"" Behind Their Lines

Friday, April 5, 2024

A singing star in time's abyss

Edward Thomas

On the first day of the battle of Arras, April 9, 1917, Edward Thomas was killed by an artillery shell. He had arrived in France just months before and had been writing poetry for only three years (most of Thomas’s poems, such as “Rain,” were written between 1914 and his death).  Almost immediately following Thomas’s death, other writers wrestled their grief into words. Eleanor Farjeon wrote “Easter Monday (In Memoriam E.T.),” and Walter De La Mare composed a short poem of heart-aching beauty.  

To E.T.

You sleep too well—too far away,
   For sorrowing word to soothe or wound;
Your very quiet seems to say
   How longed-for a peace you have found.

Else, had not death so lured you on,
   You would have grieved — ’twixt joy and fear—
To know how my small loving son
   Had wept for you my dear.
        —Walter De La Mare (1918)

Four years later, in 1922, Ivor Gurney wrote “The Mangel-Bury,” which opens with a remembrance of Thomas:

        It was after war; Edward Thomas had fallen at Arras—
        I was walking by Gloucester musing on such things
        As fill his verse with goodness....*

Each of these poems can be read in the collection Elected Friends: Poems for and about Edward Thomas, compiled by Anne Harvey. One of my favorites is “The Golden Room,” by Wilfred Wilson Gibson, written in 1925. Gibson, Robert Frost, Lascelles Abercrombie, and Rupert Brooke were among the Dymock poets, a group of friends who lived in rural Gloucestershire, meeting for walks and dinners to share ideas, laughter, and poetry.  

The Golden Room

Do you remember that still summer evening
When, in the cosy cream-washed living-room
Of the Old Nailshop, we all talked and laughed—
Our neighbours from The Gallows, Catherine
And Lascelles Abercrombie; Rupert Brooke;
Eleanor and Robert Frost, living in a while
At Little Iddens, who’d brought over with them
Helen and Edward Thomas? In the lamplight
We talked and laughed; but, for the most part, listened
While Robert Frost kept on and one and on,
In his slow New England fashion, for our delight,
Holding us with shrewd turns and racy quips,
And the rare twinkle of his grave blue eyes?

Wilfrid and Geraldine Gibson 
The Old Nailshop, Greenway
We sat there in the lamplight, while the day
Died from rose-latticed casements, and the plovers
Called over the low meadows, till the owls
Answered them from the elms, we sat and talked:
Now, a quick flash from Abercrombie; now,
A murmured dry half-heard aside from Thomas;
Now, a clear laughing word from Brooke; and then
Again Frost’s rich and ripe philosophy,
That had the body and tang of good draught-cider,
And poured as clear a stream.

’Twas in July
Of nineteen-fourteen that we sat and talked;
Then August brought the war, and scattered us.

Now, on the crest of an Ægean isle,
Brooke sleeps, and dreams of England: Thomas lies
’Neath Vimy Ridge, where he, among his fellows,
Died, just as life had touched his lips to song. 

And nigh as ruthlessly has life divided
Us who survive; for Abercrombie toils
In a black Northern town, beneath the glower
Of hanging smoke; and in America
Frost farms once more; and, far from the Old Nailshop,
We sojourn by the Western sea. 

And yes,
Was it for nothing that the little room,
All golden in the lamplight, thrilled with golden
Laughter from the hearts of friends that summer night?
Darkness has fallen on it; and the shadow
May never more be lifted from the hearts
That went through those black years of war, and live.

And still, whenever men and women gather
For talk and laughter on a summer night,
Shall not that lamp rekindle; and the room
Glow once again alive with light and laughter;
And, like a singing star in time’s abyss,
Burn golden-hearted through oblivion?
—Wilfrid Gibson, 1925**

Gibson and his wife, Geraldine, lived in The Old Nailshop, a thatched cottage in Greenway Cross, and Rupert Brooke came to stay with them in July of 1914. Within walking distance were the homes of Edward and Helen Thomas, and Robert and Elinor Frost. Eleanor Farjeon, a friend of the Thomases, relates the story of the night when she “drank all the poets in Gloucestershire under the table”: 

Everyone was wiping his eyes with laughter, and we finished the meal with the cheese. Mrs. Farmer rose. I rose, and Helen rose, and Elinor Frost. Mr. Farmer rose. The Poets attempted to rise, relapsed on to their seats, and regarded each other with comical consternation. They were perfectly sober, though exceedingly gay; but the gallons of strong cider, against which I had been inoculated, had gone to their legs, and not one of them could stand without support. I saw Edward and Robert stagger to their feet, clutch each other, and go down; they rose again with great caution, clinging together. On the other side of the table Gibson and Abercrombie were behaving similarly. Two brace of poets staggered out into the moonlight and went hilariously homeward like two sets of Siamese Twins.***

Gibson’s poem is a memorial to the summer of 1914, and its lines shimmer with repeated references to golden light. Cream-washed walls, clear West Country cider, warm laughter, and the magic of lamplight shine with promise and potentiality. 

Yet by August of 1914, the world had descended into war, darkness, and shadow. 

Gibson wrote “The Golden Room” over ten years after that idyllic summer, reflecting on the grief and loss of the intervening years. Abercrombie had accepted the position of Professor of English at the University of Leeds; Gibson and his family had moved to a coastal town in Wales; Brooke had been dead for a decade, and Thomas nearly that long. 

“And still....” 

So begins the last stanza of “The Golden Room.” In the poem's last lines, Gibson blesses future gatherings of friends and writers, comparing them to “a singing star in time’s abyss.” Bonds of love and comradeship will rekindle the lamp “whenever men and women gather / For talk and laughter on a summer night.”
* The poem was The Guardian’sPoem of the Week,” 27 April 2009, accompanied by a rich discussion by Carol Rumens. **
The poem was published in The Atlantic magazine’s February 1926 issue and in Gibson’s 1928 collection, The Golden Room and Other Poems.
*** Eleanor Farjeon, Edward Thomas: The Last Four Years, Oxford UP, 1958, p. 94.

Wednesday, March 6, 2024


Arthur Lewis Jenkins
Photo by Auxiliary Portrait Studio, Westminster

Arthur Lewis Jenkins joined the British Army in September of 1914 and was killed a little more than three years later on 31 December 1917 while flying a night patrol mission over Scotland. He was twenty-five years old. An anonymous review published in 1919 in the Times Literary Supplement states that Jenkins had been killed in the war, but had “lived long enough to die a poet.”* The Balliol College War Memorial Book’s tribute to Jenkins writes, “The war gave him a unity which he had not been able to find in earlier days.”** 

Mourners frequently try to find meaning in the war deaths of young men: a reviewer wrote about JH Stables and his poetry, “There could be no better school for a young poet who wants to shed the faults of youth than the trenches.”***

Here is Jenkins’ poem “Bondage,” written the year he died and published posthumously in his book of poetry, Forlorn Adventures


“O, I am sick of ways and wars,
    And the homeless ends of the earth—
I would get back to the northern stars,
    To the land where I had birth,
And take to me a dainty maid,
    And a tiny patch of ground,
Where I may watch small green things grow,
    As the kindly months come round.”

"Shell Shock!" 
from The Hydra, Dec. 1917
“And shall no memory of old fights
    Of comrades tried and dear,
That sleep so sound in outland soil,
    Come back to mar your cheer?
No thought of sudden marches,
    And swift assaults at morn,
Come back to shake your hard-won ease
    In the land where you were born?”

“The wine of war is bitter wine,
    And I have drunk my fill;
My heart would seek its anodyne
    In homely things and still.
Nor shall my comrades grudge to me
    My lass and my hearthstone,
But come to talk beside my fire,
    Whenas I sit alone.” 

“God help you, friend, if you should find,
    The head you fain would rest
Has pillowed too long on a saddle tree
    To lie on a woman’s breast;
For the sad ends of all the earth,
    Where lightly peril moves,
They shall have power in their own hour,
    To call you from your loves.”
            —Arthur Lewis Jenkins, 1917

In the first and third stanzas, a weary soldier longs for home and dreams of future happiness to be found with a wife and a small garden to tend. But the second and fourth stanzas are spoken by a wiser, more sardonic voice that questions the possibility of ever leaving the war behind. This speaker cautions the young soldier that it will be impossible to purge his memories of trauma and death, for “They shall have power” at any time of their own choosing to disrupt his peace and separate him from those he loves.

Rather than presenting a unified personality, “Bondage” speaks of the division and alienation that many men suffered during and after the First World War. In the memorial volume For Remembrance, Adcock writes that Lieutenant A.L. Jenkins, “was still a dreamer, an idealist, whose ideal of happiness was not of a kind that could ever be won by the sword, but in the strange, sweet, immaterial something that he sighs after in Forlorn Adventures.”**** Yet Jenkins’ poem suggests he knew that whether he lived or died, any pre-war “ideal of happiness” was likely to prove elusive.

* “Four Young Poets,” Times Literary Supplement, 23 January 1919, cited in J. Goldman’s “Following Bradshaw and Bishop into Jacob’s Room,” Feminist Modernist Studies, vol. 3, n. 1, 2020.
** Balliol College War Memorial Book, 1914–1918, Robert Maclehose and Co, Glasgow, 1924,  p. 295.
*** Katherine Tynan, “War Poets and Others,” The Bookman, Oct. 1916, p. 22.
**** A. St. John Adcock, For Remembrance: Soldier Poets Who Have Fallen in the War, Hodder and Stoughton, 1920, pp.218–219. 

Monday, February 26, 2024

The cause is good


A relieved platoon of 1/5th Battalion, Gloucestershire Regiment
at Hébuterne, France c. 1916 by Fred Roe

Previous posts on this blog have shared Lieutenant Cyril Winterbotham’s two anthologized poems, “The Cross of Wood” and “A Christmas Prayer from the Trenches.” Although a posthumous collection of Winterbotham’s poetry was published in 1916 or 1917 (Poems by JJ Bank and Sons of Cheltenham), it was for private distribution, and I have been unable to find a record of any copy that still exists. 

However, while reading the Fifth Glo’ster Gazette (one of the earliest and best-known of the trench journals), I stumbled across a review of Winterbotham’s Poems and was able to identify an additional two of his works. The review quotes the full text of Winterbotham’s “A Casualty” and references another of his poems about a “d...d awful trench” called Marguerite.* After a bit of searching, I found that the poems had each been published anonymously in the trench magazine before Winterbotham’s death: “A Casualty” in the August 1915 issue and “To Marguerite” in the Christmas 1915 issue. As the review in the Fifth Glo'ster Gazette notes of Winterbotham’s poems, “The verses are simple enough, but they ring true.”*

Cyril Winterbotham

A Casualty

“Come for the cause is good. Stout heart, strong hand.”
“England needs now. Death—for your native land?”
“The cause is good.”

Poor hackneyed words. But yet his manhood woke,
And held it true—it matters not who spoke.
         The cause was good.

Poor hackneyed words. We heard them once again
From dying lips, teeth clenched against the pain.
For thus he spoke, and so his loss was gain,
        “The cause is good.”
—Cyril Winterbotham

In the first stanza, the line “The cause is good” is the enthusiastic promise made by an army recruiter, but it does not gain its full meaning until it is whispered by a dying soldier.

During August 1916, of the 1,000 men serving with the 1/5 Gloucesters, over 500 were killed, wounded, or reported missing.** Winterbotham was killed while leading Company C of the 1/5 battalion of the Gloucesters in an attack on a German trench near Ovillers-la-Boiselle on the evening of 27 August 1916. In that attack, every officer was either wounded or killed, and eighteen men gave their lines to secure the trench. The next month, the Fifth Glo’ster Gazette reported, 

"Of those of our Battalion who have been killed or who are missing, it is not possible now to write. For one thing our heart is heavy. For another, we are forbidden to publish that list of those who have laid down their lives, without which we should not be able to do justice to those who have fallen. Meanwhile, we who treasure their memories very dearly, are proud that we have lived among them, known and loved them...."***

Clara Winterbotham, 
The Wilson Collection
Another who loved Cyril Winterbotham was his sister, Clara. During the war, she volunteered as a full-time VAD nurse at the Cheltenham hospital from 1915 to 1919. She attained the rank of Quartermaster for the last eight months of her service, for which she was awarded the MBE.†

In 1918, Clara Winterbotham became the first woman to serve on Cheltenham’s city council, and in 1921 she became the town's first woman mayor, serving until 1923, then again from 1944–1946. In July of 1919 as chair of Cheltenham’s Art Gallery and Museum Committee, Clara led the committee to commission a war painting to honor local soldiers.** Her brother Cyril is the young helmeted officer depicted in the center of the painting (top of this post).  

After his death, those who knew Cyril wrote of his warm-hearted humour in difficult circumstances. Here is his unsigned poem “To Marguerite.” 

To Marguerite

Oh beautiful, I found thee once
    When summer winds blew warm, and sweet.
I said “The fellow is a dunce
    Who does not love my Marguerite.”

A gunner's shelter in a trench, Thiepval
William Orpen, 1917
Thy form symmetrical, and clean,
Made my poor heart with rapture beat;
Birds, mice, and insects—N’ere so mean
A thing but loved by Marguerite.

“And here,” I said “The winter blas
I shall not fear. The snow and sleet
Shall harm me not while I hold fast
Unto my love—My Marguerite.”

I guarded thee with tender pride 
        By day and night, and all too fleet
The summer and the autumn died, 
        And left me still with Marguerite.

Then came the equinoctial gale,
The rain descended like a sheet,
Followed by frost, and snow, and hail,
And Oh, the change in Marguerite!

Her symmetry went with the wind,
Her beauty was a wreck complete,
Be-fouled, disordered, who could find
Ought but disgust in Marguerite?

Thy ruin is beyond repair.
Deep in the mud, a good five feet,
Object of horror, and despair,
I leave thee now, My Marguerite.

Oh, blame me not that rain should quench
They love that throve in summer heat.
You’re known as “That d...d awful trench,” 

—Na poo! Na poo! My Marguerite!††

*Bishop Frodsham, “The Wings of Life” [book review of Poems by Cyril William Winterbotham, printed for private circulation, J.J. Banks and Son, Cheltenham] in Fifth Glo’ster Gazette, June 1917, no. 19.
** Neela Mann, “The story of Cheltenham’s Official WW1 Memorial Painting,” 2018.
*** “Bricks from the Editor’s Pack,” Fifth Glo’ster Gazette, Sept. 1916, no. 14.
† Clara Frances Winterbotham, VAD Red Cross: https://vad.redcross.org.uk/record?rowKey=230931
†† This poem was published unsigned in the Fifth Glo’ster Gazette’s Christmas 1915 issue, no. 8. The issue also includes Winterbotham’s unsigned but anthologized poem “A Christmas Prayer from the Trenches” and a poem that Anne Powell in A Deep Cry attributes to Winterbotham: “O.C. Platoon Enquiries,” signed C.W. 

Thursday, January 18, 2024

The Actor-Soldier


Red Cross Hospital #6-7, Souilly France (Oct. 1918) 
Library of Congress, Signal Corps

On the night of January 19, 1919, a sentry on the deck of the SS La Lorraine saw two women calmly walk to the ship’s rail, quickly climb over, and plunge into the icy water. By the time the Captain of the Lorraine could be notified, the ship had traveled five miles beyond the place the Cromwell twin sisters were last seen. Their double suicide provoked widespread public debate concerning the mental effects of war work on women volunteers (see previous post “The Extra”).  

Gladys and Dorothea Cromwell had sailed for France to volunteer in the Canteen Service of the Red Cross in January of 1918. For eight months they were stationed at Chalons-sur-Marne, working long shifts in support of the French army, sometimes under enemy fire. Anne Dunn, a former teacher who corresponded with the sisters during the war, writes, “they suffered from the exhaustion that is so acute to those who have never known physical labour; yet no one suspected until the end came that for many months they had believed their work a failure, and their efforts futile.... In September, at their own request, they were transferred to an Evacuation Hospital [because] ... they longed to work with ‘our own boys.’”* 

Gladys is 2nd from the left; Dorothea is far right
Red Cross Evac Hospital #6-7
LOC, SIGNAL CORPS (13 Oct 1918)

Anne Dunn reveals that the horrors of tending wounded and dying men near the Front at Verdun “broke their already overtaxed endurance. In the diaries they left, signs of mental breakdown begin to show as early as October…. but years of self-control and consideration for others made them conceal the black horror in which they lived—the agony through which they saw a world which they felt contained no refuge for beauty and quiet thought.  In such a world they conceived they had no place, and when on their way home, they jumped from the deck of the Lorraine, it was in response to a vision that promised them fulfilment and peace.”*

Gladys Cromwell’s Poems was published posthumously. Here is her first poem in the collection:

The Actor-Soldier

American volunteer at Red Cross Evac Hospital #6-7
Souilly, France (14 Oct 1918)
Library of Congress, Signal Corps
On the grass I’m lying,

My blanket is the sky;

This feeling is called dying.

No one will testify

They saw me suffer this;—

There’s no one passing by.

The wonder of it is,

I’m by myself at last

With plain realities.

No one is here to cast

A part for me to play;

My term of life is past.

No one is here to see

How I can meet and take

This end;—how gallantly—

Though the ice that binds a lake

Must weigh less heavily

Than Death to my soul awake.

I must have thirsted, indeed,

For pity, then love, then praise;

For to win them, in every deed,

I endeavoured all my days.

The Soldier and the Son

Were my seductive parts;

But I could act the clown,—

Draw laughter from dumb hearts.

The Soldier part was my best,—

’Twas my last and my favourite.

Every gift that I possessed

I displayed for their benefit.

Who are They? On my breast

Weighs the infinite.

Ah, yes, I appeared heroic,

Unflinching, true and brave;

I wore the look of a stoic;—

All hurts I forgave.

But now on the grass I turn

To ease a little the pain;

It is not too late to learn.

Last night I lay in the rain

Until  my body was numb,

Hearing like a refrain:

“O Masquerader, come!”

And even like a drum

It beat into my brain:

“O Masquerader, come!”

—Gladys Cromwell

Both the men and the women who experienced the suffering of the First World War often felt the need to repress their feelings of grief and horror. Whether acting as the clown, the hero, or the ministering angel, they numbed themselves to their own pain, believing “No one will testify / They saw me suffer this.”

Anna Ryan, another American volunteer in the Smith College Relief Unit, writes,

“The Cromwell sisters were working devotedly at Chalons-sur-Marne for weeks while I was there—a particularly trying post, as the town was then under bombardment from earth or air almost every day; and from there they went directly to another post of duty at Verdun. Although even robust soldiers must be relieved after six weeks at the Front, no one seems to have ordered these girls to take a rest. At the end, they were undoubtedly suffering from what the French call cafard, a condition of abysmal depression resulting from nerve-exhaustion. Unquestionably, they deserve to be honored among those who have died for their country and the cause.”**

Gladys’ and Dorothea’s bodies were recovered several months after their suicide; they were buried in France with military honors. Gladys Cromwell’s posthumously published Poems won the Poetry Society of America prize in 1920.***

I was fortunate enough to find a copy of Cromwell’s Poems; the inside cover is inscribed from “M.R.” to Rosina Sherman Hoyt.**** Below the inscription are penned the words, “White violets gathered at dawn.”


* Anne Dunn, “Biographical Note” in Poems by Gladys Cromwell, Macmillan, 1919, pp. 116 – 117.  

** Harriet Monroe, “A Gold Star for Gladys Cromwell,” Poetry, vol. 13, no. 6, Mar. 1919, p. 328. 

*** For further information on the Cromwell sisters, see Jeff Richman’s blog post “A Twin Tragedy,” 23 Jan. 2017.
**** Rosina was a wealthy New York heiress who also wrote poetry and was the great-niece of Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman. 

Friday, January 12, 2024

We can lay claim to nothing


Battlefield of Ypres
David Y Cameron, ©IWM ART 2626

It is estimated that 40,000 Welshmen died during the First World War.* One of those was the Welsh shepherd, soldier, and poet Private Ellis Humphrey Evans, better known by his Welsh bardic name, Hedd Wyn. 

Born in Trawsfyndd, Wales on January 13, 1887, Evans was killed on July 31, 1917 at Pilckem Ridge, near Ypres. Less than six weeks after his death, on September 6, 1917, Hedd Wyn was announced as the winner of the Welsh National Eisteddfod’s prestigious poetry chair. Learning that the poet had been killed in Flanders, presenters draped the chair in black, and since then the honor has been referred to as The Eisteddfod of the Black Chair. 

An anthology of Hedd Wyn’s poetry, Cerddi’r Bugail (The Shepherd’s Poems) was published posthumously in 1918. The best-known poem is “Rhyfel” (“War”) and was shared earlier on this blog. Here is another of Hedd Wyn’s war poems: 

The Black Dot         Y Blotyn Du†

We can lay no claim to the stars, Nid oes gennym hawl ar sêr,

Nor a yearning taste of the moon, Na’r lleuad hiraethus chwaith,

Nor the cloud with its gold border Na’r cwmwl o aur a ymylch

In monotonous blue. Yng nghanol y glesni maith.

We can lay claim to nothing Nid oes gennym hawl ar ddim byd

But the tired earth’s story; Ond ar yr hen ddaear wyw;

And the turning of all to disorder A honno sy’n anhrefn i gyd

Amongst God’s glory. Yng nghanol gogoniant Duw.
—Translated by Gillian Clarke††    —Hedd Wyn

David Goldie notes that Wyn’s “poems are not so much protests against the atrocities of war as mournful expressions of resignation at its effects.”** The poet writes with longing, but is unable to possess with any permanence the wonders of the stars, moon, and clouds. With poignant grief, the poet bears witness: the beauties of the natural world have been stained, and the chaos of war has disordered the glories of God on the earth. 

David Edward Pike writes, “The death of Hedd Wyn rapidly came to symbolise for Wales the loss of all those Welshmen killed in the war, and perhaps too a sense of the vulnerability of the rich and highly creative and poetic Christian culture of non-conformist Wales before the behemoth of secular, indifferent, mechanistic modernity.”***

For those interested in the art of translation and shaping meaning from one language to another, here are other excellent translations of the poem: “The Black Blot” by Michael Ratcliffe, “The Black Mark” by Ceridwens Soul, “The Black Blot” by Richard B. Gillion, “Black Spot” by A.Z. Foreman, “The Black Spot,” by Alan Lwyd, and “The Black Spot” by David Edward Pike.
* John Davies, “The legacy of WW1,” BBC Wales History, https://www.bbc.co.uk/wales/history/sites/themes/periods/ww1_background.shtml.
** David Goldie, “Archipelagic Poetry of the First World War,” in Poetry of the First World War, edited by Sananu Das, Cambridge UP, 2013, p. 166.
*** David Edward Pike [Welldigger], “100 Years Ago: Hedd Wyn,” https://daibach-welldigger.blogspot.com/2017/08/100-years-ago-hedd-wyn.html.

† The poem can be listened to in Welsh at this link: https://soundcloud.com/yrysgwrn/edgar-parry-williams-y-blotyn
†† Gillian Clarke in M. Elfyyn and J. Rowlands (editors) The Bloodaxe Book of Modern Welsh Poetry, Bloodaxe Books, 2003. 

Friday, October 20, 2023

Yesterday's hero

Stefan Sauer/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

“Amputation was a daily occurrence in Europe from 1914-18, as modern warfare tore men apart in unprecedented ways,” writes Alex Purcell in “Amputations & Prosthetic Limbs in the First World War.”*  

The Great War tore men apart, both physically and mentally. In France, the military documented over 3.5 million wounded soldiers, an estimated 40% of those who served. Staggeringly, half of those were wounded twice, while an estimated 100,000 French combatants were wounded three or more times.** 

The number of British First World War amputees is estimated to be at least 41,000; German amputees are estimated at 67,000, and French amputees numbered over 70,000.*** 

Marcel Sauvage was a young medical student in Paris when the Great War began. He served as a stretcher bearer, and while tending to the wounded at the Somme, he was seriously injured and gassed. Sauvage’s war poems were written between 1916 and 1920; “The Castigation” (translated from the French by Ian Higgins) describes a war that never ended for thousands who had fought and survived. 

The Castigation
To Frédéric Lefèvre

In the street
The carts
On the cobbles, like clacking rattles,
The taxis racing off,
Red, rear ends smoking.
The tramcars squeal
Under their trolleys.
On the pavements
People walking, walking by, walking on.
Life’s strident bellow.
The city: Paris.

1916 French postcard
"School of Glory"
Bowling along came a posh
A beast of burden,
A man,
A sweating man
Dragging a handcart,
Got in its way.
A gentleman leaned out
From the posh limousine,
An elderly gentleman of means,
And shouted the following observation
At the poor poverty-stricken devil
Trapped in the swirl of the street:
‘You blithering idiot,
Serve you right if you got run over.’

I looked at the man
Who was dragging the handcart.
He said nothing, did nothing.
He had a wooden leg,
He was dragging a heavy handcart,
He was sweating,
He had two medals on his dirty lapel,
The Military Cross,
The Military Medal.
This was yesterday’s hero,
A martyr sweating,
Frightened, resigned—yet another
In the swirl of life.
The posh gentleman of means
Should have done him a favour
And run him over,
Poor b—. 
        Marcel Sauvage, trans. Ian Higgins

What is the “castigation” referred to in the poem’s title? The elderly gentleman in the limousine harshly rebukes the war amputee, but it is the body of the veteran that silently accuses all who ignore him, the “People walking, walking by, walking on.”

© IWM Art.IWM PST 13211

Those who do notice the man with the wooden leg dismiss him as no better than a “sweating man,” a “beast of burden,” and a “blithering idiot.” Yet the silent, sweating martyr who says nothing and does nothing is imagined in the poem as a Christ-like figure. The prophet Isais said of Christ, “He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.”****

Sauvage’s poem extends this one veteran’s suffering to hundreds of thousands of amputees, writing that the man with the wooden leg was “yet another / In the swirl of life.” Just one more of the broken survivors. 

The disfigured and mutilated bodies of the war’s soldiers were painful to confront, and the physical and mental agonies of veterans were typically disregarded by even physicians. Soldiers themselves seldom talked about their suffering: “in this sense, pain remained a family taboo .... The amputees explained, ‘We speak only when we know that we will be heard.’”** 

Not only did the war wound soldiers, but it blinded and deafened entire populations to the repercussions of the violence.

* Alex Purcell, “Amputations & Prosthetic Limbs in the First World War,” Through Veterans Eyes, 18 Sept. 2017,  https://throughveteranseyes.ca/2017/09/18/amputations-prosthetic-limbs-in-the-first-world-war/
** Sophie Delaport, “Mutilation and Disfiguration (France),”1914–1918 Online, updated 24 Feb. 2015, https://encyclopedia.1914-1918-online.net/article/mutilation_and_disfiguration_france
*** Source for number of amputees: British and German, French.
**** Isaiah 53:7, New International Version Bible

Sunday, September 10, 2023

The Dream, Part I

For a long time, people have hand-copied poems that they love. The scribing of a poem slows our reading of it; writing out a poem makes us pay closer attention to the nuances of words, sounds, line breaks, and punctuation. 

Roland Leighton, the Great War poet who is perhaps best known for his engagement to the memoirist and writer Vera Brittain, copied poems. Shortly after his enlistment in the British Army in 1914, his mother found in his room an exercise book in which Roland had written out a poem that had recently been published in the Westminster Gazette by the young Cambridge writer Kathleen Montgomery Coates.*

© The Vera Brittain Fonds,
McMaster University Library
The Roland Leighton Literary Estate

The first person who seems to have read Roland’s copy of Coates’ poem was his mother, Marie Connor Leighton.  In the anonymously published memoir that his mother wrote and dedicated to Roland after his death, she writes, “I read the lines through carelessly at first; but when I came to the third or fourth line I knew that if he was to get out to the Front and get killed this poem would haunt me always.”**

A Year and a Day

I shall remember miraculous things you said
        My whole life through –
Things to go unforgotten till I am dead;
  But the hundredfold, adorable ways of you,
The tilt of your chin for laughter, the turn of your head
   That I loved, that I knew –
Oh, while I fed on the dreams of them, these have fled!

Vera Brittain

Words which no time can touch are my life’s refrain,
   But each picture flies.
All that was left to hold till I meet you again,
        Your mouth’s deep curve, your brows where the shadow lies,
These are the things I strive to capture in vain—
   And I have forgotten your eyes,
And the way that your hair spun curls in the beating of rain! †
            —Kathleen Coates

Before leaving for the front, Roland talked with his mother about his own efforts at writing poetry and about his admiration for Vera, the sister of his good friend, Edward Brittain. Describing Vera to his mother, he said, “I like her tremendously. You would, too, if you knew her. She’s not like other girls. She’s brilliant and can think for herself. She wants to be a writer some day. But first she’s going to Oxford.”

His mother, “a prolific author of serial fiction and melodramatic novels” replied, “Going to Oxford isn’t the way for a woman to be a writer—except of treatises. But that’s beside the point.”***

Several months later, Roland copied “A Year and a Day” yet again, this time sending his copy to Vera Brittain in a letter dated 17 December 1914. Vera relates the story of the poem in her memoir Testament of Youth, but in her account, Roland sends her the poem in the autumn of 1915. As she tells the story, in mid-August of 1915, Roland was back from the Western Front on leave. They became engaged, and she met his family for the first time. One day, they walked by the sea, and discussed “the callousness engendered by war both at the front and in hospital.” That evening, she told him, “If I heard you were dead ... my first feeling would be one of absolute disbelief. I can’t imagine life without you.”

Roland replied abruptly, “You’d soon forget.” Vera retorted that she was not “one of the forgetting sort,” but that “if you died I should deliberately set out to marry the first reasonable person that asked me,” because “if one seems to have forgotten, the world lets one alone and things one is just like everyone else, but that doesn’t matter. One lives one’s outer life and they see that, but below it lies the memory, unspoiled and intact. By marry the first reasonable person that asked me, I should thereby be able to keep you. My remembrance would live with me always and be my very own.” 

Roland conceded the argument, and Vera writes, “indeed nothing else did seem to matter; for the time being each of us remembered neither the past nor the future, but only the individual and the hour .... Some weeks later he wrote to me from the trenches of that evening, and sent me, copied from the Westminster Gazette, a poem by Kathleen Coates called “A Year and a Day.”

Roland Leighton's grave
Vera Brittain includes the poem in her memoir, then comments, “Reminiscent as the lines were, they embodied my own failure of memory as well as his. Try as I would I could never, once we were apart, recollect his face, nor even in the silence of night hear his voice, with its deep notes and its gay, high laugh. I used to think that if, by closing my eyes or sitting in the dark, I could picture his eyes as they looked when I last saw them, or in imagination listen to him speaking, it would not be so hard to be separated. It is years now since I have been able to recall his face, and I know that, even in dreams, I shall never hear the sound of his voice.”****

In the same season that Vera Brittain and Roland Leighton were becoming engaged and discussing what their future might hold, Kathleen Montgomery Coates’s only brother was killed in France while on patrol. Basil Montgomery Coates died on September 7, 1915.  His sister’s poem “The Dream” expresses the deep sorrow of that loss and will be shared and discussed in the next blog post.

* I have been unable to find the poem in the Westminster Gazette, and it appears that others have also failed in the search, as various sources state that it was written/published “between 1910 and 1913.”
**Marie Connor Leighton, Boy of My Heart, Hodder and Stoughton, 1916, pp. 176–177.
† The punctuation used in this version of the poem is that from Roland Leighton’s copy that he sent to Vera Brittain in a letter dated 17 December 1914 (from the First World War Digital Poetry Archive). In Brittain’s memoir Testament of Youth, she changes the dash to a comma after vain and ends the poem with a full stop after rain.
***The information on Marie Leighton’s career as a writer is from Wikipedia. Her comments on Oxford as preparation for a woman’s career in writing is from Boy of My Heart, p. 179. 
**** Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth, “Learning versus Life,” pp. 162 – 164, Virago, 2014 (first published in 1933).