Saturday, June 3, 2017

The Other Side

Dance of Death 1919, Claggett Wilson
Smithsonian Museum

When war was declared in July of 1914, many thought it would be over by Christmas.  But by the spring of 1917, as new offensives began yet again on the Western Front, the Great War seemed as if it might never end. 

Paul Fussell in The Great War and Modern Memory provides numerous first-hand accounts of those who became known as the Neverendians; in the summer of 1917, one British officer used an elaborate mathematical formula of past battle gains to calculate that at its current rate, the war would continue for another 180 years.*  The size and scope of the war had become incomprehensible.

Alexander (Alec) Waugh was the older brother of the British novelist Evelyn Waugh. He trained at the British Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, and in 1917 was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Dorset Regiment.  Posted to the Somme and Passchendaele, he was captured near Arras on March 28, 1918 and spent the remainder of the war in German prisoner camps.

Waugh’s poem “The Other Side” argues that perhaps the only ones who can understand war are those who cannot speak of it: the dead.

The Other Side

There are not any, save the men that died,
Whose minds have probed into the heart of war.
Decorated officer commits suicide

Sometimes we stumble on a secret door
And listening guess what lies the other side.
Sometimes a moment’s sudden pain
Flings back the veil that hangs between
Guessing and knowing; then lets it fall again
Before we understand what we have seen.

In and out everywhere,
Distorted in a twisted glass,
Fragmentary visions pass.
We try to fit them one with another,
Like a child putting a puzzle together,
When half the pieces are not there.

Out of a dim obscurity
Certain things stand plain and clear,
Certain things we are forced to see,
Certain things we are forced to hear.

A subaltern dying between the lines,
Wondering why.
A father with nothing left of life
But the will to die.

A young girl born for laughter and spring,
Left to her shame and loneliness.
What is one woman more or less
To men who’ve forgotten everything?

A thin line swinging forward to kill,
And a man driven mad by the din.

Music-hall songs about “Kaiser Bill”
And “the march through the streets of Berlin.”

Grey-beards prattling round a fire
Of the good a war has done.

Three men rotting upon the wire;
And each of them had a son.

A soldier who once was fresh and clean
British paper, May 1916
Lost to himself in whoring and drink,
Blind to what will be and what has been,
Only aware that he must not think.

In the pulpit a parson preaching lies,
Babbling of honour and sacrifice.

Fragments flutter in and out,
Christ! what is it all about?
            --Alec Waugh, Hampstead.  March, 1917

The poem’s first lines suggest that war can never be wholly understood, but can only be grasped in fragmentary glimpses and distorted impressions.  Yet the mood turns in the fourth stanza with the assertion that “out of a dim obscurity” there are truths that must be seen and heard, certain things that “stand plain and clear.”

The poem’s power comes from this list of “certain things” as it presents eight memorable scenes.  A junior officer dies, leaving his father with no reason to live; a young girl is abandoned, likely a victim of rape or a prostitute, used by men who have “forgotten everything.” Men’s bodies rot upon the wire in No Man’s Land, while soldiers who survive either cope with the horrors of war through mindless drinking or lose their minds as they suffer the effects of shell-shock. Meanwhile, elderly men on the home front discuss the “good a war has done”; ministers of the church preach on the glory and honor of the conflict, and soldiers themselves sing choruses that mock the enemy and proclaim their own imminent victory. 

There is no resolution. The last line “Christ! what is it all about?” offers only further ambiguity: does the poem close with a frustrated curse or a plea to God for answers?  

Waugh’s poetry is seldom read today, but in December of 1918, the Bookman published the essay “Poets in Khaki,” which reviewed the work of 44 soldier poets.  Citing “Cannon Fodder” and “The Other Side,” St. John Adock said that Waugh’s poems “strip the romance of war to the bone.” Adock included Waugh as one of “Three poets who I think do represent as faithfully and potently as any the later, essentially modern attitude towards war.” The other two writers singled out for this praise were Gilbert Frankau and Siegfried Sassoon.**

Sassoon also struggled to grasp the purpose and meaning of the war, and his remembrance of the days following the opening of the Somme offensive resonate with Waugh’s ideas in “The Other Side”:

“I leant on a wooden bridge, gazing down into the dark green glooms of the weedy little river, but my thoughts were powerless against unhappiness so huge. I couldn't alter European history, or order the artillery to stop firing. I could stare at the War as I stared at the sultry sky, longing for life and freedom and vaguely altruistic about my fellow-victims. But a second-lieutenant could attempt nothing -- except to satisfy his superior officers; and altogether, I concluded, Armageddon was too immense for my solitary understanding.”
            -- Memoirs of an Infantry Officer. 

*Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (Oxford University Press, 2000), see pages 71-74. 
**St. John Adock, “Poets in Khaki,” Bookman (Volume 55, Christmas 1918), page 98.  T.S. Eliot also reviewed Waugh’s volume of poetry in the Egoist, but was less impressed, writing, “Mr Waugh…would appear to have been influenced by some older person who admired Rupert Brooke” (August 1918, page 99).


  1. I enjoyed this post very much. Thank you. I recently saw that Claggett Wilson watercolor - it was included in the the exhibit World War One and American Art currently at the NY Historical Society.

    In terms of the sense of the neverending war I'm reminded of the Bairnsfather cartoon "Nobbled" that Fussell also mentions:
    "'Ow long are you up for, Bill?"
    "Seven years."
    "Yer lucky ----, I'm duration."

  2. Thanks for reading and responding. I saw Claggett Wilson's art when the exhibit was in Philadelphia -- haunting, wasn't it? And thanks for the great connection with the Bairnsfather cartoon - so many shared the fear that the war might never end, and so it's wonderful to see it extend to popular cartoons.

  3. Fascinating to learn that STD's were more common that trench foot. Sad to hear that women were so poorly treated and blamed for the follies of men. Things haven't changed much today when women are subjected to things like campus rapes and are blamed for it.
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