Thursday, November 8, 2018

Remembrance Day, 1921


British soldiers

Although British Prime Minister David Lloyd George had promised in late November of 1918, just weeks after the Armistice, that his government would work “to make Britain a fit country for heroes to live in,”
By 1921, countless former soldiers, many of them badly disabled, were living in dire poverty, begging on the streets or trying to eke out a living by selling matches and mementoes, eating at food kitchens, sometimes forced to sleep in doorways or on park benches. “We were no longer heroes, we were simply ‘unemployed’ was one former officer’s bitter commentary.”*

British soldier and writer Edward Shanks served with South Lancashire Regiment until he was gassed in 1915 and medically discharged from his unit. He worked in clerical support positions for the rest of the war, publishing several volumes of war poetry.**  However, his poem “Armistice Day, 1921” was not published until 1925.  Perhaps it was too real, too disheartening to print before that time.

Armistice Day, 1921
Cenotaph 1920 © IWM (Q 31488) 

The hush begins.  Nothing is heard
Save the arrested taxis throbbing
And here and there an ignorant bird
And here a sentimental woman sobbing.

The statesman bares and bows his head
Before the solemn monument:
His lips, paying duty to the dead
In silence, are more than ever eloquent.

But ere the sacred silence breaks
And taxis hurry on again,
A faint and distant voice awakes,
Speaking the mind of a million absent men:

‘Mourn not for us. Our better luck
At least has given us peace and rest.
We struggled when our moment struck
But now we understand that death knew best.

‘Would we be as our brothers are
The Match Seller, Otto Dix, 1920
Whose barrel-organs charm the town?
Ours was a better dodge by far—
We got our pensions in a lump sum down.

‘We, out of all, have had our pay,
There is no poverty where we lie:
The graveyard has no quarter-day,
The space is narrow but the rent now high.

‘No empty stomach here is found:
Unless some cheated worm complain
You hear no grumbling underground:
Oh, never, never wish us back again!

‘Mourn not for us, but rather we
Will meet upon this solemn day
And in our greater liberty
Keep silent for you, a little while, and pray.’
            —Edward Shanks

Shanks’ poem “Remembrance Day” gives the dead a voice: they speak to the despair that many war survivors experienced.  The poem also provides an interesting contrast to one of the most famous poems read on Remembrance Day, Laurence Binyon’s “For the Fallen,” that proclaims, “We will remember them.”

Beggar (with war medals) chases coach of George V
But how are soldiers who survived the Great War remembered?  Fifteen million men from all sides of the conflict received wounds that left them permanently crippled.  In Britain, over 41,000 British soldiers had arms or legs amputated, while 65,000 received disability pensions for mental health problems diagnosed as ‘neurasthenia.’ Robert Graves, British soldier and war poet, recalls that in the years following the war, “Ex-servicemen were continually coming to the door selling boot-laces and asking for cast-off shirts and socks.”††

As Ian Kershaw notes in To Hell and Back: Europe, 1914-1949, “Nowhere in post-war Europe was there a land ‘fit for heroes.’”†††  The war was over, but the suffering continued. 
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* Ian Kershaw, To Hell and Back, Viking, 2015, p. 94.
** Fred D. Crawford, British Poets of the Great War, Susquehanna UP, 1988, p. 34.
† Niall Ferguson, The Pity of War, Basic Books, 1999, p. 437.
†† Robert Graves, Good-Bye to All That, Penguin, 1975, p. 257.
††† Kershaw, To Hell and Back, p. 98.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Ballad of Remembrance

Pipers from Cameron Highlander Regiment marching to the front
from The Daily Record 9 Nov 2014

Describing the poetry of Scottish writer Marion Angus, a reviewer wrote, “To read her verse is like sitting in an empty room where fingers tap on the window pane, and outside the house, something passes on noiseless feet.”*

Empty noiselessness: an earlier post on this blog has noted the unnatural quiet that marked the Armistice. All along the battlefront, men described the sudden silence:
The silence is oppressive. It weighs in on one’s eardrums. We have lived and had our being in din …. The air is full of half-forgotten sounds: the rustling of dead leaves, the organ tone of wind in the tree tops, whispers through the underbrush, lazy echoes of voices in the road…. it can’t be true…We cannot comprehend the stillness.**

Silence was experienced by those on the home front as well, but for them, the stillness echoed with absence and extended down through the years. 

James Gray, Scottish WW1 soldier
Remembrance Day

Some one was singing
     Up a twisty stair,
   A fragment of a song,
   One sweet, spring day,
When twelve o’clock was ringing,
   Through the sunny square—

‘There was a lad baith frank and free,
Cam’ doon the bonnie banks o’ Dee
Wi’ tartan plaid and buckled shoon,
An’ he’ll come nae mair to oor toon. ‘—

‘He dwells withing a far countree,
Where great ones do him courtesie,
They’ve gien him a golden croon,
An’ he’ll come nae mair to oor toon.’—

No one is singing
      Up the twisty stair.
Quiet as a sacrament
      The November day.
 
Can’t you hear it swinging,
      The little ghostly air?—
   Hear it sadly stray
   Through the misty square,
In and out a doorway,
      Up a twisty stair—
Tartan plaid and buckled shoon,
He’ll come nae mair to oor toon.
      —Marion Angus

Reworking the ballad form, Angus contrasts traditional Scottish music before the war with the raw and painful ways in which the old ballads were heard after the tragic losses of the Great War.  An estimated 125,000 Scottish soldiers never returned home.

Angus was known for writing in Scots, but “Remembrance Day” begins in English, then shifts to Scots to sing of a young soldier “baith frank and free” who will come no more to his home town. The poem reverts to English as it describes a bereft voice that sings no more and the sacramental silence that falls on Remembrance Day, before the poem returns to Scots, closing with the ghostly notes of an ancient ballad that now keens for the recent war dead.

Marion Angus
from National Library of Scotland
Hugh MacDiarmid, a contemporary of Marion Angus and one of the best-known modern Scots writers of the twentieth century, notes, “the Scottish consciousness is divided […] this linguistic division means that Scotsmen feel in one language and think in another, that their emotions turn to the Scottish tongue.”***

Fluent in both Scots and English, Marion Angus worked during the war at the Stobs, a British Army training camp in the Scottish Borders that became an internment camp for civilians and prisoners of war.  By May of 1916, there were over 4,500 prisoners in the camp.  Her first book of poetry, The Lilt, was published in 1922.  At the time of her death in 1946, Marion Angus was credited as being “one of the most distinctive voices of the modern Scots revival,”†† but her poetry, which focuses almost entirely on women’s experiences, has been largely forgotten. 

“Remembrance Day” captures the essence of Marion Angus’s poetry: she had a “genius for telling a story in a few verses, of almost unbearable poignancy.”†††
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* Winifred Duke, “Women Poets of Today,” Glasgow Herald, 15 Jan 1936, p. 8, cited in Aimée Y. Chalmers’ The Singing Lass: A Reflection on the Life of the Poet Marion Angus, Thesis submitted to the University of St. Andrews, 2010, p. 30.
** Robert J. Casey, The Cannoneers Have Hairy Ears, J.H. Sears, 1927, pp. 329-330.
*** Hugh MacDiarmid (1936) cited in D. Dunn (ed.) The Faber Book of Twentieth-Century Poetry, Faber and Faber, 1992, p. xxxiii.
† Chalmers, The Singing Lass, p. 43.
†† Anonymous obituary, “Death of Marion Angus Scots Vernacular Poet,” (1946) cited in Chalmers, The Singing Lass, p. 82.
††† Marion Lochhead, “Feminine Quartet,” Summer 1980, cited in Chalmers, The Singing Lass, p. 82.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Ghosts of the Great War


Ghosts of Vimy Ridge by William Longstaff 

“People see ghosts, they see images of their mothers, they see dead comrades,” Canadian historian Tim Cook reports from his archival research of First World War letters and diaries.* For example, Sergeant Frank S. Iriam’s description of the Western Front, taken from his memoir, In the Trenches 1914-1918, provides one such account of the supernatural:
This part of the line had a weird and gruesome look that seemed to whisper of death and devastation. The very ground here seemed to speak and the night wind seemed to pluck at your sleeves and counsel you beware. You could feel the pulse of the thousands of the dead with their pale hands protruding through the mud here and there and seeming to beckon you .... You could feel the presence of something not of this earth. Akin to goblins.**

Winifred Letts, an Anglo-Irish writer who served as a VAD and a masseuse for wounded soldiers, published a collection of war poetry in 1916 titled Hallow-e’en and Poems of the War. “Halloween, 1915,” describes those on the home front who welcome the “ghosts of our well-beloved dead.” A previous post on this blog also discusses the popularity of spiritualism during the First World War.  Letts’ poetry includes numerous references to the spirit world; one example is her twilight-lit, melancholic poem “If Love of Mine.” 

If Love of Mine

If love of mine could witch you back to earth
It would be when the bat is on the wing
The lawn dew-drenched, the first stars glimmering,
The moon a golden slip of seven nights’ birth.
If prayer of mine could bring you it would be
To this wraith-flowered jasmine-scented place
Where shadow trees their branches interlace;
Phantoms we’d tread a land of fantasy.
If love could hold you I would bid you wait
Till the pearl sky is indigo and till
The plough show silver lamps beyond the hill
And Aldebaran† burns above the gate.

If love of mine could lure you back to me
From the rose gardens of eternity.
            —Winifred Letts

In her poem “Loss,” Letts writes, “In losing you I lost my sun and moon / And all the stars that blessed my lonely night.” The poem concludes, I lost the master word, dear love, the clue /That threads the maze of life when I lost you.”

It wasn’t only the dead who were lost; survivors also often found themselves buried by grief and adrift in cultural changes resulting from the war. In 1957, Letts described herself as “a period piece, a has-been, totally unknown to this generation.”†† 
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* Tristan Hopper, “Soldier diaries tell of ghosts intervening in First World War,” National Post, 28 May 2014, https://nationalpost.com/news/soldier-diaries-tell-of-ghosts-intervening-in-first-world-war-canadian-historian, Accessed 27 Oct. 2018.
** Glenn R. Iriam, “Ypres Salient,” In the Trenches 1914-1918, eBookIt, 2011. 
† Aldebaran (or Alpha Tauri) is the brightest star in the constellation of Taurus (it is the red star that marks the bull’s eye).  The “plough” named in the previous line alludes to one of the most famous constellations in the night sky, known in the United States as “the Big Dipper.”
†† Bairbre O’Hogan, “Winifred M. Letts,” Herstory, http://www.herstory.ie/news/2017/8/8/winifred-letts-playwright-poet-novelist, Accessed 27 Oct. 2018.