Posts Tagged ‘the Great War’

On a poet laureate

May 20, 2019

Last autumn Carol Ann Duffy wrote a poem which reflected on the armistice which ended the Great War. The poem moved me greatly and I wrote a post about it; it has turned out to be the most popular post I’ve written in the last year.

The institution of Poet Laureate is a bizarre and curiously English one, and Duffy has just come to the end of her tenure of that office. I have followed her career as a poet, and also as our national laureate, with interest. She and I were students at the University of Liverpool at the same time in the mid-1970s. Our paths never crossed, however, because I read English and French and she read Philosophy. Her poetry featured heavily on GCSE English Literature specifications for many years when I was teaching – along with that of Simon Armitage, who has just been named as our next Poet Laureate – and I really enjoyed teaching it. She wrote with a voice that many students could tune into, and each year Duffy would appear at Poetry Days set up for GCSE students, to read and talk about her poetry. Sometimes she was clearly bored and doing it for the money, at others she came alive and brought her poems to life, engaging with the students who came away with an even deeper appreciation of her writing.

The Poet Laureate is an official, national poet who traditionally is expected to write poems for state occasions, royal occasions, significant national moments; over the years many of them wrote sycophantic tosh which has fortunately been long forgotten. Carol Ann Duffy has been different, I think. She has certainly written poems to coincide with the kind of occasions that you would have expected a Poet Laureate to mark or commemorate, but she has never been doting, grovelling or twee; she has always taken an interesting and thoughtful angle on whatever occasion she has marked. And this brings me back to the poem The Wound In Time, written for the centenary of the end of the First World War. No triumphalism, in the sense of ‘we were on the winning side’. No pride in our nation or our armed forces. Instead, a recognition of a world-wide calamity, acknowledging that it still affects our world today, and a calm and deep respect for the memory of the millions who were killed. Writing a poem to commemorate that event would have tasked any poet, and Duffy rose to the occasion.

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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.

A Corner of A Foreign Field

March 2, 2019

61qpI7in3oL._AC_US218_I thought I’d worked the Great War out of my system, for a while at least, with all the reading and re-reading I did over the last four years of the centenary. But this book was a present which I really enjoyed. Normally I avoid anthologies, but this was an interesting collection of poems, many of which were obviously the usual familiar ones, but there were also a goodly number which I hadn’t yet come across, despite my wide reading over many years. And the photographs, all taken from the Daily Mail archive of the war years, were wonderfully clear and well-presented.

What struck me: the number of poets blaming the older generation for the carnage, the real anger of many of the women, even if their poetry was not particularly good, and the sense of lasting trauma in many of the poets. It’s a truism about war which bears every repetition, that the older generations are the politicians and generals who make the disastrous decisions, and it’s the young who feel immortal because they are young who go off to be slaughtered. It’s the women who make the munitions and who lose brothers, sons, lovers, husbands. And once it’s all over, everyone quickly forgets, except the poor sods who were there and who saw it all and came back, to live with their memories for the rest of their lives…

Poems which particularly spoke to me: you can surely hunt them down online of you are interested: Now That You Too Must Shortly Go The Way, by Eleanor Farjeon; Warbride, by Nina Murdoch; Women At Munition-Making, by Mary Gabrielle Collins; The Ridge 1919, by Wilfred Gibson; To Germany, by Charles Hamilton Sorley.

Now that you too must shortly go the way
Which in these bloodshot years uncounted men
Have gone in vanishing armies day by day,
And in their numbers will not come again:
I must not strain the moments of our meeting
Striving for each look, each accent, not to miss,
Or question of our parting and our greeting,
Is this the last of all? is this—or this?

Last sight of all it may be with these eyes,
Last touch, last hearing, since eyes, hands, and ears,
Even serving love, are our mortalities,
And cling to what they own in mortal fears:—
But oh, let end what will, I hold you fast
By immortal love, which has no first or last.

Not a very intelligent species…

November 11, 2018

Ten million soldiers killed; millions more civilians still to die from Spanish flu, part of a population physically weakened by four and a half years of conflict. And were any lessons learned? It is hard to think so, for the ‘peace conference’ at Versailles set in motion the seeds of an action replay twenty years later, in which far more were to die, and further unspeakable horrors were to be perpetrated.

Having visited various areas of France where the Western war took place, I can understand why the French sought to exact reparations from a defeated Germany, an approach which was to contribute to resentment, economic collapse and the eventual rise of Hitler. Numerous peoples who had suffered under foreign yoke for years achieved independence, (including Poland, my father’s country), but as multi-racial countries which could not easily learn how to deal with their new-found freedoms; again this contributed to weak democracies collapsing into dictatorships and feeding the rise of fascism. I only have to look at what happened in Poland, where my father grew up in those inter-war years, to see the problems that had to be faced. And the ‘victorious’ powers, the British and the French, presumed to impose on the Middle East a ‘settlement’ the consequences of whose idiocies are still being visited on the entire world today. Finally, the United States emerged onto the world stage as a superpower, relatively stronger because of its much shorter participation in the conflict.

I watched a series of BBC documentaries this week, with testimonies from participants in the Great War, who spoke about the effects on themselves, families and friends. And I was shocked at the anger I felt: all these people endured all this suffering and death at the behest of their masters who themselves went through very little of it: had there been any need for the build-up to and outbreak of the war other than competitiveness between nations and futile ideas of national pride?

Hindsight is a wonderful thing… but in a world where ordinary people are asked to put their trust in politicians through a ballot-box, one ought to be able to expect intelligence from rulers, the ability to think through the consequences of their actions and decisions, otherwise what is the point? Having sown the seeds of 1939, those politicians then bowed to the common people who had no wish to see a repeat of the Great War, appeased fascism until it was too late, and we know what the end result was.

As I grow older I am torn between two competing views of humanity: collectively we are capable of astonishing achievements, and individual genius testifies to our capabilities, and yet we really do not seem to be a terribly intelligent species, for all that. We allow greed, violence and inequality to lord it over us, and allow ourselves to be diverted from reality by lies, bread and circuses… I have long been convinced that violence and war do not solve anything. I will acknowledge that the Second World War had to happen, but a truly intelligent species would never have allowed the causes of it to develop and flourish in the first place.

For me, today is a day for sober reflection, and respect for the memory of those who were killed.

On the centenary

November 1, 2018

It’s coming up to a century since the Great War – ‘the war to end all wars’ – ended; I’ll be writing one or two specific posts about that closer to the time. But I’m very conscious of how my life has been shaped by war, and also that I spend rather more time than many people reading about war, thinking about it, and visiting places that have been at the heart of conflict. Some of you may have read some of my posts about visiting Verdun and the Somme battlefields.

Why do I think it’s so important to remember war, and its effects on us? I first visited the city of Gdansk – formerly Danzig, and where the Second World War began – in 1970 as a teenager. There were plenty of ruins left over from that war then; there are still some. I recall being intrigued by some graffiti painted somewhere on the waterfront, and asked my father to translate. “We have not forgotten. And we shall not forgive.’ I was shocked.

There is the truism that those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it; we forget at our peril the horrors of the twentieth century, and the further away we get from those times, as we lose those generations who were actually alive through those events, the greater the dangers become, it seems to me: there are figures in public life whose comments are far too glib and cavalier. My mother remembers the Second World War as a primary school child, hiding under the kitchen table during air raids and knitting scarves for convoy sailors at school, but she is now 88; my father was taken prisoner by the Soviets in the first weeks of that war, and without his and his comrades sufferings and adventures on their perilous journey to freedom and England, I would not exist… his home village was burnt to the ground and the rest of his family taken off to be forced labourers by the Nazis. So I suppose I personally have plenty of grounds for my preoccupation with that war. And I have since discovered how close to the Eastern Front his home was during the Great War.

But the issue is broader. I’m also interested in human progress; I’ve read many utopias and know that there are many people who dream of a better world, and the disappearance of war from it would be a start. Yet, we never seem to be that far from war. Although, mercifully, mainland Britain has been spared during my lifetime – apart from acts of terrorism connected with wars elsewhere — there is warfare all around the world, and aided and abetted by Britain which makes so much money selling weapons to anyone who has the money to buy them… I’m truly sickened both by those who wring their hands about the terrible plight of refugees while ignorant of how we contribute to turning people into refugees, and by those who would turn them away on the grounds they are nothing to do with us.

From both political and religious conviction, I firmly believe that wars solve nothing, but make existing situations even worse. They serve the interests of the rich and the powerful, who generally do not suffer, and indeed often make tidy profits. I know some would say that mine is a simplistic attitude, but when I look at the interconnectedness of everywhere and everyone, I am ever more convinced that wars and armaments are an inevitable part of the capitalist system. I also find it sickening that there are many people who earn their daily bread from the manufacture and sale of the machinery of death.

The centenary of the end of the Great War ought to be a time for serious reflection on how the coming century might be made more peaceful; there is no place for jingoistic pride or for appropriating the deaths of millions as some kind of patriotic sacrifice – it was all an unspeakable waste of life and potential, as well as a prelude to even worse things.

 

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.

Ernst Wiechert: The Jeromin Children

May 5, 2018

51n8In4582L._AC_US218_It’s been quiet lately on this blog because I took an 1100-page novel away on holiday and have only just finished it… a long book, which will end up with a long review.

I’ve read and loved Ernst Wiechert’s The Simple Life several times; it’s a hauntingly lovely novel, one of my all-time favourites. The Jeromin Children is nearly as good. Wiechert wrote in the 1930s and 40s and fell foul of the Nazis; after a few months in a concentration camp he was let out but threatened with ‘physical annihilation’ if he put another foot wrong. He didn’t. This novel appeared after the Second World War, when its subject-matter had gone forever.

It’s a family saga, set in a village in the middle of nowhere, deep in the forest lakeland of East Prussia. It’s a lost world – East Prussia ceased to exist as a result of the Second World War and its German inhabitants were expelled, the land divided between Poland and the Soviet Union. As a family saga, at times it reminded me of Naguib MahfouzThe Cairo Trilogy, but it also belongs to a subset of post-Great War novels where writers, so horrified at the events they had experienced, sought mental and spiritual refuge in flight from cities and ‘civilisation’ in the timeless values and lives of simple rural folk; Jean Giono is a prime French example of such a writer.

It’s also a bildungsroman, of a very German kind. There are seven children born to the family, and although we do learn of the lives of them all (and the deaths of some of them), the hero is clearly Jons, the youngest, whose story we are most intimately concerned with. But all seven of them have different and significant stories which Wiechert uses to bring out meanings in various ways. And he skilfully brings out the timelessness of the place, the meaning of existence for its inhabitants, the complex interaction of characters, thoughts and feelings, locating all in a powerful sense of eternity and continuity.

To break out of such a village, to leave and to make one’s way in the big wide world is a huge and frightening undertaking. To leave the peasantry and the poverty and to hope for more – I can see my own father’s story in much of this. Will Jons lose the village and the people, and his soul? For he has gifts, talents, and various people in the village make enormous sacrifices so that he can go to school, and then to university, where he will train to become a doctor…

The village is overwhelmed by the Great War on the Eastern Front, and though burnt to the ground, it is rebuilt. The utter insanity, the meaninglessness, futility and sheer evil of the war is briefly but powerfully portrayed, almost through the absence of detail; the good and the bad die, and the scene where one of Jons’ mentors, the student Jumbo, dies, is heart-rending in its pointlessness.

Mentors are obviously of significance in a bildungsroman, and I was inevitably led to reflect on the importance of those who clearly influenced me in my younger days – teachers, student friends, professional colleagues all play their part. In a similar way, Wiechert had me thinking about the differences between generations, how we change and yet how in so many ways we remain just the same as those who went before us.

His studies interrupted by his military service in the war, Jons returns and eventually qualifies as a doctor, and returns to his village to be a doctor for the poor; despite his evident talents and much brighter prospects, this shapes up as his deliberate and the right choice. The unspeakable horrors are left behind, and idyllic peacetime village life continues, except that as readers we know that this cannot last.

The novel is very long; at times it palls and feels didactic and verbose. The view of village life is surely romanticised, though the paeans to the physical beauty of the regional landscape are true to life. It seems utopian, powerful and seductive at times, and we must remind ourselves whence it sprang; it’s comforting, in the same way that the life of the hero of The Simple Life attracts us. And yet, like all utopias, it cannot be. The insidious creep of Nazism is only vaguely hinted at, and seems all the more sinister for this way of portraying; its true horrors and darkness visit the village chillingly in the death of a Jewish doctor who is Jons’ friend and professional mentor, and in the senseless cruelty the regime inflicts on a couple of the villagers. In some ways the ending of the novel is unsatisfactory, for Wiechert leaves it hanging, as I suppose he had to. The Nazis have invaded the Soviet Union; anyone can see that it will all end horrifically. And Wiechert, in a brief afterword, reminds us that this did happen, and tells us that we must invent for ourselves what happened to the villagers and Jons…

It’s not War and Peace, it’s not Life and Fate. It’s clearly flawed. But it’s also a work of love, a call from a generation scarred by the Great War, realising that civilisation is not what it says; it’s a book to take you away from yourself, to make you think, and at times to make you weep. Sadly, the only English version, published over sixty years ago as The Earth is Our Heritage, must have been a bowdlerised version as it’s only a third the length of Wiechert’s novel; I read the French translation which was published last year.

My travels: Y is for Ypres

April 28, 2018

I’ve travelled around quite a few of the Somme battlefields over the past few years, familiarising myself with the places and landscapes I’ve read so much about, and which has formed the background to a lot of the novels, poetry and drama I taught over the years. The other major sector of the western front in the Great War, Flanders, I don’t know very much about at all, and so I took the opportunity to spend a couple of days there on my return journey from walking in the Ardennes.

I’d read about Talbot House a number of times, and finally went there. There’s plenty of information about it online, but basically it was a large, upper middle-class Belgian house behind the lines in the small town of Poperinghe, that was taken over by a couple of Anglican chaplains and turned into a place of rest for troops who were enjoying a few days away from the front. There was entertainment, an endless supply of cups of tea, ways of contacting other comrades, a chapel, spiritual help and comfort, a garden… a small oasis of sanity a few miles outside hell.

I found the place strangely moving, especially the simple chapel right under the eaves of the house, and the large and beautiful garden, too; it gave me a different perspective on the war, made me reflect on things I hadn’t considered. And it offers B&B too, ideally situated for exploring the Flanders sector of the western front, which I haven’t done yet…

I also took myself into Ypres, to look around the splendid In Flanders Fields Museum, in the old (and completely rebuilt) Cloth Hall. I didn’t really learn anything new about the Great War, but the events seen from the Flanders perspective were most illuminating. I learnt a lot about German atrocities at the start of the war, and also how much use was made of flooding low-lying ground as a way of halting German progress. There was also an interesting walk around the old ramparts of the town, which led inevitably to the famous Menin Gate, on which the names of over 50,000 British troops whose bodies were never recovered, are engraved. It’s enormous, perhaps not as impressive as the Thiepval Memorial on the Somme in terms of its setting, but sobering, nevertheless. And I found myself thinking yes, and if you wanted to commemorate the names of all the British men who were killed in that utterly pointless war, you’d need twenty of those gates…

As on the Somme, there are war cemeteries dotted all over the landscape. I decided that I would be returning for a few days to visit some of the smaller sites and museums that I’ve come across mention of in various memoirs I’ve read over the years.

Balance-sheet of the First World War – concluded

April 7, 2018

IMG_0819

For some reason I find this section the most jaw-dropping, the most shocking of all; I knew about the human toll of the war in so far as it’s possible to take it in, but the sheer waste of resources is truly mind-boggling…

With the money spent on the war…

You could have provided a furnished villa with garden and outbuildings to a value of 100,000 francs to EVERY family in the following countries: USA, Canada, England, France, Belgium, Germany and Russia, and afterwards you could have built, in all towns with more than 200,000 inhabitants in each of those countries: a hospital for 125 million francs; a library for the same value; a university for 250 million. That done, a reserve fund could have been set up which, at 5% interest, would have provided annuities allowing 125,000 teacher or professors, and 125,000 doctors or nurses to be employed at an average salary of 25,000 francs. And that’s not all! This building finished, and the capital set aside for investment, there would remain a sum equivalent to the total value of property in Belgium and France before the cataclysm!

(concluding the series of posts I introduced here; I hope some readers have found it informative…)

Balance-sheet of the First World War – 13

March 21, 2018

IMG_0810

Material losses:
number of communes entirely destroyed 1699
number of communes 3/4 destroyed 707
number of communes half-destroyed 1656
number of houses completely destroyed 319,269
number of houses partially destroyed 313,675
number of factories 20,603
kilometres of railway destroyed 7985
bridges destroyed 4875
tunnels destroyed 12
kilometres of road destroyed 52,754
hectares of uncultivated land destroyed 2,060,000
hectares of cultivated land destroyed 1,740,000

(continuing the series of posts I introduced here)
 
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