Tag Archives: World War I

Some Christmas Thoughts

On the evening of 24th December 1914 hundreds of thousands of British, French and German soldiers left their trenches and came together in No-Man’s-Land to celebrate Christmas. That night a ceasefire was observed across much of France and Belgium, in blatant disregard of the official German and Allied policies of non-fraternisation. It was a time for men to swap cigarettes, food and souvenirs; to mingle and sing carols; to collect and bury the dead.

The First World War had been raging for 5 bloody months. It would continue for another 47. What had begun as a nationalist movement in Serbia finished as the world’s first global industrialised conflict. By the end of hostilities on 11th November 1918, nearly 20 million people had been sacrificed to the fallacy that war ends war.

Viewed in such a context the Christmas truce becomes a defining moment in human history. Men, who in November had been hacking each other to pieces for control of the Belgian town of Ypres, risked everything to wish each other a Merry Christmas just one month later.

When I reflect upon those extraordinary events, I am reminded of a line from John Sullivan Dwight’s carol, ‘Oh Holy Night’ – “A thrill of hope; the weary world rejoices.”

The world is weary, now as it was then. There is hate and there is violence; this may never change. Yet there will always be a case for hope.

So as we celebrate Christmas this year, perhaps we might spare a thought for the soldiers in the trenches, who somehow found a sense of fellowship in the bitter depths of war. Perhaps we might remember 24th December 1914, and rejoice that the guns of the Western Front fell silent, at least upon the night the Angels sang.

trucemirror2

Merry Christmas everybody.

I’m sorry I haven’t been around this past year and I hope to get back into blogging soon.

Ed

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Fun Friday Fact #18

Due to an oversight at the end of the First World War, Andorra found itself engaged in two world wars at the same time.

The tiny Pyrenean state’s name was omitted from the Treaty of Versailles (1919), meaning that the 11-man national army remained technically at war with Germany. The outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 placed too much of a strain on the Andorran resources. The beleaguered country hastily signed a private treaty with Germany, finally concluding the First World War and confirming its neutrality in the Second. In benching itself for the second global conflict, Andorra joined a long line of heroes including Ireland, Switzerland and those once mighty empires of Spain and Portugal.

Note: neutral status provided no guarantees from attack. For example Britain invaded the neutral Iceland, whilst Hitler was quick to take over the low countries and add them to his treasure chest.

That was fun now, wasn’t it? I’m sorry to inform you, my beloved readers, that this will be my final Fun Friday Fact. It’s been real, and I have thoroughly enjoyed the journey, but I want to turn my attention elsewhere. I know you’ll understand. Goodbye, friends, goodbye.

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Laurence Binyon

This, the last post in the series, is less about the poet and more about the poem, but it’s always good to give a little bit of history.

By the time of the First World War Binyon (August 1869 – 10 March 1943) was

Portrait of Laurence Binyon by William Strang

Portrait of Laurence Binyon by William Strang (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

too old for service, although in 1915 he volunteered at a British hospital for French soldiers, Hôpital Temporaire d’Arc-en-Barrois, Haute-Marne, France, working briefly as a hospital orderly. He returned in the summer of 1916 and took care of soldiers taken in from the Verdun battlefield.

Moved by the opening of the Great War and the already high number of casualties of the British Expeditionary Force, in 1914 Laurence Binyon wrote his For the Fallen, with its Ode of Remembrance, as he was visiting the cliffs near Pentire Head in north Cornwall (where a plaque commemorates it nowadays.) The piece was published by The Times newspaper in September, when public feeling was affected by the recent Battle of Marne. The Ode of Remembrance (the third and fourth [more recently just the fourth] stanzas of For the Fallen) became the centre piece of the remembrance services in Britain and Her Empire. Over time it was claimed as a tribute to all casualties of war, regardless of nation. It seems to me a fitting way to end this series. Before we get down to the poem, I would like first to close on the reflection that of the 9 poets I have mentioned who saw action in the First World War, only 3 (Sassoon, Graves and Blunden) survived to see its end. That’s a survival ratio of 1/3, for you maths buffs out there. Anyway, just a thought. Now here she is.

The Ode of Remembrance

They went with songs to the battle, they were young.
Straight of limb, true of eyes, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.
 
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.
 

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John McCrae

In a break from the young subalterns, we turn now to Lieutenant Colonel John Alexander McCrae (November 30, 1872 – January 28,

John McCrae

1918). McCrae was a Canadian poet, artist and surgeon during World War I. His poem In Flanders Fields (below) is one of the best known poems of the war.

McCrae was born in McCrae House in GuelphOntario into a military family. When Britain declared war on Germany, Canada, as a Dominion within the British Empire, declared war as well. McCrae was appointed as a field surgeon in the Canadian artillery and was in charge of a field hospital during the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915. McCrae’s friend and former student, Lt. Alexis Helmer, was killed in the battle, and his burial inspired In Flanders Fields, which was written on May 3, 1915 and first published in the magazine Punch.

In Flanders Fields had initially appeared anonymously in but in the index to that year McCrae was named as the author. The verses swiftly became one of the most popular poems of the war, used in countless fund-raising campaigns and frequently translated (a Latin version begins In agro belgico…). The poem was also extensively printed in the United States, which was contemplating joining the war, alongside a ‘reply’ by R. W. Lillard, (“…Fear not that you have died for naught, / The torch ye threw to us we caught…”). According to his biographer, J. F. Prescott, McCrae, now “a household name, albeit a frequently misspelt one”, regarded his sudden fame with some amusement but (still according to Prescott) “he was satisfied if the poem enabled men to see where their duty lay.”

On June 1, 1915 McCrae was ordered away from the artillery to set up No. 3 Canadian General Hospital at Dannes-Camiers near Boulogne-sur-Mer, northern France. He would remain there until he died, on January 28, 1918, from pneumonia.

In Flanders Fields is a call to arms, told from the point of view of the dead. Its references to the red poppies that grew over the graves of fallen soldiers resulted in the remembrance poppy becoming one of the world’s best known memorial symbols for soldiers who have died in conflict.

In Flanders Fields
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
 
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived,  felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.
 
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

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Siegfried Sassoon

Siegfried Loraine Sassoon (8 September 1886 – 1 September 1967) was one of the leading poets of the First World War. His poetry

Siegfried Sassoon

Siegfried Sassoon (Photo credit: Crossett Library Bennington College)

both described the horrors of the trenches, and satirised the patriotic pretensions of those who, in Sassoon’s view, were responsible for a vainglorious war. He later won acclaim for his prose work, notably his three-volume fictionalised autobiography, collectively known as the Sherston Trilogy. Again, there is so much to say about the ole Soony, that I have taken most of what follows from wikipedia.

Sassoon was educated at The New Beacon Preparatory SchoolSevenoaks, Kent; at Marlborough CollegeMarlborough, Wiltshire (where he was a member of Cotton House), and at Clare College, Cambridge, where from 1905 to 1907 he read history. He went down from Cambridge without a degree and spent the next few years hunting, playing cricket and writing verse: some he published privately. Since his father had been disinherited from the Sassoon fortune for marrying a non-Jew, Siegfried had only a small private fortune that allowed him to live modestly without having to earn a living (however, he would later be left a generous legacy by an aunt, Rachel Beer, allowing him to buy the great estate of Heytesbury House in Wiltshire. His first published success, The Daffodil Murderer (1913), was a parody of John Masefield‘s The Everlasting MercyRobert Graves, in Good-Bye to All That, describes it as a “parody of Masefield which, midway through, had forgotten to be a parody and turned into rather good Masefield.”

Sassoon expressed his opinions on the political situation before the onset of the First World War – “France was a lady, Russia was a bear, and performing in the county cricket team was much more important than either of them.” However, motivated by patriotism, Sassoon joined the British Army just as the threat of World War I was realised, and was in service with the Sussex Yeomanry on the day the United Kingdom declared war (4 August 1914). He broke his arm badly in a riding accident and was put out of action before even leaving England, spending the spring of 1915 convalescing. At around this time his younger brother Hamo was killed in the Gallipoli Campaign, (Rupert Brooke, whom Siegfried had briefly met, died on the way there.) Hamo’s death hit Siegfried very hard. He was commissioned into 3rd Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers as a Second Lieutenant on 29 May 1915, and in November was sent to the 1st Battalion in France. There he met Robert Graves and they became close friends. United by their poetic vocation, they often read and discussed one another’s work. Though this did not have much perceptible influence on Graves’ poetry, his views on what may be called ‘gritty realism’ profoundly affected Sassoon’s concept of what constituted poetry. In Goodbye To All That, Graves narrates that when they first swapped poetry, Sassoon, who was yet to begin a tour of the trenches, contended that war should not be written about so realistically (as Graves chose to write about it). Graves replied by telling him he would change his style, and indeed he did, for Sassoon soon became horrified by the realities of war, and the tone of his writing changed completely: where his early poems exhibit a Romantic, dilettantish sweetness, his war poetry moves to an increasingly discordant music, intended to convey the ugly truths of the trenches to an audience hitherto lulled by patriotic propeganda. Details such as rotting corpses, mangled limbs, filth, cowardice and suicide are all trademarks of his work at this time, and this philosophy of ‘no truth unfitting’ had a significant effect on the movement towards Modernist poetry.

Sassoon’s periods of duty on the Western Front were marked by exceptionally brave actions, including the single-handed, but vainglorious, capture of a German trench in the Hindenburg Line. Armed with grenades he scattered 60 German soldiers:

He went over with bombs in daylight, under covering fire from a couple of rifles, and scared away the occupants. A pointless feat, since instead of signalling for reinforcements, he sat down in the German trench and began reading a book of poems which he had brought with him. When he went back he did not even report. Colonel Stockwell, then in command, raged at him. The attack on Mametz wood had been delayed for two hours because British patrols were still reported to be out. ‘British patrols’ were Siegfried and his book of poems. ‘I’d have got you a D.S.O., if you’d only shown more sense,’ stormed his senior officer.

Sassoon’s bravery was inspiring to the extent that soldiers of his company said that they felt confident only when they were accompanied by him (according to himself!) He often went out on night-raids and bombing patrols and demonstrated ruthless efficiency as a company commander. Deepening depression at the horror and misery the soldiers were forced to endure produced in Sassoon a paradoxically manic courage, and he was nicknamed “Mad Jack” by his men for his near-suicidal exploits. On 27 July 1916 he was awarded the Military Cross; the citation read:

2nd Lt. Siegfried Lorraine [sic] Sassoon, 3rd (attd. 1st) Bn., R. W. Fus. For conspicuous gallantry during a raid on the enemy’s trenches. He remained for 1½ hours under rifle and bomb fire collecting and bringing in our wounded. Owing to his courage and determination all the killed and wounded were brought in.

Robert Graves described Sassoon as engaging in suicidal feats of bravery. Sassoon was also later (unsuccessfully) recommended for the Victoria Cross.

Despite his decoration and reputation, he decided in 1917 to make a stand against the conduct of the war. One of the reasons for his violent anti-war feeling was the death of his friend, David Cuthbert Thomas, called “Dick Tiltwood” in the Sherston trilogy, (and the subject of Graves’ poem Goliath and David – if you missed it, see the last post in this series ). He would spend years trying to overcome his grief.

At the end of a spell of convalescent leave, Sassoon declined to return to duty; instead, encouraged by pacifist friends such as Bertrand Russell and Lady Ottoline Morrell, he sent a letter to his commanding officer, titled Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration. In this document, which he wrote on behalf of his fellow soldiers, Sassoon argued that the war was being unnecessarily prolonged by greedy politicians who desired not peace but Imperial gain at any cost. Forwarded to the press and read out in Parliament by a sympathetic MP, the letter was seen by some as treasonous (“I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority”) or at best condemnatory of the war government’s motives (“I believe that the war upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation has now become a war of aggression and conquest”). Rather than court-martial Sassoon, the Under-Secretary of State for War Ian Macpherson, influenced by Graves and others, decided that he was unfit for service and had him sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital near Edinburgh, where he was officially treated for neurasthenia(“shell shock“). Before declining to return to active service he had thrown the ribbon from his Military Cross into the river Mersey.

The novel Regeneration, by Pat Barker, is a fictionalised account of this period in Sassoon’s life, and was made into a film starring James Wilby as Sassoon and Jonathan Pryce as W. H. R. Rivers, the psychiatrist responsible for Sassoon’s treatment. Rivers became a kind of surrogate father to the troubled young man, and his sudden death in 1922 was a major blow to Sassoon.

At Craiglockhart, Sassoon met Wilfred Owen, a fellow poet who would eventually exceed him in fame. It was thanks to Sassoon that Owen persevered in his ambition to write better poetry. A manuscript copy of Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth containing Sassoon’s handwritten amendments survives as testimony to the extent of his influence and is currently on display at London’s Imperial War Museum. To all intents and purposes, Sassoon became to Owen “Keats and Christ and Elijah”; surviving documents demonstrate clearly the depth of Owen’s love and admiration for him. Both men returned to active service in France, but Owen was killed in 1918. Sassoon, despite all this, was promoted to First Lieutenant and having spent some time out of danger in Palestine, eventually returned to the Front. On 13 July 1918, Sassoon was almost immediately wounded again—by friendly fire after he was shot in the head by a fellow British soldier who had mistaken him for a German near Arras, France. As a result, he spent the remainder of the war in Britain. By this time he had been promoted acting captain. He relinquished his commission on health grounds on 12 March 1919, but was allowed to retain the rank of captain. After the war, Sassoon was instrumental in bringing Owen’s work to the attention of a wider audience. Their friendship is the subject of Stephen MacDonald‘s play, Not About Heroes.

After the war Sassoon went on to live at troubled life. He struggled with homosexuality and his post-war poetry took on a confused, religious slant. He fell out with most of his former friends, including Graves, and went somewhat into seclusion. He died one week before his 81st birthday, of stomach cancer, and is buried at St Andrew’s Church, Mells, Somerset.

There are so many great poems to chose from, but I have chosen Suicide in the Trenches and The General for your consideration. The first is a typical Sassoonian rant against the system, calling into question chiefly the fools at home who cheered their boys off to war, knowing nothing of what awaited them in France. The second is a crafty poem full of dark humour, abrupt and to the point.

Suicide in the Trenches
 
I knew a simple soldier boy
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.
 
In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.
 
You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you’ll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.
 
The General 
 
“Good morning, good morning,” the general said,
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
“He’s a cheery old card,” muttered Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.
 
But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

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Isaac Rosenberg

Isaac Rosenberg

Isaac Rosenberg (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Isaac Rosenberg (25 November 1890 – 1 April 1918) is generally considered to be one of the finest, if not the finest, war poets to write in English.

Having left school at the age of 14 to become an apprentice engraver, Rosenberg later became one of the Georgian poets, and was taken up by Laurence Binyon and Edward Marsh.

Unlike Brooke and others, who wrote of war as patriotic sacrifice, Rosenberg was critical of the conflict from its onset. However, needing employment in order to help support his mother, Rosenberg enlisted in the army in October 1915. He was assigned to the 12th Suffolk Folk Regiment, a ‘bantam’ battalion (made up of men under 5’3″). After turning down an offer to become a lance corporal, Private Rosenberg was later transferred to the 11th Battalion, The King’s Own Royal Lancaster Regiment (KORL). He was sent to the Somme on the Western Front where, having just finished night patrol, he was killed at dawn on April 1, 1918 (reports conflict over whether or not he was shot by a sniper or killed in hand to hand combat).

The poem below was described by Paul Fussell in his landmark study of the literature of the First World War as “the greatest poem of the war.” It has some breathtaking imagery and a firm narrative voice and is one of my favourite poems (if that matters to any of you!)

 
Break of Day in the Trenches
 
The darkness crumbles away
It is the same old druid Time as ever,
Only a live thing leaps my hand,
A queer sardonic rat,
As I pull the parapet’s poppy
To stick behind my ear.
Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies,
Now you have touched this English hand
You will do the same to a German
Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure
To cross the sleeping green between.
It seems you inwardly grin as you pass
Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes,
Less chanced than you for life,
Bonds to the whims of murder,
Sprawled in the bowels of the earth,
The torn fields of France.
What do you see in our eyes
At the shrieking iron and flame
Hurled through still heavens?
What quaver -what heart aghast?
Poppies whose roots are in men’s veins
Drop, and are ever dropping;
But mine in my ear is safe,
Just a little white with the dust. 

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Charles Sorely

English: Cropped and retouched version of a po...

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Charles Hamilton Sorely (19 May 1895 – 13 October 1915) is named by Robert Graves in his autobiographical novel ‘Goodbye To All That’ as one of the three (British) poets of importance to be killed in the war, [the other two being Isaac Rosenberg (the subject of the next post in this series) and, of course, Wilfred Owen].

The son of the professor of moral philosophy at Aberdeen University, Sorley was extremely intelligent and won a scholarship to Marlborough College, the same school as Siegfried Sassoon.

Sorely was in Germany when war was declared, having accepted a place at Cambridge for the following year, but he immediately returned to England and enlisted in the British Army. He joined the  Suffolk Regiment as a First Lieutenant, and was sent to the front in May 1915.Sorely was shot in the head at the Battle of Loos on 13th October, 1915, soon after his promotion to Captain. 37 complete poems were found in his kit when returned to his family. His style is often contrasted with Brooke’s sentimental depiction of war, and in many ways he might be seen as a forerunner to Sassoon and Owen.

The poem below, which Sorely wrote just before his death, entirely does away with the idea that war might have something to do with pride, honour and duty, handed down from the age of Antiquity, and paints a stark and matter of fact picture instead.

When you see millions of the mouthless dead

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. 

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