Thursday, July 30, 2015

Swift and strong and dear

War Cartoon detail, Rothenstein*
For a mother to lose a son in wartime – that is indescribable grief -- and so it's nearly impossible to comprehend the experience of Ettie Grenfell, who lost two of her boys in just over two months.  Her eldest son, Julian, died May 26, 1915; his younger brother Gerald William, known to the family as Billy, was killed July 30, 1915, less than a mile from where his brother had been wounded in Belgium. 

Both sons wrote poems: Julian, best known for the rousing "Into Battle," is one of the sixteen British war poets commemorated in Westminster Abbey.   His younger brother Billy is one of the lost voices of the war: his only poem was published posthumously in the 1917 anthology The Muse in Arms.  A brief note at the front of the book acknowledges that the poem was contributed to the anthology by his parents.  The younger Grenfell's poem was written in response to the death of John Manners, who was killed in the first weeks of the war on September 1, 1914 when his platoon failed to receive the order to retreat.  Manners' body has never been found.  His name is listed on the
La Ferté-sous-Jouarre memorial, along with the names of over 3,700 other British soldiers who have become known as the Missing of the Marne. 

To John
(the Hon. John Manners)
by William Grenfell

O heart-and-soul and careless played
Our little band of brothers,
And never recked the time would come
To change our games for others.
It's joy for those who played with you
To picture now what grace
Was in your mind and single heart
And in your radiant face.
Your light-foot strength by flood and field
For England keener glowed;
To whatsoever things are fair
We know, through you, the road;
Nor is our grief the less thereby;
O swift and strong and dear, good-bye.

Grenfell describes the death of his close friend, a boy he played with, a man he grew up with who was like a brother. The poem proclaims that never could any of them have imagined that they would "change our games" for others – for the deadly game of war that ended the life of John Manners with such blunt finality. 

Writing out of an incredulous sense of what has been lost, Grenfell romanticizes and shapes the experience into something he can hold on to: the game has changed, but his friend's strength and speed were not wasted.  Instead, John Manners has won a more noble victory "For England," and through his sacrifice, those who knew and loved him are able to see more clearly the road to "whatsoever things are fair"-- to an afterlife of glory. 

Critics might argue that "To John" is not a particularly good poem: it lacks vivid images and relies on abstract ideas and clichés.  But it is a poem worth remembering, for it honestly shares the emotions of an experience that is heartbreakingly common in wartime.  For the first thirteen lines, the poem seeks to find comfort in recalling memories of a golden past, in celebrating the meaning of the sacrifice, and in affirming the hope of an afterlife.   The last line subtly shifts in tone, and the heartbreak of the loss breaks through.  The poem closes with a personal and final farewell to a dear friend who was "swift and strong and dear" – none of which were enough to save him.
Menin Gate

Grenfell himself was killed in action, joining his friend John Manners as yet another of the hundreds of thousands of the dead of the First World War who have no known grave.  Gerald William Grenfell's name is listed among the missing on the Menin Gate outside Ypres, Belgium.  

*War Cartoon:  (L to R) Charles Lister,  John  Manners, Julian Grenfell, Rupert Brooke, G.W. Grenfell, Hugo Charteris,  Yvo  Charteris (University of Southhampton)

Thursday, July 23, 2015


Robert Graves

If you had to choose:  the excitement of war or three years of dull research and study at a prestigious university?   According to Jon Stallworthy, Robert Graves, a young man who had been awarded a scholarship in Classics to Cambridge after having "spent fourteen of his nineteen years studying Latin and Greek" was thankful for the outbreak of the First World War, seeing it as a reprieve from further drudgery in ancient languages.

Nothing was dull about Graves' experiences on the Somme in July of 1916.  A little more than two weeks after the battle had started, Graves was seriously injured in an artillery barrage:  "One piece of shell went through my left thigh, high up, near the groin; I must have been at the full stretch of my stride to escape emasculation.  The wound over the eye was made by a little chip of marble….This and a finger-wound which split the bone, probably came from another shell bursting in front of me.  But a piece of shell had also gone in two inches below the point of my right shoulder-blade and came out through my chest two inches above the right nipple."  So seriously wounded that he was reported dead (his obituary appeared in The Times, and his family received a letter of death on his twenty-first birthday), Graves survived the war. 

But what did it mean to survive The Great War?  The men who returned to their home towns brought with them experiences they could not forget, terrible memories of the war and of the men whom they had left behind. 

Robert Graves

Gulp down your wine, old friends of mine,
Roar through the darkness, stamp and sing
And lay ghost hands on everything,
But leave the noonday's warm sunshine
To living lads for mirth and wine.

I met you suddenly down the street,
Strangers assume your phantom faces,
You grin at me from daylight places,
Dead, long dead, I'm ashamed to greet
Dead men down the morning street. 
Beckett and Teeuwisse, The Independent (22 May 2014)
In this poem, it is not the survivors who drink to forget, but the ghosts who carouse, gulp wine, roar through darkness," and "stamp and sing."  The life and energy of the dead who "lay ghost hands on everything" stands in sharp contrast to the hesitant survivor who is "ashamed to greet/Dead men down the morning street." 

Robert Graves
Years after the Armistice, Graves wrote, "Not only did I have no experience of independent civilian life, having gone straight from school into the army: I was still mentally and nervously organized for war. Shells used to come bursting on my bed at midnight, even though Nancy [Grave's wife] shared it with me….I knew it would be years before I could face anything but a quiet country life."*

For those who lived to see the end of the war, the most mundane circumstances of each day were colored with death and haunted by the shadows and empty places of the nine million who would never return.  Nations and societies were altered forever, not only by those who were lost, but by those who lived on and could not forget. 

*Graves is best known for his war memoir Goodbye to All That; Tim Kendall in Poetry of the First World War says, "In later years, Graves did not greatly value his soldier poetry, suppressing much of it" (192). 

Thursday, July 16, 2015

What may quiet us

WWI grenades in the forests of the Argonne
It's difficult to imagine the destruction that laid waste to the lands and villages where the First World War was fought.  Farmers in France and Belgium continue to unearth bodies and weapons of war, and school children are instructed to avoid unexploded shells and grenades that are found in forests and fields.  Estimates say it will take at least seven hundred years to clear the land from the toxins, weapons, and bodies that remain. 

Leslie Coulson, courtesy of
Leslie Coulson, the son of a London journalist, wrote only one short book of poetry:  From an Outpost was published by his father the year after Coulson's death in 1917.  The poem "Who Made the Law," discovered among his belongings at his death has been reprinted in several anthologies.  The rest of his work is largely unknown.   

In the summer of 1916, billeted near one of the devastated villages of France, Coulson wrote, "I have seen men shattered, dying, dead – all the sad tragedy of war.  And this murder of old stone, and lichened thatches, this shattering of little old churches and homesteads brings the tragedy home to me more acutely.  I think to find an English village like this would almost break my heart."  The heartbreak of a world destroyed echoes in the lines of Coulson's poem "The Rainbow," as it contrasts the ugliness of war with the beauty of nature, considering the ways in which both can be found in the men who fight.    

The Rainbow
Leslie Coulson

I watch the white dawn gleam,
To the thunder of hidden guns.
I hear the hot shells scream
Through skies as sweet as a dream
Where the silver dawn-break runs.
And stabbing of light
Scorches the virginal white.
But I feel in my being the old, high, sanctified thrill,

And I thank the gods that the dawn is beautiful still.

From death that hurtles by
I crouch in the trench day-long,
But up to a cloudless sky
From the ground where our dead men lie
A brown lark soars in song.
Through the tortured air,
Rent by the shrapnel's flare,
Over the troubleless dead he carols his fill,

And I thank the gods that the birds are beautiful still.

Where the parapet is low
And level with the eye
Poppies and cornflowers glow
And the corn sways to and fro
In a pattern against the sky.
The gold stalks hide
Bodies of men who died
Charging at dawn through the dew to be killed or to kill.

I thank the gods that the flowers are beautiful still.

When night falls dark we creep
In silence to our dead.
We dig a few feet deep
And leave them there to sleep -
But blood at night is red,
Yea, even at night,
And a dead man's face is white.
And I dry my hands, that are also trained to kill,

And I look at the stars - for the stars are beautiful still.

The screams of the shells and the stabbing light of the artillery scorch all before them, yet they cannot fully obliterate the skies "sweet as a dream" or the "silver dawn-break."  The air is torn and tortured by the sounds of battle, and yet above the shrapnel's whine and the bodies of the unburied, the lark still "soars in song" and "carols his fill."  Over death-strewn fields, poppies, cornflowers, and fields of wheat continue to grow and blossom.  The poem is unflinching in its vivid depiction of the horrors of war, and yet it searches to find and praise the beauties that somehow endure. 

In the last stanza, as darkness and silence descend, the soldier himself appears as both a thing of beauty and horror.  There is something beautiful about the man who sacrifices his own safety to crawl into No Man's Land and tenderly bury his friends who have died.  He looks to the heavens and his gaze brings the beauty of the stars to the moment.  Yet even the darkness cannot hide the blood and ghastly paleness that mark their bodies, and he recognizes that his own hands "are also trained to kill" and are likely responsible for the death of others.    

Leslie Coulson, Grove Town cemetery
Coulson spent five months on the Somme in 1916, until on October 7th, his company was ordered to make yet another of the costly attacks along the Western Front, this one at Transloy Ridges.  In the first wave of the assault, Coulson was shot in the chest.  He was carried to a nearby first aid station, then "thanked the stretcher bearers and sent a last message home to his family" (Powell, A Deep Cry).  He died the next day at Grove Town casualty clearing station, south of Albert, France.  No trace of the first aid station remains today, except the British cemetery where 1,392 men are buried. 

 In the early fall of 1916, Coulson wrote to his father, "If I should fall, do not grieve for me.  I shall be one with the wind and the sun and the flowers."  The epitaph that the family paid to have inscribed on his headstone reads "Nothing but well and fair and what may quiet us in a death so noble."  He was twenty-seven years old. 

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Through names I walk

Meuse-Argonne cemetery, c. 1919
When visiting the battlefields of France and Belgium, one can't help but be struck by the overwhelming number of cemeteries and memorials.  The lines of headstones, the columns of names – they are simply staggering.  In these places, Dante's lines from The Inferno, quoted by TS Eliot in The Wasteland, echo deeply: "I had not thought death had undone so many."   

Daniel Sargent's poem "Names" tenderly considers the thousands upon thousands of inscriptions, the names of those who died in The Great War, focusing on the simple names of two very ordinary men. 

To Leon Cathlin

....But names are the things.  The names are everywhere.
Through names I walk.  The names, at them I stare. 
I am beleaguered by them as at night
In a city we are dazzled left and right
By the fiery advertisements, and we see
No city but the electricity….

…some little group will pass
Seeking their fathers sleeping in the grass.
Tingle Culbertson, Meuse-Argonne Cemetery
They'll read these names with love and with dismay:
"These were our kin and yet they passed away." 
A hundred years from now some archivist
Also may read the names and make a list. 
A thousand years from now there still may be
A road for goats into this privacy,
And perhaps a singing visitor may come,
Perhaps a child blue-berrying with blue thumb,
Who cannot read, who may for all we know
Laugh in the dialect of the Esquimaux.
And yet the names were not for her and not
For all the rest that wandered in this lot.
Whom are they for?  We do not have to guess.
Our bones proclaim it in their stubbornness.
There's One who knows our name as well as we:
He badged our bones at birth with identity.

And when He comes…--But look, but look: the sky
Now blossoms like a morning glory on high.
"O Lord of Hosts, in the glory Thou comest with,
Behold us here:  Joe Baker and John Smith." 

Daniel Sargent, the author of this excerpt (the full text of the poem appears in the 1962 volume Everything Happened) volunteered to drive ambulance for the American Field Service in 1916, when America was a neutral nation.  When the US entered the war in the spring of 1917, he enlisted with the doughboys and served at the battle of Cantigy in May of 1918, America's first offensive in The Great War.  He survived and returned home, becoming a published poet and professor of English at Harvard.    Many of his friends did not return.  

Dan Sargent and Tingle Culbertson,
with the American Ambulance Service
I've listened to the audiotape of Sargent's interview with Lyn MacDonald (he is quoted in her book Roses of No Man's Land), and I was struck by his charm and good humor, as well as by the note of sadness that underlies his remembrances of the war and of his friends who died in battle.  The poem "Names" gives voice to the sorrow of that loss, as well as to the eternal hope that Sargent found during the war in France, a faith that gave him purpose and meaning for the rest of his life (he died at age 96 in 1987).  

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Peace and a pint

Hardly any of the "light verse" that was written during the First World War is reprinted or remembered, but reams of it was written.  The following short poem was found in Captain Hugh Stewart Smith's journal after he was killed in an attack on the German trenches at High Wood on August 18, 1916, part of the offensive of the Battle of the Somme that began ninety-nine years ago on July 1, 1916.  You can listen to Michael Murpurgo read the poem in a video prepared by the Commonwealth War Grave Commission at this link. 
From the Forces War Records

On the Plains of Picardy
Lay a soldier, dying
Gallantly, with soul still free
Spite the rough worlds' trying.
Came the Angel who keeps guard
When the fight has drifted,
"What would you for your reward
When the clouds have lifted?"
Then the soldier through the mist
Heard the voice and rested
As a man who sees his home
When the hill is breasted –
This his answer and I vow
Nothing could be fitter –
Give me peace, a dog, a friend
And a glass of bitter!

Hugh Smith is buried at Caterpillar Valley Cemetery, Longueval, France.  He was an only son.  It seems fitting to raise a glass to a man who didn't make it home to see the peace or have his pint.  
Hugh Stewart Smith, from his book Verses,
courtesy of Corpus Christi College Library, Oxford

Caterpillar Valley Cemetery, the Somme