Monday, May 22, 2017

Maker of Dreams

Dreamers were perhaps more common in the trenches of the Great War than has been previously acknowledged.  Imaginative soldiers “seized a star-beam” and climbed out of the trenches to join “star and bird and wind and rain” (see “Bivouacs” by Gilbert Waterhouse) or mentally removed themselves from the unspeakable horrors of the front lines:
            "Over!  How the mud sucks!  Vomits red the barrage.
            But I am far off in the hush of a garden of lilacs."
                       -- Going Over” by Charles G.D. Roberts

William Oliphant Down was a West Country man, born in Somerset and raised in Dorset. Before the war, he had achieved recognition for a play "as iridescent as a soap bubble," the 1911 one-act fantasy The Maker of Dreams, which asserted that “the greatest thing that dreams are made of is love.”*

Caught up in the patriotic fervor of 1914, Down volunteered and was commissioned as an officer in the British infantry, first joining the 15th Royal Hussars, then the Royal Berkshire’s 1st/4th Battalion. Imagination served him well – or he put it aside – in daring action at the Somme near Pozieres in July of 1916.  He was awarded the Military Cross, the British award recognizing “acts of exemplary gallantry,” for leading a night patrol mission and subsequently commanding an attack during which he “reached the heavily-wired German second line, which ran north and south through the outskirts of Pozières, but was forced back. Returning with about 20 men from all three Companies he barricaded and secured Point 81, after killing 11 Germans in hand-to-hand fighting and capturing 2.”**

While rotating in and out of the front lines of battle, Down continued writing plays and poetry.  Three of his trench poems are parodies, reshaping popular songs and poems. In “Picardy Parodies No. 2,” he turns his wry humor to reshaping W.B. Yeats’ poem “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” Down’s poem satirizes the loss of individual freedom and volition in war. 

Picardy Parodies No. 2 (W.B. Y..ts)

I will arise and go not, and go to Picardy
Lough Gill and Lake Isle of Innisfree, vintage postcard
And a new trench-line hold there, of clay and shell-holes made,
No dug-outs shall I have there, nor a hive for the Lewis G.,
But live on top in the b. loud glade. 

And I may cease to be there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the mouth of the Minnie to where the sentry sings;
There noon is high explosive, and night a gunfire glow,
And evening full of torpedoes’ wings.

I will arise and go now, though always night and day
I’ll feel dark waters lapping with low sounds by the store,
Where all our bombs grow rusty and countless S.A.A.;
I’ll feel it in my trench-feet sore.
            --William Oliphant Down

In Yeat’s original poem (which can be read here), the speaker rises and retreats to the idyllic charms of an Irish lake, where he builds a small cabin, plants beans, tends bees, and finds peace “alone in the bee-loud glade.” The poem describes the simple beauties of an island sanctuary: the morning songs of crickets, the purple glow of noon, the evening skies full of birds in flight, and the soft glimmer of midnight. 

After the Battle, Paul Nash (1918)
© IWM (Art.IWM ART 2706)
In Down’s parody of Yeats' poem, the speaker rises, but is unable to go anywhere. In Picardy, men dwell in a state of paralysis, and the stagnation and mud cannot be escaped. Soldiers live and work in water-logged trenches and struggle against the corrosive damp that attacks everything from their Lewis machine guns to the store of bombs and small arms ammunition (S.A.A.).  In early July of 1916, the Berkshire Regiment’s War Diary reported, “The trenches were in a very bad condition, full of water and mud…the water in many places was waist deep.” Down's parody transforms the gently lapping lake waves of Lough Gill to dark, fetid pools that rot even the feet of the soldiers. 

The soundscape of the two poems is also sharply different: in Picardy, the silence of nature has been invaded by artillery blasts, the rattle of gunfire, and the shouts of a sentry as incoming “Minnies” fall on the trenches. The effects of the Minenwerfer, a German short-range artillery trench mortar, are described in the 1918 book Lingo of No Man’s Land: “The mortars throw a shell one thousand one hundred forty feet away, and even though no fragments touch him, the concussion is so great that a man’s insides burst like a kernel of popcorn and death is usually instantaneous.”†  

Night and day are undifferentiated in this world of madness and mud. The only peace to be found in Picardy “comes dropping slow,” as the only escape is death.

With no end to the war in sight, men were forced to adapt to nearly unendurable conditions of life in the trenches.  Writing parodies and reshaping familiar songs and poems may have provided some semblance of autonomy and control in a world that offered very little of either.

William Oliphant Down died of wounds and escaped his war on May 23, 1917.  He was most likely shot by enemy machine gun fire on the night of May 22nd as his unit was relieving the Glosters near Demicourt, France. Harold Veasey, in the Foreword to Down’s posthumously published book of poems notes, “His was a nature that abhorred war and its attendant horrors; it is, therefore, remarkable that this dreamer and idealist should have developed into such a very gallant and capable soldier.”††

Memorial at St. Mary's, Gillingham
Photo by Mr. C.E. Moreton

*“The Maker of Dreams: Some Press Opinions” from George Otis, The Stupid Witness and “Lecture Given on “Maker of Dreams,” The Columbia Spectator, 27 March 1915.
Lingo of No Man’s Land by Sergt. Lorenzo N. Smith, a soldier who fought with the Canadian Expeditionary Force, p. 36.
††Poems by Oliphant Down, 1921.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Song of the Ambulance Train

A Red Cross Train, France by Harold Septimus Power, ©IWM Art.1031
In addition to the nine million soldiers who died in the First World War, over twenty million men were wounded. It’s difficult to fully imagine the complex challenges involved in transporting men who had suffered the effects of artillery shelling, grenade explosions, machine-gun fire, gas attacks, frostbite, and shell shock to sites where they could receive medical care. 

The wounded either crawled or were carried behind the lines by stretcher bearers or comrades-in-arms. Taken to an advanced dressing station or poste de secours, those fortunate enough to survive were then driven by ambulances to casualty clearing stations. From there, the most common means of transporting the wounded was the ambulance train. Stretching for as long as one-third of a mile, a typical ambulance train was equipped with a kitchen, rows of bunks for the most seriously wounded, carriages with seats for injured who could sit upright, an operating and pharmaceutical carriage, and housing quarters for the orderlies, nurses, and doctors.   

The diary of a nurse assigned to a First World War ambulance train describes a typical scene:

We had 368; a good 200 were dangerously and seriously wounded, perhaps more; and the sitting-up cases were bad enough…. nearly all the men had more than one wound—some had ten; one man with a huge compound fracture above the elbow had tied on a bit of string with a bullet in it as a tourniquet above the wound himself….They were bleeding faster than we could cope with it; and the agony of getting them off the stretchers on to the top bunks is a thing to forget. We were full up by about 2 a.m., and then were delayed by a collision up the line, which was blocked by dead horses as a result. All night and without a break till we got back to Boulogne at 4 p.m. next day (yesterday) we grappled with them….The head cases were delirious, and trying to get out of the window, and we were giving strychnine and morphia all round. Two were put off dying at St Omer, but we kept the rest alive to Boulogne.
                        -- Diary of a Nursing Sister on the Western Front, 1914-1915, 24 October 1914  
                           Anonymous (thought to have been written by Kate Luard)

On July 1, 1916, as British troops in France were suffering tremendous casualties on the first day of the battle of the Somme, twenty-year-old Carola Oman joined the British Red Cross as a nurse without pay and served until April of 1919.  She dedicated her small book of poetry, The Menin Road and Other Poems (1919), to four of her friends who were also volunteer nurses tending the never-ending parade of dying and wounded men. Oman's poem “Unloading Ambulance Train” recreates a common scene of melancholy with small, vivid details. 

Unloading Ambulance Train

Into the siding very wearily
She comes again:
Singing her endless song so drearily,
The midnight winds sink down to drift the rain.

So she comes home once more.

Is it an ancient chanty
Won from some classic shore?
The stretcher-bearers stand
Two on either hand.
They bend and lift and raise
Where the doors open wide
With yellow light ablaze.
Into the dark outside
Each stretcher passes.  Here
(As if each on his bier
(With sorrow they were bringing)
Is peace, and a low singing.
The ambulances load,
Move on and take the road.
Under the stars alone
Each stretcher passes out.
And the ambulances’ moan
And the checker’s distant shout
All round to the old sound
Of the lost chanty singing.
And the dark seamen swinging.
Far off some classic shore . . .

So she comes home once more.
            Carola Oman, Wimereux, Sept. 1918

Underneath the cries of pain, the shouts of the railway inspector, and the beat of the rain, an ancient song can be heard. It rings in the screeching of the train as she pulls into the berth where she will unload her cargo of suffering.  Its endless tune of dreary loss and struggle have accompanied the homecoming of the wounded since Odysseus fought in the Trojan War.

Carola Oman
photo courtesy Charlotte Zeepvat
There is a mindless rhythm to the repetitive bending and lifting of the stretcher bearers, the repeated comings and goings of the ambulances. Sorrow mingles with peace as the procession of broken men on their stretchers resembles the dead carried on their funeral biers. It has all happened before; it will all happen again as each wounded man passes “Into the dark outside.”

The poem describes a home-coming of sorts, but as Siegfried Sassoon explains in his poem “They,” “When the boys come back / They will not be the same.” As the ambulance train is unloaded in the bleakness of midnight wind and drifting rain, the flickering light illuminates the tragedy of men who will likely bear the scars of the Great War for the rest of their lives.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Conscientious objectors

Mock trial of conscientious objector, 1916
“To become a conscientious objector in 1916 was a difficult decision, which apparently involved rejecting the whole of conventional British society and everything it stood for.”
                                    —Margaret Brooks, “Conscientious Objectors in Their Own Words”†

When Britain instituted mandatory conscription with the Military Service Act of 1916, conscientious objectors were allowed to apply to local tribunals to request exemption from military service.  Yet often those seeking exemption as conscientious objectors “were mocked and vilified by the press and public, were ostracised by friends and family, sacked from jobs, imprisoned and physically brutalised.  To most people, they were seen as shirkers, cowards, and even traitors.”*

Tribunals granted few exemptions: approximately 16,000 men were recorded as conscientious objectors in Britain in the First World War, compared to the six million men who served in the military. The British Imperial War Museum website notes, however, that  “the impact of these men on public opinion and on future governments was to be profound.”†  Over one-third of conscientious objectors were imprisoned at least once;† many were assigned to non-military manual labor work in support of the war effort.

Gerald Shove was a graduate of King’s College at Cambridge, a close friend of the economist John Maynard Keynes, and a life-long pacifist.  He met his future wife, the poet Fredegond Maitland, at a tea party in 1914, where the two spent the evening discussing the war.  The couple became engaged the same week that Rupert Brooke, a Cambridge friend of Shove’s, died on his way to Gallipoli.** 

Although Shove likely would have been granted exemption from military service on medical grounds, he applied for conscientious objector status and was assigned to agricultural work. Fredegond writes of that time,

…the war was only then reaching its peak of horror and our life had suddenly grown very strenuous and anxious.  We got out of bed when the alarm-clock said that it was five o’clock, and Gerald uncomplaining set forth across the fields to his new work.  He returned at dusk, but I used, of course, to walk over to the farm with packages of food and I used always to be terrified that he would collapse under the strain of the work (33).**

In her poem “The Farmer, 1917” it seems likely Fredegond Shove took her husband as her inspiration for the “solemn and uncompromising form” of the solitary man in the fields.

Gerald Shove, 1917
by Lady Ottoline Morrell ©NPGAx140525
The Farmer, 1917.

I see a farmer walking by himself
In the ploughed field, returning like the day
To his dark nest. The plovers circle round
In the gray sky; the blackbird calls; the thrush
Still sings—but all the rest have gone to sleep.
I see the farmer coming up the field,
Where the new corn is sown, but not yet sprung;
He seems to be the only man alive
And thinking through the twilight of this world.
I know that there is war behind those hills,
And I surmise, but cannot see the dead,
And cannot see the living in their midst—
So awfully and madly knit with death.
I cannot feel, but know that there is war,
And has been now for three eternal years,
Behind the subtle cinctures of those hills.
I see the farmer coming up the field,
And as I look, imagination lifts
The sullen veil of alternating cloud,
And I am stunned by what I see behind
His solemn and uncompromising form:
Wide hosts of men who once could walk like him
In freedom, quite alone with night and day,
Uncounted shapes of living flesh and bone,
Worn dull, quenched dry, gone blind and sick, with war;
And they are him and he is one with them;
They see him as he travels up the field.
O God, how lonely freedom seems to-day!
O single farmer walking through the world,
They bless the seed in you that earth shall reap,
When they, their countless lives, and all their thoughts,
Lie scattered by the storm: when peace shall come
With stillness, and long shivers, after death.
            --Fredegond Shove

The poem describes a moment at the close of day when under a gray sky, a farmer returns “to his dark nest” in the twilight of the world.  The hills rise up around him as a cincture, the rope belt worn by priests and associated with spiritual watchfulness and self-mastery. 

US World War I poster
The careful pattern of repetitions (“I see the farmer”) marks the man as isolated and also mirrors the deliberate decisiveness required of men who identified as conscientious objectors.  While the first nine lines of the poem emphasis the farmer’s alienation – in a world that has seen millions of men march off to war, “he seems to be the only man alive” – the poet’s imagination “lifts the sullen veil of alternating cloud.” Stunningly, what is revealed is the deep connection between the solitary farmer and the “Wide hosts of men…/ Worn dull, quenched dry, gone blind and sick, with war.”

Together, the farmer and the fighters have been “awfully and madly knit with death.” They fight for him; he farms for them so that they can continue to fight. In a war that has dragged on for “three eternal years,” they are linked to one another in their loneliness and in their courage: “they are him and he is one with them.”

The close of the poem looks to a future, perhaps far distant.  If peace comes, it will arrive “With stillness, and long shivers” after the incomprehensible loss of “countless lives, and all their thoughts.” And yet the fighting men bless the farmer for the hope he scatters: in the metaphor of seed lies the promise of birth and future sustenance. 

Fredegond Maitland Shove was a niece by marriage of composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (he set four of her poems to music), and she was a cousin of Virginia Woolf (the two were quite close until Shove’s conversion to Catholicism in 1927).  She was also the first female poet included in the Georgian Poetry anthologies, her work selected for the 1918-1918 volume (the poetry of Charlotte Mew, Rose Macaulay, and Edith Sitwell had also been considered).  It has been suggested that if not for her connections and her gender, her poem “The Farmer, 1917” would not have appeared in anthologies of the time.  And yet if understood as a reflection upon conscientious objectors, “The Farmer, 1917” powerfully addresses an aspect of the war that is often forgotten. 

Fredegond Maitland Shove
†From the web site of the Imperial War Museum, “Conscientious Objectors in their Own Words,” by Margaret Brooks.
*Ann Kramer, Conscientious Objectors of the First World War, Pen and Sword, 2014, p. 1.
**Fredegond and Gerald Shove, by Fredegond Shove. Privately printed, 1952. 

Friday, April 21, 2017

Only a cog

British munitions factory, Chilwell
It is easy to forget the sheer scale of the Great War. The numbers tell the tale: over 32 million artillery shells were fired during the battle of Verdun; over 3,000 artillery guns were used by the Allies during the Third Battle of Ypres; during the battle of High Wood on August 24, 1916, it is estimated that 10 British machine guns fired over 1 million rounds in 12 hours.  The human toll was also staggering: over 35 million were killed or wounded, and on average, 230 soldiers died each hour of every day during a conflict that lasted over four years.*

Men were dwarfed by the scale of a war such as the world had never seen before. Gilbert Frankau’s poem “Ammunition Column” considers one man’s place in a modern, industrial war.

Ammunition Column

I am only a cog in a giant machine, a link of an endless chain:
And the rounds are drawn, and the rounds are fired, and the empties return again;
Railroad, lorry, and limber; battery, column, and park;
To the shelf where the set fuse waits the breech, from the quay where the shells embark.
We have watered and fed, and eaten our beef; the long dull day drags by.
As I sit here watching our “Archibalds”** strafing an empty sky;
Puff and flash on the far-off blue round the speck one guesses the plane—

Smoke and spark of the gun-machine that is fed by the endless chain.
The Great Black Cloud (detail), by Kerr Eby 

I am only a cog in a giant machine, a little link in the chain,
Waiting a word from the wagon-lines that the guns are hungry again:—

Column-wagon to battery-wagon, and battery-wagon to gun;
To the loader kneeling 'twixt trail and wheel from the shops where the steam-lathes run.
There's a lone mule braying against the line where the mud cakes fetlock-deep!
There's a lone soul humming a hint of a song in the barn where the drivers sleep;
And I hear the pash of the orderly's horse as he canters him down the lane—

Another cog in the gun-machine, a link in the selfsame chain.

I am only a cog in a giant machine, but a vital link in the chain;
And the Captain has sent from the wagon-line to fill his wagons again;—

From wagon-limber to gunpit dump; from loader's forearm at breech,
To the working-party that melts away when the shrapnel bullets screech.

So the restless section pulls out once more in column of route from the right,
At the tail of a blood-red afternoon; so the flux of another night
Bears back the wagons we fill at dawn to the sleeping column again . . .
Cog on cog in the gun-machine, link on link in the chain!

In Frankau’s poem, the war has taken on a monstrous life of its own: the guns are insatiably hungry and must be fed. The poem’s regular meter sounds like a drumbeat, signaling the inevitability of the conflict’s relentless advance.
Men are reduced to machine parts as they work to satisfy the appetite of the war and its endless demand for ammunition. Everything and everyone appears small and subservient to the Great War.  The mule, the horse, the lone soul humming song: all are merely links and cogs in the chain of mechanized killing.  The grim irony is that in stoking the engines of war and prolonging its life, the men ensure that the killing will continue.  War feeds on human lives. 

Gilbert Frankau joined the British Army shortly after the war began in 1914 and was transferred to the Royal Field artillery in early 1915.  He fought at Loos, Ypres, and the Somme, but left the army “on account of ill-health contracted on active service” in February of 1918.†

Frankau is sometimes omitted from collections of war poetry for being “politically dubious.” WWI scholar Tim Kendall notes that the writer “hated the Germans with an intensity matched only by his master, Rudyard Kipling.”††  And yet Ferenc Békássy, a Hungarian soldier fighting for Germany’s ally, shared Frankau’s sense of the way in which the war was making all men into replaceable parts. In his poem “1914,” Békássy also protested “that he was not a unit, a pawn whose place can be filled.”  
*Scott Addington, The Great War 100, The History Press, 2014.
**Anti-aircraft fire. This link explains that the term likely originated from a music hall song. 
London Gazette, 19 February 1918. 
††Tim Kendall, “Gilbert Frankau” on the blog War Poetry.