|British soldiers at the Somme, Oct. 1916 © IWM (Q 1580)|
Historian Paul Fussell, writing in The Great War and Modern Memory, describes the growing sense contemporaries held that the Great War “might be endless”:
One did not have to be a lunatic or a particularly despondent visionary to conceive quite seriously that the war would literally never end and would become the permanent condition of mankind. The stalemate and attrition would go on indefinitely, becoming, like the telephone and the internal combustion engine, a part of the accepted atmosphere of the modern experience.*
|Bruce Bairnsfather: |
"Well, Alfred, 'ow are the cakes?"
Yet while it seemed as if the war might last forever, those caught in its grip became increasingly aware of the evanescent quality of human life. In her memoir Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain explains,
France was the scene of titanic, illimitable death, and for this very reason it had become the heart of the fiercest living ever known to any generation. Nothing was permanent; everyone and everything was always on the move; friendships were temporary, appointments were temporary, life itself was the most temporary of all.**
For some, fiercely living in the present meant extracting whatever small and simple pleasures might be available in the existing circumstances. William Kersley Holmes was a banker who joined the Lothians and Border Horse Yeomanry regiment and was promoted to the rank of 2nd Lieutenant with the Royal Field Artillery. Holmes published two volumes of poetry (Ballads of Field and Billet and More Ballads of Field and Billet) that capture this spirit of determined buoyancy. A reviewer for the Scotsman praised his work, writing, “It may seem a rather doubtful compliment to the verses in this readable book to say that they are pedestrian; but they do not attempt to soar high, to celebrate martial glory.” The Glasgow Herald said of Holmes’ poems,
They range from the grave to the humorous, from the realistic to the romantic, but something of the brightness of youth is in them all, something of that gallant gaiety which makes a jest of the discomforts of life, yet never thinks of life itself as a jest.†
Holmes’ “The Soldier Mood” captures one such incident in which three friends eat and laugh together, “Defying indigestion and the Germans and the years.”
The Soldier Mood
We were eating chip potatoes underneath the April stars
That glittered coldly and aloof from earth and earthly wars;
We were three good pals together, and the day’s hard work was done,
So we munched our chip potatoes, half for food and half for fun.
Had come to seem accustomed as the undertone of life;
We were fit and hard and happy, and the future was unknown,
The past—all put behind us; but the present was our own.
We were doing our plainest duty, meant to end what we’d begun;
Why worry for tomorrow till to-day’s big job was done?
So we walked and laughed together like three modern musketeers—
Defying indigestion and the Germans and the years.
We were eating chip potatoes with our fingers, like a tramp,
And the unseen owls were hooting in the trees around the camp;
We were happy to be hungry, glad to be alive and strong;
So—to-morrow might be terror, but to-night could be a song!
—W. Kersley Holmes
—W. Kersley Holmes
In Holmes' poem, the prolonged stalemate of trench warfare and the immensity of the conflict (involving half of the nations of the world) have so normalized violence and death that they have come to be accepted as “the normal undertone of life.” With an unspoken understanding, the men realize that dwelling on memories of past battles or anticipating terrors of future attacks will lead to fearful paralysis; the only way forward is to claim the present as their own, without ceremony or posturing. The soldiers’ mood –“Happy to be hungry, glad to be alive and strong”—is not a philosophy born out of naïve idealism, but rather a means of coping with the ever-present terrors of the war.
In another poem “The Neutral,” Holmes acknowledges that the war has put at risk not only men’s lives, but their sense of themselves:
War, like a restless fever, haunts the air,
Changing the world we knew;
The men we are forget the men we were
In all we think and do.
Grasping at simple pleasures that were connected with their past lives—“eating chip potatoes”—gave soldiers a tangible way of preserving personal identities that many felt were slipping away with each day the war dragged on.††
*Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory, Oxford University Press, 2000, page 71. For more on the Never-Endians, see also this blog's post “The Other Side” (Alec Waugh).
**Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth, Virago Press, 2004, pages 338-339.
†Both reviews are quoted in the Dollar Magazine, Vol XIV, No. 54, June 1915, pages 74-75 (the magazine was a publication of Dollar Academy, Holmes’ alma mater).
††Holmes’ poem “Singing ‘Tipperary’” also explores soldiers’ struggles to retain a sense of their individuality while caught up in the larger forces of the war.