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Thursday, June 25, 2015

Slogging towards glory

Where do the myths of glorious war come from?  How are mud and bloated death transformed into heroic action?  As the war dragged into it fourth year, Ford Madox Ford wrote the poem "Footsloggers," attempting an answer to these questions as men, armies, and nations continued to stumble forward, hoping for an end to the horrors. 
 Ford Madox Ford (whose real name was Ford Madox Hueffer, and under which name he published his volume of war poetry) is best known as the novelist who wrote Parade's End, a four-volume fictional account of the war and its effects.  Brendan Ball has written, "Ford the novelist at least has some sort of name; Ford the war poet has none whatsoever.  The face, as the saying has it, simply did not fit.  World War I was the stage for the Flower of the Nation, the young bloods of birth and breeding tragically cut down in their prime, and Ford on joining the infantry was already a pudgy 41-year-old with a face to which no camera angle nor any degree of light or darkness could give romance."  

An unromantic face, a lost voice, and a poem with an odd title – the deck seems stacked against this poet and literary effort, but "Footsloggers" is a poem worth reading.  It is lengthy, so I’ve included only a short excerpt, but for those wanting to read the entire poem, the volume in which it was published in 1918, On Heaven, and Poems Written on Active Service, is available online ("Footsloggers" appears on pages 58 – 76). 

An excerpt from "Footsloggers"
by Ford Madox Ford

                                    So, in the Flanders mud,
We bear the State upon our rain-soaked backs,
Breathe life into the State from our rattling lungs,
Anoint the State with the rivulets of sweat
From our tin helmets. 
                        And so, in years to come
The State shall take the semblance of Britannia,
Up-bourne, deep-bosomed, with anointed limbs…
Like the back of a penny. 


                                    For I do not think
We ever took much stock in that Britannia
On the long French roads, or even on parades,
Or thought overmuch of Nelson or of Minden,
Or even the old traditions….
                                                I don't know,
In the breathless rush that it is of parades and drills,
Of digging at the double and strafes and fatigues,
These figures grow dimmed and lost:
Doubtless we too, we too, when the years have receded
Shall look like the heroes of Hellas, upon a frieze,
White-limbed and buoyant and passing the flame of the torches
From hand to hand….But today it's mud to the knees
And khaki and khaki and khaki….
                        And the love of one's land
Very quiet and hidden and still….

The images that open this excerpt are stunningly pictorial:  the entire British Empire has been shrunk into the body of one wounded soldier who is being carried on the back of a mate, resuscitated by the "rattling" breath of a comrade-in-arms, and anointed in a last rites ceremony "with the rivulets of sweat/From our tin helmets."  The men's care for "Britannia" in the mud of the trenches is what will allow her to rise from the war, phoenix-like, once again gloriously whole and serene. 

Yet the poem confesses that the men who give so much to keep Britannia alive "never took much stock" in the noble image of the Empire, never thought much about the long-dead heroes of past wars such as Lord Nelson, nor of long-ago military victories such as the 1759 Battle of Minden

For the men in this war, memories of war and glory have been "dimmed and lost" by the "breathless rush" of drilling for battle, being strafed by machine guns, and digging trenches so as to avoid the murderous artillery shells.  There's neither time nor place for the glorious military traditions of Britannia in "mud to the knees/And khaki and khaki and khaki."  What keeps the men fighting, what helps them to endure is "the love of one's land/Very quiet and hidden and still." 

The excerpt closes with a final ironic twist: the soldier knows "doubtless" that his war, when remembered, will bear little resemblance to its gruesome reality, but instead, like Britannia itself, will be idealized.  The muddy, mutilated and exhausted men in khaki shall be transformed until they resemble the carved ancient Greek heroes that decorate columned temples.  Restored to health and sanity in the memorials of the nation, the soldiers of the Great War will be remembered as "passing the flame of the torches/From hand to hand." 

Where do the myths of glorious war come from?  From memory that needs to find a purpose in the pain and suffering. 

As Hall argues, Ford is unusual among First World War poets because "he brought to the trenches the full perceptive power and skill set of a mature man and accomplished writer, and he survived to bring them home again."

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