Posts Tagged ‘Robert Graves’

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.


August 22, 2014

So, following on from my previous post, I tried to think of a couple of texts to compare, and came up with Sebastian FaulksBirdsong, and Pat Barker‘s Regeneration Trilogy. Both texts are set in the First World War, both were written in the 1990s. What differences are there to observe between a male and female novelist?

The central characters in the main part of Birdsong are male: it’s set in the trenches. The overture to the story features the hero’s passionate affair with the wife of his employer several years earlier, and the hero’s story is being researched by his granddaughter. There are rather more female characters in Regeneration, and more completely integrated in the structure of the story. Both novels contain graphic details of warfare, injuries, death and destruction. The mental effects of warfare appear in both.

In many ways, Birdsong feels like a more ‘traditional’ novel, with a fairly conventional structure, although the central narrative is framed by earlier and later years. The Regeneration Trilogy – which is therefore rather longer – is more complex, more diffuse, with a number of plots loosely converging and intertwined: treatment of shellshock at Craiglockhart, the relationship between Owen and Sassoon, the relationship between Sassoon and Graves and the former’s protest against the conduct of the war, various political intrigues during the FWW, the work of Rivers the psychologist, the relationship between the shellshocked Billy Prior and Sarah Lumb, women’s work during the war… Home Front and Western Front take on equal importance, it seems to me.

The central relationship in Birdsong is that between Stephen and his friend Weir, and we are constantly aware of Stephen’s distancing himself from what he is experiencing. The horrors of combat are foregrounded, and graphically described; the enduring and psychological horrors are revealed as his granddaughter gradually uncovers more and more of his story many years later. Although Barker can match Faulks in terms of graphic details of conflict and its consequences, it’s not her primary focus, which is the mental and psychological effects of combat and the stress of the frontline on officers and men, and the attempts to treat it, to rebuild the men who are suffering (so that they can then be shipped back to the front!). She explores a range of different relationships – peer to peer, superior to inferior, male/ male and male/female.

Both writers clearly researched their subject-matter in great depth; both adopt a no-holds-barred approach to unpleasant detail: there is not much to choose between them here. Yet, in a blind reading, if asked to decide which of the two was written by a man, I’m sure most would go for Birdsong. If asked to read Regeneration and then identify the gender of the author, I’m not so confident about readers’ ability to identify a female writer. Why? It’s very difficult to nail down. Is the tightness of Birdsong’s structure, and of Faulks’ writing, self-evidently masculine? Is it the openness of Barker’s treatment of both characters and subject-matter, the looseness or freeness of scope, structure, direction a more female trait?

If you’re interested in exploring these issues, I recommend these two novels, and will just append two others for you to think about: All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque, a classic from 1929 that most will have heard of, and Not So Quiet, a response by Helen Zinna Smith, from 1930, which is largely undiscovered. One recounts the FWW from an exclusively male perspective, the other from female one. Which is better/more powerful/more effective?


Ernst Jünger: Storm of Steel

October 8, 2013

41THFV0041L._AA160_I was astonished to find writing about the First World War that was even more horrific than Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, but Storm of Steel manages it. It’s the account of four years on various sectors of the Western Front by a German lieutenant who survives (clearly) though wounded and hospitalised seven times, and who was eventually awarded the Empire’s highest military decoration at the age of twenty-three.

Jünger was a nationalist, and some feel his writings glorify war. I was interested, when I looked up what happened to him after, that he refused to support the Nazis or be used by them, that he experimented with LSD and other substances in the 1960s and survived to the age of 102 (among lots of other things).

What stood out for me is that this book is clearly factual – a memoir – in a way that All Quiet isn’t. It was written in 1920, so has immediacy, though not the reflectiveness of the memoirs of British writers such as Graves, Blunden or Sassoon. He fights in Flanders and on the Somme, describing the British attack of 1 July 1916 from the other side. He takes part in the German offensive of spring 1918. His picture of occupied France and Belgium is at odds with other accounts I have come across.

He pulls no punches in his descriptions of war and its effects on people and places. Comrades are mutilated and killed by the score, and he moves on, sometimes allowing that he is affected, but mostly focused on survival for himself and his comrades. You can see how his experience of war over time makes him a better soldier and survivor, even in the chaos of the First World War. You can also see how he gradually realises that Germany will be outfought. I say outfought, because we see the effects of the Allied blockade through the increasingly poor quality of the soldiers’ food, contrasted with the plenty discovered in captured British trenches and dugouts. Equally, the impression is that it’s superior firepower that tips the balance for the Allies: they just shell the daylights out of whatever they plan to attack; there is no limit to their resources, whereas it becomes increasingly clear that Germany is running out of materiél.

The nature of the war also becomes clearer in terms of what each side was faced with. Germany’s great advantage was to have attacked in the first place, and to have had a couple of years to entrench themselves and build fortifications, and it’s clear from the book and from what I saw on my recent trip to the Somme, that these were formidable. Then they could just sit tight. (OK, I oversimplify a little…). The Allies had, therefore, to throw everything they could at the enemy. This led to the total wasteland that we are familiar with from photographs. However, when the war gradually developed into one of movement, however slight, it meant that things were more even: the descriptions of hand-to-hand fighting in the trenches in 1918 are some of the most gripping and horrific in the book.

Only very occasionally do we get a glimpse of the degradation of humanity as a result of war that Remarque portrays so brilliantly in his novel. But I didn’t find myself agreeing with those who felt that Jünger’s book glorifies war. It’s a remorseless account of the effects of human stupidity on those who have no power to change and shape their world, but who want to survive.

Edmund Blunden: Undertones of War

September 20, 2013

51H9+zbjGiL._AA160_I brought this with me to re-read as I tour the Somme battlefields. It’s a memoir by someone who served, and it has become clearer to me just how different a memoir is from a fictional exploration of events. For instance, Blunden saw many horrific sights; he mentions them and you can see how he is affected, though he doesn’t write about them in detail (undertones…), whereas Faulks (to take a novelist as an example) wasn’t at the front, but researched his material very carefully. And Faulks offers us graphic description of death, maiming, injury…

Partly I think Blunden’s sometimes laconic descriptions are to spare himself as much as his readers, yet that also feels like a simplistic and patronising response. Somehow the weariness of war, and the meaninglessness of it all, are enhanced by his hands-off approach. And yet I feel him there, at the Somme, and at Ypres, losing friends and colleagues in the blinking of an eye, and accepting (?) moving on because survival is paramount.

I still find this the best of the war memoirs, preferring it to Graves and Sassoon. I like the way he uses language to describe what is around him, what he sees and the attitudes of others: he is an excellent observer who leaves the commentating to his reader. The picture of war as chaos and confusion in all directions, with no idea what is really going on, certainly no sense of one side or the other ‘winning’, is sobering; he is surrounded by pointless movement, by death and destruction, and so, through his words, are we.

He is aware that he owes his survival (many times) to chance. And we gained from this, for Blunden edited what was for years the definitive edition of Wilfred Owen‘s poems.

Robert Graves: Claudius

August 21, 2013

71EWMD2JV2L._AA160_I watched the epic BBC TV series when it was first shown in the 1970s, and it made a lasting impression. I was glad to be able to see it again when it was repeated recently, and also somewhat alarmed to hear that there was talk of a re-make of the series. Watching it again reminded me of how brilliant it was in the 1970s, and also helped me realise why a re-make will probably be necessary for a twenty-first century audience: although the cast is excellent, we now expect much more realistic and graphic violence, and also much more explicit portrayal of sexual activity, and there is scope for both of these in a new filmed version of the novels; current tastes and expectations do make this old version seem extremely coy and reserved, if not actually laughable in places.

However, watching I Claudius again sent me to the novels, which I realised I’d never read. Having studied Ancient History at school, I was aware of how little (relatively speaking) information had survived two millennia, and so had imagined that it was basically Graves’ imagination at work. However, it’s clear that he researched thoroughly and went back to all the available sources, not just the obvious ones, and so there is evidence for most of what he writes, in terms of their accuracy as historical novels.

Eight hundred pages of the life and adventures of Claudius and his family and ancient Rome is a little tiring, but also fascinating: Rome (although I’m not sure about other parts of the empire) is a horrifically bloody place, utterly corrupt in terms of economics and morals. What came across quite strongly to me was the power of women behind the scenes, in terms of manipulating powerful men, and poisoning them in order to get their way, and also the inevitability of the empire and its corruption, in that what was originally a small city-state could not manage its control of most of the known world ‘democratically’ (no change there, then!). There’s also a detailed portrayal of Roman religious rites and rituals, and the genesis of Christianity, which also took place during the time-frame of Claudius’ account, treated from a Roman and Jewish perspective.

In the end, unless you’re seriously interested in Roman History, the TV series will do.

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