Wednesday, July 26, 2017

To One Dead

Frances Ledwidge was an Irish nationalist who joined the British Army in October of 1914 to defend Ireland and further the cause of Irish Home Rule. With the 10th Irish Division, he fought in Gallipoli and was injured in Serbia. Known as “the Poet of the Blackbird,” Ledwidge lived to see only one volume of his poetry published: Songs of the Fields (1915).  

In the spring of 1916, Ledwidge was on leave, passing through Manchester on his way home to Ireland, when he received news of the 1916 Easter Rising and the execution of his friend, fellow poet, and Easter Rising leader, Thomas MacDonagh. Ledwidge extended his stay in Ireland without permission, spoke out in favor of the Easter Rising, and was court-martialed upon his return to the Western Front.

Although he continued to serve with the British Army and was eventually promoted to the rank of lance corporal, the events of the First World War and the Easter Rising intensified Ledwidge’s allegiance to Ireland, and in his writings, the Irish countryside is poignantly imagined as a symbol of hope and of peace.

In early 1917, he wrote to another Irish poet, Katharine Tynan, “If I survive the war, I have great hopes of writing something that will live.  If not, I trust to be remembered in my own land for one or two things which its long sorrow inspired.”* Ledwidge’s second volume of poems, Songs of Peace, was in press when he was killed on the first day of the Battle of Passchendaele. 

To One Dead

Ledwidge memorial
A blackbird singing
On a moss-upholstered stone,
Bluebells swinging,
Shadows wildly blown,
A song in the wood,
A ship on the sea.
The song was for you
and the ship was for me.

A blackbird singing
I hear in my troubled mind,
Bluebells swinging,
I see in a distant wind.
But sorrow and silence,
Are the wood's threnody,
The silence for you
and the sorrow for me. 
--Francis Ledwidge

Much like Ledwidge’s short life, the repressed energy of the poem comes from holding together and balancing contradictory ideas. Set against the swinging movement of the bluebells and the wild blowing of the wind, a blackbird sits on a moss-covered stone and sings in the stillness of a wood.  The bird’s sorrowful song for the dead (the “wood’s threnody”) dies into a silence that echoes with the pain of division.

Vast is the distance between sea and wood, and nothing can bridge the chasm that separates the voice of the poem’s speaker from the poem’s subject – the dead. Even the rhymes of the poem echo the theme of estrangement: the first line of the poem delays in finding its rhyming pair until the second stanza, leaving the rhymed sounds separated by five intervening lines.  Ledwidge’s melancholy poem accepts and wrings patterns of beauty from tragedies of life and of war that cannot be changed.

During the summer of 1917, Ledwidge waited for the publication of his second volume of poetry as his unit prepared for another major battle on the Western Front. In one of his last letters to Katharine Tynan, Ledwidge reminisced about Ireland and home:

“I would give £100 for two days in Ireland with nothing to do but ramble on from one delight to another. I am entitled to a leave now, but I’m afraid there are many before my name in the list. Special leaves are granted, and I have to finish a book for the autumn. But, more particularly, I want to see again my wonderful mother, and to walk by the Boyne to Crewbawn and up through the brown and grey rocks of Crocknahama. You have no idea of how I suffer with this longing for the swish of the reeds at Slane and the voices I used to hear coming over the low hills of Currabwee. Say a prayer that I may get this leave, and give as a condition my punctual return and sojourn till the war is over. It is midnight now and the glow-worms are out. It is quiet in camp but the far night is loud with our guns bombarding the positions we must soon fight for.”**

On July 31, 1917, Francis Ledwidge and five other men of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers were killed by a stray artillery shell that landed behind the lines.  Ledwidge is buried at Artillery Wood Cemetery in Belgium; his grave is only steps away from that of the Welsh poet Hedd Wyn, who also died that day. The silence and sorrow can still be felt in the small cemetery outside Ypres. 
*Alice Curtayne, Francis Ledwidge: A Life of the Poet. Martin Brian and O'Keeffe, 1972, p. 170.
**Ibid, pp. 185-186.
***For other Ledwidge poems, see the posts “It is terrible to be always homesick” and “Soft and slow in wartime.”

Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Cost of Killing

Attack through No Man's Land
In the First World War, the most frequent cause of death was from artillery missiles aimed and fired from a distance.  French soldier Guilliaume Apollinaire captures the detachment of long-range gunners in this excerpt from his poem “Nothing Much”:

How many d’you reckon we’ve killed
It’s weird it doesn’t affect us….
Each time you say fire! the word becomes steel that explodes far off….

Captain Reginald James Young,
 winning Military Cross 1916
by Stanley L. Wood 
But what is the psychological toll for infantry soldiers who kill a man at close range? In his book On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, Lt. Col. Dave Grossman writes, “The dead soldier takes his misery with him, but the man who killed him must forever live and die with him. The lesson becomes increasingly clear: Killing is what war is all about, and killing in combat, by its very nature, causes deep wounds of pain and guilt” (93).

Researchers who study Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) have long understood that distance plays a key role in the trauma of taking another life: “if one does not have to look into the eyes when killing, it is much easier to deny the humanity of the victim” (Grossman, 128).  Close-quarters killing of the enemy may be one of the least understood horrors of war. 

While it is indescribably traumatic to see one’s fellow soldiers and friends die, the psychological damage that results in taking a life may be just as great. A mental health counselor from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs says, “When your friends are dead, it’s a real loss. It’s a loss of your friend that you trusted and you loved in a very intense way.  When you personally take another life and you go up to that lifeless body with a hole in it and you look down on it, and you say, ‘I did that,’ I think it is a loss of yourself at the same time.”*

Frederic Manning, fighting with the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry, saw some of the most brutal fighting of the Great War at the Battle of the Somme in the fall of 1916.  His poem “The Face” describes a close encounter with a young German soldier. 

The Face
German soldier, WWI

Out of the smoke of men's wrath,
The red mist of anger,
As a wraith of sleep,
A boy's face, white and tense,
Convulsed with terror and hate,
The lips trembling. . . .

Then a red smear, falling. . . .
I thrust aside the cloud, as it were tangible,
Blinded with a mist of blood.
The face cometh again
As a wraith of sleep:
A boy's face, delicate and blond,
The very mask of God,

Caught up in the blood-lust of battle, the speaker of the poem blindly charges forward through the smoke of the attack. He is startled by the sudden appearance of an enemy soldier emerging out of the fog, and instinctively, the soldier shoots to kill.  Almost simultaneously, he recognizes that the “red smear, falling” is a blond boy whose face mirrors his own: angry, tense, and terrified. 

Frederic Manning
The short, fragmented lines of the poem capture the disjointed chaos of combat and the recurring horrific memory: the delicacy of the young boy’s face marred by wounds resembles that of the crucified Christ. The last line of the poem – a single word – sums up the tragedy that affects every soldier: all is forever broken. 

Frederic Manning survived the war, and in 1929 published a novel that drew heavily upon his own war experiences, The Middle Parts of Fortune (later expurgated and republished as Her Privates We).  In the book’s Prefatory Note, Manning writes, “War is waged by men; not by beasts, or by gods. It is a peculiarly human activity.  To call it a crime against mankind is to miss at least half its significance; it is also the punishment of a crime.”**
*Jim Dooley, quoted on website from American PBS Frontline documentary The Soldier’s Heart.
**Another Manning poem “Relieved” is featured on this blog at this link. 

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Picnic July 1917

On the Cliffs (1917), Dame Laura Knight
By the time the First World War ended in November of 1918, an estimated 80,000 men serving in the British Army had been treated for shell shock, and the number of actual sufferers was undoubtedly much higher.*

Rose Macaulay’s 1916 novel, Non-combatants and Others, vividly relates the psychological impact of the war on both soldiers and civilians. It tells the story of Alix, a young art student who becomes suddenly and violently ill after witnessing the night terrors of a shell-shocked soldier. Lying awake, Alix is tortured by the memory of the man’s moans and sobs:

 “‘What they can bear to go through…. But they can’t, they can’t, they can’t … we can bear to hear about … but we can’t, we can’t, we can’t….’ It was like the intolerable ticking of a clock, and beat itself away at last into a sick dream.”**

In her Poem “Picnic,” written a year after the novel’s publication, Macaulay provides another memorable depiction of the ways in which civilians attempted to cope with the mental sufferings of the war.    

July 1917

We lay and ate sweet hurt-berries
In the bracken of Hurt Wood.
Like a quire of singers singing low
The dark pines stood.
A Battery Shelled, Percy Wyndham Lewis
© IWM (Art.IWM ART 2747) 

Behind us climbed the Surrey Hills,
Wild, wild in greenery;
At our feet the downs of Sussex broke
To an unseen sea.

And life was bound in a still ring,
Drowsy, and quiet and sweet …
When heavily up the south-east wind
The great guns beat.

We did not wince, we did not weep,
We did not curse or pray;
We drowsily heard, and someone said,
“They sound clear to-day.”

We did not shake with pity and pain,
Or sicken and blanch white.
We said, “If the wind’s from over there
Crashed Aeroplane,  John Singer Sargent
© IWM (Art.IWM ART 1610) 
There’ll be rain tonight.”

Once pity we knew, and rage we knew,
And pain we knew, too well,
As we stared and peered dizzily
Through the gates of hell.

But now hell’s gates are an old tale;
Remote the anguish seems;
The guns are muffled and far away.
Dreams within dreams.

And far and far are Flanders mud,
And the pain of Picardy;
And the blood that runs there runs beyond
The wide waste sea.

We are shut about by guarding walls:
(We have built them lest we run
Mad from dreaming of naked fear
And of black things done.)

We are ringed all round by guarding walls,
Runner through the Barrage,
His Arm Shot Away, His Mind Gone
by American artist Claggett Wilson
So high, they shut the view.
Not all the guns that shatter the world
Can quite break through.

Oh guns of France, oh, guns of France,
Be still, you crash in vain….
Heavily up the south wind throb
Dull dreams of pain, …

Be still, be still, south wind, lest your
Blowing should bring the rain….
We’ll lie very quiet on Hurt Hill,
And sleep once again.

Oh we’ll lie quite still, not listen nor look,
While the earth’s bounds reel and shake,
Lest, battered too long, our walls and we
Should break … .should break….
                                    —Rose Macaulay

Under the surface of the poem’s calm, pastoral mood is the excruciating effort required to keep the horrors of the war at bay. While the picnickers seek to distance themselves from the war, images in the poem undercut these attempts and repeatedly draw connections between soldiers and civilians.

Like soldiers, the women lie on the ground and feast on pain. Hurt Wood is an actual location in rural Surrey, and hurt berries is a folk term used for whortleberries, but both names are suggestive of the dead and wounded of the Great War. Yet unlike the soldiers amidst the desolate barrenness of the Western Front, the women are surrounded by lush greenery and the quietude of rural England, broken only by the sounds of muffled artillery fire.

The war assumes a dream-like quality, and prolonged exposure to the traumas of war have normalized what was previously unimaginable.  The sound of gunfire no longer inspires fear or pity in the women, but instead prompts composed comments on the wind direction and weather.  

The soldiers and the civilians also share the experience of powerless vulnerability. The men wait to die; the women wait to learn of their deaths. Both have learned that uncontrolled emotions can lead to madness, and so they distance themselves from the central reality of their lives in order to remain sane. 

American sheet music, 1917
Secluded behind "guarding walls" that shield them from the real world, the women are confined to a fairy tale world where they play the role of Sleeping Beauty. The walls are high and impenetrable, constructed by government propaganda, newspapers’ false optimism, and the women’s own mental efforts to avoid listening to or looking at the war and the “black things done” there.  

“Picnic, July 1917” resonates with other women’s war poetry: Katherine Mansfield’s elegy for her dead brother, “To L.H.B,” written in 1916, also mixes imagery of dreams and wild berries, as her brother waits for her beside a stream, extending a handful of fruit and saying “These are my body. Sister, take and eat.” In both poems, the war has distorted the pastoral landscape into something alien and threatening. In “The Dancers,” Edith Sitwell also examines the ways in which ordinary pleasures and activities on the home front appear callous and grotesque when contrasted to the nightmare of the ongoing war: “The floors are slippery with blood….We can still dance, each night.” 

Both Sitwell’s and Macaulay’s poems explore the dilemma women faced in dealing with war trauma: patriotism and support for the men at the front seemed to demand the stoic continuation of daily life, but the pretense of normalcy often gave the impression of selfishness, ignorance, and insensitivity.† As Grogan asks in Shell-Shocked Britain, “How far can the term [shell-shocked] be applied not just to the soldiers on the front line, but to the country as a whole?  To the communities those soldiers belonged to and the families who had to live through four years of ever more desperate warfare?”††


* Suzie Grogan, Shell Shocked Britain. Barnsley, UK: Pen & Sword, 2014, p. 2.
**Rose Macaulay, Non-combatants and Others.  London: Methuen, 1986, p. 19.
†See Siegfried Sassoon’s poem “Glory of Women.”
††Grogan, p. 5.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

The Somme Film

Image from The Somme, 1916 film
Oh that awful journey. The dead and the dying, lying, crawling along the ground…My God! dear God!”
            --Lieutenant John Turner, 1/8 Royal Warwicks, on his regiment’s retreat through No Man’s Land at the Somme on 1 July 1916                                 (Turner papers, Imperial War Museum)

I discovered there were no 8/Warwick officers or HQ in the trenches…At 11:00 am I found them and was just in time for a roll call.  I cannot describe my feeling when I discovered that only forty-five soldiers answered their names out of over 600 men of the battalion.”
            --Lance Corporal Williamson, 1/8 Warwicks, 2 July 1916 (Williamson papers, Imperial War Museum).

Clifford Henry Benn Kitchin was a lieutenant with the 1/8 Royal Warwickshire regiment, a unit that suffered devastating losses on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. It’s estimated that 800 men of the regiment went into battle; 343 were wounded, while 232 died that day.*

London newspaper, 23 Aug. 1916
Three years after the Somme, in 1919 Kitchin published a poem that commented on the movie The Somme, a British documentary propaganda film released in August of 1916.  In the first months after its premier, an estimated 20 million people viewed the film.  The Somme depicted preparations for the battle, the stockpiling of munitions, troop movements towards the front lines, artillery bombardments, and a staged “over the top” attack that was filmed behind the lines before the battle began.  Kitchin’s poem is addressed to the dead of the Somme who, captured on celluloid, perform their exits and their entrances before the cinema crowds of the world. 

Somme Film 1916

There is no cause, sweet wanderers in the dark,
For you to cry aloud from cypress trees
To a forgetful world; since you are seen
Of all twice nightly at the cinema,
While the munition makers clap their hands.
            --C.B.H. Kitchin

The men who died are represented as “sweet wanderers in the dark,” a phrase that suggests both ghosts moving restlessly in the gloom as well as moving images on film, fated to endlessly repeat their doomed charge in darkened theatres for as long as the film is shown.

The Somme, 1916 film
To proclaim their tragic stories, these soldiers have no need to climb the cypress trees (a tree associated with death and mourning since ancient times).  Although the world is a forgetful place and other soldiers’ deaths may be lost in the mists of time, the twice nightly showings of the propaganda film guarantee that the memory of those killed at the Somme will live on. 

London newspaper, 2 Sept. 1916
And yet the poem implies that the memory created by The Somme is a false one.  The realities of the battle have been manipulated so as to highlight the grit and glory of the British troops, so that the soldiers who fell at the Somme are cheered as they charge to their deaths. The applause of the munition workers is tragically ironic; the workers’ yellowed hands, tainted by the poisonous chemical TNT, clap with excitement at the scenes of the battle, while those same hands had manufactured the 1,7000,000 shells that were fired at the German lines before the attack, shells that were supposed to guarantee the safety of the men who made the fatal charge. 

Like Sassoon’s poem “Glory of Women,” the poem’s irony draws a sharp contrast between the fighting men and those who serve on the home front as they supply the troops with instruments of death. However, in Kitchin’s poem, the munitions workers can also be viewed as victims, manipulated by government propaganda and deceived by the carefully crafted version of war that the film presents as truth.   

*These figures, along with the quotations from Williamson and Turner, were taken from Robert David Williams, A Social and Military History of the 1/8th Battalion, The Royal Warwickshire Regiment in the Great War (unpublished Master’s thesis, University of Birmingham, 1999).  I am indebted to the Geert Buelens’ article “The Silence of the Somme: Sound and Realism in British and Dutch Poems Mediating The Battle of the Somme,Journal of Dutch Literature, 1.1 December 2010, pp 5 – 27 for providing the reference to Williams’ thesis. 

Thursday, June 29, 2017

So tired

Edward Brittain, Roland Leighton, and Victor Richardson
 via First World War Poetry Digital Archive,

By late June of 1917, the Great War had dragged on for nearly 1,070 days, and there had been more death and suffering than anyone could have imagined when it began in August of 1914.  Great Britain was approaching the first anniversary of the worst day in its military history: one year earlier, on July 1, 1916, the Battle of the Somme began; 19,240 British soldiers were killed on the first day alone. 

In late spring of 1917, Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse Vera Brittain resigned from her duties and returned from Malta to nurse Victor Richardson, a close friend of her brother and of her dead fiancé, Roland Leighton. Together, the men were known as "the three Musketeers." Richardson had been blinded and disfigured from wounds received in an attack on Arras on April 9 of 1917; Vera was planning to marry him and serve as his caretaker for life. Before they were wed, his injuries worsened, and Victor Richardson died on June 9, 1917. Brittain’s short poem “Sic Transit” was written shortly after.*

Sic Transit
V.R., died of wounds, 2nd London General Hospital, Chelsea, June 9th, 1917

I am so tired.
The dying sun incarnadines the West,
And every window with its gold is fired,
And all I loved the best
Is gone, and every good that I desired
Passes away, an idle hopeless quest;
Even the Highest whereto I aspired
Has vanished with the rest.
I am so tired.
            —London, June 1917

The poem’s title alludes to the Latin phrase “Sic transit gloria mundi” (Thus passes the glory of the world), a reference to the fleeting brevity of life. Brittain’s abbreviated poem restricts itself to the use of only two repeated rhymes. While in films and video games, war is often portrayed as an adrenaline rush of action, “Sic Transit” aches with numb exhaustion.

Vera Brittain
The Great War fed on youth and dreams; it devoured hope and sapped energy. Victor Richardson was twenty-two when he died; Vera Brittain was twenty-three when she found herself mourning the  death of yet another friend killed in battle.  Shortly after learning of Victor’s injuries, she had recorded in her diary, “I no longer expect things to go well for me; I don’t know that I even ask that they shall. All I ask is that I may fulfil my own small weary part in this War in such a way as to be worthy of Them, who die & suffer pain.”**
*I am indebted to A Century Back for its insightful commentary on the circumstances surrounding the writing of the poem.
**Chronicle of Youth, excerpt from entry for April 18, 1917.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Going Over

WWI postcard: Douglas Tempest (British)
The First World War’s popular song, “Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag,” may have been more accurate than is commonly realized, for when setting off to war, troubles often accompanied the soldiers. 
American troops making the transatlantic voyage to the Western Front traveled under threat of torpedo attack; the Tuscania was the first ship carrying American soldiers to be sunk. Struck by a German torpedo on February 5, 1918, the Tuscania sank in four hours with a loss of over 200 men.* 

Thanks to the escort of American and British destroyers, however, most American troop ships arrived safely in France, although many doughboys vividly remembered the misery of overcrowding and seasickness. 

Frank L. Armstrong’s Frenzies from France or the Nightmares of a Doughboy (1919) offers a humorous sketch of sailing to France. (For a different perspective, see “Transport” by John Allan Wyeth). 

Going Over

From Frenzies from France
I’m sure I never shall forget
That trip across the Briny.
I didn’t take it for my health
I went to get a ‘Heinie.
We had to sleep way down below,
Down where they keep the cattle.
That seemed to me an awful way
To ship men off to battle.

And when the boat began to rock
Those guys down there got sick.
I’ll tell the world that was some time
Let’s pass the subject quick.
The grub I couldn’t recommend
It didn’t seem appealing.
Might be because beneath my belt
I had a funny feeling.

Of all the trips I ever made,
That was about the worst.
And if they want this bird again,
They’ll have to catch him first.
                        —Frank L. Armstrong

I have found no certain information on Frank L. Armstrong, although Frenzies from France was privately published in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  A man by the same name is credited with writing the lyrics to the World War I song “Knitting,” dedicated to “the soldiers’ girls at home.”

*“The Sinking of the Tuscania,”

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Anonymous stars

French soldier near Verdun, 1916
Napoleon Bonaparte is viewed as one of the greatest military commanders in French history.  Rising to power as an artillery officer during the French Revolution, he was promoted to general at the age of 24.  When crowned Emperor of France in 1804, he was only 35 years old.

Napoleon's sarcophagus, photo by Livioandronico2013 
After his defeat at Waterloo, Napoleon was banished to the island of St. Helena, where he died in 1821. In 1840, his remains were moved to Les Invalides in Paris, where a lavish sarcophagus was prepared beneath the grand Dome of the royal military chapel. The Emperor’s body lies inside six nested caskets: tin, mahogany, two of lead, ebony, and oak.  

During the First World War, American poet Dana Burnet wrote of visiting Bonaparte’s memorial in Paris. Contrasting Napoleon’s grandiose tomb with the unburied bodies of soldiers on the Western Front, Burnet challenges us to consider the nature of war and who bears its costs.  

Napoleon’s Tomb*

Through the great doors, where Paris flowed incessant,
Fell certain dimness….
A calm, immortal twilight mantling up
To the great dome, where painted triumph rides
High o’er the dust that once bestrode it all—
Nor ever fame had fairer firmament!
Then I went in, with Paris pressing slow,
And saw the long blue shadows folding down
Upon the casket of the Emperor.
A soldier in faded uniform
Stood close beside me. He was one of those
Who die and leave no lament on the wind…
And straightway gazing on him I beheld
Not death’s magnificence; not fame’s hushed tomb—
But grim Oblivion, and the fields of France!
And on some nameless hillside, where the night
Sets out wild flaming candles for the dead,
Innumerable corpses palely sprawled
Beneath the silent, cold, anonymous stars.
                        —Dana Burnet 

Amidst the glittering gold, granite, and marble of Napoleon’s tomb, the observer’s eye is drawn to the man standing near him: a poilu, the informal name given to infantry soldiers in the French Army. The soldier’s uniform is worn and faded from the years he has spent in battle, sleeping in uncovered trenches and slogging through mud.

The observer considers that when this man dies, none will mourn his passing; his death will “leave no lament on the wind.” The sight of the poilu gives way to a profound realization that is in stark contrast to the scene of Napoleon’s tomb: death is not magnificent, the battle is not glorious, but rather war leads only to grim Oblivion. 

Dome over Napoleon's Tomb,  photo by Livioandronico2013
The hillsides where men fought and died will remain nameless, and the common soldiers who earned the victory will be forgotten. The only homage given them will be the “wild flaming candles” – the lights of the anonymous stars that shine on the countless, nameless corpses. 

Following the Great War, in 1929 another French general was honored with burial under the Dome of Les Invalides.  The body of General Ferdinand Foch, Supreme Allied Commander of the First World War, was buried near the tomb of Napoleon. 

*The version included here omits early sections of the original poem that describe the tomb in further detail.  The poem can be read in its entirety at this link, the online edition of Clarke’s A Treasury of War Poetry, British and American poems of the World War, 1914-1919.