Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Cricket in war time

British troops play cricket, WWI

In 1892, Henry Newbolt wrote a poem comparing the violence of war with school sport:

The river of death has brimmed his banks,
And England's far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of schoolboy rallies the ranks,

"Play up! play up! and play the game!" 

Cricket and Grenade Throwing, Geoffrey Stobie
(I much prefer Newbolt’s poem about a marching cat, but that’s not strictly relevant to this post). 

At the time of the First World War, it was commonly believed that experience and ability in athletics would translate directly to success on the battlefield. (Americans were reputed to be better than the French at tossing grenades, due to Americans' love of baseball). The British Army encouraged sporting competitions to improve troops’ physical fitness, boost morale, and strengthen bonds between officers and their men. 

Perhaps the most English of sports is cricket, and so it’s not surprising that numerous First World War poems make reference to the game.  

Cricket: The Catch

Rossall School, General View from the Cricket Field, W.J. Allingham 
Whizzing, fierce, it came
Down the summer air,
Burning like a flame
On my fingers bare,
And it brought to me
As swift - a memory.
Happy days long dead
Clear I saw once more.
Childhood that is fled:-
Rossall on the shore,
Where the sea sobs wild
Like a homesick child.
Oh, the blue bird's fled!
Never man can follow.
Yet at times instead
Comes this scarlet swallow,
Bearing on its wings
(Where it skims and dips,
Gleaming through the slips)
Sweet Time - strangled things.
--Frederick William Harvey

As the poem opens, a projectile – shell, shrapnel, or grenade – hurtles toward a soldier. For a heartbeat, the fiercely whizzing weapon recalls the youthful memory of a school cricket game played near the English shore.  Time is suspended as gunfire mimics the crack of the bat, and the soldier flashes back to a leisurely afternoon of fair play within earshot of the sea. 
"We dropped bombs on a British formation, causing the
troops to disperse and run about in a panic-stricken
manner" 
(Punch cartoon, 4 July 1917)
But just as quickly comes the realization that childhood has ended and the blue bird, associated with light-hearted happiness, has fled.  War is a deadly game played in earnest.  

Death rains down from the sky, and the incoming missile is imagined as a blood-red swallow that “skims and dips” as it gleams past men. The soldiers, like cricket fielders, hope to make a play that will put their opponent out of the game. 

In the moments before the explosion, seconds are drawn out.  There's a beauty even in the arc of the incoming weapon, for each bomb seeking its human target carries with it both “Sweet Time” and “strangled things.”  The sweetness of time is magnified for those who know that each moment may be their last, yet living under the threat of imminent death also constricts thought and action, strangling and suffocating the men.   

While the poem nostalgically remembers the past, it exists in suspended time as it anticipates what will happen in the next moments.  The soldier longs both for the past and for a future, but the poem ends before the explosion.  All  possibilities  remain open: perhaps the soldier survives, thinking to himself, that was a close one; perhaps he is struck and falls under the searing pain of a wound; or perhaps his life ends in the silence left at the close of the poem.  Sweet Time or strangled things?  We are left to imagine the attempted cricket catch and the outcome of the game.  

F.W. Harvey, the “Laureate of Gloucestershire,” typically wrote light-hearted poems (the best known being “Ducks”).  He was a key contributor to the first British trench newspaper, the Fifth Gloucester Gazette, and a close friend of the soldier-poet-composer Ivor Gurney (Gurney would later set several of Harvey’s poems to music).  During a night reconnaissance mission on August 17, 1916, Harvey was captured by Germans and spent the remaining years of the war in prisoner camps, making several failed escape attempts.  He survived the war and returned to Gloucestershire, dying in 1957.  A memorial to him in Gloucestershire Cathedral reads, “He loved the vision of this world and found it good.”*

F.W. Harvey
*Lines from Harvey’s poem describing himself, “F.W.H: A Portrait.”

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