Tag Archives: Battle of the Somme

Robert Graves

Robert von Ranke Graves (24 July 1895 – 7 December 1985) is probably my favourite poet of the war era. I’m sure that means you guys will like him too. There is so much to say about him that I have pretty much copied / pasted the following from wikipedia, from what was an unusually thorough article.

Graves received his early education at a series of six preparatory schools until in 1909 he won a scholarship to Charterhouse. There, in response to persecution (in the most part due to the German element in his name and his relative poverty) he feigned madness, began to write poetry, and took up boxing, in due course becoming school champion at both welter- and middleweight. He also sang in the choir, meeting there an aristocratic boy three years younger, G. H. “Peter” Johnstone, with whom he began an intense romantic friendship, the scandal of which led ultimately to an interview with the headmaster. Among the masters his chief influence was George Mallory, who introduced him to contemporary literature and took him mountaineering in vacations. In his final year at Charterhouse he won a classical exhibition to St John’s College, Oxford, but would not take his place there until after the war.
At the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, Graves enlisted almost immediately, taking a commission in the Royal Welch Fusiliers (RWF). He published his first volume of poems, Over the Brazier, in 1916. He developed an early reputation as a war poet and was one of the first to write realistic poems about experience of front-line conflict. At the Battle of the Somme, he was so badly wounded by a shell-fragment through the lung that he was expected to die and, indeed, was officially reported as having died of wounds. He gradually recovered, however; and, apart from a brief spell back in France, he spent the remainder of the war in England.

One of Graves’s close friends at this time was the poet Siegfried Sassoon, also an officer in the RWF. In 1917, Sassoon rebelled against the war by making a public anti-war statement, which later became known as the Soldier’s Declaration. Graves feared Sassoon could face court martial and intervened with the military authorities, persuading them that Sassoon was suffering from shell shock and that they should treat him accordingly. As a result Sassoon was sent to Craiglockhart, a military hospital near Edinburgh, where he was treated by Dr. W. H. R. Rivers and met fellow patient Wilfred Owen (there will be more details about this epic meeting of giants in a later post). Graves also suffered from shell shock, or neurasthenia as it was officially called, although he was never hospitalised for it.The friendship between Graves and Sassoon is documented in Graves’s letters and biographies, and the story is fictionalised in Pat Barker’s novel Regeneration. The intensity of their early relationship is demonstrated in Graves’s collection Fairies and Fusiliers (1917), which contains many poems celebrating their friendship. Sassoon himself remarked upon a “heavy sexual element” within it, an observation supported by the sentimental nature of much of the surviving correspondence between the two men. Through Sassoon, Graves became a friend of Wilfred Owen, who would often send him poems from France.

Graves’s army career ended dramatically with an incident which could have led to a charge of desertion. Having been posted to Limerick in late 1918, he “woke up with a sudden chill, which I recognized as the first symptoms of Spanish influenza.” “I decided to make a run for it,” he wrote, “I should at least have my influenza in an English, and not an Irish, hospital.” Fair enough. Arriving at Waterloo with a high fever but without the official papers that would secure his release from the army, he chanced to share a taxi with a demobilisation officer also returning from Ireland, who completed his papers for him with the necessary secret codes.

After the war (this is me again) Graves earned his living from writing. In addition to his poetry, he was a scholar/translator/writer of antiquity specializing in Classical Greece and Rome, and the author of several popular historical novels including I, ClaudiusHis memoir of his early life, including his role in the war, Goodbye To All That, is definitely worth a read, not only as a tongue-in-cheek commentary of the war, but also as a ‘who’s who’ of early C20th English society. Graves was a well connected man, or at least he paints himself in such a light. In Goodbye to All That we see him bump into the great and good of London: amongst other people, Bertrand Russell, Thomas Hardy, D.E. Lawrence, T.S. Eliot, Lord Asquith, Walter Raleigh, H.G. Wells and A.A. Milne. It is also fascinating to see the relationship between Graves and Sassoon as Graves presents it, although the publishing of Goodbye To All That did lead to a fall out between the two men, who were never properly reconciled. Graves was twice married and had eight children. He died in from heart failure on 7 December 1985 aged 90.

This may come of a shock you, but I may have to break my self-imposed ‘2 poems per poet’ rule in this post, because I can’t narrow it down beyond 3 in the case of Graves. He’s just that good.

To Lucasta on Going to the War – For the Fourth Time
 
It doesn’t matter what’s the cause,
What wrong they say we’re righting,
A curse for treaties, bonds and laws,
When we’re to do the fighting!
And since we lads are proud and true,
What else remains to do?
Lucasta, when to France your man
Returns his fourth time, hating war,
Yet laughs as calmly as he can
And flings an oath, but says no more,
That is not courage, that’s not fear—
Lucasta he’s a Fusilier,
And his pride sends him here.
 
Let statesmen bluster, bark and bray,
And so decide who started
This bloody war, and who’s to pay,
But he must be stout-hearted,
Must sit and stake with quiet breath,
Playing at cards with Death.
Don’t plume yourself he fights for you;
It is no courage, love, or hate,
But let us do the things we do;
It’s pride that makes the heart be great;
It is not anger, no, nor fear—
Lucasta he’s a Fusilier,
And his pride keeps him here.

The Next War

You young friskies who today 
Jump and fight in Father’s hay
With bows and arrows and wooden spears,
Playing at Royal Welch Fusiliers,
Happy though these hours you spend,
Have they warned you how games end?
Boys, from the first time you prod
And thrust with spears of curtain-rod,
From the first time you tear and slash
Your long-bows from the garden ash,
Or fit your shaft with a blue jay feather,
Binding the split tops together,
From that same hour by fate you’re bound
As champions of this stony ground,
Loyal and true in everything,
To serve your Army and your King,
Prepared to starve and sweat and die
Under some fierce foreign sky,
If only to keep safe those joys
That belong to British boys,
To keep young Prussians from the soft
Scented hay of father’s loft,
And stop young Slavs from cutting bows
And bendy spears from Welsh hedgerows.
Another War soon gets begun,
A dirtier, a more glorious one;
Then, boys, you’ll have to play, all in;
It’s the cruellest team will win.
So hold your nose against the stink
And never stop too long to think.
Wars don’t change except in name;
The next one must go just the same,
And new foul tricks unguessed before
Will win and justify this War.
Kaisers and Czars will strut the stage
Once more with pomp and greed and rage;
Courtly ministers will stop
At home and fight to the last drop;
By the million men will die
In some new horrible agony;
And children here will thrust and poke,
Shoot and die, and laugh at the joke,
With bows and arrows and wooden spears,
Playing at Royal Welch Fusiliers. 
 
Goliath and David
(written for his friend, David Thomas, who died at Fricourt, March 1916).
 
Once an earlier David took
Smooth pebbles from a brook:
Out between the lines he went
To that one-sided tournament,
A shepherd boy who stood out fine
And young to fight a Philistine
Clad all in brazen mail. He swears
That he’s killed lions, he’s killed bears,
And those that scorn the God of Zion
Shall perish so like bear or lion.
But . . . the historian of that fight
Had not the heart to tell it right.
 
Striding within javelin range
Goliath marvels at this strange
Goodly-faced boy so proud of strength.
David’s clear eye measures the length;
With hand thrust back, he cramps one knee,
Poises a moment thoughtfully,
And hurls with a long vengeful swing.
The pebble, humming from the sling
Like a wild bee, flies a sure line
For the forehead of the Philistine;
Then . . . but there comes a brazen clink.
And quicker than a man can think
Goliath’s shield parries each cast.
Clang! clang! and clang! was David’s last.
Scorn blazes in the Giant’s eye,
Towering unhurt six cubit’s high.
Says foolish David, ‘Damn your shield!
And damn my sling! but I’ll not yield.’
 
He takes his staff of Mamre oak,
A knotted shepherd-staff that’s broke
The skull of many a wolf and fox
Come filching lambs from Jesse’s flocks.
Loud laughs Goliath, and that laugh
Can scatter chariots like blown chaff
To rout: but David, calm and brave,
Holds his ground, for God will save.
Steel crosses wood, a flash, and oh!
Shame for Beauty’s overthrow!
(God’s eyes are dim, His ears are shut.)
One cruel backhand sabre cut —
‘I’m hit! I’m killed!’ young David cries,
Throws blindly foward, chokes . . . and dies.
And look, spike-helmeted, grey, grim,
Goliath straddles over him.

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Filed under Beyond The Grave, Real War Poetry

William Noel Hodgson

William Noel Hodgson (3 January 1893- 1 July 1916, pen name Edward Melbourne), is the author of one of my favourite poems (which you will find below). Known as “Smiler” to his friends, Hodgson volunteered for the British Army on the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 and served in the 9th Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment. His first major offensive came on 25 September 1915 during the Battle of Loos. He was mentioned in despatches and awarded the Military Cross for holding a captured trench for 36 hours without reinforcements or supplies during the battle and he was subsequently promoted to lieutenant.

Having returned to England after Loos, Hodgson was positioned with his Battalion opposite the town of Mametz in April 1916. The trench was named Mansell Copse, as it was in a group of trees. As the week long preliminary bombardment commenced for the Battle of the Somme, Hodgson and others in his Battalion grew worried that the British shelling would not destroy a German machine gun, which was perfectly positioned to gun down British troops should they have to go ‘over the top’. Indeed, Hodgson’s commanding officer set off to British High Command to demonstrate the futility of their attacking, armed with a plasticine model he had made demonstrating the location of the gun in relation to the British trenches.

Unfortunately, the Devonshires were told that they were to attack in any case, regardless of whether or not the gun had been eliminated, in order that all the Battalions participating in the Somme Offensive advanced as a line. So, at 0730 hours on July 1st, 1916, the men from the Devonshire Regiment, 9th Battalion went over the top. They had about 400 yards of No-Mans-Land to cross in the Carnoy valley before they could attempt to break into the German Front Line south of Mametz village. The gun had not been destroyed, and men were cut down in swathes as soon as they left the comparative safety of their trench. Hodgson was a Bombing Officer, responsible for keeping the men supplied with grenades. He died within half an hour of the attack.

Hodgson’s Battalion lost some 167 men, including all but one of their officers. In spite of the horrendous casualties suffered by the 9th Battalion, Mametz was captured by troops from the British 7th Division. The attack was a success.

Hodgson is buried with the rest of the 9th Battalion’s casualties in Mansell Copse. As you enter the cemetery, which you’ll find in the very corner of an unassuming field, a plaque reads as follows: ‘The Devonshires held this trench, the Devonshires hold it still.’

This poem was written two days before Hodgson’s death. To me it speaks of an awful sense of playing one’s part, even when one’s death is all but certain, which was prevalent throughout the British army in the First World War. It provided the inspiration for my own ‘They Called It Mametz’, a story tracking the Devonshires on the eve of the attack.

Before Action

By all the glories of the day
And the cool evening’s benison
By that last sunset touch that lay
Upon the hills when day was done,
By beauty lavishly outpoured
And blessings carelessly received,
By all the days that I have lived
Make me a soldier, Lord.
 
By all of all man’s hopes and fears
And all the wonders poets sing,
The laughter of unclouded years,
And every sad and lovely thing;
By the romantic ages stored
With high endeavour that was his,
By all his mad catastrophes
Make me a man, O Lord.
 
I, that on my familiar hill
Saw with uncomprehending eyes
A hundred of thy sunsets spill
Their fresh and sanguine sacrifice,
Ere the sun swings his noonday sword
Must say good-bye to all of this; –
By all delights that I shall miss,
Help me to die, O Lord.
 

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Filed under Beyond The Grave, Real War Poetry