Friday, March 27, 2015

Going Over -- soft as a sigh

Charles GD Roberts
 Wilfred Owen wrote of the "doomed youth" of the First World War, but not all soldiers were young.  The oldest known British soldier to die in the war was a man of 67 who had joined to fight with his three sons (this link to the Telegraph tells the full story). 

Charles G.D. Roberts, honored as the father of Canadian literature, was one of the older poets to serve in the war.  Born in 1860, he had to lie about his age to join the army; he served as a troop instructor in Britain and as a war historian on the Western Front. 

His sixteen-line poem "Going Over" repeats two lines in an evocative patterning that alternates between reality and dream.  The poem is a variant of the French verse form the villanelle.    

Going Over, by Charles G.D. Roberts

A girl's voice in the night troubled my heart. 
Across the roar of the guns, the crash of the shells.
Low and soft as a sigh, clearly I heard it.

Where was the broken parapet, crumbling about me?
Where my shadowy comrades, crouching expectant?
A girl's voice in the dark troubled my heart. 

A dream was the ooze of the trench, the wet clay slipping.
A dream the sudden out-flare of the wide-flung Verys.
I saw but a garden of lilacs, a-flower in the dusk. 

What was the sergeant saying? – I passed it along. –
Did I pass it along?  I was breathing the breath of the lilacs.
For a girl's voice in the night troubled my heart. 
For a girl's voice in the night troubled my heart. 

Over!  How the mud sucks!  Vomits red the barrage.
But I am far off in the hush of a garden of lilacs.
For a girl's voice in the night troubled my heart.
Tender and soft as a sigh, clearly I heard it.   

French WWI postcard
The poem speaks with two voices: the soldier in battle and the lover in a garden may be the same man, but the war has put an impenetrable barrier of experience between them.  It is nearly impossible to reconcile the two identities in the body of one person, and so the poem asks us to enter into a world of alternating realities. 

We see the gulf between the two worlds open up in the white space that lies between the title "Going Over," with its charge into the clamor of battle, and the first line's faint call of the "girl's voice in the night."  In the second line, the "roar" and "crash" of war again intrude, but fade into background noise when the girl's voice, "low and soft as a sigh," is clearly heard above the din of the fighting.

Clearer than the call of war, the girl's voice speaks of a deeper reality, one that causes the "ooze of the trench" and the "wet clay slipping" beneath the soldier's feet to fade into "a dream."  The soldier, as if drunk on the scent of lilacs "a-flower in the dusk," not only cannot hear his commanding officer – "What was the sergeant saying?" but is unable to remember if he has passed on the order to go over the top.  A part of this man has left the trenches and is fully alive in another moment, "breathing the breath of the lilacs." 

The war desperately fights to gain the soldier's attention:  in the time it takes to read the poem's thirteenth line, we feel the sucking mud and are deafened by the barrage of artillery and machine gun fire that "vomits red" in a shower of blood and bone.  During the First World War, the noise of the shelling was so loud that historian Paul Fussell notes those in the southern counties of England, "could literally hear the war" in France and Belgium.  Robert Traynor, in his article "Hearing Loss in the Trenches," explains, "During a bombardment the noise was loud enough to split the eardrums, and it quite commonly caused permanent hearing loss."*

But the horrific presence of the war lasts merely for a line before consciousness is pulled back to the only thing that can really trouble this man's heart: the voice of a girl in the night.  The poem closes with the repeated refrain.  Like a meditative whisper, the lines attempt to assure both the soldier and the reader that life and hope wait beyond the trenches and going over the top, whether that life and hope lie in this world or the next. 

*Francis Itani's World War I novel Deafening is a powerful and poignant book that explores sound and silence in the war. 

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Next War

Wilfred Owen
 One-hundred and twenty-two years ago today, on March 18th, 1893, British poet Wilfred Owen was born in Shropshire, England.  Perhaps the most admired poet of the First World War, Owen is best known for the poem "Dulce Et Decorum Est."

A less familiar poem "The Next War," was written at Craiglockhart Hospital, while he was a patient there being treated for shell shock.  Although the poem was revised by Owen in July of 1918, this is the version that was published in September of 1917 in The Hydra, Craiglockhart's magazine written and edited by patients.

The Next War, by Wilfred Owen

"War's a joke for me and you,
While we know such dreams are true."
- Sassoon

Death Intoxicated, Percy Smith
Out there, we've walked quite friendly up to Death;
Sat down and eaten with him, cool and bland, –
Pardoned his spilling mess-tins in our hand.
We've sniffed the green thick odour of his breath, –
Our eyes wept, but our courage didn't writhe.
He's spat at us with bullets and he's coughed
Shrapnel. We chorussed when he sang aloft;
We whistled while he shaved us with his scythe.

Oh, Death was never enemy of ours!
We laughed at him, we leagued with him, old chum.
No soldier's paid to kick against his powers.
We laughed, knowing that better men would come,
And greater wars; when each proud fighter brags
He wars on Death – for Life; not men –  for flags.

"Out there," on the Western Front, death is inconceivably different from anything that can be imagined by those at home in Britain.  On the battlefields, Death is no stranger.  He is an "old chum," with whom men join their voices when his shells sing "aloft."  He is the elderly, phlegmatic uncle who spits and coughs not mucous, but bullets and shrapnel.  He is the trusted servant who performs the most intimate of tasks, shaving men with his scythe, cutting short their beards and their lives.   He is ever-present in the bodies of unburied comrades who shore up the trench walls or who lie in No Man's Land as men eat from their mess-tins.  And as soldiers climb out of their trenches to go over the top, they walk up to Death "quite friendly," despite the "green thick odour of his breath."

Death is a regular member of the company, and the second stanza confidently proclaims that Death is not the enemy of the men who fight.  Who then is the enemy?  Who pays soldiers to submit to death rather than "kick against his powers"?  Who accepts soldiers' death as part of the cost of war?

Canadian Recruiting Poster
Owen's poem is a prophetic voice that warns "better men" of the future against those who will persuade them to fight "greater wars."  The poem warns soldiers against being duped by propaganda to think they are fighting a noble cause for Life, when they are actually only killing men "for flags" – in the service of national interests.

In October of 1917, Owen send a copy of the poem home to his mother.  He wrote that he had included it "to strike a note" and that he wanted his younger brother Colin (who was seventeen at the time) to "read, mark, learn etc it."

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Tipperary and the Troops

"It's a long way to Tipperary" is remembered as a song of the First World War, although it was composed before the war in 1912 for British music halls.   In August of 1914, a British news correspondent heard the Irish Connaught Rangers singing the song as they marched through  France on their way to the front lines, and after his report, the popularity of the tune spread, especially after it was recorded by tenor John McCormack (click here for a recording). 

Much like "Keep the Home Fires Burning," another popular song of the First World War, "It's a Long Way to Tipperary" is not a fight song.  As the war wore on, it may have become harder to sing about martial glory, and easier to sing about home and a nostalgia for what the soldiers had given up when they joined the war. 
It's a long way to Tipperary,
It's a long, long way to go.
It's a long way to Tipperary
To the sweetest girl I know.
Goodbye Piccadilly,
Farewell Leicester Square,
It's a long, long way to Tipperary,
But my heart lies there.    

According to Imperial War Museum historian Matt Brosnan, the song was catchy enough that it was sung even by French, Russian, and German troops.  William Yorke Stevenson, in his memoir At the Front in a Flivver, describes a 1916 vaudeville show that American ambulance drivers hosted for battle-weary French troops outside Verdun.  He writes, "They asked—no, really begged, us to sing "Tipperary."  Well, we sang it, of course" (149).   The song was everywhere, and so it's not surprising that a poem was written about it.   

Singing 'Tipperary' by William Kersley Holmes

We’ve each our Tipperary, who shout that haunting song,
And all the more worth reaching because the way is long;
You’ll hear the hackneyed chorus until it tires your brain
Unless you feel the thousand hopes disguised in that refrain.

We’ve each our Tipperary – some hamlet, village, town,
To which our ghosts would hasten though we laid our bodies down,
Some spot of little showing our spirits still would seek,
And strive, unseen, to utter what now we fear to speak.

We’ve each our Tipperary, our labour to inspire,
Some mountain-top or haven, some goal of far desire—
Some old forlorn ambition, or humble, happy hope
That shines beyond the doubting with which our spirits cope.

We’ve each our Tipperary—near by or wildly far;
For some it means a fireside, for some it means a star;
For some it’s but a journey by homely roads they know,
For some a spirit’s venture where none but theirs may go.

We’ve each our Tipperary, where rest and love and peace
Mean just a mortal maiden, or Dante’s Beatrice;
We growl a song together, to keep the marching swing,
But who shall dare interpret the chorus that we sing?

Holmes' poem admits that the song has become an earworm that is hackneyed and tires the brain, but beneath its trite sentimentality and bouncing rhythm lie a "thousand hopes disguised."  For the marching soldiers, the song provides a way of giving voice to individual dreams that "now we fear to speak."   "Tipperary" has become a stand-in not only for all the places left behind in the past, but also for the various futures that men despair of never having an opportunity to reach. 

From mountain top to haven, from fireside to star, the poem asserts the differences in the men who have been asked to give up not merely the comforts of home, but their very individual selves.  As they march in step together, it is as a collective noun – a company, a regiment, an army.  Yet the poem invites us to listen beneath the music to the frustration of individuals who must "shout" and "growl" a song together. 

Mayo Peace Park, Castelbar, Ireland
In its closing line, the poem goes one step further and cautions against broad interpretations of soldiers' individual motivations and dreams.  It reminds us that each soldier, whether serving in the Somme or Normandy or Korea or Vietnam or Afghanistan -- or any other place or time -- deserves to be remembered with dignity as an individual, and not as an idealized or homogenized cog in the machinery of war.   

Epitaph: Neuve Chapelle

Neuve Chapelle Memorial
photo by Andrew Holmes
One-hundred years ago this week, on March 10th through the 13th of 1915, the British attempted to break through the German line of trenches at Neuve Chapelle.  It is estimated that 40,000 Allied troops were involved in the offensive.  Over 11,500 men were casualties of the battle, and no strategic effect was achieved.

Indian soldiers at Neuve Chapelle, 1915.
(Official British Military painting published in "The Great War" Ed. H.W. Wilson, 1916)
The role of the Indian Army in World War has often been forgotten. Over one million Indian troops served in the war: over 70,000 were killed, and nearly that many were wounded.  In the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, the 7th Meerut Division of the Indian Corps led the attack, suffering over 4,200 casualties.
Gabbar Singh Negi was one of those who died in the battle; he was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for "his conspicuous acts of bravery and devotion to duty." His body was never found, but his name is recorded on the Neuve Chapelle Indian Memorial that lists the 4,742 Indian soldiers of the war who have no known grave.

H.W. Garrod wrote a poem on the battle (published in Worms and Epitaphs, 1919).  It's brevity and directness need no comment: they shape the meaning of the poem.

Epitaph: Neuve Chapelle

Tell them at home, there's nothing here to hide.
We took our orders, asked no questions, died.

Neuve Chapelle Memorial
CWGC photos

Friday, March 6, 2015

Kneeling in the Mud

 Over 5,000 British priests and pastors served as army chaplains or padres during the First World War.  Their job was to provide spiritual guidance for the soldiers and to boost the morale of the men at the front.  The grim realities of the job included scenes they hardly could have imagined. 

Often stationed just behind the lines at first aid posts and casualty clearing stations, padres ministered to wounded and dying men.  In a war in which bodies were often torn apart or abandoned in No Man's Land, padres assisted in retrieving and identifying soldiers' remains and giving them burial.  They frequently had to deliver news of men's death to their comrades-in-arms, and theirs was the gut-wrenching duty of providing solace to men who had deserted and were to be shot by their fellow soldiers at dawn.  The BBC webpage "Why did chaplains end up on the front line in WW1?" tells more of their stories.   

Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy was not only a padre, but a poet.  His poem "Lighten our Darkness," shares the struggles of a man wrestling with his faith and his God in the midst of war. 

Lighten our Darkness 

Lighten our darkness, Lord, in bygone years,
Oft have I prayed and thought on childish fears,
Glad in my heart that, when the day was dead,
God's four white angels watched about my bed.

Lighten our darkness! Kneeling in the mud,
My hands still wet and warm with human blood,
Oft have I prayed it! Perils of this night!
Sorrow of soldiers! Mercy, give us light.

Lighten our darkness! Black upon the mind
Questions and doubts, so many paths that wind,
Worlds of blind sorrow crying out for sight.
Peace, where is Peace? Lord Jesus, give us light.

Lighten our darkness! Stumbling to the end,
Millions of mortals feeling for a friend,
Shall not the judge of all the earth do right?
Flame through the darkness, Lord, and give us Light.

    --Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy

The poem begins with a memory:  in "bygone years," when he was safe at home and in his bed, a man remembers praying for God's light in response to his "childish fears."  The second stanza repeats the prayer, but this time an exclamation point marks the desperate urgency and need in his very different current circumstances:  "Lighten our darkness!"  Three more exclamation points in the stanza communicate the mental anguish that prompts his call to God. 

He kneels in prayer, not at his own comfortable bedside, but rather in mud on a battlefield, his hands "still wet and warm with human blood."  In the muck and gore of the Western Front, in the darkness and dangers of the night, he calls out to God, simply naming him "Mercy." 

The third stanza again repeats the prayer for light.  Darker than the terrors of the battlefield, however, are the bleak, internal struggles of the mind.  The man's "Questions and doubts" are likened to the maze-like paths of the trench system that are estimated to have stretched for over 25,000 miles if laid end-to-end.  Like the zig-zagging trenches that are shored up with dead bodies and are full of misery and fear, the man's doubts are life-threatening.  From the blackness of his thoughts, "Worlds of blind sorrow" cry out for sight.  Each dead man encapsulates a world of his own -- a home, a family, friends, dreams -- and the padre carries with him worlds and worlds of grief that have blinded him with tears and with the inability to see past the losses. 
He begs the question "Peace, where is Peace?" No answer is given, and so he again prays for light, this time addressing Jesus directly.  It is as if the speaker knows that an end to the fighting is nowhere in sight, but if light can be given, he can endure the war.  Light signifies both hope and vision:  he prays for insights that will reveal that the war has purpose or meaning. 

The last stanza extends that prayer: it is not just one man who struggles, but "millions of mortals feeling for a friend" in the darkness.  The double sense of the word "feeling" suggests both emotional attachment and a blind man's reaching out to find the way.     

In the poem's last line, however, the seeker turns from a plea for meaning to a prayer for Presence.  The man asks God to "Flame through the darkness," an image that recalls the pillar of fire that embodied the holy presence of God that led the Moses and the Israelites in their wanderings through the desert.  Like Moses, it is as if the supplicant relinquishes his need for answers and control, saying "If Your Presence does not go with us, do not bring us up from here" (Exodus 33:14).  Even though he may "stumble to the end," it is possible to move forward if God's flame, whether pillar of fire or candle light, is there with him.   

Studdert Kennedy is one of the best-known and loved chaplains of the First World War. Nicknamed "Woodbine Willie" because he shared cigarettes of that name with soldiers, he was known for his humble willingness to simply stand alongside the fighting men and do what he could to lessen their suffering.  Further details of his life and service can be found here and here
When he died on March 8, 1929, as his body lay in state in Liverpool, over 1,700 mourners paid their respects in a single day.  Studdert Kennedy once wrote, "Nobody worries about Christ as long as he can be shut up in churches.  He is quite safe there.  But there is always trouble if you try to let him out."  Studdert Kennedy loved a dangerous God that he wrestled with on the battlefields of the First World War.