he loved heretofore. This is always the way to make the reader think, to narrow down and personalise, and explains why so many of the most memorable poems that came out of that war are focused on the fate of a single individual: look at any of Sassoon‘s or Owen’s most well-known and well-liked poems. It is a spook. Those four monosyllables, with added effect from their place at the start of the line, bring us up short, as perhaps also does the unexpected word spook – a ghost, a spirit, something that shocks or frightens. Though the hearer recognises the dead man, at the same time, it is not the person he knew. And the final line, all monosyllables until the final word, hammers the message home: death is final and forever. Sorley uses the caesura very effectively four times in the poem, too: a pause for thought after a brief sentence at the beginning of a line.

Re-reading this poem as I write this post, I’m struck at how many of the words are monosyllables, emphasising to me the simplicity and the finality of its message.

Herbert Asquith: The Volunteer

June 6, 2018

Here lies a clerk who half his life had spent
Toiling at ledgers in a city grey,
Thinking that so his days would drift away
With no lance broken in life’s tournament
Yet ever ‘twixt the books and his bright eyes
The gleaming eagles of the legions came,
And horsemen, charging under phantom skies,
Went thundering past beneath the oriflamme.

And now those waiting dreams are satisfied
From twilight to the halls of dawn he went;
His lance is broken; but he lies content
With that high hour, in which he lived and died.
And falling thus, he wants no recompense,
Who found his battle in the last resort
Nor needs he any hearse to bear him hence,
Who goes to join the men of Agincourt.

Hindsight means it’s hard for us nowadays to get our minds around the idea that anyone might volunteer for the hell that was the trenches of the Great War, and yet we know that hundreds of thousands did, before conscription came in, and went to their deaths, doing what they believed to be their duty for King and country. Asquith’s anonymous subject is one of them: in a careful and regularly structured poem, we get the before and the after, the volunteering and the death.

The man is bored with his humdrum life: no difference here from the feelings expressed in Brooke’s sonnet Peace: Now God be thanked who hath matched us with his hour… war offers a change, the potential for being really alive, not toiling (note the choice of word: why is it better than working, which would also fit the metre? Listen to that oi sound in the middle of the word: what does it do?). And yet his imagination is back in an Arthurian or mediaeval world, thinking of lance and tournament. Look at the repetition of of the g sound in gleaming, eagles, legions (almost!) – and what is the effect of the assonance in the long ea sound in each of those words… emphasising eagerness and excitement to get involved, perhaps? There is a stunning and colourful visual picture conjured up in the clerk’s mind, to contrast with the city grey

And now: a subtle shift of mood here, at the start of the second stanza, hinted at in those two words: we know it was an illusion and the man is dead. But in the mediaeval setting of his imagination, he is a hero, for the halls of dawn are surely Valhalla, where the Norse heroes went after death. The man is content with what he did, the poet tells us, having done what he wished: fought and died. We may feel he needs no hearse because there may be nothing left of him to put in it, but that is our hindsight and twentieth-century cynicism speaking; the mention of Agincourt links him immediately and irrevocably with that speech in Shakespeare’s Henry V, and there is a slight sense of irony – or appropriateness? – because the village of Azincourt is in Picardy, on the edge of the Somme battlefield.

What is the poet’s attitude, in the end? What is the tone of the poem: is the volunteer mocked for his futile actions and innocent beliefs, or is his choice and his deed accepted for what it was? I find it hard to judge: I am so far from those times and the ways they thought back then, and the text reflects the times. But I do think this poem had to have been written in the early months of the war.

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